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.
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.
With the turning of the year, normal patterns begin to resume. Feeding the cattle is the gentle hum of the machinery of life, the everyday mantra – but the frenetic transitional work of shifting the contents of my joinery workshop to the farm, that has come to an end.
So, today I am able to take Paul out stalking- deerstalking that is. This is the third year that he has come and it is flattering that he has returned since we had a disappointing expedition last year, crawling backwards and forwards for hours to approach to some hinds lying out in open ground, and ultimately failing.
Paul is out at first light, I join him after feeding the cattle. All well with them, but I have to be wary of Angus Halfhorn’s enthusiastic response to my arrival. He dances around me as I skoosh the nuts into the trough and it won’t be long before he starts nudging me – not too serious, the odd bruised elbow. However, the mud here on the lowlying Aspens is holding my feet, so if he decides to get too friendly- I will be unable to take evasive action.
Paul is waiting at the hill gate. I park the truck back in the birches where it’s hidden from any beasts lying on the brae, and join him. He has seen hinds heading into the centre of the estate, but wasn’t close enough to shoot. We head round the hill and up to the top – I spy the group and we work round the ridge to come in from the north – the wind is from the southwest.
We have identified three groups: the main group of a dozen or so lying on the hillside facing us, a hind and calf lying with their heads up by a big square boulder east of these, and-our target-another pair working their way up towards the main group. There are many eyes to avoid as we crawl carefully round the sodden hillside: we make first one vantage point and then a second fifty yards further in but we are still 300 yards away.
And now there is a choice. My instinct tells me to continue crawling – in full view- but very slowly: movement alerts these animals primarily- and scent, but we are well placed downwind. Paul introduces the option of using a gulley that starts higher and runs down in the direction of the group. I had considered this and decided against it, since it demanded a fair bit more time, and seems to angle directly towards the animals, therefore offering little cover- but Paul is the client, I am the guide. He commands me, but I direct the day’s events. I have the choice of ignoring what he says, and following what I believe to be our likeliest avenue to success. The chances are maybe fifty=fifty – so I do not have strong grounds for overriding him. In short, we prospect his suggestion, decide against it and return to follow my line. Before long I see the unwelcome sight of the animals bunched in a group necks extended, ears high. By the time Paul joins me, they are running up the gulley and over the ridge.
The lesson is clear.
This way, I mitigated failure but failed nonetheless.
So:-go for it bullheaded – win or lose, hero or prat.
Too late for Paul though- next year perhaps- if he has the patience, poor man.
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.
There is snow in the air, on the ground and on the beasts’ backs. They can’t forage in these conditions, however slim the winter pickings and it makes these opportunist grazers nervous, like card sharps at a bingo night.
There must be accessible grass some other surely place. Those other animals that can be seen and heard – maybe they are stealing a march, living better.
This doesn’t pose too much of a problem except when I have bales to put out which means opening gates from one paddock to another without mixing the stock -who are very keen to mix. Today I have two bales to put out.
I let the two little girls out and even open the old blacksmith’s gate to the wood bordering the yard – so they can get lost. Well, at least explore for a while. Run along and play little ones! This clears them from the yard while I pull down some silage bales, arrange them in a line so there’s something to push against, and drive the forks under the front one. The animals have mustered at the gate ready to mount an insurgency so I prepare a bucket of feed that will pacify Billy the ringleader and set it down a ways apart. I have the machine almost resting at the gate braked on its rear rams that need lifted before I can let the machine freewheel through. I need to judge just how far to go so as to allow the gate to close, and misjudge it at first, wasting time. By the time I’ve dropped the bucket hard enough to lift the front wheels, one of the stotts is working his way past my side window. I jump down the other side and get to the gate just before he does.
Down the road, drop the bale in the feederi on the hardstanding, roll up the balewrap and net and back for the next. I discover that I am wearing the wrong coat for this operation: army surplus cammy jacket – with buttons – lots of buttons. Every time my arms get close to the net or it brushes my chest, the buttons snag on the net like sprats- my cuff, my pocket, my chest – so that at times I am attached at multiple points like Gulliver.
