Since the demise of my old bull I had become increasingly worried about the prospects of getting my cows in calf again. Assignations with Peter the AI man had been few and far between. His visits occurred almost invariably first thing in a morning and however good women are supposed to be at multi-tasking, wrestling with an uncooperative cow at breakfast time was never going to work.
So when it transpired that one of my young steers was actually still a bull I had thought that that was an end to all my problems. Alan's voice floated back to me down the months as he had performed the operation ... "I can only find one stone, there might be another in there so you better just keep an eye on things." And 'keep an eye on things' I tried to do but it's very difficult observing that part of the anatomy when it's covered by a tail. In the end I had forgotten about it and had only discovered the error when I put the steer in with a young heifer for company and - Hallelujah! - she was bulling and the 'steer' thought all of his birthdays had come at once.
So the bull was smiling and I was smiling and the bull had a wonderful summer. But then I noticed that despite his best efforts the cows still seemed to be coming bulling; they were not holding in calf and I began to doubt his fertility. Sometimes he was very enthusiastic, which was very encouraging, and hope blossomed. But at other times his ladies would be very enthusiastic about each other and he would just stand there chewing his cud. I presumed he had a headache.
I looked around for other solutions.
The idea of having a bull on loan, a bull who would do the job but who was someone else's responsibility when problems arose, was very appealing. But where to find one?
The other alternative, to buy a bull, filled me with misgivings. We are not set up for keeping a mature bull and even old Truffle, who had been of very amiable disposition, was large and strong and had objected violently to being restrained when the need arose. I didn't want to repeat that experience.
In the end, as so often happens, fate stepped in. A chance conversation revealed that, just as I happened to be needing a paragon of a bull, a neighbour had a paragon of a bull who just happened to be needing a home. Not only was the bull halter trained but, a massive plus, he stood there nonchalently chewing his cud while the vet stuck needles in him for the required TB test. And he wasn't just any bull, but a Longhorn - a traditional breed associated with excellent beef.
So I was sold and Nero has come to stay. But his ladies? - well, I think they're already in calf.
To the previous bull.
The fields down the lane from us have this year been planted with maize, acres and acres of it. It is a fascinating crop to watch because it grows at such an incredible rate. It is usually planted in late spring, long after the other crops as it is very frost-sensitive, and it must be June before the first tiny shoots appear. At first they are so fine and delicate that they seem to have no substance and appear as a green haze that shimmers across the tilled soil.
Within a few days they can be seen more clearly, row after imaculate row of green shoots marching into the distance, converging towards the skyline, their presence delineating the contours of the land. For a few weeks there seems to be little change but beneath the soil the plant is rooting deeply, quietly putting into place the infrastructure necessary for the immense surge to come. And come it does - at its peak the growth rate must have reached several inches a day. In fact friend Jock assured me that if a man was to sit in a chair in the middle of the crop he would very soon become invisible. Having watched it grow I can believe it, although I suspect he would have got rather bored and hungry in the process!
Much of the maize this year must have been over seven feet tall, each stem with its feathery tassel and each eventually sporting either one or two large corncobs. Having tested them I can assure you that they are no competition for their super-sweet cousins in the supermarkets but the hens love them. More importantly I suspect, so do the cows for this crop is destined to be a high-protein forage feed for the Watchorns' milkers over the winter and it is a vital component of their daily ration.
Anyway, today the machinery rolled in and it was fascinating to watch, the huge harvester with its massive blades scything a swathe through the foliage, the finely chopped vegetation reappearing out of the chute at the top and being deposited into the trailer alongside. And when one trailer was full another moved smoothly in to take its place in a seamless operation.
And whilst farmers never seem to have the ability to be truly happy they surely can't have been displeased today. They even seemed to be smiling ... but maybe that was just for the camera.
The dogs had developed a new and all-consuming hobby ... there was Something In The Pantry, and their favourite balls had been ditched in relentless puruit of the new game of Spot-The-Mouse.
Something Would Have To Be Done.
We have two doctor friends who had a one-eyed mouse as a pet after an accident with a mouse trap. I never liked to ask for details but it was enough to make me look for other options in the eradication programme.
The sonic deterrent seemed to be worth a go, especially in a confined environment. And, for a time, it worked - for all of two days in fact. We knew this because suddenly the dogs lost all interest in the pantry, so there was obviously Nothing Going On.
