Silence at Ramscliffe
Foot & Mouth in Devon
An interview with Percy and Roma Lake, Shepherds Meadow, Beaford, North Devon
'I was born in 1929 at Bakers Farm in Torrington, one of four boys. My parents were tenant farmers. In 1941 we moved from what was a 100-acre farm to a 250-acre farm in Beaford. John Puddicombe who was bailiff for the Clinton Estate over at Merton owned the farm but had got too old to run it so he let it to my parents.'
'During the war we had ten men working on the farm, and always plenty to do. My father did a milk round in Torrington, we kept a lot of sheep, two or three hundred, tilled a lot of corn, about seventy acres of corn. That was a lot of corn back in those days and my God it took some harvesting! My father used to till a lot of roots, acres of mangolds and swedes and he'd fold the sheep on that, and then he'd grow the corn. It would be a rotation of four years. He'd plough up and have grass, then he would have a field of corn, then it would go into roots and then it would go back to corn again and then he'd grass seed it out. Very little fertiliser then - mainly dung! That was organic food - not what they'm turning out today!'
'We'd grow a wack of potatoes, twelve acres of potatoes and very often us had got German prisoners and Italian prisoners to pick them up - we had the labour all right! They would work. We had the soldiers there looking after them - keeping guard on them. They'd work. Yes.'
'You ask anyone in Beaford, a farm to be proud of. He was a good farmer.'
'You know Beaford when I was in my youth was a good place. There was about fifteen young chaps that lived in Beaford and we used to congregate in the reading room. We used to play snooker, table tennis, and toast some bread if us wanted to, and the pub was over the road and there wasn't one who used to go to the pub. And they was nearly all in agriculture. It was the good old days. One of my mates he rings up now, he's seventy-five now, and he'll ring me just to have a tale and a laugh about those times. Well, there.'
'Well, Beaford was once all agriculture. Now we've got the Arts Centre up there and there's a printing place (Canns Down Press). I don't think Foot and Mouth affected the village a lot. There's only one or two agricultural workers in Beaford you see.'
'In 1952 Roma and I got married and we moved into Ramscliffe, which was a neighbouring farm. We were a mixed farm, sheep and cows. I used to milk about twelve cows, twice a day by hand. We put the milk up on the milk stand and the lorries would pick it up and take it to Torridge Vale. We had store cattle and back then we used to keep a lot of fowls, and you might not believe it but that would pay a man's wages back then. We could live and pay a man's wages from the chicken and that - well, it was different times altogether.'
'We put all the money back into the farm. But as it went on we had to increase. We bought in the milking machine and got more cows. I didn't have a Startomatic (Lister generator). I used to milk the cows with an engine that worked the vacuum. We had about 25 to 30 cows but that was enough back then. In the winter you couldn't scrape out the dung with a tractor, you had to throw it out with a fork and very few had got front-end loaders for loading the dung after you threw it out!'
'We left the farm in 1988 but stayed in as partners. Philip took over the running of it.'
'BSE was a terrible thing. We didn't actually have it ourselves but we had three cows that got it that were bought in. All the time they were blaming farmers, but it wasn't the farmers, it was the merchants who were mixing this meal and cake and stuff. We weren't aware of what was going into the feed. They never put that on the ticket when they brought the cake! But I have to say, Thomas's where we bought our cake, they didn't mix this bone and meat in the feed but there was another who did, and a lot of their customers had BSE.'
'As it went on we were having to keep too much stock to make a living. And everything seemed to be getting on top of people. The slurry problem and all that there. It was a nightmare. A lot of people didn't know what to do with the slurry and stuff. That was a headache. We were keeping more and more but standing still. It was partly due to losing the Milk Marketing Board I think. The first couple of years after it went there was a hell of a good price for milk, then all of a sudden, bang, it went down. That's where it went wrong, then. It never recovered from that. The feed, the labour was going up and the market value was going down. And we didn't really get much subsidy, we'd given up the sheep and increased the cows - but that made more slurry!
'Then this Foot and Mouth. I think it's caused by all this foreign meat coming into the country and that swill, it wasn't boiled right, well it wasn't boiled enough was it? Years ago we'd take our animals in Torrington market and they'd end up down at North Devon Meat, most of it, and be killed down there. And that's about as far as your animals would go. And now they're bringing in meat from Brazil and Argentina, where they've got Foot and Mouth, and now its pretty rife. Well it shouldn't be. What the hell was Blair and them thinking about doing that? They're now saying that the farmers should take out insurance policies to cover this Foot and Mouth in future, well whose going to put up insurance when they've got it coming into the country?'
