Monthly Archives: May 2018

It’s unseasonably warm

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It’s sunny, it’s even hot at times, and I haven’t worn waterproofs for at least a fortnight.

So what are we up to? Sheep are doing OK, lambs are growing nicely. They always say that lamb has to be cooked twice, once outside in the sun and once inside in the oven. But they’re looking well and bouncing happily. Otherwise we’ve finished first cut silage and are now waiting for the grass to grow again. At the same time in one of the ponds we have the lady in the photo who’s waiting for her eggs to hatch. She’s nesting on a pond we put a few trees round nearly thirty years ago. We pretty regularly get swans nesting here, and certainly geese, coots, moorhens and the occasional duck.

Actually we’ve seen a definite increase in the wildlife round here over the last few decades and much of it is due to the efforts of the local Wildfowlers. They will hunt ducks and geese (in season) for the table. Also in season they’ll take the occasional pheasant and help keep down the number of rabbits if they start getting out of hand.

The wildfowlers help in two ways. The first is that over the years they’ve done work to make nesting sites better, and have even worked with farmers to produce more nesting sites. But perhaps even more importantly, they help police who does and who doesn’t hunt. So whereas most farmers will be wary about crossing those who hunt with lurchers or other dogs, or shoot without permission (because they know where we live, and do you really want to come home to a barn fire?) the Wildfowlers can be straight on the phone and can turn up in court to provide witnesses if needed.

It depends on the area, but round here our wildfowlers and hunters are ordinary working class lads out of the local town, and they’re great because they provide a bridge between town and country. This is because whilst they live in town, they have a genuine love of the countryside and do try to understand the rural world.

I remember talking to one, relatively early one morning. He worked month on, month off, on the rigs. So he reckoned that the thing that kept him sane was being able to come home to his family and then next day go out early in the morning; long before the rest of his family were out of bed, and just walk for two or three hours with dog and gun. Perhaps he’d provide their evening meal (because he could cook game as well as merely shoot and prepare it) or perhaps he wouldn’t, but he was there with a purpose. Importantly, it was his purpose, his priorities were the priorities that really mattered and the company, the various inspectorates, the union and everybody else who made his working life so stressful could just go hang.

We see others as well. I know one chap who does not enjoy good health but took up metal detecting. When he’s up to it we’ll see him and he’ll get a day in and he always looks better for it.

Those who want to just walk are well provided for, there’s a reasonable network of paths and quiet lanes round here, but somehow we’ve got to provide for the others as well, those with different excuses for getting out into the countryside, but still have that same driving need to just immerse themselves.

There again, thinking about it; isn’t it a really sad indictment of decades of government and local authority town planning, that the spaces they have created for people to live in are so toxic that people can only survive by getting out of them and spending time in places where the planners have never set foot?

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Scout Pilot of the Free Union

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I don’t often review books, but I’m making an exception here because a writer whose work I like has branched out into a new field. Space Opera. So it would be churlish not to mention it so others get a chance to look at what he’s doing.

 

Scout Pilot of the Free Union

Infinity is for losers.

 

By Will Macmillan Jones

Published by Red Kite Publishing

Just to note that I received advanced copies in return for an unbiased review

The books follow the career (in this case, career as in ‘When the brakes failed, the wagon careered downhill’) of Captain Frank Eric Russell, who becomes a Scout pilot of the Free Union. The stories are told by the good Captain in the first person.

This means that we whilst we see events through the eyes of our hero, we also begin to realise that he is in some things an unreliable observer. It begins to dawn upon the reader that Russell is a far better pilot and far more generally competent than he admits.

The universe is divided between three main powers. The first two that we meet are the Free Union, which our hero serves, and the Imperium, who are the enemy in waiting. There is no war between the two but there is a constant bickering at the outposts and attempts to destabilise the other. Finally there are the Merchant Princes, who happily trade with anybody.

In the first book, ‘Scout Pilot of the Free Union’, each chapter seems to be a separate mission and a separate story. But eventually you start to realise that there is a common thread starting to pull them together, until by the time you get into the second book, ‘Infinity is for losers’, we see that our hero is caught up in something far more complicated and dangerous than he first thought. I have no intention of saying more and spoiling the plot for anybody.

This isn’t hard military SF; similarly we are spared being plunged into some dark angst ridden dystopia, these stories are Space Opera. Admittedly there are times when Russell sees his superiors as a bigger threat to his survival than the enemy, but I suspect many service personnel could empathise with this.

Will Macmillan Jones is a story teller and a fine one. As I read these books I found myself swept along by the story.

