Timbuktu

‘Where are you going?’ I was asked as I packed my bags.

‘Timbuktu’, I replied.

‘You’re not going to Africa’, the oldest retorted.

Ahh, you are correct, but I’m going to the Highland’s local equivalent. And possibly better than Timbuktu (although I can’t say for sure as I’ve never been to the real Timbuktu).

See, anytime they ask where I am or where I’m going, I say Timbuktu. Times such as, when I’m taking a load of laundry to the washing machine, when I’m heading outside to hang laundry, or when I carrying clean laundry upstairs to be folded. It is at those times I hear the call:

‘Muummmm, where are you?’

No tannoy is needed for my boys to put out a missing person’s call, to ask all to join in a search party, for voices to be raised to see if the person’s whereabouts can be pinpointed. They are by no means part of a mountain search and rescue team, although the laundry always seems like a mountain and maybe one day I will succumb to the shear heights and become crag fast with it and need help, but not sure the Scottish Mountain Rescue team would be fully trained for that kind of rescue (the type of rescue where you hear: ‘Joe, you start folding towels on the west side, Sarah and I will take on the deep crevasses of the sheets from the south. Sam, you take on the landslip of socks over on the north face while everyone else spread out across the general laundry slope and pick your way carefully over the tops; be suspect for anything that doesn’t smell of Ylang-ylang and Lily). My boys are just getting a bit of work experience really at the basic search and rescue aspect; the type they could put on their CVs – ‘From the age of three, we led countless endeavours to rescue Mum when she disappeared for more than five minutes’. On a positive note, they are good at finding me. However, they are also good at following. Not in the way a dog does scent training and is always scent following long after the person has past that way, but in the ‘never take your eye off the ball mentality’. Their philosophy is it is always better to stick together.

Now, their scent following/search and rescue missions are not all the time, they are less so when the Crofter is home. But while he is gone, I do find the book ‘Five minutes peace’ is a very realistic book, save the fact that it pertains to talking elephants. But the fact that Mrs Large tries to get five minutes peace but is unsuccessful; that my friend, is the realistic part. And with that, I thought I would change the book from a simple children’s book, to a self help book and take up the challenge. So within hours of the Crofter arriving back from work, I had booked two nights away at a local hotel. I was finally going to Timbuktu!

I took enough ‘holidaying’ things to last a week; optimism at its peak as I was only going to be away for two nights. The books (three), the magazines (two), the writing equipment (two notebooks and a laptop), the cross-stitch (that hasn’t been touched for years), the mountain bike, and the walking boots all went. The ability to get outside and enjoy the fresh air is not something new. But the ability to go for a walk without having to carry 13kg for part of it, the cycling without having a trailer attached, the ability to sit for long enough to a actually thread a needle. That can make the world of difference. The space for the mind to feel free…that is, until you round a corner and find 20 cows munching on silage and you wonder where the next cattle grid is in case you need to run as one of them gives you ‘the look’ that you are well familiar with. But the time to have space and have place of refuge were I don’t need to cook, clean, wash up, or be the responsible one.

Was my trip successful? Well, if that means having a good night sleep and doing things I enjoy, then yes. Was I ready to go back and face the cows? No. I could have stayed for longer. But hey, a couple of nights escape has been well worth it. Probably much over due (the good night sleep meant I only needed a small coffee rather than my usual pint size mug). The food was lovely, more so when the only meal prep you had to do was to start eyeing up the menu at about 3pm in regard to what you might want to order.

So, I can highly recommend to anyone: take a break, stay local, support independent businesses, and go have an explore down that wee track that you have always wondered about (just watch out for the cows that may be round the corner…). Go local, go rural and find your Timbuktu.

NB, For those wondering where my Timbuktu was, it is the quirky and fabulous Whitebridge Hotel (who are on Facebook, Instagram and the Internet so go check out some of the décor for a wee taster). I can recommend several walks (and one to avoid if your not fond of cows), the lounge seat next to the fire, and a favourite spot at the bar.

Hippy, hippy shake

A wee while ago (OK, maybe a few years ago), I went on a freebie session about maximising social media for small businesses. So I dutifully signed up as a business to Facebook, got an account on Twitter and joined up on Instagram. Facebook, oddly enough, I could handle. I like stories; while a photo or two can capture the reader, there is info in the post (well, not on every post and not on everyones but let’s ignore that). A lot of blog posts all started off as a facebook post, became too long so got transfered over.

