Back in March last year I found myself lying on the cold ground, feeling the damp grass and mud start to sink into my hair as I took shallow rasping breaths, my whole body ached, limbs heavy with weariness. My son, Fergus, peered over me , his face looking down on me blocking out the sky, a slight tone of worry in his voice “would you like me to call you an ambulance mummy?” I slowly lifted my heavy body from the ground, leaving the imprint of my head behind in the field.
We climbed back onto the quad bike with my two children encompassed in front of me as I willed my arms to steer us back home, hay drifted from the trailer that we had been using to feed the animals.
Covid finally arrived in our household in March, 10 days without childcare where my husband stayed free of covid, headed out to work and while the boys and I carried out the daily grind of the early spring work as we built up to lambing and calving.
When I struggle for breath, be it through illness or stress, my medicine is the outside air, allowing my lungs and head to relax and return to a calm state.
This year more than any other I hear of nature being given a value, an economic value, what is it worth to us as a society? we hear what nature can do for us, how it can help us. What is it worth, the pounds and the pence, and only when it worth something do we deign to bend to its will and give it space.
It doesn’t sit comfortably with me, while I seek earths fresh air to heal myself, I question how can we put a value on Carbon or Phosphate? How can we value one habitat over another? Is it right we are trading the very air we breathe. What arrogance do we hold as humans to believe we own air particles? Why do I now hear farmers being called Asset Managers of Natural Capital?
Yet this is the move private investment heads, and at times I find myself being pulled into this offer, questioning myself, maybe this is the only way as farmers we can survive the changes, the low wages, the low value put on food. Do we need to start trading the lands nutrients, and carbon to be able to continue this way of life living on the land. Will my stubbornness be my downfall, maybe we could sell these ‘credits’ to build our dreams?
The credits that allow others to offset, stick labels on their products to say they are carbon neutral through planting schemes, or sequestration. So as consumers we feel good when deciding what to buy, we trust the company for the good they are investing in. However nothing is ever that simple and neither is my distrust of the schemes.
I speak gently with others as we see the way humans control water, land, air as if we can fight this turning tide, but maybe its time we allowed these wonderous elements the ability to breathe, just as it is designed to do. Breath in their own pattern not only when we believe they hold a value to us.
Rivers that have been channelled, water forced into ditches flowing fast paced past fields that in years gone by would of flooded and changed with the weather and the flow of elements that our seasons bring.
This thought alongside the long drought that Summer threw at us, brought us change, water is a resource that is key for us as farmers so why do we remove it, see it as a problem when we so desperately pray for it as we watch our grass turn to a crispy bed of straw in the summer droughts.
We spent time viewing the flows of water across the farm and knew we needed to hold this water back in the winter, slow the flow downstream and allow it to trickle off the land. Our Landlords keen to take my desires forward spent time building flow ponds, tree coups and blocked up a ditch as stage one to see how it would react and work in the landscape and the fields, holding the water back and ultimately creating wetter and more carbon rich soils, and rather essentially holding it back for when we need it in those long summer months.
We fed hay this summer, bale grazing our cattle and sheep as our grass became nothing but a brown bed on the floor. We lost too many sheep, the older ewes trying to feed their lambs which relied more on their mothers than usual, pulled down by their need for milk as little else was on offer.
Its painful to loose animals, questioning myself if I had fed hay too late, that I should of done more.
Leading me to a time that I walked across the yard late one evening, heading to drench an old ewe who I had brought in for critical care, my breath was rapid, anxious I turned quickly as I heard a noise my head torch catching a reflector on a trailer as I jumped slightly. Slowly I brought my breathing back to a calm, slow breaths, standing still listening to the stillness around me.
I headed to the ewe glad of the barn lights that shone around me as I flicked the switch. I always took great joy in the stillness of the night but this year my unease has grown, a weariness I didn’t hold before.
Situations can affect you in different ways, our pick up truck got stolen this Summer, in the middle of the day as our local primary school and I explored the orchard not 50 metres away. Speeding out past us as we searched for diversity in our plant species.
