Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Extended Families

Rode up through Bagley Wood yesterday morning to check on the status of the bluebells there. I counted three stalks with blooms and about ten thousand standing 5 inches tall and green as the surrounding grass.  Should have remembered that the wild bluebells are always late up on that side of the combe.  At this rate they won't be showing until the middle or end of May.

One of the wild ponies - purebred Exmoor, what would you expect - was having a major scrape and scrub against a couple of conveniently close birch trees, one got his bum and the other his neck and Hoss watched him, drop-jawed in envy.  So I got off, loosened the girth and did my best Head Rubbing massage (I draw the line at scratching his bum) and he loved it. As the minutes passed  I noticed more ponies appearing in the wood: mares, last year's youngsters, the little dark stallion and several two and three year olds were all milling around, maybe 15 ponies altogether.  Not quite the whole herd, there were maybe 8 missing but as I remounted and went on up the steep hillside, I came across just one more.

A very dark mare, alone, taking no notice of the herd, grazed on the rough heathered land near Dicky's Path.  She raised her head as Hoss approached and in equine body-language talk she flickered him a warning with her head and swishing tail. Back off, stranger. From behind her protective bulk stepped the reason for her temporary self-imposed separation from her family and the cause of her anxiety at our proximity: a small foal, less than a day old, long-haired and fluffy as a child's toy.  The little filly's underbelly and legs were cream-coloured - they'll darken as she gets older - and as her mother nudged her into action and away from us, she showed me her very straight gait as they trotted off. She'll do well, this little one. She's already tough and game and has strong, well-formed limbs.  She'll run with her dam until next year's foal arrives and in about 3 or 4 years' time, when the stallion has been exchanged for another not related to her, she will herself give birth out here on the wild Moor.

I know the owner of this herd well and on arriving home, rang up to let her know her 2011 crop has started and where the herd is currently to be found.  I couldn't give her the mare's herd number - the brand mark was hidden in the still-present winter coat - but by now she'll have checked the filly out, maybe even named her, and marked her down in the breeding book.  The filly won't become 'official' in the Stud Book until she's been seen and approved by the Exmoor Pony Society at some stage in the future.

This is a lovely time of year and the wild ponies have wintered well, despite the long cold spells they've had to endure.  Soon there will be lots of foals - and by June the red deer calves will be born as well.  Lots to look forward to!

Friday, 22 April 2011

All Present and Correct

Should have waited another 24 hours before mentioning the cuckoos: this morning Hoss took me up to show me a herd of about 40 deer up near the Hows (mounds) on Dunkery and there was the cuckoo music all around, filling the open sky.  How can such a small bird call so penetratingly that he can be heard across the whole Vale? I've never seen him and don't know many people who have, but everyone knows his voice.

Something startled the deer and they elegantly legged it to the far side of the horizon. At the same time the cuckoo stopped for a commercial break and I haven't heard him since.  But I know he and his missis are up there and despite the rain (yes, honestly!) I am now firmly a believer that  summer is on the way.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

I'm Waiting ...

The cuckoos are late this year. Usually I first hear them on or around the 21st April but it's the end of that day now and still neither a cuck nor an oo has popped from the hills around the Vale of Porlock. Tomorrow I'll get Hoss to take me up onto the shoulders of Dunkery and surely from there I'll be lucky. I know cuckoos have some horrible habits but I do love their call.
The gorse is in flower and the scent of coconut is very strong up in the hills where it holds sway. It needs burning off or mowing soon - they've got a new machine over Minehead way which can cut and chew up and dispose of acres of the stuff in one day and a good job too - bring on the GorseGobbler.

Yippee! Two more of my stories are out today: 'Lady in Waiting' is in May's issue of 'PONY' magazine and 'A Castle by the Sea' is in the People's Friend Fiction Special 2011. It still gives me such a kick to see my work out and about and helping to pay my vet's fees.

I need the sales! HKC1 - the ridiculously fluffy one - has been 'overgrooming' (chewing out her fur) and had to go to MrVetMan the other day for a cortisone injection. Those 10 minutes cost me the best part of £40: maybe I should just divert part of my salary straight into the veterinary accounts each month.

I'm still not sure if I'm 'blogging' properly - but I quite enjoy jotting my random thoughts here from time to time, so I think I'll just carry on doing it just the way I do.

Oh yes, and I think HKC2 has just eaten the Easter Bunny ...

Friday, 15 April 2011

Queen Anne's Lace

I told you about Greenfire the other week.  Well the fire is halfway up most of the hawthorn hedges now - if I were any kind of a techie I'd post the geeky photos here so you can also witness the creeping green. I'm not so you can't, you'll have to use your imagination.

There is a wonderful wildflower (weed to the uninitiated) which suffers the name of 'Cow Parsley'.  It's making its presence felt very strongly in the fanning of the Green Fire along the lanes right now, leading the way so to speak: its tips are the highest point of the Green advance in some places.

 If I look closely, I can see that these tips are no longer green, they're turning creamy.  Within a few weeks they'll open out into the glorious frothy lacework of petals that so well deserve the name that should grace them more often: Queen Anne's Lace.  These elegant plants line the lanes like cheering bystanders and in early May it seems they applaud and wave at me as I drive past.  They give me a lovely feeling of well-being.

Oh help, it's not even Sunday yet. I don't normally wax lyrical until Sundays. I'd better stop.

