This house….

This house is old and crumbling. Every time I turn my back something else seems to be broken,cracked or falling apart. Today I noticed the skirting board in the living room has started to pull away from the wall , exposing the bare stone behind it. In the corner behind the television I notice a chunk of board has disappeared ,leaving a pile of amber dust in its place. Dry rot is creeping insidiously around the downstairs rooms. It has chewed its way through several of the parquet flooring blocks in the other downstairs room. I sigh,turn around and gently close the sitting room door behind me. Today has been a long day and I can’t face dealing with any more ‘problems’ today. After all, the living room has only been redecorated three years ago. When we lifted the carpet we found old fertiliser bags from the 1950s acting as underlay!

The story of our farmhouse will be familiar to many farming families. Contrary to the belief that seems to be held that all farmers live in mansions, quite a lot live in run down,dated farm accommodation. In recent times the financial struggle faced by many of us has lead to a tightening of farm purse strings. Indoor renovations come at the bottom of a very,very,VERY long ‘to do’ list. A lot of the properties are hundreds of years old. They are often quite large as previous generations have added extensions in a piecemeal fashion over the decades.

Our farmhouse is ancient.A dwelling has stood here, balanced on compacted earth with little or no foundations, for over 300 years. It probably started out quite simply, a two up two down flat fronted dwelling. over the years extensions were made, walls moved and bits added. When restoration work was carried out on the modern day kitchen, no fewer than 7 joins were found tacking on to the original 4 roomed structure.
It has had almost constant occupation, with 6 generations of one family having lived and died under its beams. As far as we know it has only been uninhabited for a period of 20 years, when Fs grandparents moved out. Before F moved in restoration work was carried out which kept a few key rooms functional, and the rest of the house remained locked up in a time warp.

Over the past few years we have started the Sisyphean task of making all of the house safe and comfortable to live in. We have so far managed to create a living room and a dining room downstairs, and have central heating in most of the house!Central heating has only just been put into the upstairs bedrooms, and two rooms are still awaiting this ‘mod con’. It is a frustrating task though, as with every one job we complete another two urgent repairs become apparent!

I have to keep reminding myself how much history is contained within these four walls and how privileged we are to live amongst it.In essence it is a living museum, housing 3 centuries worth of farming history.I suppose an estate agent would have a field day listing all the ‘original features’ that add to the ‘character’ of the property. I know many people dream of living in a farmhouse (I know I did once upon a time), but dreams don’t always meet up to reality. Hopefully one day we will get on top of the long ‘to do’ list and drag the house into the 21st century! Until then, let me show you some of the most remarkable features.

img_1317

The kitchen is a lasting part of the original dwelling. There is a recess on one corner were the hearth once stood, with a giant oak beam the only reminder of the vast chimney that once stood above it. It now contains an ikea kallax (a staple of all ‘modern’ homes with children under 5) and a play corner. The hooks that my children now hang their coats and bags on were originally added in the 1930’s. They were installed for the 3 little evacuees sent far from their city home and into the middle of working farm life.Their arrival created an instant family for the newly married farmer and his wife!

img_1314

Above the heads of the evacuees home made puddings would have dangled from strings balanced on iron hooks.These hooks are another ‘original’ feature leftover from the days of the open hearth. These hooks are still useful today- I use them to suspend muslins when making jams and preserves!

img_1318

In the hall stands a handsome coffer- dark wood with brass handles. It takes up an awful lot of room and, I’ll let you into a secret, I think it’s really quite ugly. But oh,if it could talk. It dates from the 18th century and has quite a story associated with it. It belonged to an elderly widow woman who found herself homeless, being the only personal possesion she had been able to keep.The man farming here at the time ,f’s great great great grandfather, took her in rather than see her carted off to the poorhouse. She lived the rest of her days on the farmyard in one of the barns.  You can still see the spot from her candles on the stones of the barn.

img_1313

Another living piece of history now serves as a step linking the patio and the garden. In a previous life it formed a part of a slop trough that stood in the passage between the old kitchen and the dairy. All edible waste went into it, where it was heated to turn it into pig swill.

If I listed all the special parts of the house I would be here for weeks , having no doubt written thousands of words and bored you all to tears!

