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……

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.