Wild Farm Red Deer

Spring has sprung and summer has come, with all the beautiful shades of green from spring barley to birch trees. Wild Farm is a rich mix of fields, native woodland and heathery hills and after a winter of bland colours and snow ( a rare sight last winter though ) it is great to see the rich green colours return.

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New growth of vegetation means welcome fresh food for all the animals on the farm. From rations of silage and hay over the winter they can now enjoy fields of young grass to feast on. With this abundance of growth it is perfect timing for red deer calves to be born. June is the main month for calving and the hinds slip away from the herd to find a quiet spot to calve.

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 Last year we were lucky enough to witness one of our hand reared hinds ‘Willow’ calve and the following sequence shows the first faltering steps of her calf.

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While the hinds are busy calving and producing milk for their new born calves the stags are well into growing their new velvet antlers. This process starts when the old boney antlers from last year fall off. In fact the newly growing velvet antlers ‘push’ the old ones off. The mature stags are the first to lose the old antlers, they need to get on with growing the new set, which have just 3.5 months to grow.  By June the antlers are well developed and to produce this mass of bone, they need plenty of good spring grass to feed on.

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Red deer calves are very secretive when they are new born, hiding up in long grass for at least 2 weeks before they join their mother with the herd. So by the end of June we are starting to see the calves gathering together, enjoying each others company and running around and playing like spring lambs.

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Basking in sun is not a habit restricted to humans sunbathing on the beach. Our ‘free to roam’ Marans ( hens that lay the most beautiful and tasty dark brown eggs ) are the first to find a sunny spot on the farm.

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Tilly

May at Ruthven Farm

April and May are the busiest months of the year at Ruthven. From the middle of April till the middle of May, 1200 lambs were born! 600 Blackface ewes lambed out in the fields, producing mainly Scotch Mule lambs (Scottish Blackface mother and Bluefaced Leicester father), and a few pure Blackface lambs as flock replacements. 70 cheviots and Shetland-cheviot crosses lambed outside as well producing cheviot lambs, and some pure Shetland ewes had cheviot cross lambs which were soon nearly as big as themselves!

Blackface ewe with mule lambs, this one had triplets!

Blackface ewe with mule lambs, this one had triplets!

Cheviot ewe and lambs

Cheviot ewe and lambs

150 mules lambed in the sheds, producing Suffolk-cross lambs. These are lambed inside as they tend to have more multiple births, and bigger lambs so are more likely to need attention. They are turned out with their lambs usually 24 hours after lambing, weather permitting. Also in the sheds at that time were any ewes expecting triplets. This year there were 74 of them! But  we don’t often let a ewe rear all 3 lambs – it is really too much to ask of most sheep, so in most cases we try to take the third lamb and foster it onto a ewe who has only a single lamb. If you do this as the foster mother is giving birth, the results are really successful – she goes away happy that she has just had 2 lambs and the other ewe is turned out to grass with her two remaining lambs.  This vastly reduces the number of lambs in the bottle rearing pen.

A successful fostering - mule ewe, right hand lamb is her own suffolk cross lamb, left hand lamb is a mule lamb out of a blackface ewe.

A successful fostering - mule ewe, right hand lamb is her own suffolk cross lamb, left hand lamb is a mule lamb out of a blackface ewe.

Cheeky!

Cheeky!

Pens of ewes expecting triplets

Pens of ewes expecting triplets

All the male lambs will be fattened on farm on grass (and turnips for the slower to mature ones) and sold for meat from July onwards. The mule ewe lambs are sold in September through the market at Huntly, destined for breeding flocks on lower ground. We keep 40 of these each year as replacements for our own small flock of mules. The best of the Suffolk cross ewe lambs will be sold for breeding, and the rest will be fattened along with the males.

As well as the commercial flock of course we have several different breeds, some of which we lamb early in February, to allow the lambs a chance to grow before the summer shows, and to enable us to give these sheep more individual attention. So in the fields can also be seen Ryeland, Icelandic and Bluefaced Leicester lambs.

Icelandic ewe and lamb

Icelandic ewe and lamb

Icelandic tup lamb

Icelandic tup lamb

Ryelands

Ryelands

So a frantic time of year but also one of the most enjoyable. By the end of May, all the ewes have lambed, lambs are dosed and vaccinated, and the fields are looking full. The next big job to look forward to will be shearing, as the weather warms up and the fleeces begin to lift.  And of course the show season, starting with our first try showing at the Royal Highland Show – we will be there with Mules and Ryelands.

