The Devil’s in the Detail…

Oh my, detail, detail, detail and then……. some detail !

I am beset with micro-activity, maths, geography, botany and bureaucracy.  There are indeed no ‘free lunches’!  The payment for my self-indulgence – read ‘visiting farms’ – is that I have to spend hour after hour on this damn thing, oh yes, and using a calculator !  Something of a shock to discover my mental arithmetic has indeed degenerated,  somewhat like my body !  The detail that is inherent in the putting together of ‘score-sheets’ by which an individual farm gets to prove it is worthy of inclusion in the latest euro-funded, non-farmer designed grant scheme is akin to the workings of Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb.  I have missed the dam(n) wall several times thus far.

Nevertheless, it continues to give me a real thrill at getting to see parts of my homeland I’ve never seen, of meeting some real characters who know their ‘farming’ and finding lots and lots of interesting agricultural architecture and equipment.

I’ll begin this week with a weather update….. Autumn got attacked by Winter, a sneak attack that caught nature on the hop, this resulted in autumn going into a ‘poody’ (sulk) for a few days before hitting back.

Frosty October

This sneak attack by Jack Frost caught me and nature out. Although there were compensations !

The early cold snap hit minus 7 degrees; that had one seriously noticeable impact – the Ash trees, of which there are several surrounding me, dump their leaves all in one night.  Now you probably don’t know how many leaves there are on a mature Ash – well, actually, neither do I – but they carpet the ground and everything else, especially my poor little Gladys land rover and my work van.  Believe me, there are a large number of leaves on an ash tree…..

Ash trees dump their leaves after the first frost.

Don't you just hate Ash trees when they do that..... such a mess.

Now normally I would swop most weather for a frosty morning, but they are not supposed to come until December or, better still, next year !

This one saw me arrive at work ‘sans’ the necessary attire with which to enjoy the moment.  As it happened it was one freak morning, autumn hit back with an Atlantic low which swept in the usual ‘half-term’ / end of October gales.  Dry stone walling takes on its ‘alter-ego’ at this time of year.  I needed to push on with the Llan Nant-Bran wall, end of another month means the monthly bills – how come end of months come one week after the last end of month ?

I am juggling jobs presently; the farm visits are but an interlude really but too good to miss – for all sorts of reasons – however I still have to do the ‘day job’ not least because I need to deliver for the customer’s sake.  She has been very good to me (actually ‘us’ – for my little helper – 6ft 8ins Danny boy is still grafting with me) and I am beginning to feel quite pleased with how its looking, but, as predicted, being that high in the Eppynt valleys is no fun when the Atlantic visits.

Stone and Mud

Mud, mud, glorious mud, nothing quite like it for .... getting everything plastered. Note the rather attractive colour coded leggings, courtesy of a Carolinian with a Caharrt fetish.

The red mud of Brecon turns Somme like in the rain, claggy, clinging, slippery and everywhere.  Its difficult to describe the slightly perverted pleasure I get from working in these conditions – it may just be an evolutionary event to help me survive for this half of the year – but enjoy it I do.  Apparently I sing more, apparently I sing more out of tune (but that is certainly only because my head is in a hood and so I can’t hear myself !), apparently I am bordering on ‘losing the plot’.  There is something primeval about working in the elements, something stupidly primeval.  It makes for a more than average tiring day, but despite the mud encased clothes, cuffs, face and other body parts, its a ‘clean tired’, know what I mean ?

'Oh Danny Boy, the mud the mud is calling...@

The wall is nearing completion, so is Dan, here he shovels mud, well top soil actually, he does not share my joyous humour in these conditions.

So, the weather has been the dominant variable in my life, one minute breath taking, one minute breath seeing, one minute bloody freezing !

For now its back to mild temperatures, wild wild wind and driving rain – yep, Wales.

I headed north again, over the hills of Plynlumon, the lake of Clwedog showed the violence of the night.  In the Dovey valley flood waters covered fields I had but days before been walking with the farmer who I was re-visiting to bring his completed report.  Machynlleth was already experiencing its first ‘cut off’ of the winter.  The main river crossing is a constant closure in bad weather.  Thankfully it had receded by the time I needed to ease baby car through the water.

Not the sea shore, the lake shore of Clwedog.

