St Patrick’s Day

I watched the lifeless, dark brown liquid slurp into the glass and tried not to think “Jeyes Fluid”.

The glass was set onto a disc on which a small amount of water had been poured. A button was pressed and it was like the advert, all swirling, foaming and Guinnessy.

“It’s an electric current which activates the beer,” said the bartender, helpfully. “Oh, terrific,” thought the pig farmer, on a rare day out in Kirkwall.

How better, one may ask, to celebrate St Patrick’s Day than by drinking electrically activated Guinness and watching the English crawl and scratch their way into the quarter-finals of the cricket World Cup?

A trip to Dublin or New York? Well maybe. I used to do the full Oirish, funny leprechaun hat thing, but these days I prefer to spend St Pat’s on my own, a pint or two in my hand, thinking my own thoughts.

Of course I’ll think about my 83-year-old Dublin-born mum, currently driving back to Devon after visiting her grandson (my lad Will) in Edinburgh. I’ll think about my dad, Nairobi-born, Coleraine-educated, who took a deliberate decision to escape the sectarian divides of Ulster to go first to Trinity College, Dublin, and then to England.

I think about all those wonderful holidays I spent at 303 Harold’s Cross Road, Dublin 6. My mum was drafted in to look after my invalid granny, while my grandad* whisked me off to anywhere interesting on the CIE bus network (Phoenix Park Zoo and Howth Head were my favourites).

And I’ll be reflecting on the nature of nationality and the reason a man born in the heart of East Anglia’s fens has always felt as if he never belonged there, or even in England at all.

I have friends who insist that all that matters in terms of nationality is where you were born. That’s clearly nonsense. We are the product of the people around us, not of our postcode and, when I was young, the dominant influence was Irish.

Perhaps blood counts, perhaps it doesn’t. My mother has been delving into our family’s history and it appears that, if you go back to my great grandparents the score is Ireland 3, England 3, Scotland 2 (that includes one Orcadian**).

That certainly makes things a lot easier come Six Nations time.

The bottom line is that, come 5pm on Saturday, the hairs on the back of my neck will stand up as the lads in green shirts run out on to the field at Lansdowne Road and every piece of my being will be aching for Ireland to win or at the very least avoid a real thumping by a team I’ve always felt were “them”.

Some things you just can’t explain.

Happy St Patrick’s Day to you all, may you never be bitten by a snake.

* Being an avid watcher of Dr Who even as a wee boy, I spent a couple of years insisting on calling my grandad “grandfather”.

** Orkney was transferred from Norway to Scotland in the 1490s. The locals are still struggling to come to terms with the idea.,

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Alfie. . . a kind of loving

As a first move it could hardly be called ladylike. . . and Alfie was a little surprised when Peppa the gilt* grabbed him around the neck and tried to wrestle him to the ground.

The pig farmer tried to suppress memories of disastrous dates from his younger days and gave a somewhat feeble “Come on Alf, stand up for yourself.”

With such half-hearted encouragement ringing in his ears, laddo rallied, defended himself and then went on the attack, giving at least as good as he was getting, before pushing Peppa inside the snug little building, mounting her and giving her a good seeing to.

It’s not the course of action I’d have chosen had I found myself in a similar situation, but social niceties have never been much of a consideration with pigs and ‘getting it on’ was what Alfie was there to do.

He’s still not fully grown, but he’s sure keen enough, even if he had to stretch a bit to get on board. His first few. . . err. . . thrusts failed to hit the target and I had the terrible feeling Jim and I were going to have to help out.

But he eventually settled and closer inspection showed that he had indeed found his way in. We were quite relieved to leave them to it.

The boy will stay there for a couple of days to make the most of Peppa’s three days in season before coming home when his next job will be to serve Molly in a couple of months.

Good luck with that, old son.

* A gilt, for those who haven’t been paying attention, is a female pig who has yet to have a litter.

