Healing Field

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High tide beyond the scarred grass

Two good days on the trot, and a chance to revisit the silage field at the moment of its healing.

I asked a friend to lift the bales and haul them home. His tractor’s bigger than mine, and he has the endless advantage of a front-end loader. So he piled the black bales high on his trailer and hauled them home through the hazel woods. Most people stack their bales into a tall pyramid like a toblerone, but my friend knows that I can’t reach anything above shoulder height with my David Brown. So he lined them out side by side and I’ll pick them when I need them with a spike on the three-point-link, slow and steady.

It was fine to see the field recovering. I doubt it will show much in the way of greenery until the spring, but the roots and the grass seem settled and pleased to have the air around them. This field is the powerhouse which drives my entire project, so it’s fair to give it time to draw breath.

Down on the merse, the tide was high and the water was filled with life. Teal and wigeon purred around in the floody pools, and a line of redshank bawled at me in the scum. There were greenshank too; standing tall and pale in the salty grass. I found the feathers of a greenshank on a peregrine’s perch last week. I daresay that bird was killed in this bend of brackish water and its body was carried away for safe-keeping. Peregrines follow this merse to the sea, and for all the fowl were keen to caper in the sunshine, it will pay them to keep an eye on the sky.

Frost

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I watch two foxes on a clear and bitter morning. They’re waiting for the sun to rise and warm them. One is shady and spacious in the base of a crab apple tree. The other is rude and lairy, rolling in the ice and kicking his black stockings like a pup. They rush and bolt in phases, but the game is distracted by a million tiny warnings. They find it hard to tune out and enjoy themselves. Because there’s the sound of a shepherd’s bike in the dim horizon; pause and listen. My neighbour is shouting on a dog and the sound rings in the stillness; ears cocked. I’d call it peaceful, but they can never let their guard slip.

I’d usually run for the rifle at times like this. But I’m indoors, sitting with my legs crossed on the windowsill. It’s not often I would pass up this kind of opportunity, but now it’s fine to see them flail in fits and starts; a secret couple frisking in the ice.

Golden-eyed and glaring, an owl moves vaguely into the long grass and begins to hunt. I remember that it’s time to get the day started.

A Decade Past

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It’s been ten years since I started out on this path. A decade of working and thinking and trying to make sense of nature in Galloway. This blog began in January 2010, but I had been sketching down ideas for weeks before the first article was published and Working for Grouse was born.

I can tell you that ten years ago today (October 23rd 2009), I was out with the gun pack at Craigenputtock. I shot the fox when he rove out from a cundie at the request of a terrier. I remember the spray of larch needles which fanned around him as he took the shot; how he hunched and rolled and busted the bracken below him. Ten years is long enough to melt an animal’s bones – he’s so far gone, I have no proof he was ever here. Even the trees which stood above him in death have since been felled and turned into railings at an equestrian centre. There are different trees there now.

Maybe it’s humbug for me to affect nostalgia. I’m thirty four years old, and I daresay there will be people reading this who can draw on more than just a single decade of memory. But perhaps even they will remember how it first felt to note the passage of significant time.

And the rest is history. If you were queerly inclined and had a month to spare, you could read this entire blog from beginning to end. There’s a million words and more here, but I often tend to think of things I didn’t write. The missing piece which hangs most heavily upon me was a night in April – I don’t remember what year, but it was early on. I had been ill in bed and woke to find it was late at night. A whole day had passed and I’d failed to get around my traps. Compelled to get up and do the job properly, I staggered to the door with a high fever and stepped out into the dew.

What a night it was; a storming beauty, with stars like steam across the whole damn sky. And the curlews were home, and the snipe drummed like a riot in a relay round and through and up again. Those were the days when we still had enough blackgame to hear them bubbling in the darkness like dafties – true enough, there they were.

The air was crisp and clean and as I climbed up through the lambing fields to see my traps, all the Solway spanned out below me. And being sick and dull and bound to the mechanism of my chore, I hated every damn acre I saw. I hardly heard the birds and thought the starlight was some brutal mockery of my bloodshot eyes and the swollen, pulsey din of a heart in my skull. How I hated this place at that moment of pristine brilliance; and how that hatred transformed everything for me. The hill was unfamiliar; fresh with infinite new potential for darkness and loathing. Flushed and gaping for breath after a steep climb, I paused at a gatepost and spat on the ground in a gesture of fury. I never wanted to see Galloway again.

But I got better again. My fever had gone by the following morning, and I resumed the same old loop around my traps. And I loved it again, and I apologised for my rage. But the wound never wholly healed. This blog often runs a simple strand like a diary, recording the day-to-day doings; the slow acquisition of knowledge. I’m staggered by the ignorance of my early posts; I wonder how I could have been such a fool or misread such obvious signs? But alongside these “nuts and bolts” lies a growing sense that place is hard to fathom, and that rarely gets an airing on Working for Grouse.

