There was a foul, caustic wind in the south west this morning on my final lap of the hill for 2016. The dogs raised a handful of snipe from the bloated moss, and a ring-tailed harrier scanned the land for some sheltering scrap of lark’s flesh. The blackie ewes are still being covered on the hill, and a heavy headed old tup was working away as I reached the shelter of the windbreak where woodcock lurk on days like these. The muckle dope gazed at me without a spark of recognition before dropping his face to the grass at his feet.
This has been a very busy year, packed with learning, excitement and progress, not to mention several tempting tangents. It is odd to think that I have only been keeping cattle for less than a year – while these beasts have drawn me off the hill to some extent, I see how they fit in the larger puzzle of my interests. I wondered recently if I was beginning to fall out of love with shooting, particularly when I realised that the start of the grouse season came upon me without much excitement or anticipation. Of course I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my shooting this year, but I’ve found a way of engaging with the hills that is so fascinating and all-consuming that shooting is simply one of so many other exciting events in the year. I’m more convinced than ever that shooting has a key part to play in land management, but the sport is meaningless unless it is tied to concepts of harvest, conservation and balance.
I had promised myself that I would find time to install my new owl box before New Year, and I just managed to meet that target this morning on a cold and blustery trip up the hill. I built the box in October from pieces of For Sale sign, and it will be interesting to see what the owls make of a plastic box. To prevent it getting sweaty, the floor is made of chipboard and I have spread it over with a loose scattering of soil and leaves.
The new hay shed is a perfect spot for owls, and the quantity of scarts and owl feathers strewn around the wool bags and hay bales suggests that they are already visiting. Despite hundreds of acres of superb hunting habitat for barn owls, there are few viable nesting places on this side of the farm. Everybody loves barn owls, and I have high hopes that I might soon have some visitors. I’ve dabbled with owl boxes several times before, but never with much success – thanks this time to the Barn Owl Trust for the design and dimensions of this new model…
Having just returned from several days in Cornwall over Christmas, it’s a good moment to gather my thoughts about the southwest. I married a Cornish girl, so the furthest flung corner of England was always going to become part of my life to some extent, but despite having travelled to and fro to Cornwall for the best part of a decade, I still can’t quite get my head around the place.
On one hand, the landscape where my in-laws live near the Devon border is staggeringly impressive. Dramatic cliffs and broad sandy beaches blend into wind-blasted copses of hawthorn and hazel. The sea roars incessantly, and the ready salted fields are bound loosely together by a web of “hedges”; agricultural boundaries which bring together all the most formidable aspects of Scottish dykes, English hedges and the fortifications at Verdun, festooned with brambles and twists of old barbed wire. The countryside is wonderfully rough and scruffy, and I hugely enjoyed a day’s shooting woodcock at Kilkhampton in 2013 – a real glimpse behind the curtain. Later that year, I purred with delight to find peregrines hunting golden plover and teal on the Torridge at Bideford, but these were hard-won glimpses through a collage of camp ’70s seaside culture and bleach-blonde ’90s surfer “dudes”. There is so much on offer from sea bass to puffins, but I still haven’t really been able to get under the skin of the place and develop my “like” into “love”.
Fundamentally, I can’t resist an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia in Cornwall. When the “right to roam” was introduced in Scotland, landowners reacted with wails of misery. Many still grumble about “bloody ramblers”, but I never really knew the countryside before open access was granted to everybody north of the border. I now take it for granted that I can mooch around anywhere I choose, and it’s a liberating experience. By comparison, I find many of the access restrictions in England are downright stifling. The concept of trespass is wholly alien to me, so I can’t help curling my lip at signs on gates which read “No Entry” – as if there was honestly any good reason why I couldn’t walk across some rough pasture to find out what was on the other side. While Scottish landowners are pilloried in press and parliament if they fail to demonstrate sufficient engagement with communities and tourists, English landowners can put up signs which say “Keep Out” in a style that would have been familiar to George III. It’s not an exclusively Cornish issue, but for better or worse it’s extremely noticeable for a Scotsman passing through.
