Monthly Archives: June 2019

Making tracks

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Not long ago, on the anniversary of D-Day, somebody drew my attention to a photo of one of the beaches. A couple of people were discussing it. I was brought into the conversation because in the photo was an armoured tractor, landed to help pull stuff up the beach, or just to get it out of the way.

As an aside, the mate who brought the picture to my attention and sort of provoked this blog was Will Macmillan Jones. If you enjoy space opera, then you’ll probably enjoy his Space Scout series.


Now I was born not all that long after the Second World War. Not only that but I’ve lived all my life on farms and farmers are notorious at not throwing anything out. I remember we used to have a British Steel Helmet, of First World War vintage, which was used to keep nails and bolts in.

On other farms they had a SMLE tucked behind a beam in a hay loft. The SMLE is the Short, Magazine Lee–Enfield, the standard military rifle for two world wars. Whether the home guard never got round to handing them back, or it ended up in the farmer’s hands through other, doubtless nefarious means, the rifle did sterling work shooting foxes; and occasionally rabbits for the pot. Eventually the small stockpile of ammunition was used up, or the rifle got put back in the wrong place and forgotten.

All sorts of stuff ended up on farms. Clothing for example. The army had a serge lined leather jerkin. It was probably developed for the trenches, keeping you as warm as a greatcoat without trailing in the mud. That sort of thing makes it equally valuable on farms and I can remember seeing men wearing them, some from their time in the army in the First World War.

WWI Arifacts


And of course there was the machinery. The war was when agriculture in the UK finally turned from the horse to the tractor. Driven by a shortage of men, (and probably horses) because the men had been taken into the army, the end of the war didn’t mean the process stopped. Few men who left the army on demobilisation wanted to go back to farm work. There were jobs in town which paid better, for fewer hours. So mechanisation continued apace.

One of the ironies was that it was the horsemen who were promoted to being tractor drivers. Given that horsemen were often the least mechanically minded people on a farm, this didn’t always work as well as it might have done. But the horse was replaced by the tractor and the horseman had to change. So they did. But I can remember my father’s generation reminiscing about horses they’d worked with thirty or more years ago.

Still tractors were in short supply. Industry had been switched over to tank production, and a lot of civilian tractors had to be imported from the USA. Where was the money to come from?
So farmers being farmers, we just used what was out there. Not just in the UK but all over the world, farmers picked up what was left lying about. And frankly there were an awful lot of tanks out there that nobody had a use for any more. This picture is of an American built M22 Locust light tank. I guess that the picture is taken in the US but I’m only guessing.

M22 locust

But in Australia they also needed the power of the tank. Here is a British build Matilda II tank, converted to be a bulldozer for clearing scrub, so they could bring land into cultivation.

converted Matilda 2 in Australia


From the UK I found this video. A Sherman tank, knocked out at El Alamein, was shipped back to Britain. The armour and armament was stripped off and it was put to work.


Apparently they did it with First World War tanks as well. Personally I have my doubts as to how effective they would be, they were notoriously mechanically unreliable. On the other hand they would be travelling across level ground and wouldn’t be overloaded with crew and ammunition so perhaps they were OK


I remember hearing a farmer who was doing up a Sherman tank. He was born well after the war, so didn’t see the tanks in action. But in one of their big arable fields there was a bit of a bump that was a nuisance when they were ploughing. So he went in with the digger to level it. He was doing it properly. Put the topsoil to one side first. Dig out the subsoil and put the topsoil back, so it’s level and you’ve still got topsoil on top.

Except he’d not got down to level when he hit something metal. At about that time his father wandered out to see what he was up to. Dad explained that it had always been a hole and a damned nuisance. After the war they’d bought two cheap Sherman tanks (with armour and armament still on them) and had used them to plough for a year or two until they couldn’t keep them running. So they drove them both into the hole and covered it up.

So the son dug them both out and looked at them as they sat there. But as his father pointed out, this left a hole that would be a damned nuisance. So they kept the one that was in best condition, pushed the other back into the hole, and it levelled up beautifully.


