Thursday, 22 October 2009

Camping out

Little Kim was having a lie-down. Nothing unusual in that, except she was outside, behind her hut in a force seven south-easterly with intermittent, heavy rain.

Strong winds have swept the length of Westray for most of the week and, despite the temperature hovering around eight or nine degrees, you get the feeling winter is upon us. The sea has changed from blue to grey, the grass from bright green to dull grey/green/brown and the ground from dirt to mud.

All our pigs are indoors now except for Molly and Little Kim who have moved to new quarters in the top field after spending the summer over the road.

Marcus brought his tractor to move the pig arc to the top field and I positioned it facing the direction from which we get the fewest winds - south east.

This morning Little Kim emerged from her hut soaked down one side where the rain had blown in through the door all night. She wasn't happy at all, but was cheered by the arrival of breakfast and chowed down while I found an old mat which I attached to the arc as a sort of flap to keep out the worst of the rain.

It was later I saw her lying outside. She wandered over to me, gave me a welcoming shove and, as I gave her the obligatory back-rub, I worked out the problem. Little Kim is a lovely pig, a real sweetheart, but clearly she's not the sharpest chisel in the woodwork set. She hadn't worked out that she could push the flap aside to get in her hut.

I lobbed a few spuds inside the hut and held the flap open while the penny finally dropped, just in time for another wave of heavy rain.

Just before dark, I nipped out for a quick look and she was snuggled up in some new bedding - nice and dry.

Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em

I was in the workshop, cutting wood for the fire, when I heard a commotion from the barn.

When I say 'commotion', I mean a bloody great snorting, banging and general kerfuffle - a bit more than the average duck or chicken would create. A bit more than the average herd of wildebeest would create.

I patiently laid down the axe, wandered through and there was Molly the sow. Having fought her way past the straw, she was doing her best to overturn my concrete mixer en route to the bulging feed bins. That'll teach me to leave the barn door open.

Molly, who has 'previous' in the escapology department, had grown tired of her paddock and walked through the electric fence and over/under/around another fence before working out exactly where the next two weeks' dinners were.

As she engaged in hand-to-hand (trotter-to-trotter?) combat with the mixer, I got hold of a bucket, put a scoop of feed in it, got her attention and led her back to her paddock.

I shut the door and tidied up, then set about improving security with the help of an old gate, two sheep hurdles, an extending ladder and a damp fence post which I managed to split while banging it in. (Tip: use another piece of wood, lay it across the top and hit that with the hammer).

Did I mention it was blowing a gale?

And it was raining.

Ten minutes later Molly had broken through the electric fence again and, denied access to the barn by my makeshift barrier, was eyeing up my leeks.

The bucket-feed-back-in-the-paddock routine followed. I had a look at the fence and thought: "I really must get one of those tester thingys that check if there's any charge in the wire."

There was nothing for it but to resort to a quick tap with the back of my hand.

Nothing. No wonder she was getting out.

I reached up to the energiser to check the connection.

SNAP! "Ow! Bollocks!"

Forgot to disconnect the battery first. Still at least I knew where the problem was and a couple of minutes later a new piece of copper wire was transferring lots of lovely current into the fence and I was walking back towards a fresh jug of nice hot coffee.

SNAP! "Squeal! Bollocks!*" The fence was working.

An hour later, it was time to get the horses in. Dotty - pregnant with "a future Badminton** winner" (so I keep being told) - came over and allowed me to clip on the lead rope. She took two steps and stopped dead, deciding there was no way she'd go past Little Kim's paddock.

I pulled and Dotty pulled back, pulled harder, wrenched the rope out of my hand span round and kicked out at me, contact being avoided by a dive that would have won a round of applause from any Premiership football squad.

I gave her ten minutes to calm down, then managed to grab the rope and, with a lot of very gentle persuasion, got her as far as the gate where she decided progress wasn't fast enough, wrenched herself free again and charged off, skidding to a halt just outside the stable door. By the time I caught up with her she was inside and tucking into Teddy's tea.

Women, eh?

* She didn't say "bollocks". Pigs can't talk.

