There has been yet more success on the mink front, with another youngster caught this morning on the bridge by the house. It has been surprising to find mink living in such high densities on the river, and it would be interesting to find out what kind of numbers are “normal”. Asking around neighbours, I learned that there was a mink farm in the nearby town in the 1970s, and many individuals managed to escape from their cages during the management of the business. These may have been the original forefathers of the current population, but I think that current high numbers say more about the suitability of local habitat than any historical influence.
Trapping is slow, methodical work. There is little glory or fun to be had, but there is some consolation to be taken from the fact that it is quite easy. Mink are not suspicious or hard to predict, but the satisfaction of successful trapping is balanced by the necessary dispatch of a beautiful and unfortunately misplaced animal.
There is much to be gained from trapping mink. It’s ambitious for me to clear this entire water catchment of invasive predators on my own, but I have been pleased to discuss my progress with neighbours and other local folk – many had assumed that mink had vanished from Galloway, and some are now thinking about running some traps again. It would be nice to kickstart a local eradication programme across a larger area, as this would start to have some really positive impacts for local wildlife.
It was worth an extensive trek into Cumbria to recover our latest eBay purchase. It looks like a short step across the Solway to the Lakes on a clear day, but it took almost three hours to reach our final destination above the monstrous hulk of Sellafield nuclear power station. We had travelled this long and weary road to collect a Massey Ferguson finger bar mower – a classic of British agriculture, and a familiar shape to anyone farming before the 1980s.
My father’s finger bar mower stood in the corner of the farm steading at home throughout my childhood. The savage shape and rusting blades were an obvious hazard for children, and I was warned to stay away from the mower so often that the grim bar acquired a bogeyman status for my brother and I. We didn’t know what it was for, but we warily assumed that it was designed to impale little boys.
Fast forward twenty five years and finger bar mowers are obsolete. Even my father’s mower was dead, and I don’t think I have ever seen one in use. I am assured that they are a moderately effective (if rather slow) means of cutting grass, but it’s not altogether clear how they perform this function – time will surely tell…
As this project rolls on, it might seem like I am assembling a vast collection of tired, hopeless old machinery. Perhaps I am, but there is a stable rationale behind these rusting investments.
First, modern farm implements can be extremely expensive. This mower cost less than £150 – around half the cost of the cheapest drum mowers which made finger bars obsolete and around ten times less than a functioning second hand commercial mower. I need to mow my grass, and I need to carry out that work within a very tight budget. I also need the flexibility to cut my grass when the conditions are right to do so – I’ve had my fingers burned in the past when I asked contractors to come and found my little jobs at the bottom of their list of priorities. Hay is now so time-sensitive that it is better to be independent and make my own decisions.
Second, modern farm implements are designed for use on large, carefully worked fields with wide gateways. My best grass grows in little paddocks on raggedy ground; there are knowes of granite and stumps of gorse around every corner. A small machine can work away slowly and carefully at these fields, but they are a no-go for most commercial contractors. My main concern this year was whether or not contractors would be able to get into my fields at all, and the prospect of widening old ten foot gateways seemed like a bad dream – this part of Galloway is famed for its granite gateposts, many of which must weigh the best part of a ton. It is no simple matter to dig these out when a contractor is drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and deciding to charge you by the minute.
Small, old-fashioned machines suit me perfectly. I can’t deny that there is a certain buzz to using implements which would have been familiar to my grandfather’s generation, but that is an insubstantial reason to justify an investment. The mower may also require some maintenance and sharpening, but this is a plus-point for me – there is a queer pleasure to be had in tinkering with machinery, then seeing it “in action”.
This rationale does not apply to everyone. The chances are that I will spend many hours working with this mower when I could save money and simply pursue faster, more efficient options. I balance this with the fact that my farming project is not solely for financial gain – labour is often the greatest pleasure, and I would sooner spend time over money.
While perhaps not closely bound to the driving themes of this blog, my endeavours with pigs are worth recording now and again, if only for my own interest’s sake.
We enjoyed keeping a pair of saddleback weaners over the summer, and their journey into our freezer left a big hole in the farm. I grew to love the contribution that pigs made to the yard, and the place felt very quiet and empty without them. While hams and bacon still hang curing in the sheds, we went over to Galashiels yesterday to collect a few new pigs.
