So it came to pass that darkness fell and the night crept in like a sigh. I worked alone and lifted neeps in the lee of a love-lost moon. It was hard to believe that this same field had rung to the din of a skylark in the sunshine a few hours before; the first of the year. I bent my back in darkness and wrapped knuckles, trying to remember how it feels to take a lark for granted. But there’s snow in a ring around us now; all the high ground from Criffel to Carsphairn is powder-white in the night light.
In standing and working, woodcock began to rush overhead. Their wings were clear and true as cock teal and the row of lusty foxes in the birks. They passed in fits and starts; single and in pairs – but then came five in a gang and I heard them squeak and jabber in the gloom. Round and round the turnip field, and then a sudden plunge to land almost at my feet.
Five woodcock in a riot like rabbits in the roots. They flared their tails and skittered across the mud, and one came almost within slitting distance; the shawing knife slack in my hand. Rage and squeak, then all five rose again and passed away to the north and the slacklands where the river bends.
Now I have rats. I go to the sheds and find them sleek and fat as publicans, perched on the pallets like pints of stout. They rut and reel in the granary, rubbing their tails like crayons on the lintel steps. Pigs lie insensible as the straw boils around them; rats shriek and fray and knead the dirt in their fingers.
They came with the cold weather, and I squirmed away from them at first – any sane person would, because they’re rats – they can bite and piss and sicken you with diseases. If you’re used to mice, get ready for something other – these boys are muscular and hard-wearing, but having killed a dozen, I began to think again. They’re only animals; objects of natural curiosity come indoors.
We’ve rolled in a running battle with rats for a thousand years; we destroy them with every method available. We hate rats so dearly that the law permits us to kill them with poisons which are banned for use on every other species. We know what harm that poison does, but we’re prepared to make an exception because, well, it’s a rat and good enough for it.
We’re yet to imagine the perfect death for a rat; a moment of destruction so crushing and final that we’ll never have to kill another. In reaching for that ideal, we bide our time and smash them with shovels, clash them with traps, set dogs upon them and see their bowels fly like muddy spaghetti.
I don’t pity rats, but there are nights when I go to the sheds and feel a stirring proximity of an enemy, fair and square. I learned that some of these buildings have stood in this place for five hundred years; and never more than a few weeks in all that time without a rat about them.
So when the moon is full and the yard hurls with a burr of silver light, it sometimes makes sense to have them here; bitter and wise, roiling in the midnight sty.
It turns out that I’ve been writing this blog for ten years; ten long years of grouse, curlews and hill farming in Galloway. That’s a fair piece of work, but to me it represents a decent chunk of my life between the ages of 24 and 34.
People who know me will understand that I write all the time about all manner of things. I make a point of writing at least two or three thousand words a day – often for no other reason than because I simply enjoy it; it’s a puzzle and a workout. Perhaps that means that Working for Grouse is a lopsided perspective on my life because it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Still, it’s fun to use the blog as a sketchbook to play with new ideas and give them an airing for a while. I’ve tried hard not to be too precious about it. Some of the articles on here have been crap or wrong or badly expressed. But when it comes to writing, a friend reassured me by saying that “not everything you write can be the best thing you’ll ever write” – you don’t get better unless you practice, and you can’t get anywhere if you fixate on producing something that is utterly perfect. Turn it out, see what happens and move on. Sometimes I’ll come back to an article and recall the precise moment of writing it. Sometimes I am left with the raw ingredients I need to make something better. And there are other times I’ll come back to an article and cringe. Perhaps that’s my excuse for a decade of verbal diarrhoea; the enthusiasm of several million words.
You’d think I could hardly say more about this subject than I already have, but the rabbit hole keeps deepening. And I suppose the best reason I have for maintaining Working for Grouse is that it puts me in touch with interesting people. I have cause to be grateful for this blog every day of my life because it’s given me access to a network of sympathetic, interested folk across the world. I’m pathetically flattered by the support and friendship I’ve gathered in writing this blog, and I owe a vast debt to the many people who’ve read my articles and lent a hand. Thank you.
I’ve never made a penny out of this piece of work, and at first I was often embarrassed to admit that it has been a labour of love. But in my defence, what better reason does anyone have to labour?
