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Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood (or winter on the holding)

Janet, Lily (front), Anna (back) and Roberta make sure the old Christmas tree is not wasted

When I tell people that I live on a smallholding, there is usually a pause and then they say “ph now lovely” and “I’ve always wanted to live in the country with some animals” or something like that. I may do some of my interlocutors an injustice but I suspect that for many of them, their image of smallholding is a sunny summer’s day with lambs looking adorable in the field, a few chickens pecking in the yard and no mud anywhere.

Winter on a smallholding is not quite like that. What it is like depends on the weather and both mild and cold winters bring their own problems. Last winter was a cold winter. The ground froze, water froze in buckets, the chicken’s drinkers froze and every day was a constant struggle to defrost everything and get all the creatures fed before I froze myself. The extreme cold also meant that the pipe that carries our water across the fields from the Scottish Water mains over a mile away froze and cracked on two separate occasions, leaving us without running water for a week at a time. In case you are wondering, this is a total nightmare when you are responsible for providing water to animals who use about 10 large bucketfuls a day, and when tending the creatures leaves you needing to wash your hands urgently, quite apart from the palaver of washing and keeping the loo cistern filled without running water. However, being without water was far better than being without power – something that happens most winters – because a power cut means that we not only lose electricity but lose the running water too as the water is pumped from the mains to us by an electric pump. It is infinitely easier to deal with a lack of running water when you can still cook on the hob or in the oven and when water can be heated in multiple saucepans for washing rather than on the camping stove.

This winter, however, has not so far been like that. Instead it has been relatively mild and wet, following a soggy autumn and the principal problem is mud. Now, when I talk about mud I do not mean a little dampness underfoot that makes a dirty mark on your shoe. I mean the kind of mud which means that you cannot cross the door without wellies, the kind of mud that filthies a towel after one round of dog drying. I mean the kind of mud so deep and wet and cloying that a visiting teenage grandson’s wellie got sucked in and trapped and I had to dig it out with a spade when pulling on the two visible inches proved fruitless.

Winter in recent years has also meant a poultry lockdown to reduce the avian flu risk. From December until about the end of March all poultry have to be kept in housing inaccessible to wild birds, even tiny ones like sparrows. This is a big challenge here where we have a lot of chicken and turkeys, all of whom are usually free range, meaning that our system is set up for birds who only use coops and runs overnight. The combination of chicken lockdown and wet weather is dire. Many of the pens have earth floors and have to be cleaned out constantly as the chickens wade in slurry. It is no fun for anyone, least of all the poultry.

But winter isn’t all bad. How can it be when every trip out of the yard is punctuated by either the company or conversation of the goats? They watch my every move, usually from the Dutch barn, and call out to me just to say hi or in concern if I am getting too wet. Anna is pregnant and is expanding so rapidly that we wonder just how many baby goats she is growing. (Lily was one of quads and this is nothing like as rare as in humans, so we watch nervously). Dulcie is also pregnant but is approaching reproduction in a more modest way.

The sheep, too, are woven into my daily life, whether it is keeping Raeburn and her daughter Roberta from charging through the gates into the yard every time I open them to admit goats or alpacas for feeding or watching the lambs fit into the dynamics of the wider flock as they move from being babies to being independent adolescents. This year one lamb, jokingly known as the Beloved because of her mother’s love and pride in her, has been chosen by the top sheep (Raeburn and Roberta) as a future flock leader. They bring her with them when they come to Speak to the Shepherd about the need for a new bale or to steal a little goat feed and it is obvious that she is being groomed for power.

Living so closely with the livestock means that Rosemary and I get to know their characters, their quirks and their habits. I know that Janet, our bought in Cheviot ewe, is very nervous of me but will come close to drink water brought fresh in a bucket, that Clotilde misses her twin Mathilde – who is in the pen for special feeding after we spotted that she is very bulgy this pregnancy and very thin – that Raeburn and her family are definitely Top Sheep. I know which sheep likes each spot in the barn and that Amber the alpaca’s spot is sacred to her.

And now, in late January, I see the days lengthening visibly away from the darkness of December and the ewes’ shapes change into the second half of their pregnancy. The hens are just starting to lay, a hesitant trickle of eggs. All these hint at winter’s end, and soon I shall see the snowdrops at the bottom of the hill, at the road end – a promise of spring.

Winter night with owls

The sky crowded with stars,
The Plough sharp
Over the Dutch barn,
Water buckets heavy,
Painful to my white-cold hands,
My breath the only cloud,
I cross the yard,
Frozen ground crunching
Beneath my feet.
The barn owl’s white wings
Vanish into the dark.
Across the fields,
I hear
A distant tawny hoot.

cc SIA 23 iii 2018

One thought on “Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood (or winter on the holding)

  1. I absolutely loved “The Secret Life of Cows”, a surprise best-seller in 2017 by Rosamund Young, which showed a dedicated townie like me how idiosyncratic, characterful and smart our domestic animal companions often are, and how woefully most of us underestimate them. Your recit here called that book to mind. I love the vividness of your writing, even although its effect does not in any way encourage me to don my wellies…and the poem is a delight. I was there, under the stars…

    Liked by 1 person

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