Old Charlie the bull returned to his original home on Tuesday. I was glad to hear that he was so warmly regarded by his previous owners that they were willing to host him in his retirement years, and he has avoided the indignity of being cast and sent to the abattoir. In his place, the farm very generously agreed to swap him for his son, a four year old bull by the name of Caerlaverock Dominic.
Dominic is a very different kettle of fish. Where Charlie was ponderous and gentle, Dominic is direct and hands-on – you could almost describe him as “bullish”. This has taken some getting used to, and the heifers have borne the brunt of some decidedly pro-active wooing. Within half an hour of his arrival, Dominic had jumped one of the beltie heifers, cracked an overhanging branch off an oak tree and dug a shallow hole in the ground with his face. He is being no more aggressive than any other bull you might find, but the shift in gear between father and son has taken me by surprise. There’s no doubt that he is a really stunning animal, and his pedigree includes several of the most famous and celebrated bloodlines in the world of belted galloway cattle. The fact that he is a little “frisky” is only to be expected, and he is sure to settle down in a day or two.
I have fallen on my feet for perhaps the first time in my life, and I am really lucky to have the chance at such a fine bull in my first year. However, as per a previous article on riggit galloways, this involvement with belties is more by accident than design, and I will probably be hoping to sell Dominic on in due course – this will be another fascinating challenge, and I look forward to seeing how it works out.
Watching their behaviour, I now wonder if Charlie succeeded in getting any of the heifers pregnant. I doubt that there will be any problem with Dominic, and while I have lost a month waiting for Charlie to do the deed, the experience was so useful and informative that I don’t grudge the old fellow one bit.
Having recently grumbled about the prospect of wasting a field of grass, I was thrilled to receive a late night visit from a sympathetic neighbour on Tuesday night. The house was lit up with dazzling headlights as a tractor pulled into the steading at 11 o’clock with a mower on the back, and within half an hour the field was cut. The past thirty six hours have been spent in a frenzy of excitement as I watch the weather and hope to turn this grass into hay.
I’ve been stand-offish about grassland management for years, and I’ve been actively critical of silage production on many occasions. Some of the extensive silage production in Galloway’s dairy country has a shocking impact on wildlife, and the great green silage fields can be a wasteland for birds. I’m doubly enthralled by this latest exploration into the world of agriculture because it has put me at the working face of a process I inherently distrust.
Having spent yesterday in the driver’s seat of our old David Brown 996 kicking out deep mats of soggy grass to dry with a hay bob, I have got my hands well and truly dirty. In a tiny way, I’ve had a window into the kind of work that goes into harvesting grass, and I can match my concerns for wildlife with a compelling awareness that this is a practical and pragmatic way of producing food for cattle. Most surprising of all, I’ve found that I absolutely love it all; the smell of sappy grass, the roaring hum of the tractor and the authentic (if perhaps naive) feeling that I’m physically binding myself into this landscape.
The saga surrounding my galloway cattle continues to unfurl as further doubts are raised over the potency of old Charlie, the beltie bull who came to the farm last month. I have a sneaking suspicion that the old boy has worked more often than he is letting on, but the farm he came from is willing to do a deal and will swap him for a younger animal in order to salvage something of this year’s bulling.
A replacement will come on Tuesday, and I hope that the new fellow will tie off any loose ends which still require attention. I’m very grateful to Charlie’s former owners for this, and I’m encouraged that the old boy will live out the rest of his days in retirement – there’s no doubt that he is an absolute gentleman, and I’m proud to have owned him.
But at the same time, we are now so far off Plan A that I scarcely recognise the original project. Much has changed over the last month, but I am coming to see that buying a belted galloway bull was a mistake. The thought process made sense at the time: I found myself without a suitable bull in June, and I panicked. Working on the assumption that “some calves are better than no calves”, I made a half-blind departure from my riggit project and entered the world of belted galloways as a means of rescuing a badly organised fumble.
This current situation has brought me to understand two important issues:
“Galloway” cattle are extremely varied. The name “galloway” is a cover-all for an extensive range of disparate animals, and belted galloways stand apart as a totally separate breed. Belties are perceived as fine, iconic symbols of southwest Scotland, but they’re not really my cup of tea.
I was wrong to cross my wires and assume that because they were both “galloways”, a belted galloway bull would be a good fall-back choice for a riggit heifer. The consequence of this (if not by Charlie then by his replacement) will be mis-marked “mongrel” calves next summer – I don’t regret this at all and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the challenge, but I must confess that it is a botched job. There will be no real market for the calves except as stores to be fattened and killed, and I may struggle to afford this. I will be lucky to recover my costs at the end of the process, and while I didn’t enter this project expecting to make my millions, panic and poor planning have not helped. I now have to set this error to one side and focus on what comes next.
