May 2022

The View from the Hill                                                                       15th May 2022

When does the hare population shift from “I like to see a few of them about” to “Might have to consider doing something about them” ?  Seven or eight in a bunch constitutes grazing pressure equivalent to how many sheep?  However when our local friend Alan Wicks can produce photos like this I just want to celebrate.  They look like a bunch of  greyhounds racing hell-for-leather around a track, but what would the hares be chasing, a stuffed whippet on a piece of string?  I think they are just doing it for fun, Alan tells me that he has seen them rough and tumbling in a heap sometimes.  I know that some areas suffer from much larger numbers of hares than we do, and that action does indeed need to be taken, but here, hare numbers have been low to modest for as long as I can remember.  What is the key fact that limits them, there is no shortage of food?  Has it been due to the presence of too many predators of the leverets, like buzzards and crows, or is it that we have been too successful in controlling small weeds in crops, which I have long understood are vital for the survival of young ground nesting birds, surely a young hare can graze on wheat from the day it’s born?  It is very difficult to get the right balance between a few weeds sufficient for skylark and lapwing chicks, and a wipe-out of crop due to runaway weed infestation, the chems we use are very efficient at their job, and if you use reduced rates you risk encouraging resistance to the sprays in the weeds.

All too often when walking, biking or paddling along local rivers, one comes across weirs and sluice gates that are woefully neglected.  How much of the flooding that so many tears are shed over, and the millions of pounds spent clearing up the resulting mess, could be saved if the rivers were better managed?  Current river policy seems to revolve roughly around re-wilding, oh yes, and let’s bung in a few beavers for good measure, there won’t be any flooding then.  Will there ?  How long before a dislodged beaver dam gets washed down to a dodgy old bridge, turning it into a bigger dam, causing flooding upstream, or a tsunami downstream following its collapse?

None of the sluice gates at this location on the Dorset Stour have seen action for many a year

I am sure those responsible for intelligent advanced planning have borne all this in mind before launching into the Great Beaver Release Gamble that is approaching; at least five such releases are planned for Dorset.  No-one seems to operate the precautionary principle any more, there are numerous tales of beaver trouble from Scotland, who as so often are ahead of us in this game, but has any notice been taken ?  Apologies for all the questions this month, will someone have the decency to try to answer them ?  Oops there’s another.  I look forward to the outcome, luckily I live on a hill.

The school visit season has begun, so far in pretty co-operative weather, sometimes a group will bring a picnic, after which they will enjoy running or rolling down a nearby hill, before resuming their tour around the farm, asking plenty of questions along the way.  Didn’t Mother always say you should let your lunch go down before such exertions……? 

Glorious wild garlic

Whatever you might have thought of Jeremy Clarkson in the past, since he began to share the trials and tribulations of learning to farm with his huge audience, he has surely been a force of good for the industry.  His first series from his farm Diddly Squat was highly entertaining, and brought many tales so familiar to long suffering farmers to the attention of the population at large.  His piece in the Sunday Times today (15th May) is well worth looking up, he is publicising, in his entertaining style, what our (NFU) President has been trying so hard to ram home to our wise and wonderful clueless leaders for the months since the war began in Ukraine, about the impending crisis in food price and availability around the world.  What he doesn’t get around to is pointing out all the micro decisions we are making at farm level, to control risk, and to preserve our livelihoods, which are very likely to result in reductions in production.  Speaking to many farmers it is easy to find those who have reduced their usage of fertiliser this year, accepting that output may fall.  This year could be ok, many bought fert at what now seem giveaway prices, and we can currently sell grain, milk and meat at prices well above where we were a year or two ago.  (With apologies to pig and chicken farmers). Ask about next year though, and you get blank looks all round.  How do we make sense of such a huge change in circumstances?  Should we buy (very expensive) fertiliser for next season now while we can get it, and we can back it up with cracking forward grain prices, unfortunately that doesn’t work in the meat markets, or do we wait and see?   In terms of the environment, and climate damaging emissions, it couldn’t be a better time to rein back on fertiliser applications, and test the result.  With the ongoing war though, shortfalls in exports of grains from Russia and Ukraine are suggesting the opposite.  At farm level, I suspect we are likely to be cautious, with production likely to fall. 

