Growing Goats and Girls

Excerpts

April morning with goats

Morwenna leads the goats out of the yard and up into the triangle top orchard. This leader is nine years old and confidently in charge of animal routine. She has Yamaha by the collar and together they are considering small treats for a goat to nibble along the way, snips of young bramble, sorrel in the bank, a leaf or two of primrose. Behind these two are Michael with four junior goats. Straggling behind and chatting to herself follows our dizzy six-year-old.

I am bringing up the rear with Juniper and her small kids; she needs leading, as she would prefer to be in the shed with her little ones and they are frisking about in a new and astonishing world. They plant their peg legs squarely on the ground to snort with surprise at what they see and seek reassurance with a tinny bleat, which is answered by a snicker of maternal affection.

Morwenna opens the little gate into the top orchard and firmly directs Yamaha towards a tangle of brambles that we want stripped, so we can cut the remaining briars. We stand in a pastoral sort of way; the goats are not tethered and need to be kept focused on the bramble zone. Georgie and Morwenna flutter about finding catkins and pussy willow and a tiny hidden violet. It’s a perfect April moment.

Stoat to the nature table

Morwenna is as keen as the next schoolkid to take things in to her reception class and there is plenty to choose from. She takes in bunches of grapes, frogspawn, a leaf which has rotted leaving a filigree skeleton, flowers, caterpillars in a jamjar, a slowworm killed by the cat, shells from the beach, some beeswax, and today there is a dead stoat on the mat and she eyes it with interest. It has rich brown fur on its back and a creamy white belly and throat, a small tail, and an exquisite face with a mouth full of razor sharp teeth. I view it with suspicion, wondering how many chicks or ducklings it has consumed. I give Bartholomew a cautious stroke of approbation, aware that there may have been fleas acquired in the hunt and kill.

Morwenna demands a box and picks the stoat up carefully and lays it out on a stretch of loo paper and proudly takes it on her lap as we drive to school.

When I collect her I am caught by the teacher, who starts off in a positive interview format, lovely to have all these wonderful things on the nature table, lovely to have such interest in nature, lovely to live on a farm and experience all these things, but she is not quite sure that dead animals have a place on the nature table, and considering the other children less accustomed to farm life, could we restrict Morwenna’s offerings to plant life?

Naming our land

It is a known fact that Michael and I disagree on almost everything, and so why not disagree on where we actually live, what we own here, a piece of land with several dwellings on it.

We surely have a small farm. We have a courtyard of barns, but we have only a small acreage and we have seven acres of orchard and mixed woodland and meadow and garden.

Michael says we have a smallholding. This is technically correct. We also have an enormous menagerie of creatures, so maybe we are a zoo. And then there are the holiday cottages plus playground, so what are we?? Are we smallholders? I don’t feel like a smallholder; to say we are farmers feels like a boast of umpteen acres; to say we are running a holiday complex sounds too wordy and smacks of Butlin’s. I’m definitely not a zookeeper.

We are experts in crisis management.

The May gap

All bees have their June gap when most of their flower source is finished. We have a May gap for vegetables. Most of the seed packets recommend planting in May but some can be squeezed in early and so in May we have some seedlings, some not yet ready spinach, some not yet ready lettuce and some straggling half rotten leeks left braving the spring rains after a long winter.

There is a storage principle, medieval and probably more successful for them than for us. It is that root vegetables can be stored in a clamp, where you make a circle of carrots and parsnips with their pointy ends facing the centre and you layer up with sand or peat and then cover the whole stack with sand and help yourself over the winter. Not so. Or we used the wrong sand, or made the wrong circle. Or the writer of the information was lying. Anyway the clamp produces a tragedy of shrivelled vegetables sprouting hairy roots.