Tuesday, 30 October 2007

The root of the problem

Listening to: Villiers Terrace (Echo and the Bunnymen)
In the oven: Orkney Broonies
Watching: The Simpsons (the one where Bart gets a credit card)

I like veg gardening. Actually, that's a downright lie. I bloody love it. It makes me happy. It takes me away from my everyday worries and into what, even after all this time, still seems a magical world where a tiny speck of seed can grow into something good to eat.

I had an allotment in Shrewsbury for a while and it was a wonderful oasis of calm and an escape route from what was, at times, a fraught existence.

I have cleared and planted two allotments before now, so I wasn't perturbed when I arrived on the croft in mid-July to find the "veg garden" totally overgrown. It has been at least 10 years since anyone did any gardening here.

We hacked away at the nettles and various other weeds to get everything to ground level, leaving only my gardening nemesis - couch (pronounced cooch) grass. For those fortunate never to have come across is couch is a total bastard. It looks like ordinary rough grass, but puts out a long network of roots that will eventually choke anything you actually want to grow in the soil.

The root system looks like so much filthy spaghetti, or the back of my brother-in-law's "home entertainment" system.

It took me two days to dig out the first 8ftx8ft bed, lifting each turf, shaking the soil off and picking the roots out before carting it off to the No. 2 compost heap where all the nasties that will take a couple of years to kill off go. Then it was a case of going over the bed with a fine tooth comb or, in this case, my fingers to get any stray bits out as I've known a half-inch piece of root spread over a lettuce patch in a matter of days.

I hate it, so I have felt forced to 'go nuclear' and call in some chemical help. I sprayed the rest of the patch with Round-up, which the manufacturers insist only kills the plant, does not stay in the soil and presents no hazard to pets or children. Didn't mention anything about pig farmers.

I felt guilty, of course. I'd love to be organic and maybe I gave up too easily. A friend had Japanese knotweed in his garden in Ironbridge and was perfectly entitled to call in the B52s (bombers, not quirky 80s/90s band), making my efforts seem a bit lame.

But the grass died down and digging the second 8x8 bed today took about three hours with 10-year-old chicken manure dug in. I was a happy boy. I just wish it was spring.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Godber defies death

Listening to: Do The Square Thing (The Three Johns)
Dark at: 4.40
What's for tea?: Pasta, tomato sauce, parmesan.

My attempts at rearing poultry have so far proved to be more than a little ropey.

I managed to suffocate one hen on the two-mile journey home after picking them up a few weeks ago and now we could be down to four feathery inmates.

As previously reported, Godber, along with Fletch, has developed a talent for accidentally escaping from the hen run before panicking, running up and down looking for a way back in.

As a result, she very nearly cashed in her chips last week. I was tatting around at the front of the house when I heard chickeny cries of alarm. I huffed around to the hen run where I saw a ball of white terrier fur and dark grey hen feathers. Spike had clocked that stupidly I'd left the back door of the barn open, had nipped out, gone to 'investigate' and been delighted to find a victim.

I managed to grab a handful of Jack Russell and - assuming Godber was an ex-hen, ceased to be and so on - carted the miscreant into the house and shoved him into the kitchen.

Going out to clear up the corpse, I was amazed to find she was alive and clucking. She made her way back into the run, apparently none the worse for the experience.

Sadly, when I checked the hens today, Godber seemed depressed and, for good measure, it looks like she might have damaged her wing in the attack which meant I had to lift her out through the hatch for her tour of the exercise yard. She had eaten OK, but I'm not sure how she's going to be in the long run.

Do hens suffer post-traumatic stress?

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Darkness descends

Listening to: Bolton v Villa
Weather: rain, wind, sunshine, rain, sunshine, hail, wind and finally sunshine
The time is: err. . . um
Pigs' tea: potatoes and barley

The Indian summer that October brought to Westray seems to be well and truly over with bands of wind and rain sweeping over the island.

Although it's sunny as I write this (so I'll keep it short), to say the weather is unsettled is to understate the case massively. Winter is on the way.

