Saturday, 6 November 2010

A month on

It's been a month since we buried Mopsa in the orchard and I can't believe how much I miss her.
I'm a pretty hard-hearted character, unsentimental on the whole, dealing plainly with life and death as you do, on a farm.
But oh, she's left such a huge hole in my heart.
Not being nose-nudged by her as I slump in the armchair, hand dangling pointlessly for her wet touch leaves my palm wanting. The threshing barn, her "big kennel" has a yawning doorway unfilled by her hearthrug body, no head propped up on the stone step to watch me move across the yard as I carry out my chores.
Everything reminds me of her, because she did everything with me, or so it feels now. She walked with me, sat with me, snoozed with me, ate with me, loved, I'm sure, with me.
Last night in the pub, steak fat trimmings on the plate, I no longer needed to wrap them into a napkin to bring home her favourite treat. In a moment my mood shifted as I realised, again.
And where are those wonderful wriggling chestnut eyebrows, communicating this and that? And the determined pat of the paw on my leg to say that, no, I hadn't yet hugged her enough and more was required? And there's just too much space on the carpet; there should be two large dogs to step round, not one. I miss the particular quality of her fur, softer and silkier than Fenn's rough coat. I miss the shape of her head, the feel of her ears, even the cheesiness of her breath and the uneven crook of her teeth that meant she was not to be bred from.
Yesterday I collected windfall apples from the orchard, just a few of the thousand still left after mammoth juicing and cider making sessions. And there is the place where she is buried, unmarked as yet, but Fenn lying down directly on top, as she unfailingly has these past weeks - two acres of orchard to choose from and somehow she knows. I talked to the pair of them, Mopsa so very much there and not there. I see her moving through the grass, led by the scent of fox and sheep, making her own trail through the trees, always independent, whilst Fenn walks in my tracks. I take them up to Mopsa's Meadow, named for her five years past and we sniff the breeze, the three of us.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Deaths in the family

September will never be the same again. Just as my oldest friend's birthday has been forever besmirched by 9/11, September is now also the month that my Mother died, and that I lost my beautiful companion, Mopsa. There in the photo are the two of them together, ten years ago; Mopsa a young and pint sized puppy, and my Mother, the most youthful of 82 year olds.
Seven years after a stroke, and for at least three of those having had enough of life, my Mother finally got her wish on the 2nd of this month. At 92, her life had been long and in many ways troubled. Naturally vivacious and social, she had a bitterness and anger that soured a number of long term relationships, but she also inspired great admiration; she was never boring, always lively, impeccably elegant, the best company.
The bitterness is easily and devastatingly accounted for. A Polish Jew, she and her elder brother were sent by their father from Poland to England to stay with his brother, just before the outbreak of WW2. Her parents and much loved younger brother, for whom I'm named, were to join them later. They never made it. Murdered by the Nazis, memories and a very few photographs were all that remained. And an anger and hate that weaved through her life for more than seventy years. Holocaust was never an historical or distant word in our family; it was the reality, an evil that had robbed us directly, palpably. Just one step removed, I can still hardly imagine what it was really like for my Mother, although the anger that was so deep in her, has now, via the blood of the womb, transmuted into another, less understandable, innate fury in me.
My Mother had requested the sparest of funerals, wanting no fuss at all, and certainly no partying. She asked that my sister, her neighbour of more than 30 years, my husband and myself were the only mourners. Accompanied by Rabbi Melinda, Elgar and Bach, we said our goodbyes. The overwhelming emotion was of guiltless relief; she had had enough.

And then, there's Mopsa. Mopsa has been part of my life for more than ten years, an almost constant companion, and my love for her is simple and real. It will always be so. As soon as I started working from home, I was planning to have my first dog, and I learned all things canine from her. She taught me the wonder of holding her head in my lap as we sat on the floor together, sharing secret looks like naughty twins; the terror of kennel cough caught at puppy classes as her brown eyes looked at me fearfully and trustingly; the excitement of walking through woods and fields as new scents drew us on; the feeling of never being alone when she was with me. Oh, and so, so much more. So big, so beautiful, so warm, so individual, so loving and gentle mouthed. I can never thank her enough for the wonderful pleasures she has given me; everything has been so much more fun with Mopsa there to share it. A walk on the beach, sitting in heaps of drying hay, evenings at home (so very many evenings) when I could drop my hand and stroke her lovely head. I'd tell her she was a beautiful dog every day, because she was, and to have that much beauty in your home and your life is a privilege.
Mopsa did not have a troubled life; she had a perfect doggy existence with people to love, her half sister for company and a farm to play in. She had cats to box and cox with, all kinds of livestock to stalk and eye up, people to lean on and pat with her paw, hands to thrust her nose into and lots to interest her.
But a Bernese does not have a long life, and Mopsa was nearly ten and a half, a veteran. The last few months have been quiet ones for her; no long walks, but days sitting in the farmyard watching all our comings and goings, a few strolls through the orchard, one last trip to the river, and another to the beach. And suddenly a more fastidious appetite, deciding that only steak or roast chicken would do, where absolutely anything was fine before. I was happy to indulge her. And then, two weeks ago, she could no longer walk and I knew that we wouldn't have her with us much longer. We carried her about, came running if she called, spent hours sitting with her. I had to work in London for a few days and phone calls home were decreed as Mopsa-free conversations; I knew I wouldn't be able to work if there was bad news. I drove back from the station late in the evening and there in the doorway, lit up and tail wagging, was Mopsa, welcoming me home. I finally let out the breath I'd been holding in for hours, days.
I wanted, so much, for her to go quietly and in her own time, but yesterday I knew that she had finally had enough, so the vet came, and in my office, where we'd spent so much of our time together, I held her head and crooned to her, telling her how wonderful she was, as she gave her last breath, puffed into my hands for safekeeping.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Rampant Roger and pal Romeo