Next, was Twitter. And nothing really prepared me for a newsfeed of pure sharp shooters; snipers sitting at their keyboards (most likely in a darkened room, eyeing up any movement or activity on the plaform that they could shoot down in a single shot). I may be slightly exagerating. Not everyone is like that. But it is certainly a one liner culture: a hit and run culture. I sit in the arena and watch the horror of gladiators and lions attack each other. I think I average about 10 mins a week on it before it is abandoned and I go back to the fairy tale stories of facebook.

But then, there was Instagram. The click and collect social media version of the happy shopper. All I saw was lots of pictures. But tell me more! Why are those two women jumping about in a living room in front of a sofa? Why is another picture showing me a coffee being made, of a dog looking shocked and another of some mist? Why is the wee blurb sometimes hidden? The conversations between people doesn’t flow. So, with the difference in the set up, Instagram came even further down my list of what to look at in the night when suffering from insomnia. Figured, hey, I’ll do a bit of reaserch another time to figure out who looks at this stuff and the thinking behind it.

And so the days rolled into weeks, into months and hum-hmp, years. Until recently, a discussion with a friend gave a bit of insight into who uses it and why. It is her do-to app. I started looking at it again. Promptly to be closed. Until that is, a nudge from a good fiend. Someone who is the real life version of the Mr Men’s Wizard (not that he has special powers but he has a beard, a wealth of knowledge and can talk to anyone). Yes, Mr Wizard knew how to tap into the chic and shabby world of instagrammers. You know, the type that have avacado on toast, want to live in the country side where the air is pure, they can experience walking through meadows barefoot and eat local organic food (can I clarify this is not the entire set up, it’s just the type I seem to find). So how do I discretely join in when we just had a 400 degree hot pizza oven blasting from the back of a bashed pickup parked in the byre due to it lashing with rain? Or when I had good solid dirt under every fingernail from digging veg? And when I’ve just had to pressure wash a pair of boots that got coated in gardener’s gold (aka manure) straight from a cow? They may not smell the manure on Instagram but I don’t think pictures of cow pats cuts it.

But never fear, I’m sure I do have photos that match the wannabe country folk. But if it’s out walking the meadows barefoot, I’ll be checking for ticks. If the sun is shining through the long grass, I’ll be assessing the grass length or blocking the contract tractor dude from mowing the grass. Dancing to the Hippy, Hippy Shake? Sorting a bee swarm by the sound of it. And if I’m lying back, on the grass, looking like I’m dreaming? Mostly likely a cow has knocked me flying and I could do with a hand up or an ambulance. So this will be interesting; bridging a gap between what people think I do and reality. And more likely needing witty, one liners for a photo. At least actually ‘living the dream’ does put food on our table and gives me a warped sense of humour.

Charging Bull

Ok, this is probably the first in a long time that I have not used song titles, lyrics or even my own adaptions to songs in the title (it’s also the first time in a long time that I have written anything). A few months ago I did not deal with a Charging Bull (like the statue outside Wall Street), but a very real, charging steer. People at Wall Street apparently have to deal with high stress levels, think they might have fancied a bit of fresh air and lending us a hand?

Some of you may remember we use to have a cow called Breena. Breena, who on her first day with us went charging through an electric wire. She then settled down until her last two pregnancies with us when she turned absolutely mental. Two strikes, she was sent to her forever home (not without her last stand at the abottoir, for those that read that story) and I thought my troubles with mental cows was a thing of the past.

However, (and a big however!), over the summer we have been moving cattle around while our reseeded grass got established. Out of one field, into a trailer and just 5 mins round the corner. All went swimmingly (well, swimmingly like Eric the Eel when you are taking down electric fence, putting it back up and trying to work with livestock). Swimmingly, that is, apart from one. Jack Daniels. Jack was one of four boys born here two years ago. He has often been hestitant but that’s workable. I could still get him to a bucket, and we had moved him several times before. But his anxiety suddenly escalated. Into a new league. On this one occasion, all the others walked into the pen, loaded and moved. Apart from him. He refused point blank to go anywhere near the loading pen.

So, with that, I went back down the day after the initial attempt to try the good, old bucket of nuts and taking it soft and slow. The gentle buzz of bees, the gleams of sun being filtered through the trees. He would follow the bucket to within a foot of where I needed him before going back to his comfy corner (in the furthest away corner at that). The morning quickly past and it was soon lunchtime. Back up was called. The Crofter arrived with two mini crofters to see if we could rig up some electric wire to halve the field to help nudge him in the right direction. Nope, just like Breena (bless her), he went a straight through and away he went.

