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Dusk, and a small shape comes into the yard. I blink and frown and narrow my eyes. It’s urgent and gliding on leggy pins; fluid and nervy and rolling like a ball beside palls of sow thistle, bramble and burdock. Whatever this is, it keeps jagged company.

Then a surge of recognition. A hedgehog.

Hello stranger.

We don’t see hedgehogs here. Perhaps there are some in the village, but years go by without the merest contact. Sometimes there are skins like bladders burst on the tarmac. I stop the car to speir at them, but their eyes (when they have them) are dry and parchy; their legs adrift and socketless. There’s nothing in these broken shapes to reveal a true nature; just pats of bake-meat for the mice to gnaw.

Even I can remember the hedgehog in her heyday. We found them on the smithy road and up beyond the kirk. My father recalls them in a tide; it was their absence that was notable in those days. And his father could hardly imagine the farm without the trail of urchins at every dykeback.

So it’s come to this; a small, half-forgotten loner on the edge of darkness.

Rain in the Blue Dawn

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Rain in the blue dawn; bats guddle in the mirk. I sit in the yard and listen to the day.

The year has passed beyond the point of skylarks; they’re all gone now, or silent, which is the same thing. So morning comes with the clattery chime of swallows – a special song which belongs only to the first glow of dawn.

We’ve all heard swallows, but forget the long, chirpy lines which these birds recite at noon or dusty dusk. This is something other. It’s a rising chant; steely and mechanical; hard to hear. The birds call from the rafters of the byre and the granary; the eight inch gap between hay bales and the tin roof. They call above chicken runs and the snoring rungs of pig ribs because they’ve woken up and they will not fly for another half hour. This is a limbering for the day; the ratchet disposal of roosting.

Rain dews upon me. The turnip field reeks like a chowder of mud and vegetable stock. I watch a hare coming out from the shaws like a cat. A leveret follows her. They’re deft and cautious, and they grudge the water which hangs like a string of bulbs on every thread of grass. They come into the yard and dry themselves on the granite setts. They stand below the heavy flags of my laundry soaking on the line; I forgot to recover those sheets and towels, and now they’re wet again. The youngster nuzzles in to suck. Nettles bend to listen.

This and more at half past four.

Calving ’19

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It’s a grand swell of pride to go up among the calves of 2019. They stand to their hocks in the seedheads, and they snuff the wind and blink as I come near.

We finished up with three perfect riggit calves, two solid black calves and two jumbly beasts which lie somewhere on the spectrum between belts and riggs. They are six bulls and a single heifer, and they make for an odd spectacle when you see them together. But perhaps the more important matter is that they’re fit and healthy and they’ve been up and away without the merest touch of assistance.

There is so much more on this to come, and I publish this in brief because I suddenly look back and realise that the summer has slid past without fully marking the arrival of these beasts.

Late July


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It’s a habit of this blog that I flag the coming of autumn. I mark a day in the first week of August and I note the first breath of a new season. This article from 2016 is a good summary and a fair assessment of how I’ve come to do it, but it’s a trend of several consecutive years.

Now I try to pre-empt that moment with a fortnight to spare. How does the land look in the final days before we descend? I think the answer is brown and thatchy with the stems of seeding grass. A breeze rolls along the hill and stirs a wave which brinks and ponders in the gullies where meadowsweet lies in drifts like forgotten snow. The moor bends away from the high ground, and I peer at the Lake District through thirty miles of blue dust and warmth. The air bowls around my ears and forms a kind of silence. A pipit squeaks.

There are flies stirring eddies in the pollen which hangs around the house. The roadside ragwort nods beneath the grind of fattening caterpillars. And there’s yarrow and harebells and the black serrated spires of seeding nettles; I find bedstraw and the last of the waning orchids. The irises are done and they’ve left us pods like glossy sausages in the bog; thistles reign, and every clump is crowded with bugs and finches and solemn, blundering bees.

