Simon Lester's gamekeeping diary

October 2011

OCTOBER has been so warm and wet that the moor is one large bog.

With the continued ‘dreich’ weather putting paid to any burning of Molinia or heather, I thought we’d better start cutting around the sprayed-off plots so that these areas remain distinct from the untreated ones; and, when that was done, to start cutting some of the plots that we spayed off last year. I measured out one-hectare plots within the sites in order to work out the cost of getting in a contractor with a tractor to do this for us. All was going well until, once again, the tractor got stuck, so now we can’t even cut until it dries up.

One bird that is doing well in these conditions, however, is the secretive snipe, which appears to be abundant here this year; the patches of tiny stab holes in the soft ground—created by their long beaks as they probe for worms and insect larvae—are testament to the intensity at which they must feed. When disturbed from their daytime hiding places, their swift departure is marked by a strange 'scaap' alarm call and their evasive, jinking flight. The fieldfares and redwings have returned in good numbers, too, and are already feasting on a bountiful crop of hawthorn berries. It is also pleasing to hear and see the odd wren back on the hill; when I first came here nearly four years ago, they were quite common and we thought nothing of seeing their old nests while we’re were out heather burning.

There is good and bad news as far as our satellite-tagged hen harriers are concerned. The ever-intrepid McPedro is certainly heading to France, across the channel from Devon. The sad news is that the hen that hatched in the nest just behind our house — and that I fed for some 60 days — has disappeared in the Moorfoots, having survived well in a relatively small range. The last ‘fix’ (or GPS position transmitted by its satellite tag) was on a shooting estate that co-operated fully when Project staff and the police tried, unsuccessfully, to recover the missing bird. Unfortunately, this bird’s particular satellite tag does not have a ‘ground track’ facility, so it may well have ended up miles away from the last transmitted ‘fix’, as, contrary to popular belief, birds can travel a vast distance in between transmissions. This latest loss is very sad, not just for the Project and our hope that more hen harriers will return to breed here, but is not helpful in our quest to help resolve the on-going raptor/grouse-shooting debate, either.

On a more positive note, we were pleased to welcome Stewart Stevenson MSP, the new Minister for the Environment & Climate Change in Scotland, to Langholm at the end of the month. It is always good to get policy-makers out on to the moor to give them a glimpse of what really happens here and to see how all our management techniques mould together to make the uplands tick and maintain biodiversity. We have many successes to tell the Minister about but, as keepers, we are still hoping to add the shooting of grouse to these achievements, as this is the key driver of all our work and gains so far.

Simon Lester - Lorne Gill