Sleepless, restless squall of a stormy night;
with the additionally exhausting shrill of the bedside alarm at 4.30am. It’s going to be a long day.
Tony’s out & about early as he’s going flying; & I’d have relished another hour or so in bed but as he’s in characteristically ‘stompy’ mode, it’s just not going to happen. I sleepily pull on my work scruffs, pad downstairs & set the old copper kettle on the stove, fishing for the tea caddy & a battered old mug – not far off how I feel, in fact.
Tony, immaculate in his crisply-ironed uniform, strides purposefully across the kitchen, armed with a swathe of papers to load into the leather pilot’s case I bought him for our fourth wedding anniversary. A snatched kiss, & he’s off into the teeth of the storm, much to my consternation. Surely, they can’t take off, in this…?
But apparently, they can; & by lunchtime he’s off, up & away with only a short delay to hinder the aircraft’s progress despite the considerable number of other flights delayed from Heathrow this morning. Airbus technology is evidently a ‘cut above’ – quite literally.
With the first light of dawn I brave the frightening winds to check on our charges. Comfrey & Corncockle – yesterday’s unexpected lambs – are already bouncing around in ther snug pen; & to my delight, mum Camilla has ‘bagged up’ nicely & her babies are at last getting the milk they need – I try tempting them with a freshly-milked bottle from Eek, but they wrinkle their little noses in disgust at anything other than the goodness their own Mum’s now thankfully providing. Ah well; at least I offered – & Moriarty is suitably grateful; he’s been hanging around ever since the first kids were born, hopeful for a sneaky saucer of his favourite, fresh milk.
So I plough on with the chores; & when it comes to feeding & checking over the sheep, I count only eight ewes….so I count again; & again. Hmmmm. One in the shed, makes nine….so that’s one missing. I wonder if……uh-oh.
As our sheep are ‘clingy’ almost to the point of irritation I throw some extra ‘goodies’ in their trough before trudging along the precipitous ridge of Parc Mawr’s steep hill, which runs down to the woods & the river beyond. With the gale almost knocking me off my feet & the lashing rain stinging my face & obscuring my vision, it’s only with difficulty that I manage to make out the struggling silhoutte of the grey-black Shetland ewe, the nose & feet of an enormous lamb protruding from her ‘business end’ & her legs clearly tangled in the sheep netting where she’d tucked herself in to give birth to her baby.
Thankfully, our sheep inherently trust me; & as soon as she hears my soft, reassuring call Acacia stops struggling & lets me extricate her from the mess of brambles, hedge & fenceline in which she’d become thoroughly entangled. After a great deal of moaning, groaning & loss of blood (on my part through wrestling with vicious brambles & nothing to do with Acacia giving birth) I manage to get her back on her feet; at which point it’s immediately clear that Something Must Be Done About The Unborn Lamb as the poor ewe was failing fast in her fenceline struggles & is now clearly exhausted with no more ‘oomph’, left in her.
Before I’d left the barn I’d scrubbed hands & arms with anti-bacterial soap just in case; so at least I’m near-as-dammit clean. I gently grasp the two just-protruding feet; & the ewe, sensing the assistance, renews her efforts to push. But she’s weak; & by gawd, this lamb is a big ‘un, & jammed fast. She heaves a little more vigorously; in response, I tug a little harder. And harder. And harder….despite the ‘normal’ presentation, it seems this little one likes his warm bed a bit too much – rather like Tony, I think grimly, as I pull harder still in response to the groaning ewe’s efforts. I feel slightly shocked & scared, when one front leg abruptly leaves the cavity, the little foot almost punching me on the nose; I’m worried I’ve dislocated the shoulder, & don’t want to do any more damage. But this lamb MUST come out….sensing each other’s urgency to save her lamb, Acacia & I renew our mutual efforts in this bizarre tug-of-war set in the heart of the raging storm, the branches of the trees swaying, creaking & groaning alarmingly overhead as the rain drenches our heated exertions.
