Stooks

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Chattering steel teeth skimmed through the oats and they fell in a veil like a grey, rustling wave. Rain threatened, and the crop cannot lie on its side when it is wet. It must be bound, so I only cut what I can tie. A single eight foot sweep yields forty sheafs, and it takes an hour of patient stacking and binding to tidy up in silence. There used to be machines which did this job in one pass. They were called “reaper binders”, and they passed through the crop and left a trail of sheafs in their wake. They were big and complex, and the important parts were made from canvas and wood. Few reaper binders have survived the grind of rot and woodworm, but some survive in the Outer Isles where crofters are encouraged to keep the old ways alive. They refused to embrace modernity, and now we pay them to farm as if it were 1950. I can’t resist a sneer of envy.

It will take several days for me to clear this field on my own, and my hands are raw with the burning slip of string and stems. More stooks, and the cut plants glow like golden chapels on the stubble. I am painstakingly slow, building beautiful hourglass sheafs and stacking them to spread their skirts so that the rain will run down and vanish into the soil. You cannot hurry this job, and good sheafs last longer than tatty ones. Even when I stop for coffee and a sandwich, the stubbles crackle gently like the sound of a fizzy drink. I sit on spools of golden tape; glossy straw in shining strands.

Some of the crop has fallen on its side and cannot be cut; the cutting bar cannot get beneath it. At first I try to dig these up with a sickle, but there is too much and I remember that part of this job is for the birds. I begin to leave small patches here and there where the tractor wheels have flattened the crop, and soon the field begins to looks tatty and amateurish.

I am surprised to find that I draw increasing pleasure from neatness and perfection. Perhaps it is the same instinct which has driven gardeners to create natural worlds with ruler-straight lines, but now I find there is dull joy in the imposition of order. I want to do a smart job and create something tidy. But birds love chaos, and I have to remind myself not to manicure the stubbles into uniformity. I could sift through every plant and pick the best for myself, but I resolve to do a sensible amount and hold back from outright efficiency.

The heat builds, and I work on until the air is thick and black darkness piles up over the hills to the west. A few curlews fly in the sunshine; yellow sparks against heavy naval blue. I wonder if they are new birds or whether these are more failures returning from another tragic summer in the North. Then there is rumble of thunder to match the tractor’s roar, and rain begins to shatter the dry peace of the morning. I tell myself that the crop will be safe in the stooks, but rain like this would destroy a field of hay and my confidence begins to fail. I spring from the cab and bind the last few sheafs beneath a battering veil of rain which drums on my back and turns my hair heavy. The water hunts for my blisters and a pink, watery juice drips from my palms.

It does not take long for the stooks to turn dull and black beneath the water. They look awful; looming, sodden heaps which are primed for decay. I can hardly ignore the certainty of disaster; the tall, waving heads are being gummed into dull submission and the job is falling apart. A stook falls over and I rush to repair it, but now the straw is soggy and weak and the bundle flops like a rag. I am glad I have done so little. Most of the crop is still safe and standing.

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Heather Beetle

 

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This heather is now well and truly dead – stressed by beetle in 2017, then killed by a bad growing year

I can hardly resist a quick post about heather on the Chayne. Long term readers will remember the “heather laboratory” which was set up in 2010 to explore the level of grazing pressure on a small area of our hill. I routinely publish updates on how the plant life has fared over the last eight growing seasons, and heather beetle has played a major part in that story.

Beetles first arrived in 2012 and decimated the fresh young growth. The plants bounced back, but they were hammered again in 2013 and 2014. Each season of damage knocked the heather back and meant it was less able to compete with rapidly growing mosses and grasses. The “laboratory” was becoming less heathery every year, and beetles were the main driving force behind the decline of heather coverage.

There has been beetle damage every year since 2012. The usual pattern has been damage in the autumn, followed by recovery in the spring. It’s hard for plants to make progress under these conditions; they stand still and are unable to break out of a cycle of suppression. Last year’s outbreak was fairly bad, but I was reassured by the knowledge that the plants would certainly bounce back in the spring. I wrote an article on the Heather Trust’s blog in April explaining my optimism, but I did not reckon on the cold start to the year and the long dry summer which followed. The heather was unable to recover as it normally does, and when I visited last week I was unable to find any heather plants which have survived the dry summer.

