And The Beet Goes On

“I can’t remember such an extended period of wind and rain.” Roger utters as we study our very soggy garden beds.   We are standing in the wind and drizzle taking an inventory of the spring gardening projects.  We have a lot.

For such a mild winter nothing has grown.  Too much rain and a complete lack of sunny days have laid to waste much of our winter vegetable beds.  The remaining hopes — cabbages —were attacked by rabbits, despite our fencing.  In short, our winter garden this year has been a washout.

Looking out upon our vegetable beds, I can’t help but feel weary and careworn.  Procrastination taking hold like a tap-root weed as I anticipate the exhaustion I will feel BEFORE we begin to tackle these jobs.  To keep the rabbits out, yet make access to the raised vegetable beds easier, we are considering building them up another plank level.  Currently the beds are 12 inches high.  If we double that, the additional compost will give us better growing conditions, a little less bending for us, and an easier defence from the rabbits.  That is, the rabbits who don’t burrow into the beds.  We’ve just discovered a bloody big tunnel right in the middle of our artichokes.  Those little bastards!


A year ago, I planted nearly 300 bulbs and this past November we planted 100 hedge plants — blackthorn, holly,  dog rose, maple, hawthorn and guelder rose — to create a habitat for wildlife and ultimately create a hedgerow where the fencing is failing.  What is giving us hope and renewed energy toward our garden are the snowdrops and daffodils poking out from under their mulch of fallen leaves.  These brave little harbingers of spring are defying the rains and mud reminding us to just get on with it.   So too, the hedge plants are all showing signs of establishing themselves.

The ever hopeful snowdrops!

The ever hopeful snowdrops!

Beginning their floral displays are the garden plots we re-established this past year.   Lifting rocks into place and creating drainage, we added rich compost and planted bulbs and bedding plants artfully along the perimeter of the house.  When my brother was visiting in September, he helped relocate and separate some plants that had wilted or suffered shock by being moved.  Peter and I looked at them with a strong sense that our intervention had likely killed these voracious plants.  Happily, they are perking up, budding new leaves and sporting a few purple, pink and white flowers as they shake off their sleepy winter state.

I am ready for spring and accept that I have another month or two before we are in the swing of it, but the past several months of endless rain and skies, which on most days look like dirty plastic hastily placed to cover a broken window, are enough.  There are days when the clouds are like low-hanging mist rooms, testing my usually sunny resolve.  Or, there are days when the clouds lift up high and play hide and seek with the reluctant sun, setting out to tease me with hopes of a dry day.  While our winter vegetables didn’t grow, the potholes along our track certainly did and we are facing a much larger job this spring than in past.  Most of the trenches to the side of the track have been restored, and once we have several days of sunshine, we can begin to fill the ever deepening potholes.

The activity of Sparrows, Tits, Robins and Finches at the bird feeders is on the upswing.  And those noisy Jackdaws are starting to make a mess in and around the barn building their broken-twig-messy-nests. The lambing season also heralds the arrival of spring and soon the sounds of bleating lambs calling to their mothers will fill the air.  Slowly, our chickens are beginning to up their egg production and the recent daily appearance of a blackbird perched atop one of our window boxes, which will soon be planted with marigolds, delights us with his melodic mating song.  Yes, we need to get a move on with these projects.

The light is lingering later into the day and further inspection of the garden shows we need to build a new bed for the rhubarb as it suffers in its current location.  The blueberries need a prune.  And when a sunny day rolls around, the greenhouse will get its spring cleaning and the strawberries inside will be replanted.  Our potatoes, beets, lettuces, tomatoes, radishes, carrots and onions will all be ready for planting in April and May.  We carry on with our outside inventory, picking up fallen branches from the trees as we go.  We stop and listen to the birdsong across the valley, and notice small buds appearing on the trees.  The beard of moss and lichen on the trees and rocks sports new little flowers.  And just below where we’ve stopped I spy the beginnings of nettles.  Despite any garden setbacks, there will always be successes. Perhaps in a few weeks there will be enough of these pesky plants to make some soup.

The chickens pecking for worms, bugs, and other snacks. Despite the sunshine, they are electing for a shady feed.

The chickens pecking for worms, bugs, and other snacks. Despite the sunshine, they are electing for a shady feed.

The nobel Sam. Not much of a gardener, but happy to supervise the whole scene.

The noble Sam. Not much of a gardener, but happy to supervise the whole scene.