For all the bright lights shine upon them in spring, now is a time for black grouse. What better bird to find in the dryness of tall bolted grass than a blackcock, half moulted and dim in the rigging of cobwebs. Of course I love to see those birds at the lek in May with their tails fanned and their wattles raging, but now is a separate moment of familiarity. A crisp smell of sheep piss and lanolin hanging in the rushes like bunting; schools of young and baffled finches along the dyke top; a bull snuffing and straining to be free. And then the sudden crash of a blackcock from under your feet; limber and dull in his mourning weeds.

And he’s up and turning, with the farm below him and the brown, winded hills of home beyond. These are the final hours of summer.


Rogue Oats

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The oats resurge, and now I find them through the turnip field in clumps and rustling spires. They spring up from the gateways and the handy corners where the bull was fed in winter; he has crapped them into life again, and now they come to me as a weed.

Here’s a reminder that the old farms were polluted with hangovers like these. You can’t expect to sow a crop one year and have done with it the next. Of course there will be echoes, and my copybook is inevitably blotted with the backlog of my previous work.

We’re trained to hate mess these days. I can understand the desire to spray away this resurgence and keep the place tidy. But if I could guess, I’d say that two dozen good sheafs of oats are now growing around the yard and the pens where the bull lay in the frost. I have no interest in cutting or making use of this accidental crop, so it will go to the birds. I have contaminated this place with variety. Who am I to restore order?

I worried that the shift from oats to turnips would dispel the progress I had made so far. But now I have oats and turnips, and the ground begins to hum.




Owls are easily undone. They’re soft and beckoning, and hawks hunt for them along the wood edge. I well remember the brittle crack of an owl struck amidships by a falcon. The white wings folded into a shuttlecock, and the pieces were strewn across the long grass like shreds of paper.

So they fly in the darkness, and they stash their days in the trunks of trees. If you see an owl hunting in the daylight, read it as a problem. That bird has been pressed into the risk against her will. For all she seeks, she could soon be sought.

There never was a fat owl. The birds carry only what they need to see them through the next few days. Deep snow makes it hard to find mice; heavy rain sops into her feathers and makes it hard to fly. And rain is double damnation, because who can listen for the rustle of rats beneath the din of falling water? They don’t have to fail for long before their bones begin to show; long enough and we find them lying cold and stiff as quills among the hay bales. Hard times draw hunting into human hours and it’s always against her will; it flies against her nature to be seen.

But secrets leak in the drone of summer evenings. I hear an owl calling above the moss and the meadows on the last gasp of daylight, and I strain my eyes to find her among the rushes. It’s not an unusual sound at this time of year, but this feels oddly insistent and demanding. Minutes pass, and the dreary wailing runs on above the other night sounds; a barking doe, a calf woken for a moment from some creamy dream. That’s when I realise that I’m looking too low. She has gone up like a lantern; high into the pale night. She circles and loops above the river, and I see her for a moment against a barcode of summer cloud. It’s a rare show of courage; she is bold and chilling and large against the sky.

Amidst the Turnips

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Fumitory; best seen in dense and knotty webs in a quarter acre spree.

What a child I was to stand off this crop and imagine that I was in control. I worried that my hoeing would destroy all the weeds, and I prepared to cordon off certain corners and protect them from the ruthlessness of my own efficiency. I had no idea what I was talking about.

That field is a ravenous tyrant and I am wholly in its grasp. I scratch out the weeds as briskly as I can, then turn round to find them thick and bristling up behind me as if I had never passed by. It’s a jungle; there’s fumitory and runches in such bundles that I can hardly walk through them. Thistles pile upon fat hen and creeping buttercup like vines in a jungle, and the turnips swell in their purple tops all the while. I fight a rearguard action, and I’m tempted to trail a line of wool behind me when I go out to work in case I can’t find my way home again; turn left at the bank of oxeye daisies; scramble through the clambering spurge.

