Spring Rush

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Spring is gathering pace, but for all the grass is rising and the soil’s warm, I find a backlog of chores growing behind me. There’s a turnip drill to fettle, and the tractor’s leaking again.

I’ve sold the calves from last summer, but the transaction hangs on my ability to gather and load them into the trailer. This is harder than it seemed a month ago when a bale of hay would bring them tumbling down into the pens. Now they’re fat and glossy with new grass, and last summer’s bales have lost their pull. The calves hang around the gateway and toss their heads with suspicion, and I’m forced to postpone the sale until I can lure them into the race and shut the door behind them. It might be this evening, but it might take another week; patience is king.

And I bought chain harrows, but they’re a pain to move and I haven’t got anything big enough to lift them. In trying to set them up, I borrowed a track digger and broke the steering valve, then pulled the wiring loom off the bottom of my trailer and set myself back by a week and three hundred pounds.

And still there’s an electric fence to draw out on the moor so the rowdy bull can go away and boil his head in the litter of larks and bog cotton. That’s just a matter of cost and time, but I can hardly afford either.

And the new calves are coming in a fortnight and there’s so much to do before that can happen.

My chest feels tight with the drive of it all, and every plan draws on chain links which twist and shear with each passing hour. Rapt and straining at this weight of work, the spring now comes in a spatter of tiny images. A stolen reek of hawthorn blossom and wild garlic above the tractor’s din; the hum of warm stones above sunburn and cracked fingers. I look up from some diesel-reeking job and find that I’ve been listening to a swallow all the while; there’s a cuckoo beyond the blisters, or a sedge warbler racketing through the tang of lanolin and bull sweat. These are birds at the pitch of distraction, and for all I rage at the din of my obstacles, I wouldn’t change a thing.

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Lesson Learned

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We came to tag the new calf and ran against an obstacle. The applicator was jammed and the cow’s patience wore thin. She’d borne my intrusion with quiet resignation, but speed is crucial at a time like this. Seconds drove by, and I was fumbling at an adjustable pin in a broken plastic tool.

The cow began to roll her eyes and huffed until long sprays of snotters came off her like sparks. The moment was lost and I’d begun to pull back when she came at me in a loud and rolling flow with her head curled under her shoulders like a boxing glove. I looked to the slope of her back and saw it dense with the flex of bones and flesh. She foamed into my hip with a roar, and the rush almost consumed me. I was over the dyke and away, but how close I’d come to black destruction.

People are killed in moments like these. It was easy to picture the crack and rupture of my pelvis; the queasy pop of ribs and cartilage. Christ it was scary, but the memory of that half second grew over the day that followed and soon I was fluttery and weak with the weight of it.

My grandfather knew a man that was mashed by a new mother, and he’d lain for half a day in the mess of his own blood. The stockman had worked for thirty years with hill cattle, but he’d miscalled that moment and he never worked again. People said he was lucky and should’ve known better, but his loss was our gain. That story has kept me careful, but now I’ve had a close run of my own to remind me that I’m working down a tough and risky line.

Lonely Hills

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The Galloway Hills lie like a fallen dyke below the setting sun. I look to them across fifteen miles of open moorland. They’re rough and round and boulder blue.

Despite their name, half of these hills lie in Ayrshire. It hardly matters where the county line’s drawn because there’s nothing to administrate or record in that grand mass of rock and water. Nobody cares, but the line needs to run somewhere and so it glides along a twisted list of trails and crumbled cairns. The warden of the march is a knuckled old fox who cocks his leg on every milepost and never misses a trick.

Walk in those hills and tingle at their cosmic, fearsome loneliness. It’s a manless void to shame the racket of busy lowland farms, but there was a time when folk tried to find warmth in this back country. Shepherds scraped their lives off the broken stone and went for months without seeing another soul, but now the hills are owned by the Forestry Commission. There’s no call for sheep these days, and wind hisses through the tall spruce trees like sand in a timer.

Listen to the rush of water in the falls and the birl of the myrtle stems; there are goats calling. Half-seen at a mile’s distance, they trip along the granite stacks and creep below the overhangs. We owned them once, but they’ve been living wild for seven centuries. Even after all this time, there’s still a nagging humanity in those dumb, slit-black eyes. You’ll find shreds of bone and a tooth or two below the crags where the youngsters play. They fall and die as if they’d never been, and the old billies remember a time when we were as tough as they are now.

