Over the past few weeks we’ve been working in an old, unmanaged wood on my parents’ farm. The trees are an odd mix of sycamore, hazel and a bizarrely enormous leyland hedge which serves as a safehouse for every roosting woodpigeon in the parish. From my perspective, the whole mixture could do with some hands-on management, not only to up the quantity of available firewood, but alsno to create some interesting new possibilities for conservation.
Although we have no dormice in Galloway, I love the kind of short-rotation coppice wood favoured by those fantastic little guys, and reading around the subject has led me to all kinds of other biodiversity benefits brought about by careful rotational management, not least for our thriving population of red squirrels. Guidance online has explained that woodland managed in a variety of different stages is best for squirrels, so it’s hardly surprising that they seldom stay long in this even-aged place. If firewood and conservation weren’t enough, the prospect of a roe deer or two in the larder has breathed enthusiasm into a side project which is taking on a life of its own.
The first job has been to fell some of the massive old sycamores and let some life into the understorey. The ground is littered with tiny ash and holly seedlings trying to come through, but rather than rush into the sky, they cower in the shade and inevitably fall foul of the deer and the rabbits. Now that we have begun work on a substantial “glade”, I hope that they can get a headstart next summer. In the meantime, I’m really keen to coppice some of the hazel which is similarly stunted by the shade, and in due course it will hopefully provide a wealth of useful wood.
I took this photograph (above) today from a tall beech tree where I hope to build a high seat over the winter. I know next to nothing about deer management in woodlands, so this first experiment should be extremely interesting. If nothing else, spending time in the woods is an excellent balance to my life in the hills, where trees are usually foul, prickly affairs. It’s refreshing to have a whole new habitat to explore, and I find that I’m already getting carried away with ideas of making charcoal and building owl boxes.
While on the subject of cattle, it’s worth including these comparison shots of “Maggie” the wild heifer. The top picture was taken in September 2015 when she was five months old, and the second was this afternoon at eighteen months. Seeing them every day, it’s easy to think that they never grow at all. It turns out that some progress has been made this summer!
Entertainingly, we recently had a chance to see my girls standing alongside some limousine x calves which were born in May 2016 – they were basically the same size…
Crucial to record the arrival of two more cows to the “Working for Grouse” fold on Friday. Management of native cattle for conservation purposes has been a sub-plot to this blog for the past year, and the addition of two more galloways will hardly be much of a surprise to any loyal readers, but these heifers serve a strategic purpose.
One of the original riggit galloway heifers has been wild since day one, and recent exchanges with two or three people who I regard as “authorities” have suggested that this particular girl will probably not settle down. When we finally caught her in the crush for her jags, she bellowed and bucked, kicking the motorway crash-barriers until they rang like tuning forks. The idea of using her to breed in due course now seems rather problematic, and given that this project is for pleasure rather than financial gain, I don’t see why I should make things hard for myself. I toyed with the idea of buying a pregnant older cow in an attempt to mellow out the group and give them a mother figure, but while this might provide some settling influence, I am still going to be left with a wildcard.
In the event, the decision was taken to buy two or three store heifers at a similar age and fatten them all together to be killed next winter. The offending beast (known as “Maggie”) currently weighs around 300Kg, and it is usual for galloways of this kind to finish at between 550 and 600Kg – she has to hit that window before she reaches thirty months of age, at which point additional tests relating to BSE and disease control will knock the value of the carcass into the wastepaper basket. So the idea is essentially then that she should double her weight in twelve months, and having two additional stores to fatten should make that goal easier without disrupting the three original heifers.
Sure enough, Friday morning found me at the belted and white galloway sale in Castle Douglas. To be quite frank, I’m not a huge fan of belted galloways. My family has a long history with black galloways, and belties always seemed like a showy and rather foppish extravagance. Sinking money into riggit galloways proves that I have an eye for the whimsical, but the fundamental conformation of my riggits is so blocky and roly-poly that they align with my idea of the classic “unimproved” galloway of yesteryear.
