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the first 2010 set of twins

SBS, discombobulating knee or whatever…the show goes on. Nature waits for nothing; certainly no woman!

the first of twins born on Saturday

the first of twins born on Saturday

So in the cycle of things that are total certainties we began lambing on Saturday with calving hot on its heels. To say that I was dreadfully unsure as to how I’d manage this vital part of the farming calendar is an understatement – I’ve taken myself rather for granted over the years. But the human brain and body is nothing if not inventive. So with the stoic and long-suffering help of Olly and Robert there’s a new order emerging!

Lambing is not such a problem and can be approached sitting on the ground in a pair of thick waterproof trousers using a variety of interestingly contorted ‘yogic’ positions. Once the ewe and her brood are penned the same technique can be used for popping lambs onto the teat if the need arises – though Olly is proving a dab hand at this. Tagging, tailing and castrating? No probs – perch on the side of the pen/ask an Olly. Feet? An indispensible Olly is needed here as he is for post lambing drenching.

oh so sweet....

Calving is altogether a different kettle of fish, with absolutely no contorting-ground-sitting substitute sanctioned.

Last night our first calf was born – from a young first-calving heifer. Luckily there was no particular problem, she was just taking her time, so, I decided, she was an ideal candidate for ‘the boys’ to learn on.  Trying to explain how to attach calving ropes while standing outside the calving pen is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It took every ounce of self-control not to vault the gates, get in there and show them!

You should have seen us! Me, with my face, hands and arms involuntarily mimicking vastly exaggerated actions of my explanations….‘That’s it, that’s it. Put your hand in…no, no right in, right in!’ (my arm snakes out) Yes that’s it…and feel, feel. Eyes shut, eyes shut! You can feel better.’ (my eyes squeeze tightly shut as my hand and fingers turn and feel the imaginary legs and head) ‘The second joint…you want to get the rope well over the second joint.’ (I slip the imaginary rope over the hoof and position it) ‘Don’t forget to check the head’s still lined up! (I twist my arm to feel over my holographic (I wish) head and second leg)  Yup, pull, gentle, gently’ and so on and so on.

Then there’s one rather shocked bloke trying to grab the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t-foot staring at me with bug-eyed concentration whilst the other bloke, equally mesmerised, holds desperately onto the heifer’s tail crooning, soothing and smoothing. It was quite the stuff of slapstick!

The heifer was extremely patient and tolerant with her learners seeing that this was the first time for her too, and in due course a beautiful heifer calf was born – bright, lusty and healthy.

first female calf born to heifer Lapis

We all went to bed happy and contented.

ahhhh.....

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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.

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!

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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