Tag Archives: fmd

What sort of rubbish are we supposed to feed livestock now?

There is a lot of discussion about food waste. I came across an article with the snappy title, “The UK wastes millions of tonnes of food every year: here’s how we can change that.” If you’re interested it’s at https://theconversation.com/the-uk-wastes-millions-of-tonnes-of-food-every-year-heres-how-we-can-change-that-162783

The article makes some useful points, “In the case of pig farmers in the UK, this system is causing an industry-wide crisis. UK pig farms are governed by the highest regulatory standards in the world, to ensure the best health and welfare for the animals.

But if consumers keep demanding cheaper and cheaper meat, it could make UK pig production economically unsustainable, driving farmers out of business. If that happens, the UK would inevitably see an increase in imported pig meat which doesn’t comply with national standards – actively promoting poorer farming practices. For example, when reared in environments with a greater number of pigs per pen than UK standards, animals have lower access to food and water and lack stimulation, causing a much lower quality of life.”

The authors are absolutely right, we’ve watched the process happen when we introduced sow stalls and the EU didn’t. We merely exported our pig industry and consumers who could care less about pig welfare (but only by making an effort) just bought the stuff produced in the sow stalls they were supposed to be horrified about.

The answer to the problem is an old one. The authors recommend feeding food waste to pigs?
This is something that has been done for centuries but there is a major problem. Disease. In the UK and EU swill feeding Swill was banned in 2002 after the Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) epidemic. There was a ‘strong suspicion’ that it was caused by illegally feeding untreated swill to pigs. The problem with swill is that the largest suppliers were the NHS and the armed forces. Both organisations were notorious at the time for the amount of cheap, poor quality food they bought from all round the world. If the swill had been cooked to a high enough temperature it would probably be safe. But by 2001 margins were so thin that it was impossible to economically survive if you were doing the job properly.

There again, countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand are promoting swill feeding, whilst the EU is moving back to feeding processed animal protein to pigs and poultry. We’ve walked that road before.

These ideas seem to move in cycles. The feeding of meat and bone meal to cattle started about the time of the American Civil war. During the First World War, it was actually compulsory for livestock feed companies to include it in livestock rations. During the Second World War it was again compulsory. I had nutritional advice leaflets issued by the Ministry of Agriculture which recommended it as an excellent feed for lactating dairy cows. Indeed I remember one feed rep coming onto the farm trying to interest my Father and me in a new calf milk powder. They were calling it chocolac. (Or something very similar.) Just out of interest I queried the ‘chocolate’ aspect.

“Oh no,” said the rep, “there’s no chocolate in it. It’s got added pigs blood. That’s what gives it the colour.”
Father and I just looked at each other and without a word spoken decided to give it a miss. Those who followed the science, used it.

Then not all that long after that, BSE and nvCJD exploded on the scene.

The problem is that Farming is fought over by so many different organisations, lobby groups and political factions, none of whom see anything like a big picture. So we’ll have environmental groups who want large chunks rewilding. I saw one bunch lobbying to have the Crown Estate rewilded. Some of the finest farmland in England but hey, obviously they’re not intending to eat. Or perhaps they don’t intend other people to eat.
Then we get the genuine pressure of people who want food to be cheap. We have people in the UK whose sole cooking facility is a kettle. I talked in a foodbank to a young man who had been ‘rehoused’. He’d been sleeping on the street because of circumstances and the council got him a flat. He went from sleeping on the pavement to sleeping on the floor of his flat. A couple of charities helped him furnish it, but there wasn’t the money for a cooker. Anyway he’d been in care and hadn’t a clue about cooking or food preparation. He couldn’t have used a cooker if he’d been given one. He was hoping for a microwave soon, but as his life savings amounted to about thirty seven pence, it wasn’t going to be a flash one.

Then we get those who are big into recycling and worry about getting to carbon zero. They have an agenda which doesn’t fit in too well with any of the others. So back in the 1970s our A level biology master got us all a cheap subscription to New Scientist and effectively taught us biology from that. But one short article has stuck with me. Researchers had noticed something the rest of us forget. Ruminants cannot digest cellulose. Ruminants aren’t really herbivores. In real terms they feed grass to bacteria and bacteria can digest cellulose. Ruminants then live on the bacteria.

