A north wind doth blow . . .but I have heard the sound of spring!


Farmer DOUGIE WATKIN grazes sheep at East Newburn, Northumberland, on the English side of the Tweed at Norham and on the Scottish side at Ladykirk. Doug is a keen conservationist and local politician

A COLD NORTH WEST WIND is blowing and the telly weatherman is promising snow and problems BUT I was given a hint of spring on the wing just before dusk outside the lambing shed.

For five minutes, at five past five in the afternoon, a robin, that most territorial of birds, gave an uninterrupted concert of spring song, then awaited a challenge that never came. A good result for the red-breast, for it means he has the whole lambing shed to himself. . . or almost.

He shares his lodging with eleven fantail doves; originally we had twelve but a sparrowhawk popped in for lunch earlier. Another two or three will disappear before they learn to keep their heads down.

The fantails are part of a semi-wild colony that make daily flying visits to farms in the Shoreswood/Newburn area of North Northumberland. Each of the five farms seems to be home to a dozen or so, remarkable survivors who originated from a pair kept at the Salutation Inn on the A698 Cornhill-to-Berwick road in the 80s and which the departing landlord coudn”t catch! Interestingly, these natural survivors keep to themselves: I have only ever seen one crossbred.

Talking of birds, they say one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but one robin staking out his territory at 5.05pm definitely means the nights are drawing out (15 minutes a fortnight, on average ). Other creatures of habit, like foxes, will be doing their rounds a little later and hens will stay out longer, so make sure you have them shut in.

In the quaint country i used to frequent, hens (and people!) “went to the boakes” when they retired for the evening . Whilst knowing that “the boakes” referred to the hens’ roost I never have discovered the origin of the word. It’s a strange one , but then i have often heard mums telling young kids “it’s time for bo-bo’s”; I wonder where that originated ? On Pennine hillside or in Saxon village, or possibly one and the same?

Regardless, it’s a blooming cold night. Ewes are asleep inside the shed or munching silage, lying on golden straw. Actually, gold isn’t much more costly than straw this year since arable farmers are all suddenly eco-friendly and burning most of it to produce heat and power for farms and cottages . Twenty years ago or so we were banned from burning it to cut CO2 levels and to prevent smoke pollution.

Anyway, I am ‘off to the boakes’, and if a lamb or two are born in the shed they will have a better birth than outside on a cold, wet hillside.

Which reminds me: my niece is about to give birth, I wonder if she needs some good, warm straw? At a competetive price, of course!


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