Cowgirl goes out in the field…
A cold month but still plenty to see
Cowgirl goes out in the field…
A cold month but still plenty to see
Today we call M and tell him the first Swallow has arrived. It’s a moment of joy, admiration and awe for its arduous cross continental journey. Now it is perched on the telephone wire which stretches across part of the front yard, preening each wing in turn. Not long before, it was whooping and swooping above the pond and flying low, in and out of the shippen. Its song is peppered with dolphin like clicks. I am sitting on the top step, the slate warm, feeling the sun on my face, my body slowly unwinding, finally released from being huddled, bundled and wrapped. There is a delightful din of a world waking up. Ten years ago there were almost thirty Swallows lined up on the wire by the end of the summer; each subsequent year there have been less and less.
I abandon the ‘to do’ list. I think, today will be a day of inefficiency
I experience anxiety as I hope and wonder about a mate for the Swallow arriving. And if they breed successfully will there be enough insects for them to feed their young?
The massive decline in bee populations catches the public imagination, but all insects are being put under similar pressure by loss of habitat and pesticides. In a farmland setting, loss of habitat means less wild flowers, the planting of monocultures of rye grass or other crops without provision for invertebrates. And why does this matter? Well, in a nutshell…
Biodiversity means the variety of life, in all its forms. It includes the variety of species and ecosystems (communities and interrelations of species) in the world, and also genetic variation. Human beings are dependent for their sustenance, health and well-being on fundamental biological systems and processes. This includes all of our food, many medicines and industrial products, as well as the air we breathe. Without insects and other invertebrates, human life on this planet would be impossible. The enormous diversity of life is of crucial value, providing resilience to organisms and ecosystems.
Why thank you for that, the Amateur Entomologists’ Society!
I go over to the cow field. I can hear sheep and lambs from across the valley, plaintively calling to one another. Standing there, the sky a bowl of blue, I count fourteen Buzzards above, wheeling on the thermals and crying their eerie cries. I don’t know, but I would hazard a guess that they are simply, like me, having a good time. Rabbits run in and out of the gorse bushes down the centre of the field, flashes of white and brown amongst the acid yellow and though their numbers are too plentiful (breeding like…! and no serious predators, apart from a ginger cat) who could begrudge their hoppity heaven today?
The cows are looking pretty, their ruddy coats shining in the sun. After a while they approach and both Lucy and Mary-Rose ask to be scratched. They stand happily either side of me, while Belita tentatively sniffs my face with her gentle pink nose. To think they were so terrified when they arrived and now this. Happy.
Coming back I meet Mr. Pheasant who has made regular visits this winter. A little Wren dips in and out of a thicket, and a Wagtail, the first I’ve seen this year, sits atop the shippen roof surveying the scene.
Violets, Stitchwort and Celandine are beginning to peep out from the hedgebanks. Dandelions are waiting for the bees. Where are the bees?
I nibble on a disc of Navelwort.
A bout of spontaneous seed sowing comes on…
Nicotiana Lime Green
Cosmos sulphureus Cosmic Orange
Rudbeckia hirta Prairie Sun
Then I admire B’s artwork…
Later, I lie on the grass under the big sycamore. The still bare branches reach toward a pale moon, bursting with shimmering buds. I can feel the earth is still damp and cold but the warmed grass is an eiderdown beneath me. I am lost. My eyes close.
What about an International Day of Inefficiency? Come on, we can do it!
A good deal of Upcountry (the word used here in Cornwall to indicate the rest of the UK) is now buried in some fine snow and there is talk of sledging and schools closing. Here in Cornwall meanwhile, stroked by warm westerlies from the Atlantic, we were dribbled with a kind of icy porridge, slightly slushy and now nearly all gone. Nevertheless it was still pretty.
I did wonder if the cows had seen snow before because they were a little nonplussed by the whole thing, staring at it a bit resentfully from time to time as they ate their hay in the shed, as if to say you’ve robbed us of our grazing rights.
They have got much hungrier in the last few days which I guess is due to the cold and also the lack of good grass in their field. Next week I will be moving them to the Triangle Field which still has some growth left from after the hay cut. It doesn’t have a shelter so I’m wondering if I should bring them back on a daily basis – though perhaps they’d let me know if they wanted to go back to their shed and line up at the gate mooing.
Decisions decisions. I’ll report back.
Well, they have probably had a frosty morn somewhere else…but we don’t talk about that place (where they were a bit rough with my girls).
The rest of the country has already experienced the frost but down here in the milder south west it’s our first proper one. Hurrah, a break from rain.
I love the ice crystals’ transformative power, the thick fur of a cows mane.
For this off ranch ramble I turn to the north and head for the sea. I hope you enjoy.
The days are short now and when we arrive at this river valley which runs into sea on the north coast we don’t have much time before the sun sets. As we drive down the steep lane the sea and an old mill house come into view. I don’t know how long it’s been since this was a working mill but you probably couldn’t ask for a better spot for a peaceful holiday. Nestling in the hill it has a terrace which overlooks the valley and river.
It’s cold and we wrap up in hats, scarves and gloves and set off inland into the woodland in search of the famous wriggly oak tree. We had a Cornish Pasty on our journey here so we’re well set up for the tramp. The Wildlife Trusts manage these woods and pastures and you can find out about lots more places to see ancient trees on the Ancient Tree Forum here.
