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Smallholding

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 close-run thing

Anna (front) and Dulcie

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.

And here is autumn…

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.

CC by SIA 6 ix 2019

Brambling – a last summer joy

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.

CC by Sophie Agrell 22 ix 2021

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