Today has been one of those days. Lots of things going right, lots of things going wrong.
Last night, Roger, he of the escapee tendencies, decided even earlier than before that it was high time he be let at the girls. He was thrumming with testosterone, even if the ewes weren't yet in heat. The musty pong at the gate of his field was overpowering and I could smell potent ram on my hands even though I hadn't touched him.
So I wasn't entirely surprised when I opened the front door for some long forgotten reason or other and blinked as Roger tippytoed in excitement across the yard. How the hell had he got out of his field? The gate is practically deer-proof height. He headed for his old ram's paddock, now inhabited by Dahlia and her piglets and stamped in confusion as the sow grunted deeply and then ignored him.
We got him back into his field and he appeared to settle, but by morning he'd gone and joined the mule ewes a couple of fields away, having grown wings or something overnight. Pegasus should have been his name by rights. Four of us herded the flock together, he was caught and stuffed into a trailer and taken up to the barn. There we shoved him into a pen and using hurdles vertically, created a holding area more like a lion's circus cage than anything else. With the pig's weigh crate acting as ballast he was imprisoned for sure.
Behind the barn in the small paddock used to quarantine incoming livestock, is Romeo, the dashing new black Torwen ram, bought from the National Ram Sales in Builth Wells on Monday. Quarantined, and also kept separate from Roger to make sure they don't injure or kill each other just before they become essential to our livelihood. Sorted, I thought.
A couple of hours later I can hear banging from the barn; one or other of the rams is belting seven bells out of the metal gate, so I go up to check. There in the paddock is Roger, where once was Romeo. And safe inside the barn in the lion's cage is Romeo, where once was Roger. Either they have swapped skins or magic has been at work.
I'm stunned. It takes me five minutes to work out what has happened. Roger had pushed the weigh crate and hurdles til he could get at the gate, buggered the tin and skipped through what is a pretty small gap for a rather large ram. And then the new black chap had done the reverse. I go and get the OH to discuss what to do next, and when we get back up there, both rams are now outside munching grass. Next thing, Roger sees us, bounds towards us through the hole in the gate and goes back into the lion’s cage. We strengthen the pen, fix the gate, and they are, for the moment, back in the right places.
In the morning we'll pen them in tightly together whilst we bring in all the ewes and decide who's staying for breeding and what's off to market, but I really don't want to put the rams with the ewes for another three weeks or we'll be lambing in bloody February! No spring grass, freezing nights, snow more than likely and all together a crappy idea. If Roger's still in his lion's cage in the morning I'll try and take a snap, but for now here's a not very good image of what is a rather handsome Romeo.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The dream bread oven

SO exciting. After years of wishing and thinking and reading, it was determined that this week would be the week to build a clay bread oven. No fancy schmancy purchased stuff, but all built from stone and clay from the farm. It's not finished quite yet - the door needs to be carved, the sand former scooped out and the lime render clarted on, but the majority of the work has been done. It's a huge clay tit. It's monstrous. It's wonderful. And I must be patient and let it dry out before we fire it up and stick in some pizza and bread and cake and lamb and.....
I had absolutely nothing to do with this, by the way, other than offering my gleeful mud-pie lovin' husband many positive comments and cups of tea. I've been busy preserving stuff from the veg patch to take us through the winter, not that you'd notice any diminution of the produce in the garden.
I will try to get rid of that irritating advert across the slideshow - bear with me - bear, not bare...

Sunday, 22 August 2010


It's started. That madness that eventually follows the scouring of seed catalogues and the planning of the hedging rotation. The fruits and veg, both wild and domestic are indefatigably, exhaustingly, here.
Today I have pulled and laid out to dry all the onions and shallots - enough for a great wodge of the year if drying advances more quickly than rotting. I have beheaded the globe artichokes and produced jars of artichoke bums in olive oil. I've picked cultivated raspberries and tripwire hazard blackberries and the first crumble of the season is in the oven right now. The runner bean chutney glints at me, the colour of tawny cat's eyes. Yellow courgette soup is in the fridge. Field mushrooms sit fatly in a pudding basin in the scullery for tomorrow's breakfast.
It's the start of the wild-eyed frenzy of grey rabbit activity. The hording and stockpiling, the harvesting and salting, the preserving and sweetening. Puddings are back on the menu. Vinegars are to be made. The orchard has to be checked regularly to make sure the damsons, gages and plums are caught before wasps, squirrels and birds ravage the lot. The apple crop is going to be huge, but the bottles and the crushing and pressing gear are all waiting.
We turn from bemoaning the empty shelves to wondering how we can find room for just one more jar. I don't wander anywhere without trug, colander or plastic bag. And the ducks I've been rearing for meat have started to reach the age of freezerhood.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Aga paranoia

