Captive Curlews

 

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I met a man who used to keep curlews in captivity. It’s not an easy business because the birds are edgy and hard to settle, but he took that as a challenge.

After many years of trial and error, he slowly taught himself how to raise young curlews in pens and then settled them into aviaries when they’d grown up. This was in the 1970s at a time when nobody had ever managed to breed curlews in captivity, but soon this man was on course to separate his birds into breeding pairs. Success was almost within his grasp, and he prepared for the arrival of the first eggs.

It wasn’t to be. Most of his captive birds died just a few days before the eggs were laid. On the very cusp of success, the pairs turned on each other and killed themselves.

In a final test before commitment, curlews probe one another for weakness. I often watch the wild pairs in long and fearsome fights which unfold against the wide sky; I see that it’s no game. They scream and tumble, but there’s always relief in the cloud or the broad horizon. Only the strongest birds will stand a chance of breeding successfully, so it pays to know how fit your partner is. Weakness is weeded out, and the lesser birds bleed away to the sea to lick their wounds and try another year.

So pity the captives who are hemmed in by mesh. They’re scorched by the white heat of their own instincts and find themselves capable of murder. Pick them out of open country and the birds will self-destruct.

Curlews come to me as a fine distillation of rain and trailing cloud. But knowing this new truth about curlews reminds me how heavily a curlew will lean upon open skies; they cannot survive without them. Wide, hill-bound places are no more a choice than moonlight or the rush of rain. Space is a precondition and a failsafe against distortion.

 

Turnip Rehash

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For all I’ve been hoping that the turnips would come good, I was forced to face an uncomfortable truth last week. Several drills have come up totally bare, and there’s an odd inconsistency between the biggest seedlings and the smallest. Something wasn’t right, and it took a visit from straight-talking neighbours to show me the error of my ways. I hadn’t set the drill box up correctly and so the belts had slipped and the seed had been sown willy-nilly.

Twenty five days after the initial sowing, I went back and harrowed in half the drills. This wiped the slate clean across almost an acre, and then I was free to rebuild the ridges and sow fresh seed at a proper rate. The work took a few hours, and now there will be a slight disparity between the old and new turnips when they finally come, but that hardly matters. I’m pleased to have worked out how to do the job properly, and I’m chuffed to see oystercatchers making merry in the freshly turned soil.

Outsiders

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Everybody loves belted galloways; thats a truth universally acknowledged. Children coo at belties, and tourists buy postcards of black and white cattle until I begin to worry that any word of criticism will be shouted down and trampled upon by an outraged mob. These beasts have made such a mark in Galloways identity that it almost feels disloyal to give them anything but praise, but I’ve begun to move away from that tradition.

I took on this project because I wanted to connect with Galloway. At first I wanted to work with belted galloways because they were an obvious choice, but a chance conversation with a friend in Castle Douglas led me to riggits and I never looked back.

Riggit gallowaysOutsiders are outsiders; a footnote in a long stream of continuity which has placed some beasts above others. Theres no real justification for this, but Ive lost count of the people who have quietly chuckled at my enthusiasm. When I first started to invest in riggits, I was advised against it. When I tell people that Im keen on galloways, they light up and say belties?”, and then I have to toe the ground and explain that its riggits that keep me awake at night time. I can see their excitement fading because whats a riggit and why?

But for all it sometimes feels like riggit galloways are a dead end, I cant draw my eyes away from them. Riggit genetics are very old, and they dont survive in many of the modern improved” types of galloway cattle. Ignore the markings for a moment and realise that these are galloways of the traditional kind; with short legs, blunt-heads and curves in all the old places. My grandfather worked with black galloways for half a century at time when riggit galloways had all but vanished. He would’ve been baffled by my cattle, but he’d have seen more to love in my riggits than he would in many of the tall, boxy blacks which are now being turned out by commercial breeders.

And belted galloways have a finely established breed standard. People fret and panic about the precise nature of their markings. By following rigorous guidelines, its almost possible to produce something which breeders regard as perfect. Riggits seem to throw this conformity back in your face. There are hardly any rules, and the perfect riggit galloway is in the eye of the beholder. Every one of my cows is unqiue – some are almost white; others almost black. Theyre all riggits, but thats a cover-all term for the mottled middleground which defies conformity. You’d never struggle to tell two riggits apart, and throwing objectivity to the wind, Ive had beltie calves and riggit calves and theres no doubt in my mind which I prefer to see. And when the beasts are up and away, theres something trebly fine about riggits seen from across a mile of open country with a stack of dark clouds piling up behind them.

I can understand why the world is devoted to belted galloways. It makes perfect sense, and I dont mean to drag them down. But in a system which routinely sneers at riggit galloways, I think its fair enough to sing their praises now and then; no better or worse but a breed apart.

