Tag Archives: sheep

Sheep may safely graze


When you have a herd of dairy cows, there isn’t really a lot of room for sheep. The sheep just eat grass that the cow could eat and it’s the cows that are paying of the mortgage. But there again, there are times of year where even the most intensive dairy herd could use a few sheep. That is during the autumn. The ground has got too wet for dairy cows, and you’ve laid them in for the winter, but there is still some grass left. Indeed in a mild winter it might still be growing, albeit slowly. So what to do with that grass?
To be fair, at this time of year it’s not really worth a lot. We used to let cows out for an hour on a nice day in winter and they might browse a little, but normally they’d just sit down in the sun and enjoy the change before they went back inside of their own accord to eat. So that’s what cows thought about the grass. Nice for a change, pleasant enough to sit on, but it’s not as good as silage.

Alternatively you could just forget about it, and it’ll still be there next spring and it’ll get mown or eaten off then. The problem is that by then it’s old and ‘lowky’. So whilst it will help bulk up a silage crop, it actually brings down the quality. So by far the best thing to do is to eat if off with sheep. They’re bare the field right down so that when spring comes, the grass is off to a flying start and everything that comes is beautiful young new-season grass.

Some farmers will buy store-lambs, which have moved down from rougher, higher, farms where the season isn’t long enough to fatten them off grass. The dairy farmer will then fatten the store lambs on his ‘spare’ grass. To be honest it’s one of those ventures where you can do everything properly and still lose money. Or you strike lucky with the year and suddenly the pound collapses and suddenly lamb exports are booming and your store lambs do you really well.

Other people take on wintering hogs. These are young female fell sheep who’re sent down to the lowlands to get one easy winter in which they’ll grow really well and be ready to put to the tup the following year. They can do a good job but they too have problems. Firstly they’re fell sheep. They aren’t used to the concept of fields and fences and they just spread and get everywhere. The second problem is that the dairy farmer really wants them away by January and the Hill farmer doesn’t want them back until May. So they can end up getting in the way and eating the new spring grass which is supposed to go to the dairy cows. There is a further positive side to wintering sheep. A few years ago we rented some land which was, frankly rotten with ragwort. This is a poisonous weed, cattle won’t eat it, unless it’s been mown and horses seem to eat it for the pure joy of running up a big vet’s bill before they die. Sheep on the other hand can eat it and seem to suffer no ill effects. After ten years, the land was totally clear of ragwort, and ten years after we gave the land up, there’s still no ragwort.

Another alternative is to just let a neighbour run a few of his ewes over your fields and that way you can get them away by Christmas and they don’t become a problem.

But anyway this evening I went down to give some feed to the young dairy heifers who are used to be fed twice a day. Of course I took Sal. And when I got to the field there is a sea of sheep with the dairy heifers sticking out like small islands. (To be fair, this can happen whether you invite the sheep in or not)

So I shouted to the heifers.

They took one look, saw me (“Quick, it’s him with the feed”) and Sal (“aw it’s Sal, isn’t she so small and so cute”) and of course they came running to see us.

The sheep saw me, (“Irrelevant tall human, ignore”) and they saw Sal. (“Flee, wolf substitute.”) The sheep then move away in a semi-disciplined huddle.

This is a good thing because means the heifers can eat their feed without getting it stolen from them by innumerable sheep.

Sal ambles across the field on the path she normally follows, and quietly enjoys the fact that for once, something is taking her seriously. Indeed she seemed quite cheered by it all.

Normally cattle and sheep will graze quite happily, largely ignoring each other. On one occasion old Jess and I were moving some suckler cows and their calves from one field to another. What I hadn’t realised was that a neighbour’s sheep had got into the field. I walked ahead of the cows and calves, carrying a bucket of feed, and Jess followed on behind. I noticed the sheep at about the same time as the cows did. The cows formed an impromptu flying wedge which just charged past me and through the sheep, (the calves followed behind the wedge.) Suddenly there were panicking sheep everywhere. At the far side of the field the cows turned round and this time it was more a ragged single line of assorted cattle which charged back. The sheep by this time were running in the direction of the gap in the hedge they’d crept through. By the time the cows reformed and turned round for a third charge, there wasn’t a sheep in the field. So I gave the cows their feed and put a thorn in the gap to stop the sheep coming back.

Mind you, Jess was a picture as all this was going on. She wore an expression of grudging admiration. It wasn’t how she would have done it. To be honest it was a bit flashy. But to be fair, you had to admit it was damned effective.


To be fair, Jess was a dog of strong opinions!

