Close encounter

3 March 2011 § 7 Comments

To boldly go

In his overalls, bulky boots
And thick fleece hat pulled right down over his ears
He lumbers, slow, stiff-legged,
Over the sodden ground
Like a spaceman on an alien planet
Where the atmosphere’s thin and bitter cold
And the gravity’s turned right up.

The mission commander remains behind
On the quad-bike that squats like a moon-buggy
On its fat balloon tyres
And from the seat, he barks peremptory orders
At the half-dozen sheep
Gathering round the trough,
Grateful for this daily visitation
From another world.

I saw this little scene played out on a dog-walk in Wales the other week. I think the whippet (who was wearing his fleece jacket at the time) felt rather inadequate when he saw the collie standing on the quad-bike seat in the freezing wind, barking joyously, having almost certainly spent the night outdoors too. I was certainly conscious that I’m not nearly tough enough for a life like that. Then again, how many of us are?

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Life force

1 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Miracle

I don’t need
To see five thousand fed
On loaves and fishes,
Blind eyes opened,
Or a man shake off the tomb like a twenty-four-hour flu.

Just show me
A calf
Thirty seconds into life;
A heap of wet rags in the straw.

Her wide-eyed dam licks every glistening, astonishing inch of her;

And with the steam still rising
From her new piebald coat,
The calf snorts, shakes her head and strains to govern
Those outsize, unruly legs
And stand,
Drawn to the udder by a power
She can’t resist, and I cannot explain.

My mother-in-law’s house in Wales is on her brother’s dairy farm. My daughter and I went down to visit Uncle R one afternoon, and arrived literally seconds after a heifer calf had been born. My daughter, who’s nine, was captivated by the new arrival (who’s since been named after her) and I was reminded that miracles not only can happen, but do. You know them when you see them.

Sunday shepherding

27 February 2011 § 2 Comments

A price on their heads

Out on the Forest feeding sheep
Marking time on rented keep
Too meagre for such eager beggars.

Haul out two bales of precious hay;
Enough, I hope, to last the day
And overnight. A sodden August

Followed by a savage winter
Has made barns into bank vaults,
Stacked to the roof with summer’s riches
Bound in bales, tight as wads of tenners.

I slash the strings,
Releasing long-imprisoned scents
Of late July, and shake the flakes
Into the rack with the careful hands and watchful eye
Of a chef preparing Alba truffles
For a visiting head of state.

And the woolly starveling mob crowd in
Rowdy as schoolboys at the bell,
Tearing, greedy, at the pale green stems
Like shoppers in the New Year sales.
I watch them, forgetful of the cost
In their contentment. And long for spring.

I’ve finally managed to return to my shepherding roots in a small way, as a part-time volunteer helping out with a conservation grazing project on the Ashdown Forest. My charges are 240 Hebridean sheep, an ancient breed from the far north-west of Scotland. They’re tough, hardy beasts, but good winter grazing is hard to come by, and they’re on pretty thin pickings at the moment, with the soil still too cold for the grass to start growing in earnest. We’re having to supplement their diet with hay, but prices are at an all-time high, and we’re longing for the day when they can leave their winter quarters and go up onto the Forest and start doing their job properly.

Fallow ground

3 February 2011 § 6 Comments

A poem about a group of deer I spotted on a ride this week.

FALLOW GROUND

Were they cattle
I could count on them
To still be here
At sunset.
But within an hour
Or at some sudden sound
They can vanish,
Passing like woodsmoke through
The arbitrary lines and limits
Ruled across the land:

Fences, gates and hedges
Do not hold them;
Feeding like sheep
In this quiet pasture
They’re never for a second
Less than wild.
Everywhere and nowhere,
Slotting in among the common stock
Then blithely with their white rumps bobbing,
Misting into the sheltering woods
Leaving the tame, compliant and confined
Flat-footed in the field.

Cold hard truth

29 January 2011 § 3 Comments

JANUARY LAMBS

A cold wind out of the east
Like this would cause my old boss to shake his head
And mutter, “It’ll check ‘em, worse’n snow,”
And he was a man who ought to know:
A dozen winters on Romney Marsh as man
Then twenty more as master
Of three hundred acres of stubborn clay
Had taught hard lessons. He’d learned them well,
And in time passed them down to me;
And so today, riding by a meadow
Sprinkled with January lambs
Like well-floured loaves or fallen clouds
Pressed to their dams in the wind-combed sward,
I shook my head, murmured ‘This’ll check ‘em’
And felt the easterly thrust me back
Into a life now half-forgotten
And wondered if I’d grown at all.

Cattle drive

18 January 2011 § 3 Comments

Out riding at the weekend, I followed a small group of cattle being driven along a lane. I didn’t begrudge the hold-up: for one thing, I was grateful for the rest; for another, I’ve created a few bovine traffic-jams in my time, and the whole scene brought back many memories. It also set my imagination working.

DROVING

Just ten head – steers, heifers and their dams –
And still they fill the lane with their wanderings.
Like tourists, they stop and gawp,
Take snapshot snatches at the hedgerow
Or duck into drives and gateways.
The old man out in front
Never turns, but keeps step,
One mallet fist holding
A plain yard-long ash stick outstretched,
Rigid and unarguable as a border checkpoint:
They will not pass him.
Behind, the boy – six foot and four-and-twenty –
Trudges, wordless but for odd sharp yips
And gruff praise for the laughing collies,
Waiting for the grip of that hard hand
To weaken.

Doing the groundwork

14 October 2010 § 2 Comments

SENSE OF URGENCY

On the headland
Two red Masseys stand
With engines stopped;
A moment’s silence
For a snatched tea-break;
Then, drill refilled,
And ring-roller singing,
Get another fifty acres of winter wheat seed
Snug and spaced precisely in the still-warm tilth.

Three fields away
A blue New Holland stays
Hard at it, disc harrows
Raising the dust.
No time to be lost
While the clay lies dry;
Just a single day of rain and they’ll all be struggling,
With bogged-down implements and clogged-up tyres.

Under the shaw
A green John Deere roars
As the heavy cultivator
Rips the tawny maize stubble
Into brown corduroy,
Releasing the scent
That rose up to greet us
When we first hitched our oxen and scratched at the soil:
The earth’s exhalation; the quick tang of life.

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