Monthly Archives: March 2021


I remember an old farmer commenting about lads ‘helping out.’ “One boy is one boy. Two boys is half a boy, three boys is no boy at all.”

I know of a couple of farms round here that used to get a lot of lads ‘helping out.’ With village farms where the village was a community, not a dormitory suburb, it was common. I remember talking to one chap, he commented that of all the lads who’d passed through the farm, all were in work but not one was in farming. As far as he could tell, all of them would be earning more than him. Most were working for plant hire companies, or on the highways or in similar trades.

What is noticeable is just how switched on and flexible you need staff to be, and if nothing else the lad working a bit will pick up self-reliance, learn that there’s no such thing as demarcation, and nobody is too important to push or pull when pushing or pulling is called for.

I can remember a farmer locally who was also a local councillor. He hit the roof when one boy in a local school told the careers master that he wanted to go into working on farms. The teacher told him, “Then that’s a total waste of an education.”

The farmer went into the school and formally complained. After all could the teacher work out the Metabolisable Energy of a dairy cow diet, spot and treat Ketosis, deliver a calf and stomach tube it with Colostrum, work out a breeding programme to take advantage of modern genetics, and trim a cow’s feet?

But there’s another side to this issue. In simple terms, nowadays there isn’t a lot of room on a farm for the person who isn’t on top of their game. The days when you could have a lad who was willing but not too bright spend a day mucking out bullock hulls with a fork and a barrow have long gone. Now when the job’s done, because of fewer staff, less money and larger farms, the lad with a barrow might be a contractor with a skid steer loader combined with a serious tractor and a big muck spreader. The contractor could be paying the leasing on £100,000 worth of kit. He’s a businessman and his phone hopefully never stops ringing as people are booking him.

But we still have the not too bright lads. Intelligence is the classic bell curve. The chart shows it nicely.

An IQ of 85 is marked because in 1959, the American Association on Mental Deficiency set 85 as the I.Q. below which a person was considered to be retarded. There is discussion about where the line should be drawn but there is a general feeling that there is somewhere on that curve below which the person just cannot cope with society.

Given the fact that now over 50% of each year group in the UK go to university, and some bright people don’t go to university, it’s obvious that universities are drawing from people who are ‘below average.’

At the same time the job opportunities for those lower down the bell curve are diminishing. I saw some discussion of men who were executed in the USA. (I chose this because it’s a useful data source, other countries don’t necessarily talk to these people. At least the US court system has to.)

Billy Dwayne White, executed in Texas in 1992, had an I.Q. of 66. After being hired as a kitchen dishwasher he was fired when he could not learn to operate the dishwasher. Family members reported that “if one told Billy exactly what to do and took him to the place where it was to be done [he] could do some work. If he were left on his own and not specifically guided, he could not do it.”

Johnny Paul Penry, on death row in Texas, with an I.Q. measured variously between 50 and the low sixties, at one point worked greasing the bearings of cart wheels. “I was good at this,” he told an interviewer proudly.

Another capital defendant “hid his mental retardation for most of his life by working at a very repetitive job as a switcher on the railroad. He lied about finishing high school. He was actually in special education classes and did not finish the sixth grade. He was drafted into the army and discharged because of his mental retardation. He lied about his service record. He often made things up so that people would not suspect mental retardation.”

· “Joe,” a mentally retarded man, admired tough-talking local drug dealers and sought to befriend them. One day his drug dealer “friends” gave Joe a gun and instructed him to go into a store and take money from the clerk. They told him, however, “Don’t shoot the guy unless you have to.” Joe hid for a while, then entered the store, but he forgot his instructions. “He panicked and couldn’t remember the plan. He shot the guy and forgot to rob the store.”

When I was a lad I can remember the bin lorry coming. It had a plank on the back and the crew stood on that. I suppose this was fair enough when it’s just working its way down the street, but they used to stand on it as it drove three or four miles out down the main road to start picking farms up. I remember my Dad chatting to the foreman who he’d know from farm work. The foreman and the driver were both bright enough. The others in the crew, perhaps six or seven of them, were distinctly below average.

But they had a job, they were paid a wage, they were independent, and they had homes and families. They had their self-respect and they had the sheer exhilarating joy of riding on the back of the bin lorry at a hair raising thirty miles an hour on the main road.

