Slurry Spreaders

Near Castle Douglas today

If you wanted to extirpate wading birds from a given area, you’d be hard pressed to find a better technique than umbilical slurry spreading. It’s not so much the scouring effect of the nozzles, but that hose which trails behind the machine effectively “sweeps” the field from one end to another. You could say that it’s only a hose rolling around, but when it’s working, the canvas pipe is so heavy you can hardly lift it. As it’s hauled back and forth like a windscreen wiper across the field, it eradicates every potential seed of biodiversity.

But it’s also fair to say that the threat posed by these machines is largely theoretical. They’re spreading slurry fast on the farms around mine, but few if any of these places will have breeding waders. That’s not to say that the process is harmless, but rather that the harm’s already been done. Galloway is no longer considered to be a wader-friendly landscape, not because waders do not thrive here but rather because work like this drove them all away years ago. And there’s a subversive sense that once you’ve stripped all biodiversity out of a landscape, you’re free to push on towards ever greater productivity.

In debates about conservation on farmland, there is a well-worn trend towards farming hard in the productive areas and leaving some of the rougher places for nature. In Galloway, that theoretical dichotomy is stymied because we’ve found a way to make the rougher places productive too; the traditional hill margins have been planted with commercial crops of trees, and some of the “best” farms now have silage parks which run directly into conifer plantations. It’s no exaggeration to say that wildlife has entirely gone from these places.

But zoom even further back, because it’s not fair to take the most productive land for ourselves and leave what’s left for nature. Our food grows better on good soils, but so do many native plants and animals. A brown hare on productive land might have three litters of three or four youngsters in a summer. The same hare on marginal land might only produce two litters of two. That’s a marked difference, but the young hares born on productive land will often grow up and move out into less productive areas, the richer land working in unison with the poorer. I have so often seen farms and estates which change the management of their productive land and subsequently wonder why the apparently untouched hill suffers; why black grouse, partridges, hares and waders decline even though “nothing has changed on the hill”. It’s because everything’s connected.

This all harks back to the pumped application of slurry, which is now the very acme of an industry that has vanished into the anus of its own productivity. The best and most productive land in Galloway has been overhauled into something unrecognisably useless for nature. Leaving a few little patches for wildlife to survive on the margins is the equivalent of saying “we ate all the biscuits, but we saved you the packet”.

Bollocks

An Irishman told me that steers grow faster and taller if you leave them uncut for as long as you can. So by accident and this advice, I kept two calves entire until they were ten months old. Then I called the vet, and it’s said that men are squeamish of talk about the severance of bollocks. Even if we do not choose to articulate our fears, that gentle sense of anxiety is something we all have in common. We can circle it when banter slows because we’ve all been kicked or walloped at one time or another, and I agree that it’s a special kind of pain which, as a silver lining, offers a universal “out” from failing conversations.

But my objection to this cutting is not that I can imagine the razor blade coming for me. Now the vet has been for those bulls and gone again, I can say that I object to the experience for its sudden smell of warm fat and the slap of discarded organs falling slipshod into the mud. That’s “not very nice”, but neverendingly worse because the stuff comes out of a creature that lives on blinking, with its slackly knotted strings tugged up from between its legs like pasta. And holding it still for the cutting, I pressed my leg into the belly of a soon-to-be steer and felt that pipework come undone across my knee like a thread pulled from a sheet of fabric. I’m not troubled by the infliction of death, or of plunging my hands to the elbow in hot and recent viscera, but it turns out that I prefer my animals to be alive or dead and not parts of both in different states diverging.

The library at school had a heavily abridged copy of James Bruce’s “Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile”. It was the gift of some Victorian benefactor, back when I thought Ex Libris was the name of the book’s first owner and the name beneath it was whoever’d had it afterwards. I don’t remember much about this book aside from a long description of Sudanese cattle herders who knew where on a cow to cut without killing it; so that each night the men could eat steaks from the living herd, and on long journeys sustain themselves with a packed lunch that carried itself. That’s pragmatism taken to a rare degree, and it’s no surprise it’s stayed with me for twenty five years.

