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

My ghost sits in the branches of a birch tree

I see my ghost in the middle of the day.
Walking the Nog up to the yard before lunch, I spy the robin. He flies into the lower branches of the sole birch tree within the  yard used for exercising the show animals. I watch him in the winter sunshine: I see his redbreast. As usual he watches me from a distance, askance.


I think of him as a ghost because he is mostly half seen only: but always there when I walk in the half light to start my service of the animals. Most days I catch him from an eye’s edge swooping across the mouth of the gate to disappear inside the barn. I cannot spy him among the clutter of machinery, haybales, scaffolding gear, fencing tools, machined timber, oil containers, ropes, fencing tools, feedsacks, deer lardering kit – but I know he is there- watching from the shadows, bright-eyed.


Perhaps he really is a ghost. This place belonged, of course, to farmers and cattle breeders before me. They, their houses, the township are gone – their fields, the shapes of their roads and yards, the piles of stones picked from the plough remain as their legacy. The kaleyard they used to crop for the table has been restored as my kitchen garden. The robin clearly monitors my activities as I tend the cattle; if he is an old showman he’ll enjoy watching the choice calves grow, get halter trained and schooled in the yard. He would chuckle at my bungled attempt to tag Abby’s calf the other morning. He’d applaud a good animal well turned out.


This is, after all, an ancient relationship. Robins, they reckon, followed herds of animals for the grubs and insects disturbed. Later, watching apes grow intelligent enough to manage those herds, the bird followed the man after the ape, the farmer after the herder. Strongly territorial, the male defends his patch, and presumably his provider, the farmer. So my ghost has ownership of me – not my person so much as my behaviour, from which many advantages may accrue to one small bird and his mate.


As he sits in the unaccustomed glare of the sun, a flock of finches bursts into the bare branches above his head like a firework, and scatters to the adjacent trees.  A rapid looping swoop takes him to the crack at the base of the barn’s slatted wall- and into the sheltering shade. He has seen and shown enough.


I will look for him tomorrow.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uncategorized

A weave of many interests

Four pheasants saunter round the yard, awaiting my arrival. They are not seriously disturbed by the Nog (maybe word has circulated in pheasant circles about just how useless he is as a gundog). The ghost robin speeds by, half-seen as always, on his way to some discreet vantage in the barn. Billy and the pregnant girls plus black Abby and her new calf wait motionless to be triggered into movement only on my approach to the feed trough. I must pilot my way through like a tugboat through a harbour bound fleet.


Morag and I have a compact. She is an ungainly white cow, unfailingly hostile who produces excellent calves that she mothers well. Morag is effectively on three legs, standing with her left rear raised several inches in the air, and putting it to ground only when she has to. She has never walked well and is clearly struggling now with rheumatics; as a gesture towards her long and grumbling companionship, I dose her with cod-liver oil by means of a distinct bucket of feed nuts. Trouble is – if she and I don’t play canny- more agile members of the maternity wing will edge her off the bucket.

I approach the fence therefore with two buckets, but drop the medicated one inconspicuously before straddling the line wire. There follows a period of confusion, where Billy and the girls jockey for top position at the trough and I try to distribute the feed evenly while avoiding injury from heavy feet and hard horns. Morag sometimes plays at joining in, though she knows she is not fit to compete; but as soon as the others are fully occupied, she breaks off to follow me back to the fence, where I secretly swing the waiting bucket under her muzzle.


The Nog paces beside me as I run the feed sacks down the hardstanding. The quad was left outside the door last night – I kneel on the seat to avoid getting a wet arse. The stotts have two troughs to avoid congestion and bullying. One of these boys follows me uncertainly as a I move between the two leaving his fellows with their heads down. He has abandoned assured benefits in favour of anticipated advantage. He has a gambler’s soul.

