Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Country Life List

There is an old joke that goes “How do you make a million dollars in your first year of agriculture? Start with two million dollars, and know when to quit.”

I didn't really get the joke the first time I heard it, but after buying 40 acres of land, accumulating livestock, and helping my husband run a commercially-viable pheasant business for the past five years, I understand the joke. In fact, if you didn't see the funny side of your failures, you couldn't get up every morning and go to work.

My office and some work colleagues

I still have so much to learn that it sometimes overwhelms me. As long as I can laugh at myself while I learn, I look forward to getting up every morning. I thought I would share with you a little of what I’ve learned so far, and let you laugh at it too.

1)      In the country, ‘washing your hands’ includes everything up to the elbow, unless you’ve been gutting deer or helping a ewe give birth. Then, it’s up to your armpits.

2)      This is the same reason you will be instantly cured of biting your nails.

3)      Invest in a pair of rubber dungarees, the kind dairymen wear when cleaning down the milking parlour. ALWAYS have them with you. You’ll thank me later.

4)      You will find at least five uses for pig oil, besides oiling a pig.

5)      In the country, there is no such thing as ‘good clothes’. They may start out that way but I guarantee that the second you put on a nice frock, one of your sheep will instantly roll onto its back and get itself stuck in a hedge.

6)      On the plus side, fashion becomes irrelevant. Feel free to choose clothes based solely on warmth, or to hem your jeans with a stapler.

7)      You will have winter camos, and summer camos

8)      People know that you’re going to work because you add a pair of earrings to your regular jeans and t-shirt combo, making it ‘dressy’.

9)      When you have to go into ‘town’ to pick up a few supplies where non-country folk work and shop, you’ll notice an all-pervading bad smell. Accept the fact that it is absolutely coming from you - unless of course you shop next to a landfill site, open sewer, or cattle yard.

10)   When buying livestock, steer clear of any breed with the word ‘Mountain’ in it – they will jump any fence you build and you will never see them again. ‘Hardy’ is code for wild, and ‘Easy keeper’ means it will eat everything, especially after breaking out of its pen and into your neighbour’s garden.

11)   You will sleep through cockerels crowing and big tractors rumbling past your front door, but the tiny peep from a distressed chick will immediately wake you up.

12)   You will expend more time and thought finding a good farrier than you will a husband. It’s better to have a great farrier and a half-decent husband than the other way round.

13)   You will never again be caught short trying to find a loo / bathroom. Every hedgerow, field margin, and sheltered gateway is your public convenience (accent on the “public” part if you forget to check for walkers or farmers.)

14)   You will have no shame at restaurants or friends’ dinner parties asking for any leftovers, and will go so far as to take them out of the garbage bin. There is a food chain at your house.  The Trickle Down theory may be weak as an economic plan, but as a feeding program it’s faultless.

15)   It is also perfectly normal for the hostess at a dinner party to take a break between courses to check on a ewe that’s lambing.

16)   When driving, you will note species of animal for their edibility, not their cuteness.

17)   When forking manure or squeezing an abscess to drain it, always keep your mouth closed.  (Please don’t ask me how I learned this.)

18)   There is a “Law of Size” applicable to trailers and greenhouses: whichever size you buy, you will wish you got the bigger one.

19)   Learn how to reverse your trailer, and practice this skill before you need it. You do not want your first time to involve a 35-point turn at the livestock market in front of all the farmers. You will never live it down. Ever. The story will be told to your grandchildren by the farmers’ grandchildren.

20)   Hang out at your local feed store, market, or fair – anywhere farmers are – and listen. Whatever jobs the farmers are talking about doing is what you should be doing also. Remember, in farming, “All the other kids are doing it!” is a reasoned argument.

21)   Don’t be tempted to try and civilise your working vehicle.  An air freshener is no match for the smells in a country car, and you will only succeed in making your car smell like wet dog and strawberries. If you don’t believe me, you are welcome to put your head inside my Land Rover at your convenience.

22)   Don’t be tempted to try and civilise your house. Skip the potpourri, pick up 10 litres of Dairy disinfectant at the feed store, and practice acceptance.

23)   Get an iPod. Country life, though spiritually uplifting and chockfull of great scenery, can be lonely. Many jobs around the farm are monotonous. How hard you need to concentrate to shovel out kennels or scrub buckets? This is your reading time.

