Silence at Ramscliffe
Foot & Mouth in Devon
An interview with Philip Lake on the 30th August 2001 at Ramscliffe Farm, Beaford, North Devon
'It was the toughest twelve months I've ever known in farming. It was getting us down. We were getting really, really fed up with the weather. It was a wet summer the year before and then a wet winter. And then Foot and Mouth came along and we had all the movement restrictions.'
'Nigel and Geoffrey Lake, my cousins up at Brealeys, were the first to get it in Beaford. Before that it was about 5 miles away at Iddisleigh. There was a worry, but we never thought it was going to reach us. Nigel had been down in the morning after milking his cows. I remember we were joking, saying that because it was raining everyday we wished we'd get Foot and Mouth, not for a minute thinking we would. I came in that evening to a message on the answerphone saying they'd got it. It was a total shock.'
'We carried on as normal as possible. Any vehicle that came in and out was disinfected. We had one hundred and five milkers and about an average of ninety of those would be milking all the time. Then there was over a hundred young stock on the farm, in-calf heifers, store cattle and some calves.'
'Ramscliffe owns 188 acres and we rent a further 60 or so. The farm's about 250 acres in all. Our main interest was dairy and then rearing on beef calves plus replacement heifers. We did the milk round because we were involved with the Definitely Devon factory at Torrington. We've got a financial involvement in the factory. Definitely Devon is a co-operative formed about four years ago. There are about 48 farmers involved. We re-opened a factory that was closed by the Government and went into processing. We all put some money up and the European Commission gave some 5B funding and off we went. It came about because we were finding it hard selling our milk to the factories. They were becoming too dominant. But since we've had the factory we've found the supermarkets are just the same, so it's no easier! The factory produces milk, butter, soft cheese and clotted cream. It's still up and running but hard work.'
'The difference between now and Father's day is the cost of living, and the drop in milk price. In the mid- nineties we were booming, no question, but then it dropped 10p a litre which to me was a drop of #65,000 in profit! We were making over a thousand pounds a week, and although there was tax it was good. Last year, although we haven't had the accounts yet, I can tell you now that we will probably have made a loss. If everything had stayed balanced when we were getting 22p a litre things would have been fine. But it shot up to 26p for a while and then dropped right back to 16p. The only ones who could make any money were the ones who were very efficient with these two or three hundred cowherds. I couldn't do that. I wouldn't have the room to move. And I wouldn't want to'.
'The milking was a tie. When we were making money, I enjoyed it. I loved it. But for what we were earning I was beginning to feel tied to it. If you had you're wages cut in half you wouldn't have the incentive to go to work, would you?'
'It was April 6th when they took us out. Two hundred and sixteen cattle and twenty-two sheep.'
'After the cull it was such a change. In a way it was an exciting time. We were very busy most of the time right up until a week ago. Cleaning the farm and re-thinking. We finished the clean up here at the end of July but only finished the buildings off the farm last Friday. The compensation was tremendous, there's no two ways about that and was twice as good as a sale. It was a good way out of a bad situation although it's not the way you would choose obviously. But when you think that you've still got all your property, all your quota, all your machinery, it's only the stock that's gone. And the clean up money was good.'
'But in fact it has changed me mentally. Before Foot and Mouth we were borrowers and you would go out and borrow money for machinery or whatever. But now I'm an investor I make do. You have got the money invested and come hell or high water you want to keep it! The compensation was high but my feeling all the way through this was that the Government doesn't want to have so many farmers and this was the pay off. And don't forget that there will be a long period without any income. It sounds a lot but its not really.'
I've been looking at other things, diversification and looking into the grants and trying not to go back to such intensive farming. I took out the milking parlour. If I had gone back into milking I would have needed a new one. It had got too old and there was no sale value in the parts. The bulk tank will fetch something because that one is nearly new.'
'I had a mind to start up with horses. I employed a manager and thought about a riding school. But when we tried to get the grants we found it was going to be a hassle, and when we really started to look into it, the upkeep with what we were going to get out of it meant that we'd only just about break even. So we called it a day. And there were too many people around as well. No privacy! I know some farmers have talked about going into the holiday business but I would not convert my barns unless I sold the lot and moved!'
'We've made a lot of big bale silage, which hopefully we can sell after Christmas. I think there will be a demand for it because there was a lot of stock on farms that were left in. They've also been carrying stock on fields that should have been cut. I know there's a lot of silage been made but if you go the other side of Exeter or onto Exmoor there's a lot of stock up there. There should be a demand for it, we'll wait and see. Or maybe we will re-stock ourselves.'
'I can re-stock on November 1st but I'm in no hurry because the outbreaks are still carrying on. These Northumberland outbreaks are worrying. Once in a lifetime is enough! But I would like to buy some sheep in and have them running around. I've always done that had a few store lambs. It was one of the few things that paid this last year.'
'I don't know of anyone who is going back into dairy. There was only one farm that escaped in Beaford and everyone else seems to be just drifting and waiting for an opportunity. It's a good arable area around here and I think a lot of land will be put down to corn. Traditionally it has been dairy and stock farms and the fertility is there in the soil.'
'I don't know what the future is - you tell me. The ones who seriously stay in farming will have to go big - two or three hundred dairy cows and a couple of thousand sheep. I've got three daughters so I don't feel I need to go back into serious farming. I can muddle along. Do a bit of arable, beef and sheep. But I couldn't walk away from farming completely. It's in my blood. I've had periods when I've had nothing to do throughout this Foot and Mouth business and I've become incredibly bored and bad tempered. I think everyone needs a challenge both physical and mental ..we shall see.'
Copyright: Chris Chapman 2001