Happy New Year

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A view across rough country

I can hardly resist sharing this photograph of our farm and the surrounding landscape to celebrate the New Year. The picture was taken by a drone when we were making hay in early September (hence the tractor working in the paddock by the house), and it provides a good overview of this piece of country, from the moss to the heather hill.

This scene sums up the classic rough Galloway landscape where I was born and brought up. Not a single day goes by without pausing to reflect on what an extraordinary privilege it is to live and work here – even on the bleakest, foulest night of sleet and low cloud, I am painfully in love with this place. As far as I am concerned, there is nowhere finer on Earth.

I have so many new plans for the coming year on this ground and nearby, and I can’t wait to document it all here. Thank you to everyone who left comments and notes of support in 2017, and I hope that you’ll continue to enjoy Working for Grouse!

The Shortest Day

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Drab and bleak from the kitchen window, but change is on the way

After a cold fortnight, the shortest day broke mild and grey.

I peered through an open window in the darkness. The morning felt warm and some geese were passing in the cloud. Fields clicked and chattered as they drained the night’s rain, and drips plopped off gutters in the yard. A pair of tractor headlights moved on the distant hill, and a single snipe called noisily – a harsh, rasping sound on the edge of music. Our cockerel answered from the shed, and his din made the tin roof ring.

Snipe vanished from the glen when the weather was cold, but they returned within hours of the thaw. I took the dogs to check my snares before breakfast and found the half-light filled with noisy waders.

Our stretch of the river was straightened many years ago, but the labourers were unable to iron out the old bends. The river now follows a perfect line through the dark soil, but you can still see where the old waterway used to play in swampy, tangled loops. Heavy rain can bring the old river back to life – subtle contours flood again and become strings of narrow pools; pouchy old veins which bristle with reeds. While the new river rushes water briskly out to sea; the old one hoards the rain and refuses to let go.

Snipe cluster in these haunted, sodden corners. The dogs flushed thirty birds from a short section of the pools as the day brightened. Drainage tiles were arranged across these fields to bail water into the river, but after years of service they are beginning to fail. The terracotta pipes are breaking and the water has started to flow backwards. Without urgent human intervention, the river will begin to resume its ancient course – the snipe pray for regression.

The bull calf bellowed when he heard me after breakfast. His shyness has vanished, and he feeds from my hand. A metal bucket is his dinner gong, and he tossed his head when I stepped into his line of sight. He views the world through a square cinderblock doorway as if it were a cinema screen. The day flickers in a sequence of polaroid photographs;  alternating phases of blue, grey and darkness. But he can watch the wild swans on the silage fields, and his nights are haunted by the comings and goings of owls.

Everyone agrees that he’d be better outdoors, but there are advantages to this early confinement. He might roll his eyes and moan, but there are worse places in this world and he can settle here without coming to harm. Dull days and low cloud have reduced him to a dark silhouette against the straw. There are no electric lights, but we can see that he has a fine head; it is heavy and square like a belfast sink. The curls grow so thick on his brow that they swallow my hand to the wrist. It is hard to find fault with him.

A starling died at noon. I watched the peregrine peeling its corpse from the kitchen window as I fried an egg. The day was already over, and the fields began to recede beneath a veil of thin, chesty cloud. Later I would find most of the starling’s skull amongst a mess of feathers – a glossy ball which reminded me of a cape gooseberry; a discarded garnish.

Darkness is relative in a world without light, but night fell with a rush of wildfowl. Wigeon whooped joyfully in the deep blue, and snipe and teal flared over the sheds as I chopped firewood. I ducked under the low lintel of the byre and scratched the pigs between their ears as one of the owls drifted by outside, skirling noisily into the smirr. Swirling rain danced like smoke in the light of the kitchen window and lacquered the granite setts of the yard. It was only four thirty. A vixen screamed for attention on the moss. The dogs coughed a response for a moment, then jostled past my knees and back to the hot stove.

From this distance, summer feels like another place. I can hardly remember cuckoos or swallows, but the darkening has now slipped into reverse. Months of gradual compression will now begin to relax, and daylight will leak back into our lives. The first larks usually sing on Valentine’s day in Galloway – less than eight weeks away. It will be several weeks before human beings can register the lengthening days, but the shift has been clocked by others.

