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Smallholding Spring April 16, 2014

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Smallholding Spring

I’ve been visiting N_____ B_____ Farm on the outskirts of town. A family smallholding with poultry, sheep, cattle, horses – and a complement of welcoming cats and dogs. P has such affection and concern for her livestock, regardless of their role in providing a living: beasts not destined for the table are all recognised and called by name. Mother and daughter P and N – slight frames hiding strength and endurance built up by years of regular repetition -set to swiftly to polish off the daily routines, yet both have immense patience and a deep matter-of-fact calmness about them. Something which the stock seems to respond to, irrespective of the size differences.

19/3/14: Buzzards beyond the Muckheap

I’m pushing the giveaway wheelbarrow. The creaking one that gives away where you are and how fast you’re wheeling. The one with the bottom beginning to rust out, that leaves a trail of manure showing which of the post-winter ruts you’ve avoided. Must remember to shovel from behind the barrow – upwind of the winnowing of animal-damp hayseeds.

The keening’s coming from the bare old tree in the next field, but even without greenery, they’re well hidden. Until, talking as they take off, two adult buzzards rise and circle the sheep paddock. We’re expecting lambs any time, so as the bigger bird skims the close-grazed grass, I start walking slowly and deliberately that way. Buzzards are unlikely to take a live, healthy lamb, but like vultures, they’d efficiently scavenge away any tragedies. Today, there are none and after a single pass, spilling air through their ‘finger feathers’, before gaining height again over the travellers’ camp.

26/3/14: They’re Always a Handful When They’re Bulling

P’s in the cattle pen, mucking them out and I’m standing by the barrow to the muckheap when she throws out this comment. This has me properly puzzled – of the four cattle, there are two cows, and their offspring – a heifer and a steer. No bull. It’s easy to see they’re all a bit more skittish, especially the youngsters, but what’s this got to do with bulling? Without a break from the forking, P explains: the females are in oestrous – receptive to a bull if there were one. The skittishness and ‘dry mounting’ are giveaways. Meaning P has to be more than usually aware where the cows are as she works round them and under their feet. The cattle aren’t nasty or bad-tempered, but they’re not bright. They don’t know their own strength and don’t have much peripheral vision. P needs to be ready the skip out of the way, or to push back if they lean on her. Beware of machinery with moving parts.

2/4/14: Sheep Watching

‘They’re bagging up now,’ observes P, nodding over to the ewes. Five small Shetlands, four solid Portland Downs, and Peg, the chunky Herdwick. All ladies-in-waiting, some with udders filling out and swaying furrily below their hindquarters. We treat ourselves to a few minutes leaning over the gate, guessing who’ll lamb first and who’ll have twins. They’ve all come to the gate now and are singing out that it’s time they came in for the night and nibbled up the sheep nuts. They need to wait a bit – we’ve a few more chores to finish first.

Bringing them in is a responsibility that’s no chore. Such fun to watch: ten four-legged fleeces with built-in panniers racing – yes galloping like colt – for the pens.  Two pens between them, they know full well where they belong, but it doesn’t stop them trying to nip next-door for a few stolen mouthfuls, before they sort themselves out for the night.

3/4/14: Curling Cow Rasp

Meanwhile in the barn, the four cattle pick up the call for chow-down, rattling the metal bars with their warm horns and trying to lick the clinging hay from my jacket. Yesterday Alice managed to flick my cheek with the corner of her tongue. I guess she was after the salt on my skin. She meant no harm and certainly didn’t cause any, but I have wood rasps that are blunter.  At fifteen months, her foster calf is now bigger than her Shetland mum, but like a cuckoo, continues to suckle, even if it does mean almost getting to her knees. The cuckoo calf is for the table soon, with the young steer and hopefully, the ground will dry out enough for the remaining cows to be turned out into the field. The bantam chickens skip in and out between the massive hooves, fearlessly under the black barrel bodies. At night, they roost on the metal bars of the cattle pens. This side of the barn is partly open to the elements – and to predators, but somehow, these chickens are confident that having the cattle between them and the rest of the world is all the protection they need.  So far, it’s worked. Before I leave the cattle, I’ll just tidy the hay they’ve kicked out of the pen – it’s one of the bantams’ favourite places to lay. I prefer it when they lay in the redundant dog kennel – it may be a hands-and-knees job to retrieve them, but they’re easier to spot and no risk of accidental damage.

