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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

Hatherleigh Carnival

On Saturday it was Hatherleigh Carnival; later than usual this year as the previous weekend had been taken up with various fire shows, fireworks and bonfire night celebrations.

As predicted the weather came in with vengeance on Friday afternoon…we experienced the full force of its arrival being in the middle of a training day we’d arranged for a large group of Natural England staff –in the field…naturally!

The morning had not been too bad, occasional drizzle and little wind. As we gathered in the barn for a lunch of homemade soup, local cheeses and warm apple cake spooned with thick clotted cream, spirits remained high and discussion animated. Even after the somewhat tempestuous wet-wild afternoon session folk appeared quite happy to drip, steam and chatter in the sheep shed whilst they drunk piping hot tea and ate more cake. As the last car left in the darkening daylight the weather worsened. The wind developed ferociously…ripping trees and gates, hurling buckets, screeching through the cow palace tearing viciously at haylage and straw whilst the rain whipped and lashed. Struggling to the house with the detritus of the training day I shout to no-one in particular “This doesn’t bode well for the carnival tomorrow. Reminiscent of last year. What a bugger!”

All that night the weather raged “Can’t believe it’ll be alright out there.” I whisper into Robert’s back snuggled warmly cosy in bed “Must go and see the sea” I mutter drowsily “Tomorrow. The waves, the coast…” I trail off “…it’ll be breathtaking” and I drift to sleep with visions of gigantic waves exploding against menacing cathedral-vaulted cliffs.

And we did…go to the coast. It was magnificent, thrilling. Waves towered and crashed like crumbling detonated buildings hurtling landwards, pounding the shore in a thick sea of whipped foam. Lundy butterflies flew in their thousands scuttering over cliffs slicked dark by the rain. The wind blew and tossed me like a worthless plaything, whipping my legs from under me and sending me skittering uncontrollably across the ground. I was blown hither and thither; my breath whipped away whilst bursts of staccato laughter escaped into the wind. The pocket lurcher, perplexed by this new game, pranced and twirled around me like a mongoose in front of a snake…and Robert behind me shouted, eventually managing to catch hold of my hand as we battled the next onslaught.

Hatherleigh Silver Band

That evening, miraculously, the wind dropped and the skies cleared. Down in town, we made our way around numerous spectacular floats gathered in the market place waiting for the Carnival parade. Eerie lighting bounced from the floats across the crowd illuminating the sea of milling faces into weird grotesques. Stars pricked the sky as the Hatherleigh Silver band struck up; tractors revved and powered forward, generators thrumming; the procession, a cacophony of colour, smell and sound slowly ground its way along Market Street, pausing by the blackened burnt-out carcass of the George (the gales of the previous night had blown down the protective shuttering and boarding, leaving the ruins bare). The rubble of ancient brick, wood and cob demanded to be seen, not hidden and out of sight, and in its diminished state it was a stark reminder to us of the George’s former place as the heart, the hub, of the town.

faster faster faster..."OGIE OGIE OGIE" "OY OY OY"

After a respite for a warming whisky and ginger wine, we were at the top of the town, waiting for the tar barrels to be set alight.  Paraffin fumes filled the air, penetrating deep into the lungs. Amid klaxons and earthy shouts the team of young men arrived. The mood was one of tangible excitement. The torch was lowered; the barrels flared and great wafts of smoke and flame billowed outward. With a strident “OGGIE, OGGIE, OGGIE” and the responding “OY, OY, OY!” they were off – barrels blazing. Speed, speed speed. Unintentionally I was swept along with the crowd running behind the barrels. For the second time that day I was totally out of control.  Careering, shouting, calling…faster and faster they ran “Oggie, oggie, oggie” “Oy, oy, oy” louder and louder they shouted “OGGIE OGGIE OGGIE” “OY OY OY”. A hand walloped my back, I was falling; I had to keep my balance, whatever. My heart pumped, the ground swirled towards me, my legs buckled. Almost flying flat I was rushed forward ever faster but somehow, miraculously, like a character in an animated film, I spun off sideways managing to regain both my legs and my composure! With heart crashing at my narrow escape I took a short cut though the back lanes and waited to rejoin the barrels for the last leg of the journey to the bonfire.

burning barrels on the bonfire

burning barrels on the bonfire

We stood wrapped around each other watching the flames writhe and spit high into the darkness. The intense heat melted our faces and burnt our lungs. A shiver passed involuntarily down my spine. I turned, looked up at Robert; he tightened his arms around me, nuzzled the top of my head. We watched

It was a day of raw nature, of powerful forces beyond our control, of our Mesolithic ancestry.  It was a day that stripped away the thin veneer of civilisation, the petty worries of everyday life, a day to remember the fleeting substance of man, our precarious existence.

burning torch

burning torches

A little delayed I’m afraid – an unexpected housefull…again!

