Monday, 26 September 2011

Apologies to Leo

Leo is our neutered tom cat and he is more like a combination of something out of the Wizard of Oz and Jonesy in Dad’s Army – don’t panic, don’t panic. He is the lion who needs a dose of bravery and even the vet in Johannesburg called him a Dorothy. Big and little things alike seriously faze him out and he exudes a lack of confidence which merely works against him. Even the guinea fowl have sensed this and there have been terrible scenes in which Leo comes flying in through the kitchen window, eyes wide and tail bushed out with half a dozen noisy spotted birds in hot pursuit. They seem to chase him just for the shear amusement of watching the reaction.
Like the time when we got him and his mother out of six-months worth of quarantine and brought them back to farm. Leo took one look at Labrador Oscar and decided the dog was going eat him. The cat disappeared up the chimney. We coaxed him out but he was still not having any of the dog and I never thought it possible that a cat could spend a whole week living on top of the fridge. But then amazingly he suddenly decided that he was not a ready Lab meal and Leo came down to resume a relatively normal live at the farm. But the operative word is relative.
The thing is Leo also has a very odd relationship with food. He actually doesn’t know what it is. Put any range of tasty morsels in front of him and he merely sits there looking vaguely offended and confused. He only eats dry cat pellets. But he does this with alacrity at least twenty times a day and purring loudly in the process. This of course means that the bowl has to be constantly replenished and if for whatever reason we forget to do this – immediately – twenty times a day – Leo will witter and perform, dashing and darting under our feet in a manner guaranteed to cause a frightful accident and someone to nearly break their neck.
It was recently during his many visits to his peanut bowl at two in the morning that I noticed he had started talking to his food. “That cat seriously needs counselling”, I remember thinking but being snugly tucked up in bed, I didn’t go and investigate. Until three night ago. Being restless, I decided to present myself at his side and what a bloody shock. There was Leo sitting in front of his bowl which had been invaded by giant slugs. These things were so huge I could actually hear them crunching and scrapping at the cat’s peanuts. And not only were they in his bowl, there was a whole load of them having a party on the work surface. No one will believe me or the cat, I decided. So I went to fetch a camera.

After preserving them digitally, I then had this great idea. I recall reading that one fool proof way of catching garden snails is to leave out a bowl of beer. The story goes that they find the smell of lager irresistible and climb in only to drown – very happily. So there I am in the early hours of the morning, in my bare feet, pouring the giant slugs a Bittberger and wondering if they would prefer an Amstel.
We do say that at Scotland Farm the inmates run the asylum but I formally offer Leo an apology. He is not barking mad talking to his food. He was telling these revolting pushy things to sod off out of his beloved cat peanuts.
The beer lark failed miserably so the next night I exacted my revenge and went into the utility room armed with the salt sellar. No more slugs. Odd though, Leo still talks to his food….

Monday, 20 June 2011

Life According to Pinto Bean

I have often read accounts of how the sheer will to live has resulted in people and animals surviving extreme and appalling conditions and the stubborn refusal to die was cited as a primary reason why survival was the only outcome. Conversely, although less documented because it doesn’t make a heart-warming story, when there is no will to live, death follows pretty quickly.
In lambing, I have now seen both. We knew that we would be subject toxoplasmosis which results in abortion or deformities. The only laboratory in the UK failed to successfully make the vaccine that we needed so we braced ourselves.
A pattern swiftly emerged mainly among the ewes expecting twins. The first lamb was born weak and very small. The second followed shortly afterwards, either dead or unviable, usually not lasting the first 8 hours. These lambs had that look in their eyes which said I don’t want to live. No amount of warm colostrum tubed into their little tummies, infrared lamps to keep their body temperatures up, antibiotic injections to fight infection or indeed attentive and caring mothers pawing at them to encourage them to stand up and suckle could reverse the path these creatures where on. And there were seven of them, hell bent on leaving this life. I reconciled myself that I had done what I could and my intervention was not going change things. The exception was little Pinto Bean as she has been named.
She was so tiny at birth she would not have been able to reach up to suckle even if she had been born with the strength to do so. And she just reminded me of a little bean. Her first 12 hours where horrible and any other personality would have decided that life was literally not worth living. But not Pinto – she was hell bent on surviving, she defied all odds. She was a definitely a toxo baby, her twin sister didn’t survive the night. Then Pinto’s mother decided to reject her and not only to turn her back but to trample on her and head butt her across the pen. Each time this happened, little Pinto would meekly struggle to her feet as best she could, bleating piteously before apologetically trying to approach her mother only to be sent flying across the pen. I allowed this to happen only twice before I whisked her away, wrapped her in a towel and settled down to watch TV with her in my lap. If she going to die, I thought let her at least know the comfort of a surrogate mother for a couple of hours, holding and accepting her. After about half an hour, I felt her stop shivering and she tentatively began sucking my finger. The antibiotics were clearly working and I managed to get 100ml of warm milk into her. Although she remained desperate for a mother - she tried to suckle the Labrador and the Collie and I even caught her eyeing the cats and hens, Pinto was on the mend. Her second trauma was when I tried to get another ewe to adopt her. We had a healthy single born and after donning gloves, I collected the birth fluid and rubbed all over Pinto before offering her to the new mum. The ewe wasn’t having any of this and Pinto got head butted across a pen again. Again I scooped her out and this time used a towel not to keep her warm but to wash off all the slime before taking back into the house to watch some more TV.

