Unexpected Snow halts plans 27th December 2017

Make plans while God laughs?? Something like that anyway. The poor sheep! This was D day for moving them into their new paddock. Jon spent hours yesterday creating it on the west facing slope of the small field. We have been operating a very rudimentary rotational grazing system since September and the arrival (and immediate disappearance) of our 8 Shetland Sheep. Faolan had a fever so I could only help Jon briefly with banging the wooden posts in for the corners. It’s so much faster when I hold a flat piece of wood over the top while he stands on a stool and brings down the mallet square. Without the piece of wood the round post splinters where it has been repeatedly hit. We are experimenting with keeping sheep in a series of electrified paddocks with no stock proof fencing. Like most of our experiments in farming this has been born from a pure vision but the execution hampered by ignorance, lack of time and penuary! The pure vision is managing our degraded soil back to health through planting a diverse pasture and using holistic planned grazing of a flerd of animals to increase organic matter, drainage and life.

I will try to explain how we have (mis)managed it for the last 4 months spending only £500. Which may be helpful for some other brave souls who are game enough to keep animals on previously arable land without the benefit of fencing. (see Off Grid rotational grazing on a budget)

It is definitely time to move these sheep (and has been for about 10 days) but obstructions kept coming. Christmas and the delight of seeing family and socialising and the concern about how to manoeuvre them into a new paddock which isn’t adjacent to their current one. It is about 300m away. I finally decided to try to secure them with hurdles and somehow pick them out and carry them one by one. I know this is technically possible! The neighbouring farmer carried 10 year old Tamsin back after she holed herself up in the corner of his field, her bag all ripped from following the younger ewes through the gaping hole in the barbed wire fence which separates our farms.

Now all grass (or mud) is equal. Covered in its blanket of white. So instead I spent the morning making a shelter over the hurdles with tarpaulin to keep the hay dry and as an option for the ladies to use as respite. The 4 bravest ventured in, the other 4 eyed me warily and hung around outside. I waited as long I could, back to the driving snowflakes and then sure footed jumped the fence and closed the hurdles. They were alarmed and tried to butt their way through the bars but couldn’t. I went to get more hay and as soon as I moved they found the weak point, a wobbly bar and pushed through. Tamsin was left behind, too nervous to try it so I just let her out.

These sheep are wild! In the true definition. Despite all my efforts they do not want to be touched, do not trust me, and are not greedy enough to be lured by food.

The goats and chickens are a different story. They all pile in to the shelter when it snows eating each other’s food and today, old blue (the only hen still laying) was making her nest in the goats hay rack and wouldn’t be tempted out. She clucked away and pecked any poor soft nose that ventured near her.

Back at the yurt, Faolan woke up with temperature normal and smiling and joking again. Luckily they both have lots of toys from their Christmas present stash so it’s no hardship being snowed in. Things were a bit desperate before the holidays when Saoirse asked me to make her an IPad out of paper. She drew some pictures on it and then just stared at it for two minutes. When Jon got in she asked him to put a button on it and played turning it off and on again!

I went round to our neighbour to get some eggs which she sells at her door, so we’ll manage to get through the day. Its better this time because it’s slushy rather than icy. We have enough wood since Jon coppiced the 100 year old ash tree in black grove woods. This was our favourite tree so I was very sad to see it down. There were 6 upright massive trunks in a circle and Saoirse and Faolan would stand in the dent in the middle while I walked around outside and played hidey boo or told stories. But he was advised to cut the old ones first because they are in danger of rotting in the middle where the water collects and then the trunks will fall off and take the whole tree up roots and all. This wood was planted 200 years ago and managed as a coppice wood until 40 years ago. It needs to be regularly cut. Jon is learning how to do this and following his woodland management plan with advice form Herts and Essex wildlife trust.

We need Ash as it burns well green, he plans to coppice the hornbeam in February half term and then leave that to dry for one and two years. Then its superior wood.  Our 18kw potbellied stove serves us very well (27 degrees yesterday when the fire door was left open for too long!) but still most of the heat escapes through the chimney. We have been looking as an alternative at plans for a rocket fuel mass stove, which used 40% less wood and the heat lasts for days.

So here we are with a list of jobs to do as long as my arm, but halted in our tracks by this unexpected snow and actually feeling blessed to have this time to spend playing with the kids. Having some time to appreciate all our presents and the loved ones who were so thoughtful. My new winter coat and thermal socks kept me warm and dry all morning.

That being said, I hope it doesn’t snow tomorrow.

4pm update…I have just managed to get back online to upload this entry. The sky is so orange as seen through the yurt window by the west door. We are close to the edge of the woods here and see beautiful sunsets. Both kids are slightly crazy now. Jon has been trying to leave the yurt but all his shoes are wet as they were out in the ‘porch’ last night and got snowed on. I’m feeling a heady cocktail of despair, frustration and anxiety. I hope the sheep have eaten the hay by now. Will have to check before its pitch black.

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