Hill Farming, Lyrical, Sheep

A strange, still wind

Crow craw and jack-daw puncture the sound-scape of hills and meadows – aerial battle resounds – broadsides ricochet in the pale sky above the passerine chit-chat and base-line baas of our valley.

A new chord rises – the dog points, ears pricked, and sniffs.

A strange, still wind?

Rumble of some terrible upheaval?


Birds pause. Listen!

It rises from the supernatural, our eternal underworld – louder – voices more distinct — celestial choir – angel voices.

Twenty-five thousand souls look up from grazing and acknowledge their lord, each with a different note from the human range – angel range.

Audible crescendo from three miles away — each note swelling with excitement, a wave of emotion to touch the very core…   Now the melody is with the base – diesel baritone — and percussion over the cattle grid.

Lambs2014 009gambolling



Why Blog?

Lambs2014 009gambolling

Why blog?

I blog because when someone asks ‘What have you been up to lately?’ my mind goes a  blank and when I ask myself, ‘What’s it all about?’  I don’t always know.  These days my concentration is so much upon the now that I lose perspective.

Once it’s logged and blogged and photographed it’s there to be recalled, it is fixed in the narrative — made sense of — preserved — formatted for storage.

So, sorry to say, I write for myself and my family and for friends who might say ‘What have you been up to lately?’

When I ask, ‘What’s it all about?’ I can have a litttle browse and remember all the amazing things that we have — meanwhile you are very welcome to share and if you are a little obsessed by sheep and blown away by Nature — so much the better!

Ecology, Humour, Medical

What you need is a CT scan, 400 Chest X-rays or 1200 packets of Brazil Nuts.

‘What you need is a scan’

‘What, like you have when you are pregnant?’

‘No, a CT scan, computer tomogram — that’s the only way they can really tell what’s going on — but they’ll try to fob you off with painkillers, they always do!’

My friend’s bad knee continued to be discussed in the pub, no one said she ought to lose weight, change her footwear or work on her quads.  Everyone quoted their own experiences, all were unanimous — what she needed was a scan.

That’s equivalent to 8 chest X-rays –okay, probably worth the risk.

But I went to see a gastro-enterologist recently to discuss my mild indigestion during which consultation I mentioned that a relative had died of pancreatic cancer — ‘then you had better have a CT scan!’

He reached for his pad, it was 7.30 pm, I was his last patient, he looked tired.

‘Hang on a minute — what dose of radiation will that involve me in?’

‘About 8 milliSieverts, same as about 400 chest X-rays.’  He said this very quickly, ‘equivalent to sitting at home for three years watching the telly, enjoying the background radiation.’

‘That seems a bit extreme.  I mean having a scan.’

‘Everyone has a CT scan these days, it’s the only way to be sure,’ he said, ‘I don’t mind  — you can have one.  It will almost certainly be negative but then you won’t have to worry.’

But I do worry — 3 years back-ground radiation — that sounds like I’m suddenly 3 years older — three years nearer whatever I do die of.  So I went home to wait for my appointment and looked up one or two things…

Did you know that the average person in Great Britain is exposed to 2.7mSv per year?  This is from radon in the air, radioactivity in the rocks, soil, and plants and manufactured radiation, largely medical.  The radiation in the soil  gets into plants that we eat — you can get 0.005 mSv from one little packet of Brazil nuts (135g).  My CT scan is worth 1200 packets of nuts — there’s a thought.

The background radiation is largely unavoidable and varies a bit according to where you live — radon from the ground in Cornwall gives an annual exposure of 7.8 mSv — so my CT scan is equivalent to a year in Cornwall — that doesn’t sound too bad — unless you live in Cornwall.

Radiation exposure also depends on how high you live, the nearer you are to outer-space, every transatlantic flight you take racks up 0.07 mSv (just over 3 chest x-rays or more than 5 packets of Brazils!)  If you live in Denver, Colorado (mile high city) your background radiation will be twice as much as some other places.

Tobacco  contains Polonium-210 and Lead-210, these are radioactive and become concentrated in he lungs of smokers, the US Environmental Protection Agency quote  that smoking 20 a day gives a radiation exposure equivalent to 300 Chest X-rays or  6mSv/year

Without smoking, the average person in the USA is exposed to 6.2 mSv of radiation per year, more than double the British level (unless you live in Cornwall)  If you look at the different components of these figures, most of the difference is made up by, guess what — medical radiation.