As one reviewer commented, “A great collection of bite-sized tales from the author’s farming life.
Sheep and collie dogs are prominent, but the occasional passerby gets a wry mention.
My favourite is about the bunch of runners who race past him without speaking (noses firmly in the air), except for one friendly Irish lad who is trailing behind them.”

Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs.

Rampside 1.2012003

Which I suppose is a good enough motto, unless you’re working with wet concrete. Still, last night was interesting. I’d emailed somebody with the words, “I’ll be in all evening, (unless somebody does something stupid) so could you give a ring.” Even as I pressed ‘send’ I had the feeling I was giving hostages to fortune. Then we got a phone call, somebody had been seen bundling a sheep over the church yard wall.

What had happened was that we use sheep (not my sheep, I don’t own any sheep) to keep the grass down around our isolated church. They do a good job. Now a lady was walking her dog past the church yard and saw a bunch of scruffy young men with a green van and an orange capri attempting to bundle a sheep over the wall. Not being in the first flush of youth and being custodian of a rather small dog she wisely didn’t attempt to tackle them but made for home.

Once there she walked across the road to her neighbour Martin, who is a retired minister. He picked up the phone and called me, because I’m the churchwarden and pretty much everything that happens is the responsibility of the churchwarden. So we piled in the car, shot up to the churchyard and indeed a sheep was missing. Various other people gathered and it was decided that as these aforementioned young men were apparently sleeping rough on Roa Island, my lady wife and I would drive along there and see if we could see what was happening. When we got there we found the cars (with Belgian plates) in the carpark, plus a fair number of other cars with Belgian plates. But no sign of a sheep and there were no people hanging about the two vehicles.

We discussed the matter as we headed for home and decided we’d better phone the police. In various parts of the country, sheep have been stolen and butchered on the beach for an impromptu barbeque. But how to contact the police? I could ring 101 but the last twice I’ve tried it the number just rang out. And we potentially had an animal welfare incident here, so I phoned 999. (Because there’s no other way to get hold of them).

I explained what was going on to the chap on the other end of the phone and he agreed with me that it was borderline but as I was on the phone, he’d take the details. This he did, to bleating noises being made by his colleagues in the background. Cumbria Constabulary probably have sheep as a larger part of their workload than most police forces. Indeed when I described the sheep to him he knew the breed. He promised he’d get somebody out.

So twenty minutes later we got a call from the control room to say that police had gone to Roa Island. A quarter of an hour after that, two policemen turned up in our yard. They’d ‘pursued their inquires’ there, but hadn’t been able to talk to the gentlemen in question because these individuals had got the ferry out to Piel Island to camp. As the ferry is a small open boat I agreed with the police assessment that the ferryman was unlikely to have let them take a sheep with them. Even if they’d given it dark glasses and a wig.

But as result of their discussions with the transient population of Belgians on Roa Island the Police decided that, yes, the lady had obviously seen a bunch of man who was struggling with a sheep by the wall. But all was not as it seemed.

Apparently the Scotland Rally was passing through the area. One of their night stops was Roa Island. There was a strong Belgian contingent with a lot of classic cars as part of this rally. Now during the course of this rally, there are various challenges set for the participants to attempt.



It appears that yesterday’s challenge, whether for the entire rally, or just set by the Belgian contingent, was to get a selfie photo of you and a sheep.

Eventually the sheep turned up, she’d obviously escaped the camera toting hordes and had got into a different field and had mingled with the other sheep. Actually that doesn’t surprise me, when it comes to escaping, sheep are true professionals.


You’ve got to be careful tacking sheep, it’s a job for skilled professionals

As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”

Funny what makes you think


Cumbria is an interesting county. The photo I took on Wednesday, looking north. The small white blob is Orton church tower. It’s not necessarily what people normally associate with Cumbria, but it’s a very diverse county.

One thing we do have is lots of tourists and lots of sheep. To be fair there are large parts were you rarely see a tourist and even parts where the ratio of sheep to inhabitants drops down low enough to give humanity some hope of achieving parity.

But sheep aren’t far from our minds. I was feeding a small group of fat lambs (the last of the sheep, because sheep and dairy cows don’t mix well on a small farm) and I was genuinely surprised how well the grass was looking. The field had been eaten off by ewes earlier in the autumn and had been given a shot of slurry and left. Now there’s no sign at all of the muck but the grass has come on nicely. OK it’s not enough for cattle, but it’ll do a handful of fattening lambs really nicely.

Up until now Brexit has done Cumbria quite a few favours, the big drop in the value of the pound brought the tourists flooding in; and because we export so much lamb, the fact the pound fell meant those we exported and sold in euros brought in more money.