Goats aren’t the only markers of mankind. There are names and tales which hang on every cliff and lochan in these hills. Some names are hardly words at all; just rasping sounds which root back to the old tongues. Even without meaning, these words carry a fitting sense of place; picture Clashdaan, Meeowl or the Snibe on a black winter’s night and you won’t be far from the truth. Even more recent English names hint at a sinister twilight world; the Dungeon, the Murder Hole, the Wolf Slock. It’s a home for cannibals and animals with little to offer decent, forward-facing folk like you and me.

My father showed me this place. We all inherit that wreckage of granite and bog myrtle from the people who’ve gone before us. He and I tramped across the high hills and fished together on hidden waters, casting lines through a watery broth of stone and rowan trees. Many of these lochans are merely tumblers of peaty water cradling a shadow of the sky, but fine, tiny trout lurk behind every boulder, and loons wail beneath low cloud. We were just passing through because there’s no lasting life for anybody there. Sometimes at night you’ll see a light from a forester’s caravan, but there’s hardly a hearth in plastic walls and caravans have wheels to rescue them when the weather turns.

These hills have become ownerless, flung far beyond the hand of man, but they’re always peering over our shoulders. I see those old familiar lines when I look up from my beasts or peer along the bonnet of my tractor. They’ve seen me rise and grow in this place, and they’ll see me slump back into again. They stand beyond me, and I know them as well as I can.

Birth

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Imagine the darkness before dawn, and the slosh of cool rain after a dry month. A curlew is calling, and the rushes dance to the patter of falling water. There are violets and celandines at the dyke foot; the knowes are crowded with wood anemones and bluebells. It’s fast becoming day, and the glen is soft and rolling with a smool of mist. The purl of a cuckoo comes like a pulse from the hill; close and mothersome like a living comfort.

The stones are soaking, and the soil drinks the rain into a paste. Now is a time to be born, and I can do little more than envy our first riggit galloway calf. He’s quiet and shy, and he’s everything we’ve worked towards for half a decade.

Pox

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It’s hard to face the sudden appearance of squirrel pox in this part of Galloway. We stood above the rising tide of grey squirrels for so long that I’d begun to think they’d never come. Red squirrels ran chirping through the trees, and I took them for granted because I never knew the trees without them. For all I knew, grey squirrels were a curse borne by other people; something like a rumour of pollution in foreign places. But now they’ve come and our woods are filled with sickness and decay. We’re the new front line in a war which has driven red squirrels out of this country, and there’s no reason to believe that the outcome will be any different here. Even where red squirrels have been restored and the greys repelled, the battle rages on and people fight simply to stand still; to hold their ground.

Of course I can be proactive, and I’ve begun to fight back. There’s so much evidence that the disease can be managed by removing the grey squirrels, so now I have traps and bait and I’m working to galvanise others to join me. But part of me is tired of fighting a relentless struggle against loss and collapse which seems to come from every angle.

It’s not easy to run madly into another campaign; to stir other people into action and collide against the same obstacles of inertia and indifference for the hundredth time. Perhaps I’m writing this at a low ebb when my slim resources are already stretched to breaking point. Maybe I’d feel more optimistic with the sun on my back and a pint in my belly, but it’s been ten years since I nailed my colours to the mast and broke my heart trying to save black grouse in Galloway. Now those birds are almost gone, and I’ve been pushed back beyond a dozen red lines which once stood far behind me. I’ve given ground, and as I watch curlews following black grouse into the grave, I’m forced  to wonder what we’ll lose next. It’s hard to find much success in my work at times like this. All I’ve done is throw obstacles and hinderances beneath the wheels of an advancing monster.

There are always new holes appearing; even the safest ground is frayed and sore. I have to remind myself that I can only do what I can.

Piglets

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We borrowed a boar in December. His name was Percy and he stayed with our sows for seven weeks. We watched for signs of progress, but Percy was vast and idle and he seemed to do little more than sleep for the entire duration of his visit. Not knowing any better, we began to worry that our breeding plans had misfired. Maybe we’d need to try another boar, or look again at the health of our sows. But then March came and the girls began to swell and sag. We cottoned on and crossed our fingers.

I checked on the first sow at 5:15 on Saturday morning. I’d been out for a fox on the unlit hill, and curlews pealed over the yard. She was asleep in the deep straw, wobbling like jelly with every flick and twitch of her dreams. Everything seemed calm and stable in the sty, so I went into the house to sleep for a couple of hours. When I came back to check on her again, the sun was well up over the sheds and the chickens were scratching in the midden where the nettles grow. It was hardly mid-morning, and there were eleven piglets nuzzling at the sow’s belly.

