Monthly Archives: September 2020

Blowing away the cobwebs

I was walking round checking heifers the other morning and my route takes me across a field where there were potatoes. As I walked along the headland I did a double take. I could have sworn there was ice in the tread marks left by the tractors.

It was only as I looked closely that I realised that it was dew on cobwebs.

But since then autumn has tilted more towards winter, I suspect the next time I see the phenomenon it will be ice, or at least rag. On the other hand, stock still outside are looking well. Today the dry cows looked relaxed and happy in the chilly early morning sun.

Mind you, that’s more that can be said for a lot of people. After six months people are starting to get a bit stowed of it all.
I was reading the paper the other day and a lass who works in a lot of ‘interesting’ places was writing about this. Apparently if you’re trapped in a stressful situation for six months you ‘hit a wall.’ You’ve had enough and need a break.

It appears that the army discovered long ago that troops who served six month tours in a war zone were more likely to re-enlist than troops who served twelve or eighteen month tours. Even if the lads who’d done the six month tours had actually done more tours and put in more time in combat than the others.

Her advice was to ‘get away.’ But she admitted that it isn’t always possible. Indeed travelling anywhere at the moment can be more stressful than staying at home. When she couldn’t travel, what she did was to ‘escape into a good book.’ In her case, she loved Lord of the Rings’ and would just have a long weekend off at wherever she was living at the time. There, she would just shut out the world, sit and read. It felt like having a few days holiday and she emerged from it feeling better.

Funnily enough I can empathise with this. For me, the Foot and Mouth outbreak was far more stressful than the current medical unpleasantness. The fact that my lady wife and I have almost certainly had coronavirus before it was fashionable means this particular madness is a lot less stressful.

But during FMD I got to a point where I couldn’t even settle to read. So I sat down and read my way through the Asterix books.

After them, I was up to methodically working my way through the Terry Pratchett Discworld series. These carried me through.

So really, that’s my advice to people. If you can take a break, do. I drove across the country last weekend to see my daughter who we’ve not been able to see. She’s been stuck on her own in a flat. It did us both good to meet up. But thanks to the regulations, what is possible one weekend might not be possible the next. But you can always get a good book. Even if you don’t feel up to venturing into a bookshop, there’s plenty on line. But actually now might be the time to re-read the books you love. My late mother was very fond of the Miss Read books, and would re-read them. I’ve always felt that a good book ought to be a holiday you can take without the hassle of travelling.

But if you fancy something new, I could recommend some of my own stuff. After all, Port Naain is a city where you can still walk the streets without worrying about social distancing or wearing a mask.



Hired to do a comparatively simple piece of mapping work Benor should perhaps have been suspicious when the pay seemed generous.
Will he ever get to the bottom of what is going on?
How rough is the rough justice of rural Partann?
How to clean out a privy with a crossbow. Welcome to the pastoral idyll.

As a reviewer commented, “Benor the cartographer is offered a job away from home with unusually generous pay. It all has to be done on the quiet, too. Something’s up. Benor has a murder to solve. I thought he had, but there’s more to come. This story is a murder mystery and a comedy of manners, set in a world of fantasy. If you like a genre mashup, this is brilliant. The characters and their relationships and banter would make it worth reading even if it didn’t have a plot – but it does. Another winner for me.”

Losing your bottle. How is farming going to cope with the public?

The bottle lies discarded at the side of our lane, tossed out of a car window. You have to admit it makes a change from crisp packets, Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets and McDonald’s wrappers and drinks cartons. But then there’s a lot of it about. I went up to Scotland to see my daughter. Junction 36 of the M6 was ‘experiencing difficulties’ so, forewarned, I decided I’d cut through the Lake District and join the M6 at Penrith. After all I left home at 9am, so traffic shouldn’t be so bad. It might not be bad but I got stuck behind a Porsche. It was one of the ones that looks a bit like a Range Rover from behind, and it did thirty miles an hour from Newby Bridge to beyond Bowness. The driver just dawdled. Finally when we got to the roundabout with the A591 and he turned north towards Ambleside (the way I had intended to go) I just went straight ahead and over Kirkstone Pass. Anything had to be faster than following him.

But there, at the top of Kirkstone Pass, a mile past the Inn, in the middle of wild and desolate beauty, a discarded face mask lay in the middle of the road.

People fascinate me. It’s as if they cannot cope with more than one big idea at a time. David Attenborough produces a TV programme about plastic in the sea and suddenly everybody is demanding we ban single-use plastics because they’re destroying the environment. Government puts a tax on plastic bags, there’s a stream of documentaries about recycling and the dangers of this plastic or that plastic, and everybody promises faithfully that they’re going to eliminate single-use plastics. Coffee shops stop using plastic straws or start encouraging customers to use metal, or even pasta straws.

Then we have a ‘pandemic’, government is attacked from all sides because it wasn’t producing and stockpiling massive amounts of single-issue plastic (but now it’s ‘good’ single-use plastic, it’s PPE and it’s going to save the universe and rescue us all from imminent death.) and people are cheerfully discarding facemasks all over the place. We’re going to have oceans full of them.