Oddballs in Strange Places

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Sunrise over the farm in November

Our house has received mixed reviews from the local tradesmen. This building required a good deal of work when we moved in, and all kinds of people have been up to the house over the past six months to provide quotes and services. Few have been able to resist passing comment on the place, and fewer still have had anything positive to say.

General opinion was summed up on Saturday by the postman, who shook his head and asked me how on earth we could live in a place like this. When I replied that the small inconveniences of life here are vastly outweighed by the many advantages, he asked incredulously if I actually liked living here?

From my perspective, this place is not very remote. The nearest town is three minutes away, but there is an illusion of isolation when you drop off the main road and cross the bridge. The house beckons from the track, but the landscape is instantly broken and slashed by slabs of bare granite and the silhouettes of ancient thorn trees. The bumpy road may terrify the postman, but it’s very much in keeping with the character of the place, which probably hasn’t changed much in appearance for a century. The yard is built on a knuckle of stone, and the rough hill runs right to the back of the sheds – it’s an abrupt immersion into the countryside, but we can still hear traffic from the road some nights when the wind is in the west.

Talking it over with a friend from Jura, we agreed that there are few places in Scotland which could be described as truly isolated, particularly in a historical context. The word has merely become a synonym for “awkward”, and in a world of mild weather and super-convenience, the bar has shifted. Today’s “isolated” pales by comparison to stories from my grandparents who farmed near Tweedsmuir in the 1920s when the hills could be placed on “lockdown” for months by bad weather. People depended upon forward planning, and communities were proud of their stoicism, resilience and independence. Now we tut and moan if slushy snow makes it tricky to park our cars.

I was a little taken aback by the postman’s comments. Part of me wanted to go to his house in the town. I wonder how he might have responded if I had curled my lip and said “I don’t know how on earth you can live here” – but surely it’s better to turn a blind eye – to be an object of mild curiosity. With every comment like this, I begin to feel that I’m in a tiny minority, and perhaps this is a good thing.

I daresay that many people would like to come to this house for a holiday; for an escape from reality. But while this might be an “escape”, the idea of living here would be laughable for most. And I can hardly complain, because I would not be here myself if this land and this life had any popular appeal. When the time came to make an offer on this house, we came within a few pounds of our absolute final limit. Even typing those words gives me a cold shiver of what might not have been. The smallest financial increase from another interested party would have blown us out of the water. Luck, hard work and generous families played a part, but in many ways we bought this place because nobody else wanted it. There are advantages to being an oddball and prioritising curlews above bin collection.

We are longing for the swallows to come back, but we consider flocks of wild swans to be a fair swap. They preen and doze on the fields below the house, and I can hear their wings wailing at first light. My roots grow deeper here with every passing day.

Bracken Control

Bracken spraying
Bracken spraying

I know precisely why bracken control is a great way to spend time and money, and I applaud my neighbours for their strenuous and commendably successful bracken control programme on the hill above my house. But I must admit that the sound of a helicopter landing and taking off more or less in the garden all afternoon was quite tiresome.

The Song of the Corncrake

The sound of the summer
The sound of the summer

Only with a heavy sigh can I cast my mind back to precisely this day last summer when I arrived on the Isle of Tiree. It turned out to be the best holiday I’ve ever had, and the four days spent prowling over the beaches and through the hayfields with binoculars, sketchbook and camera rank as one of the most satisfying and wholly peaceful periods of my life.

The stars of the show were inevitably the corncrakes, which haunted the knapweed and lurked beneath the lolling docks as a mild Atlantic breeze came combing through the beached wracks of meadowsweet and cow parsley. The promise of these unassuming birds was enough to draw me off the mainland to this arable slab, ringed by a shark infested moat of turquoise water.

Despite the corncrake’s long absence from much of mainland Britain, the scraping sound is hardwired into our congenital experience of the seasons. Even if you have never heard it before, that distant scrape soon wins you over like an old friend.

The loss of these birds has not been final. As the countryside changes and once familiar birds grow strange and exotic, their contribution seems not to vanish. It lies latent; inactive in our brains. In the case of the corncrake, it seems possible that the incessant, powerful throb of sound has been forcibly drummed into the very psyche of Northern Europe, so that we still know them after generations of absence.

