Eau de Dairy Farm

Last week I went on a mini-tour of the shooting grounds of the Home Counties: E.J.Churchills, West London, Royal Berkshire and finally Holland and Holland. About the individual grounds I shall have to write another time, because, as all those who follow my Twitter account with know, I recently promised a friend I would write about cows. This came about after a comment I made in the office, about some cows I’d seen at the end of my shooting-ground tour. I told him I’d visited a dairy farm, and met a horse. He asked me whether it was a big black and white horse with udders. And I explained that the dairy farm I’d visited had also had a livery (stressing this word somewhat proudly, as it seemed a genuinely country-sort-of-word that might help secure that notion of ‘fitting in’ I’d had at the charity shoot). He went on to ask me more about the farm, and in particular what type of cows were bred.

–       Brown ones.

The ensuing laughter suggested that apparently this isn’t an accurate description of a breed of cow, and also ruined any notion I might have had that I was becoming country’.

It turns out that the cows in question were in fact pedigree limousin, but I have to say that the name means nothing to me. They were big, creamy brown cows, the colour of a not-too-weak white tea. I was shown some of the new calves, only around a week old, and it was fascinating to see that, while I had no idea of the specifics of what makes ‘a good calf’, I could clearly tell the difference between a ‘good’ calf and a ‘weak’ one when the two calves were pointed out to me. The good calf had a much more symmetrical face and body, a broader, flatter back, wider, more muscular rear (rump?) and looked healthier; if it had been a child, my mother would have described it as ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’.

That same weekend (the same weekend in fact as the boxing match of the Mad March Hares,) I was also shown some bulls, on a different, livestock farm (that’s a meat farm to me) where beef is farmed for Waitrose and other supermarkets. And the biggest difference between the two farms, far more noticeable than the set up, machinery or even the cows themselves, was the smell. It turns out being in the countryside elicits far deeper sensory experiences than those found in the city. Either that, or I’m just used to the sights, sounds and smells of Greater London.

I’d already been lead to believe that dairy farms had a distinct smell. A couple came into my showroom a few months ago, the parents of an ex-colleague and, more importantly for the purposes of this anecdote, the owners of a dairy farm. Just after they left, another colleague (the nephew of a dairy farmer who accompanied me to the Halloween hunt ball mentioned previously) walked into the showroom and asked whether they were the parents of the woman with whom we both used to work. When I said yes, he said,

–       Ahh, I thought I smelled dairy farmer.

At the time, I thought he was joking; whoever heard of a person being able to smell someone’s profession, and this after they had left the room. He attempted to convince me of his sincerity, but I have to say that until I stepped out of the car onto the dairy farm the other week, I still doubted him.

But it’s true. The livestock farm, with exclusively male cattle, smelled vaguely farmy, for want of a better word. The warm, pungent, almost fruity smell of manure, mixed with fresh air and general agricultural dustiness. But the dairy farm smelled very different. It was sweaty, tangy, sour, not unlike milk past its best. Difficult to describe, I have to say it was not a pleasant smell, but definitely distinctive, and I began to understand what he meant now about being able to recognise smell of a dairy farm. Once that scent gets into your hair and clothes, I imagine it’s virtually impossible to remove.

The second thing I remember most vividly about the dairy farm was the farmer’s manner with the cows. None of them had names – no Daisy, no Buttercup, and no Ermintrude to be seen. I assumed that a farmer, who sees hundreds if not thousands of cows, generation after generation, pass through his farm, would be ambivalent towards the cattle, see them purely as a means to an end – the end in this case being the milk and profit accrued from it. But far from it. He leaned over the fences and pointed out beast after beast, telling us when how old they were almost to the day (the calves) or how many calves they’d had and when (the cows). As we chatted, cows wandered over to the railings and stuck their heads over the fence to be petted, as my dog does when I walk into the room at home. And just as I would with my dog, he scratched behind their ears and above the brow ridge, and they stood calmly enjoying the attention. I liked the fact that the farmer really did care for his animals, and while not silly about them – they are after all there to produce milk and thus an income – it doesn’t stop him being affectionate and concerned. Any milk that comes from that farm definitely comes from happy cows, and that I like.

Despite my naivety about the breed of cows I have to end this post by pointing out that even working on a dairy farm doesn’t teach you everything about them. Months ago, I was at a pub quiz with my colleagues, gin and tonic in hand, and a question was asked about cows. We all spun round in delight – we had the aforementioned nephew of a dairy farmer on our team after all – as the compare broadcast the question:

–       From where on its body does a cow sweat?

But even he was stumped and could do little more than guess. A lifetime’s experience of cows hadn’t taught him this, and yet, after just a few months just tiptoeing around the edge of country life, I can share with you that a cow apparently sweats predominantly from its nose. You learn something new every day.

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Sir Pheasant Struts His Stuff

Last weekened, for the first time in my life, I met a combine harvester. Or rather, I met one of the wheels. And one of the wheels was enough; it’s almost as tall as I am (and I’m not short) and probably similar in size to my whole car [i]. The machine itself, even without the wheels, was probably bigger than the house currently I live in.

