Guest blog – Winds of Change by Derek Gow

Derek Gow is a farmer – you can see from the image opposite he is a serious farmer. Here he writes about the future he has chosen for his farm.

Winds of change

For those who don’t farm it’s difficult to understand the mentality of those that do.

While James Reebanks in his excellent book The Shepherds Life captures the zeitgeist of the sheep farming community well it’s only one side of a complex miasma. His sheep keepers are the professionals of the north.  Zealots like my great Uncle John whose father bred the first ever black-faced ram to make the unthinkable price of £1000 in Lanark at the turn of the 19th century. For him and his ilk farming was not for defeatists. You never stopped working. You never gave in. You never had holidays – or if you did you went to other farms to see sheep, dogs, cattle or girls. You never missed church.

Truly by the grace of god you were there to farm.

You were a big man in the community as a farm manager or tenant. While you told tall stories to your laughing chums on whiskey-amber nights you still took off your cap to the wife of your employer when she hacked by on her tail-docked hunter. 

Wildlife was barely considered. Wading birds were plentiful. You ate their eggs and the birds themselves if you fancied. You shot white individuals or unusual species such as corncrakes and stuffed their cadavers into dusty glass jars to fade forever in peace. You jugged hares and smiled when the clay kilner jars they settled in belched with putrification on opening. The taste of their contents would be riper than usual! Anything that looked at a sheep in a funny way – including other breeds of sheep that you, personally disliked – was vermin to be eliminated instantly.

The farming culture I have known since I was small – a good day out was going with Uncle John in his great, green Mercedes to view gigantically horned rams in some smelly ruin of a sheep shed where  twisted old men secured expressionless deals – was a settler culture. Like any settler culture you were there to push back the wilderness, drain the swamps, shred the scrub, deep plough, fertilise, poison and generally tidy the landscape up into artificially squared fields. Old buildings were demolished. Neolithic burial cairns ploughed in. Fritillary meadows were unsightly, colourful burdens and centuries-old hedge banks redundant obstacles to progress.

Ravens came from hell. Eagles were the stuff of legend. Foxes were reviled. 

Nothing was sacrosanct. Old equine servants in their faithful millions had been delivered uncomplaining with their foals and spirited teenage offspring to the holocaust yards of the renderers a generation before. Old breeds of livestock were despised as aboriginals. Tough and hardy they might be, but their presence in the landscape had to yield to progress. When you took them into a 1980’s livestock market you were laughed at and despised. 

Self-righteous men with big fists and bellies. Gigantic machines and unlimited amounts of tax payer’s cash. Their generation had known rationing and seen Europe starve but they could not fail in life or prepare for death in peace. Once you had sold your farm what was left ? No market days when you could outwit your pals and cheat strangers. No shows. No animals to care for. No fields to till. Arrogant young sons who sniggered at your inability to understand the computer systems of their telehandlers and who laughed behind your back at your old time tales. They married glamorous, young, career women who left within years taking their bored grandchildren and large bits of your legacy with them.

Nothing much to do. Bowls? Gardening? Dominos? Golf while you still could before stiffening limbs stopped movement? Your retired sheep dog going blind and growing warts. In his clouded canine eyes and rancid breath the refection of your own passing.

You knew your wife would outlive you. A broken, wandered woman making cakes and scones in plenty for a family long dispersed and a husband long gone.

This was my farming past.   

So why return.

I enjoyed it very much. You were part of a hearty tribe. Although they fell out with each other for the most trivial of reasons they generally stood together against all else. Outside the tribe lay the lands of their enemies. Vegans, conservationists, the RPA, the EA, government, other people, other points of view. The hideous boggie of a Monbiot! Within the tribe you were secure. As long as you kept your blinkers on.  

I enjoyed the selection of livestock to identify the best performing sheep and cattle for my land, the satisfaction of hitting consistent grading targets for my produce, pals at market saying that my bullocks that year – big, butter yellow, pied simmentals out of beef shorthorn cows – were the best I had ever produced. I liked to stand at farm gates and watch my calves running races with their buddies as the flaming sun, sank slowly beneath the horizon. I liked to smell the spring warmth in the earth in obscure field corners while catching obdurate ewes at lambing time. Honestly I liked to stand in a commanding position on top of a rise and tell visitors that all those white dots grazing as far as the eye could see to the east for a mile and to the west for three valleys up and down in a rolling triangle of land pointing off to distant Dartmoor were mine.

The subsidies were great. As a farmer you got approximately £40,000 of tax payer’s money through a no-strings system every year – Single Farm Payment. Bonanza! This largesse variably expanded into additionally buying combines, sheep handling facilities, installed beauty rooms on your farm, kept a cow (it did not always have to have a calf), installed farm shops or built roads. Although the direction of the lolly was always variable, hydra-like, sources spontaneously erupted when a few were chopped off. It was a cornucopia which always overflowed. Although in theory some of this stream was supposed to divert into environmental schemes in reality these achieved little. The fact that pretty much every biodiversity focused graph now resembles a ‘thunderbirds’ rocket which has run out of fuel falling to earth bears stark testament to their failure.

