Heck

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It’s worth recording a small and irritating cock-up.

In speaning the calves, I moved them to the stackyard and began to ply them with hay and turnips. But the stackyard is small, and successive days of rain have made it a little mucky. In the midst of mud and sleet, it was obvious that some of the hay was being wasted on the ground, so I looked around for a heck to raise it off the muck and keep it clean. There are some good second-hand options to buy a suitable heck, but I held off and made do with an old sheep heck which has been lying around in my father’s yard for thirty years.

This sheep heck has weldmesh sides made up of three-inch rectangles. And perhaps it’s inevitable that the calves should have rubbed their heads on it, catching their ear tags as they did so. I found a tag on the mud the following morning, and it wasn’t hard to see where it had come from. One of the calves had a clump of scabby blood on his ear, and it became clear that he had torn it. Of course I felt wretched and resolved to do away with the sheep heck straight away, but it was a telling reminder that as I stretch my legs and focus on the grand complexities of working with cattle, it’s easy to overlook simple details of husbandry closer to home. Perhaps I should have foreseen this problem, but the crucial thing is that I’ve learnt my lesson.

Hedge Tracks

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Business transactions around one of my hedges…

Dull days, but no snow to show for it. In fact it fell on all the ground around me, leaving a green, slushy hoop along the riverbend. I stared greedily at the hills, then prowled around my mud in a temper.

There’s no reason for me to envy snow, but I can’t deny a childish squeal of excitement to find it fallen. I’m in the habit of gleaning intrigue from subtle changes, and snow is a complete revision. So it blows my mind to see the land overhauled, and everything from a new angle. And that’s before I begin to bend and follow the tracks of birds and beasts, revelling in the indiscretion of it.

Denied access to snow at home, I drove up the hill to find it. I stopped to stare at the mess it made in a section of woodland I’m working on. I found stoat tracks and badger spoor along the paths and passageways which I carved out of the trees by hand a decade ago. There are deer in there now, and I found signs of their moving. Otters had splayed along the ditches and rolled in a drift, and always the snaking, straight-line perforation of a long-distance fox. That’s the beauty of snow; a complete log of all activity from bull to vole.

I have been obsessed with hedgerows for a decade, and the snow seemed to validate that enthusiasm. Walking along a section of mixed hedge which I planted in 2012, I found the snow was smattered with footprints; there were dunnocks and thrushes, woodcock, rabbits and the stroppy little pounce of a weasel. The snow around this piece of hedgerow was shattered and smattered with signs of life, and I could hardly resist comparing that abundance to other places which I have not yet planted. They were bare and austere, without the slightest disturbance of life.

I took that as further evidence that if you have a healthy hedge, you have something worth talking about.

Ripples

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Skylarks blaring on the moss, and the same old gabble of shelducks at Kirkennan. It’s hellish wet and foul enough to make you heave, but these small nudges send ripples over the pooly land; the otter-mirk and ‘suckle-bud respond.

Tree Trials

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A mixture of tree species after ten years – aspen towards the back

I was obsessed with aspen for some time. I hoarded it, and tried to propagate the seeds. I lost my ability to see it as part of a wider list of trees, and for a while I worked on the assumption that aspen alone would cure all the ills I felt on the hill.

So in reclaiming a few patches of ground to plant a decade ago, I filled one with aspen saplings. These did well enough and made a good start, but now I begin to see the shortcomings of my initial enthusiasm. I was trying to make certain trees grow in conditions which did not suit them, and most of this was down to my own ignorance.

Almost all of my scots pine trees died because I planted them in soil that was too wet. Many of my hawthorns grew into short, tormented claws because the wind ran through them at a sprint and never gave them peace to expand. Rowan usually did well, but oak was a write-off. I got hung up on the spectrum of birches which lie between downy and silver. Most of my ground is too wet for silver birch to grow well and fast, and while downy birch is better suited to bog holes, it doesn’t grow well or fast even then. The greatest victor has been alder, which has done so well that I have begun to treat those catkins and the green, spoony leaves as the farm’s sigil; a cracked, droopy stem rising out of the water.

And in aspen, I have found only moderate success. A few of the first trees I planted are now more than fifteen feet tall, and some have begun to send up suckers. But it doesn’t infest the space like a healthy tree would. It’s standoffish and cool, and while I’m sure it will play a part in the future, I’m left wondering if I tried to press a round peg into a square hole.

Dinosaurs

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I am almost too old to speak on behalf of the young. Thirty five years is a dizzy tally, and my days of soft-handed protest are now behind me. But in travelling around over the last few months, I’ve met a host of exciting young people working hard for nature and conservation, and I feel justified writing this on their behalf, if not my own.

