Winter escapes

It feels wrong to say it is really cold here given that I come from Scotland, but it is REALLY  cold. When I head out to assist the foreman of the breeding estate on the days he is alone I wear two sweaters and a light mountaineering jacket. To me it’s a dry, desert-like cold, compared to the driving wind and rain of home. Even if it’s not below zero the warmth leaches out from me as I swing up and down from the wings of the tractor to open gates in the early mornings. To the locals however, the chill comes from the moisture the air carries from the nearby sea and salt marshes. Sometimes it almost feels like it could snow…

A calf bounds from its hiding place in what appears to be wintery conditions. The cold feel to the photograph is actually caused by the light catching the myriad little flying insects born that morning.

A calf bounds from its hiding place among the olive trees. The cold feel to the photograph is actually caused by the light catching the myriad little flying insects born that morning. Watching the tumbling and turning flecks of white as they were blown between copses reminded me of snow blowing across the moorland between clumps of pinetrees in Scotland.

Calves are still being born as we move into the New Year, but the stud bulls have been moved into the fields with the cows and newborns too now.  Just when I think I’m getting a handle on which fields hold which age-group of young males or females, or which sub-section of older animals, something changes. The winter has been very dry so far, with the cold coming early but a crucial period of rain being skipped almost entirely late last year. All the animals on the ranch need to be fed adequately but the bulls coming up to the age where they will be fought need to be in peak condition. They will be seen by buyers from variously ranked arenas and need to epitomise sleek, well filled-out, muscularity. Getting rounded flesh onto the sizeable frames of these animals is no easy task when the grazing is not at its best. In its present state the breeding estate covers about 350 hectares.  However, in the first half of the 20th century and part of the second half the bulls grazed a much larger part of the marshlands here. Gradually, with the advent of intensive fruit and olive cultivation in the area, the land was sold off and the bulls were enclosed. Many neighbouring estates moved up into the mountains, onto marginal land that could not be used for intensive agriculture. The black and blue-roan bulls of Partido de Resina remain, a tiny slice of a low density and biodiverse livestock centred ecosystem, sandwiched between endless legions of orange trees.

Some bulls munching away at their supplementary feed with orange plantations in the background. The ranch occupies a privileged position compared to many in terms of the quality of the grazing, but the bad winter will most likely see the grazing be supplemented for longer than normal.

Some bulls munching away at their supplementary feed with orange plantations in the background. The ranch occupies a privileged position compared to many in terms of the quality of the grazing, but the bad winter will most likely mean that the pasture will have to be supplemented for longer than normal.

Given the reduced space, a lot is at stake when the foreman makes a decision to move animals. Not only in terms of the quality of grazing, but also in terms of how they will interact with their neighbours. Moving the beasts is not too difficult, the enclosure of the estate brought with it a carefully designed system of gates and ‘sleeves’ or tracks between fields. The problems come when, for whatever reasons, bulls or cows decide to leave their respective fields…

Which is why when we spot cow-pats next to the tractors in the morning the air takes on a whole new chill. A lone fighting cow hiding behind a bale in the barn would be no laughing matter. Fortunately, so far this year this has only happened once, and rather than just one cow, a whole group of cows and calves escaped to graze the sleeves overnight. Though by the time we went out to see who the culprits were, they had already returned to their field and were innocently grazing there as they would be any other morning. All well and good, until we take a headcount that is. Somehow there were two heads extra! After much head-scratching and less than muffled cursing from the foreman, we spotted a slightly bulkier animal amongst a group of cows. “There’s a male there!” It was a particularly chunky three year old bull (almost three in real terms) and he looked very contented to be hanging out with the ladies. His opportunistic sidekick turned out to be another less impressive three year old who I suspect followed him over the fence when the hen party passed during the night. They bucked and kicked as we separated them from the others but they knew where they were going, and once they were out of the cows’ field they made a beeline for their own. Guilty as charged: under-age sex pests.

Mother and calf trying to re-unite across a feeding trough, amongst some very spiky undergrowth.

A frosty looking prison. Mother and calf trying to re-unite across a feeding trough, amongst some very spiky undergrowth. It’s not only fencing that separates the fields, but also cactus plants and other spiky barriers.

When I write here during the blazing Andalusian summer, perhaps I will miss these muddy, chilly days, but for now I long for the heat and the dust. Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping an eye on that chunky young bull and the corner section of fence that I’m sure he knows is not fully repaired…

Late as it is, the rain still brings mud and misery.

Late as it is, the rain still brings mud and misery.

For now – Happy New Year to readers new and old – until next time!

Robin

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