A Question of Agriculture

The prettier of the two -
The prettier of the two, and my first choice – the other is a roly-poly little butterball with darker colouring

After two weeks of an agriculture course with the SRUC, the flow of my blog output has dried up to a slow trickle as I try and get my head around a tremendous amount of new information.

Over the past few days, I’ve been totally absorbed by lectures on pneumatic seed drills, liver fluke and beef conformation, not to mention a great deal on grass species. Perhaps most satisfyingly, I enjoyed a detailed lecture in which a compelling argument was made to demonstrate that British beef is the best in the world, and I was gripped by the story of traditional plucky British breeds fighting out against lumbering, oafish Continentals. Alongside the classroom modules, there has been a chance to get out and manhandle the hideous beltex tups, weigh holstein calves and take soil samples for testing – a terrific way to spend some lovely autumn days of sunshine and bright morning fog.

The huge amount of detail being flung around was initially rather overwhelming, but I’m getting the idea now that much of the information is best absorbed passively. The thrust of the message I have taken is that farming, like gamekeeping, requires a certain mindset and a basic grasp of some simple principles. Once this foundation is established, it becomes possible to tackle most challenges in a steady, logical fashion. Agriculture really doesn’t seem to be a dark or magical art, but things fit together in certain ways which are not always immediately apparent to the uninitiated, and getting used to thinking differently should help as I start to pick up some all-important experience. I was extremely smug to have asked a question about cows’  feet of my lecturer that he could not answer, and my second pass through higher education is proving to be even more interesting than my first.

I still don’t intend to drop my life and run into agriculture- in fact, much of what I’ve learned so far is wholly irrelevant to my interests in traditional upland farming, but the wider context of the industry is utterly fascinating. Quite apart from the technicalities of producing food, really understanding how priorities differ when it comes to land use has been a phenomenal eye-opener and will become a blog article of its own in due course.

But to demonstrate that all is proceeding according to the original plan, my wife and I had an excellent evening with the galloways on Sunday, picking out the two calves we plan to buy later in the year. The deal was done, hands were shaken and we look forward to taking on a couple of extremely pretty riggit heifer calves around Christmas time – the start of a major new beef dynasty in the Galloway hills?

Return of the Pinks

A welcome return
A welcome return

A note in brief to record the arrival of the first proper skeins of pink-footed geese now coming into Galloway from the North. I’ve heard of birds coming down for the last few weeks, but I actually saw my first skeins while waiting in the butts high up on the North face of Benrinnes above the Spey on Saturday. The distant jangle of voices from over the Moray Firth became a roar as the grey geese shuffled formation and passed several hundred feet over my head without drawing breath.

And again this morning, several skeins came down over Parkgate and Ae shortly before 9am, and the Solway is slowly filling up with welcome wanderers. Their arrival is always one of the final indicators of autumn, and now that the trees are turning and the brambles are getting fat and dusty, summer has closed the door.

Galloway Cattle

A beautiful young riggit galloway heifer

Having trailed my interest in cattle a few days ago, I’m looking forward to making a start on a year-long college course at the SRUC’s barony campus near Dumfries on Monday. Having made some in-depth enquiries round and about the area, I’ve managed to home in on some heifer calves I hope to get hold of later in the autumn, and I’ll be keeping an eye open for suitable beasts as the winter comes on. If nothing else, the galloway sale beckons in Castle Douglas towards the end of October, and there is a big sale in March.

The course (with the broad and pleasantly broad-brushed title of “agriculture”) should give some technical backing to the project, but I hope that most of what I do in the next few months will be picked up in the field at first hand.

As much as this seems like a diversion from this blog’s original remit of grouse and blackgame, I’m convinced that cattle are a really logical step in the wider scope of things, and there are a number of reasons why I’m really excited that I’ll be working with livestock over the next few months and years.

