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.

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

Does racing the dog qualify as farm work?

The Nog has finished harassing the stotts and gallops down the hill after the quad. Angus Halfhorn waits quietly at the fence, on the dry ground where he and the girls spend most of the day. He falls into step with me as I wade though the swampy ground by the feed trough, where he takes his place. Pride of place be it said, but not over-eager. Alice pushes in next and Demi-Og moves nervously round to the end where she will find a space without disturbing the other two. Precedence is clear – it makes my job easier that there is no challenge or jostling.
However, this is not true of the Nog – who starts to give me grief the moment I fire up the quad to ride back up the hill. I invite him on board but with the snow blowing in from the west he can’t make up his mind whether he wants to ride up front or race beside me. The latter makes me nervous so I command him on board like a drunken rating onto a merchantman. He doesn’t get it right though – not willing to sit up in the face of the weather, he lies across the front of the seat like a sack with a tail, pinning the skin of my thigh painfully.
This doesn’t work for me – so I chase behind him up to the second gate and refuse to allow him on board for the run down the road. He has cottoned on to this, so he allows me a headstart, knowing that I will have to slow for the bend and only sets off when I am about thirty yards away. We race up to the house neck and neck.
I’m really not convinced this is best farm practice.

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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.

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

*

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.

*

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.

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

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Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, Uncategorized

Winter quiet

The dark vegetation at the top of Creag Dhub is dusted with snow while the grey granite remains unchanged. It is the summer plumage of a ptarmigan, reminiscent of warmer days on the high tops where the wind cuts still. Now the mild morning is greeted as though the season had turned and I listen hatless to the full throated song of an unknown bird in the branches above the shed roof. It is easy to visualise the sound falling like water, or a blessing.
*
Snow swirls again around the house as I look out from breakfast preparations. The flakes are small and round, light enough to be lifted and carried on the breezes that eddy in the lee of the planes of the roundhouse and its segmented roof. The flakes reveal the architecture of the westerlies – some which swoop from the roof above, some swirling round the walls, some shooting out across the fields with only the briefest reference to the temporary obstruction of my home.
*
The cattle are watchful, healthy, unperturbed – no new calves are born, no crises undergone by the older animals. .
Six long-winged birds fly westward – swans probably – I follow them with my eyes but can’t identify them for sure. A mob of jackdaws-always activist- has occupied the perimeter of the kitchen garden.
We are suspended in a kind of uncertainty.
I will put out two bales of silage.

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Animal stories, Highland cattle

Running on empty

O dear, I’m not popular. Before setting Ali loose on the animals at the weekend, I dropped a new bale in two ring feeders – at the calving paddock and the hard standing.They are both due for a refill – well, almost.
Normally I would wait for the inaccessible fodder to collect in the centre of the ring like a termite mound, then pull it and heel it against the metal sides. Here even the horned animals can reach easily through the gaps in the tombstone feeders to catch the last of the bale. With the floor clear I am ready to tip in the next precious 4×4 roundbale.

Now, because I topped up at the weekend, there is still the residue from the previous bale to finish.
I grew up with small square bales (long before the big round bales took over I remember thinking- how on earth do you stack them? – a bit like seeing the new diesel locomotives lined up alongside the steam trains – Nah, they’ll never catch on)- and I still measure my wealth in hay by the small bale standard – I reckon I have two such clogging the base of the feeder. Too much to waste.
But it’s acid and rank, parts of it mildewed and heating up- not good for stomach or lungs. The animals pick at it, and stand looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to crack.
But these are hardy animals – bred for thin fare on bare winter hills.
Toughen up guys, you’re highlanders after all – what do you expect? – horse hay?

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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

Aside