Thursday, 25 November 2010

Dances with sheep

I'm no big sheep expert, but I could see something was up with the smallest one of the three who are currently on groundskeeping duty in our top field.

He was staying some distance from the other two, not moving around much and looking a bit sorry for himself. The pig rule - the one that says if a pig is keen on its rations and vocal in demanding said rations then everything is OK - doesn't exactly apply to sheep who don't seem to get enthusiastic about much at all, but it doesn't take a farming genius to work out when an animal is below par.

While dropping Sally off at the ferry, I met our neighbour Marcus who diagnosed cobalt deficiency - apparently it's common in our part of the island - and thrust a bottle of vitamin B12 into my hand with orders for an immediate injection.

Fair enough. I got home, fetched out a syringe, unwrapped a new needle and marched out to confront the sheep who was lying down, chewing half-heartedly. As I approached he got up with just enough urgency to avoid me reaching him.

The pair of us then got into the sort of elaborate routine more often seen on BBC on a Saturday evening. I've learned that being quiet and patient is the best way to deal with farm animals and, in any case, I wasn't about to started running around after a poorly sheep, least of all with a syringe and needle in my pocket.

After a couple of laps, we reached a stalemate. I tried pulling up some grass and offering it to him. It wouldn't fool a pig for a minute, but sheep joined the queue for brains rather late and he fell for it.

Injecting a pig of any size is a risky business. They get quite miffed about the whole subject of needles and it's recommended that you have at least two sturdy bodies and an old door or a gate to hold pig down/hide behind. So this operation was a doddle.

Grasping the sheep by the scruff of the neck I realised just how small he was. He put up little resistance as I quickly injected the stuff and trotted away.

Mission accomplished, I reported back to Marcus who said the next part of the treatment would be a cobalt "bullet". I don't know why I used inverted commas there because a bullet is exactly what it is with a kind of tube device to stick down laddo's throat and fire the thing in.

So the pair of us started up again across the field and back, the occasional motorist slowing down to work out what the hell I thought I was doing, and there was no way he was going to fall for the grass trick again. Eventually I had him cornered and with a move that was surprisingly quick for my size and age I got a hold of him, shoved the device into his mouth and pressed the button, holding his head up for a few moments to make sure the bullet had gone down.

I let go and he collapsed on the ground and couldn't or wouldn't get up.

"Bollocks, I've killed the sheep," I muttered, but he was very much alive, just not in the mood to go anywhere. He sat there for a while, chewing thoughtfully, and eventually got up and moved around a bit.

He perked up considerably, but this morning he was down in the dumps again, sheltering from the cold in the long grass in the far corner of the field.

I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Who said romance was dead?

Sometimes you have to learn the hard way.

A couple of weeks ago it was feed-time on the what I like to think of as "the farm". The sun had sunk below the horizon, but there was another half-hour of light left as I trudged out with the bucket to feed the outdoor pigs.

Instead of going through the gate into the field, I climbed over the stile from the vegetable garden, thereby reaching Alfie's paddock first instead of Annie and Tina's. Obviously I put Alf's grub out first - why the hell not?

I'll tell you why not. Annie - a Tamworth and therefore livelier than the average pig - went spare in a way a student might on learning Countdown has been replaced by a Lib-Dem party political broadcast. She bust through the electric fence and, with Tina following in her wake, headed straight for the old fish box that doubles as Alf's trough.

Now Alf may be only seven months old, but he's a well-built lad, knows where everything goes and this was easily the most exciting thing that had happened to him all week. So, as Annie got stuck into his tea, Alf climbed aboard.

Fortunately, by the time the pig farmer had wheezed onto the scene, Alfie's first two attempts to hit the target had been just wide of the mark. There was nothing for it but to drop the shoulder and barge the lad off.

You'd have thought a 15-stone pig farmer thumping into the side of you just as you were about to do the honours would be off-putting. Not to our Alf, it seems. He rallied remarkably well and was lining up another go as, with the help of a plastic fence post prodding her backside and the incentive of the feed bucket in front of her nose, Annie was persuaded back into her paddock.

At that point Alfie turned his sights on the previously unnoticed Tina and learned an important life lesson. As he hoisted himself onto her back, she complained loudly, snapped at him and set off briskly for the other side of the paddock.

