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.

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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?

Twelfth

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We shot the hill and found it thin. I’d never seen such a poor showing of purple flowers, and the lower slopes were red with caustic rub of heather beetle. Many of these plants will die now, and the remainder will struggle on into the autumn in a state of hurt confusion.

It was inevitable that the worst hit ground should be bare and barren of birds. But we failed to find them even on the rising faces where the coveys lie. There were pairs and singles; odds and sods where I’d usually expect to find broods of seven and eight. And there was something imperfect in those birds which is hard to pin down. I’ve spent ten years working with grouse and I’m nothing like an expert, but I’ve learned to read something of them as they break from cover. They were slack and sluggish; they lacked panache and it puzzled me. The dog brought me a grouse and I could feel the keel of its breastbone under my thumb – not stripped or bony, but scant.

So we came away with three and a half brace, and I returned again to the growing idea that summer dies with the first grouse. They rise in the heat and light of long days. They are killed as they go. And they return to the earth in a different season.

Middle-Ground

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Odd things happen when you cross belted galloways with riggit galloways. The belt is a domineering trait, and the rigg is easily masked. So when I laid the two breeds together in 2018, I emerged with belted galloway calves – every hint of a rigg had been annihilated in favour of a bold black and white belt. It was an impressive experiment, and it helped to explain how easily riggit genetics were suppressed by other patterns during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries – crossed with something stronger, riggits are simply steamrollered into nonexistence.

In rolling the dice again, I’ve achieved something similarly bizarre – a calf which lies almost precisely halfway between the two breeds – a heifer with both a rigg and a belt. This is no great novelty; I hear that these “middle-ground” mongrel beasts are sometimes called beggits or rigglies, but this is the first one I’ve seen – and she cuts a very odd figure in a field of black and sombre shapes.

It will be interesting to see what she looks like in a month or two, but already I’m looking at selling her off along with her mother as part of a general move away from belted galloways. Perhaps these markings will be a turn-off to potential buyers, but I stand by the quality of the beast which lies under the skin – she’ll be a good heifer, regardless of her markings.

Fox Eyes

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August in a sigh of rain.

A million birds in the swarming dawn; meadow pipits and finches like a mist in the grass. I lie half-awake before sunrise and watch birds bathing in the dew like sparklers. Who knows where they came from; and who knows if they’ll see the evening? Because these birds are a currency – food for every hawk and hunting beast in the land. Most of them are destined to become fat, stashed between the meat and skin of something greater. Their memory will live only in the existence of others, so I enjoy them for one day only; the keen, gabbling company of a summer’s crop.

And a fox hunts along the scree in that same morning light. Everything is beneath him now; he sees the shepherd walking; he marks the curling dog. Our chimneys and the sun-dumb windows of this farm are well known to him as he stands shanked and knotty as a summer bear.

Grass moves around him. The stems are as thin and yellow as the eyes in his head. He sits for a time and soaks us in, then shoals of martins come up from the river and scream along the turnip shaws and out to the standing heather. This has been a summer for martins, which infest the clouds like a five o’clock shadow. And it’s been a summer for wildflowers too; for tufted vetch and valerian; for yarrow and clover and wild pheasant chicks which have stood well into August and fly like crowds of quail above the gossamer.

If the fox could find these birds, he’d surely have his say. But instead he sits to itch and I imagine the black, overdrawn lip and the pitch of his fangs as he finds the sweet spot and rakes it with a nail; such tick-bitten bliss in the bracken.

Dry, thready and hard-worn; the year steeps back to dusk again.

Gathering

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The cattle go for months on end without my input. They don’t need me for anything, so I linger around the fringes and offer them food when they want it. I keep an eye on them, but there are times when I go to visit my beasts in the deep grass and they look up and stare back at me as if my husbandry was patronising. After all, I stumble and wade through the tussocks and bracken like a drunkard; if anybody needs to be taken care of, it’s me.

But alongside a list of minor movements, the entire herd needs to be gathered at least once a year to check their blood. The vet comes with trays of tubes and vials, and the samples are sent to the laboratory in Dumfries. I’m lucky that my beasts are isolated from our neighbours and stand a very low risk of contracting the diseases which plague bigger and more intensive projects. But still, the samples must be drawn and analysed, and the results published as a “Health Status”.

Moving the cattle is always an upredictable business. They aren’t moved often enough to make a habit of it, and it’s hard to convey the meaning of what I want. For this annual gathering, they all have to move through several unfamiliar fields and fall into a corral at the opposite end of the farm. By nudging and driving, the trip is usually made in an hour – and it’s infinitely preferable to the drawn-out anxiety of loading and unloading from trailers and wagons.

But yesterday when the job was done and the beasts were freed from the cattle pens, they rolled home like a cavalry charge. The bull was put out to work at the same time, and he rumbled along beside his cows and the calves he sired last year – seeing many of these for the first time. He cavorted and tossed his great barrel-neck in lusty delight.

I drove behind them on the quad as they ran and I felt the ground trembling below me; great gouts of red dust and mud flared up like scuds of sea foam in the grassheads. Ears back and bounding, they hacked and crapped and flared their tails into the air beneath high clouds and the glint of Lakeland beyond the Solway. I whooped and cheered them on, breathing in the bellowing fug which swirled behind them like a wake. Having worked in the pens with these beasts for an hour, I was stained with their sweat and the streaks of their spattery pats up my bare calves and across my shorts; stand downwind with a blindfold on and you could easily assume I was one of them. There’s no doubt that this was work, but a pleasure beside it and a fair repayment for the investment which continues to draw me through the floorboards.

In a single sweep, the beasts drew back into the fields where they spend most of their year. The gate swung to behind them, and I watched the bull begin to snuff and prowl. The cycle begins again, and my cattle will recover their haughty distance.