Hedgerows

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You can get asked a lot of interesting questions when you start writing a blog. You can end up being quoted in all sorts of places as well. Providing part of a clergyman’s sermon on one hand, quoted as part of somebody’s university paper on the other. (In fact because it’s ‘published’ in a blog it can be ‘referenced’ and is therefore fair game to use as evidence. As opposed to something Jim just said because he might just say the first thing that came into his head.

But one question I got was from an American gentleman called Scottie who has a blog of his own at https://scottiestoybox.com/

 

He wrote, “I am intrigued by the idea of sheep and cattle being kept in an area by hedges. In my childhood my grandparents and uncles had farms. I know that was a long time ago, but I remember the pastures all being fenced. The runs were fenced. I can not recall any area that was simply a hedge. Yet I your writings I have seen you mention the hedges with the sheep before. Just for my curiosity can you expand some time on the subject? Such as how much is hedges alone, do the sheep need to be trained about hedges, why don’t they eat the hedges and so many ideas and questions? Oh and what about predators, do the hedges discourage them?”

 

It’s questions like that which remind us that it’s a big world, and just how different things are when you travel. So it struck me that for Scottie and others it might make sense to explain a bit.

As usual I’ve just borrowed pictures off the web. None of them is mine, so any artistic flair is entirely that of the original photographer.

 

The first picture shows a reasonably good hedge. It looks plausibly stock-proof and it’ll keep cattle in for a fair while and but it won’t hold sheep for quite so long.

The problem comes because cattle are by nature a woodland animal and they’ll eat leaves off trees. They love sycamore. Sheep are also happy enough to eat leaves. Both animals will browse, spot something they like, stretch out their neck to reach it, move forward a bit, see something else they like, move forward to reach it, and before you know where you are, they’re through the hedge.

Cattle aren’t too bad, unless the hedge is in poor condition with obvious low spots. They won’t push through solid thorn or even solid sycamore. Sheep will slowly but steadily eat their way through, perhaps because they’re almost coming ‘under’ the thorns.

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The second picture shows somebody ‘laying a hedge’. (Round here hedges are also known as ‘dikes’ but in this case I’ll stick with the term ‘laying a hedge’ because ‘laying a dike’ might loose something in translation.)
To lay the hedge you cut partially through the upright timber, close to the ground. You then bend it over and lay it on top of the last one you laid. Depending on circumstances and local styles you might weave it round posts or you might leave some pieces long enough to be woven around. But this chap is showing you what you have to do every ten or fifteen years to keep a hedge stock-proof.

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Picture 3 shows a hedge protected from livestock by barbed wire. If you’ve got dairy cows a hedge like that one will probably be good enough in itself, but with younger stock who are more adventurous it’s wise to have barbed wire. For most cattle you’ll get away with a ‘breast wire’. Looking at the picture, instead of having four wires, you’d have one, the breast wire. I’d suggest you’d probably have the second one from the top.

When we started running cows with their calves as a suckler herd, we put a second wire up because the calves can walk under the breast wire. This isn’t normally a problem because obviously they can just walk back. But sometimes, when it’s wet, they snuggle into the hedge out of the weather. When they ‘unsnuggle’ and stand up, it is entirely possible for them to stand up on the wrong side of the hedge and they’ve inadvertently escaped. So we had two wires, the second a hammer shaft length below the breast wire.

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Then for Picture 4, if you have sheep, forget barbed wire. Sheep will push between wires, protected by their fleece. And as they push they gradually work with wires loose, so everything just sort of sags. With sheep you need sheep netting. This keeps the sheep away from the hedge and protects it from being eaten. You notice there is a breast wire above the sheep netting. Personally I’d make that barbed wire not plain. The reason for this is that if you have cattle (or horses) and plain wire, they’ll just use it to rub themselves on. Half a ton of bovine putting its full weight on the wire to have a really good scratch will very soon loosen everything, and at this point your cow will just step over the sagging remains that are left.

 

So why hedges?

Well in theory they can keep livestock in place without using wire. If you’re back with pre-First Word War levels of labour, you could probably get away without wire. You’ll have enough men to keep the hedges laid, gaps mended and everything stock proof.

