The Anton Coaker Western Morning News Column


Those of you in the West Country may already be aware of Anton's
weekly column in the Western Morning News.

Anton has agreed to have the 'pre-edit' version re-published on here.

The copyright is with his, and he adds the disclaimer that they are
the personal views of the Author and may differ from the final
published version in the paper

We are grateful to him and to the WMN for permitting this and
therefore being available to a wider audience

Anton's book "All the usual bullocks" can be obtained via his website



This is the first article (one that we have already featured on here)

Here is the abridged version, sadly libel laws and respect for my friend Coaker precludes me from publishing the original - it was very good

"Listening to the wireless recently I found myself being gently lectured by that guitarist chap, Brian May. Ostensibly he was on air to talk about what defines us as ‘being human’, and indeed, he started off with some very cuddly thoughts - how nice it is to be nice, or some such. Being kind to children and animals was pretty much his laudable route to a civilised world. Sadly, he then got aboard his accustomed hobby horse, and introduced his personal campaign to stop the TB badger cull. Trying to bring as many levers into play as he could, he dragged fox hunting and badger baiting into the discussion, stating bluntly that badger baiting is massively on the increase. His implication seemed to be that anyone advocating the culling of any badger- or indeed, harming any animal- is somehow less than human.

I take very great exception to the BBC allowing him to use this platform to extoll such honeyed vitriol. His views may well be well meant, but I contest that they are massively naïve and his statements misleading.

I spend the greater part of my life at work in the English countryside, and am deeply immersed in a wide spread and connected rural community, in which I see manifestations of all sorts of human nature. But badger baiting is, essentially, a thing long gone. The last time I came across individuals with an active interest in such things was decades ago. And unless badger baiting is going on far better concealed than all manner of other crimes we see reported week by week in the news, it would appear Mr May is ‘elaborating’ a point to rally the public to his cause. Either he is far better informed about things going on under our rural noses than we are, or he is ‘elaborating a point’. And whilst I’ve no interest in hunting, it is certainly true that some hunting folk I’ve known have had the most profound love and understanding of the countryside, and everything in it.

I was, by the end of his piece, under the impression that no-one should hurt an animal, ever. It strikes me that such thinking is so woolly as to be nonsense. If I give my dogs/ewes/kids a worm treatment, I’m deliberately killing thousands of innocent invertebrates. Does this make me a bad man? If I pick a tick off my leg, or anywhere else, I squish it lest it begins its activities again. Am I an evil man…less than human by Brian’s standard?
Will I go to hell if I occasionally squirt some disinfectant over a nastier looking gash in my battered limbs, exterminating billions of quite blameless microbes?

I’ve gone straight to the extreme comparisons, to illustrate the point. In reality, we are all involved in a continuous series of decisions, balancing what will be allowed to live and what won’t. The majority of urban people may be isolated from much of it, but the fact remains.
I’ve been responsible, during my long career, for the death of millions of blowfly larvae –maggots to you Brian-, through to many hundreds of fluffy doe-eyed mammals. They have met their end because it was time to eat them, or because they were suffering, or simply because they were impeding my livelihood. Some I cared for all of their lives, and loved no less because I was about to consume them. Others I cared almost nothing for, leaving their carcases to re-enter the wild foodchain which lives all around me, in the intricate symbiotic relationship I am enmeshed in.
I consider my relationship with both the animal kingdom around me, and my domesticated beasts, as deep and meaningful. I regard the urban masses who consume meat I raise as part of the extended chain, although I think we both realise that the connection is ever more distant. Whether I can continue to balance the level of wildlife and domestic stock around me, as the demands and footprint of nearly 70 million humans around me grow greater, is another matter.

I’ve publically said that I consider the detail of the proposed badger cull is flawed, but I have no qualms about the need to cull TB infected badgers. Like every other part of the eco-system I live in, a balance has to be struck.

Being human, if we go back to the original question, raises rather more disturbing questions than the simplistic, emotional claptrap I heard on the radio.
We 70 million are stood on these damp temperate islands. Every mouthful of rice, lentils and soya consumed is imported from countries far away, along with every slurp of tea and coffee, and a huge array of fruits we expect year round. We drive cars, cover the landscape in development, and multiply.
The impact of such consumption is rather greater than the life expectancy of a few badgers, and the grasp of such issues ought to be a greater aspiration for, and sign of, humanity"

Anton Coaker's column Western Morning News 16th May 2013


Here is the article Anton sent me last night:

I did slip up to the county show one day last week, although in indecision I took both sheepskin hat/full winter kit, and a straw titfer in case the sun shone. On arrival I opted for a hybrid ensemble, leaving the sheepskin in the Landrover, but retaining the overcoat. This proved about right, although I did get properly wet when dutifully stood ringside watching youngest offspring do something equine. It chucked it, and I had to give up my coat to my beloved, who was in a T shirt, and fast going blue.
That notwithstanding, I had a jolly convivial day, split between minding some beasts on the cattle lines –read ‘gassing with passers-by’- , and meandering around the site. This is a sluggish if satisfactory method of travel, as every 100 yards, you end up passing the time of day with the chums you bump into. I didn’t get invited to any of the soirées, possibly due to my inability to act nice in polite company or go anywhere without steel toecaps and greatcoat.
I did however hook up with –in the ale tent- one of the industry’s bigger thinkers. He and I had some pretty dark thoughts about what will occur if this weather pattern is the new norm, although I note his thoughts were muted somewhat for public consumption. Up here, I observed, my cattle operations will have to be severely curtailed, if not cease, should current trends continue. Put bluntly, I’m eating my way through the kids college fund to continue keeping cattle on a very soggy peat hillside. And asking myself…why?
Still, with a few glasses of cider, it all made much more sense.

Right, I’ll just go and don my very best floatation sandals, as I’m going to try and tiptoe across some rather shaky ground.
Last week, motoring up to Westpoint, I heard a bit of coverage of the 70th anniversary of the infamous 1943 Dambusters raid. With stirring music playing, the feeling was that we should stand to attention and look stern, remembering the technical brilliance of the operation, and all those brave lads who didn’t make it back. And a worthy enough sentiment that is too. As a nation, we stood up for what was right, in the face of a powerful and focussed aggressor. We were on the winning side against an ideology whose aims were less than defensible at the time, and subsequently proved abhorrent. Never mind our own nation’s overseas misdemeanours through history, at that moment we were unquestionably doing the right thing.
However, as coverage went on, I became increasingly uncomfortable with it all. While it was mentioned whenever anyone remembered to go back to the script, shouldn’t more have been said of the 1200-1600 German civilians who were drowned that night? It seems pretty unlikely that every single one of them was a keen Nazi, wishing to subjugate the rest of the world. I daresay a good few of them wanted little to do with the conflict.
Now I’m not an apologist, or a nancy liberal- far from it. But to guide our way forward, shouldn’t we take a measured view of the past? I’m not altogether sure media coverage reflected that balance exactly the way it should’ve.
To put it into context, will the Americans consider the same ‘memorial’ coverage when we get to the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the 2 nuclear bombs on Japan?
They too were an achievement of technical brilliance- arguably the seminal moment in modern science- , and it’s almost certainly true that they saved many thousands of allied lives by driving the Japanese into surrender without invasion. And more relevant to my generation, provided the foundations of an arms race which has kept the greater peace between rival countries and ideologies for several decades. I don’t think there’s been such a stable period in Europe for centuries, with thousands of young men spared the long standing tradition of smearing each other’s innards across the Low Countries. We’ve all been too scared to really let it kick off again.
But, given the monstrous price paid in the 2 Japanese cities –in the order 100,000 died at the time, and as many again over following years- we tend to remember those events rather differently to the Dambusters raid. It is a subtle thing, but worthy of note.
There, that’s a thought for you to chew on.


