It is indisputably important to acknowledge the arrival of a new team member on the Working for Grouse blog. Having hummed and hawed over the subject of breeding cattle for the past two years, I began this summer with the express aim of acquiring a bull. Feeling my way in the strange world of agriculture, I hoped that it might be possible to borrow a suitable animal, put my heifers in calf and then look forward to the results in May 2018.
These plans began to fall apart around three weeks ago. I came to the jarring realisation that in the light of biosecurity measures and complications around organic status, the option to “borrow” was effectively non-existent. I would either have to buy my own bull or consider throwing in the towel, and my tentative enquiries took on a shrill squeak of desperation. I hadn’t bargained on buying a bull, and I baulked at the financial outlay required.
My project with cattle has been utterly fascinating and I am devoted to my heifers, but this strand of my work often approaches financial suicide. Several thousand pounds has already gone in to “prime the pumps”, and it is unlikely that I will recover even the smallest percentage of that investment for another three years. I doubt I will ever break even, but the links to conservation, traditional farming and proper food more than repay the monetary outlay – the message is simply that demands for yet more money (in any context) are always enough to chill the spine.
Fortunately, I was soon presented with a solution. I contacted lists of people for advice and support, and I quickly settled on what I think is the best option available. Polbae Charlie used to be a “big name” in the belted galloway world, and he was spending his retirement years along the river Nith at Caerlaverock. Well into his eleventh year, he had all the gravitas and experience of a mighty old campaigner, but also the crucial weakness of antiquity. Fertility can decline with age, so he represented a balance between superb quality and risk.
Here was a cracking bull that I could afford, and impressed with a field of his calves from last year, I reasoned that his fertility did not seem to have failed him twelve months ago. The worst case scenario was that he might now (by some disaster) be totally infertile, and I countered this possibility with the sober idea that any outcome is a learning opportunity. The deal was made, and he came to meet his new ladies on Friday. I am happy to confess that he is an intimidating beast, and he dislikes being hurried. He speaks in a low, breathy moan and steps majestically through the rushes on feet which are as big as my head. Watching him hold court in the top field, I feel that I am already getting value for money.
I have four riggit galloway heifers and two belties, and I was originally hoping to find a riggit bull. I think riggits are beautiful and I love their historical significance, but riggit bulls are not easy to come by, and in their current form would not necessarily guarantee a riggit calf. The resurgence in riggit galloways over the last twenty years seems to have stemmed from a handful of strange genetic throwbacks which cropped up after more than a Century of absence. A few belted galloways suddenly gave birth to riggit calves, providing an extraordinary window into the past, and showing that all kinds of ancient DNA is lurking beneath the surface. Crossing my riggits with a beltie bull will probably produce “mismarked” calves which are beautiful but which do not conform to breed standards. But there is also a chance that they might have riggit calves, beltie calves or a colour form I hadn’t even imagined – it’s part of the excitement of the whole process!
There are moments in this blog’s story (as it enters its eighth year) that I have to wonder what I am doing and how I arrived at this point. What began as a simple obsession with black grouse has branched into an entire life dominated by farming, conservation and the countryside. Perhaps this latest twist seems like a deviation, but I am reassured that it is actually more like a broadening. I have more questions than I ever did about the countryside, and every answer sheds fractionally more light on the birds and the landscape which started it all off in the autumn of 2009.