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Archive for September, 2009

Ray Colliers Country Diary – Red Grouse

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Red Grouse – 14th September 2009

Adult red grouse have a reddish brown and mottled plumage with a white stripe on the under wing. The males having a red wattle above the eyes and redder plumage than the female. The birds are plump with a small head, a slightly hooked beak and a short black tail. The birds often look as thought they are hunched up but if disturbed by anything then the neck is extended. The legs and feet are covered in whitish feathers which often give the birds away when they are on bare ground or on low growing plants. Their favourite type of ground is heather moorland on which they are very well camouflaged. Often the first sign of the birds presence is when they fly up fast and direct on short stubby wings. The flight alternates between whirring wingbeats and long glides on downward curved wings. Their famous loud and gruff call has been likened to ‘go-back, go-back, go-back’. During the breeding season the birds are territorial but there are family parties from July and then several families may join together for the winter. In bad winters flocks of over 100 birds, sometimes more, have been seen. The name grouse is linked with the drink of that name but it nearly had another famous reputation. Several years ago when there was a U.K. poll on which should be the bird of Britain and the red grouse was put forward on the basis that it was, wrongly, an endemic bird . Perhaps it is just as well the robin won.

The birds breed throughout the Highlands and Islands where extensive heather moorland is present although they can be found on upland bogs and rough grazing. The number of birds is related to how well the heather is managed in terms of careful burning known as ‘muirburn’. The balance between short heather with fresh shoots and lots of insects for the chicks and long heather as cover against predators is an art in itself. There are codes of conduct for muirburn with legislation restricting the time of year, generally in the winter, when it can be implemented. Unlike other game birds such as pheasants and partridges, red grouse cannot be reared in any numbers. The adults fall prey to both golden eagle and peregrine falcon but it is another bird of prey that has, in recent years, caused a furore in the bird/sporting world. The blame for lack of success on some grouse moors has been laid squarely at the door of the hen harrier who is reputed to take so many young grouse that it adversely affects the numbers. There are many tales of hen harriers being shot and eggs and chicks crushed underfoot. One alternative method to this is to supply the harriers with food and on one estate dead rats were put out but the jury is still out on the success or otherwise of this food for free.

The marked variation in numbers of birds each year has long been a talking point particularly as grouse shooting, beginning on 12th August, is a multi-million pound business. However well heather moorland is managed there are still poor and good years for the birds and this is likely to be due to parasites together with other factors such as weather. One of the main problems in the Highlands has been loss of heather moorland due to large scale planting, overgrazing by sheep and deer and uncontrolled fires. The decrease in the numbers of keepers has meant that some grouse moors have not been managed properly and predators such as foxes and crows have flourished.

Ray Colliers Country Diary – Violets

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Violets – 7th September 2009

The Forestry Commission Scotland has now added two butterflies to its forestry strategy and they join a list of other plants and animals. One of the butterflies is the pearl-bordered fritillary that is in trouble in many parts of Britain. This attractive woodland butterfly has become extinct in some counties in England since 1997 and may well be heading that way in Wales. In the Highlands the situation is unclear but the latest distribution maps show that a number of colonies have been lost in the east of the area since the surveys of 1980 to 1994. What the Forestry Commission will be doing is to positively manage areas of woodland for the butterflies. To assess how this can be done is to look at the requirements of the butterflies. To start with they need a food plant for the caterpillars and in the case of this fritillary it is mainly common dog violet, heath dog violet and, less commonly, the marsh violet.

The common and marsh violets are common throughout the Highlands with the marsh violet, as the name suggests, being found in wetter areas. The photograph is of common dog violet taken on a wall on the edge of birch woodland near Inverness. The heath dog violet is scattered in various parts and is absent from large areas. Then there is the food requirements of the adult butterflies and these are limited as it is the spring flowers they go for as a nectar source. At one time this butterfly was known as the April fritillary as it flew that early in the year. Then many years ago the calendar was put back by 11 days so it now flies in May and is on the wing now and up until very early in July. So the nectar sources are mainly early spring flowers such as bugle, dandelion, birds-foot trefoil and bluebell.

