Jul 07 2020

A Donkey Story

He arrived in the yard at exactly 2.30 in a smart grey van, Tor Equine writ large on its side. It was our first meeting. He listened intently as I told him her story. “Let’s go and meet her” he said. She was waiting quietly in their little yard, the two boys behind their gate looking on. There she was, a shadow of her former self. “Lice” I said “but something else? She is quite an old lady even for a donkey, nearly thirty maybe?”

He looked at her for a while then, gently “Now sweetheart, let’s listen to your heart and take some blood samples” Nutmeg stood quietly as he gave her a mild calming sedative. He said her heart sounded good. He put a brace on her nose and opened her mouth. He was silent for a while, then “look at this” he said and turning to me, quietly, “I can’t do anything for her”. He held the torch and I looked deep inside her mouth.

Silence. We looked at each other.  “I’ll fetch Paul” I said. Slowly we all walked down to the sheep shed. Minutes later she was gone. I opened the gates and called the boys. Down they came, looking around, into the big shed, sniff, spot her, walk all around her, sniff again. Then they turned on their heels, ran back to their little own yard and shouted at the top of their donkey voices. “That’s good” said the vet and we all knew exactly what he meant.

It was 1969 when Elisabeth Svendsen bought a donkey in Sidmouth, called Naughty Face. Gradually she gathered more. These donkeys were to change the face of donkey care across the world.  But it wasn’t until 1973 when Miss Philpin bequeathed Dr Svensen two hundred and four donkeys in her Will, that the Donkey Sanctuary became a charity.

Some of those donkeys I knew well. They had lived in Granny’s field near Reading looked after by a lady named Miss Green. There were six in all. Bill, charming to your face but quite prepared to bite any bottom as soon as a back was turned and Bluebell, a gentle grey. There were three others whose names I don’t remember. And, of course, there was Treacle, a small hump backed fellow with a huge personality.

At that time, we lived in Granny’s converted stable with our small children. One night when Paul was away sailing in the North Sea, I was woken by the doorbell.

Nervously I went to the glass front door. I could see the police uniform. Had he been shipwrecked, was I a widow: terrified thoughts raced through my head. Trembling I opened the door.

“Can you identify this donkey, madam”. Laughing with relief, I ventured out into the dark with the policeman who shone a torch on Treacle. He was accompanied by a pony.

“Oh” I said “Yes, that’s Treacle. He used to live here but recently went up the road to keep a pony company” Treacle had simply brought the pony back to join his pals!

Later I read that, despite his diminutive size, he had become known as “The Boss” at the Sanctuary, famous for keeping the “Big Boys Group” in order!

And so it was that when we came to farm in Devon, it was perhaps not surprising that donkeys were on my mind. I found an ad in Smallholder magazine. Off we went to collect Dandy and Sweep from a sad home near Torquay.

They were both thin and out of condition. As we drove home, we began to wonder what we had taken on. Dandy, we were told, was about twenty-two and had been with the same family since he was two. Sweep, much older, came free with Dan, a sort of early “buy one, get one free”. She was thought to have been an unlicensed beach donkey from north Devon at some time, but no one knew for sure.  Both donkeys looked so thin, lice ridden and dejected.

We hurriedly converted an old bullock shed into a stable, bought fresh hay and shampooed frequently to kill all bugs and clear the mange. Spring came, the grass grew, tatty winter coats vanished and suddenly they were transformed into sleek round little donkeys.

Sweep had a strange groove in her neck and never managed to lift her head properly. My vet thought that at some time she had been tightly tethered. But as she grew fitter and more cheerful it caused her no problem. We just remembered to put the hay on the ground or in an old bath tub for her. She was incredibly greedy and would shove us all in the back of the knees if she felt we were a little slow at teatime.

I smile when I remember my vet’s advice when he first met them, “He’s OK” he said looking at Dan “but she’s had a hard life. If I were you, I’d look for another companion for him; just in case” And so it was that I found a two-year-old Nutmeg some twenty-five years ago, at Woodlands Leisure Park. And dear old Sweep lived another ten years!

Suddenly I had three donkeys!

