Well, it isn’t over yet, but 2020 has been a strange old year. What with political tension and the coronavirus, there has never been a better time for hiding in the hills and escaping the modern world. Being told to stay home was quite a blessing for me. I’ve long since decided I prefer the company of animals to that of most people, so avoiding social situations hasn’t been in the least bit difficult.
Isolation is easier for those of us who have plenty to occupy ourselves with, things like gardening, restoring old machinery, or even, perhaps, goat training. Just before lockdown, it was my son Tegid’s birthday and I decided to buy him a pet goat.
I have always avoided goats like the plague, as they have the reputation of being extremely annoying. They eat your roses and your underwear off the washing line, and have scant regard for boundaries of any kind. But Tegid has long since asked for a goat, and a big part of me was pleased that he didn’t want an iPhone, a computer game or a stupidly expensive pair of trainers, so I gave in, secretly, and began looking through local adverts.
The birthday goat
I decided that pygmy goats were far too expensive, and that a milking goat was more daily commitment than what I wanted. I found a castrated male goat that had been in a petting zoo and was looking for a new home. Colin, as he is called, had been reared with a llama and a donkey. He seemed to think he was more human than goat and was very friendly.
When it came to collecting him, I told Tegid we were going to buy some hay, and that we would have to take the horse trailer with us. We arrived at the petting zoo with my son still believing that we were only going to buy hay. When the manager asked if we would like to see the goat, Tegid jumped at the chance.
We made our way to the pen where Colin and his llama friend were living, and Tegid’s eyes lit up when he saw the big Toggenberg with a white beard. “He’s for sale, if you want him,” I told Tegid, and he could hardly speak with excitement as we paid for the goat and walked with him toward the horse trailer. I noticed with relief that Colin walked obediently on a head-collar alongside the manager, and I envisaged Tegid taking him for walks like a dog as soon as he was settled in.
Seeking effective motivation
It turned out that goats lead quite well when they want to, and only then. We found it extremely difficult to move Colin from his stable to the field in the morning and back again at night. He would simply plant his feet and stand there. Not wishing to use violence, I employed a pressure-and-release method, which usually works on horses, and involves pulling gently until the animal steps forward and the reward is a release of pressure.
The goat, like the donkey, is a species with a lot of willpower, and Colin was no exception. He clearly had more patience than I did and was determined to stand stubbornly still whatever happened. Then, one particularly trying day, I found my solution. Colin had burst into the feed room and ripped open a bag of horse feed and refused to get his head out of the bag. I had a jug of water in my hand and I flicked him with a bit of water. He shot out of the shed faster than I had seen him move since he had arrived. At last I had found something which Colin had respect for: water.
Since then, Tegid has been taking Colin for walks and I walk behind with a cheap water pistol, using my “weapon” only if the goat stops and refuses to budge. The result has been dramatic. Colin now walks happily along on the lead and has also realised that, by cooperating, he gets taken to some lovely hedgerows to browse.
My farming friends and relatives all laughed out aloud when I told them I had bought a goat. Country people around here know that goats are challenging, and they are often creatures townies tend to buy when they first move to the countryside, only to regret their purchase when they realise that fencing costs will vastly outweigh any amusement that the goats provide.
But as it happened, Colin has been worth his weight in gold in providing Tegid with hours of amusement. Not only have Tegid and I built an enclosure for Colin (which was an enjoyable project to work on together in the spring sunshine) but he has also spent many a rainy afternoon holed up in the goat shed, reading stories aloud to Colin, who absolutely hates rain and is happy to spend wet days lying in the straw, chewing the cud and being read to. This means I have had peace to get on with some work.
Meadow provides a balanced diet
Early spring was unusually dry and sunny here in North Wales and the hay meadow was slow getting started. Now, though, it is a sea of flowers: red and white clover, black medic, birdsfoot trefoil, plus a variety of plantains and grasses. To certain farmers it probably looks like a field of weeds, but to me it provides the most wonderful meadow haylage, perfect for feeding to horses and sheep (and now a goat).
A wide variety of meadow plants in a hayfield not only feeds a variety of insects, which in turn feed a variety of birds, but it also provides livestock with a broad and balanced diet, which hopefully keeps them healthy and free of deficiencies. I make the haylage just as if it was hay, turning it with my Massey Ferguson 35 tractor and an old PTO-driven “haybob” until it is dry. Then my brother Wil bales it into round bales for me, and a neighbour wraps the haylage, which means that I can store it outside until wintertime.
One downside of fine meadow hay is that Wil’s old round baler doesn’t manage to pick up every last bit. In days gone by, I would use a wooden rake to quickly try to rake these leftovers into the next row before the tractor and baler made another circuit of the field. Last year I finally gave up this largely futile and tiring exercise and borrowed a Vicon Acrobat off my brother to rake up the left-over bits after baling.