When you hear a corncrake for the first time, the novelty is quite arresting. You wonder aloud “what kind of extraordinary creature could be responsible for such a racket?” The sound inspires mental images of a dull, monstrous insect, crenelated with serrated edges and sharp, exoskeletal fins. At close hand, the scrape becomes an threatening roar which raps on your lugs and makes your chest rumble. The beast is sinister in his lair.

After a few minutes of intermittent calling, the noise becomes familiar; assumed into the repertoire of the “known”. On Tiree,  it provides a welcome structure to the chaotic throb of drumming snipe and squeaking redshanks; as reliable as a clock in a train station. When the blue dusk gathers over the swirling grasses and the birds begin to call, your mind accepts this extraordinary sound as if nothing in the world were more appropriate or fitting to hear. Safe inside a darkening stockade of toothy iris leaves, the corncrake noisily pursues his objectives, stalking beneath the heraldic origami of fist-sized yellow flowers.

Visitors to the Hebrides joke that corncrakes are a beautiful novelty which quickly fades once the bedside light goes off. As a teenager working on the Hebridean island of Scalpay, I would curse the sound which came to life for the few short hours of rest between long shifts on the boats. After all, these birds will call throughout the night, with a sonorous peak between midnight and dawn. For many, the sound precludes relaxation. On Tiree, it haunted the borderland between consciousness and sleep, and bound itself to the silence. When a corncrake stopped calling, I woke with a start, appalled by its absence.

The sound is not consistent enough to be peaceful. It varies, pauses and changes its rhythm. Usually delivered in pairs, the doubled calls periodically shift to become raking monosyllables, broken by pulses of silence. Perhaps there is a pause before the double calls return again, or the blend can be seamless. As the bird turns and scrapes, the pitch and volume alters slightly, forming phrases and sentences which are countered by brief full-stops. The human brain longs to find patterns within the relentless quotation, and the bird teasingly offers them time and again, always defying the listener with a change on the very moment of understanding.

You probably didn’t hear a corncrake calling in the darkness as a child when you woke up sweating from a nightmare to find that you had tossed the covers angrily off the bed. There was probably no sound and a dull, pallid glow of dusk or dawn, and although you longed for sleep, you felt your eyes blink easily in the stuffy mirk. But if there had been sound, it would have been this; this timeless, instinctive monologue delivered from bird to man for as long as either have existed; a panting file on a stone as the stars silently twist and fade into dawn.

Peat Cutting

Hard work in the sunshine
Hard work in the sunshine

It was a stunning afternoon to be up on the hill taking the first cut of peat for the year amidst rumbles of thunder and a riot of skylarks. Green hairstreak butterflies lingered in the milkwort, while a blackcock blazed casually past in the stillness. The moss itself was breathing the warm, soft smell of the hills, and the only thing taking the afternoon seriously was a stunning carabus nitens beetle (I looked that up), which was a frantic, furious blur of iridescent green and red through the heather.

I must say once again how excellent my peat spade is, which was bought on ebay and had its origins in the Isle of Man. Over an hour or two, we cut out a stack of peats and then turfed the rest so that it will dry before the next cut. Fingers crossed for a good few weeks of sunshine and warm wind.

A fantastic Carabus Nitens beetle
A fantastic Carabus Nitens beetle

The Awful Hand

 

Looking South to the Spear of the Merrick from the side of Kirriereoch
Looking South to the Spear of the Merrick from the side of Kirriereoch

While staying up in the Galloway hills before Easter, I had a spare day to stretch my legs on the renowned and spectacular Awful Hand, the famous range of five hills which runs parallel to the Rhinns of Kells. Many of the Galloway hills have fantastic names, and there is something hellishly inspiring about a line of mountains which lies spread across the wilderness like a broken fist. This is the world of the Wolf’s Slock, the Dungeon of Buchan, the Murder Hole and the Devil’s Bowling Green, where Norse words have blended with Galloway Gaelic to create a vocabulary that is suitably harsh, wild and remorseless.

