Monday, 28 April 2008

It's Harry!

Now I have two little girls of my own I'm really enjoying revisiting books I remember reading as a child.

I started reading bits of Winnie the Pooh to them when they were babies on the premise that it's never too young to start. Then we moved on to Beatrix Potter's lovely tales, particularly Peter Rabbit.
One book I really remember my mum reading to me is 'Harry the Dirty Dog' by Gene Zion. This is the charming tale of a 'white dog with black spots' who runs off to play rather than have a bath. When he returns he is so dirty that he has turned into a 'black dog with white spots' and the family don't recognise him. But he convinces them to give him a bath and, as they wash off the dirt, they realise: "It's Harry! It's Harry! It's Harry."

I remember being so thrilled by the "It's Harry!" bit. We all used to chorus it together, delightedly. I have just read it to my girls this evening and they are the same. I wonder, if they ever have any children, if they will remember 'Harry' or will it be 'The Gruffalo' or 'Hairy Mclary' that they read with fond memories.

When we were older and had moved on to 'The Famous Five', 'The Secret Seven' and 'Swallows and Amazons' Mum posted our original copy of 'Harry' to my many cousins in Melbourne and Perth, Australia. It was passed around that generation of the Australian family. They are now on gap years and the last time one of them was visiting she was happy to report that the book is still going strong with a new generation of tinies chanting: "It's Harry! It's Harry! It's Harry!"

Sunday, 27 April 2008

My dog

So today, Sunday April 27th 2008 is International Day of the Dog. In celebration of that I thought I'd post a picture of my lovely dog and tell a little of his story.

Mido is now three and we have owned him for two years. We got him from a couple who were moving huse or splitting up or something. They were a bit vague about what was going on. We had Mido for a two week trial and, at the end of the trial we phoned to say we would be keeping him and they had goine. Subsequent investigations found out that they had disappeared overnight and their house was now empty. Curious. Anyway Mido was a thoroughly lovely dog, fortunately. I hate to think about what we'd have done if he hadn't been!

His previous owners called him Mido after an Egyptian footballer who used to play for Spurs. Brian, is a Spurs supporter, fortunatley. If the dog had been Rooney or Beckham or (horrors) Henry or any of his Arsenal teammates, Mido would have had to have a new name! Not that he's really fussy about his name. He answers to Frodo, Shadow, Odo, Hobo, Fido... anything really which rhymes with Mido (sort of).

Originally he had been found as a stray in Fishguard. He had terrible skin, suffering from mange and all sorts of horrid mites. His previous owners nursed him back to health and he grew all of his fur back. Mido knows all about scavenging and is adept at walking on his hind legs to steal whatever tasty snack has been put out on the bird table. He is a big fan of pizza too. There's a pizza takeaway in Fishguard and I can only assume that little puppy Mido was familiar with its leftovers. Pizza the only thing he has ever stolen off the work surface in the kitchen. He was so embarrassed that he had taken it that he found me and gave me back the bit of pizza.

A vet friend of mine had a close look at Mido and identified him as a Labrador-Staffordshire Bull Terrier cross. I always describe him as a mini black lab with a big grin! He has got a lovely quiet temperament and is endlessly patient with the children. He has never shown any inclination to bite and he doesn't really bark either. We have taught him to bark for a biscuit, but otherwise he's silent apart from a little quiet whining when he needs to go outside.

The only big problem we have with him is that he is car sick which makes taking him out to the beach a little traumatic, but, once we have finished this laborious process of changing the car I plan to take him out on little tiny trips to acclimatise him to travelling. I can't blame a dog who is on at least his third home for being a little stressed at the idea of another car trip.

Although one thing we should have thought about when we fell in love with a black dog was the fact that we have pale golden carpets. Oops! Never mind, we now have a fancier vacuum cleaner with a turbo brush which deals with the hair.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Lambing on the Preseli Hills

April is lambing time for our little flock of Lleyn ewes. This is the story of this year's lambing time and the characters that make up the flock.

