April is probably our busiest month as we’ve lots going on ….
We lamb our flock (of 100 ewes) later than most farms as we’re not trying to raise lambs for the Autumn market (being 100% grass fed, and slow growing ours won’t be ready until at least summer 2022), instead aiming to make sure the weather is good and we have fresh grass for the lambs to go out on. As our Shetland sheep being quite a primitive breed, very rarely need a hand lambing, but it’s still a very labour-intensive process – see video below.
When they are due to start lambing (we know the date by working forward from when the rams went in), we brought them all into the large barns on the other side of the road, which are now almost empty of last year’s hay and straw. For the first couple of weeks, the cattle were still being fed in the outer part of the barn and were resting up in the middle section at night. Then each morning once the cows, had gone onto the hill for the day, we could let the expectant ewes out into the adjacent small fields – and then bring them back in each evening. they lambed, the ewes we then brought the ewes and lambs and put them in a pen for a small day so we can keep a close eye on them, and make sure the lambs have bonded with their mothers. After a few days they then go into a separate area of the barn with some other ewes and lambs so they can stretch their legs and we clean out their pens ready for the next arrivals. After another day or two we then let them out into the fields on the other side of the barn, but because we don’t trust the local foxes, (or the lambs being bright enough not to walk up to a fox!) we bring them into the yard / barn at night for the first week. After that we move to another set of fields where they can stay out. This last set of fields normally have running water in, but because it has been so dry, the ditches / streams have dried up, and so we’ve had to take up our water bowser with a drinker attached.
In the middle of the month the cattle had their annual bovine TB test, which they fortunately passed. Although we haven’t had any TB ‘reactors’ for around 10 years, it is still a worrying time between them getting injected with dead extracts of bovine and avian TB mycobacteria and them being checked 3 days later to see if their skin has reacted by swelling up around the injection site. If any had reacted, they would have had to been culled, and the rest of the herd would then need to have 2 clear tests, 60 days apart, before we could move any of them off the farm. Once the test was over, they were all brought back to the fields on the house side of the road and will now be living outside until October / early November depending on the weather. The spring calving is also almost over now, with another 8 born this month – all born out in the fields with no need for help from us.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the weather this month has been very unusual and it seems that Spring ‘proper’ is a good few weeks later than it is normally. Over the month we’ve had only around 10mm of rain (½ of that was on the 31st – so perhaps the drought has broken), with cold dry winds and ground frosts most days, and as I sit and write this a sleet / hail shower has just started. Whilst our livestock is well adapted to be able to cope with the inclement weather, and the al]most continuous sunshine has been lovely to work in, it is hard on the wildlife – particularly the incoming migrating birds. Cuckoos, redstarts and swallows have arrived, but no housemartins yet. The cold dry weather has really cut down on the number of insects around which are needed to power them through the nesting season. So hopefully it will warm up soon and we’ll have more showers, before the next waves of migrants arrive. Only a few of the trees are fully in leaf, though the blackthorn is in blossom, and on the rhos pasture / bogs it’s great see the bog marigold in flower, as this is an important food source for the very rare bog hoverfly, which will become more visible when it takes to the wing later in the summer. We've also had our first chick of the year - a Tawny Owl that our friend Nik ringed, so that it can be tracked if it's ever caught again.
Now that things have quietened down a bit, we’re once again taking orders for some ½ lamb boxes. These are the about the last of lambs born two years ago, so having matured slowly are sure to be tasty. As well as the ‘normal’ Shetland Icelandic crosses, we’ve also one much larger Wensleydale – so if you please get in touch if you want to stock up your freezer.
I’m steadily reading a great book ‘Native – A vanishing landscape’. This a beautiful written by a Scottish farmer, Patrick Laurie explaining his passion for curlew and through grazing, how he’s been encourage them and other wildlife onto his farm. It’s been really interesting to discover more about the fragility of the curlews’ habitat, and gave me a much better understanding of the challenges there will be to get them breeding again on Dartmoor. His disappointment and thoughts after eating a ‘Scottish’ rib-eye steak in a posh Edinburgh restaurant, resonated with what we feel about our beef – ‘I sawed the steak apart to reveal coarse grains and a washy pink colour. There was no sign of the dark richness and creamy marbling which defines well-matured beef from old native breeds. This animal had put on weight quickly, grown like a nettle and had been killed. No wonder it needed a sauce to add some flavour.
If I criticise continental animals, it’s because I’m confident I can do them no harm. Commercial beef is big business and projects like mine are less than an eddy in a flood. But I’ve heard Galloways being sidelined so often that I think they deserve a reply.
If you work with native breeds, you know the drawbacks. The beasts are small and take years to mature, but there are redeeming features. People have blind-tested different kinds of beef. Even with blindfolds, traditional slow-grown meat comes up on top every time, particularly when it comes from older animals. That’s not to say native beef is essentially better than commercially produced meat, but it does imply that it’s different. So try Galloway beef and compare it with a Highlander or a Shorthorn. Then compare your favourite with a continental breed. You’ll find they are all quite different.
And it’s frustrating how bad we are at celebrating diversity in our meat. It’s odd because beef is a premium product, and we like to place value on detail and nuance. Select a medium-bodied Pinot Noir from the Loire Valley and savour notes of cherry and spiced plums, supported by a ripe, juicy tannins. Calling it ‘French wine’ would hardly do it justice but pour a glass and enjoy it with your ‘Scottish beef’.
In a similar way, our slow grown, 100% grass fed beef from a 3 year old Welsh Black bullock has a very different taste and texture from what you can get in most supermarkets.
Walks and talks
We’re planning to have a couple of open days again in June; a ‘Wooly day’ one with shearing and fleeces and another based around our hay meadows. These will probably be the weekends of the 19th & 26th , but we’ll firm things up during May when we’ll have a better idea of whether the seasons have ‘caught-up’.
We’re also looking at having a farm walk to discuss with ‘Dartmoor Rewilders’ facebook group members, and anyone else who wants to join us to discuss our ideas for future habitat management across the farm – basically, what do we want it to look like it 20 – 30 years time?
Once details of these have been firmed up, I’ll email everyone on our mailing list and post it on Facebook and our website etc.