Wetness

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The moor is groaning with water. I flush a dozen snipe as I walk at last light through mushy pans of moss and grass. They rush away into a chart of stars, and then I am in the woods where the trees are cool and tangy. Here the undergrowth is crackling with thrushes; redwings and the first fieldfares hunker down in the treelands which drip and tip with the weight of the fallen rain. There is some pull to this place, and the newly arrived birds clatter into the fallen bracken year after year where the birch trees leak like trailing taps and soon grow naked.

I am almost at the safety of home in a growing swell of moonlight when lapwings come in a flaring hum, lit up by light from the kitchen window. The electric bulb dabs them in glitter as they pass through the yard at head-height. They are brisk and single-minded like a covey of grouse and they race and turn and head for the low ground where the mist bleeds up from the busted burn and curlews rasp in coarse, answerless questions.

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Silage

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Late silage is a bastard job. Gone are the fine barometric subtleties of haymaking in June. Now is the time for distracted contractors and ham-fisted hurry. The grass is thick and heavy like a fold of sodden fabric, but the goodness is waning and soon the wads of growth will dissolve into juicy soup. We have to act in spite of the grey days and frosting dawns; this stuff is the fuel to power the project and we are doomed without it.

The field is mowed but there is little scent of fallen grass. Instead there are muddy gales of diesel and sweat beneath low clouds and the first few migrant geese. We have moved beyond the hope of dryness, and now it’s just a race to the bottom; a last minute smash and grab against the elements. We don’t turn the crop too often because that would bring up muck and scar the field. Instead we dance around the edges and ladle the green broth into plastic bags with heavy machines.

I should be glad of this second cut. There was a time in June when I wondered how I would feed my beasts this winter. Now I have sufficient volume if not quality, and I am rocked back on my heels at the memory of my former sanctimony. I used to rail against silage and commercial grass production, but now I depend upon it. I can roll back some shreds of this work to improve the world for curlews and wild birds, but I begin to see that you cannot look objectively at this industry until your own neck has been on the line.

Storm

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The wind ripped over the rocks and bore the trees away. Needles birled in the yard, and our grand old pine was pulled to her knees. We are left with splintering shafts of yellow wood and red bark like scabs of rust; the pigs wrestle with the wreckage and munch the bristling tips with gulps of sappy spittle.

The owls nested in a tall ash tree which burst like a cracker in the storm. I did not notice this disaster at first – I was preoccupied with cylinders of beechwood and sawdust; the rush to lift the first pick of firewood which had fallen on the roads. But then there were owls in broad daylight; a group of three youngsters hunting along the dykes at noon. One flew almost within arm’s reach and tried to land on the tip of a dead foxglove. Of course the stem bent double like a sweep’s brush and the bird fell like a fool on the grass. Owls are not born wise.

It was only later that I realised why these birds had become bold day-things. They had not chosen to leave their nest; the wind had cracked them out the trunk like a second hatching. Now black streaks of hollow heartwood show where the nest used to be, and I run my hands over the fallen bough where the owlets clambered like oafish kids in August. The young birds were “out” because they had lost their “in”. A disaster like this might have killed these owls a month ago, but they are almost strong enough to try the world without help. Even as I stared at the broken bark, another youngster wobbled past and turned into the wind.

I stood and watched the birds fly as evening came and they moved in a loose pattern onto the moor where they hunted in long draws like a team of setters. They wandered  into the wind, frowning downwards in steady concentration. I went to join them, and I found the three birds milling like moths above dank beds of cranberry and myrtle. Sometimes they would flare up at a glimpse of something mouseish. They would paddle for a moment in thin air, trailing long shanks and black feet like bait below them. The pounce would come with all the passive certainty of falling; the birds dropped flat-faced into deep grass. But they are novices, and they seldom killed anything I saw.

Crows came to rattle at them as the sun sank, and the owls caught the failing light in their hoods, red as apple jelly. Their steady, innocent beauty was pathetically fragile. This would not be the first year I find inexperienced owls wrecked by hawks or buzzards. But now there is now more darkness than daylight, and safety will come when the young birds learn to ply their trade in the dusk.

