Close encounter

To boldly go

In his overalls, bulky boots
And thick fleece hat pulled right down over his ears
He lumbers, slow, stiff-legged,
Over the sodden ground
Like a spaceman on an alien planet
Where the atmosphere’s thin and bitter cold
And the gravity’s turned right up.

The mission commander remains behind
On the quad-bike that squats like a moon-buggy
On its fat balloon tyres
And from the seat, he barks peremptory orders
At the half-dozen sheep
Gathering round the trough,
Grateful for this daily visitation
From another world.

I saw this little scene played out on a dog-walk in Wales the other week. I think the whippet (who was wearing his fleece jacket at the time) felt rather inadequate when he saw the collie standing on the quad-bike seat in the freezing wind, barking joyously, having almost certainly spent the night outdoors too. I was certainly conscious that I’m not nearly tough enough for a life like that. Then again, how many of us are?

Sunday shepherding

A price on their heads

Out on the Forest feeding sheep
Marking time on rented keep
Too meagre for such eager beggars.

Haul out two bales of precious hay;
Enough, I hope, to last the day
And overnight. A sodden August

Followed by a savage winter
Has made barns into bank vaults,
Stacked to the roof with summer’s riches
Bound in bales, tight as wads of tenners.

I slash the strings,
Releasing long-imprisoned scents
Of late July, and shake the flakes
Into the rack with the careful hands and watchful eye
Of a chef preparing Alba truffles
For a visiting head of state.

And the woolly starveling mob crowd in
Rowdy as schoolboys at the bell,
Tearing, greedy, at the pale green stems
Like shoppers in the New Year sales.
I watch them, forgetful of the cost
In their contentment. And long for spring.

I’ve finally managed to return to my shepherding roots in a small way, as a part-time volunteer helping out with a conservation grazing project on the Ashdown Forest. My charges are 240 Hebridean sheep, an ancient breed from the far north-west of Scotland. They’re tough, hardy beasts, but good winter grazing is hard to come by, and they’re on pretty thin pickings at the moment, with the soil still too cold for the grass to start growing in earnest. We’re having to supplement their diet with hay, but prices are at an all-time high, and we’re longing for the day when they can leave their winter quarters and go up onto the Forest and start doing their job properly.

Fallow ground

A poem about a group of deer I spotted on a ride this week.

FALLOW GROUND

Were they cattle
I could count on them
To still be here
At sunset.
But within an hour
Or at some sudden sound
They can vanish,
Passing like woodsmoke through
The arbitrary lines and limits
Ruled across the land:

Fences, gates and hedges
Do not hold them;
Feeding like sheep
In this quiet pasture
They’re never for a second
Less than wild.
Everywhere and nowhere,
Slotting in among the common stock
Then blithely with their white rumps bobbing,
Misting into the sheltering woods
Leaving the tame, compliant and confined
Flat-footed in the field.