Working beneath clear blue skies

Cold winds and clear skies drove the water away. The sloppy fields had been freeze dried, and it was time to make a start.

A jumble of swans flew at first light; heavy whoopers which made the sky sing like wind over empty bottle tops. The old plough was raised up on hydraulic arms, and the rust was rubbed away until the wide mouldboards shone in a low, cold sun. You could see your face in those boards, and the tractor shuddered away from the yard into open country.

A two furrow plough makes slow progress. Each laborious pass gnaws at the turf like a planer, shaving inches away in long, heavy curls. This ground has not been ploughed for a century or more, and it was impossible to tell what the iron teeth would find beneath the grass. Bare folds of soil flopped upside down, and the mouldboards polished them in passing with a glossy sheen. A biscuit brown m was soon stretching slowly out behind me; a garish streak a washed-out world of green and yellow. A wagtail came to watch.

And there were boulders of every shape and size. The smaller ones were rummled out into the daylight and lay on the furrows like litter. The bigger ones brought the tractor to a juddering halt, and there was always the risk of bending or breaking the plough. We would have had trouble if the tractor had been any more powerful. The plough would have given out if we had pulled too hard, but there was a way out of each crashing collision.

Most of those granite chunks were round, crumbly blocks. More often than not, the points would bump once before gliding noisily over the impasse. When I was slammed to a standstill, the plough hooked me into the soil like a salmon gaff, and the tractor wheels turned unthinkingly in the turf until I jumped on the clutch and relaxed the tension. These boulders required a proactive response. I adjusted the plough’s height by increments until the points could find a workable slope and began to climb over the obstacle by themselves.

It sounds like a disaster, but in reality this ground was mainly clear and workable. I only ran into trouble when I worked at depth, but it was always tempting to go deep and then see red streaks of subsoil boiling up into the daylight. The earth was soon powdering in the fresh easterly breeze, and the first wagtail had become many. Little birds plundered the ground, bobbing and hunting through the troughs of soil and filling their crops with orange beetle larvae. Black headed gulls looked on keenly, and a red kite followed my progress as I worked into a final corner with a series of short cuts.

I returned to walk the field beneath the moon. The smell of drink was on me and my ears rang with the clamour of the pub. A golden plover was moving somewhere in the stillness – a lonely whistle over the moss. The soil had been bare for hours, but it was still reeking. Every footstep I took sank me up to the shin in clean, crumbling powder; soil, and a gossamer of tiny roots. I sat for a few minutes in the falling frost; parked on a cushion of folded turf.

This is how it has always been. Here was another vital connection with the oldest ancestors. Fresh soil and old stars in a timeless cycle; an empty world renewed once more with silent potential.

The Sound of Spring

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A welcome return

Skylarks have returned.

The first songs are usually heard on Valentine’s day, but it’s hard to hold the little birds to a specific date. Valentine’s day was slashed with sleet and snow this year, and perhaps it’s no surprise that they should have kept their heads down. But the following morning, a single bird rose high up into the sky and poured a torrent of song over the house and the hill behind. We cowered in predawn shade as he rose up and up until the rising sun struck his breast and he exploded like a pink firework. Long, complex phrases filled every corner of this place, and the joy was dizzying.

Others have come since then. There were five birds singing at the weekend, and seven this morning when I went out to feed the bull. Larks become a constant theme in midsummer, and their songs blend in to a chorus of other sounds. But the land is still quiet and bare in February, and they have our undivided attention.

Triple K

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Cultivator in transit

It is certainly worth recording the acquisition of even more agricultural equipment to add to my growing pile – a fantastic Triple K cultivator in full working order. The machine came over from the Borders at the end of last week, and I am ever-grateful for ongoing support from a friendly benefactor near Kelso. The picture (above) shows it in transit while I stopped to fuel up with chips in Langholm late on Friday night, and it’s clear that the Triple K cuts an imposing figure wherever it goes…

I had planned for this machine to work the ground a few weeks after the plough so that it can break up the clods and prepare the soil for sowing. Having shown it around a few neighbours, it was surprising to find that none of them have ever used anything like it before.

A few old boys had heard of spring cultivators like these, but the general consensus was that they are designed for use in the East of the country, where soil is deep and easy to work. Where I am in Galloway, the ground is littered with stones and the same job is usually done with disc harrows. There’s no doubt that the cultivator was the right tool for the job in the lush arable country near Kelso, but it may struggle to win through here.

