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Gwen with her new calf observing Ginny's behaviour. It's such a commical photo!

Gwen with her new calf observing Ginny's behaviour. It's such a commical photo!

As my son’s family turned up, jet-lagged and travel-worn from New Zealand with brand new baby Isla and electric three year old Theo, so did the broken-washing-machine-fix-it-man and, on cue, my last very expectant calving cow started bawling in the field. Though desperately wanting to drink in and savour every minute of their arrival the intensity of the moment was shoved to one side as we manhandled broken washing machine into the van (it wasn’t an easy mend) followed by a hasty kiss and hug and a sprint down the lane to bawling cow.

Bawling cow, Ginny, assured us she’d had her calf and it was now lost.

“That cow hasn’t calved” I said

“LOST,” she bellowed “lost.”

It’s in the brambles, over there! NO, no, no, in the ditch, drowning in the DITCH. GET IT OUT NOW! Silly, silly, it ‘s stuck in that rush clump. No not there, it had squiggled through the fencing and was bouncing about two fields away. GET MY CALF.

We searched, we waded, we crawled, we prodded, we poked. Just in case…

“That cow hasn’t calved” I said

“Yes I jolly well have” she shouted “AND I’ve lost it”

We eventually left her. We dashed back up the lane to fling arms around the travellers and to settle them into home. We answered a million and one questions about tractors, bobcats, diggers and chainsaws (Theo), welcomed gorgeous tiny baby Isla into the world and shared a garbled eighteen months of news and scandal with Joe and Jess. The cow continued irrepressibly in the background.

“I’ll go check on her quickly.” And off I trotted down the lane. She hadn’t progressed much and a small piece of deflated membrain hung limply from her vulva. I couldn’t feel what was going on so decided to move her up to the cow palace. Moving a cow out of a field and up a lane away from her group and her ‘new-born-calf’ (she was convinced) is not easy. But patience and coercion works in the end, if very slowly…

Little by little I cajoled her out of the field and up the lane to the shed where Robert helped me get her into a pen.

Now I had her in a small enough space to do an internal examination. I was expecting a malpresentation, a dead calf or something that was grossly deformed. Holding my breath I found a fore leg…and then another, groped around and felt the nose and mouth – all fine and dandy. It must be dead…I pinched the pastern…it moved!

I looked up at Robert “It’s alive!” I beamed “It’s alive, though quite a size.” Fiddling about inside I said “I’m going to put the ropes on. She’s not pushing very vigorously either. Let’s go for it. Get it out. It’s getting late too.”

I didn’t have too much trouble attaching the ropes as she wasn’t bearing down hard…and then we began pulling.

The stimulation started much better contraction too. She lay down and with every contraction we eased the calf forward. Luckily she’s an older cow with a roomy pelvic opening, this was one big fellow. We eased the head out and then with a final tremendous heave from Ginny the shoulders and body followed.

He was fine lad. Ginormous and perfect. I cleaned the mucus away from his airways and after a couple of laboured gulps he began a steady rhythmic breathing. Ginny was up within a couple of seconds licking him enthusiastically and lowing softly. After an hour or so I went to help him onto the teat so I would know he’d had a good belly full of colostrum before I went to bed.

Tomorrow I hoped for an uneventful, enjoyable, long awaited catch up day with my family. But….

..and Willow! Watching from a safe distance.

..and Willow! Watching from a safe distance.

hawthorn flowers, locks park

hawthorn flowers, locks park

“Oh hi. Simon, it’s Paula. Time to shear the sheep I think. I know. Yes, of course, yes, definitely…we’ll go after this band of rain? I would, please, yes. Before the weekend would be good. It’s coming right again Thursday, Friday. No, spring’s certainly later this year for sure. But the May’s well out now, the lanolin will have risen…! Excellent see you then. Byee.”

I put the phone down. Good another job ticked off the list

It’s interesting how, even in these days of uberfast-multisocial-technoinfo-popscience, we still (well, I, anyhow) rely on folklore and old sayings, sometimes without even knowing it.

The Hawthorn or May tree is seeped with them and is one of the most enchanted and sacred of our native trees. The flowers, known simply as May, have long been considered to mark the proper onset of spring and the renewal of life.  Spring often comes earlier these days, but in the past not until the May was in flower was it time to plough the land or shear the sheep: its arrival is deeply symbolic in the countryside. Hence my comment to Simon on the phone about the May blossoming and lanolin having risen in the sheep’s fleeces.

