Sunday, February 24, 2013

code writer needed in country

A dramatic weekend! On Saturday one of the larger ewes had difficulty dropping her lambs, which is most unusual for Clun Forest ewes. The birth process had started (no, I shall not describe the mildly gruesome details) and then stopped. We waited a couple of hours to see if she would manage by herself – Alex swore he had seen a muzzle – and then called the vet. Eventually the vet arrived and demanded a bucket of warm water and a bucket of cold. He proceeded to deliver the ewe ('push, my girl, push') – of two very large twins, one female, one male. Even the vet admired them. It took very little time for them to stagger to their feet and to seek the maternal udder.

Then on Sunday one of the youngest and smallest ewes produced a foursome. At least we think they were all hers because, although another ewe was calling, she did not follow the lambs to the nursery pens. All bar one of the lambs were vigorous if fairly small. One died but the ewe seemed to manage the other three quite serenely. Monday is full moon. We expect more.

Meanwhile spring is trying to arrive. The first wood violets are showing small flowers, the daisies have not yet raised their heads. The japonica is beginning to flower and the camelia – which is most unsuited to our soil – is laden with buds. In the fields the first leaves of the wild orchids are beginning to spread and some of the daffodils have buds that show colour. Unfortunately, snow is still lurking and temperatures are hovering around the +/- 1 mark and the duck pond did not unfreeze.

I wonder how my carp amor are doing. They are supposed to be able to survive in the muddy bottoms of ponds – but since the pond is so very murky, I shall never know whether or not they have survived the winter. Except perhaps, if the pond weed, their staple diet, returns. Fortunately, the wild ducks who may have decided to live with us, have taken up residence mostly on the Black Pond in the Woods. We feed them from time to time with grains taken from the sheep.

Now that we have so many lambs, another problem raises its head. It would be nice to be able to identify the lamb with its mother without having to put one of those absurdly large electronic tags in its ears. Cluns have very small ears and one does not want to be constantly putting in and taking out identity tags. This leaves only the option of drawing on them with the coloured, rain proof (nearly) grease pens. We need a code writer.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lambs, Life, Death and the Purpose of Man

No sooner had I put off the vet, then the lambing started. A singleton born the morning after the new moon, Monday 11th. All went well. Then there was a pause, no newcomers until the morning of the 15th when an exhausted ewe presented twins. One was extremely large, the other very small, there were two placentas, so the lambs were not identical twins. The ewe occupied herself with the smaller one which staggered to its feet and tried to find the udder. The larger one just lay on the ground, breathing feebly, almost as though it had hiccups. He, too, must have had an exhausting birth experience.

Arnold was immediately reminded of last year's disastrous experiences with twins and so convinced the large lamb would never survive. He removed it from the pen, laid it on a bed of straw and covered it in more straw, leaving the head uncovered. I dithered in my kitchen and then went down to see – the lamb was trying to lift its head! Audrey put her finger in its mouth and it sucked. We looked at each other and decided: we are going to save this one.

A dose of colostrum was given and a bottle prepared. He gradually took to the bottle and gained strength. We wrapped him in a fleece blanket, in a cardboard box, under the infra-red lamp. (He was too big to be put in the bottom oven of the Rayburn, pace romantic sheep legend, and anyway it was full of pine cones drying into firelighters.) We kept him in the same pen as his mother, so that he would remember he was a sheep, not a human. And yet, every time a human came into the nursery, he would lift his head and call.

At the end of the first day of intensive lamb care, we thought we had won. He was out of the blanket but still under the heat lamp and sitting up. He made attempts to stand but he was too feeble, yet he held his head well up and looked around him. The ewe sniffed him perfunctorily. It took some while, nearly two days and several bottles, for him to gain sufficient strength to stay upright. As soon as he could he started to seek under the ewe for her udder.
Me in my Blanket

And then the miracle occurred: she adopted him. Normally when a new born lamb has been so much man-handled, the ewe loses interest and abandons it. But this time she licked him clean, especially the back end, and pushed him in the right direction with her nose.

Now, on the third day after his difficult entry into the world, he no longer calls when we come, he has rejected us and our bottles. He is a sheep and the ewe suffices. I tried to take an 'after' photo to compare with the picture of him in blanket under the lamp. But the ewe will not let me. She gets between me and the twins every time.

Of course - I am being stupid. As far as sheep are concerned, the whole purpose, the whole point of Man, is to be of use to sheep. The human job done, the ewe can do without us. Except, of course, for the delivery of breakfast, lunch and dinner on a regular basis until she is out in the fields.


See the little lamb
busy running in the fields
with his frisky friends
had upon his heels.

Round and round they go
off to the left, then to the right,
then up and down they bounce,
legs stiff as virgin springs.

