Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Watching for new life

The calves are late this year – Billy is slowing down , and I didn’t spot it. I approached this year assuming his customary reliability driving the farm forward from spring to spring.
I brought my familiar cows up to the calving paddock surrounding the shed, leaving Angus Halfhorn with the two new girls due to calve later. Now it’s neck and neck to the birth canal – my plans are in shreds – and I don’t know who to tend where.
Fortunately the weather is mild – perfect for animals mothering in the open air. Even at midnight, there is hardly a chill. Angus is lying chewing the cud – ‘chawing the cood’ – as supershowman Rich Thompson calls it- so that’s how I think of it now – a sign of contentment, a good sign to a herdsman- chawing the cood.
The girls are on the their feet in the dark – both Alice and Demi Og, tails pulled to the side to relieve the pressure of the life within, shifting uncomfortably from leg to leg. I am concerned they might drop calves imminently , and return an hour later – to find the scene deserted.
Probing the darkness with the torch, I locate them at the feeder – raiding the fridge as it were. Light shone impertinently at their rear reveals that nothing is happening- or likely to happen.
Time for bed, I will maintain my watch in daylight.

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Uncategorized

Stranger’s world

Last night I stayed in a hotel room – in town. In Oban, in fact: a small town, on the west coast where the ferries sail for the Hebrides – but a town nonetheless.
Towns have streetlighting – so I wake at intervals to greet a strange new day dressed in orange light seeping through the curtains. It calls me to tend to the cattle – a hundred miles away. .
I also wake at the rumble and shake of the wind as I am used to the westerlies rocking the roundhouse – mistaking the sound of delivery trucks rolling down the hill to the chainstores.
Am I adrift in this unfamiliar world – or did I reinvent it?

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highland landscapes, hillwalking, Living with Nature, Uncategorized

Tiring work, this visiting different worlds

There are two worlds here: high and low.
The farm is low, as is all present day human habitation. The river, the roads, bridges, pasture – all low.
The tops, the ridges, the plateaus are high – with deer and grouse and eagles, berries and mosses.
At the current time the difference between the two is very clear: the one variegated, the other pure white. There is a line strung across the landscape, slightly diffused but surprisingly consistent across separate hillsides – almost like the watermargin of an invisible lake, with everything familiar submerged while the pristine summits rise clear from the confused blend of colours, habitats, contrivances.
So the Nog and I visit the second, the high world. Our transportation is ploddery – well, his is more gallivantery, but mine is ploddery for sure: first through the heather stems and ploutery peat cuttings, and increasingly through webs of damp snow caught in dishes and drains; into a new terrain where every footstep is placed on unseen ground, and carries a small burden of snow when lifted. Every step tells – and there are many to the far corner of the ground where three estates march.
Over the ridge, the going levels out. Here snow covers the high hags – deep, black peat where little grows, that now host wormlike white ridges gleaming icily in the winter sun with powder dusted flanks. The Nog is entranced by the glamour of this new world, I place one foot in front of the other. The wind blows a dense front toward us from the west, there is a purple yellow glow to the belly of dark cloud presaging snow. These hags are not a place to be caught out: there is no shelter, and if the snow drops over us in a whiteout – it will fool me. However well I know this ground – I will struggle to guide us out without risk.
For the time being the storm stays on the far side of the valley so we climb to our intended vantage. The weather comes in as we turn – if I can just make it to the corner of the deer fence, slip down the gulley, traverse towards the spy stone. My landmarks are still in view: I am not lost- tired, but not lost.
One foot in front of another will take me there – aiming for the watershed. I talk, ostensibly to the dog, as we trudge the last slope ‘Good boy, good boy – almost there. We’re going to make it – yes we’ll make it, just a bit further.’
And now we’re over the ridge, heading downhill. The snow is thinning. The final half mile sees us crossing clear ground – for the first time I stride out rhythmically.
It is still light as I open the truck door and call the Nog in – but not by much. The day is done, drained.
Heading home, I know how the wind blows across infinite white wastes – in the high world.