Since stepping into the world of riggit galloways, I’ve become more fixated on the idea of rare breed livestock. I took a pig-keeping course in 2010 and fell in love with many of the old British pig breeds we found. It was fascinating to discover animals which had been bred over generations to suit specific human requirements, and the heritage value of these beasts was enormous. It seems perversely wasteful to abandon dozens of old-fashioned breeds because they simply don’t fit a modern niche which favours nothing more than high productivity on a quick turn-over. Who knows what the future holds, and the rush towards new breeds at the cost of older stock is horribly short-sighted.
It’s hard to ignore oxford sandy and black (OSB) pigs – they are some of the most attractive and endearing native breeds, and I have wanted to learn more about them for years. OSBs have been close to extinction more than once in their history, and despite a small resurgence in recent years, they remain in a perilous position. Slow to grow and mature, they simply cannot compete with commercial pigs on a productivity basis, but they are known for producing superb bacon and flavoursome pork. As my taste-buds grow ever more snootily refined, this seems like a fair trade-off.
We came home with three female weaners in the trailer – cheeky little souls wearing expressions of placid curiosity. One of the weaners does not meet breed standards because she has a white spot on her back, but the other two are tip-top pedigree animals. The misfit may end up in the freezer because we plan to breed from these pigs and only the very best will suffice.
Breeding should give a fascinating window into the life of an OSB. There may a reasonable demand for their piglets in due course, but it’s hard to view a project like this with too much financial scrutiny. The pork will be superb, the project will be fun and perhaps we can cover some of our costs; It’s a hobby after all.
This blog is a labour of love. I love my subject and I love writing about it.
I am often surprised and delighted to find that hundreds of people visit Working for Grouse every day, but I try and treat this as a bonus. I would still be writing this blog even if it had no readers, and the huge majority of my writing still lies unedited and unloved in notebooks and hard drives across my office – perhaps it will lie there forever. At the same time, there are plans afoot to compile aspects of this blog into a book; a project which I hope to work on this winter…
I get a fair amount of feedback from regular readers via email, and many have become good friends over the years – this is a real bonus, and I adamantly believe that online contact is nothing when compared to direct meeting and face-to-face discussion. I’ve taken many a pint with readers of this blog, and while not all “meetings” have been vastly constructive, conversations which revolve around moorlands, farming and wild birds are invariably fascinating. Of course it’s not always possible to meet people, and digital interaction has been a decent second best.
Having wrangled with the software, this blog now allows a more engaging means of leaving comments and feedback, and I also run accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram which tie into my my daily doings and enable discussion. Some of these accounts are simply fuelled by photographs of my cattle or links to sites of interest, but they all allow for a greater degree of connectivity. With all these (newly available) channels of communication, please feel free to contact me, even if it’s just to correct an error or point out an inaccuracy – it’s fun to hear from people who have taken time to read my output, and perhaps your comments and input can help to steer this project.
After seven years, I have a feeling that Working for Grouse is only just getting started.
Despite my enthusiasm around the recent fall of snipe, woodcock have remained stubbornly thin on the ground. The November full moon usually brings a torrent of birds to Galloway, but aside from a few outriders (and the birds which breed in the woods behind the house), there was very little to see this year.
An explanation for this strange absence can perhaps be found in the wind maps which I shared last week to explain the dramatic dump of Icelandic snipe on the moss. These winds went on to turn at a ninety degree angle before blowing east across the North Sea. Any migrants in Scandinavia would have been held up by these headwinds, and it is fun to imagine a queue of woodcock building up on the coast of Norway waiting to cross. The wind finally changed two days ago, and we received a mild, sloppy breeze from the Atlantic southwest. This relieved the pressure from Scandinavia, and the migrants came pouring over the sea. Running in the woods this evening, I saw seven woodcock flighting out to feed in the wet fields – nothing like as many as I might see in a peak year, but still a substantial step up from three days ago.
During the early days of the War, my grandfather patrolled the Firth of Forth in a spitfire. His first active engagement was over the docks at Leith, and bullets from his machine gun hammered through the pitifully thin aluminium fuselage of a German Heinkel bomber. When I was told the story as a child, I always pitied those foreign airmen. It seemed perverse that they had come so far across miles of featureless ocean, only to be hammered and killed by fighters when land was finally in sight. We have a newsroom photograph of their aeroplane lying “dead” on the moor near Humbie, a small village near Haddington in East Lothian. There is a swastika on the tail fin.
