A Lonely Tree

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Picture a broad expanse of moorland in the Southern Uplands. There’s turning grass and the shadows of clouds across the open hill. And there’s a single tree in the middle distance; it stands like a range marker and gives scale to the blue, burling horizon.

These isolated trees are often pines; homespun grannies with their limbs curled in red knots against the riding sky. Each one is a work of art, carefully kneaded into shape by the wind and the weight of winter snow. Sometimes you’re lucky to find a dozen pines in some abandoned spinney, ringed around their roots with a rumble-down dyke. Stand back five miles and they blur to a shimmering smear. Climb in amongst the trunks and listen to the hiss of a breeze in the needles.

Trees like these have stood their ground for centuries. They belong to a different age, and now they’re a lost generation; the last of their kind. They turn out seed every year, then watch their offspring vanish as grazing for cattle and sheep. And this pattern has come to define them until the hills are flagged only by age and antiquity. There are no reinforcements; no youngsters to replace them, so they wait for the wind that will cast them down and leave no trace of their passing.

I could take you to a hundred such pines in this part of Galloway. Ravens hop along their boughs, and streaks of white shit are sprayed into the crumbling bark. But there are ash trees too, standing far out in teeth of the wind. Sometimes there’s an oak which bends in the gale, and her burrs swell in the boles like a bulge of meat. These are nesting places for buzzards and kites; something for the wind to rake and baffle. The ash trees are just as childless as the pines, and they approach old age with nothing more to show for their lives but heft and stature.

It’s not unusual to find a gathering of ash trees clustered up a cleugh or huddled around the lee of a fallen fank. As the years go by, these old-timers begin to fall apart. Trunks shatter and heavy limbs come away like fruit. I go to chop them up as firewood and find the logs are hollow and black inside like a chimney. This seems to be a fault with ash, which often dies from inside out. The first sign of illness is death, but the outer rings are still good and they burn with heat and patience.

And now I find that these trees face a new challenge; “chalara die-back”, a fungal disease which blows in the wind and strips away the last few ash survivors. I’ve seen twigs hanging emptily in the sunshine this summer; shrivelled stems and the weepy streaks of black lesions which has confirmed the diagnosis. Many of these old trees will soon be hastened towards their death, and how will the hill go without them?

You could look upon an empty land old trees and call it an aberration; a sign of something sorely wrong. People ask how it is that we allowed this to happen? How did the hills become a retirement home for lost and forgotten frailties? But I’m drawn to the fact that these trees are most often found around ruined yards and the remains of rubbly houses. They tell tales of care and a bond with humanity; ash casts a long shadow in folklore and legend. Old folk said the sap would cure your ills; hang an ash cross in the bedroom and be sure of safety. Even in practical terms, ash is a handy tree to have around the farm; the wood was treasured for tool handles and cart shafts. And in older days, ash was grown for poles which could become spears in times of chaos. For all these reasons and so many more, it made sense to keep ash close to home.

But then came days of change. Small farms were blurred into larger holdings and the people were sent away. The farmers packed their trunks and left their homes. It wasn’t long before the glass in the windows had broken. Leaks sprang in the roof and the rafters were rotten. The slates were down in a decade or two, and then the walltops began to sag. Lintels fall in fifty years, and nettles crept through the porch and into the socket where the range once stood.

And soon even the trees are falling down around this place which once was human. There’s nobody there to care and tend to the ash trees which turned the wind and bound the cart to the horse. And there’s no cause to replace the tumbled trunks because who needs a spear or a hay rake these days? What call for medicine and symbols of good fortune? If there are seeds lying unborn in the ground, they’d do well to stay hidden; sheep hunt for new saplings, and they do not leave much in their wake.

The loss of these old trees seems to speak of full finality; the delayed arrival of an end which has been in the post for decades. And if that’s true, then it chimes with so many other ghosts which hang in these hills. The old ways are dead, and now we wonder what comes next.

