Winter fence posts and a tired dog


In an ideal world you’d knock fence posts into the ground in winter or spring. This is because the ground is still wet and is comparatively soft. Not only that but because the ground is soft you can use a fence post with a larger diameter. I admit it’ll take more knocking in, but it’ll last longer so you might not have to replace it as soon.

Again, in an ideal world, if you have to knock fence posts in during the summer, you’d have a few slimmer ones about. Because, and I’m sure you’ve worked this one out for yourself, the ground is dry and hard.

Alas, it is not an ideal world. But then you might have noticed this for yourself. So we had a few cattle who tiptoed through the hedge and over the fence on the other side. Before I put them back in the right field I had to string up a breast wire, and that meant I had to hammer some posts in. Sixteen of them, and even with a steel bar to make a preparatory hole, it was harder work than it really needed to be.

So with the fence fixed, the cattle had to be collected from the next field, taken down onto the lane, along the lane and back into the field they should have been in. A simple enough task.

But cattle are more individualistic than sheep, and faster moving. Luckily I was on a quad, and Sal is a dog who can cheerfully run at 30km per hour, looking back over her shoulder to see if you’re keeping up. (She really shouldn’t, one time she ran into an elderly ewe and they both looked remarkably put out by it all.)
But we started the cattle moving, and between us, Sal and I sort of kept them in a group, and sort of kept them moving in the same direction. Then the inevitable happened, one decided not to play. She just put her head down and ran in a direction of her own choosing. Jess, who knew her trade, might have spotted it about to start its mad career, and if she got chance, would have restored order by a sharp snap to the nose. But by the time Sal had realised what was happening, the heifer was off.

So Sal and I set off after it. Sal managed to get ahead of it and turn it, and then it started running in a different direction. Again Sal and I set off after it. This is where the quad shows its mettle. It doesn’t get tired and you can just pull quietly ahead of the running animal. Eventually the heifer decided that it wasn’t as much fun as she thought it was going to be and turned back to her mates. Sal and I followed her back to the rest of them them, got them out of the gate and they thundered along the road and into the proper field. Job done.

We got home and normally Sal will stand somewhere in the middle of the yard with an expectant expression. This is the expression of a dog who rather hopes something else interesting is going to happen.

On this occasion she just flopped down next to the cattle trailer that serves as her kennel with a little sigh, and watched me put the quad away with a look of relief.

Given the amount of running she’d just been doing, I can see her point.



The tick-box fairy

'It's a 300 page government questionnaire about cutting back on bureaucracy!'

I was just reading a piece by Sir John Timpson. Somebody had written in saying that he was losing the will to live because of all the box ticking rubbish that came across his desk from compliance officers and others. The wise answer Sir John gave was hire a box ticking officer who did all that crap for the company and let everybody else get on with their real jobs.

To be fair, in agriculture, we get all sorts of utter rubbish poured down upon us from pretty well every inspectorate that can wrangle itself a rural arm. My ‘favourite’ example of this the dairy inspector who insisted that we had a separate ‘wash area’ in our dairy.
We’d never had one because frankly the back kitchen was more easily accessible from our milking parlour than the dairy was. But muppets are not to be denied, and even though he couldn’t actually show where the regulations said I had to do this, he was just going to ensure I failed the inspection until I installed one and would charge me £100 a time to do the re-inspection.

So we had our wash area. This consisted of a bucket, with a bar of soap in, and a towel. The bucket was covered in Clingfilm and was placed out of the way on top of the hot water boiler. There it stood, untouched, for ten years, until we gave up milking and it was disassembled and was used for something useful.
It’s the same as the instruction to wear a plastic apron whilst milking. We had a plastic apron hanging in the dairy. It had been left there by a relief milker who left one on every farm he milked at, so he didn’t forget it. I on the other hand never milked wearing a plastic apron in my life, but as the apron hung there in the dairy, another box was ticked.

Still in spite of sundry muppets and other time-wasters life goes on. I went to look sheep this morning. Because it was raining, Sal wasn’t sitting outside waiting for me. She appeared when I did, but saw no point in getting wet before it was necessary. We wandered down among the sheep and gave a little bit of cake to the small batch who’d lambed last.

