Eight Years

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When I sat down and wrote my first Working for Grouse article at the end of January 2010, I could hardly have guessed all that would follow. Eight years later, this blog continues to attract new visitors every month, and it has been a crucial means of keeping in touch with old friends and connecting with new ones.

I have no clear remit with this blog, and the various threads of narrative simply follow behind simple curiosity and a (sometimes chaotic) instinct to be practical for conservation. I sometimes look back through old articles and cringe at my initial silliness, but I think it’s important to keep this material alive so that I can measure how far I’ve come, particularly when it comes to failure and ignorance… the best responses I’ve had from readers often come after revelations of my own mistakes.

I write a great deal here. When I occasionally meet visitors “face to face”, I reassure them that it’s not compulsory to read it all. There are some laudable diehards who assure me that they trudge through every sentence (these readers deserve a medal), but most dip in and out and take their pick according to what interests them. That’s how it should be, and I often write with this idea in mind.

But most importantly, I’m proud that Working for Grouse is so well received. Thanks as always for your support with this blog, and here’s to many more adventures in farming, conservation and wild game in the ninth (NINTH!) year of writing!

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Sheep and Trees

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“The last 40 years under the Common Agricultural Policy have not done Scottish agriculture many favours”.

It was very satisfying to hear these words from a representative of NFU Scotland. The subsidies may have provided a stable bedrock for Scottish farming, but they have stifled innovation and reduced some areas of agriculture into a repetitive dirge. While driving biodiversity loss and enabling the wealthy to grow wealthier, the CAP actively discouraged young farmers. On balance, I will be pleased to see and end to it.

The NFUS’s Johnnie Hall was speaking at an event laid on by the Galloway and South Ayrhsire Biosphere entitled: “A Changing Landscape – Making the most of our natural assets”. This was a half day discussion meeting “exploring how we can address the issues and opportunities that key industry representatives see influencing the future of land based industries in South West Scotland”. A farmer, a forester, a landowner and a community woodland professional each presented on behalf of their sector, and questions were then asked from an audience of more than eighty attendees.

From the perspective of a “young farmer”, I agree that the CAP has been a disaster, but it is becoming clear that we are yet to see the full extent of the damage it has caused. Many marginal upland farms have grown weak and dependent upon EU funding – they have never looked less viable. CAP has been sheltering these places from some fundamental economic realities, and perhaps many should have been allowed to die years ago.

Brexit offers us the chance for an audit. It’s a watershed moment, and it should be no surprise that vultures are circling around many weak, struggling farms. Without the continuation of some very generous subsidies, hill farming seems to be in dire straits, and foresters are licking their lips in anticipation. According to the Eskdalemuir study, trees can be three times more profitable and sustainable than sheep farming in upland areas. The statistics look compelling, but it isn’t fair to compare sheep and trees as “like for like”. It’s no surprise that forestry should outshine the kind of threadbare CAP farming which has slowly degraded the hills for the past forty years – the two industries have been moving at very different rates. But who is to say what agriculture can deliver after Brexit?

Imagine if hill farms could succeed in balancing livestock with renewable energy, tourism, biodiversity, timber, peatland conservation and improved water quality and retention – what a powerful, dynamic mix. Match that vision against wholesale forestry and the decision to fill the landscape with trees is not so easily made. Forestry may trump CAP farming, but it looks pretty weak next to the kind of well integrated farms we’re now free to build.

Foresters are constantly frustrated by public perception; many people think that commercial woodlands are a bad thing. We have made huge leaps and bounds in planting forestry over the past fifteen years, but there is no escaping the extensive, often irreparable damage that  foresters caused when they were first unleashed on the uplands. My great grandchildren will still be paying to restore damage to peatlands and biodiversity caused by the first generation of commercial softwood production, so the simple assurance that “we’re not that bad any more” scarcely cuts the mustard. These wounds will be slow to heal; a few years of good behaviour have not outweighed a legacy of devastation which will ring for centuries.

