Despite all the work I put in to cutting heather by hand in November, there had been no sign that grouse were using the mosaic pattern until I headed up to check on Friday.
Pipits and wrens were using the deep slots as cover from the wind within a day or two of the work, and a fortnight later I was pleased to find white splashes of snipe shit to suggest that at least one small wader had taken advantage of the management. So it was gratifying to flush five snipe from a single small (18 square metres) cut I put into grassy moss when I went up for a walk on Friday morning. At the time I had considered this the worst of the cuts, since the blade had really struggled to get down in amongst the tussocks and the effect was decidedly scruffy. It seemed unlikely that the heather in this area would regenerate strongly, but I consoled myself with the probability that it would at least come back with crowberry and cottongrass. In the event, the resulting mix of moss, dead heather stick and grass is proving to be a great draw for the snipe, and they actually favour this mix far more than they do the neighbouring cuts which were put into dry heath.
This is an encouraging moment, but it is only an accident. I’m delighted that my work has provided cover for snipe, but the work was actually carried out for grouse. I can claim the general benefit as a win, but the real triumph came a few moments later when I found grouse roost heaps in two of the other cuts – as expected, the grouse had preferred the drier patches where the heather stick was cleanly brought down to an inch or two off the ground and the litter has been shoved away by four months of wind.
In previous years, cutting in this way has been rewarded with far more immediate results – on one occasion, I found grouse shit in a cut that was less than twenty four hours old. The delayed response is probably due to a variety of factors on the hill at large, but now that these cuts are “on the radar” for the local birds, there is no reason why they shouldn’t make full use of them as the struggle for territories gets properly underway.
In the briefest of foot-notes, the last few weeks have been spent in frenzied anticipation of buying a new house. In all the commotion, it is now sinking in that we might actually have to leave this little cottage in the woods after two years of fantastic but ever-more cramped circumstances. It was never perfect and we were always going to grow out of the place, but it’s the house my wife and I bought on the week that we were married and there is some sentimental value in that alone.
Perhaps more significantly to this blog, the house is also the epicentre of a woodcock highway between two large deciduous woods on the edge of some wonderfully soggy farmland. On clear, cold winter evenings, it has been possible for my wife and I to sit on the front doorstep with a cup of coffee and watch the dark little shapes flit to and fro above our heads. Some nights there have been as many as twenty, but now that we’re into the spring the number is closer to five or six. In due course, those numbers will subside still further until the croaking begins and the resident birds begin to rode through the twilight – a gorgeous accompaniment to the hoarse complaints of tawny owl chicks.
As thrushes ladled rich gloops of lovely song over the dusk last night, I realised that no matter how bright and alluring the future could be, I’ll be sorry to leave this place.
Satisfying to find that the grouse have responded to several of my new grit boxes on the hill. A huge amount of work went in to digging out turves and spreading grit in November, and I will confess that I was groping in the dark for a system that would appeal to birds. As much as I was advised to concentrate my grit piles on high ground, promontories and tall tussocks, I was keen to try a number of different sites for my grit.
I’ve written on this blog before about grouse behaviour at low densities – what might work for the big grouse moors does not seem to apply on small areas of marginal moorland, and asking grouse to stand up on a raised mound to access grit is effectively an open invitation to any predator watching from nearby forestry. Grouse in marginal areas tend to be much less confiding and generally prefer to keep their heads down more than those in Angus or the Pennines – this is the survival instinct in action, and should hardly be a surprise.
I put some grit on raised stones and tussocks as per instruction, but also hid some in deep beds of moss and heather and set up still more on areas of dry heath with thick cover nearby. After four months, it seems that there is no real preference in the birds’ response. Grit has been taken from all three different locations with equal enthusiasm, although it is worth noting that they have tended to use the more exposed locations only at higher altitudes and well away from woodland. Nearer the forest edge, they seem to have preferred grit which was hidden in the deeper cover – again, hardly rocket science, but nice to have a theory confirmed and always a buzz to get a direct interaction with a wild bird.
As is always the case at this time of year, sparrowhawks have suddenly become absurdly conspicuous. I saw two on a short drive to check my traps this morning, and I have now seen at least one every day for five consecutive days. Unfortunately, this boom has come at grievous cost to a cheery little dunnock whose tasteless but jovial tune lit up my daily tramp uphill to feed the cows each morning. I found a puff of feathers beneath his favourite elder twig, and the hill is marginally less noisy than it was before. I caught a glimpse of the culprit yesterday morning – a blue bird with a marmalade breast slashing between the whin bushes like a greased pinball.
Having ranted and raved about the lowly, near vermin status held by wild goats in Galloway, the time has come for me to put my money where my mouth is. An expanding and prosperous tribe of goats was recently culled in the forest above my house, and I happened to meet the stalker as he was coming off the hill after doing the deed. A short exchange ensued, and I came away with two very fresh goats for the game larder.
Time will tell how I get on with butchering, processing and cooking with this meat, but it’s interesting to note the general level of contempt most people hold for goat on the table. Perhaps it’s deserved – it’s still too soon for me to pronounce judgement one way or the other, but these animals are ancient remnants from a time when goat was a popular staple. Compare the British reluctance to eat goat meat with an insatiable demand for the stuff overseas – an Indian friend in Dumfries informs me that lamb is a poor alternative when it comes to curries and stews.
At the same time, I can’t quite resist looking back to a time when wild goats were widespread across the country. Galloway has a particularly strong tradition of goats, but even a Century ago there were herds of wild goats living in the margins of almost every upland area in Britain. In trying to achieve a glimpse of the countryside as it must have been, goats provide an interesting barometer for man’s relationship with the “natural” world.
