Monthly Archives: August 2020

Welcome to the world’s most expensive broadband?      

scan-41

 

 

Well it’s official. We’ve had the formal notification. To quote,

 

“As discussed the detailed quote provided by Openreach to upgrade your connection under the Universal Service Scheme is

 £ 104,311.20    ”

 

So there you have it. I must admit that it struck me that this wasn’t so much a quote as a case of them saying, ‘Bog off and bother somebody else, kid.’

 

They were supposed to send me a breakdown of the cost, and now they have.

The quote received from Openreach is £ 104,311.20

 

Total Homes Passed=10

Network: Cables and Jointing=30%

Network Build Civils=60%

Planning and Other Issues=10%

I confess that if anybody presented me with this as a tender for a job I wanted doing, I’d probably glance at it, giggle, and drop it in the round filing cabinet before looking at the tenders from the professionals.

What did intrigue me was the comment about the number of homes passed. We had a quick look at Google maps to work out which they would be. Whether Openreach want me to negotiate with everybody to chip in I’m not sure. Or perhaps they just expect me to pay for it all and then they can phone them up and offer them a cheap connection? But one of the potential people on the route did ask Openreach about getting broadband a couple of years ago and was told they could have it for £10,000. They walked away from it. I suspect most of the ten will share the same robust disdain for being screwed. Indeed in some cases they’ll already have moved over to mobile broadband. So I would rate the chances of getting any of them to go shares on £104,311.20 as zero.

I decided to run through a few costs to produce a rough and ready estimate of my own. Now the nearest cabinet to us with fibre to it is just under two miles away, so we’ll call it three kilometres. This cabinet, Cab 26, is the one we’re connected to now. Admittedly our connection is an ad hoc assortment of elderly copper and nicely rotting aluminium but that’s beside the point. Cab 26 is the cabinet they have hooked in all those locally who get fibre broadband. Indeed the fibre optic cable that runs past the top of our lane to serve the village apparently comes via there. To the best of my knowledge the cable to the village is ducted, so they’d only have to thread a new cable through the existing ducting. However let us assume that we need to dig a trench the full way. It’ll be easy enough as it’s along a very wide grass verge on the side of the main road. Then when it gets to the top of our lane let’s assume we can bury it rather than string it from the poles that are already there.

 

So I got a quote from the chap I turn to whenever I need a digger. He’s dug and backfilled for water, gas, and electricity and he cannot see any problem with doing an armoured fibre cable. (Somebody I know who has done fibre optic cable work all round the world has mole ploughed the cable in in the past.)

Anyway, his bill for digging and backfilling the three kilometres would be £4,000.

 

Trying to find a price for cable itself is tricky. The chap I know who has laid cable all round the world reckoned they used to estimate it at £500 a mile. But he worked with people who dealt in serious, ocean spanning quantities. I googled prices for cable, and there, tucked away amongst all those companies just trying to sell me broadband, I found one selling cable. I went onto the page and ended up in a chat with a lady in China! I confess I only realised it was China when she asked if we had a Chinese shipping agent! But they could provide me with direct burial type 12 core fibre cable, fob Shanghai for $386.88/km. So the cable would cost £878.59 plus shipping. It’s not a long way from my neighbour’s estimate of £500 a mile. You do then wonder just how much Openreach are charging to connect up at each end?

 

But I realise these are very simplified figures. So I thought I’d look round for somebody more professional who knows how to charge. So on an American website, I found a company that does a lot of connecting rural areas. This company was quoting between $18,000 and $22,000 per mile. Reading it, this sounded like they were doing it properly with ducting so that you could add other customers later and there’d be access points and suchlike. If you’re putting in ducting, there is obviously a considerable extra cost, but then you do get to use cheaper cable. (I was quoted, Duct type 12core :$285.71/km fob Shanghai.)

They also estimated that the cost of connecting to the house was perhaps $750. So let’s say getting us broadband will take two miles worth of work, and say the cost is $40,000.  That’s £30,279.63 in ordinary money.

We’re struggling to get to a third of the Openreach estimate here. I’m really scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to pad out the bill.

 

Now people have suggested we go for mobile broadband. If we had useful mobile signal inside the house we would consider it. Others have suggested we put together a ‘community scheme.’ The problem is, the community has been done, we’re the ones that weren’t worth putting on the scheme. By my reckoning we’ve got half a dozen households to connect up and they don’t really fit into the same scheme. None of them have the slightest interest in broadband at this price.

