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.


  1. Love the photos, especially the line of tractors and trailers. Oh, the days of riding on the trailer load of bales!

  2. It's good to get the deeper perspective on your life and work than Twitter and Instagram offers.

  3. My Grandad was also a non-conformist and signed the pledge to get cheaper farm insurance. He was also chairman of the local NFU and after a committee meeting offered the others a drink at the bar, though not for himself obviously. On smart alec when asked if he's like a drink replied that he'd like "a large scotch please Alfred" to which Grandad replied " you'll but the bugger yourself then".

    I've also chucked a good few small bales in my time.

  4. Love it James!
    Please keep them coming.
    Would love to visit next time we are in the country.

  5. Really interesting. It is heart warming to know how pro-nature you are - even though you have to run a business

  6. Thanks James. Brilliantly well written as always.

  7. I know I’m prejudiced - but, wonderfully written. Keep it up!

  8. Lovely. I look forward to reading more!

  9. Thank you, James. It is encouraging to see how many farmers are working to create or restore land set aside for nature alongside their pastures and cropland.

  10. Thank you James. You have taken me back to my childhood and wonderful times on the farm. I remember the times of the curlew song and 'helping' (more like hindering) rolling the straw bales down the hill to put on the trailers and driving out with Grandma to bring freshly baked goods for the workers. You made me laugh as I never heard Grandad swear and only saw him raise a glass of champagne at a wedding or christening but he never drunk it. Thank you James keep up the good work

  11. You took me back to my childhood many, many years ago. Happy times but hard work for Mum and Dad. Keep the farm going and pass it down to the next generation.

  12. We need to learn how to farm with nature again. It won’t be easy but it’s going to be critical to reverse the worst that climate change will throw at us. Your dairy farming will have to adapt faster than it has changed in the last 30 years. Climate predictions have us facing the drought and high temperature issues that Spain has now, or worse. There are so many issues to tackle but being organic is a good start. Focus on soil health, shelter, shade, diversity and less on pushing production. Let’s hope GOV.UK and the public see fit to drive the change and support it. We farmers need to make our offer to the nation and just food won’t be enough. We need to re-learn how to produce food mostly through better soil and managing the water cycle. Any ideas should be shared! I only have one: even dairy farms can farm with tree cover:
    It would be a start but needs government support and advice perhaps a requirement for future Ag funding streams.

  13. Common sense talking about what he knows

  14. I by chance see your post on the internet and I get attracted by your post. I found yours the most interesting one and will pass this on for my friends. Many thanks for sharing.

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