One problem is people seem to focus on one issue at a time. Farmers and landowners see it regularly as governments are swayed by yet another single-issue pressure group. We stand well back from the riverbank as the canoeists and the fishermen fight over access. It’s going to get even more interesting when the ones who want to release beavers get caught up in that fight.

Then we have those who want a pleasant countryside where they can take a short walk. At the same time they’d like to look at the ancient parish church, browse a few local handicrafts and have a brew in an agreeable local tea room. Try doing that if the enthusiasts for rewilding the Lake District get their way.

It’s much the same way with food production. Farmers are blamed for selling food that makes people unhealthy. (I mean, the way farmers stand over their customers with a whip making them drink another quart of raw milk is frankly shocking.)
Then we’re told people want cheap food, (and plenty of it with infinite choice) and at the same time other groups will encourage us to go Organic.

Now we have other pressures creeping up on us. With the current medical unpleasantness still raging in its full administrative glory, it’s pretty well guaranteed that a lot of people are going to end up unemployed. I don’t know whether we’ll get a second wave of virus, but we are going to see a lot of people kicked onto the scrapheap because their jobs no longer exist. For example, at what point are people going to stop pretending that the airlines and travel industries are just going to be like they were? Indeed in some cases the companies that employed people dumped on the dole may no longer exist either. At this point in the blog I’d like to ask you to remember to support your local foodbank. For an increasing number of people, it could well be ‘the shopping destination of choice’ this winter.
I suspect this will change the pressures on agriculture. When things are tight, people forget about luxuries such as organic or artisan produce and want something cheap and ideally wholesome. But with the emphasis on cheap.

The graph below shows the Organic food and drink sales revenue in the United Kingdom 1999-2018

As you can see, the crash of 2008 lead to a decline in organic sales. (I can remember organic milk producers abandoning organic production because they couldn’t get the premium they needed for it to be economically viable.) It took almost a decade for sales to get back to where they had been. My gut feeling is this time is going to be worse, and a lot of people are going to be far too stretched to fritter money away on luxuries when they have necessities to buy.

So what does the food producer do? Over the years I’ve sold beef, lamb and pork direct to the consumer and have undercut the supermarkets but still had a better margin than just selling it to the slaughter trade. Yes, my customers needed freezer space and had to be able to fit in a whole lamb, half a pig, or an eighth of a bullock (they weigh about the same). They also needed to be able to afford to pay over a lump sum, but they showed the savings over the next three months. It’s not a mass market, but it’s surprising who can be part of it. One of my customers asked me to deliver on the day she and her friends all got their benefit cheques. I delivered it to her and she paid me on the nail.

Somebody then phoned me to say my customer was making money by selling some of it to her friends, who were also on benefits but who didn’t have freezers. That’s why she’d chosen the day she had, everybody was briefly flush with cash. Much to the chagrin of my informant I refused to be shocked, pointing out that I’d got the price I asked, and if she had the initiative and drive to organise something like this, I’d happily sell her another one next month. Just because somebody is an unmarried mother with a fine selection of studs and tattoos doesn’t mean they lack acumen.

Over the last few years a lot of farmers have moved into more ‘artisan’ food, producing some really nice stuff. When the first lockdown was imposed, a lot of them were badly hit because their customers couldn’t drive out to visit their shop, and of course really good quality goods often end up in the restaurant sector because good chefs appreciate good food. Some of them saw their sales drop to pretty much nothing. There are a lot of stories emerging of how they frantically set up websites, facebook pages, home delivery boxes and similar.

Looking over the next few years, I do wonder if there might be more options for farmers to do this sort of thing. Not for a ‘premium’ market, but just dealing with people who in happier times would try to buy premium produce but now are willing to settle for decent stuff that is about the same price as the supermarket. I think if people can keep their nerve, who knows what we could see.


There again, what do I know. I diversified into writing, fleeing one loss making industry for another.

In his own well chosen words, Tallis Steelyard reveals to us the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. In no particular order we hear about her bathing with clog dancers, her time as a usurer, pirate, and the difficulties encountered when one tries to sell on a kidnapped orchestra. We enter a world of fish, pet pigs, steam launches, theological disputation, and the use of water under pressure to dispose of foul smelling birds. Oh yes, and we learn how the donkey ended up on the roof.

As a reviewer commented, “

Where to start with this review? First of all a health warning. Do not read this book when drinking coffee/beer/WHY. Neither is it a great notion to read somewhere sudden bursts of laughter could be seen as inappropriate.
I must confess upfront to being a fan of Jim Webster’s writing as he has a talent for making the most wildly inconsequential of observations seem matter of fact and perfectly believable. Any of the tales he weaves around the imaginary but utterly believable city of a port Nain are going to be chuckle worthy at the very least.
Therefore I approached the chronicles of Maljie’s varied and exotic life with great expectation.
I wasn’t disappointed.
In fact there were places where I actually howled with laughter.
Our heroine veers from situation to situation – rarely finishing without a profit. And some of her jobs are so silly and improbable. But you still keep reading and chuckling.
The ease with which Jim, in the guise of Tallis Steelyard (poet, visionary and unreliable witness) pilots this rickety craft through the shoals of Maljie’s life is exemplary.
But don’t just take my word for it. Read for yourself. But don’t forget the health warning.

