I have two days to renew my electricity contract.
If not my friendly supplier will continue to supply me-
at five times the cost.
A pine marten would, I suppose,
display no less rank predatory opportunism
among my hens.
As I complete the task I notice Holly
lying alone: atypical behaviour triggering a latent alarm.
She watched me head-up this morning as I rode the quad to the yard.
She was watching still at my return.
I put it down to a quest for morning feed,
I kick myself for ignoring a possible signal-
where is her beautiful white heifer calf?
When animals suffer
any stockman takes it on themselves.
Two months ago I saved Demi-Og’s baby by the merest chance,
a matter of seconds,
sometimes I fail.
Season before last Holly’s calf died
for no reason.
I saw her first thing,
by lunch she had stretched out
and expired as I pumelled and exhorted
in the exact same damp spot that April’s newborn had passed
a month earlier.
I will never permit an animal to calve there again-
just in case they are called to follow..
Dear Holly – not again-
I run from the office, coat and boots collected,
run to the field-
The calf, big and white, is easily spotted over the brow,
picking at tufts on the ledges of the rabbit warren.
Relieved, I tickle Holly as she lies in the grass.
Angus Halfhorn, as fickle as any harem master should be,
has forgotten yesterday’s dalliance with Moira:
Demi Og is today’s sweetheart.
I tag the last calf this morning –
old white Moira’s bull calf,
I coral him in a tight pen at the entrance to the race.
It confines him nicely, but the hurdle closing the entrance has no chain
to close it: being strong he could force it open by charging the bars
the way they do when frightened,
while I seek a tie.
I use my trousers,
restoring my dignity once the lad is released.
Logging the birth online,
filling Billy’s tag number as sire
for the last time
I see the animals in the field below the window
alert to something in the wood.
From the balcony I spot Moira being harrassed by the bullocks,
circling to escape their attempts to mount her.
She has come into season-
the first time after George’s birth.
She could be injured by these crude suitors,
incapable but only too willing.
I run down, divide them and shepherd her and George through the gate.
The boys watch her forlornly as they amble toward the other animals
She and her halfcalf are once more part of the herd-
and Angus Halfhorn is waiting.
is his now.
Billy’s last journey is simple to trace.
Not for him quiet retirement under the trees.
He has his place – as master.
First he must cross the field.
He sets his head against the closed gate, hooking his horns under the bottom bar.
The metal buckles but the ropes hold and the hinges are strapped down.
No matter- he knows all the ways round the farm that he has owned contentedly for a decade.
He sashays along the fence seeking access to the wooded hollow.
This gate too is tied: a rope looped round a securely braced corner post.
He brings his horns down on the timber bars of the short ladder at the side, smashing them from the post.
The gap is too small for him to pass through.
His way lies through the marsh.
The wired gate swings open under his weight.
He moves purposefully through the bog created by the blocked drainage channel.
His wide hooves carry his body weight squarely punching pockets in the soft ground that fill at once with water.
Where the land dries again, he skirts the fence bordering the vacant hay pasture.
The gate bulges and gives.
He is now on sweet new grass but his mind is not on grazing.
At last he reaches the paddock with the high fence where his females wander in the company of his son.
Angus stands there, responding to his challenge.
Billy tears at the grass with his front hooves, revealing black dirt that he grinds to paste with the front ridge of his skull, snorting and groaning as he does so.
He lifts his head to the sky.
At his trumpeting, rivals will quail, trees split, the earth will shake and walls tumble.
Mastery is his-
just one more gate.
He is ready
to break through.
The birches at the bottom are greening with tiny knobs of curled leaf: higher up the farm road they are skeletal still. The climb up the burnside after the Nog remains unadorned – though I almost know that it will change soon.
Yesterday the animals paraded through the open gate – then required shedding to their new homes: the younger cows to join Angus Halfhorn for his first season as stud bull.
I am concerned that, at three days old, it is early for Alice’s calf to cope with a sudden influx of older animals: but the opportunity to shift the animals has to be taken.
My choice: their time.
Single handed on the farm I have to work their way to do things my way.
The old bull,my darling Bill, has spent the day sitting by the fence looking down to where his son Angus partners cows that were with him last year. He is still there when I down last thing after my hill climb with the Nog. Alice’s baby is running in joyful circles with the other, larger calves.
She is fearless-
unlike her mother who, forgetting her cracked hooves, chases after her like a clumsy shadow.
Billy is now standing at the fence above, roaring, raking the ground with hoof and horn. Angus responds to the challenge. There are still two fences between them-
but as I watch Billy uproots a line of three posts and the connecting wires.
Angus is roaring his challenge from below. I chase him back to the girls: he flounces down the hill kicking his heels.
Billy is still knocking hell out of my fence; he has created a gap large enough to get through if he wants.
I reprimand him.
I hit him with a stick.
I spot a feed bag caught on the fence. He turns as I pick it up and follows me across the hayfield back to the calving paddock, where I close him in after rewarding him.
Staying there depends on him – a fence, a gate is mere suggestion.
Co-operation is best-
after all he’s bigger than me.
My first fear of the day is the state of the half calf.
Will he be breathing, standing?
