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2010.03.07 – On Your Farm, BBC Radio 4 broadcast

On Your Farm

Alex James visits Simon Keenlyside on his farm in Wales

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Sunday 7 March 2010

Transcribed by Gwyn Davies


Now in On Your Farm a meeting of minds, as the musician turned farmer Alex James meets the opera star and ecologist Simon Keenlyside. His remarkable ecology project in the Welsh mountains has encouraged long absent species to return. Now rare birds, butterflies and bats share the land with the hardy sheep and shepherds of Carmarthenshire.


AJ: What’s that bird?

SK: It’s a raven – beautiful – diamond shaped tail. The call is more like a dog than a bird (he imitates the call of a raven)

AJ: That was a good call.

SK: In the absence of the animal obliging us… deep place in the mythology…

AJ: They’re posh – they like living in castles.

SK: No, they’re not posh, they’re rough.

AJ: Really?

SK: Yeah, you find the roughest place and there’s a couple of ravens. It’s like Roman cohorts… Let’s get out of the wind.

AJ: There’s a little thing just fluttered up there…

SK: Oh there’s fieldfares, field pheasants and redwings. They come down from Siberia and the northern tundra for the winter here. They come down for the old crab apples, and the berries and the hawthorn too.

Fieldfare-credit-birdforum-dot-net Pheasant-credit-pheasantpros-dot-com

fieldfare and pheasant

AJ: This morning I’m hunkered up on a patch of farmland high in the Carmarthenshire hills with Simon Keenlyside, one of the country’s most successful classical singers, often to be found in leading roles in the world’s great opera houses, but also somebody who’s most at home in the countryside.

SK: Every one of my scores has drawings and sketches of these fields and that beautiful mountain up there.

AJ: This is where your heart is?

SK: Yeah, every single day.

AJ: It’s funny that there are so many musicians end up living on farms. I don’t know, it’s hard to think of a rock musician who doesn’t – you know, Sting lives on a farm, Paul McCartney lives on a farm, Roger Daltrey lives on a farm. Is there something grounding about it, I wonder? I mean, that’s what I like, the feeling of sort of putting down roots after so long living out of a suitcase.

SK: Certainly that is consolation, but that’s not really the reason. If you said to me, what’s music – I would say come me with down to the stream on a lovely day in dappled sunlight and say look at that, look at that light, the shadow play, this cathedral in the tiny stream. It’s the sensitivities of being open to what’s in front of you and that’s music too. It’s only a different accent.

AJ: I’ve got to say it’s exquisite, it makes your heart beat faster.

SK: Yeah, it’s beautiful…

AJ: There’s a stream tumbling through soft mossy almost hillsides.

SK: I’ve got things like the redstart, the pied flycatcher, the spotted flycatcher, these are beautiful, beautiful creatures and I’m putting nest boxes up as fast as I can. Sometimes they’re a bit fussy – the nestbox hole must be such and such a size – you get it wrong by a millimetre and the bird will reject it. Frustrating – but it’s a nice process.

redstart-credit-bbc pied-flycatcher-credit-naturfoto-cz-dot-de Spotted Flycatcher, credit Ian Simons, Blakeney Point, 24 08 07

redstart, pied flycatcher and spotted flycatcher

AJ: The pressure from the government to use farmland for growing food – there’s a feeling that we should be more self sufficient in food that we grow here – but I don’t know, coming here, seeing what you’re doing with encouraging rare birds, there’s merit in that as well.

SK: If you strip a land of its hedgerows, if you have vast swathes of monoculture – of course the country needs it, of course it needs that – but you’ve got to also accept the fact that you will lose vast amounts of wildlife. And do you want that? If you want your wildlife, and we all do, you’ve got to work for it. If I want bluebell woods, I’ve got to put them in the ground. If I want woodland birds, I’ve got to plant the trees. And there needs to be a balance between people who have ecological projects such as this, in this farm, it’s only a tiny 17 acres, and those people whose livelihood is great swathes of wheat, barley and rye.

AJ: But what a precious 17 acres… how does it work? Do you sort of think to yourself “well, what I’d most like to attract is a goshawk” and then consider what would attract them the most and go about planting that?

SK: I wish I could say that I was as decisive as you suggest! No, things come to me little by little. But as far as wildlife is concerned, if you give creatures the right habitat, if you have, as we’ll see in the top fields in a minute, low scrubby grass and trees you will have the best likelihood of barn owls. They’ll come – you can’t do any more than provide the habitat for them.

