Thursday, 31 May 2007

Reasons to be cheerful - part 4

Woody's back! (Photo taken through kitchen window so not crystal clear - he's a shy beastie).

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Catching my breath

Not everyone has a strong sense of home. For some, home is where they grew up. For others, it's where they hang their hat. I have had several homes, but so far the one that has meant the most has been the one where I lived at that moment - my nostalgia for homes past is limited. Arriving in Devon two years ago felt like I was moving to a different country, not county. It was and is so utterly different from my previous surroundings. I have been used to having farms on my doorstep, but not where farming is the mainstay for nearly all local people. So considering how people who have lived here the majority of their lives still see themselves as incomers, how come I feel so quickly at home? I suspect that the situation of the farm has a lot to do with it. The house is sheltered in a children's storybook way, sitting in a dip, nestling. When I walk the dogs I rarely move out of the farm boundaries, but I still see something new each time - a flower, a dip in the land, the shape of a tree, a gap in a hedge, a ditch running with fresh rainwater, a clump of frog spawn.
As you walk or drive down the grassy lane to the house there are terrific views in all directions; it makes me catch my breath every time. You can place yourself firmly in the season, the landscape and the OS map. The sense of place is very strong. And then there is all the work that needs to be done on the land and on the buildings. Facing you every morning as you throw open the curtains are immense tasks that will take years and see me move through all my middle years. This roots you too; tasks to be undertaken, improvements and restorations to be started and to be completed. And when you steal an unexpected sunny day from a forecast of rain, and lie in a meadow of pignut, speedwell, bugle and bluebells for some respite from fencing, you catch your breath again.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Cerberus and me

Mopsa, my single headed Cerberus, has decided that the entrance to Hades has moved over the years. Originally, the gates of the underworld were otherwise known as the front door. Or at least the door that serves as such; the true front door is permanently locked with modern bolts and also the kind of ancient key that usually shuts a heavy oak church door and tears holes in your pocket due to its weight. It would probably snap the steering column off my car if I was to attach it to my keyring. Anyway, back to Mopsa. She slept in the dog/boot/laundry room with half-sister Fenn and guarded the entry to the home. After a considerable period of contentment, she suddenly decided that the passageway to Hades mysteriously shifted in the early hours and at 3am she would whine and scratch at the door, asking to be let into the rest of the house. After weeks of this I let her stand guard at night in my downstairs office - the kitchen gets too warm for such a hairy beast. Six months later, she determined that the portal to the other world was more likely to be the bedroom. So after seven years of absolutely not letting her come upstairs and keeping the bedrooms a dog-free zone, Cerberus now sleeps in the bedroom, her tail thumping happily on the floorboards, sending dust-bunnies scurrying for cover. Even so, I KNOW there is a mouse rootling about up there and my monstrous hound just puts her paws over her ears and goes to sleep. Fenn meanwhile, is convinced that the threshold to Hades is static, and she keeps eager ears alert that no living thing will enter whilst it's her shift.

Tomorrow is Mopsa's seventh birthday - perhaps she would like some honeycakes to celebrate.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Shearing of tegs

Tonight there was a warm-up shearing session. The eight Torwen tegs bought in from Wales last year as ewe lambs to add fresh blood to the breeding stock were the first to lose their coats. The shaggy fleece bleaches from black to brown in the sun over the year between shearings, but freshly done, they are as black as black, with their distinctive beige bellies, chins and eyebrows. There was the usual wriggling and squirming of young, inexperienced sheep, and a real sigh of relief when they were all found to be maggot free. This warm, wet weather provides the perfect conditions for flystrike, and maggot removal comes pretty close to as yucky as it gets. So, sometime over the bank holiday weekend the main flock will be barbered, as will Toyboy the ram. There will be swearing, there will be bruising and there will be sweating. The sheep will be fine.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

