Animal stories, Farm Life, farm visitors, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Fuel enough for today

Colder this morning, a bale to put out- and the digger doesn’t start, The battery is old, the glow plug doesn’t work- but the old machine normally fires up after a recharge and some fast start like a pensioner on prozak. Today the engine hunts and dies. I realise how dependant I am and in turn how dependant the cattle are on me to resolve this failure.
More juice, and some fresh diesel livening the tank: the machine shakes itself and offers to work – thankfully I can satisfy the bellowing stotts- this time.
Billy, my beloved bull is old too. The calves are late, perhaps he missed some cows this year with the muscles in his weakening rear legs no longer able to lift his weight to mount the willing females. I see him alone in the calving pen: as usual he comes close and bends his giant neck to the side in invitation- which I accept, climbing over the gate and taking time to scratch him leaning my body into the hollow of his flank.
Down in the bottom pasture, Angus Halfhorn waits with his two young cows, both heavy and healthy with calf. They are gathered at the far end of the field. I open the gate above and when I ride down on the quad, they canter parallel to me, unhurried and graceful. The long copper hair of Angie’s coat shakes as he runs, matching me for speed. They proceed to the trough ahead of me and wait for me in expectation.
All quiet, all in order – they are satisfied. I have not disappointed. The machine has fuel for today,


Braving the fragrance of time past

Today I visited an old house that I loved as a kid- smarter, cleaner and more comfortable now. The walls have no damp stains or flaking paint, the carpets are full and rich, it is well lit. The spaces are the same (though appearing smaller).
But it used to smell – like a symphony.
The glazed entance lobby, catching the year round sun, no longer greets the visitor with baked wellington, stiffening raingear, heavy varnish bubbled on old clothes stands, oil based linoleum.
The hall proffers no gift of furniture wax and pot plants.
The stair cupboard embaces no-one with rough-sawn pine and drying flowers.
The basement fails to chill the skin with kiss of cool damp working through distempered granite.
No thinning carpets give off dry vapours shed from ageing fabrics.
While the loose boards are pinned and silent in the corridor braved in darkness- as a test.


Sanctuary is a lighted shed

The day starts with a power-cut interfering with my plans to organise my new workshop space in the barn, and also with my guests cleaning the bunkhouse. I don’t understand this – no gales last night to bring down lines, but the power company confirm 200 homes offline. I am helpless to work, cook, make coffee, start the digger to feed the animals, maintain water supply. I will be culling hinds over the next few days, so I take the rifles out to the target on the Apron where I am set up for a 100 metre shot- not really long enough – 150 is more suited to the terrain on Catlodge estate where I carry out my stalking. The .270 is spot on: my usual scruffy 21/2″ grouping on all sides of the bull: the .243 is high but good for 200m (so long as I remember).
By the time I retreat to the house, the power is back and it has started to snow big wet flakes. I work in the shed with the lights shining on the snow falling past the open door. The chooks gather at the end of the day, confused by the rearrangement of their universe, my stacked boards making it hard for them to fly and scrabble to roost in the rafters. Some hens have given up and are content to join cocky in the house to be locked in- good for his self-esteem at least.
The chooks gather disconsolately – bedraggled in uncertainty, but they will make their choices when I leave. As I prepare in the quiet before the loss of light, a small bird flashes in the open door startling the dozy chooks into flapping and cackles. The streamlined missile of the pursuing sparrowhawk, morphs into alternative action,opens its wings braking and turning in an instant as it takes in the alien world of the lit interior, inhabited and cluttered. I see the bars on its underside clearly defined as it veers and collects and retreats to the birches across the yard. It doesn’t wait, the opportunity has gone, it flits silently across the road to lose itself in the sloping wood.
A dunnock, brown-flecked long tailed, that partnered me in my work earlier, is sitting on the radial saw table, unmoving, slumped, panting life.
I kill the lights and leave before I can disturb it.