What a hideous story revealed in Ohio a week or two back, with those poor girls held captive for 10 years. No doubt there will be further sordid details still to be revealed, with the charging of only one of the 3 brothers being a curious thing in itself. The awful bottom line is that the girls were treated, over several years, as something less than human. Whatever gratification the brother/s got from the business, they must’ve been faced with the reality, month after month, that they were denying those poor kids their normal lives. You’ve got to assume that their heads don’t work properly, and I don’t know if you can fix heads as wrong as that. Or, for that matter, whether it’ll be possible to help the victims put it properly behind them.
I suppose it’s on a different level to a couple of cases closer to home, where the little girls didn’t survive. I could fix both perpetrators’ heads in very few moments, although I understand there are still a handful of people who think they need ‘treatment’. Sorry, but in my eyes, that grade of individual, and whatever goes on in their heads, is broken so far that they’re beyond repair. There should be only the one thing left.
Back to Ohio though, there’s a couple of things bothering me. First is the effect this must have on families of other abductees. With several similar cases over recent years, both in the States and on the continent, you’ve got to ask how many more girls are being held in this manner. It stands reasoned analysis that there must be several others at any given time. What does society do with that evident truth?
Now try to put yourselves in the place of families of missing girls? This must be a double edged torture, always wondering if that lost girl is alive somewhere. The horror that she’s held captive in a cellar by some drooling creep, balanced against the faintest desperate hope that she might, at least, still be alive. Good grief what a dreadful torment that must be, when other abductees have escaped after a decade. Most of us can scarcely grasp the enormity of it.
The other thought that occurs is that the widespread reporting of such cases might end up putting furtive ideas in sick little minds. I’ve no idea what you can do, but it bothers me anyway.

Right, onto some difficult farmy stuff. I’ve outlined the following elsewhere, but the thought still needs wider circulation.
As most of us in the industry know, 2012-13 has been a bruising and difficult time. It started 13 months ago, when the rains ran right on through into summer. This might’ve spoiled a few picnics and made sporting fixtures difficult, but it had a more pronounced effect on the farming industry. While I’m not placed to talk about arable woes, for livestock farmers it meant the beasts never had the chance to bask in the sun, soaking up summers plenty to build reserves. They were wet and cold more often than not. Then forage crops were compromised from the outset. The rain washed out nutrients, and harvesting was often delayed weeks past the optimum, leaving the quality of conserved fodder way below par.
The sodden pasture also favoured a nasty little parasite called ‘liver fluke’, which thrives in wets years. And once the liver is damaged, the symptoms and complications are far reaching and often quite unexpected. Trace elements hard to measure, but vital to an animal’s well-being, were being leached out of the available herbage, further compromising livestock.
As autumn crashed straight into weeks of further rain, bringing an early start to winter, so the warning signs started to flash up to some of us. Old hands, such as your Muppet like correspondent, saw what was threatening, and took varying degrees of action. By the time Schmallenburg really kicked off, and TB cases leapfrogged once more, many had accepted that this was to have been a wasted year. The late spring, eye watering cake bills and tightening fodder reserves haven’t helped, but at least we were spared the catastrophic huge snowfall our Northern colleagues suffered.
I mention all these woes here to remind you that however grim it has been, you are not alone. I know many farmers and smallholders for whom this last year has been a shocking and difficult experience. Unlike us multigenerational peasants, some haven’t had the benefit of knowing that ‘Granfer’ really went through it in ’47, or ‘Dad’ in ‘63, as the case might be. That family experience gives us some kind of cushion against our own trials.
So don’t think it’s something you’ve got wrong, or that you’re alone. We’ve all had a taste of it this spring.


This Thursday's edition is a diversion away from farming; Anton is drumming up a second article from the archives to redress the balance later:

Fed up with looking at bare brown hillsides on Dartmoor, I thought I’d seek lusher parts to revive my spirits. The rationale dictated that the milder and lusher the better, so we accepted a kind -if rash- invite to join some pals for a week down on the Lizard.
I’d never really explored that furthest flung corner of the country before, and it certainly was worth sneaking down. With just the faintest whiff of business to do while I was there, we were at liberty to explore the sheltered coombes running down to hidden creeks, between tiny fields ploughed for brassicas, then head off out across wind blasted cliff tops, in search of wiggly little paths down to secluded beaches. Upon the latter, your humble scribe can admit that he shed his usual check shirt and steel toe-capped attire, adorned a pair of baggy shorts and straight into the Atlantic surf. As it happened, the small Coakers and he were the only mugs in the sea without wetsuits, but hey-ho, what does everyone else know? Alison was far too sensible to try the ocean, and stuck to the pool back at base.
I loved swimming in the surf once more, having spent many days doing little else in Australia as a pup. Although, as with all such aquatic experiences, my spare build –read scrawny-means I sink very easily and have to work hard at staying afloat. The chief difference I noticed twixt then and now was about 10 degrees centigrade, which kind of dampened my enthusiasm after half an hour. Oh, and the immediate risks of being eaten by a shark or fatally stung by a jellyfish were somewhat lower.
In fact I had a couple of minor jelly fish experiences in Oz. One was a very inoffensive sting, which wasn’t much worse than nettle rash and a non-event. The other was whilst bobbing about off a popular beach in Sydney, and was a bit more fun. See there was this sand bar some way out, where, when the tide is right, you can catch your feet under you and rest, ducking under waves you don’t fancy. Quite a group of bronzed local kids where out on this sand bar, along with one lilly-white pom, when a shout went up, as a local kid got tangled up with something called a bluebottle. This seemed to excite him a certain amount. Given that a half tonne Great White had been caught IN the nearby harbour the previous week, and none of the locals seemed particularly phased, you can assume they are generally a fairly rough and ready lot. However it now became clear, even to the Pommie twit, that the sea was full of hundreds of these bluebottles- or Portuguese Men O’War as we know them-, and prudent behaviour would be to get out of the water immediately. As we made for the beach, it suddenly seemed a long long way off. While the rest of us got out without incident, the boy who had been caught whimpered sufficiently to impress me that you want to avoid such stings if you can!
Still, back on the Lizard, the sun did come out, and I got sunburnt on my extensive solar panel. I did handstands on the beach, and got sand everywhere. We think we saw Choughs, although it was hard to pick them out wheeling around the cliffs. Swifts rushed overhead along the tops, and we watched Gannets diving as we ate our chips on the Coverack harbour wall. Taking in some of the galleries, most of the art was a bit up itself for me, although I greatly admired that Roskilly maids stained glass work. And I wisely avoided too much of Harriet’s bright fluorescent green ‘Kiwi Gin’, having providently arrived with an emergency bottle of Glen McSporran single malt.
The demograph of a lot of the tourists where we were staying was firmly ‘Upper income professionals’, although they looked no happier for all that. I preferred the company of the peasant farmer who allowed my boy to drop a line in his carp pond. Turned out my best-ever South Devon bull was bred from his Uncle’s stock –hello Wallace- proving it is a small and cosy world if you choose to look at it the right way.
And that is probably lesson of the week.
Leaving the lush far West, we motored back to a still bare brown moorland landscape, where hopefully this week’s sun will improve things.


