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March 2022

Written for Cumbria Life.

Maria:

We’re more than half way through lambing and that means we’re tired and grumpy with each other. However, an invitation from HM Lord-Lieutenant of Cumbria, Claire Hensman to meet with HRH The Prince of Wales at Hutton-in-the-Forest with Lord Inglewood, brightened our spirits no end. We scrubbed the iodine from our hands, washed straw and lamb goo out of our hair and put on our best rags. The Prince of Wales was keen to meet farmers who were diversifying to make their businesses more resilient. I knew I’d only have a few minutes to talk and knowing my mouth tends to go like the clappers when I get to talking about our businesses, I limited myself to talking about Lake District Tweed and presenting Prince Charles with one of our Shepherd’s Bags made with Herdwick tweed from James Rebanks’ flock. For someone who must receive thousands of weird and wonderful gifts, he was graciously interested in what we do with our wool and the wool of our farmer friends. It really was an honour to meet someone who is so passionately on the side of small-scale farmers like ourselves. 

I was also delighted to meet Peter Hullah from the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, someone to whom I could off-load all my enthusiasm for working with British wool, as he was probably an even bigger enthusiast. I noticed he too was wearing a wool jacket and he opened it out to show me the brand that sports a big Union Jack next to its name. But later, when I looked up this historic British brand, digging a little deeper into the composition of their Shetland blankets, I noted, ’100% Shetland Quality Pure New Wool’. The term ‘Shetland Quality’ is Merino seconds from New Zealand. This company uses no British wool. None. And it gives a false impression in my opinion in using the word Shetland in naming a product when it has absolutely nothing to do with Shetland sheep or the island. But here we are. It feels like wool is some way behind the food industry in calling out greenwashing and other marketing tactics used to present a brand in a better light. All those smoke and mirror tactics when that same energy could be directed towards finding ways to use and celebrate British wool. The more consumers challenge brands, however, the more they’ll be forced to change. 

John:

Although we’re always busy, it has been an especially hectic time with lambing but we did have with an amazing day out thanks to Claire Hensmen. We will forever be grateful for Claire’s support and unbounded enthusiasm for all things Cumbrian. 

We are now half way through lambing and feeling the strain of long days of toil and little sleep but we’ve had some wonderful vet students from the Royal Veterinary College in London helping us, which in turn helps us keep some level of sanity. We’ve been taking students from RVC for a few years now and tend to pick overseas students as it gives them an opportunity to see how great Cumbria is and we get to learn about people from other cultural backgrounds. For us, we see taking students as a win-win as we get the help of some enthusiastic professionals and they get to learn from my forty odd years of experience. Whether it’s the intricacies of working out if you have a lamb’s back or front leg inside a ewe or how to best rugby tackle a seventy kilo ewe in an open field, it all adds to the wealth of knowledge they will require to become a vet. Our first two placements this year were from Hong Kong. Amy and Chloe were a bit worried they wouldn’t be much help at first coming from a country with no sheep and very little grass; they had no experience of sheep at all. They need not have worried; they soon got into the swing of things and proved a great help. With my hands being the size of shovels it makes such a difference having someone with dainty hands when it comes to the more challenging assisted lambing. Chloe and Amy have now left and have been replaced by Maddie and Melanie, both are from the USA and by the time you read this they will be back at college, tired no doubt but hopefully much wiser that when they arrived and we will be into the spring field work and enjoying the longer days and shorter nights.

February 2022

Written for Cumbria Life

Maria:

The coming of the supermarkets saw the going of the corner shops and my dad’s shop was one of them. I remember his shock that the shiny new supermarket was selling loaves of bread for ten pence, a fraction of the price that he would be paying at cash and carry. That type of big business, driving down prices, driving out competitors who couldn’t compete, loss leaders, loss of community, seemed like the only way to thrive in business. It wasn’t until I started my own business on the farm that I found another way of working that still involved making a profit, but wasn’t about exponential growth by squeezing suppliers.

I love what I do and fortunately we seem to be living in a time when small-scale producers like myself can survive in business because customers are looking for products with honest provenance. 

We are often asked about how much we are doing on the farm, about taking time off and that we need more of a work-life balance. But I rarely feel the need to escape our work because almost every day is enjoyable and interesting. Of course there are some stressful and gruelling days but we’re never clock watching, desperate to finish and get to the pub. We’ve managed to create jobs for ourselves that we’re excited about, and that’s a real privilege and not something we need to escape from. Although we loved our break in Edinburgh; simple things like seeing friends and family and clothes shopping on Princes Street was all we really needed. Nothing fancy and happy to be home.

John:

People often ask me, “ When is it a quite time on the farm?” The answer is always the same, “Never”. Each month has its different tasks and the reduced labour on farms nowadays, has meant that it’s busy even in the winter months when the days are short. As I mentioned in last month’s column, we scan the sheep to see how many lambs they will be having. This is fairly new technology but it saves a lot of time and effort and it’s also very important for the welfare of the ewes. The ultrasound, similar to the handheld device you’d find on a prenatal ward, will identify how many lambs the ewe is carrying. This means we can then split the ewes into groups and feed them accordingly. It’s important that the ewes carrying twins or triplets get pampered, while the ones carrying a single lamb don’t want to get over-fit. This can result in the lambs being too big at birth causing issues for the ewe and the farmer. We also condition score the ewes when we split them into groups so that those that are on the thin side get special treatment. This gives us time to get them back into good condition before the lambs really start to grow in the womb. Once it gets closer to lambing time, the ewe will sacrifice herself for the lambs, so at this point any extra increase in food just makes the lambs bigger and the ewe thinner. With the fell sheep they do this naturally and they tend to only have one lamb as their body knows that’s all they can successfully rear. But the increase in off-wintering ewes from the fells due to environmental schemes has led to some fell breeds producing too many lambs with knock on effects, which I can tell you about next month.