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

Country Life Every Week - - From The Fields - Il­lus­tra­tions by Philip Ban­nis­ter

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

John Lewis-stem­pel

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