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What a difference a bit of sunshine makes

lambing shed

When we moved here to Auchenstroan, we thought there was not much to do.  It seemed like all the fencing was in place and that it was all set up for sheep.  Well, a year later, we cannot believe how busy we have been.  We haven’t helped ourselves by leaping into taking on new animals, namely pigs and cows.  But on top of that, there was no water system for the fields, no decent lambing facilities, no pig facilities and no cow facilities.  What there was, was lots of brambles.  Lots!

On top of that, it seems to have been raining since last July.  Either that or snowing.  To be honest, we are both a bit tired of trudging through the mud delivering feed to our various flock.  The mud does its best to suck of your boots off.  The snow made it hard getting up and down the hills.  That said, on the plus side it’s hilly here so it does dry quickly.  If it would stop raining, or snowing.

It has not been an easy start to the year.  Nicole has described our losses, Ivor and the badger attack on the chickens.  This time last week I was up to my knees (because I was kneeling) in mud constructing an anti badger electric fence.  It was a yet another cold, damp day.

new gateway in dry stone dyke
new gateway in dry stone dyke

This incessant bad weather hasn’t stopped us.  For example, we have been improving the inter-connectivity of our fields.  This is mainly to keep the cows out of the sheep shelters – they are too big and would probably flatten them.  So, two weekends ago we were out in the snow putting a gateway into a dry stone dyke.  It was a good, if tiring, weekend are we really pleased with the results.

And at last, the weather has changed – we have had a week of sunshine.  A dry week.  It has been freezing cold, but that’s fine, just having the sun shine has really lifted our spirits.

Also, getting to the bottom of why the aga never got very hot has been brilliant.  When we dug up the concrete floor to in the utility room, we found the oil pipe buried and with a huge dent in it.  Given the aga oil flow runs on gravity, that was a very useful find and has now been repaired.

Today, the sun has shone brightly and we have managed to give all the sheep their annual booster.  This was despite the cows coming rushing through their new gate and over to see what we were up to.  We had the sheep treatment pen next to the fence resulting in two big faces with horns attached leaning over the fence trying to get to the sheep nuts.  We had to put move them out and shut the gate – they were not impressed. And an unimpressed highland cow can be quite scary, hats off to Nicole for leading them away while I attached the gate.  We made it up to them later by giving them a fresh bale of haylage.

lambing shed entrance
lambing shed entrance

Best of all, the lambing paddock is starting to look great.  The shed is built, the fencing all done and Nicole has removed all the old chicken wire fencing and all the brambles.  No mean feet.  The electrician is coming this week to add power and next weekend we’ll put the lambing pens together.

I even got a moment to sit on a rock and take in some February sun.  Lovely.

Soon it will be spring – we can’t wait.

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Yoke training Bluebell & Texa

After losing wee Ivor we noticed the dynamics between Bluebell & Texa had shifted slightly, they were skittish and seemed uneasy, they hung around the gate where we had carried Ivor away, and spent a lot of time looking into the distance.  It was heart breaking and we were sure they were pining for him as we were.  However it is easy to put a human spin on things and transfer our own feelings onto animals.  Yes, they must have wondered where Ivor had gone, yes there was undoubtedly a reshuffling of the pecking order, but they were also getting on with the business of scoffing haylage and generally doing what cows do.  Animals tend to live in the moment, unlike us humans, so we tried to remain positive and not be upset or emotional when around them .  As their  “pack leaders” for want of a better word, we had to be calm and strong in their presence and carry on with our day to day care, “business as usual”.  This was easier said than done, and I admit, we found it hard to follow our own advice.  In fact we failed spectacularly in the days following  Ivor’s death,  truth be told, both of us completely lost our confidence.  It’s difficult to explain, but at one very low point, we even considered selling Bluebell and Texa, so convinced were we that we weren’t cut out for it.  We still somehow blamed ourselves and didn’t feel we could give them what they needed.  Thankfully this low point only lasted two days, by Monday we had a plan, we would continue to keep cows, we would continue to do our best to care for them, and we would continue to yoke and crush train them as we’d planned to do a few weeks beforehand.

