Thursday, 28 February 2008

Malc's handy household tips - 1

Listening to: Chain of Fools (Aretha Franklin)
Weather: Cold, sunny, showery
Birds: Squadron of at least 100 barnacle geese on the bottom field

Tired of your smelly old Land Rover? Want to get rid of the smell of wet dog and trainee pig farmer's feet?

Then give up the day job, buy a croft 600 miles away, pretend to be a pig farmer, buy barley to feed the pigs and let the sacks linger in the vehicle overnight.

Next morning. . . mmmmmm, barley-fresh Land Rover!

You'll all be doing it soon.

Monday, 25 February 2008

He's a dandy highwayman

Listening to: Subterranean Homesick Blues (Bob Dylan)
Weather: breezy
Nursing: sore arm after embarrassing attempt to play badminton
Nursing: sore head after embarrassing attempt to play euchre (card game - apparently)

It's a lot noisier on the smallholding this week thanks to Sally's companion on her trip with Baron von Richtofen and the flying circus on Friday.

As Mrs TPF staggered to the car, she clutched a cat basket containing the cockerel we had rescued from a fate worse than Provencale. 'Lucky' (as he was called at the time) had been quiet all through the trip, much to my disappointment. To my mind a terrifying trip in a small plane, buffeted by high winds and surrounded by lightning, only needs a cockerel crowing from the luggage hold to make it complete.

The basket was covered with a blanket, so I hadn't seen him. Therefore it came as quite a shock when he was let out in the hen house. He's certainly hard to ignore.

As you can see, he's quite the looker in an ostentatious kind of way and my first comment was: "He's a bit 1981, don't you think?" - "Just needs the stripe across his face and it's Adam Ant," said Sally. So Lucky became Adam and the trainee pig farmer had 'Stand And Deliver' rattling round his head for the rest of the day - great!

The hens seem happy he's here and they tend to go around in a big gang now. It's too early to see what effect it has on egg production, but we've had three in the last 24 hours, so no complaints.

He does the full 'cock-a-doodle-do' which does help to make the place seem just a little more like a real farm.

All we need now is a real farmer.

Friday, 22 February 2008

High anxiety

Listening to: Country (Paul Weller)
It's still: blowing hard outside
Hail stones: can really sting, can't they?
Birds: half-a-dozen lapwing trying to fly into the wind and giving up, mute swans floating with heads tucked in on Pierowall Bay.

Sally came home this morning. I'd been worried. Very worried. She was coming by plane.

Gusts of up to 70mph were hammering away at the front of the house last night and, even though it seemed quieter when I clambered out of bed at seven this morning, by the time I set out for the "airport" at 8.30 it was working itself up into a frenzy again.

The winds that threatened to shove even a lump like Lennox off the road and the sideways hail were bad enough, but a mile down the road there was a huge bolt of lightning, then a second just as I approached Pierowall village.

I'd all but convinced myself the flight hadn't even left Kirkwall, but there was activity at the airfield (the post van was waiting). So I sat back and waited.

Wobbling over the horizon from Papa Westray came this. . .

. . . landing into the wind on the runway (when the wind is blowing from the north it often lands on the grass).

Once it had taxied to a halt, two teachers, the bank clerk (RBS open on Wednesday and Thursday) and a very shaky Mrs TPF emerged.

Sal's face was an interesting pale grey-green colour and she had that 'I'm not going to puke in public, or cry for that matter' look on her face.

I hurried her and her luggage into the Land Rover, she slammed the door and said: "Oh my ******* ****** ******* ******."

"Nice to see you too darling," I replied. "How was your trip?"

You know the way a gust of wind can sometimes knock your car to one side and it's a bit frightening? Well, it seems the flight was a bit like that - only up in the air.

Sal had got in and the pilot, knowing that everyone else was a regular, made a point of asking her if she knew the emergency procedure. Not a good start for the nervous flyer. After landing at Stronsay, the first stop, the pilot had been forced to admit that he might have to turn back to Kirkwall.

