A Dartmoor Farming Year
Working with nature through the year
When we have time we post updates about what we and the animals are doing on our Facebook page – so for more details, please follow us.
One of the nice things about farming is how linked it is to the seasons and the natural cycle and here’s an overview of the key moments through our year.
Spring is the start of new life. In March and April our sheep are brought into the barns for lambing. Providing the weather is good after a week, the lambs are then moved out onto fresh pasture in our hay meadows where they have more space, but we can still keep a close eye on them.
In late Spring, the valley sides turn blue as millions of bluebells come into flower. Our summer migrants appear – the sound of cuckoos calling echo across the valley and the skies around the house start filling with swallows and house martins who have returned from wintering in Africa.
In late Spring / early summer our livestock are shut out of the hay meadows. For us highlights of the summer are the orchids and other wild flowers that bloom in the hay meadows and rhos pasture, and seeing the lambs and other livestock enjoying the plentiful grass.
Birds are busy breeding, and most years our friend Nick will ‘ring’ over a hundred swallow chicks who nest in our barns and numerous other birds. The lightweight rings Nick puts on each chicks leg each have a unique number, which if recovered later, help the British Trust for Ornithology track the lifecycle of birds.
In June, our sheep are sheared. The coarser wools of the Welsh Black Mountains go off via the Wool Board to be made into carpet, insulation and other low value products, we keep the best of the lustrous soft fleeces from the Hebridean, Icelandic and Wensleydale are kept to be sold to spinners and other craftspeople to get turned into some amazing and beautiful things.
In late summer, or meadows are cut and the round bales stacked ready to feed the livestock through the winter. This is a nerve-wracking time watching the weather, and hoping the long range forecasts are correct. We aim to dry the grass in the fields for 3 or 4 days to end up with fodder that is like hay, but if the weather unexpectedly turns and we can’t dry it fully we can still bale it – but the quality isn’t as good and it doesn’t keep as well. Once the meadows are cut, a favourite job is to call the cows and let them back into the hay fields as they just love to get into tidy up the tasty ‘leftovers’ around the edge of the fields. Even our oldest cows get a spring in their step as they all charge around looking for the tastiest bits.
After the cows have had their fun, the manure from their bed during the previous winter that that has been composting in our main barn, gets spread across our grass fields to return the nutrients back into the soil.
Autumn is a time to prepare for the winter. We buy in straw for bedding, and go to the ram sales to buy new bloodlines to improve the quality of our sheep flock. The rams are not introduced to the ewes until early November so we don’t have any lambs until late Spring when the worst of the cold and weather should have passed.
We will also sort through all the lambs and calves born through the year, to decide which ones we want to keep for breeding or to be fatten up ourselves. To avoid having to feed them during the winter when fodder and shelter are at a premium, the rest are sold onto other farmers - mostly in ‘lowland’ Devon, where they have more grass than us.
The wildlife is also preparing for winter. The Summer migrants leave us to head south for the winter. Hedges become full of berries that attract birds such as fieldfares who have migrated here from the north, and the ancient pastures across the lynchets are full of multi-coloured waxcaps and other fungi.
Winter can be a tough time for the animals. In recent year’s we haven’t had that much snow, but if wet can still be hardgoing for everyone. The sheep, with their thick fleeces stay out, whilst the cows have the option of coming into the barn as and when they want.
Each day the cows are fed one or two of the haylage bales harvested from our meadows. Generally the sheep can manage fine on the grasses that are still growing, but if it is particularly cold, wet or it snows we supplement this by feeding them haylage bales.
In early Spring before the birds have start nesting, we do a bit of swaling – setting fire to some of the gorse and every few years a block of old leggy heather. We burn gorse as a way of stopping it from slowly spreading out and covering the lynchets and other archaeology, and shading out the grass. Left to its own devices, gorse would grow into huge dense blocks, but by burning a portion each year we can keep it in check, whilst still leaving enough for birds to nest in, and provide shelter for the sheep. Burning heather is a traditional management technique, which in a similar way to coppicing, rejuvenates it as it regrows from the base.