AJ: So where exactly are we? In Carmarthenshire?


SK: We’re in Carmarthenshire and we are a very, very special piece of land. There’s nothing like it – there’s the Preseli Mountains 15-20 miles away, we’re about 15 miles from the sea.

AJ: We’re looking up a heathy mountainside – little bit of snow on the ground there Simon, still.

SK: Yes… well, I remember in the late 70s there was a big drift up on the mountain which lasted until June. There’s still a big drift in the same place now. The mountain is burned more than it used to be, so in some respects it’s worse. We’ve lost the grouse, because there’s no long heather any more, but hen harriers have just come back now after 30 years and that’s a bird of really European significance. And they haven’t been here for about – since I was a boy – and we’ve got merlins – another very exotic and wonderful bird. They haven’t been here until the last ten years – peregrines passing all the time and now in the last few years we’ve got goshawks, which is very exciting.

merlin-credit-carolinanature-dot-com peregrine-credit RSPB Goshawk-credit-toothandclaw-dot-org-dot-uk0003

merlin, peregrine and goshawk

AJ: These are all species that kind of need preserving?

SK: Yeah, because the ones I’ve mentioned are spectacular in European terms. The goshawk, they’re even secret locations… for fear that egg collectors will take them. Countered, unfortunately against that – they want to put 65 vast windmills up there.

AJ: 65?

SK: Yeah, it’s obscene. Each one of those will have a concrete plinth of 10 metres square or something – stays in the ground for ever – that’s 600 metres of concrete up there. We need new energy sources, we’ve got to, we all know that, but we have been told around this mountain that this is of no significance and it’s not particularly beautiful, which is absurd, and we are expected to make farms pay. I think that this gorgeous mountain that’s in front of us, above the tree line, is not going to pay, but nevertheless it should be respected, it shouldn’t be covered with concrete without at least having a balanced discussion about what else is important, about the beauty of it, about the species that live on it and how rare they are and how much help they also need. They count, they should count and they haven’t got a voice. I want to leave this little place better than I found it.

AJ: So what’s the story? You were born in London?

SK: I was born in London, yes.

AJ: But you grew up here?

SK: I grew up here, yeah, my father was a violinist and he had a little cottage, which we’ll pass in a minute, over there, which looks like it hasn’t changed for the last 300 years and in 1985 I bought that off him and then I acquired this land – then it was very, very, very cheap and ideas occurred to me.

AJ: So you must have walked over here as a kid, right?

SK: As a child one’s not aware of the laws as much – and also people are more patient with children. I was tickling fish in rivers all round here all my youth.

AJ: You’ve had an incredible life, Simon. You grew up here, then you went to Cambridge and studied zoology.

SK: Yeah, but I knew all the stuff about wildlife from 8, 9 and continue to learn all the time.

AJ: I was going to ask you when you decided to become a singer and not a zoologist, but it strikes me you’ve never really stopped being a zoologist…

SK: No, it’s part of my spine and I’ve often taken weeks out after being in Sydney, Australia or something to go to the Barrier Reef or anywhere, the jungles, whatever, or the Sierra Nevada in California and seen marvels. Were I to have been David Attenborough in his magnificent working life I wouldn’t have had that much more opportunity than I already have had.

AJ: So you worked for the RSPB?

SK: I worked as a voluntary warden all my life. In fact I was 14 on an island in Suffolk doing that. To be honest I always come back to the west of Britain in my head. This great wilderness, this great rough, fabulous, teeming wilderness that should be looked after.

AJ: So does your wife like it here?

SK: Mmm…

AJ: If it wasn’t for my wife I’d be living in Scotland, in the remote highlands.

SK: If it wasn’t for my wife – and it all happened extremely late for me – I would be in the middle of absolutely nowhere. I’d be here, of course, but I would be here all the time. My wife is Spanish, can you imagine what a shock that is to her? She loves it, but she is still a prima ballerina in the Royal Ballet, so you know that’s like living with a racehorse. They don’t have any time – they live…

AJ: You’re juggling quite a lot of things

SK: Well everybody juggles lots of things, you know. People give me too much credit – “your life must be so difficult”. Well, you try cleaning the streets at 3am or doing market research or going into an office with some fool telling you what to do all day every day. I’m a blessed man, because I do what I want for a living. But my wife loves it, but I understand, because I’ve spent so much of my life here, that if you want to love somewhere, you have to make a commitment and be there. There’s no use putting it off for the never-never when you will be there. But I’ve got to be patient for the moment and whilst she’s dancing, celebrate that.

