With the onset of winter and frosty days I’ve been busy wrapping up my gardening business for another year. This means I get a lovely rest, oh, sorry, that was a Freudian slip, I meant so say, this means I will have more time to start the Big Winter Feed Ritual for our woolly friends, in other words, keeping the sheep feeders full of hay.
The grass is low nutrient and provides little nourishment for the sheep during the winter. The hay meanwhile was cut at its peak in July, and contains plenty of flowers, it smells of summer and the wafts remind me of Swiss mountain villages from when I was a small girl. The sheep love it and can get quite overexcited each morning when they see the bales coming their way. They actually make filling the feeders quite challenging as they pile in like a bunch of frenzied five year olds on Christmas morning.
Winter also means I get to dive headlong into rug production. Making rugs is very time consuming, during the summer one rug can take two weeks or more to put together as I’m running about doing other things. In the winter my days are spent between the hay shed and my girl shed. My girl shed is fabulous, I love it! It’s actually the summer house and just a stone’s throw from the house and the kettle. It has power which means it’s toasty and warm and more to the point, makes the felting process actually possible.
In the last week I’ve made two rugs; “the Molly rug” and “the Ursi rug”. The Molly rug (see here) was made using fleece from our friends’ flock. They have a friendly family of Mules, Herdwicks and Texels. The Molly rug was made using the long fluffy locks from one of their Mules, (the offspring of a hill breed mother and lowland breed father). I love the way the Molly rug has come out, it is creamy-white with long, powder puff locks and just invites you to cuddle into it.
The second rug I made using fleece from our own flock, from Ursi actually, (see here). Ursi is a big gorgeous girl, naturally friendly, always up for a back rub and a chat. Ursi has a pale grey fleece with beige and cream running through it. I made a big rug from it as Ursi is a big girl with lots of fleece. I’m very happy with the way the rug has turned out, it’s soft and bouncy and the colours are just beautiful, just like Ursi herself.
Many things have changed for us since upping sticks to run a smallholding and becoming ‘country mice’ but one of the biggest changes has been our diet. Now don’t get me wrong, as ‘town mice’ we were never ones for stuffing ourselves with crisps and takeaways, but nor were we food evangelicals brandishing this or that diet. We just liked to use fresh and organic ingredients wherever possible.
Now though, since living “the good life”, we’re forever foraging in the garden picking this and that to pop in the pot, it’s one of the best things about being a country mouse, having an extension to the larder just a snuffle from the back door.
So while removing slugs from various nooks and crannies in carrots and picking caterpillars off kale isn’t my favourite activity, I remind myself that fresh veggies taste a lot better, and not only that, they make you feel better too what with all that freshness zooming straight into your bones.
This brings me onto a subject I find fascinating; the medicinal properties plants. It’s probably an age thing (a weird thing’s happened as I’ve got older, I’ve become a bit paranoid about putting chemicals in my body, beauty wise and diet wise)! This, combined with living in the sticks, which makes nipping to the chemist quite a chore has resulted in me avidly growing plants specifically for their medicinal purposes. Truth be told I also I just love it! In a witchy kind of a way, I feel like Sabrina as I sprinkle my magic seeds into the soil and watch them transform, tadaaa!
This year I’ve grown Echinacea and Chamomile to make tea with if one of us feels under the weather. Or I’ll forage for Herb Robert which makes a tasty tea too and is reputedly good for all manner of things even if does smell a bit funny. I brew up Rosemary, let it sit for a while, strain, then rinse my hair with it for natural shine. This year I’ve been mushing up raspberries and making a tasty face mask. Raspberries have natural anti inflammatory properties and feel very soothing on the skin.
I’ve also started using natural products to help our hens. In our ‘previous lives’ we’d buy the standard worming meds for our chickens. (Hens can be quite prone to intestinal worms so you need to keep an eye out for these pesky blighters). These days we’ve found a combination of natural remedies do the job and means you can continue to eat your girls’ eggs as there are no nasty chemicals in their systems. I always have pumpkin seeds in the house, I’ll crush them up and mix a little in with their food every couple of weeks or so. I also give them crushed garlic periodically which is brilliant for preventing intestinal worms, and sometimes I’ll sprinkle a small amount of chilli into their food as if there are any worms lurking where they shouldn’t be, they’ll come shooting straight out. And finally, I add cider vinegar (home-made of course, what else?!) to their water which helps their digestive systems and gives them a vitamin boost.
So with it being Halloween don’t throw your pumpkin seeds out if you keep chickens, add some crushed seeds to your hens’ feed, they will thank you for it. Happy Halloween!
