Category Archives: smallholding

Like snow in …

The may blossom begun to open around our holding. First we have the blackthorn, which is more ethereal, and more important to us. A good flowering well fertilised by the insects will give a good crop of sloes for sloe gin, the spirit ordinaire of the holding. The go-to after failed poetry competitions, and declined books, disastrous lambings and sheep found in ditches. So you can see it is essential.

Actually the sheep in the ditch ended well for the sheep and was only a disaster for my wife’s dodgy shoulder. And the fruit trees which nourished the sheep as she recovered.

We have a number of sheep on the holding who have arrived after getting themselves into difficulties. One is now fully recovered, but in her first days here she was the cause of much sloe gin consumption. The sensible decision would have been to cull her to improve the health status of the herd. But she had been let down by human kind, and we felt unable to do it. Our (lovely and wonderful) vets comment that with us it can be hard to know if they are treating a pet animal (please save this, whatever it costs) or a farm animal (well we are planning to eat it later, anyhow). It was an astute comment, for we rear both lamb and turkey for the freezer. Ironically, the companions cause sloe gin consumption as we worry, and the farm animals home made elderberry wine to wash them down.

But I digress. Blackthorn is ethereal but may is the true glory of early summer. Pouring over the place from hedges and up trees. It is there for a week, maybe two. Then it fades, and one knows that the year will never rise to such heights again. When it comes, I look and look, but I have never managed to see enough before it goes.


a clear pure light

One of the most successful things I have done in this cottage – still after six years in the throes of restoration – was to restore the old wooden ceiling. When I did that, I found a nail near the door. Almost certainly the nail on which in the past the hurricane lamp was hung to be easily reached down when one was heading out of the door to grapple with a crisis. This January brought the usual storms and power cuts, and I have got another hurricane lamp to hang in the same spot. IMG_1320I was glad of it on Friday night when my hear torch packed up and refused to work at all. This was not a good moment for it to pick, because the geese were in the middle of the pond. I have been having fox trouble again. Foxes are beautiful and destructive. Also, because urban foxes are being dumped in the countryside in large numbers, currently they are a real problem. I have recently lost my gander to a fox, and the sorrow of his poor widow was pitiable. I was lucky enough to be offered a breeding pair of geese, and took them, offering every assurance that I now had a safe fox-resistant (little is fox proof) pen for the nights. And there they were, in the middle of the pond. And there I was, running round the edge, trying to persuade them to leave the pond and get into their pen. Well, actually, just to leave the pond. I was wonderfully well placed to see both the beauty of the hurricane lamp, with its gentle glow, and the down side of it. A very gentle glow.  I would have given a good deal for a nasty bright modern light to help persuade the geese. The trouble is, the pond is deeper than my wellies. Round to the left I went, and round to the right the geese. Down to the right I went and round to the left they went. I waded in as far as I dared. They went to the opposite bank. I splashed the water with a long stick, and they edged right up to the bank. then the water was half an inch away from the top of my wellies and a backed off. And with that the geese went back to the middle of the pond. This was repeated for an hour or more. Even outside ones wellies, the water chills the feet. I got more and more fed up. The geese remained unruffled. Finally, tired and exasperated, I made an error. The water came pouring into a wellie. That was it. I had little to lose. I set off across the pond, and the geese looked at me in horror. Actually it must have been very funny to look and I do have a weakness for comedy. Making people makes me happy. Those wretched geese did not even have the decency to laugh. They did however at least shuffle up the bank, and very shortly, into their proper pen. And I went back to the house, poured the water out of the wellies, stripped off my soaking wet jeans and socks and hung the lamp back on its antique nail

Confused? You soon will be!

I have a lurcher who is liable to chase sheep. In fact the the only reason he does not chase sheep is that he is never off the lead near them. Remember this fact gentle reader, but let it rest at the back of you mind while I discourse on sheep.

