The proprietor had decided to close the centre and retire from showing the public around his flock of rare breed sheep.
So it was that we all assembled to pick over an unusual collection of South Downs farming memorabilia. All farm dispersal sales are poignant occasions in that they represent the final winding down of a family’s involvement in farming. But this one delivered sentiment on a scale to bring a lump to one’s throat. It felt almost like this was the end of a practical understanding of how the southern chalklands of England had once been farmed for hundreds of years (up until the 1930s).
My father grew up on a farm at Kingston near Lewes in the 1910s and the highlight of the year would be the morning of the autumn Lewes Sheep Fair when, for several hours, the public road by the farmhouse would be transformed into a river of Southdown sheep.
These sheep were not raised on grass but spent their lives being folded across an endless array of fodder crops that formed part of a complex and highly scientific arable rotation – a system of farming specific to the downs between Eastbourne and Worthing.
I was reminded of all this by a farmer who was at the sale and who had operated one of the last farms ever to use the Southdown sheep as a vital part of a “grassless” arable rotation. I complained to him that my three pet Southdown ewes were not thriving in the horse paddock behind my farmhouse but he gave me short shrift: “Of course they aren’t, Stephen, they were bred to graze turnips and kale, not grass!”
The same farmer went off to inspect an original, if rather dilapidated, 1909 Taskers-Patterson shepherd’s hut. It occurred to me that he may well have slept in a similar hut and, as a boy, would almost certainly have walked behind a plough similar to “the last ox plough to be used in the county” that was also on display at the sale.
The auctioneer quickly rattled through the lots. Everything from shepherds’ crooks to a “bucket of draught oxen shoes.” Inevitably such items were fought over by antique dealers. Farmers looked on with bemusement as a “neck crook” made £220 or “a wooden harrow” made £150. I don’t suppose it will matter that this treasure trove of downland sheep and arable farming equipment has now been dispersed to become “conversation pieces” in the hallways of the well appointed houses of the county set.
Or will it? Today’s downland arable and sheep farmers face the daunting prospect of exclusion from the European Union single market by 2019. Farming minister George Eustice warns us that we will have to compete head on with low cost agricultural exporting countries such as Australia and Brazil without any form of subsidy support.
Might we come to regret the loss of knowledge of how it was once possible to produce bountiful crops of cereals on thin, steep, chalk soils without artificial fertilisers or agrochemicals? Would it be useful to be reminded that while producing all this grain the same farmers were also producing prime fat lambs without having to resort to the use of chemical wormers, expensive vaccines or costly grain based feed?
Should I have bid on that shepherd’s smock after all?