Caught by the River

Staying Alive

17th April 2013


As the seasons finally change, Richard King writes us a letter from the land.

For many years I used to infuriate my friends by making far too much of the fact that since 1993 I have never owned a television. With the invention of broadband and the iPlayer such boasts have become redundant; this house still lacks a set and cables but is now firmly located in the foothills of the moral high ground.

Last year I saw half an hour of Lambing Live, a series that was filmed around twenty-five miles from where we live. I recognised the landscape and the giddiness of the farmers as they negotiated the exhilaration of lambing with increasing levels of sleeplessness. The programme also captured the sense of the daylight starting to extend with every new birth. There are few moments in the year that offer such a sense of renewal as the sight of the firstborns starting to explore fields that have suddenly turned a vivid green.

What seemed less familiar was the frame that the programme seemed compelled to place around agriculture. The pressures of filming something as random as lambing notwithstanding, Lambing Live continued with a media preconception that insists that the countryside – whatever that is – is an idyllic hinterland of traditions and fixed moral certainties, a place where the rhythm of the seasons combine with some notional old ways to engender a rural status quo. I’m unaware whether Lambing Live was broadcast this year but if so it would have been necessary for the programme to alter its narrative.

We live among generations of Radnorshire hill farmers, people who pride themselves on self-reliance, hardiness and a lack of sentimentality. Over the past two months I have watched their body language change and anxiety spread across their faces. In response to any enquiry about how lambing was progressing they all gave the same reply – ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’.

The first indicator that this spring was likely to be difficult was the rainfall of 2012. The constant downpour ruined crops and ensured that what little hay had been harvested would fetch an eye-watering premium. Hay is a bulk ingredient in what is known as ‘cake’, a compound feed given to ewes during their gestation period. If the winter is especially hard and the ground is covered in snow or frozen, hay also needs to be continually set down as a substitute for grass. The frost-bound fields are tough on the sheep’s feet and absorb more of their energy, as lambing approaches their appetite increases threefold and hay becomes fundamental to their survival. A few weeks ago I drove inland to the coast. There were modest tailbacks on every road as tractors pulling trailers stacked with hay slowed down to turn into the fields. After two months of frozen temperatures in January and February came the blizzards and snowstorms of March along with the bitter and implacable Easterly wind.

Recently some hill farmers stopped producing indigenous breeds such as Welsh Mountain or Mules (typically a Mule is a cross breed between, say, a Welsh Mountain ewe and a Leicester Blue face tup. The idea is to combine the sturdiness and strong mothering instincts of the ewe with the triplet-producing-strength fertility of the ram). Instead they have started farming Charollais and Texels. These French breeds are known for the high return they fetch at market for their meat but are far less suited to the upland conditions of Mid Wales and consequently struggled in the terrible weather.

Whenever I help a neighbour during lambing I’ve become used to stepping carefully into their Landrover. At the height of activity, when half the flock has been delivered and half are waiting to be born, there are always premature deaths and the foot well of the vehicle might well contain the odd corpse discovered on the rounds. This year dead sheep were visible from the side of the road for the first time, lambs had perished at such a rate that it was difficult for the farmers to keep pace with their losses. The death toll was so high that they asked the authorities if their obligation to bury carcasses away from their ground could be rescinded.

Now it is April and the sun is occasionally shining, but the ridge of the Black Mountains on the horizon still has a covering of snow and the fields have a top-heavy quality. In this month lambs gambolling together across the pasture like soft white schools of fish are usually a regular sight. At the moment there are not quite enough lambs to create such a blur of movement and the ewes have a more physical presence in the fields than their offspring. The fields are quieter this year something is missing.

For the first time in its history tourism is now worth more to the Welsh economy than agriculture. Farmers mention grants for hedging and government-funded surgeries about diversifying into camping. Such initiatives confirm a growing sense among the community that they are starting to be regarded as caretakers of a stylised idea of the country, rather than people who work in and on the land itself. Television attempts to present the ‘countryside’ as somewhere it is possible to escape to, but for many of my friends and neighbours there has been precious little escape from the realities of hill farming in 2013.

Richard King is the author of How Soon Is Now? He blogs here.