Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Ostriches and Drambuie

Ostriches weigh about 28 stones, can run at 43 mph, and stand 10 feet tall. At five feet four inches, it never occurred to me that I would ever look one in the eye....
That hot July day in the heart of rural Aberdeenshire I found myself staring deep into the beadiest of beady eyes. I didn’t even see or hear her approaching. There I was, on all fours pinning down an abnormally hirsute and unwilling sheep when I just sensed this enormous presence. A small head, a beak, and those beady eyes were right up close and personal. Then I allowed my eyes to take in the whole scene – the snake-like neck, the feathery black body and long powerful legs ending with huge flat prehistoric feet. She would have looked like an alien anywhere, but in sleepy Aberdeenshire she brought a great flapping whirlwind of the surreal. With a touch of the absurd.
I wasn’t sure what to do – not that I had much choice – after spending an hour in the baking heat just catching the wayward sheep in order to sheer them, if I moved at all the big bundle of wool would have run off half done. I looked into the beady little orbs and my eyes said ‘I'll give you my sheep when you take it from my cold, dead hands’ the ostrich’s eyes said ‘EH???’. Not a lot of brain room in that little skull. An awful lot of muscle on those lanky legs. Then a passing butterfly caught her attention and she was off galumphing after that…
Later, I sat bolt upright on the overstuffed, ancient sofa, cradling the huge egg under my arm while balancing a glass of Drambuie in one hand and a plate of apple pie in the other. I watched without the least surprise as a clucking mother hen strode confidently over my feet followed by twenty (yes twenty) small chicks. She headed straight for the kitchen where she and the little fluffy hoard began hungrily tucking into a large bowl of cat food.
Nothing would have surprised me by this stage. I had arrived at the small croft a couple of hours earlier – knowing only that two sheep needed shearing urgently. It was a hot day in July, and having been on some sheep shearing courses run by the British Wool Board, I was gaining some experience by going around some of the smaller farms which only had a few sheep. The big shearing outfits only go to farms where there are many sheep, making it worth their time to travel and set up.
There may have only been two sheep to shear – but what sheep! It must have been at least 2 years since they had been shorn. Big woolly balls of panting defiance they had certainly given me the run around before eventually succumbing to the inevitable. They were also huge, even underneath the massive fleece, so instead of doing the carefully choreographed dance – balancing, rolling and immobilising the sheep, I had no choice but to just pin them down on their side, shave, roll over and shave again...It’s very hard, sweaty, smelly work, so I was happy to accept the offer of a sit down inside with a drink. It’s usually tea, but I was handed a generous beaker of Drambuie and an apple pie. Once refreshed, the farmer, a man of few words, led me into a shed. It was a day for looking up. He gestured at the ceiling beams from which were hanging hundreds of shepherd’s crooks – most were painted bright colours, some were bare and varnished wood, but one was shiny all metal. He invited me to choose one. I took the metal one – it was all one piece and would never break. I knew I would never forget this day...off I toddled , carefully picking my way through the chicks running around the floor, clutching the biggest egg in the world and an indestructible crook. I waved cheerily at the ostrich which was standing dreamily with the sheep in the corner of the field, all three staring into space generating an unrivalled air of mystery....

Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Very Special Cat

Since turning up from nowhere about 3 years ago, Spooky has adopted me as his constant companion. He started by being a regular visitor to the barn, getting fed alongside the other farm cat Twinkle, but refused to ever come in the house, despite his immaculately groomed fur and excellent manners, he maintained that he was an outdoors cat.

He watched with interest while the soap cabin was built, and graciously offered to repel any opportunist mice and rats.
So, in the morning he appears magically in the barn to receive his wages as a farm cat (a third of a tin of cat food). He follows me around while I feed, water, and milk the goats, waiting eagerly for a little saucer of warm milk straight from the goat. He somehow manages to purr and drink at the same time.  He then finds a comfy corner to sleep away the day until tea time, when he resumes following me around outside, sometimes even following me up to the top fields to check the goats. This is what he was doing in the photo, not even turning back when it began to rain...

