Winter Riggits

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A couple of heifers against a fine galloway backdrop

The galloways continue to take winter in their stride. A good dusting of snow fell on the hill last night, and the beasts were utterly unfazed when I went out to feed them this morning.

We have decided not to do pregnancy tests. Finances are tight as we approach Christmas, and I found it hard to justify an additional vet bill merely to learn facts which will become all too evident over the next month or two. I can understand why many farmers PD their cattle, but I’m inclined to grin and bear the uncertainty in this first year. Working on the assumption that they are all in calf, the heifers are being carefully fed up as the days continue to shorten. None have shown any real loss in condition and there is still some usable grass here and there, but their hay ration will have to increase if this cold weather is here to stay. I can’t ignore the beautiful circularity to feeding the hay which we harvested with our own hands in sunny September – perhaps it’s a little mouldy here and there, but it’s truly ours.

It’s hard to imagine what farming would be like if you were not proud of your animals and took pleasure in seeing them prosper. My galloways scratch an additional itch because they have a profound connection with this landscape – their ancestors have been reared and bred in these hills for centuries. I never looked twice at cows until a few years ago, but I must admit that these beasts put a swell of pride in my throat.

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Decline and Fall

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Galloway’s finest

It has been depressing to read through the black grouse lek survey results from 2017 in Dumfries and Galloway. Figures show that the birds have declined considerably over the past eighteen months, and the number of blackcock has dropped by almost a quarter since 2016. There are now reckoned to be fewer than 100 birds between Eskdale and Glenapp, and while this is certainly an underestimate, the figures provide a fair indication of the population as a whole.

We’re getting it wrong. The techniques we’re using to conserve and improve black grouse numbers are not working. It is unbearably frustrating to see this situation continually deteriorate, particularly amidst high profile/high finance initiatives promising to buck the trend. Fine words are bandied around by all the conservation Top Brass, but there is precious little action once the camera flashes have been packed away. There are some complex factors which drive the declines of black grouse in Galloway, but it’s hard to ignore a few basic issues:

  • A failure to recognise the value of good heather management
  • A disproportionate focus on planting more trees
  • An inability to deliver habitat improvements on upland farms
  • A refusal to grasp the critical importance of real, meaningful predator control

This last point is perhaps the most controversial, but it is ripe for discussion. Predator control is a cornerstone of black grouse conservation, but there has been an extraordinary amount of fretful hand-wringing around this fact. The Forestry Commission explains that “the National Forest Estate is a place where predators should normally live without being persecuted and where predation should occur”, but accepts that some species can require human management. Foresters in Galloway have made the decision to control foxes and crows to benefit black grouse, but a recent Freedom of Information request by journalist Matt Cross revealed that just five foxes were killed in two years (2015 and 2016) on a 1,700Ha site.

The figures are accompanied by a note that “fox control is incidental” to other activities – i.e., the Foresters shoot them when they see them, but do not go out of their way to do so. Of course it goes without saying that the removal of five foxes from such a large area over the course of such a long time will have no impact on local black grouse numbers. It’s easy to conclude that those deaths were more symbolic than functional.

Predator control is not about the annihilation of predators, but a sustained redress of natural imbalance. Much could be achieved if the Foresters engaged meaningfully with predator control and set themselves some ambitious targets. A crack team of SAS snipers, helicopter gunships and drone technology could not remove every last fox from the Galloway Forest. Generations of shepherds and gamekeepers spent centuries trying to kill the last fox in Galloway, and they had access to a terrifying kaleidoscope of weapons. Shepherds even failed when this was all open ground, long before the trees were planted and foxes were handed an impenetrable forest to hide in. Foxes are a fact of life, and let’s not forget that that’s a great thing – extirpation is undesirable and impossible, but we need to have a serious conversation about rebalance with genuine goals, actual strategies and the resources to deliver them.