On the way we go through the mill house garden – our friends who are staying here are not yet back from their outing along the Camel Trail. I like the spiral of wild flowers the owners have created on the grass, in fact I think they have done a good job with helping this place blend in with the wider landscape while still having a few flat areas for lolling on. They have made some interesting surfaces with the local materials too. All helped along by the Avant Gardener I think.
We go down a wide grassy ride and pass some little black sheep on the hillside, probably part of the management programme for helping out the rare Pearl Bordered Fritillary butterfly. Opposite, the valley side is cloaked with scrubby wind blown oaks, their leafless limbs making a soft tangle of greys and browns in the low winter sun. We enter the woods on a small winding path which sticks close to the riverside.
I glimpse the wriggly oak.
We hang out for a while amongst its branches.
Then we turn back and head down towards the beach, joining up with the South West Coast Path.
On the way we pass the house and a bit further on there is an area of low grass, swept into ripples by the wind.
We step down onto the beach, crunching onto the dark grey pebbles, hearing the tumbling water of the river meeting the sea. The light is fading and there is a bitter coolness in the air, bouncing off the slick black rocks near to shore and buffeting the crests of the waves.
We talk about people we know and do beachy things…
Later, we go inside with the others and sit by the fire, drink tea and eat chocolate biscuits.
Today it feels like we’ve slipped into winter – how did that happen?
Today the trees look stark against the beautiful sky, it is damp and cold, and there is an earthy smell of decay. But strange discrepancies abound too. A Foxglove is in flower still, it’s delicately freckled throat facing the sun.
Today the sky was dramatic, pristine. It has been clear blue, shot through with every conceivable shape and shuffle that a cloud can make, smoky puffs of dark grey, silvery sides of mackeral , a mountain range in the distance kissed by low sun and a wash of the softest brush.
Today I feel sad.
Today I wish that my father was still alive, and that B & G were not ill, and that I could capture what is not possible.
I can hear the whirr of the starlings wings as they approach, flying along the valley edge, making their way to the roost on Bodmin Moor. And then they are gone, the breath of their beating wings landing on my shoulders.
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.
My 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.
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.
I 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.
I 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.
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?
“(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.”
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.
I 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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Last week I was in Spain, not specifically on a cow hunt you understand…however…
Today the sky is a sweeping wash of high cirrus clouds. It is bright and there is a slight breeze. I make sandwiches for the journey and take my coffee to the clay tiled terrace to take in the view. Goat bells jangle softly in the distance and a chorus of dogs are barking down the hillside. I can hear a rumble which may belong to heavy machinery behind the chatter and song of the birds. This house stands on hills and slopes above a wide plain. The Sierra de Gredos mountains are behind, hovering above in deep granite folds.
The plain stretches for 50km until it reaches a parallel set of mountains, now hazy and gray. It is the end of a baking hot summer and the land looks parched and dry. The reservoir, which sits in the middle of the plain, is barely more than a puddle, its exposed sandy banks telling the history of its former level.
As I walk through the meadow, the bleached stalks of the grasses splinter and crack underfoot as crickets and grasshoppers scatter. A few days ago there was a couple of days of rain. I look closer, and beneath the parched and brittle surface a new bloom of tiny green seedlings cloaks the ochre earth.
A stony track leads us into the hills and even though it is late afternoon the sun is fierce and hot on our necks and shoulders. The heat releases the sticky perfume from the swathes of Cistus which clothe the hillsides and the air is full of it, sweet and aromatic. I have been told that in May it looks like snow because of the white flowers. I imagine that scene, the papery flowers unfolding day after day, until just like snow, they melt and disappear. In amongst the Cistus are squat lavenders, blue gray leaves needle thin and the skeletal remains of their purple winged flowers standing proud above.
Around here has been gradually colonised by people, pantiled roofs peeping out from between the scrub of Broom and Oak. Mixed orchards of figs, cherries, pear and pomegranate stand alongside vines and olive groves. Yesterday a neighbour came with her brother to harvest the grapes to make the wine and gave us two bursting bags of their own dried figs which they do by turning regularly in the hot summer sun.
On our way back we stop by to say hello to the cows. I wonder if those bells bother them.
Hello, it’s been a while. The Spanish cows I saw were very lovely, they had bells. I will be posting about them and the surrounding terrain of the Sierra de Gredos soon .
But returning from a drought stricken country (this is all they needed on top of everything else) I cannot let this rain go by unmarked.
Like being underneath a damp pyrex bowl on the draining board of life as B puts it cheerily this morning.
The rain beats and bounces on the road, like water hitting hot fat in a cast iron pan. I put on my wellies (which ones, which ones?) and step from the slate step into two inches of shiny sticky mud. Mud is the song of our autumn, our winter, it coats the roads and builds up in squelchy piles in the fields and byways.
I go over to the cow field. The ditch by the side of the road is flowing fast and the pond is full. I can hear the water cascading down to the river, the bridlepath is running like a stream and hooves sound hollow as they hit the watery slate and clay. Everything drips with jewels of wet glass. I pull my hood up and put my head down.
The cows ruddy fur is deep and repels the rain, I can see tiny droplets hovering on their coats. They don’t seem to mind the deluge, preferring the spongy grass to the shed. I conclude that they are pleased to see me when they come running, hoping I’ll have a treat. I stand still and they approach, sniffing me gingerly with outstretched necks.
I have learnt that cows have a ‘sweet spot’ at their withers (between neck and back), from threecedarsfarm, which you should stroke rhythmically while talking in a low voice, then gradually move on to the whole of the backbone. This builds trust. But it needs to be done in a stall, which we’ll hopefully have by winter.