Mar 06 2007

March lambs


Farming’s fun, yes, it is, I repeat to myself as dogs and I trudge up to the yard yet again in the relentless rain. Bother, welly stuck, wet sock, whoops, squelch. “Remember,” I repeat my mantra, “you could be in that traffic jam on the M6”

Min_in_rain_2_2 Wet_3 

The driving sideways rain rides roughshod across the valley on the south wind. It clears for a few seconds only to taunt me briefly with a snatch of blue, then returning, soakingly triumphant, trickles down my neck. And still the great Monkey-puzzle tree dances dangerously; it’s been dancing all winter. Wind and rain, rain and wind, icy wind, stinging rain, I dream of curling up by the fire with a book. It’s the mildest winter since records began apparently, and surely the wettest…. mud, mud, mud. Snowdrops fade and daffodils riot wetly across the orchard in their place. Camellias explode into flower, ducks start shouting again, mewing buzzards ride the thermals, nests are built noisily, chicks hatch, lambs are born.  Despite the rains best efforts, the valley is waking up to spring; grass is already growing.

Mindafs2_2 Crocus_2 Camellia1_3

March 1st and suddenly the rain stops. Sun at last, I jump into my boots and rush outside into the warm brightness. All plans are suspended to take advantage of this glorious respite. I sweep the yard, clean stables, feed the latest clutch of chicks; all this without getting soaked, how wonderful! As usual, of course, I have far too many cockerels and little bantam hens appear from nowhere busying into the sunshine followed by yet another posse of tiny feathered ping pong balls.


It’s too good a day to stop; time to turn my attention to the neglected winter garden. I find it so hard to enthuse about summer when all plant life seems suspended in muddy hibernation. But as the early sun warms down on me, spring hope takes hold within.  Out come the last of the beetroot, in go the broad bean seeds, and out too, come all those rampant Jerusalem artichokes that have been marching stealthily across the vegetable garden with their stinging nettle accomplice. 

In my enthusiasm raspberry canes are thinned and tied, the fruit cage weeded and donkey manure applied. Oh, I’m on a roll now! The strawberry bed is cleaned up too; even tomato and lettuce seeds find their way out of the packet and into the propagator. The fig tree is pruned and the lower bows taken from the cherry tree. So much more to do but at last winter is behind us and the new season begins.


Back to the yard and I poultice Dandy’s foot. At last I have found a little canvas boot small enough for him to wear so that, bandaged and booted, he can join the other donkeys in the sun.  Fortunately Martin, the farrier was due to trim all donkey’s feet last week just as Dandy went lame. We caught it quickly this time. Poor old donkey, he’s had so many problems with his foot. As he walks through the mud to the field his feet soften and grit works its way up the fault in his hoof. Despite regular manicures it happens all too often. As Martin cuts away to relieve the pressure Dan just stands patiently seeming to trust that we will somehow stop the pain. 


Meanwhile the dreadful Nutmeg gives me a shove and gently bites my bottom. Luke rests his head on Dandy’s back and lumpy Bunty just looks on. It’s so nice to have naughty Nutmeg back form the Donkey Sanctuary. She seems to have settled down again and forgotten about the loss of her poor little Friday. I still miss him though, and dear old Sweep too, even though it’s a whole year since she died.  

The ladies are no longer in waiting, in fact lambs are arriving thick and fast, one after another; the fastest lambing I can remember and we seemed to get off to such a slow start this year. Better by far this way though. A slow lambing means weeks without a proper nights sleep; down from the yard after
and back again at six am. You can always recognise sheep farmers in spring by their yawns and the way they fall asleep, dormouse style, in their soup.

It is exactly three years ago that I started to write about my everyday life on our little Devon farm.  As I look back to the beginning I do see some sort of pattern emerging across the years and yet I never cease to be surprised at the variations in the seasons. Each year’s lambing, for example, is the same and yet so entirely different. Last year we only had one little orphan lamb, the year before I was feeding in shifts. Last year we fretted about the lack of rain. The ground was hard and brown. Grass was so scarce we were buying in hay and feed for months. Oh how different this year as I squelch across Sunday Orchard, a huge, steep, east facing field, in search of new lambs. Ah, there’s the next one, an experienced Whiteface ewe who’s done all this before. She’s right at the top, clever girl, sheltered by the hedge from the biting wind.

Newborn_2 Ewe_and_lamb_1

I approach her quietly as she cleans her new baby. I don’t want to startle an old timer who knows just what she’s doing but I do want to keep the crows at bay. They are our daytime predators; foxes do their worst at night. Paul catches me up and picks up the slippery little ewe lamb and, trying not to slide down the hill, walks slowly backwards towards the yard. Mother follows, baaing gently to her lamb. Once in the dry shed we spray the lamb’s navel and put mother and child in a dry pen.

In this very wet weather we keep the ewes and lambs in for a few days until we are confident that the lambs are thriving and feeding well. After two days in individual pens we move them on into the nursery were lambs begin to play together leaping over straw bales and spinning in the air. I can waste hours just watching them tumbling and bouncing on top of each other. The ewes seem to take it in turns to be in charge of the playgroup giving the other mothers a chance to feed and rest.

If ever I doubted that each ewe could recognise the baa of her own lamb it was Fly who dismissed those doubts. He was that solitary orphan lamb last year. After his mother died he relied entirely on me for his survival. Even now, almost a year later, I can recognise his baa in a field full of other wethers. And a very imperious baa it is too.

