Mar 15 2004


Whiteface ewe and lamb
It’s still raining and the wind is hurling itself through the valley. The stream has turned from a sedate crystal flow into a boiling brown frothing torrent and the lambs have started to arrive. What a sharp contrast to the warmth of the womb. Last Thursday the ewes came in for tea through driving sleet and snow. Almost immediately the first twins arrived, two small sad little lambs one of which we have already lost despite our best efforts. The survivor is a frail little thing that may or may not make it. Two more ewes followed close behind her but their single offspring were tough little chaps who struggled to their feet and found their own way to the food source quickly.

Every year I have to remind myself that most times the ewes know if their lambs are sound or not. It’s heart breaking to see the mother neglect a sickly lamb and let it die. Year after year I gather them up, put them by the range in the kitchen to warm and struggle to get them to suck a bottle. Inevitably they eventually die. Mary lived the longest, about twelve weeks. She settled down in the kitchen with the dogs and even made outings to the village with our Labrador who wanted to show her a bit of life, dustbins mainly, food being Truffles’ life obsession. I had a few funny phone calls!

Mary in the kitchen on the dog’s sofa
Occasionally a ewe really can’t cope, she may have triplets and simply hasn’t enough milk or maybe she just young and flighty and needs some help! Then of course the chances of hand rearing are much better. Some hand reared lambs do survive, take my old Jacob ewe Hazel, too old to lamb now and so tame I sometimes think she’s not sure if she’s sheep or dog.

It seems a long time ago that we got our first two sheep. Two Jacobs called Phyllis and Madge, two of four, each called after the previous owners’ mothers’ Bridge partners! It took me some time to understand that sheep speed and human speed are very different. I had no idea how to catch the two of them and rushed madly about the field finally catching poor Madge by the horns only, quite rightly, to be taken down hill fast on my stomach as she protested at my inappropriate efforts!! Oh how quickly I learnt to slow down and show respect. I added a few more Jacobs to my little flock, two Suffolk crosses, Hazel of course and then Maisey, a stout woman who had lived in someone’s back garden. She like Hazel was a bit confused about her identity until she joined a flock of something sort of like herself.

Those were the early days. How things have changed. Now we have a beautiful little flock of pedigree Whiteface Dartmoor sheep and a much more professional approach to animal husbandry.

The Whiteface are registered with the Rare Breed Association. They have been on Dartmoor and parts of Exmoor since earliest records. The Whiteface Dartmoor Sheep Breeders Association is thriving, still breeding and promoting the breed and the meat. Most breeders are still up on the moor needing to be as hardy as their sheep. This year it is Paul’s turn to be chairman, a huge honour as we are not moorland farmers and have only lived here 20 odd years and he’s a Cornishman! But he has worked very hard at our flock and become exceedingly knowledgeable about the breed.

The rain is easing up. Soon I will go to the yard, clean out the stables, feed the donkeys and go in search of blue eggs laid by the Araucana hens. Spring simply must be on the way because they have started laying again. The eggs are such beautiful shades of blue and turquoise. They are an ancient Chilean breed which can be traced back hundreds of years to the time of the Spanish Conquistadors and before. Some of my hens are lavender, some black and two of last years chicks are white speckled with black. Of course I have too many cockerels and am planning a trip to the local Rare Breed Poultry sale in a few weeks. The trick is to sell mine without being tempted to buy others!

The Marans have started laying again too as has my funny little Chinese goose, Idi, who has strange sticking out wings. She was a gift from a friend who thought Humphrey my grumpy, lame, gander needed a companion. They make a funny pair marching round the yard amongst our large flock of free range orange feathered egg factories.

Idi and Humphrey
This is the time of year to pickle eggs, make large comforting goose egg Tortillas and, of course Confit of Goose. Idi and Humphrey would be far to tough for the pot fortunately for them but a recent bit of barter put a couple of younger geese into my deep freeze.

And Confit in the larder or the fridge leads to Cassoulet for supper. In these rain sodden days even an English version of the French classic is comforting. I hear a sharp in take of breath from across the Channel but, yes, I did make a fair Anglicised attempt last year! With the help of Paula Wolfert’s marvellous Cooking of South West France.

The rain has stopped at last!

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