Jonathan: As the lambs on the croft have grown and are more ‘mobile’, their mothers seem more willing to leave the security of the peninsula which they seemed to have made their maternity ward, and are coming to me for their morning treats. With a judicious shaking of the feed bucket and some encouraging rustling of hay, I have over the past two or three mornings enticed all of them back into the field, where I will have a bit more control over them. Out of the 16 breeding ewes, I now have 11 lambs (including U9 at home) from 10 ewes, so there’s possibly another half dozen or so to come. 8 of the 11 lambs born so far are female. I need the sheep back in the field because on 1 May all livestock have to go up on the common grazings, or be contained on the crofters own land. The field in question is borrowed until I complete my own fencing work: but the grazing is thin after the long winter, so I’ll have to continue feeding hay and sheep nuts until I can get the fencing work complete and the sheep transferred to my own new field.
Jonathan: Just back from the croft and our own ‘lambwatch’. Actually that’s a bit too passive: unlike the TV version which seems always to be in warm cosy straw-upholstered barns, ours involves trudging acrossing boggy and rocky ground looking out for sheep standing oddly still and apparently with more than four legs: generally that’s how you first spot a recently born lamb, hiding behind its mum. No 00008 was first past the post, Good Friday, with a good strong ewe lamb; her sister 00006 followed on Saturday with twin boys; and since then four others have given birth to single ewe lambs. Yesterday morning I found one recently born lamb – still covered in birth fluids and bleating away, but no mum nearby. But – there she was – with after-birth still trailing behind her – amongst the other ewes tucking into a tasty tussock of grass. I caught her and rubbed here muzzle in the wet lamb’s fleece: according to all the books I’d read she was supposed to start licking and caring for her wee mite; but she would have none of it: as soon as I loosed my grip she was off. Catching her again and giving her a good look over, the reason was apparent: no milk. She was abandoning her lamb because she had nothing to feed it with. There are of course various long-established shepherding techniques for dealing with this situation, but they all involve various bits of equipment, buildings and experience, none of which I have. And time and circumstances were against me to: the only choice open to me was to take the lamb home for hand-rearing, as for a an orphaned lamb. Fortunately I am prepared for bottle-feeding. First to clean up the wee baby and dry it off, and then to get some colostrum down its gullet. Colostrum is the highly concentrated milk a ewe gives its lambs within the first 24hrs or so of life, but which I have to get from vacuum-sealed packets, at £10 for the full 24-hr dose. That was yesterday. Today we’re on to ordinary ewe-milk substitute. U9 (as I’m calling her – Tilly thinks the thing is a little black K9, but I keep telling her no, she’s a U) has been outside today, in the back garden, but she’s got a nice straw-lined box in the woodshed for when she’s sleepy.
Jonathan: I lay low against the grassy bank, the wind roaring and tearing at the rock and heather above me, a barrage of hail beating into the back of my hood, the clouds above purple with rage. But I’d come into the hills well prepared, with layers of warm clothing, good oilskins, a spade – and I was comfortable enough. My thoughts were elsewhere – transported many miles away to Hesgeir island, which lies in the middle of The Minch. For despite the dark and murk of the day, there on the horizon, the lighthouse of Hesgeir was illuminated by a shaft of light, tightly focussed as if from some heavenly lighthouse. High above, a tiny fragment of pale blue, ringed with salmon pink: but the clouds closed ranks, and as the darkness swallowed up Hesgeir again, my mind reverted to the here and now. Ah yes, the spade. Yesterday I’d had a call from Murdo in Eriskay: sorry to be giving you bad news again, but did you know ….? No I didn’t, but I’ll deal with it as soon as the weather allows. And believe it or not this morning was indeed a big improvement in the weather. So there I was this morning trekking up into the hills to bury one of our Hebridean sheep – one of the 16 wedders we bought back in Autumn. I found it up on the rocky shoulder of a ridge that falls slowly to the south east, to the shores of Loch Cracabhaig – and extremely exposed to the prevailing winds from the Atlantic. Ordinarily I would have said it had died within the past week, but it could have been longer since: even the crows, eagles and buzzards who had already got to work on the corpse would have found the dining environment less than salubrious, and may have left it to come back to another time. I dropped down to the gully below and probed the soft ground with my spade. Yes, deep enough – but with the dense moss it was like a sponge. (Ever tried digging into a sponge – the type you wash the car with – with a spade? No? But go on, imagine!) I dug with the peaty bog-water slopping around my wellingtons, and though deeper would certainly be better, that was as deep as I could dig. It’s not good to handle a sheep by its horns, at least whilst it’s still alive, but under the circumstances the horns came in mighty handy. I found some heavy stones to weigh down the body, and then made good the ground. Inevitably a mossy mound remained. I recalled the cowboy and indian films that were on TV so much when I was a boy. In the aftermath of the Apache ambush, the wounded cowboy – arm in a make-shift sling, sets up a crude wooden cross at the end of the mound of earth where he buried his fatally-injured friend (scalped?); he puts his rifle back in the saddle holster, hat back on his head, foot in the stirrup – and rides away into the sunset. I leant my spade back over my shoulder, put my foot onto the ledge that took me back up onto the ridge, and set off into the … well, back home, anway. Alas it’s the second sheep we’ve lost this winter (the first was in the severe storm on the 9th), and it’s hardly to be wondered at, with the truly appalling weather. Let’s hope there’s no more lost! The next break in the weather, I shall have to get up into the hills and find the others, and take a bag of feed with me.
