Monday, 7 January 2013

There's only one place for snow....


When I was ten years old I'd watch the snow fall with unrestrained relish, eager to stuff a plastic bag with hay and bomb down the hillside. Now I am a farmer I sit narrowed eyed at the hill gazing window and vex each and every single flake. As if sheep are not loathsome enough creatures, who can die from at least fifteen different ailments they have happily seen that evolution has so chromed them white. It only needs ten flakes to fall before the buggers are totally camouflaged. And so I have to pull on my hole ridden boots and trudge into the forming drifts to wade them to safety. Yet they hide from me like a chameleon in Center Parks. Over dale and dingle I have wandered for three weeks in search of delinquent ovine, falling down drifted over tractor ruts and calling for the lives of the animals who habitually ridicule me.
The hill is two hundred acres. I have 800 sheep. So that's...... uh, so many sheep to an acre. I set off last week in search of any strays from the flock. I stood at the foot of the hill with stick in hand and James Johnston, my sheepdog, at heel ready to embark on an arduous journey to rescue my loved ones.
"Where do you think they are?" I asked James.
"Sod this, mate. Let's get back inside for a cup of Bovril and Test Match Special," my ever work shy sheepdog said.
"Come bye, James. If all sheep perished, who would you chase?"
"The postman," he said, rolling his eyes and buttoning the top of his wax jacket. We set off.
The highest point of the hill is eighteen hundred feet above sea level.
"I've never even seen the sea," James said stopping to roll in fox excrement.
"Do you have to do that?" I protested, spitting on a used hanky.
"Back off. This will attract a bitch as far off as Painscastle," he said and trotted off with his dander in the air.
The snow has been fluent. Great puff ball flakes arrowed from the heavens by the relentless east wind. On the lower ground the snow has fallen to the depth of six inches, but on the hill, ushered by the prevailing wind, it can drift to cover the land at two to three feet. With its many undulations, that can be tricksy. Sheep will look to the foreboding clouds and pick a spot in a hollow in which to shelter from the impending storm; but before they know it they are submerged. Right up to their cataract. However a sheep can survive in a snow drift by eating the wool off its own back and nibbling the snow for hydration for up to three weeks; if so required.
"Well Christ, if you had told me that at the bottom of the hill....." James barked pulling a bobble hat out of his pocket, "I needn't have left the kennel."
James jogged ahead trying in vain to light a saturated roll up, until we got about twelve hundred feet high, when the started to yap at a raised lump of snow.
"What you found, boy?" I asked wiping handfuls of snow from my numb face.
"A two-bar electric fire!" he shouted back. He's a sarcastic mutt, is our James. I arrived at the spot and found two horns poking from the snow.
"Where is he boy? Dig him out. Good boy," I encouraged.
"Love a pigeon," James retored, "do you want me to dress you in the morning as well?" He produced a telescopic shovel from his backpack and began to hue at the snow. He got down a foot when a sandy coloured face thrust skywards.
"Alright boys?" It was Savage Grant, the oldest Ram at Llanevan.
"Are you ok, Savage?" I asked. He looked frozen.
"Thank God you boys came along. Got a light? I've been trying to light my Primus for two days." James handed him a Clipper.
"We've got to get you back to the low ground, Savage."
"Balls to that fella's. I'm snug as a bug in here. I've got four steaks and a pork chop. I'm good 'til Valentines day. It's up top you're needed." Flame sprung from the stove and he unfolded some anchovy butter from a scrap of tin foil. "I saw twenty ewes in bikini's up there four days ago. As blue as whales they were." We continued on.
The sky was seeped in lilac. Damson, snow laden clouds were clustering in heaps above the white as Columbia hills. Great clumps of ice hung from branches of old trees like snot from the nostrils of a grumping toddler. It was minus 5.
"As Lassie is my witness if we're not back at the house for Home and Away, you are scratching my belly until Corrie comes on," James spat, but he didn't have to wait long until he spied another familiar body in the cold, "Up ahead. We've got a casualty."
The big freeze inevitably brings death. Nature consumes nature on the farm. When an animal succumbs to the elements another may prosper. Sheep, belying their joy of death, are actually a hardy breed, but now and again the plunging temperature proves all too much. In the time it takes to discover a dead sheep on the hill many scavengers have almost filtered it away in the blink of an eye, but at this point we were lucky enough to capture wildlife at work.
"Oi! Oi!" a voice screeched across the snow. It was Crossley the Buzzard. He was sat atop a dead sheep tying a napkin over his chest feathers. "You boys should be in front of the box in the warm, no?" Crossley said, drawing a sneer from James.
"We're out looking for sheep. Live one's, preferably."
"Well you're too late with this bugger, " Crossley said producing his Swiss army knife, "she has been ailing for a while. I've been sat in a tree, with salt and pepper poised for 48 hours."
Crossley said he had had to fight off a feisty red kite, four foxes and This Way Up, a notorious gnarled badger who roams the hill at night.
"That was a tricky one." Crossley added taking a bottle of chili sauce from his satchel.
"How did you get rid of him?"
"Told him I'd seen Bill Oddie with a pair of binoculars coming through the snow. He scarpered."
We left Crossley to feed in peace.
Sunshine began to peek through the fragments clouds sending lazer's of piercing light speeding over the white carpet.
"This is beautiful, isn't it James?"
"Oh here we go. Don't get romantic up here with me or I'll sink my teeth into you." And they say that a dog is a man's best friend.
It took us an hour to reach the summit of the hill when James spotted the errant ewes. They were huddled together under an overhangong slab of rock.
"Girls, what on earth are you doing up here? Couldn't you see the bad weather coming?"
"It just took us by surprize," said Jazelle, a three year old Welsh Speckle faced ewe, "we tried to get down to the lower ground, but you try walking in the snow in stilettos."
Honestly, sheep eh? James gathered them up and we descended the hillside amid much complaining.
"I think I've chipped a hoof!" a bleat rang out.
James guided them to the safety of the lower ground around the farmhouse to where the rest of the flock were waiting. I lavished them with meadow hay and energy blocks and padlocked the gate onto the, for now, forbidden hill.
"But what about Savage?" Jazelle cried.
"Dont worry love, he'll be down for February 14th. He's not one to miss a snog in the hay."

