Saturday, 31 January 2009

Who lives in a hole like this?

The hole is about the size of a two pence piece. Somebody or something has created an entrance which might tunnel down to subterranean depths, or just a few inches. I certainly wasn't going to insert a finger to find out. And it was far too blustery to stand around and wait for anything to emerge.
I suspect it's a vole, but rather like the idea of an extended nest that could contain the length of a weasel.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Squirrel hounds

There's a small oak and ash copse at the far end of the farm, and Tarzan and Jane live there. They do. Honest. They swing from tree to tree, effortlessly, gracefully, competently. Usually.
Last week I watched them engage in their usual acrobatics when there was a thump as Jane (or was it Tarzan?) fell fifteen feet to the ground. Being a squirrel she/he was back up in the tree tops before I could pound my breast and alert the jungle to the news.
But now the dogs know they are in with a chance. The hollow tree from where the mighty had fallen has lots of holes and nooks and crannies and is investigated by large, damp, quiveringly excited snouts. No hidey hole is left uncharted, no bit of bark left unscraped. It happened once, they think. It'll happen again.
I do love the optimism of dogs.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

I've been thinking about this ever since I heard it

Goodness, it's hard to love America, notwithstanding some great art and literature.
All that misconceived superiority, the election of cretins, the lack of universal health care, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the McCarthy era, binning Kyoto, Guantanamo, 50% of people believing in creationism and not evolution, to pick a few things that spring swiftly to mind.
And then something happens that suddenly humanises a nation that seemed anything but.
The last time I remember deliberately turning on the television during the daytime it was to watch, open mouthed, the collapse of the twin towers. On Tuesday it was to hear Barack Obama’s inaugural speech, which made me glad and hopeful and worried that too many people see a clever, able and inspiring man as a saviour and with huge relief expect him, not us, to improve our faltering world.
But just read it - an intelligent, thoughtful, determined, hugely human approach that doesn't shrug off the ignominy of the very recent past, but draws a line between the approach then and now.
Gordon Brown talked about change, change, change when he took up the UK premiereship. Huh! We can but hope that Obama will deliver where Brown just teeters on the brink of indecision and same, same, same. The world will be watching like never before.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Learning from your mistakes

I eat a lot of lettuce: rocket, little gem, lamb's lettuce, butterhead, Romaine/cos, Chinese cabbage, Webb's Wonder, salad bowl, even the universally chomped but sneered at iceberg. And though there's a polytunnel in the veg garden, I've not yet attempted to grow lettuces in it over the winter. So, in the not so productive months, when I can't resist a crunch of fresh green, I have been known to bite my lip about the food miles and buy imported salad.
But I should know better than to buy it from Spain. I can't remember when over the last few years a well-washed Spanish lettuce hasn't given me gut-churning spasms and worse. But very occasionally I forget to look at the label, or I think I'll just be extra careful with the washing. But no. Whatever it is they do to their exported salad delivers a swift and painful dose of food poisoning.
I've never found a slug in an imported lettuce; if I had, I could at least be reassured that it hadn't been blasted with a chemical cocktail containing bleach and who knows what else. And I could enjoy the extra protein for free.
Apart from exotic fruit such as mangoes, bananas and pineapple that don't grow in the UK, I am going to swear off imported foodstuffs, even if it's being sold in the local market. I know that seasonal is how it should be; that's how I eat 90% of the time, so I'm just going to have to swap my lettuce for leeks and parsnips, which are still there for the pulling in the veg patch. Complete with slug.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Brushing against the bizarre

