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The weather is all too seducing. I feel like a naughty schoolgirl playing truant as I abandon  indoor chores.

“I have to go and pick up some bales from the top.” I call out to anyone listening as I guiltily slide out of the office donning wellies and sunglasses (the eyes haven’t recovered from troglodyte-sight following the last couple of years’ rain). On the bobcat I change the scraper for the grab and trundle off up the lane, dogs in tow. The snail pace of the bobcat feels just fine today, and despite the engine noise the vibrant gloriousness of the farm can be hungrily appreciated.

Mission accomplished all too quickly so I reluctantly return to my office and try to concentrate. I get sidetracked by twitter, I get sidetracked by chatty emails, I get sidetracked by the phone. I just get side tracked by anything.

Robert calls up the stairs “Want to come on a walk?”

to help new puppies aclimatise themselves with the farm and surrounds whilst keeping safe, I carry them in a rucksack in between letting them explore. Willow has taken to this means of transport like a duck to water

to help a new puppy acclimatise themselves with the farm and surrounds whilst keeping safe, I carry them in a rucksack in between letting them explore. Willow has taken to this means of transport like a duck to water

“I’m trying to work.” I shout back “Trying…” And it’s definitely trying “So yes please…hold on a second and I’m there.” I give up all pretence, close down the computer, grab socks, rucksack, puppy and dogs and I’m off.

Robert’s day time interest-of-the moment is hoverflies. Having been on his course he’s all fired up. So with butterfly net, collection jars and an insect pooter – a thing to suck up insects into a collection tube (and I thought he was talking about a computer…) – he scours the hedge and wood line of all accessible fields and moorland; this wonderful weather has been perfect for insects, especially hoverflies.

We decide on Scadsbury, an hourglass culm grassland field bordered by ancient woodland leading down to the River Lew.  Primroses dotted among the soft pink-mauves and deep purple-blues of violets spill out of the woodland into the scalloped edges of the field; nature’s own subtle embroidery.   Dancing a jig at the very tops of pussy willow trees, males of the beautiful moth Adela cuprella seek to attract mates.  This small moth, with its metallic bronze and copper wings, and flowing white antennae many times the body length, has never before been recorded in Devon but it’s common this year.  The book says it comes and goes, some years being very seldom seen if at all, and others in some numbers.

the first bluebell flowers in Scadsbury Woods

the first bluebell flowers in Scadsbury Woods

Down by the river clumps of pungent wild garlic are linked through a green carpet of bluebells teetering on the edge of flowering.

after much newness and excitement...

after much newness and excitement...

Robert finds his hoverflies while the dogs and I introduce Willow to woodlands, boggy grassland and rivers. She’s entranced while we (yes, even Skye and Ness, though they have tried their best to ignore her) are enchanted by her!

...Willow falls sound asleep!

...Willow falls sound asleep!

Ness skittered past the bird feeder issuing a volley of warning barks.

A guttural belligerent string of abuse rose from behind the hedge.

As the shouting became more aggressive and frenzied the barks intensified, turning hostile and anxious.

I called at Ness out of the window to no effect. I ran down the stairs and outside commanding Ness to come immediately and saw to my horror a man hitting out at her violently with a stick whilst hollering abuse. Luckily Ness heard me and came, visibly shaken.

Calming Ness I apologised to the man, albeit rather tight lipped, and pointed out that hitting and shouting at the dog would most probably antagonises it furthur. Whereupon he turned his verbal attack on me.

We have a public footpath that runs down our lane and along the front and side of our house.

Now I’m a believer in the freedom to roam (without which our wonderful walking holidays in Scotland wouldn’t be possible) and feel privileged that I can explore new parts of glorious countryside through the footpath network. But I feel uncomfortable and intrusive if a footpath takes me alongside a dwelling that’s obviously lived in. I will give it a wide berth if I’m able, if not I try to respect people’s privacy and lives at the very least. And if there’s a dog looking after its boundary? I attempt to appear harmless, non aggressive and reassure the animal that I’m not interested in challenging it.

