The new bull doesn’t have a pedigree name, although he’s more than eligible for one. Both of his parents were riggit galloways, and it just so happens that he’s white with red points. You can ponder his phenotype all you like, but it’s very likely that he’ll have riggit calves by my riggit cows, and that’s something to look forward to. I think there’s a way to register him with the society as a “white riggit”, but there’s no hurry to do that and thereby assign him a formal moniker. In the meantime, I’ve called him Whitsun because that’s approximately when he came here. It’s nothing more than a nickname or a working title.
His first month has been a mixed bag. He’s clearly keen and able, and I’ve taken great pleasure in watching him fatten on thick beds of white clover. But he’s no respecter of my person, and we’ve shared more than a few moments of terse interplay. I’ve been charged, kicked and bellowed at – but in fairness, I’ve threatened him with many of the same hostilities and I’ve begun to treat his cavalier attitude as if it were a series of tests. I am determined to win, but I cannot allow the contest to play out on his terms. He could easily kill me, even without meaning to – so when we go head-to-head on some point of principle, I’m forever laying hidden contingencies. He’s no more dangerous than any young bull, but hardly knowing him creates opportunities for risk and misunderstanding.
So our dynamic is refreshing. I’m not used to being afraid in my day-to-day life, and it’s no surprise that the sudden rush of a charging calf should set me on edge. But I do welcome that intensity; fear is a brightening force, provided it lies within set parameters. And far greater than the marginal threat he poses me, my chief impression is one of irritation. He’s an insatiable escape artist. That’s meant that my neighbours are sick of him, and my stock in the glen has never been lower. I can only hope that when he’s moved and starts to work in a fortnight’s time, the business of thirteen cows should quieten him down and provide a focus for his wandering mind.
Curlews have become a symbol of biodiversity crisis in the UK. People are working to protect the birds in every corner of the country, and they’ve become a powerful rallying point for a wide variety of different interests, from upland gamekeepers to regenerative farmers in the lowlands. In this context, each part of the UK finds itself facing a different piece of the curlew puzzle, and it’s clearly a national problem with an endlessly local aspect.
Here in Galloway, it may be too late to save curlews, but the wider Scottish picture is a mixture of hope and concern. Away from core strongholds in the Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales, the English situation is significantly worse – some isolated populations of curlews in the south of England are desperately fragile and marginal. In these places, conservationists have begun to develop new techniques to protect curlews, from building electric fences around their nests to hatching chicks in captivity and releasing them into the wild; a process called “head-starting”.
Some of these techniques are very new, but they’re already becoming part of the accepted toolbox of curlew conservation. It’s maybe worth remembering that there’s nothing conventional about this kind of work, which lies at the most extreme end of interventionist conservation. Just as ecological baselines shift and each new generation accepts its own status quo of biodiversity, it’s surprising how quickly people have begun to accept some frighteningly hands-on and demanding conservation techniques. I suppose the acceptance is rendered easier to swallow by a wider realisation that unless this kind of work is carried out, curlews will vanish. But at the same time, there’s a parallel discussion to be had about what a curlew really is – and whether, if the bird is wholly dependent on a man-made life-support mechanism, it’s really still a curlew after all.
I’ve done enough work on curlews here in Galloway to realise that nest losses are one of the biggest causes of curlew decline. Despite all kinds of predator control, most eggs simply don’t survive long enough to hatch. Even when I’m doing all I can, productivity doesn’t improve – but that’s not an immutable fact of life; it’s largely a consequence of laws which protects some nest predators. So I’m starting to reckon that putting an electric fence around curlew nests might help to ameliorate that single problem, knowing that once curlew chicks have hatched (and survived their first few daft days of idiocy), their chances of success dramatically improve. We have some excellent chick-rearing habitat here, and it’s a constant frustration that chicks rarely survive to use it. So if I was to try electric fencing, I could satisfy myself that I was addressing a single pinch-point in a journey that’s otherwise fairly sound.
The process of head-starting is a very different kettle of fish. Taking eggs from the wild, hatching them in captivity and then rearing chicks to fledging age feels like a response to something that’s systematically broken from root to branch. Curlews are unusually popular birds and people will go to extraordinary lengths to support them, but the process of head-starting represents a shockingly expensive, intensive way to address their declines.
Some people say that it’s only a temporary stop-gap; a means of artificially buoying productivity in places where numbers are in freefall. Habitat restoration is often slow, and I agree that there are many places where conditions cannot improve quickly enough to help the birds. Head-starting might allow these places to retain birds just long enough for them to “go wild” again – but to me it seems like we’re making a treadmill for ourselves; a punishingly hands-on regime which will be hard to drop. And once we’ve muddied the waters of what’s self-sustaining, it will be very difficult to walk away.