The 30 ewes (and a few hangers on, more about them later) came into the barn on Good Friday. They were quite pleased about this! They actually wanted to come in sooner, but we have to wait for a dry day so their wool is dry when they come in. If we brought in sopping wet sheep they would steam, the water vapour would hit the barn's metal roof and then it would spend the rest of the lambing period 'raining' on the poor sheep (and us) below. It could also cause problems such as pneumonia. So they have to be dry, then they can come in.

There then usually follows a period where the sheep laze about on piles of soft hay not doing very much while we consult the calender, consult the ram, scratch our heads, count days and wonder when the first lamb is going to be born. Mum checks them every four hours, I check them between 11pm and midnight. Invariably, as they are fed at 5pm, they will lamb at 11pm, but it could be any time.

Here's the first lamb. This is One Spot and his brother. One Spot was born first, on April 3rd, then the ewe went off to have her second and forgot all about him. When we reminded her, she refused to believe he was hers and wouldn't feed him. Aargh! We thought. Great start to lambing. Mum, who is In Charge where sheep are concerned, gave him some colostrum and now he is bottle fed. His mum has agreed that she should look after him... sort of.

It went very cold again just after lambing had begun so we found the heat lamp. One Spot broke it, so another bulb was bought and the lamp positioned out of lambs' reach. They love it.

After One Spot was born the rest followed on in dribs and drabs. We had a few problems, but nothing serious. The main problem we have is when they get their legs tucked back a bit, so you get a nose and two hooves, instead of two hooves, a bit of leg and a pair of knees, then a nose. What we have to do then is pull gently on the hooves until the knees come out. I try to get one leg longer than the other as this offsets the shoulders and makes the lamb narrower for the ewe's pelvis. The most stuck one arrived one day when Hannah and Rosie had friends round after school. They watched agog as it took both mum and I to pull out an enormous lamb. The children had been astonished to see the lamb's face poking out of the back of the ewe, with its little tongue sticking out, looking rather blue. But we delivered it quickly and it was soon up on its feet with its tongue back to a more normal pink colour.

One thing about having a closed flock (which means we don't buy in any new ewes, we breed our own replacements and just buy a new ram once in a while) means the ewes have very strong family ties. These two, above, our records confirm, are twins. They lambed within a few hours of each other and refused to be penned separately. They spent one night taking their pens apart so they could be together, so we gave in and they now have a double room.

The mother of these two is across the yard in the stable which acts as a holding area before the ewes and lambs go out in the field. She may have a new set of lambs to look after, but she's still keeping tabs on these two and her new grandchildren. One reason that lambing is so noisy is that the various families are bleating at each other from waiting pen, to lambing pen, to stable, to field.

This is Chops, our pet sheep, one of the hangers-on. He was fully intended to be chops, joints, mince etc, and when he was being bottle fed we made it clear to everyone, including my children who were then aged two and four, that he would be on the dinner table one day. They were happy about this. Then we gathered up that year's bunch of lambs to label up the ones going off to slaughter. Chops was duly labelled with a big blue dot on his head. Then the others were a pain to catch. Chop is easy to catch. In fact the difficult thing is getting rid of him. He actually helped me catch the others, then, as I was sitting on the floor trimming the woolly backside of one of the others, Chops came over, put his head on my shoulder, leaned, nuzzled and cuddled me. So we put a big red cross on his side to say "not this one" and he has stayed. Who could eat a sheep this cute? Not me!

Other hangers-on include a couple of hoggets (yearling sheep) which failed to finish as lamb last year and will be sold this year instead or kept on for another year as mutton. There's also a bunch of ewe lambs who won't have their first lambs until next year.

This is the daddy. This is Baary, our Lleyn ram, who arrived, many years ago as a ram lamb and did a great deal of baaing, hence his name. He's a lovely benign old chap now, but we can't use him next year so we have to either take the heartbreaking decision of sending him off for slaughter, which seems very mean, or find someone to swap rams with. Needless to say, we'll be working on the latter.

