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The Lye of the Land

For those who don’t farm, it’s difficult to comprehend the mentality of those – like me – that do.

Even for folk who understand its demands; it can be an impossible profession. Beyond the façade of frump, poverty and hardship grey grim can stalk the pursuit. For many it remains a process of self-flagellation in terrible weather, in the mud, in the rain, in the cold. Ripped up jackets with their stuffing falling free, crusted with shit or engine oil. Hard, hoary hands torn and bleeding. Colored below skin depth with dark veins of filth.

A rising tide of mental health issues, suicides, isolations, family breakdowns and despair reflect the reality of a very hard life.

So why bother?

It has to be in you and if it is its near unthinkable to do anything else. You are a ‘lord’ large or small on your own land. Making free decisions in your mind even though the banks may rule them in reality. With the seasons guiding your activities you don’t need to think much beyond the boundaries of the most recent chlamydia treatment for sheep, the current cast price for decrepit cows or which toxin to strew on your slugs now that methaldahyde has gone. You don’t want to leave or give up. Why would you? Its been your life whole and complete. It’s your essence and your soul.

 

*

 

Farming runs in my family.

My great grandfather bred the first ever black-faced ram to make the near-unthinkable price of £1,000 in Lanark market at the turn of the nineteenth century. I still have its sepia image on the wall. For him and his ilk farming was not for defeatists. You never stopped working. You never gave in. You never had holidays – or if you did you went to other farms to see sheep, dogs, cattle, crops or girls. Although this last commodity was important, you had to be careful not to incur inessential expenditure. Trips to the pictures, county fairs, or fish and chips were not life essentials, so expenditure on courting had to be light. While sufficient expenditure on girls was therefore necessary to ensure a positive result – after all they could produce a desired crop of sons who would farm to follow you – there was no need for wanton extravagance. You never knew when the opportunity to drag the flaking carcass of a rust-ridden tractor out of a hedge to obtain a gear bearing over half a century in age might present itself. Money for this component would be critical, and any ice cream overspend would dent your chances of obtaining the prize if a meaner neighbor outbid you.

You never missed church.

Truly by the grace of god, you were there on earth to farm.

You were a big man in your community as a farm manager or a tenant. While you told tall stories to your laughing chums on whiskey-amber nights, you still took of your cap to the wife of your employer when she hacked by on her hunter. Wildlife was barely considered. Wading birds were plentiful. You ate their eggs and the birds themselves. You shot unusual albinos or the last of the fading corncrakes. Over decades their cadavers of whatever hues faded in dusty glass bell jars until all became pale in the end.

The farming culture I have known since I was small – a good day out was going with Uncle John in his wheezing green Austin to view gigantically-horned rams in a smelly ruin of a sheep shed where old gnarled men secured expressionless deals – was a settler culture. You were there to push back the wilderness, drain the swamps, wrench out the scrub, deep plough, fertilize and poison. To knead the whole into neatly squared fields where no untidiness remained.

Old buildings were demolished. Neolithic burial cairns revered since the bronze age quarried or ploughed under. Fritillary meadows were unsightly, colorful burdens and centuries’ old hedge banks redundant obstacles to progress.

Ravens came from hell. Eagles were the stuff of legend. Foxes were reviled.

You drowned farm kittens when you found them.

Nothing was sacrosanct. Old breeds of livestock were despised as aboriginals. Tough and hardy they might be, but their presence in the new modern world of progress had to yield to change.

 

*

 

I grew up in the Scottish Borders in a tiny village called Broughton, in the upper valley of the River Tweed. Elfin red squirrels flitted along the back dyke of our garden from the larch plantations to our west. They stole plums. Some neighbors shot them. Later, when my parents separated and I moved with mum to the market town of Biggar some four miles away, our daily bus journeys home on a puce double-decker furbished nature lessons galore. Blackcock lecked in abundance on Broughton Knowe. Wading birds were common, and I never gave a second glance to the skirling, springtime peewits. A crescendo of nesting black-headed gulls with lipstick-carmine bills reeled in screeching cacophony above a tussock swamp; the mink that escaped from a fur farm put paid to their raucous existence long before my school days were done. I remember the indignance of the minute, cinnamon weasel I disturbed under a sheet of corrugated iron in the derelict glasshouses next to my home, a decrepit, forbidden realm of wonder.