Troops were regathered, lunch fed to very hungry people and strategies sought. Which was, ‘oh pants, we need to check the bee hives for potential swarming’. Yes, to get a land flowing with milk and honey, it all takes time. Once the hive checks were completed, and we got back to steer strategies, we decided to ring in help. Surely another couple of people to run about a field would help?

It started so perfectly. Along a fence line, towards the pen he aimed. Backup spaced out in a way a rugby commentator would be proud of, when, on the space of a fifty pence piece he double backed on himself and set off like Mo Farah. In fact, not only like Mo, he decided to try the hurdles and jumped the fence into the neighbour’s field. He was nearly ready to go over the next fence like a criminal in an urban housing estate trying to avoid an arrest when we managed to divert him though a gate into a square penned section of a field. Barbed wire, new stock fence. Excellent. Set up some hurdles, the livestock trailer awaiting; he could walk in and voila. Attempt one. After he started eyeing up jumping the stone wall, e sent someone to the road side to persuade him not to. Attempt two. I then jumped the barbed wire to put him off jumping that. Alas, he didn’t care and jumped the barbed wire, a jump that a cross country Olympic horse would have been proud of.

Great. Just great. Plan C (or D): let’s try and get him to jump back into his original field and leave him to chill overnight. And this is where things took a turn. A bit of old fencing, a few loose posts: great, let’s aim to get him over that. Perfect opportunity as he has shown he’s got showjumping potential. He followed the line perfectly, headed for the dipped fence before coming to a complete stop. Maybe I should have complemented him on his jumping? But he then turned, at first running off at an angle to the side of me before suddenly turning and came straight at me, head on. Life does not flash before your eyes. More, ‘this will be very painful, will I be thrown up in the air or trampled (I kid you not, that was my thoughts)’, and with the only thing I had, I walloped him on the nose with all my might.

I will not lie, I am so glad my Guidance Teacher never suggested being a Matador (turkey farmer did come up in one book but never Matador). I never wanted to be a Matador but if I had, my career potential had instantly crumpled (don’t get me wrong, I like cows, but without the drama, another subject not recommended for me). With a steer only taking one swipe at me, I wanted out of the field.

While the steer headed back to eyeing up jumping over the stone dyke; some old fence posts were uprooted to enable the fence to be pushed down to give space for him to step over. I exited the field while the Crofter and two other brave men tried one last chance. Thankfully, Jack D saw the opportunity and took it. And while he looked thankful to be back in his own field, he was now searching for pals. He didn’t want to be on his own. But while he wanted a support group, we left him to chill, praying that he wouldn’t try jumping again. Now, this all happened when we had a slot booked for the following day for a steer to go to the abottoir. And his name was now on it…if we could get him loaded.

But how to get him into a pen? We decided to take down our house cow who is very chilled, very slow, and is the herd matriarch. She quickly got him following her like a star struck teenager with a celebrity. She did several short laps of the field, each time bringing him back. But he would not enter the pen. She now wanted to know what on earth this was all in aid of and when could she go back home! We needed to get to the abottoir and were fast approaching our cut off time. As the clock ticked, we had to abandon him and quickly nip back to load another steer to take to the abottoir. But we were still stuck.

Now, my trip to the abottoir went fine. That is for someone who has recently been charged at. Discussions were had with an experienced livestock handler. So knowing I had a backup plan, I then headed off to chat with a local farmer, who told me where to find another farmer. So, in the middle of a farmer’s field, as he was trying to wrap silage, over the noise of the machinery, it’s a former I had never spoken to before, I was provided with a plan. The use of this farmer’s handling area and knowledge of how to get the steer up to it.

We were not foolish though. And we still sought help from the local Farming Community. And it went like clockwork. The Matriarch, her calf and Jack Daniels quietly walked out of a field gate and up a road, into a handling area and with only a wee blip at the livestock trailer, you would never had known that I had been google searching if any Vets in the Highlands had experience on Safari’s firing long distance tranquilizers.

So why write the story now? Well, Jack came back to our fields and remained with our bull until last week when he took his final trip. I have been counting down to it. I will admit I have been pretty twitchy near any of the cows recently. The two of us in particular have kept our distance. He did try one last chance to break me and nearly succeeded. Thankfully, the likes of Hugh, Ian, Andrew and Graham have been the unsung heroes of the livestock world. All four men offered their knowledge, time and support.

