Feb 10 2016

Wild Weather

The tranquil River Dart is transformed into a raging brown torrent. White horses dance over glistening mud flats and rocky outcrops as brackish water hurtles towards the sea. The shore line, brown and bedraggled, is stripped bare by the racing tide. Rain fills the valley in a huge sideways curtain misting its way along the rivers path. Mighty gale force gusts lift me off my feet as puppy and I climb the hill to check the wethers. The clever boys have found shelter on the lower slopes protecting themselves against the wind pressed into the hedgerow; savvy, hardy Dartmoor sheep.

It has rained relentlessly for weeks now. Storm follows storm. Water levels are getting dangerously high, the land is sodden, waterlogged even, on the hills. Donkeys and chickens are confined to barracks; the former because the wet is so damaging to their feet and the latter because a large dog fox sauntered by in broad daylight a day or two ago looking for another tasty snack. A mound of feathers lie soaking near the yard, evidence of a previous feast.

The air is so strangely mild that the garden has erupted in unseasonably early bloom, everything at once. Snowdrops sweep down the hillside, early double daffodils lie flattened in the orchard. Camellias rock in the wind, petals filling the air. Crocus, emerge through the grass far too soon, their tiny purple and yellow trumpets helpless in the wind.

Then suddenly silence. We wake to a new dawn without a sound. The storm has passed, the sky is clear and the whirring whine of the wind has ceased. Sunlight forces its way between tiny gaps in the cloud and puppy and I set off to the river. The tide is out and the ground squelches under my boots and her tiny paws. She sniffs excitedly, her first experience of the smells of the shore. A lone egret is silhouetted against the shining mud. Old boats hang listlessly on muddy moorings. We turn our backs on the watery greyness and head home up a flooded lane. The sky is slate grey once more and the icy rain returns.

Morning becomes afternoon and time to feed donkeys, collect eggs and welcome muddy ewes into the yard for tea. Their time is getting near now, all neatly dagged, we eye each girl carefully as they bustle and shove to get to their feast of grain and malt shreds. The big shed is ready for the first lambs; pens built, nursery area strawed out, hay racks in place. They have been taking refuge in here already during the huge gales and may well have to again if the storms return.

Tomorrow the farrier will come to trim the donkey’s feet and check any problems caused by standing on wet ground. These dear, gentle desert animals are not waterproof and their feet are more susceptible to wet than horse’s hooves. Even though their barn is large and airy, they kick the gate and get stir-crazy when the rain falls continuously for weeks on end. I know how they feel.

It’s so much more wearisome working in the yard against the elements, squelching through cloying mud wrapped in our waterproofs, rain obscuring vision, sliding down the hillside, heaving sacks of feed and armfuls of straw and hay against the howling wind to care for cold, wet, hungry animals. When the sun shines and the air is still we have a smile on our face even on the coldest days!

Satisfied that everyone is safe and fed for whatever the night has in store, we trudge home dreaming of a glass of wine and a comforting supper. Sausages, baked potatoes and cauliflower cheese seem the kindest meal today!

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