Crofting Life

As the snow lies

December ended up being a bit of a blur. Not in the “have you been to Specsavers?” type, but the day to day tasks turned to a ‘lets try and keep everyone and everything alive’ mode.

The microscopic bugs seemed to have held the house hostage. The siege seemed never ending; one attack would finish with that moment of silence before the next one would spring out from nowhere. In the middle of those situations, the snow fell. Suddenly at first. And a lot. And then the temperature dropped. Not to any drastic plunge by any means, but just enough to freeze water. And water’s fairly crucial. So the battle of the ice was declared; a twice daily repetitive strategy was enforced. Grab the wellies, the waterproofs, energy from the depth of your toes (before they freeze), start ‘The Battle’ song by Hans Zimmer in Gladiator, clench the fist, lift that snow shovel high and call out that battle cry.

The byre’s water went first. So the cows were let loose to the top field (which can have a water trough filled from the house). Rocky and Hilda are out wintering, so they needed another gate opened to access the far field which has a burn, which has so far, never frozen. But it has been close, so a 20 minute trudge through the snow to check water was flowing commenced. And in the mean time, let’s not forget the hens. Nor the dog. Or the mini crofters. The clean washing pile was deemed a non essential service and still seems to be suffering the aftermath.

So it was back on one of those days, between two children becoming ill, that I took ill. And was in bed. So the SOS lifelines were called. The dog went down to one set of neighbours, another checked the cows and chickens. And another popped up at tea time to feed the boys their tea (who had managed on cheerios and youtube). And to add a wee cherry on the top, a water filter at the polytunnel decided the situation was just too much, and burst.

The water pressure at the house raised the red flag. The burst pipe hunt began and once the flooded polytunnel was spotted, the repair work began. And it highlighted how much of a maze of pipe work we have, and how hard it is to find anything when it’s three feet under snow.

So the music tempo changed. And along came Elvis and his ghetto. But adapted, to fit the scene. The song, with their rewritten lyrics had been forgotten about until today.

As I cleared a path to the pickup, checked the cows, and attempted to get the boys ready for school, the song came back.

As the snow lies

On a cold and dreich December mornin’

Another water pipe begun to freeze

In the byre (In the byre)

And the crofter cries,

‘Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need

It’s another job that needs some heed

In the byre (In the byre)

People, don’t you understand

The woman needs a glass of wine,

Or a two week trip to where that sun shines

Have a look for Timbukto

And in her dreams you find her there.

But now we find the schools been shut

And have more work to do

Well, the weather turns

And a soaking crofter with a runny nose

Works in the snow as the cold winds blow

At the byre (At the byre)

And her hungry burns

So she starts to roam the fridge at night

While she dreams of spring

And she dreams of light

In the byre (in the byre)

So now, the snow swirls around outside. The pick-up already covered again in snow. The school run never attempted after the messages arrived of adverse weather and school closure. And the gentle strumming from Elvis softly plays as I dream of spring.

Crofting Life, Livestock

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 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…

Crofting Life, Food

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.

Crofting Life

Beautiful Noise

Neil Diamond sings about the beautiful noise:

“Goin’ on everywhere
Like the clickety-clack
Of a train on a track
It’s got rhythm to spare”

I have no idea when he wrote that but it could be adapted to the clickety-clack of zoom meetings in the current world situation. Maybe not what we had envisioned for 2020 but suddenly for those of us remote, we can attend meetings without having to clock up time and emission miles. One laptop, an ironing board (so I can sit on a comfy seat rather than a desk), and some internet connection. The clickity-clack of the train is substituted for a keyboard.

Does it fully compensate seeing and meeting up with people? No. But with zoom I was able to participate in the Scottish Crofting Federations’s (SCF) Young Crofter’s Virtual Gathering this week. I have no plans to go travelling at the moment but on that day I got to visit Lewis, Uist, Kishorn, and Glenelg to name a few. And with those video clips and virtual gathering came the beautiful noise. The sound of hearing what others are doing, the impact of Covid, and aspirations of other Crofters.

And on that note, here is my challenge. Covid has made people more aware of food supply chains, buying local and minimising their carbon footprint. There are plenty who have these aspiratations to use the land; but to buy land, you need money. Yes, to take up an expensive ‘hobby’ as some tell me; crofting for many of us is ‘on the side’. We have other occupations. But that gives us resilience. Nor does all our income go to one basket. A couple of pigs, some sheep, a few cows, bees and a veg garden mean that if one market flops for whatever reason (say a sudden influx of cheap beef from abroad), we have cover. We’re less likely to go out with a bang (we are probably also a fairly determined group that are use to battling everything from bulls to bairns, wedders to weather, so we don’t just take things lying down). Some pay huge amounts to go play golf, others croft. When pandemics hit, what would you prefer to have as your neighbour? A golfer or a crofter? A professional golfer may draw in crowds, but how much time and fuel goes in to trimming those immaculate lawns and how tasty is a golf ball? But here’s the issue. To want to use the land, to invest blood, sweat and tears, oddly enough you need money. Estate owners can have a huge area of land, not live in the area, not invest locally, burn patches of hillside, release thousands of birds to then shoot a few months later. Birds that often have little use in the food supply change. But they have the money so they have the land. Someone else may look at physically utilising 10 acres of land, live on site, but struggle to find anything. Or if they do have land, have the battle of their veg crop being decimated by deer or loosing their chicken flock to pneumonia passed on by the estate’s incoming pheasants.

So a call to politicians for land reform? The innovation of what business opportunities can be generated on poor ground is amazing. Major changes needed to help with this? Yes, but small changes can have big impacts. You will then get the ‘the sound of the kids’, future generations putting investment back into communities. But this is where everyone (not just those in crofting or want to be involved) need to make a beautiful noise. Anyone who values utilising the land and having food on their table can invest in it. Buy local when you can, find out what work went in to your food, support the SCF who fights for Crofters, and together we can make a beautiful noise.

NB, Ok, not all golfers and estate owners can be categorised together, I have generalised. I do not fully understand the full laws behind land but I am more than happy to invite any politician to come spend a day here to find out more. The work is outside and you can be sociably distanced (the cows aren’t as good with that but well, they have had the coronavirus immunisation). Ms Stugeon, you may not need such fancy clothes but don’t worry, we’re less likely to make comments about how you look and I’d more likely want to know what you can do with that law degree under your belt for the future Crofters.