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Posts from the ‘Farming’ Category

My Heart Belongs to Mist and Freetown Klondyke

27th October. The storm of St Jude sweeps in from the west, gathering strength and we view it in satellitic swirls moving across the Atlantic. We batten down the hatches and secure anything that is likely to break free. I move the car away from the potential teetering of our tall pole barn which sways disturbingly in a high wind. It’s been raining all day but the worst of the wind is scheduled for the night.

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Later, I stand on the step in the dark, and feel the sharp sprays of rain on my cheek, the wind bouncing around in my ears. I can hear a menacing rumble at the horizon and tree branches are shaking and lashing together. I wonder if the cows are in their shelter and I’m tempted to go over there, but the thought of flying sheets of corrugated iron and tumbling ash branches encourages me to stay put in front of the fire. As it turns out, St Jude is a bit of a damp squib in these parts, a big storm but not a colossal one, and he whirls on through, travelling east, tearing up trees as he goes, in Temple Meads, on Hilly Fields.

The pigs in the pictures above belong to a friend who leases a 200 acre organic biodynamic farm not far from here – they have recently benefited from the Natural England Higher Level Stewardship scheme and grant which has made life a lot easier. Last year I went on a trip to a farm in Somerset to see some South Devon cattle she was interested in buying.

Winter temperatures have arrived despite a lone poppy making a brave stand on the brown roof. Water troughs start their seven month brimming. The land has become squelchy and soggy though the pasture still looks fresh. As the leaves fall different views are revealed.

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We moved the cows back into the Cow Field and there was sadly very little excitement from them…they just got down to their favourite occupation…eating. Which just goes to prove that cows are also stimulated by the new and unexpected in the same way we are. Last time they were far more thrilled by their unfamiliar surroundings. We have started supplementing their diet with some hay which helps them process the wet grass better.

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The time has now come for thinking about putting the the cows into calf. They are just over 2 years old. Regular readers will know that we lost our bull earlier this year so we have been thinking about how they are going to get pregnant. These are their pedigree certificates. I like their names, they are stupidly grand – Lower Eaton Ruby 14th, Lower Eaton Ruby 15th and Lower Eaton Amethyst 5th.

Buying another bull has now been rejected because after reflection it was decided that it would be good to be able to keep any female calves in the herd and we don’t have enough land to keep them separated from a bull. Hence our decision to go down the AI (Artificial Insemination) route. Welcome to the whole new world of The Semen Catalogue

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What about any of the above? I quite liked the look of Freetown Klondyke  …. until I had a long conversation with the extremely knowledgeable P from the Traditional Hereford Society who seemed to be able to recall the names of all the bulls going back to the 1960’s. He put the names of the girls into his computer and the clever software tells him which would be the most suitable donors…as there are only a relatively small number of the breed it is important to expand the bloodlines. Ours come from the Silver family apparently, the biggest.

Then and now.

Rowington Trump Card (1960’s), Gensyns Lionheart (1960’s), Llandinabo Quirk, Llandinabo Mackie

These are the names of the bulls which we should select from. There are others but they are reserved for breed improvement on a commercial scale.

He also advised that the best time for them to calve is in February because on our rich pasture it is difficult to keep them lean enough to calve easily in the growing season. (What, the girls, fat?!) I had heard this before and it is true that they do get extremely rotund on grass – one of the main reasons they are cherished as a beef breed because they require so little input. So we have decided to wait until next May to do the AI.

The other thing he suggested was that we get a young steer who will let us know when they are in season (bulling) as it is not always easy to tell. We have definitely noticed when they are bulling as they moo plaintively and pace up and down next to the fence, the other side being where the Limousin bull resides. But it doesn’t seem to last long at all – a kind of blink and you miss it scenario. You’d hope a steer would be more attuned to what’s going on…

In the meantime the world around us is changing…October2103 134

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I love the softness of the autumn days, misty and strange.

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And this fine fellow of brown, a South Devon bull belonging to L & J

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And this fine fellow, also of brown.

Until the next time.

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Looping the Bounds

A bowl of plums stands on the kitchen table, ripening one at a time. It’s been a good year for fruit.

Though I felt for the cherry farmer who’s crop ripened all at the same time because of the July heatwave. To grow them reliably in this country the trees have to be tented to protect them from … too much rain, too little sun, too much sun… and of course the wind. Gone are the days of thirty foot  trees and tapering high ladders. These cherries are grafted onto a small rootstock. The huge investment has been made and it’s thirty miles of tenting which has to be raised or lowered according to need. The farmer and his workers are lean.

A balloon flying over

A balloon flying over

This September morning I will loop the bounds, walking out around the three and a half acres which encircle us. I step into the front yard and survey the slight devastation which the cows have wreaked on the galvanised trough planted with Black Scabious , Orange Cosmos and Cornflowers.

Traditional English Hereford www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Yup, that’d be you

We moved the cows into the field behind the house after the hay was finally cut and baled in August (another 280 bales, distributed between us and others).

This was their first visit and they were suitably excited.

Traditional English Herefords www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

We put them in here to forage as they were getting a little rotund in the cow field. Now they seem to be lying down a lot, like it’s all a bit exhausting.

Traditional English Herefords www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Traditional English Herefords www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

We cleared out the ground floor of the shippen so they have some undercover quarters should it take their fancy, but this entails them traversing the front yard, a cow free zone up til now, and hence the predation on my flowers. But I have always imagined them using the shippen just like our predecessor Mr. Creeper did. His cows used to come in the front door. We’re working on it.

