A Bull Beneath the Stars

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 15.34.30
Clouds of hot breath in the frost

I have sold my bull.

We struck a deal on Thursday, and arrangements were made to collect Caerlaverock Dominic at first light the following morning. A thick frost fell overnight. I picked my way up the hill beneath a gallery of stars and exchanged my car for a quad bike. The shed door rolled back on its runners as a dozen wigeon came pouring past overhead. They had come from inland and now rushed down to the Solway to roost, whooping like Apache outriders. It was six thirty.

Dominic had to be ready for the lorry in less than an hour. The cattle pens were open to receive him, but he was three fields away on unfamiliar ground. I had moved all the heifers through with him at dusk the previous evening, but these fields are rough, broken and covered in gorse. My first challenge would be to find the beasts in the dark.

I clasped a half-filled bag of beef nuts between my knees and trundled out from the shed into the cold blue fields, feeling my way in the darkness. A cold yellow glow provided backlighting to the Lake District – the shapes of Skiddaw and Buttermere glowered over the Solway as I gained altitude and paused to open each gate in turn, leaving dark fingerprints in the icy bars. I reached the fields where Dominic had been left and began to shout and shake the bag of food. The old boy is a sucker for beef nuts, and the sound of a rattling bag is enough to set his pulse racing.

The quad bike rolled to a halt, and suddenly I was surrounded by animals – great broadsides of black, steaming hair beneath the stars. The cattle moved half-seen around me, silhouetted against the Solway; black shapes breathing sweet cud into the stillness. Folds of landscape conspired to hide every spark of electric light so that aside from the quad bike, this scene might have been playing out in the sixteenth century. Dominic nosed his massive muzzle into my hip, and I recalled a sudden sense of fear – bulls are not friends, and even the gentlest movement can crush human bones.

The beasts were keen, and I nosed the bike ahead and began to shout and rattle the bag. They took the bait and crowded behind me, but some freak of excitement and enthusiasm spurred their interest into an avalanche. Dominic tossed his head and began to stampede down the hill. I picked up speed and he came along too, puffing and rollicking along beside me. The heifers joined him, and they fed on his excitement; they kicked their heels and rolled their eyes until the frozen soil fairly rumbled beneath them. Clods of icy mud flew against the stars; I was driving inside a heaving mass of living meat – four tons of beef bellowed and rumbled within arm’s reach.

On the final stretch to the pens, the pre-dawn landscape opened out before me in the gloaming – a rolling spread of gorse, oak wood and white moorland for thirty miles. I shouted and cheered the beasts on, finding that I could almost have cried with delight. These were my animals; my galloways, and this was my landscape; my Galloway. I was drawn to farming for so many reasons, but I can’t deny the appeal of belonging; of driving my fingers into the soil and fitting inside a mechanism I have loved all my life. The beasts ran head of me, and soon I was pouring their feed into a trough in the pens. The trap was closed, and they milled happily around me in the muck as I closed the gate and prepared for the cattle lorry.

Daylight came slowly, and I had time to drink coffee from a flask as the darkness finally fell away. A goshawk had been working up the edge of the forest, and crows gathered nearby to pour abuse on the invisible hunter. Robins tinked through the brambles, and a raucous wren raged in the sloes.

At last the lorry came, and I climbed into the pen to push Dominic on towards the lowering gate. This bull is easy to work with, but he needs a careful hand. He turned at one stage and looked set to come back on me, but the lorry driver hopped round to join me and soon the bull was clattering up the ramp. Fear is not a requisite of farming, but there have been several moments in the last six months when I have been genuinely afraid – primarily of heavy machinery, but also of livestock. I have always occupied a world where fear is a strange thing; I am a wimp, but now I relish this buzz.

A bundle of cash crinkled in my pocket – payment for the driver, and a reminder that this is more than just a bit of fun. Passports and documentation were passed into the lorry’s cab, and Dominic began his journey through a network of links and connections which would ultimately bring him to his new home in Oxfordshire. The lorry driver would then head on to Devon. I realized that I had become a pin in the map – a participant. It was a tiny arrival.