Because while I often feel jaded by the collapse and erosion of the natural world, I’ve taken a great deal from the optimism and knowledge of people in their twenties and early thirties. They still have hope, even if mine sometimes wanes.

And they have something else in common too – they have a devastatingly perceptive understanding of how badly our system of conservation is broken; how it lumbers and stalls, taking time to make work for itself in perpetuity. Further, the world of conservation is small and introverted, particularly in Scotland. A few people continually rise to the top of conversations about wildlife and nature. Probe into them at any depth and you soon realise that the system is largely governed by a small cadre of sticky old autocrats.

On every front, the growing message is that society needs to act differently; we need to strip down and challenge the very nature of conservation on this planet. So it’s hard to imagine why the task of implementing that radical change is often being entrusted to many of the most stubborn, institutionalised and insular people in the nation. We probably all know somebody who fits the bill on this account, but rest assured that I have no specific individuals in my mind’s eye as I write this.

It chills me to wonder how many clear, innovative ideas have been suppressed by a boggy insistence that things be done a certain way? How many times have opportunities to change and improve been squandered because they are risk, and risk is hateful? Look around and see cascades of funding and valuable government influence squandered on the same croaky old souls – it’s devastating.

It’s a precondition of a career in conservation that life should be hard. It’s a competitive world, and slender wages live or die from year to year depending on grant applications. So there’s never any head of steam to question authority or garner real change – at a structural level, radicals are weeded out and bland complicity is rewarded with promotion and job security. The best people I’ve met are hanging to their jobs by a thread; the worst are biding their time for a pension to pay out.

Perhaps this note comes from a moment’s cynicism, but as with many other lines of work, conservationists often measure their own value by experience and longevity. We’re taught to reckon that there is a quiet kudos to be gleaned from having held a role for many years – and newcomers are invited to defer to it. But as we begin to realise what we have lost in recent years, there is a fair case to turn that argument on its head. If you have been in conservation for several decades, look to your achievements. The past half century has seen the unprecedented collapse of the natural world as we knew it. The best we can sometimes say for these old timers is that they have developed a comprehensive understanding of a system which does not work. Knowing that in a different industry, similar failures would have resulted in redundancy decades ago, we must also wonder: “how are some of you guys still employed?” From that perspective, the greatest hope I have is that most of these grand old lizards will soon be put out to pasture (or to extend the lizard metaphor, to some comfortable nook in a sun-warmed rock). I don’t wish them harm, but I do wish them gone.

And in writing this, I spend the last few pennies of my own youthful outrage. How long before I wheeze out my own death-rattle and slump into the custard with the rest of them?

 

Whooper

 

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I keep a few sheep and send their lambs to the freezer. They go to the tup in November, and this year I’ve been slow at fetching them back. So it was yesterday by the time I loaded them into the trailer, all red-arsed where the raddle’s rubbed them, and the tup gone dumb and glassy-eyed.

I stood for a half hour with a neighbour and watched the day pan out. Swans came up from the east and battled the wind. I saw them coming from a mile away against the blue horizon; rising and falling and hurling in a line. Even at that range, I could they were nothing like the roady swans you find in a town park, with their wings crisp and frilled as lace; nothing like the red-masked devils who can break your arm, they say. Not mute swans, but whoopers, with yellow jaws and a mutter like cold wind over a jar.

They passed precisely over our heads. We craned to see them, with white throats gulping in our collars. Eighteen swans, and the downbeat of their wings seemed to part our hair like a draft. We didn’t speak for ten minutes after that, watching the rain ride in from the sea in lank, trailing palls like steam from a straightened hazel shank.

If you like nice moments, there was one for you.

Wind

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It’s a mistake to let weather like this get away from you. I hate the wind, and I’m filled with spiteful rage to find it free and happy. Such a wind is hardly joking; having been given free rein, it tugs my cuff and sneers, saying “now what?”

It was a rough day to work cattle, but people were free to help and you can hardly turn down the chance to get a job done. So the wind ran through us all as we went to the pens; it rolled upon itself and bellowed in the beech boughs, turning hazel to hurtle till the catkins sang.

We brought all the beasts into the pens, with the smack of their hooves in the mud. We drew off the calves from their mothers and pressed the young beasts into a chute. Then we freed the cows to their field, although they hung around and bellowed anyway. With shoving and prodding, we drove the calves up into a gaping aluminium trailer where their hooves clattered and the vent flaps clicked like castanets.

Of course the trailer got stuck. Deep peely rinds of mud came spurting up in the tyre treads, and always the endless wind about us, fouled with birds and diesel fumes and a plastic feed bag fleeing. There were gulls low and idle about the land, and the sea all ribbed with racks of white foam. We waited for another tractor to rescue the trailer, and I slouched in the whinns and watched breakers smash on the granite shore.

