I don’t want to make a fuss in case I jinx this project. It’s by far the most ambitious thing I’ve ever tried and I am so certain that I’m not going to be able to pull it off that I want to pretend that I don’t really care and that it’s all the same to me whatever happens.
The actual hill at the Chayne is pretty big. Perhaps the greatest single reason why the heather is in such poor condition is that it is grazed by sheep all year round – and the sheep concentrate their grazing in the areas that suit them. There are no fences, dykes or obstacles to divide a piece of hill that is almost 900 acres, so they have the run of the lot. This total freedom and lack of control means that they aren’t destroying the heather by eating it, but it means that they exert an even pressure on it to such an extent that it never does any better. Everything changes on the hill, but the heather is held in precisely the same weak position by the sheep, never expanding or contracting but instead wallowing in weakness and gradually being smothered out by bracken and competitive grasses.
The obvious answer is to take sheep off the hill altogether for a year or two to let things get back on their feet before allowing summer grazing only for subsequent years. I’ve seen what a difference this simple change can make to white hill, and I know that it would turn the Chayne back to heather in just a few years. Once natural regeneration comes back, it’s then possible to reseed and work with areas of weak cover so that you can have a strong mix of plants at different ages and stages. That’s all very well, but when you have a tenant farmer who is depending upon the hill for wintering black faced sheep, it’s not so simple as that.
The solution is to divide the hill up into smaller chunks so that you have more control over the grazing, and in an ideal world, I would have the fencers up running wires from one end of the hill to the other. But at an estimated £6 per metre, even the simplest stretch of fence to divide the hill into two roughly equal halves would cost over eight thousand pounds. Add to that the fact that fences are generally pretty nasty things, (being a costly and perishable arrangement apparently designed to kill low flying grouse) and the idea loses all its sheen altogether.
A way around this is to resurrect the network of dykes which used to run all over the hill and allowed my ancestors to control the way that sheep grazed the heather. There are almost twenty miles of dyke on the Chayne, but the general modern consensus is that once a dyke is down, it’s cheaper and simpler to build a fence instead. 90% of the farm’s boundary is marked out by a dyke, but one 800 metre stretch of rubble marks where a wall used to cut the hill into two parts. It’s not a very equal cut, since the wall only encloses about seventy acres, but short sections of it are still standing and the advantage of having it working as a stock-proof barrier are very clear. I’ve been thinking about patching it up for the past two years, but the job just seems so massive and overwhelming that I just haven’t been able to make a start. That was until the thought occurred to me today that if I had started when I first thought of it, I’d be almost finished by now.
Dykes are fantastic things, and are better than fences in every way. They use natural materials, they provide a windbreak and create a corridor for wildlife, they look spectacular and they can last for centuries. Grouse can’t fly into them by mistake, and in fact, black grouse often use them as a good vantage point to preen after rain and keep an eye out for predators. I am a long way from being the world’s best dyker, and I’m even further from being the world’s fastest, but my plan is to break up the dyke into do-able chunks and just work away at it.
It reminds me of the irritating but sadly true expression – “How do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time”. 800 metres is a long way, and it’ll be years rather than months before I’m done.
If nothing else, it’s a nice way to spend a day. I moved stones from twenty feet of dyke this afternoon in preparation for making a start on the “big build”. As I worked, I saw red grouse and a hen harrier out over the moss. As I said at the beginning, I think getting too excited will possibly jinx the whole project and I’ll lose interest in it, but if I try and prepare for a marathon, I might stand a chance.