What We did this summer.

I can honestly say that I haven’t worked this hard since I left New York for a new life in the Netherlands. Oh, I’ve worked hard since then, nobody who knew/worked with me during my time in Amsterdam would say otherwise. But my life in NYC meant regular 72-hour work weeks, with 4am ‘dinners’ after a night of hosting multiple performances and/or concerts in the arts centre I managed with a boss/colleague who worked even harder than I did. I used to spend the occasional Sunday afternoon off in my local park, watching ‘normal’ people play with their kids, and think ‘some people do this every weekend’.  (He spent Sunday afternoons in the office, watching golf on the telly while balancing the books.) And NYC wasn’t unusual for me – just more intense, personally and professionally. I’d been juggling ‘day jobs’, rehearsals, workshops, and relationships (when they could stand the stresses of my career choice) since college, when I started pursuing a career in the arts. I continued trying to do the same in Amsterdam, and in my first two years in Scotland, before coming to the farm. Actor, dancer, stunt fighter, writer, director, stage hand, producer. I’ve done it all, and happily. But it took a toll. On my personal life, on my financial and physical health.

Once, in my late 20’s, I fell into a cycle while on a theatre tour: I’d get sick, be down for a couple of days, start feeling better, go back to work, and get sick again. My stomach pains got so bad at one stage, that my sister threw my protesting self into the back of her pickup truck and drove me to the hospital emergency room, where they jumped to the conclusion that I was miscarrying (I wasn’t). Eventually, I found an intelligent doctor at a local free clinic, who had gotten through med school on a football scholarship. He diagnosed me with extreme exhaustion, something he’d experienced himself, a pure physical breakdown that meant that my body would pick up an infection, fight it off, and then, having used up all of its limited resources to fight the infection, collapse again upon being asked to withstand the rigors of the tour. I’ve had varying levels of that kind of exhaustion since then – everyone in my field knows about the ‘post-show breakdown’ phenomenon – but until these past few months, fatigue hasn’t held on for so long, or through so many versions of cold and flu. Farming has replicated two things from my former life: how exhausting it is…and how much I love it.

One of my friends, someone who has known and supported me through almost 30 years of adventuring, theorizes that one of the reasons I love my new life as a farmer so much, is that it is as demanding, as all-consuming, as anything I’ve ever done before. It demands 100% of me and my husband – we live and breathe this place. She says such focus is a central need of mine, for me to be happy in a pursuit. I think she’s probably right. Like the geeks I tend to be drawn to in my personal life (Donald is a Scottish independence/history geek, my first husband was/still is a film geek), I get obsessed with the thing I feel passionate about. I ‘lean in’ so far, I often risk tipping over. I’ve been leaning a lot, in the past couple of years. We both have.

I joined Donald on the farm a little over two years ago, as, thanks to being the primary caregiver for his Mum, he couldn’t join me in my home. (And in the meantime, had found a new love for the family farm he’d eagerly left so many years ago.) And it’s been full on since then. The first gift he ever gave me was a pair of wellies, and I tried them out that day, helping to clear a drainage ditch. Two years ago this month, we bought 12 sheep; we now have a flock of 64. We’ve brought four fields into production for hay and other crops. We planted an orchard in the week before Christmas, knee deep in mud, because that’s when the trees were finally delivered, and they needed to get into the ground. Up until June of this year, we were on 24/7 duty as the main caretakers for his Mum, who lived in her own cottage across the steading from us here on the farm, with help from a team made up of a combination of D’s brother and sister-in-law, and the Scottish government’s health- and social care service. We were busy. And then we decided to get married.

Because I live in Scotland, and my blood and non-blood family lives in my former countries of birth and residence, scheduling the ceremony was a challenge. Trying to find a time that fit into the farm schedule, and coincided with the godchildren’s school holidays, was one part of it. But the other was that I had an intuition that we should do it rather sooner than later, so that Mum could be a part of it. At close to 97, deaf, blind and housebound, she’d been getting weaker over the past year…

We eventually scheduled it to coincide with the end of lambing, as the children could be here on their spring break; their next shot was in October, and I was afraid to wait that long. Events were to prove me right, sadly.