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heroic ambition, today's story, Uncategorized, village life

Flying beyond the flock

Two small birds tear into the sky – and out again – like streakers on a cricket field.
Their compact profile and short triangular wings are familiar – but anomalous. They are surely starlings – and not only that – they are the starlings nesting in my eaves – or rather under the tin roof of the bunkhouse. I see them flying in and out of the gable end when I cross the bridge to my office – but mostly in the summer. There is something remarkable about this pair climbing the air above the Apron field where the stotts are now clearing the troughs of this morning’s nuts.
Starlings are woodland birds, so tree-loving not house sharing: and profoundly gregarious, swirling in great single-minded flocks like shoals. My birds behave differently, of necessity maybe or choice – and this aspiring glory in solitary flight marks my vision as I race the quad up to the gate from the bottom paddock with the Nog zigzagging madly across my bows.
Feeding the beasts is a welcome obligation – I know how to start my day – but to continue….? Work with immediate tasks- tag the carcase hanging by the pond, text the gamedealer, empty my pack to dry out my gear, oil and sharpen my knives – and then…?

Which item on the Endless List is fit for crossing off?
-and then-

Lynda phones to say Marie and Kari are here.
These are Wally’s womenfolk: – Wally Herbert- the greatest British polar traveller –  resident in the village for the last decade of his life
– and generous host

– and friend.
Wally made his own path where there are none; forcing his way forward in places without precedent, against Nature’s adversity and with little support or acclaim.

Marie and Kari follow in his steps, not the ones quickly filled with blown snow on the polar approaches, but the more enduring habits of psychological enterprise and endurance.

Some habits cast hard like pre-human prints on a beach- or the flight of starlings.

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deerstalking, today's story, Uncategorized

Today it takes the long drag

I brought the hind off the hill today.
Cuckoo burn offers bad quad access with the old road broken down by sheep and scattered rocks adding to the danger of traversing a rough slope; but with snow obscuring the hazards –
it could be lethal.
So it has to be a drag- all the way from where the hind is lying to the gate on the roadside where I can heave her into the pick-up. It can’t be more than a mile but it is the hardest physical work…
Walking up to where I cleaned the hind yesterday takes about 40 minutes. Legs strapped I hook a rope around the neck with the end wrapped round my body – and set off – or stumble off anyway.
I am not built for dragging.
My boxer buddy Paul is. He has the height and bulk to lean into the rope to haul the dead weight. When I lean forward nothing much happens apart from my nose getting alot closer to the ground: I have to heave and sweat.
The snow helps – where it fills a sheep track or a drain, it provides a chute for the hind to slide along. I attack the task in chunks – a few paces at a time- stop to catch my breath and survey the ground for the best route ahead, scanning for heather tussocks, boulders, depressions that will bring me to a jarring halt. At times I even pull uphill pull, to maintain the high ground on the hill rather than jam myself against the fence on the broken-down path following the burn to the roadside pastures.

I fall over in the snow a few times, grunt and groan continuously, pant horribly after a longer travel and repeatedly stop after only a few yards over the rougher sections. Anyone looking on would think I am mad- or disabled maybe – as I crawl laboriously over the landscape tied to my quarry like the mariner to his albatross.
But it is not a penance – it is a kind of honouring of the beautiful dead creature behind me. If this is what it takes to complete the cycle from the hunt to the table- then this is what I must do.
I stagger onwards – approaching the slope down to the pasture the sheepbitten grass becomes short and smooth: I run downhill, my burden sliding effortlessly behind me.
A solitary figure is skylined on the monument crag. Someone has seen this whole performance.

My today has become part of someone else’s story.

