Late Waders

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A strangely silent spring

Things are bizarrely subdued on the hill. Planting trees and then walking with a friend across the moss yesterday, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t heard a single curlew calling during the course of a two hour visit. This is absolutely unprecedented, and I would have expected curlews to be well on their way towards breeding by now. First clutches are usually laid towards the end of April, and there is an awful lot of noisy business to transact before this date, but it seems like the bulk of my birds are still to return from their winter quarters.

There was only a single male curlew displaying at 5:30am on Sunday morning, but his undulating flight was performed high up over the moss and seemed to lack the direction or focus of bird who really meant business. In time, he drifted away on the wind and I heard no more from him. Looking back at my notes from previous years, I see that displays were almost constant from dawn to dusk on April 11th 2016, and I even noted displays during the night in the first week of April 2013 and 2014.

The fatalist in me feels certain that it’s all over for “my” curlews; they’ve failed so often that they’ve finally given up. This would be a devastating blow, and it isn’t without precedent – some weird things have been happening on the hill for the past two or three years to suggest that the end is approaching for “my” birds (see countless articles on this blog for more detail). More realistically, the loyal old waders are simply being held up by  cold, dry conditions and they will soon be up and running on their usual stances.

In almost ten years work on the Chayne, I’ve never known “my” curlews to successfully complete incubation on a first clutch. They are always robbed and destroyed, often before the clutch is even completely laid, and this is partly because the nests are formed before the vegetation is tall enough to hide them. I’ve often wondered why the birds try and nest before the rushes are sufficiently advanced, since this seems to be a fundamental factor in nesting failure. Success rates are only fractionally improved by second (or even third!) clutches which are laid in late May or early June, by which time the grass and rushes are tall enough to provide some cover for incubating birds. Unfortunately, there are downsides to laying late which usually cancel out the advantages, including the collapse of social structure in a community of nesting birds which is unsettling and full of distraction. It will be interesting to see what effect (if any) this late arrival will have on the returning birds’ success rates.

I am comforted by the fact that the entire hill is lagging behind previous years. Despite a strong start from the snipe, I’ve heard no drumming in a fortnight, and the skylarks are also proving reluctant to “get stuck in”. There was a cold wind yesterday afternoon which had shrivelled up the cotton grass flowers, and the grass was still far from green. The only real signs of life came from a flock of almost a hundred golden plover twisting and turning on the distant horizon towards Moniaive. Pairs or trios of these birds often appear on the high ground during the breeding season as if they are scoping us out, but they never even try to nest. Unlike the curlews, they seem to know a hopeless spot when they see one.

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Plover in the wind

Wheatear Politics

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Taken through the back windscreen of a dirty car – but look at the cock’s posture and his offered gift of grass!

I fall in love with wheatears every spring, and yet as summer progresses they become so commonplace that my eye is led elsewhere and the fascinating little migrants fall out of focus. At this time of year, they are at a peak of industry and enthusiasm, and they offer so much more to the quiet observer than many comparable birds.

I watched a pair of wheatears this morning for over an hour around sunrise as they went through an extraordinary range of different emotions and behaviours, from arid, scratchy little song flights to strange begging rituals in which the male would present the female with all manner of gifts. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise these various transactions, but when the birds finally settled down to the serious business of foraging for food, I felt as if I had been spying on two complex, intelligent little characters.

Now and again, a neighbouring cock bird (who fortunately had a missing tail feather to aid with identification) would be drawn in by the incessant calling of the hen, and there would be an almighty skirmish between the little blue warriors. Feathers would fly, and then equilibrium would be resumed after a determined pursuit of the routed enemy. It was interesting to see that the hen was as keen on displaying as the cock, and she would often fan her tail and puff herself up in encouragement, clicking all the while like two dry stones knocked together.