Now yesterday we added to this small batch last year’s daughter of a ewe who was in the batch with this year’s two lambs. Because all four sheep are distinctively marked you could spot mother, daughter and this year’s lambs very easily.
Now if you keep your own replacements you’ll regularly stick a daughter back in the same flock as her mum, but in this case we could actually tell who was who. So I’ve been watching them to see if mum showed any signs of affection to older daughter. The answer is a resounding ‘no’. She is ‘last year’s lamb’ and is firmly kept at a distance because ‘this year’s lambs’ take priority. Motherly love is working, but is focussed on those who need it, not those who might feel entitled to exploit it.

Another interesting individual to watch was Sal. A couple of the older lambs tentatively play with her. Various ewes with young lambs disapprove of her entirely and shake their heads and stamp their feet. Generally they treat her with wary respect as becomes one with her dentition.

But, Sal quite likes the taste of the feed I’m putting out for these ewes and lambs. So when I put some on the floor, Sal will drift casually in and eat some. At this point, with noses in the feed, any wary respect goes out of the window and even the smallest and most timid lamb will cheerfully push her away as it tries to eat the nuts Sal is eating.

Oh and finally somebody pointed me to this article


Apparently St. John’s College in America, with two campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe has turned its back on modern fashions in education and is merely doing what universities used to do which is teach students to think.

It’s an article worth reading, and reminded me of Cash Pickthall, who taught me history back in the Grammar School. He was a great one for using history to make us think.

I remember at the time thinking that if it caught on and everybody started thinking, that would be the end of civilisation as we know it.

Shear bolts, Border Collies and Summer


Every so often something happens and it reminds you of something else, and that reminds you of something else, until before you’ve finished you’re fifty years away and wondering where the time went.

Last night, just before it got dark, I thought I better water some bedding plants somebody has planted. As I stepped outside, Sal, (who currently holds the position of ‘working dog’) saw me, and sat up, the very picture of Border Collie attentiveness. There was no obvious pleading, there was just a dog portraying efficiency personified. Whatever I was about to do would obviously be done better with her assistance. So I let her out and she supervised the running of the universe whilst I got on with watering the bedding plants.

All dogs are, by definition, dogs, and that is not a dishonourable estate. Some dogs, and a lot of Border Collies, aspire to personhood. They combine being dogs and people. Sal seems to have achieved personhood.

It was her activities earlier in the day that took me back fifty years to our first dog, old Ben. Ben was technically my dog. Admittedly I was at school a lot so he would accompany my Dad. When my Dad was still working for my Grandfather, Ben did just that, he accompanied him. Once my Grandfather retired, Ben, without prompting (or more prompting that he’d had previously) threw himself into work. This means that we’re talking about the late 1960s here.

Ben wasn’t short of eccentric traits, and these entitled him to be regarded as ‘The’ dog, a person in his own right, and even, ‘a character.’ He was big for a Border Collie, and as well as working cattle, he also had oversight of tractors and suchlike machinery, feeling it was his responsibility to keep them moving.

One summer afternoon, it might even have been in the much hyped ‘summer of love’, we were making hay. One person was driving the tractor that pulled the baler; the others were loading the bales onto a trailer pulled by another tractor. And then the baler jammed. This was common enough; too much grass had gone into it and the baler couldn’t cope. Only in this case obviously there was too much strain and a shear bolt broke. So the driver would change the shear bolt and the others would drag the hay that was jamming up the works out of the baler. Now all this is caused by a shear bolt doing what it is designed to do, it’s the ‘fuse’, burning out before something more expensive does.

