The Anton Coaker column thread

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Ghan buri ghan

We’re initially going on a slight diversion today. The Tolkien scholars among you might’ve rued the absence of one of the Lord of the Rings characters from the movie trilogy. Inexplicably, headman of the primitive Pukel men, ‘Ghân-buri-Ghân’, is left out. As I recall-from the written word- Théoden and his army of horsemen take a shortcut through Ghan’s woods, in their race to rescue their besieged friends. Capturing Ghan, scouts brought him –somewhat grumpily- before Théoden, who quizzed him about what he knew. Feeling belittled by the questioning, Ghan points out that just because he and his people look primitive to civilised outsiders, he is still a great headman- not a child. He can, he reminds Théoden, count many things. ‘Stars in sky, leaves on trees. Men on horses in the dark’, going on to reveal he’s already not only tallied how many men Theoden commands, but also how many nasty orcs await them in battle. Unsettlingly, he’s already calculated the odds, and found the horsemen are badly outnumbered. Theoden has to acknowledge that Ghan is clearly not the simple wretch they’d imagined.

Through this exchange, Tolkien shows us the folly of presuming someone you regard as an uncivilised primitive is also a fool. Sometimes, for all your culture and finery, you mightn’t know as much as someone in a grass skirt.

And just now, I’m feeling more than my usual affinity for old Ghan. Because while I might look like tramp whose had a run of bad luck, that doesn’t mean I can’t count.

And one of the things I’ve been counting – notionally you understand- is grains of wheat. This is quite a trick just now, as a lot of them have vanished. Where have they gone? China, that’s where. In a few years, the Chinese have ramped up their overseas grain buying to levels unheard of. As I pointed out at the time, you could sum up what was happening in China backalong, as that everyone had left the family smallholding and gone to work in the bicycle factory. This turned them from being self-sufficient into being consumers. Suddenly they had some money in their pockets…and the first thing they bought was food.

Meanwhile, the State – whose workings I’ve never been very clear about- have taken rational steps. While we might be reviled by their attitudes to human rights and the like….they’re beavering away with a determination to improve their being. And one of the conservative values they’ve evidently been favouring is making sure there’s bread on the table –or possibly rice in the bowl. Recalling the unfortunate famine during the Cultural Revolution, President Xi Jinping has openly been concerned for food security

And boy! Is he doing something about it. In 2 decades, their overseas grain buying spend has increased 20 fold. They’re now holding over half of the worlds traded cereal crops in the vast banks of silos. Maize is something they’re particularly targeting, holding nearly 70% of what is available worldwide. They’re storing a year and a half’s worth of their required staple food stuffs.

Some of this is reckoned to be in preparation for any kind of trade war or sanctions that might interrupt the flow, as well as simple prudence.

Meanwhile, in the idle profligate West, we think we’re the masters of the Universe, beyond the cold reach of such matters. In the UK, government simply dispels any such thoughts, presuming the nation’s food supply can be cheaply imported. They’re far more concerned with salving our delicate consciences, feeling upset because David Attenborough tells us off for destroying the natural world. And despite the evident truth that a growing population of 68 million, on a footprint of 93,000 damp square miles, already can’t feed itself, government are more concerned that we should protect nature, and rewild farmland…..and this will make all of our environmental guilt vanish. Pop stars and wealthy heirs buy farmland to rewild, and gush about their righteousness. Curiously, I notice self-made first generation billionaires tend to buy productive farmland …and farm it.

Lost amid news of some tennis player’s covid status, and yet another ‘Number 10 lockdown party’ scandal, a cross-party group of MPs has just clearly warned DEFRA that post Brexit agricultural policies are a total mess. Plans messily focus on redirecting funds to taking farm land out of food production. Farmers have been warning constantly against this folly, but our voices are lost amid the clamour.

Meanwhile Boris who allegedly can’t even count his own children, wouldn’t even begin to consider counting grains of wheat. He’s a poster boy for what is wrong with society, driven by the basest of immediate selfish desire. He’s no Ghan, that’s for sure.
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China again

I had a nagging doubt for a day or two last week – well, an extra one over the usual constant worries. You’ll recall I’d told you how China has been stockpiling grains, hoovering up much of what is traded worldwide. And it occurred to me that I’d based this on one online source, and not one I was familiar with at that. Now in these paranoid times, where everyone at the other end of the tangled interweb seems to be trying to sell you some snake-oil remedy, conspiracy theory, or worse still, veganism, I try not to rely on single sources. So, after a fretful 24 hours, I took a moment to check out some other outlets. And while Chinese grain buying policy isn’t exactly front page stuff here –or at least it won’t be until its effects are more sharply felt- it’s hardly difficult to find further reference if you go looking. While the majority of ‘news’ outlets are driven by people’s evident desire to know the latest salacious gossip, and what our own Prime Minister has been up to this week – currently one and the same as ‘partygate’ revelations multiply faster than omicron - there is still some grown up reporting hiding away out there.

And the briefest search found several reports on the said Chinese policy, including references to instructions given last autumn to the whole country to stockpile foodstuffs. It’s hardly been a secret, and unless my eye for online naughtiness has fogged, appears to be quite genuine. There are varying drivers prompting this policy. China endured a major pig disease backalong, and pig numbers plummeted, then rose again….along with stocks of the grain they consume. This certainly skewed markets for some months, as have covid driven supply chain upsets. And as I indicated last week, fear of some unspecified trade war or sanctions has apparently grown as East/West sabre rattling rumbles away. With 20% of the world’s population to think about, President Xi Jinping clearly has no intention of letting them get hungry….hungry people tend to get upset, and it’s often not long before the cobblestones start flying.

And then, I suspect a major factor in policy in recent months has been the jump in natural gas prices. These in turn immediately caused nitrogen fertiliser production to be scaled back, as natural gas is pretty much fundamental to its production. With fertiliser prices now doubled, and manufacturers warning they cannot make up for the loss of production, it is apparent that there’s a shortfall in plant nutrition coming this season. Who will speculate on paying the extra, hoping increased prices will cover the expense, remains to be seen. Cleverer minds than mine are no doubt calculating furiously. Of course, you might squeal about the rights and wrongs of our reliance on natural gas for the growing of our staple foodstuffs, but it’s where we are, whether we like it or not.

It’s a generalisation, but I’d sum matters up as stable industrialised economies which have the land, use nitrogen- and other chemical inputs- to grow crops. Their surpluses are then traded on the global market, and these are what China has been buying up. Elsewhere of course, there are plenty of subsidence farmers growing enough for their own use, with small surplus sold on local markets. Their small scale production, high labour demands, and often a lack of sufficient political and financial stability hampers opportunities to scale up production, mean they’re largely neutral in the maths.

Xi knows all this, and doesn’t like what he sees in his crystal ball. He has apparently somehow socked away a year and a half of requirements, which sounds like a huge amount. Indeed, when the EU was ‘over-producing’ in the 1980’s, we had similar surpluses in ‘intervention’ stores, with the infamous ‘butter mountains’ and ‘wine lakes’. Pointedly, in about 1984– if my memory serves- Europe was harvesting and storing 150% of our annual grain consumption. Because farmers were being directly subsidised to produce this food, it was deemed a shocking state of affairs. The outrage led to changes in policy, which kept paying us farmers a sort of dole, but that was ‘decoupled’ from actual production – the very system which the UK is currently undoing.

Never mind that any kind of major harvest failure the following summer, then as now, would mean we’d run out of staples by the subsequent Christmas, there persists a mindset that it can never happen. I daresay if dinosaurs had learned to talk, read and write, and meet in the pub of a Friday evening, they’d be scoffing that anything could ever change….right until the new shiny thing in the sky suddenly got bigger.
Walk to work

Something occurred to me as I was almost sleeping through the radio news at ‘unfeasibly early o’clock’. Someone was saying society must do more to promote people cycling and walking to work. It might have been do with shedding a few pounds for the benefit of your health, rather than saving the planet. Or it might’ve been the other way round –I can’t recall.

Apparently the solutions were principally better cycle lanes – perhaps the studies that prompted this were led by the UK Tarmac and Asphalt Manufacturers Union. Anyway I was soon thinking how maybe the first thing I’d be wanting much of the year, if I walked any distance to work, would be a drying room for my coat and leggings, and somewhere to warm up. This is based on long experience – albeit I walk out of the back door and I am at work, but where the work is then carried out on foot, in the great outdoors. And as any such place of work will soon reveal, what you meet as you come back to base will be dripping coats and boots hung about the scullery. It’s pretty much universal on livestock farms. What the scullery would be like if 427 people worked from the same building I can’t imagine, although I daresay it probably wouldn’t be called a scullery either.

Of course, I realise I’m seeing this with ‘hick’ eyes, but I went on thinking about it as I roused myself and walked to my work. One of the things I note when I’m exposed to people who don’t feed cows and fettle sheep for their livelihood, is that many of them manifestly fail to maintain a set of wet weather gear. A long coat- of the Gabardine or trench coat nature, and perhaps a brolly seems to be the limit of it. This compares sharply to ‘full kit’ prevalent hereabouts, which will include waterproof coat, leggings, and boots sufficient to repel what moisture the wearer is likely to encounter. Hats are optional, and often selected for their ability to fit under the cinched down hood of the coat, for when things get real. Surprisingly gloves aren’t always in evidence, as they’re an obstacle to opening the penknife etc. Lately, hereabouts, they’re tending to the stretchy rubber coated palm type. Obviously, the further temperatures dip below freezing, the more insulation becomes an issue, while waterproofing gets less critical.

