Autumn farming: Endless jobs, the pain of potatoes and the ram who made a break for freedom

Rosamund Young's fourth beautiful article for Country Life explores, potatoes, intelligent sheep and the accidental devastation of spiders' webs.

Autumn, and even more jobs have to be squeezed into each day. Not just cows and sheep and hens to tend and the farm shop to run, but apples to pick and store – the Lord Derby reachable only from the fully extended telescopic boom of the JCB (Health and Safety fear not).

And then the potatoes.

We only grow a few rows to offer to our meat customers, so economies of scale don’t enter the equation. Back-breaking or at least back-bending hours picking them up by hand at least gives us the opportunity to turn each tuber over and sort: any hint of green or actual damage and they are on the compost heap but odd shapes abound, along with a fair proportion approaching potato perfection. A very ancient Ransomes lifter drawn by an equally ancient but valiant Ford 4600 gently eases them out of their hiding places, a vast improvement on lifting them all with a fork.

The crab apple tree opposite the kitchen window is weighed down with fruit and all of it for the birds.

And then the ram escapes. To refer to him as ‘the’ ram rather belittles the other rams but he is definitely not just ‘a’ ram but neither are they: admirable, diverse characters all.

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I have written that sheep are the most intelligent of all farm animals: I should have been more accurate. Some sheep are highly intelligent and some are not. This must be obvious. It’s true of humans so why not true of absolutely every other species? I recall watching a television film of male weaver birds constructing magnificent nests to entice a wife. One of them made a hopeless job of it but still paraded proudly although any ‘intelligent’ prospective wife would have known her eggs would not have been safe.

Today the rain is washing the colour from the leaves but the earthworms will pull them down into the earth to enrich it to help feed subsequent plant growth and the magnificent cycle of decay and renewal proceeds.

I used to fear Winter with its relentless demand for many sets of suitable clothes to brave whatever weather arrives: warm enough but supple for carrying hay and sweeping and shovelling, rainproof but not too heavy, and somewhere to hang things where they often dry a bit brittle, only to be broken in again next day. But now I embrace the problems and choose more suitable clothes…

Edward Thomas’s poem with its resonating repetition ‘there’s nothing like the sun…’ resides in my head but Coleridge tells me: ‘all seasons shall be sweet to thee..’ and that’s a powerful Winter guide.

The tawny owls hooted and screamed their way through the night, two tiny newts inexplicably found their way onto the rough door mat but were noticed despite their minuteness and replaced on surer ground and the spiders worked their socks off encasing the fields in lace but we devastated many webs on our way to see the heifer who calved yesterday: Cream Dorothy 3rd.

The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young is published by Faber & Faber (£9.99)