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Spring on the Hill
a seasonal roundup of going ons on the farm
A pair of ducks—maybe teal, I’m not sure—small and dark against the evening sky, caught my eye, flapping over the holly cliff with necks outstretched before circling in to land on the upper flax pond. That was a few weeks ago, I haven’t seen them again since, but there are tracks through the pond weeds and Husband assures me teal are hard to spot, coming in only to nest at night. Besides, I haven’t spent much time around the flax ponds lately; I am needed on the farmyard. Spring is my busiest time.
I am up throughout the night on lambing watch and from dusk til dawn snipe beat their drum feathers and dance courtship rituals overhead. Throughout the day, pheasants out shout them. Our wet, open hill land is good for water- and ground-nesting birds. On one of our earliest forays here, before the land was ours, we were thrilled to find a hatched-out, blue-green, duck eggshell by the lower flax pond (but we didn’t know then that they were man-made flax ponds, they were just “bog pools”).
Another pair of ducks, mallards for sure this time, beat their way upwind, over the hill.
Our farm ducks are probably the happiest farm ducks in all the land. They spend their days foraging through the heather and splashing in the drains. Every duck lays an egg every day; robust eggs with deep orange yolks imbued with the flavour of the hill.
Jays are nesting in the spruce forestry above us and they screech and scrap as they fly back and forth to the little wooded creek down at the lower end of our land, gathering nesting materials and acorns that they drop across the heath. Baby oaks will spring up in May from where they land; lucky ones will land in crevices or on ledges where browsing sapling munchers can’t find them, and root into the rock. Thus, a forest is born. I will protect or transplant to safety the ones I find before the sheep or goats do—we want more trees on the land, for the many benefits they will bring to our farm, its soils and ecosystem, but planted considerately. The forest left unchecked would succeed these open grasslands and heaths that farmers and our livestock have helped form and maintain over thousands of years of farming. Sure, we could remove our livestock and let the land reforest and the land would flourish in a renewed flush of lushness. But then, where would the hares race? Where would the hen harriers hunt? There is a long established balance and richness of life here, on these open hills, and we and our sheep are part of it.
In the budding hazel hedge that bounds our roadside, a very loud and insistent cock chaffinch chose the fencepost right outside our bedside window to perch upon to declare his availability to any passing hens, with applaudable if annoying persistence. He has shut up in the last while. I guess he persuaded one to stay. The hazel hedge is thick and undisturbed and just about to burst into leaf—perfect for a broody chaffinch.
I love spring, the awakening, the freshness, the thrill of every new green shoot and bud unfurling. The greening of the hill. The relief. The letting go of the tension that winter’s cold and the hauling of hay and buckets of beet set into my shoulders as the sun warms and the sheep find their own forage and everything relaxes. That said, I am braced for a difficult lambing season in hard conditions—our first here on the hill. We have spent the last couple of years culling and replacing the flock with the hardiest types to thrive in the sparse conditions in our inclement weather: Mayo-Connemara blackface and Shetland sheep. This spring will be the test of them.
The seasons are profound on the hill. They roll in dramatically, giving the landscape a complete overhaul, and change it so vastly and so stunningly that every day is a fresh painting that begs to be etched into memory, so that you can easily lose a morning just watching the light shift and the mist rise and roll across the hills… And they test you to your limits of physical capacity.
When I started writing this two weeks ago, I sat by the woodstove wrapped in layers against a bitter draught as winter hurled one last (I prayed) angry blast of icy winds and a freezing mix of hail, sleet and snow in horizontal shards across the hill. A tough morning, a bad turn in the weather, and on the brink of lambing, the lambing ewes having had to come into the good shed, the goats had already been turned out to their spring forage and summer shelter, which really is just a summer shelter and not built to house them through winter storms, we hauled down extra hay and stuffed their draughts with straw to keep them warm. We had one very special early lamb on the ground and another imminent, the rest of the flock kicking off soon and a couple of animals were down with pneumonia—the curse of sheep in heavy rain and wildly swinging temperatures (and not just us, Husband said the vets were jammed, and neighbouring farms already in the throes of lambing outdoors on greener fields than ours were losing lambs, some a month old and hardened). I prayed for the weather to break. No, I begged. I yelled into the wind and it hurled my words back at me and retaliated with another face-stinging blast of icy bullets from doomy black clouds.
