Cornwall

They say time flies when you’re having fun, and I can hardly believe that January, and my first lambing of the season, has already been and gone.

As the title suggests, I fled the frozen North at the turn of the New Year for the tropical climes of the south west of England to lamb an early flock of Poll Dorsets, Charollais crosses and pedigree Blue Texels.

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This was my first January lambing, but thankfully the weather was fantastic and the ewes were, for the most part, very well behaved, so it was a nice way to ease me in to the next three or four months of lambing.

Every day’s a school day and this job gave me a few new experiences, including lambing in a polytunnel, working with two new breeds in the Dorsets and Blue Texels and sampling the wonderful Cornish pasty. I was actually very impressed with the Dorsets and briefly contemplated setting up an early lambing flock at home before realising they probably wouldn’t fare too well in the Scottish winter! I think I’d better leave the frozen lamb to the supermarkets.

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Thanks to the weather, ewes and lambs were quickly turned out in the fields and I was able to enjoy watching the lambs thrive in the three and a bit weeks I spent shepherding them, growing well, forming wee lamb gangs and bounding around at breakneck speed. The paddocks and fields of the surrounding Cornish dairy farms were full of grass and, naturally, it did the lambs wonders.

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From South West Scotland to Britain’s most southerly point

The farm was situated just 6 miles away from the most southerly point of mainland Britain, so having made the 1000+ mile round trip, there was no way I could turn down the opportunity of seeing it. Luckily, I was able to find a spare hour to head down to the Lizard Point and stand looking out across the sea, feeling like I was at the world’s edge. It’s well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in that neck of the woods.

I was also able to sneak away on a Saturday morning to spend a few hours in Breage with Steve and Ryan of the Cornish Lamb Co. Being about 15 minutes away the opportunity to put faces to the two lads behind the social media accounts and see their farm and sheep flock was fantastic.They plied me with coffee, for which I will be forever in their debt, and I hope I’ve made two virtual pals into real world ones.

I had a few enquiries about work from clients old and new while down in Cornwall, so I’ll have plenty of work to look forward to at the end of the 523 mile slog back up the M5 and M6, starting with scanning a few thousand Romneys.

 

 

Follow A Farmer: Josh Brock

While many British farmers travel to the other side of the world to experience how they do things Down Under, there are very few who go there to kick start their farming careers. One farmer that did just that is Josh Brock, a first time farmer from Sussex. 

Now back in the UK, I chat to Josh about what took him to the other side of the world. 

Enjoy! 

James: What’s your farming background?

Josh Brock: Honestly? Nothing. I have no farming background. Two and a half years ago I took a chance and went to Australia and New Zealand to pursue my dream of becoming a farmer. It has slowly taken shape having worked in all sorts of places on all sorts of different farms – sugar cane, huge wheat operations, sheep, deer, dairy, beef and even organic lemon myrtle at one point! Without coming from a farm, I’ve done everything possible to catch up and broaden my experience and knowledge as a farmer.

J: Where do you come from originally?

JB: I am originally from Horsham, West Sussex. Just a nice, normal town, full of normal people. Where i never had much of a relationship with the country or agriculture. After reading books like The Herdwick Shepherd and high country farming books in NZ it makes me very jealous of people who are born and bred in the beautiful countryside where farming runs through their veins.

J: How did you get started in farming?

JB: It was a gamble I suppose. I was working in London and could not stand what I was doing, like so many other people. I guess the idea of farming was planted through a whole number of ways. The job that I did not like, being stuck indoors and wanting to have a relationship with a business that produces something integral to everyone, food. I had emailed a few agri-recruiters in the UK and without any prior experience or contacts it was looking very difficult to find my way into farming. The recruiter advised me that travelling to the southern hemisphere is one way of getting experience. So this was my Gamble. I got in contact with a rugby team over in Airlie Beach, North Queensland who agreed to help me out with a job in farming for the coming season. I booked my flight and was on a Sugar Cane farm within a couple of days of landing. What was meant to be a 4 month trip turned out to be two and a half years. After a year in Australia, I went to NZ and turned mainly Arable experience into a year and a half with dairy, sheep, deer, beef, a bit of calf rearing and some more arable. Two and a half years spent on 7 different farms, always learning something different.

