Babies Everywhere

Everywhere I  look at the moment there are babies – it’s that time of year.  I’m not talking human babies although quite a lot of my friends seem to be having new grandchildren, yet another sign of our ageing.  In the secret valley animals outnumber humans by dozens to one so it isn’t surprising that all around us there are signs of new life.

Lambing starts later here than in many places, for the spring grass is also later, so it is with impatience that we wait to see them skipping in the fields and chasing one another up and down the  river banks.  Of course, that was some weeks ago – now they are grown quite large and, as I write this, very noisy as they call for their mothers who have been separated for shearing. It will be a few hours before they have all found one another and normality returns again; the sound of contented and playful bleating telling us that all is well.

Calves can be born in spring or autumn.  Beyond the secret valley is a beautiful herd of Red Devon cattle and they make good mothers.  I first came across this gentle breed when I worked on a farm as a teenager on Exmoor and they have been a firm favourite ever since.  Bred for beef, we used to hand milk a few for the farm’s own use and the milk was very rich and creamy.   Large enamel basins of it would be placed on top of the Rayburn stove (fired by the peat turves I have recently written about, click here)  and I would watch fascinated as the cream would rise in large clots to be skimmed off  to be eaten with afternoon tea, that most traditional of West Country meals.

The bantams – Lavender Pekins (Cochins) – are all rapidly going broody.  I find that they are only good layers in spring, the rest of the year they lay fewer eggs.  We always set some of these under them so that we have a new supply of youngsters: if we get too many there is always a ready home for them but mostly they are there as ready-made meals for Mr Fox who is a far too regular visitor.  I’d rather see the bantams having a short but very lovely time wandering about the place than cooped up in a pen somewhere.  When left to free range it is amazing just how far they travel up and down the field which does make them rather vulnerable.  As the fox usually visits in the early hours of the morning I try to always remember to shut them away safely for the night.  In the cold weather earlier in the year a fox visited the garden regularly during the day – at one time actually peering through the glass garden door at us.

 
We don’t keep duck but that doesn’t stop us from seeing them in the garden.  Usually one raises a brood of ducklings somewhere secluded: often under a large clump of oat grass or, before it rotted away completely, a few feet up on top of a rotten tree stump at the foot of a hedge. As soon as they hatch, she leads them away down the field to the river below the house.

Every year, there are many pheasants that survive the shooting season.  Last spring we had one nest in a planting trough beside our kitchen door.  Despite the constant activity, she sat tight and none of the dogs, visiting or resident, discovered her.  I have read that, when sitting on eggs, the hen pheasant can supress any scent so as to avoid predators.  No sooner had the chicks hatched than every dog in the neighbourhood was investigating the planter but by then, of course, she had led them all to safety.

Partridge also visit the garden but are much more wary.  When their eggs hatch the chicks are not much bigger than bumble bees and swarm about their mother.  They are so tiny they appear to have no legs moving as if somehow they are fitted with wheels instead!

I almost certainly won’t find it necessary to blog about the next ‘hatching’ for an eagerly waited event is the royal birth.  When Kate has her baby it will make world news – you won’t need to see a photo of it here!

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Turf Cutting on Exmoor

A few weeks ago I blogged about cutting peat – or ‘turf’ as it is known on Exmoor – for burning.  It is an ancient tradition, now past.  You can read that post by clicking on the link here.

When I first visited Exmoor forty-five years ago one of the first tasks I was given was to ‘turn’ the turf, literally just turning it over and over so that the wind dried it.  In many ways it was a boring and monotonous job but it had to be done for it was the provider of heat for the farm, both water and cooking.  Being alone, high up on the moors, was never lonely for the isolation, even for a lad, was awe-inspiring.  I loved it.

Recently, I was flicking through the pages of a book that has been in our possession for as long as I can remember and came across a photograph of an Exmoor turf cutter.  I’d never noticed it before.  The book is called ‘People of all Nations’ and was written about 1920.  The photographs are wonderful and show a way of life long gone.  

click on the photo to enlarge

With the benefit of hindsight, it is a pity that I took so few photos of my early days on Exmoor.  At the time, it seemed that the unchanged life of the moors would go on for ever.  Little did I realise that I was witnessing its passing and  I feel very privileged to have been a (very tiny) part of it.  What has endured has been its influence: my arrival quite by chance on Exmoor and being taken into its heart has been a subject of discussion recently with Phil Gayle on BBC Oxford.

