He crows in the prickle of stars and the morning. He crows in the willows and the smoke-blown dawn where the cattle have lain and left the marks of their lying in the frost. The smell of his nightsoil hangs in the rushes and he crows.
The sound comes to me like a pang of irretrievable loneliness. Cattle blink, and I watch the weight of my own hot breath departing. Remember when a vixen yelled and we heard her go down to roost with her cubs? That was summer, and this is different because his yells are mannish and dull, and there’s only me to hear them. He is a dog fox calling. I have to lean or I’ll fall; you can’t ask an empty sack to stand.
Then he lies for the day in some bracken bed beyond the limits of my land. He lies in a curl like some expensive cat with the breeze at his back and his eyes like slits in a mitten. I work at my chores quietly, but I know that he can hear every turn of my spanner; the durly scrawl of my shovel in the sty.
Now and then he’ll stand and flex and round upon himself to lie tighter and small. He’ll yawn, and the day will find his tongue is clean as a beak. It’s no light work to crow and cover ground at this time of year, but he’s duty bound to do the rounds and it’s fair to say that he’s earned a rest. The sun slumps and trails his fur with shadows of rowan boughs and bramble stems. Without moving his head, he lies and watches birds pass over him in silence like motes of dust. His brush lies like a tool-sleeve across his nose.
When all I owe the small day has been paid, he stands and slips down from the bracken like an unslung sylph. It’s almost dark when he crows again and trades me for the empty hill.
Moorland is often described as “wasted land”; places which have been ruined by agriculture or fieldsports. As controversy around grouse shooting has swelled into a tempest, many have begun to view moorland as something broken, synthetic and brutalized. When I wrote to explain that I was devastated by the coming loss of moorland in Galloway, several readers reckoned that this could only be a good thing. “Bring on the trees”, they seemed to say.
The reality is that the word “moorland” covers too much variety to be useful. Crucially, it’s not all about grouse shooting or sheep farming but a whole host of industries and interests which span the gap from Land’s End to Shetland. Depending on where you go, moorland looks and feels completely different. I daresay hill farmers in Derbyshire would hate the landscape I love in Galloway – but to be frank, you couldn’t pay me to work in the Peak District. And while I’ve enjoyed several trips to Bodmin, I refuse to believe it’s a moor at all.
I’ve been on every fair-sized area of moorland in the UK over the last decade, and I’ve found few unifying threads which bind them together. Powys is grand, but it’s too soft for my liking; you can do worse than Coverdale, but get over to the Isle of Man for a different take. Before long, you’ll be standing at Rannoch, thinking about Okehampton and feeling like you’ve hardly begun to understand what moorland really is. It’s become fashionable to deride moorland for the spectre of raptor persecution and “sheep-wrecked” desertification – but as soon as you look under the surface, it becomes clear that these landscapes are complex, varied and often extremely valuable.
Since there are different moors in different places, my fears for the future take me back to Galloway and the kind of landscape which we call moorland in southwest Scotland. There’s no real grouse shooting here. It’s too wet to grow good heather, and dull drains have meant that classic moorland vegetation is usually on the back foot. A friend once came to visit and summarized what he saw by saying “it’s just grass and nothing for miles”. That’s a fair précis from a city boy, but it overlooks the fact that the devil’s in the detail.
It’s true that we turn out thousands of acres of white grass, but part the tussocks and find a wealth of value and intrigue at ankle-height. For a start, there’s more precious peat in Galloway than almost anywhere else in the UK mainland. Properly grazed, our moors are soft and soggy and filled with blaeberry and cranberry and crowberry – we’ve got sundews and bogbeans; myrtle in the ditches and moss in quivering mats where even waders fear to tread. And there’s hawthorn scrub and downy birches up the dykebacks; alders in the cleughs and a million orchids in the burn springs.
Realising that Galloway turns out a terrific amount of grass, our ancestors invented the ultimate cow and kickstarted an extraordinarily productive virtuous cycle of cattle, conservation and agriculture. In living their lives on the moors, folk in Galloway built themselves a world of their own legend and tradition. Perhaps you’ve never heard of us, but our moorlands have been home to giants and cannibals, martyrs and smugglers for a thousand years. This is our world; a human landscape which goes to the root of who we are as a tough, doughty web of communities in a damn fine place.