The day Foot and Mouth came to Beaford was terrible. Nigel, my nephew, who farms at Brealeys, had been down to Ramscliffe in the morning. It was a Sunday morning, the 18th of March. He often came down cause he'd lost his father recently. That was my brother, Harold. Well, he stayed there talking in the milking parlour. He went from there over to Simmons's and stayed chatting with they for a while, which he always did, and in the afternoon, about six o'clock, he ringed up and you know he was in tears, he broke down. ' Us got it', he said 'us got it'. We couldn't believe it, no..'
'Well, although the main road separated us at the top of our lane, that right hand field, well that was full of sheep belonging to Brealeys. They shot them and left them in the corner. Left them there nearly a fortnight. Well, I had to ask them in the end to cover them up 'cause the birds and different things were going in there. Well, it was right on our doorstep, couldn't have been tighter. But there, we never had it. And they didn't come to see us for a fortnight, yeah, never came for a fortnight. Never rang up or nothing! That's what we couldn't get over. And then they came down and had a look around but we didn't have it. Nothing made sense. They killed Richard Snell's over at Middle Barlington a week before us, yet he was the next farm on from us going towards Roborough!'
'Well, we knew ours would have to go. It was the worst of the lot, the waiting. There was calves being born all the time, in fact we did shoot one or two, 'twas Friesian bull calves and there was no point in letting them live just to be shot by them. We done it before so that wasn't hard. You couldn't sell them.'
'Well, it was a relief when they were culled. We were so anxious. You see they'd be all right in the evening but the next morning you didn't know what you'd find. And food was getting short - that was the biggest trouble, that and the slurry.'
'But I don't know what the future is. At the moment I don't think there is a future for farming. A lot of our neighbours feel the same. The Simmons, lovely people, good neighbours, they went in there when we went in Ramscliffe. They were like us, young and full of ambition. Mr Simmons he was 80 the other day so John said. They still don't know what they're going to do. John's got two sons, just gone twenty, but they don't want to go back into milk, it's too much of a tie. And Richard Snell over at Middle Barlington, Philip said he's unsure whether to go back into milk. He's got young sons. Corn, that what he might do. Looks like it, unless these animals improve. There's no money in sheep or beef. A thirty month old, well once it gets to thirty month old it could be worth seven hundred pounds one minute and two hundred and sixty the next! Well ...'
'But you know I think milk will come back good. There's so many going out and there's not many youngsters coming into agriculture. I think milk will be good. And this organic, that's going to be a dead duck! This organic, a lot of it isn't organic. You go in Sainsbury's or Tesco's they've got organic oranges, they've got everything. Get out, it isn't organic. That was what was organic on my fathers' place. I don't go nothing on it!
What you want is stuff straight from the ground, stuff that hasn't travelled. Local. That's what you want.'
'And Philip? Well he says he'd rather go out to work than milk the cows again. It surprised me when he said that. But all the writing attached to the cows, all that paperwork, it was that that killed it. He was cheesed off with that before the Foot and Mouth come. That's what 'ave killed farming in the last few years, the paperwork.'
'He thought he would go into horses but that's now fallen through. There were too many rules and regulations with that. You're dealing with the public a lot, which he's not used to, and children and women! And the insurance was colossal.'
'So he's plodding along. He's talking about tilling a lot of corn next year. We shan't stock up until the spring although he may buy some store hogs, if you can. He'll buy some store bullocks in the spring and run they through the summer and fatten them out. He'll go along like that and with the milk round he should be able to make a living. We don't have to live off the farm because of our pensions so he should be all right. He coped with it terrific really, and there was a hell of a lot to cope with. He won't hurt.'
'Our daughter was born in '54 and Philip was born in 1958. We only had the electricity when Philip was born. He was born in the January and we had the electric in just before Christmas. Before that it was the Tilly lights.'
'The wife was an important part of the farm. She took care of all the meals and we worked together as a unit. But these days the women go out to work. They have to I suppose with the cost of everything. It's sad to think about the way it's gone. People were more contented and happier I believe. We didn't have as much money but years ago the farmers, they all used to work together. You don't really notice the decline in things until something like this happens.'
'Next year we will have been married 50 years. If anyone had said to us a year ago that we were coming out of farming with this Foot and Mouth we'd have died there on the spot. But we've come to terms with it because we are out of it now. It's just Philip really. But he'll find a way forward.'
Copyright: Chris Chapman 2001