In a bid to relieve some pressure and capture some more of the summer while it is still with us, I headed out West for a run up the Merrick on Monday afternoon. Perhaps “run” is an exaggeration, but I am sufficiently enthused by the idea of fell-racing to up the tempo on my walks to a moderately brisk shamble. The Merrick is no mean piece of hill, and at 850m it falls just short of munro status. It took just less than an hour and a half to reach the summit from Glen Trool, and as I lay in gasping ruins by the trig point, I looked down over some of the wildest country in Southern Scotland.
Vast, granite crags, deep lochans and swathes of dark heather rolled away to the far horizon, and turning slowly in a circle, I could see almost everything from Argyllshire’s Cruachan and Jura to the Lake District and Ireland. This is a fine, majestic place, made all the more special by its remoteness. By the time I had returned to the car, I had covered twelve miles and seen not a single human being. This is also one of the heartlands of the new Golden Eagle reintroduction scheme which has landed vast funding in the last few months.
I’ve written several times about this project (e.g. HERE in 2015 and HERE in 2016) but my attitude is generally that if we worked to conserve prey species in the Southern Uplands, golden eagles would not have to be brought in by human beings – they would simply recolonise under their own steam. I seem to be howling at the moon with this perspective, and modern conservation is so heavily predicated on a kind of headline-grabbing “superstar” project that I’m tempted just to switch off and accept the fact that crucial budgets are being routinely sluiced down the drain.
However, it must be said that as I descended from the Merrick down the Eastern face, I disturbed a single young mountain hare. These animals are few and far between in these hills, and it is their fundamental scarcity which makes the golden eagle project so ludicrous. Eagles depend on hares in many parts of the highlands, and I am continually astounded by the amount of money and effort spent on apex predators in the Southern Uplands without ever thinking of their key prey species. A project to rejuvenate mountain hares in Galloway would pay dividends for both eagles hen harriers (which love small leverets), but there is no appetite for this kind of grassroots project because it’s costly, slow and lacks a punchy one-line summary to sell to the general public.
I have only seen a handful of mountain hares in Galloway in over ten years of roaming the hills, including trips where I have specifically been looking for them. The fact that I was so pleased to see this youngster reflects the unavoidable truth that without management or consideration, these hills have become horribly bare.
Rifling through some old papers in the process of moving house, I was pleased to find a newspaper cutting from 2013 which contained a letter from Chris Land, who is a frequent commenter on this blog and has provided great support and help over the years. Chris ran black grouse surveys for the Southern Uplands Partnership in the Borders several years ago and had an excellent idea of how things looked at the real coal face of decline, away from the North Pennines and Perthshire. Rather than scan the copy in, I’ve typed it out below:
Sir – It was heartening to hear of the tree-planting initiative for black grouse by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (report, June 24).
However, woodlands are not the primary habitat of the species, despite much wishful thinking.
Focusing conservation efforts on woodlands will not benefit black grouse, whose main cause of decline is the loss of moorland habitats – ironically due to tree planting, predation and poor ground cover caused by over-grazing.
After 60 years of woodland creation in the Southern Uplands, black grouse number around 200 lekking males, and are now almost entirely to be found on a few grouse moors.
Urgent action to restore lost moorlands is required in this area.
I love this letter – it strikes the nail precisely upon the head. There are powerful vested interests in forestry, and many believe that the mass production of commercial softwood will soon become “the powerhouse of the Scottish rural economy”. Black grouse have been seized upon as a justification to create new woodlands, and the birds have been repackaged as a “woodland” or a “forest” bird in order to bolster an image of eco-forestry.
The reality is that while woodland can contribute towards a healthy blend of habitats, the birds are fundamentally based on a blend of well-managed moorland and farmland. Dumfries and Galloway has lost two thirds of its heather moorland and hill country to forestry since the Second World War. If it were as simple as “more trees = more black grouse”, we’d be drowning in birds and the foresters would be stamping on their nests to keep their numbers down as they did in the 1960s and 70s.
