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my Devons grazing Path Field

my Devons grazing Path Field

Did any of you catch Countryfile this week? In particular John Craven’s investigation into methane producing cattle and sheep, climate change and Meat Free Monday?

Research, reported in the New Scientist not long ago, suggests that producing a kilo of beef has the equivalent effect on the climate as driving 250 km and leaving all the lights on at home to boot.  Meanwhile ministers have been on record as saying that if you really want to save the world (and your health), you should stop eating meat.  There’s also a maxim that climate change is driven by the three Cs:  combustion, chainsaws and cattle.

So, am I an arch climate villain?  Is my carbon foot print so big that I leave tracks across the world like yeti? By my calculations, every time I sell a bullock, it’s like driving all the way from Devon to Timbuctoo.  I’m told cattle produce huge quantities of methane, a gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effects, from both ends.  Even worse, on conventional farms, the grass and grain they eat requires tonnes of fertiliser which takes barrels and barrels of oil to make as well as releasing yet more greenhouse gases when it’s spread on the fields.

But there’s some hope for me.  I may not have to sell up quite yet.  Some Swedish research shows that organic beef raised on grass has a much lower carbon footprint, emitting forty percent less greenhouse gas and consuming eighty-five percent less energy.   This figures since we don’t use artificial fertilisers, recycling nutrients (good, old-fashioned muck) from the farm, and keep far fewer cattle per hectare.  What’s even better, there’s good reason to suspect that organic soil management actually results in carbon being taken out of the atmosphere (carbon sequestration) rather than being released into it offsetting the methane produced by the animals.  (It’s a little known fact that there’s far, far more carbon stored in England’s soils than in all its woodlands.)

But, I could be in danger of being complacent here.  Unfortunately it’s still a fact that my Devons are belching and farting large quantities of a powerful greenhouse gas into the beleaguered stratosphere. So what I should try to aim for is to be carbon neutral, right the way from grass to plate. I wonder, by the way, what the term is for a negative footprint is? Someone who takes more carbon out of the air than they release into it?

I shall have to have one of these carbon audits done and see what I can do to reduce my footprint.  Perhaps I can manage my soils differently, let my hedges get even bigger; reduce transport costs, put up solar panels on the barns and be energy self-sufficient, look into other means of collecting and storing water…fixing plastic bags onto the rear end of the cattle is an interesting prospect, perhaps my inventor friend can work out a way and we’ll get rich on the patent!

The other side of the coin is that Devon badly needs its cattle and sheep.  Imagine Dartmoor without them.  Our priceless historical landscape would be lost beneath a sea of bracken, gorse and trees. Think also of all our wonderful unique indigenous grasslands. They and their supporting habitat wouldn’t survive without grazing. I guess our challenge as farmers is to produce beef and lamb in a way that helps the climate. Far better for us to face the challenge now and take the matter into our own hands than to wait for the inevitable regulations down the road.  I don’t know the answers, but suspect they may involve all of us who enjoy meat eating less of it, valuing it more, and being prepared to pay much more for it, so farmers can afford to farm in a way that is in tune with Mother Earth.

For now, I’ll keep my cows. Try to sleep soundly at night too…after all, there are things I can do.

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

winning smiles - Salar cow and calf

winning smiles - Salar cow and calf

For the last two years the Okehampton Show, our local one day show, has been cancelled due to impossibly wet weather. If it was rained off again this year it wouldn’t survive.

As you can imagine the weather’s been minutely monitored. Certainly it appeared the forecast was better than July, but definitely not settled.

Tentatively, a week or so before the actual day, skeletons for the large marquees began to appear; cautiously, almost furtively, the show ground began to take shape…cattle lines, sheep and cattle pens, goat and pig tents, show rings, walk ways, beer tents, an army of porta-loos – every day a little more  emerged. We scarcely dared look as we passed by – it was as if even looking was enough to tip the balance between rain or shine. Instead we sucked in our breath, crossed fingers and bit  nails.

Nine days earlier the North Devon show made it…just, though conditions were far from easy. Talking to friends who’d been there showing we heard how stock trailers were unhitched, towed onto the show ground and left, dotted about  randomly, in a sinking quagmire of churned mud…’Lucky’ Sally said ‘the only white bit in danger was the end of the cattle’s tail. Otherwise we’d have been in an even sorrier state!’

