Yellow Rattle

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It’s hard to ignore the discovery of “yellow rattle” in the hayfield. I felt like I’d seen this increasingly rare wildflower in the hay crop last year when the grass was dry, but it took a special visit to double check and confirm at the weekend. Sure enough, there it was in a carpet of creeping buttercup and yorkshire fog.

Yellow rattle is the gold standard for hayfields. Not only has it become scarce, but it seems to grow in tight colonies which actively suppress more productive grasses and thereby enable other wildflowers to become established. If you want to revert grassland to a species-rich meadow, yellow rattle is a useful tool to have in the box. Some people have to buy in the seed to help it get established, but it seems like we already had some.

I only spotted yellow rattle in our field because there’s an area which always turns up very patchy and thin when the mower comes. The yield falls through the floor, and the bales are all bitty when you slit the twine. Those “bits” are wildflowers and seedheads, and it’s no wonder they seemed odd to me because I’m used to long ribbons of productive grass. In amongst the seedheads, I found pieces of a small and strangely familiar seedpod which I’ve often seen in photos and books – the “rattle” of the flower’s name.

I’ve agonised about this field. I’d love to improve the wildflowers and the conservation value of the grass which grows along the merse, but the truth is that I can’t afford it. I need to feed the cattle, so I’m bound to this process until I can take on more land or reduce my stocking. As a compromise in the short term, the least I can do is work around the rougher parts of the field and manage them to best advantage so that when the shift comes and I can finally allow this grass to revert, I’ll have a good foundation of natural seeds.



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Onto the moss in the evening, with the stir and hack of cattle around me.

Maybe you don’t remember it, but our bull fell and twisted his knee in August. I wailed with despair, but there was nothing I could do. We had to bring him in to rest, so now the calving has fallen into two halves; the cows he covered before he fell and those which he found a month later when he was fit again. The cows on the moss have another month to run before they’ll drop, and their teats are still small like fingertips. I loop around them twice a day, and they gaze at me as if my last visit was a century ago. Sometimes I kick up a hare in the myrtle, but more often there’s nothing to catch my eye but the sky and the jittery din of larks.

In turning to run my hands through the rushes, two birds rose up and flew round in a slope to the cloud. Curlews, and speaking with such affected disinterest that it was hard to ignore them. I’d obviously caught them by surprise, so why the gentle words and pretence? After all, curlews don’t like to be wrongfooted.

I took two steps towards them, then turned to find a chick by the toe of my boot. My God, I shrank at that; the curling shock of finding something that shouldn’t be found. Instant guilt, then a swell of delight. No wonder the adult birds had pretended not to care; I’d stumbled on their motherload. I saw myself in the little bird’s eye; listened to the rush of my own blood.

Perhaps there were more chicks out there. I didn’t stay to check, but I’ll cradle that gentle, blinking memory deep into the dark days of winter.

Further Rain

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Rain at every hour of the day and night, churning and pooling like a busted vein until the grass is thick and the ditches gurgle. What a thing it is to have rain like this after weeks of crumbling powder; what a thing to be soaked to the bare back and cradle your fag-end in the lee of it.

The burn’s up and the weeds trail like coiling scarves in the amber water. I peer in from the bridge and hope to see elvers or darting fish, but all I find is myself and the underside of my toes. They drip, and the rings slew away downstream.

Now there’s a pair of cuckoos on the moss and the air is stuffy like a jungle floor. I watch them flying in a relay along my electric fence poles. They’re heavy-set and sodden to the meat, and a crowd of smaller birds follows behind them in fury as if they know that cuckoos breed a special kind of ill.

So I walk from my bed to the beasts. The day goes by and I walk back again. The rain falls like dew on their backs and the cows stand to piss in teeming gallons like a riot. They’re heavy and loose, and I can see calves turning in their bellies like fish. I wish they’d get on and have done with it; I longed for this joy but it’s gnawed me to impatience again; I peaked too soon.

But for now all we can be sure of is rain and still more of it, and the heft of heavy leaves and the spray of fallen blossom in the grass.


