Written for Cumbria Life.
Cows have been getting a bit of a bad press in the media over the last few years but most of this is somewhat misplaced. I never understood how important cows were in increasing the biodiversity of land until I was out one day, many years ago now, with the lead ecologist for The National Trust. We were looking at a large area of hill land I had just taken on as a tenant and he pointed out the lack of diversity in the sward. This was a result of the land being under grazed. He said, “What this land needs is cattle to break up the sward to allow seeds to propagate and for them to eat off the rough suffocating grasses.” The previous tenant had grazed low levels of sheep and sheep being selective grazers, had eaten only the most palatable and tasty areas in the summer and the heather and woodland in the winter. It was this that had led to the current unfavourable conditions.
At the time I didn’t have many cattle and so the National Trust fenced of the woodland and I rebuilt all the walls on the grassland and moor. This allowed me to control where the sheep grazed and I slowly increased the cattle numbers. I started with Galloways and then moved on to Whitebred Shorthorns and Luings. These are all hardy native breeds that are capable of thriving on poor land. The changes in the flora was quite remarkable and despite increasing sheep and cattle numbers, the increase in the biodiversity, especially the heather and shrubs has been astounding. Many dormant species have been reinvigorated and there is an abundance of new saplings including Birch, Rowan, Oak, Holly and Hawthorn. We have also planted a thousand juniper plugs in among the now abundant heather. These will grow up to add to the mix of species on the woodland edge adding another layer to the already complex ecosystem.
I will talk more about the marvellous job cows do in the future but I promised to tell you how the scanning the pregnant sheep went. Unlike the ultrasound service the NHS provides, we don’t know what sex the lambs will be. But the main reason to scan the sheep is to identify which ewes will be having twins or triplets so they can be given greater care. The other big difference is we have around two hundred ewes scanned in an hour! Scanning percentages were good. Only a few sheep were ‘empty’, meaning not pregnant. One of our best ewes who always has triplets and is a great mum has scanned for quads, so she will need extra special care.
Next month should be some calves on the ground and we will be preparing for lambing.
I was recently asked to deliver a series of Zoom talks to women in agriculture interested in, or in the early stages of setting up in business. It’s part of a pilot series of workshops set up by the Scottish Government after a survey they conducted revealed that women in agriculture were a forgotten sector. It’s great to see support for this and I’ve loved being involved, especially as the fear of setting up a business is still fresh in my mind so I could relate to so many of their struggles.
One of the most important things I learned from starting a small business from scratch, is that you yourself are vital to the success of your business. Your health, mental health and ability to make decisions, even when it scares you, are the good indicators of the strong foundation you need. Confidence in your business is not about how many people follow you on Social Media, it’s your ability to try and keep trying. And working on your own personal development will be an asset to your business. I listen to a lot of great audiobooks while I work that help me in this.
In these quiet months on the farm, I’m attempting to be more organised and efficient in the house and in the business, though it’s not my strength. I have also been making big batches of soap so I have plenty in stock. This time of year is about getting prepared for the rush of life in Spring.
For the last few years we have had vet students come and help at lambing time. This is part of their course work but as we don’t know how long Covid restrictions will be in place, we’re not relying on the extra pairs of hands. When the students arrive, most will have had little experience of farm animals so they have to learn fast but teaching is something John and I both really enjoy. I’m also in the process of trying to get our barn clear so we can start renovating it for the business to expand. It’s hard work because the old broken things John sees me carrying to the skip, suddenly transform into vital objects of usefulness. So they end up in a pile in another part of the farm. There seems to be this constant heap of things that continually orbit round the farm. Eventually they might degrade to such an extent that they’re no longer identifiable but until then, John will shout, “Put it back, that’s a thing of purpose!”
Next month I am hoping to get some eggs in the incubator.