An opportunity to reflect

Writers Posted 29/05/20
Alan turns to poetry as he refl ects on the limited impact of the coronavirus crisis on sheep farmers and finds time to discover more about Herdwicks.

What a strange world we live in. Who would have thought on New Year’s Day this year that within a couple of months we would find ourselves in the situation where much of the population is effectively and for very good reasons, ‘confined to barracks’?

The Covid-19 (C19) lockdown has been devastating for a significant proportion of the population, not so for many of those engaged in farming, particularly those with livestock; to many it has been and continues to be an inconvenience, but as sheep keepers we have been largely buffered from some of the least pleasant aspects of current lockdown regulations. Sheep keeping is often a fairly lonely occupation, an aspect of the job that really does come into sharper focus at lambing time. This season, lambing coinciding with lockdown has made social distancing relatively easy to apply. It’s what tends to happen at this time of year anyway.

Other aspects of lockdown, such as the need to stay at home and avoid travelling, have generally been of no consequence to sheep producers; the requirements to have appropriate regard for welfare of one’s ovine charges has meant that visits to care for ewes that are lambing, to feed stock, to purchase feed and veterinary medicines, etc have all been essential journeys. Farmers’ organisations have even gone as far as to issue ‘essential journey certificates’.

I feel that we have been quite fortunate. We have a good reason (not an excuse) to get out each day to carry out essential tasks to maintain the wellbeing and welfare of our sheep, a situation that, I am sure, many town dwellers would be quite envious of. The C19 situation has to many sheep keepers been, in the short term at least, an inconvenience. We have been in a fortunate position; spare a thought for those who are compelled to spend day after day cooped up at home with little to do. I simply cannot begin to imagine what it must be like. Regrettably the longer-term situation may be rather more challenging, and not just to sheep producers.

Unquestionably, as a result of disruptions in the food chain and an increasing recognition that the domestic market place is rather more reliable and less volatile, support for British farmers has increased quite significantly over recent weeks, but can we sensibly assume that this will continue post C19? I suspect not. As an industry we are able to make a major contribution towards the provision of well-balanced menus for UK households, towards self-sufficiency, with household menus comprised almost entirely of UK produce. That would be a lovely position to be in but not that realistic; it’s easy to say: “Do we really need strawberries at Christmas? What’s wrong with seasonality of produce?” In order to achieve this, however, we must recognise and address the task of weaning consumers off their demand for imported and exotic produce; off eating habits and patterns of consumption established over several decades. In reality this will not be an easy option. Consumers have short memories and generally little loyalty to UK producers, particularly where there are price differentials; if we expect consumers to pay a premium for a reliable and resilient supply of UK produce, delivered via a relatively short and efficient distribution network, we must be able to convince them that it is good value for money.

There is a big difference between cheap food and good value for money, probably a difference that many consumers simply do not recognise. This presents us with a huge marketing task, a task that we cannot simply rely on the NFU, AHDB Beef and Lamb or ‘someone else’ to do for us. Marketing starts at the farm gate; we all need to do our bit to help promote the quality lamb and sheep meat that we produce. It’s all about communication!

On a personal level, lockdown has certainly curtailed many of my activities outside the farm gate. Some things have been transferable online but some simply are not, the outcome being that suddenly there seems to be a few more hours in the day. Time that has, by and large, been usefully deployed catching up on many of those little ‘just’ jobs, the ones that have been on the list for ages but simply need a ‘bit more time’. Sorting out a bit of fencing, a bit of plumbing and so on, tasks which have entailed spending significantly more time with and around the sheep. Useful time, but time that has also provided numerous opportunities to observe our ovine charge; time to simply stand and watch, time to spot some of the little quirks, their interactions and behaviour. For the first time this year we (rather the shepherdess) have lambed a new but small flock of Herdwick, just half a dozen purebred ewes with a very smart pedigree ram (incidentally only the second MV accredited Herdwick flock in the country, unfortunately the other is in Scotland). I was certainly not convinced initially, but they have certainly grown on me, they really are interesting and very different little sheep. To many outside the sheep sector a sheep is simply a sheep; “they all look the same to me” springs to mind, but anyone with any experience of sheep will appreciate that different breeds all have different characters.

Over the years I have worked with a huge variety of sheep; hill sheep in Wales, fat-tailed breeds in the Middle East, pure breeds, cross breeds etc so have been accustomed to differing characters, but the Herdwick have certainly generated a few surprises. They are so different to other sheep, in their individual characters, in their group interactions and most of all in their behaviour and interactions with other ewes’ lambs.

All sheep are opportunistic, particularly where food is involved, but not like the Herdys, they take opportunism to a new level. They are incredibly quick to learn, both individually and from each other; it is all too easy to be taken in by their innocent-looking smiley faces. Most surprising has been how they interact with each other; an ideal lockdown sheep, social distancing is not a problem for a Herdwick, they are so fiercely individualistic, particularly once they have lambs at foot. They keep their lambs far tighter than most other breeds and simply do not tolerate, in any way, another ewe’s lambs coming anywhere close either to them or their lambs, sometimes really quite aggressively. I am really pleased that the Herdwicks (and having a little more time to observe) have renewed my interest in sheep behaviour, something that, I suspect we all, to our own cost, take far too much for granted from time to time. To quote from William Henry Davies: “What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare… A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.”


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