Spreading Muck


I came across this almost certainly apocryphal story. Apparently a town gets its first 5G phone mast. Almost immediately all sorts of people develop medical conditions. A protest group against the mast is formed. The local council arrange a public meeting and bring in the representatives of the company that erected the mast. In it everybody is waving their doctors notes and going on about all the ailments they are now suffering.

At this point the company representative says gravely, “This does sound bad. If it’s this bad now, what will it be like when we get round to switching the mast on.”

The reason the story strikes home for me was I knew a couple of brothers who were farming on the edge of town. They had one field where, whenever they spread slurry, there were complaints. Official letters arrived, plus phone calls and talk of court cases. Then somebody from the local environmental health department turned up.

He looked at what they were doing, and from what they said, he obviously knew how the job should be done, and as far as he was concerned they were being sensible. So he asked them if they would try something to help them and make his job easier. As he watched, they washed out the slurry tanker until it was clean, and then filled it with clean water. He watched them spread the load of clean water over the field, went back to his office and took a note of all the complaints that came flooding in. He then went round all those who had complained and pointed out that they were complaining about a clean tanker spreading clean water, water that came from the water main.

Complaints dried up for a year or two after that. But the Environmental Health officer’s advice was always keep your tanker clean. Just wash it off after using it. He’d noticed that the public weren’t all that discerning and if the tanker looked clean they didn’t appear to get as excited about what it was doing.

There again I was once at a meeting with Animal Health officials in the North of the country. They were discussing the number of complaints they got about farmers and their estimate was perhaps fifty percent of complaints were basically malicious, or at the very least the person making the complaint had to be very ignorant. They gave as an example one farm which was close to town and had quite a few people walking past it. Sometimes on footpaths, sometimes not.

The Animal Health officers got a constant stream of complaints about this farm. The policy at the time was that a complaint had to be investigated. It didn’t take the officers long to come to the conclusion that the complaints were basically spiteful. Occasionally there was substance to the complaint. Somebody complained about a lame cow. There was a lame cow, the farm’s vet was currently overseeing a course of treatment.

The officers were faced with something of a dilemma in that they’re not allowed to shoot down members of the public out of hand for being a damned nuisance. They also couldn’t tell the farmer who the individuals were, who were trying to cause him and his family a lot of trouble. Yet not only was it giving the farming family a lot of grief, it was causing the Animal Health office a lot of unnecessary work as well. Then somebody came up with a brainwave…

Every Tuesday morning, one of the officers would drop round and have coffee with the farmer and his wife. On his way to the kitchen he’d see cattle in the sheds and over coffee there was always the opportunity for an informal discussion about how things were going. The officers, who were all vets, found it useful because it kept them in touch with ordinary farms and their problems, and I suspect the farmer managed to get some veterinary advice for the cost of a coffee and a few biscuits. The upshot of it all was that when the malicious caller phoned, the person who answered didn’t even need to write anything down, they merely said, “Yes, our officer will be making an unannounced inspection.”

To be fair, it was unannounced, they never once phoned up and said, “We’ll be round for coffee on Tuesday.”

That case went well. Indeed so long as you can get sensible grown-ups involved who understand the world, things can rub along not so badly. But sensible grown-ups are perhaps less common than they ought to be.

Way back, I remember reading a piece in the Farmer and Stockbreeder. I guess it would be towards the end of the 1960s or very early 1970s. From what I remember a family had been running a small pig farm. They were tenants and were just sort of getting by. Their troubles started when a couple bought the house nearest their farm and started a stream of complaints. I cannot now remember how long this went on for, but there were court cases and lawyers’ bills. At one point the farmer and his wife offered to buy the house off the couple at the couple’s valuation. This was because they could get a mortgage for the house but as farm tenants couldn’t raise money to do any sort of works on the farm, and because of lawyers bills etc, hadn’t the money to do them anyway.

The couple refused and at some point not long after that, the farm went bust. From what I remember of the article, the day the pigs were sold and the farm sale was advertised, the couple ostentatiously went out that evening to celebrate.

Apparently at that point the farmer snapped. He noticed that they’d left a bedroom window open and spent the evening pumping pig slurry into their house.

Genuinely I don’t know whether he technically filled it, but apparently he made a gallant attempt. When the couple arrived home there were threats of criminal proceedings. But the village policeman (some areas still had them back then) apparently pointed out that the window had been left open. The farmer had not had to force an entry, therefore as far as he was concerned it was purely a civil matter. As the farmer commented, “It’s awfully tricky to sue a bankrupt.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.