There again, there are still some jobs you get left with where armoured support might come in handy,


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

Yeah well, I speak English


One of the problems I have is that I am a native English speaker. I unaffectedly speak the language like a native. This isn’t an entirely good thing. Many years ago I was youth hostelling around the Outer Hebrides and came across a German lad of my own age. In his penultimate school year, he and his parents had discussed the idea of him attending a summer school in England. The idea was that he would both learn English, and ideally learn some geology, because that was one of his interests.

So they looked for summer schools and discovered that Aberystwyth University had something very suitable. Now his mother was no fool. She knew that Aberystwyth (is it wrong that I’m inordinately proud of being able to spell that correctly without having to look it up.) was in Wales. So she phoned them to discuss the matter. The staff could understand her concerns and assured her that not only would the course be taught in English, but at the summer school most of the students would also be English.

So she booked her son on the course then and there, and that summer he travelled to Aberystwyth to learn geology and to brush up his English. Apparently the course was a good one, he had a whale of a time. One small fly in the ointment was that it seemed that virtually everybody else on the course was from Liverpool. So when I met him I could vouch for the fact he spoke perfect, colloquial English, with a broad scouse accent.

His accent was so bad, (or so good, depending on how you look at it) that when he sat his final exams and had to do the ‘spoken English’ section of his English exam, his German born examiners struggled to understand him. They appear to have wondered whether he was actually bluffing, and couldn’t speak English at all. So they called in an Englishman who was in the city teaching English as a foreign language. He did the verbal part of the exam. After the exam was finished the other masters asked the English chap whether their pupil could speak English. He answered, “Absolutely, he speaks it like a native. Poor sod.”

When I was in my mid-twenties I went with a couple of friends to our local auction mart. One of the friends was from the deep south of the UK, the other was from Leeds. I had a calf to sell and an older farmer from ‘further up,’ came across and asked me about it. To be fair he was a bit broad, and as I talked to him I dropped more and more into dialect. Eventually he’d learned everything he wanted to know and he wandered off. My mate from Leeds commented, “I couldn’t understand him and could just about understand you.” My mate from down south just muttered something about, “Sorry but what language was that.”

About ten years ago I was at a big celebratory church service held in Wales. One of the hymns they wanted to sing was Cwm Rhondda. (Yes technically that’s the name of the tune, the words, in English, are ‘Guide me oh thou Great Jehovah’.) Obviously because of the need to follow the tune and make sense, the English and Welsh versions aren’t entirely faithful translations of each other. That’s fair enough. Also fair enough was the fact that as the Church was in Wales, the organisers were Welsh and at least a proportion of those attending were Welsh, they wanted to sing this hymn in Welsh.

One minor problem is that not even all the Welsh spoke Welsh, but at least they could be relied upon to make a decent stab of the words when they had them written down in front of them. The main issue was what do you do for the English? Well somebody have come up with the bright idea of writing down the Welsh hymn in phonetic English. So if an English person just sang what was written, it would sound close to the Welsh. You know what they say, “Good enough for Government work anyway.”

This was explained to us by the preacher, and as the organ struck up, we psyched ourselves up to sing a string of gibberish syllables. It was as we sang that I noticed an unforeseen issue. What I, and other northerners around me, was singing didn’t sound an awful lot like what some of the other English people were singing, never mind what the Welsh were singing.

Still we’d tried.

On the other hand if I cannot tackle Welsh, how would I be with Zulu? There is a hymn which has come from Southern Africa, Siyahamba. In English the words are, “We are marching to the light of God.” I am assured that in the original Zulu this is “Siyahamb’ ekukhanyeni kwenkos.”

In a desperate attempt to do something with our pronunciation we were told to sing, “Sear a hamster in a white wine sauce.”

I don’t know whether there is a vegetarian option available or not.


There again what do I know? Read the man who knows what is what!


As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s sly wit and broad understanding of human nature makes his work deliciously appealing. The adventures of Tallis Steelyard, and the characters who inhabit his world, are particularly delightful. Tallis and his creator both have a dry, wry and wonderfully playful perspective, and while the tales may seem like a bit-of-fluff entertainment initially, the aftertaste is that of rich wisdom shared with a wink.”




Can you see the woods?