I have delved the depths of irrelevant middle class angst. I rant against The Big Society (doublespeak for amateurs doing the work of professionals, mostly badly, in the spare minute between the job, the volunteering, the living, the sleeping and the kid's ballet classes), but in my more selfish moments I am in a rant with self.
It's to do with comfort zones, laziness, habits dying hard, practicalities and complete disinterest in shiny and pristine if it means work that I find unnecessary. I've talked about my sluttish ways before. But now, there is a new daily challenge. We have had the top and lids of the Aga re-enamelled.
It looks shiny and new and virtuous and strokeable. But before it was hammered and friendly and easy to live with. Now I can't drop a splotch of tomato sauce or dribble of chicken juices without heading for a j-cloth. Now, I can't balance casseroles, pots or pans on the lids without fishing out a tea towel (is it clean?) to soften the blow. Before I was quick and efficient, sliding heavy pans full of roasted summat out of the oven and onto the top. No jiggery pokery required to lift the joint onto a plate keeping nice and hot before shoving the pan straight onto the hot plate to conjure up gravy. Now I am in a ferment of confusion and fear. I MUST NOT SCRATCH THE NEW TOP. I must keep cork mats and tea towels close at hand. I must learn how to hold heavy pans full of hot things in one hand whilst the other fannies about finding the equivalent of a coaster for big things. And I know I'm going to fail this test of competence.
My mind is on the cooking, not the cleaning, on the ingredients and the process, not the niceties of housekeeping. I HATE housekeeping. I will never fret on my deathbed, no sudden conversion to cleanliness and godliness, wishing I'd been a religious scrubber rather than an atheist slut.
But that altar of the kitchen that was so welcoming and full of promise has turned on me. It has expectations. It has needs. It has had money spent on it. And now I'm not as in love as once I was.
It took seventy years to get to the state where we thought it deserved a facelift. And now the bloody thing will see me out and will shinily reflect my ageing face as it beams back, younger than ever.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Tumble weed, bindweed

I can't keep up with myself. My desk has 8 heaps all requiring attention, which they are getting, it's true, but other things are falling by the wayside.
I know this, but I'm not sure I like having it rubbed in my face. So when I went into the polytunnel this evening to pick shallots, courgettes, french beans and corn cobs to go with the supper of salmon fishcakes, I did a comedy doubletake when the rakes and hoes caught my eye.
Spiralling round them in a romp of green is a bindweed that should be nicknamed Prefect or Jobsworth, perhaps Tattletale or Longbacon. So I've been told, proper. Nature is turning against me; I've had a yellow card wagged under my nose.
I stuffed my colander with the vegetable goodies and ran into the house. If the triffids invade, I'll only have myself to blame.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

A golden thing

Those holy hand grenades of Antioch, as our golden globe courgettes are known, have attracted something extraordinary. It might be bog standard to those who know, but I don't know so it seems all the more mystical and otherworldly. This gilded thing, this glowing preciously metalled, wrapped in gold leaf insectish creature was sucking goodness from its host veg. What happens now? Is it a butterfly in the making?
What is it? Click on the photo to enlarge.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

BBC Radio 4 Farming Today

Yesterday, Anna Varle, producer for Farming Today came to the farm to talk about smallholding for a colour piece (huh! There I am using Beeb lingo as if I knew what it was the day before yesterday!).
Farmers have concerns about small scale backyard keepers slipping under the net of legislation and regulation and causing health and welfare problems so Anna came to find out about the kind of things we cover on our smallholder training courses.
I have now uploaded the MP3 sound file to Blogger but the quality is very poor and boomy, so the BBC link is here even though it only lasts 7 days. Our section is 3 mins 20 seconds in and runs til 8 minutes. The ducks are the stars. And all our sheep have a leg at each corner.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Gardener's bog

It's more than a year ago since the outdoor cupboardy thing in the garden with a hole in the ground became a bona fide gardener's bog. Not for the gardener (don't have a butler or housekeeper either) but for us when we are in wellies and really shouldn't traipse through the house even though the floors are hard, and even more importantly for participants joining us on our smallholding courses.
But since the weather has turned phenomenal I have been misbehaving. If I need a pee (ok, TMI) whilst tending to the ducks, which is a regular thing on hot days what with all that refilling of water buckets, I'll head straight for the GB. And the misbehaviour? I leave the door wide, wide open so I can enjoy the - it has to be said - rather wonderful Devon view. I know that nine times out of ten no-one will be able to see me, but I also know that local farmers have beady peepers and that there is a gap in the hedge so that anyone trundling their tractor up the road might, if they glance to the right and up a bit, see me with my shorts caressing my ankles, gazing out on the perfect blue skies and wrapped away fields. The act doesn't give me a frisson of naughtiness or pleasure, I've just gone beyond caring what anyone thinks and hope if they catch me at it that it'll cause a grin and a wink as they go on their merry way.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

