Sunday, 26 September 2010

A birthday surprise

"Are you cold? You're rumped up like an old starling." This is another of Mike's animal metaphors, but one I hadn't heard before. It's cold this morning, this coldest September morning on record says the BBC news (it must be a slow news day if that's noteworthy.). I've got two layers on, including a turtleneck and I'm still tucking my head into my shoulders to conserve heat. Any self-respecting starling will be doing the same.

"C'mon, we're going to pick up your birthday present."

Well, I don't know what that could be. Mike had already got me these -

Dinner, not pets

And taken me to Exmoor to walk the moors with a few dogs -

Did I say dogs? I meant swamp beasts.

And to look at the wild Exmoor ponies -

The dogs know when to keep their distance

What more could I need?

When we turned into Mr Baker's yard I knew what it was.

Another sheep. A ewe lamb. Mr. Baker sent his young sheep dog into an orchard with an 'away' command and a few minutes later, a flock of Dorset lambs appeared. "There's two nice ewes I've marked with a blue spot. Pick which one you like." The dog held the flock there, like a saleslady waiting patiently for a dithering customer to make a choice. I picked the fattest, wooliest lamb. I'll probably regret this come shearing time.

The dog continued to keep the sheep together while Mr. Baker crooked the hind leg of my newest ewe -

 Mike and Mr Baker collected her up, and lifted her into the back of the truck -

Mike had done an exchange: a good price for the lamb if he would stay and look over Mr Baker's pheasant shoot. So we passed a pleasant hour looking at pens, drives, and poults, all of which Mike deemed in excellent condition. There was more talk about the price of wheat, and partridge season before I was handed my DEFRA paperwork and we all shook hands on the deal.

I drove home slowly with my lone ewe trying to keep her balance on the slippery load liner. I negotiated windey country lanes as carefully as I could for her benefit. "I wonder if sheep get car sick, like puppies do?" I said to Mike. "Can sheep throw up? Mike, I don't even know if sheep can throw up!?" All of a sudden, all the things I didn't know about sheep seemed to hit me and I started to worry about the impending births, and how ignorant I was, and about all the things that could go wrong.

Mike said "How many people know if a sheep can throw up or not?" Then we started going over all the animals we could think of and dividing them into "throws up" or "doesn't throw up". Horses - no. Cats - yes. Dogs - certainly. And birds - of course. Birds and dogs warranted their own special throwing up category: regurgitates food for young. Sheep chew their cud, but we decided that wasn't quite the same, though we both agreed it was kind of gross anyway. It made me laugh enough to stop panicking.

We added the new ewe lamb to the existing flock of five, who seemed happy enough to make room for one more. We had to lift the sheep out of the truck, though she seemed keen on making a break for it and taking her chances with the gap between the tailgate and the ground.

I had to read her ear tag to fill out the paperwork, but before I could mention to Mike to hold onto her, he'd let go. I managed to hang on, but only by rolling over on my back, sheep on top with her legs in the air. Mike said "I suppose if you're going to spoon with a sheep, at least you're the big spoon." I got the number, but lost what was left of my dignity in the process.

New sheep in front, getting a thorough checking out from the others

We made some of the birthday lobster for lunch. It felt decadant to be eating Lobster Newburg and drinking the champagne that Lord and Lady gave me on a Sunday afternoon. We managed to lower the tone by eating it sat on the couch, still in our wellies and smelling of sheep, with a cocker spaniel between us waiting for a chance to lick the plate.

I turned 41 yesterday. By my 43rd birthday I hope that my flock is big enough to warrant one of these -

A nice working collie. It will be a challenge to train a herding dog instead of a retriever but I relish the chance. Until then, there's work that needs doing with the pheasants, driving them back home from their hiding places and I already have just the dog for that -

Ever wondered what you would get if you crossed a cocker spaniel with a troll doll?

Podge, the little chocolate pocket rocket.