And remember it’s not as if we’re all that isolated. I can walk to the telephone exchange in the middle of town in an hour and ten minutes.

♥♥♥♥

Never mind, there’s always a good book to turn to

 

 

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing.
But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

 

As a reviewer commented, “Yet another quiet, but highly entertaining, amble through Jim Webster’s farming life, accompanied by Sal, his collie extraordinarie.
Sheep, cattle, government eccentricities and wry observations are all included.”

Can we cope with too much testing?

251017-cattle-is-tested-for-tb-c-tim-scrivener-142014-11659

When all this coronavirus business kicked off, it was foot and mouth that came to mind. After all it was a case of coping with a virus. But now it’s our experience with bovine TB that seems to be most relevant.

All cattle farmers are used to regular TB testing, and I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard the terms Sensitivity and Specificity.

 

Sensitivity – The probability that if the animal has the disease then the test will be positive. The higher the sensitivity the fewer false negatives but at the cost of false positives.

 

Specificity – The probability that if the animal does not have the disease then the test will be negative. The higher the specificity the fewer the false positives but the more false negatives.

 

The terms “sensitivity” and “specificity” were introduced by American biostatistician Jacob Yerushalmy in 1947. So you can blame him for picking two such similar words which makes them easy to confuse.

 

The advantage of the current skin test is that it has a high specificity (thought to be around 99.98%). This means if the animal doesn’t have the disease, the test will show it to be clear. You don’t get many false positives. This is important on a herd test, because you’re doing a lot of cattle and if you get a lot of false positives, a herd will never be clear of TB. Test a 10,000 cows and you’ll probably get one false positive.

The problem is that the skin test has a lower sensitivity, between 81% and 85%. This means that you will miss cows with the disease. On a herd basis this isn’t too worrying because herds are big enough that if the disease is there, it’s probably in several animals and you only need to pick up one for the whole herd to be locked down and repeatedly retested. Mind you it’s a nightmare for the farmer trying to get rid of the disease in his livestock.

Then you have the gamma interferon test. It has a sensitivity of over 90% which means you miss fewer cattle who have the disease. You can clear the disease out of a herd more quickly.

Unfortunately the specificity is lower than the skin test. It’s about 96.6% so you have a lot higher chance of getting false positives.

To give an example, with a 200 cow herd with the skin test you’d be unlucky to have a false positive. With the gamma interferon test you’d expect two false positives.

So using gamma interferon you actually clear the disease out of a herd faster than you do with the skin test. But in reality you never stop testing because of the levels of false positives.

This is why the vets use them in tandem. You can use gamma interferon and be confident you’ve probably detected the diseased animals. But you stick with the skin test for determining whether the herd is finally clear because you don’t get false positives.

 

So as a rule of thumb, if there’s a lot of the disease about, you want a test with a high sensitivity, because then you don’t miss the disease carriers and false positives are a very small proportion of those you find.

But if there isn’t a lot of the disease about you want a test with a high specificity because otherwise your false positives can end up outnumbering your real positives.

 

Moving on to coronavirus (COVID-19) tests, I’ve seen an article in the BMJ

https://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/369/bmj.m1808.full.pdf

 

This stated “Further evidence and independent validation of covid-19 tests are needed. As current studies show marked variation and are likely to overestimate sensitivity, we will use the lower end of current estimates from systematic reviews, with the approximate numbers of 70% for sensitivity and 95% for specificity for illustrative purposes.”

 

Whilst these are approximate numbers, they aren’t entirely encouraging. A sensitivity of 70% leaves a lot of room for false negatives. It could miss up to 30% of the people tested who have the virus. These people walk away thinking they don’t have it and might spread it through the population

On the other hand, at 95% specificity, this means that you’ll get 5% false positives.

In a large population with a lot of the disease, this isn’t too much of a problem. But let’s assume that you have a large population with very little disease.

Let us assume we test 100,000 people, and only 0.1% have the virus. This is probably the stage we’re at now and it means there are 100 people with the virus.

With our test, we would expect to get 70% of them, so we find 70 people with the virus. 30 are missed.

But with 95% specificity we’ll have 5000 people marked down as false positives. So at the end of a day’s testing we have 5070 people test positive and are asked to isolate. But actually only 70 of them actually have it and we haven’t got a clue who they are.

The problem with fetishizing testing in populations with low levels of the disease is that whilst the disease might have died out, you’ll keep finding it for ever because of the nature of the test.

