Early Spring

Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 16.21.52

Spring is filled with tiny traditions. We mark the first snowdrop, then coo at the catkins which come suddenly bright in the woods. Now there are song thrushes and skylarks, and the cattle sway beneath them in that star-filled stillness of dawn.

We walked last night along the old hill road as the sun slumped and the skyline steeped into foundering blue. It’s still too early to hear snipe calling, but recent days have brought an unholy warmth into this place. The birds are reeling from it, and they grasp at games which should be played in April. There’s a whiff of warming soil and the rocks are crispy and bright under our feet, so we rolled the dice and went to try our luck for a snipe in the final height of February.

Galloway lay beneath us. A broad spread of cooling country rolled away to the sky; forty miles of home without a single electric light to be seen. The last rub of day stirred the horizon into a thin red line which pooled and paled beyond the hills as stars began to gather.

The breeding song of a snipe comes to us somewhere between joy and unease. It’s not a sweet burbling trickle, but the mechanical rendition of air through feathers. A snipe does not speak his song; he plays it upon himself as if he were an instrument. We call it drumming, and the result is a moaning hum which makes your hair stand up in a prickle. A drumming snipe is a weightless thrill, but strong men collapse beneath the heft of it.

And in the final moments before thick darkness, a snipe began to drum. Gulled by the stillness or baffled by a panting day, he looped above us and joined one end of the year to another. If you like to pray, this is the time to do it.

By May it will be constant; the birds will drum at every hour of the day and night. Repetition dulls the punch of it, and it’s easy to ignore that sound. But for now it comes out of the sky like a starfallen ghoul, reeking of moss blossom and the crump of calves to come.

Curlews Home

Screen Shot 2019-02-22 at 19.05.32

You can’t believe everything you hear at this time of year. The starlings are back, and they’ve brought snatches of song from their winter on the coast. They copy lapwings and wild duck, and they blend those tunes into songs of their own. I look up from some chore and hear redshank passing over, then realise I’ve been duped.

Two starlings stand on the pitch of the byre roof, and they trail their wings and let fly a torrent of borrowed sound. Sometimes I hear the pitch-perfect rendition of a mewling buzzard, and then there’s a jittery kestrel’s laugh. Their impressions are so immaculately sketched out that I fall for them every time. And sometimes they tease me with curlews, and my hopes are always dashed when I look up and realise that the sound was merely a scratchy repetition like a parrot’s pretty polly.

But this morning as the bull shifted his weight and wrapped his tongue around a mound of rolled oats, I heard curlews true and clear. There were two birds on the moss, and they coasted drily through the dawn. I heard them call, and there was no mistaking it.

It’s five miles to the sea and they could easily vanish again if the weather turns, but it’s hard to see this as anything but progress.

Sacrificial Crops?

Screen Shot 2019-02-20 at 15.27.33.png
The bull filling his nose with chaff after another wholesome oatmeal dinner

The oats which filled my autumn have begun to pull their weight. This small crop of cereals was an experiment to find out how mixed farming could support wildlife, and I revelled in the phenomenal excess of birds during October and November. So far so good for wildlife, but I was always keen to make my work count for livestock too.

Lots of farmers are paid to plant “sacrificial” crops which are never harvested and are simply left for the birds to enjoy. It’s a good idea, but I dislike the feeling of nature being “bolted on” to a commercial enterprise. I’m never too comfortable with the “farming in this bit, nature in that bit” school of thought, which seems to imply that the two are somehow divergent and need to be kept apart. I’d much rather build birds into the active mechanism of this project.

I could’ve left my oats to moulder and given all the goodness back to the birds, but I wanted a share of my crop too. I used old-fashioned techniques to harvest those oats, and I managed to bring a ton and half of clean grain (plus a few hundred sheafs and seventy small bales of straw) into the sheds before the autumn descended. Now I’m feeding that stored crop back to my cattle, and I can see three key advantages to this approach over sacrificial crops.

  1. If the whole crop had been “sacrificed” in October, it would’ve been eaten or rotted away by Christmas. There would’ve been far too much feeding available for wild birds to use, and the overall effect would have been a waste. By bringing a large percentage of those oats in to dry and then doling them out to the cattle every day,  I’ve hugely extended the value of this crop. Small birds pick away at scraps, crumbs and rogue oats which are mumbled out by the browsing cattle every morning. Linnets and starlings love it.
  2. The oats are a fantastic feed for livestock. I’ve got the bull tuned in to eat a bucket of rolled oats every day and he’s steadily building condition and filling out in all the right places. Without these oats, I’d have to buy bags of concentrates to feed him, and things get environmentally ropey when you decide to ship in feed. Many of the best concentrates have a heavy focus on imports like soya and palm kernel, and I’d rather work with local stuff for obvious reasons.
  3. By the time I sold thirty straw bales and a quarter ton of rolled oats to a neighbour, I’d covered the financial outlay of growing the crop. I can now fatten the bull and feed another beast on the surplus, and I still have a mound of small oat straw bales which are universally useful. Of course I can’t establish a concrete bottom line for this project because the crop took so long to harvest and things would look less impressive if you factored in my hourly rate. However, this investment of time will not be anything like as hard to bear next year because I’ve learned how to cut several key corners and the work will be much faster and easier. For example, now that I know that cattle love eating whole sheafs, I probably won’t thresh so much next year because threshing was the desperately slow part.

Importantly, now I’ve seen what these crops can do for the farm and the wildlife, I’m trebly enthused to do more of them, not to satisfy any scheme or funding application but because I think it makes sense to grow them. Maybe I’m doomed to be a lone voice on this, and it’s probably unrealistic to imagine that many people will strain to follow my example when they hear how much work went into harvesting in 2018. But there is an added pride when I see the bulging pomposity of my bull and recognise my own sweat and labour in the hump which grows on his neck. He stands against a backdrop of linnets and finches, and I feel things starting to work.