I didn't know a lot about spaniels and retrievers before I met Mike, and now working them contributes to a significant portion of my income. Maybe the sheep won't be so difficult after all.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Partridge season

The partridge season is excellent this year. Our unusually hot, dry summer suited these little birds and they've grown on well. They're strong on the wing and very fast. It's been challenging for the guns. It's hard to spot the bird in the photo (upper left corner, if you need a hint) -

It's so high that I couldn't get the gun and his target in the photo at the same time -

The pictures aren't going to win any prizes for composition, but I hope they give you an idea of how high these birds are. If you add the fact that each bird is travelling about 30 miles per hour, and turning on the wind, you can see how difficult it is to bring down your quarry. One good shot stays with you for a lifetime.

A red-legged (or French) partridge

The head keeper's job is to make the birds perform. Each drive brings its own set of worries to plague Mike -

That's his best 'worried keeper' look. I see that pose a lot during the winter. This is a new drive and he's probably contemplating everything that could possibly go wrong.

The dogs are glad of the work.

I know, they look attentive and even well-trained. But this is the first drive, on their first day out of this season. When I let them off the leads, they were like the proverbial headless chickens. They covered every square inch of that field doing nothing constructive, just burning off a summer's worth of pent-up spaniel energy. By the third drive they were calm enough that I wasn't shouting expletives at them. By the last drives, they were hunting the cover and cleaning up, making some lovely retrieves.

Even though it's too hot to be a hard-working spaniel, Dulcie and Jazzie manage to keep cool by throwing themselves into every available trough or puddle. They love their jobs and between drives the two dogs are overcome with the joys of it all, and roll about on the grass, tongues lolling -

Still on their leads, of course -

Spud came out for a half day last week, and she's enjoying it every bit as much. She starting to mature, physically and mentally, though she's always going to be a small flatcoat. A petit pomme de terre.

Her training sessions are getting longer. I fit them in between my daily baking jobs. It used to take the same amount of time as chilling pastry. Now her sessions take as much time as the first proofing of a home made loaf of bread. We're taking our time to get the basics right (Spud I mean, not my bread). She retrieved four fantastic partridge on her first day out, and she's staying steady when birds are dropping, unlike two spaniels I could mention.

From a small girl to a couple of big ones: both ewes appear to be in lamb and boy are they showing -

For comparison: Pregnant ewe on the left, next to the youngster (not for the ram until next year).

Their teats are starting to drop and they could be due as early as the 8th October. Unfortunately for the ewes, this is my first time lambing as well as theirs. I praying for easy births, a ewe lamb from each, and no complications. They say a good shepherd looks at his flock expecting the worst and hopes he won't find it. I don't think the sheep are that pessimistic.

Mike will make a final check on the sheep and horses tonight, before he goes to bed. He's had to sleep at the Manor these last couple nights, for security reasons, so I've got two large dogs putting his side of the bed to good use. He's just slipped out of the house now thinking I wouldn't notice. I know he's off to collect a couple of lobsters from a fisherman friend of his, as a treat for my birthday tomorrow. I'm practicing my 'surprised face' as I write this.

I made myself a birthday apple pie with a mix of homegrown and foraged apples. We're spending what looks like a crisp sunny autumn day in Exmoor (Lorna Doone country) with a couple of dogs walking the moors, looking through our binos for red deer and drinking coffee out of a flask. I half considered spending it at the local gun shop shooting clays, but that's where we spent our honeymoon. We save that kind of romance for our anniversary.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Horse Sense

Apologies for a pictureless post - I'm having a few technical difficulties with the camera

I had the great pleasure of meeting Clive yesterday. Clive is the brother-in-law of our estate deer stalker. Clive runs a "small" 56-acre farm in Cornwall worked with the aid of five draught horses. He has kindly offered to help me get Kitty and Alan started in their new life as working horses under harness.

I asked Clive how he got started using horses. "Well, when I moved to this farm, I took an old Nuffield tractor with me. This tractor never did have a battery so I would park in on a slope, and when I wanted to start it I would push it down the hill then jump on.

"One day I pushed the tractor and I wasn't quick enough to catch it. That tractor made it all the way down the hill and ended up in the bottom hedge. I decided then that I must be getting too old and slow to be doing that. Maybe it was time to work with something that I could stop before it ended up in a hedge. It's all about those pivotal moments in life. Getting old was a pivotal moment for me." Clive said. So he switched to horses.