All but one of our ewes were finished lambing by April 17th, our first guests arrived on the farm on the 20th, we were married on the 23rd (we hired a local lad to watch the final ewe, fully expecting to be called out of the ceremony at any minute), put our final guest on the train on the 28th, and helped the ewe through a difficult birth on the 29th.  Then we bottle fed one of her lambs for two weeks, in a fruitless attempt to keep it alive. In the midst of all that, we got our potato, oat, and vegetable crops planted, while helping some of our nursing mamas through their udder issues.

Then, on June 6th, that early morning call came that every family member dreads. It came in on my mobile, as my husband takes his hearing aids out at night; when I moved in, my number moved to the top of Mum’s call list. Within the next hour, she was being airlifted to the hospital in Inverness, an hour’s drive away, where she would stay for the next two months, one or more of us by her side for most of that time. Until the day she shooed my brother-in-law out of the room, sending him home to his bed, and went to sleep for the final time. We miss her. The farm is …different…without her presence in the cottage. But we take solace in the memory of her dancing and singing (she said she didn’t want to waste a captive audience!) at our wedding, and the pleasure she took from hearing our daily reports on bringing the farm back into production.

Since then, while going through what every family goes through at such a time, plus dealing with the farm estate/inheritance issues that some families go through, plus trying to save whatever crops we could from the effects of a dry start to the growing season, the neglect of those two months, and a wet harvest, plus the surprise of a couple of unexpected lambs (found in the field the day before Mum’s passing) from when the ram got into the gimmer enclosure in February, plus juggling the outside work that brings money in to support the farm…we’ve both been nursing one cold after another. As we go into autumn, we are not yet recovered from the summer.

Is it any wonder? No. Is it unusual? No.

In the evenings, when we’ve collapsed onto our collapsing couch, if we’re not binge-watching a post-apocalyptic zombie/alien series – because we think nobody works harder than farmers, except people fighting aliens and zombies 😉 – we watch BBC farm programs. We’ve just finished another season of ‘This Farming Life’. It’s like a little busman’s holiday, without ever leaving the farm. Watching what the other farmers go through is enlightening, educational, and a relief. A relief, because it assures us that what we’re doing here, how we go about it, isn’t so unusual after all – in spite of tradition telling us not to name or fall in love with our sheep, it seems a common practice among at least some of the farming community. The daily struggles, the story of one couple who actually did have to leave a wedding (not their own) to deal with a troubled birth, the 24/7 struggle to balance everything: finances, family, time, skills, and the weather. We sit on our couch, watching other people’s stories, and sigh a sigh of relief, knowing our own story is not unique. We are not alone. I wonder how many farmers have colds today, and a long day of foot trimming and dosing in the field shelter tomorrow? Probably a goodly number of them.

So why do we do it? Why does anyone?

Because we love it. It’s gotten into our blood. I think, at a deep level, you’re either a farmer to your core…or you’re just not. And we both are. We’re a little surprised at this, as we both spent many years happily doing something else before we came to this. But we love every blade of grass, every sheep and bird and frog on this place. We love the evenings, when the dog demands his daily ballgames, and the tups want a little cuddle too. If we’re lucky, there’ll be a clearing of the skies, a bit of a breeze, and no midges. We really love that! We love the few blueberries coming onto the bushes planted in pots this year, because we had no time to get them into a field before they blossomed. We love the manky little plums we got from Mum’s old plum tree, finally coming back to life, just as she was leaving it behind. The single rose, like a reminder of something, on the bush I bought her last year. We love the potatoes coming into the field, scabby as they are from that dry spring and wet harvest. When some of our sheep go into the food chain for the first time this month, we’ll learn to love that too. Because – as I counselled young artists once, in a long ago life, if you can’t take the hard parts, choose another career. If you can be happy in any other career – choose that one. Because in farming, as it was my former career, it’s all part and parcel. And I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m also content, for the absolute first time in my life. And I think the hubby would probably say the same. We are content with our lot. And our farm. It’s gotten into our blood, and under our skin. And it’s stronger than any flu bug.

So, that’s what we did this summer. And spring. And that’s what we’ll be doing in the seasons ahead.

So yes, I can honestly say that I haven’t worked this hard since I left my show business career behind in New York. But I can also honestly say that I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Neither of us would.