AJ: So we’re strolling back through the fields towards the house.

SK: That barn is a bit of an experiment because it’s an iron building – and I’ve never seen house martins nest on an iron building, but we’ll see. I didn’t know what to do when I acquired the land and then, little by little, ideas occurred to me. On this side of the valley there were always swallows, but no martins. I’ve put up 250 nest boxes – you can see there’s a whole row of them on the big barn there.

AJ: We’re into a big modern agricultural building now – it’s a good shape this, big open barn door – I think that place is fairly certainly in Wales, rolling hillside and sweet trees along the hedge line

SK: Nothing looks after itself, Alex, you know. We’ve put that barn owl box in the corner there up and within two days there was a barn owl sitting on it. Now barn owls again have not been in this bit of the valley for a long time – they just need a bit of help.

AJ: What are we looking at here?

SK: It’s probably owl …

AJ: It’s a blue …

SK: It’s only blue with mould.

AJ: You were inspecting an owl turd there … you don’t tell me that was flying? That thing…

SK: Yes!

AJ: That’s like… my dog doesn’t do poos that big…

SK: Yes, that is, that’s fox isn’t it, it’s got to be… you see that’s what we did for the RSPB, just going round taking short-eared owl pellets to pieces to see what their diet was…

AJ: If I close my eyes and think of a kind of fairy tale image of a valley with a stream running through it and then open my eyes, I realise that’s where I am. It’s mossy stones, water babbling over perfectly, pleasingly round rocks.

SK: But this tiny stream we’re crossing now in the winter, you couldn’t get a horse across there…

AJ: You can probably drink this, can’t you?

SK: I wouldn’t, in case there might be a dead sheep round the corner…

AJ: It’s very benign today.

SK: And this, where we’re standing now by the stream, I’ve stood here with a bat detector trying to figure out what on earth that bat was flitting between these tree branches above us, which translates…

AJ: Is that like a batphone?

SK: (laughing) It’s a little box that translates these supersonic sounds….

AJ: No, you’re making this up!

SK: I’m not! …lower so that you can hear at a lower frequency, within our human ear range, the pattern. I caught one fishing, accidentally, once – luckily it was OK – and then my line was rotating above my head. I couldn’t quite understand why in the half light…

AJ: And you caught a bat?

SK: Yeah… I love the bats and I know we have, in my cottage over there, there’s a population of about 60 pipistrelle – the smallest British bat – it’s in the roof. A bat needs the tiniest of gaps under a slate. Of course it’s against the law to get rid of your bats. People sadly do it. It’s a shame, because the bats are doing them no harm…

pipistrelle_bat-credit-larelle-dot-wordpress-dot-com pipistrelle-credit-coraregion-dot-free-dot-fr


AJ: Really?

SK: They’re reducing mosquitoes and all the things that you don’t really like.

AJ: All this incredible amount of knowledge you need to acquire just to even start, I suppose you’ve been learning your whole life?

SK: Passion, passion! It’s not work for me. It’s like singing German songs. It would be a nightmare for somebody, but I love poetry and I love singing. I have to learn books and books – it’s easy for me because it’s passion and this land for me is passion.

AJ: So we’re clambering up the slope. What is this building where you keep your bats?

SK: (laughs) This little cottage on the other side was a longhouse and the shepherd slept upstairs in the rafters and the cow was underneath. I’m talking about a cow and nothing else…

AJ: When would it date from? The longhouse – it sounds kind of medieval…

SK: From the 1700s… in fact this we’ve got this old 1700s little trough, hand chipped out.

AJ: Wow, that’s properly rustic, isn’t it?

SK: Yeah, I found it in the ground

AJ: It’s like a boulder with a bit chopped out the middle.

SK: Quite…

AJ: It must have taken someone ages!

SK: Now it just grows mint… once it fed pigs, probably.

AJ: So people have been living here since antiquity?

SK: Even on the top of the mountain – there are two Neolithic tombs from 5000 BC or something, so people have been in this area for ever. Here, come in, come in…

AJ: Oh, fantastic… excellent. This was your Dad’s cottage?

SK: Yeah, it was. Every squeak, every door handle, every smell, in a place that you’ve known all your life is comforting.

AJ: This is where you spent your childhood and we’re looking back at where you live now.

