As agricultural workers joined the fight against Adolf Hitler, imported American tractors took over from horse-power. Post-war, the drive for ‘efficient’ fertilisers and pesticides ended centuries of farming crafts and wisdom. Some of these skills were only retained by gypsies who have now themselves been almost persecuted out of existence.
Barely mentioned is the key role farming subsidies have played in these changes, making smallholdings, market-gardens and even the 100 acre farm barely viable. The industrial agriculturists, like the Duke of Westminster, private equity and Crown Estate, who never even cast eyes on 99.9% of their land, each get a estimated eight-figure sum annually.
The markets are moving in fast. Near Oxford, private equity is about to build an 11 mile long solar farm, the biggest in Europe. Investors are taking thousands of acres out of production on the back of a rigged electricity market.
in George Monbiot’s 2022 declaration that ‘farming is the greatest threat to humanity’ it is as if the environmental movement he claims to be part of, and its sixty year fight against industrial agriculture, never happened. Is George hoping we’ve forgotten? King Charles too seems to have abandoned his organic life, sacking Highrove’s organic farm manager and signing GM into law.
Farmers, and the surpluses they produced, created civilisation out of poverty, and without them, we starve. The simple and socially just solution is to cap subsidies at 400 acres or to subsidise the farmer rather than the acres … and to make all farming organic.
Time then to refresh all our memories about the great post-war campaigning journalists who chronicled these devastating changes which ended time-worn farming practices. Noting too the latest incarnation of enclosure, depopulation that meant many farm labourers never returned to the land.
Unacknowledged at The Guardian, some still fight for rural social justice and love of organic land… as today’s countryside becomes a playground for greedy individuals and their corporations. [TG, ed.]
Robin Page: ‘An asset to any cause’
The Decline of the English Village, by Robin Page (1974)
Extract from Chapter 1, the home and farm
Life on the land was hard, requiring patience, resourcefulness and brute force. During a hot dry summer the thick grey boulder clay, which seemed to descend to unfathomable depths, would set as solid as rock, its adamantine crust blunting implements, wearing out horseshoes and causing frustration and despair. If ploughed late it would dry out, forming countless clods of varying sizes from marbles to footballs, and elsewhere it would crack, the heat from the sun drawing out the moisture, leaving the crops struggling for survival. In contrast, winter would show the full fickleness of its nature and it would become a squelching, glutinous mass, turning the farmyard into a sea of mud and making land work impossible; work was confined to ditching or hedging with hands numb with cold, cutting kale with clothing soaked by the chilling leaf-held water, repairing buildings, or shovelling out ‘muck’ from the cowshed and the stable.
Dolly and Diamond were housed in the stable; two fine carthorses, one the colour of burnt sienna, the other a dark chestnut. They were said to be a Clydesdale and a Shire, but time and hot blood had allowed other strains to creep in. Their confidence, bearing and strength, a living tribute to their ancestry, made them not only able and willing workers, but also valuable companions in the never-ending struggle with the elements. But, sadly, as they stood at their manger, snorting and stamping, proud and content, they were unaware of the significance of the blue tractor standing silently in the shed nearby. It needed no care when not working, its hunger was for toil not sustenance, it was strong, adaptable, and reliable. The adoption of the Fordson Major marked the beginning, and the end, of an era.
Because of the tractor Dolly soon left, sold to a dealer, who in turn sold her again, probably to a factory in Melton Mowbray where she would disappear inside tins of catfood, or to be exported to Belgium, destined for a butcher’s shop in Bruges. When I was eight, another lorry arrived, this time for Diamond, and she too was loaded up and whisked away.
