Monday 7 December 2020

Good News Update

I know I've been quiet on this site recently. With lockdown, not much new has been happening that I can share, until now.

I've bought a smallholding!

The sale was agreed months ago but the final paperwork took four months to complete. That's just the timescale in these days of Covid. I didn't want to tell you, in case it all fell though. But today I picked up the keys. It's officially mine, bought and paid for.

My farming friend Donna helped me to find it, and even negotiated a great price for me (something I am completely rubbish at doing). She brought the celebratory prosecco today, which we drank out of jam jars on the hood of my truck. Her daughter sent me the welsh coaster, a present that they had picked out for Mike at a Christmas fair last year. It's fitting that it is now in our home.

The house is small; it's an old Welsh stone cottage on the side of a mountain in Wales. I only have 3 acres of my own and a few stables and workshops, but I hope to find more ground to rent so that I can keep more sheep. I've had to trim my flock to fit for now. But a dozen sheep, four goats, and both horses are catered for. And of course the dogs.

It's old and solid, but needs some updating inside so it will be a few months before I can move in while the electrics are updated and some walls moved upstairs, and a bit of decorating updated. I hope I'll be in by April as I'm expecting lambs and baby goats by then. And now I have dry stables to lamb in, and a goat house to kid in. Luxury!

After living in tied and rented accommodation for the past 20 years, the mental relief of knowing that no one can show up at your door and tell you that you have to move is priceless. I feel like I can start to put effort and investment into my home and my small farm business. 

So, I've reached a new chapter in this blog. A hugely sad one without Mike, but I've now bought the farm that we both wanted to own together. It's an exciting step forward.

Until then, I'm staying safe from Covid, working on the pheasant shoot, and managing the house renovations over the next few months. Happy holidays to you all.

Thursday 16 July 2020

When a Chicken is the Good Kind of Tough

The pandemic and consequential change in people's shopping habits have made some things harder to come by. In my case, I need eggs. The hen turkeys only lay 20 or so a season. And now it's only hen turkey - singular: the Christmas Dinner turkey that Mike pardoned a couple of years ago died from old age. She was a monstrous lump of meat on legs but I'm glad she got to see out a few more Christmases. Her passing halved my already measly egg rations.

A neighbour decided he had far too many chickens and was happy for me to take a couple. Just bog-standard brown layers, perfect little egg production machines. I figured that I could just pop them in the turkey house alongside the two remaining turkeys, and await my fresh eggs.

By the time I'd finished my morning coffee, both chickens had got out and were exploring their new orchard paddock, totally unconcerned. I was concerned because they hadn't been here long enough to know where home is and where to go to bed. They're laid back so I thought I'd catch them up and rethink the housing situation.

Before I had a chance to do that, one of the chickens must have explored too close to the dog kennels. When I came back outside I heard very distressed chicken groans and saw brown feathers blowing around all the kennels.

I traced the poor hen to the spaniel kennel where she was pinned under Biscuit, who thought it was a great game making her new "toy" squeak.

I rescued the hen from Biscuit's unwanted attentions. The hen had a large tear in the skin over her tail - probably where a dog got hold of her and pulled her through the kennel bars. A few gnaw marks on the neck too. I resigned myself to losing her from the stress of the attack. Her wound was pretty significant too. God knows what internal damage there could be.

I cleaned and dressed her wound with that universal antidote - Blue Spray. I had no materials left with which I could quickly knock up a chicken house. But I did have a big fox cage. I covered the bottom of the cage with straw and made a little chicken recuperation bed out of a plastic tray, lots more straw, and food and water within reach of the patient.

It seemed perverse to house the chickens, even temporarily, in a cage meant to trap a fox. In there they seemed more like bait than pets. In this case, the cage was closed and kept them safe from fox (and spaniel) harm.

The injured chicken sat in her bed, feathers rumped up and eyes half-closed for the rest of the day. By morning, she was moving about and had laid an egg! Not only did she shake off the stress, she popped out a perfectly fine egg. I thought "this is one tough broad", so I gave her a suitable name: Chook Norris.

