Category Archives: Uncategorized

Don’t look at me, I’m not an engineer



I genuinely haven’t a clue how much of my life has been spent working with, and on, these drum muck spreaders. The idea is simple; a long drive shaft spins, powered by the tractor. Fastened to the shaft are flails, steel chains with a solid block on the far end. So when you’ve filled the spreader, you just drive out into the field and start the central shaft rotating. The flails spin round and smash up the muck in the drum and throw it out in a reasonably even covering.

Over the years I’ve changed the bearings at either end of the shaft. I’ve changed bearings and tightened drive chains in the system which connects the tractor power take off to the central shaft, and I’ve shortened the flail chains.

What people who’ve never used these don’t realise is spinning them round as quickly as we do, the chains slowly stretch, and this means that eventually the steel blocks on the end of the flails start hitting the drum. The drum can only take so much of this so basically you’ve got to shorten the chains.

Now there’s a proper way to do it. The central shaft has a series of brackets welded to it, and a bolt goes through the bracket and also through the last link of the flail chain. So you unfasten the bolt, remove the chain, cut off the last link, and rebolt the shorter chain back into place.

Life being what it is, the process isn’t quite as simple as that. Firstly the whole thing has been marinated in muck for a year or so. It’s probable that the bolts are rusted solid. Not only that but when you get them out you discover that some of them have worn a bit with the flails pulling on them, so while you’ve got them out it might be time to replace them with a new bolt because you’ll probably never get them back in. This time, grease your new bolt well before you fasten the nut in the vague hope that next time you’ll be able to undo it. (You won’t but greasing it will give you the warm smug glow of somebody who’s thinking ahead.)

So rather than this being a job you can do with two spanners, what you really need is an angle grinder for cutting the nuts off, a hammer and punch for getting the bolts out. Then you can use the angle grinder to cut the bottom link off. Then open your pack of new bolts and put one of them in.

Unless of course, you’re just way too busy. You see, you’re on your own, (Lone working is my life) and you’ve got perhaps an hour at most to work on this job before you have to start afternoon milking. Tomorrow morning, you’ll be using the spreader again, so that hour is all you have. Under these circumstances you might be tempted to try a different method.

With the angle grinder cut through the chain link that is bolted to the shaft. Don’t worry, it’s so jammed with muck and rust it’s not going to move. Remove the rest of the chain, shorten it, and then put the end back through the cut you just made. With a hammer, bring the ends of the cut link closer together and just weld the gap shut so the flail chain is now in place.

Now do the next one.

I remember one time wondering how much of my life has been taken up with keeping knackered machinery working using techniques that aren’t in the manual, and whether, one day, I might ever be able to afford a piece of new kit that wasn’t held together by muck, rust, string and hasty welding jobs.

But here at the scruffy end of agriculture, worrying about how to cope with too much newness has never been an issue to be honest.

Once you’ve dealt with a water leak in a galvanised metal pipe by covering the leak with weld, whilst water is still running at low pressure through the pipe, very little upsets you any more.



I did produce a collection of anecdotes about farming, but frankly, in the interests of safety I left out the engineering tips




Go on, treat yourself


Uniquely unqualified

"I'm so much more efficient at my job. I used to waste hours shredding resumes. Now I insist they be sent online and I can delete them in under a minute."


Ah the wonderful world of social media and the joys of being connected. Way back I joined Linkedin. Frankly I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose that being, amongst other things, a freelance writer/journalist; I thought it might possibly bring a little work my way.

Needless to say it hasn’t.

Still in spite of my best efforts I seem to have acquired 105 contacts. Of these at least forty are ‘real people’ who I’ve met in the real world. Of the rest perhaps another forty are people I’ve come across previously thanks to the wonders of the web, and the rest are the people who contacted me on linkedin. These are the ones who weren’t obviously just trying to sell me something.

So when doing a cost benefit analysis, it hasn’t made me anything but then I’ve not spent anything on it either. Given that I don’t look at it every week it’s probably low maintenance.