Not only that but the more you test, the more false positives you’ll get. It strikes me that they’re using the tests wrong. If you have three people in a factory who go down with the virus, then by all means go in and test everybody in the factory. But I see little use in testing entire populations, especially when the level of cases gets down to the level of expected false positives.

 

Actually we’re currently field testing the specificity of the test even as I write.

On the 18th August there were 150,174 tests and 1,089 new cases. This means that the system probably has at least 99% specificity because otherwise you’d get a lot more cases, even if they were all false positives. But of the 1,089 cases, it would be interesting to know how many of them were false positives? If has struck me that the high number of ‘asymptomatic’ cases, plus the fact that we’re not seeing people being admitted to hospital might give us a rough indication that a fair proportion of these ‘cases’ are people who don’t actually have the virus.

 

Now I’ve just heard the Minister on the radio this morning saying they’re going to roll out mass testing. Even assuming the test has a specificity of 99.99% that means that when they test us all, they’ll find 6,000 cases even if nobody has the disease. Second wave here we come.

♥♥♥♥

There again, if you’re going to be locked down for no obvious reason you might as well have a good book to read.

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 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!”

Queue here for really expensive rural broadband.

rural-home-broadband-comical-representation-slow-isolated-white-background-100309705

Today started at 4am. That’s when I woke up and realised it was dark. What I didn’t realise was that it was 4am. The darkness and my inability to tell the time had the same cause. The radio alarm clock wasn’t on. So we’d had a power cut. Now that needed further exploration. Had there been a power cut, one that effected a fair area, or had ‘we’ had a power cut? By which I mean it was only us who were without electricity. When you’re rural both can happen. Or was it a trip-switch issue?
Given that by 5:30am we really needed electricity to milk with, it struck me that now was the time to start making enquiries. After all if it was a genuine power cut I was going to have to contact the utility to find out what was going on.

Anyway after making my way down stairs, finding the torch (always keep your torch in exactly the same place. It saves an immense amount of trouble when you’re looking for it in the dark), I went to investigate the trip-switch.

Now our house and buildings are on three separate trip-switches. So tripping something in the buildings doesn’t put the house of, and vice-versa. The house trip-switch had tripped and when I flicked it back, it tripped out again. The good news was that the buildings had electricity and so we were good to go for milking. The bad news was that the fridge and chest freezer didn’t have electricity.

I went round unplugging stuff and eventually came to the conclusion that whatever I took out, the switch still tripped. Fine. I went back to bed to get another hour. Now with daylight I had extension cables snaking through the house so that the freezer and fridge were plugged into parts of the house that were on a different trip.

Then I phoned the electrician. He arrived and agreed that, yes, the trip-switch was kaput. So that had to be changed. All before 9am.

So yes, we’re used to electricity that needs to be cherished and pampered to ensure it keeps flowing.

If anything, broadband is even worse. As I write (because I checked) our broadband has a download speed of 3.28Mbps. This is about as good as it gets at the moment, it can get below 1Mbps. To be fair it used to run at 4.5Mbps but I suspect more people working at home etc has strained the system and those of us on the periphery are paying for it. It’s so bad, two people tried to phone me when I was in a zoom meeting. Both told me that their phone rang once and just went to static. Luckily it didn’t drop me out of the meeting. But obviously I don’t have a camera on the desktop machine I use for doing zoom. I mean, why would somebody with our line speed want a camera?

Anyway we were talking to the engineers trying to get our broadband improved. We do this reasonably regularly. They come out, tweak something, the speed goes over 4Mbps and over the next week erratically drops to average about 2Mbps. One of them suggested we try the Universal Service Obligation. To quote from Offcom,

 

“From 20 March 2020, if you can’t get a download speed of 10 Mbit/s and an upload speed of 1 Mbit/s, you can request an upgraded connection. You can make this request to BT, or to KCOM if you live in the Hull area. You do not need to be an existing customer of BT or KCOM to apply.”

 

What will it cost?

Again, I quote. “If the cost of building or upgrading your share of the network connection is £3,400 or less, you won’t have to pay for this work to be done.

 

If it will cost more than £3,400 to connect your home, and you still want a connection, you will have to pay the excess costs. If you want to do this, BT/ KCOM will conduct a survey and give you a quote within 60 days.

You will pay the same price for your new broadband service as anyone else on the same package, and no more than £46.10 a month.”

 

So we contacted BT. They checked and we are eligible. So they promised to start the process.

