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male greenfinch

male greenfinch (google images)

“There’s a greenfinch! Quick! Come and look!” Robert was shout-whispering up at me from the kitchen. “I thought they were all dead! That’s good. Oh it’s wonderfully marked too. Beautiful!” he paused “Come on, come down quickly. But don’t make a noise!” He hissed up the stairs.
My office is just above the kitchen with the same, but elevated, view of the bird table. “I can see it from up here.” I whispered “Oh look, and there’s the female. Just behind the chaffinch. Can you see?”
“No, no that’s another female chaff…oh no, yes, wait, yeh, I can. That’s nice. That is nice. I really thought they were all done for. We haven’t seen any this year, have we? Do you remember when there were hundreds of them?”

Our bird table, directly outside the kitchen window, is a huge source of pleasure to us and to friends and visitors. Many’s the time when someone new to the farm  becomes mesmerised mid-sentence as some bird or other is spotted feeding and they’ll turn to you with excitement, gabbling “I just saw three nuthatches (or marsh/willow tits, greater spotted woodpecker babies or similar). I did. There. On the table!”  Jabbing a finger in the direction of the window they are rather nonplussed by our nonchalance!

We are lucky, we have huge variety and number of birds that come to feed; most probably because we are in such a rural position and there are no other bird feeding stations for miles around, unlike those more urban locations where the birds can become picky due to the vast choice available to them.

But back to the greenfinches. They used to be one of the most numerous birds at the bird table when we first put up in its current spot about thirteen years ago. But over the last few years they have declined rapidly (possibly due to the trichomoniasis outbreak) and now we are lucky if we see just a few a year. Robert is worried, especially as they were so common. (Oh excitement again…I’ve just been downstairs to let the puppy out and seen another female greenfinch feeding!). But they appear to still have green (OK) status with the RSPB. Are they all with you?

bullfinch on nest

bullfinch on nest

It used to be the other way round with the bullfinch though. Now there’s a bird that’s increased markedly in numbers around our bird table.  We are so used to the eye-catching bright pink-red of the male, that now we would prefer to see the subtler greens and yellows of the greenfinch!  Still, we’re not complaining.  Bullfinches have red (threatened) status because they’ve declined so much nationally.  (I suppose it’s only right that greenfinches should have green status and bullfinches red status.) We are lucky to have so many of them, and they don’t damage the fruit trees much, as far as we know.  Robert thinks it’s the thick dense hedges we have, that keep their nests safe from marauding magpies and jays, which explains why they do so well with us.  This year he’s found a couple of nests, and photographed one.  That and the constant supply of sunflower seeds!

bullfinch nest and eggs

bullfinch nest and eggs

turnout 29 April - in Cow Moor with some of the herd

turnout 29 April - in Cow Moor with some of the herd

It’s done – they’re out! Well, bar a handful of dry cows that’ll stay in to finish the remains of opened haylage bales.

I expected the new bull might be tricky to move. Buying him when I did last autumn he didn’t have an opportunity to run with the herd and he isn’t familiar with our farm or boundaries. Apart from which frustration and hormonal overload could make him very unpredictable. Not counting his twelve hour steamy sexathon with Severn back last September he’s been denied sex and those tantalising teasing heifers have been keeping him on his toes!

appraising...

appraising...

He came out of his pen as if ignited by rocket fuel. The almost-tonne of him bucked, kicked and charged through the cow palace roaring like the minotaur himself. And those saucy heifers with their come-hither eyes? Not so quick to throw their knickers at him now – they backed into the furthest corner of their pen, huddled and quaking, refusing to budge and inch!

We eventually persuaded them out of their corner and into the yard to face their bête noir. We then brought the cows and new calves into the group and were ready for the off.

I shout from inside the cow palace “Okay, calves okay. Ready when you are. Stop if I shout…”

Robert and Olly yell above the incessant cacophony of calling cattle “We’re opening the top yard gate now. You ready?”

“Yes” I scream over the noise – and the jostling rolling tide of  heaving motley-moulting red bodies surges forward leaving baby calves standing and stunned as their mothers disappear from sight.

It’s my job to keep the calves grouped and moving as best I can until they get the hang of running with the herd. All these calves have known is their secure cow palace world. One calf manages to slip through a gap by the cattle crush. I shriek “Hang on! Escapee, escapee. Hold the cattle!”

new man? Okaaay...

new man? Okaaay...

Olly and Robert do their best to steady and hold the stampede as I manoeuvre the calf back in with its herd. As I succeed the bull and a heifer break rank and steam off down the lane…we let them run holding back the cows; we know they won’t go too far (here’s praying) without the main herd. The herd strains and pushes forward eager to catch up with the disappearing pair though luckily Robert and Olly manage to control the pace.
We are prepared, the gate to Cow Moor is open and the rest of the lane blocked off, the bull and his consort swerve into the field, Robert and Olly step aside allowing the cattle to stream in after them. It’s done. The herd is safe and contained. We leave them in Cow Moor for the morning to let off steam, establish the pecking order and come to terms with the appearance of a new bull. After lunch, when they are hopefully calmer, we will walk them a mile or so down the road to the River Meadows.

this looks as if I'm cheering...I was actually trying to get rid of midges biting my ear!

this looks as if I'm cheering with relief...I was actually trying to get rid of midges biting my ear!

and my favourite all weather shelter is...

and my favourite all wether shelter is...ewe!

