YOU’RE NEVER TOO OLD TO LEARN….

I went off to the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester in September 1984. To a boy from the hills of Cumbria, it was a world away from the sheltered life I had known. My parents were proud, my old farming grandfather even more so. In many ways it was a rude awakening to the harsh realities of life and people. I met some of the best and some of the worst. “Mountain Man” as i was christened by fellow students from the south, had an awful lot to learn about both. These experiences have continued through my whole career.

The qualification was everything. Rural Estate Management was the key to the door for a lifetime of working within the farming community.

Trent Lodge Hall of Residence, Cirencester – second floor right hand window – my room!

Three years later I returned to Cumbria in my battered old Mini 1000, with rather more life experiences under my belt, and a new job as a trainee land agent and auctioneer for Penrith Farmers Kidd’s. A 20 minute interview with the Managing Director, Harry Richardson secured my dream job. It was a no- brainer for me to return to my home county.

The learning was far from over. For on my very first day and less than five minutes into the job, I ran into the first of many bollicking’s off a farmer.

The brand new Penrith market on Junction 40 of the M6 was full to overflowing with trailers backed up the A66. It was pandemonium. I donned my shiny new auctioneer’s coat and headed for the calf ring to help auctioneer and now life- long pal, David Jackson. As I rounded the corner, I bumped straight into Geoff Faulder, Ewan Close Farm. A man in his late 60’s, he was clearly disgruntled, having to queue to unload calves. He looked me up and down.

 “I don’t know who the bloody hell you are – Boy” he said, “but get out there and sort the bloody mess out”! With that he turned tail and left me standing open- mouthed. Things did settle down and in time Geoff became a good pal, as did his brother Jared, a top county buyer of sheep in local auctions, including his favourite, Lazonby.

Today my own college life seems a world away. Those three years were important not only to learn about my chosen profession, and get the certificate, but more widely to learn to communicate, deal with people and to gain some much-needed self- confidence. I made some good choices in the knowledge that I desperately wanted to return to live and work in Cumbria, but I also made some bad choices in other areas of my life. I wouldn’t change it, but oh boy, would i do it differently! Hey, hindsight is a wonderful thing and I’m still learning, for you are never too old to learn!

Today my auctioneering duties are part- time and still very enjoyable. I’m classed as an old hand now. It is good to work with a young team and where needed impart a little advice or just offer support where i can. I am perfectly at home dropping down livestock trailer doors or opening ring gates as much as i am in the rostrum, although there is nothing beats the buzz of a good trade when you’ve got hold of the gavel.

Five years ago i became the Managing Director of The Farmer Network based at Newton Rigg College near Penrith. I get much pleasure seeing the myriad of ways our non- profit company finds to support farmers and their businesses. Our goal has not changed since the Network was formed 15 years ago. It is to support a viable and sustainable farming community.

I enjoy talking to students on campus and have even tried my hand at lecturing in farm business management. Many students are the offspring of farmers that I grew up with. It is the circle of farming life. Those students are going through the same learning experiences as I did back in the 1980’s when the girls had big hair and big shoulder pads!

College life for todays “Aggies” is more important than ever. They are the generation that will have to work within a rapidly changing industry. It is so important that we prepare them with the necessary skills both to farm smarter and manage the landscapes in evolving ways. In our industry we start them young, encouraging a strong worth ethic and great pride in the job. In the mart, young handlers sale days are just one of the learning experiences offered.

The future of Newton Rigg college is under threat. The parent organisation Askham Bryan which owns the Penrith campus has persuaded the further education commission that the college is not viable. They have been given permission to sell the site and if this happens the sale proceeds will taken out of the county, back to Yorkshire. Too many this a cruel and unjust end to a bastion of Cumbrian farming life.

Newton Rigg Farmhouse – present home of the Farmer Network – but for how long?

Even worse is the fact that we will lose a cherished and respected seat of learning in Cumbria, the second largest red meat and dairy producing county across the country. To the farming community and indeed the wider rural community, this is an appalling state of affairs. Closure is due July 2021.

An independent Newton Rigg Land- Based Education Taskforce was formed consisting mainly of representatives from the agricultural and educational sector in Cumbria. The taskforce has been trying to formulate a plan to save Newton Rigg as a seat of learning or at least to ensure that land- based learning can continue in Cumbria in some form. I am proud to be part of the group knowing full well the importance of not only further education, but life- long learning for members of the farming community. There are currently three consortia interested in talking over the campus, and a bidding process is underway. The Land Based Education Taskforce remains in place to offer support where it can. There is still hope!

Our young people starting their careers will be brilliant farmers, food producers and conservationists, in fact the best yet, all in one package. I am convinced of this. If i have one message for them it is: – “learn and keep learning because you are never too old”.

More than 30 years have passed since the day i walked into Penrith mart with my shiny new auctioneers coat. These days my white coats are rather larger than they used to be, but i still feel the same privilege working for the farming community . Difficult though these times of change may be, i have an unwavering belief that farmers are going to become more and more important to this country. We just haven’t quite woken up to the fact yet. Time will tell!

THE DAY THEY LET LOOSE ROBBO’S COCKEREL

This tale does not actually involve me personally, but after Tommy Borthwick, my former coach at Aspatria RUFC back in the 1990’s shared it with me, it is too good to miss.

In January 1993 i had been injured with a partially dislocated elbow, sustained when playing against Sheffield in National League 3. I lifted our giant second row Fred Story as he leaped like a salmon to claim the ball, at the kick- off to start the second half. Their open side wing forward clattered into my arm and I felt my elbow pop out of its socket. I dropped Fred and then sort of wiggled my arm about, and felt my elbow slide back into place. It didn’t hurt at first but after being bollocked by Nigel Brown at the next scrum for not binding tight enough, I realised that I couldn’t grip with my left hand.

I left the field at which point the pain kicked in as my arm locked. They cut the shirt off me and I was driven to A&E in Carlisle for an X ray which confirmed the damage. I then missed 6 weeks whilst in rehab, which included a week’s skiing trip to Kitzbuhel. Well we did get reasonable expenses in those days! During this time, I missed the long trip to Exeter for a National League 3 fixture.

On Tuesday evening at training before the game, our forwards coach and Cumbrian rugby legend David Robinson, approached Tommy Borthwick and told him he had a secret plan on how to beat Exeter. Robbo said he would reveal all at Thursday night training. Tommy was intrigued. What could this plan be? A new forward move off the scrum or a set play from the backs? Perhaps he would just get one of the forwards to give the Exeter second row and captain Rob Baxter a little dig early doors, to set down a marker!

Thursday night duly arrived, and Tommy was in the changing room with some of the players when in walked Robbo carrying a hessian sack over his shoulder.

“This is it” said Robbo, “this is how we’ll beat Exeter”. Then he delved deep into the sack. There was a rustle and squawk as Robbo proudly pulled out a shiny and very much alive Black and Red Cockerel he had selected from his farm.

“Look at this” beamed Robbo. “The Aspatria Cock, just like on the club badge”. Robbo went on to reveal that he intended to let the cockerel run on to the Exeter pitch, just as the Aspatria lads ran out on to play.

“Tommy, it’ll be like the Parc des Princes” he added. “It’ll show them the real men of Cumbria, on the pitch and off it”! I don’t know if Tommy was convinced. “Hell Robbo, we can’t take that thing on the bus down to Exeter” he reasoned, “What if it wants a piss”?

