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My friends and I were nattering nineteen to the dozen over supper, catching up on news and gossip when Emily suddenly turned to me and said, poker face “I’ve a new man in my life.” I looked questioningly at her, surprised, and then across at Geoff, leaning back in his chair thoughtfully twirling a glass of wine.  “Yes. I hardly see her anymore” he confirmed.

“Ah” I replied a little cautiously “Go on then. Tell me. Who is he?” I looked encouragingly at Emily

“Oh he’s amazing. Someone very special…I’d love you to meet him. Oh dear, but I don’t think you’ll have the time. I’ll be busy too. Oh!” She agitatedly looped up a stray strand of hair “So silly. I’m doing the flowers for Audrey’s   party tomorrow, so ‘fraid I can’t take you. But you would…you’d love him. You’d be quite smitten. Maybe…”She tailed off

“Emily! Who is he? The suspense is killing!”

“Paula! Paula, Paula, Paula…” she screwed her eyes up, tight

“Yes, yes. Go on.”

“He’s eighty-five. Sooo, so, sooo wonderful!” she paused, lost in thought “The things he knows…about farming, thatching and cleaving chestnut. You should see it. The cottage, his workshop – oh, his workshop! I saw it by mistake…the tools – like a museum collection. His garden, full of dahlias, kept as it was by Ruby. It mustn’t be lost. His skills, his talent and knowledge, I mean. He might be the last. Certainly around here…I couldn’t bear that.” With a worried frown she looks across at me, then smiles.  “He lives down on the marsh. He did a huge amount of work with Christopher Lloyd…you know? Great Dixter?  You must meet him. Go tomorrow. I’ll give him a ring. Introduce you on the phone. Maybe you’ll be able to do something.”

“Yes please. How exciting. Oh, but I was going to plant bulbs on Morna’s grave. No…it’ll be fine. I’ve time to do everything. After all that’s what I’m here for. Remembering, feeling, finding. I’d really love to meet him. Seize the opportunity.” I give her a squeeze “And lord knows when I’ll next be up here!”

The next morning introductions are made over the phone. A time arranged “One o’clock” I’m told, as they still have dinner at mid-day “Just as we always have”. Geoff and I poured over the map and found the farm “Look at the church. It’s exquisite, 12th century.”

The day was picture perfect.  Cold with clear blue skies and far horizons splashed with autumn colour.  The drive down to Romney Marsh was alive with memories I didn’t know I had. Distant stirrings of my first visit to England; never-before-seen snow , rose gardens, my grandparents, damp wool, soft leather and pipe tobacco. My parents  – young and laughing.  Tea with a great-aunt, polished oak panelling, shortbread and rich fruit cake…

Passing the simple, yet quite beautiful church I turned down on to the Marsh and before long was knocking on the door of Bob’s farmhouse.

I spent an afternoon that I hope will live forever in my memory. We walked across the open landscape of the Marsh and as Bob pointed out the cast-up field systems cultivated in Romans times we discussed the virtues of farming ancient and modern. The Romney or ‘Kent’ sheep and red Sussex cattle used to graze the acres of his farm – now no longer pure bred the sheep are crossed with Charolais and the Sussex with Aberdeen Angus. I point out the mile-upon-mile of cleft chestnut fencing and intricate sheep handling pens…Bob it transpires, made them all. In Bob’s youth cattle from hop farms used to graze the marsh during summer months…returning home in winter to be housed in yards; the muck they produced was valuable and much-needed for the hop gardens.

cleft oak teaching thatching frame

We cross back over to his farmyard where he shows me his chestnut wood store, his threshing machine, his thatching frames used for teaching apprentices, and yes, even his workshop! Twenty five years ago Bob handed the farm over to his sons and took up long straw thatching, a very different method to our West Country thatch.  Around the yard I notice all the bullock handling systems, gates and crushes are made from sturdy cleft chestnut…I’m amazed, thrilled (I hate the feel of metal) and, Bob assures me, they are strong and safe, never causing injury to an animal or handler. We continue, talking non stop. Crossing into his garden, we pass beautifully laid out vegetable beds lined with dahlias and walk along cinder paths past an ancient orchard still used to produce cider.  Turning a corner, I was stunned by the sight of a perfect tiny cottage.

Bob's tiny timber framed and thatched cottage with tiny cottage garden

“Ah, yes” says Bob modestly but with a twinkle in his eye “I wanted to see if I could build a framed building as they used to. Completely out of cleft and pegged oak …thatched. So I decided to make it for my grandchildren.” I’ve never wanted to return to my childhood more than at that moment…and to be one of Bob’s descendents! Inside was just as enchanting…a kitchen, a sitting room, dining room and an upstairs with two wee bedrooms! All the furniture Bob had made out of the elm from the farm.

