It is ever more satisfying to witness the progress of my new hedge, which has come on in leaps and bounds since it was cut this spring. Many of the trees have bounced back with astonishing vigour, and many of the stumps have now bushed out with fresh growth that is almost five feet tall. I felt reluctant to cut this hedge in the spring, worrying that pro-active management would destroy all the careful progress I had made so far (see post from Jan). In reality, hedges need to be treated mean, and the thickening effect has been almost miraculous.
I also have my eye on the fact that the best and most valuable wildlife hedges are less than two metres tall – before it was cut, many of the hawthorns were rising beyond this limit in a series of high, spindly spires. The hedge has been forced into a new shape, and the effect has been to provide thick cover and concentrated benefit. The leaves now twitch and flicker when I walk along the stock-proof fence line, hinting at the movement of birds and beasts beneath the thick cover.
In terms of fruit and food for wildlife, the array of berries is now a sight to behold. The rose hips are lined up in clusters, and there are fistfuls of haws and elderberries. The field maples have turned a stunning shade of rusty red, and brambles run rampant through the entire mix, binding it all together as one. I am still unconvinced by the guelder rose berries, which often remain visible after every other leaf and fruit has gone. They can hardly be very tasty, and conditions have to get pretty hungry before anything even looks twice at them.
This blog has fallen silent over the last few days on account of a trip to Finland. Once I have caught up with work again I will certainly make time to write in more detail about the vast, bear-infested taiga forest of Arctic Lapland, but for now I can’t resist a quick note about a chance discovery on the roadside near the northern town of Rovaniemi.
Finland is essentially a vast forest, but a few fields have been carefully carved into the wood here and there. When we arrived, most of this open ground had been cut and baled for silage, but there were a few larger arable fields south of the Arctic circle. By sheer chance, we happened to pass one of these rare open spaces which showed the remains of barley stubble. Some unfamiliar grey shapes were gathered in the far corner of this field, and my wife and I slowed down for a closer look from the car window. To my overwhelming delight, the binoculars soon revealed that these were cranes – a family group including red-headed juveniles and stunning adults in gorgeous black and white plumage.
I was not prepared for these birds, despite the fact that their luxuriant breeding displays form some of the most distinctive spectacles in wild Lapland. I had assumed that they would have migrated south by the time we arrived, so I wasn’t prepared for this chance encounter. The birds rose up and flew away as soon as we stopped the car – three hundred yards of open country lay between us, but these cranes seemed nervy and anxious to keep their distance. Revelling in the discovery and marvelling at the shape of the long-necked birds passing away over the forest, my wife and I decided to take the opportunity to pause for a walk in order to stretch our legs. A railway line formed the backdrop to the field, and we set off on a slow amble towards this landmark beneath the grey, overcast skies which would come to dominate our entire trip.
As we finally reached the raised embankment and peered over the rails, an extraordinary spectacle was laid out before us. We had only been able to see a small portion of the stubble field, and the main bulk of the open ground had lain out of sight beyond the train line. A hundred cranes and almost as many whooper swans rose up in a clattering mass of wings, alarmed by our sudden appearance close at hand. We had accidentally kicked a hornet’s nest, but the hornets were monstrous, bugling creatures which combined to make the sky vibrate.
We stood for a moment and absorbed the spectacle while a seemingly endless file of bramblings rose up from the field margins and rushed past at close range, disturbed by the clamour of the larger birds. A merlin seared over from the forest edge looking for an opportunity, and we beat a hasty retreat to the car, dizzily wide-eyed at our chance encounter.
The cranes continued to circle overhead for five minutes, then finally dropped back to land again once we had moved away again – perhaps this was a stop-over for their southerly migration, which takes them diagonally across Europe to Spain and Portugal for the winter. Their purring calls rang in our ears for hours, and this fortuitous blunder turned out to be one of the most spectacular moments of the entire trip.
I’m drawn to the Nordic countries because they have so much cross-over with Scotland. It helps me to understand how strange, exotic birds fit into their niche when I can see them sharing it with species I already know and recognise. At a push, I could find a stubble field full of whooper swans in Galloway, and there is an outside chance that I could also find brambling on the same day. But the cranes lifted that spectacle out of the ordinary and turned a fine autumnal scene into a moment of staggering grandeur.
Of course there is much more Finland to come on this blog…
As a retrospective update on my barn owl box experiment this year, I was keen to find out what (if anything) the birds had achieved during their period of enthusiastic activity in May and June. Having solemnly resisted the temptation to look too closely at the nest box for fear of disturbing the occupants, I recently set up my trail camera nearby to see whether or not the nest was still “active”. Ten days went by, and the only activity at the box was a visit from a single pigeon. From this I assumed that the coast was clear and went in for a closer look. Sure enough, a thick cobweb across the doorway added further proof that nobody was home.
