Animal stories, Highland cattle, Uncategorized

Comfort

Everyone is gathered round the the feeder at the shed this evening. Abby has come into season for the first time since giving birth: Billy has been shadowing her all day, Abby’s baby shadowing him. She avoids his elderly advances with ease, though currently she is pestered by equally geriatric (and massively pregnant) Flora, made senseless by hormonal vapours. Holly, oblivious of the action behind her, stares at me chewing philosophically; old Morag is just happy to be here another day, chewing her cud like tobacco –

No surprise if she spits!

Demi Og is not there. She and baby are tucked against the fence in the hollow of the hayfield – just being private. Three days on from his birth, we have a routine that will be useful to maintain if the weather hardens. I push them gently to the fieldgate and up the road to the yard: she turns straight into the isolation pen, I pin the hurdles to. A scoop of nuts, an armful of hay; the two of them have comfort til morning-

and so do I.

I will rest knowing they are inside –
– however loud the ragged night rattles, patters and roars at my windows.

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Animal stories, Farm Life, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Simple, this living business

I fill a bucket with hot water to take up to the yard. Demi Og’s new baby will be hungry. I left him penned with his mother overnight. Born yesterday morning, he didn’t feed all the first day. It went like this:- (slow fade…)
He was ready to get to his feet within half an hour of birth – she, raging with hormones, knocks him over as if uncertain whether to lick him all over or kebab him. When she does finally allow him to his feet, and he goes for the tit, she turns to face him like a threat: no access to milk bar for junior.
I herd them along the field into the yard so as to keep a closer eye; she leads off, he follows on what must seem a marathon for legs a few hours old. As he follows, the udder beomes available so he closes in.
She kicks him in the head.
Every time she feels his inquisition on her flank, she lashes out in irritation.
At the yard, I decide to intervene – not my favourite option: left to themselves they will probably get it right – but I have an opportunity to work her into the handling crate. This means kidnapping the calf and bundling him down the race to the crate and crawling out before she can catch up. Only she doesn’t follow.
Unsettled by the newness of everything that has occurred she stops halfway into the race and calls him back, only lurching down the steel avenue when little Holly and Alice come over to inspect the newcomer. They are delighted at the new member of the family, nuzzling and licking him – finally jealousy drives the new mother towards him and I catch her in the crate.
Where she stands quietly. I can’t believe it: she has been anything but quiet since first thing and now, trapped, estranged from her baby, she is quiet. She doesn’t even twitch when I reach for the nearest teat and offer it to her hungry son.
Who refuses it- and continues to invest all his energy in pulling away from the lifegiving udder while I insert a teat, squirt milk on his nose, rub his throat, coat milk on my finger, part fill a bottle and offer that. All to no good.
Finally, both of us exhausted, I strip out the milk from all four teats to avoid infection, keeping the cholosterum rich liquid for later, and release both animals into the yard.
He goes straight to the the teat.
She kicks him in the head.
I pen them in: they will spend the night hours together and in the morning he will be very, very hungry.
And so he is- as I approach with the bucket of warm water and drop the bottle of first milk into it in preparation for the next step in the campaign- very hungry.
He heads straight for the udder; she stands still while he feeds. Couldn’t be simpler.
I watch them longer than I need- before attending to the other animals.

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Animal stories, Farm Accommodation, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized

First minutes

Demi Og does not attend the morning feed. Shy, sulking or something else? She stands in the corner by the new gate holding her tail stiffly. Trough filled, greedy horned eaters avoided -I walk down to inspect.
There is a rosy cord stretched behind her – her waters have broken. I open the new gate to the hayfield, and close it behind her. There is less shelter here but she’ll avoid the invasive curiosity of her peers. A foot suddenly protrudes from her rear and recedes – front surely – I do not want to have to turn a bumfirst baby.
I must be quick to feed the others. Holly and Alice fed, cleaned and a bolster of hay rammed into the rack – and down to the stotts- across the field this time – keeping an eye on Demi Og. She walksto the far corner – stops – a nose appears alongside one foot. So it’s facing frontwards – is the other leg forward or back? If the baby is caught on the shoulder it could be tough. I keep my distance – not wanting to push her further.
This is her first time – she was bought four months ago, in calf to a bull of quality, who is throwing big calves. It may be hard on her but if the baby is female it will mean another breeder for the farm’s future.
She drops to ground as I climb the fence to the stotts – electrocuting myself- (I forgot setting a booby trap to deter Billy from invading Angus Halfhorn’s terrain).
As I return on the quad she stands again – the calf is coming. It slides out rolled and packaged like a carpet – the nose has broken the membrane and is clear, but I still open the mouth to pull out anything that will inhibit the first breath.
Which doesn’t come.
The calf is a lifeless lump of matter. I was too late. She was too long.
I massage the slimy little chest – no reaction. I check the little body for injury: none apparent. The head lies flat to the ground, eyes closed; body limp, legs still folded.
I massage again – rocking the body to wake it- the head lolls
– and then arcs backwards to draw a breath.
Half a minute later it is moving its legs, preparing to stand. The cord connecting the two is strong and short – putting pressure on the baby’s stomach. No knife – this once – no knife in my pocket! I tease the cord free from her with my hands.

