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I’ve been away – physically and mentally.

Oh backalong, back in the spring sometime, I was approached by the Grazing Advice Partnership (GAP) asking me if I’d be willing to be a speaker at their September conference – Reconnecting Landscapes. I hesitated, as I always do when being asked to give talks (you’ll find out why in a minute), said I’d think about it. The pressure increased; emails, phone calls, persuasion. Peter of the Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) tightened the thumb screws. They wanted, actually needed, a speaker who was a farmer, who’d lived and worked the experience …’After all’ said Pete ‘there will be policy makers there…’ he left the sentence hanging.

‘How big is this thing?’ I asked, expecting it would be around fifty, sixty.

‘Oh, two hundred-ish…’

‘Two hundred!’ I echoed ‘Where from?’

‘Britain…and Europe.’

‘I can’t do that’ I exclaimed ‘That’s proper stuff. I’d die of nerves.’

And that’s the rub. I suffer nerves, stage-fright, illogical fear, pure terror, undiluted panic when I give talks. My heart pounds. Adrenalin floods. My stomach somersaults. My mouth dries. My voice chokes. I go ‘blind’, I feel sick…sweat, shake. Want to run.

So why on earth would I ever put myself through it? Crazy? Certainly. Masochistic? Mental? Most probably. But I feel convinced I’ll overcome it (one day) by facing it. The intensity of my terror’s illogical. You see I do a bit of television, radio etc. and though I get a nervous, as do most of us, it’s nothing compared to the enormity of what I feel if I’m asked to speak publicly.

So I foolishly relented. As I’d several months in which to prepare I believed the unfamiliar would become familiar. Maybe this time, by facing my nemesis, I’d rid myself of my phobia.

Knowing what I wanted to say and writing my talk was fairly straightforward. This was, after all, my life experiences spoken from the heart which I hoped would inspire those listening. All I had to do was deliver…

part two tomorrow!

terrified? petrified? Oh yes...

terrified? petrified? Oh yes...

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.'

dormouse of reed

dormouse on reed

“In the reed bed? Really? That’s extraordinary. I’ll let Robert know. He’ll be fascinated and down there like a dose of salts I shouldn’t be surprised!” I was on the phone to a friend of mine who had just called to say that some relatives staying with them had found a dormouse nest in the reed bed by the edge of their ‘lake’. Not only had they found the nest but the resident  had obliged by coming out and letting them take photos! Robert, you see, has a bit of a reputation of never believing anyone’s natural history sightings –  animal, plant or mineral – ‘proof’ is essential!

As predicted Robert was excited…though I did detect the old flicker of scepticism “Oh, and Sally has the photo to prove it.” I grinned “Though seriously, do dormice nest in reed beds? By water?”

showing herself off

showing herself off...

Apparently, yes they do, though it’s more likely in those parts of the country which support good reed bed systems. I guess  in Devon, with our glorious hedgerows and connected woodlands, we just don’t look for them in other places that often. Though Maggie of  Wheatland Farm did say they found a nest complete with dormouse in the middle of their area of culm grassland which was well away from trees (again with photo to prove it! Do click on the link to see them).

So down Robert went to Sally’s, not just to give positive identification to nest and inhabitant, but also to continue on his quest for hoverflies (now up to well over 120 species for Devon!).  He was not disappointed. It was a dormouse nest, with occupant, at the edge of the reed bed. Amazingly she, the dormouse, appeared quite unperturbed by her celebrity status, posing for these stunning photos! (…andRobert went on to successfully discover yet more hoverflies)

amongst the reeds

...amongst the reeds

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...

roe deer by Courbet

hunting roe deer by Courbet

I draped and fixed a blanket over the foot-well providing the deer with a dark confined space – this I hoped would keep him calm and quiet for the duration of the journey, which was about nine miles.

So I set off, leaving the men of the household looking to the heavens, shaking their heads and tutting. “Ah well, if that’s what she wants. Mad if you ask me.” muttered Olly.

