Riggit Progress

In a cold Westerly wind overlooking the Solway

Now that they have been on site for a week, the galloway calves have settled down and are starting to establish some kind of rhythm. It was a sensible idea to put them in with some older cows, and to begin with they   established themselves as a separate group operating within the pecking order of the dominant animals. As the days have gone by, this tight-knit, nervous group has relaxed and they now spend their time in a much looser formation. There is one particular calf which has not settled, and I must say that I knew that she was going to be nervy when I first saw her in September. Her ears are always up and her attitude is much more cautious and observant than the others, which waddle around peacefully through the mud like stocky little tanks. I chose her because I loved her markings, but she is the first to freak and run away at any sudden movement, and she always hangs well back when I go in to see the others. It will be interesting to see what becomes of her.

The creep feeder which was designed to let the calves feed without admitting the cows has not been used at all, probably because the galloways have never seen a metal box before in their lives, and the expensive pellet concentrates I bought earlier in the week will probably go soft and mouldy before they are ever eaten. The same is true of the salt block which I have set out for them on the grass and which has been slobbered on by the old cows without stirring much interest from the calves. I daresay they will learn in due course how to handle both concentrates and minerals, but for now they are content to tuft the silage out of the trailer like “grown-ups”. In actual fact, they don’t really know what to do with the silage and prefer to mouth it half-heartedly before dropping it, trampling on it and then pulling out a new bit.

It all seems very promising, and I couldn’t resist sharing this picture of the view down to the Solway this afternoon from the high field where they have made their home.

Chiruca Boots

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Setting the record straight

This blog has been a really useful tool over the past six years, and it has served all kinds of purposes, from therapeutic diary to creative outlet. Now and again, I have reviewed good products I’ve come across and the resulting output has been quite well received. I’m not one to spread bad reviews unless really incensed, and I usually just drop or ignore things that I don’t like.

A few years ago, I bought a pair of Chiruca boots with a novel fastening system like a doorknob at the top of the tongue. This knob ratchets fine wires to tighten or loosen the fit, and it was billed as a “futuristic” lacing “system”. Being a sucker, I bought a pair. For a few months they were the bee’s knees and I wrote a very favourable review of them which you can still find HERE. This review was picked up by a number of companies which sell these boots and, oddly enough, it has become one of the most popular articles I’ve ever written, attracting thousands of views in a year, often from overseas readers.

As it happens, if I had written the review a few weeks later it would have read quite differently. The wire fastenings which wind up the boots broke and proved to be utterly irreparable. I took them back to the dealer and they said that they couldn’t fix them. On passing the news back to Chiruca, they sent me a bizarre and practically functionless set of miniature alan keys with which I was supposed to fix the wires myself. In the event, these keys were so unhelpful that they may as well have originated in another dimension. Part of the problem was that as they are worn, the slots through which the wire is threaded become blocked with all kinds of mud and crap, and they are absurdly difficult to navigate or renew with the slightly frayed end of a cut wire. Even under laboratory conditions, I daresay it might be the work of several hours to restring the wires in these boots, but given that I was assured that they would never break in the first place, that fact was academic.

I ended up getting different boots (Black Islanders) about three years ago and have never looked back. I’m now on my second pair, and their simple, straightforward fastenings remind me every day why God invented laces.

So I hope that this quick rant sets the record straight about boots which I believe are essentially nothing more than a naff gimmick. Sorry to all readers for having taken so long to set the record straight, and sorry also to myself for having wasted money on them in the first place.

New Arrivals

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A big lorry for some small cows

It is with huge delight and excitement that I can finally announce the arrival of my cows, which came down off the hills this morning in a biting cold Northerly wind. A massive, full-size cattle float opened its doors and four muddy little beasts stepped out into the spitting rain. We brought some older cows down to meet them, then moved the whole gang together up across the fields to their new accommodation beneath the remains of an iron age fort which has been overgrown with red-boughed scots pine trees. The little cows vanished into the gorse like a hoard of stripy pigs, and the last I saw of them, they were hanging around their new grown-up pals like strange pygmies.

As I feared, their arrival has come as a major anticlimax. Of course it is thrilling to have them on hand, hale and hearty, but there will be nothing I can do with them for several days until they begin to settle down and learn where they fit in. They are so small and their new field is so large that I may end up watching them through binoculars for a couple of days until they relax and gain some confidence.

Winter Cranberries

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Wild cranberries in the moss

Fascinating to find a surprising amount of wild cranberries on the hill this afternoon while heading out for a walk in the rain. Some areas of moss were studded with dozens of little red berries, and I ate handfuls of them as I walked. They are much tastier than blaeberries, and they had a sharp, pleasantly acid tang to them which lingered around long after I had crept back to the car and changed out of my soaking clothes. A greyhen had lain up near this cornucopia of moorland fruit, and it wasn’t hard to see what why she had been hanging around this area of the moor.

Cranberries are oddly distributed on the hill, and some patches are very thick and easily found. When they flower, they plants glow a pretty pink colour, but the berries are very erratic and sometimes can’t be found despite extensive searching. It is odd that the only times I have found berries have been in the depths of darkest winter, and I wonder why the sheep don’t eat more of them than they do. They are certainly well favoured by grouse, and during some recent research I discovered that they are also a favourite food of curlews.


Conservation Grazing

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A lean, green, moorland management machine (one of the galloways I arranged to buy on New Year’s Eve – isn’t she beautifully marked?)

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.