Summer is a distant memory. After a busy autumn with tupping and settling the cattle in their winter pastures, we are ready for the cold weather routine. My four lovely young rams have all been hired out and are returning triumphant.
In late October we began preparing the ewes for the tup - the ram is put to work. He joins the ewes to get them in-lamb. This is the natural cycle which has gone on since sheep became domesticated. The ewes are ready for the rams in autumn so they lamb in spring when the grass is beginning to grow again. Today farmers can mess about with nature so ewes lamb earlier in the year. Lambs born in January are ready for the Easter market, where they fetch a premium price. But I stick with tradition and let nature take its course.
We collected my forty one ewes from two adjoining fields, got them all together and walked them down the lane to the holding area. They all happily follow when I shake the bucket full of sheep nuts. Archie and I then sent them down the sheep race, checking their tag number, marking them with a colour and separating them into two groups for the two rams. Portland sheep are a rare breed and although their population is rising, there is still a limited gene pool. We don’t want to breed them too closely. Fortunately there is software available to all Portland breeders which helps us determine if any ram is too closely related to a ewe. Very clever.
We gave each sheep a quick health check, trimmed their feet and then walked each group back to their autumn pastures. Finally we collected the two rams. In the past I have strapped a ‘raddle’ with a coloured crayon. This wraps around the chest of the ram and when he mounts the ewe it leaves a mark. But I have had a bit of trouble with the raddle loosening or chaffing. So this year we tried a different method, mixing a special powder with vegetable oil. This gets 'painted' all over the ram's chest and does leave a much bigger clearer mark. It needs renewing every few days but my rams are quite easy to catch. I approach with a bucket of nuts, they stick their head in, I grab a horn and yell for Archie (hiding behind a hedge) to come quickly before the ram pulls away. Definitely a two man job. More ‘paint’ applied and off they go. What a wonderful sight to see, a field of sheep with big colourful bums.
The Highland cattle are settled in their winter ground and being fed haylage already. We finally have bought a newer tractor which makes the task quicker and probably safer. (Our old 1987 John Deere is now a collectors item)! The calves have their own ‘creep’ feeder in the field, where they can get cattle nuts, too. In prior years we had been housing them to give them a good first winter. But this autumn they are still with their mums and getting that little bit extra, too. They come running when Archie arrives with the bucket of ‘cake’, ready to pour into their feeder. Merry Christmas!
Here it is, already the end of the summer. The new holiday cottages have been full and kept me very busy - the final calf born, a successful show season finished, haylage made for winter feed, honey bottled, and all the usual livestock ‘maintenance’.
Old Coombe Cottages were off to a flying start in early July. We have been pretty much fully booked since then, with the month ahead also busy. Old Sawyers, our thatched cottage in the village is also a holiday let so I have become a full time cleaner! I’m really proud of what we have accomplished with a sad old cattle shed. It was fun to decorate and furnish and our guests have been full of compliments. We let through www.holidaycottages.co.uk, who have been excellent.
Most of the cattle spent the summer up on Crabbe Hill, thriving on the rough grass, doing their bit for conservation by eating the Himalayan balsam and crushing the gorse. We moved them down the second week of August and our Highland bull, Frazzle, was finally united with 5 cows and a heifer. But a few days later we noticed he was lame. Back he came to the holding area, vet inspected, and he had basically sprained his ankle. (That is my rather simplistic explanation). Archie and I lured him into the crush every few days for an anti-inflammatory injection. Not fun. This week we moved him back, must to his delight. So calving will be over an extended period next spring and summer.
We attended a couple more shows this summer with the Portland sheep. The Rare Breed show at Singleton in West Sussex was quite a distance to travel but what a lovely show it was. We has a decent number of Portland Breeders there, good weather in a beautiful field on the grounds of the Weald and Down Museum. And our ram lamb got a First.
Melplash, our local show, was the highlight of the summer. I received a Third for my two year old ram, a First for my badly behaved ram lamb, a Third for the ewe lamb, and a First for my lovely shearling ewe Daphne. Minty, my fabulous halter training helper, showed her beautifully. And Daphne went on to win Best of Breed! So we got to strut around in the grand Parade. A great day to finish the season.