A thing of beauty

Remember what we found in the derelict shed? Well, I hope Snakey Sid stays away and sticks to the compost heap from now on.
Here is the finished shedy article, with some of the widest oak boards imaginable - so I don't want any of you city types nipping down here to wrench them off for your luxury loft flooring. They are for my turkeys, and the rest of the time for me to contemplate and enjoy.
That just leaves one derelict cow shed to sort and some sad ruined piggeries. Cow shed thinking starts this winter, action next summer.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Piglet update

Here, to make you smile, are some of the piglets born a couple of weeks ago, on the day they were taken from the farrowing pen into the great outdoors. The grass is so long I have to hunt for all of them; it's a porcine jungle out there.
Utterly gorgeous, utterly toasty to the touch, the most beautiful of the livestock on the farm, to my eyes, anyway.
Today the shearing has been done and the sheep are so relieved to be rid of their sweaty coats.
It's the usual pain-in-the-bum rigmarole for the rams, now penned in tightly for the next few days whilst they get reacquainted, not that they ever left each other's side, but without their fleece they are apparently strangers. I'm sure I'd know a pal if they grew a beard or went bald but that isn't so for sheep.
Off to freshen all the water buckets - on a hot day it's interminable.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Snake alert

There's a derelict chicken shed that borders two fields, close to the house. I suspect it was perfectly placed to allow poultry to wander and peck first here and then there. The corrugated tin has seen better days and the uprights are completely rotted through at ground level, but some of the old elm boards are as iron.
I need somewhere to stick the part-time turkeys, and it was a really good excuse to refurbish another of the sorry huts on the farm. Whilst I write it on the to do list the farm worker rolls his eyes and then sets to with digger, saws and angle grinder.
I go and inspect progress and bring the dogs. Fenn immediately rushes in and sits alert. She knows something's there. Of course, it's full of rat runs, so I keep well back and ignore the possibility of furry critters emerging from the earth floor. But then we all see it at the same time and there is a shared squeak/roar/shout. At waist height, along one of the timbers, a snake slides into view and then slips down to the floor (how does it do that, precisely, and how did it get up there in the first place?) and across to a corner of the shed. It's seriously fat and about four feet long.
It's a grass snake, so not poisonous but as it flickers its tongue and hisses, we squeak/roar/shout again and fail to take a better photo, just in case it's an adder (which I'm sure it's not, but still...). It's all of three metres from our copious compost heap so at some point this month or next it'll lay 40 or so eggs there.
This happened at 5pm this afternoon and every since my scalp keeps wrinkling and my skin shivering - I'm so pleased we have snakes, but must it really live quite so close to the house?

Friday, 28 May 2010

Aunt Agatha does it again

My girl is SO clever. And here as a reminder is last year's lot.

Invasion of the bloggy snatchers

Apologies to my lovely regular readers and the occasional visitors, but I have been invaded by racist tossers charading as commercial tossers.
First I get splattergun spammed by dweebs littering the blog with their nonsensical comments containing multiple links purporting to sell stuff (I think - I didn't follow any of the links to check). I then delete a few of the comments (there were MASSES of them) and set up comment moderation (sorry, sorry to all you visitors who shouldn't have to go through more hoops to post a much enjoyed and appreciated comment) to find my email box full of comments awaiting moderation from the tossers who were now impregnating their comments with racist innuendo. Vile, idiotic, selfish, outrageous gits. Get a life.
So, comment moderation remains until such time as these comments stop, and at the first sign of a return it goes on permanently. And I have tried to remove every one of the comments originally posted by the vile, idiotic, selfish, outrageous gits.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Is it Ok to be Closer?

What's wrong with us? Where have our brains and our discernment gone? Is it too much work to create a life of our own instead of dwelling on the foibles of others? Isn't your own life more interesting, more satisfying, more challenging than that of some TV this or magazine that? And if life is a serious challenge (it is, of course), then mental and physical health allowing, isn't it preferable to deal with our stuff, try and make things better in our own way than wishing we were a wag or a bag or a lag?
I picked up a discarded copy of Closer & OK! on the train and flicked through. I hadn't realised (how naive) the extent to which it's all material that soils the soul, the heart and the mind. Utter detritus, utterly boring, utterly malignant, utterly dismal, depressing. A vile slur on the positivity of human nature and self realisation (and now I sound like some psycho-pseud).
I want to shout - "Girls! Women! Get a life! Pull those nifty socks up! Create your own future. It's hard, but it can be fun and it's all YOURS. Don't watch it happening from the outside. Think of yourself at seventy - how do you want to feel about yourself then? What do you want out of life? Dying with a flash bag and some designer label shoes by your bedside and a head full of others' dreams will not be adequate reward".
Did feminism die whilst I looked the other way?

