CLA 2015

Since returning from the Galloway Hills, it has been a busy week of roe and rain, but it’s worth quickly mentioning that I’ll be at the CLA game fair tomorrow (Friday), and it would be good to meet any readers of this blog as I work my way through a shopping list which includes a new stalking knife, some proper socks and a snow camouflage jacket. At the same time, I plan to plunder the bookshops, steal ideas from the artists and try out a range of new trout rods after my current favourite was deemed “too stiff” for lightweight brown trout – (I’m sure there is a more precise way of describing this).

Hope to see you there – mine’s a pint of cider.

Fishing Trip

Sunlit perfection
Sunlit perfection – with a picture shamelessly stolen from Charles Hartley

In very brief, it is certainly worth mentioning a stunning fishing trip deep into the wild terrain of the Galloway/Ayrshire border over the weekend. It would take several blog articles to adequately capture the full delight of three days on the water amongst shoals of brown trout, tumbling eagles and the eerie lowing of black throated divers, but suffice to say for now that it was a phenomenal trip, and reaffirms every ounce of pride I ever had that I was born in the Southern Uplands.

All that remains is for me to slough off my sunburnt skin like an adder and get back to work.

Further Forest Windiness

A softwood plantation in its first year - 2013 -
A softwood plantation in its first year – 2013 –

It has been interesting to read through the feedback from my recent post about windfarms and forestry, particularly since it has raised some interesting new ideas about the imbalance between forestry and renewable development.

From a landowner’s perspective, the various voices from within the renewables world have spent the past ten years dangling enormous sums of money before our eyes in return for the prospect of development. Several developers have gone so far as to say that we would be offered “silly money” to go ahead with development and that we would be “more than compensated” for our pains. Massive sums are allocated to mitigation work, and one company explained that it was sometimes “hard to get rid” of funding for habitat management plans, so copiously were they loaded with cash.

I might have been trying to stir the pot when I suggested that the foresters should have paid compensation for the harm they did, but in a world where there was essentially no precedent to compensate or mitigate the damage caused by industrialisation in the uplands, where did the renewables companies get the idea that they were obliged to cough up?

A great deal of the anti-windfarm impetus comes from the aesthetics of turbines themselves. Locals don’t like looking at them, and there is a perceived (although probably rather shakily proven) threat to tourism in a countryside littered with whirling blades. The surprising thing is that the kind of commercial plantations installed over the past forty years are every bit as aesthetically offensive as turbines. They lie in geometrically perfect blocks across undulating hillsides; great corrugated slabs of identical green trees are hideous to look upon, but despite initial revulsion, the general public seems to be able to forgive them as the years go by and the trees gradually insinuate themselves into the landscape.

Many of my friends come to visit from the city and they see nothing wrong with lines and rows of sitka spruce far off to horizon. They just see trees, and they assume that the collective noun for trees is “forest”. Our baseline perception of normality changes with every generation, and having grown up surrounded by plantations, I accepted them until it dawned on me precisely what the cost had been to host these devastating timber factories.

So maybe it’s just the fact that turbines are so clearly unnatural that means that the entire renewables sector is set up to pour money like oil over troubled waters. The quantity of money offered to us as landowners has sometimes been obscene; far out of proportion with the impact that the turbines would actually cause us. I’ve said this to the renewable companies, and they have nodded in agreement.

This is such an extraordinarily different approach to effecting land use change in the uplands that it takes some getting used to. The foresters came from a system which rewarded willing landowners with tax breaks and left neighbouring communities to “go hang”. Now the renewables companies offer to spew money all over entire communities in exchange for comparatively slight, relatively temporary aesthetic damage. If the prevailing atmosphere had not been so embarrassingly opulent, we might almost have felt like the renewables “system” was (at least in part) predicated on apology – “we’re sorry about the turbines, but here’s some cash to smooth things over”. Interestingly on the flip side, I met an undergraduate engineer at University who believed that landowners should get nothing for the turbines on their land – hosting renewables was a reward in itself, and that landowners should be environmentally conscientious enough to do the “right thing” without any financial incentive. I wonder what happened to her.

