Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Unlucky Ewe

Last week was not a good week. I hesitated, fingers hovering over keyboard, wondering whether this is even a bloggable subject, but this isn't a censored or fictionalised account of "Banceithin Life", it's a warts and all story, an expose of the idiot things we do. As the title says, "still learning, still making mistakes".

An unplanned loss of life on a smallholding, and especially on a small smallholding like ours, is always a tragedy. We've suffered mercifully few in our five years, just two chickens (obviously I'm not counting all the bee deaths to which I've unknowingly, clumsily contributed). Alas, we must now add an unborn lamb to the body count. Myfanwy miscarried a few days ago. I'm doubly sad as she was empty last year so this was her second chance to prove that her first born, Ceredig, was not a one off. A "proper" farmer would not have given a second thought to "having her killed then eating her" (that very advice was given to me just yesterday). There'd be no second chance. The harsh truth is that without identifying any external cause for the abortion - such as dog attack or some other fright - we have to face the fact that Myfanwy may not be a viable breeding ewe.

Much of the foetal development of a lamb occurs during the last six weeks of pregnancy, so with at least ten weeks still to go there wouldn't have been much to abort, and there was certainly little evidence besides a bloody patch of grass and a bloody sheep's arse. Veterinary advice was to "get in there" to check for "retained material", which if left inside would lead to infection pretty quickly. Never having been required to go anywhere near "there" before now, we enlisted neighbourly help to supervise our first time. However, Myfanwy had no intention of letting anyone or anything near her "there". She jumped the fence in one and left us standing open mouthed at her agility for one so bulky. In hindsight, we probably shouldn't have arrived as a team of four carrying buckets and syringes, wearing high-vis jackets, and striding purposefully towards Myfanwy's temporary prison. Never underestimate a sheep's sense of self-preservation. It is surprisingly strong for an animal with a reputation for spending its life trying to die.

That was Friday. Two further attempts the following day to pen and treat Myfanway also failed. The rest of the flock milled around, nudging me, sensing the possibility of tasty nuts or crunchy hay, but no amount of bucket rattling or hay rustling would persuade Myfanwy to come anywhere near me. She has always been the wariest of the flock, and now she was on high alert.

Sunday morning arrived and with heavy hearts we filled the buckets with hot water yet again, primed the syringes and headed out to the field. Luckily Myfanwy was showing no signs of infection and appeared as normal, if jumpy. On the plus side, this rendered an internal inspection unnecessary. The antibiotic injections, however, were still a necessary precaution, so we couldn't allow another refusal. We abandoned the pen and opted for hiding Dave in her blind spot, waiting until she was nose deep in the nuts bucket, then going in for the ambush. Third time lucky and Dave is on the ground spooning Myfanwy, one leg thrown across her woolly bulk, firm hand under her chin, whispering reassuring words into her twitchy ear. As wonderful a photo opportunity as this was, Myfanwy would not put up with this undignified embrace for long, so it was down to business - tail up, peer in, wash down, two jabs, hooves clipped, feet sprayed, back on four legs, one less ewe to lamb come spring.
Does she even know what happened?  I guess it doesn't matter whether she does or not, as long as she recovers, and besides, I think I'm sad enough for the both of us.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Science Lab

David is unhappy with his leeks. He's been unhappy with his leeks for weeks. They're thin, They're short. They're not growing. He loves his leeks, and they're a vital crop to for filling the winter hungry gap. His concerns are no longer allayed by my reassurances that Atlanta is a late developing variety for harvesting December to April, and deliberately chosen by me for that very reason. It's January. Some of the leeks are still little more than fat pencils. The variety is no longer an acceptable excuse for poor performance.

He maintains the leeks were transplanted too late. My (admittedly defensive) response as Chief Plot Planting Planner (not an officially accepted title) is that as we only have one onion bed in the crop rotation, the leeks cannot go in any earlier than the garlic comes out, and the garlic cannot come out any earlier than when the bulbs are ready or we might as well have not planted them in the first place. See how I used inescapable logic here. He maintains that the soil is to blame. Too acid, he says. My response is "so test it then". Not defensive at all really. I found the as yet unused soil testing kit in the cupboard, placed it in a strategic position in full view of anyone passing through the utility room and waited. A few days passed and I put it away again. Nothing more was said about the leeks. Unfortunately nothing more appeared to be happening in the leek bed.

To be fair to Dave (which I always am, of course), it wasn't entirely beyond the realms of possibility that he was right about the acidity. When we bought Banceithin the land hadn't been farmed for years, and the field we'd ear-marked for the plot and polytunnel had certainly never been used for vegetable and fruit growing. We had the soil tested, sending plastic bags of soil samples off to the Royal Horticultural Society Soil Advisory Service (yes, I know, very posh). According to the soil boffins our soil has acid tendencies (probably due to proximity of the bed rock, i.e. we've hardly any top soil) and a potassium deficiency (probably due to a lack of bananas). Whilst we diligently followed the boffin advice for liming and feeding the soil before creating the growing beds, that was six years ago. That six years is a full cycle of our six year crop rotation, and while that is six year's worth of us putting in manure, compost, fish blood & bonemeal, seaweed, egg shells, comfrey tea and our own highly nutritious blood, sweat and tears, not to mention digging out boulders, picking out stones and flicking out the occasional cat poo, it is also six years worth of roots, brassicas, onions, potatoes, legumes and salads sucking out nutrients.

So David turned soil boffin and set up his lab on the dining room table. Soil samples were collected, the little piles in the ice cream tub carefully labelled, and placed on the boiler to dry. Then came the science. Everyone loves a test tube and an acid-alkali colour chart. Mix in the magic soil testing fairy dust, give it a shake, and wait. Hey presto, the leek bed is too acidic.

Interestingly (well to us anyway), from the middle of the field and the start of our veg plot where the acid-alkali level is roughly neutral, the acidity gradually increases across the beds and towards the poly tunnel. More interestingly, the performance of our potato crop, a cultivar with a preference for acidity, dropped off as its planting position moved in the reverse direction. Well what d'you know, there really is a correlation between soil quality and crop performance. Obvious perhaps, but it's always good to see the science confirm it.

None of this is of any help to this year's leeks, which have to remain lying (or rather standing) in their overly acidic bed even if they didn't make it themselves. David will have to remain disappointed, but at least he now has an answer and I no longer have to come up with excuses.