He is standing.
Will he, following some unfathomable bovine epiphany, have sucked from his mother?
He hasn’t; he won’t.
competing with his mother for nuts.
These are for grown animals, finishing-nuts, suckling-mother nuts – but here he is with his head stuck into her bucket. When she leans into it to reach the dark grains, she wedges his head inside so he has to wriggle loose. Somehow this behaviour is reassuring though he is very feeble –
not growing and fattening like his brothers and his little white sister who is too busy running and jumping to get fatter.
Last night I watched the Nog gallop across the hayfield:
and her galloping after – looking to play.
So I am more relaxed as I quad the bags down to the boys on the hardstanding, and then to Angus halfhorn and Alice in the aspen paddock below-
and she’s calved.
I had forgotten to anticipate this- it has been so long awaited.
And suddenly it’s here –
wet and already nuzzling her mother’s stomach- her instincts are true.
Yes, it’s a heifer- since Alice was bought in from Dingwall mart, I will be able to breed from her in three years.
No time to enjoy her now- I left the gates open on the way down.
for all that-
Welcome, little one.
The day is kind for beginnings.
It’s not that he wants to die.
I honestly believe he enjoys being alongside Moira his mum, who has milk enough for three.
His limbs are all present and functioning. His organs appear complete. His eye is clear.
So explain this:
I treat Moira like a dairy cow – allow her time to find her own way in to the pen and down the race to the handling crate because by now she knows to expect relief, followed by release: and the passage between the metal gates is a station towards a desired objective.
She is penned and waiting, he is free; with access to her full udder. His nose is dry – he was sucking the long hairs under her chin wetted from her drinking. He is empty: taking nothing in since the last time I tubed a couple of litres into him 24 hours ago.
So why –
-when I pull on the front teat to spatter fresh milk off the floor of the crate, does he prefer to nuzzle her front?
– when I set warmed milk before him, rub some round his muzzle, does he lick it off, sniff the bowl & walk past?
– when I insert the bottle’s teat in his mouth, does he suck a few times, swallow a little and then jerk free?
Today snowshowers battle with sunshine; but by evening the sun has won.
The babies run round the field infecting their mothers with spring fever so that they too throw up their rear legs and dance like drunken Tories.
All the cattle are out at pasture with their heads down, as if the very intent of grazing would urge the grass to grow.
Just one small world seems intent on returning to winter.
Looking down from Sarah Justina’s crag where her monument presides, the features of the farm are laid out like a baize cloth for a table game. The major pieces are fixed: the roundhouse and bunkhouse connected by the oak bridge, the farm sheds with the yard between, fences dividing the ground into discrete, irregular segments.
Other pieces are mobile. The cattle trailer is now parked next to the old mobile home used while I was building the house; the bale buggy rests in the yard after running a fresh supply of hay down to Angus Halfhorn and Alice. The beasts have wandered up to the shed for their evening feed from the round feeder, leaving only the new mums: Holly with her delicate white heifer calf born yesterday and Moira with my nemesis- a beautiful little bull who won’t live unless I force milk down his throat.
I must move the mobile pieces around the farm board.
This morning, little Holly and Alice follow the feed bucket out from the shed across the yard and into the wood – these babes must stay there until I have finished with the space, the square they normally occupy. I need it now for Moira and the boy – push them across, lift the boy in my arms, run down the narrow corridor to the handling crate chased by the frantic mother, duck out of the crate pushing the lad ahead of me, double back and latch her securely.
Now I try him first on yesterday’s milk: if I fail I will have another chance after refilling the bottle.
Back to square mum.
I tug down three litres of golden liquid. Her bag softens, her teats are flaccid: she moans gently as the pressure eases.
And he refuses it. I force half into his stomach using the tube.
Released into the field, I will wait to bring them back in this evening.
In the morning they will be back in play. There will be new moves.
Al and I arrive back at the Roundhouse to offload the cattle trailer. It is full, not of cattle but of timber cleared from the building site at the Pottery Coffee Shop. We pile it against the granite bedrock rearing out of the ground behind the house. I aim to burn this in the company of friends on a fine evening.
This late afternoon is golden without the fire- undoubtedly the best day of the year, sunny and still.
As we work I become aware that the stotts- the young males- are gathered at the far end of the field, captivated by events out of view. They have been posturing with Angus Halfhorn on the other side of the fence, but this time they are not roaring and Billy is displaying no interest in any male displays.
They gather in a group craning over the fence like boys outside a circus.
I cannot afford to ignore a signal like this: so drop my task and cross the field to join the spectators. In the corner against the wood Angus Halfhorn, Alice and Moira are knotted, mobile, circling – indistinguishable one from another. Moira breaks out from the huddle and, after a moment, I understand the reason for the disturbance. There are four animals here, not three – she has given birth. The newcomer is already active on unsteady legs- a bullcalf as I find out a moment later.
She has a massive bag, the baby is strong, the sky is clear. it will be cold tonight and he may not suck. The frost will form on his infant back, he will curl shivering – but he will live, God willing.
Tomorrow I will find whether I need to intervene for his welfare; for tonight- I will leave it to Moira.
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.