Reflections from a Dumfriesshire farm
And so it ends: 2020, with snow, ice, spring bulbs and praise be-dry weather. A year of unprecedented difficulty for all of us. I pray that you all kept COVID-free and will remain at least so until the vaccination programme has been rolled out. What an anxious wait we all have until that has happened.
Life on the farm, with all our animals oblivious to the difficulties which their carers face as a result of COVID, has continued more or less as normal. Many of our cows are still outside and enjoying the afternoon sunshine which we have been getting in abundance. If the weather forecast is accurate, they may be able to remain outside until just before calving. We hope so. They look well on it and our carbon footprint will be lower.
Several of the bird boxes which I made and put up only a few weeks ago are showing signs of occupation, as shelter rather than for breeding, I’m sure but nevertheless encouraging. The number of small birds on the farm, especially tree sparrows, has increased exponentially as a result of our nature friendly farming methods.
The short days and long nights at this time of year make for challenging farming: too much time to plan the day’s work and not enough time to carry it out. Gapping-up the hedges we’ve planted in the last few years continues apace, with supplies now sourced locally from a new supplier, who grows excellent bare-rooted stock. We’re about half way through the gapping-up programme. Still about another 1500 plants to go and then it will be time to focus on the new fencing which I need to do before starting on the new hedges and new native wood under the Woodland Trust’s MORE Woods scheme, for which cell-grown plants will be arriving at the end of March. Phew!
We’ve seen a big hole in our farm’s economy as a result of the cancellation of holiday cottage bookings enforced by the COVID lockdown, with no idea of when bookings might return. We’re having to batten down the hatches to live within our overdraft limit, with no real idea at the moment of how we will afford the fertiliser and lime which we will need to supplement this coming year’s silage stocks. We will apply much less fertiliser than in previous years because of the efforts we have put into improving our soil and plant health but we will need to buy some. Let’s hope our supplier will offer deferred terms.
We have a couple of new arrivals on the farm. One, I’m ashamed to admit as a livestock farmer, was a complete surprise- a new pedigree Beef Shorthorn calf on Boxing Day. We knew that his mother was pregnant but had not expected her to calf for at least another couple of months. As a new mother herself, her udder didn’t bag-up as an older cow’s would have done; and she must have been caught by a young bull calf with whom she over-wintered last year- a young bull calf which we thought was too young to be a father. Obviously not!
The other new arrival is a 30 year old small John Deere 4 wheel drive tractor, complete with rotavator. So I’m now fully-equipped, I hope, to make the best possible job of my wild bird crops this coming Spring and Summer. Our other, much bigger tractor is never here, having been commandeered by Shirley’s son for his off-farm contracting work.
Let’s wrap up this year with a note of hope. The Scottish Government has just published a Statement of Intent on Biodiversity. If it follows up its fine words with action, we should see a brighter future for nature friendly farming. Amongst the things it refers to are its “new understanding of the increased urgency for action to tackle biodiversity loss, hand-in-hand with climate change”. Better late than never and rest assured that we will be doing our best in NFFN north of the border to keep them up to the mark.
Happy-and safe- New Year!
We had an awesome ” Hunter’s Moon” to end the month-a bright orange orb just above the horizon at about 4pm, rising into the early winter sky and lighting up the farm as the night wore on. I suspect the foxes and other nocturnal hunters had a field day- but then we do have a lot of voles in the cover of our nature friendly ungrazed areas and it’s good to know that we can make room for them as well as for our farm animals.
In previous years, by the end of November, we would have brought most of our cows inside. This year, in the interests of trying to reduce our carbon footprint, we’re leaving some of them outside, hopefully until a few weeks before they’re due to calve, in late February. As native breeds, they’re hairy enough to withstand the winter weather, especially the cold, although we’ll bring them in if we get more prolonged periods of rain. For now, they’re happy lying out under the stars on some of our firmer and drier ground and we can feed them silage via a farm track which is strong enough to support our heavy tele-handler. By leaving them out, we’re saving on straw, which should be a win for the farm economics as well as for our carbon footprint-fingers crossed!
I’ve been busy putting up a fancy new fence intended to minimise the chances of the horses enjoying the garden again-no mean feat, when it’s so muddy underfoot; too muddy for me to use my usual off-road buggy to transport the materials, so I’ve had to resort to the quad bike, which slithers its way across the field, giving me plenty of time to reflect on why I’m having to do it (but we won’t go there)! We’ll just have to make sure that these native ponies do their bit for conservation grazing on parts of the farm other than our house lawn in future!