Nevertheless, the plane bumped, dipped and swerved its way out north, over open sea, before returning - one passenger's nerves in tatters - into the wind to Westray.

Still, could've been worse. The ferry was struck by lightning on the way back to Kirkwall and the afternoon sailing was cancelled.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

The great outdoors

Listening to: Marquee Moon (Television)
Weather: windy, wet, cold

Ernie looked at me with a mixture of pleading and condemnation. The wind was howling straight into his face, his ears standing on end. He'd had enough and wanted his nice, warm shed back.

I moved the lads outside today. It's long overdue and I need to get the shed ready for the new arrivals next month. Of course, after two weeks of glorious weather, I chose to move the pigs outside in a strong wind with occasional icy showers. I'd also had it pointed out that I'd built their hut with the door facing the prevailing west or south-west winds, so I threw up a windbreak made out of an old wooden pallet stuffed with straw and three fence posts.

I had worried they might be a bit of a handful and called in my neighbour Marcus, hoping an experienced pair of hands would prevent any escape attempts or other monkey business. As it happens, the lads were good as gold. They trotted happily after their beloved feed bucket, following me like a couple of well-trained dogs. I told the dogs about this later. They pretended not to hear.

Once they were in their paddock and with snouts in the trough, we quickly connected up the electric fence, the trainee pig farmer flipped the switch and everything was hunky-dory.

The lads both had a few encounters with the fence which set off a certain amount of squealing and general leaping about. Eric was, as usual, slower on the uptake than his brother and his ample backside made contact several more times during the morning. But they had a fine old time grazing and snuffling in the dirt.

By teatime, the novelty had worn off. Eric had, sensibly, decided to explore the hut and the massive pile of bedding I'd put in there, while Ernie made a futile attempt to appeal to the big softy in the pig farmer.

I wobbled for a moment, but then imagined the hassle of returning them to the shed, so quickly got a grip, gave them a little extra feed and topped up the water and crossed my fingers.

The winds reached a crescendo about 8pm, so I sneaked out to check. They were burrowed into the straw together, out of the wind and dozing peacefully.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Born free range

Listening to: Trampled Rose (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss)
Recovering from: shocking myself on the electric fence
At least: it works
Weather: mild and still - insects are out

The hens have been one of the big success stories of 2008 so far. They had a difficult start here, one dying on the two-mile drive from their previous home and another turning in its dinner pail a couple of weeks after being mugged by Spike.

At first they produced an occasional egg and then they stopped altogether. However, as if by magic, the turn of the year and the longer days have worked a massive change.

Eggs started to reappear. One or two a day at first, but now we are up to three or four - pretty damn good from four hens. At least we are spared the embarrassment of owning hens and having to buy eggs from the shop.

The hens have fattened up, their feathers look in good condition, they are making a lot of what I assume are happy clucking sounds. . . and they've developed an independent streak.

On a farm already including several animal 'characters' (barking mad dogs, hooligan pigs and a cat who calls his solicitor every time he's expected to catch a mouse) I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that the hens have decided, without consulting us or a celebrity chef, that they would go free range.

They discovered that just a little flapping would take them over the fence and since then they've been getting bolder and bolder.

They love the dung heap by the pig shed. The veg garden is interesting too. I found three of them trundling off down the drive this morning. "Oi," I shouted, followed by a lot of guilty clucking, looking at feet, attempts to nonchalantly check feathers before they were herded back around the back of the house.

At the moment it seems they are still laying their eggs in the same spot in the hen house, but I imagine that won't last now.

Is there such a thing as an egg detector?

Monday, 18 February 2008

Pining for the. . .

Listening to: Farming Today podcast (really - they're talking about eggs)
Barn: full to bursting with straw
Weather: dry, bright, but cloudy
Surf: not bad, 4ft, although a little messy

Orkney in general - and Westray in particular - is outstanding birdwatching country. Don't come here without a pair of binoculars, you'll miss the show.

