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Weedy paths

A couple of years back we built a vegetable patch.  It’s six areas with a path connecting them all.  It took a while to build and all the slabs were laid on a dry mix concrete base.  In order to keep the weeds down, a dry mix was also brushed into the gaps between each slab.  The idea is that it goes naturally, a bit like a bag of cement left in the shed.  The damp seeps in and it sets.

weed free path
weed free path

The problem is, it never did set.  In fact, it just kind of turned into a sandy base into which the weeds moved with relish.  So, if at first you don’t succeed and all that.  In the odd nice day we have had recently, I have pulled out all the weeds and dug out the sand.  All the gaps were then filled with a wet mix of concrete.  Hopefully, that will set good and hard and keep the weeds out.

Of course, the weeds are invading the vegetable areas at quite a pace, but well that’s all part and parcel of growing veggies.

#smallholder #rurallife

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Vera “a touch of the itchies” update

It’s been a few weeks since we wrote about Vera our ewe with “a touch of the itchies”.  See earlier story:  “Vera gets a touch of the itchies”

So, I thought I’d give you a wee progress update.

Happily I can report that since the vet’s visit in July, Vera’s been gradually getting better.  Although the vet hadn’t been 100% certain what had caused Vera’s “itchies”; in the days following his visit it was looking more and more like his suggestion of photosensitivity.

We scanned our pastures for any suspect plants.  The main culprits are umbelliferous plants and St John’s Wart.  I thought we had none of these where the sheep graze, as a horticulturalist I am always on the look out for “dodgy plants”.  But to my horror I found some Wood Angelica lurking in a dingy corner and my heart sank.

Several broken spades later I had removed about 25 of the villains.  Phew I thought, that should stop any further outbreaks.   I then whizzed off to the nearest chemist for some Sudocrem.  I had done some research and checked with the vet and Sudocrem would be the perfect ointment to aid Vera’s recovery once the affect of the steroids started to wear off.

And so began “The Cream Ritual”.  At first Vera was a bit suspicious of me brandishing my pot.  However, a few short days after being totally unimpressed with “the funny smelling white stuff”, she started to seek me out and wait patiently as I smoothed it on.  Pretty soon Vera made it plain she loved The Cream Ritual.  As soon as I took the lid off the pot, her neck grew several inches longer and she started to lick the air whilst nodding her head up and down, all tell-tale signs of a happy sheep.

As the days went by, Vera, on spotting me, came trotting up and leaned into me as I smoothed the cream on.  Her favourite spots were under her armpits.  She began to lift her back legs up to let me get right in.  The Cream Ritual became a really enjoyable part of both of our days.

Now, nearly 3 months later with the days shortening and no more scorchy days, Vera is almost completely better.  I’ve stopped applying Sudocrem much to Vera’s disappointment so I’ve been giving her plenty of head scratches and chest rubs to compensate.  I also check her skin on a daily basis just to make sure she’s OK.  Although it’s autumn there are still a few warm days and too much sunshine can cause a flare up.  So, it’s slow progress, but Vera’s getting there.

We just hope that she hasn’t become photosensitised indefinitely but only time will tell.  For the moment, she is OK and that is what matters.

 

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Sheep happy with new path

With autumn fast approaching and soggier weather, access to the lambing shed (now known as “general sheep/hen/shelter/meeting room”) in the orchard had become wet and slippery.

Getting to the orchard is a bit of an expedition for the sheep as it’s quite literally off their “beaten track”.  We had to show them the way at first, but they soon learnt how to do it and made it part of their routine.

To get to the orchard they have to come down a slope from the main field, trot along a rock lined path and then pop up through a gate on the other side where, voila, their shed is.  This is all fine in dry weather but it’s not been that dry lately so access has become somewhat challenging.  During the summer the hens would line up along the path dust bathing, not now!

sheep trying out new path

Sheep are sensible creatures and instinctively steer clear of boggy ground.  It is a sheep’s worst nightmare to become stuck in the mud, their small hooves, spindly legs and barrel shaped bodies aren’t a good design for navigating marshy terrain so they’ll avoid it at all costs.  Unfortunately this can be quite hard in South West Scotland as it rains a lot and it’s often muddy.

