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Extract from Home Farm Magazine

No 99 April/May 1992             Copyright ©  Pam Shaw

 

In the beginning by Pam Shaw

Ours isn't a rags to riches story, more a rags to rags. When we first took over the tenancy 15 years ago, sheep prices were fairly low. They were to rise to the heady prices of 1986/87 before the recent fall over the last few years, almost back to their original level. When people ask me what I do I say 'I'm a shepherd'. 'Oh ,you mean a shepherdess', they invariably say. No, I don't. The Northern Scottish Highlands isn't Bo Peep country. I'm a shepherd as I once was a teacher. Anyone visiting soon understands.

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We took over a stock of 620 Scottish Blackface ewes. At least that's what they told us. We never saw them much Whenever they saw us they used to disappear over the nearest ridge. The dogs weren’t really up to it. Something had to be done. Our present stock of 400 mainly crossbred ewes are all bred from the original Blackfaces but bear as much resemblance to them as we do to our pre-Welfare state ancestors. We know our rights and so do they. From cradle to grave or in their case from lambing shed to sale ring, they want for little and in return they come to call and are easy to handle. Food is the answer but sometimes the logistics seem frightening. Tons of hay, silage, oats, sugar beet and distillery waste by the lorry load. Not just for the sheep (400 plus 160 Shetlands and other rare breeds), but for the suckler cows, dairy goats and as­sorted hens that lay anywhere else rather than the nesting boxes.

We came to the farm in February 1977. As a Southern 'townie' I couldn't believe anyone could live so far away from the shops. The farm is actually served by a tarmac road and is not really isolated compared with some places. It is very exposed tTrough feeding just before lambingo the North wind though being quite high up. In fact, it is exposed to all the winds, but the North wind is the coldest. All the old buildings back-onto the North, so we built our sheds that way too. Now the worst storm at lambing time is the one that comes tearing in from the South blowing snow into the front of the sheds (or steadings, as we say up here).

Our first lambing started two months after we arrived, most of it happening in spite, rather than because of us. I thought farmers' wives baked bread and wore long dresses ( I did then) as they swanned around rosy-checked feeding calves and orphan lambs. There were quite a lot of orphans that  year so that was my first job; that and the adoptions (putting spare lambs onto ewes with dead lambs). There were quite a lot of those too. When sent to check the lambing field I real­ised I didn't know what a lambing ewe looked like. In fact my only experience of sheep before I came was showing the boys the pretty ewes and lambs from the window of a train. Obviously some serious learning was going to have to take place before I could be much use.

Our first lambing taught us that we needed sheds if we were going to im­prove our lambing percentage. That year it was 103%, now it is around 160%. We sold 100 ewes that Autumn to pay for the first shed, built round the walls of the old steading. Saving the thick stone walls has proved in­valuable. It is our warmest shed. We clip the ewes there, store the hay and keep the ewes and lambs for the first 24 hours. The pet lambs, bought-in calves and dairy cow live there and some of the goats. It's also a workshop and feed store. We could do with doors on the front (viz. the Southern wind etc.), but you can't have everything. That shed went up over our second lamb­ing. As the roof slowly crept over the pens we could take down the corru­gated iron sheets that protected them. Our first Summer, a very wet one, had seen us rushing in and out to remove plastic sheets from steaming hay when­ever the sun came out.

A few years later we built the cattle shed when the income from the cows justified one. We started with two wild Galloways that would jump any­thing resembling a fence, and some old suckler cows. Our first 'milking' cow was an Irish suckler of mixed breeding and uncertain temper. As she pinned Donald against the wall when he tried to move her first calf, we threw away John Seymour's Self Suffi­ciency ('carry the calf round to her head, talking to her gently') and decided to go it alone.

 

Tiring of the uncertain nature of our milk supply (i.e. whether the milk got thrown at the cow or returned to the house), I decided to get goats. Goats seemed an altogether more manage­able proposition. We had a small byre that proved too small for our modern cows and too poorly ventilated for the sheep (they got pneumonia). I moved in two goats who had been banished w from their previous home at the distillery for eating the manager's roses. Once settled in with us they progressed from roses through the various garden vegetables and my son's cherished plants until they agreed to compromise with gorse and heather behind a seven strand fence. They were behind the fence, that is. This truce has lasted for over ten years with only occasional sorties into enemy territory. It helps that the goats now run as a herd with a flock queen who is quite  happy to accept our terms, having been bred here. Knowing nothing about goats I followed the goat Bible, David Mackenzie's Goat Husbandry and sifted through the various contradictory advice from other goat experts.

Goats' milk is lovely to drink but provides little butter and cream. A dairy cow seemed to be the answer. When quotas were first introduced, dairy cows were going for a song (as they say) and at a local herd dispersal I we bought a pedigree Ayrshire week- 4 old calf for 45 gns. . In a pen of young calves, she was sitting at the back looking sad and alone. 'Oh look', said the boys, 'that one'. Everyone else probably thought she would die so we got her cheap. Not being bound by the traditional orthodoxy (i.e. being English and a woman) isn't such a bad thing. Anyway Bramble, as we called her, did nearly die but that was a long time ago and now she is a beautiful, gentle cow who raises two calves every year and gives us lots of creamy milk as well.

 

And did they live together happily ever after? Well, not always but most of the time. Anyway the story isn't over yet, I hope.

 

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