It was a miserable day on the farm. Two tractors now stood in the shed and the stable was empty, save for memories and the smell of the past. I would have no more rides on that broad brown back, clinging with trusting arms to her shaggy greying mane, and she would pull no more cart loads of water along the road for the cows as they grazed languorously in a nearby meadow. The harsh facts of farming life meant that she had to go. She had worked willingly and well, but her coat was losing its lustre, her muscles were tiring and her reactions were slowing. The faithful horse that had toiled for hours in the fields, shifting tons of corn and earth, was finished, and her large mournful eyes seemed to know this. Father could not hide the sense of betrayal he felt in sending his helper to the knacker’s yard; a helpmeet who had aided him in bad times and good, and whose crime was that of old age.
Apart from her age she had only one minor failing; an almost uncanny sense of time. Regardless of her task, whether she was hoeing, ploughing or drilling, as soon as it was time to stop, her time, not her master’s, she would turn at right angles and head for home. Now she would be returning home no more.
Father felt that same sense of betrayal and guilt when he sent cows to market to be sold for slaughter. For ten or twelve years he would feed them and house them, in winter mixing their food with a shovel on the floor of the barn, turning over and stirring the multi-coloured mound of different meals like a builder mixing cement, and in return they would give him milk and every year deliver him a new calf. Then, as soon as their yield dropped or they became barren, they were sold off and killed. The economic facts of life did not allow for sentiment, and the saddest sound on the farm was that of the cattle lorry as it revved up and moved off to Cambridge.
He felt nothing for the pigs however, greedy, screaming and often brutal animals that would turn on the weakest of their number, sometimes leaving it streaming with blood and literally quaking with fear. He felt nothing, either, for the bull, standing in its pen looking cunning and malevolent. Its life alternated between periods of lust for the cows, when it would breath heavily and bellow out a message of virility, and periods of distrust when it would snort with anger and paw the ground at its human adversaries. The bull’s humour was worsened by the fact that around the farm buildings and some of the fields, the animals were kept in by an electric fence; a thin strand of wire through which an electric current passed every second. We normally kept well away from it, hating every time we accidentally received a shock, but greatly enjoying the sight of an unsuspecting visitor taking hold of it.
The bull disliked it, after allowing the chain from his nose to become entangled with it and then retreating backwards, only for another strand of wire to send a shock rushing up his tail.
The wire had hardly any effect on Father who would casually take hold of it, to check that it was not shorting, with no apparent discomfort. When moving the wire one morning, to allow the cows to get at some new grass, he was watched by several children, including an innocent boy from the High Street: ‘Get hold of that end for me will you, Paul?’ he asked. Paul picked it up with both hands; his eyes blinked in amazement, his mouth opened, and every time the current passed through him his whole body jolted. He was so surprised then to the roadside for collection, the pigs and hens had to be fed, and in addition the land had to be cultivated.
All this could not be done by one man alone and Father had two full time workers to help him, and sometimes three. Jim and Percy were the regulars, one a countryman born and bred, the other a townsman who would have been more at home delivering milk or repairing pavements. It was Percy who was out of place on the land, for he was unacquainted with the laws of nature and could not understand the animals. Land work had been for him a stop-gap, taken up when jobs were difficult to come by, but he worked happily, if fitfully, and used such words as ‘shite’, the meanings of which we were supposed not to know.
Jim was completely different, a small, one-eyed, well-meaning countryman, who could read the condition of the land or the seasons of the year like others read a book. His father, grand-mother and great-grandfather had all been tenants of the same farm and were from that ancient yeoman stock which had formed the stable backbone of English society for generations. Men of resolution and reliance who had farmed and fought with a resilience and a determination that had made them an asset to any cause, and who, when Oliver Cromwell had represented Cambridge in Parliament, flocked to his banner to overthrow what they saw as injustice and tyranny. Jim had maintained that tradition, and in 1914 he, too, had responded to the call of duty and went to do battle in northern France.
After just six months of active service he had returned home with honour, but also with a shrapnel wound in his right eye. He lost his eye, but gained a view of the French that time never changed and which, to him, the Second World War endorsed. The French were, he said, incapable of fighting, they were dirty and stupid, and France itself was not worth fighting for. ‘If I had been a bloody Froggie,’ he asserted, T d have given the bugger to Jerry.’ But he was proud of his sacrifice and even had a begrudging respect for ‘the bloody squareheads’ , who were, he admitted, good soldiers and workers.