Dandy, the most sociable of all the donkeys, went for his Equity card at Christmas! He starred patiently in Nativity Plays, standing for an hour or so while minute angels sat on his back and diminutive shepherds stroked his head and stuck fingers up his nose. He processed to church on Easter Sunday with a gloomy looking Sweep in tow. He adored children and was happiest when he was giving rides on the “Ham”, our village green, on Village Day. He nuzzled the children and stood quite still as they sat on his back and stroked his long soft ears.

When old Sweep did finally leave us she ate her tea as usual and simply lay down quietly in the stable with Dan. Next morning we made sure all the donkeys had a chance to see her. They came one by one into stable sniffed her, stood for a while and then went off to eat some hay. They needed to know that Sweep had gone. Donkeys often go into shock when they lose a companion and fall victim to the fatal hyperlipemia.  In the wild they live in small social groups and look out for one another. I won’t forget the day Sweep trapped her leg in a rat hole and the others shouted and shouted till I arrived to dig her free.

Nutmeg, a beautiful little donkey, brown and sleek, was a complete contrast to these two gentle friends. She was adorable but a wild child. We used to laugh and say she’s put on her white high heels and her shiny handbag and she’s off down the town on a Friday night!!

A few months after she arrived, I went up to the yard, as usual, to feed them all, when I noticed Nutmeg was “bagging up”. I was right, a couple of days later she presented us with a beautiful little foal. It was Good Friday! So, of course he was named Friday. She was only about two or three years old, too young to foal. I was soon to learn that she had been running with a stallion who was her sire, not an auspicious beginning for the little chap.

Friday quickly grew into a replica of his mother; a very handsome little donkey. But then the problems began.  He developed an infection when he was castrated and took a long time to recover. Then he developed a sarcoid on his sheath. The vet returned. Nutmeg had one too on her tummy. My vet put us in touch with the Donkey Sanctuary vets and over time there followed three long stays in their veterinary hospital where they were treated by the best in the country.

After Nutmeg and Friday’s first stay, I wanted to thank the vets for their wonderful care. What could I do to repay them? “Foster two donkeys” they said. So, then we had six!

Bunty and Luke arrived. Two very different donkeys: Luke, a large gentle, obese grey, came from Skegness. His previous owners used to send him a Christmas card every year which he ate if given a chance! He in turn sent one back with news of his life in Devon and companion donkeys.

Bunty was a Strawberry Roan with Eire on her notes. Even after many years, both at the Sanctuary and later with us, she hated her ears to be touched; I guess they were cruelly twisted sometime in the past. She too had a rather strange figure, covered in lumps and bumps of hardened fat, making her less than streamlined. But she was a quiet gentle sweet natured, funny little mare.

After two more long stays at the Donkey Sanctuary hospital the vets finally decided they could do no more for Friday. Nutmeg returned to us without him.

And so the five companions continued to live quietly and happily on our little farm. They shared fields with sheep and watched piglets play over the fence.

Time passed and gradually so did they, all dying peacefully of old age until just Nutmeg remained. I rang the Sanctuary. “Do you have a companion for her?” Two big teenage boys arrived, Christof and Tiny Freddy and Nutmeg took on the role of senior mare, so very different from her youth!

For the past two years they have lived happily together. And I am quite sure that the boys are still looking for their matriarch.

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May 11 2020

Living Lock Down !

It’s over seven weeks now since the coronavirus lockdown order was announced: right across the world we must all obey the rules and stay at home. A recent e mail from, son, Tom, in rural Japan could have come from up the road! The restrictions on life sound absolutely familiar and yet they are living on the other side of the world. As each day passes a new vocabulary is emerging in every language: social distancing, self-isolation, stay safe, stay home, stay alert, R-numbers, wiggle-room and, of course, lockdown, to name but a few. How strange it all is.

Gradually and uncomfortably we must adjust to this isolating way of life; no friends for tea or supper, no family visits, no summer picnics or walks with friends, no hugs, no kisses. Sometimes there’s a chance of a wave to a neighbour or passer-by, a shouted greeting, but little else. We must all turn to our own resources. We must Zoom, phone, face-time, e-mail, twitter, what’s app…….

