Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The naming of cats

My wonderful old cat had to be put to sleep a couple of months back. He was very ill but had been chirpy and content til the last handful of hours when it was finally time to intervene. I had hoped to find him permanently asleep on his cushion, but he just wouldn't drift off on his own, and he was clearly feeling really bad. They say you know when it's time, and I did.
He was buried in the orchard under a beautiful thriving cherry tree, and he frequently gets chatted to as we walk past.
The farm needs cats - rodent patrol is essential - and anyway, the house needs more than one cat to keep the dogs on their mettle.
There has been a trip to the Cats Protection League and two tabby boys, six weeks old and orphaned when their mother was run over, have been chosen. They should arrive in the next week or two.
Now it's just a question of names. Bill and Ben, Boris and Ken, Fish and Chips, Laurel and Hardy, Frost and Duffy, Tom and Sam, the possibilities go on and on. Any suggestions?

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Jiminy Cricket

I love the Stones, but really.....

Photo of Mick by Winslow Townson in the Guardian 26.7.08

Inadequacy and awe from Saturday's Guardian (or I love Lucy)

After days of physical toil and rote, the brain needs a bit of a stir, but like a muscle, it doesn't take much abandonment before it starts to atrophy.
So there I am, trying to rev myself up again with help from the Review section of the Saturday Guardian, switching between feelings of inadequacy and awe.
My sense of stupidity is at its height when I come across the spread on Sharon Olds, whom "many regard as America's greatest living poet". And I've never even heard of her. Do I blame my clearly inadequate Eng Lit degree course or myself? Myself of course. Just her photograph (that's it above) and quotes are enough to tell me I should have known of her, even if the specifics of her poetry sailed beyond my ken.
Next up, Julian Barnes' warm reminiscence of Penelope Fitzgerald has me smiling in appreciation of them both; clear minded, with sure literary feet, one admires their intellect and artistry.
But then, a treat of great humour. The Guardian is having fun at Mr Spin's expense. Alastair Campbell reviews Haruki Murakami and from the title to the last phrase, the piece is pure Campbell spin, using a paean to Murakami to enhance himself and puff his own work (some of which hasn't even been finished yet). How utterly venal, how shallow, how obvious, how very, very funny. My awe levels swiftly return to normal and feelings of inadequacy are drowned by giggling.
Just a flick away in the G's Weekend mag, beams Lucy Mangan's column. She's my favourite writer in the paper (as is Lynn Barber in the Observer), guaranteed to make me laugh, and always in the right way; what a satisfying turn of phrase she has. Writing on the flailing economy, Mangan suggests that we'll all be bartering piglets for firewood as if that was some kind of backwoods, medieval activity beyond the daily grind of her readers. Lucy, I'd happily swap half a trailer load of logs for any piglet you happen to have about you any time you like; delivery not included though.

Friday, 25 July 2008

It's scary, making hay

If you've never indulged some minor masochistic desire to try haymaking, you'll have no idea quite how all absorbing, stressful, sweat-inducing and completely exhausting the process is for folks doing it the old way. Not building stooks or anything quite that medieval, but producing small bales that a person of ordinary strength can manage on their own or shift with the wheelbarrow without the necessity of a mega-tractor and fancy implements.
Turning the hay is fine on a comfy tractor but our tractors are so old they're practically vintage and the seats lost their bounce long ago.

When the hay has reached perfection (which is a big ask, fraught as it is with fanatical weather forecasting) you row up the hay and then the baler comes along sucking it in and spewing out bales. But yesterday the wind was so dramatic that I had to row up with the baler travelling all of six inches behind my tractor as gusts sent heaps of hay into the air and across the field moments after the rows were all neatly created. My clutch foot was so tired by the end of the day that I considered going to sleep in the field rather than walking back to the house.
Every bale gets handled multiple times: to stack so that the flat 8 or Perry loader can pick it up; again to position it on the trailer; and then to heave it off the trailer into the barn, getting higher and higher with every trailer load. You sweat copiously, back bent as the hay gets close to the roof, skin covered in itchy seeds and little bits of dried grass.
Friends appear at your elbow and help load, or unload - life would be impossible without folks like this. Two of the builders come and throw bales around for a couple of hours too, delaying their breakfast.
And then the scary bits. The tractors aren't nervewracking as long as you know what you are doing and the land holds no surprises (no hidden, violent ridge and furrow, tree roots, old bricks, springs, cliffs etc). Bales aren't scary either. But standing on a trailer and building the stack is completely terrifying if, like me, you've a real aversion to heights. I shut my eyes when lifted off the top of a loaded trailer by the bale loader, but then I have to clamber up again back at the barn to heave the bales off. To say this is a trial for me is an understatement. I do my best, I really do, but you won't catch me clambering around the heights with anything other than a grimace and unsteady hands. I only feel safe when I have the solid bed of the trailer once again beneath my feet.
The new bale counter didn't work, so I have no proof as to how many bales were made and handled over the last three days, but I do know it's between 1000 and 1500, and I feel I have an intimate relationship with each and every one. But it's done for another year, and unlike the 2007 washout, the 2008 crop looks fantastic. The sweet smell of well cured hay is in the air, and even a bit of local muck spreading this evening couldn't mask it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Mopsa makes hay whilst the sun shines

Don't know what it is about hay but the dogs just adore it. They roll in it, burrow through it, toss it about and play with it. They drape it over their ears and stick their snouts deep into it. It's as if they inhale life, summer, pleasure and delight with every happy whiff. Puppy behaviour is at the fore. It's wonderful to watch and be part of.

