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.
Worth mentioning a brutally sharp and skin-ripping session cutting the new hedgerow I planted in 2013. Now with four growing seasons under its belt, the hedge has exceeded all expectations in terms of producing shelter and food for wildlife, and I have been really encouraged by the growth of experimental species like guelder rose and field maple, neither of which I ever pegged for “upland” plants. Before I lopped them down to knee height, many of the hawthorns had grown to seven feet tall on single, columnar twigs, and one or two were almost two inches in diameter at the base. The project took two hours, but I now hope that 2017’s growth will be an awful lot “hedgier” and dense.
Given that this is never going to be a functioning agricultural boundary in its own right, I have allowed two or three hawthorns to grow on up into trees, and I hope that this might add some further interest and variety to the project. I managed to plant fifteen tree and shrub species in a two hundred metres long fenced enclosure, and it has turned out to be one of the most fascinating and worthwhile projects I have undertaken on the Chayne so far. This project (as with everything else on the hill) was paid for from our own pockets, and perhaps that increases the level of satisfaction to see it prospering. I still live for the day when I find black grouse feeding on the haws, but enthusiastic use by buntings and partridges suggest that the benefits are broader and more immediate than this ultimate goal.
Hedges are at the forefront of my mind at the moment as I dip in and out of John Wright’s superb book A Natural History of the Hedgerow – more on this to come in due course, but needless to say that I am currently inspired to start laying old hedges and planting new ones across most of Galloway.
Perhaps I (and this blog) am becoming a little preoccupied with agriculture. The original purpose of this project when it was first launched in 2010 was to improve the conservation value of a dilapidated hill farm, and I’ve followed all kinds of threads since then. This latest swing towards farming is in response to my growing belief that many of our most pressing conservation issues can be resolved by understanding the link between agriculture and wildlife.
Along the way, I have thrown in my lot with native breeds of cattle. For me, an unexpectedly fascinating thread of the “Working for Grouse” project has been developing an understanding of rare breeds and traditional farming methods. My six heifers will be ready for the bull in August, and in looking around for a suitable suitor, I’ve been speaking to like-minded farmers from Devon to Perthshire. In so doing, I’ve stumbled across an entire galaxy of people who keep animals which are often weird and are always wonderful. Riggit galloways are not formally recognised as a “rare breed” (even though they are sufficiently uncommon), but the lessons I’ve learnt from riggits apply to all kinds of other marginal or endangered breeds.
In terms of providing a background for rare breeds, the Twentieth Century saw dramatic changes in traditional livestock farming. Regionally distinct animals which had been bred for centuries became “extinct” in just a few years as more profitable continental breeds came in to offer faster growth and greater profits. The momentum was so much in favour of quantity over quality that many marginal breeds of livestock were lost simply because they could not compete in the new market. In just a few years, we lost the sheeted somerset cow, the roscommon sheep and the lincolnshire buff chicken, along with twenty three other breeds which had taken generations to create.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust now acts as a hub to prevent the loss of any more native livestock breeds, but it has been extremely interesting to meet the real-life men and women who keep old or obscure breeds ticking over. As a general rule, breeds become rare because they are unprofitable; they don’t fit a modern market designed to produce large quantities in a hurry. It follows then that the people who keep rare breeds are doing so because they are taking a different angle. Some farmers are able to sell meat at a premium because customers are willing to buy into a vision of quality, culture and heritage. Other people keep rare breeds because grants systems will fund the use of “heritage” animals in the name of conservation grazing. Most farmers are making their rare breeds work either for a profit or at an acceptable loss because it is a labour of love, but some of the best projects have become an expensive (often very expensive) hobby for the wealthy.
At the same time, scientifically minded folk see the value of maintaining a wide variety of genetic material as an insurance against unknown future challenges. Rare breeds might have been slower to provide meat for the table, but they certainly had other abilities which might have had major benefits to modern farming. Quoting from the RBST website, “The Lincolnshire Curly Coat was a robust, outdoor pig with a coat of long white quite unlike that of any other British breed. The breed became extinct in 1972 when the last pigs were sent to slaughter yet they would have been invaluable in extensive outdoor farming systems”. In the same way the “Limestone Sheep, otherwise known as the Silverdale or Farleton Crag was a unique hill breed. It combined hardiness with high wool quality and an ability to give birth at different times of the year in a way that no modern hill breed can do”. In the pursuit of high turnovers, some babies were thrown out with the bathwater. If you imagine genetic material in culinary terms, we’ve thrown away all kinds of ingredients because the current recipe book doesn’t call for them, but we haven’t stopped to wonder what we might want to cook tomorrow.
In a more general sense, I am incredibly buoyed by the fact many people are involved in rare breed livestock because they simply have a vague idea that it’s the “right” thing to do. It’s a gesture of respect and devotion to sustain the existence of these animals, which are quite literally a living part of our cultural heritage. Perhaps I am jaded by my relationship with a world that so often feels short-sighted and wilfully negligent, but finding people who frequently spend a good deal of their own time and money on a project simply because it’s “right” comes as a real comfort.
One of my first projects on the Chayne was to fell an acre of mighty spruce trees which had been planted in the 1940s to form a windbreak. As is often the way with spruces, these trees had grown into monsters, providing little shelter for livestock and simply shading out the undergrowth below into a rabbit-frayed carpet. The trees had outlived their original purpose, and since I dropped them in their tracks, they have been fuelling my wood burning stove for the past six years. I have kept one or two standing because they attract crow’s nests, and there are two really nice granny scots pines which provide a lovely, distinctive silhouette on a hill that is defined by wide open spaces.
When I say that the trees were monsters, it’s worth noting that one particularly vast spruce produced a stump that was four feet wide when it fell, and even now there are still many tons of firewood to be had. Of course felling these trees produced a prodigious quantity of brash and litter, and while some of the branches were as thick as ten or fifteen year old trunks, the majority was simply made up of serrated twigs and the kind of whippy branches that catch you in the eyes.
In my enthusiasm and naiveté, I simply stacked all this rubbish in a heap and told myself that it would soon rot away. Not so. The great heaps slowly simmered down into round-topped pancakes and then did no more. Some of these piles were chest-high, and they took up two thirds of the area I had tried to clear. I have long cherished the ambition to replant the wood with a mixture of juniper, scots pine and holly; the kind of dense, thick-bottomed stuff which comes in handy when you’re a blackcock and the snow is down. I even had whimsical ideas that this blend should be threaded with honeysuckle and brambles, and I decided that 2017 would be the year it should finally happen. Seizing the day, I hired a wood chipper and set to clearing out the brash and litter in a massive assault combining axes, chainsaws and fire. Progress turned out to be heavy-going, but there is now a good area cleared to be replanted next month.
As a comment, the big piles of brash were much loved by the local rabbit population, and the depths of those heaps were riddled with holes and burrows. My dogs spent an uninterrupted seven hours digging for rabbits as we worked to clear some space, and against all odds, they even managed to catch one. But this is an unwholesome home for a rabbit – dank, dark and miserable. Rabbits in this wood are frequently so riddled with liver fluke that I refuse to eat them, and their population booms and busts with the seasons. It’s interesting to think that this kind of lifestyle in the soaking gloom might be contributing to their parasite burdens.