Striking a Balance

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A move to big bales has required an upscale in farm equipment

The last fortnight has been bogged down with illness and work. At the same time, words which would usually have been published here have been siphoned away to help with the construction of a book, and I am pleased to say that substantial progress is being made with that project.

In the meantime, it’s worth a note on our cattle. Having almost exhausted my reserves of hay, I have started to buy in big bales of haylage from a neighbour to make up the deficit. Haylage is a kind of half-way house between silage and hay; a compromise for the hay enthusiast in a world where good weather is hard to come by.

This haylage is beautifully sweet and florid. The cattle love it, and while I was dismayed to break with the traditional joy of hay, the heavy, plastic-wrapped bales are an excellent second best.

I was always going to have to buy in extra forage, but this running cost has been an interesting wake-up call. My cows are going to have to be fed until the grass starts growing again, and their pregnancy provides an additional demand on nutrients. I estimate that I will have to spend around five hundred pounds on haylage over the next few months to meet the demand. This is a substantial amount to draw from your own pocket, and it ignores the cost of several other inputs, including minerals and medication. My little “hobby” has grown into a substantial interest; I welcome that expansion.

When I took on the new hayfield at the New Year, I was pleased to think that producing my own grass would cut out some of these costs in the future. I like to be independent in this project as with most things, and it pleased me to think that I could cut out any middle men and meet my own needs.

Alongside the financial advantages of a new hayfield, I also planned to reseed the field with a native hay meadow mix to improve its wildlife value and introduce some fresh aspects of grass ley management. But having done some sums and investigated what impact this could have on the yield of harvestable grass, I am now beginning to wonder if I can afford to overhaul the ground in this way. Based on studies elsewhere, the shift away from modern ryegrass to traditional grass species can reduce productivity by 25% or more. In real terms, this represents the difference between the new field producing 40 bales and 30 bales – the difference between being able to supply myself with grass and having to buy in forage from others.

This quandary should be no surprise. Conservation and agriculture need to be carefully balanced, and my dilemma is nothing new. But perhaps I am slightly unusual in that I receive no farm subsidies, grants or funding. If I want to put the hayfield back into a more wildlife friendly state, I will have to pay for the work and I will also take the financial hit from any drop in productivity. It would be lunacy to invite further costs at a time when I am already haemorrhaging money – but that’s not to say I won’t do it… we’ll see.

There’s no tragedy here. I deliberately invested my own cash and put myself in this precarious position because I wanted to be squeezed. Knowing how it might work out, I over-reached myself because I was looking for a tricky situation. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in the end-product or anticipate a viable return someday. This is more than an academic exercise, but I have a very deep barrel to fill before any profit can trickle over the lip. In the meantime, I can understand that the prosperity of Britain’s wildlife hangs in decisions like mine around the hayfield. I need to understand how tradeoffs like these work at first hand.

I love every inch of this project, but balancing aspirations for wildlife against financial returns has been the most informative and useful vein of all.

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Cold Steel

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There’s a cold wind in the east. It’s the kind of wind that can pull the meat off your skull and freeze your tears while it does it.

We unloaded steel beams as darkness fell. The eight foot girders are heavy, and I felt each burry, fresh-cut edge on my gloveless hands. This steel will build much-needed strength into the cattle pens, and the bull calf rolled his eyes and stamped in the red tail lights of the trailer – he has the makings of monster.

Bending and lifting soon opened a crack between my shirt and my trousers. An inch-wide strip of skin was exposed to the wind and I fought to contain a shriek. Shreds of straw skittered past my boots like the ribs of long-forgotten rats.

Woodcock flew in the twilight. The little birds are famously fat and well oiled, but they looked bitterly pitiful in the claws of this wind. Perhaps they will spend the night in the shelter, because open ground would be a death sentence. I pictured their bodies frozen into curling stones on the short grass at sunrise.

Only geese can stare down a wind like this. They came in the final moments before abject dark, pouring down to the shore in ripples of two and three hundred birds. The steel clattered and rang on the concrete as we worked, and the sky replied with the roar of half-seen ranks. Every winking mutter rang around the yard, and the stars blinked as the geese passed against them – endless skeins and a relay of sound, growing and fading in joyous, gabbling waves.

