Thursday, 2 January 2020

Healthy Hedgerows

Healthy Hedgerows

Late summer evenings, looking around the stock, one of the best parts about being a dairy farmer. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who loves this part of the day, the cattle happily grazing the clover rich grass, filling their belliesEverything is looking well after a summer of good grass growth; the sun brings out the shine on the red Shorthorn coats, silage pits are full, and the hay was well got with no rain and baled with plenty of sun on it. 
The hedgerows look healthy too, their branches hanging low, full of fruit. Hazelnuts in great clusters of four, five or six at a time, hawthorn berries changing from lime green to a deep red, now matching the colour of thegrazing Shorthorn cattle. Holly berries massed on the usual trees, ready to feed the visiting winter thrushes. Loads of sloes too, but still showing a lot of green and waiting for a hard frost before they’ll be ready for gin.

Whilst the nature of the hedgerows appears to be in perfect balance, both the hedges and the wildlife they support are only there because of the farmers and skilled craftspeople who care for and manage the hedge in a traditional way. 
Ever since the field boundaries were created hundreds of years ago, farmers have routinely laid them down every 15-25 years to encourage new vigorous growth from the base, if this wasn’t done, the once thick,stockproof boundary would, in time, become nothing more than a line of trees and its unique habitat and ecosystem would be lost. Using a flail topper to mange them isn’t really a long-term option eitherconstantflailing at the same height only creates a gappy, plain and bare hedge that has little value for wildlife or shelter.

But why should we bother, if its only the wildlife which benefit from the hedge? Well for starters the farm benefits greatly from the hedges, we leave them to growup after they’ve been laid, some of our mature hedgerows, which will be laid in the next few years, arenow 5 or 6 metres high and almost as wide too. Stand behind one of these on a wild, wet and windy day and its like you are inside and under a roof. The shelter they provide is invaluable, without them our grazing management would be much different, and the actual grazing season would be shorter by a good few weeks too. But its not just the livestock which benefits from the shelter, the crop in the adjacent field is improved as well. Whilst there is a small amount of lost crop or grass under the canopy of a large hedge, the growth further out into the field is improved by much more than what was lost.
The wildlife which is supported by our hedgerows is incredible, walking beside them your senses are filled with scents of flowering elder and honeysuckle, they are alive with a mass of bees and other pollinators. Some birds such as the tree sparrow almost uniquely use old thorn stocks in which to nest. And then there’s the flowers; bluebells, wood anemone, wood sorrel and primroses thrive in the rich soils and shelter, which only a well-cared for hedgerow can provide. 
Experiencing natural wonders like these is part of our wellbeing, it can and indeed does help us to cope with some of the stresses which modern farming creates.

Hedgerows and all the differing styles of hedgelaying are as much a part of British farming and national culture as the native breeds which we are so proud of. They give us and our produce such a unique identity. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and have visits from farmers from across the world, and all of them marvel at our living boundaries, they just can’t get their heads around the effort and dedication which is required to keep them in good order. And it’s this uniqueness, the shelter, the wildlife habitats and the ability to aid our wellbeing which are the reasons they are so important, they give us something which no other farming nation or worldwide food producer has. They show that we care for the environment, care for our cultural heritage and therefore care about the food we produce.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

A broken gate stoop

I’m stood on top of Wellbankthe hill just behind Strickley yard, leaning with my left shoulder up to the broken limestone gate stoop and looking down towards the bottom end of our land. Beyond our furthest field, above the oak tree that sits in our last boundary, the sea glints in the morning sun and reveals itself as a bright sliver of light. It’s a nice spot to stand, most of what I can see is owned by us, each one of the fields has its own name, passed down from the previous four generations of my family to work them, some names go further back still, to a time before machines and the modern English Language. 

To the left of my view is a small, two-and-a-half-acre field, long and narrow with a steep breast at the nearest end, called The Hagg. The name hasn’t any significant meaning to our family, it was already named when my Grandad bought Over Bleazethe neighbouring farm, in 1958. It very likely comes from Old Norse and means an area of a wood where trees were felled, amazing to think that it could have carried the same name and be passed down through all its owners for possibly a thousand years. 

On my right, to the south of our house, is the Teapot Field, its gentle south facing slope is bare soil now, newly sown down to a mix of barley and pea to provide winter feed for our cows. It’s the perfect field in the perfect place, dry enough to be able to travel with heavy tractors in the middle of a wet winter, but still able to retain enough moisture and never drought in the driest of summers. Its name is due to a Robinson. My Great Great Grandfather was an expert root growerhe exhibited at many local shows and the roots from the field to the south of the yard were good enough to win a silver teapot.

