Coun­try Diary

De­spite warm weather at the end of May, this year’s late spring has had a dire ef­fect on game birds and the in­sects they rely on for food

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This spring has been the poor­est any­one can re­mem­ber in Gal­loway. Even the first days of May were raked with an icy breeze that brought frost and sleet to the high ground. Many of the first lambs were born into a freez­ing world with­out shel­ter or sun­shine. Our hardy Gal­loway cat­tle were un­fazed by the wind, but it cost me a small for­tune to keep them fed while we waited for the grass to start grow­ing. A series of un­for­tu­nate events with the bull last July meant that we are a month be­hind with calv­ing but, given the aw­ful weather, it is a re­lief that the calves are un­born. Hope­fully, the sum­mer will have picked up by the time they make their ap­pear­ance.

The cold weather had a strange ef­fect on the mi­grant birds and many were late to ar­rive this year. A few swal­lows passed through on 5 April but they had soon gone again and they did not re­turn to set­tle un­til the end of the month. Many of the small war­blers that ar­rive in mid-april were ab­sent un­til the start of May and the gen­eral im­pres­sion is that we are al­most three weeks be­hind a “nor­mal” year.

Sub­dued

We are usu­ally in­fested with whitethroats and black­caps through­out the spring, but many have failed to ar­rive and the few de­ter­mined breeders are strangely sub­dued. I hear that birds are even more de­layed in the east.

Con­stant cold con­di­tions held up the sur­veys I usu­ally carry out for black­grouse in April. The birds are eas­ily put off by cold winds and, of all species, de­pend upon a good flush of bog cot­ton shoots to kick­start the spring. Bog cot­ton emerged in Fe­bru­ary but it has been slow to make progress and the grouse have been sorely de­layed. This may go on to play a ma­jor role in how the shoot­ing sea­son plays out in due course.

We only have a few black­grouse in Gal­loway and most of the male birds dis­play on their own in far-flung, awk­ward places. Th­ese lon­ers lack the ar­ro­gant en­thu­si­asm of birds in north­ern Eng­land and An­gus and they are eas­ily dis­cour­aged by poor weather. I must ad­mit that I am also dis­cour­aged by poor weather; it is hard to jus­tify a 4am start to hike through deep heather for sev­eral miles on the off chance that a bird will be dis­play­ing. It is al­ways bet­ter to wait for good con­di­tions and be sure of find­ing your lek, than risk­ing a bad morn­ing and hav­ing to go back later.

The cold weather was fol­lowed by a few weeks of ex­treme dry­ness, which has stayed with us. The mud is cracked and crum­bling and, while the heat has fi­nally come, growth and progress is now be­ing held back by drought. This has mas­sive knock-on ef­fects for the waders on our hill and many have thrown in the towel.

Prob­ing birds de­pend upon wet, mushy con­di­tions and they sim­ply can­not sur­vive when the ground is hard. We usu­ally have be­tween 20 and 30 pairs of breed­ing snipe on our hill ground but, de­spite a good start to the year, th­ese num­bers have col­lapsed over the past fort­night. You can still hear one or two of the males drum­ming in the dis­tance, but the over­all im­pres­sion is that they have given up and gone else­where.

Many of our curlew were put off nest­ing by the cold but a few were de­ter­mined enough to try lay­ing a clutch. Th­ese nests were all raided by foxes and crows, and I’m sure this was re­lated to the amount of grass and cover avail­able in early May. A late spring re­duces the amount of nest­ing cover and makes eggs hor­ri­bly easy to find, but I was re­as­sured by the fact that sec­ond at­tempts are usu­ally more suc­cess­ful. Un­for­tu­nately the grass has still not grown, the wet bog holes are hor­ri­bly dry and the curlew seem to have given up.

I only know of one pair that has raised chicks this year but I don’t hold out high hopes for them. Cold and dry con­di­tions have se­ri­ously re­duced the num­ber of in­sects avail­able for the chicks, which may be a wor­ry­ing sign for the grouse as well. It is no­tice­able that, as I write this in late May, I am yet to re­ceive my first midge bite of the year. So much of the sum­mer’s suc­cess de­pends upon in­sects and in­ver­te­brates, and it is hard to build progress with­out them. It is still early to tell how the sum­mer will look but things could hardly have got off to a worse start in south­ern Scot­land.

“A late spring re­duces the nest­ing cover and makes the eggs hor­ri­bly easy to find”

Pa­trick Lau­rie is a project man­ager at the Heather Trust. He has a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on black­grouse con­ser­va­tion and farms Gal­loway cat­tle in south-west Scot­land.

Many curlew were put off nest­ing be­cause of the cold weather

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