Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Wanted: a minister for mud

I was amused to read this week that there are no fewer than 30 government ministers entitled to attend Cabinet meetings – but that not one of them is responsible for mud.  

Because mud is currently the issue which dominates my every waking moment, I consider this to be a serious oversight. It’s not that I don’t care about the economy, war, pestilence or disease, it’s just that mud is pretty much the only thing which is front-and-centre of my mind at the moment. 
The country lanes in and around St Mabyn are full of it.

And my livestock responsibilities mean that most days, I have to venture out into the field at least twice – once in the morning and once in the evening. Every day I sink a little further into what was once a meadow of green grass. The physical effort required to walk 100 yards leaves me drained of energy and in poor temper. Each trip is like a major expedition, and I return to my back door exhausted, and absolutely plastered in huge quantities of the brown, damp, sticky stuff.

It is now nearly 60 years since Michael Flanders and Donald Swann wrote their Hippopotamus Song, extolling the virtues of “Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud,” and I can only conclude that they only rarely had to wade through the treacle like I do.

A newspaper report of the First World War included this memorable observation: “Hell is not fire. Hell is mud.” A regular refrain from the writings on that war describes mud as not only churned up earth, but a mixture of organic wastes, empty shells, iron scraps and rotting human flesh.

Agricultural animals in a field will do what comes naturally, and it can be hard to avoid even when you can see it. When animal waste is mixed invisibly into a brown muddy soup, a whole panoply of potentially dangerous bacteria and viruses are offered an unusually generous vector through which to invade other hosts.

Clostridium tetani, Legionella, Fowl cholera, Chlamydophila psittaci, Salmonella , Campylobacter, and even E-Coli, are just some of the pathogens which I now actively worry about as I scrub my hands before returning to the kitchen. I never used to bother much about overalls, boots and gloves. Now every venture into the field is like preparing for a full chemical and biological warfare exercise.

I suppose a time will come, eventually, when it stops raining. I find that I now care about the weather forecast with a passion I once scorned.

I remember how, as a very young journalist on the Cambridge Evening News, I reported on the 1976 drought and heatwave, when roads melted and some communities needed stand-pipes for water. I laughed until I cried at the news that the government was going to appoint a minister to make it rain.
Denis Howell had been the sports minister when England won the 1966 World Cup, so by the mid-1970s he presumably had some spare time on his hands. Three days after his appointment as minister for rain, it started raining.

So come on Downing Street. Shuffle that Cabinet. And give us a Minister for Mud.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016


User comments

I’m sure we’ve all heard the one about the small child, gazing in wonder at a new-born lamb, who turns to his father and asks “where do lambs come from, Daddy?” “Asda,” says his Dad.
It won’t be long now before St Mabyn echoes to the sounds of spring lambs frolicking in the fields. It’s serious sheep country around here, making a significant contribution to the 20 million-strong UK flock.
There are eight ewes in my top meadow right now, and a ram, and with a gestation period of about five months I reckon it’ll be May before there’s any lambing at my place. The sheep belong to a friend and graze about an acre of pasture which I would otherwise have to cut for hay.
Before we get to the lambing season, though, the ram has to play his part – and it’s much more scientific than you might think, although thankfully the technology is fairly straightforward.  The ram is fitted with a “raddle harness” – a bit like an inverted back-pack, tied with straps – which leaves a dye-mark on the back of the ewe, making it obvious if she has “had a cuddle” or not.
As the weeks go by, if the ewe is still clearly not pregnant, you can change the colour of the dye so as to tell which sheep are “with-lamb” and which are probably not. This is why you sometimes see sheep with different dye marks on their backs. A ewe with no dye-mark at all is probably not going to give you a lamb five months later.
This process is known as “tupping” and during this period the rams can be quite aggressive. Any similarities with what goes on at some of the rougher pubs in Bodmin on a Friday night are purely coincidental.
Round about April, I might expect to see some of the sheep behaving oddly: lying down when the rest of the flock is standing up, pawing at the ground and bleating for no obvious reason. This means that things are about to get busy.  Lambing can be a messy business, and opinions differ as to whether the sheep know best and should be left to just get on with it, or whether to call the vet. This is an economic judgement, usually determined by scale.
In my experience, the lambs have always been born before I get up in the morning, and just appear in the field, as if by magic. This is when the experienced shepherd (not me) pays extra close attention, making sure that the mother does not reject the lamb – in which case fostering by another ewe, or even bottle-feeding, might be necessary.
There are stories that foxes will predate on new-born lambs, too, although I’ve never seen any evidence of it. The sheep are penned behind an electric fence which also helps keep foxes out. In any case, about a fifth of all UK sheep die from cold, and or malnutrition (but not in St Mabyn, of course,) so any theoretical losses to Mr Fox need to be seen in that context.
During May, the young lambs really do frolic. They rush about, leap into the air, kick their legs, and run to their Mums. Great fun to watch. But best not to think about it at lunchtime on Sundays.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Chop chop