The return to GMT this morning makes little difference to me - hours and days seem somehow to have less significance here - It was getting light when I woke at about 6.45 and fully light when I meandered my way to the bathroom for a cold wash (hot water is off again).

Eric and Ernie didn't object any more than usual when I gave them their breakfast at a time that was, in real terms, 45 minutes late. The hens were just as reluctant to get out into their run, nobody was watching the clock, setting deadlines.

But I've had to pick up the pace a little, realising that it will be dark soon after 4.30 and the dogs still have to be walked, pigs' potatoes have to be cooked and I have to bag up and deliver some 10-year-old chicken manure to Mr D's place. I'd better get used to it; by the middle of December it gets light at 9.30 and dark again at 3pm.

Then it's time to hunker down, light a fire, hope for a decent film on telly, attack the reading pile, blog a bit, bake a cake, get on with tidying up the stone wall in the kitchen/dining room and wait for spring.

I feel hibernation coming on.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

It's them or my lettuces

Listening to: Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Pink Floyd)
Lunch: Beetroot soup
Weather: Sunshine, but woolly hat and two fleeces
Reading: Selected poems (Roger McGough)

Rabbits - cute aren't they? Up to a point, I suppose so. The big round eyes, fluffy tail, the big ears. The image makers have done a fine job; think of Peter Rabbit, Dylan and Bugs.

The trouble is the little bastards eat grass and anything green. Six rabbits eat as much in a day as one sheep. And now that I have lettuce, rocket and cabbage in the veg garden (admittedly under home-made cage/cloches), it's time to remember that rabbit tastes very good in a stew.

I was alarmed to discover earlier in the week that there are now four new rabbit burrows on the far side of the top field and two near the house - one near the veg garden and another behind the hen house.

There are hoardes of rabbits on Orkney, with no foxes and only a few birds of prey. The area around the house itself was infested until we arrived with the dogs, but it seems some bolder bunnies are making a bid to reclaim their territory.

A three-point plan of action has been wheeled out. The first was to look at Spike and Owen and tell them it was time to live up to the 'working dog' billing their sacks of food give them.

We have toured the six offending burrows and while Owen scoured the field for rabbits in the open, Spike got down to digging into the burrows, like so. . .

While I'm not kidding myself that either of my dumb mutts is ever going to catch anything, having a snapping, snarling, yapping Jack Russell digging away at the front door might persuade a right-thinking rabbit to consider the benefits of relocation.

Phase two is where it gets messy and unpleasant. Once I've finished writing this, I'm going out to the field, picking up the 'dog bucket' on the way, and will lob a good-sized lump of the contents down each burrow before blocking each hole with turf and a large stone. Not nice, but all's fair in love and lettuce.

Finally, I have got around to filling out my application for a gun licence. I was a fair shot back in my paramilitary days (Wrekin College Army Cadet Corps) and, although I've never shot rabbits before, it does seem the best way of keeping them down.

So, as long as Mrs W and Mr D don't tell the truth in their references, I'll be hanging around the farm looking like this. . .

or maybe this. . .

but most probably this. . .

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

A touch of the Oddies

Listening to: Time Is On My Side (Rolling Stones)
Drinking: Kenco coffee
Weather: bright morning sunshine

This is the best kind of birdwatching, sitting back in your own kitchen, sipping coffee and having something special set before you.

There's a curlew in the top field, by the fence nearest the house. It's on the lookout for worms and grubs, strutting around in a thorough search of the area, its long bill sliding effortlessly into the soil, emerging from time to time with another piece of breakfast.

It's about five yards away from the window, the yellow sunshine picking out every last detail of a very beautiful bird. I would take a picture, but the camera is in the front room and I'm here. I'll remember it though.

Monday, 22 October 2007

The weirdness continues

Listening to: Roadrunner (Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers)
Reading: Saturday's Independent

Regular readers (Mr and Mrs W) may remember me whingeing on last week about how I was managing to break just about everything, including Lennox the Land Rover Discovery (big, black, way past its best, but you wouldn't pick a fight).

