There’s a saying that goes, that to become old and wise, you must first be young and stupid. I’m not sure at what age the old and wise state begins to kick in, but it’s certainly not before the age of 52.
The reason I’ve been contemplating such things lately is because I’ve had yet another pile-up with my quad bike while spraying bracken on our hill. Considering that my attempts to spray bracken in the previous two years had also ended in quad bike calamities, I’m pretty sure I must still be in the young and stupid phase of my life.
The problem is that the patches of bracken are too small to merit getting in a helicopter to spray them and too inaccessible to expect someone else to risk their life and limb to deal with them using other control methods.
You might say that five or six hectares of hill land rendered useless and possibly ineligible for farm support are hardly worth the risk or the bother, but that doesn’t sit well with good land management or my “Scottish thrift”, for that matter.
So ignoring the past outcomes, I set off to treat the ever-decreasing patches of bracken again this year. It was such a successful morning it merited a tweet at lunchtime: “Just survived another exciting morning spent on the hill spraying bracken,” I wrote. “It’s definitely the most dangerous job that I do in the year.”
That turned out to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because in the afternoon I rolled my quad when it mounted a hidden rock. Amazingly, considering the number of lives I’ve used up in the past, I walked away completely unscathed from the wreckage once again. However, when I went to push the damned thing back onto its wheels, my luck finally ran out.
Still fired-up after surviving the rollover, I gave a loud roar and a mighty heave to try and right the machine again. It was at this point that the calf muscle in my right leg snapped and I slumped to the ground in terrible pain. While I no longer felt or sounded like the Incredible Hulk, I did start to feel greener almost right away.
Sitting alone on a hill in a forest of bracken, beside an upturned quad bike, uncertain of whether you can walk or not, is enough to take the shine off your day. It also gives you time to think.
Fortunately, my mobile phone managed to save the day after several unanswered attempts. My 18-year-old (head of mountain rescue) eventually answered with a cheery “Hey dad, we’ve nearly got another gold medal”. I won’t share my reply with you because it would be enough to make Victoria Pendleton’s hair curl.
Having been rescued and signed off work for four weeks, I’ve had plenty of time to contemplate my mortality and to peruse the Health and Safety Executive’s website. It confirms that the older a self-employed farmer like me gets, the more likely he or she is to have a fatal accident. It makes for sobering reading and reinforces the need for a dramatic culture change in our attitude towards safety and risk taking.
So, with this in mind, the next time I consider spraying bracken I’m going to take a day off. I’ll spend a day with my head of mountain rescue, his two sisters and his mother instead. That would be getting my priorities right.
Neale McQuistin is an upland sheep and beef farmer in south west Scotland. He farms 365 hectares in partnership with his wife, much of which is under stewardship for wildlife.
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