Hill Farming

Abi’s Odyssey

What an adventure: today she has led the daughters of the chosen out of peril,  defied a mighty king, travelled the length of the known world, faced alien hordes, unperturbed, and tasted the fruits of a promised land and it’s not even lunchtime.

Everything is relative.

Seven years ago (a biblical period) I probably wouldn’t even have noticed, I wouldn’t have spotted those white dots on the farthest hill, wouldn’t have wondered about the gender of the dots.  Wouldn’t have rushed up the valley, binoculars in hand.

But as I approach our boundary I need no binoculars to see that our neighbour’s tenant has loosed a ram and 20 breeding ewes into the adjacent field; the one with the dodgy fence posts that falter and play dead when challenged.  Through that very fence his randy tup is sniffing at our precocious theave lamb (see Raddle-Dazzle); she makes me think of Anne Boleyn, she is running daintily up and down by the fence baa-ing prettily but surprisingly loudly and each time as she turns, she stamps her little feet, the old king, on the far side of the fence is transfixed — enchanted.  Meanwhile his ladies gather around his number-one-wife, the dominant ewe and whisper, looking accusingly at that Boleyn girl ( she has a streak of mud on her back, they are questioning her virginity — well, perhaps not)).


I run back to the house. opening and shutting various gates on the way and fetch my magic bucket which has mysteriously been tampered with; it has been used for chain-saw oil, which smells bad; its power lies in its mystical maltiness; I chant appropriate expletives as I clean it and refresh its ewe-nut rattle and scent.  A moment later I have my sergeant at arms, my witch’s peculiar, my familiar; she hurtles to my call, not a swooping, weaving bat, nor an owl, blinking in the light of day, but a clomping old ewe who is trained to my bidding and I to hers, we set off, Abi and I and the dog, armour glinting in the morning light.


Ten minutes later and two of us breathing heavily, we have reached the farthest outpost of our kingdom, it has not yet laid down under the weight of conjugal bliss, I rattle my magic bucket, Anne Boleyn tosses a dismissive glance over her shoulder but her maids come and have a sniff and when the sergeant and I turn and walk away they follow.  Anne looks at us, then at the king, then back at us, she is deserted by all her people…  She fears nothing more than being alone, she is, after all, a sheep.  It’s too much, she turns away from the king and runs down the field and we all walk steadily back towards the farmstead.

As we draw farther away the foolish virgins look back, I know that with every step we take the pull of the king is less so we keep walking but then there is a scream on the opposite bank, a hollering and the unmistakable call of a hunting horn (really — not just another escaped metaphor),  there is baying of hounds directly ahead.  My foolish virgins stop dead, so does the sergeant at arms, they start to turn, I shake the bucket, the sergeant advances towards it, Good Old Abi.  Our dog who has been following aimlessly sniffing for rabbits, suddenly hears the threat and runs to take up a position at the head of our column, as he overtakes the sheep he turns them and provides a little push and they again follow us.

We stomp on confidently; they follow nervously.  I close the last gate behind them as the baying abates.  Typical!   We haven’t heard hounds for a year, hunting is illegal, and they don’t exist but they pass through the cutting by our gate just as we are moving timid sheep.


A quiet friend

They lie by the fire with the tips of their middle fingers just touching, their thumbs pointing out into the room and the little fingers reaching towards the heat; the gloves are grey, hand knitted in a plain stitch without pattern.  Sure enough, Norman, their owner, is sitting in his corner, motionless, immaculate, his grey hair now corrected from any dishevelment caused by the wind outside, his parting pin-point accurate, his comb returned to the top pocket of his grey tweed jacket, his overcoat hanging from the only hanger on the hooks by the door, he has brushed the single speck from its shoulder with his then still-gloved hand.

His back is straight and rests against the upholstered bench that runs around the wall of the front bar, his legs are stretched out in front of him, beige trouser-creases crossing below the knee, polished brown shoes shining in the fairy light from the bar.  The evening paper is neatly folded on the shelf beneath the table; he does not touch it.  He looks out into the room without expression, a glass of orange squash, obtained without negotiation and paid for with exactly the right money, sits untouched on the table in front of him; it will remain there until just before he leaves when he will drink it down in one and return the empty glass to the bar.  He will weave unseen through the people and leave but we will notice that his gloves are gone.

Norman has a story; everyone has a story.  The more controlled a man’s world is – the more bizarre is the eruption when it comes and come it always does.

I will not tell you Norman’s story for the one I have may not be true and anyway you will probably have heard it before.