But I’ve always been nervous about sheep, after Brexit. The EU runs a tariff wall and the main thing is does is keep up the price of food. So if we drop out of the tariff wall, whilst the food we buy in the shops in the UK could actually become cheaper. On the other hand we could find the stuff we sell priced out of the EU market because of the tariffs.

Now for milk and beef that isn’t really a problem. We are net importers. We can go a long way on import substitution. So if our price drops, even a little, it’ll help UK product displace EU product. It’s the EU who has to worry on that one because they then have to find a home for more expensive dairy and beef products. Hence the reason why the Irish are worried.
Grain isn’t too much of an issue, it’s largely a commodity traded at world market price anyway.

But lamb does present a difficulty. We are one of the world’s major exporters of mutton and lamb. Actually there aren’t many major exporters. It’s a niche activity.

But the EU tariff wall could hit lamb production and I confess I was worried. A lot of the pundits seem to be worried and experts were pontificating unfavourably on the subject.

Then today I read the papers and on the front page it commented that Prince Charles was taking over the management of the Sandringham estate. He’s getting rid of the arable and moving the entire estate over to organic sheep production. The flock is increasing from 3,000 ewes to 15,000 ewes.

Now whatever you think about the Prince of Wales, when it comes to running farms and estates he has a good track record. Under his management he’s got a lot of them turned round and they’re making money. It’s not all expensive biscuits or novelty teas either. He’s got a good grasp of the basics.

Now it could well be that he’s got a damned good management team behind him. I hope he has, because every other farmer depends on the often unmentioned management team that supports him. But in this case, the management team, with the Prince as head or figurehead depending on your politics and outlook, have got a very good track record.

When asked why they were doing this, the answer was the Chinese market and Brexit.
Now the Chinese market makes sense. Australia and New Zealand are selling into it. Indeed we’re getting fewer exports from those two countries because China is such a good market. So obviously we want to be in there. But Brexit?
Now this goes right against the perceived wisdom. But the perceived wisdom is that of academics, pundits, politicians and commentators. The decision was taken by a proven management team putting their money behind the decision.

So who do we believe? Given the last few years why should you believe anybody?

boy who cried wolf



Me, I’d suggest we just let the dog sort them all out


As a reviewer commented, “Brilliantly written, honest, funny and if you’re from this little bit of land you’ll have been intrigued by the title – sold by the end of the very first line “There’s a lamb climbing out the oven””

Symphony for buzzards


Back when I was in my teens I went on some holidays with a young naturalist group up in the Inner and Outer Hebrides. One thing I remember was buzzards hovering high above. As we were told at the time, they were very rare and you wouldn’t see them elsewhere. (as an aside, the picture isn’t mine. I’m borrowing it)

Now there are tens of thousands of them pretty well everywhere. Looking sheep the other day Sal disturbed a pair of them who were cawing affectionately to each other. If you’ve never heard a buzzard




This morning I took some feed down to a batch of lambs. Don’t think cute, think 35kg thugs. Anyway a week previously a bunch of bullocks had broken in to join them, and when they were chased out a dozen lambs and cull ewes had left with them. Anyway this morning I noticed that in the next field there were no bullocks in sight, but the errant sheep were present, watching anxiously as their erstwhile comrades were getting fed.

So as I had Sal with me, I opened a couple more gates and set about arranging for the wanderers to return. As I drove the quad into the other field, everything suddenly woke up. A buzzard that had been sitting in the grass near the gate took to its wings and flapped across to sit on the bridge over the beck. As it flew over, a brace of pigeons scattered and fled. A heron standing in the beck immediately took off to avoid the buzzard, wheeled round to avoid Sal, only to find that it was now passing low over the buzzard. So the heron banked sharply and sped of fast and low hoping to avoid being lunch.

As it was the buzzard seemed too interested in keeping a sharp eye on Sal and the quad.

Sal bounded across to the sheep and there was this squawk as a pheasant rocketed up from just in front of her. Now Sal does have this habit of chasing pheasants. Entirely fruitlessly it has to be said, but she seems to enjoy it. But in this case she had sheep to deal with so the pheasant was ignored and disappeared, skimming the top of the hedge and dropping to the ground on the other side.

The sheep weren’t entirely co-operative. They could see their friends and the feed through a low part of the hedge. So to them it was irrational for them to go away from this place, round a corner and through two gates when they could just try crashing through the netting. Fortunately the presence of Sal with quadbike support was enough to convince them that in this case the longer way round was probably the best.

One thing that did occur to me as I followed the sheep out of the field and shut the gate was, “What are all these buzzards eating?”

