Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Phone a friend?

Listening to: Argus (Wishbone Ash)
Medicine: Tennents, coffee and toast
Quite impressed: by Manchester United, even though I had more fun in one weekend in Barcelona than in countless trips to Manchester. Gaudi or Lowry - you choose.

The sows are reaching the very final stages of their term and, although we are piglet-free at present, I'm sure the girls will oblige in the next few days.

I've become resigned to Nature taking its course exactly when it fancies, trying hard not to worry, but there's a snag. I'd kind of been relying on my neighbour Marcus being around for the farrowing.

Marcus is not only a fountain of agricultural knowledge, he's also one of the most helpful people I've ever met. His uncle used to own our croft and without his help things would have been very much more difficult for us.

He dropped by the other day and congratulated me on the condition of the sows - it's been a long time since a compliment meant so much. I have a feeling he's been looking forward to the farrowing. There aren't many pigs on Westray, so he maybe fancied a change from cattle and sheep.

But, having seen to his cows and sheep on Westray, he's off to the deserted island of Faray (the last islander left in 1947) for a month to see to a flock he has there.

So it looks like it's all down to me, which is a bit of a sobering thought. I'm reading my notes from the college and my books on pig-keeping over and over again. I've got a supply of clean towels, a couple of spare baby's bottles, condensed milk (in case the sow has trouble giving milk straight away), antiseptic spray. The heat lamps are ready, there's plenty of straw.

I will be at the birth with a book in one hand, mobile phone pressed to one ear, sweat dripping from my brow, convinced I am going to make the most terrible mess of it all. The sows have both been there, done that, so (in theory) it should all take care of itself.

How hard can it be?

Saturday, 26 April 2008

The waiting room

Listening to: Grounds for Divorce (Elbow)
Weather: Heavy rain last night. Sunny and windy today.
RIP: Humphrey Lyttleton

So, John-Paul the pig breeder rang yesterday and we've come to the conclusion the dates are definitely wrong. It didn't take a lot of working out.

The latest theory is that - despite appearing to be getting it on - the boar didn't do the business when previously thought. That was obviously a trial run. . . foreplay, if you like.

It seems that he was saving the lead in his (corkscrew-shaped) pencil for the big one 21 days later on the sows' next cycle, which means that Kim is due on Tuesday and Molly a week later. Both look ready, Kim's teats are swinging nicely - if that's the right word - and she's about as uncomfortable and grumpy as most pregnant women are shortly before giving birth.

However, I'll believe it when I see it.

* I was sorting out some seedlings in the porch this morning when I spotted this wren in the bay tree. No idea how he/she got in.

Thursday, 24 April 2008


Listening to: Wolves (The Accidental)
Weather: still dry
Pigwatch: Kim's teats swelling, Molly's belly now four inches off the floor (yes, I measured it this morning)

I was in big trouble today. I've really got to start making lists when I go out to the shop. I forgot the cat food.

I have little trouble remembering to buy feed for all the other animals. We get the dog food in sacks every couple of months, the pig feed comes over every three weeks or so, the hens get through a bag every month. I haven't forgotten to order any of it so far.

Cat food is a different matter. I go to the shop with the intention of buying the ghastly mush, but 19 times out of 20 I return home with everything except.

And you know what cats are like - even a tabby moggy like our Trevor has that way of looking at you that makes you want to crawl behind the sofa clutching your favourite teddy (or is this just me?).

As I dished out some dried food into his bowl this morning he looked at me and I swear I heard the words "do you expect me to eat that?" somewhere in my sub-conscious.

Anyhow, Trev is nothing if not the pragmatist and tucked in, slurping as he lapped at the bowl of milk I gave him as a peace offering. He then took revenge by leaping across the room, landing on the computer keyboard just as I was trying to transfer some pocket money into The Youngest's account.

For a nasty moment it looked as if the 15-year-old apple of my eye was off on a £2,000 spree around Shrewsbury (£2,000 goes a long way in a town as dull as Shrewsbury), but fortunately Trevor had omitted to press Enter, so the economy drive continues.

Actually, of all of us who moved up to Westray last summer, Trev is the one who has probably benefited most. Sal and I had been seeing each other for only a few weeks ten years ago when her youngest son (then about nine-years-old) turned up on the doorstep with this pathetic little kitten.

