Monday, 29 July 2013

Lassie & the Lambs

It’s hard to watch your kids grow up so fast knowing that one day soon you’ll be eating them with mint sauce. I know there’s no room for sentimentality on a smallholding run by carnivores, and I know naming your food is not a wise move for anyone, never mind a softie who even now wells up at the memory of a traumatic tear-fest of a journey over a year ago when I witnessed a squirrel getting his back leg squished by the car in front. Knowing all this and more, I still can’t help myself. A lamb by any other name would taste as sweet.

When last I blogged my boys were newly born and yet as I write the end is now nigh for Alan and Ceredig. That’s the harsh reality of life on a smallholding. Even so, I was kind of hoping that by now they would have grown into anonymous, characterless sheep, indistinguishable from any other Tom, Dick or Flossie roaming the fields in these parts, sheep whose absence will not be missed. Growing they are – Alan is about to overtake his mother in height and width; characterless they are not. Ceredig is the shy silent type, a handsome ram lamb with long blond lashes who rarely strays far from his mother’s side, and who is usually the loser in the head barging battle of the feeding trough.


Alan is a big, boisterous bruiser of a ram lamb, given to bounding around with Babette, mounting his mother (despite lacking the wherewithal) and generally getting into all sorts of trouble, including the kind of trouble that would end with a lamb joining the great flock in the sky before his time were it not for the quick thinking of Teri “just call me Lassie” Pickworth.

Now there is nothing unusual in Teri disappearing to pass the time of day with the pigs (goodness only knows what they find to talk about but as far as I can tell it usually ends in an argument). What is unusual is Teri re-appearing in a state of high agitation, barking, whining, refusing to be calmed down or distracted by a proffered ball or stick. This was a full on “boy trapped down a well” Lassie impersonation worthy of an audition on “Britain Thinks It’s Got Talent (But Not Really)”. Feeling just a little foolish for falling for this performance, Dave headed up to the field only to discover that just about everyone up there was stressed out – pigs screaming, ewes bleating, lambs wailing. And the cause of this commotion? Why Alan, of course! There he was, eyes bulging, haring hither and thither, dragging behind him the electric fence battery box, the strap of which was tightly wound around his neck. The more he ran, the tighter it got. Who knows what naughtiness with his partner in crime Babette got him into that situation, but there wasn’t a moment to lose if he was to be saved. Whispered words of calm from Dave brought poor Alan to a stand still just long enough for Dave to grasp the strap and free a relieved, gasping Alan, who ran straight to mum for a reassuring nuzzle and guzzle. But this is a lamb who doesn’t learn from his mistakes. Just days later he appeared for breakfast with a missing horn and a bleeding hole in his head that was already providing breakfast for feasting flies and ticks – yuk yuk yukkity yuk! This time it was my turn to mount a solo rescue operation involving cotton wool, surgical spirit, tweezers, anti-biotic spray and insecticide. Bribing the flock with treats to get them all into the pen was easy. Catching, holding and treating Alan was a tad trickier. Nothing is easy to do when you have an upturned, wriggling brute of a lamb wedged between your knees and you’re being buffeted and barged from all sides by his flock mates, each of whom is torn between greed (for the tasty nuts) and fear (of being next in line for a tipping). Alan survived yet another scrape, though not quite unscathed as he now has one stubby horn and one pointy horn!


What Alan and Ceredig don’t know, but we do, is that their play mate Babette will not be joining them on their final journey. A feisty character, a knack for flirting and the virtue of being a ewe lamb not a ram lamb (and no small amount of pleading on my part) have saved her from the chop. She gets to grow up and be a mummy too. If I’m not careful though, my spoilt little lamb will grow up to be a high maintenance ewe. Eating sheep nuts from my hand is being endearing, nudging and nibbling my hand while I’m preparing tea for the pigs is being a pest, bashing the side of the feed bin with your hooves is being just a little bit too demanding!

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Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Miracle of Life

I watched “All Creatures Great and Small” in the 1980s. Once I even managed to endure a few episodes of “Lambing Live”. I know the words to “Little Bo Peep” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. I sent Dave, the King of Courses, on a course (of course). I read every chapter of “The Sheep Book”, even the yucky parts about retained placenta and advanced mastitis. I scared myself with the front leg, back leg, no leg, breach birth diagrams. I discussed the merits of a long slender hand and arm and the importance of trimming long nails before putting a hand anywhere near a sheep’s back end. I toured a lambing shed, oohed and aahed over newborns, tried not to well up over deformed lambs and confronted the reality of a bag of dead lambs. I sent Dave shopping for baby bottles, lubricant and iodine. Be warned, I now own a shiny new castrator.


Yes, as usual I went well and truly over the top to ensure we were prepared for our first lambing. Even the sheep shed got an overhaul, transformed from bus shelter to bigger bus shelter.