Some of the problem is probably that their algorithms don’t cope well with the self-employed. This I suppose is fair enough, damn all else seems to. But still, I felt it excelled itself today. I was advised to apply for a job with a company that specialises in writing CVs for people. Given that I’ve never even written a CV for me, I feel I’m pretty much uniquely unqualified to apply for the job. Perhaps they thought that for somebody who wrote Fantasy novels, doing CVs for people would be a doddle?

I would have mentioned it before but I’ve been busy



Apparently in this age of social media, where we’re all on-line all the time, it’s impossible to be out of touch. So if the theory’s right I have no excuse for getting back to you earlier.

But in this beautiful area we are truly blessed. You see, mobile connection is distinctly iffy. My phone, an elderly battered nokia, (which cost me £20 of which £10 was phone credit) lives switched off for 90% of the time. If you’ve not got my personal number don’t let it worry you. When I’m at home there is no signal so the phone lives switched off. When I’m out and about working, the phone doesn’t accompany me because in those few occasions where I won’t be out of signal, I’m busy so don’t want to be bothered with a phone. Finally if I’m in areas where there is signal, I’m either driving, in a meeting, or merely walking quietly from a to b and happy with my own thoughts. So obviously there is no place for a phone.

But I’m pondering upgrading my phone. The Sellotape holding the nokia together is still sound, but apparently it’s one of the first generation to offer colour. Which means you cannot actually read their screen in direct sunlight; which is a bit of a sod if you’re scrolling down looking for a number to phone. Not only that but without my reading glasses I couldn’t read it anyway.
So I drifted aimlessly round various suppliers looking for a phone. I wanted a decent camera, wifi (because when the computer is down we’ve no way to get our email) and a pay as you go contract.

To be fair, some of the sales staff could cope with this. There was only one who was convinced that I should sign up for a £12 a month contract, even through I pointed out that after the first ten months I’d have been better off having just paid cash for the phone. I did try explaining, again, that on pay as you go my phone normally costs me less than £10 a year. But you know what it’s like, the lights were on but there was obviously nobody in. As a previous generation of journalists used to say, “I made my excuses and left.”
So don’t expect anything to happen on this front any time soon. But I might have actually got a new phone by this time next year; or then again, perhaps not?

Still I’ve also been busy. Real life and real work has intervened. Ewes are going out with the tup and everything has to be got ready. The ewes have already been vaccinated, but then we had to get them in, dag them out (cutting away mucky wool from the rear end) treat them for worms, lice and fluke, and finally give them a dose of multivitamins just to make sure there were no hidden deficiencies were weren’t aware of.

Then the tups were wormed and got a good dollop of bright coloured raddle smeared on their chests so we can tell if they’re working or not.

As you can imagine, it all takes time and that means I never got round to telling you about the Tallis Steelyard Blog tour. If you want to follow it the links are, in order


And if you read them in that order you can follow the story as it develops.


Also, because I ought to have mentioned it before, I have had a SF short story accepted in an Anthology. I’m reading the anthology my self at the moment and there are some cracking stories in it.


Quantum Soul

A holiday

and so it begins


How often does anybody offer you a free walking holiday, exotic food, fabulous vistas, fine wine and guaranteed good company, and all in the comfort of your own home?

Here’s an opportunity to get away from it all. Plug the fitbit into the laptop and let it clock up the virtual miles whilst you get on with something more interesting.

I’ve got a collection of stories to launch. ‘Tallis Steelyard. The Monster of Bell-Wether Gardens and other stories.’ The cunning plan is that I’ll launch them with a ‘blog tour’. Now this normally involves all sorts of good people welcoming me to their blog and saying nice things about me. Which is pleasant as far as it goes but between ourselves begins to pall. It’s not that I have a low threshold for flattery; it’s just that it takes them a distressingly short time to run out of nice things to say.

So I decided to do things differently. I decided that I’d have Tallis Steelyard go on a real tour. Incidents of this tour would be posted on other blogs and I’d reblog them on the Tallis Steelyard blog, so people could find them all.


