Monday, 21 December 2015

Look to the East

We’ve done it! We’ve hit the winter solstice, the shortest, darkest day of the year and we are on the way through and out the other side!  I can now look, as I always do, to the Eastern horizon and know that the light will be dawning that bit sooner each and every day that passes.  I do wonder how many people feel this primeval urge to measure our days by the darkening hours up until the solstice and then by the longing for warmth and light that comes as we inch our way closer and closer to spring.  I suppose being that I work outdoors I feel it so much more, I record the passing of the year in every fallen leaf, every budding bloom, by the presence of the winter constellations in the night sky such as Orion the Hunter, by the harvest, by the smell of blossom, by the temperature of the wind, by the jerky fluttery flight of newly fledged, messily feathered young birds, by the gathering of swallows and swifts on phone lines and by their sudden, aching absence.

But this way of reading the natural rhythms of the earth and the countryside around us must be hidden deep within everyone, a prehistoric sense that has in many people been dimmed and overshadowed by our evolution into the modern world and its technology which can often blind us to what is all around.  So if you make only one resolution for the New Year make it this one – get yourself out and about every now and then and witness the awakening of the natural world as we head through the solstice and the darkness, on our way out to the light.

Meanwhile across our countryside properties we find ourselves flying through the winter works season at as fast a pace as ever.  The Marsh inlet works that I spoke about in my last post have taken well – I went there last week to see how it was faring and to my delight and despite the endless display of footprints that show that people are still not allowing it to rest and settle but are marching all over it, there was actually a few tiny signs of new growth emerging from the peaty mass of mud and root matter that was poured in.  Undoubtedly due to the ongoing warmth of the weather, things are still trying to grow and this is a good sign for this area when the proper growing season comes – if it can start shooting in December, it should have no problem properly growing and binding together come spring and summer, which will help firm up the whole inlet area.
The ford area, grass growing back bit by bit...

Our sheep flock have been taken out of their Kingdom and brought back to Mottisfont for the festive period, where they will be easier to keep a check on each day by the staff on rota.  This was a job that was easier said than done as it entailed dedicated training with the nut bucket by myself and the sheep lookers to lure all 25 into the corral each day.  By the time the allotted day came around they were all flocking in to the corral no problem and I had all 25 penned up inside awaiting their taxi within minutes of arriving. So far, so good.  Whilst we were waiting, a plump little Robin took it upon himself to hop around the corral tweeting at the sheep, probably wondering why they were all on his patch?  

'Oi you lot! State your business here!'

Keeping a beady eye on the proceedings...

Gareth Jenkins, one of our tenant farmers at Mottisfont arrived on the slope with his large livestock trailer and tractor and backed it into position by the corral.  We set up side hurdles to prevent escape, opened the corral gate and…..nothing. Not one animal moved and tumbleweed drifted by.  Hmmm.  I had thought getting them in the corral would be the hard bit, had somehow envisaged that they would from there flow smoothly into the trailer like a woolly stream….as usual I was wrong.  A bucket of nuts did little to lure them into the trailer and I realised that apart from the odd sick one who has come back to Mottisfont for TLC, the flock have not left Stockbridge in the two years they have been here and so they had no idea what the trailer held in store for them. Finally, with my promises of lush Mottisfont grass and both Gareth and I shooing and pushing their fat behinds, we got them all squidged into the trailer looking very out of place and befuddled, with a lot of loud complaining going on.

Walter and i having a chat about what was about to happen.  It did nothing to reassure them.

Back at Mottisfont I had a pen set up in their holiday field and when Gareth arrived with them we opened the trailer into the pen – I stood back expecting bodies to fly out like jumping beans but the first two that ran out stopped dead and threw their heads down and started gobbling the grass straight away – much to the annoyance of the rest of the flock who backed up behind them, unable to get out and making lots of sheep noises that I interpreted as ‘Oi! Get out the way! Move along!’   I then watched in amusement as the tide of fat sheep finally broke though the barrier of the first two animals and they all poured out in a rather undignified manner, into the pen.

