We had taken on an immaculately manicured field. It had stripes in the grass where it had been meticulously mowed. The previous occupants had kindly left the ride-on lawnmower for us. In our urban garden we’d managed a small patch of grass with no quirks or growth spurts. It wasn’t long before we realized that a field grows much more enthusiastically than a small urban garden.
Having small children and one parent working away from home all week does not easily lend itself to mowing a couple of acres every couple of weeks. Of course, the weekends are an ideal time to do important jobs outside. Unless, of course, its blowing a sideways hooley. We learned that if we planned to mow at the weekend because it hadn’t rained for a few days, on the Friday night it would rain. Guaranteed. In this corner of the world it doesn’t have to be a whole night of torrential rain to scupper the best laid plans. We have a particular kind of mizzle that can be so gentle as to feel like mist but a whole night of it will turn the ground into a treacherous quagmire. The ground would be too soft, the grass too wet to tackle with what we later learned was a ride-on mower suitable for a nice even bowling green. Not a wild, bumpy field.
Over a remarkably short time our field threw off the confines of a striped lawn and returned to its native state of wilderness. Each time a weekend coincided with the sun shining long enough to dry the grass, we would attempt to mow it, often breaking the mower in the process as it just couldn’t cope. When the local mower repairman offered us a part-exchange for a different mower we jumped at the chance to upgrade and he made a tidy profit from the naïve newcomers. The mower had cutting deck belts that, we discovered, could only be ordered in from the USA at vast expense. With the sea-salty air, critical parts of the mower quickly rusted, shredding the belts and killing off any chance of finishing the job.
This lawnmowing was clearly too expensive to continue. How could we make ourgrassy land work for us? I asked my farmer-neighbour up the lane. “Geese” he said. “You don’t want sheep, far too much trouble. Get some geese, they’ll keep the grass down”.
A few weeks later we returned from the local poultry market with four fluffy goslings in a box and a book on how to rear geese. They grew in an eyeblink and before we knew it they were ready to let loose on the grass. We salvaged an old shed from the elderly cockneys up the lane who were upgrading their weight-training shed and unsettlingly, rather resembled the bulldogs on their gateposts.
The geese did indeed keep down the grass. We couldn’t let them roam freely all over the field as one in particular was very aggressive and would attack the children. He was unaffectionately known as ‘Wonky” and lived up to his name in looks and in his grumpy nature. We contained them in a good-sized fenced area and drew straws to run the gauntlet to feed them and shut them in. Wonky was quite dangerous in the spring but didn’t usually attack me. Apparently a metal bin lid can be handy in these circumstances but of course the day he went for me I didn’t have one, so I roared at him and almost flew over the fence in my escape. We ate Wonky that Christmas. The other three were sold to and eaten by some new friends we’d made.
We battled on with the mower until it properly gave up on us. Another farmer-neighbour came to mow with his Lamborghini tractor. He whizzed round the field in about half an hour, cutting the grass in long lengths and transforming the view.
He had some lambs that needed a field to graze so within a week we had new residents. It was very exciting until we discovered the pattern of events. One day, three big lambs would go off and explore. They would disappear for hours from our field, unnoticed. After tea when the escape was discovered, I would wrap the baby onto me and take all three children to play ‘hunt the sheep’ before bed. We trudged through ditches, rivers, thickly brambled woods and muddy cow fields, tracking the escapees down. Once located, we would herd them back to our field just before dusk fell. The following morning all 14 would be present. Two hours later, the whole flock vanished. We’d wait a bit, and then by teatime when they hadn’t come home, I would wrap the baby onto me again and off we would all go to hunt the sheep and bring them home. The third day would always be quiet: they would stay put and sometimes if we were lucky a fourth day too. But then the three musketeers would escape, we’d bring them back and the following day they would all go. We got to know our immediate area very well in those weeks. The final straw was when they hit the jackpot and ended up in the neighbour’s landscaped field that had such lush grass there was no way on earth they were leaving. They sat down and just looked at me.
I admitted defeat and rang the farmer who brought his dog to shift them back through our field and into the trailer.
Having sheep on the land, albeit briefly, had got us thinking. That winter we fenced off part of the field creating a large, contained space. The following spring we borrowed some old Ewes from a lady who lived nearby. Right through the summer these four old girls kept the grass down, though they were tricky to catch when their feet needed attention. Given their age, the winter was hard for them, the frost making their feet ache more. Being a mishmash of breeds they were large sheep and despite learning some tricks, I found them hard to manage. After 18 months they went home and shortly after my very own little flock arrived on the land. I had researched breeds for good wool suitable for spinners and crafters, who could produce good lamb to eat and sell, who would be a size I could handle. Three Romney shearling ewes (two years old) together with a Romney ram lamb were my very first shepherding investment.
Not long after their arrival, I was standing at the gate watching them with my favourite regular delivery man (who is also a farmer). “Have you seen him working yet?” he asked of my little ram lamb. “No” I said, “I’m not sure he can reach as he’s still only a lamb. His legs are too short”.
“Oh he’ll find a way” said my favourite regular delivery man, “he’ll find a way” and he smiled knowingly.
He was right.