So these researchers pointed out, in reality, it’s a waste of time giving ruminants too much decent quality protein. Yes, some of it gets past the rumen (there’s a lot of work done on ‘rumen bypass protein’) and the cow then digests it herself, rather than leaving it to be gobbled up by the bacteria. But feeding high quality protein to bacteria is just a waste. They can take urea and turn it into protein. They’re not fussy. They’re just amazingly efficient.
Obviously the researchers pointed out that ruminants are a good source of urea as well. But funnily enough they’re not keen on taking it direct. A lot of work was done. I remember reading an article in one of the farming magazines back then. A chap had mixed hen muck, (which is very rich in nitrogen and therefore a brilliant source of protein for bacteria) with (from memory) pressed sugar beet pulp. This is the stuff left when you get the sugar out of sugar beet, it’s pressed to squeeze out the extra water. He mixed equal parts of the two ingredients with a little rolled barley as a starter. He mixed it by shovelling it into a muckspreader which he emptied into an empty silage clamp. When the clamp was full, he covered it with a plastic sheet to keep the air out. It produced an excellent feed that fattened bullocks over winter.

This is excellent news, environmentally. Actually using human waste is theoretically safer, less chance of listeria. Alas humans massively contaminate their wastes with all sorts of disgusting chemicals, so it’s barely fit to spread on farmland as fertiliser. Perhaps if they spent less time pontificating about how green they were and spent more time making sure the muck they produce was properly looked after, we’d all have a smaller environmental footprint.



There again, what do I know?
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As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians).
One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows:
There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!”

Watching the world burn

On the twelfth of February (or thereabouts, as the land agents say) a friend of mine posted a quite spectacular photo of a fire on Dartmoor. The difficulty is that this is an accident waiting to happen. Winter wildfires are not unusual. At the same time firefighters were tackling a fire near the Cogra Moss reservoir, in West Cumbria (hence the photo from one of our local papers.) In Scotland the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) was called to reports of a wildfires on the islands of Benbecula, Harris and Lewis.

I heard on the radio a senior Scots fire officer discussing the Scots cases. This happened whilst much of the country was covered in quite deep snow. (Canadians, you would not have bothered clearing the drive) The fire officer commented that it was not uncommon for his men to drive through snow on their way to tackle these fires.

He pointed out that the basic problem is that whilst we think of our winters as being wet, in reality things can get very dry. That is something I can empathise with. Here in our bit of Cumbria, if we relied on spring sunshine to dry the ground out, we might be able to travel on much of our land by August. What saves us are those easterly winds we often get in February. They’re cold, they can cause problems with freezing and wind-chill. But often they’re not quite freezing and they are very drying. They’re not fun to live through but we need them.

I remember one year when they forgot to stop. We got to the start of May and grass on the east facing slopes was thin, blue and crispy. It crunched as you walked over it. Grass on lee slopes, facing west, had grown perfectly normally. You could see the difference between different areas in the same field. That was exceptional and gives you an idea of what it’s like when you have too much of a good thing.

Our moorland fires are due to the grass and foliage on them drying out in the easterly winds. Whilst a fortnight before, everything could have been sodden, now it’s tinder dry. So people who wouldn’t even think of discarding a cigarette end or similar in summer, don’t see it as a problem in February.

And then there’s the problem of why we have too much grass and foliage. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the EU subsidy systems were based on the numbers of sheep you had. There was a headage payment. As there was virtually no profit in sheep, people were keeping numbers just for the subsidy. Indeed I heard of one outfit where they were buying cull ewes, putting them on rough ground and not tupping them. The last thing they wanted was these ewes lambing. Lambing sheep, looking after lambs etc was just a cost. They were doing it purely for the headage payments the EU was paying. This led to overgrazing, which damaged the peat and reduced the heather.
In the 1990s these schemes were stopped, and indeed a lot of environmental schemes were started with the aim of getting things back to what they had been. Now those in charge are beginning to admit that this hasn’t worked. At the upper levels, the admission has largely been inadvertent and accidental. It came when the government wanted to ‘roll over’ environmental schemes so farmers whose scheme ‘ran out’ before the new system was ready wouldn’t be left without support for their environmental work. Embarrassingly some contracts cannot be rolled over. This is because the scheme hasn’t worked and standard government accounting procedures forbid rolling over of schemes that aren’t working. This is not unreasonable.