“Never buy a sheep with a name!” My sheep farming neighbour, Phil’s words ring in my ears. “Never keep a hand reared ram lamb entire” I listen to Phil. Having watched Scruff, another poor little fellow I nursed through thick and thin several years ago, turn into a very aggressive ram, I agreed that Fly destiny was to be a wether. Even the charming Junior, handsome sire to this years Whiteface lambs, had turned into a grumpy old man by the time he left for pastures new last autumn. So, yes, because I do listen to Phil, our new ram, Junior’s prodigy and sire to this years Jacob Cross ewes, has no name! Seems rude somehow after those early ladies, Hazel and Phyllis and Madge and old Maisey…..but fortunately we have far too many sheep to name them all.


Not enough sheep, though, to make a living anymore. We are very, very small now and must supplement our income in other ways.  We are not alone. All farmers, large and small are facing a tough time as the huge food distributors call the tune and control prices. Since the devastation of foot and mouth much has changed. We were lucky; many of our neighbours on the Moor were not. Even so we will never forget the fear and decided to cut right back, give up rented pasture and reduce our flock to a number sustainable to our own land even though it would not be commercially viable.

But enough of that; now it’s time to turn my attention to all those Jerusalem artichokes and the large bucket of muddy beetroot that have made way for next summers’ broad beans.


As I look through old cookery books I remember why so many people wrinkle their noses in distaste at the mere mention of beetroot despite its recent media renaissance. Remember those insipid pinkish, soggy, malt vinegar soaked balls trapped in plastic or bleeding into fierce salad cream?

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Think of fresh glistening Borsch made with a really good home made stock, grated raw beetroot, shallots, tomatoes, a few potatoes and a sliced courgette or two, all cooked quickly and served bright and glistening with sour cream and chopped spring onions.

Beetroot is wonderful hot too, baked in its skin in the oven like a potato and served with marmalade…yes really!….or warm in a salad of apple, goat’s cheese and walnuts with a rich green virgin olive oil.

We’ll enjoy our bumper crop and it will keep us going till next summer’s fare. I shall gently wash my bucketful, being careful not to puncture the skins. Then they’ll go into the oven to cook long and gently in a large tin, covered with foil. When they are cool enough to handle I’ll peel them, eat some now and freeze the rest.

I love Jerusalem Artichokes too. Though as my old nanny said to my horrified and terrifyingly austere grandmother “no thank you, madam, rather windy things….” She was right of course, a little go a long way. Nevertheless I shall make soups. I’ll fry crispy artichoke chips and “stove” some too, cooking them in butter and olive oil, oh so slowly in a sauté pan with a few sliced potatoes. They’ll be topped with parmesan or, better still, served with a Béarnaise sauce, delicious with grilled meat. I will roast some in the oven round a leg of lamb or a piece of beef.

But whatever I plan to do with them, first they will be carefully peeled before cooking and plunged into acidulated water to stop them turning grey which they do almost immediately their peel is removed. Oh, and just a very few will go back into the soil for next year and grace the garden with their sunny, yellow autumn flowers. And now to sleep.


8 responses so far

8 Responses to “March lambs”

  1. ali & rogon 09 Mar 2007 at 10:05 pm

    another good read. keep up the good work !

  2. juliaon 10 Mar 2007 at 4:41 pm

    Donkeys and Lambs, oh my! What a gorgeous life you are living. Of all the places to be on the face of the Earth, you find yourself in a great one.

    I love visiting Devon. BTW, I am in Canada and we are still colder in my city (with two feet of snow) than Moscow and Alaska.

    I would love some sideways rain for a change from the bitter cold.

    Love the blog. Donkeys!!!!

  3. Queen of Suburbiaon 11 Mar 2007 at 11:23 pm

    A great read, made me realise just how much suburban housewifes like myself owe our comfortable exsistences to people like yourself.

    Made me yearn for some fresh air!

  4. farmgirlon 20 Mar 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Greetings from Missouri! We, too, are in the thick of lambing season. In fact 7 were born in the past 24 hours. Just taking a quick breather and downloading the latest batch of photos. : )

    I’m envious of your beet harvest–my seeds have only just sprouted in the garden. I did, however, recently publish an article online about beets which includes my favorite way to prepare them–caramelized with lots of garlic. I urge you to try them this way if you haven’t already–addictively delicious. Here’s the link:

    Happy spring to you all!

    P.S. I forgot one of your donkeys is named Dandy. My Donkey Doodle Dandy says hello!

  5. Las Vegas real estateon 10 Apr 2007 at 11:14 pm

    Greetings from sunny Las Vegas. Feel free to send us rain any time!! Seeing the pictures of your place makes me miss all of the green (although I don’t envy you the wet dogs!) I love the pictures of the chicks, reminds me of our chickens growing up.

  6. Nanisayon 24 May 2007 at 1:56 am

    I see you as a mentor as I am a baby orchardist with newly planted tomcot apricot, lapin cherry, Conadria fig, fuji apple, Monterrey pear, Warren pear and Red Silk pomegranate trees. I live in zone 7B in CA. I love the idea of having sheep, a cow, and some chickens and I will as soon as I can. I plan to make products to sell such as spiced fruit leathers and whatever I might invent. Love how you capitalize on your bounty! Appreciate your ingenuity and would love to hear any of your thoughts and ideas.

  7. Alan Fisheron 28 Aug 2007 at 11:16 am

    Hello Sally, Alan here. Love your site, love to see images of a past rich wonderful life, where Patrick and Georgia started life and Possum was rampant with Pidgeons and Annie – oh yes it is all there and all important – and despite the damage of other’s versions of life – I hope you are happy and well and say Gday to P

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