A Season Lambing

I was a bit short of money in February 2019, so pretty much on a whim, I decided to go a-lambing for 9 weeks. Months later, with those chilly spring nights, lashing hail, chronic sleep deprivation and homesickness well behind me, I feel I can write about it with warmth!

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I was Head Shepherd at Rosewood Farm for 8yrs, but that was a very specific proposition. It was a small flock of less than 200 animals, a rare breed (or as near as dammit) and I was responsible for everything from conception of the lambs to the moment the meat was posted off to its end user. That meant I split my time between real-live shepherding and online marketing and butchery etc. I also facilitated organic tanning of the sheepskins and the shearing, spinning and wool sales.

I’m not complaining; I enjoyed that level of responsibility and control and the difficulties of farming the Ings. But. I grew up in the Pennines, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, just under the Lakes. That was sheep country in a way that the Ings isn’t (the Ings are more about cows). It’s the country of drystone walls and thousands of woolly backsides. A lot of it’s really windswept and inhospitable…and I like that. Something about that type of landscape feeds my soul.

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I grew up looking (longingly, because I actually lived in a town, then a village) at bleak fells and the blackfaced breeds like Lonks, Dalesbreds, Rough Fells and Swaledales. To me, they ARE sheep and that IS sheep farming. Heaven looks like the Dales. I’ve perhaps made my point by now!

I couldn’t have that in the Ings – most of these breeds have horns, which the abundant flies down in the wet marshes go after and pick open at the base: misery for the sheep. And besides, I might get the sheep, but I wouldn’t have the fells and drystone walls! So when a tweet popped up from a farmer local to my home Pennine village looking for a lamber for a flock of mule sheep, I went for it.

I was a bit daunted – it involved 3000 ewes. I hadn’t dealt with more than 300 at once.  The night before I drove back to Lancashire I felt sick with nerves. I knew how much money was at stake here if I screwed up. Those 6000 potential lambs were the farmers sole crop and for 50% of the lambing season (nights) the success of it was down to me. I had direct experience of the knife-edge of farming profits and desperately didn’t want to be the source of someone else’s misery. My brain told me I was a charlatan, that I didn’t actually know anything about sheep; I’d forgotten it all in the year I’d been out of the business! I asked myself what the hell I was doing.

I was told at this point that “you will feel now like you don’t know anything about sheep, but in five weeks you won’t know anything but!” and that was so true. There’s no doubt about it, it’s a grind. 12hr night shifts, every single day, doing the same thing – watching sheep, and diving in if needed. In total I did 55 shifts, almost back to back. It got to the point that when I drove away from the lambing sheds, my brain simulated a backing track of bleating to replace the real thing.  In Lancashire, with 3000 ewes and their offspring based all around, at feeding time in the morning the sound rang around the valley and drowned out everything else – surreal, and brilliant for a sheep lover.

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I adored working in the landscape of my youth, gaining a whole new perspective of it, and getting to stay in a 17th Century cottage only added to the experience. When the head shepherd came to relieve me in the morning, I could go on a little walk to clear my mind of sheeplambssheeplambssheeplambs and I found ruined cottages to ponder over, and saw dawn over the fells. Later on in the contract the weather went from galeforce winds and driving rain to pleasant sunny mornings and I enjoyed riding out to take the lambs to pasture, given a guided tour of all the old ruined cow byres from a dairy industry long-gone.

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(the window in my cottage ❤ )

It was peculiar to be asked ‘are you enjoying it?’ by almost everyone I encountered. I have a real problem replying inaccurately and thoughtlessly to questions, so although they probably asked purely out of politeness, I would attempt to answer truthfully. Yes, I was enjoying myself, in a horrific sort of way. I was tired, often wet and frozen, absolutely battered physically and in pain much of the time. How could I possibly describe this as ‘enjoyment’?

There was heartache too. The lambs you can’t do anything to help. The terrible cases where lambing goes wrong – I had two I just couldn’t fix, two giant lambs too big for their mothers, really. One was quite simply crushed by its mother in the birthing effort and although I tried to revive it every way I knew how, even kiss of life; it didn’t survive. The worst was one who’s mother sat up just as I was pulling and snapped the leg of the lamb. The lamb lived, I splinted the leg, but it seemed he was more crushed internally due to his size so the leg was the last of his problems and he didn’t make 24hrs either.