Old tunes are easier heard at twilight

11:38 PM (9 hours ago)

to me

It is quite sociable starting the stud wall defining my new joinery workshop. Holly and Alice, last year’s babies, feed in the penned section retained for farm operations. I can’t resist giving Holly a comb as I did when showing her at Oban mart last October. She is content to indulge me, accepting the attention with dignified hauteur; but not unschooled Alice, who attempts a vertical take-off when I scratch at her dossan, the long hair hanging in front of her eyes, distinctive of the Highland breed. I am secretly pleased though that she shows curiosity, wanting to share little Holly’s experience: it will help in bringing her on.
The yard is full of life as food is available in a time of scarcity. The chooks backheel scraps from the house, bakery failures from the coffee-shop, pickings from the cattle: grass seeds, insects and concentrates ie winter supplements of dark grains and minerals made up as pellets or ‘nuts’.
This landscape would be so much the poorer without the service to wildlife provided by cattle tending.
I look over the yard mid afternoon to count 6 chooks, 5 pheasants, a pair of mallard and assorted small birds sauntering about. Speaking of which,the beadle puts in an appearance, the authoritative redbreast. While working inside the barn I am frequently visited by small birds: dunnets, a female blackbird and on one occasion a male chaffinch darts in with a distinctive skelter of white wing flashes. He perches on top of the hay bale and surveys for food, aware of me – and quite unperturbed. I talk to him as I would to more familiar company – and speak of the devil! – a small indignant flame flares in the loft, directly behind the interloper – my robin is evidently disleased.
I down tools before dark , and it being a fine evening, take a tour of my small kingdom greeting the people namely the cattle who don’t receive much attention at this, a functional time of the year. Billy gets a tickle, I smile at Abby and her boy playing peekaboo in the branches of a birch felled by the recent gales, chew the fat with Angus Hafhorn, Demi Og and Alice gathered peacefully at the round feeder.
I walk through the hunter’s moment. The period, still twilit, when the day gives over to night. The wind drops, birds are at roost, footsteps sound loud as hearing becomes acute, seeing oblique-
I like this dance to the old tunes, with old partners, on the grassy floors.

Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Does racing the dog qualify as farm work?

The Nog has finished harassing the stotts and gallops down the hill after the quad. Angus Halfhorn waits quietly at the fence, on the dry ground where he and the girls spend most of the day. He falls into step with me as I wade though the swampy ground by the feed trough, where he takes his place. Pride of place be it said, but not over-eager. Alice pushes in next and Demi-Og moves nervously round to the end where she will find a space without disturbing the other two. Precedence is clear – it makes my job easier that there is no challenge or jostling.
However, this is not true of the Nog – who starts to give me grief the moment I fire up the quad to ride back up the hill. I invite him on board but with the snow blowing in from the west he can’t make up his mind whether he wants to ride up front or race beside me. The latter makes me nervous so I command him on board like a drunken rating onto a merchantman. He doesn’t get it right though – not willing to sit up in the face of the weather, he lies across the front of the seat like a sack with a tail, pinning the skin of my thigh painfully.
This doesn’t work for me – so I chase behind him up to the second gate and refuse to allow him on board for the run down the road. He has cottoned on to this, so he allows me a headstart, knowing that I will have to slow for the bend and only sets off when I am about thirty yards away. We race up to the house neck and neck.
I’m really not convinced this is best farm practice.


