How can you tell when Spring is here?
Of all the seasons, Spring is the one I find hardest to identify. Summer days, Autumn mists, Winter snow (at least for those of us whose memories extend beyond climate change) are all well-defined characteristics. But Spring, the season of rebirth, teases with its many emergences and disappearances.
In the flower garden we find snowdrops, then daffodils, then crocuses, then tulips, each promising and then disappointing. Fortified by the stores hidden in their bulbs, first they flatter then they deceive. Do not be lulled into thinking that frosts, snow and biting winds are behind you, there is much more weather to come.
In the hedges and the orchards, dormant brown buds begin to swell, their tips turning creamy. Then a prolonged pause, sometimes for weeks on end, until real greenery appears. Apple trees are the worst offenders, blossoming before a leaf is in sight.
Tempting as it is to get onto the vegetable plot after a few dry days, when the soil is friable and no longer sticks to your boots, beware because your seeds will rot if you drop them in cold ground. Years ago, I was taught the “buttock test”: drop your pants and sit on the soil. If your naked flesh can bear it for 20 seconds or more, the earth is warm enough to sow.
Light and heat, propagators and incubators, polytunnels and glasshouses, give us some flexibility. I start aubergines and peppers (sweet and chilli) indoors in late December, they have long growing seasons and appreciate the extra weeks afforded by the artificial environment.
Tomatoes grow faster. If you start them too early they aetiolate (I Iove that word, with its six vowels and three consonants) stretching for the light and becoming spindly and weak. At the point where they outgrow their indoor home it’s still too cold to plant them out. Their sowing is best left to March. They will quickly make up for lost time.
Better harbingers of Spring are to be found in the poultry run. Our free-range chickens, some of whom live 5 or 6 stress-free years or longer, stop laying in November as the days get shorter. They pick up again in February. This week we collected the first duck egg, and very soon I expect the geese to be dropping their dinosaur eggs all around the pond. For a poultryman, these should be the first signs of Spring.
Sadly, these bellwethers have been messed around by the government in recent years. The prevalence of wild birds carrying Avian flu from far-off (and hostile?) lands means we are compelled by Defra to keep our poultry indoors in the winter month. They live in polytunnels where they keep much warmer; therefore the laying season begins earlier.
For my late mother the arrival of Spring was heralded by the arrival of migratory birds. She used to recite this ditty:
Spring has sprung, the grass is ris
I wonder where the birdies is?
They say the bird is on the wing but I say that’s absurd
How can the bird be on the wing? The wing is on the bird.
Ever the ukshan, I would remind her: “Mum, one swallow doth not a summer make”.
Which leads me to Spring lambs. If you want a truly reliable indicator that Spring is here, keep an eye on your sheep.
According to the text books the gestation period for a sheep is 5 months less 5 days. According to the Gemara it’s 5 months. No dispute there. The textbook works on solar months, the Gemara on lunar months. Solar months are 30 or 31 days, lunar months are 29 or 30 days. 5 lunar months is 5 solar months less 5 days.
Sheep begin their breeding cycle in late summer, it’s triggered by the days getting shorter. It varies from country to country according to the latitude. In UK the season begins towards the end of August. Add 5 months and deduct 5 days and you can expect your earliest lambs in the second half of January.
January is a rotten time to have lambs. There’s so little grass for the hungry mothers to eat, you end up feeding hay. The new-borns devote so much energy to keeping warm, they don’t grow so fast. Many shepherds prefer to leave lambing to March or April. How do they do that? With the simplest of all contraceptives: they keep the rams away from the ewes until October or November.
No such machinations for us; we make sure the ram is with the sheep in August. That way we have finished lambing by Purim and we can go away for Pesach. I love to inspect local flocks from my balcony in some recently-kashered, luxury, Mediterranean hotel.
Another thing shepherds do is castrate the boy lambs, they grow up to be wethers not rams. Wethers are easier to manage, their meat may not be quite as strong. But rams are leaner, maybe a little meaner. Castration is achieved by applying a tight nylon ring at the top of the scrotum, cutting the blood supply. Ouch! The bag withers and drops off.
Jewish law forbids castration of animals so that’s another distinction between us and shepherds.
We use the same nylon rings to dock the lambs’ tails. If you don’t do that, and their rear ends get dungy, blow fly will come and lay their eggs in the dung. The emerging maggots will infest and then eat the flesh of the sheep. It’s a condition known as ‘Strike’. Shortening their tails is good husbandry, saves lives and is not forbidden.
Today we have a dozen lambs gambolling in the paddock behind the house, with plenty more to come. We also have one in the kitchen, rejected by her mother. That mother has twins and rejects one of them every year. She simply can’t be bothered to feed two. The lamb spends all her time eating and sleeping. We could have called her ‘Nosh’ – but we settled on ‘Shluf’.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that it’s the lambs who herald the Spring. That is not my point. The sure-fire sign of Spring, here in Yenem’s Velt, is the convoys. Convoys of grandmothers from Golders Green and Hendon, heading North up the A1, their half-term grandchildren in the back of their 4x4s. They are coming to cuddle our lambs. That’s how I know that Spring is here.