Ammonium nitrate causes damage to the atmosphere in at least 3 distinct ways, firstly during manufacture, the haber-bosch process uses enormous quantities of energy to fix atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen from natural gas over an iron catalyst at 450 degrees C.  The resulting ammonia gas itself causes atmospheric pollution if it escapes.  Ammonia can be reacted with nitric acid to form ammonium nitrate fertiliser (AN).  When applied to the soil, nitrate fertiliser will degrade and produce nitrous oxide gas in wet conditions, which finds its way into the atmosphere, it is a potent greenhouse gas.  Nitrate is also very soluble, and vulnerable to leaching through the soil, and can end up in groundwater.  AN is at best 50% efficient, meaning that only half of it gets used by our crops in the growing season, the rest gets leached, gassed off, or might remain to feed a following crop.  Not only this, but AN will oxidise organic matter in the soil, sending more carbon into the atmosphere as CO2, and it upsets microbiological activity, damaging soil health.  AN will also cause acidification of soil, altering the soil’s ability to release other nutrients to plants, therefore lime needs to be added to many soils to keep the pH around the optimum level.

And if that is not enough, the overwhelming issue we have with artificial fertiliser is that it has enabled us to grow the world population to double what it might have been had it not been invented, that is a hell of a problem, we are now in a position where we cannot sustain the human race without, having grown so huge by using it.

There are a few things we can do to improve things:

  1. Stop over-use of fertilisers, by more accurately matching rates to crop need and soil nitrogen supply
  2. Improve the organic matter content of soils, which will improve nutrient holding capacity, and reduce leaching
  3. Make better use of the organic manures available across the industry, spread more evenly across more land
  4. Cut down on the allegedly 30% wastage of food across society around the world, then we won’t need to produce so much food in the first place.
  5. Cut down on damaging cultivations to soils where possible, cultivation oxidises organic matter reducing the ability of soil to hold nutrients.
  6. Learn how to sequester carbon from the atmosphere into the soil in such ways as by maintaining green cover as much of the time as possible, with active roots in the soil, photosynthesis enables plants to push carbohydrate into the soil through their roots, which feeds beneficial fungi which form synergistic relationships with plant roots and hence build organic matter.
Red, our new red Angus bull, is at work with a bunch of heifers near Folly. Not quite sure what he is telling the cameraman.
The next generation learning an ancient craft.  A break from full scale sheep farming is being taken for a year or two so there are only the 14 tame adult sheep remaining on the farm, the stars of school visits. With so few to shear we would have struggled to find a shearer so we decided we must shear them ourselves, it was a back breaking job for unskilled operators.
Lambing amongst the 9 ewes that look convincingly pregnant has begun, here are a pair of fine lambs from a first timer who is turning out to be very dedicated mother.  There should have been 11, but 2 managed to resist the attentions of the handsome Texel ram who visited over Christmas.
A fox has been seen in the lambing field, so the newly lambed have to be penned behind an electric fence every night while the lambs are small.
Senior cow, 2244 has parked her calf elsewhere, so she can get in some me time, marching across the valley banks, tucking in to some lovely fresh grass. After 11 or 12 calves she is a legend in the cowshed, still fit and weighing in at 850kg last time we weighed her. Takes no sh_t from no-one.

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April 2022

The View from the Hill 28th April 2022

Where have all the flea beetle larvae gone?  There we were hunting around in flowering rape for evidence that there had been any flea beetle attack this season, eventually we found one larva embedded in a stem, far short of something to worry about.  Long suffering readers of this column have heard my endless tales relating to the different things we have attempted since the neonic ban, to outwit the little devils.  We have applied smelly manures, sown companion crops to distract them, sown early, even grazed the rape off with sheep in the hope that the sheep actually eat the larvae in the plants.  We ran a field lab with Innovative Farmers 2 years ago, which proved that grazing can indeed reduce larval numbers, but it also proved that grazing reduces yield, no prizes for predicting that.  This year we have grazed some, and not grazed the rest, and there is no question that this year the ungrazed is streets ahead of the grazed, in growth stage as well as yield potential.  We have recently taken part in a NIAB nationwide survey of larval activity, the results came in last week.  Of the 6 fields surveyed, two had been grazed, and 4 had not.  The highest larval numbers were found in one of the grazed fields, (9 larvae per plant) and the lowest number was in an ungrazed field (1.5 per plant).  In contrast to such contradictory findings, the trial in 2020 had revealed 26 per plant in the ungrazed plot, and 8 per plant in the grazed, more in line with what we had hoped for.  Overall numbers were lower in 2021, and are lower still this year, the 4th since forsaking  insecticides, can we dare to believe that beneficial predators are making a comeback, now we aren’t repeatedly killing them off ? 

Spot the agronomist

So far there are no clear pointers from the 500 samples collected from rape fields across the country this year, as to which techniques can help combat the beetles most effectively.  It remains as clear as mud, with many more questions to be addressed with further research.

