Best in show – “The Judge is always right”!

Some farmers and also some auctioneers thrive in the show ring. That is acting as the master Judge, picking out a class winner or indeed an overall champion from a ring full of cattle and sheep. Many times in my career I have had the honour of being asked to judge livestock at agricultural shows throughout Cumbria. My preference was always to say no. Despite being an experienced auctioneer, the thought of putting myself up for even more criticism than usual from farmers was never that appealing.

How many times have we heard farmers with loud voices talking in the local vernacular around a show ring; “See yon Judge theer, he’s got that wrang he has. Ah would nivver hev given it to that owd yow. He’s wrang thoo nas, he’s wrang and that’s aw there is till it……”

Working on the premise that the Judge is always right, it should never have bothered me but hiding behind the excuse that I didn’t want to upset a potential auction customer, I always politely refused. Later in my career however I began to realise that the older I got, perhaps less chances I would have to do some show judging. Knowing as many farmers as I do, I thought I should perhaps start to do my bit and prove that I had learned something over the years.

As it happened the very next judging invitation came from an old friend, Richard Vickers, of Loweswater Show. Technically Loweswater was always my local show. Having been brought up in a little hamlet called High Mosser, on the most Northerly slopes of the North West fells, a short walk over the hill behind our farmhouse brought us down the steep fell road to Loweswater Lake.  Golden summer nights were spent swimming in Loweswater Lake beneath the wooded slopes of Burnbank Fell as the sun descended over Graythwaite Heights.

Loweswater show was the only show that as children, me and my sisters were allowed a day off school to attend. Indeed one year I managed to win the local boys under 14 Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling class, before being destroyed in the open U14 class by Dave Kirkby, a farmer’s son from Egremont. He was a highly skilled, experienced wrestler, strong as an Ox who simply squeezed me in to his chest picked me up off the ground and with my legs paddling in thin air, gently laid me on my back on to the ground. That was the end of my wrestling career!

During the many years working at Cockermouth Auction every single farmer in the parish was known to me, many but not all, becoming friends. Richard Vickers was an old pal from school days. He was truly a “Loweswaterite”, growing up at Askhill farm at the Western end of the Lake. As well as farming with his father Willie, he also worked for a few years at the old market in Cockermouth on leaving school. Then he set up a small contracting business which included cutting all the hedges around my father’s land. Later he was to build his own farmhouse and buildings at Mosser Heights which rose up and over the hill to almost join with his father farm in the Loweswater valley.

Richard called to offer an invitation from Loweswater Show committee to act as the master judge to pick the overall champion or best sheep in the show. I was about to give my usual apologies when I realised that this was a real honour and I may never get the chance again to judge at my local show. I had to say yes. The thought of standing in the show field to the south of Lorton Village almost in the shadow of the famous fells of Grasmoor and Whiteside, with Melbreak just to the south, was at the time, quite appealing.

Agricultural shows are a part of the fabric of rural life. They are celebration of all that is good in local communities. It is a chance to showcase the very best livestock, perhaps with a view to selling in the auctions later in the year. Shows are about people. It is as much about socialising as it is about business. Old friends meet up, stories are shared and there is always a happy atmosphere. The commentator drones over the tannoy, reading class results, calling competitors and sometimes just recounting a funny tale. In valley shows like Loweswater, the tannoy can echo and be heard as clear as a bell on fell tops. It is strangely comforting. Without the farming community, all of these shows would simply disappear and to a large extent so would many of the communities. That is why agricultural shows are so important and why so many people work on committee’s to ensure the shows take place. It has been done this way for generations. It is a wonderful custom and very much part of Lakeland’s heritage.

Before I knew it I was actually there on a bright sunny Sunday morning during the first week in September. The view of the fells was quite spectacular but no time to dwell, I was there to do a job. As I arrived, the judging of various breed classes was in full swing. I decided to keep myself at a distance, close enough to see what was going on, but far enough away to remain uninfluenced by the farmers discussions or indeed judging criticisms.

The craic was good with lots of banter among friends and soon the tannoy was bursting in to life again.  “Would our master sheep judge Adam Day make his way to the show ring please”. A quick hop over the pens and I was right there in the thick of it.

In front of me stood the breed winners from all the previous classes. These were the sheep that in the opinion of their own judges were the breed champions on the field that day. My job was to pick the champion of champions, the best sheep on the field!

There were several sheep of all breeds in the line-up. Slowly and methodically I worked my way along the line. Every shepherd was known to me. They are trained how to handle and show sheep from the moment they can walk. There is a huge skill in breeding these quality sheep, in other words putting the right tup on to the right female sheep to produce a top quality lamb. The shepherds have an honest eye for the best traits in both the ram and ewe. In their minds they see what they hope will be the perfect match to produce a sheep of showing potential.

The shepherds are also taught how to present the sheep to best advantage at show time. Each one is washed, dipped and crimped to perfection to highlight best features and perhaps even to disguise an odd gentle fault. This is a skill akin to any beautician or hair stylist trying to make the most of their clients attributes.

When showing, the shepherds are taught to watch the judge at all times, make sure the sheep is standing perfectly with four square legs under the body and a high head carriage to show off a straight back or top line. As a judge you can feel the eyes watching your every move as you proceed along the line. Each sheep that I came to needed a soft steady appraisal, looking from the back, side and front. Then a closer inspection, a quick look or feel along the sheep’s teeth. The mouth should be correct, the teeth, neither over- shot nor under shot. Then a firm pressure along the back to judge the amount of muscle, the width across the loin and on down to the hind legs. These are the basic requirements of all sheep breeds, good strong head, correct in the mouth and square in the leg.

Each breed also has different characteristics which are important to them. The lowland breeds producing the very best quality butchers lambs need lots of muscle and a good coverage of meat on the carcase though not too fat because that is not what the modern housewife likes to buy or cook. The hill breeds need to be strong in the leg and tight- woolled to keep out the rain in the winter months as they graze the high fells. There are also breed trends in terms of colouring on the legs, the fleece and even the hair on the faces.

Soon I had reached the end of the line. I immediately picked out two special sheep that I knew in my own mind would be champion and reserve, but which one?  The words of one of my old auctioneering mentors Peter Sarjeant came back to me. “If in doubt, stick to your first instinct, it is usually the right one”. But there is a protocol to be followed and that is to ask the shepherds to “lowse” the sheep, meaning let them go. All of the sheep ran together and huddled in the corner of the pen, here I was able to judge different sheep side by side, trying to pick out why one sheep was better than the other. Nothing changed my mind from my first viewing and now we were down the nitty gritty on judgement day.

The sheep were “gathered up” again, each shepherd generously helping all the others, as there is always camaraderie and respect in the sheep show ring. It was time for a last look, a scratch of the chin, a final glance and short walk and a gentle pat on the rump of my champion pick. This I followed with a hand shake and a respectful kiss on the cheek for Barbara Stagg, the owner of the Herdwick Twinter. Also a handshake for her partner Andrew who was holding the sheep.  The crowd of farmers and show visitors clapped respectfully as I congratulated them with a few words of praise for their lovely sheep. I have known Barbara for many years and her father and grandfather too. In fact, many, many years ago, her grandfather Gordon Stagg from Croft House Farm, Buttermere was the first Herdwick Breeder to sell a tup for 100 guineas!

Quickly I moved over to my reserve champion, a tap on the rump of the Swaledale ewe and a shake of the hand (no kiss) for The Gill family from Newlands near Caldbeck having originally farmed in Loweswater. Two outstanding sheep, the young, previously un- shown Herdwick and the older Swaledale ewe that had delivered much success in the show ring in recent years. So why the Herdwick? Well she was so clearly an outstanding girl, the muscle and power meant she was solid as a rock to handle. She had a beautiful head and very strong legs, with a tight brown fleece that will lighten in colour as she ages. My instinct was always to pick her. Thankfully a few other knowledgeable farmers told me they couldn’t have gone past her either. When Arnold Lancaster from Torver thumps you on the back says and says you haven’t done so badly, then you know you’ve got it right. Had I not then he would soon have told me. Only at that point did I begin to relax a little!

With the judging completed it was time to enjoy the show, have some lunch in the catering tent enjoying good banter with some of the sheep breed judges as to why I didn’t pick their sheep! Then a final look around the show field before setting sail for home.

