5 March 1999

RETIREMENT – BEST DECISION IVE MADE

TWO years ago this week, Don Rouse sold his cows. He watched them, one by one, pass through the auction ring, ending more than 40 years of hard work and devotion. He watched them loaded and driven away. Then something strange happened. Something unimaginable. He didnt miss farming.

"Its the best decision I ever made," Don says of early retirement.

When Don was milking 120 cows at University Farm, Lew, he was working 5.30am to 5.30pm, minimum, with barely a day off. Much as he loved it, it was just, well, all-consuming. Now hes got time to pursue things he never dreamed of. Like running a taxi.

Taxiing makes some money, provides a service – and is fun. Apart from swapping the overalls for a jacket and tie, its not as different from farming as you might think, either.

"Im self-employed, Im my own boss, I go where I want, when I want – and thats important because, as a farmer, I always liked to make my own decisions," says Don.

"I loved the cows, the milking, the figure work and I was a totally committed herdsman – but I dont miss it at all now. I like waking up to the smell of silage, but not having to go and feed the cows. After a lifetime of working with animals, its nice to work with people."

&#42 Film crew

And a variety of people, too, as it has turned out. Mostly its local runs or trips to the airport. One job, however, involved taking a BBC film crew to Devon, waiting and bringing them back. It was an underwater film crew and some of the scenes involved a less-than-fully-clad woman. A less-than-fully-clad attractive woman. "I had to endure 13 hours of that at £10/hr waiting time," laughs Don.

Retirement isnt problem free, though, and the first few weeks can be tough. "The early stages are a complete vacuum. You dont know what you want."

Trouble is, when youre farming theres never much time to plan ahead. And once the decision has been taken to sell up, its all hands to the pump. Suddenly, a million and one things need doing. Don recalls: "It was panic stations. I didnt get time to think what I would do after Mar 8. By mid-February it started to dawn on me that there were just three weeks to sale day. And then what? All those things you say youre going to do, well put them all together and they only take a month."

Retiring had been a snap-decision for Don and his brother Colin. It was autumn 1996, quota was making good money, an election – and tax changes – were looming and the land market was buoyant. Neither men had children who wanted to farm. Don wondered about scaling back, but decided that wouldnt achieve anything. That would just be postponing the inevitable. It felt like the right time. And taking the plunge at 59 meant he would be young enough to try new things.

"Were lucky," says Don. "We chose the moment to go but some people are forced out. Were also lucky in that it was the right time, financially."

&#42 Filling a bucket

There is even no need, from the money point of view, to do the taxiing, he admits. "But selling up is like filling a bucket with water: If you earn nothing and keep drawing from it, you cant help wondering when the bucket will empty. It panics you."

Don and his wife, Mary, also say that owning the farmhouse was a big help because they didnt have to move. But even if a couple dont end up moving to a smaller place – as often happens – they can still end up getting under each others feet. "Its important to have your own space, do your own things," says Mary.

Perhaps the change that the Rouses have found hardest to adjust to is getting milk delivered rather than getting it from the yard. Psychologically (and financially – the bills £38/month) it came as quite a shock.

Its a small price to pay, however, for all the freedom, fun and new challenges that retirement has brought. Don can even watch the video his son made of the sale, now. That day, two years ago, when he stood "like a zombie" trying to take it all in. "Watching it the first time hurt," he says. "Now its all right."

Maybe life begins at 60, after all.

Thousands of farmers are considering retirement.

Its a tough decision to take because it can

create a difficult time for the whole family.

But with a bit of planning it can turn out

better than you might think. In the first of

an occasional series, Tim Relf visits

one Oxon farmer who has already taken the

plunge – and never looked back

Sea-washed turf in danger

THE fresh green, almost baize-like quality of sea-washed turf has provided a sweet bite for cattle and sheep for hundreds of years all around our coast.

But now English Nature has revealed that we are losing this important habitat for cattle and wildlife at an alarming rate.

In Lincolnshire for example, 17% – 1950ha (4875 acres) of prime marsh grazing at Lindsey Outmash, near Louth, was converted to arable use between 1990 and 1997 as farmers switched to more profitable enterprises. Conservationists believe that the same loss of grazing land may be happening on marshes that run for about 35 miles between Cleethorpes and Skegness.

&#42 Vital link

Although little of Lincoln-shires grazing marsh is listed as sites of special scientific interest (SSSI), it forms a vital link to the European Special Protection area for Birds on the Humber Flats, Marshes and Coast.

Mr Rick Keymer, manager of the English Nature East Midlands Team, fears that the situation is worsening. "There is now likely to be a more massive loss taking place due to the economic impact of BSE and the European beef ban. We welcome the lifting of the beef ban, but it will not have an instant beneficial effect."

Even without financial help for arable cropping, it is still more profitable for farmers to convert to arable than stick with livestock, resulting in serious implications for wildlife in grazing areas throughout England.

Bird box that blends in

I ALWAYS used to think how obvious proprietary bird boxes were, sticking out like proverbial sore thumbs from their host tree, writes Michael Edwards. If they are so obvious to people then theyre just as easily seen by predators like grey squirrels, woodpeckers, cats and weasels.

A few years ago, I set out to make not only unconventional safe homes for my hole-nesting garden birds, but nest boxes that blended in with their habitat.

Out went wood, screws and nails. I came up with a design based on good old sand, cement and sawdust which anyone can try by using natural clefts in the trunks of trees as nest sites for your favourite hole-nesting birds.

1. Having found a suitable cleft, scrape away any debris that lies in the bottom. Cut suitable lengths of dead elder stems (other wood will do) in varying lengths and wedge them

ladder fashion, up to where the base

of the entrance hole will be.

2. Make a one-to-one mix of concrete and fine sand with just enough water to make a clay -like consistency, into which sawdust or wood shavings have been added for stability and binding. Extra binding can be achieved by using cut grass or moss. Apply liberally over the elder skeleton to produce a latter-day wattle and daub. Ensure that the cement is moulded well into the surrounding bark to give a water-tight seal. Fashion a hole at the top to suit the species of bird you wish to attract and leave them to harden. The cementing is best done in several stages to allow each section to set before beginning work on the next stage.

4. Success! Even before the final

application of cement had dried and before final painting, this great tit and its mate chose the site for their nest and reared eight chicks within.