Can we cope with too much testing?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

♥♥♥♥

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

A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.

As a reviewer commented, “This is a delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.

I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”

Queue here for really expensive rural broadband.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

What will it cost?

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

 

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

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

 

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

A couple of days later I got this email.

 

“Hello Jim,

 

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

 

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

What will it cost?

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

 

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

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

 

“Hello Jim,

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Yes, between £70,000 and £100,000.

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

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

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

♥♥♥♥

Obviously I need a good book to keep myself amused.

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

 

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

Livestock farming, where did the money go?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Today our current price is 24ppl.

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

 

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

So we can create this table.

 

 

 

 

  Milk Producer Consumer
Year Actual

Price

What Price should be allowing for inflation Actual

Price

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

 

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

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

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

 

Lamb

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

  Sheep Producer Consumer buying lamb shoulder
Year Actual

price

What Price should be allowing for inflation Actual

price

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

 

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

Beef

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

 

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

Price

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Live weight

Estimated dead weight 1965 Price allowing for inflation Actual

 

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

 

330p

857p  

 

1080p

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

 

 

But there are consequences.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Indeed Article 39 of the Treaty of Rome reads,

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

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

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

 

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

♥♥♥♥

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

 

A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.

As a reviewer commented, “This is a delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.

I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”

Beware the wrath of an angry dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me, I just left them to it.

♥♥♥♥

If you want to meet Sal at her more emollient

 

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

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

Exotic travel broadens the mind

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

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

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

 

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

Unheard response.

Man, “Yes, more money than sense.”

 

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

 

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

Man, “Byker in Newcastle.”

Elderly lady. “I was from Burnopfield.”

Man, “That’s Durham.”

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

♥♥♥♥

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

 

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

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

I thoroughly enjoyed the story and recommend it highly!”

A rotten wet day.

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Well is it wet enough for you? It’s been interesting so far. I wandered out this morning to feed dry cows and heifers. Some of them are handy around the yard, some less so. As I fastened my current battered hi-viz jacket against the rain I looked across to where Sal lives. She peered out from under her cattle trailer (At times she prefers to sleep under it rather than in it) looking at me as if I was some sort of idiot. Anyway she crawled out and stood shaking herself ready to go to work.

This going to work in her case means scouring the yard for tasty and inadvertently discarded titbits whilst I feed round. Then we head down to the Mosses to see the dry cows and heifers. At this point the rain, which has merely been moderate, decides to start lashing it down.

Anyway we get down there. The heifers who are expecting to be fed come out from where they were sheltering and crowd around me. So they get fed. Then I go and find the dry cows. In the distance I can see something white under trees in the hedge. As I get closer I can see that the dry cows have pushed into the hedge to take advantage of the shelter. Your average black and white dairy cow is actually pretty well camouflaged when they’re among trees, the black disruptive pattern works really well. I wandered up to them and they looked impassively in my direction. After all, from their point of view, I was the idiot wandering about in the rain, each to his own. When I counted them they seemed to be all there so I didn’t disturb them. I’ll see them later today anyway.

By the time I got back home I was a trifle damp. So I put my shirt and trousers against the Rayburn to dry a bit and went to get the daily paper. Also as I’m the one who drives into the edge of town anyway, I get the job of shopping at our local tesco. Other stores exist but none without driving half way through town and adding half an hour to the job. My better half has never liked food shopping and has recentlt been happy to gift me with the task. Anyway I’m back home by 8:30am so it’s not something that breaks into a day.

Of course it’s the first time I’ve had to do the shopping (as opposed to just collecting the paper) since we had to wear masks. Rather than faff about with masks and screw the environment even more, I just use a tube scarf. Pull it up over my nose as I enter the shop, pull it down to breathe when I leave. Looking round tesco (at that time in the morning there are more staff working than customers) all the customers had their faces covered. One chap had a bandana rather than the usual mask.