As I pulled away from the show field I took a last look down the Lorton Vale, past Melbreak and on to The Buttermere Fells, Red Pike and High Style. It is quite simply a beautiful landscape, created by sheep, managed and conserved by shepherds and enjoyed by so many people who visit and admire our county. These are my fells, my farmers and my friends. I have enjoyed working for this community very much over the years, every farm visit a pleasure, actually being paid to drive through and work in these Lakeland valleys. Driving my car over Whinlatter Pass heading for home I felt contented, honoured and proud. I’ve had a good working life as a Lakeland Auctioneer. I hope it’s not quite finished yet.

THE LAKE DISTRICT – OUR LAND, OUR LIVES, OUR HERITAGE.

He talked of his spirit being lifted every time he visited the Lake District. This he said would be the same for the many who come to our county to appreciate the landscape and the views. The landscape, he said, was created by communities, a living breathing landscape where sheep roamed the fells. To him this agro- pastoral system was important, vital and must be protected.


Much of my family history is entwined with Cumbria and the Lake District. We can get back to the early 18th Century through a number of lines. Along the East Fellside of Cumbria and in the industrial villages of West Cumbria we’ve worked the ground above, as farmers and labourers, and we’ve worked the ground below as miners of iron ore and coal. One thing hasn’t changed too much in all that time. My forefathers, had they lifted their eyes, would have seen the same craggy fells, rolling Pennines, the green valleys and the deep lakes. For this land is our land. It’s where we belong. There are many more people just like me, with same ancestry.

Today I attended the opening of the Lake District UNESCO World Heritage Site on the shores of Derwentwater, at Keswick, one of Cumbria’s most popular tourist destinations. I had no idea what to expect other than a few scant details on an e- mailed invitation from the Lake District National Park Authority. What we did know was that His Royal Highness Prince Charles was to officially open the World Heritage Site accompanied by Michael Gove, Minister for the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs. This is the department that governs farming without actually mentioning it in the title. That is a pretty good clue as to how farming has been viewed and treated over the last couple of decades. Our food producers have been unloved, unappreciated and frankly down- beaten. The public perception has been one of greedy, subsidised farmers doing little for it and driving round in large expensive 4 x 4’s. Reality is far from perception. Food health scares, disease crises, years of dreadful farm gate prices and poor support from supermarkets and over- zealous, ill- informed government agencies have left their mark. Things must change. Perhaps that’s why so many farmers supported Brexit. A huge leap of faith for them, or a belief that things must be better for them?

In Keswick I bumped in to several farmers as we arrived together and went for coffee prior to the ceremony. I caught up with Joe and Hazel Relph who farmed at Yew Tree, Borrowdale before retirement. It was common knowledge that the Prince of Wales regularly used to stay at Yew Tree farm on his annual Lake District break although they would never talk about it. Will Cockbain was with us too. I’ve sold hundreds of sheep over the years for the Cockbain family at Cockermouth Auction and admired Will’s common sense approach to the politics of farming as he has fought on behalf of Lake District farmers at a high level. Then a great catch up with Brian and Jayne Knowles who farm the Southern reaches of the Shap Fells and are leading lights in the Rough Fell sheep breeding world.

Soon it was time to go outside. We walked on to Crow Park to await the special guests’ arrival. In bright spring sunshine I took a few deep breaths and savoured the view. Catbells seemed almost in our pockets. Beyond lay the Newlands fells and then the Grasmoor range. To my left the massive round of Skiddaw, once a huge volcanic plug three times the height it is now, and the namesake of my old school house. Friends all. Some of my forefathers knew these hills as I do today, walked them and mined them. This is part of my heritage.

Six months ago I stood in Crow Park with a group of volunteer farmers and their sheep as we met the general public, showed them the animals and explained what farming in Cumbria means and what it delivers. There were visitors from all over the world. Just talking to them for a few minutes, opened up a new horizon for them. Many were simply clueless about the landscape and its guardians. Several promised to look at farming in a whole new light. We went home tired yet quietly satisfied, wishing we could do more.

His Royal Highness Prince Charles
His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, opening the Lake District UNESCO World Heritage Site. March 2018. Photo’s courtesy of Ashnessfarm.co.uk

Back here once again, the sun continued to rise above the Helvellyn range, with a little warmth on the face against a cool spring day. What else could you expect in Cumbria in late March? Soon in a blaze of flashing lights, the royal cavalcade arrived. Hundreds of school children screamed and waved Union Jack flags as his Royal Highness took his seat. There were songs and dance performances from local children all of which was entirely fitting. Soon it was time for the unveiling of the New World Heritage Site. Prince Charles took to the microphone. His speech was frankly music to the ears of many rural Cumbrian people. He talked of his spirit being lifted every time he visited the Lake District. This he said would be the same for the many who come to our county to appreciate the landscape and the views. The landscape, he said, was created by communities, a living breathing landscape where sheep roamed the fells. To him this agro- pastoral system was important, vital and must be protected. It was a message of support for farmers, their businesses and their very real contribution to communities and this land – our land.

I found myself murmuring “here here” on more than one occasion, impressed by a man who clearly knows and understands the pressures rural communities in Cumbria face. These pressures are economic, social and environmental. The Princes words flew in the face of the ardent some would say misguided environmentalists who seek to rid the land of livestock, turn farmers in to park keepers and and in doing so, see the demise of local people living in established and real communities. His words drew rapturous applause from many local people.

All the while I stood next to or rather just in front of Anne Cornthwaite who farms at Ashness Farm just above the famous pack horse bridge a few miles south of Keswick on the road to Watendleth. Years previously, Joe Relph’s father Charlie farmed here. As a young auctioneer I actually sold implements in the field at Ashness at Charlie’s retirement sale. Later as manager of Cockermouth Auction, I always tried to help and support young farmers at the start of their careers. Anne’s son Henry used to bring sheep to the market. He was only a young lad, recently left school and now responsible for the marketing of their sheep. I wanted to give him confidence, so that he enjoyed his trip to the auction and would go home happy to his mum. “Ring me on a Tuesday” I used to say “and I’ll tell you what the trade will be like tomorrow”. This I continued to do until it was time for me to move to fresh pastures. As I said earlier, these are real people in real communities. We all have our part to play.

I asked Anne what she thought of Prince Charles speech. She said “rather uplifting for upland farmers like us”. She went on to say that she just hoped Mr Gove was listening and taking it all in. Many farmers were thinking the same thing. For he has a singularly important role to play in the future of rural landscapes going forward.

Soon we will be released from the common agricultural policy that has shaped our farming industry and regulated our land use over the last forty years or more. Now Mr Gove must decide what package should replace it. Farmers and environmentalists are vying for government support. The government has said it will support payments for public goods without explaining what public goods actually are. Those of an environmental bent will say this is about improving the natural environment, habitats, wildlife and clean water. This must come first. They rarely mention food production, or human communities. Farmers, particularly keen younger farmers are proud stockmen for whom the sheep and cattle often come first.

My personal belief is that the truly successful farmers of the future, particularly in the upland areas of Cumbria where farming and tourism go hand in hand, will be proud livestock producers that can also farm in an environmentally sound and productive way. As the world population continues to rise, the truly successful farmer will be one that produces great food and protects our rural landscapes better than ever before. It is a balanced land use policy for the future and it is my definition of public goods. I whole heartedly would want to see this encouraged and supported by both the government and the good people who visit our county, eat our lamb and beef and drink our milk. Support farmers, allow them to make a profit, reinvest in the farm and the community. Reward them for getting it right.

If Mr Gove and his successors get their bit right then Cumbria and the Lake District will remain our land, part of our lives and our heritage for generations to come. It’s not just about the Lake District though. The East Fellside and the western slopes of the Pennines where farming is so important must also be included in this. Here communities rely so much on farmers particularly in difficult times like the recent snow storms. Losing the farms would be a death knell. Many in The Yorkshire Dales will feel the same.

That is pretty much as His Royal Highness Prince Charles called it, on a bright spring morning on the shores of Derwentwater in 2018. The alternative is too bleak and too barren to contemplate.

JUDGING HERDWICK EWES AND A FUTURE FOR THOSE WHO FARM THEM.

In early October there is a prize show and sale of Herdwick draft ewes at Cockermouth Auction, a market town on the northern edge of the Lake District. The sale has taken place here for over a century. Draft ewes are older sheep that are perhaps no longer fit enough to survive a further winter on the fell. So they are sold to lowland shepherds where conditions may be less harsh.  The ewes may go on producing lambs for several more years away from the fell.

