Worth a Punt

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Chancer

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

 

Autumn’s End

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The simple, laughable joy of wildfowl

 

After weeks without meaningful rain, Galloway was drier than a bone. Muddy tracks had been frozen so often that the puddles finally sighed and blew away on the east wind. The peat crunched underfoot, and banks of fallen leaves swirled in skirts across the moss. There was hardly a fungus to be found in woods which usually groan with chanterelles and seps, and the damp, October reek of fallen wood was replaced by dry, apply scents of preservation and storage. Without water, the rot was stopped; animation was suspended. Jays ran shuttles of acorns through the stillness, stealing a march on Winter.

By this stage of the year, the Solway coast is usually being lashed by rain which tears down the leaves and transforms even the shallowest hollow into a grubby tub of mud. Growing crowds of migrant wildfowl glory in this liquid blend of mud and stubble, weeds and water. While skeins of solemn geese march overhead like columns of heavy cavalry, ducks stage guerilla raids inland by night, looting the land and then retreating back to the shore before the sun lights them up again. Heavy rain spreads them across the entire county, and every flooded field holds a teal or two after a wet week – but drought reduces their options and forces them into a bottleneck on the deeper, more reliable ponds. Ponds like mine.

Even as I left the house, the wind felt different in the gloaming. Clouds had piled up overhead and some light spots of rain were falling as I walked up with the dog at my heel and the gun under my arm. In fact, the cloud was so heavy that the darkness caught me offguard – I was late, and there were already a few mallard on the pond when I arrived – they rose with a rushing clatter and whistled away invisibly beneath the dark horizon. I was in position for five minutes before the first birds returned with the first slapping flakes of snow. Wigeon hens growled in the breeze as they inspected the pond on their preliminary fly-past, and one fell to my shot as the others motored vertically off into the darkness. The shape fell with a bump on the dry ground and the dog rushed to find it as another small group swept in from the Solway side. A left and right dropped two into the water, and then I was packing to leave. Of all fieldsports, wildfowling should be pursued in moderation, and three wigeon was more than enough for my purposes.

I had been by the pond for ten minutes, but now I moved to the shelter of the old turnip feeder to watch the rest of the flight. Snow was falling in a sleety mist as two dozen more wigeon came in, and my heart swelled at the sound of cock birds calling as they came. I am so preoccupied with grouse and blackgame that I always forget the simple, laughable joy of wildfowl – nothing can make me smile like that daft whoop, and I left them to it as a crowd of teal skimmed over the whins and added their bleeps to the glee.

By midnight, the skylight in the kitchen was covered in snow and the autumn has never recovered. The leaves are gone and the trees are glossy with rain.

Sparkling Speyside

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A view up the keel of a Speyside grouse – there were some even whiter than this.

I’ve touched this topic several times and provoked resounding protests and wails of fury, but it is worth returning for an even more definitive statement.

Grouse are widely revered as the King of Gamebirds, and there is no doubt that they offer some of the most exciting and challenging shooting provided by any species in the world. Within that title, there is plenty of scope for regional variation, and after a blistering day’s driven grouse shooting in Morayshire last week, it is worth reaffirming my belief that grouse in the North East of Scotland are the Kings of Kings.

Human beings have meddled in grouse genetics so often over the past two hundred years by reintroductions and artificial releases that it’s hard to treat any modern population of grouse as regionally indigenous, but there are some trends of shape and form which mark out birds from different parts of the country. Some keepers reckon that hen grouse from the west coast and Ireland are paler than their east coast counterparts, and this might correlate with grassier, whiter ground  in the west tending towards selection in the name of camouflage. There are parts of Angus and Aberdeenshire where extremely treacly (almost black) grouse cocks are very common, as well as populations of grouse in Northumberland and the North Pennines which often have white flecks on their cheeks and chins. It’s important to emphasise that these quirks can turn up everywhere, but their frequency does seem to have geographical links.

On Speyside where I have been lucky enough to shoot for the past few years, there is a trend towards small, dark grouse with very white bellies. Perhaps this is a throwback to some distant willow grouse ancestor, but if grouse can express variety in size and shape, it should be hardly surprising that they can also behave differently. I draw sufficient confidence from this idea to state that Speyside birds are without a doubt the most exciting I have ever seen in a sporting context. My driven grouse career is pretty marginal and there are many who are far more authoritative, but this supposition is based on having shot or seen driven grouse in ten British counties, from Derbyshire to Sutherland, and having watched or spent time around grouse in eight more, including Wales, Shropshire, and the Isle of Man.

The Speyside birds have an almost unquantifiable flair and added vigour, and while the difference is very marginal, for me they trump all comers. Part of the grouse’s appeal as a sporting bird is their unique brand of daring, gung-ho arrogance which invites a challenge – it’s a kind of aerial throw-down perfected by millennia of evolution. Nowhere is this more finely honed than in Morayshire, where the birds exude a gloating self-confidence which balances staggering speed with pinpoint agility.

I’m usually bogged down by recriminations for making this claim, either by those who say there is no difference or those who reckon their own local birds are superior, but it’s a genuine opinion and I stand by it. If nothing else, I would love to say that Galloway grouse are the tops, but I would be lying – I love them dearly and they offer their own exciting quirks, but they lack the speed and punchiness of the North East.

We finished the day with half a dozen brace in the bag on Friday and it felt like double that number. They rushed through the butts like flecks of grit against a backdrop of blue ice and snow, while the big-name distilleries quietly simmered spouts of steam from their chimneys along the grey, winding Spey.

First Coppice

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Penned in and protected (hopefully)

A very quick mention of our first hazel coppice this afternoon. I had this lovely idea that you could build a deer guard out of twigs and branches from the tree you had just felled, weaving them all together like hurdles. Busily congratulating myself for such a work of inspired genius, it actually turns out that this is quite a common way to protect hazel stools from being browsed.

Although a little scruffy in its raw, leafy stage, the overall effect is quite pleasing. While it is slightly short at three feet tall, it should be wide enough at the base to let new shoots up when they come in the spring and if nothing else, this early attempt provides us with a blueprint for future constructions. While we worked in the sunset, a roe deer barked furiously at the other end of the wood and jays flopped lazily by in the failing red light. There is something to be said in favour of this woodland stuff.