A sheep in wolves’ clothing.

We have had a bit of a problem over the last few days. One of the ewes who had healthy twins (a boy and a girl) was causing concern. She would not let the boy feed and would head butt him away quite vigorously whenever he came close. Sometimes she would toss him up into the air and over a meter away from her. It was quite distressing to see.

We were worried she might have mastitis and that pain, when the lamb suckled, contributed to the problem. Therefore we needed to get her to the vet for review and possible antibiotics. Now this is sometimes easier said than done. It is fairly easy to catch the ewes now that they are bucket trained, but it is a different matter to get 40kg of reluctant and annoyed ewe into the back of a pickup or into the vet’s surgery. Though goats may get all the praise for being nimble and quick I can assure you that a sheep that wants to escape to somewhere else is no slouch. They will wriggle, jump and run; it can be quite a task at times.

I wasn’t looking forward to this when my wife had an idea. We had recently invested in a macho harness for our German Shepherd – perhaps we could press this into use for the ewe. After a minor skirmish it was on and all of a sudden we had a ewe we could move at will without hurdles or a sheep dog – it was a sheep with a handle on it and it made life so much easier. It may look odd (see the picture below) but I can commend this strategy to any other smallholder with wily ewes and large fashion-conscious dogs.

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After the vet had reviewed her it seems unlikely that mastitis is at the root of our problems. Sometimes ewes will just take against a specific lamb, it seems that there is just something about the look of their face to which they take objection. We are assured that often this can be overcome by just ensuring the lamb does get to feed regularly whether the ewe wants to or not. So we have a period ahead when we have to immobilise the ewe every two hours while we let her son feed. Our other cunning plan is to smear some poo from the bum of the lamb she has accepted onto the bum of the lamb she rejects- apparently this sometimes fools the ewe back into acceptance.

Hopefully these strategies will work and will avoid us the need to start bottle feeding as I think I am too old to go back to night bottle feeds.

 

The perversity of ewes.

It seems only a short time ago that we had warm sunny days, dry days, pleasant days, in fact, ideal days for lambs to start their lives. However, our ewes eschewed starting lambing during this period ; “too easy” they said. They have waited until just after the hail and sleet of yesterday and the start of Storm Gareth  today and decided that this is the perfect time to start lambing. The pervesity of ewes knows no bounds.

We have our fingers firmly crossed and  our lambing box at the ready and I’ve made this short post just to explain that there will be little activity on this site for the next few weeks.

 

The Ovine Death Wish

Farmers and smallholders often hold the view that sheep are born with a ‘death wish’. Much of sheep farming is less to with ways to breed, rear and grow them than to working to stop them killing themselves. You make fences to stop them hurling themselves in front of traffic. Once the fences are strong they manage to garrotte themselves in the wiring and resist all your attempt to pull them out. If there are no fences they’ll try  getting entangled in the branches of hedging. If there is anything poisonous they will find it and try it, and I am not convinced they don’t lure in the dogs, foxes and crows that cause so much trouble. If the Samaritans ever consider expanding to the animal kingdom their first new section should be for sheep and their suicidality.

As there is less forage at this time of year the sheep become more adventurous in their search for food. They climb higher,WhatsApp Image 2018-12-29 at 16.37.30 reach farther and jump deeper than they usually will consider. This was the problem behind today’s escapade. I had noticed when out walking that one of my neighbour’s ewes was standing knee deep in a bog. It was looking perplexed but un-distressed and I presumed just enjoying a new range of forage. In the return leg of my walk, a half an hour later, I found her in the same position but now sunk to her shoulders and clearly tired and fearful. As I went to see her she become more frightened, struggled a little (as she was tired), and due to her struggling sunk a bit lower into the bog.

I didn’t have much time, I needed to get a rope and to get her out. It was late afternoon and it would be dark in half an hour or less and at he rate of her sinking she could be fully under water in that amount of time. I ran home and retrieved my waders and a rope. I don’t like running at the best of times but I have discovered a new horror – running in waders ! This is almost an impossibility, although you try to make all the right running movements, the constriction of the waders holds you back so you make little more speed than brisk walking. You look as ungainly as it is possible to look and the noise of rustling waders is sure make certain that anyone in the vicinity will know to turn and look for a free laugh.

Fortunately when I got back it was still light and I was able to drag her out with the rope. WhatsApp Image 2018-12-29 at 16.31.15She was exhausted after her struggles and cold to the core. She couldn’t bear her own weight though (other than being cold and wet) she had no injuries. Fortunately I spotted  a local passing in a pick-up and managed to get his help. (He was driving slowly after a fit of laughter caused by seeing somebody trying to run while wearing waders). Between us we managed to get the ewe over the wall, into his pick-up and have her taken back to the farmstead to get dry and warm. I’m optimistic she’ll be fine after this. But I am also certain that this won’t be the last time this winter we will be dragging sheep away from their doom; they are drawn to it like moths to the flame. It is the way of things.

