Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The George

So, this is the aftermath of the terrible fire that has utterly destroyed The George (this is what it looked like before the fire).
There is nothing left worth saving; a door, a sash window, one cast iron manger used as a flower basket. A week after the fire there are still small plumes of smoke rising from the debris and the whole town smells of doused bonfire.
The site looks so small, so diminished, from what was a smart, imposing building.
The house next door must be at risk; the joining wall looks a disaster of crumbled red cob.
It was market day in Hatherleigh today, and people had come to look and reminisce and see for themselves what they couldn't really believe from the television, the papers and the chat.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Christian cheer

Just before Christmas I was in a church not a million miles away with a bunch of friends, listening to the most awful Christmas concert imaginable. Truly awful - I should have backed out when I heard the electric organ twang in lift musak fashion as I entered. There were candles everywhere, on all the pews and tucked into every churchy crevice.
On top of the extraordinary tinkling, twangy sounds provided for the audience's pleasure, we were preached at from the pulpit by a lay orator between each musical offering. I didn't know that smugness and self satisfaction were Christian virtues, but being an atheist, I might have got that wrong. Certainly, there was no humility on show.
I have long hair. I smelled burning. The man in the pew behind grinned at me in unchristian fashion as my locks crinkled and burned on his little pew candle. I wanted to throttle the smug bastard. Instead, I filled the church with singeing pong and left in the interval to stick pins in a wax effigy.
Far better were the Christmas carols in Hatherleigh square on Christmas eve. The Hatherleigh Silver Band played beautifully, and as I walked up from the cattle market, arrived to the sounds of a gorgeous, plaintive Silent Night. The service lasted just 30 minutes and ended with delicious mulled cider and minced pies. There was a great sadness and coming together, all in mourning for the loss of the George, the ruins in full view from the square.

On the first day...

...the two flocks were brought one at a time into the barn, the rams hived off into a small pen, the ewes amalgamated and sent gently back to pasture for the rest of their confinement.
Toyboy and Samson were not happy. First, they'd lost their lady-loves, and second, their machismo was severely under threat from another young male. Toyboy, the older by a couple of years, was certainly in the ascendant. He butted and chinned and swiped as much as the highly restricted pen allowed. I left them with hay and water and very limited space to get to know each other.
On the second day, Toyboy was standing guard over the haynet. I fed Samson by hand and then put up a second net on the opposite side of the pen to give my black boy a chance to feed. I wasn't going to make their area bigger yet; rams can kill if they have enough of a run up and the will to damage an opponent.
On the third day I stood and observed. They were sharing haynets. Time to enlarge the pen by adding in a couple more sheep hurdles. A bit of minor argybargy ensued. Toyboy is definitely top dog.
On the fourth day a bit of a schoolboy ribbing is taking place, but the SAS mentality has retreated. Toyboy is the alpha male, but Samson is eating boldly from whichever haynet he likes and is unharmed.
On the fifth day I dismantle the pen entirely and give the two rams the run of the barn. Mayhem and madness ensue. As soon as there is room to do so, Toyboy runs backwards and charges full pelt and head on into Samson. The smack resonates round the barn and I pick up a hefty piece of 4x2. As Toyboy chases Samson round the weigh crate I position myself, legs anchored, and just as Toyboy is about to butt a head spinning Samson for a third time I intervene with my thwacking stick. Toyboy stops and thinks for a moment, and then entirely unfazed gallops in reverse, fllicks into first gear and charges again and again. But my stick comes between them and Toyboy gets no joy. I refill the haynets and the water bucket and stop to watch the boys dance about; it's a game of Glasgow kiss-chase that Samson can't win. Samson has been told that he is at the bottom of the food chain and submits to his fate.
On the sixth day, the two rams stand side by side, looking up at me as if butter wouldn't melt.
On the seventh day I open the gate to the rams paddock, fetch a small scoop of sheep nuts in a bucket, and open the barn door. Toyboy runs after me, eager for the nuts. Samson follows behind. Into the paddock, gate shut, reinforced with an old metal gate to stop them barging their way out. The ice in their trough is broken up. Hay is served. Samson wanders about snatching at the fresh grass. Toyboy follows him, not wanting to stray too far from his new best mate.
What a palaver. But so far, I have two live rams, no blood spilled, both contented to spend their off-duty time together.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Getting ready for the hols

Christmas eve is my time for getting ready for Christmas day as far as the grub is concerned. The goose and red cabbage with apple have been slid out of the freezer and defrosted. I've made the chestnut and apricot stuffing, wrapped prunes and sausages in streaky bacon, simmered the goosey giblets for stock to make the gravy, dug up the parsnips and beetroot for roasting, watched the bread sauce glub on a low heat and made a fish pie for tonight. The house already smells like Christmas, and there's just sprouts to prepare and an apple pie left to make.
I've walked the dogs and listened to the dessicated oak leaves still clinging to the trees tremble and susurrate in the light breeze, and sploshed through the sodden lower fields which stamps out any other sound.
The banks are full of holes. No, I hadn't ventured onto a High Street near you or into the City. The Devon banks are full of holes and the lack of foliage reveals all the rabbit workings, fox diggings, badger scrapings, shrew, vole and stoat earthworks. Every yard reveals recent activity; disturbed earth, droppings, heaps of dried grass, discarded twigs, acorn cups and natural detritus of all kinds.
At 3pm the light starts to fail, at 4.30 all the birds are put away for the night. Christmas is coming, fast and furious. Hope you have a good one.

