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.
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
I seem to have developed a golden touch when it comes to owl boxes. My first few were failures way back in 2011, but recent progress has been extremely satisfactory. I can’t resist publishing a quick picture of “our” owls emerging from the latest box which hangs in the bull’s shed. I built this box out of scrap wood a few months ago and recorded its installation in a blog article. Owls were using the box within a week, so it was clearly a placed in a good spot.
The box might be well positioned for owls, but it’s an awkward spot for a trail camera. It has taken me a while to actually capture this photographic evidence of its use, and now I have issues around “overkill” – I have acquired thousands of photos and almost an hour of video to sift through – dredging through this material will take some time…
The cold weather has held everything back, and April is slipping away as if it were March. It has hardly been worth looking for any signs of black grouse yet, and the curlews are oddly subdued by the cold winds which run over the hills from the North and East.
Stretching our legs last night, my wife and I climbed on to some high ground behind the house to get a feel for spring’s progress. This hill is an awkward, tricky place to reach at the best of times, and extensive areas of dense commercial forestry place the summit beyond the determination of most people. It so happens that this is a good place for ring ouzel and it forms the last tiny stronghold for black grouse in this part of Galloway. It’s always worth the hard, brutal slog through miles of broken forestry, and in many ways it’s a wonder that public land has been allowed to become so inaccessible. I’m certainly not complaining, as the lack of visitors make this a valuable place to walk and watch birds.
Red grouse cackled on the flat, heather-buried top, and we found some fresh signs of black grouse where the moss had fallen away and the hill’s bare knuckle was exposed in a ledge of granite.
As always, we were staggered by the extensive mass planting of native trees which took place here over a decade ago as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund conservation project for black grouse. I remain utterly unconvinced by the logic of this planting, which would have served only to break up a good (and increasingly rare) piece of open hill ground – but my opinion hardly matters because the trees have almost all failed. Many are dead, most have been nibbled into bushes by the deer and perhaps one in every hundred has survived to extend a sad, bushy twig more than a few inches above the top of the plastic guard. It’s a cold, exposed spot and it would be unfair to expect rapid growth on the summit of a tall hill, but there are major problems here which go beyond aspect and altitude. There has been zero follow-up or maintenance for this planting, and the roe deer have been having the time of their lives.
It’s not easy to find much information about this project, but it seems to have been a partnership between RSPB and the Forestry Commission. I’m happy to be corrected on this, but as you walk up the hill through a dark, moss-covered forest ride, there is an utterly bizarre plastic Heritage Lottery Fund sign which claims ownership of the work. It’s a creepily corporate spectacle, and it stands so far away from the planting that at first sight you have to wonder what it’s claiming credit for.
Ten years on, the only thing this work has achieved is the wholesale desecration of a stunningly beautiful piece of open hill ground – thousands upon thousands of empty plastic tubes stand whistling in the wind. They will never be removed and survive as a permanent reminder that trees do not come to anything without long term deer management. It’s hard to convey the scale of the planting in a photo (above), and now I’m hoping to borrow a drone and get some aerial views which would help to make the point.
It is very difficult to create useful habitats for any species with a single “one-off” lump sum, and it’s bizarre that so much money was spent without any real follow-up or maintenance. Black grouse are a particularly expensive species to conserve because they require proactive, dynamic management across entire landscapes – this looks more like a momentary splurge of funding, jettisoned into the wind before the end of the tax year.
As if to emphasise the value of continuity, I note from some small records of the project which still survive online that heather management was also undertaken when the trees were planted. Some lines were mowed in the undergrowth, and some of this work is visible on old satellite imagery (grid reference is NX913630). But again, plants have a habit of growing back and this management has now almost vanished from sight. Perhaps it would have had value if it had been sustained, but you cannot manage a moor for a single season and then consider the job done forever.
I can’t help thinking that this work has been brushed under the carpet. A lack of sustained input has rendered this work utterly meaningless, and it would be nice to see the project partners taken to task for wasting a decent slab of conservation funding. As it is, nobody knows it ever happened and nobody will ever see the dead plastic forest on the hills between Dalbeattie and Dumfries. The black grouse which survive on this hill do so because it’s a good spot, well-linked to several areas of suitable habitat. They probably owe their survival to a lack of human disturbance, but their position is precarious and seems to be on a constant knife edge. I can’t see that they derived anything more than a brief and tiny boost from the heather management, and zero benefit whatsoever from the trees.
Brexit has presented us with the chance to review how we look after wildlife and fund conservation work. I hope this project (which amounts to little more than semi-industrial littering) serves as a useful case study for how black grouse should not be conserved.
It has been almost a month since they began to pair off in the pine tree above the pig sty, and the little birds call throughout the day. The male brings prey for his partner, and she scrambles out of the nest to gobble down his gifts. Long periods of sitting seem to make her numb and stiff, so she tumbles through the pine needles towards him like a drunkard, trilling with glee.
He returns every hour throughout the day with some fresh morsel. I can see the whole affair from my office window against a greening world as chiffchaffs sing in the willows and the moor is hung with larks.
Working on the new cattle pens last night, we sat out for a beer in the gloaming and listened to the male kestrel’s long, noisy display. He flew high up in huge circles around the farm, gliding strangely and holding his wings at odd new angles. We were being put to bed; this is his place, and he was riding the marches.
A few herring gulls laughed at the wind and flew out to the Solway. Lapwings turned and tumbled in the distant flooded fields.