In the same way, Cornwall attracts many more visitors and inhabitants than my quiet corner of Scotland, and in lots of ways it almost feels “full”. You’re never far from other people, and I’ve found it hard to feel properly isolated in a countryside which hums all day and glows all night. The network of footpaths and bridleways serves to actively channel people into a few distinct locations, so that perhaps they feel disproportionately busy, and time I’ve spent on Bodmin or Exmoor has always been jostled by others. I was probably born with a pair of rose tinted spectacles, but I can’t help feeling that the best of Cornwall has been swallowed up over the past twenty five or fifty years by tidal waves of tourists, second-homers and sun-seekers. The real, beating heart of the place is surely still there somewhere – I love the red cattle and the herds of wigeon browsing in the short grass beside rich, bloated riverbanks – I just need to work harder to join the dots and see through the mounds of plastic tourist tat to what I know is surely a genuinely valuable place.
As an aside, I was equally appalled and amazed on this most recent trip to find that someone had picked up their dog’s shit and put it in a bag, then hung the bag in a tree and wandered off. I had heard of this before, but having never seen it and being unable to imagine the mentality behind such an act, I always thought it was a joke. Subsequent enquiries have revealed that this is not uncommon and it’s certainly not exclusive to Cornwall, but it has made an enduring impression.
Entertaining to find this picture of one of my riggit heifers in October before she was fluked and wormed, standing in front of a neighbour’s continental (simmental x) calf. The punchline is that while they are much the same size, the hairy black and white cow is almost precisely a year to the day older than the brown and white one behind it – a crucial comparison when it comes to the biological and financial realities of modern beef production.
I can argue in favour of quality, heritage and flavour all I like, but it’s almost possible to produce two continental carcasses of superior bulk and supermarket friendly conformation in the time it takes to finish a single (rather small) galloway carcass. Key aspects of british livestock have a well-established tendency towards quantity over quality, and I would be wasting my time if I thought I was going to be able to turn a profit producing galloway beef for the mass market. This post is no complaint – I mention it here simply because the picture provides such a notable comparison, and I am consoled by the thought that good meat is worth waiting for…
Returning Gilbert the borrowed hebridean tup to his home on the coast this morning after a month with my mother’s sheep, I had a chance to spy on a wonderful mix of waders and wildfowl. As Gilbert’s satanic shape emerged from the trailer, curlews rasped out a protest from behind the whins, and a tight pack of wigeon rushed off the salty grass and into the tide for safety.
Redshank and greenshank peeped happily over the next half hour as the sea gradually spilled over its banks and flooded the fields of Gilbert’s home, and the chorus of sounds came to me as an old friend – These are not the wide, rippling oystercatcher bays of western Galloway or the goose infested sandbanks of Caerlaverock and Brow Well – this is a kind of uniquely familiar landscape where brambles trail in brackish water, flounders creep beneath the mud and wildfowl lounge easily on the samphire.
The greenshank are always the last to show up, and this was the first time I had heard the full orchestra since last winter. I felt almost like it had never been away; the chorus is quietened by the seasons to a fraction above silence, but always lurks just on the edge of hearing.
Uplifting to find a great quantity of snipe on the heather hill this evening as I walked the dogs in a low smirr. They rose up one by one from deep beds of crowberry and lichen which was duck-egg blue in the last glow of daylight. Amongst them were several jack snipe, which flittered weakly up and away for a few yards before flopping wearily back into the moss again. It’s hard to mistake jack snipe for common snipe once you’ve got your eye in, and it was striking this evening to note the difference in scale – the jacks really are tiny when flushed – like a fat and rather apologetic skylark.