The weather has been up and down this summer, a couple of heat waves and then cooler rainy days in August. The grass has grown well and we managed to get plenty of bales of haylage for winter feeding. Archie has been taking care of the permanent grassland fields, topping and spot killing the nettle and docks. Dan has been busy with his bees, but was disappointed in the final yield - forty five jars of honey (still almost double last year). He had two swarms at the worst possible time. But he did get a Third at Melplash for a frame of honey!
I am now supplying two local restaurants with Highland beef and Portland hogget. That looks to expand with keen interest from a local gastro pub. And the September fete for Weldmar Hospice Trust in Dorchester will be serving Highland burgers. My wonderful mother was so kindly treated by hospice nurses in Florida. So I am donating in her memory, she would have loved my farm….
The last lamb was finally born on the 16th of May and here it is, over a month later already. The calves began arriving in early June. Well, two calves appeared within a day of each other, one coloured the traditional red and the other white, both bull calves. The third was stillborn, very sad and that has only happened once before about 10 years ago. The next was born in the middle of June, a lovely lively heifer calf, who was up and running with the other two within a day of her arrival. Still waiting for the fourth and final.
Tagging is always a challenge and I never manage to get any photos as it is all hands on, mum angry, calf mewing. We drive the ranger into the field, grab the calf, pull it quickly onboard, race into the holding area, shut the gate, with 5 bewildered and unhappy cows charging after us!
This year Archie got his two buddies to help, as we decided to ring castrate at the same time as tagging. In the past I have called in the vet when the bull calves are a few months old. All went well and the bull calves didn’t appear bothered at all. I just hope it worked.
We brought four sheep to the Sherborne Show at the end of May, two rams and two shearling ewes. Douglas the Labrador puppy came along, too. He is just six months old and quite large, an enthusiastic boy with a lovely temperament. (and in need of more training)!
We all had a good day. Both rams got a first in their classes, 'shearling' and 'older ram'. The shearing ewes were awarded a second and fourth. I now need to get on with halter training some lambs very soon.
The weather has been up and down, as usual. We had a few unusually cold days and recently a heat wave. The sheep were shorn just before the cold weather so had a few chilly days without their fleeces. Shearing day is always pretty exhausting, and I don’t even do the toughest job! We collect all the sheep, leaving the lambs behind. They are all brought down to the sheds, keeping the rams separate from the rest. After each sheep is shorn I scoop up the fleece, lay it out on a board, pick off the dirtiest bits and roll it up. By that time the next fleece is ready and so it goes.
All that lanolin does make for very soft hands at the end of the day. When the shearer finishes his job the sheep are loaded up and returned back to their fields. The ewes run off the trailer, the noise begins as mothers and babies greet each other. But there is always much confusion as the lambs cannot quite figure out who these funny ladies are, with no fleece!
The British Wool Board buys all the fleeces produced by sheep farmers. Wool is collected at designated centres, the wool is cleaned and then sold to buyers from all over the world. Their value has increased slightly in the last few years but no farmer can make a living from selling fleeces. It barely covers the cost of the shearing.
I am fortunate that Portland fleeces are popular with hand spinners. So I am able to sell the best fleeces for £5 or more. I will also enter my best fleece in agricultural show competitions. Last year I received a first at the Three Counties Show. My problem is choosing good fleeces!
There is always so much to learn when dealing with livestock. The internet is a good source when questions arise, but the best source is other sheep farmers. And thank goodness so many are ready to help and advise. So I have had some guidance from two fellow Portland breeders who happen to know so much about fleeces. Norma is also a hand spinner and will sell some of my fleeces at Wool festivals.
I mentioned several months ago that we received planning permission to convert a stone cattle shed into two holiday cottages. We are nearing completion, and lately this has occupied so much of my time. We were very fortunate to find a super team of builders, and that is not an exaggeration. The two cottages are looking very smart and I hope to have holiday guests in early July. This provides a new income stream for the farm. And I am now selling some of my beef and hogget/mutton to a couple of very nice restaurants in the area and hoping to expand on that.