I love the straight backs, short legs and stubby noses of my girls, and I often see the same in many strains of white galloway. If nothing else, it’s interesting to compare my riggits with the vast and imperious black galloways which currently win all the prizes in fashionable breeding circles. Many of these are irredeemably ugly to my inexperienced eye, and while they tick the commercial boxes, they bear little resemblance to the stocky, thick-set galloways my grandfather was exporting to Canada in the 1960s and 70s.
While belties attract loving sighs of admiration from across the world, closer inspection reveals that they are a breed apart. They are not just black galloway cows with a white middle, and a huge amount of careful work and breeding has contrived to prioritise the belt over many other (in my mind) much more pleasing characteristics. Perhaps there’s much more to come on this (if only in the form of idle and ignorant speculation), but suffice it to say for now that my eye was drawn to two store beltie heifers of a similar age to my “problem beast”. They were from a reputable local breeder and suffered only the mild embarrassment of a so-called “broken belt” – irregular markings which are the inevitable by-product of pursuing perfection.
The sale was billed to end with a quick romp through the stores, so I was forced to wait in a packed out mart while the elite belties were ushered around the ring by men in white coats. A famous local herd of white galloways was being dispersed, and I was sorely, sorely tempted by some of those gorgeous beasts as they went their various ways. But my moment finally came and the broken belts conspired to keep the price down during a brief and phenomenally macho flurry in the ring. I vividly remember sitting on my father’s shoulders in the same auction house as a child of five, inhaling a semi-transparent fug of cigarette smoke, sheep shit and onion gravy. Returning to buy my own beasts felt like a milestone of maturity. Thankfully, the hammer dropped at an excellent price.
I brought the beasts home on Friday, and they were settled in with the riggits on Sunday while deep banks of fog beaded the sloes and fieldfares rattled past overhead. My mind was still racing with images of those dear white galloways, but I consoled myself with the thought that I will work towards them, and that the day’s primary objective had been achieved without bankruptcy.
As a footnote, everything I write on cows (indeed, anything I write on anything) usually comes more from enthusiasm than experience or genuine knowledge – if you think any of these notes are incorrect or based on rank idiocy, please feel free to let me know – this whole project is founded on a desire to learn, so feedback and differing opinions are always welcome.
Worth recording in brief my first mink, caught in a shed by the river Urr. I’ve shot a mink and helped several others to meet their makers, but this was the first I have ever accounted for in a trap, and her existence might have gone totally unnoticed if it hadn’t been for her predilection for poultry. Over the course of a few days, this mink killed a number of chickens and was becoming a nuisance around the farmyard. With characteristic mink fearlessness, she was happy to hunt and kill chickens within a few feet of the farmhouse back door, and it was this callous disregard for human beings that finally brought her to an abrupt end.
Mink are widely disliked in this country, and whether or not “like” or “dislike” are useful reactions to any wild animal, the sentiment helps to inform a wider intolerance of this species. In their natural context, mink must be grand little beasts. The body is gorgeous and has gone in the freezer while I make arrangements for taxidermy, but I have to value the status of native birds, fish and mammals over the prosperity of a particularly ravenous killer. Many of our dearest native species have enough to worry about without the prospect of “black death” lurking around every bend in the river.
The cattle are lowing. They don’t want to be gathered for fluking, so we have fallen to a protracted conflict of baiting them in to the pens. Over the course of the last few days, I’ve been gradually feeding them closer and closer into the race, and they will soon be confident enough to have the gate closed behind them. Then they can receive their trodax injections and have done with the whole business for a few months.
Their wild craziness is a result of a satisfying summer on the hill. We haven’t had to gather them (or even touch them) since they arrived in January, so it’s hardly surprising that they should be a little wary of us. The situation is compounded by one heifer in particular – she is as wild as fox and spreads bad vibes whenever we try and gather. Bit by bit we’re wearing her down, and one of this winter’s key objectives is to tame all the beasts so that they’re easier to handle in future.