I felt vulnerable, I felt exposed, I felt scared. Its changed how I felt in my home. It brought back a memory from a month before when early in the morning I was feeding my goats, I felt watchful eyes on me, two men sat in a pick up at an awkward angle looking into the yard, their eyes following me and unflinching as I looked across to return their gaze. I carried on my work and eventually they left and it became a fleeting memory but it returned when our pick up truck was stolen a month later.
Phone 101 they say, we dutifully did, we never heard or saw the police, nobody popped in to see us, just another log in a system, another crime to go unsolved but my restless mind doesn’t settle as easily as the computer systems by our police.
So I return to my breathing of the fresh cold evening air, calming my emotions and stepping forward as I know I should.
Just as I breath in and out, so does our earth, but our desire to control those natural functions has stopped its ability to breath, it has been held back. But for how long will we be able to stop the need to take that deep breath to restore itself.
As our sea levels rise, sea ingress is very real in the Porlock vale, we could see these opportunities to allow space for the sea to travel inwards and protect others in turn, as stewards of the land we could allow that process to be restored as it was before, its not about returning the land to the sea or the river but seeing it as the movement inwards is allowing the seas lungs to expand for this moment in time. Aiding our community further along the coast whose coastline cannot breath due to the houses build on the marshland.
I sit with my back against one of the ancient oak trees, the fissures of bark digging into my back, my hood up as heavy rain hits the leaves above me. Watching the sheep graze around me, the push of my dogs nose into the crook of my elbow seeking attention as I slowly take breaths to help centre my mind. Tremors have been constant this year on the farm, we have questioned if this is our future here, felt exhausted by battles out of our control, asking if we are making the right choice for our family.
But my breathing is tied to the land’s lungs, the animals breaths and sometimes we waver but that doesn’t mean we will extinguish, if we give space to everything around us to expand like the rise and fall of our chests a constant rhythm that is often unseen.
My breath now feeds another soul growing in my womb, an unexpected gift to end our year but one that has given me clarity, a determination that no matter what is thrown at us I want to keep breathing that fresh morning air as I step out into the dawn chorus every day.
My breathing over the last few months has travelled from fear and exhaustion, to knowing we can survive, just as I need to rest, so does our land. Reducing our sheep and goat numbers in half to give a year of rest to both mine and the lands body. We give thanks to our landlords unwavering support through a tricky time, to all our supporters and most of all our friends and family who have been here when we have needed them.
What makes a farmer? Some might say it takes generations of farmers in your blood and some might say you become a farmer the moment you own land.
But here I am neither owning land or generations behind me but very much a farmer
If there is one characteristic that I wish I could capture as a farmer it is our ability to be resilient, I took a portrait of mark and I this year as I wanted to capture who we are, as farmers.
Resilience as a farmer allows us to be aware of our own emotional responses, To rise from the lows and stand tall during the peaks
But be elastic to our ever changing situations, we have to accept there will be problems but we need to be open and willing to adapt.
The past year has taught us all something about ourselves that we didn’t know, taught us to understand our own situation and how in my case incredibly privileged that is.
During lockdown we had space for our two wildings to run free, we weren’t cooped up day after day in a tiny flat we didn’t have to do school work, we just carried on our normal farming lives with two mini farmers.
That’s not to say it wasn’t incredibly tough at times, in February during the third lockdown I hit breaking point, here I was trying to farm in another hideously wet winter with two boys whose sole ambition is to follow their hearts and run free.
Mark was at work 5 days of the week and here I was everyday at home, not seeing my friends and being able to share our woes but on a wheel struggling to juggle the needs of the farm, the business and my boys.
My two Wildings
We had unexpectedly lost our young working dog Pip, who at 2, was a key member of our team, so when on new years eve we were given a diagnosis of a rare bone leukaemia we were incredibly shocked, she stayed with us for another week, pampered as I lay cuddling her into the early hours every evening for 7 long days, I would sit there with her sprawled on my lap with my hand feeling her gentle heart beat dreading going to sleep as I couldn’t bear climbing down the stair in the morning to check if she was still with us. She lay by that roaring fire soaking up the heat until we knew she could no longer stay with us and time had come to say the most heart wrenching good bye.