Every so often sheep get into pickles. In fact, they’re probably more prone to pickles than other farm animals.
We didn’t know this until we became the proud owners of our first three sheep, Blumes, Thelma and Louise, and then the comments started; “where there’s livestock there’s deadstock”, or “did you know that sheep spend their entire lives looking for ways to die”.
“Oh” we thought disappointedly, “why are people not happy for us, proud new sheep parents? Why the doom and gloom? What can be so hard about keeping sheep? Surely you just put them in a field and keep an eye on them from time to time?” However, as with most (if not all!) our experiences in our smallholder life, we were soon to find out the hard way.
Our first lesson came to us about 18 months in to keeping sheep. By this time we had 12 woolly friends grazing away happily in our fields. It was late summer and we were moving the flock into a different field. As the sheep gambolled into the new paddock to investigate the fresh grass we noticed one of the flock, Sarka, was acting out of character. She seemed spooked and jittery. We watched her for a short while and decided we would need to pen her up and inspect her as something was clearly wrong. So we penned her up and had a good look. It didn’t take us long to discover to our horror and dismay, that under her tail were hundreds of wriggling and writhing white maggots. “Flystrike” we both said in unison! Closely followed by an expletive or two. It was truly a horrific sight. It was also something we’d been warned about and we had sprayed our flock earlier in the summer to prevent. We rushed indoors to get the bottle of “Crovect” which kills maggots and thankfully Sarka was soon grazing away happily, cleaned up and at peace with the world again.
The following year we had three more incidents of flystrike and fortunately we caught each attack in time. If left for too long the sheep will quickly “fulfil their life’s ambition”. And “too long” can be only a matter of days – two or three after the maggots hatch and start burrowing into the flesh. Even using the recommended sprays and checking sheep for the tell-tale signs (agitation, foot stamping etc) it is still possible for a blowfly to slip through the net and lay her eggs in the wool.
“Hmm” we thought, “perhaps these people have a point, sheep are not the easy maintenance creatures we thought they were.” By now we saw ourselves saying goodbye to ever going on holiday again.
But fate was kind to us and dealt us a lucky hand. Two years into owning sheep and having outgrown our Somerset smallholding we decided to up sticks and move to South West Scotland to a much bigger place. This is where we live now, with many more woolly friends than we started out with.
The lucky hand of fate came in the form of hill breezes. Blowfly like to lurk in warm and sheltered hedgerows. They cannot abide a hill breeze, least of all a Scottish one which has a freshness about it, and they don’t care much for dry stone walls either which have no lurking potential, and we have plenty of drystone walls here, not a hedgerow in sight. The result being that life here is blissful, chilly Scottish breezes are absolutely fine as far as I’m concerned and flystrike has happily become a thing of the past. We don’t even spray our sheep now which is great because we don’t like chemicals.
But don’t rest on your laurels I hear you say and you would be right. We were soon to be presented with another interesting learning experience.
One summer’s afternoon, during our first year on our Scottish smallholding I was doing the afternoon sheep check which involves counting them and scanning the flock for any unusual behaviour. It also involves mooching around the flock giving them pats and head scratches. So there I was happily wandering amongst the woollies when I noticed Sky looking rather strange. She was lying down, but something seemed wrong. On closer inspection I could see she was stuck. “Oh no!” I said out loud, “she’s cast!” I wondered how long she had been there as I turned her over and helped her to her feet. Sky seemed none the worse for wear but her wool was quite flattened on the side she’d been lying on so I thought she must have been there a good while. Sky was lucky I’d found her when I did as a cast sheep soon becomes prey for crows. I didn’t like to think too much about that, but it was a sobering thought and my heart was heavy as I trudged back to the house to tell Adrian what had happened.
Luckily the incident remained a one off and we found no more sheep lying on their backs with their legs in the air, with the exception of once, close to lambing time, we found Star, heavily pregnant stuck on her side and unable to get up, but that was understandable as she was huge at the time. Still, it was just as worrying as the first time round, and so we added “cast sheep” to our string of worry beads.
Two years on, and we had no more cast sheep. “Yippee” we thought, but we knew by this time not to tempt fate and so kept our eyes peeled just in case.
And just as well as Adrian was soon to find out.
