My perfectly serviceable mixed flock

The sheep at Horse Drawn Farms are a motley crew, there’s no doubt about that. Lucy and Lettie are mostly Suffolk. Charlotte has the Charolais spot on her shoulder, Daisy has a top-knot and a milk-sheep udder that would keep a family of six going, plus a lamb. Emily has the fantastic wool of a Romney and Spotty Legs a clean white head reminiscent of a Dorper. Run together as a flock, they look more like an international convention than a unified force. All are extremely healthy and vigourous, and superior mothers. I was perfectly content with my girls.  Their lambs, although varied, were of good size and fetched a nice price on the grass-fed market.

But then. A fellow shepherd keeping a purebred line of sheep contacted me out of the blue. I had purchased a few sheep feeders from her the previous year, but hadn’t had a close look at her charges who were out in her fields. She was now downsizing, and would I be interested in two of her sheep? I looked up the breed, Clun Forest, and was immediately smitten.

“They’re wonderful sheep,” she said. “Good wool. Good meat. Excellent mothers.”

Wikipedia agreed with her. “Hardy. Adaptable. Good foragers. Long-lived,” it said. But it wasn’t that which convinced me. It was something in the pictures… those ears. Those beautiful upright ears, giving the breed a sharp, polished appearance. They were so different from the airplane ears of my typical grade ewes. The Cluns on Wikipedia were jaw-dropping. Draped with ribbons, proud and square and stern and…cool. Dignified and elegant and aristocratic.  Ears like sharp little spears that pierced the heavens and dropped stars on their backs.  Glancing back and forth from my home sheep pictures to the sleek show pictures of magnificently coiffed Cluns began to be like comparing a old Ford minivan to a fighter jet.  I wanted those ears.

I bought the sheep. My little flock has grown by two, and will grow again as I pick up a registered Clun ram for the autumn.

After juggling rabbit pedigrees this way and that for four years, trying to keep my bloodlines straight and pulling my hair out to find a Toggenburg buck for my registered dairy herd, one would have thought I’d had enough of this heritage thing. Alas, I’m a sucker for looks. The fighter jets are movin’ in.

Stolen from the internet (the picture, not the Clun)

Stolen from the internet (picture, not Clun)



As a 30-something convert to farming, one of the biggest obstacles I’ve come across is my own reluctance to ask for and accept help from people–and it’s plunked itself in front of progress again and again (and again!)  This may be a puzzling notion to anyone raised on a farm, or indeed, in any small community where everyone knows everyone and sharing in life’s difficulties is par for the course.  However, big-city dwellers know exactly what I mean.  The anonymity of a city of millions means you often don’t even know your neighbour’s name, much less his personality well enough to ask if you could, say, borrow an egg for your kid’s birthday cake.  And a big city complicates things further by having a 24 hour grocery, so even if you DID know your neighbour’s name, you didn’t really need his egg anyway.   Those unfamiliar might find this quality of city-dwellers rather unfriendly, but in reality, it is a survival mechanism.  We can only know so many people, so the nuclear structure of urban families is merely a way to cope with the barrage of faces that pass in and out of each day.

Dropping an urban girl on a soon-to-be-farm can be an interesting experiment. She is convinced that she can Do It All, like a soccer mom who is also a full-time nurse and a volunteer firefighter. She is convinced that healthy grass-fed meat, free-range eggs and abundant organic crops will soon be flowing like a river from her land. She slaves day and night, hammering and digging and herding and collecting. Alas, this particular urbanite is discovering–as her farm grows and her flocks expand– that trying to Do It All makes for a very tired, frustrated farmer at best. At worst, it causes injury and can lead to some pretty serious doubts.

Yep, they volunteered.

Yep, they volunteered.