Our local pub, The George, burned down last night after six centuries of existence. Everyone is shocked by the loss of this beautiful and ancient building, and rumour is rife about how it started.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

There's an ugly duckling on my roof

Putting the birds away at dusk I heard this bizarre squawking. It didn't sound like a Barn owl screech to me, but whatever it was caused great disturbance to my duck flocks; they huddled in the corner of their runs, hunkered down as if there was a fox about. I couldn't see or smell anything untoward, but as usual wildlife knows best.
As I came down the farm track towards the house I noticed through the gloom a large bird sitting on the ridge of the roof midway between the chimney pots. It was clearly a duck, but not what I'd call a thing of beauty. The Muscovy or Barbary duck is the turkey of the waterfowl world - basically it has an excess of skin around its face. I cannot love this breed.
I doubt it will go anywhere in the dark, but will probably fly back home once it's light; some folk down the road have Muscovies that perambulate the lanes oblivious to the (admittedly rare) traffic.
You never know what will turn up next. I'm still waiting to come across a zebra, although considering the state of the land, a water buffalo or croc might be more the thing.

Photo by Stuart Brown

Saturday, 13 December 2008

The big melt

Weather warnings across the South West not to drive, and I don't hear about it until I'm out in the car, you know, driving. It's clear that water has whooshed down the roads overnight, leaving huge mounds of leafy, twiggy and branchy detritus. The gullies are roaring streams and the river is just contained within its banks, having subsided from the surrounding fields. Everywhere water. My twenty year old Puffa, without even the vaguest memories of waterproofing, is quickly soaked through, and I keep warm if not dry, by hurling soiled straw out of bird huts into the wheelbarrow as quickly as possible.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Who knew the Clangers were pink?

The news is full of praise for Oliver Postgate. If nothing else it reflects the age of those editing the news. Like me, they must have grown up with and loved those surreal, utterly captivating and made-with-bits-of-fabric-and-tin-found-in-the-shed props that populated Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog and the Clangers. I must have watched it on a black and white telly, as I remember the Clangers as grey, while all the photos (and Youtube clips) reveal them as baby pink, and more reminiscent of George, the hippo who starred with Zippy, than a moon-based knitted mouse with an anteater nose should be.
A schoolfriend nick-named me Noggin the Nog for several terms; I never really understood why, but enjoyed the sound it made in my mouth.
I suspect I was getting too old for these delights by the time Bagpuss came on the scene. I liked the soft sepia beginning and end when the soft baggy cat snoozed, but I barely took in the main action; that woodpecker held no charms for me.
I remember the Clangers' soup dragon and the permanent supply of broth from within the bowels of the moon, and as a child I recreated my own version. My bed was its own universe, with everything I needed on hand (comfort, books, warmth, quiet) apart from food. So I imagined little taps and dumbwaiters in the wall by the bed that would deliver goodies on demand. Strangely, favoured deliveries were chicken hearts (the family always argued who got the one from the Sunday roast), and spaghetti - either with meatballs, or in vermicelli form floating in chicken soup. No chocolates or crisps or pop featured, although the odd slice of warm, thickly cut white bread with plenty of unsalted butter surely did, as white was restricted to my Father, and the rest of us gnawed healthily on stoneground wholemeal.
And thinking of animalistic colour surprises, I saw my first kingfisher on the farm this week. Walking across Bull's Field, a particularly marshy, reedy pasture with a deep ditch that runs with spring and rain water no matter the season, I saw a startling bravura of azure rise from beneath the lush ferny undergrowth that curtains the sides of the ditch. It was lost for a moment as it flitted through the black willow branches, and then shone bright against the sky before heading off above the hedgeline. Sometimes it's worth having land so spongy with water that wellies are required footwear even at the height of summer. I wonder if there are fish living in the ditches, or if frog was the plat du jour for my little blue bird?

Friday, 5 December 2008

Straying from home

Taunton, Wadebridge, Exeter, Birmingham, Cardiff, Exeter again, London, Bournemouth... a ten day crazy merry-go-round of trains and cars, rails and roads, delays and traffic snarls, eating up the miles and the hours. Every time I close the farm gate behind me and set off in the car for the hour long drive to the station, I feel as if I'm straying from home, as if the travelling is against nature, both my own and of the way of things. It's as if I hold my breath the whole time I'm away and can only take a fresh, clean gasp once the gate shuts with me safely inside.
I've given up driving long distances unless it's entirely impractical to go by train, so I can read and write and think as I thunder cross country, but even so, it's such a waste of life and I resent every bit of it, which doesn't enhance my mood. Far from believing that travel broadens the mind, I now find it entirely inane, stuck in a canister with hundreds of others, also wishing they were elsewhere.
I wonder if the desire to be a homebody, a farmbody, is a danger; that I wouldn't see beyond the end of my nose, but I don't think that would happen. Lifes swirls round me quite energetically enough, my brain has to work harder than ever, the people I meet are as fascinating and rich in attitude and thought as I could wish, and there's a warmth that cannot exist in the commuter zone.
I will try and plan my diary more carefully and balance the away time less generously. Thank credit crunchie it's friday and I'm home.
And to celebrate, here's a photo taken today of the ewe lambs I'm keeping back for adding to the breeding flock next year.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The frost report

Gloves are now a key part of the outdoor pocket patting repertoire, alongside checking for penknife and baler twine. My pockets are getting more like those of a small boy every day: grubby hanky, acorns and rosehips, useful bit of string, chunk of wood, bent nails, dusty handful of ewe nuts.
The gloves are to stop my fingers sticking to the metal field gates and suffering freezer burn. I have to huhh on the gate latches like some heavy breather to melt the ice so that I can open the gate. I'd rather walk through than go over at the moment as it's rather treacherous climbing over the gates as the bars are so slippery with frost, but I do it when I have to and hope I won't find myself dazed on the hard ground with the sheep looking down at me still waiting for their hay.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The first of the month

