This week, the evening after we’d decided we could relax and leave our last single lambs outside for the night, I had my usual pre-bathtime use of the watering can outside the back door. The lambs have done very well this year, and almost all have bonded with us in a meaningful way (see later).
The air was cool, still and dark. Not a sound. Not a breath of wind.
Then the peaceful silence was ripped by a sound.
Can animals scream?
How does one describe a sound like it? I’ve tried, but it was quite unlike any I’ve ever heard before. Sounds echo round here, given the lack of background noise on such quiet nights, and with the particular topography of buildings and landscape.
Its clarity had me thinking it was coming from North of the house, close by, and where our singles were. It did indeed sound the right sort of pitch and varying frequency MMMeeehhhhrrr to be of lamb origin. But this wasn’t like a lost lamb sound. Or a stuck lamb sound. There was a terrified edge to it. Not a rabbit squeal. Or a Barn owl screech.
Immediately I shouted, dashed in for our torch and yelled to Fiona. As I exited the house again, the sound was repeated maybe 3 or 4 times, with more terrified overtones, as I ran as fast as my Crocs – the closest footwear to the door – allowed on the slippery, muddy ground.
By the time I was half way past the now empty lamb pens, the screams had stopped. Silence had returned. With trepidation I reached the end of the field, and swung the powerful torch beam across the steeply sloping small paddock, looking for reflective, tapetal stars. At the top corner, actually closest to the house, there they all were, in a tight group. 10 ewe eyes looked back at me. Clustered lower, there were 10 smaller flashes, with just a week’s worth of visual input to guide them.
Nearly physical relief. Then extraordinarily, with no bucket shaking, of their own accord, they all raced toward me and past my stationary figure, and on towards Fiona who now stood, other bright torch in hand at the far end of our green lane. With minimal fuss Fiona ushered them safely, each lamb and ewe bonded firmly together, into individual pens.
Whilst this has become easier to manage this year, it’s never happened spontaneously like this before. Certainly not with no effort or drama, and in the dark with confusing bright torch beams illuminating the scene.
Which left me, relieved as I sank into bed, with the memory of the sound I’d heard and which I couldn’t remove from my mind. Was it indeed a lamb? If so, then why no answering ewe noise? If not a lamb, then what? When we next see Glyn, who has older lambs in his quite rough, neighbouring upland field, full of cover, I’ll ask whether he’s “lost” any lambs to foxes this year.
This terror filled sound will forever haunt my memory when the euphemistic “losing lambs to a fox” gets mentioned in future. Not perhaps a quick kill. Life cut short. In terror.
A successful lambing season by our very own modest small-scale standards. 16 lambs in a tight 17 day period. All now given names of daffodils beginning with H, in 2018 (well, you have to choose some sort of system). All bonny, distinctive and growing well. Mainly stress free deliveries, save one (below), but this year we worked out that for the next generation of well-behaved ewes in our small flock, we need lambs that are happy to come towards us, not race away. The carrot, not the stick, or bared fangs, must work here.
So, every day, twice a day, from day one, we’ve spent time down at lamb eye level talking and touching. Amazingly, the lambs nearly all respond very quickly, being naturally inquisitive, so that once the ewes are out in the field and being trough fed their nuts, the bolder lambs are quite happy to come over and have a tickle. Whether my woolly jumper and hat helps with this, I have no idea, but it has made for a very pleasurable lambing period. Though our concerns for when the grass is going to start growing continues – here we are at the end of April and our upper hay meadow which hasn’t been grazed now for nearly 3 months, has precious little new grass growth at all.This time spent lamb whispering paid off, earlier in the week when, whilst photographing the fabulous N. ‘Merlin’ daffodils which have excelled again this year, I noticed a lamb playing with one of the water buckets which had been emptied and rolled down the hill. When I turned back after taking a few photos, to much angst filled bleating from the ewes, it was clear that the lamb had managed to get the hooped metal handle over its head.
