I wanted to tell you, very much, about the lambs skipping in the fields. Then I thought: oh, don’t be ridiculous; everyone
knows about the lambs. The creatures do not need to be described.
I suddenly realised that this is not so. I thought: most people now live in towns or cities. I like to check my working, so I looked up the figures. It seems that just over six million people make up the rural population. That’s a great many individual souls, but in terms of the demographics of dear old Blighty, it’s a tiny minority.
Since we are on statistics, my absolute number one favourite statistical question is this. Can you guess how much of this green and pleasant land is actually built on?
I’ll give you a minute, to calculate in your head. When Mark Easton of the BBC first asked this question, and went searching for the answer, I remember thinking of all the parks and forests, of the rolling wildernesses which are only ten miles from my front door. For built areas, I guessed about twenty percent. The actual figure is 2.27%.
There’s something here that is curious. I feel the implications sliding against each other like sandpaper in my mind, but I can’t quite come to any conclusion. About ninety percent of the population lives on two percent of the land. Can that be right? Does it mean anything? It seems incongruous and in some ways portentous to me, but I can’t quite work out why.
The point is, that if I write about skipping lambs, and how they really do gambol and shoot vertically into the air and do amazing bronco tricks when they are only days old, that is news, to quite a lot of people. They really don’t see lambs every morning.
Yesterday, the old farmer brought a three-day-old trio down to the south meadow. (There is the old farmer and the young farmer, father and son, whose family has worked the land round here for generations.) I watched him and his little grandson put the new arrivals into the field with the rest of the flock. The young boy, who could not have been more than nine, was dealing with one of the lambs who did not want to get out of the trailer. He picked the wiggling creature up in a sure grasp, front legs in his two certain hands, and deposited it onto the grass.
‘He’s got the touch,’ I said. The old farmer’s weathered face creased into smiles of pride.
We talked for a while about the winter and the weather and how the ground was still four degrees below what it should be. We are at last getting some sunshine and warmth now, but all those of us who rely on the green grass – him for his livestock, me for my horses – are counting the days. We calculate that we are about three weeks behind.
The country is deep in my bones. I grew up in it. I spent my childhood running wild in a farmyard and a stable. There were only two rules: don’t go near the grain dryer, in case we fell in and drowned in corn, and don’t approach the double door stable of Charlie the Bull. (Charlie needed two doors, because he was a mighty beast.) As soon as I was old enough, I rode pretty much every day on the wide downland that characterises the Lambourn valley. I was brought up with earthy smells: of dung, of hay, of horse, of cattle.
Scotland is a very different sort of country, but the smells and the sense of clean air and wide skies is the same. It runs in my blood in the same way. The city is the lovely, dancing, antic time of my twenties and thirties. Now, I come back to where I started: looking for the first blossom, listening for the call of the woodpecker in the woods, discussing the very temperature of the soil. This is my first language. When the mare whickers for her morning feed, it is the sound of home.