“Divn’t worry Marra” replied Robbo. “It’s all tekken care of”. He tapped his nose and then with a wink he left the changing room.

County-Ground

At 3pm on Saturday, Aspatria were preparing to take the field at the County Ground, Exeter. Out of nowhere Robbo appeared with his hessian sack, for indeed Robbo’s cockerel had made it down to Devon, somehow.

“Here Petchy” shouted Robbo. Dave Petch, reserve scrum half was duly summoned. “when the lads run out, let me cock go, but mek sure you catch it afterwards”. A minute later the Black Red rugby team ran out onto the pitch, jaws set in ready concentration.

Suddenly Petchy opened the sack and away across the pitch went Robbo’s cockerel at full pelt. The crowd roared, as did Robbo and the entire Exeter team stood their open mouthed. This seemed to lift the Aspatria team.

However, for the next 15 minutes or so, few people took much interest in the game. Instead they were fascinated by the sight of Petchy chasing Robbo’s cockerel around the running track that circled the rugby pitch. Try as he might, the young scrum half just could not catch it. Eventually the cockerel tired of the game and in a flurry of flapping wings, flew over an adjacent wall and as it happened, into St Thomas’s churchyard, never to be seen again.

This is not the end of the story. For the following Christmas, a card arrived at Bower Park addressed to the rugby club. Billy Clark opened it and read it out in the changing room at training.

“Dear Friends – Thank you so much for taking me to Exeter and finding me a new home at St Thomas’s church. The vicar has been so kind to me and looks after me so very well. I just wanted to let you know that I am very happy with my new life. Happy Christmas. The Cockerel.”

Robbo’s cockerel sent a Christmas card from Exeter for the next three years running……

“THERE’S A BRAVE NEW WORLD OUT THERE”

In January 1981, the House of Lords debated The Sheep Variable Premium Order. This was a deficiencies payment designed to protect and support UK prime sheep producers by giving a guarantee price for lambs sold at the right grade.

Lord Peart of Workington said, “I take the view that this is a good bargain… It will give tremendous help to the farming community, who deserve it… some of our townspeople forget that the production of food on the hills and uplands is really a very hard job”. Earl Ferrers was in complete agreement replying, “life on the hills is a very difficult life, particularly for sheep farmers”.

The Bill passed and for many years farmers could rely on a weekly “make- up” payment. On a rising market, this was a winner. In practice at grassroots level, the young auctioneer at Lazonby, diligently chalked up the guaranteed top up payments on a blackboard, each Thursday morning so that vendors could work out the bottom line.

If he was lucky the young auctioneer got a turn in the rostrum, which was actually a tiny little wooden hut adjacent to the main office. A narrow ledge separated the auctioneer from the sale ring. it was just wide enough on which to balance the auctioneer’s book, recording vendor, number, weight, price and buyer, any of which might be referred to in case of dispute.

Decades of gavel abuse had left the surface of the ledge battered and worn. If the young auctioneer was not so lucky to sell, then the morning was spent weighing sheep on the old dialled scale, then writing the weights on a chalkboard for the boss, Norman Little, to read out to buyers.

Woe- betide the young auctioneer should he not get the blackboard washed off and turned around by the time the next lot of sheep had left the weighbridge and moved in to the ring. After selling their sheep, vendors could be seen staring at the variable premium rates, working out what the sheep would come to with the make- up payment added. Sometimes a scowl, sometimes a nod, rarely a smile, for that would never do!

Mid- winter would see frozen breath and frozen fingers, but the sale could not stop. A huge gas heater stood at the side of the ring, to enable the buyers to warm their cold wet fingers in between, touching the lambs backs. The heat did not percolate to either the auctioneer or the weigher! Lazonby Auction could be a bitterly cold place in mid- winter!

At the back of the weighbridge, worked the Meat and Livestock Commission grader. Their job was to assess the condition of the lambs individually, to ensure that they were of the right quality and level of finish, not too fat and not too thin. Graded lambs received a yellow mark meaning entitled to premium payment. Reject lambs were marked differently and were not entitled to the extra payment.

The system was further complicated by the fact that the grader also had to assess the final kill out percentage of the lamb, in other words, the amount of meat as a ratio of the total carcase weight. For the purposes of premium payment the grader would instruct the person weighing sheep to deduct an amount from the full lamb weight. Best quality lambs might only have half a kilo deducted, or less on rare occasions. Plainer quality lambs although eligible for premium, might have 2kg or even more removed. This obviously affected the bottom line for the farmer

A good grader would work well with the sheep weigher and series of finger signals would indicate the amount of weight to knock off. Farmers would try all ways to influence the grader if they disagreed with the grade or the weight deduction. Graders would never ever change their mind! Some farmers shouted, others pleaded,

“Nay nay, Jacko, hev another touch, tha’s missed it”. Or;                                                  “Haway Cloggy man, yer’ve been far ower harsh wid us”

Generally the graders were known and respected by farmers but some like old Roy Cannon from Cockermouth rather enjoyed the banter with farmers who argued with him: –

“Two off these Adam Lad”                                                                                                            “Hell Roy, you’re bloody joking! my lambs aren’t that bad”                                                        “Adam, make that two and half kilo’s off”

The young auctioneer at the start of his career had a little card at his side on the rostrum, with Penrith Auction prices  written down for different breeds and weights – as a guide. Lazonby and Penrith were run by the same company; Penrith Farmers & Kidds, but there was always competition! Norman Little would always insist that Lazonby prices should at least match and probably better Penrith prices on the monday. In those days, long before mobile phones, prices rarely moved much throughout the week, never mind the day.

Just about every one of those Lazonby buyers are now retired or have passed away, to be replaced by others for that is the circle of life, and the circle of auctions. 

Now less than 40 years on from that House of Lords debate, few politicians talk of farmers in the same revered tones. Life for hill farmers has not got any easier in many respects. It can still be lonely and perhaps even more stressful than all those years ago. For many farmers, a trip to market was the only chance to get away from the farm. Nowadays few farmers have time to stop, chat, network and relax.

Also, In real terms the lambs are cheaper, the cost of production far higher and the profit, often far less. Although 98% of households still eat red meat, and 99% purchase dairy products, we’ve lost our connect with the public and dare I say with government.

In future our industry is going to change. Public goods may be the order of the day, but we must still fight to promote the value of food production. There will be challenges but also opportunities. There won’t be any “makeup” schemes, but there will be public money to spend on the farm. The trick will be to maximise payments whilst retaining the viability and profitability of the farm business. I am pleased to say that the Farmer Network is well placed to support its members during the transition.

I am also convinced that over the years the demand for home grown food will rise, as will the public’s desire for a greener world, cleaner air, water and more wildlife. On the back of that, farmers will be able to invest more in healthier soils, greenhouse gas mitigation, innovative production methods and more.

Much as the young auctioneer (now rather older!) looks back on those Lazonby sale days with fondness, we’ve moved on. At least there are still many young auctioneers now learning the ropes in the modern era and deserving support. They may still have a strong role to play in the future.

