Fence Restoration

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Vestigial remains of a long-dead fence.

Low Airie, Glenkens – 5/4/20

It’s no small job to resurrect the boundaries around Low Airie. It’s taken me a month to repair a mile of drystane dyke, and now I pause to consider the prospect of restoring almost a mile and a half of tired old fence which runs along the top end of the moor. Most of this fence has completely collapsed, and the busted remains are almost useless to me. Many of the fenceposts can be repurposed, but this was a seven strand plain wire fence, and the wire itself has spooled and fragmented into crazy rotten curls which spring around in the grass like fighting snakes. Long stretches are badly overgrown by bracken and willow scrub, and you often need to look very carefully to see where the fence used to be. It’s a nightmare, and I must confess that I am daunted by the sheer enormity of it.

Then there are cundies and watergates to consider – not only has the fence collapsed, but the old wooden infrastructure has simply mouldered away into thin air. There are no pretty slats or rails to mark the burns and bogs which lie across the fenceline, and I will have to rebuild everything from scratch. Perhaps this sounds like a complaint, but I do like this work. It’s hard and steady, and it’s very satisfying to do it well when you turn and look back upon laser-straight wires beaming across the landscape.

I’ve opted to make the best of what is already on site, strengthening it with a single line of barbed wire and an electric strand above it. That amounts to just over three miles of wire which needs to be cleared, strained, fastened and pinned into position. The electric wire has to be insulated and protected from twigs and branches, so I have been working the chainsaw and hauling down great arms of willow and birch to clear the way.

I’m reminded how weak and idle I have become over the last few months spent lurking at my desk, and it’s humbling to discover that I can only work at this job for three or four hours before I am utterly spent and gasping. I’m told that the cost of handing this job to a contractor would run to almost ten thousand pounds, and given that I don’t receive any payments for this place, that is out of the question. It’s simply a matter of rolling up my sleeves and getting it done. I saved up some cash to see this job through, but a thousand pounds is quickly frittered away on posts, rails, wire and larch rails.

It is an ancient tradition to send cattle out on the hill at Mayday. That seems like an ambitious goal, but I’m determined to see it through. On the positive side, I can occasionally pause from my work to listen for blackgame displaying on the greens above me, and there is always some excitement or intrigue to recover in payment for a day spent in rough country.

Approach to Calving

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Courthill, Buittle – 5/4/20

One month away from calving, and things look promising. The cows are full, and a few have begun to show a “vessel” in their udders to indicate that time marches on.

Having stumbled through two calvings which were staggered, delayed or problematic, I would love to think that things will be brisk and straightforward this year. It would be a fine thing if all the calves were born in a single three week window; if they arrived at the perfect moment to catch and be away. May feels like the right month to have calves, but in previous years I have stumbled all the way into July with slip-ups and latecomers. Perhaps it’s just blind optimism, but I hope things will go better this year.

In recent weeks, the cows have been on silage that we made in November; the grim, sloppy stuff which made me squirm when it was cut because the ground was wet and the crop lay in the frost like mush as we waited for the baler to come. These bales have been hard work to lift and feed. Some are tolerably sweet, but others are brown and foul like rotten sacking. It is a horrible job to make late season silage, but feeding it out is almost worse.

It won’t be long until there is new fresh grass, so I try to focus on that instead.

Work and see the weather come

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Work and see the weather come. See the cloudscum run above the far hills, then trace it down to fall in the turns and the darkness of a long-bent river, deathly deep.

Look up, look down, look back and everything has gone in less time than it takes to think it. Creamy plains of moorland grass are boily in the rain. The dyke which ran for a mile and more has been foreshortened by the wet wind as it flows from the west. Skylines fade and shuffle like cards in a pack as the hours flood and the work melts beneath your hands, and you feel indoors although it wasn’t long since you looked at the sky and failed to find the end of it.

The myrtle buds were burgundy red before the rain ruined them, and the as-far-as-you-can-see draws out and in again like a breath. Bearings fade until you can’t remember where you came from or what comes next. Just rain which plays on your cuffs and runs to the cups of your knuckles; soundless until it falls off your back as if it needed your help in noise-making.