I've marginally upgraded their living accommodation from the fox cage to the small silver trailer (the trailer that is also the occasional sheep hospital, pig transport, and now Chicken Shed). They have more space, and better protection from the elements. It's not a perfect set-up. I have to use a plastic garden rake to roll the freshly laid eggs from their nest to the trailer door every morning.

Shortly after their relocation to the trailer, the eggs went missing. Every day. I watched until I saw a crow go in through the ventilation gap of the trailer and help itself to MY eggs! Believing that I was smarter than a crow, I started getting up earlier to beat the crow to the eggs. Within two days the crow adapted to showing up before me again. I think it recognised the sound of my back door opening.

It seems I'm not smarter than a crow.

However, I have opposable thumbs and access to a crow trap. The first morning I set it, I caught two pairs, and now my eggs are waiting for me every morning, even when I'm late with my plastic rake to go and collect them.

Crows can be a problem when it comes to sheep too. They will eat the eyes and tongue out of lambs, or sheep that have got cast on their backs and can't get up. My Dorset tup Aled has a touch of fly strike on his head. Flies find a damp patch and lay their eggs, and the maggots eat into the sheep's skin. It's really gross. I treated Aled with a proprietary fly killer, but he was still feeling a bit sorry for himself.

I went to check on him later in the afternoon, just to see how he was faring after treatment. As I drove up to the paddock, I saw Aled lying flat on his side. This is not a good sign. Sheep don't normally lay out like that. A crow was hopping nearby Aled. A doubly bad sign. Even crows recognise the usual pose of a sheep on its side as a dead sheep.

I hopped the fence, my heart sinking as I thought that I would have to call the knackerman to come get him and it's another bill for the farm, etc. At which point, my ram raised up his head and looked at me.

Phew. What a relief.

It was the outcome I was hoping for, though not the one the crow wanted. It took flight and curled away to go check other fields for an easy meal. I felt a bit smug at winning this battle, but quickly remembered how many others I've lost to predators and was instantly humbled.

Sunday 10 May 2020

Some Good Things

I've caught up with a few big jobs that were hanging over my head. My sheep got sheared -

My shearer from last year, Keiran, came and did a great job. He brought a second shearer this time. It still took four hours to get the job done. And they're not slow as you can see by their t-shirts (called "singlets") which read: Felinfach Speed Shear Finalist 2018 

Felinfach is a town in Wales. I looked it up. The name is Welsh for "small mill". I looked that up too. I'm guessing it's a town with a lot of sheepy history. 

Also, I love the sales pitch by the local shearing stores selling singlets: "Suitable for farmers, farriers, stonemasons, as well as shearers." They are not suitable for women however as the long, deep armholes let everything all hang out.

I did the fleece rolling and packing - suitably covered up in just a regular t-shirt.

I photographed this one as I managed to throw it correctly (unlike the previous few). 

It's like casting a net and you want it to spread out. You skirt it - pull off the dirty, poo-y edges and discard. Then roll it from the back end, which is easy identify as it's the poopiest end. Roll tightly while tucking in the sides. Finish by pulling a bit of neck fleece out, twist and tuck to hold it together. It looks like a sleeping bag when you get it right.

I fill up the wool sheets (bags) as I go. I filled three this season and will take them to the Irish wool buyers when I get a chance. If I'm lucky, selling the wool will cover half of what it cost to cut it off the sheep.

While I roll fleece, curse, and sweat profusely, Gertie entertains the troops waiting their turn for a haircut -

She has always liked sheep. She doesn't chase them but, as it was only me gathering the flock, I knew I could send Gertie behind a straggler to hurry it up. The sheep don't know she's only following commands for hunting pheasant. I love her company, Gertie is always so happy to be a part of anything going on.  

I also picked up the pigs from the abattoir. They killed out beautifully, with an excellent meat to fat ratio -

Half a pig gave me all these chops and 45 sausages, plus the prime cuts. I made bacon with the belly pork -

bone in

bone out

Curing for seven days.