Given the population has increased from none to quite a number; they all have to be eating something. I once saw a buzzard strip the carcass of a 40kg lamb that had died. It took it two days. They have hearty appetites. Admittedly on the second day when I went to see what was happening the buzzard took a waddling run up before it tried to jump into the air and fly, and to be fair it did just about make it. But if you know what I mean, it was wallowing in the air rather than soaring.

If you increase the number of one successful predator, then the number of prey will decrease and something else will go hungry. That’s just how nature is.





Pontifications along a road less travelled, when things get out of hand.




I learned long ago that people don’t read blogs about authors going on about the trials and tribulations of being authors. The world at large tends to cast a jaundiced eye in their direction and suggests, helpfully, that they might like to consider getting a proper job.
So I now want to hand the situation over to your imaginations. I want you to forget that I just spent over an hour walking round with Sal checking sheep. Dismiss entirely from your minds the fact that I spent a fair bit of that absentmindedly slapping the cleggs that landed on my arms or neck. Still it might be some sort of consolation for you to realise that I did at least shower before having my coffee.
So I want you to imagine the scene. Now, allowed briefly to play at being the author, I am sitting in the shade, looking out over the rolling vistas. I’m sipping an excellent mug of coffee, and my words are being taken down by a secretary who sits behind me (thus I’m not sure which of them it is.)
Somebody did ask me how I got into the writing business thing in the first place.

Once upon a time, as well as farming, I was working as a contractor for one of the farming/landowning lobby organisations. I was their National Livestock Adviser. Anyway after doing it for about ten years they finally believed me when I told them they needed somebody doing it full time. They then told me that it would be London Based, and I wished them joy in it and hoped they hired somebody they were happy with.

So I had a bit of time of my hands and probably needed to get ten years of dealing with EU regulation out of my head. So I wrote a fantasy novel, ‘Swords for a Dead Lady,’ and Benor Dorfinngil, Cartographer, bestrode the globe like a colossus.

Well to be fair to Benor, actually he rode through it in a thoughtful manner, and for somebody who could be described as a serial philanderer, he proved to be a remarkably moral character.

So much so that in the second book I wrote about him, ‘Dead Man Riding East’ he accidentally acquired a wife.

Benor novel covers
I did a couple more novels in the same background (all available in paperback. Ignore Amazon’s comment that they’re out of print. That’s just Amazon playing silly beggars because I haven’t used their favoured print on demand service. Order them and they will come.)  but these novels didn’t involve Benor.




But by this time I realised that, yes, I could write a couple of novels a year, but frankly it was disheartening to see them just drop into the bottomless abyss that is indie publishing.
Anyway talking to people, listening and thinking, it struck me that the ebook allowed for the novella form to come back. So I experimented with that. I wrote ‘The Cartographer’s Apprentice.’

The Cartographers Apprentice


Basically Benor being married and sort of settled wasn’t really up for yet more adventures. He was somewhere in his fifties when I introduced him to the world, which meant that left plenty of room for his ‘youth.’
Not only that but I’d made a number of throwaway remarks about Benor’s past in the other two books. The Cartographer’s Apprentice gave me a chance to fill in the detail behind those remarks. So this collection of stories took Benor from finishing his training through his first professional engagements.

Then I attended a convention, selling my books (something possible with paperbacks), and a rather fierce and determined young lady asked me about ‘female roles in my books.’ Given at one point I was living with my wife, three daughters, my mother, sixty milk cows and even the dog was a bitch, I am not one who succumbs easily to the myth of the poor helpless female.

Anyway I pondered this. I couldn’t see any problem with the female characters in my books. But it struck me I’d start something new. I invented Shena, the mud jobber, and her husband Tallis Steelyard, the poet. To be fair, Shena was always going to be the grown up in this relationship. But still I tried writing the first of the Port Naain Intelligencer stories and it just bogged. It was just hard work. Then suddenly, as Shena was leaving the barge, she stepped over the prone body of their sleeping lodger. The lodger turned out to be Benor who had somehow insinuated himself into the story. From that point on the story came alive for me and the first collection of six was written. A collection because you can read them in any order, six because that’s what I wrote. Not only that, they were all written and ready for publishing before I published the first one. My idea was to try and copy the old pulp magazine idea where you didn’t wait for the next great novel; you just automatically picked up the next copy of the magazine when it came out.

Port Naain Intelligencer covers together


But you’ll notice that I’ve now discovered Tallis Steelyard. Mike Rose-Steel, my editor, is also a poet and he asked to borrow Tallis and write some poems for him. This is how Lambent dreams was born. He wrote the poems and the literary criticism; I had Benor write the stuff which puts it all in context for the person who doesn’t dwell in Port Naain.