Many years ago in the old Cockermouth town centre market, not long after I had become the market manager and therefore the Herdwick Sheep Breeders official auctioneer,  Joe Folder from Cockermouth produced a fantastic pen of  ten ewes, some of the biggest and best in the market. He presented them in the prize show. They were to compete against some equally magnificent fell sheep from top Lakeland breeders from every corner of Cumbria.

Joe had spent a lifetime in the Herdwick breed, working hard fell farms across Cumbria. For many years he was a National Trust tenant at Baskell farm in the hills above the Duddon Valley. In his later years he had retired to Cockermouth but his passion for Herdwicks remained undiminished. He continued to breed superb sheep none of which would live on high fells. This meant that his sheep were always bigger than many traditional fell- going ewes. This was not in any way a fault, but simply a product of their environment, living and breeding in fields around Cockermouth and the Vale of Lorton. His sheep were always sought after and sold well.

The show judge picked out two pens to contest the draft ewe championship. Side by side stood Joe’s sheep and a lovely pen of draft fell ewes from Gordon Tyson, Troutbeck Park. Standing on the lower slopes of Kirkstone Pass, the farm was purchased by Mrs Heelis (Beatrix Potter) in 1923 to prevent it being developed thereby preserving it as a working sheep farm which was her avowed intent. She did this by personally taking the farm in- hand and establishing a celebrated flock of Herdwick sheep. The sheep grazed to the top of High Street at around 2,700 feet and still do to this day.

After her death in 1943, Mrs Heelis gifted a total of 14 farms covering 4,000 acres including Troutbeck Park, to the National Trust. She did this to ensure that her will would be met and the farms remain viable working holdings for future generations. Gordon Tyson, farmed the sheep for many years and continued to improve a fine flock of sheep until he passed away in 2015. The sheep he brought to Cockermouth market had spent every winter living on the high fells above the farm. Now it was time for them to leave the fell and live the rest of their lives on lower pastures.

Both pens of sheep looked beautiful in the market, fleeces rudded- up along their backs with gleaming white faces in contrast to the grey- blue of the coat below the “rudd”. The Judge asked me how I wanted him to assess the sheep. Joe’s sheep had a size and condition that the fell sheep as strong and as good as they were, simply could not achieve. Stupidly, I said that he should just pick the best pen of draft sheep. I thought I was being diplomatic. The judge awarded the championship to the Troutbeck Park fell sheep and then apologised to Joe because he thought he had the strongest sheep. The judge quoted what I said and explained to Joe why his sheep were placed second. Joe just smiled and shook his hand.

Later in the bar, long after the sale was over, Joe lay his wizened old hand firmly on my forearm. He was approaching 80 years of age but his grip was still like iron. “Young man” he whispered in my ear, using his other hand to remove the pipe from his mouth “You should have just said nowt”. He smiled and released his grip. His point was made and he was quite right. I learned a valuable lesson.

Joe became a friend after that and would rarely miss a Herdwick Sale and the subsequent gathering of shepherds in the bar, right up to the end of his life. In the happy glow of the auction bar following the Herdwick sales, we would enjoy a drink and some good craic above the singing and the raucous laughter of Cumbrian fell farmers, letting their hair down and enjoying the end of the sale season before hunkering down for a long winter often in semi- isolation deep within the Lakeland’s frozen valleys.

I would go on each year for many years to sell those super Troutbeck Park draft ewes, which had it not been for Mrs Heelis, probably would not have been there. Now once again we look to an uncertain future. If we do not find some balance to allow farmers to work the land, farm the fells sensibly and make a living then there may be no future at all.

How important then that we bring the young people through, to learn the fell craft, preserve the sheep flocks and manage our Lake District landscapes. We must persuade them and give them confidence that they have a future in shepherding. Their role is vital not just to Lakeland but every upland area in the country. Farmers are the lifeblood of many rural communities. Their work shapes the landscape for all to enjoy. They are the true conserver’s of the countryside. The days of over- grazing the fells are gone. Now farmers look to balance careful flock management with preserving habitats and protecting fresh water supplies to a greater extent than ever before. It is called stewardship. Tourists are welcomed for they too are an essential and important part of the fabric of the Lake District.

Balance is the key word in all of this. When the correct balance is finally achieved, we will have found a way to allow Lake District Farmers to farm sustainably and with some profit to re- invest, manage the countryside and cater for the visitors, almost 20 million of them annually, most of whom are thrilled to see proper sheep wintering on the hills that they were bred to graze. This includes the Troutbeck Park flock and so many more Lakeland Farms. Famous flocks that some would seek to destroy with unctuous talk of re- wilding and introducing lynx in their place. Madness and utter folly in an already green and pleasant land.

National Trust farms have been breeding grounds not only of fine Cumbrian fell flocks, but also successive generations of young farmers, starting their own careers, getting a first step on the ladder, learning unique skills and local knowledge often from previous tenants in order to survive and farm in Lakeland. Many farmers like Joe and Gordon chose to stay on and enjoy long and successful tenancies, happy in their work.

Today’s farm children, long after our generation has gone, will still be selling at Herdwick sales, gathering at shepherds meets and shows,  singing songs and enjoying a drink or two in the bar with the proud auctioneer, whoever he or she may be. We must never let this die. How important then that landlords like the National Trust and others never lose sight of the fact, that their farms are a vital weave in the fabric of Lake District farming life, it’s heritage, history and as importantly, it’s future.

I’m sure Beatrix Potter and possibly many of today’s Lakeland tenant farmers would agree. Perhaps now is the time to say something, rather than follow old Joe’s advice to “just say nowt”!

“I know that man”!

It is early July in the summer of 1991. I am 26 years of age, a qualified Chartered Surveyor but still an auctioneer learning his trade. My only hobby is playing rugby but last season was very hard. My right knee has been hurting badly for months. I am playing on a Saturday then hardly able to train through the week. My coaches think I am being lazy. In the end I decide to visit my doctor and I am referred to a specialist. He says I have cartilage damage and need surgery. There is a waiting list and I may have to wait six months. I tell him that I have private medical insurance and he tells me he can do it next week.

I am admitted to a private hospital in Carlisle in less than one week. The surgeon tells me that he will perform open knee surgery. I ask him why he can’t do keyhole as I know other rugby players who have had this type of non- invasive surgery performed and their recovery was extremely swift. That operation is not possible in this hospital or so I am told. I am then reassured that the operation will be straightforward and that my cartilage will be tidied up. I am guaranteed to be back on the pitch and fully fit by October at the latest.

I am pre- opped, anesthetised and sent down to surgery. The next thing I remember is waking up in a recovery room. My injured leg is elevated and wrapped in a huge bandage. A nurse is repeatedly smacking me on the back of my hand and telling me to wake up. My eyes focus and I see a large print on the wall. It is an old farmer pal of mine from Ennerdale called John Hind. He is pictured in a show line up, proudly holding on to a Herdwick Tup. I keep trying to focus on John but he is blurry.

“Adam, what are you looking at?” questions the nurse. I am still concentrating on John.

“Adam!” The nurse now has an edge to her voice.

“You see that man there” I croak. “I know him, he’s my friend”

“Yes of course he is” I sense her tone and realise she doesn’t believe a word I am saying.

“I know that man” I respond.

 “Yes of course you do”.

“No… I really do. He’s called John”.

“Yes of course he is”.

Then the pain hits me. My knee is burning with pain. I can’t move my leg one centimetre without agony. I desperately need to pass water but I just can’t do it in to a cardboard bottle while lying down. I try and try but I can’t push water uphill.

Eventually I realise I must sit up and get my legs over the bed to do it. The nurse doesn’t want me to. I insist. So she and my girlfriend Paula, later to be my wife, drag me up and lift both my legs over the side of the bed. The pain makes me scream but I have to do it. I manage to pass water and the relief is fantastic but then my legs have to be lifted back on to the bed. I have to scream again.

I spend 4 days having to do this until eventually the surgeon arrives and removes the bandage. My knee is grotesquely swollen but the stitched up wound is clean.

“Bloody hell what happened?” I ask the surgeon

“Ah well when I got in there, your entire lateral meniscus was in flakes, so I whipped it all out”.

“But I didn’t ask you to do all that”

“Ah well I had to and you did sign the consent form. I’m afraid your recovery will take longer but when it’s healed you should be able to play rugby until you’re at least thirty. However you will most definitely suffer from ostio –arthritis by the time you are 40. I’m pretty sure we will have a cure by then” He smiles as he whips round and leaves the room.