Bookings in the holiday cottages have fallen off a cliff in the face of the lockdown. Difficult times for all of us, I know and added pressure on our bottom line, as for so many other hospitality businesses. More belt-tightening in the run-up to Christmas-not great timing but nothing like the carnage we’re all seeing in the High Street and less obviously, elsewhere in the hospitality industry. I do hope that the effects for you are not too severe. We must be approaching the final furlong, surely?
I’ve made and put up 32 new nestboxes for the tree sparrows this year. Williamwood is a local hotspot and it’s wonderful to see and hear the twittering of the sparrows and know that we’re bucking the national trend. Most of the new boxes have gone to extend the terraces which were originally sited on RSPB advice and which we know to have been successful in attracting breeding pairs. A few have gone into a new array, which I’ve copied directly from the Arden Wildlife Network in Warwickshire, where it’s worked successfully. I can’t wait to see how the idea transports to Dumfriesshire: 5 boxes in a sort of two-tiered gallows configuration, near to cover and to water. Very exciting!
The hedging and woodland plants for our new native hedges and wood have been ordered from The Woodland Trust and our share paid for. The support from The Woodland Trust is most welcome and generous. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to afford so much, year on year. This year, I’ve deferred delivery until next March to give me time to fence the areas. I know it will be challenging, given the field conditions and I have a lot to complete. The delivery date for those plants will keep me focussed- and we have several thousand other plants arriving mid-December to go into the gaps caused by losses in our other recently-planted hedges and woods, financed largely by the income from the holiday cottages rather than from farming, which produces very little surplus-all the more reason for the Scottish Government to put the right support measures in place if they are serious about supporting farmers and crofters to bring biodiversity back to Scottish farms and crofts.
Given that this will be my last blog before Christmas, may I wish you all a very happy Christmas when it comes? It will be different for all of us, I know but I do hope you can make the best fist you can of it in the circumstances and reflect on the realisation that we live in a country which shows encouraging signs of getting to grips with climate change and biodiversity loss. Here’s hoping that 2021 should prove less stressful for all of us!
Best wishes to you all.
“Highland ponies careering through the garden at midnight was not an ideal way to start October; nocturnal conservation grazing on the house lawn was not in the plan. Someone had left a gate open-no one’s ‘fessed up -but they left a trail of devastation which we’re still clearing up. Hard to say whether pigs or ponies are the more destructive; the ponies probably edge it. After 2 hours of moonlight searching, with all hands on deck, we found the escapees; conversation was a little stilted for quite a few days afterwards.
There is some good news, though. I managed to sow over 20 wildflower patches and the midden has been fixed-hooray! Just as well, given the way the weather has turned here. The calves have all been weaned and are now tucked up in their straw beds in the sheds. It takes mothers and offspring a little while to come to terms with the separation but it allows the calves to grow on under their own steam and their mothers some respite before they calve again in the spring.
Autumn has come early this year. Temperatures remain mild and the grass continues to grow but ground conditions are already water-logged, with more rain forecast. The colour change in the trees and hedges has been dramatic and wonderful- every shade of gold, brown and yellow, with some reds mixed in; set off by some wonderful sunsets and a dark red setting sun-all heralding the start of shorter daylight hours and our winter routine, now that the clocks have gone back. Our animals will now be completely reliant on us for food, water and dry bedding. It all takes some handling.
In between all the feeding, bedding and muck-scraping, my thoughts and actions turn to our woods and hedges. It’s an exciting time for me and if I’m honest, probably my favourite job. I’ve ordered thousands of bare-rooted hedging plants to gap up the newer hedges and to replace any dead young trees in the tubes in our new woods. Then, probably after Christmas, the thousands of cell-grown plants provided with financial support from The Woodland Trust will arrive for this year’s new hedges and wood. Despite the water-logged conditions, I’ll somehow have to fence off the areas to be planted, so it’ll be the usual skidding and swearing as I ask myself, for the umpteenth time, why on earth didn’t I do this in the summer?
NFFN was one of the sponsors of the Northern Real Farming Conference, a new event which, like so many others, took place on-line this year.Several members of the Scotland Steering Group stepped up to the plate and hosted slots. We all agreed that it was enjoyable and educative, with some interesting feedback.
We continue to try to put NFFN “out there” in Scotland. Our Agriculture Bill is more consolidatory than radical, unlike the Westminster one. Both have major frustrations for us and have increased our resolve to keep lobbying for a more nature friendly support system. For now, there is a deep sense of foreboding and anger amongst Scottish farmers that food produced to lower standards will flood our market after the New Year.