If you’ve not come across the Tallis Steelyard blog it’s at


Because it’s Tallis nothing will go according to plan, he’ll get into all sorts of trouble and will probably end up slinking back into Port Naain with his tail between his legs hoping that people have forgotten the reason he had to leave in the first place.


But strangely it’s not just about Tallis. There are a lot of fascinating blogs out there. So when you read the Tallis story, remember to look round and see what else the person has on their blog. I’m pretty sure you’ll find all sorts of things to interest you.


Anyway you’ll find the first one at


You’ll have to ‘click on the original post’ to read it all and that’ll take you to Sue Vincent’s blog. When you’re there, have a good look around, Sue has all sorts of stuff on there.

Tomorrow there’ll be the next exciting episode, which I’ll reblog, and this will continue, day after day, until people either scream for mercy or Tallis gets home.


So slip on your metaphorical walking shoes, take a firm grip of your coffee mug, and get ready to set off.


hedge 1

You can get asked a lot of interesting questions when you start writing a blog. You can end up being quoted in all sorts of places as well. Providing part of a clergyman’s sermon on one hand, quoted as part of somebody’s university paper on the other. (In fact because it’s ‘published’ in a blog it can be ‘referenced’ and is therefore fair game to use as evidence. As opposed to something Jim just said because he might just say the first thing that came into his head.

But one question I got was from an American gentleman called Scottie who has a blog of his own at


He wrote, “I am intrigued by the idea of sheep and cattle being kept in an area by hedges. In my childhood my grandparents and uncles had farms. I know that was a long time ago, but I remember the pastures all being fenced. The runs were fenced. I can not recall any area that was simply a hedge. Yet I your writings I have seen you mention the hedges with the sheep before. Just for my curiosity can you expand some time on the subject? Such as how much is hedges alone, do the sheep need to be trained about hedges, why don’t they eat the hedges and so many ideas and questions? Oh and what about predators, do the hedges discourage them?”


It’s questions like that which remind us that it’s a big world, and just how different things are when you travel. So it struck me that for Scottie and others it might make sense to explain a bit.

As usual I’ve just borrowed pictures off the web. None of them is mine, so any artistic flair is entirely that of the original photographer.


The first picture shows a reasonably good hedge. It looks plausibly stock-proof and it’ll keep cattle in for a fair while and but it won’t hold sheep for quite so long.

The problem comes because cattle are by nature a woodland animal and they’ll eat leaves off trees. They love sycamore. Sheep are also happy enough to eat leaves. Both animals will browse, spot something they like, stretch out their neck to reach it, move forward a bit, see something else they like, move forward to reach it, and before you know where you are, they’re through the hedge.

Cattle aren’t too bad, unless the hedge is in poor condition with obvious low spots. They won’t push through solid thorn or even solid sycamore. Sheep will slowly but steadily eat their way through, perhaps because they’re almost coming ‘under’ the thorns.

Hedge 2
The second picture shows somebody ‘laying a hedge’. (Round here hedges are also known as ‘dikes’ but in this case I’ll stick with the term ‘laying a hedge’ because ‘laying a dike’ might loose something in translation.)
To lay the hedge you cut partially through the upright timber, close to the ground. You then bend it over and lay it on top of the last one you laid. Depending on circumstances and local styles you might weave it round posts or you might leave some pieces long enough to be woven around. But this chap is showing you what you have to do every ten or fifteen years to keep a hedge stock-proof.


Picture 3 shows a hedge protected from livestock by barbed wire. If you’ve got dairy cows a hedge like that one will probably be good enough in itself, but with younger stock who are more adventurous it’s wise to have barbed wire. For most cattle you’ll get away with a ‘breast wire’. Looking at the picture, instead of having four wires, you’d have one, the breast wire. I’d suggest you’d probably have the second one from the top.