But what do they do now for a living? I know one chap, I remember him saying, ‘I’ll never be anything but semi-skilled.’ He’s never held down a paid job, but has worked in charity shops etc. He never will hold down a job. He’s in his forties, living with his parents and when they die, the council are most unlikely to house him in their house so he could even finish up homeless. He doesn’t need to be in an institution. He might even have made it to being foreman on one of the old bin lorries. He could certainly aspire to that job.

He’ll never have a family, no woman is going to marry him, they can do better. Indeed I suspect his only family will be his sister and her children. His sister, a one parent family, managed to get a flat. Ironically she too has never really worked (a little casual bar work or temporary shop staff) but she’s made a cracking job of rearing her children, the oldest of whom has gone to university and they will all hopefully do well. But with increasing automation and the arrival of the robot, what’s going to happen? Is perpetually unemployment going to be pushed further up the bell curve? What is going to happen to these people? Because the lad who’s a bit slow but can sweep up with a brush can be replaced by a robo-vacuum cleaner.

On the other hand the accountant, the middle manager and the journalist can be replaced by algorithms.

Now I’ve spent enough time doing dirty jobs in the rain. I’m not going to wax lyrical about the dignity of labour at this point. It’s surprising how often those who do have an indoor job with no heavy lifting.

But people need a reason to get out of bed in a morning. If you’re going to decide that fifty percent (to pluck a figure out of the air) of your population exist purely as consumers, then frankly, lockdown has given us an unwanted insight into that world. If you’re offering people a life which consists of benefits, a flat, and a Netflix subscription, wouldn’t it just be kinder to suggest they open their veins in the bath?



There again, what do I know? Check with somebody who knows how the system works.

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.”

A Lifesaver…

What happens if somebody is choking. It’s well worth stopping to watch the videos!

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

Mothering Sunday.

There are your favourite huge lilies in a vase, filling the air with the perfume of heaven. White and pale lilac blooms wait with the chocolates, destined to fill another vase. Your granddaughters have made beautiful cards for you… and invited you to Sunday lunch.

And, much as you would have loved a proper roast dinner, with proper, homemade Yorkshire puddings, you have turned that invitation down in favour of sandwiches, knowing that you will struggle to eat even those. It takes a while, but you manage…taking it slowly, a nibble at a time, with a mouthful of water after every bite.

And the girls have baked a special treat… scones, with lots of jam and fresh cream. They are as light as a feather, melt in the mouth and just perfect… those girls are going to be wonderful bakers when they grow up.

You eat the…

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About this lockdown thing everybody’s talking about

Six days shall you labour and on the seventh rest. Except when I took this photo it was Sunday morning, and we were pretty much guaranteed showers tomorrow and heavy rain on Wednesday. So the reseeding has to be done now. And time off in lieu? That’s not an agricultural term.

After they’d finished ploughing, just out of interest I walked the field. If you plough the fields adjacent on the west of this one, the sheer amount of pottery fragments you find is impressive. In one field, there’s never more than a foot between one fragment and the next. Basically these fields were fertilised from the contents of the dry closets of Barrow. People used to drop ashes from the fire and broken crockery into the privy to help ‘soak up’ any liquid. They would be emptied onto carts and the carts would be emptied on farm land handy for town. I would say, from the sort of pottery that comes up, Dundee Marmalade was very popular back then. We find a lot of bits of broken jars.

But in the field just ploughed, there’s virtually no pottery. So obviously it wasn’t ploughed much before the First World War.
Whilst steep, it isn’t ridiculously steep. I ploughed it many years ago on an old David Brown 900 pulling a two furrow plough. Given the tractor was rated at forty horsepower, and peak output from a horse is about 15 horsepower, it isn’t all that much more powerful than two horses pulling a single furrow plough. It would be faster, but probably a damned sight colder working.

One problem with the field is that the soil doesn’t bind like you’d expect. The turf somehow is never all that well attached. Given I’ve seen it reseeded two or three times over the years, it isn’t just a phenomena of one particularly unfortunate seed mix. What happens is that when you brake on the slope, the piece of turf your wheel is on just sheers off from the ground and slides across the surface.

This has happened to me during hay time when everything is bone dry and it’s happened in winter. Indeed I’ve seen it happen to cows who tried to stop too rapidly and discovered they were still moving even though they were standing still. 