This spring I was also in the midst of starting an appeal process with the Rural Payments Agency who had decided three years into our Countryside Stewardship scheme to declare some revenue options invalid and then fine us for having put in a revenue claim against those elements that were very much valid in the May when I submitted my claim. Its so nonsensical that I struggle to even put it down on paper, but to suddenly loose £4500 of expected income was not what I needed during an already pressured situation.
I was recommended by a fellow farmer to seek advice from the Farming Community Network who can help with appeals to the RPA, but to my embarrassment, I phoned them to explain my situation and within a minute of making that phonecall and hearing the kindness in a fellow humans voice, I broke down in floods of tears an outward response to the anxiety and stress inside, everything had reached a point that I could barely explain the situation, my emotional response was no longer resilient but utterly exhausted.
With the wonderful help of Adam, from FWAG, it was eventually sorted and the money repaid and they declared all to be well again but at what cost. Here I am farming with nature, trying to rebuild this little slice of land and the government organisation designed to support us, is failing time and time again with their incompetence, how long can we remain resilient?
There have been times when I struggle to see how we fit in to the future in the UK as farmers, how can our little farm survive? but something else happened this past year to me, I realised in my heart I am a revolutionary
I no longer see it as enough to just accept the state of agriculture but to be part of a revolution within it and stand up for my beliefs and to raise questions
Sometimes we need to go through pain to be able to see clearly, the past autumn with ever dropping scanning rates in our ewes I slipped back into the role of trying to fix a problem through an input instead of listening to what my flock and land were telling me. I brought in pre tupping buckets, happily putting them out in the fields and the ewes went mad, jostling at the buckets, fighting over the sweet treats I had delivered. But within a week a mass break out of pink eye had happened within the flock, I had ewes going blind and I barely knew what to do, working with our vet we had to inject every ewe showing symptoms and slowly I got on top of it.
As I stood over the flock one evening I realised my error as a shepherd, I had done this, I had caused the problem, by bringing in those buckets I had changed my animals natural behaviour, I had encouraged close contact allowing the bacteria to spread which would never of happened had I trusted in my system.
And if one lesson was not enough, to ensure I was fully understanding my mistake, after delaying tupping due to the outbreak we put our rams in and then they developed pink eye, which then during scanning turned out to have caused an even bigger drop in scanning percentages.
So here I was bruised and battered but not overcome, and my husband reminded me of the words of the wonderful Adam from fwag “if you run a low input system you cannot expect high outputs”. Like minded people allow you to see a way that sometimes you don’t see yourself, I needed to stop and remember I was approaching it all wrong, it wasn’t about my scanning results but it was about my ewes, my land and our produce and doing it the way I wanted to not the way I was being influenced by every feed and farming company was trying to encourage.
Last year in the news there was an awful story of a fire in a pig farm in County Down, up to 2000 pigs died in that fire, the news reported the utterly horrifying scenes, the impact on the farmers and the firefighters but I cannot help but question why do we have 2000 pigs in a single barn?
I want to raise this question not to criticise but to understand how our food system has become so industrialised this is seen as normal.
We are told this industrial level of farming in particular pigs and chickens is better for the environment, in fact the school where my son is starting in September sent round the school menu and what I found rather startling was the complete lack of beef or lamb on the menu, here on Exmoor we grow wonderful beef and lamb on grass, yet the meat options were all but one lonely beef burger, pork or chicken, even swapping a meal that is traditionally beef to use pork instead for bolognaise. Why are we not questioning the shift into these industrialised food systems?
As I stood in my fields one late afternoon, I watched as the cows gathered under the ancient oak trees, reaching up with their tongues, wrapping around the leaves before pulling and ripping the leaves free to slowly feast on the Oak's rich nutrients,
The swallows sweeping through the cows as they moved, and I felt complete and utter euphoria, laughing out loud with the joy as they passed so close to my body I felt the power of their wings.
I see the barn owl silently pass over my head, I see the newts on my sons hands as he shrieks with joy of finding another newt in the abandoned trough, I see the lone oxe eye dairy appearing in our hay fields.
Because I am a farmer not because of my background or land ownership but the fact I am connected to the land, my surroundings, I can be resilient to struggles because I can return to this very place and know in my heart this is where I want to be no matter what the future holds for us as farmers.
