Early springtime is a very busy time, “fox dens would normally start in…the middle of April”. Lambing season and the month or so preceding is fox-time, and this is where sleep becomes a rare commodity – one or two hours a night is the norm. Mark’s wife, Mhairi, recently persuaded him to go on a break to Aviemore with his two children during this time. He spent the entirety in tortured insomnia, snatching glimpses of the Aviemore foxes enjoying free reign of the night. Any time spent away is more time that foxes can get to the lambs.
If not chasing a specific fox, Mark can be found hiding out near the forestry at the top end of the glen waiting for one, “…go up to the forestry, try and keep the foxes thinned out there because we’ve got the black game [grouse] up there”. Time is limited, though, and this is sadly infrequent. The rare black grouse are in decent health though and he has been seeing increasing numbers of greyhens (females) showing themselves at the time of writing (October). This is part of a successful local initiative to keep the black grouse population in the area at a healthy number.
When the pheasant poults arrive in early August, trapping starts in earnest, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this is the start of the time of year when newborn, young predators are being kicked out by their parents, so they are travelling, looking for new territory to occupy. Secondly, the sudden arrival of a large number of pheasants in the glen will create smells that will attract any wandering predator. Generally speaking, the fox population has been spoken for, but some mustelids (stoats, pine marten, weasels etcetera) will predate on the pheasants. Simply, Mark sees it as stealing from the owner on his watch; it is his job to prevent that.
Within the first week, a pine marten breaks into a pen overnight. To my untrained eye, nothing has happened. Mark quickly spots the feathers on the ground, and that the poults are behaving very unusually – they are avoiding one corner of the pen, and in that corner none of the feed has been eaten. A little more research reveals scratch marks above the fenceline on a tree, and we find stashed pheasant carcasses around the fence line. Mark considers the pine marten one of nature’s ultimate predators, “Everybody thinks, oh yes, your lions and that great predators, any of your mustelids, I think they are the most effective. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the spring pine marten will take out a roe fawn, they’ll lift them no bother…depending on the age, they’ll tackle them…if they were the size of a lion, it would be like hunting an elephant…so they’re like little ninjas.”
This particular pine marten was actually caught on this night, but managed to bend the structure of the cage trap, which is no mean feat. It is a matter of professional pride; this trap was promptly removed from service, never to be used again. Infuriatingly for Mark, this happened twice, and a good number of poults were killed, one found not far from the pen stored up a small tree (pictured). It was captured about three days later, “…very happy…it’s only killed about 12 pheasants, so that is £48. If those pheasants had survived and if it was a commercial shoot, each one of those pheasants would be worth £30, so that is £360 he killed in two visits, and he would have kept coming.” That particular pine marten was released 20 miles away, shortly, I imagine, to become another gamekeeper’s problem, (and I suppose to be promptly moved to another estate after…I’m left wondering where this one came from in the first place).
The pine marten was trapped and shot to near-extinction, whereupon it received protected status in 1981 in the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Reportedly, numbers have increased to healthier levels in recent years so they are a regular occurrence around game pens and chicken coops. Predator control, in terms of legislation, is something in constant flux, and public pressure has drastically altered the legislation involved.
Mark agrees that no one wants to return to the days of early 20th century predator control, and agrees with the legislation banning the more cruel traps, “your old gins [traps] would actually break the bone, a lot of pain and suffering on them”, but he is also a pragmatist, “if you want to see diversity of wildlife, all your different birds and animals, plants insects, you can’t have one sort of top predator just breeding out of control”. This is mainly directed at foxes. Dr Adam Smith of the GWCT agrees that predator control is closely linked to biodiversity, and refers to Scandinavia for illustration, “in the 1980s there was a massive outbreak of sarcoptic mange in foxes…suddenly the populations of black grouse, and capercaillie and mountain hare exploded across Scandinavia.” These are only game species, but it clearly shows the relationship between predation and the populations of prey species.
Legislation can be frustrating too; new and more humane traps can be really slow to be introduced into legality in Scotland. Snares are not really an issue for him; the stringent legislation means that snaring is all but impossible to do legally, so he avoids it altogether.
It would have been remiss of me not to ask about the recent buzzard debate - where DEFRA were proposing testing control of buzzard numbers, to great uproar from the public. Incidentally, there is a buzzard nest directly over one of the pens in the glen. It is a successful nest – with annually fledging chicks. Asking Mark if these were a concern and would he apply for a licence if allowed, he replied, “if they were causing a problem, yes…this year, no…they’re not causing a problem…the resident pair are targeting mice, voles, little birds even…you’ll see them down on the fields eating worms…they’ve never seen the pheasants as a food source”. He goes on to say that he is actually pleased they are there – while they are there, problem buzzards are far less likely to arrive. Aside from anything else, the problem buzzards are a rarity, but once again for him it is the principal of the issue - why can't he decide this for himself? Of course it is more complex than that and empowering gamekeepers with this would be a disaster for birds of prey, but I know that in Mark there would be one keeper that would welcome these buzzards over his pens regardless of legislation in place.
Many keepers have been shown to manage with a heavier hand, more often on grouse moors, as they have more of a conflict with predators. Hen harriers are particularly rare and flourish where there are a lot of red grouse, but are efficient caps on grouse numbers. In an ideal world, keepers would prefer they were not there, as it makes the ability to breed grouse for shooting much more difficult.