About a week before moving the ewes into the shed Archie spotted an unwell ewe first thing in the morning. She had prolapsed. This means her vagina and bladder were pushed out, a deep red ball was exposed at her backside. It rarely happens with Portlands. She was an older ewe and we quickly attended to her, carefully pushing things back in, and applying a gadget like a harness that prevents it all coming back out again. We put her in a pen but she was very unsettled. Very quickly I could see she was ill and called the vet. The ewe was given penicillin but deteriorated with a high temperature. And we lost her even before lambing began.
On April 4th the first lamb was born - a nice normal delivery, meaning two little feet and a nose make an appearance. The ewe sometimes pushes the lambs out quite quickly. Others struggle for quite a while, but as long as progress is made I don’t interfere. So lambs began to arrive, the routine began. Lambs are born in the open shed. The pair are moved into a bonding pen for a couple of days. They then go out into a small paddock just behind the barn where mum can enjoy eating fresh grass again, After another day or two they join the others in the bigger field. The lambs grow in confidence, racing around the field like naughty children, ignoring their mothers' calls!
This year I stayed overnight in the barn right next to the shed. This was not a hardship! Dan has a lovely office room in the building with a small wood stove, sink, fridge, etc. WiFi, too. There is a rug on the floor and a couple of chairs. He calls it ‘the bothy’ and it is quite cosy. So I made myself up a comfy bed on the floor and spent my evenings and nights there. When Dan arrived from London for the weekends he took over. Much easier to pop out for checks through the night and get right back to sleep if all was quiet. And nice to make a cup of tea at 3 am while waiting for a ewe to give birth!
About a week into lambing I lost four lambs, right in a row. The ewes were all first timers, lambs were very small and all the ewes had problems with their udders. Sometimes the first bit of colostrum can be quite thick. But this colostrum was thicker than vaseline and completely sticky. At first we thought the ewe had mastitis, an infected udder. I could not even strip any out to feed the lamb myself. (Tubing the lamb - inserting a small rubber tube down the lamb’s throat and slowly feed the lamb directly into the stomach).The vet was called and had never seen such a thing. The mothers lost complete interest in their lambs, mostly ignoring them. They obviously felt very unwell. Oxytocin was applied, a drug which brings on milk. I tried like crazy to save the lambs, tubing through the night and the next day but they never thrived. It was all quite heartbreaking.
I have my theory, although some disagree and the vets had never seen such a thing, and consulted many colleagues. I think these four young ewes went into the shed, ate the hay but never had a drink of water over the next 7-9 days. There was a trough and buckets of water available, but I think they became intensely dehydrated. I did carefully pour water down their throats as one of the treatments. All did come into normal milk about 4-5 days after lambing by by then it was too late.
To our great relief this condition was not repeated. In fact I had to intervene only once with a lamb stuck with only the nose appearing. I was able to get the legs positioned and out came the lamb. All the other births were straightforward. Ewes happy, Jo happy. I watch the first time mums quite carefully as they can be a bit unsure about this new little life mewing and trying to poke around looking for the teats. It is always the nicest feeling to see and hear the sucking and lambs getting their fill of colostrum. Then it’s back to bed!
I did have a real scare with one little ram lamb who was strong and healthy and went as normal from the bonding pen to the little paddock to the field over four days. We noticed the lamb on day five was very lethargic so I brought the pair back inside. The lamb was weak and not sucking. I was determined not to lose him. He had watery mouth disease, an infection in his gut. Usually lambs get this in the first day or two, from a dirty lambing area. My pens are clean and disinfected and I am quite sure he picked up something outside. I spent the next 2 days and nights milking a very confused mother and tubing the baby. I also collected some tiny antibiotic pills from the vet which I put down his throat. It was a good moment when Dan finally saw him up and sucking again. He lives!!
I have twenty one lambs running around the field now, two ewes still to lamb. The weather has been wonderful, the grass is growing and ewes are full of milk. This has been a difficult lambing season, losing four lambs. Now I need to pay a bit of attention to five highland cattle ready to calve!
Although many lambs have already arrived on other farms, I follow the traditional calendar, putting the ram with the ewes on the fifth of November so lambing begins on the first of April. I did miss that by a few days so my lambs should begin arriving tomorrow. Of course, it is all unpredictable and I will be checking through the night.
This last month we have been getting ready. The five young highland steers finally rejoined the rest of the cattle after a cosy few months getting fat in the shed.