Cherry Blossom rain

I was riding along the lane the other day and got myself rained on by the cherry blossom from the trees in a neighbour's garden. It was a delightful experience. It reminded me that despite the eternal hassles of work and other unmentionables, life often gives wonderful tiny moments of pleasure. These must be must remembered or put on a blog (in case the short term memory kicks in too soon)

So I'm telling you: belt and braces.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Stag Horn Hunt

It's amazing what geeks even normally sane countrymen can be when they're obsessed.  This time of year brings out a competitive streak in several of my near-neighbours who will barely speak to one another until 'The Season' is over, particularly if one is known to have picked up a 'four-atop' or better.  Where one man has walked and found his prize remains secret until the matching 'four-atop' has been found as well.  Stags often drop both antlers quite close to each other.  Maybe they walk round in circles having lost the first because the weight of the remaining one makes straight lines difficult ...

'The Season' has nothing to do with staghunting but everything to do with stag horn hunting. These chaps, and the occasional chapess, wander about their farms - and other people's if nobody is looking - checking anything that looks like a poking-up white twist of branch in case it's really a stag horn.  Before I came here I understood these to be called antlers and the books still tell me this is the correct term but the chaps hereabouts talk resolutely about 'stags' horns'.

The average find might be a couple of feet long with five or six tines coming off the main stem, bit like part of a tree.  Yeah, right, it's a bit of bone innit, what's the attraction?

Once you've held one, marvelled at the weight of it (this was carried - with its partner - on an animal's head?) and let your fingers and thumbs explore the rough parts by the skull attachment and the long smooth grooves along the main stem and the smooth-worn points - you'll understand the attraction. You want to find one too. I know I do - and never have.

The Obsessed know what sort of places are most likely to yield harvest. Deer-leaps, favourite rubbing posts, regular tracks and grazing areas, deer can be creatures of habit their habits have been noted. The searchers know their deer well and can tell you exactly from which stag each horn has come. One chap has got every horn dropped by a particular stag for several years running. I can see how the identification was made - brow, bey, trey (the first three 'tines' off the main bone stem) are the same shape and set as the year before but each year has added another 'atop', branching into the familiar tree shape every child understands as being 'antlers'.

My near-neighbour has probably three hundred stags' horns hanging in singles and pairs, covering wall after wall of his great barn. He never does anything with them, but he knows where each set was found and when - and who has the pair to a single.  His great rival from the next village must have a similar collection but neither will ever give up one single horn to the other so that one of them gets yet another pair.  It's completely beyond reason but they want to go out finding more every year just to add to their collections and they don't care who knows that this madness comes upon them and will afflict them until the day they die.

A visiting American gentleman is reputed to have offered £1000 for a massive pair of horns picked up just over the border in Devon some years ago.  Imagine getting those through check-in at Heath Row.

Every year at Porlock Show there is a stag horn competition and everyone who has picked up an antler or a pair of them, is invited to bring it along and have it judged against all the other findings from that year.  It's taken very seriously and there is always a splendid display - worth going to see if you're in the area on the last weekend of July.

I rode up onto the Moor this evening after work and met up with several groups of deer: none of them sported any antlers - sorry, horns - at all.  Having said that, they were all hinds, so I guess it would've been a surprise if they had.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Things that go Squeak in the Night

Something's been waking me in the night. Waking me with an adrenaline fright and I lie for a fewseconds, alert and afraid and listening very very hard for the cause.

Calls of nature are not the problem, before you start on that line of thought.

Calls from nature are not the problem - living here one gets used to night noises of the natural world.  There are owls and foxes and badgers in the vicinity and  occasionally even the wild ponies patter along the lane in the early hours of the morning.  All these noises I know and understand and they hold no fears for me.

I don't mind the creaking of the ancient timbers - they've held up for 400 years or more, why would they give up on me now? They just squeak and groan away to one another in their timeless communication with other timbers in other parts of the cottage. Nothing to be afraid of there.

The HKCs get out and about at night and are regularly picked on by the ubiquitous Black Tom without which no village is complete.  There are screams and yowls and growls and shrieks periodically and it sounds fearful but I have no fear, just irritation at being woken.  (I keep a selection of old potatoes which I chuck out of the windows in the general direction of the territorial disputes.  I can sort out anything within fifty feet with my unerring potato-aim - and it's not because I can see the combatants.  If I were aiming by sight the fights would go on until

No no, something else keeps waking me up with a jerk every few nights.  It's a high-pitched monosyllabic squeak and although it is getting quieter, it still sounds off four or five times at intervals of several minutes before I fling off the eiderdown and stomp around the place looking for - what?

What am I looking for?  Not a mouse, not an alarm clock ...

It took me a few nights to work it out and now, even though I know exactly what it is, I don't know where to find it so that I can take a hammer to it (never mind the potatoes now, this is out of their league) so that it will either leave me in peace or save my life properly and at the appropriate time: somewhere in this house there is a smoke detector that has never been fixed up but which has live batteries.  As the batteries fail, the alarm gives out these piercing warning squeaks to remind me that it needs setting up properly and with new power units.  I hear a squeak, leap out of bed and wait for the next so that I can locate the thing - and then, of course, there is silence.  I go back to bed and the sodding thing beeps again.  It doesn't seem to squeak in daylight.

I think it must be in a suitcase or under a pile of 'filing' or something but without taking the place apart I will never find it.  I can't just wait for the batteries to wear out, I'll be demented by then (NO COMMENT)
I'm not afraid of wildlife, not even spiders in the bath, but I get a horrible fearful awakening every time one of these alarms decides to protest its low energy, I jerk awake wondering what has woken me ...
I'm going to do some housework this afternoon and find what I'm looking for.  I will either feed it a new battery and put it somewhere it could detect smoke if there were any, or I'm going to take the fifteen-pound swing hammer from Up The Field and I'm going to smithereen the bloody thing.

New verb: To Smithereen. I'll add that to my private lexicon.

At least something useful might come out of my rude awakenings.