Such rain as you’d hardly believe, and the sheep swept like dead leaves into the gullies and rushes. They’re miserable, and the water runs off them in spate. Cattle stand back in the whins and the pine trees bend and creak above them. There’s nowhere to gather steam or a cosy fug of comfort – it’s all bare and slittery with the wind like a knife through the dyke stones.
It’s tempting to go amongst them and see if they’re ok; I know that I would not be happy on a night like this. But if I went to see them, I know they’d stand and shuffle round. Any pouch of carefully cradled warmth would be blown away to ripple across the hill like thrums of down. Far better to leave them lying in the slots they’ve made. If there is shelter, they’ll have found it. I could go and pity them, or I could recall that they were born to ride a storm like this.
Researchers found my blog and came to me with a proposal last month. They were making a program for BBC Scotland about young people in the countryside, and despite my increasing antiquity, I seemed to be a good fit.
But then there was talk about grouse moor management, land reform and community land ownership; things started to feel controversial. And I began to feel like a bad choice for a program like that, because my opinions are pretty boring. I support grouse moor management, but I can understand why people don’t like it. I’m unsure about the principle of land reform, but I have seen at first hand why people need it. I don’t know much about community ownership, but I also see that anybody who aspires to own and manage land should be careful what they wish for.
I’m not deliberately obscure or evasive on these subjects; I’ve just spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about them from every angle. And so I felt like there was little I could add to a television program which seemed to have an increasing focus on conflicts in land use. It would be far better to include people who see these issues with more polarity – that would make for much better TV.
I chewed over the many “worst case scenarios” of being involved with the program, and I finally decided to go ahead with it. A team of people came out to film me feeding cattle and lifting turnips; I’m told I was very “natural” in front of the camera. But I’m also aware that in passing comment on issues of controversy around land use in Scotland, I’ve opened myself up to criticism and abuse. It would be easy to take things I said out of context, and while I don’t think the production team will do this deliberately, it would not be hard for people to get the wrong end of the stick. So I begin to wonder if I should have kept my head down after all.
But then I balance my instinct to withdraw with a sense of general frustration around how many of these discussions unfold in public. Despite working first hand with grouse moors and upland agriculture for a decade, I’m often reluctant to comment on these issues when they emerge in the news. This is mainly because the quality of the debate is so staggeringly poor and is often based upon heaped mounds of untruth and misinformation. I used to think that I could make a valuable contribution to conversations around land use; I felt like I had built up some worthwhile experience. But when I tried to get involved, I found that these exchanges were often dominated by people (on both sides) who had no idea what they were talking about – it was a weaponised competition where people battered into one another with half-truths and their frustration steamed like a kettle.
So I withdrew and now have very little to do with it. I also know several people who are far better qualified to “have a say” in the debate than I am – they’ve all withdrawn too. It feels pointless – trying to battle against a lunatic rollercoaster which seems to derive its momentum from little more than sound and fury. The “grouse moor debate” will come to a conclusion one day. No matter how it pans out, I think it will be remembered as a sad, embarrassing mess for everyone involved.
I’ll be on television in the spring, and it will be interesting to see how the discussion unfolds around this program. Perhaps I’m being naively optimistic, but I hope that there is still space for the middle ground.
Without wanting to get too turnip-heavy, it’s worth noting one practical detail about feeding turnips to cattle.
My cows were baffled by turnips at first. They had never seen anything so ridiculous, and all my carefully-grown roots were completely ignored. So on the advice of friends and neighbours, I began to chop them up with a shovel. That was fine, but it takes a little while to chop a hundred turnips every morning. After a month, I began to wonder if the cattle had learnt that turnips were food and could be left to eat the whole thing without being cut. Developing this hypothesis, I turned out a dozen turnips as an experiment.
Here are my findings:
Cows like the shaws (leaves) best. So faced with a whole turnip, a cow will eat the shaws and the stalk first. Then the uncut turnip is almost spherical and it becomes very difficult for a cow to pick it up or eat it. So they chase the turnips round with their noses as if they were dooking for apples with their hands behind their backs. Sometimes they’ll roll the turnip a long way away, then they’ll give up and it’ll be lost. More likely, they’ll roll the turnip round and round until it goes in a cowpat, at which point they’ll turn up their nose and say “that’s disgusting – I’m not eating that”. The cows were able to eat approximately 50% of the whole turnips without any bother, but the other half was being lost or wasted in cowpats. That’s quite a poor success rate.