Talking to the ladies on the tills as I was leaving, they commented that their customers had all been very good with them over it all. I pointed out that to me, it was more a question of courtesy. I’ve had the virus early before it was fashionable and I’ve spent the last four months playing other people’s games out of courtesy. (Before anybody says ‘yes but you can get it again,’ my answer is yes, undoubtedly. Given the number of people they’re testing, if it is possible to get it twice, then sooner or later they will find somebody who has done so. Therefore I’m not taking too much notice of panicky newspaper articles bewailing the lack of immunity and I am just watching the test results.).

Mind you this courtesy business can be hard work at times. There are times I am tempted to revert to cantankerous old beggar. It’s always easier to run a system on the default settings.

Anyway after all this excitement I get home and it’s time to fill the feed bins. So I change back into the clothes I’ve had by the Rayburn. They’re not actually dry but the wetness is comfortingly warm. By the time I’ve finished swilling out and filled bins, I’m back to wet again. So when I go in for my coffee everything bar socks and underpants goes straight into the washing machine and I put on dry stuff out of the tumble drier that was washed last night.
Anyway a nicely timed zoom meeting meant I didn’t have to go back out into the rain. But this morning I got two interesting emails.

The first claimed to be from BT. We get more spoof emails claiming to be from BT than you can shake a stick at, but this one was an obvious fail. It started,” Guten Tag, Jim Webster in der Anlage erhalten Sie unsere Antwort.”

(Google translate assures me that this means “Hello Jim Webster You will find our answer in the attachment.” Oh and as an aside, have you ever listened to the verbal translation? I was left wondering whether the young lady doing it had had a glass or two more of white wine with her lunch that the occasion really warranted.)

Oh and I got an email from the RPA (Rural Payments Agency.
The email said that there was a message for us on our account. That was it. Could have been about anything.

So first to find the sign-in page. I suppose I could have it saved as one of my favourites but I might visit it once a year. So when I found the appropriate webpage I then had to open my passwords notebook and find out what the password was. I’ve got fourteen different passwords written down and that doesn’t include the passwords for trivial sites where I have a simple password for. I hope nobody expects me to remember these damned things. Some of them, like the government issued ones, have a twelve digit ID number to put in, then a 12 letter and number combination. I’m not even going to try to remember them.
But anyway I finally get onto the right page, put in the appropriate ID and passwords, paint the metal of the pentagram with blood, and press the button. The message appears!
“We have recently updated the Rural Payments service and can now send messages to groups of customers, for example, to remind them to submit an application.

Make sure you regularly check your messages for important updates and information.”

Thank you for wasting ten minutes of my life faffing about to read a message you could just have put in the original flaming email!

Anyway I’ve got enough paperwork to do to keep me out of the rain this afternoon, but at some point I’ll be feeding heifers again. Given that it isn’t actually raining at the moment I might just sneak out now, feed those furthest away and see if the dry cows have come out from under the trees. Either way I can check to see that everybody down on the Mosses is all right before the heavens open again. Look on the bright side. I might not have to sling another lot of sodden clothes into the washing machine before dressing out of the tumble drier for a second time today.

♥♥♥♥

It strikes me you might want to get away from it all for a while.

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.”

Young ladies of uncertain temperament.

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When you work your way down the list of jobs you have to do on a busy dairy farm, you’ll notice that one that somehow has to get fitted in is ‘looking dairy heifers.’ As soon as there is grass and the heifers are old enough, I always tried to get them outside onto it. I could still give them some supplementary feed but I always felt they did so much better outside, and also were far less work. Checking to see how they are is a job that I have always enjoyed, if only because it gave you an excuse to go for a walk with the dog in the countryside.

Also, I always felt that it was an important job. The dairy heifers are going to grow up to be the ladies who make up your milking herd. So it’s important that they know you and are comfortable with you wandering about. In their eyes, you ought to be ‘the nice guy.’ So appearing every morning with some supplementary feed is probably a good start down this road.

Given that dairy heifers are almost inevitably bucket reared as calves, they start off thinking that people are potentially a ‘good thing.’ You bring them their meals, how can they not approve of you?

