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The cattle were bawling again. They’d been at it on and off all day.
‘What is up with them?’ I muttered to myself ‘I only moved them Friday? Can’t be short of grass yet, surely.’
I was in the middle of feeding hens, feeding dogs, getting washing in, and picking veggies for supper.
I had another thought – perhaps the water wasn’t working and they were thirsty. That would explain the ruckus. I called over to Robert who was busy saving potatoes (you’ve guessed, they’ve all got blight. Damn it. Well, one bed anyway)
‘You couldn’t check on the cows for me could you? Don’t know what’s got into them. Water possibly?’ Robert’s far more able to deal with water repairs than I am.
‘No’ he said when he reappeared ‘Water’s fine. They’re hungry. Starving actually!’
‘Weird, there was plenty of grass there. Okay. Let’s move them then.’
We set off down the lane. It’s been a good year for our farm. Ideal conditions from winter to summer have resulted in an abundance of grass without our normal swamp-like conditions.
‘Where are you moving them too?’ asked Robert.
‘Five and Dung’ I replied ‘Though it could be Dillings, Flop or Top!’ I grinned up at him ‘Good to have a choice once in a while.’
Five Acres and Dung Field are at the end of a remnant of ancient green lane. To get there we pass Turkey Shed, a beautiful haphazard barn made from elm boarding which Robert restored twenty odd years ago. I love it; it’s one of the most beautiful buildings on the farm. At the time of its restoration Robert installed a barn owl box, which had never been used for breeding but it did become a favourite roosting site. This year, though, the owls’ preferred box in another barn was taken over by jackdaws and they resorted to nesting in Turkey Shed.
The cattle turned up the lane with me bringing up the rear – as we passed Turkey Shed I noticed feathers in the mud and a few yards further on there was the dead mutilated body of a barn owl.
‘Oh no, oh no, no. Robert, look! One of the barn owls…oh I can’t believe it.’ We secured the cattle into the field and went back to the dead owl.
‘That’s tragic. Just awful. After all those years.’ The barn owls have been severely hit by the last three years of unprecedented wetness and as far as we know haven’t bred successfully on the farm for about four. And now this…
‘I think we’d better check the nest. Just to be sure there are no chicks starving in there.’ Robert said as we looked up at the nest box for signs of life. ‘I’ll get a ladder. Can you bring down a box and torch?’
By the time I got back Robert was up the ladder. ‘Can you hand me the torch.’ He asked. I passed it up ‘What can you see? Anything there?’ I asked as I craned my neck ‘Empty?’
‘Er…yes, uh….wait a moment. No! There’s one here. Oh god…its foot. Its foot’s caught! Uh…baler twine…it’s caught up in baler twine. Tight around its foot…it’s tethered!’ he attempted to cut it free ‘Got it. Here…’and he passed me the lightest bundle of stinking snowy-white fluff. One foot was grossly deformed and swollen, baler cord biting deep into the flesh just above the foot. I rushed up to the house with my precious bundle
‘Oll, Oll! Can you help please? I’ve got a baby owl…baler cord caught tight around its foot…need some help…got to get it off. Are you there?’
Olly came down the stairs ‘Ah Jesus! Poor bugger. That’s awful. Hang on I need scissors…bloody hell it’s going to be painful when it comes off…’
Together we carefully and methodically cut away the cord buried deep into the tissue above the foot and around a toe. I feared gangrene, infection, the worse. Once we’d removed all the tiny fibres I bathed the foot in warm, salty water and massaged it gently with teatree oil.
We now had a tiny, traumatised wild owlet in our midst. Would he survive? Would the shock and the pain prove too much for him? After all barn owls are notoriously emotionally sensitive…difficult.
It was getting late. After I’d forced-fed him strips of raw beef I put him to bed in a box lined with fleece. Tomorrow, if he survived the night, I’d phone the vet, source some suitable food and get as much advice as I could.
Meet Dora the Dormouse. She’s very special (and hugely cute). Dora made her first public appearance yesterday at our dormouse and hedge training day. She was the icing on the cake!
What? Why? How? I hear you exclaim. ‘Aren’t dormice a rare and protected species?’ Yes, yes they are, you’re quite right. So let me tell you Dora’s story.