On the plus side I always find the week after Christmas a rather flat and sad time. The modern Christmas seems to have lost both its Christian and Pagan roots  and to have become something rather greedy and egotistical. So I welcomed this opportunity to help an animal in distress, and my neighbour, and the happy outcome brightened my day.

 

 

 

The right dog for the right task.

The right dog for the right task.

I am very lucky that for most of my life I have lived with dogs and latterly I have tended to have two dogs at any given time. Just now I live with Cadi and Brân and I think it would be hard to imagine two more different dogs. Their differences are not most noticeable in the physical areas; one is small the other large, one female the other male, one a Border Collie and the other a German Shepherd. But rather they differ enormously in their characters. This means that they have very different aptitudes and I need to bear this in mind when we do things together.

Cadi is the Border Collie.  She is clearly the oznorbrains of the two. She is much quicker to learn things though not necessarily the more obedient. She is the dog we need if we are trying to do anything with the sheep. Her instincts are to gather and herd and despite our lack of skills she has developed into a good and useful working dog. We can send her into a field and following the judicious use some “come by” and “away” commands we can round up all of our flock. We have found that it is better to rely on her instincts of what is the best strategy for working with the sheep rather than our own – she reads them much better than we can.

On the other hand Brân would be of little value in this arena. His instinct is to hunt and oznoralthough he is very keen to get at the sheep this is rarely of any help. If you want to imagine his strategy then visualise a testosterone fuelled teenager showing off in front of a group of girls at a billiard table. Imagine him slamming that cue ball and sending all the other balls flying. This is Brân’s strategy, it may be helpful to explain Brownian motion to those who do not understand it,  but it has little to commend it in agricultural terms. Though he may have the word “Shepherd” in his breed name he seems to have little of this in his DNA.

This does not mean Brân doesn’t work.  Cadi is a useless guard-dog. If anyone arrives at the farm she is pleased to see them and offers to let them in and show them around despite how unsavoury or malevolent they may appear. Brân, however, is much more fussy. He only allows those he knows in. If you don’t have an invitation form us then Brân is not happy for you to enter. If he decides you are not invited  he  throws his 45kg at the gate and barks a loud  “keep out”. This is usually very clearly understood by people who call.

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When it comes to going for walks, often, I will go with both dogs. They like to play with each other, and it means they cover a great deal more ground than I do, thus they also get a great deal more exercise than they would have received if it had just been me an one dog. But it is not the case that I can take either dog for every walk. Some types of walking only really suit one dog.

If I am going jogging I need to go with Brân. Actually I prefer the welsh verb loncian to the  verb jogging. I feel loncian conveys more of a sense of clunky, dis-coordinated , uneven movement than jogging with its association with running and fluid movements. Cadi can not stand to watch me jog. She sees my wheezing, sweating and facial grimaces and thinks something is wrong. She starts to bark and jump up and down to warn me to stop and draws attention to the fool I am making of myself. So for jogging I take Brân. He paces effortlessly along side. His long legged, fluid strides, look easy and effortless and this seems his natural pace. The only problem is that when I look at his effortless grace it reminds me just how awful my own performance must look.

The other exercise I take is hiking. I enjoy this as it requires no equipment and I am lucky to live in an area which makesdav hiking glorious. There are trails and pathways which look as if they have not changed their appearance for hundreds of years. I also enjoy it as it requires no special clothing. I loath lycra and gym clothing. I have a body which needs to be hidden rather than seen. I do have bulges and curves but they are all in the wrong places, I curve out where I should curve in. My bulges are not rippling muscle but wobbly bits in the wrong place. If you wished to imagine my physique, and I’d advise against it, then think about making a model man with a potato for the body and four cocktail sticks for the limbs – there you have it. I enjoy hiking is it may, one day, shrink the potato but in the meantime I can wear camouflage clothing

When hiking I am best with Cadi. She won’t pester the sheep and she can be let to run free. She is also a better listener than Brân. I can have much deeper conversations with her as she understands a great deal more and there is no need to use “baby talk” in the conversations. She is the ideal companion as she will also help eat half of your sandwiches, even the ones I don’t like, and this improves the exercise as it cuts down the calories consumed. As they say, a calorie in the dog is a calorie less in me.

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Thoughts while shearing

Thoughts while shearing

I have found that I have mixed feelings after the annual shearing. During the year any dagging (removing the soiled wool at the rear end) or crutching I do myself by hand, but for the annual shearing of the fleece I rely on a young lad on the next farm to do the work.

