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….give or take a day or so for artistic licence.

beginning of the thaw. can you see the setting sun reflected in the ice on the field?

It was seven thirty on Thursday morning as I headed up the steepest part of the farm lane on my way to work; the truck manfully gripped the icy surface ‘four wheel drive – a doddle!’ I thought ‘no problem!’ No sooner was the thought out of my head, than the wheels began to spin, the back of the truck fishtailing precariously. ‘Damn it, here goes’ I muttered thinking it would be only a matter of seconds before we slid oh-so-ungracefully and uncontrollably back down the lane and into a ditch. But by some miracle one of the tyres gripped and we were away, somewhat haphazardly, up the solid sheet of glass ice that was our drive.

The day before we’d had a partial thaw. Overnight it had frozen hard, the melt water forming a smooth, pristine coating of ice over the layers of packed snow and ice already covering our farm track and the network of lanes and minor roads in and around our area. It was seven miles of wheel-clenching, white-knuckle ice-time-driving  before hitting any gritted major roads.

I was hoping that Thursday would bring a proper thaw…I was getting worried.

A group of ten month old weaned calves I’d sold at the beginning of December were still stuck on the farm. Not that I minded that. The problem was a point of law…legislation.

You remember I had a TB test in November? Well following this (providing you’re clear of TB) there’s a 60 day window in which cattle can be moved off the farm; after this time period has elapsed your animals have to undergo another pre-movement TB test at your expense. Something I was keen to avoid at a cost of around £100 or so…and Saturday was my deadline.

The purchaser and I had originally agreed delivery date at the beginning of January, thereby avoiding the first freezing spell of weather, Christmas and New Year. Never in a blue moon (I know, it was!) did we imagine both our farms would still be ice-bound and in the grip of sub-zero temperatures.

With a thaw looking touch and go at the beginning of the week I’d contacted Animal Health. Would they consider an extension in exceptional circumstances? Maybe just a day or so until our lane was safe? After all neither the calves, the purchaser or I had been anywhere or had had any stock movements during that time.

Absolutely not! They understood it had been an unusual month…but the rule stood.  ‘It’s law, don’t you know’. If I couldn’t get the animals off the farm by Saturday they would have to be retested.

We’d provisionally made arrangements to deliver the animals on Friday come ice or snow…and though the northern slope of our lane was still covered by a slowly flowing glacier first thing Friday morning, with the help of the bobcat and rising temperatures this (thank all gods in the firmament) shifted. The pick-up with trailer in tow and one and a half tonnes of calves got away successfully. (okay…this has gone into italics and won’t revert!)

the first snowdrops appeared from under snow and ice.

As I write the sun is shining and it’s a balmy 12˚C. I’ve found snowdrops…which were flowering under the snow and ice, and I can hear great tits belling. The calves have settled well, being the only occupants of a large airy barn; and are enjoying trough-fulls of organic rolled barley (the farmer who bought them supplies me with organic cereals)…I can almost say ‘Snow? What snow?’ except I’ve heard that we could expect more on Wednesday….

friday's new moon

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contented calf browsing hedge after TB testing summer 07

Okay, here goes. The paper which landed on Robert’s desk the week of our TB test wasn’t a recent publication…in fact it was published in 2006. It never receive the coverage it should have at the time. Strangely its arrival had nothing whatsoever to do with the farm or our impending TB test. It was forwarded to Robert because of his involvement in all things hedge (being  chair of the national hedgerow Biodiversity Action Plan group, Hedglink and co-chair of the Devon Hedge Group).

Robert popped his head around my office door “You should take a look at this.”

“What?” I looked up at him

“A paper on bovine TB linked to hedges”

“Hedges?”I scratched the top of my head and twiddled the hair “What…hedges decrease, increase the incidences?” As always when another study is published on bTB my reactions are mixed…hope, doubt, excitement, negativity and a kind of destructive inevitability.

“Decrease apparently”

“Oh something went wrong around here then!” I said wryly “Us being one of the most heavily hedged landscapes in Britain with some of the worst incidences of TB.”I leant back in my chair “So how do you mean? Good thick boundaries between contiguous farms?” I went on pre-empting his explanation “I didn’t know this…but the spread of disease from cattle to cattle out in the field is apparently quite unusual. The vet said a TB infected animal has to have developed lesions in the head and lungs and to hawk violently onto an area of grass just before it’s ingested by another animal to get cross contamination. Interesting…I always thought it was a much more tenuous encounter” I stretched “So, what’s its claim then? The paper? Where was the research carried out?” adding tongue-in-cheek “The hedgeless, stockless arable wastes in the east of the country?”

