When Engines Had Legs ~ Playing Coachman

Pre fossil fuel transport has always particularly fascinated me.  Fossil fuels are inherently unsustainable, so it seems dumb to make our world dependent on them to my mind, but that is what we’ve gone and done anyway…. Nevertheless, we can explore alternatives and it won’t harm to be ready for when the oil runs out, right?  My starting point is what we used to do – can it be updated perhaps?

Some things could perhaps be poised to return, things like cycling and sailing, perhaps even updating steam to run on renewable fuel?  I dunno.  Some things like oxen and horses seem consigned to the past though.  Even if there was the infrastructure to allow a return to draught animals, is it ethical to do so?  I think, probably not, and I say this as someone who owns and works oxen, mules and ponies.  I believe working these animals and providing a happy life for them in balance with a viable workload requires skill and passion, and when the entire populace is dependent upon their labours, it simply won’t be the case that everyone working a horse will have that.  It doesn’t matter if your bicycle, car, canoe or sailing ship isn’t maintained correctly – it won’t suffer as a result.

So, nobody should read this as a manifesto for the return of draught animals for anyone but the dedicated few who are passionate enough to provide the best care for them.

coracle

(No coracles were harmed in the making of this photo: I believe the coracle to be blissfully unaware of my exploitation of its bouyancy)

But that doesn’t mean I can’t still marvel at the lengths we used to go to to travel just a few miles an hour faster than we can on foot, back in the day!  And it was only a few miles faster – even with money thrown at the problem to create staged routes, with inns, staff and fresh beasts, travel was only about 14 miles an hour at most via animal-power.  The railways, starting at 30 miles an hour, would have therefore been mind-bogglingly fast and a true world first for land travel, absolutely incredible to the humans of the time.

Just thinking about the necessary steps to achieve a journey beggars belief – the animal would need to be prepared in advance, i.e; fed at the correct time (no running on a full stomach!), groomed and kept out of the rain, as riding or harnessing wet fur can cause discomfort and sores.  Not to mention the stages up to this of breeding, rearing and training the animal.  Then, out comes the harness (which has to be cleaned frequently and stored correctly) to be put on and adjusted, then the pony must be put to the cart, which also requires maintenance and storage.  Then the person driving must not only be schooled in the technicalities such as we have with car driving lessons, but must also have a bit of a flair for the job, an understanding of the differences in temperament, ability and general quirks of whichever animals he has charge of.

This is explored in a fascinating book called ‘Down the Road’ by C.T.S Birch Reynardson.  Reynardson was a coachman, writing in 1874, reminiscing about stagecoaches some twenty years or more before.  Reynardson has amusingly strong opinions – wishing that people’s ‘brains would blow out’ for daring to blow a coaching horn wrongly.  Holding the reins in two rather than one hand was appalling.  Worst of all, was the railway.  Reynardson remarks on Brunel’s bridges ‘ruining’ the view, and is convinced rail travel is gravely dangerous and even faintly ridiculous.  ‘Why do we need to go so fast?’ seems to be his opinion.  I would dread to think what he would make of the dwindling of rail and the dominance of the motor car :/

Reading these old accounts not only gives these interesting hindsight views of macro-changes to transport, but also for a historian, little snippets of un-self-conscious information about the day to day reality of the life of someone in the mid 1800s, or whenever.  It’s easy to glean the overall history, the nuts and bolts, of stagecoach history, but what about the polish?  The details?  Reynardson gives us a lot, such as the need to screw horses from side to side on the road in order to get up an icy hill, the tip of practising whipping with reins tied to four chairs, the fact that the favoured drink of coachmen was rum and milk, and they had 20minutes for dinner which wasn’t enough because getting the great coat and scarf off when wet took up all the time!

As part of my research into coaching I visited the Streetlife Museum of Hull, which has an excellent horse travel exhibition, and a ride which gives the opportunity to streetlifeexperience coachtravel,with a coach mechanised to move realistically on the spot.  I enthusiastically jumped in, eager to experience it, and promptly almost had a panic attack as the door shut behind me and the reality of just how small these things were set in!  I’m claustrophobic, and there is only just room for four (small) adults to sit inside.  I flushed hot, felt nauseous and fought the urge to hyperventilate as we were thrown from side to side.  I learnt that if I was ever thrust back in time, I should travel on the roof of the coach as most did, weather be damned!

 

In the case of harness horses, it’s the blending of human, horses and hardware that really interests me.  To be able to put these seemignly incompatible things – wood and metal and flesh and brains that don’t speak the same language – together in order to create an effective whole…that’s really impressive.  Maybe I watched too much ‘Black Sails’ and ‘Master and Commander’ etc. but I find a coach and team of horses to be similar to the culture of a pirate ship.  The ship was the sailor’s world; they had to work together with the wood, canvas and ropes to harness the wind and travel.  Knowledge and maintenance of all the technologies was essential , and individuality becomes less important.

I get a valuable taste of what it’s like to be a part of one of these human-hardware-horse entities when I work as ‘coachman’ for Les Amis Equestrian Stunt Team,coachman4 doing their Jacobite display.  For a few days, I pretty much cease to matter.  It’s not even ‘me and my horse’, a recognisable pairing to be personally identified with; all of us on the coach team have just one small part to play and to the audience we are simply ‘the coach’.  I see to my own needs purely to ensure I can play my role, which is basically one of safety in this instance.  I am to handle and comfort and calm the horses.  Others harness up, drive, see to the waggon.  My world is that waggon and all the bits and pieces, living or inanimate, which make it spring into life.

