Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Brr....... It's cold!

There's no pleasing some folks and I'm one of them at the mo'. Now cold during the day is bearable, wrap up well, keep yourself busy and all is well. Cold at night isn't fun.

Shep and Co live in a cottage made of wood, with very thin walls and at the moment it seems the cold coming in is beating the heat we are trying to generate. My ears in the morning when I awake are able to forecast the weather outside, so cold that I imagine they might snap off means a hard frost, just cold enough to be uncomfortable probably means there is a slight frost. This morning I realised it must have come fresh - well it was snowing on peering out; the same thing really as the air temperature has to rise a bit for the snow to fall and so it had. How had I concluded this? Well my ears were just cold, not COLD........

We were very lucky just before Christmas as we were very kindly given a load of Ash from a local farmer. Not the ash that comes with cinders, no the sort that grows into a tree. Now this wood is still green but as the saying goes 'Ash when green is fit for a Queen'. It is burning quite well although we do dry it for a day in the oven next to the fire before burning it.

Bad organisation is what it all boils down to - no dry firewood. There has been a lot of firewood gathered, cut and chopped lately but by rights that ought to be for next winter when it gets dried out, it doesn't generate as much heat when you hear it sizzling on the fire.

Not to worry, we are coping, the coal man very kindly delivered the week before Christmas which means we can ladle it on alongside the sizzling wood. Should life get too bad oil filled electric radiators may well get used, however a horrendous electricity bill a few years back has meant their use tends to be limited.

We are fortunate as there are two open fires in this house. A small grate in the bedroom which gets lit every evening to try and remove the chill as it ain't a lot of fun to get into bed and find your breath turning to water on the covers. Mind you the first cottage I ever had I well remember one hard winter having ice on the covers when I awoke - life is definitely better since those days.

The airing cupboard door is left open to allow the heat from the hot tank to escape into the rest of the house - our one and only radiator! By the way we don't have an immersion heater so this heat is the left over from the back boiler and as the fire is on 24/7 at the mo' there is plenty of hot water, unlike the summer when we have to light the fire to have a bath, in the winter we run the bath to get rid of the hot water - mental note:must look into running radiators off it

Life could be worse, the dogs have to sleep outside in a kennel with no heating, the cat gets kicked out every night after having cooked herself at the fireside for hours and I have to say that by this time of night the house is warming up nicely it just seems to lose that heat so rapidly overnight and the following day is spent trying to raise the indoor temperature again. It's all short lived as spring and summer are on the way once again and Shep will be able to complain about the heat!!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

White Christmas

Aye, one minute we're complaining about the wet the next we're complaining about the cold - not the farmers tho', no, this is good stock weather at the moment, at least it is in Tarset I'm not speaking for the rest of the country. We have snow, varying amounts depending on the height of the ground but none of it has blown and the rough ground is still breaking through so it ain't really too bad at all.

Okay, there's a few problems with frozen water and the likes but nothing too serious. Hay is being offered to some sheep who are only too pleased to receive it but fortunately many are able to scratch through the snow and still graze away, it is really only those on barer ground which are likely to suffer. There are no clarts (mud), which is a welcome change.

We haven't seen vast amounts of sunshine but the days definitely appear to be lengthening, although that may well be due to the whiteness all around giving us the impression of longer days. We're past the winter solstice so it is all down hill now, will be spring before we know it !!

Christmas Day will dawn white, at the moment we are shrouded in freezing fog so that ain't gonna encourage the white stuff to melt. It has been a difficult time for those wishing to do Christmas shopping, fulfil social engagements, or expecting family and friends coming to stay over Christmas, however it all pans out one way and the other. There have been some disappointments, visitors unable to travel etc., which just shows the power of Mother Nature.

You can not change the weather, just prepare for it and show it some respect. Farmers and shepherds are used to just that, although the weather of latter years may have caused a sense of complacency the natural grounding is always prevalent. Plenty of fodder in for the stock, fuel in for tractors/bikes and the house, pantries full - ready for winter and what ever it brings our way.

Shep and Co will be taking to the roads on Christmas day, shovel in boot just in case. We head out of the North Tyne and down into the South Tyne to spend a day with family, a treat we so look forward too. Should the worst come to the worst though we are prepared to bide at home and feast on beans on toast. Whatever your circumstances this Christmas I hope you're able to make the best of it, remember, there'll always be someone less fortunate than yourself.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

under age sex

A problem facing all walks of life; hormones racing, juveniles becoming sexually active... Sheep are no different to any other animals on this planet.

Mother Nature decides when a sheep is matured enough to reproduce not the sheep themselves.

Immature sheep are known as hoggs, this has already been discussed in past blogs. This years hoggs were born in April/May so by tup time they are only approx 6 months old and would lamb down at about a year old if caught by the tup. Hill hoggs are slower maturing but the strongest ones are capable of coming a raid by second time over. If they ended up in lamb they would need special care and attention, should they be left out on the hill unnoticed their condition will most probably drop dramatically and they could well lamb down without any milk or end up dragging themselves down trying to rear a lamb.

