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‘Harrumph! Oh yes!’ With an expansive stretch and a shove of his chair, he grins over at me.

I look up from my book, stop munching on my toast and marmalade and stare questioningly across the table ‘What?’

‘Oh nothing. Just the editorial in the New Scientist…you should read it.’ He gets up, a maddening little smile playing over his face.

‘Hey what? You can’t just walk out. It’s obviously something good otherwise you wouldn’t be goading me!’

‘Sorry! Loads of work to do. History to make, hoverflies to catch, hedges to write about and moths to think about….Gotta go. Read it.’

‘No! What is it?’

‘Read it…must dash…’

‘Robert!’

‘Okay, okay. So what do you think about engineering animals, farm livestock, so they don’t feel pain?’

‘What! So that people can be guilt free whilst keeping them in horrific conditions?’ I exclaim. I thrust my chair away from the table. I’m shocked.  ‘That’s atrocious. Despicable. Oh yes, just let’s keep factory farming and inhumane systems, after all we make billions from it, so we’ll just fiddle about with nature a bit; engineer livestock not to feel pain and that should make it all alright. Of course it does. Doesn’t  it? Does it? Hell no!’ I storm around the kitchen ‘What’s with man? Why do we think we have the god given right to to to to’ I stutter I’m so angry I can get my words out ‘to ….’

‘So you think that animals should continue to suffer in intensive factory systems? You don’t think it’d be better to stop the pain? You’d rather tens of millions of animals…?

I interrupt ‘No I certainly don’t. But why fix the animals and not the system. End factory farming and you end the problem.’ I dust off my hands ‘End of story!’

‘You’ll never get rid of factory farming.’

‘So that means you compound the problem? You don’t even try? You sit back on your laurels full of smug complacency that the steak, chicken, pork chop you’re tucking into is just fine because it didn’t suffer pain whilst being farmed in the most abominable conditions? No! That’s just so wrong. Immoral.’

‘So what’s your solution then?’

What is my solution?  I read the editorial. It’s well written. Very well written. The editor draws on the similarity to Douglas Adam’s novel The Restaurant At the End Of The World where Arthur Dent, the main character, is horrified when a cow-like creature is wheeled to the restaurant table, introduces itself as the dish of the day and proceeds to describe the cuts of meat available from its body. The animal has been bred to want to be eaten and to be capable of saying so.

The truth is not far behind fiction, the editorial continues, as proposals are underway to genetically engineer livestock to be untroubled by pain – all too common in intensively reared farm animals. The concept treats cattle, pigs and chicken as if they were inanimate objects whose suffering is like a computer program in need of debugging.

Apparently my violent reaction is quite common too, even has a name – it’s known as the ‘yuck factor’, and it’s not an unusual response to those many advances in biotechnology and biomedicine involving cloning, genetic modification and human-animal chimeras. This distaste is often irrational and can be a potential barrier to progress. Progressive thoughts often comes from ignoring such reactions and thinking things through logically instead.

I can see the logic behind Robert’s comments yes – pain-free animals do make sense – but only in a world that has devalued animal life to a point where anything’s acceptable to aid the production of billions of tonnes of cheap meat.  A world that no longer cares about the plight of animals but only of how it’s going to feed itself cheaply.

If the choice is between animals bio-engineered not to feel pain or eating less meat, I know what I think is right.  But equally well, I know that most people can’t care much about the pain  factory-farmed animals endure – otherwise they would not eat their meat.  For many in poor nations, they have no choice.   But still, surely the human race can’t sink that low?

factory-farmed pigs

factory-farmed pigs

my Devons grazing Path Field

my Devons grazing Path Field

Did any of you catch Countryfile this week? In particular John Craven’s investigation into methane producing cattle and sheep, climate change and Meat Free Monday?

Research, reported in the New Scientist not long ago, suggests that producing a kilo of beef has the equivalent effect on the climate as driving 250 km and leaving all the lights on at home to boot.  Meanwhile ministers have been on record as saying that if you really want to save the world (and your health), you should stop eating meat.  There’s also a maxim that climate change is driven by the three Cs:  combustion, chainsaws and cattle.