The path to the lambing shed was not only becoming churned up, it was also getting really slippery due to it being on a slope.  So from one day to the next the sheep pretty much stopped using it.  This was unfortunate as during this time it wasn’t just raining, it was proverbially “chucking it down”.

Now sheep are hardy animals and will put up with whatever the weather throws at them, however, keeping sheep for a number of years and observing their ways has taught us that even they have their limits.  In prolonged rain they’ll actively seek out shelter whether that be huddling under a tree, standing in a long line by a dry stone wall or, stretching out in a custom built field shelter.  I know where I would rather be.

So, we decided the path leading to the shed, (now resembling a slalom slope) had to be made usable again if we wanted happy sheep.

I say “we” but it was all Adrian really.  I just helped bring some wooden poles down to make the edges.  Adrian was the one who brought trailer loads of “scalpings” down and spent hours shovelling it all down to create a walkway.

Adrian hard at work

Once it was all done, we sat back and admired it and then walked up and down it a few times to try it out.  We were really pleased; it had a deep layer of scalpings all held in place by planks of wood to stop it slipping away.  It was not only functional, it looked great!

Now to wait for the sheep to reacquaint themselves with it.  After about half an hour, (truth is we couldn’t wait) we went and got them.  We brought Peaches the matriarch over first.  If she approved, she would lead the others down.

Peaches is a sensible girl, utterly reliable and a great matriarch.  Sure enough, apart from an investigative, bordering on suspicious, sniff prior to hoof placement, she was soon walking along the path, bringing to mind images of a certain wee girl from a certain well known book/film.

By now the others’ interest was piqued and soon all 19 remaining sheep were piling onto the path like a bunch of children playing musical chairs when the music stops.

Which was very amusing to watch!  And led to half the flock veering off and creating a parallel path. Most of them got the idea however and after a few days they started to include a trip along the new path to the orchard on their daily rounds.  They particularly enjoy visiting the orchard at the moment what with there being lots of apples lying around just waiting to be gobbled up.

 

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Hello Boys!

tups in field next door

Being autumn, it’s approaching tupping time when the ewes are put to the tup.  The farm next door has been to market and got themselves a pair of splendid young tups and put them in the field next door.  They seem like pretty calm chaps, but they are in a field out of which there have been a few successful escape attempts in the recent past.

At first, we did nothing as we had sorted out the decrepit gate and our neighbours had plugged the gap.  However, it all changed when they spotted each other.  Our sheep like to pop down to the lambing paddock each day to check for apples.  It’s also where one of their field shelters is sited.  On their way down, they were spotted by the boys next door who, in their amazement, stood their like teenage boys transfixed.  Of course, our girls totally ignored them.

However, a couple of days later, the girls decided that they had made their point and were spotted attempting to smooch through the metal bars of the gate between the fields.  Boys on one side and two or three of our ewes on the other with noses pressed up right against each other.

“Hmm”, we thought, maybe we had better do something.  Aside from not really wanting to go through the stress of lambing next year, we also have a couple of hogs that are tiny compared to these boys and don’t want them getting pregnant or even hurt in the process.

So, we have moved our sheep to the fields away from contact where the are now separated by a field and some stone dykes.  Not that that’s stopped them gazing wistfully at each other from hilltop positions on both sides.

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It’s time for hooves and bottoms again!

Every three months we give our sheep a general MOT, this means checking their teats, checking (and trimming if necessary) their hooves, trimming the wool around their bottoms and trimming the wool around their eyes.  Out of all these jobs, probably the most important is trimming the wool around their bottoms (known as “dagging” in the sheep world).  Dirty wool can attract flies which can lead to flystrike which is a killer.

I should mention at this point, back in the olden days when we first had sheep, the days leading up to doing the MOTs would cause me palpitations, (not Adrian, he is the laid back sort rather irritatingly).

Just getting our sheep into a pen, let alone doing all the necessary tasks could be fraught with disaster.  In fact it was due to many mishaps; sheep refusing to be penned up, us chasing sheep around the paddock, our inability to “tip” them once we had got them into a pen, us being stood on by sheep, us ending up flattened by a sheep, the list goes on … but anyway, all these set backs did have a positive outcome, it made us quickly rethink our sheep handling strategy.

