Barn Owl Chicks

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Home, Parish of Kirkgunzeon – 13/5/20

For the past three years, I have been included on a Schedule One licence which allows me to monitor barn owl nests. Having spent a good deal of time building owl boxes, it’s satisfying that this paperwork allows me to check in on the birds which benefit from that work. It’s also fun that this licence allows me to connect “my” owls to a wider research project undertaken by the Galloway Nature and Heritage Trust, run by the famous and well-respected raptor worker Jack Orchel, whose book on merlins in Galloway represents a landmark in the study of that species.

One of my best owl boxes hangs in the shed where the bull lives, and over the last few weeks it has steadily become more obvious that birds are making active use of it. I built this box in 2017, and installed it in the autumn of that year. Within a few days, barn owls were often seen using this box for roosting and hanging around, and it has been occupied ever since. However, there had never been an active breeding attempt – the birds preferred to nest in a rotten ash tree a few hundred yards away by the river. This tree spectacularly collapsed during a storm in September 2018, after which the young birds were unceremoniously cast out into the world a few weeks before they were ready to leave. I was surprised to find that owls returned to this shattered, dysfunctional stump of a tree to breed again in 2019, when they raised three chicks to adulthood and the constant wheezing of young birds persisted well into November.

But in the last fortnight, the gloom of the bull shed has been split by a gentle scuffling and the steady hiss of young owls. I was left in no doubt that owls had finally opted to breed in my box, and it was exciting to visit them at close quarters with a torch last night. I opened the hatch and found three very small chicks mewling and huffing on a deep mattress of glossy vole hair. Owls often stagger the hatching of their broods, so it was no surprise to find the chicks lying upon three dirty white eggs. These may hatch in the next few days, or they might be abandoned depending upon the availability of prey and the inclination of the parents. I often find unhatched eggs abandoned in barn owl boxes once the breeding season has passed, and given that so much of breeding success depends upon a steady stream of mice and voles, it seems like the owls tend to hedge their bets and lay as many eggs as they can before later deciding how many to hatch and rear. It’s the same logic behind the staggered hatch of young – if you don’t know how the season is going to go, aim high and prepare to pare that back.

The chicks in this box were very young; certainly less than a week old. Their sealed eyes and gawky beaks made them ugly beyond all reckoning, but it will not be long before they start to develop some of the charm and beauty of adult birds. Fortunately, this box is in a busy spot and the birds don’t seem to pay much attention to my disturbance. A parent bird returned to the nest less than fifteen minutes after my quick visit, and normal business was resumed that night with birds bringing in a steady flow of prey throughout the darkness.

It remains to be seen whether these young owls will be ringed or if I should simply keep an eye on them. Either way, it’s been a very satisfying vindication of the work I put into building these boxes, and it’s a real privilege to have owls about the yard.

Hill Grazing

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 12/5/20

The cows have now been out at Low Airie for five days, and it’s been fascinating to follow their progress using the satellite tags. I must admit that it’s extremely addictive to wait for each update and refresh the app to find out which beast has gone where.

Within hours of their release, one of the steers slipped under a watergate and escaped. He roamed around on the roadside for a couple of hours, eating grass out of the verges before ducking back through the same watergate to rejoin his brothers. It might have been the perfect crime, but the satellite tracker caught him “red-handed” – and the information then allowed me to reinforce the watergate to ensure that he didn’t escape for a second time.

Despite having access to almost two hundred acres of the hill, the beasts have not left a forty acre zone near the main access gate. They normally return to the same place to sleep every night, and they often run exploratory missions across the hill between three and five in the morning. I would have missed out on all these details without the help of satellite monitoring, and the tags have really added a new dimension to the project.

Part of the theory behind giving the beasts total free reign across an enormous area was to give them the chance to decide where they went. Having noticed that they were tending to hang around in a wet, willowy flush over the past few days, I went in to explore the ground and see it at first hand. This project has been exciting in so many ways, but what a surge of delight to find that the cattle have already made a visible improvement in this flush, treading down the moss and mowing the new grass to a springy little crop. Cow pats were humming with flies and beetles, and while the improvements are confined to no more than a single acre of trees and bogland, I was wildly encouraged to see my grazing theory in practice.

