Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

little girls get ready for school

Little Holly stares at me from inside the yard. She has a hay coiffure where she has pulled it from the rack onto her head where it sits like a jackdaw’s nest. I back through the gate so as to close it easier; she tries to force her nose in to the bucket that I am holding closed with my other hand. I am saving time by holding the scoop with chookie corn in the same hand, so she risks spilling it and sending me back to the feed shed to refill. Little Alice is hanging back still, but this pushiness from Holly means that Alice must be be starting to assert herself.

Alice is the more naturally adventurous of the two – it is she that forces her way into the section of the shed that is to house my new workshop, and she is the one making the trailer quake mysteriously by rubbing an itch as I am inside unloading. These days I give the two of them the freedom of the yard not simply the pen outside the shed. They relish the extra space and interest; testing the breeze for new possibilities.
This new freedom will build confidence like giving a child the run of the house: good preparation for schooling them in a month or so. Alice is a jumpjet of a calf, taking off at the slightest provocation. I need to work her inquisitive nature to develop a habit of co-operation if she is to stay on the farm as a breeding female.

I wonder if I should get a school-bell?

Farm Life, Living with Nature, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Drover Storm quarters her cattle

Drover Storm arrives at the farm in the night. She strides overland from mid-Atlantic pastures bringing her wild black beasts behind. She carries a fencing spike in one hand and with the other broadcasts hail and sleet from a seed bag hanging from her shoulder. She hurls these indiscriminately against rooves and windows. Her cattle lurch ashore over Ben Nevis and stampede inland kicking their heels in the air and raking trees with their lowered horns. I hear the swish of her skirts before the storm-herd charges against the shivering house. The more malevolent beasts prop a horn against a corner and bunch their powerful haunches to force the resistant fabric, straining to rip the roof off, shatter the windows and collapse the walls before charging onwards.
Snow lies outside my door in the morning, a light covering spread by a mean housekeeper, not a blanket. The cattle are like the trees, encrusted with snow on exposed flanks. Their backs will remain white for a good part of the day, they are so well adapted to retaining heat. The ailing Wyandotte is huddled by the gate to the yard where I have to disturb her to spread feed for the baby girls: Holly is puzzled by her presence nuzzling her gently before turning with me to the trough.
Morag reclines in the shed where I am pleased to find she has learned to protect herself in the shelter; she growls, responding to an outraged bellow from the big stott telling me that he is not only cold and wet but also hungry. I need to refill the feeder on the hardstanding, time to urge the chilled metal of the JCB into life: it doesn’t co-operate. The cattle must wait while I drive to Newtonmore for red diesel, which doesn’t pump so I have to pay full price for road fuel.
Down the road again, this time the machine starts, a bale is lifted at the yard and dropped in the feeder, the animals gather quickly to gorge – apart from Billy who stays at the gate. I let him in before bringing the big machine through.
He waits patiently while I drop the bale wrap in the dustbin by the gate and park the digger. I walk over to him, he half turns his head away. He is looking slightly hollow in the saddle and I prop my chest into the cavity leaning against him and stretching my arms, scratching his spine with my left hand and tickling his ribs with my right. He shifts his horns halfheartedly as if to reprimand me when I haven’t quite hit the spot. I notice the scratches and battlescars on the back of his giant horns. I lead him out of the gate with bucket of feed and close it behind him.
Snow is falling vertically now, the day proceeds after the night before.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