The story has given me a strange idea of the North Sea and the things which cross it. The East coast is a profoundly bizarre landscape to those of us who were brought up between estuaries and mountains in the west. Lush, arable landscapes run into cold dunes, and the sea laps soupily at your feet. This is no home for me, and Scandinavia feels like a very long way beyond the horizon – you can’t see it, so it might as well be as far away as America. The lands beyond that Sea are occupied magical beasts; Norse gods; even Nazis. The idea that familiar birds routinely cross that vast gulf does little to make the opposite shore feel closer; it simply makes the birds feel more special.
And then there is a counter-perspective. Flying back from Finland at the start of October, we crossed over Norway at 33,000 feet. The landscape looked tiny below us, and I watched it quietly receding into an expanse of open water. Perhaps half an hour passed during which time I could see nothing but water and the occasional oil rig. It was easy to look down on the water and see it as little more than a quick step, particularly when Scotland appeared in the distance and we crossed the coast near Elgin. A woodcock’s migration suddenly seemed like a small affair.
But the birds wait for the right wind for a reason – the crossing is a tall order, and they need all the help they can get. Who knows how many woodcock collapse onto the waves in the darkness, unable to fly another inch; how many birds sink down into the water, leaving their feathers to swirl like autumn leaves along the bottom.
The escaped partridges continue to prosper on the rough ground behind the house. Their shrill calls have become a feature of dawn and dusk, and it is fast becoming hard to imagine life without them here. I went out into the yard before dawn this morning and could dimly make them out against the dark rushes; scuttling shapes in the frost. It was a joy to hear their muttering little calls as they explored the open ground, and a barn owl passed overhead as the sky cracked into golden stripes; I was close to heaven. Unfortunately, the illusion of authenticity was quickly shattered when the home-reared partridges saw me and came running in to be fed…
It has been interesting to note that all is not well in this “covey”. One of the cocks has been cast out of the group, and he is now forced to ply his trade on the margins. Another bird shows signs of fighting, and least two are missing feathers on their rumps and tails. When I have kept captive stock for breeding in previous years, pairs need to be separated out by Christmas time before aggression really kicks in. Perhaps with the shortening days and colder weather, hormones are starting to break up the happy little gang sooner than expected.
These birds are from a variety of sources and I have no doubt that they will form a pair, but remember that I have six cocks and only a single hen. When the pair forms, the chances are that five cocks will be very disappointed. In all probability, the birds which fail to find a mate will disperse into the countryside and unless they can pick up a wild bird, they will surely meet a wasted, pointless death. This is not an ideal situation, but it is not something I had ever planned. Perhaps I can catch up one or two, but the shortage of hens would still leave me high and dry.
It’s worth recording the installation of a new owl box in the hayshed at the back of the yard. I built the box in September, but it has taken a few weeks to assemble the parts and the expertise to install it at the top of a twelve foot wall of cinderblocks. With a good deal of swearing and fury, we finally drove home the final screw and the deed was completed on Friday.
We have seen barn owls quite frequently throughout the year so far, and they have become commonplace during lamping trips under the moon. We are surrounded by some fantastic foraging habitat for owls, and the hayshed was already being used by roosting birds during the day – a fact confirmed by our recent discovery that one or two of my bales are now adorned with a white crust of owl crap. This shed had been empty for two years before we moved in and had been little more than a shell during that time. The door finally blew off altogether, and it would have made a barren, drafty home for passing owls. Since we stacked the hay in the shed, there are now all kinds of recesses and corners where birds can get out of the wind, so it’s no wonder that they are responding with enthusiasm.
I have used trail cameras to photograph the owls which use my boxes on the hill, but this owl box is a good deal more accessible than its predecessors. If the owls decide to use it, there will be breeding birds within twenty five yards of my office. This opens up all kinds of possibilities for filming and recording their behaviour, and I would love to hook up cameras to get a closer look at their to-ing and fro-ing. Something to work towards in 2018.
The mink traps have been ticking over on the riverside, and I was satisfied to catch up with another last week. This latest mink was a juvenile female, implying that there is a resident population in the vicinity. As I’ve started to explore the surrounding area over the past few weeks of autumn, I’ve found all kinds of minkish signs – scats and fresh footprints run all along the ditches and around the riversides.