A couple of days later I got this email.

 

“Hello Jim,

 

As we mentioned when we spoke with you, there isn’t currently a broadband network in your area that meets the Universal Service Obligation (USO) set by Ofcom (a line that can give you download speeds of 10Mbps or more).

 

However, we can build a new network to bring faster broadband to your door.

What will it cost?

We still need to find out whether there’s a cost involved. If there isn’t, we’ll be able to get started with building the new network.

 

If there is a cost involved, we’ll be in touch to let you know an estimated price range. It could take up to 30 days for us to find out, so please bear with us.”

That’s fair enough I thought. Indeed a couple of days later I got another email.

 

“Hello Jim,

 

We’ve now checked and there is a cost involved for building a new broadband network.

 

We’ll call you shortly to let you know the estimated price range and, if you’re still interested after that, we’ll get a more exact quote for you. You can also call us on the number below. We’ll keep your request open for 30 days.”

 

Anyway, we got a phone call, they had the first price for giving us 10Mbps broadband. Now given that government is willing to chip in £3,400 I realised it wasn’t going to be cheap, but actually there are two other houses that are on the route and it struck me if we all went in on the project we could probably cover up to six or seven thousand pounds using government money. So I was perfectly happy to negotiate and help put a scheme together.

 

The price I was quoted was, “Between seventy and one hundred thousand pounds.”

Yes, between £70,000 and £100,000.

What are they doing, laying fibre direct from GCHQ just for us?

I pointed out I could buy a terraced house in our local town for less than that to use as an office and have better broadband than the 10Mbps minimum they were promising.

Anyway, they’re going to provide me with a detailed quote. This process can take up to 60 days. I await the result with interest. But frankly it looks as if we’re going to be on rubbish broadband for some years yet.

♥♥♥♥

Obviously I need a good book to keep myself amused.

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing.
But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

 

As a reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.”

Livestock farming, where did the money go?

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A young farmer was talking to me. An old chap had told him that when they wanted to buy a new tractor they sold three new calved dairy heifers. The young farmer wanted to know if this was true.

The answer is, yes, it’s true. Admittedly his informant bred damned good cows, and the rest of us might have had to sell four heifers, but still. The problem for the young chap was that to buy an equivalent tractor he’d have to sell between fifteen and twenty dairy heifers. The reason is that tractor prices are linked to the general economy, dairy heifer prices are linked to the price of milk.

 

In agriculture we’re regularly told that we cannot rely on handouts from the state, we have to become more efficient. So I decided to explore the roots of our industry’s inefficiency.

Looking at milk first, because that’s what I know, we started milking in 1965 and we still have our first milk cheque. We sold 1822 gallons to the Milk Marketing Board, for the princely sum of 28.77d per gallon. That is in modern terms about 12p per gallon or in even more modern terms, 2.64p per litre.

Now then, my late mother-in-law was a remarkably organised lady who jotted down in a notebook exactly what she paid the milkman. In June 1965 she was paying him ten pence halfpenny per pint. This is 84d per gallon, or 35p per gallon. That, to keep a la mode is 7.7ppl.

So in simple terms the customer paid their supplier three times what the supplier paid the farmer. But then they got the milk delivered to their door every day by an environmentally sustainable electric vehicle in a reusable container. The empty container was taken away for them at the same time.

 

Now let time roll onwards a bit and we come to financial year 1995/6. Checking through each of the twelve milk cheques we got for that period, we were paid an average price of 24.335ppl.

In 1995 government statistics say that the retail price for milk was 36per pint or 63.35ppl

Today our current price is 24ppl.

If I go to Tesco and buy four pints of milk, it costs me 109p or 48ppl (or so it boldly proclaims on the shelf.)
So now the consumer only pays twice what the farmer gets, but of course they have to carry it back from the shop themselves and the container cannot be immediately reused (and you have to carry it to the recycling centre.)

 

But what about inflation. What is the spending value of a pound? Well a pound in 1965 bought as much as £10 in 1995 and £16.56 today.

So we can create this table.

 

 

 

 

  Milk Producer Consumer
Year Actual

Price

What Price should be allowing for inflation Actual

Price

What Price should be allowing for inflation
1965 2.64ppl 2.64ppl 7.7ppl 7.7ppl
1995 24.33ppl 26.4ppl 63.3ppl 77.7ppl
2020 24ppl 39.74ppl 48ppl 127.5ppl
         

 

So rather than earning 24ppl the dairy farmer ought to be on 40ppl to keep up with inflation.