Oh, how lucky we are to have our garden.  Although it will be the first time in ten years that we will not be opening in June in aid of the National Garden Scheme Nursing Charities, it doesn’t stop me from gardening my socks off!! I just love to see spring turn into summer and the valley leap into life once more. And, of course, this is the most spectacular year! Wild garlic and bluebells vie with red campion. Camellias begin to fade replaced by blousy rhododendrons. The Embothrium, huge now, explodes into scarlet. The bright red leaves of photinia vie with azaleas. And forget-me-nots, azure as the summer sky, run riot; a cacophony of chaotic colour!  

Tomatoes stand to attention in the greenhouse. Courgettes are in place in the vegetable garden. Beans go in tomorrow when sunshine is a promise. Only my salad seeds are suffering after one of the orange egg ladies jumped the fence and had a scratch around in pastures new!!

Lambing time is finished now too. No more late nights and early mornings for us! But even so yesterday was a big day for Paul. All sheep came in for dagging, drenching and ovine manicures to keep everyone fit and healthy in the months to come. Rain has helped the spring grass grow and ewes graze peacefully on the hillside while lambs play together like kindergarten kids, donkeys looking on over the fence.

Like so many of us, penned up at this time, my thoughts have turned to cooking. I have always found it strangely therapeutic, odd, I know! In bygone days when I finished a hectic day at work on the farm having prepared all those dozens of salad bags and table birds for delivery, I would stare into the fridge and gently unwind as I planned an evening meal.

 Now I find myself gazing into the deep freeze and pondering how to create something without going shopping! I’m amazed at what has emerged!! Fig conserve made from last year’s frozen fruit. Big pots of chutney sit in the larder created from those strange green frozen tomatoes, a few shallots, fresh ginger and spices.

On a wet day I found a tub of chicken livers and made chicken liver pate.

I have spatch-cocked a chicken, rediscovered how delicious Salad Nicoise can be. I have cooked pork belly with lentils, ginger and sweet potato. We’ve had big flans filled with left over this and that, sea bream baked in parchment, simple pasta dishes, chicken risotto, even a sort of paella!

And then I came upon a packet of pork mince from my erstwhile pigs. Digging deeper revealed a few chicken thighs and a turkey liver! Terrine, I thought! All I needed was some streaky bacon and there it was.

I chopped a couple of shallots and crushed three cloves of garlic and mixed them into the pork. Salt and pepper followed with a glug of red wine.  I let it stand for a while to give time for the flavours to infuse. Meanwhile I lined a little loaf tin with bacon. In went half the pork mince and a layer of the chicken, skin removed. The turkey liver followed , some chopped parsley from the garden, then more chicken and finally the remaining mince.

Carefully I folded the bacon across the top and decorated it with a few slices of lemon and a couple of bay leaves. I covered it with tin foil and put it into a ban marie of hot water and into the oven at 180c. I checked it after an hour or so with a skewer to see if the juices were still pink. I continued cooking till they ran clear. Then out of the oven and on went a heavy weight. I have a brick, well washed, for this purpose but anything will do as long as it gently presses down the meat.

Once cold it went into the fridge; a treat in store! So good with a baked potato and salad.

But tonight it will be wonderful sausages made by our local Dartmouth butcher with a vegetable bake, that is to say, whatever I find in the fridge with a cheese sauce!

And we’ll all soldier on in this strange twilight world.

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Apr 10 2020

Lock Down Lambing!

Lock Down Lambing !

Triplets!

Here we are lambing for the last time but in the strangest of circumstances!

No cars hoot on the corner by our gate, no planes or helicopters buzz overhead. No distant whistle of the steam train across the river. No one walks by calling greetings over the hedge, no one drops in with kids to see the lambs, to have a cup of tea or a glass of wine. No friends for supper, no Sunday greetings in church: only isolation and “lock down”.

No one knows how long it will last, when it will end. And it is the same right across the world. Suzu-Chan in Tokyo, an architect student, house bound now with her mother and brother, tells me she is learning to knit!

And yet things on the farm continue unchanged. Lambing simply goes ahead as usual.

Handsome Hercule

The magnificent Hercule has done a wonderful job yet again this year. He will leave us later in the summer when eventually the sheep sales reopen. A gentle fellow, he has had his time with us.  He is by now too closely related to our flock to be able to run with the ladies again next year. So the time has come for him to move on to pastures new to beget yet more beautiful pedigree Whiteface Dartmoor lambs on fields afar.

