Golden Plover – 2022

You might remember that I found a pair of golden plover last year. I wrote about them at length because these birds are so absurdly scarce in Galloway nowadays that the chance of finding their nest was ten thousand to one. So I made hay while the sun shone and tried to gather all the information I could via a series of satellite cameras, but when they hatched their eggs and the chicks made off into the scree, I reckoned that would be the last I’d ever see of them.

Speaking to a plover specialist recently, he reckoned that the birds are often faithful to a specific location. They’ll return to a place for several consecutive seasons, often nesting within a short radius of the same few metres. Following this hunch, I happened to go looking for last year’s birds again this week. It’s a bad slog out to the back of the hills, and walking in isolation gave me time to ponder the decline of these birds in Galloway. They used to be abundant here, but they can’t abide forestry or tree cover near to their breeding grounds. Most of the best habitats for golden plover were planted in the 1970s, and their numbers crashed soon afterwards. I suppose if we’d known we’d lose them, we might have done something to preserve them. Instead, the trees were dumped wherever it suited a landowner to have them, and in recent years it was generally reckoned that golden plover were extinct as a breeding species in the south west.

I’d be very surprised if there were more than two or three breeding pairs in all of Galloway, and now that their numbers are so low, it’s unlikely that these final birds could ever muster sufficient conservation clout to resist or overturn a modern planting application. The birds I know are on land that’s already owned by Forest and Land Scotland, and they survive because they’ve chosen a spot so remote and hard to access that it could never be planted. If they were on a more readily findable place, there’s almost nothing to stop them being ploughed into trees. In terms of fragility, these final birds cling onto existence by the tiniest tips of their smallest toenails in a slackness that nobody has thought to tighten yet.

I could hear a plover calling in the cloud as I came to the place where they nested last year, and when the skies opened I saw the male bird on a hump of moss, standing in familiar profile like the shape of something primordial. He whistled eight or nine times as I walked towards him, then he flew a few yards uphill and made some sharp and derisive calls. I was still three hundred yards from last year’s nest site, and having learnt from the satellite cameras that incubation is shared equally by both parent birds who each take it in twelve hour shifts on the nest, it seemed strange that this male should be nearby but not sitting. I walked on, followed by the calling bird who laid on a series of distractions by trailing his wings and whining in the moss.

Clouds came and went, revealing slabs of sodden rock and distant lochans in the sunlit gaps. It’s a fine, dramatic place, this, two and a half thousand feet into the cloud with only a batter of rain above you. I paused to make sense of the male’s behaviour just as the female bird rose up at my feet and ran away in a tumbling panic. She left a tiny bowl of grass and blaeberry in her wake, and in a space the size of the palm of my hand lay three immaculate chicks.

By complete accident, I had timed my visit to near perfection. Judging from the cameras set in 2021, the new chicks will linger in the nest for two or three days after hatching, but there is a surprising delay between the first egg’s hatching and the last. One of the eggs I found was only just cracking, but at least two of the chicks could easily have been thirty six hours old. This meant there was a narrow window when the chicks were hatched but hadn’t left into the world, and I’d stumbled upon it by sheer fluke.

Given the very close proximity of this year’s nest to last (a distance of thirty three metres), it’s almost certain to be the same pair as 2021. The hatch is a week earlier than it was last year, but there’s no way I could have known this in advance. And it was only later when I realised that both adult birds were present on the hill together because this is an exciting time for them, with the long relay-drudge of sitting behind them. From now on, they’ll work together to protect their chicks.

It’s excellent news that this single pair should be so productive, but there’s a reason why nest cameras are a popular way to gauge productivity – nests are static and easy to monitor. Chicks are very mobile and most are impossible to follow, so while a good hatch is a great start, it’s also a long way from the journey’s end.

It’s perfectly possible that last year’s four chicks were eaten by ravens or foxes as soon as they left the nest, and it would not be surprising if these chicks (pictured) have already been eaten by something in the time it’s taken me to write this blog post. But in their favour is a large area of pristine, high-altitude bog habitat which has almost everything a growing plover chick might need. Provided the weather stays settled, there’s no reason why these birds shouldn’t thrive. And when it comes to predation, I sometimes wonder if certain species can persist at extremely low densities because many of their natural predators have given up looking for them. Back when these hills had one or two hundred nesting pairs of plover, it’s likely that ravens would fly over to make a special visit during the breeding season. Now we’re down to a handful of chicks, it’s hard to see why a raven would bother, and perhaps the risk of predation is more associated with chance encounters and simple bad luck.

