Recently I have been seeing the farm from the seat of a tractor. I justify the enjoyment I derive from ploughing the fields and “scatter[ing] the good seed on the earth” as the well-known harvest hymn describes – though in fact, the field was precision drilled by a contractor – by remembering how so many cart horses were mistreated and over-worked before tractors came along and the bare fact that this farm could not be cultivated without using finite fossil fuel.
Of all the cultivations, ploughing has the most power to reconnect me with my ancestors and those first hunter-gatherers to settle down and till the soil. There is an excitement in turning the earth and then waiting for the seeds to germinate, imagining the harvest to come. I am accompanied all the while by birds: jackdaws and robins, seagulls, wagtails, rooks and buzzards circling overhead.
There is pleasure also in knowing that after the harvest, we will establish new grass leys so that the sheep will have clean grazing, a major component in the pursuit of a system where the sheep can develop a certain degree of immunity to the various parasites which they are exposed to and for which, on a national scale, such vast quantities of medicines are used with the attendant problems of their overuse.
There are two main enterprises on this farm of beef and sheep, and their very different but complimentary grazing needs help to promote health. If the grass is quite long, the cattle usually graze first, followed by the sheep. Short grass is grazed exclusively by sheep. However, it is not uncommon to see sheep and cows grazing side by side in the same field with no need for, or sign of competition.
The nutritional quality of the grass declines as winter approaches and we feed hay out in the fields. Last weekend, from the safety of the Land Rover, we witnessed the younger of our two bulls and the older of our two rams – both aged twenty months – decide to munch the same flake of hay at the same time.
The bull is tall, perhaps a ton in weight and imposing; the ram is diminutive in comparison and weighs no more than a tenth of that. They are both used to being the dominant figure in their respective spheres.
The bull casually pushed the ram aside. The ram pushed back.
The bull then pushed harder, so the ram reversed a dozen paces and charged the bull at full speed, thwacking him in the centre of his forehead. The bull looked amazed, but before he could recollect his thoughts, the ram repeated the assault twice more and then resumed, what he evidently felt was his rightful place, eating hay. Immediately the bull ‘bulldozed’ the ram, pushing him farther away than before, much as we might shovel snow. The ram held his ground by pedalling his legs as fast as he could even though he was being pushed downhill. Once the bull stopped pushing, the ram was still close enough to be ‘in his way’.
The bull then tossed the ram a few inches off the ground and the ram, landing on his feet not even vaguely perturbed, reversed and crashed thrice more into the bull’s forehead.
We watched as the bull shook his head (with either pain or disbelief) and they both resumed eating the same flake of hay, seemingly to have agreed to a draw.
We had sowed mustard as a green manure crop prior to cultivating wheat. But rather than just waiting for to the mustard to mature – hopefully out-competing the weeds, and then ploughing it in to improve the fertility of the field – we allowed some of the cows and sheep free access to it together in a large field of grass. It was fascinating to watch how avidly they all ate, concentrating mainly on the flowers, as did uncountable thousands of swallows, presumably stocking up on the insects that were attracted to mustard.
The joy of farming is somewhat counter-balanced by pitfalls and problems and the words of Laurens van der Post that “farming is the greatest tyranny ever imposed upon mankind, particularly if you have to make it pay” ring in my ears frequently.
Recently I was trying to juggle the demands of a fairly old cow with twins, who needed access to the best grass and the best hay, but she refused to leave the field where her sons’ best friends were. Consequently, I had to agree to three extra cows with their calves sharing the ‘best’, even though they were definitely not ‘in need’. This makes perfect sense on the grounds of sympathy and compassion but not economics!
In his book The Farming Ladder, George Henderson explains that he observed sheep were far more intelligent than cows (or horses) and I too witness evidence of this daily. One young lamb once came, Lassie-like to ‘demand’ my help, when her friend had fallen in the swimming pool – something no bovine of my acquaintance would ever have done. In the case of the ram and the bull, the ram’s character and total confidence in himself proved superior to the bull’s physical strength.
Photograph: Steph French
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