This is our other bottlefed lamb this year. This one's called Timmy because she (I know!) is tiny and sounds like Shaun the Sheep's little dummy sucking friend. The mum's a bit young and clueless and should not have had a lamb this year, but oops, these things happen.

This lamb always sleeps on his mum's lovely soft comfy back. I'm not sure the ewe entirely approves! The arrangement is fine until the ewe decides to get to her feet...

Once the lambs are clean, dry and strong and have fed well they get rings on their balls (if boys) and on their tails (if girls), the ewes get their one and only dose of wormer, as approved under our organic agreement. We're Soil Association registered organic and don't routinely worm. Instead we have a strict grassland rotation plan and we select for ewes which don't get worms. The lambs then have to be tagged - double tags for the ewe lambs, single tags for the rams - which gives them an odd lop-eared look as the tags are too big and heavy for their ears, but the government says we must do this, so we do. Then they spend a few days in the stable in a small group, waiting for a nice bit of sunshine so they can go outside in the field.

So that is the story of this year's lambing. We still have three left to lamb. They're getting a bit disgruntled with us as we keep peering under them at their udders to see how close to lambing they are! It won't be long, then they'll all be out in the spring sunshine eating the new grass.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Busy mum? Not exactly.

There are quite a few things which make me wince – and yes, I know I’m not perfect, but I’m now past 40, so I feel justified in turning into a grumpy old thing. I may even become curmudgeonly. Anyway, these annoyances include such crimes as “at this moment in time” or (one I heard earlier today) “at this very moment”. What is wrong with “now”?

Clich├ęs, those awful hackneyed phrases, are cheap throwaway language used to fill in the white space in so many dire magazines give away free by supermarkets. Actually I’m really talking about the Tesco magazine because I had a copy of it, which annoyed me, so I recycled it. Then both my sister and my mother went to Tesco, together, picked up a free magazine each and then brought them home to my house where they then abandoned them. So I had three of the blighters. All three contained the same crime: The phrase “busy mum”.

So many horrid things out there (in Tesco) are for these “busy mums”. The magazine promoted a sugar, fat and salt laden snack, the sort designed to send children to their graves before their parents, and said it was “perfect for busy mums”. The sort of mum, presumably, who was to busy to make something healthy and instead had to resort to this “Frankenfood”.

It’s a pejorative term, “busy mum”. It’s patronising; a pat you on the head, there, there phrase. It almost says “you’re a bit thick, you, so we can talk down to you. There’s a good girl.”

It’s a cop out. An “I haven’t done/can’t do this (whatever) because I’m a busy mum” get out clause.

Well, I’m sure there are people out there who are NOT mums, but are, actually, quite busy. Whereas I’m a mum and, frankly, not that busy. Nope, I’m an “I’m-okay-actually-I’ve-got-plenty-of-time-thanks” mum.

Perhaps they should be advertising unwashed, unpeeled fruit and veg and whole chickens as “perfect for the mum with time on her hands”? They could divide whole supermarkets up like that. One section for the “busy” mum full of convenience foods, pre-prepared things and cheese strings, and the rest, with packs of flour, muddy veg, raw meat and whole fish for the “time on her hands” mum.

Not that I’m a “lazy mum” (well, not all the time…) but I do wonder if these wonderful convenience foods advertised as perfect for the “busy mum” are also, if they are honest, aimed more truthfully at the “lazy mum”. Not the beautifully groomed model “busy mum” in the picture next to the article, but the fat, tracksuit clad chain-smoking Chav mum yelling at her screaming child: “Shut up Courtney-Jordan and I’ll get you some sweets!” as the check-out girl swipes pizza after pizza, smiling potato faces and microwavable burgers.

I’m fed up of seeing articles about so-and-so, a “busy mum”, juggling five kids under the age of three, a full-time worthy job, who does voluntary work and has written a couple of cookery books while she’s at it. Come to think of it, that’s Tana Ramsay isn’t it? The uber-busy mum. But even she finds time to cook, smile and look lovely, despite being married to Gordon. Actually, I think that, next time somebody calls me a “busy mum” I might follow Tana’s husband’s example and tell them to f*** off!

