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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

Why did we think they’d get it right? We believed them too. And we began to plan ahead. Strange in the circumstances…

Let’s face it; they’d got it wrong so badly so much. But last week we were told the sun was going to shine.

It happened. Just like they said!

After a grisly start to the week, on Wednesday, as promised, the sun broke through and shone, and shone and shone.

But dry conditions + shining sun = total mayhem! A summer’s worth of jobs to do in days.

meadows-in-waiting - abundant red clover our 2nd cut grass

meadows-in-waiting - abundant red clover our 2nd cut grass

Apart from our window saga (see tomorrow’s post), our second cut haylage was well overdue. By Friday the ground was tentatively dry enough for machinery to drive over. On Friday afternoon we cut. I was pleasantly surprised by the shear too – more than I thought.

willow and skye in the freshly cut Rutleigh

willow and skye in the freshly cut Rutleigh

We turned the grass on Saturday in the shining sun with a good drying wind. On Sunday, eventually, after seven gruelling hours of  machinery breakdowns (our contractor’s) all our second cut haylage was baled and wrapped. In organic systems  second cut forage is jam-packed full of proteins from the clovers; it’s also soft and palatable. We call it ‘rocket-fuel’ – perfect for calves and freshly calved cows.

at last! the baler works...

at last! the baler works...

From an ideal vantage point. Ness and Willow observe the frantic activity.

ness and willow

ness and willow

my Devons grazing Path Field

my Devons grazing Path Field

Did any of you catch Countryfile this week? In particular John Craven’s investigation into methane producing cattle and sheep, climate change and Meat Free Monday?

Research, reported in the New Scientist not long ago, suggests that producing a kilo of beef has the equivalent effect on the climate as driving 250 km and leaving all the lights on at home to boot.  Meanwhile ministers have been on record as saying that if you really want to save the world (and your health), you should stop eating meat.  There’s also a maxim that climate change is driven by the three Cs:  combustion, chainsaws and cattle.

So, am I an arch climate villain?  Is my carbon foot print so big that I leave tracks across the world like yeti? By my calculations, every time I sell a bullock, it’s like driving all the way from Devon to Timbuctoo.  I’m told cattle produce huge quantities of methane, a gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effects, from both ends.  Even worse, on conventional farms, the grass and grain they eat requires tonnes of fertiliser which takes barrels and barrels of oil to make as well as releasing yet more greenhouse gases when it’s spread on the fields.

But there’s some hope for me.  I may not have to sell up quite yet.  Some Swedish research shows that organic beef raised on grass has a much lower carbon footprint, emitting forty percent less greenhouse gas and consuming eighty-five percent less energy.   This figures since we don’t use artificial fertilisers, recycling nutrients (good, old-fashioned muck) from the farm, and keep far fewer cattle per hectare.  What’s even better, there’s good reason to suspect that organic soil management actually results in carbon being taken out of the atmosphere (carbon sequestration) rather than being released into it offsetting the methane produced by the animals.  (It’s a little known fact that there’s far, far more carbon stored in England’s soils than in all its woodlands.)

But, I could be in danger of being complacent here.  Unfortunately it’s still a fact that my Devons are belching and farting large quantities of a powerful greenhouse gas into the beleaguered stratosphere. So what I should try to aim for is to be carbon neutral, right the way from grass to plate. I wonder, by the way, what the term is for a negative footprint is? Someone who takes more carbon out of the air than they release into it?

I shall have to have one of these carbon audits done and see what I can do to reduce my footprint.  Perhaps I can manage my soils differently, let my hedges get even bigger; reduce transport costs, put up solar panels on the barns and be energy self-sufficient, look into other means of collecting and storing water…fixing plastic bags onto the rear end of the cattle is an interesting prospect, perhaps my inventor friend can work out a way and we’ll get rich on the patent!

