Loss

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The vet came and could not help. She had never seen a calf like this one, and she proposed trying for another week.

Another week came, feeding five times a day. Dawn blurred into dusk and the days rolled together in constant fretful labour. I was flattened by the weight of it, and my head was dizzied with exhaustion until I lost my temper over the tiniest details and found myself yelling at flies.

I shuttled back and forth with bottles of warm milk. Familiar fields became dull and fearsome, and my thoughts rambled through them in chaos. I was obsessed with the need to keep that calf alive long enough to come through. Something would surely click into place; something would change and the little boy would come good. I rested my forehead on his mother’s hip and sent jets of her milk down into a tin pail. Her guts gurgled in the morning dew and she smelled of soft grass and all the things I wanted from this life. The calf lay in a bundle and gazed through me without any expression on his face.

In this condition he would neither live nor die. He made no attempt to rise or change, and my work simply kept him alive. I imagined his world was numb and dazed, with only a few vague shapes and urges to drive him. It was surely something in his brain; a bubble or a clot which could not come right. Perhaps he had struggled at birth and lacked oxygen at a crucial moment. It was no kind of life, but he breathed on until his fifteenth day.

I sat for a time with the bony body and listened to the cow eating hay. She had not realised, but the truth would soon come to her and she would low in misery beneath the stuffy clouds. Moths flickered in the evening, and I wept with exhaustion, despair and shameful relief.

Cattle are important here. The old animals have been in Galloway for centuries, and I began this project because I have to touch that past. I am only starting to know these beasts, but I find their lives are stoic and tender, giddy and desperate. This project is fast outgrowing me and the urgent sense of belonging I feel in this place. But for now I think of my tears in the dust and the memory of dark, impish calves playing in the twilight.

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Bulling

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This blog is consumed with farming, but in fairness so am I.

I can hardly resist the briefest post to record that the bull is now out and has started working, albeit with a single heifer. She was an offering to calm him down after the excitement of his recent escape, and the sacrifice will simply mean that she has her calf a month before the others – we can handle that mild inconvenience. I have had this bull for seven months, and every bulge and wrinkle of his body is a burning pride to me. Above all else, I love the rising curve of maturity which has sculpted the shape of his neck into a shallow hump.

Our neighbour has lent us a slice of his moor behind the house, and it is a stirring joy to see my animals grazing through bog myrtle and blow grass. A pair of curlews is still calling over the granite craigs, and this can only be good news. They must have young near the point of fledging, and it is fine to see old-fashioned hill cattle standing beneath the whaup’s call.

Wholecrop

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The oats in a two and a half acre patch beyond the house – NB orange, dead countryside…

The plans I had to cut and dry my oats in the autumn are beginning to fall apart. The crop is ripening fast in the heat, and now two thirds of it are yellow gold. This is far ahead of schedule, and the dry summer has played havoc with my plans.

This would hardly matter at all under normal circumstances. I would simply harvest my crop a month early, but the dryness has hurt in other ways. Our best hayfield has failed to produce a single blade of grass in the six weeks since we cut it, and the six acre meadow by the merse is horribly brown and lifeless. The chances are that I will not get a second cut of grass this year, and I was relying on at least fifteen bales of silage to help feed the cattle over the winter. As it stands, I will come up short. I need to make alternative plans.

Plan B would be to cut my oats now and bale them into “whole crop” silage to plug the gap. This would be a shame as I was hoping for a traditional harvest of stooks and sheafs in the stackyard, but the summer has been so bizarrely disastrous that I am sorely tempted to grab what I have now. I could leave it to mature fully and derive similar benefit from the crop, but my luck could run out and the whole lot could be lost in bad weather during August and September. This would be great for the birds, but it would leave me sorely out of pocket. By my reckoning, the oat crop could offer seven weeks of decent feeding – this could be an important part of the winter’s puzzle – do I want to gamble with losing it, or should I accept the “bird in the hand”?

Once the oats are off, I could sow the stubble field with grass or stubble turnips and give myself an extra boost at an uncertain moment, but it is all a nail-biting gamble. Of course my project is small beer compared to some of my neighbours, but with my first calves growing well and the wind behind me, I am loathe to lose this momentum. Everybody is suffering in this desert, and autumn looms heavily on the horizon.

Decline

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The final calf came at last and he is a thing of beauty. Unlike his siblings, he is almost a riggit; black and white markings swirl around him like a pint of guinness. His eyelashes are ludicrously long, and whiskers trail from his chin like threads of black silk. Of course we loved him from the outset.

Now a week has passed and things are falling apart. He is withering away and will not suck. His lusty little bellow became a retching croak and he finally fell silent altogether. He lies in quiet corners with his head down like a newborn, and he discovers new ailments every day.

We have to milk his mother and feed him with a bottle. I had never reckoned to handle these cows at close quarters, but now I find it possible to stroke and whisper them into submission. The calf’s mother kicked us at first, but now we can quietly slip down into her udders and pull milk from her thick teats. Dribbles of warm cream run down my wrist and into my cuff. She sighs with relief.

