Bulls and Heifers

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Heifers in the evening sun

There have been further encouraging signs of progress with the galloways. Two more heifers failed to come in season last week, and the new bull is having an idle time of it. Logic dictates that these girls are now pregnant, but I can’t ignore the possibility that I have simply done my maths wrong. It currently looks like Old Charlie covered three of the six heifers, and Dominic has finished off the job with the other three. This is certainly a great deal more than we expected from Charlie at the time, and it may go to show that there was more life in the old boy than we gave him credit for.

Of course I may be totally wrong, but this guesswork and speculation is part of the fun. The worst case scenario is that next year’s calving could be spread out over almost two months, but I will have to grin and bear it. It’s another mishap which can be chalked up to experience.

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Hedge Work

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The hard yards

The past few days have been spent building a new fence to protect the hedge which was planted when we first moved to the new house. I learnt to build fences when I worked as an underkeeper in 2003, but these skills are rarely called for and I always seem to forget the difficulty and exertion required. It’s quite easy to build a weak fence, but the real trick is to conjure up that high-pitched banjo resonance of tight wires and straining timber. I’m actually quite proud of my efforts here, but my hands bear the scars of dealing with barbed wire.

The end product has been fifty metres of new fence which protect the embryonic stirrings of a hedge which has been custom designed to support a range of birds and mammals. Of course I’m hamstrung by having to pay for the materials out of my own pocket, so this project will need to proceed on an opportunity basis. That said, previous hedgerow experiments have been so exciting and successful that I can hardly grudge the expense. I have only planted hawthorn in this hedge so far, but there is scope for quite a variety of species. I look forward to agonising over this in due course, and I have grand plans to lay the whole thing in a few years. That work will hopefully magnify the hedge’s conservation value to provide decent cover for hares and partridges – two species which should be prospering in this wide open world of pasture and bog.

In the meantime, my captive bred grey partridges continue to prosper, and the two escapees keenly scuttle around the yard in the mornings. As they moult into their adult plumage, I need to make preparations for separating them off into breeding pairs at Christmas time.

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Further inspiration from one of the escapees, still at large in the yard

 

The Wrong Curlew

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An attempt to reach a middle ground

I was very pleased to see my opinion piece on the future of moorland management published in the Scotsman a fortnight ago. Since coming into agriculture (albeit in a rather modest way), my eyes have been opened to an entire new realm of life in the hills. Perhaps it is clear from this blog that I’m loving the new challenges which accompany this project, and I am aware that the political and economic future looks confusing for the kind of marginal upland farms from which this blog takes its cue. Amidst a tide of potential new forestry schemes in the uplands, my article was an attempt to promote open, unplanted moorland as a place of huge potential. HERE is a link to the article itself for those who are interested.

When the piece was published, it took a bit of a hammering. The Scotsman had chosen to illustrate my words with a photograph of a curlew, but they had picked the wrong Numenius species – the article went live accompanied by an exotic foreign curlew species. Most people would hardly notice, and in context it’s rather unimportant.

The link was retweeted by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, and immediately there was a barrage of hooting criticism about the use of the wrong curlew illustration. The post went around the internet in a matter of seconds, and the entire article was swallowed up in a chanted chorus of “SGA don’t know anything” and “ban driven grouse shooting”. Like a masochist, I read through this criticism with a fine toothed comb. Some of the derision was circulated by Mark Avery, who has been marshalling activists against driven grouse shooting over the last few years. His golden touch passively endorsed the idea that the entire opinion piece was utterly absurd. As I pored through the comments, it became clear that none of these critics had read a single word of my article. I doubted if they had even clicked through to the Scotsman page. They were poised to attack anything which they perceived to challenge their own dearly held views; “what about our declining raptors and the criminals who prosecute them?” roared one passer-by – “stop killing our hen harriers” bawled another alongside the hashtag #notaclue

In fact, the article never mentioned grouse, hen harriers or game shooting. As above, it was an attempt to reconcile farming with forestry. Talking it over with my wife, we came to the conclusion that the raptor/grouse debate has become deafeningly toxic. It infects a vast sphere of land management dialogue and has grown far beyond any logical confines. I wrote for the Scotsman because I wanted to step outside my usual channels of communication and reach a wider audience. I rarely receive criticism for my writing because it is usually restricted in circulation to a pro-shooting readership. I am “preaching to the converted”, and the Scotsman exercise was an attempt to broaden my horizons. I can take criticism, but I would prefer to be criticised for my actual beliefs and opinions, rather than some spectral perception of them.

I like to imagine that ten people read my article. One person loved it because they felt it was an argument in favour of moorland landscapes. One person hated it because they believed it was an attempt (somehow) to endorse illegal raptor killing. That leaves eight people who had perhaps never considered the issues I covered. I can’t help thinking that those eight people are the most valuable target audience. As I become ever more mired in the countryside, it’s crucial to remember that the big issues of my day are scarcely registered as significant for most people. This context is vital, and it is heartening to know that between two furious poles, the middle ground is a mile wide.

Escapees

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Escapees complement the evening

Worth a brief update on my grey partridges, which continue to prosper. A couple of poults escaped this evening when the wind blew in their pen door, and it was a pleasure to hear them chirruping around the yard as I dismantled the dyke of hay bales and moved more of the bundled dry grass indoors. They will be easily caught again in due course, and it was nice to be around them as the sun flung a bruised, plummy light on the heather hills behind the house.