Tied up with work and replying to emails at first light, it was getting on for nine o’clock by the time I dropped the car and began the long zig-zag climb up the steep face and into the heather. Hoping for a final buck from the season, I carried the .308 on my shoulder and stopped every now and then to spy ahead. Skeins of geese were coming trickling off the Solway at extreme height, and a pair of teal sprang from the ditch at my feet. The wind buffeted the thistle heads and made the last few blobs of yarrow nod in the long grass. Many of the yarrow heads are now pink-tinted and old, and even the late scabious globes are now hard and dry.
I saw the deer from a long way away – perhaps six hundred yards – just a head at first, but it could have been nothing else, the black shadow as much of a giveaway as the silver face in a swirling sea of fallen yellow grass. Without any other options, I decided to get closer to try and determine the sex, so dropped down into a shaded gully of myrtle and bedstraw. The zig-zag path brought me to within eighty yards, and a final crawl through pads of soaking moss gave me a superb vantage point on a block of granite.
It was certainly a buck, and at a first glance it seemed that he had recently dropped both of his antlers for the year. I would have preferred a youngster, but closer examination over the next ten minutes confirmed that his pedicles were topped with creamy little thorns – “buttons” – the kind of scrappy nub grown by young bucks in their first year. He would be perfect, but I would have to wait another hour for the shot as he rose behind a deep bank of rushes and then began to browse idly through a streak of bog myrtle. Jays squalled in the woods and crows rose up to circle and clamour at extreme height – in my experience this usually implies that goshawk is in the area, working unseen between the birches. On a smaller scale and closer to hand, a wren roared in fury like a two-inch tiger.
It was interesting to watch the buck feeding on myrtle. It’s a prolific plant (the roots have Nitrogen fixing nodules) and prospers across much of the wet ground where I work and stalk, but the leaves are so strongly pungent that it’s hard to imagine anything enjoying them in raw “salad” form. He gathered the leaves with snappy, abrupt little mouthfuls. He was very thorough, and only moved a pace or two every five minutes, always hidden up to his neck. When he finally did get some height for me to see his body, he was facing precisely away from me, and I had excellent views of his tush and the back of his head.
Finally he offered me a shot, curled round on himself but almost broadside. One of the reasons why I upsized to a .308 after years with a .222 was the all-too-frequent discovery that my little bullet tips were not punchy enough to achieve an exit wound. I never lost a roe with the .222, but there were a few nervy moments when a blood trail from an exit wound would have been extremely helpful, and the .308 provided this clue in a trail that even I could follow at a walking pace. He had not gone far – perhaps twenty five yards through old burnt heather stick and into a deep hole, but without the blood trail I might have had to return home for the dog.
As I stowed the buck in my bag, I looked up to see a mature male peregrine loop around the glen below me at eye level, catching the wind and catapulting himself through a series of gullies and haggs at knee-height. I assumed that this was an ambush strategy, and pitied the grouse as they crouched for cover in the garish, unforgiving sunlight.
The number of redwings flying over Galloway has become absurd. I can’t ever remember such a glut of thrushes, and hardly ten minutes passes without the thin, whining trill of passing birds. As anticipated, the sparrowhawks are riding the crest of this wave, hunting in sharp, feline pounces through the brambles. The plucking posts are flock-coated with down, and cropfuls of red berries are scattered on the fallen leaves like beads of blood.
Watching the redwings and blackbirds plunder the rowans in the woods above the house yesterday, I saw the first fieldfares, and later heard them chuckle wetly as they rushed away in a massive crowd of ninety or more. A pair of blackcaps has suddenly descended on the garden, and they are plundering the autumn’s stock of spiders, which have been lacing the whins with gossamer over the past few nights.
