Spring comes at night under the moon and the hurl of stars. It comes in the drilling morse of oystercatchers which rally round the silty floods under cover of darkness. And it comes in the giggling flare of shelducks, and the drift of woodcock above the willows. Now there are wagtails bouncing on the dyke tops, and a handful of lapwings which dab around the wet grass and pretend not to care that they’re few and far between these days.
I remember Joe Irving, who’d worked up the Glenkens as a keeper and used to train spaniels for the trials. Joe knew everything there was to know about rabbits, and he tried to teach me when I was a child of seven or eight. I learned to set snares, and he showed me how to lay longnets in the night. It was Joe that taught me how to stink out a warren with creosote rags so the rabbits would lie up in the grass and the dogs could work them better. And it was Joe who noticed that rabbits were starting to wither away in Galloway ten years before anybody else clocked it.
Rabbits used to be big business when Joe was a boy. He had a thousand words for rabbiting work, and he spoke of blatts and scuts; canners and gows. Those words were never meant to be written, and now that rabbits have almost gone in Galloway, I’ve got little use for them anymore. Joe took most of that old know-how with him when he finally went to ground in the kirkyard at Irongray, and that’s where it’ll stay.
Coney is an old and fairly common word for rabbit, but Joe used it specifically to mean youngsters when they’re mainly grey but turning brown and starting to get bold. The way he spoke, he’d say it “cornie”. He’d mark the coming of spring by two dates; the day of the first coney and the return of his wee boys – (swallows gave him more pleasure than all other birds combined). I’ve learned to mark those dates as well.
Swallows are still three weeks away, but the first coney came this morning; a blinking figure in the lee of the dark whinns. We’re really making progress now.
It’s been interesting to look back through some old photographs in Derek Ratcliffe’s brilliant book Galloway and the Borders from the New Naturalist series. Some of the NN books are overpowered with scientific data, but this one is a beautifully readable account of the Southern Uplands since the late 1950s. It has a heavy preponderance towards the west, and the book follows the author through a time of tremendous upheaval for Wigtownshire and the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. The new forests were being planted, and the wide moors were vanishing beneath sharp curtains of commercial spruce trees. Almost three quarters of our rough grazing and heather moors have been planted since 1945, and I couldn’t resist the chance to revisit some of the places which were photographed in the ’60s and ’70s to see them as they are now.
A good example is the railway line at Dromore above Gatehouse of Fleet. This was the film location for part of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version of The 39 Steps, and it was photographed by Derek Ratcliffe in 1960. Fast forward half a century and the open lands are broken up with bands of dark trees. The few fragmented remains of open ground are rank and patchy, and it’s interesting to see how heather has been almost totally replaced by molinia grass at the foot of the Clints. There are a few possible causes for this, from climate change (wetter weather) to heather beetle and overgrazing, but it’s more likely to be a combination of multiple factors, made clearer by the fact that heather remains on the drier, less accessible cliff tops. (It also happens that this is a National Nature Reserve managed by SNH, and that makes the situation too complex to unpick in a quick blog article).
Either way, the view towards the Clints has been turned on its head and we can hardly expect wildlife to ignore that change. Curlews and golden plovers have now gone, and black grouse are so scarce as to be almost absent. The once abundant mountain hares are missing, lapwings are just a memory and even the talismanic peregrines are thin on the ground. The area beyond the Clints was protected from forestry to preserve the eagles which nested on the steep cliffs of Cairnsmore of Fleet. They’ve been gone for almost twenty years. It’s easy to look back on “the bad old days” of commercial forestry and complain about old injuries. Farmers have also played a part in this collapse, but we should be realistic about their significance given that farming has been a minority land use in the Galloway uplands for the last few decades.
I should be pragmatic and try and work with the landscape we have now, but the truth is that after a brief hiatus of forest activity, rough ground is again being planted with commercial spruce trees. It’s an ongoing injury, and as foresters home in on the final Galloway moorlands, it’s hard to see where this process will end. The last few fragments stand on the brink of extinction, and the value of rough land is steadily creeping up as foresters fight for the scraps. Hill farmers have always skimmed their profits from otherwise poor and unprofitable land, and there’s a certain irony in the fact that as I’m looking to build a hill farm and buy some rough ground, I suddenly can’t afford it.
There’s a lonely, beautiful streak of rough country above our farm. I go there because it’s one of the most reliable places to see hen harriers and short eared owls in this part of the county, but now I hear that it’s been sold and will be planted with trees this summer. I wonder what will become of the birds which hunt there during the winter, and already I hear the shrugged reply; “they’ll just go somewhere else”.
