COUNTRY LIFE PAGE OF THE TIMES Saturday, April 13th 2002
I live on a farm in Scotland, on the western flank of the Cheviot Hills. It consists of a large rounded, grassy hill. At the top, a trig point records the altitude: 1400 ft above sea level. Our house sits at the foot of the hill, 1000 ft below the summit, next to the river which forms the western boundary of the 1,500-acre farm. On the other three sides we are surrounded by man-made forest of Sitka spruce. Our main crop is grass which feeds a herd of beef cattle and a flock of pedigree Cheviot sheep. There are few alternatives in this cold, wet place.
Before the war, this farm supported eight families. Photographs taken in the 1930s show the farmer, a patriarchal figure, surrounded by his staff. He looks like an old-fashioned headmaster. I doubt if he ever took his coat off.
When we bought the place in 1960 it was very run-down. There were only five fields. The rest was grass, open and under-grazed; 80 cattle wintered out on the hill. The rainfall is high more than 50 in. a year and the cattle had champed the ground into a morass. The result was an epidemic of liver fluke, a parasite that lives in wet pasture and can kill sheep. The death rate was high, the birth rate low. The sheep, which lambed on the open hill, had a lambing percentage of 60 per cent. Now it is 120 per cent.
We were lucky with our timing. "Food from our own resources" was the politicians' cry. Farmers were given capital grants to enable them to raise productivity and thus save imports. We fenced, drained and ploughed part of the hill to grow silage for winter feed. We doubled the size of the herd. We built cattle and sheep sheds for winter shelter. We planted woods, made three lochs, restored two derelict cottages for holiday use and built a new one. We rebuilt hundreds of yards of dry-stone dykes, as walls are called here.
But the common agricultural policy was all too successful. The policy went into reverse as lakes of wine and mountains of butter and beef made headlines, along with the barley barons who were said to buy a new Jaguar every year. Then there were stories of "factory farmers" who cut down trees, tore up hedgers, and spread poison everywhere. Farmers became hate figures and worship of nature has become a new religion. But farmers don't just work with nature; they are part of nature.
It is the combination of use and beauty that makes the British landscape so attractive. Our naturally varied scenery has been altered by the hand of man over many centuries. Even the landscape of the Highlands of "Caledonia, stern and wild" is largely man-made. Those awesome, heathery hills were once partly covered by native pine forest and were transformed, quite recently, by the introduction of sheep.
On our tiny patch of the British landscape, our strategy is to stay in business. That means starting at the beginning and giving our animals the best possible start in life. We often have blizzards and hard frosts well into April so lambing begins about the middle of the month in the hope of ensuring a fresh bit of grass when the ewes go out to the hill with their lambs at foot. The lambing shed is a maternity ward, staffed 24 hours a day. Our assistant, a Skye crofter, comes for three weeks every spring. He has worked with flocks all over the country, and know as much about sheep and their mysterious ways as anyone in the world.
Our first holiday visitors arrive at the same time, drawn by the promise of peace, long walks and birdwatching. "We went back to work feeling ten years younger", said one couple. Another wrote that "it was worth coming all the way from New Zealand for a conversation with your mole-catcher". Others wonder why we kill the moles. It is because of a soil-borne disease, listeriosis. If a molehill contaminates the silage which the sheep eat in winter we could have an outbreak of a fatal illness in the sheep-shed. We hope that conversations like this help, in a small way, to bridge the tragic gap between town and country dwellers.
"The environment" had not been invented when Shakespeare wrote, though I bet he knew about agrimony. His grandfather was a farmer. He certainly knew what happens if the land is abandoned. Listen to the Duke of Burgundy as he describes war-torn France after the Battle of Agincourt:
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
the freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burrs,
Losing both beauty and utility.