Mixed signals



I know, I know. If I start putting pictures of flowers on the blog people will be expecting Latin names and all sorts.

Me, I’ve a stockman, or even more precisely a cowman. So looking at these flowers from a bovine perspective, they should perhaps be called, ‘piquant, with a slight peppery aftertaste’ or something similar.

But yes, all along the hedges the snowdrops are well out and the daffodils are heavy in bud and spring’s about to burst upon us.

And the Met Office is making dire predictions along the lines that ‘Winter is coming’ and by this time next week travel in the UK will be impossible for anybody who cannot hitch their huskies to a dog sled. As an aside I cannot somehow envisage Border Collies taking well to the role of a sledge dog. But if you ever have your sled pulled by sheep I know no better dog to ensure things keep moving briskly and in the right direction.

Well it’s still February and I’ve known March be grim before.

And of course, in theory, on the First of March the ewes should start lambing. As it is, everything is ready for them. All the pens are washed out, disinfected and bedded, straw is in place ready for further bedding round, and in theory everything is ready.

So every morning when I feed our expectant mothers I try to see if there’s anybody looking particularly close to lambing. To be honest this is all a bit hit and miss. I’m the one putting feed out for them; so my view of the ewes is the front end moving towards me at speed as part of a solid phalanx of other equally peckish sheep.

Now it may be possible, if you reach a certain level of shepherding, to be able to tell how far off giving birth a ewe is by the hang of her lugs or the bags under her eyes, but between ourselves I suspect it isn’t. So instead when they’re eating, I circle the group once on the quad just to see if I notice anything, and then go and tour the rest of the fields they’re in to make sure nobody has slunk off on her own to lamb in a snug corner somewhere.

But anyway, early next week we’ll fetch the ewes in and go through them. Those who look like they’ll be lambing first will stay inside then until they’ve lambed. (Especially if the weather does get bad.) Those who’re obviously furthest from lambing will go back outside. They’ve got shelter, silage and feed and they’ll be OK there unless we have the sort of snow this area hasn’t seen since 1947.

Personally I think snow looks wonderful in photographs. But between ourselves I prefer water in a liquid state.


Buying hard work in


We had a bit of a tidy up, which will doubtless be followed by a ‘throwing out session.’ That’s when we found the old hay knife. As you can see it’s effectively an electric jackhammer with a blade for cutting hay or silage.

Basically back in the late 1960s we had one silage pit which was as big as we could afford, and we put as much grass in it as we could, and that way it got our dairy herd at the time through the winter.

The problem is that we were doing ‘self feed’ silage. Cows were held back from the silage face by an electric fence and just ate their way into the heap. This works great if the face isn’t too high. If it’s too high they burrow into the clamp and it collapses on top of them.

So we had two options, not make enough silage, or throw silage down off the top to take it down to a safe height. But silage, especially back then, was long and fibrous, and just pulling at it with a fork was damned hard work. You’d end up picking up a ‘mat’ at least five foot across.

Now my father had worked with hay before bailers have been popular so was used to dealing with mowed loose hay. You used to cut it with a hay knife. Here you see the traditional hay knife.




My father was at a farm sale somewhere and saw this electrical hay knife. He bought it at the auction and brought it home. All we had to do was use it. Well he used it during the week but at weekends I’d do the silage, and given I was about thirteen at the time, to me it was a brute of a thing and a real sod to wrestle into place. Not only that but you had to be careful where you put your feet with that blade bouncing up and down. I’m not entirely sure my mother knew what I was getting up to.

But I managed, because I’m bluidy minded and stubborn like that. Then I’d get the fork, throw what I’d cut off down onto a trailer and take it round and fork it out for heifers and others to eat.

I suppose I should have hated the blasted thing because it was big, numb and dangerous. But to me it was a sight easier than doing it the old way so was almost a great leap forward.

Now obviously we could have done down the shear grab route, although I think they came in later. Eventually we did get a tractor with a fore-end loader and a shear grab.

This meant that in half an hour I could do what had taken me a fair chunk of the day. Yet this wasn’t entirely without problems. Once when using the shear grab the tractor almost stalled as the grab went into the silage but fired up and the engine kept running.

Unfortunately it was running backwards. Eventually I worked out what was happening as I sat there surrounded by a cloud of diesel vapour, on a tractor which had four forward gears and twelve reverse gears!

This was, to put it bluntly, a little disconcerting, but when I stopped the tractor and started it again, the engine started up running properly. Agricultural engineers tell me that this shouldn’t happen, me I’ve done it twice!

Ah well, it struck me that you good people might fancy rescuing me from a life of hard work and penury. If so, all you have to do is wander across to





There you will find my latest novella

Tallis Steelyard and the sedan chair caper.