It might seem strange to folk less used to such life, but it’s instantly recognisable to anyone living with rain, daily, outdoors. Followers of other disciplines and professions who’d recognise the traits would include those who work in forestry, fishing, linesmen for utilities, builders, and anyone else whose life involves being outdoors for any length of time in British winters. Variations in the gear are affected by severity of weather, proximity to shelter, safety requirements, and as ever…cost. Trawlermen and those on oil rigs have to spend hours in the most severe of it, and you’ll note their gear is accordingly heavier duty. Conversely, anyone picking up chainsaws for their daily bread will have layers of Kevlar woven into their clothing, which also has to be weatherproof. It adds cost and hampers movement a bit….but arguably not as much as a traumatic amputation.

What you see less of is trendy branded gear, proudly declaring they’re made of fabric ending in the letters ‘tex’. This is largely about cost versus durability- those that do wear such generally have a clipboard and a degree…but no shovel. On cost, the cheapest plastic raincoats might have bust zips and tears by evening, gear costing hundreds of pounds isn’t immune from damage. Livestock farmers tend to be attired in mid-range gear- I hope to get a winter out of a set.

Back to the work premises, farmhouses often have a whole family’s worth of gear hung up dripping by the end of the day, and I suppose if you’re accommodating 427 employees walking to work in your office block, you’d have to allow for that many sets of long coats and brollies. Perversely, it gets worse when the weather warms in spring. As my nearest and dearest points out- and I have to remember the poor girl wasn’t always married to a hill farming monkey- anyone cycling to work in the summer is likely to want a shower and somewhere to change. Imagine trying to fit that into your office space for the 427 desk jockeys. There’s rather more to it than painting some lines on the road.

Curiously I notice calls that everyone should walk or cycle to work seldom come from those wield a shovel or such implement for their crust. Physician, heal thyself.

Anyone who knows me will attest, I’m about the least sporty of types. You’ll just about never find me taking part in physical activities not directly connected to my work….I just don’t have the energy. I carry heavy things, wrestle bullocks, and chase sheep all day…why on earth would I want to do ‘sports’

A colleague and I were once admiring the participants in the cross-country race at an out of the way village fete– one of those so far off the beaten track that stewards wave you on past the show field road gate if they don’t recognise you, or at least like the cut of your jib. We agreed we couldn’t even run across the field itself, ne’er mind the higgley route the runners had taken across the valley. Or at least, we couldn’t …. unless there was a heifer stuck calving, a dog bothering the in-lamb ewes, or actual flames coming out of the top of the baler. Then we’d nearly break the sound barrier, coat tails flapping wildly, hat held in one hand.

It isn’t that I’m not competitive you understand…oh no. Far from it. I see life itself as a fiercely competitive sport, and play accordingly. But that’s different, rather more subtle, and the match is hopefully going endure another 2-3 decades yet. But conventional sport? Nah, not me.

However…if I were to be interested, I suppose it’d be rugger. A real sport, played -generally sportingly- by real men. And, to get to some kind of point, I’ve got to raise my hat to the Exeter Chiefs. Under continued pressure to stop borrowing imagery from native Americans, they’ve finally agreed to drop the highly characterised images.

Apparently the National Congress of American Indians wrote to the club, asking them to stop promoting offensive stereotypes, although to me it rather smacks of looking for things to be offended by, and I’ve got to wonder how it came to their attention in the first place. I happen to know various native Americans, and I don’t recall them being especially vexed by such matters. Some aren’t exactly happy their country has been stolen, which is fair enough, but a different matter.

The best bit is what Exeter have chosen as a replacement logo, to whit, a Celtic chief, apparently of the historic Drumnonii tribe. IE, a group indigenous to the South West of what is now England. And I love this, not just because it contains the very satisfactory word ‘nonny’, but because I’ll wager that a lot of the complainers are also of the type that don’t want to accept white English people calling themselves indigenous. For some reason, the title can’t apply to certain peoples, and we all have to feel guilty about everything. Well I don’t feel guilty, and if the Chiefs have swapped one set of indigenous images that they had expropriated, for another that was legitimately theirs anyway, good on em. Happily, I note that the team includes both local players, and some from the other side of the world.

The business did get me thinking about our concept of what is ‘indigenous’. Strictly speaking, the word means something-plant or animal- that originated where it’s found. And with anthropology being one of those ologies I read bit about, last I heard- barring some pretty spurious claims in China- humans originated in Africa. So no-one except an African living in Africa could technically claim to be indigenous. But, apparently, we use the word differently in relation to people. It’s taken, more or less, to mean the first group to have arrived and settled in a place. Obviously, dates of arrivals of ethnic groups are often obscure, and contentious. It’s common amongst –usually European- latter day settlers to play down the venerability of the people they’re thieving a country from. I suppose it somehow lessens down the native’s right to have kept their land. Modern Americans have a tendency to want to show the natives there only turned up a few thousand years ago, and very possibly from Europe, rather than Asia, at that. Honestly, there are earnestly touted theories countering evidence that Asiatic people crossed from Siberia 20,000 years ago. White Australians have a bigger pill to swallow. When I was there, some were clinging to the idea that the aboriginals had only been around for 6000 years, when archaeological finds have put that date to at least a staggering 60,000 years ago.

But right here, now, in a muddled up world full of angst? Well some of us can claim to be indigenous, whether others like it or not. Good for the Chiefs….go yer hardest lads.
David Attenborough

The sofa in front of the TV carries a high risk for me evenings nowadays. Like Solzhenitsyn’s fellow ‘zeks’ in Stalin’s prison camps…the first thing that happens when you warm up a weary hill farmer is that he nods off. Being in beside the woodburner, slumping on the sofa means there’s high chance I’ll be asleep before the ad break in the Simpsons, ne’er mind some grown up programme that goes on a bit. And so it was with dear old David Attenborough and I this week. His show was chiefly a few half absorbed bits and pieces of foggy consciousness. But, untouchable as he may be, I still took exception to some of it.

Bless his heart, he seems to have been dragged into the slipstream of the juggernaut that slams livestock farming, instead promoting the idea we should all live on just plants. And while his rambling was troubling my sleepy head, trying to swim back to the surface of awareness, my eyes opened to see footage of miles and miles of the almond groves in California’s Central valley. These, you’ll recall, are grown in such an artificial monoculture that bees have to be shipped temporarily in to pollinate them. Worse- and unmentioned while my eyes were open-, is their water consumption. They’re a highly lucrative crop, but in a semi-arid drought stressed region, critically, cannot be left fallow for a year or two to conserve moisture. The trees need to be watered every year, or they die. So, those endless rows and rows are drawing ‘surface’ reservoir water – collected from rainfall and snow melt- from many miles away. And, more significantly, they’re pumping water from underground aquifers. This is effectively fossil water, accumulated over thousands of years….and it is being plundered at a shocking rate. The crash is almost upon California, and you can bet your life that the city folk will have first dibs on the last bucketful. Those almond groves are an ongoing disaster, destined to fail.

I might’ve missed old Davie’s caveat, but did get the general gist of it. I have to presume he’s just reading a script prepared by others, because I wouldn’t want to think he’s deliberately misleading you on this.

In fact, it’s one of the bigger lies the anti-meat lobby cling to. They’re claiming beef production uses I-don’t-know-how-much water. The numbers are stratospheric, so much so you’ve got to wonder whether they ever ask themselves how can this be true? In fact, they seem to want to count every drop of rain that falls on the hills my cows live upon, which is pretty ripe given the above. But self-delusion seems to be a strong suit among such people.

The endlessly repeated lies and half-truths somehow morph into ‘fact’, so that even proponents of mixed farming accept them, and try to find ways to mitigate what are largely fictitious problems in the first place.

One facet of this that’s bothering me is the half-baked concept that fattening cattle faster is better for the environment- the shorter their lives, the less damage they do. It’s somehow become accepted, despite being a highly complex, and indeed subjective business. So much so that there are now suggestions of a tax on animals slaughtered above a certain age, to incentivise faster ‘finishing’. I don’t like the divisions this sows within my own industry, but it’s important we put it to bed quickly. The foundation stone of the concept is promoted by those who would have you believe methane from cow burps is somehow comparable to methane from the fossil fuel industry. As I’ve previously pointed out, cow burps are part of a pre-existing short natural cycle, and simply cannot be the problem. They’re essentially made of grass and rain for goodness sake.

But the argument still goes that cattle should be fattened quicker. This can only be done by either grazing them on better land – which might be better used for cropping- or more pointedly, by feeding them a higher input diet. And this is where it gets complicated. A lot of higher input cattle nutrition – most indeed- is derived from cereals and plant matter that humans can’t-or won’t- eat. Across much of the UK, for instance, growing premium grade bread making wheat is highly unreliable. So utilising slightly ‘foosty’ cereals to put the last few pounds on a bullock is eminently sensible policy.