1995 is actually an interesting and significant year, it was the year of the 1995 Agriculture act. Pushed through by the Conservative party, one thing it encompassed was the death of the Milk Marketing Board. To simplify history and paint with a broad brush, British dairy farmers, faced with being picked off by the dairy industry, formed another co-op, Milk Marque. Membership was very high, probably well over 90% of dairy farmers joined. This obviously didn’t suit our political masters because the Competition Commission was called in and it insisted that Milk Marque should be broken up. There was argument at the time that the Commission had overstepped its remit as in this case competition was an EU issue not a UK issue and Milk Marque was not a threat to competition on an EU basis. As the BBC commented, “[The Labour] government announced a shake-up of the milk supply industry in July to prevent Milk Marque, the major supplier, from exploiting its monopoly by manipulating prices.”

If by manipulating prices it meant ensuring farmers in point of fact got a fair price, then it was probably guilty as charged. But with the break-up of the co-op, our two main political parties basically threw dairy farmers to the wolves. So if anybody asks why UK dairy farmers don’t form co-ops, the answer is, we do but governments destroy them.

 

Lamb

Now back in 1965 we had some sheep. We made a living of 17 cows and 60 ewes. My father sold lamb, dead weight, for 3 shillings a pound, 15p per lb which is 33p per kilo. For comparison, I was sent the Hill Farming Research Organisation Farm Reports and Flock Record for the year ending October 1965. So it looks as if my Dad’s price was about reasonable.

 

Year Lambs sold Carcass wt. in kg Price in pence per kilo
1959 139 13.15 34.40
1960 85 12.47 31.47
1961 135 12.70 35.43
1962 94 12.25 33.15
1963 127 12.47 34.39
1964 111 12.47 33.35
1965 188 11.11 30.14
Average pence per kilo 33.19

 

 

The current farm gate price for lamb (from the AHDB website) is 470p per kilo.

Looking for consumer comparisons is trickier than for milk. So I picked for a comparison Lamb Shoulder, with the bone in. They didn’t start keeping prices for it until 1968 by which time we’d stopped keeping sheep but I feel the comparison is fair enough.

 

  Sheep Producer Consumer buying lamb shoulder
Year Actual

price

What Price should be allowing for inflation Actual

price

What Price should be allowing for inflation
1965 (1968) 33p 33p 46.6p 46.6p
2020 470p 546p 789p 761p

 

Sheep producers are doing not too badly. They’re getting 86% of what they got back in 1965 compared to dairy farmers are only getting 60%. The consumer price for lamb has also remained about the same, consumers are paying 103%. The difference is largely in the pockets of the retailers.

Beef

Then we have beef. My Father didn’t sell many bullocks, and he actually received the same price per pound as he did for his lambs. So I got a current price for beef of about the same quality off the AHDB website, and for the consumer, I picked Beef Rump steak because it was one of the few things with a price recorded through the period.

 

Beef Producer Consumer buying beef rump steak
Year Actual Price What Price should be allowing for inflation Actual

Price

 

What Price should be allowing for inflation
1965 (1968) 33p 33p 108p 108p
2020 370p 546p 1393p 1788p

 

So allowing for inflation, farmers are getting 67% of what they were in 1965. Consumers are paying 78%.

Why have beef and sheep suffered less than dairy? Bad to say, I’m just guessing. If I’d got figures for pigs and poultry they would have shown farmers having an even harder time. Their problem is they’re ‘efficient’ and the major retailers have pretty well got them under control. Dairy was screwed by a political decision. Beef and sheep are far less ‘organised’ and ‘efficient’. I remember one major supermarket buyer commenting at a meeting that they expected to do to beef and sheep what they’d done to pigs and poultry. In his words, “The learning curve was so steep we effectively ran into a brick wall.”

Sheep marketing is so ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘inefficient’ that the retailers haven’t been able to take control. As a result the sheep farmer keeps more of the end price. This is probably why the multiple retailers don’t push lamb.

 

With beef the retailers are currently trying to take over beef by the back door. To quote industry expert Ian Potter,

 

“Earlier this year, I described Sainsbury’s reputation with its aligned producers as continuing to slide downhill, particularly for those who have faced the impact of the Tomlinson’s collapse. Well Sainsbury’s (SDDG) aligned farmers are once again furious at how the retail giant “is walking all over us to the point we feel like contract milkers and may as well hand over control of our farm to Sainsbury’s”. 

