Category Archives: Smallholding

Day 8: Sheep shearing and the beauty of labour

My last day at the farm, sheep-shearing day which I am so happy I got to see. It hardly seemed real to be leaving, hardly seems I was there now I am in Bristol. Everything fades so fast, though the soreness of my arms and tiredness implies it was in fact real.

Today as I sat at the train station — before being joined by an Afro-Carribean pensioner on a day-trip from Bristol doing her photography who boldly stated that Blair and Bush should be brought to the Hague for prosecution for their wars that were for nothing more than oil and was a bit taken aback I think when I wholeheartedly agreed so continued on with her arguments as if I had disagreed — before being joined by her, I was thinking how much I have enjoyed my time so far. I feel like I’ve been cracked open a little bit, horizons expanded a little bit so I have more room to grow. There is all this new experience that I can now own as mine, and the humility of knowing it could fill a thimble of what there is to know.

Today the sheep-shearer came. Martin. I watched him work and like yesterday herding sheep with T I was hit by just how very beautiful human beings are when they are in their element doing things they are expert in. I think sometimes this is the fascination of sport, because in office life, city life, you almost never see this. You forget just how amazing it is to watch someone with true expertise move and perform the very difficult tasks that they are best at. It seems effortless, every movement is sure, practiced, with the weight of years behind it. It looks easy, but you know it is the opposite.

It struck me that in this kind of physical labour you can find one aspect of true beauty visible nowhere else.

I will miss it the way I miss stars. Both of these things, I think, are things generally lacking in urban modern life, a reminder to be a little humbler in how we walk on the earth.

He had already done a few hundred sheep this morning before he came to do our 51 (the ewes with lambs will be shorn later in the summer) — most farms have several hundred at least. He spends three months a year in New Zealand shearing sheep like this every day — there are farms there with 80,000 of the things. Teams spend weeks shearing. Then there is part of his year traveling up and down England shearing sheep every day, and he has just added winter months in Finland and Latvia to the rotation — sheep there are kept inside for whole of the winter into the very late spring.

It never occurred to me that people could travel the world shearing sheep. A different kind of migration than what we usually hear about.

In England, where there is barn capacity (unlike the farm where I was working though plans are for that to soon change), ewes are often shorn in December before they lamb, and then kept inside until spring. They only need an inch and a half to two inches of wool coat to be perfectly happy outside in the winter weather, the rest of that immensely heavy fleece has all been bred for our own use.

Thank you.

The sheep file up this ramp — it was easier than I expected though often enough a ewe grew tired of waiting there and backed a waiting line right back into the pen. Often enough one of the stupid things sat stubbornly sideways across the entrance blocking it. They snorted and started around the pen when I got in to encourage them up. They act as if they are afraid of you every time you move, but when you are still you often feel their hot breath on your hands, and they will attempt to nibble away at wellies and sweater and jeans.

Farm 1.8

The shearer grabs them under their chin and by the foreleg and as he pulls them down he flips them over and there they lie strangely quiescent for the most part as he follows the same routine in removing their fleece, moving their dead-weight deftly to do so with practiced holds. Off the great thing comes. It is an amazing thing to watch.

I was expecting someone burley and older and grizzled. Not a rather puckish looking slender guy who is very possibly stronger than anyone else I have ever met.

The clippers are razor sharp and the skin very thin though the fleece is generally ready to come off at this point, seemed mostly to just peel away. From scattered conversation it also seems that certain kinds of sheep are much easier in this respect to shear than others, and some fleeces much more ready to come off. On one of the ewes who kicked there was a deeper cut, and he sewed it up himself there and then with something very thick and a huge needle.

That made me a little queasy I confess.

T rolled up the fleeces as they came off, into bundles that filled these massive great sacks that need massive muscles to haul into trucks and make this a bit more of a manly occupation than it needs to be. The sacks belong to the wool board, a cooperative that collects the wool from around the country and sells it all for the best price possible for large and small farmers alike. I love this, the only problem for T & I is that they don’t get a check for the wool until the following year. Not a huge problem for large farms, but often quite difficult for small holdings as you could imagine.