There were far more successes though; I lose count of the lambs I certainly saved from doom. One I named ‘Donkey’; he was enormous and a real struggle to birth for me and his mum. This time kiss of life worked and he’s in the picture with me here. That was when I felt proud and grateful for all my years of experience, my sure hands and firm, decisive nature. You can’t prat around at critical moments like that deliberating! It’s raw and it’s real – the only thing that matters is the life of the sheep concerned and you are only there to ensure that.

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(Donkey: Alive!)

While in Lancashire, I spotted an advert for a job in Shetland and I was ‘enjoying myself’ so much I applied and got the job. Now this truly was a dream come true because I got to combine my love of sheep with that of the Scottish islands (again…). For two DAYS I journeyed North from York to that group of islands halfway to Norway – the most Northerly point of Scotland. As soon as I hit South Shetland I fell in love. If I didn’t have some rather large commitments (a daughter!) on the mainland, I would not have come back.

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There’s a tangible sense of being far away on Shetland. It’s not lawless of course, but there’s a relaxed feel, like you are beyond the reach of the troubles of the mainland, and there’s an emphasis on getting a working landscape, so business and building are encouraged rather than strangled as it feels sometimes in Yorkshire. I encountered a love of gossip and parties, an acceptance of ‘characters’, some of the best knitwear in the world and all the museums and giftshops you could want to make you believe that you, too, can do lacework (ha!).

I felt like I was living in a dream. When everyone else wound down for the day, ate and slept, I ventured out into the evening and there I stayed in the quiet of the night until they came back out again with the dawn and waking ravens. Of course, it didn’t get truly dark, they lamb so late in Shetland it was the time of ‘the simmer dim’ and it was so strange to experience. At first, I took comfort from the steady blinking of the lighthouse. ‘Ah, I’m not the only soul in the world awake’, I thought. And then I remembered lighthouses aren’t manned anymore, and it really was just me in the half-light, with the sound of the pounding waves nearby.

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In the daylight though, the nearby beach provided soulfood. I was battling pretty hard with emotions from my still-fairly-recent breakup with my husband, and being torn between love for the new places and experiences I was having with guilt for leaving my daughter. I felt dreadfully homesick, but for a place that didn’t exist anymore. I was enjoying Shetland, but wondering about afterwards – where did I belong? Sitting on that spectacular beach in the lee of the wind, finding the sun surprisingly warm when the gusting was taken away, I had what I rarely have at ‘home’: time to think, and heal, to come to terms with needing to find a new way of being.

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It was particularly brutal for all the beauty though. The ravens, impressive birds that they are, took on a sinister feel as they flew out from the creepy ruined house they lived in at first proper light. They actively hunted lambs, working in groups to herd them away from their mothers and stab them to death before they knew what was going on. The weather was something else: it was snowing in May, with famously powerful winds making it so that I had quite literally seconds to get newborn lambs indoors into pens before they perished.

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The worst weather naturally coincided with the busiest night lambing the farm had ever seen and the dream turned into a nightmare that night. I felt like I was on a ship in a storm – I have a terrified fascination with sailing and this was as near as I’ve got to the many documentaries I watch about sailors making their way through storms in tiny crafts! I was togged up so that every inch of me other than my eyes was swaddled with protection, but my eyes stung with the force of the hail. It was so violent it was a white-out in front of my stinging eyes and I struggled to decide which way was up, fighting against the force of the wind, scouring the floor of the lambing paddocks for the shapes of newborns, hunched against the horrendous conditions. But I am happy to report that one of my proudest achievements was not losing a SINGLE lamb that night on that island in that storm. (Thanks must go to my inexperienced but hardworking assistant Kasi if she is reading, as I couldn’t have done it without her, not a chance!)

I also broke my first bone. The ewes get kinda crazy on birth-hormones sometimes, and one got it into her head that the lamb I was taking indoors was hers (it wasn’t) and as I closed the gate on her to take the real mother into the shed with the baby in question, she burst into action and rammed my hand, trapping a finger between her head and the metal. The air turned blue, but I knew full well that unless I was airlifted out, absolutely nobody would have sympathy and there was never a thought of cancelling my shift! It was a finger on my right hand, and I found that the pressure of a ewe’s vagina was a no-go, so I had to learn how to lamb left handed! I couldn’t catch ewes one-handed however, so for the rest of the contract every time I caught a ewe I had to have a moment to shudder and swear afterwards with the pain before I could carry on!

