Best and Worst

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 7/6/20

The cattle have been out for a month, and it feels like they have grasped the meaning of their work. It’s fine to hear them ripping at the new grass, gently reshaping the hill with a thousand gobful tears. The ecological benefits of having them out are increasingly plain to see, but this project attempts to find a balance between agriculture and conservation, and it’s important to keep an even eye on both ends of the puzzle.

I have nine beasts on the hill, and seven are doing just fine. They’re broad-backed and heavy, and the heather has combed them into show-ground perfection. The other two are bugging me because they seem to be misfiring. They are the last two calves born in the first week of July 2019. They were late and small and never quite caught up with the cohort. It’s almost embarrassing to see how light they are against the others, and while I’m confident they will make up ground as the summer rolls on, it’s interesting that their bellies are often half-empty when the others are full, and they tread lightly around the group, often hanging about the fringes. It’s marginal stuff and perhaps I am tuned to focus on small details, but it’s a puzzle to wonder why they have been slow to bloom in a world of free and easy grass.

I have no interest in showing cattle, but I can easily spot my best. If I was minded to do a little fussing and brushing, I could do fine on the show circuit – certainly not stellar, but steady. However, it set me thinking how every herd will have a mix of good and less good, and the show season permits the cream to float. And wouldn’t it be fun if the best animal from every herd also had to be shown alongside the worst? Imagine the shame of it, but at least it would be a better representation of the work that goes into breeding cattle. Picture the show-lines at Ingliston, with every rosette-wearing champion forced to stand alongside something a little dull and goonish, with torn ears and a funny gait. Knowing that no breeder is perfect, it would be easier to make your peace with the occasional “also-ran”.

Milk-Wort and Bog-Cotton

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Cwa’een like milk-wort and bog-cotton hair!

I love you, earth, in this mood best o’ a’

When the shy spirit like a laich wind moves

And frae the lift nae shadow can fa’

Sine there’s nocht left to thraw a shadow there

Owre een like milk-wort and milk-white cotton hair.

 

Wad that nae leaf upon anither wheeled

A shadow either and nae root need dern

In sacrifice to let sic beauty be!

But deep surroondin’ darkness I discern

Is aye the price o’ licht. Wad licht revealed

Naething but you, and nicht nocht else concealed.

 

Hugh MacDiarmid, from Scots Unbound, 1932

 

In cutting peat and turning turf towards the wind, these late spring days continually draw me back to this poem which I learned as a teenager. I never liked MacDiarmid much, and I raged against him in articles I wrote and illustrated for the student magazine in Glasgow. But as I grew up, I began to realise that he had an eye for the hills of home and wrote better and with more clarity on the Southern Uplands than anyone since Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve often leaned heavily upon Milk-Wort and Bog-Cotton, and it has never failed me.

MacDiarmid spent his early life at Langholm. His work was drawn from the hills around that “muckle toun” – but those hills are merely a single thread in a bigger bolt of moorland country which runs across Dumfriesshire, Lanarkshire and the Borders. Draw a square with corners in Cumnock, Moniaive, Biggar and Newcastleton – it makes sense to think of that space as a single, blue-remembered whole which supersedes county boundaries.

When June comes, MacDiarmid’s land is soft and curlew-sounding; distance mounding with cloud and the hurl of sheep-sweat. It’s powerfully distinctive, but in recent years this landscape has become a place to build wind-farms and produce commercial timber. It clings to life in shreds and remnants, and while thousands of people pass through it in trains and cars every week, few will do more than blink at deep railways cuttings and the wreckage of industrial development. This land is living the eternal tragedy of Southern Scotland; to be overlooked and under-valued as an obstacle between bigger and better things. I was born and raised to look in at these hills from further south and west, but I know it well and a handful of my outlying ancestors recline in graveyards from Kilmarnock to Drumelzier.

MacDiarmid’s land is obscure to the point of fault, so it’s right that he should mark it with an emphasis on tiny, telling details. Milk-wort is a moorland flower no bigger than a bee’s head. It glows in shades of blue and purple, and it loves the old cattle-trods of the south. Bog-cotton is a more familiar plant, but it grows so thickly in the moss and peat haggs that it’s easily ignored. In merging the sunless combination of these two immaculately understated symbols, MacDiarmid is unearthing a live-wire connection to a very specific place. When an east wind blows down over the Nith into Galloway, there’s a tangible reek of milk-wort and bog-cotton in the air; the crazy old poet moves in a laich wind. And like him, I love the earth in that mood, best of all.

