Saturday, 29 March 2008

West Side Story

Listening to: Child In Time (Deep Purple)
Weather: sunny, strong breeze
Surf: 4ft, offshore wind, looking good
Piglets due in: 10 days

Spring doesn't so much as bust out all over the place on Westray as stagger through a life or death struggle with the wind and the rain. Two days of snow and cold north winds earlier in the week made the place lovely to look at, but winter seems to be on its way out.

Daffodils are out, two of the last three days have brought sunshine that - a stiff breeze notwithstanding - has felt warm at last and, with the change to Summertime tonight, it will still be light at 8pm. Everywhere is still wetter than a British Prime Minister in a meeting with George Bush, but there's reason to hope for dry ground some time soon.

We have treated ourselves to some more hens - four, to be exact. It had become obvious that we didn't have enough active layers with the two older hens having given up. And, yes, the one chicken is still being a complete bitch and, no, I haven't plucked (!) up the courage to wring her neck. (Joan Collins - there, I've just named her).

Anyhow, a call was put in to the family on the island's Westside who had provided us with the original mob and Sal and myself trundled over to collect (remembering this time to stick a very large cardboard box in the back of the Land Rover - no repeats of last time's Black Hole of Westray).

We went into their hen house to collect and I froze.

Regular readers will know I'm scared of hens and am in the middle of a kind of therapy, involving one of our older hens who follows me around like a faithful dog and who is so quiet and easy-going I've felt able to stroke her and offer her food out of my hand. She's a confident old bird and this is her pinching the pigs' food this afternoon.

In complete contrast, these new hens were as quiet and easy-going as a bunch of Millwall fans after a 4-0 home defeat. OK, so they weren't throwing heavy duty fireworks or torching cars, but they might as well have been - I would possibly have been able to deal with it.

No, the little buggers decided they didn't much fancy the move to Casa del Trainee Pig Farmer and squawked, flapped, screeched and did everything bar write to their MP (no point on Orkney, he's a Lib Dem).

Sal stubbed out a metaphorical fag, rolled up imaginary sleeves and waded in, helping their owner Christine grab the nearest four noisy, flappy, pecky, bastards and shove them into the box held by a trainee pig farmer who was now rooted to the spot, unable to move - think of Michelangelo's David. . . only with more clothes.

Long-suffering wife bundled box and trainee pig farmer out of the door, muttering darkly about big girl's blouses. A reviving coffee raised spirits for the journey home, we dumped the box in the middle of the hen house and waited.

Nothing. The four hens were cowering in the bottom and the only way we could get them out without a repeat of the flapping/squawking/rushing about fiasco was to tip it over on its side (very gently) and wait.

They emerged and over the next couple of days investigated their surroundings. Egg production has increased only slightly, but it's early days and, as umpteen football managers told me in my previous life as a sports hack, new signings need time to settle in.

Adam the cockerel can't believe his luck and has been 'at it' like Russell Brand after a meal of oysters, but there's a definite divide between the old hens and the new gang.

The newbies have marked out their turf, taking the upper shelf in the hen house while the old hands stalk the floor and the lower nesting box - straw bales are disputed territory.

Sharks and Jets?

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Big Momma

Listening to: Stairway to Heaven (Led Zep - it's been that kind of a day)
Two pints: of lager
Weather: snowy, but starting to warm up a bit

The weather is never dull on Westray. We had gales on Friday so Sally's eldest daughter and my "little 'un" (5ft 11in of 15-year-old daughter) had an interesting trip north.

Setting off from Birmingham, The Youngest managed the full hat-trick, throwing up on two planes and then a ferry. I suspect if it hadn't been Friday afternoon the boat wouldn't have sailed and they emerged at our end an interesting shade of green/grey.

Both took a day or so to recover fully, by which time it was snowing. Sweeping in off the North Atlantic, the snow left a light covering over the fields, the wind building up drifts in some places - notably our front door. Still, it was very picturesque as you can see in this shot of the view from our front door of Tuquoy Bay and Fitty Hill. . .