Lennox had managed to be the first Land Rover in history to become totally passenger-proof when three of the five doors jammed solid, leaving only the driver and rear doors in use.

Well, ladies and gentlemen. . . pause for drum roll. . . may I introduce to you the world's first self-repairing Land Rover Discovery.

I had taken the dogs for their late-afternoon constitutional on the beach and loaded the chaps up to return to the croft when I slammed the rear door and something in the front passenger door went "clunker-chunk-bunk-schwunk-bang" and the locks on that door and the rear driver side door popped up. The window has slipped slightly and is now at a jaunty angle with a quarter-inch gap in one corner, but I'm really not going to let it worry me. What's a little wind noise, after all.

Beam me up, Scotty

Listening to: What Do I Get? (The Buzzcocks)
What's for tea? Irish stew
Eggs?: don't be daft
Surf: 3ft clean and full of seals
Weather: Overcast, mild

It's Monday (not that it makes a lot of difference these days) and I've just completed what has become an increasingly frequent task on the croft. . . getting the hen back in the hen run.

This has me puzzled. Fletch, Godber and the other girls aren't completely free range because we have two young male dogs who are pretty keen on chicken, the fresher the better. So they have a fenced off area and can pop in and out of the hen house through a window about two feet off the ground.

The fence is over 4ft high. well attached to the posts and with no obvious gaps. Yet one of the pullets gets out about twice a week. It's always the same one and she clearly doesn't like it. She trots up and down outside the fence, clucking the hen equivalent of "get me back in fercrissakes before the dogs eat me".

I unhook the gateway, step aside and she wanders back in, looking relieved, leaving me to work out exactly how she got out.

The wings are clipped, so getting over the fence is impossible. Maybe she's done a David Copperfield (the illusionist, not the Dickens character) and walked straight through the fence in the same way that he went through the Great Wall of China. The hen house can't be seen from outer space, but it's the only one you can see from our kitchen.

Or maybe hens have secretly developed a teleportation system and are using Westray as a testing ground.

Well, have you got any better ideas?

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Just this once. . . part 2

Listening to: Heart and Soul (Joy Division)
Reading: The Orcadian small ads
Weather: dull and overcast, but getting better
Birdwatch: Starlings. . . in the fields, on the house, in the pig shed, on the fences. Everywhere!

There's peace surrounding the croft today. The hens are clucking about happily, Eric and Ernie are emerging from their straw bed like a couple of bleary-eyed teenagers, the soakaway behind the barn is almost complete, the weather is brightening up.

I've made a coffee with my new kettle and I'm sitting by a window with a view over the sea to Rousay and Orkney mainland further south. I'm happy.

There's the rugby to look forward too. I will resist the temptation to be grumpy and chunter on about how Ireland have beaten England four times out of the last five. Fair play, my lads screwed up on a grand scale, while England have made the most of their limited resources.

Instead, I'm off to the hotel bar again where Mrs Hotel Proprietor is making a curry and my buttocks will be well settled into a chair come kick-off.

I will be putting all Anglo-Celtic rivalry to one side to support England, even though it's going to take a small miracle for them to win. They've performed one miracle already, getting to the final.

The snag is that this bloke. . .

. . . doesn't want England to win the World Cup. For those who don't know, this is Os du Randt or the Ox. He's the throbbing heartbeat of Afrikaaner rugby and I wouldn't fancy 80 minutes packing down against him.

He's just one reason why the Springboks are a different proposition to the lightweight Aussies and the moody French. The others include Brian Habana (competition's fastest man and top scorer) and Percy Montgomery (pretty boy with lovely blonde locks, but the best full-back in the world. If England kick as much possession away as they did last week, Percy will slaughter them. He's also kicking better than Wilkinson). Bobby Skinstad, one of the world's greatest back row players, is on the bench. Enough said.

It doesn't look good for an England team who have played well for two weeks out of the last four years, but fingers will be crossed here on Westray and, for the sake of people like Reg and other mutants back in the Midlands, brother-in-law Mart, the Birdwatcher at the wedding in Edinburgh and many others, I hope the men in white can pull it off.

