For all my frequent excuses about the lack of blog output over the past few months, I hope that readers will understand the current silence when I explain that we have just ended up with a new puppy. Our nights are spent in a deafening din of howling hell, and our days are now freely garnished with piddle. The little brute has teeth like needles, and she is not afraid to use them. Compared to my dear old black labrador pal Scoop, this little pup is a totally different cup of tea. She is strong-willed, determined and utterly fearless.
When I say that she is “quite a character”, I mean that she is a bloody handful. She responds to affection like a stihl brushcutter, and if she is in any doubt, she bites. Fortunately, she is wholly my wife’s responsibility.
We tried on a few names for size, but early experiments with Peggy and Vetch (which is absurdly abundant this year) were cast aside as being too whimsical and feminine. I was away fishing for a few days over the weekend, during which time the name remained up for discussion. I have come back to find her named Shenzi – the Swahili word for barbarous, savage or vicious. The little dog now responds to this name, and there is no going back.
When I was working on a writing project near Arusha in Tanzania in 2009, the outskirts of every local town was populated by a few stray mutts, who eked out an existence on bin scraps and offal. These were dismissively called “shenzi dogs”, and it was generally considered wise to stay away from them if you didn’t want to be bitten. The same logic applies to the lovely (if somewhat bombastic) yellow dog currently dismantling my walking boots. She’ll be a cracking dog in due course, but this early phase is proving to be quite trying.
Having just returned from a fishing trip to the high hills of Galloway and Carrick, the headlines about re-establishing golden eagles in the Southern Uplands have a fresh resonance. I’ve written (and ranted) before about eagles in Galloway, although usually in relation to the hackneyed spectre of “persecution” as an idle, often pig-headed means of explaining their current situation.
It is genuinely good news that money has been set aside to help eagles in Galloway and across the Southern Uplands, and I look forward to seeing how the project progresses. The current status quo is hardly good enough, particularly since part of the existing policy involves feeding eagles carrion from artificial feeding platforms. Work by the JHI has helped to show that while eagles fed on carrion can live for many years, it takes a constant supply of fresh prey to bring off successful, healthy youngsters. This is where Galloway is sorely lacking, and it should be no surprise that we have well established but morbidly unproductive birds as a result.
From my perspective, this shortage of prey is the first and most crucial issue to address in resurrecting eagles. Observers have noted that Galloway eagles bring off their young on a diet that is largely comprised of roe kids – this is hardly surprising since it reflects a general availability of prey species. In the Cairngorms and the North East, eagles thrive on mountain hares, and until the hills were planted with forestry and the hares were all but lost, this was also the case in Galloway. The collapse of our blue hare population has surely been the driver behind the current doldrums.
We have a tendency to cluster around the species which excite us. The new project is wholly directed at eagles, but it will surely fail if we put on the blinkers and start to fret about a single species. For the project to succeed, we need to focus on conserving less glamorous species like mountain hares and blackgame, grouse and waders – the modest, subtle grassroots which may not attract the headlines but yet which fill an eaglet’s crop. It’s a great strategy to use eagles as a publicity-friendly figurehead for a more general overhaul of upland habitats, but it would be a fatal error to lose a sense of perspective.
We didn’t see any eagles when we were fishing this year. We saw peregrines and a family of young merlins instead, but I couldn’t resist casting my mind back to the glorious afternoon in July last year as I watched a young eagle tumbling with one of its parents over the vast emptiness of Shalloch on Minnoch. These birds belong here.
Interesting to see the start of a war of words being launched against wild boar in Scotland over the past few weeks. Dumfries and Galloway is home to a growing population of boar, and other colonies appear to have sprung up further North in Lochaber over the past few years. Rumblings and rumours overheard at the Scottish Game Fair suggest that after ten years of inactivity, SNH are now preparing to grasp the issue, reviewing options which include an attempt at wholesale eradication.
As part of this process, SNH publicity around the issue has begun to refer to wild boar as feral pigs. This may look like a synonym, but it represents a fascinating attempt to undermine the legitimacy of these animals. A key argument used against the boar is that they are genetically impure, having been crossed at some stage in their history with domestic (or “Iron Age”) pigs. This feels rather like an attempt to move the argument away from one of “re-wilding” into the realm of simple pest control.
