Both Hannah, my daughter-in-law, and Brie my sheepdog were due to give birth this week. They both looked uncomfortable and the lead-up to these events is naturally an anxious time for all concerned.

Brie went first, suddenly rushing around, huffing and puffing, scrabbling up her bedding and pleading for me to stay with her. So I sat in the corner of her whelping box and started to write this column. I labelled the file, whereupon Brie promptly vomited all over everything, necessitating a complete change of bedding. Brie wagged her tail apologetically. I set the washing machine going and turned around to discover a tail and two back legs suspended within a sac. I abandoned writing and set about supervising puppy deliveries. This turned out to take 12 hours and included a trip to the vet to get some oxytocin to aid with contractions.

When we got to eight puppies I thought we were done, but I was wrong; she had 10 (eight bitches and two dogs). It was marvellous to witness how Brie instinctively knew to lick and remove the sac, clearing the airway and massaging life into them. She immediately chewed off the navel cord, leaving about two centimetres, which by morning had shrivelled to neat little stubs. She is being so careful and loving with them, ensuring that they are all fed and kept clean. Mother Nature is awe inspiring.

My reasoning for breeding from her is because she is the best sheepdog I’ve ever had and I wanted to keep her line. The father of the pups is also a good working dog, so I look forward to working with her offspring. My goal is to try my hand at some trials one day. Meanwhile I’m under no illusions that this large litter equates to a lot of work; puppies are terrible time wasters and such fun. Choosing which one to keep is going to be difficult as they are all so special.

Today, Hannah and Nigel became parents; luckily they didn’t have 10, but just one potential shepherdess. Mother and baby are doing well. Nigel is a proud dad. I’m keen to hand over shepherding skills to the younger generation, but due to Covid-19 restrictions we’ve yet to meet our granddaughter. I’m eager to start with baby cuddles. An overload of cuteness all in one week.

I’ll be glad when the days start lengthening out; it seems there are not enough daylight hours to get the work done. The ground is getting pretty wet now, Shrek (ATV) is beginning to leave a mark. Annoyingly our air source heat pump has gone wrong again; error code 21. New technology is great when it works, but if it goes wrong and you can’t fix it with a spanner or a hammer it’s beyond our capabilities.

The engineer opened the fan unit to reveal an alarming array of electronics. Apparently the motherboard needs replacing, so we’re waiting for the part, and an engineer to fit it. The unit is exactly two years old; they’ve already replaced this part once before. Thank goodness we kept our massive wood burner in situ and cook on an oil-fired Nobel (similar to an Aga) during the winter months which keeps the kitchen warm and is excellent for drying wet clothes.

Good drying facilities are a ‘must’ in any farmhouse, especially when you get in after a day spent working with the spaniels. The early part of the season has been so mild it’s been difficult to gauge what clothing to wear. Look at the sky, it’s grey, so you add an extra layer, but once outside working you discover it’s remarkably warm.

When you’re beating your way through brambles in the woods it’s positively hot despite drizzling rain. Last year the shooting was cut short due to Covid-19, so everyone (dogs and humans) is making the best of this season while it lasts. I’m surprised not many of all those pheasants left in January 2021 made it through to autumn, but I was glad to see Jeeves the Reeves who must be three was an exception, clearly not only a handsome bird but also tough and wise.

A dozen of our Sussex dry cows due to calve in the spring are out wintering in the parkland and woods surrounding Herstmonceux castle. So far they appear to be very content; we are monitoring their condition carefully. It’s certainly a beautiful setting to go lookering in and is providing extra space for our housed cattle.

These cows will need to come home in early February, but by then we should have used enough hay and bedding to clear extra space for them. We await planning approval for improved cattle facilities. Unfortunately, bureaucracy doesn’t make higher welfare standards easy to attain. Fortitude and patience are required as not everyone understands the practicality of farming.

Nigel is keen to push our farming enterprise in the regenerative direction, so this year we have been interested to follow the progress of mob grazing cattle at Springham farm, Chiddingly.

We were invited by the High Weald AONB team to look at the set-up during the summer and I requested a revisit in the autumn when it was wetter. I was impressed by how well the system worked. The High Weald AONB team is a useful resource and has some grant funding available for anyone farming in the area.

Wishing everyone prosperous farming, good health and happiness in 2022. Perhaps my New Year’s aspirations are a touch optimistic given the turmoil in our world these days, but I like to live in hope for better things to come.

I’m not naive enough to think that the new year will be without challenges, but I remind myself there will be opportunities to explore as well. At any rate, reflections on last year’s failures and successes will make us one year wiser. Making plans is fun. Regardless of whether they come to fruition or not, it’s all part of life’s adventure.
Stay safe in 2022.