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calves on Saturday's frosty morning

calves on Saturday's frosty morning

Glorious October certainly! We continue to be busy outside with the hundred and one jobs this dry weather has allowed us to get on top of…dung spreading, ditching, fencing, hedge trimming, cutting and carrying wood from our wood stacks to our winter store and, of course, never ending topping (yes, we are still able to get onto the land with a tractor!).

ewe lambs enjoying the autumn sunshine and grass

ewe lambs enjoying the autumn sunshine and grass

The ewes have been tupped and are now grazing peacefully, happy in the autumn sunshine and revelling in the unexpected bonus of being dry underfoot.

Cows and calves are contentedly munching away in the River Meadows, whilst the bull and his cohort are doing a first-rate job around our smaller meadows at the home farm.  Our autumn flush of grass has been excellent – more sustaining and nutritious than the rank crop our waterlogged fields produced during the wet summer months.

the bull happily grazing Flop Meadow

the bull happily grazing Flop Meadow

Polytunnel beds are gradually being mulched down with our organic dung and covered over for winter – though a handsome supply of chilli, aubergine, tomato, squash and carrot are still providing us with tasty suppers. Outside in the kitchen garden leeks, kale, red cabbage, spinach, broccoli spears and roots are giving us delicious seasonal variety.

Though apples haven’t produced that well this year the quince tree is heavy with golden, fragrant fruit which I’ll pickled, make into jelly and quince cheese. The pear tree in the orchard is also bowed over with small, bullet hard fruit for which I’ll have to invent some different preserves.

It’s a good autumn; land, man, beast and wildlife flourish. Next weekend, on the 25th, we have two farm walks, so though the weather is due to break tomorrow I hope  we won’t  return to horrendous torrential drenching!

Devonian Whitebeam (indigenous to Devon) berries, which I'll harvest to grow sapplings from.

Devonian Whitebeam (rare and indigenous to Devon) berries, which I'll harvest to grow saplings from.

And when we landed back at the farm? We collapsed, gasping deep breaths of apparent tranquil Englishness greenness; an illusion nevertheless! In fact the countryside thrummed with industry as every farm for miles around unwaveringly and single-mindedly mowed, turned, raked and baled their forage fields in a race to make silage, haylage or hay. Unsurprisingly this year everybody was determined to beat the weather!

I was overcome. My neighbours and contractors had done me proud. Knowing my anxiety at being away they’d come in over the weekend and despite being under huge pressure themselves had worked unrelentingly to finish my harvest!  I couldn’t find the words to thank them enough. What wonderful neighbours. This was just the perfect homecoming; hundreds of bales of quality June haylage for the stock this winter and the opportunity to take a second-cut of ‘rocket-fuel’ as we’ve nicknamed it (the second-cut in organic systems is bursting with clovers, proteins and sugars; soft and palatable it’s perfect for weaning calves and freshly calved cows).

I was ecstatic! All that was left to do was to carry in the bales. This was something that could happily wait a few days.

The next day I was off to admire the fields and bales with Theo, who was ever so serious and involved in all this real ‘portant farming stuff, when there was a kafuffle in the hedge alongside the lane “Oh! What’s that Nanu?” asked Theo

“I expect it’s just the dogs after rabbits…or” as there was a sudden increase in the excitement “…it could just be a fox.”

“A fox, Nanu? A fox? In there?” Asked Squiggs aka Theo.

“Umm yes. Ness and Skye are pretty chasey after foxes. It’s because they are sheepdogs, you see.”

“Oh” said Squiggs thoughtfully “Nanu, are you sure?”

“Not sure, sure. But…” I trailed off – the dogs had started up an excited hunting yelp along the side of Rushy field. Followed by one of the most chilling screams I’d ever heard.

“Run Wiggle, run, run, run with me” I got hold of his hand and ran as fast as his legs would carry him along the lane. We reached Rushy Field gate. The screaming and yelping had reached a crescendo.