Exactly one year later, my knee has not healed. I have not managed to run a step in that time. The pain never goes away. Any exercise produces massive swelling around the knee. I re- visit the surgeon and he tells me it is just one of those things. Some people heal and some don’t. Then he delivers a bomb shell. Unless this knee finally heals up in the next few weeks, I am going to have to accept that my rugby career is over.

He sends me on my way in shell shock. The following day I get a bill from him to add to the £4,000 paid out by my insurers. It is £1500 for rehabilitation and after- care. I write him a stinging letter telling him why he will not get another penny from me.

Two months later and my knee is finally feeling a little better. I pluck up the courage to go for a gentle run. I expect the worst but the next day, my knee does not swell and I am ok. I start to build up the runs and my leg is getting stronger. Soon I get back to training and eventually I start to play again. My knee never heals properly again. From then on after every game my knee swells to an enormous size. I keep persevering and I am getting through games and training but my knee is now permanently swollen, all the time.

I love my rugby so much that I play a few seasons for Aspatria in the National Leagues before returning to Penrith I keep on playing in to my late 30’s. By now my knee has deteriorated and I run with a permanently shortened stride but I can still play, so I keep going as long as I can. Eventually with a young family in tow, I give in. I hate not playing, sitting at home on a Saturday not able to visit the rugby club to watch games. I have started to sing in a band so that is an ocassional distraction.

It is the autumn of 2006. I am forty one years old. It is a Saturday morning. The previous day I sold several hundred suckled calves in Cockermouth market, a hard and long day’s graft. It is the last big autumn sale of the season. I could do with a release, may be a few pints in the pub tonight.

The phone rings and it is my old rugby pal John Sealby. He is the same age as me. He still plays rugby every week for Penrith 3rd XV. He tells me that they need a front row replacement for a league fixture away at Ambleside in the heart of the Lake District. They will only use me if they really need to. My heart begins to pound. A game of rugby, after all these years!

I am ratching about under the stairs when Paula catches me.

“What are you doing?”

Looking for my rugby boots”

“You’ve got to be joking”

“No”

“Well you are a …… idiot”

She doesn’t speak to me until I am picked up by the lads. The deal is supposed to be that if we are winning comfortably, they give me a 10 minute run out at the end, buy me a beer or two in the clubhouse and give me at least four stops on the drive home from Ambleside to Penrith. We settle on The Travellers Rest, Grasmere; the Kings Head, Thirlmere; The White Horse, Threlkeld and The Sportsman’s Inn, Penruddock. All of this is agreed. I have to be home by 8pm for X Factor or I won’t be spoken to for most of the following day either.

We arrive at Ambleside to find that there is no referee and three people haven’t turned up for Penrith. An Ambleside committee man agrees to Ref but admits he doesn’t really know a lot of the new laws. I am happy to hear it because neither do I. However the bad news is that we only have three front row players and one of them is me. So I am in the starting line-up. The day is now going downhill.

I struggle to lean over and tie my old boots that have not seen the light of day for four years. They are dried out and won’t bend. One is missing a couple of studs. My bad knee is locked at about 70 degrees because I have so much strapping on it.

The Ambleside captain comes in and asks for a word. He tells me they don’t have an experienced front row. They have a young boy barely out of school playing hooker. Can we have a gentleman’s agreement that we all just take it steady in the scrums? I nod my head in complete and full agreement. So we run out on to the pitch which after the incessant rain of last night is most definitely water logged. In fact the corner in front of the clubhouse is actually under water.

The first and only other time I played on this ground was for Cockermouth as an 18 year old, 23 years earlier in 1983. It was December and it snowed so hard on the way home that my pal Ray Faulder who was driving, actually turned off the A66 and in to The Pheasant Inn near Bassenthwaite without realising it!

Back to 2006. The teams line up, Penrith in their traditional myrtle green and white hoops, Ambleside or “Side” as the local supporters prefer to scream are in Black with Gold cuffs. I stand to receive the ball with my boots already full of water. I am at this point beginning to agree with my wife’s last comment to me.

The whistle blows and the ball is kicked to us. We gather the ball, there is a melee and I get elbowed in the face. Then we spin the ball down the backs. There is a kick and the ball sails in to the Ambleside half. I run across the pitch towards the ball. They retrieve and spin the ball down their backs. There is another kick and the ball is again in our half. I run back across the pitch and find myself back where I started. I’ve run two widths of the pitch and I am totally knackered. I stand with hands on knees fighting for breath.

The ball is now on the far side of the pitch. The whole Penrith pack bar one, is advancing. I walk up the wing in attempt to at least be in the same half as my team. Then the ball starts to spin through the Penrith backs. Now I may be old and fat, but I can still read a game. If I can keep up with our backs and they don’t drop the ball, then there is an overlap with me on the end of it. I run as fast as my stick thin damaged old legs can carry me and sure enough the ball is delivered to me, unmarked. I have a 20 metre run in to the near corner. I waddle over and dive head long in to a 6” deep pond of cold, muddy water. On the TV you see internationals players dive over the line and slide 10 yards. I belly flop to an immediate halt. It is my first touch of a rugby ball in four years and I score in the corner.

The team is ecstatic. I am embraced and slapped on the back and I hear words like “legend” and “superstar” being uttered. I’m so exhausted I can hardly walk back to the half way line. They kick to us and we immediately knock- on. “Thank God we are taking it easy in the scrums” I think.

So we form the scrum, make our binds and I gently lean in ready to lightly make contact with my opposition. Bang! He thumps in to me so hard that he knocks the wind out of me and I see stars. He then begins to wrestle my arm, and bore in to my head with his own, growling fiercely. The scrum breaks up and I look at their captain on the other side who just shrugs his shoulders.

“Right oh” I say “let’s have it”. So I spend the next 75 minutes battling for all I am worth in the most competitive scrummaging I have had since my first team days. My try scoring run is the only time I actually touch the ball during the entire game. I am there for nuisance value, nothing more.

Later in the game, I spy young Jonathon Benson playing for Ambleside. He is a farmer’s son from Langdale that I have watched grow up from a young boy. He is passionate about Herdwick sheep and he is a decent rugby player for an 18 year old. He is aggressive and good with the ball in hands. I decide to slow him down. I find him at the bottom of a ruck and manage to rub his face in the mud. Look, don’t feel sorry for him! I’ve had it done to me plenty, and I was smiling all the time to show there was no real malice. He gets up spitting mud out of his mouth and he is smiling too.

The game finishes after what seems like an entire day. We line up by the changing room doors, clap the opposition through our tunnel of players and shout the traditional “three cheers for Ambleside”. It takes me 20 minutes to get my boots, bandages and shirt off. By the time I get to the showers, they are cold and I can’t get the claggy Lakeland mud out of my hair. Back in the changing room it takes me another 20 minutes to get dressed. My neck and back have seized up after 30 scrums and my right knee won’t straighten.

In the clubhouse, there is pie and beans which is taken with my first pint. Across from our table I spy young Benno. I call him over for a pint. This is one of the best parts of the game of rugby. No matter what has gone on during the game, back in the clubhouse, it is all forgotten. We stand at the bar and down a few pints in quick succession. Benno is not a big drinker and he is getting fairly merry already. It is not the last time over the next couple of years that our paths cross on the pitch and in the auction. He is a likeable young man and I try and support him in his early farming career as much as possible.

Soon it is time to leave. We shake hands with the opposition and make our goodbyes. Four pub stops and a couple of hours later I am home in time for X- Factor. I am so stiff I can’t move and I’ve had a few pints. I am sound asleep before the first advertising break. Never mind X Factor, It is a big “No” from the Missus…

By the middle of the following week I am still as stiff as ever and I limp around the auction. I bump in to John Hind, who now works part time in Cockermouth auction as a drover. My sore knee and his presence reminds me all those years ago of my hospital visit. I tell him the tale. “I know that man”. He laughs and says he has a copy of the self- same print.

For the rest of the rugby season, I don’t miss a game for Penrith 3rd XV. I lose two stones in weight and feel great to be a rugby player again. It also gives me much pleasure to coach some of the young players. There are certain tricks to be used in the front row that don’t get taught at school! If wasn’t for that bad knee, I would still be playing now!

Advice from Jos Naylor

I’ve met and worked with most Lake District farmers over the years. Here i recall a farm visit to Jos Naylor in the Wasdale Valley one cold January morning.

Photo taken by my friend and ex- rugby team mate Ian Mallinson.

