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…

Friday, 31 July 2009

The Cow....

One day I was looking through a little gem of a book about the native breeds of Scotland when my eyes came to a halt at ‘the Clootie Coo’. There was a faded photographic illustration of a stocky, short legged primitive looking beast with compact inwardly curving horns. Apparently the native cow of the Shetlands is also known as the Clootie Coo because of the tradition in the Shetlands of sending a square of cloth cut from an apron away with the cow when it is sold as a reminder to the animal of it’s former keeper and milker. Going all misty eyed at this romantic notion and spurred on by memories of my mother’s tales of hand milking Jersey cows during her time in the Land Army, I resolved that this would be the perfect house cow for me – I might even start wearing an apron….
Flowery was bought,– a good cow I was told, former breed champion at Melton Mowbray show, and in calf to a Shetland bull. Delivery was arranged for a couple of day’s time. Meanwhile, this being February, the weather worsened – snow, gales and hail from the north came our way. I assumed that Flowery’s arrival would be delayed due to dire warnings of impassable dangerous roads over most of Scotland. Despite the conditions however, the haulier was on his way. The only gate that we could bring the cow through onto our land was just peeping up through a four foot snow drift, and the field was under nearly 2 foot of snow. There was nothing for it but to start digging. For 3 hours we dug a channel, braving snow and freezing wind, until a pathway for our new acquisition was cleared. The huge haulage lorry arrived about 11.30 am, and the back door opened. I went in with a halter ready to lead my new docile little Shetland cow into her field to join our 2 little Highland heifers. I peered eagerly over the partition and this rather large, skinny cow with shiny, pointed horns looked up at me with an expression of great umbrage, got slowly up and waived her horns at me in a most unfriendly fashion. The halter idea was quickly abandoned as she made it perfectly clear that she was not in a mood to be cooperative. Once invited, she did grudgingly lumber out of the lorry, down the ramp and, ignoring our carefully dug pathway through the snow, began pacing the fences, evidently looking for the shortest route home.
Molly, our naughty little Shetland pony had been put at a distance in the top field, but had been watching closely as Flowery arrived. The excitement of the occasion was just too much for her and she just had to get involved. After backing up a few paces with a determined stamping of her back legs, she thundered forwards towards the fence, cleared the 4 foot high obstacle with ease and belted downhill at a gallop to play with the new arrival. Flowery does not do ‘play’. Flowery does dominance and she was obviously having no truck with this cheeky little pony – fellow Shetlander or not. With an evil glint in her eye and a powerful swing of her neck she attempted to wear Molly as a head dress. Fortunately, being a nimble mover, Molly dodged the fearsome horns and trotted off in the huff. Then Flowery’s eyes alighted on her new herd – Deirdre and Leah, the 8 month old Highland heifers who were watching the floorshow with interest. ‘Now this is more like it’ Flowery seemed to say as she marched off towards them like an elderly matron towards her new charges. Having briefly explained to them that the boss had arrived, they meekly formed a little crocodile behind her as she stomped her way through the snow to explore her new territory. Watching in awe I decided that if Flowery did take a piece of me away with her it probably wouldn’t be part of my apron…

Thursday, 30 July 2009

In the Beginning................

When we first arrived at Christmas Croft in autumn 2003, no animals had been grazing in the fields for quite a while, and we wanted some animals on there to eat the grass and keep it in good heart. Sheep seemed to fit the bill – small, docile and fairly low maintenance. After a bit of research we decided that Jacobs sheep seemed to be a breed that would suit us, they are smallish, hardy, easy lambers that taste good too! I advertised in the local ‘green paper’ and was contacted by two breeders who had excess stock. Some sheep were duly purchased over the phone and the owners kindly agreed to deliver.