“Listen Wiggs – this is very very ‘portant. I have to run as fast as I can over there and I need you to follow me, really follow me. You mustn’t go away. Please. You must follow.” I bent down to him and put my hands on his shoulders “You’ll do that won’t you. Cos you’re my best boy?”

He looked a bit askance. I could see him sizing up the alternatives. The noise was frightening. But it could be exciting. He could go on up the lane to the bales. But maybe there was something in following Nanu. Looking at me solemnly, he nodded.

“Good boy! I’m off now.” And with that I pelted across the field whistling and calling to the dogs having no idea what I would find. Breathless I reached the other side and thank god saw Theo following. Ness suddenly erupted out of the hedge, her mouth wide and frothing, tongue lolling, wet, muddy and panting as if her heart would pop. She flung herself at my feet. Skye, just as run-out emerged higher up the field. I was about to turn and call out to Theo that all was well when I heard a loud splashing in the stream.

“Oh no” I thought and fought my way through a tangle of bramble, thorny blackthorn and low slung willow branches “Oh no” I muttered as I pushed through to the edge of the steep stream bank. A bloodcurdling scream filled my ears and there was a young roe deer buck, desperately scrabbling to get out of a deep pool of muddy water. His eyes enormous with fear, his nostrils dilated, breath jerked out of him in jagged rasping wheezes. He caught a glimpse of me uttered a spine-chilling screech, floundered and sunk under the muddy, blood-stained water.

I jumped in, scrambled to get hold of him, stop him from going under. Terrified and gasping for breath he screamed and kicked at me frantically with fear-strengthened legs and hooves as somehow I managed to put my arms around him. Then I saw. His neck, lolling helplessly to one side, puncture wounds stippling its circumference trickling trails of watery blood. An open gash along one shoulder. He screamed again and quietened momentarily in my arms.

“Nanu, nanu? What you doing?” I looked up and there was a grimy, scratched Theo looking down on us and not at all sure if this was frighteningly serious or a kind of weird Nanu game. “Nanu what is you?” he asked puzzled.

Simultaneously I heard Olly calling “MUM, MUM? What’s happened? Where are you? I’m coming!” and in the background Joe shouting “Theo, Theo! Mum is Theo with you. Mum! Theo! Will you answer? Answer me!”….

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!

male greenfinch

male greenfinch (google images)

“There’s a greenfinch! Quick! Come and look!” Robert was shout-whispering up at me from the kitchen. “I thought they were all dead! That’s good. Oh it’s wonderfully marked too. Beautiful!” he paused “Come on, come down quickly. But don’t make a noise!” He hissed up the stairs.
My office is just above the kitchen with the same, but elevated, view of the bird table. “I can see it from up here.” I whispered “Oh look, and there’s the female. Just behind the chaffinch. Can you see?”
“No, no that’s another female chaff…oh no, yes, wait, yeh, I can. That’s nice. That is nice. I really thought they were all done for. We haven’t seen any this year, have we? Do you remember when there were hundreds of them?”

Our bird table, directly outside the kitchen window, is a huge source of pleasure to us and to friends and visitors. Many’s the time when someone new to the farm  becomes mesmerised mid-sentence as some bird or other is spotted feeding and they’ll turn to you with excitement, gabbling “I just saw three nuthatches (or marsh/willow tits, greater spotted woodpecker babies or similar). I did. There. On the table!”  Jabbing a finger in the direction of the window they are rather nonplussed by our nonchalance!

We are lucky, we have huge variety and number of birds that come to feed; most probably because we are in such a rural position and there are no other bird feeding stations for miles around, unlike those more urban locations where the birds can become picky due to the vast choice available to them.