Rather than his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with one gripping adventure. A tale of adventure, duplicity and gentility. Why does an otherwise respectable lady have a pair of sedan chair bearers hidden in her spare bedroom? Why was the middle aged usurer brandishing an axe? Can a gangster’s moll be accepted into polite society? Answer these questions and more as Tallis Steelyard ventures unwillingly into the seedy world of respectable ladies who love of sedan chair racing.


All that for 99p, what more could anybody want!

Roe deer and Herdwicks, oh my.


This afternoon the weather had somehow overlooked us. So far today it has neither rained, snowed nor pelted us with hail. Given that yesterday had managed all three plus thunder and lightening, we were really expecting fog or perhaps a rain of frogs today. So mere weak sunshine seemed something of an anticlimax.

Still I took advantage of the freak weather to walk down to the bottom land and see what things were like. In theory we could be putting ewes and lambs down there in a month so it’s always a good idea to check what conditions are like.
It’s heavy land, we rarely had cattle on after October, unless it was a particularly fine and dry back end. This year the sheep came off early in November. The result is that when I went down, whilst there was a lot of standing water, nothing was paddled. Also there was some grass. It’s managed to very slowly keep growing and provided things go sensibly for the next month, it should be fit to put sheep on. We just need some dry weather for a change.

Mind you, as soon as I got down there, Sal set off and three Herdwick hoggs came running up out of a beck edge where they’d been hiding. They were nothing to do with us. I did, once, take in wintering Herdwicks. Keeping them in is like trying to wheel smoke in a barrow. They’re fell sheep and whilst they might indeed be hefted to a particular bit of fell, that fell is the far side of Coniston at the moment and probably covered in snow.

Herdwicks down in the lowlands are a bit like vets at a conference somewhere. Relieved of all responsibility for being in the right place at the right time vets tend to hit the bar and Herdwicks tend to just go where they want, ignoring fences, becks, or whatever.

So the three hoggs set off with Sal following them. Close enough to keep them moving but not so close that they’d panic. I followed at a more sedate pace, getting a feel for the ground and looking for grass. Eventually I almost caught up with them and stopped. The Herdwicks had halted and were watching Sal with a degree of nervousness. Off to one side, well out of the way, were a pair of Roe deer who were watching both Sal and the Herdwicks with benign curiosity. They gave the impression that they were fans of ‘One man and his dog’ and were waiting for the bit where I whistled just so and Sal would put one hogg in one field whilst loading the other two into a quad trailer.

I just shouted “Send them on Sal,” and she advanced on the hoggs who turned and fled across the beck to join their less adventurous flock mates. The Roe deer, doubtless disappointed that I’d sunk so far as to use voice commands, faded seamlessly away into the hedges and rushes.

Sal trotted back to me with the look of a dog who’s quite enjoyed her afternoon.


But as an aside, it struck me that I’d not yet got round to mentioning that I’ve got another novella out.


  Tallis Steelyard and the sedan chair caper.


Rather than his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with one gripping escapade. A tale of adventure, duplicity and gentility. Why does an otherwise respectable lady have a pair of sedan chair bearers hidden in her spare bedroom? Why was the middle aged usurer brandishing an axe? Can a gangster’s moll be accepted into polite society? Answer these questions and more as Tallis Steelyard ventures unwillingly into the seedy world of respectable ladies who love of sedan chair racing.


Available for the discerning and undiscerning alike at



Running in high heels


Not something I’ve ever tried to be honest. I’m tall enough as it is and my legs, decently clad in working trousers, are too utilitarian to warrant being exhibited to a dumbfounded world.

And at the moment it’s not the weather for high heels. As I sit on the quad in the rain, watching the sheep fish about for the nuts I’ve put down for them, I can hear Sal splashing towards me. When a small Border Collie bitch splashes when walking across what is supposed to be dry ground, you know it’s wet enough.

This morning the rain was coming across in great curtains. I had to slow down when driving into it because it was painful on my face if I went at any speed. Not only that but I think even Sal is losing it. She came up to jump a netting fence, totally mistimed everything jumping into the rain (or she may have slipped as she jumped) and ended up piling into the fence rather than sailing over it. She glanced at me in an embarrassed fashion to check that I hadn’t seen it and then quietly jumped over it properly.

But I was on about high heels wasn’t I. It’ll be about forty years ago now. It would be winter and after midnight when we were awakened by a hammering on the front door. We never use the front door to be honest, but sometimes people knock on it. Just rarely at midnight.

