Saturday, 29 March 2008

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!

Rage! Blow! And please be done with it quick smart before any of the lambs succumb to hypothermia.
I haven't yet been carried off across the Cornish border by the determined gales, the menagerie is still intact, and the fires haven't gone out, but it's not nice out there.
It comes in flurries; the trees sway and bend and the wind howls round the buildings, then suddenly everything is quiet, the trees stand straight, before another determined whoosh that rattles branches onto the barn roof, makes the loose straw skip, and parts the fleece on the outside ewes. Worse, a few bits of corrugated tin on barn roofs and walls that were thought to be well secured are being persistently jiggled about and I suspect will be ripped from their moorings before the weather settles; it is far too dangerous to do anything about it in this wind.
The house is in a hollow and naturally well protected, but as soon as you walk away from it to check the sheep, jackets flap, hats sit askew and dead leaves and other detritus eddy across your path. This should be a day for baking, reading the weekend papers or a Jilly Cooper, but instead it's on with the outdoor gear and up the hill every hour or so.
Like the wind, lambing comes in flurries with two lots of doubles in the last twelve hours - a break from the dreaded triplets - and more looking interested in producing some of their own.

Friday, 28 March 2008

An unexpected phone call

The morning round complete, I check emails and start work. The phone rings and an unfamiliar chatty, chilled Totnes voice says she hopes I don't mind, but she's just been googling "cob barns", seen the farm website and wonders if I can help.
She has a friend, a Buddhist monk, who is looking for a cob barn to buy for hosting educational children's workshops. I'm so stunned by this that I don't hear that much of the rest.
Just last week I gave short shrift to a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses who thought they might convert me on my doorstep, but not even I can be rude to a Buddhist monk or their putative friend, even though I was beginning to think "scam". Perhaps I jump to negative conclusions too quickly - actually there is no perhaps about it - but when she mentioned that her monk had charitable funding to buy said barns, the tone was set. Ivana, she said her name was. And yes, the STD she left was indeed a Totnes code.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

The lambing quickstep

It's all slow, slow, manic, manic, slow on the farm at the moment. You wait for something to happen, then everything hits in a rush (heaps of triplets, all night vigils, donning the long plastic gloves for an up-the-sheep moment), and then it's all quiet again.
It's as emotionally exhausting as being a young girl at her first disco, hugging the wall for a few records, being whizzed around for ten minutes by some overly hormonal partner, then rejoining the other wallflowers.
The sheep with lambs are now out in the orchard, enjoying the sun on their backs and the fresh grass. I go up with the bottles and top up any triplets that aren't getting enough milk. It's always a relief when the lambs turn back to their mother once they've had their fill, rather than follow me around - I'm not looking to be a full time surrogate mum!
So, I will waltz, slowly, up the hill to see if any ewes are doing the lambada.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Five minutes peace

I can't believe how tired I am, and lambing has only started and there are just a couple of dozen ewes to deal with; how friends with 500 manage, I can't even start to imagine. Either way, you're in and out of the lambing shed like some crazed self-winding clockwork toy, checking behaviour, changes in eating patterns, signs of water bags, general atmosphere, and topping up one set of triplets with bottled milk as their first time mum hasn't really got enough of her own. Neither me nor far more experienced farmers I know have ever come across a first-timer having triplets - what was she thinking? Luckily the lambs are evenly sized and full of energy and survival instinct, so no larger bully is benefiting over the others.
Mini and major dramas are enacting themselves all over the place. The first batch of incubated goose eggs are starting to pip, so I am hoping there may be goslings under the heat lamp in a couple of days. One of the geese is sitting on her own full nest, au naturale, as proud and protective as can be. An Aylesbury duck suffered from a prolapse of the oviduct, so she has been dispatched, plucked and is in the freezer, my clean lambing Dickies boilersuit now covered in white down. A ewe gave up trying to lamb after some sterling effort, and intervention brought out one malformed lamb that had blocked the cervix causing another perfectly good lamb to die, leaving the mum with one good healthy ram (this run of triplets is ridiculous - that's three sets so far). Saddest of all, the matriarch, Mrs Longtail, succumbed to pasteurellosis, something the flock had never suffered from until last year when two ewes were also lost to it in the final stages of pregnancy. They are all vaccinated against this lethal pneumonia, have been well fed and are in a well ventilated barn, but you can't avoid the inevitable stress to the body caused by lambing or stop cold windy weather. I'll have to discuss future planning with the vet.
My old cat is getting scrawnier, but still eating, drinking, purring, strolling, mock-hunting, and as you can see, happy to share a bed with Mopsa on a filthy welly-boot dirt strewn kitchen floor. And I am off to check on the ewes, again.

Friday, 21 March 2008

It's started

...and it's triplets! Not entirely something to celebrate really - a ewe only has two teats after all, and triplets rarely do as well as doubles.
Not the best photo, but at less than 12 hours old they are uncooperatively fixated on breathing, eating and investigating rather than posing. Oh, and they are ALL boys. This is one of the prettiest ewes in the flock, nicely marked and with delicate features.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Easter egg hunt

If you look closely, you will see one of the crème eggs from the handfuls poked into various hidey holes in and around the barns for the builders to find, this last morning before their Easter break.
I used to love treasure hunts, the kiddy sort rather than those beloved of suburban families in cars during the seventies and eighties that I remember from summers in North West London.
I left a note stuck on the window of the converted shipping container the builders use as an office, attached to one egg, that said there were nine more to find. There was a chuckling but plaintive response asking whether there were really ten in total. One egg is still sitting untouched in one of the dovecotes. It's really hard not to look at it and give the game away.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

I'm a llama - let me out of here

No, this is not an image of the remaining traces of an escapee llama. If you walk along the fence line there are numerous catches of his hair where he has stretched his extraordinary neck to chew on some succulent shoot in the hedge.
The fence also has rubbings of fleece - black from the Torwens, white from the Torddu. And now I am finding a different kind of black, white and chestnut fur where it shouldn't be.
Fenn, the young Bernese Mountain Dog, has decided that she is in fact a steeple-chaser, and is leaping five bar gates and barbed wire fences with impunity. All physical obstacles put in place to dissuade her from this potentially dangerous feat have failed. The cast iron spike by the preferred "show-jump" has been wrapped so that she doesn't impale herself.