Traditional English Hereford www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

I carry on. Astonishing worlds of spiders webs are draped in the damp stalks. A wren rat-tat-tats from the front  hedgerow where the young Elms are, descendants of the huge trees which once stood here and gave this place locally the name ‘the Elms’. Let’s hope the Ash doesn’t suffer the same fate. I can hear a plane, our neighbour crunches across the gravel and tinkers with something in the shed and a nuthatch barks from the phone wire, perhaps already staking a claim on a stony hole. The swallows are still here, flying high in the sky, clicking and wheeling. Although some kind of catastrophe befell our only pair I was pleased to catch some young fledglings over at T & N’s place when I went to visit the new calf.

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Swallow Fledglings on Wire www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

New calf? I hear you say.

Yes! Born only a few weeks ago to T & N’s Hollyhock this little heifer was sired by Herald, who, for those that don’t already know, was our shared bull who we had to have culled earlier this year due to Johnes disease. Luckily the disease is not passed onto calves in this way. This is Hollyhock’s first calf and she did splendidly. I missed the actual birth but arrived a couple of hours later and she let us approach quite close and only the next day allowed T to pick the calf up and move her indoors. Well done Hollyhock.

Traditional English Hereford Cow and New Calf www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Two hours old

A wood pigeon is cooing high in the canopy and I can hear the jackdaws calling and cackling, landing and then swooping low over the field. The sun is warming things up and a tortoiseshell butterfly is spread out on the ground on some small stones then moves to a post. The Purple Knapweed has gone over, hard black seed heads silhouetted like little soldiers. A few bees are still buzzing around late flowers and the Goat Willow which has self seeded in the front of the house has been stripped of its leaves by the cows. I go through a gate into the garden, a development project which is still at the thinking stage for the moment.

The apple tree is weighted by both fruit and time, this one planted many years ago, it’s flattened profile telling of an espaliered moment. Bill Mackenzie, a yellow clematis, is curled around the swing seat supplying a nectar filling station for late honeybees. It’s whiskery whorls mingle with the bright sepals. One side of the garden boundary is the stone wall of the barn. In front of this are the collapsing stems of Wild Carrot, Yarrow, Woundwort, Deadnettle, Ragged Robin and Meadow Cranesbill.  Windfalls stud the grass.

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Leaving the garden I move on into the new orchard, part of the back field. Here we have the compost heap and the polytunnel.  The trees are still young and have been slow to get established because of the wind but they are just beginning to produce a small amount of fruit. Sadly, a flurry of anticipation for a few pears was hijacked by a splitting event and then a wasp feeding frenzy. Empty husks of pears floated to the ground like lanterns. Sigh. The Dahlias did well though and they’re still going strong in the polytunnel.

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The hedgebank here is full of Wood Avens, Foxglove and Bramble.  The leathery straps of the Harts Tongue Fern are still green, feet-deep in between the stones and the one time feathery upstanding  grasses; of Foxtail, Bent and Yorkshire Fog, are breaking up and bending down.

Senescence

I can see the cows coming down this way as my footsteps make a squeaky sound on the wet grass. Walking up the field, the hedgerow is a jumble of Bramble, Hawthorn, Hazel, Ladys Bedstraw and Dogrose. A young Ash which we’ve allowed to grow away is now fifteen feet, heavy with ash keys drooping like pea pods. A glossy compact Holly nestles comfortably, belonging in its place, and on the bank a plethora of next years Red Campion seedlings jostle one another in a thick bloom.

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I duck under the electric fence which divides the field from the orchard and behind the birdsong I hear the rumble of traffic up on the top road a mile away. Rabbits have been making new holes as this years’ youngsters claim new territory. The blackberries are fat, dark and shiny, really black. They remind me of my grandparents in Kent and how we used to go out blackberrying and my grandmother would make blackberry and apple pudding or crumble. They loved their damsons too and told us stories of picking fruit during the war years. We are not the only ones who like the berries, flies are also fond. Bluebottle, Greenbottle, Horsefly, Dungfly, Biteyfly and a black one with tawny down trousers. A crow caws from neighbouring airspace, the woodpigeon coos again. On the reddy-orange hips of the Dogrose I find a peculiar growth.

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Ivy wraps itself closely around the branches of a leaning hawthorn, a twiny embrace. Tiny green nodules are just beginning to show in clusters, when they turn black it will be a winter feast for the birds. Bramble leaves are just going over; red,orange, bright green and yellow. I walk up the finger of land, rising all the time. I look back to the moor, there is a heavy grey cloud squatting on top of a misty tor, while in the foreground small sloping fields criss crossed with hedges hug the contours of the land. A flock of sheep pour into a waist thinning gateway, then spill out again, like an egg timer.

As part of the ongoing hedgerow restoration project we released a Holly from the thickets of Hazel a couple of winters ago. It is now is shooting strongly from the trunk where the light has been let in while some young Oaks have a chance to get away. The idea is to have mostly hedge, with larger trees at intervals. Hedgerows are invaluable for wildlife and it is part of the conservation here on the farm. It’s one of the reasons we get the Environmental Stewardship subsidy.

I reach the top of the finger and beyond the gate is a bright green field with black and white dairy cows lying down. It looks attractive in a clean kind of way but this kind of pasture is what conservationists might call a ‘green desert’, a monoculture landscape devoid of biodiversity. The cows look young; this is the less intensive part of their lives, before they are pressed into service to provide us with a constant source of cheap milk. This demand makes dairy cows the hardest working animals in farming with the squeezed farmers needing to monopolise every square inch of land into production. No such luck for a dairy cow to enjoy her calf like Hollyhock. They will be separated when they are only two days old. When I start to think about it, it doesn’t sound good. Apparently, in the UK, the average working lifespan of a dairy cow is around four lactations (milk-producing periods), and hence many dairy cows are culled when they are relatively young. On the plus side, at least the RSPCA, along with some other organisations are working together to campaign for higher welfare standards for European dairy cows and we as consumers can help by looking for either the Freedom Foods labelling, or failing that, organic.