It is, of course, business as usual in the pig shed where the mighty Kim rules the roost and Molly and I have formed an alliance which - until the mortar dries and she can move into her own quarters - makes sure she gets her fair share of food and bed space. It's a delicate situation that requires careful handling because there's no way I'm getting on the wrong side of a very big pig. . .

Sunday, 23 March 2008

I don't need no Tarzan

Listening to: curlews in the morning
Weather: winter giving it one last go
Happy: Easter

Those of you of a certain age (the same one as mine) will remember the late 60s Tarzan TV series starring Ron Ely* where the Great White Ape had morphed into some sort of crime-busting jungle man. A kind of Bergerac with a loin cloth.

Along with all the lions, elephants, tigers (in Africa!), geographical confusion (he appeared to have left the jungle and settled in East Africa) and sterotype 'natives' (either cowardly villagers or fierce painted blokes with big spears) I seem to recall that it was pretty regular for someone to find themselves stuck in quicksand.

The baddies invariably came to a gooey end, while anyone else was rescued by the timely intervention of Big Ron and his aforementioned loin cloth.

As lively seven-year-olds with time on our hands (we had to make our own fun in those days and, let's face it, unless you lived within a bus ride of Carnaby Street the 60s didn't so much swing as drag) we often tried to recreate this scene. How our mothers laughed when we returned home covered head-to-toe in 'quicksand'.

Forty years later, I have managed the ultimate re-enactment and I am happy to reveal that Tarzan is redundant thanks to Dickies rigger boots - guaranteed to get you out of the deepest, gungiest hole and damn comfy too.

I had decided Eric and Ernie needed weighing. I had no real idea how much they weighed - just that they were healthy, not too fat and getting bigger.

Given that it's hard to get a seven-month-old pig to stand still on bathroom scales long enough for an accurate reading, I looked for an alternative method.

After consulting a couple of other pig keepers, I decided to try using a tape measure. It's not 100 per cent accurate, but it gives you a good enough idea.

I clambered into the swamp, put some food down for the lads and whipped out the tape I had quietly stolen from Mrs TPF's sewing box. Easy-going Eric stood quietly as I measured around his chest and shoulders and then along his back, Ernie flinched and squeaked a little, but even he accepted the 'suits you' treatment with little fuss.

I jotted down the measurements and set about applying the formula (chest multipled by back divided by 12). I'm not the sharpest chisel in the tool box when it comes to maths so this required considerable concentration.

So much concentration that I failed to notice that what I thought was a reasonably dry part of the swamp wasn't and I was sinking up to my ankles, the suction tightening all the time.

I tried to lift my foot and damn nearly popped a cruciate ligament. The other was similarly stuck fast. No problem, I thought, I'll grab a fence post and pull myself out. I had carelessly strayed more than an arms length away from the nearest post and the only thing to grab hold of was the electric fence - not an option.

Mrs TPF was mucking out in the stable with Radio 2 on very loud (!) so my cries for help went unheard.

Fortunately, the very thoughtful people at Dickies have stitched leather tabs to the side of their excellent boots (go out and buy some now, a snip at £50) so I hauled one foot out, then the other, repeating the process several times until I reached dry land, leaving Ron's retirement undisturbed.

And, for the record, Eric is close to 140lb, Ernie 136lb. Pork weight is around 150lb, but I'm letting them go to bacon weight, so we can all relax until some time in June.

* Ron Ely was the 15th actor to play Tarzan. He refused a stunt double for the vine swinging and animal fights, although the Tarzan call was still Johnny Weissmuller's dubbed over. As kids we always wondered how anyone came to be named after the town we lived in.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

The Germans have a word for it

Listening to: Rock Steady (Alton Ellis)
It's Bank Holiday so: gales, rain, hail

Yesterday I took delivery of sausage-making equipment, preparing us for the day when Eric and Ernie fulfil their destiny. The main part of it is an electric mincer. It's very nice, very shiny and very German.

