Debbie Kingsley takes us through the year on her Devon farm
Back to the beginning
October means the arrival of autumn and, in many ways, the beginning of the farming year. Come October 15, the rams go in with the ewes – and it’s tupping time. Our four flocks are separated out, given a final once over, with any foot issues given particular attention, and the tups are put in with their own breed of ewes, and shepherded into their selected fields. Wherever possible, we aim to keep each flock at least one field distance from each other to avoid ram on ram head banging sessions through the gates. We take special care over feet because, for the next five months, during their pregnancy, we aim to handle the ewes as little as possible, minimising stress. We’re a bit hit and miss about raddling the rams, but do try and smear great oily gobs of colour onto their briskets at the end of the month to see how many ewes are being served a second time.
There’s something particularly satisfying about seeing a flock of one specific breed grazing in a field. It gives me a chance to take stock of how that breed group is doing, whether the sheep are up to scratch, need some new blood in future years to lift the quality, or are simply pleasing to the eye. This year, the shearlings (ewes in their second year) of all the breeds have been something of a hit, and now they are going to the ram for the first time.
To the abattoir
While we are enabling new life, it’s also time for this year’s lambs to go to the abattoir. They go in several batches, two to three weeks apart, to keep a flow of lamb boxes for our meat box customers. Several people want more than one lamb box, but don’t have room in their freezers to take it all at once, so this drip feed approach works for us, the butchers and our customers. A couple of steers are also ready to go for beef boxes, so the October diary is rather full of trips dropping off animals and picking up meat boxes. If ever my hard-earned project management skills were needed, it’s now.
The day before the tups go in it’s our annual Apples and Cider Day, the course where everyone gets very wet and rather sticky. We pick and wash apples in barrels, mill and press the pulp, producing and drinking jugfuls of wonderful juice. We discuss and taste cider and cider vinegar, chutneys and jams and hope people are inspired to create or restore their own orchards. Handling the vinegar mother always causes a stir. Few people are familiar with this extraordinary natural cellulose substance that looks and feels like a demon from the deep seas and converts alcohol to vinegar; a benign substance if vinegar is your goal, a veritable menace if not. Everyone goes home with juice and a jam jar of mother, and a bellyfull of home grown food and a Devon cream tea.
This month I drive across Devon to Bicton College, where lucky students go to study all things countryside and agricultural, for one of my regular sessions for the charity HighGround. I get to talk about the ins and outs of smallholding with veterans and those transitioning from the military into the land based sector; ex-military make excellent smallholders, in my experience.
Come October 15, and the rams go in with the ewes
Debbie’s husband Andrew pressing apples
Ready for the Apples and Cider Day