Birth

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Imagine the darkness before dawn, and the slosh of cool rain after a dry month. A curlew is calling, and the rushes dance to the patter of falling water. There are violets and celandines at the dyke foot; the knowes are crowded with wood anemones and bluebells. It’s fast becoming day, and the glen is soft and rolling with a smool of mist. The purl of a cuckoo comes like a pulse from the hill; close and mothersome like a living comfort.

The stones are soaking, and the soil drinks the rain into a paste. Now is a time to be born, and I can do little more than envy our first riggit galloway calf. He’s quiet and shy, and he’s everything we’ve worked towards for half a decade.

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Pox

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It’s hard to face the sudden appearance of squirrel pox in this part of Galloway. We stood above the rising tide of grey squirrels for so long that I’d begun to think they’d never come. Red squirrels ran chirping through the trees, and I took them for granted because I never knew the trees without them. For all I knew, grey squirrels were a curse borne by other people; something like a rumour of pollution in foreign places. But now they’ve come and our woods are filled with sickness and decay. We’re the new front line in a war which has driven red squirrels out of this country, and there’s no reason to believe that the outcome will be any different here. Even where red squirrels have been restored and the greys repelled, the battle rages on and people fight simply to stand still; to hold their ground.

Of course I can be proactive, and I’ve begun to fight back. There’s so much evidence that the disease can be managed by removing the grey squirrels, so now I have traps and bait and I’m working to galvanise others to join me. But part of me is tired of fighting a relentless struggle against loss and collapse which seems to come from every angle.

It’s not easy to run madly into another campaign; to stir other people into action and collide against the same obstacles of inertia and indifference for the hundredth time. Perhaps I’m writing this at a low ebb when my slim resources are already stretched to breaking point. Maybe I’d feel more optimistic with the sun on my back and a pint in my belly, but it’s been ten years since I nailed my colours to the mast and broke my heart trying to save black grouse in Galloway. Now those birds are almost gone, and I’ve been pushed back beyond a dozen red lines which once stood far behind me. I’ve given ground, and as I watch curlews following black grouse into the grave, I’m forced  to wonder what we’ll lose next. It’s hard to find much success in my work at times like this. All I’ve done is throw obstacles and hinderances beneath the wheels of an advancing monster.

There are always new holes appearing; even the safest ground is frayed and sore. I have to remind myself that I can only do what I can.

Piglets

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We borrowed a boar in December. His name was Percy and he stayed with our sows for seven weeks. We watched for signs of progress, but Percy was vast and idle and he seemed to do little more than sleep for the entire duration of his visit. Not knowing any better, we began to worry that our breeding plans had misfired. Maybe we’d need to try another boar, or look again at the health of our sows. But then March came and the girls began to swell and sag. We cottoned on and crossed our fingers.

I checked on the first sow at 5:15 on Saturday morning. I’d been out for a fox on the unlit hill, and curlews pealed over the yard. She was asleep in the deep straw, wobbling like jelly with every flick and twitch of her dreams. Everything seemed calm and stable in the sty, so I went into the house to sleep for a couple of hours. When I came back to check on her again, the sun was well up over the sheds and the chickens were scratching in the midden where the nettles grow. It was hardly mid-morning, and there were eleven piglets nuzzling at the sow’s belly.

We’re new to keeping pigs, and the world is full of horror stories. We’d read gruesome tales of sows which eat their own young, and we’d walked in fear of a thousand problems. But this young sow pressed out her litter without the slightest call for help; and they’d responded with enthusiasm and complicity.

Their first few hours came in a kind of musical chairs. The piglets would fight and scrum for their milk, and that made the sow uneasy. She’d stand up and turn round, and the youngsters were painfully vulnerable to being trodden or crushed. Any piglet standing in a vulnerable position when she lay back down was doomed. It was a full-time job to rescue them, and perhaps it’s inevitable that we should have suffered an early casualty. The runt was crushed by a careless step, and maybe that was a mercy because the little pig was losing ground and weighed little more than a handful of straw.

To keep them safe, we sat with them for the first night when they were small and fragile. I sent curling strands of cigarette smoke into the rafters and listened to the crackle and flex of little beasts sleeping on the straw. It was fine to recall the harvesting of that oat straw in the sunlit days of September, less than a stone’s throw from where it was being used.

