Lapwings (slight return)

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Peewits are back, but for how long?

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.

Drummers Return

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A hugely welcome return

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…

 

Recycled Tree-guards

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A disappointing showing of trees after four years – cost-cutting is to blame!

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.

Galloway Update

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Hands-off livestock

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.

Unfinished Business

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Looking to the future

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…

Goat Curry

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Wild goats provide a culinary extravaganza at the table

Just as a postscript to recent notes on the subject of wild goats, it is worth reporting that we ate some goat last night and it was absolutely excellent – perhaps one of the best home made curries I can remember. Slow cooked with cardamom pods and cloves, the meat was beautifully tender – this was diced neck from an old animal, but the meat was most similar to a coarse-grained lamb, with none of the grease you might expect from hogget or mutton and something like a flavour of venison.

Most importantly, there was absolutely no flavour of “goat” – the rank, reeking misery of the smell seemed to vanish when the animals were skinned, and freezing the meat for a few days before eating it also seemed to help. I can hardly recommend it highly enough if you’re ever in the position to try some wild goat meat, and given that these animals have been feeding free-range on the finest forage that Galloway has to offer, perhaps these high commendations are not surprising.

Heading for Spring

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The last of the few

Planning for the spring, I can’t help feeling a little downhearted. The return of the curlews should be a moment of tremendous joy, but the birds have recently brought with them a vague overtone of gloom. They just aren’t producing fledged young anymore – it has now been seven years since a youngster flew off our moss and headed down to the Solway. In that time, we’ve lost six breeding pairs and we’re now down to just five in the entire glen of more than 4,000 acres. I’ve written so exhaustively on this subject elsewhere on this blog that it’s not worth repeating here, but there is a restlessness to the remaining pairs which is jumbled and confused. The house is literally falling down around their ears. There will come a time quite soon when the curlews will leave their shattered nests in June and they will never return. I can feel that day coming, and it’s heartbreaking.

So what do I do about it?

Over the past eight years, I have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of pounds and hours managing rushy upland habitats so that they are more fruitful for breeding curlews. I am not the agricultural tenant and so the scope of my input is limited (and my access to financial support is zero), but I have cut rushes, fertilised and limed sour pasture and cleared back encroaching scrub woodland from key nesting sites. I devote up to three hours a day throughout the spring to checking traps and running snares, and I monitor breeding in a bid to understand precisely why the situation is so dire.

Predator control is a particularly poisoned chalice – checking traps and snares is some of the most boring and thankless work you could imagine. I’ve registered for this, qualified for that and been accredited on the other in order to carry out the crucial business of predator control, and yet I often lie awake at night and worry that my traps could fall into the wrong hands, or that some extraordinary accident could happen which would see me up in court. I start to wonder why anybody would put themselves through this vast effort for zero financial gain and, increasingly, no ecological progress.

If you didn’t understand, you could just say that I am wasting my time. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to think about this on countless long nights lying out for foxes, and on wet mornings stomping through fog to check crow traps while the rest of the world is warm in bed. I would counter it with two arguments:

– 1) Thanks to my efforts, my birds do better and get closer to success than any others in the glen. Cold comfort, but still comfort.

-2) If I can’t make time or set aside money for the most important cause I know, why should anyone else?

The work is made all the more demanding because I feel like I’m out on a limb. The actions I’m taking are absolutely appropriate – it’s almost all textbook stuff (with a few self-taught tweaks), but the shortcoming is that I’m working alone on too small a canvas. My 1,600 acres is swallowed up in ten times that area of spruce forest and overgrazed sheepwalk. Neighbours are generally supportive of my work, but none of them have the time and few the inclination required to get things off the ground. But then I find myself in a catch-22 situation – “how can I expect my neighbours to support curlews if I’m not delivering an example” versus “I can’t deliver a successful example without their support”.

In a scientific and political context, I also feel like I’m working against the grain – there is a general perception that what I’m doing is controversial or backwards. Frustratingly, we all agree that curlews require active conservation, but there is still a bewildering level of wooly-headedness when it comes to implementing crow and fox control – and here’s the rub, because without predator control, the curlew’s days are numbered.

There are a number of new curlew conservation initiatives which were kickstarted into life by recent BTO data which shed light on the extent to which the birds have declined nationally. We have mountains of science to demonstrate that ground-nesting birds struggle without predator control, and yet many people are determined to see around this truth, longing for a more savoury answer. Perhaps if we ring more chicks, or study their wintering habitats in Morecambe Bay, perhaps we’ll find some panacea which won’t concede political ground or endorse killing. The certain truth of the matter is that we already have many of the answers – we just can’t stomach them.

I will keep working for the birds this spring because giving up is not an option, but I am almost alone in this mentality. Rather than basking in the glory of success, I increasingly feel like I’m on a sinking ship.