And then the refugees returned in force, with earplugs and carrier bags for supplies.
To be fair they were very polite guests. If they started a packet of chocolate biscuits they would eat every last crumb before moving on to the next packet. The same for the packets of ground almonds and the bars of chocolate - they must have had a caffeine addiction because half a packet of ground coffee disappeared in the same way.
A more effective solution was obviously required and I stared at the options on the shelf in the shop. A live trap! - my father had a lot of success with live traps - but the one in front of me looked rather small and flimsy and not-quite-up-to-the-job.
And then I saw it - a ten-person live mousetrap, made of metal and large enough to have a barn dance in. Certainly of the size and calibre required for the hungry hordes I was now aware were chomping their way through my pantry. It even had a convenient little viewing window so you could see how many you'd caught before emptying them into the neighbour's garden.
Full of enthusiasm I installed the contraption in the pantry and waited for the unwary, inspecting it at frequent intervals ... and, over the subsequent week, becoming increasingly disillusioned ... and then I caught one! It was the tiniest, saddest scrap of a mouse that had obviously wandered away from its mother's apron strings, and it was already dead by the time I found it.
This obviously wouldn't do - even if it had been alive it was far too young to release on its own, and I realised there must be many more of similar ilk from whence it came. I started to envisage the consequent tiers of mouse cages all stacked up, waiting for the occupants to grow to suitable size before the visit to the neighbour's garden ... it was just no good, the job had to be done.
With great regret the ten-person mousetrap was relegated to a dusty shelf.
Suffice to say the mice are no more, the pantry has been fortified to withstand further invasion and the dogs have gone back to playing ball.
The early mornings in this corner of rural Leicestershire have once again become noticeably quieter.
For a brief period at the end of August the dawn sky above the house had been filled with the rush of swallows, thousands and thousands of them, swooping and whirling and diving in the half-light before settling en-masse on the telephone wires, their excited chirrupings and chitterings filling the morning air.
I have never before seen so many swallows around here and, judging from their stubby 'v' shaped tails, all were juveniles, gathering together in preparation for their autumn migration.
Yet, as I write a week later when the swallows here are few and far between, the adults are still feeding newly hatched young which are unlikely to fledge until the end of September. It has obviously been a good year for breeding, but for these very late broods the chances of survival would seem slim.
For them all, the flight is long and the dangers many.
To all those that have left, and to all those that have still to depart
and safe return.
I was worried. Only four pigs had turned up to be fed and they were noticeably subdued. Now dusk had slipped into darkness and there was still no sign of the missing pig despite repeated rattling of the pig bucket and the excited pre-dinner squeals of the others.
I have often before had similar anxious moments but always before the pig in question has reappeared. Usually they have been with the cows, grazing with them or basking in the sunshine, and occasionally falling into a deep sleep which even the dinner bell doesn't at first penetrate. The relationship isn't exactly one of mutual admiration but the cows are usually pretty tolerant of the pigs' company. Sometimes I have seen a cow butt one of the more irritating or persistent pigs out of the way - a brief squeal of annoyance from the pig before it resumes doing exactly what it was doing in exactly the same place as before. Pigs can be very single-minded at times.
But for a pig to not turn up for dinner is serious.
Despite extensive searching both then and the day after, there was no pig. I knew from talking to neighbours that it had been in the field with the others at dusk about half an hour before I discovered it missing. The most obvious option, that it had sqeezed under the gate and disappeared into the surrounding maize fields was, for various reasons, highly unlikely. The possibility of pig-napping at dusk was, in the absence of said pig, an idea favoured by some and given a remote credence by circumstances.
But it was neither of these.
I found him, very dead, up against the feed ring. How could I not have noticed before?
But until then I had been looking for a live pig that would make a noise, or a pig that was no longer in the field. But this pig was dead because it had chosen the wrong place to have an argument with a cow. Sandwiched against a metal feedring is an unforgiving place to be.
The other little pigs came across to where I was standing and to my astonishment they nuzzled the dead pig all over, making small squeaky grunts as they did so, and remaining very subdued. It obviously wasn't the first time they had done it. They were reluctant to leave him and when I dragged him down to the gate on a piece of polythene they followed alongside. And there they stayed, nuzzling him from time to time until he was taken away.
So a sad and unexpected loss of life - but also the finding of a catharsis in an empathy I hadn't expected.