I bought a copy of Peter Conder’s excellent monograph on wheatears two years ago during a burst of enthusiasm, and despite a 5am start to the hill, it will form the thrust of this evening’s entertainment. I’ve just typed up 2,000 words on all these two birds got up to, and this blog is the condensed essence of so much more material which will probably never see the light of day – still, it seemed too important to risk forgetting it.

Ring Ousel

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A pleasing sight

A good hot day in Galloway has brought on the spring in a sudden rush. Having just stepped indoors after a day on the hill, it’s worth reporting an extraordinary influx of wheatears, the first few willow warblers of the season and a phenomenal glimpse of a female ring ousel. This is the first ring ousel I’ve ever seen on the Chayne, and it was bouncing tamely around on some of the in-bye fields where the tups had their feet up in the sunshine. This terrain is nothing like the kind of ground I’d usually reckon as classic “ousel” territory, and it’s likely that the bird was just stopping in for a moment on its passage northwards to breed in the Highlands.

Ring ousels have declined in southwest Scotland to such an extent that this once common bird is reckoned to be extinct as a breeding bird in Galloway. Despite this gloomy assessment, I know of two nesting sites where ring ousels have bred near me on the wild, rough hill country in Dalbeattie Forest, and there are other places where I think they are holding on. As ever, the difficulty of getting a real perspective on breeding bird populations is compounded by the fact that so much of this area is horrendously rough and almost totally inaccessible to all but the most determined bushwhacker.

Ousels pass back through Galloway in reasonable numbers in the autumn on their way back down to their Mediterranean wintering grounds, and they can be easily found in a few locations where the rowan berries offer a nutritious boost. This is the first time I’ve seen a bird on spring passage, and I wonder how often I must have missed them or simply overlooked them as blackbirds.

Further North, there are some really good places for ring ousels in Angus and Aberdeenshire, and a gamekeeper friend near Banchory has several ousel nests on his beat. The birds seem to like nesting on steep banks of rank heather with short patches of grass and heather nearby for foraging – grouse moor management provides this in spades, and the highest density of ousels I ever saw was on a moor in the Peak District above the Derwent Reservoir on ground which had been mowed and burnt in an experimental grid-iron pattern by a sporting tenant. Frustratingly, the land was owned by the National Trust who (for no obvious scientific reason) later forbade the trapping of stoats and weasels up the scrubby cleughs where the ousels often lurked. Perhaps inevitably, these beautiful birds have been sorely reduced in number ever since.

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The Kestrel’s Return

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Welcome back!

Kestrels are returning. I’ve noticed two birds over the past fortnight, and after eighteen months of scarcity, their appearance has been a pleasant reminder that the species exists.

We had a phenomenal bonanza of kestrels on the hill in 2014, and I once counted fourteen birds along a single two mile stretch of hill road towards Dunscore. For a few months, these birds were joined by hen harriers, short eared owls, long eared owls and barn owls as the grass literally came alive with voles, but their collapse was every bit as dramatic as their arrival. I haven’t checked my notes, but it’s possible that I didn’t see a single kestrel on the hill at all last year.

Vole cycles are strange and mysterious things, but while it is easy to overlook the little rodents, their changing populations have such an extraordinary impact on their predators that it’s possible to gauge their status by proxy. In the same way, I haven’t seen more than one or two hen harriers on the hill all winter, but in the winter of 2014/15, I could be sure of seeing six, seven or more every day. All predators prosper when the voles are doing well, and if these tentative signs of a return are anything to go by, I look forward to seeing an increasing number of these beautiful little hunters.

Aucheninnes

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The value of waste – nightjars call from this granny pine

One of many reasons why this blog has been quiet recently is that a good part of my time has been spent trying to expand my farming project. I only have six heifers, but I’ve found the experience so rewarding and provocative over the course of the past eighteen months that I’m keen to see what the next level of engagement could hold. Not only is agriculture a self-fulfilling pleasure, but I can also see how it could provide some unique opportunities to get hands-on with practical conservation issues – farming could be my “way in” to a world of wildlife.

