If I seem a little aloof the next time we meet, forgive me.
And if my elocution appears distinctly more cut-glass than last time we had pause to chat at Cereals or Lamma it’s because I’ve been keeping altogether better company of late. In short, as the recently late Margaret Thatcher might have put it: “We have become a pedigree cattle breeder.”
Pedigree cattle ownership has never been something I’ve aspired to, but has recently been forced on me by a particular set of farming circumstances. With part of my farm converted to full organic status, I needed an organic beef herd to put on it. But my organic certification body has insisted that my new organic herd must have distinct and different breeding to my non-organic herd (that I still run on the conventional part of my farm) so, in a rash moment, I agreed I would develop a purebred herd of organic Sussex cattle.
This has led me to a crash-course introduction to the giddy high life of the Sussex Cattle Society and left me feeling like Eliza Doolittle, the bedraggled Cockney flower girl who had to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s ball.
While she had to learn not to drop her aitches, I’ve had to learn not to haggle over the price of an animal for fear of receiving the (new to me) disorientating put down of “if it’s not expensive, Stephen, you should be worried”.
And while Eliza had to be taught correct table manners, I’ve had to learn to look awestruck (rather than baffled) when I’m told that the bull I am looking at is “a full half-brother of the society’s 2008 annual show breed champion and from a very rare naturally polled bloodline”.
If I anticipated feeling a little out of my depth with my pedigree cattle-owning farming peers, I was not prepared for the downright snobbery that my new Sussex cattle themselves display towards me. With names like Monarch and Duke on both sides of their families, they all fix me with the same imperious “look-what-the-cat-dragged-in” stare whenever I encounter them in the field. Just because they have a much more reliable record of their recent ancestry than I do of mine is no excuse for their barely disguised contempt.
Even the way they walk about the field drips with attitude. Normal plebeian cattle panic, rush or crowd at the slightest provocation, but not these aristocrats. I’ve yet to see one break into anything more energetic than a walk and even then they seem to consider each step. The deep thud thud of my Land Rover’s diesel engine is usually sufficiently to make cattle scuttle left and right as I drive through a group of them. But I circle these ladies deferentially, as even a toot of the horn produces nothing more than a momentary pause in the chewing of the collective cud.
As regards boarding a lorry for movement to a different part of the farm – this seems to be their decision rather than mine. Only when sufficient depth of bedding is provided, or they simply deign to co-operate because it is apparently their “whim” to do so, do they proceed up the tailboard in a stately manner.
For someone who has always made a point of buying the sort of cattle that an auctioneer might tactfully describe as “improvers”, daily contact with these well-bred beasts is deeply unsettling. They have made it clear that it is me that is going to have to “improve”.
Expect me in a three-piece suit and bowler hat at a show near you soon.
Stephen Carr farms an 800 hectare sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife Fizz. Part of the farm is converted to organic status and subject to a High Level Stewardship Agreement