December arrived with a vengeance today. The first time that I've crunched rather than splashed across fields to feed the sheep, and every water trough surface had to be smashed; inch-thick ice stretched opaquely over each one.
The holly berries are out in great clusters, vying with the rosehips and occasional string of bryony for who can do the scarlet drapery thing best.
It's all very festive, but it's incredibly difficult to poke my nose from beneath the duvet when I know it's my turn to do the animals.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Time out

It's been over a week since I've had time to play blogger rather than farmer, trainer, or consultant. I've been shooting about like a mad ferret and the lead up to Christmas looks as if nothing's gonna change soon. I'm already planning a New Year's resolution; do more of the stuff I love, less of the stuff I don't, and tighten my belt.
So, although wearing slatey grey eyebags that would only lighten with copious applications of sleep, I kept an appointment made months ago to get up and go fairly early this morning with a friend off to the Devon and Cornwall Waterfowl Show at the Royal Cornwall Showground.
I had my eye on getting some more Black Indian Runner ducks to join Beany and co, so slid along the for sale section, clocked a nice young pair, shoved over to the Treasurer's desk, paid over my beer vouchers and clicked a sold label onto the cage so that I could go and admire the show birds at leisure.
Many shows auction their birds, so you have to wait hours if the pens you are keen on have high numbers, and you have no idea how optimistic the bidding will be. I much preferred this civilised approach - each pen had a clear price tag, and if there was no sold label, you sauntered apparently casually, but actually at top speed, to put down your dosh and the deal is done. No argy bargy, no haggling, no competition. Lovely.
The long lines of runner ducks of every colour on show had me enthralled (only the white runners are on show in this photo). Unlike the other ducks of a more squat stature in square cages, runners are given tall pens to accommodate their naturally vertical stance. They stand in lines like soldiers on parade. It's a good thing they weren't all for sale or I'd have come home with armfuls of the beauties.
I iffed and butted over two pens of Silver Appleyard ducks for a friend, but closer inspection revealed imperfections that I wouldn't have been happy with, so I resisted. I chortled over the Sebastopol geese - a lovely example in the photo above - with their crazy ringleted feathers, the Shirley Temple of the waterfowl world.
The only problem was that the huge cattle barn the event was held in was freezing. It was colder inside than out - we shivered as we walked into the shed and my feet were numb in ten minutes. There were very few people there; much more body heat was needed to create a comforting guff. But I'm back in the warm now, and my two new black beauties are on straw, with feed and water, and getting over the trauma of the journey and their new home.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

La la land and my reality

For my birthday earlier this month I received a very welcome clutch of Persephone books. On top was The Country Housewife's Book by Lucy H Yates.
I'm sure that Persephone have reproduced part of the Introductory Note on the jacket with a significant part of tongue jammed in cheek, suggesting perhaps that this book is first and foremost a curiosity and of social historical interest, but it made perfect sense to me. I quote:

"...so often it is the unexpected that happens. There may... occur a glut of Milk, and it must be used to some good purpose or have to go down the drain; or a crop of fruit or vegetable may reach the stage when it must be gathered or it will utterly spoil, yet the materials for preserving are not ready; or some well-meaning friend drops a bag of game or half a dozen rabbits at the door; and everything else must be put aside."

It might be odd to some, but this is a reasonable précis of chunks of my life. Look at that array of preserves, a small sample of a range of stuff all of which were produced in a fingers crossed there's enough sugar/vinegar/jars or bottles mood. Unlike Lucy Yates, I always have to peel off the old labels and scoop the spiders out of my jars before I get rolling, and have in the past begged a handful of carrots destined to feed water voles from a neighbour to finish the chutney. And the freezer is fair jammed with rabbit casserole and dressed pheasants awaiting a future pot roasting thanks to my very own well-meaning friends.
What did crack me up was not the expectation that a country housewife would grow and minister to her own veg and fruit plots, spend her evenings hanging jelly bags filled with soft fruits from chair legs, or making Mangel Wurzel wine (yuk - alcoholic swede beverage anyone?) but would bizarrely cater for Tennis Parties (oh yes, definitely upper case), and offer a Scheherazade special, otherwise known as Strawberry Sherbet.
No doubt the CH would knit the tennis net out of runner bean climbers, and shove the pigs out of their patch to create a court with one hand, whilst simultaneously scattering Arsenate of Lead in all the outhouses to kill off any wood lice with the other. Perhaps one's cheek is, after all, the best place for a CH's tongue.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Round and round we go!

I go away for the day and stuff happens. As I drove off in the morning I passed the scaffolder's lorry and crossed my fingers that they were on the way to the farm. I got back at 10pm and it was too dark to see anything, but this morning I kept the ducks, geese and sheep waiting as I rushed about in curious glee, poking at this and that, finally able to feel all about and inside the roundhouse without having to bend double beneath scaffold planks or get poked in the eye by the poles.
I am completely charmed by it, and want to set up house with a dainty tea set and teddy bears. Or hang a white sheet against the wall and have panoramic cinematic splendour with friends, handing popcorn through the windows (salted through one and sweet sticky toffee through the other). Most of all I want to be entirely naff and hang a huge glitter ball from the roof and bop to Queen and the Stones as the mirrored lights twinkle and spark off the stone. My party palace.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

