Catch Up

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There has been an unforgivable lull in the continuity of this blog. Perhaps it gave the impression that I have finally thrown in the towel with this project, although long term readers will know that I passed the point of no return a very long time ago.

The reality is that two months of silence have been driven by a crushing surfeit of work. First and foremost, I have moved from the Heather Trust to the Soil Association, working on a project to promote Farming with Nature across Scotland. This has been a grand upheaval in its own right, and I now work one day a week in Edinburgh. This simple change has been a staggering wake-up from a life of constant stillness, but now I have a new way to follow many of the hares which have been set running by this blog.

I have also been drawing the threads together on a substantial writing project which I hope will come together in the next few weeks. This will be the product of more than a year in the slow cooker, and I am desperately excited to release it into the world. The idea has been mooted a few times on Working for Grouse, but now it really seems to be happening.

So perhaps I can be forgiven for letting this blog slide. I have a deluge of subject matter to catch up with, and perhaps it will never be written. Maybe it is more sensible to abandon all that has passed in the last eight weeks and work to keep up to date with new happenings. But I cannot resist a summary of mental images, for better or worse

 

The laughing bray of a dog fox over the rough grass. I cast him a line of torchlight, and he parries it; a pair of bright eyes blink over the silent frost.

Chevrons of wild geese in the darkness, paddling through pools of low cloud and peat smoke.

Mice skittering like children across the oat sheafs, which lie in stacks like buxom ladies in the dust of the loft.

Cattle stand in sleet with the ice falling from their curls in spiral beads. A warm pall of sweat and sweetly cudded fug hangs about them.

The tractor working the corn mill, and the bumpy rumble of heavy wheels on a clear day when yellow-eyed owls come to hunt the moss and drop face-first into the crackling grass.

A raging mink hemmed into a cage like a piece of bear. White fangs, a bristling mane  and a crackle and hiss like a wet pine fire.

That injured citrus glow of sunset over the farm, which spells nothing more than cold bones and frost to come.

 

 

Happy New Year.

 

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Owls

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The easterly wind is cold and it fills the yard with dry grass. Streamers fly like tickertape, and the fences are festooned with strandy bunting which trembles like a madman’s hair. Old folk call this grass flying bent because it flies away in the first good winds of autumn, but we are more pragmatic and we’re told to call it purple moor grass, or molinia.

This grass was red and sunlit a month ago, but the rain and the falling temperatures have stripped away those autumnal colours. The hills are losing their jammy tang and now they are cold and grey beneath a flat winter light. The sky darkens with the rush of flying grass, and new faces have come to surf above the open ground. Short eared owls are hunting over the moor, sweeping up the dust of summer. I look up from some chore and find a bird staring into my eyes like hypnotist; blaring yellow discs invite me to swoon or obey.

This hunter is busy and he lands for a moment on the dyke between the moor and the stubbles. He looked big on the wing, but this fluff and volume is just for show; you could fit him in a coffee cup. Blown in like some piece of wasted grass, this bird has followed those easterly winds from Norway or Sweden to be here at this moment of final collapse. Mice who may have been celebrating their longevity now have additional cause for concern.

Dump

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The pigs are digging in the old dump. They rip the turf and unearth objects of strange antiquity.

The old boy who lived in this house before us had been tipping his junk over the dyke for years; out of sight and out of mind. I grumbled to gather up his plastic bottles and sardine cans, and I cursed him for leaving me with work to do. The job bent me double, and I had time to soften and recall that pollution is newly wrong; I am more offended by rubbish than he ever would have been. His response to the growing cowp was simply to set it on fire every few years, thereby decreasing its volume. I shudder because he shrugged.

The best I could do was pick up the obvious top layer. I found mats of melted trash, and I broke them up and hauled them away to the council dump. I did not realise that this has been a cowp for generations, and the layers of rubbish have grown like scabs on a rotten wound. Now the pigs are organising a precise inventory of lost litter.

At first they showed me glass bottles. Broken shards peered through the mud like dragon teeth, and I hurried to clean them up in case the pigs were slashed by the glittering edges. But below the shattered trash lay troves of pristine glass; a dozen immaculate beer bottles from the long defunct brewery in Dumfries; heavy brown jugs of DOMESTOS lying strewn beside lemonade from McMichaels of Eastriggs (also defunct). They were beautiful, and they might have been emptied yesterday. I stacked them in a crate and now the wind blows over the glass tops and plays old tunes in the yard.

And then the pigs brought me jars of lime marmalade, meat paste and Brylcreem. I was on the trail of teddy boys, but soon we were deeper into cork-stoppered jugs of liniments and unctions. I stumbled upon the muddy shell of a toy Austin 7, then found spokes which might have come from the real thing. And there were boot soles and mess tins, horse shoes and tough fibres of leather tack. I found a gas lamp and several earthenware jars which had been made in Castle Douglas. Soon the pigs and I were passing beyond the Great War, back into discs of blue and white china which dressed the gears of a bicycle and the breech of a shotgun. Even this morning, I kicked a new clod and revealed the head of a hoe and the hands of a clock.