Nowadays, you have to have the wire.

The advantages of the hedge are that it does provide excellent shelter, keeping the weather off the livestock, giving them somewhere to huddle when we have driving wind and rain.

There are a whole heap of environmental advantages as well, as each hedge can be a linear woodland connecting up with lots of other linear woodlands. With regard to predators they do provide cover for foxes and suchlike, but then for those engaged in fox control, the hedge is also the road the fox will use and you wait at an appropriate place to intercept the target.

You’ll find that owls and hawks also patrol the hedgerows, keeping their eyes open for rats, mice etc.

 

So there you have it. Hedgerows for beginners, if we had to start from scratch with an infinite expanse of prairie we probably wouldn’t have bothered with hedges either. But with a century or so to get themselves properly established, they’re pretty useful.

 

How old are our hedges? Max Hooper was the Biologist and historian who pointed out that as hedges grow older, the number of constituent species increases at a steady rate. In simple terms you get one extra woody species every hundred years. So pace out 33 yards, and count up the number of woody species in the hedge as you do it, the number of species is the age of the hedge in centuries.
It’s a rule of thumb and obviously doesn’t work well if somebody set out to plant a hedge with a lot of different species but it’s reasonable enough. Also I suspect that, because there are only so many woody species to be found in particular areas, it might underestimate the age of some of the older hedges. But I suspect most of ours had been planted before the Mayflower sailed.

 

 

 

Finally, as an aside, I’ve got another book out.

 

Tallis Steelyard. The Monster of Bell-Wether Gardens and other stories.

 

Available at

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Steelyard-Monster-Bell-Wether-Gardens-stories-ebook/dp/B075DG5JJ6/

For a mere 99p

Or for Scottie and our American friends, at

https://www.amazon.com/Steelyard-Monster-Bell-Wether-Gardens-stories-ebook/dp/B075DG5JJ6/

 

for a mere $1.28

 

More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. It covers the perils of exam invigilation, the problems associated with literary criticism, the benefits gained by hiring erotic dancers and the healing properties of hot water and syrup of figs. An unparalleled guide to the pitfalls which await the honest artist attempting to ply their trade.

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Big skies and ice-cream

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I remember a friend of mine once asking me if I was impressed with the ‘big skies’ of Cambridgeshire. We were visiting the area at the time and given the area is pretty flat, I suppose you can have quite a lot of sky. What she hadn’t realised was I live on the edge of Morecambe Bay. Our horizon is at least forty miles away in most directions. We do ‘big skies’ better than most.

Anyway today the weather was ‘fine enough’ so I decided I was going for a walk to enjoy these skies. A friend was heading north and could drop me off not far from Pennington so I followed a lot of quiet lanes and came into Ulverston from the north. I walked through town, picked up a pie and a coffee and then headed south.

My plan was to hit the coast at Bardsea and follow it almost home. This meant I could visit one of the Nation’s premier catering establishments. Roy’s Quality Ices.

If you’ve never dropped off and got an ice-cream from Roy you don’t know what you’re missing. I’ve lost count of the sheer number of home made flavours they have. Today I treated myself to a double cone with orange and chocolate chip on one side and plum and damson on the other.

From then on it’s a case of just following the coast. For the first couple of miles you follow a trail between beds of reeds and the shoreline proper. Then you come to the ‘flat rocks.’ These are beds of Limestone. At this point the rushes have largely gone and when I was a child and swimming there, the rocks ran into the sand and the tide washed up onto them. Now the beach is shifting and there’s grass between the rocks and the sea.

After the flat rocks you come to Baycliff. From here on, if the tide is out I leave the shore and just walk straight across the sands. If you set your sights on Piel Castle and walk dead straight for about four miles you’ll not go far wrong.

It’s a different world out there, at times the coast road is hidden and the only noise is the splash of your feet on wet sand and the shout of seabirds. Another sound you can sometimes hear is the distant roar of the tide coming in. This afternoon it was far too far out for me to hear it.

