The subject of agriculture has crept into the blog over the past few months, so with the New Year still fresh in the memory, now is a good moment to clarify precisely why I am sinking a considerable dollop of cash, effort and time into some questionably profitable animals.
During the course of the past four years working with the Heather Trust, I have travelled the country looking at moorland from Exmoor to Orkney. It is a terrible cliche, but every area of moorland is different and provides the landowner or land manager with a different palate of pros and cons. In the light of climate change, many areas of moorland are changing and will continue to change. The Met Office says that the West of Scotland now sees 25% more rain than it did in the 1960s, and there is no question that Galloway is wetter now than it ever was before.
When we had part of our drainage system renewed on the hill in 2013, the contractor remembered doing some of the original work in the 1970s. He said that the cundies (culverts) they built forty years ago were now far too small to drain the amount of rain which now falls on the hills, and his opinion was that much of the original system was now obsolete. Perhaps he was fishing for work, but I agreed with him, particularly when I see photographs of my grandfather mowing hay in the calving field and remember that only three years in the last ten has it been dry enough to even try and make hay on the Chayne. All this water is changing the ground and altering the vegetation so that (overgrazing aside) heather is now less able to compete with grasses and is being lost. Galloway is the spiritual home of molinia grass (AKA blow grass, purple moor grass, flying bent and even “millennia grass”), which forms deep tussocks of dead vegetation and smothers out all competition, leaving little of use to farmers or conservationists.
Burning used to be an important tool in Galloway, but fires become more complicated in deep grass and the forests which surround the remaining moorland often preclude experimentation. There are still plumes of smoke in the sky in late March and early April, but they are few and far between. Things are changing in the West, and it is getting harder to achieve our objectives using traditional methods. Part of the answer has to be “conservation grazing”, and having been involved in a number of farming projects during my time at the Heather Trust, I am constantly intrigued by what a positive impact livestock can have, particularly at a time when proposals are being put forward to remove all livestock from the hills altogether. I follow controversy and discussions about sheep with interest since I’ve seen the best and worst of upland sheep farming, but it’s cows that really win my heart.
Cows bring a number of excellent conservation benefits, and it’s no surprise that the hills are struggling now that we have lost so many of them. Foot and Mouth Disease cleared cattle out of Dumfries and Galloway, and SAC research shows that these animals were just never restocked. At the same time, the specific breeds of cows that remained were threatened by legislation designed to prevent BSE, and it became awkward and less profitable to sell cattle which were over thirty months old. The galloway cattle of my grandfather’s day often lived for five years before going to the slaughterhouse (real “slow-grown” beef), and traditional breeds became far less viable to keep on the hill because they were just too slow. Unfortunately, it was traditional breeds which were doing much of the good to the vegetation, and while many of the modern continental crosses are much better than no grazing at all, they are far less helpful in a conservation sense. I’ll put together a blog on precisely why in due course, but when it came to choosing a cattle breed to invest in, I chose the oldest and most traditional of any in the Southern Uplands.
I honestly believe that hill cattle could play a major part in overhauling our hills, particularly in Dumfries and Galloway where climate and economics have ruled out many other kinds of moorland management. I have bought four cows because I need to find out at first hand what impact they can have here and how they work to improve the vegetation and promote the kind of habitat favoured by the birds and wildlife I love. The lessons may be transferrable elsewhere and I hope that this new direction of Working for Grouse will be useful or inspiring to others, but looking at how the Galloway uplands have been neglected and ignored for the past half century, my priority has to be finding something that works here.
Regular readers of this blog will know how I feel about all the crap spouted about blackgame as “a bird of the forest”. I have always believed that blackgame are a bird of the hill farm; the moor and the heather ground, and while trees are unquestionably part of the picture, the link to agriculture is much stronger. The association between black grouse and cattle has been well publicised over the past decade, and I need to understand the physical dynamics of this kind of conservation.