The nectar source and the food plants of the caterpillars may be present but they have to be in the right sort of conditions. This means that they have to be in sunlight and in sheltered situations. In the past this was achieved by common and widespread forestry practices that led to an abundance of woodland butterflies. Coppicing, mainly hazel to make sheep hurdles, and fencing, created glades where the spring flowers flourished and they were warm and sheltered. The same could be achieved by regular felling on fairly short cycles. Woodland rides were wide for access and these were sunny and sheltered. Such woodland practices have died out in many areas especially where conifer plantations took over.

All these aspects will have to be implemented and there is one addition that was not found in the old woodlands. Undulating margins in glades, rides and woodland margins can give small areas where the plants are present and at some time during a day the sunshine comes in and it is sheltered from the wind. Another important aspect is that where colonies occur there would ideally be “corridors” of suitable habitat so that there can be an exchange of butterflies from one colony to another. Once the females have laid their pale yellow eggs on the violet leaves it is just the start of a cycle fraught with problems such as predation. The caterpillars feed intermittently on dense flushes of violet seedlings or fresh leaves of older plants. During the winter the caterpillars hibernate in curled up leaves and then start feeding again in March before pupating under the leaves of the violets or on nearby plants. Where the appropriate management is implemented regular transect counts can be made to assess the success or otherwise.

Ray Colliers Country Diary – Bird Cherry

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Bird Cherry 31st August 2009

Bird cherries were spectacular earlier in the summer when the long, hanging bunches of small white flowers fill the air with an almond fragrance. Each of the flowers have petals 6-9mm long forming elongated crowded heads with up to 35 flowers and up to 15 cm long. The leaves are widest at the middle, rounded and narrowed towards each end and are light green with fine, regular teeth. The bark is smooth and dark greyish brown and has a strong, rather offensive smell. Like other cherries there are horizontal marks on the bark that is often peeled. Timber from the tree has a reddish brown heartwood and white sapwood. The cherries, called ‘hags’ in the Highlands are black , globe shaped and more or less round in cross section.

The trees are scattered through the Highlands but there are large gaps in such places as the flowe country of Sutherland and Caithness. It is not native to any of the Western or Northern Isles but has been planted in a few places. Bird cherry has been found much further north than the wild cherry and is found in moist woodland and scrub , sides of burns and shady, rocky places. They occur in a wide variety of soil types but avoid very dry areas and very acid conditions. It is a favourite in tree nurseries as it is relatively easy to grow and in the last two decades tens of thousands have been reared and planted in new and old woodland and gardens and parks. One feature of the tree is its ability to form dense thickets. In some areas the leaves are often eaten by so many small ermine moth caterpillars that the tree can appear leafless.

The tart taste of the cherry is due to its richness in tannin but birds seem to love them and trees may easily be stripped. One of the reasons birds like them is their small size at 7-8 mm in diameter so they can easily be swallowed by even small birds such as robins and warblers. Other birds are fond of them such as blackbird, song thrush and mistle thrush. In contrast the foliage is poisonous to stock, especially goats. Some years ago there was a rookery in a large dense mini woodland of bird cherry on the banks of the River Nairn just south of Inverness. The use of this type of tree by nesting rooks must have been unique but although the stand is still there the rooks were shot out.

In the old days there were medicinal uses for various parts of the tree such as the bark being used as a tonic and as a sedative for upset stomachs. At once time pieces of bark were hung outside doors and put into drinking water as a guard against plague. The tree is classed as common around Inverness and is characteristic of the river banks such as Glass, Conon, Carron and Alness plus others. John Miller in his “Trees of the Northern Highlands” mentions fine displays along the road from Ardgay to Croick and along the road to Glen Affric. There are a number of local names such as hag cherry, hawkberry or hag berry from the tree’s old Norse name “ heggr”. The Gaelic name is “Fiodhag”. Despite how widespread it is in the Highland it does not seem to have been used as one of the plant badges of the Clans. With its attractiveness, ease of growing and the early blossoms attracting so many insects, including butterflies, the future for the bird cherry seems assured.