ARTICLE ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED SPRING 2019
I am going to have to repair the farm drive
In the depth of winter we begin to organise summer farm maintenance. This year we plan repairs to the farm drive.
We have a treelined avenue that leads, picturesquely, to the farm. The road is potholed and lacking in security. Concreted surfaces and electric gates appear to be the answer. “Dead money,” I mutter. “Why can’t people just drive slower?” I complained along these lines to a shepherding friend who farms a big estate on the west coast of Scotland. I expected some sympathy, for he is a hard-headed and highly commercial man, deﬁnitely not known for frivolous expenditure. Instead I got the advice that the works would be essential.
It began with a conversation about animal behaviour and the dedication that sometimes goes into its observation. I never miss a chance to lead a fellow farmer into wildlife topics and had recently ﬁnished reading a book by the Korean ecologist Sooyong Park. The author buried himself in a snowhole for six months at a time, over many years, in order to study and ﬁlm a Siberian tiger.
As snow covered not just his burrow but all signs of human presence, he melted both physically and spiritually into the tiger’s realm. With the erasure of his physical tracks came the mental expansion of his immersion in the environment around him. Sooyong reﬂects on the ‘Great Soul of Siberia’ (the title of his book) which is really the spiritual manifestation of this wild predator. So strong is the connection between animal and man that the thrill is not simply the near-death adventures that ensue. It is in the power of this elemental relationship.
Charlie, my friend, eager to get a word in, brought the conversation back to our world. “We see that connection in a good kenner,” he said. (A “kenner” here means a shepherd so gifted and dedicated that he can recognise all of his sheep individually, a rare and useful gift, an innate wisdom of the eye and the hand.) “In fact, there used to be a kenner in charge of the ﬂocks on our neighbouring estate, but he’s not there anymore. After he left they got in such a tangle that we now do their grazing.” Visualising the impact on ﬂock management and consequent proﬁtability, I understood the ramiﬁcations of the loss of such a key person. There is a world of diﬀerence between good and bad stock keeping. I enquired further.
“He’d got married and had children, who had to go to school every day,” explained Charlie, “and he lived a mile and a half up a hill track. Obviously nagged by his family, he had approached his employer. ‘You have a Land Rover,’ came the reply, and ‘road improvement is too costly.’” (I recognised this response.) Meanwhile, continued Charlie, an estate 30 miles up the coast, bigger and wilder and famously rundown, was heard to have built and tarmacked a brand-new road to its remote sheep steadings. The good kenner had taken his family there, and word was already abroad about rapid improvement to the sheep farming. “Not just ribbons for rams, but runs of lambs topping the market.”
Charlie told me the eye-watering cost of the new road. “Seven ﬁgures. Best investment they ever made!”