Lambent Dreams Cover5



And of course, Tallis is now an author on Amazon, so of course he must have a blog. I created a monster! I’ve worked out I have over 400,000 words of Tallis Steelyard stories, some published in ebook form.

three book covers

2nd three tallis books


But as an aside, if you’ve got a blog, you’ve got to keep the blog going. I discovered that the hard way. In 2016, with the referendum campaign, I got so hacked off by the total nonsense being spouted by both sides I didn’t do a blog post for a couple of months, because otherwise I’d have upset far too many people.

It took me to the end of 2017 before I had more people stopping by and reading the blog than I had in 2015.

So with Tallis, I’ve been determined to produce at least a story a week. In case you don’t know it, its’ across at



But anyway, I’d always intended to do a second Port Naain Intelligencer collection, another six Benor stories.

Yet I suddenly realised that to an awful lot of people Benor was just part of the world of Tallis Steelyard. So how to educate them?
When I released ‘A licence to print money’

A licence to print money


I decided I’d have another Benor story running on the blog tour. My intention was to make it complete. I know that a lot of people hate cliff hangers, and I didn’t want to produce half a tale and then charge people for the last bit.

So this story, ‘A measured response’ ran for nine episodes and had a beginning, middle and end.

Even as it ran on the blog tour I realised that there was more to tell. So I wrote the extra bit, which effectively is the final third. My cunning plan is that those people who liked the blog tour have a choice. They can be happy with the ending they got, or they can invest a little and see what else happened.


And what’s next?
Well there’s more Tallis stuff being edited up and ready to go, and of course the Port Naain Intelligencer is back. There will be more Benor.




Lord alone knows how that happened!



It’s my experience that after a while all sorts of people get to know of your existence. Frankly some times it can be a damned nuisance. Over the years I’ve ended up talking to all sorts of people, some of whom probably were certifiable. There again at other times it can be fascinating and can open doors into an entirely different world.

But anyway, more than a couple of decades ago now, I got this phone-call completely out of the blue from a group of farming activists.

“Is Jim Webster there?”


“Oh good. We wondered if you could find out who’s responsible for the Royal parks in London.”


“You see we’ve already got a freeman of the city who’ll help us drive sheep across London Bridge but we thought we could graze them in the park and talk to people about agriculture afterwards.”

Think about it, why wouldn’t I help them?


So I set to work. Who on earth did I know who might know the right people?  Actually this is the secret. The secret is not merely knowing stuff, it’s knowing people who know the people who know stuff.

So I thought of Caroline. I felt she was the best person to ask. So that evening I phoned Caroline.

She listened as I explained and immediately told me to phone George. George wouldn’t know who controlled the Royal Parks, but he’d know who I ought to talk it. And I was to tell George that Caroline had told me to speak to him.


Well you don’t get better than that, so I phoned George. Remember I’m phoning him right out of the blue and he almost certainly doesn’t know me from Adam.
”Hi George, it’s Jim Webster here and Caroline told me to talk to you.”
George burst out laughing and merely commented that ‘To hear is to obey.’

So I explained to George, and he laughed again and then gave me the names of two ladies who were sure to be happy to help. And of course he told me to mention that George and Caroline were supporting me.


So I phone the first lady. She picks up the phone and as I’m talking to her there is another conversation in the background. Father is shouting upstairs to see if his daughter will sweet-talk her boyfriend into driving the mower tractor tomorrow when they’re silaging. The impression I got was that daughter had other plans for the day that didn’t involve grass.
But anyway the lady was very helpful, thought the sheep scheme was brilliant and gave me a name and phone number for the person who organised things in the Royal parks. But she told me to phone lady number two as well.

So I phoned lady number two. Half way through our conversation it got a bit chaotic because a weak lamb that had been in the warming oven of the aga had recovered enough to escape. So she continued to talk to me with phone in one hand, lamb in the other and two Border Collies watching her carefully to make sure everything sheep related was done properly. Lady Two gave me the same name and number as Lady One and we agreed it was a result.


So I phoned the group of activists and gave them the name and phone number so they could make their formal approach during office hours.  Given I’d managed to get the information for them in less than five hours I thought it was pretty slick to be honest.


Anyway, it had meant I’d been on the phone talking to people for most of the evening. (Proper phones this, landlines, none of your mobile nonsense. Back then mobile phones were so big I couldn’t have held one up for that length of time!)
But as I wandered through to the other end of the house my mother asked why on earth I’d been on the phone so long. So I explained to her. I even mentioned the names of Lady One and Lady Two.