Three miles down the road and the blanket erupted in an explosion with the deer jettisoning himself with force at the windscreen, the window, the whatever. With one arm trying desperately to restrain and calm him whilst the other attempted to bring the truck to a halt I was hugely relieved there wasn’t another vehicle in sight.  Once stopped I thought I might just as well turn back as it was far too dangerous to carry on. However I had to continue up into the village before I could turn. Soothing and calming the deer I settled him on the passenger seat and placed my hand on his head between his ears and emerging antlers and blow-me-down if he didn’t take a deep breath, relax entirely and fall asleep. Tentatively I pulled out on to the road expecting him to explode at any second, but he didn’t…so I took the decision to carry on to the vets.

They must have been looking out for me as no sooner had I turned into the vets than Sally and a couple of nurses piled out to greet the truck. Inching the door open I explained he remained calm only as long as my hand was on his head. Sally gave him the once over “I don’t know Paula. I really don’t. Let me go and get someone else for a second opinion.” She returned with Rupert and his son. They hummed and hahed. He could be treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, no problem, but it was the crepitus and his breathing that was causing concern. We decided to give him a chance and called Debbie at the local wildlife sanctuary whose main expertise was looking after owls and small mammals, not deer.

Debbie arrived with her partner and the exchange was made. Sally turned to me “In all honesty, Paula, I don’t think he’ll make the night. What with the shock, the injuries, the travelling…” she tailed off.

“I know” I replied “but at least we’ve given it our best shot.”

“But given all that, it’s been just amazing to work on a live roe deer. He’s so beautiful. His muzzle, extraordinary, fine and very black! Really striking. Thanks for bringing him.”

“My pleasure!” I said somewhat ironically “We’ll keep in touch. Exchange news. And thanks Sally.” I drove off home.

He did survive the night and the following day he began eating! None was more surprised than Sally. For ten days he lived in a dark horse box, recovering from his wounds and regaining his strength. Debbie was careful not to disturb or visit him too often so he wouldn’t become familiarised with humans. After ten days we thought the time had come to release him. Unfortunately the day of his release coincided with the bringing in of our haylage bales so all was not quiet and peaceful on the farm.  I’d chosen Flower Field for his release – small, well bounded by thick hedges – inbetween the copse and the route he was using when attacked. I waited with camera for the moment the door of the horse box was opened…but it was all rather anti-climatic. He had to be lifted out and with that he scuttled into the brambled hedge bank and as far as I could see hunkered down deep in the undergrowth. No leaps to freedom there! I expected he would stay the day there possibly moving away to his territory at nightfall – or maybe he just wouldn’t survive.

Later that afternoon Jess and Theo were taking their last goodbye walk around the farm. They were leaving the following morning. Whilst walking in Dillings the heavens opened and they ran across to Ravens Copse for shelter. Unable to find a way in they walked a little way down the headland looking for a less brambly entrance when Jess saw two ears twitching in the long grass.  “I grasped Theo’s hand” she said “and put my fingers to his lips…very slowly we walked a little closer. He was facing away from us, but yes, it was the deer, resting up in the grass. We gave him a wide berth; we didn’t want to disturb him. But he knew we were there, his ears were semaphoring.”

So he had already made the half mile trek back to the edge of Ravens Copse, the place he was making for on the day of his accident. I’ve searched, of course, the hedges and banks around the copse and the copse itself for signs of his demise, but have found nothing…so perhaps he’s once again running wild and free.

the roe deer buck in the foot-well of the truck

injured roe deer buck in the foot-well of the truck - you can see a few of the puncture wounds on his neck

“It’s a wee deer” I said “a roe deer. It’s hurt. A bit. Quite a bit.” Theo continued to stare nonplussed. “We need to get Olly to bring the truck down, I think” the deer kicked violently and let out another of its horrendous screeches; I tottered, slipped-slithered and splashed in the muddy water maintaining an iron-like grip on the deer…calmly. Soaking wet, covered head-to-toe in mud and blood, I tried smiling serenely, reassuringly, at Theo who asked thoughtfully “Do you have a farm, nanu?”

“Yes, yes I do. Shall we call Olly together?” No sooner had the words left my mouth when there was an explosion through the bushes and Olly appeared “What the hell do you think you’re doing down there! I thought something awful had happened to you. Look! I’ve run down the lane and over the field in my flipflops.”

