Jul 13 2007

Old Traditions, New Skills


I wake abruptly at three o’clock to the sound of more rain beating on the window panes; more rain and still more rain. Will it never stop?  Nervously I look out of the window into the first shards of dawn light and watch a veil of water drifting sideways past the window. The wind howls, I watch the trees bending their knees in the half light. It’s July. Floods are swamping Britain. The biggest rescue operation since the Second World War, shouts the radio. Television pictures show towns and cities under water, houses destroyed, people staring uncomprehending at the wreckage of their homes, crops submerged, fields turned to lakes, herons fishing amongst the corn. Pea crops rot before harvester’s eyes as they wait for the deluge to ease. In the South West gentle rivers on the Moor are transformed into raging brown rapids. Sheep shorn for summer sun shudder coldly in the relentless tropical down pour. I climb anxiously back to bed and await morning.


Refusing to rest, my mind, racing now, flicks here and there. Memories of waking in the night some seven years ago as flood waters engulfed us. When will the rain stop this time? I remember the phone call from my ninety year old father in the cottage at two in the morning. I remember wading through the garden to the farm yard looking with horror at the tumultuous torrent flowing through the valley. I remember the huge old Lamborghini tractor gliding daintily sideways on the water; the hours it took to reach my aged parents, as they waited, watching the water rise, cold and terrified in their soaking nightclothes. I remember too the endless months cleaning up and repairing the damage, the prevarications of reluctant insurance companies and endless paper work. I cannot sleep. I think of all the people out there facing that right now. Will it happen again here? I turn over and pull bedclothes over my head.


It’s been a bad enough few weeks in this valley, one way and another, one thing after another, but no floods here yet; instead, an impressive black eye and a sprained ankle for me. The wind, rewarding me for sweeping the donkey’s yard, caught the stable door knocking me senseless as I waited for the vet. Astonished dogs and donkeys stared at me as I staggered to the gate. I greeted Richard speechlessly, seeing stars, amazed my glasses were still in one piece!

Cars broke down too and the dear old Dexter tractor, restored at last, decided to try going it alone. A terrible rushing sound reached my ears as I sat in front of the computer. “Are you OK” I yelled hobbling up the steps. I found a slightly stunned Stephen, still in one piece, staring bewilderedly ahead. I followed his gaze, “It’s under the tree, went their on its own” he said.  As he lifted the last paving slab from the link box, off it went, flying through the garden all by its own. Unable to stop, it hurtled off missing people, dogs and the beech tree until it finally came to rest in a pile of grass cuttings just before the banks of the stream.  Restoration not so entirely complete perhaps, but no one hurt.


Then real disaster struck. We visited my father for tea on his ninety eighth birthday, only to return home to find all but nine of our chickens gone, simply gone. Apart from a few feathers and the remains of two of my dear old Maran ladies and a Light Sussex hen I’ve had for years, we found nothing else. The terrified Aracuana cockerel cowered in his empty shed alone. He let me pick him up in my arms and carry him to safety with the nine orange survivors.


The wonderful Warren egg producers had simply vanished. The elderly Maran boy eventually came screeching out of the stream but in such poor shape he didn’t survive. One or two bantams flew down from the trees. We are still asking each other what happened. Did a very bold band of foxes, cubs big now, come down in a pack from the hills and strike in broad daylight? We will never know but our lives were changed in an afternoon.

I really miss my old feathered friends. In the autumn I will get a few more pretty hens just for us. Meanwhile we nurture the survivors back to health, try and keep them safe and ring our customers to say no more eggs. In an afternoon we found ourselves without our egg business. Farming’s hard from every angle.

I visited Phil Bond on his farm one evening last week. Phil is a local sheep farmer with a big commercial flock. He shears our Whiteface Dartmoor’s for us; he’s done it for years.


We walked across his beautiful land six hundred feet above sea level, talking sheep in the rain. High on his top field the view stretches from Princetown far away in the Dartmoor distance across a huge sweeping patchwork right round to Torbay. “When we make hay and stand on the hay wane we can see Salcombe too, and the sea towards Plymouth.”  I couldn’t help but stand there and think what tiny specks we make in a majestic natural world.

