Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized

Reculer pour mieux sauter

The Roundhouse creaks in the storm, ticking and cracking with small reports like a Borrower’s gun battle -a southwesterly is blowing against the walls, shed sideways by the curvature but catching under the overhanging eaves where it jockeys for purchase, attempting to lift the roof clean away from the wallhead,

It is one of the problems of my self- build: ignorance is bliss-

-but I know every nail.

By morning, the world is completely calm – and stays that way: something to enjoy, especially by contrast with the violence of the night before.
I am content to wait therefore while Moira, massive and uneasy with calf, finishes the nuts I have poured for her separately (it takes her so long to catch up to the trough). Angus Halfhorn finishes before Moira has set to, but he can only glare at me in bemusement through the grille of the gate that I closed to prevent him muscling in.
I can only sit on the quad and watch her eat; even the Nog sits – and watches me sitting. There is no wind, little sound- the world waits for an elderly cow to finish her feed- when I can race the Nog to the gate at the top of the field.
I visit twice more, and still no developments- finally to the top shed to watch the girls. They are contentedly gathered round the feeder – stocking up for the night ahead. The two calves are the only occupants of the field; secure in each other’s company despite the three month age gap- black Abby’s boy is twice the size of Demi-Og’s infant.
This little subset of the Uvie family is feeding peacefully: it is a simple thing to share with animals partnering my daily life.

The sky is quiet, crisscrossed with a chinoiserie of bare birch branches and twigs. Birds are singing – robins, chaffinches, a blackbird. I can hear them but not see them. Behind the shed stands a taller birch, surmounted by a single bird outlined on the smallest, tallest twig -like a christmas angel. The music continues – until a sudden passage of sharp clicks gives the game away. This is a starling, seemingly imitating other birds, seeking pre-eminence, perched higher than the others, beak lifted to the sky, fearless and loud, filling the quiet evening air like a concert hall.
The gate bangs against the bin as I swing it open- when I look up the tree is empty, the performance finished.

As I walk down the road, I find it hard to tell silence from music.

Animal stories, Highland cattle, Uncategorized


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.

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.

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.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uncategorized

A weave of many interests

Four pheasants saunter round the yard, awaiting my arrival. They are not seriously disturbed by the Nog (maybe word has circulated in pheasant circles about just how useless he is as a gundog). The ghost robin speeds by, half-seen as always, on his way to some discreet vantage in the barn. Billy and the pregnant girls plus black Abby and her new calf wait motionless to be triggered into movement only on my approach to the feed trough. I must pilot my way through like a tugboat through a harbour bound fleet.


Morag and I have a compact. She is an ungainly white cow, unfailingly hostile who produces excellent calves that she mothers well. Morag is effectively on three legs, standing with her left rear raised several inches in the air, and putting it to ground only when she has to. She has never walked well and is clearly struggling now with rheumatics; as a gesture towards her long and grumbling companionship, I dose her with cod-liver oil by means of a distinct bucket of feed nuts. Trouble is – if she and I don’t play canny- more agile members of the maternity wing will edge her off the bucket.

I approach the fence therefore with two buckets, but drop the medicated one inconspicuously before straddling the line wire. There follows a period of confusion, where Billy and the girls jockey for top position at the trough and I try to distribute the feed evenly while avoiding injury from heavy feet and hard horns. Morag sometimes plays at joining in, though she knows she is not fit to compete; but as soon as the others are fully occupied, she breaks off to follow me back to the fence, where I secretly swing the waiting bucket under her muzzle.


The Nog paces beside me as I run the feed sacks down the hardstanding. The quad was left outside the door last night – I kneel on the seat to avoid getting a wet arse. The stotts have two troughs to avoid congestion and bullying. One of these boys follows me uncertainly as a I move between the two leaving his fellows with their heads down. He has abandoned assured benefits in favour of anticipated advantage. He has a gambler’s soul.