The farm I visited was entirely alien to me, but the strangest thing about it was the noise it made in the evening. When you stand in the middle of the fields (and there’s quite a lot of land there, especially for a girl who measures floor space in square feet), you can hear nothing. Actually nothing. I like peace and quiet, but peace and quiet to me comes with the background noise of living under the Heathrow flight path (when I was small) and mere metres away from the M40 (now, when I’m not so small). Vehicles of one form or another tick away quietly in the background of my life, ever present and for the most part, unnoticed (though listening for concord at 11am when I was at primary school was a definite exception – everything stopped when concord flew over; it was far too noisy to think, especially when you’re thinking complicated four-year-old thoughts). So for me, Countryside Quiet is quiet on a whole other level. It truly does ‘echo with the sound of silence’.

Everyone knows the sound of your ears ringing when you subject the poor things to a lot of loud noise for a continuous length of time, whether it’s a concert, festival or screaming child. But stood in the middle of a field, with zero background noise, no matter how hard I strained to hear, my ears were ringing with the lack of noise. It was like they couldn’t cope without sound, and so generated it themselves.

If black is in fact the absence of colour or light, then silence is the black of the auditory realm. Quiet you can hear, but this was the complete and utter absence of anything – and I can’t stress that enough. Very occasionally you could head a distant moo of cattle or squark of a pheasant, but that only heightens the lack of sound the rest of the time. Nothing happening, the world just Is. It lifts everything from your shoulders, the world is put on pause… it’s wonderful.

Another thing I liked about being on the farm was seeing the animals. Not just the farm animals, but the wildlife. I’ve developed a familiarity with game – I’ve had to, as it’s emblazoned on everything in the shop where I work, from jumpers and cufflinks to crockery and boxer shorts. Partridges on side plates and bowls, woodcock on mugs, pins and brooches of roe deer and snipe, pheasants embroidered onto jumpers and grouse woven into silk ties. I’ve been presented with a brace of pheasants, a few rabbits, pigeon and even haunches of venison as gifts, and I even have a tiny silver grouse hanging off my charm bracelet as a gift from my mother. But I’ve not yet actually spent any length of time around the live birds. Seeing them around the farm provided not only a novelty, but immense amusement.

They really are funny little things. The plumage on a cock pheasant is stunning, and stationary it looks almost elegant with long slim tail feathers, a proud face and the spectacular shimmering mallard-green and holly-red head, subtly speckled and smoky feathers on the body. But then they start to move, and the show begins. Strutting around with his chest puffed up, the cock pheasant assumes a comically arrogant persona: a rich portly gentleman of class, red face from years of overindulgence and cigars simply because he can; one thumb hooked into the pocket of a silk waistcoat, gold buttons straining, as he consults his shiny pocket watch pretentiously, rising onto his tip toes in that sort of way as he proclaims something supposedly insightful, concluded with ‘… don’t you know old boy’. Tail thrust out proudly behind him, our Mr Pheasant –sorry, Sir Pheasant, swaggers about as if he owns the land and terribly kindly lets the poor farmer work it. And yet, for all his apparent pride, if you walk or better yet drive towards him, the two scrawny little legs that support his rotund body start spinning round in circles like a Loony Toons character. Both scared and hilariously indignant, huffing and puffing he scuttles away.

Partridges are simply a smaller, rounder version of the same. Quiet and peaceful on the surface, not quite so proudly plump in the chest but they are just as funny to watch. Given that despite their wings, they’re not the most proficient fliers, partridges and pheasants both really do have tiny little spindly legs, with movement limited to just two options: the overinflated strut and comical scuttle of resentful desperation.

In the fields at dusk we watched the Mad March Hares playing (before returning home for tea with Alice and the dormouse no doubt). Bounding through the sprouting wheat and barley, pausing occasionally to box each other before carrying on their whimsical game of tag. Roe deer spotted in the distance, only as tall as the hedges around them, slim elegant legs and necks, they walk sedately though the fields. Admittedly at this point I only saw the farm, I didn’t do any work or get involved in any way. But watching the wildlife at dusk you see how nature endures calmly and happily, barely disturbing the silence and flattered by the twilight, providing gentle entertainment, amusement and wonderment. I’m sure Mother Nature will reveal her nasty side to me soon enough – and eyes peeled because I’ll write about it when she does – but for now, I’m smitten.

I know some of my friends would ask how I could reconcile this attitude towards nature and wildlife when I am in favour of shooting. On a farm like that one, small shoots are held during the season, and Sir Pheasant, who I’ve been writing about with such affection, becomes a target. While I’m desperate to go, I’ve not yet actually been game shooting (one day… one day) but despite my lack of experience and my appreciation of nature, I will still defend it. The shooting industry  is actually responsible for an awful lot of conservation of the wildlife and habitats involved in shooting (see BASC for more info). Birds are bred specifically for the sport, and are looked after from birth – after all, a weak bird that can’t fly a good distance, for any length of time or with any speed makes for a very poor target. Anyone who takes issue with game shooting should consider the source of the meat they eat from their local supermarket – I for one would far rather eat a bird that’s lived its life outdoors and been shot mid-air than a battery farmed hen. It is very possible to appreciate the elegance and comedy of the puffed up pheasant strutting his stuff on the farm, the challenge he provides as an airborne target, and the flavour of the pheasant breast wrapped in streaky bacon on your plate at dinner.


[i] The overgrown toboggan that is my little blue Peugeot 107.