Oystercatcher’s Return

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Courthill, Buittle Parish – 24/5/20

I sometimes find it hard to quantify the good I do. In muddling on between various experiments and following my nose towards a “better” countryside, it can be very difficult to measure my actual success. Despite my best efforts over the past decade, many of my favourite species have continued to decline – and sometimes it’s tempting to imagine that I’ve been wasting my time in the face of a problem that is far bigger than one fool could ever hope to tackle alone.

Even when I have done good, I’m seldom able to celebrate that success. Ecology is so complicated that changes are rarely attributable to one cause, and it would be vainglorious to claim progress as “mine”. And when things do not go well, it simply compounds the feeling that I’m far out of my depth.

It’s only very occasionally that I can put my hand upon something good and say “I did that”. In this light, I hope that Working for Grouse can withstand a moment’s joyful boasting – particularly since the progress I’ll describe has come from a combination of error and serendipity.

Longer-term readers will remember that I took on a new hayfield in 2018. I had grand plans for those six, rich acres along the seashore, and it felt like a priority to restore some of the wildflower species which grew there. The field had been used for intensive silage production for many years, and while it lay within easy reach of seaside waders, the slurried, fertilised grass always grew too thickly for anything to nest-and-be-thankful.

As a first step, it seemed logical to stop the application of bagged fertiliser. I couldn’t afford to buy the stuff anyway, but I’d started to build an understanding of how artificial Nitrogen can completely destroy soil chemistry. Until I took it on, the field had been cut for silage in May and August, and I changed that too. Instead of an early cut, I took one big haul of grass and made hay much later in the year. This has all been exhaustively documented elsewhere on this blog, not least in the dire job I had in mowing the field in late October last year. That made a horrible mess, and the grass has been very slow to recover.

A prolonged drought through April into May has dramatically accelerated many of the changes I hoped to implement over five or ten years. A few weeks ago, I wrote to record the huge profusion of dandelions (and bumblebees) which rose from the wreckage of the autumn cut, but the grass has now been held back for so long that “weeds” are running in rampant domination. From a purely agricultural perspective, this field looks to be in a terrible state. To a conservationist, it is paradise. Where the land formerly lay beneath a thick mat of productive ryegrass, now there are tall strands of redshank and cuckooflower, yellow rattle and yarrow. The first orchids are coming, and I spy nettles, docks and a few incursions of cow parsley and vetch from the roadside verges. It’s fast becoming a shambles, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my neighbours are tutting at the mess I’ve made.

Things are really changing quickly, and part of me panics to ponder how far my yields will have dropped when the time comes to mow this field. When I first took it on, I was able to bring home four hundred small bales of hay a year. I might struggle to get half that now, and I’m extremely glad that I’ve taken another hayfield to make up the shortfall. In weaker moments, I question the rationale which drove me to “ruin” a good, productive field. I’ll admit that I have often doubted my direction of travel, so imagine my relief and delight to find that a pair of oystercatchers has decided to make a nest in my field. There have been no breeding oystercatchers here for at least ten years, but now I have two eggs and probably more to come. It’s an extraordinary blessing, and I still can’t quite believe it.

Knowing why these birds left this field and having begun the slow, steady process of unpicking that harm, it’s an odd feeling to reap the reward. Here is progress that I can claim as my own, and I’m crazily encouraged that wildlife has begun to respond to my work with every sign of endorsement.

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