Since last year we’ve decided to lamb rather later than in the past – which means that we put the rams in with the ewes late in October and expect our first lambs in mid-to-late March (the actual date this year is March 21st, if the ewes are true to their often quite strict 21-week gestation). The reasons we’ve opted for a slightly later lambing are partly that we’re getting older ourselves, and it’s less physically demanding if lambing isn’t in the cold weather; that’s also why we’ve cut the flock size by over half. Time Team is no longer being made, so I don’t have to rush off and film in early spring and of course the grass is that much better in early April, which means that lactating ewes don’t have to eat hay and straw. So, all in all, I think a slightly later lambing makes plenty of practical sense. The only down-side is that lamb prices aren’t as good later in the year, but again, we really aim to raise breeding ewes, which aren’t affected by such fluctuations, as we sell them the following year. Anyhow, I’m really pleased with this year’s crop of breeding ewes, which are still looking good, despite quite a wet autumn.
As readers in Britain will be aware, 2014 was the warmest year on record, but it went out with a bang here on the east coast. We’d brought the in-lamb ewes into the barn on Boxing Day, then that night it snowed hard and we woke-up to a just-missed White Christmas. But there’d been a lot of rain with it, too (I measured 31mm in my rain gauge) and the ground was sodden. Still, it looked very picturesque when I took this photo on December 27th.
The ewes chewed the cud contentedly in the barn as we hurried to assemble hurdles to make a dry corral for last year’s female lambs, technically now known as gimmers, which we had to remove from nearly-flooded pasture. Later in the day we drove them in and I could have sworn I heard one or two thank me under their breath as they filed into the barn. The only person to resent their arrival was one of the farm cats, now known as Ginger or Ginge (her previous name was Death, as in Death and Glory – two kittens we found dumped in a dyke by the road a few years ago. Our nice vet wouldn’t allow the name Death to appear in his files, so gave her the name Ginger). Ginge was forced to move up to a higher bale, or risk being sniffed to death by curious young sheep.
As I walked around the farm I noticed that one or two large puddles were not decreasing quite as fast as I would have liked. So the following day, I decided to unblock the outfalls of the land-drains that run below our fields, wood and garden. They empty into a large dyke maintained by the South Holland Internal Drainage Board (the IDB), to whom we pay an annual drainage rate. So far as I can discover, the drains were laid in the 1960s. They consist of individual, foot-long, four-inch ceramic pipes which were placed directly in the ground. This would tend to confirm their earlier date, as by the 1970s pipes were nearly always bedded in gravel, and were often made of perforated plastic. Most of our drains were blocked when I discovered them in 1996 (I think). Then we had them jetted-out by a professional contractor, who did an excellent job. All I have to do is make sure their outfalls into the dyke aren’t blocked, which I do every year and it’s a job that’s best done after heavy rain, when water pressure in the pipes helps to wash them out.
As you can see from the photo, the IDB dyke is quite a large one and the sides always seem to be wet and/or frozen when I come to do the rodding-out. Several times I’ve fetched-up in the freezing water. First I have to find the drain, which is made easier by some wires I’ve attached to a nearby fence. Then I find the pipe with a small border spade and a road spike. Having carefully located a pipe (I don’t want to shatter it), I trowel away the surface mud, but with a long garden rather than an archaeological trowel, then insert a drain cleaning rod, fitted with double-spiral bit. By the time I’ve twisted that rod a few hundred times I’m ready for a beer with my luchtime pork pie from the local butcher’s. In fact my arms are still aching, over twelve hours later. But it was worth it. Security matters a lot. I’d much rather have a sore arm than a nagging conscience – and floods.
There’s still an hour to go before breakfast. Time to start the edit of my second Alan Cadbury thriller (The Way, The Truth and The Deaths) which my kind editor, Liz Garner, managed to return to me shortly before Christmas. We plan to launch the new campaign with Unbound on January 20th, when I’ll be doing a book-signing (Lifers’ Club and HOME) at Topping Bookshop in Ely – where the new book is set (in the landscape around the city, not the bookshop, idiot!). Then later in the morning I’ll return to digging-over the vegetable garden, which I had almost finished before the rain and snow hit us. Give me an active over a sedentary, passive Christmas, any day. Roll on 2015…