Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uncategorized

Wild wetnursing

So the British always talk about the weather – but today’s was strange and wild.
I leave the house in heavy rain- kitted up for warmth and waterproofing as if for a moonlanding. By the time I park at the shed, it is dry again; but the wind is blowing, in fact it is howling, thrashing the trees, tugging at the building fabric.
During the morning the hail piles up against the door and melts as it slides down the long windows of the conservatory.
At lunch, after putting out a fresh bale of silage for the pregnant ladies in the calving paddock, I walk down to check up on Moira, who threatens to calve any time soon.The sky clears blue, but the wind still drives strong and cold with snow on it. The day feels energetic and strange like an autistic child.
And this is why the weather is today’s story.
The welfare of any calves born now is subject to the tyranny of this erratic cradling. After a long delay in the anticipated births, I live with imminence – the presence of something yet to happen.
The calculus of this changeable season changes utterly dependant on whether somewhere on the farm, or in more than one place, a mother has dropped a damp parcel of newness onto cold ground.

She will turn and lick furiously to help lift the lifesaving pelt-

-while a quivering spirit determines whether to struggle, endure or submit.

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

High technology shifts haybales

I feed the animals round bales – mostly silage, but hay as well. Hay is grass cut on a sunny day with a drying breeze, and left to dry for several sunny days, and turned over to dry quicker before baling.
I make silage on the farm. Silage does not need sunny days, drying breezes or turning: in the Highlands we tend to make silage, (Though from what people say, the weather was easier in the past). The wet grass is simply wrapped in a long bandage of plastic until all air is exluded, whereupon a gentle process of anaerobic fermentation commences that preserves the grass -for years if need be.
My bales are round –
though they are not round, any more than square bales are square, which are cuboid.
They are in fact compressed cylinders of grass, complete with seed heads, dried flowers, and the occasional unfortunate frog. These cylinders are 4 foot square – well, 4 foot long by 4 foot diameter.
Hay bales are lighter than silage by virtue of their dryness. I am able to transport hay using the quad and trailer, the preferred option when heavy machinery would carve up soft ground.
The bales sit in the shed on end, piled three high behind the pen where Demi-Og and her new baby have been overnighting. I need to roll it to the front of the shed. I must then reverse up to it, braking the trailer so the drawbar hinges and the scorpion tail grab slides over the back of the bale hauling it into the dished metal bogey when I pull forward.
But first I have to dislodge the bale.
Round bales roll easily but sit firmly on their bases. Shifting them involves a kind of sumo bout with lots of gasping and grunting (but without the nappy). If a bale is caught in the open, it can be tackled by pushing against the top and rocking back and forward until the tipping point is reached. If wished, momentum, once achieved may be maintained by a judicious shove at the right moment to keep the bale turning end over end. This is useful on occasion, for instance if the ground is mucky.

Where possible therefore one adopts the easy option of rolling.

That’s a single bale. An artic & trailer carries 72. Before I installed the new shed with the eaves high enough for the JCB, half a load needed stacking inisde – manually. Stack ’em at the door, roll to the back, push and pull to set them neatly, work back towards the entrance, and then load the second layer. Set scaffolding boards across the top, cart them to the door on the pallet forks, flick the bale into the shed and then repeat ground floor process – only more difficult because you can only work on the duckboards.

 

This work would tax a Rugby Union forward, and for me it was impractical. I used to pressgang hardy, generous souls to assist me. My stepson Daniel Arnold was one: he inadvertantly developed a 3 Stooges comedy routine swinging long boards in confined spaces. Another to bend his back was Rupert Friend, as he said ‘resting’ from acting – surely resting never looked so much like hard work! (He showed no inclination to assassinate anyone either).

 

This morning, Angus Halfhorn, Alice and massively pregnant Moira,wait in the bottom paddock for a new bale of hay. I must shift it from the shed. It is piled in tight stacks- on end. I can’t rock it to upend it.

 

I can however use the adjacent stack for leverage, by sliding down a gap. I then set my shoulders against the intended bale, climb my legs up the next one and straighten them. When the bale tilts a bit I walk my legs up to tilt it some more. When I am at full stretch parallel to the ground with my legs straight and the bale still not toppling, I pause- like a mountaineer in a crevice.
If I let go now – all previous effort will be wasted.

Keeping the pressure on my legs, I start to wriggle my shoulders so as to shunt my back lower, and then walk my legs up some more on the opposite bale –
-until it topples. I catch my breath.
Technical business this farming.

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

No country for old beasts- (but I make exceptions)

Moira is climbing the slope to the water trough. It is installed in the top corner of the lower paddock where she and Alice lend respectability to Angus Halhorn’s pretensions to be a stock bull. This year sees him become the one male animal with exclusive responsibility for populating the farm.

