Peaceful mothers and calves

Knowing that Nicki would comment on last Saturday’s AGM, I said nothing about it. I attach at the end of this note a copy of the notes I made for my part of the exercise.

Zoom was a very strange experience, somehow Sebastian made it all work, but it is not a tool I wish to experience again! I can see the advantages it brings; it enables people to be a part of the process from distant places, and that is obviously good. But for someone used to talking to individuals or groups face to face, it is oddly impersonal and yields no immediate feedback. That it has a future is obvious, but my goodness the competence and calm to manage it required is enormous.

With Test Match cricket starting this week I might well have used an early paragraph to celebrate that, but since the English performance to date has been abject, I shall share with you the good news that after the rain we have enough water stored for spraying, and all pastures look revived. From a human point of view, it might have been better if it had all come over just the one day, but from the perspective of the farm, steady rain over several days was excellent. However, the rain was insufficient to fill the large scrape which I think is significantly drier than in most years.

A dry scrape

The rain meant the planned programme for the week was disturbed, but on Friday when the sun shone it was possible to check the flock for fly strike and apply Clikzin and as of that moment, no animals were found to have been attacked.  At the same time the lambs were given the second part of their vaccination against clostridials. The flock is now on a different field.

With the cattle now calving throughout the year the vaccination programme for them is much more complicated as regards calves who need two injections in their first year. When calving was restricted to two blocks of time a year it obviously was simpler, both to remember and carry out. Bear in mind most of the entire suckler herd has to go through the race so calves can be injected. It is not as portrayed in old fashioned westerns when calves to be branded were lassoed and held down by the fire which was heating the branding iron!

Peaceful mothers and calves

Some fencing took place, and it was possible to reel in electric fencing from fields where it was no longer necessary as the stock movements planned were largely followed. The cattle both look good and appear very content, but this calm will be disturbed soon – see above. They are currently grazing part of the field by the drive.

Electric fence in use

Our weekly drive round the farm was very positive. Overall, the pastures looked fine and it was good to see so many wildflowers in the re-seeded fields. It appears we have plenty of grass, and at least one field is ready for cutting. In the fields that have been grazed, the policy of not leaving animals on for too long is manifestly the right one, as all are showing excellent regrowth. This policy is of course made so much easier now electric fencing can be erected or taken out so much more easily.  With longer grass in fields than in past years, grasshoppers and butterflies now abound. 

Hummingbird Hawk Moth

Tim was able to top the field by the house and spread compost on that field and the north half of the Gallop. For a variety of reasons, we spread the compost much more thinly than is normal practice, but of course, as the fields are grazed this does make some sense. The field by the house has been rather over grazed and now obviously needs grass harrowing. 

Actually, this is the one field that does remarkably well given how it has been treated. When we first started farming it was this field that we were strongly advised to use herbicides on, and then plant with a very conventional seed mix. Obviously, this was before seeking conversion to organic standards. Basically, it was not a good move except in that it taught us some very important lessons.

I think I shared with you our surprise that in that field, the sheep and cattle devoured docks and nettles. Early in the week Anne and I were talking about the human propensity to see causal relationships where none existed, and related to this, if not the same, our urge to join dots together – often to match preconceived ideas. 

As an outcome of this conversation I remembered that on the cookbook shelves was a small publication called “cooking with weeds”. A book I had not looked at for years, but when I did, lo and behold, dock leaves and seeds, and nettles are up to twice as valuable nutritionally as spinach. Dandelions are also good for eating, and then turning to my old farming books I found recognition that these weeds were seen to be a useful source of trace elements and vitamins (though not in quite those terms!) for stock.

The point to all this is the realisation that we may want to review our approach to topping, and to stay calmer when there seem too many docks or nettles in a field. And if the dots had been joined up correctly, we would have realised this years ago. Sadly, while sow thistle is nutritious and will be eaten, creeping thistle and buttercups will not be touched. 

The book by the way was written by Vivien Weise and first published in English in 2004.

An acquisition now enables an overview of the whole farm, so long as there is a skilled operator. In other words, we now have a drone which to a degree obviates physical excursions.  It seems generally not to disturb the animals and can give close ups of growth in a field. Rather like Zoom, a useful aide but no substitute for actually walking the ground.

