Summer Evening

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Cows put through onto new stubble above the sea

It’s a hard to keep your chin up at this time of year, and that’s when things are going well. This winter has come blue and godawful, and it’s tough to find daylight in a relentless screed of dusk and rain. In moving some old files, I stumbled upon a photograph which I took one August evening more than twenty years ago. For a few moments I was there again, and how I gasped to feel the daylight again.

I seem to gripe in my writing that time has served us ill – I’m a bugger for the “good old days”. I usually try to fight the idea and keep it under, but it’s Christmas and surely I’m allowed a swell of nostalgia for half an hour?

Because that was a summer of sunshine, and I spent it with hardly a care in the world. My uncle had grown fifteen acres of spring barley, and it was cut in the snarling heat of an August morning. The harvester was a grand yellow machine which whirred up the crop like a dryer. I was allowed to drive it once, and felt the tap-tap-tap of engine hands and pummelling pistons. The back field was clear by lunchtime, and I was free to lay out some pigeon decoys and try for a bird or two as the men gathered and regrouped and moved on to a different field. Cows were put through to clean up the margins, and then the field was mine. For some reason, I took a photograph of the beasts as they fanned out and began to sift through the remains of the crop.

Barley stubbles crackled like old tape in the sunshine. I’d made my own decoys out of plywood and cardboard, and each one was hand-painted to varying degrees of success. They crouched and made dark shadows as the sun moved past the vertical and began to pitch away. In those days, the back field ran into moss and moorland; streaks of gorse and birch which seemed to run far into the blue distance. And below it, the field rolled away to the sea and the simmering tide.

A few woodpigeons came in the mid afternoon, but they were only dribs and drabs. I’d stripped off to my shorts and lounged barefoot in the stony grass, listening to test match cricket on a pocket radio. A brood of grey partridges came through a lunkey in the dyke, and I heard them chirruping in the dust. It was absurdly hot, and I was drunk on the smell of honeysuckle and buttery gorse.

I could’ve lain like that forever when the pigeons began to focus, and soon the trickle became a flood; I stirred powder smoke and gun oil into the scent of the afternoon. One bird was stung and floundered on the stubbles. It began to shed a drift of white feathers which can arouse suspicion amongst incomers, so I stood and carried the gun out to catch it and keep the pattern tidy. But for all I walked in plain sight, the birds seemed to ignore me. Two more came in as I stood among the decoys, and I dropped them both. Then others came, and I fell at last to sitting in the midst of my pattern, shooting just as hard as I could to keep up. Something in them was blind to the reality of my presence; they were in a mackerel frenzy, and there was nothing I could do to put them off. I’ve never seen it before or since, but twenty birds were felled in half an hour before sunset; every one low and fast as a driven grouse.

At last the evening seemed to creep home. I built my bag into a pile and smelled that warm, dusty reek of pigeons about me. There was no way to carry two dozen pigeons, so I tied my shirt into a rucksack and loaded them up inside it. With bootlaces around my neck like Tom Sawyer, I walked down to the seaside with the sunset behind me. Red-letter-days are easier to see in retrospect, and it’s often the case that we only know what we have when it’s gone. But I seemed to know even then that the warmth of that day would hang upon me for the rest of my life.

The Trouble with Ecotourism

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It turns out that I’m an ecotourist – I’m one of those people who travel around looking at nature.

Ecotourism has come into sharp focus over the last few years. We’re trying to get a feel for how we can monetise natural assets, and the idea of ecotourism seems to be a nice fit. Conserve and protect wildlife, then charge people to come and look at it. It’s a clean, easy model which promises to protect nature by giving it a financial value – but it’s not straightforward.

Perhaps I’ve still got the scent of a recent holiday in my nostrils, but it was interesting to see ecotourism “in action” earlier this month. It’s fair to say that Poland is not a popular holiday destination for most British people, and Bialowieza is all but unheard of here. But if you’re in the know, that place represents the crown jewels of European nature. Popular writers and activists frequently clamour for a wilder Britain, but it’s surprising how reluctant we are to go and look for wilderness in other countries. It’s an odd quirk of Britishness that we could be standing in a host of wild and tempting places from Finland to the Dolomites within half a day’s travel Heathrow, but we prefer to stay at home and complain that we don’t have wilderness in the (much less accessible) Scottish Highlands.

