Sheep Shibboleth

As we near the end of another seasons lambing we take a look at the different cliches found in every lambing shed around the world. Chances are if you’ve spent any amount of time working with our ovine friends, you … Continue reading

On to pastures new

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It is with great sadness but a bit of excitement I can say I am moving on to pastures new and lusher – or so I’ve been told – in New Zealand.

Riding in the world’s biggest combine harvester one day, being kicked in the leg by an alpaca the next, and the day after liaising with members of the royal family.

It may sound like a rather unusual combination but that’s been my life for the past two years at South East Farmer magazine.

Now it is with great sadness but a bit of excitement I can say I am moving on to pastures new and lusher – or so I’ve been told – in New Zealand.

I suppose my international departure can partly be blamed on the many inspirational people I have interviewed during my time at the magazine, reminiscing over the years they spent mango farming in Costa Rica, transporting breeding pigs to South Africa by boat, or cattle driving on horseback through the Australian outback. So when I received an email offering me sheep work on the South Island of New Zealand my feet got a whole lot itchier.

It is perhaps not until I am leaving that I appreciate what the last two years have given me, not only from an experience point of view, but also from all the people I have met along the way and all that I have learnt about the industry.

From sitting in on government meetings on agricultural legislation to watching cattle sell at Ashford Market while chomping on a bacon butty, every event has been as valuable as the next.

My diverse adventures have confirmed to me that I am in an industry that holds great value to the UK with a community spirit so strong that I’m not sure any other sector could compete. Farmers and growers are positive and innovative despite the hurdles constantly being thrown at them, and probably the only bunch of people that will openly share their secret to success with you until the cows literally come home.

I’ve met some real characters along the way, from the tough as nails dairy farmer who cares for his cattle with the softest hand, to the Discovery 4 driving, Schoffel adorned arable farmer whose son probably joined me at Cirencester. But I’ve met many a stereotype breaker too, from the dairy girls milking in bikinis, to the multistorey council estate city boy turned agricultural adviser.

I distinctly remember one Kent farmer looking me up and down one day at market and exclaiming: “You’ve lost weight young lady!” – to which I responded with a confused frown. He bluntly continued: “I’m a sheep farmer. You think I don’t notice when an old girl’s getting a bit boney?”

Watching the industry from an outsider’s perspective has not always been as genial, as I’ve seen producers fight against the odds to keep their businesses afloat with little help or sympathy. From blockading milk processors, opening their lives up to the public by taking part in Open Farm Sunday, marching through Whitehall with a Jersey cow in tow, to parading their champion livestock around a ring at county shows, I’ve watched producers promote and educate in their own individual ways. But every farm I visit I observe the same power of commitment to their enterprise, an enthusiasm that I hope to carry with me.

It’s been a particularly exciting year to be a journalist, let alone one in agriculture, with Brexit mixing the opinions of many, government falling apart – or coming together in some people’s opinions – and an exciting but nerve wracking uncertainty in the air for what the future holds.

After meeting so many energised, positive and forward thinking next generation farmers in the region, it is evident that agriculture has a promising future with so many people passionate about this diverse and exciting industry, that I too am proud to consider myself a part of.

I’d like to thank all our readers, contributors and my colleagues for the support and kind words over my time here and for all the warm messages I have received about my departure – you are what truly makes the magazine. If you would like to follow me on my travels, I’ll be blogging and posting on Twitter.

In or out? It’s your shout

Thursday’s South of England Show saw Sir Peter Kendall and Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP go head to head in a fiery and engaging debating discussing whether agriculture would be better off in or out of the European Union.

Crowds of farmers attended the event, organised by the National Farmers Union (NFU), challenging the pair on their views and hearing how their industry could be affected in the upcoming referendum.

Arriving with the firm opinion that agriculture would be always be better off in the EU, I wasn’t expecting the next hour of my life to be particularly inspiring, having sat in on many an EU debate in the last six months- turns out I was wrong.

First to the floor was Owen Paterson, who I hadn’t seen in person since he gave a rather dull presentation on UK bee decline at Fruit Focus two years ago.. or was that George Eustice? Anyway.. The likeable MP (oxymoron?) clearly had a passion for the subject and gave an animated history lessons into the rise and demise of the European Union.