We're heading into an exciting time. Fulmars are nesting on the cliffs, oystercatchers are crowding onto the rocks and three squadrons of 30 or 40 barnacle geese were doing the Red Arrows thing over the farm this morning.

Stars of the show for many people are the puffins. They congregate in large numbers on the cliffs at Castle of Burrian (not a real castle, a rock stack) about a mile south of our farm.

They are due to arrive in a month or two, but I discovered an early arrival on nearby Taft End beach the other day.

Nature's a bit of a bastard and I'm not about to get all sentimental - just to prove it my first thought was "he's resting - tired and shagged out after a long squwak". . . "he's pining". But clearly he couldn't "vwooom" if you put 20,000 volts through him. (I apologise to non-Python fans).

Seriously, I hope it's not an omen. Sandeels have been decreasing in the seas up here for some years thanks to global warming and Danish industrial fishing methods and, although adult puffins have been eating pipefish instead, they seem to be too bony for the young.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Buy one get one free

Listening to: I Can't Quit You Baby (Led Zeppelin)
Yes: I remembered the card
Weather: unbelievable - can't last
Hands: shredded

The days of toddling along with a couple of pigs and a handful of hens seem to be drawing to a close. Hard work is on its way.

I spoke to the pig breeder near Thurso and the two Saddleback sows he had earmarked for me are ready to make the trip over to Orkney. Both have been given 'a good serving' (first time I've heard it called that) by the boar and the little indicator thing on the tester from Boots has gone pink so we are in business.

Their names are Molly and Kim and knowing that has made it all seem so much more real. Kim is about three-an-a-half years old. That's an age where many farmers would be moving her on to 'other things'*, but John-Paul** and his family have grown fond of her and are letting her go reluctantly. She has had only one litter a year (many sows have two) so there should be a fair bit of mileage left in her.

Best of all, he's letting me have her for nothing on a 'buy one get one free' basis.

The pig I'm paying for is Molly. She's just over a year old and this will be her second litter. She's due to farrow (give birth) on April 16, while Kim is calling for the gas and air and screaming 'I'm never letting him near me again, the bastard' a week earlier.

The plan is that they will come over here second week in March, which doesn't give me long to throw up the walls for the farrowing pens.

They won't be the only arrivals. Sally's first week at work in Kirkwall has gone very well, so well that she's bringing home a cockerel next Friday! Don't ask.

My (very limited) experience of cockerels leads me to believe they are mostly serial rapists/psychopaths. Any trouble from this one and I may introduce him to my little buddy Spike.

After a night out in Kirkwall to celebrate the florists' and card-makers' benefit day (ladies' choice, so beer and curry it was), I was back out with the barbed wire this morning, cutting my hands to ribbons in an effort to get Eric and Ernie's paddock ready.

I think it's OK. A couple of bits of the fence need a bit more tension, but I'll sort it in the morning.

As the lads have got only a couple of months left, I'm trying very hard not to think of it as the departure lounge.

* cheap sausages

** I have so far resisted the temptation to ask if he has a brother George-Ringo.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Dream home

Listening to: Breaking The Rules (Walter Trout Band)
It's: bathtime

It's finished! It took far longer than I'd planned, but the pig shelter is complete and ready for the lads to move in at the weekend (want to make sure I have extra hands about the place).

With sea views to front and back, it's probably the best appointed pig shed in Britain. In London it would be worth at least £100,000.

Yes, it's a bloody eyesore, but our nearest neighbours are several fields away. After a shaky start to the building process, I'm pleased to say it's as solid as my mother's pastry. All it really needs is a bit of landscaping. I was toying with the idea of a lawn on the roof, but I may settle for some pallets stuffed with straw as a kind of thatch. If I have time I'll paint it as well.

I've added some more fencing and all the new paddock needs is a couple of pigs.