In English it's called a meat grinder - in German it's a Fleischwolf, literally a flesh wolf*.

I don't know about you, but I didn't fight two world wars or score a very dodgy goal in the 1966 World Cup Final for the Germans to have far better names for a mincer.

* On reflection, I'm sure you didn't need me to point that out.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008


Listening to: Wild As Angels (The Levellers)
Weather: gloomy end to a fine day

After leaving my old job and before moving to Orkney I attended a bricklaying course at the local tech college.

Great fun it was too and, though I say so myself, I got pretty good at laying the nice little clay bricks with the perfectly-mixed mortar provided by the college, made up of four parts builder's sand and one part cement. I had a go at cinder blocks and managed fine with those as well.

I've finally got around to doing some building and the whole thing is a very different kettle of fish. Everything here is built with exceptionally heavy concrete blocks - an experience long on good, healthy exercise, but short on finesse and neatness.

I'm building Molly's maternity pen and it's slow-going. I've done my best with trowel and spirit level, but more than once I've actually had to resort to kicking a block into place.

On top of that, the sand here is straight from the beach and full of salt, so reacts differently to builder's sand. If you mix it and leave it for a few minutes, it starts to separate, the salt pushing the water out so you spend most of the time cutting the mix with the trowel.

So, I'm here with biceps twanging and hands rapidly shrivelling, in desperate need of a massage and a long hot bath, but Sal's in Kirkwall and I forgot to put the water on - and it's just started raining.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Hello ladies

Listening to: Radio 4
Drinking: Tetleys (tea)
Nursing: wounded rugby pride

Following requests from at least two people, here are the first pictures of the new sows. That's Molly, the younger of the two, on the left.

The ladies have spent most of the time since arriving asleep (when they're not eating or squabbling over food). That's hardly surprising considering they've had to move house (always stressful, I think you'll agree) and they are the equivalent of six or seven months pregnant.

So they're taking it easy and not really up to the full photo-shoot. Kim has been especially reticent. She has been snuffling and snoring and you'll have to wait to see just how enormous she is.

Just for now - here she is. . .

. . . and another of Molly, who's a bit of a sweetie if you ask me.

Friday, 14 March 2008

The heavy brigade

Listening to: Just When You're Thinking Things Over (The Charlatans)
Drinking: Brazilian lager
Just discovered: Shetland Soap Company hand cream (bliss!)
Pub?: Nope, quiet night in.

I heard a 'clunk' behind me as I walked towards the freight office at Stromness harbour and turned back to see my small, but perfectly formed Ifor Williams trailer at a 45 degree angle.

And everything had been going so smoothly.

The two Saddleback sows Molly and Kim were dropped off at Scrabster ferry terminal and seemed none the worse for the trip across the Pentland Firth and past the Old Man of Hoy to Orkney, in fact they seemed fast asleep when they were brought onto the quayside.

Presumably they woke up as I went to sign the forms and shifted their weight to the back of the single axle trailer, tipping it backwards onto the rear rim.

I hurried back and, with a little help from the stevedores, hitched the trailer to Sal's car and checked the pigs were OK. They seemed completely unworried.

That was about as exciting as things got as, just for once, everything went to plan, kicking off with the rain and wind dying down and glorious sunshine emerging for my flight from Westray to Kirkwall, right up to the point where the sows were unloaded back at home.

My neighbour Marcus had dashed away from a calving to help me unload, while Mr D and Mr Hotel Proprietor were also in attendance should crowd control become an issue.

It wasn't. Molly emerged first, strolling after the feed bucket that I had to keep putting under her nose to remind her where it was (Saddlebacks' vision is impaired by their floppy ears). Kim followed, even more slowly, but in about 10 minutes they were in the pen I'd spent a week preparing for them.

