For the last six weeks, the calves have been sharing their accommodation with five heavily in-calf cows. These beasts have had an excellent calming influence on the youngsters and the relationship worked really well until the time came to fluke the cows and jag them before birth. The gathering pens are four fields away, and when the owner of the cows came to gather them and walk them over, the calves wanted to be part of the game. I wasn’t there at the time, but I’m told that they couldn’t be separated and they all ended up going together for a long walk to the crush.
All was going swimmingly until the return journey, when something unexpected spooked them all and caused a moment’s chaos. The little herd split up and when they came back together, two of the calves were missing. The stockman had a good look round but concluded that they must have buried themselves in the whin bushes where they often lurk in times of upset. After all, they’re only three feet high at the shoulder, and there is an awful lot of whin to hide an army of galloway calves on my parents’ farm.
I spent the next three days hunting the whin until it began to dawn on me that they were gone. I checked the fences and found them (generally) intact, but it was with some horror that I began to consider the possibility that they had got into the forest which surrounds two sides of the farm. This massive and very wild mixed wood runs for almost five hundred acres above the Urr Water, and the possibility that my two little calves had vanished into this jungle was cause for considerable concern. A cold sweat sprang up on my back when I took the quad around the wood and after an extensive search, found the small, rounded hoof prints of little cows.
For seven days, the calves roamed the forest. I was advised not to go in and look for them in case I spooked them and drove them further away, so I spent a significant part of every day driving in a circuit around the forest, spying for them with binoculars as if they were stags. I moved all the other cows into a different field and left the gate open into the forest near the silage feeder in the hope that the scent might tempt them back in, but the wind stayed resolutely in the North, precisely the wrong direction to lure them home. I didn’t hold high hopes for this technique since the forest is full of rough grazing, but I can now report that they have returned, possibly in better condition than when they left. Rather than being drawn back to feed, I think the social bonds of the herd were more of an attraction, and I found them on Friday night as if nothing had happened, shouldering one another away from the silage feeder and looking at me as if they had never been away.
Now that this nerve-wracking situation has brought itself to a blessed conclusion, I can relax and claim that it was all a laugh and a giggle. In fact, I was very worried and I am treating the experience as a useful lesson in a number of ways.
First, I am overhauling the fences and dykes and am resurrecting a seriously imposing system of electric fencing.
Second, it has been reassuring to be reminded of the galloway’s all-round hardiness. They could probably have lived all winter quite happily in the forest without human assistance.
Third, it is important for me not to underestimate the power of the herd bond. The calves came back because they wanted to be with their chums and for almost no other reason.
Fourth, the “ringleader” of this escape is a heifer called Magnesium (who we call Maggie). Maggie has been mentioned on this blog before on account of her wariness and flighty personality. I have no doubt that she led the way during the panicked escape, and the words of the breeder rang in my ears as I saw her standing at the feeder on Friday night – when I first saw her in September, I loved her markings but was told that “she’s very alert“, which I now understand was a euphemism for “she’s going to be a nightmare to handle”. The comment should have been a warning sign, but I was too wrapped up in skin-deep beauty.
It remains to be seen how Maggie comes on this summer, but if she doesn’t settle down and become more manageable then we will have to have words. I can’t blame the whole escapade on this one calf’s craziness, but it’s impossible that it was not a contributing factor.