“No. Here. In North Devon. And on the Hereford/Gloucestershire boarder!” He grinned “I’ll send you a link. Have a look for yourself!”

So I did.

The study covered 120 dairy farms, 60 with recently infected herds and 60 without, and looked at the influence of various factors on the incidence of bovine TB.  These factors were farmland habitat, topography (landform), badger density, proximity of farms with breakdowns, stocking density and herd size.

As expected bTB incidence was found to be linked to herd size and distance to nearest infected farms.  In line with some other studies but not all, incidence was not found to be closely linked to badger density.  It was also not closely linked to the extent or configuration of deciduous woodlands nor to the extent of pasture (both favoured badger habitats).

What was new was that hedgerow characteristics were found to be strong predictors of breakdown incidence.   Hedgerow abundance, the number of hedgerow gaps, and the number of ungrazed field boundaries were all important.  For example, a ‘hedge-poor’ farm (as defined in the paper) would be expected on average to have a 1.6 times greater risk of bTB than a ‘hedge-rich’ farm.  Considering just total hedgerow length, an increase of 1 km per 100 ha was associated with a decrease in the risk of breakdowns by about 12.5%:  in absolute terms this equates to the annual risk of bTB changing from 9.2% to 8.1% for herds in the West of England: an annual reduction of 251 infected herds (based on 2004 figures).  These figures were controlled for herd size and distance to next bTB case: it is not simply the case that farms with plenty of good hedgerows have a lower stocking density.

The authors conclude that habitat management appears important to a farm’s bTB risk. ‘Nature friendly’ management practices – the presence of ungrazed wildlife strips, and the greater availability, width and continuity of hedgerow – are all associated with reduced bTB incidence.

They could only speculate on the mechanism through which hedgerows may reduce incidence of bTB, but  suggest it could be due to one of two factors.  The first is that hedge-rich farms are managed differently – for example they have different crop rotations which reduce the likelihood of cattle eating contaminated grass.  The second (and more likely) is that the presence of hedges reduces badger-cattle transmission because a higher proportion of contaminated grass is kept out of the reach of cattle.  Badgers preferentially use hedgerows as movement corridors and for their latrines, so where cattle are excluded from these areas by either hedge growth or fences, contact with the bacteria is reduced.

Given the practical difficulties associated with badger culling, and the fact that to be effective it has to be carried out over large areas (because of the perturbation effect), the authors suggest that improving habitat features such as hedgerows and ungrazed wildlife margins might be a more cost effective strategy to reduce infection.

So there you have it. A piece of research I had no idea existed. And the one thing we have on this farm? Exceptional density of hedges…with very few gaps; in fact we  have many more hedges now than were present on the 1840 Tithe Map.

Could this be (and I hardly dare think it, let alone say it) a reason why we ‘continue’ (whispered very quietly) to go clear?

...so! hedges are good for something other than browsing?

What's all the fuss? TB? Us?

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook probably gathered my cattle had a bovine tuberculosis (bTB) test about ten days ago. Those of you familiar with farming and the countryside will have a pretty good understanding of the problems surrounding bTB and the distressing effect it has on farmers, farms and cattle industry. And those of you who aren’t that interested in farming, will, I’m sure, be aware of the debate that rages around badger culling, vaccination and the like.

Personally I feel every test brings us one step closer to the inevitable…bTB breakdown. Illogical? Probably.  Or maybe not.

We’ve been ‘upgraded’ to six monthly testing, as the farm’s contiguous. I don’t know what’s changed; we’ve been contiguous to farms suffering breakdowns for a good many years. Anyhow this new status certainly makes me more jumpy.

I guess that it’s here that I should mention that in the twenty years I’ve been farming at Locks (and actually for the whole thirty-five years of my farming career) my cattle, first dairy, now beef, haven’t had a case of bTB. I say this with great trepidation; I really dislike mentioning it.  I’m terrified of tempting fate.

Briefly, the bTB skin test takes place over a period of a few days. On day one tuberculin is administered at two sites – the first (or the top spot) is the control – avian tuberculin is used; and the bottom, the second site, is inoculated with bovine tuberculin.  Three days later the test is read and a conclusion reached on the size of the reaction.

As we were getting ready on the first day I said to Polly, our vet, “Well, don’t suppose we’ll go clear. Bloody miracle if we do.” And somewhat to my surprise she said “Yes, it will be.” None of that nice reassuring talk… my fault for bringing it up, not hers for being honest!

I firmly resisted any temptation to check for reactions. On the Friday as we were sorting through the cattle before the vet came I mumbled to Olly “She doesn’t think we’ll get through you know.”

