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Sam the Ram hogg

Early in the morning we arrive, Olly and I, at the vast sheep shed in Exeter market – it’s the day of the Whiteface Dartmoor Annual Show and Sale. Hustle, bustle, noise and racket reverberate and echo around the enormous open-sided building. Pick-ups, land rovers, trailers, boxes and lorries rev-rev and reverse peep-peep up to unloading bays where they relinquish their restless consignments; the racket of hooves clanging on metal, the clamour of continual calling, wool shimmer-glistens and steams in the early morning light.  With twitching ear and heaving bodies sheep pour down the metal ramps like waterfalls of milk and gather in agitated frothing pools; the animals’ backs are stippled with stripes of vibrant colour, a bizarre rainbow indicating different flocks. With whistles and calls ‘sheppp…shep-shep-shep-shep’ flocks are ushered dexterously through a maze of gates and walkways into designated pens where owners deftly sort them into groups.

meetings...discussions...deliberations....

People and sheep, sheep and people; mingle and mix, dawdle and dally, hurry and scurry. There’s a face you recognise – then there’s another – and another and another; a wave from the lines, a tap on the back, a shout across a pen…greetings, introductions, questions:

‘How you been then?’

‘Long time, no see. Given up? Still got some hav’ee?’

‘Seen anything you like? A’ter ewes? No? Ahh, ram!’

‘Not a lot about this year’

‘Prices? Well…now…got me there. I don’t know. What you think, eh? You tell me!’

‘Who’s this Paula? No! Never! He were just a nipper backalong weren’t he?’

‘Ram is it? Well then….’

‘Interested? Look at his mouth…I mean…look maid. Just look! Best bloody mouth I’ve ever seen, I tell you!’

‘Na, you don’t want to take no notice of that! Rubbish, they were pink. Granfer’s flock were. Yes. Every god-damn one…pink.’

buying or selling...whichever, takes time!

We move from pen to pen. We look. We study the form. We feel the shoulder, the back, the tail, the ear; look at the mouth, lift the feet. We look.

There are some splendid rams and many we can’t buy. The gene-pool is small so we have to choose carefully.

‘The trick is to find something you like, really like and are drawn to.’ I say to Olly ‘Something with the ‘x’ factor. Something special. Something inexplicable. Then you do the checks…and try NOT to kid yourself when it isn’t right!’

At last we find our rams. And it’s show time. The classes are large, the judging serious. One of our rams wins; this we know will raise the price.

show time!

We need a strategy. The rams we’ve picked out after hours of deliberation are numbers 8 and 9, and these will be sold near the beginning of the auction; this could be  in our favour as auctions are notoriously slow to get going. But nine was a winning ram so he could sell for a lot of money. We like him, but we like eight too. A plan is settled upon. I shall bid for eight; I have my ceiling…and I have a chance to bid for nine if I lose him. If I lose both, heaven forbid, there’s another that would suit us, lot 35…but he has just won the champion…he could be pricey, though he’s older and the punters may not go for him. It’s a chance. But then an auction is always a chance.

We take our place around the ring. Lot 1 – not sold, lot 2, lot 3 – prices rising. Lot 4 just £55. Lot 5, 6, 7 hit higher figures and then we’re on, it’s our lad…The bidding starts, already much higher than previous lots. I wait, just as the hammer goes down I raise my finger, I’m in! Back-forth, back-forth, back-forth I bid up in twos, back-forth, back-forth…yes, yes! I’ve got him! The hammer is going, going down….no, no! Someone puts in a bid…we steel ourselves against each other, a game of vicious ping-pong, faster and faster, the tension around the ring crackles, back-forth, back-forth…I’m almost at my limit, I’m going to lose him, I can see my opponent, he’s a serious sheep man. Suddenly the bid’s with me, my opponent looks down, shakes his – he’s out – the auctioneer works the floor.

‘C’mon, c’mon you’ll lose him. Fine ram. Won’t get finer. The bid’s in the front…I’ll take two….anybody? One? One? Yes? Ladies? Gentleman? A ram in a million. Look at him. Generations of breeding. What’s that Sir? Over three hundred and fifty years of breeding I’m informed. Never see finer. I’ll take your bid…you there sir?…madam? Yes…one from the side there?’ the seconds tick, tick, tick, interminably. My heart jumps and beats in my neck, my mouth cotton wool dry, I look down, holding my breath, waiting, waiting for the hammer. BANG! I jump ‘The bid’s in the front…Paula Wolton, he’s yours!’

he's mine!

