Cross over the dual carriageway of the A40 and take a side road down a mile of unsurfaced track and look carefully left for the sign to the farm.
No sign of the house for a while but nestled in there somewhere is the home of Sue Pritchard and family. Her parents live next door and she had her three grown children around when we arrived at Llananant Farm. Indeed our welcome was marked by the smiling faces of younger people, the day after Easter Monday.
For once our timing was right. Here we could witness and be part of the lambing season. Being with a woman farmer, working organically who also earned a living in the wider world felt like a good opportunity to me. Llananant farm has some way to go to providing the family’s needs but the aspiration is there within the context of our ever changing personal and global lives. Sue instantly enquired about our sojourn and took us on a farm tour. That first walk was to be the first of many. Over the following three weeks I was to breathe the air here and know that this was the first time I had actually seen the sort of acreage, with the right amount of woodland, springs, streams, southerly aspect, unimproved land, clay soil for building and silty and loamy good enough for growing, links to public transport, close to settlements that we were looking for. And whatever that untangible “feeling” is that this place feels good. We just didn’t have the need for the lovely farmhouse in the centre. Other than that – we are covetous.
52 acres or so with views over to Skirrid, Sugar Loaf and the Blorenge, 6 Dexter Cows (which I was a bit scared of), flock of 50+ mixed sheep: black and white Welsh Mountain, a few crosses and eight Jacobs. Three KuneKune pigs and two female meat goats, two ducks and chickens, a small kitchen garden, lovely orchard, and mixed acreage of unimproved grassland (very biodiverse) and improved grassland for pasture, two distinct pockets of woodland, water (a very wet site that flooded, two ponds and streams.)
Lambing was on Sue’s mind, a seasonal month of surrender and this year an especially worrying one. The weather in Monmouthshire was not that of Mid and N Wales where the news reports depicted huge snow drifts and reports of farmers losing livestock at disproportionate levels to the extent that farmers had been given special permission by the powers that be to bury their dead stock. Still, the poor summer and long winter had meant livestock were losing condition. We had heard of the difficulties of running out of hay and the difficulty and expense of buying in decent fodder repeated a few times. Sue was in touch with local farmers – her stories were of ewes who were rejecting their lambs or certainly the second twin, simply unable to feed them. Higher than usual still births or weaker off spring that weren’t surviving were common. We started to prepare ourselves for a depressing season. But on balance it wasn’t all bad!
Lambing – It started one morning in the field… quite simply… spotted incidentally by Rob 15 minutes after Sue had left for a meeting! Thank goodness for 16 year old Izzy- at least one of us knew what to do! As I remember it there were two dead lambs right off and one live one. The biggest concern was an old ewe who was sick and just sitting down. Izzy had medicine and I watched her work at finding enough flesh to inject supplement and medicine. .. it wasn’t easy the creature was all skin and bones. Eventually euthanized this ewe’s surviving lamb was hand reared in the kitchen, named Dave after the vet who intervened! The first of five lambs we tried to hand rear, when we left there were four needing bottle feeding!
Later that day six of us worked to get the flock down into the barn and then separate the pregnant ewes which due to the peculiarity of an especially difficult year, Sue had decided, would come in to lamb. Especially cleaned out with fresh straw and good hay the Ewes would stay here for the rest of our stay.
We watched listened and learned. Often it went right and it was very delightful, when it went wrong a ewe was confused by twins and in one case triplets and would only take one lamb or a dead lamb would be found and we had to try to work out from which ewe. Attempts to use fence hurdles to create an isolated space in the barn for the family sometimes worked but on one occasion didn’t. Death was common place and difficult. We were warned that self blame was common…if only I had tried this or that or maybe I should have or if I had got up earlier or, or, or. Of course for big farms and experienced people there is more reason than this but for me the response was still emotional and sad… I spoke to Sue’s father, from the Rhonda valley – gently he reminded me – “You know what they say… where there is live stock there is dead stock…”
But the healthy lambs grew and did what young off spring seems to do in any species … play, and wind it’s mother up! Within two weeks there were lambs running beyond the fence hurdles through spaces their mothers couldn’t get and into the yard together. There was literally a gang of lambs hurtling round in circles chasing itself, leaping over obstacles… to the sound of annoyed mothers baaing furiously and with absolutely no effect! And then other times I would be around and there would be peace; an afternoon nap or gentle sitting about…order and harmony prevailed. It was a joy.
Eating – In our third week we had dinner at Trealy Farm, the home of Sue’s friends James and Ruth and joined by their WWOOFers, a younger Australian couple whose first task as WWOOFers was to skin a sheep! We didn’t do our research before we went and simply hadn’t realised just how successful James’ charcuterie business was or that Ruth was running courses to reconnect people with what goes into meat production: http://www.meatcourse.co.uk/
We had taken a vegetarian dish but I requested a few pieces of hogget that was served off the bone on the side. Rob and I quietly sampled and gently experienced chewing and tasting and digesting meat for the first time in over twenty years. Both of us have been vegan for spells. It couldn’t have been at a better place! Ruth explained that the sheep, two year old (a hogget), had been killed the weekend before as a part of a course and hung in her property. She had butchered it. It couldn’t have been more local. It was a weird experience, particularly rare and quite strong, I can’t say I’m needing to do it on a regular basis but I’m glad I’m reviewing all this and feel positive that the rules I’ve lived by are getting a bit blurred round the edges. I’m finding myself reading more widely about the whole land, grain, feed, calories per acre business of meat production and wondering about the implications for ourselves on a very small acreage.
Wood – Rob was given a chainsaw. It’s bad enough assisting him with a fecking hand saw! Get prepared…I’m going to moan, donkey work dulls the mind and mine doesn’t need any more dulling! We need a donkey – period. Barrow loads, arm loads and shoulders full of brash, timber for firewood and timber for fence stakes and timber for hurdles and and and . Hours of work from one hazel stand or one overgrown hedge just processing wood. Never, ever will I take chucking a log onto a fire for granted.
Here’s the satisfying bit: from one stand we got loads of products. I wasn’t great at making faggots- but I did a few and I got stakes for sign posts.
Signs – One of our jobs was to improve signage for the farm walk. I managed to salvage palette wood and on rainy days sawed and sanded and made signs. It took a while but I was pleased with them in the end. The grand finale was to get them in on our very last day with French Marie who returned to WWOOF; a long established volunteer with Sue.
Puddling – The soil here is heavy clay so we gave it our best shot but it didn’t hold water. I’ve read since that in times gone by they would put cattle into puddle the clay, indicating that we just didn’t work it enough. Oh well, pond liner it will have to be and the ducks can paddle in something bigger than basins and buckets, Nice shape though Rob.
And so the weeks passed and we were comfortable and appreciated Sue and Izzy and Phil and Theo. Margaret Thatcher died and we switched off the radio and other than that I, as always, filtered out the external world and came just that little bit closer to understanding the place I’m aheading. Thanks Sue – we hope we will be back.