So my parents (whose room was above it) shouted out of the window to ask what was the problem, and I got dressed and went down to open the door. There was a barefoot young lady standing there. When my mother arrived we got her full story. Just down the lane from us was a lay-by where courting couples used to park up. She had been at a dance in Ulverston and had accepted a lift back to Barrow from somebody who had been ‘more affectionate than she had intended.’

So when he stopped at the lay-by she’d seen the lights of our cubicle house. In winter when cows are housed we leave some lights on. It’s easier for cows to get up for a drink or something to eat; and if they can see, they’re less easily startled by anything. So they’re happier.
This lass had seen the lights, opened the passenger door and had run for it. In the course of which she’d abandoned her high heels. By the time she’d worked out the lights came from outbuildings, she could see where the front door was so had hammered on that.

She was seriously nervous, so I went out to both make sure there was nobody still parked in the lay-by and to find her shoes. Whoever she’d had the lift with was gone, and I even found both her shoes. When I wandered back in she was on the phone for a taxi.

Strangely enough she’d decided that she’d get a taxi home rather than phoning for her Dad to collect her. I think she felt the taxi driver would need fewer embarrassing explanations.

Fear and Greed


Feeding sheep this morning and I took some tub to a dozen gimmers (ewe lambs kept for breeding; these are nearly a year old). They had been chewing some grass off elsewhere but are now closer to home. I walked in with the bucket, shouted to them and rattled the bucket.

They looked up, saw the bucket and came towards me. Then they saw Sal and stopped abruptly. Sal watched them, they watched Sal. Nobody moved. The gimmers drifted forward a little. Sal continued to watch so the gimmers stopped and watched her. Then Sal shrugged and drifted off to follow a scent trail that interested her. With this the gimmers made their way towards the feed which I’d now put into their troughs.

But there were only eight of them, where had the other four got to? I could hear bleating from over the crest of the hill, and suddenly the other four appeared, saw their friends eating and hurtled towards us. Then they noticed Sal. Separated from their ‘flock’ they just accelerated. Sal who has had to deal with this situation before made damned sure she wasn’t between the sheep and their feed.

It did strike me that with her experience of the balance between greed and fear Sal ought to be producing expensive training courses for investment managers and similar. As it is I suspect that she’s too wise to get caught up in the rat race. Growing ridiculously rich isn’t something that seems to appeal to the Border Collie.

Anyway we went to look at the wintering hoggs. We got there and one had got its head caught in the netting. They’re Swaledales so are horned sheep. Sal shot through the gate to deal with the hogg. I parked the quad and followed her. The problem is that in the presence of Sal the hogg can just keep charging forwards which achieves nothing. (Except perhaps to break the fence posts!)

Just as I was shouting, “Sit down Sal“,  to ensure this didn’t happen, she got in front of the hogg which went backwards, unentangled itself and ran off. Sal gave me a look of dog who has absolute confidence in her abilities. She has no interest at all in selling out and training investment managers. She passed the test, she will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Sal.


Oh and more of Sal’s antics appear in



One day I will write a blog about how hot and dry everything is, how the dust hangs in the air, and the sun beats mercilessly down on us. But today is not the day. It’s still wet. In fact it’s beyond that, if you’ll pardon my French, it’s sodding wet.

You know when a day is out to get you. I backed the quad onto the quad trailer and went to hook the trailer on. The lock that fastens over the ball hitch wasn’t working. Whether it’s jammed with mud or what I don’t know, I made an executive decision that this wasn’t a problem I was going to deal with in the pouring rain. So I put the old trailer on.

This is twice the weight and probably about twice the width. It’s not a bad trailer but does have its issues.

So I put the feed in the trailer and Sal and I set off to feed the first lot of sheep. Of course I met a neighbour in the lane, and of course he was driving in the opposite direction is a reasonably wide vehicle. I pulled off the road into a gateway but of course with the old trailer on, it was still hanging out into the road. But with a bit of jiggling we managed to get past each other. So now I’m mildly wet.

In to see the first lot of ewes. This involves walking through wet sheep who’re surging round you. They’re coming up behind you at just the right height to hit you behind the knee. If they walk across the front of you or overtake you to the side, well they rub a sodden wet fleece all over your legs.

But everybody has their food, everybody is happy. (Except Sal, who isn’t entirely happy because sheep who see food being poured out for them will run over the dog to get to it before their mates do. Sal finds this lack of respect distinctly hurtful to be honest.)
But anyway, I’m now merely wet.

Off to see the second lot. They’re furthest from lambing, get a lot less feed, but perhaps because of this seem even keener to get to me before their mates do. Sal has abandoned any thought of maintaining order and is merely rolling in the coarse grass, perhaps as a way of having a bath. Both lots of ewes are out on some land that never got mown last year because the idea was to make hay. The weather conspired to ensure that hay was never made. So the sheep are ‘chewing it off.’