People look upon a landscape and say it seems different in every light. They never get tired of it because the same view is endlessly altered by the turn and shamble of clouds. I agree; but I start to think that’s only part of the puzzle. We’re shifting too; rising and falling in mood and manner. If a slant of sunlight can change the way you see a place, why shouldn’t illness do the same and more? How does it seem in love or loss? It took me a dark, feverish night to realise that I will never see everything of these hills, even if I walked the same loop of traps and cages for a thousand years.

So with the childish brevity of a decade behind me, I almost feel like I’m ready to make a start.

Autumn Cut

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Silage was postponed by a fortnight. The weather turned and shifted like a fever, and no two days were alike. When a run of clear sunshine presented itself, I rushed to mount the mower and make a start.

I’ve often wailed with discomfort at the difficulty of late season silage – I’m sorry to cover and recover old ground, but I’m thrown by how far we’ve come from the alchemy of hay. Hot summer sun allowed for the pursuit of perfection; everything clicks into beautiful harmony and it’s a farmer’s job to guide the task. Autumn silage is the prevention of disaster, and if I harp on about this distinction, then it’s only because this job is all about grass, and there’s plenty to curse.

I bought a fine-good Deutz mower in the summer, and now I’ve got the hang of it. I’ve just about learned to skim the blades across the turf and pare away the goodness, but it’s edgy work on wet soil at the end of October. And it’s a heavy machine to pull behind a light tractor, so I’m inclined to raise wads of mud in the wake of my working. Once or twice is almost fine, but when you have to mow the grass, then kick it out and row it again? well, you soon find your nice field has scarred away to a mash of welts and clods. Then your grass turns muddy, and that’s a disaster for the silage because mud breeds diseases and the cattle are sickened with it. So you try and tiptoe through the splashy ground and ditch the bits which come up mushy.

But for all it’s a challenge, I took some rare pleasure in the job this year. I did it well, and I leant on things I learned last year and the year before that. I drove the blades under an evening sky, and I watched ranks of redwings rearing up through a drift of fallen leaves. Out to the merse I found wigeon and greenshank pooling in the pans of salt and brackish water; company for the tractor cab – a fair surrogate for the fun of semi-skimmed sandmartins. Grass will always be summer work, but there are worse things than having it driven into autumn.

Pig Conundrum

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The pigs are giving me a headache. It’s been fun to produce our own pork over the last few years, but there’s an inherent problem with pigs which takes a little chewing.

Pigs grow best when they’re fattened on a commercial pellet, and this stuff comes with a mucky footprint. The pellet I buy takes most of its protein content from soya beans and soya extracts, and most of it is shipped into this country from South America. I’m not hugely comfortable with this idea, particularly since the production of soya comes at an increasing cost to the environment.

Most people buy their pigs, buy their feed and put the two together as if they were building an airfix model. That’s not to make it sound easy, but it is fast. Fill them up, turn them over, get them to the slaughterhouse and start again. And if you want to make money, you need to power this system with top-flight commercial feed from Brasil. Compare the process with cattle; in five years, my cows have never eaten anything that I didn’t grow myself.

At first I liked the traditional link of killing pigs in the autumn when they had been fattened on pannage and windblown apples. It’s a lovely idea, but pigs eat enormous volumes of food, so you need a lot of woodland/orchards on your side to do it properly. I give my pigs what natural food I can, but the balance always depends upon being topped up with commercial pellet.

I’ve always wanted to have more input in what my pigs eat. I’m not allowed to feed them food scraps, so I wondered if I could grow crops to feed them. I tried to finish weaners on rolled oats last summer and found that it was impossible. The oats were only part of their diet, and pigs eat, grow and reproduce at such a rate that I simply couldn’t turn out enough oats to get them where they need to be. Now I feed them turnips, but again, I can’t hope to keep up with their appetites. The amount of turnips I have grown to feed the bull over the winter would be shredded by two pigs in a month.

They key difference between my pork and stuff from a more commercial farm is that my animals have a happy outdoor life. Perhaps you can taste that, but it’s hard to overcome the thought that my pork is chemically the same as pork produced in a shed for a mass market. People talk about outdoor pork having special flavour, but if we are what we eat, then outdoor and indoor pigs are chemically identical. Perhaps an outdoor pig will eat a few roots and the odd worm, but that’s hardly enough to hang your hat on when the real work is being done by soya protein.

Back in the old days, pigs would’ve eaten all manner of scraps and waste; the pig’s job was turning loss into profit. Now pigs are targeted with high-octane diets designed to fatten them into volume and weight. But I wonder what those old pigs tasted like, and it’s frustrating that we have no real way to record intensity of flavour. People say my pigs are tastier than shop-bought pork, but I bet they’re nothing like as good as pigs reared a century ago on hazelnuts, tattie peelings and crab apples. And I wonder what those hogs taste like which rootle through the slums of Nairobi and New Delhi?

