Friday, 24 February 2017

Sheep stells in the Upper Coquet Valley

Sheep stell  
The Scottish Borders are not quite, "arctic - alpine" in their climate and vegetation but winters can be severe with deep drifts and freezing temperatures, often for days on end.

A hill ewe's reaction to cold wind and snow is to seek shelter in  the lee of a wall, a rock or tree. snow then drifts over her.  Because they are sheep they do things together and many can be lost after a few days of burial.

For hundreds of years shepherds have driven their ewes into drystone walled "stells" for shelter.

The stell like this one at Windyhaugh  in the upper Coquet Valley can be up to 20 m in diameter and are capable of holding several hundred sheep safely until the storm is over. Stells are usually located at low level and near a burn (stream) and emergency food supplies.. The walls are about 1.5 m high and provide shelter all around the whole inner circumference.

At lambing time some ewes may need attention at
 the birth of the lambs or for a lamb adoption  the stell is then a useful holding pen.
Windyhaugh Farm with snow on the way
* Haugh is a Northumbrian word for the flood plain of a stream or river.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Trap door for swallows

Spring and summer
It will be two months before our swallows return from Africa to nest in the rafters of the sheep barn which has year round open access to birds.

Last week I saw a novel way to provide access to less open buildings for nesting swallows.

It's a small hinged door about 6" by 4" in the top corner of Bob Burston's hemmel (stable in Northumberland) door,  left open from Spring through to Autumn then closed after the swallows leave.

I haven't actually seen this but Bob assures me that the birds fly in and out through the opening at top speed.
Autumn and winter

Tomorrow there'll be one in the top of the door of the old byre.

Controlling invasive american aliens in UK and Europe

North Northumberland -big skies and big landscpes
In north Northumberland last week I went looking for red squirrels. I spent an afternoon sitting in a woodland glade didn't get any photographs . However there were signs of their presence; warnings to motorists to slow down for them and spruce cones stripped of seeds. I didn't see any greys either, hopefully because of the control measures.

About 150 years ago grey squirrels were imported into the UK from America as a fashion item to grace the estates of the landed gentry.
They have been very successful and now we have an estimated 2.5 million of these "tree rats" The native red squirrels with an estimated UK population of 10 - 15000 can't compete.

The greys store four times as much fat reserve for winter because they evolved to survive much tougher winters in the Eastern USA, they are more prolific and are adapted to living at hgher densities than the reds.So greys have displaced  reds throughout much of England and Wales and in recent years have moved north into Northumberland and the Scottish borders..

Bigger, stronger faster breeding greys also carry "squirrel pox" or  Parapoxvirus to which they are immune but it is fatal to reds.

The "European Squirrel Initiative" began in 2002 to remove the american aliens from the whole of Europe to protect biodiversity and prevent economic damage to woodland. "Northern Red Squirrels" grew out of this, it coordinates population mapping of both species and control of the greys.

There used to be a bounty on the greys in the 1950s because they strip the bark from trees sometimes killing the tree directly or indirectly by opening up the tree to fungal infections. I think the bounty was 2/- ( two shillings in old money) per tail, an attractive payment for boys with air rifles. Now they are caught in baited cage traps and humanely disposed of.

More recently as pine martens have moved south into grey squirrel country it seems that they may be effective and selective predators on greys which feed more on the ground than reds. The reds can move fast high up in the tree canopy on flimsy branches where the pine martens can't follow.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Scots Pine - Scotland's national tree and black grouse.

Me on the left Trevor (Polar explorer on the right) we're a bit over qualified for this expedition but that's what happens when you become a "wrinkly",
In 2013 we had a national vote to decide on a national tree for Scotland, 52% of respondents voted for the Scots Pine. It's not exclusive to Scotland, I've seen the species from Spain to eastern Siberia. Until about 6,000 years ago it was predominant in the Caledonian Forest on drier mineral soils but clearance started by the neolithic farmers and continued up to WW2. Climate change also had a hand in it.

We still have remnants of the pine forest from Argyll to Wester Ross and the Cairngorms. It wasn't a closed canopy forest of tall straight trees there was a range of age classes other tree species and open spaces of high biodiversity. Yesterday we had a walk through one of the remnants, in the Cairngorms, to find a black cock leking site that I last visited ten years ago.

They spend the day around the forest edge grazing on blaeberry ( blueberries) and perching up in the pines. The " lek" is a spectacular mating display that starts before dawn and carries on into the morning. First, the males birds fly in do there macho displaying then the females arrive (the grey hens) to watch, participate and eventually mate with the best dancers Hamsa wants some video  of this display.

He has a licence to film  protected species and will be back towards the end of the month, to set up his hide and then freeze through the night until the birds arrive. No footage or pics yet as I can't find mine they are somewhere in the loft on a memory stick. I'll add them when I find it. In the mean time you can find black grouse in your field guide, between the falcons and the partridges.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

How to make a pine marten proof Barn Owl nest box

Well we think it's pine marten proof. To get into the nest the pine marten would have to walk upside down below the ridge then drop on to the owl's landing pad so we think any owls will be safe.

First find a 45 gallon ( 100 litre ) blue plastic drum. cut out an entrance approximately 6" x 6" (150 mm x 150 mm). Make a landing pad about 6" square then attache to the front of the nest with two roofing bolts. Finally drill a series of drainage holes along and through the lowest point at the bottom.

Attache the nest below the ridge with loading straps strained tightly the nest box must be rock steady.

You may now have to wait several months or years until an owl takes up residence but just to see if last night's owl is interested I have set up the trail cam.

More tomorrow perhaps.

If you do get a breeding pair in this box you can use the white plastic plugs in the end to insert a small nest cam.

Barn owl moves in with the sheep

Photo: Hamza Yassin (Cameraman and photographer)
Hamsa, our resident wildlife photographer was on his way home last night about 10.30 and glimpsed something white up in the rafters of the sheep house, he has a genius for spotting wildlife while driving. This can be disconcerting for passengers.

He reversed his car and shone the lights inside to take this photograph with his mobile phone. He normally uses an extremely expensive long lens.

I suspected that an owl was using the building because of the white streaks of excrement on the rafters and here is the proof. It was was probably in there to shelter from the gale that blew in from the SE and has carried on throughout today.

The next step is to make a nest box to see if we can encourage it to take up permanent residence. The main danger to any birds nesting around here is the pine martens so we will have to make one from a 45 gallon ( 100 L)  plastic drum fixed with load straps to the roof..  The pine marten will not be able to get any purchase on the plastic surface and the drum will be held securely. Owls don't like nest boxes that feel insecure.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Mid January - The sheep and shepherds are indoors again

Yesterday the ewes followed me down off the hill and trooped into the sheep house , they seemed to know they would be more comfortable. It also means that elderly shepherds are out of the weather and don't have to carry food to them.

They are inside now for at least ten weeks, until they lamb in April. We can manage them more closely and keep the lambs inside until they are at least 48 hrs old and able to withstand the weather. Hypothermia kills more neonatal lambs than disease, poor nutrition and foxes,

The older ewes are  five to six years old and seem to know what to expect. They settle down quickly with a minimum of  stress. After all shepherds have been housing their flocks since the sheep were first domesticated for protection from predators at night so they have probably developed a tolerance for it. Their social hierarchy is well established too so their is a minimum of aggressive interaction in this new environment.

The blue mark on the shoulder is my flock mark, there is a small nick in the rear edge of the nearside ear that is also my mark but it's difficult to see. The red marks get fainter as the mating season progresses, they show that the ewe has been mated.