I’ve travelled across the country looking at heather beetle for the last eight years, and it is a common theme that heather usually bounces back from a beetle attack. Provided that grazing pressure is kept under control and outbreaks do not become cyclical, beetle damage often restores itself, although it can lead to structural problems which call for active management. The lesson I take from this patch of heather is that beetle is not always a standalone problem, but instead beetle damage drives change.

We often hear it said that beetle is more prolific on wet ground, and there are some links between wet conditions and beetle breeding cycles. At the same time, beetle outbreaks also take place on dry ground, and perhaps the crucial difference is that damage effects both, but plants which grow on wet ground are already on the back foot and cannot regenerate so easily as those in better conditions. Perhaps this magnifies the significance of the damage and means that beetle outbreaks are more serious when they take place on wet ground.

I have no doubt that my heather would have survived a cold spring and a dry summer if it was in good condition, and I am certain that this problem has only come about because the plants were first weakened by beetle.

Loss

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The vet came and could not help. She had never seen a calf like this one, and she proposed trying for another week.

Another week came, feeding five times a day. Dawn blurred into dusk and the days rolled together in constant fretful labour. I was flattened by the weight of it, and my head was dizzied with exhaustion until I lost my temper over the tiniest details and found myself yelling at flies.

I shuttled back and forth with bottles of warm milk. Familiar fields became dull and fearsome, and my thoughts rambled through them in chaos. I was obsessed with the need to keep that calf alive long enough to come through. Something would surely click into place; something would change and the little boy would come good. I rested my forehead on his mother’s hip and sent jets of her milk down into a tin pail. Her guts gurgled in the morning dew and she smelled of soft grass and all the things I wanted from this life. The calf lay in a bundle and gazed through me without any expression on his face.

In this condition he would neither live nor die. He made no attempt to rise or change, and my work simply kept him alive. I imagined his world was numb and dazed, with only a few vague shapes and urges to drive him. It was surely something in his brain; a bubble or a clot which could not come right. Perhaps he had struggled at birth and lacked oxygen at a crucial moment. It was no kind of life, but he breathed on until his fifteenth day.

I sat for a time with the bony body and listened to the cow eating hay. She had not realised, but the truth would soon come to her and she would low in misery beneath the stuffy clouds. Moths flickered in the evening, and I wept with exhaustion, despair and shameful relief.

Cattle are important here. The old animals have been in Galloway for centuries, and I began this project because I have to touch that past. I am only starting to know these beasts, but I find their lives are stoic and tender, giddy and desperate. This project is fast outgrowing me and the urgent sense of belonging I feel in this place. But for now I think of my tears in the dust and the memory of dark, impish calves playing in the twilight.

Bulling

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This blog is consumed with farming, but in fairness so am I.

I can hardly resist the briefest post to record that the bull is now out and has started working, albeit with a single heifer. She was an offering to calm him down after the excitement of his recent escape, and the sacrifice will simply mean that she has her calf a month before the others – we can handle that mild inconvenience. I have had this bull for seven months, and every bulge and wrinkle of his body is a burning pride to me. Above all else, I love the rising curve of maturity which has sculpted the shape of his neck into a shallow hump.

Our neighbour has lent us a slice of his moor behind the house, and it is a stirring joy to see my animals grazing through bog myrtle and blow grass. A pair of curlews is still calling over the granite craigs, and this can only be good news. They must have young near the point of fledging, and it is fine to see old-fashioned hill cattle standing beneath the whaup’s call.

Wholecrop

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The oats in a two and a half acre patch beyond the house – NB orange, dead countryside…

The plans I had to cut and dry my oats in the autumn are beginning to fall apart. The crop is ripening fast in the heat, and now two thirds of it are yellow gold. This is far ahead of schedule, and the dry summer has played havoc with my plans.

This would hardly matter at all under normal circumstances. I would simply harvest my crop a month early, but the dryness has hurt in other ways. Our best hayfield has failed to produce a single blade of grass in the six weeks since we cut it, and the six acre meadow by the merse is horribly brown and lifeless. The chances are that I will not get a second cut of grass this year, and I was relying on at least fifteen bales of silage to help feed the cattle over the winter. As it stands, I will come up short. I need to make alternative plans.