The caption below the photograph reads:

Cutting Turf on the Rolling Heights of Exmoor. With his primitive cutter this Devon labourer is procuring long strips of turf at the opening of the shearing season.  The turf is stacked into barns in which the sheep are herded on the eve of shearing.  They rub against it and lie on it, thus ridding their wool of much dirt and grease which would detract from the value of their fleece were it present when shearing began.

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Turf Burning

For gardeners, peat is a well-known, although less used than before, mainstay of seed and potting composts.  It’s ability to absorb large quantities of moisture and to retain nutrients plus being very light when dry, thereby reducing transportation costs, made it the perfect growing medium.  In recent times, the environmental impact of industrial scale peat extraction has given rise to concern leading to the development of alternative composts becoming available.

Exmoor’s rolling moorland: a wild, windswept and boggy place

In the areas where peat is found – mostly in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere – it was also a common fuel source and is still used for this purpose today.  On a non-commercial scale peat for burning is also in decline as the hand digging of the bogs, the drying out process and the carting all takes time for very little financial gain.  The days of the ‘turf cutter’ being paid sixpence a load have long passed.

Turf cutting creates deep trenches across the bogs

On Exmoor, in England’s West Country, peat is always referred to as ‘turf’, a dialect word, that means something very different from the velvety, green sward of gardeners.  Turf was still being cut there into the 1970’s and was one of the very first tasks I was given when arriving as a lad to work on a remote hill farm.  It was back breaking labour turning the individually cut pieces over and over to allow the wind to dry them before stacking them in heaps which later would be carried back to the farm to supply the fires that were needed all year for both heating and cooking.

 Cut turf in Ireland’s Connemara

Despite the backache, it was an enjoyable time being up on the moors all day with just the sound of the wind and the curlews mournful cry for company.  The native Exmoor ponies and the wild Red Deer all would appear from time to time for you became part of the moorland scenery too. Returning to the farm tired after a hard day’s work to be greeted by the sweetly fragrant smoke from the turf fires within was reassurance enough that it was all worthwhile.


 

Curlew and Red Deer on Exmoor

 

Last summer a visit to Connemara, on the west coast of Ireland, brought back all these memories for there turf burning is still commonplace.  There were the rows of turf lying on the ground waiting to be wind-dried, there were the stacks of turf waiting to be carted.  And, best of all, there was the heady smell of dozens of peat fires wafting over the landscape. 

Connemara turf stacked ready for carting – cut to a very different shape to Exmoor

Recently, on Exmoor, it has been realised that turf cutting kept the bogs ‘open’ providing a valuable wildlife resource and although not reinstating the practice the National Park has instigated the Exmoor Mire Restoration Project. This has involved blocking old drainage systems and re-wetting over 300 hectares; the project is on-going.  Visit there website by clicking here to find out more.

The trenches fill with water creating a very special and rare wildlife habitat


Exmoor is still as beautiful as ever and my love for it never diminishes but, without the scent of the turf fires, there is that little ‘something’ missing.  However hope may be around the corner: the entrepreneurial Irish are selling peat incense blocks by mail order so that you can have the scent anywhere.  I may even take a few blocks and light them on Exmoor for old times’ sake.

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Ireland’s Connemara Ponies

Rugged and beautiful, Connemara is situated on Ireland’s west coast.  It’s a wild place: a rock strewn landscape softened by the lush green of field and bog; of purple heather interwoven with the golden flowers of gorse; of towering scarlet and purple fuchsia hedges; of blue sea and empty, sandy beaches and of vast skies.  On a warm, summer’s day there can be no more benign a place yet when the gales and driving rain arrive, you are reminded that there is nothing but open Atlantic until you reach the shores of America. It is here that the Connemara pony, as enigmatic as the land that produced it – gentle but tough – developed.