Pinto is now a month old. She has just clocked in at 10kgs and is an authority on international developments as reported by the BBC.
I am definitely her mother and I still give her a bottle twice a day but she has been integrated into the flock since I really want her to know that she is a sheep. At meal times I take her bottle into the field. As I call, she answers loudly and comes bouncing up to me before butting my knees in search of the teat. She then drains her bottle without pausing, her eyes closing in delight. Odd that I can differentiate her call from all the other lambs. The other night as I took my leave of her, I said “Bbbbyee Pinto”. Mom, you are spending too much time with the sheep, said Cameron.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Flesh House

No matter how many books you might read about a topic, nothing can ever prepare you for hands on experience. I learnt this when I produced my son. I had a refresher course in this lesson with our lambing. The books are all full of neat diagrams of malpresentations and prolapsed uteruses. They show you how to tube a lamb to ensure that initially the colostrum and then the milk reach the lambs’ stomachs and did not go down their air passages. They show pictures of all kind of horrible things that go wrong with lambs – watery mouth, scouring, joint disease and so on. But they gloss over what to me was possibly the most challenging. None of the books tell you what to do with a dead lamb. They all say just dispose of it. Err right, I know I have to dispose of it, but how? And we had seven of these situations.
As ever, our dear neighbours came to the rescue. They showed me where dead lambs need to go and all dead farm animals for that matter. Thus this blog is dedicated to those kind wonderful people at the Hunt who do a job most foul and are still kind, considerate and caring.
You have to put the dead lamb in a black bag and the sooner you get it to the Hunt the better for obvious reasons, especially when we lambed late and the weather had already warmed up considerably. Leave a dead lamb in its bag for a couple of days and you will know all about it. The drive to the Hunt is a classic countryside meander through pretty villages along leafy B-roads. Nothing untoward except just before the left hand turn into the Hunt driveway, I pull over. I apply a finger-full of Vicks Vapour Rub to my top lip and inhale deeply, allowing the pungent smell of camphor to clog my senses. The courtyard is nothing out of the ordinary, until you get out of the car and the smell hits you, even over the camphor sludge just under your nose. I once read an article written by someone who worked for the Red Cross during the Second World War. His job was to clean up and he said: “If the world’s decision makers could experience that smell of death, there would be no more wars.” It is an indescribable smell but so cloying , it gets into your clothes, your hair, so that long after your escape, you can still smell it.
Now, once in the courtyard and having met the smell, you then still have to dispose of your black bag. Invariably there is no one around who might help – they are busy sorting out untold ghastly things so you have to deal with this one your own – which means opening the door of the flesh house. This is the room where everything is brought and you have to be brave to open that door. I watch shoppers in the meat section of Waitrose and its hits home just how these people have no idea about how meat gets onto those fridge shelves and what can go wrong in the process. Yes, they will say, we all know about abattoirs – its all very quick and efficient. I agree but at least the smell there is fresh and the flesh is healthy. But what about that sheep that keels over in the fields and lies there for a few days before the farmer locates it and brings it to the Hunt for disposal? Nothing quick and efficient about that except for the rigor mortis and the maggots. So I brace myself and I open the door. I place my black bag on the floor close to my feet and try not to look around the room, try not to inhale. The scene caught in my peripheral vision defies description. I focus on the black bag, say goodbye to a lamb who didn’t make and then I back the hell out of there, ensuring that the door is properly latched closed.
I drive away more affected than I care to acknowledge, back to the farm and look forward to seeing the healthy lambs bouncing around the fields, confirmation of the circle of life. The smell follows me. Later I cook supper and find I cannot face what I usually eat - a toasted cheese sandwich does just fine.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Quietly Saying No