Galloway is far removed from that sneeringly distorted vision of moorland expressed in the popular press – this is not a scorched “industrial” moonscape of range rovers and raptors slain for the hell of it – this is a place of extraordinary cultural and natural value. We’ve taken a battering over the last half century thanks to the Common Agricultual Policy and the first generation of forest expansion, but Galloway can still break your heart with beauty. If I play my cards right, I’ll be proud to go under the sod here and be part of it someday.
It’s hard to pick an emblem for Galloway moorlands. A blackcock is a fair bet, but you’d be hard pressed to choose him above a hen harrier or a bog owl. Maybe you’d pick a curlew to capture the mood in the wide blue hills, or the glimpse of an old billy goat traipsing down his lonely line. But perhaps you wouldn’t choose any of these things, because most have gone in the last few decades and none of them will prosper in the next phase of commercial forestry planting in Galloway.
I’m deeply stricken by the way this landscape has been treated. And how devastating to realize that the very word “moorland” now seems to imply something wrong which must be corrected. It’s easy for politicians to delete a place that most people never knew or loved, but the die appears to be cast; vast areas of Galloway will soon be ploughed for softwood trees in order to produce commodities like chip and pulp. Perhaps in a sprint to reinvent our moorland places, we should remember that some of them have a great deal to offer as they are.
I’m getting ahead of myself, but today there was a note of spring. It rang in the birks and ran among the whins like a shiver. Great tits sang as if the work was something new to them, and I realise again that their tiny tune is a fine marker of change; the song which I hear as – SIT boo boo SIT boo boo SIT –
And bigger still, the ravens have come back to their shit-stack in a sycamore cleft by the old byre. It’s one of three nests they use on rotation, and they add to each one in turn until the heaps of twigs and bones are bigger than I am.
I pressed them off as I passed, and the clackit old brokers came out and round to see me by. One of them rolled over onto his back and made a scene of himself, saying “block-block-block” as a drawling turn of moorland slid beneath him.
A haystack turns grey as the winter goes by. If it’s been wet, some of the outer bales will blacken. But look inside and it’s silvery green with the heaped scent of summer grass. Shreds of beautiful hay trickle through your fingers like sand, even on a day without daylight.
We’re at the back of the main stack now. I’ve carted most of the bales away to be fed, and the cows have done well through the darkness. In shifting bales this morning, a large dark ball rolled down from the rafters and landed at my feet. I was in a hurry and hardly gave it a second thought, but then it fell apart in a puff of fluff and feathers. I could see rabbit fur and rat hair in the blend, along with a mattress of wren feathers. Here was an abandoned home, and it hardly took much to identify the former occupant. There has been a stoat hanging around the yard all winter, and he’s been canny enough to set up shop in the most comfortable place for miles around.
When it comes to woodland expansion, there are some grand and ambitious goals being set by the Scottish Government. Foresters have now committed to create 12,000 Ha of new woodland every year – (an area the size of Manchester) – and perhaps inevitably, the thrust of these new trees will come in the form of commercial softwoods in the Southern Uplands. I went to a meeting in Moffat yesterday to hear more about the plans and how the creation of vast new spruce plantations will impact birds like curlews and black grouse.
It’s always seemed blindingly obvious to me that the massive afforestation which took place in the 1970s and ’80s sent moorland birds into a tailspin. I had assumed that this was common knowledge, and I often bemoan the fact that we’ll be counting the cost of that planting for generations to come. Sure enough, the meeting began with two cast-iron presentations from RSPB and GWCT which explained (with a considerable weight of scientific fact) how woodland creation negatively impacts on ground nesting birds. So far, so logical, but then things took a turn towards the unexpected.
The meeting was held for foresters and forest interests were extremely well represented in the room – (I was the only farmer). In the wake of these presentations, it became clear that many attendees were unwilling to accept that forest creation has played a part in wader and black grouse decline. Questions and comments from the floor seemed to offer a number of alternative explanations for why moorland birds have now vanished from many of their former strongholds.
