Coming off the hill after an unsuccessful stalk yesterday, I was pleased to see a determined little stonechat doing his best to put on a show for his partner. I sat and watched him for fifteen minutes as he launched himself up into the air in a series of miniature display flights, hanging in the stillness on blurring wings to sing a scratchy little tune again and again. After each flight, he would return to his stance on the same sprig of heather to gather his thoughts and make plans for his next assault on the evening’s peace.
Stonechats are real heroes, and it takes some surprisingly rough weather to see them off the high ground. They are almost constant on the hill throughout the year, but this was the first time I have ever knowingly recognised the song and taken the chance to look into its detail. Soon these little birds will be lost in a torrent of wheatears, but for now they are filling their place in the spotlight with quiet, subtle determination.
Entertainingly, the RSPB’s sound recording of a stonechat is a carbon copy of the bird I heard – you could call it a word-for-word rendition.
This blog has lapsed over the past few weeks as events have begun to get away from me. I will try and catch up if time permits, but it may be that as we enter April and things really start to get going, all kinds of observations will go unpublished. As an indication of all that has passed, my notes have grown by over 30,000 words since my last public post.
In the meantime, it’s worth including these pictures from yesterday in the hills above Dunkeld. “Jock” the grouse achieved notoriety two years ago when it was found that he no fear of human beings, and he was informally adopted by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association as their mascot. I visited him in April 2015 and was surprised by how tame he seemed, but his hen was probably going down on eggs and he was beginning to tone down his displays. By contrast, when we arrived on the scene yesterday Jock was already running at full steam and almost managed to fly in through the car window. We spent ten minutes with him, and during that time we were subjected to livid torrents of abuse, invective and foul language from a distance of six or eight feet.
Jock’s fearlessness is a natural quirk which crops up occasionally in wild grouse, but it gave us some extraordinary opportunities to examine him at close quarters on a gorgeous sunlit Perthshire day. The glen below us rang to the calls of blackgame, lapwing, curlew and redshank, and the overall effect made a compelling case for grouse moor management, which is so often criticised for “monocultures” and single-mindedness. Red kites and buzzards circled overhead, a female sparrowhawk rushed away over the peat haggs, and the hills were gently scented with the smell of muirburn. Jock was in his element.
After a three year absence, we suddenly have lapwings. I spent an hour watching two birds courting on the hill this afternoon beneath rushing windows of clear blue sunlight, marvelling at some breathtaking displays. Shrill, determined little voices carried through the breeze in snatches between the drowsy trill of larks, and spring felt possible.
It’s been ten years since the lapwings last fledged a chick in this glen. When I came to pay attention in 2010, a single bird displayed on his own for a few days in early March before drifting off into the blue. No others followed, but I see from my notes that brief displays were again attempted without success in 2012 and 2014. The average lifespan of a lapwing is between four and five years old, so while it’s tempting to interpret these attempts as the determined efforts of a single bird, it more unlikely to be the work of a few. These lone lapwings never managed to find a mate, and I had simply caught the final gasps of a dying population. Any optimism I might have drawn from those thin, reedy calls was balanced by thoughts of decline, loss and failure.
In the same way, oystercatchers finally gave up trying to breed on the hill almost eight years ago. These birds live much longer than lapwings (even to forty years and beyond!), and they still pass through from time to time on flying visits. They make all the noises to imply that they’re about to breed, then vanish again by April. Lamping foxes at night, I often hear oystercatchers exploring the far reaches of the hill in places where they would once have prospered. Now they’re just a disembodied sound beneath the stars.
The unprecedented return of this pair is an extraordinary boon, but I would be astonished if they were still on their current stance by mid April and would put six month’s wages against them fledging any youngsters. These aberrant birds provide short-term glimpses of hope, but in reality they are almost certainly doomed. Lapwings thrive where they can interact with others in a community, and lone pairs are vastly more vulnerable to predation and failure.
As I understand it, most waders are extremely conservative in their choice of breeding sites. If they don’t return to the same farm to breed, they usually pick the same parish. This is partly why it is so hard to restore populations of waders which have vanished or fallen below a viable threshold – without a returning flow of young breeders, the old birds simply wither and die.
But this theory does not explain how wader populations grew in the first place until they were abundant in every corner of the country. While the majority of birds return to their place of birth, a few wanderers must settle in new places, otherwise species would never expand their ranges. On the face of it, you could imagine this colonisation as a slow process of trial and error, but the reality is perhaps much more radical. A Century ago, oystercatchers were strictly a bird of the seaside, but now they are common in all kinds of inland habitats, even excelling with nest sites on flat roofs and roundabouts. They’ve simply stumbled upon an extremely profitable niche which they are uniquely suited to exploit, but this wouldn’t have happened if waders were as conservative as they are widely held to be. Maybe “my” lapwings are simply attempting to colonise “new” breeding grounds. Unfortunately, they almost certainly will fail for the same reasons that saw off their predecessors in the glen.
As I watched them, the two birds broke off their displays to forage in the rutted grass where cattle have been out wintered. This was further confirmation of my belief in the value of hill cattle, but if this seasonal food source is not tied in to a continuous network of available forage, cover and brood rearing habitat, this “ticked box” is meaningless.
The early days of March come as a welcome relief each year. Ravens have croaked overhead for months without reply, but suddenly the hollow noise is echoed from the moss by legions of frogs and toads, many of which perform unspeakable acts as they grovel in the mud. The ditches are soon clogged with wobbling mounds of spawn, and prospecting pairs of mallard spring from unexpected corners with a furious clatter.
