A smallholding is a magical world, in both good and bad ways. Living on a smallholding, you become intimate with the seasonal changes on a small area of land – the flowers, the birds, the changing skies – as well as the animals who live on it. You live closely with the turning year, watching eagerly for the first snowdrop, the first leaf unfurling as signs of the promise of spring after the endless-seeming winter, considering the effects of rain on grass without which this smallholding at least would be lost, rejoicing in the almost endless summer evenings, then watching with some sadness as the days draw in and the year turns again to winter.
The year is full of enchantment – lambs taking their first wobbly steps or, later, bouncing as though on springs, newly hatched chicks as cute and fluffy as any cliche. The year is full of sadnesses – a lamb’s death, a fox attack killing a dozen hens all known from an egg. The year is full of work – the daily rhythm of feeding and watering, big jobs like dosing sheep, or mucking out a barn. The work is endless and takes no account of weather, fatigue or other events, but every day brings moments to pause and notice, to delight.
A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine, Fuchsia Phlox, invited me to participate in her podcast “Back to the Fuchsia”. This was a new adventure for me – I had never listened to a podcast let alone contributed to one – but Fuchsia made the whole experience huge fun. Now the podcast has been published so, if you want a dip into my mind and thoughts, have a listen.
It was full moon last night but it was raining. Tonight it is clear, the air chill enough to feel cold as I inhale, a warning of frost, but being outside on moonlit nights is a joy. While we don’t have officially dark skies – the lights of Kilmarnock are visible across the valley – there is far less light pollution here than in even the smallest village. The pale moonlight and sky full of stars are one of the great joys of life here.
The silver moon rises Harvest gold, Creeping into clichéd beauty Behind the silhouetted trees, My torch redundant In its cool light. The now invisible mud Slops over my booted feet As I shut up Reluctant hens, Hear them squawk, Indignant, Jostle for space In crowded coops. The black cat, Hunting, Stalks up a moonbeam Into the dark.
So, the tractor came back from the tractor hospital and normal service resumed. The ewes, the tup (ram) and the horses down the field got a bale delivered to their ring feeder, as did the older ladies, lambs, goats and alpacas in the Dutch barn. The tractor and ring feeders mean that every last bit of the big ‘Swiss roll’ bale is eaten, right down to the very bottom. The ring feeders hold the haylage in a rough bale shape. Before, the sheep collapsed the bale into a messy heap in a few days, which they then pee’d on – and, naturally, no sheep could eat hay mixed with urine, so about 20% of each bale was wasted. This added up to about one bale out of every delivery of six – and that level of waste gets expensive.
The tractor is powered by red diesel. This diesel is literally red. It is coloured to show that it is exempt from fuel duty and is sold for agricultural purposes and is sold in 45-gallon barrels.
This week’s conundrum was how to get the diesel from the barrel to the tractor. This is one of the things that Every Farmer Knows but was such a mystery to us that we spent a week looking at the problem with ever-growing gloom and anxiety.
The nice people who sold us the barrel of diesel also sold us a pump, which came in pieces – several long metal tubes like those on a vacuum cleaner, a piece of metal shaped like an umbrella handle, a heavy metal thing with a handle that turned and a length of narrow white concertina tubing, again reminiscent of a vacuum cleaner hose but far, far shorter. This little lot came with no instructions save a couple of drawings on the cardboard box. After some bemusement, the pictures provided just enough information to assemble the contraption but it was very clear that people who use red diesel are just supposed to know how to deal with the pump. And doubtless most of them do – the vast majority of farmers are the children of other farmers who will have seen this and other tasks done and helped with them all their lives.
The next challenge was to get the stopper off the drum of diesel. It neither turned nor lifted nor did it have any kind of handle. What now? Thank goodness for Google! Clearly we were not the only people to have been in this position of perplexity. Google earnestly informed us that what we had to have was a special drum wrench. Obviously, we did not have a drum wrench, special or otherwise. Were we stuck?
