roe deer

A few days before my knee op I inadvertently found myself at the centre of drama taking place along one of our boundaries. I’ve never seen, heard or experienced anything similar before. No one to date can shed any light on the affair, not even a dear friend of mine, an elderly knowledgeable person who spends most of his spare time walking and stalking woods, meadows, moor and heath filming wildlife, especially deer. I’d love to know if you or anyone you know may have come across a similar incidence.

It all began at about 2.30 to 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon as I was going outside to do various jobs. I was pulling on my wellies when the most spine-chilling screams pierced the air from the direction of Dung Field. The dogs, instantly alert, ears pricked, eyes brightly-wide, adrenalin pumping at the expectation of chase, blood and gore.   Somehow managing to rein them in I began to walk in the direction of the blood-curdling shrieks. From experience I knew the sound was made by roe deer and my immediate thought was that a deer had become hung up in a fence and was being attacked, its twin or mother trying to protect it.

Walking up the remnant of our old green lane past Turkey Shed and the orchard the macabre noises proved too great a temptation for the Skye and Ness (generally paragons of ‘oh-look-how-good-I-am’ virtue in front of the puppy) who took off at the speed of light totally ignoring my stern commands. In a matter of seconds two already exhausted roe deer burst through the hedge alongside Dung Field in terrified panic –  Willow, no longer able to contain herself,  broke away from my side in hot pursuit (unfortunately I was leadless as I had been on my way out to do jobs around the yard, not walk dogs). One of the deer just managed to leap the fence into the orchard whilst the other stalled her jump and seemed on the point of collapse. There was no sign of either Skye or Ness. Willow, however, continued her pursuit. Too small and slight to bring down a deer, she nevertheless sensed her quarry weakening and so proceeded to dance round the creature with frenetic high-pitched yips, occasionally darting in and out with small nips. Horrified I bawled at her as I launched myself through the thick bramble, blackthorn, hawthorn and god-knows-what-else-hedge, tripped and stumbled over rusting barbed wire and sagging stock fencing to get to the pair. None of my admonishments, bellows or shouts had the slightest effect on Willow, turned frenzied hunter with her quarry.

The strange spectacle continued…the young doe, too worn out to run, still managed to put up a good fight by bucking, kicking and butting Willow as she circled and danced around her. The pair moved forward at a smart, if circuitous, pace through thicket, tangled woodland, ditches and streams with me in hot pursuit frantically trying to break through Willow’s total deafness to my commands. We must have travelled a couple of miles like this when eventually the exhausted deer collapsed in a deep-sided stream bordering Hannaborough Moor. My chance at last! I approached the doe, willing her to stay put; Willow suddenly became consciously aware of me too and alert to my boiling wrath at her behaviour. I managed to steal up on the deer and hold her whilst I gave her the quick once over. Apart from exhaustion and fear she was well covered, healthy, with no injuries that I could detect. Holding the deer still I managed to grasp and hold onto the quicksilver Willow who was given her the telling off of her life. (She’s now learnt, as all my dogs, chasing deer is a punishable offence.)

We walked home. Skye and Ness were sheepishly waiting for us on our return. That I thought was the end of the story, though why the deer screaming and why the pair’s exhaustion was still a puzzle. I put Willow into the back of the truck to let her reflect on her behaviour and turned to go into the house. Just as the screaming started up all over again. Putting the dogs into their house (I didn’t want the added complications of  irrepressible dogs now I had an idea of the situation) I set off once more in the direction of Dung Field…‘It must’ I thought ‘be the mother of the twins. And she must’ I decided ‘be hung up in a fence.’

As I walked I watched the ravens – if there was chance of a good supper so near their nesting site they would be defending it and true enough they were active and keen – seeing off a buzzard…but then they’re active at this time of year anyhow,  mating, nesting. I walked on; the screams were moving up and down, loud and faint, which was beginning to put paid to my deer-hung-in-fence theory.  As I approached the gate to Dung Field a large dog fox was trotting towards me oblivious for a minute or so to my presence…he darted into Raven’s Copse as soon as he clocked ‘human’.