Now if a scheme doesn’t work because a farmer hasn’t keep their side of the bargain, the money is just clawed back. But these didn’t work because the designers of the scheme got it wrong. In many cases the farming industry told them they’d got it wrong at the time, but what do we know. After all, we’re not experts.

The trouble was that a lot of ‘experts’ designing these schemes assumed that if you had a landscape of peatland and heather which had been overgrazed by sheep, then all you needed to do to help that landscape recover was to remove the sheep.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work. If you massively understock, then you get an entirely different landscape. On Dartmoor the environmental schemes have produced large areas of a grass known as Purple Moor Grass (Latin name is Molinia). Apparently there are thousands of hectares of this stuff, it forms large tussocks which are hard to walk through. Molinia has thrived because whilst cattle find it very palatable between May and July, sheep hate it and avoid areas dominated by it. After July, cattle won’t bother with it either.

In theory the fact that cattle will eat it should be the answer to the problem. Stock the moors heavily with cattle and they’ll start hammering the Molinia and if you work carefully (perhaps with fencing and similar) you could protect the peat and encourage the heather. It’s a pity that hill cattle aren’t economically viable isn’t it. Even if they were, the difficult is you have to feed them for twelve months, not just three. So really you’d need to have somebody buying all the big rough bullocks they could find, running them across Dartmoor, making sure to keep them on the Molinia infested areas, and then selling them on at the start of August. You might have to keep it up for a few years but it would probably work as part of an integrated management system.

Except it would break down because nobody outside the area would buy the cattle when you wanted to sell them because of the risks of bovine TB, so the cattle would need to be finished locally. I suspect it would be cheaper if you had farmers set up the system, working with environmentalists and then just work out how much the farmers lose on it and cover their costs.

But unless you do something, you’ll have the risk of fire every winter, as this Molinia (and don’t forget the gorse as well) dries out and then burns.

The burning grass isn’t as bad as it can get. When it gets really bad is when the peat catches fire. Now winter fires, where the peat should be wet and is with any luck frozen, are hopefully less likely to cause the peat to burn that the summer fires. But once the peat starts burning, then you get major environmental impacts. In 2019 twenty-two square miles of blanket bog in the Flow Country, between Caithness and Sutherland in Scotland, burned. The WWF Scotland study claimed 700,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent was released into the atmosphere as a result. Apparently this was pretty much the same amount released across the rest of Scotland during the same period.

Just to add to your problems, once a peat hag starts burning it can quite literally keep smouldering away for years ready to flare up in the next summer. Planting trees under these circumstances prevents nothing, as the trees can burn as well.

Obviously Dartmoor, Cumbria and the Western Isles are different areas, but the problems have largely been caused by understocking. It’s been discovered that merely taking sheep off a fell doesn’t return the fell to what it used to be. This isn’t surprising, what it used to be was the result of a management system, not the result of abandonment. Rather than abandoning the land you have to reintroduce the management system which created the environment you want.
Now it’s not as if this is something that has crept up on us without warning. During 2001 and the FMD outbreak, there were a lot of summer fires in Cumbria because there were no sheep to eat off the grass. With the fells being understocked the amount of forage left uneaten simply increases. On Dartmoor it does so because the Molinia spreads, in other areas there are other causes but the root cause tends to be under-grazing.

So if with climate change we are going for hotter, drier, summers, then summer fires on the fells look like being a regular occurrence, and they will start getting into the peat.

Now the answer is not just put a million more sheep or Dartmoor (or wherever) because that won’t fix it either. After all, sheep won’t eat the Molinia. Not only that but what works for Dartmoor won’t necessarily work for Cumbria. Indeed what works for the valleys in the west of the Lake District may not work for those in the east. So we need somebody to draw up environmental schemes with enough flexibility to do something entirely different in one part of the country to what can be done in others. So schemes that have prescriptive dates or tight conditions everybody has to meet are right out.
Now the fact that the Government can now come up with a bespoke scheme for the UK, rather than having to try and take a scheme which is designed to cover everything from Finland to the Greek Islands, must surely be an advantage. I await with interest to see whether our civil service are up to the job.