I find myself being stalked

Abby stands foursquare in the middle of the road, obstructing my access to the gate. Small and black with a nice regular spread of horns she would alarm a stranger. She is immobile, catching the most of the breeze to dry off after a wild night. Billy waits at the side of the road, similarly statuesque – and damp. I tease the flattened hair on her coat before passing on, her ears go back and her head down but she doesn’t move. She knows what she needs.
Flora and Moira are pacified by feed in the trough, leaving Morag alone with her bucket doctored with cod liver oil. Across the yard I skoosh calf feed into the sheep trough for the babies, Holly and Alice, dimly aware of my ghostly companion the robin who flashes past like a miniature fighter jet. I spot him again later as I unload timber, flying past me into the shed where I stack boards of burr elm and ash. He takes up a distant vantage in the apex, barely discernible against the gable. He is not the type who perches on the gardener’s spade, not a Christmas card bird. He follows me discreetly, lurking semi concealed like an old fashioned gumshoe employed by a jealous wife.
Today he is not my only stalker. My one remaining Wyandotte is behaving very strangely. Wyandottes are small decorative chickens, with brown and grey flecked feathers graded like old slates in paisley-like patterns trimmed with orange. My chook is ailing. it was the Nog first brought her to my attention, his predator’s instinct pointing the huddle of feathers in a dish of hay at roosting time when no chook should be sleeping on the ground. For the last three nights I pick her up and propel her onto the loft and safety. She must wake from sleep to find herself inexplicably in mid air, but instinct takes over even if it takes her a while to trim once coming in to land.
She is wobbling round the yard, every now and then losing her balance and sitting back where she stays like a small animated football, periscope head swivelling. I realise she is following me. Each time I enter the yard during the day she gravitates unevenly toward me, even peeling away from her companions to teeter towards me as I enter the gate. Twice I throw her a handful of corn, but she has none of it. Finally I stoop down and talk to her. She walks to within six inches of my face, her beady eyes losing their confusion, and stretches her neck out in a determined effort to peck or pull at my upper face- my eyes, my forehead, my hair I can’t tell. She is expressing some need directed towards me. Is her gesture some hangover from early life directed towards mother hen? Is she looking to me for something she knows she won’t find from her companions? Or has she spotted some array of spiders or grubs in my hair, or grass seed – always possible, I suppose. Chickens are hard to read, garrulous but with sharp eyes.
The afternoon is already drawing in, so I tuck her under my arm. At least this time she’ll be awake when she makes her night flight, her vol de nuit. It might be her last.

Farm Life, Other People's Stories, today's story

New life beckons in the place of execution

The farm horizons change daily. Snow comes and goes, clouds hide different levels of the slopes. Today as I walk up the road I don’t recognise Creag Dubh. There is a white wasteland behind the ridge. It is as if the Monadhliath plateau has drifted like a liner to berth against the summit. It is a white desert beckoning. I wait to understand that it is simply the higher contours picked out by a night-time blizzard, while the foreground remains dark. My sense of the familiar is further rocked to find Moira gone. Flora and Morag alone wait at the gate to be fed. There is always a lurch of anxiety when an animal breaks a routine and I need to set my mind at rest urgently.

The calving paddock housing the three elderly cows is constructed around the new shed built 18 months ago. The shed provides a refuge, there is a south facing slope for the animals to soak up precious winter sun, open ground for the babies to scamper, trees for cover and a granite mound at its centre that provides shelter whatever the wind direction. It is my calving mound but its gaelic name, Tom na Cruachan, indicates a very different past. Cruachan is a cruck or frame: as a joiner I have made many types but not this one. When I mount the rock ledge bordering my calving mound in search of Moira, I am climbing towards the old gallows site.

Behind the shed and skirting the mound, there are some large rocks telling of the old entrance to the farm while the level path winding through the trees is in fact the old road before the new highway was embanked and straightened to become the A86. I stand where felons swung, poor wretches. Here I can see on all sides in search of the missing animal: in the past, road travellers would have looked up to this eminence- and shuddered. It is never a comfortable place to stand, but serves its new purpose. I have spotted Moira’s rear behind the far end of the shed where she has been sheltering.

It will only be a month or so now before the first babies bring new life to the place. It has been quiet long enough.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

creatures of habit

A blowy night with rain lashing the house and the cattle down in the wood. I’m out a tad later, having worked the weekend but not so late as to disturb the clock watchers in fields and sheds; awesomely dependant on a routine that I have established and must maintain. The wind has blown the gate to the calving pen open and Flora has been able to raid the feed store – trampling and knocking stuff over. Mind you I’m not the tidiest so I can make good quick enough, and even succeed in coralling Morag separately for her dose of of cod liver oil. Is it my imagination or is she placing a little more weight on that dodgy rear leg?
These days my approach to the yard is heralded by a fountain of pheasants exploding outwards like a municipal firework display. In the feed shed there is always a little hen pheasant who is taken by surprise every morning, lifts off vertically to clatter against the tin roof before whirring outward like a wizz-bang. There is a regular visitor too who announces himself in the halflight as a blur at the corner of vision, swooping between the hay stack and the old JCB. As the light grows I make him out darting from vantage to vantage along my route attending on different tasks during the day: piling windblown sheets of corrugated iron finds him watching from a peat pile, clearing a windblown hawthorn finds him concealed in the pile of branches. A few days ago, one of high wind and driving rain, I was astonished to find him fluttering past the gate as I went to open it, blown ragged by the gale but dauntless in his opportunism.
I heard David Attenborough today talking about this bird, robin redbreast. Apparently, thousands of years ago, robins learned to follow tribes of pigs, picking over the ground they disturbed. Then as humans became herders, the birds followed the domesticated animals and ultimately transferred allegiance to the herder as provider.
So, I have been adopted, my care of the herd bringing me a shadow asserting an ancient relationship extending many generations behind my current routines- and the return? Nothing more than cheerful companionship.

