Three Shades of Grey

Blue greys at Newcastleton
Blue greys at Newcastleton

The autumn flies past at a horrible rate, but it is worth recording a trip over Langholm moor this morning to review the heather beetle situation and catch up with the summer’s damage.

A great grey shrike fluttered onto the top of a spruce tree nearby as we stood and chatted in the strange, low-hanging cloud, and it grabbed a passing bee in the hooks of its toes before impaling the unfortunate insect on the thorn of a scrub tree below us. I have seen one of these scarce winter visitors before; in 2010 up the Leithen water, and I scarcely gave it a second glance as I scanned the hillsides for blackgame. As it turns out, they do warrant close inspection, and he seemed a fine, lusty fellow in his smoky grey coat, flaring his magpie’s tail like a real swell.

Further on, several blackcock were displaying together in the red molinia, and they rose up in a tumbling mass of black and white stripes as I slowed to watch them blend into the grey mist. I was heading for the annual sale of blue grey cattle at Newcastleton, which is in itself a fascinating piece of Southern Upland history. It is said to be the oldest suckler sale in Britain, and the largest gathering of gorgeous blue grey cows anywhere in the world. My inexperienced eye glossed over the lovely, lumbering shapes as they swirled and turned beneath the open-air ring, and I soaked in the atmosphere of quiet concentration from the gathered gangs of farmers, dealers and well-wishers.

In my ignorance, I only recently came to understand the function and purpose of blue greys, which are not a breed in themselves but originate from the first cross of a whitebred shorthorn bull on a black galloway cow. The resulting heifers produce more milk than their mothers, but retain the galloway’s hardiness and ability to thrive on poor ground – a useful combination for breeding beef cattle on marginal hill country. The blue grey can then go to a charolais or an angus bull and produce a bigger, beefier calf than a galloway would ever have managed as a pure blood. I’m sure that the picture is far more nuanced and complicated than this, and I only have the vaguest grasp of it all, but I think this is a reasonably fair précis in broad terms. I would love to get a few heifers of my own in due course, but I think my hands are full enough with galloways for now.

Having kept my head so focussed on the grouse for so long, I’m always appalled to find what a small piece of the picture I have been playing with. We’re all guilty of cherry-picking our favourite areas of interest, and the more I learn about farming in the hills, the more I am blown away by the breadth and scope of uplands management.


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