 

I’m one of those notorious ‘Millennials’ – we’re brought up to believe we’re all special individuals.  ‘Being yourself’ and ‘doing your own thing’ is our mantra, a core belief.  However, I feel there’s a kind of comfort to be had in letting go of your individuality and simply doing whatever needs to be done in order to achieve a common goal with the others making up your ‘entity’.  I feel this is a big part of why I prefer driving teams to riding single animals these days.  Riding is simply me telling another animal what to do.  A coach and team is a far more complex organism!  I enjoy that.

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(‘Champion’ and ‘Fritz’, Hungarian Nonius horses, entertaining the crowd at Fort George)

 

From Reynardson:

Alas, Alas, where is it gone?

 

Alas! Alas! Where is it gone,

That coach with its four bright bays?

Alas! Alas! Where is it gone,

That spicy team of greys?

 

…Alas! Alas! Where are they gone? 

The coach and the bays and greys?

Alas! Alas! Where is it gone,

That ‘light of other days’?

 

The sun has set that once shone out

So bright upon those teams;

The night has come, and all that’s past

Seems but as fleeting dreams.

The Sheep The Vikings Left Behind

There are ‘tribes’ within sheep.  In Britain, our sheep are mostly divided into the long-tailed tribe which most of us are familiar with (the big white fluffy ones, although their tails are often docked so don’t look at the tails for clues as to tribal identity!) and the short tailed tribe, which are the ones the Vikings left behind on their travels.  I’m using tribe intentionally when it comes to the short tailed ones as, having met some, I think it suits them!

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Known more officially as the ‘North Atlantic Short Tailed’ breeds, Britain has surprisingly simultaneously stayed at the forefront of the modern sheep industry based on longtails, but also played host to a number of unique survivals of these short tailed brethren.  They have survived peppered around the coast on our islands (and even the longtails have a primitive island survivor here too – the ‘Portland’ breed), having been dropped there by vikings and never taken away again.  However, the mainland has played its part in influencing the survival in recent decades when island economies and habitation finally drastically changed, as we shall see…

This tribe of primitives is a treat for any sheep or fibre lover.  In contrast to the white uniformity offered by modern breeds, these breeds offer a smorgasbord of colouring.  blackerThe Manx Loaghtan and Hebridean breeds offer fawn and chocolate wool, with the Norwegian Spelsau, Icelandic and Shetland breeds being all manner of spots, splashes and shades and in the case of Shetlands at least, each has it’s own evocative ‘vikingy’ name such as ‘Bersugget’, ‘Emsket’ or ‘Smirslet’.  The Gotland has long silvery curls like silk, and the Manx and Hebrideans are ‘Polycerate’, meaning they have four or even six horns on one head rather than the usual two or none!  So in short, they’re colourful, freaky-looking, charismatic and tough little survivors.

In September 2018, I visited the Hebrides to attend the 8th North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool (NANSWOOL) Conference, dedicated to the glory of this tribe of sheep.  I was excited to do so as I’ve always found bleak, rocky places romantic and the image of these wee hairy beasties clinging to life among the rocks up there has always been evocative – I couldn’t wait to see some in their ‘natural habitat’.

Basically, I had the time of my life.  The talks were fascinating as Swedes, Norwegians, Australians, Icelandics, Dutch and Brits all came together to add their unique view of these sheep.  conf(1).jpgNot only was the content fascinating, but the island setting was glorious and exploring it with such an appreciative bunch of folks was a new experience.  I didn’t have to worry about boring people on the minutiae of sheep behaviour, and it was totally acceptable to ask ‘can I have a feel’, and then fondle whatever exquisite, jealousy-inspiring piece of 100% real wool handknitting they were wearing!  At the goodbye Ceilidh, rumours flew that this was the be the last NANSWOOL conference and my heart sank – I had found my people, and lost them, all the same event!  However, at Christmas the 9th conference was announced – October, in Norway!

Of course, being in the Hebrides at the 8th conference, the emphasis was on the 3 breeds present there (Soay, Boreray and Hebridean) and mostly the Hebridean. faroesewool The Soay and Borerays are the MOST primitive of the group and now live mostly out on uninhabitated islands fending for themselves (although small flocks do exist throughout the UK if you want to see some without a boat being involved!).  The Hebrideans represent a step towards civillisation, if you will, and are known for their uniform dark colour and very soft wool.  They survived on the islands until droving and modern breeds to feed the industrial revolution further south really took hold, when they vanished from the Hebrides.  Thankfully, the drovers had taken some to the mainland and swapped them with rich landowners as a curiosity in exchange for grazing for the flocks en route to slaughter.  So they survived on parkland and have now been taken back to their island home where they are gaining ground as the commercial sheep industry falters and crofters look to low maintenance breeds to supply home and tourism needs.