It’s very complex, and I haven’t got room to unravel it for you here today, but remember, whenever you hear mention of the subject, it’s often being driven by those with their own agendas. Despite it being dressed in plausible words…sometimes, all you need do is ‘follow the money’.
Recent News

A series of bits of news have caught my attention lately. One was the list of delightful suggestions from Natural England on how farmers should treat members of the public when they enter our land. In short, we should welcome everyone to our home and place of work. Hmm, OK. The next item was the court case in which a farmer was cleared of charges that arose after he removed a vehicle that’d been parked in his entrance track, using a farm forklift. Court records indicate he’d politely asked the driver to remove it, and had been twice punched in the face for his troubles. The third was yet another court case, involving a different farmer. He’s been found guilty of some offence after a dog walker was regrettably killed by his cows. He’s received a suspended gaol sentence, as well as being fined quite a pile of money.

You’ll understand how these matters all overlap for the likes of me. From the top, Natural England seem to expect me to welcome people onto my farm, however unwelcome some of them might actually be. See, I have several miles of footpaths and bridlepaths crisscrossing the old ranch, as well as about 90% it being ‘open access’ land under the 2000 CRoW Act. My life is an ongoing stream of encounters with members of the public, to whom I’m usually courteous and civil to. It matters not whether I’ve just had a very trying day, or been verbally abused by the immediately previous group of uninvited visitors. I may have been picking up the torn remnants of yet another sheep attacked by walkers’ dogs, or loading a much loved cow prematurely bound for the slaughterhouse simply because she’s come across some walker’s Neospora infected dog muck. I might’ve been picking up the aborted foetus’s caused by either of the former – and really really…before you take issue with me about this matter, I want you to imagine how much fun this last task is. But no, I generally keep a shiny face outward, because I have to accept that the next family to traipse through the farm might be quite blameless. They will likely be voters, and possibly customers and tax payers.

Now however, I find Natural England instructing me in this matter, and it strikes me as very insulting indeed. I’ll try to bear the epic level of condescension in mind when I’m next met with their staff.

Perhaps you’ll understand then, that like pretty much every farmer in the land, I was sympathetic when we heard details of the farmer who’d removed the illegally parked car. We’d all –rightly- guessed there was rather more to the tale than the scant detail initially reported. And indeed, it sounds like the poor bloke had been pushed past the point where any normal person would respond with force.

The last matter, where an elderly man tragically lost his life was, as I say, very regrettable. I am very sorry for him and his family. No-one wants such accidents. However …how on earth have we got to such an absurd point where the farmer is to blame. I understand he was quite legally grazing his cattle on his land, and a member of the public entered, uninvited, with 2 dogs. The walker took the choice to enter, and can scarcely have been unaware that taking dogs in amongst cattle is a very risky thing to do. And doing so when you’re not as agile or fleet of foot as you once were is little short of foolhardy. He chose to take that risk, and I am 100% unrepentant for pointing this out.

Worse, a judge didn’t then throw the case straight out, but punished the farmer, and thus allowed the HSE to pontificate after the case on how farmers should manage their livestock and land. What? I shouldn’t graze my beasts where I choose on my farm, just because the public demand access to it, and insist on taking stupid risks?

It’s a travesty of justice, and it disgusts me.

What happens if this farmer’s cows kill another elderly walker? He might very well take the HSE’s stupid advice, and graze cows only where there’s no access….but Natural England have just instructed us we mustn’t tell people off for straying from paths. Next time, a court might send this man down for grazing cows. Put yourself in his wellies. Imagine if it was me? 90% of my land has open access, and without going into detail, I pretty much have to graze cows to be able to remain in my family home.

The law is clearly an ass, and this needs sorting out.

Well that was all a bit hairy, with Eunice and chums rearranging everyone’s garden furniture in the time honoured tradition. Seemingly with the worst passing north of me, it-and whatever name you give a storm, I suggest it’s an ‘it’- didn’t cause me too much grief. A few boards of cladding got ripped off a building, but they were already hanging after an impromptu bit of headbanging with a teenaged loader driver backalong. I notice a very heavy calf creep feeder has relocated itself several rotations Eastward…happily with no calves in it I might add.

I had a certain local difficulty when I got to feed a couple of groups of cows on top of the brow. As I attempted each forward step, I’d find my leg continued to lift because I was being pushed over backwards. Forward motion was best maintained by carrying a 25kg feed block, which improved ground pressure and thereby traction no end. I’ll simply have to eat a lot more if this continues.

But on balance, compared to the real shocker we had in January 1990, on Dartmoor, this was fairly mild stuff. That frightening day I’ll never forget. The sound was difficult to describe- and perhaps those who caught the worst of it last Friday will relate- the wind wasn’t just roaring….it had an eerie bellowing that I’d never experienced before or since. As windspeed built through the morning – the timing not unlike Eunice- we soon had big beech trees coming down around us as we tried to feed the cattle, and then as we worked to free bullocks which became trapped in buildings that were being struck. No roofs blew off, but then they couldn’t by dint of having 20-30 tonnes of beech pinning them down. I did look up as something fluttered above me, in my peripheral vision….the cold realisation came that it was a sheet of corrugated iron passing by about 40’ overhead, and travelling at a pace that would’ve seriously spoilt your morning, had it made contact.

In the end, a senior member of the team who turned out to help ordered us all inside. He was an old hand who’d felled timber in his youth, and simply warned ‘Too many ‘widder makers’ around boys’.

So I’m sympathetic toward those who caught the full brunt of Eunice.

Our electricity was out for a day or two – and all credit to the teams who’ve evidently been working hard to get the juice flowing again- and the internet connection has been down since Friday, leading to various complications. But generally, our lives carried on much as ever. The cows have to be fed, which involves firing up a diesel powered tractor. Both the main saws and the forklift in the mill are directly driven from diesel engines, so work carried on there. The house has a gravity fed oil fired Aga, and a woodburner, so we had some warmth to come in to…albeit by candle light when it got dark. All the above, I note, are instruments of the Devil as far as Michael Gove and his chums are concerned. But complaints about them ring a bit hollow during spells of weather like that.

I did catch an interview with some very earnest politician – seemingly one with a rather better grasp of the realities of life - who was concerned that society might be becoming increasingly at risk from such extreme weather incidents. Good grief! You don’t say? The worst of it for us was a couple of freezers full of beef to worry about- ‘Don’t open the door!’- and concern as to how long the yard’s water supply would hold out with no electricity for the pump. We’d had the system superannuated last autumn, and were hopeful it would hold out.

There was a quick discussion Saturday morning, to determine procedure should the water run dry, and we could’ve managed fairly well, albeit having to spend a few hours letting housed cattle out to drink by turns. I’m not sure how we’d have eaten all the frozen beef if it had thawed though…but hey ho.

As for resilience in wider society? Well no, the politician was quite right. There’s less and less. Once the mobile phones run out of charge, the sky falls. And would you really fancy the lads who turned out to get the electricity supply up and running to be driving electric trucks….with no means of charging them? No, of course you wouldn’t, and I’m afraid we need to think a little harder about where we’re going.

Will a few stormy days stop Vladimir rolling the boundary stone a few miles West? I’m very much afraid they won’t.

There’s only really the one topic this week – the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. For all the warning signs, and Russia’s recent history, it’s nonetheless shocking to see a large scale conflict being fought on European soil once more. This isn’t some questionable ‘police action’ by the West against a dangerous despot or extreme ideology, who would do others harm. It’s not being carried out in countries that were teeteringly unstable before the bullets started flying. It’s a full scale attack on a modern democratic nation, by the greedy, aggressive and paranoid dictator next-door.

It will probably be Putin’s ultimate undoing one way or another, if regrettably too late for the thousands now suffering. He’s evidently neglected his history lessons if he doesn’t recall what happens to dictators as they become increasingly dangerous to their neighbours and their own people. For be under no illusion, his decision is going to hurt Russia’s standing in so many ways.

Regrettably, the grim reality is that this hasn’t stopped him sending troops in, and it saddens me beyond words what’s happening because of one man’s deranged dogma. The massive offensive- which the US and NATO had accurately predicted- hasn’t gone as quickly as he’d have liked, which is going to be a problem for him. It’s not just the military cost of any setback the Ukrainians manage to put in his way, it’s the images and information of a prolonged conflict. They’ll get back home, which will be dangerous for him.

To date –‘ time of writing’ caveat applies- he hasn’t fully blocked the internet and social media. I’ve been able to chat with a Russian pal who in turn is chatting with a cousin in Kiev. He’s Russian to his core, and a Putin ‘believer’, and is angry and confused - if I may venture an opinion- about the images. Unsurprisingly, the Ukrainians aren’t being shy about posting photos of dead/captured Russian squaddies. And it’s feedback like that Vlad really doesn’t want.

Another risk of a prolonged conflict will be the increasing brutality of both Russian invaders, and Ukrainian defence. Until the last couple of days, Putin has been trying to take over a more or less intact infrastructure. But as conflicts drag on, so generally values change. Look at what happened in Syria, as Assad eventually took to effectively demolishing entire cities that resisted.