As an aside, there are a lot of shear bolts in agriculture, probably because so much stuff is operating in a difficult environment. Design engineers put them in to help protect the rest of the machine. It’s just that I wish they’d give some thought to just where they put them. Almost by definition, shear bolts will be replaced, comparatively regularly, by semi-skilled labour. We had one forage harvester where a shear bolt could only be changed if you lay on the floor underneath it and used spanners to tighten a bolt that was six inches in front of your face. What made this so tricky was that above the bolt was a drive train with several universal joints. Unfortunately the engineer who designed the drive didn’t realise that it was impossible to get a grease gun onto the grease nipples in these universal joints because of all the other stuff around them. So the only way we could keep it lubricated was to pour old oil along the drive train and hope it got in somewhere.

Now then add to this the fact that it’s a forage harvester and everything fills up with dry grass and dust, which is now covered in old oil. So when you lie underneath this lot to change the shear bolt, the slightest movement (such as tightening a bolt up) brings another shower of grass, dust and oil down on you.

As the one wearing glasses, I was the obvious person to do that job because less of it got in my eyes.

Anyway I’ve kept you talking and we can now go back to the baler, where my Dad has changed the shear bolt and the others have got the baler unjammed. Old Ben, as Border Collie on duty, has been sitting quietly watching the whole performance. Finally my Dad starts the tractor. As it starts to move forward, Ben runs in and nips the baler wheel to make sure it keeps going forward, and then proceeds to trot behind it to ensure it doesn’t stop again.

And yesterday I remembered this story again. It was another hot summer’s day. A hay day if ever there was one. At eight in the morning, Sal and I went out to fetch sheep in. In the interests of efficiency, I rode on the quad, and Sal didn’t.

Things were going reasonably well, we gathered the sheep up and moved them toward the gate. Finally the sheep reached the gate and at this point I stopped the quad and shouted to Sal to sit down. I wanted the ewes to see the gate and make their orderly way through it, which they can do better if they don’t feel they’re being chased.

The problem is that whilst some saw the gate and did go through, the others, deciding that they weren’t being chased, just stopped and looked about them in that somewhat supercilious manner sheep have.  So I honked the horn on the quad.

To our sheep, the horn is a signal that they’re supposed to be moving. Obviously there are times when  I drive through sheep in a field because I’m just going somewhere. In those cases, I don’t really want the sheep to do anything. So if I’m on the quad and do expect them to move, honking the horn occasionally is a signal to them to keep moving.

As I sat on the stationary quad, honking the horn so keep the ewes moving I heard a noise from behind me. I honked the horn again and this time saw what was going on. Knowing that the noise meant I expected stuff to move, Sal had run in behind the quad and snapped at the mudflaps to get it moving along with everybody else.


On an as another aside, there’s always ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks’ to get your teeth into

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.


It’s a sheep day


You can tell it’s on the warm side. Sal has dug herself a shallow depression in the ground to sit in! She’s pleased as punch with it now because it’s probably a bit damp and cool, but this is Cumbria, in another week it’ll be flooded.

So today is a sheep day. Ewes and lambs are gathered in. They were sitting in the shade of hedges, sprawling behind thistles, or alternatively, grazing in the middle of the field with expressions of bland unconcern.
Anyway we fetch them home. The ewes haven’t been clipped yet. This is mainly because firstly it was too wet to shear them, then it was too cold to shear them, then all the shearers were too busy silageing and doing other jobs. But it’s entirely possible that the ewes might get sheared this week.

All the time the thermometer is creeping up. When I walk them in, we have one ewe who is panting like an old dog. She’s obviously feeling the heat. She quietly stands in the shade when we get to the yard and watches us with casual indifference.

So we weigh the heaviest lambs, there are some ready to go. Then we worm the rest of the lambs, check their feet, put some fly spray on them to deter blowfly and stop them getting infested with maggots. Their mothers will be treated later, after they’ve been sheared. In a perfect world, once a sheep is sheared there’s nowhere for the flies to lay their eggs. Then as the wool starts to grow, you can dip them in something that’ll kill all the skin parasites they’ve got and provide them with some protection for the next few weeks.

It’s now distinctly hot, noon arrives and with it both mad dogs and Englishmen retire to the shade with the sheep that we’ve dealt with, leaving us out there to get on with it.