In many ways, killing five foxes is worse than none at all because it shows that the Foresters have acknowledged the impact of predators – they’ve identified an imbalance and they’ve identified the means of redressing it. They know that the RSPB kills a meaningful (and growing) number of foxes and crows every year and they can’t ignore the sound ecological science behind managing predators. But their response has produced a fumbled token that is neither here nor there – a mere nod towards action. If they are worried about negative publicity, FIVE FOXES KILLED IN FRUITLESS GESTURE makes a pretty poor headline.

Black grouse are vanishing across Galloway, but good thick habitats in parts of the Forest Park have enabled the birds to hold on – for now. Numbers are far more stable there than elsewhere in Galloway, but this is hardly good enough – strongholds serve as a powerhouse for local populations, and the Forest Park should be fuelling large areas of Galloway with dispersing greyhens and enabling connectivity further afield. The shaky stability of the birds in the Park will crumble if they become isolated; the collapse by over 40% of birds outside the Park over the past year is just a taste of what is to come.

Predation is just one of many factors at play. It’s not fair of me to pick on foxes and Foresters – perhaps I’m drawn to the subject because it represents a whiff of human hypocrisy, but the situation is far more complex than any one issue. The governing reality is that despite lots of good work on the ground, we’re failing to prevent declines – Nobody would argue that black grouse conservation is easy, but balance that with the certain truth that it’s not impossible. We urgently need a fresh new approach, otherwise the time will soon come when the last, lonely blackcock will fizzle out in Galloway; just another incremental deafening until there is no sound at all.

 

And More Mink

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Predator caged

There has been yet more success on the mink front, with another youngster caught this morning on the bridge by the house. It has been surprising to find mink living in such high densities on the river, and it would be interesting to find out what kind of numbers are “normal”. Asking around neighbours, I learned that there was a mink farm in the nearby town in the 1970s, and many individuals managed to escape from their cages during the management of the business. These may have been the original forefathers of the current population, but I think that current high numbers say more about the suitability of local habitat than any historical influence.

Trapping is slow, methodical work. There is little glory or fun to be had, but there is some consolation to be taken from the fact that it is quite easy. Mink are not suspicious or hard to predict, but the satisfaction of successful trapping is balanced by the necessary dispatch of a beautiful and unfortunately misplaced animal.

There is much to be gained from trapping mink. It’s ambitious for me to clear this entire water catchment of invasive predators on my own, but I have been pleased to discuss my progress with neighbours and other local folk – many had assumed that mink had vanished from Galloway, and some are now thinking about running some traps again. It would be nice to kickstart a local eradication programme across a larger area, as this would start to have some really positive impacts for local wildlife.

Fingerbar

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In full working order (if a little rusty)

It was worth an extensive trek into Cumbria to recover our latest eBay purchase. It looks like a short step across the Solway to the Lakes on a clear day, but it took almost three hours to reach our final destination above the monstrous hulk of Sellafield nuclear power station. We had travelled this long and weary road to collect a Massey Ferguson finger bar mower – a classic of British agriculture, and a familiar shape to anyone farming before the 1980s.

My father’s finger bar mower stood in the corner of the farm steading at home throughout my childhood. The savage shape and rusting blades were an obvious hazard for children, and I was warned to stay away from the mower so often that the grim bar acquired a bogeyman status for my brother and I. We didn’t know what it was for, but we warily assumed that it was designed to impale little boys.

Fast forward twenty five years and finger bar mowers are obsolete. Even my father’s mower was dead, and I don’t think I have ever seen one in use. I am assured that they are a moderately effective (if rather slow) means of cutting grass, but it’s not altogether clear how they perform this function – time will surely tell…

As this project rolls on, it might seem like I am assembling a vast collection of tired, hopeless old machinery. Perhaps I am, but there is a stable rationale behind these rusting investments.