One frosty day whilst nursing a squashed toe after being stood on yet again by one of our larger ladies I had a rare light bulb moment.  I remembered how our mentors were always leading their sheep around with halters.  They are great show enthusiasts so had trained their flock to be halter trained.  I wondered if we could do the same and so make life easier for ourselves when it came to doing their health checks.  We weren’t interested in showing our sheep, but the idea of a docile sheep trotting after us on a lead rope seemed very appealing not to mention practical.  I particularly like the idea of not having to “tip” a sheep again (it’s nigh on impossible unless you have cracked the technique and I clearly hadn’t).  The vision I had in my mind was to be able to work on the sheep whilst it was standing up, tied to a railing by a lead rope rather like a horse.

A training plan started to form in my mind based on a mixture of Cesar Millan’s and Monty Robert’s “whispering” approach.  I would use psychology, patience and bribery in the form of sheep nuts.

I ordered some halters and as soon as they arrived I got to work.  I set up a largish pen in the paddock with a smaller pen inside, filled my pockets with nuts and off I went.

It took me a while (about a week) to complete “phase one” for the sheep to start coming to me and letting me put the halter on.  The next thing I did was gently walk them around the pen (phase two).  If they got spooked I let go of the halter.  If they didn’t I led them into the smaller pen.  Several weeks of training later and little by little I managed to get each and every one of our sheep (nine to be precise) used to the halter, and eventually I was able to tie them up in the smaller pen and actually do some work on them, hurrah!!  It was a huge turning point for us in our sheep management because now our sheep were “tame”, they trusted us and so we felt a huge weight had been taken off our shoulders.

If we needed the vet we no longer worried about having to chase a sheep around just to get it into a pen, if we needed to move them to another field we simply haltered them or better still, called them and they followed us.  Rounding up our flock became a pleasant and fun thing to do instead of anxiety provoking and as a result our flock became relaxed whenever we were around them.  We were happier and so were our flock.  And the best part of the “training” programme was that we got to know our sheep as individuals with unique personalities.  We noticed that Sparkle makes funny grunty noises when happy or excited, we noticed that Selene has a particular tickle spot on her back, we noticed that Sarka was very shy and timid and needed extra time to learn to trust us.  We learned so much that winter, and mostly (I personally) learnt the art of patience (something hubs claims he’s yet to witness).

So, fast forward a few years, and after doing hundreds of MOTs, the three monthly ritual is a doddle compared to those early days.  That said, it is physically hard work and very time consuming.  Admittedly not helped by us expanding our flock somewhat.

So sometimes I have a little dream about owning a “Combi clamp”.  This is a gentle device for restraining a sheep and allows you to all those things that you need to do to: dose, inject, trim hooves, dag etc.  Although our sheep are easy as pie to handle, there is one thing I still struggle with; inspecting the back hooves.  I can trim bottoms till the cows come home, I can get stuck into the front hooves, but for some reason the back hooves are really tricky to do.  The sheep go into full on reflex mode when I so much as go near those hooves, to say they are not keen would be an understatement, they make it plain that it is the most irritating thing in the world.  I usually end up half underneath the sheep, resting their knee on my thigh and doing whatever needs doing between the hoof flicking out randomly and usually narrowly missing my nose.  As the sheep is only loosely restrained by the halter it can start to hop around a bit or worse, pull back towards me at which point I end up with a sheep’s bottom on top of my head.  Not a great experience all round and quite frustrating for both of us.  I’ve usually resorted to filling a bucket with carrots and letting them munch away while I quickly work on them but this is not ideal as I don’t always have carrots and I’m not keen on using treats as it makes the sheep hyper and they come to expect it and so become anxious, you have to be careful with how you use treats.

adrian being combi clampSadly Combi clamps are over £3,000 so that dream will remain a dream for the time being, meanwhile Adrian has offered to be my Combi clamp.  He makes a good one, he has a patented technique for keeping a sheep in exactly the right position while I can do their back hooves with ease. It is almost a blissful experience for all of us.  Part of the “Adrian technique” is to hug the sheep (so “clamping” it) whilst giving it a back scratch in just the right spot.  At this point they go into a kind of trance and start to gaze off into the distance, stretching their necks out and licking their lips.  I am happy because I can work on their hooves and no longer risk being decapitated, but Adrian is probably happiest of all because he hasn’t got to fork out £3,000 for a Combi clamp, well not for the moment anyway!