But I think we need to take some more vitamins. 😉

xxxdonna

warming the lamb 2016

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Going with the flow

We had the Paul the vet out yesterday, to help us trim Hookie’s horn. Hookie, our Hebridean ewe named for the horn that curves down and into her cheek is one of our starter ‘muggles’, the name we’ve given to our non-pedigree sheep. She is one of those who took a little longer to trust us, after we brought her and her 11 ‘sisters’ – some of whom may actually be her sisters, though we will never know, because we don’t know her/their lineage – from the farm down the way, where they ran feral all year long.

The trimming went better than expected: Paul cut up higher than any of us were comfortable with, trying to get above the point of curvature and encourage straight new growth, and there was none of the bleeding he expected from doing so. Huge relief all around, and now we know how to do it, and safely, and will be able to care for her and her horn ourselves in the future.

Hookie isn’t one of our youngest ewes, and along with a couple of other old gals who are missing teeth or have nursing/teat related problems, would be – on many other farms – under consideration for culling: being pulled out of the herd and sent to market or the butcher. But as she’s one of the first 12 (who we’ve agreed will ‘retire’ here until the day they can’t feed properly anymore, or start to lose condition), and gives us at least one well-mothered lamb a year (so far) we will happily pull her in for a trim now and again for the next while. She gets angry with us for an hour or two afterward, but a handful of treats and a little time solves that.

Pet, with her bad feet, has a sweet temper and gives us healthy twins with the same temperament; Good natured Elly (full name Elephant – don’t ask us, we didn’t name her) has only one functioning teat, but raises sturdy twins on the single working one, and watches over her sisters’ lambs while they’re all out grazing. Even if we didn’t recognize her in the distance from her colouring and shape, we’d know her from the gaggle of lambs following along behind her. When the time comes when her teat problems outweigh her ability to raise her lamb(s), and we have to stop breeding her, she’ll make a great ‘auntie’, staying with the lambs at weaning time, so they have a surrogate mother when forced away from their own for a time (something, again, that many farms would’nt worry ). Greenal is a little less wild than she used to be, but will never be tame. But she’ll take a treat from our hands now, and gives us white lambs – throwbacks from before selective breeding, when Hebs were multi-coloured. They will give us some rare white Hebridean wool one day. Missy (named for arriving with an infected ear, requiring removal of an ear tag), has a much better fleece this year, and both ears are doing fine. The day she began trusting us enough to take a treat from our hands was a big one on our farm. She is a fantastic mother.

Every one of our starter muggles, as well as our four pedigree ewes that joined them a few months later, and the tups and their companions, have names and individual personalities or ‘skills’ that make them special. And those with problems that would get them culled on other farms, have their place and function here on the Hirsel – whether it’s giving us big strong lambs, serving as a leader in the herd (Queenie will never trust us, but she keeps the herd together like a champ), or simply helping to graze back the overabundance of broom and goat willow. We’re comfortable with our ‘softie’ approach to shepherding, as well as with the knowledge that someday, our boys will go to the butcher, as will even our most beloved old ewe. That’s life on a farm, even ours. As much as we love our animals, they are animals, they are ‘produce’, not pets. We may cry on market day – and don’t let anyone tell you we’re the only shepherds who do, we’re not that different than other farmers – but if we couldn’t stand the heat…we’d get out of the pen.

There’s a balance we’re working with on the farm: balancing practicalities, harsh realities, and the fact that we are both – though I may not show it as much as Big D does – sappy softies when it comes to much of life, in the pen or outside of it. He had me in the mud puddle we call the frog pond (because it will be a proper pond one day) rescuing frogs on the day he was terraforming the ground around the pond, in order to flatten it and put up our wedding tent. And I, without question, was out there floundering around in the mud, chasing frogs for the first time since I was a child.

How do we keep that balance? And why this long diversion about how much we love our sheep? What does it have to do with trimming Hookie’s horn?

