30 April 2016

I like April, it’s like a strip tease in reverse. The farm is down to its bare bones after the winter, everything is visible. And then we get a few sunny days and the trees put on their first delicate leaves, like gossamer underwear, with sunlight dappling through them.

We lamb in April, timed so that the ewes get a first bite of spring grass to make milk. Neighbours who lamb early in an attempt to catch the early season premium lamb prices, have to lamb inside. That means a lot of fuss, with lambing cubicles, bedding, provision of hard feed, nightly checks and vigils, pulling lambs and mothering on orphans or spares from triplets. We prefer to lamb the natural way, out in the fields, selecting fields with a little bit of shelter from the elements, and close to the house for easy checking. Our thick hedges and shelterbelts not only favour wildlife, they provide little warm patches for the ewes to camp down in with their lambs.

I came in for lunch the other day and looked out of the window to see a ewe straining a little. Her udder was bagged up and she was all set to lamb. Sure enough, a few moments later, out squirted a slimy yellow lamb in a squirming heap. The old girl turned round and started to lick it, quite roughly, stimulating it into sturdy life. Before I’d finished my soup she dropped another one, this time onto a molehill so it got all dirty. And by the time I’d had my cup of tea both lambs were on their feet, very tottery but with a fierce instinct to find a teat. Soon Drew would be round, checking them all, with his elastrator handy to put rubber rings on their tails and testicles. Later, when their ears are stronger, we double tag them to comply with EU regulations. But that’s another story.

Of course lambing out exposes sheep to predators. One bad year we lost seven heavy fleeced wet ewes to crows. Big in lamb, and with a heavy wet fleece, they cannot easily get up when cast. The ravens and crows are quick to spot the predicament. First they peck out her top eye, then rip at her udder until the intestines are exposed. If she has started to lamb, they peck out the lamb’s tongue before it is born. The other predator is the fox. We’ve only lost four lambs this year to foxes. It’s hard to tell if the fox has killed the lamb, or scavenged a dead one. If the lamb is still yellow, then it probably died naturally at birth, or maybe the fox grabbed it while the mother was struggling to give birth to her second lamb. But if the lamb was clean and bonny, then clearly it had been alive. In prolonged cold wind and rain lambs go down with chill or pneumonia, but this year the weather has been quite fair over lambing time and the dead lambs have looked strong. I watched the fox in the lambing field. He looked like a dog fox to me, with a boxy-looking face. Usually a vixen has a litter in the wood, down below the lake. Most of the time the fox was gleaning for afterbirths and the ewes just move uneasily away. But the evidence is there in the morning, a half-eaten lamb. Does the blood indicate it was alive when it was found by the fox? A vixen would have taken the carcase away down to the den, but this fox had left it behind. We put the remains in a cage trap but the fox will not go in. Drew went out with a rifle lamping, but saw no fox, just two badgers bumbling along. With lambing almost over, the fox switches to other fare. The rough grass areas are good hunting grounds for finding field vole nests, and soon there will be ducklings and goslings to add variety.

With the country laid bare, everything is visible. In the hedges you can see where the rats are running, and a fresh rabbit stop, blocked up while mum is away. And sadly, signs that humans have been here. A country lane bisects the farm, and with humans comes their litter. We keep collecting it; it’s a never-ending struggle. The litter comes in three types (yes, I’m an expert!): fag packets, with their dire health warnings, fast food wrappings and crisp packets, and energy drinks. It seems that Red Bull and so on does not actually provide sufficient energy for the consumer to find a rubbish bin. Carmarthenshire is a third world country when it comes to litter, something on a par with Egypt.

I can’t stay anywhere for long. I’m being told off all the time. Down at the log cabin last evening a moorhen had built a nest right under where I sit. A Canada goose bedded comfortably in a nest of her own down on the island stared at me, frozen, unmoving for over an hour. A pair of greylags arrived yesterday with five day old goslings and slunk away along the reed edge, heads held low. A wagtail, having waited patiently for me to leave, finally came up to me and just stared at me, wanting to get back onto its nest. And an extremely podgy water vole floated with totally dry fur on the other side of the pond, eying me like a mini-beaver, then plopping under water to magically disappear without any further ripples or bubbles. The water vole tunnels are clearly visible at the moment, and their little piles of droppings by the water’s edge are clear signs that they too have survived another winter. We reintroduced them on the farm two years ago, and because we have dug 24 ponds, they are thriving. Nothing ostentatious mind you, but they are there, quietly going about their business.


The Bevis Trust

It’s taken several years to get this far with the Bevis Trust. Finally we have created a ‘starter pack’ of Trustees and registered a Not for Profit Company and opened a bank account for the Company (which took a mere three months). What has taken the time has been developing the vision of where we want to go. Over the past 35 years we have built the farm up from zero, buying in land whenever we had the chance and could afford it. None of our children are interested in carrying on with the farm. My eldest son Jamie is now dairy farming in New Zealand and the others have no wish to run what is now 290 acres or so in west Wales. At the same time we have done a lot of work on the farm over the years and you can read about some of this on the website. Finally we reached a point where we asked the question, when making our Wills: ‘What is more important – people or the land?’

So, after making some provision for our children, we decided that the future of the land was important to us, and that we did not want to see the farm sold off and turned into a housing estate. But who would look after it when we are dead? The solution was to bequeath everything to a not for profit Company and create a Board of Trustees. Being impatient people, we couldn’t wait to die, so we have formed the Company while we are still alive and able to shape it along the lines we envisaged.

But the Bevis Trust is not just about land. Bevis was a boy in a story by Richard Jefferies. Bevis grew up on a farm in Wiltshire near where I too grew up a hundred years later. It tells how Bevis and his friend Mark had adventures together out on the farms, and gradually became more self-reliant, and more aware of nature as they grew up. The story is related against a backdrop of farming as it was then, the seasons unroll with their changing farm tasks and the labourers, gaffers and social routines. Much of it strikes a chord with me, growing up in a small village on the Wiltshire downs in the 1950s in shorts made of cut down trousers, bringing in the cows for hand milking and gawping at a new-fangled tractor farting its way up the lane. The sawmill was an adventure then, with its big long drive belt (no health and safety!) and smell of fresh sawn oak. The hurdler used to bang his hazel rods into an old beam to get his hurdle started. Rabbits were still a pest, myxie had yet to decimate them, and brass snares, purse nets, ferrets and long dogs were in common use to wage war. Threshing time was an adventure, with string tied round long trousers to stop rats going up your legs and hilarious shrieking as we tried to nobble the fleeing rats as we got down to the base of the ricks. I still remember seeing my first fox when we were gleaning potatoes.

The farming year dominated everything, as it still does, but now it seems that farming has become rather divorced from wildlife, and wildlife enthusiasts have little understanding of farming. I’ve seen this more and more in the last two or three decades, and nothing illustrates it better than the debacle we have with badgers and bovine Tb. Therefore my wife Barbro and I resolved that the Bevis Trust would work to show how practical farming can operate side by side with wildlife, and give people a chance to come and learn about it, bringing different views together. The average income of a Welsh farmer in 2016 is predicted to be £13,000. Average age about 62. About 25% don’t have computers, because a lot of us cannot get broadband. You’d be better off being a waiter! And how many occupations require you to put the best part of a million pounds on the table to pay for your workplace? With bottled milk selling at 75% of the price of bottled water, farming is surely a mug’s game. Pushed to these limits, few farmers can afford the luxury of even thinking about wildlife.

Now the Bevis Trust has finally become an entity and I will tell you more about our adventures in another blog. All the best stories should leave you in suspense…