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My Fenland garden in the autumn

I don’t know how you discovered this site, but I’m glad you did. There’s all sorts of stuff here.  I’ve been an archaeologist for over forty years and have excavated several major sites, mostly in the Fens of eastern England. I’ve also tried to bring archaeology to a wider audience, with a number of books, radio and television programmes, of which Time Team is the best known. When not writing or digging, I’m also a sheep farmer and keen gardener. But like most people, I get bees in my bonnet – obsessions, call them what you like. Most of  my worries are about the general disregard for the achievements of people in the past and the failure of politicians, both local and national, to learn the lessons of  history. Hence the title of this blog: In The Long Run. So to sum up, this will be the place to see stuff about archaeology, gardening, farming and rural life, books, broadcasting, history and the occasional intemperate rant. It won’t be very formal, because I don’t ‘do’ formality. But I do hope it’ll be fun.

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My New Book: Stonehenge

SronehengeI was approached to write Stonehenge late last summer by the Commissioning Editor of a relatively new publishing house called Head of Zeus. At first I have to admit I was slightly sceptical: books on Stonehenge aren’t exactly hens’ teeth. And besides, how could I, a specialist in the Fens, contribute anything even remotely original, or interesting? But the nice man at H of Z was very insistent. And then he offered lunch.

I have to say, I have always been a sucker for a free lunch, especially if it comes with a reimbursed rail fare. So I said yes.

To be quite frank, I can’t remember much about the meal, except that it was in the bar of a local pub in Clerkenwell – about a twenty minutes walk from King’s Cross station. When I lived briefly in London in the late ‘60s it wasn’t a particularly salubrious district, but now it is very different: pop-up bistros and sandwich bars everywhere and people sipping coffee in the dappled late summer sunlight. Nobody could possibly have guessed that in less than a year the country would decide to commit collective suicide and leave the EU – so the atmosphere was relaxed, cosmopolitan and yes, remarkably Continental. I suspect the vibe is rather different there today.

Magna CartaI found the publisher’s offices and was met by Richard Milbank, Head of Non-Fiction Publishing. He told me about their Landmark series and produced the first book on Magna Carta, by Dan Jones. And I must admit, it was very handsome: a compact hard-back, in full colour throughout, but it didn’t seem at all dumbed-down. There were footnotes and detailed explanatory appendices. I was beginning to warm to the idea. Over lunch and a pint of London Pride (Richard drank orange juice), he explained that they were after a book on Stonehenge that put the site in its setting and which brought it alive. They didn’t want something dry and descriptive.

The King is DeadI started reading Dan’s Magna Carta on the train, and had finished it by the time I went to bed. In other words, I couldn’t put it down. It was a real page-turner – and I learnt so much. Since then, Suzie Lipscomb has published the second in the series (on the Will of Henry VIII), and it too, is a cracking good read – and like Dan’s, beautifully written. By now, I was on my mettle. My Stonehenge had better be good.

I had originally reckoned that a book of 30,000 words would take me a couple of months to write. I normally produce about 1,000 words a day, so that would allow me a month or so to catch up with current research, visit the site (again) and produce a working manuscript. Or so I thought. Even with the help of Mike Parker Pearson and Josh Pollard – two of the current leading researchers into Stonehenge – it took me the best part of six months to produce something, which I hope can stand alongside the first two books in the series.

Obviously I have drawn heavily on the mass of recent research, but I have also used my own experience of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age sites, too. While we were starting work at Flag Fen our team were also excavating a causewayed enclosure at Etton – which predates Stonehenge by several centuries, but which has many intriguing parallels with it. Before we dug Etton we had excavated a massive timber henge at the nearby site of Maxey, and in subsequent years we dug three small henge or henge-like sites. So I did have a certain amount of relevant experience.

I think my main problem with the way Stonehenge has been perceived in the past has to do with how we envisage the development of ancient sites. We tend to see them as the prehistoric equivalent of modern construction projects, with fixed phases of development and re-development. This structures the way we interpret the radiocarbon dates and gives a misleading impression of rigid planning and synchronicity – which I’m fairly sure didn’t apply in prehistoric times. Prehistoric shrines were not like medieval churches or modern buildings. They were built for different purposes entirely. In some respects, their construction was their use. It’s a complex topic and intimately bound-up with the development of the landscape and the way people perceived their lives within it.

