The Jurassic Cattle Drive… I’ve always known that taking our livestock along the beach to move between areas of the farm is a pretty amazing spectacle, and for the last few years I have tried to give people as much notice as possible on our social media so that people can join in. What I didn’t expect to get was an email from BBC’s Countryfile asking if there was any way they could come and film it! An enthusiastic “Yes!” is the only response I could have made, and to fit in with their schedule we booked up the date we would move the cattle far more advanced than we have ever done so before – a whole four weeks, which is a lot more regimented than we’re used to being that’s for sure.
I’ve been involved in indie documentaries before, for The Land Worker’s Alliance and Robert Golden, among others, but never anything of this scale. The behind-the-scene’s team were fantastic at answering my questions and making us all feel comfortable. The day dawned – it was going to be bright and hot so we were starting early as usual. We met Adam Henson and the team by the barns, introduced people and horses, coordinated plans and equipment, and went off to find the cattle.
Before we got there though, it was already time to start filming. Introducing everyone all over again and discussing what we were doing. It’s a different way of talking. You have to say the same things three times to get all of the different shots – but that also means you have three chances to say it the way you want to! Ollie the director was quick to notice if he hadn’t got the information he wanted, and would ask us again. I’d stand there, stumped as to how to say what was needed while sounding natural, but Adam Henson would pause and think, then ask me a question – like magic he was able to get me to say what was needed. Eventually with this all done, Ellen and I went to the far side of the field to start gathering the cattle, while everyone else headed to the gate where we would be taking the cattle through to the beach.
Ellen was riding our old steady grey mare Coppice, while I was on my younger black mare Tobie. Running along with us, as would have happened throughout history, was Tobie’s three month old filly foal Anya. What better way to learn than through watching and doing? Our horses have worked on the farm their whole lives and know how to help keep the cattle moving. We started gathering the cattle from behind a thicket of sallows, and when we heard the call of “Come-ooooon!” it was time to start moving. The cows know the call, and they know it means fresh grazing, so sharpish they went towards it. As we came close, Adam Henson opened the gate, Ben called again and lead them into the reedbed like the pied-piper. It’s a wonderfully gentle way to move livestock, with the dog and horses used only to nudge and guide the animals following the sound of the herdsman ahead.
We thought it was all going smoothly, with all of the cows and calves all safely through the reed bed and almost onto the beach, when suddenly Adam Henson gave a cry – there’s a calf in the field still! When the rest of them came so neatly to call, this little chap must have been napping beneath a tree and only awoken when he heard the commotion! A calf all alone doesn’t necessarily behave as one would hope, and unlike the adults he didn’t know where the gate was or where they were going. When confused like that, calves and lambs will often ignore the sights and sounds of the herd ahead and turn back to where they last saw their mum. This was what he was doing when I got back into the field, but Tobie and Anya were brilliant, turning back the moment I asked and overtaking the calf at a canter. We managed to keep him near the gateway while the others sent back some of the cows. As soon as they were in the field, we could see the calf relax and he quickly joined them, and we were back to sending them out of the field and onto the beach. This time though, it worked with no set backs.
Walking along the beach is slow going, that’s why we use the horses for this job. They are far swifter on the shingle than I can ever be on foot, and so we are able to keep up with the cattle and get ahead of them as needed. Adam gamely helped us onto the front of the beach and then headed back to drive ahead. We wanted them by the sea edge because our neighbour had his dairy heifers in a field that bounds the beach, and it’s better to avoid letting different herds mingle for biosecurity just in case. Once passed the youngsters though, we took everyone onto the back of the beach where the shingle doesn’t shift underfoot quite so much. Anya thought this was quite enough for now, thank you very much, and decided it was time for a milk-break! So instead of helping Ellen and Coppice guide the cattle over the beach, Tobie and I just stood and watched for a few minutes.
After a slow and gentle walk, and coordinating with everyone using our handy-dandy radios, we reached the new field at about the same time as the crew did. With some more calling from Ben, the cattle moved easily across the ditch and into the field which was to be their home for the next couple of weeks. It didn’t take long for the cattle to dive headlong into the reedbed to gorge themselves and explore. As for us, it was time to jump off the horses for a rest and a bottle of water. The film crew followed the cattle into the marsh to get the beautiful shots of them grazing, and it was time for Ellen and I to take the horses back to their field.
Wonder of wonders, we all made it back to West Bexington in time for elevenses with Rosie and her team of veg growers for a well-earned cup of tea and some delicious home made cake. But the day was not yet done! While the main feature of our little segment was the cattle drive, they wanted to frame that with the rest of the farm. Adam Henson and I walked through the flower garden, discussing the history, the present and the future of the farm. My neighbour told me the next day that she’d heard his voice from her garden and snuck out to watch us! Toni, I hope you enjoyed watching the whole segment too!
Next Adam Henson joined Adam-my-dad and I for a wander through one of the pasture fields with a wide array of wild flowers to talk about the function of livestock within the farming system, particularly their role in conservation grazing. We’d had the cattle at West Bexington all summer, grazing our arable lays, but it was high-time for them to head back to Cogden for their conservation work grazing to maintain the patchwork of scrub and grass providing habitat for myriad insects, birds, reptiles and mammals. The whole day was an incredible, if exhausting experience for someone who’s more used to their own company out in a field. I definitely have a new-found respect for the presenters of Countryfile and the brilliant work they do drawing us farmers out of ourselves and into the public eye.