January, so far, has been unseasonably mild, with temperatures rarely dropping below zero. Whilst this has meant warmer toes and lower heating bills, I long for the beauty of a hoar frost like last year’s, when all was crystal bones. It has rained persistently and hard, though with careful clearing of ditches and waterways we have been spared the floods of last winter. The field is inch-deep in water. The sheep, those cowardly ballerinas, totter en pointe on greedy ground that sucks and gurgles. As I traverse the meadow in the morning, all is quiet save the tick-tack of the earth as it slowly drains.
The trees and hedges are bare, winter’s veins waiting to be filled with the cool blood of spring, and the nights are silent. In the day the wind howls warm haunting, and the clouds race each other to sunset. Over and again.
I feed the sheep, battling to prevent Eyebrows, the queen of the flock, from bullying breakfast away from everyone else. She is a horrible old bag, and I am very fond of her. Our four chickens have hardly moulted, just shedding a few feathers making them look like children freshly towelled post-swim. They have also continued to lay, with an average of three eggs per day. As it is the length of the daylight hours that affects laying rates, this is not down to the warm weather. I like to think it means they are happy, though their grumbles suggest they are never content.
We feed the wild birds every day with sunflower seeds and fat balls. The lilac tree where we hang the feeders is a battleground of blue tits, great tits, robins, finches, and nuthatches. With no freeze, we are expecting a plague of flies and mosquitoes in the spring, so the birds are doubly welcome, allies all.
We are still harvesting leeks, cabbages, carrots, and parsnips from the veg garden, and are still stocked with preserved tomatoes and courgettes, and shallots and pumpkins from last year. I have bought only garlic and fruit from the greengrocer for six months now.
The year ahead stretches before me, a blank landscape slowly being filled with landmarks and signposts. Planting, potting on, pruning fruit trees, looking into getting pigs. And we have sourced our bees; two swarms from a local keeper that, this time, will come already installed in Warré brood boxes. We hope that this gentler introduction will help prevent the decline and fall of last time. We plan to add more trees to the part of the field behind the house, and are talking about a forest garden there – trees above, shrubs below, herbs between, vegetables and fruits, an almost self-sustaining ecosystem.
There is one mountain, dark and toothsome, that looms large in my mind’s eye. We will send two of the lambs for slaughter in a couple of months. When the time comes, I want to accompany them to see their final journey, make sure it goes the way it should; swiftly. I hope I am brave enough. In all things, I always hope I am brave enough.