Still May Day is celebrated in places by collecting boughs of May blossom as part of the ceremonies and festivities.  Though the tree now flowers around the middle of the month, it flowered much nearer the beginning of the month, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752. But take care before you bring it into the house! Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there is a very strong taboo against bringing hawthorn into the home as it was believed illness and death would soon follow.

Botanists discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. In the past, when corpses were kept at home for several days before burial, people would have been very familiar with the smell of death so perhaps this is part of the reason why hawthorn indoors was banned.

But still the tender young shoots were eaten and referred to as bread and cheese.  My freshly calved cows will avariciously seek them out too – they are said to be beneficial for lactation and milk production. The blossom and berries are made into wines and jellies. Known as “valerian of the heart”, hawthorn is highly valued as a heart tonic across a range of cultures, and decoctions of the flowers and leaves are used to reduce blood pressure.

The strong, close-grained wood is used for carving, and for making tool handles and other small household items.  Also known as white thorn and quick thorn,  its spines and fast growth make it the ideal hedging shrub and it has been used very widely to this purpose.

But beware! Care should be taken before removing any of its branches.  Do not damage the tree in case the guardian spirit becomes angered! Any Hawthorn tree standing alone should be avoided, and only parts from trees forming hedges should be taken.  The Hawthorn is particularly sacred to the fairies, and in Ireland and Britain is part of the fairy-tree triad known as the “Oak, Ash and Thorn”, and where all three trees grow together it is said that one may see the fairies.  In which case our hedges should be full of them.  Perhaps they now appear as dormice.  Do faeries sleep a lot?

Enough, enough! There is a wealth of information to which I’ve given you the links. As soon as it’s stopped raining I’m off to collect May blossom petals which I’ll dry and use for confetti for my son’s wedding….

I had to show you these photos.

new born roe deer fawn in Lost Meadow

new born roe deer fawn in Lost Meadow

Walking with the dogs an hour or so ago we were coming up through some woodland at the edge of  the moor into what I call the Lost Field (it’s a small hidden meadow surrounded by woodland, silently quiet and heaving with wildlife) when we surprised a roe deer. I dropped the dogs instantly. As she bounded off I noticed liquid spraying out from her behind.

tiny, still damp and perfect

tiny, still damp and perfect

“What on earth…?” I thought. Then it dawned, we’d unfortunately disturbed her in the middle of dropping her fawn.

Gathering the dogs close to me and keeping as silent and as unobtrusive as we could we walked quickly across the field but there right in our path was the newborn fawn; tiny, minute and damply perfect. Hissing at the dogs to lie down and not move a muscle I quickly took some photos. Shaking in haste I thought the pictures would be useless. But they are OK.

I hope the doe returns

can you see its tiny pink tongue?

I hope with all my heart the doe finds the courage to return.  I did my best not to leave too much of my scent nearby, and we left without disturbing her fawn.

I’m sure this isn’t the only job where you flip from total elation to utter dejection in a bat of an eye but it must rank pretty high on the list.

I was feeling very optimistic about this year. After all it was a fine winter: frost, ice, bright cold days and even snow. I liked it, a proper season with humans, stock and nature responding accordingly. And spring? Spring’s been magnificent; full of sun and promise, smiley people and happy animals. The difficulties of the last two summers began fading into the distance. I’d even started to plan…

Then last week it began to rain (actually I don’t mind rain, it’d be a stupid place to live if I did). But this is not gentle rain or even just normal rain, rather the stair-rod kind we’ve experienced more and more over the last two years – monsoon rain.

no grass, just thousands of orchids and wild flowers thriving in Dillings, our hay meadow

no grass, just thousands of orchids and wild flowers thriving in waterlogged Dillings, our hay meadow

A blogging cyber-friend, Elizabethm, came for an ‘in-the-flesh’ visit the afternoon the rain started in earnest. After she left I had a long phone call with my son in France about wedding arrangements (he and Berengere are getting married next month in Marseille) so by the time I got out to check the calving cows it was almost dark and still pelting with rain. One of the cows, Hermione, looked pretty imminent. It was too dark to move her so I left hoping she would hang on till morning.