A technical luddite chooses a camera

So much on the farm needs recording: the improvements to the hedges, Devon banks and fencing; the planting of new orchard trees; the creation of wildlife habitats; the bird, bat and dormouse boxes high and low in the trees; the restoration of grasslands and encouragement of wild flowers and its associated wildlife. I want to capture the changes, in particular making a permanent visual record of the wild flowers that are increasingly colonising the woodlands and meadows. I'd like to record the butterflies and barn owls but as I am cack-handed and noisy, a sort of human heffalump when it comes to tiptoeing across twig-strewn landscapes, that is unlikely. The one thing I'm not allowed to look at, never mind photograph, are any dormice inhabiting the hedgerows or any of the many nesting boxes we have placed for them close to hazel and honeysuckle, their favourite habitat. As they are a protected species, you need a Dormouse Handling licence to do anything other than dream about the soft russet critters. But in the wood, there is one dormouse box with a tuft of sheep's fleece dangling near the entrance hole - something is nesting in there and making a cosy bed to rear young.
So the mission is to find a digital camera that even a luddite like me can handle, small enough to keep in my pocket pretty permanently to capture the moment. I am in thrall to this little beauty (it's hugely cheaper elsewhere of course). And no, I'll resist the temptation to create an advertorial of desirable, blingy objects. Most posh stuff looks odd when teamed with filthy feet and a wild barnet.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Nope, I really must do some gardening

Tempting though it is to write about last night's visit to Lifton Farm, being taken round with a group of local farmers by a shiny new futuristic tractor on a trailer with straw bale seats, I really should be out weeding in the sunshine. But then again, it's a bit too hot inside the polytunnel at the moment, so perhaps I can spare a few moments and divulge.
If ever the word entrepreneurial was fitting, this was a shining example. I've never seen such diversity on one farm, and all being produced for sale in their own shop. First came the starters - the asparagus beds - I could have hopped off my slow-moving bale and cut enough for 100 people in minutes. They were gloriously phallic and abundant, winking at us in the evening sun. Next the main course; 5000 free range chickens producing eggs and about 100 wee goslings (same size and age as my 2 young 'uns) - and 500 turkey poults easing their way towards Christmas. I can't even remember all the vegetables being grown - but my sweetcorn is doing better than theirs and it's all organic at home! Then the sheep (a new tentative venture) and the firmly ensconced bullocks - two of which are slaughtered each week to supply the shop with beef. At this point we saw their quarry - incredible multicoloured slate that provided the poshest hardcore for a drive that I've ever seen - most of us would be pleased to use it for the kitchen floor. Then we went a bit bonkers and were taken through the woods and down a steep slope before crossing the River Lyd (I wasn't expecting or dressed for white water rafting) to admire another bunch of bullocks - more feisty this time but still unwilling to come across the river when we turned back for a second go at potential "man overboard" delights. Then it was the pudding course. The strawberries, two or three varieties that last from now 'til October, are grown outside and in polytunnels, the latter in grow bags that are suspended on posts and wires at chest height to deter slugs and make picking kinder on the back. Then to the orchards for dessert - bramleys and eating apples, pears, plums and damsons, raspberries, redcurrants , blackcurrants and gooseberries. The hedges were full of hazels but they didn't mention cropping the cobnuts. I felt exhausted just looking at everything they do - it's no mean feat producing so many different things from plot to plate. Back to the restaurant (yup, they have one of those too) for hot pasties, beef sarnies, cups of tea and strawberries and cream. If Rick Stein is king of Padstow, the Mounce Family are king, queen, prince and princess of Lifton.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Three little birds, pitch by my doorstep...

...singing sweet songs, and gathering beakfuls of mud. The House Martins are at it again, and scooping mud and fallen cob from the derelict barns, softened by regular applications by the humans with water from the watering can. They swoop, they scoop, they build. There are about a dozen House Martin clay nests clinging to the wall below the roofline of the house. If you are into design, you can arrange the colours of the nests by changing the type of mud clumps you put out for them, so you get striated nests in variable muddy colours. Haven't yet gone the whole hog and added cochineal or woad, but am tempted. The only thing that holds me back is that when it rains I am likely to find blue and red streaks running down the whitewash and the conservation officer might not approve of that kind of makeover.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Tufty's revenge