As for me? To help get over my confidence dip, we’ve just bought a bull. A massive bull. One that looks like a bison. This ought to be interesting…

Milkcow Blues Boogie

This is the story of a wee Shetland coo.

Dryope came to us from Yorkshire having been on a farm where the herdess was a cheese maker. She was our very first cow and she has always been the matriarch of the herd. She may not be a fine, prize cow, but she comes to a whistle, we use her to help guide other cattle who may be nervous, and she is our milking cow.

To do this we just take her surplus (this is a lot easier than not milking and then having a cow with mastitis that needs medical intervention and hand milked to remove clots to enable both the calf and cow a trouble free feed). Her calf is not taken off, she comes in, gets a treat, a mini milker is used and then off she goes back to the field.

From this brief daily share session, we get plenty of milk (and a good layer of cream). Enough in fact to try all kinds of things: everything from hot chocolates, custard, ice-cream, cheese, and butter. For the calves that we share her with, she has had six and has fostered one (the Saler that is now also milked). Two of her calves have stayed with us, two have gone to new owners, and several (after a couple of years frolicking our fields), have provided us, and others, with beef.

We winter cattle inside to avoid heavy poaching. This gives us dung which goes back to the fields for making grass (and hay). It also goes to the veg garden and orchard to give the plants the needed nutrients for growing fruit and veg.

As she was from a milking herd she had to patiently wait while we clumsily learned what to do. Over the past couple of years, our dairy knowledge has increased significantly. But this is Dryope’s last year though. The past couple of winters her age has been showing. She struggles more to get up and down. Her movement is slow. In cow terms, she is doing remarkable, as she is a fair age. She will be missed but the idea of forcing her through another cold, harsh winter is not pleasant.

At the moment though, she is grazing the grass close to the house while she watches her heifer calf, a bonnie wee thing, bound about the field. The ice cream maker is on nearly every day and the cheese making equipment are back out again while we enjoy having her.

Mother Nature’s recipes

Lockdown restrictions have been easing at variable rates. And I discovered the bees have been keeping up with the the changes too. How? Well, Hive One decided to have the biggest street/air party you could have imagined. Had they really won the Honey Bee World Cup? Were they aware it was still only so many households with a maximum number of people? Mind you, these bees were all from one hive bubble so if anyone was that bothered, I’d have left the police to hand out the fines (honestly officer, that’s not a hive two bee, can you not tell??). But this wasn’t just a wee cheeky lockdown catch-up, they had decided they needed to cut the ties and find a new abode. Yes, they swarmed. And what a way to do it.

Now the garden has been severely hit with our cold whether. Lots of potted plants grown from seed are (or were) still in the polytunnel. And now they very suddenly needed the outside. The Antarctic-come-forty-days-of-rain seemed to have finally past. The ground seemed to have been fully detoxed by taking in more fluid than you would have imagined. But the weather didn’t ease gradually. No, it suddenly changed. The polytunnel started hitting the high 30s and the potted plants wanted out ASAP. Suddenly transporting plants out of the tunnel was getting urgent.

And it was while in the process of copious trips back and forth to the veg garden, a noise suddenly arose; a noise akin to a whole group of Hell’s Angels deciding to drive past (which would have meant they were coming off the hill and down a common grazing track; highly unlikely but if true, would have been phenomenal). So I very tentatively had a look at where it was coming from (because, who knows, Hell’s Angels might one day come down from the common grazing). There was not a motorbike in sight, but above the hives, the bees looked like they were negotiating Birmingham’s spaghetti junction in rush hour just before a bank holiday. They were everywhere. All lockdown restrictions had suddenly been lifted and there are no limitations on their social gathering (please note, this is not the case, please adhere to government advice and don’t plan a street party after reading this; just because the bees did it, doesn’t mean it’s right and no, you can’t have 5,000 meeting up in your garden). Nor had they won the World Cup. In fact, a hive was in the process of swarming. Thankfully into the hedge next to the hive. Great! Now what am I supposed to do? What did they say on how to deal with a swarm on that beekeeping course? How was I supposed to remember? I did what you always do in an emergency; I called in the experts.

Swiftly, the experts responded and very soon I had a beekeeping pro. With the calmness of a yoga teacher (not doing some funny pose, but the ability to look like there was just relaxing music going on rather than the buzz of the M25 in rush hour), the swarm was plopped into a new hive. The old hive was then checked. And then the other hive. And what an eye-opener. Not in the sense of needing to keep your wits about you due to half a hive absconding, but to watch the Pro handle the bees.