We can’t change the rules, but we can make them work for us. One day soon, our customers will wake up and realise, just how important farmers are both to food production and to the environment. There is a brave new world out there to be had. We just have to embrace it and dare i say fight our corner. Lord Peart was right. Supporting the farming community in future, will still be “a good bargain”.

The Landscapes of Lakeland – what value?

I took this photo one afternoon from the summit of Hardknott Pass in Cumbria. In my role as a livestock auctioneer and land agent, I had spent the day visiting farms in Eskdale and other western valleys of the Lake District and i was on my way over the top, heading for Wrynose and then Kirkstone before driving home along Ullswater towards Penrith. It was a great day and i was feeling fortunate to live and work within the farming communities across Cumbria. What a commute home!

I spied her whilst i was driving. A lovely young Herdwick sheep, the indigenous breed of the Lake District. She stood there with her two front legs on a small rock and she was just watching the world go by. I could not help myself. I stopped my car and doubled bac to her. She saw me and carried on watching me intently. She seemed to be saying, “this is my world” and we stared at each other for a long time before she turned tail and ambled off down hill, in an instant lost from view. She was not frightened of me. She was at ease in her surroundings. I have sold many thousands of Herdwick sheep in my lifetime. it’s part of our culture and our heritage in these remote valleys and high, challenging fellscapes.

These sheep are heafed to the fells. They are bred to live here, attached to hills, acclimatised to them and very much part of them, as are the people that shepherd the flocks.

These green hills attract 40m visitors a year who love the landscapes as they are. Trees could not grow here but grass does. The sheep produce wool and meat and the soils store carbon. But the sheep are worth far more than that. They are a linchpin to communities, vital for so much more than just meat and wool.

Last night, to see them on a Channel 4 tv programme, plucked from a model landscape with such ease, betrays an ignorance and shows a lack of understanding and knowledge or worse still, regard for rural life, and the public benefits that sheep on the hills, cattle in the valleys and people working the land actually deliver.

That is not to say that managed landscape cannot be improved. We can make our soils better, we can improve the natural environment, create more habitats and plant many more trees in the right place but these sheep and our rural communities and what they deliver, cannot be over- valued and i hope, will never be destroyed.

Your local farmer is your friend, not your problem!

Decades ago, my Cumbrian farming grandmother would prepare for long winters by filling her ample chest freezer with home produced lamb, half a pig, and a few large beef joints. The freezer was like the Tardis in that it seemed much bigger on the inside! It also contained racks of frozen vegetables from the allotment and pies with fruit picked from the hedgerows. The blackberry pies were the best, especially on Easter Sunday! Anything bought fresh from the shops was only what was in season at the time. 
In the modern world, we now expect by right to have cheap food delivered fresh from across the world. We care little about the people producing the food and even less about the provenance, the traceability and true cost of production.
We don’t actually perceive food to be cheap, because we know nothing else. We have forgotten the true age of austerity, ration books and queuing for food, in an age when no food could be wasted. Grandmother would have baulked at the idea of throwing out perfectly good consumables. Sell by dates meant nothing to our forefathers.
Today 4 pints of whole milk can be bought in most supermarkets today for about 1.10p. Many dairy farmers will be paid less than  half of that. The product is sold for a pittance and farmers are paid a pittance. Bottles of water are sold at higher prices! How can this be? And how would we manage today if more than 30% of our weekly wage had to be spent on basic food items? This is how it was in the 1950’s.
Because food is so cheap today,  very few people outside the agriculture industry have any inkling of the systems, processes, regulations and hard work that goes into producing a pint of milk or a prime lamb. As a population, we have lost knowledge and respect for the farming industry. We don’t understand and we don’t appreciate where our food comes from, and how it is produced. The constant supply of globally  produced cheap food means that UK farmers are any easy target on climate change issues, pollution, animal welfare and just about the ills of the world. This is a  seriously misguided blame game.
In the 1950’s UK farmers were truly the housewives friend. Government policies encouraged production at all costs. The nation was hungry and in post- war crisis. These days the government will not support home food production. In fact they barely recognise it. It’s a curious thing but many members of the public believe farmers get free handouts in the form of production subsidies. The reality is that those days are long gone.  Current support payments are based on environment and conservation outputs only. The UK farmer is always at the mercy of a painfully thin market. There are no fall back measures. If the beef price drops even lower, the beef farmer has to take it on the chin. It’s the same in every sector.
So where will the food to feed the British people come from in future? The answer if we continue as we are, is an even greater reliance on imports. Frankly it is the road to disaster. Worse still it is morally and ethically challengeable. 
My heartfelt belief is that we need to grow our own food and look after our environment at the same time. These are not separate portfolio’s. This work goes together. Too many people with vested interests seek to promulgate the polarisation of farming, food production and conservation. As a nation we are now less than 60% self sufficient in food and it continues to fall by more than 1% per annum. This troubles me greatly. Sure, we are ok now. Lots of food to bring in from all over the world! But where will we be in 20 years time if this trend continues? only 40% self sufficient? desperate to secure even more food from around the world for a growing population? it is madness. We have a 25 year environment plan, but no food and farming plan. This should be one and the same.
Instead we shove it under the carpet as we focus on “saving the planet”. Of course we need to do this urgently but we also need to focus on sustainable food production to feed the human race. We cannot continue a growing trend of importing out of season, cheap food products. If we do and this is more important than supporting UK food production, then we are simply exporting our problem, sweeping it under the carpet in the name of environment and conservation. Many of us will have seen the BBC programme on global meat production this week. I believe many of the findings in that programme actually back up much of what i have discussed earlier. This is a global issue but cannot be blamed on the UK farming community. We’ve been hung out to dry by those who support and promote cheap imported food and we know fine well who they are!
Take a look at the photo above. This is how fruit and vegetables are grown in parts of Spain, much of it destined for the UK market. It is grown this way using the cheapest labour that can be found, people often working in shocking conditions. There have been tv programmes about this recently. Think of the carbon footprint and the use of plastics yet we choose to ignore it. Sweep it under the carpet- again. Cheap food for the masses, stocking the supermarket shelves! “cheap food is our right. We are entitled to it”!
Cheap food is ours by right! That’s one hell of statement, but it must be true because clearly supermarkets support this policy (just as long as their margins are maintained). Clearly the UK government supports this policy wholeheartedly. Cheap food means we have more disposable income to spend on other consumer goods and this keeps the public happy. It’s a measure of economic success to have a tv in every room and be able to eat out several times a week in fast food restaurants or via the take- away. The grim reality is that food is too cheap and we don’t deserve it by right. The grim reality is that global food systems are ensuring the planet is paying a high price, to keep food prices low. The system is broken and most of us don’t even know it. Or if we do, we lift that carpet yet again. We readily accept these global food systems whilst ignoring our own UK sustainable farming systems. We’re even allowing some sections of society to blame UK farmers for the global food production mess!
I steadfastly believe that we have to change our ways. We desperately need to invest more in home- grown food production. As a result and as a condition of this, we need to achieve better environmental goals in offering the public benefits in clean air, clean water and conservation in the natural environment. To do this our farm businesses need to viable and sustainable. The farm business is the key to all this. The government does not recognise food as a public good. Absolute madness and they are missing a huge trick.
Our mentality has to change. Food needs to be priced fairly to respect the producer and the way in which in which our food is grown. We need to return to seasonal purchasing instead of importing goods from across the world. What is the true cost of this in terms of food miles and carbon footprint? no one is saying and we’re sweeping under the carpet yet again in order to protect a 52 week food supply season. It’s easier to criticise our own farmers rather than admit the true cost of food importation.
We must invest in local markets, in other words locally produced food purchased by local people. We must reduce food waste, Millions of tonnes of the stuff, binned each year. Why does this happen? Again because its cheap and not respected and therefore neither is the producer. In fact almost 2 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK annually of which 240,000 tonnes is binned by supermarkets alone. Ask yourself why this is allowed to happen?
With education and investment we can do much better. Feed our nation more sensibly than we do now. Make the best of our natural assets to grow more food, not less! and at the same time be proud to improve our natural environment.
it’s time to big up the UK farmer, one of the best assets we have. Once again in the future the farmer will become our best friend. Start the planning now and let’s do this on our terms rather than in desperation some years down the line when we run out food and run out of ideas.
This will mean huge changes to the farming industry, new skills to learn, new technology to embrace as we seek to grow more food using less inputs. Our future farmers will be skilled food producers but they will also be upskilled conservationists. And if they are, then they must be rewarded for it. Farmers already offer a huge range of benefits to their communities and the wider public, but we’ve lost the knowledge and understanding of this, again through cheap food and a lack of education about food and farming.
We can get it back but we have to act now to protect our home- production and in doing so our natural environment. Food, farming and conservation go together side by side and it is so easy. We need a Rural Grand Plan to encompass all of this.
But don’t just take my word for it. In 2017 the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a stark warning in a report entitled “The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges.” The message was this: –
Because of a growing global population (7.3b today rising to 10b by 2050), agricultural output will need to increase by 50 percent. This needs to happen alongside the necessary steps to mitigate climate change.
This is perhaps more evidence that farming, food and conservation go together. People are now understanding the significance of climate change. Why the hell aren’t we talking about sustainable food production? All of the good conservation work will be destroyed if we start to go hungry. The bad conservation work needs to be called out for what it is. Time to end the polarisation! Bring it together….. “A Rural Grand Plan”.
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Grandmothers roast lamb dinners followed by homemade blackberry pie will never be surpassed. it’s time to re-discover her old fashioned values from a time when food was so much more important than it is now. My grandparents in their own little way were proud farmers, feeding the nation. That pride remains today within the farming industry especially among young people who are desperately keen to farm. We’re in danger of losing this in the next generation unless we start respecting, appreciating and supporting them. We’re in danger of losing far more if we continue to import cheap food from abroad, without any consideration of those production systems. You have been warned!
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Tackling flooding in Cumbria – Have we found the right solution?

