Notes from a wild island – 9.4.20

A pedigree Highland calf exploring with its mother. Photograph: Stephanie Cope

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Lost and found

I picked forlornly at a fresh tear in my waterproofs. It was absolutely persisting it down, and this chink in my armour would surely hasten the chilly spread of damp.

With a sigh, I swatted further brambles away, and continued to climb the rocky slope. Searching for a small bracken-coloured body among bracken-coloured bracken was no easy task. It was steep, populated by thousands of thorny suckers, and there were ankle-snapping gaps between the weathered boulders.

Below, the herd looked on in collective indignation. Not only had we had the temerity to arrive on quadbikes without any food, but we had brought one of the farm collies. Breagha wagged her tail feebly, as 30 heavily pregnant cows waddled inexorably towards her.

Ordinarily, the farm team wouldn’t dream of bringing a dog at this time of year. But one of the calves was lost, and the presence of a dog sometimes encourages an anxious dam to go and stand with her hidden baby. By law, our cattle must be ear tagged within seven days of birth. For this, and more obvious husbandry reasons, it’s important that new or missing youngsters are located.

Calves frequently lie low – parked in some snuggly patch of vegetation, safe from harm and awaiting their next meal. This behaviour is seen in other wild ungulates such as deer, who use it as a means of protection. But every so often, disaster strikes, and newborns become trapped in crevasses, bogs or deer wallows.

Highland cows are excellent mothers (our ladies all give birth on the hill), but they are also cunning. Once their suspicion is aroused, they can dig deep. Oscar-worthy performances follow; the sole intention of which is deception by misdirection. Standing wistfully on a rise, the new mother throws clandestine glances at nothing. With every appearance of concern, she seems hardly able to prevent herself from staring – in the opposite direction to her offspring. Thus, to be sure that all is well, a certain amount of surveillance is required.

Occasionally, a cow’s udder becomes a little too taut, and newborn calves struggle to get a purchase. When this happens, Alex must patiently (not to mention cautiously) help the little animal secure its first meal. This might be done in the confines of a shed. With the best natured beasts, it’s done wherever the little family happen to be standing. Once the udder empties a fraction and the calf becomes more persistent, there is no need for further intervention. Alas, the odd youngster is slow to catch on, and may attempt to suckle… elsewhere. Not the start in life we all hope for; but even these unfortunates go on to do OK.

Parenting styles differ between individual cows and between age classes. First-time mums are more secretive than older members of the herd. Nevertheless, whatever your parenting style, when no one has seen your offspring for four days straight, probing questions must be asked.

Today’s woman of the hour was taking a decidedly hands-off approach. Each morning, she had waited eagerly for her breakfast – licking drool from her glistening muzzle and barging everyone else out of the way. When visited mid-morning, she had sauntered over in the hope of securing further nourishment. Late afternoon, she was always grazing solo, showing no maternal leanings whatsoever. Everyone else had their calves at heel, moving in stately tandem across the sward. Not so number 872.

Now, in the most infernal rain, she watched blithely from afar as we conducted a fingertip search. Four of us had fanned out across the shrubby embankment, checking everywhere. It was a thankless task; not least because we feared the calf already dead. Indeed, 872’s compatriots seemed far more outraged by our presence than she did. Faced with a certain amount of ill-tempered bellowing, Breagha had beaten a hasty retreat to the quadbike. There, surrounded by angry pregnant ladies, she radiated mute appeal.

After a good hour, the shout went up. My heart sank.

Warm, comfortable and looking for all the world like a plump teddy bear, was 872’s baby. It was curled in a narrow gully, and squashed vegetation could be seen from 872’s regular (if not especially dainty) visits. Her deception had been complete – but there was no doubt in my mind whose calf was the cosiest that day.