Colin McKelvie’s book on snipe informs me of the old Irish wisdom that snipe will head to the “red” (or heathery) moors when the moon is full. McKelvie’s explanation for why this should be is pretty shaky, but the gist is invariably accurate. You would hardly be able to tell much of the lunar cycle this evening as the clouds descend and the leaves reek with mould, but it was interesting to read recently that curlews forage further afield by night when the moon is full, irrespective of whether or not it is visible or the conditions are much brighter. With snipe as with so much else, the moon exercises an influence which goes far beyond the mere distribution of light.
Just as a postscript to a previous blog about outdoor winter feeding, it’s worth recording that several more pheasants and a stoat are now also circulating around the feeders where the galloways gather every morning. Again, I don’t believe that any of these animals have had their conservation status improved by the simple provision of feed for six cattle, but the site is certainly a hub of interest for the local wildlife.
On a similar vein, I was watching a bubbling storm of starlings feeding on the scraps of cake left for the sheep on the Chayne yesterday when a peregrine slashed through them at incredible speed. The juvenile falcon missed its mark and rushed in a tight, pointed loop around the ash trees and back into the coarsely grained sky, moustaches like bleeding mascara down its cheeks. I often see peregrines hunting starlings in this part of the glen, and it’s notable that starlings only persist in these hills throughout the winter where there is some form of supplementary food on offer.
I was interested in game cover crops a few years ago (ample record of this in the archives if you’re prepared to dig for it) and nursed whimsical ideas that I could resurrect the kind of agricultural utopia seen in the Edwardian paintings of Thorburn; blackcock on oat stooks and grey partridges in fields of turnips. My conclusions were that this kind of mixed arable livestock farming really is superb for wildlife, but that some species are faster to adapt to it than others.
My grey partridges took to their turnips and radishes in a matter of hours, but black grouse resolutely refused to use my cereal crops. It seemed that the habit of picking spilt grains from crops had been lost, and only towards the end of my experiments after three years were birds showing any interest in my carefully stacked oat bundles.
Black grouse are simultaneously curious and conservative, and while they are prepared to eat anything from rose hips to strawberries, they can be surprisingly reluctant to experiment. Black grouse operate on a slower cycle than their red cousins, and (in general terms) they have evolved to live for much longer. During their formative years, the “packing” system allows young birds to acquire important knowledge of available feeding from older generations; hence why we have many historical records of birds (often in single-sexed packs) flying long distances to feed on a particularly good hawthorn hedge or a sheltered field of oats. Conversely, once the chain of landscape-scale knowledge has been broken and a certain food source has been lost for more than a generation or two, it falls off the radar altogether. In Galloway, there are no longer any upland oat crops whatsoever, and few blackcock left standing to sustain the habit of eating cereals.
The point was driven home in the winter of 2014/2015 when my neighbour fed his out-wintered belted galloway cattle on rolled oats. He commented that the oats made an excellent feed provided it was given in mild, dry conditions when the stock were inclined to hang around and finish it all off. When it was wet, they tended to trample it in and abandon much of the left-overs, which in turn drew in a great deal of crows, magpies and jackdaws. Black grouse occasionally lek within seventy yards of some of his feed areas and yet they never came in to enjoy the bounty, which was probably cleaned up by the crows every day anyway. If he had kept feeding oats for several consecutive winters, perhaps a blackcock (usually more speculative than a greyhen) might have given it a try and remembered an old habit, long forgotten.
Studies are unsure about the overall value of artificial feeding to black grouse and there may even be evidence to suggest that it presents a net loss to the population as a whole, drawing in predators which target the unwary beneficiaries. The dynamics of the countryside have changed hugely since the days of Thorburn, and for a start there would have been fewer crows and magpies in our glen at the turn of the last Century, meaning that wasted food would have been available on the fields for far longer. It’s difficult to draw direct lessons from history, but there is value in traditional wisdom. Trying to recreate elements of the “old fashioned ways” has provided me with plenty of food for thought.