Tomorrow it's back to concrete and time to finish off the work in the large pig house. I've got the materials, thanks to Robbie from the island's haulage firm who made two trips at the end of last week. It was brewing up into a gale and he nearly got his tractor stuck in the mud at the back of the cattle byre, but he remained astonishingly cheerful throughout.

Fathorse's tag

Listening to: Wild Wood (Paul Weller)
Just about to: walk the dogs
There's straw: everywhere

Finally got around to Fathorse's meme/tagging, whatever you like to call it, so hold on Fats, here we go.

*long pause while I try to remember the rules*

Right. . .

page 123, fifth sentence, next three sentences:

"They like a mash in the morning of such things as boiled vegetables, flaked maize, pea or bean meal, wheat meal and a little barley meat. Give them about half a handful each for breakfast and half a handful of grain in the evening. If you find they get fat, give them less." (Well, duh!)

The New Complete Book of Self-sufficiency (John Seymour).

I tend not to pass these tags along (don't mind receiving them at all), so the buck stops here. You can send me your chain letters as well.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The beautiful game

Listening to: Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers (ZZ Top)
Weather: fabulous
Pig shelter update: nearly done
Birds: half-a-dozen Fulmars gliding three or four feet above our heads

One of Malc's fundamental rules of Rugby Union is "avoid at all costs any player who looks like a folk singer".

Don't be fooled by the beard, 'comfortable' stomach and jolly demeanour. I don't care if he has a nice collection of Aran jumpers, Mr Folk Singer will be a psychopath - I absolutely guarantee it and have had the cuts and bruises to prove it.

I feared the worst for Westray's brave lads as they lined up for a fixture against what was casually termed an 'Isles Select XV' on Saturday. The visiting captain had thick greying hair, an equally impressive beard and he looked ready to whip out a mandolin at the slightest provocation.

He was also built on the generous side - and he wasn't alone. Six or seven of the visitors looked as if they had spent a lifetime muscling in at the front of the dinner queue. Westray's players looked underfed by comparison - maybe a stone a man worse off, but strange things can happen when you're as keen as Colman's and the expected thrashing failed to materialise, Westray coming a narrow second.

I had a pint with the chairman and a couple of others afterwards, explained very patiently - several times - that I was far too old to come out of retirement and that, even in what I laughingly think of as my prime, I wouldn't have been much of an asset. I did, however, talk myself into writing the match report for the local papers.

Considering I have no idea who any of the players are, or what the score was, it could be a challenge - still, won't be the first time.

That was yesterday. Today has been a strange one. The weather continues to be wonderful. Daffodils and crocuses are showing through and will be in flower soon.

Mrs TPF and I took a walk on Mae Sand, arguably Westray's most beautiful beach (the competition is stiff, to say the least). Owen chased stones into the sea, while Spike zoomed from side to side on his extendable lead.

We watched the Fulmars glide overhead, checking us out as we neared their nesting sites. A small flock of turnstones pottered around at the waterline, while oystercatchers squabbled on the rocks.

I cooked a full Sunday dinner and then it was time for Sal to drive down to the ferry. She's over to Kirkwall to start work tomorrow and, while I'm not thrilled about being on my own during the week, it's very much better than her going back to England for months at a time.

I just hope Orkney social services realise how bloody lucky they are to have her.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Mr Waring - an apology

Listening to: Living For The Weekend (Hard-Fi)
Weather: Another good 'un
Surf: so, so tempting, 4ft clean. . . almost worth the frostbite

I've never been a practical person. It's all down to upbringing and education, I suppose.

I'm from solid, middle class, protestant Irish stock. My father was an historian who disappeared for what seemed like days on end, to be found behind a barricade of books in his study. Lovely fella, told a great story, liked a pint and a game of rugby, but he hardly knew what a fuse was, let alone how to change one.

At school, I was 'bright' (apparently), but always let myself down in sciences and practical stuff. Maths and chemistry I bungled my way through, but physics was beyond me and biology never fitted into the timetable with German and Ancient History.