A year in and we're nearly done

Just before my birthday last year the builders arrived. I was psyched up for an 18 month flurry of demolition and rebuild, but I've just had another birthday and the chaps are nearly finished, months ahead of schedule. Just a few days of activity remain. I'm so excited I can hardly believe that the barns are nearly back to where they were decades ago, and looking beautiful.
The last of the scaffolding will disappear this week and then I can post photos of the thatched roundhouse which is tucked behind the threshing barn shown here.
For my birthday, the barns were floodlit so that party guests could ooh and aah as they came down the track, and they did; it was most heart warming. Best of all the nine dovecotes in the cob barn had tealights popped in them, and deep in the cob they were safe from the dramatic winds that howled round and the flames twinkled for five hours. Any birds taking shelter in there will be able to bring up cosy young.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Western world preoccupations

I know that you can get terribly maudlin about the state of humanity, and spend a lifetime weeping pointlessly into your beer or beard about things you intend to do nothing much about - infant mortality, torture, abuse of human rights and so on. But there are times when media preoccupations are downright obscene considering what is truly important, and when the ability to value what's significant is appallingly flawed.
This whole week's nonsensical fixation on two light entertainment figures having made a daft balls-up made me want to chuck the whole media industry into a large blender and flick the switch. I wasn't madly bothered about the Russian oligarchy losing its roubles, although I had a moment of unsurprised horror when I read that $70 billion of the $700 billion coughed up by the ailing US government to prop up the financial sector would be going to pay bonuses to those workers who still somehow thought they had reached their performance targets.
But what really pulled me up short was a story so utterly horrific that I couldn't understand why it wasn't front page news and the leader for every TV bulletin.

Somalian rape victim, 13, stoned to death.

There aren't many stories in the press that can make me cry with shame and horror. This did.

Saturday, 1 November 2008


I was as eager as the rams to get them in with the ewes this morning, so I rushed my animal feeding and bedding chores and then did my little shepherdess act and moved the lambs through the yard into an empty field to ensure no underage distractions.
Yes, I should have waited for help but Toyboy is so single minded that I didn't expect any problems. I opened his gate, waved a scoop of nuts under his nose, and trotted off quick smart expecting him to follow. He did, and at a cracking pace. I had to hare across the intervening field to open the gate to the harem before he had time to consider bashing through and claim droit de seigneur. Gate open, chap in, girls eager and much mutual circling and greeting. With 19 ewes to serve he hardly knew where to start.
Moving Samson was definitely a two person job. He has spent the past month pacing in anticipation, fairly wearing himself to a frazzle of sexual frustration and snatches half-heartedly at grass and hay between the real business of leering at unreachable totty. With a bit of ushering and the use of a thick rope as a halter he was encouraged through gates and fields until he saw his goal. He was off like a shot, a series of frenzied hellos, and two ewes served within the minute. I left him to it.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Rounding up the cattle - wild West Devon style

I was wearing wellies, not cowboy boots, and a fleece hat rather than a stetson, but there I was, blocking the entrance to one of the potentially distracting offshoots that the herd might prefer to their route home. Wasn't sitting on a hos either, but the stampede was wild west enough for me.
All round about here, cattle are being taken indoors for the winter, and those summered out on the farm and the one adjoining were being collected to cavort the few miles home through the Devon lanes. We were primed and ready in place, and could hear the quads motoring across soggy fields. And the engines continued to roar and still no sign of beasts. 45 minutes later a cloud of steam heralded hot-blooded action. They had eluded the cowboys for a good while and were overheated and overexcited and full of beans. Their great feet clattered on the road and as soon as they saw me screeched to a standstill. I stepped back and they nosed forward, gathered pace and were off again. It was all I could do to restrain myself from yelling Yeehaaa!

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Electronic tagging for sheep

I'm having an ill-informed panic. I have no idea yet what the consequences will be. I don't know how the farm will be affected. But all around me there are rumours and facts posing as rumours washing around regarding the need for sheep to be electronically tagged by the end of 2009. According to Europa, "Electronic identifiers cost around 1-2€ per animal, hand-held readers are available from around 200€ and static readers from around 1000€. Farmers and operators will be responsible for the costs of meeting the requirement to electronically identify every sheep and goat. However, these costs should be offset by better disease control measures resulting from more effective identification".
For me that's simply an unaffordable prospect with a flock of 25- 30 ewes. I'd hope that there can be some kind of co-operative sharing among small farmers, but that's not easy to sort, even when surrounding farmers are eager to support each other. This was brought home by the attempts at minimising the waste of necessary but expensive Bluetongue vaccine; the stuff has to be used within 8 hours, and if you didn't need a whole bottle, or needed one or two doses more than a bottle, a mad ring-round ensued, with the vets dispensing the stuff unable to help with this logistical nightmare.
I need to find out more and come back to this when I feel better informed. Meantime, I'm having a gloom moment about the future of small farmers.

Saturday, 25 October 2008


A day of preparation. Just one week to go before the rams (Toy-boy and Samson) are reintroduced to their laydeez, so the girls need titivating and trimming. The area around their tails is crutched, which is basically a mini-shearing session, removing the heavy fleece on their tails, back legs and bottom to keep them clean, offer easy access to the chaps, and hopefully in five months time still offer visible access to the udder when lambing gets going.
Because Badger Face sheep are meant to keep their long tails unlike many other breeds that have their tails ringed within the first few days of life, they look particularly daft without the fleece, carrying incongrously naked bell-pull tails.
Once wormed and bikini waxed, the black Torwens and white Torddus were split into separate fields so that the rams can tend to their own and generate purebred offspring, which gives me the option of selling breeding stock if there are some particularly choice examples born.
For another seven days the chaps will grow increasingly whiffy, testosterone oozing wildly and filling the air with the unmistakeable scent of rampant ram.