These heavier-handed keepers are of the ‘old-school’ variety and are increasingly rare today in Scotland, and those that do cross the law are occasionally prosecuted. A quick look at the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog (a good coverage of legal proceedings between some more emotive posts) will reveal any legal news and stories. Historically there has been a developing story of this. In fact, the raptor persecution situation in Scotland was considered so bad that in 1998 Donald Dewar, then Secretary of State for Scotland, famously called it a “national disgrace”.
Mark has no interest in this form of intense management, and there is common ground here between him and the RSPB (a surprise considering the ‘us and them’ sentiments). Ian Thompson, head wildlife crime investigator in Scotland, talks about one trapping violation that led to a buzzard, “starving to death…I mean that’s outrageous” because the keeper had not bothered returning to the trap to check it and release the non-target species. Some keepers are even helping the RSPB with their investigations, calling in with information on an off-the-record basis, “I think an increasing number of gamekeepers are fed up with some of the people in their industry really tarnishing the name of gamekeepers.” Dr Adam Smith agrees as well; “There are sloppy, casual, ill though-out conservation plans, and there is sloppy, ill-thought out, badly executed keepering; both should be condemned as they fail to serve a wider good and damage their own interests.”
Telling the difference is the tricky bit.
Much of the argument surrounding keepers is centred on grouse moors and the trapping methods used and choices made there to ensure grouse numbers. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, all predators were heavily controlled, as Mark tells me, “the 1800s is when, that was when all the persecutions were really happening, that’s when everything with a hooky beak, sharp tooth...were getting killed. First World War came, most of the young men who would have been keepers, they got sent away, got to France and that, most of them never came back...it picked up again after The War, a lot of trapping and that.” After World War 2 there was less incentive for intense game management and predator trapping and shooting, and numbers started to recover, only to be halted by the introduction of damaging pesticides.
Alongside heavy human pressure from trapping and habitat loss from a step-change in agricultural intensity, the pesticide DDT became responsible for serious declines in all predators - the chemical cannot be removed from the system and incrementally creeps up the food chain. It took Rachel Carson, in her book Silent Spring, to wake everyone up to the very real dangers of pesticides.
Oddly enough, otter hunters were the first to notice declining otter population, and they raised the alarm. Since the banning of DDT and the wholesale protection of otters, they started having much more success breeding. Mark is keen to point out that it was the hunters that were first to spot the problems at the time, “...a lot of it, it was your keepers...I mean your otters, the first we knew otters were in decline was because your otter hunters, who had been shooting for years, otters were getting harder and harder to find, they were killing less and less a year but nobody was listening and then finally a lot of people started noticing as well. They realised we’d hardly got any otters left, the population crashed, what’s causing that? They started looking...the same time your peregrine nests, your eagle nests, a lot of them were failing, sparrowhawks, kestrels, barn owls, everything like that, the numbers were just crashing, plummeting.”
After DDT was banned, numbers continued to fall, as the chemical was extremely hard to get rid of, but eventually they started to make a recovery, thanks to the ban and to protection laws, and apart from anything else, post world war two keeper numbers were a lot lower. At the time, there was no opposition to the new protection laws, but Mark tells me why, “The gamekeepers back then could have fought against it...we still need to protect game birds and that, but they still didn’t want to see the sparrowhawks and kestrels wiped out either, so they were put on the protection lists, went on, no opposition against it, that was then protected. But it was on the understanding that when they got back up to pre-war numbers then they would be taken off the list, things would be back to normal. Nothing that has been put on the protection list has ever been taken off and the likes of that now, we’ve got more birds of prey than there ever has been and yet if you’ve got a buzzard coming, killing birds, there is nothing that you can legally do about it. You you can apply for a licence till you’re blue in the face, you’ll not get one, and then they wonder why that is, sort of, illegal sort of killings at time - a lot of it is down to frustration.”
At gamekeeper college they are taught that biodiversity is key and that a balance is required for a healthy habitat. They are also taught how to react if they are asked to poison, illegally trap, shoot anything, and to firmly say no. “If your head keeper says right, poison this that and the other, don’t do it, it is your career. If you want to be a gamekeeper, whatever you do, whether you report it, whether you leave that estate, if you go down that line and you are caught, you will be finished as a gamekeeper”. Mark neglects to mention that leaving an estate might well reflect on your future job prospects. Gamekeeping pays very little, and there are more keepers than jobs out there, so there is little room for time off work.
It is, in terms of pressure, a lot easier to remain on the right side of the law than it used to be. Vicarious liability, introduced in Scotland on January 1st 2012, is the latest stage in the improving of keeping rights. The levels of hierarchy above the accused are also held accountable for any crime committed on the estate. So if a Scotland keeper (or anyone for that matter) is found guilty of a crime, the landowner will also be found guilty, and any bosses in-between. This way there is considerably less pressure on the shoulders of one individual, in the name of creating sport and benefit for another, previously unaccountable, administrator or boss.
Shooting and trapping predators in defence of foreign species (pheasants) for the purpose of sport is not good, but is, as previously discussed, arguably palatable when looked at as a whole - the preservation of habitats, for instance. All this suppression of predators does have a great side-effect though; that of enabling prey species to recover in number. Commendable intent is made to ensure humane practice in the legislation. At the end of the day, what benefits shooting also benefits biodiversity. With the ultimate end of a return in the shape of shooting, landowners will be prepared to invest untold amounts into the landscape.
The next part, Chapter 4: NIght-Shifts, will be posted on here on Saturday 26th January at 10.30am. To buy a copy of the book for £25, contact me.