Five big shiny stars.”

Testing times when you’re trying to find a better class of monkey for the circus

Testing times when you’re trying to find a better class of monkey for the circus

As you can imagine, a slaughterhouse will get an awful lot of paperwork, and a lot of it has to be properly disposed of because it’s government documents. So a manager I know installed a shredding machine to dispose of it securely. Last time I talked to him he saved this paper for bedding up the pen in the lairage that they put the old bulls in. As he said, bullshit to bullshit.

But yes, one for the problems of farming in Europe, (for the purposes of this blog, consider the UK, Switzerland and Norway to be part of Europe. I mean the geographical not the political entity) is that the inhabitants, the consumers, our customers, set high standards. It isn’t merely they want decent food, they want it cheap, and on top of that they want it to be produced with high animal welfare and environmental standards. The latest thinking seems to be that we farmers will cut our CO2 production so that they can continue to fly abroad on holiday.

Within the EU (and the western non-EU countries) there was a political acceptance that there was no way to square that particular circle other than by the state covering the costs that farmers couldn’t recoup from the market.

Now the world market price for some crops is set by the use of GM varieties. They can undercut EU produced crops produced to different (and more expensive) standards. Even if you don’t accept these standards as higher. It’s the same with beef (and not using hormone growth promoters) or milk (unable to use bovine somatotropin.) Whether European farmers should or should not use these products is a different argument. I start from where we are.

Then there’s the weird randomness of regulation that suddenly hits farmers. For example the EU suddenly introduced the Three Crops Rule. It required farmers with more than 30 hectares of arable land to grow at least three different crops on that land. Even if they didn’t want to. Even if they hadn’t got suitable machinery, storage or a market.

The reason this came about what probably because of the Germans. The EU encouraged biodigesters to produce energy. The idea was that they would turn pig slurry or whatever into clean, green energy. The problem was that you cannot efficiently run a biodigester on pig slurry alone. But add some maize silage and it works well. From what I’ve been told the more maize silage the better. As always with political decisions, the law of unintended consequences is the only law that is ever binding. To quote,

“A combination of bioenergy, especially biogas, with livestock activities, have together been a strong engine for the “maizification” of the German countryside. In northern parts of Lower Saxony, e.g., the district Rotenburg (Wümme), there are more than 150 large biogas plants and maize is grown on 63% of the total arable land. In some areas, this rises to 75%, and places even greater pressure on biodiversity.

“The conversion of the cultural landscape to maize has displaced many grassland birds. In this way, Northern Lapwing, Grey Partridge, Eurasian Curlew, and other species have no future. Nests are being destroyed and feeding grounds have become worthless. For species like the Barn Owl and Red Kite, life has become even more difficult as giant grasses and maize remove the clear views from fields where they normally hunt for prey. When food is scarce, breeding success declines or even worse, no chicks survive.” 

So the EU realised they had to stop this. But being politicians and bureaucrats the last thing they were going to do was go to the Germans and say, “Come on chaps, let’s stop taking the mickey here.” After all to do that would have been to admit a policy failing. Heaven forfend!
So they brought in the three crop rule so farmers in, for example, the UK, Greece and Spain who hadn’t been taking the mickey, were hit by a whole new raft of regulation. So, in a nutshell, that’s one of the reasons why agriculture in Europe needs support.

Now we’re leaving the EU, and the UK government has seen this as an opportunity to put in a better agricultural support system, one tied to delivering environmental benefits. Obviously there are arguments to be had over this, but nobody seems to have started from the stance that after decades of trying, the EU system had reached such a high level of perfection that it would be foolish to abandon it.

The government (this is well before the last election so we’re thinking May as PM, not Boris, so it’s not an attack at one or the other) put forward a timetable. Under this, the current support, BPS (Basic Payment System) would be tapered off and the new system, ELMS (Environmental Land Management System) would be brought in to take up the strain. The idea behind ELMS, to make sure that the money goes to provide clean air, clean water and all sorts of other environmental benefits is basically a good one. Creating a scheme from scratch to do it is complicated. The scheme designers couldn’t just tweak an existing scheme as no existing scheme attempted to do this.

But thanks to the monkeying about by MPs, everything got delayed. Given that we had two years where, effectively government couldn’t govern and nobody knew whether we were leaving or not, Defra was trying to plan the future with its hands tied. It was going to be the loser whatever happened. If we left and the system wasn’t ready, it would be Defra’s fault. But if we didn’t leave and Defra had spent £150million getting a new system ready to go, only to have all the work abandoned because we’d be sticking with the EU system, Defra staff would be slammed for wasting money.

Now the dates for tapering BPS have been set in political stone, but because of the political nonsense we’ve had to put up with, the ELMS system has slipped. So we’re no longer talking about a smooth transition from one to another. There’s going to be a gap of some years where there’s going to be no meaningful income coming in from either scheme. Now we cannot just expect the market to fill the gap. I mentioned about the way farm gate prices have fallen here

and in the world of covid, with a lot of consumers having a lot less money to go round, I foresee consumer resistance to higher prices. I can understand that.