Paterson told the audience: “We’ve come to a very clear fork in the road but we’ve got to wish them well.”

Speaking of his time at DEFRA fighting CAP reform, Paterson asked an unresponsive audience: “Who here would have thought up the three crop rule?”

“Not one of you is that stupid.

“I met with the Spanish minister whose country must now try and grow a variety of crops in 45 degree heat where only an olive tree would grow. I met with the Swedish minister, who suffered -45 degree temperatures in North Sweden and can only grow Spruce trees. You can’t set the same standards across a mass that varies so much. We’ve been forced to accept a miserable compromise that damages our environment.”

Which is why Owen Paterson proposes that we take hold of our country and have trust in our own MPs (another oxymoron?) creating a tailor made system that is suitable for our environment and economy.

Of course this seems like a very good idea but as Peter Kendall reminded us in his speech, agriculture is a small industry in the grand scheme of things in the UK. With 84% of our country being classed as urban, we are by no means a priority and aligning ourselves with countries where agriculture is of higher importance is our safest bet.

Let’s not forget we’re the only country in Europe with a law in place that protects badgers- do we really want to farm with a government that could only be described as a bunch of posh pushovers? Look at the ban on hunting with hounds for example. A vote for MPs last July was cancelled because a few animal rights loonies in fancy dress cried outside parliament.

Owen claims that the EU is becoming the ‘museum of farming’ due to its inability to adopt new technologies like neonictinoids and GMO, but if he really thinks a country that values stupidity over science is going to adopt GM in the near future, he’s been sharing too much oxygen with Kerry McCarthy.

With empty promises from MPs flying around daily, really a vote to leave the EU is a vote to jump into the unknown, hands behind your back and blindfold tied. With Michael Gove last week promising cheap food for all and reduced trade barriers to help developing countries on one side, and Boris Johnson offering farmers a ‘much fairer deal‘ on the other, its safe to say no one has any idea how the UK would look without the EU, and judging by track history, agriculture is not going to come out on top.

Owen Paterson had some good points that could have easily swayed some, but amid a few odd jokes about Swedish nurses that I’m not sure anyone really understood, and some rather cross farmers fed up of their questions being swerved, my mind was still made up. In ten days time I will be voting to remain in the European Union. Better the devil you know, right?eu_debate_760_380_c1.jpg

The Lambing Poem

by Sheena Blackwell

Living away from the farm now, working full time and having more sheep than ever meant this year’s lambing was my most challenging yet, but with hard work comes reward and now it is over the endless sleepless nights and early mornings are a mere memory. Sadly the lamb poo stains on my lounge carpet are more permanent following lifeless breach triplets one very wet March night.

I came across this poem by Sheena Blackwell who sums up that feeling of hearing a lamb take its first bleat, something I feel that no matter how many sheep I see come into this world, I will ever take for granted.

 

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Like grey fur boulders rabbits huddle down, Ears pressed back like sleeves, Raiding the grassy larder of the fields.

The car goes cobbling over Ruts and pots of pasture, Stops and fixes the ewe In its twinned spotlight.

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Under the cold stars, Stuck between push and pant, She’s hard by the dyke, Womb filled with lamb Jammed in the breech position.

This is not an occasion For caution, for gentle introduction, For ‘How do you dos’; A flying tackle topples her off Her four black matronly pegs, A capsized table, wearing a face of fleece.

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Her master thrusts his hand into the bloody darkness Closing around his arm like a mouth. His sinews tauten. One pull jerks out a slimey, slithery flop, All dangly legs and head Swung like a pendulum over the racing ground.

He cleans its outh of muck, Lays it down, Kneads its sides like bellows.

The baa when it comes is beautiful; Thin and reedy, ancient and new.

Here is craft at work, Satisfactory as sliding glass into wooden grooves Properly fitted, every corner plumb; Like setting a ship in motion down a slipway.

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Bitten by the beating bug

The value of shooting is greatly publicised.. but what about the value of beating?

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“Come along on Saturday- its great, fun lots of banter.”

‘Banter?’ I frowned as the estate owner tried to sweet talk me into joining his team of beaters on the growing syndicate shoot he owns in the village I grew up in.

Spending a day chasing around birds for people who are paying to do what I want to be doing (shooting) and not getting anything but a hot lunch from it sounded really great fun..

