A Bustle in my Hedgerow

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The Winter Hare by Andrew Haslen – love this picture even more after the last few days

The first thing I did was plant a hedge.

Within three hours of collecting the keys from the estate agent, I was digging in a line ofhawthorn whips. I had hardly been inside our new house, and focused instead on more important matters. Much of my conservation work is characterized by impatience; a refusal to postpone. There is no time like the present, particularly when it comes to projects which may take years to reach fruition.

Hedges are best planted in February and March. This was late April, and the conditions looked poor for the young trees. The ground was baked hard by days of dry weather, and the bare-root plants were parched and tired. Some of the twigs had produced pale, sickly buds and several of the young tree bundles were on the edge of exhaustion. If I didn’t act quickly, I would not only miss a year but I would also lose some fine young trees.

The rain refused to come for days. I fell to watering the young hawthorns by hand, watching the water gurgle down into the deep spade slots. The trees slumped and foundered for a fortnight, held on life support. Some seemed to die, and I wondered if I had been a victim of my over-enthusiasm. I balanced this fear with the certainty that hedges are a cornerstone of agricultural conservation. I’ve planted long stretches of hedgerow over the past ten years, and these have been extremely useful for wildlife. Lessons learnt on the Chayne and elsewhere would surely apply to this new place, which seemed to have all kinds of quality habitats but lacked dense hedge cover. Even if I failed in 2017, I had made a start.

When the rain finally came, the young trees slowly came to life. They put out a few cursory leaves, and I was astonished to find that less than 1% had died. After a poor start, the plants did little more than hold their ground for the rest of the summer. Few grew more than an inch or two. Their worst experience came when I accidentally trashed a handful of them with the hay bob in early September, but after the grass had been bundled up and carried away, the young hedge was enshrined in a new stockproof fence.

We do not have much space here, and the fence was a necessary evil. I wanted the hedge to be wide enough to offer a meaningful grass margin, but this came at a cost to the area of workable land. If we make hay in this field again in 2018, I will be at least twenty bales short. This is a pity, but I am fascinated to find myself facing trade-off between productivity and conservation – it’s a well-known dilemma.

Our sheep grazed the hayfield all through the autumn. They mowed down the resurgent grass until it was reduced to a sour yellow stubble. The hedge thickened inside the fence. The grass grew deep and green around the young trees, safe from hungry mouths.

There are hares on the low ground, and I had hoped that this hedge and others would lure them up around the farmhouse. Cover, food, shelter and variety offer a strong attraction for all kinds of wildlife, but so much of this will come as the hedge matures. I am working for the future, and I have to accept that these processes work over decades.

Having braced myself for a long wait, I could hardly believe my eyes when I found a hare in the hedge on Boxing Day. The tired, bow-backed shape slipped beneath the wire and loped away through the frost, and I was left reeling with delight. It would be ludicrous to claim that this short section of new hedge has already made a meaningful impact on the local hare population, but there’s now good grazing where there was none before. This is the first hare we have seen up here in almost nine months, and his visit was no coincidence.

Conservation is founded upon dialogue with nature. Having said my piece and established a hedge, it is infinitely satisfying to find that a hare has responded. A nudge like this provides all the encouragement I need to push on with further hedging in 2018.

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The Shortest Day

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Drab and bleak from the kitchen window, but change is on the way

After a cold fortnight, the shortest day broke mild and grey.

I peered through an open window in the darkness. The morning felt warm and some geese were passing in the cloud. Fields clicked and chattered as they drained the night’s rain, and drips plopped off gutters in the yard. A pair of tractor headlights moved on the distant hill, and a single snipe called noisily – a harsh, rasping sound on the edge of music. Our cockerel answered from the shed, and his din made the tin roof ring.

Snipe vanished from the glen when the weather was cold, but they returned within hours of the thaw. I took the dogs to check my snares before breakfast and found the half-light filled with noisy waders.

Our stretch of the river was straightened many years ago, but the labourers were unable to iron out the old bends. The river now follows a perfect line through the dark soil, but you can still see where the old waterway used to play in swampy, tangled loops. Heavy rain can bring the old river back to life – subtle contours flood again and become strings of narrow pools; pouchy old veins which bristle with reeds. While the new river rushes water briskly out to sea; the old one hoards the rain and refuses to let go.

