Home & Shop Companion #0044
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
With foggy November sliding seamlessly into damp early December, it is the start of winter, at least the meteorological winter, which seems more appropriate than the astronomical calendar. The patch of grass in the far corner of the field, where three weeks ago Lucy was unwilling to go, has now been grazed down, so yesterday was her last day in that area. There is not much grass in the rest of the field either, so soon I will be feeding her hay to supplement the grass, before moving her off the grass altogether. In most years I have kept her grazing until after Christmas, partly to minimise complications when I travelled to visit my mother, but the grass will soon be all gone, at least, as short as I want it to be, and the soil could do with the rest. At this time of the year it is very tempting to leave horses and other livestock out because they prefer the freedom and it keeps them moving and chilled out, but every day extra spent overgrazing now probably knocks off a day’s grazing next spring. Keeping Lucy out might save me thirty bales of hay now, but because last spring was so dry, I need to buy some hay anyway; I would prefer not to, but that’s how it goes some years.
The rest of the field looks ready for winter, the strip Lucy grazed until early October and where I spread the last of the manure has regrown a couple of inches, but in the area near the barn and the one nearest our house are both a few inches tall, so will be the first to be grazed in the spring, or make the earliest cutting of hay. There the grass is long enough to trap the wind-blown leaves off the huge oaks, which have now shed the vast majority of their leaves, providing sustenance for the earthworms and putting a bit more humus into the field, whereas very short grass provides little obstacle for the wind so all the leaves end up in the hollows and hedgerows. Meanwhile the vegetable patch is covered in a good carpet of green manure about four inches high; it is not as dense as when I sow the green manure amongst the maturing row crops in late August, but it is enough to trap leaves and slow down the winter rains, whilst the plants can mop up any available plant food when it is warm enough, although there won’t be much of that happening until the spring.
Now Lucy is no longer grazing the far corner of the field, I am grateful not to have to carry hay there for Molly every morning. I could carry it with a fork, but to avoid leaving a fork out in the wet, I usually pass a length of baling twine round an armful of hay, pull the big loop which I use as a hand hold through small loop in the other end and throw it over my shoulder. Once I get there, the twine, or ‘band’ as I always call it, goes back in my pocket. Some locals smile when they hear me call it band, but that is what it is called where I grew up, probably because it replaced the band of straw used to tie a sheaf of corn. ‘A bit of band’ is a near constant companion; when I worked on the farm as a teenager, if I was working with Fred, the shepherd, or any of the others, they would often ask ‘have you got bit o’ band,’ or, ’where’s that knife of yours?’, because without them you weren’t prepared, you were not a real farm worker. Whether it was to tie up a fencing rail temporarily or make a loop over a hurdle to put a pregnant ewe’s head through so she would stay still while you felt which way round a lamb was presented, a bit of band was always handy. Whether it would be any use with a modern computerised tractor I have my doubts, but when out on the farm it is surprising what you can accomplish with a lump of wood as a lever, a stone, the wrong sized spanner, a knife and a bit of string. When working with horses, it can also make a temporary fix to harness, the polypropylene stuff being so strong that I have used it to replace a broken trace link, but a better habit, which I have allowed to lapse, is to put an extra hame strap around the top of the hames, out of the way but always there if you need it.
Recently my bit of band has also been doing duty as a makeshift halter. Perversely, since Lucy didn’t want to go there at the beginning, she has been reluctant to come out of the corner to be put in the track for social time, so with a loop of band round her muzzle and the remainder over her poll and tied with a thumb knot on the near side, there is about 6 inches left to act as a lead rope. It wouldn’t do for a reluctant or excited horse, and you wouldn’t want to hold it tightly or catch your hand in it, but it is quite enough for a horse that wants to come anyway. Continuing to minimise, a few times this week I just put a slip knot round her muzzle and she still thinks that is enough to acquiesce, and once I only put the end of the band over her poll without fixing it to anything, told her to come on, and that worked too. It is a tribute to the power of training that a horse associates such a minimal and ineffective restraint as a cue to follow my lead. It’s one reason I don’t leave a halter on a horse when turned out, because if having a halter on means I am now in charge, taking it off gives the message – ‘you can now do as you like’; it’s like the ‘that’ll do’ command a shepherd gives his sheepdog when the work is done, the cue that it is now off duty.
For me right now, with a thousand words roughly shepherded into shape and morning chores still to be done, I think ‘that’ll do.’
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.