The Cockerel’s Crooked Crow

The bantam cock is the best looking in the flock, even if he thinks so himself. Light chestnut, with flowing iridescent petrol green tail-feathers, he gets around more than his ladies. This cock is a bonus – his mum disappeared for days and reappeared with a clutch of chicks. Bantams do tend to be broody – so much that they often get persuaded to sit a clutch of more precious eggs. This youngster’s full of himself – so different from his father. For some reason, Dad doesn’t have a full tail, and his comb isn’t quite as developed. Then there’s another shortcoming: don’t laugh out loud when you hear him crow – you’ll hurt his feelings. He would be the perfect rooster for anyone with light-sleeping neighbours. Other birds are bred for long, loud crows, but his just comes out as an apologetic ahem. Still, if his son’s anything to go by, it hasn’t stopped him doing the business.

Hay-meadow Hay

Netting up hay for the horses, each organic bale has its own characteristic dried flowers: one day buttercups, and another time clover, or dog daisies, or even dock. Meadow foxtail and plantains  show up too. All the livestock seem to enjoy the variety and make an effort to pick their favourite bits out first. They’re doing their bit for food miles too – this comes from just down by the next town.

Strong and steady S wasn’t born to the land but he now manhandles the massive organic hay bales, and pitches in with almost anything else – except the horses. Well-behaved as they are, I tend to treat them the way I would heavy machinery: no running and save their operating for trained professionals.

7/4/14: Lambs At Last

Five-thirty pm and I’ve arrived just an hour after the first lambs – twin ram lambs, just on their feet after a difficult birth, for a first-time mother. Frances the Shetland is understandably still distressed and uncomfortable herself and doesn’t understand the lambs searching for their first feed – she just won’t stand still. I’m not sure the lambs understand how the milk-bar works either: they’re giving the proper nudge with their noses, to stimulate milk-flow, and even wagging their tails, but they’re not getting anything where they’re trying. N and I watch for a while, hoping to intervene as little as possible, so when Frances starts to nibble some hay, we fetch her some sheep nuts. This has her standing still for a while, but the boys still haven’t worked out where to go.

As the evening starts to cool, the smaller lighter coloured lamb gives up and subsides into the bedding, N and I look at each other and climb over the hurdle. We take it in turns to hold mother or lamb and steer a little mouth towards a petite teat. Not out of the woods yet, but their first warm meal should help them through the night

P’s son B was just leaving when I arrived. N had called him to help with the lambing. B works on a neighbouring farm full-time, yet still finds energy to lend his expertise and strength – delivered with the family brand of effortless caring. After the day job and the lambing shift, he still made time to come back to check on the new family and polish off a couple of the heavier jobs backing up around the smallholding.

8/4/14: They’re Just Like Their Dad

P got to see the new twins for the first time this morning and all’s well, ’They wouldn’t be that full of life if they hadn’t fed overnight,’ she says with some satisfaction and maybe a touch of relief. Big responsibility, having the wellbeing of all these living creatures on your hands. Ram lambs mean they won’t be staying on the farm all their lives. With the small flock size, P only needs one Shetland ram, and she’ll be going outside her own flock for a new ram in the autumn – can’t have close family inbreeding. Still, with their father’s characteristics, these boys could well be going off to their own flocks come autumn – rather than for the table.

Shetland wool has always been known for its quality, with the best lace shawls so fine, they pass through a wedding ring. Trouble is, over the years, Shetland sheep outside of the islands have lost some of the better wool qualities. Now shepherds are hoping to breed the wool qualities back in. One of P’s ewes caught a breeder’s eye, because of her wool quality, but P wasn’t ready to let her go, so another bargain was struck: the breeder lent P one of his promising rams for the season. Now his genes are already showing up in the first lambs born.

