A couple of years ago I organised a proper American Thanksgiving in the Stoke Abbot village hall. Everyone pitched in, bringing turkeys. I made some of the traditional trimmings and quite a few pumpkin pies and a wonderful evening was had by all. But as the British think Thanksgiving is only about Americans stuffing their faces, I felt it my duty to explain that Thanksgiving is an almost sacred holiday, and is so much more than food. So I wrote and recited this poem...
Thanksgiving Poem by J Stover
Some English folk didn’t like the Church, they decided to break away.
The church was too fancy, with cathedrals and music, and they wanted a church rather grey.
These Separatists tried Holland first and stayed there for a while,
But after hearing about the glorious New World, into the Mayflower they piled.
On the 6th of September 1620, one hundred two Pilgrims set sail,
For sixty six days they endured awful conditions, arriving quite sickly and pale.
The Pilgrims made landfall near Cape Cod Massachusetts on a cold November day,
They together signed the Mayflower Compact, letting democracy lead the way.
Now William Bradford, one of these Pilgrims, sounded not all that well pleased.
“A hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild men and wild beasts”.
A very harsh winter followed and they struggled to survive,
The settlement was now called Plymouth and 46 Pilgrims died.
Samoset, a native Indian came to visit in the following spring.
He was sent by his chief, Massasoit and two arrows he did bring.
One arrow was pointed, the other blunt,
Samoset spoke some English so he didn’t have to grunt.
Pilgrim John Carver took the blunted arrow of peace and signed a treaty
They would come to each other’s defence, help when the other was needy.
Indian, Squanto, stayed on in Plymouth, to keep an eye on them for his chief,
Squanto taught them many things, much to the Pilgrim’s relief.
He showed them how to plant maize, squash and beans and where and how to catch fish.
Squanto, they felt, was sent by God, he was more than they could have wished.
By the end of summer 1621, with Squanto’s help the colony was booming,
Houses were built, the harvest was in, plenty for the winter now looming.
William Bradford had a thought, it was time to give thanks to God.
With the bountiful harvest the Indians came to that first Thanksgiving in Cape Cod.
There was venison, wild turkey, ducks and geese, corn pudding all quite yummy nosh.
But the Pilgrims didn’t have any sugar, so there was no cranberry sauce.
In the decades that followed, the settlements grew and grew.
The colonists continued to give their thanks, as all good Christians do.
The War of Independence was won, the Brits had lost this time,
And George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789.
As America expanded across the continent, the tradition moved west from the east,
Abraham Lincoln declared an annual holiday 242 years after the first Pilgrim feast.
Thanksgiving means hope and patriotism and counting our great nation’s blessings,
It means family and friends and eating too much, it means turkey with all the dressing.
And finally it is to England that we must give our thanks,
Those Pilgrims up and left the place, they thought it kind of stank.
If King and Church had not been cruel and treated them so rotten,
They’d not have crossed to the great New World and Thanksgiving we’d not have gotten.
The calves are settled in the shed, but with the strange warm November weather they are getting quite sweaty. Highlands normally stay out all winter. They have a warm undercoat and a shaggy blanket coat on top. Although the four calves are in a very open and well ventilated shed they are a bit too warm, especially because they love to snuggle up together.
Time for a trim. The object of the exercise is to encourage evaporation, so a wide strip is taken off the back. Easy…well, the actual clipping was fine. But, being very happy in their new home, they weren’t thrilled with being loaded onto the cattle trailer. After several attempts to gently coax them, it was finally brute force that got the job done. Matt and Richard bodily shoved them, pushed them, lots of grunting and groaning, waving arms and swearing. I left them to it and stood on guard duty by the trailer ramp. Once boarded, we took them up to the cattle crush in the holding area. From then on it was a smooth operation.
I borrowed proper electric clippers from another farmer. Having the right tool always makes the job easier. Each calf took it in turn to get the hair shaved off the back. They then loaded right up into the trailer without any hesitation. It looks a bit odd, but they aren’t bothered. Next year, the calves get a clip before we put them into winter housing.
The rams had their crayons changed today. All twenty one ewes have been marked red by the rams. But sometimes, for whatever reason, the ewe isn’t pregnant. So the red crayon is replaced by a blue after seventeen days, the estrus cycle of a ewe.
Shurper is such a calm ram, that I was able to change the crayon while he stood patiently waiting. My newer ram, Bemborough, is not as easily handled. And he is too big for me to turn. So I got help with him. I hope I don’t see any blue rumps in the next seventeen days. I hope my rams have done their job first time round.
The damp weather hasn’t dampened the ardour of my rams. They are working hard and the fields are dotted with red rumps. The calves have settled down into their new lifestyle, keeping dry, eating to their heart’s content, and getting used to me popping in to visit several times a day. I give them a scratch while they’re having cattle cake, still a bit nervous but I will persist.
Meanwhile, the highland beef has been collected from my butcher. I’ve had a stream of visitors, all sold out of some cuts, but plenty of joints left. The Kiwi Butcher in Dorchester hung the carcass for 28 days, so very tender beautiful beef. Enough sales pitch. Archie will be home from university in a couple of weeks for a shoot. He probably take most of it back with him, anyway!
I got the sloes out of the freezer this week and made my Sloe Gin. Sloes were picked a couple of weeks ago, then put in the freezer to split. Otherwise you need to prick every sloe. No way. Sloes grow on blackthorns often found in hedgerows. The thorns on these bushes are long and sharp. I went picking with my friend Fissle, true Dorset born and bred. Fissle know everything about the countryside, he shoots, he fishes, and he had me climbing on a shed to reach the perfect sloes.
