Eggs!

At this time of year all the birds are busy nesting. The males are singing their hearts out proclaiming their territories and everyone is busy building nests and incubating eggs. Yesterday some geese took off heading towards the lake, and one of them shed a tiny white fluffy feather. As the feather drifted down, a swallow zoomed in to collect it. Only on the third attempt did it manage to get it in its mouth in the right position. (Don’t forget you still have to be able to see where you are going with a feather as big as your head!). Off it went to line its nest with it. They are collecting mud from the sides of the lake and building up their nests layer by layer. Some of them are using the wire mesh cups we put up from them, and others still use the log shed and the stables.

But it doesn’t always go smoothly. Once a female ovulates her egg and it enters the infundibulum, the process is like a conveyor belt. The fertilised ovum on the yolk is covered with membranes, the egg plumps up with albumen until it is egg shaped, and then the calcareous shell is laid down. Then she has to lay the egg. Sometimes a predator has destroyed her carefully made nest, or maybe she is just ‘taken short’. So occasionally you come across an egg just lying on the ground, fresh and intact, abandoned.

Last week I was down on one of the ponds and in the shallows was a white Canada goose egg. The geese had been hanging out there but eventually had opted to nest on an island on a pond across the field. This egg was sunk on the bottom of the pond, and that meant it was fresh and unincubated. A rotten egg floats, and so does a partially developed one. So I fished it out and held it up to the light and it looked clear. Sure enough, when I got home and broke it into the frying pan it was clean and undeveloped, so I had very tasty and creamy scrambled egg for my lunch.

The falcons on the farm are very busy too at the moment. Over 200 have hatched so far, with more to go. Some of them have already gone to their new owners and we are hand-rearing a few for training later.

Nick

Busy Beavers…

My lurking in the bushes might be paying off. Last night just on dusk I was down by the lake watching a water vole when a beaver swam past towing a spray of fresh green willow leaves. Just then a pair of mallards flushed noisily from the far bank and alarmed her. With a quick tail slap she dived, towing the branch under water entirely. I watched the chain of bubbles and she came up about 20 metres further on. It must be very tiring trying to tow green leaves under water.

I say ‘she’ because of that pair, the female is very prone to tail slapping, often seeming to do it more or less for fun. Drew calls her ‘Betty’ but I call her ‘The Happy Slapper.’ I watched her as she doggedly continued on her way, swimming steadily and purposefully 250 metres up the lake, straight to the lodge. I could just make her out in the gloom, as she dived with her prize outside the lodge and disappeared. Now why we she go to so much trouble to take a tender spray of willow leaves all that way into the lodge? Could she have kits in there? And are they old enough to be eating green feed?

When we are doing field work on falcons, ferrying food back to the nest is a dead cert giveaway that they are feeding young there. Maybe The Happy Slapper knows something we don’t! But the hide construction is well under way. Despite two days of heavy rain this week we have now got the floor joists down, and Pete and Shaun milled larch planks for the walls under cover from the rain in the Bevis Shed. Meanwhile, undeterred by the noise of the saw mill, a wren has a brood about to fledge from her nest tucked into the blower for the forge.

wren

Coming back from the lake, I passed a field of cull ewes. They are ones that failed to lamb and are destined to be ‘sent down the road’ shortly. Some have ‘broken mouths’, which means that they have teeth missing from their lower incisors and cannot easily eat well enough any more. I noticed that one old ewe had just lambed a pair of twins. One had already had an eye pecked out by crows but the other was on its feet. It’s a little runt of a thing, but sufficient to earn its mother a reprieve and Drew will have to ‘shed her off’ to join the main flock up the hill opposite.

Nick

Rewilding and More

I attended a conference titled ‘Re-wilding Dorset’ last week. I stayed overnight with Bevis Trust Trustee Kate Hall, whose husband Tim is Farm Manager on the Cranbourne Estate. This estate formerly had a shoot based on farmed gamebirds but recently Lord Cranbourne has decided to switch solely to wild indigenous Grey Partridges. Whatever one’s views may be on gamebird shooting, managing land for wild game certainly has knock on benefits for other wildlife. The gamekeepers come down hard on foxes and corvids, allowing many species to flourish with reduced predation pressure. Meanwhile the habitat is managed for partridges with beetle banks, wide fallow strips alongside hedges, and wide bare headlands that allow the young partridges to dry out in the sun. A wet spring with sodden vegetation is deadly for chilling young partridges, and they need plenty of high protein insect food in their early days. These conditions also suit lapwings, which we saw, and maybe – who knows – stone curlews will return. Some of these habitat management techniques were pioneered by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, based on systems used in parts of Europe where game-rearing is not allowed.

