Feb 05 2022

It’s Winter Again !

We wake to a dull, cold, slate grey morning, a silent world. Bare trees silhouetted against the dark sky, a valley white and frozen, gripped by heavy frost. All is still, cold, dark, ominous; just as we expect, it’s January, it’s winter!

But suddenly, abruptly, everything changes and the air becomes strangely warm, almost springlike. Confused birds sing, camellias risk some early flowers, snowdrops run down the hill. Even the winter cherry shows a little early pink blossom, primroses appear, a tiny spike of purple crocus.

Then suddenly we find ourselves plunged into extreme chill again; all is frozen once more. A huge icy wind rages through the valley. Heavy frost is followed by warm, torrential rain, then sudden sunshine and soothing warmth. The contrast is so extreme, so strange, so unseasonal, confusing. Is this really climate change? I wonder.

It makes me restless. On these mild, balmy days I long to get into the garden, to prune, weed, prepare for spring. But, despite this seductive warmth, it’s much too soon to begin the endless jobs to be done. It’s too soon to sow seeds in the greenhouse, too soon to prune. A late frost will burn down the newly sprouting shoots. If I sow now, I will have leggy little seedlings ready to be planted out long before the threat of frost is gone. I must wait for the days to lengthen and hope for a more consistent season to unfold.

Donkeys have been confined to their big barn for some time now. Not-so-Tiny Freddie is lame again. Phone calls to the equine vet and several farrier visits have helped him heal, poor boy. The consensus of opinion is wet ground, Donkey feet are designed for the dry desert, not Devon mud. As he improves and the ground dries out a little, we let them both onto a small patch of grass to ease boredom! They’re ecstatic! Donkeys like to race around and play! Fingers crossed, he’s on the mend.

Matt’s Sheep

And something else is new: it suddenly feels so different now to walk over the top fields with Millie to check the sheep. I’ve been doing it each day for so many years, with so many dear dogs.  Everything looks just the same. Sheep graze quietly; Dartmoor in the distance and the river below. But all has changed. Matt and Lucy own our sheep now and rent our fields. A truly wonderful arrangement has unfolded just as Paul and I began to realise it was time for us to step back from the day-to-day farm work. Paul still helps Matt to top and harrow fields, move sheep, build lambing pens, but he no longer has responsibility for it all. And, best of all, we know all is being beautifully looked after.

So, slowly I’m learning to walk across the hills without counting sheep because, of course, I no longer know who is meant to be where! But still I must check the hedgerows, I can’t help myself. I have to be sure no one’s caught in a bramble or has fallen on their back as happened recently!

Standing in the fading afternoon sun a week ago, I was watching two big crows chase a buzzard over the hill.  I was caught in wonder at the buzzard’s dance, it’s extraordinary agility and ability to duck and weave to escape its foes. Suddenly it seemed to see it’s chance and, wheeling higher and still higher, it turned and flew free and far away across the river.

As I turned to continue across the field, I saw in the distance, legs waving in the air. I ran to find a poor expectant ewe on her back. As I seized her legs, rolled her over and helped her back on her feet, I saw at once the awful damage and her blood-stained face. The crows had pecked her eye as she struggled to get up. She paused for a moment, then wobbled away from me stumbling towards some other mothers-to-be. But could she see them? I quickly dialled Paul’s number on my mobile, but alas, we have no signal in the farmyard. So Millie and I raced down the hill and across the fields as fast as our legs would carry us; dog, of course, much faster than me but unable to convey the message. Paul jumped into the tractor. I raced back to the house to the land line, Matt arrived and he and Paul moved the poor girl into a barn with a couple of her companion ewes for company. They gave her painkillers and antibiotics, waiting with her till she settled.

She seems quiet now and not in pain but none of us are sure how much sight she still has.  She will stay quietly inside with her companions until she lambs in a few weeks’ time. All farmers are aware of the danger of foxes but few people know how quick and destructive crows can be.

Now, of course, Matt has introduced delightful new comers to the flock. Greyface girls, with their black noses and teddy-bear legs and long curls, graze quietly with the Whiteface Dartmoors ewes. But the boys are not all they appear! The other day as I was walking quietly down the hill guiding a wayward chuck home, the junior, sweet looking Greyface boy took exception to my presence and gave me a very hard and very surprising shove from behind to help me down the hill, back to the yard and off his patch! I have been around rams for many years and treat them with great respect, but this was a first!

Talking of sheep, it was time for supper! What better than a shepherd’s pie made with our own lamb. I softened a leek, a chopped shallot, a clove or two of garlic and a piece of red pepper found lurking in the fridge, in a little butter and oil. I added the chopped remains of the meat, mixed it with some tinned green lentils , the remains of the gravy from the previous night’s roast and a big spoonful of home-made chutney. I added salt and pepper and topped it all with lots of mashed potato! So simple and comforting on a dark cold winters evening!

To be Published in April by RedDoor Press

“Raining Sideways”

A Devonshire Diary of Food and Farming

Sally Vincent

Forward by Joceline Dimbleby

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