I used to think that life lay elsewhere. When I began to write, I always imagined myself on some adventure in California or the African veldt because I was bored with my home and it seemed impossible that anything valuable could ever happen here. But in this poem and a handful of others, MacDiarmid showed me that enormity lies wherever you look for it. And perhaps the best I can do is love my own place truly, then tell.

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“I never liked MacDiarmid much” – one of my old caricatures from c.2007

Arrivals

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The replicant – a carbon copy of her mother

Courthill, Buittle Parish – 31/5/20

The calving is halfway done, and the new calves lie snoozing in a blare of sunshine. Here is the second generation of calves from my bull Godwit, and they’re a fine mix of patterns and colours. The most beautiful by far is an immaculately marked riggit heifer born last week to one of my original batch of cows which came down from Balmaclellan in 2016. It was fun to find that this cow threw a bull calf last year which might have been herself in miniature. The resemblance was almost uncanny; every blotch and smudge had repeated upon the calf in beautiful duplicate. This year, she’s done it again – and in producing a heifer, she seems almost to have cloned herself.

There are four more calves to come, and one in particular that I am sorely excited to see. Every day seems to stretch on to twice a reasonable length as I agonise and fret, checking my watch and waiting for the new beasts to show themselves.

Oystercatcher Update

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An oystercatcher by her nest – but look at how diverse, choppy and varied the field has become!

Courthill, Buittle Parish – 31/5/20

A week after it was discovered, I can’t resist a brief update on the oystercatchers which are nesting in my hayfield. These birds have become a signal point of interest this spring, and I pass their nest twice a day as I go back and forth to check the new calves. The grass has risen significantly over the last week, and given the continuous run of hot, dry weather, much of it has now bolted into seed. In many ways, this has only improved the birds’ chance of success, making their nest more camouflaged but also leaving it loose and open enough for chicks to walk through if they survive long enough to hatch.

Given that there are only two eggs in this nest, it would seem to imply that these birds have already tried and failed to nest this year. It’s more normal for oystercatchers to have three or four eggs, and second attempts are often made with fewer eggs. I also have to measure their timing against other oystercatchers in the area, many of which have already produced fit and healthy young. Again, the weather is in their favour – nothing kills wader chicks faster than rain and cold wind.

This year seems to have been unusually productive for oystercatchers, and I know of at least seven nests which have hatched successfully. Four of these are in Castle Douglas – some on the roof of the supermarket, others in parks, playing fields and on rounbabouts. Oystercatchers often feel like an “urban” wader, but breeding in towns and near people is actually very new behaviour – it has only been documented over the last twenty years. In fact, oystercatchers only started to nest away from the seaside about eighty years ago, and many of their habits are extremely recent.

The birds can breed in towns because the adult birds naturally forage away from their chicks and bring food back to them. This means that they can nest on flat roofs and in gutters where the chicks are actually safer than they would be on the ground. By comparison, curlews never feed their young and the chicks are expected to find their own food from the day they’re hatched. Curlews are edgy and cautious birds and it’s unfair to draw a comparison between the two, but this simple difference between the two species explains how oystercatchers appear to be growing more common (although they’re really in decline) while curlews are becoming harder to find with every year.

On the subject of oystercatchers, it’s also worth recording a quick chat with my neighbour, who I met when I was in the fettle to enthuse about my hayfield nest. He patiently heard me out, then drily remarked that we’ve come to a sad day when a single oystercatcher’s nest is something to get excited about. He remembered when there used to be a nest of oystercatchers in every field roundabout these parts, and I suppose it set him thinking on the last time he had found eggs. In the end, he was quite surprised to realise that he didn’t know when he had last seen chicks – in that he echoed a general feeling you often find across Scotland; waders are slipping away without anybody really noticing.

Lovely Muck

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 31/5/20

It’s worth a note on the subject of shit, because as my cattle rove back and forth across the hill, they leave a visible trail behind them. I’ve always been curious about the conservation value of this by-product, and I’ve been steadily drawn towards the role of cow pats in healthy soil structure and diverse ecosystems. There is a whole world of intrigue and excitement around the study of dung beetles, and these little beasts are so closely linked to traditional grazing techniques that it’s easy to treat them as an indicator of how well you’re doing. Dung beetles and insects which depend upon cowpats have been in massive decline over the last few years, and it’s interesting to note that farming techniques seem to have driven much of this collapse.

