A load of bull

FOSSIL 76: July 2020

“Get off my land!” has been the alarm call of farmers throughout the ages. Up to a point, you can’t blame them. Since humans first settled down, sowed crops and fenced stock, they’ve had to put up with folk blundering over their fields. Fifteen hundred years ago, they had Vandals and Ostrogoths galumphing through the einkorn, devouring their goats and running off with their daughters. Today they are besieged by townees with untrained dogs, quixotic bowels, throwaway barbecues and general ignorance. It’s quite a burden.

Most farmers do their harassed best, by opening farm trails and growing maize mazes and planting more signposts. Even so, the countryside is in many ways – despite the well-manicured footpaths and sturdy stiles - becoming an increasingly unfriendly place. This is partly because a lot of English farmland is not actually owned by farmers any more. It has been hoovered up by the very rich, who see acres as the best places to invest their squillions.

And, as they prefer their acres swept clean of people, they shut up the farmhouses and let the barns and yards go to ruin and block all possible entrances with blank metal gates. They reinforce these measures with dogs and heavies. As for the actual growing of food - well, contractors can do all that. The “new, unhappy lords,” G. K. Chesterton called them a century ago. “They fight by shuffling papers,” he wrote, “they have bright dead alien eyes; and they look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.”

That’s quite enough about fat cats. Let’s get back to proper farmers. Many of these are responsible, welcoming hosts, but plenty still prefer to fight the intruder with good old-fashioned weapons. You know what I mean – barbed wire, ramparts of pig manure, leaky diesel tanks, wall-eyed ankle-nipping sheepdogs, rusting farm machinery in hedges and snapped-off way markers. Plus, of course, the odd bellow about getting off their land.

But their trump card, and most time-honoured deterrent of all, is that mountainous amalgam of pulsing muscle, stone-dead stare, drooling jowl and swaying, unfeasible gonads: the bull. A sign saying “Beware of the Bull” is guaranteed to halt even the dimmest urbanite in his tracks. Cows are in fact much more dangerous, but bulls have that primeval, mythic menace. You don’t even have to own an actual bull. Very few farmers do these days, as its job can be more decorously done by a human with a very long rubber glove. What do they care? The sign itself is enough.