Tag Archives: guinea-pigs

A Month Late

Naturally, I hate e-mail. Why naturally? It’s my age, obviously. I’ve discovered a new etiquette among publishers: if you deal in e-mails (which they all do, so the “if” is unnecessary) that gives you leave to abandon the old courtesies of answering or acknowledgment. In other words, even if you’ve been encouraged to send a manuscript you can no longer expect to get the customary MS arrived safely note – sometimes even with looking forward to reading it appended – you’ll be doing well to ever even hear back. If you do manage to run them to earth (say, with a phone-call they thought was from someone else) it’s: oh, I’m sorry, I never got any e-mails from you – they can’t have reached me for some reason. So where did they go? Presumably to some irrelevant person who happened to have exactly the same e-mail address and was equally too busy to be bothered with old-fashioned courtesies. One way or the other the message is clear: load me down with a pile of paper and I’ll behave old-fashioned – just don’t go loading me down with a pile of paper, sonny.

When I do write letters – which is far less often than I used to, the first page is invariably a list of apologies for why my reply has taken so long, etc etc. Which is what is starting to happen with this blog, I’m seeing the signs. Excuses? Spring-time, mainly. Yes, I know, before that it was the damaged eye, then the gut infection, it all looks highly suspicious.

Spring-time is true though, honest. And with a spring that’s clearly a month behind the norm, the spring-time work suddenly came on us, unexpected and overwhelming, as all the growing things make up for lost time. The up-side is that there’s been longer than usual to attend to the kind of preparatory chores that always seem to get prematurely abandoned when rampant greenery chokes out all chances of progress – as witness the picture (presumably in Facebook, personally I still can’t find my way about Facebook at all, except sometimes by accident) of Ben and Mark, along with Gwyn, digging a lovely big channel to take our grey water off down to its hitherto habitually desiccated reed-bed. Which just shows that my capacity for exploiting young visitors is unimpaired by either advancing years or the rigours of winter. Anyway, the boys got a good ceilidh out of it: Ben spent the first half of this event squealing like a girl about how he couldn’t dance with his broken leg, until Alistair had plied him with enough whisky that he leaped to his feet, heuching and hollering, and danced with dangerous vigour till the end of the evening.

It hasn’t been that bad a winter really, apart from its length. I haven’t had an apocalyptic phone-call from Paul every time a blizzard or an especially bad cold snap strikes: well, Mr Ashton, what do you say now: is this the end of the world or isn’t it? To which I invariably would reply, well, it’s still within the zone of normality – now, I remember a winter back in …. bla bla. We would be talking about Global Warming of course, in which I’m a true believer as all good people should be, but Paul and I don’t always agree on its detailed effects. However this year I have to admit I’ve seen something which I’ve never seen before, not in all my – well, however many years it is…: that is, young Scots pines, junipers and other hardy evergreens like rhododendrons, so badly wind-scorched that they’re actually dying. I haven’t counted yet how many pines we’ve lost, but it’s not looking good. You could almost believe that there was some infection blown in on the wind, but I daresay the truth is less dramatic – in its way, because winter winds as devastating as this must mean some kind of major shift in things. We certainly don’t see to have a wind-direction any more where it blows mild and damp.

Another dramatic event (for me, at least – it seems to have been less than discussed in the media) was the report last Wednesday, I think, from the economic advisor to the HSBC (I hope my details are right, it takes me a couple of hours to come to in the morning, but I don’t think I was actually dreaming this), saying that it was no longer possible for us in the west to expect the continuously growing affluence of the past fifty years. At last, someone from within the Cartel admitting this very obvious fact! Not that it’ll help poorer people, the guy wasn’t suggesting this sudden dawning of Common Sense would lead to that. Sorry chaps, things are going to get a lot worse for you, because me and my chums will be struggling to maintain ourselves in the style to which we’re accustomed. But I assume the poor fellow’s lying in some cellar of the main HSBC building now, with twenty of said chums taking it in turns to sit on top of him.

But never mind about the dawning of Truth. This wind, this spring, means we haven’t even got our big guinea-pig run up yet (Maddy witnessed it, when first half-erected, floating off across the field, then crashing to the ground in ruins – this was after I’d been trying to erect it with my special new roof-on-first technique). To be honest the grass is hardly worth the effort at the moment, but it would be nice to get the happy little chappies out from their dark winter quarters and into the sun now the wind has abated for a bit. Still having problems with my Pythagoras though – I can’t believe how high I’ve got to push the roof-apex just to hit the right radius for the walls….