Within a minute the front legs were through as well, and flock stress levels were rising rapidly. After grabbing my crook-cum-walking stick from inside, and distracting the ewes with some feed, I was able to crook the lamb’s neck and then with “Harper” standing quite still beside me, gently ease first her head, and then her legs, back through the metal loop, and remove the bucket.
She’d already had me free her from a previous tricky situation, so maybe she remembered?Being one of our friendly favourites this year, she then came up to me for an appreciative cuddle, instead of the normal panic filled reaction of most lambs in this situation of dashing back to mum “Bitsy” for protection.
One advantage of the very slow grass growth, and the almost complete absence of slugs in our meadows so far this year (I almost need to repeat this, to remind me of this unique scenario) – clearly a big population crash after this February and March’s extreme freeze drying – is that it’s much easier to scan the turf for signs of new plant species seedlings.
A bank in our upper hay meadow which very early on in our tenure of Gelli Uchaf had the surface soil scraped down with a JCB’s bucket to fill in a track which had zig zagged up through our field, has always been more sparse in grass growth than much of the rest of the field. I guess minimal top soil was left after this process. So this area seemed like a good first place to try to establish some flowering plants, once we started on encouraging floral diversity into these fields.
Beginning 6 years ago with some Dog-violet, Viola riviana, seed capsules collected from our access track’s banks.Over the years other seed including Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica, (below). Betony, Stachys officinalis, Great Burnet, Sanguisorba officinalis, (below), Narcissus pseudonarcissus lobularis (the native daffodil), Cowslip, Primula veris, Bugle, Ajuga reptans, Fox and Cubs, Pilosella aurantiaca, Self Heal, Prunella vulgaris, have all been scattered. Then, 3 years ago a friend gave us a few heads of seed capsules of Early purple orchid (Orchis mascula). Although collected from her woodland about 5 miles away, I thought I’d give them a go on this slope, since it’s part of the hay meadow where waxcap mushrooms appear in the late summer and autumn. I simply crushed the small seed pods and tried to then shake the incredibly fine dust like seed onto this part of the meadow slope.
I’ve written before about orchid seed germination, click here for more detail, but I’ll summarise the critical point, which is why I mention the waxcaps, below.
Very fine orchid seed will land on potentially suitable sites, but in most cases the seeds will be inactive until the following spring, by which time rains and physical actions will have moved them into the leaf litter, or upper soil layers. Here, fungal hyphae – those thread-like structures that form a network or mycelium, send tiny outgrowths which either penetrate the case of the embryo itself, or the very tiny root the embryo is capable of starting with its own very limited stored food reserves. The fungus then very quickly establishes microscopic structures resembling balls of tagliatellae within the orchid’s individual cells. From these structures, also known scientifically as pelotons, nutrients and more specifically Carbon and Nitrogen, are passed from the fungus to the orchid, allowing it to develop and grow. Click here and here, for some great scientific papers with more detail on what is clearly a very complex symbiotic association.
Without these fungal pelotons, the orchid seed will never be able to develop.
With time, the orchid, thanks to its fungal support system, is able to develop roots of its own, and eventually a primitive storage organ called a protocorm, beneath the soil. When this is large enough, and this may take a few years, the orchid can finally make its own leaves, and appear above ground, and eventually become large enough to flower. At the same time many species produce swollen root like structures resembling testicles, and this accounts for the ‘orchid’ name chosen to describe this, one of the 2 largest plant families in the world with around 25,000 species. Once an above ground photosynthesising plant develops, the orchid may even pay the fungus back for its generous help, by passing some of its own carbohydrate products of photosynthesis, back to the fungus.
After spotting multiple small clusters of Betony leaves (above) on the slope, imagine my delight when I found some darkly spotted glossy green leaves which were possibly Orchis mascula. Yesterday I did a more systematic quartering of this slope and counted about 35 different young orchid plants. Some even seem to have tiny flower spikes developing.
