We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.
Written by Ellen Simon
April is the changeover from winter to summer. In the winter the animals depend on us for their food and comfort. Most of them, all the ones indoors, would be knee deep in muck if we didn’t clear it away for them and give them fresh bedding; they would be without food unless we gave it to them, and that depends on our having saved the grass from last summer. In summer, by contrast, the animals are all outdoors and don’t really need us. We see them daily but, if all is well, that is all we do: we look, we see that they are comfortable and that they seem happy and we leave them to themselves. April is the month by which the big change-around has happened. It is a relief to finally return to the summer pattern; we have by now become weary of feeding and bedding and it is a pleasure to see the animals enjoying the weather and the sweet spring grass. For the vegetables, there is an equivalent shift around now. Through the winter and well into spring we are dependant on last year’s plants and last year’s work and now we are setting out this year’s and just beginning to crop the earliest of them.
This month is dominated by lambing. It is as if we believe that is what April is for. With many farmers having their lambs indoors, April is now considered late for lambing. We choose it because we want the ewes to have plenty of good grass to grow the lambs and to make milk, and because we want comfortable weather to greet the lambs, born outdoors on clean grass. Working with the sheep frames every day, we see the ewes as it gets light and again as it gets dark. We see them frequently in between, too, just in case any need our help with birth or any fresh lamb needs help getting the vital colostrum or settling down with their mother. If she’s new to motherhood she might be too confused or dazed to clean up her damp newborn.
The rest of the day is used up doing many other things; writing the following for this article has made me realise how busy a month April is!
We get the cows and calves settled outside, watching them carefully and checking their udders: an over-full udder is not only bad for the cow, it is also an indication that the calf has not sucked as much as usual, which could be an indicator of problems, perhaps ill health or injury.
By now if the bull is not in good condition and ready to work, we have made a mistake. He needs to go in with the cows in early May to get our winter calves so he has been building towards it over winter on good grass with good hay and maybe a bit of hard feed. Now he would like to leave his winter companions, a couple of young steers, and join his ladies. We won’t let him just yet but are glad to see he is ready.
In the fields of winter arable crops, we watch the wheat and rye grow. In a couple of months we will work by hand to clear particular weeds in some of the fields but there is little we can do now to improve them. In other fields and the fallow parts of the gardens, we are building up fertility and soil organic matter; here we watch the green manures, aiming to incorporate them at the best stage in their growth pattern. In the arable fields, this is either by having the sheep graze them and letting the muck fall and do its work or by using the flail topper to break up and drop the vegetative growth and then letting the earthworms take the resulting mulch down into the soil. In the vegetable gardens, some will be hoed into the top layer of the soil and left for the worms to work.
We need to get any arable spring-sown crops into the ground. It is rare that our clay soil is ready for any cultivation or drilling in February or March; this year, the fields were all sodden from the extreme wet. Even if the tractor did not sink there would be damage to the soil structure from cultivating wet ground. Moving into April, we watch the showers scudding across the sea and wish for a couple of days without them so that the soil can become ready for the seed. Some seeds like soil to be warm as well as drier and these may benefit from later sowing. Once we have got seed in, we watch for germination: the big seedlings of peas are particularly luscious to pigeons and pheasants and we need to be vigilant and inventive over the time they are popping up.
We’d like to think that all the fencing is in good order ready for the grazing season but you can bet it will not be. I think that if you were to be able to walk at Cogden, you would see us along the lower ground this month; the fence above the reedbed needs mending and it has been far too wet to do it since September. We don’t want the cows and calves finding their way to the rich grass on the alluvial soil until we put them there.
We already have beds of salad and greens established in the autumn and growing well. We are careful to crop the leaves taking no more than the plants can handle: we need them strong and ready to go on cropping. We can take more from them if the soil is warm and if we have not had sharp, cold winds to slow them down. Now is the time when we need to organise carefully the propagation of lots of vegetable plants, moving trays of seeds and seedlings through a system of changing levels of warmth, light, humidity and protection from wind. We remember occasional years when, well into April, hail and cold winds drove the lambs across the field into an icy stream in spate. This means that though we’d like to, we do not put vegetables into all the poly-tunnels just yet so that we have shelter should we need it. However, we are ready to plant out the summer vegetables, particularly our pride, the tomatoes. They are important and now hundreds upon hundreds of them have been potted on and are waiting for the right moment and their space in the tunnel.
All the time we are doing these things, our minds are on the lambs as well as the immediate work, enjoying every new healthy lamb and watching each one grow and learn about life.