Most of the scats suggest that the mink are currently dining on rabbits, but this is probably a seasonal factor and I’ve no doubt that they will be hitting prey according to an ever-changing calendar. It’s crucial that I get on top of these invaders, and the occasional chance encounter with a kingfisher or a dipper on the burn provides a strong incentive to push on. Neither stands a chance against a determined mink, but the worst losers are usually water voles. The deep network of ditches and drains which runs across this landscape seem to provide some ideal vole habitat, but there is no chance of helping “ratty” while mink continue to rule the roost.
The frost fell with a vengeance last night, and morning came as a throbbing pain.
I headed for the hill to gather in more firewood at first light, but I could hardly resist a quick walk onto the moss to explore the work carried out a fortnight ago by the rush cutter.
A contractor comes to mow a pre-allocated area of rushes every year, and this work is undertaken to prevent the hill from becoming clogged with tired, woody old rushes. Deep stands of rushes are too thick for the sheep to navigate, and without any grazing whatsoever they soon form a kind of overgrown jungle. The problem is aggravated by the absence of cattle on this part of the hill, particularly in the winter months. Cows trample dense rushes and break them up so that sheep can poach away at the fine details – it is a nice example of cows and sheep working together to benefit the entire hill. The lack of balanced grazing, the collapse of existing drainage systems and an increasingly soggy Scotland have combined to create a time of great prosperity for rushes, and these need proactive management.
Mowing rushes is slow, arduous work, particularly on rough ground where machinery can be smashed by hidden lumps and boulders. Coming at rushes from a conservation perspective, I’m keen to see extensive areas of uniform vegetation broken up, and agricultural improvement marries nicely with the management of game and wildlife.
Longer term readers will remember (EG see here from 2013) that I’ve mowed patterns and strips into extensive areas of rushes, and I’ve tried to encourage contractors to “get creative” with their management work to create wavy lines, edges and islands in the undergrowth. This often falls on deaf ears, particularly for tractor drivers who pride themselves on straight, parallel lines – they can’t understand why large open spaces of stubbly rushes are just as bad for young curlews as dense thickets of tall stuff. My conservation plans produce scruffy, patchy habitats which don’t match the prevailing agricultural aesthetic, which generally tends towards the geometrical.
I was thrilled to find totally new areas mowed when I walked up with the dogs this morning, and ten acres of very promising ground had been cut right next to the moor. As I walked over the prickly stubble, I thought to myself that here was a fine spot for a blackcock; sheltered from the wind by the dyke; a clear view over a thousand acres of hill ground; a mess of seeds and buttercup heads to work away at – what more could a black grouse want?
As I thought these words, there was a twinkling of white in the corner of my eye; I turned to watch a fine blackcock rise up from the fallen rushes and pound away into the cold wind. He was too far away for any detail, but there was no questioning his identity.
Gratified at have been able to anticipate the situation, I hugged myself with delight all the way back to the car. There is no doubt that wildlife (and specifically black grouse) respond to change and proactive management, and alongside many other relevant drivers in their decline on farmland, we can’t ignore the influence of human abandonment. Compared to the pre-war years when black grouse were common and hill farms were viable businesses, vast areas of our uplands currently receive very little investment or work. When the landscape is expected to provide nothing more than low input/low output sheep grazing for decades at a time, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find that it has become incapable of providing anything more.
The snipe landed and moved on. Delighted with their visit, I marvelled at the tiny migrants and their mysterious movements. I could hardly have foreseen that the torrent of waders was just a fore-runner of the main invasion.
Walking the dogs on the edge of darkness this evening, we flushed seventy snipe from a five acre field. As the light began to fail, I struggled to distinguish the birds we had put up from others which were simply flighting to and from their feeding grounds. For a few extraordinary seconds, I could see twelve snipe flying in a tight group together against a dank, fiendishly cold sunset. The collective noun for snipe is a “whisp”, but the birds are usually far more likely to flush on their own. When they first arrive, it can be possible to see two or three flush from a single point, but the biggest whisp I had ever seen before this evening was five.
Fresh snipe seemed to be rising up and passing overhead with every step I took, and I was staggered to find the cold air fizzing with wings and sharp, grating cries. I don’t want to labour the point, but the arrival of these winter migrants has been utterly staggering.
We have lived in this house for just a little over six months. Every changing aspect of the seasons has brought us something new and enthralling, from cuckoo chicks and otters to curlews and kingfishers. Perhaps this is an unusually prosperous year for migrant snipe, but I can’t help thinking that we have found a really special place to live.