Spooky has lately begun to come into the house – getting on famously with Coco the dog, so in the evening he gets his supper on the kitchen windowsill, and curls up in front of the fire for a few hours. He insists on going out at night – he knows how to open the latches on the windows, which is a bit of a nuisance when I get up to a freezing cold house in the winter because as yet he hasn’t learnt to close the window after himself.
He has never once tried to steal my cocoa, or knock the milk over, like certain other cats on the farm, and I love him to bits.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

A Moment of Madness...

I believe that, like every dog has its day, every pony has its moment of madness....

Molly the Shetland pony had her mad moment one day when she decided that she’d had enough of being in the field on her own (this was before  Kelpie, the Highland pony joined her) and very cleverly opened the gate of her enclosure, I’m not sure how, as there were no human witnesses, but she got into the goat enclosure which has a convenient little hillock where the goats love to play King of the Castle. Molly, however, was not interested in being Queen for the day, she had more practical ambitions. Being a goat area, it has a high gate separating it from our garden. Molly further exercised her sharp brain, took a few steps back, ran up the hillock, using it as a springboard, and made a prodigious leap over the gate, clearing it easily (I was a rather shocked witness to this part of her escapade) Most animals in new and unexplored territory proceed with caution – looking around and sniffing for danger. Not Molly – she must have known that she was the biggest danger around. Before I had a chance to get anywhere near her she was off around the ponds at a sharp, confident trot - raising her legs and head high,  all the while keeping a rolling eye on where I was (at this point I was rushing off to find her head collar). After a quick recce around the larger areas of grass, sending chickens and ducks dashing for cover, she decided that she would like to explore further afield and off towards the house she trotted, up a few steps, around the side of the house and into the front garden. This was my chance to catch her as there are only narrow entrances and exits to this area. I followed her round but she was determined not to have her fun curtailed so early, brushed right past me, knocking me sideways into the rose bushes, and back into the larger side garden where she couldn’t be captured so easily. Soon she spied her downfall – the compost heap, brimming with rotting vegetable peelings. She didn’t think twice, and began greedily chewing great mouthfuls of decomposing carrots, onion leaves and cabbages. I knew I had her then.

I never imagined that Kelpie, a rather senior and placid Highland pony, would have a moment of madness, but one day, thanks to the weather, he did. This time it was nearly the end of me.
Kelpie doesn’t really like going out – preferring laziness and the company of his best friend Molly. He will go – but showing his reluctance by being as slow as he can get away with. I used to think that if he was a car he’d be one of those old Morris Travellers with the wood panelling – dependable, charming to look at but not built for speed.
One winter afternoon I took him out for a little (leisurely as usual) hack on a regular route – up the road and then turning off onto a grassy lane. As we got to the point of turning around and heading for home I heard a distant long, slow rumble of thunder. So did Kelpie. His ears twitched and his head jerked upwards. ‘Never mind, we’re on our way home ‘I told him (I often talked to him – he prefered it to my singing). Home- as quickly as possible- was evidently Kelpie’s objective. He started trotting – ‘this makes a change’ I thought, then I felt him change gear into a canter,  he pulled his head forcefully forward, got the bit between his teeth, and started galloping for all he was worth. I’d never known him actually gallop before – my little Morris Traveller had turned into a roaring red Ferrari. As the end of the lane, and the junction with the road, was fast approaching I tried to brake – the brakes didn’t work.  By the time we were at the junction I was standing in the stirrups, pulling with all my might on the reins but it was no use – this was his Moment of Madness. For a brief moment I contemplated hurling myself off sideways, Cossack style, into the hazel bushes, but threw in my lot with Kelpie and prayed that there wouldn’t be a vehicle coming along. Well, somebody must have been watching over us that day, because the road was closed for drainage work. When he felt the tarmac under his feet Kelpie screeched to a shuddering halt, with me grabbing hold of his mane to prevent myself flying off over his head. As you can imagine, we were both in a bit of a state after this, and we trembled in unison all the way home through the wind and rain that was preceding the thunder. From then on I studied the weather forecast very carefully before riding out...