We must hope for a better outcome to the Westminster Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s Inquiry into tree planting and woodland expansion, to which we aim to submit our views, arguing for an approach to new planting approvals which will provide a better balance for biodiversity. It is so important that voices are heard, speaking up for Nature. We’re glad to be able to add ours, at the same time as continuing to practise what we preach.
As we enter another period of lockdown across much of the UK, we’ll all need to take care and try to stay safe. It may be hard to see it now but there will come a time when the worst is behind us. Christmas is not far away now and there is much to get done on the farm before then!”
“Barnacle geese calling to each other high overhead, sharp frosts early in the morning, cobwebs like saucers glistening in the whin bushes-it must be Autumn. We’ve had some better weather in September and some bad days too; mixed really but a particularly beautiful day late in the month on my birthday (don’t ask!) when a sharp frost was followed by bright sunshine and we had an al fresco lunch in the garden-something which doesn’t happen too often on a working farm. In the morning, I cut some more of the vegetation which would otherwise smother our loch, using an electric weed cutter on the back of our rowing boat and the swallows (a family of four) were still here but I think they’ve since gone, along with the others which have already left. Bon voyage, little birds! we hope to see you back next Spring.
Autumn is, of course, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness; and what a bumper crop of berries we seem to have this year. Some people say it’s a sign of a hard winter to come. Whether that proves to be the case or not, the finches are feasting on the knapweed, the fieldfares on the hawthorn berries and the blackbirds on the brambles. It’s particularly encouraging to see the sloes on the blackthorns in the hedges which we’ve planted in the last 10 years-it will all help the wildlife to get into the best possible condition to endure the challenges ahead.
We’ve had some late calves, later than we would have liked but welcome nonetheless. Rosie, Stubbie (she has a short horn which continues to grow) and 369 all calved in September. Their calves will have to accompany them into the sheds when the weather turns. They will be too small to be weaned, unlike most of the rest of the calves, which we will wean off their mothers when we house the cows. We use medicines sparingly but on the advice of our vet, we’ve treated most of our cows and the older calves against lungworm this month, prior to housing them in October/ November, depending on how wet it gets.
I’m sorry to have to report that the saga of the midden continues to hold up getting our sheds ready for the cows to come in. It took 3 weeks for the concrete panels to be made and is taking a lot longer to get them installed and the area reinstated. We’ve pushed on with painting the walls and steelwork in the sheds as best we can until they can be mucked out.
Very sadly, one of our Highland ponies had to be put to sleep. We’d bred Poppy and she was a gentle character with a lovely nature. She’d suffered from laminitis, a condition which causes the hooves to be very painful, for years and we’d managed it by restricting her access to grass, especially in the Spring and Autumn and with painkillers. But her quality of life deteriorated markedly in September and we had to make the difficult decision to call it a day for her. It’s a responsibility which comes with livestock ownership. The vet put her into a deep sleep from which she wouldn’t wake up on the hillside on a beautiful sunny afternoon, as she lay enjoying the warmth, unable to stand because of her painful feet. We’ve buried her alongside her mother. RIP Poppy.
Trees and hedges are a big part of Williamwood and are helping to transform the farm. As you know, I aim to plant many thousands every year and I am a tree lover. But I am irritated and concerned to see the Scottish Government pledging so much money (£150m) to new tree planting in Scotland and so little to agri-environmental support, with so little guidance on the direction of travel. I guess we all get the carbon sequestration benefit of woodland but a permanent land use change, particularly in areas which currently produce food and provide a habitat for our threatened upland waders, like lapwings and curlews, is not necessarily a good thing. Wearing my NFFN hat, I am trying to beat the drum for mixed land use, with space left for starter farms and for Nature in new woodland plantings which include broadleaves and natural regeneration as well as commercial conifers. There are sympathetic ways to embrace all these objectives. The challenge is to get the forest industry to adopt them and to get the Scottish Government to show as much consideration for agri-environmental support as it has for afforestation. Piloting outcome-based agri-environmental support (“POBAS”), in which farmers in selected areas of Scotland are supported on their agri-environment journey by advisers and rewarded for the outcomes which they help to produce, is an encouraging initiative, about which we are beginning to hear. NFFN is voicing its support for that direction of travel. What remains missing is any sense of urgency that the biodiversity crisis is every bit as important and serious as climate change.
Keep safe in these challenging times which continue to affect us all.”
