Balance Revisited

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Balancing farming & conservation

It’s been interesting to look back through feedback on my recent article about hay meadows (Striking a Balance 22nd Jan).

If you missed the article, I was chewing over the relative pros and cons of reverting a productive silage field into a more natural and diverse state. I had some great comments by email and on social media, and these came at my quandary from several different angles.

The situation was compounded yesterday in conversation with a neighbouring farmer who was politely appalled by the prospect of “ruining” a good field with a mix of traditional wildflowers and native grasses. Balance this with advice I received via email which claimed I would be a fool not to go ahead with “project meadow” – the interest and conservation value would be vast.

This is a balancing act and something like a catch 22. I can’t support my conservation goals unless I have a viable farm business, and I can’t have a viable farm business without compromising my conservation goals. Perhaps this is an over-simplification, but it’s a nice reminder of the old expression: “it’s hard to be green when you’re in the red”.

Part of my project is to work on traditional, low intensity methods. Some readers suggested that I could have my conservation cake and eat it by de-stocking – I wouldn’t need the field to be so productive if I had fewer cows. This makes sense, but my project needs to be viable. If I reduce my livestock, my cattle become a little folly and I would merely be “playing farmers” in the fringes. Financially and for credibility’s sake, my herd needs a critical mass, and I should really be focussing on expansion.

At the same time, I need to maximise grass production. I can’t afford to keep buying in forage from my neighbours, either in haylage, silage or small bales of hay. A “real” farmer would be focussed on reseeding the field with an even more productive ryegrass mix – it’s my best field and I should be using it as a productive powerhouse. This would represent a real step backwards for my conservation goals, but it would allow me to keep feed costs down at a reasonable level in future winters. My cash would be freed up to work on other conservation issues elsewhere.

This idea makes perfect sense, but I can’t help thinking that this theory leads to a disjointed, disintegrated countryside where some places are for agriculture and others are for wildlife. It hardly applies to me on such a small scale, but it’s a dangerous precedent on a larger scale. I had aspired to blend farming with conservation so that all my ground was for both – perhaps this was naively optimistic, but it’s a tantalising goal.

It’s also relevant that these cows are taking me to the financial brink – small “hobby” farmers are often sufficiently well-heeled to smooth over cracks like these, but I can’t ignore the fact that every bale I buy comes out of a dwindling personal bank account. Plus, I’m coming at this project from an unusual angle. I love my galloways and I look forward to all that comes next, but I would be sorry if this was simply an exercise in producing beef.

These are teething troubles, and my livestock have simply expanded faster than my capacity to feed them. I’m sure that I will reach an equilibrium in future years, and there is always the option of taking on more land.

In the event, the new field has made some key decisions for me. Muck was spread by the previous tenant in December, and the soil has been enriched for many years by artificial fertilisers. Initial research has shown that traditional hay meadows prosper in poorer soils, and the impact of this recent improvement may take years to be reversed. Even if I did choose to proceed with reverting the ground now, there would be a long, slow road ahead.

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Imbolc

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The cross of St Brigid

We have been working with cattle for thousands of years. Ancient Celts were herding folk, and their livestock provided the basis for an entire culture. The Celtic year was divided according to cyclical patterns of grazing, harvests and rebirth – the fundamentals of that life. Measured against modern priorities, perhaps it’s no wonder that the Celts feel so far away.

Beltane marked the start of summer, and cows were purified in rituals before heading out to pasture on the first of May. Animals were slaughtered at Samhain, and winter began with the festival on the first of November.

Alongside Beltane and Samhain, there was lughnasadh and imbolc, equidistant on the calendar. Lughnasadh falls on the first of August and represents the start of the harvest. Imbolc lies on the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox – the second day of February.

The word imbolc is derived from obscure Gaelic origins which stretch beyond the realms of certainty. There are many possible meanings, but a modern Irish expression I mbolg is used to describe pregnancy in livestock. One theory is that imbolc was traditionally the time when cattle first begin to show signs of a calf; their udders grow and provide an indication of all that lies ahead. I choose this meaning because my heifers showed their first udders within two days of imbolc. I had no idea about Celtic religion, but I am longing for my first calves and my curiosity was piqued by a festival which seem to recognise my enthusiasm.