But back to the greenfinches. They used to be one of the most numerous birds at the bird table when we first put up in its current spot about thirteen years ago. But over the last few years they have declined rapidly (possibly due to the trichomoniasis outbreak) and now we are lucky if we see just a few a year. Robert is worried, especially as they were so common. (Oh excitement again…I’ve just been downstairs to let the puppy out and seen another female greenfinch feeding!). But they appear to still have green (OK) status with the RSPB. Are they all with you?

bullfinch on nest

bullfinch on nest

It used to be the other way round with the bullfinch though. Now there’s a bird that’s increased markedly in numbers around our bird table.  We are so used to the eye-catching bright pink-red of the male, that now we would prefer to see the subtler greens and yellows of the greenfinch!  Still, we’re not complaining.  Bullfinches have red (threatened) status because they’ve declined so much nationally.  (I suppose it’s only right that greenfinches should have green status and bullfinches red status.) We are lucky to have so many of them, and they don’t damage the fruit trees much, as far as we know.  Robert thinks it’s the thick dense hedges we have, that keep their nests safe from marauding magpies and jays, which explains why they do so well with us.  This year he’s found a couple of nests, and photographed one.  That and the constant supply of sunflower seeds!

bullfinch nest and eggs

bullfinch nest and eggs

turnout 29 April - in Cow Moor with some of the herd

turnout 29 April - in Cow Moor with some of the herd

It’s done – they’re out! Well, bar a handful of dry cows that’ll stay in to finish the remains of opened haylage bales.

I expected the new bull might be tricky to move. Buying him when I did last autumn he didn’t have an opportunity to run with the herd and he isn’t familiar with our farm or boundaries. Apart from which frustration and hormonal overload could make him very unpredictable. Not counting his twelve hour steamy sexathon with Severn back last September he’s been denied sex and those tantalising teasing heifers have been keeping him on his toes!

appraising...

appraising...

He came out of his pen as if ignited by rocket fuel. The almost-tonne of him bucked, kicked and charged through the cow palace roaring like the minotaur himself. And those saucy heifers with their come-hither eyes? Not so quick to throw their knickers at him now – they backed into the furthest corner of their pen, huddled and quaking, refusing to budge and inch!

We eventually persuaded them out of their corner and into the yard to face their bête noir. We then brought the cows and new calves into the group and were ready for the off.

I shout from inside the cow palace “Okay, calves okay. Ready when you are. Stop if I shout…”

Robert and Olly yell above the incessant cacophony of calling cattle “We’re opening the top yard gate now. You ready?”

“Yes” I scream over the noise – and the jostling rolling tide of  heaving motley-moulting red bodies surges forward leaving baby calves standing and stunned as their mothers disappear from sight.

It’s my job to keep the calves grouped and moving as best I can until they get the hang of running with the herd. All these calves have known is their secure cow palace world. One calf manages to slip through a gap by the cattle crush. I shriek “Hang on! Escapee, escapee. Hold the cattle!”

new man? Okaaay...

new man? Okaaay...

Olly and Robert do their best to steady and hold the stampede as I manoeuvre the calf back in with its herd. As I succeed the bull and a heifer break rank and steam off down the lane…we let them run holding back the cows; we know they won’t go too far (here’s praying) without the main herd. The herd strains and pushes forward eager to catch up with the disappearing pair though luckily Robert and Olly manage to control the pace.
We are prepared, the gate to Cow Moor is open and the rest of the lane blocked off, the bull and his consort swerve into the field, Robert and Olly step aside allowing the cattle to stream in after them. It’s done. The herd is safe and contained. We leave them in Cow Moor for the morning to let off steam, establish the pecking order and come to terms with the appearance of a new bull. After lunch, when they are hopefully calmer, we will walk them a mile or so down the road to the River Meadows.

this looks as if I'm cheering...I was actually trying to get rid of midges biting my ear!

this looks as if I'm cheering with relief...I was actually trying to get rid of midges biting my ear!

Mary asked how I now managed to tweet. After all, she commented, you’re running a farm, a business, and holding a blog together. This week, Mary, believe me, it’s been challenging!

I returned from Marseille with a French cold – very different, my body maintained, from an English one – more refined, targeted, kind of specific.