The latest spat is down to the bully boy wanting to sell more of its own beef in store, insisting a minimum of 20% of the beef calves from each producer are sired by one of two Angus Bulls, with the semen only available from Genus at circa £11 per straw. The calves will be sold to Blade Farming at from 10 days old to a maximum 41 days for £156 for heifers and£242 for bulls less haulage. It’s a non-negotiable compulsory change starting in 2021 in England and 2022 in Scotland, and it has got the farmers steaming. Several are claiming its Sainsbury’s acting in an anti-competitive manner. 

I really struggle to understand how my close neighbour and current Head of Sainsbury’s Agriculture, Barney Kay, has seen fit to force this through! Surely, it could have been achieved by negotiation, especially if it’s such a great proposition. Furthermore, if Sainsbury’s is dictating the bull semen to be used it should pay for it! The move has gone down like a lead balloon, especially with many Sainsbury’s farmers who have long standing trusting relationships with others who take their calves, or who rear and finish their own beef in addition to those who breed only pedigrees. It has even resulted in one Sainsbury’s farmer representative resigning.”

 

Beef is still suffering from the impact of BSE. After all beef exports only resumed in 2006.

Looking at the table below, as usual prices are in pence per kilo. I’ve used the same rates of inflation as I have elsewhere.

Just to put things in perspective with the BSE effect; as you can see, for retailers, their selling price fell to 90% of the previous price before bouncing back. For farm gate figures I’ve used our numbers, we sold black and white bullocks so never topping the market. Also we sold live weight so I’ve done an approximate conversion to get dead weight figures. Do not quote these this conversion to reputable people, they’ll fall about laughing.

For beef producers their price fell to about 70% and looking at our figures for the rest of the decade we rubbed along at this sort of level and things never really recovered by 2001 and FMD hit.

 

 

Farmer % of 95 price Beef Producer Consumer buying beef rump steak Retailer % of 95 price
Year Actual

Live weight

Estimated dead weight 1965 Price allowing for inflation Actual

 

1965 Price allowing for inflation
100% Sept 95 115p 209p  

 

330p

857p  

 

1080p

100%
69% July 96 80p 145p 773p 90%
78% July 97 90p 164p 858p 100%
69% July 98 80p 145p 841p 98%

 

 

But there are consequences.

In financial year 1965/6 my father, in his first year as a tenant farmer, showed a profit of £1562 17s 8d. Allowing for inflation that is the equivalent of £24,304. This was off 17 milk cows and 60 sheep on 72 acres.

We can look at how much money has been sucked out of the industry. Assume a hundred acre farm milking a 100 dairy cows each giving 7000 litres a year, a total of 700,000 litres.
There is a 15.74ppl deficit on every litre compared to the 1960s. That is over £110,000 sucked out of the business. In comparison, the Basic Payment Scheme payment to a farm of that size will be £9422. Now you can see why my Grandfather could afford employ three full time men and a lad. That meant that hedges could get trimmed by hand and laid every few years. It meant that walls could be kept up.

There are further implications. The modern dairy farm is seriously efficient to survive. So the cows have to be happy and comfortable. The problem comes when it rains. The cow is neither happy nor comfortable and her milk yield drops like a stone. Because of the tight margins dairy farmers now habitually work to, a lot of them are being forced to look at whether they can afford to let cows graze outside, rather than have them inside all the year round. Talking to one he calculated that if somebody wanted him to revert to a traditional grazing pattern, they’d have to find him a 1.5 pence per litre grazing supplement to cover his extra costs.

Then there is the machinery issue. I started off by pointing out how expensive machinery is in real terms. So more and more farms fall back on contractors. The contractor makes his money by doing as many acres as possible during a day. After all when making silage for his clients, he could have half a dozen farmers waiting for him and only a limited window of dry weather. He needs a big forage harvester, large trailers and serious tractors capable of both pulling and braking the trailers. It’s the same with slurry. Not only to you have the pressure of weather and season, you have EU regulations saying when you can and cannot spread in some areas. So the contractor that turns up on the farm might be expecting to empty your slurry pit in the morning, do another farm in the afternoon/evening. So he needs a bigger tanker which therefore has wider wheels so it does less damage and an even bigger tractor to pull it. So if you dislike the huge tractors roaring around the lanes, now you know why they’re there. To make a living, a contractor has to have the biggest kit they can afford to pay the finance on.