Ducks are on the river and the smirr has burred their wakes. They cackle and blare, and through the rain there is light on Blackcraig and the stones are already drying there, five miles away. You begin to feel like this is only happening here as the clouds roll on towards the east and the ducks are flushed again on a fresh lap of the bog, thrusting and squirming like darts above you; pressing in the rain above the willows and the reedheads like blasted flags, and you have time to think of their safety when a goshawk comes for one of them.

Who knows how that chase ended. Who knows anything in this weather.

Fox Theories

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 2/4/20

I’ve now been working at Low Airie for a month, and it’s been fun to get a feel for the place. Between golden eagles and greyhens, there is plenty to think about on the hill when silence descends. I realise that in all the intrigue and excitement of this place, something is missing – I have not seen a single sign of a fox.

Under normal circumstances, I would expect to find signs, scats and tracks in the long grass, but there has been nothing. I have set my trail camera in what I felt would be a likely spot to find a fox, but it has revealed little more than a robin along that path in a fortnight. Before I start work each morning, I generally pull up the truck and watch the hill with binoculars for half an hour with a mug of coffee. Patient observation would surely have turned up a fox on any other piece of ground by now, but they are strangely absent here.

I could read this in all sorts of ways. It’s tempting to think that foxes are scarce where eagles are hunting. Eagles regard fox meat as a delicacy, and perhaps the local foxes have grown tired of watching the sky for signs of danger. But then I realise that any fox worth his salt would simply avoid hunting during the day when raptors are working. And nocturnal foxes still leave signs and scats to indicate their presence, even if you don’t see the foxes themselves.

A more realistic explanation lies in the condition of the hill itself. When I walk out to work on the dykes, I trudge through tussocks of grass which are almost waist high. My dogs try to bound and hunt ahead of me, but they soon drop back and I find them walking to heel. There are very few tracks or paths to follow when you’re out in the open, and most are made by red deer. These are deep, pockety trails which actually make life harder for the dogs to follow than if they just pushed through virgin ground. I start to reach the conclusion that foxes are missing because this place is such a mat of thatch and undergrowth that they simply cannot work with it. Besides, why should a fox bother to fight through tussocks which stand over their head? The chances of finding a greyhen or a grouse are slim, and there would be no chance of pouncing an ambush without an awful lot of tell-tale rustling. The hill is full of mice, but these are being eaten by an array of raptors which can drop in from above and don’t care a damn about thickness and tussocks.

I suppose this roundabout thought process leads me to an odd conclusion. I’d like to break this place up over the coming years. My cattle will help to smash up the dense beds of deep grass and they should do a power of good to help the black grouse, but I can’t ignore the fact that the balance between predators and prey has currently reached a steady equilibrium. A paltry handful of black grouse work away where they can, and they’re safe from foxes because their habitat is such mess. That could be a good thing for them, but I simply cannot understand how any young chicks survive at all in this place in its current state. Cattle will surely help increase brood size and survival, but as soon as I open up the habitat and make it better for black grouse, I start to make it better for foxes too.

I have to balance this concern against the reality that predation is rarely the sole cause of decline. I have to balance any advantage to foxes against the enormous benefit I’ll give to the birds. Some predator control is being undertaken on the wider estate, so I have to trust that what I’m doing will deliver more good than harm.

Publication Day

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Publication day has finally arrived, and not without a few moments of jittery anxiety…
a sincere thank you to everyone who follows this blog or drops in from time to time – every visit/comment/note of support has helped along the way!

Under normal circumstances the book would be available in your local bookshop, but buying it direct from the publishers is a good second best – follow the link https://birlinn.co.uk/product/native/

I’m allowing myself a half-day to put my feet up before normal service resumes…

Dry Days

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The Chayne – Parish of Kirkpatrick Durham – 1/4/20

The hill is hard and powdery. A wind hangs in the north and brings us nothing but cold. It’s hard to tell how the returning curlews have fared because they hate the windchill and the dryness. I see them sometimes, but they are wary and cool in the middle distance. I walk near them and find their white rumps coasting above the deep grass like strangers. They should be displaying by now, but the days are grey and we are all trapped together in stasis.