Erecting this beauty has proved to be the biggest hold-up of the season so far. As is all too plain, I couldn't get on top of my Pythagoras; hence the ill-fitting roof sections. So far the cats haven't discovered the gaps between the sections, but it's got to be just a matter of time.... The strange little furballs down at the bottom are guinea-pigs. See "technical" if you think we do all this for fun. The blue thing in the background is some of our hay curing on the fence, inadequately protected from these deluges we've been experiencing.

[From ‘Yearly Itch‘ July 2012] The guinea-pig run last year, before it blew away.

They (the pigs) have only one rabbit to bully them now, though she has turned into an unexpected foster-mother for some guinea-pig orphans. Her erstwhile lapine companion (Ellie’s Pumpkin) had an encounter with our biggest cat when we had them out in a smaller run during a short spell of reasonable weather. The rabbit survived the immediate effects of the mauling, but it seemed like it was the vet’s steroid shot, supposedly to counteract the Shock, that caused the fatal heart-attack. Telling our neighbours about this, Alistair shook his head and said, “Ah, that’s just livestock-keeping – heartbreak: nothing but heartbreak.”

“Heartbreaking” is a word we’ve heard a lot from the lips of farmers this winter/spring, and I thnk it raises some hard questions about what we expect of farmers. I believe the general public often underestimate the emotional strain on livestock farmers caused by their having to meet the demands of our meat-hungry culture. The commercial strain of course is obvious: I’m sure farmers have to produce about three times as much meat nowadays just to make an income equivalent to what they could expect thirty-forty years ago, and the resultant strains on the health and welfare of animals are enormous – “health” is actually a bit of a joke: the entire livestock industry is propped up by pharmaceuticals now. But the emotional strain on the farmer, which is obviously exacerbated by this situation, is itself of much longer standing. It’s not just the difficulty of dealing with dead lambs – whether just born wrong, or frozen to death, or pecked at by crows, or rejected by their dam, but it’s the ongoing yearly cycle, where farmers’ protective feelings towards their young livestock must gradually transform itself into the recognition that they’re growing strong healthy animals solely for the day when they have to be driven onto a big vehicle – much against their wills – and sent off to be slaughtered. I think it’s a misguided belief that farmers are somehow professionally equipped to deal with these matters: suppression of the natural emotion is the only strategy available to them. I’m hard put to it to think of any retired farmer who didn’t have a sense of relief at getting out of the business, and it wouldn’t surprise me if these emotional strains turned out to be the biggest, outweighing the financial and other tactical anxieties which are probably part of every occupation. At root, all of us are set to the same default in our dealings with animals: like Ellie’s reaction to the death of her rabbit – total, comfortless grief.

Anyway, this descent into the primitive strata of adult consciousness takes me seamlessly on to my next subject: “The Old Boys and the Death-Men” is the first full-length novel to appear in this blog-site, and it will be available free, gratis and for nothing for a few weeks until we get it turned into an e-book when it will only be available to the avid reader for a substantial Sum. Actually, I don’t know if “full-length” is quite right: my habitual ADHD ensures that it’s not very long – but it’s pretty long for me. It wasn’t given house-room when I tried to present it to the World of Publishing, mainly on the grounds of it not appearing to be a children’s book. Working over it ten years later I’m forced to agree that it’s not a story for children. Anna’ll get me to write something about it in due course, I suppose, or I’ll try and get her to write something – a tedious business, this writing about something you’ve written, trying to sound enthusiastic when you’re actually totally fed up with it and anxious to move on to your next project. What can I say – Read it, it’s not bad, really…. And of course, feel free to print it, as it may not be very easy to read on this screen – in fact, bear in mind that downloaded and printed versions can only accrue in value as the years pass and the book inevitably hits bestseller status.

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Yearly Itch

Robin, who is, more or less, with us just now (“more or less” because he occasionally shoots off for short stays with other people, like film-star Jake, or Max and Luke in Dufftown: I wouldn’t like to suggest he’s in any way “not all there”), has shown great understanding about the plight of the hay gaffer (that’s me). I (and I presume everyone else) have always noticed how grumpy I get at hay-time, and Robin was the one who outlined the reasons why.

At best, haymaking is a great communal activity: the weather’s warm, the sun is shining, the dried grass fragrant, the combination of sweat and hay-dust makes your entire body itch (which sounds unpleasant, but it can also stimulate many other reactions – hence subsidiary associations of expressions like “making hay”, “hay fever”, etc); and, particularly if you’re one of the boys, you have all the joy of a pitch-fork to play with. All this fun-and-frolics doesn’t improve the mood of the gaffer, but at least he knows that the job is getting done quicker than he could do it himself, and that is of the essence.

