Preparations are afoot!

Where to start! At least the weather has been as forecast – warm and dry. Although a ewe and a lamb died, overall the animals look very good. The pregnant ewes of course are looking ever fatter and, given lambing could start on the 6th April, have to be moved onto a pasture closer to the barn.

The young stock moved out of the right-hand side of the barn on Wednesday, so that area of the barn has been cleared and cleaned so that pens can be erected for lambing.

With the forecast for next week of more dry weather there is every chance that the suckler herd, who felt very put out when the young stock was released, ought to be able to leave the barn as well. Given we are still expecting a number of calves, they will also need to be near the barn.

The recent weather we have been experiencing has toppled a few trees, and this one was discovered in the Spinney. We will use what wood we can, but of course, this tree will continue to be a very important home for the many animals and invertebrates who can make use of it.

Soil analysis and farming matters

The soil analysis we received from the preparatory work gave us additional information and helped point us clearly at which fields need heavy composting. Mind you, it has to said that just by looking at the grass in the various pastures I think we might have worked it out for ourselves! Happily, we have a good supply of well-rotted compost to use this year for the pastures where it is most needed. Next year, judging by our heaps and the amount eventually to come out of the barn, there will be even more. 

We are feeling more positive on the feed front. We have obtained organic silage locally at a reasonable price and also negotiated the lease for at least 5ha of organic pasture which we will use solely for taking hay or haylage off in 2019. Preparing for our Soil Association inspection on the 4th April, we have been forced to look uncomfortably closely both at the amount, and cost of bought in hay and haylage. Last year’s heat wave hit us hard in terms of home-grown hay and haylage, and all the harder given the increased size of our herd which was not matched by the reduction in the sheep flock. Our need for straw bedding is now so great that we will be pre-ordering 100 bales.

On a more sober note, yet another farmer in the neighbourhood has been seriously injured while working on his farm. At least he has survived and is on the mend unlike the two others who died in this area since we started farming.  Farming is inherently dangerous, it is rarely the cosy world shown on popular television series. That said, it is not a world we would wish to leave!

Greening continues, and verges are now a mix of yellow, white and green. Hedges are now white with the blooms of blackthorn. As a follow up to my comments on the loss of a ‘goat willow’ I should have perhaps shared with you that we, in 2007, had a survey of the bushes and trees making up our hedges and have as a result a large scale map on which are marked and identified all the trees in those hedges. The variety is large, varieties of willow, alder, oak, crab apple, plum, damson, ash, maple, sycamore, pear, elms (though they never reach maturity) and Lombardy poplar. In particular, there are in fact several ‘goat’ willows. Within the hedges are over eight varieties of bushes while in the wood, aside from oak and ash, there are areas of hazel and some holly.

Last week I put in a photo of a clump of violets but cannot resist adding another since the bridle path at the stream end has a number of such clumps and the flowers are so charming in their modesty.

Saturday’s weather – little wind, dry and sunny – made it possible to safely burn the vast accusation of waste straw, wood cuttings and branches together with ‘kindly’ donations by the unknown. Anne and I of course took part!

Bonfire time

With a bonfire that size, and bearing in mind the possibility of creatures such as hedgehogs being in the heap, the tractor had to be used to move loads at a time to a safe space a few yards away. Additionally, some of the ‘offerings’ should not be burnt, so sorting has to take place with the discarded material going to a skip. The last thing we wanted was singed hedges, vile smelling smoke or the arrival of the emergency services!


Sarah had two outings over the weekend, and by car not bicycle! Since there are so many places to visit near here one is almost spoilt for choice. A concert rehearsal was taking place in Worcester Cathedral which made that visit rather special.  A great deal of renovation work on the building has been ongoing for some time to the external, fabric but the really dramatic restoration/rescue was in the 19th century when by all accounts the building was in a very poor state. It may not be the most famous or beautiful of our cathedrals, but it remains a very special place. Stratford needs no comment other than the weather could not have been kinder. Astonishingly her four weeks with us end on Friday. We have all enjoyed her company and appreciated all the work she has done. Very fortunately it seems we may see her again in the autumn, either for the day or a weekend.

A visit from Natural England

Correspondence on the pasture-fed site at the moment demonstrates how unscientific we are here – in some respects. We don’t weigh our calves to check growth is ‘as it should be’, we don’t feed them, but we do rely on daily close examination of progress, and if a cow has yet to learn that it has to feed its calf, physically assist its learning! As far as possible we let nature take its course. A clear memory we have is of a neighbour who was so keen on checking the growth of her potatoes by exploring their growth on a weekly basis that they never cropped well!

On Thursday the three of us met with Danny Newman to review the offer from Natural England. Obviously, we had prepared prior to the meeting and so, while in general, the offer reflected what we had proposed, we had questions – not least to check that we had done our homework. Inevitably perhaps there were errors in the offer we received, so as an example, two of the maps supplied for were of a quite different farm

The more serious issues related to finance. These included the absence of any timetable for payments whether for revenue or capital – rather important when on the capital front we have to find significant capital in advance and need to persuade our bank manager to advance us this money since Natural England will only pay on paid invoices. Then, why the payments on the revenue front for organic status and hedgerow maintenance only continued for five years when the overall agreement is for ten years.