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Bim the Wonder Hen

Since June, Bim has been suffering from egg peritonitis (see swollen hen), a common condition in hens of all ages for which the prognosis is usually death.  Given this poor prognosis, we asked the vet (who happened to be here looking at a sheep) to have a look.  We fully expected we’d be putting her down (Bim that is, not the vet).  That said, swelling aside, she looked really healthy and so we all thought it might be worth trying again.

The vet agreed with our plan and left us with a course of anti inflammatories and antibiotics.

Bim fit and healthy again
Bim fit and healthy again

Now, the problem is that while the antibiotics can deal with infections, they don’t really deal with the root cause (normally an egg yolk trapped in the abdominal cavity).  Nicole got on the internet to look for alternative approaches.  We also pondered alternatives to antibiotics – well we didn’t want to be giving her a jag every two days for the rest of her life.

We came up with an approach that incorporated a number of ideas.

  1. Warm baths with epsom salts.  These were mainly to help her feel better (we all love a good bath) as the condition causes a lot of swelling which looks pretty uncomfortable.  This is followed by a blow dry.  Bim loved this moving her wings to get an optimal flow.  We did this 2 or 3 times, basically while she was receiving her jags.
  2. A daily supplement which contains a mixture of garlic (two cloves per day), turmeric, black pepper, honey and olive oil.  Garlic and honey are natural antibiotics as well as being nutritious.  We also added to this a mineral boost containing calcium, probiotics and seaweed (you can buy this).
  3. A daily dose of Kali Phos, Bryonia and Hepar Sulf.
  4. Water – we added cider vinegar, multi vitamins and oregano.

The above sounds pretty complex, but it’s not really.  All the supplements can be mixed up and put in a bowl.  Bim, being the top hen, is always first to a bowl so, for us, it was fairly easy to make sure Bim got her “medicine”.  I say “us”, but it’s all down to Nicole really.

The net result of this is a that, for a time the swelling went down and Bim got back to being her old self.  When we wandered into the vet some time in July to pick up some sheep meds, the vet who had examined Bim happened to be standing there and asked how Bim was.  When Nicole said she had pretty much recovered, the vet’s jaw nearly hit the floor.  “That’s two miracles this year then” she said (or words to that effect).  I don’t think the vets can quite believe that Ymogen recovered from her broken jaw either (Ymogen’s Story).

Anyway, Bim was doing fine.  As she is about 5 years old, her laying days should be largely in the past.  However, a couple of weeks back, she went in to lay an egg.  Of course, no egg appeared, once again the yolk must have been “laid” internally.  Then she did it again and the swelling returned.  Despite all this, everything else about her was healthy.  You can tell when a hen’s time is close, they just stop.

Bim was starting to show signs of “stopping” in that she would still be in the hen coop at morning corn time.  We decided to give her another course of antibiotics.  At this time of year, laying drops markedly for all the hens.  The shortening days act as a kind of signal to stop laying.  The chances are Bim would stop laying and so might recover once any infection was treated.

The good news is that the swelling has gone again.  Bim has not had any garlic or natural supplements for a couple of weeks because she is now kind of wary of being caught again.  We are hoping that with the days shortening and her age, there will either be no more attempted laying for a while, or just sporadic attempts.  If she leaves enough time between eggs, then she should be able to reabsorb the internally laid yolk.

Nevertheless, she has survived much longer than predicted and we are now hopeful she’ll now make it through the winter.  After that, there’s a good chance she’ll be old enough not to lay any more and then could survive gracefully into old age.  Fingers crossed.

 

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Vera gets a touch of the itchies

Vera, one of our Yorkshire lassies, has been on our radar for a while.  She’s one of three we brought over from a Yorkshire farm just after moving here and she has thrived, along with the other two Yorkshire lassies, Vi and Ursi.   Anyway, of late she has taken to sitting on her own in one of the shelters provided for them.

VeraVera has always had a bit of a tendency to do this, so no alarm bells were ringing.  Nevertheless, Nicole had checked her over just to be sure, and had found nothing wrong.  The last time a sheep went off on her own it was Scarlett whose ear tag had become infected.  But Scarlett also stopped eating and hung her head, (a sure sign something is wrong) whereas Vera could be seen chewing the cud and looking quite content as she sat in her shelter.

