Dance on Angus Halfhorn!

So that’s it. 20 years in the workshop done with. I renovated the old agricultural steading starting at the roof, Spent my time making chairs from windblown pine, inheritor of a tradition of local patterns thrown up by an interdependant community that had little access to the greater world. I have been working insemi darkness the last couple of days. I needed the big distribution board that supplies power to my machines, so chopped it out and installed a smaller one sufficient for lights and power to service my successors. Light is briefly restored once the new board is fitted up, and then killed for the last time: first the far end and then as I exit. Jake helped me, asked if I felt sad; I don’t. I made the choice, followed it through, bust a gut to bring it off. New strart.
The animals are always there; first priority, but today they make no demands. They are well, have full feeders, and even if their focus is now more on feeding than the contact to be developed in more leisurely times, I hail them on approach, talk to them individually. Angus Halfhorn has taken to dancing around me when I approach the trough: disconcerting when I can’t be certain where his 700 kilos will come back to earth.
He’s just a lad and a good one at that. Dance on Angus Halfhorn – into 2014!


The lottery of new life with an old bull

Holly is lying apart. She is ready enough to join the others when I appear but afterwards heads down towards the wood, alone. It looks like nesting behaviour, preparing for calving, but she is showing no signs. I watch her rear: no sign of puffiness or her tail carried to one side, nor of the other tell-tale signs like, strangely, obsessive headscratching. If I am wrong, as often before, the weather is mild enough for any newborn to stand a good chance even without the shelter of the calving shed. I am in no hurry to disrupt her by joining her to the crabbed old dears in the calving paddock.
Flora looks huge but then that is how she shows these days promising for months and then producing late and with difficulty – something failed in the birthing muscles. Last years calf dropped and lay: no interest in the world or the tit, all urge for life expended in the process of entering it. I fed her with a stomach tube for a week and then introduced her to the tit, spraying her muzzle with warm yellow milk until she finally accepted first one, two and finally all four. She went on to develop into a strikingly good little heifer, outstanding at the Oban sale last October, being adjudged reserve champion. Would she remeber that early passivity and my tortuous interventions? Almost certainly not, but I do: it is an outcome that fuels me to guard every precious life.
I cannot tell who will be first, or when. This year is unusual as I cannot be as confident in Billy. For nearly a decade he has been reliable and prompt, but this summer I watched as the old boy broke into a huddle of my neigh bour’s cows, singled one out and then failed to rise on stiffening rear legs. Did he manage to serve my ladies this spring? Did he have to make several attempts, delaying conception? I can only watch day by day for any signs of the greatest farm drama: that of new life. This year it is a lottery.
This afternoon I quad a trailer of woodshavings from the workshop clearance to the bonfire pit. Billy watches quietly from the hardstanding as I work the gate below, unmoving, dignified, splendid. He is the heart and guardian of the farm. He will see his family grow once more as the year strarts over.


Darkness holds back today

Twilight sees me walking the farm. I reckon it’s past 5, confirmed by the clock in the truck. The sky is slear admittedly, but it gives me hope for longer days and even Nogwalks before dark as the days slowly lengthen. I’m tempted to drop a silage bale down to Billy and the girls but negotiating around the pens at the yard is problematic without clear all-round vision. I’ll have to go through the rigmarole of starting the digger again in the morning: lift the bonnet, battery on charge, unscrew the air filter, squirt of quickstart, quickly into the cab and turn the reluctant engine over before the volatile spirit dissipates, climb down, disconnect &c – all in all a right winter footer (rhymes with hooter – Scots for fiddle, faddle,far.. that’s enough). The bother with these footery winter jobs is that everything takes just that bit longer, carving slices from the body of precious daylight.
My ghost robin appeared yesterday in the eaves of the shed as I was unloading, discreet and watchful. I think it is him that flits across the gate to the shed when I approach the yard in the morning, but I cannot be sure in the half-light. I think he waits for me in the birch at the side of the gate, for no reason I can see apart from asserting his routine, even his proprietorship perhaps, as there is plenty of cattle feed available to glean in my absence. Neither he nor the chaffinches, nor the redpolls are in evidence today: I watched a shark-slick sparrowhawk drift across the fields this morning. The little birds will do well to keep their heads down and hope that this predator doesn’t adopt us as a hunting ground.
The cattle on the other hand are delighted by a day of gentle sunshine, so still that my ears sing. The young stotts abandon their station at the ringfeeder to charge round the field staging trials of strength, even attracting the involvement of pregnant Abby who gets her head down and starts shoving with the best.
Nothing can be too wrong with a family that plays together.


