Ploughman

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Then came clear skies and a cool easterly wind. It was time to plough, and I turned to the stubble field with mixed feelings. Last year’s oat crop has exceeded every hope and expectation I could’ve held for it. It’s impossible to overstate what a boon this field has been for wild birds, even since it was first ploughed fourteen months ago. In a landscape of improved grassland, these few small acres have been a magnet for wild birds. I can’t point to any formal monitoring or survey work, but I can say that I’ve been rocked on my heels by the quantity and variety of wildlife I’ve seen in the oats over the last year.

The tractor ambled into the field and flushed two dozen skylarks from their pickings in the weedy residues of last year’s crop. There were pheasants and partridges in the close-nipped spread of old litter, and they rushed for cover as I lowered the plough with a wince and began to ruin that enormous bird table.

The oats were an accident. I always wanted to grow turnips in this field, and I bought all the equipment I’d need to make that happen in the autumn of 2017. But then I realised that you can’t drill turnips into freshly ploughed grass. I’d have to grow something else for a year until the old turf had rotted away, and cereals were chosen to fill a gap at short notice. But now I’ve seen the staggering power of oats, it seems almost impossible that turnips can ever live up to them.

It’s easy to plough in a stubble field. The soil has nothing to bind it together and so the ground boils up in a crumbly mess as you pass. It’s not pretty, but I flew through the job and was done in a few hours. Of course I hooked into a few new stones and brought them up like snarling ogres in my wake. Some of these could be manhandled out of the way, but others will call for a hydraulic lift and I had good cause to remember the warnings of ploughing too much, and the risk of lifting stones which might otherwise lie unwoken. I even wondered if the work of ploughing was overkill. I have a cultivator which might have done the job of weeding just as well, but then I remembered the patches of oats which were left unharvested and knew that they’d have to be properly buried to keep the new crop clean.

I kept these stubbles for as long as I could because I knew they’d be valuable for birds in March and early April. Most people plough the stubbles in after harvesting in the autumn, readying the ground for winter crops. The difficult reality is that my field was only bearing a crop and pulling its weight for five months in the last fourteen. If this was only a commercial operation, I could hardly afford that idleness. So the last few oats were buried underground at last while curlews sang in the high skies and a pair of short eared owls circled on the edge of sight. I couldn’t hear them above the tractor’s din, but I imagined the sound of their clapping wings and the deep, drowsy hoot of the yellow-eyed birds.

I left a few thin streaks of the old crop to see what will become of it, but the majority is dark and fresh. The larks instantly lost their love for that place, and now they scurry like mice in the unploughed margins. But the lark’s loss has been the wagtail’s gain; the crumbly furrows are filled with nodding white faces, and the wheatears are piqued by the possibilities of bare soil. And less than twelve hours later, I’ve found the dusting bowls where pheasants and partridges have already bathed.

Here is my greatest weakness. I’m working a three phase rotation on a single field; oats, turnips and clover. If I had a dozen fields, I’d stagger that pattern so there would always be somewhere for birds to go. I’d be able to sustain the larks and the lovers of weeded stubble and bring turnip lovers along with me too. I suppose the larks will now dissipate and I’ll see a boom in some other species, but I’ve been forced to trade some birds for others.

And now the reality of this work is more compelling than ever. See what I’ve been able to do on a single small field, then expand that to a farm. Then expand it again to a parish or a county which nowadays lies in an unbroken mat of monotonous, nitrogenous grass.

There’s no mystery in the decline of farmland birds.

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Late Snow

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It rained before the snow came. The place came up dank and scenty, and the ground was thick with dribbling water. I walked on the edge of darkness to see the cattle, and I shoved my way through a mass of livid smells. There was a din from the flowering currant in the yard, then oil and diesel both beading on the tin tank lid. I passed the burn and caught the tang of cold water in a rush of new nettles, and soon I was dodging through mounds of buttery whin pollen and up to the flat, rank batter of cow shit and sugar silage.

They were buried in a swirl of their own breath, and only the calves turned to look as I walked quietly round them. Song thrushes blared from on every knowe like a web of lighthouses, warning me away from the brambles and new rigging of honeysuckle leaves. I stood for a moment and watched a bank of dark clouds teeming down from the north, then I came back to the house where lights made the puddles dance between the granite setts.

I had work to do in Edinburgh the next morning. I was out before dawn to feed the bull and heard curlews calling in the unlit snow. Pairs were singing at the weekend, but now their songs are flat and functional again; contact calls from the winter merse. They’ve fallen out of their pairs into a loose and gangly team as if it were February again – the snow had killed their enthusiasm for this place, and when a fox walked along the rushy pans beside them, he flushed them up in a five-strong swirl. They flew until they were out of sight and the sun peered sickly into the morning like the smudge of blood you find inside an old plaster.

I cradled my coffee and watched the bull pulling oats into himself, then went to catch the train.

Funding Predator Control

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I’ve been looking and back and forth over agri-environment schemes over the last few days. Part of this is for work, but mainly it’s to get a broader understanding of how farmers are being rewarded for the conservation work they do. Under the agri-environment and climate change scheme (AECS), land managers are allowed to apply for a number of options targeted at various outcomes. There are payments available to boost pollinators and rewet peatlands, but of course my eye is always drawn to schemes which support wading birds.