The other side of the coin is that Devon badly needs its cattle and sheep.  Imagine Dartmoor without them.  Our priceless historical landscape would be lost beneath a sea of bracken, gorse and trees. Think also of all our wonderful unique indigenous grasslands. They and their supporting habitat wouldn’t survive without grazing. I guess our challenge as farmers is to produce beef and lamb in a way that helps the climate. Far better for us to face the challenge now and take the matter into our own hands than to wait for the inevitable regulations down the road.  I don’t know the answers, but suspect they may involve all of us who enjoy meat eating less of it, valuing it more, and being prepared to pay much more for it, so farmers can afford to farm in a way that is in tune with Mother Earth.

For now, I’ll keep my cows. Try to sleep soundly at night too…after all, there are things I can do.

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

winning smiles - Salar cow and calf

winning smiles - Salar cow and calf

For the last two years the Okehampton Show, our local one day show, has been cancelled due to impossibly wet weather. If it was rained off again this year it wouldn’t survive.

As you can imagine the weather’s been minutely monitored. Certainly it appeared the forecast was better than July, but definitely not settled.

Tentatively, a week or so before the actual day, skeletons for the large marquees began to appear; cautiously, almost furtively, the show ground began to take shape…cattle lines, sheep and cattle pens, goat and pig tents, show rings, walk ways, beer tents, an army of porta-loos – every day a little more  emerged. We scarcely dared look as we passed by – it was as if even looking was enough to tip the balance between rain or shine. Instead we sucked in our breath, crossed fingers and bit  nails.

Nine days earlier the North Devon show made it…just, though conditions were far from easy. Talking to friends who’d been there showing we heard how stock trailers were unhitched, towed onto the show ground and left, dotted about  randomly, in a sinking quagmire of churned mud…’Lucky’ Sally said ‘the only white bit in danger was the end of the cattle’s tail. Otherwise we’d have been in an even sorrier state!’

The night before Okehampton show it rained. I woke in the night to hear its patter-pittering  on the leaves of the trees outside our bedroom window and the soft sighing hiss of waterlogged ground. The morning dawned in a grey shroud of misty drizzle. Though not, mercifully, torrential rain

Armed with wellies, hats, waterproofs and warmish clothes we set off. We’d planned to get there first thing as a cousin of Robert’s was paying us a visit in the afternoon.  Even at that early hour the car parks were swelling; folk seemed determined to make the show a success come rain or shine.

A serious moment - judging a young Devon bull...

A serious moment - judging a young Devon bull...

As we hung over the rails of the show ring the misty drizzle gathered itself up into a leaden sky – a bruising layer of cloud enveloped the tops of the tors. Uncertain fingers of  sunlight hit the sides of the valley. For a few moments clouds and sun vied with one another when unexpectedly, so it seemed, the sun decided enough was enough and with determind force blistered its way through, burning back layer upon layer of cloud to sizzle and shine gloriously over the show for the rest of the day!

even dogs had to wear sunglasses in the glare!

even dogs had to wear sunglasses in the glare!

Overheating and dripping with sweat in our rainy weather clothing, we squinted, smiled and laughed our way around the show ground bumping into a plethora of friends and those acquaintances that we generally  see on occasions such as this. When it was time for us to leave we felt completely exhausted from the sheer exuberance of the event (and the heat!). As we drove away were amazed to see cars still pouring in. Hoorah! The Okehampton Show was a resounding success and lives to see another year…

young sheep handlers wait to be called...

young sheep handlers wait to be called...the 2nd in is a Dartmoor Whiteface two tooth and the end ram's a Whiteface too.

gloomy

gloomy

Over the last two summers I’ve littered text with soggy simile, metaphor, adverb and adjective; written watery creative analogies; been moistly apocryphal, saturatingly colourful and squelchingly onomatopoeic. I’ve been sent bonkers by rain-driven frustration and suffered blue-gloom from lack of sunlight.

But now I’m emotionally ‘descripted’ out. From the once again watery swamplands of the farm I have absolutely nothing original to say about rain or sodden summers (though to be fair it’s only been July – it just seems so much longer – we did have a stunning spring and early summer, our memories though have been clean washed away).