I’m glad people can appreciate and enjoy our beautiful farm through the footpath. The majority of folk who use it are sensitively aware they’re walking through someone’s home and a working farm. The minority unfortunately appear to be exercising their right (not their freedom) to roam and appear surly and arrogant if you come across them.

My dilemma. Ness, as I think you realise, is hardwired into feral or wild dog behaviour. She naturally reacts as a pack animal; 110% loyal and trustworthy to her pack and protective of her pack territory. She’s not tolerant of interlopers. It’s taken me three years of work to help her understand domestic dog behaviour. She’s learnt well, but in moments of stress she can revert to her instinctive nature. And her anxiety increases if she suspects the energy of the threat is negative, as in those more difficult walkers!

Now as a guard dog her  behaviour would be commended; especially if she apprehended a burglar or prevented some violent attack. She would, no doubt, be heralded a hero. But this same behaviour is deemed unacceptable in law governing public rights of way.

How, tell me, does a dog know the difference?

ness

ness

what has happened here?

what has happened here?

The dogs were brought up short on their walk yesterday. Where was Hannaborough Moor with all those enticing smells and tracks? Had Armageddon happened? An apocalypse?

No. Taking advantage of the still, dry sunny weather of the last two weeks the moor had been burnt – or swaled – on Sunday.

Swaling, controlled burning, has been carried out in Devon for thousands of years. It’s a traditional land management technique used particularly on Dartmoor and the Culm Measures to control overgrowth, removing dead and woody vegetation to encouraging new shoots. In the past this would have provided summer grazing but now, more often than not, it’s to provide good wildlife habitat.

skye reassesing the situation

skye reassessing the situation

The idea is to have a quick, not too hot, fire that removes the accumulation of leaf litter and young bushes, leaving the roots and any underlying peat untouched.  Done in the right way it encourages a good show of flowers like orchids and brings long-term benefits to the wildlife habitat.  Inevitably some animals will be killed, but the impact on invertebrate populations, like those of the rare marsh fritillary butterfly, should be short-lived provided the burn is not too deep.

these look as if they could be harvest mice nests - which would be very exciting. We shall check the area later in the year to see if we can find any.

these look as if they could be harvest mice nests - which would be very exciting. We shall check the area later in the year to see what we can find.

I could go on at some length at about the best ways to burn and about the impact on wildlife, but would risk boring you all.  Back to basics, I guess.  Fires are hot,  you have to take care – that should do it!

It’s 30 December and Berengère’s family are arriving to stay with us over the next five days. This is their first visit and I know they are really looking forward to seeing the farm, the animals, the surrounding countryside; absorbing the quintessential unspoilt ‘Englishness’ of the area. Roland, Berengère’s father, feels that that much of England, especially London, is loosing its distinctiveness and was hoping that he would re-find the special character of the country on this rural visit.

They are most interested in the farm and its produce and are intrigued by my passion for animals, farming and the countryside. Ben and Berengère have always championed our out-of-the-garden and from-the-fields ingredients together with my home cooking, so her parents were, I know, looking forward to some tasty meals to restore their faith in British cuisine, food and farming.  The pressure was on! Normally cooking for ten doesn’t faze me, but I was ill and craving a hole in which to curl up and die.  The thought of being a genial host and chef on top of routine twice-a-day stock care and farm work was beginning to make me feel wobbly.

inspecting the cattle

inspecting the cattle

“It doesn’t matter” said Berengère “Really, not at all. Look, my mother was in bed for the whole week when you came to visit! They’ll understand.” (Martine had injured her back when visited in May and was condemned to her bed by the doctor.)

“I know, I know. But I want it to be special for them. I’ve planned the meals. I’ve kept back the joints. I want them to have the whole experience!” And as always when you’re not 100% everything is blown-up by lip-quivery see-saw emotions.

