DOUG NIVEN, stimulated by the exceptional winter weather we are experiencing, quoted in his 'The Gleaner' column, as he often does, the comprehensive weather records kept by the Aitchison family of Lochton, Kelso, which date back to 1903.

John Aitchison’s grandmother’s family, Craw by name, farmed Rawburn, where I was brought up, from 1882 to 1902, then after that West Foulden. They, too, kept meticulous records which were reported in the annals of The Berwickshire Naturalists Club.

These not only covered the weather, but also topics such as when they started haying the hill sheep. Supplementary feed was only given when sheep were stormed, so was deemed noteworthy.

They also reported on the bird life on the farm. At that time, if a rare bird was seen it was often shot to prove it. As a memorial, walls of stately homes remain to this day lined with these little beauties looking sadly out of glass cases.

Anything considered a threat to game suffered a similar fate. A far greater proportion of the countryside was at that time in ownership of huge estates compared to today. They were well 'keepered.

The 'vermin' shot on Glengarry between 1838 and 1840 were as follows:

  • Foxes - 11
  • Honey buzzards - 3
  • Wild cats -198
  • Kestrels - 462
  • Marten cats - 246
  • Merlins -78
  • Pinecats - 106
  • Hen harriers - 63
  • Stoats/weasels - 301
  • Jer falcons - 6
  • Badgers - 67
  • Long tailed blue hawks - 9
  • Otters - 48
  • Hooded crows - 1431
  • House cats - 78
  • Ravens - 475
  • White-tailed sea eagles - 27
  • Owls - 71
  • Golden eagles - 15
  • Hobby hawks - 11
  • Blue hawks - 98
  • Kites - 275
  • Orange legged falcons - 7
  • Marsh harriers - 5
  • Goshawks - 63
  • Horned owls - 35
  • Buzzards (common) - 285
  • Golden owls - 3
  • Rough legged buzzards - 371
  • Magpies - 8

Total - 4874

Moving to the recent Aberdeen-Angus bull sale at Stirling and to a lesser extent the Limousin sale at Carlisle, after the events I examined the results to see if there was any relationship between calving ease and birth weight EBVs and the price a bull made through the ring. There wasn’t.

As always, strong bulls well-presented remained the driver to a good trade.

At home, we have weighed every new-born calf on a scale and accurately reported details of its birth for 30 years. Unfortunately, unlike with other EBVs relating to a calf’s later life, we have found little relationship between our real world experience and EBVs for calving, whether calculated by Signet or Breedplan.

We still place considerable store on actual birth weights. In a perfect world, they should give a less good indication of calving ease or otherwise of a bull’s progeny than EBVs but this particular world isn’t perfect.

Our experience is that, more than any other factor relating to calving difficulty, the most important thing is simply the relationship between the size of the calf and its dam. Heavy muscularity, big heads and strong fore legs don’t help.

Calving data will always be self -policing and so often it appears is guesswork or, occasionally, deliberate manipulation. Two years ago, it was reported that false information about calving by pedigree breeders was costing the Irish beef industry €10m every year.

Unlike in daily newspapers, reader's letters in breed society publications are rare enough to be note-worthy, so I read with considerable interest a letter in 'The Charolais Journal' by Ralph Needham, owner of the Cockerington herd of poll Charolais.

In his book 'Seventy summers', Tony Harman, who was instrumental in bringing the Charolais into Britain in the 1960s, wrote that polling the breed should be a priority. But, the dilemma with every horned breed wishing to introduce the polled factor is whether to try from a ‘sport’ within the breed, or to introduce genetics from another naturally polled breed.

Whichever method used, it resulted in a long time-lag before the polled cattle are as good as their horned brethren. Ralph Needham has been one of the few to follow Tony Harman’s advice and is now reaping the rewards of his perseverance.

He stressed in his letter that EBVs are only as good as the data supplied by breeders. He particularly deplored deliberately falsifying an animal’s birth date which not only gives that animal an unfair advantage in the show and sale ring, but distorts the figures for related beasts.

The reality is that some breeders are not very good at self-policing and some of the breed societies have abrogated their responsibility in bringing the errant to book.

An exception has been the British Limousin Cattle Society. It has strengthened its constitution and is obviously sorting the problem out. Wrongly aged bulls at Carlisle were few and no doubt those who continue to transgress will receive a call.

Mr Needham concluded by noting that over his lifetime nothing has been more successful in both breeding better cattle and attracting repeat clients in his own operation than improvement based on accurate recording. He shared our own experience that the commercial suckler breeders who come to the farm, while still looking for an attractive and powerful bull, also take considerable note of the calving figures provided.

Back to the birds. While no twitcher and not very knowledgeable, I take huge pleasure in watching the birds in the feeders in the garden.

Most are common birds – sparrows, chaffinches, blackbirds, siskins, blue and great tits – and no less welcome for that. Less common are greenfinches, woodpeckers, robins and goldfinches.

Last month, I saw a wren in the garden at Roxburgh Mains. It was quite without fear and allowed me within a few feet of it. Then I noticed a fluorescent yellow stripe above its beak.

My shepherd, Ian, who knows about these things, told me it was a goldcrest. They are the smallest birds we have. They weigh five to seven grams compared to a wren’s eight to 12. That little beauty made my day. Had it been born 150 years ago, it would have been bagged!