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Quality Hotel?

Could one sue for misuse of the word "quality"? Having just spent a night in the Quality Hotel in Birmingham I'm beginning to wonder.
I'm often having to spend the odd night in a hotel. I don't do posh, but I do do clean, efficient, comfy bed. Holiday Inn Express is the benchmark; it'll do nicely, and is the least I expect when away. If I'm lucky it might be somewhere with room service - a steak and a salad munched in my nightie, surrounded by papers and prep for the next day. If I'm really lucky it'll be somewhere like this with free wifi, a snug bathrobe and sleek lines from the headboard to the iMac. And a double bed is a pre-requisite - otherwise all the paperwork falls to the floor, and anyway, why should I revert to ten years old just because I'm away from home?
So, when some bloomin' conference was on in Brum and there was practically no room to be had, I shrugged and went with what was left: Quality.
First up: entrance like building site...not a good feeling of what's to come
Second: great queue of blokes in grey suits all looking forward to a night away. Lots of male bonding, loudness and flash gold jewellery, bickering over the Executive Suite. Gawd.
Third: shouting out of my name and room number, not just once but thrice. Give over, guys - for years hotels have been quietly sliding a scrap of folded cardboard across the counter with your room number discreetly written inside and simply tell you which floor you need to go to and how. Haven't you heard about the need for looking after single women? OK, I'm hardly in the most vulnerable category, but really.
Fourth: when was this place last decorated? My room is gloomy, drab, not dirty exactly but not clean either. The doors are bashed and look like something retrieved from a school that's about to be demolished.
Five: stains on the "clean" towels.
Six: It does room service but there is bugger all information about anything in the room. I have to trog back to reception for them to tell me that they haven't had the menus printed yet. After telling them that no, I won't be heading for the bar to place my order as I have work to do, they get me a faded photocopy which I can take back to my room.
Seven: it's a twin room - urghh - and one of the beds is broken. I nick its duvet and pile two on the ok bed. It has VINYL HEADBOARDS. It's sticky. I'm about to be sick.
Eight: the TV is so low down I can't see it from the bed. I have to move the bed til it's at a diagonal so I can watch the box whilst I eat my prawn curry. 5/10 for supper.
Nine: in the morning I head for the shower to find it's a plastic shower from Boots kinda thing and held to the wall by a rubber band. Grohe's what you need boys.
Ten: I'm so relieved to be leaving that I hardly credit them for having organised a taxi for me that arrives on the dot of 9am.
Eleven: back home my own bed is paradisical.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Blogging from my bed

Pure laziness you understand - not poorly or anything, unless you can count a leg that needs scratching and hands so rough they catch on the sheets like sandpaper on silk.
I'm trying out my very first notebook, all wireless, light in the lap, and intended to keep me working whilst travelling on the train to see clients. It is not only my first notebook, it's my first ever new laptop, For years I've put up with other people's cast-off junk - slow, imperfect, broken bits of dross. But as I hate to drive long distance and take the train whenever possible, it was time to put up the moolah and stop my own meanness from keeping me a second rate iCitizen.
I'd have adored an iPad, but what I need is summat that allows me to work on large word docs and powerpoint so that was that dream gone.
And here I am, in bed, listening to the rain fall as OH does the morning livestock duties. I can hear feedbin lids clang, pigs grunt, flapping of undeveloped duckling wings waiting to be let out of their hut, cocks crowing, and all the usual post-dawn chorus.
This weekend we're running one of our intro to smallholding courses, so although much is in readiness, the last delights have to be put in place: soup and scones to make, gammon joint and apple juice out the freezer, all kinds of kit to be put on display, removal of trip hazards, and most importantly, looking about with a strangers eye. I am used to living surrounded by cheerful mayhem and I'm never sure if innate sluttishness is something positive to pass on to others alongside the more practical smallholding skills.
So, enough, outa bed, into shower, get rolling. Time to move from the cozy virtual to the raw real.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Mums and babes

Presenting some of the flock, mums and ever-growing lambs, in Higher Down, safely contained by the hedge laid this past winter.
A month passes and the lambs go from fragile babes to delinquent, robust adolescents. Gang games erupt, grass is already supplementing their mothers' milk. They are now too large to roll unwittingly underneath a gate, standing up to find themselves jailed from the rest. I'm no longer met by franting bleating to be let back in because the grass is definitely not greener on the other side.
Bank holiday Monday was spent MOTing the whole flock, weighing and worming lambs, running the ewes through the footbath and removing any shitty-arse bits that might attract the multiplying flies.
For the first time we've not castrated the ram lambs so they will reach meat weight earlier and not suffer the indignity and discomfort of eunuch-hood. As a result, their testosterone-induced horns are starting to develop, and there are no furry scrotums littering the field. By the time they are four months old they will have to be separated from the ewe lambs and their mothers to avoid carefree incest and teenage pregnancy. It's like running a mixed sex school.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Boxes and baggages