Icing the torn muscle in my shoulder and recognising, finally, that I probably shouldn’t be shoving the 500 pound chicken tractor around or wrestling a 30 foot plum tree with a chain saw on my own led me, at last, to a logical conclusion (most farm kids have this imprinted on their brains at birth): doing everything on your own is not the farming way. It is not particularly commendable nor even prudent. On the old sustenance farms, various people with their special skills pitched in all over the place, in exchange for your special skill when required. Sally helped correctly prune your orchard in November and you spun her wool in May. Fred sunk your fence posts in April and you dug his potatoes in July. One person couldn’t possibly acquire the myriad pieces of knowledge, skills and time that were required to run a farm perfectly. You knew your neighbours and you needed your neighbours.
Starting a farm has been a gigantic education. In making various contacts, through selling farm products, extra cages, or just perusing craigslist, I’ve discovered that there are many, many people who WANT to help. Thus, my front fence was finished with the assistance of Ellen. I could not have moved the greenhouse without Chelsea and Kris. And there would have been no vacation without Leona and Tara and Ana coming by to mind the farm in my absence. This help was a tremendous blessing and, more importantly, an essential part of the new sustainable future.

Friends and neighbours.

Friends and neighbours.

This year’s lambs seemed to come all at once.   Week after week, our ewes were dutifully trundling to and fro between their paddock and the barn–oh yes, developing the distinct waddle,  udders growing incrementally, getting a little slower every day–but then, whoosh, it was all over.   New lambs peppered the floor, and the barn suddenly became rather crowded as the population tripled.   In this, our second year of lambing, we were decidedly less paranoid about the lamb vigil.  Our mothers had proven themselves as capable parents and we let them get on with what they did best.  Even Lucy, who stubbornly refused to even look pregnant, finally delivered surprise twins.   We were grateful that Ramien, in his last weeks, had quietly cemented his legacy here on the farm.

All colours and sizes.

All colours and sizes.

Once the lambs had their legs and mother-recognition circuits all correctly wired, it was time to introduce them to the outside world.  Now, my memory might be a little hazy, but I seemed to remember that training the little ones to make the 100 meter dash to the paddock was easy last year.   Last year, we shook some tantalising tidbits under the noses of the ewes and headed slowly out.   They followed me at a casual walk, and the lambs followed them.  Ditto for the return, and within a day or two, the new residents had the route down pat.  The ewes began to run along without me, and the lambs ran too, with the occasional mad pronking along the way, in case any predators were watching.  No problem.

We were forced to come to an unhappy conclusion when we witnessed the efforts of this year’s trainees: these lambs were not like those lambs.

At the emergence, chaos ensued.  Some ewes ran headlong to the paddock, remembering that grain was usually waiting there for them.  Lambs dazzled by the open sky and daylight stood befuddled, then shot left, right, forwards and backwards.  Some ewes hit the brakes halfway along and began an ungodly bawling of confusion and alarm, which made any lambs heading in their direction confused (and alarmed).   In the meantime, disappointed ewes who had made it to the empty outside feeder reversed course at equally high speed and shot full tilt past the lambs that had made progress homing in on their mothers’ voices.

On rainy Day Three of Operation Move-the-Lambs, after 40 minutes of trailing wayward youngsters through ponds, blackberry thorns, electric fences and stinking mud pits (yes, we have a few of those here), we finally managed to snatch the foreleg of the last stray and scoop him up.  Once plunked safely down in the paddock to join his nonchalantly chewing mother waiting under the large three-sided shelter, Pete had a revelation.  “You know,” he said, excavating some mud from his ear while I rubbed fruitlessly at the nettle rash forming on my wrist, “we could just build a new barn out of that shelter.  Then they wouldn’t have to run anywhere.”

A sheep barn disguised as a disused horse shelter

A sheep barn disguised as a disused horse shelter

It took just over a week to complete the transformation, entirely with free or discounted lumber we found on craigslist.   It’s solid, it’s dry, and it’s warm, and it’s actually slightly bigger than the converted one-car garage that served as the old sheep barn.  Now, why didn’t we think of this before?  I suppose because until we have a problem, we don’t look for a solution.  The sheep had been using that paddock with that shelter for nigh-on two years, but it hadn’t occurred to us that our system of housing needed improving.  And what a change.  Feeding time has been cut to minutes; we fill the feeders with hay and open the door.  Sheep pour out, walk two steps and are eating.   The lambs gambol about in this protected area, and come grazing time, we can set the electric nets around the gates and simply open them up.

It’s lovely.  And perhaps this change has made us see our farm with new eyes as we walk around for our daily chores.  What else can we work on to make our management–and our lives–a little easier?

Everyone where they should be.

Everyone where they should be.

Saltan making some calculations.

Saltan making some calculations.

