The weather dictates farming life so much that there’s huge relief when the warm, sunny days of spring finally arrive. It’s a lovely time of year if you’ve got the chance to watch the sun rise on a misty morning, hear the dawn chorus or admire the apple and cherry trees bursting with blossom.
But spring also means that work on the farm starts in earnest, as this is the season of lambing, calving, drilling and silage making. It’s also time to gather leeks, radishes, asparagus, broccoli and other spring greens. Plus, we’re preparing the land for the year ahead; sampling the nutrient levels in the soil, working out how much or how little fertiliser to use and mucking the fields with manure from the livestock sheds.
But spring 2012 comes at a time when British seasons have been so topsy-turvy that it felt as if autumn continued right through to February. The mild weather in November, December and January was a novelty, but it wasn’t in step with the natural cycle that dictates the farming year.
Ideally you want cold winters to kill off infections, diseases and predators, with decent rainfall to nourish the soil and replenish the watercourses. That should be followed by textbook spring weather to prompt new growth, with mild days that are warm enough to turn lambs out on grass.
As everyone knows, that was far from the situation this year, when the signs of spring coincided with packing up the Christmas decorations. Some woods and hedgerows began to green up as early as January; there were sightings of bluebells, snowdrops and even daffodils months in advance, and in some places confused bees and butterflies were buzzing and fluttering in midwinter.
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There appears to be a wild rabbit population boom as well, due to winter breeding, which is going to cause quite a headache for arable and vegetable farmers. It’s a similar story with rats, which seem to be in greater numbers. The vermin are attracted to any sort of food, and it means farmers have to work harder to protect their grain stores. Other animals that are thriving, at least compared to last year, are the farmland birds. The unseasonal winter didn’t reduce their numbers, as there were bugs on the wing, berries in the hedgerows and their food sources weren’t buried under several feet of snow.
I’m back home for lambing this spring after being preoccupied with the BBC’s Lambing Live on other people’s farms for the past two years. Like everyone else, I’m expected to roll my sleeves up and endure my fair share of sleepless nights in the lambing shed, helping the ewes and their newborns at this perilous time for them. It’s not unusual to be pulling on the rubber gloves to help with a breech birth at midnight, or bottle-feeding a weak lamb at 5am. We’re also in the unusual position of having an audience for many of our births – part of the farm is a visitor attraction and spring is the time when we throw open the gates for the new tourist season.
So as well as marking the end of a frenetic period of rebuilding and refurbishment, spring also heralds the arrival of families eager to learn about British farming. As you can imagine, the public lambing shed is a highlight.
Someone else hogging the limelight at the moment is Eric the Highland bull (above). His Countryfile appearances have made him a celebrity and any day now he’ll become a father when the first of his five ‘wives’ calves. And so the farming cycle continues…