The Wisdom of Sheep, by Rosamund Young: An exclusive extract for Country Life

Rosamund Young, best-selling author of 'The Secret Life of Cows', has a new book out book called 'The Wisdom of Sheep & Other Animals'. We have an exclusive extract for Country Life readers.

Rosamund Young, the best-selling author of The Secret Life of Cows, has been a farmer for almost half a century.  In her new book, The Wisdom of Sheep & Other Animals, she turns her focus from her cattle to her sheep, showing a side if these oft-maligned animals that’s by turns amusing, surprising and eye-opening.

‘Some are affectionate, others prone to head-butting,’ says Rosamund. ‘Some are determinedly self-sufficient, others seek our help when they need it. And some can be trusted to lead the flock home. They are as individual as we are.’

Rosamund spoke to the Country Life Podcast in an episode published on Friday 15th December, while you can read an extract from her new book here:

A cold late winter

Kite’s Nest had one significant disadvantage when we first came here: a very limited range of buildings. Most of them were in poor condition and none of them were really suited to modern farming, being either too low or too narrow for tractors.

On the farm that Richard rented when he left school, he had had no trouble obtaining capital grants of 40 per cent for a range of buildings to keep all the cattle comfortable in adverse weather and all the hay, straw and farm machinery under cover. In the early 1970s, he was still using nitrogen fertiliser and other chemicals. I’m not sure if it was specifically stated in the legislation, but these were effectively the key to obtaining the grants, because the money was conditional on increasing yields, and also on specialising in preferably one or at most two enterprises.

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When we applied for a grant at Kite’s Nest, we got a shock. We were told that we were not eligible as we wouldn’t be able to meet the productivity criteria without nitrogen fertiliser. The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS) was, at that time, a free service for farmers. One very kind ADAS officer took up our case, which was that by using clover in our grasslands we could increase the farm’s output without nitrogen. But the 18 Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was institutionally hostile to the concept of organic farming and totally committed to intensification through increasing use of agrochemicals. It took the ADAS officer five years of battling on our behalf to get MAFF to agree reluctantly that we could apply. He said he almost lost his job as a result.

It seemed as if everything was against us at the time: interest rates were soaring and the cost of new buildings had increased so much that even with the grant they were going to cost a lot more than they would have done had we put them up when we arrived in 1980. The grant scheme was also being phased out, limiting our time to arrange finance and get planning approval, which we needed because the farmhouse is listed.

The scale of the problem posed by the condition of the farm’s buildings became clear in the first months of 1983, which saw a very cold late winter with biting east winds against which we had to build temporary windbreaks with straw bales to keep the cattle warm enough. Come April it seemed as if spring had finally arrived, but the weather suddenly turned cold again and, very unexpectedly, snow was forecast. We got the cattle back in and bedded them down. Rather than the sprinkling of snow we’d expected, we woke up to find six to eight inches of wet and frozen snow lying everywhere, including on the flat roof of the flimsy pole barn erected by our predecessor.

“There were close to a hundred cattle in this barn when the roof caved in during the night”

Very lightweight plastic sheets were supported on beams only two inches wide. This was enough to support the 19 sheets, but completely inadequate to take the weight of the snow as well. There were close to a hundred cattle in this barn when the roof caved in during the night. Clearly there must have been some creaking before the collapse, as the cattle had all huddled at one end, where about a quarter of the roof was still precariously in place. Miraculously none of them were hurt.

Another heavy flurry of snow left me wondering how to rescue our tiny flock of sheep, who I knew would be huddling against the top wall of the Seven-Acre Field. Richard hitched our old cattle transporter to the tractor, and we set off uphill on the impassable-looking farm track. I clung on precariously as he drove in blizzard conditions, zigzagging and sliding. Up one very steep part, the wheels spun so much we almost came to a stop, but we just managed to reach the top track and with it the flatter ground. When we reached the sheep, we opened the transporter and fought against the wind to push the gate open just far enough for them to squeeze through. Although they had never travelled in any vehicle before, they all hurried inside and we tobogganed terrifyingly home.

Fortunately, the snow didn’t last long and we were able to turn the cattle out and feed them in the field. The pole barn was a complete write-off. We’d tried to get it insured, but every company had balked at its flimsiness. Not only were there broken beams and large pieces of plastic roofing sheet everywhere, but many of the sheets had shattered into hundreds of small pieces. These all had to be picked out of the straw by hand before we could clean out the three-foot-deep winter bedding. Without a grant we couldn’t afford to replace the barn with a new building, but we had to have shelter ready for the following winter. Richard decided the only option was to upgrade the size of the beams significantly and re-roof it himself with second-hand corrugated sheets. Little did we know at the time, but this would have to suffice for the next thirty-three years.

The Four Seasons

Spring is so brief. It is glorious relief, after a long winter of laborious and relentless feeding, to be able to let the cattle graze grass in abundance instead of hay or silage. No sooner do they have the right to roam freely, however, than we need to confine them to certain fields unsuitable for haymaking and leave the rest of the grass to grow.

Summer is all about winter: assessing the weather, mowing, spreading, rowing up, baling and carting the precious fodder to the safety of the barn. Farmers have to plan a long time ahead to be sure they have sufficient feed for their animals, just as people always had to grow their own food and learn how to preserve as much as they could before the advent of supermarkets.

Autumn will vary. If you grow crops you will be totally absorbed with the harvest and preparing the soil for planting. If you have only livestock, there will be time to enjoy them enjoying just being. The tough work of winter will seem a long way off, and as your animals eat their way towards it, grazing the grass as it declines in abundance and quality and grows more slowly, you will hope and almost believe that autumn will stay kind until spring.

“Sheep absolutely hate being kept inside and make their feelings very clear”

Winter is eating the summer bounty, spiking and unzipping the bales, repairing fences when you can find 22 time on a dry day, and cleaning, sharpening, oiling, greasing and servicing the kit ready for summer.

In many ways, sheep are less trouble than cattle in winter. They need to be fed of course but they are lighter and don’t poach the pasture into deep mud with their hooves as cattle do when it is wet. All of our animals prefer to be outside if at all possible, but the cattle do appreciate the shelter of the barns in adverse weather while our sheep absolutely hate being kept inside and make their feelings very clear. Their coats are weatherproof, coated with lanolin to repel water and able to protect them from fierce winds.

The Wisdom of Sheep & Other Animals: Observations from a Family Farm by Rosamund Young is published by Faber (£14.99 hardback)