Roe deer and rabbits

 

The unfortunate rabbit with myxomatosis

 It’s been quite a busy week. I was putting the final touches to my new book, Wildlife and the Law, after suggestions from the editor and publisher. It should be with the printer before the end of October and – hopefully – in print by mid- November.

As part of my part-time role with the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit I’d a meeting at the Perth offices of Scottish Natural Heritage on Tuesday to discuss some issues of the forthcoming general licences that allow derogation from the law for certain activities, for instance the removal of un-hatched birds’ eggs from nest boxes after the end of the breeding season, and the control of certain pest species of birds. I hate birds such as carrion crows and gulls described as ‘vermin’, which brings to mind beasties crawling through your hair. They are simply birds whose natural way of life doesn’t suit everyone.

With too much sitting around in the early part of the week I had a walk on Friday; a lovely autumn day with plenty sunshine and a temperature that was just ideal for walking. My venue was a favourite estate in north Perthshire which I will not identify, but is renowned for its partridge shooting. It is different from many sporting estate in that the landowner and gamekeeper and conservationists and like nothing better than seeing a great variety of species on the estate, predators and prey alike. Many of the trees were now completely bare of leaves: trees such as the birch and rowan. Some had lost half of their leaves: the beech and larch, but the oaks and some of the ash trees still had a good coating of leaves, albeit more brown than green. The bracken had completely died off and, though by far from being my favourite plant, I can reluctantly describe it as a lovely rich golden brown.  Though the sun was out, it was low in the sky, limiting my view of any birds that may have been to the south – then later in the day, the south-west.

I began my walk in the junipers of Brodie’s Moor, which is getting to be one of my favourite parts of the estate as the habitat is superb for wildlife. This is an area primarily of juniper, but also of birch (some of which are ancient, gnarled and full of holes that make great nesting and roosting places for birds), some alder and a sprinkling of beech and oak. Part of Brodie’s Moor is bog: perfect for wading birds and ducks.

I picked my way through a muddy track where there was a break in the drystone dyke, the entrance to the junipers I find easiest. Once inside the dyke, the junipers lie to the left, and a mature oak woodland named Ranent (that I’ve still to explore), lay ahead and to the right. My entrance disturbed a lone woodcock that had been feeding under the oaks and it flew towards Ranent. I suspected this would be a resident bird as I doubt the main ‘fall’ of woodcock (the collective term for the large number of migrants that appear here once the weather in the Baltic countries gets colder) had arrived yet.  Woodcock just look like medium-sized brown birds as they fly off. In fact when seen close up they are the most beautiful dark brown, light brown, buff and cream-coloured birds, with huge inky-black eyes and a long beak, held downwards when in flight as opposed to the heron’s beak which it holds arrow-like in front of it, almost pointing the way ahead. If a woodcock sits tight on a carpet of leaves or bracken it is almost invisible, such is its camouflage.

I made my way through the junipers, disturbing dozens of rabbits that had been lazing in the sun. I watched one old buck rabbit chase a smaller one, probably a younger buck, out of its territory. It was a half-hearted pursuit, but in the early spring, when the rabbits begin to breed, bucks further down the pecking order can sustain severe injuries from bites and even scratches. The old buck sat a while, its large round head betraying its gender, as opposed to the slightly slimmer heads and more pointed snouts of does.  It seemed to be on guard duty, checking to see if there might be any other intruders, but the most dangerous intruder, me, caused it to scamper off into the juniper bushes as I continued my walk. There were few birds visible in this area today, though I heard birds in the oaks, probably chaffinches, but could see none of them.

I crossed the dyke out of Brodie’s Moor and headed up the hill past the keeper’s hens, which he keeps in an enclosure at the edge of a small wood. I took a left then right after the hen run, which took me into a grass field, where I watched a roe deer feeding on the woodland side of the fence. Its back end was towards me, with the anal tush (sometimes mistaken as a tail) clearly identifying it as a doe, as this is absent in the buck. The doe walked off a few steps and I wasn’t convinced it was in the best of health.  It took another two or three steps, taking it out of sight, so I tried to catch up with it. This cat and mouse game went on for five minutes, with me gradually getting closer, but before I got a really good look at it the doe winded me and ran off.  Hopefully I had been wrong about its state of health, but it just seemed to lack a healthy sheen to its coat.

I moved left handed making for the wood known as Bericky, which lies above a series of duck ponds. Three wee rabbits scampered into a burrow and I had to remind myself it was the end of October. They looked less than eight weeks old and would be lucky to survive the winter. A thrush-like bird landed on a small tree 100 yards away and I was almost sure it was a redwing, but there were too many branches obscuring my vision and before I made a positive sighting it had gone. Damn! I crossed a fence into the next field and sat on some rocks at the fence-side to have my sandwiches on boiled ham. I had a great view down over the ponds, though they were devoid of ducks today, just as the sheep field was empty of sheep and their normal field mates, lapwings and starlings.  I was surprised at the absence of lapwings as there had been no frost and I doubted the food supply would have reduced that quickly with the sheep just having been moved. The absence of sheep gave me a better view of the rabbits in the field: one outside nearly every burrow. They were smallish burrows but I wondered why there were no pairs. I was sure there would be at least one other rabbit in each burrow, but they had obviously decided to stay in the dark rather than sunbathe.

Having dined, I moved on up the fence on the west side of Bericky. The wood named Bericky runs uphill from south to north, has oaks at the bottom end, spruces in the east and larches and Douglas firs on the west and at the top. This is a wood I had never been in as earlier it held a large number of pheasant poults, which I didn’t want to disturb. They had been released from the pen for well over two months, were now adult and were scattered throughout the wood and beyond, so my entry and quiet walk would cause no problems.  I walked along the grassy ride inside the wood till I came to a crossroads.  A bird landed on a spruce tree near to me and I saw it was a coal tit. This spruce had a dozen or so cones, hanging upside down, and the bird was pecking at the seeds inside. It was joined by a mate and the two were having a good feed in the way typical of coal tits in that they take a morsel, fly off to eat or to hide it, and come back for more.  Coal tits are dainty wee birds, smaller than blue tits and with a similar yellow breast, but with grey rather than blue wings. Their head is black, with white cheeks and a broad white stripe running lengthways on the back of its head.  They certainly had a good feed over the ten minutes I watched them. I was impressed with this new wood, and wondered if it might hold some crossbills. I could see none just now but when they are much more vocal in spring I might have a better chance.

As I came out of the wood I saw a pair of buzzards and a pair of red kites circling over Fank Wood, the adjacent wood to the west. This was the direction I was heading and the kites circled closer to me as if to have a better look.  It is great that these birds of prey, having been wiped out in Scotland in the past by uncontrolled gamekeepers and their lairds, are making a comeback after a series of reintroductions, the closest to this estate being at Doune in west Perthshire.   As I passed a pile of boulders near the edge of the field below Fank Wood I saw a rabbit sitting there in the advanced stages of myxy. It really is a horrible disease. Cream-coloured pus was running from its unseeing eyes and the base of its ears were swollen. It looked absolutely miserable and was probably in extreme pain. It flicked its head as a fly landed on its eyes, just before my stick found its mark and ended its suffering. I left it on the grass where it would be food for the kites. At least its premature death would not be in vain.

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