Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Other People's Stories, Uncategorized

Old and cold today

There is frost on the ground this morning: water is skinned with ice like cooling soup, breaking with a crunch as the quad wheels break through. The air is fresh in my nostrils as I motor down the hill to Angus Halfhorn, and his prime pregnant heifers: Alice and Demi Og. Angie is waiting by the stock fence as I climb over with the feed sack. He watches me without importuning, and then follows to the trough taking his place patiently as I spread the nuts evenly along its length.  He is simply a decent lad, so I take time to acknowledge him, looking him in the eye, hailing him cheerfully and communicating something more subtle but equally important to a herd member- my heartfelt goodwill.

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The cold feels correct, a settled seasonality, though troublesome.

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Ten minutes drive takes me to the coffee-shop for my quarterly book-keeping session with the endlessly patient Wilma, delayed a half-hour for frozen roads. Jimmy arrives, taking a break from chopping logs for sale in the roofless farmhouse across the road. He has been lamenting the mild weather as no-one is burning his sticks, but today he blows on his fingers complaining of the chill wind. Jimmy celebrated his birthday last week – he is 84.

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I have a bale to deliver to the geriatrics at the yard- Billy and the girls. It is just a short stretch from the other side of the yard, but the rusting yellow JCB must be nursed into life to shift the heavy silage. This task is reserved  for late afternoon so that the cold metal of the big engine benefits from the warmth of the day. Even so, having attached the battery charger, administered quick start fluid – it takes the third (and final, for sure) spasm of the wheezing engine to catch and clear.

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We ready for work even as twilight falls and the frosts of a new night gather.

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Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uvie Farm

Quiet days in Clichy -er -Uvie

At last some calm – for me and the animals. I tend to the three old girls by the new shed: Morag has become used to feeding separately from her bucket laced with cod-liver oil for her rheumatic rear leg, and the others are content to compete at the trough. Little Holly maintains her programme of deluded harassment, trying to wrest the bucket fom me with her immatue horns before I can spread it in the trough where shy Alice is able to participate.
I am using the quad now to feed the other animals, something I avoid doing before starting supplementary feeding since the older animals recognise the sound of the motor as an invitation to food, compelling as a dinner bell, or rattled sack. Silage is low in the feeder on the hardstanding, mounded in the centre like an oversized nest: I climb inside and spread the residue to the sides where it can be reached by the smaller animals. Plenty of hay still for Angus Halfhorn and his two ladies, but mother Alice is reluctant to come to the trough and I am afraid that her bad feet are troubling her, suffering from damaged hooves with large vertical clefts called sandcracks.
The Nog is excited about the reappearance of the quad and launches himself at me when I climb aboard to drive back up th hill. He scrabbles into position so that he is sitting in my lap with his front legs braced on the the seat, as if piloting the machine. I hold my head back to avoid his attempts to lick my face in appreciation of the ride, to avoid a dunt from his bony skull. My view of the path ahead is obscured by a pair of long brown ears flapping in my face.
To my surprise, Billy and the girls have not moved over to the silage I’ve made available for them but are filing westwards down the road to Logan’s meadow. They are recovering their wandering habit as nomadic grazers after a few days of huddling immobile in self protective withdrawal. It is the field where they spent the long hot summer; perhaps they are recovering some balance to their morale, seeking the remnant grass from that time.
A cloud of redpolls, tiny migrant finches, lift from the birches by the house like thrown confetti. The spider-like patches of snow retreating in hollows are dusted with seed and husks thrashed from the upper branches.
There is harvest too at this dead season.

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Chooks, Highland cattle, Timber building, Uvie Farm

