A Decade of Planting

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Rowans rise above the bracken

Thinking of bracken (as I often do), it’s been interesting to revisit some of the new woods which I began planting almost a decade ago. One of these was on a three acre outcrop of stone and bracken, bounded by a tall dyke. Lunkeys in this dyke allowed the sheep to come and go as they pleased, and they were helping themselves to any grass or fresh young trees which dared to emerge from the undergrowth. I found several oak saplings which had been munched away into besoms by sheep, and my prevailing impression was simply that this place had died many years ago; all signs of life were absent. Aside from a beautifully hidden fox earth in a slip of scree, the enclosure had very little to show for itself.

I started planting birches here in the spring of 2010. I blocked off the lunkeys to keep the sheep out, then followed this initial push with further instalments of other species in subsequent years. This was heavy going at first; the bracken rose so tall that many of my trees were lost and smothered by the summer growth when it came. Experiments with juniper and hawthorn were a disaster because neither were able to rise fast enough to hold their own.

Birches did reasonably well (one of the original trees is now twenty five feet tall), but the real heroes have been rowans. Perhaps they went in on a good year, but many rose from eighteen inch whips to well over four feet in height during their first summer. This allowed them to stand above the tidal blast of bracken, and while others were buried in the darkness, the rowans held their leaves high up on their heads like people escaping a flood. In terms of tallness, they’ve never again done so well as they did in that first year, but much of their work now goes into consolidating their initial gains. They thicken and broaden, expanding their branches over the bracken; turning the tables and shading out the shader.

Elsewhere in the enclosure, oak saplings have achieved the same victory over the bracken – despite a reputation for slow growth, oak trees seem to vault out of the ground with extraordinary enthusiasm in their early years. The bracken is nonplussed by this reversal. It recedes from around the rowans and slinks away in search of something smaller to bully. There will always be bracken in this enclosure, but it is surely a good thing to break up the monotonous sterility which used to be the status quo.

There comes a point when trees reach a critical mass and begin to occupy a space; that’s how you know that your planting work has been successful. I’m told that greyhens have been seen picking at rowan berries in this wood, and that observation repays the effort and investment of this work. After ten years, the empty bracken enclosure can now be described as a young wood, and I suppose that’s something to be pleased about.


Wheatears and Hoodie Crows

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Wheatear families in abundance

The hill is a storm of birds. Churning clouds of pipits and larks are on the move through the heather; they’re heading who knows where, but surely away from here. Come abruptly round a contour and flush seventy small shapes into the wind; a few of them complain, but most bend themselves to the task of escape. Sometimes there’s a merlin amongst them, and now a hen harrier comes to rake the rushes and punish the late starters.

The dykes in the lower fields are sparky and bright with families of wheatears which bob and swirl across the short grass. They have done well, and their arses flare loudly in the turning sun. It won’t be long before they leave us and head down to East Africa to ply their trade with the Masai.

In walking home, I kicked up a cluster of a dozen crows from the roadside; idle youngsters with time to kill. There’s an odd wrinkle of language around crows like these in Galloway. An ornithologist would call them “carrion crows” (corvus corone), and I was taught to call them “corbies”. But there’s a competing school of local dialect which insists that they should be called “hooded crows” instead. When I was training to be a gamekeeper, my boss corrected me on this point several times, but I never quite managed to pick up the habit of calling them “hoodies”. And that’s because hooded crows (corvus cornix) are something else; the highland crow, with a grey breast, black head and black wings.

Carrion crows and hooded crows occupy precisely the same niche and they sometimes hybridise, but for the most part they live in separate places and do not usually overlap. Carrion crows live in the south and east of Scotland, and hooded crows stay in the north and west. Why some people in the south of Scotland should call carrion crows hoodies is beyond me.

And the reason this tangent emerges is because amongst the black carrion crows which rose from the roadside, there was a hooded crow. And I thought to record the sighting here because in over a decade on that hill, this is only the second true “hoodie” I’ve ever seen here. Perhaps it’s a vagrant from over the Clyde; perhaps it’s a throwback from some old hybridisation. Either way, it set me puzzling as I pushed on down the glen.



