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.
I tag the last calf this morning –
old white Moira’s bull calf,
I coral him in a tight pen at the entrance to the race.
It confines him nicely, but the hurdle closing the entrance has no chain
to close it: being strong he could force it open by charging the bars
the way they do when frightened,
while I seek a tie.
I use my trousers,
restoring my dignity once the lad is released.
Logging the birth online,
filling Billy’s tag number as sire
for the last time
I see the animals in the field below the window
alert to something in the wood.
From the balcony I spot Moira being harrassed by the bullocks,
circling to escape their attempts to mount her.
She has come into season-
the first time after George’s birth.
She could be injured by these crude suitors,
incapable but only too willing.
I run down, divide them and shepherd her and George through the gate.
The boys watch her forlornly as they amble toward the other animals
She and her halfcalf are once more part of the herd-
and Angus Halfhorn is waiting.
is his now.
Billy’s last journey is simple to trace.
Not for him quiet retirement under the trees.
He has his place – as master.
First he must cross the field.
He sets his head against the closed gate, hooking his horns under the bottom bar.
The metal buckles but the ropes hold and the hinges are strapped down.
No matter- he knows all the ways round the farm that he has owned contentedly for a decade.
He sashays along the fence seeking access to the wooded hollow.
This gate too is tied: a rope looped round a securely braced corner post.
He brings his horns down on the timber bars of the short ladder at the side, smashing them from the post.
The gap is too small for him to pass through.
His way lies through the marsh.
The wired gate swings open under his weight.
He moves purposefully through the bog created by the blocked drainage channel.
His wide hooves carry his body weight squarely punching pockets in the soft ground that fill at once with water.
Where the land dries again, he skirts the fence bordering the vacant hay pasture.
The gate bulges and gives.
He is now on sweet new grass but his mind is not on grazing.
At last he reaches the paddock with the high fence where his females wander in the company of his son.
Angus stands there, responding to his challenge.
Billy tears at the grass with his front hooves, revealing black dirt that he grinds to paste with the front ridge of his skull, snorting and groaning as he does so.
He lifts his head to the sky.
At his trumpeting, rivals will quail, trees split, the earth will shake and walls tumble.
Mastery is his-
just one more gate.
He is ready
to break through.
The birches at the bottom are greening with tiny knobs of curled leaf: higher up the farm road they are skeletal still. The climb up the burnside after the Nog remains unadorned – though I almost know that it will change soon.
Yesterday the animals paraded through the open gate – then required shedding to their new homes: the younger cows to join Angus Halfhorn for his first season as stud bull.
I am concerned that, at three days old, it is early for Alice’s calf to cope with a sudden influx of older animals: but the opportunity to shift the animals has to be taken.
My choice: their time.
Single handed on the farm I have to work their way to do things my way.
The old bull,my darling Bill, has spent the day sitting by the fence looking down to where his son Angus partners cows that were with him last year. He is still there when I down last thing after my hill climb with the Nog. Alice’s baby is running in joyful circles with the other, larger calves.
She is fearless-
unlike her mother who, forgetting her cracked hooves, chases after her like a clumsy shadow.
Billy is now standing at the fence above, roaring, raking the ground with hoof and horn. Angus responds to the challenge. There are still two fences between them-
but as I watch Billy uproots a line of three posts and the connecting wires.
Angus is roaring his challenge from below. I chase him back to the girls: he flounces down the hill kicking his heels.
Billy is still knocking hell out of my fence; he has created a gap large enough to get through if he wants.
I reprimand him.
I hit him with a stick.
I spot a feed bag caught on the fence. He turns as I pick it up and follows me across the hayfield back to the calving paddock, where I close him in after rewarding him.
Staying there depends on him – a fence, a gate is mere suggestion.
Co-operation is best-
after all he’s bigger than me.
My first fear of the day is the state of the half calf.
Will he be breathing, standing?
He is standing.
Will he, following some unfathomable bovine epiphany, have sucked from his mother?
He hasn’t; he won’t.
competing with his mother for nuts.
These are for grown animals, finishing-nuts, suckling-mother nuts – but here he is with his head stuck into her bucket. When she leans into it to reach the dark grains, she wedges his head inside so he has to wriggle loose. Somehow this behaviour is reassuring though he is very feeble –
not growing and fattening like his brothers and his little white sister who is too busy running and jumping to get fatter.
Last night I watched the Nog gallop across the hayfield:
and her galloping after – looking to play.
So I am more relaxed as I quad the bags down to the boys on the hardstanding, and then to Angus halfhorn and Alice in the aspen paddock below-
and she’s calved.
I had forgotten to anticipate this- it has been so long awaited.
And suddenly it’s here –
wet and already nuzzling her mother’s stomach- her instincts are true.
Yes, it’s a heifer- since Alice was bought in from Dingwall mart, I will be able to breed from her in three years.
No time to enjoy her now- I left the gates open on the way down.
for all that-
Welcome, little one.
The day is kind for beginnings.
It’s not that he wants to die.
I honestly believe he enjoys being alongside Moira his mum, who has milk enough for three.
His limbs are all present and functioning. His organs appear complete. His eye is clear.
So explain this:
I treat Moira like a dairy cow – allow her time to find her own way in to the pen and down the race to the handling crate because by now she knows to expect relief, followed by release: and the passage between the metal gates is a station towards a desired objective.
She is penned and waiting, he is free; with access to her full udder. His nose is dry – he was sucking the long hairs under her chin wetted from her drinking. He is empty: taking nothing in since the last time I tubed a couple of litres into him 24 hours ago.
So why –
-when I pull on the front teat to spatter fresh milk off the floor of the crate, does he prefer to nuzzle her front?
– when I set warmed milk before him, rub some round his muzzle, does he lick it off, sniff the bowl & walk past?
– when I insert the bottle’s teat in his mouth, does he suck a few times, swallow a little and then jerk free?
Today snowshowers battle with sunshine; but by evening the sun has won.
The babies run round the field infecting their mothers with spring fever so that they too throw up their rear legs and dance like drunken Tories.
All the cattle are out at pasture with their heads down, as if the very intent of grazing would urge the grass to grow.
Just one small world seems intent on returning to winter.