And then the cloud broke.
And a shimmer of light came through and I cried with relief and gratitude.
Nothing lost. Not this time. And spring has sprung, at last.
The swallows have arrived. We don’t have any buildings for them to nest in but they come from neighbouring homesteads to hunt over the heath, racing low across our wetlands, whipping up clouds of bugs. And the cuckoo, three weeks late, according to a neighbour who keeps records of these things. Last summer, the dog and I stumbled upon a cuckoo fledgeling in the heather, near the holly cliff—the first time I have ever seen one, so yes, I can confirm, cuckoos do exist (when I shared the photo on Instagram a number of people were really surprised to find that out)
Buff-tailed bumblebees buzz over the greening heather and the heavily grazed and bare areas where pretty pink lousewort blooms. On the wetter, rockier ground along paths and stream banks, the bright green and sticky, carnivorous star rosettes of large flowered butterwort unfurl to catch the new season’s hatch of midges. No sign of the marsh orchids, yet, but the devil’s bit scabious looks set for a good year, the wet meadows refreshed after the last six months of rain.
I am interested in how our activity here impacts the land, seeing the hill greening earlier each spring and the richness and diversity spread through pastures previously rank with a thick thatch of purple moor grass, the grasslands rejuvenated by the impact of our sheep and goats munching, trampling and manuring as they go.
Not every change has been positive: my goats have done severe damage to the hollies. Who knew goats really, really love holly!? I found out a bit late, and despite my best attempts to protect the trees as soon as I realised they were being nibbled so hard, the damage is now showing. In hindsight, I should have guessed holly might be such a delectable treat to a browsing ruminant by the number of dead trees standing, already killed by deer (presumably) before we came here.
There is a strong population of sika deer in these hills. We see them often, they cross our land leaving heavily trodden tracks and they are generally regarded as a nuisance by the locals. It’s worth pointing out that sika are not native, introduced in the mid 1800s, and are quite invasive, causing damage to local wild flora and crops and interbreeding with our red deer which are considered native (although red deer were actually *re-introduced by Neolithic farmers, a few thousand years ago, having been extinct in Ireland for a few millennia). Without any large wild predators to keep them in check, it’s vital that deer numbers are controlled. To hunt deer in Ireland one must complete a training course and get a special licence; I am encouraging Husband to apply so he can compliment our freezers full of heather raised sheep with wild venison from this land that gives so abundantly from the apparent bleakness of its rock hewn hills.
A buzzard glides overhead. A kestrel hovers above the young spruce plantation below us…and dives. A sparrowhawk swoops low over the heather, worries the pipits, decides they’re not worth it and heads on up over the hill, and the pipits settle and regroup. Just another day on the hill. Walking the dogs back over the hill from my check on the goats this morning, another (or perhaps the same) pair of mallards startled from the lower flax pond and took off eastward, the drake gleaming green in the rising sunlight. Every day here, it seems, I find something to marvel, a new swell of awe for the life teeming on this bare, brown hill.
As for my goats, now I’m onto their holly munchin’ ways, and now that I’m here on the farm full time, I can better manage them using temporary, solar powered, electric fencing to target their browsing impact on the gorse and rough areas that I want to clear for either woodland planting or pasture. After all, as they say, “it’s not the cow, it’s the how” (I can’t think of anything fitting that rhymes with “goat”). I’ll write more on that as the season progresses and I get a system established.
For now, my focus is on my lambing ewes and newborns. Just this morning, before sending this out, I have set up the solar fence and let the first few new mothers onto their first strip of a new pasture—a momentous day in the making of our farm.
My next post will be in a fortnight, all going well, with all the lamb spam! See you then.
*Edited for accuracy.