Crackan the troughs

A neebor said tae me a couple o year ago, ‘I mind when I war young gaan oot tae brak the ice on the troughs so the kye could drink. Ye cheust don’t get cowld waathir like that any more.’ Me faither-in-law minds the postie walkan right across the ice on the Boardhoose Loch wan winter in the forties tae cut short his route deliveran the mail.

Climate change is deeply demoralisan. Winters o notheen but relentless, weet, windy, soothwesterly waathir. Ye waaken up in the night and think aboot the poor sheep oot in that endless, drivan rain and wind, wind and rain. The worst thing for me aboot keepan animals in winter is the sea o gutter – every job ye go tae dae on the ferm ye get bogged doon in the weet and ye canna pull yer feet oot. Climate change maks the sheep miserable, teu.

These are the reasons why this current spell o deep cowld is profoundly reassuran and welcome; a return tae the fermers’ memories o owld. For the first time in me life, I hiv brokken the ice on troughs – for eight days in succession. While this waathir maks certain birds more apparent – snipe, in particular, struggle wae the frozen grunnd, and appear in unlikely places, visible and vulnerable close tae buildings or in patches o scrub, or on the salty shore – it is aisier on the sheep. Sheep can stand any amount o cowld, as long as they are dry. Weel fed on silage and barley, they sit content on the snow and in the February sun, relaxing in the later stages o thur pregnancies.

On the road home fae brakkan the ice and feedan the rams in the picture, twa Lapland Buntings accompanied me in flight for a hunder metres or so, keepan up wae the tractor at twenty mile an hour, and no at aal oot o place in crisp, georgeous Durkadale this eftirnoon.

Pulling Ragwort in Bonny Birsay


Nobody’s favourite job in high summer is pulling ragwort. But it’s weel kent that this vibrant plant, if it finds it’s way intae silage or hay, can be deadly poisonous tae sheep, kye, or horses. So we have spent the last two days clearing it fae a field that is soon tae be mown for silage.

It’s satisfying tae load the pickup up wae the wilting stalks and tae luk back owre the clear, clean acres ahint ye. Stealthy clegs, and the repetitive stretching movement as ye try tae get each plant up by the roots, mean that this can be a tedious job. But the views o bonny Birsay and the distant Atlantic tae the west more than mak up for hid.


Lockdown Parable


Tonight, I have fulfilled a longstanding ambition: to sow a peedie patch o sacrificial crop for wild birds. At just 0.1 o a hectare, it’s no the biggest area o arable in the West Mainland. But I’m excited aboot it.

I’m excited tae think that, through the winter months, I might see a flock o Twite, or Greenfinches, a charm o Goldfinches, or – whit I secretly hope for above all else – that most endearing o peedie birds, a December Brambling foraging among the fallen oats.

There is ancient poetry in the names o the mixed smaller seeds: Buckwheat, Phacelia, Linseed, Camelina, Borage. Carrying the bag o seed across the field, I feel like a character in a story by George Mackay Broon. The west wind has gone to bed, a bull blares in the next field, and we broadcast the seed by hand in the dyes of the westering sun.

Nicola Sturgeon will likely broadcast the beginnings o the end o lockdown the morn. Coronavirus continues tae decline for noo. We hope these seeds will germinate, grow tall, and feed the peedie winter finches in January 2021.


Peace that passeth Understandeen


A single sheep haes made her wey doon tae the hollow at the foot o the brae, daean her best tae avoid the sinister birds – the great black-backs and the corbies. We tak a haad o her gently, an stert tae dae whit we can tae help. Lamban a two year auld gimmer is rarely easy, an this the day will be no exception.

I kin get a haad o wan foot – cheust – an I can see a broad peedie chaa, an the tip o a purplan peedie tongue. I don’t think we hiv long tae dae this. Hid’s fairly tight, an slippy. I grip wan delicate fetlock, an haeve doon wi aal the strength I can muster. The gimmer brays in distress. I haeve again, feart that I might brak the leg o the peedie lamb. The hoof o a second feet appears, shiny like it haes been newly varnished. I tak wan fetlock in each hand, and heave, and heave, and heave. The gimmer – that wis born here in this sam field cheust twa year ago – is strugglan, an sufferan.

Hid must happen noo. An, miraculously, sheu sterts tae loosen off. The broad heid o a texel cross lamb – the first fae the new ram we browt home in November – appears in the April sunlight. Then, immediately, the body. The gimmer wheechs roond in wan fluid movement, draain off the birth sac, an gently severan the umbilical cord, afore stertan immediately tae lick her new lamb clean. Glegly in an oot goes her tongue. Hid’s a muckle lamb, an haads hid’s heid high. I cast awey some o the cleaneens, an dry me hands on the gress.

In the dryan wind an sunshine, sheu murmurs tae her lamb in that sweet mither’s language, the ovine music that is only ivver heard in the first few oors eftir birth. Likkan off the yolk-yellow birth fluid, sheu reassures her lamb wi a gentle, staccato mu-uh-uh-uh, mu-uh-uh-uh, tae which the lamb replies wi a plaintive, high me-ee-eh! April, as the poet said, is invariably cruel. I won’t pretend otherwise, and this April will be no different fae any ither. But fur the day at least, hid’s been gentle and benevolent.

When sheu haes feeneshed cleanan her lamb, I pick it up by the forefeet, an sheu follows me tae the shelter o the owld sheep shed. There, I lay the lamb on a square o fresh, clean strae in the sunlight cheust inside the door. First lamb o the year! An the first texel cross at Kirkpretty! I realise noo that me haands and wrists are achan – but I must spare a thowt fur this brave peedie gimmer. Her eye, close up in the sunshine, is like a walnut in golden oil. An sheu’s no a gimmer any more, but a yowe noo, and deservan o real respect.

*                      *                      *

Later, in the grimleens, I come doon tae the shed again tae check on them. Venus shines green an bright in the west. The rest o the flock are inside for the night, safe fae the weekid birds an the vagaries o the Spring waathir. They are settled doon, an ruminate contentedly. But there, in the corner stall, is the baby lamb, standan in the golden strae, sookan the rich, creamy colostrum fae hids mither. The two are completely absorbed in wan anither, oblivious tae the wind that’s stertan tae rummle owre the slates above. This, I think, is the peace that passeth aal understandeen.

April 12th, 2015