Good enough.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

Runaway machines are just routine- really

The old girls are fed, chooks released, Angus Halfhorn and his ladies need vittles. The ground is soft after yesterday’s rain, so I don’t want to use the heavy JCB to take the bale down to their paddock. I’ll use the quad and bogey to cart hay to them. I bring the quad up from the garage with the Nog doing his kamikaze best to interfere. The only way to deal with this is to gun straight at him yelling: ‘I’ll get you, I’ll run you down you mad galoot’, at which point he sprints ahead up the road. With the shed safely achieved, I climb the stack of bales and, squeezing between two bales, use my back and knees to topple one to the ground, checking first that the Nog’s curiosity isn’t likely to be fatal.
Pulling the bale onto the bogey using the scorpion tail grab, I lock the hinge on the drawbar and haul out. I have to pass through the Apron, the big central pasture inhabited by Billy and the stotts. The Nog and the stotts have a similar approach to chores, dancing around each other in a kind of bullfight: he launching feints at their heads, they butting at him with their heads and kicking up their heels. It is not surprising therefore in this high octane atmoshere that I arrive at the gate with a dancing cohort ready to follow me out of the field.
The trick is to park the quad and trailer, swing the gate open, jump back onboard, speed through and return to close the gate before the animals escape. Gate open, quad through and the stotts are already following to pastures new. I set the handlebars to autopilot ┬áturning up the hill to roll to a halt, while I run back to chain the gate. I close the gate but before I can latch it, I realise that the wheels have turned down the slope and the quad pulling the loaded trailer is gathering pace down the hill. It is a fine judgement as to how much ground I can make up on the accelerating rig before it reaches terminal velocity and crashes to the bottom of the field. This, with the weight of the bale and trailer, would destroy a substantial section of stock fence. The other element of downside involves me failing to remount the runaway machine and getting ploughed under by the trailer like Marshall Blucher by Napoleon’s cavalry. (‘I’m sorry – I schtink’ are supposedly his first words on meeting up with Wellington covered in malodorous mud.)
In the event I judge it right – jump on, correct the quad’s trajectory with just one wobbly moment and proceed as planned.
Y’know- farming really is nothing more than a series of well-rehearsed routines.

Highland cattle, Timber building, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Do we really prefer the rain?

Doom and gloom, wind and rain, forecast for the weekend – and we’re on the roof! The day starts quiet enough – though there’s a bank of heavy cloud skirting the north of the farm, and the wind is southerly so I leave without my raingear. Long banks of cloud are driving purposefully across the sky- marauding squadrons trimmed with occasional patches of crimson. The three old girls by the shed need feeding with care: Flora and Moira first and then I can ensure that Morag gets the bucket laced with cod-liver oil for her rheumatics. By the time I’ve finished with the calves, Flora has her head down in Moira’s bucket, Moira in Morag’s and Morag in Flora’s.
Ach well -the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley.
Down to the Pottery to await the roofer. Andrew appears at lunchtime and in spite of persistant rain sets to cheerfully. The worst of the gale is shielded by the monument crag rising from the roadside to the south but it is still blowing hard and driving damp through our clothing. Andrew is a sailor, and at times is spreadeagled along the ridge like an old time mariner reefing topsails. It is a race against dark but we keep working through the rain and by dark the ridge is watertight. I am standing on the roofing ladder supplying Andrew with tools and lead. From this vantage I watch the strath – car headlights lighting up the murk as though inside a cave, the monument to a forgotten laird presiding yet from the crag above, the lower wooded slopes of Creag Dubh leading up to vanish in cloud and the ridges fading into the distance as they lead downriver towards Cairngorm.
‘It’s a great landscape whatever the weather, eh Andrew?’
and he, game as ever-
‘Wouldn’t have it any different.’
Returning in the dark I light the sheds. Holly and Alice have invaded the half concreted for my new workshop – leaving signatures in dung on the pristine floor. The other shed is empty – the three old cows have ignored the chance of shelter preferring to lie out in the rain.
Sometimes I think Highlanders make it hard on themselves.