Obviously, from their point of view, you blot your copybook by being the one who gives them any vaccinations, worms them and suchlike. But ideally we can keep it constructive by being the one who also appears with feed.

The idea is that by the time they join the dairy herd, they regard you in a positive manner and are pretty relaxed about it all when they go through the milking parlour for the first time. So I never felt time spent with them was wasted. Yes there were times I was really needed elsewhere but still.

As they grow older heifers will go through stages. When very young they can sometimes just run for the sheer joy of running. We once turned some young heifers out onto grass for the first time and one of them just ran across the field, turned round and hurtled back at speed. At some point it her mad career she realised she has heading for a very tall hedge. This did not deter her. In fact she accelerated and then leapt.

Between ourselves I feel she was more than a little optimistic. The hedge at this point was a core of sycamore but heavily infested with brambles. So I want you to visualise her hurtling herself at a nine foot high mat of brambles. Now she’s wearing a good leather jacket, brambles aren’t too much of a problem per se. It’s just the height. Having watched them moving I have no doubt a deer could have taken it. But for a small heifer who doesn’t stand waist height I feel it was a step to far. Still she tried. She hit the hedge about six feet up.

Biology had done its part, physics now took over. We are in the world of conservation of momentum. Her momentum was transferred, as you would expect, to the hedge. Now the bottom of the hedge is pretty solidly grounded. It isn’t going to move. But the top stands proud and free and under her impact the hedge (or vertical mat of brambles) swayed. It went over so far that at one point I thought it was going to tip her off into the next field before it swayed back. It teetered, but didn’t quite. Then it swayed back and dumped the heifer somewhat unceremoniously on the ground, back in the field she started from. She stood up, shook herself a bit, looked round to see if anybody was laughing at her, and wandered off at a more sedate speed to see if this green stuff she was surrounded by was worth a nibble.

As they grow older they become a little more sedate. But just as you’ll find small children go through a stage where they love being ‘scared’ and run about screaming excitedly, dairy heifers can also pass through this stage.

When I feed one batch, they’ll often cluster around Sal rather than following me with the bucket. To a certain extent, this is Sal’s fault. She is in the habit of wandering through the calf pens to see if there’s anything worth eating. So many a young calf’s first exposure to creatures other than Mum, is Sal wandering through to see if there’s any afterbirth lying about. As they get older she quite likes the flavour of the feed they get and she’ll often help herself to stuff they’ve dropped. So they’re used to seeing her and she’s used to being sniffed by them.

So I’ll walk into the field, the heifers will ignore me and cluster round Sal, and I’ll stand there with their feed wondering at what point they’ll notice me. So I whistle Sal who trots out from in the middle of the group. And at this point the heifers will all be excitedly scared, run away in different directions, sometimes bucking and kicking until they remember that I’ve got the bucket. Then, worried that one of the others will get there first and snaffle the lot, they all run towards me, sometimes close to treading Sal underfoot in their haste to be first.

There again, every so often Sal will intervene. This morning I was putting the feed out for them and one ignored it and walked across to sniff Sal. Sal turned and cut across it and made as if to snap her teeth at it. The heifer then jumped four feet sideways in mock alarm but before it could do anything even more exciting realised its nose was six inches from the feed I’d just put down. It immediately set lesser matters from mind and started eating.

I left them to it, but as I left I held the empty bucket in front of me. That was to ensure that they couldn’t see it. Because with heifers, if they cannot see it, it isn’t there. If you walk away holding the bucket so that they can see it, every so often one has the bright idea that there could be more feed left in the bucket. So that one will chase after you to get the extra feed it assumes you’re hiding. If you’re unlucky at this point the others, up until then happily eating, will set off after their colleague, assuming it knows something they don’t. So it’s easier just to make sure they cannot see the bucket.

I don’t know about you but I’ve met people like that as well.

♥♥♥♥

There again you could discuss it with Sal

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!”

