There are times in all of our lives when we reach particular milestones, which often generate an opportunity to step back and reflect on what has gone before.
My specific milestone has been the decision after almost 38 years of association with Hadlow College to finally retire. I say association with Hadlow College: I did leave once before in order to tread my own path for a few years to reconnect with the industry in a variety of ways by doing some consultancy work, freelance training and assessment and having an enjoyable spell as breed secretary for the Romney Sheep Breeders and a range of other activities.
But during that time there wasn’t a year that went by without some connection with Hadlow, either through consultancy work or lecturing. So it was obviously not a decision that I made lightly. I have for a long time regarded myself as doubly blessed. After family, Hadlow has enabled me to indulge my two main passions in life: agriculture and sheep in particular, and agricultural education. It is my passion for the former that fuels my passion for the latter.
My first involvement in the industry goes more than 60 years to my childhood, helping out on a friend’s family farm, certainly working harder than any child would be allowed to now. I was milking the Shorthorn house cow, moving pigs, hoeing and singling sugar beet, harvesting sugar beet in the autumn (by hand including topping and tailing) and numerous other tasks in all sorts of weathers and best of all enjoying it.
And it was this that fired my passion for agriculture and the countryside. My active engagement in the sector began almost 10 years later, milking a herd of 180 Friesian cows, which was quite a big herd in the late sixties. But, it wasn’t until I was at university in North Wales (it was the climbing not sheep that was one of the main attractions) that I discovered sheep. Working at weekends and holidays on one of the university farms you simply couldn’t ignore them, and once experienced they do tend to become addictive.
There is something very special about being up on the tops of the mountains at sunrise to begin the summer gathering, collecting nearly 15,000 ewes and lambs from square miles of open mountain into one set of dry stone walled pens for sorting. As they approach the pens individual sheep or groups of sheep cease to be as they blend into an undulating mass of white which is quite an awe inspiring sight. And, once the hubbub of sorting is over, the slow, quiet walk back to their home farms for shearing, weaning and marking. Those were long, hard, exhausting, but unforgettable days.
I have been fortunate enough to enjoy and learn from the experience of hill sheep in the UK, large nomadic and yarded flocks in the Middle East, UK lowland sheep production, pedigree breeding, plus a sprinkling of Alpine and pre sale sheep in France. And the key thing that I have been able to take from all of this is the shared passion of sheep keepers wherever they are in the world.
Having my own small flock of pedigree Lleyn sheep for the past 32 years has enabled me to indulge my passion further – not that everything has always been easy going. It never is where livestock are concerned and life in general will always have its ups and downs. Probably my lowest point was during March 2001, sitting in my car outside the gate of my lambing paddock, in the middle of lambing with ewes and lambs paddling about in mud – because any movements off were prohibited – knowing that there was a suspect case of foot and mouth just over a mile away and having to accept that if the case were to be confirmed, my sheep, including lambs, would all be killed out within the next few days. That was not an experience that I would wish on anyone. My high point was probably winning the reserve supreme championship at the Kent Show with a Lleyn ram.
Agriculture in general and sheep in particular have provided me with an enormous amount of job satisfaction over the years and a very wide circle of friends and acquaintances across the UK and some from even further afield such as Iceland and New Zealand and this is what has been the key driver in my passion for agricultural education. I have personally derived a huge benefit from my work in agriculture and my involvement in agricultural education, from smallholders to graduates, has allowed me to make some contribution to the future of the industry and, hopefully, inspire young entrants to agriculture to develop that all important passion for what they do.
They say that things go full circle and I have got to the point now where I am seeing the circle closing. Paddock grazing is quite on trend at the moment as it was when I was milking cows 50 years ago. Mangles were popular then, fodder beet is on the ascendancy again as are alternative forage crops, and I am now teaching sons and daughters of students I taught 30 years ago, so now is the time for a break: this particular circle has closed. Not that I intend to retire completely: I am looking for new challenges and opportunities. The industry still has a long way to go and maybe the post Brexit era will trigger a new wave of innovation and remove some of the complacency that subsidies have brought to large sectors of the industry and I want to be part of that forward movement.
A big thank you to the agricultural industry, agricultural education, and to those within it, the sheep sector in particular, that have made the past 50 plus years so enjoyable, and welcome to the future of what is and, I’m sure, will always be a dynamic and successful industry, in spite of the politicians and Brexit.