We are new to farming. We may not even be qualified to call ourselves ‘farmers’ yet. Indeed, what is a farmer? Or are we smallholders? It is said there are two ways into farming: be born into it or marry into it. Aspiring farmers who don’t meet that description need to find a more circuitous route towards the land, and our journey is probably more meandering than most.
When we first arrived in Exmoor we heard the term ‘hobby farmer’, which was meant pejoratively as describing an outsider who buys a farm to dabble, but does not earn income from it. As a recent survey showed that most upland farmers survive only because of their subsidy income, it could be said that we are all hobby farmers, in a way. Although a hobby is something you can take or leave any day, like fly fishing or wood carving. But keeping sheep isn’t like a hobby, as it calls on your attention regardless of how you would like it to fit in with your other commitments. Whatever the weather, however urgent other tasks may be, looking after the livestock always comes first. Which makes it sound like a job, but it is so poorly paid that perhaps it is best to call it a lifestyle. With the exception of the very wealthy landowners, most livestock keepers are really ‘lifestyle farmers’, because they (we) attach more importance to how we live than how much we earn.
We didn’t expect to become farmers when we bought the farm. After varied careers, most recently as international development specialists living in southeast Asia, we wanted to return to the UK and find a place where we could continue our professional lives whilst spending at least half our day outdoors. So we find ourselves on a farm in Exmoor National Park, in one of the most stunning landscapes in the country, chasing after sheep.
We did not originally intend to get sheep. We thought we would be doing a sort of rewilding project, planting trees indiscriminately and pretending to be solving the climate crisis. But then we saw how the sheep (and the cattle) are intertwined with the landscape. Yes, my ecologist friends remind me that sheep are an import from Mesopotamia, but it seems absurd to ignore 5,000 years of domestication and selective breeding in order to claim that sheep are an invasive species. By that reasoning we would also need to deplore the presence of dogs, cats, hamsters and gerbils. In this landscape, sheep have been a presence for a long time, and when you try to manage permanent pasture without livestock the landscape changes quite quickly, not necessarily for the better (but that will be the subject of future blog posts, as it’s a complicated subject).
One day, almost accidentally, we found that we owned some sheep. We attended a sheep keeping course with the redoubtable Gillian Dixon, arranged through Devon Association of Smallholders. Since then, we have learned as we go along. The primary objective has always been to maximise the welfare of the livestock, which is why we are certified organic. The advantage of knowing very little about something is that one is not afraid to ask questions. So we question everything: why do farmers dock lamb’s tails? how necessary is it to castrate rams? Why shouldn’t sheep live longer than six months? Where did the tradition of eating lamb at easter come from (spoiler alert: it’s not a tradition)? By asking questions, reading widely and having the humility to learn from lifelong farmers (such as the legendary Chris Dapling), we have begun to formulate our own way of farming. This needs to sit well with our ethos towards nature, nutrition and serving a cause greater than ourselves. All these themes will be explored on our blog, when we find the time to write it down!