Cutting cables

Boy, this is hard work clearing my worskhop of 20 years of joinery kit, tools, timber and associated materials, hardware and general trade debris. I have moved the heavy machines – a repeated challenge of logistics: how much does this weigh? do I lift from below or on slings? which way round through the door? are they too heavy to manoeuvre by myself? &c., and now I’m into the miscellaneous. Part-made chairs awaiting orders for completion, offcuts, rejected items that ‘might just come in handy’, ancillary machines that have not been assembled let alone used for the duration of my tenure here.
I started by reslating the roof. Summer ’92. Windows and doors next in the early months of ’93 with my fingers freezing on the metal of the machines I was trying to use, and an hour each morning huddled by the recalcitrant woodburner with my bench next to it, before I could aspire to productivity. Doors, an outside stair to the newly created office propped on the woodwormed joists of the old hayloft, and that is more or less how it looks today. And I’m leaving. My landlord, though absent, has borne me in mind over the festive season, threatening me with three months extra rent ‘at least’ if I overstay.
Tomorrow I will take out the 3-phase system I need for the machines now stored at the farm, leaving only the lighting and power circuits. I will clip the cable runs to the various sites that used to house bandsaw,circular saw, jointer, thicknesser, radial arm saw, spindle molder, tenoner, mortiser – and then release the distribution board with its elegantly organised contacts.

So many threads to cut.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uvie Farm

Quiet days in Clichy -er -Uvie

At last some calm – for me and the animals. I tend to the three old girls by the new shed: Morag has become used to feeding separately from her bucket laced with cod-liver oil for her rheumatic rear leg, and the others are content to compete at the trough. Little Holly maintains her programme of deluded harassment, trying to wrest the bucket fom me with her immatue horns before I can spread it in the trough where shy Alice is able to participate.
I am using the quad now to feed the other animals, something I avoid doing before starting supplementary feeding since the older animals recognise the sound of the motor as an invitation to food, compelling as a dinner bell, or rattled sack. Silage is low in the feeder on the hardstanding, mounded in the centre like an oversized nest: I climb inside and spread the residue to the sides where it can be reached by the smaller animals. Plenty of hay still for Angus Halfhorn and his two ladies, but mother Alice is reluctant to come to the trough and I am afraid that her bad feet are troubling her, suffering from damaged hooves with large vertical clefts called sandcracks.
The Nog is excited about the reappearance of the quad and launches himself at me when I climb aboard to drive back up th hill. He scrabbles into position so that he is sitting in my lap with his front legs braced on the the seat, as if piloting the machine. I hold my head back to avoid his attempts to lick my face in appreciation of the ride, to avoid a dunt from his bony skull. My view of the path ahead is obscured by a pair of long brown ears flapping in my face.
To my surprise, Billy and the girls have not moved over to the silage I’ve made available for them but are filing westwards down the road to Logan’s meadow. They are recovering their wandering habit as nomadic grazers after a few days of huddling immobile in self protective withdrawal. It is the field where they spent the long hot summer; perhaps they are recovering some balance to their morale, seeking the remnant grass from that time.
A cloud of redpolls, tiny migrant finches, lift from the birches by the house like thrown confetti. The spider-like patches of snow retreating in hollows are dusted with seed and husks thrashed from the upper branches.
There is harvest too at this dead season.