As ewes graze quietly on the top fields, their lambs playing together in the sun, it’s so difficult to believe we are living in such strange and frightening times. I look across the hills to Dartmoor in the misty distance and the river Dart below; not a person in sight. Just the baaing of sheep across the valley and maybe the sound of a solitary distant tractor way above me on a neighbour’s farm. It is so hard to believe what is happening across the world. But then, once home, I look again at the news and the grim reality hits hard.

Lambing is tiring, full on, relentless; early mornings, late nights. But this year we are so grateful we have our sheep to care for. We have space around us, hard work, long days, short nights. The animals know nothing of this madness. They centre us and keep us, oh, so grounded and busy.

Donkeys sun themselves outside their barn.

Chickens peck through the orchard. The yearlings graze quietly on the top fields and Hercule and the boys relax on their hillside. And down in the yard still more lambs are born. The sun continues to shine and grass is growing at last.

Yearlings in the sun

But everything has changed. Now we must print out a form from the NFU if we are to travel to the local farm shop to buy animal feed. We must consider carefully if we really need to leave the house. Should we risk the town or order from the village shop? Do we need to go shopping or can we make do with what we have in garden, fridge and freezer? Can we sign up to get medication delivered or is the service overwhelmed already?

So glad am I that I love gardening !

So many questions, so many challenges to all those things we have taken for granted over the years. We will surly find ourselves in a very different world out there when the lock-down is finally lifted.

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Mar 31 2020

A Walk around the Garden

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Mar 05 2020

Towards Spring

The sky is a dark luminescent blue, a bright sun shines through the valley. Despite the sharp March wind, flowers are exploding everywhere. This is the first day without rain for months and months.

All around are celebrating the warm glow from above. Birds shout, sheep laze in the fields, donkeys clamor to get out into their paddock. Only my chickens must stay in as I still ponder the strange disappearance of dear old Claude, the cockerel.

We spotted him at the top of the donkey paddock as we drove down from the top fields in yet another wild rain storm, having fed the ewes. “Get him in, in a minute” said Paul “but first let’s tackle the flood in the donkey shed” It was three o’clock in the afternoon. An hour later he had completely disappeared, no shrieks, no feathers, nothing. In came the three feathered ladies without him. I searched for days but no sign of him. He was such a big boy it must have been a mighty fox to vanish him so fast without a shred of evidence! So the girls stay in for now, bored but safe.

Slowly the ground is draining and grass is just beginning to grow.  I look at the weather forecast and the week ahead is a little better. So I hope this is not just a tiny welcome respite with another storm secretly waiting in the wings to buffet us again tomorrow.

The muddy girls are down from the top fields now and coming into the yard for tea with last year’s ewe lambs. As lambing approaches we will separate them again and send the little girls to fresh pasture, leaving their mothers to start the cycle all over again.

Except that this year will be our last year of lambing. Hercule has done his time and must move on to a new flock and fresh blood. Instead of replacing him, we have decided to call lambing a day. We will reduce the flock gradually over the next two years to just a few sturdy lawnmowers and plant more trees. It’s both a little sad and, at the same time, exciting after thirty years of breeding Whiteface Dartmoors. But time moves on and we must be realistic.

And realistic is what we are all struggling to be at the moment with the threat of a coronavirous world epidemic swamping news and social media. Strange times indeed; what of stories of the severe flooding across our country, the storm damage, of international news, war zones, draught in Africa, Australia’s recent fires? All I read on tablet or in newspaper is speculation and fear of the spread of this virus both here and across the world. Oh and the rain has returned, sweeping sideways in a huge grey curtain across the valley. I spoke too soon!

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Jan 25 2020

Autumn into Winter

Autumn into Winter

Spring will come again!

One day it will be spring again. But still it rains, relentless rain, rain and more rain. Gale force winds ravage the valley and have done all through the autumn and into winter: sideways rain, any which way rain, just rain.  The huge Monkey Puzzle tree swirls dangerously as the wind whips over the hills and down through the valley. Sheep cower in the hedgerow and donkeys stand morosely in their big shed surveying the sodden hillside. Even the old Claude and his aging feathered ladies are reluctant to venture out in the maelstrom.

