Spring Suspense

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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.

Mink Boom

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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 –

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Pat Scratchers

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Caught brown-handed

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 pheasants per 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.

Spring Counts

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My wife’s dog flushes a pair

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.

 

Wildflowers

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Dyer’s Greenweed

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…

The Last Lapwing

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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.

Coney

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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.

Trees, Harriers and Growing Pressure

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Wintering birds do well in Galloway (for now…)

It’s been interesting to look back through some old photographs in Derek Ratcliffe’s brilliant book Galloway and the Borders from the New Naturalist series. Some of the NN books are overpowered with scientific data, but this one is a beautifully readable account of the Southern Uplands since the late 1950s. It has a heavy preponderance towards the west, and the book follows the author through a time of tremendous upheaval for Wigtownshire and the Stewartry of  Kirkcudbright. The new forests were being planted, and the wide moors were vanishing beneath sharp curtains of commercial spruce trees. Almost three quarters of our rough grazing and heather moors have been planted since 1945, and I couldn’t resist the chance to revisit some of the places which were photographed in the ’60s and ’70s to see them as they are now.

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The Clints of Dromore in 1960 (top) and on Sunday

A good example is the railway line at Dromore above Gatehouse of Fleet. This was the film location for part of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version of The 39 Steps, and it was photographed by Derek Ratcliffe in 1960. Fast forward half a century and the open lands are broken up with bands of dark trees. The few fragmented remains of open ground are rank and patchy, and it’s interesting to see how heather has been almost totally replaced by molinia grass at the foot of the Clints. There are a few possible causes for this, from climate change (wetter weather) to heather beetle and overgrazing, but it’s more likely to be a combination of multiple factors, made clearer by the fact that heather remains on the drier, less accessible cliff tops. (It also happens that this is a National Nature Reserve managed by SNH, and that makes the situation too complex to unpick in a quick blog article).

Either way, the view towards the Clints has been turned on its head and we can hardly expect wildlife to ignore that change. Curlews and golden plovers have now gone, and black grouse are so scarce as to be almost absent. The once abundant mountain hares are missing, lapwings are just a memory and even the talismanic peregrines are thin on the ground. The area beyond the Clints was protected from forestry to preserve the eagles which nested on the steep cliffs of Cairnsmore of Fleet. They’ve been gone for almost twenty years. It’s easy to look back on “the bad old days” of commercial forestry and complain about old injuries. Farmers have also played a part in this collapse, but we should be realistic about their significance given that farming has been a minority land use in the Galloway uplands for the last few decades.

I should be pragmatic and try and work with the landscape we have now, but the truth is that after a brief hiatus of forest activity, rough ground is again being planted with commercial spruce trees. It’s an ongoing injury, and as foresters home in on the final Galloway moorlands, it’s hard to see where this process will end. The last few fragments stand on the brink of extinction, and the value of rough land is steadily creeping up as foresters fight for the scraps. Hill farmers have always skimmed their profits from otherwise poor and unprofitable land, and there’s a certain irony in the fact that as I’m looking to build a hill farm and buy some rough ground, I suddenly can’t afford it.

There’s a lonely, beautiful streak of rough country above our farm. I go there because it’s one of the most reliable places to see hen harriers and short eared owls in this part of the county, but now I hear that it’s been sold and will be planted with trees this summer. I wonder what will become of the birds which hunt there during the winter, and already I hear the shrugged reply; “they’ll just go somewhere else”.

We’ve lost our entire breeding population of hen harriers in Galloway over the last forty years. These birds were resurging from historical persecution, and they drew birdwatchers like Derek Ratcliffe and Donald Watson to live here and make them famous. The new trees have seen our harriers off with more permanence and finality than any gamekeeper or grouse moor. Gamekeepers get the blame for destroying harriers, and some conservationists say that the birds are being persecuted into extinction. Persecution is clearly a factor in some areas, but we can’t ignore the fact that we’ve lost huge areas of potential harrier habitat to commercial woodland. We like having gamekeepers to blame, but the truth is a little closer to home. We’re all living on a small and very busy island, and as industries compete for the countryside, there’s an ever decreasing amount of space for specialised hill birds. Petitions are being circulated to ban grouse shooting and “save” the hen harrier, but these are disturbingly simplistic campaigns which totally overlook the subtleties of a very complex bird.

