Langholm Future

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It was announced overnight that Langholm Moor will soon be up for sale. The news is already being spun in a thousand directions to suit numerous narratives, but it’s left me cold.

I’ve spent many happy hours working (and playing) at Langholm, overseeing a heather beetle project and stalking goats as part of a woodland regeneration plan. I made several pals there and thrilled at the spectacle of leks and sky dancers over the course of almost ten years. I can tell you it’s exactly fifty seven minutes from my front door to Middle Moss, and I’ve made that trip at every hour of the day and night. So aside from the politics and uproar, I feel something like anxiety for the future of an old friend.

Already there are rumours that the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project has made the place “too hot to handle”. The project will publish its final report this summer (sometime?), and several anti-shooting activists claim that the details will be so controversial that Buccleuch have decided to wash their hands of the whole place. I hear that the project partners can’t agree on when or where to launch the report, and this is just the latest in a long list of klutzy failures. They haven’t agreed on much over the past decade, and in retrospect it’s hard to see how they ever drew in such an enormous amount of money to collaborate in the first place.

But the idea that birds have been a driving force in this sale feels naive; the kind of theory circulated by people who have lost touch with a bigger picture. It’s dangerous to work in a small, niche echo chamber, and I can be just as guilty of reading my own special interests into unrelated stories.

Those of us who follow the grouse/raptor debate need to remember that we’re arguing over the thinnest sliver of a very marginal argument. The truth is that Britain is not very interested in gamekeepers or grouse shooting, and we need to stay in touch with a far bigger context which brings in global, social and political factors. There’s way more to this than social media activism and hen harrier costumes. Surely it’s obvious that Buccleuch has weathered controversy before and could easily handle more of the same if only there was a financial case to justify it.

In reality, Scotland’s uplands are entering a state of tremendous upheaval, and what starts at Buccleuch often rolls out to the wider countryside. Of course I can only speculate, but the sale is more likely to be an economic decision which reflects a pragmatic approach to shifting land use pressures, driven by the advent of massive change.

Perhaps Langholm will be snapped up by an environmentally conscious NGO, or maybe the property’s numerous designations will mean that it’ll lie unsold for a decade. The key issue is that we now face a chasm of uncertainty, and whatever “team” or “side” you identify with (as if “teams” were a helpful way of thinking), that’s no good for any of the birds we associate with Langholm Moor.

And for all Langholm is a “famous” place, it stands as a tiny microcosm of fragile moors across the entirety of Southern Scotland. It will not take long to completely reimagine the hills which lie between Berwick and Portpatrick, and yet again I watch the foresters keening for more space and more plantings. Parts of Langholm will be protected from development, but other places are not so heavily burdened with designations and SPAs. They will simply vanish, and few people will ever acknowledge the untapped trove of cultural and natural heritage that will go with them.

There’s a rising tide, and it’s at times like this when I realise how insubstantial birds and wildlife are when measured against market forces.

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Cuckoo’s Rain

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Rain after long, dry weeks. It pools on the mud and sogs in the fallen bracken like a thickness.

I was out at dawn last week and heard the undergrowth crackling to the tune of fox cubs. They played in silence, but the dryness made it noisy. Now it’s damp and I’ll have no sound to guide me under the willows where the violets creep. The rascals will slip away in a veil of sap and softness, and all I’ll find is a cooling mess of broken fiddleheads to show me where they’ve been.

Away from the woods, the turnip drills are black with the heft of fallen water, and oystercatchers have come to dab between the ridges. We needed this rain, and soon there’ll be new turnip plants stacked and thriving in long queues across the field.

There are cattle over the dyke where the bog cotton droops in cloddy balls. The beasts are silvered with dew, and they hardly look up when I go to check them. But it’s time for a reshuffle; animals to move between holdings at opposite ends of the same parish. We load them into the pens and listen to slittery gush of shite and piss as they turn and roll their eyes. This is a numbers game; it doesn’t matter which animals we move, but I’ve got wishlist all the same. I line them up as I’d choose them to go, but they refuse to run up the race into the trailer. We’re forced to rotate them round and soon there are volunteers at last; not the beasts I would’ve chosen, but there’s no harm done. You can’t prove a point with cattle, and you’ve got to work with what they give you. Then we can bring the sliding gates in behind them, and soon the trailer’s raking off the blossom from the low-slung boughs above the road.

