Teamwork!

“This blog is the unfolding story of Rush Farm and an exploration of life by its philosopher farmer.”

The week started with a visit to our family on the other side of the M5, a journey not made for 15 months and one which took in both town and country. The journey to and fro, though in traffic terms peaceful, showed just how much of our countryside is being eaten up by new housing estates and warehouses. The only redeeming features of our travels were the magnificent trees in full leaf, and the hawthorn blossom beside the country roads. It also underlined what a frost trap it is in which we farm. The horse chestnut trees along our drive have yet to open their flowers while we passed many in full flower.  

A concern shared by many farmers locally is how hardy ‘weeds’ like dandelion and buttercup have been unaffected by drought or frost, but of course they are native. The first may be eaten, but the latter can cause harm, though fortunately animals will normally eat around them. In this context, I share that the fight against hemlock, continues.   

The recent weather would help pasture growth much more if we had much less rain and rather more warmth. Don’t mistake me though, it does actually seem as if winter might be over, and that growth is resuming after the late severe frosts we had.  

There has been growth in the pastures but with 91 cattle and some 250 ewes and lambs, it really is not as much as we might hope for. Whatever, continuing our policy of moving stock around sooner rather than later, it is ‘all change’ time.  

The young stock were moved first, a straightforward task since they have gone into an adjacent field. Aside from the rams who can stay put for now, both the suckler herd and sheep will move next.

The sheep are looking good, though a week or so ago it looked as if Orf was going to be a problem, but that now looks less likely. All but two of the ewes have lambed. One amusing sight is a hurdled square of ground in which three hand fed lambs have been given an upturned plastic pond mould into which has been cut an entrance to give them access to shelter. The three lambs are doing so well that I suspect it will not be long before, using the mould as a base, they jump out!  

Sheep and lambs on the move

The movement of the rest of the flock on Saturday had its moment of excitement when a lamb fell in the brook. Usually no more than 6” deep, Brendan who carried out the rescue found the water came up to his chest, indeed, to get himself out he had to swim. As you might expect, the rescue was complicated because at that point there is a small cliff at the edge of the brook, and it needed his brother Theo to help lift the lamb onto dry ground. Teamwork! 

The swollen brook
A very wet Brendan

In terms of the cattle, May is not a month when calves are expected. This is helpful because Tim is taking a two-week break, and though Brendan, who is more than satisfactorily covering for him, would probably find helping a cow calve daunting, Chris is, of course on hand and only a text message away, but this is the first time Brendan has been so much on his own. The bonus for us is that we, for this period, are seeing him every day.  

Both herds have now been moved and here as well was excitement. A cow that had prolapsed before, prolapsed again and could go no further than the barn. This means we have had two cows prolapse in only a few months which is disturbing because, although this is a known problem with the Hereford breed, we have gone all these years without incident of this kind.  

I shared with you the outcome of the first bird survey, and I now have a date for Gert’s second visit which will be in early June. Although the word in the neighbourhood is that there is at least one cuckoo in the area, apart from hearing one at the end of last month, we have not heard one here. We do have as a relatively near neighbour who has lived here all his life, who has a record going back many years recording when each year he first heard the bird.   

Sadly, since the last sharp frost, I have seen no butterflies, but what I can share with you is yet another delightful drawing by Danny.

Peacock butterfly by Danny Newman (copyright Danny Newman)

What we do continue to hear every evening is the blackbird that sits on the pole carrying the power line that I mentioned last week. This I find particularly nostalgic because for many years we spent a month in a Swedish hamlet on the edge of the Baltic and on our evening, stroll always could be confident of hearing a blackbird. When we first came to live in this part of the world, the song of a nightingale was a frequent sound, and one of the delights of visiting rural South Sweden was the song we would hear most evenings from a thrush nightingale. As the head of the bird monitoring sanctuary on Oland said, ‘regrettably not a real nightingale.’ It must be thirty years since we last heard a nightingale in this country, I would be happy to hear here, this ‘false’ nightingale!  

