Barn Owl Boxes

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Looking vertically up at an owl’s bum

As a retrospective update on my barn owl box experiment this year, I was keen to find out what (if anything) the birds had achieved during their period of enthusiastic activity in May and June. Having solemnly resisted the temptation to look too closely at the nest box for fear of disturbing the occupants, I recently set up my trail camera nearby to see whether or not the nest was still “active”. Ten days went by, and the only activity at the box was a visit from a single pigeon. From this I assumed that the coast was clear and went in for a closer look. Sure enough, a thick cobweb across the doorway added further proof that nobody was home.

Peering in through the door, I found that the box was carpeted with a deep bed of dead voles. Mounds of corpses lay strewn in a mat almost three inches deep, and many of these had been mummified, frozen forever in a dry, twisted rictus – little yellow gnawing teeth bared like Egyptian mummies. In the far corner of the box were two small, white, almost spherical eggs. I came away from the box quite confused. Reading through my books on barn owls, I found that barn owls can lay large clutches and eggs, and one or two often don’t hatch. Of course it’s possible that these owls reared a large brood of healthy owlets and the two eggs were simply the leftovers, but I couldn’t reconcile the thought of large, mucky, scuffling chicks crowded together in a small space for an extended period without leaving a single mark on the pure, silky white eggs.

It seemed more likely that the nest had been abandoned after only two eggs were laid, but judging from the vast surplus of food which had been gathered and wasted on the floor of the box, it was hard to see hunger as a cause. I can’t ignore the possibility that disturbance might have played a part, since this is a functioning agricultural shed which can see lots of activity during the summer months. To some extent this is unavoidable, but there must be a compromise to tip the scales in their favour. The old shed which stood on this spot played host to generations of owls which bred successfully for decades, and this space was no more noisy or disturbing than the new. I’m confident that the box is in a suitable spot, but if disturbance did play a part, we must take extra care next year to tread more carefully and be more aware.

In the meantime, there has been at least one barn owl around the house all summer, and I am sufficiently enthused by my first attempt with owl boxes to build a second. I can see an excellent spot for a box at the far end of the yard where there will be very little human disturbance, and I will simply need to open up an old lunkey to allow the birds access through the gable end.

I can’t help feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea of bird boxes; the concept smacks of “wildlife gardening” and typically human micro-management. I would much rather be managing rough grassland habitats than prissily building custom “homes” for wildlife, but it really does seem like an availability of nesting sites is a genuine limiting factor in barn owl populations. If we can draw in a pair to breed in the yard, I can focus on creating a mixture of habitats to boost the voles and mice in the fields.

Autumn’s Kestrel

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Haws in their thousands, but for how long?

The last swallows have now trickled through our fingers, and we can finally stare autumn squarely in the face. A pair of kestrels has moved into the rough ground beyond my office window, and I can see them hunting almost every day, often with some success. I was on the telephone earlier this week and had front row seats for the death of a vole, which was carried squealing to a granite outcrop in tightly clenched feet. The dark little shape wriggled mightily until it was ripped in half and bolted down in two shoulder-humping motions.

The kestrels are under constant attack from large, rollicking gangs of rooks and jackdaws, and the hunters can scarcely move from one telegraph pole to another without bringing on furious overtures of abuse and invective. It has been spectacular to see ten or fifteen jackdaws mobbing a single white-bellied kestrel against the dark, bruising rainclouds, and I’ve been surprised at how nimble and fast the corvids have been to sustain attacks over extended periods.

When they are not chasing kestrels, the rooks and jackdaws are stripping away punnets of berries from the hawthorn trees. At this rate there will be very little fruit left for the thrushes when they come over the North Sea, but I’ve been encouraged to hear of redwings and some fieldfares already making landfall along the East Coast. These Nordic invaders are never overtly beautiful or exciting, but I can’t help feeling deeply drawn to them.

Wintering Peewits

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An autumnal treat

As promised, the last few nights have been spent in pursuit of foxes. More on this to come, but the considerable progress I’ve made so far will be for nothing unless the work becomes sustained, systematic and persistent. This will be a marathon, and I am gearing up for an enduring grind.

In the meantime, it’s worth recording the presence of a small but determined gang of peewits in the land beneath the house. A flock of these gorgeous birds arrived in August as if they were merely passing through, but they have recently become an almost permanent fixture. We were enormously privileged to have a group of them foraging in our hayfield two days ago, and the dusty autumnal sunlight lit up their white breasts in orange and gold. Walking by the light of the moon with a rifle on my back, I’ve been surprised to hear peewits calling periodically throughout the night, and I now realise that the flock of perhaps forty birds which moves around by day is active (and perhaps even bolstered by others) during the night.