Snipe cluster in these haunted, sodden corners. The dogs flushed thirty birds from a short section of the pools as the day brightened. Drainage tiles were arranged across these fields to bail water into the river, but after years of service they are beginning to fail. The terracotta pipes are breaking and the water has started to flow backwards. Without urgent human intervention, the river will begin to resume its ancient course – the snipe pray for regression.

The bull calf bellowed when he heard me after breakfast. His shyness has vanished, and he feeds from my hand. A metal bucket is his dinner gong, and he tossed his head when I stepped into his line of sight. He views the world through a square cinderblock doorway as if it were a cinema screen. The day flickers in a sequence of polaroid photographs;  alternating phases of blue, grey and darkness. But he can watch the wild swans on the silage fields, and his nights are haunted by the comings and goings of owls.

Everyone agrees that he’d be better outdoors, but there are advantages to this early confinement. He might roll his eyes and moan, but there are worse places in this world and he can settle here without coming to harm. Dull days and low cloud have reduced him to a dark silhouette against the straw. There are no electric lights, but we can see that he has a fine head; it is heavy and square like a belfast sink. The curls grow so thick on his brow that they swallow my hand to the wrist. It is hard to find fault with him.

A starling died at noon. I watched the peregrine peeling its corpse from the kitchen window as I fried an egg. The day was already over, and the fields began to recede beneath a veil of thin, chesty cloud. Later I would find most of the starling’s skull amongst a mess of feathers – a glossy ball which reminded me of a cape gooseberry; a discarded garnish.

Darkness is relative in a world without light, but night fell with a rush of wildfowl. Wigeon whooped joyfully in the deep blue, and snipe and teal flared over the sheds as I chopped firewood. I ducked under the low lintel of the byre and scratched the pigs between their ears as one of the owls drifted by outside, skirling noisily into the smirr. Swirling rain danced like smoke in the light of the kitchen window and lacquered the granite setts of the yard. It was only four thirty. A vixen screamed for attention on the moss. The dogs coughed a response for a moment, then jostled past my knees and back to the hot stove.

From this distance, summer feels like another place. I can hardly remember cuckoos or swallows, but the darkening has now slipped into reverse. Months of gradual compression will now begin to relax, and daylight will leak back into our lives. The first larks usually sing on Valentine’s day in Galloway – less than eight weeks away. It will be several weeks before human beings can register the lengthening days, but the shift has been clocked by others.

but the devil was in them…

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Butter wouldn’t melt, but movement has troughs to match the peaks

I am drawing together my new book from many disparate and confusing threads. It’s a delight, but it’s hard to pare down a mountain of raw material into something with a coherent structure and narrative. More on this to come, but I can’t resist publishing a quick excerpt from my notes which raised a smile.

It didn’t seem very funny at the time, but there are some truths here which might ring a bell with anyone who has tried to work with livestock on their own, particularly within the jarring confines of a nasty hangover. It sits nicely alongside my aim to live in this landscape “as if my life depended upon it”, and perhaps the misery is as instructive as the fun.

For a little context, I was trying to move galloways off the hill and down into the handling pens, but as I noted earlier in my endless stream of words, “the devil was in them…”

I was losing the ability to think clearly. I yelled and fell, and then I fell again. Each fall made me angrier, and soon I was sweating and swearing with incoherent rage, grinding my teeth and lashing my stick at the thistle heads. A sensible farmer would have seen that the task was impossible, but I had passed beyond the point of reason.

At length I cornered four beasts and tried to work them on towards the next gate, but the others ran out of sight into the cloud. The four seemed to submit and began to move downhill – I was on the verge of success, but in running to steer them I tripped for a third time and crashed into a frozen pool. The beasts turned on me and doubled back as flakes of grey ice spattered on my face. I lay still and felt the ground rumble as the bastard animals galloped back the way we had come, kicking their heels and hacking with excitement.

Rain drummed on my back. I found my hand next to my face and examined the red, sodden knuckles as if they belonged to somebody else. I was in pieces. Ice began to seep into the gap between my torso and legs. The horizon swayed. There was grit in my mouth.