I have craved a sense of engagement with this landscape – a hands-on relevance which makes me more than just a visitor, an onlooker or a tourist in my own home. Here was a glimpse of what that might be like; an active sense of belonging in a working, living landscape. I didn’t rush off to work as the sun finally rose and burnt the frost off the rushes; I was already working – working with ancient animals in an ancient landscape. I had made extraordinary progress.

Advertisements

Thrush Flesh

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 18.10.40.png
Part of a female blackbird

The landscape is now crowded with thrushes of every shape and size. The invasion began with a few softly spoken phrases on the edge of hearing; flights of redwings against the moon. Matched with a flight or two of wigeon, these were pleasing, gentle signs of progress into autumn. Within a few hours, all subtlety was gone. The brown, nondescript shapes were bolstered by regiments of flaring blue fieldfares which chattered angrily against the naked thorns. It was not long before we were outmanoeuvred and overwhelmed.

All that we held dear in early September has been cast into the wind, and swallows have become little more than a dream. The time has come for woodsmoke, frost and a million scandinavian migrants – I feel the weight of them crowding over the farm as I type these words. Amidst this torrent of birdflesh, there are some odd gems. An immaculate ring ouzel flipped across the road as I drove out to check on the cattle last week – he was tagging along with a crowd of fieldfares, and his migration will soon take him far off to the Mediterranean coast. He was simply trapped in a whirling mess of thrushes, but I’m sure the seasons will soon return him to the job in hand.

The migrants are enjoying the summer’s growth of berries, but there are some benefits for the homegrown wildlife. We found the remains of a female blackbird on the hill this morning – probably one of thousands freshly arrived from Scandinavia. All the signs seemed to suggest that she had been the victim of a merlin, and we were able to reassemble some recognisable parts from three distinct tussocks within a twelve foot radius – here were the back legs and tail – there was the breastbone and guts. Notably, we even found the blackbird’s face, complete with her beak – the skull had been cracked open from behind and the brain slurped out just a few hours before we passed by. How many of these birds suffer the long trip over the North Sea only to become raptor fat? A merlin will often feed several times from the same kill, so we placed the pieces back where we found them and moved on.

In the same breath, we found a jack snipe in the heather – the first of the year. The tubby little fellow fluttered up over the rattling asphodel cases and immediately dipped back in to land again. It was fascinating to think that this little bird might well have flown from the same aapa mires in Finland which we explored earlier in the month, 1,500 miles away in the distant North.

Blue Greys

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 09.48.51
Blue greys beneath an open roof

The weather is almost guaranteed to be horrendous in Newcastleton during the last week in October. Rain falls in blue curtains over the landscape, turning the burns into writhing white ribbons. Langholm Moor glowers over the town – miles of red, autumnal grass lie vulnerable beneath banks of cloud and mist. Black grouse lurk through cushions of moss and bracken, and the hills drip cold like a dungeon.

The Great Annual Sale of blue grey cattle takes place at Newcastleton every autumn. It is the oldest suckler cattle sale in Britain, and it has been held in the same auction ring since the 1880s. Bleak, autumnal weather adds to the spectacle of the sale. Bidders and spectators gather in a tight crowd as the beasts begin to stir and are organised into their lots. The sale is lit by an open roof, and dull, natural light floods in from a glowering sky above. It is difficult to imagine the sale on a crisp, sunny day – it would hardly work without waterproof leggings and heavy jackets. Steaming teams of hairy cows are poured in to the ring like ingredients. They are stirred and kneaded by men in blue jackets, and their owners walk slowly behind them, bearing expressions of pained resignation. The wooden walls bear faded, tatty remnants of Edwardian advertisements between patches of mildew and mould.

Of course the bidding is mysterious and unreadable. This is a world of poker-faced subtlety. If you can attract the auctioneer’s attention with a single throbbing vein, then you’re almost a man, my son. Protocol dictates that all faces around the ring should be left utterly blank, but allowances are sometimes made for expressions of despair and boredom. In this game, triumph and defeat run in screaming riot behind a screen of pessimistic indifference. After four centuries of determined Presbyterianism in the Southern Uplands, this is a masterclass in suppressed emotion.

