Marten Encounter

 

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A still from my video – that’s the truck’s wheel-arch on the left…

En route, Glenkens 29/3/20

In pausing and holding still for half an hour, I parked up the truck and unscrewed the thermos on a wide forest track. This is sometimes a good spot to watch for short eared owls, and with most of a Sunday on my side, I reckoned that it was a good place to take a break from the relentless drive of dyking and fence repair.

Sure enough, there was an owl above the rushes, but my eye was drawn to a black shadow on the track ahead of me, almost six hundred yards away. At first I took it for a bird of some kind – I am so desperately focussed on black grouse in this place that any movement or point of curiosity is immediately ascribed the most pressing importance because I would never forgive myself if I overlooked a clue which related to blackgame. With binoculars focussed, it became immediately obvious that I was not seeing a bird at all; rather something even more unusual – a mammal – and not even one alone. My first thought was that I was watching a pair of otters coming rumbling up the track, and that they would surely drop down into a ditch long before they ever reached me. Seconds passed, and it became clear that I was staring directly at a fast approaching pair of pine martens.

I’ve come within a whisker of pine martens a thousand times. I’ve found signs of them all through the woods of home, and I’ve even seen them lying dead on roadside verges – but a glimpse of true-blue pine martens “in the flesh” has eluded me for thirty four years. It is one of the great unrequited love stories of our time; that I should admire those creatures from afar and yet never be allowed to rest my eyes upon one. It has been a steady and maddening torture.

The running shapes continued to close the gap, and I reached for my telephone to film them. The resulting footage is surprisingly good, showing them galloping ever nearer with their tails flared like bottle brushes. A dribbly mug of coffee tipped itself unheeded across my lap – and still they came on without a note of concern for the large Isuzu pickup in the track ahead.

In a stir of dizzy disbelief, I watched them run almost within arm’s reach – directly beneath my wing mirror. There then began an intense and noisy confrontation in the vicinity of my tow-bar; bump, scream and rattle, and soon they had emerged under the bumper again, stirring up a cloud of dust and grit from the track as they tumbled and rowed like tomcats. Then they broke and returned on the long sprint back out the way they had come. In thirty seconds, they had vanished again. I was glad to have filmed them, otherwise I might never have believed that it had happened at all.

I’ve since been advised that this is likely to be an old male chasing one of last year’s young out of his territory as the breeding season progresses. Friends who know a great deal more about pine martens than I do seem to reckon that my “video” (such as it is) is unprecedented and may show aspects of juvenile dispersal which haven’t been filmed in this country before. I posted the video on social media and it was seen over fifty thousand times in less than six hours; a few scientists and ecologists who study pine martens professionally seemed to have turned green with envy, but this seems to have been a matter of pure dumb luck.

For my part, I simply cannot stop smiling – and these woods which usually show an owl or two have risen beyond all reckoning in my estimation. I have waited a long time to see my first pine marten, and it was definitely worth the wait.

 

Cabless Cold

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Home – Parish of Kirkgunzeon 28/3/20

The wind turned into the north when I was carting shit and ploughing. I would hardly have cared last year in the days when my tractor had a cab, but this year it is something new. There is no shelter for me me now in the high seat; nothing between me and the head of the glen at Carswadda. There’s ample space in seven miles of open country for the wind to shake off even the smallest hug of friendship.

So I cut the earth and return for another pass, back and forth relentlessly. I fall to daydreaming. I watch the cold soil boil and a gull above it. I drift further away and suddenly the tractor is bouncing on the dregs of old turnip drills and the steering wheel is jerked out of hand. It is the first time that I have thought of my extremities in almost two hours.

I look for my crabbed hand and find it dull and unfamiliar – like something hacked from a dead man and stuffed into my cuff as joke. The knuckles are old and badly pronounced as if the juice has been blown out of them. It takes some time to move my fingers, and when they come it seems like the clench is run by a system of pulleys and derricks from my shoulder; jerky and stiff like a greaseless windlass. I run around for a while in the folded turf, battering my arms against my sides and pressing the blood back into my hands. But this kind of cold gets worse before it is better, and the wind eats into my joints like rust.

A worm turns his broken length and shivers into the soil. The sun sets as if it had no axe to grind.

Agricultural Archaeology

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 27/3/20

Forty years without grazing has meant that Low Airie has become a jungle. Tussocks of grass have risen to waist height, and I recently discovered a myrtle stem which was taller than I am. In the creeping expansion of vegetation, it has become hard to read what this land used to look like and how it served the people who lived there. There are some inbye fields and a network of rough dykes, but most of the original archaeology is either buried in scrub or tumbled into ruin.