Conclusion: chop them in half with one strike of a shovel. That way they won’t roll away, and you aren’t bound up for hours mashing turnips into fancy little chips.
All this might seem blindingly obvious to many readers, but learning this kind of stuff at first hand keeps this whole project interesting.
The turnips are frosted, but that’s not to say they’re finished. A third of the field has now been lifted and fed to the cattle, and the remnants are standing proud in the ice and driving rain.
In trying to measure the conservation benefits of having grown turnips in 2019, I find it’s hard to place a value on them. They drove an incredible boom in wildlife between June and October, but his has really tailed off over the last few weeks. I believe that the turnips are almost single-handedly responsible for bringing hares into this part of the farm, but the crop’s value to birds seems to have slumped as the shaws melted and the frost set in. The turnips have managed to hold onto the hares (see pic above), but there are only a few small birds roosting in the crop each night, and it’s nothing compared to the busy days of early autumn.
Balance that against the oat crop of 2018. The oats did very little for wildlife until they matured. Birds began to hang in the seedheads only when the crop went black and was ready to be cut. Once the reaper had been through, there was a wholesale bonanza of wildlife excitement – the stubbles really went up a gear in October, then stood at a fever pitch until the spring.
So there’s a chronological mismatch between oats and turnips which makes it hard to draw a meaningful comparison between the two. It’s unlikely that one is “better” for wildlife than the other, and more probable that they offer different strokes for different folks. The oats were astonishingly good for yellowhammers, linnets and winter partridges – the turnips have been better for hares, insects and broods of wild pheasants.
The reality is (yet again) that the best results for wildlife would probably come from a patchwork of oat and turnip crops managed in unison. Wildlife would be free to drift between the fields according to what was on offer, and the whole glen would be buoyed by diversity.
As a footnote, perhaps I’m unusual for leaning so heavily upon the upsurge of hares. They’re a fact of life in many places, and I know many people for whom a boost in hare numbers would be a matter of moderate indifference. But I didn’t grow up with hares – we never had them on my family’s farm, and I always considered them to be objects of extreme value and curiosity. I still love hares, but I sing their praises in this context because they often seem to represent the health of a habitat. If you’ve got hares, you’re doing something right.
It was a fine treat to be invited down to Teesdale last week. I love the North Pennines, and always reckoned that if Galloway was wiped off the map tomorrow, I’d head straight for the hills between Alston and Wolsingham. That’s partly to do with the sheer quantity of black grouse in the area (probably the highest density in England), but also because the landscape has a tough, spare openness in which I feel very much at home. Much of this has gone from Galloway over the last half century as the hills have been planted with trees, but in many ways the North Pennines seem to remain much as they have been for centuries.
I was invited by Ewan Allinson, who is running the HeftedToHill project as part of a bigger Northern Heartland scheme. Not only was it flattering to be asked, but the more I looked into the project, the more it seemed to appeal. Because Hefted to Hill is about placing a value on local knowledge in hill farming – realising that the people who might have been working and maintaining a landscape for generations are a resource in their own right.
This kind of local know-how has been almost completely ignored over the past few decades, particularly by government agencies and conservation bodies. As a result, schemes and environmental plans are often set up without bearing much relation to the situation on the ground, and farmers are left scratching their heads in confusion. Hefted to Hill went out and spoke to a number of farmers in the North Pennines, and their conversations were recorded – many of them relate strange and lopsided encounters between farmers and “officials” – my favourite is this one, spoken in a tough hill accent:
“There was a fella out there trying to set up a Stewardship Agreement. And there was a bird flew up in front of him one day, a bloody big blackcock it was, and he said “oh, it won’t be a blackcock”, and “I said it would be” cos there’s a handful about but he wouldn’t have it, we couldn’t convince him”
I can relate to this, almost to the precise syllable. The amount of times I’ve met bird surveyors on our hill and have been treated as I was an imbecile is almost beyond counting.
I remember coming back down the hill after watching three black grouse at the lek one morning. I bumped into a birdwatcher along the way – a man who was being paid to count birds and report back to a renewable energy developer on the neighbouring land.
