On the far side of a bad hill

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A lonely grave

Out on the hills above Carsphairn, and lit by a low and sinking sun. I went up that way ten years ago, but that’s not long in the language of peat and granite. Nothing has changed in that time, but I’m a different person altogether and that alone is humbling.

It was fine to pound away through the deep grass and gain some altitude, hunting again for the gravestone of a man who has been dead for three centuries. When I last came to this place, I was spellbound by tales of the Covenanters. It’s a wild old piece of history, but it was doubly fascinating to me because it belongs to Galloway and most people have no idea it ever happened. The war between cavaliers and roundheads came up to Scotland and we made it a fight for the soul of the church. It became a guerrilla conflict – mounted dragoons hunting for desperate rebels. There’s no end of grim tales from that time, and they appeal to anybody with a love for adventure.

One of the Covenanters was hunted to his death by wolfhounds, and the dogs were driven on to kill the man as he ran for safety. They caught him on the far side of a bad hill in the depths of a distant horizon – the ridge between Cooran of Portmark and the Meaul of Garryhorn; there’s nothing to see or do out there but wonder. His grave is marked by a simple stone, but the story’s enough to make your hair stand on end. I used to think of him and stretch out a hand of sympathy, but then I realised that while my ancestors were bound up in this conflict, we were never Whigs. And it’s a curdling burr to picture a man like me among the King’s dragoons, sneering to see the outlaw slain. And in truth it makes no difference either way; these hills are filled with bones and you can pick a side as you please.

And as I walked, the dogs pushed up a clatter of blackgame before us; the cocks trailed their curling tails in a bitter wind, and greyhens came up like a din in the haggs. Of course my heart broke to see them go; fine birds coursing away like geese towards Ayrshire and the hump of Ailsa Craig. There were red grouse gurning too, and golden plovers, and a humpy old hare with his back all blue with frost and winterwear.

I tell myself that there will be time in my life to do all the projects I’m planning, but sometimes I wonder. I’ve often played with the idea of a painting project devoted to the hill fox. That’s not to say the tough, mouse-hunting moorland bodie – I mean the fullblood hillman, with a red mane and a brush like a dyker’s arm. That would be a thing worth working on; following him to the den in some black screebank and watching for his coming at dawn on the back of Clashdaan. Yes, he’s some man the hill fox, and what a job it would be to find him in all seasons and pin down every flex and ding of his bone-cold world on the high tops.

Because it was just such a fellow I found at two thousand feet in the craigs and knowes above Loch Doon. And he came by me like a shambling bear with his tongue over his shoulder as if it were a scarf. The dogs took after him, and he soared above the white grass and reached for every step and hardly took himself out of second gear to be away. And somehow it was in me to howl, and I threw my hat and ran behind him yelling Ho! and laughing. You might see a true hill fox half a dozen times in a year, so make the best of him when you can. And then I thought of the man and the dogs behind him all those years ago; that dulled me down again.

I found the grave in the dying moments of daylight, and I sat for a moment with the old bones and saw the light turn over the Firth of Clyde. I get het up and worried for Galloway, and perhaps it tells in this blog and elsewhere. Things are not as they should be, and I think that’s more than just my own opinion. But there are days when the land and the memories blur into wild beasts and birds. Find me on a good day in the hills and no man on this earth is more contented.

Hare at Home

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A hare knows more than I do. She lies on the open ground and wisdom grows upon her. She learns how the wind moves through the grass, and she keeps the fields when I’m indoors and the night lies dead against my window. She is the real master of this place; there is not a slot in the dyke or a bramble stem that she has not grasped and loved for later use.

It’s a level of expertise that I cannot fathom. And it’s easy to make her cunning look small, because I know that she’d be lost a mile away. Take her off to somewhere new; place her down in a field which seems the same to you or I – it would be the same as killing her. She’ll still be fast, but without her home around her, she is limbless.

My friend used to come over and play when I was a kid. He’d cycle down through the hazel woods, and he sometimes brought a rugby ball. We’d take it in turns to play at being Gavin Hastings, and we scored countless tries in the field below the house. One day he brought a friend to play rugby with us. This was some boy I didn’t know; a big, bullish boy with a shaved head and the start of a moustache. He was stronger than me in every way, and he wanted to score all the tries. That was fine, but it began to rankle at me as the afternoon wore on. It happened that in some mocked-up scrum, he pushed me down and I was hurt. I flew at him and pulled him over, and I never paused to think of what an uneven match we made. I ignored my smallness and the slender tweak of my arms, feeling sure that I could flatten him with sheer willpower – because this was my place; the place I knew and loved and loved me in return – surely that would level the field?