Further consultation with Google revealed that poor unfortunates not possessed of a drum wrench could use two screwdrivers, one wedged into each of the odd-looking loops on the stopper, to unscrew it. Cautiously, Rosemary tried it – and it worked!
We stuck the long metal tube into the barrel, screwed it into place and then realised that the crucial plastic hose that would carry the diesel from the pump to the tractor’s tank was very short indeed, just a couple of feet long, stretching another foot or so if all its concertinas were pulled out. Off went Rosemary to back the tractor into position. Too far away. Another manoeuvre – still not quite there. Eventually, by dint of Rosemary reversing until the back wheel touched the barrel of diesel, the hose just reached.
Cautiously, I turned the handle and red liquid flowed quickly along the hose and into the tank. I cranked the pump briskly and in minutes the tank was full. Then it was just a question of getting the pump out again and put away wrapped in bin bags to keep it clean and prevent dirt getting into the diesel or tank next time, persuading the stopper back onto the tank. Then Rosemary trundled off with the tractor to their next task and I went inside to start my day job, both of us buoyed up by a quite ridiculous sense of triumph. We had cracked the great tractor diesel mystery and were now on top of another of the Things Every Farmer Knows.
Smallholding really is a rollercoaster – and rollercoasters go up as well as down. The weekend after our exhausting day with the sheep, Rosemary and I headed off to the Scottish Smallholders Festival in Forfar to show our two goat kids, Viola and Lily, plus three hens and a Bourbon Red turkey.
Now, I don’t know how many of you have ever showed a living creature, but there is a lot more to it than simply turning up on the day. Our preparations started several weeks earlier with training Lily and Viola to walk on leads so that they would walk confidently round the show ring. Goats wear collars anyway, largely because they are so often intent on doing something they shouldn’t that you need to be able to grab your goat securely and – usually – remove them from the scene of the actual or potential crime, but leads are another matter. The caprine view of leads tends to be that they are very inconvenient and prevent a goat from doing precisely as she wishes. Fortunately, Lily and Viola are very tame indeed, largely because both were bottle reared here from about 12 weeks old and there is nothing like bottle rearing a young creature to create a bond between human and animal. It only took a couple of evenings walking up and down the lane with good behaviour rewarded by browsing time on the verge for the two goats to be convinced that lead walking was ok.
When you are showing, you need to turn up with clean animals – quite a challenge in a wet October. So, a couple of days before the show, Lily and Viola had to be washed. We knew in advance that this would not be popular – goats hate getting wet. On rainy days, all four sit in the Dutch barn and bleat about Goat Melt and look anxious as they see me going back and forth in the downpour.
It was too cold to wash the goats with a bucket in the yard and then turn them loose – there was nothing for it but to bathe them in the bathroom. Fortunately, the bathroom is on the ground floor and the two goat kids are quite accustomed to the passageway leading to it as their pen was placed there when they were too little to live outside, so they went quite cheerfully into the house, past the dogs (driven to paroxysms of barking by the clicking of hooves on the wooden floor) and into the bathroom. Lily went first and proved that English goats are stoical and sensible by enduring being washed with baby shampoo and a little conditioner. After being towelled vigorously, it was time for the hair dryer – and there Lily drew the line. Hot air emerging noisily from a piece of plastic was clearly Wrong and probably Very Dangerous. She backed away hastily, pranced, bucked and objected but the drier was inexorable. Eventually, she was dry enough and we turned our attention to Viola. Anglo Nubians are large goats and it took quite an effort to heave Viola into the tub. She promptly decided that baths were a Mistake and that she should leave at once – straight through me by dint of putting her front hooves on my shoulders and pushing hard. Rosemary, the bathroom and I were all soaked. However, once we had wrestled her through the bath, Viola was delighted by the drier – at last someone was saving a poor little goat from Death by drowning or pneumonia.