Wild Pheasants

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As a postscript, it’s worth mentioning the discovery of yet another brood of wild-born pheasants in the garden below the kitchen window this week. It’s hard to express how unprecedented and extraordinary this progress is. It takes a good year to see any sign of pheasants breeding successfully in Galloway, but this brood almost puts us into double figures.

However, the reality is that these chicks are very late and they were probably hatched off in the second week in August. They don’t stand much of a chance, particularly with the cold, north-easterly wind which has come down over the last few days. Young chicks like these live or die by the weather, and I could hear at least one of them peeping plaintively that evening as the rain came on and a dank September chill began to descend. They should have been up and away months ago, and their future looks bleak.

Open Season

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Spot the brood of pheasants…

The first of September, and down to the river where the ducks are ripe for the taking. I’ve marked this dawn for nineteen consecutive years; a quiet nod to the coming winter; the whistle of wings in a blue, starlit sky.

The water wound around my feet, and when the flight came I fluffed my chance. The birds peeled away and were gone, and I stepped for home in the rising rain with hours to spare before it would be time to start the day.

There were hares about the turnip field, and a brood of young pheasants in the close. It’s been astonishing to watch some of these broods as the summer goes on; I’d never expect them to prosper in a normal year, but the turnips have buoyed them on beyond all optimism. I walk out to thin the crop and find young birds in twos and threes; they run ahead of me along the drills and flush from beds of chickweed and fumitory.

Now the grass is thick and it falls to a grey wake like fabric around the washing green and the kailyard. I looked to Screel and the heights of Bengairn and Rascarrel, watching them blur to felt as the smirr came racing in and sealed the moment with a rush of new rain. It’s all downhill from here.

A Lonely Tree

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Picture a broad expanse of moorland in the Southern Uplands. There’s turning grass and the shadows of clouds across the open hill. And there’s a single tree in the middle distance; it stands like a range marker and gives scale to the blue, burling horizon.

These isolated trees are often pines; homespun grannies with their limbs curled in red knots against the riding sky. Each one is a work of art, carefully kneaded into shape by the wind and the weight of winter snow. Sometimes you’re lucky to find a dozen pines in some abandoned spinney, ringed around their roots with a rumble-down dyke. Stand back five miles and they blur to a shimmering smear. Climb in amongst the trunks and listen to the hiss of a breeze in the needles.

Trees like these have stood their ground for centuries. They belong to a different age, and now they’re a lost generation; the last of their kind. They turn out seed every year, then watch their offspring vanish as grazing for cattle and sheep. And this pattern has come to define them until the hills are flagged only by age and antiquity. There are no reinforcements; no youngsters to replace them, so they wait for the wind that will cast them down and leave no trace of their passing.

I could take you to a hundred such pines in this part of Galloway. Ravens hop along their boughs, and streaks of white shit are sprayed into the crumbling bark. But there are ash trees too, standing far out in teeth of the wind. Sometimes there’s an oak which bends in the gale, and her burrs swell in the boles like a bulge of meat. These are nesting places for buzzards and kites; something for the wind to rake and baffle. The ash trees are just as childless as the pines, and they approach old age with nothing more to show for their lives but heft and stature.

It’s not unusual to find a gathering of ash trees clustered up a cleugh or huddled around the lee of a fallen fank. As the years go by, these old-timers begin to fall apart. Trunks shatter and heavy limbs come away like fruit. I go to chop them up as firewood and find the logs are hollow and black inside like a chimney. This seems to be a fault with ash, which often dies from inside out. The first sign of illness is death, but the outer rings are still good and they burn with heat and patience.

And now I find that these trees face a new challenge; “chalara die-back”, a fungal disease which blows in the wind and strips away the last few ash survivors. I’ve seen twigs hanging emptily in the sunshine this summer; shrivelled stems and the weepy streaks of black lesions which has confirmed the diagnosis. Many of these old trees will soon be hastened towards their death, and how will the hill go without them?