One year when we were silaging my father was coming down one side of the field with the tractor pulling chopper and trailer. On the last bit of the slope he must have touched the brakes and the whole outfit jack-knifed. We had to go in with another tractor and pull the jack-knifed outfit forward to untangle everything.
My father fired the chopper up again and there was apparently no damage done so he dropped that almost full trailer off, picked up an empty trailer and carried on around the field. At the top of the field, fortunately as he was going across the level bit, the chopper drawbar just fell into two parts. My father with tractor and six feet of chopper drawbar continued forward, the rest of the chopper plus the trailer stood obdurately immobile and we had to call out the agricultural engineer to get things clagged together again.

But looking back over the last year, as far as I can see, agriculture has worked normally through the pandemic. Yes there’ve been restrictions on who can and cannot loiter around the ring at the auction mart, but you cannot plough by zoom. Vets and agricultural engineers have continued to appear on farms, as have our usual contractors, delivery drivers etc etc. We’ve probably been a lot less isolated than many other people, but I know that we’re getting worn down by it eventually. So how it’s been for people trapped in flats and small houses I shudder to think. I’ve family caught in that situation so my heart goes out to everybody in these circumstance.

On the other hand there are times when I do get a bit irritated by all these BBC programmes which start with ‘And now that we’re all stuck working from home’, and then sharing their discovery that out there are people who are buying themselves ‘fashion pyjamas,’ because that’s pretty much all they’re wearing nowadays.

Whilst in some regions anywhere up to 60% might be working from home, in other regions it’s less than 40%.

Then we have the various demands that our heroes be recognised. Actually I’m really in favour of this

Farmers don’t feature in this list, (unless we’re tucked in among the food, drink and tobacco process operatives) and frankly I don’t think we’ve regarded ourselves as heroes, we’ve just go on with it, and the year as gone round much as years do. I found it interesting to look at the trades that have kept going. Catering had to keep going for those who still worked, but of course, also for those working from home who fancied not cooking tonight. Metal working etc. is just keeping things going. Taxi drivers are a group I feel have been unsung. Round here I would put them high on the list of key workers. I remember following a taxi down a Barrow street and he just stopped. I wasn’t sure why and then I saw the driver helping an elderly lady into her house. When he’d got her safely inside, he then carried her shopping in. Both sides of the street were parked solid, so he just had to block the road and we just let him get on with his job. For a lot of people it’s cheaper to walk or get the bus to the supermarket, then when you’ve got your shopping, just get a taxi home. The taxi might be a little dearer than the delivery charge, but you’ve got exactly what you wanted and managed to get the cheap offers as well.

So when they talk about heroes, let’s just remember the taxi drivers.

Deaths from covid 19 for men

  • restaurant and catering establishment managers and proprietors (119.3 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • metal working and machine operatives (106.1 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • food, drink and tobacco process operatives (103.7 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • chefs (103.1 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • taxi and cab drivers and chauffeurs (101.4 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • nursing auxiliaries and assistants (87.2 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • elementary construction occupations (82.1 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • nurses (79.1 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • local government administrative occupations (72.1 deaths per 100,000 males)
  • bus and coach drivers (70.3 deaths per 100,000 males)

Deaths from covid 19 for women

  • social workers (32.4 deaths per 100,000 females)
  • national government administrative occupations (27.9 deaths per 100,000 females)
  • sales and retail assistants (26.9 deaths per 100,000 females)
  • managers and directors in retail and wholesale (26.7 deaths per 100,000 females)
  • nursing auxiliaries and assistants (25.3 deaths per 100,000 females)
  • nurses (24.5 deaths per 100,000 females)

The sad thing is, they’re not heroes, they’re just ordinary people just doing their ordinary job in an extraordinary time.

There again, perhaps that’s what being a hero is?


There again, what do I know? I’d leave thinking to them as can.

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.

Hedging your bets

Well it’s done. Another hedge laid. Not a long one by any means but the amount of stuff that had to be cut out of it was phenomenal. In fact when the weather was freezing, I just went down the line of the hedge cutting out the stuff that I didn’t need or just wasn’t going to lay into the line of the dike whatever I did. I spent several days just doing that. One day was spent cutting out and cutting up a middling sized elderberry tree. The reason for doing this job when it’s freezing is that if you try laying stuff when it’s too cold, the branches just break off rather than split and go down.