A further interesting point is that the main cluster of plants, and they certainly aren’t evenly distributed over the bank being in 3 discrete patches, are at the most South Westerly end, where I definitely recall seeing waxcaps in previous years. Sadly, I can’t find a photo to include, so plan to stake out the locations of the orchids and inspect later in the year to see if they are indeed associated with a particular above ground fungal body presence.
In addition, before coffee was discovered, the powdered root was ground up and used for brewing a drink with reputed aphrodisiac properties, and special “saloop” or “salep” houses were built for consuming this interesting beverage. How appropriate then for us two emigres from Shropshire (or Salop, as it’s also known) to be growing it in our meadow.
Maybe if it really takes off, we could offer it as an optional drink for garden visitors in the future, along with tea or coffee? Finally, if or when we do get some flowers, they have a scent of honey initially, but this changes to more like an unpleasant tom cat pee aroma, once pollination has taken place. Click here for more on Saloop/Salep.
I’m indebted to the wonderful wildflower.org.uk site for some of these details. Click here for more information and some photos of the flowers.
On the Carmarthenshire Meadows Group website, Andrew Martin has just reviewed a fascinating paper on the benefits to bumblebees of “restoring” hay meadows, click here for link, and in most cases this was achieved by spreading relatively large amounts of green hay from suitable local donor meadows onto “improved, and species poor” grassland sites. It’s interesting that our experience is that simple hand scattering of collected seed can also kick start this process towards floral diversity surprisingly quickly.
At last, during a rare sunny and nearly warm April 28th, a quick walk with the camera round the garden yielded a range of bumblebee, solitary bee and wasp species, visiting some of our favoured garden flowers. These plants now have such a big role to play in kick starting local bumblebee colonies, when so little is yet in bloom in the wider landscape.
We’ve now notched up some of the regular seasonal spring markers – first Swallows, Hirundo rustica, (but only a single pair, and close neighbours currently have none), Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, Orange-tip butterfly, Anthocharis cardamines, Dark-edged bee-fly, Bombylius major.But I’ve never been so concerned about weather issues and how they’re impacting on agriculture, and potentially within 12 months, UK food production. Here, grass simply isn’t growing properly, since we’ve had limited sunshine in both March and April, and daytime temperatures have rarely been in the teens. Around here, most farmers are desperately short of fodder for livestock. Huge amounts of extra concentrates have been fed to all those animals which are producing milk for offspring, (my guess is we’ve got through more than twice what we’d normally expect to use per ewe), but all ruminants need forage as well. Either hay or silage has to be bought in, or fields which would normally have been “shut up” for hay or silage later this year, are having to be grazed now, to keep animals going. If we have another poor summer, and then protracted winter, I wonder how farmers and livestock will survive.
I’ve looked in vain for more detail on what’s going on from the Met Office this month, and even posted a comment on their blog posts after a very odd lack of explanation. Have a look at what they were writing about at the beginning of April. Click here for more. Interestingly just before I received a very detailed reply, an old style blog post complete with really helpful weather maps was once more posted on their website.
In the end I found an article on The Washington Post website which gave a very good summary, following on from two very recent reports in Nature magazine by different authors, click here for this link, on what’s happening to the Gulf Stream. This vital circulation of warm water from the Gulf of Mexico past Northern Europe, and then back down the Eastern coast of the U.S.A. is at its weakest for 1500 years, probably because of melting glacial ice in Greenland. If it continues, then Northern Europe’s winters could regularly become dramatically colder, and already other impacts are described in this link.
All this odd weather has made it a very different spring in the garden. Some plants have flowered in their “normal” sequence. Others have been much later. In particular Narcissi have been very delayed which created a big pause in carefully planned flower emergence sequences in late March into early April. Gradually they caught up, but clearly for many flowers, their emergence is closely linked to ambient temperatures.
