Monthly Archives: August 2017

Keeping the show on the road


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.


There again, what do I know, talk to the expert

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.”

The dog does not entirely approve.


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.


Who needs reality anyway



As a reviewer commented, “Someone has tried to cheat Benor and his young ‘apprentice’ Mutt. They set out, with a little help, to redress the balance. Another in this series of Port Naain novellas that had me smiling. They are not belly-laugh stories but full of wry, clever and thoughtful humour. Often, it’s the way he tells them. I’m always up for more of these stories.”

‘Honest to God’ and her ilk.


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 too 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



For a mere £0.99



They always say that timing is the secret of good comedy, and frankly it’s the secret of success in agriculture as well. I knew two chaps who retired after a lifetime in dairy farming. For a tenant, selling your dairy herd basically pays for the house you have to buy.

The two men were much of an age; their herds were pretty much the same. Yet the first got an average of £1,100 a cow, the other chap who retired two years later averaged about £600 a cow.

Why the difference? A mixture of things, most of which wouldn’t even make the papers, politicians tweaking EU dairy policy, supermarkets cementing their dominance in UK milk sales, there were currency fluctuations, all sorts of things.

But what it meant was that one chap had £66,000 to show for a life-time’s work, the other had £36,000.

I know another chap who kept farming for a few extra years in an attempt to build up a bit more capital. He worked out that because of those five years, with dairy cow prices falling and the EU decision to end milk quota leading to a collapse in the price, he’d effectively knocked £30,000 off his capital for the privilege of working the extra five years.

Obviously there are swings and roundabouts. I came to the conclusion that we managed to survive the whole EU quota scheme without gaining or losing on it. Some people who retired and sold their quota when it was at its height did OK. Still, no matter how good you are at the job, whether you get out of the job with a home and a decent pension is pretty much blind luck.

It’s one reason why I’m watching the Brexit negotiations with no real sense of panic. For a start they haven’t actually started negotiating yet, we’re still at the posturing stage.

Take the Northern Ireland border issue. How on earth can you decide what sort of border is needed until you have agreed what sort of trade agreement there is between the EU and UK. If I was Theresa May I’d just offer the Irish Republic free-trade and promise them that as long as they stay out of the Schengen agreement there won’t be a border.

As for the insistence that the European Court of Justice should deal with matters regarding EU citizens in the UK after we leave, frankly it’s a nonsense. I’d love to see what the Canadians would say if the EU insisted on it as part of the terms of a trade deal. The EU cannot expect any sovereign state to agree to it.

But at some point the posturing will have to stop and then they’ll have to agree something. I very much doubt that they’ll manage to achieve an agreement before the two years is up. Given the structure of the EU they probably couldn’t get all member states to sign up to a deal in that period. So far we’ve seen the Spanish threaten to veto any agreement that doesn’t solve what they see as the Gibraltar problem, whilst the latest thing I heard was the Greeks want the Elgin marbles back as the price for their agreement. It’ll take more than two years for the Commission to negotiate the agreement with the member states.

So we’ll ‘crash out’.

Probably, but don’t let the hysteria worry you. Nothing is ever as good as they promise and nothing is ever as bad as they threaten it will be.

Take the Brexit vote as an example, instead of the collapse of civilisation we were promised, Cumbria has done quite well. A low pound has boosted tourism and pushed the sheep price up nicely. I know somebody who started their flock last autumn and is selling their first lamb crop this year and is doing very nicely. This sort of boost can get a business nicely on its feet.


But why am I not worrying about Brexit? Well in the last thirty years I’ve had EU/Government ;-


Retrospectively impose milk quotas

Inflict their management of two major FMD outbreaks on us
We had the BSE fiasco
We had the fiasco that was the single farm payment system

We’ve seen Bovine TB go from being a minor problem in a few parishes to being endemic across vast swathes of the country


If I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, any one of those could have screwed us financially. For example during BSE outbreak there were more farmer/butcher suicides than there were people who died of the disease.


If I was the sort of person who took it personally I might claim that pretty well twice a decade the EU/Government has done its best to leave me homeless.

Brexit? Yeah well, whatever. It’s only governments; don’t confuse it with real life.


There again, if you really want to know what’s going on, ask the dog

As a reviewer commented, “This is a delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.

I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”