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Breeding Season

As we draw into May, natures breeding season is in full swing. Some creatures will have done the deed long ago. The screaming winter vixen will have endured her few minutes of copulation and will now be tending to her litter in and around the nursery den. Her mate will be visiting with offerings for the cubs but she won’t allow him to come close. It’s not unknown for a dog fox to commit infanticide. A pair of foxes feeding a young family are bad news for the sheep farmer, the poultry breeder and the gamekeeper. Those of us who intervene to protect egg, chick and herd know cunning the fox can be. Yet we have respect for its purpose too. All we try to do is cut a balance between natural instinct and commercial / conservation interests

The breeding season sees the height of natural 'showmanship' as various creatures seek to claim both mate and territory. From the song of the tiny cock yellowhammer to the aerial displays of lapwing pairs. The comical breast-pouting of the woodpigeon and the peacocks flamboyant tail display. The lekking of the game-bird cocks resembles the posturing of young men on a clubland drinking binge. Thankfully the hens are more soberly dressed and well behaved than their human equivalents.

The breeding season is a fascinating time when watching our fauna. For those tasked with protecting crops, stock and birds this is a season which can throw up opportunities for control which aren’t available later in the year. All predatory species tend to breed ahead of their quarry; an evolutionary trait which guarantees them easy pickings for their own young. Corvids are a perfect example. The crow, raven and magpie nest early and have a brood just as their prey start to mate, nest and hatch chicks. A pair of carrion crows will stand vigil by their lofty nest, watching the coming and goings of ground and hedge nesting birds. They, like their raven cousins, will be intent on the birthing ewe – not just for the protein rich afterbirth but also for any sign of weakness or struggle. A lambs eyes are a juicy morsel; it matters not to a crow that the lamb is alive.

Magpies are smaller crows but equally devious. Those of us who have watched a pair hunting a hedgerow mercilessly can attest to that. Though it won’t go on for long if I have the right gun in hand. Magpies specialise in egg and fledgling extraction from the densest cover. Always, of course, small birds or nests where the parents are absent. I’ve always described the magpie as a cowardly bird yet in recent weeks I watched (along with my wife) a magpie attack a red kite which had settled on a branch close to the magpies nest. The kite wouldn’t budge but the corvid kept up a determined assault, pecking at a raptor three times its size! It was the magpie that eventually conceded, having received a raking swipe from the raptors talons. That magpies behaviour was consistent with parental protection at a time when they are most susceptible to culling. In my books I explain how to target magpies during the nest building process, when they are exhausted.

The need to breed successfully is a powerful predisposition. Which is why shooting out a crows nest is often a pointless exercise. The pair will build a new nest and breed again. Far better to get the parent birds themselves. Similarly, taking a single fox cub outside the den is futile. The vixen will move the rest of the litter to a new den, carrying them by the scruff of the neck. You need to cull the vixen first and deal with the cubs afterwards.

All creatures have an in-built parental instinct; something that drives them to either protect their offspring or at least alert them to danger. Many have developed powerful protective strategies to boost survival rates. The lapwing (often called peewit) will attempt to draw a hunting fox or stoat away from its nest by running away, feigning a broken wing and only taking off when the predator gets too close. A brilliant diversionary tactic. The female hare, the puss, will lay out her leverets in separate forms in the meadow and visit each one to feed them rather than have them gathered together. Tales abound that the hen woodcock will carry her fledglings to a new nest if disturbed, yet it seems no-one has ever photographed this.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2022

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