Farmer’s notebook: In defence of sheep

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

I’m avoiding the village pub. Since Clarkson’s Farm I constantly get asked: ‘Are farm economics really as bad as that?’ They’re worse. For anyone who is not a multimillionaire TV star with vast tracts of prime Cotswold acres, the figures are grimly red. Half of British farmers earn £10,000 or less annually, which is why so many have gone into yurts or yoghurt. My own diversification is scribbling. Presently, any spare moments I have are spent at my kitchen table, checking the proofs of a book I’ve written in defence of sheep. Sheep provide food on the plate and clothes on the back, and when farmed properly promote biodiversity. They’re also able to pick out Fiona Bruce from a line-up of celebrity photographs (really).

Christmas is coming, and my geese are getting fat. While many people dream of a white Christmas, I am hoping for a mild one. The thermometer on the barn wall needs to be above 6°C, the temperature at which grass grows, so our geese can plump up. Anything less than six degrees, and they shiver off weight (and the profit margin). Only some of our geese are going the way of all goose flesh, namely Christmas lunch. This is a relief, since plucking geese for the table is hard labour with feathers on. Our birds are mainly layers, and I await a golden egg.

Every afternoon, I herd the geese out on to the wheat stubble, to glean free grains and forage the wildflower seeds. This is sustainable, old-fashioned goose-herding, but it comes with its dangers. Driving along the lane earlier in the week, I was hailed down by a neighbour who stuck his head through the car window to say: ‘You’ve got some geese on your stubble! Can I shoot them?’ I explained, to his disappointment, that they are domestic Toulouse, not wild greylags to be killed for sport.

Livestock farmers get a lot of stick for the role of their belchy, farty animals in climate change. A recent piece in the Guardianwas headlined: ‘The cow in the room: why is no one talking about farming at COP26?’ If we want to save the planet, though, soil erosion might be a better place to start than methane emissions. A recent study in the Environmental Science & Policy journal calculated that about 3.07 tons of soil are lost per hectare of agricultural land per annum in Europe. At this rate we will die of hunger before we drown in the rising sea. The primary cause of the erosion is intensive arable farming. One obvious solution would be to grass over the crop fields, and stock them with native-breed sheep (and cattle). The livestock’s manure would revitalise the soil.

While at the village garage ordering a part for our 60-year-old Ferguson tractor, I bump into an acquaintance who is keen to tell me about the new wood he has planted. To do so, he has got rid of ten acres of rough grassland, a precious nature-friendly habitat, the home of skylarks and meadow pipits. Pastureland can match trees in carbon sequestration. Not that you would have received that message from COP26.

Ten-thirty p.m. Working on my sheep book. Outside a fox barks very close by. From the kitchen window, I shine the one million candle power torch out at the chickens’ paddock; a pair of green eyes stare back at me. Then the fox carries on pawing the hen houses, which thankfully I have remembered to shut. It’s like being under siege. The fox only has to be lucky once. I have to be always vigilant.

Every Christmas we dress up our donkey, Snowdrop. We paint her hooves glittery silver, put a tartan rug on her back and twiddle some gold tinsel in her head collar. Generally, we make her look Christmassy; she is a village fixture and visited by kids and adults alike. She loves the attention. So, I went out this afternoon to do her Noël nail polish — it’s not all macho tractor-driving glory, farming — and on passing the hay barn found it full of contented, chewing cattle. Which was fine. Except for the fact that they are meant to be quarter of a mile away, not ripping the stack in half. ‘Well,’ said a quick-off-the-mark member of my family. ‘You always say you want happy meat. These are laughing cows.’

Up here on a faraway hill, as I break open a bale of hay for the sheep, it has become cold and frosty. Not ideal weather for geese. But it is a silent night, and the peace of the tended farm animals is at once restful and profound; the sheep stare out over the starlit valley as though they see secrets I cannot see.

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John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and nature writer. His most recent book is The Soaring Life of the Lark.

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