There was dust and the smell of warm bodies, and the stars rolled past in the broken skylight window. I looked at the old stone walls and imagined the many pigs which have been born in this building in the years before it was mine. I bound those hours into a plait of memories and connections which seems to grow sturdier with every season we spend in this place. We’ve been here for two years, and already it seems impossible that we could ever leave.

But what piglets they are now at four days old. We chose to work with pedigree Oxford Sandy and Black pigs because we loved their markings and the appeal of spotty pigs. Our first weaners were stunning, but then we decided to keep breeding stock and grew the females into adulthood. Oxford Sandy and Black markings often seem to fade and blur with age, so our beautiful youngsters mellowed into brown drabness. But these piglets are gaudy and bright with speckles and patches; their gingers are garish and their whites are pristine.

Match that luminescence with the depth and flex of their personalities. They battle and fray at the slightest nudge; wars are waged over access to teats, and the yard rings to the din of outrage and combat. When the door was opened into the outside pens, the piglets rushed into the sunlight and began to dismantle a bale of straw like a shoal of piranhas. Newly born youngsters are often slow and fumbling. Puppies are blind and calves lie meekly in the long grass. But these creatures sprang out of the womb like tigers; shock-troops with smoke-grenades and megaphones. It’s impossible not to love them.

 

Swallows

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We saw a swallow on the third of April. The dark shape flew from east to west across the horizon, and then it was gone. We always mark the swallow’s arrival as a time of joy, but it was hard to find pleasure in those silent, flickering wings. Others came in following days, but the weather was dull and bitterly cold. I watched a swallow trying to work in the frost, and I pitied the futility of hunting through empty air. Those early birds were quiet and cool; silhouettes against a hollow sky.

I feared for the swallow chicks which hatched in the byre during the harvest. They hung around the yard until October, and it seemed unlikely that they’d ever build the clout to reach Africa. Thousands of late chicks must die on passage, and it seems just as likely that many of the earliest swallows die on their return, battered by ice and a lack of insect food. Humans can live for days on the smallest margins, but swallows are calibrated to balance on a knife-edge. Even the tiniest gap between meals will sink them, and I recall an old Galloway motto; the finest acme of rural conservatism: “never be the first or the last to try something new”. I wonder what became of the birds which came here on the third of April, two full weeks before there was food and warmth to buoy them.

I watched those early outriders flying in the cold and I heaped their impatience beside my own. I’ve been straining for progress over many weeks, and the hard, changeless spread of the land around me became an open wound. There have been times when I’ve hated the dumb granite of this yard. The rocks are stubborn and dull, and they didn’t seem to give a damn that it was April and the sap was rising. I played with the idea of going away; finding somewhere warm and comfortable to lie. But I’m anchored to this spot, and I must wait for spring to come to me.

The weather didn’t break, but it cracked on Monday and there was a cosy drum of rain on the tin roof. The soil reeked beneath it, and the yard was suddenly filled with the smell of wet stone. That crack was enough to move us along, and now the land is warm and sweet. We need more rain, but we’ve had enough to spark insects into motion. Ants battle through the moss, and gnats churn like smoke in the shade of the blackthorn blossom.

And now there are real swallows singing in the granary and the pig pen rails. They’re blue and glossy and filled with spools of chattering song. Forget those early, baffled waifs; these are the birds we’ve waited for during long months of ice and darkness.

Spring Stalled

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Spring has stalled. We need the rain to come and take us on, but the clouds are high and the nights are parched with ice. I lug buckets of water to the beasts in the bog below the house because the drains are dry and there’s hardly a bead of sap to suck in the yellow grass. Even the trustiest pools are cracked and white with scum like the hinge of an old man’s lips.

It looks fine and mild from the bedroom window, but there’s a snell wind in the east. We wake each morning and hope to find calves and fresh lambs, but here is hiatus. We need the weather to break and loosen these wombs, but the barometer stands on the highest peg and it won’t shift an inch. Perhaps the youngsters will come anyway, but this job would suit a soak and a sluice of warm rain.