The only ‘problem’ is that there are two becks come down to the shore and of course they have to make their way out to join the sea, wherever it’s got to. When the tide is in, the waves wash round their outfalls. When the tide is out the two becks wind their way out towards deep water. Their channels probably take four or five miles to cover three miles. Given the amount of rain we’ve had this summer, and especially in the last few days, there’s more water in these channels than there normally is.

Tackling them is ‘fun.’ You either tackle them well out to sea where they’ve started spreading and aren’t too deep, or you tackle them closer to the shore where they’ve somehow broken themselves into several minor channels  with stone bottoms and are comparatively easy to cross. It’s the bit in the middle where the various minor channels have reunited that’s the tricky area. The other problem is that when you’re further out and they’ve spread, you can suddenly find yourself crossing ‘cow belly’ sand. Just keep moving! Don’t stand there wondering what’s happening. It’s a relatively firm form of ‘quick sand’. More of a moderately paced sand really. All in all, survivors probably cross the channels comparatively close to the shore.

Another advantage of the ‘big skies’ is that you can see the weather coming. This morning the forecaster had muttered vaguely about there being sunny periods with showers between 3pm and 4pm. (Forecasters do this a lot with regard our area. We do sunny periods and scattered showers remarkably often. As far as I can tell, if the driving rain relents briefly, and the sun flickers momentarily through a small gap in the clouds before the rain restarts; any weather forecaster worth their salt will claim that as the forecast sunny periods and scattered showers.)

But anyway, with my usual excellent timing we had them predicted for when I was out on the sands with no shelter, ideally placed to have any rain driven straight onto me. But I could see the clouds moving across, and it soon became obvious that I was walking across the front of their advance. So I just kept moving and inadvertently avoided them all.

So there you have it. There cannot be many other walks in the UK where the guide tells you to take a bearing and walk dead straight for the next hour or so.

 

 

As an aside, it struck me that it was only courtesy on my part to mention that I’ve another collection of stories out. It’s an ebook so you’ll have to read it on a kindle or something with the kindle ap. At least one person I know has hundreds of books on his phone.

 

Anyway it’s called ‘Tallis Steelyard. The Monster of Bell-Wether Gardens and other stories.’

 

More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. It covers the perils of exam invigilation, the problems associated with literary criticism, the benefits gained by hiring erotic dancers and the healing properties of hot water and syrup of figs. An unparalleled guide to the pitfalls which await the honest artist attempting to ply their trade.

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Steelyard-Monster-Bell-Wether-Gardens-stories-ebook/dp/B075DG5JJ6/

 

or

 

https://www.amazon.com/Steelyard-Monster-Bell-Wether-Gardens-stories-ebook/dp/B075DG5JJ6/

 

It’s even got a review!

 

“If you wonder what comprises the life of a jobbing poet in the town of Port Naain, this little collection of stories will give you some idea. Tallis has a finger in many a pie, arranging soirees for ladies, helping to write and distribute literary journals (and their rivals!). He assists in redistributing the town’s abundance of food and arranges for a man to experience a haunting when he’s accepted the challenge to stay overnight in a disused tower. And that’s just some of it!

 

Reading these stories of Jim Webster’s is like putting on your slippers and picking up a cuppa. Comfortable, and they make you smile.”

 

All that for 99p. Treat yourself, you know it makes sense.

 

 

Cultural Landscape isn’t cheap

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Earlier this week I was at a conference about ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ landscapes. Throughout the conference we got references to how important agriculture was in creating these landscapes. Indeed Unesco in their granting World Heritage Site status to the Lake District pay generous tribute to the two hundred sheep farming families whose activities largely created the landscape everybody but George Monbiot loves.

For me the underlying problems were highlighted by a gentleman whose name I never caught who is involved in the Solway Plain AONB in North Cumbria. He complained that part of the plan to safeguard the cultural and natural landscape was the grazing of dairy cows. But in the last few years the grazing cattle have been moved inside all the year round and the grassland has been cropped rather than grazed. This had brought changes to fences and hedges (because they are no longer worth maintaining) and to plant varieties in the grassland.

There wasn’t time in the conference to unpick this, but I think it is actually an excellent example of how little real money is going into supporting environment.

