Welcome Dominic

Dominic strikes a pose

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.

Cutting Grass

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Things that roar in the night

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.

More to come, as always.

Bulling Trials Continue

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Chaos and panic breed a sudden burst of clarity

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 .

A sight worth working for – riggit heifers shine through

Wet Summer

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A mass of unused grass

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.

A Charity Nightjar

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Great picture from FCS

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!

Lapwings in the dark

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The perfect accompaniment

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.

Turnip Scarifier

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Can’t wait to find out what this does

In the confusion of a recent farm sale, my father and I both thought that the other was responsible for buying a turnip scarifier. After the heady triumph of securing both drill plough and seed drill, lines of communication broke down and the scarifier ended up going for a song to an Irishman. This was frustrating, as following my father’s lead, I understood that the three implements work together as a team. I must put my hand on my heart and admit that I don’t know how a scarifier actually works, but I am determined to try drilled turnips and I am told that scarification is something to do with keeping down weeds when they grow in the rows. Beyond that, it’s all a mystery waiting to be uncovered. We won’t be planting anything until next year, but I feel I currently have the wind behind me and I wanted to lock down this part of the project now.

To fill the void, I searched on eBay for another scarifier and was only able to find one equivalent. Almost unbelievably, it was less than an hour away; when you live in Galloway, things are very rarely found within a four or five hour drive. I ended up spending more than twice what I might have got away with at the farm sale, but I was particularly gratified to find that the machine had been made in Kelso. Gone are the days when local implements were produced in local foundries, and I liked this little piece of Scottish history for more than its immediate (and somewhat ambiguous) purpose. Three of the four discs have seized and there is a little work to be done on it, but I was pleased to have finished the job. We now just need a small plough and the world will be our oyster. Or turnip.

As a postscript, it was great to meet the seller in his yard three or four miles over the border into England. We chatted briefly as he loaded the scarifier into my trailer, and I couldn’t help stumbling over his extraordinary Cumbrian accent. He happily talked about lonnings and gadgers, following every sentence with “eh?”, even when it wasn’t a question. As I headed back into Scotland, I had time to think about how beautifully delineated and self-contained accents are in this part of the world, as if there was some kind of invisible barrier which prevents mingling.

Poult Progress

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Partridge poults at eight weeks old

My partridge chicks are still thriving at eight weeks old, and they are beginning to develop into their adult plumage as the summer begins to slide into autumn. The first flecks of powder blue breast feathers appeared last week, and now they are starting to show the fragmented foundations of chestnut bars on their flanks. They all escaped a few days ago, and it was impressive to see them flying powerfully off into the middle distance like adult birds. Thankfully they returned within an hour or two, and were soon picking around the yard with their mother. The youngsters have been separated from the broody now, and I gather that she has started to lay eggs again. The bond which held them all together is now broken, and these little birds are well on their way to independence.

In the meantime, they are so active and wild that it’s almost impossible to photograph them – that much is clear from this blurry, out-of-focus attempt (above).

Bulling Trials

Is Charlie working?

It is three weeks since Charlie the bull arrived on the farm, and it has been a mixed story so far. His painful feet have not improved, and it has emerged that there is something bothering his rear left leg. It’s almost impossible to gauge how serious this problem is because it is masked by his antiquity and his stubborn refusal to show any weakness.

When he first rises or begins to move after a prolonged period of stasis, he makes for a chilling spectacle. His gait is jarring, slow and he seems to be heavily lame – the prospect of him surviving even another few hours seems remote. But after a short stroll, he soon begins to loosen up and his movement becomes much more fluid. I made him move from a lying position last week and heard every joint in his spine popping as he rolled over and stood up – he looked every inch the tired old man. I always knew that buying an old bull was going to be a gamble, and I have had to face the possibility several times over the last few days that he is effectively too crippled to work.

It was interesting to receive a visit from the Riggit Galloway Cattle Society on Wednesday (of which more anon) during which I invited thirty knowledgeable delegates for their opinions on whether or not Charlie was working and was capable of getting the heifers in calf. Opinion was extremely mixed, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that Charlie was on extremely poor form. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look so lame, and my heart sank to think that my gamble made me look like an outright idiot in front of some highly esteemed guests.

Reaction from the Society members was mixed but had a general trend towards the gloomy. Many people declared that they would be surprised if Charlie was working at all, but several said that it’s impossible to tell and one said that he’d had calves from a far less mobile bull. I was effectively reduced to my original situation – that I’ve taken a gamble, things don’t look very rosy but I’m a long way from disaster. Quite apart from the Society, friends and knowledgeable family members have shown a reserved optimism, and I choose to remain upbeat.

On the plus side, cow fertility works on a three week cycle. I never saw Charlie actually mounting a heifer, but I noted down the dates when he showed interest in and pursued each of the females. If they are not pregnant, the first heifers will start to cycle again this weekend, and I will have the first clues as to whether or not Charlie is working. I feel like I am clutching at straws a little, but I take considerable encouragement from the fact that he seems to have lost interest in the heifers over the last forty eight hours. He now lies away from them, and they don’t seem interested in pursuing him as they did. The worst case scenario is that he is now too lame even to remain in the running, but it is equally possible that he has done his job and the heifers have no further use for him. This seems fairly optimistic, but it is worth recording as a strange break in continuity.

I will be disappointed if I don’t get any calves from Charlie, but it will hardly be the end of the world. This project is more for pleasure and exploration than it is for profit, and a missed year of calving is more of a setback than a crisis. If I moved quickly, I could set up contingency plans and emergency bulls to ensure I have calves in 2018. Perhaps I will look into some of these avenues over the next ten days… more updates will follow.

Oil Inspiration

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Bull Moose, by Carl Rungius, 1869 – 1959

I go through cyclical phases of enthusiasm for artwork, and I’ve spent the last three years in an agonised frenzy working to set down some of the notes from this blog through the medium of oil and canvas.

Maddeningly, I’ve consistently failed to reach a standard which would allow me to have the confidence to share this work, and most of it has been painted out and abandoned in the back of my office. It would be easy to abandon this painting ambition altogether if I felt that I was able to communicate all that I see through words alone, but I so often spot things in art which have no direct translation into text. Having recently adopted a new approach which aims to keep things very simple, I have gone into painting overdrive and hope to publish some of this work on this blog before too long.

The really relevant point here is that my painting has led me through a variety of profoundly inspiring artists who all seem to provoke an urgent creative response. I am particularly fixated on a German American hunter called Carl Rungius, whose early Twentieth Century paintings of wildlife in the wild American west are enough to make my hair stand on end. If Rungius is recognised as the artist who represents Big Skies and Rockie Mountains, how might someone go about doing similar for the wild back country of Galloway? There’s plenty to ponder and a vast amount of work to do.