Mountnessing Countryfile - ‘The Old Days’

I first came to know the village of Mountnessing in 1950 when I came to work at Thoby Priory Farm with my grandfather, who had farmed it since 1928, mostly with sheep and cattle. In 1953 to 1954 my Father, granted planning permission, built the farmhouse that I live in today as there was no such building existing, only a small cottage. My grandfather came South from Annan, Dumfriesshire, about or just before 1900 and took a farm at Woodham Ferrers for a few years and then moved to East Finchley and eventually came to Shenfield about 1948. During the War, Thoby Priory, a large country house in about nine acres, once owned by Lord Arran, was occupied at first by the Army and used as a munitions store for about two to three years and then as a prisoner of war camp for Italian POW’s and then as a home for the Land Army Girls until about 1949. It was then left vacant until 1953 when it was pulled down when under the powers of Chelmsford Rural Council.  Mountnessing was certainly a different place then - life was quite hard for most people after the war, farming was the major employer - certainly more important than today. There were fewer commuters and major traffic jams became a regular feature of sunny Summer weekends as everything, cars, coaches and lorries all came through the village and on through Ingatestone as there was no by-pass in those days.

The major difference in the countryside then compared with today was that there were more farms, farmed individually, several with dairy herds and rearing livestock. We as a family did not milk but kept a lot of sheep and store cattle both at home and on Rainham Marshes which we grazed from 1950 to 1970. We had about 600 ewes there, Mashams and Swaldales from Penrith and Cluns and Radnors from Wales. We bought all the lambs that had not been sold home here or on to local farms after harvest to finish them off. We also kept about 150 to 200 store cattle, mostly Irish Herefords and again those that were not ready to be sold came home and finished off in the cattle yards ready for market. We used to take cattle and lambs to Romford Market on Wednesdays until it closed as well as to Chelmsford and Colchester.

After giving up the Marshes we did not have the sheep or cattle so had to put the cattle sheds to some use so I tried my hand on turkey rearing. I started with a few and it seemed to go quite well, only losing one out of about thirty, so decided to go into it in a bigger way with about 4 lots of 250, selling a lot to local hotels, restaurants and wholesale caterers and 300 or so to a large Oxford Street store for the festive season.

What I have tried to do in this short article is to give residents an idea of how farming in Mountnessing has changed in my lifetime from being a varied and often small scale activity to a specialised intensive arable agricultural industry.

John Vivers

My family were pig farmers in Coxtie Green from 1950 to the 1990’s. In the early days it was quite a lucrative business as we were able to buy them at eight weeks old for £5 and sell them for £25 in eight months. We kept a wide variety of breeds and the piglets were bought at Bury St Edmunds market and reared in concrete stys ready for slaughtering.  I expect most of us, of a certain age, can remember the swill bins near the canteen at our schools. A key part of our business was to collect, up to three times a week, from local schools, hospitals, restaurants and companies such as Fords. In the early days we had to pay for the swill but by the 1980’s things had changed so  much that  we were actually being paid for the work – by 1990 we actually made more money from swill collection than from pig rearing.  The industry changed over the decades and rules and regulations became far more stringent. I sold the business in 1998 as my childen had other career plans.

Jim Roberts


Previous Countryfile from the Autumn 2012

Mountnessing Countryfile – Viewpoint on Hedgerows?

A hedge is much more than just a boundary: it’s a vital part of our ecosystem. With a number of wildlife species in sharp decline, planting a hedge in your garden could help their recovery and safeguard a distinctive rural feature.

Few things have helped create the look of the English countryside more than hedgerows. In the form in which we know them here, hedgerows exist in only a handful of other spots around the world, principally central Tasmania, Normandy, Ireland and New England. Hedges have defined field and territorial boundaries since Roman times. Their pattern, built up gradually over centuries, does more to distinguish our landscape than any other feature.

But hedges are much more than markers of property ownership. They play a major role in our ecosystem; preventing soil loss, reducing pollution, their potential to regulate water supply and to reduce flooding as well as supporting our rich and diverse wildlife. And it’s this role that most fascinates and pleases me.