I got him!

the story of Marmite...and her unexpected confinement

Back in March 2008 we had a first for the farm. Gwen, a sweet cow, gave birth to twin heifer calves. They were lusty, tiny, pretty and quite adorable – we called them Marmite and Mustard-Seed.  For twins they did pretty well considering it was one of our sodden monsoon summers where all vestige of pasture/grass/herbage was swallowed up in a quagmire of soul-sucking mud.

Time moved on and I decided to keep Marmite as one of my replacement heifers. Though not as big as I would like, she, nevertheless, had a lovely temperament and reasonable conformation. Also I was rather curious as to how she would develop in the future.

During their second summer our youngsters are grazed on some rented land a couple of miles away. They do well on it, and it’s a safe environment for them have their silly season as adolescence before joining the main herd and taking on the full mantle of bovine responsibility.

One misty October morning, not long before they were due to return home for the winter, we were rather taken aback to find a monstrous and completely hideous Friesian bull standing possessively in the midst of our coy young virgins.

‘What the heck…!’ Robert exclaimed. Not only were we somewhat surprised as the land is well fenced, but somewhat wary too…Friesian bulls are not known for their docility.

18-month old heifers are unabashedly flagrant in their sexual desires; bawling outrageously, they pant, salivate and sweat in sexual fervour, mounting and pursuing their peers relentlessly – willing or unwilling – and so advertising their condition to all and sundry. Luckily this heightened state of oestrous only lasts twelve to twenty-four hours whereupon, with a flick of a switch, they morph back into the demure bovine maidens they were.

When we found them that morning there was no sign whatsoever of a rampant orgy having taken place. The heifers couldn’t have been more demure or uninterested…in fact it was more a case of them gathering around us, all sideways glances, breathy exclamations and outraged mutterings about ‘that awful disgusting, wicked BULL that was letching…yes, LETCHING at them’ and ‘could we possibly just, please, get rid of him…or move them immediately – NOW’ – which of course we did.

After having paid a visit to the neighbouring dairy farm to ask them to keep tighter control of their bull and to remove him from our land without delay, we went back to inspect the heifers. We looked under tails for signs of bulling, or worse, penetration; we looked along flanks for signs mounting; we looked at legs for signs of strains (large bulls can occasionally damage young, immature heifers’ hips and back legs – amongst other things!). Nothing, nada, nil, zilch.

‘Well, that’s a relief’ said Robert.

‘Don’t you believe it’ said I ‘No way would a bull have scaled field and fence for nothing!’

But as to who or which we were clueless and would only find out during the winter when we could keep a close eye on the heifers. Of course nowadays there are other implications of strange cattle getting into a closed herd – disease, bTB and the like, which can have lasting repercussions on the health status of one’s herd and potentially be far more damaging than an under-aged heifer becoming in-calf.

Unfortunately, yes, you’ve guessed, it was Marmite, by far the smallest and most immature of the group, who was the culprit.

I watched her anxiously through much of the winter, feeding her extra rations. I watched her anxiously during the spring as she began to swell with calf. I watched her anxiously as she neared her time, keeping her in a field close to the house so she could be checked frequently. I watched her anxiously as I was worried about an underage Ruby heifer calving a large Friesian cross.

She had us on our toes. Her udder swelled to huge proportions as did her teats…

the largest horsefly ever - tabanus sudeticus

‘It must be soon’ sighed Olly ‘Look at the size of her teats!’ and then found they were being bitten by the largest horseflies imaginable, causing Marmite considerable discomfort.

biting Marmite's teat

The waiting seemed interminable, forever, until one evening she was slow in coming for her food and was even slower the next morning. Within a couple of hours she was calving. Within minutes the sack was showing. Within seconds the calf was halfway out and completely trapped in a thick, bluish, membrane. I broke the membrane, got the calf breathing and went to pull the rest of it out. It was stuck…firm…! My hands, slippy and wet from membrane and birthing fluid, could not get a good grip….I shouted, screamed, hollered – but I was halfway down a field, out of earshot of the house and people. I bawled again…no one. There was nothing for it I would have to strip using my overalls as ropes. There I was – down to bare-nothings and pulling for victory when thankfully Olly appeared. Relief!  Together we pulled the m-o-n-s-t-e-r out…but wait…she wasn’t, she was beautiful, actually beautiful!

newborn

The colour of bitter chocolate with a black dorsal stripe and black fringing around her ears; her nose was slate blue-black and deep black kohl outlined her ridiculously long lashed eyes – she was a hybrid, a fusion,  a mix between calf, fawn and foal!

just 24 hours old

just 24 hours old

Mother and daughter continue doing well….

