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….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

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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

Morna's funeral 2nd February 2009

Morna's funeral 2nd February 2009- the same day as the celebration of Candlemas and the celtic Imbolc

I decided I wanted to arrange my mother’s funeral myself.  I have a dislike of conveyer belt type funerals, most probably inherited from my mother who always said she found undertakers and hearses somewhat foreboding and sinister.

For a good many years, well actually from the time I realised I wasn’t immortal, I knew exactly what I wanted done with my body when I no longer inhabited it. Simplistically, if there were any functional parts left these could be used (providing my family felt okay with that), followed by my burial in one of our hedge banks with an oak tree – grown from an acorn from my special Hartland oak – planted on top of me. I checked out the legal requirements so I didn’t land my family with an impossible task, and hoped, because I’d talked about it enough, it wouldn’t cause them any distress.

In our sanitisation of modern life we’ve become very good at prolonging life and very bad at coping with its ending.

We seem to have developed a deep embarrassment about death and a nervous reluctance to discuss coffins, burial sites and what happens when life stops. There was a comment in the Independent on Sunday last week on this very thing: in a recent survey the majority of those questioned said that they would sooner discuss the most intimate details of their personal lives than what their dead relative or friend might have wanted in the way of caskets and burials.

setting out the candles

setting out the candles

I knew my mother was dying. The fall she had after Christmas was the beginning of her last journey. After I accepted this, which took time, I knew I had to make those final weeks as peaceful and as gentle as I could; to give both of us the time and space, and love, to learn how to travel that ultimate path together and how to let go.

After she died it seemed the most natural thing in the world for me to bring Morna back to Locks Park  and continue to look after her here until we were able to take her to Kent and bury her alongside my father in the village she never really left.

I’ve never done anything like this before, but with the help of Jane Morrell, the author of the book We Need to Talk About the Funeral, and the support of my wonderful family it was a truly extraordinary and special experience. I won’t go into great detail here, but caring and administering to Morna daily and planning a funeral ceremony that was such a personal celebration of her life was a gift.

Morna's shroud

Morna's shroud

Morna, my mother, was buried in a shroud made from the wool of my sheep, by a friend, Yuli Somme. We took her up to Kent ourselves and decorated the church with armfuls of paper-white narcissi, ivy, yew, myrtle, willow and hazel. The music was heavenly, the hymns, reading and poems moving and poignant. She was buried beside my father, with the snow falling in silent white peace. It was totally spiritual, even magical.

Jeremy, one of Morna's godsons, took nine hours to get there in the snow. We took him to visit Morna's grave in the evening

Jeremy, one of Morna's godsons, took nine hours to get there in the snow. We took him to visit Morna's grave in the evening

a group of ewes feeding this morning

a group of ewes feeding this morning

Last night it unexpectedly began to snow…and snow and snow. This morning we were shrouded in a foot of  soft, white silence. Trees bowed under the weight, bent almost double, forming arches and bowers. Power cables and phone lines stretched to within a couple of inches of Robert’s head. Huge wet snowflakes fell, fell, fell.

our lane in heavy snow

the farm lane in heavy snow this morning

The dogs are beside themselves with snow excitement.

...and this afternoon

...and this afternoon we bring out the snow plough!

This afternoon we dig ourselves out with the help of the trusty bobcat. Half a mile of  steep lane needs to be cleared.

olly clearing snow from the lane

olly clearing snow from the lane

And shovelling.

the view across to Dartmoor from the top of our lane

the view across to Dartmoor from the top of our lane

three young barn owls

three young barn owls

Hoorah! Our barn owls are back after a lapse of three years. One’s been screeching and screaming in and around the yard for a week or so, his bright white droppings clearly visible on the concrete and yesterday Robert got a good look at him.

When we first came here, barn owls used a couple of our barns for roosting but the birds clearly found them unsuitable for breeding. So, when Robert and friend Tony built Top Barn adjacent to the farmhouse, they placed a nesting box high in the apex, hoping it would be more to the owls’ liking.  Lo and behold a breeding pair settled in comfortably within the year. We had our breeding barn owls… right next to the house.

This was before the time of instant internet access (or even household PCs), or of common-or-garden digital cameras, videos, camcorders and the like. Soon after the owls moved in, I was at the Devon County Show and saw a stand launching an infra-red nest box camera and I bought it for Robert’s birthday. After a few teething problems he soon had it up and running, and in the comfort of the study we had 24/7 access to the private life of the barn owl.

It was mesmeric and addictive – far better than anything Big Brother has to offer. We watched and learnt much about our pair of owls. They were devoted to one another and though mates often roost in separate locations these never did, enjoying each other’s company during the day, preening, talking, nuzzling and shuffling after one another. When the female began to lay eggs and brood them the male couldn’t have been more attentive bringing her tasty morsels and relieving her of her duties so she could stretch her wings. It was quite enchanting. They managed to raise several young, sharing the burden of hunting and brooding – the male always watchful, making sure his mate had a portion of the prey before the ravenous youngsters were fed their share.

This continued for a good few years, the owls becoming part and parcel of our lives. The youngsters, familiar with our voices and movements, were soon imprinting on us, screeching and yelling at us for food, wobbling around on their nest box platform like a bunch of gargoylish, gorky bobbing puppets. They were captivating and once feathered, hauntingly beautiful. We watched their maiden flights in the dimpsy twilight around Top Meadow, holding our breath as they ventured further afield with each night’s growing confidence.

Suddenly, one year, the female was no longer around. Her mate was devastated, moping and calling for her. He succeeded in finding another female, but it was not the same, there was none of the intimacy and care. Their brood was smaller and not as successful. We believe that from then on his mates changed every year but by this time our camera had broken after many years of constant use.

