Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Does this hurt?

Listening to: All My Colours (Echo and the Bunnymen)
It's: a hazy day today

I'm in the surgery and I'm not filled with confidence when, after some time spent pulling and prodding my injured arm, the doc looks up 'elbow' on Wikipedia.

Resisting the temptation to point at the offending joint and ask "is this what you're looking for?" I wait for his considered opinion.

I've been suffering ever since I delivered piglets Spot and Splodge to Sally's colleague Toni at Marwick on Orkney Mainland. Spot, an easy-going customer, had required the minimum of wrestling to get him from trailer to pen, but Splodge was about as co-operative as the Thatcher government discussing the coal industry.

I climbed in through the trailer's front door, grabbed both legs and heaved him towards the opening. As I inched back out, he took advantage of a moment's lack of concentration and pulled the other way - hard - slamming me down on the floor of the trailer, my left elbow taking most of the impact.

The day after I was sore everywhere, but once everything else had eased up, the arm was still giving me considerable problems, so I reluctantly took Mrs Sort-of Pig Farmer's advice and booked in at the quack.

Using the picture on Wikipedia to explain (see, there was a perfectly logical explanation after all), he tells me he doesn't believe it's broken, chipped or cracked, but I have damaged the tendons and muscle and it's going to be sore for a few days. Strap it up, take the painkillers and grit teeth, basically.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Pig-shed hen RIP

Listening to: Nothin' (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss)
Weather: fog

Death is a fact of life on the farm/croft/smallholding, but that never makes it any easier to handle.

One of the hens had marked herself out as a real individual. She had given up laying and on many holdings would have found her way into the pot. But we operate a 'no dropping dead unless given express permission by the sort-of-pig-farmer who happens to be a big softy' policy.

As a result, this one, at least, was going to get a long retirement. She had moved out of the henhouse (mostly to escape Adam's amorous advances) and lived off spilt or leftover pig feed.

So I felt upset and guilty when I found her dead in the pen with Kim's six piglets. We had tried to discourage her from going in with the boisterous piglets, but nothing worked and I can only assume she was caught up in the general rush for feed yesterday morning. Her body was pretty battered, but the piglets hadn't tried to eat her.

Many farmers, smallholders and crofters are hardened to the death of animals. One crofter-blogger who breeds Berkshire pigs seems to revel in showing how tough he is (I haven't read his blog since he illustrated how quickly piglets grow by posting a picture of three dead ones he'd been keeping in his freezer. Weirdo.)

I'm very much at the soft end of farming and I make no apologies for that. To me, it's impossible when you have only a few animals not to get attached and, even though I have an irrational fear of hens, I really liked Pig-Shed Hen. She made me smile and the place is all the poorer for her absence.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Fine day

Listening to: Nothin' (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss)

"Fine day," said my neighbour as I set out to the shop to pick up the milk.

The clouds were winning their battle with the sun, a sea mist was threatening to blow in and the wind was getting up.

But there was the smell of freshly cut grass on the wind. I had watched Westray's southerly neighbour Rousay duck in and out of the mist as I sipped my first coffee of the day.

Strolling around to let the hens out and feed the pigs I took a detour to the veg garden and looked to the North as what little remaining sunshine there was reflected off the sea towards Papa Westray.

Pigs were grunting happily, hens and chicks scratting around contendedly, spud plants are looking healthy, cabbages are ready for the pot, lettuces are green and crunchy, radishes the best I've grown, shallots and onions coming along fine, swede and leeks not too bad (don't mention the beetroot), Mrs Sort-of Pig Farmer is back from Kirkwall this afternoon, while the Scottish Nationalists gave "Labour" their just desserts in the Glasgow East by-election yesterday. Hell, Wolves have won one and drawn one on their pre-season tour!

A fine day indeed.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Pig Daddy

Listening to: Truth and Lies (The Levellers)
Weather: damp and windy
Don't touch: it hurts
Here's one: for all you grapple fans

"Hang on, you're an office worker, you bloody idiot!"

My body sometimes talks to me like that. I was in Kirkwall and my arms were in spasms after my introduction to all-in pig wrestling.