To their credit, the foresters now do spend a huge amount of (public) money on fixing the damage they caused, and while I would rather they hadn’t done it in the first place, there are some refreshing signs of progress. But it is interesting to consider that these two industries boast many of the same benefits: they bring employment to remote areas and they promise a more environmentally sensitive future – and yet in terms of financial mitigation for damage caused, it could be argued that foresters offer nothing and renewables offer too much.

New Recruit

A welcome find
A welcome find

Couldn’t resist quickly posting this picture of a wheatear chick found on the road this afternoon. He must have stepped out of the nest a matter of hours before I saw him, and his wings were taking some getting used to. They flopped around beside him, and he moved around in a fumbling, foolish series of stumbles until he finally managed to get above the shelter of the rushes, at which point the wind caught him and he sailed beautifully off over thirty yards of thistles and ragged robin to perform a beautiful ballerina’s landing on the dyke top nearby. As much as he delighted in this little victory, it won’t be long before he’s staring down the barrel of a rather more demanding journey – all the way to East Africa.

Despite his grey, chick-like anonymity, his little white tail was well pronounced in miniature, and as I approached him to take this picture, he bobbed and ducked in quiet imitation of an adult bird. I wished him well and drove up onto the moor, where a peregrine slid at speed through spots of rain. Snipe cowered beneath the asphodel and waited for him to vanish down towards Dalry, and then they crept quietly out again like snails from their shells.

The Wind and the Trees

What's a blackcock to do? Caught between tree farms and windfarms.
What’s a blackcock to do? Caught between tree farms and windfarms.

Windfarms have become the new Galloway buzzword. Nowhere else in Scotland has attracted such a huge amount of attention from the wind developers, and over the past ten years on the Chayne, over a dozen different companies have expressed their interest in one capacity or another. The various development reps have not exactly covered themselves in glory during that time, and the individuals involved have ranged from the absurd to the bizarre.

We’ve been to meetings with fat-bottomed hoorays in mustard coloured corduroy trousers who advised us to take the money and run. We’ve been poked, badgered and prodded by black suited corporate types who think that massive financial pay-offs are the key to unlocking any door, and we’ve even had spotty-faced “dress-down” graduates who have quietly mumbled about the philosophical imperatives of climate change. We’ve seen it all, and the overall impression was that wind development (particularly in its early days) had nothing to offer the countryside beyond theoretical idealism and stacks of money. We’ve seen the kind of culture-clashes between bird surveyors and hill shepherds that wouldn’t have been out of place in the context of Columbus landing in the New World, and the result has been frustrating, extraordinary and (above all) fascinating.

I think Dumfries and Galloway is fast approaching a saturation point for wind farms, but my reservations are only moderate. Great herds of whirling turbines are not my idea of beauty, but some of the anti-development groups roll their eyes with fury every time they see a turbine blade. They argue that each new turbine (I like calling them “windmills” – developers just can’t resist correcting me) is another nail in the coffin for “nature”, and that these developments are ruining a pristine wilderness.

From my perspective, the impact of turbines is immeasurably less devastating than the real damage caused when Dumfries and Galloway was planted with commercial woodland forty years ago. During a few short decades, foresters caused incalculable, irreparable damage to hundreds of thousands of acres of our uplands, turning the hills into forests overnight without a second thought to the consequences. So blindly focused were they on the production of timber that nothing escaped their ploughs, and in the light of all the decline that has taken place since, arguing about a few wind turbines seems like rather small fry. In a very real sense, the “wild Galloway” horse bolted years ago.

The impact of wind turbines is little understood in the long term, but I am quite convinced that it is less harmful than the brutal conversion of moorland into forest. Besides, to mitigate the damage caused by wind development, huge amounts of money go to local landowners and communities, and funds are established to manage habitats so that biodiversity is retained and enhanced. The Forestry Commission were not obliged to spend a penny on mitigation when they devastated the uplands in a far more permanent, graphic way, and that absence is almost perverse by comparison. Imagine the uproar and fury from conservation groups if wind farms extirpated black grouse from an entire county – but the foresters did it twenty years ago and nobody batted an eyelid.

