Plunging into the heart of darkness

Taiga is the Russian word for forest. It’s a hard, fearsome word which is generally used to describe the vast ring of trees which runs around the top of the globe. The taiga spills out from Russia into Scandinavia and over the Bering Strait to Canada. The taiga occupies more space on Planet Earth than “jungle” or “desert”, but it rarely invades our consciousness. The taiga prefers to lurk on the fringes – a kind of dreamscape populated by snow, trees and the howling of wolves. Perhaps we don’t often look at the taiga because we don’t want to see it.

British landscapes are commonly made up of two or three distant, horizontal lines. Finland is defined by an endless barcode of verticality. Within an hour’s drive north from the Finnish city of Oulo, the relentless forest began to feel claustrophobic. My personal space was being invaded by trees. I felt breathless, and would have paid good money for some altitude and a clear view. Early October is the Finnish “ruska” – a time when the woods come to life in autumnal colour. As we crossed the Arctic Circle and neared our destination, aspens roared like bonfires against the dark conifers.

In my country, woods are fussily contained by fences and walls – trees are held at bay in an otherwise open landscape. In Finland, the effect is reversed. Fields are dug out of the taiga, and the narrow strips of agricultural land wage a constant war against incursion from birch seeds and aspen suckers. Much of Finland’s ancient taiga has been managed, felled and worked at some stage in human history, but my impression of Finnish forestry was extremely harmonious. The Finns are pushing at an open door, working alongside natural processes. How different this is from Britain’s “spreadsheet/tax relief” approach, in which every tree lives and dies with the clockwork certainty of oilseed rape.

Despite Finland’s managed landscape, there are many places which have not changed since the last glaciers died. Wrinkled logistics have conspired to keep these places safe from axes and chainsaws. Finnish forests are so rich and extensive that the Finns have never had to hunt down and consume every splinter of wood as we did in Scotland, and managed forests run seamlessly alongside their ancient ancestors.

We entered the taiga on foot near the small town of Luosto. A narrow path led us away from daylight and deep into the forest. At first we were fixated upon the details. A few waxwings trilled past overhead, and we combed through a carpet of berries like children in a sweetshop. There was blaeberry, cloudberry and crowberry; islands of variety scattered in a candy-pink ocean of cowberry – red, glossy jewels like pomegranate seeds.

Here was an excessive fruitbowl of colours, textures and flavours, and there were ant nests which were taller than we were – we took photographs of one another standing alongside the massive mounds of munched-up needles.

Tall, looming spruces gathered round us and oozed their sappy scents into the mixture. It was easy to imagine that we were in some enchanted temple, and we immediately fell to speaking in hushed whispers. As long as we lingered within a mile or two of the car, reindeer bells clanked gently through the stillness to remind us of humanity. A little further along, silence fell like a thick velvet curtain.

I became less aware of fine details and began to feel for a sense of space and atmosphere. After eight miles across broken ground, my legs started to feel tired and my mood dropped. Excitement and elation blurred with weariness and gloom. I paused to ponder my surroundings and found that this forest seesawed between extremes.

Finland is home to an extraordinary variety of birdlife in the summer months. Many of Europe’s most charismatic birds travel to the far north to breed, but this tide has receded by time that leaves begin to fall. Aside from an occasional crossbill or waxwing, the heart of this forest was shatteringly empty. And yet it was still possible to imagine some places as they would have been in summer. Although empty, some parts of the forest seemed fillable – they had a capacity for life. In contrast, other parts were cold and utterly still, as if nothing had ever prospered there. A forester’s clipboard would register both as identical – the trees were similarly sound and comparably distributed, but as I moved between the trunks, I swung between pleasure and hollow, dank terror.

Jays came to us in the emptiest stretch of our walk. We had paused for a moment in a maze of spruce trees, and suddenly the air was stirred by the action of soft, spectral wings. Siberian jays are renowned for their fearlessness, and the little birds came silently out from the darkness like flakes of living snow. One bird landed above my head and hopped down a branch towards me. The little imp paused on a bony twig and bobbed his tail. I could have reached out to touch him. Trailing strands of lichen stirred in the stillness like a dead infant’s hair.

Every feather was moulded in the softest gossamer. For a terrible moment, I half expected the bird to whisper something to me. He would have a child’s voice. The hackles rose on the back of my neck – his confidence was repellent. I recoiled from the steady spark in his eye, and then within a second or two, the group had floated back into the forest as if the entire purpose of their visit was to depart and leave us even more alone. The enchanted forest somehow grew deeper and more chilling over the next two miles.