Sheep are so funny when shorn, but so clearly very happy and they even frisked a bit like lambs might — these were the year-old ewes who still hadn’t lambed, so still young I suppose.

Farm 1.8

He did the two ewes that didn’t lamb and the ewe whose lamb died and the four rams as well — those last cost quite a bit more trouble, and then one of them jumped the hurdles, a rather astonishing feat for something so heavy. An annoying one too as it meant a much more tiring day for us. Martin’s sheep-dog Jack helped round him up which was immensely helpful, but it meant he ended up penned separately with two of the shorn ewes so we had to separate them, get all the ewes into the orchard, get the rams together, load them up into the trailer, and return them to their fields.

We had the best bacon butties I have ever eaten when we finally had done. Showers and hot water seem extra special as well.

And then there I was waiting for the train. Feeling a little sad to be going I confess. Before I left I got a shot of the very helpful poster of sheep, cattle and pig breeds, though a bit of reflection from the sunny day

Farm 1.7

Wonderful thing to do, this farming malarkey, though I am quite happy to have a good long rest before me.

[FAG id=5304]


Farming days 5 and 6 (and 7)

There’s a trick to catching a lamb, striking fast, grabbing it by the back leg and scooping it up. Day 5 we herded up the sheep that were here in the orchard because there were some problems that needed monitoring, this little handful was no problem on Monday, though I was tired after:

Farm 1.6

But yesterday, yesterday we started herding the year-old ewes to bring back here to be shorn tomorrow. They didn’t really want to be caught and it all went pear shaped but we vanquished in the end. I can see how important a good sheep dog is, sadly Todd the dog is afraid of sheep so it was the two of us trying to herd.

I didn’t know then that this was starting off easy.

Farm 1.6

Farm 1.6

This is them before being penned in proper tight, so we could give them deworming medicine and their vaccine…I had to spray a spot on their heads for each so we knew who had been done. I am really bad at tagging sheep turns out. They are covered with an array of strange marks and sigils and the occasional appropriate thumb-sized mark.

So we moved them…and I was tired. But the real work would be moving the ewes and lambs into the field these ladies had lately been occupying.

Herding those guys? Jesus. Lambs skipping and jumping and breaking away everywhere. We had one complete fiasco of an attempt, and then tried again and were victorious.

Farm 1.5

So in I waded into this morass of sheep and fished out about 65 of the lambs, one by smelly shit-covered kicking and very heavy one. My facebook update after lying around comatose last night:

65 lambs today. I caught 65 fat and hell of heavy lambs along with other assorted herding and moving sheep in a double decker trailer tasks and I may possibly have been this tired but I have never been this smelly in my whole entire life. Also, sheep are just as stupid as you always thought they were. I am still enjoying farming.

Which I am.ย  But it is exhausting. I wasn’t strong enough to manage technique, so I grabbed the back leg and then sort of threw my arms around the thing and hauled it up, and then held it for its shot and then as it continued to kick, we fought to get it into the top deck of the sheep trailer.

I don’t even know how we managed them all, and while loading the last trailer load of sheep, in an effort to keep the ewes in the trailer, a tendon was torn (not mine) and so I&T ended up at the hospital but all is okay today. I walked the dog and cleaned out the very disgusting trailer once again. It’s almost as bad as housework.

I can’t really feel my arms.


The micro-beauties of the woodpile

Today was all about the woodpile — and a little more on snowdrops. Wood fires are amazing, but moving cured wood from the shed to the porch, and then from bags to the shed not so much.

There is a strange enjoyment, however, in stacking wood well — it is not a skill I have mastered. I am kind of entry-level apprentice. It’s not something we grew up with, the idea of a woodpile above the height of my head was pretty inconceivable.

I am pretty tall, today was a lot of work. Day four. Last day until Monday and I am pretty glad of that.

But there were lots of amazing sights in the wood pile and on the plastic bags some of the wood was sheltering in. This country is pretty slim on interesting bugs, but look at these

farm 1.4

Snails…I quite like snails. Those tiny slugs (you can see one in the fuzzy background) on the other hand, are fairly disgusting.

