The summer months have flown by this year - I sit here and wonder where the time has gone our little baby Moss is already crawling and babbling while Fergus continues to grow ever more independent shouting commands at the dogs as they work but much to his frustration they ignore the calls of “come by” and “stay”.
We have focused on our diversification plans for the farm over the summer, developing our courtyard area. We want the business to keep the farm as a key element to the diversification and this has helped map where we go. So the natural step seemed to be to head towards promoting our food.
After some cider filled summer evenings last year with friends we developed our pizza oven plans and it has grown from there, we were a month behind schedule opening in July and as ever it was a last minute dash to complete for our first night. We wanted to create something rustic where everyone could feel comfortable and your not afraid of your children destroying the place but then maybe this is just a personal fear with a crazy two year old.
Utilising our Courtyard for a Farm Lunch and Tour
Fergus testing our first Pizza
The build up of mud, muck and grass on the courtyard took us over 7 days to clear including help from Kingsmead school students for two additional days, but what lay underneath was a beautiful cobbled courtyard. We have laid new concrete, scrubbed, pressured washed and painted for what felt like weeks to be ready for our farm tour and lunch for 70 people back in May and then we continued on installing our pizza oven ready for our July opening.
We focus on in season produce on our pizzas and we try to focus on British produce wherever possible and it has to be European if not, to ensure there are no air miles, of course we honour the Italian heritage with special Italian Pizzeria flour because it makes the best pizzas!
This has also lead me to make a commitment as a family to buy British in season produce and I would say we now as a family achieve this 90% of the time, we felt we couldn’t make calls for people to support British farmers if we weren’t doing so ourselves. I still have the occasional chocolate bar but we are now eating the majority of our food as locally as possible and it is allowing me to cook with more thought.
The Livestock have been doing really well this year, we have had the occasional usual problem but we have been focusing on watching our livestock and learning from their behaviour the pattern of movements in our rational grazing plan. The cattle we find suit grazing extensively and moving within one to two weeks where as the sheep like to move every 4 – 7 days dependant on the field sizes, in fact they have become so used to our system, they now crowd around you at the gate if you dare leave them in a field they deem unfit for an extra day.
The ewes on the whole have been holding their weight better this year while still producing good lambs, we also have continued to focus on our clean grazing system in regards to worms and this year we didn’t need to treat for nemotadirus in our lambs, I worked out recently how much money we have saved over the past two years through FEC testing and it amounted to £800 and 64 man hours, for us this is a serious time and cost saving as a business.
The Cattle have been as usual a happy bunch however our plans to start our Shorthorn herd this year were thwarted with a TB failure in our cattle herd, so one of our beautiful Angus x heifers was taken and were then immediately put into shut down for both our Cattle and our Goats, and we are now into 60 day testing for both herds but we were very happy to pass our first 60 day test a few weeks ago, so fingers crossed it will just be another 60 days before our plans are back on track.
Unfortunately still rumbling on in the background is our battle with business rates, as I explained in the last blog we are being charged for running a riding stables. However as everyone is aware we are most definitely not doing this and in fact this is written into our tenancy. Unfortunately despite significant efforts to contact the Valuation office and follow their online procedures we still seem to be no further forward. In fact it recently reached a high when we were sent a magistrates summons for non payment. So off Moss and I went to the magistrates court, where we were taken in to a side room and asked how much money were going to pay that day by two council officials. I yet again explained I was not paying business rates for running a riding stables. It was agreed eventually they would put a hold on our account for 6 months while we continued our dispute with the Valuation office but it has been extremely stressful. That day I sat there in the court side room close to tears again when I should have been checking my livestock, it brought to me to stark reality of the stress of farming and the pressures from so many different elements of the business. We even wrote to our MP as a last ditch attempt to get help but unfortunately no reply was forth coming.