It’s perhaps inevitable that cattle should pick up a host of parasites as they move around the countryside, from ticks and lice to fluke and worms. There’s some evidence that traditional livestock breeds are naturally more resistant to diseases caused by parasites; if they’re well managed, most old-fashioned cattle soon build up a healthy immunity to many of the worst illnesses. More commercial systems often depend upon chemicals to manage parasites, and there are some superbly efficient man-made treatments which kill everything in next to no time. These are often based on a substance called ivermectin, and the suffix “mectin” is used in many of the brand names available from vets and agricultural stores. I’ve used closamectin in the past when I’ve been worried about worms, and the treatment comes in the form of a blue fluid which is poured along the spine of the animal where it can be absorbed into the system. Closamectin is pretty expensive, but it’s given me peace of mind in the past when parasites have been breathing down my neck. However, the problem with the “mectins” is that some of the most potent ingredients are still active when they are excreted in the dung, and they continue to kill everything they touch – particularly dung beetles and many of the beasties responsible for breaking muck down into some of the useful ingredients for soil health.

Cow muck that is tainted with chemical treatments will draw in dung beetles from miles around, only to kill them or badly inhibit their reproductive cycles. It’s no wonder that many species of dung beetle have been wiped out over the last few decades since ivermectin was introduced, and it’s only in recent years that we’ve started to understand how deeply the problem can run. This was a conundrum for me, because I wanted to protect my young beasts but also had to balance that against helping soil health and dung-feeding insects. As a compromise, I treated them with Closamectin about five weeks before they went out to the hill. They were kept in a shed until the withdrawal period had passed, and I tried to make sure that their dung was not spread about or meddled with during that time. The cattle went out when they were “clean” and all the harmful active ingredients had passed through them – and as if to prove that this “quarantine” period was successful, it’s exciting to find that the cowpats they are now dropping on the hill are all filled with wriggling bugs and beetles.

I broke up a cowpat this morning and found it riddled with all manner of different creepy-crawlies, and some of the dung has obviously been riddled and probed by birds trying to feed upon the beasties. If you struggle to see the value of dung beetles in their own right, remember that they underpin a whole food chain which links them to all manner of other (potentially more exciting) species like snipe, woodcock and oystercatchers. As I learn to differentiate between the various different species of dung beetle, it will make for an interesting strand to the project to see if diversity or numbers increase over the next few years. I’ll try not to use any treatments for worms or fluke while the beasts are on the hill, and I hope that I can walk a fine line between healthy cows and healthy invertebrate populations.

Oystercatcher’s Return

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Courthill, Buittle Parish – 24/5/20

I sometimes find it hard to quantify the good I do. In muddling on between various experiments and following my nose towards a “better” countryside, it can be very difficult to measure my actual success. Despite my best efforts over the past decade, many of my favourite species have continued to decline – and sometimes it’s tempting to imagine that I’ve been wasting my time in the face of a problem that is far bigger than one fool could ever hope to tackle alone.

Even when I have done good, I’m seldom able to celebrate that success. Ecology is so complicated that changes are rarely attributable to one cause, and it would be vainglorious to claim progress as “mine”. And when things do not go well, it simply compounds the feeling that I’m far out of my depth.

It’s only very occasionally that I can put my hand upon something good and say “I did that”. In this light, I hope that Working for Grouse can withstand a moment’s joyful boasting – particularly since the progress I’ll describe has come from a combination of error and serendipity.

Longer-term readers will remember that I took on a new hayfield in 2018. I had grand plans for those six, rich acres along the seashore, and it felt like a priority to restore some of the wildflower species which grew there. The field had been used for intensive silage production for many years, and while it lay within easy reach of seaside waders, the slurried, fertilised grass always grew too thickly for anything to nest-and-be-thankful.

As a first step, it seemed logical to stop the application of bagged fertiliser. I couldn’t afford to buy the stuff anyway, but I’d started to build an understanding of how artificial Nitrogen can completely destroy soil chemistry. Until I took it on, the field had been cut for silage in May and August, and I changed that too. Instead of an early cut, I took one big haul of grass and made hay much later in the year. This has all been exhaustively documented elsewhere on this blog, not least in the dire job I had in mowing the field in late October last year. That made a horrible mess, and the grass has been very slow to recover.

A prolonged drought through April into May has dramatically accelerated many of the changes I hoped to implement over five or ten years. A few weeks ago, I wrote to record the huge profusion of dandelions (and bumblebees) which rose from the wreckage of the autumn cut, but the grass has now been held back for so long that “weeds” are running in rampant domination. From a purely agricultural perspective, this field looks to be in a terrible state. To a conservationist, it is paradise. Where the land formerly lay beneath a thick mat of productive ryegrass, now there are tall strands of redshank and cuckooflower, yellow rattle and yarrow. The first orchids are coming, and I spy nettles, docks and a few incursions of cow parsley and vetch from the roadside verges. It’s fast becoming a shambles, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my neighbours are tutting at the mess I’ve made.