By providing abundant cover, a hedge shelters and protects all manner of wildlife, particularly nesting birds and hibernating species. They are a source of food in the form of leaves, nectar-rich flowers, berries, fruits, seeds and nuts, as well as being a good hunting ground for predators seeking insects and other invertebrates. Hedges function as woodland corridors, allowing creatures to move, relatively safely, from one habitat to another. They make natural windbreaks, creating sheltered areas which are particularly important for butterflies as well as forming areas of shade, which increase the range of habitats within the garden.

In the last 50 years more than half our hedgerows have disappeared. Suburban sprawl, industrial development, and the intensification of farming have all paid a part in their destruction and consequently in the decline of wildlife populations. Traditional hedgerow dwellers include many of the ‘songbirds’ like the cornbuntings, yellowhammers and house sparrows. Surveys suggest the house sparrow population has declined by 60% in the last 30 years and is now red-listed as a species of high conservation concern. The common toad spends more than six months out of water and uses the damp environment at the bottom of a hedge for its winter hibernation. Their numbers are believed to have halved in this region alone. But perhaps the greatest absentee from hedge life could be the small mammal most associated with it – the hedgehog. Their numbers have fallen by over 25% in just the last ten years. Whilst initiatives are being launched across the country to establish new habitats for the hedgehog, its numbers are in such decline that it too has been declared a priority conservation species.

Farmers are now being encouraged, by government grants, to replace hedgerows and land developers are increasingly coming under pressure to demonstrate ecological responsibility but householders too can play a part in hedge and wildlife conservation by planting hedges in their gardens and on boundaries.

Garden hedges look best if composed of a single species; but a real country hedgerow should be a mix of native species planted in groups of five or so, hornbeam, hawthorn, hazel, blackthorn, field maple, whatever you see growing round about. Once the hedge is there, small mammals and birds will find refuge in it.

And remember, as well as being a better choice of boundary for wildlife than fences or walls, especially if native trees and shrubs are used, it can often work out considerably cheaper to plant a hedge too!

Glen Dawson


Previous Countryfile from the Spring 2012

Mountnessing ‘Countryfile’

No two years in farming are ever the same. Winter 2010/11 saw all that snow in November followed by a significant period of drought in the Spring. Winter 2011/12 by comparison was incredibly mild and the snow didn’t fall until later in January. After the terrible disruption and chaos last year the local councils got their act together and organised many of the local farmers to be on standby as soon as it snowed. We were called in to clear the local roads around Ingatestone, Mountnessing and Fryerning. Thankfully the disruption this year was minimal and it certainly helped by snowing over a Saturday night and Sunday when most people were at home rather than at work!

Spring is just around the corner and last week we managed to get our spring beans drilled and they went into lovely dry conditions. With the forecast that seems to be coming our way, we are pleased they are in the ground. As farmers we always love to see the countryside greening up after the winter. It won’t be long before the leaves are on the trees and we are in “full growth”.

We have also started fertilising and spraying the wheat and oilseed rape which was drilled last Autumn. This year we are trying to exercise restraint on fertilizer spreading as much of the wheat is forward enough for now without pushing it on any more as a result of our mild winter. The rape has good root and leaf development but as it isn’t particularly forward it will be the first crop for fertilizer. The price of compound fertilizers are at their highest for a long time and where we can we will try to cut down on spreading to also reduce these escalating costs.

The wheat and Oilseed Rape markets seem to have dropped off from their highs 6 months ago, and now seem to be holding fairly steady. Our market here in theUKis heavily influenced by the world market. Global weather conditions such as the current flooding inAustraliaand extreme freezing conditions in Continental Europe are likely to keep wheat prices strong over here but the market still has a long way to go until harvest!

Unfortunately there seems to have been a surge of burglaries in the area. We have heard of two farmers who have had their teleporters stolen and another who had gates damaged in what is thought to be an attempted theft. Therefore we are having to be very vigilant with security on the farm making sure that all the gates are locked, keys are removed and in some cases installing CCTV systems to monitor who is entering the farm. Farm and vehicle security is now more important than ever. We would ask all members of the public to keep an eye out for any suspicious behaviour and please do not hesitate to contact the relevant farmer or the police.

The Gaymer Family

Dunsteads Farm


Previous Countryfile from the Autumn of 2011

Mountnessing ‘Countryfile’

We farmers are notoriously obsessed with the weather and weather forecasts. This year was no exception!  You will all recall the hard freeze and snow before Christmas, and then this spring the longest drought for 35 years! For 10 weeks from mid March our crops received no rainfall, at the time they were trying to make maximum growth. The drought finally broke on 5th June. On the thirsty, sandy soils the crops had suffered some irreparable damage. However, on the more moisture retentive clay soils, covering most of the Parish, the crops recovered well. The great British loaf of bread is safe for this winter!