We all have our stratagems.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

The wikiguide on how not to tag a calf

All calves need ear tags. This means inserting a plastic rivet with identification numbers through the baby’s hairy ear. The animal will carry the tag for life and be recorded by this number for any operation – veterinary, movements, breeding, and ultimately death- perhaps as much as twenty years down the road.
Anyone sensible, with animals close to hand, tags calves shortly after birth – basically before they have a clue what is happening. I tag them after the first week – the most fragile period in a new life. Only when confident that they are feeding properly, have no infections, a proper moral commitment to support the farm by surviving, and a robust physical approach to life in the open air – do I risk their first one-on-one intervention with a human being. The benefit of this is that baby will be much stronger in its second week; the downside is that baby will be much stonger in the second week.
Abby’s baby is due for tagging. He is lying inside the calf enclosure insulated by the hale bale opened like a sheltering wing in the north eastern corner of the shed. This is accessed by a creep gate – the babies can walk through full height but too low for the adults.
I load two taggers, lure Abby out into the yard and corner him in the creep. He starts to panic, bleating like a goat calling to Abby who responds with guttural roars but is safely separated by two gates. I hold him between my knees as he tries to squueze out through a corner, feel the papery skin of his ear for the prominent veins and catch a bare patch with the prong of the tagger, squeezing hard. The tang pierces the ear, connecting with the socket in the companion tag the other side, but the tagger, used for the first time of the year, doesn’t release.
This is where things start to go wrong…
As I free the tagger, the calf runs to the far side of the enclosure. I usher it away from the aperture leading to the open air and catch it in the corner. I have dropped the second tagger: it is lying in the hay where I fixed the first tag. I cannot reach it and hold on to the calf. I steer the calf back over, pick up the device – prepare to clamp – Uh – oh – only one tag in the machine. The other one has dropped off – somewhere in the enclosure. Baby takes advantage of the distraction to leg it outdoors.
I chase it round the paddock for the next ten minutes. feed the others inside in case it will follow, hunt it round the feeder like kids round the mulberry bush, contemplate rugby tackling it (but the floor of the hardstanding is 2 inches deep slurry by this time- too rich even for my stomach), trap it against the fence – but the wire is slack and it wriggles through.
Finally I give up and return Abby to her son before any of us gets too traumatised.
There must be an easier way to make an idiot of myself –
-actually chasing a two week old calf round a muckfilled yard is pretty good for that.
Hope the rest of the day goes better …dunno though..

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Other People's Stories, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Nothing happens – but time is told

Nothing happened today. Why would it – on a day so still, damp – and short? The hours tiptoe down the road winding between dawn and dusk.
The moist air holds woodsmoke as the Nog and I disembark from the house onto the jetty of the day; it is drawing from the east, heralding colder weather.
The beasts need fed after a day of semi-starvation. The rusting yellow JCB fires up with a boost to its failing battery and a squirt of spirit in the air filter, the Nog scrambles on board for shelter from the light drizzle and a bale is dropped over the fence for Billy and the girls. The bale wrap catches and falls; I use the backactor to release pressure on the plastic, and jump down to roll it up. Billy obstructs me, turning his great horn-ringed head to the side, more interested in contact than feeding: I oblige with a good scratch to his spine.
This evening I am up to the yard again: latch the door to the chooky house, check whether Holly, lying in the shed, is close to calving and away uphill with the Nog.
Cars are speeding parallel to us as we set out on the old road past the gallows mound. The Nog is the colour of dry bracken, I am in deerstalking camouflage; we don’t disturb the drivers. Crossing the road at the old tinker’s stance with its declaration of larches, we take the oblique path through the ancient quarry workings. Vapour sweeps the cliffs like skirts below the monument to the lairds wife. Damp bracken is near crimson against the dark purple of heather stems.
Behind the hill, the burn drains the peat above the crags, tumbling with a sound of endless transition, emblem and agent of constancy in change. A jet ploughs the high atmosphere on its way over the top of the world, unseen above two ravens calling briefly to each other as they head for their roost in crevices on the black crags. Water drops hang unmoving on the birch twigs like small dulled lights.
Cold claps my cheeks and earlobes as I walk steadily upwards, dismissing any scent from the sodden vegetation. Arrived at the small summit, the monument resolves itself in a memory. I stand to share the view awhile with Sarah Justina Macpherson, ‘beloved wife and mother..’ A brief light illumines the clouds above the snows of Ben Alder and Ben Nevis, while to the east the headlamps of a single vehicle creep around the base of the mountain towards our starting point.
The Nog stays close as we descend to the birches with their roosting pheasants, he knows not to disturb the massed ewes grazing the slopes
The stove is still lit, the house is warm.
A small old clock sits by the stove.
I have it from my grandmother. Carried from France to the New World by her grandmother, it sat inert in my grandparents house, having no key.
Yesterday I cleaned the metal case with a toothbrush and pickling vinegar.
Today, it is telling time again.
Tomorrow I will sharpen the chainsaw and make alot of noise blocking logs.

