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Thought Number 8 A Cool Evening and a Step into the Past

We work late into the evening. It’s a bit if a race to try and get the swathe of nettles down the middle of the cowfield before they seed.

Sometimes a mat of fibrous yellow roots comes away from the damp crumbly soil but that level of attention will have to wait until winter. We’re hoping to encourage a woodland edge flora underneath the outgrown hedge line of hazel and hawthorn– Red Campion, Foxglove, Wood Avens, Cow Parsley, Stitchwort, Hairy Woundwort and Ground Ivy to name a few which are common in this area.

The air feels a cool blue, the moor is purple in the distance and the sky is shot through with vapour trails. I can feel autumn around the corner, there is a papery sound in the sycamores, the tips of their leaves turning a dull brown. A bee is taking shelter in an old post and I can hear the loud rat-tat-tat of a wren in a nearby thicket. I watch a buzzard drop in a vertical plunge toward the ground.

The landscape around here has probably not changed much for centuries, the pattern of small fields, woods and streams have been in place for a good long while, though at one time the woods on the opposite hill were in cultivation. On some days in the winter when the sun catches it at the right moment you can see the skeleton of small strip fields, marked out by larger trees where their boundaries were.

There has definitely been a farm here since the 1600’s, and probably way before that too, as it’s a place with sun on it’s face and a water supply. Being here, you can’t help but think of all the people and animals that have gone before, for everywhere you look is a reminder of the past, from the shape of the land to an iron strap on a barn door or a stone wall made with hands which are long since buried.

And then I feel inexplicably pleased to see the washing on the line….

Thought Number 7 Cows don’t suffer from Status Anxiety

Life seems a process of replacing one anxiety with another and substituting one desire for another – which is not to say that we should never strive to overcome any anxieties or fulfil any desires, but that we should perhaps build into our strivings an awareness of the way our goals promise us levels of rest and resolution that they cannot, by definition, deliver.

Well, this is the kind of thing I and many of my friends have been musing on and grappling with for years, put here so eloquently by Alain de Botton in his book Status Anxiety. During a recent conversation with my friends E and G, we agreed that the pursuit of happiness was a non project that needed to be abandoned.

One of the many great things about cows is they don’t seem to suffer from this very human affliction. They may have a pecking order but once that’s established they just get on with life. Their meditation is eating grass and ruminating. I shall take note.

Introducing the cows…

Hello I’m Belita. I’m small and perfectly formed though I’m rather timid. Lucy is my big sister and she really bosses me around. 

 

Hello I’m Lucy. I’ve got big horns and I’m quite a beauty with a strong character.

Hello I’m Mary-Rose. To be honest you won’t find me in the show ring but all this pedigree nonsense is eugenics by another name isn’t it?

Thought Number 6 Celebrity Insects, Biodiversity and doing Battle with Buddleja

Painted Lady (borrowed from the web)

There’s another low coming from the west this weekend, I can already feel the wind ratchet up a notch. The butterflies must sense it may be their last chance for a while as there were plenty flitting about in the sun yesterday, avoiding the many dank corners which have been created this summer. It’s hard not to become fixated on exquisite perfection when I catch an extended view of a Peacock or a Painted Lady spreading it’s wings to soak up the rays. But this is only part of the story.

Nothing gets a nature conservationist frothing at the mouth more when yet another prime time TV programme urges people to plant Buddleja for butterflies.

Peacock (borrowed from the web)

But what these creatures really need is a wide range of food plants for the Larvae and Caterpillars which is the longest part of their life cycle, and then when they finally emerge for their brief and brilliant celebrity moment, they need a variety of nectar plants which last over an extended period.

Unsupported, Buddleja can be like a temporary bar in the middle of a desert – a place to gorge. Then what?

In the wild they have a propensity to spread so easily that they can eventually shade out other vital nectar plants, particularly in urban areas. This has finally been acknowledged in some of the more learned books on Flora but getting it across in popular culture is a mountain that no one seems willing to climb for fear of being a killjoy. Pah!

Peacock larvae (borrowed from web)

Now I’m thinking…were the Cows actually just a ruse to talk about Insects? No, no, no! I love the cows….so much so I have named them. The beginning of the herd.

PS. A wonderful little book on how to create a garden for wildlife is No Nettles RequiredThe Reassuring Truth about Wildlife Gardening by Ken Thompson. I borrowed the Peacock image from www.ivyfarmhousedairy.co.uk a farm in Somerset which farmed intensively for years and went organic 5 years ago with great results.

Thought Number 5 Which Kind of Cow

The heifers are enjoying the shelter and protection of the outgrown hedge down the centre of the field this morning. Once upon a time it was two fields but slowly the boundary has blurred, with intermittent gaps between overgrown branches of Hawthorn which form a shady bower where they take refuge from biting flies and the heat of the sun. They no longer mind me so much and only get up from their lying positions when I get very close. They are slowly becoming curious. I chose this old breed (Traditional English Hereford) www.traditionalherefords.net for their rarity, but mainly for their docility.