I then experience what a lot of people do – a concern which is ignited and then changes into a feeling of general overwhelm at the enormity of the task. So, as I pass a beautiful mature Ash, I look up into its branches and get lost. But I will do what I can. It’s an ongoing process.

I come to the outward facing corner on the east of the finger and here is a large Oak with a really nice big bulbous base which a strand of rusty barbed wire running through it which the bark has swallowed in a ripple. The acorns have begun to fall, they are fresh green at the moment, cupped in knobbly cradles with a perky stalk. From here the big Sycamore behind the house is just getting a coating of rust.

I turn into the last stretch back down towards the house. I sit down by Lucy who doesn’t mind me at all and see a tiny ladybird crawling along a stem of grass. The cows are lounging by what we hope one day will be a pasture woodland – not in our lifetime of course, but in a hundred years it might look pretty good. The thicket of Holly and Hazel at the gate is full of chirping birds. The Nightshade is heavy with berries and the Hazel is already forming catkins. This is the spot where we had our temporary home, the straw bale house with caravan attached. You’d never know anything was ever there now, just a few months and the only sign is the blue plastic standpipe now lying in the grass.

My last stop is the upper floor of the shippen, now satisfyingly full of the straw we saved from the balehouse which now gives the cows their bedding (which they also sometimes eat, incomprehensibly). Oh and all those things destined for a car boot sale.

One day.

September is also a month of beautiful skies. Here are some of them.

Until the next time…

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Mary’s Thick Skin

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the cows’ arrival, they have been here a whole year.  We have really enjoyed getting to know them and the gentle rhythm they bring to the days. At the end of last month it was TB testing time. A positive result inevitably ends in slaughter so I was not looking forward to it at all. This area is quite high risk for TB and most farmers build in a certain amount of loss into their herds.  I’m not sure this is possible with only three! Maybe this is why my friend L counselled that I shouldn’t get too attached. Fat chance.

Anyway I won’t spin this out, they all passed. Hurrah.

However, there was a nervous moment when the vet kept Mary-Rose in the crush for longer and had to check her several times. But, she concluded, it was because Mary’s skin was thicker anyway. Funnily enough even though this was a bit of a surprise, it seemed to fit. She has always looked heavier and clumpier than the dainty Belita or the handsome Lucy. As with people, so with cows.

Traditional English Herefords www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

The look of alarm as they become aware of what’s coming.

Traditonal English Hereford in Cattle Crush www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Friend T helps with the crush. No you can’t turn around in that…

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The vet doing the business and the vets intern who may be a vet one day. This also gives you an idea of how small the breed is. They are nearly two and not quite full grown but even so…

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Haymaking next…

Detonated Summer – Conservation Grazing

Held back, waiting, cool days feeling more like autumn.

Then summer just detonated and caught up with itself, compressing into one week, hampered vegetation finally released from bondage. Mildly shaggy hedgerows and fields have turned to full blown fireworks.

And the jet stream has finally gone north and we sigh in collective relief.

A warm breeze, sun on the face. Heat.

Wildflower Bank www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

The sunny bank on the roadside. It used to be dominated with nettle, bramble and an escaped mint. Lots more species now.

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I thought this might be a good time to explain a little more about what we’re doing here on the farm. At this time of year we are busy with habitat management. This basically means pulling out species which have a propensity to become dominant, so that a wider variety of wild plants can get a foothold.

oxeye daisies www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

To help things along we haven’t fertilised the land for over ten years, as wild flowers are not too keen on this. Too much fertility allows the more thuggish species to ascend, shading out their more delicate cousins with their lush foliage and rapidly advancing root mats.

wild flowers www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

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It all needs to be cut at the right time too, after flowering and seeding, and before it becomes rank and wet in autumn.

wild flowers www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

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The cows are all part of this management regime, they are ‘conservation’ grazers.

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Traditional English Herefords www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com
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What is Conservation Grazing? I hear you ask.

Conservation grazing is one that benefits wildlife, landscape and cultural heritage. It is designed to meet nature conservation objectives – which in our case is to optimize sward structure for invertebrates, small mammals and birds.

rabbit in meadow www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Actually rabbits are not the small mammals to which I was referring but I like the picture so it’s in.
Rabbits cause damage to landscape features such as hedgebanks.
And did you know they have something in their urine which prevents grass from growing. Clever.

Elderflower www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Elderflower champagne

Why graze?

In the UK nearly all the areas which we value for conservation interest form part of cultural landscapes created by humans, often as a side product of subsistence agriculture. Grazing livestock and associated activities played a key role in the formation and maintenance of many semi-natural habitats including grassland, heathland and pasture-woodland, through slowing the successional trajectory of these habitats towards increased woodland cover.

sparrow fledgling www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

A very noisy sparrow fledgling almost ready to fly

In addition to maintaining or restoring such habitats, grazing is also an essential component of many habitat (re)creation projects, for example managed reversion from arable fields to species-rich grassland or the recreation of heathland.

wild meadow www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Grass in the Triangle Field – quite a few species don’t you think? Not brilliant, but going in the right direction.

