“This blog is the unfolding story of Rush Farm and an exploration of life by its philosopher farmer.”
I had a useful reminder of just how unglamorous and stoical working on a farm can be when I ventured out to watch the lambs being brought in for weighing early in the week.
The working team was made up of the two grandchildren, Chris and of course Milly. Tabitha was also there but distracted by concern for my comfort. The thermometer read 0 degrees Centigrade, the fields were squelchy, and there were many puddles. I really am well past it physically. All in all, very cold, and definitely not for the fainthearted.
The positive was to see all working together harmoniously, and also to see the cattle calm and contented and the barn now so ergonomically used.
The exercise was also to identify and separate out lambs for Ben to collect early on Monday morning. This year Ford Hall Farm have taken both some lambs, and also some steers.
Next Tuesday we have the scanners coming – given the weather forecast the weather will at least be dry as well as the ewes.
During the week we saw the birth of a bull calf, and the challenge facing the vet to carry out a caesarean section to remove a dead calf from a live cow. A long, and challenging process both for the humans, and even more so for the poor cow. Now it’s a question of ‘fingers crossed’ as to whether the cow makes a full recovery.
The early part of the week saw many of the large puddles in some of the fields go, and the Brook return to being within its banks, though it is flowing fast and is very muddy. One of the remarkable things is how quickly our flood plain can fill with water, and how quickly the water goes.
There have been two topics of particular interest this week. Yet another report has appeared denouncing the inclusion of methane in the CO2 composite figure, rightly noting that most CO2 emissions on farms come from use of diesel and fertilisers.
The second had been a lively discussion on hedgerow management. Perhaps context matters. Hedgerows are a common feature of English farming and became very extensive in the Midlands in particular as enclosure use.
The view, which may still be accurate, was that the age of a hedge could be identified by the number of different varieties of plant in it. On that basis the bulk of our hedges are as we would expect Victorian. At least in the 1950’s, despite government incitement, the Hillman family were restrained and took out only a handful of the hedgerows shown on the 1895 map of the farm.
One of the practices of my father-in-law was every late summer, just before the blackberries could ripen, he would have all his hedges trimmed. When I protested, I was told that good farming required that. So, when we began farming, we refused to flail hedges automatically as Anne’s father had done for so many years. As you might imagine, this rather upset one of our neighbours, but our organic certifiers were delighted because, surrounded as we were by conventional farmers, spray drift from herbicides or pesticides was mitigated.
I however delighted in our bushy hedges, and we replanted all but one of the historic hedges, and that one only was not replaced on the advice of the RSPB, though I confess I cannot recall their reason.
We do now have our own piece of machinery as some hedges, such as along the bridle path and the entrance to the Farm and Business Park, need annually cutting both for safety and appearance. We will not be overusing it, in fact only using it where it makes sense. My hatred of over-trimmed hedges remains strong. Admittedly, at the moment, cross compliance makes the window of time during which hedge cutting is allowed much shorter.
The grubbing out of hedges after the second world, together with financial subsidies, was essentially about increasing home food production by making larger fields that might economically be worked by large and expensive machinery.
Across the lane from us is a very large field resulting from such a decision. I suspect that the Hillman’s who farmed here in the 1950’s kept the hedges simply because they were running a stock and dairy farm.
All this takes us to the question, why and when were hedges planted in the first place. Hedge making was associated with the Romans, though there is evidence it seems, that they first appeared in the bronze age. Their original purpose was almost certainly to mark boundaries and perhaps to restrain animal movements. Nowadays it is increasingly recognised that they are ‘a good thing’. Not solely to provide sites for bird nests, but perhaps even more importantly as far as birds are concerned, to act as safe ‘roads’. They are also important to mammals and bugs, providing sources of food and security. For our domestic livestock they also provide ‘nibbles’, shelter and wind breaks.
If there is one plant that thrives everywhere it is the bramble, and for sheep farmers, brambles stretching uncontrollably into fields are undoubtedly a danger to sheep. Cutting the long shoots by hand is unmanageable and here the hedge cutter in invaluable.
Flailing transformed farm life as it allowed hedges to be managed at a sensible cost. Hedge laying is a craft and can make a hedge fairly stock proof as far as sheep are concerned. It is however a slow, laborious process and very expensive. That is the main reason why most of our hedges are not laid. One technique we have so far failed to adopt is coppicing. Admittedly a fairly drastic step, but for a hedge that is past its best, a possible way forward when it can also be a source of timber.
History and economics are best suited to attempting to explain and describe the past. By some quirk of a restless mind, I have been thinking a lot recently about economic history.
To a degree, perhaps, better understanding that which I spent hours writing essays on in my undergraduate days. All this began from a thought that perhaps the ultra-Brexiters were driven by a sub-conscious or folk memory of the Cobdenist belief in free trade.
It was Cobden who played such a vital part in the eventual repeal of the Corn Laws, and it was Britain that in the 1840’s adopted free trade as its basic economic policy.