There again, what do I know? Speak to the experts!

For this collection of stories, our loyal Border Collie, Sal, is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.

As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians).
One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows:
There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!”

“Don’t do stupid things.”

Apparently, Mr Whitty urged people not to do “stupid things” at Christmas. I suppose the obvious response to this would be to abandon any plans you have to invest in agriculture and food production!

But now the official guidance from the civil service is not to hug granny. Granny might be glad of this, I don’t know. But I was on the phone to one person and she remarked she had had no physical human contact for some months. She was contemplating a hair appointment and commented that she wasn’t sure she could cope. It’s so long since anybody touched her she found the idea of being touched by a stranger disturbing. The damage this pandemic is doing to people will still be emerging in three or four years’ time.

But the big problem is the total inability of our civil service to cope. At the moment ministers are taking a lot of the flak which is fair enough. I suspect that it’s getting increasingly difficult to find competent people who are willing to go into politics. But the real problem is that the civil service is completely out of touch. Look at their habit of producing increasingly restrictive diktats which are totally impossible to police.

This isn’t new, I am constantly reminded of Foot and Mouth. The levels of incompetence achieved then seem to be equalled or even exceeded now. We had a Prime Minister who wanted to declare the disease over so he could hold a general election. We had senior civil servants who had utterly lost control of events. I know one person, comparatively junior, who was left in charge of a sub-department because everybody else had been seconded to do something else. I remember him saying that because so many offices were being set up ‘elsewhere’ people were ordering computers and other IT systems and when they arrived the kit was just being loaded into taxis and sent to addresses in and around London. He was left wondering how many people just got themselves a new home computer.

But we were on about civil servants being out of touch. Firstly because of the risk of the virus, you couldn’t allow livestock to cross a road. The problem is that you had dairy herds with no winter forage left who had to go out across the road to eat grass. This produced discussions. There were even people advocating shooting the herd as a matter of ‘welfare’. Eventually sanity prevailed and you could get a licence to move dairy cows across the road and back for milking. But sanity only prevailed a little bit. If one of those cows calved when she was across the road, you could fetch her back, but you couldn’t fetch her calf back! It wasn’t a dairy cow being moved for milking so it had to stay there. Well it’s one way to bring government into disrepute.

We had to get licences to turn our heifers out. But the big problem was getting a licence to move our bull to join them. At one point you couldn’t move an animal along a road, only across the road. So you could move it from one field to another provided the gates were directly facing. So I had to send the MAFF office in Leeds a map showing the route our bull was going to take. To be honest I might have ‘drifted’ the gateways a bit on the map because some of them aren’t perhaps directly opposite each other.

So the licence came through and we set off to move him. Instead of just moving him 150 yards, we had to lead him on a complicated route that was probably close to a mile. The cutting edge team of stock persons consisted of my lady wife, my mother and my good self. The bull, Ted, was a home bred sim-luing we used successfully on heifers for several years. He was big, and fortunately he was good natured, because we were about to trespass on that good nature. Remember that when we set off on our expedition, Ted could see the heifers. So we started by moving him in exactly the opposite direction. Anyway we moved him through fields where he normally spent time in the summer, so he was happy enough, obviously he thought that there was another batch of cattle waiting for him. Eventually we got to the place where we had to constantly cross and recross the lanes. (By the way, these roads we were avoiding were single track lanes that don’t get a lot of use.) The first place where we had to cross the road was at the top of a hill. I opened both gates, my mother stood on one side of the road to stop him going one way, my lady wife stood on the other side to stop him going the other way, and I walked behind him to guide him forward. As Ted (all 850kg of him) stood in the middle of the lane he could look down the hill and see the field where the heifers were. (And also, about 150yds from the heifers but slightly further from us, he could see the yard where he’d spent the winter.) He looked at my mother, looked at the empty field he was expected to go into and with immense courtesy, he carefully stepped past my mother and walked calmly down the lane and round the corner to the field where the heifers were. There he stood quietly by the gate waiting for me to open it for him. I mean, I’d tried, I even showed him the bluidy licence.

