Sunday 24 February 2019

An encounter with elderly pines and black grouse

Some few thousands of years after the end of the last ice age (10,000 bp) a great wood extended across Scotland from the valleys of the Cairngorm plateau to glens of Lochaber in the west. The climate was warmer and drier, soils were better drained and less acid. Pine trees thrived.

Trees of many ages and open spaces
As the current inter-glacial period progressed precipitation increased, soils became more acid and peat began to form. The pines retreated, neolithic farmers used fire and stone then iron axes to clear the forest. More recently two world wars took more of the pines.

Today we have about ninety remnants of the great wood scattered from Glen Nevis and Ardgour in the west to Glen Tanar in the eastern Cairngorms. Among the biggest and the best remnants are Rothiemurchus and Abernethy where I've been today. This a favourite walk of mine from Loch Morlich over the pass of Ryvoan to the valley of the river Spey it's an encounter with the, "Great Wood" it's trees, shrubs , birds and some of it's mammals, no wolves or lynx unfortunately.

Huge, gnarled ,elderly heavy limbed  "Granny Pines" 300 - 400 years old and their offspring of many ages predominate mixed with birch and alder in the wetter places. In the absence of sheep and with  deer control the forest seems to be self-sustaining, a microcosm of the Great Wood.

Loch an Uaine (The green loch)

Apart from this encounter with the old trees I had a second reason to visit. I wanted to see if a black grouse lekking site that I first discovered about twelve years ago was still in use.Black grouse are very loyal to these places.

The grass was short and green, beaten down and fertilised by the grouse. I found black body feathers in the longer grass to windward and grouse scat on the ground. The site is still in use between dusk and dawn.

Black grouse conservation in the Alps

Friday 22 February 2019

Woodland free range eggs

The earliest ancestors of my hens were domesticated in S.E.Asia over 5,000 years ago, these Red Jungle fowl lived in the jungle undergrowth and woody scrub that provided food, shade and shelter. Watch your hens and you will see many behaviours that originated in woodland.

Woodland hens in the new plantation
Under summer sun and heat mine head straight for the hazel scrub on the hillside where they dust bathe, feed, socialise and occasionally roost. Despite the 5,000 years of domestication they still seem to prefer their ancestral habitat to climate controlled intensive housing. One tenet of the poultry welfare code is that they should be able to exhibit, "natural behaviour" access to woodland must surely provide for this; shelter, shade, food, water (my hens prefer to drink from puddles rather than metal or plastic drinkers).

In 2018 the last of my sheep were sold. They were becoming heavier and stronger as I got older and of course I could not see a profitable future for upland sheep after we leave the European Union. The hens stayed and this year there will be more of them. Some of the sheep pasture has already been planted with a mixture of native broad leaved species and Arran the highland pony grazes the in-bye field. Marketed as "Woodland Eggs" they must be even more attractive to visitors.

At the moment there is only tree cover from the hedgerow trees and hazel scrub, it will be some time before the former pasture becomes woodland, but there are environmental benefits; carbon sequestration, control of  water run off, increased biodiversity and wildlife habitat.

Thursday 21 February 2019

Pine martens kill and eat red squirrels too!

Many thanks to those of you who voted in support of the Coquetdale Red Squirrel Group funding bid with the AVIVA Community Fund ( 25/10/ 2018). Your votes got us through to the final but we failed to win the £10,000 needed.

Feedback from the AVIVA judging panel said that the project was innovative and well presented. However it was too short ( 6 months) there were concerns over sustainability and ability to measure the impact. The proposals did not impact people and community directly! This is fair enough it is a "Community Fund" after all and AVIVA kindly gave us a £500 consolation prize. What next?

It looks as if we need to learn about crowd funding and appeal directly to the public with social media as there is the possibility of an apprentice scheme.  the Cumbria Wildlife Trust have two apprentices currently working on red squirrel conservation; doing surveys, data handling etc., this may be a possibility for the future.

In the meantime you may be interested in more stuff on red squirrels and the impact of pine martens in habitats where they co-exist. I may be guilty of over optimism about the positive effect of pine marten predation on grey squirrel populations where reds and greys coexist.

Some recent research indicates that pine martens eat quite a lot of red squirrels can make up 50% of their winter diet in some areas.  see this link..........Why the pine marten is not every red squirrel's best friend               

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Funeral pyres of unsaleable sheep ?

In December 2017 the total number of breeding sheep in the UK was 14.7 million plus 18.6 million other sheep; wether lambs, hoggs, non-breeding ewes and rams. UK farm livestock numbers Dec. 2017
December is when our sheep population is at it's lowest.

"Peak sheep" June 2019
Lambing begins in January and gathers momentum through late Winter and Spring reaching peak sheep population in June.

In June 2018, two months after we leave the European Union there will be between 34 and 35 million sheep in the UK. We are likely to face tariffs on sheep meat exports to the EU which currently takes 94% of sheep meat exports tariff free. There could be some millions of surplus unsaleable sheep running about this summer.Prospects for UK beef and sheep after Brexit

If we have 5 million surplus ewes after March 2019 ( see the link above) what is going to happen to them? Abattoirs are already booked for weeks ahead, domestic sheep meat consumption has been declining steadily for 50 years; the prospects for sheep farmers are grim. There's a possibility we could see the army in action and funeral pyres like those during the Foot and Mouth disease epidemic 18 years ago.

Bear in mind that this will be just one aspect of the economic self-harm inflicted by a "no-deal" exit from the EU.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Crispy squirrel with cauliflower and capers at the Roadkill Cafe.

If you have been paying attention you will know that we had a dinner in a "pop-up" restaurant in my workshop (Cafe Atelier) back in October.  Demand for another impromptu meal means that another is on the cards perhaps a, "Post- Brexit Apocalypse Dinner" on 30th March the day after Britain leaves the European Union. It should be an opportunity to get used to being a bunch of poverty stricken barbarians on the edge of the N. Atlantic once more. So this time it could be dinner at the,"Roadkill Cafe".

An alien invasive "crispy"species
Last week I was given three plump grey squirrels which had been humanely trapped and  dispatched by the Coquetdale Red Squirrel Group. Unfortunately I forgot them, they are still in Janet's freezer. Not to worry I have found some recipes for squirrel in Gil Meller's book on foraging and cooking, "Gather" . Crispy squirrel with cauliflower and capers would make an excellent entree.

My other choices for the menu; rabbit, pheasant and pigeon are relatively easy to find but the dessert should be "poverty food" such as coarse oatmeal with boiling water poured on to it. This is "brose" a rather unpleasant peasant breakfast in rural Scotland 50 years ago.

We will need a few malts of course to toast our totally incompetent and dysfunctional Prime Minister, the anarchist  Leader of the Opposition and the idiotic, sad, angry old men of the Conservative Party who got us into this mess.