Looking round, we’re not doing so badly. I’m comparing things to when I was fourteen or fifteen. I can remember seeing my first buzzard. I had to go up to the Inner Hebrides to do it, and we watched it for about twenty minutes. That was as long as it was in sight. Now we’ve got one which will perch on the telegraph pole at the top of the lane, and I see them most weeks.

It’s the same with owls. On Sunday night an owl hit the office window. I went out to rescue it. It was young, barely fledged. So wearing a heavy jacket and fencing gauntlets just in case it didn’t appreciate being rescued I picked it up and set it on a ledge as high up the wall as I could reach. It then proceeded to climb up the drainpipe using its wings like arms! I went back into the house, threw everything I was wearing into the washing machine and had a shower. Bird’s nests and young birds can be bad for fleas and this one was. But we see barn owls and little owls. We’ve got more herons that you can shake a stick at and there are even egrets as well. We’ve more foxes than we need. The other morning I was fetching cows in and heard this strange yowling. Sal had discovered a fox cub. She was circling it warily, dashing in to nip it if she thought its back was turned and she was pulling away if it turned to look at her. I think she was trying to work out what it actually was. It strutted through the meshes in the sheep netting and disappeared.

We’ve also got plenty of badgers. No hedgehogs, but then the more badgers you get, the smaller the number of hedgehogs. And of course we’ve got more deer that we’ve ever had as well.

With regard to birds, the sheer amount of birdsong you hear as you walk down to get cows indicates there’s plenty of them, although I’m not qualified to go into which species.

But all in all there’s far more wildlife than I remember. So one way and another I don’t think we’ve done too badly. Indeed looking around more generally, an increasing number of people are getting regular meals and we’re even managing to increase the wildlife in some places. Farmers are making a reasonable job if it.

But I have to say, the rest of the population haven’t really been pulling their weight. Wander through any city, or look at the litter people tip out of the cars as they drive through the countryside, and it’s obvious things are pretty bad. And then there’s global warming and carbon and whatever.

Actually the whole ‘carbon’ business is remarkably simple. When I was at school we were even taught about the carbon cycle. You breathe it out. Plants take it in, turn it into food, you eat it, and breathe carbon out again. Actually for the purposes of the exercise it doesn’t really matter if you are a person, a bullock or an endangered species.


CarbonCycle_Cr Joyce Farms


Now there’s the storm over methane. But methane is just part of the carbon cycle. It does back into plants which turn it into food and then it gets eaten. We’re just recycling the carbon or methane that we have in the environment at the moment. Feeding livestock or people won’t, in and of itself lead to an increase in carbon dioxide. The problem is that by burning coal, oil and whatever we’re taking carbon out of storage and are returning it back into the atmosphere.

At the moment the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 410 parts per million. Back between 600 and 400 million years ago the level of CO2 was over 6,000ppm. That carbon got locked up by geology. We’ve got the oil, gas and coal to prove it. So when you burn them, you’ll putting ancient carbon back in the atmosphere. It’s not for nothing that they’re known as fossil fuels.

So if you want to stop global warming the first thing you can do is stop flying. Then cut the central heating or aircon. If they’re not solar or wind, (or nuclear) just forget them. Actually you can probably burn wood because it’s just recycling atmospheric carbon as well. But then we need a sense of proportion as well.

In 2017 China produced 10,877.218 Mt CO2/year and their output is increasing. Perhaps by 3% a year.

In 2017 the UK produced 379.150  Mt CO2/year. Our output is falling, by about 2.4% per year.

Let us put this in perspective. If the UK spontaneously ceased to exist, we all just disappeared and the carbon emissions dropped to zero, one year’s increase in Chinese emissions would almost replace us. Rather than worrying about whether you should eat less meat (remember methane is an irrelevance so long as it’s not fossil fuel derived, as it’s a natural part of the carbon cycle) you’ll do more good boycotting Chinese goods until they start making major cuts in their emissions. The web site


makes for interesting reading.


Indeed it is entirely possible that if we organised protests outside Chinese embassies around the world it might do some good. Provided of course people travelled there by public transport.


There again, what do I know


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.”