To do this we would need to take things up a level.  We already had a good rapport with them and we were gaining their trust, they allowed us to comb them (everywhere bar their faces).  We were at a good stage to take the training a step further.  We thought we would use the approach we’d used with our sheep a few years ago.  At this point I should say that there is a serious reason for gaining an animal’s trust, it’s not just for our benefit to be able to pat and stroke them, it’s best for the animal too should they need medical attention. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to round up a sheep for example and then restrain it, all to give it a three second injection.  The whole atmosphere becomes fraught and it is pleasant for neither party.  Our sheep were relatively easy to “train”, (being new to sheep at the time, we were very pleased with our efforts!)  we halter trained them over the winter during our first year of keeping them and now they trot around after us like friendly dogs.  We wanted to adopt the same approach with the cows, but at the same time we were aware that one thing is penning up a sheep, but it is entirely a different matter penning up a huge animal like a cow.  There has to be more psychology involved, particularly with Highlands who are not only big, but have very long horns too!  One thing we noticed when we first got them, was that we had to be careful when using cow nuts as rewards because they get very excited and a few times we’ve had to step away quickly to avoid them careering into us in their eagerness to get a mouthful of the cow equivalent of sweeties.

Texa doing well!

The reason we wanted to train them to use the yoke and crush was because at some point we knew we’d have to put them in there if they needed injections etc. I have to admit, I had another motive as well; the frustrated hair dresser in me was desperate to comb out their fringes which have got very straggly over the winter.  We also saw the crush training as an opportunity to feed up Bluebell who was still slim after her pregnancy.  So, with this in mind, we came up with a strategy. We’d put some nuts in separate buckets, one for each cow.  Bluebell got a full ration, Texa got a sprinkling.  We’d hide the buckets behind a wall before entering the field to avoid the excited scrum.  We’d then put the girls in position, one would go into a pen, and the other would be positioned by the crush.  Once in place and the atmosphere was calm, each got their bucket.  As they were in separate areas there would be no fighting over buckets.  The cow we were crush training got her bucket in the crush so she started to see the crush and yoke as something positive.  Each day we would alternate so both cows got either penned up or led through the crush.  We hoped that it would take no more than two weeks, and I am pleased to report, that we managed it!  Admittedly the first time we put Bluebell through the crush she somehow ended up coming through back to front, not sure how that happened.   But they seemed to enjoy the “game” and as the days went by we noticed they started waiting in anticipation, either in the pen, or by the crush, clever girls!

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Badger in the hen house

With each passing day we are slowly coming to terms with the loss of our wee calf Ivor, and with the weather slowly improving, we are even starting to sense signs of spring in the air which is enough to cheer anyone up in the darkest of doldrums!  We’ve been putting the finishing touches to the lambing shed and ordering what we need for lambing; hay, straw, sheep nuts etc … we are starting to feel better about life, that is, we were, until the next reminder that sometimes life can be brutal and cruel.

A few nights ago, at midnight, we were woken suddenly by the sound of our hens squawking and making a terrible racket.  Now, as we’ve lost hens to foxes in the past, our radars are finely tuned to hens in trouble.  We’d purposely positioned the coops near to the house where we could keep an eye on them (not to mention having only a few short steps to walk when getting eggs).  We also had state of the art hen coops, fox-proof with auto shutting and opening doors.  So although our first thought was “fox”, at the same time we found it hard to believe it could be.  We ran downstairs, grabbing our coats and torches and flew out into the garden and into the hen run (“hen central” as we call it).  At which point the squawking stopped and all was deadly still, funny we thought, what is going on? The door to the coop was shut, there was no sign of anything untoward.  We opened the nest boxes and peeked in, all seemed fine, the usual bundle of hens, little eyes looking back up at us, blinking in the torch light.  So back we went, upstairs,  but no sooner had we turned the light out, the din started again.  This time we knew there had to be something, whatever it was, we we must have missed it, they wouldn’t be making all this noise for no reason.

We decided to remove the roof of the hen house, no mean feat, we had to unclip various clasps and fiddle about with catches, after what seemed to be an eternity we were able to lift the roof off.  We shone our torches in, still nothing, just a bunch of hens and a cockerel looking back up at us.  But on closer inspection we saw two hens were dead, then Adrian shouted, “there’s a f***ing badger in there”!   There, curled up in the corner, was a badger!  With the same grey colouring as our hens he was spookily well camouflaged.  Not for long though, we grabbed a broom stick and prodded him at which point all hell broke lose with hens running round and feathers flying.  We opened the main door to let them out by which time the badger had catapulted himself out through the open roof.  George our Anatolian Shepherd shot off after the intruder with great bounding leaps but we called him back in case he got hurt, badgers don’t take any prisoners, even with big dogs they’ll stand their ground if cornered.