And all the while there’s a cuckoo somewhere on the edge of seeing; a half-cock shape on a telegraph pole or at the bending tip of a rowan tree. He’s trailing his wings and stirring the rain with his tail, saying “here’s your summer – be sure and make the most of it”.

Bull at Dusk

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The bull comes to life for an hour at dusk. He rears up from the shadows like a ghoul, and he foams himself into the twilight. Lashed and clarty with mud, he begins to moan and the ground trembles at the horror of it. It’s a deep, seismic humm which rings in the yard and rolls away across the parish like a ripple – any deeper and you’d see it go. It’s because there are cows beyond the meadow, and others on the high ground between the trees. He calls to them, and his screams are hard to bear.

I start to hate him for that din and the repetition which drives my nails into the table and comes again a moment later. Pumped and rasping, he screams for an hour without interruption and he pounds a line back and forth through the granite shelves. I hardly recognise him; wild eyed and burbling with his own foam. It’s a fearsome thing to see him at full stretch, and it’s hard to believe that a single strand of electric wire could ever stop him. I live in fear that he’ll escape and be away to the neighbour’s ground, so I lie in bed and listen to his cravings with a crunch of anxiety. It’s a good fence and there’s no reason to believe that he’ll cross it, but what if… what if?

I have to remind myself that I wanted this. I wanted to learn about cattle, and to understand life in the shade of livestock. My beasts have given me so much to love, but here is a fresh and hateful low. A bull is no small thing, and I was warned against them. And for all the pride I feel at the flex and curve of his shoulder, I can’t deny that anxieties gather round him like flies on a hot day. I would not exchange him for anything, but I still have so much to learn.

When it’s all over and he’s slumped into silence, I climb up to the bedroom window in the darkness and hang my feet over the sill. It’s dark and the hawthorns below the house are white and limp with blossom. Leaders trail below them, and the trees swarm like jellyfish in the moonlight. There’s a reek of blossom above the hot stones, and suddenly I rediscover silence; it’s a sharp, florid thing which has risen from bluebells and rowans, may and broom. Curlews moan at the edge of it, and dorbeetles drill straight through and leave a wake swirling behind them.

May Day

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There’s a warm, cosy smell on the moss. It comes up where the water pools and the grass bows to the ditches.

Slight sun and a steady breeze, then a day of bruisy clouds above the may blossom. There are cuckoos calling in the stuffiness, and the dykes are rimed with linnets; each one with a twist of wool in her beak. Dry rock rears through the grass in sheets, all dry and flaked with lichen like a half-shed skin.

Back on the hill, the grass is clattering with spiders and beetles. Bristling caterpillars clasp the rush stems and dream of a day when they’ll rise above their worries. I crouch and sympathise, then cattle slop past me with heavy trods.

The bull sinks to his knees in this place, and it’s hard to draw a line between soil and beef.

Sown

 

I’ve been looking forward to growing turnips for almost a decade. Fuelled by old tales of  partridges and hares in the turnip fields, I swore that one day I would try and recreate some of that magic for myself.

Old and faithful readers of this blog will remember my dabbling with stubble turnips in 2012 and 2013. This work went off half-cock because these were the days before I’d been swallowed into the world of hill cattle. My “game crops” were sown to please the birds, and while they were good, I’m geared to a different line these days. I’m driving towards a system which powers beef and birds alike, and it’s a good time to revisit that old ambition.

Fifty years ago, turnips were a cornerstone of agriculture in Galloway. Every farm grew them as fodder for livestock, and there’s no doubt that turnips make good feeding. But from what I’ve heard, turnips themselves are fairly useless to wildlife. Rabbits and deer will nibble them and perhaps a pigeon will pull at the young leaves, but the true value of turnips seems to come from the groundswell of nutrients (and weeds) which accompanies the crop.

I’m still convinced that nature thrives on change and dynamism, and turnips seem to represent variety and activity in a landscape, particularly in modern Galloway where fields now lie in grass for decades and there’s hardly a piece of ploughed land for miles. We moved away from turnips because silage is easier and cheaper, and now we all follow the same dull thread of uniformity. It’s no surprise that wildlife has foundered.