I am still determined to give it a go, but it may be that I also need to look for some disc harrows in my first year. Once I have had a chance to assess the soil and see what I’m dealing with, the Triple K will surely come into its own. Progress is imminent!

Balance Revisited

Balancing farming & conservation

It’s been interesting to look back through feedback on my recent article about hay meadows (Striking a Balance 22nd Jan).

If you missed the article, I was chewing over the relative pros and cons of reverting a productive silage field into a more natural and diverse state. I had some great comments by email and on social media, and these came at my quandary from several different angles.

The situation was compounded yesterday in conversation with a neighbouring farmer who was politely appalled by the prospect of “ruining” a good field with a mix of traditional wildflowers and native grasses. Balance this with advice I received via email which claimed I would be a fool not to go ahead with “project meadow” – the interest and conservation value would be vast.

This is a balancing act and something like a catch 22. I can’t support my conservation goals unless I have a viable farm business, and I can’t have a viable farm business without compromising my conservation goals. Perhaps this is an over-simplification, but it’s a nice reminder of the old expression: “it’s hard to be green when you’re in the red”.

Part of my project is to work on traditional, low intensity methods. Some readers suggested that I could have my conservation cake and eat it by de-stocking – I wouldn’t need the field to be so productive if I had fewer cows. This makes sense, but my project needs to be viable. If I reduce my livestock, my cattle become a little folly and I would merely be “playing farmers” in the fringes. Financially and for credibility’s sake, my herd needs a critical mass, and I should really be focussing on expansion.

At the same time, I need to maximise grass production. I can’t afford to keep buying in forage from my neighbours, either in haylage, silage or small bales of hay. A “real” farmer would be focussed on reseeding the field with an even more productive ryegrass mix – it’s my best field and I should be using it as a productive powerhouse. This would represent a real step backwards for my conservation goals, but it would allow me to keep feed costs down at a reasonable level in future winters. My cash would be freed up to work on other conservation issues elsewhere.

This idea makes perfect sense, but I can’t help thinking that this theory leads to a disjointed, disintegrated countryside where some places are for agriculture and others are for wildlife. It hardly applies to me on such a small scale, but it’s a dangerous precedent on a larger scale. I had aspired to blend farming with conservation so that all my ground was for both – perhaps this was naively optimistic, but it’s a tantalising goal.

It’s also relevant that these cows are taking me to the financial brink – small “hobby” farmers are often sufficiently well-heeled to smooth over cracks like these, but I can’t ignore the fact that every bale I buy comes out of a dwindling personal bank account. Plus, I’m coming at this project from an unusual angle. I love my galloways and I look forward to all that comes next, but I would be sorry if this was simply an exercise in producing beef.

These are teething troubles, and my livestock have simply expanded faster than my capacity to feed them. I’m sure that I will reach an equilibrium in future years, and there is always the option of taking on more land.

In the event, the new field has made some key decisions for me. Muck was spread by the previous tenant in December, and the soil has been enriched for many years by artificial fertilisers. Initial research has shown that traditional hay meadows prosper in poorer soils, and the impact of this recent improvement may take years to be reversed. Even if I did choose to proceed with reverting the ground now, there would be a long, slow road ahead.


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The cross of St Brigid

We have been working with cattle for thousands of years. Ancient Celts were herding folk, and their livestock provided the basis for an entire culture. The Celtic year was divided according to cyclical patterns of grazing, harvests and rebirth – the fundamentals of that life. Measured against modern priorities, perhaps it’s no wonder that the Celts feel so far away.

Beltane marked the start of summer, and cows were purified in rituals before heading out to pasture on the first of May. Animals were slaughtered at Samhain, and winter began with the festival on the first of November.

Alongside Beltane and Samhain, there was lughnasadh and imbolc, equidistant on the calendar. Lughnasadh falls on the first of August and represents the start of the harvest. Imbolc lies on the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox – the second day of February.

The word imbolc is derived from obscure Gaelic origins which stretch beyond the realms of certainty. There are many possible meanings, but a modern Irish expression I mbolg is used to describe pregnancy in livestock. One theory is that imbolc was traditionally the time when cattle first begin to show signs of a calf; their udders grow and provide an indication of all that lies ahead. I choose this meaning because my heifers showed their first udders within two days of imbolc. I had no idea about Celtic religion, but I am longing for my first calves and my curiosity was piqued by a festival which seem to recognise my enthusiasm.

