A Decade Down the Line

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Looking West through an area of spruce I felled 10 years ago

Given that this blog is now approaching its tenth birthday, it makes sense to revisit some of the work undertaken during the last decade. It turns out that I’ve covered a good deal of ground, although some of it has not gone according to plan.

One of my first acts on the hill was to try and thin out a fifteen acre spruce windbreak in order to replant it with native trees. If nothing else, this offered me some good exercise. I threw the chainsaw around and carried a thousand trees out by hand to be planted where the spruces had fallen. I wasn’t alone in this work, and a number of friends turned out to back me. I even had help from a class of students from the gamekeeping college at Newtonrigg near Penrith, and soon the windbreak was on the move.

In the pitch of my ignorance, I hadn’t reckoned on the impact of the southwesterly wind. No sooner had I thinned the wood than a good deal of it was blown over. Things began to look a little scruffy, but I worked away and tried to “tidy up” the mess. Then more winds came, and the windbreak became a ruin. I was a little embarrassed, and given the open nature of this hill, the wreckage was visible from ten miles away. I could feel the eyes of the parish upon me; “what a mess that idiot boy’s making”.

In my mind’s eye, I proposed to install a birchwood, mixed with rowan, oak and scots pine. The reality has been a tangled nightmare of windblown trees, and at first I measured my failure on how far short I had fallen. But then other interesting things began to happen. The fallen spruces were colonised by willowherb and brambles; heather and blaeberry began to resurge where light reached the ground. Many of my birch and rowan trees did very well because there were no deer in the wood, but soon the roe arrived and began to make their presence felt. So I shot the deer, and in stalking and lying out, I discovered that the wood had become home to long eared owls, spotted flycatchers and breeding woodcock. A greyhen produced a brood of seven youngsters from this messy tangle, although perhaps the stinger is that at least four of them were killed by goshawks which set up in the same wood. When I saw a blackcock picking birch buds off the rising scrub, I began to feel like I was getting somewhere – albeit by accident.

It’s not a pretty piece of work. It’s not something I’m overtly proud of, but in walking through the wood today, I found that it took me almost an hour to cover a hundred yards. I was totally preoccupied with a million little details; a mass of wild animal tracks, feathers, fungus and plants warranted scrupulously close examination, and I began to compare this walk with the windbreak I started with a decade ago. There was nothing to be seen back then; perhaps a crow’s nest and a few dunnocks around the fringes, but that would be on a busy day. Now it’s alive and twisting, and I’m keen to fire up the chainsaw and shake it some more.

Golden Eagles

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I was chuffed to take on new work for the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project over Christmas. I’ve been interested in this project since it began, and it’s been fascinating to see how the work has progressed across the Southern Uplands during the last few years. It’s now my role (until March) to make sure that farmers, keepers and land managers know how the project is doing and what the tagged eagles have been up to. On being shown a map of satellite-tracked eagle movements, I was thrilled to find that one of the birds roosted overnight on our hill as part of a wide and circuitous loop of southwest Scotland. Trying to engage with relevant landowners, I discovered that I am one of them!

In all honesty, I was a little sceptical about this project at first. We already have an existing population of eagles in Galloway, and their marginal status seems to be a reflection of habitat loss and a shortage of live prey. This in turn is linked to a lack of hands-on management in key areas which has led to the loss of hares, grouse and black game which are crucial for rearing eagle chicks and turning out productive fledgelings. I reasoned that an investment in the conservation of prey species would lead to a proportionate boost for the birds which depend upon them. The reality is closer to the opposite; without eagles to galvanise public opinion and get people tuned in to the current parlous state of affairs, we’ll never see hares and grouse restored to areas where they were formerly abundant. So much hangs upon our ability to integrate nature into land use change, and it seems like eagles are the only birds popular enough to gather sufficient clout to rescue and restore habitats which now stand on the brink.

In the meantime, many of the best and most productive areas of moorland in southwest Scotland are currently facing the axe and may soon be planted with commercial forestry. Looking at the satellite records left by that eagle which came to our farm, it became clear that as it moved around Galloway, it seemed to leapfrog between farms and moors which I know are earmarked for afforestation or intensification in the near future. Under current political and economic drivers, it won’t be long before many of these places are of no use to eagles anymore.

