Winter Schooling

sunlit snow peaks

Grass showed briefly at the start of the week,

allowing the cattle to expatiate-

(how satisfying to use a word in its rural purity-

such as ‘aftermath’:

greenery returning after harvest.

Rivers and hunting trails

traced under city streets

like veins under skin

for those of us that keep

our hands fit

for milking and digging

and knives

in our pockets.)

but we are now constrained again,

returning for shelter

as the snow falls once more,

adding six inches to post tops

slowly toppling.

The cattle cluster

round fodder bales,

wild birds appear daily

to be fed

with chickens.

The white cape is thrown

like a threat,

tensing life tight.

Two heifers we school

to the rope

walk quietly

when led from the pen

to rehearse circles


in the largeness

of the whitened yard.

alice awaits


Silent under trees

snowy gateway

I stand looking at larch

planted in a semicircle

on the lip of a small quarry

grave spectators.

The grove is white and quiet,

skinny birches twist

along the brae

like hieroglyphs

on a white sheet.

Retreating to pasture

I am met by a light wind

blowing in my face

turned southwards.

The water in the burn

is running with snowmelt



Odd barbering

Yesterday we walked above the clouds.


Today I join a newborn under a cow.

Our heads are together. I feel his rough red hair against the side of my neck. We are both intent; he on dragging every drop of milk from his mother, while I focus on the scissors clearing long hairs around the delicate fleshy cones that might deflect a questing mouth.

He appeared Boxing Day morn – already on his feet as I come down at first light,

but hungry,

refuses to drop under Abby’s stomach,

signalled instincts misread,

reaches up not under.

A day later and I must intervene. Abby is wed to her companions so they’ll all have to come. I lead them rattling a feedbag
past Angus Halfhorn and the boys held back in the hayfield
so keen to meet young Holly and Alice!
Not yet boys..!

With the pair safely penned at the shed: the girls must be led straight back home: shunning Angus cantering along just the other side of the fence.

And now to work: Abby in the crush moves calmly, bless her ,stands while I squeeze loose the hard wad plugging the milk stream in each quarter.,

…and he takes it. Sometimes they exhaust themselves resisting, others just aren’t interested (one, George Halfcalf ..never cottoned on at all). This one wants it – glory be – and before long I can leave him while I attend to udder trimming.

It will be cold tonight: he’ll sleep in the hay with a full stomach.

Ready for bed

Ready for bed


Organized chaos

Well - not all bad

Well – not all bad

So grey today. Snow melted and new rain from !ow cloud. So fitting then to wean calves – overdue O yes I know you judgmental tutelary farming deities. Old Billy was slow to service last year on account of his weakening hindlegs so the calves came late: March to June not January \February. So the painful separation of mothers from young normally happens in September: all sorted before winter regimes kick in.

Well, not this time.

I have waited my chance: the right animals in the right place:priority is getting the heifer calves young Holly and Alice behind the deer fence with – er- not so young Holly and Alice (from last year) where they are collectively sheltered from the attentions of Angus Halfhorn.

Single handed I work with the animals, persuading them that what I want is what they want. Holly follows the feedbag accompanied by her outstanding white daughter; Angus had been sidelined with a private pile of nuts, Alice is held at the yard.

Farm operations involve committing to a plan and then working to extend it as it happens: a mixture of planning, opportunism and blind faith

– bit like life really.

This time the young heifers find their place with the female yearlings: and the mothers of the bull calves- too complicated to explain- but both girls and boys are now sad and weaned

At the yard mother Alice rubs her neck on the gate as if to open it by sheer persistence, or seeking the magic word, equivalent to ‘Open Sesame’

‘Open Dark Grains concentrate’?

It’ll have to do

-its a rainy December day after all!

I know it'll open if I keep rubbing it!

I know it’ll open if I keep rubbing it!


just a beautiful day


After the thaw
black of rock and birch shows through
a thin blanket of snow.

The sky above granite

merges ridiculous girlie bedroom

soft pinks fading to blue.
air in my nostrils

is fresh cut

thin as citrus.
The cattle take their feed
jackdaw wings rustle the air
a stark heron stalks the water.

The day is latent
til the sun seeks
to free the shadows
folded into the crest
of the hills
beyond the marshlands.
It is beautiful


Flora knows good timing

imageTraffic passes the farm with a slushy whisper: the birches hang their snowlumbered branches like tired cheerleaders resting pompons. A small squadron led by Angus Halghorn, envious of the privileged status of George Halfcalf & Moira, Morag and her boy baby, have forced the gate giving to the shed: its shelter and feed store. I must lure them into the yard with extra feed before I can resume my morning chores.