And then….as this conflict drags on, so the potential rises for other countries to get pulled in, which in this instance, stands to be a catastrophic matter. Putin has already pushed Belarus into it, by using them as a launch pad – you’ll recall it wasn’t many months ago that it looked as if their own Russian leaning ‘leader’ was going to be thrown out by a political movement favourable to the West. The diffuse edges of this conflict will surely see volunteers from other countries joining Ukrainian forces – especially those who’re next in Putin’s sights. And the German’s stepping forward with military aid is a massive step- both for the conflict itself, and for Germany as a country. How Russia will view foreign fighters, potentially using foreign weapons, against them in Ukraine?

And whether or not any gas will be coming down the pipelines next week is anyone’s guess.

Another issue not raising its head yet is what will happen on Russia’s side of the border. For just as there are plenty of Ukrainians with Russian connections, so the reverse is also true. There will be Ukrainian sympathisers living in Russia…….and who knows what they might get up to as it gets worse. Putin might find it unexpectedly rather nearer to home than he thinks.

Here, there’s a lot that’s caught my eye already. It hasn’t escaped my attention that Boris was a little slow in stepping up sanctions, compared to other western countries. Couple this to the trough of Russian money in London that some snouts have been in, and you might reasonably speculate whether there was some frenzied money movement in those critical 48 hours late last week. I imagine there’ll be some ugly questions asked in due course.

There’s a further irony to it, if you accept Western intelligence communities belief that Moscow interfered with our EU referendum, sowing discord and ultimately helping Boris to power. That’s a strange thought. And then, when the Labour leader was calling for tougher sanctions to be brought to bear on Russia I realised we really were in uncharted waters.

But it’s back to Ukraine that my thoughts turn, and the revulsion of this visceral armed conflict. My heart goes out to the people drawn into it. I can only hope and pray for peace to return.

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Message to Russian friends

With the ongoing tragedy in Ukraine, I’ve been thinking what I can say to my Russian friends. So my piece this week will read as answers to points they’ve raised, or responses to their arguments.

To start at the beginning – of this discussion- those of you who support and believe in Putin seem to think NATO is an evil body, determined to hurt Russia. And while some of this Russian feeling of ‘everyone is out to get us’ is historic, it has certainly suited your President to encourage this belief. But it doesn’t reflect the organisation we know here. Oh, for sure, both of our governments engage in overseas policies which we might not be proud of, but NATO was constructed, and continues to act, for keeping the peace. A country which joins NATO –or the EU- does so by their own choice, and is free to leave again.

You’ve mentioned NATO bombing Serbia. Well, my recollection is that a complicated mess unfolded during the separation of Yugoslavia. I’m pretty sure I recall Serbia was busily trying to destroy entire groups of people it didn’t like, which the rest of Europe – eventually- was not prepared to witness. The West’s actions were only to try and stop wider bloodshed…..nothing more.

And then you say you hate/don’t trust NATO because Yeltsin and Gorbachov were friends to NATO, and it was them that destroyed Russia. My understanding was that Russia had effectively already destroyed itself, by decades of mismanagement under decades of communism, and misrule by Stalin.

It left your society unprepared to sensibly determine a way forward. When the Soviet bloc crumbled, a small number of greedy clever people jumped into the power vacuum, and stole whole tranches of Russia’s national assets.

It was also then that the former Soviet bloc countries turned toward the West, embraced democracy. Perhaps you should ask why they are now desperate for Ukraine to survive.

Then several areas which were part of Russia wanted to become countries in their own right. Ukraine clearly succeeded. True, its history cannot be changed – its past is forever tied to Russia- but there’re Ukrainian soldiers fighting who have spent their entire lives in an independent democratic country. You cannot expect them to accept Russian rule now. It is too late, a page of history that has turned.

Putin initially stabilised the post-communist Russian mess. But since, he has been tightening his grip, and has now set you on a course which makes Russia far weaker. He wants you to think we hate you, so you think you need him. Ironically, what you’ve now done makes it very hard to love you.

His claims he is liberating Ukraine sound absurd to the outside world- what is he doing…liberating them to death? And the allegations of genocide and Nazism against the Ukrainians simply have no evidence. Our journalists are all over Ukraine, and however much you struggle to understand what ‘a free press’ really means, trust me, if they could find ‘news’ to sell, they would.

You say you have a ‘free press’, but we’re shown –every day- more media people in Moscow who are being closed down? Anyone protesting is grabbed off the streets by police. Do you see the same thing happening in London? You suggest I wouldn’t be allowed to say horrible things about our Queen….but I am free to. Hardly anyone would buy the paper that printed the things you suggest, but I am quite free to say them. I ask you to compare that to Russia.

We hear you cannot even call this a ‘war’, or an ‘invasion’. How stupid do you think it makes Russia sound?

We’ve mentioned freedom. Joining NATO or the EU is quite voluntary. Nobody is forced to do this….they choose it. Western civilisation is based on free choice. There are rules, and it doesn’t always work smoothly. People try to influence how voters choose….but ultimately, voters choose. Your President has opponents put in prison, or they are mysteriously killed. Again, ask yourself why it happens.

Putin has begun to more or less openly threaten nuclear war if he cannot have his own way. And he is slowly, steadily bombing Ukrainian cities to dust.

The old men around me, who remember previous dictators waging war, all have the same thing to say about such bullies….we must not, cannot, just ‘roll over’.

And if you think this war is going to make Ukrainians love Russia again….you must be blind. Even most of those who were sympathetic toward you will now hate Russia for decades.

We have a jokey saying here…. ‘Babies nappies have to be changed when they’re full. Politicians are about the same’.
Conservative parliamentary message

This week, chiefly for the benefit of Conservative MPs and senior civil servants, we’d better talk about a different crisis…albeit one absolutely connected to Ukraine. Like most of the farming lobby, I’ve been carefully pointing out the shortcomings in UK food policies for some years. Sometimes, I write humorously about what I see from a sodden hill farm, or perchance venture off into some amusing bit of trivia, whimsy, or anecdote…other weeks I try to lay it on the line. And this week…. well, frankly this is a stark warning.

I’ll give you some numbers below, but the crux is that we’re about to experience a food and energy crisis. And in our densely packed- nay, overpopulated Islands, this could manifest in some very ugly ways. It doesn’t bother me if you want to call me an alarmist. It matters not whether I write about the pretty baby lambs skipping about the sheep shed, or the woes of a man feeding hill cows in the teeth of a rainstorm. I’m writing this particular piece because it needs saying.

We import -very roughly – approaching half our food. In a complex international trade, food – from staple commodities to processed products- is shuttled everywhere, all of the time. But the bottom line is that while we’re farming less intensively than we could, we’re also carrying 30-35 million souls more than we should. And what farming we are doing is largely reliant on fossil fuels. The raw data suggests a recklessness on an epic scale.

I know I’ve pointed these evident truths out before, but recent events suggest that the chickens are coming home to roost….now.

The rocketing price of natural gas is causing problems in its own right…with electricity and heating bills going up, and about to get worse. But I want you to focus on what this means for fertiliser. Us naughty farmers have, for decades, been buying nitrogen plant food in a bag. It’s manufactured using natural gas, and boosts crop volumes. From high input ryegrass for dairy units to convert into milk, to kick-starting cereal plants so they can build bigger ears of grain. The rights and wrongs of this don’t matter. We are where we are.

And what will this mean? What are the numbers?

Well, my part is of little import. It’s the arable men you need to worry about. The price of grain is directly linked to fertiliser, and they constantly oscillate. A month ago, the increase in the price of nitrogen was still viable against the increased value of grain. Both have jumped again since Vladimir launched his ill-advised Ukrainian venture. It still appears to be worth sprinkling the granules to get an extra tonne of yield, but herein lies the problem…farmers are now paying the extra for inputs, gambling on world food prices jumping further still. Some are not taking that gamble. Consider for a moment the implications of this.

Worse, there are also availability issues. IE it doesn’t matter whether we can pay, the fertiliser simply might not be there anyway.

Combine this with the predicted collapse in Ukrainian outputs. Many who should now be planting the seed corn in Europe’s breadbasket are, for obvious reasons, unable to. And whether what does get planted ever gets harvested…well, who knows? In round numbers, that could reduce the world’s tradable grain by maybe 10%, while yields in the UK and elsewhere could also be back by 10%. A 15 or 20% drop is realistic, in a market China has already cornered.

Ordinarily, we’d have the awful spectacle of watching hungry children in developing countries queuing for handouts. But this coming 18 months might see a more immediate situation. The boats will hardly be putting into North African ports if they think richer countries will pay more. Will they even get to Tilbury, if trade is better in Rotterdam, or Hamburg? Or Beijing?

We saw what happens when loo rolls run out, or petrol doesn’t come gushing out of the pump in the accustomed manner…. Joe Public becomes pretty unhinged when just his routine is disturbed. And you don’t need to read many history books to know what happens when he’s real hungry.

I’ll repeat the critical bit. We have 30-35 million mouths more than we can currently feed, and the overseas supply looks like it’s in some jeopardy. How clear does this picture need to be painted? Personally, I fear our social cohesion won’t stand this test.