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We met flocks on the island, heard from ‘Birlinn Yarns‘ about the specially adapted ‘Birlinn’ boats which ferried sheep to and from the myriad of smaller islands they grazed on throughout the year in the past (the sheep up there are still seafarers but the boats are different now!). We visited Uist Wool, a newly built, community operated wool mill producing a unique range of yarns based on whatever blend of wool is being produced across the islands, giving a diversity of colours and textures unlikely to be found elsewhere.  uistmillThere was of course a lot of purchasing going on and I was no exception, nigh bankrupting myself on the trip but happy to do so to support the island economy!  At Uist mill I felt I could hardly buy anything other than some pure, dark chocolate coloured Hebridean yarn and resolved to teach my daughter to knit with it when I got home (which I did, and she was delighted and has asked me to knit her a pure hebridean blanket now!).  The hospitality on the islands was second to none and if you haven’t visited the Hebrides, just go.

I haven’t always been so enamoured with primitive sheep however.  When I kicked off my farming career over a decade ago I was all about making a profitable sustainable system and although I knew these short-tails were hardy, I alsbadgero knew that due to their small carcasses, lacking the big juicy thighs and pumped up loins of modern breeds, the mainstream market would never accept them, so I opted for other native breeds which were more of a compromise between hardiness and plumpness, namely The Kerry Hill.

Things changed due to chance.  At a time when I needed to expand my flock, Daylesford Organics, run by millionaires, decided they too wanted in on Kerry Hills.  They outbid everyone at all the Kerry Hill sales, much to established breeders’ fury.  There wasn’t a Kerry Hill of any quality to be had without a wallet to match Daylesford’s – I didn’t have a hope.  yet my branding depended on sticking with my breed, because I sold direct to my customers.  As such, my eye turned to crossbreeds.  I have tried Kerry crosses before and been pleased so I felt confident that a 50% Kerry going to a Kerry tup and therefore rearing a 75% Kerry lamb would serve my needs and not upset customers or my brand too much.  I spotted some Kerry Hill x Shetlands at a sale, going very cheap as most were put off by the shetland element, and took them home out of desperation more than anything.

I’ll be honest, they made me nervous.  We had called the primitives ‘rat sheep’ for some time (which is really weird and inexplicable because we were devoted to the little ‘rat sheep’ of cattle, Dexters, which I will blog about soon).  All we knew was that they were practically wild and were likely to be problematic to handle.  Over time though those initial 6 sheep were to prove me very wrong and you’ll never hear me call them rat sheep these days!  Or if you do, it’s with pride, a reference to ratlike breeding powers and survivability!!!

As far as handling goes, I just had to get to know them.  They acted very differently to the Kerrys.  They did NOT like to be rounded up one little bit which is something they had in common with the Kerrys but they expressed it in a different way – whereas the Kerrys can jump like stags and our fencing has to be correspondingly high, the shetland X kerrys (Sherrys) preferred to stay earthbound but could easily outrun us; fast and maneouverable.  This made things crazy for a while…Where they differed from the Kerrys however was their attitude to humans – although they disliked being ‘bossed around’ and will react badly to rounding up, they are far more curious and friendly with people than the Kerrys.  Once I found that they responded better to being led (which the Kerrys would just ignore) than pushed, handling of the entire flock, kerrys and all, became easier.  With the shetlands befriending me and leading the way, the kerrys began to follow with confidence.

shepherding3

This curiosity was explored at the conference, with a talk about Icelandic ‘Ledersheep’ which are proposed to be a unique personality type within the Icelandic breed, utilised by the Icelandic farmers to lead their flocks to and from grazing.  I am certainly unsure this is unique to icelandics, or even short tails.  I have had the odd Kerry which will be open minded to people and serve to lead the flock, but for sure the trait is more widespread among the shetlands.

The trait also began to become dominant among my flock and as each year passed and more shetland infused youngsters joined, things kept on improving.  This was aided by how bloody good at their jobs the sherrys were, and our move to harder and harder grazing as we took on more conservation work.  The sherrys were tough and thrived on the poor grazing, and they were unsurpassed mothers.  I had never had an issue with the Kerrys’ mothering, but it didn’t really matter which way I measured it – number of lambs, number of lambs weaned, weight of lambs – the Sherrys, although significantly smaller, equalled or bested the Kerrys when put to larger ram.  They also lived longer, suffered fewer health issues and therefore stayed in the flock and producing lambs so in a short space of time, the flock was shot through with shetland blood (Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ in action even in domesticity) but rather than this being a terrible fate, upkeep was easier and they were more productive.  I even found them easier to clip, being quieter and easier to handle for me as they were smaller.  There was no denying it, the short tails were outperforming the longtails.