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Where I Live...

If you hop on to the A40 and head west, past Whitland and up a hill, you come to a petrol station called, appropriately, Preseli View. Look north and there they are, the Preselis, tantalisingly close, but actually far away yet. There’s another 20 minutes or so driving to do before you get to the hills themselves and in the meantime they play hide and seek with you behind hedge banks and trees.

The Preselis are in the middle of the Pembrokeshire peninsula. If you imagine the British Isles as a picture of a man riding a pig, with Wales as the head of the pig, Pembrokeshire is the pig’s snout. Mostly they are lovely rounded hills, but one has huge craggy rocks – Carn Menyn or Carn Meini I think– where the delectable Colin Firth filmed the 1988 BBC film ‘Tumbledown’ about Robert Lawrence’s Falklands War experiences.

The hills have other fame too, having provided the bluestones which form the inner circle at Stonehenge. Apparently the bluestones and other stones, including the altar stone, were quarried in the Preselis and transported over 185 miles to Stonehenge in Wiltshire. But nobody has yet worked out how and a Millennium experiment to transport a relatively small bluestone on a wooden sledge to Salisbury plain ended with red faces when the stone fell off a barge into the Milford Haven waterway and sank. It now hides its shame in a quiet corner at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Either primitive man was much cleverer than his modern equivalent or the answer lies much longer ago in glacial movements.

Our smallholding lies up a steep driveway on a ridiculously narrow, winding road between two villages – with the bright lights of Maenclochog a distant glimmer over the other side of a hill. The Welsh name means Owen’s walls or enclosure. The house is built of huge stones with tiny windows and has been added to over many years. It is tiny, the walls are three feet thick and I can’t get a mobile phone signal indoors and television pictures used to be problematic before the days of satellite TV.

We’re out here on our own, aside from a small cottage cheek by jowl with our house built by a previous owner of our place who couldn’t bear to move.
It is a beautiful, quiet spot. Everything here slopes. There are no straight lines. The drive is steep mossy concrete, the yard is a wonky slope. The fields are bounded by banks and we have our own standing stone which we like to run around three times and then wish, but I don’t think that works as I still haven’t got a brand new Land Rover Discovery!

The fields have wonderful old names: Parc yr Odyn (lime kiln field); Parc Maen Hir (field with old stone); Parc Fron Uchaf; Parc Fron Isaf; Gweirglodd (marshy place), but we have other names for them too: Thistle; Little Sloping; The Moor. When it snows we sledge down the slopes on either Parc Maen Hir or Thistle. Everyone – sheep, pony, human, dog, cat or badger – adores the Odyn field best for its south facing slopes big shady trees and fresh spring.

It gets dark here at night. Properly dark. We have no light pollution and a cool clear night is a wonderful time to look up at the stars. There is no noise either. I was brought up in the rural Midlands with the ever present hum of the M5 and the M42, but here we just have the odd baa or moo, and the occasional tractor or aeroplane.

It is a haven for wildlife with Red Kites and Buzzards overhead, in addition to the thousands of other birds, squirrels and badgers. We have orchids and whorled caraway, kingcups and, unfortunately, Japanese knotweed.

It's not as tidy as I'd like it to be, sometimes it feels a little isolated and lonely, but mostly, I feel, it is my own little patch of heaven.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Greedy farmers?

It was the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 last Wednesday and they were discussing the proposed badger cull in Wales to try and halt the spread of Bovine TB.

A listener called in to protest.

“I have compassion for all animals,” she declared. “The cull must not go ahead. Greedy farmers!”

Now I’m not going to argue here about the rights and wrongs of the badger cull. The Welsh Assembly has decided it needs to do a trial cull either here in South West Wales or on the border next to England. But what really brought me up short was the venom in the woman’s voice as she said: “Greedy farmers,” and the implication that she had compassion for animals, whereas farmers don’t.

Farmers have such bad PR don’t they? In addition to being ‘greedy’ they are ‘money grabbing’ or ‘cruel’.