Back in the kitchen eating a tea of Bob’s homemade bread (with wheat from the thatching straw) spread thickly with comb honey (from a bee’s nest in the chimney!), yellow rock buns and raspberry jam turnovers I’m replete in every way. Cradling my cup of hot milky tea I turn to Bob “Thank you. Thank you so much for having me here. I can’t tell you how privileged I feel to have met you. I just wish I could have met Ruby too.” (Ruby is Bob’s much missed wife who died very suddenly eight years ago) “If ever you have an urge to come to the Westcountry, well…I’d be honoured if you’d visit us.”

cleft chestnut bullock gates

I left with the sun sinking below the marsh, leaving a silhouette of gnarled trees filigreed against the skyline.  As I nibbled on a walnut from the farm’s ancient orchard, I knew, with certainty, I would return.

setting sun

Guelder-rose berries and ash tree, Locks Park, 8 Oct 09 reduced

Guelder-rose berries and ash tree

It’s Devon Hedge Week! What a perfect week it’s been to celebrate our amazing hedges…and the breathtaking autumn colours.

Last weekend we held our own event at the farm on hedge management, hedgerow trees and dormice – staring Dora, of course!

Interestingly most people when asked about hedge management would say without hesitation ‘Laying is good. Flailing is bad.’ This is not strictly true. Yes I do agree there’s still a lot of poor hedge cutting practice about, but flail mowing itself is not a bad thing. In fact hedge cutting is positively beneficial in most cases, and the flail is the best means available in the majority of circumstances.

Here you see Robbie our contractor flail cutting a hedge we laid two years ago, taking care not to damage the ash hedgerow tree.

Our contractor is flail cutting a hedge we laid two years ago and is taking care not to damage the ash hedgerow tree

You see cutting promotes thick, dense cover necessary for many of our smaller breeding birds (warbler, finch, sparrow, dunnock) and dormice. Interestingly it is along the knotty growth of the fail-line that you’ll find most bird and dormice nests.  Cutting also prolongs the period before a hedge needs to be rejuvenated by laying or coppicing. Laying is costly and time consuming so it’s important that management should try to keep the hedge in good condition for as long as possible before laying is necessary again.

young wych elm tree and hedge fail

young wych elm tree and hedge fail

Back to flail mowing, the main issues here are, of course, that hedges are either cut too often, or too short and thin. Hedgelink has recently produced an excellent leaflet (click on link for pdf) which takes one through the management cycle and the management options for each of stage of the hedge.

‘We encourage cutting on a 2 or preferably 3 or more year cycle, raising the cutting height a few inches each time, and staggering cutting between years.  There are times, though when cutting annually is necessary, for example to maintain road visibility, or desirable for the hedge base flora – the magnificent displays of primroses, bluebells and other spring flowers along many Devon hedge banks are dependent on frequent, close, cutting.  Cutting two or three year old growth can make a hedge look unsightly for a while, but it’s remarkable how quickly they recover, and as far as we know, no lasting damage is done to plant survival or hedge structure (research is underway to test this).’

Of course if you are managing your hedges mainly for wood, cutting would be counter productive as you’d want the growth to ensure a good wood harvest; but if possible aim at having as many hedges you can at different stages in their cycle.

So don’t dispair when you see fail mowed hedgerows – it’s the autumn-clean for next year’s wildlife!

juvenile-dormice-3-five-corners-28-sept-08-reduced

...and just perfect for us!

One of my young (sixteen month old) heifers had developed warts.

This in itself is not a particular problem. Warts are a fairly common occurrence in cattle, particularly in stock under two years old, and are caused by the skin’s reaction to an infection with papova virus (six different papova viruses have been identified, though the majority of cases are caused by one of two types). These warts can crop up anywhere on the animal’s body though most frequently around the head and neck area; less common but more worrying sites are the teats, scrotum and penis. Warts can grow fast and vary greatly in shape and size from almost flat pea-sized lumps to large orange-sized balls on stalks.

bovine warts around the head of an animal - google images

bovine warts around the head of an animal - google images

My heifer had a few small areas of infection around her muzzle though the worst was a cluster of large nebular sessile (squat) warts on the inside of her hind leg and, horror of horror, a huge, repulsive pedunculate (stalked) brain-like growth hanging off the side of one of her teats. It was the size of a nectarine (but not as juicy!).  Not only was it getting knocked and damaged when she walked, becoming a fly magnet, its sheer size and weight was elongating and deforming her teat.

warts on the udder of a cow - google images

warts on the udder of a cow - google images

Generally warts disappear within six months but in this case something had to be done to the one on her teat so she didn’t suffer permanent damage.