Owl Update

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It’s been interesting to check on the barn owls as the summer begins to wind down. I have four owl boxes on the hill and around the farmyard, and I’ve been giving them all a wide berth since the spring to avoid disturbing any of the occupants. But despite plenty of evidence that owls have been roosting in the boxes and in the old sheds, there has been no sign of successful breeding in any of them. This comes after owls spurned two of my boxes in preference to natural tree cavities in 2018, and perhaps it’s time to reconsider the siting and location of one box which has done nothing more than attract feral pigeons since it was installed in 2016. All this “monitoring” is done under a special licence from SNH, and now I’ll have to write up my findings and submit them to official scrutiny.

For all I drew a blank this year, it’s always fun to gather moulted feathers and add them to the growing pile of cast-offs which litters my office. Every feather is a jewel, and it’s a pleasure to handle the quills and imagine the life they had, floating through the half-dark.

Faltering Grass

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We took our hay in June, and the bales went into the rafters. It was a bumper crop, but it was hardly enough to fill the feed gap which yawns from November to April. In previous years, we’ve sprayed the freshly cut field with Nitrogen fertiliser. This eggs the grass on to grow again and enable a second cut before the winter comes. This grass goes into silage bales, and it means that I can supply my cattle for an entire winter from a single field.

But this year I pulled away from bagged Nitrogen. I’ve learned about the damage that artificial fertilisers can do to soil chemistry and biodiversity, and that is so inconsistent with the aims of this project that I decided to avoid them altogether in 2019 – it was an exercise in “cold turkey”.

I knew I’d pay for this decision with a drop in yield. We usually take twenty five big bales of silage off this field in the autumn. I was prepared to take a little less, but I was staggered to find that regrowth after nine weeks without fertiliser amounted to almost nothing at all. We might have been able to take ten big bales of silage, but in an economy of scale, it would be impossible to find a contractor willing to bale and wrap such a small number of bales.

Some simple sums:- My cattle eat a big bale of silage every 4 days. 25 bales will feed them for 100 days – 3.3 months.

That’s a substantial period of time to go without grass. I was staring down a chasm. Of course I could buy in silage bales from a neighbour, but I can’t reconcile this as anything more than passing the buck – outsourcing the harm of intensive grassland management to somebody else’s field. So beyond all my sanctimony, I returned to the meadow on Tuesday night and spread fertiliser. I’ll now get my silage and the winter of 2019/2020 will be covered, but not without a decent helping of humble pie.

I’ve agonised over this precise issue before – how to balance productivity against sustainability. My solution has been wishy-washy; an avoidance of truth. With this coming winter sorted, it’s time to revisit the entire structure of this project. I can do better for my beasts and the environment.

Gathering Departure

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We shot the hill again, and in coming away from the higher ground, the gap of two weeks was clear to see. Now the asphodel is dry and red as a fox; the cowberries are thick and stem-bendingly red. High up in a distant bowl of ground, we found a hundred swallows hunting in the flossy bent, far from home and growing stronger with every cranefly and moss-bumper. Soon they’ll slide away and leave us wondering how we’ll survive the winter alone.

And there were ouzels by the path as I came home; bouncing, wily birds in the granite. A pair breeds here, but most are coming south from the Highland hills and they pass us on passage. They were as common as muck in Galloway fifty years ago, but now they bring the spring and the autumn and leave the summer quiet. One of them tasted a rowan berry and found it overly tart for his liking.

Close shoals of pipits and linnets and thistle-flicking finches, and then a dozen wheatears tight together down the dyke which, if you choose to follow it, takes you down through the drying silage to the sea and the Lake District; the first steps on the long march back to Africa.

August Rain

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Cattle in the rain, and the grass in a hurl of water. The bull works and the failing leaves turn up their bellies in disgust. There are times when I see great progress in the calves; signs of growth and prosperity. But they’re small and cool in the rain, and their curls soak the water like trailing threads. It takes a good day to see them well; spruced and fluffy as bears. But it’s hard to make that out when they lie sadly in the docks and gaze doe-eyed at the shortening light.