As promised, an archived article to top up the agricultural quotient:

If, like me, you’re doing business with a sprawling network of self employed contractors, owner-drivers, small firms and subbies, you’ll be used to their ‘last minute’ mode of job selection. Work will rarely be scheduled before the last moment, no matter how early you put in the request. If you let slip that a job might not be very important, it will infuriatingly be put back indefinitely. It might be a fence repair ready for next spring turnout, or a baler needing attention for next years harvest. In my specialist field of hardwood milling, it might very well be the felling/forwarding or hauling of a few tonnes of oak which is simply ‘on the list’. If the job isn’t flagged as urgent, it therefore won’t need thinking about until it is. I’ve long since given up pressing these men, instead merely keeping them up to speed with when such matters are likely to ‘go critical’.
An example? A gentleman of my acquaint was complaining his forklifts handbrake needed attention. He’d requested a visit from the roving fitter we all use, but would the blighter turn up? Not a chance. The problem, you see, is that the poor mans yard is fairly level…and why, therefore, would he be needing a handbrake?
I am aware that some customers give these men the run-around, trying to outfox them with embellished stories of urgency. This soon backfires, as word gets round, and the parable about the boy who cried wolf comes to mind. Really abusing the good offices of such operators might just backfire catastrophically. Equally, forgetting to pay their bill on time might well leave you stuck one day (generally, their paperwork is done on the kitchen table, and only then when they get around to it, so any delay is quickly felt).
Conversely, treated well, such artisans are the backbone of what we do, and will prove their worth a hundred times over when the going gets really heavy. It is a great asset to have a working relationship -and good rapport with- this quiet unsung league of heroes. When the metaphoric or actual storm clouds gather, and the needle is hitting the red, they will deliver. Turning up without fuss, doing their job with consummate professionalism, they’ll then quietly slip on to the next impending crisis.
And if this piece is painting a few ears red hereabouts, I’ll go further.
We are lucky enough to do business with one or two gifted operatives of this ilk, whose abilities are renowned, and not a little humbling. Their gear usually looks well worn, albeit of a pretty high grade when it was new. Whilst caked in the honest dirt of their trade, there will be fresh grease showing wherever it should be.
As a rule there’s little shouting about how clever they are, and the van/truck/workshop will invariably be unsigned. They don’t advertise, because they have all the work they can do. A different mindset might be taking on extra hands,
and farming jobs out, but these guys rarely wish to take on an admin role and hence usually remain at the coalface themselves. Interestingly, they are generally deferential to their peers, recognising from afar kindred spirits. Whiz kids heading for an early crash are equally recognised, and gently ignored beyond their provision of a type of spectator sport.
Few computers will be found, beyond where absolutely required, and formal further education is rarely in the background. A curious interest in, and respect for, any other craftsman’s skills is common though. Such people can generally pick up basic proficiency in another skill quickly and easily, sometimes do so for no more reason than just to see what it’s like.
Many of the folk I’m thinking of are within 1-2 generations of actually working the land, although that must be coloured by my own background. Perhaps the same symptoms might prevail within trawling or mining communities. Anyway, I regard it as a privilege to work with some of them.

And in case this is all a bit parochial, I’d also bet that the above characteristics, which many of you will have recognised, are traces of something else. Isn’t the adaptability and curious working mindset described part of what brought us down from the trees in the first place, then out of prehistoric Africa and right across the globe.
No? Well it made you think, didn’t it?


Ha! Having forayed West over the Tamar the week before last, and got away with a clean set of heels, we thought we’d chance it again Friday last, for to visit the County show. And blow me; we sneaked down to Wadebridge and back with hardly any abuse at all. The border guards were clearly asleep on the bridges.
I took the missus and our eldest –Agnes- ostensibly to help Alison Bunning and her maid Harriet fluff up a couple of Riggit heifers to drag round the ring. In fact, I spent my day loafing about, admiring the ‘scenery’ –marvellous show of heifers I thought-, and sharing refined drinky-poos with some CLA chums. Getting into the CLA inner sanctum was a trick, as a large ‘suit’ blocked the entrance, sniffing out poor ass tenants from 20 yards. Happily, I was ‘connected’, and quickly blagged my way in to the shady hallowed retreat of our landed colleagues. Once ensconced I discovered that they talk much the same old drivel as the rest of us, only with a rather more sophisticated accent, and while sat at better picnic tables.
Back on the cattle lines, I was soon overcome with drowsiness in the heat, and had to sit down between the shaggy tethered heads of Mrs B’s heifers. ‘Sky’ the yearling took an immediate interest in my ears and beard, and drooled over me in a quite endearing fashion. As I scratched her under the neck, her eyelids very quickly drooped, and I shortly had a sleeping heifers head in my lap. I started to nod off myself, but she soon became very heavy, and not a little hot and sweaty to boot. Still, it was a good photo op, leaving all manner of folks with ‘beauty and the beast’ captions to chortle over.
Later things got a little agitated when one of the pair decided she needed a bull. I had suggested to Miss Bunning, our resident biologist, that she might make a little academic hay. She could do some kind of preference test by walking the bulling heifer up and down the lines, somehow measuring which breed of prize bull most took her fancy, and vice versa. But instead of risking the resultant riot, they opted for nipping round to the nearest AI provider, who obliged a little later in the day. Presumably this in turn led to various visiting families having some more complicated discussions in the car on the way home. Then again, given the distinctly bucolic nature of the crowds, perhaps not.
In fact, an associated thought occurred to me as I meandered idly about the site. What a very farmy crowd there is at the Royal Cornwall? Strictly in the interests of journalistic integrity, I gave some thought to the bronzed happy young things ambling about in the sun, and concluded that, frankly, there were very few who could reasonably be called obese, nor many displaying that stick thin look beloved by the fashionistas. Compared to a similar slice of humanity just about anywhere else in modern Britain, it is refreshing –certainly for a sad old bloke like me- to see so many ordinary healthy clean living young’uns. Often they were happily spending their days leisure with their oldies, which is in itself fairly unusual. Many of the ‘maids’ sported bumps, and/or push chairs- if I may be as bold as to observe- indicative of a satisfactory continuity to such a blessed rural community.
At the other end of the scale, some of the oldies struggled through the sun kissed throngs, rolling along like peg legged sailors on a rough sea. Their happy demeanour belying hard lives spent at the coal face of a physical job. One I spotted, looking fairly dishevelled and smiling out from a very high mileage face, might’ve had the gait of a man who knows about hard work, but I happen to know he owns nearly half the county. Another example was even worse, but Agnes pointed out we were headed toward stall with a full length mirror.
I’m not sure I could really put my finger on what made the crowd so special, but it was. Even to a veteran idle observer such as your humble scribe, and I loved it.


Apparently, a group of very clever weathermen are meeting to say we seem to be stuck in a cycle of cold wet summers. You don’t say, Einstein!
Things have been a bit up and down here, this past week. Friday was the biggie, with the re-tests on our 3 TB inconclusive bullocks. Sadly they all failed, and are now reactors, and I’m faced with testing 300 head of cattle at least twice on short intervals. Given that ‘the 3’ had 5 little buddies grazing where they almost certainly picked up the pox, it’s a pretty fair bet that I’m not out of the woods yet. If they go down in turn, we’re at least 200 days away from selling much of anything, which takes me past autumn store markets. It looks horribly like we’re going to be wintering vastly more stock than I want on the place. And given that we’re only just standing up the last of the hayfields- for the want of grass growth on the peat- you might guess I’m a bit ragged just now.
The logistical problems mean I have no chance- not the least hope- of making any profit in the current year, after all that toil and investment. I’m not at all sure how I’m going to get through the back end of next winter sane or solvent.
I would strongly advise against any jocularity and wise cracks on the topic when we’re next met. I just might not be in the mood.
And as for this weeks crop of badger hugging correspondents on the letters page, repeating their offensive lies, disinformation and insults. Well, rest assured that I love them about as much as they evidently love me.
On the weeks upside, we also did a few PDs –pregnancy diagnosis- last Friday, and had our official ‘mineral/trace element blood test result consultation’. The PDs revealed only 3 of the remaining South Devons not in calf, which given the conditions they’ve survived, surprised me. And the bloods all showed perfectly normal readings for all the trace elements and minerals checked. This perplexes me no end. The tests, conducted in January, included some 8-9 year old ladies who’d just come off the Forest with gurt spring calves at foot. How can this be so? Sure beats me. I’m almost disappointed, as it means there is no magic pill to give em. Any problems are down to fluke burdens, being cold and wet all year, and my general incompetence.