We discussed the options. Cutting it off? Not the best of times to do this; possible excessive bleeding, fly strike and difficult to treat post-operatively in the field. Restricting blood-flow with a ligature? Not ideal, again the problem of fly-strike, but probably the best alternative in the circumstances.

So having decided on the ligature we began to gather up equipment and manpower.

The young stock spend their summer at some rented land a few miles away and though we have a corral where we can gather and load them we don’t have a proper crush. We decided we’d rig up a gate crush and with strong rope, brave men and a little bit of luck we would be able to pin her behind the gate and hopefully immobilise her sufficiently to be able to tie the ligature on.

Robert, Joe, Olly, me and, of course, my right-hand man Theo all piled into the truck, complete with elastrator (castrating tool, just in case I was able to fit a castrating ring over the growth), suitable strong, non-slip string to form the ligature, iodine, salt solution, Spot On (fly deterrent), rope, baler cord and, most important, a bucket of nuts as an incentive and reward.

In no time an admirable gate crush had been constructed. We managed to lure the cattle into the corral in record time with the promise of nuts. Once the cattle were contained it wasn’t too much bother to isolate and crush the heifer concerned behind the gate. So far so good, now the difficult bit. The elastrator was unfortunately far too small. We would only get one attempt with the string ligature…she would kick, she would start forward and she would make it impossible for a second attempt. Robert decided I would become permanently damaged and broken so he would endeavour to tie the ligature. All was ready…Olly on the ropes, me with the nuts and Robert at the business end. In the flash of a moment the heifer lunged upwards and forward in an attempt to escape, landing on top of the gate – but in her violent forward movement against Robert’s pull on the ligature the string had severed the whole gruesome growth! Yes, it was bleeding but not too severely. Settling the heifer down behind the gate, I dressed the wound with iodine and cobwebs (cobwebs are an old remedy used to hasten blood coagulation), fed her a good measure of nuts, treated her with fly deterrent and sent her off into the field.

Then we searched around for the wart, and found it.  What a trophy!  I showed it to all our friends, many of them aren’t speaking to us now. First I kept it in the fridge for easy access until the family rebelled.  Now it’s in the freezer.  I just hope that in a year or two someone doesn’t open the bag, think that looks tasty, and have a good fry up!

Jo, from LittleFfarm Dairy, wrote this comment after reading the various posts about the injured deer. I thought it  a wonderful tale, poignant and thought provoking. I asked if she would mind if I posted it on my front page as I felt it was somewhat hidden as a comment and deserved to be read. She happily agreed. Thanks Jo!

I visited a Theravada (Forest Tradition) Buddhist Monastery near Bodh Gaya in India (where the Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment) a few years ago.   Whilst there a deer suddenly burst out from a thicket of trees at the edge of the forest, hotly pursued by an excited dog.  The monks watched impassively as we stared in horror at the inevitability that the dog would surely bring down the young deer….

…..and then, extraordinarily, just as it seemed the dog would make his move, the deer pirouetted abruptly and started chasing the dog!  The pair ran into the central compound of the Monastery around which a modest cluster of Kutis (living quarters) and a Meditation Hall were grouped, the only other sound the regular swish-swish-swish of a broom as a young novice deftly flicked dust from the warm courtyard floor, not even raising his eyes as the clatter of cloven hooves and the patter of paws puffed up fresh clouds of dust, deep in the meditation of his task.  The dog flopped to the floor, tongue lolling, and rolled onto his back.  The deer danced up for a second, pawed tentatively at the dog, and then flopped down companionably, beside his unlikely friend.

We were dumbfounded; the monks, mildly amused.  The monks radiated serenity, especially the Abbot who as we soon learned, was accompanied everywhere by the dog and the deer; themselves inseparable companions.  The Abbot explained this was a place where no living being need fear another; all was harmony.  Even the mosquitoes seemed subdued!  It certainly was an incredible, unforgettable place: an oasis of calm and compassion, deep in the quiet forest.

I often think of that beautiful young deer and his canine companion, seeing them as a beacon of hope, that nothing is impossible; and that true peace can exist.

When all around me seems turbulent and chaotic, I close my eyes and take myself back to that aura of peace; and all is well.’

jo sent me this photo of the Abbot with the deer...Jo say's the dog is in the background, but not, unfortunately in the photo. 'I just think' says Jo 'that this photo radiates such harmony, calmness and tranquility...'

Jo sent me this photo of the Abbot with the deer...Jo said the dog was in the background but not, unfortunately, in the photo. 'I just think' says Jo 'that this photo radiates such harmony, calmness and tranquility...'

Jo and her husband Tony left high profile careers in the RAF to pursue a dream. After many ups and downs they now successfully run a herd of dairy British Toggenburg goats and make wonderful ice cream. They have just been awarded a Great Taste Gold Award for their Lovespoon Honeycomb Gelato –  as Jo says ‘Not bad for their first year in business!’ To find out more about their struggles and successes follow LittleFfarm Dairy.