The above is but one example that demonstrates the importance of the continuing support of the AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Boards) for our industry.  We are right now at a perilous stage in the evolution of R&D for agriculture, we have had a very good model for support in the sectors of the AHDB, in the form of grower and producer levies on a % of sales, some seem to be more widely supported than others, but I believe passionately that to let them wither, as with the potatoes and horticultural boards, due to largely to levy payer indifference, would be a tragedy.  Apparently over 10,000 farmers have registered to vote in the current survey, which I hope is enough to give the result credibility.  I do not believe it was wise of the Secretary of State to require this series of votes, which have the ability to destroy whole sectors at a stroke.  AHDB evolved from the amalgamation of HGCA with the MLC and all the other sector bodies, and needs to be allowed to continue to evolve, under the guidance of farmers and industry specialists as board members, to be a beacon of excellence in directing levy payers’ funds into agricultural research.

Voting closes on May 9th, before this reaches doormats, I hope as many as possible do their duty.

Three new pig shaped arrivals were greeted with disdain by our small tame sheep flock, interest was shown to start with, but a respectful distance is now kept.  The pigs were 9 weeks old when they arrived, and are growing fast, the sheep are due to lamb in a couple of weeks.  Always late lambers here, the plan is to shear them shortly before lambing, already on the warmer days they end up panting under their thick fleeces.

In a vain hope to encourage a bit of rain in May, is it appropriate now, on the 29th of April, to have a good moan about the very dry, cool and windy, weather?  Our spring barley is seriously struggling, it was sown into rapidly drying seedbeds, which in spite of our intentions to direct drill had to be cultivated to make a half decent seedbed.  A return to the field with a heavy flat roll this week has been required to try to encourage some late germination where there are gaps, and to conserve what little moisture is there.  The spring beans, usually more sensitive to lack of moisture than most crops, are holding out at the moment, we managed to direct drill some of them into the kinder soils, and in two small fields we are using them as a break with which to improve some worn out permanent pasture.  Direct sowing the beans into the turf has so far worked well, leatherjackets, that would otherwise have demolished a cereal crop, are not interested in beans, and will have hopefully hatched and left the field before we sow a wheat crop in the autumn, before we establish a long term herbal mixture in the following year.  Digging down below the turf finds some still usefully moist soil, protected from the wind and sun by the old turf.

Defra have announced some long awaited answers for farmers recently, firstly their response to the urea fertiliser consultation that they issued a year ago, which had left farmers who are accustomed to using urea fertiliser with no idea whether they could buy, let alone use any urea this year.  The decision means that previously announced restrictions on the use of urea are being postponed whilst the industry tries to cope with the enormous rise in fertiliser prices that has occurred in the last few months.  Urea has traditionally been used as a cheaper form of fertiliser than the more widely used ammonium nitrate, but a major drawback is that it can lead to the emission of more ammonia into the atmosphere than AN, it should be applied only in cooler weather and when there is plenty of moisture about.  Both contribute to global warming, but urea is worse.  The decision seems likely, in the longer term, to lead to a regime which will restrict urea use, and force farmers to adjust the timing of applications and to only apply it in conjunction with an inhibitor, to help reduce emissions.

The second announcement relates to the ‘Farming Rules for Water’, devised and policed by the Environment Agency (EA), which aim to control pollution from farmland to waterways and ground water.  These rules have been contentious from their inception in 2018, when the EA announced a clampdown on manure spreading in the autumn.  The implication was that farmers who produce organic manures would not be able to apply them to any more than a narrow range of permitted crops in autumn, the time when traditionally many millions of tons of manures are applied to newly sown crops, and lots more storage capacity would have to be built to carry it safely through until it could legally be applied in the spring.  There are many reasons why this draconian ruling didn’t make sense, and I plan to return to this subject soon, but to put it concisely, DEFRA have asked the EA to look again at this, and work more closely with farmers to make the system more sensible.  For a start, they must now acknowledge the difference between high available nitrogen manures, (like neat pig and chicken manures and cow slurry, which have a much greater risk of pollution) and low available nitrogen manures (such as straw based farmyard manures and some digestates, which are lower risk). No farmers intentionally allow their manures to get into water, they are far too valuable to do that, a confrontational approach helps no-one, and I very much hope now that we can move forward with an environmentally responsible, and economically justifiable blend of common sense and practical regulation.

There’s been a bit of clear felling in a small patch of woodland nearby, it is a sorry sight right now, some 5 acres of 60 year old beech trees have been taken down. With luck the land will be replanted with new young trees next winter. Is it really so different from farmers planting seeds every year and harvesting the resulting crop the following year? Why is it though, that leaving a mess in freshly harvested fields like this seems to be ok for foresters, but if farmers made such a mess they would expect be in big trouble. The damage to the soil, otherwise undisturbed for many decades, is not pretty or good for soil health. As a farmer one doesn’t try to work on the land when it is sodden, so why is it that foresters think it is ok?

