The countryside falls quiet. The morning – and noon and night – a chorus of birdsong falls quiet. It’s the quiet of rich plenty and repletion. Do whatever will take you through winter. Get fat. Go south. Hide and sleep the winter away. Acorns, beech mast, pine cones lie abundantly. We sorrow when the house martins leave, somehow companionable and familiar as they have scythed the skies in ever-increasing numbers through the summer and chattered under the eaves. One day, they collect on the trees and electricity line, and the next they are gone on their longest sleepless journey to Africa. Insects have a brief glory day, heavy and sleepy, as the skies no longer have that swooping menace. Then the flies, butterflies, moths, wasps, bees, hornets damsel flies, dragonflies and all the myriad of insects disappear: where do they all go? Do adults age slowly over the winter, hiding in nooks and crannies, to emerge for a final burst of procreation in the spring, or do they lay eggs, larvae or nymphs that lie dormant and hatch in the spring? Some and some, says Google, not dispelling the mystery of creatures seeking the continuance of their kind.
Harvest is in. The shed grains emerge in a green trail where they came over the back of the combine. It is just the tiny grains the combine with all its clever mechanism couldn’t distinguish as harvestable. We take the grain and straw to feed and bed ours and others’ animals, and we spread the resulting manure back to nourish the soil and restore it. We’ve sown the grass and red clover on the most needy arable fields, to give them the balm of continuous rooting and the magic of clover pulling nitrogen from the air into the soil for a couple of years, and they are already a carpet of green and perfect little clover plants. We start to sow the wheat, barley and oats. The oats is the only human edible crop we grow, going to morning porridge. Our soils and climate don’t grow milling wheat or malting barley well. Our landscape is a celebration of the symbiosis of humans and animals.
Now we cut hedges. Our Devon hedges perch on earth banks, some dating from our ancestors’ first clearing of the land for farming: some of the oldest human made artefacts in the landscape: you can count eight or more species in a 30 metre run, each species indicating a century. Each one feels like a piece of wildwood, a memory of wild times, wildlife highways snaking across the landscape. They are full of fruit at this time. We cut carefully, on a 3 or even five year rotation, leaving fruit and seeds in the uncut majority. If we forget to cut, they spread wider and wider, many metres deep into the fields. We cut them back, keeping young wood growing. They give shelter and some herbs for animals, to self medicate. My horse always loved hogweed leaves, grabbing a mouthful as we ambled past.
August born calves are enjoying a little outside in the fine weather before it gets too cold and wet for their fine coats and tender age. They have milk until they are well grown: they grow extraordinarily fast at this time, designed to get big enough to keep up with the herd to escape predators. As herd animals, cattle show no pain that would mark them out as a target for predators, so it’s up to us to remember that when we are caring for them, and give pain relief when something would hurt us, not wait for them to show distress.
The clover in the swards takes off at this time of year, spreads across the ground, nutritious leaves soft and tender. It’s been a blessed season for grazing, rain at all the right times, good growth all the way through the year. We’ve made lots of silage and even hay this year: I have a warm feeling in my stomach to see the barns and silage pits full for winter.
The spring cows are enjoying the clover, as they start slowing up for their winter break. By contrast, the August calving cows have their work starting. The pastures are full of feed for them, grown when they needed less on their pre-calving holiday. Grass still grows well and leafy until the cooler weather comes, and they will eat into that grass until they come inside finally in early winter. We aim for them to graze the grass short enough to make the new growth clean and winter-proof: no lank and mouldy leaves that will be damaged by frost. The richness of the grass restores the cows from the rigours of calving. I love to see them move quickly from battered and tender after calving, to business-like grazing and shining coats as they get back into milking equilibrium.
The cheese dairy is immaculate after our annual shutdown. We now enjoy the September milk, a good balance from the two herds, and make cheese for next year’s Christmas.
We are still eating courgettes or zucchinis: nothing ette or ini about the monster fruit that grows from these indefatigable plants. We’ve been slicing them horizontally in quarters, and baking them at 200oC for 45 minutes to an hour to tame them. We add a spray of olive oil, sea salt and chilli flakes. They take on a sweet and nutty note with the long baking. And they are very heaven with a generous amount of Quickes’s Mature Cheddar grated over them and melted at the last minute. It adds an umami breadth of flavour. We’ve been eating these every supper time for the last month or so, and eating any leftovers cold for lunch and I haven’t tired of them yet.