Moving on then. I thought I heard, half asleep as the early morning news went out over the radiogram, that Baldric –aka Tony Robinson-, is to be knighted. While my knighthood seems to have been lost in the post again, we’re to hear ‘Arise Sir Baldric’ in a day or two. Apparently he’s done lots of good works to deserve the honour. The thing is, does my memory serve me well, or didn’t he also once make a serious telly programme, extolling a theory that after a bit of court naughtiness, Edward 4th (born 1441) was in fact illegitimate. He reckoned this calls into question the legitimacy of the whole royal succession since.
The key fact was that the king of the day can be shown to have been off fighting when Edward was conceived. His Queen, it’s alleged, may have dallied with a common archer. The chronological anomaly was fairly well known at the time, with plenty of references recorded including no less than a direct accusation in one of Shakespeare’s works.
Baldric spent the whole show –which I believe he wrote- carefully proving to viewers that the current royal family shouldn’t have any claim to the throne. It should rightfully belong to the extant successor to the Plantagenet line. He even tracked down the ‘rightful’ King –an affable Aussie bloke called Michael. For a bit of fun, King Mike even knighted Baldrick ‘Sir Tony of Horseferry Road’.
Now this was all very interesting, although it’s hard to be sure of details after so long a time. And personally I’m prepared to accept the incumbent line of succession, on the simple ground that their forebears were, however tenuously, holding the biggest sword when the music stopped. And that, my frtiends, is the actual nature of a monarchy’s legitimacy, whatever anyone else says.

What impresses me less is Tony’s acceptance of the honour recently bestowed. He’s a committed lifelong leftie, who has also publicly stated that the Royal family aren’t rightfully there. So why has he accepted the Knighthood? Shades of John Prestcott. Perhaps there’s a cunning plan.


One of the trials of raising the flock of small Coakers has been the on-going squabbling about things such as…whose bit of Lego that is? Why can’t I stay up late? Who ruined my homework project? I’m sure it’ll all be horribly familiar to other households. But things move on as life must, and we’ve entered a new phase. Now eldest offspring – the gangly long legged Agnes- is causing a different type of grief amongst other females in the immediate tribe. Apparently, going out clothes shopping with Agnes is becoming a very galling experience, as it’s become clear that she can fling on anything –down to the dust sheet off the garment rack- and look a million dollars. No apparent effort is made, or seemingly required, and daggers slip from their silken sheaths!
For my part, I’m much more proud of her hard headedness and straight line determination. Goodness knows where the prodigious academic prowess comes from, but it’s not so much a question of whether she is ready for the big wide world, as is the big wide world ready for her?

Now, to matters bucolic. I have something very strange for you. I’m sharing it in these pages, because I suspect there’ll be a higher percentage of readers able to grasp the nature of what I’ve got to say.
As you know, I persevere with a herd of mixed colour Galloways, who graze far out on the hill through the kinder months, running almost feral. They’re lucky to get indoors- or below 1000’- in the winter. They came together piece meal after Foot and Mouth, and initially included a number of fairly shirty individuals, notoriously difficult to handle in their early years with me.
I steadily worked at getting them quieter, and admit to shedding one or two of the worst. One entire batch of heifer calves was killed, rather than letting them perpetrate their nonsense. But as the years went on, things grew steadily easier. The main herd now generally follows me about the place like so many milch cows.
We work each winter to get the weaned calves eating out of our hands, the rationale being that they’ll be easier to handle at grass the following summer…as indeed they are.
My efforts have given me a deeper understanding of cattle, and made my work all the more pleasant. It is surely easier to sell breeding stock when purchasers can see they’re biddable creatures.
But I seemed to have stepped into an ethereal zone this spring, a strange and serene place I never thought I’d attain.
I know some of you’ll struggle to believe it, although I’m telling you just as it is.
To stay ‘cross compliant’ I try and grab the new calves up the valley, and process them within a few days of birth- preferably before they go out the gate, cast adrift on the vast peat plateau of the Forest. To do this, I feed the cows out in a line, and walk quietly back through with a long handled crook. I’ve previously described the rumpus which ensues, as I grab a fresh calf and it bawls a bit. It has often been a white knuckle ride, which anyone familiar with suckler cows will recognise. I know cattle plenty well enough to tell when one really means it, and only occasionally have to back down. The dam would arrive with a couple of sisters/aunties in support, and the spectacle of 3-4 four bellowing lunatics circling you as you try to get both the calf’s balls in the rubber ring, or position his ear tag just so before you close the pliers, was a sight to behold.
And here’s the thing.
This year, almost every cow that has caught me doing unspeakable things to her precious newborn has quietly come right up to me, and sniffed the calf, lowing a bit, but then immediately relaxed and backed off. Most are back eating by the time I’m done, and have released the calf.
So far I’ve had to smack only one pair of rather fruity Belts across their hairy noses. Even then, within 30 seconds, all was quiet.

I never anticipated entering a world of such surreal rapport with a herd of Galloway cows- and I don’t know that anyone else would be granted such liberties- but it’s a deeply moving experience.
Obviously, one day I might totally misread things and will suffer for my overconfidence. If I should, and it’s fatal, recall the serenity I’ve found amongst ‘em, and raise a dram to such an honourable way to go!


Forgive me. I’ve done a wicked wicked thing. See, to brighten my gloom last week, I received a visitation from a local YFC group. The secretary –a charming young lass whose Granddad is an old pal of mine- had asked very sweetly if she and a group of her pals could have a bit of a farm walk, and see just how rough and ready it really is out at chez Coaker. Well, that’s not exactly how ‘er phrased it, but I’m sure that was the gist.
Come the evening, the weather proved as sunny and mild as you might wish around midsummer on the high moor, and it was a genuine pleasure to receive such interested and polite visitors. They were certainly far too kind to comment on the slacksadasical level of mismanagement to be found hereabouts. There were 3 brothers from another Dartmoor holding, who’d arrived armed with photos on a phone, of a Belted Galloway cow with twins that Dad was very keen for Anton to see. Both calves were belted, one black and one red, and very smart they were Andrew. Mind, your boys then let the side down by admitting they thought yon cow must’ve nicked someone else’s calf to make up this rare and magnificent double!
Anyway, as we trundled about the place, the visitors asked all the appropriate questions, and I think they enjoyed themselves. And this is where we get to my wickedness. You see, I happen to know that the aforesaid secretary’s Gramps has given up farming Galloways of late, on the grounds that they’re –allegedly- too wild. Knowing that the young lady helps out back on the farm, and had only seen them in that light, I wantonly –deviously even - took the group out onto the peat to meet various bunches of my hairy little friends, who obligingly trotted down to meet me as I called. With a few sweeties from the feed sack, I kept the shaggy coated ladies barging and biffing around my feet as we talked. Quieter individuals deigned to allow me to scratch their necks and ears, and drooled up my sleeve in the manner we know and love. This was going to be something of a revelation to certain of the visitors, likely dispelling long held prejudices. Sorry!
If they did but know it, they were missing the real show, as the main mob were far out on the Forest and these were just a few groups of oddments. When they’re all back in for bulling, there’ll be 75 together, and when they all gallop down to meet me, with calves bawling and skipping,…well, I’m led to believe it’s something of an arresting spectacle.
The last bunch we saw were the 2 year old heifers who were up above the main road, looking down into the West Dart valley. As we stood amongst the milling youngstock, the sun fell obligingly to the distant line of tors on the western horizon, and the colours took that glorious summers evening hue. It was magnificent, spoiled only by the midges which had started in earnest to try and eat us alive. So the YFC said their thankyous, and headed off pubwards. As Agnes and I headed back around the valley for tea, we noticed the South Devon cows- who’d been hiding right down against the river, had come up and were grazing within reach. Stopping on the verge, we hopped the wall to say hello in the gloaming. With the birds twittering their ‘going to bed’ songs, walking in amongst the placid glowing orange ladies and their milky chopped calves was truly sublime.