His father had been turned out of the rented farm when the land had changed hands, and as there had been no security of tenure Jim had not been able to become his own master.
But this did not worry him unduly, and with a cigarette hang-ing from the corner of his mouth, and his one eye guiding him almost as well as two, he returned to the land as a worker, where he progressed with ease from horse to tractor, from harness to sparking plug, and became master of both.
Not surprisingly, after generations of independence and struggle, he was a Tory, who looked upon Socialism as a malignant cancer that ate into stability, freedom and self-respect. At the mention of certain politicians he would take off his cap, scratch his greying head in exasperation and recommend that the offending wretch be placed ‘head first in a barrel of runny cow muck’, or that a ‘hedgehog skin should be wrapped around a pitchfork handle and stuffed up his bloody arse.’
Apart from his love of the land and his hatred of Social-ism, his one abiding passion was cricket and he could talk for hours on the game, sounding like an encyclopaedia of all the great names of the past. He spoke of Hobbs and Sutcliffe, at Lord’s and Parker’s Piece, and recalled many memorable occasions on local village greens where amazing feats of batting had taken place, and where, on other occasions, teams had been skittled out for less than ten.
Charlie would occasionally arrive on his bicycle to work part-time. He was a signalman on the railway who rested while at work, and worked while he should have been resting at home. In his signalbox he could doze until roused by the warning bell, and at home he kept pigs, cultivated a large garden, as well as a plot of ground, and still had time to help out local farmers. At hay cart and harvest, others too would come for casual work or would be borrowed from neighbouring farms, so that the work could be speedily finished.
It was harvest time that we children liked the best, the sun always seemed to shine and there would be picnic teas ‘down the harvest field’. There, Jim would drive the tractor, father roped on, the loads would lurch and sway as the trailers were pulled along the rough cart tracks, and we children would conceal our fear with laughter as we rode on top.
The men worked long hours to get the harvest home and would finish each day tired and hungry. But the smell of corn being cut, the creak of horse and harness, the feel of stubble on bare legs, the sun, rabbits being shot as they ran for cover, and mother, forgetting briefly the evils of alcohol, buying quart bottles of cider, made it the best season of the year for us. The insects in the sandwiches, the horseflies droning menacingly in hungry search, and the fatigue of those working, were of little consequence.
John Seymour: High farming: no fertiliser, pesticides or diesel
The Countryside Explained, by John Seymour (1977)
Extract from Chapter 7 – crops of arable land
Late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century writers such as Arthur Young and Cobbett were constantly noting two-ton-an-acre in their travels. They took this as something good but not unusual in those days of High Farming.
No chemicals were used (there weren’t any) but enormous applications of farmyard manure kept up the high fertility of the land, plus the ploughed-in residues of nitrogen-fixing clovers, the bulk of humus-forming grasses, and the dunging and treading of sheep which were kept folded on turnips.
I worked on a farm in Essex as a pupil when a boy where two tons of wheat to the acre was the almost invariable rule and where hardly any chemical fertilizer and no other chemicals were used. There were, though, a hundred bullocks fattened every year in yards on this hundred-acre farm, a herd of six breeding sows, the dung of five horses and a couple of hundred free-range hens.
This was one of the last farms in Essex run on traditional High Farming lines. No fuel-oil [diesel – ed.] was imported on to the farm for there were no tractors or other engines. The only thing that did come over our borders was a ton or two of linseed cake for what Mr Catt the farmer called ‘its kindling effect’ on the bullocks to give them a finish for the butcher in the last weeks of the fattening period.
The input-output ratio of such a farm was simply marvellous-practically nothing came on but a great deal went off. But such farming is prodigal of human labour. There were seven of us working these hundred acres and we had to work in a way which no modern farm worker would tolerate.