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We sowed the turnips and I trusted the seed drill to work for me. It was a matter of blind faith, and a cavernous leap of ignorance.

I found the first seedlings coming through after a week. Things looked promising, but over the subsequent days I began to worry. Success seemed horribly patchy and threadbare. There were long streaks of empty soil and gaping holes in the uniformity of young plants. I began to panic, and wondered if I should consider wiping the slate clean and running the seeder again with a closer eye to detail.

I spent several hours filling up the gaps by hand, and the slog of it showed me how slow this kind of work can be. It’s no wonder they invented machines to sow turnips; each minuscule pinhead is a separate responsibility, and I fumbled at the ground until my fingers were stiff I yearned for last year when the oats were sown in five minutes like a blizzard of drunken confetti.

But now we’ve had three days of good rain. The gaps are filling out and there are long chains of progress along the top of every drill. Things look fairly good, and I have to kick back against my nervy pessimism which leapt to the worst case scenario. Of course the slugs have made merry with many of the new seedlings, but I can soon flesh out those gaps with a second generation when the moment comes. Almost everything from here (including the harvest) will be done by hand, so it’s no trouble to work around a staggered weft.

And while I peer anxiously at this tiny crop, I can hardly ignore the multitude of strange and unforeseen weeds which have arrived in a blare with the turning rain. These are the boost and the bonus of this project, and it’s tempting to let them run amok and sow their own crop of beasties and birds.

Langholm Future

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It was announced overnight that Langholm Moor will soon be up for sale. The news is already being spun in a thousand directions to suit numerous narratives, but it’s left me cold.

I’ve spent many happy hours working (and playing) at Langholm, overseeing a heather beetle project and stalking goats as part of a woodland regeneration plan. I made several pals there and thrilled at the spectacle of leks and sky dancers over the course of almost ten years. I can tell you it’s exactly fifty seven minutes from my front door to Middle Moss, and I’ve made that trip at every hour of the day and night. So aside from the politics and uproar, I feel something like anxiety for the future of an old friend.

Already there are rumours that the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project has made the place “too hot to handle”. The project will publish its final report this summer (sometime?), and several anti-shooting activists claim that the details will be so controversial that Buccleuch have decided to wash their hands of the whole place. I hear that the project partners can’t agree on when or where to launch the report, and this is just the latest in a long list of klutzy failures. They haven’t agreed on much over the past decade, and in retrospect it’s hard to see how they ever drew in such an enormous amount of money to collaborate in the first place.

But the idea that birds have been a driving force in this sale feels naive; the kind of theory circulated by people who have lost touch with a bigger picture. It’s dangerous to work in a small, niche echo chamber, and I can be just as guilty of reading my own special interests into unrelated stories.

Those of us who follow the grouse/raptor debate need to remember that we’re arguing over the thinnest sliver of a very marginal argument. The truth is that Britain is not very interested in gamekeepers or grouse shooting, and we need to stay in touch with a far bigger context which brings in global, social and political factors. There’s way more to this than social media activism and hen harrier costumes. Surely it’s obvious that Buccleuch has weathered controversy before and could easily handle more of the same if only there was a financial case to justify it.

In reality, Scotland’s uplands are entering a state of tremendous upheaval, and what starts at Buccleuch often rolls out to the wider countryside. Of course I can only speculate, but the sale is more likely to be an economic decision which reflects a pragmatic approach to shifting land use pressures, driven by the advent of massive change.

Perhaps Langholm will be snapped up by an environmentally conscious NGO, or maybe the property’s numerous designations will mean that it’ll lie unsold for a decade. The key issue is that we now face a chasm of uncertainty, and whatever “team” or “side” you identify with (as if “teams” were a helpful way of thinking), that’s no good for any of the birds we associate with Langholm Moor.