First, modern farm implements can be extremely expensive. This mower cost less than £150 – around half the cost of the cheapest drum mowers which made finger bars obsolete and around ten times less than a functioning second hand commercial mower. I need to mow my grass, and I need to carry out that work within a very tight budget. I also need the flexibility to cut my grass when the conditions are right to do so – I’ve had my fingers burned in the past when I asked contractors to come and found my little jobs at the bottom of their list of priorities. Hay is now so time-sensitive that it is better to be independent and make my own decisions.

Second, modern farm implements are designed for use on large, carefully worked fields with wide gateways. My best grass grows in little paddocks on raggedy ground; there are knowes of granite and stumps of gorse around every corner. A small machine can work away slowly and carefully at these fields, but they are a no-go for most commercial contractors. My main concern this year was whether or not contractors would be able to get into my fields at all, and the prospect of widening old ten foot gateways seemed like a bad dream – this part of Galloway is famed for its granite gateposts, many of which must weigh the best part of a ton. It is no simple matter to dig these out when a contractor is drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and deciding to charge you by the minute.

Small, old-fashioned machines suit me perfectly. I can’t deny that there is a certain buzz to using implements which would have been familiar to my grandfather’s generation, but that is an insubstantial reason to justify an investment. The mower may also require some maintenance and sharpening, but this is a plus-point for me – there is a queer pleasure to be had in tinkering with machinery, then seeing it “in action”.

This rationale does not apply to everyone. The chances are that I will spend many hours working with this mower when I could save money and simply pursue faster, more efficient options. I balance this with the fact that my farming project is not solely for financial gain – labour is often the greatest pleasure, and I would sooner spend time over money.

Expect to hear more on this…

 

Oxford Sandy and Black

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One of our new weaners (although this one does not meet breed standards)

While perhaps not closely bound to the driving themes of this blog, my endeavours with pigs are worth recording now and again, if only for my own interest’s sake.

We enjoyed keeping a pair of saddleback weaners over the summer, and their journey into our freezer left a big hole in the farm. I grew to love the contribution that pigs made to the yard, and the place felt very quiet and empty without them. While hams and bacon still hang curing in the sheds, we went over to Galashiels yesterday to collect a few new pigs.

Since stepping into the world of riggit galloways, I’ve become more fixated on the idea of rare breed livestock. I took a pig-keeping course in 2010 and fell in love with many of the old British pig breeds we found. It was fascinating to discover animals which had been bred over generations to suit specific human requirements, and the heritage value of these beasts was enormous. It seems perversely wasteful to abandon dozens of old-fashioned breeds because they simply don’t fit a modern niche which favours nothing more than high productivity on a quick turn-over. Who knows what the future holds, and the rush towards new breeds at the cost of older stock is horribly short-sighted.

It’s hard to ignore oxford sandy and black (OSB) pigs – they are some of the most attractive and endearing native breeds, and I have wanted to learn more about them for years. OSBs have been close to extinction more than once in their history, and despite a small resurgence in recent years, they remain in a perilous position. Slow to grow and mature, they simply cannot compete with commercial pigs on a productivity basis, but they are known for producing superb bacon and flavoursome pork. As my taste-buds grow ever more snootily refined, this seems like a fair trade-off.

We came home with three female weaners in the trailer – cheeky little souls wearing expressions of placid curiosity. One of the weaners does not meet breed standards because she has a white spot on her back, but the other two are tip-top pedigree animals. The misfit may end up in the freezer because we plan to breed from these pigs and only the very best will suffice.

Breeding should give a fascinating window into the life of an OSB. There may a reasonable demand for their piglets in due course, but it’s hard to view a project like this with too much financial scrutiny. The pork will be superb, the project will be fun and perhaps we can cover some of our costs; It’s a hobby after all.

Connectivity

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This blog is a labour of love. I love my subject and I love writing about it.

