Monthly Archives: February 2013

Look, just blow the chuffing whistle.

I might just start to rant again. Let’s hear it for our whistle-blowers. They’ve not been having too good a time. If we take the Mid Staffs hospital scandal; the whistle-blowers, the ones who have kicked up the fuss, who brought it to public attention have hardly been welcomed by the authorities, but those who ran the organisation have been promoted out of it.
If we don’t have someone willing to stand up and be counted, someone willing to witness or to blow the whistle, will anything change? I know a lady whose elderly father recently went into hospital. She discovered that the staff weren’t really interested in helping him to the toilet when he needed it. If there were ‘four little accidents’ then they could book him down as ‘incontinent’ which meant they could put him in nappies and it was so much less work for them.
She is blowing the whistle, writing to complain and copying the complaint to her MP as well. We shall see where her witness gets her.
But she is doing her duty, not merely as a Daughter, but as a Christian and as a Citizen. We have to blow the whistle, to speak truth unto power, to be truly prophetic.
But the great bureaucratic empires have always been like this. They tend to be run for the benefit of those running them, not for the poor oiks who have to use them. I saw in the paper, the Iceland chief executive Malcolm Walker blamed local authorities for buying the cheapest of meat. Now I don’t carry a torch for Iceland, it was seeing the quality of their frozen mince that drove me to organise buying decent quality meat for the Furness Homeless Shelter. Yet, he has a point. I can remember when I had just started the Grammar School, my Granddad took me to school one day (Lord alone knows why, I doubt it was something he ever did twice.) The school drive and the drive to the canteen met, and as he dropped me off, a van from some meat company was delivering. His comment was ‘I wouldn’t eat anything they sold; they buy all the poorest cull cows out of the mart.’
This is back in the 1970s so Local authorities buying the cheapest possible meat to put in front of children isn’t new, the Ministry of Defence does it, they all do it.
Now EU regulations are to be introduced that will impose strict limits on the amount of fat and collagen which can be included in minced beef and pork.
Lean beef mince can contain no more than 19% filler, while regular beef mince can have no more than 35% filler. The British government wants the EU to give us a derogation so that our supermarkets can continue to sell us ‘mince’ that is less than 50% meat.
We’ve long known that politicians aren’t willing to send their children to the schools they provide for our children, but I’d never realised just what contempt they hold us in.
According to at least some leading national politicians, the British people are too thick to be allowed to vote on something as important as EU membership in case we vote the wrong way.
Now we’re to be fed muck that isn’t legal to sell in the rest of the EU.
I think we need more whistleblowers, more people to prod authority firmly in the chest and tell it that some things are unacceptable in a civilised society.
Perhaps if the House of Commons restaurants were only allowed to serve school dinners produced by a school canteen chosen at random, we’d see the quality improve.
Perhaps if MPs had to send their children to a comprehensive school picked at random in their constituency, they’d take the education of our children seriously.

Wood warms you twice?