Another issue was highlighted. Some forms, particularly early ones, have flowered very poorly this year. Tenby daffodil, Narcissus psuedonarcissus obvallaris, (above) is perhaps the worst culprit at least in mature clumps. The often repeated advice, that congested clumps of daffodils should be lifted and divided to perform well is clearly sound, but looking at when daffodil bulbs form the flower buds for the following year, I discovered that it happens almost immediately after this year’s flowers have finished.There’s a great review article, click here,(no longer available, sadly) for factors affecting flowering in Narcissi, which makes the point that bulb size is critical and that colder springs allow leaves to remain viable for longer and store more carbohydrate into the bulbs. On this basis, 2019 should be a bumper year for our daffodils.
But with this in mind, I checked what the weather was like in April 2017, and was surprised to discover that we had only 47.8 mm of rain, along with plenty of sunshine. The link above makes it clear that lack of water at flower bud formation is another critical factor in the following year’s flower performance.
The gradual process of trialling different varieties is at last bearing fruit. Relative flowering times and heights, which I find impossible to work out from even the best catalogues, are easy to study as the bulbs grow in big bags, and planned combinations for mixing in the garden can then be worked out. The aim being to now start to transfer such mixes in appropriate areas of the garden. (N. ‘Trellisick’, ‘Tinhay’, ‘Merlin’ and ‘Tresamble’, below).
Years ago, when I began this process of building up a collection of daffodils, the eventual aim was to use such mixes, en masse, to create the type of impressionistic planting we’d seen at Giverny years ago with mixes of Tulips. How patient one needs to be, to paint with daffodils (‘Merlin’ and ‘Tresamble’, below).
One downside to daffodils is that they they tend to be uni-directional flowers. The upside is that if vigorous forms are chosen, they can flower over just as long a season as tulips, without the need for regular replanting.
We had a very busy and successful last NGS open garden weekend of the year in late April. For once the weather was kind and all our visitors seemed to enjoy themselves and Fiona’s wonderful cakes. In future years we’re toying with the idea of having short notice “Pop Up ” garden open days, which we’ll advertise here on the website, which might allow us to share the garden with visitors at other times of the year when the perfect combination of the garden looking good, weather being set fair, and the energy and enthusiasm of the gardening team, are all aligned. Watch this space.
Finally, it was a big thrill for me to discover, after WordPress sent me one of their “alert” emails about a spike in visits to the website, that the garden here was featured in the gardening section of “The Washington Post”, thanks to an article by Adrian Higgins on March 14th. Click here for the article, if interested. I’m of an age to remember “The Washington Post” from the days of breaking the story of Nixon and Watergate, and I only discovered recently that it’s now owned by Jeff Bezos, of Amazon fame, so I guess it should be financially secure for decades ahead.
So, how did it feel?
Warm. Wet. Dark.
Still. Calm. Tied.
Lubdup, Lubdup, LUBDUP, Lubdup, Lubdup.
Confined. Foetal. Safe.
Pressure. Squeezed. Forced.
Tearing. Touching. Tugging.
Hooking. Pulling. Straining.
Arched. Slithered. Slumped.
Shocked. Cold. Hard.
Gulped. Spluttered. Rubbed.
Light. Colour. Smells.
Nuzzled. Licked. Struggled.
Staggered. Tottered. Suckled.
Warm. Sweet. Rich.
No, how did it feel?
Yesterday was different.
Not like last time.
Unsettled. Laid down.
All day. It needed to. But nothing came.
Pushed back against posts.
Flicked my tail.
Bawled my lungs out.
Brought inside. Spared the rain.
Couldn’t settle. Felt strange.
Force fed. Why me? This April fool.
At least I’m dry. Then the urges came.
Best lie down. Grunt and push.
Nothing happened. Then they came again.
Felt inside me. Something stretched.
Fluids gushed. Wet back end.
Something pulled. Something stuck.
Need to push. Need to push. No way out.
