Opinion: Leaky pipe highlights the need for good record keeping

Lessons in farming life can come in all shapes, sizes and unexpected guises. A persistent water leak has revealed a litany of shortcomings in our business.

Whilst our seepage was big enough to spin the meter 4,000 times a day, it gave no clue as to its whereabouts. Our complex water pipe network resembles a Tube map – a higgledy-piggledy assortment of branches off the main.

See also: Gove must listen to farmers, says Ian Pigott

Over the years, as pipes have failed, sections have been replaced. Steel, iron, plastic (both blue and black, from three-inch diameter to 15mm), all lie underground. Hardly a length longer than 50m seems to finish in the same colour or material as it starts out.

ian pigottIan Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday

We began with a simple process of elimination. Stop cocks off and on.

Minor leaks were exposed, but like the Hydra’s head, whenever we thought we had found the culprit, the water meter continued its unrelenting cycle.

The original plan of the farm, from the late 1800s, is immaculate – hand drawn in different inks, a work of art.

We should be ashamed of more recent incarnations, where utilities have been added. Wildly inaccurate and incomplete – if they exist at all.

My father before me was keen to try new things. Cattle yards became pig buildings, drinkers and water pipes relocated, much of the work undertaken “in house”, and many of the plans “in head”. 

But while his memory is far superior to mine, it was proving a little unreliable in determining where to let the digger loose.

Like Vasco de Gama trying to find the New World, on more than one occasion either he or I were heard to say, “it definitely goes this way” – only to find it definitely did not. 

We tried pipe trackers. Hopeless. So divining rods were employed. They confused things further. We found pipes, just not the right ones.

Without an accurate record of the changes, the yard began to look like a piece of Jarlsberg cheese – holes everywhere, but no pipe. 

So I suggested we adopt a more up-to-date approach, using technology to locate the more recently laid pipes and work backwards. In my smugness I revealed a digital record of new or mended pipes, taken with a mobile phone camera. 

Progress, one would have thought. But photos unaccompanied by a detailed record are no more than a boring collection of snapshots of holes with pipes in them. Why on earth hadn’t I detailed the reason we had exposed a pipe, be it to mend it or reroute it, with dates and plans? Never again will I be so careless.

Weeks had passed and we had dug more holes than a Cabinet minister, but the meter kept spinning.

Eventually we acknowledged our appalling record keeping, admitted the errors of our ways and started afresh. New pipe. New route. The meter has stopped its incessant rotation.

We have learnt some unexpected but important lessons fixing our leak.

First, planning, preparation and recording change is imperative, regardless of how unnecessary it may appear at the time.

Second, in matters of succession, a process of articulate and written handover is extremely important.

And finally, technology in isolation is worthless without good management.

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