It’s too soon to spot improvements in biodiversity or to monitor botanical change, but working on the basis that nature loves dynamism and variety, here was a short and choppy patch of grass in an ocean of long and tussocky stuff. Imagining that I was a greyhen raising a brood of young black grouse chicks, this spot would be right up my street.

Bicycle

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Courthill, Buittle – 11/5/20

Frost and a bitter north wind. It takes me twenty minutes to cycle out and check the cows at sunrise, and that journey pulls me down the glen through oystercatcher territories and beneath the whirl of curlews. It’s fine to be out at first light, but the breeze sought to saw me in half this morning as I pedalled and caught the reeky blast of bluebells and whinn and rising bracken. Shelducks gabbled over the knowes, and light marked the hills where a flag of snow remains in the high corrie of Corserine. I can’t remember snow ever having lain so long there, but without rain to wash it away, perhaps it’s no surprise.

Young rabbits thumped their tubs in the verges, and I weaved past the kirk and the hedgefoots where hares lounge and lap their breasts like cats. In the deeper shade of a birchwood, ice lay across the road and rapped my bare knuckles with a rip of cold. A roebuck was caught late in the rushes, and he turned to watch me by with his new antlers amber and unrubbed.

Then over the brow to the beasts where they stand or lie in a loose gathering above the bay. Another morning without progress, and again I am tormented by the delay. The bull went to them on the fifth of August, so nine months later and I’m wracked with impatience again. Some seem imminent, but they have seemed imminent now for a week or more. I start to lose faith at another wasted trip, but there’s light on Caigton and Barchain where a single thorn tree has stood for the entirety of my life and broken the bare horizon towards Kelton. As a child, I used to pretend it was an acacia tree and hoped to find blesbok flicking their tails in the shade of it. Now it is a cool and familiar landmark on a well-trodden knuckle of hill. Rich whinn flowers rise around it, and a yellowhammer sings as I head home for breakfast.

Raiders

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 10/05/20

Ravens have risen to a position of prominence in the last twenty years – here in Galloway, they are fast becoming common after decades of obscurity. This has had a strange knock-on effect on carrion crows; the raven’s smaller and more cosmopolitan cousin which occupies a similar niche. The two birds seldom come to head-to-head in direct competition for food, but I have often wondered if the raven’s advance has come at the crow’s expense.

I had started to think that part of this relates to breeding. Carrion crows used to nest in safe, productive trees which were handed down between the generations. It was easy to catch these crows when the breeding season came, because their nests were always very easy to find. But in the last few years, many of these nest-sites have been overtaken by ravens. A raven could see off a crow any day of the week, but direct confrontation is usually avoided because ravens nest much earlier than carrion crows. When April comes around and carrion crows return to breed, they find their ancestral home has already been occupied for a month. There’s no point in arguing, so the crows move away to less promising spots and eke out their breeding season on scraps, often in deep forestry blocks. That has made it much harder for me to trap them, but it has also meant that they represent less of a threat to waders and ground nesting birds on the open hill.

But this evening I saw something new and altogether unexpected which adds a different flavour to the dynamic between two closely related corvids. As I checked on the cows, a raven came down off the hill and began to croak his way along the in-bye fields. There are some scrubby spruce trees in there, no more than twenty five or thirty feet tall. I only noticed him because he was being pursued by a noisy pair of carrion crows, both of which pressed him so hard that he was forced to roll over and show them his claws.

He flew directly towards one of the trees and abruptly plunged into it like a monkey, sending the crows into a state of uproar. They wailed and clamoured and hung around almost within arm’s reach, loud enough to tickle my curiosity. I set off walking towards the tree which stood about eighty yards distant, but this is very bad ground full of myrtle and heather, and it made for slow walking. By the time I was twenty yards away, the raven flew out heavily and made off for the hill again. The crows followed him, and I was left peering up at what seemed to be a nest in the topmost branches of the tree.

I usually have a pretty good idea of where crows are nesting, so this caught me by surprise, particularly since I have spent the last month working nearby and felt sure I would have spotted any nesting activity. That said, crows are hellish crafty around the nest, and they often take some winkling out. Monkey-minded myself, I decided to climb up for a closer look – easy work in an isolated spruce tree, provided you don’t mind a neckful of needles and twigs.