I believe eagles have a great deal to offer this area, not least because the project puts a blaring spotlight on the Southern Uplands. I don’t think the extremity of our ecological decline can really be understood outside of Southern Scotland, and there is no longer any time for warm words or indecision. It’s an exciting project and I can’t wait to do my best by it. And it’s also clear that farmers, foresters and land managers are instrumental in delivering a successful outcome – I’m looking forward to lending a hand.

Bellied

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The tractor’s bellied, and that’s given us work for a week in the rain and driving snow. Perhaps the trailer was too full, and maybe the ground was wetter than we knew – but here’s a fitting finale to the final drills of turnips – work that went on too long and rediscovered the meaning of “shut up and get on with it”.

But even in this irritation, there have been puzzles and ploys to recover the old machine – it’s been something like fun to toy with every angle and ponder the challenge from new perspectives. We’ve brought in support from other tractors and winches across the glen, and we finally fell to digging about the sump with spades.

I gather there are geese on the bottom fields; greylags rumbling in their hundreds above the floods. But I can’t see a thing from under the cast-iron hull of a Massey Ferguson 565.

Goshawk

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This has been a winter for woodpigeons. They darken the sky in their shoals, and I can stand back, complete a task and look up again to find the same flock still passing. They turn and drive above the hill, and the twig stems bend beneath them. I mark them well in their own right, but also because there are goshawks riding amongst them.

I don’t know when goshawks came here. I’m told they were absent for a long time, and now they’re back. I began to see them ten years ago, but I couldn’t swear against the possibility that they’ve been here all my life. We’re quick to claim authority over these things, and it wouldn’t be the first time that humans have mistaken invisibility for absence. It does us good to be wrong, and goshawks are well equipped to subvert analysis. I like to think they never left, but we lost the knack of seeing them.

And there was a hawk yesterday afternoon in a bright, soundering sun. Pigeons strove out of the beechwoods as I came by on the tractor, and she passed below them – not hunting; just moving away from me like everything else in that flat sky. There was something clean and shipshape in that bird against a fan of prey and panic and the steam from cattle backs and the fallen rain rising in sunlit sweat from the forest.

You can’t love a goshawk. That’s not how they work. But in glimpse and crossed-path, there’s something just as strong.

New Year

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The sun came up and found the old place lying as it always does in a mess of salt water and granite. Judging by the hazel banks and the fingery stems of the myrtle, you’d hardly know a thing had changed since yesterday. Fair enough, there was a din in the darkness towards midnight – I’ll give you that. Fireworks sprayed a mess of colour into the low cloud, and teal flew noisily off their pools in panic – but that was a moment’s upset in a night like any other.

I was down on the merse to see the morning. Flights of wigeon came in to roost on the mud, and the tideline was marched with a million dainty footprints. This creek lies in a brackish dead zone between fresh water and the sea – when the tide rises, the river runs under it and the channel flows two ways at once. When I was a small child, I stood on the steep banks and saw a long-dead calf floating out to sea. I watched until it was out of sight; and then an hour later, it came back again on the rising tide. It was fascinated by it, trying to imagine that weightless existence, rising and falling in daylight and darkness like the doings of a diaphragm. I suppose that it sank in the end and its meat rubbed up and down the same mile of mud, crowded with eels which trailed like ribbons in the tide.

Redshank came hunting through the black rocks, and a greenshank among them; big and well-jointed with an upkick in his bill. He walked and sought until a sparrowhawk dropped down from an ivied bough and razzed up behind him. He didn’t like that one bit. The two of them rushed away around the bend, and the greenshank shrieked and cried hell until he was out of earshot.

By ten o’clock, the cattle were being fed to the tune of a diesel engine. We’ve brought a washed-out, shattery world into this New Year. There’s nothing much to praise or be proud of in the deadness of hedges and rainwater which seems to stand in every rut and hoofmark. Low sun, blue cloud and then a steady roll back into darkness again. A thousand pigeons came up from the beech trees and battered away to another empty wood somewhere else. There’s been a goshawk going about, but she saw no reason to be seen today.

I’m never sure why I write this blog beyond the pleasure of writing. Sometimes I cast my eye back and recall some moment or other in these articles, and that can be a useful nudge for me. In writing this and recent posts, perhaps I’m marking the depths of a dire winter, which can be hard to imagine on a summer’s day. So a word to my future self – when daylight comes again, love it.