There is something extremely fitting about the sound of calling partridges – it is a perfectly natural accompaniment to life in this world of farm and rough pasture. Partridges hit an all time low when I was growing up, and I was in my teens before I heard my first greys calling. Somehow that didn’t seem to matter, and I felt as if I had known that call all my life – it had been hardwired into my DNA. I felt the same on the Isle of Scalpay when I heard my first corncrake calling through the window of my old employer’s kitchen – I was listening to an old friend that I simply hadn’t met before.

Of course partridges will occupy a great deal of my time in the next few years as this farming project takes off, and I still can’t wait to learn more about these birds.

Dominic’s Progress

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Dominic peers longingly over the dyke

Dominic the beltie bull is settling in to life on the hill with some enthusiasm. He speaks with a combination of rumbling basso profondo moans and breathy, high-pitched wails as he prowls around his patch, and he has spent the last few days eyeing older cows over the dyke in an adjacent field. They are all pregnant and shouldn’t represent any serious attraction, but his curiosity does not allow him to settle. We have beefed up the electric fence in the hope that a decent zap might focus his mind, but he continues to dig holes and toss his head with enthusiasm. He is an absolutely stunning beast, but I have developed a healthy respect for him.

Cows cycle every twenty one days. Based on patient observation of previous cycles, I have marked down the most likely dates that each riggit heifer come back on heat. These calculations have been borne out nicely with one or two animals, but it is notable that some are showing no signs of interest in Dominic whatsoever, even though there time has come and gone. I have a sneaking suspicion that Dominic may be looking further afield because some of his job has already been done for him. Charlie may now be lounging extravagantly in his retirement home, but it looks increasingly like he came up with the goods after all.

Black Success

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A well advanced black grouse poult – this one is from Aberdeenshire

It has been a horribly mixed summer in Galloway. Amidst reports of disaster and cancellation from grouse moors further north, we found an odd assortment of young birds when we came to shoot our hill on the 12th. Scattered coveys of well grown youngsters were interspersed with ragged bundles of grey cheepers which could scarcely fly. These must have been hatched early in July, meaning that the hens which failed to produce young at their first attempt decided to lay again in the middle of June. These youngsters are now far more advanced, and they have benefitted enormously from an additional three weeks to grow and stretch their wings, but the variety of ages and stages speaks of a patchy, disjointed summer.

I had assumed the worst for the black grouse, but a couple of chance encounters have given me cause for some optimism. The dogs flushed a young bird from the rushes a fortnight ago, but the light was bad and the retreating figure was a fair distance away. It was certainly a black grouse poult, but it was impossible to get an idea of its sex. I was encouraged by this, but I was doubly delighted when the dogs put up two young blackcock from a similar spot on Friday afternoon.

There was no doubting the identity of these birds as they clattered away over the cob-webbed rushes, and their growing tails fluttered behind them like fish knives. The three birds were found in the same field, and it makes sense that they should have come from the same brood. I was certainly aware of a blackcock in this area throughout May, so his incessant displays must have shown fruit and drawn in a greyhen.

Based on previous experience, the future does not look bright for these youngsters as autumn beckons and the local goshawk population reaches for the cutlery – but at the same time, this ability to reproduce is admirable, and it only takes a handful of lucky birds to make a vast difference next spring.

Shortly afterwards, the dog tails began to wag again and suddenly the sky was filled with whirring wings for a second time; a small brood of wild pheasants took to the air and rushed away down to the farm buildings. It just goes to show that there is always potential for success – hackneyed cliche it may be, but nature really does find a way. I’ll head out for a look around some likely spots for black grouse poults in the next week or two, and then I’ll have a clearer idea of how the birds have fared across Galloway this year.

Many shooting folk have let their heads go down over the last decade, and there is a pervasive pessimism in the future of wild game. I would counter this gloom and doom with the knowledge that the production of wild game birds used to be effortless – nature took care of its own, and man simply milked the surplus. When things started to get difficult, many people assumed that the game was up without even trying to roll up their sleeves. I often wonder if a general sense of resigned defeatism amongst farmers and landowners is not itself an obstacle to success.

Rising Star

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The lad and his mother

I absolutely cannot resist a brief note on the most recent twist in my farming saga, and I am delighted to report that alongside the excitement of this year’s dalliance with belted galloways, I have found a bull for the future.

My wife and I headed down to look at a promising riggit galloway calf near Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria on Monday, and we were very taken with what we found in the smirring rain. Markings on riggit galloways are pretty variable (this could be a blog article in itself), but this is all healthy stuff and creates some nice room for subjective breeding. The “Stonehouse” bull calf in question not only conforms to my idea of almost perfect markings, but he also holds some of the best bloodlines currently circulating in the breed. His father was a winner at the Dumfries Show last year, and his mother has close ties to the original riggit blood which miraculously cropped up near Kirkcudbright after more than a Century’s absence – it makes for a heady mix, and he is an ideal match for my heifers as I work towards the future. It would have been a difficult job to come away without this fellow, and sure enough, a deal was struck.

Buried beneath a weight of work and pulled in every direction at the moment, this “milestone moment” is scarcely being given due precedent in this brief article. I have no doubt that I will return to this subject soon, but suffice it to say for now that this marks a deeply significant moment in this story. I won’t be able to bring the lad north over the border until Christmas time at the earliest, but there is the option to leave him in situ until next spring.

In the meantime, I have been offered the chance to give him a name, and I am not taking the matter lightly…