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

Ness skittered past the bird feeder issuing a volley of warning barks.

A guttural belligerent string of abuse rose from behind the hedge.

As the shouting became more aggressive and frenzied the barks intensified, turning hostile and anxious.

I called at Ness out of the window to no effect. I ran down the stairs and outside commanding Ness to come immediately and saw to my horror a man hitting out at her violently with a stick whilst hollering abuse. Luckily Ness heard me and came, visibly shaken.

Calming Ness I apologised to the man, albeit rather tight lipped, and pointed out that hitting and shouting at the dog would most probably antagonises it furthur. Whereupon he turned his verbal attack on me.

We have a public footpath that runs down our lane and along the front and side of our house.

Now I’m a believer in the freedom to roam (without which our wonderful walking holidays in Scotland wouldn’t be possible) and feel privileged that I can explore new parts of glorious countryside through the footpath network. But I feel uncomfortable and intrusive if a footpath takes me alongside a dwelling that’s obviously lived in. I will give it a wide berth if I’m able, if not I try to respect people’s privacy and lives at the very least. And if there’s a dog looking after its boundary? I attempt to appear harmless, non aggressive and reassure the animal that I’m not interested in challenging it.

I’m glad people can appreciate and enjoy our beautiful farm through the footpath. The majority of folk who use it are sensitively aware they’re walking through someone’s home and a working farm. The minority unfortunately appear to be exercising their right (not their freedom) to roam and appear surly and arrogant if you come across them.

My dilemma. Ness, as I think you realise, is hardwired into feral or wild dog behaviour. She naturally reacts as a pack animal; 110% loyal and trustworthy to her pack and protective of her pack territory. She’s not tolerant of interlopers. It’s taken me three years of work to help her understand domestic dog behaviour. She’s learnt well, but in moments of stress she can revert to her instinctive nature. And her anxiety increases if she suspects the energy of the threat is negative, as in those more difficult walkers!

Now as a guard dog her  behaviour would be commended; especially if she apprehended a burglar or prevented some violent attack. She would, no doubt, be heralded a hero. But this same behaviour is deemed unacceptable in law governing public rights of way.

How, tell me, does a dog know the difference?

ness

ness

“It was freezing. Really, really freezing.” Olly had just got back from Bude yesterday evening. He body-surfs and taking advantage of the clocks changing and the glorious warm day he’d nipped down to Bude for an early evening surf.

“Did you have your winter wetsuit on?” I asked

“Oh yes. The lot. Hood, gloves, socks. I wear the winter one all year now. Because I’m in the water constantly for maybe an hour or more I get really cold, not like board-surfers.” He hung over the Aga “But it was freezing. Lots of people out there though.” He draped himself across the whole Aga top “And by the way, what’s with all the speed and CCTV cameras down our lane? Not too sure about that!” Our farm lane is half a mile long, lumpy, bumpy, windy and not known for speeding along.

CCTV or speed camera? They have appeared every 10m along our lane.

CCTV or speed camera? They have appeared every 10m along our lane.

“Ah-ha, yes. New experiment!” Robert had just walked into the kitchen loaded down with seed trays “New design, rural ones! But they won’t show at all in a couple of weeks. Catch you unawares if you go over 5mph!”

“What are they?”

they are dormouse nest tubes!

they are dormouse nest tubes!

“Dormouse nest tubes. I’m carrying out an experiment.” He replied, dumping the seed trays on the kitchen table “To see whether dormice will use the tubes even when there’s lots of really good natural nesting habitat in the hedges.  I suspect that they won’t, but need to check this.” He turned to Olly “Hot tea?”

“But” I interrupt “Isn’t that taking their skills away? I mean the hedges you’ve put them in are the ones where you found lots of dormice nests aren’t they?”

“Yes, you’re right, they are. But actually it’s been shown that dormice babies born in captivity have the ability to make nests. It’s an instinct, not learnt behaviour.”

I pour boiling water into the tea pot “So you’re not enticing them into state-of-the-art des.res at any detriment to their beautifully constructed natural nests?”

“No, I really don’t think so. Many surveys to find out whether there are dormice around, particularly for new developments, use the tubes.  But it could be that if the habitat’s really good they just won’t use them – it’s safer to build their own nests.  Only if the cover is poor will they resort to using artificial tree holes – which is what the nest tubes are.”

I suddenly have a vision of giant alien beings carrying out experiments on some weirdly strange little human-creatures they’ve noticed. State of the art mansions are placed in tempting locations. What would we do?

Assembly taking place in the warm and ambient atmosphere of the biome!

Assemblyof dormice nest tubes taking place in the warm and ambient atmosphere of the biome!

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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