I have three female sheep and this year all of them lambed (they are not all ewes but let go too). Bernadette had twin ewes, poor Martha had two dead lambs and one live one, and Hilda had two live ewe lambs and a little cold still tup lamb. I picked him up, and he was so tiny I knew he could not live. But in my hand he drew his first breath, and so I dashed him up to the house and plunged him in warm water, the quickest way to fight hypothermia. After a bit, I got him out and wrapped him in a big towel and put him in a low oven.

Astonishingly he did not die after all and with careful nursing in the kitchen, he grew strong and well, and doubled in size which made him a small size for a new born lamb, but a perfectly viable size. He is called Martin, in honour of Martin of Tours. (My other wether is called Gregory, and the historians among you will appreciate the joke).

Then Martha’s only lamb broke its leg terribly badly and could not be mended. She had to be put to sleep. leaving Martha frantic. So the decision was made to try and foster Martin on Martha. The trouble was that while Martha, a kindly soul, went along with the deception, Martin was bemused to be asked to take milk from a huge smelly woolly mammoth (Martha is not a small sheep). Milk came in bottles from his real mother – the first one he had set eyes on when the oven door opened. Me.

After a struggle, instinct kicked in, and Martin began to feed. He had lost a lot of weight he could not afford to lose, and it became apparent that after all the disasters, Martha had lost much of her milk supply.

So Martin remaines with Martha for care, comfort and small snacks of milk, and I go twice a day and feed him a bottle of milk. At the smallest chance he runs to the kitchen, and into it, since that was his first home and he hopes I will feed him before his due time if he looks cute enough (Martin does cute big time). Martha, determined not to lose her lamb a second time, runs after him, and if I am not quick enough, into the kitchen too.

This brings us back to the place I started. My lurcher,  Max, who would like to chase sheep. This evening I had let him out because he expressed an urgent need to answer a call of nature. I had forgotten that I had not yet shut Martha and Martin into a pen for the night. Martin saw me and hurtled towards me. I looked in horror at Max, knowing both how vulnerable a little lamb is, and how precious to me Martin is. Martha, with the same motherly thoughts, forget she runs from dogs, and also hurtled towards me. Max took one terrified look at 100 kilos of sheep charging towards him turned tail and fled into the very back of the kitchen.



I have been having trouble with my balance lately. Not physical balance (though I am as clumsy as ever) but my life balance. At all times, there is a pretty fine balance in my life between work and play, which is not helped by the fact that many of the things I really ought to do present as play.

There are a number of hours a week dedicated to simple hard graft for dosh. These are non-negotiable, so we will leave them to one side. Of the remaining hours, there are a number of possible activities, all of which need doing. They are: prayer, writing, reading, learning Hebrew, riding, animal care, rest, home maintenance (tidying, cleaning, washing), gardening, restoring the house, and dress making. Oh, and blogging. All of these need to be done. Few of them can be combined by any other. And that is the problem.

Currently what I actually burn to do is dress-making, and I spent last weekend making a ‘dressing-up’ dress for one of my grand children. It was a beguiling but tiring job, and it brought great joy to both me and the child. I did rather therefore miss out on actual rest, and as I get older I do find I need down time doing nothing. Not even blogging.

Hebrew, gardening, and until yesterday, house restoration, and riding have been all but non existent, and this must not continue.

So this week sees a renewed effort to parcel out my time – oh and if any of you have solved the work/life balance thing – do let me know!

Happiness is a warm hosepipe

The hosepipe was limp and warm in my hand this morning, which was a first since some time in February. Upland Ayrshire has not been exempt from the cold weather that has frozen the UK for the last month. The hosepipe has been stiff and cold.

The truth is that we have neither had the coldest conditions not the warmest. We have had snow, and one day thanks to drifts I was snowed it – and the drifts have only just thawed, though it was tiny frozen rumps that were left, like melted snowmen.

It has been the mis-match with the light which has been most strange. Some of the usual spring events are triggered by light. The geese, for instance, have been laying since February, and one is now sitting, and the curlews have arrived, poor things. Dear knows how they have managed to keep themselves fed, because the ground has been frozen solid, and I should not think they could have got their beaks in even in the ditch edges. The pied wagtails are here too, to breed. But the tits all fled, despite fat balls to feed them. It was just too cold, and they went further down the hill side.