If you assume a 200 acre dairy farm producing 1.5 million litres, then they’re probably getting £12,000 a year single farm payment as general support, and I suppose that if they’re very very lucky they might get as much again for pushing the aims of the AONB. So let’s assume £24,000. (This is very much the top of the range for that sort of farm.)

In the last few years for many dairy farmers the milk price dropped from 30p per litre to between 14p and 15p per litre. This means that the farm income has fallen by between £210,000 and £225,000 a year. This sort of income drop can mean bankruptcy. To put things into perspective we saw farming families going into Christmas with the bank overdraft at the limit, all family credit cards maxed out, and they hadn’t paid a bill for two or three months. They were surviving on ‘trade credit.’ Basically a lot of agricultural supply companies bit the bullet, pushed up their own overdrafts, and became lenders of last resort for these people. The companies were just hoping that the prices would pick up before everybody, including them, went bust.

While you could point to ‘market failure’, it was a decision by government (EU) to stop managing the market which made this failure possible. The sole beneficiaries have been the major retailers who have just pocketed the extra margins they made on milk.

In reality you cannot blame the retailers. Their shareholders, many of them pension funds and similar, need large amounts of money. These funds are under pressure because of changing rules due to the financial crisis and people living longer so demanding more money from their pensions.

But going back to the Solway plain, what do people actually want? If they want an environment managed by grazing cattle then they’ll have to pay for grazing cattle.

 

There’s three ways they can pay for it. The first is through prices. Just to give ourselves a sense of proportion; by some measures, after the Second World War, people in the UK spent 40% of their income on food. Now it’s between 10% and 13%. When I first milked cows there were about 100,000 dairy farmers in the UK, now there are about 13,000. When you’ve got 100,000 people being supported on the land, then they can do things like trim and lay hedges properly and do all the other labour intensive tasks. When you’ve got 13,000 being supported by the land, something has to give.

But when you stop to think about it, what happened to the money once spent on food? Well how much do you pay for your mobile phone contract, your internet connection, your netflix subscription? (Just to give three examples of things which weren’t even concepts back then.)
To a fair extent a lot of money has poured into companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook etc. As an aside it isn’t just food, think how cheap clothing has become. Now, rather than pay somebody a living wage to produce clothing in the UK, you can buy garments produced by somebody on another continent working for a pittance.

So if food prices went up, a lot of industries would just collapse because the consumer wouldn’t have the disposable income to spend on them.

 

The second way is to subsidise farmers to produce the goods. The problem is that this means the state has to step in and fill the gap between what the market has provided and what the family needs to survive. I know farming families that run a business turning over half a million pounds a year. But at the end of the year the family earn less than their eldest daughter who’s just started working as a teacher.

What the state would have to do is step in and fill the gap. When milk is 30p per litre at the farm gate there might not be a gap. When the price crashes to 14p per litre then the state might have to find a quarter of a million pounds per business to keep the sort of agriculture they wanted. Otherwise farming would evolve to become a system that could survive at 14p per litre.

Ironically before we went into the EU we had a ‘deficiency payments’ system which effectively did this. There was an annual Price Review where it was decided by government what price was necessary, and then a deficiency payment was made to cover the gap between the guaranteed price and the real price. Obviously if prices were higher than the ‘guaranteed price’, nothing was paid. When we joined the EU this system had to be abandoned for the far more expensive CAP.

The disadvantage of this system from the point of view of the environment is that the Treasury (and the tax payer) would probably rather fund the sort of agriculture we can have at 14pence per litre than the sort of agriculture we could have at 30 pence per litre.

 

Finally the state (or some quango) could just step in and run the land directly. This is inevitably going to be a far more expensive option in that you’re unlikely to get state employees who are willing to work 4,500 hours a year for less than the minimum wage.

 

 

Autumnal

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With dawn on the 1st September, autumn struck. I went out to look sheep and whilst it was bright, it was cold. The mist was just burning off from our moss land and the dew was very heavy on the grass. Half an hour later the sun was up high enough to feel warm, but it’s already losing its power.