Bialowieza was dead and sorely quiet. Fair enough, it was winter – but this is only a small town with a hotel and few guest houses. I paid a Warsaw-based tour company to take me out there, and I was guided by a man from Krakow. We stayed in a budget hotel with all food included, and any drink had to come from an Off-Licence over the street. If I had to work out the total amount of money I left behind me in Bialowieza, it would be less than forty pounds. It so happens that I’m a sucker for tat – I wanted a bison keyring and a coffee cup. But I could not find even so much as a postcard in the village. I couldn’t spend money, even if I wanted to.

The point was driven home when, on our last night, the owner of the hotel came and asked if we would like to join a “casino night” held for locals in the bar. Our guide said that we would be up early and that it wasn’t for us. The owner laughed, spread his hands and said “you always bring such quiet guests!” And in that, he raised a fair point. Because without casting aspersions about my fellow eco-tourists, we’re a quiet bunch. We aren’t likely to be up all night partying or hitting the shops and splashing the cash. I dislike the expression, but we’re pretty tight-fisted. We eat packed lunches from the hotel and when we get back from the hills, we stay indoors with our wallets in a safe. The same was true on my recent trips to Croatia and Finland; ecotourism may bring people into remote places, but it’s hard to get them spending when they get there. Some ecotourists tell themselves that they are being virtuous by supporting conservation projects, but many (like me) are secretly pleased to find a cheap holiday.

In some ways, I feel the same about the ongoing community bid to buy part of Langholm Moor and manage it for ecotourists. Langholm is a harder place than most to monetise wildlife because most of the “best” spectacles can be seen from the main road. Perhaps you’d pay a guide to take you once, but when you’ve worked out where to go, just park up and open the window. Maybe a few more people will stop in cafes and bars for a scone, but will that really offset the cost of buying the place?

I’m used to thinking about sporting tourists who travel around to shoot. They pump money into the local economy, and because they’re out for a luxury experience, they pay over the odds for it. There aren’t many of them, but they punch well over their weight. If ecotourists spend less, perhaps the answer is to have more of them. But then there are other issues which relate to volume – having travelled through National Parks in India and Africa, volume of visitor traffic is a problem of its own. When wildlife becomes a gimmick and an accessory, it becomes hard to engage with it. The tiger I saw at Ranthambore found it difficult to burn bright as he was overlooked by a convoy of squawking tourists.

We were unable to stay anywhere peaceful and calm in India, so our bedroom overlooked a swimming pool tiled with a tiger design. It seems worth remembering that in a bid to protect and conserve nature, ecotourism can drive change like any other industry. Closer to home, I have fond memories of visiting Mull as a teenager, but I hardly recognised the place when I returned three years ago – this was the legacy of a ten year project to rebrand the place as “the eagle island”. It’s no better or worse nowadays, but it is undeniably very different.

Meanwhile, the spread of eagles into other parts of Scotland begins to raise questions about the sustainability of Mull as a tourist destination. Why travel all the way out to the West Coast when you can see a sea eagle in Fife (or even the Solent?) A friend who has runs a red kite visitor centre for the last twenty years has seen his profits tumble as kites become well established across the UK. People used to travel for miles to see his kites. Now they can see their own kites at home.

Ecotourism is going to be an important part of how we value and monetise landscapes in this country and abroad, but it’s hard to see it as a standalone industry or a panacea for settling the business bottom-line. It needs to be carefully integrated into other revenue streams and managed sensitively alongside a variety of interests. And without wanting to end on a bum note, if we want to cash in on the general public’s love of nature, we also have to make sure that the public does love nature – which is something we often take for granted.

Native

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Thrilling to find that the cover has now been finalised for my book, which will be out in the spring.

The artist and designers have put in some great work on this, and it’s fun to see riggit galloways proudly rendered on the cover. There has been some really positive feedback from people who have received early copies to review, but I can hardly help but wring my hands and wonder how it will go. Despite having been here before with my first book in 2012, this represents a serious upsurge in oomph and enthusiasm; who knows what’ll happen next.

Otter

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I killed an otter.

In truth I couldn’t help it. You can hardly blame me; with hands at ten to two on the steering wheel and a sensible MPH. But in a smear of headlights, he ran under the bumper and was done. I rumbled him over and felt his bones busting on the sump. There wasn’t even time to raise my eyebrows.