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Uncategorized

Hunter in the snow

The snow is driving against the side of my face as I mount the spine of rock between the lodge and the Whiskers. The Whiskers (or Cluny’s Whiskers) is a crag surmounted by old pines that harbours an ancient ring fortification, placed by virtue of its dominance of the bend in the road, the turning of the ancient pass that leads through the Drumochter hills.
I skirt beneath it onto the open hill, moving cautiously. I have a pack and a sleeved rifle slung over my back. Upward progress is slow: drifting snow conceals crevices and drains that I will have no warning of without my stick to probe. The wind is at my back, from the east that is, but not the cold easterlies that I know- mild- moistening the snow. I work up to the ridge to begin a return traverse against the wind, when I spot a group of red deer on the far side of the burn.
They are downwind of me, they will surely scent me, but my job is to monitor as well as control, so approach as close as I can behind an outcrop.
The group comprises a couple of dozen animals: hinds with well-grown calves, and three young stags or spikers. I lug out the rangefinder to check the distance – 300 yards across the burn- too far for a safe shot. I would gladly leave them be, but there is pressure from an unlikely alliance of conservation agencies and farmers to reduce red deer populations, so I load the .270.
The animals are moving steadily down the burn towards the valley pastures, so I move to the lip of the bluff to set the bipod angling the rifle downhill, and then moving again. The snow offers no solid base to set the rifle. I shift it again, but now I am too low lying in line behind it to sight downwards, so I turn sideways across the hill, aim and fire: the hind drops. The herd, uncertain where the shot came from, turn and turn again before crossing the burn heading up the hill towards me. I drop another, while the rest of the herd trot past at 100 yards to find security in familiar valleys.
As I walk down the hill, the first animal gets to its feet and moves off groggily down the burn. I am too slow with the rifle, so must watch it out of sight. The second hind needs cleaning. I grallach it, and then, because I won’t be able to take it off the hill tonight, open out its chest and pelvis with a small saw to allow the corpse to cool so that the meat doesn’t spoil.
I fail to find the wounded animal. It will die – the cull will be assisted, but it is a bad thing to happen. Even in the wilderness we are subject to pressures of policies that we have no control over, people that have the power of disposition. I would not have chosen to take that shot.
I will return tomorrow with the Nog: he may pickup the second animal. In any case, I will collect the cooling hind, and larder it for sale to find its way to our tables.
The ravens will be glad of the rest.

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Uncategorized

Hunter in the snow

The snow is driving against the side of my face as I mount the spine of rock between the lodge and the Whiskers. The Whiskers (or Cluny’s Whiskers) is a crag surmounted by old pines that harbours an ancient ring fortification, placed by virtue of its dominance of the bend in the road, the turning of the ancient pass that leads through the Drumochter hills.
I skirt beneath it onto the open hill, moving cautiously. I have a pack and a sleeved rifle slung over my back. Upward progress is slow: drifting snow conceals crevices and drains that I will have no warning of without my stick to probe. The wind is at my back, from the east that is, but not the cold easterlies that I know- mild- moistening the snow. I work up to the ridge to begin a return traverse against the wind, when I spot a group of red deer on the far side of the burn.
They are downwind of me, they will surely scent me, but my job is to monitor as well as control, so approach as close as I can behind an outcrop.
The group comprises a couple of dozen animals: hinds with well-grown calves, and three young stags or spikers. I lug out the rangefinder to check the distance – 300 yards across the burn- too far for a safe shot. I would gladly leave them be, but there is pressure from an unlikely alliance of conservation agencies and farmers to reduce red deer populations, so I load the .270.
The animals are moving steadily down the burn towards the valley pastures, so I move to the lip of the bluff to set the bipod angling the rifle downhill, and then moving again. The snow offers no solid base to set the rifle. I shift it again, but now I am too low lying in line behind it to sight downwards, so I turn sideways across the hill, aim and fire: the hind drops. The herd, uncertain where the shot came from, turn and turn again before crossing the burn heading up the hill towards me. I drop another, while the rest of the herd trot past at 100 yards to find security in familiar valleys.
As I walk down the hill, the first animal gets to its feet and moves off groggily down the burn. I am too slow with the rifle, so must watch it out of sight. The second hind needs cleaning. I grallach it, and then, because I won’t be able to take it off the hill tonight, open out its chest and pelvis with a small saw to allow the corpse to cool so that the meat doesn’t spoil.
I fail to find the wounded animal. It will die – the cull will be assisted, but it is a bad thing to happen. Even in the wilderness we are subject to pressures of policies that we have no control over, people that have the power of disposition. I would not have chosen to take that shot.
I will return tomorrow with the Nog: he may pickup the second animal. In any case, I will collect the cooling hind, and larder it for sale to find its way to our tables.
The ravens will be glad of the rest.

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

Why would the wren fly higher than the eagle?

I leave the feeding to the end of the day. It has been snowing on and off with bright skies between showers. The JCB doesn’t start, so it’s a race to the pumps for fuel and back for putting out hay and silage before dark.
When I return from Newtonmore, the stotts are bellowing: with reason, their feeder was close on empty when I checked this morning.
‘Fee-ee-e-ed us: you–uuu–re laa-a-ate!’ the big guy bellows from across the field; they are gathered at the gate the way they do every morning waiting for me to appear with the nuts.
‘I—iii-m ooo—ooo—n iiii-iit! No–oo–tt l—-ooong gu-uys’ I yell back before filling and powering up the old machine.
I’m taking the silage from inside the enclosure with the two little girls, Holly and Alice, so I let them into the yard. They come out dancing – and set to scratching on all the novel protuberances suddenly made available.