"I can't pull the handbrake on," I said, through gritted teeth. Mrs Sort-of Pig Farmer obliged, then handed me a bottle of Lucozade.

The SPFs were out and about delivering piglets and everything was going pretty smoothly. True, the piglets had refused to follow the bucket into the trailer and I'd had to pick them up one-by-one, squealing and wriggling (the piglets, not me) and drop them into the small, but perfectly formed Ifor Williams trailer, while stepson Pat stood guard. But we had got down in time for the ferry and made all our rendezvous with the minimum of fuss.

Extracting the piglets proved to be just as tricky as putting them in, involving me climbing in the front door of the trailer grabbing a leg and hauling reluctant, protesting animal out. There were 12 to deliver and each time I felt as if I'd done a couple of rounds with Giant Haystacks.

I'd have been all right had I not spent the previous two days mixing concrete. We (stepson Pat, friend Eric and myself) were putting in the kitchen floor, the first step in the renovation of the house. Sal always tells me I charge straight in, bull-at-gate style, and then wonder why I'm in pain afterwards. She has a point, but I don't quite see how you can ease yourself in when mixing concrete.

Anyway, the upshot was that after three days of very physical activity, I had not only the highest respect for builders, labourers and real farmers, but arms that wouldn't really work.

On the plus side, 12 of the piglets are now settling in to new homes and the croft has some income. Two jobs well done.

A little light weeding today, I think.

* A couple of references may be incomprehensible to non-Brits or anyone under 40 who never saw the wrestling on World of Sport. I suggest you Google Shirley Crabtree.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

It's only rock'n'roll over on Papay

Listening to: End Of A Century (Blur)
Back: home
Covered in: cement (I'll explain later)

Nearly exciting.

Sunday newspaper hacks have landed on our next-door island Papa Westray in the hope (forlorn as it turns out) that Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood would (wood wood? would wood? woodward?) turn up on the island.

I didn't see the News of the Screws on Sunday, but apparently the wrinkly rocker (old habits, sorry) decided not to go on the family painting holiday (!) and popped out for a few drinks. For most of us these days, a bender amounts to seven or eight pints of Guinness and a large plate of lamb chana with extra nan bread.

A bender for young Ronald appears to be going missing for a couple of weeks and getting prolonged jollies with a 20-year-old Russian cocktail waitress. It could be none of this is true - it was the Screws, after all.

Russian cocktail waitress is said to have family over on Papay. Yeah, I know - hard to believe, but it was on Radio Orkney this morning, so I'm running with it.

Consequently, Her Majesty's Press have found Orkney on the map, gone "bloody hell, bit remote isn't it" and turned up on an island of 50 people with no bar. Serves 'em bloody right, I say.

If Ron is reading this (could happen) then I'd be delighted to meet up in the bar of Cleaton House for a jar - and we can discuss just how bad an idea the New Barbarians were.

But Mrs Sort-of Pig Farmer says I've got to be home by next Tuesday.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

The pig farmer is stood up

Listening to: Melting Pot (The Charlatans)
Isn't it: noisy down south?

"Sorry mate, won't be about this weekend after all - going to London."

I have that effect on people.

I had been due to spend an evening in the company of my old chum Grantham New Town's Reg Pither. We'd planned a few beers, some heavily spiced food and then back to his to gather around the gramaphone to listen to Now That's What I Call Oompah Music 36.

Then the text came. A bit of a blow, but the pig "farmer" bounced back and, rather than wander the streets of Wolverhampton sobbing "why, Reg, why?" I called Mr and Mrs W and I'm now cosily tucked up aboard HMS Ark Royal, the only sofa visible from outer space.

I also caught up with some old pals. Big Danny, Little Dave and Medium Jim reminded me just how much fun I could be having if I was still working as an evening newspaper hack. Later I have a feeling I invited everyone in the Combemere Arms to spend the rest of the summer on Westray - may have cause to regret that one.

So, despite at least seven pints of Guinness and a Chinese lemon chicken, I'm remarkably perky and the day is my own until I meet my 15-year-old at 6pm.

What shall I do?

Thursday, 10 July 2008


Listening to: Oro Se Do Bhaeatha' Bhaile (Dubliners' version)
Killing time: before a haircut

There's always something. No matter how long you spend getting stuff ready for a trip (in my case a single bag of clothes), there's always something left behind.