Agriculture is a risky business, both financially and physically. It’s hard on your body. It’s hard on your mind too, because as another saying goes “Where there’s livestock, there’s dead stock.” You will lose animals you’ve fought to keep alive and healthy - newborns, and old friends. You will cry out of frustration, holding a flashlight over a stalled engine while rain pours down your back and a ewe is bleating for a sick lamb that you can’t find until you can get your stupid truck to move.  You feel like the world and the weather is against you, and disease is rampaging through your pack or flock or herd. It’s a visceral, gut-wrenching, no-breaks-for-holidays-or-illness life.

And it is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. I don’t know when to quit.

Sunday, 17 June 2012


Mike and I were invited to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee with our neighbours in the next village, who we've got to know well from our all-too-regular visits to the local pub. In traditional British fashion, the village threw a street party. In traditional British fashion, the weather was totally unsuitable for al fresco dining. Revellers brought out fire pits and burning logs and we warmed our hands together. Battling the elements is all part of the fun. 

Tables were set, we all shared in the food preparation, and a young lady sang a song in honour of HM the Queen to open the celebrations -

The gentleman in the picture is the Town Crier. And you thought we had antiquated jobs!

It's only a small rural village but the people are quite diverse. Besides the Town Crier we have a scuba gear scientist, a bomb disposal expert, a celebrity fisherman, a cider maker, and of course you can't throw a clod of dirt without hitting a farmer or two. It makes for lively discussions at street parties.

I inadvertently created a ghetto of foreigners when I sat down to catch up with Bridget (South African) and her husband Dom (Scottish). We were surrounded by their many children, who were taking turns dancing with their grandmother's poodle to the lively music from a local band. Dogs whose dance cards were empty were freely roaming the party, picking up handouts sneaked to them under tables.

Here's our table, complete with a spaniel -

And honoured guests -

Well, our local publicans anyway.

Of course we had to leave early so I could walk the dog pack, and Mike could check the incubators, but great fun was had by all (except maybe that poodle!)

It was another day of jubilation this week, for us and the pheasants: the annual letting out of the laying pens. All the breeding stock - i.e. pheasants which have been penned so we could collect and hatch their eggs - have done their duties, and were free to return to the woods. 

Unfortunately we can't just open the pens and shoo them out; we have to catch them, crate them and move them to their new home. Thankfully we have a great group of volunteers to help with the huge task of catching 3000 birds spread out in 35 pens -

The birds are packed pretty tightly into the crates as it's only a short journey to the woods, maybe half a mile or so. I love accompanying Mike and helping to open the crates, and giving the birds back their wild space. I videoed it so you could enjoy it too -

We make sure there's food and water in the woods, and some protection from predators. At least one hen has already made herself at home, making a scrape and laying an egg. Now it's her turn to rear some young. 

She won't need our help hatching these eggs.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Out with the new and in with the old

After attending the May Fair sheep sales this year and watching a ram sell for 4,200 guineas (£4400), I decided to take up the very kind offer of a ram for loan again (£20). Pip and I set off with the trailer to collect him -

Pip is purely along for the ride. She's great company but useless in any capacity that involves sheep. I think she's decided that they're just big, grass-eating dogs. But she loves being in the car -

I call shotgun!

I'm hardly one to judge. I'm the least authentic farmer-type in the village. My own shepherding outfit this day consisted of a long skirt with multiple barbed wire tears in the hem, pink crocs, and a beaten up straw hat. Our misfit duo set off for Somerset and Mr. Baker's farm where we collected Roz -

Roz is an older, experienced ram who has serviced Mr. Baker's ewes for a few years now. After I checked my ewes' numbers to make sure there was no relation, Roz was chosen as a suitable sire. 

Last year we had an unproven, young ram lamb, who did a commendable job siring offspring, but took a bit of time to learn his job. As I put raddle harnesses on my rams, they leave a chalk mark on anything they mount. The young ram lamb left his mark on ewes' rumps, but also on their heads and shoulders, and on the water tower, the water trough, the tractor tyres...well, you get the idea.

Roz knows his job. I dropped the tailgate on the trailer and he sauntered out, and casually walked over to my small flock of ewes. He sniffed each one almost methodically and within minutes...

Yup. And by the time I'd checked them the next morning, he'd covered three more. 

The ewes with their tramp stamps

That's a win for age and experience over youth and enthusiasm.

My only job is to ensure the raddle doesn't rub and make Roz sore, and that none of the sheep go lame or seem unwell. And it doesn't matter that I don't look like a farmer, or have a lot of shepherding experience yet, because Roz knows his job. That's what counts.