Today this farm is probably part of a thousand-acre agribusiness with possibly two tractor drivers working the whole lot. But apart from the stunt members of the three-ton-and-over club (who are certainly costing the country far more in foreign exchange than they are saving by producing wheat) the average production of wheat per acre in Britain is still well below two tons an acre.
Jack Hargreaves: ‘The cleverest dog was now the poacher’s dog’
The Old Country, by Jack Hargreaves (1988)
Extract from Chapter 6 – a shining night
You may still find, in a country pub somewhere, an ancient who will talk with relish about the days of ‘sparrow-pie’. This really means ‘little bird pie’. When protein was short large numbers of little birds were eaten and they were not particular about the species. Dozens of them would be boiled until their flesh could be picked off and made into a pie.
Long ago when we moved to our first farm there stood in the corner of the barn an old clap-net. Two very long poles were tied together at their thin tips so that, if you held the butts under your arms, they formed them-selves into an arch. This arch was covered with a thin soft net of cotton. In the dusk of evening this was lightly beaten against the ivy of the house, the high hedges and the sides of the hay and corn-ricks. As soon as there came a flutter the net was closed by ‘clapping’ the two poles together.
When Pointers first came up from Spain their job was to find and put up birds for the falcon that was hovering above, but the Setter was the servant of the fowler. He developed his peculiar crouching habit for the purpose of netting partridges.
The partridge, when it senses danger, will always take refuge in concealment before flight. The whole covey – that is the partridge family – will crouch close together in the long grass” silent and unmovable. It is known as ‘jukking’ and nothing will make them juk tighter than the sight of a hawk in the sky. In the earliest writings on the fowler’s art there are instructions for making a kite in the shape of a falcon. When setting out to net the birds the kite was flown overhead to stop the birds from moving.
The setting dog would quarter the ground with the wind in his face, moving to and fro until he caught the scent of the hidden covey. Once he had it he would move stealthily forward. The fowler and his mate followed with a twenty foot square net, carefully folded. When the dog knew he was within four or five feet of the birds he would sink down to the ground and crouch with his nose pointing to them. The net would be delicately spread and the two men, one on each front corner, would slip it right over the dog’s back and drop it over the whole partridge family.
People who keep Setters today – and even win with them at Crufts – can scarcely imagine the thrill of working with them. Once ‘set’ to a close scent a good dog would not move a muscle until the job was done. There is an old story about fowlers who were working in the late evening when a mist rolled down the hill. They lost sight of the dog who was well ahead of them. After searching and calling in vain they went home. At daybreak the mist had cleared and they found the dog, still setting a scent that he had found the night before. They caught a covey of birds which had squatted while the dog held them for eight or nine hours! A likely tale! But you don’t have to believe it to understand that admiration for the dog caused it to be told.
I’m sure there is not a setter alive today that has a net pulled over his back. In any case it is unthinkable that the many arts of the fowler should be performed today. Still, to understand the problems of modern conservation, it is well to remember that seventy years ago when I was little birds of all kinds existed abundantly around us – after centuries of fowling. Despite the twirler, the skylarks sang in the sky all day over fields where they are now unknown.
Every evening we heard the Grey Partridge cocks calling the coveys to rest on land from which herbicides have removed the weed seeds on which they relied; and insecticides have robbed them of the insects on which their chicks were reared. In winter the small birds flew in clouds around the rickyard; but yesterday I read in our Country Bird Report that the sparrow must now be regarded as uncommon.
The art of fowling faded after the Battle of Waterloo as the percussion shotgun spread across the country, a weapon that would detonate a cloud of shot fast enough for feathered game to be shot on the wing. Instead of hawks and nets it was now the shooting – men who went out with pointers and setters – including Mr Pickwick. And soon the privileged among them found a way of shooting in which somebody else did the walking.
As so often in English history a new set of people assumed the role of country gentlemen. They moved in with East Indian spoils, Admiralty prize-money, the profits of coal, sugar and iron, and the fruits of banking. Land was no longer to have the monopoly of riches and power and with but a modest estate you could – by following the new fashion of driven-game shooting – put up a show of being a shooting host.