A land agent friend with his finger on the pulse recently saw that the Forestry Commission were advertising a number of their properties for let to “New Entrants” to farming, providing a first step on the ladder for young folk who might otherwise struggle to get started – in effect, me. We were both intrigued to see the name of a local farm listed in the scheme, and we went to visit it together one evening last month. It was immediately obvious that Aucheninnes was too big for me, but there was no reason why I couldn’t grow into it. The property’s seventy eight hectares lies at the back of the local town, stretching from muddy riverside to the kind of wild Galloway moss that makes my spine tingle. I could picture my cows in there, and my enthusiasm grew as we picked our way through steeply corrugated folds of granite, heather and bog myrtle. It would be perfect for galloway cattle, and the better ground would be ideal for silage in the summer.

The farm has been leased in a series of seasonal grass lets for several years. Short-term contracts soon ruin a place like this, and without anyone taking responsibility for the ground, it is falling apart. The fences are loose and rusted, and the dykes are crumbling down. Birch scrub is encroaching dramatically, and it will soon reach a point at which it will be reclassified from farmland into woodland. This transition has created an amazing opportunity for a longer term tenant to come in and take the place in hand, producing slow-grown beef at a low intensity and in line with conservation goals. I’ve seen nightjars displaying on the moss, and black grouse aren’t far away. As much as it would be a financial stretch for me to justify the initial outlay, I felt that I had a strong case to convince the Forestry’s agricultural agents that I was the man for the job.

The lease was advertised as a six month grass let from April, but my friend and I both felt certain that a longer term arrangement could be made for the right candidate. We drew up grand plans for bracken control, ditch blocking and riverside planting, getting carried away with the limitless possibilities on offer. Everything was set for the application to go in when we heard that the Forestry Commission really did intend to let the property for six months on account of the fact that a good portion of the site is going to be planted with trees this autumn. My friend and I had missed the point. Rather than seeking out a longer term tenant, the foresters were advertising one final hurrah; one last chance to hammer the place with livestock before it vanishes under trees. With a groan of disappointment, we binned our application. Six months is no use to me, and I actually wonder how a short lease on this ground would really suit any “New Entrant” in a similar position to my own.

Perhaps this article reads like sour grapes, but the situation raises some real concerns about the gradual loss of this kind of ground which go over and above the specifics of Aucheninnes. Rough moss country is not beautiful or spectacular and it has never been truly loved. Nobody mourns its loss when the foresters come, but every disappearance is another nail in the coffin for the old countryside. The accumulative impact of losing countless small pieces of ground like Aucheninnes might be dire, and yet nobody seems to consider it.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association commissioned a really good document in 2014 entitled A Future for Moorland in Scotland which, in a world of “forest expansion” tried to present a strategy for the simple (if rather contrary) idea of “moorland retention”. Perhaps it is inevitable that the document was either ignored or dismissed out of hand by most mainstream conservationists because it didn’t fit the determined belief that “trees are always good”, but it raised some really good ideas about our changing landscape.

As land uses intensify both uphill and downhill, there is a rapidly shrinking middle ground between them. In Galloway, this manifests itself as moss moorland, but it could equally be marsh, merse or alder carr depending on where you are in the country. Fifty years ago, nobody thought twice about this kind of ground – we called it “wasteland” – but we’ve been destroying it at such a rate that much of it has simply vanished.

When Aucheninnes is planted in the autumn, the ground will be permanently, irretrievably altered, and some valuable habitats will vanish forever. Perhaps what we need is a strategic look at these kind of murky borders – the birchy bogs where snipe buzz and woodcock rode. They may not draw the crowds, but they have an enormous accumulative value running in a patchwork between spruce trees and silage plains. Without any recognition of their value or a cohesive plan for their protection, we may suddenly wake up in ten years time and find that they’re all gone.