They say it’s colder in a thaw. Doesn’t make much sense to me, but when the ice finally rose and the land slumped back to mud, the chill of it almost cut me in half. A dank mist rose up from the marsh and ran to the yard like nausea. Cows were lost in drifts of their own warm breath, and the day glanced by in a few hours; hardly time enough to see the wild geese drive in land and out again. Perhaps this cold has been locked up in ice; it’s been buried in soil and rocks until a thaw came to share it more evenly.
I stood in the close and saw a star stir. A fragment of moon hung above the horizon, seeming to know how far away it was. It sank and placed more space between us, and then a thrush began to sing in thick, eldritch pans of hope.
He crows in the prickle of stars and the morning. He crows in the willows and the smoke-blown dawn where the cattle have lain and left the marks of their lying in the frost. The smell of his nightsoil hangs in the rushes and he crows.
The sound comes to me like a pang of irretrievable loneliness. Cattle blink, and I watch the weight of my own hot breath departing. Remember when a vixen yelled and we heard her go down to roost with her cubs? That was summer, and this is different because his yells are mannish and dull, and there’s only me to hear them now. He is a dog fox calling. I have to lean or I’ll fall; you can’t ask an empty sack to stand.
Then he lies for the day in some bracken bed beyond the limits of my land. He lies in a curl like some expensive cat with the breeze at his back and his eyes like slits in a mitten. I work at my chores quietly, but I know that he can hear every turn of my spanner; the durly scrawl of my shovel in the sty.
Now and then he’ll stand and flex and round upon himself to lie tighter and small. He’ll yawn, and the day will find his tongue is clean as a beak. It’s no light work to crow and cover ground at this time of year, but he’s duty bound to do the rounds and it’s fair to say that he’s earned a rest. The sun slumps and trails his fur with shadows of rowan boughs and bramble stems. Without moving his head, he lies and watches birds pass over him in silence like motes of dust. His brush lies like a tool-sleeve across his nose.
When all I owe the small day has been paid, he stands and slips down from the bracken like an unslung sylph. It’s almost dark when he crows again and trades me for the empty hill.
In writing about the conflict between moorland and forestry in Galloway, it was interesting to see how people reacted to the idea of woodland expansion.
Moorland is often described as “wasted land”; places which have been ruined by agriculture or fieldsports. As controversy around grouse shooting has swelled into a tempest, many have begun to view moorland as something broken, synthetic and brutalized. When I wrote to explain that I was devastated by the coming loss of moorland in Galloway, several readers reckoned that this could only be a good thing. “Bring on the trees”, they seemed to say.
The reality is that the word “moorland” covers too much variety to be useful. Crucially, it’s not all about grouse shooting or sheep farming but a whole host of industries and interests which span the gap from Land’s End to Shetland. Depending on where you go, moorland looks and feels completely different. I daresay hill farmers in Derbyshire would hate the landscape I love in Galloway – but to be frank, you couldn’t pay me to work in the Peak District. And while I’ve enjoyed several trips to Bodmin, I refuse to believe it’s a moor at all.
I’ve been on every fair-sized area of moorland in the UK over the last decade, and I’ve found few unifying threads which bind them together. Powys is grand, but it’s too soft for my liking; you can do worse than Coverdale, but get over to the Isle of Man for a different take. Before long, you’ll be standing at Rannoch, thinking about Okehampton and feeling like you’ve hardly begun to understand what moorland really is. It’s become fashionable to deride moorland for the spectre of raptor persecution and “sheep-wrecked” desertification – but as soon as you look under the surface, it becomes clear that these landscapes are complex, varied and often extremely valuable.
Since there are different moors in different places, my fears for the future take me back to Galloway and the kind of landscape which we call moorland in southwest Scotland. There’s no real grouse shooting here. It’s too wet to grow good heather, and dull drains have meant that classic moorland vegetation is usually on the back foot. A friend once came to visit and summarized what he saw by saying “it’s just grass and nothing for miles”. That’s a fair précis from a city boy, but it overlooks the fact that the devil’s in the detail.
It’s true that we turn out thousands of acres of white grass, but part the tussocks and find a wealth of value and intrigue at ankle-height. For a start, there’s more precious peat in Galloway than almost anywhere else in the UK mainland. Properly grazed, our moors are soft and soggy and filled with blaeberry and cranberry and crowberry – we’ve got sundews and bogbeans; myrtle in the ditches and moss in quivering mats where even waders fear to tread. And there’s hawthorn scrub and downy birches up the dykebacks; alders in the cleughs and a million orchids in the burn springs.