  1. The extremely positive link between cattle and the management of heather moorland is well established. Where you have cows on moorland, you are far more likely to have blackgame, red grouse and all manner of wild game and waders. The practical applications of this are thrilling.
  2. I have been admiring native breeds of cattle for several years, but never quite had the opportunity to get in amongst them. A galloway cow is a lovely thing, particularly when she is in her native hills. I am particularly drawn to white galloways and riggits, largely because they often represent the most traditional and “unimproved” strains, which not only makes them more suitable for the kind of conservation grazing that appeals to me, but it also gives them a piggy, barrel-bellied appeal.
  3. Galloway cattle have a powerful cultural value around these parts, and coming from a long, long line of galloway cattle breeders in the Southern Uplands, I feel them breathing down my neck at a genetic level.
  4. I spend a great deal of my time and money trying to source British produce, and I am increasingly picky about quality local food – it’s about  time I had a go at producing some of the best meat money can buy.
  5. Despite having been born and brought up in the countryside, my knowledge is very limited to wildlife and nature. I can grasp the principles of agriculture, but I fervently believe in integrated land management and having tended towards the things that interest me most (blackgame in particular), my understanding of the uplands is becoming rather imbalanced. Historically, geographically and scientifically, black grouse and galloway cattle have long been part of the same picture, and the distribution of one has often mirrored that of the other. I could take the easy route and read about it in a book, but I’d always much prefer to get hands-on and see it at the business end.

It feels like a career change, but it’s not – for all the above reasons and so many more, a project involving native cattle should compliment my work and this blog, and business will continue as usual. Just with a few more pictures of cows.

A Day at Shap

Showing off a fine view and some fancy paper case cartridges
Showing off a fine view and some fancy “William Powell” paper case cartridges

Worth a very quick mention in brief that I had an excellent day’s shooting at Wet Sleddale moor near Shap on Wednesday as a guest of Newtonrigg College. It turned out to be an excellent sunlit autumn day, with clear views right over to the Pennines and grouse making the best of a difficult North wind.

The day was run by the Northern School of Game and Wildlife, and almost seventy students turned out to beat. In fact, there were so many beaters that when they came in over the last few hundred yards of heather, it was widely compared to the massed Zulu impis at Rorke’s Drift. Many of these students had just started their first year on the gamekeeping course just a few days ago, and for some it was their first day on a grouse moor. Expertly marshalled and herded to and fro across the heather, it’s unlikely they could have had a better introduction to the sport.

Even if I say so myself, I shot beautifully for the first drive and then became over-confident and scarcely touched a bird for the rest of the day, but the pleasure of sport like this is often to be had from watching others, and as the dark coveys came roaring over the butts, I couldn’t help looking down the line and seeing the guns trying their luck.

It was telling that the majority of birds in the bag were from last year, and the youngsters of 2015 were few and far between – yet more evidence of a poor summer.

A Blaeberry Weekend

Exciting new evidence
Exciting new evidence – pic from wikipedia

Blaeberry featured strongly over the weekend for two reasons.

1 – While taking a brisk walk around the woods above my house, I found what is unquestionably a three inch long section of pine marten shit. It was made up almost entirely of blaeberry seeds and skins, and the fall of cold rain on Saturday morning had bled some of that wonderful purple pigment into the pink granite hardcore of the track. Twisted into this fruit-basket of vegetable waste were two secondary feathers from a blackbird or an ouzel, and these had been bitten off at the shaft, confirming the culprit as an enthusiastic omnivore. They were just the right size and diameter, and this was the first concrete evidence I have found of pine martens in this part of the county.

After having treble checked the Vincent Wildlife Trust’s website with growing delight, I found that they have colonised the “hectad” (10km2 block) in which I live during the past two years, having spread from strongholds further West. This should be no surprise, since a great deal of the ground around my home is very wild, inaccessible and heavily forested, but I am delighted to know how near I am to such a fantastic mammals. I have grand plans to use trail cameras to get even closer, but part of me would be happy just knowing they are there.

2 – For no particular reason, I rolled out of bed yesterday morning and set off to explore a hill up beyond the back of the house where I have never been. Like so much of the best heather ground in Galloway, the purple has been fought back onto the very summit of the hill and is ringed around by a moat of thick commercial forest. Some of these plantations are so pathetically ham-fisted in their design that no access was left for human beings, and often what little access there is has become rank and overgrown. If you like spending time on the hill-tops, you need to get used to punching through hundreds of yards of serrated sitka twigs and drainage ditches – an eerie window into the single-minded blindness of planting in the 1970s and 80s.