 

It is a freezing cold January morning as I make my way along the narrow roads of Wasdale. This is a truly remote part of the Lake District. Only a few miles from the Irish Sea, the Valley is dominated by some of the highest fells of Lakeland. Great Gable stands magnificently at the head of the valley flanked by the Scafells to the south and the Ennerdale fells to the North. Wasdale Screes fall sharply in to Wastwater. At 258 feet deep, it is the deepest lake in Cumbria. The lake bed is actually below sea level. The geography is stunning on any day of the week. A mass of tumbling rocks and boulders, with great swathes of scree, carved out and exposed by dying glaciers at the end of the ice age. At this time of year, with the winter wind and rain howling in from the Irish Sea, it is no place for the timid.

One can but imagine the Norsemen of the 10th century clearing the valley bottom to settle and colonise. For them perhaps it was almost a taste of home. Much later William Wordsworth was to describe the valley as “long, stern and desolate”. Perhaps he was visiting on day rather like today!

The working farms up here a hard places and it takes a special type of farmer to work them, in a land where local knowledge and custom is time honoured, trusted and proven.

Beneath the highest mountains at the head of the valley sits England’s smallest church. Dedicated in modern times to St Olaf, the main church beams are reputed to be taken from a Viking longboat over 1,000 years ago. My journey will not take me that far today.

It has been snowing hard and freezing at night. There is a bitter nip in the air and the swirling eddies of bitingly cold wind, chill to the bone. My car heater is on full, as I press on up the lake side road, my tyres smashing through the icy puddles.

I am on my way to see Jos Naylor at Bowderdale Farm. Jos is a legendary character. A world champion fell runner, he was often called “The King of the Fells”. His achievements on the hills are incredible.  In 1975 one of his greatest feats was to conquer 72 Lakeland peaks, running over 100 miles ascending 38,000 feet and in a time of 23h 20m.

The Cumbrian hills are both his work place and his hobby. Passionate about this landscape, he is both proud of the sheep he breeds and the landscape they live upon. Naylor’s have worked this valley for a few generations and Jos’s son Paul is following on behind and doing a great job. These are hard, cold and wet farms on the western fringes of Lakeland. It takes special people with unique skills to thrive in this environment. The sheep bred on the hills are also hardy. If they can survive harsh winters grazing on these fells then they can certainly do well later in life when they are often sold as draft ewes to more lowland climes. In my time as a Lakeland auctioneer in the autumn months, I sell many thousands of sheep from most of the farms in the valley. These are my dog days and the sales that I will later look back on with most pride.

I arrive in to the yard, and Joss is working amongst some young Herdwick sheep he has penned up. There are snowflakes scurrying and diving around the in the air. The cold makes me catch my breath. From the boot of my car I quickly don extra layers and some fingerless gloves. Jos acknowledges me and keeps working. I’ve come to see the sheep, and I start to work with him. After a while the job is done. He is satisfied with the outcome.

Only then do I notice that on his upper body Jos is wearing nothing but a cotton checked shirt, sleeves rolled up above the elbow and unbuttoned down to the navel. He is it seems oblivious to the cold. I expect that as the snow begins to fall faster we will retire to the kitchen for a drink. Not a bit of it. Jos leans back against the sheep rails and folds is arms across his chest. He begins to question me about Cockermouth Auction. This is the late 1990’s and we are still no nearer to getting our much- hoped for market. The old town centre site is working at maximum capacity and we are selling thousands of lightweight lambs from most of the farms in Wasdale and nearly every other valley.

“You would wonder where all these little lambs go” he says. I tell him that the vast majority of the lambs are slaughtered in Britain and sent in carcass form to countries all over Europe. Thousands of little fell lambs produced by Cumbrian farmers weighing around 30kg as they are sold, end up on tables from France to Turkey. This growing market is a godsend to all hill farmers who breed such lambs in the hills that have a limited market in our country.

I crack a joke. “You know Jos, these little lambs are Cumbria’s second best export after nuclear reprocessing. Jos laughs because he has a working relationship with BNFL and the Sellafield plant is just a few miles distant from Wasdale.

By now my fingers and toes are going numb. Jos doesn’t seem to notice. He is impervious to the cold. He asks me if I am still playing rugby. I tell him that I am however at 33 years old, I’m getting towards the end of my career, and my knees are hurting more and more.

Jos looks me in the eye. “Listen lad. If you enjoy it and still want to do it. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t as good as you used to be. Just keep doing it, because there will come a day when you just can’t”………

Those words stick with me and I often think of them years down the line when I am in my forties and still lacing up my boots. I still love it and still want to do it. I do so in the knowledge that soon the day will come when “I just can’t”.

“Still running then Jos” I say though chattering teeth. “Oh aye” he replies.  “I like to get up on the tops, clears me head, and gives me time to think”.

“Not on a day like today though” I joke. “Oh yes” he says in all seriousness, “wouldn’t be a problem. You see I know these fells, every bit of them, and I know me, what I can do and what I can’t. Too many people go on to the tops and they don’t know them, and they don’t know when to get off. Then when they realise they need to get down, it is too late”!

He goes on to tell me that not too many years ago, a crack squad of Special Forces people approached him to go out for a training session on the fells. Jos says that one by one he left them for dead as they gave up and dropped out, until the last one finally could go no further. Jos had to help him back down to safety, so exhausted was the soldier. “I kept him going with boiled sweets” he said. “He thought he could break me but it “nivver” happened”.

Jos tells me that all his power is in his legs. He is remarkably tall for a fell runner, but he is stick thin in the upper body. His legs are made of steel and judging by his dress code on a freezing January day, he is impervious to pain.

He does admit though he does like to warm his bones and has rather taken to spending time in the Canary Islands where he has bought a home. The thought of being in such a place at this very moment is very appealing, at least to me.

Our meeting has come to an end and Jos is eager to get on with more sheep work. He is going out in to the fields to “look the sheep”. I bid him goodbye and by the time I remove my winter clothing in order to get back in to the car, I lose Jos in the gathering wisps of winter snow as he half walks and half runs up the in- bye land above the farm. In a minute he is gone from view. It is a good job that I am not required to go with him. I couldn’t keep up!

By the time I leave the valley, my fingers and toes are coming back to life. His words of advice stick with me for years as I carry on dragging my ageing body around the rugby pitch, loving every minute of it until at the age of forty four I am forced to retire, because finally, “I just can’t”.

Jos also heeded his own mantra. For some years later at the age 70, he successfully ran over 70 Lakeland fell tops, covering more than 50 miles and ascending more than 25,000 feet. All of this in under 21 hours. I don’t think the words “Just can’t” are in Jos Naylor’s vocabulary.

KESWICK HERDWICK TUP FAIR

It is the autumn of 1995. I am 30 years of age and the new manager of Mitchell’s Auction Co Ltd. Mitchell’s operates the livestock mart in the town centre of Cockermouth, the market town bedecked by Wordworth’s daffodils each spring, and full of Lake District sheep in the autumn, brought to the market for sale from every valley in the county. The market company is one of the oldest auctions in the country having been created in 1873. As a boy at Fairfield junior school I could hear the auctioneers in full flow and so wanted to run across the car park to the auction. Now I am here managing the place!

There is one important sale that does not take place at Cockermouth Auction although it is always conducted by Mitchell’s. It is the famous Keswick Herdwick Tup Fair. For decades this event has taken place in the park lands above the Twa Dogs pub heading out of Keswick towards Penrith. With great care and precision, Herdwick breeders set up temporary pens in which to hold the annual crop of Herdwick rams, or tups as they are known in Cumbria. Not long after first- light, a procession of vehicles and trailers arrive at the field and the tups are expedited to the grass pens in preparation for the prize judging and eventual sale.

The manager of Cockermouth auction always conducts this sale. It is a long- standing tradition. This year for the first time, the sale is in my hands. I have been nervous for days leading up to the fair. I am new to the job, I don’t really know Herdwick sheep and I only know a few of the local vendors and potential buyers. It is a big responsibility but none of the Herdwick breeders seem to bat an eyelid. They all seem happy to have me selling at their main annual event of the year. Either that or they are good at hiding it!

I arrive early to show willing. It is typical tup fair weather, wet and windy. The clouds are lying low on the southern slopes of Skiddaw, towering above Keswick. Even the top of Latrigg is hidden from view. In front of me I observe a sea of green waterproofs, plastic leggings and wellies. There is an autumnal nip in the air and the leaves are falling from the trees and swirling in the breeze. The Lake District Herdwick farmers are impervious to the rain and cold wind. Winter hasn’t started for them.