unexpected company but no conversation

The Nog and I leave the pick-up at the hill gate. I prepare myself carefully – for facing the blizzard. Gaiters, overtrousers, fleece, zipped fleece, cammy jacket and then a choice of hat – green beany or balaclava covering most of my face. The balaclava wins out – so we set off into the storm. I resemble a whiskery green sperm – but who’s looking?
We climb slowly through a landscape that is apocalyptic in places after the summer’s hill fire that blighted 400 acres of vegetation. The blaze is vivid in my mind as I skirt the blackened margins where the firefighters from half a dozen stations stamped out restarts in the smouldering peat. The Nog and I are over the summit now above Loch Caoldair, heading round the west- facing promontaries where I conducted my Vision Quest a decade ago, fasting and flying in my mind fuelled on green tea and the occasional dram of Campbelltown malt.
The snow is deeper here as I overlook the high dark peat hags where I would expect the deer to be gathered but for the Pylons newly strung with cables running to the south. In spite of the intrusion, I find I’m smiling as usual settling into a slow rhythm for the uncertain footing, closer to shambling than striding. I’m keeping a weather eye on the west in case the cloud drives thicker storms wrapping me in white on the tops where I could lose my bearings
– and I see someone walking ahead of me.
I have never met anyone up here before – and in a blizzard? He is walking the same ridge line as me, a hundred yards ahead. He hasn’t seen me, so I follow. I know the Nog will catch up with him before long but I follow discreetly as long as I can, keeping an eye on the surroundings, watching the near horizon while keeping my focus on the target. He is walking at the same shambling pace as me, well- wrapped though in red and blue not brown and green- his choice to stand out, mine to blend in. He knows what he is doing- but he doesn’t know that I am here too.


The Nog finally catches up to him as he climbs the brae opposite, and announces himself.
I hear the yelp clearly

– and it’s not from the dog.

A rock provides shelter from the wind. I settle for a cup of sweet coffee while the Nog bounces backwards and forwards deliriously in the snow, dislodging some from the rock above my head. When my companion has moved out of sight – I hoist my pack-
-and set off homeward round the other side of the hill.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Other People's Stories, Uncategorized

Old and cold today

There is frost on the ground this morning: water is skinned with ice like cooling soup, breaking with a crunch as the quad wheels break through. The air is fresh in my nostrils as I motor down the hill to Angus Halfhorn, and his prime pregnant heifers: Alice and Demi Og. Angie is waiting by the stock fence as I climb over with the feed sack. He watches me without importuning, and then follows to the trough taking his place patiently as I spread the nuts evenly along its length.  He is simply a decent lad, so I take time to acknowledge him, looking him in the eye, hailing him cheerfully and communicating something more subtle but equally important to a herd member- my heartfelt goodwill.

The cold feels correct, a settled seasonality, though troublesome.


Ten minutes drive takes me to the coffee-shop for my quarterly book-keeping session with the endlessly patient Wilma, delayed a half-hour for frozen roads. Jimmy arrives, taking a break from chopping logs for sale in the roofless farmhouse across the road. He has been lamenting the mild weather as no-one is burning his sticks, but today he blows on his fingers complaining of the chill wind. Jimmy celebrated his birthday last week – he is 84.


I have a bale to deliver to the geriatrics at the yard- Billy and the girls. It is just a short stretch from the other side of the yard, but the rusting yellow JCB must be nursed into life to shift the heavy silage. This task is reserved  for late afternoon so that the cold metal of the big engine benefits from the warmth of the day. Even so, having attached the battery charger, administered quick start fluid – it takes the third (and final, for sure) spasm of the wheezing engine to catch and clear.

We ready for work even as twilight falls and the frosts of a new night gather.

Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, Uncategorized

Winter quiet

The dark vegetation at the top of Creag Dhub is dusted with snow while the grey granite remains unchanged. It is the summer plumage of a ptarmigan, reminiscent of warmer days on the high tops where the wind cuts still. Now the mild morning is greeted as though the season had turned and I listen hatless to the full throated song of an unknown bird in the branches above the shed roof. It is easy to visualise the sound falling like water, or a blessing.
Snow swirls again around the house as I look out from breakfast preparations. The flakes are small and round, light enough to be lifted and carried on the breezes that eddy in the lee of the planes of the roundhouse and its segmented roof. The flakes reveal the architecture of the westerlies – some which swoop from the roof above, some swirling round the walls, some shooting out across the fields with only the briefest reference to the temporary obstruction of my home.
The cattle are watchful, healthy, unperturbed – no new calves are born, no crises undergone by the older animals. .
Six long-winged birds fly westward – swans probably – I follow them with my eyes but can’t identify them for sure. A mob of jackdaws-always activist- has occupied the perimeter of the kitchen garden.
We are suspended in a kind of uncertainty.
I will put out two bales of silage.