Sometimes when I am alone in one of the older parts of the house I do like to sit and wonder how many souls have walked over the floorboards, or forgot to duck and smacked their heads off the oak beam over the fire. Countless babies have been born here, and no doubt  many people have drawn there last breath here too. This is a side of farming that seems to be forgotten- the generational legacy, things that have remained unchanged over time. Farmers are guardians of so much more than land and beast. After all not many people can say at least 7 generations of their family have lived in one house.

Goatlings

October is on the horizon, the leaves are turning to orange, gold and red. I can hardly believe it has almost been a month since the goatlings arrived.

dsc_0526-6

Bernie through her gap in the hedge

Goats were not my first choice of new addition to the farm. We have been looking into animals that could help turnover some ‘scrubland’ and make it more suitable for the creation of a micro wildflower meadow. Initially I had thought about getting some pigs .  I ummed and ahhed, read up on housing requirements ,worked out where they could root, and decided pigs probably weren’t right for us at the moment. All of the planning had sparked a desire to expand the number of species we kept here on the farm. A chance discussion with a friend lead to us discovering that C was probably intolerant to cows milk (ironically).We started on a trial of swapping to goats milk to see if it would improve things for her. Within 24 hours of making the change, C was a much happier child. Coincidence or not, the journey towards our own small herd of milking goats had begun.

Don’t get me wrong, this decision was not made lightly, and it certainly wasn’t a spur of the moment ‘lets- go-and-buy-a-goat’ whim. Research was done, books were read, websites consulted. It soon became apparent that having one goat was not an option. They are social creatures, and should be kept together in pairs. I also found out that different breeds produce different amounts of milk. Some will give you enough to fill your milk jug whereas others will give  enough to fill buckets! Toggenburgs seemed like the ideal breed for us. Friendly, amiable goats with an average potential milk production.

Within a few days of starting my hunt I’d found a pair that seemed to fit the bill.  A farmer upcountry was selling his herd of dairy goat , amongst which were two 18 month old goatlings. He was very patient with our various questions and queries, and we decided a trip to see them was in order (with trailer in tow, ‘just in case!’) .

The journey to fetch them went smoothly , although it seemed like it took forever to get there.  Eventually we met the farmer, and after a few extra questions, a quick ‘pre purchase’ examination and the obligatory paperwork we became the owners of our very own herd of dairy goats. As is often the way the return trip was much quicker, and we pulled back onto our yard before night fall. With out any bother we unloaded the goats and settled them in to their new quarters, leaving them in peace to tuck in to their tea.

Despite not having been handled for over 6 months, Amy and Bernadette have settled into life on the farm without any problems. In fact, if Monty Roberts were to see the three of us out and about he would probably agree we have already ‘joined up’. On walks around the fields, we travel in unison. I speed up, they speed up. I stop, they stop.

dsc_0523-4

join up

When they are grazing they form two points of an invisible triangle whilst I act as  the third. I no longer bother with lead ropes when on our sojourns, as I have learned how far they will go from me.

dsc_0549-1

Amy does ‘tricks’ for food. Bernie does not.

Ash and sycamore are favoured browse, bramble leaves are an ‘if we must’ snack. Apples are snaffled, and cereal mix is rationed as they would gorge on it if left to their own devices.

dsc_0548-2

If they could, they most definitely would. And then they’d regret it.

My favourite part of getting to know a new animal is watching their individual personalities unfurl. These two are like chalk and cheese. Amy is gregarious, happy to bask in human company and follows me around like a faithful Labrador. Bernie is fiercely independent. She’ll go, but only when she wants to. The other morning we walked the boundaries of the croft, a  large field above the farmhouse. Bernie found a gap in the hedge, and picked her way to it, snatching mouthfuls of browse as she went. I called her away, and she followed me as I continued the walk. We crossed through into the adjacent field, and Bernie shot off ahead of me, and bounded back through that gap. She knew exactly where it was, and she wanted to cross through it. No amount of cajoling or coaxing could get her back through. In the end I gave up, and started to walk into the middle of the field. Fortunately amy followed, and reluctantly bernied hopped back through the hedge, and joined our train.

Having said that, I do have my uses.As far as Bernie is concerned they are limited to  scratching anywhere she can’t reach and providing food that she can’t reach.

dsc_0558-2

One of my uses

The eventual goal is to get the girls to milk, which will require them to have kids. I have started looking for a suitable Billy to, erm, ‘enhance’ the herd, and I can’t wait for the pitter patter of yet more tiny hooves. It will mark an exciting new chapter in the farms future. Fresh, pasteurised goats milk anyone?! Not to mention cheese…and soap!!