Anyhow, I’ve tried to touch on some of these issues in the book, which doubtless explains why it took so long to write. Addressing complex themes in clear language can be challenging – and I’ve tried to eschew obfuscation (my favourite phrase of all time), and to avoid academic jargon, too. So it was hard work and took several drafts. But it was fun to do, and it was great to meet old friends and talk about their work. All I can say is that I do hope you enjoy it (and at a list price of just £16.99 it’s incredibly good value!).

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More Soggy Than Blazing…mid-June, 2016

A couple of days ago I dug the first early potatoes of the season. It had been raining on and off for the previous ten days and the soil was more like porridge than earth. My heart sank as I looked at the mess of mud and spuds: there were slug holes everywhere. I won’t say the crop was ruined, but if the damage continues it will be. Very depressing. In fact, this is the first time in over forty years of vegetable-growing that my first earlies have been slugged. As I said: very depressing. So let’s try and look on the brighter side.

And what could be more cheering than an early rose? Maisie is something of a rose enthusiast and our garden has dozens of different varieties. I tend to like the older, more scented ones and am very fond of natural species, or very slightly improved ones. A good example is Rosa moyseii ‘Geranium’. This is a tall species that loves to grow through low trees, such as birches. We’ve got one in a birch and one (seen here), which scrambles over the tall brick wall which protects the front garden from the cold north-easterly winds of winter. Some of the more highly bred older roses lose their blooms at the first sign of rain, but not Rosa moyseii, which was looking particularly good when I took this photo, on June 10th.

Rosa moyseii geranium

A couple of years ago we decided it was time to take the small garden in front of the house in hand. This was where the readi-mix concrete lorries stood when we were pouring the house’s foundations, back in 1995. Later, the ground got further messed-up when we added the back porch and built-on a couple of walls. Rather than face the problem, we dumped loads of muck on the ground and planted a few shrubs, in the hope that nature would repair the damage we’d inflicted on it. And it seems to have worked. I won’t say the soil is anywhere near as good as in the vegetable garden, but at least it is soil – and not just gleyed silt.

So two years ago we cleared some over-grown shrubs and laid-out a new path, which we fringed with perennials. One or two plants had managed to survive from the previous garden including my favourite Delphinium, ‘Summer Skies’, which had struggled to survive for some fifteen years, but which was quite suddenly thriving, now that the shading shrubs had gone. I don’t think it has ever looked this good.

Delphinium Summer Skies

About a couple of metres away from Summer Skies are two plants of my favourite peony, with the slightly cringe-making name, Bowl of Beauty. Again, it’s looking superb and is flowering freely, if a couple of weeks late. Peonies can take the rain better than roses, but this year hasn’t been at all easy and I suspect the season is going to be very short indeed.

Peony Bowl of BeautyI suppose the horticultural polar opposite to the exotic and highly improved Bowl of Beauty is the native British species Iris pseudacorus, or flag iris. It gave its name to Flag Fen and I can see it flowering along dykesides as I drive through the fens near here. It always lifts my spirits, which is why we planted it around the little pond in our garden. It can be a bit invasive, so needs to be controlled in the autumn.

Flag irises

And finally, something completely different: strawberries. Fortunately I got mine strawed-up the day before the weather broke. It’s important to push straw underneath as many young green strawberries as you can. Do this while it’s still dry and you won’t lose your crop to slugs. I suppose those slimy little garden terrorists have eaten 5% of my crop, but that’s a lot better than having nothing. And a sprinkling of sugar can compensate for the lack of sunshine. The taste, the underlying flavour, of home-grown strawberries is so, so, so much better than those bland supermarket ones. We like them with Greek yogurt, which is far less fattening than cream. And as we are forced to eat strawberries twice a day for some three weeks, you have to take these things seriously. Cheers!

Oh yes – and death to all slugs.