“August has been a frustrating month. Hopes of getting the painting done, the midden repaired and the fields drier have all been cruelly dashed. But if there’s one thing you can’t control in farming, it’s the weather-something you learn the hard way pretty early on. I could use several words to describe the weather here in August but this is a family publication, so I’ll content myself with “diabolical”. OK, so we had a spell at the start when I could leave my coat off all day and pretend that summer had arrived but we mainly had rain, torrents of it and not much sun. The midden looks like a swimming pool-anyone fancy a swim…-and the hole in the ground has got bigger. It’s a real worry for us now and is holding up operations. Those of our neighbours who grow barley to feed their livestock over the winter are struggling to harvest it, bale the straw and remove the bales from their fields too. Not good.
It hasn’t been a great month for nature friendly farming in the Scottish Parliament either. NFFN was supporting an amendment to the Agriculture Bill (a “purpose clause”), which would have seen farm payments more specifically directed to farmers and crofters who work to improve biodiversity and combat climate change. Despite cross-party support from Labour and the Conservatives and the support of the Greens, it was defeated by the Scottish Government with the support of the Lib Dems, on the grounds that it wasn’t the right amendment at the right time. It’s a massive missed opportunity to inject a much-needed sense of urgency into efforts to tackle the biodiversity and climate crises and has given our Scotland Steering Group, boosted by the appointment of Nikki Yoxall, our new Sustainable Farming Lead, much food for thought about where best to direct our efforts to advance our determination to see nature friendly farming higher up the political agenda in the run-up to next May’s Parliamentary Election.
On the farm, the lapwings are still here, as are the swallows and, in great abundance, the tree sparrows. It is wonderful to see them all and to see so many successful broods of blue tits, great tits, goldfinches, siskins and chaffinches. The rain has meant that the grass continues to grow and I have had to work hard to top the rank growth, so that the re-growth next Spring will be juicy and nutritious. Because of the wet ground conditions, I do that with a machine attached to my quad bike (a tractor would be too heavy, would cause unwelcome ground compaction and could well get stuck). It has been wonderful to see the swallows swooping and diving around my head as the topper disturbs the insects they’re after-what incredibly acrobatic fliers they are!
We’ve bought a new machine (something which doesn’t happen very often here) but we’re keen to do all we can to encourage the waders, especially the lapwings and curlews. It’s a spinner, which goes behind my quad bike. It will spin out granular lime to improve the alkalinity of the soil in some of our smaller and particularly rushy fields. I hope that will have at least two main benefits-by bringing more earthworms to the surface and reducing the density of the rushes. I prefer to cut the rushes with the topper rather than spray them, after the nesting and wildflower season and I hope the combination of the topper and the new spinner will see a real improvement in conditions for the waders.
The new wood is looking good-the young trees have had plenty to drink- the new hedges are growing well, there are lots of blackberries on the older hedges and the new wildflower areas are spectacular. Lots still to do to get the sheds ready for the cows to come in but I’m already looking forward to doing more new hedges and a new wood this coming winter and “beating up” (replacing the dead plants) in the hedges and pruning the trees in those I’ve planted in the last few years. The smell and the chill of autumn is in the air!”
The changeable weather has made July a trying month down on the farm. Dry one minute, wet-very wet-the next. Hot-coat off; then cold-coat back on again. It’s just the sort of weather farmers hate: impossible to plan, impossible to do jobs which require at least a couple of days of dry weather. It’s beginning to cause us problems at Williamwood. We have a retaining wall on our muck midden to fix before we can muck out our sheds and we need a good spell of dry weather for that. Our cows and calves are beginning to make a mess of our grass fields-to “poach” them. We don’t want to bring them in for the winter for several months yet and we urgently need some drier weather!
There have, of course, been a few dry spells during one of which Shirley managed to host a live video tour of the farm and one of our holiday cottages. You can watch the tour again here
. Partial relaxation of the lockdown restrictions has allowed our visitors to return, although with continuing restrictions on where they can go on the farm and a lot of extra work for Shirley in the changeovers. Our walks are all open, which means that anyone who wants to can get a good dose of Nature but sadly, we can’t provide the farm tours which have allowed our visitors to get up close and personal with, for example, our Highland cows. Badger watching has been popular, especially with the remote cameras linked to the TV’s in the cottages.