The day dawned. I felt surprisingly calm. I couldn’t resist prodding myself mentally to see if it was true composure. But sad to say it was still the same old me, unfortunately no overnight transformation, and without too much effort I could still whiz up the old heart beat!

I arrived at the venue early, to familiarise myself with the unfamiliar. The lecture hall wasn’t as daunting as I’d expected; it was modern – low ceilings with gently banked seats in calming green – there was  soft hidden lighting, good acoustics and quiet carpeting. On the podium stood a lectern, solid and comforting, which incorporated every technical aid. Behind the speaker were three impressively large screens for presentations…there was also a fully equipped projector room and human technical assistance!

The organisers, speakers and chairs began to arrive. Introductions were made, last minute hitches ironed out whilst absent key speakers and mislaid presentations were located. The lack of projected red in the spectrum was thankfully corrected after hysteria erupted in the ranks (I had suddenly acquired blue/black cattle, faded blue ragged-robin, grey-blue orchids – amongst other things!). I couldn’t have asked for a better chair either – Jayne was full of encouragement and support, totally understanding of my over-active heart and adrenalin-induced panic…though she wasn’t too enthusiastic about the knockout smell of my herbal tincture! With all the initial organisation organised it was off to lunch in the main conference building where delegates had been arriving all morning.

All too soon (or not soon enough – anticipation was having a detrimental effect) we were back in the lecture hall. Beta-blocker free (I’d decided against them) I sat in the front row counting down the interminable seconds of the three speakers before me…5…4…3…2…1…and I was on!

Notes, pretty-picture presentation loaded (I’m not a powerpoint trained speaker), water…help no water…there it was on the table four feet away! Oh well, too late, I’d have to manage. The lectern, still  solid and comforting, though the array of technical detritus no longer made any sense. I stared out at the audience…paused, breathed and gathered myself. Heart was in overdrive, to me the noise and movement of it were overwhelming – good god, I thought, they’ll never hear me over this!

So I began, mouth dry, stomach in some unreachable place and eyes trying to focus…Interestingly I could see the audience clearly but my notes when I glanced down had turned into a ‘grotesque’ of gesticulating spiders – in fact everything in my near vision was quite incomprehensible! But somehow the words did come out…not that I remember much. And then it was over. I stepped down, numb and blind. The final presentation passed in a haze, I came to as the chair summoned us back for questions. Heart and stomach in place, sight restored, mouth normal and tongue dexterous I arrived on the podium as a functioning human being!

I was so surprised by the follow-up reaction. I was received well. People felt I talked with confidence(?)…and passion. Interestingly another excellent speaker echoed very similar thoughts and messages to mine and it was these more controversial views which turned out to be an important outcome of the conference.

But sadly I can’t say I felt any sense of achievement or triumph. Though  this may change with time.  I am, I know, a perfectionist, but one day when I step down from the podium I will feel elated and fulfilled…though for now it’s back to the drawing board.

Anyone out there want a speaker?

metamorphosis - one day

metamorphosis? one day...

‘Harrumph! Oh yes!’ With an expansive stretch and a shove of his chair, he grins over at me.

I look up from my book, stop munching on my toast and marmalade and stare questioningly across the table ‘What?’

‘Oh nothing. Just the editorial in the New Scientist…you should read it.’ He gets up, a maddening little smile playing over his face.

‘Hey what? You can’t just walk out. It’s obviously something good otherwise you wouldn’t be goading me!’

‘Sorry! Loads of work to do. History to make, hoverflies to catch, hedges to write about and moths to think about….Gotta go. Read it.’

‘No! What is it?’

‘Read it…must dash…’

‘Robert!’

‘Okay, okay. So what do you think about engineering animals, farm livestock, so they don’t feel pain?’

‘What! So that people can be guilt free whilst keeping them in horrific conditions?’ I exclaim. I thrust my chair away from the table. I’m shocked.  ‘That’s atrocious. Despicable. Oh yes, just let’s keep factory farming and inhumane systems, after all we make billions from it, so we’ll just fiddle about with nature a bit; engineer livestock not to feel pain and that should make it all alright. Of course it does. Doesn’t  it? Does it? Hell no!’ I storm around the kitchen ‘What’s with man? Why do we think we have the god given right to to to to’ I stutter I’m so angry I can get my words out ‘to ….’