These peewits are a particular pleasure to me, since they offer a rare chance to spend time around a fast declining bird. By the time I was seriously looking at waders in Galloway, peewits were almost a thing of the past – they are often the first to go when landscapes change and predators gain an upper hand. My attention has been focussed on oystercatchers and curlews simply because they are longer lived and can hang around for years after their breeding has become functionally non-existent – they were all I had left to play with. There is a world of difference between winter flocks and breeding pairs, but peewits are a year-round bird and their lives are always of interest.

We did not move into this house until May, so it is hard to tell whether or not peewits breed in the marshy ground below the farm. 2017 was a terrible year for breeding waders, and any nesting attempts might easily have failed and fallen apart by the time I was really looking for them. Perhaps I’m being optimistic. It’s probably more likely that the birds have abandoned this patch like they have abandoned so many others.

Peewits are notoriously difficult birds to resurrect once their numbers have collapsed, but I take heart in the thought  that they are always passing through, and successful nests can be found within a mile or two. There are some really nice areas of wet pasture which might still bear fruit, and the work I’m doing on foxes will surely pay off for an entire wealth of ground nesting birds. Here is still more encouragement to get my head down and tackle the predators.

Pigeon Hunters

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A rain-soaked spectacle

When we moved to this house, we inherited a reasonably large number of pigeons. Most probably have racing ancestors, but they are mainly just a genetic hotchpotch of colours, shapes and sizes. The farm had lain unoccupied for two years before we moved in, and this provided the birds with a quiet, peaceful sanctuary in which to multiply and prosper. I have shot a few of these pigeons to train the dogs, and the dogs have killed a few squabs under their own steam which they have found lying around in the yard. All considered, I was happy to leave these birds be, provided that I could pick off one or two as I needed them for dog training or ferret food as required. I resented their constant crapping, but I balanced this with the pleasure of seeing their enthusiastic mating rituals, which take place on a stage-like knuckle of granite behind the house.

Since bringing in the hay, I am beginning to feel less tolerant. Pigeon crap can carry disease, and the birds have been sluicing my bales with pots of white slurry. I have shot a few more, but I’ve been pleased to see natural control mechanisms begin to kick in. Over the past three weeks, the fields around the house have been littered with puffs of white feathers. A juvenile peregrine has been working around the house, and while his efforts have been mainly confined to the starlings which browse through the wet ground, I found scraps of bone and feather suggest that the hunter has been working on the doos.

As I lit the stove last night, there was a noisy thump on the window. I rushed outside to see what the matter was and found a pigeon waddling around in the wet grass. Rain hammered down, and the poor bird was struggling with heavy, gummed-up wings. I noticed that it was missing a good part of its tail, and it seemed strangely dazed. I went closer to investigate and the bird rose up groggily and flew in a loop around the hayfield; a figure of eight which took twenty seconds. It passed over the house and headed for a branch in one of the old scots pine trees which stand above the yard. That seemed like a sensible decision, since the old trees have thick canopies and would offer some shelter from the developing downpour. Almost as soon as the pigeon had landed, a second bird came rushing in behind like a sinister shadow – there was a moment’s tussle, then both fell vertically down into the wet rushes in a squalling cartwheel, during which I saw a pair of brown, barred wings powerfully outspread.

My wife and I had already been soaked by a thousand teacup-sized droplets of rain, and we rushed over for a closer look. Not wanting to disturb the drama, we tried to hold back and watch without being seen, but the sparrowhawk (for it was she) saw us immediately. Rather than fly away, she boldly began to pluck the pigeon right before our eyes, and she allowed us to approach to within thirty yards. This was more than close enough, and we spent the following fifteen minutes watching her dismantle her prey as the rain continued to batter down. It must be hard work hunting in those conditions, but we later found that the pigeon was just a youngster and would not have provided much of a challenge.

We presumed that the hawk had bashed the pigeon and forced it to crash-land into our window. If we had not intruded, the hawk might have come down and finished the job then and there, but instead the poor pigeon had been flushed again and was finished with a second assault. After fifteen minutes, the hawk suddenly rushed away again with her crop swollen and tight. I walked up to inspect the remains of the pigeon and found it well butchered. Most of one breast was gone, and there had been a hole ripped into its guts through which several lengths of intestine had been pulled. I was impressed by how quickly the job had been done, but I suppose it makes sense to work fast when you’re a small, nervous predator with many enemies.