All night I listened to the sound of torrential downpours and the wind frenziedly whipping and slapping at the bedroom curtains. As soon as it was light enough to see I was up to check the cow and sure enough there, by her side, was a sodden shaking calf. At least she was alive, though being born in the worst of the wind and rain she had not managed to suck and was fast becoming hypothermic. As quick as I could I moved them into the shed, towelled the calf and began the long laborious job of trying to get a sucking reflex. Not as easy as a lamb, you can’t put a 40 kilo calf on your lap, open its mouth, clamp it onto the teat, hold it there, stimulate sucking whilst pinning its 600 kilo mother against the wall with your shoulder. You desperately need the cooperation (hollow laugh) of both cow and calf. Suffice to say after nearly four hours and on the point of giving up, I managed to get the calf on the teat whereupon she miraculously changed from a fading shadow into a lusty ravenous monster-calf!

hermione with her heifer calf sucking lustily

hermione with her heifer calf sucking lustily

During this palaver and one of my ‘it’s-never-going-to-suck’ exits we went to check the main herd. More drama! The river was in full spate separating a couple of cows and a group of calves from the rest of the herd. Both groups were bawling franticly at each other divided by a dangerously fast flowing torrent. In a situation like this it’s best to do nothing (the animals could panic and throw themselves into the river) and hope that both the rain and river will ease off, fairly fast!

hermione licking her calf

hermione blissfully licking her new calf

Luckily by the time I’d finished with the cow and calf the herd had reunited and we were able to move them back to the farm for safety.

So my optimism has taken a knock. Still the rain rains and it’s hard not to feel a little pessimistic about the outcome. We thought that building the polytunnel was a sure fired way of guaranteeing a hot summer and now we’re not so sure…but this morning there’s watery sunlight, no wind and a grin on my face!

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

male greenfinch

male greenfinch (google images)

“There’s a greenfinch! Quick! Come and look!” Robert was shout-whispering up at me from the kitchen. “I thought they were all dead! That’s good. Oh it’s wonderfully marked too. Beautiful!” he paused “Come on, come down quickly. But don’t make a noise!” He hissed up the stairs.
My office is just above the kitchen with the same, but elevated, view of the bird table. “I can see it from up here.” I whispered “Oh look, and there’s the female. Just behind the chaffinch. Can you see?”
“No, no that’s another female chaff…oh no, yes, wait, yeh, I can. That’s nice. That is nice. I really thought they were all done for. We haven’t seen any this year, have we? Do you remember when there were hundreds of them?”

Our bird table, directly outside the kitchen window, is a huge source of pleasure to us and to friends and visitors. Many’s the time when someone new to the farm  becomes mesmerised mid-sentence as some bird or other is spotted feeding and they’ll turn to you with excitement, gabbling “I just saw three nuthatches (or marsh/willow tits, greater spotted woodpecker babies or similar). I did. There. On the table!”  Jabbing a finger in the direction of the window they are rather nonplussed by our nonchalance!

We are lucky, we have huge variety and number of birds that come to feed; most probably because we are in such a rural position and there are no other bird feeding stations for miles around, unlike those more urban locations where the birds can become picky due to the vast choice available to them.

But back to the greenfinches. They used to be one of the most numerous birds at the bird table when we first put up in its current spot about thirteen years ago. But over the last few years they have declined rapidly (possibly due to the trichomoniasis outbreak) and now we are lucky if we see just a few a year. Robert is worried, especially as they were so common. (Oh excitement again…I’ve just been downstairs to let the puppy out and seen another female greenfinch feeding!). But they appear to still have green (OK) status with the RSPB. Are they all with you?

bullfinch on nest

bullfinch on nest

It used to be the other way round with the bullfinch though. Now there’s a bird that’s increased markedly in numbers around our bird table.  We are so used to the eye-catching bright pink-red of the male, that now we would prefer to see the subtler greens and yellows of the greenfinch!  Still, we’re not complaining.  Bullfinches have red (threatened) status because they’ve declined so much nationally.  (I suppose it’s only right that greenfinches should have green status and bullfinches red status.) We are lucky to have so many of them, and they don’t damage the fruit trees much, as far as we know.  Robert thinks it’s the thick dense hedges we have, that keep their nests safe from marauding magpies and jays, which explains why they do so well with us.  This year he’s found a couple of nests, and photographed one.  That and the constant supply of sunflower seeds!

bullfinch nest and eggs

bullfinch nest and eggs

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