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November at Challacombe – getting ready for Winter

In the last week, the seasons have certainly changed as we’ve moved from a pleasant Autumn into the first chilly winds of Winter. However, we can’t complain as on the whole the weather in November has been great. It’s much nicer working outside when it’s dry, and it meant that we didn’t need to start feeding our cows the hay we cut in the summer until almost the end of the month – a good few weeks later than normal. The system we have is that as soon as the weather turns bad we move the cattle to the fields across the road, so they can go in and out of the barns (which are bedded up with straw) as they want and can be fed hay / haylage undercover. Generally, unless the weather is really rough, they spend most of the day out grazing, and then come in late afternoon to top up on hay, and sleep overnight in the barns.

As part of our preparation for Winter, we reduce our stocking numbers by selling off most of the larger calves to other organic or pasture fed farmers mostly off the moor and so have more grass than us. This is partly to ensure we have fodder to get through the Winter, but also to make sure all our cattle can fit comfortably in the barns and get around the hay feeders.

It is also a key moment in the year for our sheep. At the beginning of the month all the ewes had an ‘MOT’ to check their teeth and udders to make sure they’re fit to have lambs next Spring. We had about 20 who we thought were getting a bit old, so these have gone off to conservation graze a friend’s orchards and flower rich meadows through the Winter. In mid-November, we put our Icelandic rams with the ewes we want to breed from. With a roughly 5-month gestation this means we will start lambing in mid-April, by when we will hopefully have good weather and fresh grass for the lambs.

We’ve weaned this year’s lambs and moved them into the fields on the side of Hamel Down just north of the barns. This keeps them away from the rams and means they can get in and out of one of our other barns for shelter and also to be fed hay. Being Shetland x Icelandic they could probably manage outside, but given the choice, if the weather is bad they will come in.

On the wildlife front, even though we’ve now had a few frosts there is still lots of fungi about – particularly rings of yellow, orange and red waxcaps in our old pastures. It’s also lovely to see goodly sized flocks of redwings and fieldfares feeding off the hedgerow berries and in the areas of rough grassland.

We’ve also been continuing with our Farming in Protected Landscapes funded projects, with the biggest being planting trees in ‘Cactus Guards’ up through the valley between the stream and the road – one of the few areas of the farm that isn’t a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The aim of this to create more of an open wood pasture, with the trees providing habitat for wildlife and song perches for cuckoos, as well as providing shade and shelter for stock.

Several people have asked about how we’ve got on with the cactus guards - basically we’re impressed. They are very spiky so should deter horses and cattle from pushing them over or getting to the trees inside. Installing them is pretty straight-forward and much quicker and uses much less materials than putting up a timber and wire netting enclosure. They also really blend in to the landscape which is a bonus.

If you’re planning to get some, here’s a few tips:

  • Find some gloves that are thin enough to be able to pick up the wires to tie them together, but thick enough to stop your hand from being ripped by the spikes. These worked for me.

  • The cheapest place I found for the 10mm rebar supporting posts was Metals4U , and having it delivered is less hassle than going to collect it. It arrived in 3 metre lengths in bundles of 15, and keeping it in the bundles meant it was fairly easy to use an angle grinder to chop down into 1.5 metre lengths.

  • I didn’t use the forming tool that Cactus Tree guards suggest. Instead I folded them over and used a couple of keyring karabiners to take the tension whilst I wired the ends together to form a tube – the Easy Tie tool they sell that goes on a cordless drill is fab. Then once it’s wired together they can be bent into a proper round shape.

  • They come as 1.6 metre by 1 metre wire mesh sheets, and so by raising them slightly off the ground you can easily make a 6ft or so tree guard. However, the diameter is only about a foot across, and I’m not convinced a thorn tree would ever grow straight enough with us to make it out the top. So where I’ve planted blackthorn or hawthorn, I made them up the other way around so they end up about 4ft high (enough to keep sheep off them – and I don’t think cows or horses will bother thorns much), but about 18 inches across, so should allow for more bushy growth.

Looking ahead to December, along with day to day feeding of the cattle our next projects are to build an otter holt and to crack on with laying some of our more gappy hedges.

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