Pat Scratchers

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Caught brown-handed

I don’t want to dwell on cowpats, but it’s interesting to follow the gathering momentum which now stirs around the oat stubbles where some of our beasts are being wintered. Alongside hay and a ration of rolled oats, the cattle are being fed on a sheaf of whole oats every afternoon. I’ve written before about how this has led to oats passing through their guts to re-emerge in the cowpats, and I’ve gone into graphic detail recording how larks and buntings then gouge into these steaming heaps and dredge out the seedy goodness.

But now I see cowpats actively being pulled to pieces and raked apart. Tall, sponge-cake stacks of cow shit are being shredded, and at first I wondered who the culprit could be. The damage was too great for a lark or a starling, and the devastation spread scraps of muck over several square feet. It was only this afternoon that I realised a pheasant has learnt to rake over this bounty, and he’s capitalising on the spent grain.

I’m not sure how to feel about pheasants per se, but I’m encouraged by the foraging habits of this bird. Firstly, pheasants now occupy the niche which used to belong to truly wild game like partridges and black grouse. So while it’s a bit of a generalisation, the fact that a released pheasant is pecking at those cowpats seems to confirm the traditional rumour that wild game used to do the same.

It’s also interesting that it’s taken this bird almost four months to pick up this habit. That nudges at something I’ve been feeling about farming and wildlife for a few years; basically that much of what we recognise as “traditional” wildlife behaviour was actually passed down as a form of heritage between generations of wild birds.

I’ve spoken to lots of people who used to see black grouse feeding on cereal crops in the 1960s and 70s. When cereal crops vanished from the hills and the birds began to decline, many of these people put two and two together. Hoping to do their bit for the birds, some of these folk planted small patches of cereal crops which were explicitly designed to help black grouse. I tried the same myself with the turnip fields I planted for black grouse in 2013 and 2014, and I hoped that the birds would be buoyed by the resumption of old agricultural methods. It turned out to be a complete failure.

Of course the truth is that black grouse have no genetic affection for cereal stooks or turnip fields. They gradually learned to feed in these unnatural places, and adult birds passed the habit on to their youngsters. When farming ran at a peak for wildlife, birds knew exactly where to be and when. Then farming changed and the birds were jolted out of that pattern. Cereal stooks vanished, and birds stopped seeing corn dried in the fields. Many of them “forgot” how to use these places, and it’s no wonder that the link was broken. I’ve got no doubt that black grouse would learn to use cereal crops again, but it would take decades of persistent work to reignite those old habits. The oat stooks are a tiny example of a much bigger two-way relationship which has totally collapsed, and it’s naive to imagine that it will just pick up where it left off.

To some extent, the same is true with this pheasant. We often look back on the “good old days” when farming traditions supported a wide variety of birds and wildlife in the countryside. We farmed according to habit and heritage, but we often overlook the fact that birds exploited those habits with a heritage of their own. A hundred years ago, every farm in this parish would have been feeding horses and cows with whole crop cereals for at least part of the winter. No turd would have been left unturned, and every bird would’ve known where to look. Now it takes a single pheasant four months to come up with the idea of thumbing through a cow pat, but that’s how traditions begin.

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