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!