The second (and perhaps more significant) issue is that while I admire belties, traditional type riggits really float my boat. I hadn’t realised until a visit from the Riggit Galloway Cattle Society earlier in the month that I happen to own some really excellent heifers. The visitors’ praise went beyond politeness, and I was delighted to hear resounding enthusiasm for my heifers. One beast in particular (of which more anon) was described by a few people as “perfect”, and a visitor solemnly informed me that she was “the best riggit I’ve ever seen”. I can hardly claim much credit for this, but I can’t deny that comments like these make me glow with pride. More importantly, they also help to refine my thinking.
This cattle project satisfies several criteria in my head aside from my driving passion for conservation. Entering my fourth decade, I was keen to create and develop something that I could be really proud of – something I could hang my hat on. Until recently, I didn’t recognise the significance of my genetic stock or the potential I had to do things really properly.
“Working for Grouse” is a long term project, and I hope that cows will grow to be an increasing part of it. I don’t have much money to spend, but it makes sense to me that I should focus on working with the very best pedigree livestock I can afford. This not only conforms to the idea that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, but it also makes the entire cattle project more relevant. I daresay I could achieve my conservation goals with any old ragtag bunch of misfit galloways, but building a tip-top herd of pedigree animals in tandem with my other aims would be an active endorsement of integrated land use. I am always impressed by the grouse moors which take on sheep to mop up ticks and end up not only with more grouse but also top prices for their fat lambs – everyone can be a winner with properly balanced management.
Riggit galloways are never going to be a mainstream cattle breed, but there is a universal relevance in getting the best out of your chosen breed, whether it is a Charolais or a Shetland. I need this project to be sober, focussed and relevant, otherwise I’m forever doomed to be a conservationist playing at farming. Of course there’s plenty of leeway for experimentation and fun, but a top notch end product is going to be key.
It’s become clear that once the dust has settled on this first distracted year of belted galloways, I am going to set my sights on the real prize. I already own the blueprint for the “perfect heifer”, and my challenge is to find a way of producing more. From this moment on, it’s riggit or bust.
Perhaps I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve a little too much for public consumption. In many ways, this article makes me look like an idiot, and I must admit that I have doubts about publicising my own errors. However, this is a record for me as much as it is a public forum for criticism. I’m writing this to be honest, and it wouldn’t be a very useful piece of writing if it glossed over my many and varied errors. At the same time, errors can be extremely instructive – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed chewing over these dilemmas, and (more importantly) I have learnt a great deal .
There aren’t many things which could draw me away from a day’s walked up grouse shooting, but I received a phone call yesterday afternoon which had me hurrying from the hill. I had a single grouse in the bag and was working the dog through some likely spots beneath a low bank of cloud when the phone rang in my pocket. My wife claimed to have found an escaped ferret on the track up to the farm, and she wasn’t sure what to do with it. According to her description, the little fellow was bumbling around on the road at her feet, and shortly made his way into a rabbit hole on the verge. It sounded like a curious situation, so I asked her to send me a photograph. We are both very kindly disposed towards ferrets, and the obvious next step would have been to box him up with some hay and spread the word that we had found a missing pet. When I received this photograph (above), my gun went into the slip and I ran off the hill.
It took me twenty minutes to get back to the car (during which time I saw a goshawk and recovered a fire beater which had been lost in the heather since 2012), and then a quarter of an hour in the car home. My wife had been advised to keep the “ferret” where it was until I returned, and I met her on the farm track a short while later. By this time she had realised the importance of the situation and was gamely holding her position. There are not many wives who would take almost an hour out of their Saturday to determinedly “shoo” a mink back into a rabbit warren and keep it at bay until the cavalry arrived.
The mink’s carefree demeanour had hardened into sly suspicion during his hour-long acquaintance with my wife. She had been shying clods of soil at him as he tried to leave the rabbit warren, and he had finally realised that all might not be well with the world. The little brute was underground when I arrived, and we attempted to squeak him out from cover with the hope of bringing my shotgun into play. The sound of our squeaking brought him momentarily to an unexpected hole, but he then vanished again before a shot was possible. It was only when my wife performed a pantomime act of pretending to walk off home that he was coaxed into plain sight. She stamped away shouting “oh well, I give up” and “that mink is much too smart for me” at a noisy volume, and he could scarcely resist coming out to gloat. But he hadn’t banked on there being two of us, and he received a punishing load of number 5 shot at close range. The matter was settled.
