Stooks

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Chattering steel teeth skimmed through the oats and they fell in a veil like a grey, rustling wave. Rain threatened, and the crop cannot lie on its side when it is wet. It must be bound, so I only cut what I can tie. A single eight foot sweep yields forty sheafs, and it takes an hour of patient stacking and binding to tidy up in silence. There used to be machines which did this job in one pass. They were called “reaper binders”, and they passed through the crop and left a trail of sheafs in their wake. They were big and complex, and the important parts were made from canvas and wood. Few reaper binders have survived the grind of rot and woodworm, but some survive in the Outer Isles where crofters are encouraged to keep the old ways alive. They refused to embrace modernity, and now we pay them to farm as if it were 1950. I can’t resist a sneer of envy.

It will take several days for me to clear this field on my own, and my hands are raw with the burning slip of string and stems. More stooks, and the cut plants glow like golden chapels on the stubble. I am painstakingly slow, building beautiful hourglass sheafs and stacking them to spread their skirts so that the rain will run down and vanish into the soil. You cannot hurry this job, and good sheafs last longer than tatty ones. Even when I stop for coffee and a sandwich, the stubbles crackle gently like the sound of a fizzy drink. I sit on spools of golden tape; glossy straw in shining strands.

Some of the crop has fallen on its side and cannot be cut; the cutting bar cannot get beneath it. At first I try to dig these up with a sickle, but there is too much and I remember that part of this job is for the birds. I begin to leave small patches here and there where the tractor wheels have flattened the crop, and soon the field begins to looks tatty and amateurish.

I am surprised to find that I draw increasing pleasure from neatness and perfection. Perhaps it is the same instinct which has driven gardeners to create natural worlds with ruler-straight lines, but now I find there is dull joy in the imposition of order. I want to do a smart job and create something tidy. But birds love chaos, and I have to remind myself not to manicure the stubbles into uniformity. I could sift through every plant and pick the best for myself, but I resolve to do a sensible amount and hold back from outright efficiency.

The heat builds, and I work on until the air is thick and black darkness piles up over the hills to the west. A few curlews fly in the sunshine; yellow sparks against heavy naval blue. I wonder if they are new birds or whether these are more failures returning from another tragic summer in the North. Then there is rumble of thunder to match the tractor’s roar, and rain begins to shatter the dry peace of the morning. I tell myself that the crop will be safe in the stooks, but rain like this would destroy a field of hay and my confidence begins to fail. I spring from the cab and bind the last few sheafs beneath a battering veil of rain which drums on my back and turns my hair heavy. The water hunts for my blisters and a pink, watery juice drips from my palms.

It does not take long for the stooks to turn dull and black beneath the water. They look awful; looming, sodden heaps which are primed for decay. I can hardly ignore the certainty of disaster; the tall, waving heads are being gummed into dull submission and the job is falling apart. A stook falls over and I rush to repair it, but now the straw is soggy and weak and the bundle flops like a rag. I am glad I have done so little. Most of the crop is still safe and standing.

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Heather Beetle

 

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This heather is now well and truly dead – stressed by beetle in 2017, then killed by a bad growing year

I can hardly resist a quick post about heather on the Chayne. Long term readers will remember the “heather laboratory” which was set up in 2010 to explore the level of grazing pressure on a small area of our hill. I routinely publish updates on how the plant life has fared over the last eight growing seasons, and heather beetle has played a major part in that story.

Beetles first arrived in 2012 and decimated the fresh young growth. The plants bounced back, but they were hammered again in 2013 and 2014. Each season of damage knocked the heather back and meant it was less able to compete with rapidly growing mosses and grasses. The “laboratory” was becoming less heathery every year, and beetles were the main driving force behind the decline of heather coverage.

There has been beetle damage every year since 2012. The usual pattern has been damage in the autumn, followed by recovery in the spring. It’s hard for plants to make progress under these conditions; they stand still and are unable to break out of a cycle of suppression. Last year’s outbreak was fairly bad, but I was reassured by the knowledge that the plants would certainly bounce back in the spring. I wrote an article on the Heather Trust’s blog in April explaining my optimism, but I did not reckon on the cold start to the year and the long dry summer which followed. The heather was unable to recover as it normally does, and when I visited last week I was unable to find any heather plants which have survived the dry summer.

I’ve travelled across the country looking at heather beetle for the last eight years, and it is a common theme that heather usually bounces back from a beetle attack. Provided that grazing pressure is kept under control and outbreaks do not become cyclical, beetle damage often restores itself, although it can lead to structural problems which call for active management. The lesson I take from this patch of heather is that beetle is not always a standalone problem, but instead beetle damage drives change.

We often hear it said that beetle is more prolific on wet ground, and there are some links between wet conditions and beetle breeding cycles. At the same time, beetle outbreaks also take place on dry ground, and perhaps the crucial difference is that damage effects both, but plants which grow on wet ground are already on the back foot and cannot regenerate so easily as those in better conditions. Perhaps this magnifies the significance of the damage and means that beetle outbreaks are more serious when they take place on wet ground.

I have no doubt that my heather would have survived a cold spring and a dry summer if it was in good condition, and I am certain that this problem has only come about because the plants were first weakened by beetle.