It is ten years ago today since my hometown Cockermouth in Cumbria flooded to a depth of over 10 feet in areas closest to the River Derwent. As its name suggests Cockermouth lies at the confluence of the Rivers Derwent and Cocker, in an area known to be inhabited long before the Romans arrived to set up the fortified town of Derventio.

Cockermouth town centre has flooded many times in the last millennia and at least three times in the last 100 years so it is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, when the water strikes it is devastating, financially for the community and personally for many people in the lower lying areas. In 2009, unprecedented levels of  rainfall (since surpassed in 2015), had fallen over the high fells of Cumbria, cascading down the rivers, carving a trail of destruction, wiping away roads and bridges, eventually to flood the market towns of Keswick and Cockermouth. More than 900 properties and over 1400 people were affected in Cockermouth alone, as the rivers burst their banks and a creeping tide of floodwater seeped towards Main Street. Across Cumbria £276m damage occurred as a result of this event

By mid- afternoon, Thursday 19th November 2009, in continuing torrential rain, I left my place of work, Cockermouth auction mart to try and get home along the A66 towards Penrith. It was clear that this was turning into major incident. I just needed to get home knowing there were pinch points along the A66 towards Keswick where the Lake could over top the road.

As I got to Bassenthwaite Lake, the water had risen and the A66 was impassable. I did a u- turn and scooted back through Dubwath and Bassenthwaite village heading over the fell road to Caldbeck and Hesket New Market before eventually making it home an hour later. I was lucky.

In Cockermouth, Keswick and along the banks of several rivers there were scenes of devastation. A network of support groups sprang into action. Emergency services began to rescue people trapped in their homes, checking properties to ensure no one was left in danger. Drop- in centres were set up to help those whose homes were under water. Also, food banks and even clothing banks for those who left home with nothing.

It would take many months to recover and yet the local community stoically made a point of turning on some Christmas lights once the waters had receded, even though the shops were wrecked and empty. Sadly, a policeman lost his life in Workington when a major bridge collapsed. Many families were unable to return home for months, living in rented accommodation or hotels.

Research would suggest that the county lost more than £2.5m in tourist trade with nearly all businesses being affected across the county and sadly 6% of whom ceased trading. It prompted the development of a new state of the art £4.4m flood barrier system that could never be over topped. Only six years later the barrier was over topped during Storm Desmond, as new record levels of rainfall flooded Cockermouth. Many properties and much land was once again under water.

Floods in Cumbria will continue to happen. It is inevitable. But if we continue to build houses on flood plains and the government fails to invest adequately in the right flood management solutions in the right place, then we will keep letting communities down.

Currently there is a lot of talk in the media about Natural Flood Management (NFM), mainly due to the dreadful flooding in Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. After Storm Desmond many hailed NFM as the next big thing. That is slowing the flow of water higher up the catchment, reducing the pressure of flood water lower down the rivers, where bigger towns, villages and even cities tend to be situated. Some thought that this would negate the need for riverbed management or “dredging” as it is colloquially known.

Local communities were aghast. Common practice for generations had dictated that river beds close to communities would be cleaned out on a regular basis to ensure deeper river channels were not clogged up with stone, gravel and silt washed down from the upper valleys. In the river Cocker sink- holes more than 25 feet deep were routinely dug out on a 5- or 10-year cycle to act as gravel traps, slowly but surely filling up again and preventing further depositions downstream. This practice had been outlawed several years before the 2009 storm. All the bridges on the river Cocker above Cockermouth had  gradually clogged up with gravel and slate as the river ran shallower and shallower. During the 2009 storm and again in 2015, many bridges were washed away, unable to cope with the volume of water and the shallow draft of the river.

But here is the good news, “slow the flow” interventions further upstream really do work. The Farmer Network is one organisation involved in several Natural Flood Management projects in Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales. In the right setting, leaky dams, grass bunds, tree planting and a range of other solutions all work. In some areas it is appropriate to re- wet the land, in order to hold water. In other areas it would be best to keep soils better drained, aerated and dry to act as a sponge to soak up heavy rain and flood water. Some of these interventions can hold back water and are small in scale, but add together several thousand of them across a long Cumbrian catchment, and the sum of all small parts really does add up.

Inevitably the responsibility for this work falls on farmers and other land managers. It is their land that is affected and used for temporary flood water storage. This is where it gets difficult. Flood water, when it recedes, always leaves a dreadful mess, including sand, silt, gravel and all manner of detritus for the farmer to clean up. There is also the issue of crop losses and damage to the soil. This is a fantastic public service if indeed the flood measures are designed specifically to flood the land, to save more damage further downstream. Is the farmer or landowner recompensed for this? Inevitably the answer is not well enough.

