Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Dead meat - dead money

That last posting has got me up on my high horse. All the fault of sighting my first Red Kite and then getting on thinking, must have far too much time on my hands, trouble is when you're clipping it may well exhaust the body but it doesn't really tax the mind and if like me your radio has bust then it gives you far too much time to think, followed by a damp morning when sheep are wet and you can't get on ........... a dangerous cocktail....

Pre 2001 life in the sheep world was bearable, cattle farming was clawing itself back from the BSE crisis but sheep were hanging on in, trade was bearable and life was trundling along pretty much as it always had. Bang! The bubble burst, every livestock farmers worst nightmare - foot and mouth - we wont cover it here except to say life was shite.

In those days farming was governed by MAFF (ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food), at least the title gave one the feeling they were involved with agriculture, however, they were deemed naff by the government and so in 2001 was scrapped and taken over by DEFRA (department for environment, food and rural affairs), still the government, just a different title and one which does not instill a great deal of empathy for agriculture itself.

The fallen stock scheme came into being, livestock no longer being allowed to be buried on the farm in case of pollution to waterways and to prevent the spread of disease to other animals, instead the farmers were to have the pleasure of a double whammy, not only had something died - an expense in itself, but they now had to pay to dispose of it, an average of about £17 per head per sheep. Quite literally dead money!!

No sympathy for the farmer?? Thinking he ought not to have animals dying on his farm?? People die every day, thousands of them I would imagine, unless they are in your immediate family or close friends it has little impact on you. And pets? how many people have spent a fortune on their pets at the vets surgery, but eventually, whether old age or through illness that pet will die. The only thing we are guaranteed from the day we are born is that we will die, under what circumstances and when, we do not know, but it is inevitable, it will happen.

So back to the farmer and his dead animals - it happens, and believe you me it isn't profitable.

The fallen stock scheme? intended to prevent the spread of disease, tell me, a wagon comes around on a Tuesday and Friday in this area, it pulls up next to you deadstock and drops the ramp, carcases are inside from god knows where and died of god knows what - is that really a sensible way of preventing the spread of disease?

A prime example is abortion. Abortion in sheep can be highly contagious, even spreading to women. Farmers and shepherds wives have lost unborn children just from handling dirty clothes at lambing time, not even from direct contact with sheep. What's to stop this wagon from carrying the same from farm to farm as lambing time will undoubtedly be one of the busiest times of year for the dead cart. We are lucky in Tarset and abortion isn't a major problem but could it be in the future?

DEFRA like many organisations seem to forget that farming and the countryside go hand in hand, in areas like our own here in Tarset with traditional methods of farming the farmers are actually the guardians of the countryside, if it gets overgrown and dishevelled it is of little use to them, if it's overgrazed again it is of little use to them. The countryside is their living and where their hearts are, they don't like losing stock, they really don't like paying for the privilege of losing stock - especially for a relatively pointless scheme, wagons burning fuel trundling around the countryside daily collecting something which could so easily be helping the balance of nature. We hear about global warming all the time, the effect of the motor car on the environment, we're all asked to do more to cut down on greenhouse gasses and yet our own government introduced a needless scheme - a hypocritical scheme. Oh boy - I am on my high horse!!!! Time to go to bed!

A world apart

Shep's been away out of the area. Yep, that's right the North Tyne was left behind as a wedding needed attending. Friday morning saw shep and the better half heading south towards Peterborough arriving in time for a tea time wedding and evening reception.

Interesting to note that once past Scotch Corner I never spotted a sheep, not to say they weren't there, just I never saw one, and very few cattle either. A great deal of arable ground though, every crop imaginable and many I could only guess at. A few grass fields had been cleared but again a pointer that maybe there wasn't alot of stock if silage and hay hadn't been grown.