It’s dark from ten o’clock to five, and the summer wilts back to a usable span of night and day. Rowan berries shine like grapes. I find Scabious, St John’s Wort and the Grass of Parnassus. A hawk pulls palls of down from a pigeon.

And like a receding tide, curlews pass over the farm and out to sea. They call in teams of five and six, and a feeling comes like spring in reverse; damp echoes in the cloud.

Rabbit Collapse

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In reading back through a recent post on grazing, I was mildly surprised to find that I had recorded rabbits as a species which had benefitted from the summer cattle. Rabbits are a very new arrival on the list of conservation concerns, and it’s strange to find that I have begun to consider their habitat requirements.

Twenty years ago, rabbits were absurdly abundant. I could walk out with a rifle in the evening and be sure of coming home with a dozen bunnies. On two back-to-back nights on a neighbouring farm, a friend and I accounted for well over a hundred, and this was hardly extraordinary. Rabbits boomed and every hedge was alive with them. I was sometimes able to catch young rabbits by hand, and I picked up every trick and quirk of ferreting, long-netting and snaring as a teenager. I felt like these would be the tools of my trade, and they came to me in a rich bundle of local folklore and tradition. Rabbits were a cornerstone of this place and it seemed like they always would be.

But in a series of downward turns, that prosperity has crashed into the ground. I’ve worried before on this blog about disease and parasites; the impact of wet weather and mild winters. However you choose to explain their rapid decline, rabbits have gone from large areas of Galloway. When you see them now, it’s only in an echo of their former selves; a couple of dozen shapes nibbling the grass in the sunset. Of course there are still some hotspots, but already it’s hard to recall their numbers as they were.

And now I can begin to understand the confusion and regret of older folk who remember other species in their time of prosperity. They splay their hands and say “it’s a shame that lapwings and curlews have gone”, and that used to make me cross – it seemed to imply such pathetic fatalism – if they really cared, they’d have done something.

But now I have seen abundance collapse into paucity with my own eyes. If you had told me as a teenager that rabbits would soon be vanishingly scarce, I’d have laughed. But it’s damn hard to fight failure like this. I rage and weep, but even I did nothing useful. And there was no safety net; no co-ordinated response; no action plans or remedy – just failure. Rabbits are the latest loss, and if I’ve learnt nothing else from nature in the Twenty First Century, it’s how to grieve and let go.

We’ll mourn those rabbits for a time, then we’ll recalibrate. And then we’ll move on.



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Wasps have come like a dark, devouring force.

I gather windblown apples for the pigs, but every second skin is hollow. Sweet, puffy flesh has been replaced with furious stingers; they come for me with expressions of antsy fury. It’s a game of russian roulette in the sticky grass – I reach for the fruit and wince because the next apple could be my last.

And they gnaw at the vegetables in the garden; my carrot tops have been scooped away and emptied; my beetroots are sore and sorry. The brambles are being punctured and shot full of holes; no hope for the currants in the hedge.

I began to butcher a deer in the yard and found that wasps were peeling the meat from the bones faster than I could take it for myself. It seems like there is no part of these August days which is not ripe for plundering.

I have not yet been stung, but it’s in the post.

Wet Meat

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Floods and more rain. The river spews onto the meadows and the dawn brings a host of herons to the grey pools. They sulk and stride in gangs of eight or ten, and the limpid goop trails a ripple from their hocks. Now and then they’ll jab for a worm or a busted frog, and that’s when you see a killing streak. Their beaks are bayonets, and there’s a well-sprung power behind every lunge. Pity the minnow or the wayward lamprey who is shown up and found wanting in the soupy grass.

Two young falcons wail in the thorns. They’re obsessed with the idea of starlings, and they blink beadily at the flocks which follow the receding water. Starlings make for easy meat, but catching one is no mean feat when you’re young and half daft and your wings are wet and black as felt. So they scream and complain, and the starlings churn up a temptation in the rain.

Sometimes an adult peregrine will come to help these hungry youngsters.A grey shape will stoop in to kill an unwary starling, and then the young falcons drop down from the trees and run loping to their feast like dinosaurs in the heavy grass.