There have also been serious difficulties for farmers in getting permission to clear the damage and try to reinstate then land to full production. Frankly there have been too many organisations with interests in catchment management all with an opinion, when clearly the right solution would be to have one managing organisation effectively bring catchment management together and able support those affected by the floods. The situation as seen in 2009 when a landowner had several different organisations telling him what he could not do, and not a single body able to make a decision as to what he could do, to repair his land, must never be allowed to happen again. Repair and recovery needs to be managed swiftly with decision making at a local rather than national level and in a spirit of cooperation.

Let’s get back to dredging ( i do detest that word). There are many locations where engineered solutions and riverbed management can be vital and this work is being done in Cumbria to a limited but effective degree especially since Storm Desmond in 2015. It creates much angst for environmentalists who hate the thought of the riverbed environment and habitats being disturbed. It is also undoubtedly costly to perform. In the past it has been allowed only under licence, which is prohibitively expensive, and certainly not encouraged by government. Yet under pressure from flood affected communities and farmers, it has been allowed and it has been effective in Cumbria.

The unequivocal message is that any flood management solution is only effective if installed and performed in the right place. After the flurry of publicity regarding NFM following Storm Desmond, we are now beginning to see a more balanced view, although others may argue differently.

A one size flood management system does not fit all, and anyone suggesting this is sadly misguided or pursuing their own agenda. This includes those who talk of widespread afforestation, re- wilding and getting rid of Cumbria’s hill sheep as a flood management solution. Absolute rubbish.There are numerous options to combat floodwater all with merit, but only in the right location.

Following Storm Desmond Cumbria Strategic Flood Partnership was created to bring together all groups with an interest or indeed an interest in combating flooding in Cumbria. It has designed a flood hub, including a website to detail schemes, surveys and policies that are being developed within the county. However, to give CSFP a fighting chance, in future there needs to be a change in mindset at Government level, much more investment and more community engagement, the full length of Cumbria’s catchments. The key in all of this is to ensure that whatever the planned solution, it must be joined up with others and not created in isolation. There is a lot of work still do with limited resources. 

Underpinning all of this is the need to ensure that we have healthy, well- managed rivers, productive catchment areas, and the right flood management solutions, in the right places, all working together. It can be done but is only achievable with the benefit of investment, knowledge, education and cooperation.

Failing that, our future choices may be limited to living higher up the hill and away from the flood plain. Having a home full of dirty water is a nightmare. Having it happen on a regular basis or simply waiting for the next time, must be an unimaginable stress. There are communities in Cumbria constantly living with this pressure. Storm Desmond in 2015 repeated the devastation to an even greater degree. It is clear that we need to do much more.

WHEN YOU’RE BEASTED IN THE SCRUM – “TAKE IT LIKE A MAN”

Last Saturday, I like many watched in dismay as England were beaten in the rugby world cup final. South Africa were big, strong and dominant in the set piece. It was a shock to see the England scrum going backwards to be penalised six times. I also watched as our tight- head Dan Cole was twice lifted upwards, illegally I would suggest. These days referees favour the team going forwards and it would have taken a brave and educated man to make the reverse call against the Springboks.

I have been annoyed by some of the criticism on social media from friends purporting to be scrummaging experts. In reality few will have experienced any form of competitive scrummaging and certainly not in the front row. I thought Dan Cole made a heroic effort having to play 78 minutes with no back up, He had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. The scrum is a lonely place when you are under pressure and being beasted. You have to take it like a man and battle for all your worth. A proud prop never ever gives in, right to the death. Dan Cole did this in the world cup final.

AS an ex- tight head prop forward saluting Dan Cole’s huge effort, I thought I might try to explain exactly what it feels like as a prop forward when you are being beaten up by a technically proficient and far better opposition loosehead. Only once in my entire career as a prop forward was I ever in this position. It was in National league 3 playing at home for Aspatria against Plymouth in 1994. I should say that the scrummaging laws were different in those days, but the principles remain. Here’s what happened: –

It is a blustery day at Bower Park, Aspatria. We’re mid- table and entertaining Plymouth. I’m now a first team regular at tight head prop. This is my second season with the club and my second season as a front row forward. I’m certainly no great scrummager but I get by with the support of a massively strong pack of forwards. I try very hard to make up for my lack of technical proficiency by running with the ball and playing like another back row forward. I can only get away with this since the scrummage laws have tightened up. Your head must not dip below your hips meaning in theory the scrum should not collapse. Scrums still collapse!

I must admit that I don’t run too hard for the first five minutes of any game. I do not want to be blowing hard at the first scrum. I want to hit hard and establish my platform for the afternoon. Being inexperienced I need to get the first one out of the way and gain some confidence. I still worry a lot about this before games. I don’t believe I am good enough.

The Plymouth loosehead looks a big strong guy, and he is. It is their put- in at the first scrum. I charge in trying hit as hard as I can. He doesn’t take a backward step. I try to exert some pressure with my right arm by squeezing my elbow down over his left arm. I often have some success with this move. On this occasion I can’t move his elbow one inch. Not a good start. Alarm bells.

As their scrum half prepares to put the ball in, I go for a big downwards dip to try and stop their hooker from striking cleanly for the ball. My prop immediately collapses and as I am pushing downwards, I face plant hard on to the grass. It hurts – “bastard”.

We reset. This time I am wary of driving downwards at the hit, so I try and hit upwards. He seems to anticipate this and as we engage, he tries and succeeds to pull me down rather than I push him. For a second time, I try to drive up, but nothing happens. I can’t move him. They heel the ball and the scrum breaks up.

Next time we meet it is our put- in to the scrum. We engage in a thumping hit. Now I need to stay strong, but this guy is altering his body position constantly. Little shoulder drops, hip drives, changing the position of his head. I push down hard and clamp my right arm inwards to try and bend him. He responds by immediately dropping his body position. I feel like he might collapse the scrum and we are actually slightly going backwards so I don’t want to give a penalty, I then drive upwards and in doing so move my right leg forward, Immediately he has a window of opportunity and he too drives up. He nearly lifts me off the floor. I’ve never yet been airborne. I survive – just. Hell, this guy is making me uncomfortable. I’m definitely on the back foot and not enjoying this one bit.

At the remaining scrums in the first half I am decidedly under pressure. He never lets me get comfortable. In one scrum as I clamp with my right arm for all I am worth, trying to twist him. He simply lifts his own elbow below mine and raises my right arm up, relieving all the pressure I have been trying to bear. No one has ever done that to me before. Fuck me this guy strong, too strong. In fact, I’m in trouble.

At the next scrum I look him the face. Is he laughing at me? Nothing, no reaction, no acknowledgement. He is cool, calm and thoroughly professional. He knows he has the ascendency and he is in control. Just doing his job.

In the second half my losing battle continues. I’ve got my “sit on the right knee” get out of jail card that Syd Graham taught me. We engage and he sees me bring my right knee forward. Before I can get my shoulder on to it, he drives up and lifts me. Jesus, I can’t even get down to my knee, then he changes the angle and he is pushing straight and I’m going backwards in short steps. This is a bad scrum.