We were relieved to have saved most of our hens but sad to have lost two, Mrs Mills the mother of the thirteen chicks, and Petal, a shy girl who had recently risen up in the pecking order and was gaining confidence and becoming her own hen.  We sadly put them in a box to bury later, and then ran round the orchard locating the rest of our flock who had scattered to the four winds.  We couldn’t leave them out there, not with a badger on the prowl, we needed to get them back in the coops as quickly as possible.

If anyone has tried to round up hens under torch light, hens which are spooked and running for their lives, I take my hat off to you.  In which case I will take my hat off to myself and Adrian, because by 3am, (albeit we were rounding up hens for about two and a half hours), we managed to get them all back into bed with the doors shut, phew!  Needless to say neither of us slept a wink for the rest of the night, we couldn’t get to sleep for all the adrenalin, not to mention having a well needed cuppa which probably kept us up as well, but needs musted!

On Friday morning, first thing, I checked up on little Hatty, a casualty from the night before.  We’d found her lying in the coop with blood on her wing.  I’d popped her in a basket like an easter egg in a nest of soft towels and sprayed her wing with antibac before going to bed.  But this morning on closer inspection I could see her wing was the least of our worries.  Underneath there was a bite mark and lots of congealed blood.  Without further ado, I popped her in the car and off we went to the vets.  The vet was great, we were seen to straight away, they said she was lucky, the bite was deep but hadn’t ruptured any internal organs.  She would need stitching up so I left Hatty there and drove home again to help Adrian set up an area for electric fencing we planned to erect around the hen coops.

I noticed another hen looking droopy, it was Jane Torvill, she had got stuck under a roosting bar in the skirmish and we’d had to unhook it to set her free.  It looked as if she’d hurt her neck.  We decided to take her in and monitor her.  Jane really thrived once inside, we gave her pride of place in a dog crate in front of the aga and fed her meal worms, corn, puppy food and left over porage.

Jane Torvill in recovery

We cared for Jane for three days, we discovered she couldn’t bend over to peck, her neck seemed to hurt whenever she tried so we fed her by hand every two hours holding up small dishes to her beak and happily watching her hoovering up the contents.  Today we decided she was probably ready to go back out with her friends. We couldn’t keep her in for much longer or they’d forget who she was and hens being hens she was likely to be pecked.  Fortunately she was welcomed back into the flock, even given a special welcome by the cockerel, not sure if she was too happy about that, but after each check she seemed more and more relaxed.  By late afternoon she was even starting to peck from the ground so her neck seemed to be improving, hooray!  This evening Jane was last to roost, but that is hardly surprising, after spending two nights sleeping by the fire she was probably wondering if the grass was indeed greener!

Adrian putting up electric fencing

On a sad note, little Hatty didn’t make it, the operation was too much for her and she slipped away during Friday afternoon.  We collected her on the way to the agricultural stores where we bought a super duper anti-badger electric fence set up with 7000 volts worth of oomph, hopefully enough to deter the most determined badger.  We’ve also raised our hen houses so they are out of badger reach and switched the doors from “auto mode” to “manual” so we can turn on the electric fencing once all the hens are safely tucked up in bed. Finally, we now tie the doors closed so there is no risk of them being snuffled open.  Hopefully with three lines of defence in place our hens won’t have to go through a horrific night like that again.

Thinking back over the badger scenario, we are still not certain how the badger managed to get into the hen coop, but it seems likely he might have snuffled the door open which then shut behind him trapping him in with the hens.  The whole event has left us with a sense of uneasiness and also mixed feelings.  Uneasiness because we’re not sure how the badger operated, and mixed feelings because ultimately we are respectful of badgers and their place in the natural world.  Is it fair to condemn the badger for doing what badgers do?  It’s been a cold winter and all animals are hungry, wild as well as livestock.  It brings to mind a conversation between Dr Who, Nardole and Bill:

“NARDOLE: You can be very silly sometimes, you know that? So how do we know this water thing is actually dangerous?
DOCTOR: Ah, because most things are.
NARDOLE: Mmm, that’s true.
BILL: Why? Is everything out here evil?
DOCTOR: Hardly anything is evil, but most things are hungry. Hunger looks very like evil from the wrong end of the cutlery. Or do you think that your bacon sandwich loves you back?”