At some point it appears the modern reviewer has to award ‘stars’. It’s not longer good enough to describe something as a ‘cracking good read.’ But I am not a number, I am a free man. I will wave my hand airily and announce that these books are undoubtedly somewhere betwixt and between four and five stars.

The far more important question is will I read the rest of the series. Too damned right I will. I’m looking forward to them and when they arrive I’ll tear open the packet and start reading. They’re fun!

 

#bookreview – Tallis Steelyard and The Sedan chair caper

How could I not reblog this! 🙂

Robbie's inspiration

Tallis Steelyard and the sedan chair caper.

What Amazon says

Rather than his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with one gripping adventure. A tale of adventure, duplicity and gentility. Why does an otherwise respectable lady have a pair of sedan chair bearers hidden in her spare bedroom? Why was the middle aged usurer brandishing an axe? Can a gangster’s moll be accepted into polite society? Answer these questions and more as Tallis Steelyard ventures unwillingly into the seedy world of respectable ladies who love of sedan chair racing.

My review

In this entertaining book by Jim Webster, the reader is treated to the ins and outs of sedan chair racing in Port Naain. Sedan chair racing comprises of chairs, transporting various wealthy ladies of impeccable social standing, borne by fit young men called sedan chair bearers, which raced each other through the streets. The ladies are not at all good sports and all…

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Lord alone knows how that happened!

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It’s my experience that after a while all sorts of people get to know of your existence. Frankly some times it can be a damned nuisance. Over the years I’ve ended up talking to all sorts of people, some of whom probably were certifiable. There again at other times it can be fascinating and can open doors into an entirely different world.

But anyway, more than a couple of decades ago now, I got this phone-call completely out of the blue from a group of farming activists.

“Is Jim Webster there?”

“Speaking.”

“Oh good. We wondered if you could find out who’s responsible for the Royal parks in London.”

“……….”

“You see we’ve already got a freeman of the city who’ll help us drive sheep across London Bridge but we thought we could graze them in the park and talk to people about agriculture afterwards.”

Think about it, why wouldn’t I help them?

 

So I set to work. Who on earth did I know who might know the right people?  Actually this is the secret. The secret is not merely knowing stuff, it’s knowing people who know the people who know stuff.

So I thought of Caroline. I felt she was the best person to ask. So that evening I phoned Caroline.

She listened as I explained and immediately told me to phone George. George wouldn’t know who controlled the Royal Parks, but he’d know who I ought to talk it. And I was to tell George that Caroline had told me to speak to him.

 

Well you don’t get better than that, so I phoned George. Remember I’m phoning him right out of the blue and he almost certainly doesn’t know me from Adam.
”Hi George, it’s Jim Webster here and Caroline told me to talk to you.”
George burst out laughing and merely commented that ‘To hear is to obey.’

So I explained to George, and he laughed again and then gave me the names of two ladies who were sure to be happy to help. And of course he told me to mention that George and Caroline were supporting me.

 

So I phone the first lady. She picks up the phone and as I’m talking to her there is another conversation in the background. Father is shouting upstairs to see if his daughter will sweet-talk her boyfriend into driving the mower tractor tomorrow when they’re silaging. The impression I got was that daughter had other plans for the day that didn’t involve grass.
But anyway the lady was very helpful, thought the sheep scheme was brilliant and gave me a name and phone number for the person who organised things in the Royal parks. But she told me to phone lady number two as well.

So I phoned lady number two. Half way through our conversation it got a bit chaotic because a weak lamb that had been in the warming oven of the aga had recovered enough to escape. So she continued to talk to me with phone in one hand, lamb in the other and two Border Collies watching her carefully to make sure everything sheep related was done properly. Lady Two gave me the same name and number as Lady One and we agreed it was a result.

 

So I phoned the group of activists and gave them the name and phone number so they could make their formal approach during office hours.  Given I’d managed to get the information for them in less than five hours I thought it was pretty slick to be honest.

 

Anyway, it had meant I’d been on the phone talking to people for most of the evening. (Proper phones this, landlines, none of your mobile nonsense. Back then mobile phones were so big I couldn’t have held one up for that length of time!)
But as I wandered through to the other end of the house my mother asked why on earth I’d been on the phone so long. So I explained to her. I even mentioned the names of Lady One and Lady Two.

She burst out laughing. Apparently these two ladies had, in their youth, been the contemporaries and disreputable friends of Princess Margaret, ‘It Girls’ before the term was invented.

Me, I think they turned out all right.

And no, I cannot remember if they did end up putting sheep in the Royal parks.

But isn’t it great that so many apparently respectable people are perfectly happy to help with some bizarre and off the wall stunt to support the industry and way of life they love.

The anarchic streak runs deep in all the best people

♥♥♥♥

There again, when you work with livestock, anything does happen.