Farm 1.4

This one was spectacular. It was a day of sun and then sudden rain and then hail and then sun again. I don’t know what combination of these things caused this strange collection of bubbles, but the Twilighty vampire snail was amazing:

Farm 1.4

Farm 1.4

There was an astonishing absence of black widows, brown recluses, funnel spiders, scorpions … all those things that I worry about when working in sheds with old dusty wood. This country is so damn safe.

The damp, though, makes some pretty spectacular fungi. This one includes a gratuitous snail, and suddenly those shells make perfect sense:

Farm 1.4

An amazing little guy raising his hands above his head saying oh no, not the woodpile…

Farm 1.4

Wonderful velvety orange in a volcanic landscape sprawling across this log:

Farm 1.4

And of course this place is full of old rusting things. This looks like it might have been some kind of jack, but I don’t think it is working anymore.

Farm 1.4

These need no explanation.

Farm 1.4


Day 3: Snowdrops

I discovered today that I prefer battling nettles and following their long roots across the earth’s surface to actually planting bulbs. Even snowdrops. It worries me that I prefer destruction, but of course I was happy to do both.

God, I am tired. This physical work every day is no joke even though it hasn’t felt too much at any one point and I have enjoyed it immensely. I honestly almost took a nap this afternoon, wishing I could sleep through dinner and right through until tomorrow morning. I nodded off through a book and dinner was amazing.

Every meal is amazing, the best thing about hard work.

Today I worked clearing out a lovely old overgrown herb bed, now nettles and primroses and masses of snowdrops that needed rescuing. I love snowdrops, I remember the days I just went to other people’s gardens to stare at them. The RHS on snowdrops:

Plant freshly-lifted snowdrops when the foliage is just dying back in late spring. If it is not possible to plant in late spring, buying just after flowering when the leaves are still green, (โ€˜in the greenโ€™) is the next best way of establishing snowdrops.

I dug out bulbs and green leaves and replanted them in the bank I’ve been weeding the past two days. Still not done. The snowdrops have already flowered of course, before my arrival, so the picture you see here is from a previous snowdrop extravaganza.

It does prove that you should establish snowdrops, they are so lovely. One of the things I love most about this farm is the extra effort taken to brighten the lane alongside us, and to leave this place more beautiful than when they found it. Practical willow and bulbs upon bulbs, so lovely.

Snowdrops…They work their way down and down into the soil helped by the actions of worms, their bulbs were so much deeper than I expected. They had worked their way into crevices and under the edges of the wall’s stones. In places they clustered in great and beautifully-removable clumps, in others I found lone bulbs choked by nettles.

Nettles are truly amazing, and digging them out along with the bulbs I have begun to plot the rest of this novel I have started that is going nowhere fast. I thought gardening might work to shake things loose and it has, though I wasn’t able to stay awake last night to think about things the way I need to. Tonight isn’t looking much more likely.

The middle of the day involved a beautiful drive through countryside, a stop at the most wonderful roadside stopover I have ever seen, run by farmers and containing a farm store where we dropped off juice and stayed for cake that tasted just as good as it looks.

A special goal in my life is to seek out places that sell cake that tastes as good as it looks. I find most cake disappointing, and how heartbreaking is that?

We had a quick run around Stroud, a wonderful old industrial town I hope to get back to, and picked up another new wwoofer and her son just arrived from Japan.

A good day, and I learned the best trick for helping a fire get going that I have ever seen…and a complete aside, BBC2 radio has had a programme on country music on that played some songs from the latest Mary Chapin Carpenter album along along with Loretta Lynn, the Steeldrivers and even 6 Days on the Road (though unaccountably no Johnny Cash and no East Bound and Down). They are now playing PYT by Michael Jackson, and suddenly Arizona doesn’t seem so far away.

I’ll end with snowdrops as I started. From wikipedia — this amazing description of leaves and new words. I love the idea of explicative leaves.

