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Yesterday I took my first batch of this year’s lambs to the abattoir. This is quite an organised process and begins a good few weeks beforehand. First I have to check with my butcher when it’s convenient for him to cut them and book in the required space at my small local abattoir. After these arrangements are made we bring in the lambs and sort through them; marking up any ewe lambs we want to register as replacements or which we can sell for breeding stock. We then select a group of the remaining largest lambs for slaughter, after checking their weight.

salting skins in the old cob and tin woodshed - not sure how the 'Beware Bull' sign came to be!

salting skins in the old cob and tin woodshed - not sure how the 'Beware Bull' sign came to be there!

The afternoon before I take the lambs in they are brought into a freshly strawed pen to dry out and stay clean overnight. I belly-out and dagg them; this means I shear a strip down their bellies and clean up the crutch area if necessary. They are then settled for the night with a trough of whole oats, new hay and water. First thing in the morning I drive them to the abattoir in Hatherleigh, only two miles away. Half an hour later the deed is done; I collect the skins and I bring them home to salt straightaway.  Later I’ll take them to the tannery where they will be cured into the most beautiful long lustre-wool lambskins: I believe in not wasting a thing from my animals. As for the meat, after a week of hanging to ensure the very best flavour, it’s cut, packed, labelled and, with a bunch of fresh seasonal herbs from the garden, is sent out to my customers in iced, insulated boxes.

I have a friend who loves good food though rarely eats meat, unlike her elderly mother who she looks after.

from 'that' to this - a lambskin beanbag

from'that' to this - my lambskin beanbag

She buys my meat for her mum and has recently begun eating it herself, much to her amazement. “I like it” she says. Today we were talking about the whole bringing up animals, killing them thing. K is not a country girl and feels squeamish and sad about the whole process, though recently she is hesitantly beginning to see there may be another side.

“You know my mother can actually taste it’s not your meat? I bought some of the really expensive ‘taste the difference’ lamb the other week and she could tell the moment I began to cook it. That’s not Paula’s she said, and refused to eat it!”

“Also, you know, she’s so much happier, healthier when she eats meat from you. It’s quite extraordinary, really.”

“It’s the energy.” I explained

“What do you mean?”

I described very briefly the principles of biodynamic farming, where you work with the natural rhythms of the universe and the earth. Food produced this way is, they say, alive, full of energy, which it then imparts back to you again. I am certainly no expert in biodynamics, though some of the philosophies and values resonate strongly. And when I get feedback that the food I produce is having a very positive effect it interests me even more.

K’s not wholly convinced yet! But I have persuaded her to come to the tannery with me on Monday. It’s the most extraordinary Dickensian experience. Ancient vats, boiling and bubbling, seething and steaming, manned by beings out of some bewitching fairy tale! Maybe it will be the nail in the coffin of her ‘meat’ experience, or maybe it won’t!

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So what shall I write about in this blocked state? Is it that I’ve too many thoughts as Mopsa suggests? Yes, I think perhaps it is; my mind is a constant tombola churning around ideas and dreams.

Or is it boredom as Wordworm poses? Yes, I think it could be; after all there are only so many seasons in a year, so many calvings and lambings one can write about, only so many times you can mention the weather or lack of it. Years go through the same cycles and in farming you are very conscious of this. I know I find something new every day…but sometimes that newness is just mine – the bit I need to hold onto for myself. To me, these small excitements make the differences and exceptions to a repetitive world, but to others I suspect they will often be mundane.

the baby deer skull - recognisable by the zigzag sutures connecting the plates

the baby deer skull - recognisable by the zigzag sutures connecting the plates

I was out walking with the dogs. I went the long way hoping to catch a glimpse of the hinds with their baby calves (which I did); it’s also the route which brings me through to the small hidden meadow where I ‘saw’ Jilly running towards me on the six month anniversary of her death. And there Ness very carefully and very gently laid something down at my feet. It was the fresh skull of a baby deer. Painfully newborn in the sutures connecting the plates and extraordinarily vulnerable in the unformed, almost deformed, structure of its unfinishedness.

It was at once gruesome, but also, in some macabre way, compelling. Why, I’m not sure. Possibly both the hope of new life and hopelessness of early death.

there was something compelling about the baby skull, though also macabre

there was something compelling about the baby skull, though also macabre

Returning home across Hannaborough the purple moor grass was twinkling with trembling crystal-clear rain drops captured in the webs of attacking spiders. Again, the confusion of beauty with horror.

crystal-clear raindrops caught in a web

crystal-clear raindrops caught in a web

I began writing this in response to comments in ‘cull or not to cull’, but decided to publish it as a post in its own right. I have researched, read about and discussed the problem of bTB at length – with vets, farmers, scientists, ecologists, conservationists, people living, but not working in the countryside and those that do, city dwellers and politicians. I could give facts, figures, excellent examples and analogies for and against both sides of the argument. Personally I am, of course, subjective…I have a herd of cattle I care about hugely and are at risk; I also have a passion for wildlife. And I have to make a living from my work.