It ended badly. He pinned me to the ground and twisted my arm behind my back. And that pain was nothing to the stun of desperate failure; that I was powerless, even here in my home where every rock and tussock was known to me. And when he stood and walked away, I was left with nothing at all. I could not even hold my own.

And I imagine that hare with a fast dog behind her; playing tricks and turning the ground to her advantage. What cards she has to play; such a deep pool of resources. I’d back her odds on any given day, but how will it feel to play the game and come up short? The dog closes upon her, and she finds that all her love is for nothing.

Counting Trees

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Trees to the far horizon – but at what cost?

It’s hard to imagine a more depressing General Election. It falls far outside the remit of this blog to enter the world of politics, but there is a single strand of policy which has become increasingly noisy and childish over the last few weeks. I can hardly resist a note of exasperated despair.

In a bid to demonstrate their green credentials, the various parties have been competing over aspirational boasts on tree planting. One party says “we’ll plant a million trees!” – at which the other scoffs and says “Is that all? We’re going to plant a billion!” It’s ecological virtue signaling of the most pathetic kind, but it raises some really worrying questions for those of us who value open ground and the wildlife and people who depend upon it.

At the current rate of expansion, commercial forests will soon consume the uplands of Galloway in their entirety. Whether or not we have chosen to become a forest is almost immaterial; we’re now in a cycle where local objection to land use change is passed to Holyrood where it’s quickly overruled. Ministers say: “we don’t care, it’s happening – put up or shut up”. Whether it’s wind development or forest expansion, this busted feedback loop has played out so often now that many local people feel completely disempowered. We are giving up.

It’s a scary moment to look up and see these political promises being made simply on the basis of numbers. The inference is that a hundred million trees is twice as good as fifty million trees, and the narrative is based on “the more, the merrier”. But come to Galloway and see what extensive afforestation has done to us over the last forty years. Drive from Newton Stewart to Moniaive via Carsphairn and realize that the road is little more than a slot in the centre of a vast industrial complex.

We have been haemorraging biodiversity during the course of my lifetime; many of our most important peatlands will never recover from the first generation of planting. Wading birds are almost gone, and many hill farmers will soon join them. And in the midst of all this investment and backing, you can hardly to fail to notice that as Galloway is transformed into a timber powerhouse, the cinema has closed; pubs are boarded up; entire streets are dead and littered with For Sale signs. Young people leave school and go straight to Glasgow or Edinburgh because there are no jobs in the southwest. Forestry is in the ascendency; we’re told to be glad of the trees – but it feels like Galloway has never been a more down-at-heel place.

And I don’t mean to moan or wring my hands. I understand that manifesto promises need to be short and punchy, and that nuance is easily lost in the scrabble for votes. Climate change is terrifying, and it makes us feel good to embrace quick-fixes which align with our ideas of sustainability. But I would feel a great deal more comfortable with this direction of travel if there was some consideration given to the quality and integration of the new trees rather than measuring success simply by quantity.


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Some of my belts and riggs together (pic: Duncan Ireland)

As autumn comes in and the cattle begin to lean upon me for additional feeding, it’s fun to rediscover the differences between belted galloways and riggit galloways. The two breeds are often lumped together as “the same animal with different markings”, but I’ve found a wealth of examples to show how different they really are.

As I drive up the hill with a load of bales and turnips, it’s always the belted galloways who come first and ram the trailer with enthusiasm. They shove and scrum to take the best, and I begin to realise that it’s not simple greediness. Looking at their bellies, it’s obvious that they’re emptier and require feed more urgently. And that’s perhaps in part because they’re altogether bigger animals – my belted galloways stand a good six or eight inches taller at the shoulder than my riggits; they’re inherently leaner and leggier, and that seems to take more feeding. They also lose condition much faster than my riggits did, and it’s interesting to see hips beginning to show on my belties while the riggits are still buried in blubber.