I’ll go back to this place in a couple of weeks and see what I can see. It’s unlikely that another trip will add to my tiny store of knowledge, and the chances are that I won’t find anything worth recording. Young waders are impossibly hard to find at the best of times, but I’d love to try and piece together an update. Even if I go and fail to find a sign of plover chicks, perhaps it will be informative to spend some time around the kind of places they like to be, and maybe infer the rest.

The Search – part seven

The last few weeks have been fraught with activity. Working with a number of enthusiastic observers and volunteers, I’ve forcibly extracted information on curlew breeding attempts from an ambitiously vast piece of rough and varied countryside. It’s been far harder than I thought it would be, and more time consuming than I ever could have feared. I’ve kept a rough log of over one hundred hours spent searching for curlews, and I’ve travelled almost four hundred miles in the truck, on my bike and on foot on the hunt for breeding birds.

Accepting the many limitations of this survey, I’ve finished up with a final figure of twenty eight pairs. It’s certainly no fewer than this, and it’s possible that I might be underestimating the tally by four or five pairs. In certain places, it was just too hard to read the birds’ behaviour, and extra follow-up visits designed to confirm or shed more light failed to offer any help at all. I call it twenty eight, but I suspect it’s more like thirty two or three.

Without a baseline or a benchmark to measure it against, I knew this figure would be meaningless before I started, but I must admit that it’s considerably smaller than my most pessimistic predictions. I can’t tell you what the figure was ten or twenty years ago, but perhaps it would help to visualise the decline if I retrospectively estimate that in 2010, there were twenty five pairs on a group of four farms including my own; a total area of around thirty square kilometres. Maybe that helps to provide some context for the twenty eight pairs I found spread across six hundred and fifty square kilometres in 2022.

The situation is little short of a disaster. Speaking to an ecologist friend about the potential next steps for a conservation project, he advised me to look for clusters of birds where work might be targeted. He defined a cluster as three or four pairs nesting in reasonable proximity, but I only found one cluster like this of three birds. It’s on land that just sold to an investment company for forestry. The trees have already been planted, and these birds are now doomed. Elsewhere there are three groups of two, but the other single pairs are scattered evenly across a vast area in almost isolated pockets. That makes any future conservation effort a great deal harder, and when I asked him what I should do next, my ecologist friend just shook his head. I suppose it’s easier to see what’s possible when you’re standing back at a more objective distance.

In terms of how the birds are faring now, I only know of seven pairs which are still attempting to breed, but there might be as many as fourteen or fifteen. I have not yet heard of any chicks at all, but I’m sure a handful must be out there somewhere. As always, the literal existence of chicks is no indication of success, and a breeding cycle can only be described as complete when young birds fledge and fly away. Judging by what I’ve seen in previous years, we’ll be lucky if more than one or two young birds get off in 2022, and these to replace a far larger number lost through normal adult mortality. I’m no mathematician, but here’s where the problem lies.

I’ve told a few people about the findings from this year’s survey. Each one has expressed a degree of disbelief, but the prevailing sense is one of sorry resignation. Several farming friends have sighed and said “well what can we do?” Standing in the wake of an extended exhaustion, I’m struggling to see what’s next myself. I know that I’ve taken on too much of this concern, and in a small way I note a degree of creeping resentment that it should be my responsibility not only to spot the problem, but also to raise awareness, overcome resistance and then galvanise a constructive, front-footed response. I know I’m not really on my own – I’m extremely grateful to everybody who helped with this survey and I’m delighted that people are willing to help, but I’m sure others will agree that each step forward feels like a lead weight without any gathering of momentum.

I’ll buck up and regroup. With a few weeks to recuperate, I suppose I’ll come out fighting again. But for now it’s worth recording a sense of hopelessness and isolation; that no matter how much work you pour into a project, you’re only pushing water uphill.