** I wasn't previously aware that horses played badminton, but I'd pay good money to see it.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Size doesn't matter

You see, the thing is, the camera on my trusty Samsung phone doesn't work any more. The phone hasn't been at all well since I sat on it heavily while climbing over a wall in the pigshed, the phone dropping out of my pocket in two pieces where it was given a bit of a chew and a slurp by Kim the sow.

If the camera was working I could bring you pics of the whacking great spuds that are appearing from the ground (I'm lifting them, they aren't miraculously rising from the earth and dumping themselves in bags - I bleeding wish!).

You'd also see Colin the carrot, so big it just had to have a name. I'd say it was as big as a babbie's arm, but actually it was as big as a pig "farmer's" forearm. And don't believe that guff about big veg not tasting good - it was terrific.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The power of life and death


I've been worried about Kim. Our senior sow has struggled with her latest round of motherhood and I'm having to get used to the part of the job that I find far and away the hardest - deciding who lives and who dies.

At the age of five-and-a-half, Kim is getting on a bit as breeding sows go and, at many farms, she would have been "retired" to the cheap sausage counter some time ago.

Kim's trouble is her size. She's big-boned, to say the least. She comes up to the 6ft-tall pig "farmer's" hip and you could stand a rugby fifteen's pints on her back.

But time and hard work (my records show Kim has had 79 piglets in her time) have taken their toll. She grew steadily more lethargic through her pregnancy and was exhausted after she had farrowed, taking the best part of a couple of days to get up and eat properly.

Added to that, she was having problems with her joints, her huge shoulders putting such pressure on her front legs that there was a series of uncomfortable clicks every time she lumbered forward.

I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that she would have to go. The trouble being that I'm very fond of the old girl. She's a pal. I thought about allowing her to retire to a quiet corner of the "farm", but a conversation with Mrs Pig "Farmer" went along the lines of "what about when it's Molly's turn - or Little Kim?"

"I'll wait and see," said the pig "farmer", for who decision-making has always been a bit on the tricky side.

I moved a relieved and grateful Kim out from her seven piglets last week and she's now resting in a small pen indoors and will go back outside in a couple of weeks. The good news is that, having lost a lot of weight while feeding her litter, she's moving around far easier and I reckon that, with careful management, she will still be with us this time next year.

If only she knew.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

The pitter-patter of webbed feet

I left the pigshed with an empty feed bucket, turned the corner whistling a happy tune before becoming aware of the 'slap-slap-slap' growing closer. They'd found me.

By the time I reached the barn they were almost on me. It was all I could do to dive through the door and slam it shut behind me. Safe for the time being.

I've never had much to do with ducks. At least not since my Grandad used to take a three-year-old Malc to St Stephen's Green in Dublin with a loaf filched from Granny's kitchen.

Since then I've led a pretty much duck-free existence (unless you count pancakes and plum sauce). Nothing that's happened in the last 45 years qualifies me in any way to be a duck-keeper. So, guess what? I'm learning on the hoof again. Or on the webbed-foot, if you like.

What have I learned so far? Ducks aren't as good mothers as hens. . . or pigs. . . or some humans even. We lost some little ducklings in the early days, but most have survived and now live in a world where it always seems to be mealtime.

That's the other thing I've learned. Ducks eat an enormous amount. Our 13 eat at least as much in a day as a fully-grown sow and it didn't take them long to realise that the pig "farmer" was the man to come to for second helpings.

Every time I poke my nose outside the door there's a whole lotta quacking* and flapping until I give in and get the grain scoop out. I've tried sneaking away and avoiding them, but they are crafty and persistent, dogging my tracks all over the "farm".

That's all very well - nice to be popular and all that - but it got ridiculous the other day when I set off for the village. As I took the car down the lane, I glanced at the wing mirror and saw 13 ducks thundering along in pursuit. Anyone that desperate for elevenses deserves a little extra, that's what I say.

Anyhow, all these meals are making them all big and bonny and they'll be 'ready' any day now. Get the plum sauce ready.

* An early working title from Led Zep's second album. They made a minor alteration and the rest is rock history.