Further Winter Feeding

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“On the Stooks”, by Archibald Thorburn (1902)

Just as a postscript to a previous blog about outdoor winter feeding, it’s worth recording that several more pheasants and a stoat are now also circulating around the feeders where the galloways gather every morning. Again, I don’t believe that any of these animals have had their conservation status improved by the simple provision of feed for six cattle, but the site is certainly a hub of interest for the local wildlife.

On a similar vein, I was watching a bubbling storm of starlings feeding on the scraps of cake left for the sheep on the Chayne yesterday when a peregrine slashed through them at incredible speed. The juvenile falcon missed its mark and rushed in a tight, pointed loop around the ash trees and back into the coarsely grained sky, moustaches like bleeding mascara down its cheeks. I often see peregrines hunting starlings in this part of the glen, and it’s notable that starlings only persist in these hills throughout the winter where there is some form of supplementary food on offer.

I was interested in game cover crops a few years ago (ample record of this in the archives if you’re prepared to dig for it) and nursed whimsical ideas that I could resurrect the kind of agricultural utopia seen in the Edwardian paintings of Thorburn; blackcock on oat stooks and grey partridges in fields of turnips. My conclusions were that this kind of mixed arable livestock farming really is superb for wildlife, but that some species are faster to adapt to it than others.

My grey partridges took to their turnips and radishes in a matter of hours, but black grouse resolutely refused to use my cereal crops. It seemed that the habit of picking spilt grains from crops had been lost, and only towards the end of my experiments after three years were birds showing any interest in my carefully stacked oat bundles.

Black grouse are simultaneously curious and conservative, and while they are prepared to eat anything from rose hips to strawberries, they can be surprisingly reluctant to experiment. Black grouse operate on a slower cycle than their red cousins, and (in general terms) they have evolved to live for much longer. During their formative years, the “packing” system allows young birds to acquire important knowledge of available feeding from older generations; hence why we have many historical records of birds (often in single-sexed packs) flying long distances to feed on a particularly good hawthorn hedge or a sheltered field of oats. Conversely, once the chain of landscape-scale knowledge has been broken and a certain food source has been lost for more than a generation or two, it falls off the radar altogether. In Galloway, there are no longer any upland oat crops whatsoever, and few blackcock left standing to sustain the habit of eating cereals.

The point was driven home in the winter of 2014/2015 when my neighbour fed his out-wintered belted galloway cattle on rolled oats. He commented that the oats made an excellent feed provided it was given in mild, dry conditions when the stock were inclined to hang around and finish it all off. When it was wet, they tended to trample it in and abandon much of the left-overs, which in turn drew in a great deal of crows, magpies and jackdaws. Black grouse occasionally lek within seventy yards of some of his feed areas and yet they never came in to enjoy the bounty, which was probably cleaned up by the crows every day anyway. If he had kept feeding oats for several consecutive winters, perhaps a blackcock (usually more speculative than a greyhen) might have given it a try and remembered an old habit, long forgotten.

Studies are unsure about the overall value of  artificial feeding to black grouse and there may even be evidence to suggest that it presents a net loss to the population as a whole, drawing in predators which target the unwary beneficiaries. The dynamics of the countryside have changed hugely since the days of Thorburn, and for a start there would have been fewer crows and magpies in our glen at the turn of the last Century, meaning that wasted food would have been available on the fields for far longer. It’s difficult to draw direct lessons from history, but there is value in traditional wisdom. Trying to recreate elements of the “old fashioned ways” has provided me with plenty of food for thought.

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