Children on farms: the realities within the ideal
Claire Morris farms near Thame, in partnership with her husband George and in laws John and Rosemary. They run a 300 cow Pedigree Charolais herd and a 1,000 ewe flock of Lleyn sheep. The farm is in Higher Level Stewardship and as part of this Claire runs educational access visits to the farm for school children, the elderly and special needs groups. Claire also runs the Twitter account for Ladies in Beef, and in her spare time is a keen hockey and cricket player. George and Claire have two children, Harry (14) and Emma (12).
When my children were young, other new mums often assumed that a farm is a glorious place for a child to grow up. As my children started school, again I would hear how lucky they were. This was quickly followed by “my child loves being outside and animals”, and requests to release their children on our farm. Yes, our kids have been incredibly lucky to grow up here, but I have never been under any illusions as to the fact that this is a working environment, and a dangerous one.
The nature of farming is that there is very little difference between weekdays and weekends and dangerous areas aren’t isolated. Tractors are used every day for feeding tasks, and there are always cattle in the sheds. Plus, we have large quantities of bales of straw and hay stored in barns, which is a tempting climbing frame!
When our children were younger we ensured our garden was very secure, and I honestly dreaded having other people’s children here. They assumed they were coming to a petting farm, whilst I just wanted them to go home with all limbs attached! I think we also assume that our own born and bred farm children will have the sense to know where the danger is, but the farm is first and foremost their home, so they are probably less likely to see where the danger is.
Once my children could ride a bike they always wanted to use the large concrete areas in the farm yard, but this was where the tractors were driven, so it wasn’t safe. The horrific statistic that the youngest person killed on a farm in 2017-18 was four years old really highlights this danger for me.
Our Charolais cows are a pretty docile bunch, and we are very committed to culling any that have obvious temperament problems. However, every cow is a potential killer when freshly calved. We calve 300 cows here between April and September, and don’t trust any of them. Moving a freshly calved cow is a two-man job. When showing bulls in the past we have found that small children often really spooked them (perhaps it’s a prey/predator response) so I have always been keen to keep our own children out of the calving shed.
We only have a footpath near to our main calving shed, so we took the decision, however inconvenient, not to put cows and calves out in the fields that the footpath crosses. We have to assume that all walkers have no idea that cows with calves at foot can be dangerous, especially if a dog is present. As more houses are built in our village we expect the numbers of dog walkers to increase, but not the level of knowledge, so we need to manage this
Sometimes I compare my children’s experiences to my own childhood, where I was expected to be outside helping from a young age. I don’t think they are missing out though – I remember being really scared of our Blonde Acquitaine cattle as they were so unpredictable. I think my children are being safely introduced to our cattle at an age when they can appreciate just how dangerous they can be in certain situations, and never without an adult who is not engaged in farm work at the same time looking after them. Hopefully this will hold them in good stead for their future safety and allow them to enjoy being farm children without unnecessary risks.