I absolutely commend the people who have gone down this road. I know what it’s like to feel something valuable slipping away – you’ll do anything to keep it, and this blog article is nothing like criticism at all. It’s clear that curlews have come to mean something beyond themselves, and the continual experience of losing birds feels like a profound sense of ecological disempowerment. Put simply, many of us still have hope that we can reverse biodiversity loss. Having rallied that hope around the emblematic curlew, we’ll surely suffer a punishing loss of confidence if we are beaten back from what already feels like “a last stand”. These are the terms through which I understand and sympathise with head-starting; the simple logic that we cannot afford to lose this fight.
But I’m also nagged with doubt. Behind the surge of widespread popular support, it’s clear that some people regard curlew conservation as rather silly – the deliberate exaltation of a single species without due regard to its failing ecology. Several years ago, the popular controversialist Chris Packham was slammed for arguing that we should let panda bears die out – that the money spent on conserving this single species would be better spent on broader and more pressing concerns. People were outraged, but the argument does make perfect sense.
There are financial and ecological arguments here that I’m scarcely able to join – I’m rather more at home on the subjective, emotional front. And to be honest, I’m not sure where I stand just yet. I’m thinking aloud, but at least in part, we love curlews because they remind us of wild places and a countryside that we didn’t have to worry about. At quite a fundamental level, that’s what these birds represent. So I’m battling to resist the horribly rational rubric that if we cannot keep these birds wild and true to their old point of origin (and the landscape that loved them), perhaps it’s right that we should lose them.
The hay I made was a mile away, so I travelled back and forth from my farm to the fields over several days in a range of tractors and trucks. Amidst this constant shuffling of machinery, there were often times when all the kit was either here or there. That left me high and dry, so I sometimes had to walk or walk home. The journey takes me twenty minutes; down the track and over the bridge, then out along the main road and up the far side to the loaning. This walk is no great distance at all, but it’s opened my eyes to a thousand small details I might otherwise have missed.
I found a pheasant nest and a brood of newborn stonechats. There were honey-coloured leverets in the verge, and haws fattening on their twigs like grapes. It’s hard to see these crops from the window of a moving vehicle, and tough to clock how well the dog rose shows just now. There’s a riot of roses, and even in the time it took to make the hay, the bramble flowerings began to boil like confetti beneath rafts of purple nightshade and almost-edible honeysuckle. I wonder how much of this I’d usually overlook; so much of my time seems to pass in suspended enjoyment – I tell myself that I’ll focus on my surroundings when I get there. Instead I should focus on the better truth that I’m always there.
As I cross the river, ducklings rush away and the water crowfoot swirls in a gurgle. Something killed a young magpie on the shingle banks, and now the black and white feathers are losing their contrast in the dew and the raging sun. Sedge warblers sing almost constantly at this time of year. They sound like a careless fag-end in a crate of fireworks. It’s a riot of sound, and always herons padding gently along the silt. My twenty minute commute has become a safari until I reach the main road and walk for a quarter mile down the main road. That’s when I’m brought back to earth with a bump.
Timber lorries blast past within arm’s reach; they make the ground rumble with their enormity. Once when I tried but couldn’t step off the road into the verge, two cars blasted their horns at me because I made them steer and brake. Later on the same trip, a friend stopped his car and reversed back to see me. He asked if I wanted a lift, because surely I wasn’t walking by choice. I said I wasn’t going far, and he told me to “watch yourself, this road’s not safe”. Then he waved goodbye and driving off in a rush, he reminded me that the best way to avoid the danger is to become part of it.
It’s an old and well-established jibe that no matter how much farmers complain about crops, subsidies and the inadequacies of government support, you still “never see a farmer on a bike”. Even in the hardest times, they’re still buying range rovers with personalised number plates. If you never see a farmer on a bike, you’re even less likely to see one walking, and yet there’s value in taking this kind of time to reconnect with the farm and see it from a different angle.
I’m being unreasonable here. Agriculture’s bound up in an endless rush to perform a thousand different tasks across ever-larger areas. And when the whole world’s geared up for rushing, slowing down is nigh-on heresy – mot everybody can afford to saunter out for their day’s work like Laurie Lee. But a little extra time’s repaid when it reminds you why you’re doing this work in the first place.
By a strange and roundabout route, I’ve found myself managing most of the communications outputs for the Working for Waders project. I’ve written about this role before on Bog Myrtle and Peat, not least because it puts me in the firing line for people who don’t like the project. Like any collaborative attempt to find the middle ground, Working for Waders has made enemies at both ends of the spectrum. That’s disappointing, but while I’d like everybody to come along as part of this process, it’s possible that some people are too entrenched to ever make a leap for something new.