Meanwhile, Babs, Margo and Myfanwy got bigger and hungrier. Week one of the lambing period came and went. Nothing. Every day Dave would peer at the rear end of a sheep with her nose in the trough and declare “any day now”. And then it happened. Early one Sunday morning, the thudding of boots running upstairs roused me from my snuggle deep down under the duvet - “I think we’ve got a lamb!”. Panic, clothes over pyjamas, grab the lambing kit, bucket of hot water, hurry, hurry. But Mother Nature had no need of us and on a crisp, sunny Easter Sunday morning the first lamb was born at Banceithin. Babs did it all by herself. By the time we arrived on the scene Babette was already licked clean by mum and happily drying and dozing. I’m not ashamed to admit that there might have been a little tear in my eye as I gazed in wonder at this new life.


Over the course of the day, the next day, the day after that, and the day after that, we diligently checked on the flock every two hours. And every two hours the pigs went into a frenzy thinking it was tea time again and again. It seems there really is no limit on the number of times a pig can expect to be fed. There was one lambing false alarm. I could have sworn that the lamb on the other side of the fence was on our side, but nevertheless I promised that in future I would double check and triple check before racing back to the house in a panic. Not once did I see any signs of impending lambing. No thrown back heads or curled lips. No pawing at the ground. No water bag protruding and bursting. Just chewing the cud. So for a second time it happened while our backs were turned. Myfanwy popped into the bus shelter and popped out a ram lamb. We were on the scene more quickly this time though and mum was mid clean and Ceredig mucky and unsteady on his feet, falling not once but twice, my heart lurching not once but twice, “something’s wrong”, “he’s dying”, “he’s dead”.  Ever the optimist.


As spring went from cold to colder, the rain stayed away and the wicked east wind continued to scorch the pasture, the lack of grass for our new mums was becoming a problem. Dave hastily constructed a hay feeder in the pig run fence and we upped the ewe nut rations.


Still without her own lamb, Margo was shunned by Babs and Myfanwy, both of whom quickly developed a “them and us” air of smugness to go with their “feed me now and hurry up about it” attitude. Margo grew bigger and morphed into a giant rugby ball shaped cloud teetering around on tiny legs. Surely it would be twins? And twins means trouble. Two hourly inspections continued. While Margo carried on eating, Ceredig grew in size and Babette grew in size and confidence. The lack of fear of scatter-brained OCD collies is a genetic trait passed from ewe to lamb.


Yet again, without showing any sign of going into lamb, Margo squeezed out our third and final lamb. No twins, but from birth Alan was bigger, whiter and fluffier than his cousins. Lady Luck was on our side this year. Three trouble free births. Three healthy lambs. Three diligent mums. I’m told that if you don’t come out of the lambing period shattered, with knackered knees, back ache and smelling of a sheep’s arse, then you’ve had it too easy! What did I do in a previous life to deserve such good fortune?

Monday, 1 April 2013

Nursery Rhymes for the Modern World

“This little piggy went to market,

this little piggy stayed at home, …

… the other little piggy was sold for an obscenely low price that didn’t even cover the cost of petrol to get piggy to market, let alone all the feed that piggy had eaten.”

The closer the day came for our first visit to the monthly Carmarthen pig market, the more apprehensive we became. I’m not entirely sure why. Fear of the unknown perhaps. Would we be ridiculed and exposed as the ex-townie newcomers with not a drop of agricultural blood between us? Would a careless flick of the wrist or sideways glance at the auctioneer land us with a £300 prize boar? Would row upon row of unhappy squealing pigs in filthy cages leave me running from the shed in tears? In reality, nobody laughed at us, all I bought was a Welsh cake, and the pigs snuffled straw in their clean roomy pens seemingly unfazed by proceedings.

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All of which somehow made the lack of buyers and the low prices being commanded by these perfectly healthy pigs seem all the more tragic. I left the market with a heavy heart. Just £4 for a 3 month old porker. How can that be right? This is the British pork industry being hammered by cheap lower welfare imports from continental Europe. I rarely blog from atop a metaphorical soap box but let me just say this, please, please, please support British pig farmers. There’s a reason why some imported bacon is so cheap - I’ve seen the photos and they don’t make for happy viewing.

Meanwhile, back at base, we decided to stick with our principle of buying weaners direct from small local breeders. Meeting the farmer and the sow can tell you a lot about what you’re buying (and buying into). What we hadn’t bargained for was just how eventful the trip to collect our three new weaners would be.

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,

for want of a shoe the horse was lost, …

… for want of four tight screws the trailer wheel was lost”.

Halfway down the drive, clunk, crash, brake hard, lop-sided one-wheeled trailer. Screws picked out of the grass. Wheel re-attached. Off we go again.