And then there was the ‘disinfecting’ the roads after stock had crossed. I cannot swear to what we were using, not after 20 years. It was probably sodium carbonate, washing soda, the cheapest and least polluting thing on the list. I would mix it up in ten gallon churns, these I would take to the bit of road to be disinfected, and I would carefully pour the magical liquid onto the lane and my mother and wife would scrub the road with yard brushes. To be honest I wish I had photos. It was a cold spring, and we were well wrapped up. With the two ladies wearing multiple layers, topped off with old coats, wearing wellingtons and head scarves, one of them commented they probably looked like peasant women from an early soviet newsreel.

On one never to be forgotten day, we’d just moved some stock and I’d backed up the hill with the tractor to bring the ‘disinfectant’ to the site. As we scrubbed the road a car came roaring up the hill, couldn’t get past the tractor and sat there blowing his horn. I went back to inform him that we were disinfecting the road and as he’d driven on un-disinfected road we’d have to disinfect his car as well. I consoled him with the thought that the substance we were using wasn’t very corrosive. When he started to explode I pointed out that if he didn’t like it I’d just phone the police and they would come and impound his car until it had been properly sterilised. I then went back to where we were cleaning the road. I didn’t want to spoil things by looking back but I could hear him reversing at speed down the road and away. Some people do bring joy to an otherwise dull day don’t they?

There again, I can remember being lied too by at least three civil servants. We had gone out of dairy but I still had some heifers coming up to calve and somebody wanted to buy one of them off me. So everything was agreed, he actually paid me, and I would get the licence to move it. I got together all the paperwork and faxed (FMD must be the last ‘fax’ emergency. We still have a couple of rolls of fax paper left from the box we bought. We no longer have a fax.) it to Leeds which was the office we had to deal with. After a week I phoned. The person who took the call put me on hold as they checked and said that our paperwork had arrived and was being dealt with.

Nothing happened to next week I phoned again. Again the person taking the call put me on hold as they went to check, came back and said that the licence was ready and was just waiting to be posted out.
A week later I phoned again (the heifer was starting to look as if she wasn’t far from calving by this time) and I was told the licence was in the post.

Nothing appeared so three days later I phoned and the person at the other end went to check and came back to tell me that my application hadn’t arrived and there was no record of it ever having been seen or dealt with. I may have got sarcastic at that point. I may even have asked to speak to somebody more senior (but they were all out to lunch.)
So I resent the paperwork and phoned later that day to check that it had arrived. In an unguarded moment the person (a different person every time remember) said that it had and that it was being worked on. I phoned every day until finally, a week later, we did get the licence and got the heifer moved sharpish.

But the incompetence and inability to keep track of what was going on wasn’t limited to one or two offices.

When a foreign vet arrived to work on FMD they arrived at the airport and a fully equipped car hire car was waiting for them. Not merely a car, but the maps they’d need, the paperwork they’d need and a full vet kit. A chap I knew pretty well put the kits together and sold them to MAFF. They included all sorts of things a vet might need, including the aerosol marking paint sprays they used to mark various livestock.

So a South African vet arrived, found his car, left his luggage in it, and went to phone to find which office he should report to. He came back to find that a can of aerosol marker had exploded and the whole of the inside of the car was green.

Now these were all new cars so it would probably have to have everything ripped out and replaced. Not a cheap option. MAFF informed my friend that a can had exploded. They said that a bill would follow once they’d had the car dealt with. My friend frantically phoned the company that produced the paint sprays. The chap at the other end was entirely sympathetic. Apparently there had been problems with a batch and every so often one of them did that. It might have been one in a 100,000 or something. Anyway their insurance covered it, so when MAFF sent him the bill, all he had to do as to forward it and they’d pay it.

So my mate relaxed a bit and got on with work. He never did get the bill from MAFF. He couldn’t work out whether somebody in an office somewhere felt it was easier to let the taxpayer cover the cost than send out the invoice or whether the system was so chaotic that they just lost it.


But then don’t get carried away with the idea that I might know what I’m talking about. Talk to the experts!


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.”

Working with livestock keeps your reflexes sharp.