Livestock affect vegetation communities through removal of biomass. This allows less competitive species to become established as dominant plant species are reduced. Trampling also creates areas of bare ground, which may be suitable for plant regeneration from seed or seedbanks, and are beneficial for invertebrates and herptiles.

wild meadow www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Together with grazing and browsing, physical damage to vegetation from lying, rolling and pushing can also increase structural diversity. High grazing pressure may limit scrub expansion and in some cases reduce scrub cover. Many invertebrate species are also dependent on the dung that livestock produce (over 250 species of insects are found in or on cattle dung in the UK), while dunging patterns can result in the redistribution of nutrients.

A cows tail is very useful in the heat. Swish swish.

A cows tail is very useful in the heat. Swish swish.

There are many examples of species that benefit from grazing. Many individual plant species benefit, while habitats such as flower-rich meadows are dependent on grazing. Ground-nesting wading birds such as lapwing or snipe need grazing to create the varied sward structure needed to fledge their young successfully. A number of species of bats including both species of horseshoe bat depend on a mixture of invertebrate-rich habitats in which to forage, including grazed pasture and meadows.

wild flowers www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

See that window? That’s where the bats come and eat the moths which gather near the light. Sometimes better than TV. Poor moths. But happy bats. And good moth habitat…

What can conservation grazing achieve?

Many conservation organisations now have their own livestock or work closely with local farmers to ensure that grazing continues on wildlife sites that need it. At the same time, farmers are encouraged through Environmental Stewardship to use grazing regimes that will benefit wildlife. A growing number of farmers and other land managers (that would be us) are making a conscious decision to tailor grazing management on their lands to meet nature conservation objectives.

wild flowers www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

In addition to a wildlife-rich countryside, conservation grazing can deliver substantial benefits to local communities. Local production of good quality meat and dairy produce with high welfare standards is a key outcome of many conservation grazing schemes. Such schemes can play a role in rejuvenating rural economies while using traditional rural skills such as stock husbandry which are in decline. Visitors to grazed sites with public access often enjoy watching free-ranging animals, and in some cases enjoy becoming involved as voluntary stock checkers, helping to keep an eye on livestock.

Traditional English Hereford www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

When it’s really hot there’s only one place to be. Next time you see a field of cows with no shade or shelter think of this.

So conservation grazing is not about looking back to a ‘golden age’ where rural practices optimized biodiversity, but looking forward to ways in which sustainable management of the countryside will benefit both the wildlife and the communities who live there.

Old Iron Implements www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Another kind of conservation…

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The above text is an edited version from The Grazing Animals Project

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So, that is mainly what we are doing with the cows (apart from loving them of course). As Francis Pryor says in his book The Making of the British Landscape it really doesn’t take that long to improve biodiversity and habitat with the right management. He’s also a WordPress blogger.

When they have their calves in approximately a year’s time we will have to make a decision about what to do next. Apart from trying to conserve this rare breed (that’s the cultural heritage) there’s the question of the male calves. Taking Herald to the abbatoir was a bit of an eye opener. As a meat eater I hadn’t really thought too hard about the grisly business of slaughter and it has had quite an impact on me. It was also the sheer number of animals going through which was pretty horrific – all to satisfy our desire to eat meat whenever we choose.

Livestock breeds poster in barn www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

I started reading around the subject in an attempt to process all the confusing emotions which it stirred and in the end decided that there is an argument for eating some meat – just not all the time and much better to be savoured as something special. Ex vegetarian and environmental campaigner Simon Fairlie argues in his book Meat, A Benign Extravagance that it is far better environmentally to eat a small amount of locally sourced meat than to constantly eat flown in vegetarian staples or luxuries such as baby corns and mange tout which are often produced by poor countries where the people are hungry.

Livestock do a very useful job in taking care of huge amounts of vegetation which we are unable to process and meat is highly nutritious and scores very highly on a weight to weight comparison with other foods. However, he is keen to point out, this is not a green light to eat as much meat as one desires, just that it should be occasionally, local and be reared to high welfare standards. It’s not always easy to find and identify this kind of meat so a lot needs to change on this front but where there’s a will there’s a way.

Light on wall www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

This amazing light pattern was caused by a pan lid.

There is a really good review of it here if you’re intrigued. A very interesting book to read though slightly heavy on the figures but these are needed to prove the environmental impact studies.

Anyway, it has meant a change in eating habits around here. We were never huge consumers of meat but now most meals are vegetarian. And although we always bought local meat, vigilance has been stepped up.

There is loitering on the stairs in hot weather

There is loitering on the stairs in hot weather

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Simon Fairlie also imports Austrian scythes which have been made at the same place since the 1500’s. I had a go on one the other day and it was really light and user friendly. Visit the Scythe Shop to find out more about them. They are expensive but you couldn’t find a better bit of kit. I managed to scythe a few square metres in a matter of a minute. Better still, go to the Scythe Festival in Somerset which is held every year in June.

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It’s not all work work work though… !

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Swimming at Bossiney Haven at high tide

Swimming at Bossiney Haven at high tide

The Crush, the Pond and the Hothouse

Phase 1 of Operation Crush Training is now complete.

The hard standing is down, the fence and gate erected and the cattle crush in place. Next, it’s time for the girls to come through, lured as usual with their favourite thing – food. I close the gate, leaving them behind it and a pile of hay in the new corral. The only thing which separates them from their hearts desire is the crush. After some nervous sniffing they gingerly step onto the boards. It all goes very well and I’m relieved. Now they are like old hands at coming in and out of the crush.

Next phase…trapping them inside it… gulp. I will keep you posted.

