Sunday, 27 September 2009

Back to the grind

After the 'holiday' in Scotland Shep and the better half had some catching up to do.

August, September and October sees the season for sheep sales which for Shep means a lot of sheep to gather, dress and draw.

Now I can't bring myself to leave you to work out what that means, it is tempting though..........

Gathering ought to be self explanatory by now, if not go back in these blogs and work it out.

Dressing? A thing we do every morning when we get up - slightly different with sheep, they are not wrapped up in fine trimmings, frocks for the females and suits for the males - I think not! No, dressing sheep is similar to taking the poodle to the parlour or getting your hair cut. Basically they get titivated up to look their best before going into the auction ring to be sold.

Generally only breeding sheep get 'dressed' although it has been known for the real pinickity to square tails up on store lambs to make them look boxier at the back end, mebbes I'll go into that at a later date. Breeding sheep are titivated up, hand shears are a must although the electric shears are also used. Care has to be taken, snipping off a little at a time as once it's off it can't be put back on. There is a saying that a good sheep doesn't need to be dressed and there is a lot of truth in this, however, you just can't help but try to make a good sheep look even better.

There are all sorts of tricks to the trade all intended to make the sheep look bigger, stronger, brighter and all together more pleasing to the eye. Many are bloom dipped, that's why you often see sheep with yellow wool, or brown, golden, biscuit, black - whatever the farmers personal preference in bloom may be. Sheep that thrive well often have a natural bloom about them, similar to the colour of those that have been in a sandy rubbing. Bloom dipping just exaggerates this natural colour.

Drawing? not a pencil and paper in sight, unless to write down the numbers on the back of a fag packet or whatever comes to hand.

No. Drawing means sorting the sheep so that they stand together as a type. You want a similar size and quality of sheep to be sold in each pen that you put forward for sale. It is often said that the buyers bid to the worst lamb in the pen, so you really don't want them to be badly drawn, ideally you'd like the pen to be all like peas in a pod, unfortunately the ideal world hasn't been made yet and every sheep will have it's imperfections. Basically size and type get drawn together, stand back and look and anything you find that isn't pleasing to the eye gets dropped down into the next pen and so on until you are content with what you have - simple!

And so, Shep has been busy. Dressing Mule Ewe Lambs, Mule Gimmers, Blackfaced Ewe Lambs, Gimmers and Draft Ewes, drawing store lambs and breeding sheep, gathering and I may add still spaening some sheep. The back end of the year is the harvest time for the sheep farmer and a hectic time for the Contract Shepherd as deadlines must be met. The sheep sales wait for no one.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Where does the time go?

Indeed. Where on earth does the time go........... since my last posting time has flown by and we're rapidly heading towards October, seems no time since lambing time....

A fortnight back saw a trip into Scotland for Shep and the better half, a wedding no less. Away up on the Moray Firth - to the seaside - we went. Having never travelled up the East side of Scotland before I have to say I was gob smacked, we may as well have been away down south, what tremendous ground there is up there. Most of the way up on our 8 hour journey ( I'm told it should only have taken 5, I put my hands up to poor navigational skills!) we passed combine after combine, the farmers on the East of Scotland were flat out with the harvest, Claas won the day lower down, however we soon found ourselves in John Deere territory and finally New Hollands stood their ground. I can only presume different dealerships held strong in different areas.

Now the fact that Shep is a shepherd means harvesting began to wear thin after about five hours, there were a lot of beef cattle too but sheep were few and far between, in fact they were down rightly scarce so as navigator it was decided to cut across country south of Aberdeen and head towards our weekend abode through hillier terrain ( this is where a lot of the time was lost I may add). Indeed there was some spectacular scenery but the combines still won the day, albeit older versions of what had been viewed off the main road. I was beginning to despair that Scotland didn't have a national sheep flock.

We arrived at our fisherman's cottage in Portknockie (pleasant place right on the coast) and enjoyed the sea air and scenic walks along the headland. We were re united with the Curlew and Oyster catcher which had departed our land a while back and saw zillions of seagulls, cormorants and other birdy things; also cursed not bringing the binoculars and bird book!!