Friday, 24 October 2008


Hard Hattie is getting slow and sluggish, and I expect to find her snoozing deep in her box of straw before long. She and her cosy box will be put in a rat-free cool shed for her hibernation and checked regularly.
I'm wondering about making plans to join her. What with the BBC ten o'clock news tonight being so very gloomy about employment, money, home repossessions and the like, I think I'd prefer to stick my head in a straw box and wake up when it's all over. How people can lose their homes when governments are prepared to shore up the banks is completely beyond me; why isn't the money going to pay the mortgages instead?
Apparently farming and government spending are the only two areas not slowing down at the moment... and I don't believe that will last. Bah humbug and all that.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Drunk on apple fumes

68 litres of juice and 145 litres of cider later, I'm ready to fall into a soft sofa in front of the fire. First there was the picking and sorting, then the carrying, the washing, the milling, the pressing, the bottling, the labelling. Not forgetting the sterilising of buckets and bottles and barrels and funnels and the twiddling of bottle brushes of every size and shape to get into those hard to reach corners.
Friends have helped and used the kit all weekend too, so the machines have been worked hard. I suppose 400 litres of juice destined for both alcoholic and breakfast beverage has been churned out in total. Enough to keep us hydrated for quite some while.
The milling and pressing was done in the cob barn...finally it can be put to use.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Incredible structures

From domestic micro roundhouses to huge macro industrial structures that fill the horizon.
Whistled along the Severn Bridge to bounce through Wales en route for Herefordshire and some new additions to the flock.
The travelled through landscapes of Devon, Somerset, Wales and Herefordshire are all so distinctive, all beautiful.
But home is always best. So glad to get back and let the shearlings out of the trailer.
I checked in the barn and yes, the hired cider press and mill had been delivered - a whole weekend of cider making and apple juicing ahead.

Thursday, 16 October 2008


First they made a huge continuous serpent of wheat straw, the eaves wad, to go round the complete perimeter of the roundhouse walls, and now, the bundles or more correctly, yealms, are being put into place. It makes me want to barn dance!

Friday, 10 October 2008

The roundhouse takes shape

Just because I've been busy with sheep doesn't mean that the world of barn restoration has come to a halt. Oh no. The cob barn is likely to be finished today, and yesterday the thatchers started on the roundhouse, putting up battens to take the locally sourced wheat straw. The roundhouse is behind the threshing barn, and touches the road, and so is in full view of the few souls that drive past in their tractors and trucks.
The thatchers will be on site for three or four weeks, and having filled their bellies with blackberry and apple crumble to make sure their boots are leaden and keep them up there, I will report on progress.
It's hard to take shots of the roundhouse as there are few viewing points far enough back to capture its full glory. The photos below show the progress to date, from the demolishing of the ruins to today's grand efforts.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Gralloching, lairage and more

Health warning - don't scroll down if you'd rather avoid seeing pictures taken in an abattoir.

I love a day when new words come pouring into my ear. Or when words I sort of think I kind of know, finally start to make sense.
Today was a day that I knew I would have to meet head on at some point. I've been trogging lambs and pigs to the abattoir for many years now, but I hadn't ever seen the process from start to finish. Thanks to the incredibly useful EBLEX who run short courses for meat producers on all sorts of areas crucial to the farmer, I finally saw the whole story.
It's key that your animals are slaughtered at the right time: when they are at the best rate of fat to lean. Too fat, and they have to be trimmed and you've spent weeks feeding your livestock unnecessarily, expensively and to the detriment of your meat. Too lean, and you'll have a flavourless, scrawny chop on your plate and dissatisfied customers. A lamb is covered in fleece, so you have to get (gentle) hands on to find out when each individual lamb is ripe and ready. There's a Europe wide classification system for lamb based on a combination of fatness and conformation used by every abattoir and every butcher and every supermarket and every wholesale and retail purchaser. Getting it right on a live animal is as much an art as a science. This is not something you absorb through rural osmosis, but something you have to be taught, and it has to be practised so you keep your hand in.
Today's course was held at a huge local abattoir, and run by two extremely knowledgeable, jolly and helpful experts. We looked at the charts, we had the pictures explained, and then we went to the lairage (nice new word number one) to grade ten pre-selected lambs.
I fondled a scrawny article, a fat beast and one that was fat but had unequal conformation, and then another seven lambs along the spine, loin, shoulder, tail and between the legs to arrive at an estimated grade for each. Then it was on with the white boilersuit, hairnet and hard hat, a disinfect of wellies and hands, and into the processing area.
The scale of the thing took my breath away: a continuous line of machinery, people and lambs, with everyone focussed on their task, executing it cleanly, swiftly, carefully and with the right tools for the job. We were asked if we wanted to see the slaughter, and no-one baulked. It was so calm, professional, simple, with the layout designed to cause nil stress to the animal or the slaughterer. I watched several animals being stunned and throats cut. I wanted to make sure I saw the reality of where my animals are headed, and I felt nothing other than reassurance and thanks that such an important role in the food chain was being so expertly undertaken.
We followed the line as skins were removed, guts discarded (for deer this process is called gralloching - second new word of the day) and offal inspected. We were shown examples of condemned livers - suffering from tapeworm or fluke and other parasites - and also arthritic joints that meant a leg or more might be spurned as unfit for human consumption. Every liver and heart is kept alongside its carcase; if there is something wrong with these organs, the meat might also be compromised, and it is thoroughly checked. I saw the results of injecting against Bluetongue in the wrong muscles (the neck is the recommended place), and that lambs were being sent both too thin and too fat to slaughter.
We watched the professional grader determine the score of each lamb, the automatic weighing, the tingling with electric current, which reduces the need for hanging by tenderising the meat (hmm...not sure about that one), and then headed for the chiller, where the ten lambs we'd attempted to score were now tagged with the official result.
Out of the seven I'd guessed, I only got one spot on, but the other six were only one grade out, so I was reassured that I can pretty much tell what I'm looking for.
I take my animals to a small farm slaughter house, and the system is nowhere near as mechanised as this, but I will see if they can give me the condition scores and if my estimates improve.
And if you fancy a few more good meaty words in the gralloch mode, you gut a fish, paunch a rabbit and draw a chicken.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Samson awaiting his Delilah

