From flooded fields to being flooded with nature-seeking urbanites, Somerset farmer Julie Baber, gives her view of these last dramatic months in a blog for the ORFC’s new newsletter.
First, it was all about the weather. While COVID-19 was a drama playing out on the other side of the world, UK farmers worried over flooded fields, drowning livestock and ruined crops. My own preoccupation was the rickety old pantile roof of our lambing shed that had been ‘temporarily’ propped up following snow damage two years ago, and was now in danger of caving in on me and the sheep.
I had slipped a disc in February during a losing battle with a fallen ash tree on an electric fence and I had no idea how we would clear shed and yard and repair the roof in time for lambing.
The cavalry came in the form of my sister and her family who exchanged building skills and labour for wine and Sunday dinner. By Mother’s Day, we were ready.
Two days later we were in lockdown. The distant drama had swept across the world and despite the pulling up of the Brexit drawbridge, the powers that be did little to defend our islands from a threat oblivious to man-made borders.
Like members of many other families, my eldest daughter and her partner made a timely dash for home and it has not been lost on any of us how fortunate we are to be in this place of space and light and the solace of nature. The extraordinary scenes of thousands of people literally running for the hills, beg many a fundamental question about how our largely urban population lives today.
My feelings regarding access to the countryside are, as always, conflicted and the lockdown magnifies this conflict. On the one hand, I believe that contact with the natural world should be every person’s birthright and that the planet can never truly be owned by individuals as a commodity. On the other hand, I invest a huge amount of time, energy, sweat and tears in the land I work on for long hours before and after the casual rambler has gone home. Like, I suspect, most farmers, I react to the public on the basis of experience; if they are responsible, friendly – and buy my eggs – I’m happy to see them enjoying my home turf. If they drop litter, block gateways and let their dogs worry the sheep, it hardens my attitude to anyone I perceive as a threat.
The battle lines were drawn, really, on that first weekend when the over-privileged headed out from urban conurbations to the rural idyll of their second homes – villages were choked with cars and National Parks had the busiest weekend in their history.
Many farmers feel an almost tangible threat from so many people dispersing from cities, potentially bringing the dreaded virus with them like the plague. I don’t know – in fact, I doubt anyone knows – what the actual risk of hundreds of hands touching a kissing gate really is.
Easier to quantify are the other effects of an urban population with time on its hands and a triggered escape mechanism. After the first weekend madness, we saw a peace here in the Chew Valley that has been challenged by our proximity to Bristol and Bath for a long time. The lifting of the ‘drive to walk’ ban, however, has seen a return of all those problems created by people inundating – but disconnected to – the countryside.
Farmers, of course, are primarily food producers and, in this most bizarre spring season, food production and its distribution and consumption has been turned upside-down. For some it has been disastrous: we have all seen the reports of milk intended for the catering and hospitality sectors being poured away on farms and the desperate pleas for pickers by producers of fruit and vegetable crops. For many small farmers like myself, however, demand has never been so high.
After the initial panic buying and the discovery that they couldn’t eat toilet rolls, people that had never shopped anywhere but the nearest supermarket began to look around for who else might stand between them and starvation. What they found were the farmers and small local shops and suppliers that had been there all along, many struggling to stay afloat and all depending on the support of their loyal regulars.
It is heartening to see community groups being mobilised, people reconnecting with the soil by planting their own vegetables, many for the first time, milk being bought from the farm up the road. The question we all want answered is will it continue after, whenever and whatever after looks like?
‘Use it or lose it’ is a phrase often applied to local shops and I hope that people will recognise that it was their village stores, butchers, farms and small businesses that came to their aid in these troubled times.
Lambing under lockdown is not a lot different to every other lambing season. Daily exercise consists of endlessly walking the beaten path between yard gate and kitchen door, pen hurdling calls for a spot of gymnastics and occasional assisted births remind me that I should be doing my physio more often. Nights are calm and quiet, interspersed with moments of frantic activity. There is little that demonstrates the frailty of life more or is more life affirming than lambing.
For years environmental and climate campaigners have been repeating the mantra, ‘we have to change our ways’ and have largely been ignored in the dogmatic view that societies cannot change as quickly as required to avert disaster. And yet, here we are, a changed world. That it could and should result in a massive shift to a more sustainable way of living is something we cannot afford to miss. For those of us in the farming community, now is the time to play our part, mobilise and seize the day.
Julie Baber and her family run Pigsmoor Farm, just outside the old Somerset mining village of Pensford. She keeps around 130 Black Welsh Mountain sheep, plus a small flock of rare breed Portlands, for wool, hogget, breeding stock and conservation grazing. The farm also has rare breed poultry, ponies and goats.