The wedding was a jolly day, great weather, good food, good company and a happy bride and groom, tearful parents and all the other trimmings that go with a wedding - oh! and alot of kilts!

A day to recover followed during which we did very little other than walk the coast and savour fish and chips - not a sheep in sight! Then back home we came. The better half decided the A9 seemed a more direct route and off we trundled, cutting an hour off the journey.... we may have made it back quicker if Edinburgh hadn't got in our way at rush hour and once again poor navigational skills (personally I'm apt to blame the sign posts, or is it the new road map we'd invested in?).

So are there sheep in Scotland? A few. There were some North Country Cheviots to be seen in sparse numbers and around about Dalwhinnie there were definitely Blackies on the hills. Much of the high hill ground we passed seemed to be away to self seeded trees and was terribly rough looking giving you the impression it was not grazed. The low lying ground was beef cattle and cropping. I can't help but conclude that the potential for sheep farming is not being fully realised, all the better for the Tarset farmers who at the moment are flat out taking their stock to market.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

That sinking feeling returned

I mentioned my new ploy of getting quad bike across wet boggy bits without sinking in the last blog. I was so proud of myself to have sussed that plenty of throttle gave the momentum to cross the uncrossable - my confidence was boosted.

It was short lived.......... Yep! Done it again - Sunk!

Now the spot in question really was a peaty hole, there were two of us heading out to gather and the bike in front had negotiated the obstacle with absolutely no problem, not wishing to appear a wimp and full of confidence from my previous experiences I hit the throttle.......... and...........well................ the front wheels got over.......... unfortunately the back wheels sank to the axle. S**t! Done it again!

I mentioned this bike was heavier, oh yes, no doubt, it is definitely heavier.

It seemed possible that the bike would grip to reverse out of the predicament, however, logic told me that would result in either all four wheels sunk to the axle or at least the front wheels sunk which really meant I'd be no further forward. Attempts at pushing the sodding thing forwards definitely got a sweat on and peaty water lapping over the wellie tops.

I gave in, walked to the hill top and gave a cheery wave - it worked! The other bike returned and problem sorted in no time. I think I need to accept that I am to retain my reputation for being able to find a boggy hole and sink into it!!!

So how did the other bike notice my predicament, well obviously my reputation goes before me but also when you're gathering, especially big areas such as we were on, you not only keep an eye on the sheep and dogs but also the other person gathering too. We both go to different bits of the hill to set the sheep away in and arrive at the same point (hopefully), but some of my sheep may head in the direction of the other bike and vice versa, neither of you wants to get ahead of the other as that would be a hindrance and may well cause sheep to head in the wrong direction, or you may miss sheep coming in behind you and also accidents can happen, you look out for each other. Thankfully my absence had been noted and my predicament was rectified - with a lot of leg pulling in the bargain!

Friday, 11 September 2009

that sinking feeling

Ever had that sinking feeling? Shep had a sinking feeling on numerous occasions whilst out - bye gathering last week. The hill ground was saturated. Being peat it is naturally boggy anyhow, with all the wet weather we have suffered recently it has naturally got boggier.

Now you lot won't know this but Shep isn't the bravest of souls on a quad bike and it is a standing joke that if I can find a wet hole to sink into then I will - almost guaranteed. So when the hill ground is basically just one great big wet hole it doesn't bode well for good ol' Shep.

I had a fresh bike to use, a bigger version of the last one. Bigger in size (I felt like a pea on a pod), bigger engine and bigger in weight.................... Ugh, I set off to the hill with my heart sinking to the bottom of my boots, memories of the week previous when I managed to have a quad on another farm floating (yes, that's what I said - floating!), were fresh in my mind.

Obviously on that occasion I wasn't able to sink and get bogged. I gauged the depth of water wrong and did quite honestly begin to float - exceptional, even by my standards! I had the presence of mind to remember to keep the throttle on full to prevent water running into the exhaust as I jumped off to push the offending article in the direction of dry land. My wellies filled so quickly I barely had time to gasp, the bike was rescued, wellies taken off, water tipped out, socks taken off and rung out and I set about my way.