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So that was my lambing season, a real baptism of fire, a painful but glorious experience that helped me feel independence again after my marriage; thanks to the sheep, landscapes and farmers that healed my soul, a bit…

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.

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(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.

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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!)

 

 

 

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.

My Exmoors

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!)

Basket Case – Making One’s Own Baskets

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Always had something of a fetish for baskets – they’re just strangely pleasing to see and I get a thrill from some of the more odd shapes, especially pack panniers.  They’re also a great, attractive eco-alternative to plastics for storage of all kinds of things, that you can make yourself – kiddies toys, eggs, laundry, your sock-balls etc. I am actively trying to rid my home of plastic, so it was high time I went and learnt this skill.  After having put it off for years, imagining it to be a difficult skill to master which would take many hours, I was pleasantly surprised by how quick and easy it is to get passable results within a handful of hours.  Of course, you can take it as far as you want and apply creativity, let baskets take over your life in the quest for more and more elaborate colours and designs…or you can just make workaday baskets to hold stuff.

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(my first basket in situ: I have free range hens and tend to find nothing for a while and then a treasure trove, then it’s egg roulette when you use them as to how long they were hidden for…)

Our ancestors weren’t daft in the pre-oil age; baskets are made from common things which grow quickly and in abundance, such as willow and brambles, so even if your baskets wear out quickly it really is just a case of going for a walk, identifying whips that suit your purpose and snipping them off to take home.  They only need to be stored dipped in a pond or some other wet place like a dustbin perhaps, and the tools are extremely simple so as craft hobbies go, it’s actually one of the more low maintenance, space-saving ones imo!

I went for my course at Wild Harvest which is local to me near York.  The course was extremely cheap (£45ish) and teaches you everything you need to know to complete a simple basket in one day, with all materials and hot drinks provided.  You also get to hear the amazing story of the owner Di Wood, who raised her children by herself off-grid in the woods, and that’s just the start of her adventures!

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(Every single basket is a piece of art, isn’t it: that bit in the middle anchors it all together and then the willow whips ‘chase’ around it)

There was a meme going round recently (probably still is) which talked about feeling your ancestors knitting along with you as you do.  Your sitting and stitching is the wonderful continuation of millennia of tradition, of people doing and making for themselves rather than sitting, maws open, waiting for the capitalism to feed them.  Sorry I might have got carried away there because I feel passionately about not being robbed of our ability to look after ourselves, so we remain free, which is part of the ethos of Wild harvest itself – ‘self reliance’ – but my point was that I particularly enjoyed the tradition of it.  I’ve spoken before about my love of collecting evocative words which have slipped out of use, and basketry has been a rich seam to mine, with ‘Randing’, ‘Fitching’, ‘Slewing’, ‘Slyping’ and ‘Slath’ to add to my collection!

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(My finished basket – can’t wait to make more!)

As mentioned, the work itself was simple to pick up, merely a case of selecting the right sized rods for the different elements and remembering simple patterns (with a tutor on hand to set you right if you forget!) and notching, snipping and bending.  By the end of the course, sure enough I had my basket which has been treasured ever since and survived a few months of various uses.  If you missed the link to the course earlier, here it is: Wild Harvest Basket Making Course 

 

An Ode to the Kerry Hill Sheep

Originally published December 13th, 2016 – since the time of writing our farm went out of sheep and I split with my husband, but I still retain a nucleus of ram-breeding ewes and a team of good tups, just in case….

 

Kerry Hills. If you’re aware of them at all, it’s probably because they won your local sheep show with their flashy posing and unique, panda-like markings. Before I moved in with my husband, who had been keeping Kerrys since 2002, I hadn’t really ever registered their presence either. I met them with a completely open mind as a result and I’ve slowly got to know and love them and now hold complete responsibility for our flock.

Quite unusually for a British sheep breed, and frustratingly for sheepgeeks like me, details of their history are hard to come by. Most other breeds seem to be far better recorded and represented in the history books. I constantly scour shepherding books, old and new, and most do not make a mention of Kerrys at all.

My theory on this is that the Kerry as we know it is actually a very modern invention; the style of sheep we have today seems only to have emerged within the last 50years, but it does have ancient roots. Looking at the Kerry of 100years ago we see a heavy, white docile-looking animal much like a white Shropshire!

