Geography

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A view from the Chayne

By a combination of chance and design, I’ve met a few Working for Grouse readers over the past few days. This has been great fun, although it’s always slightly bizarre to slip into instant familiarity with total strangers… Of all the many pleasures this blog brings me, the greatest is meeting and connecting with people all over the country, particularly when it takes place face-to-face. However, a few people have demonstrated their long-term Working for Grouse credentials by asking how things are going on the Chayne, since I no longer seem to write about the place.

I realise now that this blog has changed substantially over the last seven years and many of these changes have not been adequately explained. I wanted to straighten out a few things, and the result has been this blog post, which I daresay will only be useful to hard-core Working for Grouse fans…

When I started this project in 2009, the Chayne was my entire focus. This is the family farm; home to curlews, black grouse and a wealth of moorland wildlife. In time, my wife and I moved to rent the property next door and I was on the hill every day for almost five years. This has dwindled in recent times, but I am still up there at least once or twice a week, and much more in the springtime. Things tick over, but posts about my original project are now stirred in amongst many others.

When I write about the Chayne nowadays, I usually refer to it as “the moor”, and I satisfy myself that this differentiates it from other Working for Grouse backdrops. Perhaps this is not as clear as it has felt, so here are another three locations which provide food for bloggery.

  • In 2012, we started to rent 2,000 acres of fantastic heather moorland where we work on red grouse and do the bulk of our roe stalking. I usually refer to this as “the hill”.
  • And then I became interested in cattle and started to keep my galloways on some rough hill grazing a few miles away from my home. When I write about anything to do with livestock, this is where I mean.
  • Less than a year ago, my wife and I moved a little closer to the coast and bought a new house between two large areas of moorland and farmland. This is what I call “the farm”, and it backs onto “the moss”. Here’s the land of partridge, curlew and (soon) turnips…

Now I see it written down, I really grasp the confusion. It’s not easy to define this disparate scattering of land, and perhaps that’s why I’ve avoided doing so.

In my defence, you can stand on any one of these places and see the other three – they are divided by a few miles and they all run together as one in my head. Galloway is renowned for its completion and entirety – we have everything in one place; high mountains and wide seascapes; moorland, forest and river in just a small area. I am not writing about a single contiguous piece of land, but the diversity I’m working with is plausible and representative of many other local holdings.

Not sure if this helps, but it has been an interesting exercise to lay out a “key” which will perhaps make Working for Grouse a little clearer. Given that I don’t really see these all as separate places, the distinction might feel a little less important.

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Regrowth

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Some of the regrowth has put on almost four feet since last year

Despite having dithered and rung my hands over hedgerow management in previous blogs, I took the plunge and cut my first section of new hedge last January. It seemed counterintuitive to cut down all the plants I had grown, and I wrote in detail about the work (and my reservations) here.

A little over a year later, I am absolutely converted to the joys of management. The thick, vigorous response from the hawthorn and blackthorn plants has been fantastic, and I enlisted my wife (above) to illustrate how much the trees have grown from their cut stems in a single year. I now realise that I should have cut them lower down so that the bushiness began almost at grass level, but this is no great tragedy in this situation where crucial shelter is provided by a dyke.

By contrast, most of my other new hedges run across open ground following fence lines. These young trees cannot fall back upon a dyke to break the wind and offer shelter, and they would be draughty, thin places at ground level without proactive management. I now plan to cut these more exposed hedges much lower or (as I would prefer) to lay and press them into thickness.

 

Hairy Cattle

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Riggit galloways prospering in the cold

I can hardly write about the soil without a quick mention of the cattle, which continue to thrive in the bitter cold. The hardy, hairy beasts have hardly blinked at wild winds and stinging ice. They are now eating a big bale of silage every five days, and there is a glowing pleasure to see them tumbling down through the gorse to meet me when I arrive on the tractor, huffing and squabbling amongst themselves like teenagers.

On reflection, I am so glad that I decided not to have them scanned to determine pregnancy at Christmas time. This would have revealed which heifers were in-calf, and I would now know exactly what I am in for in May and June. There were various factors which turned me away from the vet, but the main one was the prospect of more bills and additional cost. As it is, I have no idea which beasts are in-calf and I am left constantly guessing.

From what I have gathered, heifers are very slow to develop their first udders, and while I can see promising signs in one or two beasts, there have been absolutely no clues from others. Recalling the chaos of last summer’s bulling, it may be that some of the heifers will not have calves until July and it’s perhaps no surprise that they should be keeping their cards close to their chest. In the meantime, the suspense is killing me and I analyse every movement they make for some new clue. I had not reckoned it would be so exciting, particularly since a good deal now hangs on success or failure. I agree with my father’s comment; that having pregnancy tests is like opening your Christmas presents early…

And perhaps I will regret the decision not to have the tests carried out. If it turns out that one or two of my heifers are not pregnant, they run the risk of growing too fat and heavy to conceive in 2018 and may never be good breeding animals. Of course it’s a risk, but this process is such a steep learning curve that I can hardly cover every potential hazard. If it’s a mistake then I will learn the hard way.

 

The Acid Test

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Having ploughed our best field in February, the time came to test the soil and find out what the next steps would be.

As predicted, the results from the laboratory have just come back to show that the ground is pretty sour and poor. pH readings are around 5.5, and turnips require significantly less acidic conditions if they are going to prosper. I have been prescribed a course of ground lime, granular lime and Boronated fertiliser, all of which begin to run up a considerable bill – and that is before I have even settled on a dizzying variety of turnip or swede seeds.