With these thoughts trundling about my head I almost had a bet with myself, ' how long 'til, you're bogged then?' Would I be able to get un - bogged? This bike is heavier and being bigger there was more of it to sink......... Oh, heavens above, give me a pony any day (except I did once bog one of them too - that's another story!)

Usually when I come to a drain, burn, crossing point, boggy hole or what ever I pause, weigh up the pros and cons and progress with caution, if you travel cautiously you sink slower, giving you time to hit reverse and mebbes get out of the predicament - very rarely works but there you go, that has always been my logic.

I had a fresh approach last week and to my surprise seemed to get away with it. If in doubt hit the throttle and go for it................ The logic being, if I went fast enough by the time the bike decided to sink it would be past the obstacle anyway! And hey! It worked!

I didn't have to wring my socks out - yipee! Unfortunately I did have a very wet arse (bottom to those of you that speak properly). I've mentioned earlier in the year about my summer leggings, they were the none waterproof variety, y'know, the ones with a big tear in the knee. Anyhow, I had to give in and get out the lambing leggings which I had been saving for inclement weather. Washed and put away after lambing time they looked as good as new. Now they say looks aren't everything - too true!

These waterproofs seemingly are no longer waterproof, they just look good - huh! What a way to find out, away out - bye in a monsoon! It became apparent in no time at all that the water running off the top coat was sitting in a puddle between my legs as I sat astride the bike, then soaking through the 'waterproof' trousers and very kindly soaking me. On arriving at the sheep pens two hours later, I dismounted and found myself to be walking like John Wayne. Soaked through to the knicker leg didn't have a look in. Before you ask, NO, I didn't take everything off and ring them out, I nonchalantly wandered around all day in an uncomfortable fashion!

Monday, 7 September 2009


What on earth does Spaening mean? Weaning - quite simple really if you know. Apparently in Donegal it is called 'snedding' and who knows what it may be called elsewhere. Here in the Borders we call it spaening. Taking the lambs off their mothers.

Out on the hill replacement ewe lambs need to be kept as the ewes are drafted off the hill at 5 or 6 years old and a fresh age of sheep is needed to take their place. Every year a set amount of keeping (replacement) ewe lambs are chosen off each cut (heft) and returned back to the hill with their mothers.

At this stage they become Ewe Hoggs, no longer ewe lambs, they have matured overnight to become hoggs.

The number of ewe hoggs retained on each cut of the hill depends on the number of ewes which runs out there but is usually around about a fifth of that number, therefore, if you have 100 ewes you'd keep 20 ewe hoggs and hope to draft off 20 old ewes (draft ewes), mind that is wishful thinking, expecting to draft off the number that were originally kept 5 or 6 years ago, think I've told you before - sheep like to die. There's also the bad doers - ones that don't thrive right for what ever reason - they often get drafted out earlier in their lives and sold whilst they're worth a penny or two, rather than waiting for the inevitable and having them die and you having the cost of paying the dead cart to shift them.

Now you might think my mathematics is a tad naff and believe you me it is not a strong point of mine. If you have 100 ewes and sell 20 that leaves 80 (well done Shep), then you add 20 hoggs but a hogg isn't an adult sheep so how do you get back up to 100? Ah ha! Good question.

Last years hoggs got clipped in the early summer (read the hogg clipping article), they then became gimmers - again, maturing overnight (very clever!). A gimmer will go to the tup for the first time this back end, as an adult sheep. Therefore, your 20 clipped hoggs (gimmers) make up the deficit in the ewe count - does that make sense? Sorry if it doesn't but I know what I mean!!

Anyhow, like I said the ewe hoggs get kept, the best of the bunch get chosen to remain on the hill and be the future of the breeding flock. They are set back out to the hill with their mothers who will spaen (wean) her lambs naturally.

