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Shepherd Stocktaking October 16, 2015

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Rooks are out gossiping

On the greening red soil

Where winter wheat’s coming.

Down ’ere, pheasant’s craking.

Yan,    tan.


Elderberries, rowan,

Drooping fat. Yellow leaves

Rippling, dribbling down.

Whispers of wind stir birds.

Tether mether.


Year’s coming round agen.

Nice dry day, I’ll dip em.

Get rid o’their burden

O’ ticks. Bloodsucking things.

Pip, azer.


Soon time to run tups in.

I’ve good strong lads, strong backs

And legs at each corner.

That’s ‘ow we breed ‘em up ‘ere.

Sezzer, akker.


Got to earn their keep up ‘ere.

Pay back fer the bad years

When snows come late, and cut

life-cord of still-wet lambs.

Conter, dick.


And bloodsucking buyers

Cut lamb wi’ horsemeat,

And still pay less deadweight.

Buzzards keen overhead.

Yanadick, tanadick.


Yon lambs had my nights’ sleep.

Pulling ‘em out, rubbing

Life into their bodies.

Gettin’ yows to give suck.

Tetheradick, metheradick.


The young ‘uns might gambol

And jostle fer hayrack,

But there’s bin no time

Ter stand and savour.

Bumfit, yanabum.

As spring turned to summer

I’ve checked ‘em fer footrot,

Seen the lot of ‘em sheared,

And cleaned their bums o’ maggits.

Tanabum, tetherabum.


The whole flock’s right gradely

And there’s hay in the yard.

I’ve med it come good agen.

Reckon I’ll do one year more.

Metherabum, jigget. Mark.


15/4/14 Good News and Facts of Life April 16, 2014

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15/4/14 Good News and Facts of Life

(If you haven’t already read ‘Smallholding Spring’ this will make more sense if you go there first) Relieved to find that Buttercup had her lambs the day after Ringlet, and they’re spending their days outside with the other ewes – with – lambs as the weather improves. The other aunties have settled down and stopped calling for lambs they don’t yet have.

They look a picture in the paddock, alternately dozing in the sun and exploring the vast green expanse – except I noticed the Portland lamb seemed a little bit stiff in his hind legs, but N put me right – P’s had to make a difficult decision since I was last here: six of the lambs born so far are rams and in big flocks, you only need one breeding ram for 40 ewes. So this is a bit of a surplus in the population. There’s no way there would be a market for that many whole rams, even in rare breed circles. So reluctantly, Pat’s asked her neighbour from the next-door farm to apply castration bands to these six.

Unwelcome as this is, there is an upside to the story: these wethers – because they’re no longer rams – will be able to stay with the flock beyond their first birthday. They’ll give their best fleece as shearlings, with more than the usual twelve months coat growth, and then be considered for the table. They won’t need to be separated out to prevent illicit couplings with relatives, and they’ll be much more biddable, less frisky. Just think of them as eunuchs at court if it makes you feel better.

16/4/14: Gathering In and Putting Out

The ladies-in-waiting know exactly where to go after a night in the pens, and are just as keen to come back in for the ewe nuts in the evening, so seeing to them is just about standing out of their way and giving them a clear run – a simple, single-handed job.

Not so easy with the ewes and lambs, though. Of course, the ewes remember, but they’re not going anywhere without their lambs. Now a ewe, if you stand in its way, usually works out that you want it to go the other way. Lambs though haven’t worked this out. They’re nippy, they only need a little gap, and they can jump over low obstacles. Oh, and they don’t stay together, so just when you’ve got a lamb moving in the right direction, and its mother tagging along, the other twin makes a break for it, Mum comes too, and as soon as you start to put that right, the first lamb takes advantage of the distraction to make its own bid for freedom. Multiply this by four mums and seven lambs and even three competent adults have their hands full. Twice a day. No wonder you don’t see many fat farmers.


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.

Farlands Journal, November 2013 January 2, 2014

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So glad to have this time-out at Farlands already planned. Although the notes have been sitting on the laptop, since getting back, they’ve had to take a back seat:

Sunday 17th – Bluetits for Breakfast

And chaffinches, robins, nuthatches. Then the great spotted woodpecker. The bird table is perfectly placed to watch from the dining table. This has to be the warmest, most comfortable, best-appointed hide I’ve ever spotted from. Not exactly taking turns, but establishing a pecking order – until the magpie came by. He soon took the hint though and left it for the smaller birds.SAM_0442

So far, the turkeys are proving more biddable than I expected: Four of them, and a decent sized paddock to spread themselves around, but they still go round as a group, weebling and obbling, and flapping their wings when they get agitated. That seems to be the key – keeping them calm and harnessing their pack instinct and curiosity, so that one moving in roughly the right direction persuades the rest to make for the coop at bedtime. And what a coop – made out of reclaimed materials, both windows are made from glass-paned hardwood doors, complete with stained glass and

letterbox. Their louvred front door provides ventilation and shelter from the elements.

In the morning, they come out stretching their wings and having a good shake to start the day. Then it’s a drink they’re after: heads down to sip a mouthful, then up to swallow it down, their long necks pulsing waves of peristalsis.

Turkey house from reclaimed materials

Stylish turkey house

The chickens are always welcoming, especially if you’ve interesting treats. They come running as soon as they spot me, and several are now happy to help themselves from my hand. I love the contented burps and burbles they make.

Not quite so keen to roost while there’s still a bit of light in the sky, they seem to have stronger minds of their own. Then the Warrens – the chunkier of the two breeds – seem to shuffle the smaller bantams along the perch, giving them less room than they would like. So a bantie will flap off the perch with a cackle, which will set off another one or two. Until from five in the coop and one to persuade in, now there’s only one inside and five to convince. But as the light goes, their instincts cut in and they want to be roosting above ground, safe from predators – which is why I’m trying to shut them up for the night. So at last, we’re on the same wavelength and as I lock them in for the night, they continue their comfortable clucks & chucks and shuffles as they settle.