Strawberries

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The Garden in Late Spring

In a normal year the second half of May is to all intents and purposes part of summer. But not this year – oh no, certainly not this year…

As I write, bitter north-easterly winds, sharp showers and even thunderstorms are lashing the entire east coast from off the North Sea. It’s the coldest, most windy start to summer I can remember – and you can see it in the garden, where some spring bulbs (like bluebells) are still hanging on. Most of the trees are now in leaf, although ash, oak and alder still look rather sparse. A few very early roses are in flower, but the growth of winter-pruned varieties is well behind what I’d normally expect for this time of year. Taken together, I’d say we’re at least two to three weeks behind an average year (whatever that might be). One of the characteristics of this winter and spring has been the high energy of the weather: lots of strong winds, flash floods, fierce showers and more thunder than usual. This is precisely what climatologists say will happen as a result of man-made climate change. And some people still deny it! Leaves me speechless…

From a gardening perspective, this has been the season of weeds. I’ve never seen so many. They were bad last autumn and I waited for many of them to be killed off by the first frosts of December. But they never materialised – nor in January, either, which turned out to be the warmest on record. This meant that the annual weeds had all the time in the world to flower and seed, so that when the first sharp frosts did arrive – in later February – it was too late. On the plus side, all the rain has meant that weeding has been better – the roots come out more easily, but then one’s boots compress the soft soil. So it’s never a win-win (even if one did use such clichés).

Enough moaning. Let’s start with a look at the wisteria across the front of the house. It’s the common form of the unimproved species, Wisteria sinensis, and it’s invariably good. I gave it a very sharp pruning last August, as bits of it were getting rather tangled and straggly. But instead of resenting such treatment, it has rewarded my efforts with the best display I can recall. And they smell gorgeous!

Wisteria

Mindful of the ever-present weed problem, my next two views of the garden were taken at its fringes, where the surrounding countryside starts to enter the garden – or at least that was my slightly pretentious idea when we laid it all out, back in 1993. And I’ll start with my favourite native British tree: the Black Poplar. This particular stand of trees was planted from hardwood cuttings I took in the depths of winter and then simply shoved into the ground. It was a wet season and to my immense surprise they all rooted. It’s sobering to think that a handful of cuttings that could be carried in the back pocket of my jeans are now trees that weigh tons, each. This year the leaves are looking particularly fresh and green.

Black poplars

My next view is along the track that leads from the farmyard and muckheap to the main wood and the belt of black poplars that skirt it. It’s where our chickens have always liked to scratch about and hence it’s name: Chicken Lane. Earlier in the spring the grass is studded with cowslips that look lovely against the blackthorn and hawthorn blossom on either side. In May the cow parsley, or keck as it is generally known around here (its scientific name is Anthriscus sylvestris), takes over everything. In the past I’ve made efforts to control it, but I hate spraying blanket areas, and besides, the spray would kill the cowslips underneath. So now I let it flower, and when it’s finished early in June, I’ll cut it down with the tractor-mounted pasture-topper. Keck is generally regarded as a weed, but I prefer the old gardener’s definition of a weed: a plant growing in the wrong place. For my money, the keck growing so lushly along Chicken Lane is every inch a garden plant – and again, the scent, on a warm May day, is to die for.

Chicken lane

And finally, I come to a corner of the garden which we always keep hand-weeded throughout spring. It’s a damp, dark spot and often flooded in a wet winter, as this year. Hemerocallis and hostas thrive there, but so do bog or wet-loving Primulae. A few years ago Maisie bought some from a local nursery. Unfortunately, they’d been mislabelled, but they were very, very cheap. So what the hell: we bought two pots. Since then they’ve seeded themselves very freely. They’ve also arranged themselves into two zones, with darker flowered hybrids towards the back. The darker ones were once named Primula beesiana and the more yellow were Primula bulleyana. Today the vigorous hybrids are grouped together as Primula bulleesiana. I don’t think they’ve ever looked better. They die down over winter, but the patch is still spreading, so with luck the display next season will be even better.

