Country diary: Anxiously checking the colour of my yow’s bottoms

Winter, more than any other season, is a time of routine. As an upland farmer, I have to be happy to repeat the same jobs day after day with little variation, from now until the spring. I love the regularity of winter, and feel no desire to escape from the monotony, whatever the weather and however difficult it becomes.

The first job of the day – while my son forks silage to his cows that are now in the barn to protect the wet ground – is to feed the hens. Avian flu regulations mean our hens and cockerel have to be confined to a wire pen so that they cannot mix with wild birds. They are normally free ranging around the farm, so this confinement feels harsh, even though it is to protect them.

A flock of Herdwick ewes on upland pastures at tupping time.
A flock of Herdwick ewes on upland pastures at tupping time. Photograph: Wayne Hucthinson/Alamy

After feeding the hens and walking my dogs, I load up the Gator – a small farm vehicle – with hay for my ponies. These small bales of meadow hay, stored in a mid-18th-century barn, are a way of feeding livestock that goes back hundreds of years. Before farms had motorised transport, ponies were stabled for use by the farmer, to take hay to the other livestock in bad weather using specially produced panniers. Now they live outdoors and I take the hay to them.

I drive through the pouring rain, thankful for a heated cab, and check each group of sheep on my way to the ponies. They have now been in with the tups (rams) for 19 days, though they were rested two days ago and replaced by a new set of eager workers. The crayon colours also changed with them, so the new tups’ harnesses are blue instead of orange.

What I’m anxiously looking for are blue bottoms. This would mean that the yow had come into season again, and had been tupped again as she did not become pregnant the first time. A proliferation of blue bottoms would have consequences for my carefully planned spring timetable. I peer through the rain and thankfully I see that every rear end is orange.

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