Twins

I’ve had twin heifer calves, and that sounds like an advantage. It’s two calves for the cost of one, and it’s fun that while the first came up black, the second’s a riggit. That’s a nice genetic curveball, but it’s not a wholly comfortable pairing. The black heifer is noticeably stronger than her sister, and she shines above the second-born in every way. In fact there was a considerable lag between the birthings, and no good reason to believe the cow had a second calf coming until it came. There was even some confusion when the riggit calf walked out from the nettles and began to butt for a teat; confusion to the tune of “where did that come from?”

It’s unusual for a galloway to have twins – I’ve never seen it happen before, though remember that I’ve hardly even started to make sense of this game and it would be a mistake to presume that any of the many things I haven’t seen are odd.

I went to look them yesterday and I couldn’t find the riggit calf. There was low cloud, and then a rush of painful rain which boiled the beeches and flung broom flowers into the grass. When I finally found her, she was shivering and humpit in the rushes. She reminded me of a programme I saw on the telly one time about cod and how the little ones grow a big head, even when their bodies are small. A big head allows you to eat bigger things and grow faster, but there’s a time when little cod are all head with a streamer of tail behind them. That was like this calf; just a sock with an orange in the toe. I didn’t like it, even if she had the mouth to suck.

Two calves is maybe better than one, but if that second calf becomes a liability then the advantage soon begins to crowd itself out with concern and extra care. I’ll do my best by the little second, but there’s an alarm bell ringing somewhere, and a needling worry that the cow might’ve been better doing a right job of one.

Boar Jaws

I was minding my own business at the time. I was out for a run on the back road to Caulkerbush with cuckoos regaling me, and I didn’t ask to be part of the story but the smell brought me to a standstill.

I followed my nose and just a little way from the tarmac, I found the melted remains of a wild boar. Weird scenes in the roadside nettles; a stink like nothing you’d ever dare to mention, and the slumping frame of black canvas on the bone poles. I know these woods are full of boar, but you rarely get more than a glimpse of high-backed bodies as they flit between the myrtle banks. Here I could take my leisure in his company and the slippery slop of bristles falling audible from the sunken hide.

He’d been there for some time. It would be hard to say how long given the dry days we had in April. Nothing can rot without moisture, and it’s amazing how much a corpse can endure without rain to soften it. But a few muggy days had run riot over the boar; he was little more than a seething black mass of hair with a shelled-out trotters at each squared-off corner. I leaned in for a closer look and heard the maggots crackling like the sound of a fizzy drink; punch-drunk, roistering sexton beetles came tumbling up from the soup to fart and lick their lips. It was a paradise for those bugs which fly for miles on the offchance of rotten meat. But when they catch that scent, they have no idea where it’s coming from. It might be a mouse, and fifteen beetles fighting over a thumbnail of sludge. Or it could be the mother-lode; seventy kilograms of forest-fed pork. Sexton beetles have cockney accents. These ones tucked their thumbs into their braces and said things like ‘Appy days and Gor luv ya.

Nothing else had touched the corpse in all the time it lay in state. There was no sign of the boar being picked over or pulled to pieces by badgers or foxes. That’s bizarre, but perhaps these animals instil such a degree of fear in their woodland companions that even dead pigs are left in peace.

Of course I was desperate to recover the skull. I have no particular use for such a thing, but the urge to collect natural curiosities is hardwired into my brain. I didn’t have a knife or a saw to cut it free; only my trainers and a piece of willow stick. It was a slow and smelly process, rubbing the head with the soles of my feet to free it from the skin, then twisting it back on its joints with the stick. The head and jaws came up together, stained chocolate brown and weeping maggots. It’s an extraordinary thing, with the eyes set right back at one end like one of those absurd sports cars from the 1960s where the driver sits in the boot and the rest is all bonnet and snout. There are stubby little tusks in there, and perhaps they’ll clean up beautifully. It’s only when I was lathered in grey brains and reeking like a septic tank that I wondered what the hurry had been. I could have walked back another time with wellies and rubber gloves and taken the head for a far less scented cost. I suppose the fever was on me.