The UK imports 80% of the timber it needs, we have many forestry plantations and clearly need more, if we want to become a little less dependent on imports, so we need to accept that from time to time trees have to be cut down. Thinning operations don’t look as violent as a clear fell, which of course is the final stage when the trees are at their economical optimum. Some might argue that all the carbon stored in the trees should be left there, but if we accept that the land has to earn a living for its owner, then like on a farm, the forest will need to be harvested. The government is launching initiatives to encourage tree planting, what is important is that the trees are the right sort, and in the right place and pests such as squirrels and deer will need to be dealt with, otherwise the trees will not reach a useful mature shape and size.

A gap where the wood was reveals a view towards Stickland that none of us has seen before
Coppice Group meeting room
What a site for the Forest School
Sleepy piggies had to be woken for their breakfast

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March 2022

The View from the Hill                                                                       20th March 2022

All we wanted was a few dry days and a bit of sunshine, and finally it arrived last week (21st March).  Being farmers of course means that it is no time at all before we are starting to worry that it will never rain again, and it becomes a rush to get the beans planted, rolled and sprayed, so we can push on the with the spring barley, which is far more important.  Direct drilling is a challenge at this end of the sowing season; wet soils are painfully slow to dry if you don’t move them first.  Thank goodness we didn’t have any manure to spread this spring, which would only slow the process, and make horrible wheel marks in the seedbeds.  I hope the Secretary of State is listening, he who seriously seems to believe (and announced on television last week) that we don’t need artificial fertilisers because there is enough manure and digestate in the country to sufficiently fertilise all of our crops.  What planet is he living on?  He is implying a) that we have been wasting fertiliser all these years because we never actually needed it, and b) we must have millions of tons of FYM hiding somewhere that we accidentally haven’t been using. The fact is that we already use 48 million tons of manures on our crops in the UK every year, and 1 million tons of nitrogen fertiliser. You would need 57 tons of manure to replace the nitrogen in one ton of manufactured fertiliser. To think it is possible to replace all manufactured fertiliser with manure is clearly ridiculous, we have nowhere near enough animals. (And we keep being told that animals are bad for the climate, but that’s a story for another day).

I must be an idiot to have ever taken seriously anything that George Eustice has said, I have tried to convince myself that public money for public goods will really make sense when we see what it means, that ELMS will eventually arrive just as BPS expires, with an administrative system that works first time, complete with a functioning mapping system, and that the disconnect between Farming Rules for Water and creating healthier soils will be mended.  I generally try to be a ‘glass half full’ person, but when faced with such bare faced dishonesty and ignorance such as has been spewed out recently I find myself really struggling to remain calm.

Seed cleaning update: As a consequence of our experiments with mixed crop plots last summer, we have had several odd seed mixtures sitting around in bags and piled in corners here and there.  It couldn’t be put off any longer, we had to have a go at separating them.  Starting with the easiest first, separating linseed from beans turned out to be very easy through our ancient Rutherford shake cleaner.  The quantities were not huge, but should be enough to bulk up our cover crop seed stocks, which was the whole point of the exercise.  5 bags of linseed (approx 100kg) separated from around 3 tons of beans was quite straightforward.  After that we had to fix up something a bit higher tech than the rickety old Rutherford, so we hired a bulk cleaner set from our local seed cleaners Evans and Pearce Ltd.  This machine did a great job with the peas and oats mix, not the usual 85% purity one expects from purchased seed, but good enough for cover crops, along with a few stray beans, well who was going to clean the combine out between every 2 acre plot?

Vetch/phacelia worked well, resulting in a pretty clean sample of both, but vetch/oats was the biggest challenge, running it through several times, varying the speed of running through and playing with the auger screens, yielded reasonably clean samples though not as good as I would have liked.  There’s quite a few split vetch seeds in the oats, and still too many oats in the vetch.  If doing this again a return to the Rutherford and a search for some 3.5mm screens might be required. 