Acting anonymously as “Working for Waders” on social media, I’ve sometimes posted articles and links about predator control – or the project’s association with gamekeepers. These associations are intolerable to some people who thereafter dismiss any output from Working for Waders as poisonously biased. Of course predator control is a particular bone of contention, and it often serves as a flashpoint when it comes to wader conservation. Mention it and people will call you inhumane and barbaric to even dream of killing a predator. But fail to mention it and you’re blasted by noisy individuals in the shooting community who are out to prove a point. I sit in the middle, dodging the clods.
Of course this all comes with a long back-story, and shooting folk are well accustomed to fighting their corner. I’ve fought in that corner for almost twenty years, and I know what’s like. But it now seems like there are some noisy folk who have forgotten what progress looks like, and are so dead-set on “scoring points” on a battle-by-battle basis that they’ve forgotten why we’re fighting the war.
I’ve been concerned about badger predation on lapwings for several years. Over the last eighteen months, Working for Waders has uncovered a fair amount of evidence to confirm my fears. I thought this would be great news for people like me who have often complained that we lack hard evidence of badger predation. However, when we have publicised footage of badgers eating wader eggs, the first (and by far the most aggressive) responses come from people who dislike badgers. They’re livid, not because badgers are raiding wader nests but because they claim to have been saying this for years. The cry is not “finally, hard evidence!”, but a much less constructive (and often almost snarky) “I told you so!”
It’s turns out that people who don’t believe that badgers are an issue for wading birds simply ignore our findings. They just don’t want to know. So it’s weird that the only serious backlash has come from people who are being vindicated, and it worries me that there’s so much “I told you so” that we’re missing an opportunity to do something about it. It turns out that badger predation is really complicated. Badgers aren’t systematically destroying wader nests like I thought they were, and it seems like there are a number of different factors at play. I really hope we’re ready for this level of nuance, but I don’t think we are.
It’s quite possible that badger predation is worse in some years than others, and weather conditions may be an extremely important factor in dictating a badger’s choice of food. It’s also clear that getting any kind of licence to manage badger impacts is going to be extremely difficult. Lethal control is going to be a very distant last resort, and it makes sense that our first responsibility should be to explore non-lethal options. I’m horrified to find that we don’t know much about badger predation on waders. In general terms, the data just didn’t exist until we started gathering it, and there’s no way things will change or improve until we get more. That’s going to take time, and I agree that wader declines are a pressingly urgent concern. It’s frustrating, but I’m afraid it’s the only way to lock horns with a difficult issue. In the meantime, continually demanding the right to cull badgers is so unrealistic that it’s starting to sound daft.
Under the guise of Working for Waders, I have to say that being attacked by “my own side” has been really unpleasant. I’ve had to grow a thick skin and focus on reaching a range of different audiences with a variety of perspectives. That’s the hardest part, because there’s no doubt that waders do very well on managed moorland and shooting estates. It’s clear that wading birds are a good news story associated with gamekeepers, and it’s only fair that shooting organisations want to claim some of the credit for this. But Working for Waders was not set up to give people credit for getting it right. Instead, it’s more important that we should work with people who are getting it wrong, many of whom have never given wading birds a single moment’s thought. That’s where we’ve seen the best progress so far, particularly when we’ve been able to bring gamekeepers and land managers in to share and showcase their own examples of best practice conservation.
When Working for Waders shares information about predation and wading birds on social media, the number of declamatory comments often spins through the roof. Many of these are shared privately or concealed so we can’t even see them or respond, and we often find them only by accident. That’s weird and unnerving, particularly when it’s clear that some of our worst critics have never even engaged with us or said hello. From the perspective of a lifelong shooter and former gamekeeper, it’s really not a good look for our community. I know that social media is bad for amplifying negativity and polarising nuance, but I’d be very sorry if shooting folk went on to cast themselves as sulky, aggressive and self righteous.
This is an exciting, dynamic time for conservation and wildlife management in Scotland – against a backdrop of loss and decline, there’s plenty to feel optimistic about – particularly if we can park our short-term desire for triumphalism, point-scoring and social media warfare.
Picture above: Badger steals oystercatcher egg from a planter outside a golf club in Aberdeenshire, June 2022 (L. Janniche)
Back in May when the rain fell in sheets for three consecutive days, I watched the silage mowers working into the darkness. The grass was rich and sodden then; a fine and glassy blue to the far horizon. When the crop was mown, forage harvesters growled in the headlights after dark and tall-sided wagons carted the grass away to concrete pits for storage.
I always used to think that silage trumped hay because it’s more flexible, and there’s a wider margin for error. In truth it seems that modern silage has finally learned to cast off all the but the most punishing extremes of weather. Rather than making silage from grass that’s not quite dry enough to be hay, you can actually take it wet, which suggests there’s no more need to watch the weather. So farewell to the Farmer’s Forecast and the endless talk of what the coming days might hold. When the time comes to cut your crop, simply suit yourself.
