Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Trev's travels

Trevor's nose was out of joint. He was exceptionally grouchy, even for him. Mrs Pig "Farmer" had a new cat.

The little black and white cat appeared on the croft last autumn. It survived an encounter with Spike the terrier, took up residence underneath the ever-growing scrap heap before, for a short while, sharing digs with Kim the sow in the pigshed.

By the time the worst of the winter had set in, the little cat was snuggling up in the hay loft in the barn and Mrs Pig "Farmer" was in full "aaawww" mode. I, of course, assumed it was male (I hadn't been close enough for a really good look) and, considering its moustache, named it Salvador. It's not often I name anything after a fascist, but there you go.

Mrs Pig "Farmer" got on speaking terms, stroking terms and built up to cuddling terms. I was beginning to take notes.

Then we found out she was female so we had a "d'you know any famous women with moustaches" conversation. The list is short and amounts to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo whose self-portrait has a little pencil moustache. . . unless it's been vandalised. . . but then there would surely be spectacles too.

So, anyway. . . Frida turned out to be what they call in Orkney "frecky". She can't get enough fuss and she certainly gets plenty.

It should have been no surprise really when Trevor decided enough was enough and - in the words of the Knights Who Say 'Ni' - he buggered off.

He was last seen on a Thursday. Friday, Saturday and Sunday passed - a long time for a cat who insists of his five regular meals a day - and I was having to reassure Mrs Pig "Farmer" that, by my reckoning, the lad had at least four, possibly five, lives left.

We made a poster and stuck up in the shop. I checked with the neighbours and took to wandering about the place shouting "Trev, Trev, here puss" like some barmy old biddy.

I'd pretty much given up hope by the time Alicen called by to say she'd seen him at the former school half-a-mile away. Pat and I jumped into one of the wrecks we like to call a car and spluttered up the road.

Having persuaded a yowling tabby into the car we returned, Pat looking nervous as the last time the two of them had had the pleasure of sharing the front seat of the car, Pat had ended up covered in cat vomit and diahorrea.

Trev chuntered and, once home, he grumbled about the place for 24 hours before remembering he's allowed on the electric blanket and Frida isn't, he's allowed in the house and Frida isn't and he gets meaty chunks and Frida gets a bit of dried food and is expected to catch mice. Life's not so bad, after all.

Sunday, 17 May 2009


The ladder down to the boat felt precarious, despite being firmly bolted to the side of the pier. Stomach lurched and knee ligaments tugged hard as I stepped aboard.

Passengers loaded (five of us), Roy fired up the Golden Way's engine and we rumbled away from Rapness in the warm Orkney sunshine into Weatherness Sound, water smacking gently an arm's reach away against the side of the boat, towards the island of Faray.

"It's my last year in Faray," said Marcus last March as we cut up a leg of pork. " Why don't you come over and have a look round for a day."

Faray lies tucked neatly between Westray and Eday, about a mile from each. The island was noted in the 16th century as being excellent for grazing cattle and supported a population of nearly 90 in the late 1800s, but declined rapidly in the 20th century.

By the end of the Second World War, the school had closed, families had deserted and the last inhabitant left - not without some persuasion from the authorities - in 1947. Faray was left to seabirds, seals and an increasingly wild flock of sheep.

In 1971, Marcus took up the lease and has knocked the sheep side of things into shape. He has 600 ewes on Faray and Faray Holm (connected by a causeway at low tide) and he spends the whole of May there each year seeing to the lambing. His daughter Ruth and some Westray folk go out to help, many leaving their mark on the sheep sheds - "JHS was here May '07".

Back on the Golden Way in May 2009, we found our way around the north end of Faray Holm, chugging down the rocky east coast, past shags, black guillemots and a large grey seal colony in Lavey Sound between the islands. The seals not hauled out on the rocks bob up in the water to get a view of us as we pass. The binoculars were out.

Ten minutes later the boat turned and we headed for what seemed to be a cave, stopping just short as the Golden Way crept up to a rocky outcrop. . .

The pig "farmer" stumbled ashore and took some time to regain his balance, earning a mild reprimand from Marcus for not helping Sal off the boat. We clambered up the rocks and trudged a few hundred yards to the old school. . .

. . . re-roofed and kitted out as a basic home for one month a year, where we were offered coffee, home-made biscuits and a potted history of Faray.

A tour of the sheep pens later, we headed south to the far end of the island, pausing at this perfect, sandy beach to admire the arctic terns and a lone arctic skua. . .

. . . before wandering off up the west coast where fulmars clung to the ledges and tussocks and shags stood guard over eggs laid in nests made of seaweed and marine scraps. . .

A couple of hours was enough to take us round most of the island and back to the schoolhouse where we arrived as Marcus and Ruth were hurrying in with two ewes in the trailer. One was ready to lamb and the other was right in the middle of lambing, the youngster's head sticking out, but its legs tucked back, preventing any further progress.

Not long after, the lambs appeared. . .

. . . a bit messy, but healthy. . .

A conversation between Marcus and the pig "farmer" is much like an encounter between university professor and first-year primary school pupil, and it's impossible not to admire his knowledge and his passion for the animals.