There are, as yet, no frogs, and most of the time the pond has been frozen solid. However, the heron has arrived to frog, so I suspect she thinks things are stirring, and the pond is now thawed, because the nights have only been down to minus two, and the days up to a giddy 6 or 7.

Plant life has pretty solidly followed temperatures, and interestingly so have the guinea fowl, who have not yet laid an egg (I kept them in for a few days, to be certain of this. They were not amused …). The fields, not just mine, but all around, are bare and grey and brown. At the very best it will be another month before there is any grass at all, even if this week we get the few days of mild wet weather we so badly need.

This weather doubles, perhaps trebles, my work load. I am still damping hay for the ponies, and the poultry get little supplement from either insects or plants.  The sheep cannot be safely left out, and need to come in at night, and need to be fed hay and ‘cake’ (sheep muesli), and got buckets of water.  I am not alone in having extra work and expense, but I and the thousands in the same boat will not half be glad to see a real spring.

The known voice

The sheep keep the seasons for me. The year starts in the autumn at Hallowe’en. Then, all over Scotland, sheep start to move. Every country road sees large and small trailers and cattle floats with sheep. Some youngsters go off the gentler pastures by the coasts and in the south, to spend the winter of the cow pastures there. Ewes are moved into the kinder upland grazings, and the tups (rams) make the most exciting move of the year: into the flocks of ewes. And my ewes were no exception. In early November they went on a short ride in the wee trailer behind the farmer’s quad bike to find themselves a husband in his flock.

That of course is the time of the Celtic New Year. It is the beginning, although a hidden one, and not the end of the cycle. The sheep move in a time of plenty, with grass still long after the summer. That part of the year ends as the grass is eaten back and dies off. Then it is time for sheep to get a little extra care.

So in January each year, the ewes are released back into the fields below my house, and it is time to set out to find my own. The process is simple. The fields there are not sheep proof, and the animals flow around the pastures, with groups in each of the sets of fields. I know them as the Corner Field, the Low Fields, the Gallop Field and the Side Field.

Accordingly, I tried the Corner Field, and all the sheep fled. The Gallop Field, the Low Field. It was a wet day, and because I was climbing over barbed wire I had not worn my water proof trousers. My legs brushed against rushes all the time. I began to worry something BAD had happened to my girls. Or that I would not recognise them, among a sea of their sisters and cousins.

Then I went into the Side Field and repeated the process. It is, as I said, a simple one. I call the sheep. I walk. I call the sheep. And here the magic worked at last. Instantly there was a response. A voice answered mine. Then two voices. Then fifty five sheep ran in terror from me, and two sheep ran in joyful recognition towards me. Before the snow and the bad weather, my sheep came home with me.

Birth and copulation and death

First death. Both of the smaller lambs died. They appeared to be making splendid progress, and then, suddenly, between one feed and the next, they were dead. Not both on the same day, but a week apart. Probably an infectious disease, but that is only speculation as to why. I rather pour my heart into lambs, devoting myself to seeing they thrive, and the deaths hit me hard.

But if you live as I do with many animals, you become accustomed to deaths. I don;t think the pain of it is any less, but you learn how to deal most effectively with the pain. You have any number of strategies in place to keep yourself going until the sorrow, until the sharp ache, fades away a bit. And so I answered kind friends with, ‘Yes, I’ll be fine,’ which is not at all the same thing as ‘No, I don’t feel it.’

And there are funny things to lighten the load. I surprised my gander. I have always wondered if he knew about copulation. Then one day I walked around the corner and found him enjoying lawful congress with his own wife. He was mortified, and fell slowly off sideways. Not from a sense of sexual shame, but because he had had to let his defences down – he had made himself and her vulnerable to attack, since a gander can in fact only think about one thing at a time, especially if the one thing is sex. But this year I do have a little hope for the hatching of eggs.