I’m the first to confess that hay is a fine-tuned skill; a collaboration between the crop, the weather and the skill of the working team. These last few days I’ve made hay of my own, and I’ve been tortured by the threatening mounds of clouds in the west. I had one good day and then two that were dull – after that, a shower and then two muggy days where nothing seemed to dry at all. It’s been agonising, but I’ve loved the stress of it.
This is my seventh year of making hay, and I’ve picked up plenty of tricks to mitigate the harm of risky weather during that time. Only once in those seven years has the hay “made” so well that it was cut on Monday and stacked in the shed by Tuesday night. Every other attempt has led to compromise and risk; the factoring in of unexpected rain or a late dew. As soon as you deviate from the optimal path, you’re forced to pick from a range of options, and therein lies endless controversy. If you know there’s rain coming, is there value in rowing up the crop to protect it, or will it shed better left lying? Dew comes from inside the rows and rain falls upon it, so how do you handle a sudden mist from the Solway?
My father taught me how to make hay, but he had a certain idea of managing risk. When I later made hay with my neighbour, he laughed at the tricks I’d learned and showed me different ones. These two men are of a similar age, and both learned to make hay on farms less than three miles apart – and yet their approaches were utterly different. They even taught me different ways to tell if the crop was ready to bale – my father takes a twist and listens for the crackle of it; my neighbour takes deep, badger-like snuffs of the crop – I do a little of both, but all of this is deeply rooted in atmospherics; the weight of the grass and deep barometric stirrings in the Atlantic Ocean. At first they seem mysterious, but in truth these metrics make sense beyond the irritations of a ticking watch face or the scheduled event of a calendar. And if you’re successful, you’ll have beaten something bigger than a clock.
Last night as I stacked bales into diamond heaps on the edge of darkness, a friend came down off the hill and leaned on the gate by the field’s entrance. He said his father used to stack bales like that, but he never liked it. By contrast, my father did it and I’ve sustained the tradition, particularly if you aren’t in any rush to get the new crop under tin. The bales can sweat and breathe in diamonds for a few days, and if the rain comes, they’ll shed the water like a thatched roof. But later I had a text message from the man who sometimes comes to bale my silage in July. He’d come over the hill from Kirkgunzeon and wanted to know what the strange big heaps were in the field by the river; he’d never seen anything like them, and he sent me a laughing emoji when I tried to explain. That was almost hurtful; a criticism of something my father did, and yet why should I feel emotionally bound to a certain technique for stacking dead grass?
Hay-making’s out of fashion now, and much of this detail is dying. But I can’t ignore the bald and obvious connection which connects a farming task to the sunlit sky. Perhaps there was a time when all trades were somehow bound to the weather, and even the first indoor workers would’ve noticed their wooden desks creak and buckle in the summer’s sun.
You might have said that farming’s one of the last occupations where the weather really matters, but even those threads are fraying now. For all the time my hay’s on the ground, I’m following the forecast and watching the weather as it rolls in off the sea. It consumes me, but like most things which place an apparently unreasonable demand on our attention, technologists have found a way to lighten the load. Silage is easier and faster; big forage harvesters work in all weathers, and while wet silage is not so good as drier stuff, it all evens out to the tune of a thousand tons. And looking on the bright side, if farmers have been rescued from worrying about the rain, perhaps they’re freer now to worry about how they’ll pay back the overdrafts required to buy silage-making equipment.
Not angels but bats in the rafters at Llananno, and the altar topped with a plastic sheet to keep the shit off. Even as I sat for an hour in the old church, the purlins scratched and rattled with movement. Once there was a small dispute, and a moment’s angry wailing which brought a streamer of cobwebs down on the pews nearby.
I’d gone to see the famous screen; the one with dragons rolling in foliage, belching fig leaves and brambles for five centuries without interruption. And sure – the carving work is sensational, complete with two-headed men and a lattice of patterns to make you gasp at the unexpectedly fine line between oak and lace. I could’ve stayed there and watched the sun creep over that screen for hours, but those rafters were more alive and urgent.
If the objective of church-crawling is to lose your mind, you cannot choose what it is you’ll see. The screen was the main event, but bats were the open door and I pushed at them instead. I closed my eyes and smiled at the image of newborn pups above me, cooried into their mothers, suckling up a night’s mosquitoes in a single pearl of milk. Time passed in this absorption, and a thin mist of aerial piss.
A hand-written copy of R.S. Thomas’ poem Llannano was hanging by the door of the church as I left. I found it there with the colour draining from it and the felt-tip hand like child’s. It’s not his greatest poem, but it made me dizzy for a moment to know that I walked in a swirl of the old man’s wake. Of course he’d’ve come here; of course he knew Llananno. And it’s obvious that he could see this place with a more-than-religious clarity, observing its peace and the quality of its light – the nearby traffic notwithstanding.