Just at the point where I could almost weep with frustration & exhaustion (so goodness knows how poor old Acacia is feeling) the lamb’s head reluctantly inches out. I could almost yell with delight on seeing the substantial skull, freed from its livid red-&-purple prison; yet still she maintains a vice-like grip on the shoulders; so I heave again, urged on by the desperate ewe’s groaning contractions, still deep-seatedly terrified I’m going to end up holding a sodden little bloodied leg, wrenched off at the shoulder through my desperate efforts. Oh, what a responsibility…..
This, frankly, now needs a boot up the arse. Having dug my heels into the wet ground to get suitable, pulling purchase it clearly isn’t enough; so with the next tug, I pitch my weight against hers; & heigh-ho, the shoulders slip free. But to my amazement the rest of the lamb doesn’t neatly ‘sloosh’ out, as it would with a goat; this little thing’s crinkly wool is firmly ensnared & requires Yet More Encouragement. More mutual tug-o’-war ensues……
And finally, FINALLY, whilst the rain soaks my exhausted body as I do my utmost to protect the little family, the most EEENOOOORMOUS ram lamb I’ve ever seen, takes his first indignant breath in this inhospitable world. Magical.
But what isn’t quite so wonderful, is his Mum’s condition: clearly, utterly exhausted, she can scarce stand; & despite my very best efforts, wants nothing to do with her lamb. Thankfully, the raging wind briefly blows away the rainclouds & gives us a respite of shredded blue skies; but the little chap is already getting cold. I hope against hope she doesn’t have another lamb in there….my cold comfort, that there surely wouldn’t be room as little Chickweed (as I’ve ironically dubbed him) is so tall, he is around half the height of his mother, already; & big boned, beautifully marked & with that tantalisingly long, ringletted Greyface Dartmoor fleece, to boot. Whoopee, he’ll make one Helluva ram. But right now all I want him to do is survive; & it’s not looking good….
“Come along, Big Fellah – Mum’s just a wee bit tired!” Off comes the shirt (again), just as the precipitation persists & I’m literally soaked to the skin (thank goodness there are No Near Neighbours to witness this). But it’s the only way I can get the poor little chap anywhere near dry & warm, before hypothermia sets in…..& there’s no room in the Rayburn, as the Magic Cauldron (of which more later) is ‘on the go’….well, it’s that Time Of Year. Again.
Rub, rub, rub….not a bleat from the big ‘un, despite his protesting coughs, splutters & sneezes. Having determined with relief that Acacia was carrying no further lambs, I urge her to at least take a passing interest in her newborn, as I desperately need to get him indoors – the wind is by now even stronger & the weather again threatening to close in without remorse. After persuading her to offer her lamb one last good sniff, lick, & nudge I opt to give the poor, exhausted ewe the choice of either joining her lamb in the warmth & security of the dedicated barn; or bundling the clumsy, woolly burden up the hill myself & tenderly warming him in front of the Rayburn with a dose of life-giving fresh colostrum from one of the newly-kidded goats.
If you’ve ever tried to transport a newborn lamb from soggy field to the snug security of their specially-constructed premises, you’ll appreciate that on occasion the ewe will obstinately remain at the site of the birth, as that’s where the smell of the lamb is strongest; it doesn’t matter that you’re holding the squirming, bleating bundle right in front of the ewe, she’ll just ignore it for some bizarre reason. So I was prepared for a bit of a struggle.
Thankfully Acacia is a sensible ewe: our first to give birth last year – in front of the TV cameras for an episode of the BBC’s “Escape to the Country”, no less – she immediately follows me, although with some occasional hesitation. Unfortunately, on hearing her cacophany of bleating the rest of the flock join in the carnival; & like some bizarre Pied Piper of Hamlyn (well; Emlyn, I suppose) I trudge up the hill with my wriggling woolly bundle. Oddly though, thus far he hasn’t made a sound; not from the moment of his birth, whereas the other two lambs born yesterday, had yelled from the outset. It was quite curious, in fact; their cries were incredibly like human babies, a very different sound from that of our goat kids.
I manage to get Acacia & her lamb through the gate without mishap & minus the rest of the flock; & chorused by the excited goats in the Maternity Units, the ewe trots beside me & happily into the lambing shed, where she’s evidently already anticipating a good breakfast & long drink of warm water. Thankfully, she’s got plenty of milk; so I settle the new family & watch anxiously to reassure myself that all Chickweed’s limbs are intact & working!