FOOTNOTE: A poor unfortunate soul has just run in to Radio 5. It's his birthday today and his girlfriend is insisting they go to see the musical Stepping Out in Derby tonight. Unbelievable!

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Pig therapy

Listening to: the sound of happy pigs
Drinking: Dragonhead stout
Weather: sunshine, wispy cloud, wind has dropped
Reading: Countryside Direct catalogue
Birdwatch: a dozen curlews in the top field

It's U-turn time on Westray. Yesterday I began to meander down Self-pity Alley, letting the inevitable problems that go with being a sports journalist trying to be a farmer get on top of me. Today I'm chirpy again and it's largely thanks to a therapy session with Eric and Ernie.

The boys are coming on a treat, growing fast, eating well (they fall on their tea-time potatoes like a pack of hungry Wolves) and generally settling in beautifully. They no longer react to my approach as if they have had 10,000 volts passed through them. They don't run squealing around the shed, but come up to the gate as I climb over.

And they now allow me to give them a bit of a stroke, pat them and rub their back - pigs like that, just as we do. So it was that I spent the best part of an hour-and-a-half in the shed yesterday afternoon, eventually sitting down on the floor while they snuffled around my feet, nibbling at the leg of my trousers.

I emerged happier, more positive and quite recovered from the cry-baby wobble of the previous night.

Pig therapy. . . in a world stuffed with new age cranks and phoney remedies, I'm pleased to recommend something that actually works. Try it.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

The Dark Side

Listening to: My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Ramones)
Weather: Bright sunshine, light wind
Lunch: sausage sandwich and PG Tips

It has not been a good 24 hours. Last night I came closer than I ever have before to admitting this was a huge mistake and I'm so far out of my depth I should give up paddling and slink back to the Midlands.

Nothing, but nothing, seems to go right first time and it has become very wearing. On top of the catalogue of breakages - which I could live with - came clear evidence that I have broken a mirror or two, run over a black cat, walked under ladders, not to mention being born on the 13th.

I had spent a productive day preparing a soakaway area behind the barn which should solves a lot of our drainage problems. I was looking forward to lowering my aching carcass into a deep, possibly smelly, bath.

I turned the taps. . . nothing. Sod it! Sod it! Sod it! The pressure had gone again. A small, steady flow was coming out of the cold tap, but nothing out of the hot.

I swore loudly, several times. Thought for a moment and swore again, and a couple more times for luck. Not much I could do except eat my tea, watch a bit of telly, read my book and get to bed, having had a nice cold wash in the sink - just like being back at school.

I settled down in front of the devil's lantern, presses the button on the remote control and was plunged into darkness. The swearing reached world class levels.

My first reaction was, of course that something disastrous had happened in the fuse box, but a quick look out of the window confirmed that there were no lights on the whole island. I went in search of candles, but away from the window it was pitch black. I stumbled about trying to find the candles, but had no idea where to look (feel?).

The organisation of household usefuls is normally Mrs Trainee Pig Farmer's department, so I thought I'd give her a call. Got my mobile out and, sure enough, there was no signal. The power failure must have affected the mast as well. So, it was a case of blundering through into the kitchen to the landline, falling over the cat in the process.

"They're in the cupboard under the stairs of course," said Mrs TPF, the sound of ice clinking in a gin and tonic in the background, telly on, presumably a selection of electric lights illuminating the proceedings. She'd probably had a bath as well.

"Oh, right," said I, feeling a little foolish, then blathering something about not being able to see in the dark.

I rummaged around under the stairs and eventually found a couple, fumbled around after some matches and got back into the front room where I was now able to light a fire and, in fairness, it was cosy sitting there reading in the flickering light.

At some stage I dropped off, waking only at about 2am when the lights, radio and TV all came back on.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

It was like that when I got here

Listening to: Going to California (Led Zeppelin)
Weather: lots of it
Pigs' breakfast: soaked barley, weaner pencils
My breakfast: similar, now I come to think of it

Since moving to Orkney, I've developed a real talent for breaking things. This can be a good thing. The big, concrete (redundant) water tank at the back of the house is now a pile of rubble, a sort of mini-Stalingrad, only without the rotting corpses and the clash of inhuman ideologies.