First to arrive were three of that years’ lambs. Once manhandled into their field (the drive being too muddy to even get a light vehicle up), they huddled together, all seeming quite similar in appearance with their horns and brown and cream patches. They went everywhere together – side by side, for all the world like a well rehearsed synchronised swimming team, at one end one would turn, at the same time as the next one and so on. Jacobs have very individual personalities we were soon to realise. Chief among these was ‘Spotty Nose’ who had one gently upwardly curving horn and one that looked as if it had been bent over a sturdy piece of metal. She loved to play, preferably with her sisters, but when they tired and wanted to do sheepy things like lying down to chew the cud; she would happily amuse herself for hours. She would jump on and off hay bales, sometimes trying to beat her own record for distance jumped from the top, she would run down to the fence nearest the barn and house to see what was going on – a look of recognition and anticipation on her face made comical by the large black spot almost covering her nose and side of her mouth. She enjoyed watching the chickens and ducks, but, unable to engage them in play she would run back up to her sisters and paw at them until they got up, then try to engage them in sheepy sport. If they wouldn’t indulge her she would simply resort to chasing them round and round the field.

Spotty Nose’s sisters did not inherit the same personality genes as her. Sparky was eternally suspicious of all other creatures and had an aloof, enigmatic expression and was named after a pop star of the same demeanour. The third new arrival seemed to have little to distinguish her at all, and was duly christened No Name – which was just as well considering her fate (we don’t give names to animals destined for the plate). The following year, after our older ewes had lambed; Spotty Nose and Sparky were sold to a couple further along the Moray coast who wanted some sheep to keep the grass down where they had formerly kept a horse. I was pleased to find such a good home for Spotty Nose – an intelligent, playful and charismatic sheep

Shortly after the arrival of our 3 young Jacob sheep two more mature ewes arrived from the Black Isle.

One had two large black sturdy horns which straight upwards out of her head – perfect for skewering anyone or anything in her way. She was named Fanny after the Olympic hurdler Fanny Blankers-Coen due to her amazing jumping ability. She could easily clear a gate from a standing start while heavily in lamb. The other ewe we called Four Horns, she had more conventional outwardly curving large horns with two smaller ones at each side. They arrived in lamb and we were advised to ‘watch them’ from January onwards as they had been in with the tup since August. They were duly put in a field which I could easily see from the window, and one cold but clear January afternoon I was doing some paperwork indoors when I glanced out of the window and noticed something unusual seemed to be happening in the field. The three ewe lambs (Spotty Nose, Sparky and No Name) and Fanny were standing around Four Horns, heads tilted to one side looking at her with interest. There also appeared to be a flapping white seagull on the ground. Surely even our sheep wouldn’t turn carnivore I thought. Seconds later I realised that of course it wasn’t a seagull, but a newborn Jacob lamb. Making a mental note to visit the optician soon I grabbed my jacket, heaved on my wellies and joined the crowd. By the time I arrived a second lamb had been born. It was flailing around on the ground attempting to stand while its older twin was already on its feet attempting to feed from mum. Four Horns had a particular look in her eye which ewes seem to have after lambing – one of pride and satisfaction, a feeling that I shared. It was a great feeling to see the first animals born on the croft – lively little black and white Jacobs.

The weather being cold and wintry at the time I decided to get mother and lambs into the barn. Moving a newly lambed sheep is far easier than moving a sheep at any other time. Ewes generally have a very strong, protective maternal instinct, so all I had to do was to pick up a wee lamb under each arm, start walking, and mum would duly follow. There is only one catch with this cunning plan – mum won’t follow unless she can see the lambs, so the manoeuvre has to be done while walking backwards – not easy when carrying 2 wet and wrggly lambs through the mud in a high wind. I eventually got all three into the shelter of a stall and began applying iodine to the lamb’s navals. From outside I could hear the loud plaintiff wailing of a very unhappy sheep. I was saved the trouble of going to investigate as I witnessed Fanny clearing a series of four foot high hurdles with ease and trotting into the barn to join her friend Four Horns, determined not to be left out of the proceedings. She refused to budge from the barn, and, not to be outdone, produced a fine set of twins three days later.

Every spring since then both Fanny and Four Horns have produced two or three lambs each and been excellent mothers. They will see out their lives at Christmas Croft, having more than earned a happy, peaceful retirement.