Our hooker Nigel Brown is annoyed “stop fucking paddling” he shouts as we break up. There isn’t much I can do. I’m being beaten by a much better prop. I need to run around with the ball and show what I can do. The problem this battling in the scrum has taken it out of my legs. I haven’t much energy to get on to the ball. I’m just running from scrum battle to scrum. We’re not losing them against the head, so technically I’m still doing my job but it’s hurting. I’m lucky to have Nigel up to his usual box of tricks. He’s negating their hooker, but he can’t do anything about my prop.

We’re in enemy territory, mid field between their 10m and 22m line. It’s our scrum put- in and we have a back row move called. Tank Richardson our powerhouse No 8 and captain is going to pick up from the scrum and there is a fancy run around involving our young flanker Mike Tinnion and Scrum half Graham Campbell. I know the back row are not going to be pushing that hard in the scrum because of the planned move. I urge our other flanker Martin Maughan who is pushing on me, to give it all he has got. I’ve also got the legendary Fred Story behind me in the second row. Despite is age and lack of fitness he is the strongest second row scrummager I have ever played with. He has bony shoulders and I have a bony arse which is often bruised after games because Fred pushes so hard.

We engage and there is a quick feed from Graham and lightning strike from Nigel. We have won the ball, but Plymouth instigate a huge secondary surge. I sink my hips down desperate to keep a straight back. The straight back is everything here, I must stay strong and ride out the pressure. The ball is stuck between Fred’s feet, but he is pushing behind me for all he is worth. He doesn’t yield an inch. Sadly, I am starting to yield. Fred is starting to lift my feet off the ground and my opposition prop has worked his head underneath my chest. It is slow motion but slowly I become airborne. My back is still straight, but my feet are at least two feet off the ground. My neck is still bound into the scrum and the pressure is enormous. I’m holding my prop in the scrum with everything I’ve got. I mustn’t let my head pop out. I feel like I want to scream loudly but can’t.

“Ease off Fred” I groan. “put me down” But he doesn’t. in fact, he pushes harder. It feels like an hour goes by as I am stuck in mid-air being concertinaed with my feet dangling. Eventually Tank manages to drag the ball back, the planned move is executed to perfection and we score a wonderful try in the right-hand corner which I don’t see at all. The Bower Park crowd goes wild.

I am now on terra- ferma and walking back to the halfway line with big Fred.

“Fucking hell Fred why didn’t you ease off”. Fred laughs at me,

“Sometimes Adam Lad, you’ve just got to take it like a man”.

Later in the changing room the banter starts. Lots of pig squealing noises. My teammates are letting me know that I am now officially a member of the Flying Pig Club. I’m more bothered by the fact that my opposition prop totally destroyed me. Had me beaten all ends up. I know I tried my best and never gave up in any scrum. I know I did take it like a man and would have battled all day and night if I had to, because that is the pride a prop forward must have. “You can beat me, but you will never beat me” is the attitude all props carry with them.

Now I have even greater doubts about my own ability. What if this starts to happen to me on a regular basis? What if I’m shown up for what I really am, a back-rower masquerading as a prop? Thoughts of comments made to me by many people keep ringing in my ears. “You’ll never make a prop”.

Despite the win I’m not in good spirits. On Monday evening on ITV Border news rugby round up. The opening credits feature that scrum with me in flying pig mode as Aspatria score the wonder- try. The clip is repeated twice more. I am so embarrassed, especially as the good- natured banter continues at training later in the week.

On Friday afternoon we are on our way down to the South to play another league game. Our coach Tommy Borthwick decides to put on the video of the whole Plymouth game. I hunker down for a long 80 minutes watching myself being obliterated in the scrum. On the screen it doesn’t look as bad as it felt at the time and I see a couple of opportunities for things I might have tried.

Later we’re at that point of the game where we score and course I’m up in the air. Again, there is a chorus of pig squeals and I have no choice but to laugh and shrug my shoulders. You are only as good as your last game. Despite my fears, in the next game I end up playing loose head prop for the first and only time for Aspatria. I did quite well and had the better of my prop. Who knew that could happen? It just goes to show, every game and every prop is different. You have to put the bad days at the office behind you and know that there will be games in future when the boot is on the other foot and you are the one inflicting pain.

As Fred Story rightly said, “Sometimes Adam Lad, you’ve just got to take it like a man”. As for the flying pig scenario. That game against Plymouth was the only time in my whole career as prop forward over many seasons that I was ever lifted off the ground. Never again was I forced to endure the pig squeals. I wish I had known that would be the case back in 1993!

TROUTBECK MART – THE END OF AN ERA

An abridged version of this piece was published in the Cumberland News last week. My recollections of Troutbeck Mart and the pressure on markets in the modern era.

 On a cold December afternoon in 1990, on a remote hillside a few miles to the West of Penrith, the final winter sale of store sheep was taking place at Troutbeck auction mart. It was around 3pm and the day was darkening fast. The little market stood next to Troutbeck Inn where farmers, buyers and auctioneers could refresh themselves before, during and after a sale. On sale days for well over 100 years, the Inn had been a hive of activity and laughter with the clink of farmer’s beer glasses and the heavy drop of domino on polished wooden tables. This was as much part of the auction day as the sale itself. The mart came alive in the early summer months when after long winters and hard springs, ewes with lambs at foot were brought for sale. Then later through the Autumn months, the breeding sheep and store sales brought ever more farmers and sheep to market.

On a clear day from the market pens you could look west to see the crag rats scaling Sharp Edge on Blencathra or Saddleback as the locals know it. Further down the valley past Keswick you could see the Grasmoor range with the long ridge path ascending Grisedale Pike. To the South immediately behind the auction was the distinctive dome of Little Melfell. Beyond that the northern fells of the Helvellyn range culminating in the smooth slope of Clough Head as it falls towards Threlkeld. Every hill farmer will claim he lives and works in “God’s Country”. The farmers of the Northern Lake District would be no different. Often sheep sold through Troutbeck were in view of their native breeding grounds.

Many thousands of sheep from local farms were walked to market over the generations. The farmers children were part of the droving team stationed along the route to turn the sheep or “send them on”. Sometimes as many as 16 flocks could converge at Troutbeck, all at the same time. Then it was a case of “catch as catch can” to see who got to the gate first.

Later the sold sheep left the market to be transported by wagon or steam train to new homes throughout the country for the market was built just above the railway line. One could imagine the old train puffing to a halt at the station to collect the sheep and deliver them to faraway places. In the modern era auctioneers would be calling out the names of local buyers as well those from much further afield, Jones. Edwards, Davies and more. Throughout the evening a hardy band of drovers and an odd young auctioneer would work by flashlight to gather sheep from the pens and drive them up to the loading docks, helping farmers and hauliers to get on their way as quickly as possible.

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     The young auctioneer opening the gate at Troutbeck alongside local buyer                                                                      Jared Faulder in 1988.

In years gone by at the end of a sale day, a curtain would be drawn around the ring and a band of fiddle players, accordionists and percussionists would strike up. One can imagine the laughter, whooping and clapping into the early hours, as the congregation of farmers and their families danced the night away, jigging and reeling on the smooth cobbled sale ring floor.

Perhaps they would be thankful that another season was over, the auction cheque could be banked, and this would tide them over the long winter. The farmers would go home to tend cattle, mend fences and gap their walls whilst the sheep were tupped and sent back to the fell. A lonely and remote existence in those days for sure.

