And just like that, Working for Grouse was seven years old. This blog began in 2010 when my work on the Chayne had just taken off, and it has meandered into some strange and unexpected corners since then. I doubt if many readers still survive from my first tentative posts, but I understand that there are one or two die-hards who have stuck with me as I have ranged to and fro. Thank you to these, and thanks equally to those who come and go, sifting through the mounds of chaff for the occasional small reward.
I periodically write rather inadequate “thank you” notes on occasions like these, but suffice it to say for now that as much as this blog is a labour of love and would be written even if it was never published or read, feedback and support from my readers has helped get this project (and me!) where I am today.
Having just returned from Norfolk for my annual pilgrimage, it’s hard to gather my thoughts. Every time I head to this part of the east coast to shoot on a keeper’s day in the dying moments of the season, my mind is blown by the sheer quantity and variety of birds which pass overhead or lurk beneath the hedges. From a writer’s perspective, it provides such an explosion of material that it may be several weeks before I can reasonably make sense of all that took place over three days on the marshes, but putting sport aside, close encounters with black-tailed godwits, ruff and chinese water deer have conspired to make 2017’s trip one of the finest yet.
This part of Norfolk is literally packed with waders and wildfowl; wigeon and geese are forever on the edge of hearing, made all the more jolly by the periodic chuckle of shelduck. The wide-open skies were festooned with glorious marsh harriers as always, and the hedges were creaking to the twilight calls of grey partridges.
Perhaps there will be more to come in due course once the magnitude of this most recent trip has had time to sink in, but for now there are photos to edit, notes to make and plenty of plucking, butchering and skinning to do.
Having recently mentioned hedges, I was inspired to revisit my first “hands-on” conservation project yesterday afternoon to assess its progress after thirteen years. Footloose and relatively unfocused after leaving school in 2003, I took a job as an underkeeper on a local estate. Finding my weekends more or less empty, I began to cut back a leggy old section of hawthorn hedge on my family’s farm with a view to regenerating the old stock. I had never done anything like it before, and in retrospect it seems like an odd project for a totally ignorant teenager to attempt without any experience or help. In the event, government funding was available for this kind of regeneration work, and it was one of the few times in my life when I’ve actually been able to make money out of my own sweat and tears.
I cut down the entire hedge by hand, working a bow saw until my hands were smeared with blisters. Progress took place in fits and starts, and I would often arrive on site with half an hour of daylight to spare in the short winter days, cutting down two or three of the tall, leggy trees before woodcock would start to flight past and I would return home again. I had shoulder-length curly hair at the time (an attempt to be more like Robert Plant), and this would often prove to be my undoing in the deep thorns. In due course, I built a stock-proof fence along the entire three hundred yards of the hedge, and then became distracted and thought no more of the project for the next ten years.
A visit to the hedge during the deep frost yesterday was extremely revealing. The hedge has sprung back to life with real enthusiasm and vigour, and with help from the fence, it now provides the kind of thick-bottomed cover that is so crucial for birds and wildlife. For reasons known only to themselves, brown hares have returned to the glen over the last ten years – they are now a relatively common sight when they were absolutely unheard of before. There are all kinds of intriguing explanations for this, but thick hedgerow cover for leverets is surely a contributing factor. In fact, hares have begun to crop up in some extremely un-hare-like places in this parish, and their return has been one of the most surprising and heartening reversals of any wild animal I’ve worked with. I wouldn’t claim that this upsurge in hares is as a result of my work, but it can only have helped.
Perhaps sixty percent of the old hawthorns have recovered from their cutting. This is pretty good, since I remember that many were ancient and had rotted away horribly inside. Given their condition and antiquity, the trees were quite sparsely distributed anyway, so the high mortality after cutting has produced a gappy, sparse effect. This wouldn’t be ideal if this was going to serve as an agricultural boundary, but given that it simply has to serve as a corridor for birds and wildlife to use as they move across green, heavily improved sheep pastures, the effect is more than satisfactory. It would have been good to have bolstered the dead stumps with new plants, and perhaps drawing on new blood (or sap?) will help to develop the hedge’s potential in the future. Ideally, I’d love to lay this hedge one day – watch this space.
It was impossible to tell when the sound started. I might have been dreaming it for hours, but now I was suddenly awake beneath deep layers of down and wool – feathers and hair. The darkness was apocalyptic, backed only by the gentlest purr of rain on the window.
And then he barked again; three seamless coughs. Hairs rose on the back of my neck and a chill made my skin prickle against warm, cotton sheets. The dog fox could not have been more than forty yards away from my bedside. I pictured him walking between rushes and fallen bracken as if they were the frayed edges of my blanket.
I was out of bed before I really knew what I was doing, walking quietly across the unlit house to the front door. Idle dogs lounged in their pits beside the embers of the stove, and I stepped out barefooted into a smirr of rain, soaked almost immediately through my pyjamas.
