Simon's Blog - Life in a country castle
Oliver has decided we should start farming. God knows why. Up at the crack of dawn, toiling for eighteen hours a day feeding and watering ungrateful beasts. Sounds too much like running a hotel to me. ‘Well, we’ve got chickens,’ I say encouragingly, ‘and we grow a lot of vegetables’.
‘No, Dad, properly. Sheep, cows, pigs’.
He is a canny lad and has noticed that while the rest of us are tightening our belts due to the recession, it is farmers, particularly some of the parents at his former school, who are running around in shiny black hearse-like pick-ups (apparently there are tax advantages even with turbo charged four litre engines) and new Range Rover Vogues (invariably driven by mums who look as much like farmer’s wives as Victoria Beckham) with ultra low profile tyres that probably couldn’t even cope with your average B road. But that is in North Yorkshire. On this side of the Pennines things are a little more grounded – the Range Rovers have proper chunky tyres and some pick-ups have even been spotted with sheep in the back (although I am sure that the tax advantages still trump the sheep in most cases). He is an entrepreneur and has heard there is money to be made from selling lambs, producing bacon and even milking cows (of the latter I am not so sure).
To this end, he has already measured up a corner of the workshop for a chest freezer for the bacon and other prime cuts from two fattened pigs and last year at summer camp proudly came home with a present he had made especially for his mum: a three legged milking stool. Needless to say Wendy is under-impressed, even more so when I suggest that someone might knit her a Heidi-style woolly milk maid’s hat with dangly bits on it. To make matters worse, she sits on the stool and it collapses under her. This is, of course, greeted with peals of laughter from the rest of us and I, rather tactlessly, comment that it was just as well that didn’t happen when she had a couple of teats in hand, a pail of milk between her legs and a bovine tonne or so bearing down on her.
Emily is totally behind the farming scheme but with very different objectives. She does not approve of killing anything, although this has yet to come between her and a good fillet steak (or foie gras for which she developed a particular taste on a recent trip to Paris) so sees the future of a farm at Augill as offering animals longevity and a full-rites funeral when they eventually pass away of old age.
So, it is down to me to introduce some common sense to the debate. We have often talked of keeping pigs, chickens we already have and since we are already surrounded by other people’s sheep, it seems a natural progression to have a few of our own. But cows? None of us would know where to start with a cow other than that grass goes in one end and either milk or pats come out the other. It seems most likely we would end up with grassless fields, lots of manure and not much milk (perhaps just as well given the current state of Wendy’s milking equipment).
‘We’ll look into it,’ I say, to which there are harrumphs all round as this is, apparently, what I say to every idea that I have no intention of taking further. ‘No, honestly, we’ll go and talk to Bill and Esther.’
When I mention the idea that the children want to start a farm, Bill roars with laughter and Esther rolls her eyes. They put me right on the bureaucracy of keeping livestock, something I hadn’t even considered, and start talking to me about holding numbers and transfer licences. I report back to the children. ‘Darlings, it’s not as easy as it sounds,’ which is greeted with more harrumphing and wails of what a useless parent I am which is no more than I was expecting. ‘Just because it’s more complicated doesn’t mean we can’t look into it further…’ but nobody is listening anymore.
In truth, our oft discussed piggery has moved a step closer since we were offered a couple of pigs which are part of a breeding programme to reintroduce the Cumberland pig (of sausage fame). Apparently some DNA has been extracted from a Penrith peasant’s purse made out of an old Cumberland sow’s ear and this has been analysed to find the best genetic match in modern cross-bred varieties.
It sounds exciting but given that humans, pigs and cabbages all share enormous quantities of the same DNA it could all be nothing more than bubble and squeak. And still, just like Beatrix Potter’s Pigling Bland, there’s the matter of the pig license.
Not to be deterred by the bureaucratic delays, a few days later Emily finds an alternative fluffy distraction. Regular readers will know that our various cages and hutches have been without tenants for some time. But now the hutch which has been home to Moonie the rabbit and a string of unfortunate guinea pigs has two new occupants.
Charlie and Lola have beautiful soft silky black coats, little pink snouts and big paws not unlike a Hobbit’s feet. They are quite endearing up close and belie the devastation they wreak in the wild. Emily has stumbled upon them in the hedgerow – it’s quite an achievement.
They are not demanding but Emily decides she should make them a couple of cotton bonnets as she feels they need warming up which is hardly surprising as Charlie and Lola are moles and are stone cold dead. Emily has found them in the hedgerow between one of our fields and Bill’s, Bill being a first class mole catcher much in demand.
Em is old enough to know that dead moles can’t come back to life – they are much happier to be digging up the big green lawn in the sky and so am I – but if there were marks for wishful thinking she’d be top of the class.
But Charlie and Lola have given Oliver another idea and he’s off on his bike in the direction of Bill & Esther’s farm whilst I resign myself to the inevitable need to arrange another funeral in the garden.
A couple of hours later we are laying Charlie & Lola to rest. ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to d...’
‘The going rate is £2 per mole’, Oliver shouts across the front lawn. He has returned with half a dozen mole traps jangling from his handlebars.
Emily is, of course, horrified and so am I, although for entirely different reasons. 'It’s murderous’, she wails and runs off to tell mummy what atrocities the boys are now planning.
‘Fifty pence’, I shout back, knowing full well that it’ll be me that has to bury the traps, check them and empty them.
‘A pound’, a wry smile flickers across his face, ‘and Emily won’t find out what we’re up to’.
‘You mean she’ll never know where those new moleskin Barbie trousers will have come from?’
‘It’s a deal’. And with that Oliver’s first commercial agricultural activity is born.