The adverts trailing the walls alongside the escalators in the tube have always intrigued me, indicative as they are of the inner London Zeitgeist. I'm as curious about the positioning of the worn out stubs of chewing gum as I am about the content.
Coasting up the escalators this week I was reminded of how when times are tough our proffered entertainment becomes increasingly surface, aggressively light-hearted.
There was the big, round, over-made- up face of Jimmy Osmond, mascaraed and foundationed within an inch of his middleagedness. He's in Grease, which I can just about fathom, and is shortly to move to Chicago where he's to play Billy Flynn - which I find entirely unimaginable and absurd. Wondering how the little cheeky chappie of Puppy Love fame can exude the slick, sleek, sophisticated, manipulative odour of Mr Flynn (Bryan Ferry would be MY choice), nearly had me tripping over the last moving step and into the unsuspecting back of my fellow commuters.
And then there was Dame Edna Norton. Sorry, Graham. He's starring in La Cage aux Folles as Albin the drag queen. I felt as if I'd fallen back into the seventies, goggling in surprise at Danny La Rue. There were the huge ads for six packs if you would only stick to a full-on gym regime and take a heady concoction of supplements. And on it went. It was bizarre - this determinedly showbizzy presentation of life when all around me people were looking grim.
The most serious thing I could find was an ad for using tissues to avoid spreading cold germs.
And in the train, squashed far too close to everyone else in the Friday rush hour, I overheard parts of a truly odd conversation. It became clear that a teacher was talking about a colleague who was having an inappropriate relationship with a sixteen year old student. The word inappropriate was his, but he felt it wouldn't do him any good reporting it, and as the student was sixteen, it was kind of alright, wasn't it? But, he hummed and hawed, it was never really alright if you were the teacher and the sixteen year old was your student, was it? I could hear him tussling with what he'd like to call his conscience, and failing to come to any conclusions either way. The young woman he was talking to was decidedly not sitting on the fence; it was wrong in her eyes, a teacher taking advantage of a situation where a pupil should be able to trust them to do the right thing.
It reminded me of my history teacher who went out with and then married an ex-pupil shortly after she left the school. And the girl student who stole a male teacher away from his fiancee who also taught at the school. And the teacher who was mentally abusive and cruel to a pupil he went out with immediately after she left school, and.....
Life is much simpler, back in Devon. No escalators with ads, no eavesdropping train crushes. Just the odd bit of burglary, arson or murder.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Mr Micawber and me

Goodness, I'm about to sound like a real old whingeing puritan, and I failed my economics A level (it was soooo boring that I fell asleep, literally, several times in class, only ever getting the O level grade), so I probably should keep my trap shut, but...
Everyone is in an almighty panic that people aren't spending. The same way (or is it the opposite way?) that there was equal panic that everyone was maxing out their credit cards for the whole of the last decade. How can both these stances be right?
If you're facing hard times (and who isn't?) doesn't it make absolute sense to curtail your spending, wear last years clothes (in my case I still wear stuff that's twenty years old, but then I never was a fashion plate and the livestock don't give a hoot), and basically live off what you've got wherever possible? I'm not talking about UK poverty here, which is a real and separate major concern, but about those of us who have to live more frugally than we've had to in the past.
I'd have thought the press and the government would have been applauding us for not stripping the shops bare at Christmas, for being more reasoned and responsible about our expenditure, and for finally having the strength to resist the cult of more, more, more, spend, spend, spend.
I suspect that 2009 will be the year of anti-conspicuous consumption; grunge will be back. Muddy ten year old Volvo estates will be the car of choice; charity shop clothes with the Oxfam tag still swinging from the collar will be the thing; huge plasma screens bought in 2008 will only be able to show yet more re-runs of The Good Life in 2009; private schooling will gurgle down the drain; and bangers and mash with onion gravy will become the plat du jour.
For the next decade I predict:
  1. money management classes in every primary and secondary school
  2. the death of the Porsche
  3. the digging up of flowerbeds and their replacement with veg
  4. demand for allotments skyrocketing
  5. downsizing, downshifting and other euphemisms for one or no income households
  6. that all ex-battery hens will find a home in suburban gardens, producing cheap eggs
  7. the diminishing of the cult of celebrity
  8. the rise of the knitter on the train
  9. less fanfare, less hubris and a curtailed Olympics
  10. an emerging generation of workers with different aspirations and expectations
What are your predictions?

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Keeping warm on cold nights

It was ages ago that I posted about my first visit to the Dartmoor tannery, salted lambskins heaped in the back of my car. Five months have gone by and I've been back and forth, collecting the skins and delivering more for curing.
And here is a picture of two of the resulting skins - a lambskin (right) and a sheepskin - that I've kept back to snuggle into on winter nights. I can't believe how warm and comforting they are, how they seep heat into your back and ease the efforts of the day.
What's fascinating about the Badger face is the black belly, and this results in a natural chocolate brown or black border in contrast to the creamy centre. The sheepskin (from a ewe that went for mutton), has a blacker border and shorter pile (she had been shorn a few months before), whereas the lambskins are completely unshorn, so have that curly Mongolian look that has been so fashionable the last few years. Every one is slightly different, no homogeneity here, with some having a darker base layer of fleece that gives a lovely variation in tone.
For years I've been hoping to do this but lived too far from a tannery, but now I am content that every useful bit of the sheep has a purpose.
Several were given as Christmas presents, and others are being sold, contributing to the keep of the sheep. The next batch to go includes a lamb with a big brown spot on the side; I wonder if I can justify keeping it for myself?