When we started running cows with their calves as a suckler herd, we put a second wire up because the calves can walk under the breast wire. This isn’t normally a problem because obviously they can just walk back. But sometimes, when it’s wet, they snuggle into the hedge out of the weather. When they ‘unsnuggle’ and stand up, it is entirely possible for them to stand up on the wrong side of the hedge and they’ve inadvertently escaped. So we had two wires, the second a hammer shaft length below the breast wire.

hedge 4

Then for Picture 4, if you have sheep, forget barbed wire. Sheep will push between wires, protected by their fleece. And as they push they gradually work with wires loose, so everything just sort of sags. With sheep you need sheep netting. This keeps the sheep away from the hedge and protects it from being eaten. You notice there is a breast wire above the sheep netting. Personally I’d make that barbed wire not plain. The reason for this is that if you have cattle (or horses) and plain wire, they’ll just use it to rub themselves on. Half a ton of bovine putting its full weight on the wire to have a really good scratch will very soon loosen everything, and at this point your cow will just step over the sagging remains that are left.


So why hedges?

Well in theory they can keep livestock in place without using wire. If you’re back with pre-First Word War levels of labour, you could probably get away without wire. You’ll have enough men to keep the hedges laid, gaps mended and everything stock proof.

Nowadays, you have to have the wire.

The advantages of the hedge are that it does provide excellent shelter, keeping the weather off the livestock, giving them somewhere to huddle when we have driving wind and rain.

There are a whole heap of environmental advantages as well, as each hedge can be a linear woodland connecting up with lots of other linear woodlands. With regard to predators they do provide cover for foxes and suchlike, but then for those engaged in fox control, the hedge is also the road the fox will use and you wait at an appropriate place to intercept the target.

You’ll find that owls and hawks also patrol the hedgerows, keeping their eyes open for rats, mice etc.


So there you have it. Hedgerows for beginners, if we had to start from scratch with an infinite expanse of prairie we probably wouldn’t have bothered with hedges either. But with a century or so to get themselves properly established, they’re pretty useful.


How old are our hedges? Max Hooper was the Biologist and historian who pointed out that as hedges grow older, the number of constituent species increases at a steady rate. In simple terms you get one extra woody species every hundred years. So pace out 33 yards, and count up the number of woody species in the hedge as you do it, the number of species is the age of the hedge in centuries.
It’s a rule of thumb and obviously doesn’t work well if somebody set out to plant a hedge with a lot of different species but it’s reasonable enough. Also I suspect that, because there are only so many woody species to be found in particular areas, it might underestimate the age of some of the older hedges. But I suspect most of ours had been planted before the Mayflower sailed.




Finally, as an aside, I’ve got another book out.


Tallis Steelyard. The Monster of Bell-Wether Gardens and other stories.


Available at

For a mere 99p

Or for Scottie and our American friends, at


for a mere $1.28


More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. It covers the perils of exam invigilation, the problems associated with literary criticism, the benefits gained by hiring erotic dancers and the healing properties of hot water and syrup of figs. An unparalleled guide to the pitfalls which await the honest artist attempting to ply their trade.

Big skies and ice-cream


I remember a friend of mine once asking me if I was impressed with the ‘big skies’ of Cambridgeshire. We were visiting the area at the time and given the area is pretty flat, I suppose you can have quite a lot of sky. What she hadn’t realised was I live on the edge of Morecambe Bay. Our horizon is at least forty miles away in most directions. We do ‘big skies’ better than most.

Anyway today the weather was ‘fine enough’ so I decided I was going for a walk to enjoy these skies. A friend was heading north and could drop me off not far from Pennington so I followed a lot of quiet lanes and came into Ulverston from the north. I walked through town, picked up a pie and a coffee and then headed south.

My plan was to hit the coast at Bardsea and follow it almost home. This meant I could visit one of the Nation’s premier catering establishments. Roy’s Quality Ices.

If you’ve never dropped off and got an ice-cream from Roy you don’t know what you’re missing. I’ve lost count of the sheer number of home made flavours they have. Today I treated myself to a double cone with orange and chocolate chip on one side and plum and damson on the other.

From then on it’s a case of just following the coast. For the first couple of miles you follow a trail between beds of reeds and the shoreline proper. Then you come to the ‘flat rocks.’ These are beds of Limestone. At this point the rushes have largely gone and when I was a child and swimming there, the rocks ran into the sand and the tide washed up onto them. Now the beach is shifting and there’s grass between the rocks and the sea.