Really, he was switching back to horses. Clive had already learned to drive horses from his father who had been the village baker. Father used horses to deliver bread, and preferred them to the van that eventually replaced them. Clive and his father could drive the horses to one end of the street, drop the reins, get out and deliver their bread to a few houses. When they finished, father would whistle up the horses and the horses would drive themselves to the end of the road to meet Clive and father. The replacement van couldn't do that. They had to walk back and get the van, and consequently their deliveries took much longer after they'd modernised.

Clive won't make that mistake again. He chooses not to modernise his life. He doesn't own a computer or a mobile phone. He doesn't own a four-wheel drive vehicle, even though they get flooded in regularly when spring comes. When his wife goes away to visit family, he turns the electricity off in the house, to "see if he could get used to it again." Clive is a woodworker by trade, and says when he was an apprentice, the joinery where he worked didn't have electricty and all the wood was planked by hand. Or horse-power.

Now he specialises in making replacement moulding, all hand carved sections, to replace mouldings damaged in building renovation. And of course he's pretty much self-sufficient with his farm. He even grows all his own animal feed and cuts it with horse-drawn implements.

I don't think I've met a person more contented than Clive in a very long time.

Besides being a fascinating person, he was a wealth of information and happy to share it. We tried some collars on the horses, which both horses accepted with a reassuring indifference. He talked me through my first steps: long-lining. For you non-horsey readers (and believe me you're the sensible ones without a death wish, or a need to turn your entire life savings into manure), long-lining simply means walking behind a horse with very long reins attached to the horse's bit. In theory, you should be able to turn your horse left, or right, and stop your horse, from the far end of the reins. This will get the horse used to someone working behind him and to voice commands. As with all training, it's small bits of learning at a time, little and often.

Clive was so positive and encouraging that I woke up invigorated at daybreak this morning. Mike brought me a cup of tea in bed (of course he'd already started work) and I devoured the last chapters of The Heavy Horse Manual by Nick Raynor which I've been reading in snippets, in spare moments. By 7a.m., I had fed the dogs and was ready to drive the few miles to Milkweed to check on the horses and sheep. I had a scoop of sheep feed (in case of another breakout like last night) and I dug up a few of my remaining carrots to give to Kitty and Alan. After all, if they're going to be my work mates, I'd better treat them right.

I have a nylon bridle/halter combo and some spare rope that Mike uses to make dog leashes. That will do for long lines, as long as I wear gloves. Clive taught me the tying-on knot. I'll fix the lines to 2 clips, spares I'd saved from worn or broken tack, for easy on-and-off the bridle. I can't wait to get started.

But I have to wait a bit longer. We're shooting again tomorrow so there are workers' lunches to make, and dogs to prepare, suits that need blood spots sponging out of them, radios to recharge, shirts to iron. We also finished building our small log store yesterday (from recycled materials - total cost under £4) so there are logs that need stacking.

And I haven't made a cake in days. I have a week's worth of eggs - 4 1/2 dozen - in the porch. I usually supply eggs to a neighbor whose work colleagues devour her supply and mine, but she's on maternity leave. Our supply lines are shut. I put the freshest of my surplus on the side of the road with an honesty box. The oldest dozen has been made into dog rations. Today's eggs, along with a glut of windfall apples, can go into a couple of cakes for tomorrow.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

A new season starts

Tomorrow's the first day of shooting season for us, the culmination of the hatching, raising, and releasing of all the pheasants and partridge. I can't say shoot season is busier or harder than all the work that preceeds it, but it's sort of like opening night after months of rehearsal. As long as the birds don't get stage fright the day should go well. The first day is only to stir them up, and we're expecting to put 100 or so partridge in the bag.

Of course, as per the laws of nature (well, Murphy's Law anyway) everything on my 'to do' list needed to be done by today. Top in the list: Move both the horses and the sheep to Milkweed Farm.

By 9am all my chores were done. My friend Lynne offered to ride Kitty, and we were tacked up and on the road soon after. It was only five miles but the horses dragged their feet as if it was the Long March. The horses walked most of the way, but we still made it with an hour to spare. Enough time for the horses to get used to their surroundings while Lynne and I had a coffee at her house, so close to Milkweed that you can almost see the horses from her kitchen window.

While the coffee was brewing I could hear a strange tapping sound.