Modern foresters urge us to judge their industry as it is, not as it was. There’s no doubt that modern forestry is dynamic and progressive, particularly when we compare it to sleepy, old fashioned farm businesses. But after forty years of stasis, hill farmers should now be asking the public to judge them on what they could be; on all that is now possible. The Scottish Government has set some hard targets for planting, and there will be growing pressure to increase forest cover in the wake of Brexit. This process should not be taken lightly – after all, you don’t just dabble with trees; you cannot try commercial woodland for thirty years, then return to traditional hill farming.

Once land has been prepared for planting, the process cannot be undone. Aside from the logistical difficulties of reverting woodland to farmland, there are legal mechanisms which require land to remain beneath trees. Unlike most other land uses, a move towards forestry initiates irreversible change, and that’s a big deal. Unlike farming, forestry is famously incompatible with other land uses, so the decision to plant represents a monumental, permanent and intensive refocus in favour of timber and timber alone.

Selected statistics may look slick and compelling for politicians and industry leaders, but the current climate is dynamic and complex. Perhaps it’s too much to ask, but we should avoid being hasty.

The Ploughman Cometh

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“littered with lapwings”

I’m always pleased to receive feedback from readers of this blog, but I must say that it’s equally gratifying to receive material support. Having followed my progress and been in touch for several years, a long-term reader recently contacted me with the offer of a plough. Knowing that I would soon be needing such an item and having little use for an old one of his own, he generously put the implement at my disposal. It was good fun to head over to Roxburghshire to see him and collect the plough last week when work finally made the two hour trip convenient.

I found an arable landscape in the east; I was a fish out of water. The countryside smelled of soil and vegetables – a patchwork quilt of colours and textures. Galloway is rich and varied, but our agricultural land is dominated by grass. The view from my office window provides me with a million shades of green. I forget how monotonous this place can be when compared with other parts of Scotland, and it was a joy to drive through alternating stubbles, furrows and winter cereals.

One recently ploughed field was littered with lapwings, and I slowed down to watch a pair of hares wandering through a strip of something I couldn’t identify. Reed buntings and larks rose up from the barley stubble, and rooks stirred to and fro in the cold wind. There are still wild partridges here, and a local shoot has resurrected them back into prosperity again. Wildlife has been lost in the Borders over the past forty years, but there are still burrs of activity which our grassland world sadly lacks in the west.

The trailer was soon loaded and I took to the road again. I couldn’t resist the idea that I was taking some part of that mixed arable richness home with me – the seed of proactive diversity, symbolised in a plough.

January Partridges

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A trio in the rushes

Partridges call on the edge of darkness. Spring is rousing them to frenzy, and the shapes of the small birds linger in the peripheries from dawn to dusk. The cocks have grown wattles which swell up their cheeks, and many have been fighting as the covey continues to crumble and disperse. Their vocabulary has expanded to embrace all manner of shrieks and trills, and these ring across the rushes as I work in the yard at twilight.

The birds are growing wilder, but they are still anchored to the farm by a ravenous need for wheat and flaked maize. I often watch the covey browsing through rough ground and I’m impressed by how much wild food they eat – it’s mainly roughage and grass seeds at this time of year, but they are clearly learning to forage, albeit on scant fare. I have no doubt that the wheat is making up the shortfall and is helping them to stay in tip-top condition – they could hardly look better, and perhaps the supplementary nutrition is also a boost to alertness and wisdom.

Individuals have grown observant and sharp after several months in the wild – not so sharp as truly native stock, but they range far and wide across this landscape and have only lost one of their number since October; a single cock who was expelled from the group and loitered around on his own for a few days before vanishing.

We are still a long way from May and June when breeding might be possible, but these birds have been a useful pilot project in my first year here.

 

Striking a Balance

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A move to big bales has required an upscale in farm equipment

The last fortnight has been bogged down with illness and work. At the same time, words which would usually have been published here have been siphoned away to help with the construction of a book, and I am pleased to say that substantial progress is being made with that project.