My fury would wane on the short walk home, but now I was dizzy and the stench of last night’s gin was tainted with the first nip of vomit. A snotty dribble ran off my nose and ambled sideways over my cheek. I rolled over onto one side, and half a pint of slush wandered curiously into my wellie.

I couldn’t see any cows as I slowly stood up. Dark cloud had come down in deep folds until it smothered the beds of raw, angry bracken on the hill. I tried to imagine fun in this godawful place; to dredge up some happy memories of summer and daylight. I couldn’t.

Godwit’s Arrival

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The new bull calf, photographed from below to make him seem grander…

Of all the monumental moments recorded in the annals of Working for Grouse, the arrival of Stonehouse Godwit surely ranks amongst the most significant.

Small, wide-eyed and profoundly disoriented, the little beast hardly cuts a significant figure, penned as he is in the back of our woodshed. There is more than enough space for him in his new abode, but I get an odd thrill to imagine how he will expand over the next few years to achieve his full potential.

Godwit comes from a fine line of superb cattle. Riggit galloways occupy a small corner of a tiny niche; even galloway breeders consider them to be quite obscure. But while the animals struggle to command a meaningful market value, a vast amount of work has gone into making them solid performers – they have all the characteristics which made galloways famous across the world fifty years ago, but they’re more than just a historical gimmick – modern traits are there too, and the breed is moving with the times. Godwit’s father Hatherland Finlay won major awards at the Dumfries Show in 2016, and his success has blazed a trail for the breed. I could not have found a better animal to take on as my bull, and his pedigree rings with “famous” names from many of the most significant breeders and herds in Britain.

My main concern is that I should do him justice. I feel like a seventeen year old learner driver being handed the keys to a Formula One car. Much will depend on how I handle the youngster in the next few months and bring him into adulthood, and this is a daunting challenge. In all the chatter, excitement and enthusiasm this young bull has generated since his arrival, a friend joked about the start of a new “dynasty”. He was mocking me; of course it’s a ridiculously overblown and arrogant word, but it captures something of the buzz and excitement I’m feeling with my plans for the future. If I get this first step right, I could really be on to something!

Oddballs in Strange Places

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Sunrise over the farm in November

Our house has received mixed reviews from the local tradesmen. This building required a good deal of work when we moved in, and all kinds of people have been up to the house over the past six months to provide quotes and services. Few have been able to resist passing comment on the place, and fewer still have had anything positive to say.

General opinion was summed up on Saturday by the postman, who shook his head and asked me how on earth we could live in a place like this. When I replied that the small inconveniences of life here are vastly outweighed by the many advantages, he asked incredulously if I actually liked living here?

From my perspective, this place is not very remote. The nearest town is three minutes away, but there is an illusion of isolation when you drop off the main road and cross the bridge. The house beckons from the track, but the landscape is instantly broken and slashed by slabs of bare granite and the silhouettes of ancient thorn trees. The bumpy road may terrify the postman, but it’s very much in keeping with the character of the place, which probably hasn’t changed much in appearance for a century. The yard is built on a knuckle of stone, and the rough hill runs right to the back of the sheds – it’s an abrupt immersion into the countryside, but we can still hear traffic from the road some nights when the wind is in the west.

Talking it over with a friend from Jura, we agreed that there are few places in Scotland which could be described as truly isolated, particularly in a historical context. The word has merely become a synonym for “awkward”, and in a world of mild weather and super-convenience, the bar has shifted. Today’s “isolated” pales by comparison to stories from my grandparents who farmed near Tweedsmuir in the 1920s when the hills could be placed on “lockdown” for months by bad weather. People depended upon forward planning, and communities were proud of their stoicism, resilience and independence. Now we tut and moan if slushy snow makes it tricky to park our cars.

I was a little taken aback by the postman’s comments. Part of me wanted to go to his house in the town. I wonder how he might have responded if I had curled my lip and said “I don’t know how on earth you can live here” – but surely it’s better to turn a blind eye – to be an object of mild curiosity. With every comment like this, I begin to feel that I’m in a tiny minority, and perhaps this is a good thing.