Next day was so stunning I just kept going. A roe deer was lurking among the rushes and the dog missed seeing it. I did when it moved. In the distance, silhouetted against a very blue sky a hawk was hovering, trying to hunt. But all the time it was being harassed by small songbirds and finally gave up and left. By the time I got there the hedgerow was alive with Chaffinches with no sign of a hawk.

Round here, harvest still isn’t finished. This isn’t unusual, it’s not uncommon for us to have an August where we just get bands of rain and showers coming in off the Atlantic, whilst at the same time much of the UK seems to be stuck in a continental weather system meaning they stay hot and dry (or in winter, cold and dry.)

The problem with harvest this late in the season is that dawn leaves everything so damp so that the weaker September sun takes until afternoon to get grain dry enough to combine.

On the other hand, it’s been a green year. Our grass has grown well. Normally in August things can start looking a bit brown and parched but this year we’ve stayed deep green right the way through. Given that so far the gales have held off, everything has still got a lot of leaves on it and the hedges also look well with the trees in their many differing shades of green.

On my way home I fell in with a chap walking his milk cows home for afternoon milking. They gave the impression of being entirely content; plenty of grass, the sun on their backs, no flies to bother them at this point of the season, and heading home for milking. They just ambled happily along, occasionally stopping to grab a mouthful of grass from the road side. It’s the sort of day where even the dog appears happy to just let things happen at pretty much their own pace.

OK so today it was chucking it down when I was out checking sheep, and the first thing I did when I got home was throw my wet clothes into the washing machine and put on something else, but the rain still isn’t particularly cold.

Keeping the show on the road

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My Dad entered the job market in the 1930s, which wasn’t perhaps the best time, all things considered. Not only that but given his background he had a choice between going down the mines as an iron ore miner, or farm work, and being the rebel he was, he chose farm work. The wages were far lower, the hours longer, but when you were injured in an industrial accident it was at least above ground.

His first half year, when he was fourteen, earned him the princely sum of £13, plus of course his board. It’s reassuring to know that the great British public have always been careful to ensure those working in food production aren’t lured from the straight and narrow by too much easy money.

But before he started working full time, while he was still at school, he would work for the father of a lad he was at school with. Effectively he made sure he had learned the basics of his trade before he went out to start convincing people to pay him.

His mate’s father had a small farm, so they were never going to make a lot of money. On the other hand, one advantage of a small farm is that you cannot lose a lot of money either. Grow a thousand acres of wheat and lose £100 an acre, you’ve lost a £100,000. Grow ten acres of wheat and lose £150 an acre because you don’t have the economies of scale, you’ve still onely lost £1500.

But back then we’re talking much smaller amounts of money, a farm worker ‘living in’ did well to earn £2 a week.

But my Dad always had an admiration for his mate’s Father. He had a good eye for horses. Not fancy horses, or racehorses or anything like that, he was good with your ordinary work horse. So whilst he farmed in much the same way as everybody around him, he’d keep his eyes open for those working horses that were broken down with hard work. The delivery horses going round town, those owned by companies and used by employees who weren’t perhaps as committed to the horse as an owner-driver might be. He’d give the horse a good looking over first and then he’d buy them at sales or even straight from the company.

Then he’d just let them out into a field with his own working horses and leave them for a while. After a few months he’d harness them up again and start them working a little but nothing strenuous. Then when they were fit and strong again he’d sell them on. Apparently one of his best deals cost him perhaps ten shillings and year later he sold it for £11. But that was the way farmers got through the Great Depression.

There are a lot of tricks like that which have survived, farmers who’ve spotted a niche and have quietly filled it. The best niches are the unfashionable ones which are profitable enough to be worth doing but not so profitable that they tempt others to try and exploit them.

A while back I was chatting to one old farmer who had just sold some remarkably elderly ewes with lambs at foot in the spring sales. He’d also learned his trade from his father who’d learned his in the 1920s and 30s. They’d always bought a few pens of cull ewes when everybody was getting rid of them and the price was rock bottom. They’d worm them, stick them out on some coastal marsh that they had and leave them there to get heavier or whatever.