In my head I’d planned the meals for the days ahead – ribs of our Red Ruby beef, sweet melting legs of Whiteface Dartmoor lamb, slow-roasted aromatic hand of pork and warm hearty white bean and kale casserole.  I would prepare gratins of creamy potatoes and leeks, red cabbage and apple, tiny sprouts stirred into sticky chestnuts and port, steam fresh romanesque shoots and caldo nero kale (jealously saved in the veg garden). I wanted to make puddings of backberries and apples encased in the shortest of crumbly pastry, tiny mincepies with clotted cream, blueberries and currants in a cloud of fluffy meringue, a Christmas pudding (of course) and Christmas cake. I knew what I wanted to do…

It was fine! After a convivial first night where we celebrated the coming together of our families we planned the days ahead. Tomorrow we would take a tour of the animals and the farm, followed by lunch and whilst I stayed at home to prepare the New Year’s Eve meal Robert would take everyone on a hauntingly beautiful walk around Scorhill stone circle on Dartmoor.

lambs in five acres - new year's eve 2008

lambs in five acres - new year's eve 2008

Sitting down to lunch after the walk around the farm on gloriously hard ground (even our mud is beginning to freeze – total bliss!), the phone went…

“Paula, it’s Elaine from Spring House. Your mum’s had a fall. Well, a couple actually, we think…  it’s a bit muddled. But the doctor’s been out. He thinks her hip could be broken. He’s arranged for her to be taken to Derriford to be x-rayed. She very confused and in a lot of pain….”

“What? Oh no! I’ll be there. Don’t let her be taken to Derriford, it’s New Year’s Eve, it’s Plymouth, it’ll be complete mayhem, she’ll be shoved in a corner. Don’t let anyone take her. I’ll phone the doctor. I’m on my way…Oh God, please let her be alright…”

With my heart pounding, I garbled hasty instruction at Ben for the evening meal and with an apologetic good-bye, grabbed my coat and fled.

scorhill stone circle in the setting sun - new year's eve 2008

scorhill stone circle in the setting sun - new year's eve 2008

part three to follow…

the tops of the cairngorms dusted with snow

the tops of the cairngorms dusted with snow

Lumpy heather, bog myrtle and blaeberry moorland under foot, majestic snow capped mountains before me, sparkling white against ominous deep purple-black storm clouds, I tingle with the sheer joy of being alive. Spellbound I watch as snow squalls march over mountain tops, through glens, finally engulfing me in a flurry of whirling snowflakes and battering hail. I was in snow, being snowed on! It was October 3rd. I walked on with flame-stinging cheeks and a grin.

We’d arrived in Scotland and while Robert was at his aspen conference I’d taken the opportunity to walk in the Cairngorm foothills directly outside our B&B.

aspen - loch nedd

aspens over the loch

The following day we drove up to Assynt, the far north-western highlands, further north than we’d ever been before. A tiny single track road took us the last nine miles to the cottage we’d rented for the week. Twisting, turning, climbing, falling it led us through breathtaking countryside. Ochre-orange gneiss moorland deeply gnarled and gouged; bleached grey rocks folded, kneaded, pummelled, tortured through millennia after that first ever cooling of the earth’s crust. Impossibly slender stems of rowan and aspen cling to high craggy outcrops, falling away to birch-clothed slopes shivering and shimmering in the dappled reds and golden-yellow green of autumn. Still, mysterious, peat-dark lochans speckle the landscape overspilling in single white threads down to churning burns. To one side of us a colossal hulk of magenta Torridonian sandstone rises up like a brooding prehistoric monster to dominate the surrounding countryside – this is Quinag, the three armed mountain. The road leading us past lochs where sea and mountain meld along ribbons of golden seaweed tossed with weathered bones of boats and the detritus of the ocean. Out to sea our eyes are led over a flotilla of small islets to a horizon of dark steel-blue peaks and headlands stretching into infinity.

assynt hills from quinag

assynt hills from quinag

We arrive at our destination on a high, euphoric. An old metal gate marked the start of a bumpy track down which we drive a couple of hundred metres to a parking spot; walking the last steep descent we turn to each other in bubbling excitement as we see in front of us, nestled on a natural rocky platform overlooking the loch, the cottage! A traditional low rectangular building built of gneiss and sandstone painted white; two windows and a small door face east looking out across the loch and moorland to the brooding, ever changing presence of Quinag. Inside all is miniature; the front door opens into a tiny passage leading to a sitting room on the right, a kitchen to the left, and a bathroom at the back; ahead of us is a miniscule stairway up to the two bedrooms in the sloping eves. Robert has a problem negotiating his height!