Back in the old days, the best results seemed to come from growing turnips in “drills”; long, heaped rows of soil with seeds placed along the top. Depending where you come from in Galloway, you call these “drales” or “dreels”, (and that’s hardly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the pronunciation of turnip vocabulary). The drills line up and make sheltered passageways where birds can lurk, and the soil’s soon colonised by seedy weeds which the finches love. I’m told that a good turnip field does more for wildlife than any other crop, and I can’t wait to see that for myself.

In 2013, my stubble turnips were broadcast in a random scatter, and they came up in patchy clumps because I hardly knew what I was doing. But now I’ve picked up a ridger plough and a seed barrow to plant the turnips in drills. I had a pretty clear idea of how to do this work, but it’s not easy to translate theory into practice. Turnip seeds are very small, and they are buried underground as the tractor moves along. Short of digging up each seed to check it has been sown, there’s very little evidence that you’re doing it right. In the interests of time and my own sanity, I was forced to trust the web of belts and wheels to do their job. It was a leap of faith, made with fingers crossed.

Sowing was slow work, and it was hard to balance the pressure of driving even lines with checking the barrow and praying that everything was running smoothly. It’s hard to tell how I did, but a fortnight will reveal all when the first turnips come through. Perhaps there will be a drill without any turnip seedlings, or maybe some other problem will reveal itself in retrospect. I have plenty of seed left over to plug any gaps, but at least now I know how the job should be done for future years.

And it was a cool, easy feeling to lie in bed during that night and listen to rain soaking into the new crop below the house. There’s no going back now.

Spring Rush

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Spring is gathering pace, but for all the grass is rising and the soil’s warm, I find a backlog of chores growing behind me. There’s a turnip drill to fettle, and the tractor’s leaking again.

I’ve sold the calves from last summer, but the transaction hangs on my ability to gather and load them into the trailer. This is harder than it seemed a month ago when a bale of hay would bring them tumbling down into the pens. Now they’re fat and glossy with new grass, and last summer’s bales have lost their pull. The calves hang around the gateway and toss their heads with suspicion, and I’m forced to postpone the sale until I can lure them into the race and shut the door behind them. It might be this evening, but it might take another week; patience is king.

And I bought chain harrows, but they’re a pain to move and I haven’t got anything big enough to lift them. In trying to set them up, I borrowed a track digger and broke the steering valve, then pulled the wiring loom off the bottom of my trailer and set myself back by a week and three hundred pounds.

And still there’s an electric fence to draw out on the moor so the rowdy bull can go away and boil his head in the litter of larks and bog cotton. That’s just a matter of cost and time, but I can hardly afford either.

And the new calves are coming in a fortnight and there’s so much to do before that can happen.

My chest feels tight with the drive of it all, and every plan draws on chain links which twist and shear with each passing hour. Rapt and straining at this weight of work, the spring now comes in a spatter of tiny images. A stolen reek of hawthorn blossom and wild garlic above the tractor’s din; the hum of warm stones above sunburn and cracked fingers. I look up from some diesel-reeking job and find that I’ve been listening to a swallow all the while; there’s a cuckoo beyond the blisters, or a sedge warbler racketing through the tang of lanolin and bull sweat. These are birds at the pitch of distraction, and for all I rage at the din of my obstacles, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Lesson Learned

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We came to tag the new calf and ran against an obstacle. The applicator was jammed and the cow’s patience wore thin. She’d borne my intrusion with quiet resignation, but speed is crucial at a time like this. Seconds drove by, and I was fumbling at an adjustable pin in a broken plastic tool.

The cow began to roll her eyes and huffed until long sprays of snotters came off her like sparks. The moment was lost and I’d begun to pull back when she came at me in a loud and rolling flow with her head curled under her shoulders like a boxing glove. I looked to the slope of her back and saw it dense with the flex of bones and flesh. She foamed into my hip with a roar, and the rush almost consumed me. I was over the dyke and away, but how close I’d come to black destruction.

People are killed in moments like these. It was easy to picture the crack and rupture of my pelvis; the queasy pop of ribs and cartilage. Christ it was scary, but the memory of that half second grew over the day that followed and soon I was fluttery and weak with the weight of it.

My grandfather knew a man that was mashed by a new mother, and he’d lain for half a day in the mess of his own blood. The stockman had worked for thirty years with hill cattle, but he’d miscalled that moment and he never worked again. People said he was lucky and should’ve known better, but his loss was our gain. That story has kept me careful, but now I’ve had a close run of my own to remind me that I’m working down a tough and risky line.