Taxidermy Mk.1

First try - a greyhen for posterity (the ribbon is just until she dries).
First try – a greyhen for posterity (the ribbon is just until she dries).

Just a quick note to record my first half-successful attempt at taxidermy; a greyhen that has been lurking in my freezer since September. I spent a considerable amount of time removing all the flesh and bone marrow from this bird according to directions I gleaned online and from a Taxidermy book I bought a few years ago. I then salted her and wrapped her around a pre-fabricated hen pheasant form – the result is not unappealing, but this photograph was taken from the most flattering angle. There are some holes and bald patches on the other side, and I fouled up the tail so that it hangs down rather limply. I almost found myself complaining that she was just coming out of her moult and some of her tail feathers are a bit tatty, but even a cursory inspection would reveal that I have inflicted far more pressing concerns on her anatomy than a slight loss in plumage condition.

For now it is fine, but the acid test will be how long I can stand to have it in the house. I am keen that it should dry out as soon as possible, since there is still some brain, sinus and palate matter that I couldn’t get out without cracking the skull. There’s also some meat between the radius and ulna which was so awkward to get at that I gave up and just pasted it with more salt. I happened to be listening to Sandi Toksvig on the radio while trying to clear this up, and that never improves my patience.

I’ve always wanted to give taxidermy a go, and while I should have started with something less valuable than a greyhen, I’m starting to understand some of the processes involved. I’d love to take the plunge and do a course with someone who really knows what they’re doing, but I have enough difficulty finding time for my current interests without incessantly taking on new ones. I’d very much like to try a roe buck shoulder mount this summer, and the offer of stalking a chinese water deer in Norfolk would surely have to be followed up with an attempt to mount the little devil. In due course, I’d love to try fish carving too – it’s my age-old problem – so many potentially life-consuming hobbies and so little time to pursue them.

Greyhen Stirrings

Greyhens in the willows last spring
Greyhens in the willows last spring

Also worth mentioning in very brief that there is a small gang of greyhens down in the old hayfields which have been eating the remnants of the sheep nuts. I last saw these birds in the autumn, and I think that some of them came out of the brood I found on the bog in August. Greyhens have two dispersal phases over the winter; one in late autumn and one in early spring. Whether these native birds will head off for pastures new in the next six weeks remains to be seen, but it could be that we are already receiving new hens from elsewhere. Meanwhile the cocks remain largely on the high ground, either singly or in pairs.

In two months, they will all be coming together and I have fingers crossed that 2015 will be by far the best spring yet in terms of lekking.

Reunited

Reunited
Glad he’s still alive and thriving in the snow

I enjoyed a grand reunion with an old friend on Saturday afternoon. Spying for a fox on the high ground (on which more to come), my eye was caught by a black shape against a drift of snow. Assuming it was a raven, I scanned the binoculars along the crest of the hill and only returned to the apparition five minutes later, by which time it had become much more conspicuous. I found myself staring at the same blackcock I followed all spring, standing proudly up on a tump of moss seven hundred yards away. Although I have seen glimpses and signs of birds all winter, this was the first time I had seen this individual since November, and I was encouraged by the momentary suggestion that he was not alone. I could have spent all afternoon watching the bird(s) browsing through the frozen grass, but a fox materialised three hundred yards away to the imagined overtures of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

By the time this fox was accounted for, the cold sun had crash-landed behind Cairnsmore of Fleet and smashed the sky into a million crimson shards. I searched the hill for some sign of this bird or his accomplice, but headed home disappointed. I consoled myself with the thought that it won’t be long before the spring brings these hidden shadows into their full glory. For a bird so large and apparently conspicuous, it is surprisingly easy to lose track of blackgame between July and March, so I have fingers crossed we’ll have a busy spring.

Interval

never far off theme
Never far off theme

Worth a moment’s explanation for why this blog has been so quiet over the past week – alongside moving house, I have also been getting married. Huge thanks to all friends and contacts from this blog who sent on words of encouragement on Saturday, and now that the job is done, “my wife and I” are on the way up for a week in Torridon, where the stags are roaring fit to make the scree rattle.

The above picture was taken near the registry office in Glasgow where the deed was done – I may do many things on this blog, but let it never be said that I stray far from the theme. I’m usually nonplussed by graffiti, but certainly approve of this “street art” on Ingram Street.

The Night Before

 

Glorious indeed
Glorious indeed

Of course it’s worth commemorating the eve of the grouse season, particularly after so many people have tried to denigrate the occasion over the past few weeks by dubbing it the “inglorious” twelfth and by launching an assault on the entire sport. This is not the time or place to defend grouse shooting yet again, because (if nothing else) wasting time rebutting nonsensical arguments would only divert attention from the fantastic degree of hard work, dedication and passion so many people show every year in the name of a small and rather unassuming bird. In reality, the Twelfth is less the champagne soaked rampage portrayed in the press and more an amazing celebration of practical conservation work; the climax of an extraordinary relationship between man and bird.