In a broader sense, imbolc is the quickening of Spring; the first quiet steps out of winter. Imbolc is a time for snowdrops and hazel catkins; the song thrush sings in the stillness of dusk. These are fine details which might be overlooked in the busy clamour of June or July, but they are a claxon and a call to arms after months of starlit darkness. There is life in the world. Going about my business, I stack snapshots en passant which combine to make the heart swell – this place is on the move

  • The first shelduck on the wet fields; a raucous red bill reflected in a low sun.
  • A dark, half-hidden roebuck with his antlers blooming further in velvet each day.
  • Dippers returned to the burn, bobbing and buzzing above the busy water.
  • Hares running in the frost before dawn (a new frizz of excitement hitherto sombre old hands).

Imbolc belongs here. The festival was conceived in this landscape at a time when only nature and livestock were relevant. As I sink into farming, it’s hard not to chime with these priorities, and the years roll back with every new chore and task. Modern man has moved away from the land, but even the smallest step backwards is electrifying. Other Celtic festivals are transfixed by pastures and harvests, killing and calving. These same chores preoccupy modern farmers; the old life has changed, but it has not gone away. Dip in to the reality of agriculture and time collapses like a telescope. I am no spiritualist, but the relevance is compelling.

In due course, imbolc became Candlemas. The ancient pagan festival was assimilated into the Christian calendar because it was too important to erase. Christians compromised and reorganised their religion around native foundations. The ancient goddess Brigid was laundered and became St Brigid, the patron of imbolc.

Flushed with the excitement of imbolc, I walked out into the rain and cut a handful of green rushes on the hill. Following direction from an out-dated website, I plaited the strips into the small, simple cross of St Brigid. Symbols like these have all but vanished from Galloway over the past Century, but this sign would have been well known as a symbol of good luck to my ancient relatives.

I don’t know Brigid’s story, but the symbolism has me spellbound – a woven fragment conveyed out of a dark, half-forgotten past. I’m not sure what ancient festivals will mean to me, but the first signs of spring are truly worth celebrating. Perhaps there is still room for old gods.

Plough Lessons

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A revealing test patch (ignore the tussock on the bottom left)

The last few days have been spent working on the new plough. There is no need to use this latest implement for several weeks, but the field I intend to work with has been gnawed to the bone by sheep and has nothing left to offer. The weather has been fair and dry, and I can see no reason to postpone the job. I also can’t deny that I am giddily excited and can’t wait to make a start.

The plough has required a little active repair. I was informed that the skimmers needed to be replaced, and my first task was to find out what skimmers are. It transpires that they are the blades which slice the turf before the soil is lifted by the point. The old skimmers had been worn down to a rounded nub, and both of the bolts had seized. I broke one and had to hacksaw the other, but these should be easily replaced and the new skimmers will slot neatly into position.

I was also advised to clean the mouldboards. These had gathered a little rust over many years of inactivity, but it was hard to see how this would be a problem. I tried to plough a test patch and immediately found that the rust made the soil stick to the metal boards in fat, greasy clumps. The plough worked brilliantly, but the job was not as neat as it could have been; imagine spreading butter with a dirty knife all crusted with yesterday’s jam. The furrows were crumbled and broken where they should have been smooth and orderly, and this was compounded by the missing skimmers – instead of slitting the soil, the plough had ripped it. This is mainly a matter of aesthetics, and I was drunk with the joy of fresh soil and the spectacle of turf being rolled up like a rug.

My father offered a solution to the dirty mouldboards, and we ran the plough through a small area of rough, rubbly hardcore which has just been quarried to mend the road. The plough made the little stones boil, and most of the rust was soon rubbed away – I’ll hunt out the rest with a grinder, but it was an interesting lesson. I gather that our neighbours used to clean their ploughs by running them along the Solway shore, and the rusty mouldboards were ably scoured to a mirror shine by shells and pebbles.