“The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round, …

… the wheels on the trailer go flying off, overtake you on the inside and heads off down the hill”.


This was not a happy day. Not once but twice the wheel fell off the trailer, leaving a smashed rear light, a bent wheel arch , a trailer up on bricks abandoned in a lay-by for the night and a very grumpy Dave.

“Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,

Humpty Dumpty also sat on his sunglasses and flattened them”.

And believe me, this did nothing to improve his mood. Thankfully all this happened on the way there as otherwise we would have been either dodging traffic herding three frightened weaners all the way home or strapping them in the back seat of the trailer like a trio of toddlers on a family day out.

Eventually George, Snowy and Mary-Beth made it to Banceithin. 734627_566443923375433_1585837210_n

I’m not entirely sure how happy they are about their new home as since arriving they have been very vocal. Actually, that’s playing it down. They’re screamers. They are so not enjoying the weather. And who can blame them when there’s nothing but a scant covering of pale blond hair to protect that pink piggy skin from the east wind that brings the Russian winter to West Wales. The wind howls through the trees, one pig screams, all three bolt out of their shelter, race around the pen, scream, then back in the shelter. And repeat. I’d give them a blanket, but I suspect it would end up being a woolly snack. That’s not the kind of fibre a growing pig needs. So we pile more straw into the ark and feed them energy boosting milk, yoghurt and banana smoothies.

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I bet the Danish pigs don’t get that for tea!

Monday, 25 February 2013

Ticking Boxes

The Project List. The dreaded Project List. I’m longing to strike something off the list. It’s been so long since we ticked a “project completed” box that in order to make myself feel better I’ve joined the ranks of Mohr, Richter and Beaufort and created the “Pickworth Scale of Completeness”, which goes something like this:

1 – still just an item on a list on a whiteboard / in a note book

2 – constructive (occasionally heated) discussions have begun on how to progress

3 – materials purchased but someone’s waiting for someone else to do something

4 – some tinkering has occurred

5 – actively in progress

6 – Lord above, it’s a miracle, project completed

At least this means I can put a tick in box 6 for “re-write Project List according to Pickworth Scale of Completeness” and use the rest of the Project List to create a pretty pattern of ticks across boxes 1 to 5, weighted heavily towards 1 to 3 with a smattering of 4s and a sprinkling of 5s.

A recent spate of dry sunny days has brought with it the promise of spring, a reminder that the Easter season is just a few weeks away, and consequentially a flurry of Project List related activity. Most notable amongst these activities has been the drive to push the tree-house project from a pleasing 5 to a glorious 6 on the Pickworth Scale of Completeness. Having languished for far too long at the 2 and below level, the project burst into life again last autumn when we drafted in outside help in the form of Martin, a friend of a friend from down Cardigan way who knows a thing or two about building stuff from wood that won’t fall over at the first puff of Welsh wind. In just a few days, the project rocketed up the Pickworth Scale of Completeness. Wood was ordered, brambles cleared, trees cut back…


….. a platform raised aloft, ……

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decking constructed, …….

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I watched in awe as a hideaway in the trees emerged from amongst the sawing, hammering, and drilling.

Over the winter, with the project firmly fixed at position 5 on the Pickworth Scale of Completeness, Martin was tasked with coming up with rustic hand rails and ladder for the tree-house. He certainly came up with the goods, splitting and stripping ash trees from his own woodland. Nobbly, unique and not a straight line in sight! Perfect!


It was left to Dave to take the role of lead carpenter and complete the project by fixing the rails and ladder in place. Obviously he was ably assisted in this task by his trusty assistants – me (to hold the wood and pass the tools) and Teri (to steal the wood and bark at the tools). I felt sure that Teri’s skills could be put to better use. With minimum effort we appear to have trained her to understand and respond to “where’s the ball” and “where’s the stick”. As proud as I am of Teri’s mad collie levels of intellect, I suspect that the subtle difference between “ball” and “stick” barely registers in her mind, and that “where’s the” are the trigger words. With this in mind, a period of intense, treat driven training could surely extend her repertoire to “where’s the hammer” and “where’s the spanner”, perhaps even getting as far as “where’s the big drill bit” or “where’s the 17mm socket attachment for the ratchet”. This would save a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to the utility room and up-ing and down-ing on the ladder when Dave forgets to put the right tool in the tool bucket!


All that remains to be done is to lash the trees with rope for the hammock hooks and add the aesthetically pleasing but sympathetic to the surroundings soft furnishings (the natural coloured, allegedly waterproof, dirt resistant eco-poofs are on order) and decorative touches (the box of scallop shells and driftwood waits in the shed while I wait for a creative moment to arrive).

Would it be cheating if I put a tick in box 6 for the tree-house project?