The gaffer’s job is thus a lonely one and nerve-wracking to boot: a constant eye on the weather, which has been pretty consistently appalling so far this year, constant assessment of how far a particular batch of grass has “cured”, of how safe it’ll be stored out in the field, of whether it’s ready to go in under cover to its winter home, because if it’s not ready for its final storing there’s the danger it’ll heat and then go mouldy.

What was the “traditional” method of haymaking from the ‘sixties on, and still is to some extent nowadays, was the mechanised business of cutting, turning whenever the weather was good, and finally baling up in “small bales” which were manually stacked and/or shifted by trailer to the barn – a backbreaking job, considering the weight of a 36 x 18 x 14-inch bale, and not always producing the best results. The new “big bales”, particularly the round ones, can only be dealt with mechanically, and because they’re so tightly bound they make a product that’s safe from the moment it’s done, ie. it can be safely left out in the field for a surprisingly long time, well into the winter. But you have to be a fair judge of the condition of the grass prior to baling, or you’ll still finish up with half a ton of mould. Horsey people seem to have the resources to pay for “hylage”, which is a sort of combination of really old-fashioned half-cured, half-fermented grass-hay and the new hi-tech product, ie. the whole thing is clingfilm-wrapped in masses and masses of plastic, and it, naturally, is fantastic. Silage, which is what most people in these parts make, is also made in plastic-wrapped bales since some government decree that old-fashioned silage pits gave off too much effluent. Now, instead of the wake of dead trees and rank nettles where the effluent used to run off, you have vast mounds of used and useless black plastic which the farmers have to pay to have disposed of and which it’s illegal to burn (not that that puts all our chaps off: some have the nous to wait for cloudy weather when satellite surveillance is not at its best).

Hay-time: it’s nothing but a big worry, but everything else notwithstanding, this year has been quite good fun, because our tiny requirement has been worked on by most of the family, so Rachel and I can grouch and the rest can cavort, and between us we’ve hand-made a reasonable little pile. I should explain that sixty-odd guinea-pigs can get through a frightening amount of hay in a winter, especially if they’re not getting much other food, and this is what all the effort is for.

Erecting this beauty has proved to be the biggest hold-up of the season so far. As is all too plain, I couldn’t get on top of my Pythagoras; hence the ill-fitting roof sections. So far the cats haven’t discovered the gaps between the sections, but it’s got to be just a matter of time…. The strange little furballs down at the bottom are guinea-pigs. See the “technical”  page (about Coldhome) if you think we do all this for fun. The blue thing in the background is some of our hay curing on the fence, inadequately protected from these deluges we’ve been experiencing.

Over the years I’ve tried to work back towards an old-traditional method of haymaking, which involves only manual processing: field-curing on “quoils” and then storing in an outdoor stack, but that’s really highly-skilled stuff, and so far beyond me. I once had detailed instructions for this in my grandfather’s Cyclopaedia of Modern Agriculture – possibly to this day the only major work on agriculture and horticulture that has a distinctively Scottish slant – but my good brother unaccountably sold the set, and I’ve only been able to garner odd volumes since then: “Hay” to – I don’t know – “Kohl Rabi” isn’t among them (though I do have the revelatory – and, nowadays, revolutionary – one about raising potatoes from seed).

My first haymaking must have been near Bathgate in 1974, under the aegis of Jock Paton, ex of Wigtownshire, whose name still recalls for me the shock of disbelief at being expected to work through a half-dozen rolling fields carrying these leaden lumps of dead grass held in bales by string especially designed to torture the hands, blister and lacerate, and then after all the lugging have to heave them up onto a flatbed trailer that was chest-high when empty. Jock ran down into town to purchase a couple of pitchforks, so painful were our loading-efforts to watch, so then we had the joy of trying to pitch the monsters up to level six with implements we’d only ever seen used by Nazis to winkle out some filmstar fugitive from a farm cart. The following year, in Dumfriesshire, Drew Lammie’s skill at weather-prediction allowed him (and his hapless crew, of which I was a member) to cut, dry, bale and store all twelve hundred bales in one single frantic effort over six days of hot weather. Next year, when we had goats, I scythed nearly seventy bales-worth of hay and brought them home for baling off a hillside half a mile away – in a wheelbarrow…. I look back and wonder if this could possibly have been the same me that accomplished these feats. I think I must be an impostor now, replaced for the real article long ago during some night of lethal drunkenness, and only by sheer luck has no-one noticed, or has forgotten what the original looked like.

I’ve just remembered: it doggedly states “living literature” above this blog. Well sorry, that also is an imposture: too much living to leave time for any literature.


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