In the meantime, it’s worth a note on our cattle. Having almost exhausted my reserves of hay, I have started to buy in big bales of haylage from a neighbour to make up the deficit. Haylage is a kind of half-way house between silage and hay; a compromise for the hay enthusiast in a world where good weather is hard to come by.

This haylage is beautifully sweet and florid. The cattle love it, and while I was dismayed to break with the traditional joy of hay, the heavy, plastic-wrapped bales are an excellent second best.

I was always going to have to buy in extra forage, but this running cost has been an interesting wake-up call. My cows are going to have to be fed until the grass starts growing again, and their pregnancy provides an additional demand on nutrients. I estimate that I will have to spend around five hundred pounds on haylage over the next few months to meet the demand. This is a substantial amount to draw from your own pocket, and it ignores the cost of several other inputs, including minerals and medication. My little “hobby” has grown into a substantial interest; I welcome that expansion.

When I took on the new hayfield at the New Year, I was pleased to think that producing my own grass would cut out some of these costs in the future. I like to be independent in this project as with most things, and it pleased me to think that I could cut out any middle men and meet my own needs.

Alongside the financial advantages of a new hayfield, I also planned to reseed the field with a native hay meadow mix to improve its wildlife value and introduce some fresh aspects of grass ley management. But having done some sums and investigated what impact this could have on the yield of harvestable grass, I am now beginning to wonder if I can afford to overhaul the ground in this way. Based on studies elsewhere, the shift away from modern ryegrass to traditional grass species can reduce productivity by 25% or more. In real terms, this represents the difference between the new field producing 40 bales and 30 bales – the difference between being able to supply myself with grass and having to buy in forage from others.

This quandary should be no surprise. Conservation and agriculture need to be carefully balanced, and my dilemma is nothing new. But perhaps I am slightly unusual in that I receive no farm subsidies, grants or funding. If I want to put the hayfield back into a more wildlife friendly state, I will have to pay for the work and I will also take the financial hit from any drop in productivity. It would be lunacy to invite further costs at a time when I am already haemorrhaging money – but that’s not to say I won’t do it… we’ll see.

There’s no tragedy here. I deliberately invested my own cash and put myself in this precarious position because I wanted to be squeezed. Knowing how it might work out, I over-reached myself because I was looking for a tricky situation. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in the end-product or anticipate a viable return someday. This is more than an academic exercise, but I have a very deep barrel to fill before any profit can trickle over the lip. In the meantime, I can understand that the prosperity of Britain’s wildlife hangs in decisions like mine around the hayfield. I need to understand how tradeoffs like these work at first hand.

I love every inch of this project, but balancing aspirations for wildlife against financial returns has been the most informative and useful vein of all.

Cold Steel

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There’s a cold wind in the east. It’s the kind of wind that can pull the meat off your skull and freeze your tears while it does it.

We unloaded steel beams as darkness fell. The eight foot girders are heavy, and I felt each burry, fresh-cut edge on my gloveless hands. This steel will build much-needed strength into the cattle pens, and the bull calf rolled his eyes and stamped in the red tail lights of the trailer – he has the makings of monster.

Bending and lifting soon opened a crack between my shirt and my trousers. An inch-wide strip of skin was exposed to the wind and I fought to contain a shriek. Shreds of straw skittered past my boots like the ribs of long-forgotten rats.

Woodcock flew in the twilight. The little birds are famously fat and well oiled, but they looked bitterly pitiful in the claws of this wind. Perhaps they will spend the night in the shelter, because open ground would be a death sentence. I pictured their bodies frozen into curling stones on the short grass at sunrise.

Only geese can stare down a wind like this. They came in the final moments before abject dark, pouring down to the shore in ripples of two and three hundred birds. The steel clattered and rang on the concrete as we worked, and the sky replied with the roar of half-seen ranks. Every winking mutter rang around the yard, and the stars blinked as the geese passed against them – endless skeins and a relay of sound, growing and fading in joyous, gabbling waves.

It takes more than a cold wind to upset the geese – Grand old ganders lead their teams across country to the sea. Cold steel; hard birds; tough places.