As the hoggs are the future of the ewe flock the idea is to have them mature and grow before going to the tup at 18 months of age, give them a good start in life.

Years back hill farms didn't always have much in - bye ground with them and so hoggs couldn't be held off from the ewes and kept safe from the tups. This problem was overcome by breeking. Breeking involves sewing a square of cloth over the tail and so preventing the tup accessing the rear end of the hogg - ovine chastity belts!

Breeks were often off cuts from the woollen mills although I have always used unbleached calico, which when removed after tup time can be washed and stored for the next time. The packing needle from shearing time is used alongside string and the material is sown onto the wool with a running stitch around two sides and the top, there is one long, knotted stitch put through the wool on the tail.

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I hadn't come across anyone who breeked hoggs for a few years but was asked to do some just a week or two back, over the border in Scotland, unfortunately I didn't have the time to breek 350 hoggs for the guy but at least I know some out there do still breek.

The majority now run their hoggs off into the fields, often for most of the winter, putting them on to cake to encourage them to grow on better. Others pay for keep known as wintering on other farms on kinder lying ground and the hoggs leave the farm for a few months and return bouncing and bloomed of the skins with having been on better going.

To confuse you further............... In-bye hoggs do often get the chance of the tup, on purpose. These are far stronger sheep and would be enormous if left geld to run through for another year due to the ground they live on. So if you hear of someone lambing hoggs it isn't unusual but it would be highly unusual in sheep running on hill ground.

Tup hoggs are also used both on the hills and in-bye, they don't get many sheep - 30 is often deemed sufficient for a tup hogg. Some are only put out for a few days. It gives the shepherd an idea how they breed - what sort of offspring they are going to leave and it also gives the young lads an idea of what life is all about, they'll go to the ewes as shearlings and hopefully be able to do the job without fumbling about.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

tups a wandering

The hill tups are on the rake. I had a phone call with a shepherd from over the border on Monday lunch time, he'd spent all morning hunting his tups out; the first cut of sheep he came to on the hill had the wrong tup with them, he continued expecting to find he'd swapped with his neighbour and travelled to the adjoining cut of sheep. No, there was no tup there either, or the next cut. He gathered four cuts and found one tup.............

Even more frustrating was the fact this was day 16, the tups were wandering a tad soon really. After the 17 days you expect them to set off in search of a ewe to tup as you'd hope there would be very little choice for him by then, these ewes had caused trouble a day or two sooner than they ought of.

Were the tups ever found? Dunno! But they would be, a shepherd doesn't settle 'til he gets his tups back to their respective places.

Some hill farms don't have sufficient field ground to allow them to tup their ewes 'in-bye' - in an enclosed area - many are still tupped out on the open hill which necessitates daily herding, gathering every cut (heft) of sheep up to a) ensure the tup is there b) make life easier for the tup to find the ewes which require his services c) to enable the shepherd to cast an eye over the flock and get an idea of whether or not the tup is working properly and that he hasn't done himself a mischief.

Once second time over comes in (the second 17 day cycle) the tups are changed, just in case! you may think the tup appeared to be working well, however, if he hadn't you really don't want him left out with the ewes for a further 17 days, he is replaced, if possible with a fresh sheep who hopefully will work and catch any of the ewes which come back a tupping.

Out on the open hill second time over can be hard work for the shepherd, tups aren't content with small talk from the ewes, they want action and if it's not forthcoming on their doorstep they'll go looking for it and may wander a long way in their desire to search out a willing female. It was not unheard of for a shepherd to come in for lunch in the mid afternoon when herding on foot, the missing tup on the first cut materialising on the last cut of the hill and having to be driven back to where he was meant to be stationed, a lot of walking to keep the tups in their respective places, necessary though to ensure you know how your lambs are bred.

So, Tarset hill tups are into second time over, hopefully not too many ewes are seeking their services. Farmers and shepherds alike are waiting with baited breath to see how many ewes come back to be served, there'll always be an odd one, lets hope that's how it remains. Come the start of the fresh year the tups will be brought in, services required or not their job will be finished, just as you like to know when the lambing is due to start you also like to know it is going to end.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

shining light

Shep had a run in with the police tonight. Seems a long time since I've had a crack with a policeman, took a few seconds for it to sink in as to who it was that was shining their flash light into my car........obviously it was dark at the time!

I'd travelled over to Rothbury in the Coquet (a good half hour from here in a north easterly sort of direction). Anyhow, there's one of those wonderful things called a fish and chip shop which meant Shep didn't have to come home and burn something for dinner.

I pulled up outside with mouth watering and belly grumbling and commenced rummaging about to see if there was any money available when a flashlight lit up the windscreen followed by mutterings about not having a tax disc on display.

As already said it slowly dawned on me that this was a police officer and I may add a very pleasant one. A car check must obviously have already been done as he seemed to have a vague idea as to where I belonged and wasn't surprised to hear I was whom I said I was.