I asked him if he’d seen any blackcock and he replied that he hadn’t. I said “that’s because they’re out on the hill behind me” – but he shook his head. “They can’t be”, he said – “blackcock will only display within three hundred metres of a forest edge”. The birds I’d been watching were a mile away from the nearest tree, and it seemed a bit inflexible of him to say I was wrong. Whatever – I shrugged and was prepared to ignore the whole incident when I realised that he was actually going to ignore the birds I’d seen. Perhaps he simply didn’t believe me, but it felt more likely that he wouldn’t take my word for it because I was simply an amateur. If he’d gone up the hill, he could have seen them for himself – but he didn’t. I noticed that he’d been down along the forest edge where goshawks were nesting. I asked him if he’d seen the goshawks and he said “I can’t share that information with you”. Yes, that was an odd conversation.
You could say it was funny, but this kind of exchange has deeper ramifications. When farmers are ignored and their help is refused for long enough, they start to feel disenfranchised from nature. It’s been an unfortunate quirk of many conservationists that they begin to feel rather proprietorial about wildlife – that it’s “theirs” and that it cannot truly be understood by mere “outsiders”. But we all have an equally valuable take on the natural world, and in passing over the advice and wisdom of farmers, conservationists are often hamstringing themselves.
I’ve lost track of the number of farmers who are receiving payments to do conservation work which they think is stupid. It’s not that they aren’t invested in wildlife or sustainability – it’s simply that the agreement they’re working under is daft and could be improved. You could call it sour grapes, but the explanation for why farmers think the scheme is crap often starts with “Well, if they’d only listened to me…” But when you get down to what they really think, you see that the suggestions are often rooted in good sense and experience – a farmer will know when and where cows will use a hill – they’ll know what kind of stock to use for seasonal grazing, and they’ll understand why a fence across a certain contour will soon be pulled down or frayed against by deer. That’s not to praise farmers per se and demand that they all get a fair hearing. When it comes to conservation, some farmers have very little to offer – like the shepherd I met in the spring who couldn’t tell you the difference between a lark and a snipe and didn’t care either way.
Hefted to Hill is a genuine attempt to redress the traditional imbalance in conversations around land use. By recognising the value of local wisdom and pairing it with academic data and nouse, it will surely be easier to design management plans which actually work. I wish Hefted to Hill every success, but as I drove home in the darkness, I realised that as projects like this document local wisdom, heritage and tradition in Teesdale, there is nobody doing the same in Galloway.
I was glad to revisit some of my old plantings last night on the edge of another brutally cold darkness. The thermometer on the hill was down to -7 as I crunched and spattered through the rime, and I turned in a moment of curiosity to find the juniper trees which I planted here in May 2010. They were little sprigs back then, no more than a foot at the longest leader. Juniper is a slow growing tree at the best of times, but here it has worked steadily away to create shrubs which around the height of my shoulder. The branches at the bottom are as thick as my wrist, and the clutchy little needles rise and droop in thick clusters.
Juniper is expensive to buy, so I only put in a few. Then I heard of a new disease which was sweeping across Scotland, killing juniper and leaving the stems all rotten and black. That stymied any further investment, but not without some regret. It’s a beautiful native tree, with a great deal to offer birds and wildlife. I’d love to have deep groves of it on the hill, overhung with birch and scots pine – that would be a fine place to find black grouse on a bitter cold evening. As it is, I’m limited to a handful of bushes which seem to live and prosper on borrowed time. I’m always pleasantly surprised to find that they are healthy, and I only wish that we could have more juniper on the hill and across Galloway more generally.
Decent, fearsome frost and the turnips are bound to the ground. It takes a kick to get them up like, gouging them like eyeballs from their sockets – then I’m staring at clods of ice and the shaws falling away like rotten hair, somehow slippery and rasping in the same cold handful. And the tops are sharp below the shaws, and if you grip them enough in your hand, the blood comes up and your knuckles begin to grind in their pouches.
It’s hard cutting with a shovel and a clean sky above you. The turnips are like rocks, and the steel skids off them. I get jostled around by the beasts, and I lose my footing. Then the sun comes low and hard in the pine trees, and crowds of pigeons stand in the cones and watch me beadily.
Cattle stand in the rising moon. Woodcock stir and wild duck are ready for the night.