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J: That must have been a hell of a learning curve! Going from zero experience straight into arable farming. Let alone the other side of the world

JB: It definitely was, but I was totally committed too doing it and giving it all a go. There were days when I was completely out of my depth. I managed to get myself a ‘chaser bin’ job on a 19, 000 acre wheat and barley harvest. I was driving a John Deere 8850 with a 30 ton chaser bin. Considering I had only been driving tractors a wee while, it was a challenge. Thankfully I kept myself out of trouble and came out with a few more skills under my belt. Being in Australia in my mind was a risk free approach. I could go over there, give it all a shot and if it wasn’t for me, I could just put it down to a great experience. Let me tell you though, it’s not all Fendts and GPS up there, especially on some of those sugar cane farms.

J: What made you decide to go across the ditch (to NZ) instead of coming back to the UK and finding arable work here?

JB: I would put that down to a few reasons.  As much as I love driving tractors, when this whole journey started, it was always the idea of stock work that got me going.  Where I was living and working in Australia, bar the 120 Brahman surviving off of dust and molasses, there wasn’t too much stock work going.  So I thought, why not carry on travelling and go to the land of dairy and sheep, play some more rugby and use my recent tractor driving experience to get myself any sort of stock job I could get my hands on.

J: Where did you find yourself first in NZ?

JB: A place called Warkworth, an hour north of Auckland, where i played for Mahurangi RFC.  I started working on a calf rearing farm.  We would milk 30 cows in a small parlour and rear the calves on the fresh milk, selling them on to a beef finishing block at 100kg.

J: How much of a change was it going from the arable work to working with livestock?

JB: It was a huge change, there was a massive learning curve, picking up ‘stock sense’ was the first obstacle, just the little things like knowing where and how to stand so that you can load up a race or get a cow in the crush.  However luckily, there were similarities in both.   Arable and stock work are of course, based around a good days work, attention to detail was always key and putting 100% effort into every and any job I got given.  I think I just about managed to keep my head down and not make to many mistakes.  Just don’t ask any of my old bosses! For me, I think I would always favour stock work over arable maybe because I find it comes to me more naturally.  But I still think that my favourite job/farm so far was my last farm in New Zealand.  It was based in South Canterbury in a small town called Waimate, where it was a real mix of arable, sheep, beef, dairy grazing and Deer.  I think this is where I was lucky enough to bring together all of my recently learnt skills together and try to perfect them as best I could.  Of course I am still learning and enjoying everyday.

J: Deer farming isn’t really that common here in the UK but it’s a big industry in NZ. Could you give a little intro to deer farming to those who’ve never experienced it?

JB: It was a very new venture when I got my little taste, so I cannot tell you in any great depth too much on it.  However what i can tell you is, you need high fences, a good set up with laneways, a dark and enclosed set of yards, a good pack of dogs and a very quick mind.  As they aren’t very domesticated they are extremely flighty as I’m sure you would have guessed.  This, from a few conversations with fellas can be bred out of them and some say is also genetic.

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J: We’ll get on to my favourite topic, and I’m assuming yours, sheep. It must have been incredible to work with sheep out there for the first time?

JB: Absolutely my favourite.  I guess it was incredible, i mean, i think I’m lucky to have experienced the things i have. I started In Waimate during lambing, which I’m sure like everyone else, it is definitely the most exciting/intense time of year.  This was my first ever experience of sheep work.  So other than being completely out of my depth, I was also very lucky to start at this time.  I was Marking twins and triplets, chasing after ewes and helping with difficult labours. I cannot wait for my first lambing in the UK.  Throughout my year there, I ended up learning everything, all be it in the kiwi way, weaning, tailing, drenching, vaccinating, tupping and of course hill country musters.  I cannot emphasise how lucky i was.  We had arable, we had heaps of grass paddocks and plenty of forage crops for fattening and finishing and we also had an 900Ha hill country block.  I think these were my favourite days, mustering off the hills at weaning time.   I must write a bit about my first experience working with a dog, because for me this is and will always be one of my favourite parts of shepherding.  I was lucky enough to be ‘lent’ the old huntaway on the farm.  The boss had himself had a Beardie and a young huntaway  So i inherited the old boy Vogue.  Due to his vast experience i was definitely the student and worked off of him rather than the other way round.  I think the bond i built with that dog was one of the most rewarding experiences i had overseas.    I think it is easy to get caught up in the romance of the kiwi model which is held in such high regards.  But after reading books like ‘counting sheep’ and ‘The shepherds life’ i cannot wait to experience everything sheep farming has to offer in the UK.

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J:  I’ve interviewed a few shepherds for this series now and every single one has pinpointed working dogs as one of they’re favourite things. My collie Non and I have a very different relationship to me and my huntaway Dane. We’ve bonded in a totally different way and he’s so loyal. We’re teaching and learning from each other every day.