The question of whether or not to cull badgers is a complex one. It ain’t half as easy as many people make out. Quite simply, it’s not black and white. The science is uncertain, the risks are large, and we are dealing with emotions as well as facts. If we are going to find away forward, it will depend on us being open-minded, listening to each other and respecting each others’ values. Above all, we must be prepared to move our positions, to get off our high horses, to let our eyeballs settle back into their sockets. Far too many of us are entrenched: a position, for or against, has been taken, and that’s the end of it. If we are to get on top of this disease, for the benefit of all – people, cattle and badgers – we must start to pull together, use what evidence there is, consider the practicality of the various options open to us, and reach consensus on the way forward. It won’t be perfect and certainly won’t be easy, but it’ll be the best we can do.

Today’s my mother’s 86th birthday. I gather together a small bag of things that might stimulate or trigger a memory. Soap – translucent – looking like a giant wine gum; a small bunch of lavender from the garden; a chocolate heart; rose scented powder; a card depicting a stylised branch of apple blossom similar to the ones she painted on silk scrolls when I was young.

Will and Kat made a card with a photo of them both; they’d strewed and sewed it with buttons and beads making it tactile and surprising.

I bake scones with buttermilk, butter and eggs and take them over for tea along with strawberries, clotted cream and homemade jam. The dogs come too.

She is happy and bright and twinkles when I arrived. This is a good day for her. We sit and chat; her about nothing yet everything that means something; I about something that means nothing. I open cards and presents that have no real significance. Her eyes travel to a far away place that buzzes and pulses with a life’s worth of memories. When she returns she looks at me with such intensity and depth I feel the one that has lost connection.

She eats the scones. I feed her small mouthfuls and see how she savours the sweet soft crumbly texture; I watch delight as she tastes a morsel of strawberry; she screws up her face with pleasure.

She tires quickly today. There has been much excitement. As she drifts into sleep I sit and stare and stare and stare at her face…I’m overwhelmed.

On Friday I went to the Royal Show; not a show I would generally choose to go to. Once a showcase for some of the best examples of British livestock and businesses in the industry, now prohibitive costs and soaring overheads have taken it out of the reach of most exhibitors leaving it to corporate bodies, supermarkets and ubiquitous market stalls to fly the flag.

But I was going for a reason. It was the launch of Hedgelink, a partnership of organisations and individuals leading and supporting the conservation of the UK’s hedgerows, and a project that Robert has been closely involved in over the years and one he’s passionate about. Prince Charles was going to be at the launch. Robert had asked me to go along with him.

nigel with the new hedgelink banner and dvd

We left the farm at the crack of dawn and had a happily uneventful drive up to Stoneleigh, the Royal showground. The day was perfect too. No rain, just sun and clouds with a breeze. The launch was taking place on the Natural England site which is an impressive acre or so of various ponds and plots giving examples in how to encourage wildlife and diversity on farmland and in your garden. The whole was a serene, peaceful green oasis in an otherwise confusing array of stalls and roads.

Leaving Robert to fluster and muster I went off to do a reccy of the showground and inadvertently became caught up in the Prince’s and Duchess’s arrival! I duly shook hands and murmured complete nonsense while being once again taken aback by Charles’s approachability and the genuine interest he shows when talking to people.

Prince Charles with a group of very happy schoolgirls – they were chuffed!

I’ve had contact with the prince before. It was nearing the end of the 2001 FMD outbreak when a small group of us were invited to have tea with him on one of his supportive visits to a devastated West Country. He had apparently followed all my weekly TV video reporting on Countryfile; knew intimate details of my stock and farm; displayed real understanding of the trials and tribulations I and others had been through. In other words he cared, and there was no indication of doing lip service. I like that, a good egg.

Back to Friday. The launch was due at 1pm. Robert was beginning to show signs of stress when a steward appeared and announced the Prince would be there in a few minutes as he was running well ahead of schedule. The place was immediately seething with a plethora of paparazzi and a surge of people. The line-up had only just organised itself when the prince and his entourage arrived. Feeling small and insignificant with my diminutive camera against a bank of monstrous super-zoomed beasts handled by hardened push-hardest-and-shove journos I was startled when I found myself being asked by his personal aide if I’d like to stand practically next to the price to take my photos!

robert shakes hands with the prince

It was a great success. Hands were vigorously shaken; smiles were stretched across faces in wallace & gromit-like proportions; Prince Charles grinned and crinkled, spending a good time with each member of the team discussing the work they had done in creating Hedgelink and the DVD ‘A cut above the rest’. He’s an avid supporter of the hedgerows in our countryside and went away clutching his copy of the DVD.

the prince discussing the finer points of hedgelaying

Having just watched the DVD. I can honestly recommend it to any of you that have even a tiny interest in hedges. It’s beautifully filmed and presented. The clear, practical information is easy to follow and holds your attention to the end. Even though I have a fair knowledge of hedgerows gleaned from Robert I found there’s lots which will make me look at hedges and hedgerow trees in a new light. To see excerpts of the DVD follow the link and also to order your free copy.