She burst out laughing. Apparently these two ladies had, in their youth, been the contemporaries and disreputable friends of Princess Margaret, ‘It Girls’ before the term was invented.

Me, I think they turned out all right.

And no, I cannot remember if they did end up putting sheep in the Royal parks.

But isn’t it great that so many apparently respectable people are perfectly happy to help with some bizarre and off the wall stunt to support the industry and way of life they love.

The anarchic streak runs deep in all the best people


There again, when you work with livestock, anything does happen.


As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”

 Avoiding entanglements


Obviously it’s tough being a best selling author. After all there are only so many free lunches a chap can attend. Then with the endless free drinks, the groupies, and of course the expense account….

Sorry I was looking at the wrong list, that’s what you get for being an MP. Easy mistake to make obviously.

But anyway, I have occasionally had fame tap me on the shoulder. On one occasion I was asked whether I’d like to do my own radio show on music radio. I confess I was tempted, but only briefly. I’m not somebody who can babble inanely for long periods, (Although if tempted by suitably appropriate financial recompense I could doubtless improvise.) But really, what deterred me from ever setting my foot on that road was the fact that, frankly, I just didn’t like the music. I did listen to some of the output and I tried really hard to like it, but to be fair it was music designed by a cruel fate to be babbled over.

It’s surprising how subjective all this stuff is. After all there was one group I used to rather sneer at as the teeny bopper boy band my little sister liked. Now I have to confess I do think Dire Straits have produced some good stuff. Doubtless there’s stuff being played now which in thirty years time might be remembered. But still, that being said, playing endless Bon Jovi to elderly people in nursing homes does strike me as coming awfully close to being a cruel and unnatural punishment.

There again, given my ability to get myself caught up in declining industries, perhaps the music industry is glad I’ve given them a miss. After all, they’d hardly be keen on following down the same road as Agriculture and Freelance Journalism when it comes to paying folk a living.

Still, it has to be said that there’s nothing like a good dose of reality to help ground a chap and stop him getting ideas above his station. The last few days have been fine and the ground was almost starting to dry out a bit. Except that last night it rained. No, it didn’t just rain, it sodding well chucked it down. When I went out to feed sheep this morning the rain had slowed to a drizzle, but water was still streaming down both sides of the lanes. As for the fields, it had started getting silly again.

But Sal and I pressed boldly on, undeterred by the fact that when the quad stopped, I could here the splashing of Sal’s feet. Still at least the ewes were glad to see us. When you’re feeding ewes the best plan is to get far enough ahead of them on the quad so that you can stop, get the feed and start putting out in little heaps on the ground before the ewes catch up with you. If you manage this then you’ll probably not be trampled underfoot.
If you don’t think this can happen, there’s a video here that might surprise you.



But anyway, as we check sheep, Sal always combs the hedges looking for those who’ve somehow got themselves entangled. With Sal bearing down on them it’s amazing how they can suddenly break free. On the other hand, we do get those who’re so entangled they cannot manage it. I included a photo of one. Left to her own devices she’ll starve.
You know the bible stories about the shepherd who lost one sheep and left the ninety-nine to find it. In all probability, this is what happened to it.

When you do find a sheep this tangled up, I’ve found the best way to untangle it is to get hold of both back legs and just pull the sheep backwards, away from the hedge. When you think about it the sheep has been hurling itself forwards for some time and that hasn’t worked.

If you pull the sheep backwards it’s as if the briars have less grip. Also you can find that the briar roots have a weaker hold on the ground than the thorns have on the sheep’s fleece.

Then when you’ve pulled the sheep free, still holding the back legs, walk it round so that it is no longer facing the hedge. Then let it go. If you let it go still facing the hedge there’s every chance that the daft beggar will accelerate straight back into the briars.

There again, a mate of mine had similar problems with women. Get him untangled from one and he’d just hurl himself straight into the next.



Now for anybody who’s interested, there is a collection of tales, some of them featuring Sal, for your delectation and delight. Available for a mere 99p

Noises off


With farming life you get seasonal sights and scents, but you also get seasonal sounds. I remember stopping the tractor on top of the silage pit where I was buckraking grass. I sat there and listened and could hear seven forage harvesters working on seven different farms. Since then, four of those farms are no longer in existence, the houses are domestic dwellings and the land is farmed by neighbours. Mind you, round here the neighbours are still family farms. If you wander into the yard looking for somebody, the boss is probably the one with a muck fork and wheelbarrow, not somebody in the office playing Solitaire on the computer waiting for the broadband to come back on.

