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.