“Feral” is a funny word in its ability to convey a sense of value. Feral dogs are dirty things, and in cats the word is easily interchangeable with “stray”. In Galloway, we have a strong population of wild-living goats, many of which can trace their heritage back for seven Centuries or more when they escaped from medieval farmsteads. This distant taint of human interference has left them with the “feral” epithet, and we’ve been slow to forget it because these goats have been something of an annoyance over the years, raiding crops, killing trees and interfering with sheep. After killing hundreds of them and wiping out entire and distinctive populations while planting the commercial woodlands after the War, the Foresters have recently rebranded many of these goats as “wild”, partly to attract tourists and perhaps to address past intolerance. An interesting tweak.
Depending on your viewpoint, you could accurately describe Galloway’s population of red kites as “feral”, since not only do they descend from human hands, but even after fifteen years in the wild, they still require feeding. But of course you wouldn’t describe kites as feral – because they’re beautiful and we’re very lucky to have them here. And so the meaning of the word becomes clearer still.
I’ve been stalking roe on wild boar-infested ground for the past five years, and it has been interesting to monitor the impact those beasts have been having on the hill. I’ve heard them many times and have even been close enough to smell them, but I’ve never actually seen them. I have friends who have occasionally shot them, but this seems a chancy business and I don’t have the patience for it. In fact, boar are in almost every thicket between Dumfries and Dalbeattie, but this is wild ground and the animals are famously shy and reclusive. Most local people have no idea they’re here, and many will flatly deny it. The future of these animals depends on how the authorities and experts present their case – in the absence of personal experience, the general public is going to have to take their word on the best course of action. By ditching “wild boar” in favour of “feral pig”, it’s clear that objectivity is already lost and we are being steered towards a set menu of options.
More on this to come, because I think it’s quite an important little case study which touches on re-wilding, wildlife management and the human politics of conservation.
This is a timely moment to touch on my developing addiction to antlers. More specifically, I am becoming fixated on roe antlers. Not in the swaggering, pseudo-scientific allocation of “scores” to specific heads, but more in the marvellous, almost spell-binding variety of shapes, patterns and oddities which help to elevate the humble roe into the realm of the demi-god.
Readers may remember that I shot my first “proper” roe buck in 2014 after years of does and little spikers, and the stubby, broken old antlers are mounted in pride of place above the noticeboard in my office. I took them to the BDS tent at the Scottish Game Fair a few weeks after the triumph to see if they could tell me anything about my buck, and they replied that he must have been the oldest boy on the hill. Both his back points and one of his top points are all broken off, and the antlers look more like badly melted candles than a proud set of six, but that head means more to me than any of the twenty or more bucks I’ve shot since then, almost all of which I have kept.
In fact, I increasingly find that I am drawn to keep heads discarded by stalking friends, and I’ve even stopped on the roadside twice this summer to salvage interesting heads from traffic collisions. Perhaps it makes for a maudlin collection, but the range and variety is simply staggering. On the hill where most of my bucks come from, no two heads are even similar. Some are narrow and sharp with red pearling (the bumpy bits), others are thick and straight with ivory fingertips and no pearling at all. The bucks which hold territories in the heather fires have black antlers, and those which keep the lower ground are frequently clean and brown. Young bucks have flat, level coronets like tabletops, whereas the same structure on an older beast will often sag and droop like a frilled stage curtain- the detail (and accompanying technical knowledge) is phenomenally intricate.
I shot a seven pointed buck in 2015 – the biggest and best animal I will probably ever bring home, but still far short of any “official” recognition. And yet when I look at his head on the wall, I forget the points – I am taken back to those thrilling moments as I closed the gap between us to thirty yards. He walked in deep rushes, and I remember the sense of dreamy, heavy-lidded bravura as he tilted back his head to lick his nose. He was missing an eye, and he rolled his lip like a bull to snuff the wind. And afterwards I carried him over the hill and home – the climb took three hours and smeared the skin off my hands in clotting folds, but the stars shone like dust and the sky was mine.