Several countries across Europe have already instructed their farmers to abandon the green policies beloved of the ‘woke’ urbanites, and ‘get ploughing’. Westminster is sitting on its hands.

There’s no time left to discuss this. It’s already upon us.
Impending Spring

My life is suddenly being taken over by the mundane realities of an impending spring. Quite apart from a rush of sawmill orders needing finishing for spring projects, and a couple of orders of stone to be cut for similar reasons, the farming cycle is about to start over again.

My South Devon cows might not be big by breed standards –the living is a bit hard on em up here for that- but they’re big enough compared to other breeds. And right now, with bellies full of calves, some are the size of small dirigibles, increasingly wobbling as they lumber gracefully about the place. Barging in amongst em to take the string or net off a bale is fraught…should you get caught between 2 of the heaving midriffs, you’re on an instant slimming trip.

One group have been eating nice clover silage all winter – a few fatteners in the bunch means the whole group get the yummy ration. And they’re not only looking positively shiny in the coat – greasy even- but are carrying no small amount of flesh too….which is pretty good given that most of them are youngsters who’d just reared their first calf by last Christmas, and were in need of a boost.

At the other end of the scale is the bunch including the old hands, who’d reared the first draw of calves and were weaned off and dry before November bit. They’ve fared little worse, and were in fantastic order. I say ‘were’, because we haven’t seen much of each other for several weeks now. Just before ‘Eunice’, they all slipped off across the Dart, knowing there might well be a fresh bite on the other side of the river. I believe the bale in the feeder the day before wasn’t the sweetest, and that was likely what sent them exploring. I tend not to get stressed about this for a day or two….knowing there was indeed a good bite if they went looking for it. But after the storms settled, I thought I’d better fetch em back. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of 10 year old South Devon cows trying to ‘pick what they can find’. The boy had been calling in on them occasionally, keeping a weather eye on them, and confirmed they’d sheared off what green there was. So I slipped over and walked them back last week, giving them a nice fresh bale in their feeder as a ‘welcome home’. They didn’t seem to have suffered much, and were still in very good fettle. And how long did they stay home? A couple of days. Given we’re very close to calving now, and where they’re roaming includes about a hundred acres of waste to hide in, this isn’t really what we want. And anyway, we’re TB testing next week, so they’re coming home now whether they like it or no, and being shut where they cannot wander off again. Bless em.

The Galloways are looking like they’ve got a mess of calves in them too, although they’re not due for a few weeks yet.

The sheep are likewise fast filling up. Those that have seen some grub are looking well, and have wintered easily. The hill ewes however are looking pretty washed out in the coat…I’m hoping they handle better than they look. We will see.

My chief assistant has a little bunch lambing earlier than me, being that I’m a dinosaur who doesn’t know anything. The weather has been generally kind so far, although the corvids haven’t made matters easier. One otherwise perfectly healthy ewe can only walk round right hand corners now, because some helpful raven removed her left eye. There’s no sign she was ever ‘cast’. Then 2 very fit and healthy ewes lambed beside each other just on dawn, muddling up their combined 5 lambs. By the time they were fetched in, the birds had taken eyeballs/ears/tails, or pecked exploratory holes in the backsides of 3 of the lambs. They’ve got one lamb each now.

Once the main group start lambing, the supply of afterbirth and such will be adequate for any hungry wildlife, but habits like the above could well prove fatal for someone meanwhile. It’s basic evolution.

I’ve had a few days off sick, which has increased the burden on those around me. To keep their energy up, an emergency supply of broken sweet biscuits has been shipped in. Pound for pound, it’s a useful calorific boost, although I have to maintain iron discipline around the kitchen table. NO rummaging, and absolutely no ‘gold panning’ for the chocolate ones.

As daylight hours slowly grow, so does the workload that comes with it. But nonetheless…happy days.
Cattle Crush

It’s been a very busy week, here, with the main TB test, shuttling lorry loads of cattle home from winter lodgings, and generally trying to get all my ducks in a row. Not actual ducks you understand, but rather metaphoric ones, with the complex plate spinning operation I manage at this time of year.

One of the bumps in my road was that the cattle crush needed fettling. I’d bought a fresh 2nd hand galvanised affair a year or so back, which has a few useful gadgets. But as well as looking a bit fragile for a thumping that herds of obstreperous sucklers give it, it’s too long for the chute as things are set up. This would involve resetting various gates and posts to accommodate. So it’s currently the ‘mobile’ crush for off-site tasks. Anyway, I don’t actually want the gadgets. I’ve tried for some time to find a new, galvanised crush with nothing but a single clunky shutting door at the front end, complete with head yolk - admittedly I’ve only been looking half-heartededly, as I’m never very enthusiastic about spending my meagre funds. But no-one seems to make such a device now….apparently I’m a dinosaur, and my need and coin isn’t worth catering for.

This doesn’t overly exercise me if I’m honest. Like so many aspects of hardware about me, if the replacement doesn’t look like it’ll do a better job, last as long, or come within budgetary expectations…it usually stays on the forecourt/in the catalogue or shop. As far as the crush goes…. I’d decided it would simply have to be repaired before the upcoming tests. So I lifted it from its place with the telehandler last weekend, and set to with some recycled bits of box section – remains of a broken 38 year old cattle grid- a box of welding rods, and a glint in my eye. By Sunday evening it was fastened back in place, replete with new feet all round, fresh bottom rails, and even a repair where a bit of bale cord had been holding it together for the last decade or so. Some fresh paint was applied, if barely dry. Those shaking their heads in embarrassment for me will be especially piqued to know I was originally sent off to fetch this crush in my teens, after Dad bought it 2nd hand – when Charlie Cathers sold up and left ‘Shortburn’ to return to the Emerald Ilse.

Moving slightly on, since that time the cattle crush might not have changed, but my goodness the wildlife around the yard has. See, I don’t recall there being anything like the number of owls around the place in my long distant youth. Now, the place is positively lifting with the blasted things. The scrawling and screeching that goes on all night might be a deeply restive and bucolic sound to some….but I do wish they’d turn the volume down. Why they should have proliferated so I couldn’t tell you. We never used much in the way of the agro-chemicals that are alleged to have decimated wild-life in the last century, and our farming hasn’t altered that much. It’s surely true that there’s more vegetation growing in a changed environment…I suppose the increase in brambly trash allows more scurrying prey species. Or perhaps these owls are displaced from sprawling urban development. I couldn’t say…..I only wish the beggars would pipe down evenings.


Something else occurred to me the other night, while watching a TV show about some ‘back to nature’ family – you know the sort. A fascinating story about how they’ve escaped the humdrum world and gone to live in the country. Shows about those who never left the sticks are apparently of less interest. Anyhoo….this family ingeniously fuel their cooker with methane they bubble up from a home-made anaerobic digester. This, in turn, is fuelled by food waste and the like. It’s a far cry from the heavily subsidised commercial scale industrial AD plants that proliferate amongst a certain well-heeled set nowadays – which might sensibly run on various waste products, but in fact hoover up vast quantities of specifically grown crops, carted miles and miles by endless flows of tractors and trailers.

Now it occurs to me that a sensible government might better put a modest amount of funds into developing a simple household scale AD plant and requisite safety apparatus, to be manufactured and sold ‘at cost’ to those wishing to cut their domestic bills. It pokes Putin in the eye, reduces both the need for expensive infrastructure, and the volume of waste currently going in the bin. Anyone with a bit of garden could run one. Just thinking out loud here.
As Predicted

As predicted, the pace is picking up hereabouts, with calves and lambs arriving fast and ….well, soggily. To date, at least the successes outnumber the fails. With everything happening, all hands are to the pumps, and we’re all pretty hard pressed still.

Every day brings fresh problems to unravel, and calamities to avert. My personal best to date has been a South Devon who’d calved in the snow one evening at the end of last week, and was found stood over a flat out calf. I’d noticed she was mooching off away from her mates, but by the time I got back to her, the calf was out and its mouth already cool to the touch. I could see straight away the calf needed to come in PDQ, and colostrum tubing into it. So I went back to the house, gently suggested to my long suffering beloved that I’d be needing some help. She obligingly got kitted up, and came out to reverse a tractor slowly in across 2 fields, with calfie in the loader bucket, as I walked behind the cow who’d surely follow along sniffing her treasure as we trundled home. Well, that was the plan. In reality, the cow had started getting ansty by the time we got back. Not nasty, but rather confused and upset- her precious new baby wasn’t getting up and about-however much she licked it. I flopped the calf in on a wedge of straw I’d thought to put in the cold bucket, and tried to persuade her to follow it as Alison slipped into reverse. Not a bit of it. The young cow put her head up and started galumphing about faster than an aging hill farmer could master.

