Mary's Dairy Diary
July, and the year tips into high summer, furious growth limited by dry weather and plants seeding. Animals and plants have that well fed look – house martens wheel around the house, giving us freedom from hornets coming in in the evening – do these tiny birds take those huge insects? I drove back from talking to the Exmoor Women Farming Group across Exmoor, expecting to see wildlife along the way – not much – as soon as I got onto our farm, I saw fallow deer, a fat badger, and two roly-poly fox cubs. Squirrels are eating my strawberries; last year I was getting a colander a day, this year just a handful. I’ve got electrified chicken wire and two nets around them, and they are jumping the wire and breaking the net. Next is to completely encase the strawberries in a cage of chicken wire. Too much wildlife!
June is rich and luscious, leaves dripping from the trees, all new unfurled and perfect. Everything has a prosperous look. The badgers scuttle away from us every time we go down the lane at night, fat and mercifully healthy looking. The red hinds feast on the broad flag leaves of wheat, with the sweet ears just emerging. They are so well fed that they are inattentive, and jump out almost on top of us out of the hedge. I scramble up the hedge to see a herd of 40 hinds looking at me indignantly and quizzically wondering why I disturb their feast. They seem to know that it’s the close season and trot over the skyline in an orderly formation: I can smell them on the wind, there are so many of them, so they are still grazing just out of sight.
When spring starts, I always get a sense of relief and surprise that it really is happening again. Now it’s May, that initial disbelief is replaced by complete amazement at how much life, growth, wild energy suffuses everything I can see.
Every hedgerow has gone crazy, sending out the cow parsley that grows visibly day to day, suddenly the lanes are too narrow for cars to go down without the delicate flowers stroking the sides. The thorn hedge that I laid, worried it would kill the blackthorn and hawthorn, is flowering for England on its side. Pairs of birds fly flirtatiously together, absorbed in each other, oblivious of predators for the only time in the year. The dazzling succession of greens in the woodland deepens and starts becoming one great motor of growth as all the leaves have unfurled from their delicate winter protection and open themselves, like photovoltaic cells, to harvest the sun’s energy.
April is bright and blowy, warm like summer, cold like winter - plenty of weather. We all cheer up as the days get longer, the light gets brighter, nature fizzes with the wild dance of high spring. Birds everywhere take on the business of breeding, endless feeding. The ravens in the wood on the hillside spend all their time scolding - who? Each other? Badgers are about a lot at night: all ours look healthy, fat: we see the guardian boars, who roam the edge of the territory keeping their families safe. The wild boar sows have piglets, making them off limits: each one producing 6 -12 young. They will defend their young vigorously, so walkers need to keep dogs on leads, you don’t want the dog running back to you with a stroppy mum in hot pursuit.
March - early spring warmth after the cold weather is like breathing out after a shock - just the joy of it is enough. All the signs of spring hasten on, buds swelling, birds engrossed in their courtship and nesting, spring flowers start - primroses, daffodils, blackthorn. The landscape, so long held in suspension, slowly then faster and faster animates in the wild dance of the seasons. Ravens call from the woods, a fat fallow hind, belly big with calf, can’t be bothered to skitter out of the way when she sees no threat from me, and walks over the hedge into the copse. They’ve got a good eye for what’s a threat: there is an old fallow hind who follows the woods tractor, knowing that the felled trees will give a good lunch on the soft bark from the top of the tree. When she hears the grunt of the tractor, she follows the sound: won’t follow other tractors, just the one with Tony in it who fells the trees.
Everything has the battered look that comes from sitting in a deep freeze of a winter with several inches of snow sitting on its back. Since then, there’s been weather enough to get growth started - grass, snowdrops, catkins. Then we have frosts to remind us that winter has something else in store. Wild things get bolder as they get hungrier, in the hundred hungry days between Christmas and Easter. Owls fly on fine nights, a barn owl swoops low overhead on a starlit night. We collect the owl pellets for children to discover the delicate tracery of the skeletons of the little creatures the owls eat - death and excrement, enormously interesting to children. Although we are culling wild boar, they are still bold, facing you out if you come across them in the track, sniffing and snorting, eventually lumbering away, oddly nimble despite being so solid.
We’ve got heaps of snow lying around, how long will we have snow on the ground? We scraped the snow up so we can reach the animals and get to the cheese, making huge piles like disorderly snowmen. I’m old enough to remember 1963, when I was very sad and the grown-ups were inexplicably happy when the snow finally went away in March. My son made a convincing looking igloo by packing snow into a box to make blocks and built them into something big enough for 3 lads to sit in, grinning wider than the doorway.
We can see the tracks of wildlife – deer, boar, rabbits, hares, badgers and foxes. We can see how bold they are, coming right up to the house, deer going between the house and barns. It’s hard for them, and hunger drives them closer. When the snow goes, everything has that battered look, all the food the wildlife rely on deep frozen and thawed.
Light is seeping fast out of the shortening days, spectacular days are so short, overcast days have twilight at noon. This is the time of year my father died, making the dark days darker. Little birds fleet over the cold landscape, escaping the hungry eyes of the buzzards who wait on the telegraph poles. The deer get more and more inventive about how to get into my vegetable garden (what about a now 7 foot high electrified fence with a proximity alarm don’t they understand - it feels like we are training them to steeplechase).
I'd like to introduce Mary Quicke, of Quickes Traditional Farmhouse Cheeses in the UK. She's been generous enough to share the beautifully-written updates she sends from Devon, where her family has farmed for more than 450 years. —Will
MARY'S DAIRY DIARY - NOVEMBER 2010
November has dark evenings when we can still remember the light ones, leaves are whirling off the trees when we can remember the green of summer, and chilly when the wreckage of summer lies broken all around.