The night before Okehampton show it rained. I woke in the night to hear its patter-pittering  on the leaves of the trees outside our bedroom window and the soft sighing hiss of waterlogged ground. The morning dawned in a grey shroud of misty drizzle. Though not, mercifully, torrential rain

Armed with wellies, hats, waterproofs and warmish clothes we set off. We’d planned to get there first thing as a cousin of Robert’s was paying us a visit in the afternoon.  Even at that early hour the car parks were swelling; folk seemed determined to make the show a success come rain or shine.

A serious moment - judging a young Devon bull...

A serious moment - judging a young Devon bull...

As we hung over the rails of the show ring the misty drizzle gathered itself up into a leaden sky – a bruising layer of cloud enveloped the tops of the tors. Uncertain fingers of  sunlight hit the sides of the valley. For a few moments clouds and sun vied with one another when unexpectedly, so it seemed, the sun decided enough was enough and with determind force blistered its way through, burning back layer upon layer of cloud to sizzle and shine gloriously over the show for the rest of the day!

even dogs had to wear sunglasses in the glare!

even dogs had to wear sunglasses in the glare!

Overheating and dripping with sweat in our rainy weather clothing, we squinted, smiled and laughed our way around the show ground bumping into a plethora of friends and those acquaintances that we generally  see on occasions such as this. When it was time for us to leave we felt completely exhausted from the sheer exuberance of the event (and the heat!). As we drove away were amazed to see cars still pouring in. Hoorah! The Okehampton Show was a resounding success and lives to see another year…

young sheep handlers wait to be called...

young sheep handlers wait to be called...the 2nd in is a Dartmoor Whiteface two tooth and the end ram's a Whiteface too.

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!

chiffchaff

chiffchaff

I was clearing up in the kitchen yesterday morning when Robert walked in. I turned to ask him something about weighing a load of young stock that were being collected around lunch time but stopped when I saw his face

“Wow, that’s a big grin! What’s that for?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing.” His grin was growing bigger by the minute “Nothing.”

“But something’s made you light up like a beacon…what’s it, hey? The wonderful, wonderful sun? Oh I know I know…it’s because I’m selling a load of animals today! That’s made you smile!”

Our land, as you’ve gathered, has been badly affected by the last two unprecedented wet years. The farm has all but stopped growing grass and we don’t expect much improvement this year even if the weather is better. Worried at how we will manage to produce enough grazing and forage I made a decision to sell twelve of my young stock. These were being bought by an organic farmer from South Devon who is already ankle deep in grass. My animals will thrive on it!

Robert went all smiley-secretive “No, actually. Though, of course, that does make me relieved and happy.”

“What then. Look at you. Like a cat that’s got the cream.”

He laughed “Weeell, I was just sitting on the bench outside when I heard a chiffchaff…and then, just to make sure it came and sat on the gate. Sat there, right in front of me. A confirmed sighting!”

“Really? Fantastic. That’s earlier than last year isn’t it?”

“A little, most years they arrive on, or very close to, 21 March.”  He went on to say that his records over the last 18 years showed no trend towards earlier arrival, as might be expected from all the talk about climate change.  In fact, although not denying that springs are getting earlier (some years), he believes that many of the trends for earlier and earlier sightings can be explained simply be people looking harder, and making better records. The result, I should think, of all those high profile Nature Watch/Birding programmes on telly!

It doesn’t matter though, whether it’s early or late, to me it’s a sure sign that Spring it really on it’s way. Hooray!

last year's chiffchaff nest with eggs (you can just see them)

last year's chiffchaff nest with eggs (you can just see them)

One of the ideas we’ve been toying with since Robert’s voluntary redundancy is running a training centre at Locks Park where we would teach and explore skills useful in our fragile, rapidly changing countryside and world; courses that will help us to adapt to, even survive, a world without fossil fuels and with an unpredictable climate.

wood taken from hedge laying - between five corners and square field

wood and brash from hedge laying - between five corners and square field

Together with producing our own food (hence the biome) being self-sufficient in energy and water is near the top of our agenda. It’s a hugely complex subject with every expert persuasively insistent that their ideas and methods are the best. We’ve read, listened, questioned; investigated, visited and considered. And it’s mighty hard – the more you know the less you know. One thing we are sure of is that wood will play a large part on this holding.