So, am I an arch climate villain?  Is my carbon foot print so big that I leave tracks across the world like yeti? By my calculations, every time I sell a bullock, it’s like driving all the way from Devon to Timbuctoo.  I’m told cattle produce huge quantities of methane, a gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effects, from both ends.  Even worse, on conventional farms, the grass and grain they eat requires tonnes of fertiliser which takes barrels and barrels of oil to make as well as releasing yet more greenhouse gases when it’s spread on the fields.

But there’s some hope for me.  I may not have to sell up quite yet.  Some Swedish research shows that organic beef raised on grass has a much lower carbon footprint, emitting forty percent less greenhouse gas and consuming eighty-five percent less energy.   This figures since we don’t use artificial fertilisers, recycling nutrients (good, old-fashioned muck) from the farm, and keep far fewer cattle per hectare.  What’s even better, there’s good reason to suspect that organic soil management actually results in carbon being taken out of the atmosphere (carbon sequestration) rather than being released into it offsetting the methane produced by the animals.  (It’s a little known fact that there’s far, far more carbon stored in England’s soils than in all its woodlands.)

But, I could be in danger of being complacent here.  Unfortunately it’s still a fact that my Devons are belching and farting large quantities of a powerful greenhouse gas into the beleaguered stratosphere. So what I should try to aim for is to be carbon neutral, right the way from grass to plate. I wonder, by the way, what the term is for a negative footprint is? Someone who takes more carbon out of the air than they release into it?

I shall have to have one of these carbon audits done and see what I can do to reduce my footprint.  Perhaps I can manage my soils differently, let my hedges get even bigger; reduce transport costs, put up solar panels on the barns and be energy self-sufficient, look into other means of collecting and storing water…fixing plastic bags onto the rear end of the cattle is an interesting prospect, perhaps my inventor friend can work out a way and we’ll get rich on the patent!

The other side of the coin is that Devon badly needs its cattle and sheep.  Imagine Dartmoor without them.  Our priceless historical landscape would be lost beneath a sea of bracken, gorse and trees. Think also of all our wonderful unique indigenous grasslands. They and their supporting habitat wouldn’t survive without grazing. I guess our challenge as farmers is to produce beef and lamb in a way that helps the climate. Far better for us to face the challenge now and take the matter into our own hands than to wait for the inevitable regulations down the road.  I don’t know the answers, but suspect they may involve all of us who enjoy meat eating less of it, valuing it more, and being prepared to pay much more for it, so farmers can afford to farm in a way that is in tune with Mother Earth.

For now, I’ll keep my cows. Try to sleep soundly at night too…after all, there are things I can do.

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

I thought this might amuse you. Can you remember when I was having the dickens of a job finding out whether I could send my organic beef and lamb to my son and family in France?

I was sent spinning around every conceivable agency and organisation, embassy and Government department, both English and French; not one, it appeared, had the faintest clue as to any rules or regulations governing the export of meat from the UK to France.

Eventually I was told to contact Eblex (in England) by the French Department of Agriculture (in France). My luck changed as I was recommended to one importantly busy Jean-Pierre Garnier, the font of all knowledge surrounding matters such as the import of meat to the EU from the UK.  Jean-Pierre, jetting to Dubai (he’s very, very busy), was unable to speak to me personally, but his delightful PA contacted him mid-air and within minutes confirmed what she had thought to be the case. You do nothing. That’s right. Nothing. I was given the green light to stuff my case, pockets, shoes and bag with squishy lumps of meat. Or, of course, which was my preferred option, to send over my usual insulated, vac-packed and labelled boxes of the stuff.
“So it’s nothing, then? Rien?” I was slightly sceptical…

The piece I subsequently wrote was picked up and published in the Countryman magazine. Sam, a sheep farmer in the South East, mailed me. He thought it was a bit ironical considering.

“Considering what?”

“Considering the notice Johann Tasker saw a few weeks back.” (Johann Tasker is an editor on the Farmers’ Weekly)

“What notice?”

“The one at Paris Orly Airport.” Sam very kindly forwarded me a photo of said notice.

I was gob-smacked. Truly, yes. My jaw fell open, hit my boots and stayed there.

I just had to get hold of Johann to see if he would mind if I showed it to you. He said “Go ahead” (nice man) “though it’s not tip-top as it was taken on my phone.”

