Food Critics

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The daily procession

Our summer’s hay has received mixed reviews from the galloways. Some bales are beautiful and flossy, but others burst apart in clouds of mould like talcum powder. This mould is horrible stuff, and the heifers combine the powder with their frosty breath until they almost vanish behind a smoke screen. I’m assured that it will do them no harm, but this kind of feed is far from ideal.

We knew that some of the bales were damp even as we made them. There was an astonishing variety of moisture even in a small field, and good bales were made within a few feet of poor ones. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to this, but the problems have not been helped by storage. The bad bales have not got better, and several of the good ones have grown mouldy. Some have had to be thrown away altogether, while others have gone for pig bedding. I still maintain that we were right to make hay, but we were very close to the dividing line where the cut grass should have been wrapped and made into silage.

The cattle are fed on a different spot every morning, and it is interesting to inspect the remains of the previous day’s bale when I go out. A sweet bale has often vanished without a trace, but poorer stuff is often visible in tufts and crusts of leftovers. This year’s  haymaking has been hugely instructive, and I continue to learn about winter forage with every passing day – hay is not a definite article, it is a sliding scale running from sweet and pure to lank and lumpen. Galloways are a forgiving audience since they will eat almost anything, but lessons learnt this winter will be hugely useful when the summer comes again.


In the Deep Midwinter

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A marriage of convenience – the covey is held together by a dependence on wheat

The cold weather has come. We’ve seen little snow in this part of Galloway, but the ice bit deep into the mud and the ground was recast in iron. Our fields became a shattered obstacle of rutted ice, and long nights passed in silence beneath a glittering moon. The landscape has been cursed with a brutal chill; a murderous tang which has hunted through the grass and driven off every scrap of warmth.

Daybreak reveals roe deer far out on the open ground, pawing at the grass with their feet as if they can nudge it back to life. Their dark silhouettes are crusted in ice, and this effect is magnified in the bustling of hungry sheep which gather around the house. Feeding them beneath the final stars, I often find their fleeces have grown as crunchy as biscuits. Warm blood courses beneath the skin, and fresh hay stokes the fire.

Shooting last week in old familiar places, we walked up snipe and kicked hares out of the long grass. The ground was heavy with frost – every seedhead was crusted with blue crystals. When they broke from cover, the hares left spurts of spindrift in their wake, and we cheered them on beneath purple, deathly skies of twilight. Few people shoot hares in Galloway, and these cunning old frames have enough to worry about without the added burden of flying shot.

As we walked back to the house beneath the stars, some geese flew inland from the sea. The massive skeins have failed us this winter. Two or three hundred birds pass by now and then in neat lines, but these pale by comparison to the cold weather in 2010 and ’11 when the sky was heavily hung with thousands. Some lines then were two miles long and when they rose as one beneath the moon, the ice rumbled and sang. Migrants move in mysterious ways, and perhaps this tide of birds will rise again before spring.

The partridges have grown extremely loyal. Late season politics have fractured the summer group, but the birds are forced to share a single feeder. There is little space for personal animosity beneath a wheat-loaded tub, and necessity has made grudging bedfellows.

These birds drive home the significance of winter feeding, and it is hard to see how they would survive here without human support. Of course I have taught them to depend on me, but a truly wild covey would have to roam far and wide if the birds were drawing their living from this empty grassland world. As it is, the birds are locked in to the yard and a fifteen acre radius – anchored by a plastic tub. We are their world, but hormones will soon over-ride that loyalty and squabbles will become more savage. Spare cocks will be cast out. Without human support, they will vanish.

They are horribly dependent on us, but this first year will be the worst. We have plans to regenerate some small corners so that the birds have a place to be; our first hedges already have their toes in the ground. There is some great potential here, but habitat is a slow ship to steer. The cold weather is germinating a thousand seeds I gathered in October; the spring will bring fresh young hawthorns and crab apples out of the soil and into my hands, ripe for planting. But these hedges will build tomorrow’s world – cold comfort for the birds of today.