I lived for a time in Africa where farms are new and yards have nothing to hide. I showed the Afrikaaners photographs of my home and they were astonished by the sight of grey stone buildings and cobbled yards. They said “Yes, you’re lucky to come from a place like that, to live in your own history…”

The pigs are working a rich seam. Most of this stuff is rotten junk and I would never think twice to see it in a car boot sale. But I am captivated because it is here in this place which is fast becoming mine. We only started here eighteen months ago, but there is no such thing as a clean slate around these parts. There is no glamour in Domestos or broken enamel taps, but that broken museum is breathing down my neck.

Woodpigeons

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I used to kill sackfuls of woodpigeons. Shooting filled my world, and I longed for the dusting days of late summer when the stubbles were cleared and the doos would come sledging down to my hand-made paper decoys. I was fifteen years old, and I would lie in the whinns and watch the birds arrive in flights of four and five against a backdrop of rough grass and blue hills. My life smelled of feathers and gun oil and the dust of gathered corn.

I was keen as mustard in those days. I would shoot from dawn to dusk, and endure long spells of four and more hours without firing a shot or seeing a bird. This was no lust for blood or carnage, but a bottomless, laser-guided appetite for excitement beneath wide skies. Even on days when I failed to fire a single shot, my knuckles were cast white on the stock of my shotgun for hours.

New thrills were uncovered with every trip. A hawk ambushed my decoys; wild grey partridges scuttled along the yellow rigs; adders lay in tangled clumps around dyke-foots. One day I broke my cover to gather a shot bird and found another coming in. I hit this second and then a third as I stood barefoot in the ribbons of stubble. I was breaking every law of camouflage and concealment; the birds could see me and they were just coming in anyway. I sat down on the open field and shot twelve brace in half an hour, marvelling at their crazy enthusiasm; the same wild-eyed suicide of mackerel through a line of hooks. Then suddenly it was over and the spell was broken; the birds were stand-offish again and I had to pinch myself.

I plucked the pigeons and sold them to the pub in the village. Nothing was wasted, but then school returned and the hot days were gone. And nowadays we stay away from chancy crops like barley around these parts. The best fields are down in grass, and there is nothing to feed a shoal of hungry birds. You cannot shoot like that anymore in Galloway – small farms cannot afford to grow their own barley, and big ones would turn away a keen boy with empty pockets.

But now I have my own stubbles, and the last few days have filled them with clattering blue wings again. I watch the birds sliding in to the fallen crop and I relive some flares of glory from teenage years. On the spur of a moment, I dug out a sack of old decoys and spread them again last week before the cool breeze of coming rain. I could hardly deny myself a brace of birds for the pot, remembering that my harvest includes more than oats.

The birds came again, and I rose to kill them. But I am out of practice, and my shot flew past them in wide margins of error. There followed a lull of half an hour and my brain wandered back to work. I began to fret and puzzle over the knots which waylay me at my desk. A pigeon came and flared away and I was so distracted that the moment passed without an attempt. There was a time when this would have fouled me with frustration, but now I merely shrug.

And then I grew cold and uncomfortable, battered by rain and a chill breeze. I lasted an hour after the smirr began, then I gathered my brace and walked back to the house, telling myself there were more important things to do. It was hard to recall the wild, burning passion and focus of boyhood days because now it seems I am boring and sensible, bogged down with balance and misled by a sense of my own importance.

It turned out that I worked at my desk for the rest of that day, and very little good it did me. My teenage self would have been disgusted by that passive, cowardly resignation from an afternoon at the doos. I would love to meet that boy again and receive a richly deserved kick in the arse.

 

Goshawk

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There is a goshawk in the wood above the cattle. I have seen her three times in the last week, and now she is all I can think about.

I first knew these birds on the open hill, flying as far-sown flecks above heather and white grass. I learned about them from the wreckage of their hunting; the question-mark tails of blackgame stirred like chaff into owl down and pigeon quills. Goshawks occupied the furthest limits of my experience, recognised only by rumour and autograph. It’s a niche these hunters have long occupied, like sparks in the distance.

But this bird hunts on the edge of broad-leafed woodland. She patrols over wrinkled grazing scored with whinns and green knowes, rushing between beechwoods and oaks on the near horizon. I find her face to face, pedalling strongly between the trees like a giant. Now I can see details and plumage, and a glint of coloured eyes.

I stood open mouthed in the yard and watched this bird coursing a corvid above me. I had reckoned that a goshawk could easily break a solo crow, but her prey would not lie down and die. It flew high in rocketing panic, and they dived and turned and flared all around without death or escape. Both birds seemed black against a heavy sky, but I could hear their wings rasping and the coarse rattle of laboured breath. Perhaps the hawk was merely playing, but every twist and stall dried my mouth and made my hackles rise. At last the crow began to wriggle and moan, and two others came to rescue it. A raven came in from below and flared his beard until the hawk broke off and dived away through the arms of a dripping oak tree. And now I wonder if crows are hard to kill, or whether I was watching a bully.