 

Also remember that this all happened when we were members of the EEC/EU. You know, the bunch that ‘featherbeds’ farmers.

Indeed Article 39 of the Treaty of Rome reads,

“ARTICLE 39 1. The objectives of the common agricultural policy shall be:

(a) to increase agricultural productivity by promoting technical progress and by ensuring the rational development of agricultural production and the optimum utilisation of the factors of production, in particular labour;

(b) thus to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture;”

 

There are other objectives but we’ll stop there. It’s obvious this one was something they haven’t taken seriously for a while.

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There again, what do I know? Ask an expert.

 

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 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!”

Beware the wrath of an angry dog.

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It has to be admitted that Sal is not the most aggressive of dogs. Unusual for Border Collies, she rather likes people. In fact she has no concept of social distancing and no understanding of the fact that people might not appreciate muddy footprints on their trousers/shirt/jacket.

It’s the same with livestock. She is remarkably longsuffering. Cattle can sniff her, I’ve even seen calves licking her. Admittedly she does tend to move away if they start chewing her ears, but that is understandable. And all she does is move away. She metaphorically shrugs and gets out of range.

Even with sheep, if nothing particularly is happening and a lamb wants to play with her, Sal will play. I’ve seen her quietly sidestep wild charges and occasionally dance in front of one to tempt it into running at her.

Even with rats, I’ve only ever seen her attack two. I don’t know what one of them did but she killed it. The other was sitting on the grass six feet away from her quietly washing itself. She obviously felt that this was an insult that couldn’t be borne and pounced. The rat shot into a hedge and disappeared.

Obviously she dislikes foxes. She chases them enthusiastically but has never got so close that she had to worry about what you do next.

Then we have Billy. He’s a feral cat who likes people. So much so it seems to be trying to copy our greeting. When he approaches I’ve noticed that we all say, ‘Hello Billy.’ The noise he makes when he comes up to us does sound a bit like ‘Hello’ as produced by a cat. Not only that but he’s fascinated by Sal. I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that she’s the nearest to him in size. They do seem to have a working relationship. They mind their own business, don’t get in each other’s way and whilst when passing they might sniff the other’s nose, that’s about it.

Then last night I noticed a rat drinking out of Sal’s water bucket. Sal had obviously not seen this. So I did the obvious thing. I got Billy. I took him across and placed him where I’d seen the rat. As a hunting technique for getting rid of them goes, this one is pretty successful. He probably will not get the rat then and there but obviously he marks the spot and builds it into his daily round.

On this occasion he could obviously smell the rat, his tail started twitching and he started to hunt. Sal came across to me to get her ears tickled. Billy continued to hunt. This took him into Sal’s cattle trailer and it was then he saw Sal’s bowl. This still had some of her supper in it.

Billy hunted across to it, sniffed it and at this point I said, “Billy.”

He looked at me, drifted away from the bowl and then drifted back to get another mouthful.

It was at this point Sal flew at him. There was nothing playful happening here, Sal went from Border Collie to Angry Wolf and hurled herself in defence of her supper dish. Billy had the problem he was trapped, he couldn’t get out for the dog coming in. In the circumstances he did the sensible thing and apologised. His stance was defensive but without the spitting and suchlike you can see from a cat that is ready to attack.

Sal stopped, came back to me, and Billy, somewhat sheepishly, quietly made his way out of her cattle trailer and made his way across the yard to stare at her from a safe distance. Sal lay down across the door into her trailer with her head on her paws, and gave the impression of a dog who was dozing quietly without a care in the world.

Me, I just left them to it.

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If you want to meet Sal at her more emollient

 

Another collection of anecdotes drawn from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. As usual Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep get fair coverage, but it’s mixed with family history and the joys of living along a single track road.

As a reviewer commented, “Another excellent compendium of observations from the back of Mr. Webster’s quad bike in which we learn a lot more about sheep, border collies and people. On the whole, I think the collies come out of it best. If you fancy being educated on the ways of the world, with a gentle humour and a nice line in well observed philosophy, you could do a lot worse than this.”

Exotic travel broadens the mind

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The problem with the world of lockdown is that it’s not particularly worth going anywhere. I was walking through town yesterday and perhaps 1% of people were wearing masks in the street. Then the minute they went into a shop, the mask was donned. (I’m the same, I wear a tube scarf, pull it up on the way in through the door and push it down as I go outside into the air so I can breathe again.)
But shopping has become a utilitarian experience, go in, get the stuff you want, leave. Damn, reminds me, I still need a new pair of trainers, but it’s not as if there’s any hurry. I’m still not going anywhere where I’ll need to wear them.

