Watching the world burn

On the twelfth of February (or thereabouts, as the land agents say) a friend of mine posted a quite spectacular photo of a fire on Dartmoor. The difficulty is that this is an accident waiting to happen. Winter wildfires are not unusual. At the same time firefighters were tackling a fire near the Cogra Moss reservoir, in West Cumbria (hence the photo from one of our local papers.) In Scotland the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) was called to reports of a wildfires on the islands of Benbecula, Harris and Lewis.

I heard on the radio a senior Scots fire officer discussing the Scots cases. This happened whilst much of the country was covered in quite deep snow. (Canadians, you would not have bothered clearing the drive) The fire officer commented that it was not uncommon for his men to drive through snow on their way to tackle these fires.

He pointed out that the basic problem is that whilst we think of our winters as being wet, in reality things can get very dry. That is something I can empathise with. Here in our bit of Cumbria, if we relied on spring sunshine to dry the ground out, we might be able to travel on much of our land by August. What saves us are those easterly winds we often get in February. They’re cold, they can cause problems with freezing and wind-chill. But often they’re not quite freezing and they are very drying. They’re not fun to live through but we need them.

I remember one year when they forgot to stop. We got to the start of May and grass on the east facing slopes was thin, blue and crispy. It crunched as you walked over it. Grass on lee slopes, facing west, had grown perfectly normally. You could see the difference between different areas in the same field. That was exceptional and gives you an idea of what it’s like when you have too much of a good thing.

Our moorland fires are due to the grass and foliage on them drying out in the easterly winds. Whilst a fortnight before, everything could have been sodden, now it’s tinder dry. So people who wouldn’t even think of discarding a cigarette end or similar in summer, don’t see it as a problem in February.

And then there’s the problem of why we have too much grass and foliage. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the EU subsidy systems were based on the numbers of sheep you had. There was a headage payment. As there was virtually no profit in sheep, people were keeping numbers just for the subsidy. Indeed I heard of one outfit where they were buying cull ewes, putting them on rough ground and not tupping them. The last thing they wanted was these ewes lambing. Lambing sheep, looking after lambs etc was just a cost. They were doing it purely for the headage payments the EU was paying. This led to overgrazing, which damaged the peat and reduced the heather.
In the 1990s these schemes were stopped, and indeed a lot of environmental schemes were started with the aim of getting things back to what they had been. Now those in charge are beginning to admit that this hasn’t worked. At the upper levels, the admission has largely been inadvertent and accidental. It came when the government wanted to ‘roll over’ environmental schemes so farmers whose scheme ‘ran out’ before the new system was ready wouldn’t be left without support for their environmental work. Embarrassingly some contracts cannot be rolled over. This is because the scheme hasn’t worked and standard government accounting procedures forbid rolling over of schemes that aren’t working. This is not unreasonable.

Now if a scheme doesn’t work because a farmer hasn’t keep their side of the bargain, the money is just clawed back. But these didn’t work because the designers of the scheme got it wrong. In many cases the farming industry told them they’d got it wrong at the time, but what do we know. After all, we’re not experts.

The trouble was that a lot of ‘experts’ designing these schemes assumed that if you had a landscape of peatland and heather which had been overgrazed by sheep, then all you needed to do to help that landscape recover was to remove the sheep.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work. If you massively understock, then you get an entirely different landscape. On Dartmoor the environmental schemes have produced large areas of a grass known as Purple Moor Grass (Latin name is Molinia). Apparently there are thousands of hectares of this stuff, it forms large tussocks which are hard to walk through. Molinia has thrived because whilst cattle find it very palatable between May and July, sheep hate it and avoid areas dominated by it. After July, cattle won’t bother with it either.

In theory the fact that cattle will eat it should be the answer to the problem. Stock the moors heavily with cattle and they’ll start hammering the Molinia and if you work carefully (perhaps with fencing and similar) you could protect the peat and encourage the heather. It’s a pity that hill cattle aren’t economically viable isn’t it. Even if they were, the difficult is you have to feed them for twelve months, not just three. So really you’d need to have somebody buying all the big rough bullocks they could find, running them across Dartmoor, making sure to keep them on the Molinia infested areas, and then selling them on at the start of August. You might have to keep it up for a few years but it would probably work as part of an integrated management system.

Except it would break down because nobody outside the area would buy the cattle when you wanted to sell them because of the risks of bovine TB, so the cattle would need to be finished locally. I suspect it would be cheaper if you had farmers set up the system, working with environmentalists and then just work out how much the farmers lose on it and cover their costs.

But unless you do something, you’ll have the risk of fire every winter, as this Molinia (and don’t forget the gorse as well) dries out and then burns.

The burning grass isn’t as bad as it can get. When it gets really bad is when the peat catches fire. Now winter fires, where the peat should be wet and is with any luck frozen, are hopefully less likely to cause the peat to burn that the summer fires. But once the peat starts burning, then you get major environmental impacts. In 2019 twenty-two square miles of blanket bog in the Flow Country, between Caithness and Sutherland in Scotland, burned. The WWF Scotland study claimed 700,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent was released into the atmosphere as a result. Apparently this was pretty much the same amount released across the rest of Scotland during the same period.

Just to add to your problems, once a peat hag starts burning it can quite literally keep smouldering away for years ready to flare up in the next summer. Planting trees under these circumstances prevents nothing, as the trees can burn as well.

Obviously Dartmoor, Cumbria and the Western Isles are different areas, but the problems have largely been caused by understocking. It’s been discovered that merely taking sheep off a fell doesn’t return the fell to what it used to be. This isn’t surprising, what it used to be was the result of a management system, not the result of abandonment. Rather than abandoning the land you have to reintroduce the management system which created the environment you want.
Now it’s not as if this is something that has crept up on us without warning. During 2001 and the FMD outbreak, there were a lot of summer fires in Cumbria because there were no sheep to eat off the grass. With the fells being understocked the amount of forage left uneaten simply increases. On Dartmoor it does so because the Molinia spreads, in other areas there are other causes but the root cause tends to be under-grazing.

So if with climate change we are going for hotter, drier, summers, then summer fires on the fells look like being a regular occurrence, and they will start getting into the peat.

Now the answer is not just put a million more sheep or Dartmoor (or wherever) because that won’t fix it either. After all, sheep won’t eat the Molinia. Not only that but what works for Dartmoor won’t necessarily work for Cumbria. Indeed what works for the valleys in the west of the Lake District may not work for those in the east. So we need somebody to draw up environmental schemes with enough flexibility to do something entirely different in one part of the country to what can be done in others. So schemes that have prescriptive dates or tight conditions everybody has to meet are right out.
Now the fact that the Government can now come up with a bespoke scheme for the UK, rather than having to try and take a scheme which is designed to cover everything from Finland to the Greek Islands, must surely be an advantage. I await with interest to see whether our civil service are up to the job.


There again, what do I know? Speak to the experts!

For this collection of stories, our loyal Border Collie, Sal, is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.

As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians).
One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows:
There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!”