Dozens of books have been written about antlers – they are a constant source of fascination for all kinds of people, but I reassure myself that my interest is less proud and showy than most. I think it has the same root as my childhood drive to collect skulls and feathers – natural artefacts which we can take home and keep to remind us of specific moments when nature simply blew us away.
Antlers have been on my mind over the last week on account of a very special buck I’ve been duelling with this summer. Now that the dance is over, I’m currently trying to immortalise him in oil. If the painting works and I find the time, the full story will appear on this blog in due course.
The summer flies past as I work and paint, and it takes a concerted effort to get out and make time in the cool evenings after the rain. Down the lane below the house, the grass verges are foaming over with brambles in flower, and the bracken is hardening into breadknife blades. Beneath the scaffolding of cow parsley, vetch and birdsfoot trefoil clamber riotously alongside coiling cables of honeysuckle. This mix is alive with small birds; a whitethroat wakes me every morning with the same scratchy phrase and a blackcap wraps up the day, singing under the moon.
Heading uphill, flocks of orchids stand between the grasses in the field where the curlew’s child continues to defy the odds, growing strong and lithe on a diet of spiders. The adult birds squeal and moan overhead, but only under the most pressing provocation. In the early days, even the flicking tail of a magpie would bring them out fighting, but now the chick is large enough to be proof against most comers. The complaints are saved for buzzards, and hearing them call at night suggests that four-footed chancers walk abroad. The grass is now high and the cover is good – the gawky fool will soon be on the wing and safe for now.
The ditches on the hill are filled with flares of flag iris which droops like damp origami after every rain. Bog myrtle reeks wonderfully in the muggy evenings, and the roe pick their way through the brambles to lie in the scented beds below, where broods of young wrens cuddle into mugfuls of fluff and warmth beneath their parents.
The Chayne is dominated by the croak of young ravens and the click of wheatear families bobbing on the short grass. On the burnside, wagtails feed their half-baked youngsters on flies gathered where the water slows and the flopping petals of mimulus sag into the meniscus. Whirligigs whirligig. There has been no sign of blackgame, but I have been staying away.
Walking on the hills around home and then higher to the Knee of Cairnsmore over the past week, I’ve found the blaeberries showing every sign of ripeness. Gathered to fill a palm, there is still a hint of sourness to suggest that another fortnight will see them ready. On the forest edge, mounds of fresh pigeon feathers show where a goshawk has been working, gathering up berry-obsessed doos who walk between the heather, laying themselves bare to ambush in the red-rank leggy heather. I found a beak at one pile of feathers, and a folded streak of gut at another. On a third, I found the remains of a crop, holding a dozen mushy berries stuck to the blue-grey down.
At Cairnsmore, the asphodel glows in galaxies between the heather. Left unattended, myrtle grows into waist-high fortresses which provide a structure for honeysuckle and brambles, but on the hill and beneath the pressure of hungry mouths, it grows like a dwarf shrub, scattered like cuttings between the heather. As you walk, you can stir up the scent and breathe in the warmth of the grass and the liquorice tang of asphodel, the “bone-breaker”. The bell heather is absurdly purple, and the water gurgles beneath the peat. This is the best place I know for dragonflies, but these are still early days and the sky has not yet filled with clockwork aircraft. Rows of white buds are growing on the heather, ready to flower in a few weeks’ time, and a single swift coursed by as I climbed, hunting away from home like a raptor without a moment for second thoughts.
Spying from the Nick of Clashneach into the bowl of Cairnsmore, the height is dizzying. Drab, hellish crags drip their juice from mossy seams. The unseen water trickles into oblivion beneath a landslide tumble of fallen stone and heather. These cliffs were home to a pair of eagles before the foresters came and spoiled the hunting. Their absence is like an unfinished sentence on ground that was designed to play host. Goats chuckle on the edge of hearing; nannies leading their budding kids carefully between the seedheads. A party of stags lay in the bracken at the foot of the cliffs and flicked their ears to dispel the flies, never realizing that I was almost vertically above them and could almost have spat on their broad red shoulders. Further out amongst the haggs, spotty calves gambol and kick their heels, just specks of red between the rolling windows of shading cloud and sun.