I had a million and one other things to do but this guy had been good to me, he lets me graze his 500 acre estate for free, hell he even gave me a wild boar once, so I dubiously agreed.
Arriving on the day was slightly daunting- I can’t say I’m your average looking country bumpkin and I often get underestimated in my abilities to get my hands dirty. A bit of lipgloss can only help not hinder surely? But I was welcomed with open arms by fellow beaters, all very chatty and keen to get a sniff of where this fresh meat had suddenly emerged from. “You’re the girl from South East Farmer!” one lady chimed. I was pleased to see my regional celebrity status stretched to the beating line.
Upon first impressions, I was surprised to see such a variety of people there- especially woman. Infact predominantly women. Kids in high visibility jackets ran around playing and older gentlemen with their grey faced spaniels at their feet chatted away to the guns like they’d known them for years. In fact, looking at the scene as a whole, they probably had known them for years. This was a community.

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The first drive- around 150 birds are shot each weekend which are then supplied to a local pub

 

I was offered a shot of brandy and a sausage sandwich, which obviously I gratefully accepted and we were on our way; stick in hand, dogs at foot but still chatting away.

It turns out that the actual process of beating is a very minor part of the day.

Short periods of time were spent diving through cover crop in a carefully arranged line, but the rest is spent laughing, walking, eating and yes, Ian was right, an awful lot of banter.

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I was easily convinced to join the guns and beaters in the pub afterwards. Guns tip the beaters by leaving money in a pint glass at the pub and voila free drinks all night.
As I lay in bed that night I felt an immense feeling of happiness (and a slightly spinning head). In one day I had become part of an exclusive fraternity- I’m pretty sure some of the nicest and most welcoming people I have ever met were at that shoot. After growing up somewhat of a black sheep I had found a group of people who understand everything I had been scorned for in the past.

One lady, Karen, told me how she decided to try out beating five years ago when her confidence levels were at rock bottom and she was terrified of loud bangs. She hasn’t missed a day since and her confidence has grown no end, with her daughter and granddaughter now also being heavily involved.
“You’re back?!”, Gary, a particularly welcoming member of the group exclaimed as I enthusiastically arrived the following week.

My weekends began to revolve around the shoot, declining invitations regularly “sorry I have work that day.” Not strictly a lie.. “No, I cant do the evening either, yup, still working”- I was ditching life long friends for people I had just met, knowing full well I’d have a much better time with them.

My love life suffered, I couldn’t possibly get a boyfriend- what if he expected to see me on Saturdays?!

If you had told me a year ago that I’d be going on nights out with men twice my age stood in Michelin starred pubs and being glarred at for my mucky wellies, I’d have laughed.

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These people are not only great fun, they’re amazing advocates for the countryside and the shooting industry. Not living in a particularly rural part of the country, every Saturday evening we raid a pub in town head to toe in wellies, tweeds, flat caps, wax coats with spaniels at our feet. But that’s where the stereotype ends. We have builders, bank managers, beauticians and babies within our group and do we seclude ourselves? Far from it. Every man, woman and child that enters that pub gets a smile and its unusual for them to leave without having asked for the phone number of someone so they can come beating for a day to try it out.

And to leave you with a final revelation.. I have spent much of my past on shoots, gun in hand, numb with the cold, waiting and waiting, and for the final day of the season I am brushing the cobwebs off my 20 bore for a day on a peg, and all I can say is, quite frankly, I’d rather be beating.

Its long way from now until October, but if you want a great day out, plenty of exercise, a brace of pheasant to take home, and to make great friends along the way I urge you, find your local shoot and get stuck in!

 

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Pigs not playstations

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Perhaps the most pleasing sight of all at this year’s Ashford Cattle Show was not the old farmer boys with years of soil under their belts chatting away to old friends, or the auctioneer smiling because lambs are finally selling for a decent price in what seems like forever, or even the farmer’s wife whose Christmas cake was placed after years of trying. But the hoards of screeching, laughing and delighted young farmers that came with their schools to try their hand at showing.

With the young farmers section of the market buzzing with activity, children as young as 11 could be seen catching, carding and cleaning lambs that they will see through from birth to butcher.

