Ravenstonedale Kirkby Stephen Cumbria


A Nicheworks interview with John Pratt - Hill Farmer

Interviewed March 2000

For a glimpse of farming in March I met up with John Pratt, who farms in the village, to help him carry out a couple of daily tasks. The day was dry and mild, at last on the farmers' side - the quagmires would start to dry out and life would become easier for the ewes in their last few weeks before lambing. John has no sheep sheds, but has room for about 40 ewes carrying twins in a barn at the farm, with the remaining couple of hundred living out on the fells.

John Pratt
John Pratt
John Pratt

We arrived at a well maintained barn just away from the farm where he feeds about 56 ewes twice daily. He scatters sugar beet around the edges of the barn before filling up the hay baskets on the walls above. This barn provides shelter for the ewes and allows him to feed them in the dry. They will all lamb in the field, most of them by themselves with no need for assistance. Just outside the barn it was easy to understand why the wet weather has been causing farmers like John a great deal of concern - a boggy mess of mud and water into which a tiny lamb would sink up to its belly and maybe not be able to escape. The wet weather had also bothered his ewes, causing some to miscarry in the first few weeks out of sheer despondency, John wondered.

John Pratt
John Pratt
John Pratt

Our next stop was at Banks, an idyllic farmhouse, now used as a regular holiday home for the many members of one family. I have often walked past Banks and longed to have a peek inside, but today I felt privileged enough to have various curious architectural features pointed out to me by John. We collected some ESA hay, which John explained was much softer and greener - it had been left to grow until about mid-July.

The scenery was stunning and I asked John whether he was so used to it by now (he grew up on the farm he now runs and used to work with his father), that he no longer appreciated the beauty. As he pointed out a lapwing, a rare bird these days, and showed me a beck I had never seen before, surrounded by a variety of trees it was obvious that the beauty of our surroundings is never lost on John.

John Pratt
John Pratt
John Pratt

'I'm not a great environmental man, but I do appreciate wildlife and flowers. Although the ESA are now encouraging farmers to enter this new scheme, which is designed to protect the wildlife and countryside, there are things that I have started to do off my own bat - like using natural fertilisers. The ESA state that once a meadow has been declared a herb-rich meadow (maybe simply because one orchid has been spotted growing there), you are only allowed to use old bedding on the ground for a fertiliser. Last year I spread lime on the meadow, which helps the natural fertilisers to sink in more effectively. See that beck and trees over there, marigolds grow there and marigolds attract waders, so we are encouraged to keep grazing stock away from there to protect the marigolds.'

I asked John about his views on the government and their schemes - a subject so keen at the moment it can hardly be avoided, particularly at this crucial time of year, when the hill farmers' hard work hopefully comes to fruition. 'It seems to me, that with all their grants, which are taking the place of subsidies, they are trying to encourage us not to farm. We can be paid to keep sheep out of a meadow, which means we will eventually probably farm less sheep. The land will be worth more than the sheep and all the hard work that goes with them. We are paid 14 pounds per metre to maintain stone walls, they will give us a grant of 80% towards a new roof on a barn, so long as we don't alter it. Our farms and fells will become museums if we're not careful, but what are we to do?'

Just slightly higher up on the fell, we were going to feed a small group of barren ewes. John whistled and obediently the ewes arrived to eat their sugar beet. Some of the ewes have disappeared over the back of Knoutberry, enticed by the new green shoots on the fell - but with new regulations, John has to account for every sheep when the inspector arrives.

On the Kilnmire heaf - which is a slice of common land on which the ewes and their lambs will graze in the coming months, the new year's growth of grass is already showing. When the hogs (which are last years' gimmers [female lambs]) are fetched back from overwintering near Wigton just before lambing begins, John will dose and mark them before releasing them onto the fells.They will scatter over a wide area before eventually returning to their heaf. They seem to know by some instinct where they grazed as gimmers, and it also helps them to find their way back when this season's ewes and lambs are taken up onto the heaf for the summer.

The next job was to bring down a small group of ewes to the holding pens by Banks. From these John would separate out three ewes expecting twins and take them back down with him to the farm. He identified them by two orange spots on their backs. As he was catching them he explained about the care needed in feeding ewes expecting twins. 'There are small muscles here above the tail which are very weak. If the ewes have their normal amount of feed in one go this adds pressure to the already weak muscles and what sometimes happens is that the lamb bed can fall out. A vet then has to be called to force this back into the ewe and stitch her up - a very distressing thing to happen. To help avoid this I feed them the normal amount, but once in the morning and once in the evening - a small thing, but worth doing.'

On our way back we talked about the weather - another permanently interesting subject for farmers - at any time of year. But at this time of year and over the next few weeks, the worst that could happen is for it to be wet. Ewes living on sodden ground are easily prone to foot infection, which can cause lameness - a shot of penicillin should cure the problem, but cannot change the weather. Happy ewes produce strong, healthy lambs.

Hill farmers want some dry weather now, cold is not such a problem, but some dry weather would return the sodden fells and meadows to land fit for livestock and give the imminent lambs a much healthier start to life. At the moment, with the current outlook for farming in general, John cannot help but feel that, much as hill farming is a way of life that he would struggle to give up, it is very much 'hard work for nought'.

During the lambing season farmers can work 80-90 hours a week and are absolutely 'jiggered' at the end of the day - yet it has been suggested by one or two prominent politicians that farmers should go out and get a job to bring in the money. 'How could I go out and stack shelves at Asda on top of the hours I have to do already to keep the farm running?'