Demi Og  has been sitting quietly so far but now turns to face this squirming wriggly thing, puts down her head and… roars full in its face, roars as if to sound the world’s end, to summon the dead; roars in shock, rage, astonishment, pain and pride. Little one promptly subsides terrified- rightly so as the mad maternal monster looming above cannot decide whether to lick this thing or pitch it over her horns like a bundle of hay.

Once it is clear that she is not intent on infanticide I can leave them- but the weather intervenes. The open field is strafed by barbs of sleet riding a stiff westerly – baby is still birthwet because Demi is licking in patches- like stamps- not cleaning end to end- and shivering. If  little one moves towards her udder she turns head on – little chance of satisfaction there.
I gun the quad to pick up the trailer, scissors, iodine – throw in some armfuls of hay and head back, parking the trailer to windward and dropping a windbreak of hay. Avoiding the still roaring madmother I snip the overlong cord and spray it brown.  Eventually the calf settles, still shivering. I am released for breakfast.
I take stock only as I enter into the warmth: it’s a boy.

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Uncategorized

Disorder, birdsong and sedentary cattle

Full-on spring chorus this morning – including jackdaws on bass. The chaffinches are sounding for spring, there’s a robin testing the accoustics of the hayshed – is that a blackbird?
By the time I’m in for breakfast, the windows run with sleet driven from the west. More sunlight follows irradiating the storm, turning it three dimensional- a shining presence fit for visitation.
Soon the cattle too have had breakfast and progress from the calving paddock to the hayfield – a facility gifted by a new gateway installed at the weekend. I monitor how they react to the changed circumstances. They are lying down – out of the chill wind. They lie fanned out – Billy at the head facing his harem – the ladies looking back in a loose fan formation – Demi-Og at a distance, still unsure of herself after I displaced her, bringing her close in case she calves early.
Old white Morag is at the back. Lying against the fence. The top of the field is wet here with rushes growing though the mossy grass. The others are lined up on Billy, she alone looks away. I realise she is almost in the exact spot where I helped her calve eight years ago with Cyril the roofer watching from the farm road.
At the end of the day they are back in the paddock; I close the gate for the night, then uphill with the Nog. The chaffinches are singing still.
Catkins hang from the hazels. Up by the monument cold rain makes my head burn. A dogfox lies dead on the path.
This is a day of fragments.

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Animal stories, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

You might be too old to kick up your heels but still enjoy a new pasture

Abby dips her head into the space where the wires used to be, and crosses the unseen line. She is first because I have called them; she is young and spry – and greedy. She enters the hayfield, shorn of grass but with a fine crop of molehills. Her calf follows -predictably he is first to grasp the implications of this greater space – cantering towards the centre, ending his run by kicking his rear legs in the air.
I am still working at the gate, tidying up loose wire, spare stones, adjusting the set of the fieldgate – but from here I can watch developments. There are risks to this policy of letting the heavily pregnant females and Billy the senior bull into the larger field. For a start it neighbours the Apron where the stotts are held- but more importantly it brings Billy and his son, Angus Halfhorn, within sight of each other.
I aim to keep two fences between competing bulls – it is nominal: either or both could easily jump the line wire, rip up the posts or simply walk through my fences – but I don’t believe they will want to. I let them through early to find out if I my hunch is correct.
I have a card up my sleeve. The top wire is electrified – not by much – but enough to give Billy a message if he starts to breach the boundary.
Sure enough, Billy trots straight across – roaring. I continue working. He promenades along the fence, roaring: the stotts, his non-breeding sons, parade on their side, roaring.
The sound of trumpets cascades the slopes to pool in harmonies.
And now Angus lifts his dirt-gloried head to join the chorus: Billy, quiet for a moment, charges down the fence to investigate this threat of potency. I don’t move: this has to be gone through. Further roaring and reiving – but still no breach of the frontier.
Meantime, elderly Flora with a belly virtually dragging on the ground, picks up on all this testosterone-fuelled activity and starts behaving like a bull herself. She attacks the largest molehill with her horns, throwing dark earth over her neck, then kneels to rub her forehead into the dirt. The Nog finds this wonderfully exciting and circles her, barking and jumping. Back on foot she lunges at him with her three foot span of horns. Both know it is a game: they are feeding energy to the other. Now she winds her lopsided balloon of a body into a gallop, dancing across the field towards Billy like an opera-loving pensioner after Pavarotti.
At the feeder in the paddock, elderly Morag remains. Alone, uncontested – she burrows toward the very centre of the silage.