I daresay that many people would like to come to this house for a holiday; for an escape from reality. But while this might be an “escape”, the idea of living here would be laughable for most. And I can hardly complain, because I would not be here myself if this land and this life had any popular appeal. When the time came to make an offer on this house, we came within a few pounds of our absolute final limit. Even typing those words gives me a cold shiver of what might not have been. The smallest financial increase from another interested party would have blown us out of the water. Luck, hard work and generous families played a part, but in many ways we bought this place because nobody else wanted it. There are advantages to being an oddball and prioritising curlews above bin collection.

We are longing for the swallows to come back, but we consider flocks of wild swans to be a fair swap. They preen and doze on the fields below the house, and I can hear their wings wailing at first light. My roots grow deeper here with every passing day.

Food Critics

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The daily procession

Our summer’s hay has received mixed reviews from the galloways. Some bales are beautiful and flossy, but others burst apart in clouds of mould like talcum powder. This mould is horrible stuff, and the heifers combine the powder with their frosty breath until they almost vanish behind a smoke screen. I’m assured that it will do them no harm, but this kind of feed is far from ideal.

We knew that some of the bales were damp even as we made them. There was an astonishing variety of moisture even in a small field, and good bales were made within a few feet of poor ones. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to this, but the problems have not been helped by storage. The bad bales have not got better, and several of the good ones have grown mouldy. Some have had to be thrown away altogether, while others have gone for pig bedding. I still maintain that we were right to make hay, but we were very close to the dividing line where the cut grass should have been wrapped and made into silage.

The cattle are fed on a different spot every morning, and it is interesting to inspect the remains of the previous day’s bale when I go out. A sweet bale has often vanished without a trace, but poorer stuff is often visible in tufts and crusts of leftovers. This year’s  haymaking has been hugely instructive, and I continue to learn about winter forage with every passing day – hay is not a definite article, it is a sliding scale running from sweet and pure to lank and lumpen. Galloways are a forgiving audience since they will eat almost anything, but lessons learnt this winter will be hugely useful when the summer comes again.

Bull Surprise

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The new bull calf “godwit” and his mother (taken in September)

I was confused about dates and got the wrong end of the stick. When I heard that my new bull calf would here in less than a week, I was inclined to panic. I thought I had months to spare before Stonehouse Godwit would arrive in Galloway, and plans were all in place for an easy winter and a gradual lead into spring. I thought I had plenty of time to prepare.

In the event, it hasn’t taken much to organise a reshuffle of livestock. In fact, this self-inflicted shock has been a pleasure. I started this project because it’s a challenge, and I enjoy the occasional jolt. Once I had settled down with a cup of coffee, the shuffle actually seemed quite straightforward; we have enough hay and haylage, and provided the new heifer is kept away from the bull calf, everything should be easy. I’m desperately looking forward to taking on a bull calf, and I hope he will become a project in his own right. I’m now thinking how fine it would be to have him halter trained, and in this respect it’s actually an advantage to get hold of him sooner rather than later.

But at the same time, Godwit will bring me up to eight beasts. This project has quickly become the largest business investment I’ve ever made, and I’ve already spent a dizzying amount of money. Every penny has come from my own wages (with a fair amount of support from my wife), and we have now passed the point at which there is a strain of anxiety to the project. I was always keen that these animals should be more than just a hobby, and my wish will come true with the arrival of this top class pedigree bull calf – I never wanted to be a smallholder, and I’m about to go beyond.

Perhaps I’ll live to regret it all, but I am reassured by the idea that every farm business requires a fair block of capital investment – every business starts with a leap of faith. At the same time, it’s hard to see how any “New Entrants to Farming” can make a start without grant funding or extensive credit arrangements, and I’m lucky that I can draw on income from existing work to get things started.

Perhaps there’s also a self-destructive streak in me. I am determined to see these animals as more than just folly or decoration, and I absolutely believe that they can be viable. A visiting friend from London described galloways as “middle class cows”, reflecting that belties have become a fashion item for a certain Home Counties demographic. I was a bit dismayed by this, because I’m looking at the animals from the other end of the scale. I need to understand how these animals look when finances are tight and calves need to fit in spreadsheets.

And from a creative perspective, I don’t want to write observational anecdotes from some bucolic idyll; “playing farmer” in a sunny field – I want to live in this place as if my life depended upon it – to see where the pinches are and vanish into the joy, misery and boredom of every passing season. That’s when I’ll really be able to write.