Cattle are pretty good grazers. They are selective, tugging with their tongues, seeking out the rough and the smooth and they leave some flowers and grasses to set seed rather than doing a complete hoover job like sheep and goats. And the result? More diversity in the plant communities of a pasture. The National Trust www.nationaltrust.org.uk are quite keen on these kind of traditional breeds for the management of the land too, because they aren’t too fussy about being out in all weathers and eat a variety of vegetation.

It’s misty and sunny all at the same time, violet and milky blue, and a perfect rainbow begins to materialise, one foot hovering in the river below, the other somewhere I can’t see. Squinting in the sun with raindrops falling on my hood I set about cutting nettles and hogweed at the foot of the hedgerow before they set seed. The cows approach, hoping that I have a treat for them, and I admire their wide white faces and long lashes. 275’s horns have definitely grown. 274 sniffs my back and tries to eat the polypropylene sack I’m using for collecting the seed heads.

Thought Number 4 Help We Need to Make Hay Part 2

The sun brings out some butterflies at last, a Gatekeeper and a Ringlet. The Red Campion and the Foxgloves are going over now, the Knapweed and Wild Carrot beginning to look like they might flower. The jet stream is being pushed north for a spell so we can expect a few days of summer.

After some initial dithering on Tuesday we decide it’s time to act. However B’s tractor has blown a head gasket and is out of action. Aware that there is only a slim window of opportunity we scan the horizon and spot a crew making small bale hay across the valley so I drive there and ask if there is any chance of helping us out – looking at the forecast we know we only have until Sunday afternoon to get it in. This young guy P, along with a whole array of neighbouring farmers, neighbours and friends, really pull out all the stops to help us out this week. So much of the time, not just for us, for anyone who manages land, is spent toiling away alone. It’s an amazing thing when that solitary cycle is briefly broken. We even loll about on the trailer afterwards, drink squash and eat biscuits and talk about the price of cushions.

It’s hard not to resist obsessively checking the forecast but the sky is deep blue with a few non threatening cumulous gathering at the edges. The air is heavy with the sound of machines. Because of all the rain, the grass is thick and it’s taking ages to dry, even with being turned every day. I go out with a pitchfork to turn some of the big lumps which are still green underneath. I do one whole field edge where the grass has piled up in the shade of the trees and pull it to the barer patches in the sun. It is very hot work but strangely compelling. In my solitary endeavour I imagine how it must have been in the past, when hundreds of people would have been out in the fields trying to get the hay in, backs bent into the work, and occasionally like me now, resting on the handle of the pitchfork, taking in the spectacular view over the valley and moors, the buzzards wheeling high on the thermals.

All hands on deck

We have six people on the case after D bales it on Sunday afternoon, the little rectangular blocks of hay coming out of the back of the baler like sausages. The weather has turned and the dark clouds have multiplied but it stays dry apart from a few random drops. P and S stay around with their mighty trailer and we all pile the bales on and unload them at our concrete block shed across the road, getting to and fro on the back of the trailer. It reminds me of my childhood when we used to help the local farmer with the hay in the field next to our house. Then, when the trailer was piled as high as possible he would let us ride on top the bale grabber, hands tightly gripped onto the prongs while we grinned with glee when he manouvered it up and down.

The last thing we hear as we fall asleep around midnight is the big baler across the road still working, wrapping the huge round bales in plastic, doing it’s twisty twirly dance in the dark. I wake in the night and the rain has returned, pit pattering on the slates with its familiar tune.

cows getting a bit more friendly now

Thought Number 4 Please Help We Need to Make Hay Part 1

The Dark Sky

It is the wettest June since 1910, which is when records began. The grass is still standing in the fields, we are desperate to have it cut but we have to wait along with everybody else. I guess too that we will be at the end of the chain when it comes to mowing, turning and baling, given that we are dependent on others.

Docks and Thistles are thrusting their way through the grass at a great rate, the penalty for leaving it so long. L is tearing her hair out and has decamped to Manchester for the weekend (she leases a 165 acre organic biodynamic farm down the road). It really is relentless. I went into the sea of green with the intent of beheading some Creeping Thistles and seeding Docks, trying not to crush the trembling top heavy stems of the grasses – Crested Dogstail, Yorkshire Fog, Sweet Vernal, Sheep’s Bit, False Oat, Cock’s Foot – along with Sorrel and Clover. A Meadow Brown butterfly flits around in the damp air as I work.