I can’t speak highly enough of them. What’s so special for you about that bond between man and dog? And as the first huntaway connoisseur we’ve had on the blog, can you give a little insight in to what it’s like working with them?

JB: Well Ican only speak from a biased position. The only dogs I have real experience with are huntaways. Working with them is great. It’s a little noisy and they definitely go about their business differently compared to a collie. I am lucky enough to have the use of a youngish pup called Dave, he’s now 16 months old and every time we work together, like you say, we are learning together. It’s really amazing to see the things that you have been working on coming together. I can now confidently say he has a strong stop, good sides and in the Prattley he is great. .

I think the thing that is so special about the bond between man and dog boils down to something quite primitive and its all about that bond that is created. Your dog will never say no to helping you and you know that the dog, be it doing the right thing or wrong thing is putting 110% into everything he is doing. Something very hard to remember when he has just chased the sheep out of the pen so he can do it all over again.

J: How did you make the decision to come back to the UK?

JB: The decision was made for me. Me and my girlfriend both had stable jobs and wanted to stay out there longer. To achieve this, we had to go and get visa extensions. For this you need to pass a medical. I managed to pass, but my girlfriend didn’t. The medical unveiled a 2.8cm hole in her heart. The doctor said she must get it closed within the year or it could cause some real problems. So we made the decision to head back to get her fixed. I managed, through the social network that is twitter, to get in contact with a very nice chap called Robert Hodgkins and after much persuading, Rob and his Partner Jo, offered me a Job. So my fate was sealed. I left NZ at the end of July and was working for them in Hertfordshire by August. My luck did not stop there. My girlfriend Alice, made a full recovery and is back to helping me out on the farm whenever she can. Sometimes reluctantly.

J: There’s very few things in life more important than farming… but sorting your girlfriend’s heart is definitely one of them! You’re bloody lucky they found it

JB: I do like to remind her that it was me who saved her life by wanting to go to NZ in the first place.

J: Making a massive assumption (sorry NZ), but I’d guess you worked with Romneys over there? Is that how you first heard of Rob and Jo?

JB: we had a real selection of mongrel in NZ, bar the pedigree Border Leicesters. However, I didn’t target Rob and Jo. A twitter account put me in their direction and we just went from there. It definitely does help that Rob and Jo run a NZ style of sheep farming as it is all that i know.

J: How do you find working with the Romneys? I’ve done a bit of work with Viewfield Romneys up here and really enjoy working with them and that NZ inspired system.

JB: The Romneys are good as gold I reckon, especially when compared to Perendales. The good thing for me was that Sheep run the same up this way of the world. I can still get my jobs done!! How do you find working with them? I am definitely looking forward to working with something different for instance some of the hill breeds we have over here.

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J: What kind of British breeds would you like to work with in the future?

JB: at the top of the list, Swaledales, Black Scotch face and Cheviots. But that’s me getting caught up in the romance of it all. I think landscape also has a lot to do with it.

J: You say you’re caught up in the romance of it all. Where has that come from?

JB: Asking that is very hard to answer without coming across ridiculously cheesy. But come on, realistically, is there much better life than this. I look forward to every day of work and feel very lucky to be part of it.

J: What makes the farming life so good for you? and does it live up to any dreams/expectations you had before you started farming?

JB: It has allowed me to look forward to everyday of work, it has taken me to some amazing places and lead me to meet some real characters and will hopefully continue to do so. When you think about me leaving the country with no experience with tractors, sheep or cows and then within 6 months I was driving a John Deere tractor with a thirty ton grain bin on the back, next to a brand new $400,000 combine harvester. Three years on I am now a shepherd doing my best to look after 1200 ewes and I could walk in to a milking parlor and just about find my way around a cow. This lifestyle I have chosen lives up to my dreams and expectations absolutely and I look forward to it continuing to do so wherever it leads me to.

J: what’s been your biggest challenge so far?

JB: The biggest challenge so far. There has definitely been a few and of course bound to be more but between getting people to take me seriously as a farmer, making the transition in to farming and getting into the industry altogether with no prior experience or contacts. I would probably say the latter. To get to where I want to be I have had to do a few hard yards, between working for difficult people to doing some very mundane jobs I have finally pieced together a CV that I am proud of and have worked at some really cool places along my journey so far which have really allowed to achieve and experience exactly what I imagined farming would be. It also wasn’t easy breaking in to British farming. Thankfully Jo and Rob took a chance on me. You would have to ask them whether its paid off or not. But it’s really put me in a great place and taught me heaps.

J: finally, what does 2017 have in store for you?