I realise that I have not mentioned Flash since I shared with you her declining health. I can say that despite her deafness and cataracts, the illness I felt might carry her off seems to have been dealt with and she is still with us and sometimes even joins me on a walk. A key sense that she does still have is her sense of smell and hence our progression on a walk is rather stately. On Friday morning, as I watched Milly and two of her semi-grown puppies streaking up and down the drive, I felt that perhaps the border collie does not deserve its reputation. Though Flash is now retired, our experience of them as a breed is entirely positive. They are marvellous with the children, do not chase vehicles or strangers, and also work as sheepdogs as and when required.  

Writing about finance, we were worrying slightly at the fall in beef prices. No doubt due to so many farmers left with excess stock because of Brexit, but things could very soon get far worse. It appears, for political reasons, the anxiety to be able to claim at least one free trade had been struck, might well mean the UK market is flooded with cheap beef and sheep from Australia.  

Attempting to remain calm, the latest word is that the phasing out of tariffs and quotas would be over fifteen years. An interesting figure quoted by the NFU was that while the average size of a herd in the UK is 27, feed lots in Australia hold 15,000 grain fed cattle at any time. 

I am aware you may have noticed the lack of reference to exchanges between farmers, so an update is called for. In recent weeks, these exchanges have ranged from the hilarious to the sad but have also included useful ideas. At least two farmers have shared problems they are having with their bulls ‘herding’ their ladies into a corner of the field and keeping them there. Strange and impressive, impossible to imagine our bull showing such activity! At the other end of the spectrum farmers write of coming to realise the sad reality that their vets encourage practices such as worming cattle simply because it helps their income. I hasten to say our vets certainly do not behave in that way with us.  

Perhaps the most interesting exchange discussed the value not just of hedgerows but also of the soil under them. I was certainly well aware of how much cattle enjoy eating leaves – they are after all as much forest as savannah animals, but I had never taken on board the thought that they also eat soil and that in the past, soil from under hedges, if fed to a sick animal, was thought to help recovery. No idea of course whether that really worked, but as an idea it was certainly interesting.  

Three very short observations:  

  • Why is it Aldi and Lidl are so much more willing to sell British grown or caught produce?  
  • Why is it that the media imagine that the public house, and the chance to lean against a bar with other men and drink a pint of beer is the distinguishing mark of our civilisation? Is it vital for real men to get away from their partners, wives and/or children in this way? Or is it just a remnant of a culture which in theory we have turned our back on – I know not.  
  • Finally, do we think our Prime Minister has consciously chosen to model himself on one of the key characters in the Wind in the Willows?   

Palestine research

With all that is happening in the Middle East at the moment, I needed to know more about the Palestinians. Though I could not lay my hands on my copies of the writings of Josephus, I remembered enough to know that he was involved in the Jewish rebellion against their Roman overlords around about 69-70 AD and somehow, he managed both to survive his capture and eventually to gain Roman citizenship. That he wrote as an historian and philosopher and was the literary source of our knowledge of the final battle to capture Masada. This defeat by the Romans hastened and added to the natural on-going dispersal of the Jewish people.  

For the record, I believe that he, having been regarded as a traitor by the Jewish world for centuries, may no longer be the case. However recent work by archaeologists on the Masada hilltop casts considerable doubt on his credentials as a historian.  

Whatever, as a source of information on my question, my memory could dredge up nothing useful he had to say about the non-Jewish people living in the region.  

Turning to Paul Johnson’s significant work a ‘A history of the Jews’, aside from coming across some statements that I thought were worth sharing, given the present conflict, I also found no answers to my question. 

Referring to sources relating to the spread of Islam it would appear that after the retreat of the Romans, up to the disruption caused by the Crusades, the population was made up of people of all three monotheistic faiths. The Crusades shattered that harmony and, until the destruction of the Ottoman empire and its subsequent break up after the First World War, Christian and Jews made up only a small proportion of the population. 

