Hoeing

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Yes, it’s grand work hoeing turnips. The hoe comes easily to hand, and the blade rubbles up the weeds something rotten. You can do a good job or a perfect one; it’s your decision. So you work away beneath the sun as if the world was nothing more than your own shadow on a rig of shaws. Sometimes you can hear sandmartins up from the burn, but mostly it’s just the glit and shiver of steel on loose ground.

A hare lies in the back corner and she thinks I can’t see her. It’s only in the last week that this crop’s grown tall enough to hide her. Until then she’d been coming in like a burglar and lifting her share under the moon. But now she can lounge around at her leisure and peel the greenery from her bed in broad daylight. I work closer to her, and at length she comes up like a stolen shirt and rides away along the furrow with her lugs trailing behind her.

There are weeds all through this crop. There’s mouse-ear and fat hen and creeping buttercup coiling around knives of dead nettle and spoons of sun spurge. Some of it’s hellish bad for docks, and other bits are just a bank of deep-rooted thistles. Everything wants to grow in that bare soil, and I rake it out with a turn of the hoe leaving only turnips and dampness in my wake.

And I sometimes find oats coming up from last year. They’re stocky and short, and they need more than rubbing out. I hack the stems and lift the roots to let them crisp in the wind. Last year’s crop is little more than a problem now, and then there’s a storm of finches over the dyke and the bull is tolling again, blowing streamers into the long grass.

 

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Haymaker’s Blues

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I’d like to meet the man who invented plastic baler twine. I’d wrap that stuff around the most sensitive part of his hands and steadily tighten it over several days until the skin was smeary and white and he wailed for mercy.

We’ve now endured everything that might possibly have gone wrong with the hay. I bust the mower’s power drive, and in so doing gathered up such a ball of grass on the PTO shaft that it was baked into concrete. Then we tried to finish the job with a topper and we broke that too. Of course there was a big wheel puncture, and a second one came a little while afterwards; shortly after we had taken all the tools home. A radiator began to leak and the finger tines shattered away from the bob leaving smithereens of steel littered through the crop. So perhaps it was inevitable that the baler should’ve slipped a spring and called to be restrung a dozen times, and it was only at a final pitch of fury and upset that rain came in from the sea in smirry veils.

It might have been an excellent crop, but now it’s only moderate. I’m spoilt by the glory of last summer when the grass was fried in a withering sun and the hay was safe beneath the tin less than seventy two hours after it was cut. Now I’m reduced to picking and digging at the best bales, carting them around indecisively in batches of sixty or seventy. They’ve been built into diamonds and stooks, then turned and reversed to catch the sun and crisp in the breeze when it comes. But the air is thick and soupy, and while I can imagine moisture blowing off the field, it’s blowing onto it from other places just as keenly.

Every time I’ve moved those bales, the twine has slit into my fingers like cheese wire. I’ve exhausted the comfort of a dozen different ways to carry a hay bale, and at last I’ve fallen to hugging them like fairground teddy bears. And I’ve torn the skin off my shins and dumped the full weight of the baler’s clutch onto my fingernail. My forearms are prickled with a million tiny jabs of cut grass, and the back of my hand was partially flayed by a rusting mudguard.

This has been a trial from the start, and there are still two hundred bales to fetch in before I can relax.

 

Captive Curlews

 

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I met a man who used to keep curlews in captivity. It’s not an easy business because the birds are edgy and hard to settle, but he took that as a challenge.

After many years of trial and error, he slowly taught himself how to raise young curlews in pens and then settled them into aviaries when they’d grown up. This was in the 1970s at a time when nobody had ever managed to breed curlews in captivity, but soon this man was on course to separate his birds into breeding pairs. Success was almost within his grasp, and he prepared for the arrival of the first eggs.

It wasn’t to be. Most of his captive birds died just a few days before the eggs were laid. On the very cusp of success, the pairs turned on each other and killed themselves.

In a final test before commitment, curlews probe one another for weakness. I often watch the wild pairs in long and fearsome fights which unfold against the wide sky; I see that it’s no game. They scream and tumble, but there’s always relief in the cloud or the broad horizon. Only the strongest birds will stand a chance of breeding successfully, so it pays to know how fit your partner is. Weakness is weeded out, and the lesser birds bleed away to the sea to lick their wounds and try another year.

So pity the captives who are hemmed in by mesh. They’re scorched by the white heat of their own instincts and find themselves capable of murder. Pick them out of open country and the birds will self-destruct.

Curlews come to me as a fine distillation of rain and trailing cloud. But knowing this new truth about curlews reminds me how heavily a curlew will lean upon open skies; they cannot survive without them. Wide, hill-bound places are no more a choice than moonlight or the rush of rain. Space is a precondition and a failsafe against distortion.

 

Turnip Rehash

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For all I’ve been hoping that the turnips would come good, I was forced to face an uncomfortable truth last week. Several drills have come up totally bare, and there’s an odd inconsistency between the biggest seedlings and the smallest. Something wasn’t right, and it took a visit from straight-talking neighbours to show me the error of my ways. I hadn’t set the drill box up correctly and so the belts had slipped and the seed had been sown willy-nilly.