Friday, 5 April 2013


The chicken house keeps moving - I know it keeps moving because I built it on a square of paving slabs. Some mornings it’s about 10 inches further north, some mornings it’s about 10 inches further towards the south. It is being moved by an unstoppable force which likes to flex its muscles regularly – the wind. I do live in an elevated position, unsheltered by any natural features.

When I was considering the position of the polytunnel I therefore took this into account, and decided on a site where the long sides were sheltered on one side by a large mound of earth, and the other side by the hill on which the croft is stood. I commenced the project on the Saturday; the metal framework was completed within a few hours and then decided as the weather forecast was good to press on with the job of getting the polythene on. This took longer than I  had anticipated as the cover was far too big for the framework and needed cutting to size. There were also lots of un-anticipated fiddly around the ends. The upshot was that I ran out of time to finish the job before dark, so I judiciously placed some large anchoring rocks around the base of the polythene and left the finishing off till the next day.

The following morning I went outside to inspect the work in progress. It wasn’t till I got around the corner of the house that that I realised how windy it had become, and as I arrived at the polytunnel I was greeted with the sight of several yards of expensive polythene flapping hysterically – apparently intent on escape up the hill....

Once completed the polytunnel became a haven of peace and tranquillity – for a while. I planted a peach tree and started quite a good little vegetable garden with peas, beans, peppers and courgettes. Unfortunately my luck didn’t last. That summer I  had two little Tamworth weaners (little piggies) who one day, while I was out,  somehow escaped their enclosure and went a–wandering. They found that the polytunnel door opened quite easily with a firm push of a curious snout and trotted in. They feasted on the carefully tended vegetables, and having done a thorough job of ploughing up the soil after their banquet, decided to continue their magical mystery tour of the garden. Unfortunately for them, the door had closed behind them and they could not get out. Being full of initiative however, they came up with a cunning plan, and ate their way out through the polythene wall.

When I arrived home the trail of evidence was laid out before me: closed polytunnel doors, a distinct absence of fruit and veg, and a rather neat pig shaped hole in the side of the tunnel. Keeping animals enclosed was, I concluded, a constant battle of wits – one which I usually lost miserably.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Goats are very useful creatures; they give milk of excellent quality and goodness, provide meat to a high proportion of the world’s population, and their skins are used for clothing, rugs, drums and many other useful things. They are companions to humans and other species, generally easily managed in small or large numbers, and will graze on land that other animals will turn their noses up at. They also provide endless hours of fun and amusement to anyone who cares to take an interest in them. They are intelligent animals and require hobbies to keep themselves occupied.

Some goats take an interest in politics – conniving and butting their way to the top of the tree. They are herd animals and need a leader. A leader has to be strong, decisive and a dynamic decision maker. The leader has to find the best food for the herd – be that by finding the best things to eat in a field (but usually it is on the other side of the fence), by calling the loudest at feeding time, or by being the first to raid the feed bins when a breakout is organised (usually by the leader). Sometimes it is not possible for the leader herself to squeeze through a gap in the stall, so she will train up a younger, slimmer kid to push through the gap (helping it along with her horns). The assistant will then become the leader by proxy and knock over all the feed bins, having watched the leader do this. Quite often the weight of the feed inside will cause the bin lid to pop off and reveal El Dorado inside.

Lesser members of the herd also find their niche in life. Some are professional mothers – looking out for their kids long after they need to. Others become athletes – jumping hurdles, sprinting and even climbing trees to reach the juiciest leaves.
The more intellectually inclined goats become expert problem solvers, using their front legs to bend down a pliable branch of a young willow to get at the only leaves remaining at the top. Some of these problem solvers become expert escapologists, chewing through knots in rope used to close a gate or using a bucket as a stepping stool to be over the top of a gate or fence.

Then there are the more creative types. They relish the opportunity to leap on the stage (preferably a car bonnet but a wheelbarrow will do) and exhibit their tap dancing, singing and acting skills. Their acting skills become positively histrionic when suffering from a stomach ache after raiding the feed bins.
Goats are truly wonderful animals – they do not smell (well, Billy goats do – but most goats are female or castrated male and definitely do not smell.)