I should say that things weren’t quite so uplifting a day or two later, when one of them decided that she was making too much milk, with too little calcium or magnesium, and lay down twitching on the river bank. Quickly blowing up like a balloon, and with a hungry fox cub thinking all its birthdays had come at once, she was in real trouble. Luckily, she was right beside a path, so she was soon spotted, and we got to her with the necessary. There’s not much chance of recovering a deady from down there, so we had to get her moving, and it’s been touch and go. Ministering to her involves a fair hike, crossing both rivers, several times a day. At the time of writing, she’s up and about, making progress. She’s got one stiff leg from where she was cast, and the fox didn’t manage to gnaw away anything critical. I’m hopeful.
And the early morning walks down into the valley allowed me to pick a few Flag Iris blossoms for my fair lady, which seems to have gone down well.
Such are my hi-tech agri-business days.


Did you catch the interview that Michael Eavis fella gave a newspaper on the eve of his bi-annual Glastonbury beano. In it, he made clear that when it comes to TB, he is not on the side of the badger. He was somewhat reserved as far as the current cull is concerned, as many of us are, but was clear about where his loyalty lies when it comes to badgers or cows. Unsurprisingly, he immediately caught a lot of flak, with a number of unkind comments online. Well I’m saying loud and clear, that given his very high profile amongst urban Britain, and knowing what reaction to expect, he’s done us sterling service. Good on you Mr E.
I should admit that I’ve never had the benefit of one of your events, given that I’ve usually got mud enough of my own. When I’m older perhaps. Mind, over the years I’ve dispatched numerous timber orders bound for Pilton. There’s been various sculptors come to us for blocks to carve, as well as those seeking figured boards of resonant wood for flutes and the like, and of course hundreds of roof-poles for the ubiquitous yurts.

Now, as you may recall, I too am embroiled in a spot of bother with, which is ‘something of a nuisance’.
Luckily, I’ve been receiving advice on keeping further TB out of my cattle. Aside from being ‘a bit late now buster’, this advice helpfully suggests I must fence the wildlife away from my cattle. I’ll need special netting to do this, and must make sure that there isn’t as much as an 80mm hole they could squeeze through- the nice instruction pamphlet even has pictures of a badger wriggling through such a gap. Presumably I must also carefully keep the gates locked shut, like some rural Fort Knox. - Although how that squares with the hundreds of kids hiking through on their Duke of Edinburgh awards I’m not sure.
I’ve no idea how the folks publishing the pamphlet keep a straight face.

In fact, I don’t find it very funny at all. Rather I find the whole idea pretty offensive. Promoting the concept that my livestock, and the land they graze, can in some way be separated and isolated from areas the wildlife inhabits is an alien concept to me. The badgers and my cows- and me- all dwell cheek by jowl together across the valleys hereabouts, in that fascinating and complex tapestry I adore. The insane idea that I should try and isolate the cattle from this tapestry, and cut the wildlife out of our lives, is absurd. Whoever suggests it must be somehow divorced from reality, living in some dreamy fantasy land.
I suppose you could find level farmland, laid out in simply defined enclosures, where you could point to a given area and say ‘This is farmland, and everything around it isn’t’. You can forget including any hedgerows within the boundaries of this sterile place, it’ll have to be wire netting or brick walls everywhere. And assuming that all the best ground in this mythical countryside is so singled out and designated, what does that leave for the wildlife? Won’t old brock get a bit hungry without any grassland to come and rootle about in of a night-time? The strange and horrible visage conjured up doesn’t match any land I’ve ever known.
Learn from history my friends. The Aussies tried it with thousands of miles of ‘dog’ and ‘rabbit’ fences, none of which worked.

And there’s more. Are there people who imagine, because they live in cities, that they’re isolated and separate from the countryside we all inhabit? To a greater or lesser extent, we are all tied, absolutely and forever, to the landscape. Some of us wear it upon our brows, living and breathing it first hand, while others might pretend that because it’s far away, it’s nothing to do with them.
Well it isn’t far away. It is in every aspect of their lives, like it or lump it. Without the continuous carefully managed output of the wider environment, urban life falls apart within hours. Everything, from the raw materials to make all your clutter, to the fuel that sends the leccy down that copper wire into your brick built nest, comes out of the wider world. The very copper wire itself was dug from under the earth, the joists holding up the roof grew out of the ground, and even bricks themselves were once just dirt. Everything you touch, as well as what you eat and drink, remains irrevocably tied to the globe upon which we’re spinning through space.
Back to where we started, wouldn’t it be better to simply identify the sick badgers and remove them like we remove the infected cattle?
Take one step forward Bryan Hill.



Backalong, before we had the weather to do much out of doors …..well, without wearing full waterproof kit and that gritted teeth expression that causes passing ramblers to hurry their pace and the collie to cringe out of sight- I decided to try and clear out the old workshop. It’s long since ceased being where rolling repairs and minor fabrications are fudged together, since the welder and the toolbox moved to a bigger building beside the mill.
The building has become a handy place to fling anything flingable I think I might want again at some point in the future. I really needed to make some space, so with a deep breath, in I went. With a couple of dumpy bags outside to receive various grades of scrap, and bonfire handy by, I carried out a fascinating array of garbage. Then, as I delved deep into the early Jurassic strata, I came across a much loved but worn Triumph Bonneville, which saw me from a spotty youth through til when I settled down. It was my primary mode of transport for 12 or 13 years. I roared about all over the country on it, sometimes fell off it, slept under it after teararse parties, and generally had a ball with it. Latterly it proved a useful litmus test for young ladies. If they wouldn’t get on the pillion seat, I assumed they probably lack the mettle to cope with the hiccups along the way generally, and my attention strayed onward accordingly. Alison, since you ask, was the last girl to face this test, and passed*. It was then that I put it away in the shed.
*Having passed that initial test, the poor girl was subsequently exposed to the full gamut of coping with the fallout of my haphazard doings, and has achieved a clear round so far!
The kids have never seen Daddy’s old motorbike in one piece and running. The boy would very much like me to rebuild it, whereas Polly would like to see it cleaned up and shining, if not running. Agnes, of course, would want to know its realisable fiscal worth. I’m not sure what my little wife would say, should she hear it rumble into life again, but it’s irrelevant, as for all my mid-life angst, I don’t think I have any ambition to ride it again.
It did make me reminisce however. Not for the ‘old days’ in that whimsical rose tinted way, nor to try and regain my youth –I’ve almost no truck with the ‘born again’ fraternity, who buy a big shiny bike they could never have afforded back in the day, don designer leathers and cultivate a silly swagger, and go out being toughies of a Sunday. An unkind man might speculate that they must feel they missed out originally.
No, I know I’m a middle aged bloke, with a load of clutter on my shoulders- mostly of my own making. I long since stopped whooping it up because it was time to, and I’ve no regrets. But to have the bike in running order, sat on its kickstand waiting, is a temptation I wouldn’t want to face. I don’t think I could, or would even want to, ride it as and like an old fart. It would somehow be selling it short.
In fact, mostly my reminiscing took me to the conclusion that I’m mighty glad I cut loose as much as I did. Admittedly, I would dearly love to be able to knock some sense into the insufferable teenage twerp I was, and somehow allow him to get far better mileage out of the wide open opportunities that came his way. But it doesn’t work like that does it? You can’t stick an old head on young shoulders, and I suspect a period of twerpdom is generally a healthy thing in the long run.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed riding that bike, finding myself in the places it took me, living and learning as I went, more than I can tell you here.
And here’s a related gag to close with. A cattle dealer we all know, resident in sunny South Devon, has long been wont to give youngsters nicknames. He will remember the name he gives you rather than the one your parents attached- it’s probably an aide memoir, and a business trick. I’ve no doubt he in fact remembers every little detail about just about everything. My own moniker, which he still addresses me by when we’re met at market, was ‘Moses’. Ostensibly this would’ve been because of my youthful mop of unruly hair. While that’s now gone, I’m still Moses. Or was the name derived from a snatch of scripture David? Did you remember from Sunday school lessons decades ago, that ‘Moses’ triumph could be heard throughout Israel’?
Right. Hay to bale.