But yesterday I had a legitimate reason for travel. I’d nip to the vets for a worming tablet and some ‘Frontline’ for Sal.

Our Vets work out of Broughton and that’s where I was headed. So far the furthest I’ve been since March is nine miles to a neighbouring church to dig a hole for burial of ashes. It’s not fear of travelling, it’s just why travel for pleasure when there’s no pleasure? But now I had an excuse. I caught the train north to Foxfield. I had a carriage with three other people in it. Then leaving Foxfield there’s a nice path which leads you round the back and through some pleasant country. It eventually brings you to Broughton. That’s where the view comes from, looking north. Then as I dropped down into Broughton, that’s where I overheard the first conversation. Now it’s amazing what you hear as you walk past people or they walk past you.

 

Man to neighbour in garden below.  “What sort of idiot goes abroad on holiday at a time like this?”

Unheard response.

Man, “Yes, more money than sense.”

 

Then the vets. Get the stuff I need, and head back. As I passed the cake shop (with a queue that stretched half way down the street) I heard the second conversation.

 

Elderly lady in queue to family she’s chatting with. “So where are you from?”

Man, “Byker in Newcastle.”

Elderly lady. “I was from Burnopfield.”

Man, “That’s Durham.”

 

I walked down to Foxfield and decided to walk on to Kirkby to get the train from there. This route leads across the Angerton Mosses. It’s a world of its own, tucked away and forgotten. The land is never less than damp and walking through the area I suspect people were glad to get silage off when they did. I wouldn’t fancy trying to take a second cut anytime soon. The ground had that feel you get when there’s more water in it than it needs. Move tractors or a dairy herd across it and you could start making a mess.

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By the time I got to Kirkby it was getting hot. Seriously hot. I had a choice of three routes. One would take me up and over the fells to my east. I’ve done it before, it’s a bit of a slog but not something I fancied with the thermometer heading up towards thirty. Then there was the path which follows the coast down. Again I’ve done it and it can be pleasant, but not at the temperatures we were heading for. So I got the train to Barrow and walked home along the route of the old railway line. This is where I got the next two conversations.

 

Young woman One to young woman Two and young woman Three, “I was just back from furlough and then I got this email…”

Young woman Two, “You’ve got the same bag that I’ve got.”

Young woman One, “Yes but it’s a different colour.”

 

The old line is a popular route for walkers and cyclists. When the weather is like this, it’s also quite well shaded but still somehow catches any breeze that is going. And the final conversation.

 

Lady One to Ladies Two and Three, “…and they hired this whole building to move office staff into because of the pandemic and Heather is in there all on her own. She loves it.”

 

And home. At this point I give Sal the worming tablet. They must have done something with the flavourings because I pass it to her and she happily eats it. Then I have to put the Frontline on her. I’ve put ‘Spot on’ on dairy cows many many times. You just squirt it at them from a ‘worming gun’. It’s a doddle of a job. You just walk through them like a particularly officious celebrant laying about him with the holy water.
Frontline comes in a small vial, you snap the top off. Then you put the end as close to the skin on the dog’s back as you can get, under the hair, and squeeze. For some reason Sal dislikes this, and unless I have one hand clamped firmly round her collar, she wiggles off. I suspect it’s purely the sensation of cold liquid on the back of her neck. It cannot be that the stuff stings or anything because the minute I stop squeezing she is full of bounce and ready to go and do something useful.

So I collect the bucket and some tub and we wander off down the Mosses to feed the heifers and check that the dry cows are all right. The temperature has dropped and I have no doubt we’ll have rain before dark. It’s actually rather pleasant.

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Given the way the weather is at the moment, sitting with a good book is not a bad idea.

 

Instead of his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with a gripping adventure. Why is Tallis ‘run out of town’ by hired ruffians? Why does a very sensible young woman want his company when plunging into unknown danger? Who or what was buried in the catacombs? And why has there been so much interest in making sure they stay dead? Also featuring flower arranging, life on the river, and a mule of notable erudition.

As a reviewer commented, “Tallis Steelyard is a poet with champagne tastes on a beer budget. Chased out of town, and into the bay, by irate creditors, he’s rescued by a passing boat and given the opportunity to become a part of the crew. Thereafter follow a series of adventures, many funny, before Tallis can finally return home again.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story and recommend it highly!”