Olly first planted the idea of having a house cow last summer. In our minds it was a small leap from chickens and a productive vegetable garden to a house cow for our dairy needs.
When Alex and Jack bought Westness croft last March and set their sights on turning it into a nature reserve, they mentioned the need for grazing by cattle and/or ponies, but not being keen on keeping animals themselves. Olly and I showed a keen interest in becoming graziers on the land, having no land of our own for a cow.
We’d want a native breed that would be fairly self sufficient, ok on rough grazing and not in desperate need of shelter over winter. We would prefer something small, having never had a cow before, and the cow would have to be used to being milked. We looked at Northern Dairy Shorthorns, though being so rare they are pretty difficult to get hold of, and despite being a ‘dairy’ breed, not many people were milking them. They were also on the larger side. So we decided on a Shetland cow. Again, not many people were milking them, so although cows would come up, they perhaps weren’t tame enough to milk.
In February an ad came up on the Shetland Cattle facebook page for a small herd looking for a new home. Unfortunately the owner could no longer look after them, but had been wanting to use them as a micro dairy herd herself. The herd comprised of:
Tom - 10 year old female, in cal, “due any day"
Una - 6 year old female
Eddie - 1.5 year old female, daughter of Una
Magnus - 1 year old steer (castrated male)
Greibidh - (pronounced Gravy) 6 month old steer, son of Una, Aberdeen Angus Cross
We certainly hadn’t been looking for 5 cattle, but the cows fit the bill, and really it would just be 3 after we got rid of the boys….
Logistically it was a nightmare. The cattle were based in Sutherland. Having never moved livestock before, it was a very steep learning curve. The hauliers pick them up and take them to the ferry to go to mainland Orkney. But where do they stay overnight before the boat to North Ronaldsay? What do we put them in to travel on the boat? How do we get them from the pier to Westness?
In the end the went “loose” on the boat to North Ronaldsay as we couldn’t borrow a trailer from anyone. Loose meant in a small pen, which they’re only allowed to do in certain weather conditions. In February, this was a bit of a gamble! So it was touch and go until they actually set sail. Then they’re craned off in the pen and transferred to another pen on the pier.
Once the general ferry chaos had died down, we took them on a surreal stroll all the way up island to Westness, luring them along with a bucket. At last they were in their new home. Westness suddenly felt alive again, after years of being empty, with our 5 cattle against the backdrop of the North Sea.
At the beginning we didn’t have any way of getting the water from the well to a trough, besides filling up 20l bottles and lugging them 150m, in the wind and rain mostly! Olly’s back was still suffering badly, so he became my cheerleader, as I carted 100s of litres of water around. Cattle drink ~50 litres a day, and we had 5 of them! Thankfully the solar powered water pump arrived, and after some battery hiccups, it worked like a dream.
Not too long after we got them their gate blew down one night and they ended up a kilometre away in someone’s garden. Naturally, that didn’t go down too well!
We attempted separating Una from her calf Greibidh overnight to milk her in the morning, but he ended up jumping over the fence. Milking with the machine was a big faff with no hot or running water supply at Westness to clean it, and nowhere to tie her up while being milked. It became too much for me to do (with Olly unable to help because of his back problems), so we put milking on hold.
Back to the original ad, which said that Tom was “due any day”. We waited and the weeks went by, with no calf appearing. After speaking to the owner about when the bull was with Tom, we had the end of March as the last possible calving date. That too came and went, and it became apparent there was no calf coming. This was pretty disappointing as the main reason we went for the herd was because we’d have a new calf and fresh milk supply imminently. But given how mad life became, maybe it was a blessing in disguise.