Of course I find myself quailing from this investment – every penny counts when it’s being pared directly out of your pocket – but the die is cast and there is no going back. I would like to sidestep artificial fertiliser on environmental grounds, but I think it is unavoidable in this first year and I can work along more organic principles in the future.

In the meantime, I have found a real joy in the ever-changing nature of this ploughed field. The soil varies in colour almost hourly, moving from a dull, frowning black to light pastel shades of caramel and grape. Textures and tones are always changing, and this flux is a pleasing reflection of the soil’s very essence – the living, dynamic medium of life itself.

As always, I am balancing the viability of producing a decent agricultural crop against working sustainably for wildlife. There’s no point dragging my heels or moaning about cost – if I wanted a cheap hobby I should have made different decisions years ago. If anything, I am more fixated and determined than I have ever been.

Kick on.

Unsteady Progress

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A huddle of larks

There is no steady progress towards spring. Change comes and goes like a tide, moving us forward and then back again in a lapping cycle.

It feels like we are getting somewhere on mornings before the sun has risen and curlews fly whooping in slow loops around the hay fields. Here are the first shades of April and May. Shelduck are laughing, and the cattle pull eagerly at a green haze of fresh grass.

But then I find the clock set back to zero again. Proud, displaying skylarks are driven down from the sky to huddle apologetically in small flocks of twenty and thirty. Rivalries are forgotten, and the little birds rush back into the safety of numbers. This is winter behaviour, and a bitter easterly wind rakes through them as they scan the sheep troughs for scraps.

Cradling a mug of hot coffee, I watched a flock of larks moving beneath the kitchen window. Safe behind double glazing, I could not hear their miserable complaint when a merlin swept over the dyke and scattered them up into a bone-cold wind like dry leaves.

Mouse Killers

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Sound country for owls and kestrels

Progress comes at dawn and dusk, and the land is visibly filling with spring.

We are building again, laying cement and pounding stones around the roots of old railway sleepers until they stand up like slabs of oily black steel. The work is slow and heavy, but a steady breeze and a bright, cool sun give us momentum. The bull watches us from the gloom of his shed. When we are finished, he will have an outdoor pen and a vantage point over the moss where curlews have now returned to display. His coat has grown greasy indoors, and like the soil kicked up by the plough, he will love to feel the rain.

There are kestrels in the old pine tree by the house. I meant to build them a nestbox, but the chore went undone and I postponed it until next winter. Now it seems like the birds have found a place to build a nest of their own, and they are busy in the high canopy. I feel a little rebuffed and redundant at this flair of independence. Perhaps that is a good thing.

Another pair of kestrels is setting up on the far side of the moss, and there are frequent skirmishes. The cocks fight and scream, then loop away in strange, ominous glides. They are dividing up our land, and arguments rage over this tussock and that.

With the last breath of daylight, I watched our pair mating. The hen crouched low in the twigs of an old hawthorn tree, and the cock realised his invitation. The coupling took a second or two, and both were ruffled by the experience. A racket of geese passed overhead, and soon the pair were back in the anonymity of deep pine needles above the house.

Darkness fell, and the air thickened with the rushing business of snipe and teal. There was a joyous symmetry to the kestrel’s coupling when I watched a pair of barn owls flying together over the same landscape an hour later, now blue and heavy with stars. The yard smelled of woodsmoke, and the white shapes drifted like shreds of down in the stillness. The silence was burred with hushed, hurling screams; the eerie complaint of owlspeak.

It was too dark to see much detail, but the birds paused for a moment on the dyke which divides the ploughed field from the moss. There was a fluster and a shuffling of petticoats, then a parting. The white shapes faded into the darkness.

The next generation of mouse killers had been conceived on either side of sunset.

Torrents of Toads

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Toads on roads

The first wet night in March is a moment of tremendous significance. Deep beneath the trees, the soil begins to move. Fallen leaves are parted by slow, clasping fingers. Toads haul themselves out of the earth like monsters and begin to creep quietly through the moss towards open water.

It’s a watershed moment for the seasons, but there are many places in Galloway where the toads swarm in a moving tide. These torrents can be disarmingly spectacular, and the creatures blur into a single, creeping mass which stretches for hundreds of yards. They are easiest to see on a tarmac road in headlights, and the highways can be littered with these creepy crawlers on a good night.

It’s hard to give an idea of numbers, but my wife and I once counted more than three hundred toads on a short stretch of tarmac. They mooch like zombies, and it can be impossible to drive past them without hitting one or two. It’s safest to avoid driving altogether when toads are on the move, but many must be killed in busier areas. At the same time, I rarely find dead toads on the roads in the daylight, and I often run along routes which are thick with creepers by night. This lack of hard evidence makes me wonder if the invasion of toads is all just a squeamish dream, and I can’t help but think that something must gather up the cadavers at dawn, whether it is a fox or a crow.

This mass movement takes place every year, and it’s a nice quirk. But this year the night coincided with a radio programme about the dramatic decline of toads in the UK as charted by the conservation charity Froglife. Many areas are recording the loss of more than two thirds of their toads in the last thirty years, and while there are all kinds of reasons for these declines, many seem to be driven by mass-kills on roads during spring migration. Perhaps these declines have not been so dramatic in Galloway, but they made me pause for thought.

I am an extremely ignorant person and don’t really understand what function toads perform in an ecosystem. I’m sure it can only be good and wholesome, but I’m afraid I just accept toads as fact and rarely give them a moment’s thought. So the day we have to worry about the commonplace, everyday, bread-and-butter toad is surely an extraordinary warning sign that things are not as they should be in the countryside.