On a final, uplifting pull back to the car, we climbed up through banks of scree and snow-shattered scots pines. A hole opened in the canopy, and I had a sudden view to the east. Cloud growled over the even, steady landscape, but there was nothing except smirry rain between me and the enormity of Russia. This forest runs all the way to Mongolia and beyond. In the old days, it would have run across the land bridge and all the way to Canada’s Atlantic coast. Bears become possible on a grand canvas like this. Here (and perhaps only here) was a suitable backdrop to dream of wolves. I felt very small.

My imagined taiga had become real in a manner both thrilling and foul. Reindeer bells welcomed us back to the world, and soon we emerged abruptly onto a forest track. The spell was broken. My European DNA originated in places like these, and there were aspects of profound familiarity in the deep taiga. But if you are looking for true wilderness, be careful what you wish for.

Siberian jay –

Crab Apples

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Seedbank: crab apples soaking with some haws before extracting their seeds

I can’t resist making plans for the future on our new piece of farmland. I’ve already planted one length of hedge, and this is just the beginning of a grander plan to link the fields together in a system of thick hedgerows which can be laid and managed for wildlife. All of this work is undertaken under a tight budget, so I have decided to try and grow as many of the trees I need myself from local seeds. This has been an ambition of mine for a while, and aside from my own tightfistedness, I am also drawn in by the idea that local trees have local provenance – guidebook descriptions of tree species are blurred by infinite variety, hybridisation and fine genetic nuance. Rather than import trees en masse from a nursery, I want to work with the species and the genetic materials that are already on site.

This idea was driven home to me at the very start of this project when I began to look at birch trees. Unsure whether to plant downy birch or silver birch trees as part of my first plantation for black grouse, I consulted with a local tree specialist and found that the two species can hybridise and simply represent two ends of the same scale. Each area has its own birch tree inasmuch as local conditions call for a different blend of silver and downy DNA. Most of the birch trees in soggy old Galloway are made up mainly of downy birch, but they do have some characteristics of silver birch. Compare this blend with the birches in dry parts of Angus which have classic white bark and drooping bundles of twigs – they look like archetypal “silvers”, but even these have some aspects of “downy” in them – the sliding ratio depends on region rather than species.

I have been fascinated with crab apple trees for years, and I was gripped to read an article in Reforest Scotland magazine about how our native apple tree has been hybridising with domesticated apple trees for generations. In fact, pure Malus Sylvestris is actually quite hard to find, but there are some major strongholds in Galloway. Having done a little research over the last few weeks, I think I’ve found some pretty pure specimens in the woods below the house, and I’ve been agonising over fine, tiny details of foliage. These trees are stunning old characters which are currently littering the ground around them with foully sour little fruit, and I dimly remember sprays of their blossom being pillaged by bullfinches in the spring.

It took a fair investment of time to extract seeds from a bag of these hard crab apples, but I now have a punnet of almost 200 which can be sown and grown in 2018. I’ve also gathered several hundred haws from the hawthorns, and I hope that these will form the bulk of the project. Crab apples are renowned for being scrubby, gnarled little trees which are often found in hedges, and I hope that (if they prosper), these trees will add some nice variety to my future hedge work. At the same time, the photographs in the Reforest Scotland magazine show a particularly fine crab apple tree which has been allowed to grow to full size, and the result is surprisingly spectacular. Crab apples are traditionally associated with cattle pastures, so I will try and clear some space for a full-size tree or two amongst the galloways over the next couple of years.

I have opted for the most native and traditional breed of cattle, so it’s only logical that in future decades they should flick their tails beneath the most native and traditional species of tree…


Bull for Sale

The man himself

I am now working on the assumption that my heifers are pregnant. It is still too soon to have them properly tested, but there have been no signs of hormonal “bulling” for several weeks, and Dominic the bull has taken a noticeable step back from proceedings.

Dominic has produced many fine offspring in his life, so there is no real reason to doubt that calves are now on their way. The time is right to find a new home for the fine young beltie bull, and the process has been accelerated by the fact that he now seems to be losing a good deal of weight and condition. I understand that this is only normal for bulls in his situation, but there has been a noticeable shift from his original “muscular curves” to a kind of fighting-fit angularity. There is no doubt that he is a very fine animal, and he belongs with somebody who can keep him in a style befitting his status; it would be disappointing to see him drop any further out of condition.