You won’t need a brain the size of a planet to guess what I’ve been up to this week. With a scorching sun blazing down, I’ve been spending long hours chasing the rows of hay Joe has fluffed up in front of me. My duty has been to man the baler tractor, leaving fields of shining fragrant round bale hay scattered across the countryside. Said blazing sun has left me bronzed and toasted, and my loafing cattle shining and glossy for once. There, that all sounds good doesn’t it?
There are of course some less enjoyable aspects, and I wouldn’t want you to think it’s all bucolic bliss. For a start, the rows of grass are yielding rather less hay than normal. Being down with TB, and unable to sell cattle, this is not a happy discovery. Some ‘off land’ is starting to burn up in the heat, and the grass dying away. At least it’s still growing at home.
As you’ll know if you’re out there doing likewise, making a light crop of hay in such scorching conditions is not as easy as you might suppose. Getting it dry is easy enough, it’s the stopping it breaking into chaff which is the trick. Then, latter stages of operations are engulfed in clouds of dust. While most of the turning and rowing up involves continual forward motion, leaving the clouds trailing behind, round baling is different. The lucky fellow in the baler tractor – the very same twit keeping this diary- gets to reverse back from the row as each bale is spat out of the baler….right into the following clouds of dust and chaff, which invariably find their way into the roof hatch and down my neck.
And then, there’s the bales themselves. Such shiny short grass doesn’t want to stay neatly packed in its giant cotton reels. What it really wants to do is explode somewhere embarrassing. I’ve been putting on masses of twine to try and keep the blighters together, with the only ‘fail’ being right in the yard, after being carted 12 miles home. And before you shout at me to ‘go to netwrap’, I’ve seen more than one of them lying bust beside the road already.
We had some bad luck Sunday, when a whirlwind came through and sucked up an acre of rowed up crop, spreading it all over the parish. ‘Bother’ said I.
At least the baler has behaved. Developing a niggling fault in its innards demands my delving into the chamber, to emerge coated worse than ever in dust and chaff. I’ve got away with it very well so far, although I still finish evenings covered head to foot, and hardly able to gulp enough fluids to rehydrate.
There have been a couple of socials in the midst of this, including a rendezvous with lady farmer friend ‘Flossie’ (not her real name). Alison had given me a pass out, to go and take in an unusual movie with our sophisticated mutual pal. Running late, I just had time to wash the worst of my extremities in a cattle trough in the corner of the field –you think I’m making this up don’t you? Flossie complained I still ponged a bit, but she’s always saying this so I ignored her.
The film, since you ask, was called ‘The Act of Killing’, and is an extraordinary analysis of a group of aging Indonesians, who spend a year or two in the 60’s butchering alleged ‘communists’ within their own communities. Being on Suharto’s winning side in ‘65, they went unpunished, and have been living as victors amongst their victims families for nearly 50 years. The film makers inadvertently discovered this while filming the survivors, and persuaded a few of the killers to portray how they rid their country of communists by re-enacting the butchery. Filmed over many months, we get to know some of these men. The resultant scenes of re-enactment are disturbing enough –garrotting with fence wire was favourite, because it was quick, easy, and most importantly, less messy. The real interest is watching the realisation come over some of these old men. One, who evidently killed hundreds of his neighbours, goes to pieces during the making of the film, when confronted with the horror that he’s been hiding from all these years. Viewers watch the scales fall from his eyes, as he realises he can’t undo what’s been done. It’s a deep and disturbing piece of work, exploring a society and culture very different to our own, but equally demonstrating how we’re all human under the skin…even the most inhuman of us. Find it, watch it.


Loath to miss the weather, we pressed on with cutting grass. As I tap at the keyboard tonight, we’ve passed 130 acres cut and baled, with about half as much to go. Most of what’s left wasn’t stood up until nearly midsummer and could do with another week or two, so I’ve taken the mower off for a bit. This suits me well enough, as I’m a frazzled wreck. The last few days baling was wrapped, as I’m soon going to run out of shed space. The platt where we wrap and stack is covered in 2” of dust, ground to the consistency of flour by constant heavy traffic. Alison and I did 124 on Monday in that heat, and frankly it wasn’t the romantic rural idyll some of you think we inhabit. I tried throwing a bit of water about, to keep the powdery muck down, but it only lasted an hour or so. A couple of times, dust devils blew up, in which you couldn’t see or breathe. Lovely.
Some of what’s gone through the baler was cut a bit sooner than I’d prefer, but at least I’ve managed to bale up loads of the wretched ‘yellow rattle’ before it can set too many seeds. A succession of late harvests have let it run rampant through the mowing ground, gobbling up nitrogen to no good effect.
I know various folk who believe, by turn, that mowing ground should carry nothing but souped up hybrid ryegrass, on a 3 year rotation and a diet of Nitram. Then there’s folk who reckon that we should deliberately allow every little weed to seed naturally ‘man’, and send an urchin ahead of the team of men with scythes, to shoo away the voles and harvest mice. I exist somewhere between these points, never reseeding if I can possibly help it, the cows and I loving the variety of wild flowers in my crops, while at the same time trying to keep them from overwhelming more productive species. And I’m more than fed up with the ‘rattle’.

Still, I now have the luxury of having in-bye fields available to hold stock as we get back into ovine and bovine task for a minute.
Shearing is upon us, and poor defrocking technician Dave has already done a day or two in sweltering conditions. I should congratulate him and his delightful wife Helen on their hatching of twins since last summer – I think, to be honest, that Helen did most of the work. And how novel it is to have a shearer with twins that are the same age! I should explain to those who never worked with infamous ex-mutton juggler, hedge builder and raconteur ‘Uncle Terence’. To speed the monotonous hours in the sheep shed, Terry would often tell us about his twins, one of which was apparently a year or so older than the other. Now he’s retired from wrestling sheep, I sometimes see him in town, and always ask how their getting on –one has passed 30 now I believe, while both remain, to the best of our knowledge, quite fictitious. Although, with uncle T, who could ever be quite sure?
Next on the job list is to fetch together some cows, and get them with their appropriate husbands. It’s a week or two past when I want them sorted, and the boys have been straining at the leash. The valley echoes with their trumpeting, bass wailing and grumbling. Each is bawling that he is the top dog, and that everyone should look out. 2-3 have jumped the gun –and some inappropriate heifers- on various occasions. This hasn’t been helped by a succession of gates being left unfastened by walker/visitors –along with their countless illicit encampments/bar-b-qs/abandoned cars/ families and dogs romping through uncut hay fields, trash left everywhere, and the like. I’m generally an affable enough chap, but the workload has left me in a poor state of mind to deal with the fallout from such relentless pressure. There is public access over hundreds of acres of my farm, to walk upon and enjoy the peaceful beauty, but that just isn’t enough for some people.
For good measure I hear some bright spark thinks I shouldn’t put cows on ground with public access, due to one or two unfortunate incidents involving people taking their dogs in amongst cattle. Well forgive me, but how are you going to walk through the majestic landscape if my hairy little friends haven’t kept the vegetation down? Armies of park rangers with strimmers? The very pastoral beauty itself, which we find so attractive, is a product of the livestock.
I’m sorry, but I’m just too tired and irritable, after weeks of relentless long hot days grind to discuss the matter like a grown up. We got here first, and if you don’t like it, best take your leisure someplace else. (sorry Ed, will try and be a bit more upbeat next week)