Having swept away our breeding harriers, we could easily lose our wintering birds too. In a good year for voles, hen harriers are the most common raptors I see on the hill and the farmland below it. They’ll plant that hill above the farm and the harriers will go elsewhere, but we’re now approaching a time when there’s nowhere else to go.

Ermine Puzzle

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image josef hlasek – http://www.hlasek.com

Driving out to dinner on Wednesday night, a beautiful stoat soared across the road in the car headlights. She was gone in a heartbeat, but I’d seen enough to mark brown forelegs and a brown head, then a brilliant white cape to the bristling tip of a black tail. I’ve seen less than a dozen white stoats in my life, and this glimpse was cherished beside a handful of other sparkling encounters.

But it set me to thinking. Not every stoat turns white in the winter, and I’ve seen brown stoats in every month of the year. If some stoats turn white and others don’t, there must be some genetic coding which dictates change for a proportion of the wider population. I’ve never seen a stoat that was 100% white, and so I start to wonder why.

It takes time to change your coat’s colour, and so maybe white stoats are only pure white for a few weeks each year. They’re probably somewhere in between brown and white for the rest of the winter, and perhaps this explains why even the whitest stoat always seem to have some brown about them. My absurdly detailed notes record that I trapped a white stoat on the 5th March 2011. This was the whitest stoat I’ve ever seen, but being able to study the beast at close hand, I found that it had brown spectacles around its eyes. It was only 95% pure.

Perhaps a move towards warmer, milder winters will begin to select against winter whiteness, but then I wonder if maybe there’s a middle ground between brown stoats and white ones. Maybe some only turn half white and consider the job done. Maybe that’s how the pure white colouring will gradually fading away in a warmer world. I suppose the only way to tell for sure would be to follow the progress of a single stoat all winter, but anyone who knows about wild stoats would see that’s a non-starter. They move so quickly and with such dazzling excitement that you might as well track the progress of a spark.

It’d be interesting to hear if any readers have pondered this, because while stoats are ineffably cool and interesting animals, it’s not easy to find any good information on their ecology and the science of that colour change.

On Cowpats

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Feeding galloways on oat sheafs

Can’t resist another irresistibly tiny postscript to the oat crop of last year.

I’ve laboured the many differences between feeding bruised (processed) oats and wholecrop (bundles of oats which were simply cut, dried and stored). We processed the oats by feeding them through a bruiser which is designed to crack the tough outer shell of the oat so that the animals can digest it properly. It’s a lot of work, but the bull is now on a steady diet of bruised oatmeal, and it’s clear from his cowpats that his digestive system is doing a very efficient job on this diet.

But I’ve started to feed him (and his heifer companion) whole sheafs over the last few days as our hay supplies dwindle. These oats have not been cracked, and now their cowpats are coarse with straw and I find them littered with undigested oats which glimmer like gold in the shit. The birds have not taken long to spot these gems, and now there are reed buntings and larks hanging around the cowpats and digging carefully through the steamy muck. I remember hearing old tales from family friends about how partridges and black grouse would often peck at cowpats, and I can easily imagine how useful this might have been as a food source for wild birds.

I’d guess that only a very small percentage of oats are passing through the cows without being digested. I don’t mind the waste, but now I’m undecided as to whether it was worth the work of bruising this crop. It’s just one of countless ways that old fashioned farming used to be a bedrock for an entire wealth of birds and wildlife, and while it seems like a tiny detail, it’s got me puzzled.