Over the next month or so we’re holding a series of training days on hedges, hedgerows, their management and their wildlife, especially the dormouse. As you probably gathered in various other posts I’ve written, we have magnificent hedges on the farm which are home to a thriving dormice population. This year numbers appear to be down compared to previous years – probably the result of three wet summers in a row; but still, when people come on these training days what they are really keen to see are dormice nests and dormice! Dormice nests, yes, we can generally oblige, but dormice? Not a given, more luck than anything else.
Now I’d heard that Paignton Zoo (who are involved in a dormouse breeding programme) occasionally need to find knowledgeable homes to care for individuals unsuitable for release into the wild. This would be, I thought, a wonderful opportunity to show people a real live dormouse. I contacted the zoo to see if they had anything and would consider us appropriate guardians. Unfortunately they’d recently just re-homed the last of their old breeding males the keeper Julian told me, but he would have another look and call me…!
On Thursday, just as I’d given up all hope, he contacted me and said they had a young female which had lost her back leg. It was completely healed; she was fine, she’d been checked by the vet, it was really unnoticeable, but they’d be willing to loan her to us if I was interested. She couldn’t be released into the wild and they wouldn’t want to breed from her. Was I interested? You bet!
So on Friday afternoon we went to collect Dora.
Yesterday, Saturday, was the training day, and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. A golden afternoon. Jane from UrbanExtension came all the way from Dorset with fellow officers from the Dorset Wildlife Trust. Not only did we find dormouse nests we also saw three wild dormice…and then, of course, there was Dora!
I’ve been away – physically and mentally.
Oh backalong, back in the spring sometime, I was approached by the Grazing Advice Partnership (GAP) asking me if I’d be willing to be a speaker at their September conference – Reconnecting Landscapes. I hesitated, as I always do when being asked to give talks (you’ll find out why in a minute), said I’d think about it. The pressure increased; emails, phone calls, persuasion. Peter of the Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) tightened the thumb screws. They wanted, actually needed, a speaker who was a farmer, who’d lived and worked the experience …’After all’ said Pete ‘there will be policy makers there…’ he left the sentence hanging.
‘How big is this thing?’ I asked, expecting it would be around fifty, sixty.
‘Oh, two hundred-ish…’
‘Two hundred!’ I echoed ‘Where from?’
‘I can’t do that’ I exclaimed ‘That’s proper stuff. I’d die of nerves.’
And that’s the rub. I suffer nerves, stage-fright, illogical fear, pure terror, undiluted panic when I give talks. My heart pounds. Adrenalin floods. My stomach somersaults. My mouth dries. My voice chokes. I go ‘blind’, I feel sick…sweat, shake. Want to run.
So why on earth would I ever put myself through it? Crazy? Certainly. Masochistic? Mental? Most probably. But I feel convinced I’ll overcome it (one day) by facing it. The intensity of my terror’s illogical. You see I do a bit of television, radio etc. and though I get a nervous, as do most of us, it’s nothing compared to the enormity of what I feel if I’m asked to speak publicly.
So I foolishly relented. As I’d several months in which to prepare I believed the unfamiliar would become familiar. Maybe this time, by facing my nemesis, I’d rid myself of my phobia.
Knowing what I wanted to say and writing my talk was fairly straightforward. This was, after all, my life experiences spoken from the heart which I hoped would inspire those listening. All I had to do was deliver…
part two tomorrow!
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.
“In the reed bed? Really? That’s extraordinary. I’ll let Robert know. He’ll be fascinated and down there like a dose of salts I shouldn’t be surprised!” I was on the phone to a friend of mine who had just called to say that some relatives staying with them had found a dormouse nest in the reed bed by the edge of their ‘lake’. Not only had they found the nest but the resident had obliged by coming out and letting them take photos! Robert, you see, has a bit of a reputation of never believing anyone’s natural history sightings – animal, plant or mineral – ‘proof’ is essential!
As predicted Robert was excited…though I did detect the old flicker of scepticism “Oh, and Sally has the photo to prove it.” I grinned “Though seriously, do dormice nest in reed beds? By water?”