But, more often than not it works against me. Lennox the Land Rover has been passenger-proof for a couple of weeks now, all bar the driver and rear doors having jammed shut.

The washing machine has waved the white flag after nearly ten years service. It still works, but you have to coax the dial thingy round so it takes about four hours to do my boxers and socks.

The kettle is close to, as PG Wodehouse would say, handing in it's dinner pail. I actually have to hold it in place to make sure it keeps the connection.

The portable TV/video combi is playing up, my collection of spaghetti westerns and Wolves' finest moments (no laughing at the back) now being played out in a blizzard. Is that a cigar Clint or are you chewing on a piece of whale blubber? And the half the buttons on the remote control don't work.

I've even managed to cock up the display on this computer. It's about three times too big, so I spend most of my time scrolling.

I snapped my credit card, thinking it was out of date. It wasn't. My mobile phone appears to be full of soil and I've managed to break no less than four buckets in the last three weeks.

I can't draw any proper conclusions from all this, save that I may just, possibly, be a useless buffoon.

The good news is that the animals are all in rude health. The dogs enjoyed trying to chase some seals yesterday afternoon before realising they were in about 6ft of water, the hens are clucking happily, having a good laugh at their egg-less owner, while Eric and Ernie seem to grow by the hour, let alone the day.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Just this once (or twice)

This may come as a bit of a surprise to those who know me, but I'm dead excited about the rugby tonight.

Being English by birth and living on a small island off the north coast of Scotland (Orcadians seem ambivalent at best about their Scottishness), but Irish by blood and inclination, I've always been greener than a jolly giant when it comes to sporting events.

I'm still a bit upset about Ireland's pathetic showing at the World Cup and the lack of decent explanation/apology. The coach and squad seem to have been sucked into the idea that it's OK for the Irish to lose as long as we're good fun at a party.

I've always been a bit sniffy about "The Nigels", but found myself genuinely excited by their World Cup win in 2003 and was thrilled to bits when they beat the Aussies last week, a genuine rugby team using some old-fashioned, basic disciplines to overcome a bunch of showponies too weak to stand up in the scrum.

Soooo. . . . I'm off to the Cleaton House Hotel tonight where the game will be on in the bar, Mr D will be in the chair and landlord Tony (a former Fylde team-mate of Bill Beaumont's) will be dispensing the Dragonhead Stout. And, mostly for the sake of my English mates (Reg especially) I will be shouting myself hoarse for the men in white.

Just don't expect me to make a habit of it.

The Disappeared

Listening to: Le Build-up
What's for tea?: dunno yet
Weather: autumn sunshine, clouding over a bit

I've just been up to the veg garden where I planted out some lettuce seedlings the other day (Little Gem, seeing as you asked). Of the 36 seedlings I planted, 28 are still a going concern - not bad, considering it was, at best, an experiment to test the conditions.

A couple of others had wilted, gone a bit brown and were clearly dead/dying, while the rest had disappeared completely.

You can't blame the rabbits (of which there are a multitude) because I have made a sort of tunnel made out of bits from the old (now scraped) battery cages that were in the shed when we moved in.

Mice? But then why only a handful of seedlings? It's not something new - in all my years of gardening and allotment-holding it has always happened and it has always puzzled me. Ideas would be welcome as I'm about to put in a row of Parella Red and some winter cabbage.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Let's all have a disco

Listening to: Gorehound (The Cramps)
Eating: perfect creamy porridge with a little brown sugar (don't know what went wrong last time)
Weather: sou'westers and wellies, tie the cat down

I've never been keen on hens. There's something about the pecking, clucking, flappy, feathery, ugly as sin little creatures that has always freaked me out. I'm actually a bit scared of them.

I do, however, love eggs, so I was happy enough to welcome our five hens to the croft. I took a deep breath, told myself to grow up and got on with looking after them.