I can share the bacon and chops with neighbours, especially my favourite retired neighbours Bill and Margaret. I mow their lawn for them and she insists on paying me - far too much too! - so I can sneak some of it back to her in the form of Sunday roasting joints and chops.

The weather has been sunny and warm, so I've been having some long, leisurely dog walks. As leisurely as walking a pack of seven dogs can be anyway. With the shutdown, the deerstalkers haven't been in the woods and there are already noticeably more deer moving around. 

I took a video (with sound) as we came up on a female muntjac deer "barking" -


It's a strange sound if you haven't heard it before. 

I took this photo of a roe deer standing in the track. I called the dogs back so they wouldn't chase her. I had to shout at the deer to move it along. I think they are enjoying their break from the stalkers too.

Can you see the deer?

The farrier came and trimmed the horses' feet, and declared Sam's chronic thrush gone! The vets came to give the horses their annual vaccinations. I also get the vet to check their teeth and do any necessary dentistry. It was a female vet who came this time. She's cooed and scratched Sam on his withers while she listened to his heart and gave him his injection. 

Normally Sam is ill-mannered and has little patience for that kind of interference. I have to drug him every time the farrier trims his feet. But Sam never put a foot out of place. The vet put a dental mouth gag on Sam. It looks like this:


Medieval looking, no? It locks a horse's mouth open so the vet can inspect inside without losing a finger.

Sam stood quietly and let her do it. Just crank it open. No meds. No fights. I was stunned.

I think Sam likes the ladies best. 

The vet then told me that they both look "exceptional" and in great condition for their age. I felt like a proud mother.

Don't think too kindly of them just yet. I shut them into the small side of the field to limit their grazing. Within 24 hours they destroyed the gate to get to more grass. Not fixable. A total replacement gate is needed. 

This week I will change the tractor's log splitter for the mower, and start topping some grass. If the good weather holds.

It's cold today, but only "extra sweater and hot water bottle" cold. Last week we had a dank, cold day and I lit the fire in my study for the first time since I moved in. I've never had a fire in my study before. It feels very Sherlock Holmes-y.  

Molly carries her therapy pillow with her most of the day.

I miss my Rayburn but the open fireplace is a pretty good second. The dogs like it too. 

Friday 1 May 2020

It Ain't Pretty - Well, Some of it is OK

Spring is here. The cuckoos are calling, the blossoms are already dropping from the cherry trees. The cows are out on grass with their young calves. Wild edible greens like nettles and wild garlic are everywhere. I've made wild garlic pesto and used it in some coleslaw this week. I'm not quite hungry enough to eat the nettles yet.

I have re-glazed the greenhouse. Only one pane broke in transit and I was able to borrow a replacement from a friend.  Most greenhouses have standard size panes, so that's useful.

I've started tomatoes, cucumbers, and sweet peppers for the greenhouse. Homegrown tomatoes alone are worth the effort.

Of course, the turkeys had to be evicted so I could return the greenhouse to its vegetative use. I finally had to build them a turkey enclosure. The problem was I only had what was available in the garden - cement blocks, sheets of tin, wooden palates - leftover from kennel construction.  Also, I have limited tools now that I can't borrow the shoot's tools. I located a jarful of screws, some zip ties, a drill with one screw head, and a chainsaw.

Here is the result-

It is functional but god awful to look at. The only plus is that with lockdown, I won't get people dropping by and seeing my turkey shanty. I built it under a tree and behind the high hedge so it's not visible from the road. However, the turkeys are safe at night, so that's the important thing.

During the day, they are free to roam, which means I have to hunt the hedgerow to see where the hen is laying her eggs.

Thankfully white turkeys are not masters at camouflage

I don't mind a bit of slapdash repair, some dirt, or even things to be rough around the edges. But I do actually have a strong sense of the aesthetic. I love when something is both functional and nice to look at.

I often feel self-conscious about all the Macgyver-ing I've been doing for the past few years. Especially having just read a book called Adventures in Yarn Farming. The author Barbara Parry has about the same number of livestock to manage as I do, but her farm is immaculate. IMMACULATE. She dries off her baby lambs with towels for god's sake. My first though was who does all that washing? It's a good book and I've enjoyed reading it but boy do I feel like underachiever, as far as making things look nice.