And looking at my cattle now, I must admit I cannot tell which of those steers did better – the tiny bull calves banded at three days old or those left to be cut after the thick end of a year. The difference is hardly noticeable, and perhaps I should’ve left them longer to try it properly. Either way, I’m not sure the test is worth the smell, and that’s before I’ve seen the bill.

Dry Spring

Each year I mistake this bright weather for a charm, and to be fair that’s what it feels like after a dull winter. It’s a delight to find the place alive again, and grand to see the smoke come down from the hill fires. But too much of this dry weather is a curse, and now on the tenth consecutive day without rain, the land begins to feel edgy. I suddenly remember previous years when a dry March blew into a cold April and frosts held until the start of May. It’s a pattern which can hold the land in cold suspended pain for weeks as the daffodils nod and the forecaster says “plenty more beautiful sun to come”. It looks fine for a walk or a wander if you’re lacking Vitamin D, but it’s miserable stuff for those of us waiting on grass to feed cows – and it’s downright traumatic for wading birds.

Too dry in March upsets the curlews at their territorial work. That has a knock-on effect to their nesting and pushes them out of sync. In fairness I’ve often complained that hill-nesting curlews lay too early in the year, but I can’t deny that birds know best. I trust them enough to know that any deviation from their Plan A is a concern, and if it stays cold through April as it did last year, there’s a chance the birds will simply go and not come back until 2023.

We get het up about predators and forestry plantations as the driving force behind curlew decline in Galloway, but this dry weather has the power to go beyond nest failure – it’s the cause of nests never being laid in the first place. That’s fine for a year or two, but this could be the fourth or fifth consecutive year of cold, dry Marches on-the-trot. I’ve often bragged that curlews can live for thirty years or more, but that’s unusual. Most live for between five and eight years, and the first two are an adolescent period before breeding begins. So it’s quite possible that in recent years, curlews have been hatched, fledged, matured and died without ever breeding entirely because of the weather.

The difference between a wet or a dry March is even more visible in snipe. When the spring comes up warm and sloppy, snipe boom in staggering numbers and the first chicks appear between the fifth and the tenth of April. But snipe seem to be more sensitive than curlews in how they respond to the weather; when it’s cold and dry, they’re usually the first to vanish from the hill. A handful will always stay and try regardless, but the weather can make such a difference that when the conditions are right, you’ll have ten to fifteen times more pairs than when it’s too cold and dry.

Further downhill, these dry days have a similar effect on the lapwings, although the mechanism is slightly different. Some of the best areas for lapwings in this parish were spread with slurry at the start of March. Lapwings had already returned by then, and the slurry drove them away. Agricultural work like this is a major problem for these birds, but when it’s early in the season they usually return within a day or two once the slurry’s been washed into the soil by the rain. It’s much more of an issue when slurry is applied to fields once nesting has begun, so when I work with these farmers to protect the lapwings, I accept that they need to spread their slurry and I encourage them to spread it early rather than late. But in the dry weather, the slurry was spread and has lain ever since like a dark mat in the grass. It’s not soaking in, and it’s easy to see why the birds have not returned.

This effect is sometimes called “capping”, and it’s made worse when more slurry is applied on top of the stuff that hasn’t washed in. That happens here, and it’s only an accident sometimes; a few of the biggest dairy farms rely on the fact that most people don’t know enough to spot problems like these, and who would you report it to anyway? I can think of a handful of agencies and organisations to notify, but few have teeth and it’s surprising how many are still completely hamstrung and inactive on account of COVID restrictions. Besides, it’s more than just a wader problem anyway. Slurry’s a kind of toxic waste, and it’s only a small issue for waders nowadays because most farms where it’s spread actually lost all their breeding birds years ago.

I hope that rain will come in due course and the lapwings will simply try a little later in the year – but this is a further deviation from their Plan A, and another example of issues arising from a problematic land use being magnified by inclement weather to tip the balance ever further against wader breeding success

Smoke

Curlews returned in the darkness, falling like down to the meadows and crying still at the memory of last year’s failures. I could put a ring on these birds and know where they’ve been since I last saw them in August, but I reckon it’s better to have that knowledge withheld by the limits of my own eyesight. I don’t want to know, but wherever they’ve been, it’s wasn’t far enough to erase the confusion and loss of another busted summer, and chicks which never warmed into anything more than a pattern of veins. I hope they’ll do better this year – and I’ll go one better than hope by doing all that I can to protect them.