Traditional English Hereford Heifers www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com d

The Slow Approach

Traditional English Hereford & Cattle Crush www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Mary Rose keenest (on hay)

Traditional English Hereford & Cattle Crush www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Traditional English Hereford & Cattle Crush www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Next is Belita (surprisingly)

Traditional English Hereford & Cattle Crush www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Come on Lucy

Traditional English Hereford & Cattle Crush www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

That’s it good girl

Traditional English Hereford & www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Very happy

And just to show you how much they really like hay…

Traditional Eglish Herefords www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Tucking into T’s hay which he is transporting home

Traditional English Hereford www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Yes, caught you!

Phase 1 of Pond Rehabilitation is now complete.

We had the pond dug out with a digger a few years ago. It doesn’t have a liner but fluctuates with the water table. While I was moaning about the relentless rain here I happened to go on Twitter (yes, I’m doing that) and found out that yesterday it was World Water Day so I tried to think of all the people and places in the world who have no access to clean water and are suffering terrible drought. It did help.

I think I mentioned that digging the pond had somewhat cured our damp problem in the house. Somewhat…. Our plan is to attract as much wildlife as possible and the pond really helps with this. The birds love to bathe and drink and there are hundreds of creatures in there. Periodically it does need a clear out and I did this a couple of weeks ago. My, that weed is HEAVY. There were a few casualties but I’m afraid that is the price which has to be paid – but the starlings and the blackbirds had themselves a good feed.

Natural Pond www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

The pond when it was first dug – very brave very pale man

Wildlife Pond www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comPond Weed Clearing www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Wildlife Pond in Rain www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

The pond on World Water Day 22 March 2013

Starlings in Winter www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Not sure when the starlings will fly back – it’s pretty cold in Russia and Northern Europe right now

Phase 1 of Getting Excited about Spring is now complete.

Despite the still wintry weather there is a gleam in the eye of springs’ arrival. The equinox has passed and the buds are waking and breaking. Last week on a bitter day I went with my mother and stepfather to the RHS garden at Wisley. To be honest the majority of our time was spent in one of the cafés and the gift shop where they have ACRES of lovely enticing books on horticulture, design, nature and landscape.

I bought a book called Edgelands written by two poets, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts which I’m really looking forward to – it forms, according to the back cover

a critique of what we value as wild, and allows our allotments, railways, motorways, wasteland and water a presence in the world, and a strange beauty all of their own

If you want to read about a walk in the edgelands Gerry has done one here called ‘Along the Garston Shore’ which I think is great – and tells you a bit more about the book and when the phrase was first coined.

Anyway, we also went to the warm glass houses where the orchids and other amazing flowers and cacti were an uplifting treat.

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It only needs the jet stream to shift a little and some of that spring warmth to awaken the beast!

In Which the Harsh Realities of Farming are Experienced

I suppose you might put it down to a lack of experience or an omission of rigour on our part but whatever, it does seem especially cruel that we have to lose Herald, our bull, (about who you can read here and here if you’re interested), before he has had a real chance to become part of things. Not to mention the economic blow which last week’s news has dealt us.

This story, as always, begins with a blood test.

Vet taking blood sample from cow www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

I travelled over to T & N’s to witness the routine TB testing of Herald, Woodbine, Daisy and Hollyhock and Woodbine’s calf. The vet was also doing a general blood test and checking to see if the cows were in calf, whether Herald had done what he was supposed to. The seeming lack of activity on this front had introduced doubt into our minds, so when it was revealed that at least two of them are definitely pregnant, and a possible for the other, there was excited relief all round. Which made the vet say in a practical and slightly incredulous way why wouldn’t they be in calf?

TB & blood testing cattle  www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

You know you’re getting old when the vet looks about ten (the one in green)

 

The vet was very helpful and assisted with some resistance on the cows’ part, apparently unusual in some older vets, who sometimes just stand around waiting impatiently while you struggle to move an unwilling beast securely into position. She was also really happy to answer my many and possibly annoying questions. All in all a very positive experience, especially when four days later they were all cleared for TB. She also reassured us that the skin complaint would probably clear up in better weather but to be on the safe side she gave them a coverall shot for mites and other beasties which can live on the skin.

Happy, we moved them to a new area.

Moving Traditional English Herefords Cornwall  www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Traditional English Hereford Bull

Herald in his new foraging area

So when I got a call from T to say that Heralds blood test had come back positive for Johne’s disease it was a shock. This disease is a contagious, chronic and fatal infection of the small intestine which can take years to manifest but will eventually kill the animal. They can also pass it on, mainly to young calves.

The upshot of this is that we have to have Herald culled, even though he is showing no signs of the disease yet. We can’t risk him infecting the others, especially the newborns in 8 months time. What isn’t entirely clear is whether those new calves will carry the disease too. The other grim factor to consider is that at this stage, his carcass will be worth something. Not nearly as much as we paid for him, but it will be something.

Of course we are kicking ourselves that we didn’t get all the tests done on Herald before we made the bank account denting purchase. But it is considered very low risk in beef cattle, being mostly a disease which affects dairy herds.

It is a very sad day that our journey with Herald has ended here. I feel like I was just beginning to get to know him and feel less intimidated because of his genuine gentle nature and T & N have certainly become fond as he became part of their lives over the last few months.

He will be missed.

Winter Sunset Cornwall  www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Jobs Getting Done Frogs Getting Busy

There’s always a slow period in winter when necessary renewal needs to occur at a fundamental level. A kind of hibernation. I find that living close to the land it’s easier to get a sense of this.

Does anyone else feel like this dormouse?   (No, not you, you southern hemispherans…)

dormouse

But jobs still need to be done.