This year Mark and I have felt inspired to push forward with our plans for the farm feeling more confidant in our choices in our farming methods, for me this was helped by heading up to the Ethical Farming Conference in Dumfries and Galloway, where it was great to meet those who were looking at food production in a different way and how we can make changes as farmers to our environment and our livestock while still remaining productive, so this winter we are now looking forward to a winter of planting 550 metres of new hedgerow, silvopasture creation and our first Autumn Feast Evening to celebrate great food using our own farm produce and local seasonal vegetables.
Herbal lay haylage
Exhaustion is a funny feeling sometimes it creeps up on you and other times it hits you hard so that every fibre of your body is aching and your brain seems incapable of processing simple tasks, this definitely captures how I have been feeling the last few months.
Stress also often goes hand in hand with farming, there is never a day off, there is always something to do and this can create a situation of feeling utterly overwhelmed. This feeling has been a key feature over the winter months for us even when we take a moment to sit down we then have a bouncing two year old to control or emails to reply to, so we currently are living in a house that is overdue a deep clean and an organised chaos that allows us to work through each day as best we can.
For me it all kicked off back in December when I was 36 weeks pregnant, just before Christmas; I sat through a Tenants farmers meeting and came away feeling completely demotivated after hearing that other farms could be offered lower rents for increased conservation measures on their farms. When you are trying to achieve a farm that offers this already, yet you feel you are paying a fair rent and working every day as hard as you physically can to pull it off, this couldn’t be more demotivating. Then to top it off as stumbled out of the meeting I managed to promptly walk straight into a 5ft ditch in the pitch black, landing in stagnant water and leaf littered mud. With my whole body shaking, dripping paper work in hand, I crawled out of the ditch and promptly escaped down the road to my car with my now broken shoe sole flapping on the tarmac as I walked. Mark and my brother in law certainly looked confused as I tumbled into the room dripping wet with tears rolling down my cheeks babbling incoherent words saying I had hurt the baby falling in a ditch. Lucky both me and the baby were fine just a jolted back and bad shoulder for me.
Our new pup Pip adding to the chaos
We also received at the end of December an email from the RPA saying we were not going to be paid our BPS (our agricultural subsidy) on time due to extra checks being completed, this caused me a huge amount of worry due to the fact currently it is almost half our annual income for the farm, although we are aiming to build the business to not rely on the BPS this takes time. When I spoke to the RPA I was told they could give me no indication of what the issue was or when we would be paid but it could not be until June 2019. After sleepless nights and a phone call to my friend Harriet for her professional advice we spoke to the National Trust land agent asking if we could defer our rent until the BPS came in, this was to take the pressure off as we came up to lambing. And for which we are extremely grateful for he agreed and we felt like we were able to breath again.
Unfortunately this was short lived gap of stress free life, as having all year been battling a business rates bill of £7000 for running a riding stables, which we definitely are not. We were then sent letters saying we would be facing court action unless we paid this bill, despite the fact we had followed the correct procedure and clearly given evidence that we were not running a riding stables. Finally they agreed to send out a valuation officer to the farm, who did turn up but unbelievably on the day I went into labour! So there I am attempting to show him our Bed and Breakfast rooms and explain that we have no Horses, as contractions are coursing through my body every 4 minutes, as I try to act normal and hold a conversation. The result of the visit did mean some elements of the valuation were reduced however the horse loose boxes were deemed to still be there, so I phoned up to ask where these loose boxes were that they were referring to? their answer was for me was priceless ‘’the ones with the goats in’’ So in reply I said ‘’so you mean the specially built goats pens I made with goats inside them have been counted as horse loose boxes?’’ at this point Mark resorted to banging his head quite literally on the table.
We also scanned our ewes this year and were very disappointed in our results, we aim for 150% in the flock due to the fact they are hill breed ewes and we had quite a large groups of young ewes entering the flock, yet as the ewes ran through the race up into the crate and the green mark for singles grew I knew our percentages were down, in the end we came out at 132%, we have put this down to two things, the ewes weren’t in as good as condition as we would have hoped at tupping time most likely due to the drought in the summer and the high proportion of young ewes. But the good news was that after significant number of empties last year totally nearly 15% of the flock, we have brought this down to 3% which felt like a small win.
