Take a farmer out into the countryside for a day out to relax, and what does he do? Farm.
Just briefly, as we are now lambing, and because my brother-in-law helpfully provided cover at home, I was permitted to take John away from the farm. In this case to join friends for a few brief hours on their canal boat holiday. We were meeting them just outside Skipton and so followed a slow, tortuous route over the hills so that John could observe every inch of the farming landscape along the way.
Farmers do this. Spot a driver ahead of you in the country, head swivelling slowly from side to side, driving at a snail’s pace, weaving slightly, oblivious to other road users; odds on it is a farmer.
“Come and join us on the boat,” our friends had suggested. “It’s very restful.” Six locks later after winding up stiff ratchets, pushing heavy gates, pulling sticking paddles, I could agree with them – but only because by then I was flat out on one of the canal boat beds after John had spent the entire journey through the locks on the boat shouting encouragement to me. “Wind faster, pull harder, push harder, hurry up,” being the key phrases I remember. He was there, he stated, to observe matters agricultural. Such as a drowned lamb in the canal.
Fortunately drowning, unless it is in the drinking bucket in their pen (and that has been known to happen) is not one of the usual fates that befall our lambs. Strangled in the fence netting, squashed by their mum, once pecked to death by a goose, but not termination by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
Lambing on Lowther Farm is in full swing at the end of March or beginning of April. During the day when the ewes are out, they vie for prime sites in the corner of the lambing field – frequently presenting a shepherd’s nightmare scenario of two possessive ewes with five baffled lambs. Maybe even an extra ewe who is thinking about lambing but in the meantime will just briefly indulge in a spot of lamb-napping. That is, until she has lambed herself, abandoned the lamb she pinched or proceeded to try to batter it to death. By then even it’s own mother, if she can be identified, will not want it either. Cue another pet.
“Fortunately drowning is not one of the usual fates that befall our lambs.”
The lights in the big shed where the ewes are brought in at night shine only dimly. For this reason I have invested in a miner’s style headlight so that we will be able to direct light in the early hours, hands-free, while rummaging around up a ewe’s productive end. Torches get put down in the straw, kicked over or trampled. They do not last long. If, on a dry night, the ewes are left out, looking round can be an eerie experience. Their eyes gleam with a fluorescent light in the torch beam. You stumble round the edge of the field peering into hedge-backs to make sure no lambs have become trapped. Ahead, sheep stagger to their feet; behind, who knows? I’m always glad to get back into a nice warm bed – it is essential to have put the electric blanket on before going out and cold feet are not appreciated by a sleepy husband – and report: “Nothing has happened. Your turn next.”
So as the focus shifts outside for the livestock away from the farm buildings, the next consideration will be to turn out the suckler herd from their winter quarters in the foldyard. Last year, the herd went out relatively late as the fields were too wet. This year has been dry and cold, but there is sufficient grass for the herd to graze if we turn them out soon. About time, too, is the general mood of the cows. For a fortnight or so they have been mooching about the remnants of the silage clamp gazing wistfully across at the fields.
End of April in 2013, John spent the morning creating a chicane of field gates to guide the cows out of the yard to the road. Any gaps were filled with tractors, trailers and the Land Rover. My brother-in-law, Geoff, had as usual been drafted in to help with the job, the main concern not being the cows getting across the road and into the fields (they know where they are going), but making sure that all the calves would follow them out. Life so far has only been limited to the foldyards. The big wide world beckoned.
My task was to stand in the lane and present an impenetrable block to the cows so that they would not charge past me. I always get the rotten job. With my ears cocked to hear any approaching cars, I waited. Nothing happened. The cows’ bellowing reached a crescendo. “What’s the matter?” I screamed to John. “Why are we waiting?”
I could see him mouthing words to me and gesticulating, but could hear nothing. “What’s the matter?” I yelled again “Why are you waiting?”
“Because we’re behind you,” came a voice in my ear as a pair of cyclists whizzed past. “He’s trying to tell you that”.
Thirty seconds later, the cows were out of the yard. Thirty seconds later still all of them, calves included, were in the field. Hope it goes as well this spring.