Alongside growing numbers of skylarks, snipe have been stacking themselves in the rushes for the past ten days. The annual display of snipe on the Chayne is one of the great natural wonders of the farm, and it is a true sign that spring is on its way. The little birds display above every corner of the place, but they do so with particular density and excitement on the knackered old in-by fields above the farmhouse. It’s almost impossible to gauge their numbers, but a fair guess would suggest that there are between twelve and fifteen pairs on a forty acre block of rushy pasture – I’m not sure how this compares with densities elsewhere, but when they begin to display during the last few moments of daylight, the effect is honestly staggering.
Against an ice-cold backdrop of clear skies, silhouettes and silence, the birds rush and fizz overhead in a constant drone which is almost as spooky as it is exciting. Each bird has a different pitch to his drum so that you can follow him as he loops grand circuits around his territory, but these laps overlay one another so that the effect is confusing and the individuals create one formless moan above the clicking, mud-soaked fields.
My wife and I sat out to hear them on Thursday night and were struck once again (as we are every year) by the simple glory of it all. In time, the sound will become a constant backdrop to all activities on the hill, but the first real overtures are always a significant date for the diary in the first few days of March. I’ve heard it all a thousand times before, but when the birds are on form and you breathe in the cold scent of moss and crushed rushes, my head swims with delight.
Just for fun, I did some sound recording work on snipe and skylarks on the Chayne two years ago – the results have been compiled into a youtube video which you can listen to HERE – I’m always amazed by how few people have heard snipe drumming, so perhaps this might inspire somebody new to get out and hear the real thing for the first time this spring…
Revisiting a small alder plantation on the Chayne after four years, it’s been interesting to see the effect of cutting corners. In an attempt to save money, I recycled a huge pile of second hand tree guards from a plantation on the neighbour’s ground. Most of these tubes had been slashed and left to rot, but I reasoned that with some care and attention they could be put back to use again at a fraction of the cost of new guards. This was a ripe spot for planting, and acknowledging a scant but significant population of roe in the deep heather, I decided to fit as many of my new birch and alder trees with deer guards as I could, giving the birches priority treatment. After all, alder trees are supposed to be naturally resistant to roe deer… while this is essentially true it’s really not an absolute.
Frustratingly, my attempts to recycle the tree guards has been a disaster. Almost without exception, the flopping plastic tubes have fallen apart and killed the trees they were supposed to protect. A few held together long enough for the tree to get a good start, only to then blow over and pull the tree down with it. In reality, I would have been much better simply leaving the trees to their own devices – a point driven home by the which were just bunged in the ground without any ceremony or decoration. Some have been grazed and a handful have been killed by fraying roe deer, but on the whole they have done very well without any protection, forming a kind of thick, bushy understory which even held a woodcock or two as I walked around to check on them last week.
By trial and error, I am making progress in this project – let’s chalk “recycled tree guards” up as an error.
It’s been a while since I reported on the cattle, but I put this down solely to the fact that there has been very little to relate. The beasts lost some condition in the early days of January, but this was all within an acceptable margin and they took a restorative leap forward when they were wormed and fluked a month ago.
I began this cattle project with the nagging concern that I might not have sufficient time to devote to it. I’m already tied down with a number of projects for work and play, and I worried that a small farming enterprise would sink me. In reality, these animals are so beautifully “hands-off” that they have hardly made a dent in my schedule and simply run alongside everything else I do with hardly a second thought. It is a pleasure to feed them every morning, and this short trip up the hill has become a fantastic mid-morning break in a routine that might otherwise be desk-bound and dry. I have only laid my hands on the animals twice in fifteen months of ownership, and most of my “farming” has been a simple matter of sitting back and watching them grow.
There is something deeply satisfying about these animals and this project. It scratches many of my awkward itches and has trained me to an almost zen-like level of patience. My mother bought some shetland x welsh mountain sheep which share the field with my cows, and they went to a hebridean tup in the autumn. They are already showing signs of being in lamb, and they will soon have fluffy little followers at foot. It’s been entertaining to see these two species share the same space – The sheep are on a short cycle; a rapid turnover of growth, reproduction and development. By comparison, the cows are almost unchanged after a year on a mission more ponderous and long term than any sheep’s wildest imagination.
Alongside changing circumstances, I could soon be in a position to return to some unfinished business. Long-term readers will remember my work with grey partridges in 2012-2015, alongside the various sagas which accompanied the birds as they adapted to life in the hills. I still believe that a sustained level of release would have started to tip the balance, but growing work commitments and other projects intervened to a point at which partridges could no longer be supported. Tantalisingly, some of the released birds continued on the hill for two or three years and provided all kinds of evidence to suggest that they could prosper in the rushy hill margins.
GWCT research into hill partridges in Teesdale shows what a fine line these birds occupy in the uplands, and poor weather during the breeding season can totally annihilate promising stocks. Historically, grey partridges were a sporting staple for the moorland margins in Galloway, and judging by the results achieved by a couple of local enthusiasts, it is possible to establish a toehold for the birds in this part of Scotland. I’m devoted to these birds, and I can’t help thinking that some strategic thinking and a bit of determined co-ordination could set up a foundation of coveys across a sufficiently large scale to be viable.
Dipping a toe in the water, I wonder if any visitors to this blog can suggest a place to buy decent quality grey partridge eggs this spring? I’m happy to pick up eggs online and have had some success when I have bought them from a game farm in Northamptonshire in the past, but any “insider” hints would be greatly appreciate, particularly if they can be found a little closer to home. It’s still a while until eggs become available and I may even be better looking for a captive pair or two at this stage, but let this serve for now as an indicator of thoughts and plans behind the scenes…