Other People's Stories, Uvie Farm

Christmas Story

Snow drove hard against the windows all last night. The wind has slackened by morning with a few farewell gusts to shake the house as if in warning. The cattle are gathered at the gate, quietly expectant. I am surprised by a white van parked in the yard – broken down maybe and pulled off the road. It has seen better days, ex fleet but tidy, signwritten with the details of Joe’s joinery, Gateshead. I scoosh calf nuts into a bucket for the little girls and then fill the scoop with chooky corn and head across to the shed.
I have become used to Holly mugging me with little horns as soon as I enter the gate, but today she and Alice are waiting inside the shed gathered at the hay rack.

I am shocked to find people inside, a young couple, seated by the hay bale half picked apart for the girls. They have collected a couple of Ikea chairs from the loft and are sitting comfortably against walls of hay. A small camping gas stove perches on the bed of one of the machines I moved up from the workshop yesterday. The chooks watch from the roof.
I like to welcome visitors to the farm, however unusual, especially at this time of the year when strangers bring good luck.
Hello I say as naturally as I can manage.
Oh hello there she says, pretty, young, dark hair.
You broken down?
No- the pub was shut.
Oh yes, the owners closed it last month – for good
Ah we wondered – this from him, bearded, neat, a tradesman.
She again – We needed somewhere in a hurry – she gestures to the pen.
I look over to where the calves are standing, close by the rack but not feeding. There is a bloody guddle in the bedding: the sort I am used to from calving, but I know the heifers are too young. I spot a bundle of fabric half-hidden in the rack, and move over to inspect.
Oh my goodness – but it’s a -a baby, and turning to her – last night?She nods.

Are you okay?
We’re fine he says, really, don’t worry. We’ll just rest awhile if that’s okay and then we’ll be on our way. We want to register him at home, you see- the year of the independence referendum, it matters somehow.
Anything I can do, porridge at the house maybe?
No thanks, he nods towards the stove where the water was boiling, we found a couple of eggs, hope that’s okay.
Laying at this time of the year, that’s a miracle – I laugh.
A gift from the chickens he says seriously.
If you like, I say slightly riled, I’ll get on now. Mind the stove near the hay eh?
She nods and holds my eye: Thank you.
I feel obscurely blessed pouring the feed into the trough as Holly and Alice appear to wake from a trance as the nuts rattle against the metal, and amble over.
Leaving the pen to recross the yard I find another vehicle, a larger van, parked outside the gate. Three Asian guys are sitting in the cab, resting from their journey with a steaming thermos. The driver winds down the window.

I try not to sound territorial:
He shakes his head ; No we meant to be here.
On Christmas day? he laughs and gestures at the back of the van – but if you’re looking for a nice wool carpet?- offcuts from fitting out a luxury hotel in Aberdeen. Free gifts.
No thanks – but why are you here? – not to sell me carpets, surely.
We came to see the child.
What in the shed – but it was only born last night, how..?
Oh there was a voice – he laughs again- we followed the star.

No kidding

Aye – Satnav.

He puts on a tinny robotic voice:
Take the A86, turn left at the first roundabout – etc etc
But satnav doesn’t work here – it lands you on Balgowan 3 miles away- I say suspiciously
That’s okay he says – we saw the light on in the shed, took a chance.

He grins at me. I’m ready to take offence at being mocked but I find his smile kind, inclusive. Whatever this is, he appears to suggest, we are in it together. I decide to accept his version of this strange day.
I smile in return- leave you to it- whatever it is-and turn back to my chores with a wave to his companions.
There is a pale gleam of winter sun lighting the underside of white cloud as I finish feeding the remaining animals and head back to the house. Rounding the bend heading up towards the garage, I realise I have heard nothing from Lesley whose cussing and swearing normally accompanies his attempts to set out feed for his unruly ewes in the field below.
He’s in a good mood today I think – maybe it’s catching – I feel glad at being part of this morning’s story.