And then my brain finally clicked into gear, as I realised that, by asking the right questions, I could extract raw data from the internet, from which I might draw some conclusions.  

So, I dug up three sets of data. The earliest came from the time of the Ottoman period, the Ottoman Yearbook of 1871-1872, later data came from the census carried out by the British Mandate in 1922 and finally data providing information on the population and ‘ethnic breakdown for 1948.  

I think, rather unwillingly, the British government accepted mandated responsibility for the territory from 1922 which they held until 1948. In 1920 the British government statistics write of a population barely more than 750,000, of which a small proportion saw themselves as Bedouin Arabs though all spoke Arabic.  

The Jewish population had grown over the previous 40 years but was in 1922 still less than the Christian community; together these two groups made up 12% of the population.  

By 1948 the population of Palestine had risen to 1,900,000, of whom Jews made up nearly 70%. Prior to this, Jewish numbers increased significantly first in the mid-twenties then the mid- thirties and finally following the end of the second world war.  

“The scientific use of terror to break the will of liberal leaders…..a contribution made by the Jews to the shape of the world.”  

I think this quotation from Paul Johnson reflects the period 1945-1948 more than adequately and is close to bringing an end to my search.  

My final move then, having seen numerous photos of the terrain and learning in recent days those threats to the power supply to the desalination plants on which both sides depend, was to look at rainfall and vegetation maps. Given that rain fall patterns may have changed over fifteen hundred years but that little evidence of this exists, the inescapable conclusion has to be, that for the most part, this is not territory that can sustain large populations naturally. 

So, the answer to a different question which was ‘who were the Palestinians?’ was actually quite simple.  

I have absolutely no inclination to go further than to write in summary:  

Until say 1914, the population was made up of Arabic speaking people who however were in the main not Arabs but tribes that had been in the area for centuries so, any notion that Jewish settlers thereafter moved into an unpopulated area of land is fantasy.  

Yet again Europeans and now Americans attempting to solve one problem created an impossible situation – good intentions, poorly or just not thought through, rarely do other than lead to disaster.  

As regards the present crisis while bloodshed is not forbidden in the Koran, to quote Johnson again:  

“’whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: For in the image of God made he man – Genesis chapter 9 verse 6’…is the central tenet of Jewish belief”  

Hardly an endorsement of violence, but then of course the Holocaust came, and in 1945 a minority of Jews forsook that notion and unrestrained terror against the British saw the birth of a new nation that held to a new set of beliefs.  

What a sad part of the world: ignoring the centuries that went before Christ, we have the Romans, the Crusaders, the Turks and now the Israelis and Palestinians, spilling yet more blood on this naturally hostile environment.  

A paraphrase from Johnson which some think should emblazoned on my forehead:   

“Humans are credulous creatures born to believe but excessive scepticism can produce a distortion as great as excessive credulity. “Not me gov, I swear””  

Farming

I spent much time one day thinking about the question of how agricultural rents were, and had historically, been determined, with a particular aim in mind, which was to consider what, if any relationship there was, between productivity per acre and rental charge since in none of my reading could I see any indication of these two being related.  

This I admit, was rather what I expected, given that knowledge of the makeup of soils and the nutritional needs of stock were matters that science only came to take seriously, relatively recently as understanding of biochemistry grew.  

As I understand it, before enclosure, when strip farming was practiced, aside from the common land, each strip would have a share of good, average and poor land. How these definitions were practiced is unclear since aside from variations in weather, from year to year, there must have been variations in practice, but we know that disputes were few.  

I took the obvious course and sought to find any research papers I could find on my particular question. I failed in the endeavour but did come across a paper written in 2001 by Gregory Clark of the University of California carrying the forbidding title “Land Rental Values and the Agrarian Economy in England and Wales 1500-1912” 

He, it appears is an eminent economist of standing, who has written a mass of papers relating to aspects of this period.  