You could look upon an empty land old trees and call it an aberration; a sign of something sorely wrong. People ask how it is that we allowed this to happen? How did the hills become a retirement home for lost and forgotten frailties? But I’m drawn to the fact that these trees are most often found around ruined yards and the remains of rubbly houses. They tell tales of care and a bond with humanity; ash casts a long shadow in folklore and legend. Old folk said the sap would cure your ills; hang an ash cross in the bedroom and be sure of safety. Even in practical terms, ash is a handy tree to have around the farm; the wood was treasured for tool handles and cart shafts. And in older days, ash was grown for poles which could become spears in times of chaos. For all these reasons and so many more, it made sense to keep ash close to home.

But then came days of change. Small farms were blurred into larger holdings and the people were sent away. The farmers packed their trunks and left their homes. It wasn’t long before the glass in the windows had broken. Leaks sprang in the roof and the rafters were rotten. The slates were down in a decade or two, and then the walltops began to sag. Lintels fall in fifty years, and nettles crept through the porch and into the socket where the range once stood.

And soon even the trees are falling down around this place which once was human. There’s nobody there to care and tend to the ash trees which turned the wind and bound the cart to the horse. And there’s no cause to replace the tumbled trunks because who needs a spear or a hay rake these days? What call for medicine and symbols of good fortune? If there are seeds lying unborn in the ground, they’d do well to stay hidden; sheep hunt for new saplings, and they do not leave much in their wake.

The loss of these old trees seems to speak of full finality; the delayed arrival of an end which has been in the post for decades. And if that’s true, then it chimes with so many other ghosts which hang in these hills. The old ways are dead, and now we wonder what comes next.

Owl Update

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It’s been interesting to check on the barn owls as the summer begins to wind down. I have four owl boxes on the hill and around the farmyard, and I’ve been giving them all a wide berth since the spring to avoid disturbing any of the occupants. But despite plenty of evidence that owls have been roosting in the boxes and in the old sheds, there has been no sign of successful breeding in any of them. This comes after owls spurned two of my boxes in preference to natural tree cavities in 2018, and perhaps it’s time to reconsider the siting and location of one box which has done nothing more than attract feral pigeons since it was installed in 2016. All this “monitoring” is done under a special licence from SNH, and now I’ll have to write up my findings and submit them to official scrutiny.

For all I drew a blank this year, it’s always fun to gather moulted feathers and add them to the growing pile of cast-offs which litters my office. Every feather is a jewel, and it’s a pleasure to handle the quills and imagine the life they had, floating through the half-dark.

Faltering Grass

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We took our hay in June, and the bales went into the rafters. It was a bumper crop, but it was hardly enough to fill the feed gap which yawns from November to April. In previous years, we’ve sprayed the freshly cut field with Nitrogen fertiliser. This eggs the grass on to grow again and enable a second cut before the winter comes. This grass goes into silage bales, and it means that I can supply my cattle for an entire winter from a single field.

But this year I pulled away from bagged Nitrogen. I’ve learned about the damage that artificial fertilisers can do to soil chemistry and biodiversity, and that is so inconsistent with the aims of this project that I decided to avoid them altogether in 2019 – it was an exercise in “cold turkey”.

I knew I’d pay for this decision with a drop in yield. We usually take twenty five big bales of silage off this field in the autumn. I was prepared to take a little less, but I was staggered to find that regrowth after nine weeks without fertiliser amounted to almost nothing at all. We might have been able to take ten big bales of silage, but in an economy of scale, it would be impossible to find a contractor willing to bale and wrap such a small number of bales.

Some simple sums:- My cattle eat a big bale of silage every 4 days. 25 bales will feed them for 100 days – 3.3 months.

That’s a substantial period of time to go without grass. I was staring down a chasm. Of course I could buy in silage bales from a neighbour, but I can’t reconcile this as anything more than passing the buck – outsourcing the harm of intensive grassland management to somebody else’s field. So beyond all my sanctimony, I returned to the meadow on Tuesday night and spread fertiliser. I’ll now get my silage and the winter of 2019/2020 will be covered, but not without a decent helping of humble pie.

I’ve agonised over this precise issue before – how to balance productivity against sustainability. My solution has been wishy-washy; an avoidance of truth. With this coming winter sorted, it’s time to revisit the entire structure of this project. I can do better for my beasts and the environment.