Not a great photo as it was dusk and he didn't want to pose, but here is the new Torwen ram, Samson, wormed, Heptavac'd, toes trimmed and in isolation for three days before putting him out to pasture. No wonder he looks depressed. But come 1st November he can make whoopee.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008


I seem to be travelling up to London on an almost weekly basis at the moment, usually there and back in one day, rising at 6am and falling back with a crash around 11pm. I come through the door surrounded by capering dogs and excitable kittens, head for the loo, squint at the red-eyed travel weary face in the mirror and fall on the pillows.
In the train on the way up I prepare for the day ahead, making notes, reading papers, gathering thoughts. But on the way back I'm desperate to concertina the hours of travelling into a moment, and ferret in my bag for the book of the day.
I seem to be in a world of Eastern European immigration; first with Lewycka's Two Caravans, which I warmed to (loved that Dog), and then Rose Tremain's The Road Home, which is fantastic.
As a novel moves its way into the final trimester, you don't necessarily expect new moments. Mostly you get more of the same, whether it be beauty, brutality, murder or machinations, but those last chapters of Tremain's both made me laugh out loud in the quiet carriage, and spout tears.
It may be predictable to enjoy plot quite so much, but I want a story, the revelation and development of character, pain and pleasure, hurt and happiness. I WANT the predictable AND the ridiculous, and I got both with Tremain; the old lady leaves a righteous legacy, and the Chinese asparagus pickers carry out an unexpected service.
There are many moments of recognition between the two novels, as if little windows of a shared world collide and then drift: the twinned Chinese characters; the hopes and dreams of the immigrant; the dodgy employment opportunities; the brotherhood of nations in a foreign space; the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy; the realism of old peoples' homes. Such different books, so many mutual presences.
I stroked the cover of Tremain's book after I'd finished the last sentence. I wanted to absorb her talent, share her gift. It was a feast.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Death at the weekend

It's harvest time. The number of surplus cockerels raised for meat is being diminished by twos each weekend. The Aylesbury drakes are fattening nicely and it'll be their turn soon. This week two of the pigs are off to the butcher. The remaining three Berkshires are booked in as are the second batch of lambs.
The freezers will judder into life and host a year's supply of meat and poultry, and the horrendous livestock feed bills will be cut dramatically. Poultry feed has jumped from £6.50 per 25k to £8.50 in less than six months. How organic farmers make any kind of living with their feed at Harrods prices, is beyond me.
We've heard a great deal this year about poultry farming and the real price of properly raised chicken. I suspect all the good awareness raising will be mowed down in the face of job losses, house repossessions and the general gloom of depression.
What I do know, is that my dressed weight 3.5 lb - 4lb cockerel tastes amazing, and that not even the poshest organic shop-bought bird can start to compare. Why this is, I don't know, but my birds head towards the guinea fowl in flavour (which I adore), have a density of meat that is really satisfying, and that every single scrap (excepting heads, feet, and colon) will be eaten.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Teeth, tits and toes

There comes a point in every ewe's life when she has to undergo the indignity of the teeth, tits and toes regime. Can she still nibble? Check. Is she free of lumps and bumps on the all crucial udder? Check. Are her feet in good order? Check. Those that don't pass muster are destined for the mutton wagon. It's a cattle market out there.
Every year, a month or two before tupping time, you go through this process, weeding out those not fit for another season of lambing. Today was the day and just one girl hasn't make the grade. Thank goodness that there are champions for mutton, and that there are pockets of interest in this delicious meat and the concept of long, slow cooking.
Toy-boy get his toes trimmed too, so that he can dance the fandango with the girls on the 1st November without worrying about bunions.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

No invitation to the ball

Someone had a party and didn't invite me. No reason why they should, but leaving celebratory markers to push the point home seems a little unfriendly.
I'd spent the morning cleaning duck, goose and hen houses and plucking a couple of cockerels for the freezer. I put some of her much loved tomato out for the tortoise, admired the KPs (kitten pusses - sorry), and watched the dogs stretched out in the autumn sun waiting for my call.
The lambs have been split into groups, with the ones destined for the next butcher batch chewing the best meadow grass by the river, at the furthest reach of the farm. This means a daily trog to the river no matter the weather, and the dogs love it. Starting off across the orchard I could see something cobalt and artificial bobbing about behind some gorse. I thought it was a rambler picking a few blackberries, and then decided to go and check just in case it was something that needed dealing with. Much of the helium had leached out, and trapped tightly between bramble and old fencing, this sad little offering wasn't going anywhere without a tug. There wasn't even a note attached to the long streamer. A bottle without a message.

