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Backbone of Britain: ‘My respect for farmers has escalated’ – TV presenter reflects after lockdown on family farm

Life on a Cheshire dairy farm for Rebecca Wood, who is ordinarily a Birmingham-based BBC reporter and presenter, has been an eye-opener. Here she tells Farmers Guardian about the joy and wealth of new experiences it has brought her.

Rebecca Wood has learned new skills on-farm and has a newfound love of cows
Rebecca Wood has learned new skills on-farm and has a newfound love of cows
Backbone of Britain: ‘My respect for farmers has escalated’ – TV presenter reflects after lockdown on family farm

It is hard to imagine falling asleep now without the gentle hum of the parlour and the mechanised voice recalling numbers of cows waiting patiently to be milked.

But for the last few months that’s the soundtrack which has gently lulled me off to sleep - a world away from the hubbub and traffic my usual life in Birmingham offers.

I’ve been lucky enough to have spent lockdown with my friends Karen and Tom Halton at Halton Farms, Congleton, which has meant combining my TV life with my love of the countryside.

It’s not a totally new world to me.

I’m Cheshire born and bred and have grown up on the fringe of farming life.

My dad, grandad and my great grandpa were all well-known agricultural engineers.

My friends growing up were mostly farmers and I was a member of Young Farmers, but it wasn’t until Covid-19 struck that I had ever milked a cow.

I’ve been coming to Halton Farms for years now and I’m lucky enough to count owners Karen and Tom among my closest friends.

I’ve watched them tackle falling milk prices with gusto, reinvent working practices to ensure all the animals here have the best life they can, and trailblaze their way to the top.

But in all honesty, although I knew they worked hard, until I lived here I never realised how hard farming is.

But it seems to be seeping under my skin, much like the mud under my once manicured nails.

Back in March, when talk in the BBC Midlands Today newsroom was about whether we’d go into lockdown, I had a week of leave to take.

Knowing that there was the potential of being locked in a flat in Birmingham for a week, Karen invited me and my sighthound, Brandy, to stay and, 14 weeks later, we’re still here.

And what a 14 weeks it has been. Everything has changed for me, even mornings.

I wake up with sunlight streaming through my window, the dawn chorus replacing the usual sound of my alarm clock.

Before breakfast, there are jobs to do, but not before starting the day right with one of Tom’s milky coffees.

Everyone works really hard here, so to have a few jobs based around the horses makes me feel useful.

After mucking out and, if I’m honest, being waylaid playing with the calves, it is breakfast time.

Cooler days see big pots of steaming porridge, while warmer weather brings fresh fruit and cereals.

It’s a noisy affair, in-jokes, banter, talk of which new bit of equipment is being coveted by the boys, or serious talk of milk prices and Covid-19.

But there’s a true sense of comradery, at a time when family is locked away, a new family found.

More than that, there’s normality here. The animals need feeding, the jobs need doing and life carries on.

Part of Rebecca’s lockdown life has included learning to milk the cows.
Part of Rebecca’s lockdown life has included learning to milk the cows.

"I have also experienced the stresses of TB testing, seeing what a strain it puts on the team"

Rebecca Wood

Milking

 

Red overalls and wellies back on and it’s off to feed the cows, fix the fences or various other jobs.

To get a true sense of what it’s like to live and work here I was offered a 4.30am start and a milking shift.

Having been in parlours before, I thought I knew what to expect.

But four hours and 500 cows’ udders later, I’d had my eyes opened.

I’d never really thought about it, but no two cows are the same.

The team here love them, I quickly learned everyone has a favourite and most of them can remember their numbers with just a glance.

I’m a long way from acquiring that skill, but I am finding myself drawn to favourite cows, able to pick out number 30, affectionately known as Flirty, as she heads into the parlour for milking.

I have also experienced the stresses of TB testing while I’ve been here, seeing what a strain it puts on the team as they wait patiently for that all clear result to come through.

With every bovine aged over 42 days old needing testing, it means two days of work across both farm sites.

On the second day I was given the job of keeping the cows in the crush.

I wasn’t a natural or quick enough, the youngest heifers testing me as they tried to stick together.

Once the tests were carried out, then came the wait.

Every member of the team hoping for an all clear result, but especially hoping for good news for their favourites.

By Friday afternoon, the anxious wait was over and the vet revealed it was an all-clear, a sigh of relief and a cloud lifted for the next six months.

Away from the farm, the day job has continued and there have been trips down the M6 to the office in Birmingham, the city a desolate, locked up land.

 

Technology has helped though, and there have been days I’ve been able to work from the farm.

Every Friday, I present the weather from the garden, the team of seven dogs becoming internet sensations with cameo appearances on the 6.30pm news.

Around that I can ride the horses whenever I wish, taking full advantage of the quieter roads.

I take the springer spaniel, Belle, running around the fields, soaking up the scenery, exploring parts of the farm I’ve never noticed before.

After a hard earned gin and tonic and debrief about the day, it’s bedtime.

Earlier than usual for me, but it’s remarkable how quickly my body clock has changed.

Tonight, I stayed up though, not to drink prosecco and zoom like my friends, no, it was my turn to make sure the chickens were safely in bed.

They were, although herding the new rescued battery hens would have been quite funny to an observer.

Rebecca has enjoyed riding the horses on the quieter roads.
Rebecca has enjoyed riding the horses on the quieter roads.

Venture

 

If farm life and its challenges weren’t enough, on day three of lockdown the Halton’s also started a new venture in the form of doorstep deliveries of their fresh pasteurised milk.

I can now add bottle labelling to the list of skills I’ve acquired.

It has made a busy place even busier at a time when the rest of the world is much quieter.

There have been late nights, snatching a bite to eat as hundreds of bottles are labelled, while in the dairy they are filled ready to be distributed hours later.

It has been a total success, which at a time when the milk price has plummeted has really helped.

But running a business, on top of a business isn’t easy.

I take my hat off to them, and I am proud that I was there to help with the very first deliveries.

I know this can’t and won’t last forever. But I’ve learned skills I never expected to and I have a newfound love for cows. My respect for farmers has escalated.

They work tirelessly to keep food on our tables, but right now they’re losing money every day.

They keep going though because whatever happens the animals always come first.

Every day as a little more normality returns to the UK, I know I’m getting closer to moving back to the city.

But now I know my heart has always been and will always be in the countryside.

I’ll never forget my lockdown life where I remembered exactly where I had left it.


Rebecca presents for BBC Midlands Today.

One-quarter of the population of England watches BBC regional TV news bulletins every day.

These already successful programmes have seen a surge in viewers in recent months

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