Three ewes left to lamb and the ladies have been magnificent. Done it all themselves even to the extent that they have cleaned up afterwards. Only two, interestingly from the same blood line and same father deserted their lambs. It was like they didnt realise that this was a) something alive that needed assistance and b) was their flesh and blood. So we have (so far) two pet lambs called Pinto and Bortelini. Now Southdown lambs are not the prettiest of young - British understatement, they are bloody ugly with their Dennis Healey eyebrows and hairy knees but they are very appealing. So the two little motherless beans have to get fed from a bottle and I am now making up lamb formula milk by the bucket full because by gum these little things can eat. In making up their feed, I have to measure the dried milk powder out accurately and mix it with the correct amount of water. If not, we run the risk of seriously upsetting their lamb stomachs and this is not ground I wish to cover.

So every day I have to measure 100gr of milk powder for every 500ml of water. Now I have a great set of electronic kitchen scales. But they do need silver iodide batteries which I bought off the internet since this struck me as the most painless way to do it. The batteries arrived and it said on the packet "Made in China". My heart sank because it is my experience that things with this wording stamped on the packet tends to be unreliable, throw away rubbish.

Well, I forced my cynical unkind thoughts out my mind and embarked on my milk powder weighing career. Sure enough after day 3 the scales began to play up - the electronic read out flashing randon numbers and clearly not weighing properly. I sucked my teeth because this was a product that until coupled with suspect batteries has for years behaved in an exemplary fashion. A change of batteries (from the same pack) brought some but not lasting improvement.

I was suddenly reminded of that horrific human baby milk case in China where the manufacturers caused the death and serious illness of scores of babies by augmenting the milk powder with heavens knows what. I froze mid task and grabbed the bag of milk powder dreading that I was going to be faced with the same "Made in China" curse and the thought that maybe my lambs were going to suffer the same fate. To my relief, the lamb milk is manufactured in good old Yorkshire so all I had to worry about was the correct weighing.

But it got me thinking. I have not counted accurately but I reckon in any particular day or shopping expedition every second or third item I see on the shelf has been made in China and imported at great cost to our balance of payments. And all too often the product is total rubbish. Well, without becoming militant or fanatical about it, I have decided in my own quiet way that in future I am just going to say no. I am going to read each and every label and if it says "Made in China", I am going to put it back on the shelf. Further if I cannot find a product that is made elsewhere, I will just jolly well do without.

Perhaps if enough like-minded people begin doing the same, then the owners of the big famous brands who have outsourced their manufacturing to $1/day labour in China might begin to appreciate how they themselves are undermining the value and reputation of their brands.

In the meanwhile, I can hear Pinto Bean bleating for her Yorkshire milk. I will not keep her waiting.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Long suffering vets

This posting is a tribute to all those wonderful vets who on a day-to-day basis put up with the madness of animal owners and the complete lack of inhibitions of their patients.
On Monday, I bundled all four animals (two dogs and two cats) into the car and took them off for their annual innoculations. All was going well. We were all calmly sitting in the waiting room when the door of the consultation room burst open and a carpet walked out towards us. The cats were safely in their pet voyagers, thank heavens. Labrador Oscar lept backwards into my lap while chewing his upper lip - a sign that says Holy shit, I dont know what to make of this! Bella the Collie yelped. Fortunately the carpet just stood there while its owner paid the bill. Afghan hounds are not know for their spontaneous intelligence.
Runway cleared and carpet ushered out, we were called in to see Jim Logan.
Jenga was first. The tiny grey cat had to be hauled out of the basket, hissing and swearing. Her immediate reaction was to look for an escape route. Leo was next. Jim held the basket upside down and poured Leo out onto the consultation table. Leo then proceed to dissappear into the surface of the table. Eyes shut tight, ears flat, shoulders hunched exuding the body language which said: I really don't exist. No wonder the vet back in Jo'burg called him Dorothy. Injection over, I suggested to Leo that he might want to get back into his basket. Yes, yes, came the response. Paws scrabbling for the per voyager, eyes still tightly shut, ears glued back.

The dogs were much easier save for the fact that Oscar flatly refused to stand on the scale. Before they knew it they were all back home and within seconds had totally forgotten that their weekhad started with a bang.