The incredible amount of rain we’ve experienced over the last year has not made things easy.

Drip on branch  www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Very drippy.

However, in the last couple of weeks a few projects have started to get underway.

Digger www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Digging out the corral and filling with crushed stone to make hard standing instead of quagmire.

Cattle corrall near completion  www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

The small gap to the left of the gate is where the crush will go.

Hedge cutting winter 2013  www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Hedge cutting before the nesting season. We cut ours every two years to allow the animals and birds a chance.

I also move the cows to the Triangle Field to graze down the grass there. It’s only just across from the Cow Field so I hope it’s going to be pretty straightforward. I get some sheep hurdles at our local farmers shop which provide, along with a couple of cars, a corridor to the Triangle Field.

They follow the bale of hay quite obediently (I make sure there is a long interval since their last feed) until H’s dog gives an excited little bark which sends Belita (the nervy shy one) careering back into the Cow Field. She then becomes very distressed at being separated from the others and runs up and down the boundary on the other side. H rounds her up and I keep the other two from escaping while calling her name at the same time.

Gratifyingly, she is following the sound of my voice and then H says I should show my face to her (she’s a vet so she knows the ways of animals well) so I leave the gate closed on the others and go towards her. As soon as she sees me she comes running and lets me guide her into the new field. And very glad to be reunited with Lucy and Mary-Rose.

They are all quite excited by the abundance of grass and after a few high kicks get down to munching, moving excitedly from place to place as if they both can’t quite believe it or get enough, snatching mouthfuls from each sweet patch. This is before they realise that there is no shelter in this field. They have now been out in the open for a couple of weeks. They really don’t like the rain on their backs.

But I am very pleased that Belita trusted me enough to come with me. This is definitely progress.

H manages to capture the moment on her phone

H manages to capture the moment on her phone

Traditional Hereford Heifers Lying Down

The girls taking advantage of some morning sun after a hard night

Traditional Hereford Heifers in Hedge www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

This is where they try and shelter from the rain.

I also went over to T & N’s where I was able to catch up with Herald, our bull. Unfortunately he got lice, possibly brought with him from the other farm, which has left him a bit patchy but it’s all been treated now. T says he is very good natured and doesn’t mind a stroke.

Moose, their gentle shire horse whom they rescued when they found her in very bad shape in a field not far from them a few years ago, towers above all the others. She is definitely the top four-legged-hooved-animal in the pecking order here.

Shire horse with cows www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Moose, Daisy & Herald (looking very small!)

Traditional Hereford eating Hay www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

They really like hay

Traditional Hereford Bull www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Aw look at that face…

Shire Horse with Yurt

Moose leads the way

Before this current sweep of arctic air the temperature was unseasonably warm for a few days ( = more rain). This has confused the frogs and the tulips. There was much croaking from the pond and when I went out in the middle of the night there were lots of frogs congregating for a bout of procreating. The pond is now full of spawn.  The tulips are poking their heads out too.

Frogs mating in pond www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Frog spawn www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

New Tulip Shoots www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

I only hope it doesn’t freeze in the next couple of months.

The Ghosts Of the Farm

ghosts

Convalescing in bed a few days ago after a nasty cold I heard some unexplained noises in the kitchen downstairs. It’s a very old house and there are often creaks and groans, as if the weight of the past is sighing through the thick stone walls. We spent so long restoring it we had plenty of time to think about the people who lived and farmed here before, imagining them treading the slabs and floorboards through the centuries. We know that at one time the two rooms downstairs, now separated by a nineteenth century panelling hallway, were just used as one room and this is where the families would have cooked and lived.

Clome oven in fireplace www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Clome oven in the fireplace, used for cooking and baking.

So, we get used to living with ghosts.

 I wonder if that’s Mr. Creeper, I thought, feeling comforted, as always, by the knowledge that the farms’ most recent resident, prior to our occupation, is possibly still with us. What a good name for a ghost, I hear you say. One friend swears she has seen him, a figure by the bottom of the stairs, not unfriendly.

William Creeper was a tenant farmer who moved here in 1922 as a boy of seven. In those days the farmyard was a rocky slope, a continuation of the bedrock on which the cottage stands. We have tried to recreate this unevenness by breaking up most of the slab of concrete which covered it, allowing the wildness back in, including digging a huge hole, the pond, which fluctuates in level with the water table – it has never dried out, so that gives you an idea of all the spring lines that run down the hill. In fact we didn’t realise how wet the place was until our first autumn when it rained solidly for month and water started gushing around the sides of the house and out of the front, veritable rivers UNDERNEATH the house. Digging out the soil from the back of the house and installing a drainage pipe solved most of the problem but the pond, by accident, was what really solved it in the end. Anyway, the concrete was far more practical and I completely understand why it must have been a joy to a farmer, but we’re in it for different reasons.

The Pond

The Pond

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See what happens with no concrete!

Mr. William Creeper used to have a herd of Ruby Reds (North Devons) which shrank to around to nine or ten cows as he got older and the land of the farm was gradually sold off, ending up eventually as the ten acres it is now. There are people in the village who knew him well and we have heard many stories about him. I like to think that I’m following in his footsteps with my small herd which I’m planning will eventually reach a similar number to his.

Herd of North Devon www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Herd of North Devons

Right from the beginning his presence was felt very keenly. The house hadn’t been touched for years, possibly since 1922, and had no running water, rotten floors upstairs and a gaping hole in the roof of the lean to extension on the back, sending rain and wind howling into what is now the kitchen. He lived solely in the other downstairs room, while the rest of the cottage fell into disuse and ruin around him. There was an earth dunny in a little lean to on the side of the piggery.