Then afterwards I walked beside the Ithon which runs below the church, patterned with alders, glittering with damselflies and demoiselles like a steaming jungle river. Blackbirds called across the low water in the smell of cows and long grass. It was late afternoon, and deeply more than anything I’d hoped to find after a long journey.
And suddenly I was curious to see that stream shine at one or two in the morning; in the dumb time with all those bats unleashed from the nearby rafters, straining out the daily darkness, dipping down onto the water as a trout dips up to the air. That’s when a different regime might’ve transformed the place; nature out beneath its rightful sky and the church left truly empty to be peaceful or whatever it chose for itself. I might’ve had a look at the old screen then, and pawed it with my full attention; I might’ve sat alone in the gloom and found more of what I’d come to see than ever those misleading bats allowed me.
I will go back to Llananno, but isn’t it hard to experience a place cleanly without the baggage of your own imagined hopes? So, glad of every thing I’d found, I’m learning hard to work with what I’m given. And following this line, perhaps the night-time visit I’d begun to conceive is not a springboard for next time but a satisfactory end-point for now.
I went to see M Wynn Thomas at the Montgomery Literary festival in Powys. I was there to speak for myself on the following day, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear and meet a long-time idol of mine.
My first glimpse of the man himself was surprisingly opaque. He slipped onto the stage in silence, begging more questions than answers; he might’ve been soft or effeminate, tired or underspoken – there was nothing to betray the character of this man whose books are full of unpacked and repackaged ideas on Welsh national and cultural identities. I could only say that he was a small and pleasingly chelonian figure dressed in creams and taupes, carrying a tote bag filled with unbound sheets of printed paper.
I’ve spent weeks reading M Wynn Thomas. I’ve gobbled up as much of this his writing as I can find, particularly that which relates to his friend RS Thomas, the greatest poet of the Twentieth Century. M Wynn Thomas is something of a literary mogul with influence far beyond his role professor of English in the Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales at Swansea University. He has a profound grasp on the grand intangibles, and while I’m still finding my feet as an observer of Welsh culture, he’s a landmark visible from the Solway shore on a clear day.
With the old expression “never meet your heroes” ringing in my head, I was certainly conscious that I’m heavily invested in this man, who rustled his beige anorak and looked suspiciously into the room as a small audience settled in; twenty five people, of whom eight were wearing lanyards to suggest they were part of the organising committee. He wasn’t anxious or nervy on the stage; only impatient to start.
He’d come to Montgomery promote his latest book “A History of Wales in Twelve Poems”. I already own a copy but hadn’t managed to make a start on it. Adjusting my ears to better catch that unfamiliar but richly welcome Welsh accent, Wynn Thomas began his talk with a lurching sideways plunge off piste into a discussion about Y Gododdin and orality in older literary traditions. That classic poem represents a cornerstone of Welsh literature, but there’s a neat kicker in the fact that it was written in what is now modern Scotland. It may seem remarkable today, but 6th Century Wales included Southern Scotland, which it called Yr Hên Ogledd – “The old North”.
There’s plenty to unpack in that, not least in how modern nationalist narratives express older Celtic identities. I recently read a biography of Owain Glyndŵr which was at such pains to point out that William Wallace was Welsh that the impression was downright touchy. So when M Wynn Thomas pointedly reclaimed Y Gododdin as Welsh, he did so by shouldering Scotland off the ball.
There’s not much of an ownership dispute here, but it raises some fun questions about whether it’s actually useful to bracket literature according to nation states. Y Gododdin is certainly the oldest Scottish poem in terms of geography, but it was composed in Early Welsh and preserved for five centuries in a uniquely Welsh bardic tradition. Nobody’s seriously trying to deny that Y Gododdin’s Welsh, but it’s worth remembering that the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid caused a stir by recasting aspects of the poem for Scotland in the 1930s.
You can take this two ways; MacDiarmid was an ardent nationalist who strove to create a functional modern literature for Scotland using all the tools available to him. He clearly felt entitled to work with Y Gododdin as part of a broader Scottish canon, even if it required him to “take” material which “belonged” to others. That’s an interesting challenge to conventions, but rather than alienate his Welsh counterparts, many were inspired to model Welsh nationalism on the imaginative template MacDiarmid established for Scotland.
On the other hand, you could rehash MacDiarmid’s handling of Y Gododdin as a gesture of British plurality on the cusp of the Second World War, highlighting a sense that modern understandings of Wales and Scotland would have meant little to our shared Celtic ancestors. Facing Hitler, it was helpful to remember that “we’re all in this together”. Several key writers did this, but it seems unlikely that MacDiarmid would have done the same. He would have snarled at “British plurality” as little more than a watered-down sop to pure-form Scottish nationalism, even in the face of Nazi expansionism. If he saw common threads in British plurality, they would only have led him to a shared sense of injustice at English rule; the common burden of Paol Keineg’s “ransomed nations”.