At one time I used to buy a few calves. I’d get them from all over the place purchasing them off people I knew. I’d also buy them in Ulverston Auction Mart. The ‘calf ring’ was in a separate building and the buyers would stand round the ring and bid for the calf as the owner walked it into the ring. There wasn’t a lot of room because you’ve got a circular ring in a long narrow building. At one point you could have three or four rows of people watching the calves sold, but because people had to walk through that area as well, you could perhaps get three rows. People liked to stand there because you could get a good look at the calf as it walked into the ring.

Anyway I was standing there one day, I was in the ‘third’ row. There was the row hogging the ringside, a row of people behind them, a bit of a gap with people passing backwards and forwards, and then the third row, us, leaning on the wall. It wasn’t a problem, I’m tall enough and could see what I needed to see.

Anyway, one of the chaps walking through the gap between us was a dwarf. I sort of knew him, in fact he’s the only dwarf I’ve ever really met. He was part of a farming family and as far as I knew, he just earned his living farming.

Now in front of me was a young lady, a farmer’s daughter, who was watching the calves being sold. From memory they had a dairy herd and she was the one who brought the calves in for sale. As the dwarf made his way up between the rows, he pinched the young lady’s bottom.

Immediately she swung round and brought her hand round to slap the face of whoever had done this. Luckily working with livestock keeps your reflexes sharp, and I managed to get my left hand up to block her strike. Without saying a word I just pointed down with my right hand to the dwarf. She looked down, saw him, and burst out laughing. I think he was a neighbour, she certainly knew him. Anyway she apologised to me and we went back to watching the sale.


The problem with this tale is that it involves looking back on a world that no longer exists. In 2001 with foot and mouth, obviously the auction mart was closed. Then when the movement restrictions were lifted, the mart was still closed. I needed calves so had a brainwave. I would contact those farmers whose stock I’d purchased through the mart and buy calves off them direct. At least until the government opened the markets again.

Except that when I contacted the small dairy farmers who I’d traded with, they had, without exception, gone out of milk. There was a large demand for milk cows in the north of the county, and all the small farmers who farmed along the southern border of the Lake District had just taken the opportunity offered and had sold their dairy herds north. After all, economically they were marginal. Instead of the milk cows they kept some beef cattle and upped their sheep numbers. This meant that they could also get a day job as well, and finally get a bit of financial security.


And as we were talking about Gentlemen behaving badly

As a reviewer commented, “Another great set of stories as told by jobbing poet Tallis Steelyard. Fights abound and artists and poets are not the least amongst the fighters. I love these stories and sometimes think if someone were to drop me anywhere in Port Naain I could find my way, well, not home, but at least to Tallis and Shena’s barge. Jim Webster always gives us humour, wit and a wisdom he wears lightly. People like him should be running the country.”



And the truth will set you free

heresy trial

It’s all the fault of my mate Kier who posted a link to a video by the Historian Niall Ferguson. Being a historian Ferguson tends to take a somewhat longer view than most modern pundits for whom a whole decade appears to be an unimaginably long period of time. But Niall Ferguson commented that our current age with the explosion of the internet, most resembled the 1500s with the equally violent explosion in the number of books created by the invention of the printing press. It’s worth a watch




You can see the drift of his argument. The problem is that discussions are happening so much faster now than they did in the 1500s. I can remember in the 1980s being a member of a society with a journal that was published every other month. If you disagreed with the author of an article, you had a couple of weeks to read around the subject, marshal your arguments and prepare your response which you posted off to the editor. This would then appear in the next issue of the magazine. Those who disagreed with you would also get the same amount of time to contemplate and check their facts before responding. Discussions lasting a year or more, with people doing genuine research into the original texts, were not uncommon.

Now with the membership of the same society, the whole discussion can take place in an internet forum in a couple of days. But the quality of research that goes into the answers isn’t what it was. In reality people walk away from the discussion and in six months or so it flares up again as people return with new ideas and evidence. So we’ve seen a change in the nature of our debates. But frankly it doesn’t matter; nobody is ever going to campaign for election or try to change legislation on the strength of the evidence we put forward.

The problem you see in agriculture is that we’re a complicated industry. But just as “We all went to school so we all understand education,” so, “We all eat food so we all understand agriculture.”