Her book put an aesthetic bee in my bonnet and did a few projects around the house to pretty it up, but still with a hint of Macgyver -ishness. I can't seem to shake that off. I sewed a cushion cover for my bench in the hall -

I robbed the cushion from my sun chairs, chairs so well used that they fell apart so the cushions were going spare. They were almost the perfect length. I used some coarse French linen I acquired from somewhere and have been carrying around for years.

I also had an old flour sack that was a pretty good fit to turn into a curtain for under the Belfast sink in the laundry room-

I even turned one of my sister's rehomed jumper (now too small from many shrinkings in the wash) into a cosy for my French press -

I hand sewed blanket stitch edges and used an old kilt pin from my sewing box to put it together.

But my artsy-fartsy fun was short-lived and, when the rain let up, I went back outside and put a raised vegetable bed together.

I used leftover cement blocks from the kennels to build a square bed. I used a ripped tarp to line the bed, so the water can seep through but the compost is held in place. I ordered some compost to fill the bed, which was the biggest expense. I've planted seeds I had left over from last year, and some that neighbours gave me ( I grow the seeds; they take half and I keep half - good deal!)

There are salad, collards, spring onions, green beans and squash in the raised bed. Just things I like to eat and aren't too complicated to grow, even if this summer is cool or wet.

Leftover roof corners are great for labeling rows of plants

It was too late in the season to try and prepare the soil to grow vegetables straight in the ground. This is my compromise to get me though this season. Again, no visitors will be dropping by to see my Frankengarden.

I even used a broken plastic tub, tires, and an old dog bed, all filled with compost, to grow potatoes and sweet peas. I planted potatoes before I knew that the farmer was going to put the eight acre field behind my house down to potatoes. No matter what, there will be potatoes.

This morning I took the pigs ice camp. Our four pigs were overdue but it took me weeks to get a slot as the abattoirs are busy and understaffed. I'm splitting my pig with my weaver friend Angela. The pigs are due back - mostly freezer-ready - next week. I'll cure the belly for bacon and bone out some joints.

The sheep finally got moved to their fresh grass last week and they're looking well for it.

The goats were no help when I tried to load the sheep, so I had to scrounge around in my truck for dog leashes and sheep head collars in order to tie them each to the fence and out of my way.

Unlike sheep, they're curious and always up for a road trip.

The sheep were due to get sheared today after pig duties, but it started to rain. Without my sheep barn, I can't put them under cover to keep their fleece dry, which is necessary before they can be sheared. I've been barnless before, it can be managed. My shearer Keiran has the patience of a saint, and we're going to try again tomorrow. Fingers crossed for sunshine and dry sheep.

Once the fleeces are off I can have a good look at their condition. I will probably select a half dozen or so of my plumpest ewes to put to my new Dorset ram. A trial run so to speak, and a small enough number that I can put them in my orchard to lamb, where I can keep a close eye on them or knock up a shelter (hello pallets and zip ties!) if the autumn weather turns foul.

It may not be a pretty shelter but a cute lamb face makes up for a lot.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Adapt and Overcome

Luckily I was able to finish moving house days before we were shut down with the Covid-19 virus. The kennels were finished enough to be habitable before my builders had to self-isolate.

The concrete pad had to fit kennels and a storage shed - it was tight!

This is what I gave the builders-

And they still manage to build it all to fit based on that scribble -

The builders are my neighbours who I supply with goat meat from time to time. They built the kennels in record time and wouldn't charge me for their labour! They will never be short of goat meat, that's for sure.

We swapped the shed and kennels around to give the dogs a bit more privacy and an extra windbreak.The dogs like to sunbathe now spring is here. The cleaning system needs to be refined - gravel and loose straw are not a good combo. We'll work on that.

While the inside of the new cottage was still under construction, I set about moving some farm equipment and my greenhouse. I took all the glass out of it and moved all the panes in multiple trips, as many as I could lift by myself in one armful.

