It’s amazing how time flies on a farm – it’s been nearly 7 months since Donald wrote ‘The Yorlin’s Sang’. I laugh – a little wryly – when I read that he was looking forward to the snow melting …we were to be hit by the ‘beast from the east’ the following month, and buried under snow for weeks afterward.
The Beast taught us a few things, one of which was how truly committed to this farm and our animals we are. You have to be, to get through the winter and summer we just did, because otherwise, you’d just chuck it in. But it also reminded us to laugh, and have a little fun too: yes, there are memories of slogging through the snow to feed the sheep, or standing for hours with the sound of the generator grating in my ears, pumping water to the potatoes. But there are also memories of sledding down the snowy slope of our east field (who says we’re too old for such silliness?), and the awesome snowman Donald built. There’s knowing the birds who frequent the farmyard survived in part because we made sure they had food and water. Winter afternoons coming in to sit by the fire for our lunch. And hot cocoa. Lots of hot cocoa. Weighing the good and the bad of the past seven months, I’d say the biggest lesson has been in learning to see both sides of life’s coin.
Like many farms, we’re still recovering from a winter the UK hasn’t seen in many years. The snow was deep and lasting, and the spring grass was late coming in, afterwards. Added to a thin harvest last year, due to family events and a wet autumn, we were forced to buy in hay for our Hebs, when we can usually feed them from our own stores right through lambing, with some left over. And then came the summer drought… and we’ve been toting water from the bore holes to fill the tanks usually fed by a spring, so we can have water in the farmhouse, the fields, and the drinking troughs. But we do have water, and that’s a blessing some others who supply their own water don’t have, so no complaints here! And the other side of the coin? Now we know how to do it. We won’t get caught out again – at least not on the water issue!
Even before the drought came, hard on the hills of that brutal winter, with the breeding ewes in poorer shape than usual, we were tested, with a lambing season so difficult that – if it had happened in our first year, instead of our third – would’ve made us question our desire to be shepherds. But on the other side of that coin, we are now very good at administering injections, which we started out being extremely hesitant about. And we more quickly recognize the signs signalling the necessity to ‘go in’, and trust ourselves to choose the right course of action. I think we can be pretty confident about our abilities, going forward – this lambing was nothing if not empowering. And unlike many shepherds this spring, all of our ewes – and every lamb born alive – stayed alive. We only lost one set of stillborn twins, and saved a couple of ewes we thought might be goners, including our beloved Agnes. The horror stories we’re hearing from other farmers, of their lambing seasons, send us back to the counting table to tally up more of our blessings.
And thanks to the zeal of our tups, and the good mothering of our ewes, we’ve reached the number of sheep this small farm can support, just three years after bringing the first dozen onto the farm. So this year, we’ll be going to the market to sell some of our ewes. Up until now, we’ve kept every female born, building up to a core breeding flock of 30-ish. We’ve reached that number and then some, so we’ll have the luxury of picking from the best of our gimmers this year, when it comes time to choose. A milestone for the farm, too, as it’ll be the first time Hirsel sheep will be going to market in over 30 years.
And all our ewes will look especially good, when they go to market, thanks to the excellent skills of Donald J Macleod. He shears the old way, with hand shears, rather than electric ones, a calm and quiet way of doing the job that delivers excellent fleeces and undamaged sheep. It was a pleasure to work with him, and if you have a small flock, we can’t recommend him enough (his number is 0773.037.7137); he came at a moment’s notice, and stayed till the job was done. Doing it this way isn’t cheap, time or money wise. But getting someone to come to our farm, for such a small flock, is near impossible. And you can’t beat the quality of the resulting fleeces – important for the Hirsel, and my own efforts to ‘up value’ our fleeces by turning them into rugs. But he didn’t just shear our sheep, he taught me how to do it, too. Donald and I have now both learned how to shear, Donald through a course, and me thanks to the excellent, encouraging, and patient instruction Macleod offered. Money well spent, and another skill under our belts. If you’re looking for a shearer, Macleod’s your guy.
So now, seven months on, I’m looking out my office window, past our new campsite, to our east field, where the grass is finally growing tall – better late than never. We’ll have a decent harvest this year, after all. The Yorlins and the rest of the winged visitors to the farmyard are busy at the feeders, and have taught their fledglings the way here too, as we kept the feeding going this year, to help them through the rough spring and summer. And though we lost the bulk of the pollywogs (tadpoles to some of you), when almost all the standing water on the farm dried up, it seems a colony survived by taking refuge in a small, mucky pool left behind in one of the ditches …and I nearly stepped on a frog, on my way home from the poly tunnel last week, after the drought finally burst in a sustained and welcome downpour. So it seems we’ll have the croaking sounds of mating season back on the farm. The bumble- and honey bees are busy, we’re starting to eat some of our own produce from the fruit and vegie field, and the spring is finally trickling into the tanks again. The drought is over … and those clouds scudding across the sky just now look suspiciously like they have silver linings.
So, yes, a busy seven months. We’ve spent a bit more coin than usual, metaphorically and literally, in order to get through them. But these days, we’re seeing both sides of that coin more clearly than ever.