Jonathan: Well, from the Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inpsections Directorate, otherwise referred to as SGRPID. I thought it was one of those pesky sales calls at first: you’ve been selected for … an inspection of your sheep. Before I could recover my bearings, he was reminding me that notwithstanding the fact that half my sheep are roaming – quite legitimately – out on thousands of acres of rugged and inaccessible mountain, moor and rocky shores, and even if I had a dog it would be a couple of days work to get them in, and that I do actually have a ‘day job’ to do, it is my legal duty to present them for checking that they have the EU-mandated eartags in place. Let’s just say that did not endear me to the fellow, and I would dearly have loved to give vent to my views over the army of officials and technocrats who draw enviable salaries with job security and gold-plated pensions, all at our expense, and have the power to devise (and continually refine) rules and regulations sufficiently onerous and complex to keep themselves in the comfort and ease to which they feel entitled, and to marshall ranks of officials to enforce their will; and whilst I’m on the subject … But as I’d already put the phone down (I hope his ear hurts!) it was only D who had the opportunity to consider, review and suggest refinements to the polemic. Anyway, as the other half of the flock (Himself and his ewes) are still in the field, I agreed a time and that was this morning at 9am. He didn’t have much to say for himself, The Man from the Ministry, and neither did I. After he’d made a proper show of disinfecting his boots and overtrousers, I led him to the field gate and told him to wait there. Trobhaibh, Trobhaibh mo graidh! (Come hither, Come hither, my dears – Gaelic is so poetic!) and over they all came and as I fed them sheep nuts from my hand (that No 8 is so greedy!) I pointed out to The Man all the ear tags and gave details of ages and thus justified why some (those born before 1st Jan 2010) only had one ear tag. He seemed satisfied with that, so then it was back home, where I left The Man in the cold conservatory (the rest of the house is even colder!) and brought down my computer to him. My record-keeping and paperwork is (even if I say so myself) immaculate beyond the call of duty, so taking the reasonable assumption that the sheep out on the hill would be to the same standard (generous, don’t you think?) The Man anounced I’d achieved a score of Zero – ie no ‘failures’. Phew! The Man, just perceptibly relaxing somewhat from this trial, volunteered that actually there was a mistake; but it was the Ministry tjat had got it wrong, not me. According to their records – he showed me – my home address was in New Brunswick, Canada. That would have been Alexander Lachlainn MacDonald, I said: the previous croft tenant, and even that address was long out of date. (Alex inherited the croft tenancy, and having no use for it sold it to me and then flitted to Florida, and who can blame him.) So off he went, the Man from the Ministry, to do his inspecting work elsewhere. Looking around at others’ sheep in Eriskay and in South Uist, there’s many with no tags at all, or only one, so I’m sure that’ll please the Mandarins of the Minstries of this and that: their jobs would be in question if all the farmers and crofters turned out to be a squeaky-clean goody-two-shoes like yours truly!
Jonathan: The planned swap of rams was completed today. Raghnall drove down from North Uist with High Bank Pioneer in his trailer, and together we put him (that’s the ram, not Raghnall) in with the girls. Back here at the Big Garden, An Garradh Mor Ram 20 (just Handsome to his friends – we never have found the time to think up names more imaginative than those given by the Registrar) came out of his temporary pen (actually the trailer) and into Raghnall’s, and then away to a completely new life in North Uist. Perhaps he’ll even start going to church; and certainly there’ll be none of that allowed on Sundays! Anyway, a new ram (well, four years old, but new to our ewes!) for nothing more than the cost of a bit of chase around the township on Sunday.
Yes about that. All’s well that ends well, they say. Ahem. Well, you see, Handsome came back from his desert island on Friday, and we had no choice but to keep him in the trailer for a few days until Raghnall could make it up south to us. Well the trailer is as big as a lambing pen and he had it all to himself, with plenty of bedding, food and water. He seemed content enough. Sunday morning our neighbour DJ came round to see us about something, and we said – Have you seen our handsome young ram! (You know, with intonation inviting favourable comment, rather than a serious question). Minutes later, DJ back at the door – The ram’s away; the back gate (of the trailer) is open. No, not a joke. Really.
We searched high, we searched low, we ran hither and then we ran thither. Black sheep there! Where? – Don’t you mean there? Would you believe it, of all days that day had to be bright and sunny, and every rock and boulder cast a shadow, deeply dark and sheep-shaped. Sheep everywhere, real ones, white ones: you’d think someone would have seen a black sheep trotting along the road! By now I was seeing sheep in my imagination, particularly little black lambs along with their white-fleeced mums, and the look of astonishment on the crofter’s face … and a long queue of unhappy neighbours coming to my door. Oh heavens no! We flung our net wider, and drove out west to Pollachar: as we went along, DJ called out – there he is over there (indicating a point about a half mile away on a rocky prominitory) … or is that just a rock? I strained my eyes … and then that rock-shadow moved ….
Back in the trailer, Handsome didn’t look at all contrite, and seemed all too aware of his right to remain silent. He had, it seems, absolutely nothing to offer in response to my questions. Not least: How come he made it nearly a full mile along the shore, without stopping even to politely enquire after the health and wellbeing of three flock of gorgeous young ewes, all ready for a romantic interlude? To be honest, though, I’m only to glad that, after his year alone on a small island, he had eyes only for GRASS!