Wildlife abounded. Everywhere. Opaline male stickleback with their blush-red bellies in the burn. Olive-egged nests of grey partridge in every hedge bank. Mating banded snails joined with love darts on dew dropped stems. Wonders were always possible. When I opened my bedroom curtains early one summer morning, a tropical bird was there. There in our garden! Its face was black, its back ash-grey and its radiant breast Jaffa orange. I woke mum instantly but when she opened her curtains and we peered out it had gone.

She never saw the male redstart.

Wherever we went there was more to see. A dead badger killed on the road near Biggar Park inspired a whole school visit. Holding hands in pairs, a human snake of tiny kids wound its way through the town to the grassy verge where the fetid carcass lay. Teachers in high viz with the help of our genial policeman – Sergeant Hope in his blue and white panda car – stopped the traffic to let us gawp. Its canines pulled back in a rotting, rictus grin were huge. They told us it ate worms in the cow shit.

We were impressed that a creature of this sort lived among us still. Somewhere out there, in the wild at the edge.

In the dark.

 

*

 

Neither mum nor dad had much of a connection with agriculture. Dad was a kind and gentle man. Before he dissolved slowly into insanity, he had been a talented art tutor, illustrator and sculptor who utilized his veteran’s war grant to study in Italy. Mum taught too, and it was her penchant for spinning in her role as a primary handcraft teacher that resulted by chance in the gift of my own first sheep. I was around ten years of age. It was a Shetland, a small, lithe, goat-like creature with a brown body and patterned, panda face. This race produces perhaps the finest fleece of any British breed, and mum’s willingness to produce from its moor-red coat a broad range of ethnic scarves and gloves was boundless. Though itchy and vast, complaining was no good, and swaddled in these fashion monstrosities I was packed off to school. The other kids laughed as my new clothes still smelt of sheep, and when the moths in the end macraméd her work my relief was unbounded. Much more enthralling was a book I was given filled with grainy black-and-white photos of four horned St Kilda sheep; ponderous white park cattle with ivory horns and ink black noses and brick-red Tamworth pigs whose ancestors came from Barbados. Story after story. A cultural interweaving of livestock with the warp and weave of the peoples of Britain.

In the mid-1970s these breeds were not common, but with pocket money earned droving sheep in Saturday markets and helping hill-herd during holidays I gradually built up a small flock. I began to sell lambs to fund the purchases of other breeds I desired in local sales. To participate in livestock auctions at that time was to witness a soon-to-be-gone way of life. Many of the market drovers I worked with were alcoholics, broken men who might once have been small farmers. Still in pace with their long-lost horses, they ambled slowly towards their own extinction in turned-toe, hob-nailed boots. While a few had a ready wit or individual talent that could surprise – a musical ability was most common – all were subservient to the cattle dealers who were harsh. When a sale was done and the market washed and they reeled into the bar reeking of urine and dung, these men would buy them drink in a show of bonhomie. They only did so as they knew that once started it would not be long before the drovers had liquidated their own meager reserves of cash, and when desperate for more they would have little option other than to provide them with cheap or free labor for the week that followed.

Nestling in the valley folds of the pea-green cheviots or the tawny Lammermuirs were the remote cottages of the hill herds. They were characters. Most had worked with sheep all their lives and were physically shaped by the weather: rigid, crooked, bent or lame. They all looked forward with eager anticipation to the seasonal sheep sales. A social calendar of short, but exquisite, bliss. The well-groomed tups, with their wool dyed ochre, went to Lanark, Stirling or Perth, where cartels of farmers paid huge sums to highlight the worth of a chosen individual male, making headlines in the farming press. While their pals balanced these grandiose sums with lesser purchases, brain-dead journalists outlined their dreary pedigrees in industrial rags. It was a ridiculous masquerade. More sales followed. The draft ewes too old for the hill; gimmers; ewe lambs and wedders. One-balled chasers, riggs and the rubbish of small lambs whose mothers had died. The soo-mouthed and the swaybacked. Cast ewes for killing with mastitis swollen udders dripped pus. Ruptured rams dragged gargantuan testicles across the ground. All poured from the uplands in a bleating cascade. Once his lordships’ sheep were sold, the auctioneer would sell, with a nod and a wink, four for the herd, two for his wife, one for his daughter or six for the farm manager. Cash would be collected as soon as the gavel fell, and as mothers rushed to buy clothing or household treats and farm toys, the husbands with alacrity made straight for the Bakelite tables of the market bar. Under a low-hanging light bulb, a cornucopia of ‘nips’ and pints were consumed at speed while outside their sheep dogs fought and mated in the street. By early afternoon the men were unconscious, and the farm manager’s wife with her lips pursed tight would be summoned with her long, wheel-based Land Rover to return them and what was left of their canine companions to their lairs.