...happy result!

owlet

The cattle were bawling again. They’d been at it on and off all day.

‘What is up with them?’ I muttered to myself ‘I only moved them Friday? Can’t be short of grass yet, surely.’

I was in the middle of feeding hens, feeding dogs, getting washing in, and picking veggies for supper.

I had another thought – perhaps the water wasn’t working and they were thirsty. That would explain the ruckus. I called over to Robert who was busy saving potatoes (you’ve guessed, they’ve all got blight. Damn it. Well, one bed anyway)

‘You couldn’t check on the cows for me could you? Don’t know what’s got into them. Water possibly?’ Robert’s far more able to deal with water repairs than I am.

‘No’ he said when he reappeared ‘Water’s fine. They’re hungry. Starving actually!’

‘Weird, there was plenty of grass there. Okay. Let’s move them then.’

We set off down the lane. It’s been a good year for our farm. Ideal conditions from winter to summer have resulted in an abundance of grass without our normal swamp-like conditions.

‘Where are you moving them too?’ asked Robert.

‘Five and Dung’ I replied ‘Though it could be Dillings, Flop or Top!’ I grinned up at him ‘Good to have a choice once in a while.’

Five Acres and Dung Field are at the end of a remnant of ancient green lane. To get there we pass Turkey Shed, a beautiful haphazard barn made from elm boarding which Robert restored twenty odd years ago. I love it; it’s one of the most beautiful buildings on the farm. At the time of its restoration Robert installed a barn owl box, which had never been used for breeding but it did become a favourite roosting site.   This year, though, the owls’ preferred box in another barn was taken over by jackdaws and they resorted to nesting in Turkey Shed.

The cattle turned up the lane with me bringing up the rear – as we passed Turkey Shed I noticed feathers in the mud and a few yards further on there was the dead mutilated body of a barn owl.

‘Oh no, oh no, no. Robert, look! One of the barn owls…oh I can’t believe it.’ We secured the cattle into the field and went back to the dead owl.

‘That’s tragic. Just awful. After all those years.’ The barn owls have been severely hit by the last three years of unprecedented wetness and as far as we know haven’t bred successfully on the farm for about four. And now this…

‘I think we’d better check the nest. Just to be sure there are no chicks starving in there.’ Robert said as we looked up at the nest box for signs of life. ‘I’ll get a ladder. Can you bring down a box and torch?’

By the time I got back Robert was up the ladder. ‘Can you hand me the torch.’ He asked. I passed it up ‘What can you see? Anything there?’ I asked as I craned my neck ‘Empty?’

‘Er…yes, uh….wait a moment. No! There’s one here. Oh god…its foot. Its foot’s caught! Uh…baler twine…it’s caught up in baler twine. Tight around its foot…it’s tethered!’ he attempted to cut it free ‘Got it. Here…’and he passed me the lightest bundle of stinking snowy-white fluff. One foot was grossly deformed and swollen, baler cord biting deep into the flesh just above the foot. I rushed up to the house with my precious bundle

‘Oll, Oll! Can you help please? I’ve got a baby owl…baler cord caught tight around its foot…need some help…got to get it off. Are you there?’

Olly came down the stairs ‘Ah Jesus! Poor bugger. That’s awful. Hang on I need scissors…bloody hell it’s going to be painful when it comes off…’

the owlet's swollen damaged foot

Together we carefully and methodically cut away the cord buried deep into the tissue above the foot and around a toe. I feared gangrene, infection, the worse. Once we’d removed all the tiny fibres I bathed the foot in warm, salty water and massaged it gently with teatree oil.

We now had a tiny, traumatised wild owlet in our midst. Would he survive? Would the shock and the pain prove too much for him? After all barn owls are notoriously emotionally sensitive…difficult.

It was getting late. After I’d forced-fed him strips of raw beef I put him to bed in a box lined with fleece. Tomorrow, if he survived the night, I’d phone the vet, source some suitable food and get as much advice as I could.

after we'd delt with his foot and fed him - ready for bed...

I haven’t dropped off the edge. I’m not shirking or dodging or avoiding. I’m not even suffering from virtual overload or writer’s block (in fact I’ve been itching to write). What I have been doing these last few weeks is getting ready; preparing.