I recently ticked off something that’s been on my to-do list for 25 years, and installed a couple of wood-burning stoves. The house had two empty spaces (a little-used fireplace and a never-used 19th century clome oven) while outside I am lucky enough to have a patch of woodland, and scores of hedgerow trees, all of which needed attention from the tree surgeon.
So I now have a couple of fields full of lopped branches, which I am slowly turning into logs for the stoves. This is where my plan is starting to come unstuck.axeman
First of all, it is currently impossible to go into the fields without sinking knee-deep in mud. Secondly, I have yet to acquire some of the paraphernalia needed for a truly organised log-producing operation, such as a chainsaw, saw-bench and pneumatic log-splitter. This means that most days I work myself into a breathless sweat using a hand-held bow saw and an axe. And thirdly, the branches are really still too “green” to burn cleanly, and so I have to scrub soot from the glass front-window of the stoves to properly enjoy the fruits of my labour.
I could add the expected moan about having to clean out the ash every day, and lay a base of newspaper and kindling, and then poke and puff at the thing for 15 minutes before I can be confident that all is working as it should.  I mention all of this because I it reminds me of a much-loved aunt whose life, generations ago, was dominated by her solid-fuel cooker. The centrepiece of her kitchen was a 1940s Rayburn, which in the immediate post-war years was as trendy and modern as austerity Britain was allowed to be.
It not only heated her whole cottage, it also provided hot water to the kitchen tap. The cottage didn’t actually have a bathroom, but hot water from a tap was nevertheless a revolutionary development. Every mealtime was regulated by the temperature of the Rayburn. Electricity came from a Lister diesel generator – but only when it was really needed, for things like lighting and the wireless (there was no television.)
The importance of the Rayburn can therefore not be over-stated. It was, quite simply, never allowed to go out. My uncle and cousins seemed to spend every waking moment sawing and chopping logs, using much the same equipment as I do.
By the 1960s, the Rayburn was losing its appeal. The village now had electricity and the neighbours had an electric cooker. Auntie wanted an electric cooker, and the Rayburn went.
Chatting to the log-burning engineers who installed my stoves, I found that demand, in 2015, had never been stronger. Particularly, it would seem, among second-home owners who – allegedly – have little interest in actually lighting the things. Plenty of pine cones for decoration, but very little sawing and chopping, and no need for matches.
My stoves are very effective and do warm the house. For a whole host of reasons, I am now importing less oil from Saudi Arabia. I stare into the flames and think to myself: nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be.
PS Last week’s piece about the best bait to use in mouse-traps triggered a surprising response, so many thanks to readers who suggested a wide variety of foodstuffs. Particular thanks to Mr PK of Bodmin, who catches mice with no bait at all, simply by cunning deployment of his mousetrap in a particular place.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Uninvited

field mouse
It’s that time of year when my routine now has to include a daily check of the mouse trap. Most days in January, the “Little Nipper” – now nearly 30 years old – has extinguished the once-bright eyes of yet another mouse. Some are house mice, but most at the moment are field mice.
I’m not sure why these creatures want to move indoors and live with me. There’s no ready supply of food, and it’s not as if the temperature outdoors is so cold that the mice are going to be noticeably more comfortable inside. But the mice droppings are clearly unhygienic, and so their donors have to go.
I mention this because, as a bit of a traditionalist, I still use a small square of cheddar to bait my trap. But the other day I found myself caught up in an oddly fierce debate over whether this was really sensible.
Cheese, I accept, is not something that mice would eat naturally in the wild. Fortunately the government is never far away with useful advice. A Rural Development Service Technical Advice Note tells me that: “Cheese is not necessarily an ideal bait. Consider using foodstuffs on which the mice are already feeding. Examples of suitable baits include biscuit, porridge oats, other cereals and chocolate.”
The thought of any wild animal sitting down to a natural meal of biscuit, porridge or chocolate is something that hadn’t occurred to me before, so if the cheese starts to fail it’s good to know that I now have other options. A friend tells me that when it comes to catching mice, you can’t beat peanut butter for bait. Unless you use a malteser.
I once believed that pet cats would keep mice out of the house. In fact, the reverse was true, as the cats would bring all manner of prey indoors, spread a paste of feather and fur all over the place, and then sprinkle the scene liberally with vomit.
They do say that if you ever build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. So spare a thought for manufacturers of “sticky traps” whose business plan consists of glue-coated card or plastic which attaches itself, permanently, to any mouse daft enough to walk onto it.
There is now an animal-rights campaign to ban such traps, because apparently some mice bite their own limbs off in their efforts to escape. The captured mouse cannot easily be separated from the trap, so if it’s still alive you have to kill it, or wait for it to starve to death.
Who would have thought it could all be so controversial? Your suggestions would be most welcome. Meanwhile I am content to stick with my wire-and-wood spring-loaded contraption, unchanged since 1897.