Sunday, 20 July 2008


Well, at this very moment the hay fields are being cut. Five days without rain are being forecast, but whether that'll hold true, who knows? But waiting for the possibility of another clump of wet-free opportunities is a chance that cannot be taken. So in a few days, all being well, I will be humping small bales onto trailers, off trailers, into the Dutch barn and crossing all digits that any rogue precipitation is short and mild. If things don't go so well on the rain front it'll be wrapped into large bales for haylage, which the sheep don't really like. Apart from lambing, this is the most worrisome time of the year.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Small IS beautiful

I don't know why I subscribe to Spiked; I've probably said it before but their stance (all progress is good, green politics is idiotic, cheap food for all rah rah rah and stuff the consequences blah bleurgh blah) drives me quite wild with fury.
Here they are grudgingly singing the praises of the new Jimmy's Farm spin-off, gasping with surprise that he can find it in himself to praise the new technologies and processes that large scale modern farming embraces.
Not surprisingly the piece made me spit chunks of small scale produced Gouda type cheese (the photo is of a cheese made on the course I attended a month or so back).
What is all this sneering at small scale production? Would you really want to only ever eat ready meals concocted in a factory rather than one made to order at a local restaurant or in your own or a friend's kitchen? Would you refuse to wear a hand knitted cardie and only buy your woollens from Primark?
Brian says: "I don’t believe that we should all know where our food comes from or how it’s produced". What? You're happy that your sausages come from the dregs of pork that you'd never consider eating if it hadn't been made palatable by factory processing? You don't care if people or animals are exploited to keep your guts full and your body warm? It's ok if farmers get shafted left right and centre just so you can buy a £1.99 chicken or get a bogof heap of fruit and veg?
I was in awe of the robot milking machine; you can't produce one celery plant or one pint of milk and hope to keep the world fed - large scale is essential. But small scale operations produce stuff that just can't be bettered. We need both, just like we need to maintain rare breeds as well as commercial strains of livestock to ensure a healthy gene pool. Small is forever beautiful.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Bats in the bedroom

For the last fortnight I haven't been able to go to bed without having to shoo one or more bats out through the window. Big and brave, me, when confronted with bats outdoors, even as they swoop at head height and at top speed as they leave the roost under the eaves.
Somehow, as you remove a shoe and hop about on one leg and start to wrestle your head out of the day's t-shirt, bats whirring past your nut is not quite as appealing.
The other day three of the toothed and winged beasties circled gaily over the bed, dropping neat pellets of batshit as they went. Lovely.
Yesterday, this long eared bat was found dead. If you can tell me whether that's a grey or a brown long eared bat, I'd be most grateful. It looks like a grey-brown bat to me.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Topping out

Well it's happened. The crane arrived two hours late but three hours later all seven trusses were in place, some temporary cross timbers banged in, and the ceremonial oak branches secured at the apex of the threshing barn and the roundhouse. The trusses looked so huge on the ground, but the crane's jib dwarfed everything and they looked no bigger than twiglets or matchsticks as they gently moved through the air. See for yourself.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

# 2 roof...

...not second in status like number two wife courtesy of The King and I, but the second to go up, or very nearly. Tomorrow a 35 tonne crane is arriving, for one day. Seven huge oak trusses will be lifted into place, or at least that is the plan. It's been discussed that they will be lifted over the workshop (you can just see it on the right of the photo, door ajar) and NOT over the house, just in case. So here is an image of two of the trusses the night before, and I hope the last time I see them in a horizontal plane.
Chaps came to measure and suck their teeth. Not only does the crane have to put the trusses onto the threshing barn, it needs to lift two of them right over the building for positioning on the newly rebuilt roundhouse walls, which sits right on the road edge. I suspect the odd tractor or two might have to be halted whilst that happens.
Vehicles have been moved, dogs will be kept indoors, and I will click away to capture progress, hard hatted and bug eyed, as I did for roof number one.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Movement without licence