Now up here in Tarset the fields are full of grass, or so it seems, however, the crops in many places are still light and silage/hay activity remains a week or two off. Down south the corn is almost ripe, potato crops are flowering, strawberries are being picked, maize is standing waist high........ there is no doubt about the North /South divide. Us and them are weeks apart in the growing season. A fact I learnt years ago when I went to lamb in the self same area. It was February, I travelled down with snow tyres on the van due to the poor road conditions up here, on arrival in a place called Exton,nr Oakham I was greeted with daffodils in full flower, I'd left snowdrops frantically trying to peer up out of the snow - a world apart!

A WORLD APART brings me to the radio report I heard at lambing time regarding a new eu directive. Farmers have had to pay to have dead stock removed from the farm for a few years now - yet another expense. At about £17 per sheep it sharp adds up, it's not so long ago that a dead sheep would be buried on site, where she'd fallen, those that you didn't come across were carrion fodder, helping the balance of nature, feeding foxes, badgers, crows and numerous other birds let alone all the creepy crawlies which we all like to overlook.

Now I do believe that I'd heard on the radio that due to the lack of deadstock on farms in europe the vultures were beginning to spread their wings and their territories, being seen in countries where vultures were unheard of, in their quest to find food - carrion - dead animals. So, the eu had concluded that farmers in certain member states ought to be allowed 'on farm disposal'.

'On farm disposal' - sounds like we have gone full circle, except in the good old days it didn't have a fancy name, it was pretty much taken for granted. Where there's live ones there's dead ones and the carcases help the balance of nature, however, farmers generally like to keep things tidy and so did go around with a spade and bury the remains, which after a day or two took a smaller hole than a fresh dead carcase would.

This brings me to my point in question, we don't have vultures in Britain, yet, but we do have other carrion eaters. The Red Kite, reintroduced a few years back, and first seen by myself on my jaunt to the wedding, they are carrion eaters to the point that a farmer in wales feeds them as a tourist attraction, getting scraps from butchers and throwing it all out at set times of the day allowing the general public to come along and enjoy the sight. Buzzards too, of which there are now vast numbers, we are also told eat carrion.......... this being the case should the eu directive not also include our own member state and allow us 'on farm disposal'?

Thursday, 25 June 2009


Shep's been lying in the bath perusing........ now that could be all manner of things; the state of the economy, the price of prime lambs, the future of livestock markets, will the carrots get the root fly this year?

No none of that.

It's the bruises - yep! been clipping hoggs! Imagination is a wonderful thing, I'm quite sure that along with a butterfly (a purpley green creature of type unknown)there is also a complete map of the british isles covering my thighs. On my shin there is definitely a Galloways head, quite black and anvil shaped - what else could it be? and the yellowness on my ankle? (I remember that one well, don't really know how she managed to stab me there) Could be a buttercup but barely bright enough in colour. The left knee is self inflicted, with outside help, that's where I got myself with the machine - just a little pin prick really but bruising up nicely all the same.

The fore arm is interesting; two small bruises side by side with a long scratch below (inflicted by a flying back foot) could be a face I guess - two eyes and a mouth............. the water was cooling down rapidly and imagination was fading.

Feeling refreshed and clean with aches and pains soothed I happed everything up again, it's no wonder we never really see farmers and shepherds in shorts in this neck of the woods, unless of course it's on the rugby field.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Early morning bonuses

You just canna whack early mornings, well... when the weather is good, I have to admit I really do like my bed but I also love those bright, cheery mornings when no one else is astir.

I've been enjoying one or two of those lately, the sheep are footy, dogs fresh before the heat gets up and you see all matter of things. First deer fawn of the season I saw the other morning. A Roe deer, quite common around these parts. The doe had fled the felled planting as I went out to gather, when returning two hours later with a flock of sheep infront of me it must have all been too much for the fawn and it banged up and ran like a startled rabbit, fortunately this time without dogs in hot pursuit - their minds were on greater things. A pleasure to see.

Fox cubs also seem to be in abundance and as they are all too used to the sound of the quad bike they can easily be studied, playing and enjoying the early morning sunshine.

Then of course there is the dawn chorus, it does pay to turn the engine of the bike off and take five. Sit and enjoy. The sounds of skylarks and snipe fill the air along with curlew and the occasional peewit if you're lucky.