Friday, 19 September 2008


It is SO autumn. The Virginia Creeper that drapes the cottage on the way to town is ablaze, the leaves are dropping from the young fruit trees in the orchard, the bedspread was slung onto the bed to warm my shivery shoulders last night, and the squirrels are nicking all the nuts.
The acorns are ripe, and a gentle tap sends them cascading to the ground, leaving their school caps behind them. But can I find any hazelnuts to munch? In 11 kilometres of hedgerow on the farm I found a smattering of samples, the evidence of a good crop nicely gnawed and lying empty on the ground. No doubt there are snug hoards hidden from view for winter snacks, but none for me.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Roof update

More than a month after the clever breathable membrane was put in place, we now have a fully slated roof. The weather has been ghastly and it just ain't safe sliding around up there in the wet. Just two bits of roof left to do now: the stable roof in the same reclaimed slate, just to the left of the photo and attached to the threshing barn; and the round house roof, behind the barn, also attached. The round house will be thatched which is a process I've never really seen up close and personal, so there will be reports and photos. Soon the oak for the huge barn doors will have to be ordered and there will be feverish carpentering, flying sawdust and ringlets of paper thin timber paving the ground and the workshop.

Saturday, 13 September 2008


There was a joke in the paper a while back that's had me chortling on and off for weeks: "Testiculate. Definition: to talk bollocks whilst waving your arms about." Bizarrely, it really IS a word.
But I have yet another use for it. Unless you want entire ram lambs for breeding, most folk ring the testicles in the first few days of life to make sure they don't start impregnating mothers, sisters and who knows what else prior to their going off to the butcher. But Badger Face are smaller than commercial breeds and the ubiquitous rubber ring comes in one size only (unlike condoms which I've just learned really do come in micro, large and liar). This means that there is a small risk of a testicle popping back out...and the result? Testosterone, and horns, like the chappy above. So, I suggest that he has testiculated: by virtue of sheer will power over husbandry he has maintained his machismo.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Old Foxwhelp

It conjures up a gnarled character with a mature history and a way of telling the tale, or a field name in some forgotten corner. But Old Foxwhelp is an ancient cider apple and I make it into pinky perfect apple jelly to go with the pork and gammon.
I hoiked myself inelegantly over the tree guard with the help of a step ladder and filled the trug with red striped crab apple sized fruits, gave them a sploosh in the sink and then cut them into inexact quarters. One pint of water to every two pounds of apples, and blitz in a preserving pan, being careful not to burn the bottom as it simmers and froths. When all is soft and mushy, into the jelly bag to strain for hours, jelly bag emptied and more sloshed in. To every pint of the baby pink juice you add a pound of sugar (yes, you wouldn't want to brush your teeth with it) and heat to jam setting temperature and then pour carefully into hot jars and seal.
There wasn't enough to last all winter so the tractor was taken down the lane where a wild crab apple beamed with pride at its own harvest. Balanced on the arms of the front loader, and with shepherd's crook in hand, another trugful was tumbled down and is now simmering happily and scentedly before its overnight stopover in the jelly bag.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Glut and gluttony

It's been a weird growing year; all that water and not enough heat has suited some stuff and not others. So the orchard is heavy with apples but nary a plum, gage or damson in sight. Sloes are conspicuous by their individuality; literally one or two on a tree rather than the usual laden branches. I've been blackberrying three times now and perhaps it's a little early to expect otherwise, but although there's been enough for a fool and a crumble, I have yet to find the trug-full required to make the pots and pots of jam necessary to keep the household happy year round.
The polytunnel has been the star of the show: my aubergines are the best ever; the chillis will have to be dried or they will rot on the plant (you can't chomp on them for breakfast, lunch and dinner); the big boy tomatoes are gracing salads with their accompanying basil; the yellow courgettes are this month's staple; the cucumber surplus has gone to the pigs; the peas are still going (that's a long pea season in my book); and the pak choi was brilliant. Outside, the hispi cabbages have been forfeited to pigs and hens; the slug damage has made them beyond the human pale/pail. The onions did ok and today is the day for stringing them up. The swiss chard, artichokes, parsnips and red cabbage are all thriving, but it's the raspberries that have once again cheered the days; huge, sweet, beautiful and creating a jungle of unruly canes.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Who leaves a mound like this?

I have an animal that has human toileting inclinations. If I hung a roll of the quilted stuff from a branch on a convenient tree, he would likely use it with pleasure and appreciation. He produces neat heaps of nitrogen rich pellets that cause the grass to burst with energy, outdoing everything around it for greenness and vigour.
He moves along a little each time, so that the heap gets longer and longer, and for a fastidious beast this means no danger of stubbing your toe in yesterday's delivery. I often wonder whether he'd insist on the seat left up or down, and whether his paper of choice would be of the pastel persuasion. Reading matter would likely be something uplifting and improving; a biography or historical volume. Definitely no fluffy mat round the pedestal, and soap would be something swish from Penhaligon's.
Who produces a mound like this?