But I buy the argument of plurality and commonality, even if MacDiarmid didn’t. I find it extremely easy to lean into parallels between older Scottish and Welsh cultures, and I look enviously at Welsh works like the Mabinogion or the Irish Táin because we have nothing to match them in Scotland. Our single-minded fixation on the Reformation meant that we simply walked away from vast, essential threads of our own cultural history. Puritanism created scandalous gaps in our collective imagination, and it’s impossible to quantify what we threw away.
In this context, it’s no surprise that Walter Scott and James Hogg were obsessed with reimagining a pre-Reformation Scotland, full of faeries and minstrels from a readily identifiable Cymric format. Feeling a hole in themselves, they created a synthetic prehistory for Scotland which pleases the tourist trade but lacks any authentic sense of organic continuity. So it’s useful for modern Scottish readers to engage with Welsh, Irish and Manx culture because these uncover a window on our Celtic selves that’s otherwise missing at home.
Of course this is only one strand of M Wynn Thomas’ anthology of poetry, which ran all the way from Blodeuwedd to Fern Hill and Gillian Clarke, but he touched on so many themes I recognise as a Scottish reader. He made it clear that while the Anglo Saxon’s stereotypical Celt is the passionate, colourful Dylan Thomas (or Robert Burns), the other side of the coin is something calmer and cooler; reflective, ascetic and clean. In Scotland, that’s often expressed as a Presbyterian dourness and a sense of self-restraint. It sometimes seems like Noncomformist Wales is just the same, but the differences are surprisingly rich.
There’s no reason for me to bind myself to a Welshman like M Wynn Thomas with such intensity, but his academic work and literary criticism is so exciting and relevant to Scottish readers that I’d call it downright inflammatory. The man himself exceeded my imaginings; subversive, funny and madly wise. In fact I was so in thrall to him that I bought myself a second copy of A History of Wales in Twelve Poems, just so that he could sign it.
I’ve been working on a national project to set cameras at the nests of wading birds. I did the same last year, but 2022 has seen a significant uptick in participation and scale across Scotland. There have been times during the last few weeks when almost ninety cameras have been running from Galloway to Aberdeenshire, and that’s generated a huge amount of admin and support to keep the show on the road. I’ve been responsible for most of this, and while it’s still too soon to make much of this year’s data, some of the findings have been startling.
Off the top of my head, badgers have been the most commonly recorded predators at wader nests, followed at a distance by foxes and pine martens. Carrion crows, ravens and jackdaws have all been caught on camera, but the most common cause of wader nest destruction for the project this year is sheep – and this by a country mile.
The project has captured all kinds of sheep damage. Some sheep deliberately eat eggs out of nests, while others trample or headbutt sitting birds until the yolks are scattered into the grass. One sheep picked up a lapwing’s egg in its mouth and deliberately “popped” it for no good reason whatsoever. This kind of behaviour is hard to fathom, and while it’s fun to speculate why it’s happening, it puts the camera project in an odd position.
Ever since the project started, all participants have made a deliberate attempt to keep our minds open and accept whatever we find. That’s fair enough from where I’m standing, but I must admit I hoped that we’d gather some good information on badger predation along the way. I think badgers are a leading cause of wader declines where I am in Galloway, and I’ve often been frustrated when badger enthusiasts tell me there’s no evidence for this. By gathering the evidence, I hoped we’d establish a foothold for the start of a better discussion. Perhaps I was being biased in this, but I reckoned that my input was diluted by working in a group which naturally pulls in a variety of other directions. And I’d also say again that this project has no specific remit to look at badgers anyway. My own interest is secondary to the far more open-minded fact that we’re chiefly out to gather information on wader nesting attempts in the broadest sense. It might sound easy to distribute nest cameras to a number of volunteers across the country, but it’s actually really hard – trust me – I’ve done the legwork here. That’s essentially what we’re trying to do; to flesh out the realities of engaging people and gathering data.
We actually have gathered some good evidence of badgers predating wader nests along the way, but I’ve quickly learned that you need to be careful with this kind of stuff. It can be explosive; people who love badgers can be very touchy. Treat badgers with anything less than open arms and you’re soon considered to be an enemy. This means that if you’re trying to build evidence and develop a consensus, you need to tread an extremely fine line – there’s an enthusiastic group of people out there who are happy to smear badgers with any accusation you can dream of. A video clip of a badger eating a curlew’s eggs can quickly become a battlefield, but we have to remember that it’s just a single example which hardly proves a thing. We mustn’t overlook the fact that we don’t have much data from this project; even one hundred cameras is too few to draw meaningful conclusions and the number of variables between sites is so crazy that it’s almost impossible to see what’s happening from a handful of images and videos. I think badgers are an issue, but we’re not establishing national truths here. The reality is that a tiny amount of evidence has no effective rigour and there will be a vast range of complexity lying beneath the surface. A video or a photograph proves nothing on its own, but in the wrong hands it can be toxic.