I meant to write this yesterday, but somehow never got round to it. The morning was a bit grim and kept me busy. It was snowing. In the afternoon I enjoyed one of my favourite pastimes, working out and writing out invoices. I must admit, I do write a really nice invoice. I ought to charge people extra for the pleasure they receive from reading them.
Anyhow, that is enough of me and my manifest gifts, back to the snow. Now I know there are supposed to be peoples in the north who have fifty different words for snow but I’ve got only one and it’s an expletive. Water should be liquid; I can cope with it as a liquid. At the very least I don’t have to shovel it or carry it so that livestock have something to drink.
As I was forking silage to some young stirks it struck me that the snow was like smoke. Stopping briefly to watch, you could see currents in the air, with thicker and thinner streams of snow roiling and twisting as they moved across the yard.
Anyway so much for the poetry, I decided I better go and check how the ewes and lambs who have been turned out into a field were coping. They’d already have been fed and checked, but that was a couple of hours back and the snow was worse now. Jess, our elderly three legged Border Collie decided to accompany me and we set off down the lane, leaving our prints in largely unmarked snow. We got to the field and yes, there, standing huddled under the lee of the hedge, were the ewes and lambs. Everyone looking fine, everything under control, all instincts working perfectly.
Potentially this instinct can lead them into a death trap. If there is too much snow it drifts over the hedge, and it always leaves a gap between hedge and drift, so the sheep hide in the gap. Which is great, they stay snug and relatively warm, until there is just too much snow and it bridges over the gap and at that point animals can suffocate.
But this is Low Furness, and we weren’t going to get that much snow, so I wasn’t worried. Leaving them too it, Jess and I returned home. It was then that I noticed the solitary figure with a hi-vis jacket standing in the middle of a field by an electric pole. I wandered across to see what was going on, and yes, he was from the lekky board and was inspecting the poles, making sure that everything was fine. As I said to him, we only ever see him and his mates when it’s blowing a gale, pouring with rain, or worse. A mere snow storm hardly seemed worth his while going out in.
So I picked up a couple of branches that had come down in the last lot of gales, slung them over my shoulder (they had an appointment with a chainsaw) and set off for home. At this point the cold was getting to me and I was looking forward to a brew.
Alas I had forgotten about Jess’s calendar of engagements. At ten yard intervals there was another fantastic scent that had to be sniffed, analysed, and then commented on. Finally, her bladder finally empty, she condescended to come when I called (There is no animal as deaf as an elderly Border Collie Bitch who has other things to do) and we finally made it home. I dropped the branches on the wood pile and tried to get into the house. Unfortunately by this point, my fingers were so cold I couldn’t close them on the door knob, so had to turn it using my palm.
Later when I’d thawed I’d see about getting the branches sawn up for the fire. You know what they say about wood, it warms you twice.

There’s a lamb climbing out of the oven

I suppose a lamb climbing out of the oven isn’t major problem for most households, and indeed it isn’t a problem for us either to be honest. I’d even see it as a sign of success.
Our Rayburn, like others of its ilk, has a hot chamber below the oven. This is a useful facility, but especially at lambing time. The relative sizes of the oven and the lamb are such that a lamb placed on a flattened 750gm Kellogg’s Cornflake packet will just nicely slide into the hot chamber.
At this point you may be asking why? The answer is relatively simple. At lambing time, nature pretty well takes its course. A ewe will have one, ideally two, occasionally three, or far more rarely, four lambs. With singles, she’s normally on top of her game and they tend to be a biggish lamb anyway so there aren’t too many problems. Once you get to twins and triplets you can find that one or more of the lambs might be neglected or a bit slow.
So as soon as possible after they’re born, the lambs are checked out. Put a bit of iodine on the navel to stop infection creeping in and make sure they’ve got a feed of colostrum inside them.
Some lambs can just be a bit wet and cold; when you’re that size and born outside, exposure is a genuine risk. For them there is a plastic tub with some straw bedding, placed under a lamp. This will warm them up nicely, and some might spend a day or more in there before they’re strong enough to unite with a hopefully doting mother.
For some, more drastic measures are called for. We’ve put lambs in warm water before now, (not too warm, about 105F is supposed to be the top temperature) just to get their temperature up in a hurry.
Finally for others, there’s the Rayburn. It tends to be first thing in the morning when the Rayburn isn’t ‘turned up’ anyway so it is very pleasantly warm rather than getting ready to cook something.
Occasionally you have to take special measures. I remember one measure my father used when I was about eight or nine. When my parents were married back in the 1950s, amongst their wedding presents was a bottle of whisky, a bottle of rum and a bottle of gin. Well the gin went to make sloe gin. In Cumbria rum isn’t merely a drink, it is a major culinary ingredient. The rum bottle would disappear into rum butter and rum sauce in the first couple of years of their married life. But the Whisky just sat there, unopened and unheeded.
Until after breakfast one morning, the lamb in the oven wasn’t responding. So my father opened the whisky bottle, put a tiny drop of whisky onto an apostle spoon and used that to pour the whisky into the lamb’s mouth in a last desperate attempt to save the little mite.
It shivered a bit, coughed and died.
A couple of years later, an aunt of mine trapped her hand in a car door, and my mother hurried her into our kitchen, sat her down, and sent me to get the bottle of whisky (unused since the lamb incident.)
I brought it and my mum poured her sister some in a glass with some water. As my aunt drank it, I watched, with the callous intent of a ten year old, to see if she coughed and died as well.
So back to our lamb, lying on its cornflake packet; if it sits up, that’s good. If it actually manages to somehow wiggle out and end up on the kitchen floor, that is also good, (No matter what Jess, our elderly and three-legged Border Collie thinks.) But the best sign of all is when, once on the floor, it stands up and totters off under its own steam to find somewhere more interesting.
Note. Before welcoming these ovine perambulations it’s as well to remember that the lamb is not in anyway toilet trained and one should not encourage it to venture into areas that might be carpeted.