Back into stock work with a vengeance, we’ve spent several days gathering cows and calves together, and sorting them for the bulls. They’ve a shine on them I love to see, and the old red Riggit bull ‘Firethorn’ positively glows a golden red, which flashes and flickers as he turns his rippled and muscled flank in the sun. This spectacle isn’t as enjoyable when viewed from behind the herd of cows he’s desperately driving away from the newtake gate you’re trying to fetch them into. Dartmoor stallions often drive their harems across the landscape like this, but I’ve only known a handful of Galloway bulls do the same. The worst was another old Riggit, the infamous ‘Badger’. He once planted himself on the bridge, as we drove his herd home along the road. Would the old beggar let them across? Not a bit of it. And he kicked like a mule for good measure.
Anyway, having picked all the ladies into their right groups, the boys have repaid my efforts by repeatedly playing musical bulls in the night. The South Devon was found deeply in lurve with the Belt heifers twice, which could go badly wrong next spring. While we’ve got them in captivity, we’re starting the next round of TB testing in a week or two. Cross your fingers.
Sheep abuser Dave was game to have another go, so we’ve also picked up the rest of the scotch ewes off the hill for shearing. Getting them dry was a chore amongst the frequent showers, but at least there’s some fields freed up to hold them. I’ve seen the blackface ewes with bigger lambs, but better a wee’un than none at all.
I’ve got to admit that the miles and miles of footwork across difficult terrain have taken their toll this last week. I’m reminded that it’s really a young man’s job I’m doing, and the clock is firmly ticking- I get along by developing a bit of guile.
Back to TB testing….you’ll love this. Several folk who’ve bought cattle off me in the last year or so are being chased up to do ‘tracing tests’. I’m apologetic to those concerned, and any neighbours who get dragged in, but presumably this testing is only common sense?
Well yes and no. See, as I’ve alluded here, and clearly told the Ministry, the problem was very obviously 15 miles from home. The 3 IR’s –which subsequently reacted with confirmed lesions- were in a bunch of hairy little steers put away in the spring of last year. Seeing as they didn’t come home until our spring test this year, it seems pretty tenuous to be pursuing some calves I sold which never met the suspect group, never went near the ground which might be considered ‘hot’, and have been tested clean on their new owners holdings since.
At the same time, I’ve supplied grid references where the issues are, identified the rest of the group at risk, including the dates/tag numbers for some which went through the store ring at Drizzlecombe Auction Mart last summer. Then, not waiting for slow grinding official wheels, I insisted on getting herd tests booked in case we couldn’t get dates to match when the cows were in for bulling. And I’ve offered the remaining 5 from the group for immediate slaughter as dangerous contacts.
But instead of taking the shortest steps to sort matters –well, disregarding the obvious wildlife issues- the Ministry are pursuing absolute red herrings, chasing animals all over the country which couldn’t possibly have had contact.
Perhaps the Ministry just assume I’m lying- which I’m not. And anyway, if I was going to tell ‘porkies’ on the subject, I’d hardly be leaving them a paper trail would I?
The alternative deduction is that they’re simply incompetent, which is a bit of a concern given that they’ll be leading the much talked about 25 year novelty joke plan to eradicate bovine TB. Talk about ‘Not fit for purpose’.
I’m seriously concerned where this is all heading, if we’re going to be blunt. I can’t be the only one looking at proposed plans, and asking who they’re kidding.

To close, we’d better mark the passing of that fabulous musician and songwriter J.J.Cale. He wrote some tunes you’ll know from the likes of Eric Clapton and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and performed a few pretty sublime songs himself – ‘Cajun moon’ and ‘After Midnight’ being right of the top shelf.
Following all my tiring legwork across the hill of late, I’m in the need of a bit of anaesthetic, and so I’m raising a fairly hefty belt of JD’s to Mr Cale. Thanks old chap.


I’ve been musing on our variable weather. After the long searing hot spell, we’re back in the normal conditions again now. Bit of sun here and there, with clouds in sight all the while and actual showers potentially only an hour or two away. Unless you’re immersed in something weather dependant, this is merely be an inconvenience. For me, it’s a pain. The hot spell was mostly a boon, in that I could plan what I was doing days in advance. It also recharged a lot of empty batteries, worn down by the very late cold spring, which followed a desperately wet 12 months.

I bumped into an apiarist pal this week. Like me, his lot is tied to the weather from season to season, and he is a rich fund of backwoods minutiae. We compared notes about the effects of the weather. Very much like the sheep and cattle, bees had fared ill in the damp cool summer last year, and were at a low ebb by the autumn. Apparently, the young bees hatched later in the season are engineered differently, to live through the winter. Clever little blighters. But last years monsoon had messed that all up, and the bees which did over-winter weren’t up to much. And when the spring failed to arrive, and the desperate cold March rolled out, they died. Thousands upon thousands of them. The horror stories of bee-keepers who’ve lost most of their colonies were uncomfortably similar to the tale told by some northern shepherds.

On the upside, the recent hot spell had been a tonic to remaining colonies, and there had been a good run of honey production. I was fascinated to hear which blossoms are especially useful to my pals little charges. Up here, the white clover has yielded well, and withies are valuable. The ubiquitous Dandelions are good, and locally, our abundant Bluebells help. Elsewhere, Borage is a good provider, with an extended period of blossom. And while there might be a bit of heather blossom out over the tops, my friend doesn’t bother taking hives up to make use of it any more, because there isn’t any worthwhile market for heather honey locally.

Also of no use is the hated insidious Himalayan Balsam. Not only does it infest river banks everywhere, in an invasive monoculture which leaves bare earth through the winter ready to wash away next flood. It also doesn’t yield any worthwhile honey. The bees go to it happily enough, coming back dusted in white pollen, but don’t seem to get much from the experience. Fascinating.

Something which especially intrigued me was the use of ragwort. I’m told the bees not particularly like it –only feeding on the vivid yellow blossom when nothing else presents itself. And for good measure, the honey they do produce from ragwort is rather bitter miserable stuff anyway. There, educational stuff this isn’t it!

Speaking of ragwort, that’s something else which seems to have annoyingly enjoyed the topsy turvy season, and I’ve spent- and funded- a great deal of effort to trying to keep it under control. I inherited a lot on one site, and am going to have to resort to drastic measures amongst the rough, if we can’t get on top of it. Helicopter spraying with herbicide is most attractive, should my lottery ticket come up. Moving cattle through another patch of rough- at home- we found a dense clump in amongst a thicket of blackthorn we swaled 2 years ago. That was a nice environment to go hand pulling in amongst, you can bet. Wretched stuff.

To balance things, I notice the sun brought on the feral raspberries around the yard fantastically, and I’m often stopping as I traipse around the place, to browse on them like an old bear. We’ve even had a golden ripening strain come through. I’ll have to ask around, I guess it’s a genetic variation, naturally appearing amongst the base feral stock. They taste delicious, and the birds don’t notice them as quick either. The elder blossom was also fantastic, and even up here, was worth stopping to stick your hooter into. I was briefly up on the Cotswolds when it was right on the button, and went out at dawn, when the vapour was pouring off dense clumps, a wave of fragrant pong. Gorgeous!