But to be fair to Defra, they could see the problem. So they set about trying to tackle it. The obvious thing to do would just be to delay the taper. Things would happen two years later and that would sort the job. It would take no more staff, indeed if you handled it properly you could quietly withdraw staff from this scheme to start working in the ELMS scheme.

But no, Defra has suggested a whole new scheme, the Sustainable Farming Initiative (SFI). This scheme will ‘bring forward’ some things from the ELMS scheme into the years 2022-2024, but will be retired as ELMS takes over. Now to be fair to Defra they’ve got a lot of people working on ELMS. There’s a lot of things they’re trying to get right, like the inspection regime. The EU didn’t seem particularly bothered if it inflicted overly cumbersome and expensive inspection regimes on member states. But Defra feels that this is a chance to do something better. So obviously the people working on ELMS have to stay working on ELMS. Because if they don’t, ELMS will be even later. Similarly Defra cannot withdraw staff from BPS because they’ll still be busy. So they’re going to have to find people from somewhere to create a scheme from scratch and get it running in a very short period of time only to shut it down again. Surely it has to be easier and cheaper for everybody just to slow the taper on BPS. But apparently it’s set in stone because somebody’s staked their political credibility on it. (Between ourselves anybody who stakes their political credibility on the civil service delivering a scheme on time and to budget when the House of Commons hasn’t finished arguing over whether we’ll need a scheme anyway, hasn’t got any political credibility to stake but obviously I couldn’t say that.)

This starts to fit in with a broader picture. At the moment the ‘test and trace’ system is being widely abused. Somebody commented to me that government were foolish to announce targets. But with my experience of Defra, the civil service will ask for a target. After all they need something to aim at. Without a target they don’t know whether they’ve succeeded or failed. “Produce a world beating testing system” isn’t a target, it’s a political aspiration and it’s impossible for the civil service to deliver. “Be able to test 150,000 people a day and get the results back to them within 24 hours is at least something they can work to.

The testing system shows some of the unforeseen problems. You get the sample to the labs. Apparently people discovered that the medium they use to preserve the samples doesn’t kill the virus. So you’ve got all this live virus coming into the office. Because it’s a live virus it has to be multiply wrapped and the people unwrapping it have to be careful. All this takes far more time than anybody predicted. It’s the same with any government scheme, there will be something that nobody thought of that screws things mightily and takes a while to get right.

Now this is where MPs can come in and scrutinise things. The systems are there. We’ve recently had all sorts of dubious regulations brought in by statutory instrument. Whilst an individual MP cannot block them, they can put down a marker. To quote from the Commons library,

“Motions to annul a negative instrument can be tabled by Members of the House of Commons or members of the House of Lords. In the Commons, the motion is generally tabled as an Early Day Motion couched in the form of a prayer.  An example tabled by the Leader of the Official Opposition is given below:

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 (S.I., 2015, No. 1951), dated 29 November 2015, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2 December 2015, be annulled. EDM 892, 08.12.2015

In order for a negative SI to be annulled, a prayer must be tabled and passed within 40 days of the instrument being laid. The 40 day period is known as praying time.

The Government will typically find time to debate an EDM praying against an SI that has been signed by Shadow Ministers, but is not obliged to. It is very rare for a Negative Instrument to be annulled; 1979 was the last time an SI was annulled in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords it was 2000.”

So if, for example, MPs of any party felt that government was going too far with regulations restricting personal liberty, they could pray against the regulation and force it to be debated in the house. Somebody told me that MPs seem to be happier moaning on twitter than in the Commons.

As an aside, somebody commented to me about the introduction of free public libraries, the act was driven by MPs not parties. I picked a couple of these MPs at random, here are their biographies from wiki.

Joseph Brotherton A nonconformist minister

In 1819, aged only thirty-six, Brotherton retired from the family business in order to devote his energy to his ministry. He used his position to actively improve the conditions of workers and campaign for reforms. Among his achievements the building of schools, the opening of a lending library and the establishment of a fund to support the victims of the Peterloo Massacre. He was also an overseer of the poor and a justice of the peace.

After the passing of the Reform Act 1832 which he lobbied for he was elected as Salford’s first member of parliament at the ensuing general election. He was re-elected five times, unopposed on two occasions. In parliament he campaigned against the death penalty, for the abolition of slavery and for free non-denominational education. He actively supported the Municipal Corporations Bill, which led to Manchester and Salford having democratically elected councils. He took an interest in the facilities provided by the new municipalities, and was largely responsible for the opening of Peel Park, Salford and Weaste Cemetery. And of course the introduction of free libraries across the country.

William Ewart

He was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in 1827, and the next year entered Parliament for the borough of Bletchingley in Surrey, serving until 1830. He subsequently sat for Liverpool from 1830 to 1837, for Wigan from 1839 to 1841, and for Dumfries Burghs from 1841 until his retirement from public life in 1868. In 1834 he successfully carried a bill to abolish hanging in chains, and in 1837 he was successful in getting an act passed to abolish capital punishment for cattle-stealing and other similar offences. In 1850 he carried a bill for establishing free libraries supported out of public rates, and he was instrumental in getting the Metric Weights and Measures Act 1864 passed to legalise the use of the metric system.