Big beasts

Today I start as usual. Let the chooks out of their house, feed the little girls, Holly and Alice. For the first time I take nuts to the three old cows, Flora with her metre wide span of horns, quiet Moira who struggles for her place with no horns at all, and Morag gimping along with chronic arthritis. They all get a bucket, but Morag’s is laced with cod-liver oil in an attempt to keep her mobile even as the damp and cold makes this harder for her. They share the shed with the biggest beast on the farm, bigger even than Billy, my JCB 3X. 23 years old, battered and rusty, I am dependant on the old machine for a whole variety of tasks, but at this time of the year primarily for putting out the silage bales, too heavy to load on the quad hauled bale buggy.
The machine needs coaxing to start, demanding a boost from the battery charger and a squirt of quick-start in the air filtre. Rattled into reluctant life I ease it gently out of the shed, knowing that even brushing against the building uprights, other machinery or hay bales will result in damage like a cuff from an avuncular giant. I reverse into the silage stack, pull down a couple of bales and turning round, load the first bale onto the forks. I head down the farm road to the feeder at the hardstanding, pausing to allow the Nog to scrabble up the high step to join me in the cab. Close to the feeder, I drop the bucket and jump down to cut the wrap and net and tie them back to the fork bars. Lifting the bale high over the feeder, I tilt the bucket forward to drop the bale and then reverse to pull the wraps away from the fermenting grass. As I pull out to the road, Billy has already huiched a pile of silage out of the bale and up into the air where it falls onto his back resting there like a fox fur.
The second bale is destined for the old girls who are now raiding each other’s buckets – that’s fine just so long as Morag took some of the oil-impreganted nuts. Driving up to the fence dividing the calving pen from the store, I touch the front wheels against the line wire and raise the bale over the feeder on the other side. it is just too far to reach with ease, so I give the forks a little upward flick as the bale drops, half lobbing it into the feeder.
Next I turn the machine to the newly delivered stack of building timber, force the forks between the bearers and balance the 4.8 metre lengths in the centre of the bucket on the way into the shed that I am converting for my joinery workshop. Once the timber is stowed inside, I return across the yard and gingerly park up. Igniton off, Nog released, job done.
I would feed the old dear with special oil if I thought it would keep her going longer.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

the cow who growls

Lynda returned from Inverness with four bags of cattle feed and five litres of cod liver oil. The oil is for Morag the old white cow who growls. The only cow who growls. She is frankly ugly, far from my favourite animal, and yet…
Well, for a start she bred the only champion I have ever shown; Kirsty Morag, top two year old spring 2012 at Oban show and sale. Oban mart is the Mecca of Highland Cattle breeding. To me, Oban is not a quiet coastal town in Argyll, departure point for the ferries to the isles, it is an event. Twice a year the best of the breed are brought together, barbered, shampooed, schooled and presented to compete against their peers. On that one occasion, Kirsty was judged to be the best two year old and I stood at the head of the line.
So, for that moment, if for nothing else I am indebted to the old girl. She is so arthritic that one leg swings uselessly most of the time. I have brought her up to the calving paddock so that she can shelter from the weather inside the shed, but, cussed as she is, she won’t use it.
So I will dose her with cod liver oil in the hope, probably forlorn, that she may survive long enough to drop just one more new beautiful calf that I can parade round the showring in a year or two in honour of one obstinate, long-faced, angular old beast- Morag, the cow who growls.

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

Violence and wild neighbours

The cattle are lurking at the top of the road. They’re using the trees to shelter from the wind but also trying to convince me that the weather is harsh enough to warrant supplementary feeding. It isn’t: in fact it is unseasonably warm. I harden myself to collective emotional blackmail even as Abby and Holly position themselves across my path to force me to acknowledge them. The babies,namely little Holly and Alice, get fed at the shed, but that is to socialise them as well as to bring them on. The rest just have to man – er -cow up: it’ll get tougher later in the winter.
The fine weather means there are no welfare fears, the feeders are full and the beasts content apart from Ma Alice who, separated from her baby, looks forlornly through the net like a POW dreaming of home. A tickle down both sides of Angie Halfhorn’s ample neck and I’m out the bottom end of the Aspen paddock to follow the old township road past the kitchen garden and back up to the house for breakfast.
Closing the final gate I spot a scatter of feathers: white with pale brown edging- the colours of my sober Maran hens. These have not been lost through preening: there are breast and flight feathers torn out. Not enough though to constitute a shambles, a bourroch in the old language. There is no explosion of feathers the way a peregrine pulverises a pigeon: no shredded carcase after the way of a harrier. Perhaps one of my chooks was dragged here by a big predator, fox or wildcat?- But no, the two Marans perambulate peacefully at the shed with their bible black consort whose splendour is only slightly lessened when he trips over his own feathered feet.
I am relieved not to have failed an animal in my care; but troubled that one of my wild neighbours should have suffered some nameless violence this night past.