And then we got the blood results for the sheep. Our scanning had produced some interesting results. 4 barren, 7 singles and 11 twins. (Thank heavens not triplets.)The good news was our English ram had done his thing and if we did not witness sheep-type hanky panky it was just because he was showing classic English politness and modesty. The bad news was that 4 barren out of 22 is statistically too high and we needed to know why. One possibility was that the sheep have a mineral deficiency so we called the sheep vet out to take blood. So long suffering Martin Andrews arrived. Now the sheep behaved well, the problem was the hens. For some reason know only to themselves, they decided to hang about Martin, getting under his feet, tripping him up, talking to him. One even got air borne, fluttered into the back of his Land Rover and settled down making "I am going to lay an egg" type noises. He was very good natured about it and gently tossed her out. But I shook my head wondering what these poor vets have to tolerate everyday of their lives. Anyway the upshot is: no mineral deficiencies so we have to look further afield to resolve the question of our 4 barren ewes.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

28th February - D-DAY

So its all arranged. On February 28th a (hopefully) nice man is coming to give our 22 ewes an internal scan so we can know firstly if they are in lamb and secondly whether they are carrying singles, twins or triplets. After two sheep cycles of 17 days each during which the rams were in with the ewes, readers might consider the first piece of information a no-brainer - of course they are in lamb! Not necessarily so since as we all know the course of true love rarely runs smoothly and I am begining to wonder if my rather tongue-in-cheek comments made in an earlier blog about frozen sheep testicles might have a grain of truth.

You see we donned our two rams Frenchman Jean-Claude and Englishman Rangemaster in their breeding harnesses, applied the yellow rayon and sent them out, each to a group of 11 ewes. Jean-Claude went straight to work - oh la la. Rangemaster however, rushed about in ever decreasing circles, grunting loudly. Honestly, he might just as well have been wearing a bowler hat and carry a briefcase and brollie. Exactly 17 days later (after the first ewe cycle) we got the sheep in to see how they had been marked. The yellow shadow on the backs of the ewes was sort of there with Jean-Claude's ladies but when it came to the Englishman's wives, the results were inconclusive to say the least. We changed the crayon to red and sent the sheep back out into the fields. 11 days later, the majority of Jean-Claude's ewes were sporting unmistakably red backsides - job done French style. Rangemaster's women - again rather inconclusive. Things were not looking good for the Englishman. We took him away from his ewes, sent them in with the Frenchman and left Rangemaster all alone in a field. He went nuts. Now when a hormone-hyped 120kgs ram goes nuts it is a sight to behold. He rushed up and down along the fence trying to rejoin the flock, he clambered over a pedstrian gate and got caught in brambles in no-mans land bewteen the fences separating two fields, he bellowed like a wounded bull, he rushed at Bella the Collie, sending her flying. Something had to be done. I called our sheep partner Andy. He swiftly brought 10 of what he calls his naughties - commercial ewes who sport appalling manners like learning to break through electic fencing. Marked for that big lamb chop in the sky (because of their bad manners which Andy says they pass onto their lambs and he cannot be having that), Rangemaster's alarming circumstances provided a reprieve for the 10 naughties. They arrived and lo and behold, Rangemaster rushed at them and got on the job.

So here we are waiting for news of how many lambs we can expect in May and how many will be born wearing berets as opposed to bowlers. It also remains to be seen how many naughty commercial lambs will be born. I am secretly hoping for a lot of these guys. In my sheep book, naughty goes with smart and I find Andy's 10 delightful. They are curious, friendly and generally much more aware of the world than the not-naughty commercials. With their spunky personalities and Rangemaster's determination, the resulting lambs could be very interesting indeed.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Radio 4 - what happened?

I have stopped listening to Radio 4. Increasingly I found the content negative, repetitive, stereotyped and quite frankly tedious. Over the last few months like a mindless mantra, almost every programme, debate and comment has been prefixed by the phrase "because of the budget cuts". Because of the budgets cuts X has to do without Y and because of the budget cuts A enjoys less of whatever and so it goes.

It actually reminds me of when son Cameron was at nursery school. One of his classmates was a very funny kid who had an amazingly vivid imagination. Given half an opportunity he would regale you with a long drawn out and intricate story about "what just happened". It usually involved fire engines, motor cars, sirens and traffic collisions. All very colouful, told with great gusto and waving of arms. He then always, without fail, would finish his story by saying: " and it all happened that way because I have a willy." From a four year old, it was endearing. From an erudite world class radio station, its annoying.

Lets all just acccept that the previous government grossly overspent and the resultant bureaucracy like a bloated tick needs to be reigned back to something that resembles appropriate normality if this economy is to recover. And then lets just move on.