Phil’s family have farmed this land for generations. There is very little he doesn’t know about sheep breeding. Before he took over the farm he spent nine months on a sheep farm in New Zealand. He spent a further four months in Australia honing his skills and adding more strings to his bow. Now he runs the farm with his father and hopes, maybe, one day his daughter will join him when she’s finished college.

Phils_sheep_3 Phils_sheep_1 Phils_sheep4

Phil’s ewes are so big compared to our local Whiteface Dartmoor’s.  Every year he travels to Cumbria to buy new stock and inject fresh blood into his flock. He buys the progeny of Swaledale ewes put to a Blue Face Leicester ram: the strapping great North of England Mule. Once back in Devon he puts Texel rams to these ewes and he has his fast maturing, stocky little meat machines.


Although they only came to England in the 1970’s Texel sheep can be traced back to Roman Times on the
Island of Texel
off the coast of Holland. Despite this late arrival to our shores, Britain has the largest registry of Texel sheep anywhere in the world. They are predominantly a meat breed and “exceptionally thrifty, giving lambs with tremendous get up and go.” Stocky Texel rams are famous for transmitting their hardy qualities to their progeny.

When these tough fellows are mixed with the big, Roman nosed, long eared Blue Face Leicester’s with Swaledale blood running in their veins, they produce outstanding lambs. With their big boned frames and broad deep hind quarters the ewes are strong efficient mothers with plenty of milk. Last year Phil had fifty sets of triplets. This can put a lot of strain on a ewe, leaving her out of condition once the lambs are weaned and at constant risk of mastitis. So Phil takes away one of the triplets and raises them on milk substitute.  I have to smile here because it was Phil who told me firmly ” Never buy a sheep with a name”; all his hand reared triplets have names running through the alphabet. “Purely practical” says Phil briskly “helps Gale and I know who’s who and who’s had what” Ah, yes Phil, such a hard man! No, not at all, he just really loves his sheep.

The Swaledale can be traced back to a genetic group including Blue Face and Rough Fell sheep. The Swaledale Sheep Breeders Society was formed just after the First World War in the 1920’s. The Blue Face Leicester sheep were bred by Robert Bakewell in the 1700’s and were originally called Dishly Leicesters. Over the years they evolved into the Hexhams Leicesters eventually becoming the Blue Faces of today.

According to their Society “the Blue Faced Leicester provides length in the cross-bred lambs, which enables the ewes to carry multiple births with ease and the wether lambs to be taken to a wide range of carcase weights. Crossbred lambs are blessed with vigour at birth and eagerness to foot and suckle. They are also well protected to withstand harsh conditions. Pure Blue Faced Leicester’s are capable of obtaining lambing percentages in excess of 250%, given good management. This trait is in turn passed onto their progeny and it is not uncommon for Mule Flocks to produce Prime Lamb Crops exceeding 200%.”  Small wonder Phil reaches these percentages with his thriving mix.

Farming in this country is changing radically, some say it’s in decline. There is no doubt that times are hard for farmers everywhere. Open the local paper on a Saturday morning and you will find farm after farm up for sale. Beautiful old houses hived off from their land and sold as “des-reses” with a couple of acres, a stable, maybe, and a paddock for the pony. “Buying the lifestyle” Phil calls it.


Then walk into the new shiny foodstore in our local town in the heart of this farming county and you will find fruit and vegetables double, treble wrapped, flown in from across the world, chickens all the way from Norfolk and the north of England, beef that has travelled down from Scotland. Turn on the radio and learn how the multi-nationals buy local vegetables in Wales, truck them to East Anglia to be packed, truck them back again and sell them as, now, not so fresh local produce. The world has gone mad. I could go on. It makes me sad and furious living in the midst of this struggling farming community.

Farmers need new talents now. Their generations of traditional skills; years and years of experience adapted and passed from father to son are no longer sufficient. In a changing world farmers must take control to survive. They cannot simply stay on the farm any more and loose control of their product once it leaves their land. They have to keep in touch from farm to the consumer.

Market prices fluctuate so dramatically; one week a lamb can fetch £70, the next £40. Wool prices have plummeted from 48p last year to a staggering 31p this year. A glossy leaflet saying “2007 Wool Clip: Why is it so low” arrives with our tiny cheque. “World markets”, it shouts. “Rubbish”, I reply, hopelessly, “Monopoly!” The economy of England was built on wool in the Middle Ages. It fed the people and gave our Kings and Princes power across the world. The huge Wool Churches of East Anglia, built on the profits of wool, bare witness to the importance of sheep to our history. Now the value of the wool doesn’t even cover the cost of shearing.

