On the Eighth Day of Christmas …

On the eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me –

Eight maids a-milking …

I’m so sorry. Those milkmaids must have stayed up to see the New Year in. I’m sure they’ll be along in a minute The cows are here, and I’ll make sure those young women get a-milking the second they appear. Meanwhile … Happy New Year!

Monday portrait of a young cow

This shot was taken in the Corrèze, a rural part of France where the cow is – er – queen. The header photos shows that within living memory, oxen were still used as tractors. This area still has the feel of somewhere that time has forgotten. Happy souvenirs of a wonderful holiday of walking in gentle countryside with the ancient town of Corrèze as our backdrop.

I dedicate this post to Becky, for her Walking Squares, and to Brian of Bushboy’s World, who’s rather fond of cows.

An appetising walk?

Out for a walk yesterday, I fell to thinking about food – well, it wasn’t far off lunchtime. It was this field of beets – mangelwurzels perhaps – that did it: soon to be winter fodder for sheep.

Then I saw hawthorn berries. We can use them in jellies and fruit wines, but I find them too bitter. Not so the birds.

Through the meadow, edged by teasels: the goldfinch would have had their fill by now.

The heron was on his usual rock on the river: waiting patiently for fish.

The last meal I saw had been eaten hours before: nature red in tooth and claw.

Hmm. Time to head home for lunch I think. No creatures were harmed in the preparation of our meal.

For Becky’s Walking Squares.

Attention! Sheep Dogs at Work!

I promised you an account of a Sheep Dog Demonstration after our visit to Masham Sheep Fair. Maybe you’ve amused yourselves wondering which sheep would get hustled and herded into pens as each dog did her work. Big and super-woolly? Lean and super-curly? Well, neither …

The field behind the church was roped in such a way that we spectators gathered round the edges, so we could look at the arena, scattered with wooden gates and obstacles, traffic cones, a play-tunnel, and in the far corner, a sheep pen. We spotted two sheep dogs, panting eagerly beside their trailer.

Their trainer, a farmer from Cumbria, took centre stage and introduced her dogs, each of whom would perform in turn. But where were the sheep? Not here at all it turned out. The dogs would be herding … first geese …

… who went between gates, round obstacles, round again…and into the pen …

… then ducks ..

… round obstacles, over the bridge and wheee! Down the chute and into a paddling pool (I missed the photo opportunity there), in and out the traffic cones and into the pen …

.. and finally, ducklings …

The ducklings await their moment on stage.

Through the gates, round the field. Then … can you see the ducklings scuttling down the play tunnel? The sheepdog’s about to follow them. Then, no pen for them. Just back into that big grey hutch.

I love to watch sheep dogs at work. They are so eager to get the job done, and done well. And on the whole, the creatures they chivvy seem happy enough. They put up with it anyway. A happy half hour.

Monday portraits from Masham

Yesterday, we went to Masham. Here were gathered sheep: dozens of sheep; hundreds of sheep, from every corner of North Yorkshire and beyond. They were all to be put through their paces and judged on whatever esoteric characteristics sheep are judged on, hoping to be awarded rosettes – even cups – as evidence of their good breeding and upbringing. We went early, and talked to owners, many of whom were keen to save rarer breeds from dying out: dying out because their meat is too slow-growing, maybe too flavourful for the mass market. And, as we discover round here every year at shearing time, the wool they provide is no longer a passport to wealth, or at any rate a steady income, but quite simply a drain on the farmer’s budget as there are shearers to be paid. With some exceptions, only traditional spinners, weavers and knitters seek out traditional wool.

Now then, hands up if you thought a sheep was just a sheep.

Or that wool was – quite simply – wool.

Here’s judging taking place ..

And they start ’em young here. There were classes for Young Handlers, and even an Under Fives category …

Wool, anybody?

We had to go to the Sheep Dog Demonstration, of course. But that’s worth a post all on its own. To be continued …

Five Owls for Five Monday Portraits

It was the first Agricultural Show of the season yesterday. A great day out for the farming community, and for all the rest of us, who can admire cattle, calves, sheep, horses, shire horses, donkeys all being judged on who knows what esoteric criteria. Tractors, machinery, country crafts and produce … and in among all that, a Birds of Prey display. I picked some owls to showcase for you today, particularly this Northern Pygmy Owl. He’s barely the size of a blackbird.

The Indian Skops Owl is hardly any bigger:

But the other three are much the size you might expect, being pretty much Barn Owl size:

I’ll probably bring you all the fun of the Agricultural Fair another week. As crops are gathered in, and young animals grow less dependent on their mothers, the season starts in earnest.

Balkan postcards 7: Pastoral Prespa.

Today was a day of birdsong: of nightingales without end, of golden orioles and hoopoes. It was a day to watch bee-eaters, pelicans, grey herons, night herons flying over the lake. It was a day to watch sows idling away the morning under a shady tree, or goats commandeering the hillside. Or to see a wild tortoise lumbering across the path.

Birdsong in the woods