The origins of the ponies are lost in time.  Some believe that they date back to the Vikings, others that the local breed crossbred with shipwrecked Spanish Armada horses.  What is known with certainty is that during the 19th century they were crossbred with Hackneys, Thoroughbreds and Arabians until by the early 1900’s the pony bloodlines were being lost.  In 1923 the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was set up to preserve the breed, the result being that the Connemara is now thriving with societies, clubs and shows worldwide. 

The most important of all of these shows – and rightly so – is the one of its birthplace, the Connemara Pony Festival at Clifden, held each year during August.  It is to the Festival that I was lucky enough to be invited last week.

 
My interest in horses, I have to admit, is somewhat limited.  I ride and (even if I say so myself) am quite good at it, despite only learning ten years ago but I do find the prospect of sitting watching horses for three days going around a ring rather daunting.  But this is Ireland and the craic is as good as you would expect it to be – here you can wander in and out of the showground, the locals are happy to chat to you about anything and everything and the setting is superb: a small showground in the centre of a pretty, brightly coloured town bounded by a dark brown, peaty watered river and backed by mountains.  And of course, there is Guinness!  A bonus was the weather – hot and sunny, every day.

I stayed and watched some of the jumping competitions before my attention waned.  The standard of the riding was very mixed but fun was had by all and it was interesting to see how the children just climbed back on board and carried on without, it seems, a second thought.  Perhaps that is why so many of the top jockeys are Irish ….

However, when it comes to ‘loose’ jumping, I can stay all day.  To watch the ponies move without the restraints of rider and tack, I find fascinating.  Here, the atmosphere is very much more relaxed and the banter never ending.

After a long day, what better way can there be than to end it with a stroll through the town, visiting a bar or two along the way?  Clifden is also a stronghold of traditional Irish music and from every open doorway the sound of the fiddle eminates.  Traditional music has been a lifelong interest of mine and I have had all the elements of a terrific day out – horses, Guinness, Ireland, song and warmth.  I walk back to my house, twenty-five minutes outside the town, set high up on the cliffs, as the sun begins to set.  The perfect end to a perfect day.

This seems an opportunity to talk of my own horse, Barney.  A giant of a horse (who, by coincidence, also came over from Ireland), gentle, wicked and a lot of fun, he helped teach me to ride by ensuring, I like to think, that the saddle was safely underneath me when I landed after a jump.  After months of treatment for lameness, he was ‘put down’ – a very sad day.  However, I now have Bart who compared to Barney goes like a Ferrari.  An ex-eventing horse, he is beautifully schooled and very disciplined, it has taken me a while to feel comfortable with his power and speed.  More of all this on a later post – below is an image of him and Ernie, our other horse, as a taster!

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Grey Wethers Double Stone Circle

Last summer I spent a day walking on Dartmoor, an area of wild, remote and barren land situated in the south of the county of Devon. Dartmoor is an area of granite outcrops (tors) and coarse grassland, trees are few – except for occasional conifer plantations – and people and properties even fewer. It is a country of streams, bog, cotton grass and silence.
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Remote and empty it may be now but, thousands of years ago, this was a highly populated area and all over the moor there are signs of occupation of our ancestors. The buildings have long disappeared but stone circles, standing stones , scrapes and bumps in the ground are everywhere as the Ordnance Survey map will show.
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The most mysterious and atmospheric sign of these early settlers is the stone circle found to the northeast of Sittaford Tor. Stepping into a stone circle is always a mystical experience: it feels as if our living history has been trapped within them. The spaces between the stones seem to disappear and you feel completely enclosed by them as if the circle ‘walls’ were completely solid. It feels this way with our own Cotswold stone circle, the Rollright Stones but it feels even more extraordinary up on the wilderness of Dartmoor for there is not one stone circle but two, standing side by side.