Then there was woodwork.

At the minor public school I attended, I was forced to take either woodwork or metalwork until I was 15. I can't think of anyone who thought it was a good idea, but those were the rules.

So, I would tumble into the workshop with an armful of books (history usually), the sound of sniffing and sobbing from the back room indicating that the woodwork teacher Mr Waring was present and was resigning himself to an hour-and-a-half with 'the clever kids'.

I was bloody useless and even less interested. It took me nearly a year to make a bread board (the little legs were quite complicated). But I didn't make a nuisance of myself, spending most of the time discussing a theoretical Great Britain football team with my friend Mike Kirkman.*

Mr Waring and I just didn't connect. He was a funny little man with a beard and half-moon glasses and he was kind of semi-bald, in that his hair started halfway back on his head and stuck straight up in the air.

Today, I found myself wishing I'd paid more attention. I went outside this morning after a blustery night to find the half-built pig shelter leaning against the fence at a jaunty angle.

An hour or two huffing, puffing and swearing got things on a more stable footing so that it looked at least the right shape (pictured left).

I went around nailing on bits of wood and we're now at the stage where all we need is to put some kind of roof on.

But I've got the bug. I would love to know what those carpenter's joints are called and learn how to do them so that the next pig shelter doesn't rely on 1,397 nails to hold it together.

And Sal watched Jamie Oliver tonight, so wants raised beds for the asparagus we are, so I'm told, going to be growing.

Anyone got Mr Waring's phone number?

* Mike was a strong advocate of Peter Shilton in goal, but I (with an Ulsterman for a dad) was equally staunch in my support of Pat Jennings. I'll still have words with anyone who doesn't think he was the best goalie ever ever ever (Banks included).

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

The kindest cut

Listening to: Dumb Waiters (Psychedelic Furs)
Weather: The odd wintry shower, mostly very sunny, north wind swinging to the west.
Birds: a fat little sparrow flitting around the hen run, a snipe flying up in front of me as I was stalking rabbits.

I had a shave last night. Nothing remarkable there, except that it was the first for nearly a fortnight. It bloody hurt.

On my way back to Orkney last week I hadn't bothered shaving (nobody to impress) and by the time I got back to Westray there was a fair covering of stubble. Somehow I didn't get around to scraping the face for another couple of days, so was pretty fuzzy by the time we wandered down for our Friday night drinks at the hotel.

By the end of the evening I had decided to grow a beard, which just goes to show you should never make important life decisions while full of Pinot Grigiot, no matter how perky and fruity.

I think what I had in mind was the full ZZ Top, like so. . .

. . . or even something in keeping with my new surroundings. . .

Mrs TPF reminded me that The Boy had, while watching Billy Connolly's British tour on telly a couple of years ago, promised to buy me a trike if I went for the purple goatee, leather bandana and wraparounds look. . .

. . . so that was settled. Mrs TPF was kind enough to add: "It's not like we do much snogging these days."

Except that growing a beard isn't that easy. You look like a tramp, you realise you are going very grey and it itches like hell.

I lasted until yesterday at about 6pm before I cracked, disappearing into the bathroom to use up half a can of foam and two disposable razors (a cut-throat would have been the tool of choice), hacking and swearing at the bristles until most were removed and, once again, I looked like this. . .

. . . well, close enough. . . same species anyway.

I went back into the kitchen and treated the wife to a slow, romantic kind of a kiss on the lips. She looked surprised and, a whole hour later, said: "You've had a shave. I was just thinking today you looked quite nice with a beard."

* I'm sure most of you know about this already, but one of my favourite things about ZZ Top (some smashing, bluesy tracks apart) is that two of them have beards and the one who doesn't is Frank Beard! Fantastic!

