Bellied

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The tractor’s bellied, and that’s given us work for a week in the rain and driving snow. Perhaps the trailer was too full, and maybe the ground was wetter than we knew – but here’s a fitting finale to the final drills of turnips – work that went on too long and rediscovered the meaning of “shut up and get on with it”.

But even in this irritation, there have been puzzles and ploys to recover the old machine – it’s been something like fun to toy with every angle and ponder the challenge from new perspectives. We’ve brought in support from other tractors and winches across the glen, and we finally fell to digging about the sump with spades.

I gather there are geese on the bottom fields; greylags rumbling in their hundreds above the floods. But I can’t see a thing from under the cast-iron hull of a Massey Ferguson 565.

Goshawk

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This has been a winter for woodpigeons. They darken the sky in their shoals, and I can stand back, complete a task and look up again to find the same flock still passing. They turn and drive above the hill, and the twig stems bend beneath them. I mark them well in their own right, but also because there are goshawks riding amongst them.

I don’t know when goshawks came here. I’m told they were absent for a long time, and now they’re back. I began to see them ten years ago, but I couldn’t swear against the possibility that they’ve been here all my life. We’re quick to claim authority over these things, and it wouldn’t be the first time that humans have mistaken invisibility for absence. It does us good to be wrong, and goshawks are well equipped to subvert analysis. I like to think they never left, but we lost the knack of seeing them.

And there was a hawk yesterday afternoon in a bright, soundering sun. Pigeons strove out of the beechwoods as I came by on the tractor, and she passed below them – not hunting; just moving away from me like everything else in that flat sky. There was something clean and shipshape in that bird against a fan of prey and panic and the steam from cattle backs and the fallen rain rising in sunlit sweat from the forest.

You can’t love a goshawk. That’s not how they work. But in glimpse and crossed-path, there’s something just as strong.

Fox Drive

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Cattle come thundering over the rain and the hay blows ahead of them to snag on the wire and fly like a riot in the trees. When all is fed and the tractor returned sweating to the shed, we meet at the hill-road for a drive or two at the foxes. There’s fag smoke and plastic mugs of coffee in the back of a pickup; gunslips slick with mirk and dog slavers, and bulbs of rain running round your bunnet brim.

It’s a rough piece of ground, this, and there are few other ways to gather up the foxes here. You can hardly shoot them with a rifle, and snaring’s been made so hard that nobody dares try it now. But these foxes have to go, and the keeper’s a good man so we pitch in beside him. He took on this ground a decade ago, and he’s slowly conjured up some blackgame from the final dregs. That makes this place special in Galloway, and the birds are a constant well of pride for him. I count seven cocks on the lek in May, and that’s a good number for us. But a jolly wobbler in springtime is not free; birds depend on him to do this kind of work on days like today when killing foxes is the final thing you’d choose to do.

We line out and make a stand in the lee of dykebacks and slaebushes. We’re black and glossy in our oilskin hoods and the rain drives on in a reek of tobacco and dead grass. It’s just a line of men and dogs ahead, and they walk with their bellies bagged out in the wind. A few woodcock slide away from the trees like scraps of wrappy old sacking. They’re off downwind and no sooner gone than a pair of roe deer come out and by us, tossing their heads and hating the water. We crouch and lie and steel ourselves against the creeping rain as it runs down the ribs of our guns and lies in beads like frogeyes. The skin of our hands is white and puffy as towelling.

The first drive is a blank, but we find two foxes running together in the second. And they only come when a pair of blackcock have risen up from the myrtle and hurled themselves along with the rain. One passes me at head height; I watch his tail trail behind him like ribbons; eyes wide, beak open and pounding like a cormorant. Smirk, wink and nod him past – I’ve seen these two boys before.

It’s become a joke that I never shoot the fox. I’ve stood a hundred days like this and only killed him two or three times. Folk laugh that I should leave my cartridges at home, but I did that by mistake one time and guess where the fox came? Gunshots come flat and drab from down the line, and I look over to the heather and the purple run of birches. Two of them killed in the rain, carried by the tail and slack as jackets. Remember it’s eight weeks till the curlews come; this is a good piece of work, but somehow more important to see your neighbours and remind yourself that you’re not alone in this stifling hurl of coughing cattle and blue dusk.

New Year

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The sun came up and found the old place lying as it always does in a mess of salt water and granite. Judging by the hazel banks and the fingery stems of the myrtle, you’d hardly know a thing had changed since yesterday. Fair enough, there was a din in the darkness towards midnight – I’ll give you that. Fireworks sprayed a mess of colour into the low cloud, and teal flew noisily off their pools in panic – but that was a moment’s upset in a night like any other.