When you run a smallholding–especially a really small smallholding like Horse Drawn Farms– every animal needs to pay its way. In our case, our five-goat herd is hardly enough to justify the added expense and management of a buck. Bucks are big. Bucks eat a lot. And bucks are messy, smelly, single-minded fellows. Luckily, the farm is located only an hour away from an excellent goat breeder who offered us her fine Toggenburg buck for service. This is common enough with many farm animals–a way for a farmer with a big enough herd to justify their own stud animal by having him further earn his keep. And so Saltan came to stay.

As this was to be our young Easter’s first breeding, we would need to keep a close eye to make sure it was a fait accompli. The sudden arrival of a big stinky man in her midst would make any young doe nervous, and indeed, she hid behind her mother as Saltan’s head suddenly popped out of the canopy window of my truck and he wildly maaaa-ed in her direction. I wondered if I would need to put a lead on his neck chain to lead him to the does–but the rope burn on my hands from his leaping down and galloping over to their fence answered THAT question.  The main goat pen has held our dairy goats in just fine since we constructed it in 2011. Since our farm is leased, we opted for easily moved hog panels, combined with a top rail for a total height of perhaps 1.5 meters.   Although the girls often spend a pleasurable hour or two gnawing at the top boards, we’ve never found a goat where she shouldn’t be.   So I was pretty confident that the Saltan would live quite comfortably in the pen with the two does I wanted pregnant.  The other goats, I’d keep well out of reach, in the back building.  I let him loose, watched the antics of the two girls greeting this large stranger for a few minutes, then went into the house.


Who the heck IS that?

I figure it took Saltan about three minutes to discover that neither of these does were in heat, another minute to notice the fresh browse some meters away, and one further minute to assess the location of lowest board, because when I popped my head out of the door five minutes later, he wasn’t in there anymore.    He was munching away on the driveway blackberry bushes, looking quite at home.   “Ah,” I thought. “Hungry.” I fetched a large flake of some alfalfa grass hay, threw it in the goat feeder and quietly led Saltan back into the pen.  Elizabeth and Easter snorted at him all over again, as evidently the five first minutes had not been adequate for getting to know their suitor.   This time,  Sultan gave a perfunctory sniff at the hay, ignored the two girls altogether, then sauntered straight back over to the fence and leapt over.  It took all the effort of stepping across a speed bump.  I put him in again. He jumped out again.   In again.  Out  again.  In again, out again, and this time Easter carefully observed his escape point and tested the waters with a half-hearted little leap of her own.  I knew then that trying to keep him in this pen was going to be a disaster.

The next stop was the sheep barn.  The sheep also have an outdoor paddock with shelter, and would do just fine living outside twenty-four hours a day.  So in went the trio, curiously sniffing around at the sheepy smells.   The sheep barn door is slightly higher than my head.  “No way could any goat jump out of there,” I said to my husband.  But he looked doubtfully at Saltan’s long legs. “Let’s put up a little something extra, just in case,”  he said.   And when I returned with the evening goat rations, he had nailed up a long aluminum ladder horizontally above the door, spanning the entire upper opening.    “That’s over two meters, no WAY he’s getting out now!” he chortled, and we turned in, with visions of the chocolate brown kids to come.

We found Saltan the next morning, loose in the yard.  The aluminum ladder was no longer nailed neatly above the door, but hanging wildly on one bending nail.    Saltan was nose to nose with our other goats, chatting amiably to them through the page wire, a few stray blackberry leaves still stuck to his unruly coat.  He looked up at me with a calm, smiley sort of expression.  It said, “Your obstacle course could really use some work.”  Elizabeth and Easter made some plaintive cries from the sheep barn, where they’d been summarily left at the altar.

There was nothing for it now, but the Fort Knox stall.  This was Cirrus’s old stall, made to hold in and keep safe the most stall-hating horse that ever lived.  Every wall was reinforced, every window barred, every square centimeter guarded against horse teeth, horse muscle and sheer horse determination.  It was a touch small to keep three goats confined, but when I found Saltan and the does still in there when I came around with the 7am feeding, I knew he was finally licked.   He lay recumbent, with a distinctly sulky look on his face.  But at least now he could get down to business, and Elizabeth was encouraging things along–already coming in to heat, standing with her backside as close to his face  as politeness would allow.