Bog primulae

An old gardener once told me that if you can get on top of the weeds by the end of June, you’ll be OK for the rest of summer and into the autumn. As we’ll be opening to the public, under the National Gardens Scheme on September 17-18th, I pray he did actually know what he was talking about…

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Britain and Europe: The Long View

Followers of this blog will know that one of my pet hates is the obsession modern politicians have with short-termism. And hence the name of this blog: In the Long Run. Over the past few months my posts have mostly been about my new books, our farm and our garden, with the occasional foray into reviews and the like. Meanwhile, out there in the supposedly real world of British politics, the EU In/Out Debate has become more shrill, personal, unpleasant and BORING! It has got so bad that whenever I hear that predicable, manufactured word ‘Brexit’, I turn the radio off. So why has it all gone so horribly wrong?

The Debate has lost its way quite simply because the journalists and politicians who populate the Westminster Bubble are only concerned with five-year parliaments and anything more distant than the next, or indeed the last election, is irrelevant. But surely, the EU Referendum is about the long-term? It has been in existence for over half a century and, with luck, should continue for at least that time, or longer. Even politicians have said that In/Out is the decision of a lifetime, or a generation. And yet they behave like it’s a change in customs rates, or taxes – and nothing else. Can’t they understand, any of them, that it’s far more important than that? The existence of the EU has links to everything, from farming, to academia, from terrorism, to geo-politics and Russian ambition, to the migrant crisis and world trade. Quite simply, the EU is about the way we govern ourselves and government is what distinguishes human beings from other animals. So we should take it seriously.

I think we have all heard Out campaigners declare that the EU is like the Roman Empire. One or two slightly more informed pundits have compared it to Charlemagne or the Holy Roman Empire and I’ve even heard Napoleon’s name bandied about. Of course all of these are wide-of-the-mark. The empires of the past came about by conquest or dynastic take-over. None of them was even remotely democratic – although in the later Roman Empire some provinces did manage to acquire a degree of autonomy. Are the United States a closer parallel? Yes, they are, but they began with three unifying factors: a wish to leave the British Empire, the English language and Christianity. They were also blessed with some extraordinary leaders and thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, both of whom took the Long View, of history and the future.

In perhaps over-simplified historical terms, the EU arose out of the ashes of not one, but two, closely-linked, World Wars. At the heart of both conflicts was the age-old rivalry of France and Germany – albeit rather reluctantly aided and abetted by Britain. When the fighting stopped, the people of the original nations of what was to become the EU, had had enough of conflict that resolved nothing and merely fuelled old resentments. Their politicians realised this and some of them had the intelligence and foresight to appreciate that something altogether different was now needed. And they also had the good sense to start slowly, with a customs union; then the rest followed from that. By the time Britain joined, in 1973, the institutions of the EEC were well-developed. And they’ve continued to grow since then. Of course many regard the modern EU as far too bureaucratic – which it undoubtedly is. But we can address this problem through the ballot box. We do not need to destroy the entire system.

Taking a long view, it seems to me that the EU is a completely new form of governance. True, it is still far from perfect, but its presence on the world’s stage is enough to frighten the likes of Putin. On the other hand its constitution is sufficiently flexible to accommodate countries as diverse as Italy, Romania, Germany and Britain. More to the point, it works. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that it was Britain who played a big part in laying out the European Convention on Human Rights. Such concerns were not a major feature of the empires I mentioned earlier. The point I’m trying to make is that the modern world is complex; people are better educated and they are aware they have rights. It seems to me that the EU is a form of governance that has its roots in the modern world. It respects national and individual interests, while providing the other services (education, infrastructure, defence and security) that we all expect of government. In other words, the EU is about far, far more than trade and commerce alone. Yes, such things are, and have been, central to its creation, but they no longer dominate. Today the EU is becoming more rounded and balanced as an organisation. And that brings me back to where I began: namely, the Debate and what it says about British politics.