“Don’t be such a doom merchant” he snapped back at me. But I noticed he didn’t follow it up with “You’re daft. You always say that. Of course we will. We always do!” (I now know that he’d been checking the animals and had found some substantial lumps!)

Reading the test was heart in tongue stuff; Polly had the callipers (used for measuring the size of the lumps) out for practically every cow. Almost all the animals had sizable reactions to the avian tuberculin (indicating a high incidence of avian TB) but, thank god, no reactions to the bTB.  We were clear! A surprise to all of us.

So why? Why did we go clear…?

Because I run a closed herd? Or that we’re organic? Maybe we practice exceptional welfare? Have a healthy badger set? Keep a native breed? Farm extensively? Don’t have tonnes of hard feed knocking around? Or that we are just too darn wet? But others are doing these things and more still suffer breakdowns.  It is just luck?

Perhaps not…An intriguing paper arrived last week

Please log on tomorrow –  I’ll be writing a post on this paper and would hugely value your reactions and comments

...intriguing, she says.

Friday 13th.  Not that I’m superstitious. I just happened to be clasping onto pieces of wood, crossing my fingers (and toes) and nonchalantly chucking salt over my left shoulder.

Back in January Robert came into my office waving a piece of paper “Do you know anything about this?”

I looked up “No, don’t think so. What is it?”

“It’s a thing from Animal Health notifying us we’re to go onto six monthly TB testing because we’re contiguous.”

“Oh? Strange? We’ve been contiguous for ever.” Puzzled, I reached out for the piece of paper “I wonder why now?” I looked at the dates stipulated. “That’s a bugger – we’ll have just started calving. If that’s the case we’ll most probably throw up some inconclusives at the very least.” Inconclusive reactors are animals that develop lumps inbetween negative and positive; these animals have to be re-tested after six weeks.

A theory, not scientifically proven, is that animals who are suffering stress – such as those that are bulling, calving, carrying a burden of liver fluke or worms – are more likely to react unfavourably to the tuberculin skin test.

A shiver runs down my spine “But looking on the bright side” I say optimistically “I guess it means that we have sixty days to sell stock when it’s most wanted without doing a pre-movement test at our expense. If we go clear.”

To try and control the spread of TB you are allowed to move stock within sixty day of a test. If you want to move stock outside the sixty days of a routine TB surveillance test you have to pay yourself to have the animals tested.

I phoned the vets to arrange dates. It was decided – the 10th March for the test and the 13th to read the test.

So on Tuesday Sally, our vet, arrived to do the first round. Then we wait. We wait three sick-making days. I have to restrain myself from compulsively running my hands over the necks of the cattle. Then on Friday, Friday 13th, Sally returned to read the test. As always I feel ill. As always Olly says to me “I know we’ll go clear.” I wish I had his confidence.

It worked – all the touching of wood, throwing of salt and crossing of fingers – reprieve, reprieve, reprieve…we went clear. Not that I’m superstitious of course.

I am hopelessly behind. I know I have a legitimate excuse but the things-that-must-be-done mound doesn’t get smaller – it just keeps growing!

The leaver is pulled, my head spins wildly like a fruit machine, then slows to a juddering stop. And the jackpot? Three Cherries? Three Lemons? Three Oranges?  No, and no spewing waterfall of bounty either.  My fruits are Mucking Out Cow Palace, Lambing Preparations,  Straw Delivery,  Soil Association Inspection or yet another TB Test.   (We are contiguous with infected herds, they say, and must now be tested every six months – but we have been contiguous, no, cirtiguous for ages, and this test will be right in the middle of calving…)

mucking out the cow palace

mucking out the cow palace

After landing three Straw Delivery fruits on Thursday, on Friday  I pulled the jackpot of Cow Palace Mucking Out .  So it was all hands on deck to get the job done and dusted by the afternoon, so cows could be returned to a sparkly clean and carpeted palace in time for imminent calving.

These are savvy cows. Instead of the usual thunderous explosion out of the cow palace, a decorous bunch of gigantic pregnant galleons swayed rhythmically down the lane. Memories of deep frozen wastes still fresh in their minds, they were not too sure if they wanted to spend another day banished to hostile lands without food or water. They need not have worried: temporary accommodation was available in Silage barn with all basic mod cons laid on.

Meanwhile back at the ranch all was a hive of activity and in record time we’d mucked out, hosed down, scraped and swept up, re-hung gates, bedded down and fed up.

making the muck heap

making the muck heap

On their return, no longer worried about possible banishment, they took time to take in and consider the state of the surrounding countryside, adjust their rather uncomfy corsets, pull  nonchalantly at hedgerow ferns or straying binds of ivy and discuss the merits of employing full-time staff 24/7 365 days a year.

