Rosamund Young, author of The Secret Life of Cows, on what any budding countryside dweller needs to know if they dream of a healthy, sustainable life in the country.
Bees, butterflies, crickets, swallows swooping low and the wind singing through the grasses are all parts of the mosaic of an ancient meadow and today when I saw something moving in the grass I held my breath and my motion and watched two tiny short-tailed field voles emerge, nibble a buttercup leaf and walk over my shoe. The owls knew they were there and so did I but this was my first encounter.
We usually exclude all cattle and sheep from this meadow on April 1st so that the grass has time to grow into a good crop of hay to be cut after mid July when the flowers have set their seed. This year, for the first time in the 37 years on this farm we were short of grass in the Spring as we had almost no rain for two months, so we let the cows continue grazing there till 1st June. As a result the sward was still short in late July, allowing me to see the ground floor inhabitants.
The immense variety of plant, insect and animal life that such a meadow supports is good news for everyone: cows and sheep receive the varied diet they need, meat eaters receive healthy meat from the animals that eat such grass or hay made from it and this reservoir of genetic diversity represents the key to saving the planet, no less.
“Firstly, do it. Being wholly self-sufficient is impossible but nevertheless do it.”
Farming here is very like a game of chess: moving sheep and cattle in symbiotic harmony to suitable, clean grazing, ever mindful of the need to keep our two huge bulls separated by sight, sound and distance at all times. Observation is the key; the ‘farmer’s foot’ cannot be replaced by any mechanical measuring or surveillance.
If you are one of the many people who have dreamt of living the so-called ‘good life’ with your own field, maybe a stream, a small wood and a cottage with a wood burner, generating your own power and growing your own food on a mission to be self-sufficient then there are two things I would like to say.
Firstly, do it. Being wholly self-sufficient is impossible but nevertheless do it.
Secondly, if you intend to keep animals of any kind, whether for food, fertility or friendship, face up to the fact that they may need your help to die at some point and you will need to be mentally and physically ready to give that help. Don’t buy an irresistible lamb first and then hand over responsibility for killing it if it becomes injured or less adorable and you decide to sell or eat it.
You may never be able to make yourself sufficiently competent to perform the despatch yourself but before you buy or acquire an animal, acquaint yourself with the options open to you, legally and morally, and make sure you are at ease with the facts you discover, and are ready to act quickly and maturely should the need arise.
But first find your field, if you can – something I know is getting more difficult all the time.
Food is very important and appropriate food is essential for health in every species. In-words at the moment include local, traceable, sustainable and provenance: you can have all of these if you grow your own. Trying to be self-sufficient, self-reliant, independent and maybe off grid will be a tough goal but a beautiful one.
Grow and eat the right, life-sustaining food and you will have sufficient physical and mental strength. Learning by doing is eternally exciting but don’t duck the difficult issues: farm animals not only need the five freedoms…:
- Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
- Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
- Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
- Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
…but they also need you to be there.
You might be lucky enough to buy a wild flower meadow, there are after all 3% left of those that were in Britain at the start of the Second World War – or you could try to create one, or more worthwhile still, manage your field in such a way that it recovers from any previous damaging management and the dormant seeds germinate once more and you discover that you had one all along.
Rosamund Young is the author of The Secret Life of Cows, published by Faber (£8.99) This article first appeared on countrylife.co.uk in 2017.
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