On reaching the nest, I found it sturdily built and neatly lined almost exclusively with birch twigs and pheasant feathers. Inside were the glistening remains of freshly broken egg white which, when I felt it with my fingertips, was tangibly warm. I also found several tiny fragments of a crow’s eggshell and a few little swirls of yolk. It seems beyond any doubt that I had just seen a raven raid a crow’s nest and consume the eggs.

It set me wondering how often this takes place, and what drove the raven to this kind of work. On the face of it, the raven had simply won himself a meal at the expense of weaker neighbours. But the two species are so closely related that the act felt almost like cannibalism – perhaps the raid was motivated at least in part by a grumpy refusal to share his patch with subordinates – what better insult than destroying a nest than to actually eat the eggs and really send a message?

Until this point, I had always imagined that ravens simply drove carrion crows out and displaced them to nest in less productive areas, but this experience would suggest that they might be able to suppress a population of crows. That’s probably quite a leap, but whether this behaviour is well documented or not, it does seem to imply that the relationship between the two species is complex. Having often found the remains of crows which had been killed by goshawks, the raven raid was another reminder that carrion crows occupy a strange niche which sometimes allows them to exert disproportionate harm on their prey and at other times exposes them to predation in turn. It would be foolhardy to arrive at any hard-and-fast conclusions from this single event, but if nothing else, it was a nice reminder that nature is beautifully fascinating.

Feeding Cubs

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Home, Parish of Kirkgunzeon – 9/5/20

I find foxes wherever I go. They’re feeding cubs, and the work is a weighty ask. Clusters of their dull-minded young hole-up and wait to be fed, and the trial is never-ending. It draws them beyond the cover of darkness until I find foxes working in broad daylight, mousing and moving in the sun.

I watched a vixen carrying mice across the burn in a bundle like a beard below her chin. She must have had a dozen, each carefully picked and hanging by its end. I saw another with an adder, the head clipped off and the body limp as linguine. A fox can feed any number of cubs with snake-meat, if only they can learn to catch them. And there are young rabbits to be gathered, and eggs shipped from their nests and the slippery remains of a long-dead hen to recover from the midden at the back of the yard.

It’s all work, and I push against them where I can.

 

Before You Go

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I went to the cows under the moon, knowing that they were bound for the hill and would soon be gone. This group had lain around the house since the New Year, and in that time we became familiar. I could run my hands along their backs and feel their breath in the falling dew. Months of constant contact had made them softer and more docile than any cows I had ever worked with, but it would be wrong to call them friends. We overlap a little, but I would be as far from home in their heads as they would be in mine.

Well met in a peaceful moment, they snuffed my cuffs and gazed a quiet welcome. Their calm is a comfort, but I know that centuries of domestication has only half-robbed them of their rage. Mishandled or stung by some freak of disgust, they could trample me into a thin chowder. That memory allows me to recall them as they were a thousand years ago; bullish and mercurial in the ripping of unlit rushes. In the many styles I find them, moonlit beasts are more potent than all others combined. Dim dusk in the north, and the rasp of a star-blown heron.

Then with daylight, they became something firm and binary. I pressed them into a trailer and their hooves belled on the aluminium floor. I took them to the handling pens where crash barriers stand six feet tall and the mud is baked to flour. In league with my father and the vet, we checked their tags and drove them into a crush which battered and sang on its hinges.

Cleg-minded, the vet withdrew samples of their blood and stashed the vials in a bag as if they would be her lunch. Then we recorded the number of each beast as it turned and moaned, and we gave them all a bolus which I had laid out on a jacket to keep them clean. These boluses are concentrated pegs of minerals, particularly cobalt which the scientists say we lack on granite soils. They have to be placed directly into the animal’s stomach, where they melt and leach trace elements into the body like a tonic. So I pried the cows’ jaws apart and pressed the applicator gun down into their throats, sweating and slobber-soaked for a view of tongues and teeth like marble slabs in a boneyard. Here was a different kind of intimacy, held against their will and won only by force and the aid of steel bars.

After that, we jagged and pestered them further with notebooks and the shouted recital of Government-issued holding numbers. Somebody said they looked well, and I was reminded to mark the steaks and the cuts to be made in their fattening backs some day when the slaughterman comes. It’ll be another eighteen months before they die, and that’s not long in my own terms. But who can say how long it is for beasts which might otherwise expect to live for another decade and cannot grasp the fact that their bodies have already been sold? Papers laid and movements marked, we loaded them into the trailer again; each animal pressed to a unit of commercial distinction.