The consequences of this in Britain were both enhancing for growth, and disastrous for certain sectors such as farming and large landowners.
Politically the percentage of the working population involved in farming was too small to have much political clout; while many of the big landowners had already seen the writing on the wall and invested in commerce and manufacturing, and of course, the desire of rich Americans to unite their daughters with a titled family was not unknown.
Looking at the literature, the influence of the agricultural sector was a decisive issue in the push towards protectionism, which really took root as a result of the long depression, affecting the western world from 1873 to 1899. America has never felt inclined to adopt free trade – Donald Trump was merely projecting an extreme version of protectionism.
Recently I came across an interview with the English historian David Todd, with entitled “British Protectionism through the ages”.
It is on the website of the College de France, and in the section La vie des Idees. It really is very interesting. All David Todd’s books seem to be published in French, which is rather frustrating. The interview however is in English and is illuminating and worthwhile listening to.
All societies are trapped by the same challenges. Nothing has value if it is not wanted, and human nature and/or poverty causes shoppers to buy as cheaply as they can.
When we went to Northern Rhodesia, the British motorcycle manufacturing industry was totally dominant. When we returned, it was dead.
And in fairness this was not just the result of cheap labour. Complacency on the part of manufacturer’s, allied to a reluctance to pay attention to changes in demand and act on them played a part.
When I think back to my second-hand Royal Enfield 350 cc ex dispatch riders’ bike, the memories inevitably include its heavy usage of oil, the need to weekly clean plugs, the struggle to get the kick start work to work, and the weight! Great fun of course and since crash helmets were not required, and the roads far emptier than today, the pleasure of the wind in the face and the joys of a winding road.
That much reviled man, Beeching, was merely acting on political decisions that if railway lines were no longer used, shut them. And a summer job cleaning railway carriage left me with no doubt that, disguised unemployment and hence very low productivity was the name of the game in that period.
It was Wilson, not Thatcher who initiated the demise of coal mining. Steel and ship building decayed, and essentially died for the same reason. Money was to be made from service industries not old-fashioned heavy industry.
The survival of the American rust belt demonstrates the UK acted rather more quickly as it ignored the protectionism of American governments. However, what really saved America was in recognising the importance of IT and going for it hell for leather and devoting such a high proportion of its GDP to defence expenditure allied to the ability to print its own money.
In India currently, the farmers of the Punjab have been on strike for over two months in part at least to the need to lower the cost of food. And if you strive to being a democratic society, then attention has to be paid to majority views, even if the consequences can be dire for many.
Similarly, for France, the EU, through the Common Agricultural Act, provides peace for politicians from a still highly important voting sector.
Music is a most important aspect of life for me. I admit my definition of what is music, sits uncomfortably with current definitions, but that’s life. It came therefore as something of a shock to me to realise that though I know the words in common usage, if asked, I probably could not even describe how a ‘symphony’ differed from a ‘tone poem’.
A difficult realisation.
I still have on my shelves, the books every self-educator once turned to, in other words, books published by Penguin under the Pelican blue label. Still on the bookshelf are the books on the Symphony, and the Concerto, and close to these are books from a different series on the History of Music. These I understood and would be prepared to answer questions on. The first two books, despite having been read many times still leave me at a loss.
Then came the challenging realisation that, this was the same pattern that existed in me for religion. The history of the three monotheist religions both in the ancient past and the more recent I has always fascinated me, and I have read widely. My knowledge of the religious history of the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism is more limited. What my reading has not brought me, is any closer to belief or understanding of belief. Like most of my generation, the bible and bible stories were an essential part of childhood. I found the matter curious but, in the end lacking credibility.
So, just as I know the word symphony and the word divinity, defining them would leave me rather lost.
Similarly, language has the same grip on my interest, but again the interest is in its origins and development. Many of our non-native English-speaking guests are likely to remember my vain attempts to persuade them at least to explore that splendid book “The Loom of Language”.
Very sadly, this real interest has had no impact on my ability to actually learn and speak anything but ‘franglais’, despite real efforts on my part. Obviously, my genetic inheritance was not appropriate.
Clearly there is a major discontinuity, but then every teacher will have heard a student say: “l understand the individual words but what does it all mean!”
Finally, and completely out of sequence, given I have been using headphones a lot lately, I wonder if any neurologist has explored why music sounds so different if heard through headphones rather than when played on my relatively high-quality sound system?
I have of course been reading this week, but essentially on a topic that I cannot imagine very many would be interested in – the history of Central or Mittle Europe.
Clive James book on poems to read aloud, and perhaps learn by heart, is the source of this week’s poem by John Clare, a poet Clive James obviously admires, but whom he feels normally is unable to resist an omnidirectional approachability which overloads the reader!
This poem he sees as having an ‘austere’ elegance. He also reminds us that ‘heaven’ should be scanned as a single syllable.
All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal in its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.