It’s fair to reckon this boar was killed by a car, and I pitied the driver and the bills. It must have been a costly collision, and if I had just struck a boar in the night, I would think twice about getting out for a look. But it’s surprising how often people drive on, even when it’s a small thing or a rabbit in broad daylight. I often stop to kill things lying injured or spent in the verge. Even last week I went home for the rifle to kill a roe buck which lay just over the hedge with a mess of its own bones jagging out of it. You are not under any obligation to get out of your car to kill an injured animal; it’s unreasonable to expect it of folk, but it’s not fair to leave the creatures either. At least with pigs around, people might learn to drive more slowly down forest roads at night.

So I have the skull and the smell is transcendent. I’ll clean it up and show it off, but for now the novelty is tempered by an ecstasy of gagging.

The Search – part six… continued

Following a recent post about curlews and forestry, I can’t resist the urge to carry those open-ended notes to their gloomy conclusion. A few people were in touch with me when that blog was published, and they added a useful degree of first-hand experience to many of the ideas I put forward. And I realise in retrospect that perhaps I did not go far enough into the issue of mitigation. Indeed, I might even have lent the idea some credibility it does not always deserve.

Because in many situations, there is no mitigation for forest expansion on wader breeding grounds. There’s a specific point of order at the root of all mitigation for new plantations; curlews cannot abide trees. The two interests are mutually exclusive at a fairly fundamental level, so it’s generally true to say that when a forest is planted on a curlew’s breeding ground, those birds are doomed. It often doesn’t matter how many compensatory wader scrapes are dug elsewhere to mitigate the harm – the landowner’s decision has turned a favourable habitat into an unfavourable one. The story ends there.

In this context, I’m slightly “over” the idea that curlews can live long and productive lives in the shadow of commercial plantations. I’m not satisfied that I’ve ever seen it done, so talk of mitigation often sounds like obfuscation and concealment of the hard truth that one outcome has been chosen above another. Habitat mitigation is still talked about as if it were somehow possible to have the best of both worlds, but often you simply can’t.

Knowing that forestry trumps curlew conservation is hard to stomach, but the clarity of that binary choice is clouded by matters of scale. The loss of a few curlews here and there is so marginal that it’s laughable to consider measuring it against the financial incentives of timber production. So perhaps you’ll lose a couple of curlews, but what’s does that tiny loss mean against a world full of birds, and there’s always somebody else to pick up the slack. It’s right that no single property should regard itself as the problem in its entirety, and yet all forested properties are variously complicit in an accumulative decision to shut the door forever.

Now that curlews are declining fast, even big strongholds look pitifully small. Developers might think twice about dumping a forest onto a breeding colony of fifteen pairs, but no such thing exists in Galloway. We only have a scattering, and I understand when people fail to see how losing a pair here and there will really make a difference. That’s a simple trade off, but the more insidious issue lies in the false promise that you can have your cake and eat it.

Away With The Faeries

A Glimpse of the Fairies by Charles Hutton Lear/Getty Images

Margaret Murray’s 1931 book The God of the Witches was panned by the critics. She wasn’t the first to walk on such shaky ground, but she took more than her fair share of the blame for it. I knew what to expect when I found myself a copy, and I can only agree that it hangs on a pattern that would stretch a child’s imagination.

In the book, Murray argues that western witchcraft was the visible tip of a coherent and clandestine pagan religion which originated in Paleolithic spirituality. This is the “witch-cult hypothesis” which started with Frazer’s Golden Bough and went on to grip Graves and tickle Ted Hughes, but it lacks even simple threads of evidence to back it up. You just can’t construe the existence of an ancient religion from a few church records and the testimonies of terrified women who were tried for witchcraft in the seventeenth century.

If we can learn anything from the history of witchcraft, it’s about a convergence of fears and anxieties which reside in the fundamental nature of human society. The phenomenon of witchcraft appears because it’s in us, not because a coherent, continuous religious movement ran beneath the surface of Europe for ten thousand years. But the theory is one of those wrong ideas that’s too important to forget. Like much of Jungian psychology, the “witch-cult hypothesis” has survived better outside the academic disciple which created it. Modern anthropologists and folklorists sneer at Margaret Murray, but her thinking still has mileage in literature and art.