Ploughing is a vast and technical job. I cannot hope to do it nicely on my first attempt, particularly since the field I’ll be working on is a rounded, bulbous triangle shape. Ploughmen chase the dream of perfect furrows running in parallel across geometrically beautiful landscapes, but beauty is just the cherry on the cake for me – I’d rather do a scruffy job than no job at all.

I am now more thrilled than I have ever been by the potential this project has to link my farm project with wildlife, and I am looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Eight Years

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When I sat down and wrote my first Working for Grouse article at the end of January 2010, I could hardly have guessed all that would follow. Eight years later, this blog continues to attract new visitors every month, and it has been a crucial means of keeping in touch with old friends and connecting with new ones.

I have no clear remit with this blog, and the various threads of narrative simply follow behind simple curiosity and a (sometimes chaotic) instinct to be practical for conservation. I sometimes look back through old articles and cringe at my initial silliness, but I think it’s important to keep this material alive so that I can measure how far I’ve come, particularly when it comes to failure and ignorance… the best responses I’ve had from readers often come after revelations of my own mistakes.

I write a great deal here. When I occasionally meet visitors “face to face”, I reassure them that it’s not compulsory to read it all. There are some laudable diehards who assure me that they trudge through every sentence (these readers deserve a medal), but most dip in and out and take their pick according to what interests them. That’s how it should be, and I often write with this idea in mind.

But most importantly, I’m proud that Working for Grouse is so well received. Thanks as always for your support with this blog, and here’s to many more adventures in farming, conservation and wild game in the ninth (NINTH!) year of writing!

Sheep and Trees

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“The last 40 years under the Common Agricultural Policy have not done Scottish agriculture many favours”.

It was very satisfying to hear these words from a representative of NFU Scotland. The subsidies may have provided a stable bedrock for Scottish farming, but they have stifled innovation and reduced some areas of agriculture into a repetitive dirge. While driving biodiversity loss and enabling the wealthy to grow wealthier, the CAP actively discouraged young farmers. On balance, I will be pleased to see and end to it.

The NFUS’s Johnnie Hall was speaking at an event laid on by the Galloway and South Ayrhsire Biosphere entitled: “A Changing Landscape – Making the most of our natural assets”. This was a half day discussion meeting “exploring how we can address the issues and opportunities that key industry representatives see influencing the future of land based industries in South West Scotland”. A farmer, a forester, a landowner and a community woodland professional each presented on behalf of their sector, and questions were then asked from an audience of more than eighty attendees.

From the perspective of a “young farmer”, I agree that the CAP has been a disaster, but it is becoming clear that we are yet to see the full extent of the damage it has caused. Many marginal upland farms have grown weak and dependent upon EU funding – they have never looked less viable. CAP has been sheltering these places from some fundamental economic realities, and perhaps many should have been allowed to die years ago.

Brexit offers us the chance for an audit. It’s a watershed moment, and it should be no surprise that vultures are circling around many weak, struggling farms. Without the continuation of some very generous subsidies, hill farming seems to be in dire straits, and foresters are licking their lips in anticipation. According to the Eskdalemuir study, trees can be three times more profitable and sustainable than sheep farming in upland areas. The statistics look compelling, but it isn’t fair to compare sheep and trees as “like for like”. It’s no surprise that forestry should outshine the kind of threadbare CAP farming which has slowly degraded the hills for the past forty years – the two industries have been moving at very different rates. But who is to say what agriculture can deliver after Brexit?

Imagine if hill farms could succeed in balancing livestock with renewable energy, tourism, biodiversity, timber, peatland conservation and improved water quality and retention – what a powerful, dynamic mix. Match that vision against wholesale forestry and the decision to fill the landscape with trees is not so easily made. Forestry may trump CAP farming, but it looks pretty weak next to the kind of well integrated farms we’re now free to build.

