Feb 22 2009

Rain Snow and Lambs

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No time for writing, no time for cooking or gardening, no time to plan next summers planting, no time to keep in touch with friends, no time to read, sit still, just be, not time to sleep, no time for anything except lambing and fighting the elements. Lambs were born in record time this year, never have we had so many so quickly, all entering such an unusually cold, dismal world. For several weeks before the first babies were due we started bringing the ewes down from the fields every evening. We were so glad of our big old sheds in the farmyard where they could find food and shelter each night, protected from the wild weather.
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Every year after they have lambed we move them into individual pens and leave them there for a day or two to get them started and make sure all is well. Then they join the other ewes in the “nursery” were lambs play together and mothers eat hay and rest before going back into the fields.

This year was different. Snow followed by sleet followed by rain and gales forced us to keep everyone in for weeks instead of days. Despite heavy snow falls, little settled, and snow flakes quickly turned to sleet, whipped up by an icy north wind. Then the old familiar “stair rod” rain returned ; nothing “sideways” about it, just a relentless pouring torrent transforming fields into muddy swamps; grey days, cold and dark following one upon another. We are not used to this weather in Devon and Cornwall.

Now suddenly the sky turns blue, we see the sun again for a brief spell, there seems to be a hint of spring in the air. Even the white sugar sprinkle on Brent Tor, far away in the distance, has gone. It hung around long after the snow on the rest of the moor had melted, a crisp and lingering reminder of the paralysing cold so rare in this Gulf Stream warmed peninsula.
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It is half term and the children are here for a week. There is great competition to feed Dinky, our one bottle fed lamb. A beautiful little ewe, one of twins, her mother rejected her. Usually this means something is wrong but Dinky seems to be going from strength to strength, thriving on all the human attention.
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At last Harry and Paul were able to move the ewes and lambs up onto fresh grass this morning. They walked up the hill to the beautiful top field we call “Dainty” after an erstwhile pony of that name, a sheltered spot despite its height, looking towards Dartmoor to the north and the river to the east. A little old barn in the corner offers sheep extra shelter if the bad weather does return.
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Birds are singing. All sorts of tits, blue, long tailed, greater, lesser, are pushing and shoving each other on the birdfeeder. I watched anxiously this morning, ready to clap my hands in warning of advancing kittens, as a magnificent green woodpecker marched daringly about the back lawn. Huge swathes of snowdrops, unchecked by the terrible weather, tumble down the orchard in celebration, liberated by all Stephen’s hard work cutting and clearing in the autumn. Now that it’s dry he can continue building a stone wall to hold back the bank were rhododendrons and camellias grow.
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Hellebores are creeping into flower and the first daffodil is showing a yellow glow on its dropped head. A few early celandine and primroses poke their tiny heads through the tangled grass.
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A certain anxiety is beginning to grip me as weeks fly past and the bad weather prevents me from working outside. There is just so much to do in preparation for our first open day in June for the National Garden Scheme. We were strictly vetted last year and, although we passed, we were left with the words “Weed, weed, weed” ringing in our ears. Not so easy in a frozen or soggy landscape.

I have almost cleared the polytunnel and replanted the strawberries. Sweet peas, sown before Christmas, are looking promising. Broad beans are starting off inside in boxes this year, an attempt to beat slugs and rabbits. The vegetable garden needs digging and the tomato green house is a shambles, in need of a complete makeover after the eviction of a bantam squatter and her large and raucous family. Rosa Rugosa, pruned hard for their health on the advice of my gardening neighbour, resemble dead twigs and make me nervous. I examine them daily for signs of life. The fig tree is in line for a severe pruning too, in a couple of weeks in an attempt to tame its rampant growth, Herbaceous borders need digging and restocking; plants need splitting and dividing. I even dream, rather optimistically, of new, safe steps leading onto the grass from the back door, if time permits.

In the grape house the tender plants are hanging on to life despite the cold. A tiny heater holds the temperature just above freezing and seems to be winning. The olive tree looks alright, the avacados and the oleander too. But some pelargonium are suffering and the plumbago looks very sad and cold The banana has taken a turn for the worse and I’m not convinced that Ali’s Mum’s Datura is going to make it either. I rather dread telling her I’ve failed so soon after it was gifted to me!
Oh how I long for some warm spring sunshine.

Gay gave me some goose fat before she fled this freezing winter and flew away to the warmth of California. I keep imagining her sitting on her hill in the sun looking out across the treetops at Mount Tam, under a bright blue sky in balmy breeze……

In haste I used the goose fat to “confit” some duck while the children were here, forgetting I must climb the hill with them to feed Dinky. Time passed and on my return I found what I fear will be a rather crispy frazzled version of confit of duck to crunch with chips or disguise in cassoulet in weeks to come.

So time to cook something else to warm and comfort us all this half term; a traditional free range roast chicken maybe, with bacon and stuffing, bread sauce, gravy, roast potatoes, and a huge dish of mixed vegetables in white sauce, We’ll have plums fried in sugar and butter topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce for pudding and a big piece of ripe brie to finish.

Then tomorrow I’ll make chicken, sweet potato and tomato soup using stock made from the chicken bones.

We’ll have a giant chicken and mushroom vol au vent made from the leftovers for supper. And the very final bits of chicken will go into sandwiches for lunch.

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