The old yellow machine thunders down the farm road past the pond where the mallard pair have recently taken up residence, nudges the gate open with the front wheels, drops the bale in the feeder and lurches back up the road.
It’s Billy and the girls in the calving paddock next. The bale catches on the forks and needs a shunt: the plastic wrap drops with it requiring removal  in case of ingestion, fatal in the case of a calf. Billy is sidling round the feeder as I hack at the plastic caught by the weight of the sodden grass. He catches up to me before I manage to release it, and bashes me with his giant horns.
As it happens I know this manoeuvre: I have to tickle him before completing the task. Toll extracted in the currency of contact, Billy permits me to haul out the remains of the wrap and remove it from danger.
The moon is shining clear on the snow-peppered mire of the yard. There is a single star riding above, like a wren above an eagle. As the story goes, we need a lift to fly high.

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highland landscapes, hillwalking, History of the Highlands, Uncategorized, village life

Old voices whispering as we bring in the greater world

Al & I quad up  the south slope of the Monadhlaith plateau, with equipment and tools for the wind turbine halfway up looking over the village and the roads that lead in and out.

The plateau is a piece of old Scotland, pre Scotland, preglacial – very old, in fact. There are signs of human intervention up there. The long march fence sunk with molten lead into sockets painstakingly drilled into the granite: it lasted two winters before the wind in the wires drummed the labour to gaptoothed irrelevance. The old shooting box on the march lying open to the weather where men and ponies could overnight to wait on the deer crossing the high passes. There are signs of summer shielings from the middle period of occupation, and before that round houses and even, on one hillside, a small stone circle.

These are the signs from many centuries- but they don’t belong. People are visitors here: as I do when the evenings lengthen.
Al and I are working on a rock platform where the broadband is relayed to the houses on the far side of the strath. The face of the plateau rises behind us: I know the snow grouse will be scratching among the stones scattered on the snowclad upper slopes.  The patches of white start just above our position and grow rapidly as the eye is drawn to the higher snowbanks.
This harsh proffer of the land is not simply geographic, not just beckoning to the higher ground and adventure beyond the horizon; it also summons from a timeworn reality shadowing all human activity such as that undertaken today.
I huddle into my collar against the mountain’s chill breath: focus on the task in hand.

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highland landscapes, Uncategorized, village life

The view is better without snowstorms

Its not the best day for taking in the scenery from the Glen Truim viewpoint. The wind is blowing hard: this slope catches the brunt, looking straight up to the Corrieayrack pass due west of here. This ridge is the first obstruction to the weather’s force driving unimpeded down the open breadth of the strath – the wide, glacier-carved valley that supports the village of Lagganbridge and all the outlying settlements and farms such as mine at Uvie.
Oh – and it is snowing.
I have driven 10 miles to achieve half a mile. This point looks down directly on the farm-but separated by the river Spey. The roundhouse is clear, the metalclad bunkhouse. I observe the west wall of my tool shed dark with saturated moisture, how the animals are collected on drier ground, apart from the pregnant mothers who stand squarely in the mud with their heads rammed deep into the silage dropped for them yesterday – there is always goodness to be mined in the first day or so before the fermented grass starts to stale.
But this is not what I came for – I have further to climb. The wind helps me up the slope as if with a dancer’s hand on my elbow, but driven shards force me to walk with a hand sheltering the side of my face.
At the top I find what I came for- not the traditional cairn- but a haphazard looking assembly of scaffolding poles bolted to the granite, supporting some modest electrical apparatus. This is part of the relay system for the village broadband system, developed and maintained by volunteers like myself. We have 70-odd subscribers now – but have vouchsafed to provide the service to any locals frustrated enough with the big providers to want it. It is relayed wirelessly from tops such as this, like a yodel perhaps, and I am scanning for a clear view to other village homes from this point

If the weather will permit me.

I see clear to Cluny and Craig Dhubh, Balgowan and Laggan are supplied from another mast, but Glen Truim and Breakachy, candidates for the better service, are invisible, masked by rock or trees.
Another flurry hits as I pack away the binos – time to head back down. The rounded contours of the Nog are distorted by the wind so that he looks angular at times – a thing of facets like a stealth fighter.
It is quieter among the pines – not far to the truck along the forest road.

Job done: another one begun.

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