Actually, it is very interesting, though its 70 pages, much of which is made up of arguments justified by difficult statistical analysis, is not light reading. I found no answer but a number of figures which suggest many common assumptions are questionable.   

I need to emphasize that you will need to read the paper yourself to judge the accuracy of what follows, some of which is clearly contentious. 

For a start, land rental prices were in the region of £1 to £1.50 pence per acre for much of this period.  

Landowners would have to own truly vast estates to have real wealth. I read somewhere that life as a ‘gentleman’ on the Regency period required at least £900 a year income – so an estate of at least 800 acres was required. As a matter of amusement, to find todays equivalent rent, multiply by at least 180!  

Perhaps what really leaps out is that the notion of an agricultural revolution taking place alongside the industrial revolution is wrong. According to the data assembled and worked through, if there was such a revolution, it came much later, and the suggested date is actually 1869 when mechanisation took hold.  

Moreover, notions that agricultural productivity were higher before that time, are seen to be false and, since there is much comparison with the Paris Basin, the evidence points to stagnation in France rather than growth in productivity here.  

Three final thoughts derived from the paper: 

The first, and most obvious, was the replacement of wood by coal; the second that even before 1840 only 40% of the nation’s food needs were met locally, and finally, and this really did surprise me, enclosure and the revision of the corn laws had far less of an impact than I had expected.  

As far as enclosure is concerned, a paper entitled “Common Rights to Land in England 1475-1839” (see The Journal of Economic History) and I quote: ‘common waste to which the landless poor did have access to’, constituted a mere 4% of land, and was mainly land of marginal value.  

This of course goes right against the accepted notion of the impact of enclosure, and would certainly explain why land around here was not enclosed until the 19th century.  

So, no answers, but what about today? It seems clear to me rents charged bear no relationship to the actual productivity, but, very simply, what the ‘would be tenant’ will fork out, moreover when Basic Payments cease, for farming to continue, rents must fall since no sector in farming has been profitable for many years.  

Corruption 

By pure chance I caught the bulk of BBC programme about corruption in Nigeria. Nothing new there you might think as we learnt of ‘ghost pensioners’ and more unexpectedly pensioners losing their pension having been declared dead.  

Scams involving ‘ghost workers’ are certainly not a particularly Nigerian problem – I am not, however, aware of any state in which civil servants behave in this second way.   

It was what came next in the programme that was truly staggering, as yet more evidence emerged of the nepotism, cronyism and corruption, now a motif of the Johnson period, was that in Nigeria, becoming a politician is the quickest route to riches. While people starve, their leaders bleed their economies dry. I say economies because Nigeria is a federal state and State Governors appear truly rapacious – not only on a daily basis but in awarding themselves vast bonuses and staggeringly large pensions when their terms are up.  

Things are obviously not so bad here, but our Prime Minister and his ministers appears to be happy to hover near the top of the slippery slope which ultimately leads to serious corruption and who seem entirely unrepentant when a light is shone on what is going on, either on the Prime Ministers part, or that of his ministers.  

As I wrote last week sleaze is a potent danger facing this present Conservative leadership.  

I now need to calm my mind and so have chosen the poem below.  

This is, I think in terms of Hardy’s approach to life, one of his more cheerful and certainly reflects the weather we have been experiencing recently.

This is the weather the cuckoo likes,  
And so do I;  
When showers betumble the chestnut spikes,  
And nestlings fly;  
And the little brown nightingale bills his best,  
And they sit outside at ‘The Traveller’s Rest,’  
And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest,  
And citizens dream of the south and west,  
And so do I.   

This is the weather the shepherd shuns,  
And so do I;  
When beeches drip in browns and duns,  
And thresh and ply;  
And hill-hid tides throb, throe on throe,  
And meadow rivulets overflow,  
And drops on gate bars hang in a row,  
And rooks in families homeward go, 
And so do I.”  


Thomas Hardy  

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