The southernmost peak of the Awful Hand is Benyellary, which lies above Glen Trool and provides a gateway to the Merrick, Scotland’s highest mountain below the Highland line. North of the Merrick lies the vast and little known Kirriereoch, which runs to the heights of Tarfessock and ends with a flourish on the massive hump of Shalloch on Minnoch. These five hills are monsters in their own right, but walked together form a considerable challenge, particularly when you begin from the North and attempt to climb the almost vertical face of Shalloch from the East.

After an hour’s approach, Shalloch began to gain altitude amongst the rough grass and heather. Pipits and wheaters bobbed cheerily ahead of me as I laboured beneath the boiling sun and peered enviously over to the snow on Kirriereoch and the Merrick. Stripped almost to my underwear, I accumulated the kind of sunburn that would have made David Livingstone wince as the altitude gradually rose and the gradient with it. Pig headedly pushing upwards over the scree, I sound found that I was using my hands as much as my feet, and for a few breathless seconds I clung to a vertical grass slope and realised that there would be nothing to break my fall for over a hundred metres.

Not being fond of heights, I almost froze. There was nobody else to help within three miles and I felt my fingers dig into the shining, crackling grass like a limpet. There were perhaps only a few feet vertically up until I could claim the safety of a ledge, but it felt like a long distance indeed. A raven clocked greedily as I began to flounder. It was only with a tremendous amount of focus and concentration that I managed to close off the wider world and turn my universe into a few square inches of grass and cowberry. By slow progress and a great deal of whimpering, I soon flopped down as a quivering ruin on the first piece of almost level ground I could find.

Looking down the East face of Shalloch on Minnoch immediately below the summit does not make my ordeal look all that challenging, but finding yourself alone on that sliding grass is not an experience I’d choose to revisit. I had a mental image of a friend who works for Mountain Rescue peeling me off the hillside from the winch of a helicopter, asking me why I was stuck to Shalloch on Minnoch without a shirt on.

The summits of these hills are blasted clean and clear, and once on the tops, the walking was then more or less like a snooker table. I marched clear across Tarfessock and up another somewhat nerve-wracking scree bank onto the rounded table top of Kirriereoch, which offered some stunning views over to the Merrick from the North. The sun blazed down and the wind was wholly absent. I could hear ravens clocking hoarsely hundreds of feet above my head. Gazing over at the shocking cliffs of the Black Gairy, it occured to me that I had been walking for five hours.

Having already bitten off more than I could chew, I decided that I had no quarrel with the Merrick and decided to return via Macaterick Hill along a tangled ridge of heather and moss. I had filled and emptied my water bottle a dozen times, and the twelve mile round trip was starting to feel like a death march. Even on these staggering slopes, some poor worthy of yore had been tasked with building these dykes which still criss-cross the landscape. Many stretches of drystane wall were perfectly intact after centuries on these windswept slopes, and I wondered at the enterprise and skill of the men who had put these stones in place.

The great appeal of the Galloway hills is that, on the whole, there are no paths, steps or waymarkers to help you. You use a map and you follow the tracks that the goats and the deer have left. Deer in their multitudes stirred out of the peat, and as I paused for a second by a dark and extremely lonely lochan, I happened to look up as a cock merlin came searing over my head at extreme height, chittering noisily and then falling into a vertical plunge which brought it just a few feet away. The falcon’s shape vanished somewhere in the heather below me but it returned a minute later; the hen skimming silently away while he whipped circuits around a large loop of ground like a frantic tern; a blue body and a small brown head eyeballing me closely. I withdrew, stepping quietly backwards and turning at last to find a dark spread of water behind and below me, dotted throughout with islands and boulders; as wild and as magical a spot as any in Torridon, Caithness or the Outer Isles. I heard the distant swell of loons on the quiet water, then set my course for home again.

These hills are a world apart from the rushy expanses of the Chayne and my life in the marginal moors between upland and lowland, but there is something of home about them; a small, wild highland in the heart of the lowlands.

The Home Team

A blurry picture from earlier in the week, but almost precisely the same angle as the bird I saw this morning.
A blurry picture from earlier in the week, but almost precisely the same angle as the bird I saw this morning.