So the days loop in relentless copies of all that has come before; bright, high and bitter. It’s a stuttering jam and it frays my patience until I growl at the monotony of it all. There’s only so much readiness I can suffer, so I make chores for myself. I brush the bull and rake out his winter coat into coarse pads of brittle hair. Then I sweep the byre and watch eddies of chaff and straw tumble away into the short grass. It’s good to hear the besom working, but the stubborn dust swirls up and falls behind me until it’s hard to see where I’ve been.

Ducks rush and gabble against the tall clouds and a falcon hangs above them, patient and bleak as a hammer.

Springs Past

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I was spoiled by three good springs. They came in a row when I was in my twenties, and I drank them up. I saw every turn and corner of the days which join March into May, and I found time for the smallest details. I discovered wheatear nests and slept in the reek of new burnt heather; I was up before dawn to see blackgame and roe bucks in that clattery moment before the sun comes up and ruins the day with blatancy. Nothing evaded me, and the hill was mine alone.

I kept a diary of those years, and each day is a standalone encyclopaedia. I marked the coming of every new bird and insect; martins on the 5th April, swallows on the 10th, orange-tipped butterflies on the 19th. I sketched up the pinpoint spot of every egg and flower, and hardly an hour went by indoors. That was the way things went, and I laid down this new wisdom in bundles like bank notes until I began to feel that I was getting rich.

Then it fell apart. We had a bad spring with a cold wind which blew my schedule out of sync. I realised that most of my “knowledge” had been based on regularity; my three years were only the same by coincidence. I’d begun to assume that trees grow in even spurts and the boom and bust of wild birds could be predicted like the corrugations in a sheet of tin. But the truth is that some years are good and others bad, and you only know that when you’ve seen a few. A rowan might grow a foot in one year when the weather is kind, and then fight to rise by three inches the next. It’s why trees are beautiful, but it showed me how wrong I’d been to see three years and think I’d done anything more than make a start. It takes a lifetime to know how a tree will grow.

And now I’m slightly older. I’ve got work to do, and a list of emails to send. I’ve lost those pools of bottomless time, and spring comes to me in a drip-feed between other projects. Five years have passed without a full connection, but I still imagine that every new spring will come in slow and steady tokes, with time to sample the song of every lark; each crackling rag of adder-skin. I spend each winter in hopeful expectation that another deep spring will come and rescue me, but then longer days come and my hands are too full to grasp them.

So I’m short-tempered, because I know how dearly these days can chime; I remember a time when I could throw myself into this place and never stop falling. For all I still love the birds and the rising grass, I’m only paddling where I used to swim. And I twist in the warming wind for all I’ve seen that now goes unnoticed.

Plough Magnetism

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The ploughed field is mouldering into crumbs and dust. Days of dry weather have turned the furrows into powder, and now my time is spent fussing over seeds and pH levels. For all I mourned the larks which left when the soil was turned, the fresh ground is drawing in new visitors. I still hold with the idea that wildlife is inherently curious, and bare ground is a rare thing in this part of the world. Birds come to poke through the wreckage of last year’s crop, and it’s interesting that many of these visitors have nothing to gain from bare soil. They’re linnets and yellowhammers, redpolls and twite; seed eaters who come simply because they’re tickled by the sight of bare ground. And alongside the birds, I’ve found deep diggings in the dryness to suggest that mammals are similarly intrigued.

Walking out to check on the late-calving heifer last night, I found bright eyes sparking on the ploughland. Foxes go strangely quiet in April, probably because the vixens are holed up underground with their cubs and the population appears to reduce by half. It’s only dog foxes who walk abroad at this time of year, and there’s a note of frantic enthusiasm in their travels. It’s been a week or more since I last saw a fox on the farm, but this fellow was a strangely confiding beast with his mind focussed on the bare soil. I was glad to find him again five minutes later when I’d nipped home for the rifle.

Morning broke over the field, and I found the drying remains of freshly dug soil like pockmarks across the sod. The fox had been scratching through the furrows in the hunt for worms and grubs, and I was glad to have brought him to book before he descended down to the meadows where curlews had begun to cry for a new day. And it was another shred of evidence to show how wildlife can be summoned up by change and dynamism in a staid, stale landscape.