I have blogged about squirrel's before, and remarked on their potential for being as tough as Pirelli's best. I wasn't wrong. There is a Tufty (sadly of the grey variety) living in the saplings behind the wrecked milking parlour. It has regular tarzanic forays to hunt for nuts and who knows what else. It flirts with danger and flies through the air as if it was a winged beast. My young Bernese, Fenn, who weighs around 5.5 stones thinks they are monkeys. She is not far wrong. She stands at the base of a tree for hours wondering just how she might manage to scrantle up the trunk and do battle with the fluffy tailed rat. This morning the table was turned. Tufty decided to come aground. It sat in the long grass around the rotting buildings and must have exuded a scent that was the equivalent of Athena Pheromone 10:13 because Fenn was on the spot with her nose firmly pressed against Tufty's before you could shout "sit". There was an almighty screech and Fenn hurtled into the house. The squirrel had bitten her on the chin and drawn blood.

Two weeks later: "E's a stiff. Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace. If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies. 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory. 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!!" This is an ex-Tufty. I found the dog licking the corpse. I bagged him and binned him, but not before his remains gave the hound the most horrendous dose of the squits.

P.S. apologies for the previous Tufty picture - I hadn't noticed that its nether regions had been tampered with. Is nothing sacred?

Socialism - anyone remember what that is?

In today's Guardian "MPs vote to exempt themselves from anti-secrecy law" describes how MPs have just voted to keep themselves out of the clutches of the Freedom of Information Act so that they no longer have to disclose their expenses or correspondence. It may have been introduced by a Tory but it had a majority of 71.
Who do they think they are? Is someone feeding them puréed manna in their parliamentary lunches or ambrosia in their afternoon tea? They really do believe that rather than needing to set an example that others might be proud to follow, that in fact they are so much better than the rest of us, so much more able to make sound professional, personal and moral judgements, that they need not be as scrupulous in their behaviour as could reasonably be expected. Hardly surprising that so many of us have refused to renew our Labour Party subscriptions.
Quick update; it seems that Gordon Brown has had second thoughts - perhaps old Labour is alive and desperately trying to scratch its way from under a very large and heavy stone.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Mrs Malaprop

Yesterday's visit from the chimney chaps gave me the first malapropism I've heard for a little while, but they are one of my favourite things to overhear. And It's not unknown for me to spill one from my own lips, struggling as I often do to find the right word. I have a friend who is a rich source of putting the wrong word in the right place - or should it be the right word in the wrong place? No-one ever corrects them; the words hang in the air, haloed and buoyed by the communal effort of keeping a relaxed look on the face. You wonder if you misheard, and then realise not. And then a few minutes later it is repeated and you take every care to keep those face muscles still. This unintentional word juggling is part of the joy of talking to this friend, and you wouldn't want to hurt their feelings in any way. The twinkle in the eye of the listener is one of warmth and inner pleasures, and the tales themselves so enjoyable and unlikely but true, that I think we get away with it. I hope we do.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Chim chiminey, Chim chiminey, Chim chim cher-ee

Tomorrow I have a man coming to look at my chimney. I have strict instructions on what he should look at and quote for. It's all about smoke in the loft and said smoke emerging above the roof line, leaking into the void between the living room ceiling and the floor above. The pointing and mortar in the stack above the roof line is dodgy, we need a bird guard to keep out the jackdaws and the register plate is very rusty. Apparently. I think I know what all this means, but tomorrow I will pretend it is all clear as crystal rather than murky as soot. Personally I could do with a bit of Dick Van Dyke to help me out, or perhaps if I was Mary Poppins I could sort it out myself with a spoonful of sugar, or some supercalifragilistic expialidocious. As it is, I'll smile, nod, look intelligent and try and ask the right kind of questions.
Quick update. "Dick" and mate turned up to poke at the chimney in professional fashion. Less professionally they talked about the registration plate. I was very good. I didn't laugh until they left.

Monday, 14 May 2007

It's show time!