the view from the cottage - sunrise over quinag

the view from the cottage - sunrise over quinag

Almost unable to believe our luck we take in our surroundings in the late afternoon light. Sheltered from weather by hillside and trees, we slowly absorb the untamed beauty of the loch below us and the hills beyond, tasting seaweed, the damp decay of leaf litter and peat on the salt blown air. A small gaggle of sheep wander past the front door on their way to their evening grazing spot, turning to look at us with mild interest. Inside I draw a glass of spring water, deliciously cold and clear with a hint of mussels soaking in fresh water. Later that evening, snuggled under the duvet, we gaze at the stars through a large skylight, listening to the wind in a lone Scots pine mixed with the distant sound of the sea. Across the loch the primal roar of a stag in rut echoes around the mountains. We drift to sleep wrapped in a blanket of dreams.

red deer stag

red deer stag

eas a cual aluinn falls - the highest in Britain

eas a cual aluinn falls - the highest in Britain

An extraordinary week to be away.  An extraordinary week to be without any of our normal communications; no phone, no broadband, no telly, just  a crackly old boom box which tunes into radio 4 with a protesting hiss and fart, fading out in an explosion of excruciating white noise at the pertinent  point… “Global meltdown!”  “Financial Armageddon…” “A day so black it’s impossible…” “No one has seen the like since 1920…” “The chancellor has just announced…” “Now we are going to our correspondent in Reykjavik for the latest on the collapse…” the rest frustratingly disintegrates in a furious high pitched whine.

Yes, I have savings in an Icelandic bank; researched carefully on such sites as moneysupermarket.com, make-your-money-work, what-to- know-about-investing-your-savings and how-to-get-the-best-out-of-your-money.  Before we left for Scotland I seriously toyed with the idea of moving my money out amid the panic and mayhem – but where to put it? Nothing seemed secure.  In the end I decided it was probably best to leave it alone, after all it was FSI backed.

Through last weekend the panic and collapse of the financial system worsened. We gleaned snippets in the foothills of the Cairngorms of the drama being played out across the world; stock markets crumbling, banks folding.  And in the car driving to Robert’s aspen conference dinner we heard of the American 700 billion dollar bail out being thrown out, and then succeeding in an enlightened form.  Arriving at our destination high in the remote north-west highlands, we learnt of the lack of positive response in world markets, which continued to plummet in chaos and turmoil.

Surreal, and strangely bizarre. On the one hand my eyes and mind were hungrily drinking in the remote ancient wild beauty of a landscape that feeds my very essence and on the other there was the banal, yet very real, material worry that I could lose my hard earned savings.

aspens by the edge of eas a cual aluinn

aspens by the edge of eas a cual aluinn

It would probably be better not to have even a radio.  Not a thing I can do about it.  I now inhabit a part of the world that is clothed in rocks three billion years old.  Today, in a wild isolated hanging valley, I stood at the head of the highest waterfall in Britain, watching a rainbow caught in the fall’s spangled spray which played on quivering, golden leaved aspens;   around me a curtain of blown mist parted to reveal scenery that made me ache with its beauty.  Billions lost? The fall on Wall Street?  The crumbling City? The crazy machinations of bankers? Armageddon? Standing there in the wind and the rain I felt rich beyond words and extraordinarily fortunate.

the mists lift to reveal an extraordinary panorama

the mists lift to reveal an extraordinary panorama

suillven calls

suillven calls

We’re away to Scotland first thing tomorrow. Robert has an Aspen conference up near Aviemore, we then go high, high up to the north western highlands to stay in a little bothy for a week of walking. Snow is forecast for this weekend! I can’t wait!

highland cattle

highland cow and calf

Till I’m back…bye bye!

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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