Snow has changed the days calculus: to refine choices. There will be no leaving the farm today, paths need cleared: no building work- structures need swept.

How are the animals handling the hardship? How warm is the house to return to? How cold the supply pipes?
snowbound roundhouse
Philo helps me take a bale of hay down to little Holly and Alice before the snow freezes to crust or melts to wet sugar, the quad barely hauls the bogie up the hill on return- timely done as the day darkens.

Old Flora waits at the gate to the shed, her calf hovering attendance. She took no part in this morning’s raiding party. I check the available interior space –

‘All right old thing – join the pensioners’ party.’

She sashays through-

they are long acquainted these three-

and the babies have shelter.image


Surely snow should fall

Philo and I build the deck so that guests have outside space making the tiny studio more user-friendly.
This is not so easy- the weather is telling us to stay indoors.
Philo, from France, asks if this is usual: I tell him this is a Highland winter worksite – ‘Oui, c’est normal’.
He looks out from the shelter of the overhanging eaves, down the whitening farm road, New Snow 14across
snowswept pasture and marshland to where the grey gleaming river glides uneasily.

‘I am used to snow falling from the sky’-
he gestures accordingly-
‘- here it goes sideways.’

We turn toward our task, backs to the gale.


Space for the small and infirm – I must be mad!

Heavy snow hides faded winter grass
They have been content to pull
at this shadow food
remnant of summer’s larder.
Now they gather intently
around the feeder
where tobacco scented silage
unravels under assault
by mouth and horn.
Something nags me;
I know that the herd is fed,
but there is a lack
a gap in the weft of welfare.
Moira and George Halfcalf
are left on the road;
Moira Hornless, bullied
accepting subservience.
Her little lad
dwarvish, unviable,
ill-adapted to the new condition
alive, God knows why.

I drive them to the shed:
they will have feed and cover
against this night’s cold.
Tomorrow Morag will join them
with her calf latest born
of this year
and last
to the old white cow
with arthritic hind leg
swinging clear of the ground.
The net of care is filling:
the winter herd finds its new form.


First Snow

The light is strange this morning
The moon shone full last night
but that’s not it.
Light glows white from muck
and rock
and stick.

I should have known it would snow.
New Snow 14
The animals have a new urgency
as I ride the quad to meet them:
they recognize ancient threat
to all outwinterers:
snow on the back,
snow to scrape
from frosted grass,
young stock shocked
and bewildered
by newfound hardship.

The old ones look first
to the easy supply,
the feed bags
the ring-fed silage.
They will batter each other for first call,
life has suddenly become
a competition.

I am concerned for the weakest
competitor: George Halfcalf,
handicapped of his own choice
refusing Moira’s milk.
I watch as he struggles
to ease his mouth over the lip
of the feed trough,
pulling at wisps caught on the edge
of the feeder by others leaning
over to select the sweetest.
I have not finished my dry season’s work:
logs will remain uncut,
hinds unculled,
hardstandings not rolled,
walls not rendered.
The ground is softening
under the hooves,
the quad wheels make drains
for water to puddle pastures.
Snow is banking
in bulging grey clouds
looming on chilly westerlies-
so I do not understand
I am


New winter and the duty of care

Angus digs in

The first bale of silage is out
the plastic wrap slit
the bale netting tied back to the forks of the JCB,
the 4ft plug of fermented grass
drops with a thud,
settles like a core
of summer’s strata,
hauled from darkness.

The cattle, always primed for novelty
and the hope of first dibs,
dip into the feeder immediately
in order of seniority,
butting and bustling at interlopers
Moira gets in first
I see this anew at the dry water trough-
suckling mothers need gallons
and the supply has failed.
Once I have restored the stream,
I notice that philosopher Flora
is first to refreshment,
young Holly next-
I thought the order had changed
but the old animal stands her ground
confident of her place.
Holly gets her turn

So: feed and water,
the winter round of care has begun.
The cattle have returned to me
after the summer’s insouciance,
waiting heads up each morning,
questioning and attentive.
I have to approach once more,
check their welfare,
encourage them with chatter
pet them when allowed:
learn to understand the herd’s
silent diagnosis of itself.

George watches the Nog