And birth: while I was at work, Bernadette safely delivered herself of a huge tup lamb. When I saw the size of him I was astonished that he had survived birth, but Bernadette was always a most calm and sensible sheep. Her son is not. He has a regrettable tendency to get on the other side of the fence to her and to be unable to get back. After three occasions, I have finally evolved a strategy which enables them to be reunited, and will, I believe, in future enable the whole thing to be done in about twenty minutes. To date the record is and hour and a half, most of it with me moving as fast as my legs and lungs allow. I have not had occasion to use the new treadmill yet.

Springing into action?

At the start of spring, in fact on Mothering Sunday, two orphan lambs came to live here. Orphan is a bit of a misnomer, as in all probability their mother is still living. Lambs usually become orphan from either being rejected by their Mum or being one of triplets … and due to the habit of lambs drinking at the same time from the ewe’s two teats, this is not good news.

Anyhow, looking very small and lost, week old lambs came, and were duly named Hilda and Cuthbertha. I am currently giving lambs Judeao-Christian names. After a slightly wobbly start they survived. My craving for lambs and need to expand the flock was satisfied.

Then on Tuesday the shepherd turned up on my doorstep with two more, this time known to be the third of triplets. They were – well, skinny. They were two weeks younger than mine and half the size. I softened. I weakened.

So, knowing I cannot face hand rearing lambs, and then eating them, the Hannah herd has expanded. The two new lambs are now putting on weight like nobody’s business, and bounding around all over the place. Mind you feeding two while being mugged by the other two is a feat in itself.

The silence of the guineas

I just really needed a day off today – a day off from worrying about the the guinea fowl. They stayed in so that I could stop worrying about them for 24 hours. Yesterday, a beautiful day of sunshine, I went out in the afternoon and heard – nothing. Well, heard some bird-song, some wind moving in the bushes, the odd chicken talking about some tasty insects, a plane coming in to land at Prestwick Airport, and a distant (and highly-regretted) growl of traffic. What I expected to hear was a sort of burbling cheep, a soft, conversational contact-maintaining call. From time to time the burble ought to have been cut into by urgent injunctions to ‘get-back, get-back’ and an instantly-recognisable alarm call. The absence of these things only meant one thing. The guineas were not there.

Gentle reader, I hear you ask: ‘But were they only just round a corner, maybe? Or silent?’ No. they are never silent, even at night they tend to mutter. Also, one can hear them from at least half a mile away. They are birds who are deeply unhappy unless constantly reassured that they are with other guineas, and who are designed to live in places where it is terribly easy to loose sight of each other. If I could not hear them they were probably getting on for a mile away. And I had no idea at all in which direction that might be, or if they still knew the way home. Twice before I have lost an entire batch of guineas, and I never ever know what happened to the first batch.

You are entirely right – by this tie I was panicking almost as much as the guineas do. In then end I located a distant ‘go-back’ which was coming from the nearish-by wood. they were heading home and were now about half a mile away, and down in a crevasse, which swallowed the sound. In a mere half-hour their voices were audible and eventually they made it home, neurotic as ever.

Today, a wild, wet day, they have been in their little shed. It is light and there is enough space to fly and walk. It is about the size of a bathroom in a modern house. I would guess there is about twelve times as much space per bird as in a modern intensive unit. They are not impressed. But I must say, it is a very good feeling knowing where they are.

The first night of spring

And how, you ask, do I know? Is it beautifully sunny weather? Or are the skies full of butterflies? Do I now return from a ride dry and with warm toes? No.

Nor, except by logical extension, am I at all sure I have had the first day of spring. But the first night – yes.

Last night, as soon as I set foot out of doors I heard them. A low sound like a rubber engine, if you can imagine such a thing. Or a chain-saw made wholly of silicone, running on stand-by. It had not been there the night before, or the night before that. I am always about at night, and up to now there has been dead silence.

The pond was full of it -both water troughs were full of it. It echoed out of the bog, quite literally left, right and centre. The frogs are back. They have woken up, and they want company – they want sex.

And so the spring kicks off – and I rejoice.