This Wednesday I’m having my knee operated on – anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction – and I’ll be out of action…for some time…so they say. In my life there’s never, ever going to be a good time to be ‘legless’.

Over the last few weeks I’ve revelled, enjoyed, embraced, slogged, worn-out and appreciated the extraordinary aptitude and freedom (normally taken entirely for granted) my two legginess gives me. From the domesticity of making marmalade…

for the marmalade addict in our household...70 jars! (and I must be co-dependant)

…to the exhaustion of hedge laying;

Finished! the massive double hedge between Square Field and Out Across

in the summer we'll clean out the ditch and cast up the bank

from mucking out the cow palace…

cows in temporary accommodation during mucking out of the Cow Palace in preparation for calving

Cow Palace...clean, ready and waiting for the cows return

…and crutching the ewes prior to lambing to walking the dogs;

alert and ready

'Can you see a movement over there...?'

…driving the car (NO driving for SIX weeks!), handling the bobcat and the tractor…bringing in wood…gardening…doing housework…the cooking…going to work…! Even finding the first dump of frog spawn…

First frog spawn found 4th february

First frog spawn found 4th february

…and seeing pussy willow bursting its buds at the top of our lane..

Pussy willow peeping out...

I expect you’ll be hearing a lot from me in the coming weeks of my enforced incarceration!

….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

With skewed flat hat-hair, a permanently leaking nose and fragile, papery onion-skin lips I bundle myself into layers of garments, old and threadbare from years of daily use. Thinning thermal vests and once ‘super-active’ (from New Zealand) merino leggings and tops; socks, no longer luxuriously thick and downy-soft but rather a shabby shadow of their former glory are pulled on over goat bed-socks for added insulation. The whole eclectic creation is zipped into overalls, topped with a matted fleece, a poundland hat, waterproof gloves and worn-down neoprene lined wellies (luckily kept for visitors at the back of the cupboard). All set, I go outside. It’s six thirty in the morning.

My boots squeak-crunch satisfyingly, compressing fresh fallen snow into the thick layer of ice. The dogs scrabble and bark at their door unused to this new sound. I let them out and they explode in an excited flurry of static-crackling white-grey fur; bounding, barking, snapping, slipping and sliding around my unsteady legs.

We make our way down to the yard, though still dark the snow and frost, moon and stars illuminate the countryside with bleached lightness. I walk tentatively. Ice, hidden by snow, covers every inch of the ground. The last twenty yards is the most lethal, here the ice has been polished to glass-like smoothness by bobcat and tractor, I slide-walk across to the massive double doors. The smell of frozen cow shed hits me…it’s an evocative mix! Overriding the spicy warmth of cattle and the cloying sweetness of frozen dung and urine is the acerbic black, old-fag reek of freezing metal and concrete.

The cows stir, coughing, belching and farting…clouds of white vapour pooling around them; fresh dung steams moistly before freezing. Too cold, too dry for the spangle of condensation along the flanks of the cattle, instead their deep chestnut-red bodies give the impression of dark spaces in the ice-crystal air.

Water troughs are frozen sculptures. Around their edges jagged spears of ice-enamelled forage fall to the floor where their drips and trickles have frozen to form a network of icy veins and arteries across the concrete ground.

We chip and chisel, muck out, brush and sweep. Heave armfuls of forage, sacks of grain, pitchforks of straw and bucket upon bucket of slushy crushed ice water. Soon our cheeks are rosy red, our fingers and toes thaw with excruciating intensity and a musky fug oozes from around our necks.

The morning lightens with blue greyness and crystals of feathery frost glint and spark as I trundle down the icy slope of the lane wheeling a barrow heaped with forage (incongruously summer-scented), nuts and water for the sheep. I turn up the lumpy track to Turkey Shed; the sheep alerted start to clamour and run, bizarre snowy baubles bounce and swing around their necks. Manic, ravenous, they barge and shove in a feeding frenzy knocking me sideways…I almost lose my footing.

I tramp back up the lane, dogs haring ahead exuberantly. Frantic birds follow my progress, calling and whistling, egging me on faster, desperate for a life-giving breakfast of fat, sweet, soft apple, seeds, grain and nuts.

All is done. I kick snow from my boots and peel off an outer layer of clothing putting it by the fire to dry and warm. With cheeks already flaming and toes and fingers burning I make my way to the kitchen and a mug of steaming hot tea.

ice and water

ice and water

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.

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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