Peering in through the door, I found that the box was carpeted with a deep bed of dead voles. Mounds of corpses lay strewn in a mat almost three inches deep, and many of these had been mummified, frozen forever in a dry, twisted rictus – little yellow gnawing teeth bared like Egyptian mummies. In the far corner of the box were two small, white, almost spherical eggs. I came away from the box quite confused. Reading through my books on barn owls, I found that barn owls can lay large clutches and eggs, and one or two often don’t hatch. Of course it’s possible that these owls reared a large brood of healthy owlets and the two eggs were simply the leftovers, but I couldn’t reconcile the thought of large, mucky, scuffling chicks crowded together in a small space for an extended period without leaving a single mark on the pure, silky white eggs.
It seemed more likely that the nest had been abandoned after only two eggs were laid, but judging from the vast surplus of food which had been gathered and wasted on the floor of the box, it was hard to see hunger as a cause. I can’t ignore the possibility that disturbance might have played a part, since this is a functioning agricultural shed which can see lots of activity during the summer months. To some extent this is unavoidable, but there must be a compromise to tip the scales in their favour. The old shed which stood on this spot played host to generations of owls which bred successfully for decades, and this space was no more noisy or disturbing than the new. I’m confident that the box is in a suitable spot, but if disturbance did play a part, we must take extra care next year to tread more carefully and be more aware.
In the meantime, there has been at least one barn owl around the house all summer, and I am sufficiently enthused by my first attempt with owl boxes to build a second. I can see an excellent spot for a box at the far end of the yard where there will be very little human disturbance, and I will simply need to open up an old lunkey to allow the birds access through the gable end.
I can’t help feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea of bird boxes; the concept smacks of “wildlife gardening” and typically human micro-management. I would much rather be managing rough grassland habitats than prissily building custom “homes” for wildlife, but it really does seem like an availability of nesting sites is a genuine limiting factor in barn owl populations. If we can draw in a pair to breed in the yard, I can focus on creating a mixture of habitats to boost the voles and mice in the fields.
The last swallows have now trickled through our fingers, and we can finally stare autumn squarely in the face. A pair of kestrels has moved into the rough ground beyond my office window, and I can see them hunting almost every day, often with some success. I was on the telephone earlier this week and had front row seats for the death of a vole, which was carried squealing to a granite outcrop in tightly clenched feet. The dark little shape wriggled mightily until it was ripped in half and bolted down in two shoulder-humping motions.
The kestrels are under constant attack from large, rollicking gangs of rooks and jackdaws, and the hunters can scarcely move from one telegraph pole to another without bringing on furious overtures of abuse and invective. It has been spectacular to see ten or fifteen jackdaws mobbing a single white-bellied kestrel against the dark, bruising rainclouds, and I’ve been surprised at how nimble and fast the corvids have been to sustain attacks over extended periods.
When they are not chasing kestrels, the rooks and jackdaws are stripping away punnets of berries from the hawthorn trees. At this rate there will be very little fruit left for the thrushes when they come over the North Sea, but I’ve been encouraged to hear of redwings and some fieldfares already making landfall along the East Coast. These Nordic invaders are never overtly beautiful or exciting, but I can’t help feeling deeply drawn to them.
As promised, the last few nights have been spent in pursuit of foxes. More on this to come, but the considerable progress I’ve made so far will be for nothing unless the work becomes sustained, systematic and persistent. This will be a marathon, and I am gearing up for an enduring grind.
In the meantime, it’s worth recording the presence of a small but determined gang of peewits in the land beneath the house. A flock of these gorgeous birds arrived in August as if they were merely passing through, but they have recently become an almost permanent fixture. We were enormously privileged to have a group of them foraging in our hayfield two days ago, and the dusty autumnal sunlight lit up their white breasts in orange and gold. Walking by the light of the moon with a rifle on my back, I’ve been surprised to hear peewits calling periodically throughout the night, and I now realise that the flock of perhaps forty birds which moves around by day is active (and perhaps even bolstered by others) during the night.
These peewits are a particular pleasure to me, since they offer a rare chance to spend time around a fast declining bird. By the time I was seriously looking at waders in Galloway, peewits were almost a thing of the past – they are often the first to go when landscapes change and predators gain an upper hand. My attention has been focussed on oystercatchers and curlews simply because they are longer lived and can hang around for years after their breeding has become functionally non-existent – they were all I had left to play with. There is a world of difference between winter flocks and breeding pairs, but peewits are a year-round bird and their lives are always of interest.
We did not move into this house until May, so it is hard to tell whether or not peewits breed in the marshy ground below the farm. 2017 was a terrible year for breeding waders, and any nesting attempts might easily have failed and fallen apart by the time I was really looking for them. Perhaps I’m being optimistic. It’s probably more likely that the birds have abandoned this patch like they have abandoned so many others.
Peewits are notoriously difficult birds to resurrect once their numbers have collapsed, but I take heart in the thought that they are always passing through, and successful nests can be found within a mile or two. There are some really nice areas of wet pasture which might still bear fruit, and the work I’m doing on foxes will surely pay off for an entire wealth of ground nesting birds. Here is still more encouragement to get my head down and tackle the predators.