Well you try these things.

I’ve always had a memory for stuff that intrigued me at the time. I can still remember one old chap talking with my Dad. They got talking about growing what the old chap called ‘kibble corn’. That to him was mixed wheat and barley. There was nothing fancy about how they (or anybody else round here) grew it back them. They borrowed a seed drill from a neighbour (which had initially been designed to be pulled behind horses and had a metal drawbar fitted to it and the shafts removed. It was a good drill, I’ve used it myself, perhaps ten years after this conversation. After drilling the seed, you just went over the field with spike harrows to get the seed down deep enough, chain harrows to bury everything and then roll it.

At the time they were talking, the combine had arrived so the whole lot went through the combine and into the store. Obviously you had to pick a wheat and a barley variety that ripened at the same time, but he swore by it as a feed. Just a bit richer than barley but not as powerful as wheat.

From memory that chap was the first person I’d see use Propcorn or propionic acid to preserve barley. Normally you’d hope for the sun to dry the crop, but on this side of the country that is often a faint hope. What had happened was that they’d harvested their grain and tipped it in a store they’d made. The old chap would keep an eye on it and even climbed into the store to make sure the grain wasn’t heating up because he’d been a bit doubtful that they’d managed to get it dry enough. Basically with damp grain you can get yeasts, moulds and mycotoxins and all sorts of nasties. The minute he’d spotted it getting warm they’d shovelled it out of the store (by hand) and then augered it back in. But they’d applied Propcorn to it through the auger. This stops the yeasts, moulds and suchlike, and it has the advantage that propionic acid occurs naturally in the bovine rumen. Microbes help ferment the starch to produce lactic and propionic acid which they can use. So a little extra propionic acid in the diet is neither here nor there. But it stinks, stings, makes your eyes water and I’ve worked with nicer stuff. But still we have one chap who had one foot firmly in the pre-war years yet was one of the first in to use new techniques.

Then round here I’ve seen what the Scots call Mashlum. Oats and peas planted simultaneously. They used to reckon on planting six stones of oats and four stones of peas per acre. I’ve seen it growing but wasn’t there to see it harvested. Apparently when the plants are young the sturdy pea plant protects the young oat, and as they grow older the oat provides support to the peas.
Whilst the Scots grew oats and peas, I’m sure the one I saw was barley and peas.

Again you just waited for both to be ripe (which meant you had to pick your varieties carefully) simultaneously and then go in with the combine. To feed it to livestock you’d have to roll the barley. For those who’ve never fed cattle, you roll grain to break the grain kernel. This allows the microbes in the animal’s gut to get access at the central bit of the grain where all the food is. You can tell if you haven’t rolled barley properly, the whole grains will go straight through the animal and come out whole in the muck. Rolling the barley will obviously break up the peas as well which is probably no bad thing.

The Scots used to grind the oats and peas mix to make a flour. This would be used to make a flatbread or pease-bread for human consumption. For anybody who fancies it, you apparently make it by mixing the flour of various cereals and pulses then baking it on a hot plate. Apparently you could add more or less conventional flour to your mashlum, depending on personal taste. You’d mix it with salt and water and bake it into round cakes about an inch thick. They are flat bread as they won’t rise.

The Scots also used it as a cattle feed, so much so that questions were asked in the House of Commons. Hansard records that on Tuesday 4 November 1958, one Arthur Woodburn, Labour MP for Clackmannan and Eastern Stirlingshire asked “The Secretary of State for Scotland (John Maclay, 1st Viscount Muirshiel)

1) What consideration has been given to the substitution of mashlum for hay as the principal crop for feeding stuffs in the expansion of cattle population in the Highlands;

2) Whether his attention has been called to the fact that the cultivation of mashlum instead of hay as the mainstay of cattle feed in the Highlands could increase the possible cattle population up to eight times;

3) And what action he proposes to take in this matter.

The Viscount’s reply was measured. “I am sure that the possibilities of this valuable crop have not been overlooked by the College Advisory Officers in any area in the Highlands where it could be grown successfully. I am advised, however, that mashlum could replace hay only to a limited extent.”

Now you’re far more likely to see the combination grown for silage, if you get it right, it can increase the protein of the silage meaning you need less bought in protein.  

Another thing I’ve seen is ‘pea haulm hay.’ Names vary, the term pea haulm straw is also used. They don’t grow peas round here, but one farmer round here had contacts with a haulier/hay and straw merchant from over on the east side of the country where they did. If you get a few good hot days at the right time of year you could bale your pea haulms. One wagon load was always sent across here. The farmer I knew had fitted hayracks in his cubicle house. (Which is something I’ve never seen before or since) He’d put his bales in the hayracks and just let his milk cows eat what they wanted. What they didn’t eat, they could lie on which meant he never had to bed them.

That’s the joy of farming, it’s amazing what can work for you if you believe in it.


Then again, what do I know? Speak to the experts.

For this collection of stories, our loyal Border Collie, Sal, is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.

Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians).
One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows:
There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!

Spreading clean water and still getting complaints.

I came across this almost certainly apocryphal story. Apparently a town gets its first 5G phone mast. Almost immediately all sorts of people develop medical conditions. A protest group against the mast is formed. The local council arrange a public meeting and bring in the representatives of the company that erected the mast. In it everybody is waving their doctors notes and going on about all the ailments they are now suffering.

At this point the company representative says gravely, “This does sound bad. If it’s this bad now, what will it be like when we get round to switching the mast on.”

The reason the story strikes home for me was I knew a couple of brothers who were farming on the edge of town. They had one field where, whenever they spread slurry, there were complaints. Official letters arrived, plus phone calls and talk of court cases. Then somebody from the local environmental health department turned up.

He looked at what they were doing, and from what they said, he obviously knew how the job should be done, and as far as he was concerned they were being sensible. So he asked them if they would try something to help them and make his job easier. As he watched they washed out the slurry tanker until it was clean, and then filled it with clean water. He watched them spread the load of clean water over the field, went back to his office and took a note of all the complaints that came flooding in. He then went round all those who had complained and pointed out that they were complaining about a clean tanker spreading clean water, water that came from the water main.

Complaints dried up for a year or two after that. But the Environmental Health officer’s advice was always keep your tanker clean. Just wash it off after using it. He’d noticed that the public weren’t all that discerning and if the tanker looked clean they didn’t appear to get as excited about what it was doing.

There again I was once at a meeting with Animal Health officials in the North of the country. They were discussing the number of complaints they got about farmers and their estimate was perhaps fifty percent of complaints were basically malicious, or at the very least the person making the complaint had to be very ignorant. They gave as an example one farm which was close to town and had quite a few people walking past it. Sometimes on footpaths, sometimes not.

The Animal Health officers got a constant stream of complaints about this farm. The policy at the time was that a complaint had to be investigated. It didn’t take the officers long to come to the conclusion that the complaints were basically spiteful. Occasionally there was substance to the complaint. Somebody complained about a lame cow. There was a lame cow, the farm’s vet was currently overseeing a course of treatment.

