Worth a Punt


After several days of cold and bitter hardness, the frost vanished in less than an hour yesterday afternoon. A deep veil of cloud rolled down from the North, and the cast-iron mud collapsed at once into dribbling slush.

Driving up the hill to gather some more firewood, the sound of the car disturbed a buzzard which had been squatting on a crumbled dyke by the roadside. He idly drifted across the road and passed down over the bog myrtle towards a stand of straggly willows. Gliding with classic nonchalance, he suddenly sparked into a frenzy of enthusiasm as something caught his eye in the white grass below him. Jinking abruptly between the willow twigs in a series of brisk turns, he pounced down and missed a woodcock by a matter of inches. Downed in the moss, the buzzard stood with his wingtips raised as the woodcock rushed crazily away against the dripping spread of spruces behind. The ambush had failed, but it’s only by speculative punts like these that buzzards are able to expand their hunting abilities into a more proactive realm than many assume.

It is impossible to write about buzzard behaviour without provoking roars of fury from a school of raptor enthusiasts who believe that the birds are incapable of doing anything but hunting worms and carrion. This attitude does a disservice to buzzards themselves, which are canny and opportunistic hunters with the “jack of all trades”’ ability to take a chance. I’ve seen a buzzard kill a greyhen and make short work of starlings at roost – neither of these are listed as “food items” in my bird book, but perhaps buzzards aren’t great readers.

Let’s be in no doubt that buzzards are hunters, but rather make the distinction about the extent to which they hunt, which often seems to vary from bird to bird. Shooting woodpigeons on drilled barley a few years ago, I watched a buzzard quartering over towards my plastic decoys. I don’t believe that he ever intended to “hunt” pigeons, but as he came closer to my pattern, he clearly began to wonder why this bountiful source of prey had not shown any sign of alarm. Meandering closer, he affected a kind of idle disinterest in the whole charade, then struck with surprising speed at the nearest plastic shell. Rising up dramatically with the decoy in its claws, the buzzard suddenly realized that something wasn’t right, saw me and then scarpered.

As far as I was concerned, this incident was a case in point – the buzzard was not hunting pigeons; he simply saw an opportunity and took it. If my plastic birds had been real, the punt would have paid off. Frankly, a pigeon that lets a buzzard approach to within striking distance deserves everything it gets. If yesterday’s bird had been a second faster or if the woodcock had been in anything other than tiptop condition, the game might have been very different, and it’s by these quirks that buzzards learn to expand their repertoire.

The Sea Wren

Not your average seabird

Just in a moment’s idle speculation, it’s worth wondering about the behaviour of a wren I came across this morning while flighting duck. The estuary was patchily frozen with cling-film cow pats of ice where the fresh water swirled around the brine, and wigeon were coming in a steady stream around the bend where I like to hide in the blackthorns.

Wrens had been chinking and complaining about my intrusion for ten minutes as I sat comfortably in the frost, and they dared one another to come closer and closer until I could almost reach out and touch them. All at once, a wren flew out into the open estuary at a distance of perhaps forty feet, flopping down in the water and lying totally still. I could hardly believe what I was seeing, but for a few seconds it bobbed like a cork on the tide. Soon it was back in the air again and flying proudly home into cover like a dipper, leaving a tiny string of rippled droplets as it came.

If this was an attempt at a bath, I can think of many more appetising and secure locations. It made for such an extraordinary spectacle in a half-light filled with ducks and ice that it now seems like half a world away, particularly since the dust has settled on the day and I’m in my warm, comfortable office again. If anyone has any other theory as to why this little bird should behave in such a bizarre fashion, I would be pleased to hear it.

Roadkill Revelation

A winter’s doe

Having served as “designated driver”, I was coming back from a party on Saturday night along the narrow, winding road which runs through my parents’ farm. It was clear and cold, and I almost drove straight past a dead roe doe in the verge. I usually stop to inspect deer out of curiosity on this road, and I quickly realised that this animal was so freshly and cleanly killed that much of it could be salvaged for the freezer. There are all kinds of connotations about cooking with roadkill, but leaving this animal for the badgers and the buzzards would have been a shocking waste. I gralloched the carcass and hauled it into the boot of the car (despite protestations from my wife), and was soon on the way home to bed. Two young deer hung around nearby in the headlights, and I assumed that this must have been their mother stretched out on the tarmac.

The next morning, I inspected the carcass and found it badly bruised along one side, but was able to recover several kilos of meat which was duly minced and has formed the basis for the past week’s cooking. What interested me was that she still had a good deal of milk in her udders when she was butchered. I don’t imagine that the youngsters were relying on her milk in any serious sense, but it was intriguing to find that the tie between adult and young was still strong.

I generally dislike meddling with does and their young as the psychological bond is often very strong, even into midwinter. Fortunately I don’t have to reduce roe numbers and my stalking is only for pleasure, but I am similarly squeamish at the end of the doe season when pregnancy is really underway and gralloching becomes a grisly business.

I hope that the two youngsters will be alright after losing their mother on Saturday night. Barring a particularly severe winter, they probably stand a pretty good chance and I hope to be able to keep an eye on them next year.

Trees and Sleet

Alders (invisible) planted alongside downy birches in tree guards

Between curtains of sleeting, miserable snow, I spent an hour this afternoon sticking in some new alder trees to a particularly wet wood that I have been curating for woodcock and blackgame on the Chayne. Strategy in this area redefines the meaning of “low density planting”, and I’ve concentrated (with help) on creating scattered patches of twelve and fifteen trees across an eight acre bog of molinia grass, heather and the ubiquitous self-sown sitka spruce.