Shropshire ram taken from Shropshire Sheep Society website for reference:

Things hadn’t changed much by 1938:

But by 1959 they start looking a lot more familiar:

And by 2016, we have something very different to that 1908 animal:

Shropshires were created from the Southdown, by crossing with a ‘sheep from the Welsh border’. Highly likely to be a part of this unknown sheep is the ancestor of the Ryeland from the Hereford area around the corner from Kerry Hill, which in the medieval era had wool known as ‘Lemster Ore’ – highly valued for its fineness above almost all others. In the area 70 years prior to the heyday of the Shropshire, according to John Gorton in 1833, was a breed known as the ‘Cerri’, which gave fine wool free of kemp fibres…sound familiar?

But there’s something else in there with Kerry Hills and what that is, I don’t know, but as the influence of the Shropshire/Ryeland fades and the Kerry becomes a more upright, active and alert animal in the last 50years, proudly strutting around a showring, it seems to be coming out. There was the Cardy, Eppynt, Longmynd and Morfe Common sheep to name but a few in the area since time immemorial. No trace of these remains, they are too far back and history seems to have been keen to forget the ‘ill shaped’ wild little things from a tribe known as ‘heath sheep’. I feel sure these wild little things still reside in the genes of the modern Kerry though, as I recognise Philip Walling’s quote relating to primitive breeds in his book Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain when I look into the eyes of a Kerry as she stamps her foot defiantly at me:

“Like many of the other ancient breeds, these are proud sheep, independent and not easily intimidated, with a sense of their own dignity and a bearing that commands respect. They are not the slaves of commercial farming…come from an earlier time when relations between people and their animals were regulated by a greater respect for the servitude that domestic animals give their human keepers.”

Kerrys are a world away from a docile Ryeland or Shropshire; catch me at penning or clipping time and every other word is likely to be a curse word as I try to impose my will or get the wool off a wriggling Kerry without nicking their bizarrely thin skin!? When we bought ordinary sheep hurdles in the early days they promptly bust them down and as a result we’ve had to buy specially made reinforced ones a full foot higher. We even went up to 5ft high alpaca hurdles for a particular group of gimmer hoggs and they still got over and away! Is that the spirit of the Morfe Common heathsheep, fighting its way out after all these years?

But, at various junctures over the last seven and a half years I’ve had the opportunity to swap them for a different breed, or get rid of them altogether, and it’s never quite happened in the end. And when I go to the twice yearly York rare breeds sale to find some more, it’s usually a Kerry which sails out of the ring and that usually makes me bid a bit harder as I know that’s a Rosewood sheep that will fit right in!

I worry about them though. Over the last 15yrs I’ve seen them disappear outside the showring and I believe it’s because nowadays farming is very specialised indeed and Kerry Hills are a little ‘vague’ in what they offer apart from a pretty face.

Their wool is OK, but does not compare with Merino, or Blue-Faced Leicester, or Shetland or any of those popular wool breeds. They are good mothers, but aren’t especially prolific (producing many lambs each time) and don’t have the infrastructure of other breeds which offer sales of thousands of females for farmers to pick from reliably every year. Their milk yield won’t rival a Friesland and their meat yield is perfectly adequate, but not spectacular so that ‘terminal sires’ which father butcher’s lambs like Beltexes and Suffolks have nothing to worry about. They wouldn’t survive on the mountaintops like Herdwicks or Blackfaces or Welsh Mountains, either.

So why keep them?

I like to think this vagueness gives them versatility. My area must be the only part of Britain which does not have a native breed of its own – East Yorkshire. Sheep have been kept here for eons; my husband’s earliest farming ancestor was a shepherd over the river in 1870, but no one knows which sheep he had and no one breed dominates here. That means I have a blank canvas to start with, there is a vacuum here for a breed to step in to. The unrecorded past of the Kerry and the fact they sound Irish but are Welsh but nobody knows that anyway means I’m not facing the incongruity of selling Leicester lamb in Aberdeen, and so on.

The world changes; Consumer demand swings from wool to meat to milk and maybe back again, and some breeds fall foul of it if they are too specialised. The Kerry sails past all this though, doing its thing, producing a reasonable carcasse, wool and if pressed, milk (yes I’ve milked ours!). You can always give them a nudge in the right direction with a judicious cross, too. I’ve tried crosses for meat, wool and hardiness and always been pleased with the results.