Last time, Mike and Ian moved the frame by carrying it down the road on their shoulders. I had to get more creative - and a little scared - to move it by myself this time-

I balanced it on the loader's tines and drove it down the road, saying "Ohshitohshitohshit" to myself pretty much the whole way. I picked a time when the roads would be mostly clear, and prayed I wouldn't bump into anyone. I figured that people do dumber things with less planning than this. It worked out fine.

Buoyed by my greenhouse moving success, I went back and loaded the railroad sleepers I use for its base.

I wasn't so lucky with the old chicken house. Its structure was too weakened from age and the winter's floods to move. Now I had homeless turkeys. But I adapted -

I covered the greenhouse frame with a few sheep hurdles zip tied together, and covered it with a tarp to make it rain resistant. A temporary turkey refuge.

Yeah, they're not impressed either.

After a few days in the turkey prison (helps them locate where to go to bed at night) they were free to wander the gardens. They look much happier in the sunshine, in the corner of my garden.

And because moving house and a pandemic weren't enough, some of the sheep tried to get blood worm again. I caught it quicker, and wormed the worst cases. One ewe was so poorly I needed to move her close to me so I could tend her regularly, but I no longer have a sheep barn. I adapted-

I left my washing line in the picture because my life is not Instagram-worthy, but it's honest.

I have a little orchard so I penned her in there with sheep netting (no electricity but she was too poorly to wander much). I'm using my little trailer as a mobile shed, stuffed with straw to keep her warm as she's lost so much weight. Here I can feed her and treat her with meds and vitamins. It was touch and go for 4 or 5 days. I hated to get out of bed every morning as my first job was to walk outside and see if she made it though the night. Not a nice way to start your day.

She's still here, recovering nicely. In fact, she baaas at me when the dogs bark for their breakfast, demanding hers at the same time. The bit of fresh grass in the orchard has been a tonic for her too. 

The rest of the flock is desperate to move to their new grazing but there's timber extraction around and through the new field. I checked on progress this morning and it looks like we could move in the next 48 hours.

The horses didn't want to be left out. They have been busy pushing down fencing, probably while scratching their butts on the wood rails. The managed to take out a whole section, leading onto the main road of course-

They did this after the quarantine was in effect so I couldn't go to the farm store and get any fencing supplies. But, I adapted  -

Thank goodness for sheep hurdles and zip ties. I hate that it looks so messy, but keeping stock in is the main priority at the moment. 

And because moving house, a pandemic, sick sheep and escaping horses aren't enough, Pip decided it was time for her to cross the rainbow bridge. She enjoyed her last few days out in the sun, and many special breakfasts before we took our final trip to the vets.

Because of the health restrictions, I wasn't able to hold her paw while she went to sleep, but her favourite vet and nurse were there with her the whole journey. Dr Ralph said she was wagging her tail right up to the end.

Pip in her retrieving days. She was a good dog in every way.

And because moving house, a pandemic, sick sheep, escaping horses, and losing a dog aren't enough, I also quit my job at the pub. Which was prescient as within a week all the wait staff were laid off anyway due to the quarantine. 

My neighbour who farms milking goats is very short staffed, with plowing and seeding jobs to do as well as milking. He and his staff helped me move the bulk of my house, all the furniture and heavy things I couldn't do on my own. They were busy themselves and still offered to come over to help me. It was a huge kindness. Now I get to return the favour, and be gainfully employed at the same time: I am a trainee goat milker!

I shadow staff during the evening milking to learn the routine. The stockmanship is easy enough, it's the milking parlour and complex vacuums, bulk tanks, and hoses that worry me. Press the wrong button and I've contaminated all the milk and it has to be thrown away, and the farm loses money. 

I'm told it's pretty hard to do anything that catastrophic. Again, people do dumber things with less planning and get by. I'm sure I can be taught.

We're only milking about 83 at the moment, but the next lot of goats are starting to kid, so milking will increase. On my last shift, we spotted an early kidder who managed to pop out FIVE babies -

I've secretly named her Pez.