But amongst all of this exhaustion and stress the most amazing event of the birth of our second Son happened, which overrides all the hard days, to be replaced with utter amazement again at having brought this tiny baby into the world. We had planned another home birth, that morning as Mark headed out to work, Ferg and I headed out to check the stock. I was untangling a sheep from a fence as I felt my first contraction and all I could think was that I need to finish checking the stock. So off Ferg and I went traipsing across fields, when I would periodically stop to take a breath, as Ferg would look up at me and say ‘’another ouchy mummy’’. I soon realised help was needed so called my mum to help me finish the stock and then a call was made to bring Mark home from work. Unfortunately a home birth was not for us, after concerns about the babies size and lack of midwives on shift, so off we were sent into Taunton, and a few hours later Moss arrived into the world a little larger than we expected at 11lb 9oz. This time I tried to take some time off work on the farm although still couldn’t help but attempt to oversee the vaccinations and ewe lambs being sorted.
Despite our utterly exhausted state we are creating plans for the future which I will attempt to share on our next blog.
The Autumn winds always bring in chance to recuperate and refresh, I take great joy as we walk checking the stock when the cold wind whips around us blowing the golden leaves into a frenzy, taking in deep breaths I feel like I can think again, revitalised by the both the beauty and power of nature. Autumn has always been my favourite season, as the life on the farm prepares for hard winter months, as the leaves change and the air becomes fresh. I particularly enjoy the cycle of the rams re-joining the ewes which builds excitement for the following year
The ewes are slowly recovering after a hard dry summer and therefore I was not completely happy of their body condition as they were split into groups for the rams, despite having weaned the lambs early, the dried out grass did not allow for the ewes to rebuild condition after being pulled down by their lambs. All our ewes are dagged out before they head to ram with the aim being to reduce the risk of infection for the ram should the ewes be dirty. We also made the decision not to increase our ewe numbers this year as originally planned, we felt that as we are still getting to know what the land can hold, we would instead hold back more ewe lambs which could be sold in the spring/summer rather than have a high number of ewes and lambs. So we put 150 ewes to the four tups this year. We run four different breeds of tups which is a little over the top for only 150 ewes but each has a purpose within our future plans. The Berrichon ram heads out with our first time ewes, ensuring a easy birth, the lambs generally have narrow shoulders and head allowing the ewe to birth easily, they are quick to stand and suckle making the mothering up easier for the inexperienced ewes.
The Texel ram heads out with out with the Welsh Mountain and Badger Face ewes to breed us replacements for our flock of Welsh x Texel ewes. The Millienium Bleu Ram heads out with the highest number of ewes so our main flock of Welsh and Cheviot x, his role is to produce our grassfed fat lambs for our meat boxes.
And my favourite ram, our Cheviot heads out with the pure cheviot ewes for our flock of pedigree cheviots, these breed not only replacements for our flock but our higher value ewe lambs to sell and our future hogget meat boxes.
.Our cheviot ram is new this year, we made the decision to held to the NSA Builth Wells ram sales where over 4700 different rams were put up for auction this year. My mum, Fergus and I headed up for the day arriving early to choose our favourite rams amongst the North Country Cheviots. I set my top price of what I wanted to pay at £500 and then armed with what type of breeding and look I wanted I scanned the pens marking in the catalogue my top choices.
The problem with an auction is of course you have to attempt to bid on your first selected ram into the ring even if your favourite is further down the line, due to the fact you cannot guarantee which you will win. I had selected four rams who we liked the look of, and took my position at the side of the ring, hands shaking with nerves, while my mum was trying to control Fergus from climbing into the ram pens and jumping in the puddles. My first of my chosen rams came into the ring, and I took a deep breath and joined the bidding but he soon went above my price range so with a shake of the head I pulled out. And within a short while my next chosen ram came in and bidding resumed, as his price climbed I thought I was going to loose out again but on my final bid, the other bidder pulled out and Wolverine became ours at the price of £470. My heart was beating so fast, I felt a massive surge of adrenalin and excitement after the auction, having never spent so much on a single sheep before!