When we reached the hill, we found them timid. I know that this is perfect ground for cattle, but they had to be convinced. They found wide horizons and the scent of moorland grass, and that seemed to dazzle them. Shamed, discounted and hurled into a landscape they did not choose, it was strange to see them as something new again – cowed by manhandling; pasteurised, then reinfected.

They hung in a group like bees at first. But in a day or two they cooled and recovered something of that ancient dignity I had rubbed under the moonlight. They began to heap wildness around them again in the willows and the steady scribble of whitethroat song. Sometimes I discover them unexpectedly in the deep myrtle and pretend that they belong only to themselves. But in marking, moving and medicating animals like these, I am reminded of the contract between us. It’s no surprise that my imagination should be tormented above the heads of dead beasts walking.

Completion

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 4/5/20

I took the hill on the condition that I would be responsible for making it stockproof. It seemed a small job at first, but soon it grew and expanded into a monster. I was faced with a mile and a half of fence to restore (including 947 posts), and almost two miles of crumbly old drystane dyke to rebuild. I expected this to be a challenge, but I couldn’t have guessed how it would try me.

To avoid desperation, I forced myself to ignore the enormity of the task, focussing instead upon breaking the marathon into series of smaller sprints. I gave myself a list of manageably sized goals, each one shuttered off from the scary scale of the whole. Of course it helped that every trip to the hill was a pleasure, and I was forever led astray by blackgame and the glimpse of pine martens. The wildfire was a major distraction, even though for a time I feared that all my work would shortly go up in smoke. But the fence was saved from incineration and I soon became so good at working step-by-step that I was horrified to find that I had finished.

I tied off the final section of electric wire, looked up and was pleased only for having completed that small task. It took a moment to realise that everything was done; six weeks of work completed. Bent in blinkered concentration, I had almost forgotten that I was planning to bring cattle to this place. The end goal (which had seemed like a dream in March) now stood plump and easily reached before me.

So the beasts will go out on Wednesday, and in some very small way I can pick up on the many threads which led me here. An ecologist came to survey the ground at Low Airie, and she declared that the land was in a very poor state. Tasked with building an inventory of botanical biodiversity, she returned to her car after a three hour walk and could hardly disguise her disappointment. The white grass is so thick and the bracken so heavily set that very little has survived forty years without grazing. She found a few interesting plants to mark the hill’s potential (of which more to come), but her verdict was that Low Airie has suffered badly during its time without grazing.

It’s tempting to overstate the significance of this project and the goals I’ve set myself, but I already feel like I have the chance to do something really good here. When they heard that I was taking on Low Airie, my friends and neighbours said that I would never get the place ready for livestock. It’s fun to replay that dismissal to them now that it’s done. But I am under no illusion that the next steps will be any easier. Managing livestock in a badly dilapidated piece of moorland is going to be every bit as difficult as all the work I’ve done so far. However, I’m still tantalised by the realisation that everything is impossible until somebody does it.

 

Beltane

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Beltane – Galloway

Rain came to shove us forward, and there’s no going back now. There were two days of cold wind and battering showers, and the grass caught every drop, passing it from hand to hand like an old-time bucketchain. Everything drank, and the wild strawberries burst their buds and guzzled. Then there was blossom and the tree stems audibly sucked the sap from the ground while cuckoos wagged their tails and glared. The hill burns gurgled like babies tickled by the crossing and back-crossing of a fox carting mice home to feed his cubs in the fiddleheads.

Part the grass and find roe kids curled like down with a dance of gnats above them. Roll the stones and stumble upon snake-wrap curled like rizla papers – shreds of cast skin cast thin with even their eyelids dry and empty. Everything came at once until it was hard to draw a line between the warblers and the steady rise of migrant new-come birds; birds on the reseed fields where the tide slides; birds on the burnt-out hill which sorely called for rain and received it too late. There’s a rampant reek of sap and soot, and always a cuckoo between the willows, and always a skylark dinning.

Long before it was fingered by fire dancers and masky droogs, Beltane was a festival of cattle. We only know the shadow of that old festival, but it rose from a world of working beasts and the munch of hill pasture. Cows go out to graze on the first day in May, and Beltane was built to wish them well after a long winter. In some places, cows used to be driven out between two fires to cleanse them of winter’s ill. In others, the beasts were garlanded with yellow flowers to symbolise the motherish lick of flame; ash was smudged upon their polls to remind us all of new beginnings. It’s hard to follow this line nowadays, but it does mean something.