I can’t help wondering what life was like for the people who used to farm this place. So much has changed here that it would be impossible to turn back the clock, but it is tantalising to feel the legacy of human labour all around me. I was even tickled to recall that while the only modern access lies along the old railway line, this is not how the farm would have been reached in the days of its prosperity. People would have come and gone along an old track which has now all but vanished, and the railway line is giving me a skewed perspective on how the farm was arranged. For a century (1865 – 1965), thousands of railway passengers passed back and forth through this place along the rails, but the people working the land would have seen the farm quite differently. Beautiful granite tunnels were built to allow sheep and cattle to be moved from one side of the railway to another, but it feels important to realise that what has become my only point of access was probably considered an obstacle to the people who lived here.

In repairing the dykes and exploring the land I’ve taken on, I came upon an extensive bed of extremely rank bracken. Part of this area is bounded by the tumble-down remains of a low, semi-circular dyke, and I wondered why anybody would have bothered to protect this area from livestock. On closer inspection, I happened to discover a rusted old contraption lying in the dregs of bracken and bog myrtle. It was a horse-drawn hay rake, and things suddenly became an awful lot clearer.

Bracken often grows best and strongest on light, well-drained soil, and I realised that the land now covered in deep, impenetrable bracken litter used to be a fine, productive hay field. Once the farm was folded around forty years ago, bracken invaded this field and drove out the grasses which used to be mown, turned and dried for livestock. I found a video of a horse-drawn hay rake in action, and for a moment I was able to see how this isolated piece of abandoned hill ground used to be worked as a valuable agricultural resource. The machine I found had not been used for at least sixty years, but I could almost hear the clank of levers and gears and the tang of horse sweat in a place that has lain silent for decades. The hair stood up on the back of my neck to recall that today’s “wilderness” is really a very recent condition.

I suppose that like many people, I usually imagine that progress grows in a steady, continuous curve and that man is forever driving land from idleness into use. In finding a field which has reverted “backwards” from productivity to wilderness, I was reminded that the curve is not always smooth, and that alongside a general “upward” trend, there are fragments and eddies which have fallen away to abandonment again. It can be very misleading to judge a landscape on what we see today, and the reality is often far more complex.

I would love to restore this little hayfield, which amounts to around four acres in extent, but then I am left pondering how I could ever reach it with the machinery or equipment needed to do that work. The field lies almost half a mile away from the nearest access track, and the ground has now grown so rough with scrub and tussocks that it is hard to walk it on foot, let alone take a tractor or quad bike. In its current state, it would be difficult to get a horse out there, but perhaps my cattle will help to make it more accessible over the next few years. Knowing that this rake was pulled out there by horses and that the hay was probably brought home by a cart, I hope that a little clearing work might reveal some old track or path which currently lies buried in the moss.

This is a big project, but I have already managed to lift the curtain a little to reveal some rich and exciting history. Who knows what will come next?

Plough

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Home, Parish of Kirkgunzeon – 15/3/20

The time came to fold in the turnips and start again. I reached for the plough and began the long reset process which has been repeated these last three years.

My neighbours say that I would be better doing this job with disc harrows. Ploughing is a hard way to do a simple job, particularly since the ground is already crumbly and workable. I would love to cut corners, but I don’t have disc harrows and my spring cultivator has shown an incredible talent for digging up huge boulders which would otherwise have lain sleeping underground. So ploughing it is, and the soil crumbles up behind me like cake mix because there’s no turf or stubble to hold it together.

There is an additional bonus to ploughing which also merits a mention, because dedicated readers will remember that in hauling turnips over the winter, we managed to get a trailer stuck. The recovery process was long and arduous, and it led to the creation of some huge ruts and hollows which would not look out of place on the battlefield at Passchendaele. Ploughing has ironed out the creases from a long, wet winter and now there is a moment to ponder what comes next.

I would like to put this field back into grass, but I’m tempted by the idea of sowing it with oats again and seeding grass underneath that crop. That would give me some really nice wholecrop sileage in July, and it should mean that grass will spring into life when the main harvest has been cut and hauled away. I’m conscious that in cropping this field, most of its life is spent lying idle. When I grew oats, the field was “working” for less than five months of the year. When I grew turnips, I drew out much the same. That all led to long “waste” fallow periods which were good for wildlife, but seemed to underperform for agriculture. By sowing two crops at once, I will hopefully extend the productive shelf-life for this land and make the best of my resources in 2020. I’m still undecided on this, but it does seem a sensible course of action.

Thanks (as always) go to Rob, a long-term reader of this blog who was sufficiently moved by my ambitious plans to give me a mighty two-furrow Massey Fergusson plough back in 2017. I hope he will be pleased to hear that it’s still going strong!

Stonechats

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Home, Parish of Kirkgunzeon – 24/3/20

There is a scratchy little voice in the stillness before daylight. It’s a song of sorts, drier than most but happy in its way. I down tools and pick through memories of times when I have heard this before. The song is repeated as if to help me. There is a dull, spherical shape on the dyketop or the rowan twig, the scaffolding of bracken or the scree. It is a stonechat.