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Grey Wethers, as the circles are known, get their name from the old English word for a castrated ram. ‘Wether’ is still a term used in farming and the word is remarkably similar in the old German, Frisian and Nordic languages. It is not uncommonly used to describe large stones that scatter some areas of landscape, whether manmade or left in place as a result of Ice Age glaciation – presumably as, from a distance, they can look remarkably like sheep resting.
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Walking amongst the stones, it is difficult to see that the circles are completely separate for they feel as if they are intertwined as in a figure of eight. However, from above (thanks to Google Earth) the circles can be seen to be quite distinct although sitting side by side. The smaller of the circles measures 31 metres in diameter and the other 33 metres, making them the largest circles on the moor. Together, they have 49 stones standing. Much of this information I have sourced from the web (where else?) and more can be found here.
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What was the purpose of their building, 5000 years ago? Many theories exist but no-one knows for sure. Excavations have shown that there were charcoal deposits here so fire was certainly used – was it for ritualistic purposes? The theory I like most, is that the circles stand on the boundary of two separate tribes and that this was a neutral meeting place. It would be good to find that it was a place of peace for it certainly feels that way now.
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To the south of the circles and on the northern bank of the East Dart River are the circular remains of a ‘beehive’ hut. These tiny buildings of stone with, once, a turf roof were most likely built in medieval times and used as a store or shelter from the worst of the elements. It is surprisingly well camouflaged – perhaps designed that way to prevent their contents being raided by others. More information on the ancient huts of Dartmoor can be found here.
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After a picnic lunch high on the moor with only the sound of skylarks, cuckoos and buzzards for company, the path descended to the Warren House Inn, a remote (in the past, tin miners) hostelry, some distance to the east. It is said that the fire here has never been allowed to go out since 1845 and it and a pint or two of ale were most welcome.
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Beyond the pub, more remains of old buildings and walled enclosures could be seen, probably of deserted farms or small mining communities. Now, at lower levels, the climate was noticeably more clement and wild flowers provided some welcome colour after the drab greens and browns of the higher moor. The Bird’s Foot Trefoil, especially, were covered in beautiful Fritillary butterflies.
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Finally, after several hours of walking we returned to our starting point, the village of Postbridge, to cross the river by the ancient stone clapper bridge, featured in one of my earlier posts. This, and more photographs, can be found by clicking the link here.
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Exmoor – at it’s best

Followers of this blog may have noticed a gap – I have been away on Exmoor. How I love that place! First visited just over 40 years ago, it seems to be an unchanging landscape, partly due to it being one of England’s National Parks. Of course, there are changes but they do not seem to have altered the character of the place much and the changes are subtle – removal of signposts to (I assume) dissuade drivers from taking their cars down impossibly steep roads and over almost impossibly narrow bridges. And, up on the high moor, passing and parking places for cars are slightly larger to allow for an increase in visitors.

October on Exmoor saw weather changes from day to day: one moment mists, another driving rain and cold winds but, more often than not, warm sunshine. How many times do walkers get fooled into wandering on the moor only to find the mists creeping up the deep coombes (as the valleys are called here) before spreading out across the wider, open spaces where landmarks are few and bogs many? To my knowledge, deaths in the bogs only happen in fiction but a cold plunge to chest height in sticky, peaty water and a twisted ankle miles from anywhere has the potential to be fatal. The wild ponies of Exmoor are one of Britain’s oldest native breeds and survive all year finding their feed on the moor. During this month they are gathered up by the local landowners and checked over, branded and the foals weaned. These are normally sold at the annual, local pony sales although this year, for various reasons, the sales have been cancelled leaving a gap in the social calendar, for the sales are one of the great meeting places of the widely scattered population. Another meeting point is the local hunt. On Exmoor, there are packs of staghounds as well as fox, for the moors are one of the few places where the Red Deer still run wild in England. With the change of law, only two hounds now hunt the deer, the unfortunate creature having been selected by the Harbourer – a local person who knows both the deer and the moor inside out. Once the correct deer has been found and separated from the rest of the herd, the beast is shot. This is a necessary culling as the population is continually increasing to the detriment of both the moor and the deer themselves. Hunting is becoming ever more pouplar as the crowds and cars, pictured, prove. As soon as the hunt moves off across the moor the crowds get left behind and, with the hunt hidden deep in the coombe, the moor seems deserted once again.
More on Exmoor to follow…..

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