And in the middle of all this lot we get two walkers. Ladies with map and compass who are some distance from their chosen path. No, strangely enough it doesn’t pass over our silage pit. But still, we direct them the best way to pick up the path they’re trying to find and they disappear into the shimmering heat haze. If it gets any hotter, the next party to come this way will be riding camels!

Finally the last ones are done, we put the sheep back out onto grass and they disperse to eat or hide in the shade depending on whim and I’m in to get my dinner.

And somebody tries to interest me in going down to London. They must be mad.

Posturing political pygmies


I’m supposed to be promoting books and stuff but frankly I’m just too hacked off. You see, a lad I went to school with was killed as collateral damage in one of the IRA bombs. So I know what his family went through. So when political pygmies cavort on the corpses of the freshly dead, waving a blood soaked shroud to attract attention I’m beyond nauseated, I’m downright angry.

And now the dead are being dragged into it. Somebody has to be blamed and who better than your political opponents?
How stupid do these people think we are?
Yes we know who cut police numbers.

And yes, we know who hobnobbed with murdering thugs, and who wants to drag the police into years of public inquiries as they refight the battle of Orgreave. Just as we know who has attacked various measures taken to try and keep track of terrorists and intercept their messages. We also know who says that joining ISIS is no crime.

And before the police come over all sanctimonious, they didn’t seem to suffer from a shortage of manpower when it came to mounting televised raids on the homes of aging rock stars (Cliff Richard anybody?). Similarly they managed to find plenty of money and man-hours to pour into the investigations of the ‘credible and true’ fantasist ‘Nick’. Mind you more than one senior politician put pressure on them over that one because it looked as if it might embarrass his political opponents.

So, to put it bluntly, just bluidy grow up!


Shut up and try and maintain a dignified silence and after a couple of days then come out and start talking as if you were sensible adults capable of proper grown-up conversations. Because to put it bluntly, we’re not so short of posturing self-absorbed idiots that we need to offer 80K a year, plus expenses, to attract more.





This isn’t really my story, but it’s one I thought I ought to share. It concerns a friend of mine so I’ll keep things carefully anonymous. Just in case.

A mate of mine worked with pigs early in his career. He then went on to do engineering and become respectable, but at least he started out with his wellies firmly in the muck. The business he worked for was a mainly arable farm, situated on the edge of a commuter village, and the farm just happened to have a pig unit. The owner always reckoned that the system worked well in that when grain prices were low and buyers were looking for excuses to drive them down even more, his arable business just sold the poorer grain to his pig unit. Pigs were far more forgiving than grain buyers with regard to quality. In his more bitter moments he was known to comment that pigs had better conversation and higher ethical standards than most grain buyers as well.

On the pig unit they had a herd of sows for producing young piglets and a finishing unit for fattening the weaned piglets. The whole operation was run sensibly with ‘just enough’ investment to keep things running properly.

One example of the ‘just enough’ investment was displayed to the world when it came to moving the newly weaned piglets into the finishing building. Doubtless lesser men, more susceptible to the blandishments of those who sell such things, would have had a race in place. But here improvisation won out. The arable side of the business produced a lot of straw. This was used to bed the pigs. So when they needed to move the young piglets all that happened was they made a race of straw bales (all small bales back then). Each wall of the race was two bales thick and three tall. A day was spent building the race, and it was taken down over the next week or so as the straw was used for bedding.

The boss would gather his staff, plus a couple of the most sensible lads from the village. (This is where my mate came into the picture as one of said more sensible lads.) They would shut all the yard gates, and then they would, by judicious use of pig boards, gather up the weaned piglets, and quietly and gently walk them down the straw race into the next building. Sadly, on the occasion I’m talking about a rep turned up. He was a big man with a booming voice from one agricultural supply company or another. He drove into the yard, leaving the gate open behind him. He looked round, saw the straw race, leaned over one wall, saw the piglets approaching him and boomed, “Is there anybody about?”

The piglets panicked, the flow backed up as piglets climbed over each other to get away from the terrifying apparition. At some point the straw wall collapsed and suddenly there were piglets everywhere. At this point the rep disappeared never to be seen again. (There were rumours that the pigs had eaten him but they’re unlikely to have eaten a Ford Cortina as well.)

