Gathering

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The cattle go for months on end without my input. They don’t need me for anything, so I linger around the fringes and offer them food when they want it. I keep an eye on them, but there are times when I go to visit my beasts in the deep grass and they look up and stare back at me as if my husbandry was patronising. After all, I stumble and wade through the tussocks and bracken like a drunkard; if anybody needs to be taken care of, it’s me.

But alongside a list of minor movements, the entire herd needs to be gathered at least once a year to check their blood. The vet comes with trays of tubes and vials, and the samples are sent to the laboratory in Dumfries. I’m lucky that my beasts are isolated from our neighbours and stand a very low risk of contracting the diseases which plague bigger and more intensive projects. But still, the samples must be drawn and analysed, and the results published as a “Health Status”.

Moving the cattle is always an upredictable business. They aren’t moved often enough to make a habit of it, and it’s hard to convey the meaning of what I want. For this annual gathering, they all have to move through several unfamiliar fields and fall into a corral at the opposite end of the farm. By nudging and driving, the trip is usually made in an hour – and it’s infinitely preferable to the drawn-out anxiety of loading and unloading from trailers and wagons.

But yesterday when the job was done and the beasts were freed from the cattle pens, they rolled home like a cavalry charge. The bull was put out to work at the same time, and he rumbled along beside his cows and the calves he sired last year – seeing many of these for the first time. He cavorted and tossed his great barrel-neck in lusty delight.

I drove behind them on the quad as they ran and I felt the ground trembling below me; great gouts of red dust and mud flared up like scuds of sea foam in the grassheads. Ears back and bounding, they hacked and crapped and flared their tails into the air beneath high clouds and the glint of Lakeland beyond the Solway. I whooped and cheered them on, breathing in the bellowing fug which swirled behind them like a wake. Having worked in the pens with these beasts for an hour, I was stained with their sweat and the streaks of their spattery pats up my bare calves and across my shorts; stand downwind with a blindfold on and you could easily assume I was one of them. There’s no doubt that this was work, but a pleasure beside it and a fair repayment for the investment which continues to draw me through the floorboards.

In a single sweep, the beasts drew back into the fields where they spend most of their year. The gate swung to behind them, and I watched the bull begin to snuff and prowl. The cycle begins again, and my cattle will recover their haughty distance.

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