And in the eyes of God and Man
it is a wondrous sight.
Innocence and Joy,
Sacrifice and Food,
all in one small animal

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

This year's first lamb

The first lamb of 2013 - born with the new moon overnight Sunday 10th February

The lake at danger levels after the winter rains.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Constraints on country shopping

The weather is decidedly beyond the pale as a subject for discussion, even so far so sunny this Monday. Were it a child, one would confine it to the naughty step for days. So that is enough of that for this week at least.

Last Thursday evening I went down to Tocane St Apre to explore the possibilities of the local AMAP - 'Association pour le Maintien d'un Agriculture Paysanne' - which meets on a weekly basis on the ground floor of the former convent. This is a group of local organic farmers ranging from vegetable to meat producers, one of each speciality, who link up with local consumers. (By saying 'local' we are probably considering a radius of 20-30 km, reduced transport = virtuous.) The former are committed to regular delivery of their produce and the latter engage to buy the same on a regular, pre-determined basis. The theory is that the farmers will have a slight degree of certainty of income because the consumers sign up and pre-pay for a defined minimum supply of goods. This is the famous panier. The consumers will benefit because they will know the origins and upbringing of what they buy. They can be sure the 'beef' will come from cows or bullocks, not horses, and not retired milk producing cows either.

Now the problem is simply this: how to prefer one producer over another? After so many years concentrating on shopping in a very small area, I already know a lot of local farmers, many of whom produce the same things, whether eggs or beef or veal. It is one of the reasons I have stopped going to St Astier market regularly. I know so many commerรงants by sight, if not by name, that I feel I can hardly pass by their stalls without buying something. It is even worse when I half know the people socially because we have worked for the same associations. The result is that I end up buying far too much and left-overs soup (a.ka. minestrone) is the supper menu for three days a week.

If I sign up to join the AMAP this problem can only worsen. Suppose I were to commit myself to buying Adrian's Montagrier chickens and eggs – an annual contract for 12 eggs a month (no hardship) and one chicken a month (again, no hardship). But it would mean I stop buying the chickens from Coulouneix Chamiers. Unless, of course, I decide to eat two chickens a month which is a possibility – but what of my poor wild duck lady? She lost 40 ducklings to the fox in the snow two weeks ago, is starting to re-stock with the 30 left to her, and needs support. And then there are the suppliers of beef and veal and pork – and what about my lamb? We shall pass on the subject of vegetables and fruits because that problem is unsolvable – the commercial growers compete with the domestic ones just at the high season.

The philosophical answer is for me to do what is best for me. But since when has philosophy had anything to do with real life?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Gods, vets and pregnant sheep

The weather gods are still fighting over La Chaise. January has always had two faces. The Blue Faced Hag has, possibly temporarily, given way to the various gods of winds and rain. Temperatures in the last ten days went into double figures and, not liking the humans they saw, rapidly descended into the lower singles. Signs of Persephone, spring's harbinger, struggle to show themselves; Demeter is still fighting with Hades. In the fields, near the wild fig trees that are growing on the ruins of the old bread oven, the wild narcissi are showing a few centimetres of leaves. Flowers cannot be far off.

But we are in February which is a capricious month. Last year there was snow and deep frost and we were forbidden to come home from sunny Spain by our daughter and son in law. Too dangerous they said. We'd just be a burden, I grumpily thought but I knew I could not, did not wish, to drive in snow or on ice.

The fields are drowned in cold water and the sheep deeply grateful to be in the barn, receiving breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner inside. As yet there is no sign of imminent arrival of lambs but the Clun Forests usually do not deliver until mid or end February – whatever time the ram joins the flock. Not usually a problem except that this year is the five yearly blood test for brucellosis (TB to humans) and clever people somewhere in the administration have decided that February is the propitious time to take blood samples.

Meanwhile another, more earthly god got in touch, indirectly. My local vet's secretary announced he would arrive on Feb 27th , late afternoon, to take the samples, options not offered. In reality it will be an apprentice vet who might, or might not, be able to take blood samples from animals without traumatising them. So (one should not anthromorphise) who thinks it is a good idea to herd pregant animals into a small corner, stick a needle into their necks and draw blood, just as they are about to give birth? Some years back one ewe was so traumatised by the brutal handling that she went into shock and died.

I said to the secretary that if the majority of the ewes had given birth, 27th February was OK, if not – I would insist on re-scheduling. This will annoy the vet who already thinks I am idiot because I am raising the sheep organically. If I re-schedule, it means he will have to do the testing, rather than the student vets, and it will throw out his planning. To which my reply is: complain to the authorities who impose this on you. The administrators, unless they are locals, have probably never seen a sheep on anything other than a polystyrene barquette or as statistics on a computer print out.

The only way to impose change on bureaucratic systems – apart from bloody revolutions – is to make the administrators' lives uncomfortable, starting from the bottom up. So if I complain to the vet, hopefully s/he complains to the immediately responsible civil (just) servant and so it goes on up the ladder.

Wishful thinking is one way of getting through the winter.