Ok so it’s not a Snail but you get the idea what we’re dealing with…

At midnight I go to charge B’s buggy and I count 89 snails on the ground in the torchlight on the short journey between the house and the barn. There would have been 90 but it was the crunch underfoot which alerted me to to their abundance. A good year for the molluscs. I go to check the dahlias in the polytunnel and hear a pair of eery owls very close in the huge Sycamore at the bottom of the field.

I woke up the next morning to the sparrows chattering as usual in the holes we’ve made for them in the stonework. I wonder how big the swallow chicks are. We only have one nest this year, though this is an improvement on last year when they deserted us completely. As I wake up I realise it’s actually sunny. Hurrah! finally there is a break in the dismal days of rain – it’s moving east – and leaving dry weather. We begin to hope.

Swallow Fledgings getting ready for First Flight

Two Swallow Fledging with an Encouraging Parent

Thought Number 3 A Moorland Interlude and Enjoying the Journey

I peel off from the holiday traffic on the A30 and head off across Bodmin Moor for home. The road is signposted Blisland. I always love the rumble of iron as my wheels go over the cattle grid, the physical sensation which marks the separation of the normal world with this ancient place. My friend T, who runs a lovely yurt holiday camp on the moor www.cornishyurtholidays.co.uk, and who I happen to be chatting with at the time, swears that this particular turning sends you into a Bermuda style triangle of lanes and ditches which lead you everywhere except where you want to go. But I reflect that it’s all about enjoying the journey so along with the bleak hills I get to see the soft velvety hillocks of moss below drystone walls and windblown scrubby oaks covered with ferns and dripping with the palest green filigree lichen, wild ponies and free range sheep. And more cows. Always cows.

Thought Number 2 The Cows Arrive and Where Life Starts

Ten days ago.

The sky is a luminous blue and the cumulus are randomly gathered in huge silent piles on the horizon. I walk up through the top field with the breeze making the tips of the inflorescences ripple and shimmer in the sun. I’ve got my eye out for Spear Thistle which I pull before it’s millions of tiny seeds make new ones. We leave some to flower and go over at the edges of the field so that the birds can feast on them. This way, we get what we want – good hay –and the birds get what they want – a food source.

Looking back from the top I can see Bodmin Moor in the distance, its bare granite hills scattered with slabs of rock. I’m getting hot and I imagine swimming in the quarry up there, the water heavy and cold, and our voices echoing back to us from the steep vertical sides of stone.

The swallows are back in the yard, we think to raise a second brood in the lean to. I saw one this morning on its feet collecting mud, a rare sight as they are usually on the wing.

I walk over to the valley field to clear out the water trough. There is black sludge at the bottom and the remnants of last year’s leaf fall. I scoop out the sludge and a frog emerges and hops into the grass, its camouflage skin peppered with bright green dots of duckweed. The smell of anaerobic decay wafts up from the piles and not long after a newt emerges, tiny prehistoric hands doing a strong job clawing through the leaves, and it finally pops out with a wriggle of its tail. I always think that this is where life starts, in the slime. Soon after I see another two and I put them all in my palm and rehome them in the pond in the front yard. I’m sure they don’t appreciate the interference but I’m not sure they’d stand a chance once the cows get their heads in the trough.

I spend rest of the day anxiously waiting for the heifers to arrive. They finally arrive in a small truck at 4.30, he drives down to the far gate of the valley field and my sister C and I stand in the lane to block their escape. They are extremely timid and don’t want to come down the ramp but the driver gives them a prod through the bars of the truck, telling us later that one of them is a kicker which is why he didn’t want to get in with them. We back off a bit and they come down the ramp and fly into the field, kicking their hind legs into the air and running straight through the electric fence with barely a twitch, the one which we’ve put up to protect the hay crop. They crash through the long grass down to the bottom of the field. Carefully laid plans and all that. As they have been indoors for nearly three weeks it must be an amazing thing to be outside again and they quickly get down to their favourite occupation – eating grass. I hope that at some point they will come looking for the water trough as it is hot and they have been travelling for hours. They are incredibly skittish and wary, trotting off in alarm as soon as I get near. Even a tasty treat of rolled oats fails to bring them closer. But I can already notice the differences between them, one is prettier, one is bolder. We decide to leave them to recover from the travelling for a while and worry about the destruction of the hay later. It must be hard for them being separated from their herd and they are probably in a panic, trying to get away from the unpredictable and high energy human beings.

I try not to feel disheartened that they don’t love me yet. Instead I have lunch. The sun is hot and there is a breeze rippling the long grass. Butterflies flit around and I can hear the snap of seeds popping and the drone of machines in the distance – strimmers, mowers, combines, turners, balers – and a model helicopter whirring and whining in a nearby garden. A wood pigeon coos in a distant tree. I munch on a sandwich, taking in the view, this moment, this life.

The Girls have Arrived

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