Now there's something you don't 'sea' everyday - a shipwreck in the middle of Wales. His insurance company will never believe his boat was wrecked in high seas on Llyn Clwedog!

This time of year is usually so frantic, storms rush in from the Atlantic during low pressure systems; these eventually give way to a high moving down from the Artic, clear skies, sunshine and…. minus degrees !

Its the whole thinking behind the term ‘Dry Stone Wall’.  Sedimentary rocks, which are the main ingredient in walls in Wales (and elsewhere), are porous.  That is they absorb water, rain water in particular, they fill-up during the long wet days of a low pressure system.  When the high pressure eventually arrives, temperatures plummet, water freezes, stones fracture.

Its why walls are built the way they are, to keep water out, to keep the wall ‘Dry’.  Not a lot of people know that !

I got to leave Wales for an hour or so this last week, I emigrated across Offa’s Dyke, the boundary built to keep us in some 1500 years ago, to the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Erdding.  Actually I crossed the county boundary out of Radnorshire into the English border county of Hereford.  The border lands – the Marches – are a fascinating historical zone.  Much pre-history remains to be discovered, especially around the world famous Walton basin, site of the biggest henge (of  wood not stone) in Wales.  The Romano-British period is yet to be examined but Welsh place names indicate a strong influence of the Laws of Hywel Dda.  The area I visited was close to the small market town of Kington, the Hergest ridge has a number of Bronze age and Iron age sites and nestling close by is the old medieval village of Huntingdon.  Many English villages have quaint churches, set in chocolate box greenery.  Huntingdon is just the most perfect example.

English Parish church of Huntingdon

Although English, this little church has a typically Welsh 'Llan', a circular dry stone enclosure probably earlier than the medieval church of St Thomas A'Beckett.

The church is off the beaten track, found only by following small wooden signs.  It lies through a farm yard and the watchful farmer soon came to ‘sound me out’, make sure I wasn’t up to ‘owt naughty’.  He told me that theft and vandalism had crept even here, so he kept an eye on strangers.  We got chatting and it transpired that the old boy who repaired the wall was now resident within and there was need for a new, ‘younger’ waller.  I’m not going to comment on the coincidence – I’ll leave it to you….

To get to this little hamlet I had to negotiate several narrow lanes and sign-less junctions.  As I rounded one corner into another large farm which straddled the road, my eyes were immediately drawn to an amazing sight (‘amazing’ is of course a ‘relative’ term, a value judgement which, I fully accept, many of you will not share !).  I’ll say no more than ‘look at the picture’ !

Herefordshire Haywain

This wain is still housed in the wain house where it has spent the previous 100 years.

If you look closely you will see, parked behind the cart, a Standard Fordson tractor, circa 1942, clearly then the cart has been used after the 2nd World War.  The tractor is the same as my own which , this week has been ‘put to bed’ for the winter.

Nature Calls.

Autumn moving into winter is a bad time for our wild life.  Animals and birds begin to panic as the long harsh winter looms and food gets hard to find.  For many it is their first winter, the first away from the relative comfort of mum.  Cubs,  young animals and birds are left to survive or die, and many of them do just that.  Unfortunately we are responsible for a large number of the deaths.  Road kills are a huge percentage of wildlife deaths.  Birds as small as tits and sparrows are often caught out by fast moving vehicles, the slower birds, the larger species such as blackbirds right through to buzzards (as noted in an earlier post) get hit.  Hedgerow birds such as blackbirds suffer disproportionately as their life style and feeding habits, which sees them flitting from hedge to hedge – and hence across the road at low level – , puts them in harms way.

This past week I have been driving more than usual and have been saddened by the number of young badgers, polecats, birds and fox cubs that I have seen dead in the road.

A fox cub killed on a country lane.

This very healthy vixen is dead at only 9 months of age. Killed on a quiet country road where probably less than 10 vehicles passed by all night.

Now foxes differ from badgers in how they live their lives.  Badgers tend to occupy large setts within which extended family groups live.  I had a sett in a wood I owned in which over 30 badgers covering 6 generations – to my knowledge – lived.  Foxes on the other hand live solitary lives, constantly roaming over a large area in search of food and a bit of the other.  Once cubs reach the weaning stage mum splits them up over a large area.  She continues to visit them but on a reducing timetable until eventually they have to find their own food.  This normally occurs around late September and this is also the time when cub hunting is traditionally undertaken.  Cubs are vulnerable at this time, they are ‘stateless’ in that they do not have established territories, hence they do not have the knowledge of escape routes, hiding places and safe houses – earths to which they can retreat.