He has all the equipment; a shearing trailer (which acts as a holding pen while the work is going on), the electrical shears (which give a neat trim) and moccasins (so that he might hold the sheep with his feet without hurting them). But more importantly he has two other advantages. Firstly he has the strength and stamina; shearing is hard work, grappling 50kg of reluctant, wriggling ewe or ram and trying to operate heavy electric shears at the same time is a young man’s job. It is difficult for an old codger like me. Secondly, and most importantly, he has the skill. Knowing how to hold the animal, how to turn them as you shear, how to avoid cutting the animal and managing to take off an entire fleece intact is a hard earned skill. Watching someone who knows their craft is very impressive.

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I usually like to use the least technology possible, to try and find the most natural way to do a task. However, there is no way to shear a sheep without tools and modern tools make this easier. Primarily they make it easier for the sheep. The procedure is painless but it alarming to the animal, it has no conception of what is happening and is afraid. There is no way to share, with them,  the knowledge that they will feel better during the summer and be at less risk of fly-strike, lice, ticks and a variety of other plagues. It is always stressful and therefore anything that shortens the time it takes is good news. Hand shearing by an expert takes about 15 minutes, hand shearing by me takes about an hour, electrical shearing by our neighbour takes about 2 minutes. There is really little contest, electrical shearing wins hands down.

So why then do I have mixed feelings about it ? Well, this time it started when another neighbour, who was helping, recalled shearing when he was a boy. On the shearing days up to 20 men would sit in a line on benches at the edge of the field and shear the flocks by hand. During the season many hands were needed to do the work. Now one or two men, with good machinery, can do the same job with less effort and stress. It is the reason that agriculture, though it produces much more than it ever did, uses less labour. It is why there are few jobs in the countryside and why the population has shrunk. Though there are less jobs in farming this mechanisation has created its own jobs – there is now a need for factory workers to work the lathes and milling machines that make the equipment. There is less call for young men to learn how to shear in Wales but the demand for young men to work in factories, often abroad. With less people living and working in the countryside there is less call for shops, schools, churches, doctors and the like and this is why we see that now the majority of people live in urban areas.

This specialisation is at the core of capitalism and it is the great irony of the twentieth century  that it has been capitalism, not socialism,  which has pulled many people out of poverty. Through mechanisation and specialisation great increases in wealth have arisen. This increase is so great that, even when it is badly and unevenly distributed, the majority of us benefit. In the west, going back 100 years, no-one could have anticipated our current wealth. The idea of personal transport by automobile, central heating or air conditioning, personal computers and telephony would be unimaginable to people who thought that books and electric light to read them by were a luxury. So it seems I cavil , especially as I post this on the internet, when I cast doubt in these changes. However, I’d argue that not all of this progress has been without cost and, although agreeing that a market economy is the best way to ensure efficient production, I’d propose we have to be careful that we know where we’re heading as individuals and as a society.

It was often said that these mechanised and specialised changes would benefit us because they are “labour saving“. Each new gadget, from the washing machine to the smartphone, has promised to save us time and to leave us more leisure time for ourselves. This should lead to increased pleasure as we do things we enjoy rather than need to do.  However, our pleasures are relative. Once we become accustomed to something it changes from a luxury to a necessity (People will not venture outside now without their phones). Thus the prior luxuries become part of our life and, if missing, a source of our unhappiness. There is no evidence that individually we are any one jot happier than people 100 or 200 years ago. The Victorian got just as much pleasure from his night at the music hall as we do from an evening at the 3D IMAX cinema. The Victorian felt as euphoric when his lover agreed to become his partner as we do now (Well possibly they had greater pleasures in this area as society was more restrictive on the whole).

Our luxuries don’t seem to bring us pleasure but perhaps they at least give us time. It would seem unfortunately this is not the case. As we have more, we need more and want more and thus we work more.  In his book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari notes that the time we spend as a species working for others has always increased and certainly if one were to look over the last two generations this trend is evident. 50 years ago a skilled manual worker, working well, could expect to provide for his family to the standards of his day. Now both parents will have to work outside the house to provide for their family with all the consequent changes that we have seen in child rearing and family life.

It seems that once we have escaped scarcity, once the basics (hunger, thirst, safety, warmth, etc) are dealt with we do not know what is “enough“. We are good at acknowledging what is too little, we have built in warning systems in our biology when there is too little food, or water, or heat. However, we don’t seem to be able to determine what’s enough in term of what is “too much”.  Consequently in our post-scarcity world, in the west, our major problems are those of excess – obesity  or substance abuse as individual problems for example and global warning and the plastic pollution of our seas as global examples.

This is possibly the reason that all the major religions had as an important focus the advice to avoid excess. Gluttony, avarice, lust and covetousness are sins to be avoided and all the main religions advice that we should try and control our desires.  Going back to the stoics, they advice that we should try to have and want less, to not be controlled by our desires. It is possibly a perfect storm in the developed world, that as the productive powers of capitalism reaches its zenith the advisory power of religion  plumbs its nadir.