The last two weeks of July and the first two weeks of August are when the roe deer mate-the “rut”. It’s when the roebucks are most visible, with their deep orange coats. At least their minds are on things other than marking their territories by giving our young trees a good thrashing with their antlers. Shirley was lucky enough to see something which I have never seen in many years of roe watching. She saw a young buck rouse himself from resting on one of the islands in our loch, swim across to the bank, shake himself off like a dog and then casually clear the fence as if it wasn’t there. I’m very jealous. I’ve never seen a roe deer swim, although I’m not surprised that, like cows, horses and even pigs, they can if they have to.
The hot news from the Network in Scotland is that we have appointed a professional to spearhead our efforts. Fantastic news for those of us in Scotland and we hope, a real gamechanger. Nikki Yoxall starts with the Network on a part-time basis on 1 September. She’s a farmer with a special interest and expertise in education and social media and I hope our members in Scotland will be hearing a lot more from us about what we’re doing on their behalf.
The month has seen the loss of two “old friends” for me -a very old beech tree, which blew down into our newest young wood and an old crab apple tree, which blew down across our farm trail. It’s always sad to see such magnificent and long-lived trees reach the end of their lives. It took me several days to clear the beech, which had fallen across the walkway through the new wood; and a day to clear the crab apple. Both will provide logs which will go into store to dry for a year before we can burn them in the house and the holiday cottages. I’ve left the lop and top-the branches- in situ to provide a bit of shelter for farm wildlife.
And despite all the wet weather, I’ve managed to paint some of the outside of the farmhouse. I won’t mention that I got stuck 20 feet up in the air, when I couldn’t get the cherry picker we’d hired, to let me down. I don’t like heights at the best of times, so that’s an experience I’d rather draw a line under. I still have a lot of painting to do, thankfully at lower levels; there are lots of things in a Dumfriesshire farmyard that need regular re-painting!
I hope that August will see the painting done, the midden fixed and the fields drier. Then we can think about tackling our autumn jobs. Where did that summer go?
“The last day of June 2020 will stick in my mind for a long time, for a very good reason. It was one of those “stop the clock” moments when I saw two successfully hatched lapwing chicks scurrying along our loch edge with their parent. We had been aware of a nest somewhere on our winter bird food crop for some time as the adult male repeatedly took to the wing whenever we were near. It’s the crowning glory for us of a very good hatching year for young birds at Williamwood. We’ve never seen so many young tree sparrows, another species whose numbers have been declining nationally. Lapwing numbers have declined by over 60% in the last 45 years. We hope our pair of new arrivals make it through to adulthood and help the effort on many other nature friendly farms to reverse those declines. Lapwings are such attractive and iconic birds. We’re well made up!
Things are looking up for us on the economic front too. The bookings for our cottages are flooding in as people are keen to get a countryside and nature fix after such a long lockdown. Shirley has had to do some very detailed risk assessments and lay on many extra precautions for our visitors’ safety as well as our own. Sadly, they mean that we won’t be able to have the close contact which has been a feature of our visitor experiences in the past. But I’m working to make sure the walks are open (the vegetation growth here is awesome) so that our visitors can still see our grazing animals, our wildlife and our wildflowers. We have more orchids and more tway-bladed orchids, which are quite unusual, than ever and July is one of the best months to see them. I managed to paint the outsides of the cottages, which are now looking very smart, while Shirley was busy on the insides. We don’t want to see much more of the weather of the last few days, thank you-hashy, bashy wind and rain; somewhere in between that and the very hot weather of the middle of the month would be ideal.
The longest day is always a turning point for us. In some ways, it feels like a roller coaster ride. Heading towards it means that the days are getting longer and that there are more hours to enjoy living and working in the countryside. Heading away from it means the opposite. Of course, there are warm months ahead but we can’t help feeling that we’re already on course for the harder routines of the winter. Sad, isn’t it? Good job there’s still so much to do to take our minds off it!
The sheep have been clipped (shorn), the first draw of lambs have gone to market and we’ve made our first cut of silage. The liming has visibly helped our grass and reinforced our determination to have another soil analysis carried out next year. Anything which means we can reduce our bought-in fertiliser bill has to be a good thing, especially as it will help us further reduce our carbon footprint. I need to start thinking about my hedge and new wood planting plan for 2020/2021 soon. These things always take as long in the planning as the execution. I’m told there is a shortage of young plants because stocks have been destroyed as a result of the lockdown. I do hope that doesn’t mean a struggle to source enough.