And for all Langholm is a “famous” place, it stands as a tiny microcosm of fragile moors across the entirety of Southern Scotland. It will not take long to completely reimagine the hills which lie between Berwick and Portpatrick, and yet again I watch the foresters keening for more space and more plantings. Parts of Langholm will be protected from development, but other places are not so heavily burdened with designations and SPAs. They will simply vanish, and few people will ever acknowledge the untapped trove of cultural and natural heritage that will go with them.

There’s a rising tide, and it’s at times like this when I realise how insubstantial birds and wildlife are when measured against market forces.

Cuckoo’s Rain

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Rain after long, dry weeks. It pools on the mud and sogs in the fallen bracken like a thickness.

I was out at dawn last week and heard the undergrowth crackling to the tune of fox cubs. They played in silence, but the dryness made it noisy. Now it’s damp and I’ll have no sound to guide me under the willows where the violets creep. The rascals will slip away in a veil of sap and softness, and all I’ll find is a cooling mess of broken fiddleheads to show me where they’ve been.

Away from the woods, the turnip drills are black with the heft of fallen water, and oystercatchers have come to dab between the ridges. We needed this rain, and soon there’ll be new turnip plants stacked and thriving in long queues across the field.

There are cattle over the dyke where the bog cotton droops in cloddy balls. The beasts are silvered with dew, and they hardly look up when I go to check them. But it’s time for a reshuffle; animals to move between holdings at opposite ends of the same parish. We load them into the pens and listen to slittery gush of shite and piss as they turn and roll their eyes. This is a numbers game; it doesn’t matter which animals we move, but I’ve got wishlist all the same. I line them up as I’d choose them to go, but they refuse to run up the race into the trailer. We’re forced to rotate them round and soon there are volunteers at last; not the beasts I would’ve chosen, but there’s no harm done. You can’t prove a point with cattle, and you’ve got to work with what they give you. Then we can bring the sliding gates in behind them, and soon the trailer’s raking off the blossom from the low-slung boughs above the road.

And all the while there’s a cuckoo somewhere on the edge of seeing; a half-cock shape on a telegraph pole or at the bending tip of a rowan tree. He’s trailing his wings and stirring the rain with his tail, saying “here’s your summer – be sure and make the most of it”.

Bull at Dusk

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The bull comes to life for an hour at dusk. He rears up from the shadows like a ghoul, and he foams himself into the twilight. Lashed and clarty with mud, he begins to moan and the ground trembles at the horror of it. It’s a deep, seismic humm which rings in the yard and rolls away across the parish like a ripple – any deeper and you’d see it go. It’s because there are cows beyond the meadow, and others on the high ground between the trees. He calls to them, and his screams are hard to bear.

I start to hate him for that din and the repetition which drives my nails into the table and comes again a moment later. Pumped and rasping, he screams for an hour without interruption and he pounds a line back and forth through the granite shelves. I hardly recognise him; wild eyed and burbling with his own foam. It’s a fearsome thing to see him at full stretch, and it’s hard to believe that a single strand of electric wire could ever stop him. I live in fear that he’ll escape and be away to the neighbour’s ground, so I lie in bed and listen to his cravings with a crunch of anxiety. It’s a good fence and there’s no reason to believe that he’ll cross it, but what if… what if?

I have to remind myself that I wanted this. I wanted to learn about cattle, and to understand life in the shade of livestock. My beasts have given me so much to love, but here is a fresh and hateful low. A bull is no small thing, and I was warned against them. And for all the pride I feel at the flex and curve of his shoulder, I can’t deny that anxieties gather round him like flies on a hot day. I would not exchange him for anything, but I still have so much to learn.

When it’s all over and he’s slumped into silence, I climb up to the bedroom window in the darkness and hang my feet over the sill. It’s dark and the hawthorns below the house are white and limp with blossom. Leaders trail below them, and the trees swarm like jellyfish in the moonlight. There’s a reek of blossom above the hot stones, and suddenly I rediscover silence; it’s a sharp, florid thing which has risen from bluebells and rowans, may and broom. Curlews moan at the edge of it, and dorbeetles drill straight through and leave a wake swirling behind them.