All this and at times you could imagine you're the only person on the planet - sheer bliss.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Hogg Clipping

The shearing season commences with the hogg clipping - always seems unkind on the poor souls doing the clipping that the first sheep of the season to be handled and shorn are the tups (the big boys)and the hoggs.

the hoggs are the virgin sheep, last years lambs that have their birthday at this time of year. They are kept off the tups in the back end of the year and left to run on and grow, many are now wintered in fields and learnt to eat cake (sheep feed) others go away for a few months wintering onto good in bye ground where they are safe from marauding tups or so one would hope. Once tup time is over the hoggs are generally returned to their cuts on the hill and learn off their mothers where the best rakes are and how to shelter from the weather.

By June the hoggs are in good fettle to be clipped. Sheep need a rise (new growth coming below the old wool) to the fleece, having run geld the rise in the wool of hoggs comes about a month before the ewes are fit to clip.

So why should it be so unkind to the shearers to have to clip hoggs first when they are the first to be ready and are generally very good clipping? Well they are young and daft, have never been handled by a shearer before and have wool everywhere - and I mean everywhere, one can struggle to find their tiny teats hiding in the dense wool of their tummies and legs.

A hogg is renowned for kicking, it never fails to amaze me how she can drum her back legs against the ground whilst one is attempting to get the wool off, they wriggle as well, have even been known to bite when all else fails. Generally they act like spoilt kids, not appreciating their free short back and sides, doing all they can to make life for the shearer uncomfortable.

And their horns? Boy do they know how to stick those horns into the tender inner thighs of the person handling them! Shearing jeans are a great invention - double thickness denim offering protection not only from the grease off the wool but the sharpness of the horns.

It seems a year or two now since I learnt to clip but the first sheep I clipped was a hogg. I have seen many youngsters since start off and learn to clip and again it is the hoggs which are the first to be attempted - amazing anyone perseveres to shear sheep as they really can be a heart breaking proposition to a green shearer.

The biggest hurdle when learning to shear is learning to handle the sheep so why start on the wriggliest creatures out there? Beats me but we all did and likelies always will.

Preferably the sheep should be dry before being clipped, not always easy especially on a summer such as last year, however, most farms these days have cattle sheds and once dry the sheep will be housed to keep them dry on those catchy days. Contract shearers are often used although in Tarset quite a number of the farmers and shepherds do their own with possibly a little bit of outside help. One local farmer is now in his 60's and still shears his 800 sheep himself, not all in one day however!

Professional shearers can take the wool of a sheeps back in under a minute and many think nothing of clipping 2-300 a day each, many of us around here have a more relaxed approach. The logistics of getting alot of sheep forward can be very difficult, especially at ewe clipping time so generally it pays to get in what can easily be managed. Bear in mind also that shearers turn up and expect a shed full of sheep and they bend over all day and clip - nothing else, the farmer/shepherd has to prepare the scene and get those sheep gathered and ready to be clipped, they have the wool to wrap, sheep to keep forward, sheep to take away, lame feet to sort, any clipping cuts to dress - they are kept on their toes all day long, unless you have tremendous sheep pens and big sheds it often pays to chip away yourselves.

So, the hoggs are clipped, their wool is wrapped and packed in big wool sheets which are stitched and a label attached to inform the wool board who they belong to. The shorn hoggs are run back into the sheep pens and are keeled (stock marked) and eventually at the end of the day are returned to their cuts of the hill and their lives are back to normal. Until the next gathering - the ewe clipping

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Lamb Marking

The first few weeks of June is the traditional time for lamb marking.

After lambing time ewes and lambs are let away back to the hill, if they hadn't been lambed out there in the first place. They are herded twice a day, raked up and down the hill, a sharp eye on the look out for the tell tale signs of a lamb in the drain (the ewe will usually be hanging around the drain), ewes on their backs (called kessing or cast), anything trailing at the back - unwell or lame.

Eventually they are all gathered in for the lamb marking, a health check if you like. Ewes and lambs are dosed if necessary, any dirty backsides cleaned before flies get a hold and sheep end up maggoted, feet are sorted if needs be and the lambs receive their stock mark, lug mark( notch taken out of the ear, a more permanent stock mark) and any other treatments necessary.