 

Foxes Revisited

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Back to the grind

This blog has always had a determined focus towards pro-active conservation. I am guilty of steering my work towards the aspects which appeal most to me, and I can’t deny that my cattle have provided a pleasant tangent. Habitat management represents the fun, uplifting side of conservation, and there’s no doubt that it is satisfying to see nature respond to hard work and labour. At the same time, I have neglected a parallel strand in this process, and this oversight was brought home to me with a bump this morning.

Predator control is a founding principle of modern conservation. Over the past few years, I’ve travelled across Britain and visited some of the best wildlife conservation projects in the country. I’ve seen committed conservationists design and deliver some extraordinarily rich habitats for everything from black grouse to black winged stilts, from the highest mountain top to the lowest fen. A common theme through all these projects is that quality habitat is usually hamstrung without predator control. Of course there are some exceptions where fox and crow control are less relevant, but I can’t think of any projects which wouldn’t benefit from some predator management.

I woke up this morning to find all but a few of my partridges gone from their pen. A bloody mass of chicken feathers was heaped up in soggy mounds across the yard. We have lived here for six months, and finally the fox has come. I’ve been trying to build the perfect home for wildlife, and I’ve taken my eye off the ball.

To be honest, I dislike predator control. There can be moments of extreme excitement when lamping foxes, but the huge majority of the job is time-consuming, repetitive and boring beyond words. Most of my early twenties was spent tramping around trap lines and checking snares, and the experience became deeply sour. I have been aware of foxes on the surrounding land since the spring, but I had lazily turned a blind eye to them. I would love to avoid predator control wherever possible, but I categorically cannot afford that luxury. This latest visit from the fox is a timely reminder that there is work to do. If I can’t keep partridges safe in their pens beneath my kitchen window, what chance will they have in the fields and hedges?

Brooding over a cup of coffee this morning, it has become clear that if I want to reap the full benefit of my habitat work, I need to take a firm and serious grasp of the predators. A great deal of work and effort now beckons.

 

 

Bulls and Heifers

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Heifers in the evening sun

There have been further encouraging signs of progress with the galloways. Two more heifers failed to come in season last week, and the new bull is having an idle time of it. Logic dictates that these girls are now pregnant, but I can’t ignore the possibility that I have simply done my maths wrong. It currently looks like Old Charlie covered three of the six heifers, and Dominic has finished off the job with the other three. This is certainly a great deal more than we expected from Charlie at the time, and it may go to show that there was more life in the old boy than we gave him credit for.

Of course I may be totally wrong, but this guesswork and speculation is part of the fun. The worst case scenario is that next year’s calving could be spread out over almost two months, but I will have to grin and bear it. It’s another mishap which can be chalked up to experience.

Hedge Work

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The hard yards

The past few days have been spent building a new fence to protect the hedge which was planted when we first moved to the new house. I learnt to build fences when I worked as an underkeeper in 2003, but these skills are rarely called for and I always seem to forget the difficulty and exertion required. It’s quite easy to build a weak fence, but the real trick is to conjure up that high-pitched banjo resonance of tight wires and straining timber. I’m actually quite proud of my efforts here, but my hands bear the scars of dealing with barbed wire.

The end product has been fifty metres of new fence which protect the embryonic stirrings of a hedge which has been custom designed to support a range of birds and mammals. Of course I’m hamstrung by having to pay for the materials out of my own pocket, so this project will need to proceed on an opportunity basis. That said, previous hedgerow experiments have been so exciting and successful that I can hardly grudge the expense. I have only planted hawthorn in this hedge so far, but there is scope for quite a variety of species. I look forward to agonising over this in due course, and I have grand plans to lay the whole thing in a few years. That work will hopefully magnify the hedge’s conservation value to provide decent cover for hares and partridges – two species which should be prospering in this wide open world of pasture and bog.

In the meantime, my captive bred grey partridges continue to prosper, and the two escapees keenly scuttle around the yard in the mornings. As they moult into their adult plumage, I need to make preparations for separating them off into breeding pairs at Christmas time.

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Further inspiration from one of the escapees, still at large in the yard

 

The Wrong Curlew

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An attempt to reach a middle ground

I was very pleased to see my opinion piece on the future of moorland management published in the Scotsman a fortnight ago. Since coming into agriculture (albeit in a rather modest way), my eyes have been opened to an entire new realm of life in the hills. Perhaps it is clear from this blog that I’m loving the new challenges which accompany this project, and I am aware that the political and economic future looks confusing for the kind of marginal upland farms from which this blog takes its cue. Amidst a tide of potential new forestry schemes in the uplands, my article was an attempt to promote open, unplanted moorland as a place of huge potential. HERE is a link to the article itself for those who are interested.