Hunting for a way to make a living

Cheetah With Two Indian Servants And A Deer By George Stubbs, 1765

I never felt I had all that much in common with the Arab nobility who used to hunt with a hawk on their arm and a cheetah sitting in front of them on the saddle. But I too have moved into the big league. Admittedly I haven’t got a hawk or even the horse, but Billy is a suitable alternative to a cheetah. Having seen a rat running backwards and forwards between two locations, but only when I didn’t have an air rifle to hand, I summoned Billy.

So be fair, I picked him up and carried him to the first location. He sniffed disdainfully and then froze into a hunting pose and disappeared off into the second location. Based on his previous record I don’t really expect to see that particular rat again.

But Billy is sorted. A steady job in agriculture. Cannot beat it. But what about everybody else. A few days ago seventy seasonal workers out of two hundred working on a Herefordshire vegetable farm tested positive for the virus. All across social media was a storm of people asking, “Why are we bringing in Rumanians when there are people in this country looking for work.”

The problem is that whilst people in this country may be looking for work, they don’t want that sort of work. Apparently only 0.2% of those who expressed an interest ending up taking the jobs.

 

https://ukandeu.ac.uk/seasonal-harvest-workers-during-covid-19/

 

There are serious problems.

 

First, farms tend, strangely enough, to be rural. This means that those who want jobs often have to move to them because they cannot commute. Accommodation is often provided, but it tends to be the sort of accommodation you’d expect to be provided by a low margin industry. Working away from home isn’t necessarily an issue, the off shore industry is staffed by people who do it. But they’re that is a lot more profitable industry paying far higher wages.

 

The second problem is that it looks as if the retention of farm workers from the UK is low. So you pay them, spend time training them, and then they just leave. Amongst East Europeans retention runs at over 90%. Amongst workers from the UK there aren’t really comparable figures but it might be about 40%.

 

The third problem is that it is hard and skilled work. Firstly it’s physical, you’re on your feet all day lifting, bending, carrying etc. But also the hours can be long. If a supermarket demands fresh produce delivered to their depot at 7am, then those doing the picking could be working for as long as there is daylight enough to see. Just to make sure the produce is there when the customer wants it. Also it’s the old problem with harvesting agricultural crops. When the weather is fine, you work. As any farmer will tell you, eighteen hour days during harvest are not unusual. The problem is that the British workforce, even if they wanted to do the work, often aren’t physically capable, and even where they are, don’t have the skills needed. Obviously you can train people who are willing, and end up with a good workforce, but they have to be willing.

 

And the fourth issue is the fact that very few workers in the UK have experience in agriculture so they do need a lot of additional training. On the other hand, migrants often return to the similar work year after year lowering the time necessary for, and costs of recruitment, training and induction. Potential British recruits don’t know the job, they aren’t used to the industry culture, and the migrant worker who comes each year is already trained and knows how things work. Indeed some people have imported East Europeans to act as foremen and team leaders to help train the UK workers who do turn up. But when out of 36,000 applications, only 112 people actually take up a job offer, I suspect a lot of businesses have just given up on UK applicants.

 

Obviously things might improve. With growing genuine unemployment more people might look seriously at agriculture, but it’s obvious that there is no real enthusiasm for this and we will have to continue bringing in migrant workers for the foreseeable future.

 

Underlying all this is the problem of low margins. If you have Brussels sprouts sold to the customer for £1.12 per kilo leaving the farm at 29p a kilo, (figures from a couple of Christmases ago) there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for the agricultural industry. In this case, have consumers demanding cheap food shot themselves in the foot? Food has got so cheap the industry cannot afford to pay what the same customers would consider an adequate wage? Is food production caught in the same hypocritical trap that clothing is? People say how shocked they are at the wages paid by sweatshops, but then spend a couple of pounds on a garment they’ll wear once and throw away.

 

I suppose we could hope for a price increase, passed on to the producer so they could afford to pay higher wages. As somebody who has been in farming all my life I’m used to years when I make little or nothing, but I can quite understand those employed in the industry having a somewhat harsher attitude.