The Dartmouth Fatstock Show, that ancient annual meeting of farmers and their stock held in our little market square in the town centre, came and went in a downpour. We all put a brave face on it willing the rain to stop, but it didn’t!

Sheep and cattle were judged, turkeys auctioned, farmers caught up with each other exchanging news. And all the while the rain poured down.

Since way back at the beginning of the last century the Fatstock Show has been held on the second Tuesday in December. Local farmers come to town to show off their stock. Not much has changed except, of course, licensing and movement restrictions since the dreadful Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001 followed by a TB crisis. Sadly, that brought an end of the pig classes but sheep and cattle entries have increased hugely. It’s a very local affair bringing together the farming community. The Bond family have been chairing it since the 1930’s!

In this time of increasing awareness and anxiety about climate change, rising sea temperatures and global warming, farming worldwide is getting a bad press. But farming is an umbrella term. Not only does farming vary from country to country, continent to continent but right here in Britain it covers a miriad of different sources of food production nationwide.  In Lincolnshire satellites control combine harvesters. In Gloucester there are still huge diversified farms both livestock and arable.

Here in Devon all our neighbours farm differently: some organic, some moving towards wilding and a very few still in the old style of the 1950’s. Happily the latter is on the wane as awareness grows. Change is on the way. But how did we get to this? Before the Second World War most farms in Britain were diversified: crops, cattle, pigs, sheep.

But we have to go back much further to really see how patterns of farming changed, back indeed to Sir Robert Peel who, under pressure from a new urban elite, repealed the Corn Laws in 1846. These laws had for years put a tariff on imported grain. Now this were gone.

By the 1870’s grain prices had plummeted following the opening up of imported grain from the American prairies and, of course, the arrival of big powerful steam ships capable of transporting their cargo across the Atlantic much faster than ever before.

These imports of wheat, meat and dairy products flooded the market and British wheat prices plummeted: sound familiar! It wasn’t until the first world war that more than a million acres came back into food production. This time those steam ships importing food were under attack from German U Boats.  

When the war ended farming boomed for a while until 1921 when the government repealed the Agricultural Act. This marked a very difficult time in farming. Wages plummeted 40% in one year, land was left unused and many country people moved to the cities and towns. And then the 1930 brought the Great Depression.

By 1939 the country was at war again and the fear of starvation became very real indeed. The government launched the Dig for Victory campaign. Rationing became harsh and it was clear we must stop relying on imports and grow our own food to survive. Prisoners of war were sent to work on the land and the Women’s Land Army of 1917 was revived. The Land Girls had arrived. By 1944 80.000 women were working on the land. They took over the farms left by men who had gone to war. They used heavy machinery, felled trees, drained Fenlands and, of course, they were paid less than the men: 38s for a 40-50-hour week for a man, 28s for women! It took a few more years to sort that out! But the nation was fed.

The fear of food shortage lived on after the end of the war, as did rationing. The government promised guaranteed prices and an assured market. This all led to mass over production, a huge increase in the use of chemicals, butter mountains, grain mountains: food waste had begun.

And now the pendulum is swinging. I smiled when I read of Lord Addison’s dismay in the 1930’s: “….an increasing extent of good land is reverting to tufts of inferior grass, brambles & weeds….” Sir Emrys Jones, Cultivation Officer for Gloustershire 1939-45, agreed “countryside is becoming a wilderness in modern times, hedges overgrown, millions of rabbits, mildew in crops…..”

Sounds to me a bit like wilding! Times are indeed changing. The real fear of climate change is finally filtering through and farmers are moving with the times and a new awareness of how we can help is emerging.

Farming does generate greenhouse gases but can also store carbon dioxide in soil, trees and plants. Minimal tilling of the soil, planting cover crops between main cash crops, and crop rotation are just some things that can boost the organic matter in soil so it holds more carbon. Cows get a particularly bad press as major producers of methane.  But even this is controllable by the feed they are given to eat.  And, of course, we can all plant more trees, extend our hedgerows, encourage wildlife, stop using chemicals. Go green!

Maybe we can gradually take back control of our world, remember a time before the industrial revolution and the repeal of the Corn Laws. when the air was still clean. And, most importantly, we have modern science to help us, if only we would listen.

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