Holding pen and vaccination pen set up and ready to go

For the next few hours Ryan, Alan our volunteer and I went through the laborious process of the annual vaccination and worming of the flock in order to keep them in good health – not that they are ever grateful!  Each sheep had to be manhandled into the handling pen and held still by one or two people whilst I injected the vaccination into their skin, dosed them with wormer and gave them once over health check.  Given that they weigh in at around 70kg, and did not enjoy being stuck with a needle, we were all rather stiff and achy by the time we nearly finished.  Each sheep got sprayed with a purple mark to show that it had been treated and I got a bit bored of doing tick marks and started being more creative.  Walter the lone male got a crown (King of the Flock), one got a festive holly leaf, another a sail boat and so on as the ideas took us.  I also consider it a security measure as no one is going to try sheep rustling animals with such individual markings as these!   
Showing off their tattoo's - Walter and his Crown

Just as we had almost finished, one of the last two sheep in the pen decided that she was not having any of it and after giving us a cool look, turned and leapt over the hurdles to freedom.  Arrrgh!  Resisting the urge to throttle them all, I went for the nut bucket and threw some around the field, luring our escapee close enough for me to then leap on.  In the ensuing tussle of being dragged around by a fat sheep that wanted to travel I got a smash to the nose and though I managed to keep hold of her, by the time Ryan and Alan were able to run and grab her off me I had a healthy stream of blood flowing from my nostrils – just another day working with the sheep!  Still whilst I mopped up the guys got her vaccinated and wormed and released and finally, the whole flock were done for another year.  We cleared the pen away and left them all to enjoy the new lush grass in their holiday field while we went for a well-deserved cup of tea and a bag of frozen peas.

In keeping with the festive season, Mottisfont village is usually the home of a nativity scene, previously set up in the garden of resident Betty Pragnell.  Since Betty passed away earlier this year, the church wanted to recreate the nativity in the middle of the village where people would drive by and see it and so they enlisted our help in locating and creating it.  The Woodyard orchard was chosen as it is roadside along the main village road and so will get a good audience passing through.  Lily, one of our Visitor Experience team, and her craft group volunteers set about creating the figurines and Ryan and myself were put to work building the stable.  At first, we set our sights a bit too small when we started building a frame to fit the original figures.  Then when we were shown the size of the New Improved figures we realised we were going to have to scale up a bit!  And so over the course of a weekend and half the week Ryan and I rummaged through the wood yard creating the main frame of the stable – Ryan was entirely behind the design and all the fancy joints, all I did was hit nails where he told me and saw wood where it was marked!  Roofing felt was obtained and over the course of a bright frosty day we slowly erected the stable in the orchard, piece by piece. 
From woodyard... orchard...

to stable...

...Completed nativity with the Thursday volunteers - the Not So Wise Men! (Joking guys...)

The roof was felted, the beams were tapped into place and the sides were staked to the ground to avoid the wind blowing it over – although the whole construction was heavy enough that it would have taken a hurricane to lift it.  I reckon if we had put a ‘To Let’ sign up, it may have got some offers!
We spread some hay down on the floor of the stable and the figurines were brought up from the Abbey, complete with Mary, Joseph, Shepherd (and sheep), Three Wise Men and the baby Jesus, and the stage was set.  The later addition of lights around the bushes and a lit up star in the nearby apple tree made the picture complete and when the village held a carol service there one moonlit evening, it made a very pretty picture – Betty’s family were thrilled with the nativity that was created in her memory and I am certain Betty herself would have been pretty chuffed with it too.  I was tempted to put one of our live sheep in as a touch of realism but I think it would have ended in disaster!

Silent Night

So here we stand, once again, at the Gates of the Year, ready to step forward into the unknown that lies ahead.  2015 has given us many things as a working team.  We have had illness and loss, glorious successes and dedicated people, new projects that will improve our habitats and ongoing ones that are bearing fruit.  We have had the pleasure of watching our sites blossom and thrive with the seasons and the inevitable yearning as we see them decline into winter slumber, appearing barren on the surface but we know, oh how we know the glory of life that lies beneath, awaiting its time.

I find this work and indeed life in general, is like riding a rushing torrent of rapids, being relentlessly pushed on through peaks and troughs and only through hard work and forward momentum do you make it out of the lower troughs and onto the top of those shining peaks while the flow thunders around you.  We have all had our peaks and troughs in 2015 – now we look to 2016 and a new set of rapids – so paddle hard, look to the sun and enjoy your ride, wherever it may take you.

Merry Christmas!

The Team

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