The officers were faced with something of a dilemma in that they’re not allowed to shoot members of public out of hand for being a damned nuisance. They also couldn’t tell the farmer who the individuals were who were trying to cause him and his family a lot of trouble. Yet not only was it giving the farming family a lot of grief, it was causing the Animal Health office a lot of unnecessary work as well. Then somebody came up with a brainwave. Every Tuesday morning, one of the officers would drop round and have coffee with the farmer and his wife. On his way to the kitchen he’d see cattle in the sheds and over coffee there was always the opportunity for an informal discussion about how things were going. The officers, who were all vets, found it useful because it kept them in touch with ordinary farms and their problems, and I suspect the farmer managed to get some veterinary advice for the cost of a coffee and biscuit. The upshot of it all was that when the malicious caller phoned, the person who answered didn’t even need to write anything down, they merely said, “Yes, our officer will be making an unannounced inspection.”

To be fair, it was unannounced, they never once phoned up and said, “We’ll be round for coffee on Tuesday.”

That case went well. Indeed so long as you can get sensible grown-ups involved who understand the world, things can rub along not so badly. But sensible grown-ups are perhaps less common than they ought to be.

Way back, I remember reading a piece in the Farmer and Stockbreeder. I guess it would be towards the end of the 1960s or very early 1970s. From what I remember a family had been running a small pig farm. They were tenants and were just sort of getting by. Their troubles started when a couple bought the house nearest their farm and started a stream of complaints. I cannot now remember how long this went on for, but there were court cases and lawyers bills. At one point the farmer and his wife offered to buy the house off the couple at the couple’s valuation. This was because they could get a mortgage for the house but as farm tenants couldn’t raise money to do any sort of works on the farm, and because of lawyers bills etc, hadn’t the money to do them anyway.
The couple refused and at some point not long after that, the farm went bust. From what I remember of the article, the day the pigs were sold and farm sale was advertised, the couple ostentatiously went out that evening to celebrate.

Apparently at that point the farmer snapped. He noticed that they’d left a bedroom window open and spent the evening pumping pig slurry into their house.
Genuinely I don’t know whether he technically filled it, but apparently he made a gallant attempt. When the couple arrived home there were threats of criminal proceedings. But the village policeman (some areas still had them back then) apparently pointed out that the window had been left open. The farmer had not had to force an entry, therefore as far as he was concerned it was purely a civil matter. As the farmer commented, “It’s awfully tricky to sue a bankrupt.”


There again, what do I know. Ask an expert


The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing. But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

As a reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.”

Farm Assurance Schemes

Are they worth it and if you’re not a farmer have you ever even heard of them?

I was lucky in that when they were coming in, I was out of dairy and was buying calves and selling store cattle. So I managed without the extra expense. I did finish a handful of cattle but I sold them direct to the consumer. I sold my customers an eighth of a bullock (because when it comes to freezer space, the janet and john formula is one lamb is half a pig is an eighth of a bullock). My customers didn’t care about farm assurance schemes, and weren’t interested in knowing about them. In reality I was my own farm assurance. They were buying from Jim. They knew me, could drop round and even be introduced to their animal beforehand if they wanted.

I was also involved peripherally in a body called ‘Cumbria Local and Fair’ at one point. In simple terms the Fair Trade movement has done a lot of good around the world for a lot of people. There doubtless places where it could do better and places where people take advantage, but across the board I’d say it has done a lot of good.

Now the idea was that the principle could be extended to Cumbria. After all, farmers in Cumbria (and the rest of the UK) deserve a fair crack of the whip. We should no more be screwed by major retailers than our fellows in the third world (or in any other part of the world for that matter.) There were problems. Some of it was about scale. One supermarket was interested in selling Cumbrian milk from its Cumbrian supermarkets. It’s not one of the big chains, but even so, they were rather shocked to discover that one Cumbrian dairy farm (and not an especially big one) could provide all the premium Cumbrian milk they needed. Cumbria is physically big and with twenty million visitors a year we can get crowded, but there’s fewer than half a million of us who live here all the time.

Another problem was expectations on the part of people wanting to set things up. One idea was we could try Cumbrian beef. Now I looked into it and did the basic research. I could have arranged this comparatively easily and cheaply. Because all cattle have individual passports it’s far easier to arrange than, for example, with lamb. So to be ‘Cumbrian Beef’ the animal has to be born in Cumbria (which is easily proved from the passport and we’ve got plenty of dairy and beef units with cows to produce the calves) and must live all its life in Cumbria. Again this is easily done. If the animal is born on a dairy farm and is sold to somebody who will rear it for beef, the animal’s passport will show which farms it has lived on. It will even show the auction marts the animal has passed through, and Cumbria has a lot of good auction marts.

Finally it is possible to get the animal slaughtered in Cumbria and it could then be delivered to the butcher, if necessary with a photocopy of the passport accompanying the carcass. It means the consumer could go into the butcher’s shop and know they were buying Cumbrian beef.

I talked to people in the trade and they agreed that actually that sort of thing could be done for very little extra cost. Initially there would be very little extra money in it, but the beauty of the system was that, without really costing anything, it would respond to consumer demand. So if customers started asking for Cumbrian beef, butchers would ask the abattoir to send them more. So the buyers standing round the rings at Cumbrian auctions would start putting in an extra bid or two to make sure they bought the guaranteed Cumbrian stock. Slowly the price might rise and you’d get a Cumbrian premium. But even if you didn’t, it had cost you nothing.

The problem is that this wasn’t enough for people who wanted to set up a scheme. They wanted to guarantee extra welfare, or have extra restrictions on feed or whatever. Even if these extra criteria cost nothing, you would still have to organise members and police things. You’d need an organiser who did on-farm inspections etc to make sure that the rules were being obeyed.

As somebody pointed out to me, given a £30k salary, car, and computer, even if they worked from, home you were going to struggle to keep the cost below £50,000 a year.

If you got a hundred farmers to sign up for it they would have to pay £500 each every year with no guarantee that they would see any of the money back because you cannot guarantee a premium. As far as I could see there was no way you could sell that to farmers. Most would think that you’d probably got more chance of getting your money back betting on the horses.

But this is one of the problems at the heart of farm assurance schemes. By law we have very high standards in the UK. In a lot of areas we are ahead of Europe. For example in the UK (and I believe, Sweden) sow stalls are banned. In the rest of the EU, to quote Compassion in World Farming, “Their use is limited in the EU, with a partial ban enforced from 2013. However it is still permitted for sows to be kept in sow stalls from weaning of the previous litter until the end of the first 4 weeks of pregnancy.”

So in reality we already have a whole UK farm assurance scheme. We produce in the UK to UK standards and the various UK authorities who are in charge of monitoring these standards stand behind them.