Nights have been hung with that same coughing burr since the oldest times. I sat in the grass in the treacle-blackness and listened to him move – the gorgeous three-note phrase passed in a semi-circle around me. At times he was so close that I half expected to feel him brush against me. Seconds later, his yaps would fade into a loose, roomy echo which implied that he was on open ground beneath the oak trees fifty yards away. The rain swirled and glued my shirt to my back from a different angle.
He never stopped moving, and if he knew of me, he never showed his hand. My hair was soon heavy with rain, and the experience drifted into new and abstract lines. Perhaps there was no beast; perhaps it was only a sound. I warmed myself on its spark.
By the time I returned to the house, it was 4:15. It would soon be time to get up, and this deep, wondrous night would then shrink down into something I could grasp. I felt sure that the most important business of the day had already been transacted.
Having previously mentioned a recent project to regenerate hazel coppices in a neglected and over-grown swathe of sycamore woodland, it’s worth a very brief update. We returned to the wood yesterday to clear another five big trees in an attempt to let sunlight down to the under storey, and the great dripping monsters came tumbling down with a glorious crash. A deep, miserable fog had descended during the previous night, and there was an dank atmosphere of ice, rime and silence beneath the trees. Woodpigeons clattered away from the sound of the saw, and a stubble of bulbs revealed themselves at ankle-height to suggest that progress will soon be forthcoming.
The wood contains a large number of leggy, rather sad-looking hazel trees which are shaded out every year by the impenetrable sycamore canopy. By clearing a patch of big trees and cutting the hazels down to short stumps, it should be possible to stimulate some exciting growth, which in turns will surely yield some really interesting conservation benefits. Having written recently about roe bucks, it was interesting to see a really fine fellow walking on stiff legs through this wood at the end of last week. Deer should benefit from a more mixed woodland structure just as much as the red squirrels that this work was originally aimed at, and I am extremely excited by the potential this project has.
It’s been interesting to see a large flock of oystercatchers developing on the rough ground below the house. The gang started as a handful of four or five, but there were more than thirty when I drove past this morning. They operate exclusively on a half-acre of heavily poached ground where the farmer fed his herd of luing cattle last winter, and this has gratified my theories about the benefits of winter feeding. It may be that the heavily enriched mishmash of tussocks and turf left over last winter is now functioning as a particular magnet for the birds – an extra under-rated bonus of outdoor cattle.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting the huge variety in winter plumage between individuals in this flock. They all sport their rather unfamiliar white collars, but this “chinstrap” varies between thick, luminous bands to whisky and often incomplete grey smears. Oystercatchers are some of the most instantly recognisable waders in Britain, and they win universal acclaim whether on foreshore or carpark. Casting an eye over their population levels, it’s amazing to realise that for every garishly abundant black and white bird you see probing for worms each day this winter, there could be as many as four woodcock performing precisely the same function by night.
This is the most unfathomable thrill of woodcock – researchers believe that more than a million visitors slip across the North Sea from Scandinavia each year under cover of darkness, and yet they are almost wholly invisible. At this time of year, you can cast a high-powered torch over almost any silage field or pasture in Galloway after dark and see one or two woodcock, and the mind boggles at how many are currently lying up in the birch and brambles within a hundred yards of my office.
It is hard to ignore a shadow of progress. Tits now sing in the dripping woods, and woodpeckers have started to drum in the stillness. There are already lambs in the greenest and most absurd lowland fields, and their white tails are replicated in custard yellow on the hazel twigs. There is an almost audible growl of industry beneath the fallen leaves where bulbs are beginning to hoist their sails – stubbles of green shoots emerge between the molehills. We are now just hours away from the first snowdrops, and a matter of days until the skylarks begin to fly their kites and stake their claims to the hill. A sloppy, distracted winter seems to be withdrawing apologetically into a doldrum of pre-spring activity.
Roe bucks have suddenly become conspicuous over the past few days. Several old friends seen in previous years are making headway towards fine six-point antlers. There is already an obvious difference between roe on the hill and those which lurk in the deep hazel woods along the Solway coast. So much of antler formation is based on the quality of winter feeding, and while many of the lowland deer are well advanced towards a full set, several animals on the heather hill are still unable to show much more than blunt, stubby foundations.
The roe which stay on the hill all year round tend to produce small, lightweight heads which merely run to jaggy spikes, but there are always a few wayfarers from the low ground during the rut to buck the trend and bring an element of class. I love the idea that we humans only ever see a tiny percentage of any given population of roe. Mature, cautious animals can become almost invisible, and brief windows during the rut are often the only moments when you stand a chance of seeing them. Perhaps this part of the mystery which makes these the most captivating of all deer.