Windblown the mind

Wind, wind,wind -and some snow. The snow is inside my boots and the wind inside my mind. The wind is not a functional issue – my heavy old machines will not blow off the trailer on the short transit from workshop to farm, and the snow that covered everything two days ago turning to skiddy slush yesterday, has been driven off by these south-westerlies, but it dominates the day. From a half acknowledged companion to the daily chores, it becomes an oppressive tyrant. All actions need managing, even walking becomes a considered exercise, opening doors demands care, secure stowing bins or feeder bags or clothing is essential. My fundamental security, that of a weathertight home, is challenged by this raging violence.
For the cattle it is more direct. The youngest and the oldest are able to retreat into sheds, Angus Halhorn and his two ladies have a roofed shelter, but Billy, Abbie, Holly and the stotts have none. They gather outside the yard, bellowing disconsolately at intervals but motly just standing and dripping, their hunched rears to the weather. I wish they would find their way down to the wood where the high banks would provide some relief from the wind if not the wet, but they are determined to remain close to the feed shed in the hope of some solace at my hands.
Perhaps then they know that endurance is as much a quality of mind as of physical safeguards. The wind works on them too, whirling and battering and questioning.

Chooks, Highland cattle, Timber building, Uvie Farm

Lifting at the limit

The thicknesser has been sitting in the middle of the workshop for 20 years – solid, scuffed, dirty green , immobile,- the dependable heart of my joinery – now it’s time to shift it. I reckon it weighs 3/4 ton: the forklift I’ve hired has a capacity of 750kgs – funny that. When I lift it, the rear wheels rise from the floor – it steers with the rear wheels: I’m fine so long as I travel in straight lines- not much good in the tight spaces of the workshop. I persevere though and drop it on the trailer- finally -after scrapes, wobbles and slides – but we’re struggling to get any further with the truck wheels spinning in deep slush. I woke early to that uncanny quiet that comes with a blanket of snow – 5 inches in this case, built up without wind so small branches and even the handrail of the bridge balance a perfect cake slice of snow. Away to Inverness for cattle feed and back for lunch, feeling guilty about being unproductive I head down to the workshop to continue clearing it. Darkness is falling but with Jake’s help , and with the machine trembling on the forks – I decide to go for it. Gunning the engine, spinning the tyres and nudging with the forklift, we nurse the loaded trailer up the hill to the black tarmac and back to the farm. That was a task hard achieved but there’s other successes to relish. One of the new Maran hens has been reluctant to follow her companions to be shut into the chicken house, perching on the bars above the hay rack. Tonight finds her sitting in the roof with the older chooks looking fat and ┬ásmug at a new task mastered. And there’s Alice down in the Aspens with Angus Halfhorn: flighty, fearful Alice, who turns from the hay, extends her neck towards my face and noses me with her breath. She doesn’t even shake her horns afterwards the way the others often do as if to warn me not to take further liberties. New behaviour learned, and a gesture of trust. Success comes in many forms.

Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

The grass is always greener…(except when it’s white).