So here it is. Squint a bit, improvise. But you’ll get the gist. A Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) warning notice, prohibiting the import of any meat or dairy products into France from the UK.  And, please, do tell me what you think is going on…!

the notice at Paris Orley Airport taken a few weeks ago by Johann Tasker

the notice at Paris Orly Airport taken a few weeks ago by Johann Tasker

green shoots growing in the biome

green shoots growing in the biome

The biome begins to blossom!

the kitchen table (and linen cupboard) is providing the ambient growing temperature for seedlings!

the kitchen table (and linen cupboard) provides the ambient growing temperature for seedlings!

It began as a small seed of  an idea in our heads following yet another atrocious summer and a rotting defunct vegetable garden.We decided to take the plunge. Cleared an area of scrub, trees and detritus behind the fruit cage and booked in digger Dave to level the site.  Then wondered what we’d done as the rain continued and conditions became increasingly difficult.

Biting the bullet we ordered a polytunnel ‘kit’ and  began the massive construction operation. Backs were almost broken along with spirits. Eventually the monster was assembled. The next task? Working hundreds of tonnes of sodden clay topsoil chockablock with tree, bramble and weed roots into a friable workable tilth. Tonnes of chippings and sand were added along with lime to produce a neutral soil.  Robert hit his wall…but somehow found the strength to soldier on.

men at work. site clearance

men at work. site clearance

digger-driver-dave does his bit

digger dave does his bit

men at work

cold and frustrated

form this...

from this...

...to this

...to this

and eventually this!

and eventually this!

Mary asked how I now managed to tweet. After all, she commented, you’re running a farm, a business, and holding a blog together. This week, Mary, believe me, it’s been challenging!

I returned from Marseille with a French cold – very different, my body maintained, from an English one – more refined, targeted, kind of specific.

And as I arrived home on Monday evening one of the cows, Wildcat, began to calve. It was a straight forward calving, with no problems, but it meant we didn’t get to bed until well after midnight.

I’ve also had a hot line to New Zealand. Joe, my son, and his partner Jess were waiting for their baby to be born – she was two weeks late. Jess, as you can imagine, was almost at her wits end. Every minute over one’s due date seems an eternity, so two weeks must seem interminable.

A small problem had arisen with Jemima’s calf (born whilst I was away) who developed an infected navel and needed daily treatment with antibiotics.

My last parcel of fat lambs had been procured by an organic co-operative and were due to go on either Tuesday or Wednesday. At present there’s a shortage of organic lamb, and prices are excellent, but selling this way when it is not my norm involves a fair amount of organisation – entailing paperwork, transport arrangements and bellying-out. This last involves shearing the tummy and crutch area – a doddle for an experienced shearer but a little more testing for a novice like me.

A group of friends – the erstwhile ‘Pie-nighters’ were convening here for a meal on Wednesday evening. It also happened to be the evening Jess at long last went into labour. Between absorbing and challenging debate and calls to the other side of the world I eventually got to bed in the small hours with the wonderful news that Jess had produced a beautiful baby girl !

Joe and Jess's baby daughter, my granddaughter, Islay, just minutes after her birth

Joe and Jess's beautiful baby daughter, my granddaughter, Islay, just minutes after her birth

The next day I had to be away early to complete the last legal rigmarole on my mother’s estate so probate could be granted.

This brought us to Friday and a household full of family for the Easter weekend. Our new puppy was due to arrive on Monday – but amid cries of ‘Oh, no. We won’t have time to get to know her. We’ve got to go back on Monday!’ I arranged to pick her up on Friday afternoon…little did I know that in true bank holiday style our kitchen tap would decide to give up the ghost and regurgitate a fountain of hot water and my trusted washing machine gasped its last breath…so Mary, you hit the nail on the head, this week’s been a bit of a struggle!

Puppy post tomorrow!

beautifully butchered lamb

beautifully butchered lamb

A month or so ago I was talking on the phone to Julian, a butcher, who was vaguely interested in buying my organic beef and lamb. Having got the business bit out of the way we went on to chew the fat, discussing what effect credit-crunchie-rescessional times were having on the food buying public and in particular on top quality organic produce.

“Do you ever sell privately?” Julian asked

“Yes, yes I do. But not like I used to.” I went on to explain that I’d sold my business a couple of years ago, though I still supplied some of my loyal and special customers. “And it seems to be building up again!”

“Do you ever need a cutter…a butcher?” he asked

“Not really as I still use my original butchers. They know my system as we worked together for years. But saying that, I also know they find it time consuming and a bit of a pain now. Why?”