‘So you think that animals should continue to suffer in intensive factory systems? You don’t think it’d be better to stop the pain? You’d rather tens of millions of animals…?

I interrupt ‘No I certainly don’t. But why fix the animals and not the system. End factory farming and you end the problem.’ I dust off my hands ‘End of story!’

‘You’ll never get rid of factory farming.’

‘So that means you compound the problem? You don’t even try? You sit back on your laurels full of smug complacency that the steak, chicken, pork chop you’re tucking into is just fine because it didn’t suffer pain whilst being farmed in the most abominable conditions? No! That’s just so wrong. Immoral.’

‘So what’s your solution then?’

What is my solution?  I read the editorial. It’s well written. Very well written. The editor draws on the similarity to Douglas Adam’s novel The Restaurant At the End Of The World where Arthur Dent, the main character, is horrified when a cow-like creature is wheeled to the restaurant table, introduces itself as the dish of the day and proceeds to describe the cuts of meat available from its body. The animal has been bred to want to be eaten and to be capable of saying so.

The truth is not far behind fiction, the editorial continues, as proposals are underway to genetically engineer livestock to be untroubled by pain – all too common in intensively reared farm animals. The concept treats cattle, pigs and chicken as if they were inanimate objects whose suffering is like a computer program in need of debugging.

Apparently my violent reaction is quite common too, even has a name – it’s known as the ‘yuck factor’, and it’s not an unusual response to those many advances in biotechnology and biomedicine involving cloning, genetic modification and human-animal chimeras. This distaste is often irrational and can be a potential barrier to progress. Progressive thoughts often comes from ignoring such reactions and thinking things through logically instead.

I can see the logic behind Robert’s comments yes – pain-free animals do make sense – but only in a world that has devalued animal life to a point where anything’s acceptable to aid the production of billions of tonnes of cheap meat.  A world that no longer cares about the plight of animals but only of how it’s going to feed itself cheaply.

If the choice is between animals bio-engineered not to feel pain or eating less meat, I know what I think is right.  But equally well, I know that most people can’t care much about the pain  factory-farmed animals endure – otherwise they would not eat their meat.  For many in poor nations, they have no choice.   But still, surely the human race can’t sink that low?

factory-farmed pigs

factory-farmed pigs

I thought this might amuse you. Can you remember when I was having the dickens of a job finding out whether I could send my organic beef and lamb to my son and family in France?

I was sent spinning around every conceivable agency and organisation, embassy and Government department, both English and French; not one, it appeared, had the faintest clue as to any rules or regulations governing the export of meat from the UK to France.

Eventually I was told to contact Eblex (in England) by the French Department of Agriculture (in France). My luck changed as I was recommended to one importantly busy Jean-Pierre Garnier, the font of all knowledge surrounding matters such as the import of meat to the EU from the UK.  Jean-Pierre, jetting to Dubai (he’s very, very busy), was unable to speak to me personally, but his delightful PA contacted him mid-air and within minutes confirmed what she had thought to be the case. You do nothing. That’s right. Nothing. I was given the green light to stuff my case, pockets, shoes and bag with squishy lumps of meat. Or, of course, which was my preferred option, to send over my usual insulated, vac-packed and labelled boxes of the stuff.
“So it’s nothing, then? Rien?” I was slightly sceptical…

The piece I subsequently wrote was picked up and published in the Countryman magazine. Sam, a sheep farmer in the South East, mailed me. He thought it was a bit ironical considering.

“Considering what?”

“Considering the notice Johann Tasker saw a few weeks back.” (Johann Tasker is an editor on the Farmers’ Weekly)

“What notice?”

“The one at Paris Orly Airport.” Sam very kindly forwarded me a photo of said notice.

I was gob-smacked. Truly, yes. My jaw fell open, hit my boots and stayed there.

I just had to get hold of Johann to see if he would mind if I showed it to you. He said “Go ahead” (nice man) “though it’s not tip-top as it was taken on my phone.”