He lived first at Sally's house in Wolverhampton, then moved over with Sal to Shrewsbury. This time last year he was at death's door, having gone missing and then being found, badly injured in the bushes at the front of the house in Shrewsbury, presumably having come second in a fight with a car.

The kids were told he was unlikely to make it, but he pulled through in spectacular style - a wonky jaw and subsequent dribbling problem being the only legacies.

I related the worries surrounding the actual getting him to Orkney - - last July, but now he's here he's a very happy boy.

He was always small and skinny, now he's small and well-fed. After sticking close to the house and the barn, he is relishing the freedom of the open spaces and regularly hangs around the pig shed or the hen house - he and the hens pretend each other don't exist.

I often see him setting off across the fields with intent in his stride. I dream that he's off to kick the bejaysus out of the rabbits - I live in hope.

Monday, 21 April 2008


Listening to: Knock Knock (The Accidental)
Pigwatch: If I stop worrying about it, it will happen
Nobody here but us: chickens. . . pigs, dogs, cat and trainee pig farmer

The weather has been fabulous on Westray for a week and a half and it's at times like these that it's easy to remember why we came here.

I've been getting the veg garden straight and from there I only have to lift my head to see the sunlight shimmering on the sea, north-east towards Papa Westray or south west towards Rousay and Orkney Mainland.

At the end of last week it was good to spend some time getting out and about with The Boy. We saw hundreds (possibly thousands) of razorbills, several gannets, countless fulmars and at least 150 seals on the rocks off Noup Head. We lay in the soft, tussocky grass on the edge of the cliffs by Castle o'Burrian and eventually saw the first four puffins of the spring, bobbing around about 50yd from the shore.

The camera doesn't do the birds any justice, but the shot on the header was taken the other day by the Iron Age archaeological dig on the west side of the island featured last week on The Discovery Channel - and here's one of Castle o'Burrian, which will be teeming with puffins in a few weeks. . .

. . . and Owen and The Boy enjoying the sunshine on the Westside. . .

Saturday, 19 April 2008

The Phantom

Listening to: Charlotte Sometimes (The Cure)
Pigwatch: starting to think it's an elaborate hoax
Weather: clouded over, but still - mercifully - dry

It has been suggested by some of my closer friends that, despite a respectable IQ, an extensive knowledge of Irish history and Wolverhampton Wanderers FA Cup final teams (there have been eight, so stop sniggering), I can be a bit dozy.

I'm starting to agree (bear with me while I get to the point).

Mrs TPF went shopping with our plastic the other week. Fair enough, she's the sensible one who's gone out and got a proper job to give me room to pursue the hair-brained pig-farming scheme.

No shoes, sweatshop-manufactured jeans or skimpy tops for Sal - well, not this time anyway - she got on a ferry to Thurso and bought this. . .

It's very clean, smart, one careful owner and so on and should make a decent short-term home for my father-in-law who has decided that, at the age of nearly 80, it would be a brilliant idea to leave Wolverhampton (it's always a brilliant idea to leave Wolverhampton) and settle on the Orkneys. He's going to be living in the caravan while we build a self-contained grandad annexe thingy.

I made the arrangements for the caravan to be transported over to Westray and waited. Tuesday morning the ferry came in and this bloody enormous thing was wheeled off - the first time I'd seen it.

It made its way - slowly - to the croft, but could not be put into position behind the barn because the ground was soaking after several wet weeks. The weather was, however, lovely and a couple of days should do the trick, so I was happy to leave it outside the front.

I alerted my neighbour Marcus who said he would come along with his very, very big tractor when calving and lambing commitments allowed.

Friday came around and Sal came over on the morning plane and took the Land Rover out for some work appointments on the island. After attending to a few jobs outside I settled down by computer and phone to sort out a polytunnel. This took longer than expected. In fact, it was a couple of hours later I went outside with the dogs and was delighted to note that the lane and the area in front of the barn were lovely and dry.

We went to the bottom field to terrorise the rabbits and it was only on our way back up it dawned on me.

"Stuff me, where's the caravan?"