“Stirring the Pot”

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A million gems

I never meant to keep cattle indoors. I wanted to work with low maintenance, traditional animals which prospered beneath a changing sky.

But life intervened. We have been forced to convert the old garage into a mini cattle shed to house the new bull calf, and work is in progress to make this arrangement more permanent and robust. This bothered me to begin with. I understood why so many cattle are kept indoors, particularly in the winter, but I felt sure that the beasts could only perform their fullest role in conservation if they were outdoors as nature intended. In reality, it seems that housing animals can offer some interesting and unexpected angles for wildlife.

Indoor animals require bedding. This concept was new to me after three years of outdoor cattle, but I begged a big bale of barley straw from a neighbour and set about it with a knife. As I slashed open the outer web of netting, the enormous bale exhaled like a girdled belly and collapsed into something resembling a giant poached egg. Amongst the straw, a million pearls of barley skittered out over the shed floor. Some grain is usually found in a bale, but this was excessive – there must have been something wrong with the settings on the combine harvester.

Our chickens gathered round in ecstasy as the bale continued to collapse, and the birds scratched out the grains from the concrete floor. This was just a greedy bonus for our birds, and the spread meant more to the feral pigeons which live in the yard and go unloved. These birds gorged themselves, and passing jackdaws eyed the plunder greenly without the courage to come down and steal it for themselves.

The banquet rambles long into the night, but I am not invited. Mice scuttle through the pile of straw, and bigger beasts besides. Rats are insatiable, and they fumble at our scraps with their fleshy, mobile little fingers. They have been raiding the pigsty for several weeks, but their thrilling, berry-bright eyes were soon transfixed by the barley. The shed where the straw is kept has become a thief’s bunker, but the rats’ enthusiasm has come at a price. I pulled apart a very fresh barn owl pellet this morning and discovered the skull and teeth of a teenage rat, cocooned in a sticky swathe of hair. An entire mini food-chain has been established around this single bale.

Meanwhile, the bull shits. His straw is soon foul and needs to be cleaned out. It takes him a week to fill my quad bike trailer, and I have started to chuck this out on the hayfield. We will soon be ploughing this field, and the mix of muck and straw will vanish underground to help the soil and feed the worms to feed the wading birds. But while we wait for the plough, cow muck (and a regular barrow-load from the pigs) is weathering away in the frost and rain. Scattered gems of barley, straw and filth attract all manner of birds, from rooks and starlings to pheasants, partridges and finches. The uneven mounds of waste make a compelling attraction for wildlife, and it has been fascinating to see nature respond.

Perhaps I’m leaning too heavily on silver linings. Most farmers would interpret this tale as bad management – I’ve provided a food source and now I’m being ravaged by “vermin”. I agree that it’s hard to see rats, jackdaws and feral pigeons with much enthusiasm, but they are still relevant. Rats feed owls; pigeons are plucked by falcons and hawks, and I have a place in the chain.

And this little surge of activity is encouraging at a more abstract level. This farm should be a place of activity and change; a place where nutrients are cycled and wildlife is kept vital by the movement of soil. I have stumbled and clambered over this point many times and have never been able to express it clearly, but I feel sure that nature responds to active management – to human beings “stirring the pot”.

Wildlife has been lost for so many reasons, but I think we underestimate the importance of “stirring”. It is no surprise that nature should fall asleep when large areas of the countryside are placed under repetitive, snoozy regimes boosted only by the occasional dose of Nitrogen fertiliser. Turn the soil, grow a variety of crops and waste some in the harvesting; spread the muck and trample the grass with hooves; keep things moving and surely nature will respond. I am determined to put flesh on the bones of this idea – the possibilities crowd around me.

Of course I would prefer my work to benefit “nice” species which provide interest and diversity, but I’m aware that the definition of “vermin” is subjective and the word itself has become an ugly antique. I might not have chosen to promote jackdaws and mice, but perhaps they’re just a beginning. I would gladly host both if the alternative was nothing at all.