After the flat rocks you come to Baycliff. From here on, if the tide is out I leave the shore and just walk straight across the sands. If you set your sights on Piel Castle and walk dead straight for about four miles you’ll not go far wrong.

It’s a different world out there, at times the coast road is hidden and the only noise is the splash of your feet on wet sand and the shout of seabirds. Another sound you can sometimes hear is the distant roar of the tide coming in. This afternoon it was far too far out for me to hear it.

The only ‘problem’ is that there are two becks come down to the shore and of course they have to make their way out to join the sea, wherever it’s got to. When the tide is in, the waves wash round their outfalls. When the tide is out the two becks wind their way out towards deep water. Their channels probably take four or five miles to cover three miles. Given the amount of rain we’ve had this summer, and especially in the last few days, there’s more water in these channels than there normally is.

Tackling them is ‘fun.’ You either tackle them well out to sea where they’ve started spreading and aren’t too deep, or you tackle them closer to the shore where they’ve somehow broken themselves into several minor channels  with stone bottoms and are comparatively easy to cross. It’s the bit in the middle where the various minor channels have reunited that’s the tricky area. The other problem is that when you’re further out and they’ve spread, you can suddenly find yourself crossing ‘cow belly’ sand. Just keep moving! Don’t stand there wondering what’s happening. It’s a relatively firm form of ‘quick sand’. More of a moderately paced sand really. All in all, survivors probably cross the channels comparatively close to the shore.

Another advantage of the ‘big skies’ is that you can see the weather coming. This morning the forecaster had muttered vaguely about there being sunny periods with showers between 3pm and 4pm. (Forecasters do this a lot with regard our area. We do sunny periods and scattered showers remarkably often. As far as I can tell, if the driving rain relents briefly, and the sun flickers momentarily through a small gap in the clouds before the rain restarts; any weather forecaster worth their salt will claim that as the forecast sunny periods and scattered showers.)

But anyway, with my usual excellent timing we had them predicted for when I was out on the sands with no shelter, ideally placed to have any rain driven straight onto me. But I could see the clouds moving across, and it soon became obvious that I was walking across the front of their advance. So I just kept moving and inadvertently avoided them all.

So there you have it. There cannot be many other walks in the UK where the guide tells you to take a bearing and walk dead straight for the next hour or so.



As an aside, it struck me that it was only courtesy on my part to mention that I’ve another collection of stories out. It’s an ebook so you’ll have to read it on a kindle or something with the kindle ap. At least one person I know has hundreds of books on his phone.


Anyway it’s called ‘Tallis Steelyard. The Monster of Bell-Wether Gardens and other stories.’


More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. It covers the perils of exam invigilation, the problems associated with literary criticism, the benefits gained by hiring erotic dancers and the healing properties of hot water and syrup of figs. An unparalleled guide to the pitfalls which await the honest artist attempting to ply their trade.




It’s even got a review!


“If you wonder what comprises the life of a jobbing poet in the town of Port Naain, this little collection of stories will give you some idea. Tallis has a finger in many a pie, arranging soirees for ladies, helping to write and distribute literary journals (and their rivals!). He assists in redistributing the town’s abundance of food and arranges for a man to experience a haunting when he’s accepted the challenge to stay overnight in a disused tower. And that’s just some of it!


Reading these stories of Jim Webster’s is like putting on your slippers and picking up a cuppa. Comfortable, and they make you smile.”


All that for 99p. Treat yourself, you know it makes sense.



Cultural Landscape isn’t cheap


Earlier this week I was at a conference about ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ landscapes. Throughout the conference we got references to how important agriculture was in creating these landscapes. Indeed Unesco in their granting World Heritage Site status to the Lake District pay generous tribute to the two hundred sheep farming families whose activities largely created the landscape everybody but George Monbiot loves.

For me the underlying problems were highlighted by a gentleman whose name I never caught who is involved in the Solway Plain AONB in North Cumbria. He complained that part of the plan to safeguard the cultural and natural landscape was the grazing of dairy cows. But in the last few years the grazing cattle have been moved inside all the year round and the grassland has been cropped rather than grazed. This had brought changes to fences and hedges (because they are no longer worth maintaining) and to plant varieties in the grassland.