The ewe hoggs learn how to live out on the hill and where their rakes on the hill are off their mothers. They are hefted sheep and have learnt over generations where to graze and where they belong. A problem which was encountered after the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak as farms were devoid of livestock and shepherds had to use all their knowledge and hours, days, months, years of hard work to re - heft sheep out on the hill ground, sheep that had been bought in from other farms and knew nothing about where they had come to live and the unseen boundaries they were not meant to cross.

The remaining lamb crop is spaened, some are sold direct off their mothers, others are kept to be fattened or sold at breeding or store sales. The lambs are generally put onto the fogs - yikes! What's a FOG?

A fog (or foggage) is the fresh growth in the hay fields. Once the hay fields have been harvested they are shut down and the fresh grass is allowed to grow to feed the lambs through the back end. Spaening in Tarset is behind schedule as some farmers struggled to get their hay and silage crops (in fact there are still some fields to get) and so the fogs haven't grown and there has been nothing to spaen lambs onto. The traditional time for spaening hill lambs around here was the week between Falstone and Bellingham Show, the last week in August. Here we are into September and there are some spaened and some not, many trying to sell direct off the ewes as hungry mouths can soon strip poor fogs bare.

Friday, 4 September 2009

mad dogs and englishmen

That's what was going through my mind this morning, only mad dogs and Englishmen would be out gathering sheep in that weather. The old herds would turn in their graves, going to the hill in an absolute downpour to gather sheep and trash them through the pens - near enough a sack able offence.

I'm away out bye at the moment, we'd allowed ourselves a week to gather, keep the ewe lambs, draw fat lambs and spaen (wean) the store lambs. It's a big skelp of ground out there, seven and a half thousand acres to be precise. When conditions are right, sheep co-operative and dogs willing the sheep can be gathered in four days, allowing ourselves a week gave us three days lea way for the odd foggy morning or piss wet day.

The lambs were booked in to be collected in a weeks time, an artic turns up and all the fat lambs are loaded straight off the farm and direct to slaughter. The gathering commenced on Wednesday with the wagon due in the following Wednesday.

However, a phone call changed all that, the lambs will be collected on Sunday.......... Oh Lord!.....

God willing, weather permitting, it could just be done; a lot of hard work but it was possible to have everything ready by Sunday, until it rained that is, and rained, and rained and more rained!!

Wednesday was a canny sort of day, sheep gathered well, except Shep kept leaving some behind, just as well you look back as much as forwards when gathering.

Now there was an atrocious forecast for Thursday, that nice weather man on the telly put a great big green blob of rain over us - a sign of heavy rain - and, to add insult to injury, he left it over us all day - how dare he?

Early Thursday dawned dry, the two cuts (hefts) were difficult to gather in the morning, the sheep had had a hattering during the night with foul weather and didn't much want to shift from the spot, dogs worked hard, hounding on and driving them in, then it started to rain again. We were fortunate though, we got blue rain and not the green that was forecast. It was just wet, not piss wet , however, by lousing (finishing) time it was seeping up the arms and running down the neck but hey! could have been a lot worse.

Yep! It got a lot worse......... the rain from yesterday never let up and got decidedly heavier, it rained all last night with the monsoon seeming to wait til' morning. I donned a fresh top coat as yesterdays was still drip drying, pulled the hat tight down over my lugs and hauled the gloves onto already wet hands and off I went. Within ten minutes the gloves were only of use as a wind break, being soaked through, I did think though, that should we suffer a drought I would be grateful of the moisture I could wring out of them!

The dogs didn't seem to mind the conditions, the sheep were less impressed, as were we. In to the pens with them by 9am to find we were 50 short....... The burns are boiling by now, up to the banks and thinking about bursting, the sheep were sorted and put into a field ready for Sunday. The shepherd I was working with went back out to the hill to attempt to find the missing 50 and I head for home by early afternoon.We had failed to gather everything we had intended to and unless the burns run in overnight we could be on a hiding to nothing tomorrow as the remaining sheep have to cross a burn to get to the pens, for all we've broken all the rules today we have more sense than to push our luck any further. We'll wait and see what tomorrow brings.