Generally speaking the weather is always the same for the Tup Fair. The green landscape is broken only by the magnificent sight of the Herdwick Tups in the pens. There in front of me are 250 of the finest Herdwick males penned together side by side. It is a beautiful view. The older tups now in full bone and full bloom are pumped up like African lions. Striking in their familiar rudded – up (red) fleeces, another long- standing Herdwick tradition. They are testosterone filled pocket battle- ships ready to fight each other or ready to serve ewes, whichever opportunity happens first. The smell of the sheep, the wet wool and the rudd is all- pervading. It is the smell of autumn sheep sales.

It is getting towards tupping time when in just a few weeks’ time, the Herdwick ewes will be brought down from the high Lakeland fells and introduced to their new male friends. This is the only sale of registered Herdwick rams in the year. Each tup has been inspected by a panel of Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association members and has been judged to be physically correct and fit for sale.

Before me stands the cream of the crop, the pride and joy of each and every Herdwick Farmer who is selling. Many of the sheep will have been shown at various Lakeland agricultural shows throughout the year culminating late in the season at Eskdale and Wasdale. The Tup twinters often attract most interest. These are three year old sheep that are about to live through their second winter (twinters). They have not had the chance to serve any sheep being too young the previous autumn. As such they are untried and unproven. Some have massive potential and have been observed by potential buyers at various shows. Some have only been brought out to show at the very end of the season once the opposition has been assessed.

It is good fun watching potential buyers trying to get a good look at the sheep without appearing too interested. It doesn’t do for some buyers to broadcast that they like a certain tup. This can attract other potential buyers who respect the opinions of others and might even out- bid them at sale time. Herdwick tup buying can be a furtive business. Many times in later years I take a bid from a surreptitious hand flapping over the top of the wall, the owner of the hand trying hard not to be seen other bidders. More often than not everyone knows whose hand it is anyway. It is even more fun to knock the tup down to the hand and give the correct name out without even seeing the person. The thumbs up over the top of the wall was the sign that I had got it right!

But this is Keswick and today there are no walls. There isn’t even a rostrum. I have to stand on the ramp of a sheep trailer looking out over the sheep pens, with many bidders standing even further away behind the pens, and many farmers standing either side of the trailer. There is no microphone and I am expected to shout for about 5 hours which is how long it takes to sell 250 Herdwick Tups, one by one.

The judging has taken place, the prizes awarded and it is sale time. The rain is incessant and I stand on the trailer ramp with a shepherd’s crook which I use as a gavel, banging it down on the ramp to signify that a sale has been made. My other hand is trying to hold on to an umbrella, but it is a forlorn hope. There is water dripping in to my eyes and I am having to shout above the wind and rain to a large group of several hundred farmers all around me.

I have one asset by my side. Stan Edmondson from Seathwaite Farm is going to help me. He is a director of the auction company. He is also both a Herdwick legend and a Lake District legend. Anyone who has walked through the farm yard at Seathwaite heading for Scafell or Great Gable will have been greeted by Stan. His cheery wave and standard shout of “Aye- aye” will have been heard by thousands of Lake District visitors over the decades. He has a life- long experience of breeding and working with Herdwick sheep. He takes and interest in the people who visit his valley. “Where’ve you been and what have you seen?” is a phrase oft heard from Stan as people walk past.

Prior to the sale Stan tells me that he is going to stand with me and “keep me right”. This means he will point out sheep that he thinks may make a good price and to tell me the names of all the buyers who I don’t recognise. Stan knows every person on the field and probably their fathers and grandfathers before them. The problem is that Stan isn’t that good with names. Throughout the sale I am offered a number of suggestions as the hammer comes down. “Oh that’s what his nyam, thoo knaas, Johnny’s Grandson, thoo knaas him” and so on!

Stan is nearly 80 years old. His days as a world champion fell runner are long behind him, but he knows Herdwicks through and through. Despite being crippled with arthritis, he stands for 5 hours bent over his trusty shepherd crook, his eyes alive to the sheep in the ring, and the people bidding for them.

One by one The Herdwick tups are brought in to a little ring area in front of the auctioneer’s trailer. They charge about between me and the sheep pens. The vendors wave their arms frantically to try and make the tup show to attention. Occasionally they grab hold of the sheep to ensure it stands in the correct way, or to stop it jumping out of the ring. It’s a constant whirlwind of motion that I have to ignore as I urgently scan the crowd for bids.

I start the sale and manage to get quite a few sold but it is without doubt the hardest I have ever had to work. Herdwick Sheep Breeders are slow bidders. You cannot rush them. You cannot jump them up with big bids. You have to let each lot take its course. The grim reality is that no one actually knows how much a Herdwick tup is worth. Certain bloodlines are prized and there is only a limited gene pool within the breed. Tried and tested aged tups can reach a decent price. Young twinter tups of good potential can make a few thousand pounds. It depends on the breeding and of course the conformation.

Auctioneers pride themselves on stocksmanship and knowing the true value of the stock they sell.  A Herdwick auctioneer must accept that neither he nor many of the Herdwick shepherds have much of clue as to what the sheep are worth. Nobody minds how low you start, so you just keep taking the bids until they cease. At that point the stick is banged down on the ramp, the hammer has fallen and the sale is made.

In time as I gain experience, I learn to do the exact opposite of many top quality pedigree auctioneers that I have watched and admired. For in other breed circles the auctioneer judges the animal and the people bidding for them. If circumstances allow, they go big from the start, taking large bids in the knowledge that certain buyers will go with them and maybe even new records will be created. When I sell Herdwick tups, I take smaller bids as the lot progresses. This way I can often eek out an extra 500 guineas beyond where I might be were I taking much bigger bids. It takes longer but in time record prices will be broken using just this method.

I’ve been selling or rather shouting for over 4 hours without a break. In that time I have only sold 200 tups, but that is normal. Old Stan has been doing his best with the names. It is also a tradition in Lakeland to sometimes give the name of the farm rather than the farmer. So I am knocking sheep down to Nook Farm, Brotherilkeld, Troutbeck Park, Fell Foot and many more famous Lakeland farms. Often I have no idea who actually farms there. In time, I will grow to know each and every one of them. Even better, the course of my work as a Lakeland auctioneer will take me to so many of these farms on a regular basis. Time and again I am made welcome, and made to feel like I am part of the Herdwick world. So often I travel over the famous mountain passes of Lakeland on my way home from visiting Lake District farms. Always I feel I am blessed to do this for a job, and get paid for it.

Stan is also good at pointing out the sheep he likes. “This might mek a bit”. He is generally right, but not always! Eventually we are down to a handful tups left to sell.  A little Herdwick tup lamb comes in to the ring. Tup lambs are rarely sold, being given the chance to grow in to their second winter and sold as a twinter. This little lamb is only a few months old and is striking in that is jet black all over. Herdwick lambs are born very dark or even black. Their fleeces lighten with age. This little ball of fluff really is jet black.

It has been bred by another legendary breeder, Joe Folder now residing near Cockermouth. Stan lights up. “Ah now I like this” he says. “Set it off at 400 guineas”.

“What?” I am incredulous. It is a tiny little ball of fluff. “Set it off at 400 guineas” he repeats. Rather non- plussed I set the bidding off at 400 guineas. After one minute of scanning the crowd and constantly repeating “400 guineas, I’ve 400 bid, any more this time”. I turn to Stan and quietly apologise. “Sorry old lad, no one is bidding”

“Nay” he says “ah thowt it would mek all of that”. So I drop down to 50 guineas and immediately there is interest. 5 minutes later the bids have been coming in thick and fast. Finally with a last shout “all done? Last chance, hammers up, goes this time”…. The Herdwick tup lamb is sold for 400 guineas. Stan is triumphant. He thumps his shepherds crook on the trailer door “there thoo is” he beams “I telt tha”.

Joe Folder, smiles and winks at me. It is a sign of approval and we become friends from that day forward. The buyer of the lamb is non- other than Jean Wilson, a lady feted within the Herdwick world and far beyond. Jean Wilson is synonymous with Herdwick Sheep. Her rock by her side is her husband Derek. Years later Derek tells me that “Jean was bred to breed Herdwicks”. It is in her blood. She will travel the world to promote Herdwicks and her wise council is sought by many a young breeder starting their Herdwick career.

Like so many of the old school breeders, her knowledge of the Herdwick sheep and her skills are all encompassing. Meet Jean at any show or sale, and she will know the history and breeding of not only all of her own sheep but probably most of the other farmers sheep too.