I have two pigs to kill in the next fortnight. There is no way I can get them to a suitable weight or condition on feed which I produce myself. I could give them what I have and ration it out, but pigs don’t grow if you don’t feed them; at that rate, they would never be ready to kill. So I’ll have to buy in commercial pig food, and then I begin to wonder if keeping pigs is a slightly shameful indulgence, far from what it seems to be as part of a quiet rural idyll. It’s no consolation to wonder how any farm could turn out slaughter-ready pigs off the back of their own labour and make money in the process. Soil Association did some sterling work on fattening pigs on silage, but even that still relies on extensive access to land on a very infrequent rotation.

And in terms of efficiency, there’s no way I can compete with a factory farm which monitors tissue deposition:protein input ratios. My pigs are often too fat when I kill them; the extra blubber is waste. If I was serious about reducing my environmental footprint, I would buy perfectly finished pork from a housed unit. But match that against concerns for animal welfare – my pigs live happy and hilarious lives until their final second.

In all this confusion and dilemma, there’s a growing realisation in the back of my mind that small-scale “hobby” pig farmers like me have a responsibility to balance welfare with efficiency. I’m on the horns (or tusks) of a dilemma.

Coast

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Down to the shore in a westering sun, and what a weight of birds awaited. Curlews stood in every creek and glistening vein of the shore; oystercatchers and godwits and pintail in the marshes where the samphire glowed almost coral pink. It’s some place, this – wild and far-flung in the horns of an old bay where the tide creeps and slides around the rocks and the shore’s a bursting bank of ancient oak and birch. Turn right around yourself and see no sign of humanity; nothing to suggest that man has ever been. This is the coast where vikings came, and I see what they saw as if their sails were shipped on Tuesday last week.

And mallard among them, and a black smirr of newly come wigeon above the battling tide. And when I felt fit to burst, I looked up and found a galaxy of plover in the hanging sky. Golden plover, winking sad like beech leaves in formation with the hills of home beyond them.

Turnips Home

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The turnips are coming in, and I begin to see how the crop has gone.

Some of these roots have swollen into tyrants. They’re bigger than buoys and glossy with hard, purple hips. It’s a two-handed job to lift the best of them, and pounds of soil cling to their beards in a litter of worms and grit.

It’s my job to hook away their roots with a knife. A few brisk hacks will tidy them up, then off with their heads and the shaws fall wet and crispy as salad. Cleaned and cut, the summer plants are transformed into sweet, woody balls. There’s no way for the goodness to leave them now; no root or leaf to leak away the fuel inside. The plants are blind and disembodied; the trap has worked; heat and sugar stored for winter.

Turnips roll in the trailer like beachballs and the mound grows and the tractor taps and puffs in patience. They smell like food to me, and I conjure up a note of old school dinners in the pall of diesel smoke and the blare of mud. There must be a faster way of doing this work than by hand, but I’m happy to take them one-by-one and bring in tons at a time to the clamp I’ve made in the yard.

I was warned to be careful at this work. The knife is sharp and old men’s hands are covered in nicks and slits from the shawing blade. But I am too cautious and hold the knife in shaky cowardice; I end up striking a turnip with the point of my thumb. The nail peels off like a flake of tin; I see a glimpse of my own meat, the size of a first class stamp. Cushy undernail, then the covering flicks back and sprays me with blood. It’s sore, but how much more painful when I do it again a second later and extend the rip to the deepest pith of my nail bed. Hiss “Ooh, you bitch”; another nail dead. More scar tissue to mark the way.

And it’s strange to find deformities in the crop itself. Many of these turnips have split and riven themselves into weird disorder. There are hollow roots which have died from the inside; there are cracks and black mould on many which have grown too fast and burst themselves like bloated bellies. And there are those which have mouldered into a gel so that when you reach for them, your fingers slip into their bodies and the field reeks of flatulence. It’s a mixed bag, but most are true and they knock together, sound and clean.

The turnips go to the clamp, and I take the shaws to the cattle. They’d be wasted otherwise, and the cows bawl for something new as the grass recedes and their coats grow long for the winter. But they fail to recognize the leaves as food, and it takes a calf to make the connection. These cows have never seen shaws before, and they’re suspicious. But the calves have not seen anything before; they come to the leaves without baggage or cynicism.

One attracts another, and soon the calves are working through the leaves like locusts. The cows stand back and watch, and when they’re sure that there’s nothing to be lost, they bully the youngsters away and fill themselves. It’s grand to hear the crackling crunch of turnip tops in a beast’s mouth, and I listen as the days shorten and the wailing of geese comes clean and fresh from the sea.