The whole Dorset area has gone upmarket, with mums in Range Rovers driving kids to school. So I called in at Ashmore, up on the downs, where I had lived as a child in conditions similar to Bevis, in Richard Jefferies’ book. This too has been twee’d up. It looks beautiful, but the school is long closed and many of the houses are holiday cottages, with big money having taken over the manor houses. The old dewpond in the centre of the village now has neatly mown banks. As a five year old I used to bring the cows up the lane and water them in the pond, before bringing them in for hand milking. One of my first jobs was to collect duck and geese eggs and wash them ready for sale. The geese lived in wooden arks by the pond and were almost taller than me. When I peered into the darkness of the ark I was greeted with a terrifying hiss. After one gander chased me up the hill on my tricycle an old gaffer told me that the best thing to do was to get a big stick and hit him on the head. But I could never get close enough! The churchyard too, where my younger brother had got his head stuck in the railings, has been neatly mowed to a perfect lawn. No room any more for the slow-worms that I used to collect. I looked in the glebe field where my pony Sooty used to live, under the eagle eye of the school mistress, Miss Canavan. There used to be two Guernseys in there and sometimes I would help make the butter in the little cottage across the road. The old folk were only too happy for us energetic youngsters to take a turn on the handle until the butter started to go slap-slap.

The conference was a useful forum for meeting people although much of the content was a little woolly, with people struggling to identify what they meant by ‘re-wilding’. The term has got itself a bad name because there is so much focus on wolves and lynx. While there may be scope for an experimental wolf pack up in remote Allladale, the concept of wolves in England and Wales is not realistic. The pressure on land, and the attitudes of people, could not cope with them. I’m reminded of a CITES conference I attended in Nairobi some years ago, where the British contingent were earnestly banging on about elephant conservation, preaching to the locals. After the session, a delegate from one of the African countries said to me: ‘It’s all very well but we have about 10,000 surplus elephants causing immense damage to the habitats and to the impoverished farmers whose crops are wrecked. Could you take them in Britain?’ I had visions of 10,000 elephants being off-loaded from Heathrow and rampaging down Slough High Street before dispersing across southern Britain. The fact is, we want these charismatic animals, as long as someone else puts up with them. Let’s keep them where they belong – on TV.

So one of the questions I asked at the conference was: How many of the delegates were farmers? It turned out there were three of us, and only one was from Dorset. Had the conference been advertised in the wrong sector? Re-wilding can become hopelessly idealistic unless the people who are responsible for the land are fully engaged from the start. National Trust plans for re-instating parts of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath are great. But as for the private sector, it looks right now as though Lord Cranbourne’s efforts for wild Grey Partridges is the best show in town.

Nick

Beavers

I’m spending far too much time lurking in the bushes by the water with my field-glasses hoping to see a female exposing her nipples. Hang on! It’s not what you’re thinking (those days are well over). The thing is, beavers have their kits about now but for six weeks or so they keep them safely in their burrow or lodge. So the only way to know if they are breeding is to see if the females are lactating. Hence the lurking. Problem is, beavers are not notorious nipple flashers. When they are swimming or on the banks you can only see their backs and you have to wait until one stands up to reach a dangling piece of willow. The other problem is that male and female beavers look the same – you have to squeeze their anal glands to tell them apart. So when my patience is finally rewarded and a beaver stretches up, just because I can’t see any nipples doesn’t mean they don’t have young. I could be looking at a male.
We have three pairs of beavers on the farm and they have to be kept strictly apart because they are very territorial and will have horrendous fights. With a licence in to the Welsh Government to re-introduce beavers in Wales (see ‘Projects’) we will need all the captive-bred beavers we can get, so we are keeping our fingers crossed for some breeding. All three pairs are looking very organised with their burrows and lodges, so I keep my field-glasses at the ready.
Nick

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