Little Holly has wandered back from the wood to wait at the gate, clearly keen to join the others feeding below. I chuck the feedbucket behind her- she won’t be distracted. I shoo her away, before mounting the four foot step to the cab, she returns. I shoo her a bit further and edge the machine through, scraping past the gatepost nearest her: she is waiting. I jump down again, shoo again, she returns again- this time outflanking me on the open side. At this point I lose patience with mischievous heifers, netted buttons and all things slushy and run at her yelling and cussing – at last she flounces off into the wood and I can proceed onward serenely, if shamefaced.
The digger is now parked and the quad comes into play – the ground is too soft to take the big machine down the slope to the Aspen paddock – and the quad won’t carry a heavy silage bale. I topple a hay bale by climbing into a gap, setting my knees against its neighbour and shuffling upwards until the upright bale tips sideways. I can now pull it onto the buggy with the the ingenious scorpion tail grab and head back down.
I pass the feeding beasts as fast as I can in the snowy conditions to make it to the gate and safety, like Wells Fargo. However, the Injuns are after me in the shape of some stotts galloping the hill as I push through the gate. I let the quad run through, turning its wheels uphill so it stops against the fence (see the alternative: todaysstoryblog December 15th….) and run back to close the gate in their faces.
At the Aspens, Alice alone is waiting at the empty feeder. I am about to check in the willows where the animals might get stranded by a flood, when I feel I’m being watched and turning round I find Angus Halfhorn and Demi Og glaring at me from the shed in mute rebuke for late breakfast. They are protected from the falling snow in the improvised shelter: I am pleased that they are using it.
I leave the gate open on the way out: it’ll will provide them with something to investigate this damp winter day and perhaps calm them if they find there is no more grass in the next door field.
Calm is good.
Little Holly stares at me from inside the yard. She has a hay coiffure where she has pulled it from the rack onto her head where it sits like a jackdaw’s nest. I back through the gate so as to close it easier; she tries to force her nose in to the bucket that I am holding closed with my other hand. I am saving time by holding the scoop with chookie corn in the same hand, so she risks spilling it and sending me back to the feed shed to refill. Little Alice is hanging back still, but this pushiness from Holly means that Alice must be be starting to assert herself.
Alice is the more naturally adventurous of the two – it is she that forces her way into the section of the shed that is to house my new workshop, and she is the one making the trailer quake mysteriously by rubbing an itch as I am inside unloading. These days I give the two of them the freedom of the yard not simply the pen outside the shed. They relish the extra space and interest; testing the breeze for new possibilities.
This new freedom will build confidence like giving a child the run of the house: good preparation for schooling them in a month or so. Alice is a jumpjet of a calf, taking off at the slightest provocation. I need to work her inquisitive nature to develop a habit of co-operation if she is to stay on the farm as a breeding female.
I wonder if I should get a school-bell?
The cattle are lurking at the top of the road. They’re using the trees to shelter from the wind but also trying to convince me that the weather is harsh enough to warrant supplementary feeding. It isn’t: in fact it is unseasonably warm. I harden myself to collective emotional blackmail even as Abby and Holly position themselves across my path to force me to acknowledge them. The babies,namely little Holly and Alice, get fed at the shed, but that is to socialise them as well as to bring them on. The rest just have to man – er -cow up: it’ll get tougher later in the winter.
The fine weather means there are no welfare fears, the feeders are full and the beasts content apart from Ma Alice who, separated from her baby, looks forlornly through the net like a POW dreaming of home. A tickle down both sides of Angie Halfhorn’s ample neck and I’m out the bottom end of the Aspen paddock to follow the old township road past the kitchen garden and back up to the house for breakfast.
Closing the final gate I spot a scatter of feathers: white with pale brown edging- the colours of my sober Maran hens. These have not been lost through preening: there are breast and flight feathers torn out. Not enough though to constitute a shambles, a bourroch in the old language. There is no explosion of feathers the way a peregrine pulverises a pigeon: no shredded carcase after the way of a harrier. Perhaps one of my chooks was dragged here by a big predator, fox or wildcat?- But no, the two Marans perambulate peacefully at the shed with their bible black consort whose splendour is only slightly lessened when he trips over his own feathered feet.