Animal stories, Highland cattle

Running on empty

O dear, I’m not popular. Before setting Ali loose on the animals at the weekend, I dropped a new bale in two ring feeders – at the calving paddock and the hard standing.They are both due for a refill – well, almost.
Normally I would wait for the inaccessible fodder to collect in the centre of the ring like a termite mound, then pull it and heel it against the metal sides. Here even the horned animals can reach easily through the gaps in the tombstone feeders to catch the last of the bale. With the floor clear I am ready to tip in the next precious 4×4 roundbale.

Now, because I topped up at the weekend, there is still the residue from the previous bale to finish.
I grew up with small square bales (long before the big round bales took over I remember thinking- how on earth do you stack them? – a bit like seeing the new diesel locomotives lined up alongside the steam trains – Nah, they’ll never catch on)- and I still measure my wealth in hay by the small bale standard – I reckon I have two such clogging the base of the feeder. Too much to waste.
But it’s acid and rank, parts of it mildewed and heating up- not good for stomach or lungs. The animals pick at it, and stand looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to crack.
But these are hardy animals – bred for thin fare on bare winter hills.
Toughen up guys, you’re highlanders after all – what do you expect? – horse hay?


Keeping watch

Cocky is calling, crowing his challenge to the day. He has been for a while, and, like waking slowly to a disturbance, I only register the sound gradually. What was I minded of when he started? Moira’s udder, I believe, covered in long hair. I must crop it to assist the calf to find the tit.
Now. look closer at all of them- these cattle are not mere munching machines. Keeping them supplied with nuts and silage is not the end of care.
Moira is walking heavily, but sound – and she sets herself apart, but that may be that she is easily bossed being the only female without horns. This will be her first spring calf: normally she spends half the year alone while the others nurse their babies. It will be good for her to share the time – and her babies are always such good-natured beasts even if she gets fussy and hormonal.
Old arthritic Morag is lifting her tail – surely she can’t be getting ready? Just wind, I reckon, a bit of bloat – can she produce one more? Her last – could it be a prize winner?
Flora is huge and heavy – deceptive, because I’m convinced she has some sort of breach – a rent in the birth muscles meaning that she carries excess fluid and is unable to work with the calf to bring it to the world. Will the calf arrive exhausted, unwilling – or defeated by the effort? If it survives it will be a champion.
Holly is big and steady – standing placidly where the sun will catch her, ready for a rub as I go over to her. Not so easy with a baby though – as Rich Thomson nearly discovered last year, jumping to avoid her as Chris said “she can be funny”…”might have told me before”, laughing.
So little I can do – keeping my eyes open must suffice for now.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Gleaning seed from fields of care

I’m burning files. Clearing my workshop meant clearing my old office lumbered with records of the last twenty years’ activity.
The financial papers of course are a joy to release in smoke- what alot of effort to create a vapour! Others belong with more subtle emotions – projects, often with massive personal investment, some working out, others not- consigned impartially to the fire. I keep some mementos, the kids, friends, family history- but also reminders of things well done. Some of my wasted efforts have involved elements of real quality – I seem contented by performance without necessarily, achievement.
During calving especially, I approach the cattle with an obscure sense that I am missing something- something they need. This feeling stalks beside me, a useful if not comfortable companion on my trips from the calving paddock to the shed with the two little girls, from the yard to the hardstanding with the stotts, from there to lowlying Aspens housing Angus Halfhorn and his two la in the long grass, a lame animal, one losing condition, not getting to feed, what..?
Today, a mild day with sun licking the ice coated ruts in the farm road, I decide to give Billy and the expectant mothers a day trip. The calving paddock, I think, is guttery and crowded, if I release them to wander round the farm they can fill up with some of the fibrous grass left from the last hot summer, dry their hooves off, the new baby can stretch his legs.
I draw them out with a bucket of feed – Abbie comes first, too fast for her calf who missses the gate. He wanders down the fence calling and when I go to hoosh him towards the opening she comes galloping back up as if she’d left him in the pub.
Normally, the animals are delighted and excited by new pastures. Today they wait by the gate – all day – clotted in disappointment, until I lead them back into the paddock, and apparent contentment.
So much for my lugubrious companion.
A flight of finches bursts from the birches as I follow the Nog through the encroaching twilight. There must be seed to glean yet.