Frankly, sensible debate has stopped and has been replaced by a slanging match, mostly centred around a very right-wing agenda which is almost entirely based on xenophobia. Immigrants and migration are the only two issues that the Brexit camp seem to care about. Indeed, talking to friends and colleagues I get the impression that they, too, are now heartily fed-up with the trivial way this highly important Referendum is being discussed. There is also a strong feeling that the debate has been taken over by loud-mouthed men in suits, and I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t felt patronised by those ghastly battle-busses – the creations of highly-paid PR consultants. I’m not a member of the Green Party myself, and I find some of their ideas impossibly naïve, but their MP Caroline Lucas was absolutely right when back in January she pointed out that the voices of women and younger people simply weren’t being heard in a Referendum that is supposedly about everyone’s future. If anything, the situation since then has got even worse.

Sadly, I don’t suppose for one moment that the loud-mouthed Westminster MPs (plus hangers-on, like Farage) will suddenly start to focus on the long-term implications of the Referendum. They are too deeply rooted in what is essentially a Victorian party-political and Parliamentary system, which is itself in far more urgent need of reform than any EU institution. So my appeal is to younger voters, who in my experience often share the views I have expressed here. And my message is simple:

Please, please VOTE!

That is all that matters. And tell your friends, too. I firmly believe that if we in Britain are ever to change our creaking, non-representative political system, it will be from within, not outside, Europe. Despite what some would have us believe, Brexit wouldn’t mark a return to a glorious past, so much as a dismal future, where our principal legacy would be the destruction of a truly innovative system of multi-national government.

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A Frozen Stroll

I don’t think I can ever recall such a bitterly cold April. We’re now in the last week of the month, the wind has refused to switch west or south, so stubbornly chills us from the north and east. Normally these breezes, though bitter, are fairly dry, but this year they’re bringing us stinging showers of sleet and hail. And of course the poor young lambs hate it and stand alongside hedges and barn walls looking pinched and frozen. All we can do to help is provide lots of dry straw in the barn and, of course, plenty of food for their mums. Having said that, when they do come into the barn, they do look very well and seem to be growing quite rapidly. But out in the garden things are looking remarkably wintery. There are still more than a few daffodils in flower, albeit rather wind-blasted and tattered, and the late bulbs – tulips especially – are just coming into flower, fully three to four weeks behind an average season. Oaks are just starting into leaf, but ash refuses to budge – even alder, normally quite an early bird to leaf-up, is struggling to burst its buds. Brrr…

Yesterday, the sun came out between the clouds, so I decided to take a stroll and show you what the garden looks like in this cold Spring. And bits of it, I have to confess, look almost welcoming. I decided to take Pen (our adorable almost-two-year-old Labrador x Border Collie bitch) for a walk, too. She loves the camera and manages to appear in several of the images, for which I make no apology. We began our stroll in the long strip of grazing that runs alongside the Drainage Board dyke that bounds our property to the east. When we bought the land, back in 1992/3, I sprinkled a pocketful of cowslip seeds onto the freshly sown grass. Today they form a carpet, but this year I wanted to draw your attention to the clean white blossom of the wild pear trees that are mixed into the trees that fringe the main wood. I don’t think they have ever looked better.

clean white blossom of the wild pear trees that are mixed into the trees that fringe the main wood

From the walk along the dykeside Pen and I then headed into the wildflower meadow which we planted to the south and east of the wood. Here the snakeshead fritillaries and cowslips were looking stunning and I couldn’t help being reminded of my cousin, the distinguished ecologist and pioneering environmentalist, the late Professor Norman Moore, who planted his own nature reserve near Cambridge and which gave Maisie and I much inspiration. I can remember Norman getting wildly excited about the dragonflies (on which he was the leading authority) at Flag Fen, at a time when all most people could detect was the stench of raw sewage from the neighbouring treatment works. Norman and his wife Janet were lovely people – smiley and warm, yet highly intelligent. They are both hugely missed by all who knew them.