We all have our stratagems.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

The wikiguide on how not to tag a calf

All calves need ear tags. This means inserting a plastic rivet with identification numbers through the baby’s hairy ear. The animal will carry the tag for life and be recorded by this number for any operation – veterinary, movements, breeding, and ultimately death- perhaps as much as twenty years down the road.
Anyone sensible, with animals close to hand, tags calves shortly after birth – basically before they have a clue what is happening. I tag them after the first week – the most fragile period in a new life. Only when confident that they are feeding properly, have no infections, a proper moral commitment to support the farm by surviving, and a robust physical approach to life in the open air – do I risk their first one-on-one intervention with a human being. The benefit of this is that baby will be much stronger in its second week; the downside is that baby will be much stonger in the second week.
Abby’s baby is due for tagging. He is lying inside the calf enclosure insulated by the hale bale opened like a sheltering wing in the north eastern corner of the shed. This is accessed by a creep gate – the babies can walk through full height but too low for the adults.
I load two taggers, lure Abby out into the yard and corner him in the creep. He starts to panic, bleating like a goat calling to Abby who responds with guttural roars but is safely separated by two gates. I hold him between my knees as he tries to squueze out through a corner, feel the papery skin of his ear for the prominent veins and catch a bare patch with the prong of the tagger, squeezing hard. The tang pierces the ear, connecting with the socket in the companion tag the other side, but the tagger, used for the first time of the year, doesn’t release.
This is where things start to go wrong…
As I free the tagger, the calf runs to the far side of the enclosure. I usher it away from the aperture leading to the open air and catch it in the corner. I have dropped the second tagger: it is lying in the hay where I fixed the first tag. I cannot reach it and hold on to the calf. I steer the calf back over, pick up the device – prepare to clamp – Uh – oh – only one tag in the machine. The other one has dropped off – somewhere in the enclosure. Baby takes advantage of the distraction to leg it outdoors.
I chase it round the paddock for the next ten minutes. feed the others inside in case it will follow, hunt it round the feeder like kids round the mulberry bush, contemplate rugby tackling it (but the floor of the hardstanding is 2 inches deep slurry by this time- too rich even for my stomach), trap it against the fence – but the wire is slack and it wriggles through.
Finally I give up and return Abby to her son before any of us gets too traumatised.
There must be an easier way to make an idiot of myself –
-actually chasing a two week old calf round a muckfilled yard is pretty good for that.
Hope the rest of the day goes better …dunno though..

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Gleaning seed from fields of care

I’m burning files. Clearing my workshop meant clearing my old office lumbered with records of the last twenty years’ activity.
The financial papers of course are a joy to release in smoke- what alot of effort to create a vapour! Others belong with more subtle emotions – projects, often with massive personal investment, some working out, others not- consigned impartially to the fire. I keep some mementos, the kids, friends, family history- but also reminders of things well done. Some of my wasted efforts have involved elements of real quality – I seem contented by performance without necessarily, achievement.
During calving especially, I approach the cattle with an obscure sense that I am missing something- something they need. This feeling stalks beside me, a useful if not comfortable companion on my trips from the calving paddock to the shed with the two little girls, from the yard to the hardstanding with the stotts, from there to lowlying Aspens housing Angus Halfhorn and his two la in the long grass, a lame animal, one losing condition, not getting to feed, what..?
Today, a mild day with sun licking the ice coated ruts in the farm road, I decide to give Billy and the expectant mothers a day trip. The calving paddock, I think, is guttery and crowded, if I release them to wander round the farm they can fill up with some of the fibrous grass left from the last hot summer, dry their hooves off, the new baby can stretch his legs.
I draw them out with a bucket of feed – Abbie comes first, too fast for her calf who missses the gate. He wanders down the fence calling and when I go to hoosh him towards the opening she comes galloping back up as if she’d left him in the pub.
Normally, the animals are delighted and excited by new pastures. Today they wait by the gate – all day – clotted in disappointment, until I lead them back into the paddock, and apparent contentment.
So much for my lugubrious companion.
A flight of finches bursts from the birches as I follow the Nog through the encroaching twilight. There must be seed to glean yet.

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

Who’s running this place – me or the Nog?

It is mild, near 10 degrees, but with wind and rain I worry about Holly giving birth on the exposed Apron. I need to bring her and Billy (can’t leave him behind without any womenfolk- he’ll damage himself trying to jump fences, damage the fences in fact) up to the yard. The current pens are not large enough to house the extra residents, so I spend the day clearing space and extending the area housing Abbie and her baby. I release them: the new arrival prods tentatively at the mushy soil like a paddling pensioner, and then stotts off into wider space with his tail up. I haven’t seen him since: Abbie has hidden him among the rocks and birches.
The Nog is my companion in this work.
Routine 1 – Nog the poultry predator
The chookies are behind the pen with Holly and Alice. I clean it each morning, refill the hay rack, spread nuts for the girls and corn for the chooks. The Nog is stalking the chooks ‘Leave them alone!’ – he knows it’s wrong but as soon as my back is turned he slinks back along the metal rails – intent, dangerous. If cocky is still shut in the house, he squats with his muzzle pointed like a howitzer at the air grille.
Routine 2 – Nog and the quad
I run the quad up to the yard each morning from the garage. The Nog waits for me to leave and then races across country like a Western badhat to ambush me at the junction. He trots down to the Apron and Aspens, but on the return leg he insists on a ride – launching onto the seat with a flurry of farm mud. Leaving the Apron, I close the gate behind the stotts and he knows he has to run now – for his life- belting back down the road, round the bend, I follow as fast as I dare, and up the slope to the garage once more – ‘I’m catching you, I’m after you – I’ll run you down’ – he gallops furiously ahead of me ears flapping wildly.
Routine 3 – Digger Nog
He loves watching the business of the JCB, being a part of its grunts, rattles and heaves. He has learned to clamber up the back wheel onto the 4ft high cab platform to join me- but only from the left side. The other side is complicated with the levers so he won’t attempt it. Trouble is – he will sometimes cross under the machine risking being pancaked. I start out of the shed very carefully, wait as soon as I am clear for the fourlegged passenger at the bus stop who launches himself upwards as soon as I open the door and heads to the rear of the vehicle with a self satisfied shake of his metaphorical brolly.
Routine 4 – Nog and the sofa
His favourite – enough said.

Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

New day – and the colour is black

New day – new set of legs on the hardstanding- four small ones- black. Abbie has produced the first calf of the year, taking me by surprise. A few days ago she was battering heads with the stotts in the brief sunshine – and early this morning she popped out a nice black calf who is now wobbling about among the others, but perfectly competent on his feet. I know its a ‘him’ after getting close.
It is a beautiful morning, but for me the best is that the weather poses no threat to the new baby. His birth fluid has been licked off by mum, working methodically end to end, and there is no new rain to chill him, so he is free to find his way among his older half-brothers. Abbie is not too happy about this, as one after the other the stotts introduce themselves, already inviting him to play. He responds with some little jumps and kicks- a good lively lad even at a few hours old.
Abbie will not stand still while there is so much activity, Unless she does, he will not feed. She needs to stand for him while he blunders around the underside of her belly, between her legs, bumping into her shoulder, until finally his pursed mouth finds one swollen teat, latches on and she can release the warm jets of lifegiving milk.

But that doesn’t look like happening- so I must intervene.

Abbie’s attempts to avoid the stotts take her close to the gate at the bottom of the Apron. I run down with the quad, let her out of the field keeping her pursuers at bay, and then back to the shed for some feed to lure her up to the yard

– but she won’t have it.

Nor – for that matter- will he, now slumped in the rushes, exhausted by his first few hours of life.

I reckon this won’t do him too much harm – so decide to leave them alone for now and race the quad back to the yard, with the Nog sprinting ahead once I’ve convinced him that I’ll run him down, yes I really will, if he slows down.
I set up a pen for the mother and child adjacent to the three old dears: Flora, Morag and Moira. Here they can get used to each other, but the older cows can’t interfere with or even bully the new arrival, who can concentrate on what he needs to do: feed.
Doesn’t happen though. The baby is more interested in sleeping than feeding. By the afternoon, if he didn’t feed early morning before my arrival, he has missed the 12 hour window for the first milk, rich in yellow cholosterum, that will safeguard against infection for the rest of his life.
Perhaps I should intervene, but the truth is I would rather hold back, even against veterinary advice. In the main, these hardy, natural animals sort themselves out. My involvement turns a natural event to some kind of emergency.

Little lad is now bedded down on the hay dropped over the gate for his mum. She has been fed, and drained a pail of water,(producing milk is thirsty work) and that is all for now.
In the morning it may be different.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

I find myself being stalked

Abby stands foursquare in the middle of the road, obstructing my access to the gate. Small and black with a nice regular spread of horns she would alarm a stranger. She is immobile, catching the most of the breeze to dry off after a wild night. Billy waits at the side of the road, similarly statuesque – and damp. I tease the flattened hair on her coat before passing on, her ears go back and her head down but she doesn’t move. She knows what she needs.
Flora and Moira are pacified by feed in the trough, leaving Morag alone with her bucket doctored with cod liver oil. Across the yard I skoosh calf feed into the sheep trough for the babies, Holly and Alice, dimly aware of my ghostly companion the robin who flashes past like a miniature fighter jet. I spot him again later as I unload timber, flying past me into the shed where I stack boards of burr elm and ash. He takes up a distant vantage in the apex, barely discernible against the gable. He is not the type who perches on the gardener’s spade, not a Christmas card bird. He follows me discreetly, lurking semi concealed like an old fashioned gumshoe employed by a jealous wife.
Today he is not my only stalker. My one remaining Wyandotte is behaving very strangely. Wyandottes are small decorative chickens, with brown and grey flecked feathers graded like old slates in paisley-like patterns trimmed with orange. My chook is ailing. it was the Nog first brought her to my attention, his predator’s instinct pointing the huddle of feathers in a dish of hay at roosting time when no chook should be sleeping on the ground. For the last three nights I pick her up and propel her onto the loft and safety. She must wake from sleep to find herself inexplicably in mid air, but instinct takes over even if it takes her a while to trim once coming in to land.
She is wobbling round the yard, every now and then losing her balance and sitting back where she stays like a small animated football, periscope head swivelling. I realise she is following me. Each time I enter the yard during the day she gravitates unevenly toward me, even peeling away from her companions to teeter towards me as I enter the gate. Twice I throw her a handful of corn, but she has none of it. Finally I stoop down and talk to her. She walks to within six inches of my face, her beady eyes losing their confusion, and stretches her neck out in a determined effort to peck or pull at my upper face- my eyes, my forehead, my hair I can’t tell. She is expressing some need directed towards me. Is her gesture some hangover from early life directed towards mother hen? Is she looking to me for something she knows she won’t find from her companions? Or has she spotted some array of spiders or grubs in my hair, or grass seed – always possible, I suppose. Chickens are hard to read, garrulous but with sharp eyes.
The afternoon is already drawing in, so I tuck her under my arm. At least this time she’ll be awake when she makes her night flight, her vol de nuit. It might be her last.