ANIMALTALES

A walk around the garden

Some mornings I cannot get JoJo to settle. No matter what I try her little face scrunches up, she grizzles and squirms in my arms. In a last bid attempt to maintain my sanity, I usually resort to popping her into the buggy and wheeling her into the back garden for some fresh air.

DSC_0093.JPG

Today  is one of those days. By mid morning the sky above the farmhouse is blue and thick with bird song. Sparrows nesting in the eaves of the feathering loft chirrup and chatter as we commence our ritual lap of the garden. A chaffinch trills from its vantage point on the roof of the cow man’s caravan. We make our way across  the newly mown lawn and turn into the ruins of the old chicken shed.

DSC_0958.JPG

Along one of the walls our log pile is stacked, with a layer of bark and leaf litter at its base. Behind this lies the boundary hedge, a tangled mess of nettles, pink Campion, hawthorn, oak, and sycamore. Bird song drifts down from the branches above; I am an amateur with bird calls, but manage to pick out notes from robin, blackbird, chaffinch and wren. We trundle through the ruined shed and bump across a narrow slate path back onto the grass. JoJo is still awake, eyes heavy but resisting sleep. I head across the lawn towards the farmhouse. A male sparrow peeks out from the old House martin nest on the gable wall, whilst another perches on the satellite dish below. We loop past the side gate, and start to retrace our tracks.

DSC_0090A loud ‘chak-chak’ alerts  me to a jackdaw sitting sentry in a sycamore tree. It has a nest in a  hollow halfway up the trunk of this tree, well hidden from view by foliage. I push the buggy back through the ruins, jamming the wheels on a loose stone the size of a tennis ball. I stoop to release it and notice a spiders web stretching between a pile of bricks and the vacant dog house. An orb spider sits in the middle, waiting patiently for a fly.

DSC_1088

We continue back round onto the lawn, as swallows wheel,dive and roll above us. I walk towards the gate that leads onto the muddy cow track, and looks out across the fields to the Preseli hills beyond. A bird of prey soars above the ox park, its distinctive forked tail identifying it as a Red Kite. I pause to check on my passenger. Fast asleep! Peace reigns at last.

 

 

Beetling about

DSC_0954

“Notwithstanding their filthy trade, the dung beetles occupy a very respectable rank.” J.H Faber.

After a rather damp and dismal morning, the sun finally appeared after lunch. As F still had jobs to do around the yard (Sunday is not a day of rest for a farmer), the girls and I went for a walk with him on the farm. We headed along the cow track to the ‘Ox park’, a field that the cows had  grazed in the night before. C was making quite a bit of noise (typical toddler) so I figured the chances of seeing any wildlife was pretty low. I was wrong-as we entered the field F motioned for me to be quiet. He had spotted a fox. It scoped us out for a few seconds before disappearing into the hedge. I was quite surprised to see a fox in the middle of the day, but F says he is seeing them more and more during daylight hours. He thinks it has coincided with an increase in numbers, which has possibly forced them out to hunt and scavenge during the day.

DSC_0946

The ‘Ox park’. You can see our dairy herd in the background.

C was having a great time finding cow pats to splodge in. I spent most of my time watching the ground to avoid stepping in the dung, as I had JoJo tucked in her sling. Although they might seem a nuisance, these piles of dung actually provide a valuable resource for some insects. Nearly every pat had a ‘sprinkling’ of little Yellow dung flies. These flies lay their eggs in the pats, and the emerging larvae are ‘coprophagic’ (they eat the dung!) . The adult flies feed on other insects that visit the pat.

Some pats  had lots of little shiny black beetles scurrying about on them. My entomology is a bit rusty, but I think they were Water Scavenger beetles. These beetles rely on cow dung for all stages of their life cycle. They play an important role in distributing and breaking down the dung- a ‘natural’ form of fertilising! They can be affected by the use of anthelmintics (medication used to worm cattle) , so it was reassuring to see them.

The beetles were fascinating to watch. Their tunnels snaked around under the crust of the cowpat, and every so often one would emerge from a burrow, scuttle about a bit and then disappear down another hole. I got a bit messy trying to get a closer look-next time I might try and set up a dung baited pitfall trap rather than resorting to digging about by hand!!

DSC_0951.JPG

Water scavenger beetle disappearing into its tunnel.