An important feature which helps to distinguish between species (and to help to determine the parentage of hybrids) is their “vernation” (the arrangement of the emerging leaves relative to each other). This can be “applanate”, “supervolute” or “explicative”. In applanate vernation the two leaf blades are pressed flat to each other within the bud and as they emerge; explicative leaves are also pressed flat against each other, but the edges of the leaves are folded back or sometimes rolled; in supervolute plants one leaf is tightly clasped around the other within the bud and generally remains at the point where the leaves emerge from the soil.[4]

Countryside Day 2

I am not sore!

We started today with a drive around the various fields to check on all the sheep — so many smallholdings have been broken up for conversion and development, contiguous fields are nigh impossible to come by. Thus the patchwork method, which requires driving and an immense amount of trouble moving sheep from field to field as you must.

Almost all of the barns and the farms we passed have been converted. They are such lovely, substantial, old buildings and I couldn’t help thinking about what needs to happen to convert them back to usefulness again, as we need them to be given the future that climate change is bringing us.

I learned a lot about sheep today. Most of which I have forgotten but with some repetition I am sure I shall get better. I do remember a little — Romneys are the best mums, Texcels are the best for meat and if you look at them as a butcher might you will notice they have lovely round ends, cheviots (pronounced cheeviots) are…are…I dunno, but they have awesome hair.

Male sheep are dangerous and if you enter their field they are well-capable of cornering you. Generally, the result is knee injuries because of their height — they have dislocated many a knee I find.

No one here mocks my nervousness of cows.

I am fascinated by how differently the wool sits on the different breeds, and just how thick it is.

New grass lacks magnesium, so they need supplements. Also, it goes right through a sheep. It makes them messy, but that mess could also be worms. If one sheep has worms, they all do.

Beautiful fields though.

Farm 1.2

Farm 1.2

Farm 1.2Every time you move sheep you have to clean out the trailer — so I got to do that today too. With a pressure washer. It is both immensely satisfying to expose the metal beneath the shit with one stroke of your hose, there is something wonderful about cleaning things that are filthy.

It went on for a very long time though.

Very long.

And despite the sexy jump suit I got wet.

But before that we drove some of the most beautiful bluebell woods I have ever seen.

Shower, hot tea, delicious lunch, more weeding of willow bank. Then a walk, the skies dark and forbidding and the sun still shining — It hailed again today, but we had just gotten indoors…

Farm 1.2

Farm 1.2

I am a big fan of WWOOFing, I am having a wonderful time.

Writing Countryside. Also Farming. Day 1

Days are really long in the countryside, especially when you’re not quite used to this work. They leave your muscles aching at the end of them. It is not yet 8 o’clock and I am thinking about going to bed. I have 3 almost-but-not-quite-yet blisters, I do hope they stay that way.

But it is just my first day.

I missed lambing, which made me sad because I do love lambs. Now they are all four weeks old and still hell of cute but a little skittish. Look at them though:

Farm 1

These guys were hanging out next to me while I was mucking out the lambing shed through almost the whole of the morning. I think they hoped I might feed them, or they were just hanging out next to the hay.

Farm 1

I had heard of this mucking out malarky. It is good for instant gratification. Good for your back muscles. Good for bringing out unknown abilities with a pitchfork.

Farm 1

You feel it afterwards though. It was sunny for a while, grey for a while. Then it rained. I was in the lambing shed

Farm 1

It hailed. I moved on to weeding a bank of willows, wild garlic, daffodils and bluebells. The hail was large as you can see.

Farm 1

It snowed a little later on, because hail isn’t slushy, right? But I was eating a delicious sandwich.

Back to work I discovered gloves don’t fully protect you against nettles and those bastards are totally going to win the long-term weeding war given their root systems. Dock is as hard to get out, worms love clay soil, and there are actually tiny centipedes here. Two kinds of ants living secretly underground. Weeding on steep slopes is also no joke. But look at this beauty

Farm 1

I didn’t mind when it snowed later, I was definitely ready for tea.

Farm 1

Farm 1

The sun came out, the snow still fell. This place is beautiful though, especially this view down to the old mill.

Farm 1

A good first day. But hail and snow in April? Hello crazy weather days…