Animal stories, Farm Accommodation, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, new birth, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Calculations and consequences

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.
I fail.
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.

Animal stories, Farm Accommodation, farm bunkhouse, Farm Life, farm visitors, Highland cattle, new birth, Uncategorized

Earning a living

Business- my business demands that I make up the beds for this weekend’s guests-it is the afternoon’s work. My farm business demands that I safeguard my stock- my living assets. One of those assets is coated in red curls, with large eyes and long lashes-drawing a smile from the vet when she sees him curled in the soft hay.
I was out early to check on his welfare, unsure of what I would find. I am fairly certain that he will not have found his mothers overburdened teats; but whether one litre of milk force-fed yesterday will be enough to maintain his fragile forces – that I don’t know.
He is on his feet – not feeding, not even inquiring; just standing quietly alongside his mother. This show of strength frees me to attend to the rest of the herd in the familiar way, before I focus on the challenge he represents. The urgency of the situation is mine to generate; he shows none.
I must fill the vacuum created by his passivity.
The bottle of yesterdays milk is prepared in a bucket of warm water, also softening the stomach tube that I may be obliged to resort to. I am determined on patience. I catch Moira in the handling crate to separate the two, and carry him inside the shed to offer him the bottle- and again, and again. If he learns to suck on the plastic teat, if he gains the desire for his mother’s milk, he will, before long find where it comes from.
But not yet.
I sit against the hay bale my legs drawn up to cup his small strong body. My left arm is wrapped round his chest while my right holds the bottle to his mouth, gently rocking it to ease milk into his mouth – drops of milk: he needs pints.
Gaby arrives at noon and helps me try a second time – with a free hand available, she squeezes the teat, massages his mouth around it. He masticates as if chewing gum, but does not suck
He condemns us to the tube. We will force him to live. Another joyless litre finds its way down his throat. He stands ready to rejoin his mother.
Gaby looks at me. ‘You have milk in your hair’ she says.

heroic ambition, today's story, Uncategorized, village life

Flying beyond the flock

Two small birds tear into the sky – and out again – like streakers on a cricket field.
Their compact profile and short triangular wings are familiar – but anomalous. They are surely starlings – and not only that – they are the starlings nesting in my eaves – or rather under the tin roof of the bunkhouse. I see them flying in and out of the gable end when I cross the bridge to my office – but mostly in the summer. There is something remarkable about this pair climbing the air above the Apron field where the stotts are now clearing the troughs of this morning’s nuts.
Starlings are woodland birds, so tree-loving not house sharing: and profoundly gregarious, swirling in great single-minded flocks like shoals. My birds behave differently, of necessity maybe or choice – and this aspiring glory in solitary flight marks my vision as I race the quad up to the gate from the bottom paddock with the Nog zigzagging madly across my bows.
Feeding the beasts is a welcome obligation – I know how to start my day – but to continue….? Work with immediate tasks- tag the carcase hanging by the pond, text the gamedealer, empty my pack to dry out my gear, oil and sharpen my knives – and then…?

Which item on the Endless List is fit for crossing off?
-and then-

Lynda phones to say Marie and Kari are here.
These are Wally’s womenfolk: – Wally Herbert- the greatest British polar traveller –  resident in the village for the last decade of his life
– and generous host

– and friend.
Wally made his own path where there are none; forcing his way forward in places without precedent, against Nature’s adversity and with little support or acclaim.

Marie and Kari follow in his steps, not the ones quickly filled with blown snow on the polar approaches, but the more enduring habits of psychological enterprise and endurance.

Some habits cast hard like pre-human prints on a beach- or the flight of starlings.

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

Why would the wren fly higher than the eagle?

I leave the feeding to the end of the day. It has been snowing on and off with bright skies between showers. The JCB doesn’t start, so it’s a race to the pumps for fuel and back for putting out hay and silage before dark.
When I return from Newtonmore, the stotts are bellowing: with reason, their feeder was close on empty when I checked this morning.
‘Fee-ee-e-ed us: you–uuu–re laa-a-ate!’ the big guy bellows from across the field; they are gathered at the gate the way they do every morning waiting for me to appear with the nuts.
‘I—iii-m ooo—ooo—n iiii-iit! No–oo–tt l—-ooong gu-uys’ I yell back before filling and powering up the old machine.
I’m taking the silage from inside the enclosure with the two little girls, Holly and Alice, so I let them into the yard. They come out dancing – and set to scratching on all the novel protuberances suddenly made available.