He remained a strong advocate for the abolition of capital punishment, and on his motion in 1864, a Royal Commission was appointed to consider the subject on which he sat. Other reforms which he advocated and which were carried out included an annual statement on education, and the examination of candidates for the civil service and army.

I think we need a few more MPs with Victorian Values! We might be better governed. At least these chaps knew how to actually do something and get things done.


There again, what do I know?

More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

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.”

The Dairy Farm in the year 2050

Yes, Prime Minister, if you’ll just walk this way please. I’m glad to see that your advisers made sure they bought you a pair of wellingtons especially for this trip. Oh? Wellington has been airbrushed from history because of his links with Slavery? Or Ireland? Whatever, just put them on.

The purpose of taking you round this comparatively ordinary dairy farm is to let you see what really happens here on a modern farm in 2050. Obviously as you’ve come up through the Environmental Movement you’ll know the theory. Oh, it’s just, ‘The Movement’ now. Sorry, we are a little out of touch here. But anyway your advisers thought it would be useful for you to know what really happens lest you do something to screw the system by accident. After all we don’t want more people going hungry.

When you look around you’ll see we’re quite a large dairy farm, one of the largest. We have a hundred cows and over a hundred and fifty staff. Each worker has one cow to look after. In winter, in the grazing season, they will accompany their cow as she grazes, in summer, they fetch her cut grass from store and fan her to keep her cool and keep away flies.

Where do all these people come from? Well they just walk here every morning, it’s only four miles from town. Oh, what did they do before they were in agriculture? A mixture of things really. We have people who lost their jobs with the collapse of the tourist industry, catering and hospitality, and the town centre retail trade. We have people who used to work in the distribution warehouses for the collapsed on-line retailers. Then there are people whose jobs were no longer necessary when the Movement took the necessary steps to reduce our carbon footprint. So we’ve several ex-journalists. There’s quite a few lawyers and accountants, several sheet metal workers and a lot of people who were in construction.

How do we pay all these people? A good question. The economics are quite simple. As you know, everybody nowadays gets the universal basic income. Seven kilos of kibble bars per head per week and a Netflix subscription. Working for us allows them some little luxuries. Each employee of ours will get three kilos of cheese a week. Even if they don’t like it, it allows them to enter the barter economy. But there are other perquisites. As we walk down to the farm, you’ll see that each side of the track there are a series of little plots, each about two meters by two meters? Each of our employees has one of these which they can cultivate. Here you’ll see somebody is growing Scots bonnet chillies. Yes, they’re quite a successful crop, I believe she does nicely selling them on the black market. People like to add them to the porridge they make by boiling up a kibble bar in water.

Another of our people has quite a nice opium poppy crop, I do think they make the area look quite attractive.

Yes, our people are enterprising. May I introduce you to Anna here. As you’ll see, she’s wearing ten of the new, Movement issued, fitbits. It was very enlightened of the Movement to proclaim that in an attempt to fight obesity and the illnesses caused by sitting around just watching Netflix, they’d issue fitbits. Promising to pay a bonus ration of fresh fruit and vegetables to those who do more than 10,000 steps was genuinely inspired. As it is, our people have been very busy. Everybody here is paid by friends and neighbours to wear their fitbit for them. Thus everybody wins.

How are they paid? Oh the usual, Prime Minister, barter, black market goods, sexual favours.
Anyway, we’re now at the farmstead proper. Because it’s the end of summer most of the cows and their handlers are out grazing. You might have passed several of them on your way here, we keep the grass down not merely on the verges but on the middle of the road as well. Because only officers of the Movement have access to cars it works pretty well.

As you can see, the cows are milked wherever is convenient and the bucket of milk is carried into here and poured through the cooler. Because it’s summer there isn’t as much water in the stream as usual, so it takes longer to cool the milk. So we make summer cheese and winter cheese with slightly different flavours. Here is the cheese room. Our cheese room team are working on one of our last batches of summer cheese. This will mature in our underground cool room, and then when it’s ready our distribution team will distribute it. It’s already wrapped in half kilo blocks, and we’ll take it into town. Actually our staff rather like that part of the job. They can sell any manure the horse produces on the trip.

As for distribution, as you probably know, anybody who has earned a virtuous worker token gets given a block of cheese. We collect the tokens and send them back to the Movement Headquarters. The feeling amongst our staff is that these tokens are miniature works of art. The Green logo from the old days of the Movement is most pleasingly depicted. As, might I say, is the scene of the tourist being hanged for her carbon footprint.

Meat? Now this is a tricky one. Since the introduction of compulsory vegetarianism, all male calves are sent to a Movement controlled fattening unit. You’ll be taken to that next. There they’re fattened and killed and the meat is supplied only to members of the Movement. They are the only people who can be trusted to eat it with the proper expressions of moral disapproval. Old cows? It has to be confessed in this matter we’re a little unconventional. They’re slaughtered here, and we produce stew which we serve to our staff. We did try sending them home with it, but there were endless problems with neighbours reporting them to the Purity Marshalls. It’s easier if they just bring their families here and we eat together.