Animal stories, Chooks, Farm Life, heroic ambition, Living with Nature, today's story, Uncategorized

Working is for the birds

A light rain falls as I convert some of my timber stack to firewood using the chainsaw. A choice must be made- these are sawn boards, and seasoned for years in the lean-to, in case I am called to use it to make furniture. There is ash there, local pine, larch, beech, sycamore,oak, chestnut, walnut – all fit to be machined and worked, but none of it used in the last twenty years – so why keep it?


Firewood has a real value, not potential. I guage the value of my segmented timber stock in hours of burning – this board gives me an hour, two hours; this pile gives me a day, a week, longer. Horizons come closer in winter: this mild spell will end, and now I have stored some insurance like racking potatoes.

As I swing the bellowing saw, a tiny finch works alongside, also laying down reserves against winter extremes. The lesser redpolls have been active in the birches for some weeks now, settling in sudden showers among the purplish twigs waving at the branches’ extremities. They strip out the residues of nutritous seeds with rapid agility. This little bird is working alone, out of context in more ways than one, nipping not at the seed source but at the deposits on the black plastic wrapping my silage. Its head has a blush of russet, a cape of yellow descends its neck,  its wings carry dark brown flecks like grains. It is focussed on its task and observant but oblivious of my operations-
-unlike the robin.
My companion ghost appears at the far side of the finch, perched on the roadside gatepost. The robin has no work, he has authority. He is a beadle, hands clasped behind his tailcoat, observing the industry of the deserving poor (me and the finch, that is) while pretending to watch the road traffic.

By 4 o’clock the timber for warmth is cut and the timber for making is stored; but someone is working harder than ever. Cocky disappeared into the lonely chooky house earlier, but now, as I prepare to lock him in, he returns to the open. He has his gaze fixed on the roof timbers where his ladies have all learned to roost, leaving him earthbound. Not for much longer, his body language says.
His posture is rigid, his neck points forward and upward like a brandished cavalry sword. He braces himself… and launches.

He gains an elevation of a full eighteen inches- (His ladies manage fifteen foot to the tie beam in three stages)- and holds fast. Sadly, his perch is a fence post that, being cylindrical, rolls backwards and forwards as he struggles for equilibrium like a logger on a Canadian river. His efforts, plainly incompetent, alert the predatory instincts of the Nog who I oblige to sit. Cocky is eventually dislodged, but remaining totally focussed on his task, stalks forward for his next attempt completely unaware of his proximity to the motionless Nog, who salivates silently.

He is attached to the deluded intent that he can fly directly up to the tie beams without following the pattern established by the womenfolk. I leave while he is still working on the problem, and return later to shut the chooky house on the assumption that he failed, and is sulking within like great Achilles.

I reckon his power to weight ratio is against him – or maybe brain to muscle. Ambition for change came late – but for all that it looks like it’s here to stay.
We are all fighting our battles on windy plains before locked cities.

We are all mighty.

Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm, village life

The visitor

I was going to say that I never saw a human face today (so it’s a good thing I enjoy the animals) – but it is not true.
I am in the yard after dropping a bale into Billy and the gravid mothers. They are all outside since it is breezy and fine; Abby’s wee black boy gallops among the birches like a tiny stampeding bison, and Billy tries to intercept the bale hoisted above the feeder, reaching up like a basketball player.
Gates shut, JCB parked; my sole visitor appears at the gate. Trevor the woodsman wants to know who owns Lochain Ubhaidh (Wee loch Uvie – close enough to the farm to share a name).
He was standing between the cliffs and the water when he heard a thrashing in the water.
Sma-a-a-k. A giant fish clears the water and thumps back with the noise of a sledgehammer splintering a gatepost.
Sma–k. It breaches again.

The sound echoes from the looming crags, vigilant with ravens.