I am often surprised and delighted to find that hundreds of people visit Working for Grouse every day, but I try and treat this as a bonus. I would still be writing this blog even if it had no readers, and the huge majority of my writing still lies unedited and unloved in notebooks and hard drives across my office – perhaps it will lie there forever. At the same time, there are plans afoot to compile aspects of this blog into a book; a project which I hope to work on this winter…

I get a fair amount of feedback from regular readers via email, and many have become good friends over the years – this is a real bonus, and I adamantly believe that online contact is nothing when compared to direct meeting and face-to-face discussion. I’ve taken many a pint with readers of this blog, and while not all “meetings” have been vastly constructive, conversations which revolve around moorlands, farming and wild birds are invariably fascinating. Of course it’s not always possible to meet people, and digital interaction has been a decent second best.

Having wrangled with the software, this blog now allows a more engaging means of leaving comments and feedback, and I also run accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram which tie into my my daily doings and enable discussion. Some of these accounts are simply fuelled by photographs of my cattle or links to sites of interest, but they all allow for a greater degree of connectivity. With all these (newly available) channels of communication, please feel free to contact me, even if it’s just to correct an error or point out an inaccuracy – it’s fun to hear from people who have taken time to read my output, and perhaps your comments and input can help to steer this project.

After seven years, I have a feeling that Working for Grouse is only just getting started.

North Sea Crossing

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They’ve come at last

Despite my enthusiasm around the recent fall of snipe, woodcock have remained stubbornly thin on the ground. The November full moon usually brings a torrent of birds to Galloway, but aside from a few outriders (and the birds which breed in the woods behind the house), there was very little to see this year.

An explanation for this strange absence can perhaps be found in the wind maps which I shared last week to explain the dramatic dump of Icelandic snipe on the moss. These winds went on to turn at a ninety degree angle before blowing east across the North Sea. Any migrants in Scandinavia would have been held up by these headwinds, and it is fun to imagine a queue of woodcock building up on the coast of Norway waiting to cross. The wind finally changed two days ago, and we received a mild, sloppy breeze from the Atlantic southwest. This relieved the pressure from Scandinavia, and the migrants came pouring over the sea. Running in the woods this evening, I saw seven woodcock flighting out to feed in the wet fields – nothing like as many as I might see in a peak year, but still a substantial step up from three days ago.

During the early days of the War, my grandfather patrolled the Firth of Forth in a spitfire. His first active engagement was over the docks at Leith, and bullets from his machine gun hammered through the pitifully thin aluminium fuselage of a German Heinkel bomber. When I was told the story as a child, I always pitied those foreign airmen. It seemed perverse that they had come so far across miles of featureless ocean, only to be hammered and killed by fighters when land was finally in sight. We have a newsroom photograph of their aeroplane lying “dead” on the moor near Humbie, a small village near Haddington in East Lothian. There is a swastika on the tail fin.

The story has given me a strange idea of the North Sea and the things which cross it. The East coast is a profoundly bizarre landscape to those of us who were brought up between estuaries and mountains in the west. Lush, arable landscapes run into cold dunes, and the sea laps soupily at your feet. This is no home for me, and Scandinavia feels like a very long way beyond the horizon – you can’t see it, so it might as well be as far away as America. The lands beyond that Sea are occupied magical beasts; Norse gods; even Nazis. The idea that familiar birds routinely cross that vast gulf does little to make the opposite shore feel closer; it simply makes the birds feel more special.

And then there is a counter-perspective. Flying back from Finland at the start of October, we crossed over Norway at 33,000 feet. The landscape looked tiny below us, and I watched it quietly receding into an expanse of open water. Perhaps half an hour passed during which time I could see nothing but water and the occasional oil rig. It was easy to look down on the water and see it as little more than a quick step, particularly when Scotland appeared in the distance and we crossed the coast near Elgin. A woodcock’s migration suddenly seemed like a small affair.

But the birds wait for the right wind for a reason – the crossing is a tall order, and they need all the help they can get. Who knows how many woodcock collapse onto the waves in the darkness, unable to fly another inch; how many birds sink down into the water, leaving their feathers to swirl like autumn leaves along the bottom.