Lifting at the limit

The thicknesser has been sitting in the middle of the workshop for 20 years – solid, scuffed, dirty green , immobile,- the dependable heart of my joinery – now it’s time to shift it. I reckon it weighs 3/4 ton: the forklift I’ve hired has a capacity of 750kgs – funny that. When I lift it, the rear wheels rise from the floor – it steers with the rear wheels: I’m fine so long as I travel in straight lines- not much good in the tight spaces of the workshop. I persevere though and drop it on the trailer- finally -after scrapes, wobbles and slides – but we’re struggling to get any further with the truck wheels spinning in deep slush. I woke early to that uncanny quiet that comes with a blanket of snow – 5 inches in this case, built up without wind so small branches and even the handrail of the bridge balance a perfect cake slice of snow. Away to Inverness for cattle feed and back for lunch, feeling guilty about being unproductive I head down to the workshop to continue clearing it. Darkness is falling but with Jake’s help , and with the machine trembling on the forks – I decide to go for it. Gunning the engine, spinning the tyres and nudging with the forklift, we nurse the loaded trailer up the hill to the black tarmac and back to the farm. That was a task hard achieved but there’s other successes to relish. One of the new Maran hens has been reluctant to follow her companions to be shut into the chicken house, perching on the bars above the hay rack. Tonight finds her sitting in the roof with the older chooks looking fat and  smug at a new task mastered. And there’s Alice down in the Aspens with Angus Halfhorn: flighty, fearful Alice, who turns from the hay, extends her neck towards my face and noses me with her breath. She doesn’t even shake her horns afterwards the way the others often do as if to warn me not to take further liberties. New behaviour learned, and a gesture of trust. Success comes in many forms.

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Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

Change now, betterment later – and a small death

Tonight is the longest of the year. In winter the night limits the day, and defines it. The roundhouse sits high on a coronet of rock catching the wind on a stormy night. Last night I listened to the lashing rain. preparing for the day ahead and the implications for the cattle in their separate areas.
The little girls are best off, just the two, able to shelter in the bedded pen coming out to meet me with the morning feed. The small round shape lying on the concrete is the corpse of the ailing Wyandotte. She has not been brutalised, not shredded – just died- pretty little hen.
The three old girls are relauctant to use the shelter but they are learning the benefits. Billy and the girls have no shelter apart from the bare trees and the lee of the rocks. Billy boy chose his spot last night ; I watched him settle below the big birch beside the road and this morning he is still there, chewing the cud like an old sailor in the corner of a bar. The older animals are more comfortable or resigned to this spell of wet and wind but the yearlings who enjoyed a hay-bedded corner of the big shed as last springs calves, have never endured this before and suffer with lowered heads and hunched rears.
The geography of water and land has changed dramaticly overnight. The snow that powdered the slopes like chainstore cosmetics has slipped with the rain into the river spilling over the valley floor. A full flood creates a new inland sea with shores mounting my lower fields: today’s event is enough to fill the dry meanders of the slow river creating new serpentine patterns of water among the low ground pastures. New islands rise to view, where before there were low-ground mounds and more prominent morraines where unwary herders can find their animals trapped for days on end.
Uvie rises on granite towards the crags, so the flood never reaches far but covers the tussocky paddock that is open to Angus Halfhorn, Alice and Demi-Og. They could be trapped if caught sheltering in the willows. To my relief, I find them gathered round the feeder by the improvised tin shed that lost its roof in the summer and was cobbled back together this backend. There is shelter here but it opens to the south with its back to the prevailing wind, and these gales are driving in from that direction so the floor is saturated and ugly, telling me that there will have been little solace for these animals overnight. They are feeding voraciously with an unusual intensity, starting to understand the implications of winter. I wonder about improving their situation so long as Angus and his father Billy continue to apart to avoid fighting.
I jump into the feeder and help them reach the hay in the middle. As I pull the rainsoaked hay to the side, I uncover a layer that is green and dry, smelling of hot summer. The questing animals latch onto this at once as if they too were clinging to a token of change and betterment.

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Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature

The ridge hinges from its north axis to head east. Light fades but the sky is bright with blue and gold. Strathspey is entirely green, grass and darker foliage of conifers, apart fiery reflections from meandered loops of the river. It is windless: even the Nog, who doesn’t understand peaceful, sits watching the valley.Scattered snow like swagged net veils surrounding ridges and higher and further the valleys beckon upwards to blanketed white plateaus merging with cloud,

Sunday is for maintenance and renewal. House cleaning was interrupted by four guests to the farm, Edinburgh students, wanting to see the animals. Little Holly poses shyly, Morag’s arthritic leg is hanging almost useless, Billy lumbers over. At one stage he has the men on one side and the women on the other – all of them caressing him in a kind of wonderment. Happy man! Angus Halfhorn presents his neck to me then characteristically selects one of the visitors for half-welcomed greetings.