I think the ills of today’s over-intensified food production systems were started by supermarkets, not farmers, and that was the mood of the talk last Tuesday night where the audience, of course, was stuffed full of farmers. I live in a rural area on a farm, surrounded by farms. I see no evidence of ‘factory farming’ around here. These are grassy hills and support extensive rather than intensive farming. Factory farming is a disease of the supermarket supplier, yes, and really refers to poultry and pigs, but the vast majority of farms are just trying to eke out a living in the face of a downturn in prices, and severe upturn in costs, all the while pilloried for being a farmer in the first place.

Supermarkets tell farmers what to produce and when. They agree contracts, arrange delivery dates and all too often reject the produce for some spurious reason. (Read ‘Tescopoly’ by Andrew Simms for more information on this, or ‘Shopped’ by Joanna Blythman.)

Some complain that farmers do not speak up when other jobs and industries are threatened, but quite probably the opinions of farmers were not considered important enough to report in the press. After all only 3% of people work in agriculture in this country now and farmers are only quoted about farming, not what they think about miners or car workers losing their jobs.

It is awful when huge factories close down and steel workers, miners and car workers lose their jobs, but hopefully that is all they lose, and armies of advisers move into the area to assist them in finding new jobs. But they usually will have a home to go to when they are handed their P45s. When farmers lose their jobs they lose their homes too.

I live on a very small farm. It’s only 22 acres, but it is a business and it occasionally makes a profit when lamb prices are good. Right through the middle is a bridleway, as there are footpaths and rights of way on many other farms throughout the country. Imagine if I hopped onto a horse and clip clopped through the Dagenham Ford plant, perhaps telling the workers on the way that they were not doing their jobs properly? Yet people think it is their absolute right to do that with farms.

So what should farmers do to earn the respect of the people of Britain? I think it is something quite difficult for them to do when the media only reports the bad news (animals found dead or dying on a Northern Ireland farm, for example). There was that awful story about horses and ponies found in terrible conditions near Amersham. If we follow the tradition of tarring farmers all with the same brush, is it now safe to assume that all horse owners are cruel and heartless and leave their equines to starve to death?

What about the good news? What about the farmer who gets up at the crack of dawn, 365 days a year, looks after his much loved cows, milks them twice a day and produces the best quality milk in the world and does this happily for a wage that is below the poverty line? And don’t anybody tell me about the farmer’s brand new Land Rover, because I haven’t seen one of those around here for a while now – except driven by a tourist or by someone who has moved here from Kent and now lives in a (former) farmhouse.

It is not a level playing field out there for farmers. They are competing in a global market where countries, such as the US, pay huge subsidies to support their own agricultural industry to ensure a continuity of food supply. And subsidies are another area I’m not prepared to argue about here, but if American farmers get subsidies, why is it so terrible that British farmers get them too? And why is it so bad to be compensated when, through no fault of your own, except that you happened to take stock to a certain market on a certain day, your livestock get Foot and Mouth and have to be destroyed? Economies of scale mean that some farms have grown very big indeed, so of course will have large numbers of stock worth a lot of money. So why is it so distasteful for a farmer to be paid a compensation cheque of nearly a million pounds when his stock was worth more than that any way?

But received wisdom has it that farmers are greedy. The woman on the radio said so. It must be true.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Food for Thought

I had the enormous privilege last night of listening to Monty Don speaking on the importance of local food.

Monty was guest speaker at a meeting of the West Wales Soil Association in Ciliau Aeron, near Lampeter, hosted by Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, who farms locally.

Patrick warned the audience about the impending oil crisis – Peak Oil – where oil production will peak, then decline. He suggested that rising oil prices would force the economy towards a tipping point which means that they way we live now, with our dependence on oil, cannot continue, particularly the way we produce and buy food. He then introduced the guest speaker describing Monty, who now has a farm on the Black Mountain, as a vital bridge between gardening and farming.