Our local John Deere dealer Smart Ag Services has been taken over by Hampshire based Hunt Forest Group during the last few months, now the vans have had a makeover, and the last vestige of Smart Agriculture sadly seems to have finally disappeared.  Colin Smart set up the business after the demise of Milton Mills Engineers in 1998, and has set the standard for Dorset dealerships since then.  A recent visit to the premises revealed this beauty (an 8RX, tracks all round) on the forecourt, a new take on the 3-400HP range of tractors, though how anyone might consider buying such fancy tinwork in current circumstances beats me.  Rocketing input prices and yo-yoing grain prices leaves us with a very high risk of making bad decisions.  Fertiliser is in the spotlight, not only because of price, but because of supply, how many will go short this year?  Some well-resourced farmers are in the habit of buying their nitrogen requirement almost a year before they need it, and those who did so last year should be feeling very smug right now, prices having risen by a factor of four.  But should they be using all that fertiliser this year, or should they save half of it for next year?  We are often reminded that 50% of the nitrogen applied to a crop gives up to 80% of the yield, NIAB has many graphs demonstrating that the last bit of fert, which we have in the past often applied ‘just in case’, barely pays for itself in more years than when it does.  So is this not a time for experimentation, to see what we can get away with and still grow a profitable crop?  Headline yield is not what we need to pay the rent, it is the margin over costs that really matters, and right now we need to do our sums really carefully.  On top of fertiliser woes, we have a huge headache over fuel price and availability, without fuel we can’t even spread fertiliser if we have any, and let’s be honest, something will grow even if it gets no fertiliser at all, but without fuel, we won’t be able to harvest what has grown, so I know which I consider the more important.  Having said that, for red diesel to be costing more than DERV does at the local pumps once the 47p per litre difference in fuel duty has been taken into account, someone must be pulling a fast one.

As a postscript to last month’s account of paddling on the Thames, which included a foray out into a flooded field of maize stalks:  I had mistakenly believed that we had been in Oxfordshire and that the story wouldn’t come back and bite me on the bum.  It turns out that we were in Wiltshire and the land in question is farmed by a regular reader of the farmers’ magazine where some of this guff also appears, who called me on the day the magazine hit doormats!  Very relieved to have not been severely berated I feel it is only fair to put his side of the story.  Crops have been grown next to the Thames in that region for many years, but it floods far more often than it used to.  As the years have gone by, nearby in the catchment, Swindon has grown exponentially reducing the area over which the river can spread, not only that but there are many trees in the river which no longer get cleared out, reducing flow, consequently the land remains under water for longer periods than in the past.  Also, the farmer tried his best to put the fields in question into arable reversion under his stewardship agreement, but for some inexplicable reason they were turned down.  Surely this kind of sensitive land is exactly what should go into such schemes ?

His final point was that cover crops, if established after the maize has been harvested, could result in even more soil leaving the field, as the soil would not have the benefit of having ‘bedded in’ as it does over the previous months while the maize is growing.  I acknowledge that he makes fair points, although would point out that a cover crop can be planted in maize much earlier in the season, leaving plenty of time for soil to stabilise, and make it far less likely that soil might wash away with flood water than with no cover crop at all. 

A small bunch of sheep went walkabout in the village the other morning, by the time we caught up with them a couple of police cars had joined the chase as well, careering into the village with sirens wailing and blue lights flashing.  It was the usual problem of someone leaving a footpath gate open, so the sheep enjoyed a few hours of freedom, being caught on one resident’s hedgehog webcam and by a neighbour filming them wandering around a garden nibbling bits of this and that, before being escorted back to the field under the eye of the law. Luckily they were pet ones, and happily followed a bucket.

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The View from the Hill                                                                       20th February 2022

Our first calves of the season arrived last week. As 55 plump cows munch happily on hay and silage from stewardship margins and pasture, indoors, waiting to produce a new crop of calves, their older offspring continue to march through cover crop and turnips outside, waiting for warmer weather and grass growth to wave the magic wand of compensatory growth, and transform them from scruffy and slightly muddy individuals with incredibly pongy breath, into rippling hunks of shiny beef by mid summer.

Would the establishment of a premium market for pasture fed meat split the farming community down the middle?  We would love to retail our own beef and lamb as premium pasture fed, but when 50 beefies fatten over a two month period in summer, and 250 lambs all reach their best in January and February, we would have a continuity problem.  It is fine to proclaim the benefits of pasture fed, but how do we keep the nation fed for the rest of the year?  Fresh is best of course, so freezing is not the answer on such a huge scale. These arguments need to be taken on board by those who would criticise our industry for climate/health reasons.  Ask 10 vegans or vegetarians why they have chosen that route, and you will probably get 10 different answers, some of which might not stand up to scrutiny if we could find out how and where the vegan diet is produced.  It all points to the continuing need for rational calm debate.  Over 55% of the UK is permanent pasture, humans can’t digest grass, but ruminants can turn it into food that is climate friendly, nutrient dense and packed with essentials.

