Swiss-born Claire Simonetta, who is 26, helps to run a 3,000-hectare hill farm on Mull. She and her partner manage 1,800 sheep and 150 cattle. This is the first instalment of her monthly diaries for SR.
Saturday 3 February
The ferry is slowly making its way across the loch, heading from Tobermory on the Isle of Mull to the little village of Kilchoan on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. After a short journey along a single track road, we arrive at a beach looking out onto Carna, a small island that has suffered from agricultural abandonment in recent years. Today is a big day for the 10 young cattle that are patiently waiting in our trailer, not yet sure what they should think of the water stretch that stands between them and their new home.
An initially suspicious expression in their eyes, they step onto a purpose-built barge and demonstrate perfect behaviour. Close to the shore but not quite there, one by one they jump into the water like professionals, and, with steady movements, swim to the beach. After a quick shake they head for a collection park where they will get a chance to adjust to their new home under careful supervision before they will be let out to roam freely over the whole of the island. Whilst it is sad to say goodbye, I feel both proud and pleased that our cattle have been chosen for such a fantastic cause. Their presence will improve the vegetation, allowing flowers to establish, moths and butterflies to thrive, and ground-nesting birds to breed.
So long, buddies. But their heads are already down, their full attention focused on the tasty meal in front of them.
Sunday 11 February
It is early in the morning and I can hear the sound of hairdryers. Stepping into the hall, people in white coats are buzzing around with styling spray, combs and brushes to fluff up hair here and comb it down there. This is not the hairdressers, this is the annual spring show of Highland Cattle in Oban, where pedigree breeders come together to present their finest animals for sale. A judge will assess the cattle before they will be sold tomorrow. As the judging unfolds, I overhear two farmers in the background discussing the importance of good breeding potential in cattle before somehow drifting off to assessing the breeding potential of other people. Farmers through and through, I guess.
Our first female calf was born yesterday and I am really excited to meet the little fella today. As we arrive at the field, the mum is already standing with the other cows, waiting to be fed, the calf waiting close-by. However, as we get closer, we quickly realise that something is not right. The calf is strong and confident on its feet but looks empty. A quick feel of its tummy confirms our fear; it has not yet had any milk. A closer look at the cow reveals that she has a small cut on one of her teats, most likely inflicted by the calf using
its teeth to bite the teat rather than suckling it. A sore udder would prompt a young mum to kick anything touching it, therefore stopping the calf from trying any further. So we take mum and daughter to the shed where we will be spending the next couple of days teaching the calf how to suckle properly whilst avoiding the sore teat. Once she has mastered the art, we will keep her in for an extra day without interfering to ensure she knows what to do before letting cow and calf back to the field.
This is the second time I have checked the spray cans within the space of a few minutes. Everything is ready for the big day. Today we are checking whether our sheep are pregnant. This will allow us to split them into different groups and give mums expecting twin lambs more feed to meet their higher energy requirements whilst those carrying single lambs will receive less to ensure that they do not grow an oversized lamb which could cause lambing problems.
I remember the first time I helped during scanning, when I was given two spray cans and told to put a blue dot on every sheep carrying twin lambs and a red dot on sheep that were not pregnant. Anything carrying a single lamb would not get a dot as they will most likely make up the biggest proportion. No problem, that sounds easy enough, I thought, assuming that ultrasound scanning of sheep takes as long as it does for women. How wrong I was. The scanner held a device against the belly of the first sheep and within seconds shouted 'twin'. And he continued at that rate. Several hundred sheep later I was absolutely exhausted, both mentally and physically. But today I am prepared. The sheep are flying through the race and before we know it, it's all over. Until the lambing season in a few weeks' time that is, when the real work will start!
Monday 26 February
Today is not a good day. The calf that had to be brought into the shed to be taught how to drink milk has made no progress. We suspect that there may be an issue with its brain, especially because the mother does not show much interest which can indicate that she knows her baby won't survive. We have been fighting a losing battle in the last week and it is not fair on either cow or calf to continue keeping them in the shed, exposing them to the stress of human interference in what should be a naturally developed process. So we decide that it is time to let the little girl go to sleep. We let the cow back into the pen with the calf and give her as much time as she needs to say goodbye. Tomorrow, she will be taken back to her friends.
When working with living beings, we have to constantly remind ourselves that the well-being of our animals is paramount, and do what is best for them, even if it means that we have to end a life to end suffering.
A storm is hitting the west coast of Mull this morning, with a force that makes me want to crawl back into bed. But there's work to be done, animals to be fed and checked. If I can find them, that is. Grabbing the quadbike, a not-very-enthusiastic-looking sheep dog and some tasty cattle feed, I make my way up to the hill. The cows are already expecting me, having gathered on an area approved by their leader for today's feeding. As I put the feeding out, one by one I see the sheep gathering along the hilltops, carefully watching the dog. They remind me of those old Western movies, looking like a tribe of Apaches ready to attack.
A call from the lead sheep gives the signal to charge. Within a couple of minutes, sheep are everywhere, competing with the cows for the biggest piles of feed but staying close to the cattle, knowing that I will not send the dog into the chaos. As I watch the big morning feast unfold, I wonder who demonstrates greater persistence: the sheep as they dodge kicking cattle legs for that extra tasty pellet, or me, trying to farm here.
Photograph by Iain MacKay