This spruce is potentially problematic in the longer term if left unchecked, so I have a policy of cutting down any sitka which grows more than ten feet tall. I try to make my cut as high off the ground as possible so that the tree does not die but is instead allowed to re-establish itself as a shrub – in that way I can preserve their structural value, creating a kind of mid-tier canopy which is reminiscent of juniper. There is little nutritional value in these trees, but I do sometimes find black grouse shit under them to suggest that they have at least provided shelter on a wild night.

I planted this patch with some downy birch three years ago and have been rather unimpressed with their progress to date. Many have made it over the tops of their tree guards, but none are showing the initiative of silver birches I planted on better ground elsewhere. I felt that the tree guards were worth the initial investment to protect them from browsing deer, but in reality the only damage has has come from bucks fraying one or two trees here and there. Roe are just beginning to colonise this space, so the guards remain as a safeguard against a problem that is not yet fully upon us.

Of all the many hundreds of trees I have planted over the last few years, alders have been the real champions. They thrive in any condition, grow at an impressive rate and are relatively (if not totally) deer-proof. Provided they aren’t squeezed into tree guards, they tend to produce a thick, low-set tree which provides superb cover for blackgame and woodcock, and I am always impressed to see how quickly they reach seed-bearing maturity. I can hardly rate them highly enough, although it remains to see what value (if any) they will have as firewood. Probably none.

Grit Theories

Signs of grouse using natural granite grit on the hill

It seems ridiculous to be carting bags of grit around the hill for the grouse when there is such an abundance of natural stone fragments already on offer. Struggling up a particularly steep slope yesterday with a 25Kg bag of stone on my back, I noticed a thick smear of granite grit which had been exposed by running water at my feet. The little stones were almost exactly the same size and quality as the quartz I had on my back, and there was clear evidence that grouse were using them – there was shit and feathers in the deep old cart tracks.

Up on the hill, I found that my old grit boxes are being used again after being freshened up a few days ago, but the new line of twenty four boxes has had no grouse interaction whatsoever. I had to query my own sanity at hauling mounds of tiny stones onto the hill when it was already abundant and accessible, but this was the same conundrum when I first started to grit this hill. I despaired after a fortnight because the grouse appeared to totally ignore my hard work, but they soon came round and were using the piles keenly within a couple of months.

It’s hard for we humans to understand the value of grit since we have no biological equivalent. We can assume that it’s an optional extra for grouse; a kind of “nice if you can get it” luxury; and so it’s inevitable that we under-rate its value. Stories from wind farm development sites describe grouse coming keenly to the new hardcore roads to get grit while the diggers are still working on them, and the impression is almost of birds falling on the stones with something like ravenous hunger – they may have struggled to access a reliable supply of grit for generations, and populations often boom in the years immediately following development.

Grouse simply cannot survive without grit to grind up their rough, coarse diet, and experiments undertaken during Lord Lovat’s Grouse Enquiry showed that birds quickly ail and die without a steady supply of little stones to “chew” their food. Most birds will scratch together enough grit to satisfy their needs, but grouse are able to control and regulate their grit intake according to climate and environment. They take on more in the winter when times are hard and every calorie is valuable and less in summer – an experiment at Leadhills in the 1960s showed that the amount of grit in a grouse’s gizzard can be a hundred times greater in winter than summer. Even more intriguingly, grouse can control the amount of grit they excrete, saving it up when grit is in short supply and then casting it en masse when it is worn down, for example after snow when it may not have been possible to replace it.

I want my grouse to prosper, not scratch together just enough to survive, but the grit piles should also help to form the foundations for territories in the spring. The grouse may well be using natural grit on the hill, but while this resource is hugely abundant, it is only located in a few small areas across the hill. Birds from the wet, grit-less back hill are forced to travel some distance in order to stock up – in my experience, this gritting takes place at dawn and dusk, just on the edge of darkness. This is probably a response to predators, and I’m aware that every time they fly across open ground, they expose themselves to attack. If they have everything they need in the security of the high tops and the deep moss, that can only improve their chances.


Strangers in the Night

Movements under the moon

High hopes of seeing the supposed “mega-moon” were dashed last night by a blanket of low cloud. Perhaps this was inevitable, but the cloud behaved like a diffuser over a gas lamp and a gentle glow of filtered light made the whole countryside shine. I had wondered what effect this moon would have on the migrating woodcock which have been growing more conspicuous over the past few days – it turns out that the hotly anticipated “Fall” came did indeed come overnight, and now the woods are filled with birds.

I saw seven woodcock during a quick walk before breakfast this morning, and the dogs keenly showed me the little cupped forms where the birds had intended to spend their day. Until now, I had only seen three or four in a fortnight. I had forgotten the loud, rushing thrum of a flushed woodcock, and that loping, half-hesitant chestnut shape often reminds me of a small greyhen. Who knows how far they have come to lie beneath the dripping hollies in this little fold of Galloway?

Sick Beltie

Skinny, but already feeling better

Slightly disheartened to find that one of my two new beltie heifers became quite unwell during last week, lying apart from the rest of the girls and losing weight at a surprising rate. It was clear that she was hardly eating, and she spent a good deal of her time coughing and drooling. After a day or two keeping her under observation, I made a phone call to her breeder and found that she was overdue a dose of wormer and fluke treatment.

This was duly administered on Saturday (in the form of trodax and dectomax injections), and I’m pleased to see that she is much better this morning, having rejoined the group to enjoy a mouthful of hay when I went up to see her in the rain. You would think that parasites would have effected both the new heifers equally, but the other beltie is in really good condition, despite an identical upbringing in what I assume were the same fields. It is one to keep an eye on, but this was my first encounter with illness in almost a year. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of just how bullet-proof my riggit heifers are – they were wormed and fluked, but only as a matter of course and certainly not in response to weight loss or illness.