Pony paddock for sale? Well somebody round here is asking £150,000 for slightly over four acres. Now to be fair, it’s good land. In spite of talk about fencing and stables, I suspect that with a bit of care and a loader tractor with a decent set of pallet forks, you could clear in for ploughing in a morning. And that assumes you try to move stuff away in a useable manner.
But the sale value as agricultural land is perhaps £30,000. But even that figure assumes you’re spreading the cost of this land over a lot more which cost you far less. If you actually had to farm it so it could pay for itself, the price would probably be less than a quarter of that.
But how did we end up here? A friend of mine works in the Shipyard. The chap at the next desk put down his phone and looked a bit pale and shaken. My mate asked if he’d had bad news. He replied that his wife had decided she was going to buy a field at auction to keep her horse on. She was sick of having to have it on other peoples’ plots. She’d talked to the building society and they were willing to add 50% to the mortgage on the house. Given she was also working he thought it was fair enough. But still it came as something of a shock.
Now a lot of farms have disappeared into ‘horsiculture.’ The trouble with them was, they weren’t economically viable as farms any more. Now I sometimes get into trouble when I look back too far, but even in the 1960s there were a lot of small farms along the flanks of the Pennines which had a few dairy cows and a milk round.
Now in the 1930s my father had helped on a milk round. He would milk a cow, by hand, in a field, and carry the milk in the pail to the yard where it would be tipped into a churn. Then with a horse and cart, they’d go round the small mining village. The lady of the house would come to the door with a jug and the boy on the cart would pour a dipper full of milk into the jug. Apparently smart lads could get nine pints to the gallon thanks to conveniently placed water butts. One old lady came to the door, looked at the chap driving the cart and said, “Tell him I’ll just have the milk. I can put my own water in.”
But by the 50s and 60s things were far more professional. It might not be pasteurised but it was at least bottled. So a lot of the small farms on the edges of the Northern Cities would have perhaps a dozen cows. They’d cool the milk as they were milking, pour the milk into their bottles and then deliver it. As the regulations tightened, a lot of them were faced with having to pasteurise their milk. The cost of installing their own machine was prohibitive. So they’d sell their milk to the dairy and then buy it back, pasteurised and bottled. One problem was that it wasn’t their farm’s milk. All that happened is that they’d put 100 gallons into the system, and the system had handed them a hundred gallons back. So their customers were no longer getting ridiculously fresh milk. And frankly pasteurised milk doesn’t taste anywhere near as nice as raw milk.
When I came across these farmers, they were normally elderly single men who’d never married. Had they married they’d have had to look for a bigger farm, or sell up. There was no way they could raise a family on the income the farm made.
I just missed meeting one old chap. He’d retired and from memory was aged about ninety. He had his state pension, and still hand milked three elderly cows and sold the milk to a handful of loyal customers who still came to his door for it. He, his cows and his customers all died off at about the same time.
Then you had some slightly bigger farms. There used to be a number around Kendal. They would perhaps have thirty or forty cows, but they would bull everything with a good dairy bull. This meant they had far more replacement dairy heifers than they needed. But this meant that they regularly had heifers to sell. Given that some of these farms had been doing this for at least a couple of generations, they had a good reputation. Everybody knew their business model, they weren’t just selling cattle that wasn’t good enough for them.
The problem with these small farms was that they weren’t family farms. A family farm has to support two generations, not just one. So the younger generation is reared on the farm, works on the farm, and takes over from Dad. Ideally Dad manages to draw his pension by the time his grandson is married and needs a proper wage. The problem comes if the farm won’t support grandson when he gets married. So he goes out and gets a proper job. Then when he should be taking over, he and his spouse sit down and work out that actually, they cannot cope with the drop of income that they’d face going into farming. So Dad sells the farm.
At this point, if it’s handy for town, the farm house and buildings get snapped up separately. You sell them separately, perhaps with a paddock attached, because that way the house and one field will fetch more than the entire farm if sold as one lot. (And even if you did sell it as one lot, the buyer won’t want the farmland so will just sell it off and get back the value of their new house.)