There is little chance for farmers to budget or embrace some sort of forward planning now. Too many middlemen between farmer and consumer skim off the profit and force up the price. But just a few entrepreneurs are beginning to see a way forward in all this gloom; to see a way to free them selves from this tyranny. And Phil is one of them.

Phil sells directly to his customers just as we used to sell our chickens and turkeys in the past. He breeds his sheep with years of knowledge and expertise. He finishes his lambs with skill to give himself a supply of meat across the year. After slaughter he oversees the butchering and packing. He organises sales, generates customers, delivers his meat across the county. He stands behind the counter at countless Farmers Markets across South Devon; Totnes, Kingsbridge, Dartmouth, Ivybridge. His skills stretch way beyond the gates of his farm. He’s in control of every aspect of his product. He is shepherd, quality controller, marketing manager and salesman all rolled up together. And it’s paying off.

He says direct selling motivates him to improve his flock year by year, but some of his peers are watching him closely. ”It’s OK for you, Phil, you’ve got the gift of the gab” Oh, if only it were that simple! A few are still puzzled at what he’s doing, but they are slowly becoming the minority. As time goes on my guess is that more and more farmers out there, with Phil’s vision and tenacity, will follow his lead and take control of their destiny. Maybe they will even organise themselves into powerful co-operatives like the wine co-operatives in Europe and finally be able to stand up to the might of the supermarkets and get a fair deal. Pie in the sky, I hear you say? I wonder. Watch Phil….

Oh, and just to illustrate Phil’s marketing skills, when I left the farm I found myself the new owner of two small kittens which he had effortlessly persuaded me I wanted. Some salesman indeed!


At last the rain has finally stopped but only briefly, I fear. Now I need to cook comforting food to restore my equilibrium, but it must be light delicious summer food.  Somehow I think it better be Lamb!

I’ll roast a shoulder of our own spring lamb with garlic and rosemary and serve it with young vegetables from the garden. I’ll dig up some potatoes and pick mange tout peas. Or perhaps I’ll take a little more time and pleasure to prepare a traditional Navarin Printanier from Jane Grigson’s the wonderful “Vegetable Book”.

This is not a dish for stewing lamb. It calls for tender, lean meat which will cook gently but quite quickly. I prefer to cut up a shoulder or even use a boned out loin.

Take a little time to trim off any fat and sinew before cutting the meat into fairly small pieces.

Melt a large piece of butter and a little oil in a heavy oven proof pan that has a well fitting lid. Incidentally, the oil stops the butter burning and becoming bitter. Brown the meat quickly turning it over with a wooden spoon until sealed. Then take it out and set aside.

Chop a shallot and crush a garlic clove or two. Add to the buttery juices in the pan and, heating gently, allow them to soften slightly. Stir in a spoonful or two of flour scraping up the meat juices and mixing to a thin paste. Gradually add some stock and a little tomato puree.

Return the browned meat. Heat gently, adjust the consistency, which should be creamy, by adding more stock if necessary. Bring slowly to the boil, cover the pan with its lid and place in a moderate oven for about an hour. Test the meat with a skewer to see if it is tender. If not return to the oven for a little longer but don’t over do it.

Meanwhile prepare some young fresh root vegetables; new potatoes, very young turnips and whole baby carrots. Once the meat is tender add these and cook for a scant half hour without the lid. Top and tail some mange-tout or shell some peas and broad beans, slice your first runner beans or harvest the early French beans; use what you have in your garden or what you can find in  your local farmers market.

Blanche the vegetables very briefly in plenty of boiling water, drain well and add to the lamb. Heat through, skim off absolutely any remaining fat, (there shouldn’t be much if you took time to trim your meat) taste and add salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve on warm plates with hot, crusty bread.

Follow with fresh raspberries; despite the rain I have a bumper crop this year, and some really good ice cream.


2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Old Traditions, New Skills”

  1. Tanaon 28 Aug 2007 at 11:26 pm

    I have been thinking about you and your farm—I’m sorry you are having a hard year. I hope things brighten.

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