Spring

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A view down the glen

Spring has a habit of running through my fingers. A million tiny moments blur into a raging glare of growth, restoration and pleasure. It becomes hard to pick between the images or pull them apart, and the overall effect is close to sensory overload.

This blog inevitably sags beneath the weight of this load, and so much goes unwritten. At the same time, the continuity of this narrative dies without picking out a few moments from the last ten days:

  • The coconut smell of flowering gorse and the sound of cattle ripping up new grass. For one blissful moment, I had a glimpse of a calf stirring in the belly of its mother.
  • Curlews displaying at dawn in the soft rain, overhung by a galaxy of larks and the constant, foetal “lub-dub” pulse of cuckoos.
  • Drifts of wood anenomes blurring into burnside celandines and banks of buttery primroses.
  • Blackcaps and grasshopper warblers singing in the gentle evening light, and a grey partridge calling with the first stars.
  • A distant, wind-borne wobble of a blackcock over the frosted rushes.
  • A dribble of seed in bare, crumbling soil – the oats are harrowed in, and now we wait for the rain to swell them up and start the rolling.

This last is a major moment, and the scene is now set for summer. Swallows and sand martins rush over the rolled soil, and I am gnawed with suspense.

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Oats it is

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A rare Working for Grouse “selfie” – looking back over my shoulder as I run across the furrows

Decision taken, progress made – I’m heading for oats in 2018 and the work is underway.

There have been several speed bumps on this journey, not least because of a particularly bad oat harvest in 2017 which resulted in a real shortage of seed oats. I rang around most of Scotland and Northern England before finally finding enough seed to do the job, and I hadn’t realised the value of laying plans so far in advance. In my defence, it would have been easy to find barley or wheat, and even well-established arable folk have found oats tricky this year.

I began to rake through the ploughed field two days ago, building a fine, crumbly tilth to form a seedbed.  Having failed to find a set of disc harrows, I depended upon the Triple K Cultivator which came over from Kelso in March. As anticipated, this is not the perfect tool for the job, and the steel fingers quickly hauled up some big slabs of rotting yellow turf. A good deal of this messiness was my own fault, and I soon learned to refine the job as I went along, adjusting the height until it just tickled the dry furrows and broke them open.

I am pretty satisfied with how it worked out. The soil was crumbly and clear, and I raked it back and forth from every angle until the soggy old clods were powdery and light. It was a fine sight to be followed across the field by a cloud of dust in the evening light, and wheatears watched me from the dyke tops as I clattered back and forth. There are still some dips and troughs where the plough has scored the ground, but these will soon iron out and the project looks promising. I’d like to finish this job with some light chain harrows, but I think this would just be cosmetic and the bulk of the work is done. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t sow the crop then and there, but I have to wait for lime to be delivered next week. Maddeningly, it’s warm, damp and sweaty out there – perfect conditions for growth.

Aside from the muddle of picking a crop, I am very pleased to be working with oats, which are unquestionably Scotland’s national cereal. Oats run deep into this soil from every angle of history and culture, and while the plan is for most of this year’s crop to end up as cattle fodder, I can’t help looking back to Samuel Johnson’s derisive dictionary definition of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. Defiant in the face of snootiness, I look forward to thriving on home-grown porridge, haggis and cakes…

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Triple K and David Brown 996 – a fearsome combo

Greylag Expansion

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Having wondered about greylag geese over the winter, it is fun to see the birds beginning to think about nesting on the hill ground. An encounter with an Icelandic greylag in February ramped up the respect I have for these birds, and I no longer think of them as mere feral interlopers. They are certainly capable and intelligent colonisers of new habitats, and their prosperity is a nice contrast to the general decline of more or less every other species in the countryside.

Two or three pairs look like breeding every year on the Chayne, but I have never yet seen them succeed. There was a pair standing proud on the main lek site last week, and I often find their long, pencil droppings on the moss alongside those of grouse and blackgame. I wish them every success, and it will be interesting to study this pair in more detail. Perhaps they will reveal some clues as to why the birds have consistently failed to produce young over the last few years.

It’s hard to believe that the eggs are being predated by crows (although perhaps it is more likely to be ravens?) and it would take a brave fox to raid a nest with a gander on patrol. Hopefully time and patient observation will reveal all…

Freedom

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The bull calf is finally free from his shed. He has been indoors for four months, and now his world explodes in light. He runs and bellows over the field, kicking his heels and rolling his eyes with delight.

It’s a joy to see him thrashing the ground and mashing the molehills with his forehead. Bulls dig, and soon there are sprays of soil and long, raking grooves where his hooves have ploughed. New swallows skim over his back, and the rain lies in beads along his thick curls. He has been four months without a bath, and I am keen to see him spruced and fresh in the smirr.

He catches sight of me and tips his chin to pour out a thin, rumbling bellow. Then he charges towards me at full speed across the grass; clods of soil fly into the low cloud. It’s a wincing, twisting fear to see him close the gap – his blocky shape is horribly lithe and flexible. It’s a game, but I must stand my ground and master him. My eyes widen and knuckles turn white around my stick – he almost weighs three hundred kilogrammes and I can see threads of creamy foam on his lip.