In the end, all went well.  Elizabeth became pregnant right away, but Easter went through two cycles before she stood still long enough for any action. Likely it would have been three or four had she been given the room of the outside pen to run away from him.  We became quite fond of Saltan, who was actually a gentle and most affectionate goat, and were sorry to see him leave.    He, on the other hand, did not look in the least sorry.  He settled into the back of the truck for his trip home and promptly fell asleep, no doubt dreaming of better fences to come.

Yep.  That's what they do.

Yep. That’s what they do.

Old Dane smaller

In the end, they compromised as to who owned the chair.

It started out hopefully enough, the slow days of January leading into a busy February lambing.   Although I’m sure there must have been fair, beautiful days, in my memory now, it is mostly raining. The lambs, born into the tail end of winter storms, were protected by our sturdy shelter, but by the first of March, the lion-winds had ripped out every last grommet of the tarp and the ground beyond their pen was saturated into mire.  Still, Rupert Dane didn’t mind standing in it to stare in unabashed amazement at the new woolly lives, bouncing in the deep, clean straw, little tails waggling madly as they sought nourishment underneath their mothers. The day-old chicks arrived the weekend of the first lambs, peeping in bright springtime voices through their temporary cardboard home. With the goats near kidding, it seems the farm was a bastion of life and newness–but it was the last I’d see of life for a while.  The death of the young black lamb was the first hit, I wrote about her earlier in the year.    Days later, it was Rupert.  Magnificent Rupert, Prince of Dogs, it was he who brought the farming life right inside the house, his enormous paws tracking our improved soil all around the living room, his coat spraying the coastal rain over the walls and chairs and door as he shook off after evening chores.  His death ripped a hole in our lives;  his omnipresence, his cheerful goofiness, his stoicism in his last hours on this earth; I can not forget his watchfulness that last night, his look that seemed to say, “It’s okay, my friends, you’ll be all right, you’ll be all right without me.”    But the farm was to see more death yet.

A new fight began on the first day of May, when I found my thoroughbred Cirrus with an appallingly swollen leg.  In decades of experience with horses, I’d seen my fair share of lameness, but this level of inflammation was new, frightening.  His near hind leg appeared several times its normal size– I wondered if he’d broken it in a struggle to get up somehow.  He stood, swaying, sweating, shaking with pain.  Yellow lymphatic fluid oozed from every pore.   Our horse vet, arriving at her earliest availability, diagnosed his condition as acute lymphangitis and set to work with a series of antibiotics, analgesics and diuretics.  She was optimistic about his prognosis, as many horses recover well and go on to return to riding condition.  And for the first few days, Cirrus did show improvement.  He began to walk about a little.  To eat and drink a little.  To show his old brightness when the feed buckets rattled in the morning, swirling the grain around with his nose in his old ham-it-up style.  He became pragmatic about the cold hosing and leg wrapping that were to define the days of his illness.  When the hose appeared, he’d walk away for a few laps of his paddock to show his general disapproval, but later stand resolutely still as I proceeded to run the icy water over his ruined leg.

Cirrus was a fighter, there was no denying that.  He’d been given to me as a starving rescue by a friend who’d found him abandoned in a field.  Apparently he’d spent years there, eking out a living on the sparse grass, summer and winter, forgotten and alone.   He was tattooed, through which I learned that he was born in California but was sired by a British stallion.  His beauty was evident even as I first saw him, listless, emaciated and dull.  He was tough to keep, right from the beginning.  The weight was slow to come on, his immunity poor as skin conditions surfaced and resurfaced.  But finally, a year after he had come home with me, he was the horse he’d been born to be, vivacious, strong-willed and powerful.  Riding him was a revelation, especially since I soon discovered he knew far more about equitation than I did.  He was undoubtedly the most sensitive, highly schooled horse I have ever ridden, and his demands from me as his partner improved me in ways I can only begin to guess.  I could only be puzzled at how this well trained horse had simply been dumped in a field.  I could only gratefully breathe in his intoxicating horse scent each time I brushed out the tangles in his mane.

