The last of the willow sets were stuck into the wet
soil at Cobbs Wood Farm and we had to mow the dead vegetation even in the exceedingly wet areas. (We are hoping that this wet area will be perfect for the willow sets to grow in.) Next job for the day was to plough the buttercup meadow next to the Woodyard.
We had left a few weedy stooks in the field for the wildlife to munch on over the winter but now they were in the way and the best way to get rid of the very coarse vegetation was to burn it.
Now we could plough the field. It won’t have any arable crops sown into it this spring, instead we’ll plough it a few times hoping to exhaust the weed seed bank (in days gone by this was called an ‘earth’). The idea is to plough once, let the weed seeds germinate and grow (and let the deep-rooted plants like dock regrow), then plough again; let it do the same, then plough again. Sometimes in between you can harrow too. In this way the ground will be ready for an autumn sowing and be relatively weed free.
Meanwhile, Tom did some rolling up at the Folly to try to get rid of the damage done over the winter by vehicles going up Folly Field during the repair work. Not so easy as the ground had dried up far too quickly and was no longer malleable. Might have to bring up the subsoiler or wait until the ground gets a bit wetter again.
The main job of the week, however, was to cut the reed bed behind the lake and reduce the encroaching woodland and willow carr.
Found a dead pike when we first went into the reed bed- it had been eaten and my best guess was that an otter had caught it for dinner. We occasionally we get otters in the Lakes and some people have been lucky enough to see them. I, on the other hand, have only ever found their footprints in the silt. The pussy willow was out too and will be an important pollen and nectar source for the early spring insects.
One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow… well actually four men and one women went to mow a reed bed. This reed bed had not been cut for three or four years and was looking a bit rank; we were only going to mow half of it so that the wildlife was not left devoid of reeds and sedge.
Tom and Sarah had never mowed before but, with a little tuition, soon had the reeds falling before them. Neil, on the other hand, is an old hand and had soon made headway into the reed bed.
With limited time to get the clearing work done before we felled the encroaching trees I decided that we should mow fire breaks and then burn the reed, but leaving a thin wall of sedge and reed alongside the lake edge.
So ended the day but not before we made a start on cutting the willow and alder out.
Day off for me on Thursday- time to take the seven Norfolk Horn hoggetts to Bletsoes livestock market in Thrapston where I sold a lot of my sheep last year (I sold cull ewes and lambs last year). Hoggetts are sheep that are over one year old but are less than three years old… roughly. (Mind you anything over a year old these days are called cull ewes or rams!!!) In fact, five of the sheep were wethers- male castrated sheep and two were young rams that had evaded the ‘rubber band’.
Once the sheep are dropped off they get weighed- that is the lambs get weighed but the group generally termed ‘cull ewes and rams’ are not (sold as seen).
Jacob brought along his South African lambs which were in great condition after grazing off the clover leys on the Wimpole Estate- these should fetch a tidy sum. Most of the other lambs were Texels, Mules, Suffolks and mixtures thereof.
So, the auction started at 10.30am and a brisk start ensued. Alarmingly the prices were somewhat low … or were the first batch of Eastcare sheep not up to standard? No, the next batch of excellent quality lambs only fetched £86 per head. Damn! The prices had fallen since last week and they had fallen quite significantly, I wonder why? Last week quality lambs were selling for well over a £100 each and prices for cull ewes were even better… oh I do hope the market hasn’t dropped for these too!
After the lambs it was time for the cull ewes and rams plus my hoggetts. 40 quid was the starting price (blimey, a year’s work for £280, oh my god why do I do it?!!!!!!!!!!). Hello, someone else was bidding on them… slowly the price crept up. “How old are they?” someone shouted out. “Two-year old” was my reply which sparked a bit more interest… the hammer went down at £60 per head (£420 less commission and the agricultural levy). A£398 cheque would be on its way within the week. (Bletsoes don’t take a huge commission unlike some). Sounds like a lot of money but, when you think of all those hours looking after the sheep- the wormers (over £100 per year), the fly strike chemicals (another £100), some feed and the mileage… I am probably well out of pocket. Livestock farming is an incredibly rewarding experience but, when the figures don’t add up, you begin to wonder why you do it.
It gives you a sinking feeling to think that, after a dozen or so years breeding a nice flock of sheep, you have to resign yourself to sending them all off to market and forgetting the whole sorry business. I don’t make my living from farming, but my heart goes out to all those small farmers who struggle to survive, and I do wonder what will happen to the rural countryside if we as a country don’t support the small producer. It’ll be just one great big field of wheat- no trees, no hedges, no grassland, no birds singing, no butterflies, no animals… nothing. As it turned out the market had been flooded by imported New Zealand lamb- it’s autumn over there so their lambs have been sent to market and then slaughtered and shipped over here where the supermarkets are selling it for £4/kg while British lamb is selling for roughly £7.50/kg in the supermarkets so… most people are probably buying New Zealand lamb. How on earth can it be so cheap? And it has to come halfway around the world to boot!
Friday was a better day and was nice and sunny. John came in but asked to be excused from heavy manual work. What job could he do to best advantage? Ah, we needed to clean the scythe blades up- they had acquired a sheen of rust and would probably need peening. Normally we just use a bit of emery paper to get the rust off… but John had brought in his pneumatic thingy (got to get one of these) which made the job a lot easier.
Now that the reed bed had been cut it was time to start felling the trees that had encroached onto the reeds. Over the years some of the bigger limbs from the outside trees slowly subsided into the wet ground. These then re-rooted and grew even further into the reed bed thereby diminishing it in size. These were earmarked to be felled and dragged out of the reed bed… but how? It would take ages to do by hand.
A secret weapon was required in the form of a winch- we put our Igland 6 ton winch onto the Ford 5000 and drove it to the reed bed. Tricky thing was, the only place we could pull the timber and brash to was an island within the reed bed. Had to navigate the marshy bits in the woods but managed to get the tractor and winch to the island. Once set up we started to winch the felled willow, alder and ash back to the island.
The first lot of felled trees were easy to get at as they were close to the island. After that we had to run the cable out across the reed bed to the willow that had been felled- messy job this one as it involved trudging through sloppy, silty mud.
Great thing about the winch was that it also ripped quite a lot of the willow roots out of the reed bed. Managed to clear loads of willow but we did leave the inner core as willow carr is also quite a rare habitat locally.
As we pulled the willow out I found some evidence of Muntjac- the males will use their two sharp teeth to rip the bark off young trees to mark their territory (you can see what they do in the photo on the right). Got a third of the job done so we’ll finish it next week.
Meanwhile, on the farm, everyone is furiously cultivating the ground in preparation for sowing the oats and barley.