Monday, 1 September 2008

Rain stopped play

Next to the almost completed cob barn is the linhay, an open fronted barn originally used for storing hay. With the barn looking so shiny, the linhay sulked alongside, and worse, had started to drip onto the feed bins stored underneath. It was time to give those lovely granite posts a new hat. One weekend was nearly enough, finishing touches to be sorted today. But rain, of course, intervened. It might be another week, or two, before it's safe to clamber about up there and tap the last sheet and the capping sections into place.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

The tears of a clown

For the first time in recent summer memory, it seemed like it might just possibly be a day without rain.
At 6 o'clock I go and give the pigs their evening feed, and gaze out at the grey, grumbling clouds over the hill. I can't feel any wet in my hair or on my face, but there on a stone by my foot is a large splash; a harbinger of a battalion of splashes.
Even the ducks are fed up with being permanently damp.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Fosbury's event

I know I've been reading a fair bit of PG Wodehouse recently, what with making sure that Claude and Eustace are suitable names for the kitkats, but doesn't "Fosbury's event" sound a bit Bertie Woosterish to you too?
Probably not if you like sport, but as I've said before, I'm really not keen. I've heard of Linford Christie and Roger Bannister, remember Flo Jo with the hideously long nails, and recognise that a rugby ball is different from a football, but I don't really care about any of it.
So, there was the last unsolved clue in the Guardian Quick crossword: _i_h/_u_p. I went through all kinds of permutations: fish pump, dish lump, with hump, pith sump, rich bump. I was really enjoying myself. And then I googled Fosbury and there was the answer. Not half as exciting as this, this or THIS.

Monday, 18 August 2008

War wounds

I think, but I don't KNOW, that this is a speckled wood butterfly. It landed on a bramble and I took a quick snap, because my memory for markings is pretty poor and by the time I'd have had the book in my hand I would be scratching my head over any discernible feature other than the hopeful memory that it was mainly brown.
And now, in the comfort of my chair, and filling the screen, I can see how torn its lower wing is between the two eyes. It reminds me of Smudge's ears, those delicate filigree whorls and thin skinned points that took such a beating from unknown cats. I used to gently finger those healed slits and notches and tell him he was just as beautiful as before, just with added character, like a mother reassuring a daughter with a beauty spot or a son with a significant nose.
I have some temporary wounds of my own; sharp kitten claws rake my legs, arms and neck as
they clamber up me for attention, hanging indiscriminately from zips, buttons, flesh.

Friday, 15 August 2008

To the tannery

It gets very sheep focussed round here when enough lambs are ready to go to the butcher. First you bring the lambs in and sort them, checking weights and which ones are the right level of fatness. Then you ear tag the selected few, belly them out (shear off the belly fleece) and put them on clean straw in the barn to make sure they are clean and dry for the butcher. Into the trailer and off to slaughter first thing the next morning, with a comprehensive cutting list so you don't end up with chops the size of hams or joints comparable to fairy cakes. Back to the abattoir next day to pick up the offal and the salted skins, whilst the meat hangs for a further week. Home to remove the hearts and livers from the lungs and other pipework you don't want, bag it up and freeze. Jump back in the car and drive to the southern end of Dartmoor to Buckfastleigh and deliver the skins to the tannery.
That was a real bonus. After a dozen years of sheep keeping I have never had the skins cured before, but these days I'm determined to make use of every bit of the animal. I emailed the tannery who then looked at our farm website, said flattering things and offered me a tour. Well, it was fascinating. The place looked like an ancient distillery, what with all those huge wooden vats. Just ten people work in the three storey warehouse, and it's a physically demanding and highly skilled craft. I saw every machine, every nook and cranny, each process and their results.
The vats where the skins are washed in clean Dart river water, soaped and steamed, pickled in chromium. The machines that remove any flesh, fat and other undesirables. The huge spin dryer, superheated iron and the dragon machine - well it looked like a dragon to me - that with the aid of a brave man leaning into the works to manhandle each skin, softens them after they have become a little hard during the various processes. There were white skins, black skins, Jacobs and curly coated Lincolnshire long wools, these latter being dyed black and used as numnahs for the Horse Guards. The natural colours and variations were glorious, which is more than can be said for the eyesmacking Barbie pink, fire engine red and optimistic sky blues stored in a separate area so, I like to think, not to offend the eye of the workers.
It's a tactile trade - the finger tips can't lie about the suppleness or brittleness of the goods. As I was escorted round, my guide couldn't help stroke each stack of fleece, and there were many, all caressed knowingly as he passed.
I have high hopes of my badger fleeces (that's them above), with their creamy fleece and black border. I pick them up in about six weeks time.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Devil's Cauldron

It's impossible to capture the power, the cacophony, the all pervasive wet in one wee photo, but Lydford Gorge's Devil's Cauldron is quite something. Some gentle pasture, a mild mannered woodland, and then boom! The cracked rock is full of tumbling, roaring, endless water moving at incredible velocity, gushing into the potholes below.
The path is very much single track; no holding hands in holiday mood or chatting companionably side by side. You go down, down towards the mayhem and between the fissured stone into the depths of the gorge, secured either side by hand rails. Then a little swing gate and if you can brave the sudden lack of an outer handrail, soaked and slippy slate steps take you into the heart of the thing, where you stand on a platform right over the cauldron and imagine what it might have been like to be the first to discover this force of nature without a handhold to steady your body or spirit. I baulked and then set my jaw and completed the walk, strangely unaffected by vertigo, probably because everything is so contained and claustrophobic, quite unlike looking out from a high bridge or cliff into a world of scary nothing.
On the gentler parts of the walk, water constantly oozes and trickles, drips and splashes, spurts and springs through the ferns and mosses. Trees grow incredibly tall and straight seeking the light, and the undergrowth is an emerald and jade jungle - a cartel of chlorophyll. It's impossible to imagine going thirsty here; the antithesis of desert
The White Lady waterfall at the other end of the gorge is also beautiful if not so nervily dramatic, but the National Trust rather overdo the walker warnings calling it arduous, treacherous and goodness knows what else. You need stout shoes and a concentrating eye, and the dogs were left at home to avoid tipping anyone into the deadly depths, but although it's fairly steep, it's a short trot, and you couldn't compare it to climbing Everest.