Three weeks into the lameness it became pretty clear that Cirrus was running out of fight at last.  He had become progressively thinner, with bouts of fever, and edema beginning in his three other legs.   On the good days when things seemed hopeful, we’d head up the road for a walk, he and I.   He was bright on those walks, forward and keen, and his snatching the fresh roadside grasses without stopping as we passed was as representative of his nature as anything–“there’s good stuff here, but let’s keep moving and see what’s ahead.”  However,  back home, he’d lie down for unusually long periods, deep in sleep, his legs twitching as he ran through dreamland pastures.  When he began to dribble urine,  when his fever began to rage every time his medication wore off,  when the shine of his eye began to fail,  when my mother, in the first minute of visiting him, spontaneously and sadly blurted out, “Oh, he’s dying!”, I put down my hope.

Pro Cirrus 6 cropped


The morning of his euthansia was a strange blur.  There was no sleeping the night before, so the eleven o’clock appointment seemed a torturous wait.  Cirrus had spent the night in a far off shelter, head down, away from the morning chores, away from his best friend Jimmy.   I stood with him a long while in silence, just standing.  Watching.  Later, I was lucky in my own companions, my veterinarian– a wonderful sensitive practitioner–and Steve, our local deadstock hauler.  His gentleness and empathy with animals, in life and after it,  was a tremendous comfort.  Finally, finally, on that quiet weekday morning, Cirrus leapt into death.   No serene downward crumple for him–he fell right over sideways, legs strong and straight, with a grunt and a colossal pounding upon the earth, a thunder that has left me shaken since.  I’ve read that once in your life, you, a horseman, will love one horse with everything you have, and never again, no matter how many others may come and go through your life.  For me, Cirrus was that horse.

My husband had for years jokingly referred to our place as “Old Man Farm”, populated with racetrack retirees and greying muzzles of many kinds.   I’ve just come in from the death of yet another of our old men, our ram, Ramien.   He’d been ill, getting slower, always trailing his girls at a quick walk, the fastest gait he had left.  After a brief illness and no response to treatment, he, too, was to take the journey. He was a gentle, gentle old fellow that came to us late, as a gift that became a treasure.   Always ready for a friendly scratch and the piece of toast that had accidentally fallen on the floor, his solid enormity was what I watched for when trying to find the lambs grazing out back.  He guarded them with the steady majesty that defined him, and never lost his dignity, even when the goat kids discovered that, when recumbant, his head was a perfect launching platform for aerobatic leaping.  He simply chewed his cud, one eye half closing when a sharp little goatie hoof happened to land inside his ear.

I shot him myself, the first time I’ve done this.  It is quite a thing to look down the barrel of a gun at yet another friend.  We buried him on a rise in the back pasture, where he can watch over his new children, coming soon.  A year has passed in a flash, a year defined by grief and loss, a year of questioning motives for the farm, of the purpose for which we keep these animals to begin with, when we know, we know, that we will suffer their loss.

Horse Drawn Farms, entering now into the winter rain, seems a bleaker, darker place.  May the lambs of spring, the blossoms, the first bleat of a new goat kid, remind us that joy will return.

Old friends.

Old friends, now departed.

I have to admit that it was those beguiling photographs in Harrowsmith Country Life magazine that planted the idea of a farm in my head.   Especially the autumn ones.  The ones with the blazing oranges and yellows of harvested squash spilling out of baskets, or the patio furniture tastefully placed near ancient red barns with  milking parlour windows.  In those photographs, the tables always have fruit in a bowl.  The fences are straight.   The animals are tidy, with nary a pile of manure in sight; neither are there  flies, weeds, or exhausted farm owners wearing the same dirty ball cap they’ve worn for three years straight.  Yes, farm visitors, I’ve learned: the places in those photographs do not exist.

Isn’t that lovely.

It’s not like I haven’t thought about it.  Living in a farmhouse that is one-hundred years old makes the character element a slam-dunk.  “Look for the old farmhouse,”  I say to new customers trying to make their way to Horse Drawn Farms.  It sounds good, anyway.  It’s only when they’ve already pulled in the driveway that the customers realise  “derelict farmhouse”  is perhaps a more apt description.  Up close, they see that the paint is somewhat beyond distressed.  Missing, is more like it.   And the pile of scrap wood to be burned with the nails sticking out at all angles next to the honey display doesn’t have the same effect as the fruit baskets on tables they’ve seen in magazines.  Nevertheless, new customers are keen, so they hop out to take a look around.  I welcome, nay, encourage this, much to my insurer’s chagrin.  I am proud of how the farm operates, of how our stock glows with health, of how our pens are intelligently organised for ease of cleaning and movement of animals in all seasons.

