Horse ride reveals there’s no place like home

One of my daughters will occasionally persuade me to mount my trusty old steed and venture out with her to follow a pack of hounds. My horse was called Clay when I bought him but, such is my loathing of that soil type, I rechristened him Chalk to reflect my farming preference – even though changing a horse’s name is reputed to be unlucky.

Sometimes we follow bloodhounds chasing a man. On other occasions we pursue foxhounds chasing …. ahem …. well let’s just say that, thanks to one of former-PM Tony Blair’s more idiotic legislative initiatives, it is impolite to ask the Master exactly what the hounds are on the trail of. We’ll follow anything, man or er … not man.

Our most recent outing involved me charging around a stretch of the South Downs a little to the west of my farm. I say “charging” because Chalk – normally a placid Irish Draught – transforms himself, in his own mind at least, into a fiery thoroughbred at the first sound of the bay of a hound or the blast of a huntsman’s horn.

But riding a horse released from the confines of bridlepaths is a fine way of stealing a peek at the state of one’s neighbours’ crops or the condition of their livestock, as well as being a way of gaining a fresh perspective on familiar landscapes.

Our route took us deep into a large tenanted estate and across fields and past farmsteads that I rarely see except from high vantage points from my own farm to the east. What a different atmosphere pervades these traditional estates and how unspoiled the farming landscape is compared to countryside where the land ownership franchise has become more fragmented. What a pleasure to gallop for miles without the visual intrusion of pony paddock culture and all the field shelter, jumping pole, white plastic electric fencing detritus that comes with it. What a privilege to observe beautiful old flint and brick barns either still used for farming or simply preserved in various states of decay rather than converted into a holiday let or occasional weekend des-res for an investment banker. What a delight to observe a set of modern farm buildings not part-turned into a light industrial estate populated by white vans and hoardings declaring “County Tyres” or “PVC Window Village”.

There is even something about the farming that is carried out on these traditional let estates that is of a higher calibre than occurs on so much owner-occupied land. To pay a rent, a tenant has to achieve a level of efficiency that many an owner-occupier need not necessarily aspire to.

Equally, tenants will often be prevented from engaging in diversification by the terms of their tenancy agreements so will have to remain focused solely on best farming practices to pay the rent.

But most of all, what a relief – after four hours of riding across such wonderful countryside – to return to my own farm. In the gathering dusk, as we turned our exhausted horses into their paddock, we could still make out the crops as patchy as ever, livery horses squeezed into every spare field corner, fields littered with jumping poles and white plastic electric fencing, two telephone masts silhouetted on the horizon and electric light twinkling from the windows of an old barn that I converted for a residential let a number of years ago.

Was it Dorothy who, tiring of the adventure on the Yellow Brick Road and suddenly missing Kansas, said: “There’s no place quite like a heavily-diversified-owner-occupied-farm”?

Stephen Carr runs an 800ha (1,950-acre) sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife, Fizz. A third of the acreage is in conversion to organic status.

Read more from Stephen and the other Farmers Weekly columnists.

See more