Even through the busy times, we still snatch moments to appreciate the wildlife around us on the farm. At the start of May we managed to catch a photo of an osprey, visiting one of our ponds. This year the lapwings, with their distinctive call, were much slower to arrive than usual, but eventually the numbers did increase, and now some have successfully hatched chicks. Oystercatchers and curlews are here in good numbers, and the skylark can be heard every day singing their hearts out above the hill.

Osprey visiting

Osprey visiting

Skylark

Skylark

The hedges that we planted in 2010 are looking fantastic, providing great habitat for wildlife, crab apples blackthorn and hawthorn have a tremendous display of flowers, and so hopefully a good supply of food for birds later on.

Crab apple in flower

Crab apple in flower

Lesley

April at Wild Farm

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Our Belted Galloway cows began to calve in April and by the end of the month 12 had calved but we had 13 calves. Unusually for us one of our older cows Balcorrach Nelly had twins. All very confusing for the cow as one of them was a good bit smaller and quite weak, so her instinct to mother them was split between the small heifer calf that just lay there looking miserable and larger, greedy bull calf who was wanting all the milk.

However a little bit of intervention goes a long way. We took the cattle crush down to the field, made a small pen, milked Nelly and gave the calves bottles of her milk then kept them in the pen overnight. By the second day the wee female had cheered up and Nelly was mothering them both. They are a bit smaller than the singles but should do fine. Unfortunately in cattle though if you have a male and female twin then the female is usually rendered infertile, in the farming world we call it a ‘freemartin’. The most widely accepted explanation for this is that sex hormones from the male twin pass across to the female twin while in the womb.

Nelly and her twins

Nelly and her twins

All the other cows calved without a hitch but we will still have calves born into June and early July. Our bull Staffords Alexander has proved to be a good working bull. We replaced our old bull 2 years ago and so the calves being born now are the second batch for Alexander. The pregnancy of a cow is 9 months so he was certainly busy last summer! Once a cow has calved it is normally about 3 months before she is receptive again to the bull. This means that with some certainty cows will calve every 12 months at the same time of year. This of course harks back to before domestication when cows were wild animals and they would have been calving in spring to make the most of the growing vegetation over the summer months. Nowadays cows can calve at any time of year, but generally farmers will coincide calving with either spring or autumn, depending on their management regime.

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As well as the cows calving our soay sheep are lambing. With the soays it just a question of ‘letting them get on with it’. Because of their wild nature if you try to intervene the ewe will abandon her lamb, in the same way as deer will abandon their fawns if disturbed. So all we do is keep an eye on proceedings and if there is a lonesome lamb then we will pick it up and hand rear it. This hasn’t happened this year but last year I ended up with two wee lambs.

The first one was born during the very cold weather we had last year and overnight must have got frozen. I found him in the morning as good as dead and brought him into the house and laid him on the under floor heating in the conservatory. He didn’t move but was breathing. Too weak even to suck a bottle I left him to ‘warm up’. It’s amazing what happens once warmth flows through the body and to my surprise by the next morning he just about raised his head off the ground.

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He never looked back and hilariously formed a strong bond with my border terrier Moskki, even sharing her bed. I named him Yosa ( if you think about it is an anagram of ---- ).

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Just as Yosa was starting to live outside and I thought I was rid of a lamb in the house, along came Skippy. Skippy was bright as a button, full of life but motherless! She must have been a few days old when we discovered her and in contrast to Yosa had real energy about her. She settled into house life very quickly and soon made herself at home, this time, on the sofa in the conservatory.

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I managed to get her outside befriending Yosa quite quickly and soon they were best of buddies - but totally different. Luckily for me a local person got in touch looking for a couple of soays and I gladly passed the two lambs onto her. She was over the moon and they are star attraction with visitors to her self catering cottages on her smallholding.