Thousands of hours are spent in anticipation of this single day, and for many of the smaller moors it will be their only chance to get a return on cost and labour through snow, hail and rain. A couple of brace in the bag and a bottle of cider amidst oceans of powdery pink flowers amply repays the sweat and blood poured into the moors by the many syndicates, keepers and country folk who will be agog with excitement tonight as the sun sets, anticipating the thrills of the next few weeks. Being fortunate enough to see and work with grouse almost every day of the year, the novelty value of heath flower and blue hills doesn’t really apply. I am never quite so excited as some about the start of the season, but I am certainly looking forward to some shooting in the next few days, as well as beating, loading and all else before the end of the month.

In a nation where humans are increasingly disconnected from the fields and children believe that cheese grows on trees, there is something truly glorious about a bird with which attracts such a staggering investment of time, money and essential human interest in the countryside. So here’s to the Twelfth, and many more to come.

Black Grouse Broods

Captive reared black grouse poults at seven weeks - older than the birds I found last night.
Captive reared black grouse poults at seven weeks – older than the birds I found last night.

Having looked at the prospects for red grouse, it is of significantly more value that I keep an eye on the local blackgame. I am generally a bit edgy about counting grouse in July in areas where there are blackgame , if only because broods of the latter can be surprisingly small and vulnerable on all but the stillest and warmest days even into August. The black grouse breeding cycle is that much later than red grouse, and broods often don’t hatch out until well into June.

Having bumped into a brood of six black grouse poults last night totally by mistake, my hair went white to see them scatter into the wind. I am a total pessimist and feel sure that all is lost as a result of this encounter, but I know that there is nothing seriously wrong and that the greyhen will soon gather them back together again. These little birds were strong and well-feathered at approximately five or six weeks old, and the chances are that they will come on very nicely, but it would have saved my nerves if I had encountered them in another fortnight.

Casting round friends and fellow black grouse nuts, 2014 has been another positive year for productivity. The North Pennines appear to have churned out a fair weight of birds again, and it was encouraging to hear from Lindsay Waddell at the CLA that he is very encouraged by all that he has seen. The Moorfoots have done well, and Angus is apparently turning them out without any difficulty. There is a bit of a mixed bag in the South Grampians, with reports suggesting that the broods are there but they are not very large. However, Speyside is positive and the scraps I have picked up from the North Highlands are pretty good. I hope to get down to Wales in the next couple of weeks for a look in person, but initial reports are also looking very good.

As specific black grouse counts start up later in this month and birds start to become more visible, it will be easier to get a more accurate idea of how things look. However, for the moment, thing seem very encouraging, and yet more evidence to suggest that good weather and warmth are the foundation of all wild game production. There are some broods of blackgame even on unkeepered ground near the Chayne, and this can only be as a result of a warm, dry summer.

Prospects & Predation

A poult in the rain
A poult in the rain

Having found time in the past few days to do some exploratory sweeps into grouseland, I am quite encouraged by all that I have found. There are some good coveys up on the high ground, and the majority of the poults appear to be well advanced. I have only found one covey of squeakers in the past week, and at three or four weeks old, these were well enough on to come right, barring disaster.

It is an interesting realisation of theory to experience the truth behind the expression “predation trap” over the past eighteen months. On my own ground and on the syndicate moor, 2013 was an incredible boom year. We saw more grouse than have been on the hills for several years, and on both properties we held back from really making a good bag, believing that our stock was the seed upon which future generations would be based. We didn’t shoot at all on the Chayne last year, and only took a few brace off the syndicate ground. As a result, both hills were wriggling with grouse well into November, and some of the younger birds formed monstrous packs which were quite a sight to see.

By December, it was obvious that these young birds were not hanging around to hold territories, particularly on the Chayne. I found fox kills and several peregrine strikes, and by March we were effectively back to where we had been twelve months before; the so-called “predation trap” in action.  There were a few more territories being held on the syndicate ground, but on the Chayne it was precisely the same. This is essentially to do with the holding capacity of the ground and the predation pressure exacted on the population by raptors and foxes.

On the Chayne, the habitat does not improve to support more than a set number of breeding pairs. When spring comes each year, there are “x” available territories up for grabs. In some years following a poor summer, a couple of territories might lie vacant, but fortunately, the Chayne is part of a massive range of more than ten thousand acres of grouse habitat through which grouse move with ease, so the birds are not in any risk of dying out. However, there will never be more territories available until the hill can be totally overhauled and re-organised.

