The sun is shining, but the floods are at the highest they’ve been all winter. Road conditions are appalling, with alarmingly deep potholes with the potential to inflict serious damage hidden under water. After collecting Anna, aged two from nursery, I was driving along a bumpy road surface when a little voice piped up from the child seat: “Be careful, grandma.” This back seat driver also likes to give advice at road junctions. “One, two… go,” she says with great enthusiasm, and then claps as a reward. It’s worth remembering that following her advice could be catastrophic.
In the autumn we had a scrape constructed on our marsh ground. It was funded by a grant through the High Weald AONB. We were rather pleased with it, but as these marshes have been under water for most of the winter, its existence is easily overlooked. Hopefully when drier weather returns it will be revealed and the enhanced habitat appreciated.
Our oldest grandson, aged four, stood beside me watching the digger in action and, thinking it must be every boy’s dream, I asked: “When you’re older, would you like to be a digger driver?” He gave me a scornful look and exclaimed with great conviction: “No, grandma, I’m going to be a super hero.” I felt suitably reprimanded.
Not long afterwards I was invited to his superhero fancy dress birthday party. I went as a Super Ewe (sheep onesie complete with red cape). It mixed in well amongst the Batmen, Supermen, etc., frolicking on the bouncy castle and whizzing down the slides. I believe “growing old is inevitable, but growing up is optional”. Admittedly I did get a few funny looks on my way to the Sovereign Centre; no harm in promoting the sheep industry to the urban population, though.
The ewes grazing on the Pevensey levels look well despite the weather, and checking them certainly keeps me active, all part of the ‘get fit for lambing’ programme. They will be returning to the home farm at the end of February. I was hoping to scan then, but I’m told that to get accurate results it needs to be done between 80 and 100 days after inception. The marshes aren’t the ideal location for scanning, so let’s hope it’s a fine day.
Fattening lambs has been challenging. Some sold well during December when Angus, aged three, accompanied me. He loves coming to market. He asked me why some sheep in the pen had an A marked on them, and I told him it must be A for Angus. He looked around at other pens and spotted more hoggets marked with A, and with a beaming smile proclaimed: “Those sheep are mine.”
When he learns what fun shepherding is, I wonder if he’ll maintain this enthusiasm. Sheep sold, Angus celebrated in the market café with a hot chocolate. As is usual, lamb prices dropped around Christmas and, sure enough, New Zealand lamb started to appear on supermarket shelves. I’m hoping prices recover, otherwise I’ll be cursing the fact that I didn’t sell lambs as stores.
It seems particularly galling to read newspaper headlines proclaiming supermarkets are forecasting bumper profits. Both producers and consumers are likely to be paying the price for this. If large retailers refuse to pay UK farmers fair prices for their produce, that’s all the more reason for farmers to have access to alternative options, namely trading locally.
There’s strong consumer support for local produce. It’s economically beneficial, provides local employment, involves fewer food miles and reduces environmental impact and animal stress. Is our government incapable of grasping these facts? It would seem so, as they do nothing to stop the demise of small abattoirs.
Enough, no more closures. As an industry we should be supporting each other, working together and aiming for an improved food chain that is safe, less bureaucratic and workable. Wouldn’t it be great if the Food Standards Agency (FSA) could change its negative attitude and actually help make improvements for the good of the whole food industry, not just worrying about export but also about the needs of UK home meat consumption trade, a market that is five times that of the export market.
The FSA has the power; we need constructive help, not obstruction to change. As a grass roots farmer, I acknowledge that perhaps I’ve been guilty of taking the work of abattoirs for granted and not fully realising the problems they face. Getting animals booked in in advance helps their work schedule.
There’s no point in moaning about the past. We should look to the future and ensure that no more abattoirs are lost. In December the Local Abattoirs R Key (LARK) group organised visits to our two closest abattoirs; firstly Forge Farm Meats, located in Southborough, 45 minutes by car, 24 miles from here, and secondly Downland Traditional Meats, Henfield, 49 minutes by car, 34 miles (timings estimated off peak and distances from our farm according to Google Maps).
They were worthwhile visits; our group looked very fetching attired in white boiler suits and hair nets. At Forge Farm I witnessed sheep being slaughtered and at Downland, cattle. It’s a skilled job, professionally done; the staff were friendly and answered all our queries. I was impressed by both businesses and they have my admiration and support.
The NFU held an interesting virtual abattoir meeting at which three panelists spoke about their experiences/challenges running abattoirs. Also discussed was the idea of setting up a mobile abattoir, the cost of which sounded eye watering, not to mention the logistical, bio security and licensing challenges. It’s certainly not the quick fix that some are making it out to be.
At home, winter calving is almost finished. We tested our pulling skills once more when a cow surprised us by having twins. She calved the smallest first, and while it was filling itself on colostrum we observed another pair of legs appearing. We decided assistance might be wise as the second girl was impressively large, considering she was a twin. I don’t know where the cow had been hiding them.
Six Sussex cows and 20 sheep are presently residing in the grounds of Herstmonceux Castle, employed on conservation grazing duties.
In the farmhouse kitchen the war on dirt and straw continues. it might drive me to drink. It’s not the dogs….