Not sure how they’ll keep their colour as they mature, but both these boys are darker than their mother. One black with a longer paler topknot, and one nearer grey, they both seem to have some ginger coming through. Both have little hairless nubs where their horns will develop, and the wirier body of the Shetland lamb – no chubbiness you associate with chocolate-box lambs. Stubby tails that won’t need docking, and giraffe-like necks. Still, just a morning on and when they’re not all dozing en famille, they have a fearless curiosity. There’s no doubt they’re keeping their little tummies full now.



9/4/13: the Bruiser in the Next Pen

P, N and I cleared out the deep litter in one of the sheep pens. Deep litter is where new bedding is put on top of mucky a few times, rather than clearing everything out when it’s used. Often used when livestock is overwintered, it builds up over time. This is only a few inches high – the sheep are out of the pens on decent days, so need to be able to walk up and down from it with their short legs. Still, it’s a different sort of forking job: more compacted, so each forkfull and barrowload is heavier, but inconsistent. So you can find yourself driving in to get it loosened, only to pitch forward when you hit a soft patch.

Still, the sheep seem to have appreciated it – the first Portland lamb was born on it. Another ram lamb, he’s been moved with his mother next to Frances and her twins in the laying-in pens. At 3 kg, he  seems  livelier and more developed than Frances’s pair – his miniature horns are already protruding. He’s a pale red-clay colour, which is how Portland’s come out, but he’ll fade to a more creamy fleece as he grows up, just keeping that washed-out reddish colour around his face. He’ll also develop cream coloured horns, winding away from his face – just like his mother.

Portland is another rare breed – so rare, it had to be reintroduced to Portland ‘island’ in the 1970’s. Still on the small side compared to currently favoured meat breeds – but bigger and chubbier than the wiry Shetlands. The first fleece I ‘just had to have’ was a Portland – and that before I even had the spinning wheel.

11/4/14: Yes, You Can Have Too Many Aunties

N and I looked at the sheep after ten pm last night, and then left, confident that ‘nothing was going on’. Only for P and N to arrive at 7am and find the sheep making a fuss: Shetland Ringlet had had twin lambs and they were so lively, one had popped through into the Portland’s pen. Ringlet’s a good mother, and so are a good few of the ewes, and since they didn’t have lambs of their own yet, they’d be happy to look after Ringo’s.

We wanted to put Ringlet and her lambs in a laying-in pen, to get a bit of peace, and to bond properly. When we picked up the lambs by their front legs and walked backwards towards the pen, showing them to Ringlet, she was happy to follow. So were most of the other ewes, so it needed some gentle forcefulness to get Ringlet into the barn and keep the other ladies-in-waiting out. Even after they were let into their own paddock, two of the sheep in particular kept up a calling vigil by the gate.

‘Auntie Syndrome’ in sheep is fairly common, and Buttercup the Shetland really was Ringlet’s sister, but the other strongest auntie contender was a Portland. They genuinely seemed to think we had taken their own lambs away. The piercing ‘Mere’ of a bereft ewe is a heart-rending mingling of foghorn and sink gurgle and reached us across the whole smallholding. We’d have done anything to comfort them, but you can’t cuddle a sheep better. P hopes they have their own lambs before the neighbours complain.

And Sheep May Safely Graze

The lambs born earlier in the week are healthy, energetic, and inquisitive. The Shetland twins in particular still have that giraffe look – all neck, with bony elbows in their back legs and poking head through their pen.

So it’s time for them to have some fresh air. We each pick up a lamb, open the pens, and holding the lambs low, start walking towards their paddock, calling the mum’s to follow. Mums are thrilled with the young grass and heads are down as soon as they make it through the gate. Big-eyed lambs catch up and latch on, so, with all well in their world, they look around and almost at once start to bounce four-legged. The youngsters look so tiny in the great outdoors, but they are fearless and welcome every new experience. I wish you could bottle that.

That leaves us alternating the morning rounds with sneaking peeps of the new lambs, heads-up to watch the pioneer explorers, and saying ‘There, there, soon be your turn,’ to the aunties.


Foraging Friday August 12, 2011

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