I am relieved not to have failed an animal in my care; but troubled that one of my wild neighbours should have suffered some nameless violence this night past.
I walk up to the yard with the Nog-it is windy and warm. I have my tape measure to determine timber quantities for the new workshop at the shed that currently houses the two young heifers, Holly and Alice. Alice is slowly settling to the absence of her mother, and Holly is looking less long-suffering as her companion grows quieter by the day.
Calum’s quad and trailer are parked in the sloping wood on the other side of the road – overloaded as usual. I see him and big Tony higher up among the trees and yell out: “You guys must be rubbing your hands every time the wind blows”. Calum descends to the gate smiling. He’s had a haircut, or rather a shearing, his thick grey hair tight to his head.
Aye,aye, big old birch down in the last wind
One of the big silver birches
Calum is a tenant of the estate which is up for sale for £71/2 million. The owner hasn’t contacted him to discuss his future in his wee cottage with long southerly views from its small windows.
You’d think wealth would bring, well – culture, courtesy maybe..
Calum doesn’t comment but the strain shows.
Back on my side of the road I proceed with designing my new workplace when the Nog starts barking outside. In case I have a rare visitor, I return outside and see a maroon 4×4 parked across the entrance. A smartly dressed man is walking swiftly towards the verge when he sees me and turns back. I see his hands already prepared to work his zipper.
Clearly, feeling the call of Nature he has stopped in a nice quiet rural location to commune. Disappointed in his quest for privacy, he heads across the road to the gateway opposite at which point Calum, having refilled the chainsaw fires it up. Our visitor, now aware of his exposure to Calum and Tony, heads back across the road to the other side of my gateway, where he is met by the Nog barking furiously inside the fence, presumably only inches from his functional apparatus.
I say “presumably” since I have returned inside the shed as if I had no time for anything else.
Ho- well – so we brush shoulders with a greater world.
I shift the cattle – O that sounds simple!- redistributing them in preparation for calving, and weaning young Alice from her mum. O boy – Deep breath!- billyandthegirlsbroughttotheyard.florashedtothecalvingpaddock.alicesyoungandoldbroughtouttojointheothers.littlehollyandlittlealiceretainedintheyardwithbigaliceanddemiog.billyandtheboysleddownintothewood.angushalfhornledoutwithabbyandbighollyrunningallthewayuptotheyard.oncefedangusfollowsbackdowntheaspenpaddockwiththenewcowaliceanddemiogleavinghercalfwithlittlehollyintheshed.nowbillyandtheboyscanbeletoutofthewoodandhollyandabbycanbeleddowntojointhem.sorted-phew!
…except..dammitthebigstottsareganginguponpregnantHollyandforcinghertoherknees – Imakemyselfbiggerand fiercerthanacoupleoftonsofangrybeeftopartthemandrushtheboysoutontothefarmroad and shut the gate.
-but that’s not the story.
It has been damp and grey – I walk the Nog to visit Mrs Cluny (Sarah Justina Macpherson,wife to a nineteenth century laird) whose monument stands atop the outcrop of Creag Dubh behind the farm. The path is sheltered and closed in by cliffs and the mounds from old quarry workings, a good place to walk on a wild day but with short horizons. I start playing grievances in my mind as I walk, particularly my disappointment at Laggan Forest Trust, an organisation founded and mandated to source work for local people. They are building a new visitor centre in the community forest and have not bothered to find out what my buildings are about, let alone provide me with an opportunity for a high profile project. I am rehearsing my recriminations, my telling public critique – until suddenly I take stock and say aloud to the darkening birches ‘Stop!’
This is not the story.
The small twigs of the birches are cross-hatched against the sky, water is slicking the path under my feet, the burn running from the waterfall down the crags is rushing and gossipping at the side. Lichens gleam on sticks dislodged by the recent winds like patches of snow. The wind blows warm on my face from the south-west, filling my nostrils with odours of damp vegetation. The Nog’s raised tail is higlighted against the sky at the top of the path, just the tail, the dog’s body has disappeared into the gloaming.
that is today’s story.