Incrementally my flock expanded, and I rented more poor land to graze them: old railway tracks and ex-horse paddocks, small pens with tar-steeped rails behind a local abattoir. A multihorned Manx ram came from Dumfries, some soays were delivered from Haltwhistle and left with their legs bound in my grandmother’s coal shed. Feral Ronaldseys came from the seaweed shores of the distant Orkneys and promptly escaped. My fences were not good, and while I was at school during the day my mother would commonly receive notice from her village pals that one or other of my oddities had made another bid for freedom. Though some of these happenings were funny, most were not. Excuses as to why mini-lamb – a bottle-reared Orcadian – had once again consumed a garden full of roses did not amuse gran. The worst was when a Shetland ram with whorled horns jumped into a neighboring farmers’ flock of pedigree border Leicester’s. Although gargantuan, their rabbit-faced lothario was no match for this dapper, swift and unexpected rival. To state that the resultant crop of medium sized ginger lambs that his pedigree ewes produced the following year caused consternation to their owner would be an understatement. He came looking for me. That meeting remains one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. He swore, he shouted and when I offered to pay, he laughed. He knew I could not afford to do so. It was pitifully humbling and awkward. The Shetland ram was transported swiftly to the slaughterhouse as a sacrificial offering to his rage.

 

*

 

The big farmers in the 1980s were self-righteous men with large fists and bellies. They had the ear of government and they knew it. From a compact forged in a war long past came unlimited amounts of tax-payer’s cash. Their incomes were gilt guaranteed. Combines and tractors were subsidised, grants given for hedgerow removal, great mires could be drained entirely at the expense of others. The plunder was limitless. If you kept sheep and cows (they did not always have to have calves or lambs) you got paid for their presence on your land. Every which way you turned, limitless loot flowed effortlessly in a variety of streams to pool quite liberally in your lap. Their generation had known rationing and seen Europe starve, but they could as individuals not fail in life or prepare for death in peace. When you got older what to do? If you sold your farm, what then? No market days when you could outwit your pals and cheat strangers. No shows. No beasts to care for. No fields to till. Arrogant young sons who sniggered at your inability to understand the computer systems of their telehandlers and who laughed behind your back at your old-time tales.

Your sons married glamorous, young, career women in high heels who marched clicking off the farm with their bored offspring fixed to mobile phones. When they departed large chunks of your legacy left with them and never came back.

Nothing much to do. Bowls? Gardening? Dominos? Golf while you still could, before stiffening limbs stopped movement? Your retired sheep dog going blind and growing warts. In his glazing eyes and rancid breath, the refection of your own passing.

You knew your wife would outlive you. A broken, wandering woman making cakes and scones in plenty for a family long dispersed and a husband long gone.

This was the farming I knew.

 

*

 

When I left school, my love of rare breeds led me to manage a collection of cattle and sheep in a country park just outside Glasgow. It had a small zoo attached, which in the early 1990s was profoundly nasty. As a bribe to entice me into accepting responsibility for its renovation, my then boss arranged for me to attend summer school on the captive breeding of endangered species at Gerald Durrell’s zoo on Jersey. I had read every one of his books and, like many others, came away utterly inspired by his vivid concern for the devastating loss of the natural world. In Jersey I met people from countries without photocopiers, plush carpets, PA’s and Biological Action Plans, who had committed themselves utterly to the salvation of wild creatures. Commonly they did so to their own individual detriment. Sometimes at great risk to their lives. They were simply the most astounding group I had ever encountered. Years after his death, Durrell’s vision of using captive breeding to save endangered species is still being promoted by a legion of earnest disciples. Thirty years on, I am working with some of them to restore the white stork to England.