Farm Life, History of the Highlands, Living with Nature, Uvie Farm

We walk on the heels of others’ workboots

I follow the Nog uphill on a mild overcast evening.. The snow picks out paths that are barely discernible relics worn by footfall, carts sledges even. Our route takes us up to Sarah Justina Macpherson’s monument behind and above the farm. We skirt the cliffs beneath the rusting enclosure, through birchwoods containing uncanny quiet here in the lee of the westerlies. It is a place of mounds and small valleys, sphagnum moss and blaberry plants with banks of golden chanterelle mushrooms in a moist late summer.
It is also an industrial landscape.
Many of the great houses of the area were built with Creag Dhubh granite. The place would have rung with the sounds of work and activity bouncing from bare granite faces.
So Romanian Mike, come to pick up a site saw that I have no need of, straightens in surprise at the sound of a military jet hammering low down the strath-

‘That’s not what the Highlands is about’-
Maybe not, not now – but sometimes I prefer the noise.

Living with Nature, Uvie Farm

A year of yotting- (but not around the world)

This year I’m yotting – (though not around the world)

This is the Year of Thrift.
YoT. Paired cruck consonants harnessed by the void between.
This describes a dynamic, so it has a verb attached – To yot. I yot, you yot, he,she,it &c. We are all yotting, sounds like yachting-well, if anyone mistakes the two -who am I to correct them?
Breeding lilacs, or even highland cattle, out of the dead land – does not pay. All agricultural input costs – animal feed, contracting costs, transport, mechanical repairs, you name it, have multiplied. Beef prices worldwide are better but highland beef, the tastiest healthiest there is, does not satisfy the growing market. Pedigree breeding suffers accordingly: if the market valued the beef, the price of the top quality breeding animals would benefit. It has stayed static: the breeders get greyer, more turn to ‘commercial’ breeds, the pool of quality shrinks.
So I wait by the dry river (metaphorically that is – no doubt in reality the river Spey will shortly inundate my lower ground) – with my animals tended, raised and improved as best I can. Waiting for change?- perhaps, though that would mean wishing away the present: wishing life away in fact.
So I look at the sky, watch the birds, walk the hill, tend my animals. Tonight is clear and cold, two feeders need filled.
Come on Nog-we’re off outside!

Chooks, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

Snow start

The glimmer outside the window gives the game away before daylight – snow on the ground. Last night was moonlit – sufficient to load a silage bale without lights. A clear night therefore- but still remarkably mild – I am outside hatless and barely in need of gloves (a good thing as I am susceptible to frostbite in the finger tip that I sliced on the planer like bacon). The square light in the new shed itself reveals slowly, shedding a warm orange radiance across the snowy yard and the shadowy beasts gathered at the feeder.
Ali appears after I have dealt with the little girls and the chooks in the other shed. I feel obscurely ashamed that the only chook needing attention is Cocky ie male, his female companions having learned to roost in the roof.
She is kind enough to make no comment.
The animals outside still need fed, so she parks herself on the rear carrier as the Nog and I head down the hill as usual.
We follow well-worn pathways, but perspectives change slightly through sharing. Farm routines develop in stratified layers of improvisation. So, some tiny innovation, maybe opening a gate one way rather than another, becomes a platform for a new set of outcomes, modest indeed but tending towards economy.
Cosmos Uvie evolves unnoticed- except when presented to someone new, who both assays the system and may add to it. Last time Ali farm-sat, she hooked a feed pallet to a hurdle for use as a hayrack – still in use.
Our understanding of a tiny world grows microscopically.
The snow is still falling, but water will soon flow beneath it down granite ribs.