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Veg talk

Who said size doesn’t count?

As it happens, the chances are a carrot this size is likely to have all the texture and taste of a plank. It’s going to be soup. . . or I may use it to knock in nails.

Anyroadup. . . I’ve cheered myself up considerably today by getting on with the veg garden. First job is to get all the carrots up.

The soil in our part of the island is a superb mix of sand and rich black loam – perfect for carrots as I think Big Boy here proves. A couple of years ago I took the chance of leaving a few carrots in the ground and they kept perfectly well right through to spring so I keep to that routine and today I lifted the best part of 75 kilos of veg, storing them in newspaper in some old wooden crab boxes. They should keep for two or three months.

In case anyone’s interested, the variety I use is the easily available Autumn King and I sow the rows in mid-to-late April or even early May if the soil is still cold, next to onions or leeks which, so far, have kept the carrot fly away.

Getting the hang of growing in a place where climate and daylight are so different to my former home in Shropshire has taken time, but I’m getting there.

Last year’s potato crop was a big success and there are still a couple of tonnes of turnip (swede) in the bottom field.

This summer I’ll increase the number of carrots in the hope of selling a few to cover the cost of the veg seeds, while I’m going to have a serious crack at a couple of beetroot varieties – bog standard Boltardy and the bright yellow Golden Beet. Boltardy is delicious in an oxtail stew, while Golden Beet looks and tastes really good in a salad.

If that doesn’t get me on Radio 4, nothing will.

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Merlin behaves like a prat – again

When handling farm animals, don’t rush, don’t panic and – most important of all – don’t get between a Shetland pony and a hefty gatepost.

I reflected on that advice this week as I lay on my back in the mud, rain spattering into my face, too short of wind even to swear properly. . . unless “gr-ullks” counts.

Four young female pigs were due to go into an outside paddock. I unloaded them, connected up the electric fence and watched as they walked through the wire and disappeared in four different directions.

A certain amount of cajoling, prodding, bucket-rattling and negotiation got them to the field gate where I planned to lead them to the stable and start the whole process again.

That’s where it all went a bit pear-shaped. Ponies Ted and Merlin were the other side of the gate and eager to explore the field. Letting them in while trying to get the pigs out was out of the question, so I tried to shut the gate quickly.

Merlin wasn’t having any of that and tried to break through, which involved ramming the not-inconsiderable bulk of the pig farmer against the stout wooden gatepost.

Fifteen or 20 years ago I might have shrugged off such a collision, but I’m damn near 50 and, if I’m honest, I feel all of that this winter so I lay there gasping like a fish on a canal towpath.

Somehow Merlin was still where he should have been, so I regained composure, struggled to my feet, closed the gate and phoned Marcus who came up in his tractor to help load the pigs into a trailer and get them safely indoors.

We were about to put them in the stable when I heard an “uh-oh” from Marcus and noticed that part of the makeshift barrier keeping the ponies from getting down the lane had come down and the lads were off on their travels.

I legged it. Ted and Merlin saw me coming and skidaddled down to the main road and started off towards Pierowall with me in the car in pursuit. I managed to head them off, got out, physically turned Ted around and he and Merlin started to run back.

Just short of our bottom field, they turned right and headed off down the side road, with me back in the car just behind. We all ended up with Merlin’s old flame and his son Rolo and, by the look of Merlin if was no bad thing there was a fence between them.

Alistair was in and was kind enough not to laugh when I staggered into his shed asking for the loan of a head collars and lead ropes.

Abandoning the car for the time being, I led the suitably shackled lads up the track, a very horny Merlin snapping and bucking all the way (that’s bucking – do try to concentrate).

Wet to the skin, totally fed up, I shoved them into the bottom field, put a good chain on the gate and stomped off for hot tea and a hot bath.

I’ve had better days.