Early mornings are usually the norm, setting off to gather at 5 - 6am is not unusual, especially if the weather is hot as sheep don't travel too well in the heat and the dogs are to be considered as well as they cover a lot of miles and find it easier in the cool of the early morning. Also it pays to pick the sheep up before they naturally begin to rake themselves in, this way hopefully they are not spread out as much and are easier to contain.

The sheep are usually run up a shedder(a race with doors off into different pens), allowing lambs to run one way, ewes another and any geld ewes or hoggs can be run another way. This saves lambs getting bashed around too much by the adult sheep and enables the shepherd to concentrate on each batch individually.

The hoggs and geld ewes are held in as they will be clipped (shorn). Hoggs are last years lambs, the replacement females for the flock. Geld ewes are the barren ones, the non profitable creatures who for what ever reason didn't have or rear a lamb this season.

Ewes and lambs are returned to their own cut (heft) on the hill after they have all been dealt with, there is generally a great deal of blaaring goes on and it is truly amazing to sit back and watch them as each ewe and lamb finds each other and trot off merrily to their own little patch on the hill.

Friday, 12 June 2009

blowing hot and cold

The tropical conditions subsided, cold winds returned, who would think we could have Northerly to Easterly winds in June? Usually a sign of snow during the winter months, however last week there was snow fall reported further west on the Penines over at Alston so who knows??

Yes - it rained too, quite welcome in actual fact, freshened everything up, washed fertiliser in on the hay crops and gave the grass a reason to grow. Tarset at the moment is getting hit by almost every sort of weather. Cold winds sometimes masked by hot sunshine followed by showers, some heavy and prolonged. The midges have enjoyed the damp spells, biting with ferocity when they find bare skin. (Personal reminder: order Avon Skin So Soft - midges don't seem to like the stuff and all us shepherds get to wander round smelling sweet!)

Midges do help set the ewes out at night, hill sheep are raked - set down in the mornings and up at night - the ferocious midge can set them onto the hill tops in the evenings sometimes easier than a man and dog!

So why are sheep raked? Well, if left untouched they would sit on the sweeter ground and forget about the rest, also an important management tool. If the sheep are moved any problems are easily seen, if they don't want to move there is generally something wrong, if a lamb shoots off without it's mother again there is probably something sadly amiss.

This time of the year is often known as the 'rough time' - prior to the shearing season the sheep are heavy in wool, not surprisingly they can get hot, sweaty and itchy too, they can get on rubbing their backs and before you know it could well be found lying flat on their backs with all four feet in the air - not a good position for a sheep! The fit ones have a broader back and might not find it as easy to roll over again, their wool may also get caught up in the heather preventing them from rolling over.

Once on her back a ewe will fill with gas and eventually die, herding and raking the ewes will hopefully give the shepherd a chance to prevent this, unfortunately we're not always successful, certain conditions can cause a ewe to succumb quickly - just one of those things but infuriating all the same.

Once the ewes are clipped (shorn) the pressure is off as they are less likely to end up on their backs, every shepherd looks forward to the light relief gained from their sheep finally being clipped.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Tropical Tarset

One minute it was blowing a hooley, the next we are getting frizzled to a frazzle. A welcome change in the weather I must say, will it stop all those farmers from wingeing? For the time being yes, other than those poor souls (like myself) who struggle with very hot conditions. However, long term it could pose real problems, natural watercourses could dry up meaning water would need transporting to the livestock, also this is the growing season; for the meantime there is sufficient moisture in the ground but rain is needed to get the hay fields growing ready for the crop to be harvested in a months time.

The hill ground around here takes very little hurt in dry conditions, Tarset is renowned for being a wet boggy hole and the well covered hill ground flourishes in warm dry weather, it's the enclosed ground which can be heavier stocked which may suffer eventually.

A pleasant change though to be browned with the sun, not rusted with the rain and there is no doubt about it - the rain will return.