Archie spent a long day cleaning out the smelly bedding, then spraying down and disinfecting. He had the shed spotless, ready for the ewes.
Meanwhile we vaccinated the ewes and all the rest of the Portlands with Heptavac P which prevents some nasty diseases. The also needed worming.
I had all the ewes crutched. A local lad came and sheared them around their backsides and tails. It helps me see what is going on and they don’t get as messy during the birthing process.
We then moved them down to the farmyard and they settled into the small field behind the barn for a couple of days, before finally wandering into their very clean and cosy lambing shed.
The grass has been growing and I hate mowing the lawn. Archie set up some electric fencing and we brought down four one year old ewe lambs to stay in our front garden for a while. It was all going so well until the friskiest of the group got a mild shock and then proceeded to fight back, attacking the fencing. They all bolted out and had a lovely time racing around the garden and around to the back of the house. After some frantic chasing we managed to corner them. They were popped into the empty dog kennel, we returned three to the re-set fenced area and put the wild one back to the field. There has been no more trouble and I think the three rather enjoy their position observing all the comings and goings around the house. They are doing an amazing job eating the grass and we’ll expand their territory as the days go by.
It has been over a month since my last blog. February is now behind us and the evenings are becoming that little bit lighter. The routines carry on, feeding the five Highland calves in the shed, filling the rings with haylage for the rest of the fold out in the fields, checking the Portland sheep, especially the ewes, with lambing getting closer.
In the middle of the month we collected the second young ram we hired out to Kingston Maurwood College, where they keep a flock of Portlands. He was very popular with all the students and well taken care of. Once home he joined in with my other rams with very little head banging.
We had our television debut on the 23rd! Last summer’s filming here and at the Melplash Show appeared on an episode of ‘The Farmers Country Showdown’ series on BBC One. Our Portlands looked lovely, but I didn’t like seeing myself! We have has lots of positive feedback and I was even recognised by the man taking my credit card when I got fuel for the Land Rover.
The dreaded TB testing, scheduled at the end of February, is always in the back of my mind through the month. We gather the cattle into the two fields adjacent to our handling area. Then each group is brought in, run down the race, into the crush. Mary the vet trims the hair, takes a skin measurement and then they get two jabs. As my fold of highlands is in a premier health scheme, they also get blood taken. Not easy! Tail lifted, needle stuck up into the vein running along the inside of the tail, all the time cow trying to pull away. The bloods are checked for certain diseases and I continue to have a clean record.
My poor little white calf, an unexpected surprise born in September, has been doing so well with all the big ones. He was too young to wean and spend winter in the shed with the other five calves. But the poor thing was knocked in the race and emerged in the cattle crush with a bloody head. His little horn was badly bumped. The vet attended to him and.applied antibiotics. His mum then licked and cleaned him up and he is fine. But the cattle never like this process and I just wish the fanatic ‘badgerists’ would understand that badgers also suffer from TB as their population has exploded. Farmers do not want all badgers exterminated, just controlled. And it should also be noted that the dwindling hedgehog population is making a comeback in badger cull areas. Save the hedgehog and continue the cull!
Three days later the cattle are all checked for a reaction. A worrying time and it was blowing with heavy rain so the cattle were reluctant to cooperate but we got through the whole ordeal with no positive reaction and all clear.
A puppy arrived! Archie found a very good gun dog breeder and an eight week old Black Labrador has joined the family. He is gorgeous of course but I forgot how much work is involved in a new puppy…still haven’t quite sorted the potty training.
The days are beginning to feel that little bit longer now, no longer dark at 4.30 in the afternoon. January drags on as it always does, definitely not my favourite month of the year.
My two stock rams have finished their time servicing the ewes. I removed Shurper and Sirius from the ewes and then put them together in a small pen for several hours to sort themselves out. They push and shove each other for a while but emerge friends. If I didn’t shut them up together first they might really hurt each other. In a small pen neither can get a running start to bash their horns together and do serious damage.
I also have two shearling rams who were hired out to other Portland flocks. One has returned so I repeated the process. The three were stuck together again in the pen. The young ram would have been attacked by the older two as he had the smell of ewes all over him. They sorted themselves relatively peacefully.
