December 2015

View from the Hill                                                           20th December 2015

Some facts:

1           There are more people alive on the earth now than ever before in history.

2          All those people need food every day, many use transport and a source of heat to cook with, many also need energy to keep warm and to wash with if they are lucky.

3          To do all this, and many other less important things, they are burning ancient fossil fuels, and vegetation, faster than ever before, and most of the smoke and gases produced go up into the atmosphere.

4          Some of the gases that might upset the balance of the Earth’s atmosphere can be safely processed by the vegetation growing on its surface.  Some cannot.

5          Some people believe that we have already got to the point where we risk doing irreversible damage to the Earth if we carry on as we are

6          Some different people believe that’s a load of tosh and that the Earth is too big and clever for us stupid humans to be able to mess it up.

Some opinions:

1                The combined din from the voices of doom, and the voices of excess, does nothing but confuse and bore everyone else.

2                It could be sensible to go a bit easier on the planet.

3                Stop wasting stuff

4                Harness some free energy, (sun, sea and wind)

It is interesting to consider these matters as we enjoy/endure the mildest autumn I can remember.

It is customary for farmers to moan about the weather  (note Weather, not Climate), so to play up to the caricature: it really is all to cock this year!

There are primroses, roses, wild carrot, cow parsley, pink campion and many others all in flower here today.  This morning I mowed the lawn, and it’s only 2 weeks since I last did it.  The soil is still at 11 degrees, this is absurd, it is too warm for most of our crops, some of the rape is extending towards flowering, and is covered in disease, the soil is too warm for the weedkiller we usually apply in November, the warmth degrades it and it won’t kill the weeds properly.  The constant warm air has meant that we are unable to safely cool our grain in store.  It is essential to get the grain down below 10 degrees, preferably 5, before Christmas, to discourage insect infestation.  This year that has been impossible.

On the plus side, we are saving plenty by hardly using our heating, and it is pleasant not to have to wear loads of clothes to keep warm outside.

And of course this is a one off, a freak year with unusual weather.  Climate is something quite different.

Our 55 cows have been indoors for nearly a month now, we brought them in because of the wet weather, which means their big feet were poaching the grassland, turning it into mud.  They are very cosy in the shed at Shepherds Corner. Their offspring, who were weaned at the same time as being housed, are, like their mothers, on a diet of silage and straw, and are in the yards at Websley.

This year’s lambs are now on turnips, they always take a few days to get used to the change in diet, but once they develop a taste for them, they can’t get enough.  They also get turnip breath.  They should grow well on the turnip diet, and by February the largest ones will be nearing fit weight.

Their mothers were introduced to the usual motley collection of rams last week, which all being well should mean that lambing will begin in the first week of May as usual.  Our ewes are divided into two groups. Those with white faces, of Texel parentage, are being serviced by Suffolk rams, who very conveniently have black faces, and the ewes with black faces should be being serviced by Texel rams, but unfortunately only two Texels rams could be found, and 70 ewes being quite a lot for two to deal with at this time of year, a Suffolk has had to be added for a better hit rate. The rams will remain with the ewes for five or six weeks, which gives time for the ewes to cycle twice, (17 days), and should lead to a reasonably compact lambing period.  The rams will then be taken out and returned home for a well-earned rest.

It may be of interest to report here about the sheep flocks on the hills of the north of England, and Scotland, which are very often hefted.  This means that each group of ewes lives on its own hill, and each ewe will spend its whole life on the hill on which it was born, or until man interferes and moves them a long way away.  When it comes to tupping time, a number of rams (tups) will be delivered by the shepherd to each hill, and they will stay with that group of ewes until their work is done.  Only then will the rams return, on their own initiative, to the lowland, where they will spend the rest of the year, where the weather is fairer, and the grass better, and will probably be augmented by some extra grub provided by the shepherd.


Near the end of November I had the good fortune to be invited by our local tractor dealer to visit the John Deere combine factory, at Zweibrucken in western Germany.  This kind of trip is usually offered to recent purchasers of expensive green painted and shiny machines, so it was a great surprise to be invited as we have not purchased anything brand new in the right shade of green for some years.  Perhaps it is all part of a cunning plan…..  Anyway, it was a fascinating trip, so much has changed in the 20 years since I last visited, the factory is unrecognizable.  Obviously combine design has changed considerably in that time, but so too have the methods of construction.  There is a huge amount of impressive automation; computer controlled laser cutters are let loose on great sheets of flat steel, they choose the most economic way to cut out all the different shapes, which, when bent, folded, painted and bolted together, miraculously turn into a majestic machine of beauty and power.

It was interesting to observe that each machine on the production line was different.  In the UK, three basic ranges of JD combine are offered, the main difference between the ranges being the principle and sophistication of the thrashing system.  Within each range there are 3 or 4 different sizes, with different harvesting capacity and engine power.  Different configurations are produced for different areas of the world; this factory builds combines for Europe, Asia and Australia, so the range of crops they are required for is enormous.  Factor in also the different regulations in each country, for example the emissions regulations that apply to the engines.  In Europe, new off-road diesel engines now have to meet Tier 4 standards, which require exhaust gas recirculation technology, as well as catalytic particulate filters, in order to keep emissions low enough.  This is the area that has got VW into such hot water.  However, outside of the US and EU, some countries have not signed up to these expensive standards, so on the production line we found combines being assembled for the Russian market for example, whose engines only meet Tier 2 standards, which means they are cheaper and easier to produce.

This then leads one to consider how this affects the ability of the farmers in such countries to produce grain cheaper than we can in the EU.  We all sell our grain into the same international markets at the same world prices, so they would appear to have an unfair advantage.  “What about EU subsidies” I hear you yell, well, a huge subject of course, and before the eyes glaze over, all I will say is that the subsidies do not come without a very long list of conditions attached, relating to environmental care, animal welfare, and a host of other things known collectively as ‘Cross Compliance’. Every year these rules are updated and become ever more complicated, and were listed in a book of over 100 pages for 2015.  I am confident that this does not apply to the former USSR states, who are very competitive sellers in an oversupplied market this year.


After the factory visit we were taken to a dull looking warehouse in the corner of an unexceptional trading estate.  Inside however we found a brightly lit and impressive permanent display of John Deere’s latest products.  It contained four combines, and several headers of different designs. There were also a couple of tractors and some other machines.  Today we were in for the full combine treatment, and for the next couple of hours we were treated to slick powerpoint presentations, and in-depth coverage of all the latest features of the shiny and spotlit newest combines, including comparisons with the features of models produced by competitors such as New Holland, Claas and Case.  John Deere of course have all the answers, and produce the best combines in the world.  It was all good fun, and there was even a combine simulator, like a computer game, but with the real combine controls, and a huge wrap around screen to make it feel like you were really in a field.

A few weeks ago Brendan was cutting up a tree that had been blown down last winter, and during cutting he discovered that the tree’s centre had rotted away, and that at some point it had been inhabited by a swarm of bees, evidenced by the presence of several sheets of honeycomb, all of which was empty.  I would be interested to know whether this had been created by wild bees, or a swarm of honeybees from a hive, and whether this question can be answered by examining the honeycomb.

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