There wasn’t time in the conference to unpick this, but I think it is actually an excellent example of how little real money is going into supporting environment.

If you assume a 200 acre dairy farm producing 1.5 million litres, then they’re probably getting £12,000 a year single farm payment as general support, and I suppose that if they’re very very lucky they might get as much again for pushing the aims of the AONB. So let’s assume £24,000. (This is very much the top of the range for that sort of farm.)

In the last few years for many dairy farmers the milk price dropped from 30p per litre to between 14p and 15p per litre. This means that the farm income has fallen by between £210,000 and £225,000 a year. This sort of income drop can mean bankruptcy. To put things into perspective we saw farming families going into Christmas with the bank overdraft at the limit, all family credit cards maxed out, and they hadn’t paid a bill for two or three months. They were surviving on ‘trade credit.’ Basically a lot of agricultural supply companies bit the bullet, pushed up their own overdrafts, and became lenders of last resort for these people. The companies were just hoping that the prices would pick up before everybody, including them, went bust.

While you could point to ‘market failure’, it was a decision by government (EU) to stop managing the market which made this failure possible. The sole beneficiaries have been the major retailers who have just pocketed the extra margins they made on milk.

In reality you cannot blame the retailers. Their shareholders, many of them pension funds and similar, need large amounts of money. These funds are under pressure because of changing rules due to the financial crisis and people living longer so demanding more money from their pensions.

But going back to the Solway plain, what do people actually want? If they want an environment managed by grazing cattle then they’ll have to pay for grazing cattle.


There’s three ways they can pay for it. The first is through prices. Just to give ourselves a sense of proportion; by some measures, after the Second World War, people in the UK spent 40% of their income on food. Now it’s between 10% and 13%. When I first milked cows there were about 100,000 dairy farmers in the UK, now there are about 13,000. When you’ve got 100,000 people being supported on the land, then they can do things like trim and lay hedges properly and do all the other labour intensive tasks. When you’ve got 13,000 being supported by the land, something has to give.

But when you stop to think about it, what happened to the money once spent on food? Well how much do you pay for your mobile phone contract, your internet connection, your netflix subscription? (Just to give three examples of things which weren’t even concepts back then.)
To a fair extent a lot of money has poured into companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook etc. As an aside it isn’t just food, think how cheap clothing has become. Now, rather than pay somebody a living wage to produce clothing in the UK, you can buy garments produced by somebody on another continent working for a pittance.

So if food prices went up, a lot of industries would just collapse because the consumer wouldn’t have the disposable income to spend on them.


The second way is to subsidise farmers to produce the goods. The problem is that this means the state has to step in and fill the gap between what the market has provided and what the family needs to survive. I know farming families that run a business turning over half a million pounds a year. But at the end of the year the family earn less than their eldest daughter who’s just started working as a teacher.

What the state would have to do is step in and fill the gap. When milk is 30p per litre at the farm gate there might not be a gap. When the price crashes to 14p per litre then the state might have to find a quarter of a million pounds per business to keep the sort of agriculture they wanted. Otherwise farming would evolve to become a system that could survive at 14p per litre.

Ironically before we went into the EU we had a ‘deficiency payments’ system which effectively did this. There was an annual Price Review where it was decided by government what price was necessary, and then a deficiency payment was made to cover the gap between the guaranteed price and the real price. Obviously if prices were higher than the ‘guaranteed price’, nothing was paid. When we joined the EU this system had to be abandoned for the far more expensive CAP.

The disadvantage of this system from the point of view of the environment is that the Treasury (and the tax payer) would probably rather fund the sort of agriculture we can have at 14pence per litre than the sort of agriculture we could have at 30 pence per litre.


Finally the state (or some quango) could just step in and run the land directly. This is inevitably going to be a far more expensive option in that you’re unlikely to get state employees who are willing to work 4,500 hours a year for less than the minimum wage.