Unbeknown to him, the previous winter a tup had got in with his collection of old ladies and just when he was about to start selling them fat, they’d started lambing. So he lambed them and sold them with lambs at foot. Given he probably paid a tenner a head he was happy enough to take seventy or eighty pounds for a very elderly ewe with two lambs. His pride and joy was a small ewe with her single lamb who made £60. He’d never actually bought her. She’d come through the ring when he was buying the others. She’d looked so small and pathetic that the vendor couldn’t get a bid for her. So the frustrated vendor had surreptitiously dumped her in with a batch that had already been sold and had quietly disappeared.

The dog does not entirely approve.

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At the moment Sal is barking. She doesn’t bark a lot, only at times when she feels she ought to be out there sorting things out in her own inimitable way. As Border Collies go she has two foibles. The first is that she doesn’t like sheep standing close to the hedge. Over the years, when we’ve been looking sheep, she’s noticed that we occasionally have to walk across and disentangle on that has managed to get itself caught up in briars. Or perhaps it’s stuck its head through the wire netting and cannot pull it back out.
So when she sees a sheep too close to the hedge, she’ll run across and move it. At times this can be quite useful. I’ve seen lambs get themselves tangled and just sit there, convinced they’re completely stuck. The arrival of Sal suddenly galvanises them into action and, quite literally, ‘with one bound they’re free.’

Her other foible arises from the fact that she lives in a cattle trailer. Sometimes in it, sometimes under it, sometimes sleeping in the snug and sheltered plastic drum within the trailer; it all depends on what she particularly wants to do. All this is perfectly normal for the working collie. What gets her barking is that from her cattle trailer she can see one end of a field we know as ‘The Meadow.’ Her foible is that she objects to sheep grazing on that bit of the field and seems to regard it as a personal affront. It must be admitted that the sheep seem to take no notice at all of her barking.

We’re not sure why she finds their presence so irritating, perhaps it’s just the deeply held conviction that sheep without a Border Collie in close attendance are going to get into trouble? Whether she was brought up on ‘Little Boy Blue’ with ‘the sheep in the meadow, the cows in the corn’ I wouldn’t like to speculate.

Now her attitude isn’t a ‘problem’ as such, she doesn’t bark interminably at them. Just lets us know they’re there, in case we come to our senses and do what she considers the obvious thing and let her out to supervise them.

Over the past few days there have been more sheep wandering onto the bit of the Meadow she can see. Basically every year some of the older ewes have to be culled, and you fetch in some younger sheep. Some you might breed yourself, but a lot of people will fetch in new blood as well.

What’s been interesting is the way the batches have or have not been mixing. Firstly there was a batch purchased from somebody who was retiring. We stuck them in with a small group of our own sheep and for the first few days the two batches largely kept separate, although the two batches might graze close to each other.

Then three more groups were purchased at a sale. Now each group came from a different farm. So each of these three groups tended to stick together but shunned the other four groups. They didn’t stick with the main batch because it wasn’t ‘their flock’. In an attempt to keep out of the way of ‘not their flock’ the little batches push out to the edge of the grazing area and thus graze the patch of ground Sal can see and feels protective about.
Anyway today they were all fetched in and the new arrivals were treated for worms, liver fluke and suchlike, then they were all let out back into the field. Having been stirred up and mixed I noticed that the little groups are far less exclusive.

Cattle can be like that. If you have one batch of cattle grazing a big enough area, and let another batch onto the same ground, the two groups can retain their cohesion for quite a while. We’ve put a second group onto a field and a couple of days later, because circumstances have changed; we’ve taken the first group out. The groups hadn’t mixed and our moving one lot didn’t bother the other lot in the slightest. But again, if you bring two lots together in the yard and let them run down the lane together into the field, the self imposed barriers between the two groups seem to disappear remarkably quickly.

Social scientists might draw conclusions from this but if I were them I’d be wary. If their tinkering with the underlying fabric of reality leads to Border Collies disapproval, I predict that things will not go well.

‘Honest to God’ and her ilk.

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One thing you don’t see on farms much now are the various van salesmen. They’d travel from farm to farm selling stuff. The vast majority of it was at least quazi-legally acquired.