 

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.”

Can you have too much garlic?

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Some years ago I remember chatting to a man who worked for the now long disbanded Milk Marketing Board. One of his jobs was working as a trouble shooter for the board, helping solve those little problems that crop up.

One problem was caused by wild garlic. A dairy herd on his patch escaped out of their field one night and wandered into the local wood where they picnicked enthusiastically on wild garlic. Being dairy cows who had merely extended their grazing range slightly, next morning, at the normal time they all made their way home for milking as usual, so when the farmer went out go collect them, they were waiting at the gate as they always did.

So he milked them and the milk went into his bulk tank. As he finished milking he got a jug of milk out of the tank for the house (because cold unpasturised milk is the finest thing in the world to drink or pour over breakfast cereals.)
The tanker driver came to collect the milk, sampled it and then sucked it into his tanker. At this point two unfortunate facts ought to be mentioned. The farmer has no sense of smell and the tanker driver had a severe cold, and therefore no sense of smell.

The farmer went in with the jug of milk, had his breakfast and was just going out again when his wife arrived home from the school run. Her first comment was along the lines of, ‘Have you been eating garlic for breakfast?”

Of course he hadn’t, but his breath smelled of it. As did the milk! Lactating mothers everywhere have to be careful what they eat because it can taint or flavour the milk.

Muttering something that might have been ‘oh dear’ he phoned the company that collected his milk. The transport manager, when things were explained to him said, ‘Oops’ (or something with a similar number of letters.) He then checked to see which dairy the tanker was delivering to and phoned them. He went on to discover that the one tanker had been used to top up three storage silos at the dairy. At this point both he and the dairy manager said ‘Lawks amercy’ and the dairy manager phoned the chap who was telling me all this.

He went to the farm and got the farmer to put a claim in on his policy. The MMB used to insist we all had that sort of cover, I think it might even have been arranged through them.

Then he went to the dairy and stood next to the manager and stared hard at the three silos.

Now in theory they could have just had it carted away and disposed off as waste because the insurance company would pay for it. But the rep from the insurance company came and joined them in the yard to survey the damage, and he suggested that perhaps something could be done to save a total loss.

So my contact remembered a small butter making plant he’d worked with in the past. He’d got them a contract to make kosher butter. They didn’t do it all the time, but when asked they’d stop the plant. Then they’d clean everything absolutely spotlessly, and with a rabbi in attendance they’d make the kosher butter. Then they’d get on with making ordinary butter. They quite liked the contract. Not only did they get to do a few extra really good deep cleans each year; they got paid to do them.

Anyway they took this wild garlic tainted milk and made garlic butter. Which is fair enough, so far so good. But who is going to buy a considerable quantity of butter which includes a purely arbitrary amount of garlic. My contact did try, but there were no takers, so it was sold to the Intervention Board. They paid a base price for it, thus saving the insurance company and other policy holders a reasonable amount of money. Indeed you, dear reader, might even be one of the people who benefited indirectly from it.

Several years later the Intervention Board, despairing of ever selling any of this butter, sold it to the East Germans who burned it in power stations.

Hanging on in there

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There has been a story circulating in the media about a cow wearing a bra. Basically the lady in question had two rear teats which are a bit close to the ground, so her calf tends to suck the front two teats because it’s easier. So the farmer put a bra over the front two teats which means the calf cannot get to them and has to suck the rear teats first.

At this point it’s worth taking a diversion into dairy cow breeding. When I was a child, AI in cattle was just taking off. Now dairy farmers had always tried to breed cows who had a good grip on their udder and with hand milking, wanted a cow to have a teat of reasonable length. Also if the cow is suckled the calf wants a teat that is of a certain optimum size. To small and it’ll struggle to suck, to large it’ll struggle to get the damned thing in its mouth.

AI in cattle got a boost with computerisation where you could compare all sorts of records, from all over the world. Also it became possible for bulls to have daughters on several continents. So a bull’s mother, sisters, (because they share his genetics) and eventually his daughters will be assessed on udder depth, the shape and attachment of the rear udder, the length and attachment of the fore udder and the cleft between the left and right hand sides of the udder. This latter isn’t a fashion statement, it’s an indicator of the strength of the suspensory ligament.
Then you come to teat placement (the last thing you want is them sticking out of the sides. Not only is it disconcerting for a calf but it’s a nightmare when you’re trying to put a milking machine on. Then the teats themselves should be cylindrical, neither too long nor too short and neither too thick nor too thin.

As you can see, no underwear model or plastic surgeon has gone into the sort of practical detail that the average dairy farmer considers.

Now cattle generations come round quite quickly. If a cow gets in calf to a certain bull, in nine months you’ll have a calf, and in two years that calf will have her first calf. So you can see the results of a breeding policy within your working lifetime.