Bleary and black, the rains come rushing in at night. We stand up to our knees in the garden, cutting kale and digging potatoes as bats and woodcock rush between the elders. When it is still and clear, Mars hangs in the South.
It was interesting to attend the launch of the plan to conserve black grouse in Southern Scotland at the Scottish Game Fair on Friday. All the big-wigs were there, and the moment provided everyone with some really good photo opportunities and a chance to slap backs. Perhaps I’m getting cynical in my old age, but these congratulations were slightly premature. The plan is certainly a good one, but the difficulties implicit in conserving black grouse mean that the job is far from done (or even begun). I can’t claim credit for the quote, but I remember overhearing a comment following the launch of a particularly weighty Biodiversity Action Plan several years ago to the effect that “if black grouse could eat piles of paper, we’d have fixed all their problems years ago”.
Having read it through, the plan makes perfect sense and I wish it every success. I’m slightly concerned that the momentum and early progress will all head to the East of the Southern Uplands, where existing grouse interests and predator control levels make progress most realistic. It would be lovely to see blackgame in the Lammermuirs, and it would be a PR coup for the sporting estates if they could restore the fortunes of a bird that is so universally admired, but it is a long road to Duns from where I’m sitting, with several thousand foxes on the way.
The project also aims to expand the population between Newcastleton and Tweedsmuir seems like a shakier prospect since the departure of gamekeepers at Langholm (and the almost immediate impact on black grouse numbers there), but this will be an opportunity for the foresters to prove their mettle, since much of this ground is under plantation.
Many at Forestry Commission Scotland are making some great progress, but some of the private forestry companies are disturbingly wooly-headed about predator control, and stalkers lamping deer at night time are explicitly forbidden to shoot foxes on some properties in this key area for black grouse. From my perspective, by the time you have paid for a man and a vehicle to be out at night time shooting deer, the additional cost of plugging a fox is neither here nor there, even if it is only on an opportunity basis. The benefits might soon rack up, although low intensity fox-sniping rarely produces a sustainable increase in black grouse. In such half-hearted cases where a toe has been gingerly dipped in the water, some have found it easy to write off predator control as fundamentally ineffective. I’ve even heard some foresters shake their heads at the mention of predator control, explaining that “it didn’t make much of a difference when we tried it”, which means “we shot a fox and two crows in January”.
In recent years, sporting interests in Scotland have had to respond to accusations of single-mindedness and the lack of a broad and balanced approach to various land uses. To me, several big-name foresters lag far behind on multi-functional land use (what a horrible expression), focussing obsessively on timber production and issuing antsy press-releases complaining that nobody wants to play with them. In reality, they could do a huge amount more in terms of practical conservation, and where they do carry out predator control, they could take some of the burden off the sporting community by going public about it, rather than conducting that legitimate, crucial business in the shade of secrecy.
Further West still, there is a real chance to make progress in the Galloway Forest Park as predator control picks up and forest rangers (NB not “gamekeepers”) have been trapping crows, lamping foxes and visiting earths. To me, this project is an opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at these birds and really make something of them. I believe that the will is there on the Forester’s part, but expanding the range of black grouse South to Cairnsmore and East towards the Chayne will require a total overhaul of current thinking, including a binding and financially viable incentive to carry out predator control against a tide of local opinion which now accepts the status quo of crows and foxes. More fundamentally, we need to recognise the value of managing the open ground and providing quality moorland habitat, rather than submitting to the constant temptation to plant trees and speak of black grouse as a woodland bird.
Good luck to the plan, and good luck to the birds, which have declined in Southern Scotland more than almost anywhere else. A century ago, Nithsdale and Galloway were seen as the best place in Europe to see and shoot black grouse. The declines have bitten hardest here because we had furthest to fall. I look forward to seeing how the work progresses, and I wish them the best of success.