My thoughts that our inspection was all but completed were dashed when we got a list of 13 further questions to be answered. Many of these required photographs, an example of the disadvantages of inspections done at a distance. To remind you our normal practice on an inspection day is, for Chris to walk or drive the inspector round the farm, stopping for example for the food store to be inspected or checking on the cleanliness of the stock trailer. After that, the examination of paperwork and necessary inquisition follows, but the inspector will have had many questions answered in the morning. So, all in all, time taken is perhaps 5 to 6 hours on top of the time spent preparing.


Changing tack, with the abandonment of examinations this year, I found myself wondering whether their future ought to be seriously considered. Examinations were introduced in the first place to pick the best brains for senior positions in the civil service, first in China and much, much later in this country – the 1850’s. Entry to these examinations was always very demanding and restricted as it actually still is in France to gain admittance to a Grande Ecole.

A form of examination was introduced into the maritime world decades before examinations were accepted as useful by the army. In 1856 the Duke of Cambridge was appointed commander- in- chief of the British army, a post he held until 1895. Apparently, he once told a subordinate ‘Brains! I don’t believe in brains. You haven’t any I know sir!’  For the Duke, promotion required breeding above all else since that ensured, in his mind, loyalty.

The navy used examinations for obvious reasons but, while they ensured competence as a master mariner, they allowed through individuals whose character and leadership skills were totally absent. This of course remains an obvious failing of our examination systems – they give no serious indication of personality and character, and as an employer, while intelligence and skill are basic needs they are not enough in themselves.

Of course, examinations have value, they should exclude discrimination, they give teachers some certainty as to what has been absorbed and what has not, and this I would regard as always being necessary. If, however, they are the main tools to evaluate institutions and teachers, inevitably there will be teaching to the tests and the temptation to indulge in chicanery.

There are two other problems; one is “grade inflation” and this is linked to the other, which is the common belief that somehow academic examinations give you absolute information. Pass marks in public examinations are not like classroom tests where 100% means you get all the questions right or 50% means you get half the questions right. An A* will be accorded according to a need to ensure the distribution of results appears normal. The same of course applies to university degrees. In theory, and probably generally true, is that gaining a qualification in welding means you can actually weld successfully and safely every time.

Popper and Arendt 

I am very much enjoying re-reading Popper but am struggling a little with Arendt. This is not, at this stage at least, about disagreement with her ideas but more to do with their different styles and use of language. Popper, however strong an accent he retained, wrote as if his thinking and first language was English. Arendt, on the other hand, though her key books were first published in English and perfectly good English, feel as if the thinking was in German/American. I recognise that one was in polemic mood when he wrote his most popular book and the other author’s approach was different in intention. I shall of course persevere, but both writers demand a lot of the reader.

Such a lot to do..

In truth, bizarre though this may appear to be, I struggle to find the time to do all the things I want to do. Above and beyond wife and family, I have to maintain my programme of background reading for the farm, I am still a long way from getting my stamp collection in a fit state, I have CD’s to listen to which require a level of attention not consistent with doing something else, and above all else so much to think about since nearly every day something crops up which I feel a need to explore further.

Our prospective woofer for August has had to withdraw, the virus is still a problem in Italy and this country additionally is not well regarded in terms of safe visiting. We are obviously sad about that but since we know we could not be as hospitable as we would want it is perhaps for the best.

I can’t conclude without sharing with you how delightful it is to see the host of fledglings around the house at the moment and the constant stream of visitors to the bird feeder and to the poppy heads.

As an apology for recent mistakes – Shelley again in a poem entitled to:

Lines to a reviewer

Alas, good friend, what profit can you see
In hating such a hateless thing as me?
There is no sport in hate where all the rage
Is on one side: in vain would you assuage
Your frowns upon an unresisting smile,
In which not even contempt lurks to beguile
Your heart, by some faint sympathy of hate.
Oh, conquer what you cannot satiate!
For to your passion I am far more coy
Than ever yet was coldest maid or boy
In winter noon. Of your antipathy
If I am the Narcissus, you are free
To pine into a sound with hating me.


Hopefully my weekly notes have ensured you feel kept well in the picture as regards the farm. About our ups and our downs but a picture that is overall a very positive one and one which shows a firm commitment to biodynamic practice, concern for the environment and determination to remain economically viable.

There are three obvious strands to pull out:

  • Politics – Brexit – Agricultural Bill
  • Weather – any predictability seems to have gone
  • Health – coronavirus effect on management, on volunteers, and age on our personal contribution

In addition, I shared a recent very positive email from one of last year’s woofers and then answered a few questions.

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