Sunday, 21 February 2016

Bee-ing Moved

The bees have moved, or rather the bees' house has moved. Houses. Three hives, one new apiary. They haven't moved far, just 15 feet or so up the field from the hedgeline. We sited our first hive along the field edge back in 2010, and in the intervening six years the hedge has done what hedges do, grown. As the trees grew, so did the length of the shadows they cast, and as the shadows grew the window of time within which the sun could shine on the hives got shorter and shorter, until in winter, when every scrap of sunshine is precious, there might be just a sliver falling across the roof.

With the flock now occasional grazing in the field, there was the added incentive of needing a barrier between the sheep and the hives that is more secure than a few hurdles. It's doubtful the sheep would ever be stung, a more likely outcome being defensive bees dying tangled in a woolly tomb or an entire colony finding itself upended into the grass. In my experience, a fat fleecy sheep isn't always aware of her own dimensions, and that awareness drops off considerably when said sheep is in deep in ruminative contemplation. The new apiary is enclosed by sturdy fencing, with just enough distance between hive and fence to ensure that no matter how far a greedy sheep stretches her neck in search of the greenest, sweetest blades of grass (you know who you are, Babette!), her nose won't (or shouldn't) reach the bees' front door.

The general rule is to move a hive a distance of 3 feet and under or 3 miles and over. A flying bee, absent on a foraging mission while her home is moved, will still find her front door if the shift is within 3 feet. Move it further than that and a bee on the wing, and even a bee leaving after the move, may return to the old spot logged in her navigation system as being home and not be able to find where her front door now is, with lost bees eventually giving up the search, clustering where the door should have been, ultimately dying. If the move is over 3 miles, whilst any still on the wing at the time the hive entrance is closed will be lost (minimised by closing up at the end of the foraging day), those still inside somehow know to reset their inner satnav on first leaving the hive at the new location and learn how to recognise their new environment instead. As we were moving our hives within that 3 feet to 3 miles danger zone, I decided to make that move during winter, at a time when the bees are foraging rarely and have not been flying at all for 2-3 weeks. With their hedgeline position having become so shaded and damp, I didn't want to wait any longer than necessary, but while we waited, and waited, and waited, for winter to arrive we prepared the new hive sites. Digging a level square out of a sloping field is an exercise in frustration, for what the spirit level says is a level patch of mud is strangely no longer level when a paving slab is placed onto the same patch of mud. Dig out a bit more mud here, add a little bit more mud there, wedge some stones in that corner, jump up and down in the other corner.

Whether you're moving a hive by hand across a short stretch of field or by car for miles, the risk of slipping, tripping and dropping is the same, and thus the precautions taken are the same. It's all about strapping and balance, keeping the hive level at all times, minimising disturbance so as not to break up the cluster. All of which is made trickier when your field is a hummocky mole hill minefield, one of the carriers has a dodgy back and the other is inexplicably prone to inappropriate fits of the giggles when moving heavy awkward objects.

As Dave prepares the strap for the move, Steve slinks off to avoid helping

The last hive in its new muddy but level location
All three hives are now in the new apiary. A couple of bees flew out and went back in. Then everything went quiet. Too quiet for my liking. Tap, tap, tap on the side, buzz, buzz, buzz comes back. But that buzz is getting fainter. It's late February now and the colonies will soon be gearing up for spring when, hopefully, the queen will start to lay again. After a wet, mild winter, there's no knowing what spring might have in store for us and the bees. Barbecues in March? Snow in April? Please, please, please let one of my colonies make it through.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Second Chances

Myfanwy has had more second chances than an unproductive ewe with an attitude problem could ever hope to get if she lived on a real farm, run by a real farmer trying to make a real living out of the real farm. She's had the attitude from day one. Always the one refusing to enter the pen. Always the one when penned who jumps over the hurdles and escapes the pen. It's because of Myfanwy that we had a permanent high fenced pen built. Better that than have her break a leg, and in her time she has come too close to that for comfort.

Being unproductive came later. She had her first lamb, Ceredig, when she was a 2 year old. Ceredig was born without a problem and Myfanwy was a good mum. The following year she returned from tupping empty. That was the point at which many would have sold her as a cull ewe, destined to become a twirling elephant leg kebab. Not us. That was the point at which she got her first second chance. The following year, aged 4, she aborted the foetus nine weeks prior to lambing. A bloody tail. No great trauma. Outwardly no ill effects or change in behaviour. Myfanwy just carried on as normal, including the attitude. That was definitely when everyone else would have sold her as a cull ewe. That was what we decided to do. She escaped at the first sign of truck and trailer coming across the field to collect her. Weeks passed before she would once again go anywhere near the pen. And so we all just carried on as normal. That was her second second chance.

Knowing that Myfanwy could still get pregnant, I convinced myself that the abortion was the dog's fault, that Teri had somehow spooked Myfanwy with her erratic, lunatic dashing around the pig pens. So she got a third second chance. At nine weeks prior to lambing, almost to the day of the previous year she aborted the foetus. Again, no trauma, no sickness, just business as usual for Myfanwy. The second abortion made me immensely sad, for there could be no more second chances for Myfanwy. The continuous wet weather from November, through December, on in to January, and now February, has been proof, if proof were still needed, that we have insufficient grazing to support a larger flock. Keeping Myfanwy as a pet (with attitude) and companion ewe for lambs separated from ewes is not an option. Even if we could keep her, culling would be the end game as letting an old ewe with teeth incapable of cutting and chewing slowly starve to death is very much not an option.

It was market day in Tregaron last Friday. On a good day, a large ewe like Myfanwy could fetch up to £80 from one of the large kebab hunting companies that trawl around local markets in search of suitable meat. She didn't fetch anything like that. Not a penny. She wasn't there.

I thought about the money we could make from her. I thought about how I'd felt when we took Rhos and Lulu to market last year. I remembered that those feelings weren't good, not good at all. I couldn't reconcile myself to what would happen to Myfanwy after I walked away from the market, what did happen to Rhos and Lulu. This wasn't why we became smallholders. This isn't why we keep animals.

So it's now Sunday morning. Very early tomorrow morning Myfanwy will be going with two of our lambs to Tregaron abattoir. We will take her. We will see her walk in. She will be killed and butchered to our requirements by a butcher whose name we know and who we can talk to face to face about our animals, who will give his opinion on the quality of our animals, who knows what we do and why we do it. We will collect the meat. We will learn all there is know about how to cook mutton. We will enjoy mutton bacon for breakfast. We will make amazing curries for dinner. That is how it should be. That is why we became smallholders.

All we have to do now is get her in the pen.........

Myfanwy in the shed on the day of the birth in 2013 of Ceredig, her one and only lamb