Summertime is showtime. It's when farmers decide they can take the odd day off here and there and meet their mates in beer tents, get hustled and hassled by men in suits selling big tractors, and poke at the premium livestock on display. That latter grouping includes the sleek human showjumping and dressage fraternity as well as the eyewateringly endowed bulls, boars and billies. The choice of agricultural shows in the South West is enough to keep you in holiday mood and off the farm for months. This week it's the Devon County, next month the Royal Cornwall and the Woodfair. Then there are all the smaller shows such as the almost identical in content Okehampton and Chagford shows just one week apart; the only difference between these two is the probable wealth in the pockets of the punters. Then there are events with heavy horses, the plot to plate specials, the specialist poultry dos and posh food fairs. Everywhere Barbours, flat caps, leather cowboy hats, and dogs, dogs, dogs. It's when I get to admire the goats, pigs and sheep (and make a note of the contact details of the breeders); stare in wonder at the mighty cows (and put my pen away); slide my hand over impressively shiny and strange machinery that I don't understand. Services and goodies you can't unearth in yellow pages helpfully reveal themselves and you come away with armfuls of info that you stuff in a folder that can never be found when you need it. Raspberry vinegar and local cheeses fill your bag. You pat the donkeys and have a little yearn for one of your own. Peter Purves soundalikes (or perhaps it's the real thing) commentate boozily over the tannoy. You sneer at the cider samples (homemade is better) and riffle through the antiquarian books, giggling at gems suggesting decidedly poisonous ways of treating your best mare or gun dog. There will be a falconry display. Ditto dancing diggers and sheepdogs putting runner ducks in a pen. Bring it on.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Time to get a cow?

We really should get a cow. It's time we got a cow. I'd really like a cow. If we had a cow we could feed the surplus milk to the pigs. Aren't cows great? We could have a cow in calf and rear the calf for beef. The farm is more complete when there are cows here. Cows are big animals. We could get a Dexter - they aren't too big. Perhaps we should get goats instead? But I really like cows.... And so on and so on.
Not unsympathetic to these views you understand, but also cautious as I have very little cow experience. And a cow produces an awful lot of milk. And I don't like milk, although cheese, butter and cream are good things in my book. And it needs milking twice a day. And I have a pretty full life already. Just outside Chagford in Dartmoor we stop the car to watch the calves with their mothers - lovely to see a suckler herd out in the lush rain-soaked pasture. It would be very difficult to take one calf to slaughter I say. Not like taking a trailer of lambs or a load of baconers. There's silence for a few thoughtful moments. Then: "perhaps we're not ready for a cow yet".

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Everybody's doing it - please don't

No, no, no, no, no! If everybody does it there'll be none left for me! Selfishness rules. I don't want every urbanite to turn with relief to the countryside, or the rural world will become full of people like me (or like me but much richer and with different politics and intolerances). Once it was Paul Heiney, although he didn't last long, then it was Vic Reeves and Jonathan Ross (pig lovers both), and now it is Rosie Boycott and there are celebs and unknowns of every shape all at it. Please stop it, and in particular please stop writing books about it and stop making TV programmes about it or you'll just inspire more people to up sticks and move. Tell folks that if they want the rural life they should get an allotment (or a window box), keep a couple of ducks or hens in the garden, have a riding lesson on Saturdays and still be able to spend time at the theatre/gallery/footie stadium/nightclub by staying metropolitan. Tell them how your nails break in the countryside, how you have to be able to reverse your car for miles to the last passing place, how there are no parties, that the clothes shopping is crap and that vegetarians are strange loons limited to Totnes. Tell them that it ain't all roses and honeysuckle and that pigs escape, sheep die, tuberculosis is rife and that privacy is lost forever in a truly rural backwater. Show them the calluses on your hands, the dirt under your fingernails, the fallen arches that non-stop welly wearing develops (no more Jimmy Choos for you - arrgh he even has a Devon shoe!). Make up tales of lawlessness and rustling, of wild boars, panthers and wolves on the prowl and that the 999 services can spend two hours hunting down an address with no street name. Some naughty fun could be had with imaginative statistics too - 85% of rural schoolchildren fail to find a job perhaps, or 7 out of 10 city bonus purchasers find themselves being made redundant within twelve months of buying a hobby farm. You know the kind of thing. Spread the word. The countryside is a strange place - enter at your peril!