We paid for our ram and then using the tup taxi service took him back to our vehicle, while we were offloading him into our trailer in the car park, Wolverine clearly fed up of being moved around saw his opportunity for freedom in the tiny gap between trailers and tried to make a break for it, I leaned over and managed to get my hand under his neck and held on for dear life, which considering as I weigh in at just under 60 kilos and Wolverine at 95 kilos it was no mean feat. Luckily the tup taxi driver was quick off the mark and jumped over and we soon manoeuvred him into the trailer. It was a great day out off the farm and I am already trying to think of an excuse to use to Mark so I can go next year and buy another ram.
Our rams have all worked hard this year and tupped the ewes quickly with very few returns hopefully meaning lambing will be a lot tighter than last year, which dragged out over a long period.
Other plans are also slowly taking hold with our new herbal lay fields reseeded and springing up new growth, we adjusted the seed mixes slightly and this time added some fertiliser to aid the growth after the poor performance last year of the new lays. We would prefer not to use fertiliser long term in these fields in line with regenerative principles but the initial establishment with the poor organic matter in the soils we felt it was better in the short term to give a boost for establishment and slowly over time our soils will recover and we can remove the need for any fertiliser.
Mark and I are definitely feeling refreshed from the stress of the summer and finally feel we are able the think of future plans again rather than firefighting constantly, this has included making a decision over the use of the vernacular buildings with the plan to place a wood fired pizza oven within the buildings and offer pizzas on Friday nights during the Summer, we are hoping to build a social relaxed atmosphere for people to enjoy within the courtyard while keeping its rustic charm, a mini Exmoor Italian experience, we will share these plans as they take shape!
Over the past few months as the fields have come alive and the butterflies are on the wing, I have been missing home. Back in May my mum went on holiday and the joy of returning home to check her sheep brought a real ache to my heart, I wandered around the fields, where beautiful pollen scents lifted, skylarks were singing and where the hedgerows have been brimming with campions, cow parsley, bluebells and stitchwort.
Horner however at times feels like a desert, devoid of any great character or life with the phosphorus rich soils causing nettles to dominate at our Hedgerows feet, I feel like we missed out on that beautiful early June colour and life that I love.
Hedgerow at my Mums
Hedgerow at Horner
It hasn’t helped with the fact the new grasslays are taking a long time to establish and production levels are extremely low on these fields, although I try to maintain my usual positive mindset, truly believing that they will improve given time, it is hard when you are faced with the reality that as you walk across the new lays the soil cracks under your feet, the grass never having really reached that beautiful vibrant green, browning in the scorching heat, with pineapple weed dominating symbolising the compacted nature of the soils.
Even for me the much anticipated break crop of Phacelia and Clover designed to help condition the soil in a further two fields has grown in a patchy and haphazard manner with no rhyme or reason to the areas of bare earth that have developed.
We have had to contend with a mysterious or maybe multiple visitors who have been opening and closing gates causing me great headaches as I race around early in the morning before heading off to work trying to collect errant sheep or cattle. This causes me such frustration when I find the cattle and sheep mixed up or the sheep happily grazing an area fenced out of production that we are limited to grazing every 5 years within our stewardship. The worst was when mark found a sheep in the wrong field and hung up in a fence with a chunk missing from her leg, I am convinced this must have been a dog, why would a ewe leave her lamb and flock to jump over a fence, through a hedgerow, and then get entangled in a fence the other side unless she was under pressure. Mark maybe in a more positive mind set just blamed her slightly loopy nature and put it down as a freak accident.
We have also had Wessex water digging in a new water main across the farm, which just feels like another step away from us getting our own hands into Horner, my sheep move around according to where the diggers are next travelling to rather than where we maybe wish for them to be, soils are being further compacted due to the fact it appears necessary for every operative to drive their own vehicle to site, and our grass is being turned over or crushed through the fields as the new pipe is laid through the land.