With both hives now fully checked and the new hive observed again to make sure all was well, the relief was good. Well, apart from losing the oldest Mini Crofter who was nowhere to be seen before finding out he had decided to nip down to the neighbour’s to see their new ‘toy’ (aka a fairly reasonable piece of machinery). Having coaxed this info out of the Micro Crofter (so I didn’t run any risk of misplacing a child), I thought, great, I’ll nip down and milk a cow (because it’s always easier with one child than two and I am always up for utilising these times). Everything set up, cow in, machine busy working when suddenly rush hour hit again! I glance up thinking, this can’t be right, the noise again was in the air. And that was with ear defenders on but I could still hear it. And my ears did not deceive me, there was the Birmingham spaghetti junction of bees coming down the track (thankfully taking the otherside of the byre) and I watched them head down the road before quickly running back to dismantle the milker from Tilly, cleaning up and sprinting up to the hives. But each seemed ok, they all had bees. I phoned the Experts again (start thinking of the term ‘muppet’ across forehead). Advice was to go check the new hive. Sure enough, now there was hardly any bees going in and out of the swarm’s hive. As much as I thought they would like their new house being delivered to them, no, they must have watched The Snail and the Whale and wanted to go see the world. And off they had gone.

A major bee search then started. Involving multiple neighbours, neighbour’s visitors, really anyone I could rope in. Now, this wasn’t just a nice and easy search and rescue. This was a search and rescue while lugging a two year old about with you. Which required good stamina and an ability to pass a mental hurdle that you really can carry the weight of half a bag of chicken feed about with you while searching high and low (my right arm has still not fully recovered). The determination to keep going was aided by the frequent concept that I could hear bees. The burn was very deceptive; giving off a slight humming noise that constantly drew you back to it. The hillside was examined. I may have been persistent but I can admit the trees were not tooth combed. But alas, no swarm was found.

By the end of that day, I would have been more than happy to be Baloo from the Jungle Book. Not to be some big fluffy, overweight bear. But to be singing about bees buzzing in the trees making honey just for me, and not chasing them over the Scottish hillside.

Now, all is not lost. Our two beehives are still functioning. We had been hoping to split the hive. The bees beat me to it this time. I am hoping to be more prepared for the other hive. But, in the mean time, I’m just away to go check back on that pregnant cow…

Busy

Things have been relatively quiet on the blogging front for me. I have been acutely aware of it. For the past year, I have built up a substantial number of posts currently filed under ‘drafts’. Getting them out of the starting blocks has been an issue, let alone getting them checked and over the last hurdle into the published section. Things would happen, but by the time I got a chance to write it, I seemed to get writers block. My brain just wanted the power button to go to sleep mode. One of these reasons, was for being so busy.

‘Busy?’ I have been asked that very question (but say it with your eyebrows slightly raised and a look of ‘aye right, you’re having a laugh’). And this is one sticky point (like chewing gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe, rather than a sticky toffee pudding sticky-but-oh-so-good type of sticky; just in case you got the wrong idea). I will not go into detail on the background but I concluded from the lady’s question and further (patronising) statement, that during the entire lockdown she has a) had no dependents and b) no requirement to work. I was about to turn up at her door the following day, hand over a 2 and 4 year old, the keys for a tractor which doesn’t like the cold (honestly, it’s a battery problem, not a tractor that wishes it was in Spain. Well, maybe it does after the cold spell we had back in January, I never asked it, but even if it did, it’s not going on any holiday!). Anyway, she could have my two Mini Crofters for a day (luxury really), the tractor which won’t always start, 13 cows to feed, oh, and why don’t I turn her water off so she has to sort that too and then ask her why she’s not done anything. I wouldn’t, may I clarify. But the thought did cross my mind. Instead, I just looked at her. It was a shell shocked type of response. I’m not really known for my witty comebacks, my responses are more like fine wine and need to sit in a dark space for a while before suddenly appearing. But it did highlight a serious flaw. There are people who have literally sat about and become completely disconnected from how lockdown has affected different people, different groups, differently. Now, I’m not about to stand on a preacher’s block and ask why some have just done nothing (or even why the lady thought that was everyone). I should clarify, sitting does not necessarily mean you have done nothing. Nor does it mean you are disconnected. Neither does the act of being busy mean you have accomplished things.