Monday, 17 March 2008


There I was, minding my own, when from between my wellies was a reminder of fleeting hours, weeks, month, years. And it was already starting to disintegrate. Thanks.
And then I looked at the calendar, and it told me that clocks change in less than a fortnight.
I know I said I wanted lambing to hurry up and start, but now I've changed my mind. Just SLOW DOWN will you?

Saturday, 15 March 2008

It's oh so quiet...

It's oh so still in this grey, watery run up to lambing. No tractors are out and about - the fields are too sodden to take the strain, everyone is dealing with indoor tasks, sorting their paperwork and tackling VAT returns. Farming seems on hold apart from those with dark shadows under their eyes from nights in the calving pens and lambing sheds.
I feed the sheep and check their udders and girths. In theory they could start lambing the day before Easter Sunday, and one or two look like they might oblige, with swollen udders and teats becoming more prominent. The lambing shed is all ready, old straw and muck removed, pens set up and fresh straw scattered, water buckets and haynets on hand and gloves, lube and iodine in place.
Lambing has been happening since Christmas round here, so the wait seems particularly extended and I feel the urge to get going on this most exciting and exhausting occupation in my farming year. More than anything I want the rain to stop and the sun to shine, encouraging fresh shoots of grass to welcome the new arrivals.
Even though they are brought in at night and many lamb between dusk and dawn, inevitably, some of the ewes will lamb outside during the day and I don't want them to drop their young into puddles. I'll be going up and down between the house and the orchard where the expectant mums spend their days to make sure nothing untoward happens and my calf muscles will build their April shape. I've been known to take a stool up there and watch a ewe determine her lambing space and go through the whole process, and when the lambs are up and happy, take mum and offspring into the lambing shed to iodine the navels, feed and water the mum, and give them up to 24 hours in there before giving mum her first pedicure in five months and sending them off into the sun.
But for now, it's the quiet before the storm.
Tomorrow I'll try and take a photo of the heavily laden ewes between downpours.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Wishing for otters

From time to time when there are no sheep in Second Lower Moor (no, not an inspirational name, but historically correct), I let the dogs play there by themselves whilst I slip through the gate into the adjacent copse and check out the otter holt. I peek into the entrances and lightly poke about the area looking for trails or spraint.
I get a physical surge of excitement just at the prospect of otters choosing to live on the farm. I have seen very few wild otters ever, the sightings don't yet make a handful, and I have yet to see one in Devon although I have smelled their presence just a short stroll from here. So when I saw the picture of Lotty in this Saturday's Western Morning News, I was to be found stroking the newsprint in a quite pathetically wistful manner.
I now have the cutting pinned on my noticeboard, next to my computer, and I gaze at the seven week old beauty, with her black button nose and her black button eyes with something akin to adoration. I wish she'd come to stay.

Monday, 10 March 2008

The elements

I wondered why the barometer manufacturers had bothered with those extreme gradations so far below the "bloody awful weather" category. Now I know.
I kept waking in the night, hoping that willpower alone would keep the half finished barn roof in place. Having three chimneys in the house, the wind whistles and hoots through its trio of echo chambers just to make sure the inhabitants have plenty to keep them wakeful and worriting.
The blustering is as bad as ever and it's not yet safe to go and check if any trees are down or for any other damage. The sheep are ok and the dogs will have to be content with poking their noses and behinds briefly out of doors; no walks today.

Sunday, 9 March 2008


It's been raining in short, hard bursts, and the lower fields are soggy and soft. As you sploosh your way through, there is a stirring and a whirring, and a plumpish shape or three or thirty rise noisily and move off for a while. Skewers with wings, these extraordinary birds love the wet rushy pasture, but are incredibly shy and I only ever see them making their getaway. A couple of years ago I saw a parent and a number of young in a field ditch, but they too took to the air as I unwittingly disturbed them. I only wish the snipe would have let me take this photo.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Women in Farming

This evening I was mingling with artists and farmers at the Phoenix Arts Centre for the exhibition resulting from the Women in Farming project put together by Aune Head Arts.
It's a topic close to my heart and in the press too, this week.
The work was beautiful, honourable, moving, familiar and unfamiliar. Framed by mounts of felted fleece and adorned with gold plated copies of their ear tags (made by Louise Evans), Jennie Hayes' photographs of the sheep on Sue Peach's Dartmoor farm made me want to wrench the images off the wall and take them home with me. I was drawn again and again to look at the detail of their heads, their gaze, their ear tags, their carefully shorn necks, every inch as imperious as any senior politician sitting for their portrait.


There has been swaling. Because the culm hasn't been grazed by cattle this year and needs the thick thatching cleared to encourage fresh growth, a carefully controlled burn has played gently over about a quarter of the purple moor grass tufts in Moor Wood. The ground is very wet, and so romping flames are unlikely here, although on Dartmoor where the gorse is swaled to keep its spread under control, they have firemen on standby. Now, why didn't I think of that?