Then it’s time to hand-milk the newly-kidded goats, breaking them in gently to the idea of having their udders handled before we start them on the machine later in the week. With my hair carefully tucked in to avoid having it chewed or pulled I crawl around each pen in pursuit of the Mums, jumped on repeatedly by their kids who evidently view me as some sort of mobile climbing frame. I also handle each kid to make sure they’re happy with my attentions; in the next few days I’ll become their Mum.
Once all the goats & sheep have been fed, watered, bedded & milked I sweep up; then it’s time to sort out the poultry; feeding, collecting the eggs, refreshing the bedding & scrubbing down the duck pen. After checking on the horses I go into the house for some lunch. And it’s out with the Magic Cauldron……
With the wet, windy, cold & inhospitable weather I like to keep a pot of nourishing, tasty food constantly ‘on the go’, especially bearing in mind that there generally isn’t much time to cook once lambing & kidding are in full swing. So it becomes a bit of a ‘Magic Cauldron’ as (in Tony’s eyes anyway) it never seems to empty in spite of how many ladles of food you take.
The Cauldron was initiated last night with the tasty chicken casserole cooked slowly in our big, iron-grey Aga pot; the leftover liquor & root vegetables were topped up after the meal with more vegetables (broccoli, leeks, cabbage, onion, mushrooms, carrots etc), floury chunks of potato & some finely-diced ox kidney, puréed tomatoes, herbs, seasoning & pulses; & then returned to the Rayburn to slowly simmer overnight. It’s delicious; & makes a lovely lunch as it will also, a hearty supper.
The afternoon is spent partially on paperwork & partially on jobs outside; taking advantage of a dry spell I use the opportunity to tidy the environs of the Dairy Complex, which was left littered with bent nails, offcuts of wood & scraps of cardboard & other waste which I don’t want drifting down into our fields on the strong wind. It’s also an ideal opportunity to assess the water-&-windproof properties of the building – & they’re excellent; the earth-&-slate floor has almost completely dried out, & the building doesn’t feel at all draughty despite the raging wind outside. I methodically clear all the debris, hauling the heaviest planks with difficulty inside the building to keep them dry, then sorting out the smaller offcuts into firewood & recyclable pieces. By the time I’ve finished, next on the agenda is taking the dog for a brisk walk before starting the evening chores. We go across the fields to check the ponies; I can’t bear to go up the drive, as I know that all my hard labour in recent months to patch up the ever-increasing gullies, will have again been washed away down the hill.
Tackling the evening chores after a quick, warming cuppa is busy work: having subdivided the goats & now getting to grips with hand-milking six of them (with varying degrees of difficulty – some are tractable, some aren’t; some have wonderfully easy teats, some don’t), there’s a lot to do; & it’s time consuming, manually-intensive labour – all the more so, when doing it alone. The goats aren’t small & are surprisingly strong & powerful so sometimes trying to milk a loose animal who doesn’t share the same work ethic as you, can be quite a struggle. But working with the girls is such a pleasure: they are highly individual personalities & all have their endearing qualities, however infuriating they may occasionally be. Aloe proves to be most frustrating, this evening as she obstinately sits on her haunches like a dog, every time I attempt to milk her. Goats will squat obligingly for their kids & this seems to be an extreme version, although I’m convinced she’s just being awkward as she stands quietly enough for her two beautiful ghost-like little silver boys whenever they want a drink.
The sun slips down behind the mountains; having checked little Chickweed has a tummyful of milk I shut the latch on the garden gate & slip back into the tranquil darkness of the cottage, closing the door on the inhospitable night. I open the door of the Rayburn & the snug cottage is immediately suffused with the enticing aroma of slow-simmered casserole emanating from the Magic Cauldron. Hungrily, I dip a spoon into the cooking pot; the rich, substantial, gravy is heartwarmingly delicious. I slip the ladle into the bubbling liquid & scoop some steaming food into my waiting bowl. And after my meal I again replenish some ingredients; add other new ones; & top up the liquid with some vegetable stock – then the pot goes back into Rayburn for another night whilst I curl up with a book in front of the fire, dreaming of the next delicious meal – magic.