Quiet, uncomplaining Dumfries and Galloway has again become the dumping ground for a new “revolutionary” land-use fad, but as the horizons crowd over with whirling turbine blades, it is reassuring to think that they will all be pulled down or replaced in twenty years time. The damage caused by planting is immeasurably more harmful and will never be undone.

I am not a natural fan of wind development, but it appeals to me because it can be integrated into other land uses – it can complement and improve what we already have. By comparison, forestry tends to compete with other land uses until it dominates them on a tidal bore of public money. More turbines are due to appear across the Galloway Hills over the coming years, and I welcome them if for no other reason than that they represent the lesser of two evils.

Drying Weather

An embarrassed labrador for scale
An embarrassed labrador for scale

It has been an odd year for drying peat. The May wind was thorough and chased away the water, but since then the damp and the rain have soaked in to parts where the skin had not formed, and many of the most promising peats are now as crisp as biscuits on top while soggy and soluble below. I have managed to lug a few bags off, but the majority could still do with some more warm days before moving. The solution would be to dry them on high in a big stack, but the cows are magnetically drawn to anything that rises more than eighteen inches off the moor, and previous stacks have been reduced to crumbly fragments by their lumbering curiosity. As it is, I have to stack them in long, low mounds which are prone to staying wetter for longer.

Last year, the tallest peats were constantly strewn with the remains of butchered voles. Kestrels and (by night) owls would carry their prey to be eviscerated on the nearest high point, and some of my peats were coated in dried gall bladders and the noses and whiskers of rodents which are so carefully removed before eating. The voles have crashed this year, and I seldom see any kestrels on the hill as a result. Notes from last year describe encounters with broods of young kestrels, sometimes combining with others to form loose gangs of nine or ten along a single mile of moorland track. This year, I would be lucky to see a single kestrel on a walk round the hill, and the owls seem to have failed as well.

These things work in cycles, but it is always surprising to see how dramatic these can be.

Staggered Hatch

Chicks at all different stages
Chicks at all different stages

It’s fascinating to see how birds and wildlife respond to a bad summer. Driving out of Dumfries yesterday, I passed a female lapwing with a brood of two day-old chicks at heel, wandering carefully through a recently mown silage field. Nearby, a flock of twenty full-grown lapwings looked on; one of the hotchpotch gangs of immature birds and non-breeders which drift around the countryside all summer. It was only after close examination that I saw the tiny little chicks at all, and it would have been easy to miss them.

On North Uist six weeks ago, there were lapwings chicks on the verge of fledging, and several youngsters were bouncing around with their wings up after what seemed to have been several days of practice. At the same time, there were some tiny chicks still darting around in the silverweed, and it seemed amazing that these youngsters were even the same species. A staggered hatch is one thing, but the little chicks I found in Dumfriesshire would not even have been laid as eggs by the time the North Uist birds were flying strongly on the wing, and this seems to have been the case for several species this year, grouse included.

There are all kinds of explanations for staggered hatches, and this year it almost makes sense to have held off rearing young until now; the habitat is much further on now than it was when the first clutches were being laid, and the undergrowth actually looks far more promising now than it did in May, when it was cold and grim.

Unfortunately, staggered hatches lead to chicks at such a wide variety of ages and stages that predation pressure often has more of an impact. When all the eggs hatch at once, the grass is filled with tiny chicks and the little waders can have a certain mass momentum which sees them through. When they hatch in dribs and drabs, there is always a brood at its most critically vulnerable stage, and studies suggest that predators are harder on young birds in years when the hatch is staggered.