Wildflower meadow

When the winds are chill, I find my feet tend to lead me towards the inner and most sheltered parts of the garden. These areas aren’t always to Pen’s taste, as she prefers to rush about following the scent of hares, squirrels and Muntjack deer, none of which she ever actually catches. Squirrels particularly enjoy teasing her. They scratch around on the ground as she careers towards them, then hop nimbly onto a low branch, just out of reach, which drives poor Pen berserk with frustration. I have to confess this makes me roar with laughter. One of the quietest parts of the garden is around what is now quite a large Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). Our late, lamented sheepdog Twink used to take a shortcut here, which we’ve subsequently covered with wood chippings. At this time of year the Euphorbias along it are looking quite good, but I like the woodland feel and the lack of formality, here. So does Pen. I doubt if she realises that informality often takes harder work to achieve than the more architectural plantings of borders and rose beds.

Twink's shortcut (with Pen)

There has been a lot of fuss lately about the National Trust charging people to visit a bluebell wood near London. But bluebells also look good in fringe areas, away from the great expanses of blue that we are all so familiar with. We’ve been at pains not to include any Spanish bluebells in our plantings which are, I think, fairly pure native British varieties. Here they’re looking very good when viewed from the outside of the Nut Walk, with a crab apple (Everest) in full flower above them. I like this sort of under-stated garden scene. It’s very English. Very laid-back.

Bluebells

At the house end of the Nut Walk there’s a lawn which runs down to the pond. At this time of year it’s packed with newts who have to put up with Pen joining them occasionally – and especially on hot days. This season she was in the pond more frequently in January than April. In this picture her nose is facing the northerly wind and it’s clear from the way she’s standing that a quick swim with her newty friends is out of the question. Below her, the summer snowflakes (Leucojeum aestivum) are looking pretty good. Around the fringes of the water, you can see the long pointed leaves of the flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) just starting to emerge. I suspect they’ll be flowering a bit late this year, maybe even in July. I think this picture also illustrates that wildlife-friendly gardens aren’t particularly neat and tidy: they’re under control, but not obsessively so.

Newt pond and lawn

Which leads me neatly, if not tidily, to my final picture: a solitary cowslip surrounded by closely mown grass. Now I have to confess, I’m not a lawn person. Don’t get me wrong: I like them. I even like stripey lawns, but I’m quite happy to live with a few dandelions, clover and of course daisies. I’ve even been known to plant them – with a nice red flush to the back of the petals. The thing is, a ‘weed’-rich lawn is host to large numbers of bees and other pollinating insects, which are sadly becoming increasingly rare. Clover also helps keep the lawn green in the driest months of summer, which can be very problematical here in eastern England. So no, you won’t find me in the lawn-care departments of garden centres and with an acre and a half of grass to cut, you won’t find me feeding it either; that’s because the nitrate nodules in the clover roots do that job for me. And that’s why I find it hard to mow cowslips that find their way into the grass. They’re everywhere now, and are far, far too numerous to transplant. Obviously I can’t avoid them all, so some get a couple of weeks to feed the bees and flower – before the mower catches them. But then that’s life in the garden: here today, gone tomorrow. But never dull.

Cowslip

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Freedom! Ewes and Lambs Released

This is a very brief blog post to celebrate the release of the first batch of ewes and their lambs out of the barn and onto the lush green pasture of early April. It’s always a joyous (and yes, that’s entirely the right word to describe it) moment, which we all gather round to watch. So I choose a warm sunny day when the weather forecast for the following week doesn’t look too bad. And yesterday, April 8th, was the appointed date.

About half the ewes had been in the barn, where we encourage them to bond closely with their lambs. On our farm they lamb in the barn, too. So here’s a picture of them shortly before their release.

Ewes and lambs in barn

As soon as I open one of the double barn doors the most eager ewes spill through. At this point it’s essential to make sure that their way is entirely clear. In the past we’ve had lambs trampled – and even killed – when the charging mothers encountered an obstacle. Happily, this year there were no accidents.

Moment of release

They dash across the yard and out into the field.

Burst into field

A few moments later, the flock has spread out and calm starts to descend. Slowly one or two ewes will return to the barn to gather-up any lambs – their own and others – which they then escort out into the field.

A few seconds later

Being a Friday, earlier that morning Maisie had whizzed into Long Sutton market, where she’d bought some brown shrimps and three oysters – which I adore. We toasted the day with fish and Cava – a perfect combination!

