Why 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.
Certain 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.