Regardless, I was confident in the knowledge that the hill I had chosen would be a particularly fine one, and I fought through spruces for half an hour before emerging into the most extravagant cornucopia of blaeberry I have ever seen. It was everywhere in massed bunches like grapes in vineyard. I have a berry harvester which was apparently designed by Ray Mears, and while it is an excellent piece of kit, it was lying in my office. Having no practical means of gathering berries, I tried to ignore the carnival of fruit at my ankles, but soon found myself determinedly grovelling through the undergrowth on hands and knees in an attempt to gather them up as the rain came on and soaked me to the skin.

When I say that I brought home 1lb of blaeberries, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a poor harvest, but remember that a single blaeberry is an infinitesimally tiny thing, about as weightless as a sparrow’s fart. I had picked thousands, and only stopped when I suddenly realised that my fingers were too numb to operate. A goshawk screamed down in the birches below me, and the dog flushed a covey of six grouse as we trekked back to the forest edge and plunged into darkness again.

Sitting at home an hour later, I pondered what to do with this fantastic haul. In the end, I stewed them with cooking apples and poured a crumble of oats, butter and brown sugar on top. The resulting dish was phenomenal – the colour of the berries went from black at its most concentrated to rich, lusty purples and gorgeous, blushing pinks – almost more of a feast for the eyes than the tongue. I had thought  that the blaeberries would be almost over for the year, but this late surge made the weekend.

An Autumn Harrier

One of the harriers which came on the hill over last winter
One of the harriers which came on the hill over last winter

For a split second yesterday afternoon, I came across a young female hen harrier. Set against the blue haze of Corserine, the bright silhouette worked slowly downwind over the reddening rushes and vanished behind the trees. After a phenomenal winter for harriers on the Chayne last year, this was the first bird I’ve found on the hill since March. The local nest failed towards the end of May, and this is the first harrier I’ve seen in Galloway for a fortnight. There will be more harriers over the winter, but a poor year for voles will prevent anything like the exceptional build-up I enjoyed between December and February.

I’ve written before on this blog about how alienated I feel from participating in discussions about hen harriers. The summer’s fury has been perpetuated by politically motivated point-scorers, and as the breadth of the debate has widened, it has become less about the birds themselves. Harriers have become the rallying point for a more general malaise towards shooting and grouse moor management, and the birds themselves are decidedly secondary. To some extent this is frustrating, since having lived and breathed both sides of the argument for the past seven years, I feel like I should be able to contribute.

As it is, the issue has been commandeered by absolutists on both sides with no interest in anything that does not wholly support or endorse their argument. With a foot in both camps, I don’t seem to suit the easily digestible template. In an environment where people can decide how they feel without ever seeing a harrier or a grouse, what value does first hand experience have?

Still, the first harrier of autumn is enough of a notable moment to warrant inclusion on this blog.

Galloway Droewors

Drying wors in the sunshine
Drying wors in the sunshine – including an attempt at venison chorizo (second right) from last week

Worth mentioning that in a fit of nostalgia for my days in South Africa, I made up a batch of droewors sausages last night using the haunch from one of August’s roebucks. The smell of malt vinegar, venison, ground coriander and black pepper has taken me on a fantastic journey down memory lane to “Bosveldfees 2003” in Ellisras, where Afrikaners strode around in obscenely short shorts eating dried game meat and naartjies and putting away frankly alarming quantities of brandy.

I’ll leave these sausages for six or eight weeks to dry, then they will be perfect for the hill. In the meantime, the wasps are scooping gob-fulls out of a “sacrificial” sausage I’ve hung nearest the window in an attempt at diversionary feeding.

The Grass of Parnassus

Grass of Parnassus
Grass of Parnassus

Given that the last week has been devoted to various other projects, it has been a while since I’ve been able to get up and have a wander on the Chayne. I could see from the low ground that the grass is changing colour and that there are many more browns and reds in the bent than there has been. Several dry days have baked the black haggs into grey streaks of peat, and the haws are preparing to match the glossy rowan berries.