One spring morning earlier this year, Adrian was out fixing one of our numerous dry stone walls. See “Stone Dykes” This particular wall was a boundary wall so it was important to get it fixed. There was lots of to-ing and fro-ing on the quad bike with rocks and tools etc, and the way up to the wall was through the sheep. On one of these journeys Adrian happened to spot Yarr, looking a bit funny. Yarr is one of our boys, he’s a friendly chap always happy to come up for a chat and a pat. Adrian instinctively knew there was something odd about him, he was lying on his side in amongst the other sheep, but seemed to be in an unnatural position. He whizzed over, and was shocked to realise that Yarr was stuck, he was lying there helpless, his legs in the air like a beetle. Adrian quickly turned him over and rubbed his legs to bring back his circulation. Yarr seemed to be not quite himself for the rest of the day, however by the next day he was fine again. “Phew” we thought what a stroke of luck that the wall had needed fixing and Adrian had found him when he did. We check on the sheep three times a day but Adrian had found Yarr in between checks so poor Yarr would have been stuck a while longer if it hadn’t been for the work on the wall.
We thought no more about it, until two days later to be precise, Adrian was once more whizzing up on the quad to continue work on the wall when he spotted Yarr, on his back again! They say bad luck happens in threes so while helping Yarr back on his feet Adrian started wondering what else was going to go wrong. Meanwhile I was wondering what was wrong with Yarr and why he kept ending up on his back.
It occurred to us later that day over a cup of tea that the sheep had very shaggy fleeces, it was early May and they had a full year’s worth of wool on their backs. They were due to be sheared later that month so we hoped that once relieved of their heavy fleeces Yarr, or indeed any other sheep wouldn’t end up on their backs for a wee while at least!
And this proved to be so, without their heavy fleeces, Yarr and the rest of the gang stayed out of pickles and we were relieved.
Until last weekend that is. I was doing the evening check, the flock was grazing contentedly in the lower hay field and all was well with the world. I counted 20 sheep, all were present and correct. I then noticed Yarr looked a bit strange. “Oh no” I thought, “not again!” I ran over to him as he was very still, he looked like a ragdoll, like sheep who has given up. On nearing him I was hugely relieved to find him alive, but yes, once again, cast. I righted him and rubbed his flanks. He stood for a while and did a pee. I wondered if he’d been holding it in as it seemed to go on for ever. After a few minutes he shook himself and wandered off to graze with the others.
We hope Yarr has had his run of bad luck now. He’s been found on his back three times, but on the other hand you could say Yarr was lucky, lucky to be found in time and not left to fulfil his life’s ambition.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Sadly 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!
Over the winter my gardening business goes dormant so I have some time to try out new things. This year I’ve been working on a project I’ve been wanting to do for a while; making felted fleece rugs. These are what I call “sheep friendly rugs”. They look and feel just like sheepskin rugs, but are actually made by “wet felting” individual locks of fleece onto a wool base. You may think this sounds labour intensive and time consuming, and you would be right! However it is also a highly enjoyable and weirdly meditative process. These days Adrian cannot find me for love or money as I spend my days beavering away in my “girl shed”, (actually, the summer house which mysteriously transformed into my workshop overnight). The only time I make an appearance is to pop into the kitchen to grab the kettle off the aga (wet felting involves copious amounts of hot water). This also gives me the chance to have a much needed cup of tea. In fact, thinking about it, you could say that each rug is made up of wool, water, elbow grease and cups of tea! So, armed with this basic equipment, here’s what I do:
I take layers of “batts” (wool which has been washed, carded and teased out) and place them onto a frame to whichever shape and size I would like the rug to be. Then I take my fleece and start selecting nice looking locks and place these onto the layer of batts. This can take several hours as before I lay out the locks, I tease out any hay, seeds and bits of girt or dirt. Then I stand the locks side by side to form what will eventually become the fluffy top of the rug. Once all the locks are in place the fun can begin – the wet felting! I drizzle very hot water all over the locks, taking care not to dislodge any. This will start the magical felting process – the hot water will run down into the fibres and make the base of the locks start to join up with the layer of batts underneath. Then, to really get the fibres to bond, I wrap the whole rug up and roll it using a giant rolling pin, over 200 times! After this, I turn the rug over and rub soap and hot water over the base to make sure the bottom of the rug is nicely felted. Finally, I take the now felted rug and place it into a tub of warm, soapy water to wash out any remaining lanolin and dirt. Then, last but not least, I rinse it out and lay it flat to dry. Magically, after several hours, this dripping wet bundle of wool will somehow have transformed into a big fluffy thing of beauty! If you wish to purchase one of these fluffy delights you can find them here: Browse felted fleece rugs
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.
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!
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.
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!
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?”
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.