 

Summer Buck

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Down in the halflight to the deep grass where the waters ranting. Heres a good track for roe deer, and they wend along these paths by the river like ghosts in the rising reeds. I see them walking in the dawn when the mist has pooled and flooded onto the low ground and their heads swim like boats.

And there he is, with his eyes half closed and his feet grouped neatly together like a dancer. Hes still beside a hawthorn tree, and the shot spins him down til he’s swallowed in a bowl of wildflowers. By the time I find him, theres a blue cast in his eyes which makes him seem sleepy and dull. I run my hands along his back and down his thighs and feel the redness of him at source. Then Im inside, pulling up great mounds of sour and squirming guts.

Its almost dark when Im done. The water dins away and theres a bird chanting loudly in the gloom. I know its a sedge warbler, but I place that information to one side. There are orchids in the dullness but I dont care to give them names.

Its almost the height of summer; I stand to my waist and look upwards.

 

Speaning

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We pulled the calves from their mothers and sold them. I drew the wagon away from the gathering pens and the cattle began to moan in protest. Some of these calves are almost a year old, but they were still sucking at times; a fright would send them cartwheeling home to the safety of their mothers. But we stacked them in a tall aluminium trailer and tried not to look as they snuffed at the vents and sent streamers of drool down the walls.

Left to their own devices, cattle fold themselves into a complex herd. Generations pile up in layers and the beasts build a sense of understanding. But my calves are sold, and the bonds are broken in a never-ending loop. They’ve gone to a man beyond Dumfries who’ll feed them on for another two years; it’s not a bad move for them, and it’s a relief for me as I wring my hands and hope for more grass. Still, it’s a lasting discomfort, and something like a betrayal of animals who felt like they knew me. I know I’m being soft, but I’m also being honest.

We have an old word for this kind of separation in Galloway. We call it speaning, and it prickles at me like an old pain. But now there are new calves coming and the cycle begins again.

Yellow Rattle

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It’s hard to ignore the discovery of “yellow rattle” in the hayfield. I felt like I’d seen this increasingly rare wildflower in the hay crop last year when the grass was dry, but it took a special visit to double check and confirm at the weekend. Sure enough, there it was in a carpet of creeping buttercup and yorkshire fog.

Yellow rattle is the gold standard for hayfields. Not only has it become scarce, but it seems to grow in tight colonies which actively suppress more productive grasses and thereby enable other wildflowers to become established. If you want to revert grassland to a species-rich meadow, yellow rattle is a useful tool to have in the box. Some people have to buy in the seed to help it get established, but it seems like we already had some.

I only spotted yellow rattle in our field because there’s an area which always turns up very patchy and thin when the mower comes. The yield falls through the floor, and the bales are all bitty when you slit the twine. Those “bits” are wildflowers and seedheads, and it’s no wonder they seemed odd to me because I’m used to long ribbons of productive grass. In amongst the seedheads, I found pieces of a small and strangely familiar seedpod which I’ve often seen in photos and books – the “rattle” of the flower’s name.

I’ve agonised about this field. I’d love to improve the wildflowers and the conservation value of the grass which grows along the merse, but the truth is that I can’t afford it. I need to feed the cattle, so I’m bound to this process until I can take on more land or reduce my stocking. As a compromise in the short term, the least I can do is work around the rougher parts of the field and manage them to best advantage so that when the shift comes and I can finally allow this grass to revert, I’ll have a good foundation of natural seeds.

Surprise

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Onto the moss in the evening, with the stir and hack of cattle around me.

Maybe you don’t remember it, but our bull fell and twisted his knee in August. I wailed with despair, but there was nothing I could do. We had to bring him in to rest, so now the calving has fallen into two halves; the cows he covered before he fell and those which he found a month later when he was fit again. The cows on the moss have another month to run before they’ll drop, and their teats are still small like fingertips. I loop around them twice a day, and they gaze at me as if my last visit was a century ago. Sometimes I kick up a hare in the myrtle, but more often there’s nothing to catch my eye but the sky and the jittery din of larks.

In turning to run my hands through the rushes, two birds rose up and flew round in a slope to the cloud. Curlews, and speaking with such affected disinterest that it was hard to ignore them. I’d obviously caught them by surprise, so why the gentle words and pretence? After all, curlews don’t like to be wrongfooted.

I took two steps towards them, then turned to find a chick by the toe of my boot. My God, I shrank at that; the curling shock of finding something that shouldn’t be found. Instant guilt, then a swell of delight. No wonder the adult birds had pretended not to care; I’d stumbled on their motherload. I saw myself in the little bird’s eye; listened to the rush of my own blood.

Perhaps there were more chicks out there. I didn’t stay to check, but I’ll cradle that gentle, blinking memory deep into the dark days of winter.