My blogs have been scarce over the past year as I’ve been extremely busy with other writings. Now that things are a bit quieter I’ll try to make up some ground on the blog front. My first is part of a chapter of my latest book Walking with Wildlife: a year on a Scottish Estate. This book is selling well but mainly in Scotland. Though the book details a series of walks on a Scottish estate over the course of a year the estate could in fact have been anywhere in the UK. What I have tried to bring out in the book is that the estate has a fantastic mix of habitat – agricultural land, permanent grassland, mixed woodland, some mature coniferous woodland, ponds, marshes, lochs and a river. The mix of habitat is what allows the estate to have such a quantity and variety of wildlife. Most importantly it is well-run and, with my previous background in policing, I was confident that I was not going to encounter any illegal activity.
I walked through a field of quietly-grazing sheep towards Milton Den, following the line of yet another new hawthorn hedge. Behind the hedge and running along its length was a strip of game/wild bird crop about 30 yards wide. I scanned the crop for small birds but only saw a small group of goldfinches feeding on some teazels near the hedge. The mix of flowers, grains and vegetables is a real source of winter food for a variety of birds but as yet, in this year of unusual bounty, there is an abundance of seeds, berries and insects for birds everywhere.
Seven or eight rooks were feeding near the bottom of the grass field, no doubt gorging on invertebrates attracted by the sheep dung. They were joined by a further three which flew over from a harvested barley field at the other side of the den. When looking at the crow family from a distance a rough guide is that a large number of black birds are normally rooks, while pairs and single black birds are normally carrion crows. Far better though is to look at the wing beats if the birds are in flight. Carrion crows have a much slower, almost lazy, wingbeat as if there is no rush to reach their destination, while rooks are more business-like and beat their wings faster. While I was meditating these differences a pair of carrion crows flew into the west end of Mlilton Den and landed on a tree near a small pond. When they landed they flicked their wings a couple of times, which is typical of carrion crows and is yet another identifying feature. I’m surprised this was my first sighting of these ubiquitous corvids.
I sat on the edge of a water trough to view the scene and to have a drink of water – no, not from the trough! There is a great mix of trees, bushes, rushes and rough grass in the den, plus the pond and the burn which feeds into it, all of which create an exceptional habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. The hawthorn hedge and game/wild bird crop provide a wildlife corridor from the south, a strip of trees provides a corridor to the woodland to the north, and similarly a strip of trees does likewise to the west. I’d forgotten what a fantastic estate Dupplin is, and of course it’s even better now with the various new hedgerows and trees. As I sat there I thought I heard a single prukk from a raven. I listened for further sounds to confirm but all was quiet. Frustrating.
I walked along the south side of the den which, like almost all the woodlands, is now netted. The short grass which I remembered inside the fence has now been replaced by much longer and courser grass and yet again I lamented the absence of rabbits. As a farmer would do while studying his relaxed and ruminating beef cattle, the growth on his Texel cross lambs or the readiness of a field of barley to harvest, I leaned over a gate that led to a track cutting across the den giving access to farm vehicles. Almost immediately a roe doe, in resplendent summer coat of foxy red stepped daintily out of some bushes and surveyed her surroundings. I doubted that she would see me as I was motionless and to a degree blended in with the gate. There was little wind but it blew from the south east from me towards the deer. She lifted her head, looked in my direction, clearly got my scent and retreated, albeit without panic, back into the bushes. She looked a yearling, which is possibly why there was no fawn or fawns alongside.
Suddenly three young pheasants about 100 yards from me jumped in the air and began to cuck, cuck, cuck in alarm. I thought they’d been spooked by a fox but seconds later a female sparrowhawk landed in a small rowan tree just in front of me. She had lovely slate-grey and white bars on her breast and leg feathers and was close enough that I could see her yellow, piercing, eye. She had most likely flown low over the pheasants, as hunting sparrowhawks do, and was unseen by me until she landed. I slowly reached into my pocket for the camera but the sparrowhawk, much persecuted for centuries and in fact the last of the raptors to be protected by law, was having none of it and flew off to the other side of the den. The pheasants, still alarmed by the sudden appearance of this stealthy predator, continued to cuck cuck cuck for some time after it had gone. Even the much smaller male sparrowhawk has the same effect on my domestic ducks at home: they often dive into the pond if a sparrowhawk flies over and quack in alarm, often for a good 15 minutes afterwards.
Amazingly the next birds I saw were much bigger versions of the sparrowhawk: goshawks. I had walked further westwards along the den and was sitting on a stile having a sandwich when three birds appeared in the air above the den and a quarter of a mile further west. I thought of the oft-quoted tale about buses: you wait for ages for one and then three come along at the same time. So it was with the goshawks, with the last one I’d seen being around seven years earlier. They are normally pretty secretive birds, mostly keeping to woodlands where they hunt small mammals and birds up to the size of an adult pheasant. In the springtime they display with an undulating skydance above their woodland nest site but what I was being treated to today was, I am sure, a form of training.
Of the three, one was much larger and clearly a female. The other two were male. I suspected they may have been this year’s youngsters though – maybe less likely – could have been the female’s partner plus one youngster. Unfortunately they were just out of the range needed to make this differentiation. The three were diving at each other in mock aggression, with the main player being the female. They were probably about 150 yards high and at one point the female closed her wings and plummeted towards the ground in a stoop that would have done credit to a peregrine. She rose again and this mock sky battle continued for at least five minutes until they were lost to my view behind trees. It was interesting to note their underwing colour, which was much lighter and much more even than that of buzzards – birds of a similar size, and which normally have dark and light patches under their wings. The goshawks’ wings were broad and short, which facilitates their fantastic manoeuvrability through the narrowest gaps in trees in their more usual environment: woodlands.
This was a fantastic display by top avian predators. I thought of the prey species in the den underneath the trio of raptors and wondered how they were reacting. All was quiet and I suspect the pheasants had hidden out of sight. Rabbits would have been perfect prey for the goshawk family but I doubt they would have any better luck than me in locating one. I spoke later to Stewart the keeper, who told me that the goshawks had ‘knocked hell’ out of 100 young mallard ducks he had released on to a pond in the den. There were no ducks on the pond when I had passed it but I saw the survivors of the 100 later bathing in a large puddle on one of the farm tracks near the den. Only around 25 remained. The difficulty of course with having supermarket-scale numbers of prey species is that they attract higher than normal predator numbers.
Walking with Wildlife: a Year on a Scottish Estate. £15 plus £2 P&P. For a signed copy contact me at email@example.com