Realising that Galloway turns out a terrific amount of grass, our ancestors invented the ultimate cow and kickstarted an extraordinarily productive virtuous cycle of cattle, conservation and agriculture. In living their lives on the moors, folk in Galloway built themselves a world of their own legend and tradition. Perhaps you’ve never heard of us, but our moorlands have been home to giants and cannibals, martyrs and smugglers for a thousand years. This is our world; a human landscape which goes to the root of who we are as a tough, doughty web of communities in a damn fine place.
Galloway is far removed from that sneeringly distorted vision of moorland expressed in the popular press – this is not a scorched “industrial” moonscape of range rovers and raptors slain for the hell of it – this is a place of extraordinary cultural and natural value. We’ve taken a battering over the last half century thanks to the Common Agricultual Policy and the first generation of forest expansion, but Galloway can still break your heart with beauty. If I play my cards right, I’ll be proud to go under the sod here and be part of it someday.
It’s hard to pick an emblem for Galloway moorlands. A blackcock is a fair bet, but you’d be hard pressed to choose him above a hen harrier or a bog owl. Maybe you’d pick a curlew to capture the mood in the wide blue hills, or the glimpse of an old billy goat traipsing down his lonely line. But perhaps you wouldn’t choose any of these things, because most have gone in the last few decades and none of them will prosper in the next phase of commercial forestry planting in Galloway.
I’m deeply stricken by the way this landscape has been treated. And how devastating to realize that the very word “moorland” now seems to imply something wrong which must be corrected. It’s easy for politicians to delete a place that most people never knew or loved, but the die appears to be cast; vast areas of Galloway will soon be ploughed for softwood trees in order to produce commodities like chip and pulp. Perhaps in a sprint to reinvent our moorland places, we should remember that some of them have a great deal to offer as they are.
I’m getting ahead of myself, but today there was a note of spring. It rang in the birks and ran among the whins like a shiver. Great tits sang as if the work was something new to them, and I realise again that their tiny tune is a fine marker of change; the song which I hear as – SIT boo boo SIT boo boo SIT –
And bigger still, the ravens have come back to their shit-stack in a sycamore cleft by the old byre. It’s one of three nests they use on rotation, and they add to each one in turn until the heaps of twigs and bones are bigger than I am.
I pressed them off as I passed, and the clackit old brokers came out and round to see me by. One of them rolled over onto his back and made a scene of himself, saying “block-block-block” as a drawling turn of moorland slid beneath him.
A haystack turns grey as the winter goes by. If it’s been wet, some of the outer bales will blacken. But look inside and it’s silvery green with the heaped scent of summer grass. Shreds of beautiful hay trickle through your fingers like sand, even on a day without daylight.
We’re at the back of the main stack now. I’ve carted most of the bales away to be fed, and the cows have done well through the darkness. In shifting bales this morning, a large dark ball rolled down from the rafters and landed at my feet. I was in a hurry and hardly gave it a second thought, but then it fell apart in a puff of fluff and feathers. I could see rabbit fur and rat hair in the blend, along with a mattress of wren feathers. Here was an abandoned home, and it hardly took much to identify the former occupant. There has been a stoat hanging around the yard all winter, and he’s been canny enough to set up shop in the most comfortable place for miles around.
When it comes to woodland expansion, there are some grand and ambitious goals being set by the Scottish Government. Foresters have now committed to create 12,000 Ha of new woodland every year – (an area the size of Manchester) – and perhaps inevitably, the thrust of these new trees will come in the form of commercial softwoods in the Southern Uplands. I went to a meeting in Moffat yesterday to hear more about the plans and how the creation of vast new spruce plantations will impact birds like curlews and black grouse.
It’s always seemed blindingly obvious to me that the massive afforestation which took place in the 1970s and ’80s sent moorland birds into a tailspin. I had assumed that this was common knowledge, and I often bemoan the fact that we’ll be counting the cost of that planting for generations to come. Sure enough, the meeting began with two cast-iron presentations from RSPB and GWCT which explained (with a considerable weight of scientific fact) how woodland creation negatively impacts on ground nesting birds. So far, so logical, but then things took a turn towards the unexpected.