 

*
Currently most of the girls gravitate around Billy in the calving paddock and won’t be introduced to his successor for another month at least. The gestation period for cattle is the same as for humans, so if I want calves born in the New Year I have to wait a while yet.
Moira did not drop her calf last night as I thought she might, so she lugs her swollen body up the slope painfully slowly, not just heavy but also lame.
I hate seeing my animals age.
Billy is no longer reliable to serve the cows as he has for the last decade: his rear legs won’t support his weight to lift him onto the back of a fruitily fragrant female. Cows some into full season just one day a month, so a successful mating demands a kind of intense opportunism. Nature makes no concessions to age.
He is still splendid: reason enough to have him adorning my fields.
Morag is a kind of living ghost. An angular animal who always loses condition in winter so that pink patches of skin show through her thinning white coat, she is now so lame that one leg swings free much of the time.

She is also inspirational, an archetype of stoicism, enduring in all conditions to drop some of the most beautiful calves I have ever had.

*

Speaking of which, Demi-Og’s wee boy is lying still in the corner of the pen when I go up this morning. He should be standing, jumping about after a lusty breakfast from his mothers wonderful long teats.
At least he’s moving.
Close up I find that he has his head caught under the gate. He’s pushed it under while lying down, and to extract it…he stands up, only to find that the bottom bar won’t permit it. So he thinks he’s trapped and lies there helpless. I lift the gate as high as I am able – higher still – when I’ve lifted it to his full standing height, he finally saunters free, making a beeline for breakfast.
His presence must justify the pensioners.

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Farm Accommodation, Farm Life, farm visitors, Highland cattle, hillwalking, Uncategorized

Back and forward to the future

Today the cows are peaceful, the two bull calves are stotting in the sun– and I didn’t walk up the hill with the Nog as intended.
Sunday morning is for housework – fair enough – Sunday afternoon was for walking , skirting by Sarah Justina’s monument standing on the apron of Creag Dhubh, and straight up to the ridge that forms my northern horizon. Beyond there lies the back country.

As one walks, the present day recedes – to be replaced by something immediate.

With one’s back to the farm, the road and the river, one crosses the first waste, where the ‘dry loch’ tells a story of caught glacial water released when the barrier at the lower end gave way, leaving a horseshoe of upland bog.
Down to the old road in Dalbhalloch- now used by hikers and hunters only – ending at the lost village of Dal-na- sealg (Dalnashallach) where one house is maintained as a bothy.
Then further out and up to the Monadhliath plateau – kind to neither man nor beast – the first landmass – and realm of the great god Pan.-
-but I wasn’t there today.
Instead I was facing towards the future.
The two buildings on the farm, roundhouse and bunkhouse, are all electric – with a ground sourced heatpump for heating and hotwater, with the plan to become self-sufficient in power. As technology changes , this closing of the sustainability loop has been getting closer. Most solutions, however, involve laborious administration and big outlays to meet the demands of government incentives.
Zeno and Celine, with a company involved in generating by windpower, put shape to my intentions; confirming the option of self-installation without official intervention or incentive.
A day of progress therefore if not forward motion of the kind the Nog and I enjoy.
Pregnant ladies still need checking over, little Alice and Holly need more hay; Demi-Og and the lad are happy now to donder up to the shed to be shut in for the night..
-and, in the bottom paddock, Moira stands and shifts her weight, patiently preparing to calve- maybe tonight.

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

Early days

There are some sounds that creep up on me, present for a while without insistence. Cockcrow is one of them. Cocky’s trumpeting is an ambient noise that sidles into consciousness. It puzzles me and annoys me some that I am slow in registering this presence.
Another such is today’s hammering of the yaffle. He was working away, probably at an aspen in the hollow across the hayfield, while I was filling the buckets for the morning feed . I was absorbing the sound without acknowledgment. It came into focus suddenly with the realisation of neglect – that somehow I had failed to recognise and welcome this new addition to the farm concert.
As if I had not saluted the first housemartin home.
There are other precious signs of spring, fragile shows monitored and gathered carefully; out of context with the bare birches and the pale sun.
The flags are pushing green through the surface of the pond, now adopted by a pair of mallard, These are Mr & Mrs Duck who appear (not the same pair, but bred from the same) every year to nest on the small island. They are named for their proprietorial waddle round the yard, like holiday-house owners returned from the city. They feel totally at home, launching off the bag of cattle nuts in the barn when I go to bring in Demi-Og and her boy.
The catkins are hanging from the hazels- I never saw them develop – suddenly they are just there, noticed and welcome. Miniature daffs show in sunny corners, faintest of greening on snowberries. Grouse lift from the heather in pairs, a goosander from the wee loch.
Too early yet, too early – croaks the raven from the crags.

I hear you harsh bird- the grass is still flat but the two bull calves are spinning and dancing in expectation of growth.

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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 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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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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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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