I went around the back and there it was, standing exactly where we wanted it, on the hardcore base, the picture window looking out over the sea towards Papa Westray.

Caravan pixies? It seems Marcus and his sidekick Richard had rumbled up the lane, assumed by the lack of Land Rover that I was out and just got on with the job. Captain Dozy meanwhile, was so engrossed in frames, plastic covers, crop bars and the like that he was oblivious.

I'd like to say it was a cunning ruse to get out of an awkward job, but sadly I'm not that bright.

* On another visit to Marcus's farm this week I was lucky enough to turn up just as a Limousin cow was giving birth to a huge calf. The front feet were showing when I arrived and Marcus set to work, easing the nose out and tying a rope around the ankles, getting the bull calf out in a matter of minutes while I held things, pulled when told to and tried to look useful. The calf was a whopper - twice the size of the one in the pen next to it.

It looked vaguely startled, almost as if he'd been told George W Bush really was the President of the World's No. 1 superpower, but he rallied well.

I saw dozens of calves born when I was a boy, but it's been a long time and I'd forgotten how bloody brilliant it is. Sadly I had forgotten to take my phone - so no pictures.

I mentioned all this to the sows, who grunted dismissively.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Invisible force

Listening to: Diamond Dogs (David Bowie)
Weather: A really beautiful evening, evening sunlight reflecting off the sea.
Pigwatch: nothing doing, patience is a virtue etc. . . the breeder now reckons he may have his dates wrong.
Drinking: Atlas Three Sisters Scottish Ale

It has been one of the wettest winters for years on Westray. This time last year the barley and the potatoes were planted, but 12 months later only a few fields have been ploughed.

Despite an upturn in the weather over the last couple of days, water has been lying around all over the place on the croft, a lot of it settling in Eric and Ernie's paddock/quagmire.

The arrival of my 17-year-old son last Friday means I have an extra pair of hands around the place, so we decided the lads needed a break from the mud - even if it is only for the last six weeks or so before they go to slaughter.

Shifting the fence involved a lot of floundering around in 2ft-deep, suspicious-smelling mud. Having rediscovered exactly how sticky mud can be and how hard it is to get your boots out of it after standing still in it for just a minute or two, we were presented with a rats' nest of wire to sort out. Several minutes of swearing and grumbling ensued, but we managed to salvage most of it and a new, improved, larger, grassier paddock was sorted out.

You think they'd have been eager as the proverbial beavers to get snuffling around in the grass, but the power of the fence is mighty, even when it's not there, it seems.

They stood in the mud, nervously sniffing the air where the fence had been. The Boy and I scattered a few bits of apple and broccoli about a yard ahead of their snouts to tempt them out, but they were having none of it. We thought about waiting to see how long it took for the porcine penny to drop, but life's short enough without spending time finding that all the 'pigs are as bright as dogs/dolphins/chimps/Paris Hilton' stuff is so much. . . err. . . hogwash.

The deal-breaker was, as usual, teatime and the trusty black bucket. I left their food in two or three piles and they were out of the mud and onto it before they realised what they had done. They didn't even have the good grace to look embarrassed.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Gunfight at the OK pig farm

Listening to: She Was Lookin' Back (Dr Feelgood)
Birdwatch: The sound of corncrakes near the house last night (not so much a 'watch' as a 'hear')
Pigwatch: Two days late - Kim's messing with my head.

The rabbit looked surprised. He had every right to be, there are few things in life as surprising as the sight of a trainee pig farmer approaching, armed with a .22 air rifle, still in his dressing gown and slippers.

Trainee pig farmer and rabbit - who had been enjoying an early breakfast in the sunshine - caught each others eye and held the gaze. Trainee pig farmer, uncomfortably aware that the cord around what he laughingly refers to as his waist was coming loose, hobbled very gently closer (knee still a problem).

Trainee pig farmer slowly raised the butt to his shoulder, quietly slipped off the safety catch, lined the rabbit up in the crosshairs, remembered his training, exhaled and squeezed. . . and missed.

The rabbit decided discretion was the better part of valour and took off - fair enough. Trainee pig farmer decided he'd probably be better off sneaking up and hitting the rabbit over the head with the air rifle. He turned to head back to tea and toast and damn nearly trod on another rabbit who followed the first across the top field into the burrows on the bank.

