Seasons

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A hasty action shot catches some atmosphere

Summer died with the first grouse. A gradual, ambiguous shift between seasons suddenly resolved into a single moment of thrilling change.

The cream of the season’s young blood rose up from the heather, and they hung for a moment in breathless silence. I could have touched the nearest bird with the tip of my shotgun. The dog and I had been alone on a wide hillside, but now we were caught in a living cloud of flesh, feathers and panic.

During the course of what must have been a single second, I explored every tiny detail, from staring white eyelids to long, down-curved toenails. Each flaring shape was fundamentally rooted in the weeks that had gone before. This hill was a blank slate in April, and these birds had not existed. They had emerged in May into a galaxy of pink blaeberry flowers, and the slow ripening of fruit would run as a constant parallel to their  short, active lives.

The gun came to my shoulder and the shots made my ears ring. Then the wind carried the survivors away together – dark shapes into the pink, flowering distance. The dog plunged on into the heather, stirring up drifts of heather pollen which rose like smoke from her tail. She found the birds and brought them both to me one by one, dumping them into my palm with a gentle plop.

Each grouse was as immaculate as an orchid, splayed gently by death. I folded them into a peaceful position and buried my nose in their feathers – a warm, rich smell of heather, blood and game. Suspended in a game bag and carried home over several sweating miles, this bloom would soon leave them, but for now they were beyond immaculate. They had flown in summer and fallen back to the heather in autumn.

The summer’s end was no surprise. The days crumbled into dust a fortnight ago. Growth which seemed lush and fresh in June now feels hard and weary. Spiders knit the grass together, and jagged blades of bracken saw at the sky. Swallows run in vagrant gangs above the yellow seas of grassheads, and the summer’s crop of thistleheads is being sifted and reorganized by teams of administrative finches.

The last twenty four hours have brought grey curtains of rain across the landscape, and freshly salted sea trout nose a passage upstream beneath a jungle of summer’s growth. Seasons are beautifully timed so that we never grow lazy. Of course I can remember last year’s glorious autumn, but the details are passing into haziness. Every year becomes a rediscovery.

Garden Stoat

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What a beauty!

Worth a brief snippet to include this photograph of a stoat which I took in our garden on Friday. The little monster was rushing around in the wet grass after the rain, and as he worked his way towards our hen run and my partridge pens, I wondered if I had made the right choice in reaching for my camera and not my shotgun. He soon vanished into the grass, and I was left with his brazen, blazing figure scorched into my retinas. I’ve always loved stoats, and it is a frequent source of regret that they are fundamentally incompatible with game birds and poultry. I must have trapped hundreds over the last five years, but as with foxes, there is rarely any pleasure in the job.

I would love to take photography more seriously, but I am already over-reaching on my various projects and I simply don’t have the time. With a proper camera and sufficient patience to devote to the project, I could happily while away several months following stoats across the countryside

Grit Photographs

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More early morning grit

More photos from the hill-top trail camera reveal that the early-rising grouse I photographed last month were not a one-off. Small groups of grouse continue to visit between 4:30 and 5:30 in the morning, although very infrequently. Grouse grit is not needed so much in the summer when the vegetation is lush and easily digested, and they can take ten times more in the winter when they need to grind out every scrap of goodness from the heather. It will be interesting to keep this camera running for a few months to see if the grouse become more reliable in their grit usage as autumn comes on. In the meantime, I need to top up several of the most popular grit piles as they appear to be running low.

It’s also been fun to note the almost metronomic regularity with which this roe buck (below) does his rounds on the hill. His timetable will have been taken up a level with the advent of the rut, but I am entertained by dozens of photographs of him passing and re-passing the same route from late July and into early August. The deer on this tough, peaty hill don’t produce very good antlers, and while he probably wouldn’t excite most stalkers, he is probably as good an animal as we could hope to find on our ground. Mature roe like this usually keep their heads well down in daylight hours, so it’s a sign of his hormones that he should be “walking abroad” at midday.

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Routemaster

Beetle’s Back

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Fresh beetle damage – heather looking red and sore

It was interesting to find that the small plot of heather which I fenced off to study in 2010 has been utterly destroyed by heather beetle over the last few weeks. I had originally planned to use this plot to show how grazing pressure was altering the vegetation on the hill, but after two years of impressive regeneration and growth, beetles struck in 2013. This was a marginal outbreak and caused some patchy damage, but beetle would soon become a recurring theme in this story.

When I visited today, the heather was looking very red and sore. I would estimate that  the damage extends to over 95% of the heather coverage, and there were only two or three sprigs of pink flowering tips in the whole quarter acre. Beetle larvae were still actively munching the growing stems, and many of the plants looked horribly parched and dry. It remains to be seen how the heather will recover into the autumn, but I am encouraged by the way that the plants have bounced back in previous years. At the same time, every time that heather is checked by beetle, it allows grasses and other plants to gain a foothold. Diversity is great and I don’t want a monoculture of heather, but there comes a point at which patchy heather coverage becomes weak and is easily over-grown altogether by more invasive plants.

Historically, heather beetle has been a driver for heather loss on our hill. Family members recall extensive outbreaks of beetle which took place in the eighties and annihilated large areas of heather. A failure to address this damage resulted in a shift towards the grass-dominated vegetation which defines the hill today. The rule is generally that heather will often recover from a beetle outbreak, but it often needs careful stewardship and management to do so. Conditions in the immediate aftermath of an outbreak can require careful handling, and heather is soon lost without attention to grazing. This is a key advantage of grouse moor management in that care is always given to heather coverage, which means little to the farmer but is everything to the keeper. Heather beetle damage is usually restored where grouse are a financial interest, but it is generally viewed as an irrelevance in marginal areas where sheep rule the roost.