When I first visited the US 20 years ago, I saw a lot that was strange to me — shopping malls, retail parks on the edges of towns with neon signs, ice machines, burger bars and super-sized paper cups, stacks of pancakes with syrup and ice-cream and Tommy Hilfiger clothes  — all are now common-place in Britain.  From jazz and rock-‘n-roll to obesity, what starts in the US comes to us in 15 years or less.

So I guess this trend for scans will continue and I will watch the cancer rates in the US for indications of what is to come here.  In the meantime, I think I might cancel my scan because, do you know, I think I feel better.

Thanks to Panoraia Paraskeva et al for the featured image of a CT scan via Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA-2.0)
Also thanks to Public Health England for the figures for relative doses of radiation.
Hill Farming, Relationships, Sheep, Uncategorized

Love Potion — Or why you shouldn’t wash new born babies!

The secret behind creating the most powerful emotional bond ever known is revealed — remembered from our primaeval past.  It occurred to me as it probably did to our ancient ancestors — when it went wrong.

Yesterday we had to leave our lambing flock for a few hours, it was an imperative.  A friend had agreed to come as a locum (in between lambing a 180-ewe batch of his own sheep) but he wouldn’t get here until after we had left.


I rose at 5.15 am to check and feed the flock — chaos reigned.

Two ewes were fighting ferociously over a new born lamb that was trying to suckle from the younger one, Number Nineteen (you know they are not supposed to have names).  Every time the lamb got near the teat the older ewe, Square Sheep (who you have met before) interposed herself with frantic baaing and butting of the younger ewe.  I chased her off but she would not leave the lamb and with her four-wheel drive and superior power-to-weight ratio I was not going to prevail.  I looked around for inspiration.

All I saw was a square wooly bottom.  A long silken thread of liquor glistened from it in the morning sun.  Square Sheep had given birth, she was right — it was her lamb.  She looked at me accusingly and who could blame her?  Still the battle raged.

The fence was nearby — I ran down the steep hill to the barn, 200 meters away, and returned with a hurdle (a galvanized fence panel — 2 meters long and quite heavy) then I got the other one and a pocket full of baler twine.  I tied them in a V to make the apex of a triangular pen with the fence as its base.

At this point there was a brief intermission in hostilities — Square sheep lay down suddenly and heaved out a second lamb which Number Nineteen licked and looked at me making the purring call that sheep make after birth, ‘look, I’ve got another lamb — I told you it was mine!’   Square sheep struggled to her feet, this was  her 10th lamb — she didn’t need this hassle.

Hostilities resumed — lambs were knocked in all directions but now I knew what to do — I grabbed both lambs and bundled them into the pen.  Both ewes stopped and looked at me as if to say,’That’s a good idea, now let me in.’  I opened the apex of the triangular pen to let in Square Sheep, Nineteen hurled herself into the pen.  I secured it with us all inside  and stirred it until Square Sheep and the two lambs were on the far side , then I opened it and gave Nineteen a monumental shove and ejected her.

Nineteen now danced around the pen, distraught, wailing and I had a sudden nagging little doubt — it could just be that the first lamb was hers — I had to examine her to see if she had just given birth.

We have a permanent pen by the house, but how on earth was I to get her there?

I climbed out of the pen and leaned over and picked up the first lamb, let Nineteen sniff it, and started down to the house carrying the lamb and encouraging Nineteen to follow.  A third sheep now started to wail further up the hill and my husband came out of the house to remind me it was time to go.

With lots of running back and forth and sniffing  and bleating and baaing we got down to the other pen and got her in.  I ran up the hill and returned the lamb to Square Sheep, pending further tests, then ran down — the other, third, sheep now wailing more urgently, husband tapping watch.  I pressed Nineteen in the pen, inspected her pristine, dry and tightly closed vagina and booted her into the next field.

As I ran up the field with a bucket of water for Square Sheep and some feed, by way of apology, I noticed the wails of the third ewe were now closer together and more imperative.