The following day drove me to Lanarkshire, where I felt stronger and more optimistic as different birds laid out their territories in fine abundance. Curlews are doing better in this part of the Southern Uplands, where from the high ground you can see bits of Glasgow in the milky distance, and more wind turbines than you’d ever imagine existed. 

Hardly half an hour passed without curlews calling from some point or other in the rough-cut grass and the slipstreams of scree. This weather’s been grand for drying these hills, and with a decent view, blue ribbons of heather smoke rolled out of the hills from Muirkirk to the Moorfoots. The distant fires trailed away in parallel lines like steamer chimneys, suggesting that Scotland itself was sailing steadily southward. I love to see the spring fires ripping on a day like this, worrying into the old grass and revealing the chance of something better.

At the foot of every fire is a person engaged in the humdrum fare of working, and it’s only by accident that this task marks them out for miles around. Their three hundred and sixty four other days leave no discernible trace on the landscape; these people live hidden in sheds or jackets, and tomorrow when the rain comes, they’ll vanish again. So mark them well in the sunshine, drizzling smoke just as spiders fill the summer night with threads of gossamer; it’s an emergence too, compelled by the best use of a suitable moment.

Then later when the fires came closer to hand and the sap hissed like dew from a wet kettle heating. The curlews kept up their calling, and out from the crumbling dyke an ousel flew with the hill dead beneath him in a stack of tightly banked contours. It’s likely that this bird had only been in Scotland for a matter of hours; the last folk he’d seen were Frenchmen or Moroccans. It sets my head spinning to imagine the miracle of migration, but it’s even stranger that I should be more at ease with the thought of myself flying to winter in the Mediterranean than a bird with two wings and a mind of its own. I’ve seen it myself that when you burn heather, you get ousels; and when you stop, they go. So it made sense to see this first bird of the year on a scorching day in the churn of smoke, with land making sense of itself on the scale of a continent.

Heading back from the heather, curlews called on and more palls of smoke rolled down from the slopes like the haze of day, all warm and homely in the sunlit moss with the lights of a fire engine blinking in the distance, and a recollection that not everybody finds so much to love in the sight of a freshening flame.

Split Beech

When you travel at a tractor’s pace with two tons of split beech in the trailer, you can’t help but pay greater attention to the roadside fields and the slow sun turning overhead. I’m used to this route downstream from the moors to the bay, but I usually see it from the window of a truck rushing at dykeheight to get the work all done. Sit three feet higher and travel at half the speed and suddenly it’s hard to tell if the world was always full of such detail and all it took was time to see it.

These final days of March are often filled with whooper swans moving en masse at extreme height up the Dee or out into Clydesdale. Before the riot of migrants begins, these birds fill a gap and please me more than I can tell you against the rising moon. And all that time I sat in the tractor’s din, they passed me overhead as the shadows grew longer and each bump in the road settled the new logs down like porridge in a sack for the most efficient use of all available space. When I set off from the hill, the logs were mounded high and wobbling. After three miles across potholes and cattlegrids, the stack was flat and packed level across so tight you’d almost need the pinch to break them up when you got there.

Sitting high, I saw hares in the fields and lapwings busy in the reeds. Then up around the cairns, there were buzzards and ravens in the shimmering sky and that cold, abrasive light that only comes with an east wind at the end of winter. A bumblebee joined for me for a time; a butterfly landed in the road in my wake. 

I usually drive a big blue truck along this road, and people are free to wave or ignore me as they choose. It’s a distinctive vehicle, but slip inside a borrowed Ford tractor and even your best friend can hardly make head nor tail of you. I watched my neighbour squinting into the cab, trying to see who was driving. I made to wave, but instead the sun’s reflection flashed on the glass cab and left him wondering. Then at the loch-head I came down amongst a parked up arrangement of shepherds. I’d usually stay for a chat, but I find it hard to restart this tractor when it stops, so I blew by and yelled and they failed to decipher me. One of them waved for fear of not waving, but the others doled out that expression of quiet disgust kept ready behind glass to be broken in case of intruders.