Tomorrow it's Spike's turn. . .

Monday, 7 April 2008

Shoeless in Kirkwall

Listening to: Wishin' and Hopin' (Dusty Springfield)
Pigwatch: Kim nesting and pink around her hind quarters - any time now.
Weather: brightening after a horrible start

"Would you remove your shoes please sir?"


"Your shoes, sir. And put them in the tray so we can run them through the x-ray machine."

The trainee pig farmer/potential shoe bomber sighed. "This may take a bit of time. I've hurt my knee."

We were at Kirkwall airport with eight other passengers for the shortish hop over to Edinburgh, where I was to put my 15-year-old daughter on a flight to the Midlands, but they were playing everything by the book.

Relieved to be wearing clean socks, I removed my right shoe, then tried to reach the left one without falling over, considering my knee was refusing to bend and I was feeling dizzy from the very strong painkillers I had just taken. The other eight passengers waiting for the 7.40am flight were remarkably patient as I staggered, swayed and swore under my breath.

My comedy cartilage had decided to pop out sideways the night before, leaving me in considerable pain and, by the time I reached the airport, barely able to walk unassisted.

I managed to scrounge a couple of co-codamol which loosened everything up enough for me to answer the "would passenger Trainee Pig Farmer please report to baggage conciliation?" call. The Youngest and I stood there while a middle aged man rummaged through her underwear - embarrassing and very unnecessary.

At Edinburgh, The Youngest tried very hard not to look embarrassed again when I hugged her as she went off to departures and, with time to kill, it was bookshops, the Oxford Bar and Princes Street gardens, watching the drifts of daffodils where they meet the cliffs under the castle.

On the way home the Heathrow Terminal 5 fiasco held us up - three very harassed tourists clambering aboard 20 minutes late, fretting about their luggage, one wearing one of those Aussie bush hats that middle class people like to wear when they want you to know they come from the country. If I'd been a betting man, I'd have given it about 90 seconds in Orkney's winds.

I flopped into a taxi, ate an excellent piece of haddock with decidedly average chips and was in bed before I realised the very interesting new history of the Vikings I'd bought in Edinburgh was still on the plane.


Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The wurst is yet to come

Listening to: A Little Lost (Arthur Russell - thanks to Geoff and Betty*)
Pigwatch: Kim's making nests, Molly's like a beachball
Weather: drying up, spuds can go in soon

The sausage-making equipment had been sitting in the corner of the kitchen for nearly two weeks, gleaming in the sunlight, looking all German and efficient.

So I thought I'd better take it out for a spin.

Not having any pork of our own yet, I bought some - roughly two-thirds lean shoulder to a third belly. My first mistake.

I minced the meat, mixed in breadcrumbs with salt, pepper, a little brown sugar, a teaspoon of ginger, sage and bayleaf and packed it back in the tray ready to fill the sausage skins.

Removing the mincing plate, I fitted the sausage-nozzle-filler thingy and threaded on about four feet of sausage skin, remembering to put a knot in one end.

I pressed the button and nicely seasoned pink squidgy stuff went all over the place.

Not enough hands, obviously. One hand to hold Fritz the sausage machine, one hand to shove mixture down the chute and another to ease the skin off the filler-nozzle thingy.

Frau TPF had been watching proceedings from over the rim of a mug of Earl Grey and stepped in to help.

I took charge of switching on and off and sausagemeat shoving, while Sal expertly eased the skin off as the sausages. . . err. . . oh dear. . . stiffened.

With barely an 'ooh matron', we fed all the mixture into the skin and set about forming links. After a couple of false starts we (or more particularly Sal) got the hang of it, the result being this. . .

. . . I was pretty pleased.

Taste wasn't quite as impressive. The pork was fine, but I'd been way too cautious with the pepper and there wasn't enough fat - the belly having been a good deal leaner than I expected - and the sausage was too dry. I'll order some back fat next time.

Still, I bet Mr Walls didn't get it right first time.

* Geoff of Contains Mild Peril and Betty of the eponymous Utility Room put together a mixtape of some favourite/recommended tracks - try it over on CMP.