An acrobatic approach to haying
Described as the High Capacity Rake & Swathe Turner, the Vicon Lely Acrobat was developed from the finger-wheel rake invented by Dutchman C. Van Der Lely in 1948. The Acrobat was marketed by Vicon as a multi-functional tool. By altering positions of the wheels, the Acrobat could turn, fluff and row hay, plus it could act as a rake, covering a decent width as it worked.
Although the Acrobat was said by Vicon to be a “complete hay-maker” and “an essential part of modern hay-making,” it was in some ways quite a primitive machine. Although it was mounted on the three-point linkage, it was not powered by PTO and, in that way, it harked back to the old trailed and land-drive implements of the past.
But this simplicity was what made the Acrobat such a great tool. There was very little that could go wrong with it, there were no gears to worry about, and the worst that was likely to happen was a broken tine. As a multi-purpose tool, the Acrobat promised a lot. It was a jack of all trades. The only real downside was that it it wasn’t great at fluffing up the hay and tended to turn it by rolling it over, which works alright with thin meadow hay, but not a thicker crop of hay.
Despite that, the Vicon Acrobat was a wonderfully simple and adaptable tool, so it’s no wonder farmers kept them long after their “hay day” (excuse the pun), dragging them out of the nettles in times of need, and finding that with little or no maintenance, that they can still do the job they were intended for.
Making progress on the Leyland
My son will probably list 2020 as the best year he has ever had. This was the year he got Colin the goat, and it has also been the year that he and his father took apart the wrecked little Leyland 154 tractor and began to re-build it.
Probably the thing Tegid will remember most is that, thanks to the coronavirus, he has missed nigh on six months of school, which, for a boy who dislikes school, is a truly wonderful thing. I’m aware as I write this how extraordinarily lucky we are to have escaped illness and to live in a place where we have the space to enjoy ourselves and the projects that keep us busy.
The idea behind buying the little Leyland tractor was that Tegid and his father would restore it together slowly, and that by the time Tegid is old enough to drive it, the Leyland will be in good working order. The tractor, which was built in the early 1970s, has now had a full engine rebuild and has been largely rewired too. Filters, oil seals and some fuel pipes have been replaced and a new fuel tap has been fitted.
There are new wheel bearings, the brakes have been fully serviced, and a new exhaust has been made to fit. An alternator has been fitted in place of the faulty dynamo, and a pair of second-hand rear tyres have been sourced, which, if nothing else, allow the tractor to move around. In the long term, these need replacing, as they are smooth grassland tyres, suitable for sports fields rather than farmland.
Tegid and his father re-sprayed the tractor while it was in pieces, and they are now gradually putting it all back together. They are also restoring a cab for the tractor, which not only protects the driver from the Welsh rain, but also offers protection in the event of a roll-over, something which is always a consideration for we people who live on steep hills.
A spring of different rhythms
For me, the days of the spring lockdown meant that I had the time to make a few raised beds out of old tractor tyres. I also taught my son how to make a simple hazel-wood hurdle and watched my brother, who lives two fields away, working with his horse.
Readers might recall me writing about my brother Andrew, and how he uses his Welsh Cob mare, Del, for shepherding work. He has found that he is able to use Del for going around the sheep instead of the farm bike, and that makes for a quieter and more enjoyable experience. Plus, it is possible to open the gates from Del’s back, rather than having to get on and off to open them like Andrew has to do when he’s on the quad bike.
Del pulls her weight
This spring, Andrew decided Del was looking a bit too well fed, and that it was time she learned something new, so he decided to teach her to pull timber and bits of brush. It all started because he had a very overgrown hedge to trim and the mass of cut branches had to be carted away. This wasn’t a place a tractor, or even a farm bike, could work in, so he carefully taught Del not to mind things dragging behind her and before long she was pulling bunches of branches down the slope to a pile in the lower fields.
Andrew also used her new-found skills to pull up some unwanted gorse that was growing in the higher reaches of his land, another place not easily accessed with a machine.
Working with horses requires more fitness than riding a farm bike, and my brother found that his lockdown work with Del has caused him to lose several pounds. Wherever Del goes pulling wood, Andrew walks behind. Carting those branches out provided both horse and owner with a workout.
The companionship of a shared task
I remember my father remarking, many years ago, that when he was a young lad, no one ever saw a fat farmer. It might be politically incorrect to call overweight people fat these days, but it is certainly true that one had to be fit back in the days before mechanization. There were very few large people back in those days.
Although we have various machines for cutting weeds, I like to keep things as simple as possible, and I sometimes find that using a machine can spoil the camaraderie of working together. With that in mind, I dug out two old scythes that were once my late father’s, and I sharpened them up for myself and my daughter to use to cut back some of the dock and weeds around the edge of the hayfield.
There were a few groans from my teenage daughter, but she was soon reminded that this hay is also for her horse to eat, so she duly joined in. After embedding the scythe blade in the soil in a way that would have made my father turn a few times in his grave, she soon learned to control the blade and made light work of the dock and bracken. It might have taken longer than using a machine, but I’m hoping that it taught her something. If nothing else, it provided us both with a few hours of exercise which we would have had to pay good money for in a gym. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.