Open Country with Erica Hume Niven

THE arm of a floral print cotton night dress is caught on the branches of a birch tree. A large blue towel flaps against the moss on a dry-stane dyke. A man’s overall billows in the strong wind, reminiscent of a scarecrow with legs and arms made round from the straw that is stuffed into them.

Green, yellow and white cloths flap in the easterly winds like bunting. Beyond, the loch is dark navy and angry. Lambs run in groups along the river bank, along the field walls and along the edge of the stone track. This is a great game. They jump with their bottoms pushed up in the air and turn round to start their run all over again.

Engine sounds compete on the hill, the road and the sky. Quad bikes give a low strum, motorbikes and logging lorries thunder along the road and, occasionally, jets fly low through the valley. The roar hits the hillsides violently and is gone within seconds. The dogs howl like wolves.

In the shed, a penned ewe gives a low growl and bends her head towards her lamb. I reverse the rusted wheelbarrow to an empty pen. The hay fork scratches the earthen floor as I pick up soiled straw. Sheep poo sounds like little pebbles as it falls through the tines. As I scrape compact sawdust off the floor, the smell of ammonia is strong but it passes.

The ewes that have been twinned with a new lamb are nervous when I enter the paddocks with the young dog, Ben. They start to walk towards us when they hear the pellets falling into the troughs. Their water comes from the river and the loch. I am transported back in time as I walk into the loch and submerge the bucket so that it fills with cool clean water.

After giving birth ewes, have a great thirst. If they have to be brought into the shed, you can hear them sooking water. They take such a deep drink that a couple of litres may be consumed within seconds. Their heads are rock hard and their horns dangerous. I lower buckets in using my crook as a hook.

The buchs sit part way up the hill behind the pheasant woods. They are made up of a small stone byre, two paddocks and pens. Like the pens by the loch, the post and rail and wee gates are worn down and weathered to a collection of rickety wood. They have long lost the yellow-orange of pine and are black, green and grey as if they belong in an impressionist painting.

The wood is warm to the touch in the afternoon sunlight. It is smooth and rough. I like the sound of the chain and hook when they are unlatched. I like the clacking sound when a gate is swung open. One of my jobs was to move the new twins down the rocky track to the greener fields below.

In the evening there is a racket outside. I look into the small fields on the other side of the cottage walls. Two lambs are bleating frantically, a ewe returns their stressed calls. Somehow these twins have got into the wrong field. With one of the dogs, a crook and a bit of luck they are returned to their mother.

Lambing makes it difficult to settle down at night. I think I only have two lambs and the dogs to feed. Dusk is heavy. Davy’s tall dark figure fills the doorway. I have to put my rubber trousers on and go and assist with a ewe whose lambing bed has come out. She is not in the trailer, she is still on the hill.

Darkness is crawling. I gingerly side step down a steep slope; there is gravel and water. Down on a shelf just above Riskinhope Burn I see the ewe. The night is almost black by the time he stitches her up. It’s cold. We can return to the fire and our meal, but she will be out here all night. Davy reports the next morning that she is up on her feet and grazing – job done.