Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Weathering Storms

Shooting season is over. It was a bittersweet ending. I put on Mike's slippers one last time to greet the guns in the morning and outline the day's shoot. The slippers were a practical joke given to Mike by the guns. They all have matching slippers except Mike who just took off his boots at the door and wore his socks to greet them. Mike accepted the slippers with good humour though he confided in me later that they cost more than his day's wages. He never took them home and always left them tucked away under a chest for shoot days.

The slippers were huge on me and I slopped about in them, curling my toes inside them to hold them on. I couldn't fill them literally or figuratively. But, like wearing his yellow shoot socks, I wore his slippers and hoped that, like talismans, they would help me do his job.

I have left the slippers in the same spot for the new head keeper.

I was relieved when the formal days were finished. I think I held it together to see the season through, but they were some of the hardest days for me emotionally. I had to muster up all my reserves to face each one. Grieving is a personal tragedy; clients do not want to see it or deal with it. Nor should they. But it's hard to put grief on hold. Like I said, I think I managed OK but only just.

I have since heard that three local head keepers have been made redundant at the end of their seasons. They will now have their own grief to attend to, and my heart goes out to them.

Gamekeeping is a precarious life built on the capriciousness of sporting guns and estates. A perfectly run season can still end in shoot closures and job losses for any number of valid reasons. So the gamekeeper has to find new work, move his home, family (including kids in school) and learn new ground and what his new bosses want, and care for pheasants, all within a few months' time frame, before he's expected to deliver good shooting days. All this, with the Sword of Damocles in the form of shoot closure, always hanging over his head.

There is the Gamekeepers Welfare Trust set up to help guide keepers though the rough parts of the job, but suicides are still too common. Wet winters like the one we've just had (and are still having) increase the pressure.

Man, I'm a Debbie Downer, aren't I? Here's some nice farm photos to cheer you up-

Seven dogs loaded up and ready for a woodland walk - on a rare sunny day! 

The Welsh black x Duroc piggies enjoying a trough full of goats milk - a real treat!

Normally Mike and I would look forward to the end of the shoot season and our two week holiday, which only ever lasted a few days as Mike got bored quickly. I have embraced the whole fortnight and thrown myself into therapeutic (slightly compulsive) jigsaw puzzling and reading. I love reading about Arctic and Antarctic exploration, though the closest I get to adventure is tasting the whiskey allegedly drunk by the 1907 British Antarctic Expedition.

Farm chores still demand attention. The wet winter means hay is at a premium. Again. I made my own hay this year but with Mike's illness I didn't find time to move it indoors and half of the hay has spoiled from the rain. My neighbours kindly sold and delivered some large bales on their tractor and that's helped me through the worst of the hungry months. Now I'm back to picking through and salvaging the best small bales to feed to the sheep and goats.

The goats are ravenous and eat most of the hay. I made a decision to cull the oldest nanny, and the two goatlings from last year: the boy and the girl with the withered leg. The old nanny and the boy went to market together and made a good price (which will be spent on animal feed!). The female with the withered leg couldn't go to market. For welfare reasons, the rule is that any animal going to market must be able to put all four feet on the ground. Not easy when you only have three and a half legs to start with!

Our deer stalker kindly offered to shoot her in the field for me. If I tried to do it, she would have come too close looking for food and brought the rest of the herd with her. And, I would have kept putting off the job if it was left to me.

Ready to hang in the chiller for a few days

I butchered her today. There is enough to share with my Jamaican neighbour, and I minced a lot of the meat to make burgers this time. There's also a big pot of  bones stewing on the Rayburn for the dogs in the morning. It makes their kibble a bit more interesting. Plus, you know, waste not want not and all that.

I also sent Horned Ram and the last entire ram lamb to market. Horned ram recovered from an infected scrotum but the vets couldn't guarantee that he would be fertile again, so I couldn't sell him on in good faith as a breeding ram. Thankfully I have his genetics in my flock, but it was sad to let such a handsome, quiet lad go. I only have two rams now: Aled the new Dorset ram I bought and Bertram the Friesian ram.

The sheep trade is so good and the grazing is so tight that I've decided to sell nearly half my flock, including all the hybrid Bertram lambs. I will keep 25 or so of my core breeders (and yes Grumpy's lamb is definitely staying!) and build up the numbers again when I feel able. Turning this commodity into money when the market is high is sensible, especially when you can literally make more stock and build up your future reserves again.

There is no way I am conceding the farm or my future farming plans.

I will start back on gamekeeping duties next week. I will trod Mike's well worn February path: taking stock of inventory, making repairs, having the incubators and hatchers serviced. The boys are feeding the catchers, ready to set in a couple weeks' time. We are all trying to make the transition for the new head keeper as seamless as possible.

All of us can only embrace hope that the weather will improve, spring will come and grass will grow. Lambs will be born (eventually!) and pheasant chicks will hatch. Even when so much is against us now.

The back of my whiskey bottle has a quote from Ernest Shakleton: "I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown." I'm not trekking 1700 miles to the South Pole or even climbing an active Antarctic volcano. But I climb out of bed every morning and face the unknown. That is a start for me.