Now I applied myself to the wailing ewe — she had been lying on her side in strong labour but had now rolled almost onto her back with her legs kicking in the air, which was a bit of luck because I could catch her more easily.  I fell upon her and turned her on her side, she tried to get away but there would be no second chances — I was not letting go, we rolled over as she pulled me down the hill but she remained in my tight embrace.  We lay panting when the cavalry arrived to hold her head end.

The lamb was well positioned, just huge, I freed its head with the next contraction, which shook liquor all over my face and the half-born lamb baa-ed, it needed a big pull to deliver the body which was presented hastily to its mother who licked it.

We rushed off to our appointment, face and hair still splattered with the magic liquid.

Around the time of delivery it is the smell and the taste of the liquor that switches on the maternal behavior in sheep, and probably in humans.  That is how a curious young ewe (like Nineteen), nearly due herself and programmed to sniff out her own lambs which might be born in the black of night can accidentally get bonded to the wrong lamb.

This love potion is powerful stuff.

What happened to poor Nineteen?  She’s fine, within 24 hours she had twins of her own.


Number Nineteen earlier today with her lambs born a few hours earlier.

Number Nineteen, earlier today and none the worse, with her lambs born a few hours earlier.


Hill Farming, Sheep

Not a Dying Day

sheltering under the trees

sheltering under the trees

Torrential rain all night — sodden ground but not all that cold — not good lambing weather but ‘not a dying day’ the farmer said as we both looked out across the valley and, for a fleeting moment, the sun came out.

Disgruntled of Mid-Wales -- Horizontal ears -- Aby is not one to hide her emotions

Disgruntled of Mid-Wales — Horizontal ears — Aby is not one to hide her emotions

That was what we needed to hear.

Later in the day the rain abated and someone was baa-ing loudly up by the hedge.  Like humans some of our ewes labour stoically in silence, perhaps with the occasional muted grunt at the very end but some labour vociferously.  Number Twelve is a pretty young ewe, lively and highly strung, she shouts in labour.  Today she shouted that she was at the end of the first stage and I ran out with my binoculars to supervise — that is our arrangement.

They lamb out of doors but not in the laissez-faire, survival-of-the-fitest sense.  We watch and only intervene if they need it and if they need it there seems no problem in them accepting it — I guess it’s all in the timing but our days of chasing the two-headed sheep are hopefully over — that’s a sheep with its own head one end and its lamb’s head sticking out the other.

Ovine obstetrics makes me think of childbirth before the days of modern medicine when more deaths were caused by officious intervention (with dirty hands) than from the complications of birth.  We watch and the more we watch the better we grasp what is normal and what is usual for our individual animals and we do it quietly and from a distance.  Just like humans,  a relaxed and confident mother is the key to a happy outcome.

Here she is, first lamb -- shot from the cannon of her healthy young mother midst  a salvo of baa-ing

Here she is, first lamb — shot from the cannon of her healthy young mother midst a salvo of baas.

Next came our friendliest ewe — I don’t know why she is so tame — she’s never been singled out for special treatment — not bottle fed and never ill.  She took herself off into the hedge, as they do, and silently produced a male lamb.

Friendly Sheep has an immense fleece (descendent of Square Sheep) and has thick wool all over her udders — she is perfectly adapted for life in a testing climate but her hirsutism presents a problem for her lamb — lambs are drawn to the teat by its smell and its heat — insulated teats are hard to find.

In the midst of this hunt while I am considering how to wax a sheep’ udder (ouch!) something else happens — something falls to the ground and rolls down the hill — it is a second lamb and the mother is completely unaware of it.  When it bleats she looks up for a moment then goes back to nosing her first.  Second Lamb shakes his nose free from the membranes with an extravagant gesture and bleats again — no response.

I pick up the lamb and clean its face with my hand then give it to the mother who looks pleasantly surprised and interested and she starts to lick it while I grab Number One Lamb and go hunting the teat.  I plug it in and beat a retreat.

Cleaning Second Lamb

Cleaning Second Lamb

By 10 o’clock at night, Second Lamb is teetering about the hillside, meters from its mum, bleating weakly.  I take it to its mother, ‘Not mine,’ she baas and gives it a gentle butt, then a not so gentle butt.

I try again, ‘Not mine — smell it!’

I do , it smells terrible, like something a dog might roll in which is what it must have done on another roll down the hill..