Blog updated 15:59 to reflect comments from Robin Waddell re: forest management plan, which can be found here

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A roe doe at Aucheninnes this evening. Hard to overstate what a fine place it is.

Spring Riggits

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Weathered the storm

It was extremely satisfying to spend some time with the cattle this morning under beautiful blue skies and the ringing cheer of birdsong. Usually I just rush up, spread their hay and check that all is well before dashing back to work again, so it was nice to share the field with them for a few minutes.

I hadn’t realised that a significant element of keeping livestock is in building personal relationships with the animals – this develops into a swell of pride and pleasure when they turn out in good heart and healthy condition. This has not been a hard winter by any stretch of the imagination, but it has held some foul days of miserable weather. We’ve been through it together, and at the risk of being sentimental, there is a pleasing glow of satisfaction at seeing them come through the other side and into the first throes of spring. They will soon find so much fresh grass that they will ignore my hay, and from that point on, the living should be easy.

Eye to Eye

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A close encounter

I made an early start this morning in an effort to reconnoiter the black grouse situation after last night’s exciting discoveries on the moss. I paused the car several times along the hill road, expectantly hoping to hear that joyous wobbling note through the semi-darkness, but the ground was cold and even the curlews had wound their necks in.

One of the most promising sites for blackcock is by the roadside on the final approach to the farm, and I was quietly disappointed to find it empty this morning. As I slowed down to a stop, I looked up to the roadside telegraph pole and found its bare summit occupied by a buzzard and two crows. It’s sensible to adjust your radar settings to assume that all large, speckled raptors are buzzards, and I remember thinking quite clearly; “that buzzard looks very like a goshawk”. The hair stood up on my head as the brown bird turned and fixed me with a pair of glaring, spiteful eyes, then coursed away like a torpedo on stiff, clipped wingbeats. I was stunned – my experience of wild goshawks is based on half-seen flickers of movement and the distant speck of displaying birds – this was an up-close and personal encounter in which every quirk and fleck of plumage was almost within arm’s reach. I recalled the advice handed out to all new birdwatchers – although it’s tempting to assume that the bird standing on the top of the telegraph pole is an eagle or a goshawk, it is almost certainly a buzzard. This was the exception which baffled the rule, and it was immediately obvious why the blackcock were absent.

The two crows which had been sitting beside the hawk took off in brisk pursuit, and I questioned their sanity as they dive-bombed the retreating shape. Once or twice the hawk flicked over on its side to see off the crows, but they seemed to know that they weren’t in any real danger. This seemed to represent an odd quirk of animal behaviour which is often observed but seldom commented upon – prey species seem to know when their predators are “on duty”, and it’s bizarre to see rabbits grazing peacefully within easy reach of foxes when the hunters are simply passing by. I took some (by my standards) great photographs of a peregrine standing in an ocean of grazing wigeon last winter – the peregrine had missed his mark and was just idly passing a cold winter’s day on the grass, surrounded by his prey who hardly seemed to bat an eyelid.

The goshawk vanished into the distant forestry after a direct, brutally swift flight over open country, and the crows seemed to lose interest almost immediately, scarcely acknowledging the fact that they had been flying within inches of their angel of death.

It was a quiet morning on the hill, dominated by larks and pipits. Skeins of greylags flew low over the frosty moss, and I was thrilled to find a favourite old blackcock still displaying on his favourite stance by the calving fields. This bird has displayed on the same few acres of ground for the past four consecutive springs, and I had to admire his resilience and loyalty. I also couldn’t resist a quiet shudder at the prospect of this old boy coming head to head with a hawk. Even as I type this, a friend on social media has been in touch to tell me that the Russian name for the goshawk is ястреб-тетеревятник, (pronounced “yastreb-teterevyatnik”) which translates as ‘black grouse hawk’ – the link between the two species is strong all across Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and there is no doubt that it is a fascinating connection – I just wish we had a few more black grouse to keep the relationship in balance.