The twenty nine ewes, hopefully all in-lamb, are together in Holes ground. I visit everyday to make sure they are all okay and will start feeding them closer to lambing time in April. Right now the grass is enough for them. There is occasionally the dirty bum or lameness and I try to attend as quickly as possible so no serious problems develop. Today a ewe needed her feet trimmed so I made her pose with me! (note my very attractive hi-vis fleece) I cannot always ‘turn’ a sheep, some are too difficult but she cooperated and I put her on her bum, leaning against my legs so I could reach down with the feet trimmer to snip away the problem.
Very sadly, we lost our lovely Fletch on the 4th of January. He was our ‘rescue’ dog. We kept him temporarily when his owner, Richard, went away for two months, and Fletch never left us. At the local dog show Archie entered Fletch in the rescue dog class for a laugh. Richard was not always the most attentive owner and Fletch was well known by all the local farmers because he often ended up in their houses. As we all watched the dog show judging, Archie realised he was in a bit of trouble. The judge interviewed each rescue dog owner, who related traumatic tales of suffering and rescue. Archie hesitated and then did a brilliant job of stretching the truth. Poor Fletch was twice run over by the owner…actually it was three times! He was abandoned…Fletch did spend many hours waiting for his previous owner to emerge from a late night out. Archie and Fletch were awarded third prize which hangs proudly amongst the sheep ribbons. He was a lovely gentle dog, who would smile when he was paid attention. We made sure he smiled lots.
Things have calmed down since my last blog in November and the winter routines are well underway. The weather, though, is not cooperating. It has far too warm and damp all through December.
The ewes have all been marked with a red or blue backside, so early in the new year we can take away the rams. The five calves in the shed have settled down into their routine, looking forward to their daily bucket of nuts. Archie is handling them as much as possible, grabbing them by their horns for a little wrestle, and they are getting very used to him.
The rest of the cattle are in two fields with feed rings. About every three days they are delivered a fresh bale of haylage. Our beef sales have gone well, there is little of the last steer left in the freezer. And we busy delivering several trailer loads of our seasoned logs every week. So the farm is ending the year in a good place.
Last Sunday at Nine Lessons and Carols I heard again the story of those poor shepherds, no doubt frightened out of their wits by a host of angels singing! I am sure those angels must have promised to stay and watch their flocks before the shepherds abandoned them to go see the baby.
God’s son born in a stable, maybe not the nicest place. But they would have kept it warm, and really, they don’t smell so terrible either. The baby was surrounded by lovely beasts that give us wool to keep us warm, and milk and meat.
By C.S. Lewis
Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.
Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.
Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!
Merry Christmas and a Happy and healthy New Year to you!
The ewes and rams are settled in and Sirius and Shurper are hard at work, plenty of red bums appearing. Last week on my way down to the sheep for the daily check I came across a very unexpected sight. There were the seven black Hebrideans trotting towards me on the bridleway. They were as surprised to see me as I was them.
Luckily Archie was with me in the Polaris ranger so we very slowly continued forward and they turned around. Before we knew it they shot off the bridleway cutting through a hedgerow and up toward the beehives and freedom on Lewesdon Hill. Archie jumped out and cut them off in the nick of time. I went ahead and opened a gate into the pond area which leads in to the woods. It was a miracle we were able to guide them on through. How did they escape? Not my fault! We discovered an unlatched gate, where Dan had left them a trough with some sheep nuts. It now has a chain for extra security.
The Highland calves were born in April (excepting the white calf ‘accidentally’ appearing in September) and November is weaning month. We called two mums and calves into the holding area, separated them and loaded the cows onto the trailer. One cow is old and I don’t want to breed with her again. The other has been a very indifferent mother (rare with Highlands), has small teats and small calves. She will be culled and become mince and sausages, on the recommendation of my butcher. The older will be culled and probably become dog food. The life and death of a Highland cow. I remind myself of the decent life they have lived, and that I am a farmer and a carnivore.
Next day we gathered in the other three seven month old calves, walked their mothers back to a far field, and borrowed a pair of electric cattle clippers from our dairy farming neighbours. Although their winter shed is open on one side and very well ventilated, the calves still get sweaty. Archie became a barber and snipped a nice wide band of hair from the middle of their backs. Although held in a the cattle crush, the calves behaved very badly and one almost managed to leap out. So we were very pleased to finally get them settled in the shed.