…what’s yaws?

Oops – deary me! Sorry ’bout that.

I woke up to ten inches of snow this morning – it was a total surprise to me and even more so to the baby lambs.  I couldn’t resist showing you these.

nose dipping in the white stuff!

nose dipping in the white stuff!

What on earth…?

ummm, differnt from mummy's milk!

ummm, different from mummy's milk!

Strange things happen overnight.

excitement over, time for a nap

excitement over, time for a nap

One of the ideas we’ve been toying with since Robert’s voluntary redundancy is running a training centre at Locks Park where we would teach and explore skills useful in our fragile, rapidly changing countryside and world; courses that will help us to adapt to, even survive, a world without fossil fuels and with an unpredictable climate.

wood taken from hedge laying - between five corners and square field

wood and brash from hedge laying - between five corners and square field

Together with producing our own food (hence the biome) being self-sufficient in energy and water is near the top of our agenda. It’s a hugely complex subject with every expert persuasively insistent that their ideas and methods are the best. We’ve read, listened, questioned; investigated, visited and considered. And it’s mighty hard – the more you know the less you know. One thing we are sure of is that wood will play a large part on this holding.

a cord of wood where Olly has been coppicing

cords of wood - Olly's coppicing February 2009

We are self-sufficient in wood.  This year we have only used wood to heat the house – and during a winter that has been reasonably cold too. At present we have two normal domestic woodburners and no efficient state-of-the-art wood boiler with accumulator (though this is a distinct possibility for the future). Our burning wood, in the main, comes from our hedgerows; it’s first cut into four foot lengths, stacked in cords and left to mature for two years before it’s cut to burning size and stored for the coming winter’s use in the woodshed.  In previous years our hedgerow wood supply has been ample as we’ve run it alongside an oil boiler. But now we need to increase our supply.

The same area of woodland 18 years ago - Robert chain sawing

The same area of woodland 18 years ago - Robert working with chainsaw

So Olly has been coppicing in our small farm wood.  He is re-working a coupe that we last coppiced when we first arrived at the farm 18 years ago.  The willow, ash and birch stools have produced poles which are of just the right size for the wood burners without having to split the logs.  Our only worry is that roe deer will nibble off the re-growth this time round – there are more deer about now it seems – so Olly is covering the cut stumps up with the brushwood in the hope that this will deter them enough to let some shoots get away. If that fails we will have to erect a temporary fence.

piles of brushwood protecting the freshly cut stumps from roe deer

piles of brushwood protecting the freshly cut stumps from roe deer - good habitat for invertebrates too.

While I was taking the photos a female Roe deer and her yearling twins were browsing around the edge of Olly’s coup. They seemed quite unconcerned by my (and the dogs) presence, only moving off when I tried to get closer to take a picture of them. Cheeky!

coppicing

coppicing - the young trees left are replanted Ash

Yesterday I started lambing – at 5.15am precisely!

new born ram lamb

new born ram lamb

The weather couldn’t have been better, gentle, mild and, most importantly, dry. Three ewes got on with the business almost simultaneously.

Last autumn I made the decision to sell a large proportion of my flock. My sheep were finding it harder and harder to manage on our land as a result of two unprecedented wet years.  If  summer was a problem, winter was going to be worse.

I kept back a nucleus of flock-aged ewes and a dozen ewe lambs just in case. You see my sheep, being a hill breed, are hefted, or leared, onto my land and are familiar with my system; if I go back into sheep farming it’s vital that years of flock knowledge isn’t lost.

Tail 2 lambing

Tail 1 lambing

One of the ewes I kept back was Dot, the wise old matriarch and also a pair of her two-tooth twins, known as the Tails – 1 and 2. I would like to say I kept their tails long so they could be easily identified, though in truth it was one of those lambing-exhaustion oversights. Still it’s been useful, as they weren’t sold and didn’t go for meat. I was hoping they had  inherited some of their mother’s exceptional genetic traits.

cleaning her newborn

cleaning her newborn

Tail 1 lambed today. She handled her labour skilfully and calmly, giving birth to the first of her twins standing up. Without hesitation she set about cleaning her baby, nickering and mumbling to her with total concertration and  tenderness; she manoeuvred herself  into an easy-udder-access position as soon as her lamb began to nuzzle search for the teat. Once her first newborn had sucked and was belly-full warm, she got on with giving birth to the second twin, taking just as much care  as well as maintaining contact and giving reassurance to the first. What a first lamber! The beginning of  ‘Dot’s Dynasty’ (yes, Tail 1’s twins are ewe lambs)!

finding the udder

finding the udder

a group of ewes feeding this morning

a group of ewes feeding this morning

Last night it unexpectedly began to snow…and snow and snow. This morning we were shrouded in a foot of  soft, white silence. Trees bowed under the weight, bent almost double, forming arches and bowers. Power cables and phone lines stretched to within a couple of inches of Robert’s head. Huge wet snowflakes fell, fell, fell.

our lane in heavy snow

the farm lane in heavy snow this morning

The dogs are beside themselves with snow excitement.

...and this afternoon

...and this afternoon we bring out the snow plough!

This afternoon we dig ourselves out with the help of the trusty bobcat. Half a mile of  steep lane needs to be cleared.

olly clearing snow from the lane

olly clearing snow from the lane

And shovelling.

the view across to Dartmoor from the top of our lane

the view across to Dartmoor from the top of our lane

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.

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