Years later I was required to inspect and value many of Jeans best sheep and also the sheep of many other Herdwick Breeders in the foot and mouth epidemic of 20011. This was without doubt the hardest, most upsetting, soul- destroying job I was ever asked to undertake. For in 2001 these sheep were wintered away from home on the fertile soils of the Solway plain on the northern shores of Cumbria. Jean and so many other farmers could never visit those sheep or see them again for foot and mouth disease was raging in north Cumbria and the government  deemed that the sheep, healthy or not, could never return home and worse still, had to die.

The sorrow in having to speak to Jean after the deed was done will stay with me forever. Even then through the tears and upset, she was able to tell me which sheep I had inspected, their breeding, their bloodlines and their value to her which far outweighed the monetary valuation I had placed upon them. Later that night I cried my own tears behind closed doors. Tears for Jean and all the other breeders and for the sheep themselves most of which were not diseased, but slaughtered in perfect health. What joy to see Jean and so many other Herdwick breeders rise again although it has taken a long time and the pain of those times will never be forgotten.

Recently while speaking at a farmer’s dinner I told the tale of the little jet black tup lamb. I had forgotten that Jean had bought it and was telling the story simply to mention Stan’s instruction to “set it off at 400” and how I eventually got to the price.

As I started to tell the tale. Derek Wilson who was in the audience with Jean, stood up and stopped me. “Do you remember who bought that lamb” asked Derek?

“Err no” I replied.

“It was Jean and when she got home with that laal black thing I bollocked her for bringing it back”

Jean immediately stood up. Leaning backwards with her eyes almost closed as Jean does, she came right back at Derek “ah but you’ll hev til admit” she said to her husband, “eventually he did make a fair decent tup”. Derek had to agree and of course Jeans idea of a decent tup is normally a pretty good recommendation! 22 years had gone by since Jean purchased the little jet black lamb but she remembered the sale as much as I did. “There was just summat aboot him I rather liked” she would tell me later.

So my first ever Herdwick Tup Fair in Keswick is over. I have survived. It even stopped raining and I was able to remove my waterproof jacket. The business is concluded, tups loaded into trailers or just left in the pens, and everyone retires to the Twa Dogs Inn. I sit with Geoff Edmondson from Langdale and we have a pint of Jennings Beer. Geoff sits back in a relaxed position with his rudded waterproof leggings shoved down over his wellies to protect the pub décor. He takes a sup then folds his hands across his chest. “Well Adam Lad, do you think you were getting the hang of it”. “I didn’t think I did too badly for a first go Geoff”. He laughs. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve been among Herdwicks all my life and I’m still learning the bloody job… like”

Soon the traditional singing has brought the bar to life. Glen Wilkinson from Tilberthwaite whose flocks run across the Coniston fells, has his thumbs shoved firmly down in the pocket of his jeans. His head is cocked to one side, cheeks ruddy from the warm glow of the fire. Eyes closed in concentration he breaks into a bass baritone version of “Black Velvet Band”. We all sing the chorus in raucous fashion. Then David Bland from West Head stands up. His sheep run high up along the Helvellyn range. He takes a deep breath and then word perfectly sings “Old Shep”, in a version as good as the King himself. Some of the younger farmers cajole Syd Hardisty from How Hall on the shores of Ennerdale. “Come on Syd, give us Jobby Teasdale’s Warlick!” Syd stands up and his own unique rambling style, half sings and half recites his famous party piece.

I am relaxing in the warm glow as day turns to dark and thinking to myself, “This is great but if I’m doing this sale again next year, I’d like to have it in Cockermouth auction”!

The following year after some hard work on my part I have persuaded the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association to allow Keswick Tup Fair to be held in Cockermouth Auction for the first time ever. The older breeders who have been to Keswick come rain or shine for decades are unhappy. Tradition is tradition. Some of the younger breeders and one or two influential Herdwick Council members have backed me and are prepared to give it a go. That is another story!

 

Welcome to the Lake District – Wasteland or Wonderland?

Recently a journalist from a national newspaper described the Lake District as a sheep- wrecked wasteland. It is not the first time journalists have sought to de- cry farming in Cumbria. This man has been making a habit of it having written about the need to re-wild areas like Cumbria, claiming that sheep compact the vegetation and soils on Lakeland’s fells, exacerbating surface water run- off, contributing to flooding issues, destroying flora and fauna and so on. You get the picture.

His comments were generally not well received in Cumbria. It wasn’t just farmers that bristled but also owners of tourist businesses  and I have to say some environmental bodies who work with farmers in Cumbria too and found the approach unhelpful. People who know and love our county may not be dissuaded by controversial sound bytes designed to increase the author’s profile, but to anyone reading newspapers and considering visiting Lakeland for the first time, they may well have been dismayed to read those damaging and deliberately provocative comments. Farmers maintained a dignified silence to the point where they were goaded on social media by the journalist, desperately seeking a reaction. Few bothered. The most ardent environmentalists are of course singing the praises of this re- wilding approach.

I cannot comment on those books or articles. I haven’t read them in full. I have however heard other people’s thought’s. Whilst most have found the extremes of sheep removal and re- wilding unpalatable and for some quite laughable, there was an acceptance that farm management could and should make positive contributions to protect and conserve Lakeland’s environment in future, but not at the expense of the farmers or all of their sheep!

So is our beloved Lake District a wasteland or a wonderland? 40 Million Tourist’s visit Cumbria annually spending around £2 Billion. That doesn’t sound like a wasteland to me. I’ve never met a tourist yet who doesn’t love to see sheep on the fells as they grind and sweat their way up the well- trodden paths of Lakelands finest fells. What better a back drop can you have as you sit and eat your sandwiches in the gentle summer breezes on the tops, watching the Herdwicks grazing the slopes, listening to the faraway bleat of lambs, momentarily lost from their mothers in the thick grasses and swathes of bracken?

Farmers tell me that on many fells and commons the grass sward is quite thick these days, butterflies are returning and most of the land managers I know are proud of the wildlife, birdlife and other habitats on their farms.

So what is the story? Well, it is common knowledge that in the austere years following WW2, this country and many other European countries were counting the cost of war. There were food shortages and rationing. Successive governments sought to get the country back on track. The farmer was the housewives best friend. She needed the dairy man, the shepherd, the beef farmer and the pig producer like never before. Over one third (33%) of the weekly wage was spent on food. Our farmers were respected for the fine job they did. Food was a necessity and not that readily available.

Gradually over the next few decades food austerity began to dwindle. All the while food production was in full swing. The new common market gave farmers quotas and targets, positively supporting increasing production through various measures. Add to that new technology, better farming methods and increasing yields and it did not take that many years to reach saturation- point. Crazy as it sounds we were soon over- producing. We well remember the Butter Mountains and wine lakes as excess stocks were bought and stored under what was simply called “EU intervention”!

In Cumbria during my working life our farmers were paid subsidies to keep more breeding stock via a host of support measures. There were headage payments for breeding cattle and sheep, top- up measures to ensure a guaranteed price on some prime stock at the time of slaughter and tradeable quota’s for milk production and sheep. The result in nearly all upland areas of the UK was that farmers kept more and more stock to take advantage of the subsidies. Who could blame them? I would have done it and so would most people. As a result, more sheep were kept on the fells than ever before, more cattle grazed in the valleys and more milk cows put through the dairy parlours all across the country.

The general public did not complain because food was becoming cheaper year upon year. This has continued to the point where the average food spend as percentage of earned income is now estimated to be as low as 11%, a far cry from 1950. What this means is that the consumer has far more disposable income to spend on other goodies. Food is so cheap it has become disrespected. My grandmother would scrape every last scrap of margarine from a tub. Nothing was wasted. Food would be re used or re- heated by her in the following days. Grandfather raved about three day old lamb hotpot which he claimed he would happily eat every day as the flavour matured with each re- heat. Today it is not so. Food is no longer valued by the consumer. In 2015 UK households binned over £13 billion of edible food, nearly £500 per household per year.

Out with the rubbish has gone public and political respect for farmers and also consumer knowledge about food production. It is a travesty that young people learn so little in schools about farming, food production and the environment. Indeed all the talk about farmers for many years has been the misguided myth that they are production subsidy junkies, living in high old- fashion, driving large country cars and abusing the animals they farm in search of maximum production and profit. A visit to and a chat with any lake district farmer would soon put paid to that.