We’ve lost our entire breeding population of hen harriers in Galloway over the last forty years. These birds were resurging from historical persecution, and they drew birdwatchers like Derek Ratcliffe and Donald Watson to live here and make them famous. The new trees have seen our harriers off with more permanence and finality than any gamekeeper or grouse moor. Gamekeepers get the blame for destroying harriers, and some conservationists say that the birds are being persecuted into extinction. Persecution is clearly a factor in some areas, but we can’t ignore the fact that we’ve lost huge areas of potential harrier habitat to commercial woodland. We like having gamekeepers to blame, but the truth is a little closer to home. We’re all living on a small and very busy island, and as industries compete for the countryside, there’s an ever decreasing amount of space for specialised hill birds. Petitions are being circulated to ban grouse shooting and “save” the hen harrier, but these are disturbingly simplistic campaigns which totally overlook the subtleties of a very complex bird.
Having swept away our breeding harriers, we could easily lose our wintering birds too. In a good year for voles, hen harriers are the most common raptors I see on the hill and the farmland below it. They’ll plant that hill above the farm and the harriers will go elsewhere, but we’re now approaching a time when there’s nowhere else to go.
Driving out to dinner on Wednesday night, a beautiful stoat soared across the road in the car headlights. She was gone in a heartbeat, but I’d seen enough to mark brown forelegs and a brown head, then a brilliant white cape to the bristling tip of a black tail. I’ve seen less than a dozen white stoats in my life, and this glimpse was cherished beside a handful of other sparkling encounters.
But it set me to thinking. Not every stoat turns white in the winter, and I’ve seen brown stoats in every month of the year. If some stoats turn white and others don’t, there must be some genetic coding which dictates change for a proportion of the wider population. I’ve never seen a stoat that was 100% white, and so I start to wonder why.
It takes time to change your coat’s colour, and so maybe white stoats are only pure white for a few weeks each year. They’re probably somewhere in between brown and white for the rest of the winter, and perhaps this explains why even the whitest stoat always seem to have some brown about them. My absurdly detailed notes record that I trapped a white stoat on the 5th March 2011. This was the whitest stoat I’ve ever seen, but being able to study the beast at close hand, I found that it had brown spectacles around its eyes. It was only 95% pure.
Perhaps a move towards warmer, milder winters will begin to select against winter whiteness, but then I wonder if maybe there’s a middle ground between brown stoats and white ones. Maybe some only turn half white and consider the job done. Maybe that’s how the pure white colouring will gradually fading away in a warmer world. I suppose the only way to tell for sure would be to follow the progress of a single stoat all winter, but anyone who knows about wild stoats would see that’s a non-starter. They move so quickly and with such dazzling excitement that you might as well track the progress of a spark.
It’d be interesting to hear if any readers have pondered this, because while stoats are ineffably cool and interesting animals, it’s not easy to find any good information on their ecology and the science of that colour change.
Can’t resist another irresistibly tiny postscript to the oat crop of last year.
I’ve laboured the many differences between feeding bruised (processed) oats and wholecrop (bundles of oats which were simply cut, dried and stored). We processed the oats by feeding them through a bruiser which is designed to crack the tough outer shell of the oat so that the animals can digest it properly. It’s a lot of work, but the bull is now on a steady diet of bruised oatmeal, and it’s clear from his cowpats that his digestive system is doing a very efficient job on this diet.
But I’ve started to feed him (and his heifer companion) whole sheafs over the last few days as our hay supplies dwindle. These oats have not been cracked, and now their cowpats are coarse with straw and I find them littered with undigested oats which glimmer like gold in the shit. The birds have not taken long to spot these gems, and now there are reed buntings and larks hanging around the cowpats and digging carefully through the steamy muck. I remember hearing old tales from family friends about how partridges and black grouse would often peck at cowpats, and I can easily imagine how useful this might have been as a food source for wild birds.
I’d guess that only a very small percentage of oats are passing through the cows without being digested. I don’t mind the waste, but now I’m undecided as to whether it was worth the work of bruising this crop. It’s just one of countless ways that old fashioned farming used to be a bedrock for an entire wealth of birds and wildlife, and while it seems like a tiny detail, it’s got me puzzled.
I’ve been away for the last week. Not only away from this blog, but also travelling around Scotland as part of a series of events for the Soil Association. We held three meetings for farmers and crofters in Galashiels, Ardgay and Skye, and the days were focused on rush control and livestock grazing. I worked hard to make sure that a move towards agricultural improvement was balanced with conservation interests, and it was reassuring to be reminded that farmers have a grand appetite for conservation. It was also good to catch up with a number of people who visit this blog now and again, and I chewed the fat with several likeminded folk.