The hawk returned today and coasted between the red stems of tall scots pine trees. I recalled the long neck and trailing tail like a crucifix in the wet light and put a name to her again beyond question. But this proximity is misleading because it makes me think it is possible to know these birds. I may be close, but there are still chasms between us.

Loyalty

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In dire fettle and foundering, I pushed up through the broken ground to find altitude. This was an act of desperation in a bleak moment; the hill always provides a shift of perspective and leaves me smiling and renewed. I hoped that height would bring clarity, but now the high ground was dark and cloud-bound, and the grass rushed in eddies like foam. Night would soon come, and small birds rushed away like flecks of spit.

There was no cheap comfort on the hill, but it was a relief to be alone. I love to fly through this country and follow thin tracks through the deep grass. When friends come with me, I chafe and stamp at their slowness. Streaks of this land have grown thick and coarse with white grass which crowds in tussocks like an army of busbies; newcomers stumble and quickly tire, and of course I wait and say I don’t mind but real freedom is to pound through this stuff at a loping jog, hunch-backed and alone.

Rain came, and darkness slumped the wide horizon into a passive blue. Two miles from home and still outbound, I stopped and felt the sweat prickle my back. Sheep recoiled in horror as if I were some blood-hungry beast in their midst. Clouded and dark with frustration and gloom, I swore at them for their panic. Vague wings passed over head, and then came the onset of utter night, still bounding over grass and scored with flecks of ice and rain which soaked through my trousers and rasped the blood into my face. It’s a miserable damn place on the edge of day when all life has gone away and even the birds are scared to steep their feet in the moss pools. Snot trailed on the beak of my nose and then blew away or was trailed in long, streaking tracks up my cuff.

Geese moved on the edge of the last light; new birds rumbling in the clouds. The swallows have gone and now the grizzled ganders have come to replace them. They are tourists and refugees from Greenland and the Arctic Circle, come to carry the baton and keep the lights on. There is always something on the move, but these tidal tilts can leave me feeling lumpen and immobile. I am the only living constant in a world of shifts and relays.

I can hardly grudge the freedom of birds, but it’s an uncomfortable balance to my own static life, squatting on the same few acres like a toad under a stone. And I impose that stasis upon my cattle which would soon move away if they could. But I ring them in with dykes and wires and keep them as  my prisoners, bottling their aspirations for soft grass and mild  living. My ancestors would follow their herds around the seasons in a gradual, steady revolution. Those folk were not from Galloway as I am; they had a claim on all the grass from Glasgow to Liverpool. Perhaps they would think it was odd to stand all year in the same glen, enduring.

I turned for home. Long gone are the fine days when this place is a balmy, barefoot cushion of skylarks and ticker-tape. Gone too is that brief moment in autumn when this grass comes up peachy and red and the rowans are bent with berries. Now the hill is grey and blue and there is nothing but granite and the bones of dead summer. Even in the pits of grim bother, I drew some solace in my unnatural loyalty.

Winter Feed

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Even since I last wrote, the wee birds have doubled and then doubled again in numbers. I spy all sorts in the harvested field, and now they are joined by dark and sodden woodpigeons which cruise above the fallen crop like plashy rags.

A rush of rain battered into the glass windows and made me stand from my desk this afternoon. I looked onto the field to find a queue of seventy yellowhammers grimacing into the smirr along the dyketops. There were greenfinches and linnets in that listed mess, and they flared away like sparks from a grinder as a merlin came off the moss and tried his hand with the wind behind him.

This is no mere improvement on last year, when this field was in grass like almost every other in the parish. This is abundance which has sprung from nothing at all. I wonder where these birds have come from, and now I am almost reluctant to bring livestock here in case the balance tips away again. Cattle will mash the wasted crop and strip this field, but I reassure myself that the best is yet to come. Buxom bundles of oats are waiting in the sheds and the mice are making their skirts rustle with impatience. This is the cream of the summer, and it’ll be dished out to the birds and the dripping cattle when the long nights come. And just as I was the man who cut this crop in sweat and short trousers a few months back, it’ll be me that cowps the sheafs and slits them open beneath rakes of bleeding rain and the black ruts of winter mud.  It’s one hell of a job, this.

And if we finish the sheafs, we can rely on the meal. I have a roller mill now, and by Christ it works. It’s a knuckle-busting brute from the “Albion” works of Messers Harrison and MacGregor in Leigh, and we nearly crapped our puddings in moving it. The machine is older than my father, but now the weight is in place and the belts are tight. We’ve already flattened a trial bag of oats into light, waxy flakes; they sputter out of the chute like sleet and the whole place smells like porridge to make your mouth water. Our buildings shudder and drum with the rumble of heavy wheels, and we power the machine by a shaft through a hole in the wall to the tractor. Making that hole was a day’s work in itself, and many a tough-tipped drill bit was buggered as we battled the old granite.

Our oatmeal will be fed outdoors in a trough I am yet to build, and the bull will surely make a bastard mess of it. He will belch the crumbs into the snow, and I am touching wood that the mess will keep us all busy until the spring.