Now, my flock is gone altogether.  We stopped producing lamb commercially in 2017 and in 2019 I am moving away and not a farmer-owner anymore.  However, I still have 3 of those original crossbred Sherry ewes.  They performed so well for me, I owe them a retirement and so I keep them as sort-of pets, producing lambs, fibre and milk for household use but under no pressure to do it, really.  I also keep a small team of pure Kerry rams to cross on a number of primitives in future should I ever want to get back into the game of commercial sheep production again…

 

A Visit to The Calf at Foot Dairy

**First written in 2015, this is a re-blog and the photos are particularly rubbish because so was my camera phone at the time!**

This is punk dairying – The Calf At Foot didn’t throw the rule book out of the window, they never read it in the first place!

www.the-calf-at-foot-dairy.co.uk

There’s a lot of b******s written about the dairy industry – on both sides. On the one hand you have hysterical vegans telling us things like cows are ‘forced’ to become pregnant whilst lactating (you can’t force a cow, she has to cycle in order to breed and you have to catch the right moment, end of story, and it’s perfectly normal in a natural state for cows to lactate whilst pregnant; they breed every year and gestate for 9 months so it wouldn’t be possible any other way) and on the other you have those entrenched in the industry saying calves have to be removed from their mothers for their ‘own safety’ (not true most of the time, cows are on the whole excellent mothers hence being so excellent as dairy animals – they produce plenty and don’t mind sharing, they are naturally ‘allosucklers’ which means sharing young. Ever wondered why they have 4 teats for one calf? 😉 )

I like to think I have a good broad view of it all, as I am an outsider in that I don’t have a dairy farm and didn’t grow up on one, yet I am an insider because I work on farms and socialise within the industry and on top of that, I’ve seen it all from 500 cow ‘superdairies’ that are kept indoors 24/7 to my own housecows for personal use. In my view therefore the truth is, of course, somewhere in the middle of these two views.

When Fiona who runs The Calf at Foot Dairy said she needed a break I jumped at the chance to work in a different kind of dairy to the one I am used to for a while. cafd2I miss my housecows and the creamy raw milk they produced & of course, some of the things that go on in an effort for family farms to survive in an age when milk is worth less than bottled water don’t sit well with me. Even if I have sympathy for why they have to happen. I believe in leading from the front though: I’m not going to stand behind dairy farmers beating them over the head with my ethics stick if there’s no sensible, proven alternative for them to take and nobody is willing to help or support them in taking it.

That’s why The CAFD is so interesting to me – Fiona has put her neck on the line and created a business selling the kind of milk I have absolutely no qualms about drinking.

It’s free of all concerns about the animals eating annual crops or human quality feed. They eat no grain, only grass and alfalfa pellets and oat chaff as a supplement in the hard times. Oat chaff is a byproduct of oats, which humans will eat anyway, and alfalfa is a leafy plant that generates it’s own nitrogen, grown on a 5yr rotation so 5x less ploughing than maize and no nitrogen applications, unlike wheat, barley etc. It can also be grown in this country and will be GMfree, unlike soya.

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It’s free of any concern over removing a mother from her baby – CAFD cows keep their calves, they are separated for 12hrs maximum at a time and always remain within sight of them. The calves feed entirely from their mothers and never go without as the timing of separation is carefully considered.

The cows are not even restrained for milking.

“Who’s next?” I ask when taking on the milking.
“Kitty.” Comes the reply.
“Which number is Kitty?” I ask.
“Oh I don’t know numbers” Fiona replies impatiently “Just call her name, she’ll come!”

So this is what I do, and sure enough Kitty comes out of the yard and walks quite happily up to the feed trough for her food and milking. The same then happens for Plum, and Dotty and Primrose. You could argue they only come for the alfalfa pellets; except they are fed the same thing twice a day outside too, along with free access to abundant good hay, so the draw must be minimal and the horrors of being milked comparitively minimal…

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And the resultant milk tastes like ice cream. Each teat is taste tested before going in the machine, so I know. The slightest taste imperfection results in dumped milk. The bottling facilities are pristine and the machinewashing regime the most thorough I have come across. It’s not just a good experience for the cows though, the whole operation is housed in a traditional suffolk barn: customers can turn up anytime throughout the day and see their milk being produced while they sit and chat, admire the view, help with mucking out or have a cup of tea on the quirky old sofa provided. This kind of setting makes milk special again, more akin to the more exciting ‘streetfood’ that is doing so well now.

Yes, it’s £2.50/litre but I can assure you you have absolute peace of mind on so many levels for that.

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Twenty Years of Chickens

Animals have been my work and hobby; some I keep purely to get to know the species and see how they tick.  My oldest individual animal must be Hannibal the exmoor stallion, who is 22, but I have not owned him all that time.  The individual animal who has been with me longest is a goose named ‘Pretty’ who I hatched out 13yrs ago.  I think some sort of prize must go to my chickens however – they were my first livestock, and the ones I have today are directly descended from those first few I got 19yrs or more ago.

redhen4They have been a constant in my life, travelling with me from home to home and county to county, quietly in the background, mirroring the story of chickens and humanity in general.  As “Why Did The Chicken Cross the World?” by Andrew Lawler tells me, chickens have travelled almost everywhere with humans around the globe, unable to fly themselves but making full use of our shipping and airports.  They are our most important protein source and outnumber dogs, cats and rats put together.  And yet, we don’t really know them all that well and the more dependent we become upon them for convenience food, the more distant we grow from them physically as they are locked out of view in sheds (or paddocks if lucky), behind biosecurity controls.

Chickens are descended from Red Jungle Fowl and we almost lost this wild ancestor forever due to crossbreeding with domestic stock.  We only still have purebred animals due to a quirk of fate, as is so often the case – a failed attempt to introduce them to America as a gamebird, which left a few birds, harvested from the last pure populations of the Asian jungles, in the hands of private breeders in the US.  Just like the Jungle Fowl, my original strain only survives due to a fluke, namely one female known as ‘The Red Hen’, and credit should go to her mother before her, ‘The Grey Hen’.