Things are really changing quickly, and part of me panics to ponder how far my yields will have dropped when the time comes to mow this field. When I first took it on, I was able to bring home four hundred small bales of hay a year. I might struggle to get half that now, and I’m extremely glad that I’ve taken another hayfield to make up the shortfall. In weaker moments, I question the rationale which drove me to “ruin” a good, productive field. I’ll admit that I have often doubted my direction of travel, so imagine my relief and delight to find that a pair of oystercatchers has decided to make a nest in my field. There have been no breeding oystercatchers here for at least ten years, but now I have two eggs and probably more to come. It’s an extraordinary blessing, and I still can’t quite believe it.

Knowing why these birds left this field and having begun the slow, steady process of unpicking that harm, it’s an odd feeling to reap the reward. Here is progress that I can claim as my own, and I’m crazily encouraged that wildlife has begun to respond to my work with every sign of endorsement.

Bracken-Busters

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 21/5/20

People said it would take years for the cows to make an impact at Low Airie. It’s a big piece of ground, and I don’t have many beasts to graze it. I had made my peace with the idea that I was trying to paint a hayshed with a toothbrush – it was going to take a decade or more to get where I wanted to be, and the short-term nature of my lease make it quite possible that I will be up and away long before the hill is back in health.

In truth, the cows have already made a noticeable dent, and it’s a rare thrill to see them working on the rushes and trampling down the new bracken. They have two hundred acres to play with, but by choice or natural inclination, they’ve decided to hang around in less than a quarter of the space available to them. Aside from one notable escape, they’ve never left that fifty acre patch or shown any inclination to explore the area I fenced off in March and April. The satellite tags reveal that the huge majority of their time is spent in three places near the gate where they arrived – three places which amount to around five acres. When they leave one of these places, the chances are that they’re simply heading to another. Put ten cows in five acres for almost three weeks, and it’s no surprise you’ll see a change.

Ignoring the fact that most of the hill is so far untouched by cattle, it’s tempting to zoom in on the work that has been done. One of their favourite places is a wet flush in the peat, surrounded by rushes and bog myrtle. They have knocked the bottom out of this ground, munching the greenery down to a short, bristly carpet. In going to check them yesterday, I pushed a snipe out of this flush, and the bird flew in such a way as to suggest that it had chicks nearby. The youngsters are so well camouflaged that you could walk past a thousand and never see a single one, but it wasn’t hard to imagine them hunkered down in the stubs of old marsh thistle and the tatty threads of spearwort. The cows had made a perfect little home for them, and while it’s far too soon to claim credit for the success of any breeding birds, I was proud to think of the work I’m at.

I bought in hay from my neighbours last summer, and they sold at such a price that I was glad to take five hundred bales. That’s more than I had space to store, so some of them went in a stack at the back of the tractor shed. I hadn’t realised that the roof was leaking, and when I came to uncover the bales in March, I found that many were black and sodden with rain. I had to throw some away, but most of the rest are good enough to be fed out provided they go soon. So I’ve been taking a few of these mouldy bales out to the hill when I go, and I’ve been careful to dump them on the dry knowes where the bracken grows.

Now the grass has come, the cattle have little use for this extra feeding, but they come for it all the same. They butt and mash the darkened bales, and they sift through the flakes to eat the best. In doing this, they crunch their boots through the bracken and break up the deep litter where the new green fiddleheads are growing. Bracken has done well in the four decades since this hill was last grazed. It’s a domineering plant, and it quickly smothers the life out all competing vegetation. In another forty years without management, the whole hill would be a relentless swathe of bracken, with little else to show for itself.

You can spray the fronds or cut the stems, but bracken is a tough plant and doesn’t mind being knocked about once or twice. The oldest and best option for bracken control is to have cattle walking back and forth upon it, crushing the stems and flattening the new growth when it comes. By laying out hay bales (and placing a few mineral lick blocks) on beds of bracken, I’m making a conscious effort to keep my cows trampling back and forth through the stuff. This would work best in winter because bracken hates the cold and heavy hooves expose the sensitive roots to frost and snow, but summer grazing can also do a power of good. In just over a fortnight, the cows have churned up almost two acres of bad bracken and reduced the new spring growth to mush. I have no doubt that it will be back and more work will be required, but here is a neat and satisfying little strand to this project in its early stages.