But without a price increase, what else is available? Now traditionally when the Government wants young men (and latterly young women) to serve it for low wages in poor conditions, it conscripts them. Frankly I cannot imagine this happening. I can see a lot of middle class and metropolitan commentators speaking favourably of the idea of conscripting the ‘gammons’, but should it be extended (as it always is) to the nice offspring of decent middle class families, there would be hell on.

Also, let’s be honest, what farm wants a bunch of conscripts who haven’t got a clue?

 

Still there is room for the state to move people into rural jobs that don’t exist yet. The government could create jobs picking litter and cleaning up after tourists. But seriously, if a young person asked me for job advice, I’d advise them to get into the civil service. I cannot imagine it getting smaller. Similarly those furloughed civil servants are unlikely to pass straight into redundancy. Guaranteed wage, guaranteed pension, and virtually no chance of losing your job, it could be the way to go.

Otherwise you might be stuck in agriculture, competing with Billy who is happy to work for all the vermin he can eat and having his ears tickled occasionally. But then it is the industry the consumer created.

♥♥♥♥

There again, what do I know?

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

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

A Protestant virus and dancing cat food tins.

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As somebody commented to me recently, Corvid 19 is a very Protestant virus. It’s perfectly safe to work but under no circumstances are you allowed to enjoy yourself. As another person said, “You know what, it’s been a pretty crap summer so far.”

To be fair, he was thinking in agricultural terms.

First the year started sodding wet. Then it dried out nicely. So nicely we had a drought and grass started burning off. Since then it’s been colder than charity and we’ve struggled to have three fine days in a row. Everything, but everything, has been harder work than it really needed to be.
The industry has coped, but then we’re used to coping with bluidy minded weather, mindless regulation, and politicians working from bizarre scientific advice. So the auction marts are open and various organisations are offering webinars and zoom meetings to teach us about the latest developments. Which is great, worthy, and boring. Because all human contact has stopped. It’s probable that some agricultural shows that don’t happen this year will fade away and not happen next year. Given farmers can be pretty isolated at the best of times, this isn’t an entirely good idea.

But this morning I was watching as Sal, ‘the Dog’ and Billy, ‘the Cat’ were strutting round the yard as if they were in charge and understood what was going on. I was irresistibly reminded of politicians. Now to be fair to both Sal and Billy, they have areas of competence. In these areas they are both far more proficient than I am and I accept that. But between ourselves, both these two animals struggle to grasp the bigger picture.

So it is on the political stage. We have politicians saying they want us to go out shopping and spending money, and now they’re saying that they’re thinking of making masks mandatory in shops. Sorry, did I really read that? I mean, I could go shopping in Tesco without a mask at the height of the pandemic and the number of deaths kept dropping. Why, when there is less virus about than ever and the number of ‘excess deaths’ is so low we’re below our normal baseline do we suddenly have to all start wearing masks?
The problem is the message it sends out. I was pondering going for a walk the other day and I could have dropped into town on my travels to get some stuff. I do need a new pair of trainers. (When you’ve feet as wide as mine, trainers are a lot easier and cheaper solution than shoes.) Then I thought to myself, “I just cannot be bothered.”
The masks, the queuing, the circling round people, it’s not worth the candle. After all, until normality returns, the old pair of trainers will cope. It’s not as if I’m going anywhere is it? I’m not somebody who goes in for retail therapy, although I enjoy a browse in a second hand bookshop (or even the book shelves in the charity shops) but at the moment there’s no joy in the job, so why bother?
But actually we want people to enjoy it again. We want people to spend an hour or two browsing, dropping into Costa for a coffee (or whatever) and generally spreading the money and the joy.

Things are starting to spiral down. I noticed that Pret A Manger have shut thirty outlets and is expected to cut at least 1,000 jobs. But they rely on commuters and lunchtime office workers. So their customers are either working from home or furloughed. Apparently sales are down 74% from this time last year and they’re thought to be losing about £20m a month.

I have no doubt there are going to be a lot of other businesses facing the same problem. Working from home is getting more popular. Even if, when working from home, you stroll down to a local café for a change of company and a coffee, you’re still not going to be using an inner city one. It has struck me that London could just ger a kicking.