So we have to apply all of this caution to the case of livestock. We’ve got clear evidence that sheep are interfering with wader nests, but we can’t tell how serious the problem is at a national level. Just as we can’t infer much from a few clips of badger predation, it’s hard to extrapolate the idea that sheep are driving wader declines from a single year’s tiny study. But that’s what some people are already doing, particularly those from rewilding groups or organisations that have a vested interest against hill farming and livestock.
Off the back of this year’s project, some people have started leading conversations which seem to infer that sheep are the enemy, and that’s frustrating because it risks alienating key farming stakeholders. On a personal note, it’s also frustrating because these people are making the mistake I’ve been trying to avoid when it comes to badgers. To add another layer of explosive controversy, some farmers have responded to the idea that livestock are damaging nests with angry claims that it’s all a red herring – a conspiracy theory put about by badger enthusiasts to redirect the blame away from badgers. You might think it would be easy to rally support for wader conservation, but sometimes the whole discussion is just a series of controversies nested one inside the other.
I love this kind of work for all sorts of reasons, not least because wading birds often become a cypher for human beings. So much of conservation is about human relationships and emotional drivers, but in the very unscientific way we think about science, it’s a bottomless pit of intrigue.
You might remember that I found a pair of golden plover last year. I wrote about them at length because these birds are so absurdly scarce in Galloway nowadays that the chance of finding their nest was ten thousand to one. So I made hay while the sun shone and tried to gather all the information I could via a series of satellite cameras, but when they hatched their eggs and the chicks made off into the scree, I reckoned that would be the last I’d ever see of them.
Speaking to a plover specialist recently, he reckoned that the birds are often faithful to a specific location. They’ll return to a place for several consecutive seasons, often nesting within a short radius of the same few metres. Following this hunch, I happened to go looking for last year’s birds again this week. It’s a bad slog out to the back of the hills, and walking in isolation gave me time to ponder the decline of these birds in Galloway. They used to be abundant here, but they can’t abide forestry or tree cover near to their breeding grounds. Most of the best habitats for golden plover were planted in the 1970s, and their numbers crashed soon afterwards. I suppose if we’d known we’d lose them, we might have done something to preserve them. Instead, the trees were dumped wherever it suited a landowner to have them, and in recent years it was generally reckoned that golden plover were extinct as a breeding species in the south west.
I’d be very surprised if there were more than two or three breeding pairs in all of Galloway, and now that their numbers are so low, it’s unlikely that these final birds could ever muster sufficient conservation clout to resist or overturn a modern planting application. The birds I know are on land that’s already owned by Forest and Land Scotland, and they survive because they’ve chosen a spot so remote and hard to access that it could never be planted. If they were on a more readily findable place, there’s almost nothing to stop them being ploughed into trees. In terms of fragility, these final birds cling onto existence by the tiniest tips of their smallest toenails in a slackness that nobody has thought to tighten yet.
I could hear a plover calling in the cloud as I came to the place where they nested last year, and when the skies opened I saw the male bird on a hump of moss, standing in familiar profile like the shape of something primordial. He whistled eight or nine times as I walked towards him, then he flew a few yards uphill and made some sharp and derisive calls. I was still three hundred yards from last year’s nest site, and having learnt from the satellite cameras that incubation is shared equally by both parent birds who each take it in twelve hour shifts on the nest, it seemed strange that this male should be nearby but not sitting. I walked on, followed by the calling bird who laid on a series of distractions by trailing his wings and whining in the moss.
Clouds came and went, revealing slabs of sodden rock and distant lochans in the sunlit gaps. It’s a fine, dramatic place, this, two and a half thousand feet into the cloud with only a batter of rain above you. I paused to make sense of the male’s behaviour just as the female bird rose up at my feet and ran away in a tumbling panic. She left a tiny bowl of grass and blaeberry in her wake, and in a space the size of the palm of my hand lay three immaculate chicks.
By complete accident, I had timed my visit to near perfection. Judging from the cameras set in 2021, the new chicks will linger in the nest for two or three days after hatching, but there is a surprising delay between the first egg’s hatching and the last. One of the eggs I found was only just cracking, but at least two of the chicks could easily have been thirty six hours old. This meant there was a narrow window when the chicks were hatched but hadn’t left into the world, and I’d stumbled upon it by sheer fluke.
Given the very close proximity of this year’s nest to last (a distance of thirty three metres), it’s almost certain to be the same pair as 2021. The hatch is a week earlier than it was last year, but there’s no way I could have known this in advance. And it was only later when I realised that both adult birds were present on the hill together because this is an exciting time for them, with the long relay-drudge of sitting behind them. From now on, they’ll work together to protect their chicks.
