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The slippery slide to Christmas panic well and truly kicked in today…
I was okay. I thought I’d got a handle on it.  Work has been rather demanding, but it’s under control – just. We’d decided that we weren’t going overboard on presents this year; stockings would be a joint venture – couples sharing – apart from children who we could all spoil; we’d decided the main thing was to enjoy ourselves and the family being together (actually we do say this every year!).

But today the rug was whisked from under my feet. There were icy cold fingers running down my back and persistent butterflies churning in my stomach. It’s strange as I’m not an early organised buying-presents-far-in-advance sort of person; I enjoy the excitement and anticipation of the build-up. We don’t put the tree up until a few days before Christmas and our decorations come from the wood; armfuls of holly, ivy, pine and fir to decorate mantelpieces, bookcases, fireplaces and beams, with Will weaving glossy darkly-green wreaths for the doors.

Last weekend the Christmas goose, purchased from a friend, was despatched and a finger-numbing, but happy-chatty companionable afternoon was spent plucking in a sneezing, tickling snow of white down.  The puddings? They were made, stirred and wished into by the family back along on stir-up Sunday; the cake’s maturing in its tin and I’ve jars of mincemeat on the larder shelves. So what gives? Why do I feel so unready, flakey and shakey?

I think it begun with the moths – a couple of weeks ago I went to put on a warm jumper and its sleeves were peppered, well no actually, they were shredded by clothes moth larvae. Since then all, each and every precious thing appears to have succumbed to moth damage.  Cupboards, drawers and shelves are having to be cleared and the contents stored in the deepfreeze – not a pre-Christmas job by choice.

Then the washing machine decided to have a wobble – and on a farm in winter, with our mud, the washing machine is elevated to god-like status, I assure you. I prayed. I also kicked and banged. In the end I offered well-managed and sorted sacrifices (clothes and pockets devoid of hidden nails, straw, binder twine, lumps of soggy tissue and mouldy barley); this appears to have appeased the mechanical washing god for the moment.

But it was this morning that hammered the panic home. The scraper (the implement I use daily to scrape out the cow palace) gave a tortured teeth-on-edge tearing screech and hung limply from the arms of the bobcat – broken and twisted. Kaput.

Following hot on the heels of scraper, Robert’s car’s crankshaft pulley was making ominous noises – “you get out of there – that’s not safe” scolded Chris at the garage “how you got home last night’s a bloody miracle!” Car out of action for the foreseeable future.

So what with the moth infestation and freezer full of clothes, not food for feeding the thousands; Amazon deliveries consisting of moth repellents, cedar balls and pheromones, not gorgeous trinkets and presents to die for; my broken can’t-live-without mechanical aids and a defunct car – I feel a little overwhelmed.

beautiful brilliant red holly berries

beautiful brilliant red holly berries

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completed polytunnel from the veg garden

completed polytunnel from the veg garden

The polytunnel construction is complete!  Robert and Olly have spent an enormous amount of time, energy and patience on its erection; they’ve developed intricate diagrammatical code-deciphering expertise and brushed-up their plumb-line building and construction skills; not forgetting a considerable input of man-muscle-power. They’ve suffered aching backs, swollen chapped hands, cracked lips, frostbitten noses, fingers and toes and overcome the difficulties of working knee-deep in cloying clay mud. They’ve sweated and frozen, fretted and celebrated.

men at work

men at work

Not, it must be said, the ideal time of year to erect such a monster; nevertheless Robert was determined that we would get back to growing vegetables after the last two washout seasons (you’re now guaranteed  a bone dry, blistering 2009!).

soon to be green with growing plants!

soon to be green with growing plants!

With polythene stretched as tight as a drum, sliding doors constructed to near perfection, the weighted, ratcheted side-ventilation panels working with the smoothness of oiled silk and crop-bars visibly waiting to receive an abundance of lush, verdant growth – the result is quite superb and very professional.

After all, this is not just a polytunnel, this is an R & O polytunnel!

view from top meadow

view from top meadow

I want to tell you a story; a story that could almost have been conjured-up for the season of goodwill. But it hasn’t. This is a true story…

Many of you were up in arms after reading about the damage done to Pavla’s shop window the other week. Quickly picking up on all the stresses and strains this would put on her and her business during a difficult season fraught with uncertainties, you were wonderfully quick to show your support and ready to voice your disgust at the increase in gratuitous acts of vandalism and violence in our society.

Pavla was distraught, naturally, and worried not just the about costs but also the organisation and implementation of the repairs and the detrimental effect this could have on her sales.