Now by definition there are costs you face as a farmer when it comes to producing food in the UK that you wouldn’t face in some other countries. (To be equally fair they will have costs we don’t have) If, on top of these standards we introduce farm assurance schemes with higher standards there will be more cost. There will be the costs of running the schemes etc and all these costs fall on the farmer members. There will also be the costs of meeting these standards. This is entirely acceptable if there is a premium being paid to cover these costs. The problem is, if you have a universal scheme that aims to cover all UK farmers, there cannot be a premium because everything is produced to that standard and that standard is the norm. The danger is that the scheme becomes a protection racket, ‘If you don’t hand over the money you won’t sell in this mart’.

Now the universal scheme covering all UK farmers would work, but only if the buyers are the far end valued it. But we see grain buyers buying farm assured UK grain and mixing it with imported grain that doesn’t meet UK farm assurance standards. We see manufacturers mixing UK farm assured meat with meat from elsewhere in the world, buying on price rather than quality.

And here is the problem. Actually pushing up farm standards is the easy bit. The important part of the system is getting farmers a premium for the high standard produce. But there will only be a premium if the consumer actually cares about your standards.

And here we run into another problem. I have talked to family and friends who aren’t in farming and have discussed farm assurance schemes. They immediately used to tell me about their experience with introducing British Standard (BS) 5750. Its equivalent in European Standards is EN29000 and in the International Standards Organisation ISO9000. These standards lay down formalised procedures and require documentation but do not as such lead to improved quality of the product. I’ve had no end of people tell me about the ‘work arounds’ and ‘fudges’ that they had to make to ensure that their employers systems were fit for BS 5750. One lady mentioned that she, as a very junior employee, was given the job of documenting how they ordered from all their suppliers.

She did the job, the boss was pleased and they got BS5750. Ten years later she happened to see the file on a shelf and opened it out of interest to see who had updated it. There was her work, pristine and untouched. In the ten years they had changed all their suppliers but nobody had ever bothered updating the paperwork. But they’re still BS5750.

So just having an ‘assurance scheme’ isn’t going to impress anybody. Most of our consumers are involved in fudging the data for something similar.
So who should the assurance schemes target if cynical consumers aren’t going to be bowled over with them?
The buyers are an obvious first step. But most major retailers would rather set their own scheme up. It allows them to lock in farmers and can be a useful marketing tool. Why would a supermarket want to drop those advantages to join a national scheme ‘everybody’ is part of? They get absolutely no marketing advantages at all.
The crucial point is that with a national scheme all suppliers are part of, the people you are really targeting are your overseas competitors. If we can get them to meet our standards to sell in the UK, then this will put their costs up and make it harder for them to out-compete us. All this needs is a government that bans the import of food products that do not match our standards. To be fair I suspect the ban on all EU pork products other than Swedish is not going to go down well.
Across the board, at the moment, with governments borrowing at unprecedented levels and with unemployment about to increase massively throughout the US, the UK and the EU, this is not a time when governments are going to do anything that raises basic food prices. Their electorates are not going to put up with it.


There again, what do I know about it all, go to the expert.


A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.

As a reviewer commented, “This is a selection of anecdotes about life as a farmer in Cumbria. The writer grew up on his farm, and generations of his family before him farmed the land. You develop a real feeling for the land you are hefted to and this comes across in these stories. We hear of the cattle, the sheep, his succession of working dogs, the weather and the neighbours, in an amusing and chatty style as the snippets of Jim Webster’s countryman’s wisdom fall gently. I love this collection.”

Still just going through the motions

Defra is currently consulting on introducing a ban on urea, used by farmers as a fertiliser. Government estimates that doing this would cut UK ammonia emissions by 8%. The problem is that if we stop using urea, the population of the UK won’t in reality eat less. So to keep them fed we’ll either import more, or replace the urea with ammonium nitrate fertilisers.

So what would happen is that the UK would stop importing urea (because we don’t produce it here). This would probably lead to a slight drop in the world market price and the surplus would soon be snapped up. (Indeed some countries still subsidise their farmers to use it. India and China among them) At the same time farmers in the UK would end up competing for ammonium nitrate (which we do produce in this country but it’s still sold at the world market price) and would end up paying more.

So the net result would be that whilst UK ammonia emissions might drop, world ammonia emissions would stay the same and UK farmers would pick up the bill for more expensive fertilisers. Farmers would be asked to spend money for no real purpose.
Alternatively UK farmers would end up producing less and the UK consumer would eat more imported food, creating extra food miles and still not reducing world urea emissions.

The problem is that we have politicians around the world and of all complexions looking for a quick ‘hit’ that shows ‘they are doing something’. The fact that in reality their actions are irrelevant or even counter-productive is rarely pointed out to them.

One underlying problem is that lobby groups demand a ‘sustainable agriculture’ but how can you have a sustainable agriculture unless you’re trying to feed a ‘sustainable population?’

So let’s look at how, for example, a dairy farm works. We feed cows on grass and concentrate feeds largely made up of waste products.

Some examples of these waste products are;-

Rapeseed meal, this is what’s left when you have crushed rape (canola) to produce the cooking oil.

Wheatfeed. This is another by-product, this time of flour milling. It’s a mixture of wheat bran, endosperm and other starch screenings and floor sweepings.

Distillers’ grains. This is what is left of the grain after you’ve brewed beer or spirits.

Palm kernel.  This is what’s left after you’ve produced palm oil. It used to be a useful feed but is now often too expensive as it’s snapped up for burning in power stations because it’s ‘sustainable’. (That weasel word again.)

Sugarbeet Pulp. This is what is left of the sugar beet after the sugar has been extracted.

Citrus pulp. This is what is left of the citrus fruit after the juice has been squeezed out for people to drink.

But the most important part of the diet is grass.

So we feed concentrates and grass into a cow and we get three outputs. We get milk, we get more cow, and we get what could nicely be described as dung.

We put the dung back onto the land where it grows more grass etc. But we lose fertility because we export milk, and eventually, cow, as beef. We have to replace that lost fertility.

Then look at our consumers. They eat food and it produces work, more consumer, and, inevitably, dung.

To balance the cycle, that dung ought to go back to the farm where it would help replace the lost fertility. But instead the consumer adopts a ‘euugh’ response and flushes it away and thinks no more about it.

But it is the stuff that is flushed away that needs to be replaced and it’s the reason farmers have to purchase artificial fertilisers.

Now this is a relatively new problem. In the UK, the 1847 Town Improvement Clauses Act legalised the discharge of sewerage into rivers and seas and allowed its sale for agricultural purposes. The 1848 Public Health Act decreed every new house should have a water closet or ash-pit privy, which was to be emptied by a night soil collector.

Indeed at one point London had a reasonable system for disposing of its night soil. There were a number of ‘Laystalls’. Originally they were places where cattle had been held and the term evolved into a place where dung was stored. London still has a Laystall Street, at Mount Pleasant. (Not far from Hatton Garden and Smithfield) which in the period before 1800 was apparently a seven acre dung heap.

From there it could be shifted by boat, barge and later by railway and was spread on farmland.

Eventually the system risked becoming overloaded. By 1890 London had, as well as people, 50,000 horses working in the transport system. New York was in an even worse situation, with 100,000 horses producing over 11,000 tons of horse muck a day. It was the advent of the internal combustion engine and the electric tram which rescued cities from disappearing under a mountain of muck.