There is snow in the air, on the ground and on the beasts’ backs. They can’t forage in these conditions, however slim the winter pickings and it makes these opportunist grazers nervous, like card sharps at a bingo night.
There must be accessible grass some other surely place. Those other animals that can be seen and heard – maybe they are stealing a march, living better.
This doesn’t pose too much of a problem except when I have bales to put out which means opening gates from one paddock to another without mixing the stock -who are very keen to mix. Today I have two bales to put out.
I let the two little girls out and even open the old blacksmith’s gate to the wood bordering the yard – so they can get lost. Well, at least explore for a while. Run along and play little ones! This clears them from the yard while I pull down some silage bales, arrange them in a line so there’s something to push against, and drive the forks under the front one. The animals have mustered at the gate ready to mount an insurgency so I prepare a bucket of feed that will pacify Billy the ringleader and set it down a ways apart. I have the machine almost resting at the gate braked on its rear rams that need lifted before I can let the machine freewheel through. I need to judge just how far to go so as to allow the gate to close, and misjudge it at first, wasting time. By the time I’ve dropped the bucket hard enough to lift the front wheels, one of the stotts is working his way past my side window. I jump down the other side and get to the gate just before he does.
Down the road, drop the bale in the feederi on the hardstanding, roll up the balewrap and net and back for the next. I discover that I am wearing the wrong coat for this operation: army surplus cammy jacket – with buttons – lots of buttons. Every time my arms get close to the net or it brushes my chest, the buttons snag on the net like sprats- my cuff, my pocket, my chest – so that at times I am attached at multiple points like Gulliver.
Little Holly has wandered back from the wood to wait at the gate, clearly keen to join the others feeding below. I chuck the feedbucket behind her- she won’t be distracted. I shoo her away, before mounting the four foot step to the cab, she returns. I shoo her a bit further and edge the machine through, scraping past the gatepost nearest her: she is waiting. I jump down again, shoo again, she returns again- this time outflanking me on the open side. At this point I lose patience with mischievous heifers, netted buttons and all things slushy and run at her yelling and cussing – at last she flounces off into the wood and I can proceed onward serenely, if shamefaced.
The digger is now parked and the quad comes into play – the ground is too soft to take the big machine down the slope to the Aspen paddock – and the quad won’t carry a heavy silage bale. I topple a hay bale by climbing into a gap, setting my knees against its neighbour and shuffling upwards until the upright bale tips sideways. I can now pull it onto the buggy with the the ingenious scorpion tail grab and head back down.
I pass the feeding beasts as fast as I can in the snowy conditions to make it to the gate and safety, like Wells Fargo. However, the Injuns are after me in the shape of some stotts galloping the hill as I push through the gate. I let the quad run through, turning its wheels uphill so it stops against the fence (see the alternative: todaysstoryblog December 15th….) and run back to close the gate in their faces.
At the Aspens, Alice alone is waiting at the empty feeder. I am about to check in the willows where the animals might get stranded by a flood, when I feel I’m being watched and turning round I find Angus Halfhorn and Demi Og glaring at me from the shed in mute rebuke for late breakfast. They are protected from the falling snow in the improvised shelter: I am pleased that they are using it.
I leave the gate open on the way out: it’ll will provide them with something to investigate this damp winter day and perhaps calm them if they find there is no more grass in the next door field.

Calm is good.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

Change now, betterment later – and a small death

Tonight is the longest of the year. In winter the night limits the day, and defines it. The roundhouse sits high on a coronet of rock catching the wind on a stormy night. Last night I listened to the lashing rain. preparing for the day ahead and the implications for the cattle in their separate areas.
The little girls are best off, just the two, able to shelter in the bedded pen coming out to meet me with the morning feed. The small round shape lying on the concrete is the corpse of the ailing Wyandotte. She has not been brutalised, not shredded – just died- pretty little hen.
The three old girls are relauctant to use the shelter but they are learning the benefits. Billy and the girls have no shelter apart from the bare trees and the lee of the rocks. Billy boy chose his spot last night ; I watched him settle below the big birch beside the road and this morning he is still there, chewing the cud like an old sailor in the corner of a bar. The older animals are more comfortable or resigned to this spell of wet and wind but the yearlings who enjoyed a hay-bedded corner of the big shed as last springs calves, have never endured this before and suffer with lowered heads and hunched rears.
The geography of water and land has changed dramaticly overnight. The snow that powdered the slopes like chainstore cosmetics has slipped with the rain into the river spilling over the valley floor. A full flood creates a new inland sea with shores mounting my lower fields: today’s event is enough to fill the dry meanders of the slow river creating new serpentine patterns of water among the low ground pastures. New islands rise to view, where before there were low-ground mounds and more prominent morraines where unwary herders can find their animals trapped for days on end.
Uvie rises on granite towards the crags, so the flood never reaches far but covers the tussocky paddock that is open to Angus Halfhorn, Alice and Demi-Og. They could be trapped if caught sheltering in the willows. To my relief, I find them gathered round the feeder by the improvised tin shed that lost its roof in the summer and was cobbled back together this backend. There is shelter here but it opens to the south with its back to the prevailing wind, and these gales are driving in from that direction so the floor is saturated and ugly, telling me that there will have been little solace for these animals overnight. They are feeding voraciously with an unusual intensity, starting to understand the implications of winter. I wonder about improving their situation so long as Angus and his father Billy continue to apart to avoid fighting.
I jump into the feeder and help them reach the hay in the middle. As I pull the rainsoaked hay to the side, I uncover a layer that is green and dry, smelling of hot summer. The questing animals latch onto this at once as if they too were clinging to a token of change and betterment.