Elderberry is a weed in hedges. Whilst I suppose livestock cannot in point of fact walk through the trunk, a hedge of elderberry might break the wind a bit but it won’t stop livestock. The branches lack the thorns of hawthorn, and they lack the strength and resilience of a tree like sycamore. A cow hits a patch of elderberry in a hedge and the branches just break off and she’s through.

But like all weeds, I might cut it out now, but in ten years’ time I’ll walk along the hedge and the elderberry will be back.

As I’ve worked my way through the dike, when I’ve cut stuff out, anything of useful thickness has been cut into lengths that nicely fit the saw horse, and when I get home, I cut it up whilst I’m still wearing my chainsaw trousers. Then it can get stacked in the woodpile to dry out.

Looking at what’s in the heap, the blackthorn burns well, slowly and with plenty of heat. Elder is less good, burns quickly and doesn’t produce a lot of heat, but it’s there and I might as well use it. It gets added into the mix. The hawthorn is another good firewood. People comment that it’s bad to split, but because I’m taking out hedgerow timber rather than trees a lot of it will not need splitting. There’s even a fair bit of willow. It has a high water content but if you leave it to dry out it burns well enough.

Then we have the Sycamore. This is the staple firewood round here. As you walk along the lanes you see the amount of sycamore in the hedges or dikes increases as you get nearer the farms. My guess is that they put it into the hedges because it’s a decent burning timber and not a bad hedgerow timber.

Also in my woodpile is a fair bit of Leylandii. My late father planted perhaps a score or so of them at one end of the garden as a wind break to stop the north wind. They did that alright, but now they’re a ridiculous height and they’re shading everything else. To show how well leglandii shade, the end tree, which was by the gate and only had leylandii on one side of it, was about eighteen inches in diameter at the base. The others who had leylandii on both sides of then never got to be more than nine inches in diameter and they were all planted on the same day. It’s another timber that you have to allow to dry out before burning. Indeed I’ve found that some of the larger diameter rounds need to come out of store in their first winter and be split into burnable sized pieces before going back into store again to be burned next winter. Mind you we’ve had to big sycamore rounds from the tree that I stood back up again, and I’ve had to do the same with them.  

Another problem with hedgerow trees is that they can be remarkably knotted and twisted. I have come across pieces where one branch has been growing through the trunk of another tree. One plant has quite literally grown round the other. This means that when it’s come to splitting a lot of the rounds for the fire, I’ve used a sledge hammer and steel wedge rather than an axe. Indeed in a few recalcitrant cases where the wedge wasn’t making much progress I’ve cut the round up into ‘bricks’ using the chainsaw!

But now everything has ground to a halt. The EU regulations say that we cannot trim or lay hedges after 1st March because of birds nesting. No matter where you are, Greece or Shetland. Ironically the local authorities aren’t covered by these regulations and cheerfully trim hedges all the year round.

Traditionally the old rule was ‘lay hedges when there’s an ‘r’ in the month. Basically this meant you didn’t do it in May, June, July and August. In those months the sap is rising. Given that this rule is one that was developed and existed for centuries when we had no end of birds nesting, I’d suspect that farmers laying a hedge in March is not going to have a major environmental impact.

Still the job is done. Admittedly it should have been done in the 1960s, but somehow we just never got round to it. With the falling number of people left working on the land, I suspect that a lot more hedges are just going to disappear. Whilst hedges are protected from being grubbed out, they can easily fade away by accident. There is a constant cost of maintaining them. Round here I’d suggest you really need to have a fence on both sides of them, otherwise stock will just browse their way through them. Sheep will nipple off young shoots, cattle will break things. If not looked after, (not a cheap hobby) it doesn’t take long for a hedge to end up being a few trees and bushes in a line across the middle of a field. So you’ve got the cost of maintaining the fences, plus trimming the hedge at least one year in three, and then somebody really ought to lay it at least once in twenty years.

On the other hand, at least I get my firewood.



There again, I do have expert supervision

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 great collection of bite-sized tales from the author’s farming life. (The first one being ‘Sometimes I sit’s and thinks’)
A gentle sharing of observations from a sheep farmer (and his collie)
More wry observations of animals and humans!”