The meeting was packed, of course, with everyone from enthusiastic amateur gardeners and smallholders to the leading lights of the organic industry, including Rachel Rowlands, founder of the hugely successful Rachel’s Dairy.

Monty began with an anecdote about his recent travels around the world filming for his TV series ‘Around the World in 80 Gardens’ when he managed to collect the wrong suitcase and, when the suitcase was opened, instead of his suits it contained an array of pink saris and beaded cashmere jumpers. He was four days down the Amazon with only the suit he was wearing.

“That’s how I feel now,” he told his audience. “And I’m still looking for a tea picker wearing a suit.”

He described how his trip to the Organiponicos in Cuba had so inspired him. These areas of horticulture within cities produce an incredibly high standard of fresh food for the inhabitants. It was, he said, an example of how people in the cities can produce their own local food and a model, perhaps, for our own future in this country.

Monty continued that theme describing how small producers in Cuba, the Amazon, Mexico and India used traditional, organic, techniques to provide food for their own needs.

He warned that the UK’s fondness for cheap food meant that we paid for it in other ways, with our health, for example, and said that in this country people have forgotten how important and special food is. Families no longer prepare meals from scratch and then eat them together around a table. He spoke about a gardener he had met in Italy where, despite no shared language, they shared a total enjoyment in the quality of the fruit and vegetables he was growing.

“In the UK farmers are regarded as producing ingredients for the food industry,” Monty said. “We have lost our pride in the food that we produce and farmers are not respected as they should be.”

He also spoke about his project to introduce drug addicts to farming, documented in the TV series and book ‘Growing Out of Trouble’. This project is ongoing, with some failures, but mostly success and Monty said he had been astonished at how the addicts did not know how to eat.

“They would take their food and go and eat it by themselves,” he said, turning into a corner behind him to demonstrate. “When they had food they were effectively turning their backs on everyone else when they ate it. They did not know how to sit around a table and share food with others. One told me that she had never sat down to a family meal and when I asked them to lay the table for a meal they had no idea what I was talking about. They had never done that and they did not know anyone who had either.”

He said the project had its most successful times when they all sat down around the table together and shared food. The participants even began to bring in their own food, such as cakes, to share with everyone else. That was something, Monty explained, that was an important part of their rehabilitation, as was getting up at 5am to pick produce to sell with pride at the Ludlow Food Festival.

It was a wide ranging and inspirational talk in which at one point he even dared to tell the assembled organic farmers that organic was not the most important thing, local was prime and that they should beware of remaining in a situation – a ghetto almost – where they talked with each other, but did not invite other parts of society into the discussion. There were a few intakes of breath, but also murmurs of recognition and agreement.

The talk fired up members of the audience who then took part in a question and answer session with Monty and Patrick. Could the UK, or the world, feed itself under these terms, one wanted to know. Others wondered about how the Soil Association could label air freighted foods as organic. Education was discussed, not just of children, but also of adults who had lost their connection with food and the land. Supermarkets bore the brunt of the blame for the loss of a connection with what we eat and how it is grown. But, as Monty pointed out, as the oil prices increase, the cost of food distribution will go up too, so supermarket food prices will rise, making local food more competitive.

After enjoying Patrick’s delicious chocolate brownies and coffee and the meeting formed into small groups, each discussing and issue that had been raised by the talk. Issues raised included that Farmers Markets should be held more often, farms should twin with cities, more co-operation was needed between growers, particularly micro-producers who currently find it difficult to get their excess produce on sale and those new to food production should be offered more help. Allotments and their increasing popularity was another point raised with Patrick Holden and it was suggested that the Soil Association, which already does so much for farmers and gardeners, should find some way of including them. The meeting broke up reluctantly and everyone went home with plenty to talk and think about.

It was a fascinating evening and it was a privilege to have been able to listen to Monty and Patrick’s views on how we are to feed ourselves as a nation in the future. But it was frightening too; we cannot continue wasting food and the planet’s resources with the profligacy that we have become accustomed too. We must take more responsibility for feeding ourselves and not rely so heavily on supermarkets. It was certainly food for thought.