And it’s fair to say there are some nice connections in Murray’s book. It’s surprising how frequently the image of a horned God appears in European culture, from the Greek Pan to Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow. There’s plenty of fun in this book, not least in the useful reminder that Christianity did not arrive in Britain like the switching on of a light. It came and stayed for a while before we rejected it again, and later readopted it. Even when it was formally established, it’s likely that Christianity was the religion of the aristocracy, but the new Faith was negotiable for everyone else. I love this blurring of boundaries, which seems to fly against that prevailing notion that all was darkness before the Light. It was well worth a recent trip to Cumbria to see Norse-Christian stone carvings in the churchyard at Gosforth. Loki was at his confusing and mercurial best on a high cross dressed in elaborate and distinctively pagan motifs.

But The God of the Witches is more than just fun. There’s a slightly ill-fitting chapter on faeries which has set my imagination on edge, and now I’m almost giddy with it. When I was a teenager, I read an article about the story of Cain and Abel, and how the symbolic murder of the pastoralist signalled the arrival of modern agriculture. The author wondered if this reflected a kind of symbolic anxiety or guilt at some ancient human conflict between old and new. Perhaps this is a stretch, but I like the idea that grand archetypes originally sprang from a germ of something true.

In much the same way, Murray traces the origin of faeries to a pattern of old, vestigial memories of ancient peoples in Britain. She argues that when Neolithic farmers arrived bearing the seeds of modern agriculture, they would have come into contact with Paleolithic communities who had been here for thousands of years. These original natives lived in simple societies based around cattle herding, but they were not unsophisticated. They would have excelled at certain skills, and it would have seemed to the newly arrived farming people like they were uniquely well adapted to their environment… almost magically so. There would have been a time when farmers and pastoralists would have lived side by side, with enough contact between the two groups for each to develop stories about the other. Of course the farmers outlasted the pastoralists, and history is always told by the victor. In this light, it’s clearly plausible that in recalling the memory of faeries, we’re listening to the most distant echo of a truth.

Although Murray doesn’t make this connection, the clearest representation of this idea comes from the Irish Mythological Cycle, which charts the rise and fall of the Tuatha De Danaan, who are said to have been some of the earliest inhabitants of Ireland. Following their defeat by the more cosmopolitan Milesians, these god-like people were mythologised as faeries, complete with their sacred sites, their cattle herds and their brilliant craftsmanship. Further afield, the original South African Saan people (bushmen) were similarly revered as magical after their traditional homelands taken over by Bantu people who expanded south more than a thousand years ago. Maybe the invention of faeries is just one way through which people experience the overlapping of cultures.

If this sounds far-fetched, remember that it was Shakespeare who introduced the idea of faeries being anything other than normal human-sized. The image of the pint-sized Tinkerbell is even more recent, and when you dig into Yeats’ documentation of faery culture, it seems like size is almost irrelevant. Some faeries are small and others are large. Even the sidheog (little fairy) grows bigger when you get a proper look at it. In the same way, all this stuff about fluttery wings and magic wands is just Victorian confection from a time when old men took an uncomfortably detailed interest in young girls.

Chased back to its roots, most original Western folklore experiences faeries as magic people; frequently the fragmented or declining remains of older civilisations defined by a specific proximity to nature. Murray goes too far to endorse this idea, and she even suggests that Paleolithic people literally survived in separate communities alongside farmers for many thousands of years; she identifies their proto-religion as the root of witchcraft and that’s just not plausible… but it’s not completely rubbish either.

Of course I’m only just beginning down this line, but there’s more than enough here to draw me on.

Calving

Calving started when the rain came, and now I’m underway for the year with three new births under my belt. The finest and most beautiful of these has been a ginger riggit heifer (above), who came without any announcement or fanfare. I walked through the field at midday and saw her mother’s teats looking large and pink. I remarked upon it to myself, but there was no other sign to suggest that progress was imminent. I thought she’d be “soon”, but three hours later my father rang to say that a red calf had been born and was already struggling to its feet.