The old yellow machine thunders down the farm road past the pond where the mallard pair have recently taken up residence, nudges the gate open with the front wheels, drops the bale in the feeder and lurches back up the road.
It’s Billy and the girls in the calving paddock next. The bale catches on the forks and needs a shunt: the plastic wrap drops with it requiring removal  in case of ingestion, fatal in the case of a calf. Billy is sidling round the feeder as I hack at the plastic caught by the weight of the sodden grass. He catches up to me before I manage to release it, and bashes me with his giant horns.
As it happens I know this manoeuvre: I have to tickle him before completing the task. Toll extracted in the currency of contact, Billy permits me to haul out the remains of the wrap and remove it from danger.
The moon is shining clear on the snow-peppered mire of the yard. There is a single star riding above, like a wren above an eagle. As the story goes, we need a lift to fly high.

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.

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..

Chooks, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

Snow start

The glimmer outside the window gives the game away before daylight – snow on the ground. Last night was moonlit – sufficient to load a silage bale without lights. A clear night therefore- but still remarkably mild – I am outside hatless and barely in need of gloves (a good thing as I am susceptible to frostbite in the finger tip that I sliced on the planer like bacon). The square light in the new shed itself reveals slowly, shedding a warm orange radiance across the snowy yard and the shadowy beasts gathered at the feeder.
Ali appears after I have dealt with the little girls and the chooks in the other shed. I feel obscurely ashamed that the only chook needing attention is Cocky ie male, his female companions having learned to roost in the roof.
She is kind enough to make no comment.
The animals outside still need fed, so she parks herself on the rear carrier as the Nog and I head down the hill as usual.
We follow well-worn pathways, but perspectives change slightly through sharing. Farm routines develop in stratified layers of improvisation. So, some tiny innovation, maybe opening a gate one way rather than another, becomes a platform for a new set of outcomes, modest indeed but tending towards economy.
Cosmos Uvie evolves unnoticed- except when presented to someone new, who both assays the system and may add to it. Last time Ali farm-sat, she hooked a feed pallet to a hurdle for use as a hayrack – still in use.
Our understanding of a tiny world grows microscopically.
The snow is still falling, but water will soon flow beneath it down granite ribs.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, today's story

day of leisure?

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.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Timber building

its not just plumbing fails in winter

Hard frost covers grass, vehicles, animals -& nothing works all day, or functions grudgingly without rhythm or grace.The digger doesn’t start when I need to cart silage to Billy the girls, and once successful (after a trip to Newtonmore for additional fuel), Billy attacks the bale using his horns to send gouts of fodder over his back onto the dirt. I talk to him sternly – and replace armfuls that would otherwise be wasted. The valve in Angie Halfhorn’s water trough has rotated sideways and is frozen anyway, but the animals are good, well adapted to this weather.

Lenny is failing. He has come to fix the disfunctional heating system in the timber framed extension to the coffee shop. His voice is a coarse whisper – as it has been for a month now, Standing before the water cylinder he explains to me meticulously how the pellet stove sends water at a pre set temperature into the cylinder which demands the heat until it has reached temperature of another setting at which point it releases it to the central heating – but not, stresses Lennie in such away as to rob the tap water that circulates inside a coil inside the tank that is then balanced with cold  before sent to the taps. Additionally, Lennie points out, the solar heating, (when there is any on days less pallid) shunts warmth to the system from another coil at the base. As he croaks these intricacies of procuring warmth, Lennie is poking a roll-up through his whiskers, threatening conflagration. The hospital has requested his attendance, but for now he takes time to tell me how things work.

Back at the farm I replace the lagging insulating my own water system, pre-empting malfunction though not conclusively: winter is a continual skirmishing against greater forces. I can only choose my ground.