The price of freedom is eternal vigilance
Billy, walking the mean streets. When it comes to vermin control, he’s a leading player, and is pretty indefatigable. The other half of our vermin control is an enthusiast with an air rifle. It has to be said that with these two working in harmony and mutual respect, they have managed to keep on top of something that can be a problem on farms.
I prefer these two methods to poison, neither of our paladins is liable to kill a dairy cow by mistake. Not only that but they’re synergistic. The air rifle takes the big rats that might give Billy reason to pause, and Billy has the patience and cunning to take out the smaller stuff that somebody with a rifle might not even see.
Indeed if I see a rat and Billy is about, I’ll pick him up, carry him to where the rat disappeared and stand back. It’s impressive to watch as he catches the scent, the tip of his tail flicks, and he starts to cautiously follow the scent. It has to be admitted that he probably won’t catch a rat then and there, but he seems to mark the location and I won’t see a rat there again for quite a while.
But whilst these two paragons maintain constant vigilance to keep us free of rodent infestation, what about other problems that can beset us? Like, for example, the perpetual tide of bureaucracy and regulation which threatens to constantly overwhelm us.
Here we’re in the hands of others. The best analogy I’ve seen to describe the process is that we have two opposing forces, glaring at each other from opposing trench lines. The problem is, on one side you have, defending us, all sorts of factions and lobby organisations who are allies of convenience. There are issues they disagree on and even work against each other. So the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association represent different sides when discussing landlord and tenant issues. But because they do have in their ranks a lot of proper grown-ups, they manage to work together pretty well at times. Think of our defenders as a collection of bickering barbarian warbands faced with the might of Imperial Rome and it gives you some idea of our dilemma.
But fortunately for us, the other side, which in theory should be joined up and efficient, is equally fragmented. Rather than the might of Rome, we see a score of bureaucratic empires, often at cross purposes, each pushing their own agenda. The fact that one faction within a bureaucratic empire is pushing forward with a policy that another division of the same empire has abandoned as unworkable is merely par for the course. Democracy survives because of bureaucratic inefficiency and division.
These two forces face each other, glaring across the great divide. But as I mentioned, there are proper adults involved. I’m trying to find a good example here of how grown-ups can get sensible things to happen. Ah, I’ve got one. When the EU introduced Cattle Passports, the UK had a reasonably casual attitude to them. You couldn’t move animals without one but if you were late applying for the passport, when you eventually remembered to apply, then the British Cattle Movement Service sent you the passport, but included a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ reminder that we were supposed to apply within a fixed time after the calf was born. So effectively on this part of the front, the trenches were quiet, there was no shelling, and we even played football together in no-man’s land.
But then the EU decided this sensible attitude wasn’t good enough. Somebody in a Brussels office decided that a farmer couldn’t be expected to remember which calf belonged to which cow if they didn’t apply pretty damned quick after the calf was born. So they demanded the UK tighten up their systems. Indeed if the passport hadn’t been applied for within the time limit, the calf couldn’t ever get one and could never enter the food chain. So effectively it would just have to be shot and buried.
Now this produced problems. Farms are busy places, the office staff are the same people who’ve already put in a full day’s work before they spend a quiet evening relaxing doing paperwork. Stuff gets missed, perhaps because we’re silaging, or Granny’s ill and the family is spending the evenings hospital visiting, or whatever.
Now the farmer suddenly discovers that he hasn’t applied for a passport in time. Think about the situation for a moment. The only people present at the birth are normally the farmer and the mother. I suggest that never in the history of agriculture has a dairy cow contacted a government office to tell them she’s given birth. So the only witness who is going to testify is the farmer. So for somebody who is perhaps a little casual with the paperwork, there isn’t a problem. The date of birth can drift until suddenly the calf isn’t late and can get a passport.
But problems arise for the people who are scrupulously honest and want to get it done properly. They are the ones who would phone BCMS and say, “I’m late registering a calf, what can I do?” To which the only answer the bureaucracy left the people in BCMS was effectively, ‘Kill it now.’
So the EU created as system which only penalises the innocent. Luckily the grown-ups in opposing trenches were willing to do something about it. We talked to the staff at BCMS. They were only interested in making sure the mother and calf with firmly linked together. They are running a maternity tracing database. (That’s another story but not one for now.) When asked if they would accept DNA testing, the grown-up people in BCMS said they would be happy with it, but the various other factions within other bureaucratic empires wouldn’t allow them to.
So that’s where grown-ups got together. Somebody took a delightful picture of an utterly charming small girl with a remarkably cute calf. This appeared on the front page of a national newspaper. If you just read the article’s headline, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the government was intending to kill the calf or the child because their paperwork wasn’t entirely up-to-date.
Moving back to our trench warfare analogy, we mounted a short sharp offensive, and in the opposite trenches, the defenders, BCMS in this case, made no attempt to defend what they regarded as an indefensible position. So we advanced, shored up the flanks and dug in to face the inevitable counter-attack. This counterattack floundered on the fact that the government position had been damned silly and was virtually impossible to defend. Especially as BCMS kept saying that bringing in DNA testing to deal with the issue wasn’t a problem. So we got DNA testing.
Then somewhere along the lines there was another issue, another offensive and we had to rush reinforcements in to prop up a front before it collapsed. Otherwise we might have ended up with having to inform government when livestock moved from one field to another, rather than just one farm to another. Which was something the epidemiologists wanted initially, until it was pointed out that even a comparatively small dairy herd, say a hundred cows, would have to notify perhaps 400 movements a day and government couldn’t put the systems in place to cope with that volume of epidemiologically meaningless data.
I suppose the problem for most people is that they’re too far behind the lines to know what’s going on in any detail. Certainly for members of various organisations like the NFU and CLA, they might wonder what they’re getting for their subscriptions. It’s simple, as Thucydides said, “Having abundance of gold and silver makes war; like many other things, go smoothly.” A subscription is cheap!
If you want to see the result of bureaucracy untrammelled by lobby groups keeping it honest, the last few months have given us an object lesson. From local authorities rushing through bizarre road schemes without bothering to consult the people who live in the areas, to the ever more contradictory or irrational suggestions for what should or should not be allowed under lockdown. What you see there is the sort of nonsense you can see in any sector when the bureaucracy produces the draft regulations but before the various industry groups start asking questions and the grown-ups on either side quietly come to a sensible wording which achieves the desired effect without destroying the industry.
But of course real life gets involved as well. During the course of writing this I had to go and do some real work. Some of it involved moving some heifer calves from one pen to another. Given it was chucking it down and we really didn’t need a rodeo we loaded them into a little quad trailer. I rode in the trailer to make sure none of them panicked and jumped out.
As I said to one of them, “You don’t need to piss all down my leg.”
But apparently she did.
Some days you’re the person who knows what is going on. Other days you’re just the guy in the trailer with three heifers and wet legs.
There again, what do I know? Ask an expert.
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!”