When my husband gets home from his Domino match, dropped off by a farmer friend he says to the friend, ‘Oh God — you know what’ll happen next — it’ll be in our wet-room.’

‘It is already!’

I tell him that I have prepared a pen in the shed and the friend offers us an adopter — a sort of anti-butting crate.  The next hour is spent slippy-sliding up and down the sodden hillside in the rain with Number One Lamb bleating in a bucket and Friendly Sheep following then panicking and running back up the field to something she couldn’t quite remember.

The other sheep are baaing their conflicting advice.  Eventually our old cade lamb, Aby, comes to the rescue and walks with us, Friendly Sheep was reassured and follows to the pen in the barn where we re-unite her with Second Lamb having warmed and dried it and given it a bottle of colostrum and washed its under the tap, dried it with hay and rubbed it on its big brother so that it smells more-or-less right.

Friendly Sheep settles immediately in the security of the shed, knows she has two lambs though she can’t count and is letting the now vigorous second lamb suckle.

Next morning they are a picture of domestic harmony.






Communication, Thoughtful

A Mammalist view of Words

There are two sorts of individual: those who need words and those that do not. If you are a writer you are likely to be one of the former — but not necessarily. Nonsense! Everyone needs words!

We have a friend who is a bit different, actually quite a lot different, he has a genetic abnormality that affects his ability to use language — the language part of his brain is absent or switched off.

A dog knows some nouns – his name, ‘dinner’, ‘walkies’, ‘stick’, and some verbs — ‘fetch’, and he understands ‘No!’ My dog understands some phrases – ‘feed the dog’, ‘feed the sheep’ and ‘go to bed.’ But he can’t articulate very clearly and, okay, his grasp of sophisticated language isn’t great.

Our friend’s articulation is better, he has the right equipment but his grasp of language is similar. This is quite a disability – but not that much of a disability. He looks different but is physically robust, as strong as an ox, has good balance and co-ordination, is hard working and eager to please – he will dig or sweep or wield an axe all day. He will walk home, day or night, mile across the fields and is never out of work and rarely short of money. He also has terrific social skills, notwithstanding his appearance and people’s often negative response to him for all the above reasons.

The thing is: he has a very well developed grasp of the non-verbal, knows exactly what is going on, who likes who, who doesn’t and who would stab you in the back – ‘Bad man!’ And he is right. This is another reason folks are wary of him. I’m not sure about the workings of his sense of humour but he loves to laugh, he rejoices in laughter, is attracted to it, infected by it, bathes in good humour when it surrounds him.

His life is very difficult – he loves to be in a social setting but social settings increasingly fear those who are different and finds excuses to exclude them.

It’s a shame I cannot transpose his perception of the world into words for you because, if I could, it would have the emotional intelligence that would stun you and there would be no bull-shit.

Words are very blunt instruments.

This brings me to the thought that set me off on this tack. People that haven’t always lived with animals find it odd: the concept of personality in other species and that is only because we depend so much on language. It means we miss a lot.

Communication, Disaster, Ecology

Media Miasma

It all started with a sunset –here in the hills it’s the one thing we miss but there it was — harbinger of more weirdness to come.

?????????????????????????????And the media was full of it — southerly winds scooping up all the industrial and vehicular effluent from France and Spain (didn’t think they had much) and funneling it over Eastern England to dump it there with a load of sand from the Sahara and produce the worst air pollution for aeons.

Thank goodness it wasn’t going to affect Wales — so where is the hill?

?????????????????????????????It was there yesterday!

Now you see it

Now you see it

Now you don't

Now you don’t

And there is a slight metropolitan smell — yes, definitely diesel fumes.

If it’s this bad in the West it must be cataclysmic in London.

Panic phone call to daughter in central London where the weather-man’s air quality map is scarlet, we are green.  ‘Pollution?’

‘Yes, pollution — the worst for years — a real pea-souper!’

‘What are you on about,Mum.  No, really Mum, I walked home to Wandsworth and it was a bit misty by the river — that’s all.’  Her husband had been in Canary Wharf — up a skyscraper — hadn’t noticed a thing.

‘Not even the people collapsing with asthma and heart disease?’

‘No Mum.’

That’s odd.