Oats and Yellowhammers

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The oats grow every day, and the work I put into them is repaid by the extraordinary quantity and variety of birds which now hang around the rising crop. We have linnets and redpolls on constant rotation, and suddenly there are yellowhammers where before there were none. They must have come over from a nearby patch of scrubby gorse meadow, and it is impressive to see how quickly they have responded to our project.

I remember yellowhammers from my childhood, but they have become a rare sight in Galloway, which has become dominated by vast areas of grassland in the past two decades. My parents used to throw the word “yellowhammer” around as a cover-all name for little birds which they couldn’t identify; they were so common that a flicker of feathers in the hedgerow was usually dismissed with a shrug as “probably just a yellowhammer” in the way many people now say “it’s just a sparrow”.

The return of these birds is an absolute joy, and it is fine to hear them singing around the crop at the first moments of daylight. It’s hard to see what they are getting from the oats at the moment, but like the linnets, pipits and redpolls, they seem to lurk around the margins, hunting for insects. I can’t wait for my new hedges to grow and hopefully offer these stunning little canaries some nesting cover.

Yellowhammers will enjoy the stubbles even more when the oats are harvested, although there may be a spanner in the works. I worry that I have sown these oats too thickly, and the crop may soon collapse on itself. Recent winds flattened a large area of young plants, and while these are green enough to have stood up again, the future looks a bit messy. We will struggle to harvest and stook these oats if they collapse, and the solution may be to intervene early and make silage as a whole-crop. This would salvage some good fodder value for the cattle, but it will not have the same benefits for the wildlife.

Lessons are being learned, but this first dabble in arable (and specifically cereals) has been a voyage of thrilling discovery…

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A yellowhammer from the winter



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The hayfield is turning green again. The rain came and soaked out the rooty yellow stubble which was left after the baler came, and now the field shows a shimmer of life again. The baler came and it has stayed – I ended up buying it; a New Holland Hayliner 276. This machine might just be the most exciting and complex object I have ever laid my hands upon, and I have already spent a good deal of time oiling and greasing each of the many moving parts.

You could argue that I hardly need my own baler for the sake of three or four hundred bales a year, but hay balers are hard to come by and I value my independence in this project. My first steps into farming were utterly governed by the whims of contractors, many of whom felt that I was just a pipsqueak. I was continually sidelined and knocked to the bottom of the queue, and I have since worked hard to have my own machinery so that I can work as I choose. It’s hard to imagine how any small project can function successfully in a world of big machines and mega-contracts, and this baler should give me the freedom to work on my own terms.

It is also worth quickly recording an idea which came to me as I struggled and sweated through haymaking this year. Farmers often say that haymaking became unviable when the weather became wetter and less reliable. I agree – it’s wetter now than it was, but now I think this simple explanation is part of a more complex picture. We cut our hay on a Saturday, turned it on Sunday and Monday, then baled it on Tuesday. It is almost perfect; the best crop of hay that lots of neighbours have seen for years.

However, the job required a huge amount of labour and special attention to get the grass dry and ready for baling. I was able to tackle a six acre field and we took just under three hundred bales from it, but I’m not sure how I would have fared with ten or fifteen acres. Perhaps I could have managed fifteen acres in three days, but I would have needed a good deal of help.

The reality is that haymaking is much more hands-on than making silage – the level of human involvement is much greater. Hay is fiddly and subtle, and it simply doesn’t suit big operations which depend on volume over detail. Weather plays a part, but even the worst years often have three days of good weather – you can grasp a momentary window of good weather if you only have one field to worry about, but it’s harder if you have to tackle several hundred acres. Weather plays a part, but industrial economies of scale are probably more significant.

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A helping hand from my father’s Massey

Calves at Last

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If there was ever a time to write this blog, now would be it. We are still swooning with delight at the arrival of our first calf, and the yard smells sweetly of freshly mown hay, tucked up under the rafters and safe from the rain. But work and life conspire to consume my spare time and leave this blog untouched for weeks on end. In my defence, I am driving hard at my new book which has had some encouraging feedback from a promising agent. I have fingers crossed for this, but it is yet another obstacle between me and Working for Grouse.

The new calf has an almost immaculate belt – she is a perfect reminder of her father Caerlaverock Dominic. The genetics are dizzyingly complex, but the belt is a very dominant gene and perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at the appearance of this first calf. I can hardly call her a “belted galloway” given she is half riggit; perhaps it’s more accurate to call her a “galloway with belted markings”, but I am intrigued by the possibilities of what is essentially a “riggit in beltie’s clothing”. If I cross her with my riggit bull, will she have a riggit calf? Probably not, but the pleasure of this project is magnified by the fact that nobody knows for sure.




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Summer bounds past in a dusty rush of heat and flowers. The world has moved a thousand miles since my last post, and now I crouch beneath the weight of dry, sunbright days.

There is too much to tell, but let me gabble in hurried tones of fox cubs, roe kids and yellowhammers; a bolting hayfield shot with heads and the curling, skinnish corners of cut peat. The calves are late; they’re still to come but the oats are tall and rolling. A nightjar croons through blossom in hours of gentle darkness.

Last night I walked home through a galaxy of nodding cotton with a roe buck hung over my shoulder. Emperor moths flew from the heather like dry beech leaves and a ring ouzel blinked in the last flicker of late sun; his white bib was jammy and red.

Work and life continues. I can’t wait for the time to write again.