I think that it is about time that goats are endowed with the value that they deserve. Few people will buy a common or garden goat as long as they are given away for free, and there is always the risk that a pet animal will end up neglected, passed from pillar to post or end up in the meat trade. So please goat lovers, make a charge for your goats. After all, a person who has thought through the expenses of good fencing, feed and vets bills will not mind paying £45 or so for an animal which will give so much in return –if only in entertainment value!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

I was having a busy morning- it was a cold, wet and windy March day and the winter feeding regime was still in full swing. Hay for the ponies, barley, beet and hay for the cattle, ewe rolls and hay to the ewes (most of whom had lambed). There were also the year-round morning jobs – milking the goats, feeding them hay and concentrates, grain for the chickens, geese and ducks, and cats and dogs to be fed. My big treat after this is to make myself a flask of hot coffee, call the dogs, who know my routine backwards, being acute observers of my every action. When I go into the kitchen to cut a slice of bread for the ducks, they know that when I return it will be time to spring into action – racing towards the door, slipping and sliding and hurling themselves at full pelt towards the path to the woods. Then Mac, the red and white collie will suddenly remember that he needs his toy and will race to his secret stash and pick out a toy of the day. I do a quick checklist: two dogs, one toy, flask of hot coffee and a pocket full of peanuts for the bird feeder in the woods, and off we go…

As we walk up the hill along the side of the fields I cast an eye over the beasts in the field to make sure all are feeding and behaving normally. This particular day it was nearly normal, but not quite…All the animals were munching away, except the sheep, who always beg for hay then treat it with casual disdain after taking a few mouthfuls, preferring to search in vain for signs of new spring grass. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was not right, and was distracted from this train of thought by a gentle tap on my knee – Mac was reminding me that I needed to throw his toy for him, I refilled the bird feeder and, like the animals, searched in vain for signs of spring – no swelling buds on the trees, no singing birds, and even the daffodils seemed reluctant to show any enthusiasm.

On our return I set about filling the water troughs, thankful that at least the rainy night meant that I wouldn’t have to defrost the hose – one of my least favourite jobs in the winter. As I was going about I noticed that both ponies were standing by the fence which divides their paddock from the sheep field. They were pricking their ears at something next door – if net curtains had been involved they would certainly have been twitching. Thinking that they were coveting the hay left behind by the discerning sheep I didn’t take too much notice. About an hour later, by now soaked by the persistent rain, I looked across and saw that the ponies were still showing an interest in the sheep field and I decided that this merited further investigation. All of the sheep were grazing at the top of the field, and about fifty yards away, in a dip in the ground; a small black shape was flailing around in the mud. As I walked towards it I realised that it was a newborn lamb – but where was mum? All the ewes were pointedly ignoring it, and I quickly checked them for signs of having lambed. I found one; she was hungrily munching grass while looking slyly at me out of the corner of her eyes. I picked up the lamb and walked towards her. She ran as fast as she could in the opposite direction. The poor wee lamb was soaking wet, covered in mud and crying plaintively for its’ feckless mum. I decided that action was needed to ensure it’s future, thinking back to the uneasy feeling I had had during the walk up to the woods I realised that it had been born a couple of hours earlier. I was reluctant to take the lamb away from its mother and reducing the chance of bonding, but that wasn’t about to happen at the moment anyway.
I had been waiting three years to put the Rayburn to its’ proper use, dreamt of while living in a small house in London with a clinical white kitchen and gas cooker. The only real point of having a Rayburn was its’ legendary ability to revive hypothermic lambs. The dogs obligingly moved over (probably because of shock at suddenly finding this alien creature in their midst) while I prepared The Full Works for the lamb – towel and hairdryer, ‘Kick Start’- a mixture of molasses and vitamins-, penicillin, iodine and a bottle of colostrum. After all that he refused to obligingly curl up next to the heat, scrambling onto his feet, long bendy legs seeming to go in four different directions at once, determined to follow me everywhere.
Storm, as we called him, never did manage to get a feed from mum, so he was hand reared with two rejected goat kids, and is doing very well as an honorary goat. He never did forget the comforts of the kitchen, and on occasion, when the door has been left open, he has been found cuddling up to the Rayburn with the dogs, quite at home…