Belted galloways are excellent animals, and farmers are often delighted to realise how cheap and easy it is to keep out wintered native cattle breeds. But this is often because they’re used to dealing with commercial breeds, and anything less than “high-octane” can feel like a pleasant relief. But I’m starting to think that riggits represent an even lower gear beneath belted galloways – they require even less feed and human support than belties do.

Read old books about cattle and you’ll often see galloways being described as “thrifty” – they can make do with very little at all. Belted galloways are thrifty, right enough – but I’m starting to realise that riggits are thriftier still.


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Badger rootling in permanent pasture

I can hardly resist a brief note to record the damage caused by badgers on a few of our fields during the last month. In foraging and rootling for worms, they’ve turned over some big patches of turf in several places across the hill. If you were to add all these patches together (as you might during an IACS assessment), this damage probably runs to around an acre of land that has been converted to bare or grubbed-up soil.

You could say that all is fair in love and war, and that badgers are entitled to grub away as they please. It’s a point of near indifference to me since I plan to plough this particular field (pictured) and put it under a break crop of rape next year before reseeding, but it does raise some interesting parallels with the damage caused by wild boar.

I’ve seen plenty of wild boar rootling over the last few years, and while perhaps it’s more dramatic, it’s so sporadic that it might only happen once every eighteen months. Badgers are a good deal more persistent in their digging, and they seem to work the same patches again and again for weeks. So if you were to ask me which does more harm overall, I’d be hard pressed to give you an answer.

And the comparison is interesting because “agricultural damage” has been given as a justification for the proposed eradication of wild boar in this part of Galloway. It seems that we’re prepared to tolerate this kind of impact from badgers, but boar do not deserve even the slightest leeway or tolerance.

I’m a wild boar enthusiast, and there’s a fair place in my heart for badgers – but it’s an interesting little wrinkle to think about how we react differently to two species who are effectively doing the same thing.

Home Again

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The bull was loaded up and I brought him home in the wagon on the edge of darkness.

His life now falls into two uneven halves. He spends four months at work on the cattle, and the rest of his time he’s back on home turf. I brought one of his calves to keep him company, and so father and son rolled into the yard and waited to see what happened next. I watched their noses snuffing at the vents in the tall aluminium trailer.

This place must smell familiar to him. For all that the scents of grass and gorse are uniform, surely they fall in different ratios and blends between places? And while they have spent their autumn beneath grand oak woodlands, here the wind is laced with flakes of birch bark and myrtle; boggy soil and the crunch of fallen bracken. He came from a hill of whinstone and has returned to a moor where granite is king. Even I can tell the difference between the smell of those stones, so it will be obvious to him. He must know it and recognise this place, even if his only view is a changeless blue slot above his head.

His nose is rough and his whiskers are coarse. I reach up to rub it and find my wrist raked by a dull grey tongue.

Frost and Biting Cold

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Early signs of frost damage in the turnips – this should be pure, creamy flesh

The wind stays in the north and east, and it’s cold enough to wipe the smile off your face. There’s a hare lying in the leeward edge of a turnip rig, and the ice birls upon his jacket.

I long for a brutal winter, and I’m forever disappointed. In recent years, winter has become a slippery mess which pools and blunders through the darkness. We had five days of frost last winter – five days is hardly enough to harden the soil or skin any but the shallowest of puddles. Snow fell one afternoon, but it was gone before dark. I came back into the spring with a feeling that I had missed out.

There was a time when winter was something worth worrying about. Storms would blow the electricity off, and snow would fall in swathes to the windowsill. Significant parts of my childhood were spent in darkness, reading a book by the fire because we couldn’t leave the house and sledging had stopped being fun. You had to work around weather like that, but it seems to come less often than ever before.

And it’s a failing of climate change that we’re being given softer winters as the world begins to shift away from its fulcrum. Winter weather is becoming less relevant to us, and our lives continue without any need to adjust for seasonality. Imagine if five feet of snow fell tonight from out of the blue. We’d be staggered by it – we’d have cause to think long and hard about how the world was going. But no such thing will happen, and we think instead about whether to turn the radiator up in the car. My grandparents would keep a pantry filled with tinned food and winter supplies because you never knew what nature was planning. But it’s milder these days, and we don’t have to care anymore – just at the moment when we should be caring more than ever.

