There were black grouse feathers in the grass the morning as I checked the cattle, and it’s hard to stomach that kind of loss. But with a few hours to reflect on the discovery, I’ve reached a kind of steady equilibrium.

For a start, the feathers had been shed for some time. They’d come from a young bird before it had fully fledged into early adult plumage. You don’t often see these adolescent feathers, which enable youngsters to flutter and do little more. Most of them are moulted out by the autumn, but I took some good photos of captive-reared birds at this stage (above) and it was useful to cross-check the feathers I found against these pictures.

I mainly found tail feathers (which are flimsy and barred) and feathers from the upper back between the wings. These photographs came in handy when I tried to guess time of death. I’d say that the remains I found originated from a bird between ten and twelve weeks old – so assuming that it hatched as normal around June 15th, it met its maker in the middle of August.

You can rarely be certain when it comes to a cause of death, but a fox had certainly been part of the party – the quills were all bitten through. Young black grouse often just turn their toes up and die for a range of complex reasons, and it’s not fair to immediately point the finger. The bird might have died and been picked up post mortem by a fox, and I have no real evidence to contradict that narrative. If it was killed by a predator, birds this size and over are generally only vulnerable to foxes and goshawks. Goshawks usually kill hardest in the winter, so I’d say by law of averages that if this bird was killed, it fell foul of a fox.

And I can settle with a degree of equilibrium because this kind of predation is par for the course. Young birds are weak and daft, and almost every other species in the world attempts to produce more than it requires to survive. Call it attrition, and while we sorely need more black grouse on the ground in Galloway, the real problem comes later in the autumn and the earliest days of spring. That’s when our young birds are decimated, and high hopes fall apart. Predation (exacerbated by poor winter feeding and cover) simply drives them into the ground.

I have been quite pleased with brood productivity this year, and counts have revealed some nice, well-grown broods of four, five and six. That’s a solid summer, but I’m not sure that productivity is our problem here in Galloway. We usually have good broods, and I often swing into September on a high. But those birds do not survive the winter, and they rarely live long enough to breed. Losing the odd youngster in August is normal. Losing your entire year’s new breeding stock every winter is not.

It’s a general pattern that most of our displaying blackcock are old or very mature in May. If they can get through their first winter, black grouse often live long and lavishly. I once knew a cock that lived for seven years. That’s quite an innings, but for all that he fathered many offspring during that time, he hung around on his own and he never saw any of his sons come through to join him at the lek. Of thirty-ish blackcock I saw this spring between Galloway and Ayrshire, only four were in their first year. You could say that young birds can be harder to find, but I’ve never seen much evidence to support this and I don’t think it’s a complete explanation anyway. Like curlews and so many other declining species, black grouse dwindle because they cannot retain the numbers they need to stand still. And like curlews, it’s easy to be gulled by the illusion of productive success. In population terms, it’s crucial to realise that unless young birds go all the way through the winter and produce young of their own in the following spring, they might as well have died in the egg.

I often get snipped for being gloomy. I won’t lose my rag over the death of a single poult in August because while I think that’s a pity, the problem clearly lies elsewhere. Reading back through old blog articles, I realise that ten years ago, I forecast the complete extinction of black grouse in Galloway within a decade. That hasn’t happened, and I was wrong. Perhaps that reflects badly on me, but I’m not sure there’s much to trumpet in my error. The number of black grouse at leks I count have declined by 80% and the birds have disappeared from six parishes where I knew them then. If you look at a map of their current distribution, it’s confined to a few feeble pockets, often with miles between them. Ten years ago, we needed a game changer; some radical new approach which placed a real value on these birds and allowed them to push back against the pressures which are crushing them. We haven’t had it, and when I look to the headlines and the local press, the only thing coming is more of the same. If I feel daft for my gloominess, it’s only because I spoke too soon.

Magic

Last night I saw two foxes fight in the moonrise. I ran to the gate’s cheek to meet the squall of the squirming bodies and the white tags of their tails. They battled cattily for a moment, then rose in a pair like steeples standing face to face and screaming with their heads sheared and snipping at the rush-light. I saw the eyelash moon behind them. I felt the stink of piss and hot breath, and I might’ve reached for those creatures with a stick or a pick handle. But they flew to the rowans as one thing in two parts, and I swear they left the ground.

My sense of magic’s sorely stunted. It’s too weak to hold my weight, but I would gladly retell that story as something more than a territorial dispute between competing males. Struggling inside my own confinements, I’ve found a friend in WB Yeats. He consoles me with the realisation that our busy modernity denies the “time to gather meaning, and too many things are occurring for even a big heart to hold”. We can’t afford to follow every thread to its full, fantastic range of possibilities. Even as I’ve tried to describe this sudden thing to you, I’ve simply picked the fastest way, and the easiest one of the many things it was.

Results

Only as a brief postscript, it’s worth including this photograph of the vegetation on the hill where the cattle have been. In forty years without grazing, this purple moor grass had grown into a maze of deep and heavy tussocks. Each summer, new leaves would rise up and fall down uneaten to build a mat of old growth which turned white in the first winter and grey as it mouldered away. Purple moor grass is famously invasive. Nothing else can live where it prevails. But the cows have smashed that routine to smithereens, and the result is a pleasure to see.