Before 1994, when I was employed to manage what became the largest-ever effort to breed a broad range of British species of mammals in captivity for public display, I had never considered to any extent the conservation of indigenous wildlife. I always imagined it would be a competent, organized endeavour. As I became more involved it became apparent that this was not so.

Scientists squabbled. Determined, vested interest groups lied and deceived before donning green mantels they were utterly unfit to assume. Gardeners of grouse claimed to be principally concerned with caring for curlews while their servants blew hen harriers from the sky; vets campaigning to promote fox hunting projected their deep concern for wildlife welfare; farmers who destroyed so much became guardians of the countryside. Governments deceived, dithered and ignored. All was branded ‘green’ in the blink of an eye, as soon as it proved prudent to do so.

Some fine people both within government and without tried hard to make progress, to improve natures prospects, to repair and rebuild in the harshest of times, but when the advisory body the Nature Conservancy Council advised against the interests of more powerful governmental departments it was smashed into weak, administrative units. Whenever these newer entities looked likely to evolve a spine, they were rescrambled again to ensure a process of perpetual decline. Advisory influence and ability has declined to near pipsqueak. They are broken. A multitude of NGO’s have been formed with good intent. Several of long-standing tried to plug the gouting hemorrhage of loss to local wildlife. One in seven British species is now threatened with extinction. Many more, from the grey wolf to the blue stag beetle, are already long gone.

It is true that miracles have happened, that red kites now swirl again in the sky above the Chilterns, long after the keepers who cleansed them have passed. White tailed eagles and ospreys, birds of old memory, are being returned to the south. But pretty much every loss-of-biodiversity graph in modern times resembles a ‘thunderbirds’ rocket that has run out of fuel, falling steeply to earth, bearing stark testament to a trajectory of overall loss.

 

*

 

In 2003 I moved to a small holding on a high ridge above the medieval town of Launceston in Devon. Before my mother died, I couldn’t contemplate farming as a realistic profession, but the small legacy she left, coupled with a house sale profit, allowed me to purchase 120 acres of wet dairy land when the old farmer next door retired. It had a broken-down steading with old cattle stalls and neck chains, a larger shed for young stock which flooded every time it rained, sheep handling facilities in a state of ruin and an infrastructure which was otherwise near entirely decrepit.

But I enjoyed my return to farming very much. Knocking down, building, fencing and repurposing anew empire. Buying more land when I could. I was part of a hearty clan, sure of my direction. Although farmers fall out with each other for the most trivial of reasons, they commonly stand together against all else. Outside their tribe lie the enemies: vegans, conservationists, the RPA, the EA, government, other people, other points of view.

Overarching all at that time was the hideous, owl-eyed, daemon of the Monbiot. A bogart beyond comprehension or belief. Lurid tales of his evil intent kept terror-stricken farm kids quivering firmly in their beds at night. Even if they wet themselves they did not stray.

Within the tribe, I was only secure as long as I kept my blinkers on.

I enjoyed identifying the best-performing sheep and cattle for my land, the satisfaction of hitting consistent grading targets for my produce, pals at market saying that my bullocks that year – big, butter yellow, pied Simmentals out of beef shorthorn cows – were the best I had ever produced. I liked to stand at farm gates and watch my calves running races with their buddies as the sun sank slowly flaming beneath the horizon. I liked to smell the spring warmth in the earth in obscure field corners while catching obdurate ewes at lambing. Honestly, I liked to stand in a commanding position on top of a rise, and tell visitors that all those white dots grazing as far as the eye could see were mine.

The subsidies were still lush in the early 2000’s. As a farmer I got approximately £40,000 of tax payer’s money through a no strings system of deposits every year – the Single Farm Payment, Organic Conversion, Entry Level Stewardship. This largesse could, if you paid close attention to the DEFRA websites, be variably expanded into additional money for buying sheep-handling facilities, installing beauty rooms on your farm, opening shops or building roads. While the good old days had gone, and the direction of the loot was variable, its scent could still be followed by the diligent. In theory some of this cash was supposed to divert itself into environmental schemes, but these were ‘broad and shallow’ in the terminology of the NFU, and achieved less than nothing in the end .

Not a lark or a lizard lived on my land as a result.

