Coming in from the cold With his trusty labrador Bluebell at his side, John Lewis-stempel braves a chilly November evening aboard his cabless Ferguson tractor to feed his herd of pigs
DUSK is already filling the valley. It’s that uncertain half hour in which day and night overlap as in a Venn diagram. The owl-light.
A half moon is buttoned to the sky and from some distant fire comes wood smoke, which is the scent of the countryside in winter. And God, is it freezing! I’m hunched, crone-like, over the tractor steering wheel, as I drive down to the pig field. The Ferguson is cabless, but happened to be handy in the rush. Hitched on the back is the transport box, with a sack of sow breeder nuts and a labrador trying to keep her balance. The metal of the box is ice-tacky, too cold to sit on.
The kestrel is quartering the maize stubble on her last hunt of the day. She slips sideways, then hovers, anchored by an invisible chain. The migrant birds bring change, but the farm kestrel is an emblem of eternality, a reminder of the permanence of things. More, her spread wings cast a spell of benediction on the land; she only hunts where there is life to kill.
At the pig field, I leave the tractor engine running, because, on a winter evening like this, when the Ice Age has returned in micro, it’s our heartbeat. Pavlov had a bell to summon his dogs; I have a half brick to call our pigs to dinner. I rap the brick-bit against a steel trough. Ding, ding tings out over the glass land.
The pigs are off in Three Acre Wood, rootling through the beech mast, the acorns and the crab-apple windfalls. Pannage, the practice of releasing pigs in woodland, was anciently important. Indeed, according to the Herefordshire Domesday not much else mattered locally. ‘There was woodland there for 160 pigs, if it had borne mast,’ runs the entry for Pembridge. Pannage is still observed in the New Forest and by those of us who, from either parsimony or moral conviction, feel that trees and swine belong together.
The ‘girls’ are safe enough out in the wood, but, akin to an anxious father, I like to make sure they’re back in their home field at night. There’s no answer from the pigs. Damn, they must be at the top end of the wood. This time, I bash the trough with the brick. Dong, dong bells out; the vandal sound echoes around the hard hills. From the recess of the wood, from the recess of time, there’s a pig’s answering squeal.
Down come the pigs, shadow shapes weaving in and out of the pillars of the