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.

Animal stories, Highland cattle, Uncategorized


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.

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.

Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Biology commands, but tenderness prevails

Today is fine and mild. The mist wound around the lower slopes of Creag Dubh has lifted, defining the crags in the clear air. It is a day for working with the animals. I have priorities.

At the Oban show last weekend I encountered Stuart, Demi-Og’s breeder, who warned me of the big calves they are seeing to their stock bull: potentially difficult for a first time mother like my new acquisition. I have to bring her up to the calving paddock where I can keep an closer eye on her and the new baby will be able to find shelter in the building.
Abby’s baby needs his second tag. the stotts need weighing and dosing for parasites, little Holly and Alice likewise. The older cows need their udders clipped of long hair that could confuse a new young mouth seeking the teat. In fact, every animal on the farm needs handling in some way.

I have to do it alone.
There is an order to be followed. The older animals at the yard need dealing with and Billy returned to his quarters before Angus Halfhorn is brought up to avoid an ugly confrontation between father and son.

Abby’s lad is forced into the race – the confined corridor leading to the handling crate. I have the tagger ready, chase him into the crate and close the door. He turns round, digs his little head under the gate and uses his already powerful bull’s neck to lift and open – back to square one. It will get harder as he gets frantic. Backing down the race, I use my body to jam him against the rails, grab his ear, feel for the space between the blood vessels, force the tongs together and withdraw before he can take off. Success.
Now for the big girls with the hairy udders, Holly is trapped in the pen – it’ll be easier if she is caught in the the race but she backs into a corner of the pen and refuses to move. There is a dynamic of trust with the older animals that I am reluctant to break by forcing her like a stranger beast. I feel under her body as she stands unrestrained, teasing her teats clear of the muddy strands of hair. She knows my touch, twitches but stands. Taking care to avoid sensitive flesh I clip the obscuring dangleberries around the lifegiving dugs. Dear Holly trusts me to complete one side, move round to the other and clear the area.
Moira is next – not as trusting as Holly, but greedy. I permit her to drop her head into a bucket of nuts and work as she eats. By the time she finishes, I am too. A stress free operation.
Flora is my biggest and best breeder. She is a pragmatist: she suffers me when she must. Trapped in the pen she takes charge and makes her own way into the race, easing her wide span of horns sideways through the yoke defining the narrow corridor. I slide a bar in behind to hold her, reach through from the sides to clear her bulging sac of hair and hanging mud. Thank you, darling – out you go.
Demi-Og will come up with Angus from below, lured by a bag of nuts rattled on the back of the quad. The air fills with the stink of testosterone as the two bulls catch sight of each other, and roar and groan, digging at the ground with their horns, plastering their heads and horns with dirt to confront their rival with the requisite awfulness.
Both take time out to accept a tickle: Billy on his spine, Angus on his hairy crown.
Biology takes second place to tenderness.

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..

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Gleaning seed from fields of care

I’m burning files. Clearing my workshop meant clearing my old office lumbered with records of the last twenty years’ activity.
The financial papers of course are a joy to release in smoke- what alot of effort to create a vapour! Others belong with more subtle emotions – projects, often with massive personal investment, some working out, others not- consigned impartially to the fire. I keep some mementos, the kids, friends, family history- but also reminders of things well done. Some of my wasted efforts have involved elements of real quality – I seem contented by performance without necessarily, achievement.
During calving especially, I approach the cattle with an obscure sense that I am missing something- something they need. This feeling stalks beside me, a useful if not comfortable companion on my trips from the calving paddock to the shed with the two little girls, from the yard to the hardstanding with the stotts, from there to lowlying Aspens housing Angus Halfhorn and his two la in the long grass, a lame animal, one losing condition, not getting to feed, what..?
Today, a mild day with sun licking the ice coated ruts in the farm road, I decide to give Billy and the expectant mothers a day trip. The calving paddock, I think, is guttery and crowded, if I release them to wander round the farm they can fill up with some of the fibrous grass left from the last hot summer, dry their hooves off, the new baby can stretch his legs.
I draw them out with a bucket of feed – Abbie comes first, too fast for her calf who missses the gate. He wanders down the fence calling and when I go to hoosh him towards the opening she comes galloping back up as if she’d left him in the pub.
Normally, the animals are delighted and excited by new pastures. Today they wait by the gate – all day – clotted in disappointment, until I lead them back into the paddock, and apparent contentment.
So much for my lugubrious companion.
A flight of finches bursts from the birches as I follow the Nog through the encroaching twilight. There must be seed to glean yet.