Rather than flatten me outright, he pulls up at the last moment and begins to bump me with his head – heavy shoves and mincing little steps like a boxer. This is his idea of fun, but it could crush me like a rotten post. There is not a bad bone in his body, but there are plenty of fragile ones in mine. I can bear a little of this game, but a decent tap on his nose brings him round. I am not a colleague, I am the boss. He stands back with an expression of confusion.

My heart is fluttering as he shrugs, turns his ears back and cartwheels away over the rushes like a gleeful acrobat. No hard feelings.

Late Leks

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Five years running

A cold north easterly wind has crushed everything into silence. We are a fortnight behind our usual calendar of events, and although we now have swallows and willow warblers, it’s hard to believe that cuckoos will be here in the next week.

I have held off visiting the leks because many of the sites I monitor are becoming quieter as black grouse continue to decline in Galloway. Perhaps I’m getting lazy, but I am inclined to wait until the weather is warm before trekking off into the back country at dawn. A cold morning could suppress the excitement of displaying birds, and I would be left high and dry without an accurate idea of numbers or distribution. Things usually hot up at the leks around the third week in April, so there is still plenty of time to get out and see what is happening.

In the meantime, I have been casting a keen eye round some “old favourite” lek sites for signs of returning birds. The black grouse are currently gorging on the moss crop, which means their turds are large, yellow and extremely easy to identify. I’ve written about this before, but I can’t resist mentioning that one bird on the Chayne seems to have returned to his old patch for the fifth year in a row.

I found some familiar droppings last week, and noted that they lie within a few inches of where they have been found every year since 2013. I went up for a quick look around this morning at 5:30am, but the cold wind kept everything down and despite a glorious sunrise, the only birds I saw were curlews and a few snipe.

 

Crab Apples & Sparrowhawks

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A germinating crab apple seed

Worth a very quick update on my crab apple project, which began in October with the grand harvesting of apples from suitable native stock. It was a slow, methodical process to extract the seed, and I was surprised by how variable the seed rate was in each fruit. Some of the apples contained four seeds, many had two and lots had none at all – perhaps this is a reflection of moderate year for blossom, but it confounds the idea that fruit = seed.

The harvested seeds were dropped in a tupperware tray full of soil over the winter, and it was fun to watch them freeze and thaw. This process helps the seed to germinate, and I was excited to find a dozen seedlings when I checked yesterday. These were carefully pulled out of the tupperware and placed in a seed tray, and now I have to keep them safe from mice, rabbits and chickens.

I’ve done plenty of work with trees before, but this is my first encounter with wild scottish crab apples. They seem surprisingly easy to cultivate, but there is still a wide margin for error and disaster.

It’s also worth recording that as I fished around for germinating seeds on a bench beside the house, a flight of five starlings soared past me at head height. The rush of their wings was extraordinary, and I turned to see them followed at close quarters by a sparrowhawk. I could almost have touched the hunting bird as he dropped over my shoulder, and the starlings were in the final stages of panic. They performed a last-ditch starburst over the chicken shed, motoring up and fanning out like red arrows. The hawk already had lock-on, and as the highest starling banked sharply up into the air, it was gripped neatly from behind with surgical precision. The two birds fell down in a quick somersault, and I abandoned my seeds for a closer look.

It has been possible to stand back and watch hawks eating when they have killed pigeons or thrushes in the yard over the winter, but this was too close. The hawk flared away when she saw me and carried the screaming starling over the dyke and away onto the moss. There are a few big granite boulders out there which raptors use to pluck their prey. I often see merlins and peregrines standing on the highest stone, and the grey slab is lashed with white paint and shiny black pellets.

 

Parentage and High Hopes

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Grand old Polbae Charlie – any calves born in May will be his offspring

Having done the sums and agonised over the calendar, I am really beginning to channel my enthusiasm for new calves. These will be my first, so I am operating at a fever pitch of anxiety and excitement.

Longer-term readers will remember the saga of my bulls last summer. I started with old Charlie, but injury and lameness soon put him out of the game. Charlie’s son Dominic was enlisted at short notice to cover any gaps, and I finally sold Dom to a breeder in Oxfordshire in October.

Doing the maths, I reckon that the earliest date calving could begin is 2nd May. Any calves born between this day and the 2nd of June will have been sired by Charlie. Calves which come after that date will be Dominic’s.

I am hoping that Charlie sired some calves, partly because I liked the old fellow but mainly because he was written off as useless and I can’t help backing the underdog. Some of the heifers look very heavily pregnant, so I have fingers crossed that the wily devil worked his magic despite a sore hip and stiff legs.

It’s unlikely that any of my calves will have riggit markings this year. Belted galloways are a different breed, and the offspring will be mongrelly galloways which some people call “beggit” (beltie x riggit). They’re still worthing having, but I cant deny that this was an error of judgement. To be honest, this is my first year of breeding and I’d just be happy with healthy calves irrespective of marking or colour.

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Caerlaverock Dominic – calves born from the start of June will be his offspring