Studies which link black grouse to woodland are often carried over from Scandinavia, and much is lost in translation. Commercial forestry in Galloway has a totally different ecological dynamic to Swedish woodlands, and history shows that British birds (which are a separate race) prosper in much more open habitats. Where studies have identified links between black grouse and woodland in this country, the evidence has focussed on the complex knock-on effects which are associated with planting – factors like a removal of grazing pressure. Most studies agree that even native woodland loses its black grouse mojo after a few years without management, and this is perfectly borne out by the case of Border Forest Trust’s flagship property at Carrifran, where black grouse numbers initially rose after planting before slumping into a wholesale collapse. By the by, it is worth noting that a senior BFT figure believes that the declines which have taken place on his watch are driven by diseases contracted from red grouse. Which is a little nutty.
A strategic plan to save black grouse in Southern Scotland was launched last year, and the project leaders gathered round at the Scottish Game Fair to pat one another on the back and pose for photographs. Many of these folk are old hands when it comes to black grouse conservation. Their names (or their respective organisations) are found on many failed attempts to halt and reverse decline in black grouse over the past twenty years. But while I tried not to be cynical about this, it’s hard to see revolutionary change taking place a year later.
If we are serious about preserving black grouse for future generations, we need to recognise the value of moorland management and engage with it. Gingerly cutting small areas of heather every now and again according to the availability of HLF money does not constitute meaningful engagement. We need to re-integrate farming interests onto the hills, explore progressive heather cutting patterns to protect and improve vegetation and (whisper it) light some fires. Managed properly and with deer control, we would soon have all the natural birch and willow scrub black grouse could ever need without wasting money on planting it.
We also need to grasp the nettle on predator control and listen to what the science is telling us about how predators are linked to forestry plantations. We can have massive softwood plantations, but we MUST mitigate the damage they cause by employing people to kill foxes and trap crows. Private forestry’s refusal to pull its own weight with predator control is driving declines into overdrive, and the half-hearted secrecy of RSPB and FCS predator control would be hilarious if it wasn’t so devastating.
If we are going to keep upland farms in business after Brexit, we must pay them to create and maintain the kind of brood rearing habitats which allow black grouse to reproduce. The current political climate may be alarming for those of us who love unprofitable hill ground, but it’s also a great opportunity to clean out many of the big fat-cats who simply sit on their subsidies and have contributed towards the current impasse.
But sadly, I see little appetite to bring these changes together and no credible body with the drive, courage or resources to make them happen. Thousands of acres of suitable (if perhaps currently degraded or “sub-optimal”) habitat will be destroyed by forestry in the next few years as Brexit bites. We have perhaps one last opportunity to rescue black grouse from what may be the final brink in Southern Scotland. With a heavy heart, I predict that we just won’t take it.
Couldn’t resist including this picture which came up on my trail camera when it was set on the moss behind our new house. A litter of cubs has been doing well over the past few weeks and can often be heard fighting and playing in the gloaming – these cubs are not on my ground and I can’t lift a finger against them, but it has been interesting to see them grow and prosper. Watching and listening has provided me with some useful lessons which will come in handy further down the line.
While I search for a silver lining in the prosperity of these predators, it must be said that the presence of these cubs is almost certainly the driving force behind the failure of breeding waders on the moss this year.
Worth reporting the successful arrival of five partridge chicks. As an indication of how this brood has worked out, I started with twenty four eggs. Six were discarded after a week in the incubator showed that they were either clear or had developed blood streaks – a sign of early chick death. Eighteen then proceeded to full term under the broody hen, but only six hatched and one died almost immediately.
These are pretty poor odds, but they vindicate the breeder and confirm how fragile partridge eggs are in the postal system. These eggs came from East Yorkshire, and while there were no visible signs of damage to the shells, they must have been bumped or knocked during transit and the air sacs became detached. Serious damage prevents any development altogether, but light damage can allow the chick to develop perfectly to full term before fatally restricting the hatching process. The unborn birds pip their shells and peep heartily, but ultimately they wither and die without ever seeing daylight. Previous attempts to “rescue” these chicks by carefully opening the shell has never really been worthwhile – small birds like partridges and quail exist on a knife-edge in their early days, and I’ve never had much success with “going in there after them”. It’s a delicate operation which can end up drawing blood and usually leads to death.