By now, 10-12 of her mates had come along to join the fun, so Alison hopped out of the cab, and we drove the whole lot in. Selecting a very biddable mate, we shed the rest off as we snuck them in the gate, and walked the 2 down to the crush. And at this moment, I’d like to observe that the layout of these old steadings is hardly by chance. The house and yard are right on a reliable spring line, so housed stock- and the farmers family- always have good water. This is nestled right under the best of the free draining mowing ground, to provide winter fodder for the stock, after the spring lambing and calving is dealt with. These fields in turn are served by a ‘drift lane’ that runs down through them to the steading. The layout is centuries old, and when the spinning plates start to wobble, I’m reminded how useful such a sensible layout remains. We were soon able to get yon cow in the –newly fettled- crush, and get a couple of litres of golden colostrum from her, tubed straight into her baby which was in the tractor bucket pulled up handy. Then on down into a waiting linhay, iodine baby’s navel to stop nasty bugs sneaking in, and flump it onto a nest of clean straw. By then, the light was failing, and after another 12 hour day I’d had enough. Whatever its fate, it would be tomorrows problem.

After a quick scoot round in the morning – thankfully finding no disasters- I returned to the outfit, fully expecting to have to take mum back up to the crush to milk her out some more, to try and get baby going. But lo! The cow had calmed right down, calfie could stand with a bit of help, and its temperature was back up to speed. And joy of joys, with very little encouragement, I got it latched on and feeding itself, as mum calmly turned her head to sniff as it started to wag its tail. I stood over it as it emptied 2 quarters, then went on about my day relieved. That evening, it wouldn’t button on at all, and seemingly wasn’t hungry….but the other 2 quarters were emptied. The next morning, it was skipping round the pen, all 4 feet clear of the ground. By golly I count myself a lucky man, not just to have turned that new life around so quickly, but to find pleasure in such simple black and white matters.

Telling this simple tale reminds me -we could of course put up aircraft hangar sized buildings, house all the cattle, and such problems wouldn’t arise – the calf might never even have got cold in the snow. But long experience has taught me that different problems would soon come along- the harder you fight nature, the harder it fights back. Better to work with it, and nudge it along when it goes askew

Put the ‘Partygate’ fines aside for a minute. I knew, the minute I heard Rishi Sunak’s missus was using a tax ….er….loophole that he was in the cart. And he’s getting deeper in it all the while. Never mind the technicalities; it’s the look of the thing. He’s in overall charge of our finances, and how much tax government has to raise, but was happy to look the other way as his wife’s massive income somehow slipped through the net. He can’t really stand up in front of us and tell us we have to pay our share now, can he? His actions massively damage respect for our system of governance.

The fact that since the business was revealed, he’s stamped his likkle foot and demanded civil servants find out who leaked this information suggests an arrogance and contempt of his position that beggars belief. Does he really believe his dirty little secrets shouldn’t be allowed out in the light? Because unless his marriage is very different to that of other peoples, his fortunes are unquestionably tied to those of his wife. Therefore it follows that he is also benefitting from this ‘arrangement’, so they’re his grubby little secrets just as much as hers. I don’t care how slick and clever with money his supporters think he is, you cannot be in public office and flout the intent of the system, or defy public interest, to that extent.

As Labour eventually noticed, he’s seemingly got a complete conflict of interest. Whenever there’s any discussion about closing tax avoidance scams – or are they ‘devices’ or somesuch nowadays?- how can he be trusted to do the right thing when he’s already benefitting from them? It stinks to high heaven.

The affair also raises serious questions about his selection, and the vetting process. And THAT comes right back to the man at the top, Boris. This reinforces the ample evidence that he considers himself in a favoured ‘set’, who really believe they’re special. They don’t have to abide by the rules at all, ne’er mind set an example. I don’t care whether Boris had the news leaked to weaken a rival or not, he’s tarred by this brush too.

It raises questions about the nature of ‘success’, capability, and depth of character? Do you have to have a favoured background, and be sly about money, to achieve high office? I don’t, as a rule, dispel the efforts of what someone has to say simply because of their financial or social background. But this climate of dishonesty in public office, and contempt about the public’s knowledge of it, diminishes the solidity of such institutions.

As for Rishi’s apparent ‘Green card’ right to decamp to the US if he’d decided to…. it’s not in the same league as the tax business. But it is another slimy signal that, like his wife, his loyalties are somewhat flexible depending on personal interest and fortunes. It’s not exactly the devotion to cause and national interest you might want at the top, is it?

Like the Conservatives wallowing in Russian donations, much of it ultimately linked to Putin, there are a number of pretty sordid matters afoot here. I would hope some really difficult questions will be asked, although I don’t know how we restore integrity in Westminster. It sickens me, and I only wish there was some kind of effective opposition to hold them to the fire.

And speaking of Russia, and their continuing offensive in Ukraine. I’m horribly suspicious that their new emphasis on securing a smaller area will be much harder to reverse, and hence, the timescale will become elongated. Certainly I see little chance of the Black Sea ports being able to function in coming months, which will seriously impact the whole world.

Should the Ukrainians push the Russians out, will Russia be forced to pay reparations for the damage they’ve done? I can’t see that happening. But then, I have doubts whether matters will be resolved any time soon. Without significant escalation, this wretched conflict is going to run on and on. We’ll likely have to become used to the hideous images as months pass. They’ll lose the immediacy and impact, and our attention will move on. Hmm.

Back to the ‘Partygate’ fines then. There’s a rather sour tasting irony to it. We’ve got a Prime minister called ‘Boris’, who, having being helped in by Russia in the first place, is now only still resident in Number 10 because Vlad is waging war elsewhere. Boris can jet off to see Zelensky (spelling?) , and promise all kinds of help, but is reliant on the conflict to stay in office himself. Golly, but I wish I could invent such an unlikely plot.
Road Closures

We’re both busy, so I’ll try and make this somewhat complicated tale as succinct as I can. Last year, we endured an endless ongoing sequence of road closures, and it’s started again. Ostensibly, they were for surface dressing, or trimming dangerous trees, or to put the cat’s eyes back. But with no joined up thinking, it felt like they were mostly to inconvenience me. It went on for weeks, and the common denominator was that the signage seldom gave clear warning of where these lengthy closures started and stopped, with all the complications that then brings.

Last week, the new season kicked off with a pretty classic example of stupidity. On Wednesday my lovely little wife went out, pulling the 14’ stockbox. Returning 2 hours later, heavily laden with livestock, she encountered a ‘Road Closed’ sign at Ashburton, stopping traffic proceeding onto Dartmoor. Mildly annoyed, she slipped down to Buckfast, and wound her way hopefully toward home on wiggly lanes up through Holne. Successfully getting her load home, and being a dutiful parish councillor, she looked the road closure up on-line. This revealed that they were in fact up around Poundsgate, meaning the usual road up to the Holne junction would have been clear…..if she had but known.

Meanwhile, I’d taken a call from a customer who wanted to come over to the yard- from Cornwall- and buy some oak. Knowing nothing about the road closure, I gave the concise directions I can reel off fluently. But, when he was then two hours late and I needed to get on, I phoned him back on his mobile. The poor man had found the Western extent of the road closure at Two Bridges, and had tried to follow the diversion that went via Postbridge. Not knowing the locale, he’d soon got entangled in a different set of diversion signs, and had endured a merry run-around all over the place. Eventually, he found himself unable to get near my place, but by then had run out of fuel. He’d left Tavistock with the dashboard telling him he had over 70 miles worth of fuel. I have to say he was very glad to have got my call, especially when I quickly worked out where he was, and offered to come right over with a jerry can.

Before I set off, Alison had phoned to say she was running late because of these blessed roadworks, so I guessed I was in for some fun. Coming onto the stretch of closed highway from my side road, there was no indication there might be a problem. But I soon encountered a gaggle of hi-vis clad operatives, leaning on their shovels next to 2 parked up Transits at Dartmeet. They were indeed, we soon established, surfacing the road from there toward Poundsgate, and agreed to let me through as soon as they could- my man was another mile along, on the next side road.

I explained how upset us residents and local businesses were, having these pointless difficulties, due to their incompetent signage. Bear in mind neither Alison nor my customer needed to have been troubled whatsoever, but for the stupid signage. Most of the lads were pleasant enough, apologetic and embarrassed. Regrettably, they were fronted by a surly red heid, with face tattoos and an immediately aggressive attitude. They were working for an outfit called Keily Bros, and came from the Midlands and Yorkshire. They assured me the detail of signage was down to Devon County Council.

While I was sat waiting, various vehicles pulled up – clearly not everyone trusted the signage, and several were trying to get through to Ashburton. I overheard our red-heided friend telling them there’d be a long wait , and they’d best go back around the diversion. Quickly, I jumped out and explained to these poor people they had no need to take the 30+ mile diversion around Moretonhampstead, when the road via Holne was unimpeded and might add a mile to their journey. I asked Mr Hi-vis, aghast, why he’d deliberately send these poor people on such a wasted trip, but he was instantly rolling up his metaphoric sleeves in response.

After an hour’s wait, I finally got to my customer. He turned out to be a pretty phlegmatic chap, and had taken the chance to catch up on some zzzz’s in his layby. Refuelled, we got him back to the yard, found him some oak, and homeward bound.

Now I realise that roadworks need be done –indeed, there’s clearly a mighty backlog. But this is a formal complaint to DCC. This stupidity costs me a deal of time and money, meaning I can then pay less tax. Durr!