I thought back to a night last summer when I rode this route on my bicycle after work. I went to turn the peats and saw everything from a different angle; the same route rendered unrecognisable by a different pace and perspective. The boys had been making hay in the glen that day, and I could smell each field differently as I passed alongside it, with the grit crackling under my tyres and the weight of my dinner in a bag on my back. At one bend, I came upon a covey of young grouse on the road, dusting themselves in the sunset; birds I would never have seen at full stretch in a truck. And I thought again of that soft illicit joy you feel on arriving announced in a place you know so well, lacking any of your normal precedents and catching it all off guard so the very hill itself seems to sit up in surprise saying “now where did you come from?”

Self-Sown

Every year or two I take the time to cut trees in the bog. This place has been shut away from livestock since I was a child, and I hardly remember it used. Too many sheep vanished into the drains (and for such small return) that the patch was ripped from the bosom of the farm and abandoned as hazardous. In the intervening years, the heather has leaped to the height of your waist in a junkshop of moss and cranberries; there’s always a woodcock or a greyhen carving a bowl for her belly and eggs at the end of May. 

In the absence of livestock, rowans have done well and the willows beside them. They’ve sown themselves, but whenever I can find a reliable source of alder or downy birch saplings, I plug them into the ditch-banks and gradually the driest parts of this place are becoming a wood. That’s fine by me, and if you want to find a blackcock or roe buck, here’s your best bet. But the fly in the ointment is shaped like a spruce tree, and more seem to come every year.

If you leave a place to go about its business, you can hardly complain when it turns up something you didn’t want. The ethos of rewilding requires us to stand back from expected goals or outcomes, preferring instead that we should be guided by nature. New spruces are entirely consistent with the fact that this bog is becoming a forest, and I’d even concede that small softwood trees are great for cover and scrub. However, spruce trees originate on the Pacific coast of North America. They don’t belong here, and they have a habit of leaping into the sky like fireworks. Once they reach a certain height, they crowd the horizon and drive away the wading birds. In ten or fifteen years, they’re big enough to sow seeds of their own without offering much to anything more than a cuckoo seeking a perch. After thirty years, they’re taller than most buildings in Galloway, casting long shadows for a huge decision that nobody made.

Nothing stands still in nature, but it often seems like the Southern Uplands are driving towards a climax of self-sown spruce trees which have little ecological or commercial value. I’ve begun to think of it as pollution, and the inevitable consequence of decisions made by my neighbours to plant their land and let the seeds blow as they will. If I allowed my livestock to roam freely across boundaries, I could expect to be upbraided. When I raised the issue of spruce seedlings with a forested neighbour, he implied that it was my fault for undergrazing my land, as if my choices had failed to accommodate his.

In some parts of the farm, spruce trees have begun to form thickets. Sheep will eat the seedlings when they’re very small, but they’re almost bullet-proof by the time they’re six feet tall. The only way to remove them is by cutting them out by hand, and that’s hard work. I hate the job, but there’s no way to avoid it. If I hadn’t started doing it in 2009, I would have lost this bog altogether by now. Curlews still nest here sometimes, but only because I slog it out.

There are major frictions between woodland expansion and wader conservation, and the conflict gets fuzzier when you realise that plantations do not stay where you put them. They continually creep and expand, and that comes at the cost of open land that we need for wading birds. If you’re a woodland nut, you could say that’s all for the good – but we need to be clear that this is not natural forest expansion; it’s a mass-produced commercial crop gone feral. You could also say that spruce trees are now so heavily sown and sowing themselves in Galloway that they’ll never be gone, so any attempt to manage them as an invasive species is idealistic naivete. Perhaps that’s true, but it has a dramatic impact on our understanding of self-willed land. The future of native woodland in Galloway certainly has more to do with American spruce than Scottish pines, just as surely as curlews will soon become a flat irrelevance in the southwest.

So much of what I do will all seem daft and petty one day soon, but for so long as we continue in this middle ground, saying we’re trying while selling our final hopes to the highest bidder, it’s maybe a note worth making.