This summer’s work with bulls has provided me with a very steep learning curve. Looking to the future with the knowledge of a riggit bull on the way, it is clear that I will have to “raise my game” if I intend to keep a bull properly. I don’t think I have over-reached and I have the capacity to expand and develop my operations, but it is clear that you cannot simply “dabble” with breeding stock – it’s a major commitment and needs to be done properly. Part of me recoils from this next level of engagement, but another part says “bring it on”…

The annual belted galloway sale takes place at Wallets Marts in Castle Douglas in two weeks. The sale catalogue was closed over a month ago, so I missed the chance to list Dominic and see him sold through the ring. I have listed him for sale privately, and I hope that as the belted galloway world descends upon Castle Douglas, one or two interested parties may also be tempted to travel another five miles for a look at Dominic. There is a great deal to play for, and the process is guaranteed to be fun and informative.

In the meantime, I cannot quite overlook the fact that this moment represents a significant departure from belted galloways. I’ve written at length on this blog about my increasing focus on riggits, but as I start to move away from the famous “belties”, I’m quietly confident about the fact that my future has a stripe down its back.

I would be very grateful if any readers of this blog could spread the word regarding this sale. My small herd is always open to visitors, and I would welcome any interested parties if they wanted to come and see the “man of the hour”.

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I’ll just pop this advert here…

A Trio of Partridges

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I can hardly resist sharing this picture of the three partridges which are still hanging around the farmyard. It was a dull afternoon with horrible weak light for photography, but the little birds made a nice little set together.

They often venture quite far afield during the day, and it has been exciting to flush them by accident once or twice when walking the dogs. The little birds whirr away like sparrows, and they make a fine spectacle flying against the rough countryside which is slowly becoming ever more familiar. They always return to jug in the front garden every night, and the partridges which remain in their pen are probably serving as a reliable anchor to prevent anyone straying too far from home. Covey dynamics will change as the winter progresses, and I will need to keep an eye on this situation.


Hay Revisited

181 bales under a tarpaulin cover as the rain batters down

Having revelled in the joy of making hay at the start of September, it is worth reporting what has happened to the crop since then. As soon as the grass was processed into bales, we moved the whole lot into a tall, narrow “dyke” so that the drying process could continue. Proper hay is supposed to have a moisture content of around 12%, and some of our stuff fell a little short of that mark. It was fascinating to note such variety in such a small field, and while some bales were crisp, light and fluffy, others were noticeably moist.

Damp hay can get very hot after it is cut, and it’s not uncommon for tightly packed haystacks to reach seriously high temperatures. My uncle’s haystack caught fire for this reason in the 1970s, and my grandfather’s hayshed near Auchencairn was reduced to cinders by the blaze. Stacking the bales outdoors to sweat off some heat takes the edge off this effect, and piling the bales in a long, thin line helps to disperse any heat build up.

There is no escaping the fact that the hay was made in the first week of September. The magical afternoon we had for baling was followed by a week of perpetual, hammering rain. The tarpaulins held the line, but there was plenty of unavoidable seepage. The bales grew extremely hot, and it was not hard to imagine what a fire risk this could have been in our hayshed. Water pooled around the bottom of the dyke, and it started to seem like disaster might still catch up on this year’s crop. I hadn’t realised that turning and baling the hay had only been half the story, and we were still a long way from success.

As soon as the weather changed, I hauled a hundred bales into the hayshed and stacked them loosely to keep the air circulating. Although the grass had grown a nasty-looking culture of white mould on the outside, the flakes inside felt cool and dry. Aware of “farmer’s lung” and the risks of breathing in too much of this powdery residue, I stood back from the dyke and wondered what to do. As much as I dreaded every rainfall, the hay which remained outdoors was surprisingly dry and seemed to be prospering. Of course the situation would have been more productive if it had been late June and the sun had continued to batter down, but this was a salvage operation and I was in too deep to change course.

In the end, I left half the hay outdoors and stacked half in the hayshed for almost three weeks before finally bringing it all in together. I honestly cannot now tell which bales were indoors and which were out, and there is no obvious lesson to take from the experiment – both seem to have reached a reasonable state of dryness and preservation. Some of the bales are very mouldy and may not be much use, but I think that perhaps 75% can be classified as acceptable, with maybe 10% as really quite good. I would be anxious if I planned to feed this hay to horses, but galloways seem to share the labrador’s greed, and there should be no problem when it comes to getting this forage inside the riggits.