Some said it was climate change, and others blamed an increased number of predators on game bird releases. Using recent video footage of a sheep eating curlew eggs, there was even an attempt to imply that livestock are responsible for the decline of waders. Farming is certainly not exempt from criticism, but this felt like an obfuscatory rejection of responsibility. It was hard to hear, particularly since after dismissing peer-reviewed RSPB and GWCT science, consensus seemed to settle on a feeling that “it’s complicated, and science can’t prove that foresters are to blame”. But even if we pretend that we don’t understand cause and effect, pressing ahead with planting would still be a reckless abandonment of the precautionary principle.
Subsequent presentations went into detail on how forest expansion can be mitigated to incorporate wild bird habitats. Foresters are quick to say that they’re doing better work than they used to, but the reality is that mitigation often seems to settle around the bare minimum. Besides, paraphrasing a comment from somebody on a nearby table, the sentiment was “give it ten years; these birds will be gone and we won’t have to mitigate for them anymore”.
The only real glimmer of light for waders and blackgame is that future planting schemes will be guided by a regional approach towards woodland creation where land use can be organised on the basis of strategic planning. In “core” priority areas, black grouse and curlews will be given precedent in order to protect them. But the unspoken implication is that outside their “core areas”, birds are going to be lost.
I fundamentally disagree with the rationale behind softwood timber expansion in Scotland. It’s been conflated with panic around the Climate Emergency, and I think this is fairly misleading, but park that for a moment and assume that we genuinely need to create 12,000 Ha of new forest every year. At a relatively utilitarian national level, surely it makes sense to prioritise focus areas and keep birds in some places rather than lose them everywhere?
But what if you live and work in a place where moorland conservation is going to be thrown out of the window? Does that mean that it’s time to give up and walk away? Will funding and support be withdrawn from people who are trying to conserve curlews in places where the birds are not a priority? That’s where this may be heading, but are we honestly going to give up on the dream of integrated land management which offers something for everyone? That seems pathetically unambitious and fatalistic. And besides – at an ecological level, how do we quantify the impact of losing birds which currently live in marginal areas? Do we know enough to make decisions about what we can afford to abandon? I had already considered much of this, but it was quite something to hear it being expressed in such bullish terms.
I wriggle and fuss about woodland expansion all the time, and I get tired of it. I even wondered whether to bother writing this blog article, because yet again I’m fighting a losing battle – it’s going to happen, no matter what I think.
But I muster the enthusiasm to write again because in the midst of excitement about woodland expansion, I don’t think Galloway’s story is being heard. There are plenty of great examples of woodland expansion being well integrated across Scotland. There’s a new strategic planning method being trialled in the Scottish Borders which could be a lifesaver for waders, and there’s loads to get excited about when it comes to timber (and black grouse) from native woodlands. I don’t foam and spit at forestry per se, but something unique is happening in the southwest.
Galloway has been earmarked for industrial-scale softwood timber development, and that’s got nothing to do with conservation or aesthetics. Whether we like it or not, we’re about to see a vast and totally irreversible shift in the way our landscape looks.
It doesn’t hit the headlines because nothing in Galloway ever does, but I’ve met foresters who’ve said that their aim is to “fill in the blanks” in south west Scotland – to plant up the land which wasn’t planted last time around. Galloway is not Perthshire or Peebles or some well-beloved part of the Scottish landscape. We’re a bizarre outback corner which no right-minded person gives a damn about. And we’re vulnerable because we’re Scotland’s blind spot; we find ourselves staring down the barrel of what could turn out to be one of the most dramatic and abrupt land use intensifications in Western Europe in recent years. We’re facing change on a completely different order of magnitude, and it’s happening almost completely under the radar.
Knowing that this is all to come, I’m left scratching my head. I’ve seen too much of what this place used to be to ever forget it. But walled in black trees and sorely missing the birds which used to buoy me, I wonder how long I will still recognise my own home.
Given that this blog is now approaching its tenth birthday, it makes sense to revisit some of the work undertaken during the last decade. It turns out that I’ve covered a good deal of ground, although some of it has not gone according to plan.