Tilly

March at Ruthven Farm

The Waders are back! Here at Ruthven Farm there is nothing we like more than to see the return of the oystercatchers, lapwings and curlews in February / March. They are a real sign that spring is on its way (though it is said that the lapwing always brings snow with it, and this year was no exception!) We have seen flocks of 40+ of each species, and they are enjoying feeding in fields which are rather soft and muddy following the last thaw of snow. From February till after lambing, ewes are fed concentrate feed daily in the fields using a snacker pulled behind the quad bike.  A lovely job on a nice morning, and we always stop the bike for a few minutes at the top of the hill, and just listen to the number of bird species we can hear. The cheeriest has to be the little skylark, which sings its way higher and higher into the sky, then dives down to start all over again.

Oystercatchers pleased to see the snow receding

Oystercatchers pleased to see the snow receding

Lapwing in the snow

Lapwing in the snow

March is a busy month with the sheep, getting everything and everyone ready for the lambing season. At the end of February the ewes were all scanned to see how many lambs they were carrying. Those with triplets were immediately split off from the rest, housed and fed extra food to help them maintain body condition with 3 growing lambs inside them. Last week the ewes expecting singles, and those expecting twins, were split into separate groups, and will now be fed accordingly. Also all the ewes received booster vaccinations against clostridial diseases, a mineral drench, and were dosed for fluke and worms. The main lambing season starts in just over 3 weeks – it is always an extremely busy time, with long days and little sleep, but a time that we all enjoy. 

Waiting for breakfast

Waiting for breakfast

…and enjoying it!

…and enjoying it!

A few sheep were lambed early and now have lambs at foot. The point of this is to lamb the pedigree sheep at a time when we have more chance to give them individual attention, and it also means come showing season the lambs are big enough to compete with animals from lowland areas where spring arrives earlier and hence lambing is usually earlier.  We rarely leave a ewe to rear triplets, as we feel it is asking too much of her. During the main lambing the surplus lambs will often be fostered onto another ewe who has only a single lamb or has lost her lambs, but with the early lambers we don’t have suitable foster mums. So there are 4 pet lambs being bottle reared…

Pet lambs

Pet lambs

Blue Faced Leicester ewe and lamb

Blue Faced Leicester ewe and lamb

Suffolk lambs

Suffolk lambs

A huddle of Ryeland lambs!

A huddle of Ryeland lambs!

So as we come towards the end of a month that has seen both heavy snow and temperatures in the teens, we are hoping that the mild weather will continue now right through lambing and that spring really is here.

Winter Feeding at Wild Farm

The belties are enthusiastic about a bit of extra feed

The belties are enthusiastic about a bit of extra feed

From mid November and probably till the middle of April ( or later ) we will be winter feeding. The grass has no goodness in it and the stocks of silage and hay grown on the farm over the summer months are dwindling.  Normally it is just silage we feed to the deer and cows, but the dry summer last year meant we got quite a lot of hay too. Bonus, hay is cheaper to make ( no expensive plastic silage wrap ) and the cows love it. All the cows are kept out over the winter, they have thick coats to repel all the bad weather and with some shelter and hay they will fare well through any conditions.

The red deer and fallow deer are getting chopped silage. The round bales of silage are put through a ‘chopper’ and then filled into long feed trailers that get taken up into the fields. By chopping the silage there is much less waste, deer can be picky!

Fallow in the snow

Fallow in the snow

With the Tomintoul Distillery just down the road we also feed the deer draff, a ‘left-overs’ of the barley that is used to make whisky. Locally sourced and mixed with barley we grow and bruise ourselves here on the farm, we certainly don’t have any ‘animal feed miles’.

The iron-age pigs are fed daily regardless of the time of year and once a week along with their normal rations of sow rolls and bruised barely we collect ‘flour’ ( another by-product from the distilling process ) from the Distillery too and give this to the pigs. Not a feed you want to give the pigs on a windy day, it gets everywhere because it is so light and literally like flour!

Soays with their dusting of snow

Soays with their dusting of snow

The soay sheep are only fed when the weather is really bad, deep snow or very hard frost. Like the deer they are better fed the chopped silage, less waste and some hard feed poured on top.  They live out on the hill all year round, found shelter in an old tumbled down house and in the river bank.

Expectant reindeer!

Expectant reindeer!

And finally to the reindeer here that spend the winter on the Cromdales. While the daily routine of winter feeding happens here at the farm, the reindeer are left to their own devices. Highly adapted to cope with extreme winter conditions, they don’t need a daily feed and tough it out on the high ground, surviving on digging through the snow for lichens.

TILLY