A chance conversation and my peace of mind was shattered.
I mentioned in passing to a friend that we were growing a quarter-acre of vegetables for the Ox. We had land left over after we’d finished planting our organic potatoes. I thought it would be a good idea to plant a variety of vegetable seeds, I said, and just see then what happened. Not too many slugs and snails on the site and the rooks seemed entirely preoccupied with pulling up our organic barley in the field next door. I reckoned I could slip in a couple of long rows of beans and peas and fill Lee’s boots with delicious vegetable booty. I waited for my friend to say something encouraging.
Oh dear, he said. What about rabbits? There are so many of them on the Downs.
I like rabbits. I find them charming. Last week driving back from the Ox on my way home I passed two of the Milton Street contingent hopping across the road very slowly in front of me. Both were carrying long sprays of cow parsley in their mouths. This was so surreal that I stopped in the road and rubbed my eyes. Were they going to eat these plants or put them in vases? Next time I drive past, I swear, they will be wearing little bonnets and carrying rolling pins.
All the way home I couldn’t remove the image of those rabbits from my mind. I invented charming little rabbit scenarios in my head, scripted a children’s series, pitched it to a roomful of producers, cashed a fat cheque from the BBC and held my Bafta aloft. All before I turned off the ignition.
But later that evening I spoke to my friend about the vegetable plot and turned pale at the implications. All that rain over the weekend. The seeds would have germinated. Young shoots thrusting out of the ground, their tender sweet leaves twisting skywards in their search for the lifegiving sun. A veritable rabbit banquet.
We drove up to the plot early next morning. Annihilation. A traumatized seedling left standing every metre like a reproach. A Biblical plague of bunnies had gobbled up scores of the seedlings, stripped their stalks, or carried them across the C40 and arranged them in vases.
Without a word, like some native tracker, Stephen dropped instinctively to his knees. His fingers parted clods. His hands traced marks in the fine soil. The remnants of pea shoots and seedling leaves were examined in minute detail. He nodded sagely. Normally at this point he quotes the infamous suicide note found beside the body of a Victorian Norfolk farmer: ‘Lord thy rabbits have slain me.’
‘Wood pigeon’ he said.
Mention lambing to any sheep farmer between January and April and watch the colour drain out of their face, the nervous tic develop in their eye and the faraway look of someone reminded of a yearly initiation rite that hangs over them, even if it’s trial by sleeplessness and stress, rather than fire and water.
For while 98 per cent of the population embrace spring like cats to catnip, casting off their Goretex, peeling off the roofs of their cars and rolling around in parks and gardens with the sheer joy of longer, lighter, sunnier days, for shepherds, spring is an endurance ritual to be suffered. Lambing is A-Levels, GCSEs and University Finals rolled into one, but suffered every year like a student enduring endless retakes. Six weeks of sleep deprivation, disaster management, and hollow eyed stress at the responsibility of putting several hundred young females to their ultimate biological function and hoping not to be visited by the seemingly hundred and one biblical style plagues that affect sheep at the drop of a hat. There is no textbook lambing.
So many decisions of life and death proportions. Do you lamb ‘inside’ and cross your fingers against the previously unheard of diseases that can sweep around a sheep flock plucked off the hill and penned into a crowded barn? Or do you lamb outside in their healthy natural environment and watch the weather turn overnight from a balmy 16 degrees to a hailstorm and six inches of snow? Which is worse? To lose lambs to disease, or to hypothermia or a hungry vixen with four cubs in her earth?
So now it’s more or less over – just the stragglers who missed the tup first time round and are still to lamb, and of course the waif and strays that need to be bottle fed for the next couple of months. These are the abandoned, the orphaned, or maybe a triplet too tiny to jostle at the two-teated milk bar. These become the personalities, the poster boys and girls of this year’s lambing. They are all named, of course. This year we have a weather theme – Tornado, Thunder, Cloud – all apocalyptical names. Significantly, no Sunshine, no Heatwave, no Rainbow. Even the children who named them, who have had the past four weeks running around in a hilltop bliss of catching, feeding and rearing, have picked up on the elemental forces that affect farming that are outside everyone’s control.