Since then she’s done well and I’m thrilled with her markings, which are crazy enough to put her formal registration in doubt with the Riggit Galloway Cattle Society. A lot of white is permissible for a pedigree certificate, but this heifer must be getting close to the maximum allowable limit. To me she looks wonderfully similar to the Moiled cattle I went to see in County Antrim last year, and beside every other reason she’s a fine reminder of that excellent trip out West.

Last year I made the decision to keep a heifer back for myself. I chose a lovely beast, but I don’t have space for many more than I have. As this red heifer grows up, there’s a chance that last year’s pet will go to market in the autumn, and she’ll be kept instead. If she plays her cards right, she’ll take her ease on the same old farm for the duration of her days.

Her mother is a beautiful cow; Craig Barbara, who I saw for the first time the morning after a bad storm when all the world was boiling up with fallen oak leaves. I love her, but she’s too easily influenced by stronger characters in the herd. Her simple personality allows her to act like an amplifier so that while she’d never initiate an activity on her own ticket, she’ll often take it further than anybody else. That can be a fault, but I forgive her for this latest calf.

Her father is Godwit, my trusty old confidante. He’ll soon be heading off to pastures new in exchange for a young white bull with red lugs. The swap lies oddly across feelings of regret and excitement.

In Strathdon

I stayed with a friend in a cottage on Donside. He was doing survey work for wading birds, and he’d made the mistake of offering me somewhere to drop a sleeping bag for the night.

I’d been nearby in 2010 for a number of days at work on the hill, but never this glen with its wealth of heavy heather and hares in the sunset. As I drove to the place, I found it lay within a stone’s throw of the famous Corgarff Castle; the kind of building you see on the adverts which tell you to Visit Scotland. I only learned in retrospect that Corgarff is linked to the Marquess of Montrose, who’s recently become a hero of mine. That was frustrating, because all I did was gawp at the place and take photos from the car. If I’d known, I might have gone up for a closer look, but I console myself with the thought that even if you could know everything from a place at first glance, life would be unbearable, chucking matches over your shoulder all the time. So Corgarff is one of many things to see and do again.

Every time I use my sleeping bag, I resolve to destroy it. It’s hatefully uncomfortable, and a community of mice used it for digs when I was a student. But the heat of my hatred fades in the day. The fight goes out of me, and the bag always survives until the next time I use it and the hatred is rekindled anew. So I hardly slept a wink, and it was two o’clock the following morning with a drab light guttering in the curtains when the curlews began their day, and in such numbers I can hardly set them down. Their calls were a constant contact reassurance between themselves, and long displays grew to a crescendo by three when the blackgame joined them and I sat up in bed to catch a glimpse of a lek by the river below the house. I looked for some time, assuming they’d be half a mile away or more. In reality, the closest bird was in the garden beneath my window. That made me jump. I realised I could’ve touched him with a scaffolding pole, and dawn was still so far away that his tail shone baby-blue in the darkness.

It was hard to sleep after that. I lay in my “bag” and watched the day come on, listening to the birds call and once I heard a shower of rain which came down from the glenhead like a train over many minutes, rushing past the house and smudging the windows with runnels of sleet. I realised that I’m used to hearing curlews complaining, or in some state of anxiety. That’s reflected by their calls, and I’ve begun to think of waders speaking in jagged and staccato voices. But the stressed-out birds I know from home are merely responding to the many pressures they face. Those Donside birds are cool and easy. There are two gamekeepers in the glen, and everything in their favour. They sang for the pleasure of singing, and the descriptor I could not shift was confidence; what confidence they had to sing like that, never caring that they’re a red listed “priority species”.

By six o’clock the leks were boiling down and the curlews off to work. I later learned that there are more curlews nests in this 30km2 glen than in all the 650km2 I counted in Galloway this spring. It’s not even a ridiculous density here. They do even better in other parts of Angus and Aberdeenshire, but this made a startling comparison against my own place where I nearly roll my truck in the ditch every time I see birds standing by the road.

The curlews were grand, but I was more fixated on the blackgame; birds which have passed beyond the point of no return in Galloway now. I make a grand fuss of curlews, but I can’t forget the fact that blackgame were always first and foremost for me. They vanished here, and I only approached curlews because they were second best.