Now clearly, in my world especially, vulpes vulpes is not well liked.  Foxy is accused of all manner of atrocities, he is the SS of the animal world.  I have to admit I am always slightly bemused at the hatred this rather attractive beast engenders, it’s a bloody Fox ! It is supposed to kill things !  Actually chicken and lamb does not figure high on its diet.  Rabbit tends to be more common, but actually the main diet is much smaller, beetles, insects and worms.

Because of the position I occupy in the rural community I cannot enter into the hunting debate, indeed in my youth I spent many hours with a rifle hunting this cunning creature.  I had the privilege of walking the hills with a naturalist of immense knowledge and understanding of conservation in the years before any such ‘science’ existed.  Basil Moses was a true country character, the sort of man who knew much but spoke little.  He was employed – if that is the term – by farmers to eradicate foxes which, it was assumed, threatened their livelihoods.  We would walk – usually on a Sunday (he had a particular dislike for the ‘Chapel domination’ of the communities which surrounded his home farm in the foothills of the Eppynt) – and we would cover tens of miles; he knew all the earths in a 10 mile radius of his home in the valley of the Bran.  He used two little dogs and a shotgun, I used a rifle of .22 calibre.  I remember only making two shots in the years I walked with him, such was his marksmanship.  We would track animals, using scent, droppings, field signs and his knowledge.  We would approach down wind, he always knew where the fox would bolt and I would be ordered to position myself as a back-stop, in the unlikely event he missed.  The dogs went in, the fox ran out, a shot would ring out and the animal was dead.  In so much as any death is desirable, these were quick and painless (although how being blasted by a 12 bore shot-gun can be absolutely painless now challenges me somewhat).  My role was to use the more long range rifle, sniper like, to pick off any escapee.  If I say so myself – and Basil said so on more than one occasion – I was a good shot.  I wonder know how I ever did it, I no longer feel capable, although pheasants…… now they are a different matter – I actually hate them !!

Basil had a fool-proof way of keeping his farm clear of rats.  One morning in late July he called me over to a large wooden barrel in the corner of the yard.  He gingerly lifted the lid and something jumped toward the light.  “Look at this beast” he said.  I did, and nearly threw up;  I absolutely despise rats, I cringe even as I write this, I hat them as much, no, more, than pheasants !  In the barrel was the biggest cat sized rat I ever saw, or indeed have seen since, its tail – always the most gruesome part of the creature to me – was snake-like.

Basil’s method was simple; he caught rats in live-traps (cages which imprison the animals until they are despatched) and, instead of killing them, put them into the large barrel, no food and no water.  They killed each other and ate and drunk from the bodies of their kin.  Ultimately a ‘King Rat – that’s what Basil called him – would emerge, and several weeks more of being fed live rats turned him into the most efficient of cannibalised killers.  When the harvest was in, King Rat – by now only wanting to eat rat – was let go, within a week or so there were no rats on the farm and the harvest was safe.  “The problem then is to catch him”, was Basil’s summing up as we set off on another long walk in pursuit of the beautiful fox.

So we are into November, my my, I can hardly credit that in a few short weeks another Christmas will be upon us.  For now though I have a re-union to look forward to.  An amazing coincidence saw me meet up with a friend of many years ago, we played rugby in Brighton back in the 1970s.  He now helps run a family pub in a tiny valley near Crickhowell, and we met up a couple of months ago.  He has arranged to take me back to meet up with my old team mates – those that are still with us for some have now gone – at a get together which they have apparently be holding annually for some years.  I am a surprise guest.  I have happy memories of my days in Brighton, especially of the rugby, especially of the friends, my ‘Best Man’ even, whom I have not seen for best part of 30 years.  Something to look forward to, but another bit of news this last week brings forward the possibility of an overseas trip in a ‘big silver bird’.

It looks like this week I will finally get to finish the small wall down at Llangorse, and maybe, just maybe, I can get the wagon home……….

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