Blue greys are a living symbol of co-operation. The animals are a first generation mix between a black galloway cow and a white shorthorn bull. In theory, the hybrid calf takes on the best characteristics of both hardy mother and productive father, and the heifers are sought after as breeding animals for commercial farms. Blue greys have had a bumpy ride over the last thirty years – many of their best characteristics have been ignored or forgotten in the modern rollercoaster of commercial beef production. It was really nice to see blue greys selling for good money at Newcastleton, because so much of this traditional farm heritage has withered and died, even in my lifetime. The prices showed that these animals are still relevant.

Studying Scottish Language at Glasgow almost ten years ago, I was struck by a series of lectures which argued that “Scotland” and “England” are clumsy terms. It makes far more sense to divide the two into three countries: “The Highlands” north of the Highland line, “the North” between Edinburgh and Hull, and “the Lowlands” from Hull to the Channel.

I can really subscribe to this idea, particularly when you remember how arbitrary and recent the current border is between Scotland and England. I see more of Galloway in Cumbria than I do in Sutherland. The blue grey symbolises this theoretical “North”, combining the best characteristics of the Northumbrian shorthorn with the Scottish galloway, and these are important connections. The mart at Newcastleton was a babel of regional accents during the blue grey sale, with clashing twangs of Wigtownshire and Lancashire, Cumbria and Durham. The smell of chips and onion gravy blurred with cow shit and hot axle mud. Long may these blends continue.

DSC07902.JPG
The ingredients: A white shorthorn bull and a black galloway cow

Taiga

DSC08247.JPG
Plunging into the heart of darkness

Taiga is the Russian word for forest. It’s a hard, fearsome word which is generally used to describe the vast ring of trees which runs around the top of the globe. The taiga spills out from Russia into Scandinavia and over the Bering Strait to Canada. The taiga occupies more space on Planet Earth than “jungle” or “desert”, but it rarely invades our consciousness. The taiga prefers to lurk on the fringes – a kind of dreamscape populated by snow, trees and the howling of wolves. Perhaps we don’t often look at the taiga because we don’t want to see it.

British landscapes are commonly made up of two or three distant, horizontal lines. Finland is defined by an endless barcode of verticality. Within an hour’s drive north from the Finnish city of Oulo, the relentless forest began to feel claustrophobic. My personal space was being invaded by trees. I felt breathless, and would have paid good money for some altitude and a clear view. Early October is the Finnish “ruska” – a time when the woods come to life in autumnal colour. As we crossed the Arctic Circle and neared our destination, aspens roared like bonfires against the dark conifers.

In my country, woods are fussily contained by fences and walls – trees are held at bay in an otherwise open landscape. In Finland, the effect is reversed. Fields are dug out of the taiga, and the narrow strips of agricultural land wage a constant war against incursion from birch seeds and aspen suckers. Much of Finland’s ancient taiga has been managed, felled and worked at some stage in human history, but my impression of Finnish forestry was extremely harmonious. The Finns are pushing at an open door, working alongside natural processes. How different this is from Britain’s “spreadsheet/tax relief” approach, in which every tree lives and dies with the clockwork certainty of oilseed rape.

Despite Finland’s managed landscape, there are many places which have not changed since the last glaciers died. Wrinkled logistics have conspired to keep these places safe from axes and chainsaws. Finnish forests are so rich and extensive that the Finns have never had to hunt down and consume every splinter of wood as we did in Scotland, and managed forests run seamlessly alongside their ancient ancestors.

We entered the taiga on foot near the small town of Luosto. A narrow path led us away from daylight and deep into the forest. At first we were fixated upon the details. A few waxwings trilled past overhead, and we combed through a carpet of berries like children in a sweetshop. There was blaeberry, cloudberry and crowberry; islands of variety scattered in a candy-pink ocean of cowberry – red, glossy jewels like pomegranate seeds.

Here was an excessive fruitbowl of colours, textures and flavours, and there were ant nests which were taller than we were – we took photographs of one another standing alongside the massive mounds of munched-up needles.

Tall, looming spruces gathered round us and oozed their sappy scents into the mixture. It was easy to imagine that we were in some enchanted temple, and we immediately fell to speaking in hushed whispers. As long as we lingered within a mile or two of the car, reindeer bells clanked gently through the stillness to remind us of humanity. A little further along, silence fell like a thick velvet curtain.