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Sticky-backed plastic would be handy

Listening to: Club Foot (Kasabian)
Weather: sunshine, mild, spring on the way?
Trying to remember if: I've had a tetanus jab lately

I'm doing a bit of recycling. As well as putting out cans, bottles, old newspapers and so on, I'm sort of giving new life to an old threshing machine.

Not that it will be even slightly recognisable as a threshing machine once I've finished with it. It's got two good, hefty frames and as such is perfect for the shelter I'm planning for the pigs in their new paddock.

I had considered splashing out on a couple of pig arks - that's ark as in small nissan hut, rather than big boat built in case of biblical events* - but they start at £250 for a simple one and that's before you've got the thing to Orkney. So, with loads of scrap timber hanging around the place, we're going for the Blue Peter** option.

I've trimmed off the bottom beams so they'll stick straight in the ground and then I plan a sort of freestyle performance, hammering in wood where necessary and adding some waterproofing.

Trust me, I nearly know what I'm doing.

It has been beautiful today and a real pleasure to be outside, even though I spent much of the day cutting my hands to ribbons on barbed wire in a no-doubt futile attempt to pig-proof the paddock. There's blood dripping onto the keyboard as I type.

Mrs TPF popped out to help when I needed an extra pair of hands, but she's spent probably too much time ironing and sorting stuff out for when she starts work in Kirkwall on Monday, her criminal record check having come through clear - no jokes, please - quicker than expected.

That news at the end of last week caused a bit of a stir, not least because she hadn't got anywhere to stay or any flights/ferries booked. Transport was quickly sorted, but Sal still had to find a bed. We placed an ad in The Orcadian, but short-term she was going to have to find B&B/self-catering in Kirkwall.

She trawled the internet, made some calls and an hour or two later proudly announced that she'd got a deal with a guest house for the first couple of weeks until she arranged something more permanent.

"You know the place, it's near the harbour in Kirkwall," she said. I didn't. Couldn't place it at all.

"I've saved it on the favourites," she added. "Here, look."

"Oh yes," I said. "That'd be the ***** Hotel in Stromness. Very near Stromness harbour - about half-an-hour on the bus from Kirkwall. Look, it says 'Stromness' in very big letters."

Bless her. I think the animals and I had better go too, just to keep an eye on her.

* Sally and I visited Maes Howe prehistoric burial chamber on Orkney mainland during the summer and opted for the guided tour (very good it was too). The 'any questions' bit at the end was more interesting than usual.

Elderly American Tourist in lemon golf slacks (on Orkney!): "How long after the Great Flood was this built?"

Tour guide: "I'm sorry?"

Lemon Slacks: "The Great Flood. Noah's Ark."

Tour guide (remaining remarkably steady): "I'm afraid I don't know. Maybe if you ask at the museum in Kirkwall. . . or the cathedral."

Championship class buck-passing if ever I heard it.

** I loathed Blue Peter as a child. Still do, now I come to think of it. When school was over, I wanted cartoons and football, not more school.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Teddy - the shameful truth

Listening to: Hancock's Half Hour
Weather: Freezing, light dusting of snow
Reading: Making Money (Terry Pratchett)

Teddy the Shetland pony came to us with a bit of a 'hard-man' reputation. He had duffed up his owner when she caught him by surprise while he was eating his tea (the equine equivalent of spilling his pint or looking at his bird, I suppose).

The haircut helped of course - a lovely thick coat, the kind you like to see in front of a log fire on a. . . errr. . . 'romantic' weekend.

And his mane is the finest Mohican I've seen since '77 (or Daniel Day Lewis, take your pick). While my son and stepson were here he became known to all as Mr T. I happen to know he's never been on a plane. "Pity the fool", "jibber-jabber" etc.

However, the image was shattered when I was rummaging through the desk for my cheque book, accusing Mrs TPF of hiding it (before I found it in my coat pocket - naturally). I happened to stumble across The Tedster's horse passport (he needs it to get served in pubs). There in big letters on the front was my little pony's name. . .

. . . hello Theodore!