This time it's socks. I have a comfy pair of Hi-Tec work socks on my feet, but all others are sitting in what I fancifully refer to as my sock drawer in the caravan, in the barn, on the croft, 20 miles away on Westray. And tomorrow afternoon they'll be 600 miles away.


I'm away south for the first time in. . . err. . . six months? My lad is 18 on Monday so I don't want to miss out on the chance to let him buy me a pint or two.

I'm in Kirkwall at the minute, but it's off and away via Aberdeen and a sock shop to Birmingham, then an overnight in Wolverhampton to catch up with old chum Grantham New Town's Reg Pither (stomach pump in attendance) and off to Shrewsbury to see the offspring.

I'll be back on Westray on Wednesday, ready to lay the concrete floor in the kitchen, but just for a few days it's good to get away.

I can't remember whether I've said this before, but folk on our part of the island refer to a trip to the village as going 'north', while going 'south' could be just about anywhere beyond Kirkwall. So 'north' is Pierowall and 'south' is the equally important rest of the world.

There's something so right about that.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Every one's a weaner

Listening to: Never Mind the Bollocks (Sex Pistols)
Tonight's pork recipe: chilli
Worn: out

Ray was at the window waving his arms in the manner of a race course tic-tac man (or should that be 'tic-tac operative' in the 21st century?). "Misty Dawn at 5/1 in the 2.30?" I translated, before correcting myself. "The pig's got out again."


The farming learning curve is at times steeper than the north face of the Eiger. We've had a tough day on the croft after we decided to take the sows away from the piglets.

At feeding time yesterday we coaxed first Molly out into what was Eric and Ernie's paddock, then Kim followed the feed bucket around the house to join her. We connected up the electric fence, flipped the switch and all seemed well.

The piglets seemed unmoved, quite happy to tuck into their tea and carry on snuffling about the place as if nothing had happened. (I seem to remember a similar situation when I was first sent to boarding school at the age of nine - it took half-a-term for the novelty to wear off and homesickness to kick in).

Kim was happy enough exploring her new surroundings, grazing and then making herself comfortable in the hut. Molly finished her feed and then went all wobbly on us.

She has always been dominated by Kim and was clearly not comfortable as a room-mate. She was obviously agitated and after Sal tried to comfort her, we left her alone in the hope she would calm down.

There are times when you wish your animals wouldn't display previously hidden talents, but Moll seems to be an expert escapologist.

After tea we checked outside and she had ignored Scottish Hydro's finest zaps from the fence, had bust straight out and was munching away at the camomile that is growing next to the paddock.

She was tempted back in and I tightened the fence again, but she broke out again ten minutes later, this time more jumpy that before.

She resisted all coaxing and we had to put her in Teddy's "stable". In reality this is a series of wooden obstacles (including an old futon) and sheep hurdles tied together with baler twine. Molly spent the rest of the night grumbling and banging away at the barricade. Neither myself nor Sal slept much.

I ran Sal to the airport this morning and, on my return, I sat down to a coffee - the cue for Ray to make his first appearance at the window.

Molly had bust out and was munching happily at the grass outside Ray's caravan. I decided to try putting her in the camomile by the paddock. Fence it off and put the trailer in as a temporary shelter, I thought, and she'll get used to the idea of sharing with Kim.

I threw up some temporary barriers and tried again with the coffee. Ray was back, looking more worried and a little out of puff. It seems our porcine Steve McQueen had made another break for it and had been hurrying down the lane towards the main road when my 79-year-old, 5ft and not very much, 8st wringing wet father-in-law had jogged past, heading her off.

He'd lost track of her when he came to alert me, but we tracked her down to the veg garden.

We put her back, threw up some more barriers and Pat and I dashed down to the village for more fence posts and wire. We returned and were pleased to see fence and barriers still intact. Trouble was: no pig.

She was in the veg garden again, lurking around the pigshed door. There was nothing for it but to put her back in. To make a spare pen we had to put all the piglets in together. Quickly it resembled Wolverhampton town centre at closing time on a Friday night.

