This year’s season of shooting grouse over my pointers was much better than it has been for 3-4 years. Starting off with brood counting in July, it was nice to finally see some better breeding results and really good to see more smiles on the faces of the hard working keepers.
When the season started on 12th August I spent 14 days on grouse, either working my dogs for guns or shooting over the dogs myself, usually with a friend.
Waiting for a lift after a great day with the pointers
However, the summer had me occupied with a most intriguing and rewarding project. I trapped and shot enough carrion crows to help a pair of oystercatchers hatch their three eggs.
Across the fields from us, about 600 meters away, is a large, modern vegetable farm. Every year I enjoy the sound of the oystercatchers arriving inland from the coast. They come to breed, probably because there are too many people and dogs on the beaches.
I have never really investigated whether they succeed on the farm or not. But this year I noticed that the pair was mating at a time when oystercatchers should already have hatched their young. I concluded that this pair had lost their first brood and that it was most likely due to the very high density of carrion crows that we have in our area.
I soon found the nest with three eggs and resolved to help. At first the farmer was a little reluctant when I asked if I could trap and shoot the crows on his land, but soon everyone on the farm was interested. We put traffic cones up around the nest to make sure they were safe from farm vehicles.
A single pair of oystercatchers would be able to fend off one or two crows trying to take their eggs, but they wouldn’t cope with mobs. Naturally, oystercatchers would nest close to other oystercatchers and there would be a communal sharing of defence when predators appear, but this pair was on their own and needed help.
I needed to give the oystercatchers about a square mile of reduced crow predation pressure. As most of the surrounding farms are fairly small I needed to ask permission from 8 further farms to shoot the crows.
Eagerly I watched the nest for the 26 days of incubation and got busy with my registered Larsen trap and my .223 rifle.
The crows were easy in the beginning as they were not used to my vehicle and I could simply rock up and shoot both birds when a pair was feeding on a field. However, they got wiser and much more difficult to shoot. They turned into quite a challenge and had to be stalked as carefully as a roe deer. Over the summer I shot 50 carrion crows near the oystercatcher nest.
The trapping works best during the crows’ nesting season as they are very territorial and will try and get to the call bird in the Larsen trap. I always end up becoming a little attached to the call bird and although IT hates ME, I start loving IT. I bring it hens’ eggs and other goodies in the morning. It is amazing to see how delicately they can puncture an egg and eat out the content without cracking the whole egg, which would spill and waste too much. I caught 12 birds in the Larsen trap.
With my trail camera I saw many wonderful things including the odd visit, here from a brown hare.
Leverets will also have benefitted from less crow pressure.
Sometimes we forget what isn’t there anymore
I had more contact with all the neighbouring farmers during this summer than I have had in the last 25 years we have lived in our little smiddy in the middle of it all.
I heard the stories about how farmers in the old days would move lapwing nests out to the side of the fields or they would work round them. Waders were a part of the countryside then, but not anymore. Sometimes we forget what isn’t there anymore. It was interesting to talk to farmers, who could tell me just how many waders there used to be.
Of course, there are many factors that have resulted in the decline of waders and habitat loss is one of them, but we can at least do something about the egg loving carrion crows to help along. This oystercatcher pair do have a great habitat in the large, stony area surrounding the building as this is the perfect place to camouflage their young. They have plenty of worms in the surrounding areas for feeding, so they simply needed to have less pressure from crows.
I was not disappointed! After 26 days all three hatched. I had the most fantastic time watching them that morning.
Mum (or dad) with a muddy beak from getting worms for the chick
They did lose two of the chicks in the first few days, but according to what I read, that is quite normal.
I named the chick Ray and he (or she of course) grew very fast in the 35 days they stayed on the farm.
He soon started to look like his parents, but still very fluffy. I watched them every day and took out the odd crow I could find.
Here is young Ray by the cables and tubes at the massive generator at the farm. I thought it was worth including this photo as it shows the rather un-romantic setting of the otherwise coastal bird.But as long as he makes it to the flying stage, he can move out to the coast and resume his live in his real natural habitat.
Ray shortly before he was ready to fly after 35 dangerous days of only being able to walk
He finally took off with mum and dad and I look forward to seeing them again in the spring.
This has been a fantastic experience and really opened my eyes to what we, who shoot and stalk, CAN do. Especially in the mostly closed season, where we put our gear away. We should not put anything away.
We can make connections with everyone in the rural communities and help landowners protect what is left of endangered species. It was hugely rewarding to get an oystercatcher chick on the wing, but even without that, I will have saved countless smaller birds that would otherwise have lost their broods to carrion crows this year.
If shooting for sport needs a little PR help, this is a good way to go about it.
Passionate about ecology and the great Scottish outdoors, Luise is our ethical hunting expert and the founder & MD of Tuffies – a unique dog bed making business based in Aberdeenshire.