When the Director of the Cambridge Farm, W. S. Mansfield, brought out his Farmer’s Friend in 1947, he did so in one of the coldest winters on record, when farming wisdom may not have had much effect. Speculating on why most of the old farming precepts he listed made sense, Mansfield turns to modern farming theories and simple entomological and botanical knowledge for some answers. However, there are still questions to be asked of a few of these pieces of ancient wisdom. Your Jotter’s comments are in italics.
On a farm where there are geese, the farmer’s wife wears the breeches
Traditionally, the poultry on a farm are the perquisites of the farmer’s wife. This is perhaps one of the reasons why on so many farms they receive such scant attention from the farmer. Certain it is that no class of poultry is popular with the majority of farmers, and geese are the least popular of all, so much so that in ordinary times few farmers will tolerate their presence. For this they have reason, as geese eat an incredible amount of grass, and compete directly with both sheep and cattle. It has been estimated that seven geese eat as much grass as a cow, and those who have had most experience with geese are the least likely to quarrel with this figure. Moreover, it is not only the amount of grass that geese eat that makes them unpopular but the amount they foul.
Mansfield neglects to mention the usefulness of geese to warn the farmer or farmer’s wife of unwelcome visitors, whether man or beast. A flock can create more noise than two dogs and many can be more aggressive. Plus, unlike dogs, they are good to eat and produce eggs. Geese one. Dogs nil.
If the moon is full at Christmas no black fly will be seen on the beans
The attacks of black aphis, which often do serious damage to the bean crop, are far worse in some years than in others, but there is of course no connection between the severity of the attack and the phase of the moon at Christmas.
A very good indication, however, of the severity of the attack to be expected the following summer may be obtained by examining spindle trees during the winter. The black fly lays its eggs on these trees at the end of the summer, and it is the eggs which form the over wintering stage of this pest. A close examination of shoot and buds of spindle trees during the winter may reveal a large number of black aphis eggs, which are black shining objects, rather smaller in size than a pin’s head. By making counts of the numbers of eggs present on spindle trees entomologists can now predict fairly accurately whether there is likely to be a severe attack of bean aphis in any one district.
Very good advice, this, concerning aphis eggs and spindle trees, though as the man says, there is no connection between the severity of the aphis attack and the phase of the moon at Christmas. Incidentally, wood from the spindle tree makes the best quality artist’s charcoal.
If you farm is manned with boys and horsed with colts, your food is all eaten and your work undone
This is a tribute to the value of experience. There is an old saying to the effect that if you one boy you will have one boy to work for you, if you employ two boys you will have only half a boy, and if you will employ three you won’t have a boy at all. If you are foolish enough to put all your boys to work together this will very likely be true.
To have no horses except colts would be equally unfortunate; you will have no shaft horses and no experienced horses for horse-hoeing and similar tasks, where a horse must know how to walk a row. I can well believe that a combination of boys and colts would be disastrous.
Presumably, three boys working together will spend much of their time discussing football, telling dubious jokes, or boasting about their prowess with the opposite sex, whereas a single boy will only want to impress the farmer with his industry.
All goes to the devil, where shepherd is evil
It is not so many years since the majority of out large arable farms were dominated by the need of the ewe flock. On such farms the shepherds were complete autocrats, and ruled with a rod of iron. It was generally a benevolent tyranny, but where it was not the whole farm suffered.
Mr A. G. Street in Farmer’s Glory draws a vivid picture of such a farm, and it is by no means overdrawn. The tyranny of the shepherd has to be experienced to be believed.
But since this adage dates from before the introduction of the root crop into British farming, it cannot refer to arable sheep flocks and their shepherds. Its purpose is probably to emphasise the dominating influence of the shepherd upon the well-being of his flock. No one who has ever been responsible for managing a flock if ewes is likely to underestimate the importance of the shepherd. Good shepherds are born and not made. By education and training a good shepherd can no doubt be improved, but no amount of teaching and experience will make a bad shepherd good.
Shepherding runs in families and the best shepherds are general the sons and grandsons of shepherds. A good shepherd seems to know by instinct what will suit his flock, and their reaction to any proposed change. He is able, as it were, to think like a sheep. Shepherding is still largely an art and demands the right temperament, a quick eye, devotion to duty and a passion for sheep. When the shepherd is endowed with these qualities the flock will flourish; where they are absent the flock will fail. There is an old saying to the effect that no man if fit to be a flockmaster who cannot sit on a hurdle and look at a sheep for an hour. If this be true of the flockmaster it is not less true of the shepherd.
Is Mr Mansfield suggesting that grandsons of shepherds are willing to spend their leisure time improving their shepherding skills? I don’t believe this for a second. Also, it’s odd to describe a shepherd as ‘ evil’.
Rain on Good Friday, and wet Easter Day, plenty of grass but little good hay
I frankly do not believe this. I am not sure that I even understand it. It is possible that this is not the original and authentic version. But if it means what it says then the assumption is that a wet week-end at Easter will inevitably be followed by a wet spring and summer in which hay-making will be difficult, though grass will grow luxuriantly. It is true that the phase of the moon at Easter is always the same, and that a great many people believe in weather forecasts based on the state of the weather when the moon is in a certain phase. But I am afraid that an examination of the facts indicates no connection between the weather prevailing at Easter and the weather for the rest of the spring and summer…
I’m with Mr Mansfield on this. The old adage makes no sense.
What grows in May should be eaten in May
This old maxim, familiar to all graziers, embodies the scientific truth that the nutritive value of grass is highest when it is young and leafy. If grass is undergrazed in May it will send up flowering shoots in June and become woody and indigestible , and the protein content will fall markedly. The aim of good grazing is to keep the grass in the young leafy state. This will be impossible unless it is kept closely grazed n the early parts of the season. As the season advances, however, the difficulty becomes less, for the tendency of the grass to send up flowering shoots is reduced, until eventually—probably by August –the grass shows little indication to send up flowering shoots and the growth from that date onwards will tend to be of the desirable leafy character.
One of the greatest criticisms that could be offered of the management of our pastures in the country as a whole in the pre-war years was the extent of the under-grazing. In Romney Marsh, where much of the grassland was most skilfully managed for the purpose of sheep grazing, the test of good grazing was claimed to be that a sixpence thrown 20 yards could be found again without difficulty.
Any gardener will say the same of the grass on their lawn. Ideally, a sheep or goat is preferable to a lawn mower.