Took my elevenses outside this morning – well wrapped up. The woodland around me is full of life – even as the leaves are falling. The Kinder river is out of sight, but noisier than in the summer. There’s more variety of colour now – reds in the small-leaved cotoneaster, yellows crisping to browns in the horse-chestnut, and across the valley, russets and gingers in bullion-stitch and French knot cushions.

Monday 18/11

For two days, the turkeys have been good as gold: coming running to greet me, and popping into the coop at bedtime with weebling half-hearted flutters. So I left them a little later this afternoon, and then the low cloud dropped even lower, bringing damp and darkness. The turkeys had put themselves to roost on a log-pile at the bottom of their paddock and didn’t like the idea of stepping out in the twilight, so took a little persuasion and it became just like rounding up silly sheep. Any move in roughly the right direction was good – especially if all four were making it. But there were the odd individual dashes for freedom, which on the whole, I redirected. They made straight up the incline towards the coop, rather than choosing the steps, but who cares – a shortcut is a shortcut, when all’s said and done, so I followed, until both feet slipped from under me. I dug in my staff and ended up flat on my face, muddy tracks up the length of me. – and four turkeys looking at me.

Well, after our extended exercise round the paddock, they finished with a lap round the coop, up the slope, and in.  Tarah!

After that, the chickens were easy – the dying light was their instinctual reminder to roost away from predators, so all they needed was the door shutting. So with mud peeling off me like falling leaves, and the temperature falling fast, it’s Turkeys 1, Julia 2.

Tues 19/11

Above the breakfasting birds, the sun is shining through a windbreak of light-starved pines, onto russet bracken-covered hillside – still sparkling with the last of the overnight frost. Every now and then, a short-lived gust finds its way into the valley – its path marked by a gentle spiralling shower of desiccated leaves.

small black horned sheep

Hebridean sheep?

stone cottages

Hill Houses hamlet


hoar frost on peaks

Hoar Frost from Hill Houses

Into the afternoon and there’s still a clear blue sky, with little wind – is there more frost to come? The walk to  the hamlet of Hill Houses exposes more north-facing hills still covered in hoar frost.  And also a small herd of diminuitive black sheep with curved ribbed horns. Hebrideans, I think – although I thought their tails would be shorter.

Hill Houses is big enough to be on the ordnance survey map, but you wouldn’t find it on a road map. Almost untouched, one of the houses has a date stone – 1723. Some of the homes look as if they might have been longhouses – where family and livestock would have been under one roof – sharing warmth. As well as being stone buildings, the track is cobbled. Well looked after, it would be easy to imagine yourself travelled back in time.

Wed 20th

The forecast snow fell as biting, driving rain, leaning pliable plants and ripping others. I found 2 eggs in the hen house today – the biology’s clearly saying this isn’t the time to think of chicks.

Treecreeper or nuthatch? Both is the answer – with the sun behind them, the shape and size are similar, but a clear view shows the nuthatch to have much brighter plumage. The nuthatches often come to the bird-table too, but the treecreepers seem to stay on the trees that bit further away.

Then the gusting wind blew the clouds over, replacing them with golden couple of hours. Only for the  low cloud to seep back bringing early dusk. Heavy overcast sky properly threatening snow now – 1pm and the lights are on. Grey squirrel in pine stand is made courageous by the failing lights – flicking his tail as he skips in and out of sight.

Closing up the chickens in the sleet, they’re not daft, 5 are already in and perched, 1 out found a  chicken hidey hole under the coop. I develop another new skill – nudging chicken bottoms.  Helped her make her mind up.

Then by 7pm, I’m peering out at an icing sugar dusting of snow, glittering in the light from indoors – no other lights in the valley, to betray signs of civilisation. Wind’s funnelling up the side of the cottage. Indoors, a log fire, although it’s not really needed.

Thurs 21/11

Taking chickens their elevenses, I heard sheep being moved on the hillside above. A couple of men and a dog ‘Away! Away!’ Half a dozen sheep split off from main flock and fled down into the wrong valley at its most precipitous. Technical shepherding term rang across the valley: ‘Oh kin ell!’ Looked like an early lunch stop to see if wanderers would rejoin flock of their own accord. Sheets of rain and rainbow swept briefly over the top, to be replaced by fleecy cumulous clouds against cerulean sky

Friday evening: took the torch round the building after hearing a noise, hoping for some interesting wildlife, but finding only frost on car – the day I left off the screen cover.

Sat 23/11/13

Broke the ice to refill chickens’ and turkeys’ water bowls. Big bright jays are flicking around after acorns.

After the hardest frost of the year so far, I came across a dead sheep: already, scavengers have called  – tufts of wool are pulled out & fluttering.  Nature clearing up after itself.

I came across a field of rainbow sheep – near the Hill Houses Hebrideans: a single badger-face – coffee table of a sheep; several Jacobs, plus odds and ends of other breeds I didn’t recognise. Is this a pen for rare-breed rams that have already done their duty? While I was working out what I was looking at, a farmer rattled in with a ram for the Hebrideans – this late in the season? That would make an April lambing. That’s what Eva’s doing this year, as opposed to the usual February. Brings home how knife-edge farming and smallholding can be: lamb too early and the unpredictable weather kills your newborns, too late and the price at market goes down as the neighbouring farmers get their lamb to market before you.

Jewel-Bright Redcurrants August 15, 2011

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Spent a while on Sunday picking redcurrants at the allotment then extracting the juice for jelly.  Follow up on yummy stuff – have you got a favourite jelly recipe?