We have a good deal to lose if mink remain unchecked. We’ve had mink in our hen house before and a return visit scarcely bears thinking about, but I am equally concerned with the local wildlife on the river below the house. The reedy margins are filled with nesting mallard in the spring, and we often see kingfishers and dippers on the water. I don’t know much about water voles, but I can’t help thinking that there is some nice habitat for them along the thickly overgrown riverbanks. Local people were very enthusiastic about trapping mink ten or fifteen years ago, but this keenness has largely passed away. Mink are now far less common than they were, but even low densities have the potential to wreak havoc on sensitive species. I can’t help thinking that monitoring their numbers and running a few traps might help our native wildlife get ahead of the game.
This year more than any other I’ve been forced to pay attention to the combined impact of grass and weather. Having always had a focus on hill country and wildlife, cutting silage and making hay have often seemed like remote concerns, even though these are the founding agricultural processes which govern so much of the countryside around me. Now that I am looking to feed cattle and cut grass on my own ground, issues relating to grassland management suddenly come into sharp focus, and there is a far more obvious logic to the activity of local farmers.
We have a very small field by the house which I’m assured could yield 100 bales of hay, but that fact is irrelevant in a summer like this where rain has stopped play for several consecutive weeks. When we first moved to this new place, I planted hawthorn trees into dry, crumbling soil which needed to be watered every day. This hot period was a blip, and the summer soon foundered into sogginess. Neighbours have been able to cut and bale some pretty soggy silage into black plastic bales, but lacking the equipment to work with these stinking monsters, I have been keeping my fingers crossed for warm, dry weather to make small hay bales.
As September beckons, it now looks like I won’t get my field cut for hay this year after all, and another day of smirry rain is now blurring up the windows of my office as I type. I might be lucky to bale it for silage, but this is a far cry from my original plan. It would be easier to swallow this disappointment if the grass was serving a conservation purpose, but the field no longer seems to have much wildlife value, and the little birds rarely make use of it since it began to collapse in on itself. The overall impression is one of waste, and while many people (myself included) often complain about silage, it’s a compelling early lesson as to why these “new” techniques have taken off so dramatically.
This cattle project often feels like a diversion from my initial fixation from game and wildlife, but it continues to help me develop a far more rounded perspective on the countryside. Plus, the more I learn about farming, the more I come to realise how detached many conservationists are from the mechanics of agriculture.
Regular readers will know how fixated I have become on nightjars over the last few years, and I try and spend a few nights each summer looking and listening out for these weird birds at a handful of sites across the county.
I was recently asked to donate a Lot to the Galloway Fisheries Trust auction which takes place on Saturday 26th June, and my first reaction was to take a couple of people out to see a black grouse lek. Unfortunately, based on this year’s spring on my own ground, I’m inclined to think that this would be a chancy business. The birds were mainly all present and correct, but they were very sporadic and never came together to form a cohesive lek. It would not make for a very spectacular morning if the same were to happen again, so I decided that nightjars would make a more reliable alternative. Following discussions with the Galloway Fisheries Trust, I decided to offer the following and I post this here on the offchance that it may be interesting to a Working for Grouse reader. All proceeds to a very worthy cause.
Lot 87: Nightjar Experience
An evening’s trip to hear (and hopefully see) nightjars, some of the most extraordinary birds in Britain. Nightjars are famous for their weird, mechanical display calls which whirr and hum in the warm summer night. Beautifully camouflaged and usually very hard to find, nightjars come out to hunt over the heather for moths and midges in the twilight. Calling birds create an unforgettable atmosphere in the half darkness, particularly when the sound coincides with roding woodcock, glow worms and other late-night specialists. This hour-long guided walk is led by author and nature writer Patrick Laurie. The trip will take place at one of a few good locations within a 40 minute drive of Newton Stewart and should be made in late May or early June 2018 – precise details will be arranged nearer the time and will be dictated by the nightjars! A short walk may be required, and a midge net is absolutely essential…
An opening bid of £100
If the winning bidder comes via this blog, I might even throw in a pint and something to eat in the pub beforehand. Plenty of other good lots to browse in the meantime!
Summer continues to crash and burn with every passing day. As if from nowhere, a flock of lapwings has appeared in the fields by the river, and they flop lazily back and forth across the landscape, accompanied by teams of starlings and rooks. None of these birds were here ten days ago, and the lapwings’ calls provided a beautifully chilling accompaniment to a late night expedition to catch a sea trout at the weekend. Their wingbeats thrummed overhead, and a few late night mallard whistled to and fro against a mass of stars.
For the briefest moment, I had a sea trout on the line. Bats flickered along the water, and the rod bent dangerously to the bubbling tune of water beneath our bridge. I caught a flash of iridescent silver, then the line went slack again. The finnock had come when my mind was elsewhere, and as I tried to cast again, I caught my fly on a willow tree. It is a pattern of negligence and over-enthusiasm which characterises all my fishing exploits, and it was made all the more frustrating by knowing how close I had finally come to success. The lapwings continued to call in the gloom, and I correctly guessed that I had missed my chance for the evening.