It takes more than a cold wind to upset the geese – Grand old ganders lead their teams across country to the sea. Cold steel; hard birds; tough places.

“Stirring the Pot”

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A million gems

I never meant to keep cattle indoors. I wanted to work with low maintenance, traditional animals which prospered beneath a changing sky.

But life intervened. We have been forced to convert the old garage into a mini cattle shed to house the new bull calf, and work is in progress to make this arrangement more permanent and robust. This bothered me to begin with. I understood why so many cattle are kept indoors, particularly in the winter, but I felt sure that the beasts could only perform their fullest role in conservation if they were outdoors as nature intended. In reality, it seems that housing animals can offer some interesting and unexpected angles for wildlife.

Indoor animals require bedding. This concept was new to me after three years of outdoor cattle, but I begged a big bale of barley straw from a neighbour and set about it with a knife. As I slashed open the outer web of netting, the enormous bale exhaled like a girdled belly and collapsed into something resembling a giant poached egg. Amongst the straw, a million pearls of barley skittered out over the shed floor. Some grain is usually found in a bale, but this was excessive – there must have been something wrong with the settings on the combine harvester.

Our chickens gathered round in ecstasy as the bale continued to collapse, and the birds scratched out the grains from the concrete floor. This was just a greedy bonus for our birds, and the spread meant more to the feral pigeons which live in the yard and go unloved. These birds gorged themselves, and passing jackdaws eyed the plunder greenly without the courage to come down and steal it for themselves.

The banquet rambles long into the night, but I am not invited. Mice scuttle through the pile of straw, and bigger beasts besides. Rats are insatiable, and they fumble at our scraps with their fleshy, mobile little fingers. They have been raiding the pigsty for several weeks, but their thrilling, berry-bright eyes were soon transfixed by the barley. The shed where the straw is kept has become a thief’s bunker, but the rats’ enthusiasm has come at a price. I pulled apart a very fresh barn owl pellet this morning and discovered the skull and teeth of a teenage rat, cocooned in a sticky swathe of hair. An entire mini food-chain has been established around this single bale.

Meanwhile, the bull shits. His straw is soon foul and needs to be cleaned out. It takes him a week to fill my quad bike trailer, and I have started to chuck this out on the hayfield. We will soon be ploughing this field, and the mix of muck and straw will vanish underground to help the soil and feed the worms to feed the wading birds. But while we wait for the plough, cow muck (and a regular barrow-load from the pigs) is weathering away in the frost and rain. Scattered gems of barley, straw and filth attract all manner of birds, from rooks and starlings to pheasants, partridges and finches. The uneven mounds of waste make a compelling attraction for wildlife, and it has been fascinating to see nature respond.

Perhaps I’m leaning too heavily on silver linings. Most farmers would interpret this tale as bad management – I’ve provided a food source and now I’m being ravaged by “vermin”. I agree that it’s hard to see rats, jackdaws and feral pigeons with much enthusiasm, but they are still relevant. Rats feed owls; pigeons are plucked by falcons and hawks, and I have a place in the chain.

And this little surge of activity is encouraging at a more abstract level. This farm should be a place of activity and change; a place where nutrients are cycled and wildlife is kept vital by the movement of soil. I have stumbled and clambered over this point many times and have never been able to express it clearly, but I feel sure that nature responds to active management – to human beings “stirring the pot”.

Wildlife has been lost for so many reasons, but I think we underestimate the importance of “stirring”. It is no surprise that nature should fall asleep when large areas of the countryside are placed under repetitive, snoozy regimes boosted only by the occasional dose of Nitrogen fertiliser. Turn the soil, grow a variety of crops and waste some in the harvesting; spread the muck and trample the grass with hooves; keep things moving and surely nature will respond. I am determined to put flesh on the bones of this idea – the possibilities crowd around me.

Of course I would prefer my work to benefit “nice” species which provide interest and diversity, but I’m aware that the definition of “vermin” is subjective and the word itself has become an ugly antique. I might not have chosen to promote jackdaws and mice, but perhaps they’re just a beginning. I would gladly host both if the alternative was nothing at all.

 

 

Scraps of Spring

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Looking west from the high ground

After months of silence, the hill has come within hours of death. The mechanism is depleted – wound down into rust. Smirring waves of rain and raking wind have left little in their wake except the sheep, which now seem yellow and foul against the wracks of snow. Sinister spindrift hisses on the coping stones and the ground is undiggable.

