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.