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The not so good life

Writing a blog is so much easier when life is rosy and there are good things to report.  Sadly at the end of January our wee highland calf Ivor passed away.  Then a few short weeks later a badger got into our hen coop and helped himself.  It’s at times like these that the “good life” doesn’t seem so good and putting pen to paper to write about this side of “the good life” is hard.  Words become a struggle and do not flow as easily, all the sadness which we do our best to process and work through comes flooding back as we recall each painful memory.

However to quote the farming cliche, “where there is livestock there is deadstock” , life goes on, so I thought I would be brave and put pen to paper and update you on recent events.

As you probably know from previous stories it’s been an unusually cold winter, snow has lain on the ground on and off since November, as soon as a brief thaw occurred, this was followed by yet another load of white stuff.

January 18th was no exception, it had snowed through the night and at 7.30am as I trudged through it feeling like the Michelin man in my 30 layers, slipping and sliding over the uneaven ground covered in ice and snow and compacted mud, I headed over the hill, first to the sheep, to fill up their hay feeders, count them, make sure none had slipped over unable to get up again, smashed the ice in their water troughs and gave the lambs ear rubs.  I then climbed over the gate into the cow field (too muddy and snowy to open gates these days!) to do much the same.  But that day as I walked down the slope towards the big round feeder which the cows have been glued to all winter, I saw a small rust coloured heap on the ground next to it.  My first thought was “Ivor”!!  But as I continued down the slope, I told myself to be sensible, I always think the worst, it’s not a good habit of mine this worrying,  it must be a pile of haylage.  But as I drew nearer my worst fear was confirmed, it was little Ivor, lying on the ground, cold and dead.

I would like to say what happened next was a blur, but the truth is I remember everything vividly and the memory of finding Ivor lying in a heap and the next few hours has etched itself firmly in my mind, coming back to haunt me whenever it  pleases.

Adrian came, the vet came, our neighbours came, Ivor was still a little bit alive it transpired, the vet tried to get a temperature reading but he was so cold that no temperature registered, she tried to find a vein to give him life saving fluids but they had collapsed, I remember Ivor giving a faint moo and Bluebell, his mum, replying, our hearts were full of hope as well as despair.  We were united in our efforts yet broken inside.  At 10am Ivor passed away, in our kitchen by the aga.

Words cannot describe the sadness we felt and huge sense of loss.  The rest of the day felt like a dream, a different reality.  We couldn’t process what had happened and were barely able to function.  If it hadn’t been for our other animals needing our attention we probably wouldn’t have functioned, at all.  The “what ifs” hung over us like dark shadows, could we have done something to prevent this?  Had we missed something?  Why did he die?  Highlands don’t get hypothermia!  Where had we done wrong?  We just couldn’t work it out.  We checked up on our cows twice a day and spent time combing them and talking to them, we knew they were eating, they were motoring through their feed, and Ivor had been scoffing haylage happily.  I was with them for most of the day before, ironically building an area to pen them up should we ever need the vet.

We had long conversations with farmers, I ordered a truck load more books on cow husbandary and tortured myself googling calf ailments.  We didn’t sleep for all the questions hanging over us and the choking sadness clutching at our hearts.  Eventually  though we started to piece things together.  Ivor had been born late in the year to a young mother.  This meant he had entered winter a bit younger than is ideal.  Bluebell wasn’t fully grown herself and didn’t have the ample milk supplies a fully mature cow would have had so when the weather turned unusually cold Ivor was at a disadvantage already.  Added to this, as the temperatures plummeted, at five months old he was at that critical stage between coming off milk and moving onto forage so his rumen wouldn’t have been working at full capacity yet, and it’s the action of the rumen which keeps cows warm.  It’s like a built in central heating system.  So it seems, like many of these things, it was a series of small things which in themeselves seem not too significant, but combined, can be lethal.

Despite these explanations making perfect sense during daylight hours, I still cannot shake off a sense of guilt and regret which haunts me at 4am.  The fact is, we are ultimately responsible for our animals, the buck stops with us, we are the reason for them being alive, and we are responsible for their deaths.  Maybe in time we will harden up, but I don’t think we’re the “hardening up” sort of people.  We might become more philosophical perhaps, but when animals in our care die, whether it is planned or unplanned it never comes without a huge sense of responsibility and ultimately forces us to question the big things, life and death and our role in the lives of our animals.