I became less aware of fine details and began to feel for a sense of space and atmosphere. After eight miles across broken ground, my legs started to feel tired and my mood dropped. Excitement and elation blurred with weariness and gloom. I paused to ponder my surroundings and found that this forest seesawed between extremes.

Finland is home to an extraordinary variety of birdlife in the summer months. Many of Europe’s most charismatic birds travel to the far north to breed, but this tide has receded by time that leaves begin to fall. Aside from an occasional crossbill or waxwing, the heart of this forest was shatteringly empty. And yet it was still possible to imagine some places as they would have been in summer. Although empty, some parts of the forest seemed fillable – they had a capacity for life. In contrast, other parts were cold and utterly still, as if nothing had ever prospered there. A forester’s clipboard would register both as identical – the trees were similarly sound and comparably distributed, but as I moved between the trunks, I swung between pleasure and hollow, dank terror.

Jays came to us in the emptiest stretch of our walk. We had paused for a moment in a maze of spruce trees, and suddenly the air was stirred by the action of soft, spectral wings. Siberian jays are renowned for their fearlessness, and the little birds came silently out from the darkness like flakes of living snow. One bird landed above my head and hopped down a branch towards me. The little imp paused on a bony twig and bobbed his tail. I could have reached out to touch him. Trailing strands of lichen stirred in the stillness like a dead infant’s hair.

Every feather was moulded in the softest gossamer. For a terrible moment, I half expected the bird to whisper something to me. He would have a child’s voice. The hackles rose on the back of my neck – his confidence was repellent. I recoiled from the steady spark in his eye, and then within a second or two, the group had floated back into the forest as if the entire purpose of their visit was to depart and leave us even more alone. The enchanted forest somehow grew deeper and more chilling over the next two miles.

On a final, uplifting pull back to the car, we climbed up through banks of scree and snow-shattered scots pines. A hole opened in the canopy, and I had a sudden view to the east. Cloud growled over the even, steady landscape, but there was nothing except smirry rain between me and the enormity of Russia. This forest runs all the way to Mongolia and beyond. In the old days, it would have run across the land bridge and all the way to Canada’s Atlantic coast. Bears become possible on a grand canvas like this. Here (and perhaps only here) was a suitable backdrop to dream of wolves. I felt very small.

My imagined taiga had become real in a manner both thrilling and foul. Reindeer bells welcomed us back to the world, and soon we emerged abruptly onto a forest track. The spell was broken. My European DNA originated in places like these, and there were aspects of profound familiarity in the deep taiga. But if you are looking for true wilderness, be careful what you wish for.

DSC08307.JPG
Siberian jay –

Crab Apples

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 09.45.01
Seedbank: crab apples soaking with some haws before extracting their seeds

I can’t resist making plans for the future on our new piece of farmland. I’ve already planted one length of hedge, and this is just the beginning of a grander plan to link the fields together in a system of thick hedgerows which can be laid and managed for wildlife. All of this work is undertaken under a tight budget, so I have decided to try and grow as many of the trees I need myself from local seeds. This has been an ambition of mine for a while, and aside from my own tightfistedness, I am also drawn in by the idea that local trees have local provenance – guidebook descriptions of tree species are blurred by infinite variety, hybridisation and fine genetic nuance. Rather than import trees en masse from a nursery, I want to work with the species and the genetic materials that are already on site.

This idea was driven home to me at the very start of this project when I began to look at birch trees. Unsure whether to plant downy birch or silver birch trees as part of my first plantation for black grouse, I consulted with a local tree specialist and found that the two species can hybridise and simply represent two ends of the same scale. Each area has its own birch tree inasmuch as local conditions call for a different blend of silver and downy DNA. Most of the birch trees in soggy old Galloway are made up mainly of downy birch, but they do have some characteristics of silver birch. Compare this blend with the birches in dry parts of Angus which have classic white bark and drooping bundles of twigs – they look like archetypal “silvers”, but even these have some aspects of “downy” in them – the sliding ratio depends on region rather than species.