Ah and here we have a delivery of cattle feed. Just step to one side please, Prime Minister, let the horses pull the dray round. Since the embarrassing discovery that repeatedly ploughing ground released more carbon than keeping it as grassland, the grain necessary for the population has been produced in the east, using no-till. Arable agriculture has been kept to an absolute minimum. Apparently these arable farms have special cultivators drawn by scores of oxen. I hope one day to see them. But as I was saying they grow the grain and the beans for the general population. A proportion of the better grains are kept for the work horses, whilst the poorer stuff, considered unfit for people, is sent either to us for cattle feed, or it goes to the environmental offenders labouring on the huge recycling lines in the re-education camps.

Each cow will get a varying amount of these nuts, depending on her stage of lactation, the quality of forage in her diet, and whether the bureaucrats working in the Movement’s central distribution office remember to send us some or not.

The ragged figures huddled under the hedge, Prime Minister? Oh, they’re part of our diversified enterprise. They’re the hedge wardens. Because of the major reforms the Movement brought in, we had no need for vast swathes of the civil service, so HMRC, DWP, Defra etc were all closed down and the bureaucrats working for them were repurposed. Most of them were re-employed as hedge wardens. A coffle of them were marched out here some years ago and set to work under a supervisor. They go round trimming the hedges, filling in gaps and planting and weeding. They’ve improvised a shelter out of branches and an old tarpaulin they found. They live there quite happily, winter and summer. They’re quite a fascinating group, I’ve watched them for hours through binoculars as they cook their kibble porridge over an open fire and season it with fruit, nuts, herbs, mushrooms and small animals they’ve caught. Don’t go too close, some of them can kill a rat with a thrown billhook at forty yards.
Oh yes, if we walk across here and watch from this vantage point, you’ll see the night soil carts arriving. We’re up-wind so it’s not too bad. Thanks to the closing of the urban sewers and the regulations insisting everybody moved back to dry closets, we now recycle one hundred percent of all our night soil.

Why are they pulling the carts themselves?  This is a punishment detail. All of them are members of the Movement who disagreed with the motion you put forward at the Movement’s last conference. As you most rightly say Prime Minister, “A wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Yes, I did read somewhere that you’d studied Classics with Media Studies for your degree. But back to our night soil. See how they leave it in small heaps, a shovel full every few yards. Once they’ve emptied the cart they’ll come back with rakes and spread it properly. I agree entirely, Prime Minister, it’s all they’re fit for. As an aside, isn’t the tall one wearing the broken spectacles with only one lens your predecessor?


There again, what do I know. You really need to speak to the experts!

More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

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.”

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance

Billy, walking the mean streets. When it comes to vermin control, he’s a leading player, and is pretty indefatigable. The other half of our vermin control is an enthusiast with an air rifle. It has to be said that with these two working in harmony and mutual respect, they have managed to keep on top of something that can be a problem on farms.

I prefer these two methods to poison, neither of our paladins is liable to kill a dairy cow by mistake. Not only that but they’re synergistic. The air rifle takes the big rats that might give Billy reason to pause, and Billy has the patience and cunning to take out the smaller stuff that somebody with a rifle might not even see.
Indeed if I see a rat and Billy is about, I’ll pick him up, carry him to where the rat disappeared and stand back. It’s impressive to watch as he catches the scent, the tip of his tail flicks, and he starts to cautiously follow the scent. It has to be admitted that he probably won’t catch a rat then and there, but he seems to mark the location and I won’t see a rat there again for quite a while.

But whilst these two paragons maintain constant vigilance to keep us free of rodent infestation, what about other problems that can beset us? Like, for example, the perpetual tide of bureaucracy and regulation which threatens to constantly overwhelm us.
Here we’re in the hands of others. The best analogy I’ve seen to describe the process is that we have two opposing forces, glaring at each other from opposing trench lines. The problem is, on one side you have, defending us, all sorts of factions and lobby organisations who are allies of convenience. There are issues they disagree on and even work against each other. So the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association represent different sides when discussing landlord and tenant issues.  But because they do have in their ranks a lot of proper grown-ups, they manage to work together pretty well at times. Think of our defenders as a collection of bickering barbarian warbands faced with the might of Imperial Rome and it gives you some idea of our dilemma.
But fortunately for us, the other side, which in theory should be joined up and efficient, is equally fragmented. Rather than the might of Rome, we see a score of bureaucratic empires, often at cross purposes, each pushing their own agenda. The fact that one faction within a bureaucratic empire is pushing forward with a policy that another division of the same empire has abandoned as unworkable is merely par for the course. Democracy survives because of bureaucratic inefficiency and division.

These two forces face each other, glaring across the great divide. But as I mentioned, there are proper adults involved. I’m trying to find a good example here of how grown-ups can get sensible things to happen. Ah, I’ve got one. When the EU introduced Cattle Passports, the UK had a reasonably casual attitude to them. You couldn’t move animals without one but if you were late applying for the passport, when you eventually remembered to apply, then the British Cattle Movement Service sent you the passport, but included a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ reminder that we were supposed to apply within a fixed time after the calf was born. So effectively on this part of the front, the trenches were quiet, there was no shelling, and we even played football together in no-man’s land.