And yet despite this vision of emptiness, the tide has already turned. At some unimaginable distance to the south, a flow of warmth and activity has begun to rise. Soon the wave will flood these spaces and swill them with life, but the first signs come softly and easily overlooked.

There are always a few pipits on the hill. A handful of birds can be found here throughout the winter, but their numbers suddenly double in January. This is no great spectacle, but then the numbers double again. A cold easterly wind sets the count back down, but when it breaks the numbers rise higher still. There is not much in the short and raucous span of a meadow pipit’s life to hold a human’s attention, but their movements are telling.

By May, pipits will be the showboat darlings of spring. Their noisy, bombastic displays fill every corner of the farm, but they return after midwinter like voiceless mice. They only rise under close provocation, and they flush quietly like spots of hail in the wind. The new arrivals huddle quietly together in silence. Perhaps a lark or two will join them, but cold winds make my eyes water and it’s hard to tell the two apart in the sleet – besides, the distinction hardly matters now because small birds provide a pulse.

What better way to begin a year than with a stirring, mysterious influx of birdflesh; the currency; the underpinning tier of the foodchain. Having been absent for weeks, a predator arrives. He turns into the wind and bends his head down to concentrate.

Flying at the height of a human navel, the hen harrier rides quietly over the tall rushes with his yellow mouse-trap feet set on a hair-trigger. It is hard to watch him for long as the cold prowls around and pries itself between the joints in my fingers, but soon he turns his grey shape downwind and begins a new line of enquiry.

At once he vanishes, dropping vertically down into the grass as if his puppet strings have been cut. He holds his black-tipped wings above his head to keep them safe; feathers are fragile and the ground is burred with frozen grass. Harriers are not hardy birds, and  snow in the hills will drive them down to easier pickings on the sea shore where the mild Solway laps mud into the reeds. But this new tide of life is irresistible, and the harriers are borne uphill again on a current of blood and sinew.

Something has died, because he rises up and moves downwind to land again on shorter grass. But that area is not short enough, so he waddles over the moss and finds a spot that is more to his liking; a flash of green and a stump of molehill. Then he stands motionless; an incongruous white speck in this relentless savannah of grass and slush. Fifteen minutes pass before there is movement, then eating begins.

Despite a live wire of savagery, these birds are well accustomed to being small and vulnerable in the face of stronger teeth and claws. Perhaps he fears a rushing charge from a hungry fox, or the sudden, bone-rending impact of a goshawk’s ambush. Life is not simply a matter of hunting.

Small shreds of feather and flesh blow downwind and are frozen before they settle. There are scraps of spring in the air.

Hayfield

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Looking along the edge, where grassland meets estuary – the best ground is towards the cottages

The New Year has brought some exciting opportunities, and I am thrilled to have taken on a new hayfield down by the Solway. The field lies across six acres, but only four of these are good. The remaining two acres are literally crumbling into the sea, and the soil is poisoned with salt and estuary mud. When I went to look at the field today, I flushed teams of redshank and wigeon from the flooded fringes, and a handful of tiny dunlin rose up to turn in the wind. Most of these birds will be gone by the spring when I bring out the roller and start work here, but there will be opportunities to learn about new habitats and species on the edge of the sea all summer.

And the good ground is very good. The previous tenant took over forty big bales of silage off this field last year. I hope I might be able to turn the same grass into six hundred bales of hay, but whatever form the summer takes, I should now have access to enough grass to make my farming project self-sufficient. This is a major step. Until now I have been forced to buy in silage or haylage to top up the forage I’ve produced myself, but the new field should provide everything I need and more. In fact, if all goes well I could easily be selling surplus hay or silage in the autumn – I had not expected to make money this early in the project, and I can’t help treating financial good fortune with a note of suspicion. It will also be useful to have an extra field for my cattle next winter when my first calves need to be weaned and the project becomes more complex.

 

But I can’t ignore the fact that this field completes the Galloway set; it allows me to farm across rough moorland, rugged in-bye and fine lowland – from the high hills to the wide Solway seascape. Galloway is characterised by complex variety, and while these small fields and projects are dotted around over a few miles, they can be run as one to create a cohesive whole; a whole which reflects many characteristics of Galloway as a region.