I have been fascinated with crab apple trees for years, and I was gripped to read an article in Reforest Scotland magazine about how our native apple tree has been hybridising with domesticated apple trees for generations. In fact, pure Malus Sylvestris is actually quite hard to find, but there are some major strongholds in Galloway. Having done a little research over the last few weeks, I think I’ve found some pretty pure specimens in the woods below the house, and I’ve been agonising over fine, tiny details of foliage. These trees are stunning old characters which are currently littering the ground around them with foully sour little fruit, and I dimly remember sprays of their blossom being pillaged by bullfinches in the spring.

It took a fair investment of time to extract seeds from a bag of these hard crab apples, but I now have a punnet of almost 200 which can be sown and grown in 2018. I’ve also gathered several hundred haws from the hawthorns, and I hope that these will form the bulk of the project. Crab apples are renowned for being scrubby, gnarled little trees which are often found in hedges, and I hope that (if they prosper), these trees will add some nice variety to my future hedge work. At the same time, the photographs in the Reforest Scotland magazine show a particularly fine crab apple tree which has been allowed to grow to full size, and the result is surprisingly spectacular. Crab apples are traditionally associated with cattle pastures, so I will try and clear some space for a full-size tree or two amongst the galloways over the next couple of years.

I have opted for the most native and traditional breed of cattle, so it’s only logical that in future decades they should flick their tails beneath the most native and traditional species of tree…

Bull for Sale

DSC07925
The man himself

I am now working on the assumption that my heifers are pregnant. It is still too soon to have them properly tested, but there have been no signs of hormonal “bulling” for several weeks, and Dominic the bull has taken a noticeable step back from proceedings.

Dominic has produced many fine offspring in his life, so there is no real reason to doubt that calves are now on their way. The time is right to find a new home for the fine young beltie bull, and the process has been accelerated by the fact that he now seems to be losing a good deal of weight and condition. I understand that this is only normal for bulls in his situation, but there has been a noticeable shift from his original “muscular curves” to a kind of fighting-fit angularity. There is no doubt that he is a very fine animal, and he belongs with somebody who can keep him in a style befitting his status; it would be disappointing to see him drop any further out of condition.

This summer’s work with bulls has provided me with a very steep learning curve. Looking to the future with the knowledge of a riggit bull on the way, it is clear that I will have to “raise my game” if I intend to keep a bull properly. I don’t think I have over-reached and I have the capacity to expand and develop my operations, but it is clear that you cannot simply “dabble” with breeding stock – it’s a major commitment and needs to be done properly. Part of me recoils from this next level of engagement, but another part says “bring it on”…

The annual belted galloway sale takes place at Wallets Marts in Castle Douglas in two weeks. The sale catalogue was closed over a month ago, so I missed the chance to list Dominic and see him sold through the ring. I have listed him for sale privately, and I hope that as the belted galloway world descends upon Castle Douglas, one or two interested parties may also be tempted to travel another five miles for a look at Dominic. There is a great deal to play for, and the process is guaranteed to be fun and informative.

In the meantime, I cannot quite overlook the fact that this moment represents a significant departure from belted galloways. I’ve written at length on this blog about my increasing focus on riggits, but as I start to move away from the famous “belties”, I’m quietly confident about the fact that my future has a stripe down its back.

I would be very grateful if any readers of this blog could spread the word regarding this sale. My small herd is always open to visitors, and I would welcome any interested parties if they wanted to come and see the “man of the hour”.

Screen Shot 2017-10-12 at 12.18.16
I’ll just pop this advert here…

A Trio of Partridges

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 19.59.27.png
Trio

I can hardly resist sharing this picture of the three partridges which are still hanging around the farmyard. It was a dull afternoon with horrible weak light for photography, but the little birds made a nice little set together.

They often venture quite far afield during the day, and it has been exciting to flush them by accident once or twice when walking the dogs. The little birds whirr away like sparrows, and they make a fine spectacle flying against the rough countryside which is slowly becoming ever more familiar. They always return to jug in the front garden every night, and the partridges which remain in their pen are probably serving as a reliable anchor to prevent anyone straying too far from home. Covey dynamics will change as the winter progresses, and I will need to keep an eye on this situation.