So I look to the hill and the sudden flush of new growth. Sliabh is greening; there are new spears in the old ribbons. The dead yellows of winter are being subverted, but the dry days have delayed this moment – it’s late, and that is no surprise. Beltane has come, but the hill is unready for cows to be turned upon it. It will be another week before my beasts can go out, and while I’m sure that there is some flexibility in ancient calendars, the day is worth marking in itself.

And me? Well, I grin like Grandfer Cantle.

 

Salvation

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Looking up to a black hill from my patch where it’s “business as usual”

Low Airie, Glenkens – 26/4/20

The fire destroyed everything south of the railway line. Miles of moor lay streaked in cinders, and the devastation was a sight to behold. But my new ground lies to the north of the old railway…

Huge flames came down on the darkening, and I heard that fire was heading north towards my summer grazing. Night came, and at last it was confirmed that the railway embankments were burning and the flames would cross the tracks at any moment. I could feel the coming certainty of collapse; everything I have worked for these last eight weeks would soon be vanishing in smoke, along with more than a thousand pounds of hardware and woodwork. Until that moment, the fire had been a mad adventure; scary and foul for all of us in equal measure. Then it clenched into a fist and prepared to punch me personally in the stomach. I went to bed and watched a red glow swarm gloating across my wall.

The following morning, I went to see what I could salvage. The last mile of railway line before the hill is through forest, scrub and deep railway cuttings. It’s an indoor feeling, which has always made the final emergence into open country all the more exciting. I crept out into daylight and found the hill split starkly in two halves as if carved by a knife. To the south, a scorched lunar landscape ran to the far horizon. To the north, my patch was completely untouched. The fire had run to the railway line and died with an abruptness that was hard to fathom. I had already begun to think about what I would do next, pondering alternative places to run my calves for the summer. There is a man near Dumfries who buys store cattle and grazes them on nature reserves along the coast – I had been on the verge of calling him. Now I realised that, for me, nothing had changed – my plans remained magically intact.

I have the foresters to thank for my salvation. They refurbished the railway line in February in order to run timber out from a newly felled forest. In so doing, they felled the scrub woodland which grows in the verges and laid a new hardcore track almost fourteen feet wide. The fire had been unable to reach across this barrier, and it was compelling to compare the fate of my ground with another piece of moorland beyond the forest where the old railway line is thick, weedy and overhung with willows. Here, the fire danced all over the line and crossed it back and forth a number of times.

So despite the turmoil and upset of a wild weekend of smoke and bursting trees, now I find that I am back into a week of “business as usual”, with the final few lengths of electric wire to strain and insulate before the calves can go out. It’s a crazy salvation.

 

Hunting

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Home, Parish of Kirkgunzeon – 25/4/20

A snake in the hayshed hunting, and the warm walls around him. This is no idle sunlounger, spooled out on a tump of grass to recharge and consider – here is the man at work – fifteen inches of silver and black chequering, and lips like a grinning skull. Perhaps he lay still in the morning to warm and be ready, but now he is charged and the fumes of his engine run clear and quiet. He crosses a square of daylight, but the tank is full and he has all the heat he needs.

He’s come to this shed on the offchance of a mouse, and I step back to see him go, quartering and sliding like a long-pulled chain. Into the haystack and round its back, coiling and pausing with his black tongue dipped with excitement. He covers ground like a spaniel, pausing now and then to ponder the scents on this black floor where the old bales have lain.

Here is a moment of madly small intensity. Pity the mouse who doesn’t see him coming, because who would choose to come nose to nose with a devil like this? I shrink myself to a vole’s eye view and find his head is bigger than mine – his body far thicker than I can hug or hold back. I know that his movements are driven by a muscular wave in his belly, but that knowledge does not help me. I challenge you to watch a snake move and tell me that a scientific explanation adds anything to the ghoulish magic of it.

Failing to find live game, he moves far to the back of the barn to bide his time. Perhaps he will spring an ambush in the dusty evening when the swallows come in around the rafters and some rat rises to mooch among the twine. Whatever he does next, I will not see it – I have already seen more than enough.