Clegs cluster round us and raise the temperature to boiling point. Waiting for the vet, I set myself a competition to count the bastards. I was bitten seventeen times in a minute; if I were to stand in one place too long, their crushed bodies would build in a heap like cinders around my feet. As well as clegs, the hot breeze hums with the blare of giant horseflies which are as thick and heavy as shotgun cartridges. These often land on the cow’s back and are lashed away by the flick of a tail, but mainly they cluster on her ankles and drill through the hairy leather.

The calf will often take from a bottle, but never from the teat itself. We have fought to make him take properly, but he pushes stubbornly back against us. We have used stomach tubes and enema pipes, and he has endured them both with quiet resignation. I lift him up and feel heavy bones beneath thin skin. He rolls his blue, cloudy eyes and gazes past me as if I am not there. I begin to wonder if this passive disinterest is merely a symptom of something more serious. He began to suck his own navel, and the habit consumed him.

Perhaps there is something damaged in his brain. We don’t know the circumstances of his birth; he arrived in the rushes overnight. Even the smallest deviation from perfection could have far-reaching consequences, and I am left wondering what other problems may come if we fix this one. He may well die, but we are advised to keep trying.

Chaos and outrage have lapped across this project over the last week. I have been kicked and crushed by cattle a dozen times, and my knee has swollen to be almost unbendable. Vandals set the forest on fire behind the house, and the bull escaped through palls of smoke and pulled down fences on his way. The herd refused to be gathered for blood testing. The vet breathed down my neck and checked her watch for the next appointment until I finally gave up and sent her away in defeat. Behind these exhausting failures, I have watched this fine little calf decline and fail.

I try not to forget where I am and what I have chosen. The old, consoling hills stand against the sunset; they’ve seen worse than this.

 

 

Sailor

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We found our buck sailing on the edge of the forest. The sun was gone, and the birds were up to roost. He drifted in silence through webs of deep grass like a boat in the twilight, stirring up a bow wave of moths and froth which glittered around him like spray. He was in his element; foxgloves bowed, and the grass lapped against him.

His evening dreams smelled of myrtle and asphodel and we closed the gap until seventy yards lay between us. Then a bullet slipped through that warm blur of midges and pollen to strike him amidships. He rushed for one taut moment, confused by the damage and unsure. Then he sank into the long grass and it closed above him with a swirl like water.

An owl tacked into the wind and passed away over the hill.

Dry

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Looking up to the farm

Nobody can remember a summer like this. Old folk draw comparisons with dry summers they knew in their youth, but none can match this rough, dusting decline which has run for weeks in Galloway. We have had three showers and one wet night since the oats went in at the end of April. It is often dry in the summer, but this heat comes without precedent. Clipping sheep, I felt the skin scorching off my shoulders and blowing away like a burnt amaretti wrapper. My nose is crimson, and I have a deep brown vee above my collarbones.

I had confidence in the oats for several weeks, but now I find the heads are starting to blow empty and white like spider legs. The thick leaves are shrinking back, and the smooth green ribbons are curling up like orange crepe paper. I was glad for the dryness because I hoped it would slow down the crop’s growth and redress the error I made when I sowed the seed too thickly. Now I wonder how the growth can proceed at all. Small, sagging patches have emerged where the stems are drooping. They widen every day and the dancing heads feel hollow and thin.

Now the ground is powder. The grass lies dead for miles around and the greens have become golden. I notice trees beginning to die; birches turning yellow as if October had come early. Hedges are hung with brown streamers like ticker tape; these are the desiccated remains of new shoots which began the year so well in April and May. My new hedging plants have been decimated – the tall hazel whips are brown and brittle; promising life has become scaffolding for spiders.

There have been winners and losers; now I find broods of wild pheasants at every stage of growth and development. These birds are unimaginable in a normal year, and their success is almost dreamy in the half light of dusk and dawn. The burn is bubbling with ducklings of all sizes – teal and mallard in the shade of the willows; both love the warm, shallow pools below the bridge. Demoiselles and damselflies flutter like puppets above trailing beards of dry, crackling crowfoot. Trout stir the limpid broth with their fan tails and gape in the heat. A heron measures his depth by the scum on his shins.

It remains to be seen how the grouse will fare, but there are some tiny chicks on the hill behind the house. Some of the broods are no more than a week old; tiny bees in a world of dry moss and cotton. Perhaps the early broods were wiped out when it was cold and insects were sparse. The birds will hunt the wheezing peat for flies and spiders, aware that a second failure hangs in the balance.

Before I showed interest in farming, I would often treat the weather as a backdrop. I never thought to challenge the weatherman when he proudly foresaw “beautiful sunshine”. Now I see how subjective beauty is; perfect for sun tans and beer gardens, but nightmarish for some who depend on the summer’s growth. My hay is in, but three hundred small bales will not feed my animals. I was depending upon a second cut for silage in August – ten big bales would see me home, but the grass is just as brown as it was when I cut it a month ago. I may have to buy silage to fill the gap, but who will have any to spare?

We need rain.