Last Sunday morning found me driving through the back lanes of North Pembrokeshire. The sky was that perfect blue you only get on a May Morning, the Hawthorn was starting to flower in the hedgerows and the verges were thick with wild flowers. In places the cow parsley was so thick that it was almost as if I was driving along the beach between two breaking waves. Then my first glimpse of the sea which was a stunning turquoise blue as if trying to emulate one of those posters of Greek islands!
I would not normally go to a meet-up all the way over on the West coast but I had wanted to see Brian and Dot’s place for a long time and also this was the second meeting of the newly re-launched Pembrokeshire group so I wanted to do my bit to make sure the turnout was good.
My destination was a small farm on a little back road high up above Strumble Head just West of Fishguard. Brian and Dot live in an old farmhouse which has been cleverly divided to provide two homes, one for them and one for their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Stone outbuildings have been converted into three holiday cottages and a house for their son and daughter-in-law. Each resident family has their own outside space and a piece of garden for growing food though there are no fences so it feels very open and joined up. The rest of the land is managed co-operatively. And everywhere there are views across the fields to the sea. Bliss! Find out more about holidying there and see more photos here )
The turnout was good, two people brought children and there were three visiting dogs which all added to the fun. I had left my dogs at home – the rescued lurcher would have panicked and it was too hot to leave her in the car.
After excellent coffee and a chance to chat and to meet a couple of new members we set to work. A field is being turned into a forest garden with space in the middle for a yurt. Brian and Dot had put posts in to mark where they wanted trees to plant trees and mown a circle of grass round each. Our first job was to put down a layer of cardboard on each circle and then pile mulch on top. Some of us took the sellotape and plastic labels off a large stash of boxes they had collected from local businesses whilst others laid it on the cut grass or barrowed mulch from a huge pile at the edge of the field.
Lunch was a chance to sit outside and admire the view as well as continue chatting and sharing ideas and up-coming events. Then it was back to work.
I had to leave early because of having left the dogs at home but by then all the circles were ready for planting and work had begun on putting new trees into the old hedge to improve the shelter belt. The others stayed to get the yurt frame up ( definitely a job for several people!) and Dot very kindly took photos of that for me.
The BBC’s Welsh news carried a report this morning that ‘the UK Committee on Climate Change is advising that Wales should cut the numbers of sheep and cattle, plant more trees and encourage heavy industry to clean up’ (read the full article here) What’s not to like?
Whilst some smallholders of my acquaintance keep sheep and poultry primarily as pets not many of them keep cows. Cows, at least on any commercial scale, involve getting up at silly o’clock every morning, seven days a week, bank holidays and Christmas included, to do the milking. And repeating the procedure in the late afternoon meaning that even a day out has to be a short one. At the large organic dairy farm up the road Charlie, the manager, milks over 200 cows every day except between Christmas and Easter-ish time when the cows are dry because they are pregnant. At the moment he is calving (regular checks, helping any cows which are struggling to deliver their calf and frequent visits from the vet for the problem cases) AND milking the cows who have had their calves AND feeding the calves which are old enough to be taken off their mothers. He cares about his cows but he does it because it is a job, it keeps a roof over his family’s head and food on the table. Even if only one or two cows are kept, as Michelle and Phil do at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust (links at the bottom of this post) going on holiday is a logistic nightmare
Sheep are just as demanding. At lambing time shepherds sleep in their clothes and patrol at frequent intervals day and night ready to intervene if a sheep is distressed. And there is hoof trimming, fly-strike prevention (Flies lay their eggs in the mucky wool at the rear end of a sheep, the eggs hatch and the maggots eat the flesh into sores. Regular trimming of the wool and vigilance are needed to prevent it) and then there is shearing…
Like most of us farmers get satisfaction from doing a job they are good at and of course there are compensations but for most it is as stressful as any other type of self-employment and physically grueling. Farming is not for whimps!
So reducing numbers of livestock would help them right? Would you be happy to take a pay cut even if it meant working less hard? No, I thought not.
The Government seems to be taking the Marie Antoinette approach ‘Let them eat cake’. Or rather ‘Let them diversify’
That often means tourism. Not every farmhouse is easily adaptable to B&B. Not every farm has a set of picturesque outbuildings ripe for conversion to holiday cottages and not every farmer makes a good host. Even if you enjoy welcoming people into your home and have the right infrastructure it is hard work and a precarious business. And it has implications for the community. Until Pemberton’s Chocolate Farm closed I regularly encountered drivers who were quite unable to reverse to a passing place along these single track lanes. So instead of them going back 100 yards I would reverse a quarter of a mile. An irritation for me but no joke if you are in a tractor with a trailer behind waiting whilst they panic and weave their way slowly back, or are a courier driver with an algorithm imposing deadlines on you that take no account of such things (townies all, those algorithms!) More importantly some villages on the coast have become ghost towns in Winter – they might as well put up a ‘Closed’ sticker on the ‘Welcome to..’ sign on the road in.
Plan B is ‘Added value’. Make your milk into yoghurt or ice-cream, get your fleeces spun and sell the wool or, better still, knit or weave it and sell your crafts, sell your meat direct to the customer on-line. Animals were traditionally sold through the marts and not every farmer can, or wants to, become an entrepreneur. And as for on-line, unless there is serious investment in good broadband for rural areas, dream on sunshine. Read about my switch to a satellite based system (here) Compared with the speeds and reliability on my landline it is fabulous but pathetic compared to the service my son gets in Luton.
So unless the drive to reduce livestock numbers is associated with increased farm payments, or increased prices for the food they produce, or investment in alternative employment and infrastructure, the result will be even more rural poverty and homelessness.
Secondly, what about those fields which will no longer have animals in them? Left to their own devices they will become massive bramble patches with a few chest high docks and nettles thrown in. Not what the tourists pay to come and see. Give them a few decades and they will transition through scrub woodland (mainly blackthorn round here) to woodland. Of course they could be planted with trees to shorten the process. The Government could fund that and pay farmers ‘rent’ for the land. They could call it a ‘carbon sequestration services payment’. Mmm can’t see it happening somehow, not in the long term. And sitting at home living, effectively, on benefit would not be good for the mental health of the farmers. They could be encouraged to manage the woodland but that is a very different skill set from farming and one they would have to learn. Even if they did where would the market be for all that extra firewood, coppice product and timber? What would they live on until the trees were big enough to be harvested? Questions, questions, questions and a shortage of answers.
Thirdly those animals currently supply the food chain. Unless the population as a whole reduces its consumption of dairy produce, eggs and meat, the shortfall will be cheerfully filled by the supermarkets importing more. There would be no reduction in global carbon emissions because no overall reduction in animal numbers. But the animals would probably be reared to lower welfare standards according to the expert I heard on the food programme (listen to it here) Wales could feel virtuous by ‘off-shoring’ the problem.
If only life was simple!
I will welcome comments, arguments, or questions whether you agree with me or take a different view, but please keep them respectful, thoughtful and evidence based.
My pictures are supplemented by ones from my good friend Michelle Laine of Scythe Cymru – find out more about her and her family’s low impact lives here and on facebook here The picture of farm cottages for holidays is from google images.