“Well, I launched the Bike…” I interrupted him in mid-flow

“The Biker Butcher! The organic licensed motor biking butcher.  I know, I know! I saw a flyer. It came with some of the Soil Association bumph, I think. I remember thinking at the time what a great idea. Lots of possibilities and potential. It certainly grabbed my imagination. How’s it going?”

Apparently after an initial favourable reaction and lots of enthusiasm everything went rather quiet. Julian’s been doing the odd bit of butchery for a few farmers, but not what he’d hoped.

We nattered on contemplating all kinds of interesting scenarios. “I know” I said “why don’t you come up when I next have lambs going off. I need a couple for myself. You could cut those and we could chat.”

Julian skilfully trims a Guard of Honour

Julian skilfully trims a Guard of Honour

And that’s what happened today. This glorious afternoon Julian, and his partner Maria, whisked down the drive on their motorbike complete with all the tools of the trade. I’d put up a trestle table in the kitchen and in no time Julian was skilfully and carefully cutting and butchering my lambs. Shanks, tender rump joints, racks, Guard of Honour, neck fillets, shoulders, legs, chops – with a bit of French butchery thrown in as a practise run for my French lamb export exploits!

cutting and trimming completed

cutting and trimming completed

We talked about all manner of possibilities and opportunities from communal cutting rooms to training and educational courses. The problems  to be faced and the many benefits gained. It was interesting and I’m sure good things will come of it. BBC Countryfile are filming him this coming week too

In the meantime we have some mouth-watering lamb to enjoy – if supper was anything to go by!

result!

result!

One of the ideas we’ve been toying with since Robert’s voluntary redundancy is running a training centre at Locks Park where we would teach and explore skills useful in our fragile, rapidly changing countryside and world; courses that will help us to adapt to, even survive, a world without fossil fuels and with an unpredictable climate.

wood taken from hedge laying - between five corners and square field

wood and brash from hedge laying - between five corners and square field

Together with producing our own food (hence the biome) being self-sufficient in energy and water is near the top of our agenda. It’s a hugely complex subject with every expert persuasively insistent that their ideas and methods are the best. We’ve read, listened, questioned; investigated, visited and considered. And it’s mighty hard – the more you know the less you know. One thing we are sure of is that wood will play a large part on this holding.

a cord of wood where Olly has been coppicing

cords of wood - Olly's coppicing February 2009

We are self-sufficient in wood.  This year we have only used wood to heat the house – and during a winter that has been reasonably cold too. At present we have two normal domestic woodburners and no efficient state-of-the-art wood boiler with accumulator (though this is a distinct possibility for the future). Our burning wood, in the main, comes from our hedgerows; it’s first cut into four foot lengths, stacked in cords and left to mature for two years before it’s cut to burning size and stored for the coming winter’s use in the woodshed.  In previous years our hedgerow wood supply has been ample as we’ve run it alongside an oil boiler. But now we need to increase our supply.

The same area of woodland 18 years ago - Robert chain sawing

The same area of woodland 18 years ago - Robert working with chainsaw

So Olly has been coppicing in our small farm wood.  He is re-working a coupe that we last coppiced when we first arrived at the farm 18 years ago.  The willow, ash and birch stools have produced poles which are of just the right size for the wood burners without having to split the logs.  Our only worry is that roe deer will nibble off the re-growth this time round – there are more deer about now it seems – so Olly is covering the cut stumps up with the brushwood in the hope that this will deter them enough to let some shoots get away. If that fails we will have to erect a temporary fence.

piles of brushwood protecting the freshly cut stumps from roe deer

piles of brushwood protecting the freshly cut stumps from roe deer - good habitat for invertebrates too.

While I was taking the photos a female Roe deer and her yearling twins were browsing around the edge of Olly’s coup. They seemed quite unconcerned by my (and the dogs) presence, only moving off when I tried to get closer to take a picture of them. Cheeky!

coppicing

coppicing - the young trees left are replanted Ash

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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The Campaign to Protect Rural England has helped set up this blog. We want farming to thrive in England, and believe that it is essential that people understand farming and farmers better in order for that to happen. Paula's views expressed here are her own and we won't necessarily share all of them, but we're happy to have helped give her a voice.

Find our more about CPRE and our views on food and farming at our website, www.cpre.org.uk

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