Real pain now. Bleated loud. Kept pushing,
Then it’s free. Emptiness at last inside.
She’s there beside me.
Slime covered. Licked this off.
She’s up in minutes. And suckling.
Milk let down. Success. Alive.
All over for another year.
No, how did you feel?
Bitsy was a day over. Her green raddled rump. The diary notes.
But not like Falcon. She was preparing, all morning.
Picked her spot beneath the Oak.
Circled. Laid down, got up. Laid down again.
But no straining. No ground pawing. That’s strange?
Then she climbed the hill. Bleated and bleated.
Just couldn’t settle. What’s going on?
We got her in. She’s twitchy, hyper. I’m worried.
We filled the huge syringe with molasses-brown tonic.
Grabber her. Forced the sweet sticky fluid
Down over her thick, black leathery tongue.
Nozzle slipped through the gap behind the lower incisors.
Good job so few teeth in a sheep’s mouth.
But still she chomped, resisted, struggled.
We waited. Checked. She calmed and settled.
But still nothing happened.
I fret. And read. And worried some more. Maybe Ringwomb?
The cervix doesn’t open. The lamb can’t engage. Delivery impossible.
Maybe need to call a vet. A proper one.
Tomorrow nothing’s still happened. The day was foul.
Pissing down and muddy pools along the green lane.
The stream nearly overflowing. Despondency in the air.
Then just after lunch Bitsy began to strain.
On her side, legs off the ground. But nothing happened.
No lamb. No fluid. The pressure mounted. Decisions made.
Simple things are readied. Waterproofs, Bucket.
Frothy Lux strewn soapy water. Warm.
Bitsy’s on her feet. Easy for Fiona to hold.
Bent double beneath the low tin roof.
I’m on my knees.
I did my best, it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.
No limbs. No head. Just soft tissued folds.
Then through a small, finger tipped, opening. Something firm.
A head maybe? I felt and thought.
But no traction, so I gently spread my fingers,
Stretched that narrow, flimsy walled entrance.
An opening? Or a blocked tomb, not womb?
Gradually my fingers moved further in.
But still blurred forms. No hard outlines.
Then stretched some more. And probed. Wondered.
Suddenly a rent. Thick slimy warm yellow fluid rushed
Down and out over my hand. Now I discerned a tiny hoof.
Then another. The outline of a skull.
But all together. Legs must come first, or the lamb won’t fit.
So gently, each tiny, slippery little hoof is gripped. Pulled forward,
The leg stretched out. The black horn covered digits peek out now.
First one, then the other. Then the nostrils reached air.
But this head is big. Couldn’t grip it. No traction.
Bitsy strains. I pull.
But only the muzzle appeared.
Then sank back again, beneath closing vulval waves.
The tiny black tongue seemed still. No suckling on my finger.
I tried again. For minutes. No progress.
Desperately I pushed my finger tip as far as I could reach.
Behind the rigid skull’s rigid rim. Forced tight against the taut vaginal wall.
Would these soft warm tissues tear?
They held. My finger levered forwards.
My other hand pulled on the taut legs as Bitsy pushed.
Would these young limbs take these brutal strains?
Bitsy bawled and bawled.
Suddenly, the purple pink mouth is breached.
The head emerged. The Lamb slithered
Out in a curving slimy rush and fell
Onto the bed of hay. Delight. Relief.
There’s movement. And spluttering gasps.
Bitsy turned round and was a sheep no more.
A woolly pig stood there. Head bent down. Bleats forgotten.
Deep grunts took over as her tongue worked.
Then reptilian as her tongue worked faster.
Licked the wet and ginger white birthed form at her feet.
Nostrils cleared of sticky fluid. A quick rub with dry hay.
A spray of Iodine on the long fleshy blue grey dangling severed life link.
A quick check on sex.
Welcome to the world. Better than an egg.
Or bunny on Easter Monday.
A new life.