Monday, February 27, 2012

natural imperatives

There was a small skein of cranes flying over the fields as I went for a late afternoon walk this Sunday. They were seemingly heading north. Obviously they had not seen the same weather forecast for nothern Europe that I had on Saturday night. Perhaps they had been left behind, for in previous days, the more usual massive migratory skeins had been heard and seen, noisily going north. There is a perfectly nice, protected, reserve in the Landes where they could stay. But go they must, and so they went.

This last week our day time temperatures have been in double figures, the mid-teens. Overnight temperatures have stayed comfortably above zero. We have not felt it necessary to close the window-shutters to keep our house warm. So those ewes who had not yet lambed were allowed out into in the woods earlier and to stay for longer. Long enough, in fact, for one of them, apparently, to find herself a hiding place behind a wood pile. Her friends rushed in for supper and it was assumed – sheep being moderately greedy – that everyone had come in. (Counting sheep damages even more brain matter than counting ducks.) Her overnight absence was only noticed the following morning. There she stood by the electric fence, with twin lambs, an indignant expression on her face and doubtless a demand for breakfast – now. Those twins are doing well.

The slight increase in the number of twins has somewhat made up for the earlier mortality. Clun Forest sheep are thought of as having a high twin rate – somewhere between 1.2 and 1.4 lambs per ewe, we had quads, once – and being very maternal. But the maternal instinct needs practice and it seems that first time mothers often need help to 'bond' one would say if they were human. This is why we put make separate pens for ewes with lambs. I have seen it written that Clun Forest lambs are more than usually vigorous which, in my experience, is very true omce past those first few difficult days.

Also, Clun Forest lambs are particularly inquisitive (not that I have any personal experience of other breeds, just hearsay). They are particularly good at getting out of wherever they are confined, whether with their mother or with their half-siblings. They are totally hopeless at getting back in, proceed to bawl (and the ewes join in) until some human puts them back. Another favourite past-time is to put their heads through any aperture, whether a rectangle in the wire fencing, or a slit between boards. Then they panic. There is no talking sense to a panicked lamb, brute human force is the only answer. Struggling with 20 kilos that kicks is not fun. This is why they do not get a full sized ear tag until they have grown out of the habit, or are about to go on their final journey. It makes for too many torn ears. Clun Forest sheep have small ears, pointy and upright which gives them a (deceptive?) air of intelligence.

Of course, just as one is feeling quietly a little more confident, nature happens. The lambless ewes went outside, one hesitating a little, looking a bit confused. Then out she went. And there was a dead lamb in the barn straw. To be truthful, one forgets there are good years when lambing is relatively straightforward, but 2012 will not be one of them.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

new life - with difficulty

A brief respite in the cold, just the afternoon sun projecting deceptive warmth. Then we saw the full extent of damage to the road surfaces: the French for pothole is nid-de-poule or chicken nest. What we saw were turkey nests. Overnight, of course, the temperatures dropped below zero again and the snow melt froze, creating invisible patches of black ice which, inevitably caused accidents.

Deceived by the afternoon warmth, the sheep started to give birth. Unfortunately the nights are still cold and some lambs born way before daylight, way before Arnold arrived to bring them into the lambing pens under the infra-red warming lamp. Sometimes it is possible to spot which ewe is likely to lamb in the next six hours or so and to get her into a sheltered pen before the lamb is due. But the sheep are hardly co-operative. As you try to study their rear-ends (you really don't want the detail here) they turn round to face you again. For the first couple of years we had sheep, I did go down to the shed before midnight, and back again at five a.m. - to no effect. Birthing is not a spectator sport. But I did lose weight.

It looks as though we shall have a higher than usual mortality rate this year – two lambs lost already, one through birth problems, another through cold, one on the danger list. Each death makes one feel a failure, feel guilty. No amount of saying 'they'd be worse off in the wild' brings comfort. All one can do is to give the homeopathic granules to help the milk dry up and wonder if the sheep is saddened. There is no way of knowing.

A sheep's eyes are not particularly expressive, probably something to do with the effect of slit pupils. There is a blankness when they look at you, perhaps, if you are imaginative enough, you can see a judgemental look: what is this two legged thing doing there, just standing, not bringing Me food? Certainly, after the ewe has successfully lambed, whether with twins or just a singleton, at the back of the eyes one can detect a certain look of triumph, 'look what I have done' or 'its all your fault'. Enough with the anthropomorphism, already.

Yet, I wonder. There was one occasion when a lamb had to be bottle fed as it was one of triplets (ewes only have two teats). After some stamping of her front right foot,
after I had politely expressed fear, I managed to get third lamb to take the bottle. The second day, as the lamb was busy with the bottle, its mother came to inspect me. I was hanging over the barrier of the pen. The mother faced me; lifted her nose to mine and breathed at me; I breathed back. She sniffed her lamb. Then she backed off a little, still looking at me. The ritual was repeated a second time.

Then – I'll swear – she imperceptibly nodded; perhaps there was approval in her eyes. Certainly I was hired. I fed that lamb for nearly three months.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

if winning is not an option, losing happens all the time

So, my friend Jean-Paul's gut feeling was right. The precocious spring was blanketed in snow and ice before we had even had time to stock up on candles and cold remedies. Fortunately every serious country household has its reserves of firewood, confit de poule, patés, and various dried, bottled or canned edibles. Why not frozen goods you may ask? Well, there will be some frozen produce but experience shows that Electricité de France will occasionally be short of its main product, especially when branches of dead and frozen trees fall on its supply lines. It does its best, but its best is sometimes not enough.

