High-tech military kit – and sheep

Angle of the North: Elizabeth Elder’s monthly column from a farm in Northumberland.

We recently took part in the event to mark 100 years of army training at Otterburn.

Under previous funding regimes, this would have entailed days of feasting and copious amounts of booze. Alas, perhaps understandably, there is no budget for that sort of thing any more. Instead, the army organised a demonstration of everything which happens on the range for children from the nearby middle schools at Bellingham and Rothbury.

Among all the high-tech military kit, we took down some sheep to represent the agricultural side of things.

Jake and our sometime neighbour, Frankie, talked to the various groups of children about what life is like farming here. Among other things, they explained the concept of hefting and discussed the homing instincts of the sheep.

Frankie told the tale of a ewe which had been sent from one of his Upper Coquetdale farms to winter on lowland pastures near Bedlington in south-east Northumberland. The ewe somehow escaped and then made its own way home. It walked 37 miles, avoiding both the hazards of crossing the A1 and the deep freezers of bandit country. Everyone was suitably impressed.

Jake was a bit reticent about the children handling the sheep, having been trained in health and safety issues. But, demonstrating the spirit that won an empire, Frankie urged them to get stuck in and they did. The children seemed to enjoy meeting the sheep, but Frankie warned them that if they wanted to be a shepherd on the range there were drawbacks. The main one was having to get up at 4.30 in the morning to move the sheep to safe areas before the army start firing at 8am. Perhaps this is partly why he has recently forsaken the hard life on the range for the fleshpots of Rothbury. Actually, I’m not sure that there are any fleshpots in Rothbury.

We have been tenants on the range for 16 years. When we first came here, I remember one of the employees on the camp telling us that when he was asked how many people worked there, he always replied, “About half”. Things have, rightly, changed since then. The budget seems very much tighter, while at the same time, the amount of training has increased substantially.

However, we understand that staffing reductions could mean there’ll be only one permanent army post at Otterburn to liaise between the training units, the operational staff, the tenants and the local community.

There is a lot of dismay about these developments locally. Relations between all parties have generally been very good in the past. We hope that this will continue.

In other matters, I have noticed the NFU’s campaign to dissuade people from using chinese lanterns. We don’t get many of those round here, but we do get army flares, which have a similar effect. Unlike chinese lanterns, we have to accept that the problem of flare parachutes does go with the territory.

The other day we spotted a calf on the hill with a flare parachute sticking out of its mouth. We had to escort it back to the cattle pens, prise open its mouth and pull the parachute and the attached metal flare casing from its throat. Once released, what was the first action of the ungrateful calf? It tried to eat some silage wrap.

On the sporting front, we have recently had confirmation that we have obtained some Olympics tickets. Not for the most popular events such as cycling, you understand, but at least we will be able to say, in a Max Boyce sort of way, “I was there”.

Of course, the money disappeared out of our bank account some time ago. Hopes were raised initially when I noticed that a sum was in clearing to be withdrawn from our account. However, this turned out to be the direct debit for the dentist’s. Then a couple of days later there it was. I set about working out which tickets we had been charged for. It was a bit like a school exam – taking me three hours to solve one mathematical problem and I had to ask for more paper part way through.

Just as I was thinking that applying for the Olympics was ridiculously early, I have now received an application form for Ashes cricket tickets at Durham in July 2013. Will our children still be interested in cricket in two years’ time, I wonder?

Further to last month’s column, we eventually celebrated my birthday with a candlelit dinner. This was courtesy of our local power distributor, Mr Northern Electric, as we had an 11-hour power cut until 4am. There were no breaks in supply during the worst winter since 1963, but a marginally breezy afternoon in May was too much. In the end, we had jam sandwiches and a bottle of wine, which wasn’t as chilled as it should have been. Next year, we will go out.

Elizabeth and husband Jake – who have two children, Julia and Archie – farm 235ha of hill ground on the Otterburn Firing Range in Northumberland.

They have 520 breeding ewes and 30 suckler cows and went organic in 2001.

Brought up on a dairy farm, Elizabeth is an accountant by training, with a background in corporate finance and business appraisal.

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