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!