A Country Life: Mother Nature is an unsentimental old moo

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The Independent Online

The English countryside in early spring is surely the best place to find Mother Nature with her pinny on, doing a hard day's graft.

The English countryside in early spring is surely the best place to find Mother Nature with her pinny on, doing a hard day's graft. At the farm next door to us there are 750 ewes in varying stages of lambing. The last time I saw childbirth on that sort of scale was 10 years ago at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, on the night my daughter was born.

For some reason there were waters breaking all over London that night. One poor woman was forced to give birth in a corridor, and Jane and I were shown the door scarcely eight hours after Eleanor first showed her face to the world.

The contrast with Ludlow Community Hospital is invidious, yet irresistible. Our friend Kate recently gave birth to her fourth child there, and stayed for the best part of a week. Other local friends who have had babies there report that on the night before they were due to leave, the maternity nurses babysat so that they and their partners could go out for dinner. When Jane had our second child, Joseph, at another London hospital, the Whittington, eight years ago, the woman in the next bed would have given a lot for that sort of amenity. But they would have had to unshackle her from the bed first. She was an inmate at Holloway Prison.

Anyway, the same Eleanor who arrived head-first in a busy metropolis a decade ago has been bugging me for ages to ask the farmer if she could go round and watch a lamb being born. Last Friday at the King's Head I finally asked him, and being the kindly sort that he is, he said he would phone us on Sunday morning when some activity seemed imminent.

The phone rang shortly after 11am. It was Roger, the farmer, advising us to get round there at the double, which we did. Nobody, not even Detective Starsky, could have driven that Volvo any faster.

It was a joyous sight, for all the "yeeuuchs" from the children. And there were another three lambs only half an hour old, which they were allowed to feed. Roger also showed us a lamb "off his legs", unable to stand because of vitamin B12 deficiency. Had he been born out of doors, he would probably have been attacked by carrion crows. But ravens are worse, pecking the eyes out of newborn lambs. There's nowhere like the English countryside for reminding you that behind that pinny of hers, Mother Nature is an unsentimental old moo.

Poetry and poundcake

With man's extraordinary inhumanity to man chronicled daily in this paper, it is balm for the soul to consider from time to time those people who spread goodness and understanding. I'm sure Charles Bennett would not equate himself with Gandhi in this respect, but as the energetic creator of the Ledbury Poetry Festival, he is responsible for Piece of Cake. This is a marvellous initiative that aims to take poetry into the sticks by way, as the leaflet puts it, of "a free five-week reading group for people who aren't sure if it's really their sort of thing". The sessions, the leaflet adds enticingly, include "laughter, discussion, thinking and cake".

Piece of Cake is run by Jo Bell, a splendid woman who in April is taking her message to the Herefordshire village of Weobley, and in May to Bromyard (for details, call 0845 458 1743).

In the meantime, I am indebted to Gordon Cummings, for reminding me of poetry's infinite versatility. He was moved by the recent incident in my drive - when the beam of my neighbour's torch revealed a man and a woman doing a Hugh Grant and Divine Brown impression in a car parked on my daffodils - to send me a copy of Alan Brownjohn's poem, "Farmer's Point of View".

The poem begins:

"I own certain acre-scraps of woodland, scattered

On undulating ground; enough to lie hidden in. So,

About three times a year, and usually August,

Pairs of people come to one or another patch."

And ends:

"So what am I saying? I'd like to see people pondering

What unalterable acts they might be committing

When they step down, full of plans, from their trains or cars.

I am not just recording their tragic, or comic, emotions,

Or even the subtler hazards of owning land -

I am honestly concerned. I want to say, politely,

That I worry when I think what they're about:

I want them to explain themselves before they use my woods."

A masala too far

Our friend Shelagh rang the other day in a state of some excitement. She had just been to the farmer's market in Leominster and found one of the stalls selling "tree rabbit". Then she went to the fishmonger's and found him selling it too, although he doesn't bother with any euphemisms and calls it squirrel. "I've never seen squirrel for sale before," said Shelagh. "And while I was there a woman came in and bought five of them. She said she was going to make a curry."

Following Shelagh's lead, I went into the fishmonger's the following day and he told me he's been doing a roaring trade in squirrel for about four months. I can't say I mind the idea of squirrels ending up on other people's dinner tables, as they do lots of damage to our trees and pinch our chickenfeed, but I can't say I'm greatly tempted myself by the thought of squirrel tikka masala.

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