I could, I suppose, thrill you with my efforts at pickling and preserving (but haven’t I told you about that a couple of times before?) or wax lyrical about the cleaning out and washing down of the cow palace (almost as captivating as watching paint dry, wouldn’t you say?).

Maybe I could let you into the little secret of the rat in the polytunnel…(ahha, I can see a glimmer of interest here!)? The one who munched his way through the whole of our corn crop in a night effectually destroying every cob? Who’s also gnawed each and every beetroot and is now thumbing his nose at us as he takes poisonously vicious bites out of all ripe or almost ripe tomatoes before we get a look in. Oh, and what about the powder mould that’s ripped through the courgette population and the worrying lack of growth with our second planting?

‘Yes!’ I hear you exclaim ‘Vengeance is sweet!’  Remember all the green ploytunnel envy?

ah well...

ah well...

I’m sure this isn’t the only job where you flip from total elation to utter dejection in a bat of an eye but it must rank pretty high on the list.

I was feeling very optimistic about this year. After all it was a fine winter: frost, ice, bright cold days and even snow. I liked it, a proper season with humans, stock and nature responding accordingly. And spring? Spring’s been magnificent; full of sun and promise, smiley people and happy animals. The difficulties of the last two summers began fading into the distance. I’d even started to plan…

Then last week it began to rain (actually I don’t mind rain, it’d be a stupid place to live if I did). But this is not gentle rain or even just normal rain, rather the stair-rod kind we’ve experienced more and more over the last two years – monsoon rain.

no grass, just thousands of orchids and wild flowers thriving in Dillings, our hay meadow

no grass, just thousands of orchids and wild flowers thriving in waterlogged Dillings, our hay meadow

A blogging cyber-friend, Elizabethm, came for an ‘in-the-flesh’ visit the afternoon the rain started in earnest. After she left I had a long phone call with my son in France about wedding arrangements (he and Berengere are getting married next month in Marseille) so by the time I got out to check the calving cows it was almost dark and still pelting with rain. One of the cows, Hermione, looked pretty imminent. It was too dark to move her so I left hoping she would hang on till morning.

All night I listened to the sound of torrential downpours and the wind frenziedly whipping and slapping at the bedroom curtains. As soon as it was light enough to see I was up to check the cow and sure enough there, by her side, was a sodden shaking calf. At least she was alive, though being born in the worst of the wind and rain she had not managed to suck and was fast becoming hypothermic. As quick as I could I moved them into the shed, towelled the calf and began the long laborious job of trying to get a sucking reflex. Not as easy as a lamb, you can’t put a 40 kilo calf on your lap, open its mouth, clamp it onto the teat, hold it there, stimulate sucking whilst pinning its 600 kilo mother against the wall with your shoulder. You desperately need the cooperation (hollow laugh) of both cow and calf. Suffice to say after nearly four hours and on the point of giving up, I managed to get the calf on the teat whereupon she miraculously changed from a fading shadow into a lusty ravenous monster-calf!

hermione with her heifer calf sucking lustily

hermione with her heifer calf sucking lustily

During this palaver and one of my ‘it’s-never-going-to-suck’ exits we went to check the main herd. More drama! The river was in full spate separating a couple of cows and a group of calves from the rest of the herd. Both groups were bawling franticly at each other divided by a dangerously fast flowing torrent. In a situation like this it’s best to do nothing (the animals could panic and throw themselves into the river) and hope that both the rain and river will ease off, fairly fast!

hermione licking her calf

hermione blissfully licking her new calf

Luckily by the time I’d finished with the cow and calf the herd had reunited and we were able to move them back to the farm for safety.

So my optimism has taken a knock. Still the rain rains and it’s hard not to feel a little pessimistic about the outcome. We thought that building the polytunnel was a sure fired way of guaranteeing a hot summer and now we’re not so sure…but this morning there’s watery sunlight, no wind and a grin on my face!

and my favourite all weather shelter is...

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

…what’s yaws?

Oops – deary me! Sorry ’bout that.

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