I headed up the hill to bring in the tractor battery to be charged, and was surprised to find that the motionless hulk of metal has become a sanctuary for birds over the summer. The swallows built a nest in the cab, and a wheatear manufactured a lovely cup of grass roots, dock stems and sheep’s wool between the exhaust and the cylinder heads. It is a good place for a nesting wheatear, tucked into a narrow, rusting tunnel out of the wind, and I hope that they managed to fledge some chicks – it seems like few wheatears did this summer.

Distant roe appeared here and there against the turning grass, and the cows lashed their tails and meandered happily in the wet ground where the field scabious has run riot and the grass is underlit with a gentle ocean of vague purple bulbs. The last of the buttercups are still blazing away, but they are slowly going out like stars as the heather flower begins to falter. It has been a surprisingly good year for heather flower, and the bizarre summer has meant that there are still many buds that have not yet cracked and shown themselves. On the whole, the best of the show is over, and the asphodel heads are growing red and angry now that their petals are gone. I was interested to see grass-of-parnassus flowering on some nearby ground earlier in the week; possibly the first time I’ve ever come across the species. It was thriving thanks to a conservation grazing project, and I hope in due course to learn more about this kind of management from a practical perspective.

Swallows in huge numbers swirled round at some height in the warm evening calm, and I found the remains of a fox-killed snipe as I trekked up to gather a load of peat. There is now only one more load to come, and the woodshed is packed to the rafters with chunky black crumbs of fuel. I don’t take enough peat to fuel the stove all winter, but when it is mixed with ash and beech, it makes a fantastic slow-burning heart for a fire which smoulders for hours and produces a beautifully evocative, sweet moorland smell. A judiciously positioned piece of peat on the fire last thing at night can often keep it burning until the morning, and then the slightest touch with the poker makes the white ash crumble into life again.

On my way home, I saw two bullfinches in the brambles by the roadside. It seems amazing that bullfinches are so hard to find during the summer, yet they always appear as if by magic in September and October, regular as clockwork. I’m not aware of any large scale migration undertaken by bullfinches, and I know that they breed in Galloway – my curiosity is more a result of the fact that they, like jays, are almost invisible for nine months of the year.

Hill Cattle

A white galloway in Galloway
A white galloway in Galloway

Part of the explanation for the recent downturn in this blog’s output is a rising interest in livestock. I have been fairly reticent about my plans for the past few months, but given that they seem to be coming to a head faster than I had anticipated, it is worth noting in brief at this point that I am on the verge of taking a plunge into the world of hill cattle, and spent yesterday afternoon visiting the most beautiful herd of galloways near Dalry with a view to getting hold of some heifer calves in the autumn.

I will write more (and so much more) on the thinking behind this project over the coming days and weeks, but let a single photograph suffice for now.

Autumn’s Progress

Catching rays
Catching rays

While I’ve been caught up in the throes of more shooting, stalking and Heather Trust advisory visits, autumn has suddenly come looming into the foreground. It’s cold at night, and the thick dew at first light has a deep, smarting chill to it. The stove has been burning, and the house is remembering the smell of peat smoke. Outside, the larches are turning and the blaeberry is more red than green – a change which seems to have taken place over the course of hours rather than days.

I took the chance to join a friend sailing on the Solway last night, finding hoards of dunlin and redshank on the merse beside the yellowing samphire. It won’t be long before these slimy strands are packed with wigeon, and the mass of curlews gave the cold evening a winter’s cast against the silhouette of Screel. Afterwards, we stood in the yard on the last spark of light and a bat coursed past overhead with half a dozen idle swallows mobbing and coursing on behind it.

The swallows are extremely boisterous, and they give over much of their time to mobbing and attacking passers-by. I’ve seen them hurling themselves at sparrowhawks over the last few days, swirling around in great clouds and taking turns to ping down like pinballs. The last of their chicks are still in their nests, and they will have to go at it if they intend to make it South in a few weeks. Wheatears are already trickling out of our hands, discreetly decked out in autumn clobber.

But even as the blackbirds raid the first of the rowans and the robins “tit” in the gloaming, my wife and I found a fine, lusty old lizard in the garden yesterday afternoon as the heat shimmered off the stones. He was hunting bluebottles, and he darted after each one in turn as they landed on the chunk of granite by the burn. A summer beast making the best of these last few dog days.