Ken, Wendy & Rachael Middle Merripit Farm, Postbridge, Dartmoor
Ken: I’ve been farming all my life. I came here with my parents in 1959. We’ve got about 900 acres. I worked on the farm but I did go away for a few years because I’m the eldest and when my two younger brothers got bigger and could work, there wasn’t quite enough work for all of us here, so I went off and did a little bit of work outside of the farm. But the farm was always home. We’re hill farmers here. You can’t grow crops because the ground is too rocky and stony to plough. It’s sheep and cattle country. It’s dog and stick country is what I say. With a hill farm, you have to breed your own replacements. You can’t go to Exeter on a Friday and bring anything back because it wouldn’t be tough enough to live here. We try to always improve our stock. Because of where we are, we tend to buy bulls 12 months in advance so we can settle them in. There’s no point in buying a big south Devon bull and turning him out on the moor because he’d just pine away. For the first 12 months, you just keep him in the field with half a dozen cows and then next year, he’s acclimatized enough to go to the Moor. And with Rams you’ve got to be very careful. You don’t want to over work them if it’s their first year. We try and do most of the work on the farm ourselves. Contractors can be expensive. We like to be self-sufficient. Our daughter Rachael works with us. She helps with the shearing, moving cattle and with lambing. She works elsewhere as well though, about 6 miles away on a hunter livery yard. She’ll do her work, then come home, come out and help us. She knows where everything is. She’s breaking in two horses in at the moment. One for herself and one for someone else. We are closely connected to the other farmers nearby on the Moor. We all help each other out and lend support. So if someone goes down with TB, we all lend an ear and commiserate with them. We don’t mind helping others so that we can ask if we need help ourselves. If the Moors weren’t farmed they would become over grown. They’re already getting a bit over grown now, because a few years ago, there were no restrictions on what you could put up there, now there are stocking rates which mean that you can only put so many animals up there, which is why it is becoming overgrown. And you’re not allowed to put stock out in the winter. It all has to come in. The argument is that it’s to protect nature, but it’s not good. They argue that if we put stock out in winter, we’ll leave tractor marks on the ground when we take food up to feed them. The Ministry, Defra and Natural England stipulate these things. My first loves are horses, dogs and cattle. The ponies are very important to the Moors because they provide a range of grazing that the others animals can’t. So the sheep graze on what they graze on and the cows graze on what they graze on and the ponies graze on what they graze on and they all complement each other. Wendy: Ponies have been on the Moors for about 4500 years. There used to be a lot, lot more. There’s not a quarter of the ponies on the moor that there used to be. All the ponies are marked or branded and belong to somebody. To prevent interbreeding we have to geld some them. We’ve recently had to geld about 45. So that’s 45 less breeders on the Moors. It strengthens the stock…. Otherwise you get interbreeding, breeding in animals that are too young to breed and then die off in the cold weather. It’s much better to have them managed. If you don’t geld them, they are harder to handle and more aggressive. Ken: Sheep dogs have been a passion since I was a boy of about 4 or 5. Wendy: Ken won his first trial when he was 7. Ken: That is our hobby. I can take on anything with my dog Matt. I can’t do my job without a dog. I always have a dog in the van or in the tractor with me as you never know what you’re going to come across. They’ll work anything. Cattle, sheep, ponies, the lot. Wendy: Ken and I’ve known each other for 26 years. I came from the Blackdown hills near Dunkeswell. Ken: Wendy’s dad was into sheep dog trials and her sister used to drive her dad and then Wendy drove him a couple of times and that’s how we met. I used to be into sheepdog trialling, not now really, but I still like a nice dog. I think mine are a little bit better than your average farm dog, because I put a little bit more time to them. I start to work on them young. I couldn’t manage without them. I always have one or two with me, sometimes three. Other farmers bring their dogs to me. Young Farmers often come here to me with young dogs. They don’t want trial dogs, they want decent farm dogs. Mark Radmore, John Coaker and Laura Colwill have all come to me for advice.
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