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Katie, lambs and human frailty

Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond…? I had to Google the names our weather forecasters have given the succession of storms that have lashed the British Isles this winter. We’ve just experienced storm Katie, which the Daily Mirror predicted would be an ‘explosive weather bomb’, but which turned out to be fierce, but not disastrous – for us, at least. The winds were very strong, but we were only hit by 11mm of rain, which was a huge relief, as the land is only just starting to recover from an unusually wet winter. As it’s been so wet, last season’s female lambs (what we term gimmers) are still in the barn, but I do need the space now, as the current crop of lambs is starting to appear.

Being on the east side of England, we don’t tend to get hit hard by weather systems that come in from the Atlantic; by the time rain reaches us, it tends to be quite thin and drizzly. In fact, droughts are often a bigger problem for us in these days of climate change. But after an unusually warm start in December and January, February turned wet; then March was cold, with one or two heavy rain storms. As a result, the grazing hasn’t yet fully recovered, so I’m very loath to put sheep out until, that is, temperatures start to pick up. It’s proving quite a difficult lambing season to manage, but at least the sun is getting warmer by the day: that’s the beauty of mid-Spring.

Not many of you will suffer from this, but one of the problems of being near-perfect, is that I rarely make mistakes – and most of those are too trivial to worry about. Then once in a blue moon, I make a slightly bigger slip-up. And I’m afraid that’s what happened last November – but as with all my slightly larger errors, it was mainly somebody else’s fault. Having said that, I suppose I should concede that I could have been more careful. What happened was this. It was the first week of November and we had just removed the tups – the rams – from the ewes after their month-long stay together, and as we always do, we sat down at the kitchen table to count the 21 weeks until we could expect the first lamb. Normally by November we have next year’s diaries with us, so we do the calculation together and I can catch any errors that Maisie might make (it’s rarely the other way around). But this year, our new diaries hadn’t come through, so I did the calculation on my own. And this was when the error crept in.

I do the calculation using the Year Planner pages at the front and back of the diary. So I counted the weeks that remained in 2015, after tupping had finished (I think there were 9), and then I carried that figure forward to the 2016 Planner, but in the process I mistakenly advanced the number by one. That counting error meant that I (I nearly said we) miscalculated the start of lambing by a week. So this time last week, we were getting up at dawn and were patrolling the lambing shed every hour, to the undisguised amusement of the assembled ewes, who looked up at us as if we were crazy. I have never seen so many animals chew the cud with such undisguised amusement. I could read it in their eyes: they knew exactly what I had done. Eventually after three days it slowly dawned on me that something had gone wrong. So naturally I accused Maisie, who gently reminded me that I had done the calculation. In all fairness, I’d probably have been more assertive had I been her, but then I’m male. So that’s how we – whoops, I – made our first and only mistake in thirty years of sheep-keeping… Dream on.

The cold, dry high-pressure weather that has dominated March has been good for us. It has helped keep disease levels down, and although the grass isn’t as advanced as I’d like, there’s still plenty of time for it to catch-up. The very first ewe to lamb was four days early, which is quite unusual, but as it was her first lamb we can make allowances for her. Two days later, an older ewe lost twins to the horrible disease toxoplasmosis. But we caught it quite quickly and I think have been able to disinfect the area quite effectively. Modern farm disinfectants are very potent. I then put the ewe in with the gimmers and with luck several of them will acquire immunity from her. That at least is the theory – and it does seem to work.

Today, we must inject the gimmers against soil-borne (clostridial) diseases and give them a dose of wormer. Then tomorrow, or the next day, we can turn them out. But now it’s time to stop writing and get back to work in the barn. I’ll try to do another blog post shortly, now that I’ve managed to get on top of my two big editing tasks (the Stonehenge book for Head of Zeus and the second Alan Cadbury adventure for Unbound). Isn’t it great when life gets simple, again? Suddenly you can see the wood for the trees – even if they are unusually leafless for the time of year.

The very first lamb, born four days prematurely.

The very first lamb, born four days prematurely.

Some of the lambs born in the first days of lambing.

Some of the lambs born in the first days of lambing.

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