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Farm Life, Living with Nature, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

New openings; new energies

The new gateway is made but still wired. The gate is hung and swings between the closing post and the line wire against which it may be held open. There is an opening but no passageway. The animals cannot yet move between the muddy calving paddock and the hayfield where they will dry off their hooves, expose their damp coats to drying breezes.
There is risk though – a pregnant mother will take herself away to find a secluded corner; there is no shelter here from rainladen westerlies that batter the house now. Winds like this suck warmth from a newborn, mock the efforts of cramped new legs to unfurl and support small weight long enough to latch onto a lifegiving teat.
So, for the time being I leave the animals where they are guarranteed shelter – it is another night of storms.
Water is now the language of the landscape. Two nights of heavy rain, with hilltop snow melting in the mild weather, has swelled the river Spey to the top of the flood banks and beyond. The curling depressions in the valley floor floodcarved now supply alternative passage to the ambition of water; skyreflecting meadows replace fields of tussocky whitegrass.
The water sluicing under the farm road travels as a small fierce torrent to the field fence where it disappears. In previous years it spread across the top of the field, where rushes began to overtake the grass. Five years ago I dug a drain- that clogged. Chris cleared it last summer – and now I check the outflow to the pond to find a healthy rope of clear water twisting into the pond. I am pleased by this modest success in improving a few square yards of pasture. It is a sort of testimonial to my tenure.
The gateway also represents a new conduit for the life of the farm, another phrase in the language of the place.
I need more stones to bind the gatepost: they may be in the burn, released by the flow of water. I slosh upstream, intent on the watercourse, my attention to the task blending with’ the forgotten pleasure in having water running around my wellies.

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Uncategorized

Just when I think I have things sorted..

It’s been bugging me the last few days – the state of the calving paddock.
It comprises an enclosure around the open shed where the hay and the digger are stored and where the cattle can find shelter. It has the rocks of the gallows mound for dry footing and a small area of south facing pasture where the girls sun themselves on a dry day.
It is intended for short term occupancy in the period around a calving – but they are now a month late: a whole month of poaching the ground where the water runs off the hardstanding. I normally approach from the other side to skoosh nuts in the trough or remove net from a silage bale, but today I penetrate the interior to see how Demi-Og has settled in: I strain to lift my feet from the coagulated mire.
Some animals like Abby keep themselves clean; others like Flora flaunt caked mud. All of them labour in the heavy footing: it could prove fatal for arthritic Morag or a new baby learning to walk.
I think back to my first winters with no buildings on the farm. virtually no fences – the animals roamed around the farm at will, seeking the best for themselves, finding hard ground and limited shelter when they needed it.
Trouble is – I had to wander about too, looking for expectant mothers who had found privacy for birthing or babies hidden in long grass. If anything went wrong, we might be a long way from warmth and cover – too long sometimes.
Nonetheless, tomorrow I will make changes. Weather permitting, I will install a new gate from the paddock to the field below – where they will be able to range, dry their hooves- and return for food and shelter.
It is not as easy for me to manage – but it demands to be done – I hear it.

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Clan Macpherson, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, hillwalking, History of the Highlands, Uncategorized

I see you, Sarah Justina

The Nog is a shooting dog – a Hingarian Vizla dual-purpose point and retrieve.
A shooting dog who is terrified of shooting.
An airline pilot afraid of flying, a mountaineer with vertigo, claustrophic lift attendant – could not be worse.
As we head round the back of the gallows mound towards the old travellers stance bordered by bare larch trees, he hangs back – and then squats. We reached this point a couple of weeks ago, when some distant sportsmen loosed a volley of shots. To me they were barely audible but to the Nog meant imminent destruction demanding instant refuge in the roundhouse. This time I do not intend to to humour him like a Victorian lady with the vapours, so I bark at him to get over himself and come for a walk –

because we are indeed making our customary evening visit to a Victorian lady.

