Thick Frost: Breathing Sweet

  06 Nov '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn


Illustration by Sharon Tingey

I have sold an animal, and now I see the first wink of income after five years.

We struck a deal on Thursday, and arrangements were made to collect the beast at first light the following morning.

A thick frost fell overnight; I pick my way into the yard beneath a gallery of stars to find the quad bike. The shed door rolls back on its runners and wild duck pour past overhead. They’ve come from inland, and now they rush down to the Solway to roost. They’re whooping with the joy of it, and I think Fergus rides with them.

The lorry is coming in less than an hour. The cattle pens are open, but we are three fields away on unfamiliar ground. I clasp a half bale of hay between my knees and trundle out from the shed into the icy fields, feeling my way in the darkness. A cold yellow glow provides backlighting to the Lake District – the shapes of Skiddaw and Buttermere glower over the Solway as I gain altitude and pause to open each gate in turn, leaving dark fingerprints on the icy bars. I reach the fields where the beasts have been left and begin to shout. The cattle are suckers for my call, and the scent of hay will draw them from a long distance.

The quad bike rolls to a halt. Suddenly I am surrounded by animals – great broadsides of black, steaming hair beneath the stars. The cattle move half-seen around me, silhouetted against the sea, black shapes breathing sweet cud into the stillness. Folds of land have conspired to hide every spark of electric light. The quad bike aside, this scene might have been playing out in the eighteenth century.

The beasts are keen; I push the bike ahead and shout and wave the dry grass. They take the bait and crowd behind me, but some freak of excitement and enthusiasm spurs their curiosity into an avalanche. They toss their heads and begin to stampede down the hill. I pick up speed and they come along with me, puffing and rollicking beside the bike. They feed on their own excitement; they kick their heels and roll their eyes until the frozen soil fairly rumbles beneath them. Clods of icy mud fly against the stars and I am driving inside a heaving mass of living meat – twelve tons of beef bellowing and rumbling within arm’s reach.

On the final stretch to the pens, the broad landscape opens out before me in the gloaming – a rolling spread of whin, oak wood and white moorland for thirty miles. I shout and cheer the beasts on, and there are hot tears streaking back into my ears. These are my animals and this is our place. They are made of my grass and the feed I have worked to give them; hours of labour and weeks of sweating pain have made them fat and valuable. I am deliciously glad that we have done this ourselves because every inch of this flaring joy is our own, and I wish my wife was here to see it. The beasts run ahead of me, and soon I am tossing the hay in the pens. The trap is closed behind them. They mill happily around me in the muck as I shut the gate and prepare for the cattle lorry.

I don’t rush off to work at my desk as the sun finally comes up and burns the frost off the rushes; I am already working. I look to the cattle and think of how long it took me to win these animals round. I felt like they did not need me until I realised they had been issuing me with a stack of IOUs from day one. That beast would have died without my help in calving. That one was stuck and had to be rescued from a mire. We’ve done this together, and we’ve rubbed our shoulders.

There is no reason to pass through this place. A tourist might park up and take snapshots here on summer days, but Galloway is not a good place to take photographs. Cameras like contours and busy angles, but this beauty lies in emptiness and the breadth of space. Nobody would ever come to see this blue mass of dark clouds and sighing moorland. You’d need a damn good reason to be out here on a morning like this, and now I have one.

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