Well done Hedgelink!

brown hare

Still hush. I woke this morning to silence. I pulled back the curtains; the yard in front of the house was littered with a confetti of rose petals looking for all the world like pale pink snow; flags and rushes around the pond were askew and bent; tossed, trashed leafed branches scattered hither and thither. Rubbing gritty eyes I wandered to the window overlooking the back garden. Leaves were strewn across the grass, broad beans collapsed, showing their downy silver underbellies whilst the washing hung in heavy sodden droops, now leadened and deadened after a night of wild dervish dancing. The first gentle fingers of sunlight touched the farm with deceptive normality.

Wrestling on clothes, head cotton-wool and eyes still grainy. I splashed cold water. Fumbled for socks, jacket and waterproof trousers, pulled on wellies and went to let the dogs out. No excited morning greeting today, they were almost self-effacing. Patting my thigh I indicated we were going to check the cows, calves and youngsters in Flop Meadow…

Let me take you back to yesterday when wind and rain threatened – starting, stopping; spattering and retracting; dark clouds ominously collecting overhead then blown hither and thither only to bank up once more. The youngsters (still on home farm; sitting out the three weeks before their second BT vaccination on Friday) had broken through into our hay crop. Having managed to climb a vertical hedge bank and stomp-stamp-crash a newly laid hedge they then ran helter-skelter in excited grass frenzy through the meadow. Collecting them up and remonstrating with them I decided to put them in with the steadying influence of the two freshly calved cows and calves. The field was secure, there was enough grass and it was just for two days. But more chaos ensued. The yearlings, still wound up, were particularly drawn to Ginny and her week-old baby; they stampeded around her in raucous enthusiasm. Ginny was distraught and desperately tried to protect her calf from this overbearing interest. Give them a few minutes I thought and they would settle. But no, as the storm, wind and rain gathered momentum so did their high-spirited behaviour. Ginny started up a rhythmic bellowing, the youngsters echoed her, whilst the calf tried to find peace and quiet in an impenetrable patch of rush and thistle. Strangely there seemed to be no interest in the other calf and cow who continued to graze and rest calmly on the periphery of the goings on. My presence seemed to increase their agitation so I took to squinting at them through hedge. Even though Ginny’s bellows continued all day and into the night occasionally booming over the raging wind nothing untoward was happening to her calf.

…and so back to this morning. All appeared calm as I opened Flop meadow gate, albeit the grass was flattened and skewed by the wind and rain. But my presence seemed to rekindle their bizarre behaviour. Odd? I’ll have to move the cows and calves out, I thought, as I headed off to the truck to check the rest of the stock.

There I found ewes and lambs clustered around the top gate in Cow Moor. Unusual. As I appeared they too began shouting, calling and surging around me, pushing to get out of the field. This was weird. They had grass, they had water; and they’ve certainly experienced worse storms than last night, yet they were tense with anxiety. Maybe I’ll have to move them too, I thought, as I drove down to check the main herd in the River Meadows.

These would certainly be happy and contented I thought; sheltered from the worst of the wind and rain with ample grazing. How wrong was I? As soon as they saw me walking over the field they started towards me, ears forward semaphoring madly, restlessly regrouping, high-stepping and collecting up their calves. I sensed the beginnings of herd panic and sent the dogs back to the truck as it could become dangerous for them. I tried moving amongst them making soothing sounds and reassuring noises. But they would have none of it. They continued to shout and move nervously about looking around for an imagined threat or imagined enemy. What was going on with all my animals this morning?

Calm, contentment and peace has now returned. What had affected all the stock? A brewing storm? The full moon? Or maybe the approaching summer solstice? Possibly a touch of all three – I haven’t experienced the like of it before.

Karin has very kindly sent me a link to a page from the Institute of Animal Health which has a selection of presentations given by several members of her group at an NFU meeting. You’ll see the presentations listed at the bottom on the left hand side– just click on them to view. (the above link is now working!)

She has also included three papers that you might find interesting

Bluetongue 1 Bluetongue 2 Bluetongue 3

Another link which you might also find informative is Farming on Sunday

If you have any questions about bluetongue the Institue of Animal Health have an email account iah.bluetongue@bbsrc.ac.uk. where your questions will be answered by one of the bluetongue group – the most appropriate person for the question.

Karin will be giving another talk in Cornwall at The Conference Hall, Duchy College, Rosewarne, Nr Camborne TR140AB on Thursday the 22nd May at 7.30pm. If it’s near enough to you I suggest to try to get there as her presentation really is superb.

I hope you find this useful. If there’s anything else you want to know I’ll see if I can help.

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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