One of my first acts on the hill was to try and thin out a fifteen acre spruce windbreak in order to replant it with native trees. If nothing else, this offered me some good exercise. I threw the chainsaw around and carried a thousand trees out by hand to be planted where the spruces had fallen. I wasn’t alone in this work, and a number of friends turned out to back me. I even had help from a class of students from the gamekeeping college at Newtonrigg near Penrith, and soon the windbreak was on the move.
In the pitch of my ignorance, I hadn’t reckoned on the impact of the southwesterly wind. No sooner had I thinned the wood than a good deal of it was blown over. Things began to look a little scruffy, but I worked away and tried to “tidy up” the mess. Then more winds came, and the windbreak became a ruin. I was a little embarrassed, and given the open nature of this hill, the wreckage was visible from ten miles away. I could feel the eyes of the parish upon me; “what a mess that idiot boy’s making”.
In my mind’s eye, I proposed to install a birchwood, mixed with rowan, oak and scots pine. The reality has been a tangled nightmare of windblown trees, and at first I measured my failure on how far short I had fallen. But then other interesting things began to happen. The fallen spruces were colonised by willowherb and brambles; heather and blaeberry began to resurge where light reached the ground. Many of my birch and rowan trees did very well because there were no deer in the wood, but soon the roe arrived and began to make their presence felt. So I shot the deer, and in stalking and lying out, I discovered that the wood had become home to long eared owls, spotted flycatchers and breeding woodcock. A greyhen produced a brood of seven youngsters from this messy tangle, although perhaps the stinger is that at least four of them were killed by goshawks which set up in the same wood. When I saw a blackcock picking birch buds off the rising scrub, I began to feel like I was getting somewhere – albeit by accident.
It’s not a pretty piece of work. It’s not something I’m overtly proud of, but in walking through the wood today, I found that it took me almost an hour to cover a hundred yards. I was totally preoccupied with a million little details; a mass of wild animal tracks, feathers, fungus and plants warranted scrupulously close examination, and I began to compare this walk with the windbreak I started with a decade ago. There was nothing to be seen back then; perhaps a crow’s nest and a few dunnocks around the fringes, but that would be on a busy day. Now it’s alive and twisting, and I’m keen to fire up the chainsaw and shake it some more.
I was chuffed to take on new work for the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project over Christmas. I’ve been interested in this project since it began, and it’s been fascinating to see how the work has progressed across the Southern Uplands during the last few years. It’s now my role (until March) to make sure that farmers, keepers and land managers know how the project is doing and what the tagged eagles have been up to. On being shown a map of satellite-tracked eagle movements, I was thrilled to find that one of the birds roosted overnight on our hill as part of a wide and circuitous loop of southwest Scotland. Trying to engage with relevant landowners, I discovered that I am one of them!
In all honesty, I was a little sceptical about this project at first. We already have an existing population of eagles in Galloway, and their marginal status seems to be a reflection of habitat loss and a shortage of live prey. This in turn is linked to a lack of hands-on management in key areas which has led to the loss of hares, grouse and black game which are crucial for rearing eagle chicks and turning out productive fledgelings. I reasoned that an investment in the conservation of prey species would lead to a proportionate boost for the birds which depend upon them. The reality is closer to the opposite; without eagles to galvanise public opinion and get people tuned in to the current parlous state of affairs, we’ll never see hares and grouse restored to areas where they were formerly abundant. So much hangs upon our ability to integrate nature into land use change, and it seems like eagles are the only birds popular enough to gather sufficient clout to rescue and restore habitats which now stand on the brink.
In the meantime, many of the best and most productive areas of moorland in southwest Scotland are currently facing the axe and may soon be planted with commercial forestry. Looking at the satellite records left by that eagle which came to our farm, it became clear that as it moved around Galloway, it seemed to leapfrog between farms and moors which I know are earmarked for afforestation or intensification in the near future. Under current political and economic drivers, it won’t be long before many of these places are of no use to eagles anymore.
I believe eagles have a great deal to offer this area, not least because the project puts a blaring spotlight on the Southern Uplands. I don’t think the extremity of our ecological decline can really be understood outside of Southern Scotland, and there is no longer any time for warm words or indecision. It’s an exciting project and I can’t wait to do my best by it. And it’s also clear that farmers, foresters and land managers are instrumental in delivering a successful outcome – I’m looking forward to lending a hand.