In many ways, curlews are a better bird to stir the popular imagination and raise the alarm for conservation. They look right and feel like they should belong here. Everybody’s heard the call of curlews, even if they hardly care for talk of birds. But blackgame are a harder sell. They’re too outlandish and extraordinary for this place. Nothing comes close to them, and even if you live near these birds, the chances are you’ve probably never seen them. It’s fair to say that a decent lek is one of Europe’s greatest natural spectacles, but it’s not always available to passers-by who choose to keep more normal hours.

Blackgame are amazing, but just like any novelty or point of curiosity, they lack the common touch. When curlews decline in Galloway, it can be explained as something of us that we’re losing. When blackgame decline, our sorrow is tempered by a sense that perhaps they never really belonged here anyway.

I loved those birds in the predawn Highland glow, but when I heard them calling, I thought of my own place, which has fallen almost silent. I remember the long-gone leks right here where I’m standing now, and it’s a sad day when all you have to balance the loss of a species in one place is the consolation that they have not been lost everywhere. Because until very recently, blackgame belonged to Galloway in a way that felt very pressing and close. Now they’re just lovely birds flying in a place I hardly know.

National Park

In a recent poll to identify the best place for a new National Park in Scotland, Galloway beat a number of other options by a country mile. That poll was more like a rhetorical device than any real attempt to measure public opinion, but it suddenly seems like we’re first in line with a real chance of designation fast approaching.

I did some work for the National Park Association several years ago. They’re good and they want the best for this place, but I don’t hear much support for the idea from people I meet and work with nowadays. In fact when it comes to farming friends, I find a fair measure of opposition to the idea, and many people who didn’t even know it was up for discussion. Perhaps the arguments in favour of a National Park are clear for tourism, but the case for other industries is almost completely unmade.

There’s no question that Galloway is under terrific pressure right now. The landscape is falling apart, and biodiversity is in freefall. Working with the two other National Parks in Scotland on a range of projects, I have often looked enviously at their access to support and resources, but these places were designated as National Parks to protect them from their own success as tourist destinations. Galloway has the opposite problem; there are no tourists here, and the principal threats arise from the ramped-up commercial interests of government backed industries.

I bemoan the collapse of Galloway, but from a strategic national perspective, this place is doing just fine. We pour money into the Scottish economy, and it has suited several consecutive Governments to ignore what that cash has cost the people on the ground. A handful of individuals are making a lot of money out of this place, so it seems unlikely that the Government would create a National Park with sufficient powers to upset that applecart. Talking to employees of the Cairngorms National Park Authority earlier this week, I also came away with a sense that people overestimate how much power National Parks really have anyway. They can focus and facilitate good practices, but this work is based more on carrots than sticks. Discussing issues around the conservation of wading birds in the Cairngorms, it became hard to see how a National Park would help us to address similar problems here in Galloway. Elsewhere in Scotland, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park has failed to conserve wader numbers since its inception, leading to a point where the Authority is now initiating a pivot away from formerly iconic species like lapwings and curlews. I often take too narrow-a-view on wading birds, but it seems clear that National Parks are nothing like a panacea for challenging conservation issues.

Following these concerns, the worst outcome of all would be a National Park in Galloway that is created as an apologetic sop to the southwest. A watered down park like that would be little more than an exercise in branding – like putting icing on a cowpat, providing money to develop tourism but without the power required to create the sustainable future we urgently need. It’s time for a root and branch rethink of what Galloway is for, but in promoting caravan parks and walking routes, the discussion has fallen far short.

At a more foundational level, I’m also uncomfortable with a model which leads us towards a more binary countryside, protecting “good bits” of a landscape and forgetting everything else. Even if a National Park was designated in Galloway tomorrow, it would not cover the entire area. It would fix on the Glenkens or the Dee down to Kirkcudbright; one of the well-provided-for pretty bits where good things are already happening. I live in one of the dowdy bits of Galloway, away from the National Scenic Areas. There’s a nasty sense that if we receive some high-profile designation in Galloway, it will permit decision makers to dust their hands and feel like they’ve done their bit for the southwest, allowing the slightly needy to access resources ahead of the downright deprived.