Good things happened by accident like escaped beavers breeding or sloppy farmers releasing wild boar. Dedicated, amazing people reintroduced red kites and white tailed eagles. Criminals murdered their offspring. The general trend was and is grim.       

But still we continued. Sheep gatherings were big events where our tide of creamy, shorn sheep and their gigantic, gigoted lambs spilt out onto country roads and blocked them for kilometres. We had quad bikes, ATVs, many dogs and staff. Children throwing each other into cattle troughs, crying, fighting, laughing. Although we smiled amicably at motorists queuing up at either end of our vast ovine flood which in the far distance had begun to pour itself into the handling pens of our farm we did not really care much about their inconvenience in any way.

Why should we? We were farmers!

Until 2006 when with my mother’s death I could contemplate it as a realistic future I had never given farming much thought. If I had, it seemed like an impossible dream. Unaffordable. I did other things. In 1990 I attended a summer school on captive breeding endangered species at Gerald Durrell’s zoo on Jersey. I had read everyone of his books and like many others come away utterly inspired by his concern for the devastating loss of the natural world and its marvellous wildlife and his inspiring vision of how for many species captive breeding could afford an armada of salvationary arks. I met people from countries without photocopiers, plush carpets, PA’s, vast memberships and Biological Action Plans who had committed themselves utterly to the salvation of wild creatures. Commonly they did so to their own significant detriment and sometimes at great risk to their lives. Nature conservation in Britain which I had never before considered to any extent but always imagined to be competent and organised became an issue of great personal interest to me. In the 29 years that followed I have come to believe that although good things have been accomplished, conservation in Britain has largely failed as a movement and that if we are to truly turn round our current hurtling cascade of ecological loss we will have no option other than to uptake critically extreme solutions from third world examples.   

There is no question that intensive, farming systems are largely responsible for a landscape scale collapse in biodiversity. Chemical-based arable in the east. Overgrazing of livestock in the west. Clickzins in the sheep. Rodenticides in the prey. Ivomectins in the cattle. Metaldehydes in the crops. Neonicotinoids in the bees.  Nitrates, phosphates, poisons beyond count. In our land, in our water. in our bodies. BSE, Foot and Mouth, swine fever to come. Farmer’s industrial representatives are big and bluff. There is no problem everything is fine. Tweedy, porky women tell us in their blogs that healthy food and a healthy environment can only be delivered by British Farmers.

It is bullshit which its deliverers are either immoral enough to pedal or too obtuse to recognise the truth.  

I knew full well from my own experience this is so. Sewage fungus turning like languid giant ‘Shitake’ in my lower stream. A present from the next door dairy farmer which ensured that there was no life left. Where our sheep grazed nothing lived. When they died their toxic carcases offered no solace even to blowfly.

Occasionally from neighbours whispered murmurings of memories would illuminate a recent past. Orchids in the upper meadows before silage wiped them out. Barn owls, glow worms, hen harriers, wheatears, hares, water voles, short-eared owls, stonechats and lapwings. The saddest were the curlews. In the time I have farmed here perhaps on three occasions in the mists of an early morning a curlew has risen. Calling, calling, calling its plaintive, whooping lilt. This once common sound of spring is now a lament.

The crying of wraith that remains only in vestigial spirit.  

The long lived birds that come here are the last of the Culm moorland chicks. Born 20 years ago in a landscape that’s now gone. Were they lucky as a last generation to survive the balers of silage or has their life been one of eternal regret? 

No home. No life. No Mates. No food. No future.

I can’t reverse their loss on my 300 acres but for me now this knowledge is simply too much. It haunts me. Its truth has become unbearable. Although my journey has already begun with water voles reintroduced, polecats released, small wetlands recreated, farm woodlands planted, brash retained in field corners, water sheds protected from grazing livestock I clearly understand that it’s not enough. More needs to be done. Gradually in stages as is affordable this farm will cease to operate on a normal basis.

From a chance escape several years ago beavers are now breeding in our stream systems. They are most welcome. An utter delight to behold. They work to restore life. We have assembled a herd of feral cattle whose mighty bulls will produce biodiversity from their behavioural patterns rather than beef. Pigs and ponies will be added shortly to the mix and we will start to re-wild our first 120 acres.

Shepherds huts will welcome visitors, camping will begin. The other things I do in life will have to support this essential change. Please help in time if you can. Follow our progress. I have no intention of looking back but rather forward in an effort to provide a tangible example of how without significant issue a landscape can be reshaped to become one which balances my own interests with the critical needs of wildlife as well.

It will be a journey of wonder.  


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