Bats and balls

I didn't need Bat Woman to tell me there were bats nesting in the roof. One evening last summer I counted 150 of them setting out through the crack between the roof and the top of the wall for a night of midge annihilation. You can hear their version of African clicking language and squeaking remonstrations of "me first" as they jostle to emerge at dusk. The amount and distribution of the guano suggested to our knowledgeable bat woman that there were whiskered bats (Myotis mystacinus), common pipistrelles (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), brown long eared bats (Plecotus auritus), natterer’s bats (M.nattereri ) and Daubenton’s bats colonising for the summer in the rafters. She collected the bat shit in little jewellery boxes. I think she took the earrings out first. As the bats leave for their night of hunting they swoop right or left, coming low, just inches over your head, before circling towards the hedgerows that provide enough mini-meat to sustain them. One evening our neighbour's friend brought an ultrasonic bat detector box and we stood in the dark in the road between the two farms (little traffic comes past once tractor hours are over) whilst she interpreted the sounds, identifying the types of bat flying overhead. But yesterday I was given an out of print bat book and suddenly I had an insight into what all that battery of clicking is about. After some great pictures of the various types of bat, there at the back is a parade of privates, a genus of genitals, a display of dicks. There for all to gawp at are shots of bat penises; slightly furry, dressed to the right and to the left , shapely and not so shapely, well endowed and discreet. For a bat girl who likes a bit of meat on her man, the noctule bat is the boy to date and mate. Relatively speaking, he's hung like a donkey.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Lie of the Land

So much to say about last night's Channel 4 documentary film on farming, Molly Dineen's The Lie of the Land, but had to skedaddle for the day. I'll be back to try and get my head round this later.
Later: I'm always interested, in fact fascinated, to get a deeper insight into a world that I am a part of. It's that old thing of wondering if the portrayal will give you something new to chew on, no matter how well you thought you had it sussed; gaining the benefit of the objective viewpoint. Dineen's unpeeling of farming life showed some things that will have shocked many - the killing of calves that have no market value being a particular focus. But the messages were repetitious and incredibly partial. Watching the programme, you would think that all farming activity is in some way related to hunting, whether it be the lack of a future for the huntsman, or the need to produce pheasants for the shooting season. You might also be forgiven for thinking that no farmer made any money, that they were incompetent at handling their livestock (ruining their precious lawns in the process), that filling out forms was beyond them all and that the life was nothing but strife.

Even with the calves being a such a feature of the film - what with them being dispatched shortly after birth if they were male and from dairy cows - we never got inside the problem other than being told they had no value. It seems to me that there are two reasons why they have no value. Firstly because the eating of veal is castigated by the vast majority of people in Britain as a cruel activity. If veal was seen as a viable food by folks, then there would be no need to kill calves quite so young, and crucially for the farmers the meat would have a real monetary value instead of being a liability. Secondly, there has become such a division between what is a milk cow and what is a meat cow that never the twain shall meet. What's wrong with producing a dual purpose cow that has value in both markets? This used to be the case - and still is with various rare breed animals of all sorts - including chickens that are as good for eggs as for the table.

The South West, where much of the film was shot, was very heavily hit by foot and mouth. It was a terrible time and caused great hardship. However, many of the farmers in the region continue to farm with a positive outlook, rearing (and handling) their livestock with skill and producing excellent quality meat, milk, cheese, wool and other products. They lived through the awful time and moved on, adapting and using intelligence and knowledge to keep their businesses and lives and families on an even keel. And yes, rural poverty continues, and is painful as the film vividly portrayed.

Farmers famously hate bureaucracy and form filling. They live outside and don't on the whole warm to desk and computer work. Yes, forms can be a pain in the neck, but unless you are the kind of person who hands a year's worth of jumbled receipts to your accountant and says "sort that lot out for me", filling in applications for the single farm payment is not a difficult exercise. It certainly doesn't require a consultant from another county to sort it out for you, or to bring their politics to the table. What is difficult, and almost soul destroying, is getting the Rural Payments Agency to get your details right in the first place. What is even more difficult is restraining yourself from throwing your computer out of the window if you try and complete farming stuff on-line that is on such a go slow it crashes everything in sight. Having the knowledge to fill in the forms is the easy bit.