Compared to the goats, washing and hair drying the hens was child’s play, though each hen took the better part of an hour to dry. As for the turkey, he had to be washed in the bathroom too, putting the final touches to the chaos. Then he too was dried and loaded into his travelling box in the van ready for the morning’s early start.
Livestock shows start unfortunately early in the morning – all creatures had to be in their pens and ready for judging by 9am – so we had to be up at 4:30 and on the road at 5:30 complete with livestock, lead ropes, show coats (livestock handlers wear white coats), feed, a haynet and dear knows what else.
We made it in reasonable time and were handed our entry numbers and pen number for the goats. Viola trotted happily along with Rosemary but Lily was scared at first and had to be carried – no easy task as I also had the hay net – but once she and Viola were penned she cheered up. The poultry were much easier. Each bird had to be slipped into their numbered pen and left for judging, though wrangling the turkey into a pen that opened on the top was no easy task.
Back we dashed to the goats and met up with the lovely family from whom we originally got Lily. Lily is an English goat, a rare breed for which there is a waiting list, and we only got her because she was the runt of quads and needed special care. When she arrived with us, she was a tiny gremlin of a goat and it was a joy, therefore, to hear the teenage girls come rushing back from our pen exclaiming:
“Mum, you’ve got to see Lily. She looks like a real goat now!”
We got to meet Lily’s sister – a larger version of her – plus an older half sister and her mum, and assorted goat relatives. I had never met any other English goats so it was a thrill to see so many of the same characteristics familiar from living with Lily replicated in her family.
All too soon it was time for the show to begin. Lily was in the second class, a general one for coloured dairy kids, with her sister and several cousins. I took her into the ring, unsure what to expect, having never seen goats shown (sheep are quite different) and having only long ago dog showing experience to draw on. The judge was brusque and a bit alarming but clearly knew her stuff. I was very proud of Lily – she did her best to stand well and trotted up and down on her lead like a pro with just one balk, unlike a couple of others in the class. She didn’t win, but the judge said that it was a very close thing and I was so proud that my little goat could be judged equally with others who had had a better start.
Viola was in the next class, a specialist one for Anglo Nubians. She stood out from the crowd, behaved impeccably, and it was no surprise when she and Rosemary were awarded first place. Such a thrill! The bath and the early start were all suddenly utterly worth it.
After that we could enjoy looking around the show and chatting with the steady stream of visitors who came to meet the goats. Viola and Lily were delighted to talk to everyone who came up to their pen and particularly enjoyed the children. Because they are so tame and so gentle, we could take them out of the pen and my day was made by the smile of a lad in a wheelchair when he too got to stroke the goats.
One of the hens got a second place and the turkey won Best Turkey – unsurprising as there were no others – so we headed home with a nice little pile of prize cards and rosettes. Better even than that was the pleasure of a day among like-minded people and the chance to sit with our lovely (prize winning) goats and chat, to watch children’s faces light up at the chance to feed the goats – the chance to share our daily pleasure in our enchanting goats with others.
It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted. During that time, the delicate balance between managing the holding and chaos was tipped out of alignment by the tractor. Our tractor is not a glamorous modern machine – we neither need nor can afford such a thing. Instead it is a 30-year-old rust bucket, utterly unglamorous, but wholly essential to the current set-up on the holding.
One day, it refused to start. Charlie, the very nice mechanic came up and got it going, and we were instructed to run it for 40 minutes to restore the battery. This clearly tipped something over the edge because, the next time we used it, water and steam shot out of the radiator cap.
A new radiator cap didn’t help and meanwhile the sheep were down the field with minimal grass in the cold, wet autumn weather, were losing condition hand over fist, which was especially bad as we were days away from sending some of the male lambs to the abbatoir, and we couldn’t drive a new big swiss roll bale of haylage down to them. In desperation, I started to barrow haylage down the field, barrow after barrow, at least ten each day, down through the ankle-deep mud outside the barn, which the tractor should have scooped up and cleared away, through the mud at the field entrance and into the ring feeder, where the starving sheep fell upon it with evident desperation. But ten wheelbarrows of hay do not go far between 20 sheep and 14 lambs and we grew increasingly worried.