Yesterday was the year’s hottest day.  Even up here in the hills, it was pretty hot.  I was taking to dogs for their daily walk and I usually come back via the sheep just to give them a quick check and to say hello.  Vera was up and about, grazing with the others and I was about to head off back to the house when  I noticed her stamping her feet quite a lot and looking round.  This is the sort of behaviour that can be seen in early fly-strike, so I checked her.  No flies, eggs or maggots.  Then I noticed she had scratched her front leg raw.  Something wasn’t right.

vera - leg wound
Vera’s leg wound (sprayed with blue spray)

I went and fetched Nicole and some iodine and we treated her wound.  Then Nicole checked for other wounds as all of a sudden Vera seemed to be very agitated.  We thought there had to be flies or maggots hiding somewhere.  After a careful inspection Nicole found that Vera’s skin, in the bare places where there is no wool, under her arms and the backs of her legs, seemed a bit inflamed and slightly hot to the touch, there were also some small crusty patches.  Our first thought was it might be “scab” however we haven’t had a case of “scab” before so we weren’t really sure.

So we duly called the vet and he came out and had a look.  After a careful examination he scratched his head and said he wasn’t really sure what it was, other than it wasn’t “scab”!  Basically, he said, it was in the wrong places for “scab”  and none of the other sheep were showing any signs, (“scab” is highly contagious).  Good and bad news – it wasn’t serious (good) but we were not sure what to do to treat it (bad)?

The swellings looked like they were a bit cracked and so could be infected so the vet gave her a mixture of steroids, anti-inflammatory and an antibiotic.   We wonder if she had had a bad case of midgie bites after shearing that hadn’t healed.  But we don’t know.  The vet thought it could be an allergic reaction to something she had eaten.  Maybe we will never know for sure.

We are monitoring her closely.  She looks a little better today (Friday), but she’s still a bit agitated and scratching and stamping her feet.  Fingers crossed it will clear up quickly.

Vera tucking in
Vera happily eating grass

And a quick update (Saturday).  She is out and about munching away happily.  There is still a bit of stamping, but nothing like two days ago.  It certainly looks like the really hot day aggravated things.  She is showing some photosensitivity which confirms the vet’s allergic reaction diagnosis.

To be honest, most of the sheep were finding it a bit hot, so it wouldn’t be surprising if it made the itchy parts worse.

Nicole is bathing the affected areas twice a day with chamomile tea.  We’re hoping that helps too.

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Flower bed cleared and replanted

While the flower beds along the house and the meadow at the entrance are all looking great (summer at auchenstroan), the flower bed the other side of the lawn has always been a bit of an eyesore.  Most of the plants were, according to Nicole, a mish mash, in the wrong place; Crocosmia, Yellow Loosestrife, Solomon’s seal and Hostas.  In amongst these, Ground Elder, Bindweed and Willow Herb had taken over.  With me otherwise occupied trying to rescue some veggies (veggies version 2), it was left up to Nicole to clear the bed.

flower bed clearing underway
flower bed clearing underway

Working as a gardener and fairly busy right now, Nicole fitted this in around her work.  It was a large task and took the best part of a week to clear it.  Patiently waiting by the greenhouse were rows of carefully potted on flowers, Echinacea, Achillea and Salvias to create a wee “prairie” from the recently weeded border.  These were having to be watered daily and so would benefit hugely from finally getting into the ground.

Finally, the bed was cleared and a mountain of weeds made their way to the compost bin.  Nicole was exhausted but very happy indeed.  Now for the good bit, the planting out.

flower bed cleared
flower bed cleared
pile of weeds
pile of weeds

There was no waiting or having a wee rest to recover from all the effort of clearing it.  I was on a deadline to mulch it.  Nicole headed off to work and I was straight into mulching – it took 4 trailer full’s of mulch to put a decent covering down.  Hard, but satisfying work.  There is something very attractive about a recently mulched flower bed.

flower bed woolly protection
flower bed woolly protection

Nicole got home and after a quick cuppa, she was out planting.  Given all the problems we’ve had in the veggie patch with slugs and snails, each flower was carefully surrounded with wool.

The net result looks amazing, but will be even better once all the flowers grow and bloom.  That will most likely be next year.