When I moved to the farm I am on now, my chickens of course came with me as they had many times and were released to a free range life from the more intensive one they had known in the garden of a terraced house and then a rented upper floor of a barn.  At that time I mostly kept Ixworths, but I also had a trio of Oxford Old English Game birds; cockfighting fowl (although I did not keep them for that!!), and some of the very first chickens I had bought almost a decade earlier.  They were very old birds by then but they are vigourous as a breed and a few crossbred chicks were hatched out that proved very, very good indeed for the flock’s new lifestyle.

It was one of these crosses which bred with a magnificent hen from a friend, a Light Sussex X Barnevelder.  That red hen was a highly accomplished mother who could sit on large clutches and, as I am actively breeding birds which will competently rear their own young (so I do not rely on electric incubators, which isn’t very resilient…), I was extremely sorry to lose her to the fox, though thankfully, she left many offspring.  One of these was The Grey Hen, and although she was smaller than that original red hen due to the influence of the gamebird blood, she had their fighting spirit and canny-ness and has survived to a ripe old age without my help, (and only one eye due to unknown misadventure!).

In all honesty, I have no idea who or what sired her daughter ‘The Red Hen’ who is a red, more wild-looking version of her mother.  Unfortunately, the farmyard is a treacherous place for chicks and rats, bad weather, foxes and many other hazards polished off all her siblings.  The Red Hen emerged victorious, alone.  This was a point when I was down to just these two hens, mother and daughter. I needed to find a new cockerel or that would be it!

The Red Hen could easily be mistaken for an Old English Pheasant Fowl, an endangered breed which used to be the typical fowl of the Northern farmyard before the dominance of the commercial hybrid.  For this reason, I decided to import some OEPF cockerels as husbands for The Red Hen in the hopes of breeding a strain with vigour due to a highly hybridised past on the female side, which would become purer OEPF over time.  Six cockerels were introduced, brothers, but after a year only one remained – The Captain – as the others succumbed to disease, predators or just general accidents.

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(The flock today, a scene and fowl familiar to Northern farmyards for centuries)

The Captain had survivability, but seemed to be lacking in the trouser department and….nothing happened.  No chicks.  Then further disaster struck – my spaniel, who is usually good about the difference between pheasants and our hens, attacked The Red Hen!  I shouted so loudly he dropped her, but the damage appeared to be done and she lay, beaten, quietly on the ground in shock.  I picked her up and put her in a box to calm in the dark, thinking she would prefer to die in peace.  At this point, the reason for the altercation became clear – there were chicks pecking around the yard all of a sudden; she had hatched them in some secret nook or cranny without my knowledge. The Red Hen, warrior that she is, was never going to tolerate a mad spaniel scattering her chicks, and my spaniel was never going to let a bird push him around!

The chicks were gathered and placed with their mother while I sadly gathered up the things I would inevitably need to hand rear chicks.  Later that evening, I checked on her and although she was obviously badly injured, with huge abdominal swelling, no doubt from horrible internal bleeding, she would not give up on her chicks and was brooding them, so I took a chance on her surviving the night and left the chicks with her rather than placing them under a heat lamp.  Amazingly, by the morning she was still alive and starting to move around again.  Against the odds, in a few weeks the swelling and her limp was gone and she was good as new, with a brood of 7 pullets (girls) and a cockerel – each little copies of herself.

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(mother and son)

And thus, we passed through the genetic bottleneck thanks to the Red Hen’s valiant effort in fending off a spaniel, and the geriatric Grey Hen surprised us all by adding a further 7 chicks by The Captain to the flock.

Now, these chickens may not win any prizes from any show, and no commercial poultry farmer would rate their comparatively poorer carcasses which take 6mo to mature rather than 6wks, BUT, these birds cost me nothing.  They forage entirely for themselves, so it doesn’t matter that the process takes 6mo, because it’s not costing me anything.  And the world feed supply chain can collapse, but my egg and chicken supply remains intact.  They can announce power rationing tomorrow, but due to the excellent mothering skills of my hens, I will never be sweating over an incubator in a powercut, or an electricity bill.  This means that thanks to the Red Hen my poultry flock has realised my aim of resilience and sustainability.

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(Furious Foraging!)

 

 

 

Training Adult Cattle (Oxen) From Scratch – Part 1: The “Why?”

I’m often asked about my training techniques when it comes to oxen, lots of people want a ‘how-to’ guide.  I did pen a book on the subject but it is currently off-sale and will be replaced with a better version soon, as I have more to add since then!  One thing that comes up is how to train older cattle.  This can be trickier than starting with babies and many, possibly rightly, shy away from it.  Certainly I would suggest beginners start with dairy steer calves, as these calves would be hand reared anyway, they are generally gentle and forgiving and it is easier for the un-confident to handle babies and grow together.

Yeah sure, in an ideal world newbies would start under the guidance of an experienced mentor with well trained cattle as you would with horses, and if that is an option in your country then definitely go for it, but in Britain our ox culture is all but lost and if we shy away from starting from scratch it will certainly be lost for good.  The up-side is that we still farm cattle, so you can learn about handling and care from that angle fairly easily.