The little kid must now be approaching puberty. I have no idea where he is or what has happened to him. It's probably safe to assume, however, that his willy is just as important to him now than it was when he galloped about the nursery school playground a decade ago.

I have always maintained that the world is made up of three sorts of people: those that make things happen, those that watch what happened and those that wonder what happened? Cameron's clasmate is almost certainly someone who will grow up making things happen - for better or worse. At the moment, for me at any rate, Radio 4 is not making things happen at all and in fact it has suggested that there is a fourth sort of person in the world: those that make this unhappen. What a shame.

Monday, 17 January 2011

What is it about dogs?

My late father had a great word. He used to talk about crapology, often heard saying "this is crapology" in a way that a Japanese business associate of mine used to say "this is a bullshit!" Now my father never actually defined the term but I assume it referred to the study of crap. Out of sterile London and on a farm, I am only now becoming fully aware of the signficance of the term because as all country folk will know, we are constantly surrounded by the material in all its glory.

Now the brown substance could actually be managed and kept at bay if it were not for our canine companions. What is it about dogs that make them go for the stuff? Bella the Collie is the worst. In all other respects she is a model citizen and a credit to any nation. But put her in front of a pile of sheep/cow/chicken/cat shit and she blots her copy book big time. In the first instance she eats it - with relish and then comes and pants dog breath all over us. Not Channel No 5.

But what she did last night took the biscuit. We had our neighbours in for supper and very pleasant it was too until Bella came in from outside caked in fox shit. Now for all those innocent townies who have been spared this life defining experience, fox shit is toxic and can kill at 50 paces. So Bella had rolled in this stuff and then graced us with her presence in dining room adding insult to injury by frolicking on the carpets thus spreading the weapon of mass destruction all over the place. Our guests left shortly afterwards - cannot imagine why.

Bella slept in the kitchen but by this evening when we could tolerate the smell no longer. I donned wellies and dragged her into the shower room. I must admit she was very good although she made it quite clear she hated every minute. Sans dog shampoo, I grabbed the nearest thing to hand, our Head and Shoulders anti-dandruff stuff which did the trick. Now with a substantially less aromatic dog, peace has been restored - at least we can sit in the same room as Bella without being knocked side ways but I have to acknowledge that this doggy preoccupation with excrement brings into question their poll position on the evolutionary scale. Cats would just never do anything like this. Mind you, how many times have I been woken at three in the morning to the sound of a cat crunching mouse bones? All the animals are in and I have locked down the cover of the dog flap ensuring that at least tonight I will be spared canine and feline evolutionary short comings. But tomorrow is another day and it will bring a fresh batch of crap.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Christmas a la Scotland Farm

Any attempt to follow tradition is blown out of the water if you own a Labrador or any animals for that matter. Picture it: Christmas Eve on the Farm and its all very snowy, presents under the tree, turkey in the fridge waiting to be cooked. We are all watching a DVD (yet another James Bond) when I look across to the family and say "Where's Oscar?". Bella the Collie is on her back sprawled out on the sofa, feathers to the wind, but of the Lab there is no sign.

Oscar we discovered was in the lounge opening presents that did not have his name on them. Furthermore he had managed to climb into the tree, extract and consume all the biscuit decorations I bought at the Hawkley Christmas Fayre, leaving the little red raffia tassles strewn across the room - bit of a smoking gun I reckon. How he managed to achieve this without causing the already rather wobbly tree to topple over astonished us. I mentioned this subsequently to other Labrador-infested households around the village (and its amazing how many there are) only to be confronted with the response: "Totally normal, what do you expect from a Lab?" Interestingly, Oscar had a partner in crime when it came to demolishing the Christmas tree. Jenga the little grey cat became obessed with the whole scene, sitting for hours on the arm of a chair and staring intently into the branches. The upshot of course is that there are now more baubles in corners of the room, under sofas and even in the conservatory than are left on the tree.

But back to Christmas Day. The Lab then finishes opening all the presents while we have tea and mince pies, the only non-homemade thing on the day's menu. And horrible mince pies they were too. How could an upmarket supermarket known for its quality sell such rubbish? Oscar then contributes to our meal by stealing our napkins (for the South Africans our there read serviettes)off our laps as we eat. With his soft Lab mouth he manages this without us even knowing, leaving a lump of soggy paper mache under the table. After lunch all the animals get a plateful of turkey and even Jenga tucks in. I spared the hens a turkey offering though - too close to canibalism for my liking. I did however crumble the last of the mince pies and scatter them across the lawn. The hens were delighted but then Paxman and Co will vacuum up anything.