Crossing the boundary into the next farm I saw Robert climbing over the fence

“I heard the screaming. I thought you must have been trying to release a deer.” He panted “I’ve just run my guts out!”

“No. Unfortunately I can’t find anything. Nothing. Nothing at all. I really have no idea what’s going on.” So I recounted the story and finishing off with the fox, the ravens’ activity and the sheep huddled together in a corner of the field. “I’m completely at a loss.” I said shaking my head.

We continued scouring the fields a bit longer before returning home, when once again another haunting scream floated over the darkening countryside.

What had occurred? There must have been three deer at least. A doe and her yearling twins perhaps? Why the distress screams, the exhaustion, the panic?

Have you any ideas?

I promise we'll never ever ever do that again....

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the first 2010 set of twins

SBS, discombobulating knee or whatever…the show goes on. Nature waits for nothing; certainly no woman!

the first of twins born on Saturday

the first of twins born on Saturday

So in the cycle of things that are total certainties we began lambing on Saturday with calving hot on its heels. To say that I was dreadfully unsure as to how I’d manage this vital part of the farming calendar is an understatement – I’ve taken myself rather for granted over the years. But the human brain and body is nothing if not inventive. So with the stoic and long-suffering help of Olly and Robert there’s a new order emerging!

Lambing is not such a problem and can be approached sitting on the ground in a pair of thick waterproof trousers using a variety of interestingly contorted ‘yogic’ positions. Once the ewe and her brood are penned the same technique can be used for popping lambs onto the teat if the need arises – though Olly is proving a dab hand at this. Tagging, tailing and castrating? No probs – perch on the side of the pen/ask an Olly. Feet? An indispensible Olly is needed here as he is for post lambing drenching.

oh so sweet....

Calving is altogether a different kettle of fish, with absolutely no contorting-ground-sitting substitute sanctioned.

Last night our first calf was born – from a young first-calving heifer. Luckily there was no particular problem, she was just taking her time, so, I decided, she was an ideal candidate for ‘the boys’ to learn on.  Trying to explain how to attach calving ropes while standing outside the calving pen is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It took every ounce of self-control not to vault the gates, get in there and show them!

You should have seen us! Me, with my face, hands and arms involuntarily mimicking vastly exaggerated actions of my explanations….‘That’s it, that’s it. Put your hand in…no, no right in, right in!’ (my arm snakes out) Yes that’s it…and feel, feel. Eyes shut, eyes shut! You can feel better.’ (my eyes squeeze tightly shut as my hand and fingers turn and feel the imaginary legs and head) ‘The second joint…you want to get the rope well over the second joint.’ (I slip the imaginary rope over the hoof and position it) ‘Don’t forget to check the head’s still lined up! (I twist my arm to feel over my holographic (I wish) head and second leg)  Yup, pull, gentle, gently’ and so on and so on.

Then there’s one rather shocked bloke trying to grab the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t-foot staring at me with bug-eyed concentration whilst the other bloke, equally mesmerised, holds desperately onto the heifer’s tail crooning, soothing and smoothing. It was quite the stuff of slapstick!

The heifer was extremely patient and tolerant with her learners seeing that this was the first time for her too, and in due course a beautiful heifer calf was born – bright, lusty and healthy.

first female calf born to heifer Lapis

We all went to bed happy and contented.

ahhhh.....

Silly Brain Syndrome

Phew…a bit longer since my last post than I thought! Suffering from SBS or Silly Brain Syndrome.