From and agricultural point of view we could go back to the system, it would greatly reduce the carbon footprint of the country. There are issues. One is composting. In the good old days when everybody had an ash privy which was cleaned out twice a year, there wasn’t a problem. The material composted in the privy and when dug out it could be spread on the land immediately. Unfortunately raw sewage would have to be composted. Still there’s plenty of derelict city centre sites that could be cleared and used for the purpose.

Also there’s all the rubbish city dwellers put in their dung. The media occasionally runs stories on some huge fatberg bigger that a blue whale. Well firstly catering establishments could just be inspected. They can keep a tally of cooking oil purchased and used cooking oil sent for recycling. That would help a great deal. Similarly DIY enthusiasts can stop tipping turps, engine oil and other noxious substances down the drains.

After all, the producers ought to look after their own dung. If anybody feels that there’s too much of it. then they should either just cross their legs, or perhaps just eat less.



You would have thought that when talking crap at least I know what I’m talking about. But I’ve worked with the experts

For this collection of stories, Sal, our loyal Border Collie, is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.

As a reviewer commented, Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians).
One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows:
There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!

Wandering Herdwicks

We have only formally wintered Herdwicks once, as an experiment. Fences good enough for cattle and even for mule ewes, might as well have not been there. The chap whose Herdwicks they were fetched them in two groups and they remained in two groups. Even when wandering they stuck to their groups. Indeed at one point both lots were out, and wandered down a track towards each other, passed through each other and kept going in their chosen direction.

At the time I did wonder whether the two groups didn’t ever stop to think, “If they’re abandoning this direction, is it worth us going there?” But obviously sheep don’t work like that.

At the time we had some electrified wire netting we used to keep cows and calves out of certain areas. Imagine a sheep netting fence of string but with thin metal wires fed through it carrying the current. It was very effective with calves and their mothers. It’s only 12 volt but they touched it once and didn’t touch it again.

Still we had one Herdwick hogg who obviously took exception to the damned stuff. When we found her she’d managed to wrap the entire fifty yard roll around herself. It wasn’t that she’d got caught in it and was trailing it behind her. No she was completely bundled up in it.

But as I said, we only did it once. There are two problems, one obvious (damned things never stay where you put them) and one less obvious. The owner doesn’t want them back until he’s got grass. That, for him, will be sometime in May. We want them away in March because otherwise they’re eating the grass we need for first cut silage for our dairy cows. The attempts to synchronise these two desires leads to a belief in both parties that the other party is obviously using a different calendar.

But in spite of only wintering Herdwicks that once, we still get Herdwicks in small numbers every year. They’re like nits at a primary school, somebody gets them, and then everybody gets them.

A lot of years ago, one farmer, now deceased, wintered some. If they spent any time on his land it was because they crossed it to get out on the other side. Their wanderings were limited. On two sides there was the sea. On the third side was ‘the beck’ which was cut like an anti-tank ditch back in the 60s, and that seems to have stopped them. On the fourth side was the old coal-fired power station. It had areas where hot ashes cooled and to an extent, from a sheep’s point of view, looked somewhat like Mordor. But as well as the ash pits (and for all I know, wandering Orcs and giant spiders) there was a wire dump. During the war, because we’re a shipbuilding town with a good docks, we were considered a potential invasion target. What made it more possible was the fact that we had both vast areas of flat sand (Morecambe Bay) where you could land gliders, and the best deep water harbour between Milford Haven and the Clyde. I think that the fear was that the invasion would be a combination of glider troops and paras direct from the Continent, and then troops landed from ‘neutral’ merchant shipping lurking in the ports of the Irish Republic.

I can remember as a child, the sands were still covered with anti-glider posts hammered into the sands. There are still the pill boxes and gun emplacements, but there had been an awful lot of barbed wire. Whilst the pill boxes etc are still there and the glider posts disappeared as the sea worked on them, the barbed wire had to be removed. Next to the power station was what was said to be the main ‘barbed wire dump.’
Now the chap who was wintering the Herdwicks never got involved in details, but I know one farmer who reckoned back in the day he spent quite a lot of time cutting Herdwicks out of the barbed wire.

The same farmer went to a sale somewhere in the north of the county and he got chatting to the chap standing next to him at the sale ring. When the farmer he was talking to discovered where my informant was from, this new acquaintance commented, “I once had some sheep winter down there. I’ve never had a batch do as well.”

There again, they’d had plenty of ground to run over.

But this year no Herdwicks, none of our neighbours seem to have got any. But we have had walkers wandering.

Now this has been intriguing. During the first lockdown, the weather was gorgeous and we got a lot of people walking through the lanes. To be honest I don’t have a problem with that. I suppose having had covid anyway means I’m less fussed, but given where some of them live, no wonder they need to get out. This lockdown the weather has been worse and we’ve seen few people on the lanes. But I’ve seen more walkers trying to follow footpaths. I’d be hedging and minding my own business and somebody would shout across asking where they were and how they got back to the road.

As a far better writer than I wrote,

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;”

To be fair, round here, I’d say a fair proportion have been. Still I was talking to somebody and she commented that she’d noticed a lot of people taking their exercise walking round the town centre. She reckoned there was two factors at work, the first is the weather. If it does chuck it down, you’ve got shelter. But perhaps more worrying, a lot of this started when police in the Peak District started fining people £200 for driving five miles to walk, and claimed taking a coffee with you meant you were having a picnic. (The police backed down over that) Talking to people she knew, some of them commented that in town you weren’t going to get fined for going too far from home.

Now whilst I know Cumbria Constabulary has quite rightly got a bit shirty with people driving considerable distances to get into the Lake District and then wild camping, I’ve heard nothing negative about them locally. In fact what comments I’ve heard about our local force have been entirely positive.

I know of one chap who does have mental health issues. He suffers from panic attacks. During the first lockdown he was in his car and was stopped by the police. He explained that when he had a panic attack he drove to the beach, parked his car and just sat in it and looked at the sea. Whether it was going out or coming in didn’t matter, just looking at the sea, often for two or three hours, just lifted him out of it.

When he’d explained this the policeman just stepped back and told him to go to where he normally parked, take as long as he wanted, and if any busybody queried it, tell them he had police approval.


You need to be a real professional to cope with sheep

More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”

Hedging in your shirt sleeves

Actually this was going to be ‘diking in your shirtsleeves’ but that apparently means different things to different people. Here a dike is a hedge which is normally set on a ‘cop’. The dike cop is two ‘dry stone walls’ set about a yard apart with space between them filled with soil and stone etc. And here again I’m running the risk of falling foul of all sorts of algorithms because I’m laying a hedge (or in my culture, laying a dike).  

Last year we dug the drain out that runs down one side of the dike and put up a good fence. So I decided this winter that I’d finish the job off properly, lay the dike and then make good the fence on this side as well.

The problem is that my Grandfather ought to have tackled this hedge back in the 1950s when we still had labour. I’m doing the job at least sixty years later than it should have been done.