Crazy Horse

The Wild Dartmoor Ponies

Dartmoor Ponies

There is no more an iconic sight than a herd of ponies grazing together, with stunning Dartmoor landscape as backdrop. So much so, when Dartmoor was designated a National Park in 1951, the image of the pony was selected to be the logo for the park.

Not only are these ponies an integral part of the moorland landscape, they are part of the area’s heritage having been on Dartmoor for centuries. Hoof prints discovered during an archaeological dig were found to be 3,500 years old. Due to their strength and sure-footedness, the ponies have been used for many purposes over the years: riding and pulling carts, as pit ponies, shepherding, and taking people or goods to market; or, carrying the postman delivering mail or the prison guards as they escorted prisoners at Dartmoor prison. Today, their role is largely environmental conservation through grazing the moor, which helps to maintain a variety of habitats and support wildlife.

These hardy ponies thrive on Dartmoor despite the harsh weather and poor vegetation. They are smaller than regular horses, and, let’s face it they are fluffy and adorable. It would seem every tourist visitor to Dartmoor would agree and if I had a pound coin for the number of times I’ve had to swerve the car to avoid a tourist stopped on a blind bend as they take a photo of one of these ponies, well I’d be rich.

When two ponies laid claim to the fields outside our house, we were thrilled to see them.   We would watch them as they ran freely by the river, grazed in the meadow, and came up close to our stone walls to watch us in the garden or say hello to Pie and Polly, the horses which graze in our paddocks. On occasion, they would chase the grazing sheep around them: harmless turf wars.

Because of their calm temperament…WAIT! Stop the press and hold your horses!

The Ponies are watching us.

Just the other day our neighbour said she had witnessed one of the ponies taking a lamb and throwing it up in the air the way a cat might play with a mouse it has recently captured.   I couldn’t believe it, let alone imagine the scene. The Dartmoor ponies are mellow. They are known for their placid nature. You can walk up to them and they don’t startle. I wouldn’t recommend feeding them (it’s against the law anyway) as they might bite or kick, but they are generally mild mannered.

More recently, while working in the garden, a man fishing in the river yelled up to us, “There is a dead sheep in the river.” Roger went to investigate and found a dead ewe mid river with a lot of fresh blood on her face. The cause of death remains unknown, but we couldn’t help but wonder about the ponies. They had been prancing and running near the river just moments before. The fisherman said the sheep hadn’t been in the river when he passed by a few hours earlier. Could one of the ponies have had a hoof in this situation? As possibilities raced through our minds, the immediate concern was the now-motherless-baying lamb nearby, the one which Roger saw being born in the fields not more than a week before. After a phone call, the local farmer came and gathered the dead ewe and took the lamb back to bottle feed it. It was a sad moment, but a part of the nature of things. Sheep die, lambs become orphans. You hope you discover them in time to avoid their deaths too.

So, imagine our surprise when Roger saw one of the ponies prancing and bucking along the same stretch of river. Quickly, out came the binoculars! Clearly this pony, one of the pair we had been lovingly watching for weeks, was harassing another sheep. As we headed out to address the situation, people walking past stopped us to let us know what they were witnessing. In an instant, Roger ran across the garden, sprang over the fence and raced toward the ponies in hopes of stopping the brutality. Our neighbour who was visiting quickly followed to help and I grabbed the phone to call the farmer. Something crazy was going on!

When I arrived on the scene, the horses were gone and a single, very stressed sheep was in the river panting. The three of us surrounded the sheep and as it darted, our neighbour swiftly grabbed her. We held her still, calmed her, and noticed a huge gash along her rear leg. The farmer arrived a few minutes later and he took her back to his farm to tend to her wounds.

We’ve asked a number of people about this behaviour and no one has witnessed anything like it.   Since these events, someone, likely from the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association, an animal conservation group, has come along and moved the ponies higher up onto the moors. Perhaps the two needed more of their herd to keep them from terrorizing sheep. I’ll miss seeing these two ponies outside, and while I don’t like to see the sheep chased, I didn’t mind how effective the ponies were at keeping the sheep from jumping our walls and getting into our paddocks.

With our de facto sentries gone, we really now do need to finish repairing that bit of wall.

Ways of Seeing

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

One of the things I’m coming to appreciate since moving to this untamed wilderness, known as Dartmoor, is how a single place can provide a multitude of experiences.    Understanding the tiny and subtle changes, rather than only the dramatic shifts, that come with the passing of the season is best, I think, observed by being in one place.  We may have given up the convenience of a corner shop when we moved, but we have gained a privileged insight into the lives of other creatures through our unexpected encounters with them.