While both properties are “keepered”, a reasonable level of predator control is out of the question for we part-timers. We shoot foxes when we can and I trap crows with great enthusiasm, but we are not even approaching a level at which we could start to build a stock, so assuming that predation is more or less a constant force from year to year, the one guiding variable is the weather. In a good year, we have some grouse to shoot, and I must get my head around taking this opportunity when it presents itself. There is no doubt that 2014 has been a great year for grouse in Galloway, but it’s important for me to remember that I am not seeing the accumulated effects of good seasons in 2014 and 2013. These birds do not build a “stock” because that ability has been taken out of their hands by predators and a lack of habitat. If they don’t end up in my game bag, their feathers will end up decorating the doorstep of a fox earth. Whether I eat this surplus or a peregrine does, the same territories will be full again in March.

A fair percentage of young hens will disperse and they will do their good elsewhere, but I regretted not having shot the Chayne last year when I saw the carnage wrought on my fragile stock by overwinter predation. Predation and habitat are so closely intertwined that it is impossible to disentangle them, but suffice to say that good habitat would be a cure for many ills relating to goshawks, peregrines and foxes.

The only thing I can hope to do is take out the mature birds when we shoot, since it is well known that older birds are less productive (largely a proxy for acquired parasite burden) and the cocks needlessly take up larger territories than their offspring would have done, so while it would appear that I don’t have a huge amount to work with on the Chayne, I am more than happy to take a brace or two of oldsters on the Twelfth. To be honest, I am thoroughly looking forward to it.

Petitions & Hysteria

Save the blackcock
Save the blackcock

There cannot have been many storms of emotive, knee-jerk lunacy to match that which currently swirls around online on the subject of driven grouse. But put aside the misleading source material on peat formation, water purity and thinly veiled fury over a class system which favours some over others and you are actually left with one or two kernels of interest.

At its root, the drive to ban shooting has become centred entirely on a “flagship” species; the hen harrier. The neat, PR friendly notion currently doing the rounds is that a ban on grouse shooting will “save” the harrier, but this punchy, memorable one-liner is actually something of a weakness.

Being able to reduce an entire argument into a glib tweet is a great asset, but the discussion itself is so complex that this abbreviation makes it nonsense. Grouse shooting is strong and positive enough to challenge any accusations levelled against it, but it is difficult to respond to such a perverse and cynically emotive over-simplification of what is actually an extremely nuanced exchange.

I don’t like to ponder what it says about humanity that we can read 140 characters on a subject and then feel sufficiently well-informed to sign a petition to have it banned. This level of gung-ho self-righteousness reminds me of the entertaining social media hoax currently going around of Steven Spielberg posing in front of a collapsed mechanical triceratops on the set of Jurassic Park. The picture was captioned with words to suggest that Spielberg had shot the triceratops and was posing with his trophy, and several gullible animal rights campaigners howled with anguish that he should have committed such a barbaric act (link is here – it’s a hoot).

Of course it is a lovely idea to think that putting your name down on a list will “save” a beautiful and charismatic species, but harrier conservation and the future of the uplands hang on a great deal more than a simple legal pen-stroke.

It is also a wholly negative dogma to suggest that the current means of managing the uplands is wrong and yet be totally unable to provide an alternative. Repeated failures at flagship reserves have shown that the RSPB’s approach to management cannot produce reliable quantities of anything apart from fox droppings, and we should be very cautious of accepting their “vision” for the future when it is founded on such a poor upland track record, particularly on blackgame.

That is not to say that we need to keep grouse shooting because we can’t come up with anything better, but those of us who love upland birds would be greatly comforted to know that we had a tried and tested “plan B” for managing the moors in the absence of the status quo. Some commentators court us with the whimsical vision of a mini-Scandinavian utopia of semi-wooded moor, but how do we get to this point even if we wanted to? There is no active demonstration to show how this is workable in this country, and the only thing that we have learnt so far is that when you fence off the cloughs and plant them with scrub as the National Trust did in the Peak District, ring ouzel numbers go down. Very reassuring.

We have a sound system in place which, by dint of its occasional stupidity, sometimes persecutes birds of prey. It is surely better to fix this problem than rip it up on account of a single issue which, while emotive and distressing, is a tiny, tiny part of a much larger picture. If we really believe that crippling grouse shooting is necessary, why not retain the foundations of heather management and predator control and work from there, rather than throw out the bathwater, the baby, the bath tub and the bathroom in one go.

The chances of hen harriers springing back into prosperity in the aftermath of a ban on driven grouse are much less than the near certainty that black grouse would be seriously hamstrung. This single-speciesism is great for generating footfall and interest, and I am as guilty as anyone of having chosen my “favourite”, but fortunately, the symbol of the black grouse is a great deal less politically loaded and flexible when it comes to talking about upland management.