When the piece was published, it took a bit of a hammering. The Scotsman had chosen to illustrate my words with a photograph of a curlew, but they had picked the wrong Numenius species – the article went live accompanied by an exotic foreign curlew species. Most people would hardly notice, and in context it’s rather unimportant.

The link was retweeted by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, and immediately there was a barrage of hooting criticism about the use of the wrong curlew illustration. The post went around the internet in a matter of seconds, and the entire article was swallowed up in a chanted chorus of “SGA don’t know anything” and “ban driven grouse shooting”. Like a masochist, I read through this criticism with a fine toothed comb. Some of the derision was circulated by Mark Avery, who has been marshalling activists against driven grouse shooting over the last few years. His golden touch passively endorsed the idea that the entire opinion piece was utterly absurd. As I pored through the comments, it became clear that none of these critics had read a single word of my article. I doubted if they had even clicked through to the Scotsman page. They were poised to attack anything which they perceived to challenge their own dearly held views; “what about our declining raptors and the criminals who prosecute them?” roared one passer-by – “stop killing our hen harriers” bawled another alongside the hashtag #notaclue

In fact, the article never mentioned grouse, hen harriers or game shooting. As above, it was an attempt to reconcile farming with forestry. Talking it over with my wife, we came to the conclusion that the raptor/grouse debate has become deafeningly toxic. It infects a vast sphere of land management dialogue and has grown far beyond any logical confines. I wrote for the Scotsman because I wanted to step outside my usual channels of communication and reach a wider audience. I rarely receive criticism for my writing because it is usually restricted in circulation to a pro-shooting readership. I am “preaching to the converted”, and the Scotsman exercise was an attempt to broaden my horizons. I can take criticism, but I would prefer to be criticised for my actual beliefs and opinions, rather than some spectral perception of them.

I like to imagine that ten people read my article. One person loved it because they felt it was an argument in favour of moorland landscapes. One person hated it because they believed it was an attempt (somehow) to endorse illegal raptor killing. That leaves eight people who had perhaps never considered the issues I covered. I can’t help thinking that those eight people are the most valuable target audience. As I become ever more mired in the countryside, it’s crucial to remember that the big issues of my day are scarcely registered as significant for most people. This context is vital, and it is heartening to know that between two furious poles, the middle ground is a mile wide.

Escapees

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Escapees complement the evening

Worth a brief update on my grey partridges, which continue to prosper. A couple of poults escaped this evening when the wind blew in their pen door, and it was a pleasure to hear them chirruping around the yard as I dismantled the dyke of hay bales and moved more of the bundled dry grass indoors. They will be easily caught again in due course, and it was nice to be around them as the sun flung a bruised, plummy light on the heather hills behind the house.

There is something extremely fitting about the sound of calling partridges – it is a perfectly natural accompaniment to life in this world of farm and rough pasture. Partridges hit an all time low when I was growing up, and I was in my teens before I heard my first greys calling. Somehow that didn’t seem to matter, and I felt as if I had known that call all my life – it had been hardwired into my DNA. I felt the same on the Isle of Scalpay when I heard my first corncrake calling through the window of my old employer’s kitchen – I was listening to an old friend that I simply hadn’t met before.

Of course partridges will occupy a great deal of my time in the next few years as this farming project takes off, and I still can’t wait to learn more about these birds.

Dominic’s Progress

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Dominic peers longingly over the dyke

Dominic the beltie bull is settling in to life on the hill with some enthusiasm. He speaks with a combination of rumbling basso profondo moans and breathy, high-pitched wails as he prowls around his patch, and he has spent the last few days eyeing older cows over the dyke in an adjacent field. They are all pregnant and shouldn’t represent any serious attraction, but his curiosity does not allow him to settle. We have beefed up the electric fence in the hope that a decent zap might focus his mind, but he continues to dig holes and toss his head with enthusiasm. He is an absolutely stunning beast, but I have developed a healthy respect for him.

Cows cycle every twenty one days. Based on patient observation of previous cycles, I have marked down the most likely dates that each riggit heifer come back on heat. These calculations have been borne out nicely with one or two animals, but it is notable that some are showing no signs of interest in Dominic whatsoever, even though there time has come and gone. I have a sneaking suspicion that Dominic may be looking further afield because some of his job has already been done for him. Charlie may now be lounging extravagantly in his retirement home, but it looks increasingly like he came up with the goods after all.