The day after the incident a young man came into the shop. He introduced himself as the person who had broken the window. Appalled at his own behaviour he apologised profusely accepting total responsibility for his actions offering to pay for all damage and costs himself; understanding that this was only part of the problem he offered himself for work as some kind of remuneration. He brought a letter of apology with him.  In his own words:

‘I am writing this letter in response to my regrettable actions from the night of 19th of November this year where I broke one of your shop windows. It was an act of outright stupidity and inexcusable behaviour which I wish never to have happened. I regret what I did to an infinite level and I know that a simple letter of apology will not begin to compensate you for the trouble I have caused. It goes without question that I will pay fully for the replacement windows but I want to further my compensation by offering to work for you, obviously without pay, in any capacity possible so that I can prove to you how sorry I am. I understand the logistics of me working for you may not be possible, or you may not even want me to work for you considering my previous actions but I do want to prove to you that I am serious about compensating you for what I have done.

It is the first time and most certainly the last time I will ever commit such an act of error and I fully understand and accept the severity of what I have done. I would like to apologise again for my actions and hope that you can accept to some extent what I have said.

Thank you for your time and I will see you in court on ** December unless I hear otherwise. Finally, I would just like to apologise once more for my actions.’

A dialogue sprung up between them. Pavla, moved and surprised by his genuine remorse, found out that he was a student at the university hoping to graduate to Sandhurst and follow a career in the army. Knowing a conviction would scupper all aspirations of the career he wanted to follow, Pavla contacted the police to see if charges could be dropped. The police were understanding and helpful though due to the amount (in money) of damage done this could not be reversed. The police suggested that both she and the neighbouring business, which also suffered damage, wrote to the court. Xxx was unaware of what Pavla was attempting to do. Here is part of the letter Pavla sent to the court…

‘My name is Pavla Henshaw and I am the owner of Crede Boutique on Little Castle Street in Exeter. I am also writing on behalf of Anita Vines (the owner of V&M Hair) with regards to an incident that occurred in Little Castle Street on Thursday the 20th November.

In the early hours of the 20th November both of our shop fronts were damaged by xxxx. A small window pane was broken in V&M’s window, and my much larger window received substantial damage.

The following day we both received a visit from Mr. xxxx who had admitted to causing the damage.  Mr. xxxx represented himself well, and his maturity and humility with how he dealt with the situation made a very strong impression with us both.  He was very eloquent in accepting his responsibility of the physical damage he had caused and he also listened with concern to our views on the impact of the damage had caused our businesses.

Mr xxxx left us both a letter of apology which I have included with this correspondence.  The letter was thoughtfully written and the sentiments of regret and acknowledgement of his role in the incident came across in a very genuine way.  He has offered to pay for replacement windows and has suggested further compensation by working for us in any capacity without pay.  V&M have plans to take this up by having Mr xxxx paint their shop front and I will also be taking Mr xxxx up on his offer by having him do some interior painting in my shop.

We feel that Mr xxxx has handled the responsibility and the consequence of his misdemeanour exceptionally well and are very happy with the offered compensation.   Therefore both V&M and I feel strongly that we would not like this incident to have a negative impact on Mr xxxx’s future plans by either losing his university place or a prosecution and subsequent criminal record.
We would be happy with a conditional caution and the terms of his compensation met as stated in his letter to us both.
Despite Mr xxxx’s regrettable actions on the 20th November his subsequent behaviour has been without fault and very admirable.’

When Pavla let xxxx know what she had done he was flabbergasted “But why? Why would you do this for me?”

“Because of your actions.  Because you were brave enough and honest enough to take responsibility, to come and see me, to pay for the damage and more.  You have paid your debt and re-established my faith in humanity.  It’s my response to you!”

So, good can grow from the most unlikely circumstances, bringing out the best in human nature, turning distress into hope.  This story touched me, maybe it will you too.

ice crystals on rush flower head

ice crystals on rush flower head

looking across rutleigh ball towards dartmoor this morning

looking across rutleigh ball towards dartmoor this morning

I love this weather! Finger-numb, frozen-face cold mornings; the farm and surrounding countryside is bleached by frost and ice until the first ray of sun spears a low shaft of rose-gold light through the filigree of shilloueted branches.

holly leaves crystalised with frost

holly leaves crystalised with frost

I love this weather! I revel at the crack and crunch of frozen water, leaves and mud underfoot. An invisible ice-glaze coats the yards and dogs, humans and bobcat slip-slide in comic ballet of uncontrolled glissades; astonished looks of surprise across their faces (not the bobcat, but certainly the driver’s!)

cow moor in heavy frost this morning

cow moor in heavy frost this morning

I love this weather! The cattle huff clouds of warm  vapour-white breath across the cow palace; their dark chestnut coats are spangled with glistening beads of moisture.  The cold has made them impatient for their morning feed.

oak and ivy patterns

oak and ivy patterns

I love this weather; I feel alive!

