Is farming in your genes?

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By cprebecca

All at CPRE Lancashire were devastated by the loss of Audrey Dawson, long-standing member and trustee of the group, whose energy for protecting the countryside was immense. We are glad to be able to reproduce here an article that Audrey wrote for us in 2017, which was featured in the Lancashire and North West Magazine – and her recipe for Damson Gin!

Quernmore landscapeBorn in the beautiful Lune valley in Lancashire, I look back on my happy childhood in a wonderful farming community, but with all the struggles I remember for my parents. Electricity did not come to the valley until around 1952. I remember my Mother drawing water from a well, and no luxury of an indoor loo then! In the winter of 1947, snow was horrendous and we could not go to school for six whole weeks. And getting milk churns to the main road a mile away was a community dig-out effort , as there were no tractors. In the summers I picked rose-hips for the campaign to provide rosehip syrup for Vitamin C for children as we did not have oranges or bananas during the war.

Bottle feeding lambs
bottle feeding orphan lambs

I still connect with the farming community whenever I visit agricultural shows and am out in the countryside. I love seeing sheep roam the hillsides, the dry- stone walls, and cows happily chewing their cud in the tree shade on a summer’s day. It is always good to chat with farmers about the difficulties they face too. Milk payments are far too low – large supermarkets use milk as a loss- making attraction but a Lancashire supermarket is now promoting Bowland milk as well as much local butter and cheese – and they get my vote!

As do Farmers’ Markets in Lancashire. My nearest one is at Hoghton Tower and the range of locally grown vegetables and fruit is wonderful. On the Fylde, and particularly on the rich soils of West Lancashire we grow a good range of vegetables – and it does not matter if some are less than perfect! It pains me that our local supermarkets do not make more of our local produce. Asparagus from Formby is a prized asset for Lancashire. I frequently look for the Union Jack to show British produce. More and more Farmers’ Markets are springing up and Marketing Lancashire is now highlighting links with local producers from meat, butter and prize-winning cheese – who does know about Lancashire ‘crumbly’!

Farming communities are often at the heart of our countryside and many farmers regard themselves as guardians for our brief sojourn on earth. Hedges are laid, field edges protected for wildflowers, birds, and animals; and for small farmers there are rotas for crops and no mono-cropping (mono-culture). Cows and sheep have normal lives in the open fields from spring to October. And haymaking in summer has still that nostalgic scent where I live now in a semi-rural village (silage is totally different – but I appreciate the need!)

And the land is kept in ‘good heart’ for the future.

Obviously, the question is: is this sustainable? I would argue that for the sake of the British countryside, and both town and country dwellers, it should be. Pesticides cause untold damage, and bees (critical for pollination) are undoubtedly suffering from the use of neonicotinoids. Genetically modified (GM) crops have their own dangers, with seed- manufacturers having near arbitrary control (I absolutely agree with the Prince of Wales’s evident concerns).

Do we want purely commercial farms where cows never see the light of day (and use of antibiotics is too prevalent)? Added to that, higher pollution and traffic from disposal of manure! Do they know the names of their cows (which smaller farmers do!) and their preferences – no! The milk yield is all-consuming and so this has defined the change in bovine breeding too. Where are Red Polls and Shorthorns these days? Some of the old breeds have good genes going back aeons and we should not lose that. Watching Adam Henson’s rare breeds on Countryfile is a joy but I wish there was a little more emphasis on real farming work – the hard graft in getting up at 4 am to a calving heifer!!) Do we want hens still cramped up in cages – even if they have allowed a scrap more space these days? If you have never seen the evident delight for hens scratching up insects (or enjoying snails!!) you have missed a treat! Do you buy genuine woodland or free-range eggs (even if they are a bit dearer?) Look for food produced locally: we need to support our own farmers, horticulture, and even orchards – many of the latter we have lost! Damson trees in the Lythe Valley of the Lake District are well known in the North West and should be protected (I confess: I do make Damson gin in September, see end of the article for the recipe!).

In addition, we have far higher standards of care for our livestock in Britain – and this should convince many people to go for local or British produce – just read reports from Compassion in World Farming charity and you will see what I mean!

Audrey Dawson at a CPRE event with Anne Kurdock
Audrey Dawson at a CPRE event with Anne Kurdock

What about Brexit and the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) and the present environment support given to farmers? Upland farmers and the small farmers who work on their farms day in and day out do need support but this can be tailored to genuine environment and production needs. But do we need to give the same support to agri-businesses whose main concern is profit and pure commercial gain and with huge subsidies? Have bio-fuels a place when land is a scarce resource? Do we need a land policy to protect our countryside, especially from avaricious builders?

CPRE campaigns on farming and food issues. Our most recent report New Model Farming identifies a range of recommendations to increase the diversity, sustainability and resilience of the farming sector on which so much of our countryside depends. For further details of our latest report please see our website at the address below. https://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/ farming-and-food/farming/item/4347- new-model-farming. Remember land in countryside is a finite resource. Once it is built it is lost for ever!

We all live on this beautiful planet and in the micro-environment of Great Britain. The majority of people will agree we need to care for our planet, our countryside and nature. The Campaign to Protect Rural England is happy to continue its work aiming to do the best to protect it – as we have done for 90 years – and for protection and support to our farmers who grow our food and love and work their farms. ‘Dig for Britain’ in the Second World War was a major success and inspired (and helped to feed) the country: now we need the same spirit to protect and encourage us to support our own food production in this country. Next time you go shopping for food: think local and just visit a local Farmers’ Market near you.

And, supporting the above, I am proud to have been a CPRE member now for over forty years.

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DAMSON LIQUEUR
2 lbs Damsons
2 lbs Granulated Sugar 1 bottle of Gin (75 cl)

  • Wash the damsons, prick each twice, and place with the sugar, into a large jar. Pour on the gin and replace the top. Keep the empty gin bottle to use for the final liqueur.
  • For the first week or two, give the jar a gentle shake or stir the contents gently. (I do it daily for the first two to three weeks.) Once the sugar is completely dissolved,
    leave undisturbed for about three months (or until Christmas Eve!)
  • Decant the liqueur through a fine sieve into a glass jug then back into the original gin bottle. The liqueur will be quite clear. This should produce about a bottle and a half of liqueur.

Bonus: most of the damsons that are left can be stoned (throw away any wrinkled and hard ones) and used as a layer in chocolate cakes, or in trifles.

Audrey Dawson and Lindsay Beaton
Audrey Dawson and Lindsay Beaton
Quernmore landscape