So yeah, I started with calves too.  I learnt a lot, and my best ox and friend/partner/whatever you wish to term the relationship, was with Ted, a hand reared Jersey bullock:

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(at Halifax show with Ted in a western themed stunt show)

Ted is responsible for the training techniques I developed which broke from the American style I had been following up until then.  He made me really start to listen to cattle and work with their mentality.  Jerseys are very sweet and gregarious cattle, but they demand respect and if it’s not given, they will just resist, resist and resist, which is where they get their bad reputation from in some circles!  As a result of stopping to think and allowing Ted to teach me a new way to work, we achieved so much more together and I fulfilled my ambition of riding an ox in a stunt show.  I had two ambitions when I started training, and Ted’s apprentice Rum (now living in Scotland with a film animal company) allowed me to realise the other – riding an ox on a beach:

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(Yup that’s Rum the ox, leading a horse along in trot!  He loved it!)

So, oxen raised by me from babies have been more than adequate.  But.  Raising an animal right from day 1 with the hope of getting a finished riding animal is fraught with difficulty, and the basic fact is, it may not happen.  Your animal may die due to disease perhaps.  It may not grow well, or have poor conformation which could not be picked up on within hours of birth when you chose it.  It may have an unsuitable temperament.  All of these things have happened to me; the finished animals I have were the lucky few that made it through all of life’s tests and ended up with a natural affinity for the type of work I wanted them to do.  There were many others which did not make it, and then if they did, I perhaps didn’t think they would enjoy or adapt to a life of working so closely with humans.

Rook was one such animal.  Rook and Raven were orphaned within days of each other – born as part of my partner’s conservation grazing herd of Dexter cattle out on the marsh.  Their mothers unfortunately died a couple of days apart – unusual for hardy and long-lived dexters – but due to the remote location and logistics of catching two jumpy calves unused to human contact, when we saw that the rest of the herd had adopted them, we let them be.  By the time they were 3mo however, winter was coming on and we worried the cows would not have the bodily reserves needed to support extra calves so when the herd was rounded up we split them off, brought them home and began the process of convincing them it was good to drink out of a bottle instead!

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(Some of the herd, out in ‘the wild’)

Raven was always chill and took to the bottle very well.  He also calmed right down and accepted petting.  Rook however was the opposite, it took a long time to get him to accept the bottle.  Getting him to accept touch took a long,  long time and it was always a lesson he was quick to forget!  He was the most nervous ox I have ever known or trained and after patiently working with him simply trying to get him to calm down, I came to the conclusion that although I would likely one day, after a lot of work, be able to work him in a yoke, he would never, ever be safe to work with the public.  More importantly, he would likely never enjoy it.  Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you should!  I enjoy working with animals that enjoy working with me, forcing every animal to submit no matter what holds no appeal.  Subsequently, Rook fulfilled his destiny as a beef animal, leaving Raven without a partner.

Here is the problem with raising calves again – I spent four years of time and money on a pair, only to end up with a single.  My intention for these two, being Dexters and therefore historically appropriate for most periods up to the industrial revolution, was to work them in a very traditional manner – in a yoke.  A traditional neck yoke requires two animals!  If I could not find a partner for Raven, he faced losing his job too.  The only trouble was that Rook and Raven’s contemporaries had stayed out on the marsh, some for up to five years, with virtually no human contact beyond being moved to fresh pasture or housed in a barn for a couple of months a year.

Dexter cattle are notoriously naughty.  Like Jerseys, they demand respect from humans, but unlike Jerseys they know they don’t need you one little bit!  They are our smallest native cattle but they are strong, ambitious and tough and could likely survive an apocalypse, and they know it – that’s what makes them good for conservation grazing in tough environments.  Go to a cattle show and if someone is being dragged around a ring, it’s likely to be a Dexter doing the dragging!  If you can get them on-side, they will be phenomenally thrifty yet powerful and fast oxen…..if.  Many would therefore balk at training Dexters at all, and indeed up until Rook and Raven dropped into my lap, so had I.  Adding the fact that they had run feral well into adulthood and were now in their physical prime with massive horns it seemed crazy….but then, my training methods, thanks to Ted, do not rely on physical force, which renders their size irrelevant, so in theory it should work….

And this is how the people of the past overcame the trouble of the waste associated with training baby animals.  They started with older ones.  The cattle that arrived at markets after they were droved from the moors and mountains at the age of two or three had already been tested.  They had already survived birth and the delicate period after that, so we knew they were healthy.  They had already survived a trek, proving by their condition on arrival how their conformation and legs held up to hard work.  The the ox trainers were able to assess out of large numbers the animals which had the best temperament for training.

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(Rye Cattle Market – 1937, after the days of oxen but likely a similar scene to the one centuries before – link)

This was the situation I was faced with – the large group of beef steers on the marsh had already survived calfhood and the challenges Mother Nature threw at them.  They foraged for their living, so if they looked good it meant they were good enough physically to traverse the marsh and gain enough nutrition and any conformation troubles had already long been noted by us as we watched them grow.  During round ups and droving them around the floodplain I had also had the chance to see their characters and judge how they reacted to people, each other, and stress.