I have a pathetic tolerance to drugs – in fact I’m basically intolerant to them. I opted to have my op by spinal block (yup, watched the whole procedure on the theatre monitor with a detailed and comprehensive commentary given to me by my charming anaesthetist…all quite fascinating!) thereby avoiding the biggy – a general aesthetic. Unfortunately there’s still a plethora of chemical junk on hand just itching to ooze its way into your system the minute you take your first breath of intoxicating hospital air; a throng of attentive nursing staff fall over themselves to offer you an array of spectacular sunset cocktails brimming with copious quantities of opiates and anti-inflammatories – ‘Don’t let the pain get on top of you’ they admonish ‘You’re written up for a morphine pump if you’d like one’ – I smile wanly ‘Actually I’m…’ but they’d disappear in a breeze of bristling efficiency; enticing little jabs of blood-thinning formulae are administered into your abdomen…‘Just a sharp scratch, dear’ someone coos as you involuntarily double up, yanked out of the longed-for sleep you’ve only just managed to lure your bruised body and confused mind into; plus antibiotics, strong enough to foil the irrepressible MrsA as well as rendering your body so totally unpalatable that even the virulent Norwalk virus stalking the nearby side-ward is certain to give you a wide berth.

So this, plus the minor inconvenience of a bone-drilling discombobulating right knee job left me with a serious case of SBS. My dreams of uninterrupted days tap-tap-tapping away on the keyboard creating screeds of amusing, witty, thought provoking writing; those golden hours (no longer stolen) spent catching up with friends, both earthly and virtual; languidly lounging on the sofa, fire-warming, ice-pack-knee-soothing, with a coveted hoard of delicious books by my side; and, last but not least, the pressure of mounting paperwork eased away into insignificance – all a what-the-doctor-ordered-wrapped bonus. But alas, phut…my dreams all just disappeared!

Unable to string a coherent thought or sentence together, incapable of even opening one of my cherished books, I reverted to day-time-telly…yes, day-time-telly! But no, not even Trisha or Dave, Kyle or Judy could penetrate the hazy disconnectedness of my mind. I was a no-hoper.

But slowly, over the last few days and after drinking a reservoir of water I’m returning to some semblance of constructed thought…and myself. And, as my GP muttered and tutted whilst removing the dressings from my leg ‘You’re too clean. Your system. Too, too clean. Needs a bit of dirt…’ I’ll remember to face any other operation real, real dirty!

I haven’t dropped off the edge. I’m not shirking or dodging or avoiding. I’m not even suffering from virtual overload or writer’s block (in fact I’ve been itching to write). What I have been doing these last few weeks is getting ready; preparing.

This Wednesday I’m having my knee operated on – anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction – and I’ll be out of action…for some time…so they say. In my life there’s never, ever going to be a good time to be ‘legless’.

Over the last few weeks I’ve revelled, enjoyed, embraced, slogged, worn-out and appreciated the extraordinary aptitude and freedom (normally taken entirely for granted) my two legginess gives me. From the domesticity of making marmalade…

for the marmalade addict in our household...70 jars! (and I must be co-dependant)

…to the exhaustion of hedge laying;

Finished! the massive double hedge between Square Field and Out Across

in the summer we'll clean out the ditch and cast up the bank

from mucking out the cow palace…

cows in temporary accommodation during mucking out of the Cow Palace in preparation for calving

Cow Palace...clean, ready and waiting for the cows return

…and crutching the ewes prior to lambing to walking the dogs;

alert and ready

'Can you see a movement over there...?'

…driving the car (NO driving for SIX weeks!), handling the bobcat and the tractor…bringing in wood…gardening…doing housework…the cooking…going to work…! Even finding the first dump of frog spawn…

First frog spawn found 4th february

First frog spawn found 4th february

…and seeing pussy willow bursting its buds at the top of our lane..

Pussy willow peeping out...

I expect you’ll be hearing a lot from me in the coming weeks of my enforced incarceration!

….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

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

I’m back! A quick explanation on my absence. I felt consumed by my self-imposed virtual obligations and frustrated by a lack of energy and time for my real life work and commitments. So I decided to take time out…over Christmas and the New Year. Break’s finished and I’m here once more to be inspired and fascinated by you, my varied and talented virtual friends!

The best of wishes for 2010 and a huge thank you to each and every one of you for your support, thoughts and messages.

Happy New Year!

...and how!

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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