Back came Charlie, who looked gloomy and said it was the cylinder head gasket and that water had got into the oil and oh dear. Much angst and discussion and we agreed that the only thing to do was to send the tractor away to be repaired and cope with the huge bill somehow – but the tractor repairers could not take the tractor until after the weekend and things were getting worse down the field.
Saturday morning was going quite well – it had stopped raining and there was even a little sunshine – until I came round the corner and looked down the field. The sheep were standing about the empty ring feeder, save one lamb who lay suspiciously still by the fence. I scrambled over the gate and hurried down the field. I was too late. The lamb was dead – and not just any lamb. Branwen, the fourth generation of her much-loved family, a lamb promised a place in the permanent flock. Our hearts cracked but weeping would change nothing. We had to act.
Branwen had been scouring (the runs) and so were several of the other lambs. It was too late for her but we could save others. We ditched everything else planned for Saturday – the sheep needed emergency action. We collected Combinex (against liver fluke and worms) and orange spray to identify which sheep we had treated, set up feed in the stable and called the flock in. Up the ewes charged, knowing that “cake” (sheep muesli) awaited them – but the lambs hung back. Young lambs aren’t that interested in cake so they had not yet learned that this was a delicious and important treat. It was essential that the lambs were treated so down the field I went in my role of sheepdog, wishing yet again that we had an actual sheepdog. Back and forth I ran as I coaxed the lambs into one bunch and moved them up the field but they would just not go through the gate. Again and again I pushed them forward, only to have to run like hell through the slippery muddy ground to head off breakaways to the side or down the field. I was just about to give up when Benedicta ambled through the gate. Benedicta is an old ewe, very wild, who came to us as a rescue case. This year she moved out of the field to live in the outer bailey and Dutch barn with Martha, two older ladies who didn’t fancy the extra walking in the field. Benedicta saw me, didn’t like what she saw, and ambled out of the field – and the lambs all followed a grown-up. We were saved!
After that, it was the usual tedious business of catching sheep and dosing them. Many farms and smallholdings have a sheep crush – a long narrow run into which you push the sheep to treat them – but we don’t. So each individual had to be separately run after, caught either by the horns or by slipping a lead rope loosely round their neck, backed into a corner to reduce escape options, dosed with Combinex, which looks very like milk of magnesia, sprayed orange across the shoulders and released. Our sheep know me well, they know neither Rosemary nor I would harm them – but sheep panic first and think later, so even the tamest sheep gave me the runaround, leapt in the air, charged straight through me or took other evasive action, only to stand there after they were dosed and sprayed with an air of “is that all?”
Each lamb’s weight was assessed and, as we feared, none had enough flesh to make them worth slaughtering. This may sound harsh but it is part of the reality of smallholding – on any acreage, you can only support limited numbers of grazing animals and a short trip to the abbatoir after a happy and cared for life is at the better end of the spectrum for livestock and very similar to the fate of the creatures who become the meat you buy at the supermarket.
Instead of turning the sheep down the field again, we decided to put them into the Dutch barn weeks earlier than usual. I staggered off down the field to carry the ring feeder back up (another job that would be no work at all for the tractor but was heavy and awkward for a mere human) and we set the two ring feeders up in the barn, building them round haylage bales before releasing the rejoicing sheep into a nice warm, dry Dutch barn full of haylage.
Some of the lambs were so scrawny and weak that even competing for food at the ring feeders would have been too much for them so we set them up in a pen with food, water and an older ewe who also needed feeding up. “Set them up” is a euphemism – I caught each lamb and staggered round from stable to pen carrying them, their legs facing outwards and waving with indignation as they writhed in my arms. As for Betty, I dragged her bodily as she resisted every step, convinced like any sheep that Death awaited – only to find that her fate was a nice warm pen and a de luxe dinner.