We have been getting an egg a day and it has to be said I was getting to the point where I was seriously considering culling the two older non-layers (two of the hens are young and not quite ready to lay).

Now the egg supply has dried up altogether. Being an old softy, I am happy to give the girls every chance to get their act together so I read one of the many books we have on smallholding/crofting (How to Avoid Being Laughed At On A Small Island by A. Townie).

I had the housing, bedding and the feed all sorted correctly, but it seems that light is the key to improved egg production.

Apparently hens need at least 16 hours light every day - not easy when, in the depths of winter on Orkney it gets light at about 9am and goes dark again at 3.30.

No problem, let's rig up a light. Then I read the next paragraph which suggested a dimmer switch be fitted. Dimmer switch? That's a bit 70s, isn't it? Why not go the whole hog and put in a strobe and a glitter ball? I have visions of visiting the hens late at night, having to tell the bouncers I'm on the guest list, then finding the girls in spandex and sequins, bopping to Abba's greatest hits with the bubble machine going full pelt.

You really get too much time to think up here.

Anyhoo. . . dimmer switch it says, so dimmer switch it will be. Mr D is coming to help me install the new system, with switches for Eric and Ernie's quarters, a set-up for heat lamps for future pig litters and so on. If that doesn't do the trick, I shall take to casually rattling the lid of the casserole dish out of the kitchen window.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

The Westray One

Listening to: Drinking the Water (Jack Johnson)
Watching: Scotland v Argentina
What's for tea?: Lamb, mash, mint sauce
Reading: too tired to read

Much as I wanted to watch the South Africa v Fiji game today, events have taken over - Eric and Ernie have moved in. And what a day it's been.

The sow had basically asked them to pack their bags and leave home two weeks early, so the day I have been getting ready for for the best part of two years had arrived.

I had hoped to pop the boys in the back of Lennox (they're about the size of a medium-sized dog) but the breeder said they would trash the upholstery. I put aside the thought that a bit of trashing would probably be an improvement and agreed she should run the pigs up in her van.

That's where the fun started. Ever tried to catch a pig? Didn't think so. It's not as easy as you might think. The trick is to grab a back leg, ignore the squealing, wrap your arms tightly around the little devil and get it to wherever you want it as quickly as possible.

Two pairs of hands speeds the process (one pair to grab, the other to carry) and the chaps were soon in the back of what appeared to be a bullet-proof white transit van.

A big snag soon became apparent as soon as we got to the croft. There was no way of driving the van up to the door of the pig shed, opening up all sorts of pig escape scenarios. A little head-scratching led to the usual conclusion - 'call Marcus'.

Marcus arrived five minutes later and, with the minimum of fuss, carried one around the corner into the shed himself and passed the second through the window to me.

Job done, goodbyes said, I was alone with two small, red-haired animals named after Britain's greatest ever comedy duo. What now?

They snuffled around the spacious shed (there's room for at least a dozen weaners) took a look at their bed, their water trough, the rocks I'd put in there for them to push around - they seemed happy enough, considering they had been taken away from their mother, their brother and sister and put in a strange shed with dogs barking in the barn next door.

Like a bloody idiot, I decided not to leave well alone. I went to get a bucket of feed which I scattered over the floor as you are supposed to, then managed to drop the bucket, startling the pigs who raced around the shed, bashed into the hurdle I had put across the doorway, the impact sending it flying and they charged outside.

I caught Eric in the veg garden and shoved him back in the shed, while Ernie managed to squeeze his way through the fence into the top field, much to the surprise of the cattle in there.

Ernie set off for freedom, heading towards the main road, pursued by four cows, their calves and - finally - a red-faced, wheezing me, having leapt over the barbed wire and trying hard to sprint in steel-toecapped boots.

He doubled back a couple of times, short, fat, hairy legs pumping like mad while I had visions of the Tamworth Two and becoming the laughing stock of the island. Eventually the Westray One was cornered at the bottom of the field and I got him with the kind of tackle that Ireland's rugby players could only dream of.