When it comes up now, the new grass is munched away and the ribbons are severed to square-ends. The old carpet of dead vegetation has been trampled into ruin and it’s become possible to see the individual tussock-heads exposed. If you run your fingers through these shaggy tumps, the new grass feels like the bristles on an old man’s wart – but the cows don’t seem to mind the coarse grass and they do fine eating it. Some of the tussocks have been kicked to bits and several have snapped off and rolled away under the heavy cattle hooves. In the gaps and between the tussock-heads elsewhere, tormentil and bedstraw has begun to rise. Bracken which used to stand proud above the better bits has been battered back into submission. The first stems were trampled and the auxiliary second shoots seem stunted and anxious in their wake.

And all the while, the whole salad bowl has been sprayed with cowpats. When you lie face down in the grass as I did today, you can hear the undergrowth crackling with insects. It’s a sign of the change that I even thought to lie down and try it at all. In previous years, I’ve been too worried by the challenge of standing up and falling down in the deep grass and getting covered in ticks to even dream of lying on this hill.

News from the Hill

It’s been a better year on the hill. For several accidental reasons, the cows went out more than a month later than they did in 2020. The grass was there to meet them, and they swam into it. I dropped them off on June the third and they’ve never once looked back.

Two factors have really helped their progress. The first relates to the age and dynamics of the group. Last year, I worked with a cohort of very young stock. Most were under a year old and they had only recently been speaned from their mothers. That made them cautious and uneasy. They patrolled the perimeters of the hill and moved in a constant state of restlessness. This time around, the young beasts are accompanied by two empty cows and two steers which were on the hill last summer. That’s given them a sense of calm and focus which they sorely lacked before. They move with confidence and it’s easy to summon them up by shouting and waving a bag. I had to train them to this last year, and that was a lot of work. But they know the score this time around, and what a difference that makes.

The second change is that we’re now in year two. I felt like ten young beasts would be lost in a two hundred acre block of rough moorland, and it’s certainly true that they ricocheted around without seeming to leave a trace of their passing. But it turns out that they did make a difference. They grazed many of the best and most productive areas of the hill, and the action of their grazing went to improve the quality of the forage on offer. The hill is now greener and more diverse, and new grass grows through the punctures which the cattle stamped in the old mats of dead grass. Some of the strongly-established tussocks have been trampled into stumps, and wildflowers rise around them. The quantity of scabious and knapweed I’ve seen in the last few weeks is staggering. It’s a delight to see all the well-kent theories of conservation grazing in action, and it’s also clear that in the most popular areas for cattle, bracken coverage is in drastic decline.

Perhaps the most telling change comes from the satellite collars, which tell the story of where the cows spend their time. Last year, the tags would ping almost at random anywhere inside the two hundred acre enclosure. The beasts were constantly on the move. This year, the cattle have stuck to a single fifty acre patch. They could head further afield whenever they want, but they’ve never even tried. And the harder they graze, the better this piece of ground is able to cater for them. We often talk about finding a balance between farming and nature, and most farmers are trying to drag their management in a more environmentally friendly direction. I’m doing the opposite; working to fit livestock into a landscape so wild that many visitors can hardly believe that such a place exists. I will find a balance, but my start-point is very unusual.

In the heart of the most popular area, there is a greyhen with chicks in the myrtle. I doubt she could have raised young here without some grazing assistance, and I notice that the young birds often hang around under the bigger willow trees where the cows often lay for shade in the hotter days. The vegetation here is mown short as a bowling green, and the black grouse enjoy the ability to duck in and out between different sward lengths. That’s just one of many interesting and unforeseen side-effects of livestock grazing.

In the midst of all this progress, the cows are in excellent condition and I feel confident enough to enjoy the process at last. Last year was a constant source of stress and anxiety, but this time I’m finding things a great deal more peaceful. It’s interesting to see such a clear expression of the idea that grazing begets more grazing, and I’m surprised at the level of change which has transpired in two grazing seasons. From a distance, the hill looks almost exactly the same as it did when I started – but walk through the grass and it’s hard to ignore the enormity of the change.

Help

I had a dead calf in the spring. I never mentioned it, at least in part because I know that I’m too willing to be maudlin. It’s a bad habit. I should amend it, but in a world without many markers, that calf has begun to follow me; a creature that never walked and revealed itself only once as something that fell and kept falling.

And there it lay until the ravens found it. When I came, the face had gone from the skull and the tongue was pulled from its shoe. In her confusion and distress, the cow had trodden all around the empty calf and stepped once upon its back in accident. So the hind legs were splayed at puppet angles; when I rolled the carcass into a barrow, the bone-ends ground like grates of coral in a bag.

This calf had meant to be a bull, but he changed his mind and it died overnight as I lay in bed. Perhaps there might have been something that I could have done; a wishful list of past modals to cover the fact that I didn’t. But the cow gave no sign that she was ready, and I thought she owed me that. She could have let me help, but even these calm, domestic animals retain memories of an ancient animosity.

At some near-forgotten level, they know I’m out to get them. When I touch their bodies, I feel them gag in anticipation because what else can I be but danger? They cannot grasp the contradiction of our relationship, so when I’m done checking tags or pouring wormer, I drive the beasts home to their fields and they experience the resumption of their freedom as predation evaded – another near miss. They think I lack the killer clout; that I’m some clawless malevolence that would if only I could. The irony is that when I finally do, they’ll meet the change with no surprise and only wonder why I took so long. So why should they come to me for help except when all other hope has gone?

When the calf was lifted, she stayed around the flattened grass for a time. Then she walked back to the herd with her teats hung dry and hard like tubes of paint between her knees. I watched her go, seeing only the hide of her hardship and calling it my own.