In forty years of freelance journalism I’ve seen agriculture change, but more than that I’ve seen the reporting change. One brief phenomenon was when various learned scientific journals started publishing scientific abstracts on CDs. A newspaper could buy a CD, some bright spark could do a quick search using terms that could be linked to a food scare, and before the week was out they’d have got a handful of suitably frightening articles out of it. Obviously they’d never gone to the trouble of reading the full paper! But if you read the full paper you run the risk of ruining the story!

That was another thing I discovered early on as a freelance journalist. People would contact me with ‘stories.’ I’d check them out and looking back I’d estimate that two out of three weren’t actually stories. When you investigated them properly and found out what was happening, there was nothing to see.

So obviously I’d walk away from them, and occasionally an editor would ask me about the story her or his competitors were running. When I explained that it wasn’t a story and didn’t withstand investigation their responses were indicative of the quality of the paper. Some couldn’t see lack of validity as in anyway disqualifying the story. Some understood me completely. Others asked me to write up the non-story in all its gory detail, because it made their competitors look like the charlatans they were.

The problem is that with the web, all those non-stories are being published on websites and online newspapers. Then once published they get shared and reshared and passed on through social media. Facebook is a nightmare for that sort of stuff. Indeed is can actively revive ‘dead’ stories by showing people the stuff they had in their memories, thus the story can come back from the dead to haunt us, two years later and every bit as wrong as it was the first time.

In my time I’ve seen any number of them. The one that could have done serious damage was the 9p FMD vaccine. During 2001 and our FMD outbreak, somebody started a story that there was a vaccine out there which would protect livestock and it only cost 9p a shot. (I think it was 9p but it might have been even cheaper.)

This caused chaos; Tony Blair’s office contacted the Vets running the fight against FMD in Cumbria and asked them if farmers would be willing to use this vaccine. One of the vets phoned me to talk over the consequences. Finally, sick of seeing farmers attacked on internet forums as being unfit to care for animals because they were too mean to use the obvious vaccine, I spent half an hour with friend Google looking for the damned stuff.

Yes, there was a vaccine out there for the price. It was produced in India, it was a live vaccine (which means it would be illegal to use within the EU) and what is more it didn’t offer protection from the strain of FMD we had, it was for a different strain. So it would have been utterly useless.)
Obviously I mentioned it, but did anybody take any notice?
This brings us back to the whole 1500 issue that Niall Ferguson has let us to. People aren’t holding beliefs because they’ve done the research and spend months or even years in discussion. Many are just holding them with religious devotion because ‘they believe’ and that’s the beginning and end of it all.

Back in 2001, of course nobody was interested in the fact that the 9p vaccine was a non-story. Government spin doctors wanted the 9p vaccine because its existence showed that the failure to defeat FMD wasn’t the government’s fault, it was the fault of the ignorant farmers refusing to get with the 21st century. The animal rights activists weren’t interested in the truth, because they were happily using the existence of a cheap vaccine to prove that farmers weren’t fit to have livestock anyway. The worrying thing is that when a single issue lobby group and the office of the Prime Minister accept the same spurious evidence as true, policy can be made on the back of it. Fortunately in this case it seems Ministry Vets put their foot down and stopped something stupid happening.

We have indeed slipped back into the 1500s, because we’ve left the age of reason behind us. We have people who no longer care about the facts, if they’re inconvenient then they are to be ignored. They merely argue from a position of belief and if you don’t believe you’re no longer a proper person, you’re merely a heretic, an animal abuser, tory scum, thicko racist brexiteer.

Apparently now heresy trials are conducted over on Twitter if you can be bothered?
But when you ask yourself whether you can or cannot say something, always remember the words of Voltaire



Actually it strikes me that you might want to just wash your hands of the whole damned lot of them. After all, if it’s not your circus, they’re not your monkeys.

So how about escaping with a good book


As the reviewer said
“Tallis Steelyard makes a living as a poet, which is sufficiently remarkable in itself, but in reality he is a ducker and diver at the more genteel end of society in the imaginary town of Port Naiin in Jim Webster’s richly comic and intriguing fictional world. This is my first encounter with Mr. Steelyard in book form but I doubt that it will be my last. His tales are warmly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny but are none the worse for that. Give Tallis a try, you’ll be glad you did.”