Several days have been spent recently attempting to separate the various seed mixtures we grew last year in our experimental bi-cropping field. We grew 6 different combinations, some have proved easy to separate, such as beans with linseed, where there is a huge difference in size and density of the two species, oats with peas were also not too difficult, but when it comes to oats with vetch, or beans with peas then the job gets really tough. We have used our own ancient Rutherford ‘shake’ cleaner, and have also hired a bulk cleaning rig from our regular seed cleaners Evans and Pearce, which uses air to separate seeds and chaff, but neither are able to achieve the impossible. We have obtained useful samples of peas, oats, vetch and phacelia, but the others will have to remain forever mixed. The bi-cropping theory is that a mixture of species growing together can be healthier for the soil, and the diversity can bring protection from diseases to the foliage as well. More care will have to be taken with pairing choices this year.

A trip to the Oxford Real Farming conference had been planned for the first week of January, so when it went virtual for covid reasons, a couple of mates who suffer a bit of a paddling habit, suggested we still went to Oxfordshire, but dressed rather differently, and that we should take a couple of boats with us. 

The Thames rises in Gloucestershire, quite near Cirencester, although there is some dispute about exactly where, it is a moveable feast, depending how much it has rained and where the water table is.  It becomes navigable before Cricklade, which is where we began our trip, next to the cricket club.  It had rained quite a bit over Christmas, so the river was still quite full, though its level doesn’t vary a great deal, regulated as it is by weirs and sluices.  Having purchased a licence, we felt entitled to employ the services of the lock keepers as we passed, who were unfailingly friendly, though some were less keen to open lock gates for us than others, so we sometimes had to drag the canoes out of the water and carry them around the locks.  It wasn’t long before one of our number managed to get a ducking when he couldn’t bend enough to get under a low concrete bridge, annoying for him so early in the day, but very entertaining for the rest of us.  Halfway through the morning we noticed that a section of the river had burst its banks, so we paddled off into the field only to find ourselves surrounded by maize stalks, and no hint of a cover crop to stabilise the soil.  Let’s be frank, this was not a good advertisement for responsible farming, the soil will be washed into the river, along with attached nutrients such as phosphate, and cause huge problems in the water, the silt covers the gravels so important for fish and other aquatic life, and the phosphate causes algal blooms which starve the water of the oxygen so vital for healthy water life.  Our cluster group on the Dorset Stour has had many presentations on the importance of keeping soil and phosphate out of water, and any sensible farmer understands that letting his productive soil wash into the river is pure madness.  How can maize be so valuable that it justifies such loss of soil down the river?

Further on down the river towards Lechlade, we met a group of wild swimmers, on their way to take a refreshing dip in the river, cheerful, and dressed in an assortment of brightly coloured gowns, did they really know what they were about to cover themselves in?  Only a few days later the national media took up the story of how much sewage finds its way into the river from Thames Water treatment plants when it rains hard and the plants can’t cope with the volume of sewage, which gets diluted by rain water.  Wessex Water, in our own region, is not very different, it is easy to find information in the public domain about how much outflow emits from their riverside treatment plants through the year.  It’s not pleasant to recall the much trumpeted privatisations of the public utilities in the 1980s, which have resulted in them being owned by enormous international corporations more interested in paying dividends to shareholders than upgrading ageing and inadequate infrastructure.  It begs questions when we find the water companies trying to offset their pollution by paying farmers to reduce their applications of manures and fertilisers and grow cover crops.

For those still mystified by last month’s picture teaser, sadly no correct answers have been received, the close-up shot of little round orange fungi was in fact from a cow pat, and to those who would claim that our cowpats are unhealthy I would unleash a resounding raspberry.

Found in a gallery in the Victoria and Albert museum in London, this lovely picture by John Herring Senior shows a form of traditional arable farming from before the days of no-till. 1855.

And an idyllic harvest scene from a couple of decades earlier, by P de Wint.

The real purpose of the trip to the V&A was to visit an exhibition of the work of renowned Dorset potter Richard Batterham. The route to Room 146 took us through long galleries of art and ceramics from around the world, architecture, decorative ironwork, and almost every element of human culture you can imagine. One of the most spectacular areas is the Cast Courts where you can find casts and copies of some of the world’s most inspiring objects, such as Michelangelo’s David, and a section of Trajan’s column. (The original stands in Emperor Trajan’s Forum in Rome).

On arrival in room 146, we were able to see how the V&A has presented Richard’s work to the the world.

Richard Batterham (1936-21) was one of the most revered studio potters of his time.  In 1959 he married Dinah and they settled in Durweston, where they brought up their five children and together built a new pottery in the early 60s.  Richard spent the whole of his life creating many thousands of beautiful pots, he always carried out every stage in the process of making, mixing and preparing his clays and glazes himself, to create a range of pots, jugs, caddies, teapots and numerous other items, many of which will be familiar to friends in the area who are fortunate to own and use such items. The pots speak for themselves, but the story behind them, of Richard’s work and dedication to his passion, is fascinating.