But then the EU decided this sensible attitude wasn’t good enough. Somebody in a Brussels office decided that a farmer couldn’t be expected to remember which calf belonged to which cow if they didn’t apply pretty damned quick after the calf was born. So they demanded the UK tighten up their systems. Indeed if the passport hadn’t been applied for within the time limit, the calf couldn’t ever get one and could never enter the food chain. So effectively it would just have to be shot and buried.

Now this produced problems. Farms are busy places, the office staff are the same people who’ve already put in a full day’s work before they spend a quiet evening relaxing doing paperwork. Stuff gets missed, perhaps because we’re silaging, or Granny’s ill and the family is spending the evenings hospital visiting, or whatever.

Now the farmer suddenly discovers that he hasn’t applied for a passport in time. Think about the situation for a moment. The only people present at the birth are normally the farmer and the mother. I suggest that never in the history of agriculture has a dairy cow contacted a government office to tell them she’s given birth. So the only witness who is going to testify is the farmer. So for somebody who is perhaps a little casual with the paperwork, there isn’t a problem. The date of birth can drift until suddenly the calf isn’t late and can get a passport.

But problems arise for the people who are scrupulously honest and want to get it done properly. They are the ones who would phone BCMS and say, “I’m late registering a calf, what can I do?” To which the only answer the bureaucracy left the people in BCMS was effectively, ‘Kill it now.’

So the EU created as system which only penalises the innocent. Luckily the grown-ups in opposing trenches were willing to do something about it. We talked to the staff at BCMS. They were only interested in making sure the mother and calf with firmly linked together. They are running a maternity tracing database. (That’s another story but not one for now.) When asked if they would accept DNA testing, the grown-up people in BCMS said they would be happy with it, but the various other factions within other bureaucratic empires wouldn’t allow them to.

So that’s where grown-ups got together. Somebody took a delightful picture of an utterly charming small girl with a remarkably cute calf. This appeared on the front page of a national newspaper. If you just read the article’s headline, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the government was intending to kill the calf or the child because their paperwork wasn’t entirely up-to-date.

Moving back to our trench warfare analogy, we mounted a short sharp offensive, and in the opposite trenches, the defenders, BCMS in this case, made no attempt to defend what they regarded as an indefensible position. So we advanced, shored up the flanks and dug in to face the inevitable counter-attack. This counterattack floundered on the fact that the government position had been damned silly and was virtually impossible to defend. Especially as BCMS kept saying that bringing in DNA testing to deal with the issue wasn’t a problem. So we got DNA testing.
Then somewhere along the lines there was another issue, another offensive and we had to rush reinforcements in to prop up a front before it collapsed. Otherwise we might have ended up with having to inform government when livestock moved from one field to another, rather than just one farm to another. Which was something the epidemiologists wanted initially, until it was pointed out that even a comparatively small dairy herd, say a hundred cows, would have to notify perhaps 400 movements a day and government couldn’t put the systems in place to cope with that volume of epidemiologically meaningless data.

I suppose the problem for most people is that they’re too far behind the lines to know what’s going on in any detail. Certainly for members of various organisations like the NFU and CLA, they might wonder what they’re getting for their subscriptions. It’s simple, as Thucydides said, “Having abundance of gold and silver makes war; like many other things, go smoothly.” A subscription is cheap!
If you want to see the result of bureaucracy untrammelled by lobby groups keeping it honest, the last few months have given us an object lesson. From local authorities rushing through bizarre road schemes without bothering to consult the people who live in the areas, to the ever more contradictory or irrational suggestions for what should or should not be allowed under lockdown. What you see there is the sort of nonsense you can see in any sector when the bureaucracy produces the draft regulations but before the various industry groups start asking questions and the grown-ups on either side quietly come to a sensible wording which achieves the desired effect without destroying the industry.  

But of course real life gets involved as well. During the course of writing this I had to go and do some real work. Some of it involved moving some heifer calves from one pen to another. Given it was chucking it down and we really didn’t need a rodeo we loaded them into a little quad trailer. I rode in the trailer to make sure none of them panicked and jumped out.
As I said to one of them, “You don’t need to piss all down my leg.”
But apparently she did.

Some days you’re the person who knows what is going on. Other days you’re just the guy in the trailer with three heifers and wet legs.


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

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, “Excellent follow up to his first collection of bloggage – Sometimes I Sits and Thinks – this is another collection of gentle reflections on life on a small sheep farm in Cumbria. This could so easily be a rant about inconsiderate drivers on country lanes and an incessant moaning about the financial uncertainties of life on a farm. Instead, despite the rain, this is full of wise asides on modern living that will leave you feeling better about the world. Think Zen and the Art of Sheep Management (except he’s clearly CofE…) Highly recommended, and worth several times the asking price!”