In fact, when working from home, Prime Minister Mia Mottley is suggesting that those working from home consider moving to Barbados for a year under its new ‘Barbados Welcome Stamp’ scheme. It makes sense, I cannot imagine Barbados having worse broadband than a lot of rural areas in the UK.

One of the obstacles is now the civil service. We’re seeing a similar pattern of offending to that we saw back in 2001 with FMD. First you had the mad panic and the incoherent fumbling. Officials were travelling to strange places and doing dodgy deals with strangers in pub carparks in China to buy PPE.
Now we’re at the ‘back covering stage.’ We saw this with FMD as well. More and more regulation was brought in, and some of it we still have. Other countries in Europe brought it in briefly and then dropped it when the pandemic was over, but not the UK. So we still have a more bureaucratic system of moving livestock than anywhere else in the world.
Of course the idea was that it would mean we wouldn’t have another outbreak. Except that six years later we did. To quote the HSE report about the Pirbright laboratory site, “”Subject to the ongoing work detailed above, the indications are that there is a strong probability that the FMDV strain involved in the farm outbreak originated from the Institute of Animal Health or the Merial sites.” In the report on the epidemic it stated, “It reported that traces of the virus were found in a pipe at the Pirbright institute running from Merial to the government’s treatment plant. It is thought that tree roots damaged the pipe allowing the virus to the surface.” Pirbright was at one time more widely known as Porton Down. MPs of the select committee that dug into the matter commented that, “Two government departments – Defra and the department for innovation, universities and skills – had to “settle how they are going to share the cost” of its £121m redevelopment.” Ideally before it leaked again.

That’s probably why we need strict regulation of farmers, it protects the country from the incompetence of the bureaucracy.

What worries me about our current pandemic is that the bureaucracy is keen to pile more and more regulations on us. Stop and think about it. If masks are so important, then why not make them permanent, after all it’ll be flu season soon. Looking at the pattern of offending, I have no reason to doubt that there will still be regulations left over from the pandemic, still in place this time next year.

Oh yes and the dancing cat food tins. As I was feeding Sal this evening, my lady wife informed me we had just had a recorded phone call telling us that the HMRC were about to prosecute us for something or the other. So just another spam phone call. But she commented that the voice, well spoken, well-modulated, sounded very much like the one in yesterday’s spam phone call telling us our internet was about to be cut off.

I can just imagine the CV of the actor involved. “Yes, after a season as Lear at the Globe, I was in Waiting for Godot in the Arts Theatre in the West End. I was also the voice over for the well regarded dancing cat food tins advert, and was justly celebrated for my part in the ‘Your internet will be cut off’ and ‘The HMRC are taking legal action against you’, spam phone calls.”

♥♥♥♥

There again, what do I know, meet the lady herself.

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

 

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

Farm sales

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Here I’m not talking about selling farms, but the sale that occurs on the farm when ‘everything must go.’ This is normally because the last tenant or previous owner is retiring. Traditionally round here there were three components. They’d start off with the ‘small tools’. This was the miscellaneous rubbish out of the workshop and other buildings. Old biscuit tins full of mixed bolts, some with nuts. Half cans of spray, a drum of sheep dip with some still in it, a bolt action 9mm shotgun. If something didn’t get a bid, the next lot was just added to it until somebody bid fifty pence. I’ve picked up some interesting and useful tools like that.

I got a set of three foot long Stilsons (pipe dogs) for a pound. I just had to put a run of weld along a slight crack and they’re better than new. There aren’t many things that won’t come undone with a set of three foot Stilsons. I picked up a set of two acro jacks for a pound. They were seized solid, but a week of spraying them with WD40 and tapping gently with a hammer when I passed and they’re as good as new. I’ve had quite a bit of use out of them as well.

Mind you I’ve got any amount of galvanised three and a half inch by three-quarter bolts. They’re a bit specialised but it’s funny how often they do come in. Again, I got a bag of them thrown in when I bought half a packet of welding rods for 50p.