This morning as I walked round checking sheep, the seasonal sound was the Maize harvest. In my lifetime I’ve seen breeders produce hardier varieties of maize and a crop which was once rare in the south of England can now be seen growing regularly in Ayrshire. Because October was such a sodden month round here, I suspect that the harvest is running slightly late. As it is, this far north we can only grow maize for cattle feed, and the sound is the noise of the contractor’s big self-propelled forage harvester working away.

It has to be said that modern farm machinery looks awfully expensive. I remember seeing figures which said in the 1960s you had to sell 3,000 finished lambs to buy the average tractor. Currently it’s about 10,000 lambs to buy the equivalent mid-range tractor.

So a lot of us use contractors. For the maize harvest the contractor will turn up on farm with over half a million pounds worth of equipment. The tractors will work all year round, the loading shovel might spend winter loading salt in a local authority distribution depot, whilst the self-propelled harvesters will start with silage at the beginning of May and finish with Maize in November (or December if it’s a bad year.)

I must admit I’m not a fan of maize. I’ve got nothing against it as a crop or a feed, but I’m not enthused by the season you have to harvest it in. I remember one year when people round here were still trying to harvest it between Christmas and New Year. In this area, Milk Cows will go inside for the winter in October, and I’m old fashioned enough to get nervous if all their winter feed isn’t inside with them. Having to rely for winter survival on a crop that isn’t harvested and might never be doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep.

Cattle tend to spend winters inside. It’s not that they cannot cope with the weather, more that round here our winters are so wet that the land cannot cope with cattle. It is possible to winter them outside happily enough, if there aren’t many of them, you’re feeding them on a stubble field you are going to plough anyway, and they’ve got plenty of room to lay down on dry ground with a bit of shelter from a hedge.

Sheep on the other hand are a lot lighter on their feet. Not only that but they don’t take well to being housed. I remember years ago talking to somebody who did house his ewes. He used to bring them in and shear them again. If he left them with the wool on they’d sweat, get chilled and get pneumonia.

So with sheep at this time of year we’re constantly managing the grass. Grass will grow if the soil temperature is over 4 degrees C, but at that point it’s growing pretty slowly. So at some point the grass will probably ‘run out.’ Also at some time our bottom land will get so wet that even sheep would make a mess, so we have to take them off it. So at the moment we’re trying to get the bottom land eaten off.

Yet because the tups are in with them and we’re hoping to get them in-lamb, our ewes also need a ‘rising plane of nutrition.’ At the very least they don’t want to go short.

Also we’re already hoping to get them off the lambing fields. This means that these fields get a chance to green up and have a bit of grass on them for when ewes start lambing.

At some point we’ll have to start carrying hay or silage out to feed our sheep. Later, when they’re heavily in lamb we’ll have to take a concentrate feed out to them. But the more grass they’ve got, the less expensive feed we have to buy.

So managing the grass is something you’ve got to get right.

Linguistic good taste.



I took the car in to get an MOT and service this morning. As I walked home two women passed me walking in the opposite direction. As one said to the other, “He were having a fag behind the recycling bins.”

Such is the joy of the English language that this probably means something entirely different depending on what part of the English speaking world you hail from.

Apparently it was the Canadian, James D. Nicoll, who commented that “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

When we acquire these words, we sometimes give them meanings that the original owners had never contemplated. So we have raddle. This can apparently be spelled ruddle or reddle (because all three words mean the same thing.).They may have originated as a term meaning ‘to paint red.’

About the only use for raddle now is when you smear it on the chest of a tup or ram before turning him out with his harem. It has the advantage that it rubs off on them and you know that he’s working and that they’re coming in season.

Obviously a ewe that has been smeared with raddle is ‘raddled’ and that’s another word that has wandered off into more mainstream parlance. I suspect that it’s not perhaps as widely used as it might once have been.

It’s funny that dyes of varying sorts seem to linger around the fringes of agriculture. Years ago (probably pre-EEC) there used to be ‘stockfeed potatoes.’ What happened was that when the potato price collapsed, the government would buy up surplus potatoes that weren’t needed, to put a bottom in the market. They’d then have them sprayed with a purple dye and sold cheaply to farmers for livestock feed.

Because the supermarkets and other retailers didn’t particularly want the very big potatoes, they were often the ones chosen for cattle potatoes. Given that they were both very large and very cheap, I remember a lot of talk about the number of chip shops where you might find purple stained potato peel in the waste bins. After all the dye didn’t soak into the potato, and it also had to be safe because livestock were going to eat it.

