After several weeks on a diet of oatmeal, hay and oat straw, the bull is beginning to take shape. I’ve heard people crooning over their livestock for years and always found it hard to fathom. But now I have a bull of my own and I’ve worked to feed him into fitness with the sweat off my back, I know that pride and understand the power of it. This beast is mine and to me he shines.
His first calf will be born in the next few days, and the suspense is a torture. I’m starting to realise that farming is basically just a highly stylised form of patience, and waiting for the calving to begin has ground my teeth down to their stumps.
I’ve got high hopes that his first calf will be a nicely marked riggit, but these beasts don’t always breed true. The calf might be white or black or somewhere in between, and I love that unpredictability which harks back to the days before breed societies and pedigree certificates. It must be dull to work with other breeds where you already know how the calf will look before the bull has gone out, and that’s one of many reasons why I reckon riggit beasts trump other kinds of cattle.
And if we get a well-marked calf, it’ll represent some slender thread of resumption. It’ll probably be the first riggit born on this place for a century, and a reminder that these animals are nothing new here in Galloway. I have fingers so tightly crossed that the nails have gone white.
We’ve had a strangely active year for mink on the river below the house. The traps have been working busily since the start of January, and one in particular has caught eleven mink in three months. That’s a fair number of mink by anyone’s standards, and there are five really notable things which are worth recording from this trap –
The months between New Year and Easter seem to be the most active for mink. From what I can gather, males will travel long distances to find females, and nine of the eleven mink I’ve had in this trap have been males. I hope this means I’ve created a black hole into which mink from a wide area have been vanishing. I used to have a large number of traps all along the river, but I’m starting to think I can do more good with just one or two well placed traps. It takes time to walk around and check a large number traps all day, so if mink are on the move, why not let them do the walking and come to me?
I can be pretty sure I’ll catch a mink after heavy rain when the river is up. I think that mink probably prefer to clamber up and down the river bed, but when the water level rises, they’re forced to move along burnside bankings and tow-paths. There have been two or three times when I’ve lain in bed at night, heard rain lashing against the window and correctly guessed that I would have a mink in the morning.
The mink I’m catching are steadily getting smaller and smaller. When I started, I caught a series of monstrous mink, one of which was twenty seven inches from nose to tail. These beasts made for an imposing sight, and some of them were as hefty as a housecat. Now I’m catching mink which are only around twenty inches long or less, and I begin to wonder if I’ve killed off the dominant breeding males in this area. Without the big hitters, younger mink are coming in to look for territories and getting caught themselves. This lends weight to the “black hole” idea, and I hope it means that I’m really making some good progress.
Of these eleven mink, five have been silver and the rest were the classic “black with a white chin”. At first I thought that silver mink were a minority, but as I continue to catch more and more animals, I find the balance is beginning to even out.
I caught a pregnant female last week. Judging by her progress, she would probably have been dropping her young in a month. There’s very little information on feral mink populations in the UK and I can’t tell if this is to be expected, but birthing in April certainly makes sense.
Mallard are down on their nests and the riversides are steadily refilling with grey wagtails, dippers and kingfishers. I can’t afford to take my foot off this progress, and it’s strangely comforting to find this work comes so easily. These mink have been bizarrely straightforward to catch, and I reckon a child could have gathered up as many (or more) as I’ve had in the last three months. I’m used to working hard on trapping, and most of my time is spent winkling out canny foxes and crows. It’s always slightly stunning to find mink blundering into traps like drunkards, but I’m certainly not complaining.
I don’t want to dwell on cowpats, but it’s interesting to follow the gathering momentum which now stirs around the oat stubbles where some of our beasts are being wintered. Alongside hay and a ration of rolled oats, the cattle are being fed on a sheaf of whole oats every afternoon. I’ve written before about how this has led to oats passing through their guts to re-emerge in the cowpats, and I’ve gone into graphic detail recording how larks and buntings then gouge into these steaming heaps and dredge out the seedy goodness.
