Saturday, June 18, 2011

Until the cows come home

I'm not sure how long I've wanted Highland Cows, but it pre-dates the nasty little incident a few years back that left me with 350 acres of North East Fife to play with. From a money-making perspective they're not exactly going to make me rich, but there's something about the horned beasts that I find far more appealing than the run-of-the-mill commercial cattle breeds. Even Aberdeen Angus, renowned for their tasty beef and efficient marketing campaign, are dull in comparison. I couldn't possibly countenance having something English like a Hereford, or worse French like a Limousin or Charollais, and Belgian Blues are just ugly, ugly, ugly. So when it came to re-stocking the farm, there really was only one choice of breed. That, of course, was only the start of it though.

Fergus Ruadh, walking out with a cow of his choosing

Highland Cattle don't come in herds, but folds. I've no idea why, but that's the way it is. I started looking to build a fold by purchasing animals one by one from various Highland Cattle Society breeders around Scotland. Then I spotted an advertisement on the society website for an entire fold being sold as one, due to the owner wanting to downsize. The Horse Doctor (who happened to be in Scotland at the time) and I hurried on over to Eaglesham to have a look, and were reasonably impressed. The bull running with the ladies was especially impressive, and the whole fold were very placid - quite happy for me to wander amongst them even though some of the cows had new-born calves at foot.

Some smaller than others

When looking for a used car they say you should never buy the first one you see, and I guess this is good advice for any purchasing decision. I took advice from a local Highland Cattle Society herdsman, who went and cast an eye over the fold for me as well. Then I went to a Highland Cattle sale at Stirling Auction Mart, where cows with calves at foot and two year old heifers made very little money indeed. I read up some more about the breed, perused past sale reports and dithered. Dithering is perhaps my most honed skill, after all.

Settling in to their new home

Meanwhile the grass on the Norman's Law was growing longer. I have also signed up for a five year land management agreement with those nice people at the Scottish Government. This means that they give me a reasonably large sum of money to graze the land in a particular way,* which in short means I have to have nine cows wandering the hill from the  first of April until the last of September. Another bizarre part of the great farm subsidies farrago** meant that I needed to have a certain number of my own cows on the farm to qualify for an additional payment that would, quite frankly, have been rude to turn down. So in short, I needed to get my shit together.

I made an offer for the whole fold, based on what seemed to be being paid for non-pedigree cattle at market. Since these animals had no breeding history and no health status it was a bit of a gamble taking them on. Getting my own fold established would have taken many years too, since the progeny of unregistered cows go on something called the B register, their offspring on the A register and finally their offspring can be fully registered as pedigree animals. At its quickest this would have taken five to six years.

Shorthorn X Highland calf. Mmmm, tasty.

Perhaps fortunately, my offer was considered derisory and rejected. I still needed to get some beasts though, so dug a little deeper in my long-suffering wallet and went to a registered pedigree breeder. Somewhat lighter of cash, I now have my own fold of pedigree cattle. Even now they are running with the bull, and all being well in the natural world, next spring they will give birth to calves that can be officially called whatever of Fliskmillan.***

They arrived yesterday, about lunchtime. Six two year old heifers, who will bull for the first time this summer. Six cows ranging from ten years old to four years old, each with a calf at foot at the moment. They will also bull this summer, as all of them are running with Fergus Ruadh, a two year old bull, who despite his youth seems to know what he's meant to be doing. Five of the calves are Highland cross Shorthorn, which will be raised for beef - possibly the tastiest beef there is. The sixth is a blonde heifer calf called Eleanor. Slightly disturbingly, I have a niece called Eleanor, and her younger brother is Fergus.

The whole fold, in the rain, all nineteen of them. 
Can you count them all?

For some strange reason as the days drew closer to the actual arrival of my cows, I found myself getting very stressed. I don't think I've worried so much about something since I realised, six weeks before my final exams, that I'd not been to two thirds of the course lectures for the previous two years and really I ought to be doing something about that.**** It got so bad that on Thursday night I couldn't sleep at all. I tried to think only in images, but even then it was images of everything going horribly wrong.

The psychologist in me suspects that this is because the arrival of cows is a turning point. Up until now I might have owned a farm in Fife, but I wasn't a farmer. My nephew Fingal said as much a couple of months ago, in that charmingly disrespectful manner twelve year old boys have. Now that I have livestock of my own, it's all suddenly become real. I have a responsibility towards my animals, I am tied to the land and I have to work to make the business successful.

Ah well, if I cock it up completely, at least in a year or so's time I'll have some tasty beef.

Blondes have more fun.

* and also require me to remove by hand several acres of gorse, about which I think I have moaned enough already.
** which is perhaps a rant for another time. Whilst it's nice to get subsidies, I'm not sure that they're really the right way to go about ensuring food security.
*** although the Highland Cattle Society prefers Gaelic or Scottish names, which Whatever isn't.
**** Curiously, once I'd sat my final exams, all those many years ago, I was as relaxed as a warm kitten on mogadon. I knew that there was nothing I could do to influence my result once the papers had been handed in and could see no point in fretting about it. Jammy sod that I am, I got a 2:1.

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Anonymous Ellen said...

Looks like several of the farms around here...never thought I'd see pedigreed Highland cattle in Northeast Ohio!

June 19, 2011 2:17 am  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I can't blame you for picking Highland Cattle. They're the cutest of the lot. :)

Most cattle here is Holstein black and white, or rotbunt, and they're kept for the milk rather than the meat.

Good luck becoming a farmer for real. Should I manage to come back to Scotland, I'd like to see the fold.

June 19, 2011 1:07 pm  

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