Spring on the Estate
The winter seemed very long and very long ago.
Between now and our last update, the estate has undergone its yearly transformation. Everything and everywhere has been frantically busy with life, and we have been trying to keep up with it.
In Spring, we had our hands full with the sixteen breeding ewes and then our twenty-four brand new lambs. As usual it was a period of highs and lows, as well as a few long nights but already, just a month or so on, the lambs are beginning to graze, grow their horns and are almost big enough to re-join the rest of the flock. Much to the relief of the ewes we recently had a visit from the shearer and while the lambs took some time adjusting to their newly sheared mums the whole flock seemed very ready to let go of all that winter wool.
For a few glorious weeks the woodland at Belmont was completely overcome with bluebells. They were highly anticipated amongst us all and came out over a series of days. For most of the year they are invisible and easy to forget about but all through the winter they seem to have been busy spreading and receding, and it is only when they bloom that are we able to see what shape they have morphed into and guess at what might be happening in amongst the roots of the wood.
Currently, we are just over halfway with calving, five new calves already having joined the herd at Watercress and three more to go on the estate. The calving process at Watercress differs a fair amount from commercial farms, in part due to its small scale and in part because it forms a part of a wider rewilding project.
Cows tend to form matriarchal societies with older mothers typically leading the herd. At Watercress that role falls to Ruby, a calm and friendly mother about 15 years old, who, if you have visited the site with school groups or even for a walk, you may have met.
Ruby was the first to calve this year, right on her due date and without any interference necessary. Watercress is a small enough site that we were able to monitor her on the days leading up to the birth to ensure that she seemed in good health, but it still has enough space that when Ruby was ready to give birth she could follow her natural instincts, separate herself from the herd and find a secluded, shady safe space to have her baby in.
Even with a successful birth, there are of course still complications that can arise post-calving. One common problem is milk fever which occurs when the production of milk and the change from colostrum to milk causes cattle to suffer from a calcium deficiency.
We kept a close eye on Ruby who being older might be more susceptible to this and we did notice some changes in her behaviour. What we saw was unusual but actually turned out to be a sign of something positive rather than negative. Despite the abundance of grass at Watercress, Ruby started to seek out other sources of sustenance such as ivy, cleavers (or sticky weed) and thistles which she had been less interested in before.
These plants all transpired to be high in the vitamins that Ruby might have been lacking following her pregnancy. Cleavers are a good source of both calcium, which obviously is good for milk production, and magnesium which is necessary for the breaking down and use of that calcium. Thistles too have many benefits; they are high in iron but are also a good source of protein and can help put on weight. The behaviours that we were noticing in Ruby were exactly what we wanted to see, she was instinctively using the full variety of plants that she had available to her to keep herself healthy.
It is also good to see this from an older and respected member of the herd as it is likely that she will then teach these behaviours to other cows and mothers-to-be so that the whole herd can benefit.
Of course, not every cow is so lucky to enjoy 100 acres to roam in or such a diverse selection of grazing areas but even simple things like hedgerows opposed to stock fencing give access to plants like cleavers and ivy, while thistles are only too readily available in most naturally managed fields.
It is exciting to see the connections on the land at Watercress deepen and make themselves known and it will be interesting to watch how the cattle continue to interact with the land around them in the coming months.
Bonnie, Estate Assistant