Bull Surprise

The new bull calf “godwit” and his mother (taken in September)

I was confused about dates and got the wrong end of the stick. When I heard that my new bull calf would here in less than a week, I was inclined to panic. I thought I had months to spare before Stonehouse Godwit would arrive in Galloway, and plans were all in place for an easy winter and a gradual lead into spring. I thought I had plenty of time to prepare.

In the event, it hasn’t taken much to organise a reshuffle of livestock. In fact, this self-inflicted shock has been a pleasure. I started this project because it’s a challenge, and I enjoy the occasional jolt. Once I had settled down with a cup of coffee, the shuffle actually seemed quite straightforward; we have enough hay and haylage, and provided the new heifer is kept away from the bull calf, everything should be easy. I’m desperately looking forward to taking on a bull calf, and I hope he will become a project in his own right. I’m now thinking how fine it would be to have him halter trained, and in this respect it’s actually an advantage to get hold of him sooner rather than later.

But at the same time, Godwit will bring me up to eight beasts. This project has quickly become the largest business investment I’ve ever made, and I’ve already spent a dizzying amount of money. Every penny has come from my own wages (with a fair amount of support from my wife), and we have now passed the point at which there is a strain of anxiety to the project. I was always keen that these animals should be more than just a hobby, and my wish will come true with the arrival of this top class pedigree bull calf – I never wanted to be a smallholder, and I’m about to go beyond.

Perhaps I’ll live to regret it all, but I am reassured by the idea that every farm business requires a fair block of capital investment – every business starts with a leap of faith. At the same time, it’s hard to see how any “New Entrants to Farming” can make a start without grant funding or extensive credit arrangements, and I’m lucky that I can draw on income from existing work to get things started.

Perhaps there’s also a self-destructive streak in me. I am determined to see these animals as more than just folly or decoration, and I absolutely believe that they can be viable. A visiting friend from London described galloways as “middle class cows”, reflecting that belties have become a fashion item for a certain Home Counties demographic. I was a bit dismayed by this, because I’m looking at the animals from the other end of the scale. I need to understand how these animals look when finances are tight and calves need to fit in spreadsheets.

And from a creative perspective, I don’t want to write observational anecdotes from some bucolic idyll; “playing farmer” in a sunny field – I want to live in this place as if my life depended upon it – to see where the pinches are and vanish into the joy, misery and boredom of every passing season. That’s when I’ll really be able to write.


The Owl

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A view over the moss from our bedroom skylight

I am of interest to an owl.

His first arrival was inelegant. I stared at the ceiling beneath a mound of blankets and counted the last few seconds of peace. My alarm is triggered at 6am, and it has become a habit to wake a few moments early. I usually lie in the darkness for those hanging minutes, listening carefully for hints of wind or rain on the skylights.

A gentle bump of bone on glass.

I turned my head to see a dull figure flaring off-balance against the glass. A moment’s panic subsided, and the shape settled on the gutter below the window frame. Without my glasses, I narrowed my eyes in the gloom. A grey, headless silhouette bobbed against the darkness, shoulders hunched up to a sawn-off neck.

My slightest movement caused panic – the shape was off again. Grey wings blurred behind the glass, but instead of reeling away across the moss, the owl had simply moved over to the skylight on the landing – two cracked panes of old glass in a cast-iron frame. This window bleeds rust down the plaster and leaks our precious warmth like a chimney – it is a relic of bygone years, and the bird made it a frame.

I lay back and listened to him land on the glass, skidding down the sloping surface like a clumsy child. Talons caught here and there on the cracked surface, and the contact produced a sharp, mousey squeal.

I crept from the bed and peered out of my bedroom door. Viewed from an angle, the window was a navy blue oblong of darkness against a black ceiling. The owl found some purchase in this space. Judging by his silhouette, he was comfortable – he began to preen his undercarriage. He was almost within arm’s reach – I could almost have touched him. I had woken from a feather bed, and the owl’s quiet softness seemed to offer similar comfort. I began to raise my hand towards the glass.

With blasting horror, my alarm exploded and the illusion was lost. I rushed to my bedside table to shut off the noise, but the moment was as dead as a dream. When I returned to the landing a few seconds later, the electric light was on and the glass seemed much further away than it had been. The staircase had been gentle and smooth in the natural dullness, but now it was hard and angular. The bannister vanished mysteriously down into the hall.