There are curlews in some of the places I work, but they are not everywhere. There are black grouse and golden plover on the hill, but they do not come near the house. But stonechats are found from the furthest crag to the window-ledge above my bed – they are one of only a few unifying threads which bring all my work together. They buzz singly through the deep grass, and each one is a subtle treat.

Drifting through MacMillan’s Gallovidian Encyclopaedia (1824), it was fun to spot a very comprehensive (if somewhat fanciful) definition given for this small, utterly inoffensive bird:

Stane-chacker- The bird stone-chatter, for why, it keeps chattering about rocks, and old stone walls. This bird is much detested in the country because it is said to be “hatched by the toad”. The tade clocks the stane-chacker’s eggs, is the phrase, which may be partly true, as the toad is often found in its nest, for they make their nests both in one hole. It is singular such a beautiful bird should be naturally fond of the toad’s dirty mansion; but so it is… Though the toad may often be found in this bird’s nest, yet its body is of too cold a nature to hatch its eggs. In the country they look at this bird with the same sensations, almost, that they do at a female prostitute; they imagine it chatters the following rhyme, and its injunctions are obeyed :-

“Stane Chack, devil tak’

“They what herrie my nest,

“Will never rest, will meet the pest,

“Devil break their lang back,

“Wha my eggs would tak, tak”.

Perhaps these are improbable and unfounded accusations, but I maintain that it’s important to recall them. Work long enough in the silence and the middle distance, and it sometimes becomes possible to believe old stories again.

Sickness

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Courthill, Buittle – 24/3/20

In what seems to be a nasty parody of global events, it’s been unsettling to find a number of sick rabbits on the hill where my cattle have stood for the winter. I clocked the first few kits emerging from their holes last week and marked them down as a sign of spring. Young rabbits run beside wheatears and shelduck as the sure-fire indicator of progress as we approach the end of March, and it was a fun buzz to find them wide-eyed and ticklish in the low sun.

But this morning they are sick or dying, and their bodies lie in perfect sleekness in the grass. I discovered a carcass on the track this morning and went to retrieve it. But when I came within a few feet of the body, I realised that it was still alive – twitching and writhing in horrible spasms. I don’t know what sickness or disease lies behind these early purges, but it seems to have become every bit as predictable as spring itself.

The days of rabbits in vast prosperity are over here. They have become scarce and it is notable to find them at all. Their decline is strange and mysterious, and it is worrying not least for the rabbits themselves but also because these animals underpin an entire system of predators and scavengers. I doubt that this illness is the sole cause of their collapse, but it packs a deadly punch and can hardly be underestimated.

East Wind

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 21st March

Icy blue sunshine, fit to rasp the skin off your nose in burns or blistering. I break from dyking for half an hour at lunch to lie in the bracken with my head on a rolled-up jacket. A hundred whooper swans have passed in the time I have been working, trickling north like sand in an hourglass. They sound like old shutters in the wind.

This job is long and slow. Hours pass accompanied only by the rub and scuff of lifted stones. Sometimes I hear a grunt or the plosive burst of breath through tight lips. It takes a moment to realize that I am the source of these sounds, shifting bulky boulders and rolling them onto my chest so that they can be placed where I need them. Every scrape leaves white, chalky lines in the granite, and the age-old smell of damaged stone which came to me strongest that day above Clatteringshaws when lightning came and scored the cairn and all the hill smelled of wounded minerals and electricity.

I love the work of dyking, so I’m inclined to rush towards it. I pound and race through the labour like a greedy child, lifting more than I have to and clawing fallen stones from the grass as if they were treasure. There are times when the right stone has been found to fit the perfect gap and I could almost roll my head back and howl with satisfaction – almost, because I’m already rushing on to fill another gap and puzzle it full again.

So I’m exhausted by lunchtime, and my back is groaning. I stare for a moment at the far horizon and find it trembling in the shallow, firey burr of early spring. The sun rubs upon drab sheets of granite and myrtle to the far horizon.

We used to wait all year for an east wind at the end of March. It’s muirburn weather, and I still feel like I should be out with a flogger on a day like this, but it’s hard work in a maze of trees and commercial woodland. People get nervous that fires will escape, and I understand that. I’ve seen balls of fire leap out of white grass to land thirty yards away and grow and rush in fires of their own. But in truth it’s hard to burn a spruce forest. The trees crowd so tightly together that there’s little left in the way of fuel. A bad fire is often broken by trees, but trees are like sheep to foresters, and flames make them antsy. They’ve put paid to plans for matches and floggers, even though some hills sorely need blackened.

Loose shouldered, the sweat dries on my neck as I look into the tall, vacuum sky and watch a pair of eagles turning together. I marvel at the breadth and glory of my view across this gentle bowl of myrtle and rock, but I know that from their height, they can see Cumbria, Ireland, Kintyre and the Pennines. They’re big birds; no pissing around with wings like sheets of sarking board. They turn the wind and slide against it, black as the comma in a frog-egg. They rise and diminish, and soon they are so far gone as to be gone. I am alone again, and I rise back to work before I stiffen.