Old Cows can learn New Tricks

Dawn Patrol

Dawn Patrol

I have a geriatric break in.

The gate between the yard and the hay shed has been forced. The elderly culprits are now sat in the long grass, panting with the effort of it all.
Flora and Morag (and their curly haired babies )have followed the sound of the quad bike’s motor (a cue to feeding learned over many long winters). Arrived at the yard where I had filled the water tank they have leaned on the too casually latched gate. Here they find access to the shed, the hay stored in it, a pallet of fragile photovoltaic panels and various items that have nothing to gain from the two lumbering intruders. O- and the remains of a ton of cattle nuts- relic of last winter used now to lure animals for handling.

The bag is now resting against the hay bales – empty.

It is no disaster – the mice were getting as much benefit as any (judging by the smell) – but it has been good recently –

-for the ducklings.

Mrs Duck has produced a second brood now that the sinister gang of mallard drakes has abandoned the farm pond, and has virtually taken up residence at the shed, place of plenty.
When I appear for the water a draggle of ducklings hauls itself like a string of soft furry pearls from the innards of the large white tote bag containing the barley based concentrate.

The aged felons need to be evicted. The crime may be done, but there are further acts of vandalism to avoid.

I enlist help – sort of.

Guy and his family are in the bunkhouse for four nights. Little Olivia announced – on arrival no less- that she wanted out to see the cows. I invite the family along to assist, taking Olivia and her sister Maia inside the compound where the cows are laying up – digesting the fruits of crime. I manage the risk – mostly for for the benefit of protective parents Guy and Bernie it has to be said- the girls walking behind me.
Old white Morag lurches to her feet:

‘Don’t move – let her make up her own mind about what she wants to do. We just place ourselves in such a way that it’ll be what we want too.!
Sure enough the old girl turns like a tanker and hobbles out of the yard.

‘Look, look – Mrs Duck is up at the shed!’

No - I'm hiding nothing!

No – I’m hiding nothing!

The female Mallard is stationary, watching. Her lower body untidy and puffed out like the petticoats of a governess surprised by a seaside gust.

A movement below resolves itself as a a small striped head extends beyond the sheltering plumage and waddles towards the rear of the haystack.

Risk managed – for now.


Letter to John Humphrys

Dear John
I doubt you will read this but I want to thank you anyway-
and take issue with you.
Thank you for the years of information and controversy that get stirred into the cup of tea with which I start the day on my Highland farm. Your brand of interview provides incisiveness uncompromised by your courtesy: and your factual reporting loses nothing by idiosycracy.
However, I cannot join you on your latest hobby horses re the historic present tense and the word ‘proactive’.
Broadcasting combines reporting of events with telling stories.
The first requires temporal as well as factual accuracy precisely as you have stated, where the historic present may be confusing and inappropriate.
The second benefits in effective transmission by immediacy, dramatic counterpoint and an element of mystery and inversion (aka confusion): in this arena the historic present performs admirably.
I think Melvin Bragge can reasonably claim his accounts of adventures in the history of knowledge benefit most from treatment as stories since they are already established in the reported record.
As to ‘proactive’, I think I understand your aversion to all such words derived from flatulent corporate jargon. My particular bugbear is ‘going forward’. If the powerpointers must attempt to inject some dynamism into the perfectly serviceable ‘in the future’; why not something truly vigorous and affirmative: ‘striding onwards’. ‘progressing mightily’, ‘thrusting outwards’? These do it for me!
‘Proactive’ though is a useful, and even an important word as providing a polar distinction from ‘reactive’; implying initiation, anticipation, pre-emption. The word ‘active’ – your choice – has degraded from potency to recreation, expressing almost a form of inertia: an ‘active’ pensioner goes to to the gym, an ‘active toddler’ is just a normal kid, an ‘active mind’ is probably employed on crosswords.
In the political context therefore, or individual for that matter, we might identify
1 the ‘reactive’- second-hand and almost certainly too late-
2. the ‘active’- circling aerobically around the point at issue
3. the ‘proactive’- making good effects more likely through forethought.
I think our problem with this word may be that the principle it describes is so rarely manifest.
Let’s use it more!
With best wishes,
and great respect
yours sincerely,
Roy Tylden-Wright


An old cow has earned indulgence

Old Morag’s white coat positively gleams in the late sun: the angles of her hips and ribs casting shadows on her lean flank.
She and Flora wander the farm road suckling their russet babies. This morning I almost stumbled over them chewing the cud in the long grass under the birch trees above the roundhouse, as I targetted the vivid yellow of  a clump of ragwort.
They are free of the bull  Angus Halfhorn: at their age -15 years old-and developing rheumatics from long wet winters endured outside, I am content that they should put their strength into  this year’s suckling calf : only introducing them to Angus after weaning.

She has her head inserted sideways through the linewire to suck from the trough that serves the rest of the herd.
The water available for her and Flora is a full ten yards away and requires no degradation of my fences.