And if I’m feeling miserly, then perhaps it’s attributable (at least in part) to the discovery that in the recent hard frosts, many of my turnips have caught the chill and begun to decay. Turnips are supposed to store energy all winter, but they do need a little help to hold their value. I should have had them covered over and buried in straw and muck by now, but I thought I had time to spare. I can still feed these damaged turnips to the cattle, but it scuppers my plans to keep them and eke them out. Now it’s a battle against waste; I’ll have to feed them as fast as I can.

This is the latest of so many errors I have made in this crop, and the fault lies solely with me. I was so focussed upon the mechanics of growing turnips that I seem to have overlooked the value of timing. So I was too late to hoe and thin the crop, then too early to start lifting it. Then I was too late to get the best of the shaws and I missed my chance to put a covering on the clamp to protect the turnips from the falling temperature, which fell to minus seven degrees celsius earlier in the week. I’ll know better next year, and I take consolation from the fact that everything I’ve done has been perfect – it’s only my timing that has been wrong.

And so I plead for a hard winter and the spectre of deep snow, but I would be pleading with a good deal more comfort if my turnips were safe and cosy and I had not fumbled yet another chore.


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I found a book this afternoon, and the world seemed to fall upon me. It’s been seventeen years since I saw it last, and that time has not been kind to the spine and the wrinkled cover. It looks like an old thing, but I remember buying it new in a shop near Ons Hoop in the bowl of the Limpopo river. I’d been in South Africa for a month, and I wanted to learn about the game and the wildlife of the bushveldt. But I’d asked so many questions of the people around me that I exhausted them. The time had come to do some reading and find answers for myself.

It’s not a great book. The photographs are small and the descriptions are very general, but it was my compass on long days in the veldt, many of which passed in complete solitude and isolation. I’d read the book and pore over the pictures, and it’s fun to find old fingerprints on some of the busiest pages – gritty little smears of sweat and grime in the most-turned corners.

It was almost an act of muscle memory to find a particular favourite – a small and single page devoted to:

Lesser Bushbaby : Galago moholi : Total Length 40cm

There’s a nice picture to go with the words. Someone had managed to take a photograph with a flash, and the poor little brute is wincing badly. But there he is, with his tail coiled up in a spool beneath him and his lugs turned in like dishes. He’s a fine little fellow, and if the world fell upon me to find that book, then time collapsed to see his face again.

I narrow my eyes, and for a moment I’m sitting in silence in the twilight and the thorns. My little house is five miles from the nearest human habitation, and night comes to the petering hum of doves and crickets. Bush air leans upon me; the smell of cracked sap and hot sand and the stars of the Southern Cross turning out of the sky like a prickle of pins. And in a moment of deafening stillness, there are bushbabies in the trees above my head.

I can’t see their eyes or the cup of their ears in that losing light. I can’t see anything but a crisp and puckish silhouette. And they come down without fear or confusion, almost within arm’s reach to snuff with queer enthusiasm at my smell of cigarette smoke and sweat. You could say it was scary at first; to find the night sprung with tiny, silent primates. But it held no worry for me; it seemed fine that the trees had come to life and sprites moved between them.

I think I could hold a bushbaby in my hand; I think it would cling to me as if I were a branch. I tell myself I can hear them pounce and glide around me, but it’s more like the sound of my hair growing. And they creep and spring as the night deepens, chewing sap and riding like sparks in the space between the trees.

The Boers call them nagaapie, which they say as “nach-aapie” – night monkey. I told my friend about them when he came, but he laughed and said they’re not important. It was hard to explain how they were changing everything for me. It became a ritual to lie out and wait for the bushbabies, and I couldn’t settle without having seen them. Sometimes I’d lie in bed and imagine them moving in silence around the house; weird and well-met creatures in the starlight.

Now I’m home again, six thousand miles and the best part of two decades away from the nearest bushbaby. The people I worked for and knew in South Africa have gone and their businesses are finished. Three of them have died, and they’re just the ones I know about. You couldn’t find a single person there who remembers me, and I hear that South Africa is a different place these days. There’s no going back, even if I wanted to. And I wonder if this book is really mine after all. Maybe it’s on loan from somebody else.


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This high pressure’s enough to make your eyes pop. The wind’s in the North and the sky’s come over crisp and bare as a baby’s iris.