For days afterwards, well dressed ladies, some in twinset and pearls, would drive into the yard and hand to whoever was about at the time a piglet. This was normally swathed tightly in a towel to act as both restraint and nappy. The conversation was restricted to, “I found this in my garden/utility room/lounge, and no, I don’t want the towel back.”


As an aside, I’ve just published another collection of stories. Not agricultural as such but I hope you’d rather like them.


It’s called,-

Tallis Steelyard, a harsh winter and other stories.


Consummate professional

Boz and Jess

I apologise for the photo, but it’s a real photograph. We think it was taken by a small girl using a disposable camera in a pre-digital age. So I scanned it in because here you have old Boz in the foreground and Jess behind him.

This is what is now called ‘succession planning.’ Nobody lasts forever, and having been without a dog for a while, we didn’t want to go through that again. Not only that, but the current dog helps train the next dog.

Mind you in Boz’s case he did teach Jess things, but when it came to working they both had totally different techniques. Boz would bimble quietly through a herd of cows as if soliciting tips or just passing the time of day. Cows would get up and make their way home with Boz wandering about in the middle of them. It was his technique and it seemed to work well enough for him. Mind you I once saw him deal with a cow that refused to get up. Rather than bark at it or get excited, he merely cocked his leg up and piddled on her. It seemed to work as well as anything.

I put some of it down to his breeding, when you looked at him it was obvious that there was more Labrador in his genetics than is absolutely necessary for a working cattle and sheep dog. There again, such are the proclivities of the Labrador that I’ve been told there are wolf packs deep in Siberia that have never seen man who carry Labrador genetics they’ve acquired.

Boz seemed to take being good natured to the level of an art form. I remember one winter we had a cow outside with a couple of calves. She was outside because she had problems walking on concrete and we put two calves on her so she didn’t have to go through the milking parlour. Every morning I’d take some feed to her, and Boz, as ‘the dog’, would come with me. To get to the cow we’d have to cross a field with a couple of Shetland ponies wintering in it. One of the ponies took a dislike to Boz and every time we went in the field, the pony would repeatedly charge him.

This was potentially impressive, with head down and thundering hooves. Alas the fact that the pony had a shaggy winter coat making it look like a belligerent pyjama dog rather robbed the scene of drama. Not only that but Boz ignored it. As the pony thundered forward Boz would accelerate very slightly, or slow down just a little, and the Shetland would go galloping past and have to turn round for another go. It might be a small pony, but it had the turning circle of an aircraft carrier!

Another of Boz’s quirks was when he was eating. Because at his previous home he’d been fastened up on his own when not working, he never had any fear of anybody stealing his food. So he ate delicately, enjoying every mouthful. Give him a slice of bread and he’d hold it between his paws, nibbling it with evident enjoyment.

Jess on the other hand was ‘old school’ when it came to moving stock. She went round them in the classic manner and followed behind them making sure everybody was moving at her chosen speed and in her chosen direction.
When it came to food, Jess learned early on that whilst Boz might not be worried about anybody stealing his dinner, he seemed to assume that all food put out was his. So Jess soon learned to eat her meal swiftly. As she got older she got more cunning and used to hide it. Indeed this habit never left her. One lambing I was talking to somebody coming out of the lambing shed and they were carrying a dead lamb. They put the lamb down while we talked, then bent to pick it up again. The lamb had disappeared. We discovered that while we were talking, Jess had quietly pushed straw and suchlike over it. She’d completely buried it. She looked most put out when it was found and removed.




A couple of things you might like to read. Further stories of Dogs, Sheep, Quad bikes and the meaning of life are available at


Then again I did a free short story which is available as a pdf. It doesn’t deal with dogs, sheep or anything so mundane. You could click here

A short story called, ‘A Nice Devotion.’



And a bit of news, on the 1st of June I’ve got another compilation of Tallis Steelyard stories being published

A Harsh winter