In the movie Smoke, Harvey Keitel takes a photograph from the same corner shop every morning at the same time.  His dedication to this daily process fixed in both time and location teaches us, the viewers, that life may be seemingly unchanging until one pauses to notice the little details, changing the perception of the every-day-familiar.

We’ve recently been gripped by another prolonged cold spell and yet the season is slowly and surely advancing.  The tiny increments of winter turning into spring are almost unnoticeable, were it not for the later arrival of the sunset each day.   As the days grow longer, the evenings are providing an extra hour of light and with it, birdsong.   I love hearing the melodic tunes of Robins and Blackbirds as they kick it out with purity of tone and impeccable phrasing, just like The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.  We have at least two pairs of each making their homes nearby the house.

Our friends were visiting for a week recently with their 5-year old.  While Mark provided much needed help (and master skills!) on the plastering of the ceilings, Lorenzo provided a way to view our world anew.  With each “Why?” – his preferred and nearly exclusive question – I found his natural curiosity infectious.  His impersonation of the chickens as he was feeding them, reminded me to never stop observing.


Getting their attention.

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Across from our barn is a collection of mature trees – Ash, Rowen, Oak, Sycamore, Beech, Laburnum — under which there are now clumps of snowdrops, each with their delicate stalks holding a drooping white flower as they stand their ground declaring spring to be on its way.   My friend Paul wrote recently in an e-mail, “I miss snowdrops.  They’re so quick off the mark, so optimistic!”  He’s right:  Snowdrops, along with tender daffodil shoots and the extended daylight, are our hopeful signs that this cold snap is not forever.

Early Snowdrops

Early Snowdrops

Across the river, atop the hill sits a pine forest and living in the treetops are several Grey Heron.  We’ve spotted at least six.  Are they building nests for their future families?  All the birds seem to be preparing for breeding season.  The mating calls are starting and brightly coloured males are strutting their stuff, including an unusual display of sexual prowess:  several Great Tits positioned on the fence with their wings widely spread were showing off colour, form and aerobatics like regular Flyboys.   All about us, nests are being mended or newly constructed, including at least two by the Jackdaws in the barn.

Not everything survives, however.  Up on the hillside outside our house was a dead sheep.  We are not certain what caused this ewe to perish, but her remaining carcass has been the focal point for most of the dogs accompanying their owners on walks.  Despite her fatality, there are about 100 heavily pregnant ewes on the moors surrounding us.  These sturdy creatures have mostly stayed away from climbing onto our walls, but there are a few who have it hardwired into their brains that they must clamber into our yard.  We continue our vigilance in maintaining the walls and recently have resorted to leaning less attractive wood pallets against the preferred sheep entrance points.  We are hoping to keep the little lambs out after they are born.

Born they will be, too.  I’ve been invited to help the local farmer with the lambing season.  I’m thrilled to do this, and confess that I’ve never done anything like it before.  It was agreed that if I got in the way or proved useless – a definite possibility – I’d be sent on my way.  I’m feeling a little tentative about the lambing since the last birth I attended was that of a hamster when I was 7.  After the litter was born, the mother hamster ate her young.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

Sometimes, it’s not my eyes, but my ears, that guide me to something new.  Sam and I took a brisk walk one morning when the moors were covered with a dense fog obscuring any visibility beyond the immediate path, which I now know well.  With the thick, white, ethereal cloud cover drifting and swirling about, I understand how one could easily get lost in Dartmoor.  As we negotiated a boggy bit of the path, I heard a spooky bird call with its somewhat unpleasant “chirp, chirp, chirp” in the foreground and a haunting Theremin-like moan in the background.  I was uncertain what I was hearing, so looked to Sam for signs of alarm.  He seemed relaxed, so we carried on and with our next steps, I spotted a medium sized brownish bird zigzagging low to the ground.  A Snipe!  I remember going on Snipe hunts when I was young.  These are practical jokes designed to leave the uninitiated out in the woods while everyone in the know heads back to the campfire for a good laugh.  Recently in the UK, the Snipe has undergone some declines in numbers, placing it on the Amber list for the RSPB, so it is a treat to spot one, and know that they do exist beyond the silly pranks of older siblings.


Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Walking past the window overlooking the river, Roger spotted a buzzard hovering with wings spread as it snatched up its prey from the reeds.  We grabbed our binoculars and as we spied on his dining, we noticed holes in the ground nearby:  A badger set!  How long have we been looking at this particular spot of land without seeing what was there?

Badger Set in hillside

Badger Set in hillside

We know we have badgers.  I’ve seen one in the garden.  We’ve had our birdfeeders pulled from their hanging positions, only to be found the next morning dragged through the fence and into the fields beyond.  While bent and now broken, they still hold the bird food we set out each day.  To avoid further damage, we now take the feeders in at night and leave the bent poles from which they hang, standing in the ground as if afflicted with osteoporosis.  Spotting this badger set is thrilling so we set out for a closer look.  Crossing the river, climbing up the hill and negotiating two barbed-wire fences, we found at least ten holes scattered about the hillside, each with its telltale arched oval opening.  These are unlikely to be the badgers responsible for the damage to our bird feeders, as badgers evidently don’t swim unless they must.  Somewhere on our side of the river there is another badger set for us to discover.

In a few weeks, the Vernal Equinox will arrive.  Such a great day as it marks the point when the sun gives over to the northern hemisphere, making our days longer and lighter.  With the increased daylight, we will have more seasonal changes to observe, including the return of many of the migrant birds from their African winter homes.  I’m looking forward to welcoming back the Swallows, House Martins, Warblers and the Cuckoo who makes its brief spring home in the trees beyond the house.

Don’t ask me “Why?” but I just enjoy seeing – and hearing – all of these visitors around Crockern.


When Roger and I met on that Russian Icebreaker in the Arctic, we spent a lovely evening watching Wallace and Gromit movies and sharing some popcorn.   A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and, of course, A Close Shave, had us giggling at Nick Park’s brilliant Claymation stunts, gags and puns.  Who knew that one day, we would find ourselves rescuing sheep, not with Porridge guns affixed to our side-car-come-helicopter, but instead with our own sheer strength and determination.

I’m still in the States as I write this, missing the daily activities of our lives at Crockern where each morning I am awakened by an exuberant Sam for his morning walk.  We feed the chickens, fill the bird feeders, and uncover the vegetable garden from its frost-protecting fleece before setting out for the next 30 minutes.  By the time we’ve returned, Roger has the coffee ready and the day is underway.

In A Close Shave, when Gromit is framed and sent to prison for sheep rustling, Wallace finds his house overrun with sheep.  In our early days at Crockern, we too were over run by sheep in the yard.  They would stare at us, chew the grass, poop everywhere and give the “Am I bothered?” expression when we tried to shoo them away.  It was not uncommon to see thirty or more about the yard.   The sheep were not worried about Sam as he ignored them.  All the same, as if to assert its authority, one sheep sneaked up from behind and rammed Sam off balance as he carried on watching Roger feed the chickens.  Before Sam could react the sheep quickly did a runner.


The track leading to our house is also a public footpath and all around us open moorland where both sheep and cattle graze.   As a consequence passing walkers often stop by to report to us injured or distressed sheep.   We are happy to tend to those sheep in the field if they need our help, but I’ll be damned if they are welcome in our yard.  Sam has taken this on board and if he sees them within our walls, he shepherds them out!  He never chases them when they are on the moors, and when walking amongst hundreds of sheep barely gives them a passing glance.  But when they are in our yard the rules of engagement have changed.  Sam lowers his body and stares at the sheep, awaiting our “okay” before running towards them, never biting, and only stopping his drive at the corner of the barn as the sheep make their escape over the walls, often knocking stones off as they go.  He then prances back up to us with his tail held high seeking just praise for a job well done.   His performance would receive perfect scores in the sheep dog trial challenges known as “the lift”.


A proud Sam

Some dogs aren’t capable of such restraint and we’ve seen seriously injured sheep from dog attacks.  It is awful and avoidable.  Dogs who are not trained around wildlife and livestock can sometimes display their natural hunting instincts when the opportunity presents itself.  Many people don’t have recall for their dogs, nor do they keep their dogs on lead in unfamiliar terrain.  The assumption that “My dog is really friendly.” and so would never chase a sheep is misguided.    In fact, The Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society has reported over 50 dog attacks so far in 2012, and 72 reported sheep deaths from dog attacks in 2011.