Pretty much the reaction you'd expect if you tried it on before the coffee and mints had been served.

Alfie hurried off in pursuit. Tina started running, Alfie following with the pig farmer - doing his best to put dodgy knees, heart and blood pressure issues out of his mind - trailing in the bronze medal position.

With a little diagonal running, I hoped to head off Tina and divert her back into the paddock where Annie was still scoffing away and then hold Amorous Alf at bay while reinstating the electric fence - how hard could that be?

Ten minutes later all that was missing was the Benny Hill music as I gasped for air, Tina kept up an impressive pace and Alfie showed signs of flagging. Making one last desperate attempt, I cut across the paddock, got down as low as is possible for a 49-year-old crock and shoved Tina back in with Annie, hurriedly reconnecting the fence, turning round and tripping over a panting and slobbering Alf to land in what I hoped on descent was mud.

It wasn't.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Dig this

A year or so ago one of the teams of archaeologists who swarm around Orkney during the summer uncovered something pretty special at the dig near Westray's golf course*.

A small - and I mean REALLY small, it's about three inches at most - figurine was found, clearly marked as a female. . . well I think those are boobs and the archaeologists seem to think so too.

There might even be a belly button.

Or something else.

Oh for heaven's sake, use your imagination.

Anyhoo - it's said by people much smarter than a pig farmer that what they call Orkney Venus and everyone in Westray calls The Westray Wife is 5,000 years old. That's several hundred years before Stonehenge.

Now this may not be important on a kind of end-world-hunger, wake-the-Lib-Dems-up, get-Wolves-out-of-relegation-trouble scale, but it's big news for archaeology buffs and has given a fair boost to the island's tourist economy with a considerable number of folk coming over to see the Wife at the Heritage Centre in Pierowall.

Wifey is now in Edinburgh being examined for heaven knows what, but fear not, a stand-in has been found.

While sorting and bagging the last of this year's potato crop, a Westray crofter made a remarkable discovery (right).

I can reveal that it is almost 5,000 hours old, the seed having been planted in mid-May.

Extensive study, peeling and chipping has confirmed it is an accurate representation of a pig farmer. . . fat, very tasty and satisfying.

The official name is Orkney Potatohead, however locally it will be known as the Peedie Tattie-man o'Westray.

I am available for lecture tours and big, fat grants.

* Westray's golf course, long-time readers may remember, is the one with a 10ft deep bunker with a cow's skeleton in it.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Danger - low-flying swans

Half-a-dozen mute swans heaved their wings out of the water, smacking the surface several times as their bodies lumbered into the air above the small loch at St Mary's on Orkney's East Mainland.

The pig farmer, enjoying a brief birdwatching break before heading back to Westray, felt lukewarm winter morning sunshine on the back of his neck as he watched them recover their poise and circle gracefully over the water before heading inland just above head height. . . towards the main road between St Margaret's Hope and Kirkwall.

Having watched Wolverhampton Wanderers for many years, the pig farmer has a keen nose for an impending disaster, and he didn't like the look of this at all.

The swans swooped low over the road on the Kirkwall side of the bend by the B&B, turning to head back to the lake. Five set out over the reeds that surround the loch, but the last of the six turned with the speed and agility of an Eddie Stobart truck and was straightening up just in time to make contact with the front of a builder's van heading towards the town.

Van stopped dead and swan went plummeting into the reeds. The pig farmer/birdwatcher hurried over to see what, if anything, could be done. The swan was sitting, looking a little startled (well, wouldn't you?), but obviously still alive. The pig farmer/birdwatcher/animal lover wondered whether to approach and check the damage, but he'd heard something about swans being good at kung fu (or was it jujitsu?) and he decided to wait and see.

Sure enough, after a few trial flaps, he stumbled off towards the water, barging a group of widgeon out of the way as he did so.

"He looks all right," the pig farmer/birdwatcher/animal lover/insensitive oaf called over to the van driver who had just emerged.

"Oh that's good. . . really great," he replied, leaning on the back door of the van. He sagged visibly and went a little green around the gills. "Have a look at this," he said, taking me around the front of the van where there was a lot of dent and fresh air where the windscreen and bonnet had been.

Do swans have insurance?