Another place where they use a lot of dye is the slaughterhouse. Because of various regulations, some offals cannot be eaten. To make sure they’re kept out of the food chain, government inspectors will watch as they’re sprayed with dye. This stuff is designed not to wash off, to ensure that the stuff sprayed goes for proper disposal. To be fair to the authorities, it works.

There are disadvantages. I remember taking cattle in, and one of the lasses was doing the paperwork for me in the office. One of the slaughtermen came in off the line and handed her a sheaf of papers. She examined them carefully and then gingerly took them off him. Because the lads were spraying the dye about, they’d get it on themselves and then it’d get on the paperwork, and then it’d get everywhere.

As she said, “It gets so that I have to really scrub my hands before I go to the loo. Otherwise my husband keeps asking me whose are the hand prints on my knickers.”


Funny old world isn’t it!

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.”

The dog does not entirely approve.


At the moment Sal is barking. She doesn’t bark a lot, only at times when she feels she ought to be out there sorting things out in her own inimitable way. As Border Collies go she has two foibles. The first is that she doesn’t like sheep standing close to the hedge. Over the years, when we’ve been looking sheep, she’s noticed that we occasionally have to walk across and disentangle on that has managed to get itself caught up in briars. Or perhaps it’s stuck its head through the wire netting and cannot pull it back out.
So when she sees a sheep too close to the hedge, she’ll run across and move it. At times this can be quite useful. I’ve seen lambs get themselves tangled and just sit there, convinced they’re completely stuck. The arrival of Sal suddenly galvanises them into action and, quite literally, ‘with one bound they’re free.’

Her other foible arises from the fact that she lives in a cattle trailer. Sometimes in it, sometimes under it, sometimes sleeping in the snug and sheltered plastic drum within the trailer; it all depends on what she particularly wants to do. All this is perfectly normal for the working collie. What gets her barking is that from her cattle trailer she can see one end of a field we know as ‘The Meadow.’ Her foible is that she objects to sheep grazing on that bit of the field and seems to regard it as a personal affront. It must be admitted that the sheep seem to take no notice at all of her barking.

We’re not sure why she finds their presence so irritating, perhaps it’s just the deeply held conviction that sheep without a Border Collie in close attendance are going to get into trouble? Whether she was brought up on ‘Little Boy Blue’ with ‘the sheep in the meadow, the cows in the corn’ I wouldn’t like to speculate.

Now her attitude isn’t a ‘problem’ as such, she doesn’t bark interminably at them. Just lets us know they’re there, in case we come to our senses and do what she considers the obvious thing and let her out to supervise them.

Over the past few days there have been more sheep wandering onto the bit of the Meadow she can see. Basically every year some of the older ewes have to be culled, and you fetch in some younger sheep. Some you might breed yourself, but a lot of people will fetch in new blood as well.

What’s been interesting is the way the batches have or have not been mixing. Firstly there was a batch purchased from somebody who was retiring. We stuck them in with a small group of our own sheep and for the first few days the two batches largely kept separate, although the two batches might graze close to each other.

Then three more groups were purchased at a sale. Now each group came from a different farm. So each of these three groups tended to stick together but shunned the other four groups. They didn’t stick with the main batch because it wasn’t ‘their flock’. In an attempt to keep out of the way of ‘not their flock’ the little batches push out to the edge of the grazing area and thus graze the patch of ground Sal can see and feels protective about.
Anyway today they were all fetched in and the new arrivals were treated for worms, liver fluke and suchlike, then they were all let out back into the field. Having been stirred up and mixed I noticed that the little groups are far less exclusive.

Cattle can be like that. If you have one batch of cattle grazing a big enough area, and let another batch onto the same ground, the two groups can retain their cohesion for quite a while. We’ve put a second group onto a field and a couple of days later, because circumstances have changed; we’ve taken the first group out. The groups hadn’t mixed and our moving one lot didn’t bother the other lot in the slightest. But again, if you bring two lots together in the yard and let them run down the lane together into the field, the self imposed barriers between the two groups seem to disappear remarkably quickly.

Social scientists might draw conclusions from this but if I were them I’d be wary. If their tinkering with the underlying fabric of reality leads to Border Collies disapproval, I predict that things will not go well.


Who needs reality anyway



As a reviewer commented, “Someone has tried to cheat Benor and his young ‘apprentice’ Mutt. They set out, with a little help, to redress the balance. Another in this series of Port Naain novellas that had me smiling. They are not belly-laugh stories but full of wry, clever and thoughtful humour. Often, it’s the way he tells them. I’m always up for more of these stories.”