She is an old campaigner, mother of champions: she has earned her idiosyncracies.


Swimming the summer

stored hay

 To date this is a two swim summer.

I love wild swimming and the river is just at the bottom of the farm –
but it does need to be hot.
It is.
On a day like today only a full body immersion will clear the day’s traffic from my skin and head.

A load of hay arrived today: the Italian boys and I rolled and stacked it in the shed: 46 round bales safely stowed against the winter.
It seems untimely to be garnering against the hard time of the year at a time of such abundance but it will roll round soon enough.
Having the barn part filled lends a quiet satisfaction, insuring against the queasy calculation of just how many bales I have to offer the animals before the spring grass.
Some years winter endures into May and other times it is so hard that the cattle spend all their time gathered at the ring feeders stoking up against the cold and wet.. These years subject all farmers to the same stringencies, and we run low or even exhaust our stocks at the same time.
Last year was mild and I survived through with two bales – just two- left over. The year before I was short but negotiated a timely supply from a neighbour with an excess: others ran out of the wherewithal to keep their stock, and were forced into shamefaced attendance on charity depots.
With my own silage due to be mown and wrapped next week I will top the critical 100 bales: a reasonable tally for my 20 animals.
I have done what I can – peace of mind is secured- for now.

But it was hot, dusty work loading into the barn with the old JCB manoeuvring carefully around the shed-
the river beckons.
I take the opportunity to engage with the animals on the way down: Holly standing for a tickle while her fine white heifer calf stands warily by; Angus Halfhorn who loves his head and neck scratched free of the mud that he has thrown over his head for cooling, black Abby grazing the tender shoots of the marsh plants by the lochainn. George Halfcalf, starting life with an aversion to mother’s milk, will never grow fully and is burdened with the thickest of winter coats causing him to pant pathetically. Survival is an effort for George, but he has shown willing over and over.

Panting George

And finally – to the dark brown water of the lazy river- and the entry in the curve where the winter torrents have gouged a channel deep enough for me to dive in without fear-
and without clothes,
to strike out upstream toward the setting sun.

Spey at evening


Steep way, but shortest

Hill Companion

Hill Companion

The Mackintosh burn is a small mountain stream making its way down the hill the shortest way.
It is also, therefore, the shortest way up: a known route, having a name but remembered by few.
Even if any wanted go this way.
The shooting parties follow the road snaking along DalBhallach valley floor,
as do the intrepid hikers following the East Highland way to Dal Na Seilg bothy
and on down the river Calder into Newtonmore.
I learned this route as a child keen to walk the high tops
above the grass
where the snow grouse live
and the old preglacial land level spreads to the view
as far as the coast and even offshore to the Cuillins of Skye.

I work on the studio refurbishment, the ring main, all day til my head burns.
The Nog needs no calling when I strap up my boots, fill a flask of sweet black coffee,
pick up my hill pack and finally, sure signal to the canine mind, the whistle stick
with its single spur of red deer antler set on a straight hazel stem.

It is late afternoon, but the days are long and I need to be on the tops.
I walk across the road and start to climb at once.
I steer for the horizon, the highest point bordering my world to the north: I will walk til I stand there.
The journey involves climbing, and dropping into the valley before climbing again (a double effort that takes greater toll on the return).
Round the end of the first ridge, saving my energy for the bigger climb,I pick my way through the old pines of Slaney’s Wood (Bad Feannaig in the Gaelic- perch of the hooded crow) but universally known by the name of the Newfoundlander who contracted
too cheap and broke himself on the job near a century past.

The resinous pine branches gleam with relected sunlight between the dark green clustered needles. Buttercups, harebells, bog cotton, other small bright acid loving flowers soak up this indulgence while damp remains to nurse their roots. Thin brown drifts of needles build on the warm granite gripped by sinewy pine roots clawed into crevices, while aromatic resin vapour fills the air.

The wood edge is home to black grouse but on this occcasion the only bird disturbed is a hen pheasant shedding her artificial breeding to nest in this transition ground. She understands to defend her young like all ground nesters by fluttering seductively away from the nest site, barely out of reach of the Nog’s muzzle.

Over the open ground, I welcome the memory-cast figure of my grandfather standing stiff armed on the road, waving me into the valley to find the watercourse, my chosen waymarker.

The burn is down to a trickle these hot days, but over centuries and winters it has carved a clean stone course over which the water now splashes musically.
I zigzag upwards, stopping often, monitoring my elevation, but not anticipating height gained.
The sun is clear and hot in the sky, my t-shirt, moistened with sweat and peaty water is wrapped round my head.
Step by step, tussock by tussock, zig by zag the valley falls away to the constant tune of falling water.
The burn divides near its top, passing down either side of a steep green bar that forms the horizon – it offers an archetypal choice: right or left, west or east.
I keep on straight up the face.
Until I walk the rounded slope of the top, my footsteps supported by springy moss, arctic hares abounding to be chased by the Nog, white ptarmigan feathers on the turf and all around, not close but stretching far off, the olympian companionship of ridge and peak.
I check the time: it has taken just two hours from the farm to enter this other world on this shining day.
Better yet – not a single other solitary soul has chosen likewise.