Looking down the hedge, it isn’t as much a hedge any more as a long narrow copse. The ditch on one side kept it in place, but on the other side it’s pushed its way through one fence and was in the process of devouring a second one erected later. A lot of the old hawthorn is dying, and cutting it right back, removing all the dead wood and rubbish will hopefully revive it. Then I can hopefully work a lot of the new, younger stuff into the hedge as well. But it’s one of those jobs where your best friend is your chain saw. There is just so much rubbish to cut out. Also everything is so entangled. To be fair, that’s one reason why we use hawthorn, because it does interweave and make a good stock proof barrier. The problem here is that the good stock proof barrier is about six feet off the ground and below that you can push between the various boles easily enough.

So I work out which of the vertical stems I’m going to keep. Then I cut out those that I don’t need. Following this I cut away the entangling bits from the ones I do need. Finally I cut diagonally down through the stems I want so they’ll bend over and lie down but still keep their connections to their roots. Note that when I talk about stems, some of these I can just get both hands round. So it makes sense to trim a lot of their upper canopy away, otherwise they’ll be too heavy to lay into place. And all the thick stuff that gets cut out is cut into six foot lengths, put to one side, and my last job of the day is to put it on the saw horse and cut it down to lengths for burning on the fire. Today’s hedging cuts next winter’s firewood.

So in a couple of years, hopefully we’ll have a vigorous hedge with no gaps, and in sixty years’ time, somebody will doubtless curse me as they try and restore order once again.

The problem we face is that whilst I know people who can lay hedges, you need time and to an extent you need the weather. There are only so many months in which you can lay a hedge. Traditionally it’s when there is an ‘r’ in the month. But EU regulation and cross compliance cut this down a bit. Also you cannot do it when it’s too cold or stuff splits off rather than lays nicely, and equally obviously, I’ve got better things to do in the rain. Similarly high winds mean you cannot do the job either. So last winter I got virtually none done.

Then there’s the fact that, with food production becoming more and more marginal, there is less labour about, and the labour we have is far too busy to do jobs like this. We have the ridiculous situation of people, their mouths full of cheap food, complaining that they don’t like the way the countryside is going.

To an extent I can see the justification. It actually makes sense to subsidise food (because the poor spend a far higher proportion of their income on food than the more prosperous do) and then take money in tax of those who are doing OK, to put back into agriculture.

But the problems are caused by not merely how much money they put back, but how they put the money back. It’s how the various schemes are designed. A lot of the environmental schemes over the years have not been very good. Now a lot of environmental schemes are effectively contracts farmers will enter for a period of so many years. When the period is over the farmer can take on another contract. But because all the schemes are changing because we no longer have to just use the EU schemes, some contracts will run out before the new scheme will be available. The idea was that the contracts that ended would just be ‘rolled over’ for a couple of years until the new one was ready and farmers could then transfer seamlessly from one to another.

The problem is that some contracts cannot be rolled over. Basically, the various agencies have had to admit that the scheme they designed hasn’t worked. And you aren’t allowed to roll over a scheme that doesn’t work. (Which is sensible, it’s an attempt to stop public money just being poured to waste.)
Now if the reason the scheme hadn’t worked is because the farmer didn’t fulfil the contract, the money would be clawed back. That can be done and is done. But these schemes haven’t worked, not because the farmer hasn’t done what was asked, but because what the farmer was asked to do was never going to work. The designers of the schemes didn’t know what they were doing. It has to be admitted that in some cases farmers told them ten or fifteen years ago that the schemes wouldn’t work. Fifteen years later, the designers have probably retired on decent pensions, whilst we’re left with fifteen wasted years.

Still, Tuesday was a good day. For once the weather behaved, the sun shone and I ended up taking my jacket off and working in my shirt sleeves. There must be worse ways of spending a nice day in January.


There again, what do I know? Talk to the experts.

For this collection of stories, Sal, our loyal Border Collie, is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.

Funny time to be a shepherd

I’ve worked with sheep, but I’d never call myself a shepherd. I’ve not got that level of expertise. But one of the things about shepherds is that they tend not to be centre stage.

Historically they were always looked down on. Even more than the rest of us involved in agriculture they were shunned. (Even now ‘peasant’ is an insult in the mouths of people who couldn’t feed themselves if Orcado stopped delivering.)

Take the Christmas story. We are used to a bowdlerised version. Somewhere in this house there is a photo of me (and thirty other children) dressed up for our School Nativity. Nearly sixty years ago now, the sweet girls were angels. (Memory insists that having blonde hair and a mother who could sew seems to have been part of how you got the job but I couldn’t swear to it.) The rest of the girls and all the boy were shepherds. We wore dressing gowns and had tea towels on our heads.

Back in the day, things would have been a bit different. Herdsmen, whether they herded cattle or sheep, were very much looked down on.

Varro in his work ‘On Agriculture’ looks at herd slaves and states “those who work the cattle trails must be stronger than those who return to the home farm of the estate every day, which is of course, why you see young men, almost always armed, out on the trails.”

“You should choose quick, surefooted men of powerful physique who move with agility, men who are able not just to follow the herd, but also to defend it from wild animals and bandits. They should be men who can lift heavy loads onto the backs of pack animals, men who can run fast and are skilled at throwing spears.”

To quote Diodorus Siculus  34

2. The young men they used as cowherds, the others in such ways as they happened to be useful. But they treated them with a heavy hand in their service, and granted them the most meagre care, the bare minimum for food and clothing. As a result most of them made their livelihood by brigandage, and there was bloodshed everywhere, since the brigands were like scattered bands of soldiers.

3. The governors (praetores) attempted to repress them, but since they did not dare to punish them because of the power and prestige of the gentry who owned the brigands, they were forced to connive at the pillaging of the province. For most of the landowners were Roman knights (equites), and since it was the knights who acted as judges when charges arising from provincial affairs were brought against the governors, the magistrates stood in awe of them.

So shepherds and similar were a pretty rough lot. Indeed even our dressing-gown and tea-towel wearing Judean shepherds would have been very much below the salt. Living with their flocks, wandering from grazing to grazing, unable to fulfil strict religious duties they’d be regarded by respectable people as thieves and worse. ‘The people of the land’ was in this period used to mean people who were rustic, ignorant and boorish.

(As an aside the Angels were if anything worse. Forget cute girls dressed in white, in Luke it says, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.”
In the English of the King James, a Host is an army. In the Greek the word is stratias, which is at the root of the Greek words for army, soldier, general, and we still use strategy. So rather than delightful children, you want to imagine something more like the massed singing you get from Cardiff Arms Park.)

Oh and whilst we’re wandering about in the Greek, The word “idiot” comes from the Greek noun ἰδιώτης (transliterated as idiōtēs). This means ‘a private person, an individual’, ‘a private citizen’ as opposed to a public servant. The ordinary soldiers in the army were ‘idiōtēs’ (as were most of the angels, but I’m not volunteering to tell them.)
This was taken up in Latin. The literary classes borrowed idiota to mean ‘uneducated’, ‘ignorant’, ‘common’, and in Late Latin it came to mean ‘crude, illiterate, ignorant’. Because after all, private soldiers and ordinary people are, aren’t they?
We got the word via French and it remains an insult.