SK: As I look down this valley, this field which I’ve invested so many years of planting in and you can see absolutely no evidence of anything – is it an inspiration to my work? Yes, of course it is, but do I sing about this nature? No, that’s boring, but you know a lot of the songs that one sings have got a strong natural history theme to them, but that’s because they were written in the 19th century and the world was more rural then anyway. It’s the human condition filtered through a pastoral world. People don’t want to be beaten round the head with the melancholy of what it is to survive, but if you can do it obliquely, whilst seemingly talking about the wind in the trees or whatever it is, that’s what a lot of my song recitals are about. But they’re not always about nature per se. Nevertheless it doesn’t hurt when you’re singing a song called Fussreise, for example, a journey on foot with a stick, to have at least been on a walk with a stick recently.

AJ: So shall we go up to the top, up to the ridge, Simon?

SK: Yeah, back into the wind, let’s put our hats back on.

AJ: I must say I’m loath to leave here, it’s just a nice place to be. It’s amazing how much it changes, it’s a completely different character where we’re standing now. You’ve got very open moorland going up the side of the mountain and then the valley’s very sheltered and cosy.

SK: This is the field I’ve planted with tens of thousands of snakeshead fritillaries in this field and daffodils, the Blodwen daffodil, the Welsh one.

snakeshead-credit-bbc daffodil-credit-digital-flower-pictures-dot-com

snakeshead and daffodils (hopefully the right ones?)

AJ: So you’ll be seeing those fairly soon

SK: Hopefully, if I’m not travelling somewhere, singing for my supper …
and I’ve also planted in the lower end of this field thousands of bluebells. I want this to be bluebells again. When I first took this land over it was heavily overgrazed by the previous owner.

bluebell--credit-english-country-garden bluebell-woods-credit-english-country-garden


AJ: A lot of land – that’s the problem – it’s just been too intensively farmed.

SK: For the first two years afterwards the grass was very short – when the flowering season was and then there was no livestock – I had carpets of flowers. I’ve already got them, so my battle is already half done.

AJ: Do you get any farmers thinking you’re a ponce?

SK: I’m sure that’s what they think of me, if they thought of me at all. I’m sure they take a dim view of me planting trees. It’s probably an affront to a sheep farmer. It’s not farming for him. In the summer you’ve got waist high wild flowers all around you and grasses. And I cut these paths, as you see, through the trees and through the woods and the meadows, little Zen Buddhist type paths.

AJ: Would you like to lead me along one of your paths?

SK: Yes, fine. When I first planted all these trees, most of them are indigenous, some are planted for colour, these ones in front of us with no leaves on, Paul’s double scarlet hawthorn, because they’ve got beautiful flowers. That’s indigenous, you know, it’s a variation, most of these trees in front of you, the cherries, the hazel, the birch, the oak of various sorts, the mountain ash, of course they belong here, but just for fun occasionally I put in a folly, such as this Atlantic cedar.

cherrytree-credit-naturetoprint-dot-de hazel_tree-credit-bbc birch-credit-fotoplatforma-dot-pl

cherry tree, hazel tree and birch trees

oak_tree_-credit-bbc mountain-ash-tree-credit-trees-online-dot-couk atlantic cedar-credit-geograph-org-uk

oak, mountain ash tree and atlantic cedar

AJ: Well, why not? It’s a beautiful tree, the Atlantic cedar, you could take one of those anywhere.

SK: (in funny voice) Beautiful plumage the Atlantic cedar…

AJ: Well, I think so… Do you take part of any of the government schemes?

SK: I did take take advantage of a tree scheme, so I get £500 a year for 15 years. It’s a privilege. To put that in perspective, I probably spend £10,000 a year, or so, with flowers and trees, myself. It’s my project, but I did take advantage of the tree one. And with that came the forester who’s been so invaluable to me in teaching me. He put in the occasional funny things. I told him to use this land as his own canvas, because it is a canvas, it is. If I put a stripe up the middle of this field of oxeye daisies, it’ll be for fun. But Huw the forester will do the same thing. In the top end of the farm he’s put in two giant sequoia. Well it’s his idea of a joke, but he did tell me that if it works they will somewhat dominate the landscape! (he laughs)

AJ: So there’s a really good mixture of trees here. Which ones have you planted?

SK: There’s a lot of sessile oak in front of us, all these oak…

AJ: Sessile oak is the straight one or the curly one or the…?

SK: Pendunculate is the one, imagine the acorn with the stick on it, when you were a kid you had them like a pipe. The sessile, as far as I remember, is the one with the acorn directly on the stem. The one in front of us which is only say a metre high, is probably six years old. The wind is very strong, we’re right in the teeth of it, we’re above the treeline.