One should never ignore a countryman's gut feeling on any subject, even if it only indicates the nearness of a meal. But I chose to discount Jean-Paul's grumble because he said he had just been rear-ended by a Czech registered 40 tonner at a stop light east of Perigueux. The light was on orange. This, he said, had caused serious damage to his car and rattled his brains until they rang – 'j'étais un peu sonné'. The Czech driver was, as far as Jean-Paul could ascertain, monolingual. Certainly he had no French and, as Jean-Paul had never claimed to know more than the politesses in English, a traffic snarl up was inevitable. Perhaps the Brussels bureaucrats could abandon improving farm regulations and concentrate on a Europe wide definition of what an orange light means.

The February cold snap should have put a temporary stop to the heavy lorry traffic. Probably to all traffic came to a halt until the authorities cleared those roads it could and domestic drivers regained their courage and put on their chains. Some even had the foresight to put on winter tyres way before Christmas. These were the well-armed people whose memories went back to the early eighties, the last serious period of cold in the Dordogne. This was when we had a few days of night temperatures down to – 22C and I bought the last electric resistance heater in town for the wine cellar. It looked rather like the Jodrell Bank telescope and managed to keep the cellar temperature at zero. I was terrified lest it set the whole place on fire.

This cold snap we are spoilt. Not only do we have partial central heating, courtesy of the wonderful wood-fired Rayburn, but we also have a 24 kilowatt electricity
supply which means we can use some electric radiators for basic heat in various rooms. In the eighties one we only had about 9 kwh, the open fireplaces and cumbersome moveable gas heaters. On the positive side then we could drain down the Farmhouse and Shepherd's Cottage and not worry; a little anti-freeze or alcohol in the lavatory pans, a fan heater under the vulnerable points of water pipes, et voilà!

This time – and since the nineties – over winter, we have 28 sheep in the barn, most about to lamb. So the water supply points down the farm have to be kept unfrozen and the electricity must be confined to this task, along with lighting. The sheep need water - looking for new-born lambs by torch light is neither efficient, nor fun. Nor is stumbling around the mezzanine, chucking down bales of hay. Obviously the ewes have instinct to guide them, aeons of experience without man's help. But if there is a death, it is man who has the guilty conscience whilst the ewes mourn.

This cold snap could not have come at a worse time. Already the summer drought created a shortage of hay and straw. Extra time inside will make greater demands on the feed stocks. Professional magazines tried to persuade farmers of the virtues of letting sheep graze for longer, in the woods, wherever. Recently a couple of neighbours suffered from a pyromaniac (still at large) who set fire to their hay stores. Emergency support from other farmers in the region helped them out – but that was before the roads were frozen. The moon is waning, perhaps the cold will wane with it. The next full moon, with possible strong change of weather, is not until 8th March, ages away.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A waste of trees

It is a truth, universally believed, that French bureaucracy is the worst of all European administrative systems, created and run by overly clever, under employed people.

Some early examples: some thirty years ago an official wanted to know how many books we had brought into France – do you know how many books you own? But he insisted on a figure. So, with gestures, I indicated the length and height of our bookcases. We looked at each other and then compromised on a figure. Rule one: answer the question even if the answer does not bear much relation to reality. A box ticked, is a box forgotten.

Then I was in the driving licence issuing offices of the Perigueux Prefecture for about the third time, getting yet another driving licence for my dearly beloved but document careless husband. After some while I was received at the counter where I duly handed over the dossier, copies of passport, birth certificate, utility bill, cheque (and probably a few papers). The lady recognised me from previous visits. Listen, she said, when you get the new driving licence photocopy it, we can issue new licences upon presentation of photocopies. Rule two: keep a photocopy of all possible forms of identity document.

We wanted to build a half way decent stable for Clea's retired horse Diva Bella, as temperamental as her name would indicate, and friend. Unfortunately the square metres involved meant we had to apply for planning permission. The latest planning permission rules demanded that new constructions be within x metres of existing ones because local utilities would have to supply water and electricity – at their cost. It was no use screeching that we were not offering showers or TV's to the horses, a rule is a rule. In desperation I went to the Mairie with my problem. The Maire's attitude was quite simple: if you won't get planning permission, don't ask for it, if anyone bothers you, refer them to me. Rule three: make sure the town hall is OK with what you are doing.

The upper layers of the French administration have an obsession with micro-managing the country and the firm conviction that they are clever enough to
envisage every possible situation and eventuality. One size fits all. Fortunately
for France, the lower, rural layers of its civil service are essentially pragmatic. It is they who make the perfect systems work, tie a knot and get on with it.

An excellent example was the simplification of postal addresses for rural areas. It was decided that each village or hamlet would depend upon the post-code of its nearest large post office. So our village, St Aquilin, would carry the post-code of St Astier and addresses were simply: - name, street or hamlet, village and post-code of St Astier. (Compare that to English rural addresses.) All admin computers were duly re-programmed. However, actually on the road, a few of the St Aquilin houses (including ours) were served by another post distributing office with a different post-code, an affair of logistics. It has taken years to get flexibility into the admin computer systems. Meanwhile our post was shuffled between the two distributing offices, passing our gate each time.

Max Weber (1864-1920) the German sociologist and highly reputed scholar of all matters administrative has been quoted as saying that bureaucratic administration is 'domination through knowledge.' He also saw bureaucracy – though the most efficient way of running a country – as a possible threat to individual freedoms. And a threat to our freedom is what we are experiencing now. Some young civil servant, in the labour service, is trying to make our loss making small holding , with its one employee, conform to all the rules and regulations created for larger entities. One size fits all. Our opinions, ways of doing things, don't matter. The rules do. I had better go visit the Maire again and cry for help.