Under the previous agreement, the payment came in two equal parts, one in June, the second in December. In this new agreement the payment will come in two parts again but the first and largest part will not be paid until the end of the first year. The grapevine tells us that individuals who joined the scheme in 2018 have still not received their first payments.

It is quite hard not to interpret all this as a cynical attempt by government to avoid spending money on schemes to deliver their own promised agenda. Our letter to the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, which had not been sent given the likelihood of any time being given to anything over than Brexit has now gone – emotion overruled reason. The meeting on Thursday has meant that letter has at least one additional paragraph!!

African memories

In our time in central Africa, we never heard of cyclones having any significance in Malawi, Zimbabwe or Mozambique. I now know there was an unusually serious cyclone in 1958, but nothing like the 2019 event, even though flooding in these areas is not unknown. Where we lived first in Zambia, we were on the edge of the Congo basin in Luapula Province, and even at an altitude of 4,000 feet experienced some flooding in the wet season. On lower ground, dirt roads normally needed re-grading after the rains. But all this is nothing compared to the terrible situation in those three countries at the moment. On a much more trivial level, events like this highlight for us the places we never got around to visit. So, we only visited Mozambique the once, and then to go to the Gorangosa Natural Park. The park is some 100 miles from Beira and at that time was one of the wonders of the natural world. Internal wars essentially eliminated all wildlife in the park by 2004. Peace has seen the Park re-stocked and is once again a marvellous place to visit. Even so far from the coast, half the park is flooded, but with nearly 300 wardens on the park, the population in that part of the country is being better helped than many others.

TV and education

I wrote that paragraph before whilst watching/listening to a recording of the BBC’s ‘Choir’. What a great thing to see these young people living and working so harmoniously to support each other through this project. How our society should be. Gareth Malone and the headteacher were exemplars of good practice – more teachers like Gareth and more head teachers like Mr Aldridge are what the educational system has always needed and so often lacks.

New Zealand on my mind

The dreadful carnage in New Zealand, and subsequent discussions on the radio made me realise that here was yet another part of the world I knew little about. Yes, we had relations there, and indeed one of Anne’s relatives was an officer in what was known as the second Māori war.  We know New Zealand as a peaceful nation, but history teaches us that unsurprisingly there are and were tensions between the different racial groups in the country; It was also known that though the population is overwhelming white, tensions between the Maoris, Asian and Pacific Islanders who make up some 25% of the population, were at least as great as between Europeans and Maoris.

As always coming across an issue I knew little about I had to discover more. I was astonished to discover that prior to the two Māori wars – now known as the New Zealand wars – far more damaging had been the so-called Musket Wars. Apparently, as in many parts of the Pacific region, intertribal warfare was a normal part of life for the Maoris who had already killed off all other ethnic groups, but the arrival of muskets in the region made these tribal wars infinitely more lethal. It is estimated over 50,000 deaths were lost in those battles. The New Zealand wars on the other hand saw a total death toll of under 3000. Looking for a silver lining on the history on this nation, perhaps the ceremony in Christchurch Park will help the process of different groups living genuinely living together harmoniously, and an inspiration to all of us too.

Donald Trump’s approach to truth is also it appears the stock in trade of the President of Turkey who has decided that Gallipoli, as we are now told, was attacked in 1915 as an assault on Muslims. Are the two Presidents in competition for the title of best tellers of ‘false news’? But coming up fast on the inside lane has to be Nigel Farage with his claim that most votes in the petition to revoke Article 50 against Brexit, were Russian. Obviously, Boris should figure but he gets far too much time anyway.

Civil servants and local education officers

On a personal level, in recent weeks I have been reminded of perhaps the most significant difference between the roles of civil servants and local education officers. 

Aside from better pay and salary and civil awards, the key difference was that as a local authority Chief Officer, it was you who was directly in the firing line; It was you that was in the hot seat when questions had to answered, and you who carried the can when things went wrong, not an elected member. A memory I ‘cherish’ is when a child from a special school was accidentally left on a bus and I was the one in the firing line. ‘We need guarantees this will never happen again’ as though processes and procedures were infallible in preventing human error. Happy days!

What, I wonder, is the driving force which propels extremists and fanatics to the power positions in nearly all religious movements. The question came into my mind on reading that a human rights lawyer in Iran had been sentenced to 138 lashes and many years in prison for some offence relating to female rights. The follow up question in my mind is how the co-religionists of these groups living in the UK (and the groups cover not just Islam, but Buddhists, Jews and Christians) manage mentally to cope with the ‘atrocities’ by their fellow believers in those other countries. What goes on in the mind of a Buddhist living in London when he or she reads about attacks on Muslims in Burma, or a Hindu living in London when faced with the actions of extreme Hindu groups in India? But of course, this is not confined to religion – witness the behaviour of extreme dictators and fascist white supremacists.

A translated poem written by one of the greatest Austro-German poets of recent times hopefully allows me to end on a tranquil note.

Early Spring by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming)

Harshness vanished. A sudden softness
has replaced the meadows’ wintry grey.
Little rivulets of water changed
their singing accents. Tendernesses,

hesitantly, reach toward the earth
from space, and country lanes are showing
these unexpected subtle risings
that find expression in the empty trees.

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