Autumn Fog

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Fog dogs the morning, and the rooks rise from their roost in the ghosting pines. It’s hard to tell where these birds are heading; perhaps to the yellow turf where the silage stood, or maybe the last of the barley stubble on good ground towards Castle Douglas. Memory guides them, because sight is useless.

The moors are hung with gossamer. I find it trailing in my hair and across my hands as I walk. A spider stands at the hub of every web, each one fat and gay as a sloe. These trappers have nothing to fear but cattle; many of these lacy lines will be unmade around the hocks and shins of heavy beasts.

And there are woodpeckers in the turf. I hear them bawling in the vague and poorly sun. Green shapes flit between the anthills like spooks; they tip their heads and listen for the crackle of insects. Progress comes in tiny hops, upright and livid as a dagger. It would be hard to imagine a bird more reptilian and primordial in aspect; I expect to see their forked tongues flickering like an iguana. How often do you hear green woodpeckers? And how often do you see one? They’re shy, sly and hard to know. They swivel their discy eyes and are gone.

The rooks come home at lunchtime with their bellies bulging. The fog has gone by then, and they shine around the trees like shreds of black plastic.

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Something Crazy

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There was something crazy and wild in the mink trap. Not a mink sure enough, but a beast so furious that I sprang away from it in horror. I hardly know how to describe it, and even after a day to cud the evidence, I’m still unsure how to define the presence in that narrow mesh cage.

There are polecats in Galloway, but the old native population has been sorely depleted by interbreeding with feral ferrets. The two species make a viable hybrid, and for every purebred polecat, there are plenty of phoneys. All I can be sure of is that I caught a beast with a black bandit’s mask; that’s where the certainty ends. Perhaps he was more polecat than ferret, but it’s hard to define his ancestry as pure on either side of the coin.

He spat and chattered, and when I picked up the cage he sprayed us both with a skunky explosion of piss and anger which caused me to rue the day our paths ever crossed. And in the end, I let him go. He soared from that cage like a bolt of malodorous lightning, and I felt more certain than ever that while he might have had a domesticated ancestor, this beast belonged to no man.

Perhaps I’m getting soft and old, but the memory of my own ferrets hung around that beast. I love polecats, ferrets and martens, and it would have gone hard to kill him. But even without a fuzzy edge of sentimentality, I justified his release in several ways.

First, that it’s unhelpful to be overly picky about genetics. He probably wasn’t a pure polecat, but the manner and haste of his departure from my trap seemed to suggest that he has lived a long and fruitful life in the wild. He’s able to find work for himself, and that means that he stands on his own four feet. Splitting hairs over gene-pools seems like an unfair metric to weigh the merits of an animal which follows the habits of his wild ancestors. Follow that line too far and you begin to query the genetic credentials of red deer, brown trout and a whole host of species which have been tinkered with across the years. Polecats occupy a well-defined niche in native ecosystems; they push and pull alongside a variety of other species. I felt like killing him would have been an act of academic pedantry, and if I can’t enjoy the sight of “pure” polecats in the wild, it’s a fair surrogate to find one who is near-as-damnit.

I trap mink because they aren’t native to Britain, and their behaviour enables them to fill an entirely different niche in our ecosystem. Mink perform a role which belongs to North America; they hunt as well in water as they do on dry land, and their appetite is voracious. British wildlife has no comeback to the arrival of mink; the predators have wiped out watervoles, dabchicks and kingfishers. They come as if from another planet, and the harm they do goes beyond normal “balancing”. But polecats do belong here, and the impact they cause is limited by natural mechanisms; prey species have some recourse to safety because they understand the rules of engagement.

I know that ferret/polecat hybrids have caused serious damage in some parts of the country. They are significant predators of ground nesting birds on the Isle of Man, and that seems like a situation where control is justified. But during the course of thirty years in Galloway, I have only seen three or four escaped ferrets. They were all dead on the roadside. But I have never seen any ferret/polecat hybrids, and certainly never heard of a cross which leant so heavily in favour of the polecat. Perhaps if I was catching five or six of these animals a week, I would feel differently about letting him go. After the smelling him at first-hand, I hope I never see him again – but it does tickle me to know he’s out there somewhere.

At the same time, I can hardly resist the growing sense that predator control as we know it in this part of the country might soon have had its day. It feels increasingly perverse to hunt and seek out foxes, stoats and runaway ferrets at a time when the number of badgers has risen to an astonishing level. Cast a torch across a good silage field at night time and you will see five badgers for every fox. So why kill a fox for a crime for which the badger is equally culpable? In that light, killing a one-off polecat hybrid feels bizarrely petty. Without any legal ability to manage (or even be near) badgers, the rationale for predator control feels increasingly skew-whiff.

 

Geese

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The last few days have brought geese in dribbling teams from the far north. I heard them first on Sunday evening, and I ran from the smouldering stove to watch them pass high and steady above the farm. I saw fifty birds in a chattery skein through the sunset. Then on Monday morning I looked up to find a hundred more. Out on the hill last night, two hundred geese passed over the rim of the Southern Uplands and set their sights on the marsh and merselands of the Solway. Even this morning at the cusp of dawn, the early clouds were hung with new arrivals, and there can no longer be any hint of a doubt. We’re on the lip of winter.