But now I see cowpats actively being pulled to pieces and raked apart. Tall, sponge-cake stacks of cow shit are being shredded, and at first I wondered who the culprit could be. The damage was too great for a lark or a starling, and the devastation spread scraps of muck over several square feet. It was only this afternoon that I realised a pheasant has learnt to rake over this bounty, and he’s capitalising on the spent grain.
I’m not sure how to feel about pheasantsper se, but I’m encouraged by the foraging habits of this bird. Firstly, pheasants now occupy the niche which used to belong to truly wild game like partridges and black grouse. So while it’s a bit of a generalisation, the fact that a released pheasant is pecking at those cowpats seems to confirm the traditional rumour that wild game used to do the same.
It’s also interesting that it’s taken this bird almost four months to pick up this habit. That nudges at something I’ve been feeling about farming and wildlife for a few years; basically that much of what we recognise as “traditional” wildlife behaviour was actually passed down as a form of heritage between generations of wild birds.
I’ve spoken to lots of people who used to see black grouse feeding on cereal crops in the 1960s and 70s. When cereal crops vanished from the hills and the birds began to decline, many of these people put two and two together. Hoping to do their bit for the birds, some of these folk planted small patches of cereal crops which were explicitly designed to help black grouse. I tried the same myself with the turnip fields I planted for black grouse in 2013 and 2014, and I hoped that the birds would be buoyed by the resumption of old agricultural methods. It turned out to be a complete failure.
Of course the truth is that black grouse have no genetic affection for cereal stooks or turnip fields. They gradually learned to feed in these unnatural places, and adult birds passed the habit on to their youngsters. When farming ran at a peak for wildlife, birds knew exactly where to be and when. Then farming changed and the birds were jolted out of that pattern. Cereal stooks vanished, and birds stopped seeing corn dried in the fields. Many of them “forgot” how to use these places, and it’s no wonder that the link was broken. I’ve got no doubt that black grouse would learn to use cereal crops again, but it would take decades of persistent work to reignite those old habits. The oat stooks are a tiny example of a much bigger two-way relationship which has totally collapsed, and it’s naive to imagine that it will just pick up where it left off.
To some extent, the same is true with this pheasant. We often look back on the “good old days” when farming traditions supported a wide variety of birds and wildlife in the countryside. We farmed according to habit and heritage, but we often overlook the fact that birds exploited those habits with a heritage of their own. A hundred years ago, every farm in this parish would have been feeding horses and cows with whole crop cereals for at least part of the winter. No turd would have been left unturned, and every bird would’ve known where to look. Now it takes a single pheasant four months to come up with the idea of thumbing through a cow pat, but that’s how traditions begin.
I did a quick loop around the hill this afternoon, counting grouse and checking on their progress before breeding begins. It seems that what we lack in numbers, we’re making up in pristine quality. I only found a handful of pairs, but the birds were glitteringly perfect and strong. They’ve a good deal of progress to make up after last year’s failures, but it was grand to hear them cackling beneath a growing spread of skylarks and pipits. Our neighbours were out and burning, and the smell of heather smoke washed across the open ground until the hill was giddy with spring.
Reading on through Derek Ratcliffe’s book on Galloway and the Borders, it’s strange to discover lists of wildflowers which used to be abundant in southwest Scotland. Their names are creepily unpleasant because while many used to be common, I’ve never heard of most of them. This is partly because botany is not my forte, but mainly because we’ve seen an astonishing slump in plant diversity here over the last forty years. This has underpinned the collapse of all kinds of other species, and it’s hard to deny the relevance of half-forgotten plants.