When we moved to this house, we inherited a reasonably large number of pigeons. Most probably have racing ancestors, but they are mainly just a genetic hotchpotch of colours, shapes and sizes. The farm had lain unoccupied for two years before we moved in, and this provided the birds with a quiet, peaceful sanctuary in which to multiply and prosper. I have shot a few of these pigeons to train the dogs, and the dogs have killed a few squabs under their own steam which they have found lying around in the yard. All considered, I was happy to leave these birds be, provided that I could pick off one or two as I needed them for dog training or ferret food as required. I resented their constant crapping, but I balanced this with the pleasure of seeing their enthusiastic mating rituals, which take place on a stage-like knuckle of granite behind the house.
Since bringing in the hay, I am beginning to feel less tolerant. Pigeon crap can carry disease, and the birds have been sluicing my bales with pots of white slurry. I have shot a few more, but I’ve been pleased to see natural control mechanisms begin to kick in. Over the past three weeks, the fields around the house have been littered with puffs of white feathers. A juvenile peregrine has been working around the house, and while his efforts have been mainly confined to the starlings which browse through the wet ground, I found scraps of bone and feather suggest that the hunter has been working on the doos.
As I lit the stove last night, there was a noisy thump on the window. I rushed outside to see what the matter was and found a pigeon waddling around in the wet grass. Rain hammered down, and the poor bird was struggling with heavy, gummed-up wings. I noticed that it was missing a good part of its tail, and it seemed strangely dazed. I went closer to investigate and the bird rose up groggily and flew in a loop around the hayfield; a figure of eight which took twenty seconds. It passed over the house and headed for a branch in one of the old scots pine trees which stand above the yard. That seemed like a sensible decision, since the old trees have thick canopies and would offer some shelter from the developing downpour. Almost as soon as the pigeon had landed, a second bird came rushing in behind like a sinister shadow – there was a moment’s tussle, then both fell vertically down into the wet rushes in a squalling cartwheel, during which I saw a pair of brown, barred wings powerfully outspread.
My wife and I had already been soaked by a thousand teacup-sized droplets of rain, and we rushed over for a closer look. Not wanting to disturb the drama, we tried to hold back and watch without being seen, but the sparrowhawk (for it was she) saw us immediately. Rather than fly away, she boldly began to pluck the pigeon right before our eyes, and she allowed us to approach to within thirty yards. This was more than close enough, and we spent the following fifteen minutes watching her dismantle her prey as the rain continued to batter down. It must be hard work hunting in those conditions, but we later found that the pigeon was just a youngster and would not have provided much of a challenge.
We presumed that the hawk had bashed the pigeon and forced it to crash-land into our window. If we had not intruded, the hawk might have come down and finished the job then and there, but instead the poor pigeon had been flushed again and was finished with a second assault. After fifteen minutes, the hawk suddenly rushed away again with her crop swollen and tight. I walked up to inspect the remains of the pigeon and found it well butchered. Most of one breast was gone, and there had been a hole ripped into its guts through which several lengths of intestine had been pulled. I was impressed by how quickly the job had been done, but I suppose it makes sense to work fast when you’re a small, nervous predator with many enemies.
This blog has always had a determined focus towards pro-active conservation. I am guilty of steering my work towards the aspects which appeal most to me, and I can’t deny that my cattle have provided a pleasant tangent. Habitat management represents the fun, uplifting side of conservation, and there’s no doubt that it is satisfying to see nature respond to hard work and labour. At the same time, I have neglected a parallel strand in this process, and this oversight was brought home to me with a bump this morning.
Predator control is a founding principle of modern conservation. Over the past few years, I’ve travelled across Britain and visited some of the best wildlife conservation projects in the country. I’ve seen committed conservationists design and deliver some extraordinarily rich habitats for everything from black grouse to black winged stilts, from the highest mountain top to the lowest fen. A common theme through all these projects is that quality habitat is usually hamstrung without predator control. Of course there are some exceptions where fox and crow control are less relevant, but I can’t think of any projects which wouldn’t benefit from some predator management.
I woke up this morning to find all but a few of my partridges gone from their pen. A bloody mass of chicken feathers was heaped up in soggy mounds across the yard. We have lived here for six months, and finally the fox has come. I’ve been trying to build the perfect home for wildlife, and I’ve taken my eye off the ball.
To be honest, I dislike predator control. There can be moments of extreme excitement when lamping foxes, but the huge majority of the job is time-consuming, repetitive and boring beyond words. Most of my early twenties was spent tramping around trap lines and checking snares, and the experience became deeply sour. I have been aware of foxes on the surrounding land since the spring, but I had lazily turned a blind eye to them. I would love to avoid predator control wherever possible, but I categorically cannot afford that luxury. This latest visit from the fox is a timely reminder that there is work to do. If I can’t keep partridges safe in their pens beneath my kitchen window, what chance will they have in the fields and hedges?
Brooding over a cup of coffee this morning, it has become clear that if I want to reap the full benefit of my habitat work, I need to take a firm and serious grasp of the predators. A great deal of work and effort now beckons.