Sheep are great this time of year; to eat that is. The most recurring question I am asked is, "But don't you feel sad when you take them slaughter?"
"Not after you've worked with them for more than a day."
They were put on this earth to torment me. They regulary gather in groups to whisper behind my back and take great joy in discovering holes in fences and absconding onto the neighbouring farmers land, but I always have to remember, on the days I am chasing them around the fields, that it is all worth it in the end; because they do taste bloody good.


Overnight Mutton Shoulder
Mutton is the meat from a sheep over two years old, though the best comes from a ewe that is at least six. I have a ten year old ewe. She will be divine.
"I'll be tough as old boots," she continually tells me.
"Not if I cook you overnight."

One shoulder of Mutton (ideally hung for two weeks)
1 big ol' onion
2 handfuls of mushrooms (standard hands)
Tin of prunes in the juice
Two glugs of chili sauce, the orange West Indian stuff (like what the Buzzard was using)
Two each of winter vegetables. (I say Parsnip, carrot and butternut squash for colour variance, ahhh)
Four fresh tomatoes
Quarter of a bottle of wine (drink the rest while you prepare it)
Pint of spring water (but only if you have it flowing past the house, or if you are massively pretentious)
Salt and pepper

Don't muck about with this. It should only take the time to drink the wine, to prepare. Grab a bowl and crush the tomatoes into it by hand or fork. Glug in the chili sauce and the wine and the pint of spring or mains water. Add the prunes. Stir her up. (If you have some dried basil and thyme lurking in the back of the cupboard you can add a sprinkle of both). Get a metal roasting tin big enough to fit the shoulder in. Bonk it on the hob on a steady heat. Add oil. When it is hot (test by sight not finger) place the shoulder in and brown on both sides, twisting salt and pepper to cover the skin. When she's done take her out for a mo. Add chopped onion and mushrooms to the oil. Stir them for no longer than a minute. Place the shoulder on top of them. Add rough chopped raw vegetables. Add the bowl of goodness so that the shoulder is covered, but do not worry it it protudes from the mixture. Simmer over the heat for half an hour while the oven preheats at 150 or gas mark three or, if you have a woodfired Rayburn, two bloody good logs. When the half hour is up, whack her in. Cook for twelve hours overnight. Just before you go to bed and first thing in the morning you can turn the shoulder over in the enriching stock. A fork should easily sink into the meat as it falls off the bone, if it doesn't, then return to the oven until it does. When done rest for half an hour.
Before you tuck in, take a picture and mail it to my ten year old ewe. She'll love it.

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