 

*

 

There is no question that intensive farming systems are largely responsible for the UK’s landscape-scale collapse in biodiversity. Almost a centuries’ worth of chemical-based arable farming has reduced soils in large part to dirt. No humus, no microbes, no invertebrates, no life. An inert medium capable of producing near nothing of worth. When compounded by habitat removal, this doom is so comprehensive – wetlands, hedgerows, scrub woodlands and old pastures are near all gone – that is has proven near genocidal for wildlife. Overgrazing by livestock with their attendant antibiotics, diseased slurries, pesticide applicants and chemical fertilizers has worsened the situation. While farmer’s industrial representatives falsely assure us that everything is fine, it is clear this is tripe.

From my own experience, I know full well that the ‘all’s good’ message is not true. I never encounter the birds of my childhood anymore. The ones that come are fading. Every year the white bobbing arses of the wheatears, gazumping the swallows as the heralds of spring, are fewer in number. Sewage fungus in my lower stream in 2015, a present from the next-door dairy farmer, removed all remaining life from our stream.

Occasionally, from an older generation, whispered murmurings of memories not so distant. Orchids in great profusion along the upper meadows, before silage did them down. Barn owls, glow worms, hen harriers, hares, water voles, short-eared owls and stonechats. All had once been. The saddest loss are the curlews. In the time I have farmed, perhaps on only three occasions in the mists of an early morning has a curlew risen.

Calling, calling, calling its plaintive, whauping lilt.

 

*

 

The long-lived birds that still come here are the last of the chicks born thirty years ago, in a landscape that’s now gone. Were they lucky, in their generation, to survive the gutting of the wet moors, the deep ploughing and drainage? Or has their life been one of eternal regret?

No mates. No home. No food. No future.

Is it possible for a bird to rationalize complete individual isolation?

I can’t reverse their loss on my 300 acres, but for me this knowledge is unbearable. It haunts me still, though they come no more. Where our sheep grazed nothing lived. When they died, their toxic carcasses offered no solace even to the maggots of blowfly. I knew I had to change. In 2018 I dismembered the farm. Livestock in the flocks and herds we had been building for over a decade all had to go. Old pals and their calves. Sheep looking good. I could not stand the dispersal sales. I did not attend, did not want to see them split from their friends. From their families.  It hurt as the barns, sheds and fields emptied. People left too. Others were bewildered.

Although I know rationally that even in a good year we made no money from farming, and that it required our subsidies and other income streams to stem the losses, the cultural change, the letting go, was frightening.

But I have now reintroduced water voles to my farm, released polecats and returned honking skeins of graylag geese to the land and water which was once theirs. A population of wildcats which will one day be fit for release is in place. A white stork flock will be added next year. Black storks may breed. Small wetlands are reforming where we have ruptured the drains, farm woodlands have been planted by good souls, brash is retained in field corners, water sheds protected from grazing livestock.

It’s not enough. More needs to be done.

 

*

 

Gradually, and in stages, as is affordable, my land will cease to operate on a ‘normal’ basis. We have finished farming on 120 acres. I have no intention of looking back, but rather forward. I aim to provide a tangible example of how a landscape can be reshaped to become one which balances farming interests with the critical needs of wildlife.

From a chance escape in 2013, beavers are breeding in our streams. They are most welcome, and the intricacies of their constructions are birthing water worlds in great abundance. The presence of these creatures’ – natures healers – is a privilege and delight. We have assembled a herd of feral cattle whose young males produce biodiversity from their behavior. Smashing trees into the shapes of blown-out umbrellas or gouging out banks with their horns in surly, lust-ridden rage when the old bulls deny them access to cows. Iron age pigs are digging wallows in the seeps where the old drains leach water upwards. Exmoor ponies are here as well

Is it too early to see a difference? Is it too soon to chart a change?

A grasshopper warbler was calling in May 2019 in the willow woodland, where our pool systems begin. A pair of reed buntings caught caterpillars for their nest of tiny chicks in a gorse thicket in June. Meadow vetchlings, speedwell and wild yarrow are emerging now at the edges of fields, never reached by nitrates.

I saw a brown hare the other day. A rush of russet running along a fence line. I have not seen one here for years. Stone chats bred in 2020. Some life is left.

Tendrils. Fragile. Tiny. Delicate. Of hope.

 

Image © Paul Morris

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