Agricultural Epidemiology and going back to school

Looking round yesterday everybody was busy. Combining, baling and carting straw, baling and carting round bale silage, each one was working flat out. I suspect the average age of drivers was a lot lower than what it’ll be next week when so many of them go back to school.

It’s been an ‘interesting’ harvest round here. We tend to be later than further south, and as August gets blown into September the whole thing can be pretty much catch as catch can. I noticed one field where the combine was leaving muddy wheel marks behind it. This isn’t a good sign.

I saw another field being scaled out for silage. The chap does try and make a bit of hay, because we’ve a decent trade locally selling it for horses. But whilst he’s managed to make some beautiful stuff this year on other fields, the weather was never right long enough to mow this one. Now he’s got a field of elderly grass that he’s mown. I felt some of it by the gate. Late August sunshine is never going to kill it, and indeed he rowed it up not long afterwards and it’s baled and wrapped. It’s just one of the gambles of farming. If he’d had a fine week in the last month and a half, he’d have produced something which would have been sought after, as a lot of horse people don’t want ‘seeds hay’ but prefer something older because they worry about the horse having digestion problems. Now he’s got some moderate round bale silage. A lot of horse people turn their noses up at it because of the danger of mould. So he’s probably hoping for a long winter then somebody will buy it off him for feeding big rough store cattle who will eat anything and thrive. The problem with agriculture is that the Bank will ask us to do a business plan, but to produce one that has even the most tenuous connection to reality, you really have to sit down with God and have him feed in his side of the job.

This set me off thinking about a lot of the tractor drivers working at the moment. I know lads who’ve not been at school since March and have been working seven days a week since then. One lad has effectively been half of a contracting business. Dad would drop him off at the farm with tractor and slurry tanker and leave him to it. My guess is that the tractor had ten horsepower for every year of the driver’s age. But having watched him at work, he’s perfectly competent. What intrigues me is how he’ll cope when he has to go back to being a schoolboy having been treated as a proper adult for the last five or so months. Looking at the forecast, I can see a lot of Dads asking their lady wife to phone the school to express doubts about the safety of their son going to school, what with the virus and everything. Or perhaps they might suggest she explain to the head that they’ve just come back from a heifer sale in France and have to quarantine for a fortnight? Otherwise they won’t get the straw cleared before the weather breaks.

Mind you, schools appear to be suffering from epidemiologists at the moment. We’ve seen them when they inflict farming. In the middle of a disease outbreak they’ll appear and put in place systems which they assure everybody will halt the disease in its tracks.
If you try to explain that the suggestions are impractical, impossible to implement, or just counterproductive the normal response you get is that ‘farming ought to become a modern industry’ and ‘if you cannot keep up, perhaps it’s time you left the industry.’

And now teachers have got them. I extend my genuine sympathy to every teacher and head who is trying to work out how on earth you follow the advice. (To be fair, you’re lucky it’s only advice, in agriculture, we just get regulation. But then they know we just ignore advice that is so bad that it’s just silly.)

I was talking to a friend. He has had to work all the way through the whole mess. Ships don’t build themselves and you can hardly take home a section of hull to work on in the back garden. So on the first day of school his lady wife has been instructed by the school that their two sons, aged four and six, have to be at school at exactly 9:30am. But because of bubbles etc., one of them has to be presented at the door at one end of the school and one has to be presented at the door at the other end of the school. (And don’t fetch the wrong child to the wrong door, perhaps because the bubble will pop.)
Alas for the epidemiologists, these two small boys share the same bedroom, use the same bathroom, and eat their breakfast at the same table.

There again somebody was telling me about her daughter’s dancing class. The hall has tape on the floor and each child (from what she said I doubt any of them are much over 12) has to dance in the socially distanced box created by the tape. The exceptions being when they’re taught those dances which you dance in pairs. When learning those dances two girls dance together in one box. Let’s not beat about the bush here, I’m not sure you can dance a socially distances waltz or tango.

Mind you, there’s one positive thing I’ve noticed. If you watched the responses to YouGov surveys, all through this summer, when asked about lockdown, the largest number of people asked always wanted the lockdown increased in severity. But last week when asked about opening schools I noticed that over 70% wanted all children to go back to school. Whether people are beginning to get over their fears, or are just desperate to get their children out from under their feet I don’t know.

Yesterday as Sal and I arrived back from feeding heifers, Sal noticed that some milk had been poured down a drain. (A cow had just calved and the first few milkings don’t get put into the tank.) Billy had found prime position for reaching into the drain to lap it up.

Sal walked behind him, put her nose between his back legs, and lifted him out of the way. Billy, somewhat indignant picked himself up and watched her. Sal then went to take his position so she could lap up some milk. But even as she took up position she stopped. I think she realised that she would leave herself open to Billy getting his own back. So she went round to the other side of the drain which wasn’t quite such a good place. But at least she could lap the milk and keep an eye on Billy at the same time.

Sal has learned that you cannot take the micky and not expect people to get their own back.

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, “A collection of blog posts that give a real insight into the harsh world of a small farmer. But this book is much more than that, imbued as it is with Jim’s trademark sly humour and his evident love of his countryside and his livestock. Excellent holiday reading.”