Waiting threatens

A long quiet-
warm, close, still.
Like the hold at a breath’s end
before the trigger squeeze.
In the hills rocks loosen their beds
trees test their roots’ purchase.
The pasture grasses move
seed heads shivering
at no discernible passage,
between the quiet beasts.

Here in the doorless studio
I work to instal one lighting ring,
two way, the kitchen light mediated by a one way pull.
A working circuit enlivens a build,
its first performance,
a scene set
a world created,
an interior.

And now the rain
breaks the silence
curtaining the empty doorframe
to the world
where the martins hunt.


Patterns in the day’s weave

warm days allow a sense of space
of opportunity.
Clouds are high, with flattened bottoms
as if smoothed upwards with a plasterer’s trowel,
or ducks floating on a pond of air filling gently
from drying vegetation, granite warming in the sun.
My sheets dry on the line so quickly
that I contemplate making the beds directly
with sun warmed bedclothes.
This is just one task.
Water tanks need fillling,
electrics need resolving
and Angus Halfhorn is chasing Demi Og,
down Mrs Logan’s Meadow
followed by her bemused bull calf
who seems uncertain whether to claim his right to her teats
or to mount her.
There is no highway to the day’s traffic,
and many diversions.
The calm weather allows the martens unconstrained freedom,
to revel in their mastery of the air
even as they pursue single minded application to their hungry young.
I stand for a time on the deck as they weave their subtle threads
around my home, my work,
their home, their work.
Catching sight of my reflection in the sliding door,
I am surprised stationary:
but spinning
or caught in the strands,
the glass does not reveal.


Holiday rains

Eric and Caroline have come all the way from Alsace.
They are with their three kids: Justine, Valentine and Jean.
Rain greets them: Eric says they went for a long walk by Dunkeld,
to arrive soaked.
I tell them of the Wildlife Park, maybe Aviemore;
I feel somehow responsible that the kids are not smiling.
The next day is fine:
Museum, park, touring – plenty to do on a sunny day.
This morning rain drips from the house beams,
the wind blows ragged tunes around the house.
They bid goodbye from the bridge;
I am below working on the studio kitchen.
I ask Eric to tell the kids how good the rain is for the grass,
flowers, mushrooms, insects and birds,
how the pine woods are resin scented,
the bog myrtle astringent as balsam.
He smiles;
the kids don’t.
I observe it may be the last holiday as a family;
Caroline nods
that is why.


Buried gold

Gold nuggets among the moss

Gold nuggets among the moss

The year is at its full.
Half an eye on harvest
The equinox weeks gone, but this is the midpoint.
The pastures are heavy with seed but still uncut.
Ox eye daisies and buttercups pattern the green
while clover still honeys the air.
The last iris brightens the pond margin.
Fledgings struggle upwards on stubby wings
to clumsy perches.
This evening I take a bag and knife through the trees with the Nog.
I know that cities of chanterelles border the path,
fluted, architectural, golden.
If I cut them, not pull them, they will return year on year.
I will cook them with butter and garlic,
same as we did as kids adventuring along the mossy burnsides
and among pine roots,
in fire blackened heavy iron pots.
I am looking forward to this meal,
seasoned with the past.


Together today

I never forgot her birthday – until last year that is. Ruthie is now mother to Romilly Berry, and I see her even less than I did my daughter. They live in Cornwall, cross ways down what is currently the United Kingdom, and may shortly be further separated by an international border.
We gather for a picnic with Nanny Sarah by the side of Father Thames as he takes his time to cross Port Meadow. No reason to rage and swell over the famous floodplain at this time of year, he accepts the channel. Ducklings  loiter at the margins, geese bathe and preen in matronly clusters.
I am committed to meet in Oxford any time Ruthie visits her mum here.
I received the call ten days ago.
It is windy, blowing down river, and the river is swollen from yesterday’s upstream rain, but the air is warm so we are looking to swim. I am content to be guided by Sarah who has a forty year familiarity with the place since we met here as student actors.

We undress in the lee of a denseleaved goat willow, and forge into the river. I swim upstream to test the strength of current, losing sight of the picnic party: while Sarah, more confident and tirelessly attentive to our grand-daughter disports entertainingly in full view.
I am first to shore, first to the towel. Sarah joins us soon after. Romilly is chewing on pitta bread : Ruth fills some with mackerel pate and offers it to us.
‘There were some people stopped by on the path while you were swimming
Oh yes?
They were making a fuss of Romilly.
As you would…
They asked if that was granma and granpa in the river.
And it was.
I had to think for a moment, but it was nice to say
‘Yes it is’.