...and you thought you knew about him

...and you thought you knew all about him

The alarm sounded. I start violently; my head rattles with reverberations as it jerks me out of sleep. I’m not used to alarms – they hurt and unnerve me. I’m lucky to have a body-kind internal one that wakes me up naturally.  But Robert was off to London on the early train and needed to get up half an hour before my normal waking time. I open a sleep-sticky eye, for a second I’m bewildered but with relieved realisation I sigh and snuggle back into the cosy warmth of the duvet and drift into a blissful half conscious state…

…I’m awake, acutely alert; every nerve and every sense quivers with tense vitality. I’m standing outside the kitchen window looking past the bird table and the immediate line of oaks to the woods and marshes of Lewmoor, across the green fields of Lower Pulworthy, up the gentle slopes of Venton to the steeple of Highampton church on the skyline ridge: it’s Windowlene smear-free blue-ice clear; building blocks of vivid concentrated colour vie with one another, hard-edge butting hard-edge, eventually sliding into a startling compromise of overlapping cellophane layers in iridescent hues. I breathe in the colour; each shade pulses through my blood in goose-bump chords of music wrapped in a sensation of cold, clean water or soft gentle breezes.
Slowly my eyes travel back to the sky above the bird table where I become aware of great tits, blue tits, marsh, willow and coal tits, nuthatches, chaffinches, green finches, bullfinches, robins, blackbirds and even woodpeckers circling in a vast rainbow flock; every now and again one breaks away and flies toward me where in a fleeting hover above my head it releases something from its beak before rejoining the flock. I stand in open-mouthed amazement and realisation – of course, now I understand!

Abruptly I wake deep in the sweet sleepy warmth of our bed, a jumble of pillow and duvet. Only a few minutes or so had passed since the alarm went off. In the moment of awakening the strength of my dream dominated my thoughts. I knew, with the utmost certainty,  I had found out something of infinite importance. It was wholly credible. I must get up now and write about it. What was this world-shaking discovery?  Wait for it – and yes, for that instant, this was totally plausible.

Birds find our messages/emails drifting aimlessly in the ether; they pluck them out and deliver them directly into our heads for us to open!

Culicoides sonorensis the bluetongue virus biting midge

Culicoides sonorensis the bluetongue virus biting midge

I’ve been hanging onto this story to see if there were any developments. To date, there haven’t been.

Last week bluetongue serotype 1 (BTV1) was found on a farm in the North West, near Blackpool. It was detected in five imported pedigree Bazadaise dairy cattle from an area in France battling with both BTV1 and BTV8. The cows were culled along with one other animal in the same consignment.

These cows were moved perfectly legally having been vaccinated against BTV1 and BTV8 sixty days before travelling to the UK, following the current procedure set out by DEFRA. But, the cattle appear to have been infected with the BTV1 strain of the disease around the same time they were vaccinated and showed low level viremia when post-imported tested by DEFRA.

Defra said there was no evidence of the disease circulating, so no movement controls or additional restrictions had been put in place.

Chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said:
“Taking into account the epidemiological evidence and the consideration of the risk represented to British livestock, I have taken the decision to cull these animals.
This incident shows how important it is for farmers to consider potential disease risks when buying stock. Buyers need to consider how best to protect their own businesses and those of their neighbours and make sure they are clear about the stock they are intending to buy.”

Too right it does!

What astounds me is the lack of compulsory testing before the animals are exported. I know if I wanted a particular breed of cattle I would think very, very carefully about purchasing my breeding stock from a country  reeling from the effects of Bluetongue strains not yet present in the UK (well actually, I just wouldn’t!). If it was a matter of life and death (though for the life of me I can’t see that anything would be that important) I would insist on the animals being tested  prior to they leaving their home premises and before they were anywhere near British shores.

Dr Ruth Watkins at least seems to understand the risks involved when importing animals from Bluetongue infected countries. From a conversation she had with Warmwell

“From a diagnostic and virologist point of view,” she says “when vaccinating cattle for possible export – (valuable animals that are special in some way) – blood samples should be taken and stored at the time vaccination is begun and then, three weeks after the second dose of vaccination, when it is known for sure that animals are going to be exported, a further blood sample should be taken. Both blood samples should then be tested for the presence of antibody and checked for bluetongue virus RNA1 and 8 or other serotypes.
While such tests might cost up to £100 pounds or so, the £1000s spent on pedigree animals and transport puts such a figure in perspective. A farmer gets no compensation for imported animals that are subsequently culled – but if such testing were done before animals are moved into the UK it would do much for the safety of movements and the reputation – and pockets – of both importers and exporters.”

She adds ruefully, “Most farmers don’t understand enough about testing. Rational virus diagnosis – i.e. using all the tests at your command – is not routinely practised and understood in veterinary medicine – but surely farmers would rather these tests were done.”

I most certainly would – wouldn’t you?

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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The Campaign to Protect Rural England has helped set up this blog. We want farming to thrive in England, and believe that it is essential that people understand farming and farmers better in order for that to happen. Paula's views expressed here are her own and we won't necessarily share all of them, but we're happy to have helped give her a voice.

Find our more about CPRE and our views on food and farming at our website, www.cpre.org.uk

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