I wondered if the turnips could ever do so much for wildlife as the oats did last year. In truth I think they do more; we are infested with oystercatchers and hares; there are leverets crouching in the drills, and every step I take drives up a fog of insects. Moths lurk under the leaves, and the way the weeds layer up on each other, there’s a dank little world of beetles and bellywalkers in the basement. Broods of wild pheasants stride down the rows, and the chicks nurse their swollen crops and belch. I see flycatchers and linnets; yellowhammers and larks, all of whom are finding something to love in this crop. Bats clatter above the shaws in the darkness, and swallows race through it when the baton is exchanged and daylight returns.

I fight to keep the turnips clean and growing steadily, but the field has turned and risen twice in the time it has taken me to write these words. I’ll soon have to abandon my hoe and pick up a machete.


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Yes, it’s grand work hoeing turnips. The hoe comes easily to hand, and the blade rubbles up the weeds something rotten. You can do a good job or a perfect one; it’s your decision. So you work away beneath the sun as if the world was nothing more than your own shadow on a rig of shaws. Sometimes you can hear sandmartins up from the burn, but mostly it’s just the glit and shiver of steel on loose ground.

A hare lies in the back corner and she thinks I can’t see her. It’s only in the last week that this crop’s grown tall enough to hide her. Until then she’d been coming in like a burglar and lifting her share under the moon. But now she can lounge around at her leisure and peel the greenery from her bed in broad daylight. I work closer to her, and at length she comes up like a stolen shirt and rides away along the furrow with her lugs trailing behind her.

There are weeds all through this crop. There’s mouse-ear and fat hen and creeping buttercup coiling around knives of dead nettle and spoons of sun spurge. Some of it’s hellish bad for docks, and other bits are just a bank of deep-rooted thistles. Everything wants to grow in that bare soil, and I rake it out with a turn of the hoe leaving only turnips and dampness in my wake.

And I sometimes find oats coming up from last year. They’re stocky and short, and they need more than rubbing out. I hack the stems and lift the roots to let them crisp in the wind. Last year’s crop is little more than a problem now, and then there’s a storm of finches over the dyke and the bull is tolling again, blowing streamers into the long grass.


Haymaker’s Blues

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I’d like to meet the man who invented plastic baler twine. I’d wrap that stuff around the most sensitive part of his hands and steadily tighten it over several days until the skin was smeary and white and he wailed for mercy.

We’ve now endured everything that might possibly have gone wrong with the hay. I bust the mower’s power drive, and in so doing gathered up such a ball of grass on the PTO shaft that it was baked into concrete. Then we tried to finish the job with a topper and we broke that too. Of course there was a big wheel puncture, and a second one came a little while afterwards; shortly after we had taken all the tools home. A radiator began to leak and the finger tines shattered away from the bob leaving smithereens of steel littered through the crop. So perhaps it was inevitable that the baler should’ve slipped a spring and called to be restrung a dozen times, and it was only at a final pitch of fury and upset that rain came in from the sea in smirry veils.

It might have been an excellent crop, but now it’s only moderate. I’m spoilt by the glory of last summer when the grass was fried in a withering sun and the hay was safe beneath the tin less than seventy two hours after it was cut. Now I’m reduced to picking and digging at the best bales, carting them around indecisively in batches of sixty or seventy. They’ve been built into diamonds and stooks, then turned and reversed to catch the sun and crisp in the breeze when it comes. But the air is thick and soupy, and while I can imagine moisture blowing off the field, it’s blowing onto it from other places just as keenly.

Every time I’ve moved those bales, the twine has slit into my fingers like cheese wire. I’ve exhausted the comfort of a dozen different ways to carry a hay bale, and at last I’ve fallen to hugging them like fairground teddy bears. And I’ve torn the skin off my shins and dumped the full weight of the baler’s clutch onto my fingernail. My forearms are prickled with a million tiny jabs of cut grass, and the back of my hand was partially flayed by a rusting mudguard.

This has been a trial from the start, and there are still two hundred bales to fetch in before I can relax.