A month ago, the hill was loud with the din of drumming snipe. The dryness and mud-crunch has reduced those birds to a skeleton crew, and it’s strange to ponder what impact this weather will have had on those birds which chose to breed early. In previous years I have found snipe chicks in the first week of April, but I would not fancy the chances of chicks which emerge onto this parched hill. Under normal circumstances, snipe gather steady steam from March to June and reach a peak in mild showers and the powers of forget-me-not. But this year gulled them with the promise of wetness and mud before turning traitor. Many birds will have started a process which they now can’t finish, and perhaps early nests have been abandoned as the adult birds head away to find softer ground. If it rains, they’ll be back – but these second-chance springs are never so productive as those which sweep in a continuous play of warmth and moisture.

Of blackgame there is no news. It is too early to say how many cocks we will have this year, although the chances are that it will be none again. Greyhens have passed all winter, but nothing grand and blue to shout about. I would feel despondent, but I am often stunned by the way blackcock seem to appear as if from nowhere in the last week in April. So against the odds, I will keep my fingers crossed.

Still More Dyking…

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Some parts of this job are harder than others…

Low Airie, Glenkens – 31/3/20

There have been times when I have imagined that the restoration of a badly crumbled two hundred year old wall is eminently doable. I bite off three hundred yard stretches in a single morning, flinging up the fallen stones and repairing sections of bent or crooked boundary as if it were light work. It’s fun to fly through those lengths of standing stone, and I feel like the way ahead is brisk and easy. I have a month to go before the cattle come, and I’m tempted to say that I’m right on schedule.

And there are other times when progress is so agonisingly slow that I wonder if I will ever be finished. I came upon a very badly damaged section yesterday (pictured above), and it took almost five hours to rebuild just a few feet of dyke. Most of the work arose from having to recover stones which had tumbled into boggy ground, and each one had to be dug up from a black, peaty soup with rose above the height of my welly boots. To compound the difficulty, each one was wrapped into a coarse, canvassy mat of grass roots which bound them together as if they had been stitched. I actually had to cut some of them away with my penknife, working eighteen inches under water and soaking my arms to the bicep.

The result was not pretty, but in working and churning the ground, I realised that this is a very wet area of the hill. I can’t imagine that cattle will linger here, and the dyke exists simply to provide a visual deterrent and the illusion of impassibility. If they wanted to cross here, they probably could – but I am relying on the fact that they have a great deal of space and no real reason to press the issue.

I often marvel at the beautiful straightness of old dykes, and I associate that precision with the old-fashioned love of tidyness and clean lines. The reality is that a straight and mathematically perfect stretch of dyke is stronger and lasts longer. A little chink or a missing topstone seems to invite exploration from sheep or cows, and they are inclined to peer over it. In peering, they rub the other stones and loosen them. A dyke begins to die the day a single stone is lost, and in no time at all, the whole lot has crumbled.

For all I focus on livestock, it’s interesting that many of the worst breaches have deer tracks leading through them (just visible in the picture above). There are red deer in this place, and they always choose the easiest path across the open ground. But then I begin to wonder what came first – the deer tracks or the dyke gaps? Were some of these crumbly chasms opened up by deer in the first place? It wouldn’t take much for a heavy stag to touch a stone in jumping and thereby loosen it. The same action repeated many times over a decade would steadily loosen the entire section of dyke and perhaps deer  played a major role in bringing it down in the first place.

I’m also conscious that this process has not ended. Deer will continue to walk their tracks despite my work, and they will jump my new sections when the fancy takes them. Perhaps it is sensible to mark down the worst sections and keep an eye on them to ensure that they are not rumbled down again. I have similar concerns for the badgers which cross the hill at night. I’ve seen their footprints all over this place, and they are accustomed to crossing the dyke where it has fallen. When they return and find that their breaches have been mended, it’s likely that they will try and scramble over – pulling down stones in the process. I’ve seen badgers climb dykes before, and it’s a clumsy spectacle at the best of times. For all that I have worked hard to put this boundary up, there will also be plenty of work in keeping it up.