I don’t have the finances or the ability to grow any faster than I have done, but this project continues to teach me so much about our complex, essential countryside. Much more on this to come, of course.

The Wildest Goose

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The gander (right) during his brief captivity in June

We bought two geese in June. The birds were sold through the auction ring in Castle Douglas, and we brought them home in a dog crate. The gander hissed and wailed all the way, and the couple were confined to a shed for forty-eight hours while they found their bearings and settled in.

It became clear over the next few days that the geese were not a real pair. They seemed to have no rapport with one another and the gander was a tyrant. He managed his affairs with pitiless fury, and he jabbed his rough, woody tongue out of his beak when he screamed. His partner was terrified of him, and she cowered away as he swaggered cynically round their shed. When the pair were released into the yard, they made an imposing spectacle; the gander chased the dogs and yelled at the pigs while the goose followed apologetically in his wake.

He vanished within a week. I searched the farm in ever widening circles for several days, but we could find no trace of him. The goose vanished a week later. I asked my neighbours to keep an eye peeled for the missing birds, but this is a big piece of countryside without many human beings. There was no sense of foul play or predation – the birds had simply decided to leave. They had almost certainly come to a sticky end in the wilderness, and that was that. It was a shambles, but valuable lessons had been learnt.

I have been watching wild geese for the past few days. Greylags and pink-footed geese have been coming in to the fields below the house since the middle of December, and I have been tempted to ambush them as they come in at first light each morning.

During my reconnaissance, I spotted an odd figure amongst the wild birds – a large bird with a thick body and a tall, upright posture. When the wild geese rise up and away in the evening, they often leave a bird or two behind them. I thought nothing of it at first, but a closer encounter began to pose some questions. It was only on New Year’s Day that I went down to inspect these birds and found my gander alive and well after almost six months in the “wild”. He has not only “Gone Native”, but he also seems to have forged a new relationship with a wild greylag.

Hoping for a closer look, I set off into the low silage fields with my binoculars. He was always intolerant of human attention, but I reckoned that I would be able to get quite close to him. To my amazement, he began to fly as soon as he saw me – a heavy, monstrous kind of flight which made the whole glen throb. His greylag partner flew beside him, and it was extraordinary to see the two birds together – he was like Smaug the dragon, labouring at head-height over the grass for a distance of five hundred yards. He was almost double the size of his partner, bigger even than the wild swans which sometimes roost on the low ground. The two birds settled again in a field of barley stubble, and I felt his cold, angry gaze boring into me as he folded his wings behind his back.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Greylag geese are the original source of many domestic waterfowl, and the birds often prosper in feral groups. There’s no reason why he should not have done well in the “wild” with sufficient grazing, and he looks enough like a greylag to blend in and avoid notice. It would take a brave fox to risk tackling such a big bird, and perhaps the living has been easy for the past six months.

The fact that he can fly (albeit short distances) was a surprise to me, but this skill offers him a good deal of flexibility and independence in the glen. I wonder how far he has travelled around this area since he escaped. It is doubly exciting to think that he might easily breed with wild greylags in 2018. There are no breeding greylags here, but the birds are capable colonisers and their populations are spread by accidents and oddments like these.

Of course there is a chance that he may be shot before the end of the season, but that misfortune will not come at my hands. And I pity the wildfowler who has to carry the old brute home, let alone roast him. In the meantime, it’s a fascinating quirk and a reminder that domesticated animals can easily revert to a natural state…

 

Happy New Year

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A view across rough country

I can hardly resist sharing this photograph of our farm and the surrounding landscape to celebrate the New Year. The picture was taken by a drone when we were making hay in early September (hence the tractor working in the paddock by the house), and it provides a good overview of this piece of country, from the moss to the heather hill.

This scene sums up the classic rough Galloway landscape where I was born and brought up. Not a single day goes by without pausing to reflect on what an extraordinary privilege it is to live and work here – even on the bleakest, foulest night of sleet and low cloud, I am painfully in love with this place. As far as I am concerned, there is nowhere finer on Earth.

I have so many new plans for the coming year on this ground and nearby, and I can’t wait to document it all here. Thank you to everyone who left comments and notes of support in 2017, and I hope that you’ll continue to enjoy Working for Grouse!