A rear light off apparently, and rightly so, on closer inspection there was no doubt what so ever, I did indeed have no drivers side back light - oops! unfortunately I'm not often behind my car when the lights are on. It was very kind of the officer to draw it to my attention and bode me on my way after watching me hunting for my roll of red insulating tape (used for draft ewes horns), so that I could tape my tax disc onto the windscreen which had inadvertently fallen off the windscreen and found itself lying in the passenger foot well with all the chocolate wrappers, baler twine, calving ropes?, dog leads, shears, mouldy things I'd sooner forget about etc that any self respecting car would have in its foot well!

As I was making the journey home, with fish and chips steaming beside me for company I mused over the unexpected meeting, my luck at meeting an affable bobby. No need to produce my documents at a police station within seven days as used to happen in my youth, no threatening tickets to be signed by a garage to prove the work had been done, just a polite warning, or ought I say, drawing to my attention, of the fault on my vehicle.

Wonder what might have happened in daylight? The syringes and needles on the dashboard for starters, lying alongside a skewer for the wool bags (a long dangerous looking stabbing type of device), then there are the four pairs of hand shears in the door well........ the heavy stone hammer lying in the back, alongside a spade and pick...umm, the two dogs (one which can smile in a menacing fashion)................. what else have I got lying around in this vehicle of mine? Do y'know, I actually dread to think, I could be had up for all manner of things. Then there's the question of the pocket knife I always carry, I do believe that's illegal nowadays.

I concluded that this is a rural area and obviously the police officer would fully understand, however, I will, eventually, get around to having a mucking out session - that's a good idea! See if I can find the floor in my vehicle and who knows, I might unearth something I'd forgotten I had. I'll put that on my list of to do's......

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Wet and Wild

Well? - Water! Oh, how often that has been the beginning of a foolish few minutes between Shep and the better half as a game of word association ensues. We both have a terrible habit of saying 'well.......' could mean any number of things and more often than not that is the start and finish of the sentence. "Well.........."

"Water", "rain", "puddle", "flooding", "Noah's ark"........................

We're very fortunate here in Tarset, unlike many of our Cumbrian neighbours. Our homes and businesses are not under water, our bridges are still standing. We have a great deal to be thankful for.

Life in Tarset is pretty much waterlogged, quad bikes are leaving black marks across normally dry fields; tractors are making a mess. Sheep driven in to pens are making a mash on the fields; lots of tiny cloven feet digging in to soft ground leave a black trail behind them, until the next deluge when it washes in again.

The blue faced leicester tups aren't too happy being out with the ewes, they have very fine skins and can be seen sheltering behind stone walls away from the driving rain. Some are trying to head for home, especially now that the earlier tupped ewes aren't in need of their services.

Ewes have an oestrus cycle of 17 days, after which the tups are changed around for fear one hasn't worked somewhere. Every farmer and shepherd is herding his ewes with fingers crossed, hoping not too many are coming back to the tups as they don't want the lambing to drag on forever. There will always be the odd one but you truly hope and pray there isn't the activity there was over the first 17days.

The services of the boys are almost obsolete and they are beginning to dream of those sheltered closes/paddocks, or even buildings where cake will be offered in troughs and life will be comfortable.

The hill tups haven't been out very long at all, they are better suited for poorer weather, being a woollier/hardier breed. Some have struggled to get their ewes gathered and tups out. Burns in flood have delayed some hill sheep from being gathered, those that have to cross burns to come in to the pens have had to wait 'till the water ran in. For some the traditional date for releasing the tups was put back a day or two as the driving winds and rain made conditions unsuitable for hassling flocks.

There is no doubt about it November saw very poor stock weather. Sheep are hattered. They had a kind back end and went into tup time and winter in good fettle but weather like we've seen over the past month has trashed them and for all ground is still green and growy looking the flocks will be beginning to take hurt. Tighter woolled sheep will be surviving the wet weather better than those with more open skins, they won't be getting soaked to the skin as easily. You know yourselves how much happier you feel if wearing decent waterproofs and remaining relatively dry rather than being soaked to the skin with out waterproofs on - stock react exactly the same.

Some cattle have been housed and some haven't, there are those who winter out anyhow. Vets are reporting a high incidence of pneumonia in the cattle sheds, not surprising as up until recently the weather was mild and many cattle would be housed wet. Regardless as to whether they were housed wet or not the mild, muggy, damp weather is sufficient to cause pneumonia in the sheds.

All doom and gloom? No, not really, just a fact of life. We have stock in Tarset, it hasn't been washed away down the rivers and thankfully the rain we had over the past month wasn't snow. Don't get me wrong, hard weather is kinder to stock. Snow and frost is kinder stock weather than torrential rain, so long as it is in moderation. Had the rainfall and wind that came with it been snow we really would have had problems.

On that note the first snowfall in Tarset came on Friday 27th November - a dusting on only the highest of ground, with a heavier dusting on Monday 30th November. December came in with a hard frost with -7 recorded at Shep's house. We can cope with weather like that.