Recent Moorland Association figures suggest that more than 95% of England’s black grouse population can be found on the margins of moorland managed for red grouse. The figure has actually risen since the last review was published a few years ago, suggesting that things look pretty bright for blackgame around the moors while declines continue apace elsewhere. This is no coincidence, and given that predator control is the foundation of black grouse conservation, gamekeepers are unquestionably behind this trend.

Anyone can decide what they want to learn from the first Langholm Project and cherry-pick the facts accordingly, but it seems perfectly obvious to me that withdrawing gamekeepers was extremely bad news for all kinds of birds, including harriers. The current move to “save the harrier” by banning driven moors has its roots in frustration that the big-cheeses of upland management appear to be above the law. I understand this frustration, but we have to remember the bigger picture when we look at our moors. At the same time, supporting the plight of the hen harrier is a noble cause, but it would be a shame if it were allowed to become the acceptable face of classism, animal rights activism and social politics.

After all, if we ban driven grouse shooting, who will we blame in twenty years when the tables have turned and there are no breeding black grouse in England? Will we observe “black grouse day” to draw attention to the mismanagement of our uplands which has led to the disappearance of these birds? Will there be a #blackgame?

In a world of single-species activism where harriers are being pitched as the only thing of any value, I can’t help seeing it from a blackcock’s perspective. The link between grouse shooting and good numbers of black grouse is cast iron.

 

 

The Moult Continues

Looks itchy
Looks itchy

As June progresses, so too does the blackcock’s moult. I found an immaculate half black, half white secondary feather blowing about on the moss the other day, and the birds themselves are looking more and more tatty as the days go by. As July approaches, these birds will vanish altogether into the ragged robin. Their tails will fall out and their wing feathers will moult away, leaving them in a temporary “eclipse” plumage rather like a duck. I would not expect to see any blackcock on the hill between the middle of July and the end of August, so while the displays are still trickling on, I must make the most of them.

Industrial Disturbance

Clear felling adjacent to brood rearing habitat
Clear felling taking place adjacent to black grouse brood rearing habitat today.

Disappointing but not altogether surprising to find that the local forest managers have yet again chosen the end of May and the beginning of June to ramp up their clear-felling exercises in the heart of a marginal population of black grouse. Since the middle of May, three clear-felling operations have started within a mile of the new lek which sprung up this spring, and I had the disheartening experience of finding a huge swathe of woodland which has been clearfelled right in the middle of an area where greyhens had been lingering in early May. The area photographed above has always had a greyhen or two kicking around nearby, and an abandoned shed two hundred yards away also has had breeding barn owls every year for as long as I can remember. My “anecdotal” observations are also borne out by a series of surveys carried out by independent ecologists over the past ten years.

I am all for felling forestry, but I simply cannot get my head around the logic of flattening the landscape with heavy machinery at the very peak of the breeding season. During the leks in April, foresters down tools and make self-righteous comments about how environmentally sensitive they are being for not disturbing the blackcock, but for some senseless reason, it is then perfectly acceptable to fell woodland right on top of greyhens with eggs and young chicks. There would be much less harm caused by working the other way round and disturbing the leks but leaving the greyhens in peace. In a small population like this, blackcock will always find a way to cover the greyhens, but a sitting bird is easily spooked by roaring diesel engines and the prospect of a collapsing canopy nearby. I wrote about this last year when reader Mike Groves sent me a photograph of a greyhen actually sitting on a clear-felled stump in the height of summer.

It is a sentiment enshrined in forest management policy (guidance note 32) that “As a basic principle, major operations, such as thinning and felling near known nest
locations should take place outside the main nesting season” and the Forestry Commission Scotland’s Black Grouse “Delivery” guidelines list as a “level one action” that forest operations should be timed to “avoid disturbance of breeding black grouse”.

I’ve drawn the comparison before, but if any other industrial land use was found to be disturbing breeding birds in the same way, there would be rallies and petitions to sign against it. Imagine what would hit the fan if a wind developer was seen to damage black grouse habitat during May and June. But the foresters are still able to do as they please without any repercussions, having played a large part in fragmenting and annihilating black grouse populations in the first place. In fact, this block of spruce will probably be replanted in due course with open areas and a good percentage of hardwoods (at the taxpayer’s expense), but it makes no sense to invest in future black grouse habitat while trampling all over the extant population of birds.

I am very keen to find out who is managing these three areas of woodland and will make enquiries. It will be very interesting to hear from the managers as to why these harvesting operations have been given the go-ahead at such a ridiculously inopportune moment.

I seem to write about this issue every year, but perhaps it’s time I kicked up more of a stink about it.