In twenty years of watching and waiting, I’ve managed to glean a single piece of wisdom, and it’s dear to me because I learned it for myself. Whisper it, because I’m not a natural gloater – but I’ve found a weakness in the cunning fox; I know something he doesn’t want me to tell you. The barometer tilts me to a smug and knowing smile.

High pressure and a North wind makes a fine day for a fox, each one newly bloomed into a luscious winter coat. There’s nothing to be had underground on a brilliant sunlit day, so a fox will lie above it and cadge the shelter of myrtle and rowans. Far out on the hanging hill, I lie in the heather and spy upon him with my binoculars. And watching him in the cold November sun, I finally fell upon a wrinkle; a glitch; a habit which allows me to predict his next move.

On days like these, certain places will call up a fox like the smell of old blood. I can think of a dozen spots where you’d be guaranteed to find him when the day’s bright and the wind is cold; they’re little nooks and corners where he’s always bound to go. At first it seemed like there was no thread of continuity between them, but now I see they’re all the same. Every fox will profit from lying in precisely the same way, and it helps to put myself in their position:

  • I want to be in the sun and out of the cold North wind. So lie just below the brow of a south-facing slope.
  • I want to see what’s coming, so I pick a spot with a good view and I curl up so I can look down upon everything below me. And the wind comes from behind me – if I can’t see it, you can bet I’ll smell or hear it.
  • And I want to be sure that I can leave when I choose. I know every exit and I roll the options over in my mind. There are always half a dozen ways to make myself scarce.

Match those three requirements together, and you’ll find a fox – sure as eggs is eggs. I know a few places where they converge, so I wait for the weather to bring me a certainty.

And there are always more places to find. I look for them with as much enthusiasm as I’d look for the fox himself. It helps to walk the high ground on other days; it’s time spent in reconnaissance. I move through long grass and find new places where he might lie in a North wind. If I find a promising site, I’ll often lie down in it myself, trying to imagine how the view would look if I stood eight inches tall. Perhaps the heather is too thick after all – maybe it’s perfect.

I don’t think I’m being daft in this – a fox will never lie in anything but the perfect spot. And when you press your belly to the ground, you realise the genius of good shelter. I stand at six feet tall and a cold wind stings me. But lie down in the right place and I’m as comfortable as I would be indoors.

Sometimes I find a good new spot and I’m rewarded to find my prediction is accurate. It’s a fine glow to foretell the movements of a fox you’ve never seen before. Some older places are so well used that if you cannot see a fox lying out in a North wind, it’s only because he saw you first.

And having found my fox, I begin to think of stalking in with a rifle; new ways to confound the security of some far-flung perch. Sometimes there’s no way to get within half a mile. You have to lie out and wait and hope that he’ll get up and mooch away from safety into some piece of ground where the odds lie in your favour. I know two places where the approach is straightforward, and foxes are easily winkled out time and again. But kill the incumbent, give it a month and there’ll be another fox lying there, having felt the same, instinctive pull on a sunlit day.

Turn the weather into the east and foxes will move again like musical chairs. There will be another list of places to check and examine. Wet weather will shift the balance further. I daresay that if you lived for long enough and spent sufficient time in observation, you might finally crack the pattern for every weather. You could wake up in the morning, gaze out of the window and know where to go.

I only have one piece of the puzzle. I know where a fox will be on a cold, bright day with the wind in the North. But a fox gives nothing easily, and I wear my puny wisdom like a medal.



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Turnips make for a strange diet. The cows hardly know them as food, so I’ve begun to mash them up and slice the roots into chips. It’s a “serving suggestion”, and the beasts will soon learn.

It’s grand work chopping turnips and I love it. I get up early just to do it. Strike a neep with a shovel and relish that crisp, barky split as it hangs around you; what a noise. And it smells good, and the flesh is clean and creamy enough that I’ll forgive you for picking it up and eating slabs of it yourself – one for you, one for me and the cattle can wait.

The cold weather has taken all the pepper out of that flavour; they used to be spicy, but now they’re plain and sweet and I could cut those turnips all day; chopping and splitting and dicing the food in the frost.

Cows come to bustle around me as I strike and sweat and lean upon the shovel shank. A raven sees it all and has no comment.