And there was an obvious candidate to be Rook II:

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Not only was he instantly recognisable due to being huge, with matching, beautifully symmetrical horns (a sign of good health), but I knew he reacted well to things.  Although he was ‘stubborn’ and dominant, he was also calm in a crisis.  I watched carefully as he let the other steers lose their heads, waste their energy when they felt stressed.  He would calmly assess the situation and only react if absolutely necessary.  He wasn’t overly concerned about our presence, his only concern was getting his way (yes, a lot of the time that meant NOT going in our pens, but that is logical!).  This made me suspect that he would be difficult to train in terms of carrying out my wishes, but that I could rely on him in a crisis, which for me on a film set is more important.  His natural inclination isn’t to panic, it’s to think, unlike the first Rook who would panic first and ask questions later.  Much safer.

So, Rook II was brought in to the barn from the marsh instead of going to the abattoir, along with Raven who had been out there also for a couple of years and I wasn’t sure how either would react to be honest – would Raven even remember me from when he was younger?

This has turned very rambly so we will save what happened next for part 2!  See you next time 🙂

 

Historical Recipe Experiment: Calf’s Foot Jelly

Now this won’t be one for anyone with a delicate disposition, you guys should look away now because we’re going to deal with slaughter and ‘bits’.  This one’s for the hardcore thrift-sters, the ones who really don’t want to see ANY part of a carcasse go to waste, no matter how grim the going gets.

I have often raised dairy bull calves for beef – it was my full time business up until 2013 – because otherwise they, particularly Jersey calves, can struggle to find a market in the beef world and end up being shot as soon as they enter the world.  I gave it up as a business because I lost my shed space – they need a shed when very young, so that was that.  BUT, I have reared the odd one or two since.  I far prefer the more robust flavour of beef to veal so generally wait until they are full grown to kill, but my circumstances changed very quickly when the group I was rearing was a few months old and I had to kill early as nobody else is interested in rearing Jersey bulls because each one represents a loss of a good few hundred quid (please buy jersey beef whenever you can so they have somewhere to go) Not something I enjoy doing, I arranged to have them killed on the farm and eat them myself, rather than add stress by having them to go to the abattoir so the meat would be saleable to others.  I was determined to make use of every single part of the carcasses, as I usually try to do but especially so this time.  The meat was straightforward, the offal was made into haggis, the skins kept for tanning, which pretty much only left the feet…

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Calf’s Foot Jelly (CFJ) is one of those things you might hear of a lot if you spend any time reading stuff about history – it was often fed to ‘invalids’.  But I’ve never seen it for sale in my lifetime and thus, never tasted it.  Quite often the funky bits of animals will be made into brawn (pig’s heads) or similar jellified meat products, but they are all savoury and CFJ is sweet – it’s flavoured with lemons, sugar and wine.  When I searched for recipes, there were plenty to chose from.  I had 8 feet, enough for two batches according to most recipes, so I was able to pick one made with white wine and one with red.  The white wine recipe was the elder of the two, from “English Housewifry”, 1764.  The red wine was from “Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches”, 1840  (gotta love those meandering Victorian titles!) so I also spanned the centuries.

The first part of both recipes was the same – basically, boil the feet to b*ggery.  The aim is to get all the gelatin from the sinews and bones I guess, so I dug out my Big Pan and put the feet in with some water.  The first recipe called for 4 quarts per set of feet and the second 6, so I compromised and went for 5.  Then the idea was to end up with half the volume of water.  There was so much though that I couldn’t get all the water in, so I ended up sitting up until 1am to add more water and wait for it all to boil down.  The results were strained into a big ceramic bowl:

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After sitting overnight it had solidified really well, with a clearly discernible layer of grease on the top, which I skimmed off with a spoon and then used paper to blot off as the recipes commanded.  Then I was to cut the scummy layer from the bottom.  It wasn’t quite solid enough to flip up and cut yet, so I just carefully poured off the blobs into a jam pan (original recipes wanted it to be a ‘porcelain kettle’ but my stainless jampan was a good proxy) and stopped pouring before the cruddy portion went in:

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(Mmmm…)

Once I had carefully melted the gelatinous mass, I split the liquid into two and added the differing amounts of egg whites, lemons and sugar and the two types of wine.  The smell was really peculiar, hard to describe but certainly felt somehow historical!  I had been unable to source Madeira for the later recipe so had to use Port instead.  I’m afraid they were both very cheap-o wines as I’m not a wine fan, never buy it and am working to budget here people!  The later, Victorian recipe was kind of obsessed with getting the jelly to be clear, the 1700s one not so much.  I thought it would be something of a miracle if I managed to get mine clear, and I was right!  After reducing both down to desired amount of liquid, I strained both mixtures into their dishes to set:

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The following morning, the white wine version hadn’t really set into a firm jelly, so I put it back on to boil and reduce and then re-strained it into the dish again.  After two strainings it still wasn’t clear!  This is despite using many more egg whites than the later recipe which was supposed to help make the jelly clear.  In the red wine one, I had been stupid enough to add the egg whites while the liquid was hot, which cooked the egg.  This didn’t seem to affect the setting as it set well and when strained out, there was no trace of scrambled egg:

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I had the idea that I’d use icing sugar to dry everything up, like turkish delight, but that didn’t work so well, it just seemed to draw liquid from the jelly and covered everything with a sweet slime.  Without icing sugar, everything stayed perfectly dry and the jellies were far more robust than the stuff you make with a packet these days; I was able to happily slice it into squares that weren’t going anywhere:

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And the taste?  I would describe it as ‘medicinal’.  I certainly preferred the 1764 white wine version, it was a stronger flavour.  It tastes antiseptic, and with all the nutrition from the concentrated gelatin I could see a half-starved, 18th century, bedridden peasant welcoming a cold slice of antiseptic jelly sliding down a raw throat.  In fact, a few days after making the jellies, when I still had a box in the fridge (I’ve put the rest in the freezer in case of a plague outbreak), I had a cold so I had a square and it did feel soothing.  Would I eat it for fun at other times?  I doubt it.  It’s quite rich and sweet.