I was down on the merse to see the morning. Flights of wigeon came in to roost on the mud, and the tideline was marched with a million dainty footprints. This creek lies in a brackish dead zone between fresh water and the sea – when the tide rises, the river runs under it and the channel flows two ways at once. When I was a small child, I stood on the steep banks and saw a long-dead calf floating out to sea. I watched until it was out of sight; and then an hour later, it came back again on the rising tide. It was fascinated by it, trying to imagine that weightless existence, rising and falling in daylight and darkness like the doings of a diaphragm. I suppose that it sank in the end and its meat rubbed up and down the same mile of mud, crowded with eels which trailed like ribbons in the tide.

Redshank came hunting through the black rocks, and a greenshank among them; big and well-jointed with an upkick in his bill. He walked and sought until a sparrowhawk dropped down from an ivied bough and razzed up behind him. He didn’t like that one bit. The two of them rushed away around the bend, and the greenshank shrieked and cried hell until he was out of earshot.

By ten o’clock, the cattle were being fed to the tune of a diesel engine. We’ve brought a washed-out, shattery world into this New Year. There’s nothing much to praise or be proud of in the deadness of hedges and rainwater which seems to stand in every rut and hoofmark. Low sun, blue cloud and then a steady roll back into darkness again. A thousand pigeons came up from the beech trees and battered away to another empty wood somewhere else. There’s been a goshawk going about, but she saw no reason to be seen today.

I’m never sure why I write this blog beyond the pleasure of writing. Sometimes I cast my eye back and recall some moment or other in these articles, and that can be a useful nudge for me. In writing this and recent posts, perhaps I’m marking the depths of a dire winter, which can be hard to imagine on a summer’s day. So a word to my future self – when daylight comes again, love it.

Summer Evening

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Cows put through onto new stubble above the sea

It’s a hard to keep your chin up at this time of year, and that’s when things are going well. This winter has come blue and godawful, and it’s tough to find daylight in a relentless screed of dusk and rain. In moving some old files, I stumbled upon a photograph which I took one August evening more than twenty years ago. For a few moments I was there again, and how I gasped to feel the daylight again.

I seem to gripe in my writing that time has served us ill – I’m a bugger for the “good old days”. I usually try to fight the idea and keep it under, but it’s Christmas and surely I’m allowed a swell of nostalgia for half an hour?

Because that was a summer of sunshine, and I spent it with hardly a care in the world. My uncle had grown fifteen acres of spring barley, and it was cut in the snarling heat of an August morning. The harvester was a grand yellow machine which whirred up the crop like a dryer. I was allowed to drive it once, and felt the tap-tap-tap of engine hands and pummelling pistons. The back field was clear by lunchtime, and I was free to lay out some pigeon decoys and try for a bird or two as the men gathered and regrouped and moved on to a different field. Cows were put through to clean up the margins, and then the field was mine. For some reason, I took a photograph of the beasts as they fanned out and began to sift through the remains of the crop.

Barley stubbles crackled like old tape in the sunshine. I’d made my own decoys out of plywood and cardboard, and each one was hand-painted to varying degrees of success. They crouched and made dark shadows as the sun moved past the vertical and began to pitch away. In those days, the back field ran into moss and moorland; streaks of gorse and birch which seemed to run far into the blue distance. And below it, the field rolled away to the sea and the simmering tide.

A few woodpigeons came in the mid afternoon, but they were only dribs and drabs. I’d stripped off to my shorts and lounged barefoot in the stony grass, listening to test match cricket on a pocket radio. A brood of grey partridges came through a lunkey in the dyke, and I heard them chirruping in the dust. It was absurdly hot, and I was drunk on the smell of honeysuckle and buttery gorse.

I could’ve lain like that forever when the pigeons began to focus, and soon the trickle became a flood; I stirred powder smoke and gun oil into the scent of the afternoon. One bird was stung and floundered on the stubbles. It began to shed a drift of white feathers which can arouse suspicion amongst incomers, so I stood and carried the gun out to catch it and keep the pattern tidy. But for all I walked in plain sight, the birds seemed to ignore me. Two more came in as I stood among the decoys, and I dropped them both. Then others came, and I fell at last to sitting in the midst of my pattern, shooting just as hard as I could to keep up. Something in them was blind to the reality of my presence; they were in a mackerel frenzy, and there was nothing I could do to put them off. I’ve never seen it before or since, but twenty birds were felled in half an hour before sunset; every one low and fast as a driven grouse.

At last the evening seemed to creep home. I built my bag into a pile and smelled that warm, dusty reek of pigeons about me. There was no way to carry two dozen pigeons, so I tied my shirt into a rucksack and loaded them up inside it. With bootlaces around my neck like Tom Sawyer, I walked down to the seaside with the sunset behind me. Red-letter-days are easier to see in retrospect, and it’s often the case that we only know what we have when it’s gone. But I seemed to know even then that the warmth of that day would hang upon me for the rest of my life.

The Trouble with Ecotourism

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It turns out that I’m an ecotourist – I’m one of those people who travel around looking at nature.