Hill Farming


Autumn colours are appearing and our sheep are starting to show russet coloured bottoms; unlike the flurries of blowing leaves or the spiceyness in the damp air, this is not a natural phenomenom — not entirely.


Our neighbour, out of a sense of humour or aesthetics, marked the ram that he lent to serve our ewes with rustic mellow autumnal paste, the colour of chestnuts and dying bracken.  He, the ram that is, is painted with a thick wadge of this sticky raddle, between his front legs, hidden under his deep masculine chest so that as he discretely does his job, the ewes turn brown and a flurry of them follow him and swirl around him like a gust of fallen leaves.


Tupping is not what I had expected, with my human prejudices, when we started farming.  We have only one ram, there is no fighting, no rut, no competition for the ewes.  The ewes who live together all year, who are related and most of whom were born here are very welcoming to the ram each year.  Above, you can see them shepherding him around the fields politely showing him the shelter and the stream.

In turn, and nature is very clever with this, they introduce themselves, as each ovulates and comes into season.  For a few hours the chosen ewe will follow the ram closely, nuzzling his neck affectionately.  He sniffs the air and checks her out, mounting her tentatively at just the right moment.


Meanwhile there may be one or two other ewes about to be ready, they form a guard of honour, bride’s maids, following closely, waiting patiently; something about the chosen ewe, probably her scent, makes the others hold back.

Soon after she has been marked she retreats a little although she may follow him for the rest of the day while he gets on with the job in his gentle, quite respectful way.

Next day the ewe is back to normal grazing with her other red-bottomed sisters.  Once all are red, some by then only very pale pink, the ram will settle down too.  He will graze with the ewes and still be larger and handsome but nothing in their behaviour will betray his presence.

But we have a problem!


One of our pretty theave lambs (only 6 months old, precocious/foolish virgin) has developed a far-away look in her eyes and the ram is sniffing ominously at the gate of her field.  She must be moved out of his amazing nasal range.  But she has been fed on grass all summer, she does not follow my bucket and has no experience of the treats within.

I need help: come on Abi!


Abi is our secret weapon, our dear old ewe who started life as an orphan in our shower-room and taught me nearly everything I know about sheep; she is my lieutenant or perhaps more of a sergeant.  She likes to walk around the farm with us, butts the dog for pride of place and the other sheep will follow her.

Sure enough, she comes running when I call and, having shut the breeding herd up in one of their fields she rapidly helps me lead the three foolish virgins across the other field, through the woods and up onto the hill, half a mile away from danger, on the other side of the trees.  Here they can sit under the hedge and wonder what it was that made them feel suddenly so strange.




Today is Remembrance  Sunday and this year, thanks to the internet, we know more of the detail and scale of our personal loss, repeated in almost every family in Europe and the Commonwealth.

We remember George Stewart who died at Passchendael in 1917.

We remember Frederick  McWicker, from Bacup, who died of his wounds on 12th November 1917, fighting in the Egyptian theatre of war with the 5th battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.  He was 24.

We remember his brother, Walter McWicker, my husband’s grandfather, who died of his wounds on 24th February 1918 in Flanders, fighting with the East Lancashire Regiment.  He was 39, a slipper-maker with three children, conscripted late into the war because of deafness and he died when he failed to heed the bugle calling a retreat.

We remember Geoffrey Sebastian Buck M.C., D.F.C., who died in action with the RAF in France on 3rd September 1918, aged 21. His plane which had been badly shot up while flying over the lines, disintegrated on landing.


We remember his uncle, Cyril Bernard Wilson Buck, priest and army chaplain, aged 39 when he died, tirelessly tending the wounded under fire in France on 29th September 1918 for which he was awarded a posthumous military cross.

Hill Farming, Uncategorized


Pale morning sunlight casts long shadows and the gateposts steam in the horizontal rays.  The grass fluoresces greedily gathering what energy it can, drawing in moisture from the wet fields which creek and seep.

?????????????????????????????The oak trees on the hill, always last to shed their leaves, are just beginning to turn russet while the scatty larch trees are aflame and the phlegmatic hazel has already loosed its leaves to drift aimlessly and lie on paths with the last of the rowan berries.


Autumn is the beginning of our year, the sheep-farming year.  Our ewes are in the peak of their condition, replenished by summer grass of which, this year, there is plenty left to flush them as they go  to the tup.  They are impatient, occasionally butting each other as the younger ones readjust the pecking order in anticipation of something…  The neighbour’s ram will arrive tomorrow.

?????????????????????????????Look into their eyes and tell me they are not intelligent and excited!