Harvest Home

It’s been a little quiet around here – I was busy getting ready for visiting family, then I went up to Cumbria to work for the weekend for a friend at Woolfest and the day after I came back I came down with a cold which turned into a chest infection and just catching up with things meant whilst I’ve had ideas for blog posts, I’ve just not had time to write any!

Summer is always busy. Keeping on top of growing things, whether weeds, grass or cultivated plants whilst it’s warm, humid and the day length at maximum is work enough in itself. Happily the sheep work is going into a lull now – they are sheared and have had general maintenance tasks like foot trimming and worming so with that MOT they are fairly low work. The grass is still full of protein so they look fat and sleek and happy, they spend hours lying down cudding rather than moving around grazing which tells me they are getting plenty of nourishment. Just watching them each day to check for signs of anything amiss, I know that if they are happily lying down cudding or dozing or in the evening, if they are playing and running around then I know they are doing OK. If they have time to goof and relax then all is well in their little world!

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They did give me a little surprise just before I went away. For various reasons I decided not to put any ewes in lamb this year and my ram was loaned to a friend. He came home sooner than expected, I penned him away from the rest of my sheep whilst I worked out what to do. He managed to repeatedly butt a fence rail until it came off and nipped through and across two fields to join the ewes. He was only there a very short time before we discovered the jail break and got him back out but apparently it was enough! I had been watching them in case any were in lamb but Fraggle, one of my crossbreds has not lambed before and was showing little sign of pregnancy until I spotted her apparently licking two black crows next to her in the field which of course once I’d focussed properly turned out to be two wee lambs she’d just given birth to!

They were born on Midsummer’s Day and are two little ewe lambs and are doing really well and Fraggle is proving to be a good mum. Sadly I’ve been too busy to spend any time handling them so apart from checking them they’ve been left to get on with being small sheep in a flock but they already appear to have quite big personalities, have lots of “aunties and uncles” to annoy with their playing about and bouncing and are lively and healthy.

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This is them when they were a day old

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And with their proud mummy Fraggle

Lambing normally happens much earlier in the year of course. For most farmers in this area it’s the first 3 weeks of March with some arriving late February and the stragglers and the first time lambers (known as hoggets or hoggs round here) lambing in April as they get put in lamb later to give them an extra month of growing before becoming mums themselves. I don’t ever put a sheep in lamb until it’s over a year old, I’m not running a commercial meat flock so can afford to allow them the luxury of growing up properly and they generally do better, lamb easier and produce twins if allowed to do so. Hoggs generally have one lamb and they can have difficulties – you need to watch them even more closely to check for lambing difficulties (dystocia). I also choose to lamb my sheep in April – again, not being constrained by the commercial lamb market it means I can lamb later, the weather is generally better, the grass is starting to grow which means the sheep do well and get more nutrition, it’s less work for me because they can go outside quicker – so I get better results rather than struggling. Lambing at the end of June at the height of summer however is a new one on me though!

Midsummer is normally when we’re starting to think of crops of a different sort. Farming is cyclical, especially in a temperate climate like the UK where we have very clearly defined seasons (OK, so with climate change the seasons seem more muddled up over the last decade or so, but still, generally we get four seasons of distinct weather!!) Growing up in town as I did I was far less aware of either seasons or weather. In the country, everything revolves on this one key facet of life. My friends from other countries have commented on how we Brits obsess about the weather. One friend from Australia who lived here for a while told me earnestly that this is because we have such shocking weather here… I think it’s more to do with the fact that historically in this relatively small maritime island perched on a latitude high enough up the globe for day lengths to be variable throughout the year and with our agricultural roots, it’s just that weather is ingrained in us all because it’s effects determined the success or failure of so many aspects of life in times past.

It didn’t take me many years after moving to the country to realise that whilst Summer (and by extension Autumn) used to be a time to relax or go on holiday, out here it’s a period of grace to conserve all the rapidly growing resources and store them for the lean times ahead of Winter and Spring. Bluntly – you spend 6 months of the year preparing for the other 6 months. The backbone of a hill farm is the hay harvest (or silage depending on what kind of stock or methods you use). All the grass fed livestock require grazing through the winter when the grass isn’t growing at all or if it is, it’s very slow, has little nutrition or value beyond being a belly filler or is under ice and snow or trampled into liquid mud. Without stored fodder in the form of hay or silage the animals would starve. In times past this meant the humans that relied on them would starve too. Traditionally surplus animals were slaughtered in late autumn/winter to relieve the pressure on keeping livestock through the lean months and providing their keepers with calorific protein and fats in the form of the meat to sustain them in the cold months.