I first learned to drive a tractor in the teapot field, my son Robert has done too. We also had a small caravan site there until 2001, but the smell of holiday makers cooking bacon after a long early morning, breakfastless shift was torture and combined with the devastation and movement restrictions of Foot and Mouth disease, we made the decision that that was the year that 30 years of caravanners sharing our farm was at an end.

Every field has a story, a memory. Every corner, wall end and gateway. If someone showed me a close-up photograph of 20ft of hedgerow I reckon I’d be able to tell them exactly where it was taken. Spending a lifetime working the land means that you know every minute detail, a memory bank of images and knowledge which helps to form every decision we need make to farm the land to the best of our ability.

When my expert root growing GG Grandad arrived at Strickley in the spring of 1875, he probably took a walk up to the point where I’m standing, probably leant on the same gate stoop and looked down the valley at the land below, and he would have seen most of what I can see today. Our farm and it’s close neighbours are extremely lucky to have most of the field boundaries still in place as they were in the late 19thcentury, big ancient hedges with their old driedly thorn stocks and holly trees, the latter of which gave Strickley it’s name, for winter fodder was so valuable that the youngstock on farms were fed the poorest feed, the best stuff going to the horses and the adult cattle. Holly was cut and carted to the cattle, as it was the only green hedge through the harsh winters and the name for this feed is ‘stirk-hay’. Stirk (or strickbeing the local name for young cattle. ‘Stirk-hay’ became Strick-ley’

Behind the Teapot Field and its neighbour, The Crow, is a nameless field, one which we only added to farm in June last year. We bought it amongst 62 acres, all the fields did carry names from Ernie and Mary Wilson, the land’s late owners, such as Whinny Lot, Adam Field and Rabbit Hole, but this one was one of three fields which included the name Bank, and we already have a Front & Back Bank from the Over Bleaze land. So, we’re not calling this one Bank at all, we are going to come up with a fitting name for it. From where I’m stood it stands out and looks a showy field, sloping eastwards down towards Beehive Beck and a small wood belonging to our neighbour. We’re in no rush to come up with a name, its not like we have to register its birth at the registry office. No, we will take our time with it, no field was born with a name, even after they were originally created by forming a stockproof boundary the name could well have taken years or even generations to become part of the farm’s natural language.
Whatever we call it will be its given name for future generationswe’ve got to get it perfect.

It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the past, it’s taken my family five generations to get to this point at Strickley. And I’d like to think there will be another five generations putting their mark on it toosome of the field names may get forgotten or changed, but in a hundred years, one of them will lean on the same broken gate stoop as me and look down the valley at all the fields they work and love.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

You Doing Anything Nice For Christmas?

“Are you doing anything nice for Christmas?” Everyone gets asked this question, it’s one of those go to, easy to inquire things that folk ask without waiting for or really caring about the answer.

My usual reply and I'm sure that of most farmers is, “no, I’ve got to stay and milk/feed/muck out/look after the cows/sheep/pigs (delete as appropriate).”

The one time I did spend away was Christmas ‘94 on Bondi Beach, 25 degrees C and raining, real damping Cumbrian rain, the next few days were almost 40 degrees, proper hot, but it seemed only right that someone had arranged Cumbrian rain for the Cumbrian on the beach. I was half way through a backpacking tour of Australia and New Zealand, fulfilling one of my life’s ambitions up to that point by having a festive barbie on the beach.

But every Christmas morning since December 1994 I’ve spent in the milking parlour with dad, that’s almost a quarter of a century of working together to get finished as soon as possible and get back in for bacon sandwiches.

Our normal workday runs from half five in the morning until half six at night, weekends are whittled down to about 7 hours in total, but we somehow shave another hour off both the Christmas day milkings by spending all Christmas Eve bedding up, bagging feed, opening bales and generally doing absolutely everything conceivable to prepare for the following day. But things don’t always go to plan. Never work with children or animals they say, or with machinery that seems preprogramed to breakdown at 7.24am 24th December!

We’ve changed tyres, thawed frozen water pipes, calved cows and once even milked in the dark after an overnight storm cut the power, but we’ve always finished everything before we went and had them bacon sarnies.