I have spent the last two years staring at the ground trying to work out what is going on deep in our soil I think I have forgotten to look up.
Horner woods flow down the valley reaching our farm yard which is settled in the shadows of the ancient oaks and it is a incredible site as I walk through the field in the early mornings checking heavily pregnant cows awaiting our first calves here at the farm. It brings a sense of peacefulness to me, allowing me to see how far we have come, as the woodland breathes as it has done since before 1600.
Our home is where we feel settled and safe but also where memories are formed, where our family grows. But it takes time to build a home and it feels as if our roots are starting to grow here at the farm.
As a tenant sometimes I feel this sense of loss about the future that we can never truly feel at home, we are always limited and with a short Farm Business Tenancy, what happens with our future is controlled by our Landlord and ourselves.
So much of the tradition of farming is linked to the future and a desire to want to leave the land in a better condition for the next generation, decisions we make now are not often of benefit to us but the future of the land and the next generations.
This winter we looked to the future and planted our first row silvopasture, this has been in our plans since we first moved in and it feels incredibly exciting to be making the changes our farm needs to build a sustainable future for all.
Silvopasture is the incorporation of trees into pasture land in many forms, two plots of woodpasture were planted as part of our countryside stewardship when we moved in and this winter we planted our first alley silvopasture plot, this allows for the grazing in between the trees, the trees are a crop in their own right and offer shelter, shade and browse to the livestock as they grow.
We selected species that we felt suited the system but unfortunately we were not able to find all the species were wanted from safe sources to reduce disease risk. We hope we will yet see Mulberry, Cobnut and False Acacia here on the farm but they may have to arrive in stage 2.
The benefit of trees in rows allows ease of management whether to the trees or grassland and allows rotational grazing with the livestock.
We were also really pleased to be able gain funding through Somerset Rivers Authority and The Riverlands project, for 550 metres of new hedgerow allowing us to split four fields bringing down our field sizes allowing us to manage our grazing more productively.
It has also just been confirmed that we can plant a further 440 metres this winter through the same funding, this will mean the winter just passed we will have planted 3825 trees with a further 2200 this winter, the key theme being that they are integrated into farmland supporting our soils, biodiversity and livestock welfare without loosing productivity.
As these trees and grasses put their roots down into the depleted soils I imagine the soil coming alive as the roots communicate and transfer.
A lot of what we are putting in place has grown out of the roots of traditional agriculture before our reliance in fossil fuel fertilisers took hold as an industry. Yet within the environmental movement there is a push for a change in agricuture with a move to increase arable production through the desire by many to have a high increase in plant based diets, yet this arable industry is currently responsible for in part the loss of our topsoil, herbicide use, pesticide use and loss of much of our biodiversity.
I call myself an environmentalist yet I have found myself at a distance from the environmental movement due to the response I have when I talk of our plans as farmers, being told that nobody in my industry of blood agriculture can be an environmentalist.
Yet as I wander the fields late at night and hear the owls calling I disagree so wholeheartedly, for those in tune with the land, whose footsteps tread over the damp grass see the destruction this idealistic move could cause.
I have also found this unsettling notion that the youth are those driving this movement and the blame rests squarely on the older generations shoulders, maybe I have been unlucky with what I have come up against but your not often welcome as a farmer within discussions.
These thoughts have raised my own feeling of loss of the past with an overwhelming desire to speak to my Dad whose knowledge I wish I could seek out. My Dad died when I was 19, having been ill for a year previously from a brain tumour. As I young adult I struggled as my friends went to Uni and I drifted away from them unable to process my own grief, except for few valued friends who offered the support I needed. In hindsight as a young adult I wish I had asked more questions and soaked up knowledge from my dad as a fellow farmer.
I now read his books on soil fertility and natural farming lifting the pages which he turned over 14 years ago, wishing I could speak to him, gain his guidance and in all honestly his pride.
If we dismiss the older generation we are in it alone and I wish so much I could turn to my dad sitting beside me and discuss the role of calcium in the soil.
Just as the roots of the trees are rebuilding the soil fertility at this very moment, the roots of where we have come from are vital for our society moving forward.
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.