Did the lady receive no post or deliveries throughout lockdown? Did she never once need to access the NHS? Did she ever wonder why food shops were open and how they managed to have food to sell? From our level, even the Crofter has had to keep working throughout it. And that has been one of our major issues. His work is based in Norway, which as a country has been fairly strict with travel and quarantining. Two weeks of quarantine before going out to the rig would have made it 4 weeks away, 2 weeks home. So they upped the work time to cut back on the number of times he needed to quarantine. So, his away times were long, his home times brief.

Not only that, schools have been off, then on, then off again. The teachers have had to manage working through it. In the spell after Christmas, our oldest, being in nursery, had it five mornings a week on google classrooms. There was then another session with his key worker. I did not make every one (about the time the byre water froze and I was running kettles up and down was when I decided keeping animals alive was a higher priority than logging on). And that’s just it, keeping everything alive was pretty busy.

And so in answer to the lady who thought I should have ‘managed’ a lot more; well, why not come by for a cuppa? Don’t worry, I won’t abandon my children or force you to jump start the tractor. But just, if you have so much spare time, bring wellies, washing up gloves and wine, as I’ll take it you are happy to help (and I won’t preach; but I’m not bad at getting three points all starting with ‘W’!). And the benefit? Come walk in my shoes and you’ll gain the smell of fresh manure, probably get insomnia, and understand why I never wrote a trilogy in lockdown.

The Steak Lovers Guide To The Five Love Languages.

As we approach another day in the supermarket calendar, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to help move away from the flowers, chocolates and promises-you-don’t-intend-to-keep scenario. There is another way. Some will be aware that there is often reference to the five love languages of people; on what we feel is important and how we show it to other people. So if you’re stuck on what to do, here’s a practical way to do it with steak (and wine):

  • Gifts: I have bought you some quality, locally sourced steaks for tea. And a lovely bottle of red.
  • Words of affirmation: I love you so much I bought some of your favourite steaks. And what a great idea to want to match them to wine with your tea.
  • Acts of Service: How rare would you like me to cook your steak for you? And here is your wine while you wait.
  • Quality Time: Let us sit down, chat, and enjoy our steaks. And here is your wine.
  • Physical touch: Let’s sit together while we look up what other cuts of beef we could buy for the next special occasion and what wine to pair with it. (N.B. steak cooking does have a simple ‘touch test’. Although it sounds like a perfect example under the physical touch, I would probably avoid prodding the person of endearment like you do the steak ‘touch test’ and refrain from giving them the verdict on how ‘well done’ they are; I am not a relationship councillor but believe me, don’t go there).

And voila. Now, I should clarify a couple of things. The five love languages is a proper book, the above list is keeping with that. There is no reference in that book to steaks (or, not that I remember). How you cook your steaks is your own personal choice, but please remember different steaks are from different sections, and have different values and properties. The most expensive steaks are not always the most flavoursome (if you want to know more, call me, I can explain).

It is worth noting that if you’re not sure on a person’s love language is, try all five. Who is going to refuse it? Unless they ask for it blue and it’s served well done. And, thinking about it, try a different option if they are vegan and/or teetotal. The thought, of thinking does count. It doesn’t have to be steaks and wine. But, if you source from a local or small business item, you have a three for the price of one deal; you’re happy, the seller is thrilled, and your dearest is delighted. Now, not all crofter have steaks. We certainly don’t have Malbec grapes growing on our doorstep. But what do the people around you produce? Adapt it to a veg box scheme? Try it with a small scale coffee roaster company? Surely it’s time to bin the currant ‘buy-junk-for-a-certain-day’ concept; find a local, small business supplier, plan ahead (we can’t compete with the wilted flowers from the petrol station at 10pm) and show your love to those around you.

Ace of spades

Crofting is one of my current day jobs (thankfully, and hence why I stopped lambing although it doesn’t mean I don’t work at night, I just cover it if needed). Anyway, besides the day job, I have other interests. Yes, I like my cows but I don’t cow whisper all the time. The brushcutter and I get on well. The flail mower, the garden, the mole traps, are all things I enjoy doing. And they tend to get the priority. They give a huge satisfaction in seeing your accomplishments. But I also have ‘indoor’ interests. Spinning, knitting, cross stitch, oh, and card making. Yes, I like making cards. The past couple of years I haven’t had the time. Really. Ok, maybe I did but I was too sleep deprived. But this year has been better for sleep (believe me it has, just maybe not the four episodes last night). So why did I think that this year I would manage cards? Does getting more sleep boost the ‘yes we can’ mentality? Who knows, but the 2020 Christmas card making side of things has had a few glitches and seems to have taken its inspiration on from that one undercooked bat…

1. Yes, just like covonavirus started in Wuhan and we were all watching it but took no action; I started thinking about the cards in October. But took no action. The brain then went into full blown lockdown mode and has refused all access to any sense of creativity what-so-ever. Great start.

