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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.
I had to show you these photos.
Walking with the dogs an hour or so ago we were coming up through some woodland at the edge of the moor into what I call the Lost Field (it’s a small hidden meadow surrounded by woodland, silently quiet and heaving with wildlife) when we surprised a roe deer. I dropped the dogs instantly. As she bounded off I noticed liquid spraying out from her behind.
“What on earth…?” I thought. Then it dawned, we’d unfortunately disturbed her in the middle of dropping her fawn.
Gathering the dogs close to me and keeping as silent and as unobtrusive as we could we walked quickly across the field but there right in our path was the newborn fawn; tiny, minute and damply perfect. Hissing at the dogs to lie down and not move a muscle I quickly took some photos. Shaking in haste I thought the pictures would be useless. But they are OK.
I hope with all my heart the doe finds the courage to return. I did my best not to leave too much of my scent nearby, and we left without disturbing her fawn.
May, extraordinary exuberant May. How can anyone fail to be blown away by such a stunning month? I walk with my eyes out on stalks. They sweep across the multi-layers of a green-gold filigree landscape and down to minute iridescent creatures nestled in the heart of a buttercup. Every sense is tingled and tweezed.
The scent of blossoms is exquisite yet elusive, I catch a wisp, a suggestion – then it’s gone – I find myself sniffing, head up like a wild animal. Greens, there are so many and each with its own aroma; nasal sharp and acid citrus-bright, crushed bitter-sweet liquor and garlic-pungent aromatics – I taste each smell on my tongue.
I become sensitised to sound. Like a tuning fork I pick up the buzz and whir of the insect world under the constant celebration of bird song. The steady bass drone of the bumble bee, the frenetic high-pitched whine of the midge and the scary cacophony of a billion cluster flies taking off from the thatch as the sun pops out from behind a cloud. Fragile daddy-long-legs flip-flap knocking and bumping with flimsy clumsiness and March flies thistledown around your head, sticking in your hair, eyes and lips.
Life’s abundant. It’s everywhere. There’s a continuous rustling and scurrying in the trees, hedgerows and verges. And did you know we’ve hares in the far River Meadow? I’m so excited; it’s unusual for this non-arable part of the world. And the Hobby is back!
“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?
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!
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!
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!”
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.
The weather is all too seducing. I feel like a naughty schoolgirl playing truant as I abandon indoor chores.
“I have to go and pick up some bales from the top.” I call out to anyone listening as I guiltily slide out of the office donning wellies and sunglasses (the eyes haven’t recovered from troglodyte-sight following the last couple of years’ rain). On the bobcat I change the scraper for the grab and trundle off up the lane, dogs in tow. The snail pace of the bobcat feels just fine today, and despite the engine noise the vibrant gloriousness of the farm can be hungrily appreciated.
Mission accomplished all too quickly so I reluctantly return to my office and try to concentrate. I get sidetracked by twitter, I get sidetracked by chatty emails, I get sidetracked by the phone. I just get side tracked by anything.
Robert calls up the stairs “Want to come on a walk?”
“I’m trying to work.” I shout back “Trying…” And it’s definitely trying “So yes please…hold on a second and I’m there.” I give up all pretence, close down the computer, grab socks, rucksack, puppy and dogs and I’m off.
Robert’s day time interest-of-the moment is hoverflies. Having been on his course he’s all fired up. So with butterfly net, collection jars and an insect pooter – a thing to suck up insects into a collection tube (and I thought he was talking about a computer…) – he scours the hedge and wood line of all accessible fields and moorland; this wonderful weather has been perfect for insects, especially hoverflies.
We decide on Scadsbury, an hourglass culm grassland field bordered by ancient woodland leading down to the River Lew. Primroses dotted among the soft pink-mauves and deep purple-blues of violets spill out of the woodland into the scalloped edges of the field; nature’s own subtle embroidery. Dancing a jig at the very tops of pussy willow trees, males of the beautiful moth Adela cuprella seek to attract mates. This small moth, with its metallic bronze and copper wings, and flowing white antennae many times the body length, has never before been recorded in Devon but it’s common this year. The book says it comes and goes, some years being very seldom seen if at all, and others in some numbers.
Down by the river clumps of pungent wild garlic are linked through a green carpet of bluebells teetering on the edge of flowering.
Robert finds his hoverflies while the dogs and I introduce Willow to woodlands, boggy grassland and rivers. She’s entranced while we (yes, even Skye and Ness, though they have tried their best to ignore her) are enchanted by her!
“It was freezing. Really, really freezing.” Olly had just got back from Bude yesterday evening. He body-surfs and taking advantage of the clocks changing and the glorious warm day he’d nipped down to Bude for an early evening surf.
“Did you have your winter wetsuit on?” I asked
“Oh yes. The lot. Hood, gloves, socks. I wear the winter one all year now. Because I’m in the water constantly for maybe an hour or more I get really cold, not like board-surfers.” He hung over the Aga “But it was freezing. Lots of people out there though.” He draped himself across the whole Aga top “And by the way, what’s with all the speed and CCTV cameras down our lane? Not too sure about that!” Our farm lane is half a mile long, lumpy, bumpy, windy and not known for speeding along.
“Ah-ha, yes. New experiment!” Robert had just walked into the kitchen loaded down with seed trays “New design, rural ones! But they won’t show at all in a couple of weeks. Catch you unawares if you go over 5mph!”
“What are they?”
“Dormouse nest tubes. I’m carrying out an experiment.” He replied, dumping the seed trays on the kitchen table “To see whether dormice will use the tubes even when there’s lots of really good natural nesting habitat in the hedges. I suspect that they won’t, but need to check this.” He turned to Olly “Hot tea?”
“But” I interrupt “Isn’t that taking their skills away? I mean the hedges you’ve put them in are the ones where you found lots of dormice nests aren’t they?”
“Yes, you’re right, they are. But actually it’s been shown that dormice babies born in captivity have the ability to make nests. It’s an instinct, not learnt behaviour.”
I pour boiling water into the tea pot “So you’re not enticing them into state-of-the-art des.res at any detriment to their beautifully constructed natural nests?”
“No, I really don’t think so. Many surveys to find out whether there are dormice around, particularly for new developments, use the tubes. But it could be that if the habitat’s really good they just won’t use them – it’s safer to build their own nests. Only if the cover is poor will they resort to using artificial tree holes – which is what the nest tubes are.”
I suddenly have a vision of giant alien beings carrying out experiments on some weirdly strange little human-creatures they’ve noticed. State of the art mansions are placed in tempting locations. What would we do?