All night long I heard the mooing and moaning, calves calling for their mums and mums calling back, the quiet night carrying their voices. I did feel very badly for them all…until the following morning. Archie and I had begun the annual apple juice production (eighty two bottles so far) when we looked up from the barn to see Morag strutting down the bridleway heading for the calf shed. As the heavens opened with freezing rain we forced her into a turn-about and whacked, pushed and shoved her all the way back into the field.
Archie found the spot where she had jumped over the fence onto the bridleway and promptly reinforced it. We do have very good fencing, but if a cow really wants to, she can jump over a very high barrier. At about two in the morning I heard mooing outside my bedroom window. There were three unhappy cows in the field by the house. My Highlands had become Show Jumpers! For whatever reason, they become rather defeated in this field, spent the next day bawling, and agreeably walked back to their proper home the following morning. Calves quieted and peace was restored and I hope I never have a weaning episode like this again.
A few days later we had very heavy rains, apparently rainfall for the month in less than 48 hours. Rivers of water poured down the bridleway. The next morning I went to check the stock as usual and there on the bridleway were five steers! They had been in a field at the very far end of the farm, up by the top of Lewesdon Hill. We think they got spooked by the ferocious winds and rain and five jumped a fence. They stopped and settled on the bridleway by another field of Highlands, hoping to join them I guess. As they were due to be moved soon, that is just what we let them do. Later we collected the other five better behaved boys and walked them to their winter field. The cattle rings are now filled with bales of haylage and all is calm.
Dan’s seven Hebridean sheep were purchased to live in his woodland. Instead they have been in a field behind the barn, living it up, as Dan has been giving them sheep nuts to ‘tame’ them. Dan is away and Archie and I decided it was time to move them to their proper home. The bribing did not work! They were crazy, almost impossible to pen. Twice we managed to catch them and some jumped over the hurdles and out! Very frustrating, but on the third attempt we managed to squeeze the hurdles around them in a tight little bundle. They did try to climb over each other but with a channel running up to the trailer we quickly loaded them up. They are settling into the woodland, and easy to spot with their black coats.
The two rams will soon be introduced to the twenty nine ewes, “tupping” season. The ewes have been on good grazing, getting in top condition for pregnancy. On Wednesday I gathered them all in to give them a careful inspection and then Archie, Matt and I set about doing their feet. Foot trimming is necessary, as the hoof grows, a bit like human fingernails, and must be cut back. If you ever see a sheep kneeling on his front legs while eating grass, he is not praying. Or he might be praying that the shepherd comes and trims his sore feet!
We also trimmed the lamb’s feet, the wethers (castrated males) and the rams. A long morning and a rather sore back from leaning over. Some of the lambs needed worming, the rest of the flock did not, so another job completed. We loaded up the lambs and put them all together, except for the two ram lambs staying with the big boys.
Late last week we gathered in the twenty nine ewes. Archie loves the new race we bought for sheep handling. They run through the race and with a small swinging gate can then be separated into two pens. I had my clipboard all ready with ewe tag numbers listed and marked left or right, thirteen in one pen, sixteen in another. There is not a terribly large population of Portlands, so we must be very careful about inbreeding. Luckily our Breed Group has a very smart piece of kit, computer software that compares the relationship between rams and ewes. This Kinship Analysis is vital at tupping time, and ewes are allocated to the ram they are least related to.
Next we loaded them into our little sheep trailer and transported each group to different fields. Now for the rams. ‘Raddles' were clipped on, each holding a big red crayon. I will know when Shurper or Sirius have serviced a ewe when I see a red patch on the ewe’s back end.
Time for mutton sausage making! We allowed the carcass, prepared last week, to hang for six days. Matt, a trained butcher was in charge and Archie and I were his enthusiastic apprentices.
We set up our work station with mincer and sausage making machine. All of the meat was minced, only saving a shoulder for a mutton tagine I’ll be make for the weekend. I had spices, herbs and dried fruit flavourings and we made Merguez and Moroccan Spice sausages. The mutton is perfect for richer spicy flavour. And they are delicious!
Jo Stover has daily adventures on her small farm, together with her Highland cattle and Portland sheep, bees, a few hens, dogs, and some two-legged family and friends.