The meeting was held for foresters and forest interests were extremely well represented in the room – (I was the only farmer). In the wake of these presentations, it became clear that many attendees were unwilling to accept that forest creation has played a part in wader and black grouse decline. Questions and comments from the floor seemed to offer a number of alternative explanations for why moorland birds have now vanished from many of their former strongholds.
Some said it was climate change, and others blamed an increased number of predators on game bird releases. Using recent video footage of a sheep eating curlew eggs, there was even an attempt to imply that livestock are responsible for the decline of waders. Farming is certainly not exempt from criticism, but this felt like an obfuscatory rejection of responsibility. It was hard to hear, particularly since after dismissing peer-reviewed RSPB and GWCT science, consensus seemed to settle on a feeling that “it’s complicated, and science can’t prove that foresters are to blame”. But even if we pretend that we don’t understand cause and effect, pressing ahead with planting would still be a reckless abandonment of the precautionary principle.
Subsequent presentations went into detail on how forest expansion can be mitigated to incorporate wild bird habitats. Foresters are quick to say that they’re doing better work than they used to, but the reality is that mitigation often seems to settle around the bare minimum. Besides, paraphrasing a comment from somebody on a nearby table, the sentiment was “give it ten years; these birds will be gone and we won’t have to mitigate for them anymore”.
The only real glimmer of light for waders and blackgame is that future planting schemes will be guided by a regional approach towards woodland creation where land use can be organised on the basis of strategic planning. In “core” priority areas, black grouse and curlews will be given precedent in order to protect them. But the unspoken implication is that outside their “core areas”, birds are going to be lost.
I fundamentally disagree with the rationale behind softwood timber expansion in Scotland. It’s been conflated with panic around the Climate Emergency, and I think this is fairly misleading, but park that for a moment and assume that we genuinely need to create 12,000 Ha of new forest every year. At a relatively utilitarian national level, surely it makes sense to prioritise focus areas and keep birds in some places rather than lose them everywhere?
But what if you live and work in a place where moorland conservation is going to be thrown out of the window? Does that mean that it’s time to give up and walk away? Will funding and support be withdrawn from people who are trying to conserve curlews in places where the birds are not a priority? That’s where this may be heading, but are we honestly going to give up on the dream of integrated land management which offers something for everyone? That seems pathetically unambitious and fatalistic. And besides – at an ecological level, how do we quantify the impact of losing birds which currently live in marginal areas? Do we know enough to make decisions about what we can afford to abandon? I had already considered much of this, but it was quite something to hear it being expressed in such bullish terms.
I wriggle and fuss about woodland expansion all the time, and I get tired of it. I even wondered whether to bother writing this blog article, because yet again I’m fighting a losing battle – it’s going to happen, no matter what I think.
But I muster the enthusiasm to write again because in the midst of excitement about woodland expansion, I don’t think Galloway’s story is being heard. There are plenty of great examples of woodland expansion being well integrated across Scotland. There’s a new strategic planning method being trialled in the Scottish Borders which could be a lifesaver for waders, and there’s loads to get excited about when it comes to timber (and black grouse) from native woodlands. I don’t foam and spit at forestry per se, but something unique is happening in the southwest.
Galloway has been earmarked for industrial-scale softwood timber development, and that’s got nothing to do with conservation or aesthetics. Whether we like it or not, we’re about to see a vast and totally irreversible shift in the way our landscape looks.
It doesn’t hit the headlines because nothing in Galloway ever does, but I’ve met foresters who’ve said that their aim is to “fill in the blanks” in south west Scotland – to plant up the land which wasn’t planted last time around. Galloway is not Perthshire or Peebles or some well-beloved part of the Scottish landscape. We’re a bizarre outback corner which no right-minded person gives a damn about. And we’re vulnerable because we’re Scotland’s blind spot; we find ourselves staring down the barrel of what could turn out to be one of the most dramatic and abrupt land use intensifications in Western Europe in recent years. We’re facing change on a completely different order of magnitude, and it’s happening almost completely under the radar.
Knowing that this is all to come, I’m left scratching my head. I’ve seen too much of what this place used to be to ever forget it. But walled in black trees and sorely missing the birds which used to buoy me, I wonder how long I will still recognise my own home.