It’s hard to convey the enormity of this return. The swallows have slipped away through my fingers, and for all there are birds turning and hawking in the early dusk, they are no longer recognisable as mine. They’re in gangs of twenty and thirty, and they roll away at  the lightest enquiry. The chances are that these birds have come from somewhere further north, and I’m seeing them in transit. But they pass with an echo of their former selves, and it’s hard to draw a line between presence and absence.

But there’s no mistaking the geese, which summon up memories of brutal winter and the gabble of black skeins in the snow. I recall mornings when geese where the objective of a shooting trip; iced hours in patient waiting; the flare of birds suddenly recoiling from an ambush; the thump of hard, bone-broke bodies on the frozen ground. I look back to flighting geese in the moon; hunting the steamy stars for the chance of a shot – they’re always further off than they seem until suddenly they’re upon you and it’s all you can do to contain your eyes in their sockets.

But closer than these marvels is the steady presence of wildfowl as a backdrop and the sound of a Galloway winter. By the time January comes, I will hardly look up to the summons of a thousand geese above the farm. The wink and gabble of moving birds will run like a crusted file across everything I do, from feeding cattle and splitting firewood to dyke repairs and the rumbly hum of the oatmeal bruiser.

It’s been hard to remember the spectacle of forty thousand geese heading down to roost on the sea mud. Summer rubs away such memories until they seem like a dream. It’s a comfort to find that I have not imagined these birds which come on the edge of night; at ten to five on a shortened day. It takes the full procession almost twenty minutes to pass in the starlit dusk, and soon that hair-raising spectacle will be part of my day again.

Favourites

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My favourite (top) and his half-cousin

It takes a certain mindset to sustain enthusiasm for the subject of cattle genetics. I have a growing interest in the subject, so I write this almost in apology.

But in visiting a friend’s herd of riggit galloways on Friday, I was delighted to find a calf with some lovely resemblances to my own favourite from 2019. Riggits come in all kinds of patterns, and variety is one of the highest points in their favour. It’s hard to explain why, but I simply adore the beasts which have a black front end and an arse which explodes into a firework of white blotchy patterns.

Some people would regard these animals as “mismarked” or “nonconformist”, but I think they look extremely fine and there’s no objective reason why they should not win approval or acclaim. I was thrilled to have turned out a calf like this in the spring, and he has been the apple of my eye ever since. And if anything, the replicant calf I saw on Friday was even finer.

And without labouring the complexity of bloodlines and pedigrees, it’s fun to note that they both share a maternal grandfather – they’re half cousins.

Night Birds

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Lapwings returned with a low moon rise and the prickle of stars. They fell to the marsh like shuttles and the yard was filled with their gurly moans as I worked at the peat stack and turned the wet faces to the wind.

Fifty of these birds have been roosting below the turnip field all week, but this moon is fat and full and it seemed to baffle their sleep. When night came, I lay in bed and listened to them speaking quietly beneath a wide and hangy light. Perhaps they murmured in their sleep, restless nappers in the dewsome grass. Or perhaps their squabbles rolled over into the gloom, short tempered and fidgety as kids.

And every gentle call brought me to a smile, and a quiet word of gratitude that in a world of decline and loss, I am lucky enough to have these sounds about me.

Pannage

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The pigs are away to the woods, and it’s a relief to see them stretched out and foddering after a long summer. These are the sows which gave us two dozen piglets in the spring; they’ve earned a break and some recuperation before the boar returns and the cycle begins again. English people call this “pannage”; the driving of pigs to wood in the autumn. There’s no sign of a local equivalent in Galloway parlance, which has little to say about pigs and their keeping. We’ve been so preoccupied with sheep and cattle over the centuries that pigs seem to have escaped our notice. “Pannage” will have to do.

These woods are thick with cobs and rowans; every stem bends beneath the weight of brambles and crab apples. It’s fine to stand back from the trees in these misted mornings and hear the sows clattering contentedly through the undergrowth, gathering the season’s fat and windmilling their tails at the discovery of unturned soil. The move tallies so well with the trend of the days towards winter that it’s easy to be swept along until I start to pursue the naive thought that seasons are the only rational guide of time.

 

Frost

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I sleep with the window open so I can hear the swallows. But in the last few days, there has been less to hear at dawn and in the final moments of the dusk. Most of our swallows have gone now, and only a few broods remain around the yard and in the rafters of the dairy.

Now I hear new sounds instead; the wail of greylags and canada geese moving under the moon. There are barley stubbles up the glen, and the heavy birds work back and forth to raid the grains before the old residues are ploughed in and the new crops are sown. There are redshank and greenshank calling out alone below the stars, and sometimes a team of golden plover feeling their way to the sea.

I woke this morning before dawn to the sound of lapwings; two dozen of them moaning quietly in the stillness. I leaped from my bed and ran out into the stackyard to watch them pass; heavy-limbed and dull above a raze of mist on the meadows. And that’s when I noticed the first frost of autumn, crunching into my bare feet and burning the soles like a peat fire.