Written for our column in Cumbria Life.
Shearing has just started. This is the time of year where hands that have become dry and cracked from a lot of hand washing during lambing, become baby soft from the lanolin in the sheep fleece. Tups (rams) and hogs (last year’s lambs) are sheared first. The best quality is from the hogs; a thick coat from an animal whose only job has been to thrive since it’s birth twelve to fourteen months previously. The tup fleece is not so luxurious as they work hard tupping the ewes in October/November so their energy is spent chasing girls, not growing a beautiful fleece. Towards the end of June the ewes are sheared. We don’t clip them earlier as the wool helps keep their udders warm. If they get cold it can cause mastitis or black bag. Mastitis, if not treated can kill them and both can mean they ‘loose’ a teat. Shearing the ewes is a stressful business because while they’re being sheared, this is the first time they will have been separated from their lambs. The lambs are screaming for mum and the ewes are screaming for their babies. The tension and drama puts everyone on edge. Once the ewes are sheared and put back out with their lambs, the screaming continues as the lambs struggle to recognise mum with a haircut! It’s all quite chaotic but eventually they find each other and quieten down, the lambs, now huge, kneeling down under mum for a comfort drink.
Although lambing went very well this year, the hatching of eggs has been a disaster. None of my duck eggs hatched and only one turkey made it out of its shell alive but died a day later. I really don’t know if the incubator wasn’t working properly or the freezing mornings when I collected the eggs killed their fertility. I’ve put one last batch of turkey eggs in a new incubator and because of the more even daily temperature when I collected them, I’m hoping I finally get a hatch. Because I had no turkeys and was desperately looking forward to rearing some, I asked around on local poultry Facebook groups if anyone was selling day old turkey poults. I was in luck; a farmer had just hatched some that day with more hatching as we were on the phone. I dropped all work commitments planned for the next day and drove to Yorkshire to collect them where I found myself on a messy but beautiful, red brick, historic, family farm. I thought our farm was untidy until I saw this place. However, because this was someone else’s mess, I could see the clutter as a vast and sprawling family archive and history, all on display. Some old and half broken things looked still in daily use, some things sat gathering dust in the same spot for decades and objects repurposed over the years. I wished I could have had a proper tour but there were four other people besides me collecting hatchlings and I know a farmer’s time is precious. I have 15 turkey poults now; Bronze, Bourboun Red and Crollwitzers. They are still under a heat lamp but when they’re fully feathered they will live outside with the other poultry.
Next month: we are helping with the planning a wool event on Saturday 3nd July at The Farmer’s Arms in Lowick.
The farming year never halts and you just have to work with whatever the weather decides to do. It has been a very cold, slow spring, which has made life difficult for us as well as the animals. The grass hasn’t managed to do much growing so we have still been feeding the cattle hay. This means we are trying to get all the spring work done while still the winter routine of daily feeding continues. On the bright side, the slow grass growth has meant we have had a fantastic show on spring flowers in the fields. Some might call them weeds but they are so important to insects. Dandelions, Daisies, Cuckoo Flower and Bluebells adorn the fields with their colourful flowers. These plants are often hidden in the grass so our loss has been their gain. Hopefully by the time you read this article, summer will be starting and we will have wall to wall sunshine and the stock will be contently basking with full belly’s and happy offspring. Here’s hoping.
Off the farm, well in the virtual world of zoom and teams meetings, I have been involved in consultations with DEFRA staff alongside other farmers and NGO staff on the development of new environment schemes for the countryside. It’s been an honour to be invited to help shape the future of how we move into a new era of farming. The pandemic has changed all our lives and been a massive challenge but the requirement to move to virtual meetings has meant we can be on the farm one minute and in a meeting or conference the next. The other evening I walked straight from shearing sheep to being sat with Tim Farren our MP and others on a Q&A on the future of our National Parks to an audience from all over the world.
Next month we will be embarking on a small step towards normality as we are running a RBST show for Cumbrian young shepherds as part of an event at the Westmorland Show ground. With no agricultural shows last year and many cancelled this year it’s a small step, but these young shepherds are desperate to show off their skills and sheep. It’s so encouraging to hear from so many young people who are passionate about Rare Breeds and our cultural heritage. Let’s hope we have a sunny weekend.