Four years ago we experienced an explosion in the vole population. The following year, as often happens, there was a crash and our owl family did not breed.  Since then we’ve had two unprecedented wet years with not a barn owl to be seen hunting over the farm – it has been very sad.    But now at least one is back, and calling…..

barn-owl-38

Old news I’m afraid. I didn’t write about it at the time as it took the wind out of my sails, a wind which continued to be taken away by other circumstances. And now they’ve found out it may have been an arson attack by the disgruntled, dismissed ex-chef. That someone can torch a building as ancient and special beggars belief.

It was very dark and very early on Christmas Eve morning. I was scraping out the cow palace with the bobcat when I saw Olly running up the feed barriers, I stopped,
“What’s up?” I called out
“I can smell burning. Toxic burning I think…you know, plastic, rubber or something.” He shouted over his shoulder, not stopping.
‘Uh-oh’ I thought ‘the chimneys…’ jumped off the bobcat and went in the opposite direction.

As part of our energy-saving-lean-time measures we are trying to use our two woodburners and our own wood only for heating this year. Despite a myriad of safe guards, as well as the stoves having been expertly and carefully installed, along with their own insulated flues (meticulously cleaned every year), I find myself worrying sometimes as we do have a thatch roof. And as we’ve never had the stoves burning continuously in the past I feel the risk is slightly increased.

But all looked damply darkly peaceful over the farmhouse and I could just make out pale coils of grey-white wood smoke rising languidly from the chimneys into the dense blackness. There was, however, an unpleasantly acrid tang in the air.
“Did you see anything?” I called
“Na, nothing.”
“Maybe someone getting rid of a toxic burn under the cover of darkness…duh, and that’s a very stupid thing to say.” I remonstrate with myself  “Far more likely to be seen at night!”

So we get on with the morning chores.

I’m coming in for breakfast, and Olly calls down
“It’s the George!”
“What’s the George?”
“The burning, the smell…the George burnt down.”
“What? No! You mean our George? It can’t have. No, it’s impossible. The George? Are you sure? Quick, let me see.”
I dash upstairs to look at the news on his pc – and there it is the horror, the devastation, the ferocity. I’m speechless. It seems unbelievable.
Will interrupts “I saw it! Late last night when I went out. I saw this great orange glow in the sky. I thought there must have been some new or festive lighting put up in Hatherleigh.”
Well in a way there was, though under no circumstances could it be called festive.

It’s amazing how much the obliteration of a building has affected the community. ‘For god’s sake it just a building…’ I expect people are thinking. And yes, that’s right, it is; but it’s one of Hatherleigh’s most ancient; after all it’s been in existence in some form or other since the 10th century.

The George was unwittingly the heart of the community, of Hatherleigh, and like most hearts it was taken for granted, occasionally worried about if it wobbled, but also worked hard and cheerfully for countless festivities (Robert and I celebrated our marriage there). It stood as an emblem and gave the town its distinctiveness; now all that’s left is a gaping blackened hole surrounded by depressingly forlorn crumbling cob. The heart no longer beating.

Did I hear someone shout “Bring back the stocks!”?

herd management

herd management

Now it’s time to start preparations for calving which begins mid February.  I need to wean the remaining calves (bar two) and also reintroduce a group of in-calf heifers back into the main herd. When the cows were housed back in October I separated off these heifers to give the cows with calves at foot enough space. However, I know the reintroduction will cause a ruckus – there will be a good deal of fighting, hierarchical testing and displaying. The cows are heavily pregnant and the yard’s very slippy due to the icy conditions,  I  want to avoid stressing the animals.

I came up with a plan. I would send the whole herd out for the day onto our  frozen wastes, giving them plenty of room and better footing for any fighting. The herd would be full of beans at the general brouhaha, and, having got rid of their pent up energy and resolved hierarchical disputes they’d return safe in the evening. They would also be tired and hungry, which together with the break in routine, would make it easier  for them to accept that their calves had been weaned.

Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men do work out – to a tee!

A bawling explosive laval flow erupted from the cow palace and surged in a red steaming flood down the lane practically engulfing Robert, who was trying to instil some kind of control at the forefront. In case he failed and was trampled underfoot we had strategically placed the tractor, topper and gate across the lane to avoid any unstoppable charge down to the River Meadows – luckily this was restraint enough and they poured into Cow Moor kicking, bucking, snorting and farting for England. After a quick gallivant and recky of the field they became aware that there were a good deal more of them than they thought. Let battle commence…I’ll let the photos do the telling!

the battle of the bulge. I was told many , many years ago that fighting cows make for the milk vein with their horns

the battle of the bulge. I was told many, many years ago that fighting cows make for their opponent's milk vein with their horns, which you can see happening here, thankfully these are hornless and relatively harmless (to a degree).

the battle continues for a good half hour

this battle continued for a good half hour, each cow lifting and pushing the other with immense force.

the heifer Kate being taken on by last year's youngest member of the  herd Jemima

heifer Kate (the youngest and smallest to be reintroduced) being taken on by last year's youngest herd member, Jemima. See the steam?

Interestingly Jennifer, the herd matriarch, took absolutely no notice of the confrontations and battles happening around her. If she sauntered passed a tussling pair they would break off and back away submissively. The senior cows in her governing council, however, did test each other, though this was more of a ritualistic display.

Desiree and Wildcat's ritualistic testing

Desiree and Wildcat's ritualistic testing

The weaning also went without a hitch,  there’s scarcely been a squeak  out of  the calves or cows.

Very satisfying.

eyeballing and steaming!

eyeballing and steaming!

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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