Each family would look forward to the first sign of spring, the melting of the snow and the bleat of the lamb. The cycle of nature would begin again. More than a job, simply a way of life, a tradition encompassing skills and knowledge that is in- bred more than taught.

The Sale ring was nothing but an old tin hut of circular construction. The ring had a few rickety bench seats around the edges, but many buyers just stood in the ring where it was usually warmest, steam rising from the backs of sheep on frosty mornings. The ring floor was made of sandstone cobbles with some ineffective drainage channels. The Auctioneer sat in a tiny pulpit within the ring, just in front of the office. He folded a hinged piece of wood down in order to sit on it. From there the sale was conducted without microphones or computers for that matter. Just the auctioneer’s book in which all sales details were recorded in the event of a dispute.

The sales leger, all buyer’s bills and seller statements were hand- written in slick and time- honoured fashion. Columns of copper plate, legered figures could be added up in seconds by experienced clerks without the benefit or even need of a calculator. In all these tasks there was a pride borne of long apprenticeships and strict tutoring. I, as a young, trainee auctioneer had to learn the basics and if not opening the gate for hour on end, then I too had to do my stint on the clerking team, chastised should my writing be to scruffy.

It was said that in the old days some auctioneers would visit Troutbeck pub before the sale and imbibe a dram or two to get them warmed up. Many years ago one auctioneer allegedly got rather too warmed up and fell head- first out of the rostrum while leaning forward to encourage a final bid. Calmly and with some panache, he dusted himself down, climbed back into the box and with a flourish, brought the hammer down to complete the sale.

There was a strip light in the ring which fizzed when it rained. One year during an Autumn sale it rained so hard that the pens above the mart flooded and torrents of water flowed right through the ring and out the other side. The sale continued for nothing could stop a Troutbeck sale or so we thought!

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Peter Searjeant in the rostrum.

Now in December 1990, Peter Sarjeant was calling to me to the rostrum from which he had shouted forth for most of the afternoon. “Old Sarj” loved Troutbeck Auction. It was his market. He had sold there for most of his working life, learning the clerking jobs and then progressing finally to the rostrum. He knew every generation of farmer in that market, every buyer and probably their fathers before them. “Sarj” was Troutbeck Auction.

“Reet Day you can finish off” he said in his deep, gruff, auction- worn voice. With that he stiffly climbed down and I jumped up. The lambs were the tail end of the crop. The smallest and plainest, left until the very last sale. Little Herdwick and Swaledale wether lambs worth little more than £10 each were gobbled up by willing buyers. For the smallest lambs can often make the best return. I was taught at an early age that in farming terms, pride does not always equal profit.

By a quarter to four my job was done, the sale was over, and I too climbed down from the rostrum with numb fingers and toes for the afternoon temperature had fallen considerably.

Later, we turned off the fizzing light, padlocked the doors and left the pitch- black interior of the sale ring for the final time that year. A few of us went to the pub and had a pint and a game of bar billiards. I was designated driver and drove Old Sarj home after a whisky or two for him. It was a role he had undertaken many times all those years ago as a “junior”, now I was apprentice to the master.

What none of us knew then was that this would be the last ever sale at Troutbeck. Due to increasing rules, regulations and fears over pollution from the sheep pens, the market could not carry on. In January 1991, the auction company announced that Troutbeck mart has closed its doors for the last time. The little tin hut would be silent for evermore, the farmers and the sheep gone for good. The Cumberland and Westmorland Herald called it “the end of an era”. The Troutbeck sales would continue but now in the modern confines of then new market at Penrith.

All that would be left were the memories of the auctioneers, Peter Sarjeant and his predecessors, Jack Thorburn and Jack Proctor who would beat his hazel stick against the auctioneer’s pulpit. Also, the Kidd family and the Thompson’s. Who could forget Mrs Mitchinson’s tea dinners in the austere war years when sugar was rationed? Woe betide the young farm boys who had more than a sniff at the sugar bowl.

Understandably local farmers were upset and disappointed. Local farmer Wilson Titterington spoke for many when he said “The biggest tragedy is that for generations buyers have come to Troutbeck to buy Troutbeck sheep but now the sales will no longer be just Troutbeck sheep. The local farming community felt like it was losing some if its identity.

Wils Titterington carried on saying, “I suppose you can’t stop what is supposed to be the march of time”. Prophetic words. Every time an auction closes and there have been many in recent years, farmers wring their hands and beat their chests. The reality is that in the last thirty years the pressure on livestock markets has ramped up, driven by regulation and an ever-decreasing pool of meat companies. The big buyers get bigger and with it, more powerful.

The little marts and the little abattoirs have slowly but surely been disappearing. It would be a great shame if the rise of bespoke collection centres and increasing deadweight sales forced more closures in future, or even Worse! This is not increasing competition in the industry it is dividing and conquering the farming community. How many farmers supporting a deadweight collection centre try and haggle? The competitive bidding within the mart system is under threat. Frankly it is a good job we have willing buyers for a growing and vibrant ethnic market for sheep meat, many of them thrive in the mart system.

Without the competition of marts, farmers will be nothing but price takers. Should the last hammer in the last market finally fall, it will be the end of another era and with it the last of the price makers but “I suppose you can’t stop what is supposed to be the march of time” ………

This would be such a shame as marts are so much more than sales centres in the modern age. Let’s look a few years down the line. Much as I would like to see it, sadly I don’t think we are going to persuade all farmers to use their local live market exclusively, but is there a way to combat an anti – competitive deadweight system?

What if all Cumbrian marts tried to work together selling a new brand, “Cumbria lamb”. A single farmer selling twenty prime lambs in any given week, has little or no bargaining power. But if they were part of a bigger group of farmers selling 2,000 lambs, all correctly drawn and graded! Now wouldn’t that give the farmer some elbow- power?

United Auctions of Cumbria anybody??????? No, I can’t see it happening either! However the reality is that primestock marketing through the auction ring has never been under so much pressure. It begs the question to all farmers, “How important is the auction mart you and your business”? 

Old Sarj was a good mentor. He gave me two great pieces of advice which I always stuck to: – “Remember you only work for the man selling in the ring”. Then one day up in the sheep pens at Troutbeck he said, “you must treat all farmers alike whether they have 5 sheep or 5,000”. Wise words that any young auctioneer should heed, for the success of any auction is based on many farmers selling small amounts of livestock on a regular basis.

Sadly, some years later it dawned on me that I was the last auctioneer to sell at that little tin hut called Troutbeck. Like most marts, Troutbeck was an auction, a meeting place and a collection centre for both people and livestock. I was privileged to have been one of a small band of auctioneers that graced the pulpit.

On that cold December day had Peter Sarjeant known that it was to be the last sale, I’m sure he would have continued to sell to the bitter end and still enjoyed a pint or two afterwards, probably with many local farmers who never got to properly say goodbye to Troutbeck. I for one cannot help but think that it would have been the most fitting finale.

derelict Troutbeck Auction ring.

      All that is left of Troutbeck Mart sale ring, almost thirty years after it closed.

THE SUMMER OF ’86……

This article featured in the Cumberland News during July 2019. Thirty years gone in the blink of any eye. But how will be farming and feeding the nation in another thirty years?