This is only one end of the process though – what a sheep can produce. That always has to be balanced with what you’ve got to produce it with. Kerrys are equally as flexible here. I know I could bang up a hydroponic greenhouse and my Kerrys would produce the same 40kg shapely carcasse the customer has come to expect, munching on leftover cabbages and tomatoes in a shed, as they would out on a hillside.

A few years ago, we were struggling for acreage and had to make maximum use of our grass. My early farming career was preoccupied with intensification-with-sustainability and the impossible issue of land purchase. The Kerrys had to calm themselves sufficiently to stay in small paddocks and be rotated daily – they did. That was all reversed in a bizarre twist which saw the local marshes empty of stock keepers in the face of new nature-centric rules. Enter me and my Kerrys, who adapted with relish to a larger, rougher area.

As a farmer, this gives me a bit of peace of mind: I’m not completely sold on specialisation. , I’m not one of those farmers who comes from a long line, with an ancestral farmhouse and owned acres. I’ve clawed my way in and need to be quick on my feet to stay in, ready to exploit any opening I spot. I’ve adapted before, and I like to think I’ll be able to adapt again more less come what may, even with my meagre resources, with my chosen breed. Thank you, Kerry Hills!

The Last Punch – A Memory of Disappearing Heavy Horses

This was originally written 18 March 2016.  The Suffolk Punch is one of our most endangered horses, the RBST thinks we have just 10 years to save them.  Already the gene pool is so diminished there are breeding problems.  This is especially devastating in the light of new genetic information which points to Suffolk Punches being the closest thing we have to medieval warhorses, rather than the more usually substituted shire.  Warhorses were clean-legged (no feathering), 15-16hh and predominantly chestnut.  Much, much more similar to a punch than a shire, so it seems the warhorses found employment in farming when warfare moved on.  In losing the Punch, we not only lose all that agricultural heritage, but also a last living remnant of the medieval warhorse – on our watch after circa 500yrs!  Appalling!

When I was down in Suffolk I met Graham, the latest in a line of farmers with clear memories and photographs of the transition from Suffolk Punches to tractors – I was keen to document what he had, and here it is!

 

My ears pricked up when Graham mentioned that his great, great grandfather John had been an oxman for the Somerleyton estate when he had moved across the river to settle in Aldeby with his two brothers, Jimmy and Aaron in 1837. Sadly, any further information about John or the oxen he worked has been lost and the family memories only begin in detail with the next generation, William, John’s son.

William worked on the railway as a ganger and Graham relates how he would cut the grass growing on the sides of the tracks for hay for the horses – nothing was wasted. William’s son who was also a William must have been ill-at-ease with his father’s change of direction away from their farming roots as he left school at 14, determined to be a farmer. It seems to have been a familiarly difficult ambition for him, as he took work as a rook scarer, a postman and a coalman with two waggons and horses to fund some rented marshes and cattle. Finally, in 1912 he took on a full tenancy on Blocka Farm and had his 90acres.

He married a lady named Jessie who promptly added dairy to the enterprise, handmilking the cows and making butter before taking it to market via horse and cart (picture below); a 22mile trip, each way. The horse pictured is called Dolly and her breed isn’t known but it’s likely she had a good dose of Hackney blood given the period and grahamshackneylocation in question, Yorkshire and Norfolk being the heartlands of the breed and their purpose being a fast roadhorse. As a firm Hackney fan the previously unpublished picture from the ’20s which Graham showed me is the stuff of dreams!

At this time the farm worked what Graham says were known as ‘Shirbreds’ – shire horses, though they were blended with Clydesdales. Back then, pedigree was less important than it is for the showring thesedays, the important bit was how well the horse worked. The picture below show Beauty, Prince and Blossom at work. Strangely, they were not Suffolk Punches, the local breed of the area. It’s unknown why this was the case, but by the 30s the farm had switched to Suffolks and was using Lord Somerleyton’s Suffolk stallion.

