Today was a beautiful Saturday morning in May, the kind from a song: warm and sunny, blue skies, birdsong and apple blossom.
At 9 o’clock though I get a phonecall from Martin our tenant farmer in Silverdale to say that it looks like last night someone had been along the footpath across the Lots and smashed up all the gates. As a result, the fields are no longer stockproof, so the sheep that are in there grazing could get out at any moment. Martin is going down to move the sheep to a more secure location, but I pop down too with my family to take a look at what has gone on.
It is a bemusing contrast – an idyllic and sleepy scene with the carpets of Green-winged orchids set against a Bay and Sky of endless blue...
...and the pointless brutality of the gates. I had expected to see them broken, but in fact they are simply completely missing – the hinges from which they have been wrenched hanging empty and sad. I can’t begin to fathom why – they aren’t dumped in a corner somewhere nearby; I look for signs of a campfire on which they might have provided fuel but can’t see anythinig (it is Bank Holiday weekend after all, and this area is a very popular camping destination, both licit and illicit). So someone has used a huge amount of force to remove them, and then taken them with them. It seems more than the high spirits of A Level students.
Grazing animals are completely essential to maintaining our landscapes and wildlife; and it takes careful thought, timing and stocking (and deep care for the animals themselves) on the part of the farmer to get it just right. Here on the Lots early spring grazing ensures that the orchids don’t get swamped out by long grasses or invading trees and scrub. Most of our wildflowers survive on soils where there are very few nutrients (nutrients just favour the growth of coarser things like nettles, thistles and tough grasses) – and grazing also ensures that what nutriment the soil does contain goes into fattening lambs as they grow rather than staying on site.
The real custodians of the countryside, on The Lots
But the animals do need to be allowed to get on and do their job without disturbance...and even in a sleepy place like little Silverdale they are often not left in peace. People wrenching off gates on a drunken night out is one end of the scale...in most cases problems and stressed farm animals are caused by visitors' thoughtlessness or just not understanding the impacts of actions: leaving gates open can have a big effect if it means the sheep end up on the High Street, or going over a cliff. Uncollected dog poo can cause pregnant ewes or heifers to miscarry. Many a family pet can turn wolf when faced with something to chase and no lead to hold them back with often catastrophic effects on young livestock...
Having said that, we do also suffer occasional bouts of sheer devilment: signs and fingerposts get pulled down, padlocks glued up; and on one occasion a whole flock of sheep appeared to have been moved by someone through a locked gate, just for the ‘fun’ of it. How and why they did it completely beats us. (Sometimes there can be unexpected explanations: last year we got quite upset that someone was stealing the plastic markers off our new orienteering course at Sizergh, only for mobile phone footage to be sent in by a visitor showing the cows levering them off with their tongues and swallowing them down whole).
We’re trying to use signs to help our visitors to know when livestock are around; and to ask them (you) to behave courteously and sympathetically when they are. The animals are doing their best to keep our special places looking at their very best...treating them with a bit of respect seems a small price to pay for such beautiful scenery.