Many farmers in the Lake District are very good at talking to the public. They have to be as most Lakeland farms are criss- crossed with public footpaths leading to and from the fells. My old friend and auction mart director Stan Edmondson positively revelled in meeting the stream of visitors trudging past Seathwaite farm in Borrowdale, heading for Great Gable or the Scafell’s. “Where’ve you been and what have you seen?” was a phrase that many will remember him by. In this and other respects farming is linked arm in arm with tourism, indeed perfect bed- fellows in areas like Cumbria. So much so that Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership is currently drafting a rural growth plan linking farming and tourism tightly together.

By the late 1980’s it was clear that some of the Lakeland fells were becoming over- grazed. Solutions were offered and on some fells farmers were financially encouraged to reduce the numbers of fell ewes grazing on high during the winter months. At this time a plethora of non- governmental organisations began to grow with a very fixated view on how the environment, rivers, lakes, habitats, flora and fauna should be managed in areas like the Lake District. By the mid 1990’s production support had disappeared. European and government policy dictated that support payments to farmers should be based on environmental rules and outcomes.

At this point the relationship between the farming community, government agencies and environmentalists began to sour. Farmers were now being asked to keep even less sheep and cattle in the name of environmental protection. Blamed for the loss of habitat, over grazing, water quality and all the while being ordered by supermarkets to offer uniformity in supply, quality and conformation (remember the wonky vegetables) and at reduced or even penal prices, times suddenly got pretty difficult for farmers.

The BSE crisis of 1996 followed by the collapse in Beef prices, then a collapse in sheep prices, Foot and Mouth disease in 2001, an subsequent years when there was no export market, brought the livestock farming industry to an all- time low. Hard farming areas like the Lake District suffered as badly as any other area of the country. Many farm businesses were able to survive only with the subsidy payments available, using this money to prop up loss- making livestock enterprises. Profit almost became a dirty word in farming.

Sound business advice would have suggested that those farmers doing worst should actually cut and run, sell up and let those of the biggest size and scale swallow the smaller poorer farms. It didn’t happen. Why? Well here is the rub to all of this. Despite all of the issues and problems that have beset the farming industry over the last thirty years and more, there is one factor that remains unaccounted for and that is the human factor, farmers themselves.

Generations of farming families have worked these hills and valleys. There is pride and stoicism. It is passed from generation to generation and is bred- in, rather like the hefting gene in genuine fell sheep. In the bad times young farmers have perhaps had to take second jobs and work elsewhere but so often there is hope and expectation that one day, the farm will be theirs. The cycle will continue.

At this stage of my own career as a Lakeland auctioneer I have worked with at least three generations of family farming and my how times have changed. What does not change is the passion and the care to farm the Lake District “to the best of our ability”. I talk to many young farmers whose priority is to learn the skills peculiar to farming in their valley or on their fell. Every fell or common is different. Now they are also challenged with learning new skills, how to improve the bio- diversity on the farm, how to manage the water, how to deal with flooding. These are all part of the modern Lakeland farmer’s new challenges and working practice. The good news is that I haven’t met many farmers who are not up for the challenge. I see this a huge positive for the government, general public and all those concerned principally with conserving the environment.

So how is it going to work in the future? No one has crystal ball good enough to see through the hazy maze of Brexit, future government policy, climate change, international politics, and a world population set to increase from 7 billion to over 10 billion in the next thirty years. These are global issues we have to address. It is now clear that we have to put the past behind us and craft a land use policy in this country which achieves some very simple aims: –

  • Sustainable food production
  • Viable farming
  • Conserve and enhance our natural environments
  • Protect our fresh water supplies.
  • Farmers collaborating with farmers to achieve all of the above.

We cannot stick our head in the sand. At some stage in the next couple of decades we will go hungry in this country. We have such a reliance on cheap imported food from all over the world that it is dangerous. The reality is that food importation costs are going to rise, climate change will effect food production, pressure on fresh water supplies will increase significantly and the potential for political and religious disagreement is only going to strengthen.

As a nation we have to plan for the future. We have to get past short- term government thinking with manifestos designed only to win votes at election time. As a country we have to be bigger than that. The four aims I suggested above or not in any way exclusive. Instead they are totally linked and mutually inclusive.

In my opinion, the group of people best placed to deliver those aims are farmers. The cheapest, most cost effective way to deliver those public benefits is by supporting farm businesses. They have the skill sets and the ability with training and guidance to make this happen and achieve those aims. How do we do this?

I would be crunching the numbers to see what level of sustainable food production will be required to feed a population in the UK expected to exceed 80 Million by 2050. I’d be working with the farming community to improve productivity and efficiency under the concept of “more from less”. In other words how to grow more food with reduced inputs and costs. This means embracing new technology, improved working practices, better training and exchange of knowledge.

At the same time I would be engaging the UK leaders and experts in environmental protection. I would be asking and agreeing a set of goals and targets focusing on areas of greatest need. I would be looking to improve bio- diversity in those areas, encouraging improvements to habitat, improving our water quality and how we actually manage the land particularly in water catchments and areas of potential flooding.

All of this has to come at a public cost. Food production and environmental management is not a freebie. If you want cheap food in the shops sold at or under the cost of production, then food producers have to be subsidised. This is where reality has to kick in for supermarkets and other food processors. Environmentalists cannot expect farmers and other land managers to carry the cost of environmental protection and enhancement. Nor can they reasonably demand that their need of financial support is any greater or more important than the farmers. If the population starts to go hungry, they will forage the environment to survive. A balance is clearly required. We’re already past the “them and us” stage. They have to work in partnership.

If government buys in to the goals I suggested above, they then need to gather all parties together. All of them have their own goals and agenda’s. Through discussion and negotiation, a common set of goals and targets can be achieved. Everyone will have to settle for wins and losses, but at the end of an embryonic and totally new land management policy will be tabled and agreed to with which to go forward.

The final job will be to cost and apportion the level of public funding required to achieve the goals and targets. Again it will an inclusive subsidy regime rather than exclusive. Leading the field will be the farmers who will be tasked and supported in producing great food, cheaply and economically whilst at the same guaranteeing to conserve and where possible improve the natural environment.

This has to happen on a regional or even local basis. One size fits all national policies have not worked. Local knowledge on the ground has been ignored far too often by government people in far- away offices who have neither the knowledge nor the experience to administer agriculture and environment policies. Someone at a high level needs to grasp this fact and put their head above the parapet. DEFRA and other agencies are simply not fit for purpose in their current state.

Once the policies and goals are fixed, a public purse needs to be tapped in to in order to fund food production and environmental support. All the while the government must actively promote the new land use policies to the public. Consumers need to be educated in a number of ways. This will include the importance of all the land- use goals, British Values whereby it is no disgrace to promote “buying British” or even better “Buying local”. Incidentally British values are already supposed to be taught in Britain’s schools and colleges.

The public would then hopefully realise that once again, the farmer is a friend, perhaps in an even stronger way than 70 years ago when food production was the only goal. In the words of Bob Dylan “the times they are a- changin”. The problem as time goes on is that the changes are happening faster and faster. While politicians dither leading up to Brexit we are losing valuable time to get our agriculture industry in order and set up for the next round of challenges.

We need to be preparing the next generation of young farmers right now. They will be tasked with managing our lands and producing our food in future. The challenges facing them will be harder than ever before. Their position and status in society will be a key driver. The public support package needed has to be identified and put in place as soon as possible. Farm business support organisations like our own Farmer Network have been promoting these policies for years and have been in some ways, ahead of the game.

Farmer’s work best when they work together, but over the years the collaboration between farmers has reduced or even disappeared. In that respect we lag way behind our European counterparts. We need to get it back. Why? Because everyone is good at something, but no one good at everything. There is the opportunity to network, share and learn together. All of this will help achieve the land use policies we need. The same goes for government agencies and other land- use organisations. Too many are skilled in their own speciality but know nothing about the practicalities of farming. Just as our farmers need to become more environmentally savvy, so the environmentalists must become more farmer savvy. It has to happen in order to create joined up policies. There has to be a balance.

In thirty years’ time, I would love to think that our “wonderland” Lake District still attracts visitors from all over the world, but it may not be the case. If it is not, then I pray that at least we can feed our population and protect our precious little corner of the planet. I cannot get away from my strongly held belief that is the young farmers of today who will provide this for the generations of tomorrow.

The good news, and I know this because I work with them regularly, is that our young farmers are keen, enthusiastic and totally committed to farming the Lake District in the future. Far from the wrecked wasteland that some have sought to portray I believe our marvellous landscapes will be enhanced in future, our food production systems and our water quality improved. All of this will be achieved by our farmers many of whom are just starting their careers now, but only if they are properly and sensibly supported.

What a responsibility, what a challenge!