The dunny www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

The dunny

There were dark stories about the owners, relatives of his, who refused to do any work on the property because they wanted to sell, hoping to force him out, the sitting tenant, by making it so uninhabitable he would have to leave. Of course this is entirely possible, but we don’t know for sure. Whatever the reason for the gradual delapidation, he stayed put.

He was eighty eight when he suddenly got ill and became very distressed at having to leave his beloved farm. However, according to the story, once in hospital he was incredibly impressed by the warmth and particularly by the bath and didn’t want to leave. Perhaps a revelation to a man who had washed every day in the farmyard in all weathers at the one and only cold tap, which was only installed in the 1980’s, before that it was the well. He died there just a couple of months later.

He was, by all accounts, rather stubbornly eccentric and loved his cows more than any thing or person. He never married, his cows were apparently the only company he required and they used to come up the front steps and into the house, as the front door was always open, whatever the month. He had abandoned cleaning long ago and when we arrived there was a tell tale area of dirt and grease beneath the door latch to his room, where he’d placed his hand so many times to open the door. We became fond of his traceries and I felt a sadness when about eight years later I finally got round to stripping the old paint off the doors, including his patch of ingrained life.

When we arrived, he had only recently left so there were lots of artefacts of his life around the place, which made him very real. He was a small man and his standard issue hospital style walking stick was propped up in a barn. We still have that. We also have the branding iron which is what farmers used in the old days before the more humane ear tags were deployed for identifying cattle. It is only the C for Creeper which remains, the W we never found, so there is a space where it should be. It is hanging by the front door, a constant reminder.

Old Branding iron by door www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Branding Iron www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comBetter still, we have the prizes which he won for his cattle at the now defunct local Five Lanes and Camelford shows, which he proudly fixed to the joists in the shippen. I love to look at those.

Cattle prize 1952 www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Cattle Prize 1965 www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

It doesn’t seem important whether he is a real ghost or not. It is his presence which haunts us, and there is one thing at least I do know for sure – we will never forget William Creeper and his cows.

A Walk in the Woods – a Spooky Ramble

Walking Boots in Action www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Overnight last Friday a fierce north wind from the arctic swept over the whole country, swishing the prevailing south westerleys out of the way in its advancing grip. On the weather map it shows an arc of clear blue advancing southwards like a cartoon shadow, swallowing up the muted softness of the taupe and brown. We are the last to receive it, it looks like liquid fill.

The moon was full and the stars were bright in the night, there was a sliver of silvery light on the reveal. And we wake to brilliant sunshine, the sky is clear and cloudless and the wind is strong, the boughs of trees are being stirred to the core. Everywhere is rustling and sighing. I put on my gloves, hat and boots and go forth, as I do not want to miss this rare crispness, this wringing out of damp and mist.

It is the kind of cold that cuts through and I wrinkle my nose as it stiffens in the wind. The light is diamond sharp and the contrasts are deep, sometimes there is nothing in the shadows except black.

Ash Keys www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Tyre Tracks in Mud www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comSun through Trees www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comMy feet make a crackling sound on the fallen leaves and then a crunching as I hit some sun dried shale. I take the route down the bridlepath, across the stream by way of a granite bridge and then cut away to the rivers’ edge and upwards into the woods. I have trodden this way many times before and today the going is hard on the sloping fields, the surface broken up into deep uneven divets where the resident dairy herd have chewed up the saturated ground with their hooves.Green Stile www,thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

I can hear the whoosh of wings as I disturb a wood pigeon. Crows are calling high in the sky and there is the ping and chatter of smaller birds in the thickets and understorey.

Granite Bridge with StreamI roll under an industrial looking electric fence and come into the pasture which borders the river. To my left there is high knoll stubbed with trees and then below to the right on the other side of the river are flat meadows punctuated with flag Iris.

River with Trees North Cornwall www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comKnoll with Trees North CornwallRiver Meadows North CornwallI make my way to the wood which rises steeply away to the left, almost a cliff, the trees at a dizzy angle above me, the sunshine illuminating each branch and leaf. Once upon a time this was a working quarry so this is secondary woodland. Trees and Sky www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

I notice that there has been some major earth working going on and a track has been made by shifting tons of shaley soil, presumbably for efficiency to link the fields either side of these old quarries and woodland. I can see the scars on the bank which have been left by the digger. It makes it feel less secret than before and I have to scramble up an unstable bank, stones and soil slipping behind.

It brings it home that there are many ways of thinking about land. To me this is a place of living history, a place of beauty which reveals the story of its past in subtle ways. To this particular farmer it seems that it is in the way, an inconvenient rumple on what might be a smooth featureless land of endless green. But this is the same farmer who ploughed up old meadows and reseeded them with rye grass, and ignorantly filled in the wiggly stream at the bottom of the valley bordered by trees so the two fields either side could be linked. And then who knows, were they surprised when it flooded and many of the trees drowned? Out came the digger to scoop it out, leaving piles of earth by the side, gradually getting colonised with nettle and thistle. It made me weep. A whole ecosystem destroyed in one season, its beauty and purpose having taken hundreds of years to form. But we should take responsibility ourselves too – this is an industrial scale dairy farm – the supermarkets often pay for milk below what it actually costs to produce and this is driven by consumer demand for cheap food. Is it any wonder the farmer feels the need to maximise production from every square inch of land?

As Oliver Rackham says in his book The History of the Countryside

“(the rural landscape)…has been made both by the natural world and by human activities, interacting with each other over many centuries.”

