Monday, 21 January 2013

The Not-so-Great Escape

It's humbling to be outsmarted by your animals. I'm used to it with the dogs, but I rely on their smarts - their senses and experience finding lost game helps keep my freezers stocked up. The dogs on the whole work in partnership with me.

Then there's Alan.

I mentioned in the last post that Alan is a smart horse. Kitty has the looks, but Alan has the brains. Mostly he uses them for his own amusement, and he seems to get most of his amusement exasperating me. It would not surprise me at all to find that Alan has a secret lair in a hollowed-out volcano where he hatches his devious plans.

We moved the pair to a small but greener paddock, for a change of scenery and a few days' fresh grazing. Within hours, Alan worked out how to unlatch the small pedestrian gate, and how to open it - inwards! - and took Kitty out for a walk. Of course, he waited until it was dark to do this. The gentleman who owns the farm where the horses live noticed they were missing and kindly drove to our house to let us know. Alan timed his escape to coincide with our dinner.

Worried that the pair may have wandered onto the road, I called our friend Tim, who's a local policeman, to ask who I should notify. Within ten minutes Tim and his wife Megan showed up to join our search. They're good friends, the kind who, on their night off, come out in the cold to help you search for your horses in the dark. We tracked the horse hoof prints in the mud to a nearby orchard, and using flashlights we eventually found them happily grazing in a hedgerow. We caught them up for the mile-long walk back to their regular paddock, and confined them behind electric fencing.

They were both out again in the morning. Alan used his thick winter rug to protect him from the shock of the electric fence and simply pushed the tape at chest height until it snapped. This time they walked to the farthest orchard behind some houses, to have breakfast with the owners. Alan looked completely unrepentant when I turned up. I spent the next few hours replacing and reinforcing their fencing.

The following morning both horses managed to breach the first line of defence, but were caught by the second. And I had another few hours of fence repair while Kitty and Alan ate their hay and watched me carry posts and tape, and a heavy post banger, up the muddy track. Of course, Alan broke the fence in the far back corner, the one place inaccessible by vehicle, so I had to walk everything in.

Besides reinforced fences to keep them from breaking out, I upped their feed and changed the regime to make it more stimulating, hoping to make them want to stay in. It's a 'carrot and stick' approach. Or in this case a 'carrot-apple-hay-mineral lick' and stick approach.

I understand that they are as fed up with the rain and mud underfoot as I am. I think Alan is looking for drier pasture where he won't slip when he walks. I explained to him that it's like this everywhere, we all just have to tough it out. He hasn't broken out since our chat (and the extra rations!)

I've been riding for nigh on 30 years now, but it never fails to surprise me how much I still learn from horses- whether I want the lesson or not.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Rain, rain, go away

I know it's churlish to complain about the weather, but I hoping the cathartic act of complaining will help me to endure the almost constant rain that's been our weather since May 2012. I don't mean that drizzly mist one associates with the moors of British literature. This is a full-on deluge, assaulting the mind, body, and drainage systems. So much soil has washed out that our lanes have collapsed, including the lane that leads to our pheasant feed bins -

The original height of the road is the two cones in the upper left corner!

The crumbling road can't support the weight of the tractors that deliver the wheat. Mike's borrowed a grain trailer from a neighbour to use as a temporary wheat bin for our wheat deliveries. No fieldwork can get done, as the ground is so saturated that a tractor and plough would do more harm than good to the soil structure. Cue lots of grumpy farmers.

A view from in our village, so quiet without the tractors

Everyone looks as if they're dressed for going to sea: full waterproof suits, and wide-brimmed hats pulled down over their faces. I can't recognise anyone in all that protective gear. It's like a soaking wet, witness relocation program of the Damned. So I simply wave at everyone I pass figuring I probably know them and, even if I don't, well, we're all in this misery together.

The livestock isn't faring much better than the people. Wet ground and sheep's feet equals foot rot. Wet ground and sheep's livers equals flukeworm. Both suck for the sheep. I wormed and trimmed feet on Christmas eve, and prepared the sheep sheds with fresh straw as my small gift of comfort to them. I still have one case of foot rot in a ewe and one case of joint ill in a lamb to manage. I have accepted that the ewe lamb with persistent joint ill, Eudora's only daughter, may never be suitable breeding stock and will have to go to ice camp with her brothers.

A clean Christmas Eve shelter from the rain

At least the sheep have dry sheds with straw. The horses have a shelter barn with a leaky roof and a muddy floor. Until we get a dry spell, or at least a prolonged cold spell to freeze the mud, I can't get a vehicle to the shelter to repair the roof or fill in the muddy yard with stone. We only need the temperature to fall by 4 degrees to freeze everything solid and turn the rain to snow.

The grass in the horse paddock ran out on Christmas day, so the horses are now on their winter diet of hay. It's not their favourite but, if I'm late to deliver it in the morning, I usually find Alan has pushed over some fence posts, which he's worked out give way easily in the sodden ground, and jumped over the now-lowered electrified wire. As I come round the corner I can see his big butt sticking out of the hay shed, his head plunged deep into the stack of bales, helping himself to breakfast. That horse is too smart to ever go hungry.

Our working dogs are impervious to the weather, and still beg to come out on shoot days. A clean straw bed under a heat lamp, and a warm meal of venison and potatoes, is waiting for them at the end of the day.

Thank you Aunt Meg for our new coats!

Quincy is turning out to be a joy, both as a working dog and as a companion. She's already sporting white hairs in her black coat, battle scars from dragging pheasants out of bramble patches. I think Quincy will eventually become a house dog, once I figure out how to break the news to my husband that he will be sharing the house and his small sofa with three big, often wet, dogs.

All ideas welcome, folks

Of course, every cloud has a silver lining. All this rain has given me an excuse to knit. I managed to finish another jumper over Christmas, a green version of the red jumper I knit previously. I wear the crap out of the red one, and I'm a creature of habit, so it seemed sensible to whip up another one.

Being sat down also gave my knee a chance to heal. While cutting the hedges, my feet slipped on the wet ground (are you sensing a theme here?) and the blade of the hedge trimmer dug into my knee. It's healing fine with no medical intervention save the contents of my first aid kit. I was more upset that the blade ripped into my good thermal riding trousers.

I finished the hedges, but decided to leave the wood splitting for now. Wielding an axe in the slippery mud with my track record is inviting disaster. Heck, I can barely manage to walk to the back shed with an armful of laundry without risking a twisted ankle on the muddy lawn.

What the lawn looks like now...

We had a peaceful Christmas despite the rain. Mike gave me a set of numbers to mark my sheep that he had made for me. I had a red squirrel mounted for him, a road kill specimen found by a friend on the Isle of Wight, one of the few red squirrel habitats in the UK. It's been in our freezer for the past two years (I had to check UK taxidermy law before I could have it mounted.) Now it sits atop a log on our piano.

Cecilia the squirrel in her new habitat

And Santa brought us a new chicken/pheasant plucker, so no more cold, sore fingers! We also had two days off in a row to spend together - not counting chores, of course.

Pheasants loaded on the truck - traditionally delivered on 
Christmas Eve by the gamekeeper to all the houses on the estate

Here's hoping that 2013 brings us all some much needed rays of sunshine.