After the ‘small tools’ they’ll sell the proper tackle. This tends to be stuff which appears in the grandly named ‘catalogue.’ To be fair the catalogue may exist only as the advert in the paper, but still, the decent stuff is listed. This tends to be the working machinery, but you’ll get other stuff which the owner hopes will fetch a few quid. Gates, feed troughs, weighing scales for sheep, footbaths. This stuff is normally laid out in lines in the nearest field to the farm buildings and potential buyers will wander up and down the lines looking at stuff and weighing it up. When it’s being sold, the auctioneer will walk up and down the line, the crowd following him. The first rule I was taught is if you buy anything with a power-take off, remove the pto shaft and carry it around with you because otherwise somebody will probably make off with it.

Finally on a dairy farm there would be the sale of the dairy cows. This is less common now. Firstly, to be economically viable, dairy herds are so large that the sale could take all day. Not only that but setting up the ring, tiered seating so that potential buyers can see (straw bales come in useful here, and I’ve known them auctioned at the end of the sale) and getting in people to help move cattle about can be a serious cost. It can be cheaper just to hold the sale at a local auction mart where everything is ready and you could well get more buyers turning up.

There are people who follow these sales. There will normally be at least one scrappy with his wagon. Anything sold for less than scrap value will normally end up in that. At one point you used to get people who had businesses doing pub-fitting or similar. There was a fashion for old farm implements as pub décor at one point and a mate of mine who was in that trade cursed the day when everybody else got in on it. Initially he was competing against the scrappy and could pick up stuff for a song. Then it became fashionable and he was up against others in the trade or even worse, gardeners who wanted a ‘feature’ for their garden. Something that had once fetched pence might go for a couple of hundred pounds.
If the scrappy doesn’t want it, who knows what happens. When the stuff is sold it becomes the buyers’ responsibility, and a lot of people might have fetched tractors with or without trailers to remove stuff that night. But a lot of people who have arrived by car will come back next day for it. Or the day after. I remember a set of tyres for the back wheels of a tractor last manufactured thirty years previously sitting in a field all winter until somebody thought to do something about them.

One chap I remember from when I was a lot younger worked for one of the local machinery dealers. He would go through the catalogue (which is a rather grandiose way of saying he’d cut it out of the paper) and work out what price the firm that employed him could supply each piece of equipment for, but new. (Or good second hand.)

Then as the auctioneer worked his way up the machinery line selling off the machinery, this chap would take a note of the bidders. Once the hammer had dropped he’d quietly wander up to the ‘last loser’ and point out his firm could put that piece of machinery into the last loser’s yard. Only it would be new machinery for no more than a tenner more than he’d been willing to pay for second hand. This can be an issue at a ‘good sale’ in that people can get a bit carried away with the bidding. Not only that but whilst some kit is ridiculously expensive, some stuff isn’t perhaps as dear as people think. Given this chap was trying to sell the equipment to somebody who’d displayed a genuine enthusiasm to own it, he would normally make a sale.
I remember being there when he was chatting to my Dad, who’d known him from before the Second World War. Apparently at one farm sale there was a set of rollers for sale. There’d been a lot of interest and they’d made good money. So good that this chap could put a new set into your yard for less than the second hand ones fetched. He actually sold eleven sets of rollers that day. Not only was his boss somewhat surprised, but the firm his boss ordered them off phoned back to check they’d got the right order.

Apparently at the sales, farmers teased him because he was ‘having a day off’, just enjoying the sale and chatting to people. He rather went along with the teasing because he was one of the farming community and knew everybody. But he commented to my Dad that not only did the boss make sure he knew when there was a sale coming up, the boss gave him a couple of quid to get a brew and buy his dinner while he was there.

♥♥♥♥

There again, it’s amazing who you can bump into in a good sale

 

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, “Like the other two books in this series, Jim Webster gives us a perspective of farm life we may not have appreciated. Some of the facts given will come as a shock to non-farming readers, but they do need to be read. Having said that, there are plenty of humorous anecdotes to make the book an enjoyable read.”