The Greatest of my Pride

Sir, I am a true labourer; I earn that I eat, get that I wear; owe no man hate; envy no man’s happiness; glad of other men’s good, content with my harm; and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck. (As You Like It III/ii)

They usually lamb late each spring in this northern hill country, for obvious reasons. An out of joint weekend of sneaky snow came and went, marked by a plaintive night time of baaing from the wide open pasture next our house. Yet they all seemed to survive this sudden yet brief reversion to winter with few casualties.

Our neighbour comes by on the quad next day with supplement pellets in a hopper. Eldest grandson Joe, just turned 17 and keen to explore the possibilities of a career in agriculture, is staying with us in order to gain work experience with our friends up at Southridge as well as with other good friends over the hill at Hazelford. Everyone wishes for more grass; it’s been slow coming on this springtime. Once out and about a sharp eye needs keeping on lambs looking for novel ways to die, like drowning in a fallen land drain or getting stuck in a culvert.

Younger grandson Harry (11) is also here with his younger sister, and he’s up next door for one morning too, in the ‘hospital’ shed doing the rounds of the various ‘casualty’ lambs, helping with feeding and other routine tasks. Joe’s observing calving as well as lambing, seeing and hearing first hand all that’s involved in the various processes and how the farmer’s hands on skills dealing with difficult deliveries makes all the difference to an animal’s survival.

After work I oversee the boys shooting in the garden with my old BSA air rifle. We set an old watering can up on the gatepost to our field and pop away from increasing distances. It turns out Harry is as good, indeed on some sessions, better than Joe or me.  I remember my older brother doing all this sort of stuff with me at his age and what fun it was. 

We go down to the other end of our field to put a new New Zealand style latch on the gate, refill the bird feeder, watch for avian visitors with the binoculars, pick up and haul back more branches to feed through the chipper or logs to extend the established hibernation habitation for amphibians around the garden pond. One day Harry & I see three roe deer does break cover from the willow carr below to lope across the open field, white rumps bouncing away as they flee.

Emily (8) has no interest in sheep or shooting, but loves making art. She also helps out Kim, planting seed potatoes, arranging flowers picked in the garden or watering in the greenhouse. She also helps me re-paint the old metal garden seat. And a day drawing or painting in the studio on her own or with her friend, our neighbour’s granddaughter visiting, is never wasted.

A combined family walk over at Hazelford a few days later on a fine sunny afternoon is good for us all in different ways. We’re shown where the orphaned or rejected lambs are ‘put to’ adoptive ewes, penned by bales and hurdles in the lower barn, until the smell and presence bonds them (or not as the case may be).

I peel off track from time to time to take in the lie of the little valley. Star bursts of spring flowers in the banks; free mingling celandines, primroses, violets and wild strawberry enriching the vision with their delicate colour mix. Alders, willows and ash define the river along its boundary banks.

Further off I admire the mature trees, mainly oaks, along the steep bank that defines the northern edge of meadow. These are remnants of ancient woodland (officially defined as being at least 400 years old). Now protected by fencing, up until 40 years ago when our friends tenure started, it was still being felled for timber. Today an understory of hazel gleams in the sun, hawthorns are shortly to burst into leaf while grey discarded boughs gently rot on the ground below the giants that shed them. Fencing doesn’t stop deer predating oak saplings while summer’s rampant grasses and weeds will likely choke them. Our friends are planting oaks from home grown acorns as and where they can.

The four younger grandchildren we have between us and our hosts, aged from 2 to 11, had played well together down the track, in the fields and at the stream, while the mule ewes and their new lambs gaze or graze as we pass. There was tea and homemade shortbread, bread and jam to be had in the farmhouse garden on our return, with a gymnastic display from the kids by way of entertainment, before the return of the parents.

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