First reaction? Chuffing heck, they're bloody enormous. Kim, the three-year-old, stands almost waist height and is a good 6ft long and must weigh in at around 400 pounds. Molly is maybe a foot shorter and is considerably lighter, but she's still an impressive animal. Eric and Ernie are tiny by comparison.

Both are clearly in pig (pregnant), with Molly's bulge quite pronounced (she's due to farrow on April 8, a week before Kim).

Kim is obviously the boss. She gets best spot on the bed and first go at the feed trough. I unwisely got between them today when Kim snapped at Molly and caught my hand. For a moment I had visions of becoming the Abu Hamsa of pig farming.

I'll get around food fights by putting two-thirds of the feed in the trough, waiting a minute then guiding Molly to another part of the pen where I leave the rest, so one way or another she gets her share. As soon as I've built the second pen, she'll have her own space.

I've signed up with the British Saddleback Breeders Club, which officially makes ours the most northerly herd (if two can be called a herd) of Saddlebacks in the UK. Just watch some Shetlander spoil that for me.

* I read through the movement licence (all pigs have to have one for each trip they make) for the sows today and was particularly taken with paragraph 'd'.

"No cattle, sheep, goats or other ruminating animals or elephants have been moved onto the premises. . . since 21-02-08 except in accordance etc. . . ."

Elephants? Now that's what I call diversifying.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Pecking order

Listening to: Yeats's Grave (The Cranberries)
Weather: warm, spring sunshine
One: day to go before the sows arrive

Adam the cockerel is outside the front door, crowing his head off*. He's pretty pleased with himself and, with hens clucking attentively around him, maybe he has every right to be.

Prince Charming certainly loves the attention and his arrival has changed the way the hens treat each other too. They have divided into three camps, which takes some doing for four hens.

The two snuggled up to Adam in the picture are on top of the pile, one because she's young, pretty and is the only hen currently laying, the other because she's big and - as it turns out - an obnoxious bully.

She picks on one of the smaller, younger hens who - after a brief and previously unreported encounter with Spike - is in the process of regrowing her tail feathers. She chases her away from food and water and pecks at her when she gets too close to Adam. I might tolerate that kind of behaviour if she was providing eggs, but she's not, so she's going in the pot.

The other older hen is heading for a long and happy retirement. She's my favourite by far. She has a streak of independence and is deeply unimpressed by Adam, fighting off his attempts to rape her yesterday. She likes to be left to her own devices, pecking about, minding her own business. Eggs or no eggs, she stays.

* What he doesn't know is that Spike is the other side of the door, a quivering mass of nervous energy. We'll be going in and out through the barn today, I think.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

North coast

Listening to: Thick as a Brick (Jethro Tull, feel free to point and laugh)
Weather: sunshine, one brief shower
Surf: 3-4ft, clean with gentle offshore breeze

I went to the beach today. Nothing unusual. You have a job avoiding beaches on a small island 11 miles long and (where we live at least) a mile wide.

After a busy morning spent fretting over the new arrangements in the pig shed (will the bloody mortar never set?), I suggested to Mrs TPF we get out with the dogs, enjoy the sunshine, watch Mother Nature do her thing and so on.

Sal had passed the morning in a far more productive style than me, grooming Teddy the pony - a process that includes rubbing baby oil into his coat (I kid you not). She then stayed true to her Black Country background and sorted and tidied the pile of scrap metal that has been growing behind the house.

The upshot was that she felt the call of the sofa and a chick-flick, so I tucked her in and was off out with the dogs on my own. I bundled the boys into the Land Rover and ten minutes later I was at Grobust beach which, apart from sharing its name with a herbal breast enhancement product (honest!), is one of my favourites anywhere in the world.

It's the one on the header. . . lovely, isn't it?

It's changed a bit since the autumn. The bank of sand on the western half of the beach has been partly washed away and partly blown over the dunes towards the golf course, leaving the mothballed archaeological dig (an Iron Age settlement apparently - there's a clip on YouTube if that's what rings your bell) mostly covered.