The scene was so profoundly changed that I began to wonder if it had all been a dream. After all, why would an owl land on the roof of an occupied house? What business did a bird have to walk on a pane of glass? And yet the narrow, reedy squeak of those talons was oddly vivid.

The day soon intervened, and these half-seen images paled beneath the glare of daylight. I forgot my dream.

But the memory returned as the clock approached 6am the following morning. I tested reality beneath the covers and found the scene had been immaculately reset. With a minute or two to spare before my alarm, I heard small, clattering footsteps on the slates above the window. The dull shape returned to peer in the bedroom window.

I slipped my hand out and crushed the alarm before it had a chance to say its piece. I found my glasses and returned the observer’s gaze. The headless form had eyes and a dark, inscrutable glare. My skin crawled and my hackles rose, but the exchange was strangely hypnotic. He swirled his cloak and vanished back to the slates. For ten minutes, the bird clambered all over my house as if it were merely a large, curiously formed boulder. I lay beneath the covers and followed his exploratory paces with my ears, submitting my belongings to inspection.

When silence returned, I got up and peered out through the glass. This building stands alone in the midst of a landscape dominated by rough grass, marshland and scrub. It is an obvious focal point for a curious bird on his way home to roost. From where I stood between carpet and curtain, I had a view of the moss rambling away beneath a layer of frost. Stars prickled down to the dark horizon, and I shivered. I turned the sense of intrusion on its head. I call this my land, but cornered by the cold and held captive indoors during the hours of darkness, I would soon die here without heavy clothes and burning stoves. I pulled on my dressing gown and decided that if anyone was out of place here, it was me.



Winter Riggits

A couple of heifers against a fine galloway backdrop

The galloways continue to take winter in their stride. A good dusting of snow fell on the hill last night, and the beasts were utterly unfazed when I went out to feed them this morning.

We have decided not to do pregnancy tests. Finances are tight as we approach Christmas, and I found it hard to justify an additional vet bill merely to learn facts which will become all too evident over the next month or two. I can understand why many farmers PD their cattle, but I’m inclined to grin and bear the uncertainty in this first year. Working on the assumption that they are all in calf, the heifers are being carefully fed up as the days continue to shorten. None have shown any real loss in condition and there is still some usable grass here and there, but their hay ration will have to increase if this cold weather is here to stay. I can’t ignore the beautiful circularity to feeding the hay which we harvested with our own hands in sunny September – perhaps it’s a little mouldy here and there, but it’s truly ours.

It’s hard to imagine what farming would be like if you were not proud of your animals and took pleasure in seeing them prosper. My galloways scratch an additional itch because they have a profound connection with this landscape – their ancestors have been reared and bred in these hills for centuries. I never looked twice at cows until a few years ago, but I must admit that these beasts put a swell of pride in my throat.

Decline and Fall

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Galloway’s finest

It has been depressing to read through the black grouse lek survey results from 2017 in Dumfries and Galloway. Figures show that the birds have declined considerably over the past eighteen months, and the number of blackcock has dropped by almost a quarter since 2016. There are now reckoned to be fewer than 100 birds between Eskdale and Glenapp, and while this is certainly an underestimate, the figures provide a fair indication of the population as a whole.

We’re getting it wrong. The techniques we’re using to conserve and improve black grouse numbers are not working. It is unbearably frustrating to see this situation continually deteriorate, particularly amidst high profile/high finance initiatives promising to buck the trend. Fine words are bandied around by all the conservation Top Brass, but there is precious little action once the camera flashes have been packed away. There are some complex factors which drive the declines of black grouse in Galloway, but it’s hard to ignore a few basic issues:

  • A failure to recognise the value of good heather management
  • A disproportionate focus on planting more trees
  • An inability to deliver habitat improvements on upland farms
  • A refusal to grasp the critical importance of real, meaningful predator control

This last point is perhaps the most controversial, but it is ripe for discussion. Predator control is a cornerstone of black grouse conservation, but there has been an extraordinary amount of fretful hand-wringing around this fact. The Forestry Commission explains that “the National Forest Estate is a place where predators should normally live without being persecuted and where predation should occur”, but accepts that some species can require human management. Foresters in Galloway have made the decision to control foxes and crows to benefit black grouse, but a recent Freedom of Information request by journalist Matt Cross revealed that just five foxes were killed in two years (2015 and 2016) on a 1,700Ha site.