I bumped into Kate, one of the farm staff, just as she was about start her long evening sitting in a tractor plowing the fields. Kate made herself a coffee but couldn't find a spoon. So, she reached in her jeans pocket, pulled out a knife, wiped in on her jeans, and used it to stir her coffee. Yes it was the knife she uses to trim animal feet. Yes we all do it. Adapt and overcome, even if it's a bit gross.

Of all that's happened in my life over the last eight months, the stay at home quarantine order has been the easiest problem to manage. I'm part of a good community, we swap and share, There's enough in my larder that I've not been to a grocery store and anything can be toilet paper if you're creative enough. But I've taken the isolation very seriously because I cannot afford to get sick without a Mike in my life.

The estate planted a tree in Mike's honour, replacing an oak that blew down in last year's storms. It's a sweet chestnut tree, grown from seed from a tree on the estate that, every year, produces the biggest fattest most delicious chestnuts. Grown this way from seed, the chestnut will take 20 years to produce nuts. I hope I'm still around to gather them.

Molly sits on the stump with Mike's tree in the background. We like to go and visit it together sometimes.

The woodmen will carve a bench from the stump of the fallen tree eventually, and the view looks out across a pheasant drive, though fields and into the woods. The underkeepers dug the hole for the tree. Sitting on the stump afterwards they said "Great! This will be a perfect rifle rest for shooting foxes!"

Mike would be so proud.

Stay safe and well. Adapt and overcome.

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.

Monday 13 January 2020

The End of The Season

Thank you to everyone for your kind messages after my last post.

The farm is still here. I am still here. I have good days and bad days. It's to be expected.

Mike's funeral was cathartic. So many people came that the church and a marquee outside were full, standing room only.

The family who employ Mike took care of everything for me. Mrs C even did the flower arranging using greenery from the woods and beautiful Narcissus from Cornwall, Mike's home county. 

Mr C drove the coffin in the back of the gun bus, a old Land Rover 101. Mike's old underkeepers, all now head keepers on their own shoots, rode in the back with Mike and me. They reminded me of all the happy, irritating, crazy Mike stories we'd been a part of together. 

There was a lot of laughter in the back of the old gun bus and Mike was at the centre of it as usual. The boys carried the coffin into the crematorium reminding me that Mike always said he should get a discount if he was ever cremated as he'd done half the job himself already in the gas explosion.

Apologies for the gallows humour but it is a good coping mechanism.

The family that employed and knew Mike for many years threw him a wonderful wake in the old barn where we meet for shoot days. No black was allowed, only tweeds and comfortable clothes.

I wish I could remember more of the day. The most I could manage was to hold it together and speak to people. So many kind words, cards, and flowers were sent to us. More importantly over £2000 was raised for Macmillan Cancer Support by everyone who attended. That would make Mike very happy.

His legacy, besides being a good husband, is all the young people he trained to become game keepers with respect for the countryside. There's 9 of us here, if you include me. Mike used to say that I was his longest serving apprentice.

He was so very proud of "his boys" as he called them.

My sister and my father took it in turns to stay here and keep me company during this time, over Christmas and into the new year. I'm lucky to have such a great family.

And to add more sadness to this post, I had to have Mike's old spaniel Dulcie put to sleep this morning. She was 16 and enjoying retirement but suffered a stroke last night. I like to think Mike and Dulcie are together now. I have 3 sleeping dogs around me cosying up to the Rayburn while I write, and the wind and rain howl outside. The dogs are by far the most comforting thing in my life.

OK, no more talk of death for now, I promise.

It's a shoot day tomorrow so I'm cooking stew for the beaters. The underkeepers are in the butchery readying some birds for orders this week. I'll go and join them in a while. I have six more shoot days to run as acting head keeper. I will keep working on the shoot until a permanent head keeper is found.

I have to move from this house but the estate has offered me a lovely little cottage just down the road, with a garden and lots of dog walking paths. I've happily accepted this stop gap for at least a year while I find the strength to go forward again. I'll keep you posted.