I never have enough cardboard boxes - they are key fodder for starting bonfires and we have rather a lot of those. So, when people are coming to the farm to pick up the ducklings they ordered, weeks or possibly months previously, I remind them to please bring a box to take their young home.
This has created something of an ongoing joke. I wait, all anticipation, to see what unlikely and unsuitable container is hoiked out of the car boot. Twelve month-old ducklings - oh, a shoe box will do (no, not even for one, even if you asked it to lie down). Just four ducklings at a week old - one of those biscuit tins left over from Christmas will be perfect (no, it's far too tiny and even if it was big enough they'd suffocate). A neat little carboard box from the supermarket will be made to measure for two full grown geese (no, no, no).
And on it goes.
Ducklings grow like stink. Every day, every moment, they chomp and drink and shit and grow. They may have come out of an egg, but they'll never fit back in one, no matter how hard you try. So, for the lovely first-time duck owners, do as your more experienced pals do and bring a cat carrier; it's perfect, and hoseable. If you don't have one, bring a BIG cardboard box with good solid sides, bottom and top, perforated with ventilation holes and some string or tape to keep the box closed and the ducks secure during transit (cruising the motorway with loose ducklings in the car is so NOT advisable, and I don't think the insurance would pay to get the seats cleaned).
But if you are VERY classy, you'll do what the couple who came today did. Vintage wicker pigeon carrier basket. Gorgeous. Filled with straw, neat looky-outy holes for pink bills to peep through without any danger of getting out.
And rest assured, no matter what you arrive with, and you and I gasp in amusement at the underestimated capacity of the birds to box ratio, I'll do my best to set you on your way with something suitable, no matter how Heath Robinson.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Running on empty

No, not another post on the knackering nature of lambing. In fact my head is desperate for thoughts that are entirely unrelated to sheep. Having done the 5am shift, I finally got back to the house for a ten o'clock shower and contemplated the shampoo and shower gel bottles, as you do.
They were getting close to being empty. They frequently are. How I manage to get through so much of the stuff, I don't know.
As a child I remember wondering about the never empty shampoo bottle (no shower gel in those days, we were a strictly Camay family). The bottle was enormous (but then, I was a lot smaller) and full of thick amber liquid. I'd sit by the bath and play with the bottle, tilting it this way and that, as the soapy treacly stuff inside slid up and down. It had vertical ridges and I could run my fingernails round it to make a grating sound, using the bottle as a Guiro. But like the amazing porridge pot that gave and gave, the same bottle, with the same shampoo, just kept on giving. I never dealt with the dregs of the shampoo or found an unfamiliar bottle sitting on the corner of the bath.
Knowing my Mother's war-time habits I now realise that she must have bought many great tubs of the stuff and simply refilled the bottle when I wasn't around. The label was curled in the same place, even when the level of shampoo had gone up. It took me decades though, to get used to the fact that shampoo bottles were not bottomless, that shower gel did get used up, that toiletries had to be bought, not just once, but again and again.
Sometimes I'd rather not have the gauzy veil of childhood lifted - the reality of having to put such stuff on the shopping list has no charm whatsoever. And being greedy, I always did love the tale of the little porridge pot.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

I'm tired and I wanna go to bed...

It's true, I did have a little drink several hours ago (a glass of cherry brandy to keep out the cold, medicinal you know) but I don't think that's the reason I'm crying out for sleep. Yes, lambing is very tiring and it's been more than two weeks of 5a.m. starts and doing all the animal feeds so that OH can do the late shift, and the usual workload has been unremitting. So that puts a distinct edge on things. But waking up at 2.45a.m. to find there is no electricity has just about done me in.
No turning over and snoring, oh no. There are ducklings to keep warm, incubators to sort, ewes to peer at with poxy torches, setting up the generator, turning everything off, playing tag with the fuse box which just won't cooperate and then, finally convinced it ain't at our end, ringing the leccy board who rush someone out for 6am who pokes about and says yes, their wires are shorting on the electricity pole outside the house and he'll have to call in back-up from Barnstaple as they are not allowed to deal with live wires solo. As he waits I attend to a ewe who has twins, but is anxious NOT to be put in a lambing pen. It tries the patience and in the gloom I get it sorted eventually and leave them to bond.
An hour later, having shinned up the pole like a ferret up a drainpipe, the chap has it all pinging with life. So, generator off, everything turned on, ducklings taken from warm box on top of the Aga and put back under their heatlamp, everything shuffled about.
Then time to feed the pigs, the sheep, the ducks and geese, the dogs and cats, to walk across the fields to check on the outdoor lambs. Then to trim sheep toes, mark and sort the new mothers with lambs ready to go outside, put in the stock box and bounce with them over the fields and release them to their first sniff of grass.
Somewhere along the way was a bowl of something hot that was meant to create a nuclear glow round my body but just made me burp as I sat in the tractor cab doinging over ridge and furrow. But now I'm sitting here, eyes glazed, getting ready to go and check the ewes, again, and again and again. What joy.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Live and learn