For the first time in several years, Saturday before last, we’ve needed to perform a caesarean on one of my bovine friends. I’d seen the calving South Devons last thing- stumbling by the end of another long day. This young cow was off on her own, tail out, looking at the ground, with the finest string of gloop was hanging. I determined that she was looking to calve, and timing wise, was going to be at it when I was tucked up in my basket under the table. I considered that the calves have been coming out easily this year so far – I’ve hardly touched one yet- so she could manage on her own. A more diligent farmer might have walked her back to the yard, and then checked her through the night…but I know I’m doing as much as I can physically do, and was on lambing call at dawn to boot. She’d borne 2-3 offspring before…she’d be fine.

However, my conscience pricked a bit. I firmly over-ruled it, but niggled away through the night about the way the cow was acting, and although I make no claims about my stockmanship…in the back of my mind I already knew what I was going to find come morning. And sure enough, going to her first revealed no progress whatsoever. By the muddy scuff marks, she’d obviously been down in the night, but there was no more than the finest bit of amniotic string coming out. I hied straight back to the yard and phoned the vet with my suspicions. Leaving Alison to drink down her coffee, then meet me back up there after I’d been round the lambing ewes. With good fortune, there was little doing, them just coming to the end of their first cycle. By the time I got back to the calving cows, Alison and visiting eldest Agnes had walked this cow into the yard, and keen young vet Ben was to hand. A pretty brief examination in the crush pen confirmed that yes, she did have a twisted womb – a full 360 degree or more. Ben tried, but very quickly announced this calf was going to need to exit via the sunroof.

We looked about us, and the morning was sunny and dry, so we elected to work al fresco, and unzip her right there in the pens. A halter was applied, and after a bit of undignified dragging me around, I soon had her tied to the rails with some space around for Ben to work. With plenty of hands on deck – and a spare set was required to hold all the spaghetti in as Ben opened up a hole big enough to extract a calf- John was soon pulling calfie out by its hind legs, into the April sunshine. As he worked getting the gloop out of baby’s airways – involving a lot of spluttering and soggy coughs- Ben set to stitching 3 layers of cow back together. It was a textbook job I’d have said.

It doesn’t always go as well, and just getting a live calf from a twisted womb is something. But 6 days later, she and calf were turned back out to a grassy little field beside the house, stitching holding well. She’s making some milk, and loves her calf which is galloping the length of the field in the sun.

Mind, there’s always some damned thing isn’t there? I went over to check the water trough, recalling it was shut off for some reason last year. I had to return to the yard for something to lever the little iron hatch up, that covers the stopcock. Then reach down to the bottom and scoop out what turned out to be a dead mouse, and a few handfuls of mud the worms had been fly-tipping down the hole. Eventually finding the tap, I turned it on ….which resulted in nothing whatsoever. Trudging back to the yard once more, I gathered up handtools enough to start dissembling the ball valve, and see what was going on. My heart was sunk now, as the chances of a 40 year old ball valve coming to bits, a fault being found, and everything re-assembling simply are vanishingly slim. And the odds of my having new fittings which would screw straight onto the old works were even slimmer.

But this time, lady luck shone her magic beams upon me. I found the nozzle bit bunged with decades of detritus, cleaned it all out, and everything went back together easily. Returning once more, I fetched a scoop, and cleaned out the sludge in the bottom of the trough, and bingo….everything was sunny side up once more. Result!
Neil and Borris

I can’t help but feel desperately sorry about the ignoble fate of former WMN columnist Neil Parish. He’d acquitted himself very well in public life, and was just about the best friend we farmers had in Westminster. Indeed, I would suggest that, given the nature of what happens when a society’s food supply stutters, you could say he’s been about the sanest voice in Westminster for the safety of the whole country. But, after a fairly low level outbreak of foolishness, suddenly he’s the catalyst for demands to reform the questionable morality of the whole lot of them. Quite how he gets to be the poster boy for everything that’s sordid in Westminster is beyond me, when it sounds like there’re plenty of worse things going on. Has he openly been accepting ‘donations’ from dodgy rich people for positions of power and influence? Has his better half been hiding squillions from the tax man at same time as he was in charge of cleaning up such loopholes? Has he got a long long history of philandery and dishonesty? No, not to my knowledge. It’s hardly fair is it? It sounds like Neil needed a firm telling off, and advice to take some counselling. But instead he has to fall on his sword. The whole place is sailing in the wrong direction, with morals and ideals I can scarcely relate to.

Anyway Neil, thank you for all of your work these last few years. I’ve no doubt we’d all be in a far worse state but for your efforts. And as it goes, I originally got the gig writing a column for the Morning News when you gave it up to stand as an MP, so thanks for that opening.

Still on Westminster, and the gross- nay, shocking -blindness to world events, and how they’re going to impact at home. I notice government have delayed or abandoned a load of the planned post-Brexit food import rules and inspections. These were due to be enforced about now, but in light of some rumours of a food supply problem, have quietly been shelved. George Eustice thinks this will resolve any issues. This is a bit like opening the tap a turn when the water pressure is dropping. You can think you’re making it better, but the supply at the other end of the pipe is the problem, and pretty soon, the tap will be turned full bore, and it won’t make a damned bit of difference.

Regular readers will know I’ve tried spelling it out as plainly as I am able, but my little voice is lost. So here’s some more neat examples, if you need them. At market this week, I fell into conversation with one of my lowland peers- for this is the proper function of a livestock market, gassing with your chums. He’s only a moderate sized mixed arable and livestock farmer, past retirement age but still trundling on. I asked how much fertiliser he’d put on? The answer was 6 tonnes out of his normal purchase of 24 tonnes. If that is a microcosm of the wider scene, you’d imagine there’s going to be an effect, and it’s hardly a state secret. Further afield, another pal who grows several hundred acres of arable crops tells me buys all his fertiliser for the coming year months in advance. So this year he’s looking at a potential beano. As long as he harvests a half decent crop, he’ll be selling it into a very inflated market, having grown it with fertiliser he bought at last year’s price. His dilemma will be how much to commit for 2023. He’s the kind of heavy duty conservative man who acts many months in advance- the very opposite of the modern urban business model. And what he and his chums are thinking now should be a matter of close enquiry.

Couple that to what’s happening in Eastern Europe, and the consequences ought to be obvious. History is chock full of evidence of what happens when the outcomes of such situations arrive. Don’t confuse this with the images of complete famine and drought. When a populace are actually starving, they don’t have the energy to do much. It’s the state in-between you need to worry about, when they’re lately well fed, but suddenly hungry. They get real grumpy, real quick. Don’t take my word for it, go and read up on it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Boris and Carrie won’t notice there’s a problem until the cobblestones come flying over the security gates at the end of the road….and that will indeed be the end of their road, so it’s not all bad.
Not just as individuals

It’s that magical time of year when I take part in my highest risk, but still pleasurable activity. Like adrenalin junkies hurling themselves from perfectly good aeroplanes, with nothing but an oversized silk handkerchief to prevent nasty strawberry jam incidents, or perchance leaping from suspension bridges secured only by a rubber band tied to an ankle, I know what I’m doing carries an alarmingly high risk to my well-being, but I carry on doing it. It’s my secret guilty pleasure.

For, once more, my Galloway cows are calving. And as you know, gov. says they have to be ear tagged toot sweet or the sky will fall, so I try and get them tagged before the herd go out the moorgate. Otherwise I won’t get near these calves until the cows are back in for bulling in 10-12 weeks.

I feed the cows in a line each morning – and up here, cattle are still hungry, and looking for grub- then walk quietly back down the line with a crook stick, both sets of tag pliers stuffed in pockets, along with ring pliers to remove dangly appendages from the bull calves.

Now were you to read up the HSE guidance for this operation, you’d be forgiven for thinking the animals being handled were large wild carnivores, with a headache. You’re meant to separate the cow from her calf, using a team of highly trained operatives and elephant pennage. I’m not sure a whip and a chair isn’t advised as well.

In reality, as I know well from several decades of experience, such an attitude is an almost sure fire way to have nasty cows, and risk being crushed against hard surfaces. Contrary to all advice, I try to do my tagging al fresco, alone. When I catch hold a calf, alone amongst the herd on a windswept hill, mum will usually come up real close, and sniff the calf as I work, but seldom get shirty. If baby bawls – and a quick sure hand catching helps minimise this- then mum and 2-3 aunties will come steaming in, wailing and bellowing fire and brimstone, circling me as I work. Whilst the pint of adrenalin in my system leaves me jittery for 20 minutes afterwards, even this startling display is generally nothing more than show. Knowing the cows, I have a good idea who to watch carefully, and you hardly need a degree in the subject to see when they’re looking to flip.

Which brings me onto where I was going with this.

Each of my herds of cows – for I keep 3 separate breeds- are effectively extended matriarchies. I retain my own replacement females, and buy in fresh bulls. So each bunch is made up of the daughters of successive bulls. The boys only stay 3 years as a rule, before they’re meeting their daughters, so I’m working with the progeny of 4-5 different bulls in each breed. And the bulls each leave their own stamp on their share of replacements. Recognising this is not only fascinating to a confessed cow anorak, it also helps lead decisions about when to drop a calf and quickly ‘shorten my lines of communication’.