Plan B would be to cut my oats now and bale them into “whole crop” silage to plug the gap. This would be a shame as I was hoping for a traditional harvest of stooks and sheafs in the stackyard, but the summer has been so bizarrely disastrous that I am sorely tempted to grab what I have now. I could leave it to mature fully and derive similar benefit from the crop, but my luck could run out and the whole lot could be lost in bad weather during August and September. This would be great for the birds, but it would leave me sorely out of pocket. By my reckoning, the oat crop could offer seven weeks of decent feeding – this could be an important part of the winter’s puzzle – do I want to gamble with losing it, or should I accept the “bird in the hand”?

Once the oats are off, I could sow the stubble field with grass or stubble turnips and give myself an extra boost at an uncertain moment, but it is all a nail-biting gamble. Of course my project is small beer compared to some of my neighbours, but with my first calves growing well and the wind behind me, I am loathe to lose this momentum. Everybody is suffering in this desert, and autumn looms heavily on the horizon.

Decline

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The final calf came at last and he is a thing of beauty. Unlike his siblings, he is almost a riggit; black and white markings swirl around him like a pint of guinness. His eyelashes are ludicrously long, and whiskers trail from his chin like threads of black silk. Of course we loved him from the outset.

Now a week has passed and things are falling apart. He is withering away and will not suck. His lusty little bellow became a retching croak and he finally fell silent altogether. He lies in quiet corners with his head down like a newborn, and he discovers new ailments every day.

We have to milk his mother and feed him with a bottle. I had never reckoned to handle these cows at close quarters, but now I find it possible to stroke and whisper them into submission. The calf’s mother kicked us at first, but now we can quietly slip down into her udders and pull milk from her thick teats. Dribbles of warm cream run down my wrist and into my cuff. She sighs with relief.

Clegs cluster round us and raise the temperature to boiling point. Waiting for the vet, I set myself a competition to count the bastards. I was bitten seventeen times in a minute; if I were to stand in one place too long, their crushed bodies would build in a heap like cinders around my feet. As well as clegs, the hot breeze hums with the blare of giant horseflies which are as thick and heavy as shotgun cartridges. These often land on the cow’s back and are lashed away by the flick of a tail, but mainly they cluster on her ankles and drill through the hairy leather.

The calf will often take from a bottle, but never from the teat itself. We have fought to make him take properly, but he pushes stubbornly back against us. We have used stomach tubes and enema pipes, and he has endured them both with quiet resignation. I lift him up and feel heavy bones beneath thin skin. He rolls his blue, cloudy eyes and gazes past me as if I am not there. I begin to wonder if this passive disinterest is merely a symptom of something more serious. He began to suck his own navel, and the habit consumed him.

Perhaps there is something damaged in his brain. We don’t know the circumstances of his birth; he arrived in the rushes overnight. Even the smallest deviation from perfection could have far-reaching consequences, and I am left wondering what other problems may come if we fix this one. He may well die, but we are advised to keep trying.

Chaos and outrage have lapped across this project over the last week. I have been kicked and crushed by cattle a dozen times, and my knee has swollen to be almost unbendable. Vandals set the forest on fire behind the house, and the bull escaped through palls of smoke and pulled down fences on his way. The herd refused to be gathered for blood testing. The vet breathed down my neck and checked her watch for the next appointment until I finally gave up and sent her away in defeat. Behind these exhausting failures, I have watched this fine little calf decline and fail.

I try not to forget where I am and what I have chosen. The old, consoling hills stand against the sunset; they’ve seen worse than this.

 

 

Sailor

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We found our buck sailing on the edge of the forest. The sun was gone, and the birds were up to roost. He drifted in silence through webs of deep grass like a boat in the twilight, stirring up a bow wave of moths and froth which glittered around him like spray. He was in his element; foxgloves bowed, and the grass lapped against him.

His evening dreams smelled of myrtle and asphodel and we closed the gap until seventy yards lay between us. Then a bullet slipped through that warm blur of midges and pollen to strike him amidships. He rushed for one taut moment, confused by the damage and unsure. Then he sank into the long grass and it closed above him with a swirl like water.

An owl tacked into the wind and passed away over the hill.