Friday, 9 January 2009

When you know you've arrived

I always looked with envy when I visited a farm at the beginning of a new year and saw a clutch of manufacturers' calendars nonchalantly heaped on the dresser. I reckoned that receiving freebies from the agricultural trade meant you were a real farmer.
So, I say tadaaa! I've officially made it as the real thing, for two, yes TWO 2009 calendars (freebies, gifts, free lunch stuff etc etc) are in the kitchen, proclaiming my verisimilitude to a farmer. OK, I have yet to wear a gratis boilersuit with a Massey or John Deere badge, and I haven't got a plastic thingummybob from some quad bike dealer, but you have to take these things slowly.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Minus 8 degrees facing south

It sounds like autumn underfoot, what with the crackling of fallen leaves, but it's as depths of winter as it gets, and it's the ice, not the dehydration, that crackles.
Troughs need breaking three times a day, and I worry that the animals aren't getting enough to drink, even though they rarely suck from the troughs and will be ingesting lots of moisture with their sugar-frosted feed.
But it's glorious out there if you don't need to drive; sunny, dry, cold as can be, but oh so fresh.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Left, right, left

6am and I push sleepily into the bathroom. Through the windows I can see it's soot black outside. Mind on the warmth of bed my head jerks up as I hear, distinctly, "left, right, left" being bellowed from somewhere close by. My ears strain to catch other sounds, but I can't hear any marching, trudging or even creeping.
My thoughts whirr - too much Survivors - as I imagine the farm is under siege, that the army manoeuvres on Dartmoor have gone further off the moor than usual, or that some militarily trained burglars have decided to try their luck.
Feeble, and more pressingly, cold, I leap back under the duvet, listening hard. No matter how cold it is, the window is always ajar at night, but I can't hear a thing. Half an hour later the dawn chorus gets rolling, cockerels first, then the wild life. There it is again, "left, right, left, right", only, it's not a drill sergeant, but a corvid of some kind. I wonder if it's the same crow that imitates a mobile phone?
My turn to do the animals again this morning, and it's colder than ever. I'm wearing double layer fleece gloves, so thick that my fingers are kept stretched apart. When I open one of the metal field gates my glove sticks so firmly to the latch that I have to take my hand out of the glove and tear it off, leaving a line of the beige nap behind. I walk back from the sheep and there is the welcome of the smoke from the chimney, just visible in the photo.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

The order of things

Each week the order of things change by a tweak; the routine is not as routine as one might think. Animal requirements alter with the season, livestock is moved from field to field, and post-abattoir some fields are left empty for a time.
On this first day of a sparkly new year I was more conscious than usual of the adaptations of my progress through the morning hour of feeding and watering the hordes.
First task is to tend to the indoor beasts. Cats and dogs sorted, I cover up with thick gloves, jacket, hat and neoprene lined wellies and cast myself into the frozen wastes of Devon. Animals closest to the house are next in line. I go through to Little Oaky where the last batch of 2008 lambs for meat are picking disconsolately at frozen grass. I cram a bale of hay into their hayrack, scatter a few nuts for their added inner warmth, and crash through the ice covering their water trough.
It was too cold last night to fill the rubber water buckets and skips; the hoses were frozen solid, so I have to go to the dog room and fill up buckets from there, carrying several loads for the Aylesbury and Black Indian Runner ducks. It's treacherous; the water the ducks spill in great abandon round the buckets has frozen into a slippy sheet and I try to take firm steps. I let the ducks out into their runs, give them their feed and admire the heap of ice bullets that emerged from the hosepipe yesterday.
I check on the cockerels being fattened; their run has been left open and a pair of them are pecking round on the barn floor, nibbling up strands of stray wheat heads. The surplus wheat straw from the roundhouse thatching is being steadily used up for poultry bedding and the cockerels spend hours denuding the wheat ears. I corner and pick up the birds, put them back in their run, add some more feed and refresh their water.
Up to the rams' paddock, I stuff fresh hay into the makeshift rack and whistle. They both come charging up to snatch at the hay, and I check them over for bumps and bruises. Catching up a length of scaffold pole I mash through the ice in their trough, which leaves my hands ringing.
I shovel out poultry corn and goat mix into a pair of scoops and go into the orchard. I trail an equitable line of corn on the ground for the geese and let them out of their hut, smashing the ice in their trough too. I stand and watch them for a while; Frankie the gander lords it about but is careful only to hiss at me once I've already moved off to check on the ewes in Long Lands. All ewes present and correct I put the goat mix in the llama's bucket out of sheep reach, crack the ice in their trough and check on the hay situation - they'll need more this morning. The old landrover is hooked up to the battery charger and is full of fencing tools so I stuff a couple of bales in the back of my car and take it up to the sheep by road, turfing the bales over the gate, ram the loosened bales in with foot and fist, so that I can make some attempt to close the lid of the hayrack.
I fill a barrow with logs and take it back to the house; time for my own breakfast and to salute the new year.