My oldest South Devons are by a bull from my sister and brother-in-law. This bull was a lugubrious old fashioned chap –no bulgy backsides or tight gutted rakishness. And sure enough his daughters are about the easiest going cattle I’ve ever known. I don’t think one of them has ever given me a nasty moment, and I wish I had a 100 of them. I’m desperately sad they’re coming to the end of their time. His successor was a bull who often strayed, and generally had a bit more spark about him. And sure enough, the middle aged cows by him notably have a bit more spark too, although they’re pretty solid performers.

The Galloways – both the Belts and the Riggits- are generally a hairier prospect in every way. Newly calved, they’re more inclined to shirtiness than South Devons, although I’ve observed that when it happens, an 800kg South Devon coming at you with murder in her eyes is a rather more worrying prospect than a 500kg Galloway. However, as we’ve discussed, I’ve pretty much got the measure of them.

Within the Belted herd, there’s a large slice of very good cows from a bull I bought down from Scotland. But every darned one of these sisters needs watching when they’re newly calved. Even those who’re ordinarily quiet enough to scratch are volatile when I’m tagging babies, constantly trying to get behind me – and I don’t like the beggars bellowing behind me.

Still, I suppose it’s more fun than ordinary sports.


I am just revisiting a modern literary classic – Ted Simon’s outstanding ‘Jupiter’s Travels’, in which he recounts his epic four year journey around the world in the mid 1970’s, on a rattly Triumph motorcycle. It’s famously a journey through his mind, and the human condition, as much as across the face of the globe. And as with so many such benchmark books, I find I draw anew from it whenever I pick it up fresh after some years. As I experience life, so my perception of what he’s saying slightly changes. I’m minded of a dear departed friend, painter Bob Clement, who painted the same landscapes repeatedly…often yearly. He once explained to this simpleton that it wasn’t necessarily that the landscape had changed, but rather how he saw it. And for me, so it is with the reading the wisdom of experience, such as Ted Simon’s tale.

As such, I stumbled on a line which he’d written 5 decades ago- which we’ll come to directly-, revealing a prescient insight into what humanity is doing. Reading the line, and considering the simplicity of its cutting observation then reminded me of something I noticed long ago. People – generally fellas, but not always- who’ve been travelling along the dusty roads of distant places for some years eventually gain wisdom, insight, and life skills, beyond levels we can easily grasp. I’m not talking about the 6 month gap year ‘finding yourself’ overseas experience, spent on an Australian beach - as good a thing as that is for young people. I’m talking about throwing yourself on the mercy of life in remote regions, developing countries, and places off the tourist trail, travelling at length with little more than what you wear on your back.

Obviously while they’re travelling, such people aren’t paying mortgages, raising families, furthering careers or achieving any of the little steps most of us are measured by. But they are getting an exposure that furnishes them with a profound depth of understanding of humanity. Their body language becomes honed, through the simple necessity of having to make themselves accepted in a new situation with every move. It’s more than the obvious – like ditching the sunglasses, so strangers can see into your soul via your eyes- it’s an ability to act disarmingly, and present no threat. They often pick up bits of the wisdom of varying cultures, philosophies and religions, but without getting drawn down a singular avenue.

I met a young Frenchman when I was adrift myself, walking across Canada. He’d been on the road for several years, living out of a backpack, and I would guess could’ve stepped into just about company, or faced any trial. His ‘take’ on life and open manner was of a different order of magnitude. Odd strays have rocked up here over the years – is there some secret sign on the gate I wander?- and one or two have shown an accrued experience that had made them deeper characters at a level that’s hard to explain. Others you might recognise? Well, TV adventurer/anthropologist Bruce Parry, or former MP Rory Stewart both showed some of it, after they’d been to the ends of the earth- although in the former, he then seemed to have been unable to square the circle with what he saw back in civilised parts, and the latter was left too nice a guy for front line politics- to our great loss.

It’s certainly true that exposure to big events, especially conflict and human suffering, can itself have a very similar effect, but I reckon there’s a subtle difference. That often skews, or perhaps hardens minds. Equally, just aging will bring a depth of perception to most of us as we roll along life’s highway – it’s not by chance that so many cultures gave reverence to the wisdom of ‘elders’. I often use the opinion of my elders as a steer. But I reckon there’s another layer, difficult to nail down, yet quite profound.

So what was the line in Ted Simon’s book? Having ridden from the North African coast right down through to South Africa, he’d passed through sub-Saharan cultures where locals tilled their crops by hand and lived in mud huts as they had for thousands of years, and onto seething cities further South, and their adjoining shanties and townships. Looking back – but not, I feel, singling out Africa- he observed ‘I could only see ever-increasing numbers of people determined to seize on the resources of the earth and pervert them into greater and greater heaps of indestructible concrete and plastic ugliness’. He wrote this almost 50 years ago, and it could hardly cut deeper yet. Will we ever learn? Seemingly not.

I often talk about my ham-fisted farming operations, when in fact they’re only a part of what occupies my daylight hours. To while away some spare hours, I also run a sawmill. And unlike the farming, it’s a blessedly uncomplicated affair, in which a couple of us convert tree trunks into saleable planks and beams. I buy local felled trees, and sell sawn goods. If I do my sums right, and there’s a following wind, we make money. If I get it wrong, well….it teaches me to value my time better. There’s no interference from DEFRA, or anyone else.

It stems from a revelation when I was in my teens – I realised that however great my ambition and enthusiasm, my farming fortunes would forever be restrained by the land available to me, along with the whims of weather and government policy. There was a pretty finite ceiling above which I’d never realistically be able to profit from. Like many farm lads, I’d been selling a bit of firewood, and from there, it was a logical progression to having the odd tree trunk cut into planks. Without much thought, a business grew.

Having grown up in an environment of doing business- my late Dad was a famous chancer for having a deal - I was soon contracting out jobs and deals, trading lorry loads of round timber and sawn goods. I knew very little, but had a fair head for figures, and wasn’t afraid to have a go. Sometimes I fell on my backside, sometimes I took a step forrard. My newly arrived and very lovely wife Alison was the brakeman, pulling me up if a precipice loomed.

As things settled out, we’d soon set up a couple of mobile mills at home, and focussed on the conversion of local timber- mainly oak. We were lucky early on to find a very skilled sawyer to run the main machine, who has been with us since, and I’d inherited a part time semi-retired lorry driver to do deliveries. I bought logs from farms, estates and tree surgeons, and worked at selling the sawn goods. I chased retail outlets, went out on the road selling product, and – when farming allowed me time- went at it head-on. We never spent much on advertising- providing a straight and reliable service seemed a better use of effort.

Obviously, my life has been a constant juggle of what needs attending to –when we’re lambing or making hay, I might not fire up the second saw for 2-3 weeks, and do little more than pass orders to the sawyer, and bills to customers. Then, there’s weeks where I’m full time in the mill. The 2 worlds collide when we’ve got a major project on the farm – building a new farm building, or erecting a big run of fence. I try not to let our own timber requirements interfere with the mills customers, so often cut my own jobs between shifts. Somehow, I’ve managed to juggle it, although it means working evenings and weekends. And then, my brother-in-law is my main fencer- I have many miles of fences- and unsurprisingly, I try to cut enough stakes and posts to keep him supplied. Indeed, in an era of inadequate tantalising, I generally keep quiet about cutting oak and chestnut stakes, as I can barely keep up with our own needs, ne’er mind anyone else’s…..and they’re blessed hard work.

We’ve been lucky to trade with a host of very genuine people on both sides of the job –hardworking foresters, hauliers and engineers ensure we’ve a steady supply of material flowing through the mill, to a cadre of straight forward builder, carpenters and craftsmen who turn the end products into their customer’s desires. It’s a genuine privilege to deal with such decent working folk, who actually make things happen – rather than the suit wearing degree educated ‘professionals’ who think they’re important.

Our output is approximately half freshly sawn to order, and half sold from stored and seasoned stock. The stacked stock includes everything from tanalised softwood tree stakes, cladding boards and 4x2s, through to gnarly oak beams and burry slabs, and kiln dried oak for top end flooring and worktops.

I’ve sawn timber from trees I grew myself from saplings in woodland I created, and put timber into projects with a life expectancy of several centuries. I buy oak logs from estates which the same families have managed for hundreds of years, and supply oak timbers to repair buildings already centuries old. On reflection, it’s coincidental that I’ve probably got a fairly unique grasp of carbon sequestration by trees. I’d share this grasp with the ‘suits’, but I’m just too flipping busy.
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Are you planning to sell up?

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Graham Wilkinson to join AHDB as new CEO

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The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) has today announced the appointment of Graham Wilkinson as its new Chief Executive Officer.

Graham brings a wealth of experience and a proven track record of success from his time at Arla Foods as Global Vice President, Agriculture. During his extensive time at Arla working in both Global and UK roles, he has successfully supported over 8,500 cooperative farmer owners and managed the delivery of innovative commercial milk concepts on farm.

With his experience and knowledge of the supply chain, Graham created a leading European Agriculture Function within Arla, spanning seven markets. He has also worked in the retailer-side at Tesco PLC, where he strengthened the sustainability of agriculture supply chains in its dairy, beef...