You can find all these fancy recipes for sloe gin. Adding cinnamon, star anise, special sugars. I just dump in a load of sugar, sloes and cheap gin. The secret is letting it sit for at least a year, two is better. On a cold Shoot day it is such a treat to take a sip or two from the flask filled with sloe gin.
Apple juice bottles all labelled and ready for sale. Archie will probably take half of them back to university, too.
The busy weekend continued...
On Sunday morning, with the Ranger still working, the first task was getting Bemborough, my new ram, kitted out with his raddle. He had spent the night in a pen in the shed, warm and cozy. We did the usual struggling to strap on the raddle, then safely delivered him to his waiting ewes. Then it was time to move 12 cattle off Crabbe Hill, walk them down the bridleway, and into the field with the holding pen, where we can separate the four calves.
Minty, my halter training friend, came along to help. She and I set up all the tape, closed gates, etc to keep the cattle on the straight and narrow. As they come down the path on Lewesdon Hill I don’t want them wondering off into the woods. So we run a thick sort of white tape, usually electrified but not necessary here. Once all is ready I drive up with the Ranger, give a call and the cattle come running! Gate opened and they generally follow the Ranger, with Dan and Richard following behind to give a little whack if they start to slow or stray. Down they came, and with a final bit of hesitation and me doing my usual yelling and swearing, into the field and then into the holding area they went.
It all gets a bit exciting then. The cows are milling about in the holding area and bashing each other, but finally settle down as we get the big cattle trailer backed up with the tractor. As we ran them down the race we were able to send all but the calves around and out into the next field. Calves were quickly loaded and taken way. The mothers hadn’t quite figured out what was going on and Minty and I were able to lure them all away, walking them through the next field, Hanging Leys, and on into Nine Acres. (All the fields have names, more about that another time).
So the four calves are now tucked up in the open shed. They have been bawling all night and day for about three days. The mothers are some distance away but occasionally yell back. In the past I have awakened to a calf in the garden behind the house, having jumped a fence to get back to mum. But the shed is secure and they will settle in soon. This winter they will not have to compete for the haylage, they can eat to their hearts content. And I hope to win them over and even try to halter train two of the females.
The weather has been quite miserable all week. raining, foggy, misty, dull. On Saturday there was suddenly a break in all the grey and the sun came out. It was the time to get the two rams in with the ewes. Fifth of November means lambing on 1 April, and is the traditional date for tupping to begin. I am already a couple days late.
I managed to chase the twenty ones ewes into a pen. Two more pens set up and the rams were also captured without too much trouble. I had already chosen which ewes were going with which ‘Tup’. As this is a rare breed sheep, small in number, it is important to make sure the rams and ewes are not too closely related. Shurper’s daughters certainly need to go to another ram. And through a ram database provided by our breeder’s group we can tell just how closely they are all related to my new ram, Bemborough.
Dan joined in and we separated the captured ewes into two groups, then loaded one group onto the trailer and moved them to another field. The afternoon was getting on and Shurper needed his raddle attached before being released to the ewes. This is a strap wrapped around his chest with a crayon marker. So when Shurper mounts the ewe he leaves a mark on her rump. Over the seventeen day cycle I hope to see red rumps for all. Then the crayon is changed to blue for another cycle and a second chance. Last year Shurper had a perfect score!
Raddle finally strapped on, Shurper loaded into the small sheep trailer, jump into the ranger and…nothing. The Polaris ranger, our most reliable bit of kit on the farm, would not start. By now it was past dusk, it was 5.15 dark. What to do, after all the necessary swearing? Dan is reasonably mechanical but he couldn’t figure it out. Meanwhile I was getting anxious about Shurper waiting in the trailer. Plan formed, I go get my Land Rover, we pop the sheep trailer on. Then Richard appeared, engine examined, don’t ask me what, he and Dan taped something up and voila. Shurper soon scampered off into the darkness, doing the odd lippy, sniffy thing rams do in pursuit of ewes. And Bemborough, the ram purchased at the Melton Mowbray Show, will have to wait his turn until tomorrow.
I do my rounds every day, checking on the livestock spread about various fields, checking all is okay. This routine is not at any fixed time - first thing, midday or late afternoon. In winter this usually happens at feeding time so more regular. Now the days are shorter, I found myself caught out and at 4.30 jumped into the Land Rover (I usually use the Ranger) to check my 21 ewes in the far field.
When I arrived there was a big Suffolk Ram standing on the bridleway trying to get in with my girls! Some were teasing him, standing just on the other side. Slight panic, getting dark, no stick in the car to assist me. If I chased him away he would return as soon as I left. The solution was to get him in another field. Luckily, there was a gate just on the opposite side of the bridleway. So I opened it and tried to shoo him in. Instead he took off up the bridleway. I followed in hot pursuit, but it was the sheep who lured him back. Second attempt I blocked the bridleway with the Land Rover, and this time when he saw his escape path was blocked, he darted through the opened gate. Victory, all on my own, in the dusk, too!
I contacted his suspected owner and then discovered a second ram was also missing. This doesn’t have such a happy ending, so if you are squeamish, read no further…Next day the farmer and his lad went out looking, as did I when I made my rounds and walked the dogs up Lewesdon Hill. In the afternoon we all met down by my ewes and spotted a white object at the top of this rather steep field. As we drove their UTV up the hill through the field it became obvious the white object with the black face was the missing ram, but he wasn’t moving. Poor guy had been trying to breach the fence to join my ewes, slipped down and broke his neck. Not easy to remove as his head was caught through wood fence posts. And that is the way with farming sometimes. Lovely to see young stock frolicking in the spring sunshine, not so fun to find a dead animal and arrange collection of your fallen stock.
And on a happier note, my final tally was...112 bottles of apple juice! Now to make labels and sell some.
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.