It’s good to know that farmers can claim for some aspects of predator control to benefit waders under the AECS, and this clearly represents progress towards common sense. We now have a vast weight of evidence to show that predator control can drastically improve the breeding success of some waders, and there’s a general direction of travel which has begun to normalise the management of abundant predators like foxes and crows. By allowing public money to be spent on predator control, lawmakers and civil servants have recognised the practice as an important conservation tool.

But at the risk of probing this subject to the point of pedantry, farmers are only eligible to claim money for predator control if they’re also undertaking relevant habitat management work. That makes sense to me, since the two go hand in hand together. But things become inconsistent when you try to reverse that link because you can receive payments for habitat management work without any obligation to undertake predator control.

Most mainstream conservation organisations have stopped trying to increase wader productivity on the basis of habitat management alone. It doesn’t seem to work, and waders have declined so rapidly that we’ve had to take a different tack. It’s pretty unusual for well-funded teams of ecologists and conservationists to produce an increase in waders without corresponding work to suppress predators, so it’s downright ambitious to expect farmers to do it.

Of course it’s wildly provocative to insist that predator control should be a mandatory condition of these schemes. People hate the idea of killing, and the public would be outraged to think of their money being spent on bloodshed and wire cages. It can be hard enough to get land managers tuned into the AECS without this additional burden of death and destruction, so no wonder it’s slipped off the radar. But in terms of incentivising people to kill wildlife, there are some good precedents already in place. If you take money to create a piece of woodland, you can be penalised for failing to shoot sufficient numbers of deer which might otherwise harm the public’s investment. If you don’t like the idea of killing deer yourself, there are plenty of contractors who’ll do it for you – you can wring your hands and moan into the low clouds, but there’s no argument. Lots of work has gone into raising public awareness so that most people can now rationalise the death of a deer to protect a tree, but I’m afraid that we’re still years away from accepting the death of a fox to protect a lapwing.

I’ve got no doubt that the AECS has delivered some real benefits for farmers who want to improve the diversity of their land, but this is clearly an inconsistent approach towards scientific evidence and the hard facts of predator control. Elsewhere in the funding documentation, it explains that you can use payments to buy larsen traps, but not “larsen mate” traps (ie clam traps). “Larsen mate” traps are more controversial and their use has been under review, but they’re perfectly legal and there’s no objective reason why they shouldn’t be financed. It’s just another fine detail which points to the fact that we’re in a grey area. The government has accepted the empirical need to manage predators and now we’re in a process of gentle compromise which factors in less concrete notions of aesthetics and subjective personal taste. 

I describe this as a “direction of travel” because I hope that predator control will continue to be normalised and land managers might be proactively encouraged to do some more of this work. Much of this work is based on education and the proactive management of public awareness, but I just hope that we arrive at that destination before it’s too late to save wading birds.

 

Spring Suspense

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After several weeks on a diet of oatmeal, hay and oat straw, the bull is beginning to take shape. I’ve heard people crooning over their livestock for years and always found it hard to fathom. But now I have a bull of my own and I’ve worked to feed him into fitness with the sweat off my back, I know that pride and understand the power of it. This beast is mine and to me he shines.

His first calf will be born in the next few days, and the suspense is a torture. I’m starting to realise that farming is basically just a highly stylised form of patience, and waiting for the calving to begin has ground my teeth down to their stumps.

I’ve got high hopes that his first calf will be a nicely marked riggit, but these beasts don’t always breed true. The calf might be white or black or somewhere in between, and I love that unpredictability which harks back to the days before breed societies and pedigree certificates. It must be dull to work with other breeds where you already know how the calf will look before the bull has gone out, and that’s one of many reasons why I reckon riggit beasts trump other kinds of cattle.

And if we get a well-marked calf, it’ll represent some slender thread of resumption. It’ll probably be the first riggit born on this place for a century, and a reminder that these animals are nothing new here in Galloway. I have fingers so tightly crossed that the nails have gone white.

Mink Boom

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We’ve had a strangely active year for mink on the river below the house. The traps have been working busily since the start of January, and one in particular has caught eleven mink in three months. That’s a fair number of mink by anyone’s standards, and there are five really notable things which are worth recording from this trap –