Lessons have been learned for next year, and plans are already afoot to try something similar on a slightly larger scale in 2018 – I honestly cannot wait.

In the meantime, I went into the hayshed yesterday to see how it was doing and found a couple of bales covered in white-wash and fluffy blobs of down. It seems that the barn owl has decided that the stack is to his liking, and he has been regurgitating gobbets of bone and fluff across the bales and the neighbouring woodstack – all the more incentive to get a move on with building him a nest box.


Mink Trapping

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A tentative start with a badly camouflaged cage

Having made initial contact with the local mink population in August, I found a couple of hours yesterday afternoon to walk the riverbank and look for further signs. I am no expert in mink, and it took a while for me to recalibrate my brain to a watery world after years on the heather hill.

Within ten or fifteen minutes, I had found a pile of mink “scat” and a spotty of line of minkish footprints in the mud. There’s no question that there are mink in the area, so I set two live-catch cage traps and baited them with tinned herring in an effort to get the ball rolling. Remembering the traps I set for mink years ago, I recalled the fact that camouflage and subtlety is not a requisite for this game. My old headkeeper used to talk about catching a mink in a cage trap which he had left on the table outside his hut when he went for lunch. He could hardly believe his luck when he returned and found the beast, but this is just further evidence of the mink’s passive, laid-back approach to life – they often have no fear and cannot imagine that anyone would want to cause them harm.

This is a tentative start, but I hope I will soon find a few good spots for traps and can then just keep them ticking over with a minimum of time and effort. It was a quiet reward to spot a kingfisher rushing along the water as I returned to the house. I wondered how many of these little birds have already been eaten by mink this summer, and I secretly crossed my fingers at the prospect of water voles.

It is often thought that the first mink wreaked such havoc in Britain because they arrived at a time when otters were on the back foot. The relationship between mink and otters is not well understood, but many people believe that they do not make good neighbours. As otter numbers rose throughout the 1990s and into this Century, mink numbers seemed to dwindle away. There are many records of mink vanishing altogether from rivers which were recolonised by otters, but this rule does not ring true here. The river seems to support both otters and mink in similar densities, and the two seem to have reached an equilibrium. I had a close encounter with a big dog otter while lamping foxes a fortnight ago, and was yet again surprised to see the baggy, floundering beast running across open fields several hundred yards from water – I have no doubt that they hunt rabbits, and I recently enjoyed seeing a photograph taken by a gamekeeper friend in Aberdeenshire which showed an otter carrying a young mountain hare off to Davy Jones’ locker.

Updates will surely follow, but this should be an interesting new venture.


Foul Weather Friends

Lovely weather for ducks… and galloways

Quietly pleased to hear that the neighbouring farmer has decided to bring his cows into the sheds for the winter after two or three days of hammering, miserable rain. He had noticed that they were beginning to lose condition over the past fortnight, and the foul weather compounded the situation and introduced an element of stress. His beasts are continental cross breed cattle which form the driving force of the British beef industry, and there are so many reasons why these animals are the go-to choice for farmers across the country.

But at the same time, these animals are not invincible. For all their strengths, they also have weaknesses. If they are going to breed commercially, they need a good deal of TLC and depend upon a roof over their heads in the winter months. As the poor beasts stand with their shoulders hunched against the battering rain, they are wasting energy – and energy is money. By contrast, galloways were specifically designed for this environment. Not only are they almost waterproof beneath their shaggy coats, but they also have the street-wise ability to keep their heads down. It’s almost pointless going out to check on my cows when the weather is foul – they often can’t be found. While the commercial animals shiver in the wind, the galloways are buried deep in the gorse bushes, lying contentedly out of the wind and chewing their cud like smiling little Buddahs.

I don’t have access to sheds or cattle housing and my animals will now stay out all winter – they like it that way, and I love their stubborn resilience, which has a good deal of cross-over with the spirit of Galloway as a county. Lots of commercial farmers have gently sneered at my interest in galloways over the past three years, arguing that the little beasts will never turn a penny. Galloways are on the front foot at times like this, and their duck-like imperviousness to grim weather conditions is just one of many points in their favour.

My cows may not be able to match a charolais on productivity, weight gain and financial viability, but when the going gets tough, the riggits get going…