Of course I stopped and ran back to the bundle on the road. He was red as paint in the brakelights, and his coat prickled in ditchwater pins. Such a tail (thick as my wrist) all twisted and sore on the tarmac. I picked him up and placed him in the hedgefoot and the steam came up from his clotty wounds like mist. I wanted to feel for his serrated teeth and run my fingers across his paws, but there were bubbles of blood and splinters of bone about him. It felt wrong to manhandle him further.

So I let him be and another car came slashing past in rush and brightness without even slowing down. It must be hard to make sense of traffic in the dark when the fastest thing you’ve ever seen is a finnock.

How seldom I see otters, and how desperate to find this one in the final moment of his life. Redshank pined in the darkness. Some way to spend Christmas Eve.

 

 

Endless Turnips

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There’s no end to these turnips, and perhaps for the first time I begin to think that it’s not much fun anymore. There’s so much to shift and cleave and haul, and the flex of my fingers is failing. That’s seven tons lifted, cleaned and fed to the beasts, and I reckon there’s another ten to come.

And always battling the daylight as a make-believe sun rolls back behind the heather without warmth or charm. So much time is wasted in darkness; it kneels upon me. No sooner has the day begun to grey than I am out and lifting turnips with the geese above me, off towards the good land at Castle Douglas. And I haul and tip and the black hydraulic hoses spray me with oil and always a thin, chesty stream of diesel fumes into the low cloud. Before you know it, the geese are back to sea again and darkness has fallen with a rush of woodcock and rising stars. It’s all I can do to keep the animals fed before the night drives me indoors again.

Don’t think of this as whining. The cattle are doing well and this crop has been everything I hoped – I wanted this hardship, and here it is. But when the last turnip is fed and the field is returned to something other, I’ll be mighty glad.

Brick Wall

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I’ve spent the last few weeks travelling around Galloway speaking to hill farmers and people who manage land in marginal places. This has all been part of a bigger project (which will get bigger in 2020), but it’s given me a great excuse to meet people and find out more about what’s happening in the Galloway Hills.

Perhaps it was the bad weather or the shortness of the day, but my heart sank this morning when I went to meet a landowner who is trying to restore a badly dilapidated piece of hill ground near Castle Douglas. It was a beautiful place and it brimmed with potential, but in a half hour visit I was quickly bogged down with so many of the usual obstacles and obstructions which have come to characterise agriculture and conservation in this part of the country. There was overgrazing and under grazing to worry about; there was habitat fragmentation for waders and a grievous lack of funds to invest in upkeep and maintenance across the board. There’s a growing theme of farmers who would love to do more for nature but simply can’t afford to, and there’s a parallel thread of farmers who are able to make positive changes but simply refuse.

It all seemed to come over me at once; the realisation that while there are many good people trying to do great stuff for nature and sustainable farming, the system itself is bogged down and busted – there are all kinds of drivers for this, but a fair part of the problem is the fact that the same schemes run all across Scotland – in trying to fit everyone, they fail to fit anyone.

You could say that many of the things which are going wrong in Galloway are down to the fact that we don’t have many official designations; we get little support or recognition from government and there’s almost no public oversight when things go wrong. But however you want to pitch it, the situation feels like we are trying to push mud up a hill, and seeing it all replay again for the hundredth time this morning really took the wind out of me.

There’s plenty to look forward to in 2020. I have grand plans for how the year might go, but I must admit there are times when I feel like I’m beating my head against a brick wall.

 

Harriers

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I watch two harriers going to roost beyond the turnip field. They’ve been hunting through the shaws and the deep grass all afternoon, and I see them seizing small birds in the rain. They’re females; ringtails, and I turn for home when they sink at last into the rushes.

These birds have been around for the last few days. They seem to like the moor behind the house and the rough grass where the cattle lie belching in the rain. And I think of all the pressures which we face in this landscape. How different will this place look in ten years time, when many smaller farms are out of business and the marginal land has been repurposed into a commercial forest? There won’t be much room for harriers then, and that’s the truth.

We’re told that the conservation of hen harriers is simple. Sign a petition, ban driven grouse shooting and everything will be A-Ok. But the reality is a little more cumbersome and detailed. If places like this cannot pay their way, they will soon be gone – and a host of birds alongside them. This kind of issue doesn’t fit an easy narrative. There are no goodies or baddies to abuse or applaud. It’s just people trying to do their best; people with bills and debts and no way to soften the impact of their decision-making.