"Lynne, what's that noise?"

"Oh, the baby peacocks are hungry." she said. And there they were, dumpy looking little birds, staring in at us through the patio door. Until they heard us arrive they had been happily scratching up the garden.

"What do you feed baby peacocks?" I asked.

"Cat food." Lynne said. "They need a lot of protein."

So we drank coffee while the horses grazed grass and the baby peacocks ate their cat food.

I headed home to put my own lunch on. On the way in I checked the mail and smiled to see a cheque for winter grazing we let out last year, and a flyer for animal wormer reminding me that "It's Tapeworm Time Again". I also found a letter from the estate office to say that a contractor had accidentally cut through our village's water pipe so the water might be a funny colour for awhile and please could we go back to boiling our drinking water.

Lunch was leftover pork in leftover soup. I saved a few slices of pork for Spud. While the soup heated, I used the tidbits to teach Spud to jump in and out of the back of the truck. I'd forgot to do this earlier and I'm taking her for her first day's work tomorrow so I thought she'd better learn. By the time the soup was ready, Spud was too.

Sheep were next on the list. I hitched up the trailer to the truck and as I dropped the tailgate, Simon the gardener and underkeeper Pete were coming back from their lunch break and offered a welcome hand driving the small flock from the pen to the trailer. With some guidance on our part and a bucket of sheep feed, the sheep went in and were ready to go in minutes. I deposited them in their section of field next to the horses who were too busy eating to look up and acknowledge their new roomies.

worming the sheep, ready for their new pasture

It's been raining all day so although the animals have fresh grass they also have wet backs. Later I brought the horses their now meagre dinner rations and checked to see how everyone was settling in. So far so good. A neighbor pulled into the gateway of the field as I fed the horses to say hello and talk about fencing and the weather - two hot topics around here. Although the field is a few miles away from our house, I know there are people closer than us keeping an eye on the new residents.

When the rain and fog lifts, everyone can enjoy the view

We've bought two new field shelters for the horses, one of which will get used as lambing sheds when the time comes. They shelters aren't due for another few weeks (and the lambs just after!) so the horses will just have to brave the elements until then.

While I write this I've been cooking tomorrow's meal for the workers, helping Mike find his tie and sock garters, and generally organising small stuff I've overlooked. Mike will be awake long after me and I expect I'll hear his truck start up at midnight as he gives his shoot one last look around before the morning. No doubt the animals on Milkweed will get a late night visit too. The weather will turn autumnal, the dogs will start getting working rations, and Flossie the chicken will get turfed out of the porch so I can put the pots of food in there to keep cool. The house will smell of wet tweeds and labrador, and the nights will draw in too quickly. I'll never get my 'to do' list finished.

Good luck to all of you hunters out there and have a great season.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Will Work for Food

The kitchen window

I've been conquering the pile of fruits I collected from Lord and Lady's garden (plums) and public parks (crabapples) as well as from my own greenhouse (tomatoes). I'm processing them into preserves and sauces.

While waiting for some plums to stew, I happened to read an interesting passage in Temple Grandin's book Animals Make Us Human (p282). It pertains to the enrichment of captive animals' environments in zoos:

"They are not pets or farm animals; they're wild animals and they're built to go out and find food. Many, many studies have found that captive animals will choose to work for food instead of just having it handed to them. Wild animals don't want a free lunch.

The reason they like working for food is that it feels good. That's because in all of the studies 'working' actually means SEEKING. The animal has to forage...or manipulate a puzzle...They let the animal hunt.

Another great thing about using food as enrichment is that animals never get bored with food. Animals habituate very quickly to everything else, but they stay interested in food and will work for it even when they are not hungry."

I think this behavioural assessment applies to people as well. Anyone reading this who grows their own vegetables, forages for mushrooms, goes fishing or hunts does so because it enriches his or her life somehow. It may explain why someone goes to the trouble of preserving found fruits instead of just buying a pot at the grocery store.

Personally, I derive pleasure and contentment from the act of harvesting the food (even when I'm not hungry) and from preserving it. So far this week I've made 4 apple cakes, 11 jars of jelly, and two family-sized servings of plum sauce (excellent with venison). The happiness was in the labor.

And what's more appropriate for Labor Day?