As for Rosemary and me, we staggered off into the house after five hours of hard work, collapsed into our chairs with a cup of tea and started to count the days until the return of the tractor and a slightly easier life.
This week was thrown into disarray by a sick goat. All four of our goats are beloved but Anna (British Toggenburg in brown with white stripes on her face in the photograph) is my first goat. She and her friend Dulcie (the Anglo-Nubian with the long floppy ears beside her) arrived as newly weaned kids last summer amid all the stresses of the pandemic and after the tragic death of an especially beloved bottle-fed lamb.
I had never really even met a goat before Anna and Dulcie and I was ‒ and remain ‒ entranced by their combination of biddability and anarchy. Within a week of their arrival, they knew their names and would walk down the lane on leads as we took them out to browse the verges – goats are more browsers than grazers and enjoy consuming a wide variety of plants. After a winter in pens, we set Anna and Dulcie free in the spring – and within a fortnight had to buy electric fencing and then ‘pigtails’ (plastic covered metal posts that extend a fence upwards and have a curly bit like a pig’s tail at the top to pass the electric fence wire through) because nothing less would keep Anna out of the garden. Fences and gates mean nothing to the goats – they soar casually over and go where they please with the exception of Lilly, who seems to lack springs in her heels.
Goats are far more human oriented than sheep. Not only do they know their names and come when called, but they each clearly have a name for me and for Rosemary. I hear a distinctive bleat from Lilly as I pass her which is obviously her name for me. Goats also seek out affection – they come up to be stroked, enjoy kisses and, if either of us sits down outside and are spotted by the goats, we are rapidly surrounded by goats looking for cuddles.
So it was with alarm that I noticed on Monday morning that Anna was scouring – in other words, she had the runs. All goats wear collars or they slip through your fingers like water, so we caught her and, much to her disapproval, we dosed her with antibiotics in case she had an infection and with flugicide/wormer in case of internal parasites and then shut her and Dulcie into the stable. Normally you are supposed to isolate a sick animal but goats hate being alone and we didn’t want to compound our problems by making Anna upset and stressed. As the day went on, we hoped that the treatment was working and Anna seemed a bit subdued but not seriously ill.
When I went to do the hourly check at 9pm, that had changed. Suddenly Anna looked very ill, utterly dejected and was having explosive diarrhoea every five minutes. We took one look and knew this was serious and it was time to call the vet. Farm vets come to you. This may seem obvious but it is a blessing not to have to drive anywhere with a sick animal late at night. Farm vets also do their own on call, whereas many small animal practices have contracted this out – so my dog will see a stranger but my goat saw a senior member of our truly wonderful vet practice, after he had found our remote holding and bumped up the track to our door.
Farm vets have to take conditions as they find them so M found himself examining Anna by the light of two head torches, his and mine, as I held Anna’s collar and Rosemary leant gently on her when she objected to rectal temperature taking. He gave her specific antibiotic as an injection (not popular) and a drench, and left drugs for the next days but it was obvious that he thought our chances of saving her were 50:50 at best.
In such situations, spotting deterioration and acting fast is essential so I spent the night dozing and checking Anna hourly, each time half dreading opening the stable door in case she was worse or even dead. But she was still alive in the morning and by mid afternoon, she was looking decidedly better and starting to eat her plain diet of grass nuts and hay – eating is essential to keep the rumen working but plain dry food was clearly the way forward.
Despite a dreadful scene in the evening when giving Anna her next dose of antibiotics caused her to have a clearly agonising gut spasm, she continued to improve day by day. By Thursday she was an obstreperous convalescent, seeking to escape every time I opened a door and trying to chew the toggles off my jacket. On Friday, I released her and Dulcie and they bounced out of the stable and soared over the fence to freedom. My heart as light as their hooves, I returned to the house and keeled over in my chair for a much-needed nap.