Summer Grazed

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The browse line – grazed on the left, ungrazed on the right

There’s a wide moss at the back of the house. It’s deep and wild and punctuated by enormous granite boulders. This is an excellent habitat for all kinds of wild birds; the grazing is usually deferred until the autumn and the grass grows deep and thick all summer. This system suits the farmer who owns the land and lives next door, and the winter grazing is a real asset, both to him and the birds which live there.

As a gesture of sympathetic generosity, I’ve been allowed to fence off and graze a small area of this moss for the last two summers. It’s been extremely interesting to keep an eye on the impact this has made to the conservation value of this land. My cattle have brought in some aspects of diversity to the summer sward, and now that they have all gone away to the bull, I had a chance to take a proper look yesterday as I fetched back the electric wires and poles from the summer’s fence.

For all it’s rough ground, galloways are designed to prosper on coarse moorland grasses. I had two calves born on this little patch, and the bull was grand and fat as cream after three months in the bracken and rushes. Their grazing has opened up the sward and introduced a whole wealth of botanical variety, but the cattle have also made a fine difference to the structure of the vegetation. They’ve broken up the uniformity and cut a little summer freshness into the place.

As I wound back the electric wire to pack it away, I was able to see the browse line between the grazed land and that which remains untouched. It was as clear as day; a “step” between short and tall. People talk about the “edge effect” for conservation; the attractive flux which springs up in the line between two different habitat types. By running an electric wire around a small piece of the moss, I managed to create almost seven hundred metres of “edge” between thick grass and short stuff. And so perhaps it’s no surprise that this is where I have been seeing pheasant and curlew chicks, young hares, snipe and rabbits. Pipits gather in their hundreds on the short grass, then birl away to the safety of the rushes when the sparrowhawk comes. By night, the owls hunt across the long grass and return to the short stuff to eat and preen. Adders love it short for basking, then they slip away into the tussocks to seek for mice and voles. There is hardly a bird, mammal or reptile which does not benefit from the spice of variety.

It’s hard to convey my excitement about tiny nuances of habitat management like these. I’m the first to admit that I’m still playing around in the shallow end of this work with a few beasts and some small pieces of land. I know the theory back to front and I’m up to my neck in projects like this across the country, but that does nothing to diminish the thrill of seeing it in my own place; conservation and habitat improvement work undertaken by my own beasts. By the time my neighbour puts his own beasts onto the moss in September, the grass will have grown again. The line will have blurred away and you will hardly be able to see where my cattle have been, but the benefits will persist.

August Morning

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Grouse hang cooling in the yard with a loop of twine around their throats. I chew upon the next move. There’s no reason for the changing seasons to fixate me like this, but we’re sliding now and the evidence is scrawled across miles of sky and open country, clear as day.

I fell to bed, and I began to recall the descent of summer in previous years, listing the signs and markers. In the final moments before sleep, I drew a mental image of an August morning, and I woke to find it expressed with such blinding accuracy that it might have been the mockery of a dream.

Mist had taken shape overnight. It leaned on the windows and drew dew to the webs and the cob eggs which lie bundled in the frame corners like pillows. I walked through the close and down to the river in my pyjamas, trailing my boots in the sodden grass and leaving tracks behind me. This sun is thin and tired; it’s been a long summer after all – a nightless span of cotton and tall cloud, enough to exhaust anyone. The light was creamy and dull without heat, and a fox ran beyond me in the tall grass, red as a rowan.

And there were mushrooms in the dawn. Their gills were frilled and pink, so I picked one and ate her, and was flooded with the smell of sweet decay. Then geese began to squall on the stubble fields below the house; tough, autumnal greylags from the shore and the high hill lochs. A confetti of homeless birds thrilled through the thorn trees and checked on the ripening fruit. Haws and brambles swelled in secret.

Every pre-seen sight and sound was ticked off and confirmed as I turned back for the house and saw it square and dull against the sunrise. No smoke from the chimneys yet, but how much longer can I keep the matches in their box?