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Late silage is a bastard job. Gone are the fine barometric subtleties of haymaking in June. Now is the time for distracted contractors and ham-fisted hurry. The grass is thick and heavy like a fold of sodden fabric, but the goodness is waning and soon the wads of growth will dissolve into juicy soup. We have to act in spite of the grey days and frosting dawns; this stuff is the fuel to power the project and we are doomed without it.

The field is mowed but there is little scent of fallen grass. Instead there are muddy gales of diesel and sweat beneath low clouds and the first few migrant geese. We have moved beyond the hope of dryness, and now it’s just a race to the bottom; a last minute smash and grab against the elements. We don’t turn the crop too often because that would bring up muck and scar the field. Instead we dance around the edges and ladle the green broth into plastic bags with heavy machines.

I should be glad of this second cut. There was a time in June when I wondered how I would feed my beasts this winter. Now I have sufficient volume if not quality, and I am rocked back on my heels at the memory of my former sanctimony. I used to rail against silage and commercial grass production, but now I depend upon it. I can roll back some shreds of this work to improve the world for curlews and wild birds, but I begin to see that you cannot look objectively at this industry until your own neck has been on the line.


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The wind ripped over the rocks and bore the trees away. Needles birled in the yard, and our grand old pine was pulled to her knees. We are left with splintering shafts of yellow wood and red bark like scabs of rust; the pigs wrestle with the wreckage and munch the bristling tips with gulps of sappy spittle.

The owls nested in a tall ash tree which burst like a cracker in the storm. I did not notice this disaster at first – I was preoccupied with cylinders of beechwood and sawdust; the rush to lift the first pick of firewood which had fallen on the roads. But then there were owls in broad daylight; a group of three youngsters hunting along the dykes at noon. One flew almost within arm’s reach and tried to land on the tip of a dead foxglove. Of course the stem bent double like a sweep’s brush and the bird fell like a fool on the grass. Owls are not born wise.

It was only later that I realised why these birds had become bold day-things. They had not chosen to leave their nest; the wind had cracked them out the trunk like a second hatching. Now black streaks of hollow heartwood show where the nest used to be, and I run my hands over the fallen bough where the owlets clambered like oafish kids in August. The young birds were “out” because they had lost their “in”. A disaster like this might have killed these owls a month ago, but they are almost strong enough to try the world without help. Even as I stared at the broken bark, another youngster wobbled past and turned into the wind.

I stood and watched the birds fly as evening came and they moved in a loose pattern onto the moor where they hunted in long draws like a team of setters. They wandered  into the wind, frowning downwards in steady concentration. I went to join them, and I found the three birds milling like moths above dank beds of cranberry and myrtle. Sometimes they would flare up at a glimpse of something mouseish. They would paddle for a moment in thin air, trailing long shanks and black feet like bait below them. The pounce would come with all the passive certainty of falling; the birds dropped flat-faced into deep grass. But they are novices, and they seldom killed anything I saw.

Crows came to rattle at them as the sun sank, and the owls caught the failing light in their hoods, red as apple jelly. Their steady, innocent beauty was pathetically fragile. This would not be the first year I find inexperienced owls wrecked by hawks or buzzards. But now there is now more darkness than daylight, and safety will come when the young birds learn to ply their trade in the dusk.


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I step out before dawn and find the sky is thick with snipe. They call in the darkness, and the noise comes to me wetly like wellies pulled from mud. Soon I am climbing over dewy gates and up onto the hill, where grouse cackle and blue day begins to leak between gaps in the heavy cloud.

The hill is wet and the burns clash and rattle away the night’s rain. Our land is surrounded on all sides by commercial spruce plantations, and the rushing growth of trees has thrown up new walls and a sense of dark claustrophobia. Each summer draws the young trees higher, and new thickets blur like stubble in the half light. The spruces bleed a veil of sweaty cloud onto the open ground and the heavy air moves through the dykes like a grey illness. This old moorland world has become a soggy pit in an ocean of treetops. Two pigeons boo and swell in the draughty forest, but the trees are otherwise silent.

Sheep peck through knuckles of granite and blue whinstone on the high ground. Here are more snipe, and the clattering flicker of blackgame like grainy images from a silent movie. The wet hollows are filled with scabious and the grass of parnassus; globes and galaxies of flowers in a flat blue light. There is a swirl among the distant sheep as they see me coming and recoil like wild animals.

I stand for a time and watch the sun rise from the highest point. The cairn is spattered with raven’s shit, and the stones are gritty with beetle wings and splinters of bone. Swallows pass overhead, two thousand feet above sea level and three miles from the nearest nest. They are unmistakably on passage, gathering speed for the vault over Europe and away to safety. They bicker noisily and head south in groups of half a dozen, and I feel a twinge as I remember the brood which only fledged from our byre last week. They left it too late, and the fragile youngsters emerged to a world of rain and cold winds. They scrabble to make up lost time, but now they are dying like flies and I have found two of their bodies in the yard, sloe blue and empty. Their lives would have been very different in June when insects moved like smoke through the sunset and hunting was a mug’s game. One hundred and seventeen new swallows flew away from our sheds this summer, but I cannot help dwelling on these final failures.

Now pipits pass in clouds of fifty and more across the open land. I hear the thin, seeping whine of small birds as the sun comes at last to pour cool, jammy light on the land towards Langholm and Annandale. These birds are impossibly ubiquitous, and the gentle simplicity of their calls has been worn flat by overuse. They are also heading south and I am just in time to relearn the pleasure of their tiny details before they go.


Ash Tree

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The owls have spurned my box. They preferred the cracked chimney of a tall ash tree by the river. Now we hear the youngsters clashing and snoring throughout the night, and the adult birds ferry a stream of flesh into the low boughs.

We went to see them by torchlight and found three well-grown children nodding and shrugging on the bark. Each one is subtly different in size and style; quirks of age and sex are spelled out in feather length and tone. I see them and think of commercial packaging; the same branding stamped on a range of quantities and varieties. One looked me squarely in the eye at hissed like a cat; beak parted like an origami salt seller.

Their wails are endless, and I stand on the stubbles and listen to their rasping phrases beneath a hanging smear of rain. The sounds hang around the mist on the low ground like a file panting rust. Water gabbles below the old ash tree, and the soil is dark and heavy. There are sudden tangs of mould and fallen grass, and walking moves us through chambers of warm and cold air like a hotel corridor. I hear water voles rippling through the rummel, and fat mallard rush against the rain.

It is not long before the adult owls return with a rat. There is a swell of huffing complaint, but the young birds are only satisfied for a heartbeat.