“Look what I’ve got,” cried the exuberant child as she ran towards me with no concept of social distancing. With outstretched hand she unfurled her clenched fingers to reveal a small ball of icy particles. “I hope it snows,” she shrieked as she ran off to join the other child racing around in circles amongst the rushes. Their actions reminded me of my dogs when they have a loopy turn. “I sincerely hope it doesn’t,” I muttered under my breath, thinking of all the extra work snow creates. The sheep had plenty of grazing in this field, but under the circumstances opening the gate to allow them to find a more peaceful setting seemed sensible. The adult accompanying these children was by now close enough to talk to. “This is a hoar frost,” he proclaimed, before questioning me: “Why did all the sheep run to you?” I didn’t point out that the sheep had been spread out happily grazing until he’d arrived on the scene. “I’m their shepherd and they know me,” I replied. “Wow, I’ve never met a real live shepherd, how exciting,” he exclaimed.
The information that no public right of way exists in these fields was lost on him. Not wishing to have to extract a bunch of ewes from the dykes, I asked him how far he was intending to go. I was relieved when he agreed not to go further than the gateway. Part of me was happy to witness urban dwellers’ appreciation of the countryside. However it would be better if they could learn respect for animals and the environment. These people need educating, so they understand that certain behaviour can unwittingly have a negative impact. This is an important message that needs telling.
The children I met were from Hawaii. This strange lockdown encounter in the middle of Pevensey marshes revealed that the gentleman looked after children in care. He described looking after under-age asylum seekers, Syrians and Kurds who’d made the precarious crossing on boats. He remarked how these children were a pleasure to look after, motivated and keen to work, in complete contrast to the attitude of UK children. I don’t doubt this observation and it makes me wonder what our society could do to rectify this.
Due to lockdown, the Oxford Real Farming Conference was held online. I’ve long had the ambition to attend, so for £21 I purchased a farmer ticket. I was hoping to find the conference an uplifting experience, but was sadly disappointed. While I pottered in my kitchen, the iPad had pride of place on our table. Yes it was interesting and thought provoking, but sometimes downright annoying. While watching the speakers’ presentation, you could see the chat from delegates on the sidelines. Although distracting, it provided a platform for networking and it was intriguing to follow the conversation. I was dismayed by anti-livestock comments. There was much talk about regenerative, organic, grass-fed, eco-friendly, rotation, hedges, fruit and tree planting etc. Along with calls for UK livestock production to be halved. The conference also embraced a global element. Climate change affects us all. We can learn from past mistakes, but now we should move forward and endeavour to build a food system that doesn’t cause harm to our planet. The crux of the matter is the ‘How’ we can achieve this. It’s not just farmers; the whole food chain needs to take action. Supermarkets got very little mention, but I think if retail cared less for their profit margin and more for the environment they could make a real difference.
I got the impression that many speakers were ‘re-inventing the wheel’. The practices they talked about were carried out by our grandfathers but ousted in the name of progress. Rotation is hailed as a new-found revelation, yet this has been practised since Roman times. In the past hedges were maintained and preserved, but with calls for greater efficiency and government grants, many were routed. The apple trees in our garden were rescued from an uprooted orchard. Keeping your soil healthy is surely the base for all farming. One new element discussed was the suggestion that land prices could rise due to large companies paying for carbon sequestration to offset their carbon emissions. To me this seems morally wrong. Next year I’ll have to try The Oxford Farming Conference; better start saving up now. On reflection perhaps I’m better suited to practical farming where I mostly know what I’m doing.
Hannah and I have been busy attending to the new hedges we planted in March last year. Predictably during the dry summer, and despite watering them, we’ve incurred some losses which need replacing. Those that have flourished we’ve pruned to encourage bushy growth and freed from unwanted weeds. We’re hoping to establish more hedges and restore others by coppicing and gapping up. We’ve ordered stouter tree planting spades for the job. We’re grateful to Christine Meadows from The High Weald for her help and guidance through the process of the Landscape Enhancement Initiative to which we’re signed up.
Lockdown put an end to beating duties, so our spaniels are helping with tree maintenance but get indescribably dirty. Kizzy, our not so useful kelpie/collie, is exceedingly pleased with herself. Along with catching vermin and keeping an eye on the farmyard, it turns out she is really rather good at holding up the cattle in the back of the shed. This enables ‘the master’ to access the shed, fill the hay feeder and blow in fresh bedding without cattle escaping. Bless her, she’s always been frightened of sheep; who’d have thought she’d be so brave with cattle? It’s only taken her 10 years to find her vocation.
I’m told it’s blue Monday and today Anna is rock’n and writing with grandma while her parents make cheese. The only thing blue around here is Pevensey Blue. Anna agrees with me it must mean it’s a good day to eat cheese…
PS. On these dark evenings, English Pastoral, by James Rebanks is a good read. On iPlayer we’ve been binge watching – This Farming Life is totally recommended.