So without dwelling on the 75% which didn’t make it into the world on Monday morning, I can report that the surviving birds are hale and hearty – it has been an underwhelming return to partridge breeding for me, but vastly rewarding to see them nodding off happily beneath a powerful glare of Galloway sunshine.
Summer is slipping away. The long evenings simply vanish into work, and somehow the fulcrum of midsummer is now just a matter of hours away. There is no longer any meaningful darkness – the day is briefly compressed into a smear of washed-out light on the far northern horizon.
The effect will be ruined in less than a month – darkness will soon dominate again. I love to write long and detailed notes of summer, then read them in Janurary with a sense of cynical disbelief. How could it be possible to kill a roe buck at 10pm, or to walk home from an evening on the hill without any need for torch or headlight? Winter can crush the soul, but summer is giddy and ethereal – nature provides the raw ingredients for an entire dream world that is instantly perishable. These days soon pass and become unimaginable again. In an attempt to capture something of the moment, my wife and I headed into the forest last night to spend some time with nightjars, perhaps the defining symbol of true, deep summer.
We had been walking in the twilight for less than five minutes before we heard the whirring drone of a calling bird. The sound came to us in gusts through the breeze, which lolled in warm rolls over the rowans and stirred the old, multi-storey pines into hissing motion. It wasn’t the perfect night to listen, but stillness is the midge’s friend, and I would always choose a slight breeze over a mist of bloodsuckers. The bird was calling from a thicket of trees, and we walked further along the track through a tumbling mass of heather and myrtle.
A second bird called over the wind, and soon we could see the bird itself – a dark shape silhouetted like a cuckoo against the sunset. The wind buffeted his wings and long tail, but there was no mistaking that hunched, froggy wedge against the dying embers of day. Moths rose from the grass and drifted horizontally across our path like a blizzard of snow; fragments of velvet confetti. Bats crackled past overhead in the gloom, gathering up armfuls of insects in a frizz of excitement.
We walked on into a narrow track where willows leaned over the stones, creating a kind of breathless claustrophobia of foxgloves and bracken. I heard two wet, croaking calls and suddenly we were joined by a bird from another world – a papery, gliding thing from an infant’s mobile. Long, jointless wings seemed to flap from the shoulder like a moth. Previous experience had taught me that nightjars are always utterly black. They are silhouettes which are cut from the trees and cannot exist without backlighting. Framed for a second against the dark trees, this bird defied expectation and showed us a flare of colour to make us gasp – warm honey tones swirled into chocolate browns and streaks of deep, treacled purple. At the end of each wing, brilliant white spots provided an extraordinary contrast in this deep, breathless world.
For a few seconds seconds, he treated us as an object of extreme curiosity. Bouncing stiffly around our shoulders, he peered right into our faces. I felt that I could have reached out to touch him. In the context of that strange, jungle world, perhaps he would have come to me. Perhaps he would have landed on my hand and said “Good Evening”. These birds are an uneasy mismatch of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear – the rational product of an obscure world – anything might have been possible.
In discussion with a taxidermist last year, I heard that nightjars are the hardest British birds to mount successfully. Their skin is fat and greasy, and it slips to pieces when the carcass is skinned. The birds are so difficult that a well-mounted nightjar is esteemed by taxidermists as a defining and absolute showcase of skill. Even if it looks perfect from the outside, it’s likely that the inner skin is probably being held together by dozens of painstaking patches, repairs and glue. I love this idea – when humans try to preserve nightjars in glass cases, they simply melt away. The conclusion is then that nightjars are not really birds at all but are simply a strange and temporary flux of elements – a flickering flame without weight or volume.
That encounter wasn’t all. We saw four nightjars, and I learned more about these birds in a single half-hour walk than I have from enthusiastically pursuing them through libraries and online resources over the last five years. Of course we couldn’t have planned such a hair-raising encounter; the only certain fact is that you stand no chance of seeing anything if you stay at home. As somebody put it, “If you’re up and about, then you’re in with a shout”.