But anyway, back to our shepherds. ‘The people of the land.’ In the last month, suddenly, people who had shunned them, who had given them no thought at all, became intensely worried about them.

Now I have helped out with FCN and I’ve seen the real problems at lot of families have had. I’ve talked to families whose environmental payments have been delayed over a year because of some IT issue. I wonder what would happen in a government department if the staff were told that because of IT problems they weren’t going to be paid for eighteen months?
I’ve talked to others who weren’t getting paid their basic payment because they had common land and the government IT system couldn’t cope with common land. (And remember these aren’t nice extras, these are payments which government has contracted to pay because farmers have undertaken to farm in a certain way. A way which means they can no longer get an adequate income from the market but which produces environmental benefits.)
I was told by somebody in RPA that their problem stemmed from the fact that they’d purchased an Italian IT system which worked really well, but the Italians don’t have common land (and England is apparently 3% common land) and thus when the RPA ran the system it just couldn’t cope with a lot of hill farmers. Whether this is accurate or not I cannot say, but frankly, anybody who has been surprised that our civil service has made such of bog of coronavirus really needs to get out more.

Still as I was saying. Shepherds. One way or another they’ve had a lot of hassle thrown at them. Then at one point in December, the zoom classes, the commentariat, the ones who hadn’t given a tuppenny damn about shepherds when they were being screwed over by government IT and regulation, suddenly discovered that they could be hit by a no-deal Brexit. In simple terms, we’re one of the world’s major exporters of sheep meat. We have the terrain, the weather, the skills, the breeds. It means that sheep meat is about the only agricultural commodity we are net exporters of.

Suddenly all these people who’d suddenly discovered shepherds were all over social media saying how terrible brexiteers were and how the shepherds were being sacrificed for the political whims of a lot of thicko racists.

And now there’s a deal and things might or might not be OK, all those desperately concerned new friends of the shepherds have abandoned them again. But don’t worry, you’ll probably meet them at the next fashionable rewilding conference. But actually you’ll probably not be invited to the conference anyway, idiōtēs


There again, what do I know? As a real expert

A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.

As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s stories make me nostalgic for a world I’ve never known – and probably am not sturdy enough to survive. His affection for his charges, the ewes and the lambs, is evident when he points out they are smarter than horses (horses have better PR). His warm tales about his sheep dogs make me want to own a dog (I’m not a dog person, and these are intelligent farm worker dogs, not pets). It’s the straightforward and down home way he writes about the daily life of someone who’s been a farmer since a child, through all the wavering government support and lack thereof, through the plagues of the farm life, in a way that shows the depth of his love for his home and profession. Think ‘James Herriot, Farmer.’

I’m stopping to write this review at the end of the 8th entry, labeled, ‘Occasionally you get it right,’ because he does – and I want to savor the rest of them slowly.

Jim Webster is a writer – I can give no higher praise. Read him, and you may be a little closer to what it really means to be a sheep farmer, as close as you can get. You get all the good stuff. It’ll warm your cockles.”

Impulse buying bulls

It must have been back in the 1970s, I could doubtless work it out more exactly by checking through the calving records but we’re not to a year here. My Dad and I were in Ulverston Auction for something, and I can no longer remember why. It wasn’t often we both went. Now Ulverston Auction was one of those places where you could find all sorts of livestock for sale.

Anyway, as we walked up the shippon looking at dairy cows (which we had no intention of buying), we came to a Welsh Black bull who was tied up next to them. To be honest we had no interest in buying him either. We had used AI for a decade or more and whilst AI men might have had a habit of drifting cars sideways as they came into the yard, that was pretty much the limit to the dangers they posed.

To be fair their driving could be spectacular. I was once chatting to the mechanic who serviced their cars in the garage at Milnthorpe. One AI man had come in with his car, complaining of a problem.

“There’s this nasty screaming from the left hand side when I corner at much over sixty.”

The mechanic had nodded sagely, “That will be your passenger.”
But anyway, Dad and I looked at this young bull, and he was a nice bull. Showing potential, he’d obviously grow into something decent.

So we went on to do whatever we were there to do (racking my memory it might have been to see the accountant) and forgot all about him.

About an hour later we walked through the dairy ring just as they were trying to sell him. He’d got to £150 and stuck. Now I won’t say ‘he was for nowt’ but it was getting awfully close. So Dad and I leaned on the metal rails that formed the ring and watched. Dad commented that it was awfully cheap. I probably said something about, ‘he’d be worth more in the fat ring.’
Anyway I put in a bid, and whoever was bidding put in another bid. And thus and so, I ended up buying him for £208. Which to be fair was still awfully cheap.

Anyway merely buying the bull is really the start of the whole ‘bull’ experience rather than an end of it. We loaded him into the cattle trailer and took him home. We didn’t have a bull pen so we tied him up in a shippon. He seemed happy enough with this and we went in and explained to my mother what had happened.

Anyway, that winter when we had a heifer who had ‘come abulling’ or a dairy cow who AI couldn’t catch, we just used to let him out into the collecting yard and he’d serve them, I’d put the halter back on him and take him back to the shippon and tie him up again.

Come spring the plan was to turn him out to grass with a batch of heifers. So after we’d turned the heifers out, Dad went to check with a neighbour he wasn’t going to put his heifers out in the field next door, because whilst love may laugh at locksmiths, bulls giggle quietly at hedges and dairy heifers, mad abulling, cheerfully take barbed wire entanglements in their stride.

Dad landed back, the neighbour had no plans to put heifers there, so we’d take the bull up in a couple of days. Except by then heifers appeared in the neighbour’s field.

So muttering a bit, when a heifer of ours came abulling we’d load the bull into the cattle trailer, take him up to the field and let him out. Then I’d put the halter on him and walk him back into the trailer and take him home. It did strike me at times we were falling over backwards to be neighbourly, but still.

Now remember that I was handling this bull on a halter, leading him in and out of trailers etc. Whilst he did have a ring through his nose we never used it because he didn’t need it.

Anyway one day we took him up to the field, and whilst he was working, Dad and I would go and check the grass on a mowing field next door. We walked back to the heifers, and there was no bull. So what had the daft young beggar gone and done. Was there a heifer abulling next door?
We looked round, couldn’t see anything untoward happening. Then I looked in the trailer. He was quietly standing there, patiently waiting to go home.

Anyway we used him that summer and all next winter. The problem was that he was growing faster than I was. He probably topped the scales at well over half a ton and there was this realisation that just because I was holding the end of the rope didn’t necessarily mean I was the one in charge. So we decided that it was time he went on to pastures new.

So we took him back to Ulverston Auction. There he was purchased for £350 by a chap who had a biggish suckler herd which grazed the local bird sanctuary. I’ve been round the sanctuary, pick your time and you’ve everything from breeding grey seals to nesting gulls. But when gulls are nesting you carry an umbrella and wear a waterproof. Even the suckler cows can be seen to flinch as an irate gull flashes past their head.