Many writers through the centuries have praised autumn extensively, and indeed a sunny autumn day is glorious. The hedgerows on either side of the track to our smallholding are rich red with haws, the last brambles tangle blackly round my ankles and a careful eye can discern the dark purple sloes hanging high up this year after the estate’s injudicious hedge cutting last year. The grass is still a rich green and the leaves are turning olive in preparation for their final flourish in gold, russet and flame.
The nights are closing in but it is still possible to go for an evening walk with the dogs in the gloaming and there is for me no better way to unwind after a day at work than to walk down the track to what we call the chanterelle field with my four little dogs running or sniffing – as long as they don’t roll in fox poo! Often, as I go out or return, I am delighted by one of the astonishing sunsets which are a feature here, especially when I stand at the top gate and look across to the sea and Arran.
Later, going out to give the goat kids their bedtime bottle, it is truly dark and very quiet. While we do have some light pollution from the town about 10 miles away, to me, a town-dweller until just a few years ago, the stars are astonishing and humbling. I still hope one day to learn my way around the constellations. For now, I can safely find the Plough and Orion’s Belt – I have to start somewhere!
But autumn – like any other season in the west of Scotland – is not always idyllic. The drop in temperature is more marked when you have to spend a couple of hours at a time outdoors looking after poultry and livestock – and then there is the rain. Especially after a dry summer when I can simply step out of the door in my normal daily clothes, it is a nasty shock to slither on wet muddy ground in full waterproofs, to find rain making a channel down my waterproof trousers into my wellies, soaking my socks, to realise mid-afternoon that my hair is still wet from my morning’s round and that it will only get wetter when I go back out later. I have mixed feelings about smallholding in wet and mud – I dislike both – but again and again I am surprised by the beauty around me.
A promise of autumn
Standing in the dark, Listening to rainwater Rushing off the hill, Watching the creamy gold half moon Appear and vanish Behind thin stripes of cloud, Delicate as a courtesan’s fan, I see a promise of autumn – My breath, A ghost of warmth In my torchlight.
One of the last outdoor happinesses of any summer for me is brambling/blackberrying (depending on which side of the border you are). Ever since I was a very small girl I have loved going out into the last of the summer sunshine, its darker gold a hint of coming autumn, and picking blackberries, first with my parents, then on my own, and now with my wife.
When I walk down the road on which I lived as a child, I still glance at what were once prime blackberry spots but now – thanks to the pressure for development in Kent – are the site of expensive modern homes. Other prime brambling locations have fallen victim to council tidying – regeneration apparently meaning soulless and plantless grassy areas – so I am thankful that I now live in the Ayrshire countryside. Our hilltop smallholding is not a good place for brambles but just a couple of miles away the hedgerows are dense with berries – and thorns. On Monday, Rosemary picked in the lane while I climbed the fence and picked on the far side of the hedge, my only audience a flock of unconcerned sheep. As I picked, my mind swung between past and present and I remembered…
Blackberrying with my father
Picking brambles in summer’s last warmth, I watch my hands – Your hands but brown – Hear your teaching voice “Stroke them off. If you must pull, they aren’t ripe” “Dull blackberries aren’t ready”. Watching myself, I sense eyes, brain, hands Making choices faster than words, than thought, A touch here, a glance there, Your lessons deep ingrained.
Time arches back And I am again the tiny, sturdy girl Clutching her orange-handled bucket, Eyebrows straight with focus, Toddling back with each berry picked: “Look, look, is this one right?” You pause, consider each berry With due seriousness, Pass judgement on its merits Until those small empurpled fingers, Tea-coloured eyes, Ceased to doubt, seek praise, And a bigger girl, Her hands like yours, but brown, Picked swiftly, serenely Along the hedge from you.