a cord of wood where Olly has been coppicing

cords of wood - Olly's coppicing February 2009

We are self-sufficient in wood.  This year we have only used wood to heat the house – and during a winter that has been reasonably cold too. At present we have two normal domestic woodburners and no efficient state-of-the-art wood boiler with accumulator (though this is a distinct possibility for the future). Our burning wood, in the main, comes from our hedgerows; it’s first cut into four foot lengths, stacked in cords and left to mature for two years before it’s cut to burning size and stored for the coming winter’s use in the woodshed.  In previous years our hedgerow wood supply has been ample as we’ve run it alongside an oil boiler. But now we need to increase our supply.

The same area of woodland 18 years ago - Robert chain sawing

The same area of woodland 18 years ago - Robert working with chainsaw

So Olly has been coppicing in our small farm wood.  He is re-working a coupe that we last coppiced when we first arrived at the farm 18 years ago.  The willow, ash and birch stools have produced poles which are of just the right size for the wood burners without having to split the logs.  Our only worry is that roe deer will nibble off the re-growth this time round – there are more deer about now it seems – so Olly is covering the cut stumps up with the brushwood in the hope that this will deter them enough to let some shoots get away. If that fails we will have to erect a temporary fence.

piles of brushwood protecting the freshly cut stumps from roe deer

piles of brushwood protecting the freshly cut stumps from roe deer - good habitat for invertebrates too.

While I was taking the photos a female Roe deer and her yearling twins were browsing around the edge of Olly’s coup. They seemed quite unconcerned by my (and the dogs) presence, only moving off when I tried to get closer to take a picture of them. Cheeky!

coppicing

coppicing - the young trees left are replanted Ash

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

common clothes moth

common clothes moth

Remember how appalled I was back in November after discovering that an infestation of clothes moths had decimated my wardrobe overnight?  Wool, cotton, silk, viscose/manmade – these voracious buggers were not fussy.  Well, an interesting thing happened the other day. No, unfortunately, it’s not good news on the moth front.  The deep freeze is now my wardrobe and all clothes storage places are hung about with pheromone traps, cedar wood balls and rings, and are sprayed regularly with a cedar wood deterrent.

I was working in the shop. Crede has a sale on at the moment (and an excellent sale it’s been too).  A customer was happily browsing and having chosen a jumper she asked if a particular dress she had her eye on would be reduced further. I replied it probably would and to keep popping in to check. We continued chatting about the glumness of January, the ubiquitous cold bug and the hope that the cold, dry snap had killed off a lot of the germs…

“As well as all the wretched parasites and pests, especially the clothes moth” I threw in.

“Oh” she exclaimed “don’t talk about them!”

“Why? Have you had an invasion?” I asked, ears immediately pricked

“Well not exactly me. But in my line of work – definitely yes!”

“I’m intrigued…if you don’t mind me asking, what’s that?” interested because of Robert’s mothly passions.

“No, not at all. I’m an entomologist. I work for the National Trust, moth control is one of the things I do”

“Oh wow, so do tell me – is there a big problem there? Is even the National Trust experiencing moth devastation?”

“It’s been quite appalling.” she said “Due to the very warm winters and wet summers the population has exploded and instead of just hatching one brood they may hatch three or even four!” She went onto explain that with such a population explosion, it really didn’t take long for the creatures to chomp their way through an entire stately home let alone a small farmhouse. She had developed such a paranoia she used to take her work clothes off in the garage to avoid contaminating her house!  I did take some comfort that I alone had not been singled out.

I went on to ask about the deepfreeze treatment and she said yes, that did help, but the temperature had to be extremely cold for effective short sharp annihilation.  Items have to be kept in a domestic freezer for a good length of time. It doesn’t finish there; one should then brush/hoover all the items very carefully to remove any debris or frass, and treat the whole of the room or even building!

“They are extremely difficult to get rid of.”  No new news there, unfortunately. She did however give me the name of the man, company and product the National Trust use, as they try not to, other than exceptional circumstances, rely on the use of toxic insecticides.
So this may be of some interest to you if you’re suffering moth damage and for those of you who don’t think you are…maybe you should just have a quick peek at those less frequently used items at the back of the cupboard!

clothes moth

clothes moth

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.

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