Friday, 13 July 2012

Rain cows

Blondie giving me a broad smile as he tucks into young willow

This year anyone could be forgiven for thinking it's raining cows, not just cats and dogs. Yesterday I set off under a steady drizzle to check our conservation grazing herd on the Common. This involves walking the fence line of three separate meadows to confirm it's all intact - we don't want cows escaping onto nearby roads - as well as counting the cattle in each area and making sure they're all in good health, and checking their troughs are full.

betony in Rye Meadow
The cows displayed a bovine indifference to rain. Their coats have an oily waterproof sheen and water falling from the sky wasn't going to deter them from eating and digesting the green riches around them. This is a 24-hour a day job for them and their dedication to it is admirable. Perhaps if I stop washing my hair, it too will develop a waterproof layer of oil, but friends and family might complain about the smell...

Horton Heath steer tackling trees

Under the rain, which grew steadily heavier over the next two-and-a-half hours, I viewed the countryside as a green smudge around me, with somewhat blurry edges. A bit like some of my photographs, but bear with me, it was raining, the cows were moving, and I was desperately trying to keep my camera dry.

Pincushion gall on Horton Heath

Despite the weather, I felt a deep contentment. The rain had driven away all other human disturbances - even the dog-walkers had gone home - and I had the Common and it's wildlife all to myself. Incredibly, a few butterflies were on the wing: brown ringlets. Later I read, in a doom-laden article about butterflies in trouble in this wettest of summers, that ringlets (and speckled woods) like damp conditions.

Roebuck by the fence in Rye Meadow

water figwort

In Rye Meadow, my favourite piece of pasture, I spotted a roebuck lying beside the electric fence right out in the open. As I approached like a child playing grandmother's footsteps, I began to fear that its determination to stay put was a sign of injury, but at the last moment it bounded away.

This part of the Common resisted the plough during the wartime "dig for victory" campaign, unlike our main grazing area, and it has retained a diverse seedbank of wildflowers, rushes, sedges and grasses. It was cleared of secondary woodland just two to three years ago and, with sunlight striking the ground again for the first time in decades, the seeds germinated. Yesterday I found water figwort and betony in flower.

In deep cover in the main grazing area
I didn't notice how wet and tired I was until I got home...

ps We don't normally give our cows names but Blondie seemed an obvious choice for the only white one. They belong to a local farmer and are destined for the table eventually. At least they enjoy one of the best summers a cow could wish for on the Common. And as dairy steers, most of their peers are killed at birth: males don't give milk and their breeding makes their muscles unsuited for prime cuts.

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