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Cows drink us dry

As previously mentioned, we borrowed some cows from a neighbouring farm (cows return to Auchenstroan).  With them nicely settled in, I headed off to Edinburgh to meet a flamenco guitar master (for some guidance) and then a beer with friends.  All excellent.

I returned Saturday morning to a water emergency.  With the weather being warm, the cows had drained all our livestock water tanks.  Also, the burns that feed our tanks had dried up.  Nicole had taken some water over but the quad bike cannot tow that much and it’s also very slow to fill a bower from a tap.

So, it was out with the tractor, hook up the 600 litre bowser and set the pump up in the river.  We are on spring water here and during the summer filling a 600 litre bowser would empty our water tank (shared by our close neighbours).  So, it’s best to pump it up from the river.  One of my neighbours helped for which I was very grateful.  I also filled two 20 litre water carriers while I was at it.

cows queing for water
cows queuing for water

Once full, the bowser was towed to the tank and connected so the tank could be filled.  While that was happening (it takes two hours for the bowser to drain through the standard hose connector), I went to fill the trough with the 20 litre carriers.  At first, the cows were not sure what I was up to, but as I started pouring water into their trough, they formed an orderly queue headed by the brown cow pictured.

Once I had poured the two containers in, she dipped her head and drained the lot.  This could be a long day, I thought.  If you’re wondering why the troughs were not filling automatically, they were, but just not quickly enough.  The have a ballcock valve much like that found in a standard toilet.  The water flows in, but like an old tap.

Anyway, I zipped back and forth with the quad fetching water while the bowser offloaded into the tank.  On the second visit, the bull was at the front of the queue.  His head was almost as wide as the water trough.  He watched me with mildly suspicious eyes while I poured the water in.  His head was in straight after the first container, so I just poured the second one in next to his head.  He drained the lot and, sated, he wandered off.  It took about 4 trips before the queue started to thin out and 6 to get the trough back to full.  It also took three bowser fulls to fill up the tank (around 1800 litres).  Once done, I thought that was that.

No!

Sunday morning is my turn to check the animals.  I found the cows had made the executive decision to move field trampling a fence in the process.  Not much could be done, so we opened up more space for them and they seemed quite happy.  And they still had water.

Monday morning, all the water was gone, again.  They had managed to move a trough off its stand and so tilt it and drain the entire system.  I inspected all the troughs followed closely by a number of cows.  All empty.

Tractor out, pump on, refill…

Only this time, there was no water coming down.  In a mild panic I worked my way up disassembling each connection.  No water, but I could find nothing wrong with the system.

I gave up – we asked the farmer to take them back a day early as it was hot and they needed water.

Now, we have had trouble with this tank but I thought it was repaired.  In fact, the tank had appeared to be holding water again, so I had filled in the repair trench (before it collapsed).  I dug it all out again, but everything was fine.  And then the water started to flow into the troughs.  It turned out to be a small hump in the pipeline which the water level had to get above to start flowing.  Panic stations were all for nothing.  Only now, one of the connections was leaking.

Thankfully, I have a box of pipe connectors so I was able to repair it.  The pipe had shifted a bit so I had to put in a piece to lengthen the pipe so it would reach the connector properly.  By the end of the day, I had refilled the tank, repaired all the pipework and the troughs were all full again.  This time, only sheep would be drinking.

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Cows Return to Auchenstroan

This year, the grass has gone mad.  I have never seen it so long and lush.  To say the sheep can’t keep up would be an understatement.  In fact, of late, they have only really grazed two of the five fields they have access to.  Sheep prefer to nibble at short grass, so much of the long grass remains untouched.

cows back at auchenstroan
cows back at auchenstroan

Our neighbouring farm keeps cows and a few days back, they appeared in a field next to our track (the cows that is, not the neighbours).  It was a good sized heard of around 25 with a mix of heifers, calves and a sizeable bull.  Opportunity yes, we thought to ourselves.

So, we asked our neighbouring farmer if he’d like to graze his cows in our fields for a bit.  He was delighted to do so and brought them over yesterday evening.  After an excitable period of exploring, the cows settled down and this morning, they looked really happy.  Well, it’s a big field with lots to eat, who wouldn’t be happy?

They will be with us for a few days by which time we expect they’ll have scoffed most of it.  We are really pleased because grazing cows is really good for the land too.