Nothing beats that early morning milking, me and dad setting off down the yard at 5am, half an hour sooner than the normal day so that we can spend more of the day inside with family. It’s always incredibly peaceful, a muted still until the calves hear the dairy door scrape across the small stones trapped underneath. They begin to ball for feed, then the milk cows stretch and yawn, almost cartoon like as they move nearer to the collecting yard. A push of the starter button rouses the milking parlour into life, twelve half ton ladies saunter in, checking each feed trough for remnants of feed left from the night before. 12 cows in, 12 cows milked, out they go. Repeat 9 times.

And that’s it, there is something magical about the simplicity of dairy farming. Almost everything is routine, even on Christmas day.

I certainly don’t want anyone to pity a farmer or even to ‘Thank a Farmer’. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t want to have a lie in before I watched our boys open their presents, I feel great having worked up an appetite for the overindulgence which is almost mandatory. And it’s not that I feel smug or noble about working whilst most are relaxing, I just love the fact that Christmas day is still a farming day, a very special farming day.

So, the next time somebody asks me “Are you doing anything nice for Christmas?”, I think I’ll reply “yes, I’m milking with my dad.”

Sunday, 2 December 2018

The Delicate Harmony

“He’s blasted well run over it!”

Grandad never swore, blast and beggar was about as strong as it got. His Methodist beliefs prevented him for drinking alcohol (I never once saw a single drop pass his lips), it also meant his cursing was extremely mild, although the words still had quite a resonance when they came from his farm size 6ft 3” frame.

 “Blast him”, he added whilst pulling himself out of his chair at the kitchen table to look up at the banking in front of the house. Although to be honest it’s a wonder he could see anything out of the kitchen window anyway, its six small panes constantly clouded with a thin film of farmyard grime on the outside and an equally obscuring mix of Aga dust and finger smears on the inside.

The nest which the silaging contractor had just run over was a curlew, the last curlew I remember nesting on the land around Strickley. I was 17. That’s 27 years since a curlew nested here. 27 years hearing them fly overhead in the spring, the iconic rising crescendo call of ‘curl-eee’ in the early morning mist as they passed us by to get to their nest sites higher up the valley, pushed there by a change in farming methods on our farm and on almost every farm in the parish.

Cattle need to be fed though the winter, and a winter up in Cumbria is half the year. (A cumbrian year consists of 6 months of winter followed by 6 months of bad weather, the dour, glass half empty types tell everyone…..)

50 years ago, through those winter months the cows were fed hay in small bales, hay which was generally made in July and occasionally June. (The June hay was always considered the best stuff as it was younger, sweeter and more palatable to feed to milkers.)

But to make hay requires at least 4 fine days of perfectly fine hot weather, preferably blowy as well to fluff the grass up and dry it faster. The labour needed to move thousands of small bales was huge, not only in terms of workers, although most farms got folks in to help, but labour in terms of the physicality. Imagine lifting tens of thousands of numb cumbersome 25kg bales from field-onto trailers-onto an elevator-and then finally stacked into the barn until winter. Repeat this for every available fine day over a two-month period in a fickle area for sunshine and It’s no wonder farms were quick to take the more mechanised silage route.


So why the brief history of winter forage? Well, hay was cut on our farm from late June through July and August, meaning the curlew could nest in peace, undisturbed in the tall uncut grass, protected from hungry predators and sheltered from the savage Cumbrian weather.

For my tenth birthday I was given a fishing rod, nowt fancy because we had very little money, probably a second hand one bought from the auction or an advert in the Westmorland Gazette. I was born June 1974, but I was given my present early that year so that Dad could take me out fishing on our beck that weekend, as he was expecting to be making silage on my birthday, the 16th.

Fast forward 12 years and rather than cutting the grass for first crop silage mid-June like I remembered it had been on my tenth birthday, it was now mid-May. We’d brought it forward between three and four weeks in just over a decade. Great for winter forage quality, great for milk yields, bad for the ground nesting birds, bad for the curlew.

The change from hay to silage in modern livestock farming has had the same disastrous effect on the plight of the curlew as the invention of the mechanised mowing machine had on the now very rare Corncrake. Important developments in farming which are designed to improve the lives of the farmer and their workers, and help build a sustainable enterprise, can quite easily have unintended consequences on the wildlife which share our fields.

So, do I feel guilty?

Should I feel guilty?

Should we all share collective guilt?

I’ve written this short blog just as I began to read the excellent Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell. I hope that by the time I’ve finished the book I may have some answers to those questions.

Farming has created the rare harmony between food production and the living natural environment over thousands of years, so when a revolution happens which fundamentally alters that balance, something will inevitably suffer.

Farmers created the original harmony and farmers are probably best placed to remedy it too.