"Sex and Violant Death - That's What Farming Is All About"

23.06.2019 / Landwirtschaft & Lebensmittelproduktion

When indulging in a conversation about future scenarios of his profession prompted by international journalist colleagues and I, a Scottish farmer sums it all up, pointing out how he goes about arousing interest for his job in the much-needed and painfully missing potential farm successors. After all, most children and adolescents would be interested in just that: sex and violent death. General laughter on our part as a reaction. A skilfully set punchline, I think, deep black British humour. Yes, but not just. He, the farmer, deeply feels this way. His experience with school classes has regularly been confirmed. While teachers almost faint when confronted with a dead stag, most students would show great interest in the liver, kidneys, heart, etc. 


Laird Jamie Williamson, our host an master of more than 5400 hectars of EU-subsidized, disadvantaged agriculture


Together with 22 colleagues from 17 countries, I am on a press tour with an agricultural focus on the Scottish Highlands. We are visiting Jamie Williamson. By Austrian standards undoubtedly a landlord. The Scottish name is Laird, not Lord. Jamie is not a nobleman, even if his family owns a stylish, feudal property in its fifth generation. At least 5400 hectares - for the most part hills and bogs in the middle of the largest Scottish National Park Cairgorm, which are used as extensive sheep pasture and - far more profitable - for grouse hunting companies. In addition, cattle finishing and -breeding, somewhat managed forest and two quarries. Jamie is not a particularly poor man. Also thanks to extensive EU subsidies, which together make up more than half of the total revenue, he readily informs us. But he seems to me to be rich in typical Scottish entrepreneurial spirit as well as wit. Indeed, his dry, witty, sarcastic statements are extremely entertaining for us journalists.


Guests on a "Real Estate" and of course lamb from own breeding for dinner


Worries on either side

Which brings me back to the quote that captures this topic and serves as the headline. It falls within the context of general considerations on the major issues of the future (not only) of Scottish agriculture. In addition to the ubiquitous subject of Brexit and the associated uncertainties, especially with regard to the continued payment of subsidies, it is the lack of interest of the future generation in agriculture, that spoils the farmers’ optimism. Who of the young would like to continue our work, I repeatedly hear the anxious question. Especially since there is much more to earn elsewhere, be it in the Glasgow heavy industries, or in the drilling rigs in the North Sea. Tourism is now already a widespread ancillary income of many companies or even the last stopgap which together with the subsidies keeps agriculture just about alive.

Laird Jamie Williamson, our host, is also very busy with this key question of the future. He stresses the need for educational efforts in this direction. He is increasingly making an effort to bring school classes to his estate. The youth must be regained. Not least, he says, from fatal influence on the part of many teachers, who would often add nasty nonsense about agriculture and especially animal husbandry in the heads of children. In general, city dwellers have a strange and distorted perception of agriculture: "It is a foreign country to them." But according to his experience already mentioned above, he has hope for the young people. Their original interest in ancient agricultural practices such as animal husbandry, however, urgently needs to be "liberated" from pre-conceived ideas of how things should be and what is allowed and wanted in the  (pre-)judgemental minds of townspeople. It is absurd, he argues,  that these critics of animal husbandry would have no problem that his sheep or even wild animals would be torn by wolves or other predators, which means a protracted and by human standards extremely cruel death struggle. But then again, they would not want him to kill them quickly or painlessly or slaughter them as gently as possible. You would have to show them pictures, how long it takes until a sheep is killed by a wolf, Jamie is convinced.


It is a foreign country to them.

Jamie Williamson on urbanites' view of agriculture


“Game of Thrones” goes agriculture?

Above all, however, he emphasizes the youthful interest in the "farming core issues of sex and violent death". That, I think, is of course a provocative statement in its utmost extreme. But is it so far-fetched? What makes the success of a series such as "Game of Thrones" with young people, this opulently staged orgies of sex and violent death? I know you will not be able to promote agriculture and livestock in any official wording that includes the words "sex" and "violence."


The Scottish whiskey industry already uses the power of "Game of Thrones"


It is left to British humour, which has never minced its words to bluntly speak the truth. But knowing that children and adolescents bring with them a "natural" interest of their own, perhaps more subtle ways could be found to attract that same interest when it comes to inspire young people for agriculture? And that's what it's all about, not less in Austria than in Scotland or in other highly industrialized countries: to secure interest in agriculture for generations to come! I remember very well my childhood and the fascination that emanated from the neighbouring farm, which was not least based on "sex" and "violent death", when I witnessed natural mating or was allowed to watch chicken slaughter.

And that's what it's all about, not less in Austria than in Scotland or in other highly industrialized countries: to secure interest in agriculture for generations to come!

Scottish-Austrian similarities and differences

Scottish farmers as well as farmers in this country face recruitment problems. In general, I find a lot of parallels between the local agriculture and the one there on the geographical edge of Europe. The fact that the Highlands and the Hebrides archipelago to the west would have some similarities with our Alps was already clear to me before my venture. Hilly to mountainous terrain, where, apart from extensive animal husbandry, there is not much agricultural activity. Animal husbandry that does not pay off economically without subsidies, whose ecological value is not reflected by the economic, whose indirect profitability affects other transactions (tourism, hunting). Jamie Williamson, for example, illustrates that his blackface sheep are a downslide on the heights, despite the minimal manpower and the most extensive posture possible. But since they only enable lucrative grouse hunting by keeping the slopes from growing, they are irreplaceable and indirectly contribute positively to the overall value creation. Applied to Tyrolean conditions, for example, this would only be the case from an individual farm management point of view if livestock farmers are at the same time also tourism experts/ masters of the hunt / operators of ski lifts.


Sheep keep the hunting grounds accessible and are economically beneficial only because of that


The fact that even in the north of Inverness in the Lowlands very profitable crops are growing, surprised me rather. In addition to spring barley for the dominating whiskey industry, wheat, rye and rapeseed, there are also significant quantities of seed potatoes that serve the British market just as they find their way to Egypt and Israel! 

Mike and Ali Martin rely on spring barley, seed potatoes and cattle fattening in the fertile Black Isle region


The north also provides vegetables and fruits (especially strawberries and raspberries). In the less mountainous regions of the highlands, I always feel reminded of the Lower Austrian Woodquarter, where, after all, many (seed) potatoes, barley, rye, rapeseed and strawberries grow. Further up, where mountains stand out in the always picturesque cloudy Scottish skies, (almost) everything reminds me of our mountain pastures. Of course with the one difference that here instead of cows and young cattle only sheep shape the landscape. By the way, a beautiful picture of which I cannot get enough. Nor can my colleagues who keep chasing the motive "sheep on a green ground".

With the evoked idyll of peacefully grazing sheep on fresh green I want to conclude with a striking counterpoint to the main theme of this blog. This picture also wants to advertise the oldest cultural achievement of humankind - agriculture.