Twenty five days after the initial sowing, I went back and harrowed in half the drills. This wiped the slate clean across almost an acre, and then I was free to rebuild the ridges and sow fresh seed at a proper rate. The work took a few hours, and now there will be a slight disparity between the old and new turnips when they finally come, but that hardly matters. I’m pleased to have worked out how to do the job properly, and I’m chuffed to see oystercatchers making merry in the freshly turned soil.

Outsiders

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Everybody loves belted galloways; thats a truth universally acknowledged. Children coo at belties, and tourists buy postcards of black and white cattle until I begin to worry that any word of criticism will be shouted down and trampled upon by an outraged mob. These beasts have made such a mark in Galloways identity that it almost feels disloyal to give them anything but praise, but I’ve begun to move away from that tradition.

I took on this project because I wanted to connect with Galloway. At first I wanted to work with belted galloways because they were an obvious choice, but a chance conversation with a friend in Castle Douglas led me to riggits and I never looked back.

Riggit gallowaysOutsiders are outsiders; a footnote in a long stream of continuity which has placed some beasts above others. Theres no real justification for this, but Ive lost count of the people who have quietly chuckled at my enthusiasm. When I first started to invest in riggits, I was advised against it. When I tell people that Im keen on galloways, they light up and say belties?”, and then I have to toe the ground and explain that its riggits that keep me awake at night time. I can see their excitement fading because whats a riggit and why?

But for all it sometimes feels like riggit galloways are a dead end, I cant draw my eyes away from them. Riggit genetics are very old, and they dont survive in many of the modern improved” types of galloway cattle. Ignore the markings for a moment and realise that these are galloways of the traditional kind; with short legs, blunt-heads and curves in all the old places. My grandfather worked with black galloways for half a century at time when riggit galloways had all but vanished. He would’ve been baffled by my cattle, but he’d have seen more to love in my riggits than he would in many of the tall, boxy blacks which are now being turned out by commercial breeders.

And belted galloways have a finely established breed standard. People fret and panic about the precise nature of their markings. By following rigorous guidelines, its almost possible to produce something which breeders regard as perfect. Riggits seem to throw this conformity back in your face. There are hardly any rules, and the perfect riggit galloway is in the eye of the beholder. Every one of my cows is unqiue – some are almost white; others almost black. Theyre all riggits, but thats a cover-all term for the mottled middleground which defies conformity. You’d never struggle to tell two riggits apart, and throwing objectivity to the wind, Ive had beltie calves and riggit calves and theres no doubt in my mind which I prefer to see. And when the beasts are up and away, theres something trebly fine about riggits seen from across a mile of open country with a stack of dark clouds piling up behind them.

I can understand why the world is devoted to belted galloways. It makes perfect sense, and I dont mean to drag them down. But in a system which routinely sneers at riggit galloways, I think its fair enough to sing their praises now and then; no better or worse but a breed apart.

 

Summer Buck

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Down in the halflight to the deep grass where the waters ranting. Heres a good track for roe deer, and they wend along these paths by the river like ghosts in the rising reeds. I see them walking in the dawn when the mist has pooled and flooded onto the low ground and their heads swim like boats.

And there he is, with his eyes half closed and his feet grouped neatly together like a dancer. Hes still beside a hawthorn tree, and the shot spins him down til he’s swallowed in a bowl of wildflowers. By the time I find him, theres a blue cast in his eyes which makes him seem sleepy and dull. I run my hands along his back and down his thighs and feel the redness of him at source. Then Im inside, pulling up great mounds of sour and squirming guts.

Its almost dark when Im done. The water dins away and theres a bird chanting loudly in the gloom. I know its a sedge warbler, but I place that information to one side. There are orchids in the dullness but I dont care to give them names.

Its almost the height of summer; I stand to my waist and look upwards.

 

Speaning

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We pulled the calves from their mothers and sold them. I drew the wagon away from the gathering pens and the cattle began to moan in protest. Some of these calves are almost a year old, but they were still sucking at times; a fright would send them cartwheeling home to the safety of their mothers. But we stacked them in a tall aluminium trailer and tried not to look as they snuffed at the vents and sent streamers of drool down the walls.

Left to their own devices, cattle fold themselves into a complex herd. Generations pile up in layers and the beasts build a sense of understanding. But my calves are sold, and the bonds are broken in a never-ending loop. They’ve gone to a man beyond Dumfries who’ll feed them on for another two years; it’s not a bad move for them, and it’s a relief for me as I wring my hands and hope for more grass. Still, it’s a lasting discomfort, and something like a betrayal of animals who felt like they knew me. I know I’m being soft, but I’m also being honest.

We have an old word for this kind of separation in Galloway. We call it speaning, and it prickles at me like an old pain. But now there are new calves coming and the cycle begins again.