  1. The months between New Year and Easter seem to be the most active for mink. From what I can gather, males will travel long distances to find females, and nine of the eleven mink I’ve had in this trap have been males. I hope this means I’ve created a black hole into which mink from a wide area have been vanishing. I used to have a large number of traps all along the river, but I’m starting to think I can do more good with just one or two well placed traps. It takes time to walk around and check a large number traps all day, so if mink are on the move, why not let them do the walking and come to me?
  2. I can be pretty sure I’ll catch a mink after heavy rain when the river is up. I think that mink probably prefer to clamber up and down the river bed, but when the water level rises, they’re forced to move along burnside bankings and tow-paths. There have been two or three times when I’ve lain in bed at night, heard rain lashing against the window and correctly guessed that I would have a mink in the morning.
  3. The mink I’m catching are steadily getting smaller and smaller. When I started, I caught a series of monstrous mink, one of which was twenty seven inches from nose to tail. These beasts made for an imposing sight, and some of them were as hefty as a housecat. Now I’m catching mink which are only around twenty inches long or less, and I begin to wonder if I’ve killed off the dominant breeding males in this area. Without the big hitters, younger mink are coming in to look for territories and getting caught themselves. This lends weight to the “black hole” idea, and I hope it means that I’m really making some good progress.
  4. Of these eleven mink, five have been silver and the rest were the classic “black with a white chin”. At first I thought that silver mink were a minority, but as I continue to catch more and more animals, I find the balance is beginning to even out.
  5. I caught a pregnant female last week. Judging by her progress, she would probably have been dropping her young in a month. There’s very little information on feral mink populations in the UK and I can’t tell if this is to be expected, but birthing in April certainly makes sense.

Mallard are down on their nests and the riversides are steadily refilling with grey wagtails, dippers and kingfishers. I can’t afford to take my foot off this progress, and it’s strangely comforting to find this work comes so easily. These mink have been bizarrely straightforward to catch, and I reckon a child could have gathered up as many (or more) as I’ve had in the last three months. I’m used to working hard on trapping, and most of my time is spent winkling out canny foxes and crows. It’s always slightly stunning to find mink blundering into traps like drunkards, but I’m certainly not complaining.

Pat Scratchers

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Caught brown-handed

I don’t want to dwell on cowpats, but it’s interesting to follow the gathering momentum which now stirs around the oat stubbles where some of our beasts are being wintered. Alongside hay and a ration of rolled oats, the cattle are being fed on a sheaf of whole oats every afternoon. I’ve written before about how this has led to oats passing through their guts to re-emerge in the cowpats, and I’ve gone into graphic detail recording how larks and buntings then gouge into these steaming heaps and dredge out the seedy goodness.

But now I see cowpats actively being pulled to pieces and raked apart. Tall, sponge-cake stacks of cow shit are being shredded, and at first I wondered who the culprit could be. The damage was too great for a lark or a starling, and the devastation spread scraps of muck over several square feet. It was only this afternoon that I realised a pheasant has learnt to rake over this bounty, and he’s capitalising on the spent grain.

I’m not sure how to feel about pheasants per se, but I’m encouraged by the foraging habits of this bird. Firstly, pheasants now occupy the niche which used to belong to truly wild game like partridges and black grouse. So while it’s a bit of a generalisation, the fact that a released pheasant is pecking at those cowpats seems to confirm the traditional rumour that wild game used to do the same.

It’s also interesting that it’s taken this bird almost four months to pick up this habit. That nudges at something I’ve been feeling about farming and wildlife for a few years; basically that much of what we recognise as “traditional” wildlife behaviour was actually passed down as a form of heritage between generations of wild birds.

I’ve spoken to lots of people who used to see black grouse feeding on cereal crops in the 1960s and 70s. When cereal crops vanished from the hills and the birds began to decline, many of these people put two and two together. Hoping to do their bit for the birds, some of these folk planted small patches of cereal crops which were explicitly designed to help black grouse. I tried the same myself with the turnip fields I planted for black grouse in 2013 and 2014, and I hoped that the birds would be buoyed by the resumption of old agricultural methods. It turned out to be a complete failure.

Of course the truth is that black grouse have no genetic affection for cereal stooks or turnip fields. They gradually learned to feed in these unnatural places, and adult birds passed the habit on to their youngsters. When farming ran at a peak for wildlife, birds knew exactly where to be and when. Then farming changed and the birds were jolted out of that pattern. Cereal stooks vanished, and birds stopped seeing corn dried in the fields. Many of them “forgot” how to use these places, and it’s no wonder that the link was broken. I’ve got no doubt that black grouse would learn to use cereal crops again, but it would take decades of persistent work to reignite those old habits. The oat stooks are a tiny example of a much bigger two-way relationship which has totally collapsed, and it’s naive to imagine that it will just pick up where it left off.

To some extent, the same is true with this pheasant. We often look back on the “good old days” when farming traditions supported a wide variety of birds and wildlife in the countryside. We farmed according to habit and heritage, but we often overlook the fact that birds exploited those habits with a heritage of their own. A hundred years ago, every farm in this parish would have been feeding horses and cows with whole crop cereals for at least part of the winter. No turd would have been left unturned, and every bird would’ve known where to look. Now it takes a single pheasant four months to come up with the idea of thumbing through a cow pat, but that’s how traditions begin.

Spring Counts

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My wife’s dog flushes a pair

I did a quick loop around the hill this afternoon, counting grouse and checking on their progress before breeding begins. It seems that what we lack in numbers, we’re making up in pristine quality. I only found a handful of pairs, but the birds were glitteringly perfect and strong. They’ve a good deal of progress to make up after last year’s failures, but it was grand to hear them cackling beneath a growing spread of skylarks and pipits. Our neighbours were out and burning, and the smell of heather smoke washed across the open ground until the hill was giddy with spring.