One of our new lays of phacelia and clover - seemingly specialising in yet another crop of pineapple weed!
Wessex Waters path through the new orchard
Our first rent payment is also due on the 1st of August which we knew would be tough to meet, due to the fact we are paying half our annual rent with only 6 months of our new business having been up and running and with no income from the farm having come in it is tight. With a farm business a huge proportion of your income comes in the second half of the year with single farm payment in December and the lamb sales from September time. Our rent value was also increased from our tendered rent due to the fact we are now entered into a countryside stewardship scheme, the National Trust had always been open that this would need to be looked at and it was agreed after completion that the value of 20% of the Stewardship would be added onto the rent value, however again we do not receive this payment until December/January time yet we have to essentially pay 10% of the value in August due to the fact it is split between the 6 months. So with this weighing down upon us we recently cancelled our holiday to France due to the need to ensure we were working. This is very much the reality of being a tenant farmer and we know it will be easier once we have been operating as a business for a full year and our farm income has started coming in rather than just expenditure!
It has also meant Mark has been working every working day he can and I also work two days a week now off the farm for the summer, which means we are very grateful for the light evenings we have been having of late, allowing us to work later into the evening for the farm work.
However amongst this low ebb of feeling are little fractures of light breaking through, our empty goats have been grazing one of the new lays and interestingly without any hard feed are putting flesh on and growing well, what the reason is I am yet to pinpoint, but it is so great to see them playfully climbing the ancient oak skeleton with a beautiful shine on their coats knowing this has been achieved on grass and browse alone.
Our Boer nannies playing on the ancient oak
I am also incredibly excited at the prospect of the new cattle housing and fodder shed that is hopefully now all agreed, we are just getting the designs drawn up and then we can put in the planning, so hopefully our new shed will be standing by the winter, which is most definitely a joy of being a tenant farmer.
Ferg is also growing constantly with the space that Horner offers, excelling at escape methods having been shown recently by his cousin how to crawl under gates. There are days when he is dragged around on my back, in the truck and around the house and farm trying to keep on top of the jobs causing the dreaded parental guilt that I am not giving him my time and I certainly do not feel that I am nurturing him, however the joy he approaches most outside tasks with certainly help keep my spirits up but alongside this is his ever gaining independence to do his own thing, which seems to now cause daily struggles particularly when we are indoors, it recently took me 20 minutes to vacuum a bed and breakfast room due to his constant desire to pull the cord causing the vacuum to turn on and off as I went round the room, and the battle of wills most definitely was won by him, as I eventually gave up and lay on the floor, to which he gleefully jumped up and down on my stomach.
We are looking forward to August when hopefully the long awaited rain will come, our first rent will have been paid and we can start to feel rejuvenated and look forward to the changes that are to come and hopefully Floss and I can work again during day time hours without feeling like we need a siesta between 1 and 4pm!
Floss hiding in the stream!
Calling to the Wild!
Lambing time is always hard work but this year we feel it has excelled itself with what it has thrown at us. When we moved down from 1000ft to the Porlock vale we thought we had escaped the bad weather, so we are a little surprised to have had snow twice this year during lambing, causing us to have fun extra jobs such as battling frozen waterpipes, carrying buckets of water from the house, sheltering the ewes and lambs indoors in every place possible and quads deciding to be born at 3 am as we hit minus temperatures, were just a few of the fun times so far this year.
The sheep despite the bad weather and the cramped conditions lambed well, we did not have to assist much, and they are mainly lambing during the day which makes life significantly easier. Unfortunately, we have had the case of a few ewes not producing milk on one side so this has meant we had to take a few lambs off and bring them into the pet lamb group which is now feels like a very demanding and noisy flock in their own right, I am not a fan of pet lambs but luckily my mum is here to take them into her care.