Then the land will be sold in separate lots. Neighbours will pick up bits and of course the pony paddock people will move in as well. They’ll take the small fields with road access. Round here, the farm can be auctioned twice. First it will be sold off in lots. Then before the sale is considered over, all the lots will be added back together and the farm will be offered as an entity. If somebody bids more for the farm as an entity than it would have made if you totted up the prices offered for all the lots, then the farm is sold as an entity. I’m not sure how often that happens.
One interesting thing is the way the pony paddock people bid as opposed to how farmers bid.
If I go to a sale, I will have a budget. But I also have a price per acre as well. So if I reckon that land should go to £7,000 an acre, I’m unlikely to go much past this. Why should I, a couple of months or a couple of years down the line some more land might come up and I can try for that? Also, I’ve got to make the land pay.
On the other hand a lot of people looking for a pony paddock have a budget. They can spend £30,000 (to pull a figure out of the air.) So in very simple terms, it doesn’t matter if the lot is two acres or twenty acres. They will only bid up to £30,000. The price per acre doesn’t figure so highly in the calculation. The earning value of the land isn’t really a consideration because they’re not entering into an economic transaction.
So in crude terms, the pony paddock person would out-bid me on a four acre field (because 4 acres at £7k an acre is £28K, but they’ll spend £30K) but I’ll outbid them on a five acre field, because I’ll bid £35k and they’re still only going to bid £30k.
Now that’s a very simplified version. It ignores individual circumstances, it ignores the fact that a lot of potential pony paddock owners are pretty shrewd people (which is how they’ve got that sort of money to splash about in the first place) and also ignores location. A field in the middle of my land is worth more to me than the basic £7k an acre.
Once you start getting pony paddocks things can go two ways. I remember driving out of one of the northern cities along one of the lesser A roads, and there were miles of ‘rural slum’. Paddocks with boundaries made of second hand corrugated iron sheets and rusty barbed wire. ‘Stables’ which were old wagon bodies. Grassland that was overgrazed and largely mud.
Alternatively you can get what we saw at Duntisbourne Abbots. My lady wife and I stayed there twice, about ten years apart. The first time, walking round the village in the evening, I chatted to a farmer and his son putting some stirks into a field. Ten years later everything was horse paddocks, white rail fencing and gentrification.
These are perhaps the two extremes. But some years ago I had to go to a meeting between Hatfield and Harlow, north of London. On a free morning I went for a walk. I wasn’t going anywhere, I just worked out a circular route. The problem is when I’m out, I see things through a farmer’s eyes. Every farm I passed had the house and buildings developed as desirable properties. There were some large fields left, they were arable. I even saw some farm equipment tucked away out of sight on a piece of hard standing in a bit of woodland. The land was probably contract farmed and there wasn’t a steading handy to leave machinery.
But there were a lot of rather elegant pony paddocks that had been carved out of the smaller fields. In one place there was a block of them, each with an almost identical stable and fencing. But I saw only one horse. One paddock had a particularly scruffy bullock scratching himself on a stable. The block of paddocks had had their fences unobtrusively gapped and the grass was being eaten down by sheep. It was after the last financial crash and I remember reading that a lot of people had been getting rid of horses they could no longer afford.
I wonder what’s coming? People moving out of London because they can work from home might want a pony paddock, or incomes might fall as well and how many can still afford to keep a horse?
Don’t ask me, speak to the experts.
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 in the same league as Herrick, absorbing you into a different world, with its trials and tribulations making a background for the occasional moment of hilarity or joy. Hats off to Jim and his ilk, putting food on our tables despite our unwillingness to pay a decent price for it. I am frequently outraged that I live in a society which is prepared to pay more for bottled water than milk, and drowns the country in plastic in the process.
Jim manages to get this across without ranting and then uses his wry sense of humour to leave you howling with laughter at a series of events that a mere townie could never have imagined. Thanks for letting me into your world Jim – I am now committed to changing my behaviour and paying the extra for local, seasonal produce.”