I marched, gasping for air, with a squealing pig in my arms and managed not to drop him while I stumbled back over the fence and into the shed, where I immediately set about improving security.

Half-an-hour later I stumbled, exhausted, into the house where the dogs were looking at me with that 'you've forgotten to take us for a walk' look. Thanks chaps.

MONDAY UPDATE: Eric and Ernie were slumbering peacefully in the straw when I went in with their breakfast at 8am today. Think we're going to get on fine from now.

Midnight coalman

Listening to: Bubble Toes (Jack Johnson)
Eating: pork chop
Watching: world cup rugby and not believing my eyes

I was minding my own business last night, watching France beat the All Blacks, enjoying the warmth of the fire. A couple of pints at the hotel and a decent dinner of Sanday pork chop with all the veg had left me a little dozy and I was dropping off when all hell broke loose.

Spike started yapping his head off and Owen, never one to be left out, joined in enthusiastically. I'm used to the pair of them going off on one, throwing out challenges to the things that go bump in the night and the imaginary lions and tigers that lurk around the croft.

I growled at them to shut up, but by now they were scratching at the door to be let out. With a deep sigh I hauled myself off the sofa and we went out into the hall. Nobody at the front door. I went outside and spotted a transit van turning out of our lane onto the main road.

Odd, I thought, maybe somebody came to the wrong house. But I had a check round just in case they had made off with my shovels.

It was when I went into the barn I noticed the big pile of coal on the floor and, bearing in mind this was about 9pm, realised that when I told the coalman that 'any time that suits you', he had really taken me at my word. Snag is, as it was dark, he failed to notice the nice big coal bunker outside the barn, so it's just as well he didn't nick my shovel.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Shock treatment

Listening to: Better Together (Jack Johnson)
Eating: Porridge which has gone strangely rubbery
Reading: seed catalogues (winter's on its way)
Eggs: the usual one.
Weather: bright and breezy
Surf: 3ft and messy
Birdwatch: lapwing, golden plover, starling, redshank, wheatear, oystercatcher, shag, little auk, gannet, sanderling.

Alarm bells are ringing and red lights flashing at the croft - Eric and Ernie are on their way.

I got a call the day before yesterday with the news that Eric and Ernie's mum had decided to stop feeding the litter and they were ready to move out.

This is two weeks ahead of schedule, but there are only four in the litter (eight or more is usual) and the sow was very milky (think pig equivalent of 36F), so they've had one hell of a good start.

I'm excited and scared all at the same time. After more than two years of banging on about how I wanted to be a pig farmer, I'm finally getting ready to shed the 'wannabe' bit.

Despite the courses, the books, the visits to farms, the cleaning out of the shed, the fencing off of their little paddock, I feel totally underprepared, so far out of my depth that I'd get the bends if I tried to come up.

To make myself feel better I took a trip to Kirkwall yesterday and, among several other pretty dull visits (bank, council, Orkney Enterprise), I trundled up to the agricultural merchants.

It's an indication of how my horizons have changed that I get excited about a trip to Kirkwall and that I can spend a hour or so browsing steel-capped boots, barbed wire, feed bins and gates.

I marched in, trying to give an air of confidence like I knew what I was talking about, and went straight to the counter marked 'agricultural enquiries'. Resisting the temptation to point out that 'inquiries' is the preferred spelling, I gave a cheery 'good morning' and inquired as to the availability of pig feed and electric fencing.

No problem. Pig feed I understand and ten bags were ordered and dispatched to the depot to be shipped to Westray. Electric fencing was something else. I thought about bluffing, but quickly changed my mind and put myself at the mercy of the little guy behind the counter.

"You'll need this," he said, getting some sort of energiser/transformer thingy off the shelf. Noticing my complexion pale at the £110 price tag, he added: "Don't worry, we'll do you a price." 200m of galvinised wire, a dozen posts and some sort of wire holder wotsits were added to the goody box, my card swiped through the machine and I strolled out, feeling pretty good.

That's the easy bit, I'm just off to pick it all up from the depot in the village, then I've got to put it all together without electrocuting myself. Can't wait.