Monday, 3 August 2009

Duck soup

My wellies were full of muddy water, my feet were slipping and sliding in all directions on the slimy bottom of the pond, my arms flailing around, shouting at the top of my voice with no real plan of action in mind. When I saw that Labrador swimming around the pond with my poor Indian Runner duck in its mouth I just waded in – literally and metaphorically speaking.

I had discovered the two lost dogs on the road outside, after going and investigating the sound of cars screeching to a halt outside – fearing that one of our animals had somehow got out on the road. I didn’t recognise the excited and friendly dogs criss-crossing the road, panting heavily with tongues flapping out of open mouths. They were evidently having an adventure. They had collars but no identity tags, and concerned that an accident would happen, I decided to put them in our barn while I telephoned neighbours to se if they knew where the dogs were from. I had no luck and it was when I returned to check on them that I saw with horror that they had jumped out of the stall, squeezed through the side of a large sliding door which was closed but not locked, and started causing the havoc. One of the dogs was whirling around the edge of the pond in excitement, watching its companion hunting. Chickens, ducks and geese were scarpering in all directions and it took me a couple of seconds to recognise the limp filthy shape in the swimming dog’s mouth as Nick the drake.

I leapt into the pond (fortunately not very deep) shouting at the top of my voice, hoping that this might shock the dog into dropping its prey. This did not work so I gave chase. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to chase something in a pond while wearing welly boots – but it is not easy. It’s a bit like one of those nightmares when you are trying to run away from something but can only move very slowly. The Labrador was in his element, I definitely was not. I must have had an adrenalin rush however, because I did manage to grab its collar and haul it out of the pond still holding the duck which I was sure was dead, it certainly wasn’t showing any sign of life. I don’t remember how I got the dog to drop Nick – it may have involved some shaking. I kept a very tight grip on the miscreant’s collar and made a successful lunge at its partner in crime and frogmarched them both back to the barn and locked them in as securely as I could. I felt sick at the thought of what I might find outside. Geese, chickens and more ducks range free in that area – there were also the sheep and lambs in a nearby field – what I might find filled me with trepidation. As far as I could tell after a quick scout around there were no other victims – the sheep were grazing unconcerned, most of the chickens were quaking beneath various bushes, and the geese were ruffled but OK. Feathers had been scattered about the place and with a heavy heart I picked up a spade on my way back to the pond, anticipating grave digging duty. I made a double take when I got to the spot where Nick had been unceremoniously dropped – he wasn’t there! I walked over to where the rest of the Indian Runner ducks were still waddling and quacking around in alarm, and there he was – alive and walking! I could hardly believe my eyes. The ducks – normally friendly and following me around in the hope of bread – wouldn’t let me any where near. From a distance I could see that he did have some injuries, but wasn’t bleeding. Fearing that if I tried to catch him there and then he (and maybe the others) would die of stress after their ordeal I decided to leave them be for the time being. It was nearly closing time at the vet’s so I rang up and explained what had happened and arranged to take Nick in first thing in the morning.

I then telephoned the dog warden. Fortunately she was in the area and picked up the dogs within the hour. I was reassured that if the owner was looking for the dogs then they would be able to find them.

At bedtime the ducks put themselves into the barn as usual, so it was quite easy to scoop up Nick into a tall cardboard box. and take him for treatment. As the vet remarked, he was surprisingly perky considering his injuries – he had had a couple of good bites taken out of his back end, but the prognosis was good. He needed to be kept at the surgery for a few days, and I took a female duck down to keep him company, having been advised that ducks do not do well on their own. He needed more nursing at home for a week or two after that, but made a full recovery and is still happily waddling around with his harem looking like an animated upside-down hockey stick.. Now when our own dogs are passing nearby the ducks call the alarm and move very smartly in the opposite direction – and who can blame them…