At the end of my second year at the Royal Agricultural College, I worked for a young arable farmer called Bob Burdon. His small family farm was located on the perimeter of Kemble Airfield, a few miles south of Cirencester. It was an alien world for a boy from Cumbria. Thin Cotswold brash, more rock than soil. Fields of swaying, ripening barley baked in the hot summer sun and a few moderate Heinz 57 bred sheep to eat the rotational grass. There were few fences and I often wandered the airfield in search of sheep. No one seemed to mind!

Bob and I dipped the sheep with Chris De Berg blasting out “Lady in Red” over the radio. Then a battle damaged USAAF A10 “Warthog” aeroplane flew low over the farm trying to get back to the airfield where they were stationed. It might have been returning from a raid on Libya, for that and Chernobyl were the two crises of the summer.

“See that plane” I said to Bob, “it is built to withstand 70% damage and keep flying”.

“You’ll be withstanding 70% damage if you don’t dip those heads” he replied with a thick west- country burr. It was so hot the Ministry man who had come to inspect us downed tools. He went home promising to come back at 6 o clock as the evening cooled. By the time he did, we had finished the sheep and moved on to the Combine. We didn’t get in to trouble. These were more pragmatic times. Life seemed somehow easier.

Day after day I carted corn, operated an unfathomable grain dryer and after harvest bounced around on a tractor pulling a plough or harrows. I set fire to fields of stubble including a hairy moment when in a field next to the ancient Fosse Way, the wind changed and I had to get my tractor off the field rather sharpish. Wouldn’t that have been a moment? “Sorry Bob, I torched the tractor”……

I worked throughout the summer with only two wet days off and made enough money to make my final year at college more comfortable. It was a long monotonous summer and it made me realise my heart and my future remained up North, where the grass was greener, the weather rather wetter and the sheep far better!

The hot summer of 86 is now thirty three years distant. Gone in the blink of an eye. The total UK population was 56M people. Today it is 66M. In another 33 years- time the UK population is forecast to be the largest population in Europe at over 75M. Whichever way you look at it, we are going to need more fields of golden barley, more sheep, in fact more of everything. This is one half of the coin. On the flip side, we have to look after our planet far better than we have in the past. Unlike the A10 Warthog, Planet Earth cannot withstand 70% damage and keep flying.

Now more than ever we need a Rural Grand Plan. Farming, food and conservation must work side by side in one sustainable and viable business. Without this, we will be, to quote another 1986 classic, “living on a prayer”…….

 

FROM CAMBRIDGE TO CUMBRIA.

A Cumbrian farm visit for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Amid the clatter of stone on stone, I took a deep breath and surveyed the scene across the upper reaches of the Ullswater Valley in Cumbria. 150 years ago my forefathers were engaged in hewering iron ore from the deep depths of the Helvellyn range. My maternal Grandfather X4, William Jackson, owned the contract or “bargain” which from the 1860’s allowed him, followed by four sons, to spend several years breaking through from Glencoynedale to Greenside Lead Mine in pursuit of the grey gold. You simply cannot imagine their working life in those conditions as they trudged up the miners trod from their home at Seldom Scene six days a week.

I was pondering my local family heritage as I watched William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge   gap- up a dry stone wall above Deepdale Hall, Patterdale. It was a rather surreal situation. I offered His Royal Highness a pair of work gloves but he politely declined. That being the case and not to be outdone, the Duchess also declined the offer of gloves.

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As they set about their task, the farmer, Jimmy Brown was telling them that the walls on his farm were over 250 years old. This was part of his heritage and they weren’t going to be allowed to fall down on his watch. He does this work with pride to enclose and protect his sheep. However the general public, walking the many miles of footpaths that cross the farm, gets the benefit of this landscape free of charge.

It is truly a working landscape and it is is free for everyone to enjoy. For Jimmy, this work is unpaid and an on-cost to the farm business. It is simply part of his life and the traditional way in which farms are maintained. Jimmy and many more farmers get little recognition for the work they do. As we talk of placing a value on the natural capital of beautiful areas like the Lake District, what value do we place on our people and our communities? What is our cultural worth and how do we define it?

Heritage is a current buzzword in Cumbria. Whilst few families can compete with the documented history of the royal family, those of us accompanying the royal couple were struck by their knowledge and understanding of rural life, farming issues and the importance of farmers to local communities.

Taking part in a Royal Visit was a huge honour that I shared with a number of farmers from all over Cumbria. Inside Deepdale Hall farmhouse kitchen,  we were struck by their easy- going nature as we took tea and cake whilst having a chat. They genuinely appeared to be having fun with us on the day. The huge media presence and a blur of whirring cameras and TV lights did not detract. In fact it gave many of us the chance to give a positive spin on Cumbrian farming and also raise some of the many concerns.

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Jim Cockbain talked of how he engages with tourists on a daily basis, explaining what he does to build understanding about sheep farming in the hills above Keswick. Many visitors to Rakefoot have little or no understanding of sheep production or the life of a working shepherd. Jim can often dispel many of the falsehoods perpetuated by certain anti- farming groups or others who would seek to reduce sheep from the hills yet further. 

Young couple, Jack and Rachel Cartmel discussed their difficulties in securing a viable tenancy in Martindale, to enable them to farm together and simply make a living. These days it is so difficult for young people to get a foot on the farming ladder. Despite coming from strong farming backgrounds, in order to simply make ends meet and pay the rent, both Jack and Rachel have other jobs as well. Rachel is a sheep dog trainer and runs the farm bed and breakfast business. Jack is a professional sheep shearer, clipping thousands of sheep for many farmers, throughout the summer season. His expert guidance ensured that the William and Kate did not put a foot wrong when clipping some Deepdale Hall Herdwicks. The Duchess stuck to her task with much determination when the young sheep which had not previously been shorn, started to kick. This caused some merriment for William and clearly they are a quietly competitive couple!

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Sam Rawling raised fears of future agricultural policies and the pressure of not wanting to be the first to fail in a 500 year old family farming tree in Ennerdale. He is forceful in his belief that Farmers who voted for Brexit may have committed a huge mistake. No one knows for sure and therein is the uncertainty for all farmers at this time. 

Mary Bell talked about her 40 year career in Patterdale, producing and promoting wool based products, to add value to what is now a loss- leading commodity to many farmers. Mary wants more commitment in trying to raise the profile of wool and thereby the price. In times gone by an annual wool cheque could pay the farm rent or even buy a tractor. Nowadays, sheep shearing is a huge cost to the farmer, the excercise only performed for the health and wellbeing of the sheep. There will be little payment for the wool from Deepdale Hall, being dense and thick fleeces from one of the hardiest of hill breeds.

Danny Teasdale spoke with passion about embracing farming with conservation, side by side in the Ullswater catchment, rather than the polarised views which too often grab the headlines. These hills and valleys are not for blanket re- wilding but can be farmed and conserved in equal measure with the right support and policies. With all the talk of climate change and greenhouse gases, perhaps extensively managed farms like Deepdale Hall actually store much more carbon than they produce. If this is true then it will fly in the face of those who constantly seek to do down the farming industry. This must also have a value and gain some recognition. 

All the while the Duke and Duchess, listened, questioned and commented. At the end of the visit when the goodbyes were said and the royal procession took off down the dusty track (it didn’t rain all day!), we were left in no doubt that our future king understands who we are and what we do. Farmers are one of the greatest public goods of all and we need to shout louder. What a great afternoon!

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