In it he makes both a passionate plea and a reasoned argument for the conservation of the historic landscape citing that

“no art gallery’s conservation department would think of burning a picture by Constable, however badly decayed, and substituting a picture in the style of Constable by Tom Keating. Yet this kind of pastiche is daily perpetrated in the guise of ‘conservation’of the landscape”

The analogy may be a bit heavy handed but it perhaps it’s needed to dissuade people from the view that

“the rural landscape, no less than Trafalga Square, is merely the result of human design and ambition…in popular belief this view is simplified into the ‘Enclosure-Act Myth’, the notion that the countryside is not merely an artefact but a very recent one.”

Holly Berries  www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

I press on higher into the woods leaving the river behind. There is a gorse still in flower on the steep bank, or maybe it’s come into flower, confused by the sudden sun. It provides a late feeding station for a plump tawny bee which buzzes from bloom to bloom. If it weren’t so cold it might be summer. Intense red holly berries sparkle amongst the yellowing foliage of field maple and ash. There is a gentle rain of leaves.

Gorse in Flower October www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Autumn Leaf Falling www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comI arrive at the site of the old quarries. A sign tells me to go no further as there is danger here. All old quarries say this, sometimes it is true and sometimes it isn’t, the sign is there to remind you that whatever you do it’s your own responsibility. This one does feel particularly spooky and the vertiginous cliff of overhanging slate over the cave entrance doesn’t look that stable so I keep my distance. In the green gloom of overhanging trees, the sunlight partially obscured by the canopy, it makes you think of gremlins and night creatures, witches and hobbits. Halloween would definitely not be the right night to visit here, you could seriously scare yourself.

Old Slate Quarry North Cornwall www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Old Slate Quarry North Cornwall www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Old Slate QuarryNorth Cornwall www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comI peer through the trees to a second quarry which has now filled with water, a green pond standing in a circle of trees, ropes of ivy cascading in jungle like fashion from the branches.

Old Slate Quarry North Cornwall www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comI hear a crack of a branch somewhere to the south and human voices. It makes me jump a little and reminds me that I am in fact trespassing so I begin to make my way home. On the way back I see the spreading stag headed oak, its branches crying out to be climbed, though for me those days are long gone.

Stag Headed Oak North Cornwall www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

On the bridlepath I find a dead mole. It is not often that you get to see these underground creatures so I pause for quite a while looking at its shape and wondering how it came to be to be here. Also on the ground is next years oak trees.

Dead Mole www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Acorn in the Mud www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comI have warmed up after the uphill climb and pop in to see the cows. Belita is lying down in the sun looking content.

Traditional Hereford Lying Down

Keeping the Cows In (and Out)

One thing I’ve realised, as a stock keeper you spend an unseemly amount of time thinking about fencing.

In a former life, fences were simply a delineation between one back garden and another, or even better, an opportunity to spend someone elses money on something more beautiful, resilient and unique than the ubiquitous larchlap panels which abound in cities, towns and suburbs.

William Cobbett was as usual quick to point out his general disapproval of this trend back in the 1830, writing in his Rural Rides: ‘This is the first time since I went to France, in 1792, that I have been on this side of Shooters Hill. The land, generally speaking, from Deptford to Dartford is poor, and the surface ugly by nature, to which ugliness there has been made, just before we came to the latter place, a considerable addition by the inclosure of a common, and by the sticking up of some shabby-genteel houses, surrounded with dead fences, and things called gardens, in all manner of ridiculous forms, making, all together, the bricks, hurdlerods and earth say, as plainly as they can speak, “Here dwell vanity and poverty.”’

But I have digressed…

I suppose all this thinking about fencing could be the result of our novice status as stock people. And the scary stories of bulls escaping (not ours, other peoples) and getting to our heifers. Eeek.

Or the other possibility of our heifers escaping and getting to a neighbouring bull. This wouldn’t matter so much (apart from their tender years at the moment) if our heifers weren’t from a rare(ish) and small breed about which you can read here if you’re interested.

So, a pairing of a Limousin (huge and French and next door) with one of ours would result in a calf far too large. Cue vet visits, scanning, abortion.

Sometimes, when they are not eating, which admittedly is rare, Belita, Lucy and Mary-Rose patrol the boundary mooing plaintively. I’m not sure if this could be a sign of bulling (in season) or that they are a bit lonely and would prefer to be with the big herd next door or simply that they are saying hello.

Traditional English Hereford Heifers by Hedge www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Anyway, since the leaves have been falling it has exposed a few gaps in what seemed like an impenetrable hedge. In an attempt to ward off curiosity turning into boundary crashing, yesterday I put up the electric fence along some of the more vulnerable areas while we wait for the fencer to come with a post driver (an exciting bit of kit which I was going to link to wikipedia, but there is no entry, shock, horror). I hope they have learnt to recognise it, their eyesight isn’t great apparently.

Limousin x through the hedge www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Hmm next doors cattle very curious

Electric Fence Pigtail Post www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

A Pigtail Post for Electric Fencing

Electric Fence with Reel www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Electric Fencing Wire on Reel

Traditional Hereford Cows www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Let’s hope it does the job

Incidentally, the BBC programme Wartime Farm has been really enjoyable.  In tonights episode I discovered that electric fencing became widely used from 1939 when a portable battery pack was launched, even though it had been invented in the 19C.

We’ve also got to do the back field as there is so much grass there and we need to have it grazed soon before it goes too rank. And then there’s the corral for catching them in. I’m hoping that once all this has been achieved my thoughts might turn to other matters….

Like…I think something is LISTENING

Tree Ear www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

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