Harvest is always an exciting time for it is the culmination of our year’s work. Most sensible people holiday in August, for us it is the busiest month of the year! Wheat occupies half the farm, and is our ‘staple’ crop. The other crops such as oilseed rape, peas and grass give the land a ‘rest’ from wheat, preventing the build up of pests and fungal diseases. The wheat is destined for bread making and is virtually all milled and baked within 25 miles of the farm. An important characteristic is the elasticity of the dough, this determines how much the loaf will rise. This elasticity is damaged by repeated rain when the crop is ripe, which is why the timeliness of the harvest is so important. So if you are held up on the road by a combine harvester or suffer a cloud of dust, think of the risen loaf and thank you for your patience!

Each year we grow a crop of dried peas somewhere alongside the river Wid. The best market for these is export to the Japanese snack food industry. There the peas are deep fried and coated in horseradish, and are known as WASABI peas. They are increasingly available over here. Japan may seem a long way to send a humble pea. However so many shipping containers arrive in the UK from Asia full of electrical goods, that often the containers make the return journey empty. Some will be filled with English peas!

We are now into our 6th year of a DEFRA environmental stewardship scheme. This is designed to protect water quality and enhance wildlife on the farm. We have dedicated grass margins alongside water courses and woodland. Parts of these are left uncut to encourage a diversity of flora and fauna. There are protocols for hedgerow management, for example only trimming alternate sides of a hedge each year. This provides a more continuous source of wild berries for the birds throughout the winter. This season we have some large plots of over wintered cereal stubble which provides feed and a habitat for ground nesting birds.

We live in volatile times and farming is no exception. Our sales and purchases are sensitive to currency movements and the price of oil. It seems that we are all affected by global events which bear no relation to our day to day work. Earthquakes, banking crises, terrorism, Greek debt and fund speculation, to name but a few. It is baffling to try and anticipate the effects of all these; somehow we manage to find a way through!

The Norris Family

Mountnessing Hall Farm


Previous Countryfile from the Spring of 2011

As some of you may know my family has lived and worked in Mountnessing for more than 100 years. We are arable farmers, which means we grow grain and other crops which are used for providing food to humans and animals. The economics of modern day agriculture mean that it is almost impossible for the small to medium size farm to grow crops and rear livestock. As Essex is one of the driest parts of the country we decided many years ago to concentrate on arable farming.

Last Autumn we sowed oil seed rape, wheat and oats and we follow the traditional pattern of rotating crops on different fields each year. Although we had some extreme weather last December snow actually protects crops if the ground is not frozen before snow falls on it. Most of our crops weathered the Winter quite well and now is time for Spring work to begin. This involves fertilizing and spraying to help to start the crops growing and we hope that we do not have any heavy late frosts to set us back.

Towards the end of April we will see fields of bright yellow oil seed rape flowers all over the area and this will be harvested late in July and early August. You should also see the wheat and oats starting to grow quite quickly over the next few weeks as hopefully the weather warms up and we have a reasonable amount of rainfall. Our busiest time of the year will be in August when we will be harvesting our grain crops and, like most of the farmers in East Anglia, I will have my eyes glued on the weather forecast!

We are all aware of the way food prices have gone up in the shops over the last few months. One of reasons for this is the extreme weather conditions around the world such as drought and floods in Australia. More importantly has been the ban on wheat exports from Russia and the higher demand for cereals in many countries. Although this has benefited farmers in the UK the higher prices we receive, whilst very welcome, have been largely offset by higher fuel, fertilizer and chemical costs. Farming like many other industries is not immune to what happens at the other end of the World.

Even though we are not tied to looking after animals on a daily basis we will have plenty of work to do after the harvest is in. Wintertime is taken up by maintenance of our machinery, clearing ditches, checking footpaths, ensuring that our hedges are trimmed and of course planning what has to been done in the following year.

Although agriculture is now highly mechanised and there have been major technological changes in the last few decades today’s farmer is still governed to a large extent by the changing seasons much in the same way as our ancestors hundreds of years ago.

Colin Smith

Begrums Farm