At low tide a wide expanse of flat rocks are exposed and today they were busy with (at a guess) 70 oystercatchers, a few gulls making a nuisance of themselves.

It's the only beach on the island which holds a decent wave and then it's not that good that often. The strong winds tend to mess up the waves and most days they break so quickly that the take-off is for experts only. Today was a great exception, the lines pushing towards the shore, green faces of the waves peeling over neatly, a little spray coming off the top as they broke.

Walking east along the back of the beach, I stopped to look out in the general direction of Iceland while Spike fully investigated a rabbit hole and Owen sprinted here and there in vain pursuit of our fluffy-tailed friends.

The temptation to go in was strong, but there are strong rips at either end of the beach and a wicked one in the middle that will suck you a couple of hundred yards out without you knowing it - going solo is not an option.

And besides, it's still a bit chilly.

Friday, 7 March 2008


Listening to: McAlpine's Fusiliers (The Dubliners)
Weather: Sunny, chilly and (at last) dry.

It's been a quiet week on the croft/farm/smallholding (never sure what to call it) so, apart from a couple of 'pigs dig hole, trainee pig farmer falls into hole' incidents it has been hardly worth tiring the fingers out on the keyboard.

Egg production has dropped off considerably since Adam the cockerel arrived. I'm putting it down to a combination of the hens not liking change and the dismal wet weather. I reckon it's time to get a few more in.

The lads are growing well since their move outside. I've upped their rations and, despite spending most of the day up to their 'knees' in mud, they're a couple of happy boys. Teddy the Shetland pony continues to delight the ladies. The two mares in the neighbouring field hang over the fence with tongues hanging out. I hate to point out that, even if he had the necessary equipment, the lad would need a step ladder to fulfil their deepest desires.

Molly and Kim, the two Saddleback sows from Thurso, were due to arrive here yesterday, but a minor paperwork cock-up (not mine, for once) means they are still over in Scotland and will be here next Thursday.

That's given me more time to upgrade the facilities in the shed. I've filled in a load of cracks and holes in the walls, built a concrete feed trough and I'm halfway through putting in a creep (nursery area) where the piglets will be able to go to avoid being accidentally laid on by the sow.

That's going to involve me cutting some concrete blocks in half with Mr D's stonecutter - a terrifying piece of kit that constantly threatens to slice off limbs and digits. So if I never post again you'll know what's happened.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood

Listening to: Think (Aretha Franklin)
Weather: Marti Pellow
Birds: Hen harrier hunting rabbits

It's been raining. . . a lot. There's water standing everywhere, mud all over the place - most of it on my boots. Still, all that heavy lifting is good exercise for the calves and thighs.

I'm a little concerned that the acre I was hoping to have ploughed up for potatoes will never get done - there's no way a tractor can get onto the ground the way things are.

And the pig paddock has turned into a swamp. I'm tempted to kit the lads out with lifejackets. . . or maybe install a flume/slide for them to play on. . . or get out the windsurf board.

There are large pools all over the place and this morning there was one right by the door of their hut. That meant they couldn't help but trail mud and dirty water into their bedding which was filthy and wet by the time I went for the daily bout of barging, bumping, squealing and general silliness we like to call breakfast.

So it was I found myself with a strong north wind whipping about my ears, being nudged and jostled by two inquisitive pigs as I pulled the bedding out of the hut.

The wet straw filled in the mini-lake at the entrance to the hut and a couple of buckets of sand and chips (gravel) sorted out the wet patches inside before I put fresh straw in.

The lads seemed grateful - at least they didn't try to eat any bits of me or my clothing which made for a pleasant change.

Geese - an apology

My last post claimed I had seen barnacle geese on the bottom field. I was, not for the first time, talking out of my nether regions. They were greylag geese which look totally different. I can only apologise to geese everywhere.