The mere existence of wild goats represents a demonstrable agricultural waste. What does it say about the efficiency of traditional agriculture when medieval goatherds could lose their livestock and never bother to reclaim it? In time, these “feral” animals would grow to become a collective burden on agricultural communities, and yet generations of farmers failed to either round them up and sell them or simply eliminate them altogether. Surely it’s no wonder that wildlife prospered in a world where moderately large and destructive herbivores were allowed to come and go, not just as an occasional raider but as a co-occupant of the countryside for hundreds of years.
“Their [goats’] continued existence in the Twenty First Century is testament less to their hardiness and more to man’s forbearance”
Galloway goats are believed to have been “at large” in the hills since at least the days of Robert the Bruce – their continued existence in the Twenty First Century is testament less to their hardiness and more to man’s forbearance. After a while, the goats must have developed a kind of heritage factor which carried them through days of conflict when wholesale slaughter might have beckoned. Perhaps if your father and his father before him had tolerated the odd goat on the hill, it wasn’t for you to see them off. You might shoot one or two now and again to keep the numbers down, but you would never take steps to erase them altogether. In this way and without any formal endorsement, goats have somehow tagged along on our coat tails for an astonishingly long time – quite a feat for animals which have few active friends and are widely abhorred.
On the national stage, goats declined when land use intensified or changed altogether. In Galloway, the Forestry Commission simply obliterated thousands of goats when the hills were planted, annihilating distinctive herds which had been part of the landscape for generations. It seems odd today, but nobody batted an eyelid at this destruction – whatever logic had protected these animals for six hundred years seemed to vanish. Some of the same processes occurred with red deer, but stags have a cultural appeal which goats sorely lack, and many gradually recolonised and became forest animals.
In the context of modern farming, is now almost laughable to suggest that farmers would tolerate a herd of wild goats on their silage fields during these cold February days. Think of the “damage” – the glaring inefficiency of it! This mindset (which has arisen in a single generation) is at the root of so many of the most crucial problems we now face in the countryside – it is the same loss of tolerance for scrub woodland, wet fields and gorse and it goes beyond the obvious motivation to satisfy grants and funding – it’s a fundamental shift in mindset.
All this is just thinking aloud. It would be good to develop these ideas into something more substantial, as I can’t help feeling that the existence and significance of wild goats has been systematically overlooked in our national (and natural) consciousness. As always, more to come on this subject, particularly once I’ve had a chance to (literally) digest my first attempt on goat cookery.
Having recently written about a shortage of hares on the Chayne, it’s worth mentioning that I had some interesting news while down in Norfolk at the end of last month. A few years ago, I found a streak of fluff spread out beneath a gatepost on the hill where buzzards often sit. Looking back through my notes, I see that the date was the 5th June 2014, and my first reaction was that some unfortunate rabbit had met its end. However, as I began to sift through the mess, I started to wonder if the fluff might have belonged to a hare – or more specifically, a leveret. Brown hares are relatively uncommon in the upland areas of Galloway, and while I started to convince myself that this provided evidence of their presence on the Chayne, I wasn’t going to be able to answer the question once and for all on my own. I picked up a big clump of fuzz and tucked it into my wallet, knowing a man who could help.
When I pulled out the twist of hairs and passed it around an audience of country folk from across East Anglia at the shoot, I was delighted with their response. They unanimously agreed that it came from a hare, and this was confirmed by a keeper friend whose authority is sufficiently rock-solid to finally dispel all doubt. After all, this part of Norfolk bristles with hares, and if these people didn’t know hare hair (ahem) when they saw it, then something would be grievously wrong.
So there it is – the first hard, tangible evidence of hares on the Chayne in almost eight years of observation. Aside from this, I had precious little to go on; I once found what I believed were hare tracks in the snow, and the old shepherd claimed to have seen a hare while out on his bike. This latter would be proof enough on its own, but his wildlife ID skills were appalling and it may easily have been a rabbit. After all, this was the same man who told me he had seen a “pheasant with a white arse” on the hill.
I take odd solace from the confirmation of this discovery, not because some idle buzzard has gobbled up a young hare, but because young hares are simply extant there. I have a good grasp on why hares have declined from the Chayne, and many of the habitat improvements I’m working on for black grouse and grey partridges will also help the hares, but it’s a source of huge encouragement to find that despite cataclysmic declines elsewhere, I still have a few on my patch.
Checking on my existing plantations before making a start on this year’s trees, it has been entertaining to note the efficacy of my tree guards. I now have several areas of hedgerow planting underway, and one lies in the thick of a rabbit stronghold. Despite having protected every little hedging plant with its own transparent plastic spiral, it seems that determined assaults from the local rabbit population has overcome every single hawthorn. I would have thought that the guards were proof against even the most determined offensive, and the height to which the rabbits have reached conjures up images of stilts or piggy-backs. The nature of spiral guards is such that they can be compressed from above like a spring, and it looks like several have been pulled down in this way to allow access. As much as I would love to attribute this damage to hares, I am yet to clap eyes on a single hare on the Chayne – they’re certainly present, but at such low densities that they’re essentially gone.
I am not heartbroken about this damage – the plants will all recover, but if guards alone are not enough, perhaps I should be harder on the local rabbit population. It is interesting to see that while the hawthorns have all been hammered, the blackthorns and guelder rose plants are totally untouched – these rabbits seem to have refined palates. By comparison, several elder trees have emerged since this area was fenced off from livestock, and these seem to be so foul-tasting that they are prospering without any guards at all.