JB: 2017 could hold a number of things for me. Really looking forward to cracking on with the Tesco Future Farmer Foundation, bettering myself as a shepherd and embracing any challenge or opportunity with both arms wide open!

If you’ve enjoyed my chat with Josh, you can keep up with him as he continues his farming journey back in the UK on twitter: @Brocksflock49 

Follow A Farmer: Barkland Croft pt 2

This week we’re heading back to Britain’s most isolate isle for the second part of my interview with Rachel from Fair Isle’s Barkland Croft. 

We chat working with the National Trust, juggling farming with 6 other jobs and what the future holds.

Enjoy!

J: The NT has caused quite a bit of controversy of late, especially in their handling of the purchase of Thorneywaite Farm in the Lake District. You’ve highlighted a couple of issues there, but what are they like as Landlords?

R: Re the National Trust for Scotland: I can only speak from my very limited, 18 months experience, so my views might not necessarily be representative of all the islanders here. I think the relationship between Fair Isle residents and the NTS used to be very different – going back 15-20 years an NTS representative would be present at the 4 annual quarterly island community meetings and there was a real sense of personal relationship between ‘them and us’.

I get the impression from older residents that they used to feel valued as tenants, that the NTS was keen to renovate housing, carry out repairs and put money into the housing stock on the island, to ensure its longevity. In recent years the feeling seems to be that the NTS is moving to a more ‘hands-off’ style of management, based in an office in Edinburgh, with managers who’ve never been to Fair Isle and have no concept of the lives we lead here and the challenges and issues we face.

People have said that they have felt that in recent years Fair Isle has been ‘cut adrift’ and left to deal with its problems on its own to an extent. At the 7 island quarterly meetings at which I’ve been present since moving here, there has only ever been an NTS representative present at one of them, and that was last week. There has been a big re-shuffle in the NTS in the last couple of months and quite a change in staff – last week we met our new ‘area manager’ who listened to some of our concerns, visited houses and saw some of the issues we have and, dare I say it, the overall feeling now is one of hopeful positivity, that this could be the start of a new, improved relationship and that the NTS will better support us in our efforts to develop new housing on the island so we can grow our population.

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J: The yearly cycle is one that most farmers will recognise, but from what I know of crofting it is very different from your “traditional” farming set up. What do you think really sets crofting apart?

R: As I’ve no farming background and so my only experience comes from crofting, I’m not really sure if there is a technical definition that sets the two apart. I would say that one of the differences between ‘farming’ and ‘crofting’, certainly here at least, is that you can’t make a living from just crofting!

Everyone that runs a croft here on Fair Isle has several other part-time jobs (I have 6), that bring in an income, that enable us to carry on crofting. Perhaps also it is the sense of community that pervades just about everything we do, where everyone pitches in with jobs like baling, the several hill caas each year (bringing down the hill sheep which are on common grazing land), fencing repairs or ditching on shared grazing areas, being part of the hill rota for lambing checks on the hill sheep… Whether it is applicable to crofting in general, or whether it’s just my experience here on Fair Isle due to our environment, but crofting seems to have an element of self-sufficiency that perhaps isn’t as necessarily evident in farming. I may be completely wrong and I’m not trying to annoy any farmers with that statement – please put it down to my ignorance if I’m wrong!. I’ve a way to go myself, but the majority of crofters here are virtually self-sufficient and produce their own meat and veg crops. As little as 20 years ago the croft next door to me was also the island dairy, where people got their milk from.

J: Balancing the croft with 6 other jobs is phenomenal! What other jobs are you doing on the island?

R: I run the croft, I ‘finish’ garments for two of the island’s three knitwear producers, I’m the Admin Assistant for Fair Isle Development Company, I also do admin & accounts work for Shetland Nature – a wildlife tour company based in Shetland, I’m the relief cook at the primary school, I provide all the catering for the cruise ships that visit the island, and I’m the relief cleaner for the surgery & community hall . Oh, and I’m one of two organists for the Kirk and Chapel, and the Secretary for the Hall Committee, but they’re not paid positions.

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J: That’s just incredible. You’ve recently been part of a BBC programme about living on Fair Isle. How was that?

R: I think having several jobs is just the norm here as there are so few full-time jobs, in the traditional sense, on the island. You can see that on the recent BBC documentary where they listed people’s jobs under their names!

The BBC documentary was a really special project to be part of. Initially I was reticent about being in it, as I’m quite a private person really, but then once it was established that Lou, whose project it was, wasn’t looking to make one of these the-more-scandal-the-better reality shows, I realised how positive it could be for Fair Isle, helping to raise its profile, bring in more visitors, etc. Lou started filming in April 2015 and finished in May 2016. She and Stuart, the sound man, recorded 266 hours of footage, visiting the island roughly every six weeks. They were never intrusive and respected people’s wishes if someone said ‘please don’t film this’ or ‘can you not use that clip’.