Ecotourism has come into sharp focus over the last few years. We’re trying to get a feel for how we can monetise natural assets, and the idea of ecotourism seems to be a nice fit. Conserve and protect wildlife, then charge people to come and look at it. It’s a clean, easy model which promises to protect nature by giving it a financial value – but it’s not straightforward.

Perhaps I’ve still got the scent of a recent holiday in my nostrils, but it was interesting to see ecotourism “in action” earlier this month. It’s fair to say that Poland is not a popular holiday destination for most British people, and Bialowieza is all but unheard of here. But if you’re in the know, that place represents the crown jewels of European nature. Popular writers and activists frequently clamour for a wilder Britain, but it’s surprising how reluctant we are to go and look for wilderness in other countries. It’s an odd quirk of Britishness that we could be standing in a host of wild and tempting places from Finland to the Dolomites within half a day’s travel Heathrow, but we prefer to stay at home and complain that we don’t have wilderness in the (much less accessible) Scottish Highlands.

Bialowieza was dead and sorely quiet. Fair enough, it was winter – but this is only a small town with a hotel and few guest houses. I paid a Warsaw-based tour company to take me out there, and I was guided by a man from Krakow. We stayed in a budget hotel with all food included, and any drink had to come from an Off-Licence over the street. If I had to work out the total amount of money I left behind me in Bialowieza, it would be less than forty pounds. It so happens that I’m a sucker for tat – I wanted a bison keyring and a coffee cup. But I could not find even so much as a postcard in the village. I couldn’t spend money, even if I wanted to.

The point was driven home when, on our last night, the owner of the hotel came and asked if we would like to join a “casino night” held for locals in the bar. Our guide said that we would be up early and that it wasn’t for us. The owner laughed, spread his hands and said “you always bring such quiet guests!” And in that, he raised a fair point. Because without casting aspersions about my fellow eco-tourists, we’re a quiet bunch. We aren’t likely to be up all night partying or hitting the shops and splashing the cash. I dislike the expression, but we’re pretty tight-fisted. We eat packed lunches from the hotel and when we get back from the hills, we stay indoors with our wallets in a safe. The same was true on my recent trips to Croatia and Finland; ecotourism may bring people into remote places, but it’s hard to get them spending when they get there. Some ecotourists tell themselves that they are being virtuous by supporting conservation projects, but many (like me) are secretly pleased to find a cheap holiday.

In some ways, I feel the same about the ongoing community bid to buy part of Langholm Moor and manage it for ecotourists. Langholm is a harder place than most to monetise wildlife because most of the “best” spectacles can be seen from the main road. Perhaps you’d pay a guide to take you once, but when you’ve worked out where to go, just park up and open the window. Maybe a few more people will stop in cafes and bars for a scone, but will that really offset the cost of buying the place?

I’m used to thinking about sporting tourists who travel around to shoot. They pump money into the local economy, and because they’re out for a luxury experience, they pay over the odds for it. There aren’t many of them, but they punch well over their weight. If ecotourists spend less, perhaps the answer is to have more of them. But then there are other issues which relate to volume – having travelled through National Parks in India and Africa, volume of visitor traffic is a problem of its own. When wildlife becomes a gimmick and an accessory, it becomes hard to engage with it. The tiger I saw at Ranthambore found it difficult to burn bright as he was overlooked by a convoy of squawking tourists.

We were unable to stay anywhere peaceful and calm in India, so our bedroom overlooked a swimming pool tiled with a tiger design. It seems worth remembering that in a bid to protect and conserve nature, ecotourism can drive change like any other industry. Closer to home, I have fond memories of visiting Mull as a teenager, but I hardly recognised the place when I returned three years ago – this was the legacy of a ten year project to rebrand the place as “the eagle island”. It’s no better or worse nowadays, but it is undeniably very different.

Meanwhile, the spread of eagles into other parts of Scotland begins to raise questions about the sustainability of Mull as a tourist destination. Why travel all the way out to the West Coast when you can see a sea eagle in Fife (or even the Solent?) A friend who has runs a red kite visitor centre for the last twenty years has seen his profits tumble as kites become well established across the UK. People used to travel for miles to see his kites. Now they can see their own kites at home.

Ecotourism is going to be an important part of how we value and monetise landscapes in this country and abroad, but it’s hard to see it as a standalone industry or a panacea for settling the business bottom-line. It needs to be carefully integrated into other revenue streams and managed sensitively alongside a variety of interests. And without wanting to end on a bum note, if we want to cash in on the general public’s love of nature, we also have to make sure that the public does love nature – which is something we often take for granted.

Native

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Thrilling to find that the cover has now been finalised for my book, which will be out in the spring.

The artist and designers have put in some great work on this, and it’s fun to see riggit galloways proudly rendered on the cover. There has been some really positive feedback from people who have received early copies to review, but I can hardly help but wring my hands and wonder how it will go. Despite having been here before with my first book in 2012, this represents a serious upsurge in oomph and enthusiasm; who knows what’ll happen next.