Apart from the obvious benefits that these children will gain from such an experience, school farms and young farmers clubs can teach young people a thousand lessons in one, from running a viable business, caring for the natural environment, nurturing and respecting beasts, and that dedicating your life to the land is something to be proud of.

With 110 school farms in the UK, a number which has almost doubled in the last 10 years, Prince Charles has praised this initiative. In a speech at Riseholme Agricultural College, the Prince said: “I still feel very strongly that the school farm could play such a valuable part in introducing at an early stage the whole process of growing something or looking after an animal. “It is absolutely clear that the most fundamental challenges the world faces over the coming years will need to be solved by those working in agriculture.”

With most of the children having no previous farming experience before they joined the schools, these young people have been given the opportunity to enter a fast-paced and exciting sector full of prospects, while learning about food production and healthy eating.

The shear delight on these childrens’ faces when them, or one of their classmates, was handed a rosette was a thousand times brighter than that of any child I’ve ever seen bearing an X-Box controller.

I couldn’t help but think, perhaps if more children spent their Monday afternoons wrestling with wayward pigs and watching the auction of lamb carcasses, perhaps the industry, or maybe even the world, would be a much better place

Scouting for girls

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This week the news hit our headlines that the first female Scout leader had been elected in the UK.

Feeling fairly unfazed by the news, I took to social media to reminisce over good times I spent as a young Scout myself. However, I was surprised to be met with claims that girls should have never been allowed to join what initially began as a male-only organisation, and we should remain strictly within a Girl Guides group, the reason why I’ll never know.

Now I can’t say I’ve ever had myself down as much of a feminist. I’m all for equal rights but I wont be burning any under garments outside parliament in the near future, however this statement really warmed my blood.

From the age of 7 years old to 13 I was a keen member of the Cubs, and then eventually the Scouts. My Friday evenings were spent building camps in the woods, learning how to tie knots (which I incidentally still use on a daily basis) and getting covered head to toe in dirt. It was great.

During the holidays we did Scout Camps which included all of the above plus much more but for a week at a time, energised by a daily diet of lukewarm baked beans.

Now, admittedly I was a little naughty, well technically my parents were, and I was also enrolled with the local Girl Guides group. This became particularly problematic during Remembrance Day when both the Guides and the Scouts expected me to take part in the parade with them, but every year I was ‘just too poorly’. Sorry Brown Owl and Michala if you’re reading this!

Anyway, Girl Guides met every Wednesday night and we spent our time in the comfort of a village hall learning to sew, perfecting our handstands and playing group games. This was also great fun and I made some wonderful friends along the way. However, knitting isn’t for everyone, and although it gave me the skills to crochet a rather attractive scarf, it didn’t give me the fresh air and adventure that I thrive upon.

The comments made about female Scout members impeding on ‘boy time’ and therefore should be banned quite frankly saddened me. To think of all the outdoorsy young girls out there, a younger version of myself that lives to get muddy and walks around with twigs in her hair, could be deprived of those experiences because of a simple difference in her anatomy is just ludicrous.

She might never learn to tie the invaluable reef knot, never learn to light a camp fire when its pouring with rain and the elements are against her, and she might never realise how easy it is to beat a boy at a game of Kwik Cricket. All skills that I maintain to this day.

I met boys and girls at Scouts that I’m still friends with now. Friends that I can joke with about the time we found that dead mole, or when John Smith ate a maggot and turned green. And I’d say we’ve all grown up into pretty well rounded people.

Scouts was there before a gender barrier ever was, and it was only until I had grown older and left that people started to point out to me that it was unusual for a girl to attend- before that I’m not sure it had ever even crossed my mind. In fact, it was only until I grew older that many of my male orientated hobbies were scrutinised, and still are to this day. But Scouts helped me build up that initial confidence in myself, and taught me I have the ability to do anything I want to do and be whoever I want to be.

So if you’d like your child to find their sense of adventure and learn how to survive a damp night in the village woods, then enrol them with a Scout group. And if you want your daughter (sorry, they haven’t mastered allowing boys to join yet) to make local friends and learn the value of team work, then stick her in the Guides. But just a warning, if like my parents you like peace and quiet two nights a week, make sure you have a good excuse for when they both ask you to be flag bearer at the parade..

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