A murmuration of starlings is fascinating to watch. As the evening light fades, small groups of starlings fly in from different directions to swell the numbers and form a huge group. What an awe-inspiring performance they put on, viewing the ebb and flow of their flight, creating fluid, ever changing, darkened cloud like patterns in the sky. Soaring up high and then swooping down low. When they turn it almost looks like they disappear before the shape re-forms. Then suddenly, without warning, the show is over as they all drop down to roost on the reed bed. If you get the chance, I recommend making the effort to witness this magnificent display.
I watched it on Pevensey marshes, but I’m told it can be seen in Brighton, where the starlings go to roost under the pier. Although some starlings are resident in the UK, numbers are boosted when migratory starlings come over, particularly during harsh European winters. Apparently, the sound of the starlings’ wings as they fly overhead is said to sound like a murmur, which is why it’s called a murmuration. It looks amazing fun, but I wonder: “Why does this happen?” – apart from the obvious, safety in numbers, less risk from predators. I’m informed the close proximity of so many birds raises the air temperature, which ultimately saves lives in cold weather.
I wasn’t aware of these facts until I researched them. It’s easy to witness what’s happening around you, without questioning why. That is unless you are accompanied by a pre-school child who questions everything and receives every answer with another “Why?” I’d like to think that with age comes wisdom, but I’m not so sure. It feels like the older I get the more I realise I don’t know. Our energy is focused on producing food, looking after livestock and the land.
The Agriculture Act and introduction of ELMS has shifted the emphasis to nature-friendly farming practices, raising the profile of climate change and encouraging the mitigation of global warming. Historically, in war time and during its aftermath, food production was given priority, but nature often paid the price. Recently the government has done little to curb the power of large retailers in their pursuit of cheap food, with scant regard for the consequences.
There are always exceptions, but there aren’t many farmers I know who don’t appreciate nature, love their land and aim to make it fit for the next generation. People need to eat and farming needs a sustainable income to stay in business.
Sometimes I question my sanity in keeping sheep, especially when standing out in the middle of the marshes being buffeted by gusting winds. I intended to move our flock onto fresh ground. Half the flock followed perfectly at my call and were delighted to get fresh grazing as their reward. The rest, though, had other ideas. They had put themselves into a field that required walking through a wet gateway, but to exit it, they decided they couldn’t possibly get their feet wet.
I returned the next day accompanied by Brie, my sheepdog, determined to show them who was boss. But even with Brie’s help they stubbornly stood adjacent to the open gate, refusing to budge. I had to catch one ewe and physically put her through while Brie kept them bunched, then suddenly they looked at us in wonderment as if to say: “Oh, that’s what you wanted” and nonchalantly splashed through the gateway.
Their behaviour tried both mine and Brie’s patience. They gave us no thanks when we reunited them with the rest of the flock. We agreed that at times like these, extra backup would be handy.
We have a plan; there are two willing apprentices waiting in the wings. I best come clean and admit now, I struggled to choose just one puppy out of ten. It was an impossible ask, so I decided to keep two. The family is horrified. They tell me it’s a terrible idea, and I’ll never manage to train two. They do say animals take after their owners, so perhaps that’s where my sheep get their stubbornness from.
There will be testing times ahead, no doubt, but I’m hoping to prove the family wrong. Youngest daughter wanted to keep the cheese theme, but I didn’t think calling “Gorgonzola” was very practical. As I write this column, Tip and Mollie are asleep at my feet.
Nigel and Hannah tell me that some guests staying in their shepherd’s hut had a bit of a shock when my sheep decided to be nosey. The compost toilet is located nearby in a repurposed rice horse trailer; my ewes opened the door and had a peek inside at an inappropriate moment. I hasten to add that this trait was not learnt from me. Luckily the guest was amused by their antics.
The Sussex cattle recently housed ready for calving didn’t seem to appreciate their change of accommodation. They must have heard me when I remarked it might be dry enough to get the lawn mower out. We awoke one morning to discover them wandering around the garden, grazing by the swings and slide. Best grass on the farm, they thought.
I’m relieved they didn’t discover my rhubarb, which is just beginning to regrow. Unfortunately, the cattle left some fair sized divots which will require some attention to restore my pristine lawn. Who secured the hurdle? Must have been someone’s fancy reef knot; wouldn’t have been my granny knot.
I hope everyone was busy being romantic on Valentine’s Day and didn’t watch Panorama, as its portrayal of dairy farming will do the industry no favours. Was some of the filming staged by activists? The only positive was that it underlined the fact that milk processors need to pay farmers a fair price. Plant-based milk is not the answer a kilogram of soya beans produces 13 pints, but up to 150 pints if fed to a dairy cow. I know which I’d rather drink.
Hope March lambing is going well. I was concerned to hear of a few Schmallenberg cases in the early flocks. I thought we’d seen the last of that.