Hay is the single most important thing we produce here. For some years we stopped producing our own hay because of various factors in other parts of our lives and had to buy it in. This is expensive and also means we have to find ways of grazing down the excess grass that we would normally be “shutting off” for growing into hayfields over summer. Last year we went back to making some of our own hay and this year I plan to make all of it. When we pick the right time, the hay we make here is superlative – proper sweet meadow hay. The animals love it. You need a week of good dry, hot, preferably breezy weather. It’s physically hard work but the main stress is picking the right time to do it. Once you’ve cut it, that’s it. You have to carry on regardless of whether you made the right decision or not and the whole years harvest turns on that one decision. It teaches taking responsibility for your actions in a very dramatic way because the implications continue right round for the next twelvemonth.

Many of our neighbours have made and got their hay safely in. We’ve not been able to yet but have had a period of preparing machinery (no good if you have breakdowns during the precious hours of harvest! It really adds to the pressure when that happens!) and anxiously scanning any forecast, long range or daily, for signs for when is a good time to cut. We’ve also cleared out the old hay from the barn and moved it to another for using up first and I cleaned the cobwebs off the walls, removed rats nests and we got rid of any bales that had been rained on and gone mouldy. All we need now is a good blocking high to come back in but for now it looks like bands of low pressure and changeable weather are set for the next week/10 days. So we’re sitting tight for now!

It has of course been very hot and sunny lately though and so other forms of harvest have been taking place. In the flat rich arable Shropshire farmland surrounding my childhood home, Harvest meant grain harvest in August and September not the June/July hay and silage that is what “harvest” means here in Mid Wales. When I was a child it was very much the traditional bucolic image of an English Harvest Home of fields ploughed with furrows of rich earth like crumbling chocolate cake. Harvest Festivals in village churches with sheaves of grain, corn dollies and seed heads and harvest loaves, fruit and vegetables adorning altars and porches. Some of that takes place here too although a decade ago we had an exuberant parish priest whose good intentions sometimes got the better of him and one year he organised collections of much needed articles of underwear to send to Romania. One bride booked her Autumn wedding for the day before Harvest Festival no doubt with a canny eye on the church decor knowing that her flowers would be supplemented by the usual gorgeous harvest displays in the nave and at the pew ends and cute pumpkins round the font. Instead she walked down an aisle festooned with knickers and bras which the rector had thoughtfully decorated the church with as “fruits” of the congregation’s giving. Which puts a whole new spin on the term blushing bride I suppose…

For gardeners and market gardeners of course, harvest means neither grass nor grain. And it starts early. The garden is starting to produce fruit and has been supplying salad and herbs for some time, in fact most of those have bolted in the heat and are setting seed now. The soft fruit is ripening nicely and culinary gooseberries are usually first up for picking here.

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I’ve also picked what red currants I managed to net and turned them into one of my favourite jams – Redcurrant and Rasberry – because happily the summer fruiting raspberries are next door and also starting to ripen.

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Redcurrant and Raspberry is the best of both worlds. Raspberry jam on it’s own, I find too sweet, too pippy and too runny. With added currants you can reduce the sugar because of their high pectin content which aids a better set, the tartness of the red currants enhances the delicate aroma of the raspberries and the extra juiciness dilutes the number of PPM (pips per mouthful).

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One of my other favourite jams is gooseberry so I’ve been busy jamming here and then putting the remainder in the freezer for crumbles, fools and pies for later in the year.

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The first and second early potatoes I planted in the greenhouse have died back now and I dug them the other day. It was an experiment and worth doing. The Home Guard didn’t produce much but the Charlotte produced some very credible potatoes of good size and I’ve been eating them boiled, in salad and had a couple of the larger ones baked.

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The broad beans need picking too – we’ve had one meal but I need to harvest the rest too.

The sweet pea tunnel is coming into it’s own now, it still looks straggly but I’m able to cut armfuls of sweet peas every few days to keep them flowering and large pots of these are sweetly scenting my home – one of the loveliest things about this time of year!

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