Movement

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I step out before dawn and find the sky is thick with snipe. They call in the darkness, and the noise comes to me wetly like wellies pulled from mud. Soon I am climbing over dewy gates and up onto the hill, where grouse cackle and blue day begins to leak between gaps in the heavy cloud.

The hill is wet and the burns clash and rattle away the night’s rain. Our land is surrounded on all sides by commercial spruce plantations, and the rushing growth of trees has thrown up new walls and a sense of dark claustrophobia. Each summer draws the young trees higher, and new thickets blur like stubble in the half light. The spruces bleed a veil of sweaty cloud onto the open ground and the heavy air moves through the dykes like a grey illness. This old moorland world has become a soggy pit in an ocean of treetops. Two pigeons boo and swell in the draughty forest, but the trees are otherwise silent.

Sheep peck through knuckles of granite and blue whinstone on the high ground. Here are more snipe, and the clattering flicker of blackgame like grainy images from a silent movie. The wet hollows are filled with scabious and the grass of parnassus; globes and galaxies of flowers in a flat blue light. There is a swirl among the distant sheep as they see me coming and recoil like wild animals.

I stand for a time and watch the sun rise from the highest point. The cairn is spattered with raven’s shit, and the stones are gritty with beetle wings and splinters of bone. Swallows pass overhead, two thousand feet above sea level and three miles from the nearest nest. They are unmistakably on passage, gathering speed for the vault over Europe and away to safety. They bicker noisily and head south in groups of half a dozen, and I feel a twinge as I remember the brood which only fledged from our byre last week. They left it too late, and the fragile youngsters emerged to a world of rain and cold winds. They scrabble to make up lost time, but now they are dying like flies and I have found two of their bodies in the yard, sloe blue and empty. Their lives would have been very different in June when insects moved like smoke through the sunset and hunting was a mug’s game. One hundred and seventeen new swallows flew away from our sheds this summer, but I cannot help dwelling on these final failures.

Now pipits pass in clouds of fifty and more across the open land. I hear the thin, seeping whine of small birds as the sun comes at last to pour cool, jammy light on the land towards Langholm and Annandale. These birds are impossibly ubiquitous, and the gentle simplicity of their calls has been worn flat by overuse. They are also heading south and I am just in time to relearn the pleasure of their tiny details before they go.

 

Ash Tree

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The owls have spurned my box. They preferred the cracked chimney of a tall ash tree by the river. Now we hear the youngsters clashing and snoring throughout the night, and the adult birds ferry a stream of flesh into the low boughs.

We went to see them by torchlight and found three well-grown children nodding and shrugging on the bark. Each one is subtly different in size and style; quirks of age and sex are spelled out in feather length and tone. I see them and think of commercial packaging; the same branding stamped on a range of quantities and varieties. One looked me squarely in the eye at hissed like a cat; beak parted like an origami salt seller.

Their wails are endless, and I stand on the stubbles and listen to their rasping phrases beneath a hanging smear of rain. The sounds hang around the mist on the low ground like a file panting rust. Water gabbles below the old ash tree, and the soil is dark and heavy. There are sudden tangs of mould and fallen grass, and walking moves us through chambers of warm and cold air like a hotel corridor. I hear water voles rippling through the rummel, and fat mallard rush against the rain.

It is not long before the adult owls return with a rat. There is a swell of huffing complaint, but the young birds are only satisfied for a heartbeat.

Stooks

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Chattering steel teeth skimmed through the oats and they fell in a veil like a grey, rustling wave. Rain threatened, and the crop cannot lie on its side when it is wet. It must be bound, so I only cut what I can tie. A single eight foot sweep yields forty sheafs, and it takes an hour of patient stacking and binding to tidy up in silence. There used to be machines which did this job in one pass. They were called “reaper binders”, and they passed through the crop and left a trail of sheafs in their wake. They were big and complex, and the important parts were made from canvas and wood. Few reaper binders have survived the grind of rot and woodworm, but some survive in the Outer Isles where crofters are encouraged to keep the old ways alive. They refused to embrace modernity, and now we pay them to farm as if it were 1950. I can’t resist a sneer of envy.

