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
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.
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