If you want to know more of the high life

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.”

Horsemeat instead of Beef, someone stop me if I start to rant

Every bovine in the UK (and EU) has individual ID, an individual record on a centralised computer system and a passport! I’ve got over a hundred of these chuffing passports sitting in an apple box in the office.
We also have a medicine book which was inspected a couple of months ago, and because our cattle are ‘destined for the food chain’ there is a restricted selection of drugs that can be used on them, with strict withdrawal periods. These are written down in the medicines book when we or the vet treat an animal. Every time the animal moves off farm or from one farm to another or to a mart, slaughter house or whatever its passport goes with it and the movement is recorded on the central database.
This is ‘traceability’! We simple sons (and doubtless simple daughters) of the soil have been told by government and supermarkets that this is what the consumer demands.
So the retailers and their suppliers take this perfectly traceable meat, and to get their margins up, adulterate it with imported meat slurry that is ‘produce of more than one species’ never mind ‘produce of more than one country’.

Now then, horses.
Horses on the continent are all regarded as food animals. In this country they aren’t. So in the UK each horse is freeze marked or micro-chipped and has a passport (to be fair, a high proportion of them probably do.) On the passport there is a box you tick (or your vet ticks) to say that the animal will not enter the food chain, so the vet can give it drugs that it couldn’t get if it went into the food chain.
Except that when beloved family pet comes to end of its life, it can cost £150 to have the knacker take it away, or you can sell it earlier than this for the meat market. So at some point someone stares ruefully at the box on the passport that has been ticked.
Did I mention that some horses have more than one passport? Back in 2005 the government of the day wanted as little cost as possible and let all sorts of organisations issue them. Members of Her Majesties Loyal Opposition who are currently ranting about the Food Standards Agency voted for the regulations that allowed this. (Mind you so did the other lot).
Anyway the problem with horsemeat is that thanks to government being unwilling to upset voters by making it more expensive for daddy to give his little girl a pony, it is perfectly possible that horses, treated with drugs that make the carcass unfit for human consumption, have entered the food chain. Given the amount of horsemeat we export to the continent it’s only amazing that our European partners haven’t kicked up a fuss about it by now.
The other problem with horsemeat is that consumers have this feeling that if a burger has ‘beef’ in the description, beef is what it should contain.
But think about it. A quick check on the web tells me that last year Tesco was charging £3 per kilo for beef mince. (Not that I’ve ever bought mince from a major retailer.) So if your burgers cost much less that £3 a kilo, what’s in them? I’m sure you’ve managed to work out for yourself that it cannot be prime beef.
But retailers have to keep their margins up, and the major retailers are notorious for driving down the prices they pay their suppliers. The supermarket buyer will buy from the company that offers the ‘most competitive tender’ and guess what, I’m sure the buyer is smart enough to work out that at that price it isn’t going to be prime beef in a value burger.
So whilst all these retailers are hitching up their skirts and screaming (like the maid in Tom and Jerry when she sees a mouse) or having fainting fits and attacks of the vapours and claiming they’ve been betrayed, there is one question I’d like to ask them.
At the price you were paying for those burgers, what did you think was in them?

There again, what do I know about stuff? Ask the experts.

As a reviewer commented, “

I love Jim’s autobiographical musings. They make me feel that I am following him and Sal, his dog and manager, around the farm as he encounters the vicissitudes of everyday life. I feel I’m wandering around after him, with his great narrative style.

This book, along with the others in this series, are an absolute treat and gives us the opportunity to explore life in someone else’s head.”