The Prime Minister has just announced a major public works building programme to help kick-start the economy. I hope we soon hear more about his plans for “The Green Recovery”. NFFN will be working hard to see that better support for nature friendly farming features in that. In Scotland, we also have the Higgins Report, released in June, which advises the Scottish Government on ” how Government policy can help the transition towards a greener, net-zero and well-being economy”. We could show them how, if we could get them out to nature friendly farms! We’ll keep lobbying, employing terms like “natural capital” (one of their four “pillars”) and getting them to put some substance behind their call for “the prioritisation of nature-based solutions (to) build on the natural environment as a key part of Scotland’s brand and comparative advantage to the benefit of tourism and other sectors”. Has the penny finally begun to drop? With nature and biodiversity central themes of the UK’s COP 26 Presidency, “focussing on the importance of nature-based solutions, which should be a win for livelihoods, climate and biodiversity”, let’s hope so!”
“An incredible dawn chorus, families of tree sparrows bursting from the hedges, a merlin we’ve never seen here before-all signs that the nature friendly measures are working and audible and visible reminders that it is possible to produce food and help the environment at the same time.
The lockdown continues for us all, with differing rates of easing across the UK. The weather here has helped make the restrictions more bearable. Long balmy evenings after very hot days have meant an opportunity to get more done before calling it a day. May is the best month of the year here: the farm looks greener and better than it does at any other time of the year. The grass is jumping and the last of the cows have been turned out, with a few of them still to calve, so it’s fingers crossed that we don’t have to intervene. We’ve had a potential show calf this year-one that stands out from the rest. Very exciting!
Only a farmer or a gardener could complain that we need rain; but we do. It has been extraordinarily dry. I spent many happy hours preparing and sowing my wild bird crop to feed the birds over the winter, only to see it refusing to germinate and being attacked by flocks of rooks and jackdaws. We’ve bought some fireworks to deter them but I’m afraid it may be too little, too late. I may have to re-do it, despite excellent advice from Kings and applying lime to it and several other fields in an effort to reduce our bought-in fertiliser and help our carbon footprint.
With the prospect of visitors returning to our holiday cottages in July, we’ll need to spend June “fettling them up”, as we say around here. I’ll need to re-paint the exteriors and Shirley will concentrate on the insides. It’s all a bit like painting the Forth Bridge.
A big disappointment for the Network and many other farmers was the defeat in the House of Commons of the amendment to the Agriculture Bill , intended to stop imports produced to lower standards than in the UK. It’s caused quite a tremor and something of a sense of betrayal, despite assurances from those MP’s who voted against it that there’s a bigger picture and that the Government remains committed to protecting the standards to which food sold in the UK can be produced. With the clock ticking towards Brexit, it has heightened the sense of anxiety that we may be heading for an unwelcome future for nature friendly farming. We’ll do our bit in Scotland to help the Network campaign to make sure that is not the case. It would be a tragedy.
Keep safe and well, especially as the lockdown is eased. Enjoy the good weather while it lasts and the extra boost which the lockdown has given our wildlife this year. Every cloud has a silver lining….”
Wonderful weather, swallows back, bluebells out in profusion, signs of Spring everywhere-what’s not to like about the last month at Williamwood? So much better than the month before and a better way to endure the lockdown, even if our holiday cottages remain eerily empty and mean that we are struggling to pay our suppliers. We hope that they will be sympathetic.
Lambing is nearly over, calving continues and we have two new foals-so lots of new life to look after, although we hope that their mothers will do most of that. Nevertheless, we will need to keep a close eye on them for a few weeks yet. It’s a full-on time of year for us, with a great sigh of relief when mothers and offspring can be turned out into the fields for an early bite of grass-even if the mares and foals need to be brought back in every evening!
I managed to finish planting the new wood and hedges just before the ground became so hard that planting would have been very difficult. The downside of all the dry, sunny weather that we’ve enjoyed is that some of the new plants, especially the holly, do look stressed and are desperate for rain. Somehow, I think Nature will restore the balance.
A nature friendly farm is a wonderful place on which to enjoy Spring. You can almost wallow in Nature’s bountifulness. It never ceases to fill me with wonder. Where there was brown, there is now green. Where there were bare branches, there are now green leaves of all hues and the birds are already bringing off their first broods. Such an extraordinary turn-around from a few short weeks ago, triggered by something deep within the fauna and flora, which it is so important for us as farmers to nurture for future generations.
The lockdown has brought home to all of us the importance of food security and the benefits of being able to shop locally. I know that many farmers have stepped up to the plate and increased their local and national deliveries wherever they can. Our challenge as nature friendly farmers is to ensure that food security is improved at the same time as support for the care of the environment and efforts to combat climate change. None of us, farmers or consumers, can afford to see food security strengthened at the expense of the environment, putting short term expediency above the long term interests of future generations. Biodiversity decline and climate change have not gone away and we will need to ensure that they remain well up the political agenda when the pandemic has eased.
