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,
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.
'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?'