One of many reasons why this blog has been quiet recently is that a good part of my time has been spent trying to expand my farming project. I only have six heifers, but I’ve found the experience so rewarding and provocative over the course of the past eighteen months that I’m keen to see what the next level of engagement could hold. Not only is agriculture a self-fulfilling pleasure, but I can also see how it could provide some unique opportunities to get hands-on with practical conservation issues – farming could be my “way in” to a world of wildlife.
A land agent friend with his finger on the pulse recently saw that the Forestry Commission were advertising a number of their properties for let to “New Entrants” to farming, providing a first step on the ladder for young folk who might otherwise struggle to get started – in effect, me. We were both intrigued to see the name of a local farm listed in the scheme, and we went to visit it together one evening last month. It was immediately obvious that Aucheninnes was too big for me, but there was no reason why I couldn’t grow into it. The property’s seventy eight hectares lies at the back of the local town, stretching from muddy riverside to the kind of wild Galloway moss that makes my spine tingle. I could picture my cows in there, and my enthusiasm grew as we picked our way through steeply corrugated folds of granite, heather and bog myrtle. It would be perfect for galloway cattle, and the better ground would be ideal for silage in the summer.
The farm has been leased in a series of seasonal grass lets for several years. Short-term contracts soon ruin a place like this, and without anyone taking responsibility for the ground, it is falling apart. The fences are loose and rusted, and the dykes are crumbling down. Birch scrub is encroaching dramatically, and it will soon reach a point at which it will be reclassified from farmland into woodland. This transition has created an amazing opportunity for a longer term tenant to come in and take the place in hand, producing slow-grown beef at a low intensity and in line with conservation goals. I’ve seen nightjars displaying on the moss, and black grouse aren’t far away. As much as it would be a financial stretch for me to justify the initial outlay, I felt that I had a strong case to convince the Forestry’s agricultural agents that I was the man for the job.
The lease was advertised as a six month grass let from April, but my friend and I both felt certain that a longer term arrangement could be made for the right candidate. We drew up grand plans for bracken control, ditch blocking and riverside planting, getting carried away with the limitless possibilities on offer. Everything was set for the application to go in when we heard that the Forestry Commission really did intend to let the property for six months on account of the fact that a good portion of the site is going to be planted with trees this autumn. My friend and I had missed the point. Rather than seeking out a longer term tenant, the foresters were advertising one final hurrah; one last chance to hammer the place with livestock before it vanishes under trees. With a groan of disappointment, we binned our application. Six months is no use to me, and I actually wonder how a short lease on this ground would really suit any “New Entrant” in a similar position to my own.
Perhaps this article reads like sour grapes, but the situation raises some real concerns about the gradual loss of this kind of ground which go over and above the specifics of Aucheninnes. Rough moss country is not beautiful or spectacular and it has never been truly loved. Nobody mourns its loss when the foresters come, but every disappearance is another nail in the coffin for the old countryside. The accumulative impact of losing countless small pieces of ground like Aucheninnes might be dire, and yet nobody seems to consider it.
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association commissioned a really good document in 2014 entitled A Future for Moorland in Scotland which, in a world of “forest expansion” tried to present a strategy for the simple (if rather contrary) idea of “moorland retention”. Perhaps it is inevitable that the document was either ignored or dismissed out of hand by most mainstream conservationists because it didn’t fit the determined belief that “trees are always good”, but it raised some really good ideas about our changing landscape.
As land uses intensify both uphill and downhill, there is a rapidly shrinking middle ground between them. In Galloway, this manifests itself as moss moorland, but it could equally be marsh, merse or alder carr depending on where you are in the country. Fifty years ago, nobody thought twice about this kind of ground – we called it “wasteland” – but we’ve been destroying it at such a rate that much of it has simply vanished.
When Aucheninnes is planted in the autumn, the ground will be permanently, irretrievably altered, and some valuable habitats will vanish forever. Perhaps what we need is a strategic look at these kind of murky borders – the birchy bogs where snipe buzz and woodcock rode. They may not draw the crowds, but they have an enormous accumulative value running in a patchwork between spruce trees and silage plains. Without any recognition of their value or a cohesive plan for their protection, we may suddenly wake up in ten years time and find that they’re all gone.
Blog updated 15:59 to reflect comments from Robin Waddell re: forest management plan, which can be found here