Now the calves are home and pained by the lack of their mothers. It’s an endless moan, but here is a turning point for the spring. The cows have new calves to think of, and they can no longer afford to spend their milk on last year’s young. And the calves of 2019 must become stirks and heifers in their own right.

Escape

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It was after two when the bull rubbed a hole in his enclosure. I heard the rails fall away and knew that he was seconds from escape. Into the swirling snow I went, barelegged in wellies with the ice like a vest below my jacket. It was enough to set teeth on edge as I ran, and there he was, brawny as a stockpot and wedged in a gap, redhanded, the bastard.

The wind bawled and I recovered him with a length of plastic pipe, yelling “back, get back”. He humped and squirmed; a black shape, heavy as the world itself. Then he was round and I walked him out into the paddock where there are tall dykes and no chance to break them.

At that very moment, the wind seemed to slip below the fields by the marsh, pushing a thousand geese into the night. Rush and holler, and the shape of a clattering skein in the snowlight.

Even when I had returned to bed, the cold played around me for an hour.

Three Men

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I lie with my newborn son in the room where an old shepherd died. Light and night pass over the window; gulls ride out to sea.

This was the shepherd’s room for ninety years before we came to lie in it. How that time must’ve flown for him in a rush of business; he was a man of action and sound judgement, matching his labour to weather and chance. When he woke in the morning, the window showed him everything he’d need to know for the day’s work ahead. He could tilt his head from the pillow and plan accordingly. In sheep and life, there was always more to do.

But in his dying days, he lay where we are lying and felt slack water pooling around him. He was sick and bed-bound, suffering in his lameness. Hours slipped and work fell undone as he gathered news from the window, piling it uselessly in a list of missed opportunities. Drifting and dreaming, he waited for an outcome.

Now I lie in the same room with a child so unready for the world that his view from that window is meaningless. It could rain or blare down bright sunshine; my boy will bide indoors regardless because he is soft and the sky seems to baffle him. So he sleeps across my shoulder and his twitchy fingers pluck the unmarked hours.

Today brought a grand, beckoning view of hills which begged my son to come and see. But there is nothing for old souls and new but patience.

 

Twenty Years

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Twenty years have passed since I killed my first wigeon on a hill pond above the Breoch. That was a watershed for me, and I mark my days before and after. It was the last night of a cold season, and I went to stand with my father and his friends as the darkness came on. A fine rake they made in the old whin bushes, and how I swooned to have that first bird pressed into my hands by torchlight. And I’ve shot that pond or ponds around it ever since; every year without fail for two decades. It makes me dizzy to realise how the time has slid by in the pursuit of those age-old birds, but there’s no avoiding it.

Grown-ups often say how briskly the time flies. Ask them how long ago it was when the cow was lost or the hedge replanted and they’re always wrong. They say “three or four years”, even when it was treble that. If you remind them, they sigh and say “is that so?”, as if they don’t care to recall a number. As a kid, I used to wonder how grown-ups came to be so forgetful; as if time could ever be slippery and missable. My life was crystalline and definite; I marked every detail and recorded the days as if each one held tremendous value. A year was a marathon, and next winter might as well be never. But in marking this twentieth anniversary, I begin to see how time could rush by and gather steam.

Where I come from, there’s a certain kudos in seniority and endurance. Particularly in farming, where progress is slow and persistence is pitched as a proxy for progress. There’s a local ambition that as each year comes to a close, your resolution should be to do the same again but better. It’s a doughty, staid ambition which implies that advancement is linear; that each year is a springboard for the next. Wisdom is accrued simply by staying put, so it’s no wonder that we nod to old folk who did just that.

But the truth is that:

A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldez never lyk”

[A year runs swiftly, and never brings the same thing twice]

Time comes in a spatter. Struggle, fight and learn all you like, but don’t kid on that your labour leaves you better placed to face tomorrow. In this business, people don’t grow tall – they grow broad. Each new year will leave them freshly baffled.

I tell myself that I should be proud for having stuck at this work. In another twenty years, I might be entitled to comment on cattle and the crackle of hay. But really I wonder if there’s much to be said for standing still. When I think of what it might take to shut up shop and try something else, I wonder if I have chosen the easy option; stasis, and the illusion of learning.

Now time comes in clumps of months, and I’m strangely content to let individual days go by without note or comment. That would have disgusted me a decade ago, when I believed that every day had to be stripped to the bone. But now I know there will be other days, and I’m less panicked by postponement.

Perhaps that’s how years begin to slide. If I’m not careful, I’ll soon begin to wonder where the time went.