2. Card making prompted a panic usage of four-year-old wanting to use paint. He has never asked to paint stones before. But get out my things and whoa, he wants to not just paint, but paint stones. And with a four year old painting there needs to be a two metre distance between the two of us. It’s not just a government thing, I don’t want splashed with his paint, nor do I really need the house redecorated. And the house was not built with two metre distancing in mine; it’s just not conducive in the work area. Either he paints, or I card make.

3. Access to the carder has had to be limited to only one person (glue on a two year old can spread round your house faster than a respiratory virus. Don’t believe me because you can’t see it? Try glitter at home…). That means I’ve had to wait until two mini Crofters are in bed. And as the saying goes, I’m not an early bird, nor a night owl, just one exhausted pigeon. I lead my children by example by going to bed the same time as them when it’s just me.

4. And as 7pm is the new midnight and drinking bourbon is the new eating bonbons; so 23rd January is the new Christmas. Think I should just wish a Merry Christmas one and all and please don’t expect them to be made, let alone posted, until the Crofter gets home.

Ian Sparkles and the flambé.

Although we have plenty of home sourced meat, we do get venison from time to time. As neither of us have the ticket needed to sell it, we get to enjoy all the benefits or pass some on to family and friends as gifts. It also ties us over if we are between stock available in the freezer. And over time, we have developed a few recipes we enjoy with venison.

So one recent evening was no exception. With many thanks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Meat cookbook, there is a particular flambé recipe we enjoy. That’s all fine until the flambé’s flames are more then expected and end up melting the cooker hood and setting fire to the smoke extractor.

Yes, the house was evacuated while the Crofter used the fire extinguisher. All sorted. Apart from the hood now having exposed wire and still connected to the mains. But how to turn it off? The fuse was switched off for the kitchen while the local electrician, Ian, was called. Ian, the Sparkie (not Ian the Steer who recently went off to his forever home, nor Ian McQueen the Farmer who has also helped in emergencies in the past, but he does more, how do I deal with a boliatic, hormonal cow, then how to deal with a potential electrical issue). One phone call and Ian the Sparkie directed us to the exact spot, any further risk eliminated and we could now sit down and enjoy venison steaks (with no flambé sauce).

The Mini Crofter was intrigued. Not in flambé or how many minutes the steak was cooked for to make it rare, but the electrical points, and not just that, wanted to know more about Ian Sparkles. And with that, Ian the Sparkie may still exist to the wider community; but not in this house. We pass Ian Sparkles’ house on the way to nursery. Ian Sparkles has a van which can be identified from quite a distance. Ian Sparkles even came out to sort the byre so it now has proper lighting and electrics (rather then just a couple of fairy lights hooked to an extension cable). And just in time. Not in terms of an emergency but that darkness is no longer procrastinating in the afternoons, it lingers in the mornings too. But, although the cows may be disappointed in the lack of fairy lights this year, it’s replaced with the concept of Ian Sparkles.

So if anyone else in the community needs an electrician, our son can easily direct you to the one and only Ian Sparkles.

Old Blind Dogs

Gus, our Patterdale terrier is not old. But he is a dog and he is going blind. He is in fact not yet two. The diagnosis by the Ophthalmology Vet was not unexpected but still not something I expected to be hearing about our wee dug (that is not a typo before anyone asks).

In canine terms he is smarter then most dogs I have come across. He is not a drool-boy or a moocher, nor is he one to roll around in dead things too much. So he can be pleasent to have around (as long as he doesn’t chew his harness and take off to visit the neighbours or any one else willing to let him sniff about their garden). His latest escapade was ages ago. As in, hmm, two weeks…