But the enduring gut-punch was the simple fact of being away. For all I loved the events and the people I met, leaving this place lay heavily on my shoulders. I fell to a kind of mourning which tugged and ground at me in the evenings and at the first few minutes of day. I’ve become absorbed into this farm, and now it comes as a dull ache to be away from it.
Part of me rails against this introversion, which feels petty and childish. I’ve lived for months away from Galloway, and I learned how to handle homesickness as a teenager. There’s no good reason for me to dread the world, and I studied my gloom with curiosity. I worried that it’s the product of comfort and idleness, but then I remembered the edgy brightness of this place which piles fascination upon intrigue with every passing day. I don’t want to leave because Galloway is streaming into me and I’m gripped by the continuity of it.
But I have to balance that devotion with the need to be away. Now I work a day a week in Edinburgh, and I took that new job because it was fresh and unsettling. Displacement is healthy, and I had to be shaken. I draw huge benefits from my day in the city, but I begin to gape and wheeze like a landed fish by five o’clock when the train recovers me from Haymarket station. I come home and cradle this place all the dearer for my absence.
I returned home on Friday night after the tiny course of a week. I spent Saturday gazing at the sky and the rush of cool colour on the hills with fresh wonder. I’d passed through some of the finest and most celebrated landscapes in Scotland, but they paled by comparison to this blunt, fameless corner between the hills and the sea.
This is a fine place for skylarks. We always have three or four little birds singing over the yard all summer, and we walk beneath a web of others as we move towards the river and the rougher ground. We’d be lost without them, and their songs fill this old place with a chatty racket from February to August.
But dozens of larks have come to us this year. We are playing host to many more birds than previous years, and they’re just the latest to cash in on the oat stubble. I find them clustered in their dozens on the frayed old field and they rise like a wave of sparrows when the wind gathers them. The stubbles have become a tatty slop, and the cattle smear the soil into a choppy mess of spent seed, shit and black, thatchy straw. Wagtails and corn buntings have been delving through the remnants of our harvest for a fortnight, but now it belongs to larks and they know it.
The days are getting longer, and the larks are uneasy. There is only space for a few pairs, and the extra birds are making the field seem busy and small. Some of them want to stake out territories for the spring, but they’re still being raked by sleet and foul winds. It’s hard to think of breeding in three inches of slush, so they sulk in a quiet team during the bite of the day. But when the wind is still and the sun is almost warm, they rise up to battle and sing over the steaming cattle. I listen to the riot of two dozen larks in the blue husk of spring and I wonder how long this will last because there’s surely no space for all these birds to stay and breed here. I begin to assume that most will be driven away as territories are formed, and while the oat stubbles might make space for an extra pair or two this summer, but the real benefit has been to all those other birds who will move on to sing elsewhere this summer.
We’re deep in the “hungry gap”; that black trench of starvation which runs from February until the grass begins to grow. It’s a dank, hollow bottleneck when birds die and the surplus of autumn is planed away to the bones. But thanks to those oats, there’s a chance that these extra larks will survive and find somewhere new to be. It’s another pounding reminder that wild birds are soon undone without agriculture, and the oats continue to pay their way six months after they were harvested.
Spring is filled with tiny traditions. We mark the first snowdrop, then coo at the catkins which come suddenly bright in the woods. Now there are song thrushes and skylarks, and the cattle sway beneath them in that star-filled stillness of dawn.
We walked last night along the old hill road as the sun slumped and the skyline steeped into foundering blue. It’s still too early to hear snipe calling, but recent days have brought an unholy warmth into this place. The birds are reeling from it, and they grasp at games which should be played in April. There’s a whiff of warming soil and the rocks are crispy and bright under our feet, so we rolled the dice and went to try our luck for a snipe in the final height of February.
Galloway lay beneath us. A broad spread of cooling country rolled away to the sky; forty miles of home without a single electric light to be seen. The last rub of day stirred the horizon into a thin red line which pooled and paled beyond the hills as stars began to gather.
The breeding song of a snipe comes to us somewhere between joy and unease. It’s not a sweet burbling trickle, but the mechanical rendition of air through feathers. A snipe does not speak his song; he plays it upon himself as if he were an instrument. We call it drumming, and the result is a moaning hum which makes your hair stand up in a prickle. A drumming snipe is a weightless thrill, but strong men collapse beneath the heft of it.
And in the final moments before thick darkness, a snipe began to drum. Gulled by the stillness or baffled by a panting day, he looped above us and joined one end of the year to another. If you like to pray, this is the time to do it.
By May it will be constant; the birds will drum at every hour of the day and night. Repetition dulls the punch of it, and it’s easy to ignore that sound. But for now it comes out of the sky like a starfallen ghoul, reeking of moss blossom and the crump of calves to come.