At least, I was, until I started to see the farm from the perspective of our largely suburban customer base.  These are folks who are keen on fresh, local food, but have rarely–if ever–stepped foot on a working farm.  It took that disbelieving glance from the woman with the Audi, for example,  for me to see just how slanted the walls of the horse barn were becoming.  Oh, I’d slogged that crooked barn door back and forth ten thousand times, but I hadn’t really noticed the crazy angle on which it was now sitting.  Or the twenty centimeters of moss growing on the roof tiles.  And then there was the man with his two young daughters, each of which squealed and held her nose when walking past the muck cart full of manure and soiled straw blocking their path.   They came back up the path, still shrieking, when uninvited chicken feathers attached themselves to their fleece jackets.   I’d never really thought about how perhaps I shouldn’t send visitors down the manure alley to have a look at the chickens after all.  Or that drying out the hand-pulled weeds in a gigantic, messy pile for a week before carting them to the back doesn’t make for an attractive lawn-space.   Or that the main deck  by the door of the house, which we use as our main project area, might give a better impression to door-knocking egg-buyers if it wasn’t covered in sawdust, goat leashes, feed buckets, sprawled out hoes and the plastic bag I’d used to carry a freshly killed chicken from the butchering area.

I thought about posting a sign in the driveway: “Visitors, please note:  A farm can be working or a farm can be pretty.”   There’s no doubt that the to-do list on the farm is formidable at best.  At worst, it borders on ludicrous.  There’s fencing,  felling, splitting, stacking, painting, pounding and wiring, then cutting, curing, spreading, seeding, breeding, feeding and hiring.  And that’s all before October.  There’s also mowing, mending, cutting, clearing, burning, and, of course, blogging.  And it’s nice to put dinner on the table once in a while too.  Compared to these most urgent tasks, it’s easy to relegate “tidying up” to the bottom of the page.  Those feed buckets are there, for instance, because they’re the first and last things I use outside when I step through the door each day.

But I would be foolish to think that impressions don’t matter, and if I want customers to return, I need to operate a farm that reflects the sincerity that goes into the quality of its products.  No, I won’t be taking pains to conceal the fact that our ram spends most of his autumn with his nostrils poked into the backside of a ewe, or that forty chickens will leave a considerable whirlwind of feathers and dander over their pasture while they’re out.  I can see no benefit in trying to hide the reality of what farm animals do, or what they leave behind.  But the burn pile with the sticky-outy nails?

The clean-up has begun.

The bonfire cometh.

Here on the farm, August is the month of contrasts.  During the day, the dry hot brings forth an instant sweat, and flies.  The sheep hide.  The horses hide.  The chickens hide.  I would like to hide, but the farmhouse– a solid fir-framed centenarian–is woefully under-insulated and heats up like a Finnish sauna.   Besides, there are always more chores to do outside, and none of them are in the shade.  The hose is the only salvation.  Despite the pressing need to conserve water,  in between the beds of carrots and peas I point the spray straight upwards and it falls back to earth; instant, cold, magnificent rain, enough of a shock to cause that sudden, delightful inhalation, upturned face, gasp of a smile.  Weeding is bearable, then, and shoveling and mucking.  Until I dry off and the sweat breaks out once again.

But as the evening comes, everything begins to change.  The animals come back to life as the air cools.  Suddenly there are bucking, head-butting goats charging up and down their paddock.  Jimmy, a dusty-looking chestnut statue only a few hours earlier, regains his snorting horse spirit once again as he gallops in from the fields.   His delight at the break in the heat is obvious, and contagious.  It feels like the whole farm does a little jig in celebration.  And how could it not, when a cool wash comes quite suddenly up the valley, like the lifting of an uncomfortable blanket?  When the gardens are bursting at the seams with peas and beans and squash; when in the softening light, corn tassels rustle with golden threads, and tomatoes hang like rubies on their vines?   And at what other time does the livestock look so well and fat, do the new hens begin their year’s laying, does the anticipation of harvest seem a promise of unimaginable bounty?

For this farmer, it is only on an August evening that the euphoria of the farming lifestyle becomes so completely clear.