There again, live long enough, it’s amazing what you see

More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

As a reviewer commented, ” always enjoy Jim’s farming stories, as he has a way of telling a tale that is entertaining but informative at the same time. I’ve learned a lot about sheep while reading this book, and always wondered how on earth a sheepdog learns to do what it does – but I know now that a new dog will learn from an old one. There were a few chuckles too, particularly at how Jim dealt with unwanted salespeople. There were a couple of shocks regarding how the price of cattle has decreased over the years, and also sadly how the number of UK dairy farms has dropped from 196,000 in 1950 to about 10,000 now.
Jim has spent his whole life farming and has acquired a wealth of knowledge, some of which he shares in this delightful book.”

Bullocks and Barbadore

Bullocks and Barbadore

I know a lot of farmers’ sons have played rugby in their time. Certainly working with livestock gives you a lot of transferable skills as well as a higher than usual pain threshold and the ability to soak up damage. But then I was shown a video of Indonesian Cow Racing which does seem to take this to a whole new level

We once had a Belgian Blue heifer break out of the pen when we were TB testing them. She’s had her first measurements and jabs and then broke down a gate and made a run for it. She went through five hedges and at one point was only one hedge from the sea before she landed up with a bunch of dry cows belonging to a (distant) neighbour. I left her there and next day the neighbour brought his dry cows in and she came with them. She travelled home in a cattle trailer and was unloaded into the empty bull pen. (The bull was out working). She had the second half of her TB test when the vet read the lumps and decided she didn’t have TB. She stayed in the bull pen until we sold her fat.

Had I known that there was a market for cattle with her abilities I could have sold her into a new profession, but frankly I think they’d have struggled to find another to make the pair.

On the other hand I started out along the road to being able to cope with handling cattle young. One very popular game at our junior school was ‘Barbadore.’ There were two playgrounds, the one used by infants and junior girls, whilst the other was the junior boys’ playground. This was probably health and safety, it meant that a five year old didn’t find themselves in the middle of an impromptu no holds barred football game.

But in the boys’ playground the game was Barbadore. It was the game we just defaulted to. It’s a version of ‘British Bulldog’ and the name may come from the phrase. ‘Bar the door.’ Or it may not, who knows?

British Bulldog is played pretty much everywhere the British settled, although America may play a German version.

The rules are simple. You have one child who is the catcher. The rest of the children line up against one wall of the playground. On a signal (the catcher might shout ‘Barbadore’ for example) all the children run across the playground to the opposite wall. Touch the wall and you’re ‘safe’. In between, the catcher has to catch another child and in our version of the game, hold them off the ground long enough to shout ‘Barbadore.’ The child becomes a catcher and you now have two catchers. Each time the children run backwards and forwards across the playground more and more of them become catchers and finally the last child to be caught becomes the first catcher for the next game.

It’s pretty much an entirely egalitarian game. There are no teams as such but every child can take part and feel useful. Even the little one can still jump onto the back of the great lumbering lout and be part of pulling him down and then throwing him into the air shouting Barbadore. It teaches useful life skills and played on tarmac, it’s character building. Indeed my daughter commented that when she was at junior school, it was mixed with girls playing it as well as boys, to the same rules.

Because she’s involved in schools she has watched as over the years schools have banned the game, only to see it come drifting quietly back in again. Some schools have given up and produced a ‘tag’ version of it.

When I was at junior school our headmaster did manage to stop us playing it without banning it. He just kicked a football out into the yard and did nothing else. Immediately we formed two ‘teams’ which composed all those boys present. The usual rules of football were followed, without bothering about details such as the off side rule, number of player per side etc. It wasn’t quite as rough as Barbadore, but there were more accidental collisions. One issue was that occasionally the ball would go over the wall into the garden of the house next door. Given the wall was six feet high and the fence on top of it a further six or more feet, climbing over to get the ball back demanded agility.

The owner of the house got fed up, not so much over the ball, but over the boy who would inevitably follow it. (I don’t think it occurred to anybody to knock on the door and ask for permission.)
So they confiscated the ball and gave it back to the head master who was very stern and told us we couldn’t have the ball.

So next playtime we just went back to Barbadore again. After a week he relented and the ball reappeared, until next time.

Once I got to ‘Big School’, Barbadore was out of the question. Given the disparity in sizes I think pupils decided that for themselves. There wasn’t the same ‘communal game’ except occasionally somebody would kick a ball vertically into the air. Immediately everybody (or at least two or three hundred of the lads present) would pile in and we had a game which involved aspects of football and rugby. There weren’t any rules as such, there was no goal, no team, no formal aim. For younger boys merely touching the ball and surviving was enough, for older boys the better rugby players would take the ball and run with it. At least they did for a while until they disappeared under a heap of their peers.   

There were ‘issues’ in that the girls’ school playground was next to ours, separated by a narrow turf strip, which had four or five trees growing in it. Somebody kicked the ball high, the wind took it and it was coming down over the girls’ playground. Two or three of us ran for it and I managed to be the one who caught it on the first bounce. Then we suddenly twigged where we were and scattered. I tucked the ball under one arm, put my head down and ran parallel to the grass strip, avoiding the School Mistress who was shouting at me. (I’ve not got a clue what she was shouting because I didn’t stop to listen), swerved to avoid one tackle, sold the dummy to another of the girls’ prefects who was trying to stop me, accelerated through a gap in the line, through the trees, in to school by one door, along the corridor, out by another door, kicked the ball into the air and faded into the crowd, just another nondescript fourteen year old, anonymous in school uniform.

So let’s be honest here, when bullocks start getting fractious, I’ve been dealing with this sort of stuff since I was seven.

These skills never leave you. I was feeding some suckler cows in a field that slopes pretty steeply in places. Not only that due to the nature of the soil, the turf has a habit of just shearing from the soil below it. It means you’ve got to be careful coming down with a tractor. Don’t brake too sharply or you won’t stop, you’ll just start sliding.

The same is true for cattle who come running down to meet you when you’ve got a bag of feed. The obvious thing to do when ten or eleven hundredweight of suckler cow comes sliding down towards you, totally out of control is just to sidestep her. Then if, as she goes past, you slam into her, you push her sideways a bit and her feet will start to grip. This sounds a bit technical but you can end up doing it instinctively whilst doing something else, like counting who’s there, and seeing if that lame calf looks any better for the injection it got yesterday. I was doing this and a red shape was sliding towards me. So still trying to see the calf I sidestepped and then slammed back into the out of control bovine.

I realised at this point that I’d just body-checked the bull. To be fair he looked sheepish and a little grateful. After all I’d put him first in the queue for the feed which has to be worth a little humiliation.


Anyway have a good Christmas

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing.
But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

As a reviewer commented, “Should be mandatory reading for anyone moving to the countryside for the first time. Charmingly accurate and educational. Utterly first class.”