Riverfly Monitoring

Identifying river flies on the banks of the Fleet
Identifying river flies on the banks of the Fleet

Always keen to help with the work of the Galloway Fisheries Trust, I was excited to take part in an “Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative” workshop yesterday in Gatehouse of Fleet. After an introduction to the concept of river fly monitoring (and a comprehensive health and safety brief), we headed up the Fleet to take some samples and analyse them in the sunshine, and within the hour, we soon had nets and tubs which wriggled with invertebrates. These were counted and identified, and we started to run our findings through a basic statistical process which would allow us to “score” the health of the river, all based entirely on the abundance of the beasties we had found.

According to the instructor, some species are very sensitive to the slightest amount of pollution, while others could probably live inside a car battery without any ill-effects. As we divided the stoneflies from the caseless caddisflies, we started to get a picture of the water conditions based on straightforward counts of key indicator species, and it was impressive to find that all of the various samples taken came to roughly the same “rating” – a pretty encouraging response to suggest that the process gives useful, reliable output.

I shared a tray of bizarre insects with Senior Galloway Fisheries Trust Biologist Jamie Ribbens, and over the course of half an hour, we had picked out and examined a phenomenal range of species, including freshwater limpets, worms and mites. Before our very eyes, some of the larger species began to consume some of the smaller ones, and as the water warmed up, several of the larvae began to metamorphose into adult flies, which drifted up from the surface like specks of dust.

As we came down to Gatehouse, Jamie and I stopped to explore a shady pool by the roadside. Some large sea trout slowly waved their tails below us in the peaty brown water, and a gang of smaller herling idled quietly into the deeper water as we crouched down beneath the hazel leaves and peered through the glittering water. My fascination with sea trout continues, and this was more than enough to whet the appetite. I imagined what it would be like to return under cover of darkness, and made a mental note to head back there this summer.

Back in the “classroom”, we looked at some of the prowling beasties through the microscope and undertook a short ID test to check that we had absorbed the information flung at us during the course of the day. I managed to remember the differences between an olive mayfly and a blue winged olive mayfly larva, and I brought home a mound of equipment to help me monitor invertebrate life on my local river.

The scope for this Riverfly Partnership project is extraordinary, and it was fascinating to think that these formerly anonymous insects could be used as a barometer for the health of a river. If scores drop suddenly below a certain threshold, immediate action is required to contact the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, and since the pollution itself can be relatively short-lived, the abundance (or lack) of invertebrate life is a crucial means of not only assessing how things are, but also how they have been. Regular monitoring helps to identify problems, and aside from being a fun way to spend an afternoon, the process is part of a wider move to create and maintain healthier rivers. I will certainly be “kick surveying” across Galloway over the next few months, and much more is to come on this.

All Night

Full summer coat
Does seem to outnumber bucks in the run-up to the rut

My wife has gone to visit her parents in Cornwall, and as much as I mourn her absence, I do enjoy some time on my own. I like the freedom to mooch around and do precisely as I please, and I have been looking forward to a day or two of total, teenage independence.

However, this comes at a cost. My wife provides a crucial structure to my day that I am wholly incapable of supplying myself. I get so deeply involved in my various projects that hours and days just slip by, and then I come round and find that I haven’t eaten or slept. I found myself in precisely this situation last night, when I set aside an hour or two to work on a painting I’ve been planning for a few weeks. I started at eight o’clock, and when I next checked the clock it was two thirty.

Pepped up on cigarettes and coffee, I didn’t feel particularly inclined to sleep, and having the run of the house, I decided to listen to Led Zeppelin II and ambled downstairs to make a fry-up. Half an hour later, having spilt ketchup all over the Shooting Times, I decided that it might be a nice night for a walk. I stepped outdoors and found that it was indeed the case, and the stars glowed off to the South as a vixen barked over the valley. In the North, there was already a streak of baby blue light, and I came to the conclusion that the only sensible option would be to go stalking.

Sure enough, I set off into the gloaming in that strange half-light witching hour when the best things happen. I passed a glinting cluster of glow-worms in the gloom, and badgers ambled idly down the tracks between the cow parsley verges. By four o’clock, I was 1,500 feet up a steep granite face, spying through the dew with my binoculars as the curly swirls of Solway slid away beneath my feet. It was low tide, and the blue light turned to golden cream in the gullies and ditches where shelduck waddled invisibly through the mud.