Anyway, despite that, last Sunday was the confirmation I had been watching out for. He went out the back door and walked straight off the decking ramp into the house. A classic Laurel and Hardy black and white sketch (black dog, white house). But this time it wasn’t for comedy. I had been observing him for several days after I had become suspicious something wasn’t right. It had started off when I had Gus out with one of his favourite tasks. Chasing. To do this we have a squeaky soft toy (looks like a flattened idea of a fox, it is ginger, but no stuffing and this one squeaks from it’s tail. Don’t ask, I didn’t make it and Gus isn’t bothered, in fact, he likes it). So Foxy is tied onto a long lunge horse whip (they probably have a proper title for this implement in horsey terms, but I have no idea what, anyway, you can picture what I’m talking about). He then will run literal circles around you just to get it. More like a hamster in a wheel really. He eventually catches it, makes sure it’s dead, hands it back and off we go again. But this time, if it was more then two foot away from him, his nose would go down on the ground sniffing all over for it. Which made me start closer observations. He accidentally walked into the car door, the following day it was into the back of the trailer. Was he too distracted or something up? After the decking incident I knew I would need to take him to a vet.

First point of contact, our usual vets. Which isn’t your normal hamster vet, but cattle vet, so they are based down in Grantown, a 50 minute drive away. The protocol in the current Covid situation for the vets looks more like a stall at a wee games fair. An all weather parasol, a circular table, a notice board, and a bottle of alcohol gel all sat in the courtyard. The vet then comes out to see you, you have a chat while you have to keep an eye on: a) the dog to make sure he doesn’t pee against the parasol, b) the mini crofter working out the hinges of the notice board, and c) the micro crofter wanting to extract the alcohol gel.

Any other issues other than the eyes? Well, I had noticed he had been drinking more then usual. Is he ok with people? Hmm, yes, he will be delighted to go into your practice as there will be lots of new smells and someone giving him attention. And with that, off he goes, happy as Larry, while we go vehicle identification spotting (what else do you do with a three year old; ‘oh, look, there is an onion ring car’, ‘that’s another wind farm car, how many frisbee cars can we see, and so on (no points for guessing the makes).

Eventually the vet came back out. Yes, something is wrong with his eyes, but they only have limited resources, would I like to be refered to the Ophthalmology vets? Ophthalmology Vet? I really hadn’t realised they existed! Anyway, the only indication of eye sight issues and drinking is diabetes, could I get a urine sample and drop it off on the day I collect it? Hmm, yes, but can I just do it then and there and hand it back in? And if so, can I have something to collect it. With that the Vet disappears again and returned shortly with, which I am handed, a pair of disposable gloves, a metal kidney dish and the wee pot for the pee sample.

The next stage gave entertainment. Even as I was handed the kidney dish, Gus peed. The Vet and I looked at each other, I’m sure her eyes said ‘Good luck’. Once I had the gloves on and kidney dish, fat chance. By this stage I had decided to strap both boys into the car and give them their picnic lunch while I walked up and down (and up and down) the road waiting to catch the liquid gold. I tried taking him to lampposts, dustbins, even the spots he had gone for when we first arrived. A few times he would show potential, I would dive under and he would promptly decide naw, let’s keep sniffing. What felt like forever (and it was, the boys had finished their lunch) I finally got a tiny amount. Back to the parasol and bell to then hand it in. I was asked to wait while they checked it. The boys were getting restless but the idea of getting them back out of the car seemed silly. Vet then confirmed that there was no indication of sugar, but he did have a UTI so would need antibiotics. So, yet again, I nipped back to the car to try and prove to the random people walking past that I had not abandoned two boys and a dog in a car before sprinting back to collect the medicine and finally head home to await the referral.

It did not take long. Two days later we are then on the trip to the Special Vets. Same deal, hand over the dog at the door, give the history, supposedly go back to your car, enjoy a peaceful coffee and await the news. But alas, the two mini crofters and I ended up walking down a cycle path, eyeing up a Tesco’s freight train, watching a helicopter land at the local hospital and picking up oak leaves. Sounds great, but it was baltic. Try to convince two boys to stay in the car. Hmm, no. Eventually, the phone rang and I got the diagnosis. Gus has lost some of his sight and with the speed of it, will not have sight for much longer. The cause? No idea. Unusual for a dog of his age and breed. It will apparently cause him no pain and have no other implications on his health; he should go on and lead a somewhat normal life.

However, that is the issue for us. We don’t really have a ‘normal life’ and for us, he is a working dog who has a serious issue in his working practice. He can still sniff things out, but we have already seen limitations. And so, this is where we think he may be better off with a family or someone that can shower him with affection while still letting him live a doggy life. He can manage the usual walk, can even go mole trapping off the lead with me, but the risks are high in other areas. He is a cracker of a dog so one that I would prefer to find a safe home for. And that way, he would have a chance to eventually become an old, blind dog.