Apparently, yes they do, though it’s more likely in those parts of the country which support good reed bed systems. I guess in Devon, with our glorious hedgerows and connected woodlands, we just don’t look for them in other places that often. Though Maggie of Wheatland Farm did say they found a nest complete with dormouse in the middle of their area of culm grassland which was well away from trees (again with photo to prove it! Do click on the link to see them).
So down Robert went to Sally’s, not just to give positive identification to nest and inhabitant, but also to continue on his quest for hoverflies (now up to well over 120 species for Devon!). He was not disappointed. It was a dormouse nest, with occupant, at the edge of the reed bed. Amazingly she, the dormouse, appeared quite unperturbed by her celebrity status, posing for these stunning photos! (…andRobert went on to successfully discover yet more hoverflies)
“It’s a wee deer” I said “a roe deer. It’s hurt. A bit. Quite a bit.” Theo continued to stare nonplussed. “We need to get Olly to bring the truck down, I think” the deer kicked violently and let out another of its horrendous screeches; I tottered, slipped-slithered and splashed in the muddy water maintaining an iron-like grip on the deer…calmly. Soaking wet, covered head-to-toe in mud and blood, I tried smiling serenely, reassuringly, at Theo who asked thoughtfully “Do you have a farm, nanu?”
“Yes, yes I do. Shall we call Olly together?” No sooner had the words left my mouth when there was an explosion through the bushes and Olly appeared “What the hell do you think you’re doing down there! I thought something awful had happened to you. Look! I’ve run down the lane and over the field in my flipflops.”
“Um, well. LOOK, a roe deer! It’s been injured by the dogs. I need the truck. Will you bring it down? Oh and I can’t get out. Can you help me? Please?”
“Christ sake mum, let it go.” He expostulated.
“ Can’t. It’s neck’s injured. It’s got no balance. I think there could be damage to its windpipe. I need to check it over. Look could you somehow get me out of here?”
“Is nanu playing. Is she naughty?” asked Theo…Olly takes no notice, he’s furious “What are you going to do? Have a pet deer, play wildlife games? God! Just let it go, will you. It’ll either live or die. You’re just stressing it more, and you’ll definitely kill it!”
“No” I said firmly “I need to check it out, treat its wounds. Phone the RSPCA, vets…I don’t know. I need to get out. Please. Can you help me?” He relented and somehow we managed, me holding onto the deer with grim death, Olly anchoring himself on a tree and gripping me with grim death. Pulling, heaving and slipping he managed to lever me with the deer in my arms up the steep tangled, muddy bank. Olly marched off to get the truck, muttering to himself, not a happy chap.
I sat on a tree stump clasping the deer – he was calmer now, with only occasional kicks and struggles. I could begin to assess the damage better. Theo, standing back, was observing everything with solemn seriousness.
“Wig-worm, do you want to look at him. He’s so pretty. Look at his nose. Look at his eyes. You can touch him if you want.”
He inched closer “You have a farm, nanu, and a truck?” he asked.
“Yeh, and now a deer.”
“A deer? What’s a deer?”
“Different from a cow. Different from a sheep. A bit more like a goat, but it’s wild.” I explained. Theo inched forward to touch it “Very slowly, very, very slowly and gently” I soothed “Not his face. Come slowly from behind. Yes, yes, that’s it.”
Theo put out a fat hand and tentatively touched the deer’s haunch “That blood, nanu?” he whispered.
“Yes, he’s been hurt. But we’ll make him better. Would you like to help?” In the background I heard Olly furiously revving up the truck. “We’ll take him up to the farm and then maybe to the doctor?”
“I’m concentrating. Be quiet.” He whispered, gently stroking the deer.
And so Joes found us. “Oh man! Look at that!” he exclaimed “Hey Squiggs, you okay? Man! I wish I had a camera!” he said taking us in; dishevelled muddied-bloodied mother holding petrified deer which his son was tentatively touching “What happened?”
I began the explanation as Olly roared into the field with the truck. “Squiggs, you coming back with me?” asked Joes
“No! I’m going with nanu.”
