Pastoral Past Times

pigletsWhy I ever agreed to give a home to a Gloucester Old Spot sow and her piglets, escapes me now. There was no pig cot or sty to receive them and they had to live in an open sided barn close to the woods – pretty much free range.  They came with no instructions for their care and unlike P.G. Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth, whose prize sow the Empress of Blandings had the full time attention of a pig man, I had no such guide. There were, however, several special moments to cherish.  I have fond memories of discovering the piglets in the kitchen, who, having found their way to the house, then popped in through the cat-flap.  At some point the piglets’ aunt was brought here too and the two sisters soon set about building an enormous nest in the woodland, running back and forth with sticks in their mouths and creating a huge round basketwork structure.  It is encouraging to know that this nest-building instinct survives, in spite of pigs being kept in restricted spaces, for dozens of generations.

Fun though it was, my pig raising experience ended abruptly when I was forced to sell the pigs after they strayed onto someone else’s land and we had to drive them back along the lane – looking like characters in a nursery rhyme.

The next livestock venture involved sheep.  I imagined having half a dozen rare-breed sheep with interesting fleeces, like Jacobs sheep, so that I could spin and weave the wool and knit shapeless, rustic garments. Unfortunately, the person I asked to help me to find a handful of sheep instead bought 18 ewes in lamb, of indeterminate breeds – none of them rare.   Within weeks the ewes had lambed and there were at least 40 animals here. What I had hoped would be a little hobby, turned out to be hard, year-round work, especially at lambing and shearing times.  Helping a ewe with a difficult lambing was always physically tough and I have a vivid memory of chasing a ewe around the field while the lamb’s head was clearly visible protruding from her.  The whole experience could also be heart-warming, especially when feeding new born lambs, who were either orphaned or where the mother was unable to feed them.

lambs eweCertain memories will remain with me: carrying the twin lambs Hale and Bop through the woods in the dark while the celestial Hale-Bop lit the skies;  nursing a fragile orphan lamb called Speedwell in a cardboard box next to the aga and seeing her being licked dry by my tiny Jack Russell dog, Dora, and finally bringing up a pet wether called Kevin.  Sheep remained part of my landscape and the changing calendar until foot and mouth devastated the countryside.  It happened just after lambing and it broke my heart to think that the ewes and lambs might be slaughtered, out of hand.  Fortunately my small flock escaped, though many local farms were affected and subsequently had to re-think their whole farming operation.    After foot and mouth, I no longer had the heart to keep sheep and instead I invited my neighbour farmer to bring his sheep here to graze the fields and keep the grass and the thistles down.  In a true spirit of neighbourliness, every Easter holidays, he makes sure that the ewes and their new born lambs are in the fields near the house for the grandchildren to watch and enjoy.


Orchard Memories

cats head appleWindfall apples crunch under my feet in the orchard behind Rose Cottage.  This means that the neighbour farmer will soon be here with his tractor and lifting gear to collect the perry pears and apples to sell to a well-known Herefordshire cider company – while keeping back a quantity of my favourite apples, the Cat’s Head (left) – for me to store. The Cat’s Head apple is both an eater and a cooker and stored in a cool place, will last us until the Spring.  Every Autumn the farmer brings his family, including his young grandchildren and a couple of dogs to the fruit-heavy orchard, for the apple gathering –  a colourful, neighbourly, timeless occasion.

Planting a new orchard was one of the first projects that I undertook after moving here.  A friend in Leicester rescued some fruit trees, which had been used to demonstrate pruning techniques, and planted them here for me. Those trees continue to thrive and I was lucky enough to receive an EU grant specifically intended for new orchards to be planted, using only local varieties of apple and pear trees.  With advice from FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group), I designed a traditional layout with the taller perry pears at the sides to protect the squat apple trees from the prevailing wind.  The names of the apple varieties were unknown to me, but apart from the Cat’s Head, names such as Lady’s Finger of Hereford, Stoke Edith Pipkin, Pitmaster Pineapple, Api Rose and Herefordshire Beefing suggest a long history.  Paradoxically, there was another grant available at the time, from the Ministry, offering money to farmers who wished to grub up their orchards.

perry pearsApples and orchards played an important part in my life for several years when, together with a local friend, we made cider and perry from apples and pears grown here:  crushing, pressing, fermenting, storing in old brandy casks and finally bottling and labelling.  Meanwhile, among the venerable apple and pear trees in the old orchard – survivors from 1918 when many orchards were planted at the end of  the Great War –  only one pear tree now remains.  New additions have proved far less sturdy and the surviving old pear tree has recently produced new growth from the original rootstock and this year is laden with pears which are particularly relished by the dogs.

One of the old traditions associated with cider making involves pouring a libation of cider into the roots of an apple tree at the Winter Solstice to give thanks and ensure a good crop the following year. I feel grateful and give thanks for everything I’ve experienced with orchards and apples from the early days of planting the trees, to the joy of seeing the blossom in Spring and early Summer and for the incidental gifts of delicious apple juice and jars of apple chutney.  The apple and pear trees no longer provide me with fruit for cider making, but their strength and beauty sustain me throughout the year.