Next to complete the chores: load the log basket ( I will not start the heating until the water is threatened with freezing), split kindlers, load bottles and tins for the banks, set the sourdough to prove and out to the hill before I lose the light. I don’t have time for the full ridge walk so I flog up to the saddle along the old peat road assisted by my awareness of others passed the same way. On the crest the view opens to the west, ranks of snowy peaks hazy and luminous in the cold air receding towards the sea.

I hear ravens overhead, a fullthroated trouble of dogs, lazy car engines- somewhere a light plane. From here, the big house becomes a small house, it is clusters of houses that flag human occupancy in this wide waste. Headlights track lazily up the slope toward Drumochter summit – weekenders heading for home. Time I did the same- there is bread to bake.

Even the Nog knows peaceful

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Highland cattle, Uncategorized

Contentment found among cattle

Today is ordinary- a day like other days. Cold again, but not so cold that I have to break ice on the troughs- and dry, so the beasts are content. Bill is rubbing himself on a feed trough as though drawing it to my attention. I lean on his flank some moments scratching the short hair behind his front leg. I know he enjoys his spine and rump being worked over but also this leaning my head over his back, the way the animals do it. Little Holly brings her nose close and I blow gently – she will need separating from the males soon: penned with little Alice  she will help me manage the newcomer’s distress when weaned from her mother.

Sounds are muffled and engine  noise drifts down benignly from the road as I head downfield noting in passing the levels in the watertroughs. Mother Holly stands by the feeder but head lifted to watch me arrive. She has managed to throw a thatch of silage onto her back that I push aside to massage her wide rump – she bends her head to lick the back of my leg in her usual gesture of reciprocity. Abbie is nervous – I suspect that she was the animal hoisted into the water trough by one of her fellows – as I reach towards her she catches sight of the Nog bouncing frustratedly on the other side of the wire and shies away. Angus Halfhorn is behind her standing quietly, conserving warmth after a frosty night in the open, bends his head towards my feet as I approach. I must stretch over his horns to scratch the centre parting on the top of his neck. I oblige – reflecting how close these gestures are to the attack postures that would enable these animals to use their strength to do harm.

It is peaceful today: the two young stotts stand watch chewing the cud. Up the hill my house stands and breathes.

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Highland cattle

The first day of winter

Ice smears the ground this morning. The air is still. The animals have their heads down on the Apron but I shall feed them today. This marks the start of winter, establishing the pattern that will prevail until the new grass.

The digger is mute and cold – its old engine will not start under its own power so I hook up the charger and squirt juice into the air filter. It turns grudgingly and apparently on its dying revolution fires into life. I let it run for a while, use the time to drain the field roller of water to avoid bursting the welds under the pressure of expanding ice. Picking up the first bale end-on, I drop it to come in sideways, entering offcentre to allow for the skewed pallet fork I bent swinging too fast past a tree, and head down to the hardstanding. The plastic covering the ends of the round bale is cut & I slash hard along the front just above the forks, and pull both wrap and net back against the bucket, tying it to the fork bars. Lifting and tilting I drop the bale and the grass is freed from its covering which now hangs like an untidy flag from my loose knot. The smell of part fermented grass is on my hands now – not a haybale’s wistful reminder of summer but something with sourer notes, reassuring nonetheless.

Returning with a tombstone feeder balanced on the forks, I find that Billy has rammed the bale as though a rival, shifting it several feet unrolling as it goes. A good part of the feed is now at risk from being trampled and lost. Yelling at the delinquent veteran  I hoop the feeder over the bale, reversing to pull it into position like landing a fish. I jump down to pull out as much of I can of the fringe of silage projecting from the ring, while avoiding Billy swinging his horns at marauders.

Taking the second bale to Angus halfhorn and the girls goes smoothly enough, but feed is not enough: I have to ensure their water supply. A few days ago, one of the animals had fallen in the water trough, breaching it. I installed a replacement but finished in darkness and only discovered later that the ballvalve was not closing the incoming supply. The well had emptied but more importantly the pump was hunting for water in the dry borehole and might burn out, leaving the farm waterless. Stripped to my shirtsleeves I feel in the cold water for the machine screw retaining the float, and reset it

Farm duties done, I can now set about some paid employment.

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