AJ: Yes we’ve just risen above the trees and suddenly Wales is stretching out before us.

SK: As you look across this acre or so of field, the dwarf trees are all the oak and all the ones that have taken off are the cherry, the hazel, the chestnut.


horse chestnut

AJ: Lovely rows of young saplings.

SK: And the beech is the most immediate, impatient man’s answer to forestry, but it’s good for wildlife too – I like it.

beech-credit-baum-des-jahres-1990 beech-buchenblatt-credit-sin-net-de

beech tree and leaves

AJ: Is it?

SK: Yeah.

AJ: So the next door field here’s an incredibly beautiful, mythical looking ram, with his eye on me there.

SK: If I don’t fix that fence soon, that mythical ram’s going to be in here eating my trees!

AJ: Eating your trees, yeah…Would you like to have animals one day?

SK: Oh, I’d love it, I’d love it, Alex, but I mean what can I do? If you can’t look after it, you shouldn’t have it. To be honest as regards the wild flower meadows, I would ideally like the sheep to remain in here from say, June/July until Christmas. Good for the land, good for the sheep and a lot of my oak seem to be affected by this gall. It’s a very interesting gall because the insect spends its whole life on that tree, the wasp will lay its egg there, the gall will grow there, the grub will come out of there, drop on the ground, go underground and feed on the roots, pupate, come out and on we go. It doesn’t seem to harm the tree in moderation.

AJ: Really?

SK: But they’re all over here – look at the blight, they look like fruit – like cherries.

AJ: Oak apples they call them, do they?

SK: That’s it. This area in front of you, the sloping south easterly bank, 40 metres long, and in that’s going, right now this minute, is going 40 summer truffle-infected hazel saplings. It’s not that I want to produce truffles and sell them, it’s a speculation and if I lose, I’ve got a small hazel wood. It’s just a part of the ecology.

AJ: Do these things actually work, these truffle trees? It’s sort of a bit like a Holy Grail, the truffle is the most prized, most expensive…

SK: Not the summer truffle. Summer truffle is indigenous to the British Isles.

AJ: They’re reasonably common are they?

SK: They’re common, but if you want to find a truffle in the old fashioned way, without a dog and a pig, which really, frankly, is a dead loss, lie down along the ground in the right area and you’ll see vertical columns of flies.

AJ: (laughing) Really?

SK: Or scratchings in the ground where squirrels have been, or badgers have been hunting.

squirrel-in-leaves-credit-nature-desktop-com badger-cedit-dailymail-co-uk

squirrel and badgers

AJ: We’ve just walked up now to the prow of the hill and we can see the surrounding land. I mean you can see that this is challenging landscape for farming.

SK: I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to try and earn a living on this.

AJ: What do your neighbours farm?

SK: This is sheep farming country. We had biochemists come up and tell us the grass nutrient on the mountain itself, which is now covered with a hat of fog and low cloud, is practically zero. The sheep would need supplements or need the sweet grass from these fields here. Even in the old days, in the 60s, I remember the farmers would bring their sheep in and out every day. It’s very hard. My neighbour, he came down here 40 years ago as a subsistence farmer and he can’t make a go of it. It’s very, very tough. You can’t grow crops, and so he was a builder as well. Most of these people have more than one job, they all diversify.

AJ: So, you grew up here, you’ve got a young son and a daughter on the way – you’ll be handing it on to them, I guess…

SK: That’s something I think about – way too early, my boy’s only just over one, my daughter’s not born, but I tell you what, if I have that boy with me here on this land doing stuff with him, playing in the stream, looking for pretty rocks, showing him the pied flycatcher box in that corner in front of us, he’ll go away as a teenager and I know he’ll come back. He may not want this land and I won’t force him, because it’s my dream not his. But if he doesn’t want it, by then if I’ve done what I want properly it will l be a spectacular little nature reserve. I will then hand this land to the Welsh Nature Conservancy Council and they can look after it. Because that’s what’s important to me – that this is looked after. And if he doesn’t want it, I’ll give it to somebody who does.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie April 12, 2010 at 10:38 am

Very many thanks to Gwen for this transciption. I did manage to listen to the broadcast once, but it’s so nice to have this here to read when I need inspiration.

Ann Lander April 11, 2010 at 11:41 am

Please convey my thanks to Gwyn Davies for the transcript. I’ve listened to this On Your Farm edition a few times now but it’s great to have the text as well.

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