However!  I think with some tweaks this could be awesome.  I’m keen to use this in the place of packet jelly, ditching the wine and using fruit flavours only, going steady on the lemon.  I’m thinking raspberry would be nice, or maybe rose for a turkish delight style jelly.  So cows can be so much more than meat and leather – we can have local, grassfed dessert, too!  I think adding some strong gravy flavour instead of going down the sweet route would also be a good idea for a low-carb, paleo or keto snack, so this has a lot of potential as far as I’m concerned.

Originally published 07/05/2018 – Since the time of writing we’ve had 4 foals: Hushwing, Butterbump, Snippick and Tiercel (the only colt).  The fillies’ names are old words for Barn Owl, Bittern and Snipe and Tiercel being the only male takes the name given to male falcons. 

 

I have a small free-living herd of Exmoor ponies. They are here for conservation grazing purposes, as pony grazing creates a nice ‘mosaic’ which many bird species appreciate, and birds are what The Yorkshire Ings are really all about! Apart from that though, it’s nice to keep the ponies going too. According to the RBST, there’s less than 500 breeding females and as I have 5 mares, that means I own at least 1% of the breed. Not only that, but I am able to keep them in ‘wild-like’ conditions, running free and practising their survival instincts. Exmoors differ slightly from other breeds of horses and ponies because it’s thought, thanks to DNA testing and other features like their uniform colouring and weather adaptations, that they are in fact the closest living thing to the extinct wild horses of Europe (if not, a surviving remnant of them – the work is ongoing!).

They certainly look very primeval compared to their finer, silkier manmade cousins and when we released the first five mares onto the land we’d set aside for them I was viscerally struck by how ‘at home’ they looked in the landscape, charging through the bogs, their brown hides blending perfectly with the autumn leaves and overgrown, naturalistic grasses. Since then they have blended a little toooo well with the landscape as we haven’t successfully managed to round them up! They possess far more stamina than the cattle and no scrap of interest in working with us, unlike the cattle!

However, I’ve developed a new way of appreciating horse ownership as a result of their presence. They exist perfectly well without my input and I get enjoyment from seeing them do this. The land they inhabit is a thriving ecosystem, full of scattered oak trees, deer, a nesting pair of buzzards and visiting waders and foxes. It’s a privilege to visit and soak this in: like having a gigantic aquarium to watch, I guess? I get as much pleasure from seeing the ponies enjoying their life without me as I used to from riding. I ride very little these days, realising a while ago that I much prefer working with animals eye-to-eye, on the ground, the training process.

So, I’ve fallen in love with the Exmoors, but I’ve never been to Exmoor itself! Finally the chance arose on the way back from a visit to Exeter. I must admit I don’t get down south very often; I love the north! However, I was pleasantly surprised by Exmoor, it was just my type of place…Not only did you have the actual moors themselves, but everything was deer themed! I increased my collection of ‘evocative old words’ while I explored the heritage centre in Dulverton, adding ‘staggert’ to ‘brocket’ and ‘pricket’ to describe young stags and the word ‘boving’ – meaning the roaring noise stags make in the rut.

I drove very close to the home range of my own mares, where they had been born and roamed for up to 18yrs before coming to Yorkshire. It was incredible for a ponyfan like me to drive the unfenced moor roads and have the ponies visible all around, like a safari (maybe I’m easily pleased). The views down to the lusher land from the tops were spectacular in bright spring sunshine too. I took a track down into the leafy depths of the valley bottoms to the Exmoor Pony Centre as it was obvious I could not miss this! After touching some Exmoors which were happy to be around humans and almost clearing out the gift shop I wandered to the information boards and added yet another word to my collection – horsebeasts.

This one is particularly interesting as ever since our exmoors arrived we have viewed them differently to the other ponies we have. They just have this extra ‘something’ about them, a different attitude, even though at least one of my ponies was born feral and lived that way as a colt for 3yrs. They are so different my (now ex) husband was willing to tolerate them without grumble, as he hates equids, usually. He admitted he thought of them as being more like the cattle and thus respected them. The interesting bit is that in our part of Yorkshire at least, cattle are known as ‘beasts’. ‘Beastgates’ were the fees paid per head of cattle grazed on the Ings (marshes). People still freely refer to ‘feeding the beasties’ ‘selling beast’ etc. So, the term ‘horsebeasts’ for the Exmoors seemed especially apt! Perhaps we weren’t the only ones to notice that Exmoors don’t really fit into the category of ‘horse’ as man has made them?

(don’t know who painted this but it’s brilliant so please tell me!)