It will take several days for me to clear this field on my own, and my hands are raw with the burning slip of string and stems. More stooks, and the cut plants glow like golden chapels on the stubble. I am painstakingly slow, building beautiful hourglass sheafs and stacking them to spread their skirts so that the rain will run down and vanish into the soil. You cannot hurry this job, and good sheafs last longer than tatty ones. Even when I stop for coffee and a sandwich, the stubbles crackle gently like the sound of a fizzy drink. I sit on spools of golden tape; glossy straw in shining strands.

Some of the crop has fallen on its side and cannot be cut; the cutting bar cannot get beneath it. At first I try to dig these up with a sickle, but there is too much and I remember that part of this job is for the birds. I begin to leave small patches here and there where the tractor wheels have flattened the crop, and soon the field begins to looks tatty and amateurish.

I am surprised to find that I draw increasing pleasure from neatness and perfection. Perhaps it is the same instinct which has driven gardeners to create natural worlds with ruler-straight lines, but now I find there is dull joy in the imposition of order. I want to do a smart job and create something tidy. But birds love chaos, and I have to remind myself not to manicure the stubbles into uniformity. I could sift through every plant and pick the best for myself, but I resolve to do a sensible amount and hold back from outright efficiency.

The heat builds, and I work on until the air is thick and black darkness piles up over the hills to the west. A few curlews fly in the sunshine; yellow sparks against heavy naval blue. I wonder if they are new birds or whether these are more failures returning from another tragic summer in the North. Then there is rumble of thunder to match the tractor’s roar, and rain begins to shatter the dry peace of the morning. I tell myself that the crop will be safe in the stooks, but rain like this would destroy a field of hay and my confidence begins to fail. I spring from the cab and bind the last few sheafs beneath a battering veil of rain which drums on my back and turns my hair heavy. The water hunts for my blisters and a pink, watery juice drips from my palms.

It does not take long for the stooks to turn dull and black beneath the water. They look awful; looming, sodden heaps which are primed for decay. I can hardly ignore the certainty of disaster; the tall, waving heads are being gummed into dull submission and the job is falling apart. A stook falls over and I rush to repair it, but now the straw is soggy and weak and the bundle flops like a rag. I am glad I have done so little. Most of the crop is still safe and standing.

Heather Beetle

 

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This heather is now well and truly dead – stressed by beetle in 2017, then killed by a bad growing year

I can hardly resist a quick post about heather on the Chayne. Long term readers will remember the “heather laboratory” which was set up in 2010 to explore the level of grazing pressure on a small area of our hill. I routinely publish updates on how the plant life has fared over the last eight growing seasons, and heather beetle has played a major part in that story.

Beetles first arrived in 2012 and decimated the fresh young growth. The plants bounced back, but they were hammered again in 2013 and 2014. Each season of damage knocked the heather back and meant it was less able to compete with rapidly growing mosses and grasses. The “laboratory” was becoming less heathery every year, and beetles were the main driving force behind the decline of heather coverage.

There has been beetle damage every year since 2012. The usual pattern has been damage in the autumn, followed by recovery in the spring. It’s hard for plants to make progress under these conditions; they stand still and are unable to break out of a cycle of suppression. Last year’s outbreak was fairly bad, but I was reassured by the knowledge that the plants would certainly bounce back in the spring. I wrote an article on the Heather Trust’s blog in April explaining my optimism, but I did not reckon on the cold start to the year and the long dry summer which followed. The heather was unable to recover as it normally does, and when I visited last week I was unable to find any heather plants which have survived the dry summer.

I’ve travelled across the country looking at heather beetle for the last eight years, and it is a common theme that heather usually bounces back from a beetle attack. Provided that grazing pressure is kept under control and outbreaks do not become cyclical, beetle damage often restores itself, although it can lead to structural problems which call for active management. The lesson I take from this patch of heather is that beetle is not always a standalone problem, but instead beetle damage drives change.

We often hear it said that beetle is more prolific on wet ground, and there are some links between wet conditions and beetle breeding cycles. At the same time, beetle outbreaks also take place on dry ground, and perhaps the crucial difference is that damage effects both, but plants which grow on wet ground are already on the back foot and cannot regenerate so easily as those in better conditions. Perhaps this magnifies the significance of the damage and means that beetle outbreaks are more serious when they take place on wet ground.

I have no doubt that my heather would have survived a cold spring and a dry summer if it was in good condition, and I am certain that this problem has only come about because the plants were first weakened by beetle.