After all this rushing around to the leks over the past few weeks, I finally found time to walk my own ground on the Chayne at first light this morning. I haven’t been seeing very much black grouse activity over the past few weeks on my quick trips up to check traps and keep an eye on the partridges, so I was delighted to have a blackcock fly past me twenty five yards away and land up on the hill as I headed out for a walk before sunrise.

He began to bubble lustily in the gloom, filling that small corner of the farm with a sound that has been sadly lacking since the death of my favourite bird in March 2012. He had landed on a very obvious prominence in the moss, and after ten minutes or so, a buzzard glided down to move him over and claim the stone for itself. The blackcock flew a few yards further up the hill and became invisible in the heather, but I could hear him calling for another quarter of an hour as I wandered up the hill with the rifle on my back. I don’t know precisely where this bird has come from, but I have a feeling that he is somehow involved with one of the greyhens which hangs out on the western boundary of the farm.

I sat for some time watching a particularly foxy corner on the back hill and daydreamed about a roe buck which was standing in a recently ploughed area of new forest on the neighbour’s ground. Far off in the distance, a cuckoo called; one of the first of 2014 and certainly the first that I could hear clearly. Pipits and larks were locked in titanic battles amongst the cottongrass flowers, and on the walk home I found a male emperor moth amongst the heather. I have never seen a male “in the flesh” before, and although he was smaller than the female which I photographed in 2010, he was all the more spectacular for his rusty hind-wings and purple tints. His “eyes” even had a touch of white light in them, making them seem almost real. I should never walk the Chayne without a camera, since just as I will never see another cuckoo chick as close as I did last year when I didn’t have my camera, I doubt I will get such a close look at a male emperor for some time.

Down on the lower ground, the curlews and snipe were mewling and drumming away in fine form, and I stopped to add another piece to my letterbox trap which I am gradually building around a pheasant hopper which has become a magnet for some of the many non-territorial corbie crows which are going about on the inbye fields. Bit by bit, the trap is coming together, until it will be finally set and the birds will find themselves in and unable to get out. On the final half mile to the car, I heard my first grasshopper warbler of 2014, trilling dryly from the rushes. I am very fond of these odd little birds, and the sound was enough to finally convince me that winter is over.

A female emperor from 2010
A female emperor from 2010

Late Planting

Trees in the bracken
Trees in the bracken

This year’s planting programme on the Chayne has been held up by my extended absences at the leks, so I found a few hours the other day to put in a load of trees on the back hill in an old four acre dyked paddock which has been overrun with bracken. This is perhaps not the best site on the farm for black grouse, but the fallen bracken always holds a woodcock or two in January and it could do with a facelift. Some extremely old oak trees are dotted around inside the enclosure, and close inspection reveals that these trees are trying to reproduce. Unfortunately, the smothering effect of the bracken kills off most of the saplings each year, and the few that survive are strange, lanky creatures with a tuft of two of leaves at their highest points.

Planting trees amongst bracken is a much under-rated means of controlling it, since as soon as the trees develop their own canopy, they start to inhibit its rampant growth. In the primordial days of yore, this shading effect was probably nature’s way of keeping on top of the species, and it is certainly more practical as a control measure from my perspective since it creates the kind of scrubby, brackeny undergrowth that is favoured by many upland birds and beasts. This area of the farm is particularly bare and barren, nibbled and browsed to within an inch of its life throughout the year by sheep, so I hope that an oasis of scrub woodland might add some conservation value. The trees were sourced quite cheaply from a forester contact since it is obviously getting late to be planting, but a mix of birch and rowan will easily be capable of dealing with the hostile growing conditions created where bracken rises and falls five feet each year like a monstrous tide.

Some people have commented on this blog that much of the work I am doing is eligible for state funding – it is, and I am as keen as the next man to allow the government to pay for black grouse conservation, but I am constantly amazed how reluctant some people are to do anything at all unless they are fully compensated and repaid by the taxpayer. Much of the work I do on this blog (including buying these trees, guards and stakes) is paid for by money from my own pocket because I see no reason why anyone else should pay for it. This wood has only cost me a couple of hundred pounds and it will benefit this area of the farm. Simple, and cheap at the price.