You’d get the ‘gate salesmen’ who’d turn up with an open pickup loaded with metal gates. Sometimes they’d got a load cheap, perhaps picked up at a bankruptcy sale; sometimes they’d picked up some cheap steel and had a mate who could weld. Some of the latter gates could be good value, especially if they’d picked up some decent steel angle-bar cheap. At least with angle-bar you can see the thickness of the metal you’re buying. Gates made out of welded steel tubes take a lot more sussing out. I’ve seen tubing used where galvanizing the damned stuff probably doubled its weight!

Then there were the chaps selling clothes. They would pick up seconds from the Lancashire mills or stock clearance from shops closing down and they’d stack it all in the truck and head out. I remember as late as the 1980s one lad proudly presented for our inspection a dozen boxes of shirt’s he’d found, still in their wrappers, when he’d bought out the entire stock of an old clothes shop. They were the old style, with separate collars which were attached by studs. Far more importantly they were so long that when you wore them, you were sitting on them when you sat down. Men had a damned sight less back problems brought on by working in a cold draught when they wore shirts like that.

Then there were the tool sellers, the purveyors of carpets and rugs, canned foods where the labels had suffered in storage, honey in five gallon drums, patent medicines for people or for livestock, and any number of others. They worked on the principle that they acquired it cheap and sold it for whatever mark-up they could get.

I suppose there isn’t the market any more. In 1950 there were 196,000 dairy farms in the UK, now there might still be over 10,000. The number of other farms types of farm has also declined. Not only that but with less than a third of the manpower in farming compared to what there was in the 1960s, people are just too damned busy. On top of this, when some bright spark comes into your yard to quote you a price, it’s the job of a moment to ask google for a price comparison.

Also I suspect that people are now so busy and so stressed that they’re more willing to tell a time wasting salesman to leave; normally using a two word expressing ending in ‘Off’, the first word having between four and six letters.

What you have to remember is that whilst some of these traders you saw once and then never again, some were fixtures, you’d see them most years. They’d built a market for themselves, their stuff was OK, the prices were OK, and they were good enough to deal with. Not only that but by definition, it was all delivered to the yard.

Most of them have sort of faded from memory now, there’s a couple I might recognise if I bumped into them somewhere. Yet there’s one I’m never likely to forget. I haven’t a clue what her name was but if I went onto any farm in South Cumbria or North Lancashire and asked if ‘Honest to God’ had been recently they’d know exactly who I meant.

She (and it was a she) was unusual in that I don’t remember many other women selling gates. She had her husband with her, but he said nothing, he merely lifted gates of and on the pickup. (He seemed to have taken his role from watching Fanny Cradock and her husband Johnnie.) I don’t remember her starting a sentence with anything but ‘Honest to God……’ Trust me; she started a lot of sentences. But to be fair to her, she certainly saved you the trouble of starting your own. It was a conversation that verged on the monologue. I think her sales technique was just to overwhelm you with a constant barrage of spiel until you bought something if only to get rid of her.

It once took us over an hour to get rid of her, we were obviously two courteous. Far too courteous because she kept reappearing every year. Finally she turned up on a day when my parents were both away. I was, by definition, at least twice as busy as I normally was and drove down the yard with the tractor going flat out to find her and her husband standing by their truck looking for a victim.

She flagged me down and shouted something.

I replied, “I cannot hear you for the tractor.”

She shouted something else, longer this time.

I replied, “I’ve got to keep the tractor at full rev. I cannot let it stop.”

This was perfectly true, if the tractor wasn’t at full rev there was a chance I might have heard her, and be blowed if I was going to stop it and waste half an afternoon.

She shouted something else, perhaps it was more eloquent this time, I don’t know, it might even have been beseeching.
I replied, “Sorry, cannot hear you, have to go, needs fixing.”

With that I drove off round the corner in among the buildings. I left the tractor running full rev until I saw her and her husband drive out of the yard.

They came back one more time but we were lucky, we saw them coming and managed to disappear.

 

Oh yes, in case I forgot to mention it, a collection of tales is available at

 

 

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