It meant rearing game birds by the thousand, and crowding them into the coverts in numbers for which Nature could never provide. It meant keeping the locals off your land and closing the footpaths which their ancestors had walked. It brought an obsession with trespass that developed over the years into a malady which the Old Man used to call ‘Landowners’ Disease’. Kipling is said to have been most seriously afflicted. On his small Sussex estate he sat at a top window with field-glasses, scanning his boundaries in fear of invasion, yet hoping that someone might cross the border who could be prosecuted.
But it also meant that a man need no longer walk hard all day in company with a yokel and two dogs in order to bring home three or four brace of birds. He could invite a dozen of the elite and influential to stand fifteen yards apart while the birds were driven over their heads. And he could have them all roistering at his lunch table while the Head Keeper sat outside, growling at his pocket watch and cancelling one after another of the afternoon drives.
His work was to be judged by the hundreds of birds shot and also by the scores of wild creatures, said to be competitive in the game environment, that he himself killed and hung on gibbets for his employer to see.
This time of new riches in the country houses brought hardship to the rural poor. And since the yokels were needed on shooting days to beat the woods and put the birds over the line, they became aware of the vast numbers of quarry, and more familiar with their habits than those who stood to receive them. It was quite natural that the fashion for driven game gave birth to the great age of poaching. Within fifty years two generations of country lads had grown up knowing every trick of the game, and taking a pleasure in it that amounted to ecstasy. ‘It’s my delight on a shining night in the season of the year’.
The cleverest dog was now the poacher’s dog – though he usually looked just a little ragamuffin. The pointers and setters died gradually away, to be replaced by the fetch- and-carry retrievers that ‘Stonehenge’ – writing in The Field in the eighteen-fifties called ‘Servants Hall Dogs’. While the poacher worked his dog would crouch on watch and if he noticed the sound or smell of anyone else he would creep up to his master and, in the dark, touch his hand with a cold nose. When the man with the needle- pole wanted a hare for his own pot he would go out with a gate-net inside his trousers – a soft, wide-meshed net about the size of a single bedspread. This he hung loosely in a gateway or a hedge-gap on anyone of the hare’s habitual routes that he knew by heart. Then he lit his pipe and walked on. His dog would slip through the hedge and quarter the field until the hare was put up and then drive it – sheep-dog fashion – into the net. Having killed it there he would return to walk respectably at heel. The hare could be fetched when the coast was clear.
One of the satisfactory things about poaching was that it did not involve guilt. No poacher ever thought of himself as a criminal. Of course, if you were caught you would be in trouble. But it wasn’t fair to the village Bobby to get caught. It was embarrassing for him. Even the keepers would turn a blind eye. They were, on the whole, contemptuous of their masters. But you shouldn’t put your trust in that. The Old Man used to say – ‘If the keeper lets you take a hare you’ll never finish paying for it.’
Poachers were hard to catch up with – except for the gangs that came from the towns and openly challenged the keepers to violent encounters. The standard of skill of the country poachers was very high indeed. Why, then, did the night when Great-Grandfather went out with his needle-pole turn out so fatefully?
The outcome of it was decided on the other side of the world. Australia had been used as a place to send the ‘criminal classes’ and, now the time had come to open up and develop the country, the Governor General said it could not be done with his work-gangs of thieves and pickpockets. Now he needed good men who could move out into the country.
So the word went from Westminster to the Lords- Lieutenant and from them to the squires who were magistrates. The search was on for good men who could be caught poaching.
Great-Grandfather could milk and plough and thatch and like most farm-hands had a dozen different rural skills.
The day he was taken – on information extracted from the drover – was his last free day in his native land. On the ship he joined hundreds of others swept up in the same cynical operation. It was a bad day for the man but perhaps a very good one for his descendants. I hope that their sheep-station may be called ‘Needlepole’.