Diary of a reluctant dairy maid

11th August 1995 at 01:00
Reva Klein takes off for pastures new on a dairy farm in Herefordshire.

I'm feeling great. I've just spent a day at Shortwood Working Dairy Farm in Herefordshire, where I've done everything a farmer does. Well, everything within reason.

First there were the calves to feed. My maternal instincts were stirred at the thought of giving bottles of milk to darling little month-old cows. What I didn't realise was that these newborns, pretty black and white Friesians, weigh more than I do and were so overjoyed to see me with my bottle (more like a teat-topped jerrycan) that they knocked me over in their rush to feed from it, splashing me from head to foot.

At least they were lovely to look at and reasonably odourless, which is the way I like my animals. Alas, a very different experience awaited me at my next port of call. Pigs are, let's not mince words, deeply ugly. Worse, they are smelly at the best of times. In the airless heat they are indescribable. Their memorable scent was not helped by that most malevolent of old bats Mother Nature, who had cruelly seen to it that among the 17 piglets that had been born the night before, there were four stillbirths, one of them left lying among its unconcerned siblings.

My host for the day, Janet Legge, farmer's wifeorganisereducator extraordinaire, swooped down matter of factly to pick up the inert, horribly human-looking corpse and, holding it by its ankles (or whatever pigs have just above their trotters), disposed of it deftly, it not altogether ceremoniously. I grew ashamed of myself as memories flooded back of the untimely demise of our hamster, Johnny, and how I had to ring a friend to deal with his pathetic remains.

Thankfully, I had little time to dwell on tragedy. A real life drama was being thrust into my unwelcome arms in the form of a pink and black, mud-encrusted piglet. It was alive. Now, I have to lay my cards on the table. In terms of The Archers I'm no Clary Grundy. In fact, I'm more like Linda Snell. In no way did I wish to bond with this unclean animal. It just didn't seem kosher. But something odd happened. This squealing, oinkish creature stirred in me something that I can only call tenderness. It stank to high heaven, but it was kind of cute, in a porky sort of way. Still my soft-headedness didn't last long. Before it could relieve itself all over me, I came to my senses and hastily handed it back, whereupon it scampered back to tug mercilessly at its mother's grotesquely ample bosom.

Feeding the blighters was infinitely more hygienic for me, anyway. What you do is hurl cylindrical pellets at them. It doesn't matter where in their faces, on their backs they all scream and shout with gleeful gluttony. Their snorts and grunts, pushing and shoving made my children's table manners look like Buddhist monks' in comparison.

As a reprieve from the shockingly authentic farmyard odours and inhuman behaviour, Janet treated me to a walk down to the ancient woodland behind the farmhouse that has been in her husband David's family since the beginning of the century. There, in among the centuries old coppices, she and her husband have built a badger watch.

This is a little hut in which you can sit at dusk and watch the badgers moving about, hunting for their beloved earthworms. I felt like Christopher Robin sitting in his treehouse, without a care in the world sans Piglet, of course. Overhead, hawks flew.

In the distance, we could hear a woodpecker. It was bliss. I avoided looking at the ground too closely lest I saw a mouse and be compelled to break the delicious silence with one of my blood-curdling but totally involuntary screams.

Like many other small dairy farmers, David and Janet Legge had to put their mind to diversification 10 years ago when milk quotas were imposed, thereby restricting the money they could earn from milk. So opening the working farm to the public was an obvious choice. They've added a few goats and donkeys and truly awful looking Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs for show, but apart from that, the place is a real working farm where people can book in for a day's "work", as I did, or just drop in. During weekdays, school bookings keep the place hopping. Children collect eggs from the hens and learn about why eggs are different colours (it depends on the breed of the hen). They try and turn the huge wheel around the working cider mill. They feed the animals, mix the feeds and watch the cows being fed. And as a grand finale, they get a trailer ride around the farm.

The views, on a clear day, stretch from the Malvern Hills across to the Black Mountains and take your breath away. If only they would take the smells away too, it could just be paradise.

For more information, and details of price if booking directly, contact Janet or David Legge at Shortwood Farm, Pencombe, Bromyard, Hereford (01885 400205). Alternatively, you can book through Acorn Activities on 01432 830083, Pounds 40 per person.

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