First timer ewes can be a major pain in the bum. They have good muscle tone and squirt out their lambs without noticing. They think they've had an almighty painful poo and just walk off.
Half an hour ago I went out to check the ewes and found one first-timer had just that second lambed. She was nervous but licking her newborn as all good mums should, but she went for the arse end, not the head and I had to clear a lot of mucus out of its mouth - a particularly slimy lamb, this. I let the mum lick and bit by bit I picked up the lamb and brought it closer to the barn and out of the cold, mum following agitatedly behind. Older ewes just trot obediently behind (unless they are box of frogs). With the pair safely bonded in the pen, I ushered all the other ewes into the barn for the night.
As I shut the door I hear the most earsplitting bellow. Lying on the floor, legs all outstretched in a weird approximation of ewe-giving-birth, was another first-timer, with a lamb head poking out of her back end. So, I need to kneel on her and help out the lamb, as it'll get stuck with a head only presentation. The ewe has other ideas. She leaps to her feet, mid-bellow and chases around the barn. She then throws herself back on the floor, squeezes out the lamb which shoots out like a cork from a bottle, the ewe gets back up and starts a stampede with the rest of the flock, leaving the lamb vulnerable to trampling. I dive in, pick up the lamb, clear its mouth and nose, check it's fine - and it is, bleating for England - and put it in a pen.
Now, can I tell which ewe has just produced her first offspring? Not without help. We pen them all, and I check under every tail of all the first-timers. The very last one I check has afterbirth emerging, so she is reunited with the lamb, and after a short panicky trample, gets sniffing and licking and bonding.
Me, I'm knackered. I only offered to do the 8pm check as a favour before going to bed to be ready for the 5am shift, and I get more excitement than is good for me or the flock. With all that stirring around I wouldn't be surprised if all the lambing pens are full by morning. Good night.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Lambing Live

Firstborns arrived on Saturday, another pair today, and another ewe just gone into labour. It's started, it's happening, I'm up and down the farm track every hour, at least, and up at 5am doing the day shift.
Dahlia the Berkshire gilt is due to farrow any time now, although her milk hasn't come in yet, and the first duck eggs in the incubator are also due to hatch this week. One big earth mother then.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

All anticipation

What with Lambing Live and my own calendar countdown, I'm more than anticipatory on the lambing front. Just 3 days til the first possible due date. Will it happen in a mad flurry of activity? Will it drag out in ridiculously luxurious and casual fashion whilst I twitch with impatience? Will it be smooth and simple, or laden with eventful happenings? Will we manage to divide early and late shifts sensibly or will they crossover with incident and cause days of snatching at sleep as two pairs of hands struggle to keep up? Who knows. And then there's a farrowing due any time soon. And eggs are in the incubator. Let's get started.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Bingo Little

Welcome home, Bingo Little. After years of putting it off, several hilarious but useless attempts at A.I, and too many visits across the lovely but circuitous South West, I present, for your delectation and delight, the new boar.
He is a young chap, and this was his first (and hopefully last) journey by trailer. He had Aunt Agatha for company, but even so, he was fretful and suspicious. Neither did he like being transferred into the stock box to be tractored to his new home. He made a raft of new noises that weren't encouraging. But two days later he is trotting up to me to be fed, ignores the excited wooflings of the dogs (they love pigs, those two), and snoozes deep in his straw-filled ark, with the mere tip of snout protruding. He will have a few months yet before his services are required - both sows are up the duff, Aunt Dahlia due in just a few weeks - and he has a lot of growing to do. But now we have a family group, are no longer reliant on bottles of spunk ( I know, I know, the pros call it semen), and I don't have to get intimate with the sows every six months.
And why Bingo Little (aka Bingo)? He's the Wodehouse character who falls for every woman he meets. Bodes well.

Sunday, 21 February 2010


A day planting trees in the orchard, pruning older ones and cutting down overdeveloped willow - that is crowding out the orchids and purple moor grass in Moor Wood - as we steadily work on increasing the culm patch. The latter was incredibly hard work, the mud sucking at my wellies so that I needed all my strength to lift my feet as I dragged willow branches to the edges of the area we're clearing. At one point I sank up to the top of my wellies and had nothing to cling to to pull myself free. With a lot of toe wiggling, swearing and extraordinary wet sucking noises (made by the mud, not me) I freed myself.
In every ditch and puddle there are heaps of frog spawn. Do frogs get stuck in the mud?

Thursday, 18 February 2010

I'm fine folks - just very, very busy!