“Um, well. LOOK, a roe deer! It’s been injured by the dogs. I need the truck. Will you bring it down? Oh and I can’t get out. Can you help me? Please?”

“Christ sake mum, let it go.” He expostulated.

“ Can’t. It’s neck’s injured. It’s got no balance.  I think there could be damage to its windpipe. I need to check it over. Look could you somehow get me out of here?”

“Is nanu playing. Is she naughty?” asked Theo…Olly takes no notice, he’s furious “What are you going to do? Have a pet deer, play wildlife games? God! Just let it go, will you. It’ll either live or die. You’re just stressing it more, and you’ll definitely kill it!”

“No” I said firmly “I need to check it out, treat its wounds. Phone the RSPCA, vets…I don’t know. I need to get out. Please. Can you help me?” He relented and somehow we managed, me holding onto the deer with grim death, Olly anchoring himself on a tree and gripping me with grim death.  Pulling, heaving and slipping he managed to lever me with the deer in my arms up the steep tangled, muddy bank. Olly marched off to get the truck, muttering to himself, not a happy chap.

I sat on a tree stump clasping the deer – he was calmer now, with only occasional kicks and struggles. I could begin to assess the damage better. Theo, standing back, was observing everything with solemn seriousness.

“Wig-worm, do you want to look at him. He’s so pretty. Look at his nose. Look at his eyes. You can touch him if you want.”

He inched closer “You have a farm, nanu, and a truck?” he asked.

“Yeh, and now a deer.”

“A deer? What’s a deer?”

“Different from a cow. Different from a sheep. A bit more like a goat, but it’s wild.” I explained. Theo inched forward to touch it “Very slowly, very, very slowly and gently” I soothed “Not his face. Come slowly from behind. Yes, yes, that’s it.”

Theo put out a fat hand and tentatively touched the deer’s haunch “That blood, nanu?” he whispered.

“Yes, he’s been hurt. But we’ll make him better. Would you like to help?” In the background I heard Olly furiously revving up the truck. “We’ll take him up to the farm and then maybe to the doctor?”

“Nanu?”

“Yes?”

“I’m concentrating. Be quiet.” He whispered, gently stroking the deer.

And so Joes found us. “Oh man! Look at that!” he exclaimed “Hey Squiggs, you okay? Man! I wish I had a camera!” he said taking us in; dishevelled muddied-bloodied mother holding petrified deer which his son was tentatively touching “What happened?”

I began the explanation as Olly roared into the field with the truck. “Squiggs, you coming back with me?” asked Joes

“No! I’m going with nanu.”

“It’s okay, It’s fine. He’ll be fine.” I said over my shoulder to Joe as I carried the deer towards the truck “Hey Squiggs, come with me. Come on. Look, you sit here.” I said indicating the dickie-seat behind the passenger’s.

“That’ll be good, nanu. That’ll be ‘portant. I’m helping you.” He replied as he scrambled on board.

With Olly’s irritable help I managed to ease myself into the passenger seat whilst still maintaining my original grasp on the deer.

“You’re mad, mum.” Olly threw at me as he closed the door and we started off across the field back to the farmhouse “You’re crazy.”

Arriving back at the farm I was able to extricate myself from the deer and settle him on a towel in the foot-well. He was young, last year’s kid, most probably he’d just been seen off by his mother to make room for this year’s offspring which would account for the dogs’ success in hunting him. Apart from the deep puncture wounds and a gash, which I cleaned, he was okay, albeit in shock.  No broken bones, healthy before this encounter, carrying enough weight.  But his breathing worried me, and he had air bubbles under the skin (subcutaneous emphysema or crepitus) which could mean his thorax had been punctured. Would he survive? I wasn’t sure, shock alone can kill. But I wanted to give him a chance.  I phoned my vets.

Sally said to bring him over. There wasn’t a RSPCA centre but there was a Wildlife Sanctuary which had started up locally. “Anyhow” said Sally “I’ve never had the chance to handle and study a live roe deer. Will you manage?”