He also knows the pig "farmer" well enough now to realise he's just a big kid and, as I admired his ATV (quad bike), he said "ever been on one? Get on."

Perfect. Guess what I want for Christmas.

Thanks to Marcus, Ruth and Roy for a fantastic day. Sometimes one outing is worth two weeks' holiday. It's good to know the farmers from Eday taking over Faray next year will continue much the same way as Marcus has for the last 38 years.

Sunday, 10 May 2009


We have visitors. Two of Sal's brothers and one sister-in-law. It's great to see them, not only because they are fine examples of the human race at its best, but because it's a great excuse to get out and about on the island.

Today was a glorious day and the tourists - keen birdwatchers all - decided a long walk was a fine idea. I packed them all into what's left of Lennox the Land Rover and set off for Noup Head on the northwest tip of Westray, the plan being that I'd pick them up six miles south later in the day.

Around this time of year the cliffs at Noup become a seabird city. Numbers have dropped in recent years - global warming has shifted the sandeels further north, apparently - but it's still a remarkable sight and you don't need to be a twitcher to appreciate it.

Guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills, gannets and puffins cling onto the ledges. . .

Some of the best views come when you defy the vertigo and peer over the edge. . .

It's more than worth it when you find these two on a ledge a couple of feet below. . .

Just for the record/ticklist we saw all the previously mentioned seabirds plus a couple of great skuas, any number of oystercatchers, eider ducks and arctic terns and later in the afternoon arctic skuas.

There's bird action back at the "farm" too. I collected the trailer that took Sock to Orkney Mainland on Tuesday and there were three ducks in it. I know less about ducks than I do about hens, but they produced this on the first day. . .

. . . and have come up with several more since, so they're very welcome. The drake is, of course, already Charlie.

And in the henhouse (my father-in-law's old shed) Patty and Selma the broody hens have produced three chicks, two black and this little fella. . .


Thursday, 7 May 2009


Little Kim was worryingly quiet. There was none of the usual grunting, none of the cheery biting of the pig "farmer's" feet, none of the jovial attempts to turn the "farmer" upside down*. She seemed ill.

Now I know what you're thinking and I'd appreciate it if you'd stop. You've all been watching too much "news" on the telly.

I put some food outside her hut. I put some food inside her hut. She ignored it, yawned a bit, slumped back down in the straw and looked very miserable.

I called Mrs Pig "Farmer" at work. It seems I'm an "insensitive pig". Didn't I realise that being split up from her sister and lifelong companion and then moved to a strange field would upset her? And had I considered it could be the time of the month (every three weeks for pigs)? And it's a surprisingly windy day for this time of year.

Sure enough, yesterday she was outside investigating, bumping into the pig "farmer" and exchanging GRUNTS with her mother Kim in the next paddock.

A chip off the old block

* Little Kim has all the attributes of a second row forward for a middle-ranking Rugby League side, Wakefield Trinity for instance. Superleague clubs can contact us at the usual address.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Rollin', rollin', rollin'

As livestock movement goes, it was hardly in the Rawhide class. It was less "move 'em on, head 'em up" and more polite negotiation, a well-filled feed bucket and desperate attempts not to show how stressed the pig "farmer" was getting.

We had to load Sock, one of our gilts (young females), onto the trailer and get her down to Rapness pier in time for the evening ferry to Kirkwall. How hard could that be?

She and her sister Little Kim have spent the winter in a small building and paddock at the back of the house and were well settled - a bit too well settled as it turned out.

I dismantled the electric fence, filled the feed bucket, equipped Mrs Pig "Farmer" and stepson Pat with crowd control barriers and set about persuading Sock to leave the paddock. She was fine until she got to where the fence had been where she came to a halt.

I put a small amount of feed on the ground just the other side of the/her imaginary boundary which she sniffed at and retreated quickly.

Unlike sheep and cattle, pigs don't respond well to being shoved, rounded up with dogs or generally patronised, so attempts by Mrs P"F" and Pat to gently push her in the right direction proved counter-productive and, with time ticking away towards ferry departure, the pig "farmer" was in danger of losing his cool.

Shaking the bucket was a mistake too. A very hungry Molly and piglets had decided it was teatime and were giving it some. There was a whole lot of pushing at the rickety door (it's been on my list) and one large and several small snouts were clearly visible.

In an attempt to prevent an outbreak of piglets all over the place, I burst into the pigshed, threw a couple of scoops of feed into the pen to keep them occupied, then burst out again, returning with a piece of 4x2, a fence post and a drill.

Security measures in place, it was back to Sock who was still refusing to budge. Resisting the temptation to use - as the CIA might say - "enhanced" techniques in the form of a boot up the backside, I put the bucket in front of her face which she promptly stuck right inside.

I edged back. Sock edged forward. I edged back again, Sock edged across The Line. Several minutes later we were edging down the alley between pigshed and barn, then through the barn - sending Trevor the cat diving for cover - and finally out to the trailer.

Sock saw nothing of this, but the inside of a bucket, while I was left with a stoop in the style of Dr Frankenstein's creepy retainer.

Sock is now at her new home on Orkney Mainland, in a specially made hut, ready to "see" the boar in a few months.

Now all we have to do is move Little Kim to the bottom field. The bucket is ready.