So here it is. Squint a bit, improvise. But you’ll get the gist. A Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) warning notice, prohibiting the import of any meat or dairy products into France from the UK.  And, please, do tell me what you think is going on…!

the notice at Paris Orley Airport taken a few weeks ago by Johann Tasker

the notice at Paris Orly Airport taken a few weeks ago by Johann Tasker

female orange tip butterfly on lady's smock

female orange tip butterfly on lady's smock

May, extraordinary exuberant May. How can anyone fail to be blown away by such a stunning month? I walk with my eyes out on stalks. They sweep across the multi-layers of a green-gold filigree landscape and down to minute iridescent creatures nestled in the heart of a buttercup. Every sense is tingled and tweezed.

the tiny micropterix calthella moth on a buttercup

the tiny micropterix calthella moth on a buttercup. See the mating pair?

The scent of blossoms is exquisite yet elusive, I catch a wisp, a suggestion – then it’s gone – I find myself sniffing, head up like a wild animal. Greens, there are so many and each with its own aroma; nasal sharp and acid citrus-bright, crushed bitter-sweet liquor and garlic-pungent aromatics – I taste each smell on my tongue.

bog-bean blooming in Rob's Folly - Forty Acres

*bog-bean blooming in Rob's Folly - Forty Acres

I become sensitised to sound. Like a tuning fork I pick up the buzz and whir of the insect world under the constant celebration of bird song. The steady bass drone of the bumble bee, the frenetic high-pitched whine of the midge and the scary cacophony of a billion cluster flies taking off from the thatch as the sun pops out from behind a cloud. Fragile daddy-long-legs flip-flap knocking and bumping with flimsy clumsiness and March flies thistledown around your head, sticking in your hair, eyes and lips.

blue tit nest and eggs in birdbox

blue tit nest and eggs in birdbox

Life’s abundant. It’s everywhere.  There’s a continuous rustling and scurrying in the trees, hedgerows and verges. And did you know we’ve hares in the far River Meadow? I’m so excited; it’s unusual for this non-arable part of the world.  And the Hobby is back!

*Interesting links to bogbean also this one for Sian!

I was expecting it to be complex. I’d talked about it at some length, both to my family and close friends. But that was before. And though I know you can’t be prepared as such, if I’m honest, I thought I would understand myself better. Except I don’t.

I’m talking about grief following my mother’s death.

I always thought that I was ‘good’ at death, ‘good’ at working through emotions. I expected something more dynamic I guess. Instead I’m experiencing deadening, a lack of emotion, a blankness that I find difficult to recognise.

After the first frantic whirl of Morna’s dying, the arrangements and organisation, the ‘holding-myself-together’, I waited for the loosening of my emotions. It didn’t come.

I thought I’d slowly, but surely, come to terms with her death; it wasn’t as if it was out of the blue. I had a notion that my memory would focus on certain things throughout my life-long relationship with her that would either make me howl with tears, cry with laughter, or make me angry.

I believed that I would feel her presence, be aware of her in my thoughts and dreams, that she would come to me somehow. But none of that happened. Instead I find I’m not allowed look at her death. My mind has put up a dividing screen, the kind they have on TV shows. When I attempt to look, the screen appears…one that’s clever enough to increase in size if I try to peer over it or around it.

I’m a person who usually needs grounding. I could very easily disappear into space if I wasn’t careful, hence my very earthy occupation of farming – nothing more grounding than stock and mud! Though recently even this has changed and I feel as if I’m descending down, down; down deep into the earth. I can’t tell you how strange this feels. I need air? I need lightness? Me, who in normal circumstances is ready to float away like thistledown?

They say that when your mother dies she gives you her mantle. She gives you everything, both positive and negative. It’s up to you to process this. I guess there’s truth in the old adage ‘she’s turned into her mother’.

My mother had a slight psychosis which was latterly overlaid by her dementia. During the last twenty odd years, through her own conflict her body became contorted and bent. Now I feel her twisted shoulder, the strange bone ache; I experience her confusion of her mind. I watch as I flounder for a word, confuse a date, become muddled. I watch myself watching myself and I feel the fear that maybe I am becoming her.

My family, I’m pretty sure, don’t see it, in fact a puzzled Robert said to me after reading this “But you coped so well, brilliantly. You’ve prepared yourself. Come to terms with it over several years. I really can’t see it. You’re waiting for something that isn’t going to happen. She’s dead and that’s it.”

And perhaps in a way he’s right. I am waiting for my more typical expressions of grief. Maybe they will never happen. Maybe these unfamiliar emotions will be the only ones I experience. But I hope, somewhere along this unknown path I meet with her and, if only for an instant, I’m able to touch our closeness again – mother and daughter.

early purple orchid

early purple orchid

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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