Richard and Dinah were both kind, friendly and popular people in the village, and in the long years since Dinah’s death, Richard continued to play his part in village life. It was a pleasure to know him and it is a real treat to own and use his pots every day. He was a truly remarkable fellow, whenever one would visit him at work in the pottery he was always happy to take time out for a catch up, and then without missing a beat he would return to creation of his timeless and beautiful pots. I like to imagine the archeologists of the future unearthing Richard’s pots in thousands of years time, as we do now on the farm find fragments made by others, long ago.  He certainly left his mark on this earth.

There are two short films available about Richard and his pots, each is approx 30 mins, and both are well worth watching.   The first: Richard Batterham – Independent Potter, is a delightful, gently paced ‘interview’ of Richard at work:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tN3hRRIO4-c

The second: Richard Batterham – Master Potter, is similar but different, and includes observations and comment from students of his work, including David Attenborough.  The main film begins 3 minutes in:

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January 2022

View from the Hill                                                                                16th  January 2022

Never ones to miss an opportunity to try out a bit of shiny new kit, on a dry day just before Christmas we were out in the field playing with this crimper from Heva. One day we will hopefully be growing cover crops so huge that they will need one of these to knock them down, so far though, what the slugs left is barely going to be enough to keep all of our out-wintering cattle happy. 

The 10 month old bunch are eating only cover crop, and the 22 month ones are on cover crop with added silage.  We are keeping them moving across the ground on large areas of land to keep poaching to a minimum.  As for the crimper, it did a pretty useful job, and when we have more cover crop than we need to graze, it may have a place knocking down the crop, which, once shrivelled up, will give a single shot of glyphosate a better chance of hitting all the smaller plants hiding at ground level, when it is time to terminate the crop in time for spring sowing.

The frosty weather whilst writing this mid January is a welcome break from a very damp December and new year. There have been a handful of beautiful sunny days, and some calendar quality sunrises and sunsets. The Christmas period was a welcome break from politics of all kinds, farming, and in particular the national variety.  Unfortunately the latter has come back with a vengeance, whereas the farming bit just carries on rumbling underneath, no less important than it was before.  Issues such as continuing trade deals, lack of decision making on the future shape of agricultural and environmental policy, labour shortages, continuing deadlock over future trade relations with the EU, astronomical fertiliser prices and don’t forget the infamous Rules for water, are keeping farmers’ representatives very busy.  Unfortunately expecting progress on much of this is a bit hopeful whilst the upper echelons of government are drowning in embarrassment, and worse. These issues are directly affected by decision making at the highest levels in government, and it is immensely frustrating to see the nation constantly distracted by frivolity and scandal when there are so many important issues to discuss and decide.

Labour shortages – Home Office

Trade deals – Dept for international trade

Fertiliser/gas prices – Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Rules for Water – DEFRA via Environment agency

Lump sum retirement and New Entrants schemes – Treasury (needs new taxation rules)

A beautiful sunrise one frosty morning

The Public accounts committee has again reported that it is not convinced that Defra understands how its environmental and productivity ambitions will affect the food and farming sector over the next ten years. It was even more robust in some places – accusing Defra of ‘blind optimism’ when it comes to rolling out the new schemes. 

New red Angus bull being checked out by a cheeky young ewe.

Our tame sheep flock have this year been treated to their own room service.  A handsome Texel ram has been shipped in to do the honours.  He arrived in the field one day at 6pm, and by 9am the following morning 5 rears had tell-tale red marks on them. 

Tommy the Texel, complete with red raddle crayon

Over the next few days all but one of the remaining 6 ewes were marked in the same way.  After the first 17 day cycle, the raddle crayon was changed for blue, none have been revisited, and the one untouched remains untouched.  Mysterious seeing as she is a young ewe, and we know she had triplets last year.  It is interesting to follow what happens when putting a raddle on the ram, we generally have not bothered for many years with the main flock, but knowing each of these ewes individually since they were hand reared means we will have an idea of which order to expect them to lamb in. 

Even more of a mystery is how Rocky the 9 year old wether, still sporting his anti magpie patch, also collected a red mark……

Moving an electric fence over christmas
Copper sunrise through a copper beech.

Old Man’s beard on a frosty Friday morning

In the last week we have loaded out Maris Otter barley for the Warminster maltings, to be turned into high quality malt for mainly micro breweries, also onto lorries destined for the Dingemans Mout maltings in Stabroek, Belgium. We also loaded wheat for the ADM feed mill at Westbury.