We never saw a farmer producing food for the "don't want it cheap, want it good and preferably local" market, the organic and specialist producers that the Matthew Forts, Nigel Slaters and Hugh Fearnley Wotsits extol in print and on tv. The market for food that is not just cheap (nor imported) is growing steadily and some farmers' markets have become visitor attractions as well as genuine alternatives to the supermarket. Farmers also sell their products from farm shops and direct to the customer on-line. It's a changing world with modern approaches. It may not be an easy life and there are a host of farm related scandals that must be made more visible, such as the many supermarket practices taking a dreadful toll on the farmer committed to supplying the big five; I would certainly want to see supermarkets forced to play fair by farmers. The failure of delivering promised subsidies on time has also caused nightmares for farmers as has the red tape that makes small local abattoirs such rarities. But the general tone of the film that farmers were in a complete slough of despond and hadn't the mental wherewithal to counteract their situation, and that sound environmental practices equalled nationalisation of the countryside, meant that the viewer was given a very narrow and therefore poor insight. With so many people increasingly conscious about the source and quality of their food, it's time for a thorough investigation and developing understanding of farming today, and I really hope that a lengthier series will be commissioned to reveal the full picture for everyone who has any interest in where the stuff on their plate originates.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Room 101

I'm not an original. My life is full of clichés, being, as I am, only human. My Room 101 is also rat-filled. Over the years of country living I have shifted from being a bit of an ex-London milk-sop to quite a brave beasty. Not just brave as in "aren't you brave to wear that hat", but brave as in "move over, I'll squeeze the pus out of that massive abscess on the sheep's bum". I'm a little sensitive about touching some things directly and I do keep a supply of latex gloves handy for the yuckier moments. Still, I'm not as fazed by stuff as was my younger self. But we all have our limits, and mine is Rattus norvegicus. They might, scientifically speaking, be called medium sized rodents. In my book, every rat is HUGE, there are MILLIONS of them in every corner and they will RUN UP MY LEG. I even feel a chill up the spine when I turn to the rat pages in my Reader's Digest Field Guide to the Animals of Britain and am confronted with pictures of said rodent.
So, you could say farming as a life choice is rather daft. You might say that rats are inevitable on farms. You should also say that poultry and their associated feedstuffs will guarantee rats. You'd be right on all counts. But I know that mostly they keep themselves to themselves and if I don't see them, they aren't really there. Self delusion. I can see the holes in the barn cob walls where rats have nested and probably are nesting right now. I see the rat droppings (urgghhhh) in the duck house. They dispatch young poultry lovingly nurtured, unless you completely rodent-proof their area (I cried when a rat killed and dragged a four week old gosling under the goose-hut door). I look up into the rafters of the decaying stable and catch a view of a long pink tail switching out of sight. I move a piece of corrugated tin and the earth seems to heave and swarm with previously cosy rats. I yell and yell and yell. The neighbours come running to make sure I haven't cut off my own head with the chainsaw or anything equally dramatic. The dogs run to my rescue. But those who know me best recognise the quality of the squealing and start to laugh. It's just rats after all.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

What does it mean to be British?

I get a really uncomfortable itchy under the scalp feeling when politicians try and define Britishness. Their oddly naive faith that having a specific understanding will make any kind of difference to the way people behave, or view themselves and each other, is pitiable. Their apparent belief that a statement from on high on Britishness actually means anything beyond provision of dinner table fodder confuses me. " We have to be clearer about what it means to be British" was Jack Straw's comment at the end of last week. Why? How does that help? What will it do? The man just can't keep his hands off this unresolvable debate. He keeps pecking and poking at it as if the answer is lying somewhere just outside his grasp. As long as there is clarity about the bounds within which you can or cannot get a passport, does a political stance on Britishness actually matter?
Being first generation British, I have a particularly wary view of the underlying rationale for the persistence in picking at this political, religious, cultural and racial scab. Straw talked about "core democratic values of freedom, fairness, tolerance and plurality" as if they were somehow uniquely British and by inference that British people were somehow superior. The man is jousting with wind, wrestling with clouds, and jingoism is but a trot around the corner.
Flag courtesy of Vivienne Westwood.