“I think so.”…..

calmer, though in shock and ready to drive to the vets

calmer, though in shock and ready to drive to the vets

And when we landed back at the farm? We collapsed, gasping deep breaths of apparent tranquil Englishness greenness; an illusion nevertheless! In fact the countryside thrummed with industry as every farm for miles around unwaveringly and single-mindedly mowed, turned, raked and baled their forage fields in a race to make silage, haylage or hay. Unsurprisingly this year everybody was determined to beat the weather!

I was overcome. My neighbours and contractors had done me proud. Knowing my anxiety at being away they’d come in over the weekend and despite being under huge pressure themselves had worked unrelentingly to finish my harvest!  I couldn’t find the words to thank them enough. What wonderful neighbours. This was just the perfect homecoming; hundreds of bales of quality June haylage for the stock this winter and the opportunity to take a second-cut of ‘rocket-fuel’ as we’ve nicknamed it (the second-cut in organic systems is bursting with clovers, proteins and sugars; soft and palatable it’s perfect for weaning calves and freshly calved cows).

I was ecstatic! All that was left to do was to carry in the bales. This was something that could happily wait a few days.

The next day I was off to admire the fields and bales with Theo, who was ever so serious and involved in all this real ‘portant farming stuff, when there was a kafuffle in the hedge alongside the lane “Oh! What’s that Nanu?” asked Theo

“I expect it’s just the dogs after rabbits…or” as there was a sudden increase in the excitement “…it could just be a fox.”

“A fox, Nanu? A fox? In there?” Asked Squiggs aka Theo.

“Umm yes. Ness and Skye are pretty chasey after foxes. It’s because they are sheepdogs, you see.”

“Oh” said Squiggs thoughtfully “Nanu, are you sure?”

“Not sure, sure. But…” I trailed off – the dogs had started up an excited hunting yelp along the side of Rushy field. Followed by one of the most chilling screams I’d ever heard.

“Run Wiggle, run, run, run with me” I got hold of his hand and ran as fast as his legs would carry him along the lane. We reached Rushy Field gate. The screaming and yelping had reached a crescendo.

“Listen Wiggs – this is very very ‘portant. I have to run as fast as I can over there and I need you to follow me, really follow me. You mustn’t go away. Please. You must follow.” I bent down to him and put my hands on his shoulders “You’ll do that won’t you. Cos you’re my best boy?”

He looked a bit askance. I could see him sizing up the alternatives. The noise was frightening. But it could be exciting. He could go on up the lane to the bales. But maybe there was something in following Nanu. Looking at me solemnly, he nodded.

“Good boy! I’m off now.” And with that I pelted across the field whistling and calling to the dogs having no idea what I would find. Breathless I reached the other side and thank god saw Theo following. Ness suddenly erupted out of the hedge, her mouth wide and frothing, tongue lolling, wet, muddy and panting as if her heart would pop. She flung herself at my feet. Skye, just as run-out emerged higher up the field. I was about to turn and call out to Theo that all was well when I heard a loud splashing in the stream.

“Oh no” I thought and fought my way through a tangle of bramble, thorny blackthorn and low slung willow branches “Oh no” I muttered as I pushed through to the edge of the steep stream bank. A bloodcurdling scream filled my ears and there was a young roe deer buck, desperately scrabbling to get out of a deep pool of muddy water. His eyes enormous with fear, his nostrils dilated, breath jerked out of him in jagged rasping wheezes. He caught a glimpse of me uttered a spine-chilling screech, floundered and sunk under the muddy, blood-stained water.

I jumped in, scrambled to get hold of him, stop him from going under. Terrified and gasping for breath he screamed and kicked at me frantically with fear-strengthened legs and hooves as somehow I managed to put my arms around him. Then I saw. His neck, lolling helplessly to one side, puncture wounds stippling its circumference trickling trails of watery blood. An open gash along one shoulder. He screamed again and quietened momentarily in my arms.

“Nanu, nanu? What you doing?” I looked up and there was a grimy, scratched Theo looking down on us and not at all sure if this was frighteningly serious or a kind of weird Nanu game. “Nanu what is you?” he asked puzzled.

Simultaneously I heard Olly calling “MUM, MUM? What’s happened? Where are you? I’m coming!” and in the background Joe shouting “Theo, Theo! Mum is Theo with you. Mum! Theo! Will you answer? Answer me!”….

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