I am very bad at replying to comments and notes on this blog. I apologise for this – it’s not deliberate. Of course it’s great to hear feedback on this project, and be assured that even if your input seems to have vanished into a void, it has been read and registered. Blogs are used extensively across social media to boost rankings and provide a platform for marketing campaigns, and there is a certain irony in the fact that while marketing represents a good deal of my paid work, Working For Grouse is criminally under-developed and badly promoted. Perhaps I’d defend that by drawing a line between work and play, and suggesting that this blog is simply a labour of love – In a world of keywords and “Search Engine Optimisation”, I find it perversely refreshing to spin out a massive heap of largely inaccessible “content” for fun and fun alone.
I have written exhaustively about planting hedgerows for wildlife over the last few years, and I was pleased to receive recent feedback from a reader who had decided to follow my example on his own farm and was very satisfied with the results. Of course this is fantastic news, and I am deeply flattered to think that my work is being so closely followed. I must catch up with him properly soon and visit this hedge work in person.
Readers may remember the hedge I planted in 2013 which grew wonderfully and was cut earlier this year, despite my misgivings. Of course I understood that cutting back my hedgerow would help it expand and prosper, but there was something horribly counter-intuitive about “destroying” such a wealth of progress and growth. I could easily have cut the hedge in 2016, but my tentative instinct was to let things grow on as they were for another season. But the loppers came out in February, and I winced with every arduous snip.
Visiting yesterday, I was wholly reassured. The hedge has responded in a riot of new growth – the density and downright ferocity of the regeneration is a sight to behold, and on a warm, muggy Galloway afternoon, there was a wondrous drone of beetles, bees and insect life. Moths and froghoppers twinkled in the long grass, and rabbits made the seed heads rustle as I passed. A spotted flycatcher eyeballed me from the top of an uncut hawthorn stem, and a grasshopper warbler skittled away inside his new fortress. I deliberately planted a wealth of different species in this hedge, and it’s hard to see which has fared best. We planted oxeye daisies, raspberry canes and cornflowers, and these have been supplemented by glorious beds of nettles, docks and ragged robin.
The hedge serves as a staggering contrast to the close-cropped sheep pastures on either side, and as it continues to mature under close management, I grow ever more confident that this 200 yard strip of planting is the single best investment I’ve made on the farm in seven years. I can’t wait to see how other hedges I’ve worked on in the intervening years will mature, and I look forward to the accumulative benefit they should provide for a whole manner of wildlife. Crucially, this work knits conservation into agriculture at a crucial moment for both, and perhaps examples like mine will soon become more relevant.
Cattle gathered on the in-bye fields to lash their tails as the clouds piled up behind them. I had meant to look for a roe buck, but by eight o’clock the sky was setting into gel and the first flecks of rain were flying through the thistles. Hares took my lead and forged a path through the grass, cooking up a storm of crane flies. A steep granite face loomed above me, and I spied across some likely spots through binoculars.
Heather bobbed ominously on the higher ground as the wind grew in confidence. A fine red doe emerged from the bracken with a sense of quiet urgency. She paused once to itch her ear with a hoof, then vanished from sight into the scree where her kid was waiting. I haven’t seen any young roe yet this year, but they surely are all around us.
After ten minutes, I followed the trotting progress of a vixen through a bed of bog myrtle. The hunter slid like a knife through the scented stems as all life drained out of the sky and darkness came rushing in almost two hours early. Rowans flopped their new leaves in the wind; silver palms clutching bouquets of cat-sharp blossom. I headed for home on the crest of a downpour.
When the rain finally came, it hammered the yard with a brutal clatter. Slates drummed, and the wind swirled moaning through the sheds. I lay awake in the blustering, humid darkness, unable to separate dream from reality. Images of a roe kid came to me, lost in a jungle of flag iris and marigold. When daylight finally came, it summoned up the pulsing throb of a cuckoo through the open window; an echo from the muggy darkness of some Congolese rainforest. The sound threaded itself into my unconscious brain, as grave and dispassionate as a metronome; Mr Kurtz’s fob watch ticks on.
Unsure where the night had washed me up, I gazed out of the bedroom window as dawn broke. The landscape had been tossed like salad in a bowl; the colours were fresh, sharp and clear again.