I enjoy a good read and currently I am in the middle of James Rebanks’ English Pastoral, a good, thought-provoking read to which I will later return. It is, however, a book that has caused me to reflect, at some length, on my life within farming. My early years were spent in the small village of Fishbourne, now famous for its Roman Villa, just outside Chichester, and I suspect that my rural upbringing meant I was always destined for a career in the countryside.
My introduction to farming began probably around the age of four or five. Although not from a farming background, a good friend at the time was a farmer’s son who lived just a couple of hundred yards along the lane; as a result we spent many hours on the farm together, returning home only to be fed. Initially it was time spent exploring and playing, but this soon developed into “working” on the farm, not because we had to, but because we wanted to, as making some sort of contribution seemed important.
Our efforts began with fetching the house cow, a large, red Dairy Shorthorn, each morning from her paddock across the lane, into her loose box ready for milking, a process which we at first observed but soon took on as a regular part of our day. By the age of seven or eight we had also developed a level of competence (quite competitive) in hoeing and singling sugar beet in the spring.
During summer we followed the potato spinner to harvest potatoes. These were hand picked into hessian sacks which, once they began to fill, were a bit of a struggle to drag along the rows. They did, however, with one corner tucked into the other, make a reasonably good cape to keep us dry when it rained. Within a couple of years we were big enough to get involved in harvesting sugar beet; with the roots loosened by a cultivator running between the rows we would pull and top and tail the beets, leaving the tops and roots in nice tidy rows, the latter ready for throwing into a trailer later.
What has this got to do with sheep? Nothing, really, but this was the seed that stimulated my interest in farming and the countryside.
In reality as a child I rarely saw a sheep; they were very much a creature of the Downs. I recall seeing pens of Southdown sheep on visits to Chichester Market, but it was always the cattle that impressed me the most. I remember very clearly how on the way to school, on Wednesday mornings, we regularly encountered large groups of Sussex cattle, (all with, what appeared at the time, enormous horns), being walked from the Downs into the market. While the majority of people ducked into shop doorways to escape from the advancing herd, I simply looked on in awe; even now seeing Sussex cattle takes me back to those childhood days, they just don’t look quite so big now.
I didn’t really encounter sheep until many years later when I working as an assistant scientific officer with the Nature Conservancy Council (now English Nature, quite a different organisation and not necessarily for the better) in Bangor, North Wales. My involvement was not directly with sheep; quite the opposite.
Part of the research being carried out at the time was the use of excluded grazing plots at various points in the mountains to monitor the impact of sheep grazing on the mountain flora; plots that were fenced off, some permanently and some for different periods in the year. While working on the plots we would regularly be visited by inquisitive groups of Welsh Mountain ewes, generally with their lambs, simply wishing to investigate what was going on. The ability of these tough little sheep to thrive in some very harsh environments and their seemingly innate and endless curiosity obviously struck a chord with me.
There was a detour into dairying, an interest that arose while I was living in a caravan on a small dairy farm on Anglesey while working in Bangor. Not being someone who enjoyed doing nothing, I quickly became involved with work on the farm at weekends; a nice farmhouse Sunday roast was always a welcome reward for my efforts. This interest precipitated a move back to Sussex, where I spent a couple of years as an assistant herdsman with a 180-cow Friesian herd (quite a large herd more than 50 years ago) and then on to study dairying (the old National Diploma in Dairying) at college in South Wales.
As dairying students, we didn’t have a great deal to do with the college sheep flock, but come shearing time the attractions of a certain young lady (now my other half) led me to volunteer to help with shearing when her course was involved with shearing practical. It was at this point that I discovered that sheep were actually quite interesting animals.
Moving on from there to University in Bangor (mountains and climbing were the real attraction), an opportunity arose soon after arrival to work on one of the university farms. It was a chance that I grasped firmly and it was here that I truly fell under the spell of sheep. Most of my spare time, weekends and holidays were spent working with a flock of 250 Welsh Mountain ewes and a Welsh Black suckler herd, even getting involved with performance testing of Welsh Mountain rams; I had found my niche. Seeing the sunrise from the tops of the Carneddau, ready, in place to start the summer gather at first light, men and dogs working together, gathering and moving some 15,000 ewes and lambs into the sorting pens before the day became too hot was pure poetry; what more could anyone want?
Four years on a research farm in the Middle East served only to both broaden and strengthen my interest and passion for sheep. As the project extension officer, most of my work was with local oasis farmers, but the project sheep specialist, while having a PhD based on sheep research, was not a very hands-on sort of guy, which gave me plenty of opportunities to get stuck in with the 1,600 ewe project flock (400 each of Mutton Merino, Dorper, Awassi and Najdi sheep). The variety added considerable interest, as did the realisation that different breeds of sheep varied not just in appearance but more interestingly also in both behaviour and character; a sheep was not just a sheep.
After several years in an academic environment, returning to North Wales generated a desire to get back to grass roots, hence a couple of years spent contracting, basically doing anything going; fencing, a bit of tractor driving on occasions, a smattering of routine beef herd management and a lot of routine flock management, from lowland flocks on Anglesey to a hill flock in Snowdonia. This included shearing, which started on the Lleyn Peninsular (where I first encountered and admired Lleyn sheep) and ended with the later mountain flocks.
Eventually, however, with a young family to consider, the need for a better work/life balance, a little more job security and a bit more money precipitated a move back into a more academic environment as a lecturer in agriculture at Hadlow, Kent.
It was quite a culture shock moving from the rather more laid-back attitude of the Welsh to discover the rat race in the South East. I certainly missed the regular sheep work, so once settled and able to find a bit of grazing to rent, we began to build our own flock, initially a ragtag mob of draft South Wales Mountain ewes that were interesting, fun and suited us for a while. They provided a welcome release from some of the day-to-day pressures, but once finance allowed we invested in our own pedigree flock. My breed choice, based upon my experience with the lovely, medium-sized and prolific sheep that I had sheared on the Lleyn peninsula, was the Lleyn. After more than 30 years with the Lleyn they are still my passion and my joy; maybe not always instep with other breeders, but I know what I like and what does well for me.
It is this that brings me back to James Rebanks. His book focuses very much on how farming has changed significantly over the years, a feeling with which I have a great deal of empathy. I have seen a lot of changes in 60-plus years, some good and some not quite so good, I have also seen producers forced, by circumstances, to adopt practices that they are not comfortable with. James Rebanks sums up by describing his return to a system of sustainable (regenerative) farming, pleasing neither the more “progressive” farming lobby nor the environmental lobby, but a system that he feels comfortable with, a feeling that I share and with which I have a great deal of sympathy.
Sheep and sheep production does lend itself readily to a return to what some may call old fashioned, or traditional, but I prefer the term sustainable practices. Across the UK our sheep have, for generations, managed the landscapes and created the countryside that people enjoy, which has generated a degree of empathy from the general public. It is a public good and it should be recognised as such. It is a public good which we cannot afford to lose.