The grass turned and the cows faltered. Two mornings of frost fried the blades and spooled them into ribbons which came loose at their roots like slack teeth. Having blown back and forth across the hill with the lightness of moths at the height of midsummer, the beasts were finally pressed into work. They covered the ground as September wore on, and they took more of the failing grass than ever before.
Until that moment, the hill had come to them in a breeze of easy living. The frosting drove them to bellow and moan, and they’d rush to me when I walked amongst them in the heather and myrtle. It was not discomfort, but something more like antsiness and a growing sense of impatience. They didn’t know what I could do to help, but they nagged at me for something. And in those few transitional days as the grass turned, I think the cattle did more good for the hill than in all the summer combined.
Deep, rank beds of vegetation were baffled by the grind of heavy hooves. Accustomed to lying loose in long, extravagant strands, the tussocks were trimmed down to the barest bristles. I found lumps of black grouse shit in the clearings, and a brood of young birds clattered up around the willow scrub like chickens going to roost. On the better ground, the bracken banks were mashed beyond all recognition; tangles of red wreckage destroyed and overturned like busted scaffolding. The beasts knew where to go and how to make use of the hill; they fanned out and covered the bogs and the deep flushes which trembled with scabious and white flags of parnassus. For ten days, they ruled the roost and delivered everything I had been looking to see all summer.
And then the moment passed. The grass moved beyond that jammy redness to something thinner and crisp, like miles of spooled out cassette tape. The antsy cattle spilled into open frustration. The cold weather pressed them to work overly hard, and two of them escaped back to the Loch and the marshes where the grass seemed greener. Watching them on my computer via the satellite tags, I could see they were travelling further every day. They began to ping around the moss like pinballs, gathering energy and momentum to move under their own steam. If I had all of this ground, I would’ve opened the slip gate and sent them out to cover the neighbouring hill for the winter – but for me it was time to bring them down again; home to the inbye and the promise of silage. And of all that I have learned this year, the most valuable lesson is how to spot that precise moment of transition when the beasts have done enough.
So I called them up to the gate and shook a bag and they came from half a mile away, thundering and moaning like teenage boys. Fearing that this final stage of the summer’s work would be the hardest, I had gnawed at my nails in anticipation. Any fool can put cattle on a hill, but it’s a tough job to bring them home again. Knowing that the final hurdle would be the hardest, I had trained the beasts to respond to this summons over many weeks. My nerves were frayed by the suspense of that moment, but it was no surprise to find them willing.
They barrelled up to the open gate, then thundered out to the old railway line where they dripped and churned with excitement. I found it strange to see them exposed in their naked entirety without a skirt of grass or myrtle to conceal their modesty. I had become used to finding them afloat in the moss; I hadn’t seen their feet since May. And how they’d grown!
Then I walked them down to the gathering-pens which were built in a steep-sided railway cutting. And “cutting” is a misnomer, because there is no carving granite – that slot was blasted into the rock with sticks of dynamite. I’ve heard it said that the busting of that line could be heard for thirty miles in every direction, and it’s fair to say those Victorian engineers achieved wondrous things in the far hills. Now that they’ve gone forever, the image of black, satanic steam engines feels more like a dream in this place than any practical reality.
Having pulled the cattle off the moss, it was wonderfully straightforward to run them down the railway line into the pens. They began to gallop, so I ran alongside them with a bag of nuts until they blew and clattered and tossed their heads. The first gate gathered them in, and the second closed fast behind them. It took a few moments to bring up the livestock trailer, and in the rush of thundering hooves, I realised that less than five minutes had passed since I first shouted on them to “come up” and “well done”.
And with the customary batter and slam of heavy trailer doors, the cattle were heading home after their first summer on the hill.