Greg Lance – Watkins
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thank heavens the illustrations were correct!
Sheep, Mud and Leaking Wellies.
The sun is shining – it is warm outside, but for days we have been battling against the weather while trying to deal with mud, lambs and anxiety. Yes, and I have only got sixteen sheep what it must be like for a hill farmer is almost beyond imagination – mud, lambs and dead ewes revealed by the melting snow. On the table is an abrupt letter telling me that the Rural Payments Agency has over-paid me by £634.72p. I don’t understand a word of it and why has it taken them ten months to come up with a new figure – and what a time to tell me. Yesterday a “debt recovery” phone call came directly after a visit from the vet. I was still dripping over the kitchen floor – don’t these people know what we are going through?
This is my worst “spring” in thirty-three years of keeping sheep and it has simply taught me how much more I need to learn and know. For days I have been collapsing into bed at about 12.30 am after struggling with sheep, mud and leaking willies. One fact is clear – with a few sheep the same intensity of care is required for 20, 200 or 2000 sheep – some people can cope – it is clear though that the season will have driven some farmers and shepherds to the edge of defeat. In another fortnight I will be 75 – it is tough when the weather seems to turn against you and you are running out of hay and straw – the cows need feeding – the big bales have gone – the small bales have to be physically thrown over the cow-yard wall – how long will the small bales last? How long will it take for the land to dry out? When will the grass start to grow? When can we put our animals out safely as lambs can cope with wind, cold and snow but not endless rain and mud!
But I love my animals – “retirement” is not a word I understand. I intend to keep going until I have a stroke, drop down dead or can no longer get a bale over the wall. Most shepherds love their sheep – and their working dogs – Border Collies – I wish we still had a border collie; sadly too many tears have flowed, and too much traffic now flows along the busy A603 outside the farm. Inevitably there are some shepherds who simply regard their dogs as pieces of farm machinery – but fortunately they are in a minority. Many keep their dogs, “working dogs”, in kennels outside the house, but I remember one wonderful Irishman Denis Birchall, who won “One Man and His Dog” when it was still a passionate programme with a deep love of our countryside. He celebrated his win with it jumping into his arms. In the winter, he said, it sits next to him in an armchair in front of the fire when work was done – I forgot to ask him where his wife sat.
I have been stumbling out of bed at about 5.40 am (my sister Rachael gives the sheep a spot check at about 3.00am). A light has been flashing every morning at the sewage pumping station across the road. It belongs to a large tanker lorry “Bio-Marsh Environmental”. What does that mean for goodness sake – “Environmental”? It is a wonder they haven’t written “Sustainable” and “Renewable” as well – now two of the most meaningless and abused words in the English language. Presumably workers for Anglian Water are dealing with assorted sewage sludge mixed with a massive seepage of water run-off from roofs, overflowing gutters and water-logged farmland. And which Chinese or French company does Anglian Water belong to now anyway – selling a utility abroad – is it me, or have our politicians gone completely mad in the globalised nightmare we have been plunged into.
At least three times since we were put “on the mains” in the ‘Seventies the system has failed and we have had a flood of raw sewage in what was once the old pig yard. But now they have “improved” the system – they have inserted an overflow pipe that crosses a field and allows them to discharge raw sewage into the local brook during an emergency. It is called “progress”; I don’t know how long it takes to get surplus human ablutions from here to Hunstanton beach.
I trudge to the Poly-tunnel through mud – the ewes are all crammed inside, quite voluntarily – usually at this time of the year they prefer to rest outside the Poly-tunnel where it is still fox-free, under the stars. OH no, not lately, preferring inside the Poly-tunnel in the dry, rather than the mud and rain outside. For ten days I have been feeding them on “Lamb and Ewe Nuts”, the grass is simply not growing. A brief visit to Mole Valley farmers has set me back £120 then there is the cost of the vet.
Astonishingly even straw is highly priced at £186 a ton as cattle & sheep are still in shelter, weeks into the season one would expect them to be out grazing on lush spring grass.
The rain hammers down on polythene – what a racket – but gradually a louder one intrudes – traffic going to Cambridge. The brain-dead planners have designed a “growth” policy endorsed by the Pinkie and Perky of British politics – David Cameron and George Osborne. Together with Blair – Cameron must be one of the worst Prime Ministers in British parliamentary history. By tweaking the planning system (apparently legally, but undemocratically) they have created “Greater Cambridge” and “the City Deal” which enables them to bypass tried and tested planning protocols to which they have added a number of pseudo consultations – which are in effect bits of planning wallpaper – to be ignored.
So planning around Cambridge is not based on “Town Planning” or even the much rarer “Rural Planning”, it is based on land ownership – and guess who owns most of the land? That’s right – Cambridge University, individual colleges and the MOD. And what is the result – widespread gridlock and numerous college bursars rubbing their hands. Oh for a new Tom Sharpe ; we need humiliation for overpaid halfwits.. To explain quite simply to the “experts” ; they should be changing the direction of traffic flow – it is as simple as that, but of course it would mean that the colleges and the MOD would make a lot less money.
One of the most amusing bits of development is around the disaster area known as Addenbrookes Hospital and the University’s wonderful new “Bio-Medical centre” which will include Papworth Hospital – almost certainly due to be degraded by the move.
I have been saying that the whole area has been designed by the makers of Disneyland – but I am wrong – in my view, after reviewing the situation, the new Papworth Hospital must have been designed by Mickey Mouse himself – doorways have been built too small for the specialist equipment to travel through, and best of all, no mortuary has been included in the design or build – a matter of great optimism for all potential patients. So the likely opening date for this white elephant has been put back and has anyone supervising all this nonsense been sacked? Who were the architects and project managers that Mickey Mouse employed and how much extra money is all this going to cost us. Of course I could be quite wrong – Mickey Mouse might not be involved at all – then how about Alice in Wonderland? Ah well, never mind – if it is all true the entertainment value is enormous, even though we have to pay the bill!
Away from the nonsense and back in the Poly Tunnel we have two hungry lambs – we are having to bottle feed them. My favourite ewe has got an infection and has no millk – I hope she survives – I must give her one more injection as soon as this blog is over. For her lambs it has been touch and go – but at last they are beginning to feed with a bit of vigour; Lulu has been brilliant.
Our Spring Grazing is a little damp this year!
In the next pen there is a single lamb; what a whopper – sister Rachael and neighbour Bill had to help her out and within minutes she was standing and suckling. Then in the next pen success; a good young ewe and first time mother. She caused me much worry early on with twin lamb disease but injections and a drench got her going – then twins were born and fed unaided – what a bonus.
Our Spring Grazing 27th. March last year!
Normally after good births we keep them in a day and then let them out to walk down the “cow-walk” for a day in the meadow”, bringing them back in at night. Now the cow-walk is a sea of mud – and as I type the brief visitation from the sun appears to be over already. I must stop typing; we must go and feed the twins and I must inject the ewe – next blog tomorrow, if the weather and the farm permit!
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