We’re new to keeping pigs, and the world is full of horror stories. We’d read gruesome tales of sows which eat their own young, and we’d walked in fear of a thousand problems. But this young sow pressed out her litter without the slightest call for help; and they’d responded with enthusiasm and complicity.

Their first few hours came in a kind of musical chairs. The piglets would fight and scrum for their milk, and that made the sow uneasy. She’d stand up and turn round, and the youngsters were painfully vulnerable to being trodden or crushed. Any piglet standing in a vulnerable position when she lay back down was doomed. It was a full-time job to rescue them, and perhaps it’s inevitable that we should have suffered an early casualty. The runt was crushed by a careless step, and maybe that was a mercy because the little pig was losing ground and weighed little more than a handful of straw.

To keep them safe, we sat with them for the first night when they were small and fragile. I sent curling strands of cigarette smoke into the rafters and listened to the crackle and flex of little beasts sleeping on the straw. It was fine to recall the harvesting of that oat straw in the sunlit days of September, less than a stone’s throw from where it was being used.

There was dust and the smell of warm bodies, and the stars rolled past in the broken skylight window. I looked at the old stone walls and imagined the many pigs which have been born in this building in the years before it was mine. I bound those hours into a plait of memories and connections which seems to grow sturdier with every season we spend in this place. We’ve been here for two years, and already it seems impossible that we could ever leave.

But what piglets they are now at four days old. We chose to work with pedigree Oxford Sandy and Black pigs because we loved their markings and the appeal of spotty pigs. Our first weaners were stunning, but then we decided to keep breeding stock and grew the females into adulthood. Oxford Sandy and Black markings often seem to fade and blur with age, so our beautiful youngsters mellowed into brown drabness. But these piglets are gaudy and bright with speckles and patches; their gingers are garish and their whites are pristine.

Match that luminescence with the depth and flex of their personalities. They battle and fray at the slightest nudge; wars are waged over access to teats, and the yard rings to the din of outrage and combat. When the door was opened into the outside pens, the piglets rushed into the sunlight and began to dismantle a bale of straw like a shoal of piranhas. Newly born youngsters are often slow and fumbling. Puppies are blind and calves lie meekly in the long grass. But these creatures sprang out of the womb like tigers; shock-troops with smoke-grenades and megaphones. It’s impossible not to love them.

 

Swallows

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We saw a swallow on the third of April. The dark shape flew from east to west across the horizon, and then it was gone. We always mark the swallow’s arrival as a time of joy, but it was hard to find pleasure in those silent, flickering wings. Others came in following days, but the weather was dull and bitterly cold. I watched a swallow trying to work in the frost, and I pitied the futility of hunting through empty air. Those early birds were quiet and cool; silhouettes against a hollow sky.

I feared for the swallow chicks which hatched in the byre during the harvest. They hung around the yard until October, and it seemed unlikely that they’d ever build the clout to reach Africa. Thousands of late chicks must die on passage, and it seems just as likely that many of the earliest swallows die on their return, battered by ice and a lack of insect food. Humans can live for days on the smallest margins, but swallows are calibrated to balance on a knife-edge. Even the tiniest gap between meals will sink them, and I recall an old Galloway motto; the finest acme of rural conservatism: “never be the first or the last to try something new”. I wonder what became of the birds which came here on the third of April, two full weeks before there was food and warmth to buoy them.

I watched those early outriders flying in the cold and I heaped their impatience beside my own. I’ve been straining for progress over many weeks, and the hard, changeless spread of the land around me became an open wound. There have been times when I’ve hated the dumb granite of this yard. The rocks are stubborn and dull, and they didn’t seem to give a damn that it was April and the sap was rising. I played with the idea of going away; finding somewhere warm and comfortable to lie. But I’m anchored to this spot, and I must wait for spring to come to me.

The weather didn’t break, but it cracked on Monday and there was a cosy drum of rain on the tin roof. The soil reeked beneath it, and the yard was suddenly filled with the smell of wet stone. That crack was enough to move us along, and now the land is warm and sweet. We need more rain, but we’ve had enough to spark insects into motion. Ants battle through the moss, and gnats churn like smoke in the shade of the blackthorn blossom.

And now there are real swallows singing in the granary and the pig pen rails. They’re blue and glossy and filled with spools of chattering song. Forget those early, baffled waifs; these are the birds we’ve waited for during long months of ice and darkness.