“It’s okay, It’s fine. He’ll be fine.” I said over my shoulder to Joe as I carried the deer towards the truck “Hey Squiggs, come with me. Come on. Look, you sit here.” I said indicating the dickie-seat behind the passenger’s.
“That’ll be good, nanu. That’ll be ‘portant. I’m helping you.” He replied as he scrambled on board.
With Olly’s irritable help I managed to ease myself into the passenger seat whilst still maintaining my original grasp on the deer.
“You’re mad, mum.” Olly threw at me as he closed the door and we started off across the field back to the farmhouse “You’re crazy.”
Arriving back at the farm I was able to extricate myself from the deer and settle him on a towel in the foot-well. He was young, last year’s kid, most probably he’d just been seen off by his mother to make room for this year’s offspring which would account for the dogs’ success in hunting him. Apart from the deep puncture wounds and a gash, which I cleaned, he was okay, albeit in shock. No broken bones, healthy before this encounter, carrying enough weight. But his breathing worried me, and he had air bubbles under the skin (subcutaneous emphysema or crepitus) which could mean his thorax had been punctured. Would he survive? I wasn’t sure, shock alone can kill. But I wanted to give him a chance. I phoned my vets.
Sally said to bring him over. There wasn’t a RSPCA centre but there was a Wildlife Sanctuary which had started up locally. “Anyhow” said Sally “I’ve never had the chance to handle and study a live roe deer. Will you manage?”
“I think so.”…..
A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.
I’ve escaped, carved out a couple of minutes; I just had to tell you…
On Friday evening some friends came over for supper. They came to meet the New Zealand branch of the family. They came to pick up some plants. They came to see Dillings, one of our hay meadows, at its beauteous best; abounding, bursting, tumbling with orchids jostling with meadow thistle, intense blue-purple spikes of bugle, the cowslip-yellow flowers and rattling bladders of hay rattle, walnut-sized madder-pink heads of red clover, tall delicate stems of ragged robin, a yellow-starred understory of vetches – the whole washed in a haze of liquid gold from buttercups in the setting sun. D was whooping with glee as she spied ever larger fatter bigger better spears of orchids egged on by me, when a quiet thoughtful voice from behind us said “Isn’t that a swarm of bees?”
Stopping dead in our tracks we both looked high into an oak overhanging the field margin. “Where? Where?” We asked scouring the tree, squinting our eyes up through the dense canopy of leaves. “Where? Where? We can’t see?”
“Just there. Look! No, much lower” pointing, A guided our eyes to an oak limb not that far away “See? On that branch.” And there, hanging quite peacefully in a small fork not much above our heads was a conical swarm of bees.
“Oh, wow!” I spluttered “Wow, oh wow” I turned to A “I’ve never ever seen that in all my years here! You are clever!”
In the fading evening light it could have so easily have been missed and certainly, as D and I were ginormous orchid hunting our eyes were scouring the field at nothing above knee level!
I oh-so wanted those bees. Visions of orchid honey from bees that had chosen my very own flower-filled hay meadow danced in front of my eyes! But alas, I’m not a knowledgeable beekeeper. I had very little idea of how to contain a swarm, other than to brush or shake it into a container. And I had no equipment.
“Why don’t you check in the morning?” suggested A “They might still be here. They’re very quiet at the moment. Then you can decide.”
First thing next morning I checked before I started the stock round. They were still there.
At a reasonable hour I phoned various beekeepers but unfortunately no one was able to help…unless, that is, they could take home the swarm. I rang the National Bee Supplies in Okehampton and spoke to a most obliging man who said he could let me have some frames and suitable bee-collection wooden box until I was sorted, but, not until Monday, as being Saturday they were shutting. Mid-morning I checked the bees…they were still there. A little later I was phoned by a beekeeper who helpfully told me how best to collect the swarm and how to construct a temporary smoker out of a tin, chicken wire and a funnel. Excitedly I made up a bee suit out of Robert’s butterfly net (vale), my hat, overalls, waterproofs and gloves; collected up a bucket and cover, makeshift smoker with accruements, stepladders, a hand brush and set off up the drive and across Dillings to take possession of ‘my’ bees.
Arriving at the oak I looked up at the branch and saw…nothing. My bees had flown!