I hope that you’re all finding ways of enduring the lockdown. I’m conscious that it must be so much harder for anybody confined, for example, to a high rise flat than it is for farmers with so much more space. Where we can, I know that members of NFFN are posting brief videos on our network, which aim to bring something of our glorious countryside into your living rooms. If we can master the technology , we will do that from Williamwood. Meantime, keep safe and know that Nature is bursting with new life across the country, whatever unwelcome challenges the pandemic might bring into our lives.
(Image: Swallow by Hedley Wright)
What a difference a month makes. Last month, I didn’t think to mention coronavirus. This month, it’s hard to start with anything else. It seems to have taken over all our lives. Lockdown, self-isolation, remote-working, anxiety about the NHS’s capacity to cope, wondering how long it will all last. Let’s hope it’s not too long and that things can get back to something approaching normality before too long. Until they do, we’ll miss the income and the visitors to our holiday cottages, which are a major source of financial support for the farm and an important way of keeping us connected.
Self-isolation and movement restrictions are, of course, part and parcel of everyday life on a livestock farm, especially at this time of year. We’re well on with lambing and calving. Our premature calf is thriving and there are many new lives at Williamwood. We’ve had a good spell of dry weather, still very cold with a biting north-easterly wind which is stopping the grass growing but so much better for putting new lambs out than the incessant wet we had for months on end.
The signs of Spring are all around us. Still no swallows but green shoots starting to appear everywhere-in the hawthorn bushes, the willow saplings (a beautiful lime green) and the dog roses, which were probably the first to flush. It’s such an uplifting time of year, even in the face of a national pandemic. Farmers are so lucky to have such space in which to self-isolate but also so important to the national effort to keep food on our tables.
I want to tell you about my new wood. It’s such an exciting project. Under the Woodland Trust’s MORE Woods scheme, I’m doing all the work, including the fencing which I’ve been banging on about for some months now and the Woodland Trust is meeting the lion’s share of the cost of the woodland and hedging plants. They arrived on quite a big lorry on the day our heaviest Highland pony, heavy in foal, decided to stand on my foot. It still throbs. So I’ve hobbled through the last of the fencing and planted over 600 metres of new hedge. I’m now into setting-out and planting up the new wood and hedge with native trees and plants. It will connect two areas of massive biodiversity, which is why it’s so exciting for wildlife, for people and for reducing our carbon footprint. I wish I’d done it years ago. As they say, the best time to have planted a tree was 30 years ago; the second best time is now.
We work hard here to take particular care of our animals and to produce food in nature-friendly ways. We want to make Williamwood a watchword for biodiversity. It’s at this time of year, as Spring unfolds, that you can see how much sense it makes on all these fronts to put so much effort into farming in nature-friendly ways. It helps the animals, the wildlife, the farmer and our visitors. In fact, it helps us all by reversing wildlife declines and combating climate change.
Stay safe and well until the next time…
I knew something wasn’t right as soon as I saw all the feathers. There were just too many. The fox had killed all our hens. It was a miserable way to start the day. I knew them all. They were good buddies and gave us lots of eggs. Life on a farm can be very bruising. We’ll need to get some more but I’ll need to reinforce the anti-fox measures first; no small job when you know how persistent a crafty fox can be.
Oh, and I managed to reverse the telehandler into Shirley’s horse lorry. Oops. Another senior moment. She’d moved it “out of the way” to avoid it being blown over by the gale force winds we’ve been having. Hmmm. I did say “sorry” and that I would pay for the repair.
On a brighter note, the snowdrops are well out and our first daffodils came into bloom on 11 Feb. We planted thousands down each side of the farm drive when we came here but there are gaps now where the badgers have dug some up for the sugar in them. Badgers have a sweet tooth but I try and give them enough peanuts in the woods to keep them there. Our holiday cottage visitors like to watch them on their TV’s, which are linked to cameras in the woods. Watching them can become addictive. We love to watch their family squabbles on the camera linked to our “snug”; much better than watching those endless adverts!