After a spell away from the good ship Sherberton, we’ve returned to a whole herd TB test. Mobs of cows and calves are being held on the bits of aftergrass, and pacing about roaring. I’ll know the worst by tomorrow. There are a few off lying stragglers to catch up with next week, but the high risk beasts are in this round. Cross yer fingies for me.
The excursion referred to involved a week’s snooping about the Yorkshire Dales, with forays into Cumbria and Lancashire. We were based in a rambling old house within walking distance of the Wensleydale Creamery, where they make the cheese. Happily there’s a tasting room, where you can graze along the trays of little cubes of different types. With it taking a lot of provender to maintain a flock of small Coakers, we sampled all the wares we could manage, on several occasions. By the end of the week, I was afraid we’d have to start wearing disguises, but nobody said owt, so we grazed on. Finding the local chippy served ‘deep fried Wensleydale’ was an unexpected bonus.
It’s very much a livestock raising area, with the lower reaches of most Dale’s being neat little dairy outfits, interspersed with mule sheep rearing texel lambs. Further up the slope were older Swale ewes raising the mule labs, and out on the tops were the main body of Swales, some bred pure, others rearing ever more mules. Pockets of Blue Leicester’s to provide the mule sires were sprinkled close to dwellings, to be handy to take them their sweeties every day- and ensure they were still living, which isn’t always a given. Most of the suckler herds were continentals, but in very small numbers, due to topographical restrictions.
Both having very understanding partners, I was allowed to bring along a girlfriend. She is an architect with interests in farming and geology, so while the rest of the girls were clip clopping ponies, we were able to try and unravel how the Dales came to look as they do. The rocks underfoot are almost all sedimentary, laid down over gazzilions of years, and then scraped about by glaciers over tens of thousands of years. The results include the provision of the flat blocky stones to build all those drystone walls and redundant little barns – roughly one in every third field- and some layers of easily split yellow stuff that makes the big roofing flags cover the barns and houses. The varying layers include lots of limestone, which raises the pH marvellously wherever it’s on the surface, and layers of sandstone which doesn’t. The difference to the men farming the ground is that some of the hillsides are steep, sour and rush-infested, while perversely, out on top where the glaciers scraped bare the infamous limestone ‘pavements’, the meagre soil is fabulous, and grows sweet rich grass. Where the moss did grow over the top of the pavement, the resulting cap of peat isn’t of much use to anything but the heather and the grouse.
The glaciers dumped mounds of ground up trash along the valley floors, where there is also plentiful sweet grass on the steep little hummocks and slopes. We argued in an amateurish way about which were drumlins and which were moraine etc, but had fun doing so. The kids found loads of fossils, and the boy ‘borrowed’ a few wild trout here and there –to be strictly accurate, he tried to pay where we should’ve, and had permission elsewhere. He and I tracked down the best looking hill flock for miles– lying at the very head of Swaledale, with black stripe mark on near flank. We resolved to go back for a tup lamb one day. The roadkill tally including a lot of hedgehogs –they don’t have many badgers- masses of bunnies, and one substantial deer.
Quite coincidentally we also happened on the 2 day summer social of an obscure cattle breeding group I belong to. ‘Gosh’ I said, ‘what a surprise!’ As well as seeing their gorgeous stock, we were able to pick the brains of our kind hosts for further local info. And very generous down to earth farmers they proved to be, with generations of livestock husbandry behind them.
The nicest looking sheep we saw, I reckoned, were the ‘Dalesbreds’, which are sadly losing ground to the Swales due to mule breeding fashions- which also adversely influences the Swales themselves. That sounds like the tail wagging the dog to me, but hey-ho, what do I know.
All in all, a sound and informative outing.
And lastly, back home again, I’m raising my hat to Mr and Mrs Philip Blamey, having read his letter in Tuesday’s paper. Good on you both, what gentle humour, and such a heart-warming letter. (Re letter from a couple 72 years into a happy marriage)


It’s the silly season in the farming press. Flicking through to see what I should be doing on the farm from week to week, one glossy carries a series of helpful articles showing how to make my livestock more profitable. These range from most of a page extolling using fewer tups over more ewes to save money, through another full page on how sucklers which have more twins might rear more calves, through to a separate few paragraphs elsewhere explaining that if more of my cows get in calf, I might make more money. Hey Sherlock, right on!

I’m not altogether sure whether these are written with a straight face, as the degree of farmer stupidity they imply would preclude any of us from being able to count to three, or possibly spell our names right.

From the top then, let’s consider these learned concepts, starting with saving on a tup or two. The premise is that every tup you buy will cost £600, and by spreading them over more ewes, the cost per lamb goes down. Well, that is a mathematical truth, although why you would want to spend £600 on each and every tup you buy in is beyond me. Within the motley collection of daddy sheep hereabouts, I frequently rotate homebred boys, which have cost me a decent store lamb and, if they’re lucky, some grub. They rarely drop dead either, which is a trait we all wish the £600 bought in tups would develop. Oh, and since a significant percentage of tups are in fact infertile, keeping a few less loads up the risk of getting disastrously caught out hugely. That element didn’t appear in the clever graphs.

My advice? By all means go and buy one or two front line tups, but keep several ‘lesser’ lads handy to chuck in the mix.

The article goes on to advise that there is no advantage in keeping ewes too fat, as this reduces fertility. Again, this is technically a fact, but take last spring’s weather fiasco. Where it hit the hardest in the North, it was the fatties from the previous autumn that came through alive. Their racing snake sisters, full of twins and triplets, simply perished in the snow. See? It’s not as simple as all that.

I noted that I involuntarily funded much of the twaddle I was reading.

Next up, some bright spark from the States suggests that if I deliberately select my suckler cows for twins, I’ll have more calves to sell. Hey! This guy should be running NASA. What genius. Sadly, the example was a bloke who ran 20 cows, which is hardly representative. I won’t waste your time beyond explaining that, in my meagre experience, twins are fine when all goes well, and little more than a blessed nuisance when they don’t. And any outfit which has to have additional labour input generally becomes immediately unprofitable. Again, I note I’m reluctantly funding the twerps spouting this nonsense over here, through levies raised against my will.

Which brings us to a 150 word piece about how improving the fertility of your suckler herd generally will very probably result in your having more calves to sell. Ostensibly, Scottish farmers were forced to pay for this earth shattering research, and I have no doubt they’re sat around patting themselves on their tartan backs for discovering such insights.

Good grief Charlie Brown.

Back in the slowlane, I sometimes select breeding stock by the sparkle in their eye, or cos they looked nice in a photo, or simply because the breeder is a pal. One dear little Angus cross heifer calf was purchased after FMD- for my youngest Polly-, selected because she was raised on a house cow tethered to a stake in a garden at 1400’. The rationale being if she grew there, she’d likely survive here…which she did. ‘Daisy’ is now 11 years old, and has raised us a good number of outstanding calves. It hasn’t always been plain sailing - I nearly lost her calving a gurt still-born one freezing winter morning backalong. But she’s a biddable beast, much loved by Polly and all of us. Sadly, she hasn’t survived last weeks TB test, and will soon be leaving the premises as a ‘reactor’.

Explaining this to my daughter wasn’t easy, and hearing the anti-farmer vitriol in the media coming from the badger huggers was a little surreal. On the one hand we are apparently animal hating monsters, even akin to paedophiles. On the other hand, my kids have grown up owning and caring for beasts which we raise and tend to give us and others sustenance. They then have to deal with losing beasts they care for to a disease primarily spread by ‘protected’ wild animals. It’s a mad bad world kids.

joe soapy

wahey, i'll put the word about. I can still only picture Anton as the dreadlocked motorbike riding hippie.
the world turns and now he is a respected pillar or Dartmoor society.
The TB situation is beyond a joke. When a herd goes down, find the sett responsible and sort it, simple as.
Always worked before, and will continue to work if allowed to

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