Some swallows trilled on the deer fence, and whitethroats added a crackling birr of song as if the morning was being played on an old 78 record. From the high ground, the Dee was smothered in silver mist and in an hour’s time, the Rhinns of Kells would catch the first of the sunshine. For now the hills crouched in purple half-light beneath the fading stars, and I began to find one or two roe in the quiet, sodden gullies where the dew still condensed itself onto every leaf and sagging drift of cotton grass. As the summer goes on, some of these cotton grass heads fail to disperse and they slowly stiffen and turn yellow until they look like the nicotine stained hairdo of an old Glasgow teddy boy.

I stepped too far and found a young buck, who stamped his foot and glared at me in outraged fury. He turned and ran over the brow, coughing out a bark with every bouncing step. He turned and roared his discomfort, and the sound bounced back and echoed at him so that his rage turned to confusion. For ten minutes, he barked and chuntered until a doe distracted him and strode away on stiff legs to follow her, thrashing the burnt heather stick with his antlers.

Bucks and does are still doing their own thing, and only the younger bucks are making any attempt to hold ground or bother the does. It is always fascinating how reclusive mature bucks can be. They keep themselves to themselves until the rut begins, at which point they come swanning out of the woodwork to seize the glory. The over-enthusiastic youngsters which have fretted and pouted since the end of June are cast ignominiously to one side as the masters take over, but many of the best bucks are almost invisible for fifty weeks of the year. For now it seems that there is a huge gender imbalance in favour of does, but this will not stand long and they will all have a partner soon.

A few grouse showed themselves here and there; a pair with four well-grown young, all with wet wings in the dew so that their take-off was loud and wheezing. There were a couple of barren pairs and a hen with a very small squeaker, but a proper count will tell more of the story at the end of the month. I don’t hold out high hopes for the season, but there are some good news stories further North and South.

After a long walk, my moment came during a chance encounter with a buck inside a woodland enclosure within which roe are verboten. He got up almost at my feet on the other side of the fence, bolting like a hare through the rich purple bell heather flowers. I dropped down to the peat, worked the bolt and waited for his inevitable pause. It came when he was eighty yards out, turning full broadside like the design on a paper target. Even if I say so myself, the shot was perfect – a loud, resonant smack made him rear up on his hind legs, then wander a few yards before falling suddenly down on his face like a puppet with cut strings. As I drained his chest a few minutes later, I found the top of his heart reduced to blackcurrant jam.

He had an interesting head, rather splayed and wide, with flattish antlers and top points which seem to meander outwards. Inside, he was as fat as butter, and I dug around for his kidneys – the finest and most exquisite jewels a roe can provide, particularly when devilled. It was six thirty when I suddenly felt a tremendous press of exhaustion and remembered that I hadn’t slept. On quaking, wobbly legs, I hauled the carcass home and headed to bed for a few hours.

High Summer

An explosion of dust
An explosion of dust

Amidst swarms of swallows and ragged robin, the Chayne is coasting through summer. I headed up to turn the peats and clear a fallen tree this afternoon, and the hill was literally reeking with the tang of bedstraw. Flights of linnets and goldfinches prowled around the thistles, and snipe chipped with a sing-song cheeriness over the short grass where tufts of fallen wool lie like down.

The peats have dried beautifully, and the first loads came down on my back last week. The wonderful blocks of soggy chocolate have curled in the drying wind, contracting into gnarled silver slabs like toenail clippings on the moss. Grouse have been using them as lookout posts, and their short cylindrical sections of brick-red droppings have also dried amongst the first of the bog asphodel.

Looking back through some old pictures, I found this photo of a moulting blackcock enjoying a dustbath on the Chayne in 2010. I have an idea for a painting which involves blackcock in the moult, so that will be my project for this week, if only to set down on canvas something of these lush, vivid weeks before we return again to short, sodden windows of snow and white grass.