It’s excellent news that this single pair should be so productive, but there’s a reason why nest cameras are a popular way to gauge productivity – nests are static and easy to monitor. Chicks are very mobile and most are impossible to follow, so while a good hatch is a great start, it’s also a long way from the journey’s end.
It’s perfectly possible that last year’s four chicks were eaten by ravens or foxes as soon as they left the nest, and it would not be surprising if these chicks (pictured) have already been eaten by something in the time it’s taken me to write this blog post. But in their favour is a large area of pristine, high-altitude bog habitat which has almost everything a growing plover chick might need. Provided the weather stays settled, there’s no reason why these birds shouldn’t thrive. And when it comes to predation, I sometimes wonder if certain species can persist at extremely low densities because many of their natural predators have given up looking for them. Back when these hills had one or two hundred nesting pairs of plover, it’s likely that ravens would fly over to make a special visit during the breeding season. Now we’re down to a handful of chicks, it’s hard to see why a raven would bother, and perhaps the risk of predation is more associated with chance encounters and simple bad luck.
I’ll go back to this place in a couple of weeks and see what I can see. It’s unlikely that another trip will add to my tiny store of knowledge, and the chances are that I won’t find anything worth recording. Young waders are impossibly hard to find at the best of times, but I’d love to try and piece together an update. Even if I go and fail to find a sign of plover chicks, perhaps it will be informative to spend some time around the kind of places they like to be, and maybe infer the rest.
The last few weeks have been fraught with activity. Working with a number of enthusiastic observers and volunteers, I’ve forcibly extracted information on curlew breeding attempts from an ambitiously vast piece of rough and varied countryside. It’s been far harder than I thought it would be, and more time consuming than I ever could have feared. I’ve kept a rough log of over one hundred hours spent searching for curlews, and I’ve travelled almost four hundred miles in the truck, on my bike and on foot on the hunt for breeding birds.
Accepting the many limitations of this survey, I’ve finished up with a final figure of twenty eight pairs. It’s certainly no fewer than this, and it’s possible that I might be underestimating the tally by four or five pairs. In certain places, it was just too hard to read the birds’ behaviour, and extra follow-up visits designed to confirm or shed more light failed to offer any help at all. I call it twenty eight, but I suspect it’s more like thirty two or three.
Without a baseline or a benchmark to measure it against, I knew this figure would be meaningless before I started, but I must admit that it’s considerably smaller than my most pessimistic predictions. I can’t tell you what the figure was ten or twenty years ago, but perhaps it would help to visualise the decline if I retrospectively estimate that in 2010, there were twenty five pairs on a group of four farms including my own; a total area of around thirty square kilometres. Maybe that helps to provide some context for the twenty eight pairs I found spread across six hundred and fifty square kilometres in 2022.
The situation is little short of a disaster. Speaking to an ecologist friend about the potential next steps for a conservation project, he advised me to look for clusters of birds where work might be targeted. He defined a cluster as three or four pairs nesting in reasonable proximity, but I only found one cluster like this of three birds. It’s on land that just sold to an investment company for forestry. The trees have already been planted, and these birds are now doomed. Elsewhere there are three groups of two, but the other single pairs are scattered evenly across a vast area in almost isolated pockets. That makes any future conservation effort a great deal harder, and when I asked him what I should do next, my ecologist friend just shook his head. I suppose it’s easier to see what’s possible when you’re standing back at a more objective distance.
In terms of how the birds are faring now, I only know of seven pairs which are still attempting to breed, but there might be as many as fourteen or fifteen. I have not yet heard of any chicks at all, but I’m sure a handful must be out there somewhere. As always, the literal existence of chicks is no indication of success, and a breeding cycle can only be described as complete when young birds fledge and fly away. Judging by what I’ve seen in previous years, we’ll be lucky if more than one or two young birds get off in 2022, and these to replace a far larger number lost through normal adult mortality. I’m no mathematician, but here’s where the problem lies.
I’ve told a few people about the findings from this year’s survey. Each one has expressed a degree of disbelief, but the prevailing sense is one of sorry resignation. Several farming friends have sighed and said “well what can we do?” Standing in the wake of an extended exhaustion, I’m struggling to see what’s next myself. I know that I’ve taken on too much of this concern, and in a small way I note a degree of creeping resentment that it should be my responsibility not only to spot the problem, but also to raise awareness, overcome resistance and then galvanise a constructive, front-footed response. I know I’m not really on my own – I’m extremely grateful to everybody who helped with this survey and I’m delighted that people are willing to help, but I’m sure others will agree that each step forward feels like a lead weight without any gathering of momentum.
I’ll buck up and regroup. With a few weeks to recuperate, I suppose I’ll come out fighting again. But for now it’s worth recording a sense of hopelessness and isolation; that no matter how much work you pour into a project, you’re only pushing water uphill.