The figures are accompanied by a note that “fox control is incidental” to other activities – i.e., the Foresters shoot them when they see them, but do not go out of their way to do so. Of course it goes without saying that the removal of five foxes from such a large area over the course of such a long time will have no impact on local black grouse numbers. It’s easy to conclude that those deaths were more symbolic than functional.

Predator control is not about the annihilation of predators, but a sustained redress of natural imbalance. Much could be achieved if the Foresters engaged meaningfully with predator control and set themselves some ambitious targets. A crack team of SAS snipers, helicopter gunships and drone technology could not remove every last fox from the Galloway Forest. Generations of shepherds and gamekeepers spent centuries trying to kill the last fox in Galloway, and they had access to a terrifying kaleidoscope of weapons. Shepherds even failed when this was all open ground, long before the trees were planted and foxes were handed an impenetrable forest to hide in. Foxes are a fact of life, and let’s not forget that that’s a great thing – extirpation is undesirable and impossible, but we need to have a serious conversation about rebalance with genuine goals, actual strategies and the resources to deliver them.

In many ways, killing five foxes is worse than none at all because it shows that the Foresters have acknowledged the impact of predators – they’ve identified an imbalance and they’ve identified the means of redressing it. They know that the RSPB kills a meaningful (and growing) number of foxes and crows every year and they can’t ignore the sound ecological science behind managing predators. But their response has produced a fumbled token that is neither here nor there – a mere nod towards action. If they are worried about negative publicity, FIVE FOXES KILLED IN FRUITLESS GESTURE makes a pretty poor headline.

Black grouse are vanishing across Galloway, but good thick habitats in parts of the Forest Park have enabled the birds to hold on – for now. Numbers are far more stable there than elsewhere in Galloway, but this is hardly good enough – strongholds serve as a powerhouse for local populations, and the Forest Park should be fuelling large areas of Galloway with dispersing greyhens and enabling connectivity further afield. The shaky stability of the birds in the Park will crumble if they become isolated; the collapse by over 40% of birds outside the Park over the past year is just a taste of what is to come.

Predation is just one of many factors at play. It’s not fair of me to pick on foxes and Foresters – perhaps I’m drawn to the subject because it represents a whiff of human hypocrisy, but the situation is far more complex than any one issue. The governing reality is that despite lots of good work on the ground, we’re failing to prevent declines – Nobody would argue that black grouse conservation is easy, but balance that with the certain truth that it’s not impossible. We urgently need a fresh new approach, otherwise the time will soon come when the last, lonely blackcock will fizzle out in Galloway; just another incremental deafening until there is no sound at all.


And More Mink

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Predator caged

There has been yet more success on the mink front, with another youngster caught this morning on the bridge by the house. It has been surprising to find mink living in such high densities on the river, and it would be interesting to find out what kind of numbers are “normal”. Asking around neighbours, I learned that there was a mink farm in the nearby town in the 1970s, and many individuals managed to escape from their cages during the management of the business. These may have been the original forefathers of the current population, but I think that current high numbers say more about the suitability of local habitat than any historical influence.

Trapping is slow, methodical work. There is little glory or fun to be had, but there is some consolation to be taken from the fact that it is quite easy. Mink are not suspicious or hard to predict, but the satisfaction of successful trapping is balanced by the necessary dispatch of a beautiful and unfortunately misplaced animal.

There is much to be gained from trapping mink. It’s ambitious for me to clear this entire water catchment of invasive predators on my own, but I have been pleased to discuss my progress with neighbours and other local folk – many had assumed that mink had vanished from Galloway, and some are now thinking about running some traps again. It would be nice to kickstart a local eradication programme across a larger area, as this would start to have some really positive impacts for local wildlife.