I've had a few people ask if everything is OK, down here on the farm in Devon.
Yes, yes, thank you so much for checking (aren't you nice), but I'm just amazingly busy and have a lot of work to do at the moment, which is grand and most lovely but means blogging has had to take a bit of a back seat. But soon lambing will start and I'll be around for that and will certainly be posting on sheep type progress. A new boar arrives soon too, so no doubt there'll be fun and laughter about all that, and piglets are also growing inside Agatha and Dahlia.
And then there's the fab smallholding courses we've been running and there's lots to tell you about on that front. So please bear with me, I will be back, I haven't given up the blog, and now you can find me on twitter too.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Willow buds

So it's bleak out there. No leaves, no colour, a washed-out time of year. I mostly leave the camera behind when walking the dog. But yesterday I took it with me to take a snap or two of the new fencing that will keep the sheep off the newly laid hedges and reformed Devon banks.
And as I looked mournfully at the greys and shadows, a small splash of orangey red beamed back at me.
There are also huge bonfires to be lit to get rid of the scrawny cuttings leftover from the hedgelaying that are no good for the woodburners. The world is a cheerier place.

Friday, 22 January 2010

In defence of writers

This is not the first piece I've read from Susan Hill setting out her stall as a proper writer and firmly pushing others out of her self-determined charmed circle of the real thing. The real thing being limited to William Trevor, Helen Simpson, Alice Munro and, umm, herself.
Why does she waste her breath and her callused writers finger on telling us to step aside and get out of her way, that she and a few others are the Queen Bees of writing and that drones are beneath contempt?
What, exactly, is she so worried about? She is a published writer with, let me just check, yes, she tells us, 43 books to her name. Why can't she be gracious and enjoy the fact that people are writing, they are playing with words, creating stories, shaping ideas, articulating thoughts, having fun with words, working hard with words, and most importantly getting better at using words? Surely she can't be worried that without her name attached to a piece of writing that Jo and Joanna Public might not realise (they haven't received the training) it is of worth?
Her language is so full-on, so angry, and the article is self-labelled as a rant, but I can't see what's being threatened that should cause such an outpouring of venom. It seems so contrary to sense. Does she also want to restrict reading to those who are professional readers? It seems on a par, in terms of bonkersness and pomposity. Do we have a saturation point for reading and is Hill concerned that if we fill up on Big Macs (tweets, blogs, amateur stuff) we won't have room for Chateaubriand (Susan Hill)?
Hill comes out of this like a devilish anti-children's laureate, wanting to curtail self-expression, and deny a platform to any who have not trained or worked hard at writing for fifty years (at least), and her flip attitude to disadvantage does her no favours either. For anyone who's worked in the arts as I have for over twenty years (those are MY credentials) and has seen the amazingly positive impact art can have on individuals and communities when they are encouraged to participate and use their imaginations, Hill's opinions are unpalateable nonsense.
Got that off my chest then. Get writing everyone.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The fear

Before I forget the nuances I'm forcing myself to share the fear. It's an old lady fear, a gut wrenching, bowel liquifying terror. It's new, this year, not felt before and I am hatefully feeble in its grasp.
This morning I was rigid with it, shoulders stiff and unlovely, neck hunched strangely, legs jellied and cowardly. I stood tentatively perched on the ground, not firmly rooted as I love to be, and felt the anger at my fear flooding through from head to heart and back.
It's the ice. The slick, polished, sheen of sheet ice that stretches from door to barn, to barn, to barn. Yesterday's thaw sent chill melt water running across all hard surfaces and overnight the slow streams have bonded into a continuous terror run; my very own glacier.
As I pulled on the layers, with two pairs of trousers to coddle grazed knees, I was brave and fearless. As I opened the door and took my first step, I was old and feeble, sad and scared, unable, thankfully, to curl into helplessness, as I set about feeding the livestock. But every step was tortuous, no following the crow's flight, rather plotting the least nerve-racking route, buckets in hand.
I felt like this at Christmas when the ice was almost as bad as today, and had a small fall on the road, grazing knees, but more importantly, grazing my confidence in my own infallibility to tend to the practical things around the farm, whatever the circumstances. I'm a handful of years off fifty but today I feel ancient and bruised and sad, and want, with all my heart, for the ice to melt and join the river waters and stay away.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Snow hund

The web is chockful of images of animals in the snow, but there's no harm in adding more to the heap. Here's Fenn, in her element. It's what Bernese Mountain dogs are made for. Snow, sharp cold air and someone or something to play with. Watching her zoom through the powder, creating her own mini mayhem, is a delight. She's happy as a Bernese Mountain dog in the snow.
The only peculiarity about the weather is that it makes the dogs more protective; I've heard more nuanced growling than usual when visitors and deliveries make their precarious way down the track.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Frozen duck

Two brace of duck have been hanging in the workshop for nearly a week and they are tonight's supper. But they can't be plucked. They have frozen solid. So now they hang from the shotgun hooks in the kitchen in a desperate attempt to defrost them in time for plucking, dressing and cooking for mates. If they get here.
Either way, Donald and his friends are as stiff as soldiers. The next question is whether plucking them in the usual outhouse is an option or if it can be done in the kitchen without causing a feathery and downy mayhem, the consequences of which I have to live with for months.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Making a scene...a snow scene

Because I am in the middle of writing a report, I should NOT be blogging, but here are some photos of the farm this morning, snowed in and rather wonderful. Keep toasty.