Now when I was young, you’d get old cows walking into the parlour with ‘bags like swills’ and teats which stuck out at all sorts of angles. Not only that but you’d have cows with udders like the cow in the picture where they’ve lost control of the rear udder and it’s just sagged. Thanks to fifty years of breeding you see that a lot less amongst dairy cows.

But of course, with cattle bred for beef, they’ve used different breeding criteria. Udder shape never really figured in their calculations because they never milked the animal. Beef cows don’t produce a lot of milk and concentrate on feeding their calf.

So that’s why you can sometimes see udders like the one in the picture, which in dairy terms is pretty much a blast from the past.

At this point it might be worth looking at the length of life of dairy cattle. Apparently it’s about three lactations (so about five to six years.)
However this is determined by a lot of things. The animal’s health, her yield, various traits and temperament, and whether she will get back in calf or not.  So whilst it’s not uncommon for a dairy herd to have a lot of cows aged eight to twelve and a few old stalwarts in their teens, some cows will milk for one lactation and will be sold because they’re not as good as their contemporaries.

What is interesting is that fifty years ago I remember reading about this topic in a farming magazine. The writer had looked back at figures collected over fifty years previously (so this takes us back to before the First World War.) He was complaining that the average life of dairy cows had been three lactations back then and hadn’t improved in his day. So in spite of intensification etc, the life span of the average dairy cow hasn’t altered much in over a century.

And at last.

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Well it’s finally happened, the last ewe has lambed. After just over two months, they’ve finally finished. The last ewe, (really she was a hogg as it’s her first lamb) was been outside with the others rather than being kept on her own in the pens. This is because sheep don’t really like being on their own.

Anyway somebody noticed her straining in the field, nipped out to check and decided the feet looked a bit big for comfort. So we fetched her in. (In reality we fetched all of them in because be damned if she was coming in on her own.) Anyway we got her into a pen on her own and with a little bit of help she has produced one rather large lamb.

In a way there’s an element of symbolism here, a sign that the year is rolling on and already we’re preparing for next year’s lambing. The black lamb in the picture was fathered by a tup lamb who had been kept on to work as a tup. He ran with a few of the hoggs last year just to ensure he was fertile and knew what the game was. This morning provides, I suppose, a resounding ‘yes’ to both questions. So he’ll be on the first team for this coming autumn.

At the same time each batch of ewes and lambs is coming in, they’re getting wormed, and at the same time feet are checked. A couple of ewes who have had mastitis since they lambed have been marked down to go. They’ve lost a quarter and if they lambed again they wouldn’t have the milk to feed their lambs. Also we check teeth. When they get to a certain age, sheep start losing teeth. In the wild this would lead to them growing weaker (because they cannot eat as efficiently) and they’d soon be picked out of the flock by predators. Again, without the ability to eat properly it can be a struggle for us to carry through the winter, they’d probably reabsorb their lambs and certainly wouldn’t be able to produce enough milk to feed a lamb. So they’re marked down to go.

At the same time, an eye is being cast over the ewe lambs born this year and some could be kept to grow on for breeding.

 

The sense of the seasons and years rolling by is enhanced by the fact that we’ve got another Defra consultation document on what agriculture should look like. This one has the unfortunate title of Health and Harmony. It makes it sound like one of those 1950’s magazines which had photos of scantily clad young ladies going through their exercise regimes. As usual they’re trying to square the circle of wanting cheap food so that people can afford to keep the economy ticking over by buying consumer goods. At the same time they want to keep a 19th century countryside. Yet a century ago it took the average worker an hour and eighteen minutes to earn a pound of butter. Now it takes the same worker a mere ten minutes to earn the same pound of butter. The price of flour has fallen by 88% in the same period, the price of eggs by 92%.

 

And it’s spring so we, like pretty well every other farmer, are making sure that our details are correct on the RPA computers.

Last year they had turned a pond into a salt marsh and turned another field into a watercourse. Also an electricity substation had become a farm building.
So last year we contacted them and got every thing changed back to what it should be. The forms were then filled in and sent off and everything was correct.

And now my lady wife looks at the pre-populated forms and discovers that the pond has been turned back into a salt marsh, the field is once more a watercourse and the electricity substation has turned back into “An animal shelter on bare soil.”

 

“Trust the computer, the computer is your friend!”
The question I would like answering is this. Given that their staff manually corrected things last year when we told them what had happened, does the Rural Payments Agency have software that spontaneously generates errors, or do they employ somebody whose job is merely to go round changing things at random?

 

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No wonder the poor little mite looks worried, who knows what the computer will have  him down as.