I think Lou had a really tough job editing the footage down to just 2hrs, and I think it’s nigh-on impossible to give a true feel of life on Fair Isle in such a short time, but she’s done a great job & everyone is pleased with how the two programmes turned out. They’ve just been shown on BBC1 Scotland and hopefully will be shown in the rest of the U.K. In 2017!

J: What are the biggest challenges of living and farming in such an isolated location?

R: One of the biggest challenges of living & crofting in such an isolated location is just getting supplies in to the island! Depending on what you’re needing, some companies won’t deliver at all, others want to charge you £25 surcharges or pay ridiculous postage charges…which all add up.

Then it’s physically getting items onto the island – most will be brought by the island ferry, Good Shepherd IV, but that only sails once a week in winter and, weather depending, might not be able to sail for weeks at a time. You have to plan ahead for things like winter feed, lamb milk powder, etc – the last thing you want is to run out of something & there literally be no way of getting any more in.

Another challenge is that everything has to be craned aboard the Good Shepherd, and the crane’s maximum lifting limit is 1.8 tonnes – so that even limits what vehicle you can have here! I wanted a Hilux but they’re too heavy to be craned on the boat, so have an old Freelander. With heavy machinery and tractors, for example, we have to wait till the Filla ,the island ferry that serves the Out Skerries, and has a RORO capacity, comes in twice a year, to get things in or out. It came in last week, bringing all our winter feed & straw, and left with a cargo of vehicles being sent out to be scrapped and a load of old oil drums! Another challenge is that we don’t have 24hr electricity here – the generators only work between 0730-2330hrs, so outside of those times there is literally no power. It’s not a huge issue most of the time, and you do get used to it very quickly, but when it’s 3am, pitch black out, hailing, blowing a gale and you’re trying to get an uncooperative ewe who’s just lambed from the field into a stall in the byre, with just a head torch, it can be quite frustrating! Some folk do have inverters, essentially batteries that charge up during the day then give power once the generators go off, but they’re incredibly expensive to buy…..it’s on my ‘wish list’ though!!

J: We’ve discussed the challenges you face but what have been some of your highlights/favourite parts of your new life as a crofter?

R: Some of the highlights for me have definitely included becoming part of an amazing community, lambing (part-terrifying, part-exhilarating!), sending my first lambs to market, but none of it would be possible without the support I have from my friends and neighbours here. I think overall, however, my favourite aspect of crofting here on Fair Isle is the feeling that I’m actually achieving something. Yes, I make mistakes and I’m learning every day, but I feel a sense of contentment in my life and pride in what I’m doing here that’s been missing from my life for a long time. The support and encouragement I’ve had from people on Twitter has also been overwhelming – whether it’s been kind words or folk offering to help me rebuild gates and such like.

J: what does 2017 have in store for you and Barkland Croft?

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Meg the pup

R: 2017…golly…let’s see…Well, I turn 40 in June, so that’s kind of terrifying! It’ll be my first time lambing on my own, albeit with help from neighbours only a phone call away. My sister and brother-in-law, who live in the States, might hopefully visit for the first time. The usual round of ditching, fencing repairs, hill caas, baling – the same as for a lot of folk! I’m very keen to get one of my parks’ soil tested, as it’s awful ground and I desperately want to improve it so I can eventually increase my flock numbers. I’d love to get my polytunnels covered too! One of the low points of 2016 was that my ex took my working dog, Scott, when we split up (not that he now crofts or even has sheep, but that’s another story….!) meaning that I’ve been reliant on neighbours getting my sheep in for me. However, 2017 is set to change that as in about a week’s time I’m getting a sheepdog pup, Meg, who I’m going to do my best to train so that I can be more self-reliant and better able to help on the hill caas. It’s an exciting time and I really do feel positive about what the future holds for me and my life here.

Don’t forget you can keep up with life at Barkland Croft on by following Rachel on Twitter or by reading the Barkland Croft Blog.

Follow A Farmer: James Robinson

#FollowAFarmer is kicking off 2017 in style, with a whopper of an interview with James Robinson, better known as JRfromStrickley. I think this is one of my favourite interviews I’ve ever done, including those done in my previous guise as a sports writer, and JR was equally as funny as he was fascinating. It was a pleasure to talk to him (albeit virtually) and discover more about his family, his farm and the future.

Enjoy!

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