Saturday, 18 April 2015

Life on the farm...

Catstones Moor from Tan House, Wilsden on a cold April day
From where I lie
The sheep can safely graze
The farm breasts through the haze
And all is still
From where I lie
A magpie skirts the vale
Reminder now of this o'er-deepening dale
And all is still

The old tractor splutters and coughs into the little farmyard, its days work done. Another day in its thirty years of lifting, shifting, towing and spreading on the sparse fields of a Yorkshire hill farm. The engine is stilled and the driver - the tenant of that hill farm - clambers down from the tractor's cab.

The farmer is old. Too old you might say. Having got down from the tractor he stands for a few seconds seemingly oblivious to his similarly old border collie and catches his breath. The next task is to close the field gate - the man is tired and he makes his hand into a fist so as to still the shakes that get worse with each passing day. With the gate closed, the days work is done or will be so long as nothing dies, breaks or falls. Last autumn the fox got into the chicken run and killed all but a handful.

The farmer shuffles slowly to his house. A house with no central heating, a leaky roof and single glazing but where the tenant farmer can't afford to run more than one fire - so he'll stay in his coat to keep warm and anyway he's tough and can cope with a little cold. His wife died a couple of years ago, his daughter's alright as she's a nurse in Sheffield and his son's driving tipper trucks for the big quarry company. The farmer knows nobody will succeed him - as he did to his father - in the tenancy and he frets about the animals.

We idealise farming - on the telly the life's not that of an old man with Parkinson's struggling to keep enough together so as to just about make a living. Instead we see a big strong man striding across the fields talking purposefully about the jobs and tasks around the farm. Or else some presenter's plaything of a hill farm - filled with a restored farmhouse, lambs, chickens and beautiful moorland views. A million miles away from our old tenant farmer, from the reality of hill farming.

Sat in his tatty armchair sipping a mug of tea our farmer might let his mind wander to the neighbour - the farmer dragged through the courts, broken and bankrupted because he shot a dog that worried his sheep, a dog that threatened his meagre livelihood. The village a short while away is filled with suburban dog-owners who see the fields as some sort of playground where the dogs can run.

Or the farmer might think of tomorrow's tasks - the wall to fix where someone decided to liberate some stone for a little garden feature of a wall, there's maybe muck to spread, later there'll be hay to cut and gather. And there's always paperwork. Endless paperwork - from DEFRA, from the Council, from the benefits people. Plus the bank - he smiles as he remembers the local farmer who drove his muck-spreader into Keighley and treated the front of Barclay's Bank with some choice muck - and the suppliers he hopes to put off paying for a few weeks.

Farming in England's uplands is dying - quite literally. Our farmer is all too typical - it's not a business he's running, he's only kept from starving by subsidy and the benefits system. And there is no succession, no new farmers. Why should there be when no-one can make a living from running an upland farm - even with the Common Agricultural Policy. Yet we expect that farmer to provide a service to us all - keeping footpaths open, mending fences, treating and keeping the land and raising livestock. All so we can get all misty-eyed as we talk about the unique moorland environment and campaign for special designations so that place can be protected from heaven knows what.

If we want to conserve those uplands - so we can walk, cycle, ride horses across it or maybe just drive through it to a pub with a view - then we need to ask how we are going to pay for it. Because those farmers - old, tired, ill and poor - simply aren't going to be there to do all the heavy lifting of loving and caring for the place. So next time you see two old men and a lad fixing a stone wall don't just admire the skill or even appreciate the effort. Instead ask how your free enjoyment of the countryside - enshrined in law - is being paid for. Then before you get back into your new-ish motor to drive back to town, blush a little in guilt at how a poor man's money is being spent on providing you with a playground.


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