In our short tenure, we’ve rescued sheep from all sorts of misadventure.  Let’s face it, sheep are fairly stupid animals and get themselves into trouble.  For example, Sam and I stumbled across a lamb, its fleece sodden with water and mud from many days of rain, that had laid down to rest and become trapped in the grips of a gorse bush.  I checked to make certain it was uninjured, then lifted it up and out from the bush, and was pleased to see it skip swiftly away and join up with its mother nearby.

On another day, Roger saved a lamb whose head inexplicably got stuck in a small but heavy metal table outside lying around the yard  The table had a support bar on its frame, creating a four-inch gap between frame and the tabletop.  Roger heard the sheep bleating and went outside to investigate.  What he found was that the lamb’s head caught in that gap.  The lamb would right itself and then tumble down the hill as the weight of the table took over.  Roger was able to catch and hold the lamb, calming and keeping it still.  How it didn’t break its neck with this table stuck on its head remains a mystery.  When I went outside, all I could see was Roger crouched over something on the ground.  Looking at me he asked, “Can you bring me a hacksaw?”  A few days before a fox had taken one of our chickens, so I didn’t ask questions and instead headed to the barn and returned with all matter of tools:  hacksaw, tree saw, and just in case, an ax.

I held the lamb firmly down but it became apparent there would be no prising its head from the table’s rigid construction.  Roger took the hacksaw to the table leg but before beginning to cut, turned to me and asked what remains the oddest question given the circumstances, “Are you sure we don’t need this table?”

Dartmoor Lamb

One of the many little lambs.

Among our many sheep saving interventions has been reporting the limping, the blind, the infected tick on the face, and the dead and dying sheep.    We have called the farmer on each of these occasions, including our most recent predicament.  She was unable to come out straight away, so Roger and I went to the rescue.

A twenty-minute walk onto the moors and up the hillside on the other side of a swollen river was a sheep trapped between the stonewall and the stock proof fencing.  I had asked the farmer if we should just cut the fencing and she said, “No.  We try to not do that.  Instead, pull the fencing back and move the sheep.”  Okay, plan to hand, but I was wishing we had a nifty Wallace and Gromit “Release-O-Matic” to aid our efforts.

Adult sheep weigh a lot (between 45 and 100 Kg).  Add to that a soggy fleece and they weigh a whole lot more.  We spotted the sheep and then had to cross the river to get to it.  Roger took an approach that would have meant me swimming in the river, so I opted for a trickier, but shallow, bit of navigation.  I crossed successfully then immediately misjudged a step and got a boot full of bog water.  Heading over towards the sheep, I next tripped over a bundle of rusty barbed wire hidden in the brush.  I fell flat on my face, cut my hand and was covered in mud and still had a soggy boot full of muck.

Undeterred, we knew that to free this particular ewe, we had to first free her shoulder.  Roger held her head steady by the horns and I pushed her shoulder through the fencing.  Her shoulder was now free, but she was unable to get purchase with her back legs and so remained stuck between the fence and the wall.  Roger climbed up over the fence and squatted somewhat unsteadily on the wall in an attempt to pull the sheep up to freedom while I pushed from below.  After three failed attempts, I joined Roger on the wall.  As the two of us awkwardly leaned over, hoping to not fall off the stones, we gripped the sheep, took deep breaths “and on three…!”  We managed to free the sheep and she ran off uninjured, immediately forgetting the entire event.  My hand was now bleeding significantly.

A few years ago at the Sloane Club in London, Roger and I were having drinks with our friends Nitty, Steve and Joe.  And who should join us at the table?  T’was none other than Nitty’s friend Peter Sallis!  I could barely contain my glee as the owner of the voice of Wallace was sharing a drink and telling us stories from his long career.  I left that evening filled with an enhanced and abiding appreciation for the antics in every episode of Wallace and Gromit.

We may lack the obvious sight gags, film parodies and practical inventions, but we have had a few or our own close shaves.  One morning as I was walking Sam, Roger drove all of the recycling and rubbish to the end of the track for pick up.  In the ten seconds it took to drive through the open gate, over 50 previously unseen sheep sped through in a covert escape.  Was this, perhaps, a cunningly organized rescue effort for a falsely accused Gromit held at Dartmoor Prison?   Roger was standing in one spot directing those Houdini sheep toward a grassy bit of land away from the road.  They had no intention of returning through the gate and more were continuing to stroll OUT of the gate.    Sam and I went to the far side of the herd and Roger stood sentry by the gate.  Together the three of us returned the sheep to the fields while they looked back contemptuously for having their escape plans spoiled.

I wonder, what Roger and Sam have had to confront in my absence?