Sarah Justina is waiting. She is patient enough these days, sat on granite on the hill above the farm.
A ten minute climb takes me to the foot of her memorial obelisk – accompanied by a newly resolute Nog.
Her inscription incised in stone is set on the side of the obeslisk facing across the wide river valley towards her husband’s memorial. It is at eye-level –
‘Dedicated to the memory of Sarah Justina Macpherson – wife of Ewan chief of Clan Chattan – She lived at Cluny Castle for upwards of fifty years. She died March 1886 . Much beloved and deeply mourned’
There is some more but this, from memory, is close – I see it several times most weeks.
Today our companionship altered. I received, from the USA, a book commemorating their Golden Wedding three and a half years earlier- with a photo and hand-written inscription- her hand. Reading the plaque I see, behind the words, a plump litle lady seated with a book open, prayer book maybe but more likely a laundry list or other reminder of a life spent maintaining a household.
She is dressed exactly as we are used to seeing Queen Victoria – hair bunched under white lace, otherwise decked in black. Of course, the old queen was still on the throne then – in fact, the coronation was in the same year as Sarah Justina’s wedding. She herself had a coronation of sorts at Dalwhinnie where landowners and tenants turned out to cheer the young couple home, assisted by copious toasts in whisky and mountain dew.
It would be no suprise if she modelled herself on her more elevated sister as they both struggled with the privileges and duties of empire; responsibilities that for one spanned half the globe and-for the other- most of Laggan parish.
I imagine you did your duty Sarah Justina- and your reward?
A fine view shared -looking southward.

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Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Biology commands, but tenderness prevails

Today is fine and mild. The mist wound around the lower slopes of Creag Dubh has lifted, defining the crags in the clear air. It is a day for working with the animals. I have priorities.

At the Oban show last weekend I encountered Stuart, Demi-Og’s breeder, who warned me of the big calves they are seeing to their stock bull: potentially difficult for a first time mother like my new acquisition. I have to bring her up to the calving paddock where I can keep an closer eye on her and the new baby will be able to find shelter in the building.
Abby’s baby needs his second tag. the stotts need weighing and dosing for parasites, little Holly and Alice likewise. The older cows need their udders clipped of long hair that could confuse a new young mouth seeking the teat. In fact, every animal on the farm needs handling in some way.

I have to do it alone.
There is an order to be followed. The older animals at the yard need dealing with and Billy returned to his quarters before Angus Halfhorn is brought up to avoid an ugly confrontation between father and son.

Abby’s lad is forced into the race – the confined corridor leading to the handling crate. I have the tagger ready, chase him into the crate and close the door. He turns round, digs his little head under the gate and uses his already powerful bull’s neck to lift and open – back to square one. It will get harder as he gets frantic. Backing down the race, I use my body to jam him against the rails, grab his ear, feel for the space between the blood vessels, force the tongs together and withdraw before he can take off. Success.
Now for the big girls with the hairy udders, Holly is trapped in the pen – it’ll be easier if she is caught in the the race but she backs into a corner of the pen and refuses to move. There is a dynamic of trust with the older animals that I am reluctant to break by forcing her like a stranger beast. I feel under her body as she stands unrestrained, teasing her teats clear of the muddy strands of hair. She knows my touch, twitches but stands. Taking care to avoid sensitive flesh I clip the obscuring dangleberries around the lifegiving dugs. Dear Holly trusts me to complete one side, move round to the other and clear the area.
Moira is next – not as trusting as Holly, but greedy. I permit her to drop her head into a bucket of nuts and work as she eats. By the time she finishes, I am too. A stress free operation.
Flora is my biggest and best breeder. She is a pragmatist: she suffers me when she must. Trapped in the pen she takes charge and makes her own way into the race, easing her wide span of horns sideways through the yoke defining the narrow corridor. I slide a bar in behind to hold her, reach through from the sides to clear her bulging sac of hair and hanging mud. Thank you, darling – out you go.
Demi-Og will come up with Angus from below, lured by a bag of nuts rattled on the back of the quad. The air fills with the stink of testosterone as the two bulls catch sight of each other, and roar and groan, digging at the ground with their horns, plastering their heads and horns with dirt to confront their rival with the requisite awfulness.
Both take time out to accept a tickle: Billy on his spine, Angus on his hairy crown.
Biology takes second place to tenderness.

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