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Wind and wuthering

Winter is starting to drag. Persistent rain and wind have left the fields soft and lifeless. There’s more brown than green in the grass. . . it’s hard to imagine that, in less than four months,  we will be stacking the hay in the barn.

Out in the dark grey sea, the shapes of neighbouring islands Papay and Rousay glower through the mist, surrounded by big swell and sea spray,

Few folk in Westray can remember there being as much snow before Christmas as there was last December and, although it has been warmer since, January and February have been hard work. A walk out to feed and water the pigs takes some effort as the conditions suck the energy out of a 49-year-old, well-used body.

And there are the gales. I thought I was used to them until a couple of weeks ago when I spent much of the night drinking strong tea and comforting an extremely nervous Owen the collie/spaniel cross as 100mph-plus winds battered Orkney.

Still, a positive attitude and a heavy-duty padded boilersuit cover a multitude of sins and a trip down to the bottom field to dole out carrots to the ponies, the wind blowing rain into my face, was almost a pleasure.

The lads were pretty perky and showed no inclination to get out of the weather. You can’t help but admire the hardiness of pigs, sheep and ponies who don’t have the option of curling up in front of the fire with a hot brew and the rugby league on Sky.

The boys are coming up tomorrow to graze the patch near the pigshed where Molly’s nine piglets are getting on just fine. It never ceases to amaze me how fast piglets grow up and those little floppy things that seemed so fragile a fortnight ago are now double the size and little barrel-shaped things zooming around the pen.

It will be good to get them outside when spring finally comes.

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Like mother, like. . .

The piglet was very small, considering she was the first of the litter, and she didn’t seem that interested in suckling.

The first milk is very important, providing colostrum that basically fires up an animal’s immune system, so the pig farmer got down on the floor and tried to encourage her to take some milk. That involved squeezing a little milk out of one of Molly’s teats and aiming the piglet in the general direction.

It was only a limited success and, after the best part of half-an-hour, the second piglet, which Molly had been straining to push out, appeared. Unfortunately it was stillborn, but there was no time to fret as the others followed in quick succession.

Faced with competition, No. 1 got her act together and started to suckle. More than that, she started shoving her siblings – all a fair bit bigger – out of the way in a bid for the prime spot.

By and large the big piglets get the best teats nearest the sow’s head while the peedie boys and girls are left with the back teats which, apparently, have less milk. Nobody had bothered to tell No. 1 this and she quickly shoved her way through to the front teat.

She has spent most of the last three or four days firmly attached, her eight brothers (yes, only one gilt in a litter of nine!) having the pick of the remaining 13 milk outlets.

A real chip off the old (escaping, fence-breaking, boar-bashing, concrete wall-demolishing) block.

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The heavy snow that hung around for what seemed like ages wasn’t bad news for everyone.

The problem with relying on electric fencing is that more intelligent animals quickly work out when the power is off and Alfie, our young boar, is turning out to be brighter than the average pig.

So, when the snow lay deep and crisp and even, Alf worked out faster than the pig farmer that the bottom strand of the fence was buried and therefore shorting out. As a result the fence gave him only the slightest tickle as he waltzed through into Little Kim’s paddock.

The first I knew about it was at morning feed time when I noticed Alf emerge from Little Kim’s hut looking pretty happy with himself. Little Kim followed soon after, looking a little dazed and with tell-tale muddy footprints all over her back.

I’d been planning to put Alf in with her anyway so I took the fence down and left them to it and they’ve been getting on fine.

Alf’s first attempt clearly failed to hit the target as three weeks later Little Kim was letting him mount her again. It’s nothing to panic about as he’s only nine months old and he’s still a fair bit smaller than her (a box would help the whole process) and it may be a case of him not quite having the. . . err. . . reach.

Of course, it’s possible he’s firing blanks, but that’s something I’d prefer not to think about. Little Kim was due to come into season this week and I noticed she growled at him when he sniffed at her rear end the other day, so maybe she’s in pig. . . or maybe not.

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