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Graham told me a few tales of the more memorable events of his grandfather’s life breaking and working heavy horses. The best was possibly the mare who would not go forwards. In the training process she quickly figured out what was wanted and decided to avoid work by going backwards instead. A heavy horse’s backside moving towards you is hard to combat without use of the whip but William was not the type to use one; instead he stood her in front of a haystack and asked her to go forwards. The stubborn mare insisted on going backwards, and Graham says she heaved and kicked for a full hour, until the ground under her feet was churned into mud and she had exhausted herself with her efforts. Finally, she gave up and walked forwards, found it easy in comparison and was never a bother again!

The horses were traditionally turned onto the marshes between ‘haysel’ (haymaking time) and harvest to eat the aftermath of the haymaking and presumably build themselves up for the heavy work of harvest – pulling the binder was the hardest job and would have to be done in 3hr stints only before switching the horses. Mares would work whilst in foal, almost up to their time, and when the foal was born it would run alongside its mother as she worked. I know from experience that oxen learn a lot through example and mimicry, so this is probably an ideal start for a working horse!

The horses were often not too keen on returning to work after their holiday and William had another problem to fix when one mare figured out that putting her hefty leg over the trace and refusing to budge meant the men having to undo everything and set it right before they could start, whereupon she would simply move her leg again and delay everything further. Many would have been tempted to take a whip to the animal perhaps, but William decided to give the mare a taste of her own medicine – if she was going to keep him waiting and from his work, he would do the same! He walked her front feet to the top of a bank, tied her head high up to a branch and sat down for lunch, leaving her stood still. When he returned, she was suddenly keen to be on the move and never tried her trick again!

Time marched on and William’s son was keen to move on to tractors. William Snr refused point blank to have anything to do with them however, and the farm continued to work horses throughout the war years. No horses were lost to the front in the First World War, only a stack of hay – one of 800tonnes required every week to feed the horses on the front! During the Second World War William was caught out by a ‘nuisance raid’ while ploughing. He managed to unhitch the horses upon hearing the warning siren and by the time the two planes burst over the treeline, firing bullets randomly, he had run and hidden them behind a haystack and had the presence of mind to walk them around it as the planes passed so that they would not see the planes and take fright. His neighbour meanwhile had jumped from his tractor and into a ditch for shelter, leaving the tractor in gear, trundling away by itself!

Another wartime adaptation was having to make stacks with the grain crops rather than filling a stackyard back at the farm, near the giant new threshing machines, to avoid the risk of fire when incendiary bombs were dropped. It was quickly realised that the machines were too heavy to be moved nearer the stacks and would damage the ground too much in the process, but Grandad William was confident his horses could do the job, so he took it apart a little and hooked up ‘Smiler’ (pictured).grahamsshire Smiler had very broad feet and was an extremely strong horse; he carefully and successfully pulled the machine across the fields to the stack. Smiler was previously known as an almost useless horse, an ‘Old Stomper’. He not only had enormous feet but he banged them carelessly up and down as he walked, damaging many plants in the process if he worked any crops. In contrast, Graham says the other horses moved their feet carefully and neatly which was ideal.

The last foal born on the farm was ‘Smart’ (pictured with family below) in 1938, out of Blossom and by Lord Somerleyton’s stallion. She was clearly a well loved member of the family. Graham says she was so good natured she never actually required any formal kind of ‘breaking in’, she naturally took to work.grahamssuffolk

Unfortunately Grandad William died in 1952, still steadfastly refusing the drive the tractors. His son William was pleased with the switch to tractors as he regained a third of his land which had previously been dedicated solely to maintaining the horses. The horses were allowed to live out their lives on the farm however but eventually only Smart was left. She befriended a goose in those solitary days and they went out on the marshes together to graze, the goose bedding down on the muckheap outside her stable when they returned together at night. The goose laid her eggs on that muckheap but never needed to sit them, they hatched from the heat of the muck!

Smart’s last job was harrowing for a kale crop, driven by Graham’s dad. After this she developed ‘bad feet’ and finally in 1957 it was considered kinder to put her out of her misery. William could not bear for her to be killed on the farm, so she was carted to the slaughterhouse. Though a tractor fan, the experience moved him enough to write a poem on the passing of the horse days:

There’s a big tractor shed now standing
Where the old hay stacks used to be
And a big plough standing there outside
Not one furrow now but three
I’ve hung up the horse trees and the plough trace
Along with the whippletrees, saddles and bridles too
And I’m wearing greasy dungarees
For old grey mare is dead and gone
And there’s weeds around the stable door

– William Richmond

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