I had to do a double-take when I checked in the big shed earlier this month. One of our cows had given birth to a calf. How could that have been possible when she wasn’t due for at least another couple of weeks? It was premature and unlikely to survive, particularly if we didn’t lift it off its mother, which is something we’re reluctant to do-cows make much better mothers for their calves than humans-but we felt we had to do it. We made it a cosy, straw-filled pen in a draught-free building and put it under a heat lamp. It’s a real cutie and still with us after nearly 2 weeks of 3 bottle feeds a day and lots of cuddles. Tam the cat rides shotgun on the final feed of the day at about 10pm, just to check that we’re doing the job right. Not long now until all the cows should begin calving and we begin lambing. That’s when the real “fun” starts. It takes over our lives and we become even grumpier with each other than usual.
What awful weather we’ve been having. We call it “hashy-bashy”. Gale force winds for days on end and torrential rain; a horrible combination. Whoever said there is no such thing as bad weather should try being a farmer, It’s not been
great for our Highland cows, which live outside all year nor for making progress with the fencing which I need to finish before I can start planting our new wood and hedges. The plants arrive on 16 March so I’m thinking of hiring a hovercraft.
Climate change must be a big factor in the wetter winters we’ve been getting. It wasn’t like this even 10 years ago. All the more reason to do all we can as nature friendly farmers to reduce our emissions and increase our carbon sequestration. Wins for nature can be wins for climate change too; all those extra trees and hedges will absorb carbon dioxide and getting more from our grass through better silage and less fertiliser should reduce our emissions. We’re on the journey, as we all are in NFFN.
The days are already drawing out, which makes life on the farm just that bit easier. It’s not easy driving heavy machinery in the dark. Yes, I made that excuse when I hit the lorry-not convincing when it was broad daylight. Anyway, we’re looking forward to the longer hours of daylight and the extra lives which we hope will come with them without too much trouble. The numbers dependent on Williamwood for their survival could double within the next few weeks as we begin calving and lambing in earnest. Here’s praying for some drier weather. It would make us all feel better. We can but hope.
Until next time…
Morning has broken. It’s still dark and I’m up to feed and check on the animals-always our first priority. Most of them are in the sheds at this time of year (although never our Highland cows, which brave the elements come what may) and depend on us to carry their feed to them and to keep them well-bedded with straw and watered.
I always speak to them, particularly when it’s still dark, before they see a shape looming out of the darkness. Animals get to recognise familiar voices and it’s important not to scare them. The cows and the mares are heavily pregnant now and should begin giving birth within the next 6 weeks or so. One of the cows-Rosie-always answers me with her distinctive low “moo”, as if to say “what, you again?”
Our Jack Russell terriers, Wilfie and Minnie, accompany me on my morning round; and Tam, our cat. He may be one of the smallest animals here but he can more than stand his ground. He likes to check that I’m doing the job right. The cows all seem to know him. He rocked up as a young stray 3 years ago and has made himself “Numero Uno” since; think the cat on “Shrek”. We’d be lost without him.
The short days and stormy weather at this time of the year mean it’s a constant race against time to get things done. Feeding and scraping out and topping up the bedding for the animals takes up the lion’s share of the daylight hours, with the morning routine more or less repeated in the afternoon. I use a graip-a pitchfork- to push the silage towards the cows rather than a machine because I’m keen to keep our carbon footprint as low as I can and my ageing body functioning for as long as I can-a challenging combo!
We farm near the Solway, which is the main wintering ground for thousands of greylag geese. In the morning, they lift off and fly over us on their way to our neighbours’ fields and in the evening, they fly back to the Solway. There can be as many as several hundred in the sky, great skeins in their arrowhead formations, calling to each other as they fly. You hear them before you see them-an extraordinary sight and sound which makes the hairs on the back of your neck tickle.
Winter is when I do most of my new hedge and tree planting. So far this year, I’ve planted over 3000 saplings, just to replace the plants lost in my new hedges since last year. I still have another 1200 metres of brand new hedging to do plus another new small wood of native broadleaf trees. So that’s another 9000 or so more saplings still to plant, to say nothing of the fencing that I still need to do first. You can see why I’m always racing the clock! All the rain we’ve had has made planting easier but fencing a nightmare. Some farmers are never happy!
We would be struggling without the income from our holiday cottages. This tends to be a quiet time of year for them, which leaves more time for other things, like planting new hedges and fencing but puts enormous pressure on the cashflow. Farmer are so much the poor relations of an industry which supports so many other businesses downstream, like machinery dealers and feed suppliers, who earn so much more for their efforts. Nobody can accuse us of doing what we do for the money. But nobody forces us to do it either. On a good day-and there are many of those here -there can be no better job in the world. Here’s hoping for a drier week ahead!