There is a school of thought within agriculture which says that actually you shouldn’t waste time and money making hay or silage for winter, but should just leave the grass growing in the field and eat it off in situ. It’s not something I’ve dared to do, and I’ve got my doubts about whether it’s the sort of feed which can support new calved dairy cows. But on dryish ground with growing cattle I can see it might have a place. But still, at the moment, we’re briefly and accidentally at the cutting edge of grazing management. Mind you, I suspect that like many farmers over the last five or six thousand years, we’re just making the best of a bad job and putting a good face on it.

Next to look at some store lambs for a neighbour. Turn uphill and thanks to the heavy trailer frantically have to drop a gear. Sal looks on as if to ask what I’m playing at. I’m now travelling more slowly that she likes. Shrugging off the unspoken disapproval of a Border Collie we make it to the store lambs and miracles of miracles, none of them seem to have got themselves entangled in hedges, so I don’t have to get wet pulling one out. Instead I just get wet driving round the perimeter to check. But still, I’ve been sodding wet before and I’ll doubtless be sodding wet again.

Finally off to see the wintering hoggs. The age of miracles is still with us because they’re all at the bottom end where I can see them all from the road. This saves me having to take the quad into the field, through a gateway which is largely underwater. It does mean I’ve got to turn quad and trailer round in the lane, which isn’t too bad with the smaller of the two trailers, but of course, I’ve got the heavier trailer to manoeuvre in the pouring rain.
Anyway, job done, everybody fed, checked and otherwise monitored. Home again, drop the trailer off, put the quad away, fasten Sal up and in for coffee. But before the coffee, everything I’m wearing is dripping wet so goes into the washing machine.

Except, strangely enough, for my socks. Normally the water runs down your jacket and trousers and pools at the bottom of your Wellingtons. I think that because I was sitting on the quad, my socks somehow stayed dry. Ah well, let’s be thankful for small mercies.

Also let’s be thankful for the fact actually the day wasn’t too bad. On a bad day, you have to put a second lot of soaking clothes into the washing machine, and retrieve the first lot from the tumble-drier.

But we left him alone with his glory.


There are days when whatever you intended, other stuff just sort of gets added to the agenda.

I had to go down to London. Virgin did their best, the train was swift and arrived on time and I drifted into London. It was expensive; my Kindle had just failed so I was forced to buy books!

But still, it had to be done and books were bought to ensure I had something to read, at least on the train back.

Anyway I checked in, dumped my gear and pondered the evening which was cold and windy. First stop was St Paul’s Cathedral which is just nearby. I try and catch evensong if I can and it was there I saw it. For Christmas and Epiphany the Cathedral as a virtually life sized crib scene. It has kings, mother and child, shepherds, lambs and a border collie. All I can say is that the sculptor who created it had grasped the essential nature of the Border Collie.

There are kings, the Madonna, the Son of God, and doubtless outside in the yard there are camels, donkeys and all sorts of cattle. Our Border Collie (and it can be nothing else) ignores them all and concentrates entirely on the really important issue. The sheep.


During the service, it was announced that the Rifles were going to lay a tribute at the Memorial of Sir John Moore, Moore of Corunna. After evensong those who wanted to gathered in a side chapel and there the dean said a few words, the wreaths were laid, somebody read the poem, and six buglers played. Given that was in a side chapel, and there were, as I mentioned, six of them, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he heard it.

He was a decent man, a fine officer, a humanitarian and deserves to be remembered. He died at the Battle of Corunna, where his victory won time for the British army to be evacuated by sea.



The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna


Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,

    As his corse to the rampart we hurried;

Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot

    O’er the grave where our hero was buried.


We buried him darkly at dead of night,

    The sods with our bayonets turning,

By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light

    And the lantern dimly burning.


No useless coffin enclosed his breast,

    Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him;

But he lay like a warrior taking his rest

    With his martial cloak around him.


Few and short were the prayers we said,

    And we spoke not a word of sorrow;

But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,

    And we bitterly thought of the morrow.


We thought, as we hollowed his narrow bed

    And smoothed down his lonely pillow,

That the foe and the stranger would tread o’er his head,

    And we far away on the billow!


Lightly they’ll talk of the spirit that’s gone,

    And o’er his cold ashes upbraid him –

But little he’ll reck, if they let him sleep on

    In the grave where a Briton has laid him.


But half of our heavy task was done

    When the clock struck the hour for retiring;

And we heard the distant and random gun

    That the foe was sullenly firing.


Slowly and sadly we laid him down,

    From the field of his fame fresh and gory;

We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,

    But we left him alone with his glory!


Charles Wolfe