Pet Lambs causing mayhem
Lambing most definitely stretches you out physically and mentally, and although it has generally gone smoothly this year, one particular early morning pushed me hard, I went out to do my usual 3am check and found my mums ewe Ma had given birth to a lamb, all good but Ma has had triplets for 4 years in a row now so I penned her up and took a seat expecting further lambs to arrive. But 20 minutes later still no water bag or contractions had arrived which struck me as odd, by now I am freezing cold from the snow blowing into the lambing shed and I had done my classic of putting my waterproofs over my pyjamas, which turns out is not the best thermal gear. I decided to an internal check of Ma because something just didn’t feel right about her, and sure enough as I slid my hand in I was met with an upside down head and feet, so back in it goes, turned around and then delivered the correct way up and the third lamb followed shortly, I rubbed them all down, thinking great I will run in have quick cup of tea to warm up while she dries them off being an experienced triplet mother and I will pop back out in 10 minutes to see how they are all doing.
10 minutes later I return to see three lambs at her head and Ma lying down, but as I wandered across the pen I realised I couldnt see the one who resembled the first born, as I climbed into the pen I just saw the tip of its nose underneath Ma, I have never lifted a sheep up so fast, I grabbed the lamb and could immediately see it was lifeless and floppy, I cried out not able to believe it and feeling immensely guilty for that warming cup of tea, as it lay in my hands I felt the flicker of a heart beat and without thinking I gave it mouth to mouth and for what felt like the longest thirty seconds it suddenly gave a gasping breath, my heart lurched inside, slowly the lamb took a second breath gasping horribly as it fought for air to get to its lungs, slowly its breaths calmed and it gave a little bleat, I have never felt so happy to hear a lamb bleat.
While this was occurring, I could hear a lamb in one of the pens making a bleat that has a particular tone that I have called the death bleat, it is not what you want to hear from a lamb they only do it when something is badly wrong. I sought out the noise from the pens and there in one of the pens I found a lamb flat out, gasping and stiff from the cold. I knew it was very close to dying and I hesitated about what to do, do I cause further distress trying to revive it or leave it in peace, because to me it looked to far gone to save but luckily instinct and good sheparding kicked in and I grabbed the lamb and ran into the house to be met at the kitchen door with Mark holding a screaming Fergus at 4am. So between us we juggled Fergus and the stiff lamb as we ran a bowl of warm water dunking it in trying to bring its core temperature up quickly. I then went back outside to check on the quads, and realised in the freezing temperatures two had deteriorated fast in the short time I had been away so two more lambs were run into the house. With the hair dryer in action, wood burner blazing and all the lambs were tubed with colostrum, Ferg fed and now asleep, we finally had a moment of peace an hour later. Amazingly all the lambs were ok, they needed significant care over the next 24 hours but I have never managed to save two lambs in one night when both I believed were dying. It felt like a miracle had taken place that morning or maybe the lambs just responded well to fergus’ treatment of poking them in the head saying “sheep” and looking very happy to have them in his house.
Lambing has its ups and downs and it is hard sometimes to make spur of the moment decisions and to keep an eye on everything at once, and I make mistakes but what I do know is I am constantly learning and hopefully improving all the time.
So our first year lambing at Horner in all honestly has been pretty hard with my mum out of action the first week with the flu, an ear infection for Ferg, mastitis for me, and Mark out at work, coming home to a grumpy wife and child having to try and keep it all going. But with the help of antibiotics for Ferg and I and my mum went back onto nights, we are all started to feel human again as we reached the final weeks and it already is starting to feel like a distant memory. So now that the spring sunshine is hear and all the lambs and ewes are doing well out on our grass it makes all those days when you felt like you couldn't take any more worth it.
One of our North Country Cheviot x Lambs
The latest post has been influenced by a few different events recently but Mothers Day and some late nights hanging out in the lambing shed gave me the time to reflect and decide to share one part of our Journey as a family to give you an insight into the difficulties that can be faced as farming family.