 

Rain Larks

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Home, Parish of Kirkgunzeon – 18/5/20

Rain came at last, and the tin sheds sang loud and well into the night. I was up before dawn to find pearls of water running below the gatebars and the washing line, slung in the reeds and combed into the coats of cows and prowly cats.

Day came in a surly bend, with a heron welting on the burnside and a loudness of larks on the dyke-tops and the moss where ancient glaciers dumped big stones for birds to stand upon on mornings like these. Larks loved the newly fallen rain, and cuckoos like wood-wind in the half-light, smelling of blossom and the great un-dry.

Morning showed larks lurking in the oat field, and rooks and crows beside them; larks walked in the new crop, laying their eggs and steaming them towards life; larks hung in the last of the rain and there was little else to hear above that dear-loved din which has come to lie between dawn and the dying edge of nightslack.

 

Marsh Fugitives

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Barney Water, Glenkens – 18/05/20

A greening came to the loch-side. New grass sprang from the shores where water claps and paddles in the wind, then it rose and sought up the inflows like a rising tide, following the burn-banks back uphill; steady green and growing like a stain or an inkblot. A month ago, this land was white and badly worn; now it’s shot through with new veins like the creepers of blood which run around an egg’s yolk.

Smelling this change on every turn of the wind, the cattle complained. It’s hard to hold them on a dry hilltop when sap is rising in the bottoms, and perhaps it’s no surprise that they should’ve found their own way down to meet the spring.

They seemed not to give a damn that I had placed a fence across their path. They nudged and drove at the wires, shouldering them testily. I would later find tufts of black and white hair all balled and snagged along the barbs, but at last they slipped across my barricade, finding space where a watergate lay in the shallow burn bottom. Having passed beyond my bounds, they found the downhill ground lay greener and more lush with every descending step until they came at last to a marsh. Here was grass to feed a grand herd of cattle, with buds and sludge and the buttery squash of rising sap.

In creeping down to recover the fugitives, I found myself walking in their wake. Cattle tracks led me far into a risky mesh of ditches and dark water. I pushed through man-high reeds and the wreckage of old bulrushes like broken scaffolding; the kind of mess where bitterns boom. It was no wonder that the cows had been drawn to this salad bar of cinquefoil and valerian; compared to the hill, it was paradise. A snipe began to drum in the darkening sky, and in looking up to find him I stared instead at the face of an osprey passing low above me, trailing some branch or nest-decking in his claws. We could not believe one another; me owl-faced and pale in my boots, him dull as willow-bark in the twilight.

I drove deeper still, and the marsh began to boil with frog-mess and the swirl of tiger-striped pike in the fringes. I found signs of otters on every peg and turl of grass; spraintings, and screeds of grey, membranous fish-coat left curling in the breeze like paper. The cows must’ve followed an otter-track as if it were a pilot hole, because while they had enlarged it in their passing, there was still something small-minded and tumbly in the way they’d worked along the waterbanks.

At times it was a pleasure to walk in that marsh with the afterglow of a warm day and the grass rising like elvers around me. But there were just as many moments where the land lay dank and odourless; the pools wet enough to hold a fish but fishless all the same. I shrank and stood apart, fretful that I was being summoned into something wholly unwholesome; that the tall reeds would part upon something I was never meant to see, and me three miles from the nearest help.

I found them in the last huff before darkness. They lay and tossed their tails in the green lee of a willow tree, and it was a relief to find them. They stood when they saw me, and it was no work to lead them home again with Venus rising above the dark hills to the west above Loch Skerrow. I looked over my shoulder once or twice to watch them following-on; a queue of black and white bodies all warm and busty in the half light. I felt less timid for some company, and feeling braver with five tons of beef at my back, I laughed aloud and sang something old.

First Calf

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Courthill, Buittle – 14/5/20

The first calf came in a swirl of frost and heavy breathing; a mix and a mongrel calf with half a belt and something of a rigg. This cow rolled the same genetic dice last year and came up with something different. Then it was black, and now it’s a muddle so the new boy is a smiling reminder that you never can tell.

I sat with them for half an hour this morning and watched the sun over the sea and the bursty crenellations of whinn flowers and skylarks. Shelducks gabbled in the glen, and the other cows came cautious to find the newcomer. They snuffed and rasped the child as it lay, and sheets of red cleanings hung from the mother like a change in bed-linen.