Foresters are constantly frustrated by public perception; many people think that commercial woodlands are a bad thing. We have made huge leaps and bounds in planting forestry over the past fifteen years, but there is no escaping the extensive, often irreparable damage that  foresters caused when they were first unleashed on the uplands. My great grandchildren will still be paying to restore damage to peatlands and biodiversity caused by the first generation of commercial softwood production, so the simple assurance that “we’re not that bad any more” scarcely cuts the mustard. These wounds will be slow to heal; a few years of good behaviour have not outweighed a legacy of devastation which will ring for centuries.

Modern foresters urge us to judge their industry as it is, not as it was. There’s no doubt that modern forestry is dynamic and progressive, particularly when we compare it to sleepy, old fashioned farm businesses. But after forty years of stasis, hill farmers should now be asking the public to judge them on what they could be; on all that is now possible. The Scottish Government has set some hard targets for planting, and there will be growing pressure to increase forest cover in the wake of Brexit. This process should not be taken lightly – after all, you don’t just dabble with trees; you cannot try commercial woodland for thirty years, then return to traditional hill farming.

Once land has been prepared for planting, the process cannot be undone. Aside from the logistical difficulties of reverting woodland to farmland, there are legal mechanisms which require land to remain beneath trees. Unlike most other land uses, a move towards forestry initiates irreversible change, and that’s a big deal. Unlike farming, forestry is famously incompatible with other land uses, so the decision to plant represents a monumental, permanent and intensive refocus in favour of timber and timber alone.

Selected statistics may look slick and compelling for politicians and industry leaders, but the current climate is dynamic and complex. Perhaps it’s too much to ask, but we should avoid being hasty.

The Ploughman Cometh

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“littered with lapwings”

I’m always pleased to receive feedback from readers of this blog, but I must say that it’s equally gratifying to receive material support. Having followed my progress and been in touch for several years, a long-term reader recently contacted me with the offer of a plough. Knowing that I would soon be needing such an item and having little use for an old one of his own, he generously put the implement at my disposal. It was good fun to head over to Roxburghshire to see him and collect the plough last week when work finally made the two hour trip convenient.

I found an arable landscape in the east; I was a fish out of water. The countryside smelled of soil and vegetables – a patchwork quilt of colours and textures. Galloway is rich and varied, but our agricultural land is dominated by grass. The view from my office window provides me with a million shades of green. I forget how monotonous this place can be when compared with other parts of Scotland, and it was a joy to drive through alternating stubbles, furrows and winter cereals.

One recently ploughed field was littered with lapwings, and I slowed down to watch a pair of hares wandering through a strip of something I couldn’t identify. Reed buntings and larks rose up from the barley stubble, and rooks stirred to and fro in the cold wind. There are still wild partridges here, and a local shoot has resurrected them back into prosperity again. Wildlife has been lost in the Borders over the past forty years, but there are still burrs of activity which our grassland world sadly lacks in the west.

The trailer was soon loaded and I took to the road again. I couldn’t resist the idea that I was taking some part of that mixed arable richness home with me – the seed of proactive diversity, symbolised in a plough.

January Partridges

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A trio in the rushes

Partridges call on the edge of darkness. Spring is rousing them to frenzy, and the shapes of the small birds linger in the peripheries from dawn to dusk. The cocks have grown wattles which swell up their cheeks, and many have been fighting as the covey continues to crumble and disperse. Their vocabulary has expanded to embrace all manner of shrieks and trills, and these ring across the rushes as I work in the yard at twilight.

The birds are growing wilder, but they are still anchored to the farm by a ravenous need for wheat and flaked maize. I often watch the covey browsing through rough ground and I’m impressed by how much wild food they eat – it’s mainly roughage and grass seeds at this time of year, but they are clearly learning to forage, albeit on scant fare. I have no doubt that the wheat is making up the shortfall and is helping them to stay in tip-top condition – they could hardly look better, and perhaps the supplementary nutrition is also a boost to alertness and wisdom.

Individuals have grown observant and sharp after several months in the wild – not so sharp as truly native stock, but they range far and wide across this landscape and have only lost one of their number since October; a single cock who was expelled from the group and loitered around on his own for a few days before vanishing.

We are still a long way from May and June when breeding might be possible, but these birds have been a useful pilot project in my first year here.