After a cursory look at their gleaming accommodation and dragging a haughty hoof along the feed barrier to check for clinging grunge they got down to the all important task of eating, belching, breaking wind and dunging…just to give it back that lived-in appeal!

building sand castles?

building sand castles?

The next day my lucky strike was Lambing Shed preparations…

Yesterday evening I watched as clouds of midges danced in the golden rays of the setting sun outside the kitchen window. I tried to take a photo of them. This is the result.  Fireflies?  Perhaps.  Fairies?  Possibly.  Dancing debris from a fire?  Could be.  But midges?  No!

dancing cloud

dancing cloud

Midges bring with them a sinister reputation. The more so since I’ve heard this disquieting news through the Farmers Weekly.   Many farmers, with animals already stressed by the dire weather, believe rumours that if vaccinated against bluetongue disease they might fail to breed.  FWi reports “The doubts over vaccinating were reflected at Penrith livestock market which reported that of 6000 mules through only two batches of ewes were vaccinated”.

The uptake of the vaccine has been so low in the North of England that only one in five livestock farms is protected.

A Cumbria suckled calf producer is quoted as saying “I’ve decided to leave my vaccine in the fridge until the spring. I want my cows safely in calf and a crop of calves on the ground before I start to jab.”

Chief veterinary officer Christianne Glossop reports that the uptake of vaccine in Wales has been disappointingly low. FWi quotes Alun Edwards, a Welsh farmer and Farmers Union of Wales office holder, as saying producers who resist vaccination to be “bloody idiots”.

I can only speak from my own experience.

I vaccinated in late May as soon as the vaccine was available in Devon. My bull had only been running with the cows for a couple of weeks before I vaccinated and as far as I know, to date, all cows and heifers I would expect to be are in calf. I had the most vulnerable animals PD (pregnancy diagnosed) when I was bTB testing the other week and they are 2½ -3 months in calf.

Despite the weather, and vaccination, my lambs have grown well and have killed out at a good average weight of 15-16kgs – Whiteface Dartmoor lambs give a small to medium size carcass. The tups go in with the ewes at the end of next week, so I will soon see how that goes.

I urge farmers to think really carefully about the consequences of not vaccinating. If your animals contract Bluetongue, even if they don’t die (with up to 70% mortality in sheep) they will suffer horrendous consequences. Abortion, stillbirth and neonatal mortality are increased with survivors suffering from infertility, depleted lactation and chronic weight loss. These things are a certainty. I know vaccination’s an added cost in a year that’s bleak, but the consequences, emotionally and financially, will be a hundred times worse with the disease.

For immediate up-to-date information on bluetongue and the various forms of available vaccination in the UK, and on the continent, follow this link to Warmwell.

Mr Edwards also questioned the sanity of importing livestock from infected areas following the first cases of bluetongue found in imported cattle on a Denbighshire farm.

So do I. So do I!

death dance?

death dance?

is gaia really saving us?

is gaia really saving us?

“It’s Gaia.”

“What is?” I ask

“What’s happening at the moment. With the weather.” Robert stares intently between furiously working windscreen wipers as he negotiates a mini flood swooshing across the lower section of our lane.

“How’s that?”

“Well, it’s quite simple really. She, Gaia, knows the planet’s in deep shit with climate change. So she’s rectifying it.”

We skid on a patch of liquid mud; an oozing amoeba from a waterlogged gateway.

“Yes, she thought about it and decided if she rained on the earth continuously she would cool it down, and… as she’d be using the water from the sea to make the rain, so she’d be compensating for the rising sea levels! You see – two birds with one stone.” He grins across at me “Simple.”

I chuckle, “I like that! That actually makes me feel a whole load better. Positively joyful, almost, about rain. No, perhaps that’s gong a bit far, but it’s a good angle!”

It was yesterday evening, and we’d decided on a sudden impulse to drive into Okehampton to see Mamma Mia. It’s been a heck of a week. We needed an injection of pure unadulterated, joyful, feel good nonsense. Sun, colour, beautiful people, singing, dancing and a happy ending.

The best bit of news. The cows went clear on their TB test reading this Thursday. My worst fears were unfounded, and even the vet was overjoyed. She said it’s so unusual to get a clear test nowadays.

The not such good news; we’ve had to bring the cows in.  The land gave up. Do you know the herd has only been out for four months this year? I hope that by bringing them in we’ll save the grass and land from being ruined; and maybe, if we have a bit of dry, sunny weather, they will be able to go out and enjoy a mellow autumn.

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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