Feb 21 2005

Sheep and cows and donkeys!


“Get your boots on, find the dogs, Barbery sheep’re in Bill‘s.”

I groan, put down my coffee and climb back into my green waterproof wonder suit. It’s Saturday morning and I’ve just finished my eighth day in a row in the farmyard alone as Paul languished in bed with really bad ‘flu. Today he struggled out for the first time and drove over to check our wethers in a neighbours field while I fed, watered and mucked out. I’d been dreaming about the coffee for nearly an hour.



We jumped into the land rover and raced up the lane to find four of the seven small delinquents had crossed the stream, limboed under a broken bit of fence and reached pastures new. New and vertical. Paul looked pale. The leader of the group, a feisty Jacob-cross boy, stamped his feet defiantly at the dog who took one look at him and said to herself ”Me, a sheep dog? No, not today” and vanished. She’s a funny Yorkshire lass, Meg. Some days she’s ready to star in “One man and his dog” and another day she completely forgets her “coom’ bye lass, Way, way, walk ’em on, walk’em on. Ey, and that’ll do“. On a good day, once the job is completed, she races across the field and hurls herself through the air into Paul’s arm, completely consumed with pleasure at her own success. On other days she simply vanishes and leaves me to inadequately impersonate her.

Today was such a day, one look at the four wethers and she was over the hills and far away. That left just me and my lurcher, Wellie, a sweet obliging soul, but without her mothers’ training. She and I were just ready to start training together when the foot and mouth curfew fell on us all.


So up and down the hill we went , “slowly, slowly, now, no, not so fast“. Ah, nearly at the gate, whoops they’re gone again. Alright then, we’ll walk them up the lane. Car arrives, wants to pass, hoots, sheep gone. Move land rover to let car pass feeling a touch uncharitable. Race up hill again to cut them off. Big boy stamps feet and I swear he stuck his tongue out and made that rude sign children use. Well , OK, projection, but that’s how I was beginning to feel. All the while one poor old ewe tried to keep up with the youngsters. She wasn’t ours and seemed to be all alone. She was so lame she kept falling on her knees and struggling along at half mast.

“Leave it” Paul called collapsing with post ‘flu exhaustion. “ We’ll get Stephan to help on Monday. We‘ll go and see Bill and tell him“ Our neighbour is famously tolerant of these incidents saying “They be right if they got they mouths with’em.” So tolerant indeed that he gave us a long explanation as to why he’d abandoned the poor old ewe. Cost money to cull her etc. I hatched a rescue mission for Monday. I knew Stephen would be my accomplice.

Monday morning, raining of course, we set out to bring the wanderers home. Employing different tactics and with not only another pair of legs but also a fantastically efficient sheep dog, the job was done in under the hour! Back over fence, through stream, join others and all up the lane together to the waiting trailer. The patient postman, seeing what we were doing, simply turned his van and went the other way.



Stephen and I manhandled old Mavis across the field and into the trailer. She sank down with relief and didn‘t move. My kidnapped sheep. We brought her home and put her in “intensive care” next to the Whiteface ewe with a bad foot. Warm, dry, and fed and no longer alone, she relaxed on the clean straw. I left Paul the embarrassing task of ringing Bill to tell him what his wife had done. ” Oh” he said, laughing “tell ‘er keep ‘er.“ No fool, he! In time, when the weather improves she will join my other old timers, Madge and Maisy, and live out the rest of her days in their gentle company. Sheep live in flocks and need each other, like us really.

It wasn’t all that long ago we collected Bill’s marauding steers from our absent neighbours garden. “ No, not ours” said his wife but no one else wanted them. After a night in our yard being looked up to by our minute Dexter cows he and his boys claimed the huge beasts. They too were alright with their mouths with them.



I miss the Dexters, small gentle creatures and wonderful mothers. Fantastic beef too, small, tender, fat marbled joints when properly reared, hung and butchered. But lack of space forced us to choose between sheep or beef and we stuck with the dear old Whiteface Dartmoors. Though, now table bird and turkey free, we have our two Sussex steers. We’ll see how they finish.

I’m hoping Richard will butcher them for me as he did our last batch of hogget. I spent two days with him learning to cut and bone each carcass as he does the venison, in the French style. The result was beautifully presented boned and rolled joints of meat which flew off Leslie’s market stall just as our chickens used to. Now our lamb will join her organic venison and pork. This is undoubtedly the way forward.


We are at that time of the year when everyone is rebuilding, restoring, recharging and re evaluating. What will the next season bring, how should we proceed, change, expand, reduce? It’s a good time for the tourist trade too. Now re charged by post Christmas holidays of their own, they begin to prepare for the next influx of visitors. Holiday cottages get a makeover, hotels close for repairs and farmers just carry on. Winter is hard but down here off the moor we live in a mild region with little snow so can keep up with all the maintenance most of the winter months. Rain and mud are often our worst problem, scattered with gales and power cuts if we’re unlucky. But our kind climate shows us early signs of spring. Early flowers, hardy vegetables, hens laying again and very soon our first lambs.

Donkeys made a great discovery of new pastures too this week. We opened the top gate of our big steep field called Sunday Orchard so the sheep could reach new grass. Paul placed a bar across the entrance to prevent the donkeys getting through too. Rich long grass is not so good for them even at this time of year. They thrive on less!


How wrong we were. Teatime came and went, no queue, in fact empty field, gates shut, don’t panic. I climbed the vertical slope, ducked under the bar and across the field. They spotted me like naughty children. Ears back, rude grins and back feet flying, they flew across the field. Too my amazement they bent their legs, ducked their heads and crumpled their big bodies under the bar. Once the other side they turned and shrieked their heads off at Luke, the ring leader and Houdini of the pack who was, frankly, just too large and fat to make the down hill return journey under the bar. I have never seen him dance around in such a hilarious panic as his pals eeored back at him from the field below. He just couldn’t fold up small enough to squeeze back. I tried to undue the string quickly and remove the bar but laughter slowed me down.


Once he was through Nutmeg turned on her heels to go back again. I struggled to push her back dragging the gate shut across the grass. We stood in a, now, disgruntled little group back in Sunday Orchard. Friday raced off pulling a face and throwing his back legs in the air in protest. ”O.K, no tea” I said and marched off down the hill. Pause, watch, wait, then ziggy- zaggy down the hill in a little procession they came. Sweetness and light and into their stables beaming “teatime” at me as they passed. They never fail to make me smile.

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