In a broader sense, imbolc is the quickening of Spring; the first quiet steps out of winter. Imbolc is a time for snowdrops and hazel catkins; the song thrush sings in the stillness of dusk. These are fine details which might be overlooked in the busy clamour of June or July, but they are a claxon and a call to arms after months of starlit darkness. There is life in the world. Going about my business, I stack snapshots en passant which combine to make the heart swell – this place is on the move

  • The first shelduck on the wet fields; a raucous red bill reflected in a low sun.
  • A dark, half-hidden roebuck with his antlers blooming further in velvet each day.
  • Dippers returned to the burn, bobbing and buzzing above the busy water.
  • Hares running in the frost before dawn (a new frizz of excitement hitherto sombre old hands).

Imbolc belongs here. The festival was conceived in this landscape at a time when only nature and livestock were relevant. As I sink into farming, it’s hard not to chime with these priorities, and the years roll back with every new chore and task. Modern man has moved away from the land, but even the smallest step backwards is electrifying. Other Celtic festivals are transfixed by pastures and harvests, killing and calving. These same chores preoccupy modern farmers; the old life has changed, but it has not gone away. Dip in to the reality of agriculture and time collapses like a telescope. I am no spiritualist, but the relevance is compelling.

In due course, imbolc became Candlemas. The ancient pagan festival was assimilated into the Christian calendar because it was too important to erase. Christians compromised and reorganised their religion around native foundations. The ancient goddess Brigid was laundered and became St Brigid, the patron of imbolc.

Flushed with the excitement of imbolc, I walked out into the rain and cut a handful of green rushes on the hill. Following direction from an out-dated website, I plaited the strips into the small, simple cross of St Brigid. Symbols like these have all but vanished from Galloway over the past Century, but this sign would have been well known as a symbol of good luck to my ancient relatives.

I don’t know Brigid’s story, but the symbolism has me spellbound – a woven fragment conveyed out of a dark, half-forgotten past. I’m not sure what ancient festivals will mean to me, but the first signs of spring are truly worth celebrating. Perhaps there is still room for old gods.

Plough Lessons

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A revealing test patch (ignore the tussock on the bottom left)

The last few days have been spent working on the new plough. There is no need to use this latest implement for several weeks, but the field I intend to work with has been gnawed to the bone by sheep and has nothing left to offer. The weather has been fair and dry, and I can see no reason to postpone the job. I also can’t deny that I am giddily excited and can’t wait to make a start.

The plough has required a little active repair. I was informed that the skimmers needed to be replaced, and my first task was to find out what skimmers are. It transpires that they are the blades which slice the turf before the soil is lifted by the point. The old skimmers had been worn down to a rounded nub, and both of the bolts had seized. I broke one and had to hacksaw the other, but these should be easily replaced and the new skimmers will slot neatly into position.

I was also advised to clean the mouldboards. These had gathered a little rust over many years of inactivity, but it was hard to see how this would be a problem. I tried to plough a test patch and immediately found that the rust made the soil stick to the metal boards in fat, greasy clumps. The plough worked brilliantly, but the job was not as neat as it could have been; imagine spreading butter with a dirty knife all crusted with yesterday’s jam. The furrows were crumbled and broken where they should have been smooth and orderly, and this was compounded by the missing skimmers – instead of slitting the soil, the plough had ripped it. This is mainly a matter of aesthetics, and I was drunk with the joy of fresh soil and the spectacle of turf being rolled up like a rug.

My father offered a solution to the dirty mouldboards, and we ran the plough through a small area of rough, rubbly hardcore which has just been quarried to mend the road. The plough made the little stones boil, and most of the rust was soon rubbed away – I’ll hunt out the rest with a grinder, but it was an interesting lesson. I gather that our neighbours used to clean their ploughs by running them along the Solway shore, and the rusty mouldboards were ably scoured to a mirror shine by shells and pebbles.

Ploughing is a vast and technical job. I cannot hope to do it nicely on my first attempt, particularly since the field I’ll be working on is a rounded, bulbous triangle shape. Ploughmen chase the dream of perfect furrows running in parallel across geometrically beautiful landscapes, but beauty is just the cherry on the cake for me – I’d rather do a scruffy job than no job at all.

I am now more thrilled than I have ever been by the potential this project has to link my farm project with wildlife, and I am looking forward to seeing what comes next.