5.30pm and I down tools. Well, move away from the computer and put on sheep chasing trousers and boots.
Today the ducks have been moved out of Back Orchard and into the garden for a few weeks. The grass in Back Orchard (so called because it once served as the secondary farm orchard near the house - there's posh) is long, and apart from the pig paddock area hasn't been touched by anything other than waterfowl and the odd badger or fox for three years.
There are big plans afoot for creating a duck pond and some good sized foxproof pens for the ducks, and another for guinea fowl. But first there's all that lush grass, and with haymaking weather failing to appear, there is a real shortage of forage ground at the moment. So after a quick once-over, a sore foot treated and an approving check on lambs being not too far off butchering time, the flock has been let loose in the long grass for a couple of days before the digger goes into pond-making mode.
They are so busy chomping they forget to baaaa. The ewes' milk is drying up and as soon as haymaking releases a spare field, there will be a weaning and a wailing.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Wildness tamed

Off to Roadford Wood Fair yesterday. It's a small scale affair, and a couple of hours gets you round all the stalls and displays and gives you time to chat at length with the folks selling wood-fired boilers and promoting sustainable domestic energy. You feel worthy and improved just by being there.
I love the locally handmade wicker baskets, the knives made in a charcoal fire, the old but usable tools, the trugs, the yurts, the scent of bombay potatoes, falafel and venison burgers. But best of all are the stands with the owls and the birds of prey. The golden eagle stretches out his leg, doing a fair imitation of the hokey cokey. The kestrel (above) preens and poses. The barn owl sits on the shoulder of its handler, clearly digging it claws through the man's fleece and causing him to wince - why doesn't he invest in leather epaulettes? But best of all is the little owl. I can't remember seeing one in the flesh before. Apparently they like living in orchards. I can only hope a pair might come and check ours out.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Doing it the old way

Today we have our first woman on site, making oak pegs for the roof trusses for the threshing barn.
She starts with blocks of oak, cuts them with a froe into squared sticks, then sitting astride her shaving horse uses her draw knife to round them into the finished article.
After a day off yesterday because of the torrential rain (the river burst its banks at the edge of the farm), the place is now buzzing with activity; I think half the builders in Devon are on site.

Monday, 7 July 2008

The delight is in the detail

How many times have you walked down a street, across a lane, through a building and been struck by a perfect detail? The curve of a banister, the sweep of a railing, the charm of a door knob, the gape of a gargoyle? I'm pretty architecturally illiterate, but it's the small things, those objects you can hold or caress with your hand that do it for me. I particularly enjoy carved text - the name or number of a house in simple font, in unflashy creamy stone or aged oak.
Cathedral Square in Exeter has many of these human scale features, somehow standing their own against the mammoth cathedral.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Bit of blatant self interest

Sorry I haven't posted for a few days; I was busy voting myself a £24k annual expense award. I put my hand up, but no-one seems to have sent me any forms to fill in. Do I need to become an MP first?

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Farming with robots

This is something a friend told me about, and well, I struggled to believe her. But now I've seen it for myself.
It's been around for some years now, but even though the South West has more farms than anywhere else in the country, there are just 20 robot milking parlours in the whole region.
What's it all about then?
Basically, the cow determines when it wants milking (aided by greed as the robot supplies food too), and hops onto the unit which then takes control with no-one needing to be present. First the computer notes which cow it has in its clutches from the transmitter hung round her neck. The gate closes to keep her secure, and a warm steamy wash with clever little rollers brushes up and down each teat, just like a miniature car wash. Seeing it in action last night at a local farm I suggested that particular function might have been invented by Ann Summers. Next, the laser comes into action to precisely determine where the teats are before docking the cups to them. If the cow shifts a little, the lasers recalibrate and have another go. If only 3 quarters are in action, the computer knows that too. Then the milking starts. Each quarter of the udder is milked independently, so the machine stops milking each one when it is empty. Meanwhile, the computer is analysing just about everything: milk flow; temperature; quantity of milk produced from each quarter; number of times the cow has presented herself for milking; whether the cow is about to come down with mastitis; if it's been milked a couple of hours ago and needs shoving out and not milking; you name it.
The cows take themselves through a non return gate when they want a little steaming, brushing and milking, otherwise they are free to help themselves elsewhere in the cow shed to feed, a lie down or a relaxing scratch from the automatic cow brush. Although the farm I visited keeps the cows indoors, you can certainly include fresh grazing into the system by enabling recently milked cows access to outdoor grazing.
It was an incredibly intelligent system, requiring minimal labour, and providing the farmer with everything you need to know about your cow, enabling swift preventative care. It also sends phone alerts if there is a problem of any kind, with clear messages that describes exactly what requires attention. Up to a week is needed to acclimatise each cow, and the system clearly produces very quiet cows and gives them almost everything they need.
But although I was in awe of it all, I don't want milk from cows excluded from spring and summer natural grazing, and I'd like to see for myself a system that includes significant access to grass even if it creates a slight decrease in the milk yield. I wonder what the Soil Association view is on this.

If you are intrigued and want to see the system in action, you can watch a video here.