We tidied out the space in the middle of the pigshed (tools, straw bales and other farming detritus) and Kim's piglets were hauled, squealing, into their new quarters. Molly was ushered into her new home and was more settled straight away. Everyone was fed and seemed happy and the pig "farmer" went inside to collapse on the sofa.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Who goes, who stays

Listening to: Trouble Sleeping (Corrine Bailey Rae)
Weather: turning grey and cold

Tough choices in the pigshed this week after the piglets proved exceptionally popular with potential buyers.

I advertised in the shops on Westray and in The Orcadian and now have orders for 14 out of the 20 piglets. There's actually a waiting list and I could have sold the lot.

It means I had to choose who to sell and I decided to keep it simple. With orders for eight males and six females, it's a case of Molly's litter plus two of Kim's.

The two to go from Kim's are Spot and Splodge. Spot injured his foot early on and you can't help but form a bond when you are checking him on a daily basis and making sure he has enough to eat. They're lovely pigs and I'm quite fond of them. For that reason they have to go - sold to a colleague of Sally's who I know will take care of them.

That, of course, is a problem now. I find myself fretting about whether the folk who are buying "my" pigs are going to care for them properly. God, it's complicated this pig farming business.

We're keeping four of Kim's big, healthy boys and they will be sold for meat in the winter. We are also hanging on to the two gilts (young sows) Little Kim and Sock. Little Kim is, obviously, a chip off the old block and will join Molly and her mum in our breeding programme. Sock has one white and one black back foot and we will either keep her or sell her as a breeding sow.

The immediate job is to wean the piglets and that happens tomorrow. As I said before, Molly is worn out and it's time to step in. She is fearfully thin (feeding off her back is the correct term, I believe) so she's going to get a rest. Her piglets are quite happy eating cereals and potatoes and so, for that matter, are Kim's.

Eric and Ernie's old paddock is clean and tidy, extended with a covering of grass just waiting for the girls. Apparently the best way is to just take the sows straight out and away from earshot.

How hard can it be?

Don't answer that.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Good times, bad times

Listening to: I Don't Want You Now (KT Tunstall)
Weather: Quiet, overcast.
Westray is: a hive of silage-cutting activity
Businessman of the year: orders for four pigs taken already

We have more new arrivals on the croft. Three little black chicks have popped out of their eggs and are cheeping about the hen house.

It came as a bit of a surprise. The hen went broody a few weeks ago and at one stage was sitting on nine eggs. Knowing next to nothing about poultry upkeep we asked around and the general concensus was that six was a good number. So Sal marked half-a-dozen and ditched the rest.

I was sceptical about the whole thing, firmly of the belief that she (the hen, not Sal) should pull herself together and get on with the important business of clucking and pecking around the farm.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, there was a cheeping sound the other day and, sure enough, a totally adorable little ball of black fluff (not yellow - I was surprised too) appeared from under the hen. Two more have arrived since and seem to be doing well, despite the haphazard way we are caring for them. Pic will follow as soon as I can find the lead that connects the phone and computer.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that Sally's Welsh Cob mare Xena has leukaemia and there seems to be little that can be done about it.

Xena was due to come to Orkney this summer. She has been with Sally's daughter Amy - eventing manager at a big yard on the Suffolk-Essex border - for the last year. the plan was she would go to the stallion and come to us in August. That's not going to happen now.

Xena had swelling around her face and failed to respond to treatments for allergies and so on. The vets were mystified until blood tests revealed the worst.

Sal is being incredibly brave, but we're both pretty upset. My relationship with the equine Joan Collins was a little fiery. She always looked at me with the air of vague disappointment Mrs Chamberlain must have had when her only present from Nev's business trip to Munich was a piece of paper.

"But Darling, it promises peace in our time."

"That's no good to me, where are the lederhosen and strudel you promised? Mrs Hitler never has to put up with this."

She (Xena) was particularly keen on biting my backside when I was picking out her hooves - a great laugh, I'm sure you'll agree. I'd respond with a slap on the rump, followed by a quick leap over the stable door to avoid retribution.

After a rocky spell, we eventually got on in a tricky kind of a way and I was actually looking forward to having her here. I like animals to have a character and Xena had that in the bucketful. I'll miss her.