February at Challacombe seems to have flown by and it feels like we’ve had all 4 seasons in the month. It started off normal grey winter weather, but then we had a week where it barely got above freezing, a week with over a foot of rain, with the last few days glorious sunshine. If you want more details or to check out the live weather from our weather station you can find it online here.
The animals are all doing well. The cows and last year’s lambs are still being fed hay in the barns but can go in and out when they want, and as its getting warmer and drier they are spending more time outside. The ewes have all the fields on the house side of the road, and so not only do they have their thick fleeces to keep them warm and dry have more than enough space to find shelter from the worst of any weather. The ewes are due to start lambing at the beginning of April and so last week we got all the ewes in and had them scanned to check whether they are pregnant and whether they have a single or twins. Interpreting the ultrascan is an art, but the chap who does it reckons they’ll have 36 singles, 55 twins and no triplets, with 9 not in lamb. We lamb later than most, as we want to make sure (as far as possible) that we’ll have reasonable weather and fresh grass for the lambs to go out onto. In addition, because we are 100% grass fed, unlike most supermarket lamb that are ready for slaughter at 5 – 6 months, ours take a minimum of 15 months to mature and so there is no rush to lamb so they are ready for the Autumn lamb market.
Getting ready to start scanning
Our cows enjoying the sunshine.
We also have a guest herd of Dartmoor ponies who have being doing a grand job of grazing our rhos pasture. By eating off the coarser and more aggressive grasses, they open up the sward allowing orchids and the food plants of the rare Marsh Fritillary butterfly and bog hoverfly to thrive, whilst their hoof prints create micro-pools for critters to live in.
The wildlife doesn’t cope well with such changeable weather. Much of frog sprawn laid at the beginning of the month got frosted off, but in the last week they’ve been laying again and there is lots of it in all the ponds and bogs, so hopefully this lot will be fine. The last week has also seen much more bird activity with skylarks and meadow pippets singing away – it definently feels Spring like.
Ponies doing a great job grazing the rhos pasture
From a farming side of things, the biggest job has been finishing off the winter’s hedge laying and tree planting. We don’t mechanically cut our hedges as its better for wildlife to let them grow up big and bushy. But if left untouched, over time they become gappy and turn into a row of trees and so lose their value for many species. To rejuvenate them and thicken them back up we lay them. This involves cutting through about 2/3 of the way through the stem near the base and laying them down along the hedge and trimming off most of the side branches. They will then reshoot upwards along the trunk and from the base. Where we have gaps we infilled planting with a mix of hawthorn, blackthorn, rowan and hazel. In total we’ve laid around 300 metres of hedge and planted 300 trees.
The low sun and short grass at this time of year is really good for seeing the archaeology on the farm, and using my mini drone I’ve managed to get some lovely shots of the strip lynchets (the medieval terraced fields) and of a prehistoric circular enclosure – possible used as an animal pound shown in the picture below. Apparently this enclosure dates from the Late Neolithic to Late Bronze Age period some 4000 – 5000 years ago!
The prehistoric circular enclosure / pound
The medieval strip lynchets and bronze age hut circles (centre below top field) and bronze age enclosure (top right of fields) on the side of Hambledown.