And as I arrived home on Monday evening one of the cows, Wildcat, began to calve. It was a straight forward calving, with no problems, but it meant we didn’t get to bed until well after midnight.

I’ve also had a hot line to New Zealand. Joe, my son, and his partner Jess were waiting for their baby to be born – she was two weeks late. Jess, as you can imagine, was almost at her wits end. Every minute over one’s due date seems an eternity, so two weeks must seem interminable.

A small problem had arisen with Jemima’s calf (born whilst I was away) who developed an infected navel and needed daily treatment with antibiotics.

My last parcel of fat lambs had been procured by an organic co-operative and were due to go on either Tuesday or Wednesday. At present there’s a shortage of organic lamb, and prices are excellent, but selling this way when it is not my norm involves a fair amount of organisation – entailing paperwork, transport arrangements and bellying-out. This last involves shearing the tummy and crutch area – a doddle for an experienced shearer but a little more testing for a novice like me.

A group of friends – the erstwhile ‘Pie-nighters’ were convening here for a meal on Wednesday evening. It also happened to be the evening Jess at long last went into labour. Between absorbing and challenging debate and calls to the other side of the world I eventually got to bed in the small hours with the wonderful news that Jess had produced a beautiful baby girl !

Joe and Jess's baby daughter, my granddaughter, Islay, just minutes after her birth

Joe and Jess's beautiful baby daughter, my granddaughter, Islay, just minutes after her birth

The next day I had to be away early to complete the last legal rigmarole on my mother’s estate so probate could be granted.

This brought us to Friday and a household full of family for the Easter weekend. Our new puppy was due to arrive on Monday – but amid cries of ‘Oh, no. We won’t have time to get to know her. We’ve got to go back on Monday!’ I arranged to pick her up on Friday afternoon…little did I know that in true bank holiday style our kitchen tap would decide to give up the ghost and regurgitate a fountain of hot water and my trusted washing machine gasped its last breath…so Mary, you hit the nail on the head, this week’s been a bit of a struggle!

Puppy post tomorrow!

Friday 13th.  Not that I’m superstitious. I just happened to be clasping onto pieces of wood, crossing my fingers (and toes) and nonchalantly chucking salt over my left shoulder.

Back in January Robert came into my office waving a piece of paper “Do you know anything about this?”

I looked up “No, don’t think so. What is it?”

“It’s a thing from Animal Health notifying us we’re to go onto six monthly TB testing because we’re contiguous.”

“Oh? Strange? We’ve been contiguous for ever.” Puzzled, I reached out for the piece of paper “I wonder why now?” I looked at the dates stipulated. “That’s a bugger – we’ll have just started calving. If that’s the case we’ll most probably throw up some inconclusives at the very least.” Inconclusive reactors are animals that develop lumps inbetween negative and positive; these animals have to be re-tested after six weeks.

A theory, not scientifically proven, is that animals who are suffering stress – such as those that are bulling, calving, carrying a burden of liver fluke or worms – are more likely to react unfavourably to the tuberculin skin test.

A shiver runs down my spine “But looking on the bright side” I say optimistically “I guess it means that we have sixty days to sell stock when it’s most wanted without doing a pre-movement test at our expense. If we go clear.”

To try and control the spread of TB you are allowed to move stock within sixty day of a test. If you want to move stock outside the sixty days of a routine TB surveillance test you have to pay yourself to have the animals tested.

I phoned the vets to arrange dates. It was decided – the 10th March for the test and the 13th to read the test.

So on Tuesday Sally, our vet, arrived to do the first round. Then we wait. We wait three sick-making days. I have to restrain myself from compulsively running my hands over the necks of the cattle. Then on Friday, Friday 13th, Sally returned to read the test. As always I feel ill. As always Olly says to me “I know we’ll go clear.” I wish I had his confidence.

It worked – all the touching of wood, throwing of salt and crossing of fingers – reprieve, reprieve, reprieve…we went clear. Not that I’m superstitious of course.

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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