Today has been a day spent topping. When we first started small holding we spent much of our time watching the experienced farmers in the area and then, a couple of days late, copying them. When they started cutting hay, a day late, so did we – when they sheared their flock so did we (although a lot less expertly). Every year I copied them until I understood why they did what they did and when. In the early years one of the greatest mysteries was “topping“; each year, each field was topped at least once. We did this faithfully but ignorantly. (Topping is cutting the grass short and leaving the remains where they fall rather than taking them for hay or silage)
I now know topping is a valuable part of pasture management. It helps keep down thistles, reeds and other weeds. The regular cutting also promotes a better sward of grass which the animals prefer and benefit from. It cuts down the large stems of grass which the animals are not eating and which have become “leggy” and these, and all the other items cut, lie as mulch so that their nutrients go back into the soil. However, topping has also taught me something much more important, it has taught me about belonging.
We have tried in the main to undertake most of the farming tasks we have to do, either by hand or without heavy machinery. Some of this is through choice, but a great deal is through necessity as machinery is expensive. As farms have become bigger in Britain farm machinery has grown pari passu with this. Although prices are reasonable they are only reasonable if you want to work an area of over 500 hectares. Vaccines are reasonably priced when you buy enough to inject 500 sheep but can be difficult to get in reasonable volumes to do 25. We do not have a standard tractor on the farm. It would be too expensive and the few times we really have needed one it has been possible to call on the aid of a neighbour. There are people with back-hoe diggers, mobile sawmills and cherry pickers in our valley and they are seen as communal resources. As long as you contribute what you can, machinery or labour, you can call on these other resources.
Because our farm is very hilly, some of our pasture would be quite dangerous to drive on in a tractor for fear of overturning. For this additional reason I felt best to keep temptation out of my reach – if I don’t have a tractor I can’t try topping the steep field with it. Further, there was another problem – the time I needed a tractor and topper was always the time everyone else needed it too. Topping, therefore, faced us with a dilemma, as the prospect of mowing a 6 acre meadow, by hand, was pretty daunting.
Thankfully the Italians came to our rescue. In Italy, as many of the farms work olive groves and, also because inheritance law has lead to the growth of very small farms, there is a call for small, two-wheeled tractors. There is a steady demand for machinery which works on a smaller scale. In Italy, and throughout Europe, there are a number of manufacturers of these small multi-talented tractors. Our first purchase was a Goldoni with a field topper. This makes light work of topping even large fields. Around this time of year I have a pleasant few days following the Goldoni at a brisk walking pace as we top each of our fields.
It is not too strenuous and there is plenty to keep you interested as you top the field. There is the wildlife to watch. Often this is wildlife trying to flee from the advancing topper but fortunately we are slow enough not to catch any. Today’s walk introduced me to slow worms and toads as well as allowing me to watch the Red Kites circling overhead.
As we are not taking hay these years (we have too many animals and not enough pasture) we let the meadow rest last year. In addition to the animal life we have also been fortunate to see orchids growing wild near the damp edges.
However, by far the best sight is looking over the field, past the big cherry tree, over the house and seeing the mountains. Whoever, planned our house back in 1796 knew what they were doing; they chose a wonderfully sheltered spot which avoids the winds without losing the sun. Looking over the field and knowing that, again, you have walked every square foot of that field and checked it is very satisfying. It helps tether you to your place and fosters an affection for your patch of land. I guess this is what starts to develop those attachments to place which bind you to home. Welsh has a word for this – “hiraeth” – it is similar to the German “heimat” , but has more a sense of yearning to be where you belong.
These connections are not truly innate, they arise from being in close proximity to a place over a period of time. They come from working with that area’s nature and getting to know it as it changes throughout the year. It is the sinking of roots into a patch of land so that you feel unsettled when you are not at home. This can occur in the town or the country, a village or the city but it depends on constancy of place and its people. As our lives are much more mobile now; our working lives often takes us from place to place, and our families likewise can be moving and dispersed over wide areas, for many of us it is difficult to generate this feeling. This is unfortunate as I feel that this connection is also part of the emotion which binds us to our communities. This is the part of the jigsaw that was missing when I worked in the city, this was the bit of me that I felt was lost which drove me to leave.
I have never regretted that decision. Yes, I often feel like a fool and out of my depth when I try to grapple with new problems. But facing problems and dealing with them is what makes life enjoyable. Routine, while comforting, needs to be broken every now and then to keep us on our toes. Having to learn new ideas and skills keeps the challenge that we need to keep our spirits up. I stated at the start that when we started small holding we learnt by copying. However, to tell the truth there was one time when we were in the vanguard and leading from the front. Once, when we thought we might have been trendsetters or to have possibly discovered a new farming technique.
One of our elderly ewes had to be helped when she delivered her lambs. This was exciting as it was the first time that we had to actually pull a stuck lamb from its mother. Everything that we had read and watched worked as it should and we felt quite smug after having successfully delivered healthy lambs. However, our relief that we managed to do this was quickly tempered by the ewe developing a uterine infection. After a course of penicillin she recovered but lost her entire fleece and was completely bald. We did not know what to do, we feared she’d be cold and come to harm.
We found an old dog coat, in fetching blue, which we kept on her by bands of duct tape which gave a dashing belted effect. We thought we had done very well and she looked quite handsome. She recovered fully which she would have done anyway, apparently. Local farmers later told us that this was a recognised side-effect of antibiotics and will sort itself out. We watched as the farmers drove past our field, we noticed as they shook their heads and wondered if they were nodding sagely and thinking “what a wise and fashionable idea, why didn’t we think of it ?” or whether they were convulsing with laughter thinking “what are those idiots up to now ?“. I tend to think that latter was more likely as I haven’t noticed a sudden profusion of colourfully dressed sheep in our local fields.