So far the proposals have been extremely elastic, centring on an attempt to establish the principle that designation is what we want. That makes sense; it’s an open consultation. But recent political developments have brought the issues into very short timeframe, and it’s no longer enough to accept every suggestion of policy, power or proposed boundary with the inclusive but rather vague confirmation that “anything is possible”. I can’t be the only one who finds it hard to endorse an idea before it’s really been blocked into shape, and while clamour grows to claim “our” designation, it’s not easy to see if this is a genuine groundswell of enthusiasm or just something that’s been made to look like one.

Chewing this over, I realise that I’ve moved from initially positive to undecided, and now I find myself a little against the idea. I’m completely convinced we have problems; my doubt is that a Park would solve them.

Church

The church of St Nonna stands on a slope of Bodmin Moor in the lee of trees where the rooks are nesting. It’s a place of delicate beauty and peace, and in the aftermath of rain on Sunday morning there was a smell of wet grass and wild garlic in the hammer of bells. There’s no space in my own head for the fascinating draw of church architecture; of vernacular art and the heavy, hand-carved weight of ecclesiastical furniture. It’s too much for me, and I need another obsession like I need a hole in my hand. But here I go regardless, avidly stockpiling new information about rood screens, reredoses and encaustic tiles.

There’s a wealth of inexpressible curiosity in this church. I could say there’s a Norman font and Tudor bench-ends, but really it’s beyond my ability to explain how all these ancient home-spun parts combined to leave me gawping. In the lull before the service began, I looked back to a glass window set into the tower and watched the bell-ringers working the ropes in a blunt, unmatching syncopation. They’re like wooden dolls up there; two normal-looking Englishers, stripped to their shirt-sleeves and pulling methodically as if they belonged to the mechanism itself. Some people call this a work-out, but all I could think of watching them reach and pull was the way that Herod’s men stuck the babies with an obedient, thoughtless down-strike.

The Gospel came from John 20:24-29 – the bit about “Doubting Thomas”. What better text for me, who set off in this most conservative direction because the main road appalled me. I am not on this path by any grand design; it was a recent act of rebellion, but what extraordinary comfort there is to be found in conversations which cannot be held in any other sphere, and there is too much hurt and pleasure in the world for each person to carry it alone. I’m happy to let ritual and communality bear some of that intensity, and it doesn’t matter to me that my faith is still unfound.

But I even struggle with Doubting Thomas. I call it unfair because when all the disciples saw Jesus resurrected, Thomas wasn’t there. The poor guy only heard about it afterwards, and all he asked was a chance to see what the others had been shown. For that he was cursed forever-after as man who could not accept the Truth without proof, and it makes no sense that the verses should close with praise for those who believe, even if they have not seen. After a story about people who believe because they have seen, the sentiment is oddly contradictory.

After the service, the priest came down the pews and we talked about this wrinkle. I was surprised when he agreed, and comforted by a sense that it’s acceptable to wonder why. It’s reassuring to remember that absolute belief is not mandatory; critical engagement is enough to make new and separate spaces in your head and even they can free you up from the endless heft of your day. Our conversation overflowed in a hundred potential directions as the parishioners mumbled and filed out of the granite doorway into the rainsoaked primroses. He apologised for the modest turnout, explaining that COVID and other causes have thinned the congregation to a skeleton crew; in a wider sense, he also thought perhaps it was time for the church to go out into the community and find a new place for itself, away from the older fortress mentality. I replied that this argument would have better traction in some dull parish like my own where the kirk is plain and mouldy. But the Church of St Nonna is the most spirtitually obvious place I have ever seen, and if people do not choose to worship there then no amount of chasing will catch them. He laughed politely.

Then later I borrowed a pen to scribble down some of the details of our conversation; the ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Easy Discipleship, not because that’s a path I choose to follow but only because the world is just so burningly fascinating, and on a rare peak between troughs, I want to consume it all this morning and now. Having followed up on Bonhoeffer, I am reassured that while faith carries the hallmarks of a stifling establishment, belief can still be a radical act. This is no Nazi Germany, but peace of mind is hard to find these days.