This week has also seen the dreaded event of a TB test for all our cattle. This has now (since July 2021) become compulsory every 6 months in the high risk area (HRA), although if you join the CHECS (Cattle Health Certification Standards) scheme, you can improve your animal health standards to a level that will allow you to qualify for annual testing instead. The whole of England is divided into HRA, Low risk area (LRA), and Edge area. The HRA of England encompasses all of the South West counties, plus Shropshire Worcestershire and Staffordshire. CHECS enables herds at lower risk of TB in the High Risk and Edge Areas to remain on annual testing if they satisfy certain criteria, as covered by CHECS TB Herd Accreditation.

Fortunately all of our animals tested clear this time, and we now hope we can pass the requirements of the CHECS scheme to ensure we don’t have to test again until next January. Many farmers are feeling bitter after the change to 6 monthly testing in the HRA, seeing it altered shortly before the government announced the premature ending of the TB cull in all areas, most areas now have just one year to go, instead of the extended 5 year period that was intended to follow the initial 4 year intensive cull. The cull has continued to operate since the first areas were licensed in 2015, with enormous success, new TB outbreaks in cattle herds have reduced by an average of 54% across all cull areas, the science cannot be denied, and yet the prime minister personally intervened to close down the cull areas before the job has been completed. We have been offered a cattle vaccine within 5 years (again), and badger vaccination has begun in tiny areas. It is hard to take badger vaccination seriously because the trapping of badgers is extremely difficult, and requires a high proportion of the badger population to be re-vaccinated each year. The cost will be astronomical, and one has to ask if this a wise use of public money. Stopping the culls early, before we have a cattle vaccine, and attempting to control bovine TB only by vaccinating badgers will, as well as allowing TB to escalate once again, also undo the other benefits that lower badger numbers have brought, such as an improvement in hedgehog numbers and ground nesting bird hatchings, also a reduction in destruction of anthills and bumble bee nests. An unrestricted badger population will on average increase by 21% annually. Rough calculations indicate that TB breakdowns will be back to pre-cull numbers within 10 years without any badger culling or cattle vaccine, and all of the hard work of running the culls will have been wasted. It is heart breaking for cattle farmers, released from the scourge of TB which in some cases saw their farms, now open, closed for 11 years or more before the cull began, to face a possible return to that fate.

Mystery picture of the month. What are these tiny fungi feeding on?
What lurks inside a wasp’s nest?

Last month

10 years ago on the Hill

Next month

11th July 2012

I can only stand and gape at this jaw-droppingly awful weather.  The Stour burst its banks again last weekend, after 88 mm of rain between Friday lunchtime and late Saturday night.  No one I know can remember the river coming out in July before.  May was bad enough, but in mid summer, too bad.  The cattle thought it was fun for a while, but they won’t much like eating the grass now it’s been flooded, all sorts of unnatural smells will make it unattractive.  The following rain will I hope clean it up a bit, but it’s the people who were hoping to make hay or late cuts of silage from their meadows I really feel sorry for.  On Sunday to lighten the mood we took our little ‘jolly boat’ down for a paddle on the fields, the current was surprisingly strong even near the shore, so we soon tired of rowing, and some of the party decided to go in for a dip, fully clothed.

In the glorious, if short-lived sunshine, it was all rather pleasant, but I was brought down to earth with a thump yesterday, when our agronomist pointed out how badly fusarium has got into the ears of both the wheat, and even worse, the spring barley, which neither he nor I have ever seen before.  The disease is taking out three or four grain sites on an alarming number of ears, and with the awful weather continuing, presumably it will continue to infect more.  There are 3 or 4 weeks to go before these crops will be anywhere near ripe, which is plenty of time for them to become a bit of a mess.  We desperately need some good drying weather and warm sunshine, and no more rain please.  The winter barley will need cutting within a few days, our average start date is around July 15th, but how on earth will we manage to do anything when it seems unable to stop raining?  We need a good two days of drying before we can even dream of putting the combine near any barley.

The Larmer Tree Festival starts tonight, those beautiful lawns will become a quagmire in no time.  My niece is on tractor duty helping to pull vehicles into the site!

10th may 2012

On Tuesday afternoon, I took advantage of the lovely sunny weather, and managed to get a flight from Compton Abbas to fly around the farm taking lots of pictures.  I have been trying to do this for several weeks, while the rape is in flower, but there have been very few fine days, or days when the airfield could fit me in.  The countryside looked utterly beautiful, and the bright yellow fields of rape make it look the most amazing patchwork, the rape stretches as far as you can see to the north, south and east, but there is very little to be seen down in the Vale, not surprisingly, still mostly grass country, as it should be!

Anyway, here is a small selection around Durweston.