Further up the hill, snipe move by darkness and teal rush against the clouds in the last blink of daylight. Visiting a new spread of heather near Dalbeattie on Saturday morning, we watched a blue hen harrier hunting over the red grass. When he looped back round, he came to within fifty yards before flaring away and picking a new course, just a few feet from the moss. Fieldfares often go to roost in the white grass, so perhaps he can also cash in on the autumn’s new arrivals.
Interesting to note the recent appeals from the RSPB which is aiming to raise funding to buy land adjacent to their existing reserve at Mersehead. There’s no doubt that Mersehead is a grand place, and in fact it is so near my home that I often walk the dogs there on winter evenings after work.
On the face of it, making nature reserves bigger should be a no-brainer, but I start to wonder if it really is the right path. The RSPB is already one of the biggest landowners in Scotland, and it’s hard to see what real benefit we will gain from their ownership of even more land. Sustainable, future-proof conservation will depend upon integrating wildlife into a real, living countryside with genuine financial pressures. This new appeal to raise £285,000 will simply lift the land into a bubble-wrapped world – an island of conservation bliss in an ocean of change and decline.
It is difficult to see an endgame when you set out to fix the countryside by buying it, and there is little doubt that £285,000 could be more effectively spent on rolling out conservation lessons learnt on the existing reserve to privately owned farms along the entire Solway coast. Real change and progress in conservation will come when we work out how to unlock busy farmers and commercial foresters, and buying land to squirrel away makes no progress in that direction.
Despite a massive and vastly effective PR and fund-raising machine, the RSPB frequently fails to connect with the farmers and landowners who could make a real difference – (perhaps that’s a consequence of ten years spent blaming farmers for the decline in wild birds). It may be ambitious, but if the RSPB could get under the skin of existing land-based industries rather than forever colliding with them, they might find themselves welcome to have a say in the management of the entire country.
In brief, I had a superb day’s stalking with a friend in the Grampians yesterday amidst the white-hot heat of the rut. What I thought I had seen on Islay turned out to be just a precursor of the real deal, and the day was alive with bellowing, piss-soaked stags in the most turgid throes of sexual enthusiasm. The ground was torn up, pizzles were waved around and the stench of the beasts blared hotly through the low cloud as we picked our way over the heather and in amongst them. While Islay was dominated by the blare of full-blown roaring, the feature of yesterday was a kind of wicked, repetitive bark like the laugh of some deranged villain. One stag in particular was relentless in his abuse of power, and his gasping coughs were simultaneously glorious and terrifying.
This beat is home to a staggering number of blackgame, and as if the spectacle of fighting stags was not enough, it took place beneath powerful flights of blackcock high overhead. Suffice it to say that I was in paradise. We came off the hill on the darkening with two good stags in the back of the argocat, and I nursed memories of the whole hair-raising spectacle all the way down the A90 last night into the small hours.
The galloways required their first “hands-on” treatment on Tuesday, providing me with the first real opportunity to work with them at close quarters. They needed a fluke and worm treatment – two sub-cutaneous injections to clear them of any parasites they may have picked up over the summer. Having just spent a good deal of money on hay for them to eat over the winter, I resent the idea that even a penny’s worth of that nutrition is wasted on feeding worms, particularly when these girls are still growing and need the best start in life. Fluke are a more serious problem, and although cows are far less likely to die of fluke than sheep, the experience of hosting blood-hungry flesh-burrowers can hardly be all that pleasant. Livers which have been badly scarred by fluke damage tend to be condemned at the abattoir, and while these girls won’t be killed for perhaps ten years or more and are almost certain to pick up a fluke or two, it’s simply a matter of keeping them in good condition.
They really didn’t enjoy being jagged, particularly since this was the first time I had ever injected a cow and I struggled to get the (disturbingly thick) needle through their hides. Two heifers refused treatment altogether and they will now have to be rounded up and dealt with at the weekend. In the meantime, it was a pleasure to really get in amongst these animals for the first time – to feel their warmth and smell their sweet, slightly farty aroma of fermenting grass.