Thinking about the changes that have occurred in how we shear sheep has made me think that if we want to survive we need to change. As individuals we have to learn to rein in our desires which I think will require a rebalancing. We will need to rediscover localism so that our wants and needs play out on a smaller stage. We need to reduce the size of the states we live within so that they are no more than is necessary and allow individuals to create small communities on a more human scale. We have to learn when enough is enough and this going to be difficult. As individuals we are going to have to break out of the role of being primarily consumers and reclaim our private lives. This is no easy feat but as Tolstoy said “In order to land where you wish, you must direct your course much higher up.”

The benefits of topping.

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. DSC_3185In 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.

DSC07601.JPGIt 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 DSC07595.JPGare 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.DSC_3187

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.DSC_0791.JPG

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.

The loss of a friend.

The loss of a friend.

My relationship with one of my neighbours is broken and I am not sure how, or if, I can fix it. We have lived on adjacent properties for many years and had always had cordial relations until a few years ago when ‘Rammy’ died.

Rammy was our, not very imaginatively named,  Welsh Mountain Ram. He was the first ram we had and over his life we had grown very attached to him. Each autumn he paid attention to the ladies in our flock and ensure the following spring we had new lambs. He was protective of his harem but he was never belligerent with us. He would see off any dogs or strangers who came into his realm and could be quite impressive as his 80kg ran at full pelt towards a foe. However, with us, all we had to do was to make a pretend gun, by pointing two straight fingers at him, and say “bang bang” and he’s stop running and keep his distance. During the annual tasks of shearing or dosing he would give-in gracefully, after only a token fight, and I was always certain that had he been determined to escape my clutches he could have done so. In short he was a gentle giant of whom we were very fond.

Unfortunately one autumn there was a minor accident. Our neighbour left the gate to our sheep field open and the ram and some sheep left the field to wander the lanes. The neighbour noticed what he had done and was able to herd the sheep, who had not ventured far, back through the gate and into the field. He left the ram in the lane. He did not think to tell us about this and we only discovered that Rammy had gone on a walk in the early evening when we did the routine head count and noted him absent. We frantically started searching and our neighbour told us, in a blasé fashion, what had occurred and that Rammy was last seen heading down the lane towards town.

We found him fairly quickly. He had gone into an adjacent farm’s field and was content having found himself surrounded by about 200 ewes ready for mating. He must have felt that he had discovered paradise, everywhere he looked there were nubile and receptive ewes admiring him. We tried to lure him home but the prospect of a bucket of nuts was no match for the sea of pheromones and plaintive calls of the seductive ewes that surrounded him. It was dusk and darkness was falling rapidly. We contacted the farmer who owned the flock that he was visiting and told him of our dilemma. We agreed that it was too late to separate him tonight, as darkness had fallen,  but that we would meet at dawn the following day with his shepherd and both our sheepdogs to round up all the sheep and pull him out. The worry about our ram, and the embarrassment that we were causing a major task for our neighbour at a busy time of year, meant we had a fitful and sleepless night.

At dawn’s light we all met at the gate to the field. We could not see Rammy and we joked he might be sleeping off a night of unexpected passion. We entered the field with the dogs and started to prepare to gather everybody together. As we crested a hill, to gain a vantage point to plan our strategy, we saw in the distance a large white body. It was clear Rammy was lying dead. When we got closer there were marks on his face and bleeding which confirmed what had happened. He had entered a field where there were two large texel rams who were planned to service the ewes. When Rammy met these two he met his match and he had died in the fight with them.

This was all an unfortunate accident, there was no malice on anyone’s part. Leaving a gate open is an easy mistake. Failing to notify us  that the ram was out is perhaps more annoying as, had we known earlier, then we may have been able to catch him before he entered the neighbouring field and the outcome may have been very different. But it is still a minor fault. So these issues are hardly grounds for the relationship with my neighbour to have broken down. I could have made the same mistakes, I recognise this.

The problem I have is that he has never apologised for this event nor recognised how much a loss this was. I am sure he saw the ram as just another item of stock, annoying to be lost but easily replaced. He probably does not realise, as he does not keep animals, how attached one becomes to them. I don’t want restitution. In all honesty he was not worth a great deal of money, he was no pedigree star. I know we can’t turn back the clock but the lack of an apology is always in my mind whenever we meet.

We never discuss what happened, it never comes up in conversation. There is now an awkward silence on the matter. Hence, an apology will never be forthcoming. I fear that without an apology then I can’t then forgive. Without this pair of ‘apologising and forgiving’ I fear that I can’t forget and it is this memory that has broken our relationship.  But perhaps some things once broken can never truly be mended and there will always be some form of scar.