Looking at case studies from across the western half of Britain, it seems like wetter conditions and agricultural overgrazing have put heather on the back foot over the last Century. Rather than emerge as a destructive, apocalyptic bolt from the blue, heather beetle outbreaks have simply been the last straw. It is hard to prove it, but there is little doubt that beetles have been the mechanism by which a great deal of moorland has moved from heather to grass on a national scale.

Reviewing the progress of this experimental enclosure last year (full blog here), I wrote that:

It seems that moorland in Galloway (at least in the early 21st Century) is grassier than it was a Century ago, made up of a varied blend of species with heather on the back foot, fighting to hold its own. This much is obvious in the Galloway hills a few miles further West, most of which run very green in summer and then white in winter. This boggier, peatier kind of ground is less ideally suited to red grouse, but its grassiness makes it popular with voles and pipits, which then encourage specialized predators like harriers, short eared owls –

The picture varies nationally, but heather beetle is often linked to wetter conditions, and wetter moors are often grassier. This may be a consequence of climate change, but that is not to say that we should not make the best of what we have. My situation is pretty unusual, and the extent of the damage is confined to the small area where heather is obvious enough to invite beetles. I won’t be doing anything to remedy or restore the damage because this is a study plot and the story is most interesting without intervention. However, if the situation was more dramatic and extensive, I would be considering a range of options to help the damaged plants recover.

I’ve been working with the Heather Trust to run their annual heather beetle survey over the past five years, examining trends and patterns in beetle outbreaks across the country. If you’ve seen red, beetle-damaged heather this year, we’d love to hear from you – download a survey form, fill it in and let us know what’s happening…

Grey Pioneer

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A pioneer – (this one is from the Glasgow branch)

I was stunned to find that I had caught a grey squirrel in one of my mink traps this morning. Grey squirrels are fortunately still very scarce in Galloway, and I have only seen two or three lone outriders in the last ten years.

The most surprising thing about this catch was its location – on a small moorland stream high up on a remote hill farm. The nearest tree was over half a mile away, and it could be three or four miles to the nearest “suitable” deciduous woodland. To reach the trap, he would have had to cross an extensive area of hill pasture and wet peatland, much of it without even the shelter of a dyke. This squirrel was a courageous pioneer in every sense of the word, and perhaps it is no wonder that these animals are so expansive and invasive in their habits. Presumably he had taken a punt on finding pastures new, and I am only too pleased to have stopped him in his tracks on the watershed between the Rivers Nith and Urr.

It was interesting to hold the dead squirrel in my hand – this was the first chance I have ever had to get a really good look at a grey. I was impressed by the size and weight of the beast, which far outscaled the reds I see so often. Unfortunately the trap had damaged the best parts of his saddle, otherwise he would have been well worthy of the oven. I gather squirrels are often eaten in England, and I’d love to give one a whirl.

Greys seem to have stalled their advance in south west Scotland over the past ten years, and I have no doubt that much of this is to do with a determined trapping effort around Annan and Gretna. At the same time, I’ve written before about how Galloway is probably less suitable for greys than it is for reds, and our growing populations of goshawks and pine martens are probably taking their toll on the invaders. We all feared that red squirrels would vanish beneath a tide of greys when they first arrived a few years ago, but the invasion has mercifully ground to a halt.

I reset the trap and headed off on my rounds, pleased and surprised to have caught this individual but hoping that it won’t become a frequent event.

August Finches

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Full o’ finches

August has arrived in a whirlwind of finches. Our new house is surrounded by several hundred acres of rough grazing, and a good deal of this ground has been left to grow without any grazing all summer. I now look out of my office window into a glorious sea of golden seedheads and bronze rushes, punctuated here and there by granite outcrops and berry-infested hawthorn trees.

This might seem like a waste of the summer’s growth, but the lack of livestock is a strategic move. Cattle will be summoned up to eat all the summer’s growth during the winter, and “deferred grazing” is a well-established technique on rougher ground. There are some key agricultural advantages to this technique, but I am more impressed by the bonanza it has created for wildlife. Not only did the thick, luscious undergrowth support a bevy of cuckoo chicks in May and June, but the thick grass is full of voles which draw in a host of owls and kestrels.

Still more pronounced is the effect that this low-intensity farming has had on the small birds. It is no exaggeration to say that we are being drowned in a tide of finches. Broods of young goldfinches have combined to create flocks which number in the hundreds, and they rove through the thistle heads like a plague of locusts. Mixed in with these birds are dozens of linnets and redpolls, and the sky is constantly filled with busy, active little shapes. They raid the seeds and stand in happy throngs on the dusty track down to the river while swallows and sand martins blaze past overhead.

If we still had wild grey partridges, this would be their time. Reading back through old accounts of farmland shooting between the wars, I can’t help falling in love with tales of partridges and hares in the final run-up to the first of September. I am working on this, but as is so often the case with our countryside, pleasure and pain are magnified with understanding. I am in an ecstasy of excitement watching birds because I know the species and appreciate their value, but I temper this with the knowledge that today’s countryside is in many ways just a shadow of what it was.

Red Rowans

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Red rowans

The last week has brought the first distant scents of autumn. The rowan berries are suddenly red enough to catch the eye, and the bracken suddenly feels hard and weary. The first buds of devil’s bit scabious appeared on the moss last weekend. These little purple flowers often persist well into October, and they are a sure sign that change is on the way. These passive observations were thrown into focus this morning when a flight of curlews passed over the house. I suddenly paused to think about the seasons, realising at once that I have been able to hear mallard on the move under the cover of darkness for the last few nights.

There is much more summer to come, but the days are numbered.