Well, yesterday, while Paul was here, he and Big D were having a wee blether about the flock, and the fact that they are still coming in to the lambing field at night. Paul asked if we were still feeding them. Yes, we are. A few cobs in the morning, as we lead them out to the grazing – part of our ongoing ‘bucket training’ of the new generations. And a bucket of mixed grains and beet shreds when they come in at night. As we said to Paul, there will come a time when the ewes won’t feel the need to come in at night anymore – a combination of the variety of grazing that the turn of the year will be offering them, and them no longer needing the feeling of safety the lambing field offers them, with its netting and gate to keep their lambs in and predators out. The point when they stop coming to the gate, bleating to be allowed in, will coincide with us starting to ignore them if they come home too early in the day, or at all. There will come a point – hopefully sheep and shepherd will agree on when this is – when we will need to be free of the daily routine too. Then they will only come in for their monthly exam and foot care, except for when we pull this year’s lambs in for weaning, until it’s tupping time. But tupping is another tale all together.

This easy approach to encouraging their detachment from the lambing field helps us to detach from the lambs too, after the high emotions of the lambing season. It’s a little more work, but it feels right for us.

I thought of Pauls question about feeding, while walking with Big D up the eastern boundary fence this morning, where the neighbour’s bracken is trying to push into our hayfield again. Some is coming in, but not so much, and we’ll be able to handle it. This is, in large part, thanks to the fact that our neighbour’s sheep are using the path we cleared, to repair the fence, as a trail. The benefit of this is really visible further up the hill, where we pushed the gorse back from the fence. There’s a distinct path there, and we often see his sheep using it. His sheep are keep our fence line clear for us. And that is a perfect example of how we work our farm. We go with the flow – influencing it where we can, but fighting it only where we must.

When we cleared the fence line, we created a path for his sheep, who prefer taking the easy way down to their grazing at the bottom of the hill. When we take the soft approach to our sheep detaching from the lambing pen, they stay tamer, calmer, and more easily handled when we have to bring them in for treatment. When we create drainage ditches near where the water wants to flow, instead of where it would be easier for the digger to work, we have a better shot at a dry field. Taking the time to thin the overgrowth along the fence on the other side of the field, instead of taking the easier, quicker path of cutting it all down, gives us a lovely line of trees along the farm road – and a windbreak for the field. We clear some nettles, and leave some for the butterflies who help pollinate our fields. We feed the birds through the winter, and in return they live here all year round and help patrol the fields in the summer. The bog wants to be a bog – so we will not drain it for crops, but will fence it off and resuscitate the old pond at the edge of it. Later, when the waterfowl return, safe from our dog and visitors, thanks to the fence, we may build a viewpoint for bird watchers. The bird watchers may want to buy some white Hebridean wool, or stroll the rugged paths along the ditches that have twisted and turned and sprouted ferns and flowers over the years, looking more like burns, now, than ditches – though they still do the work of a ditch for us.

Easy does it, go with the flow. Water wants to flow downhill; wildlife and farm animals want a peaceful life. As do we.

I don’t know if how we’re working our little hill farm is unique to us – or to hill farms, in general. But I know it suits us. As I sit writing this, the oats and potatoes are growing in the fields; the Rams and their castrated companions (chosen for their tempers as much as for their condition and form, as their companionship will help gentle the Rams again after the testosterone laced days of tupping time) graze outside our office window; the girls and their lambs from last year and this, are out in the north grazing; and the male lambs from last year (hogs) most of whom will go to the butcher, are fossicking (as Big D calls it) in the western woods. The farm is quiet under the late spring sun…and I hear the creaking of Big D’s chair in the other room, as he shifts, trying to find a comfortable position in which to tackle his deskwork.

Desk work awaits me, too, when these musings are done. Because desk work is a bigger part of farming than my city-self had ever imagined. But that’s part of the flow too, and it’s nice to be inside, in a dim cool office, on a hot day; that, too, is part of the flow of life on The Hirsel. Of life itself, I’m guessing. At least: the life that brought us here, to our little hill farm in the Highlands, where we’re learning to go with the flow.

-dmg

Hookie

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Welcome

Welcome to The Hirsel, a small family farm located in an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Scottish Highlands, near Ardgay on the Dornoch Firth.  The Hirsel is managed by Donald and Donna Gillies, and we raise Hebridean sheep, as well as an assortment of crops – choosing Scottish heritage breeds and seeds whenever possible, with an emphasis on living and working with our animals and resident wildlife in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

This site is a work in progress, check back often for news and updates!

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Donald and Donna. Photo by Michael Graham. Hats by Jan Solomon.

 

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