When I have told other local famers and landowners about my work, they’ve asked what grant scheme allows me to do this and that. When I’ve told them that I pay for things like this myself, they almost laugh in my face, and I have to wonder about a grant system that has become so all-consuming that the very idea of reaching into your own pocket to fund improvement and alteration has become a punchline. I have been told by a local farmer that he wouldn’t even put a fencepost in the ground to fix a field boundary until the subsidy cheque had cleared. This is hardly my idea of land ownership, and while there is every reason to engage with the grants system for large scale, expensive or long terms projects, I am proud that little odd-jobs and chores here and there are my responsibility, and I will use my own initiative and finance (modest as it is) to get them done.

I’m already looking forward to walking it out with gun and dog.

Galloway Wildfire

The inevitable Easter weekend wildfire on the banks of Loch Doon
The inevitable Easter weekend wildfire on the banks of Loch Doon

Having spent the past forty eight hours in the Galloway Forest, one of the most striking things has been the fantastic weather. Walking the Awful Hand yesterday (of which more to come), the bright sunlight stripped the skin off my nose and left my forearms glowing angrily. The sky was clear from Arran to the Lake District, and most crucially of all, the heather and white grass was tinder dry. It was quite alarming then to head back to the bothy and see a gathering number of caravans, campervans and tents being set up for Easter weekend, each one with its own camp fire and barbecue tossing streams of sparks and cinders into the hot air. In fact, it was rare to see a single gathering of cars and people without a fire in their midst, and I had a great opportunity on the way home this morning to see a group of kids ripping down a live rowan tree and setting it on fire next to a gathering of tents. There was an audible and active black grouse lek within sixty yards, but as I got closer, I heard that they were playing dance music so loudly on their mobile phones that they would never have been able to hear it.

The general public often feels an inherent need to light fires in such situations, but with the heather and blow grass literally crackling with the desire to burn, it seemed like a matter of time before something was going to go wrong. As I doubled back around the top of Loch Doon, I watched a load of people getting out of a minibus and running down to the loch side. A quarter of an hour later as the same layby came into view again from the Carsphairn road a few miles away, a large fire was already out of control. I pulled over and watched from the roadside as it burnt off the best part of ten acres of heather and myrtle, gathering momentum and fanned by a Southerly wind. It had been inevitable, and there was some irony in the fact that I had been talking with friends about previous wildfires just a few minutes before.

The Forestry Commission actively encourages visitors to this area, and laybys and campsites are engorged with tourists who are set upon burning things. There may well be restrictions or guidelines on fires in place, but I was there for two days and never saw anything stand out in terms of signage. There were no visible Foresters driving round supervising the situation, and the impression was rather like a free for all. A patronising sign by the side of the road read: “This is your Forest Park – what are you going to do today?” The unwritten follow up was “why not light a fire while you think about it”.

When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, when a fire gets away, you can hardly blame the people who set it. The responsibility has to lie with the management of a massive area of moorland and forest which has next to no consideration of fire. Some of the heather in the Forest Park is the rankest I have ever seen anywhere, and with the exception of a few fiddly stabs here and there with a tractor flail, it is uniform in its mismanagement. Well maintained fire breaks and internal infrastructure would limit the damage that Easter wildfires could cause, but these are either totally absent or neglected so far as to be useless. Fortunately, the population of the park is so small and the buildings so sparse that a fire will rarely have an opportunity to harm human beings, so to an outsider like me, the attitude towards wildfire seems strangely inviting.

The concentrations of black grouse are gathered around previous wildfires, and the leks move around in the aftermath of the blazes as the new growth creates a honey-pot of fresh heather. Not only does this demonstrate the value of doing something with the undergrowth, but it hints at the possibilities for biodiversity in the area. If the hills were properly managed, there would be more blue hares and grouse, meaning more keynote species like peregrines, eagles and harriers which the public has every right to expect to see on ground that is managed in their name. Even the easy, accessible areas are not managed, and I even struggled to find breaks around the specific hotspots where fires must be lit every night of the summer.

As I headed back down the road to Carsphairn, the wind carried the fire further and further over the hill. I don’t know what has become of it, but I would assume that it was broken by the road after a good run for an hour or two, toasting out the birds’ nests and maybe singeing some wool here and there. No doubt someone will be blaming gamekeepers.