Reflections from a Dumfriesshire farm
Morning has broken. It’s still dark and I’m up to feed and check on the animals-always our first priority. Most of them are in the sheds at this time of year (although never our Highland cows, which brave the elements come what may) and depend on us to carry their feed to them and to keep them well-bedded with straw and watered.
I always speak to them, particularly when it’s still dark, before they see a shape looming out of the darkness. Animals get to recognise familiar voices and it’s important not to scare them. The cows and the mares are heavily pregnant now and should begin giving birth within the next 6 weeks or so. One of the cows-Rosie-always answers me with her distinctive low “moo”, as if to say “what, you again?”
Our Jack Russell terriers, Wilfie and Minnie, accompany me on my morning round; and Tam, our cat. He may be one of the smallest animals here but he can more than stand his ground. He likes to check that I’m doing the job right. The cows all seem to know him. He rocked up as a young stray 3 years ago and has made himself “Numero Uno” since; think the cat on “Shrek”. We’d be lost without him.
The short days and stormy weather at this time of the year mean it’s a constant race against time to get things done. Feeding and scraping out and topping up the bedding for the animals takes up the lion’s share of the daylight hours, with the morning routine more or less repeated in the afternoon. I use a graip-a pitchfork- to push the silage towards the cows rather than a machine because I’m keen to keep our carbon footprint as low as I can and my ageing body functioning for as long as I can-a challenging combo!
We farm near the Solway, which is the main wintering ground for thousands of greylag geese. In the morning, they lift off and fly over us on their way to our neighbours’ fields and in the evening, they fly back to the Solway. There can be as many as several hundred in the sky, great skeins in their arrowhead formations, calling to each other as they fly. You hear them before you see them-an extraordinary sight and sound which makes the hairs on the back of your neck tickle.
Winter is when I do most of my new hedge and tree planting. So far this year, I’ve planted over 3000 saplings, just to replace the plants lost in my new hedges since last year. I still have another 1200 metres of brand new hedging to do plus another new small wood of native broadleaf trees. So that’s another 9000 or so more saplings still to plant, to say nothing of the fencing that I still need to do first. You can see why I’m always racing the clock! All the rain we’ve had has made planting easier but fencing a nightmare. Some farmers are never happy!
We would be struggling without the income from our holiday cottages. This tends to be a quiet time of year for them, which leaves more time for other things, like planting new hedges and fencing but puts enormous pressure on the cashflow. Farmer are so much the poor relations of an industry which supports so many other businesses downstream, like machinery dealers and feed suppliers, who earn so much more for their efforts. Nobody can accuse us of doing what we do for the money. But nobody forces us to do it either. On a good day-and there are many of those here -there can be no better job in the world. Here’s hoping for a drier week ahead!