I picked two of Ratcliffe’s “common” flowers and sent away to a seeds company for a few samples. I’ve ended up with common rock rose and dyer’s greenweed; both were extremely common species here until quite recently. I can’t remember ever having seen either in the wild (perhaps that’s just my ignorance), and now I’d like to play with these plants and learn a bit more about them. The two little sachets of seeds are hardly going to change the world, but they may pave the way for more substantial work in future years. I’ve sown them in what I hope will be suitable spots along the farm track, and I’d like to report back on their progress in due course…
Wading birds are coming home. I find teams of golden plover on the hill, and I wake to see the fields full of lapwings. It’s easy to rejoice after months of silent darkness, and I reach out to these birds in joy.
But even in a moment of optimism, there’s something odd and malformed about this return. The golden plover only stay for a day or two, and the lapwings break into odd, unhappy groups. They move on, and only a few remain in scattered corners. The reality is that this place isn’t what it used to be, and our fields have become thin and hostile to breeding birds. The change has come about so quickly that they can’t make sense of it. Most waders are bound to return to the place where they were hatched, and they lack the inspiration to try somewhere better. The lapwing’s thready crest bobs in confusion because he can’t fathom why what worked for his parents won’t work for him.
A lapwing has returned to the pools below the cattle. I’ve seen him every day for the last fortnight. He sings and paddles the cool breeze, but there’s no female bird to join him. It was the same story last year, and he was gone by the middle of April. Summer came and went without lapwings above those broad meadows, and that was a first in my lifetime. But the world didn’t end; things went on as normal, and I began to worry that it’s my fault for feeling it too deeply.
Lapwings stand a chance when they breed in loose communities and every bird contributes to the success of others. But these isolated loners are on the back foot from the day they return, and the question isn’t “will they fail?” but “when”? Lapwings only live for a few years, and their old habits will die with them. It won’t be long until they stop trying; now that failure is a standard, maybe resignation will be something like relief.
The curlews will last longer because they’re built to make old bones. They might live for thirty years or more, and they can put up with successive failure for longer than other birds. But even curlews are collapsing now, and it’s hard to hear them calling without a wince of dread. The chances are that our curlews will fail again this year. We’ll lose them too one day – it’ll take a little longer, but it’s coming.
Wading birds bring night songs and a flaring heft of hope. We thank them with our love, but they don’t mean to please us. They’re just playing out the pulse of some mechanical instinct, and it no longer makes sense.
Spring comes at night under the moon and the hurl of stars. It comes in the drilling morse of oystercatchers which rally round the silty floods under cover of darkness. And it comes in the giggling flare of shelducks, and the drift of woodcock above the willows. Now there are wagtails bouncing on the dyke tops, and a handful of lapwings which dab around the wet grass and pretend not to care that they’re few and far between these days.
I remember Joe Irving, who’d worked up the Glenkens as a keeper and used to train spaniels for the trials. Joe knew everything there was to know about rabbits, and he tried to teach me when I was a child of seven or eight. I learned to set snares, and he showed me how to lay longnets in the night. It was Joe that taught me how to stink out a warren with creosote rags so the rabbits would lie up in the grass and the dogs could work them better. And it was Joe who noticed that rabbits were starting to wither away in Galloway ten years before anybody else clocked it.
Rabbits used to be big business when Joe was a boy. He had a thousand words for rabbiting work, and he spoke of blatts and scuts; canners and gows. Those words were never meant to be written, and now that rabbits have almost gone in Galloway, I’ve got little use for them anymore. Joe took most of that old know-how with him when he finally went to ground in the kirkyard at Irongray, and that’s where it’ll stay.
Coney is an old and fairly common word for rabbit, but Joe used it specifically to mean youngsters when they’re mainly grey but turning brown and starting to get bold. The way he spoke, he’d say it “cornie”. He’d mark the coming of spring by two dates; the day of the first coney and the return of his wee boys – (swallows gave him more pleasure than all other birds combined). I’ve learned to mark those dates as well.
Swallows are still three weeks away, but the first coney came this morning; a blinking figure in the lee of the dark whinns. We’re really making progress now.