The letter arrived in a hand-addressed envelope, inside of which was a handwritten note. After everything we have been through, we were expecting something typed, from a solicitor. It began by politely thanking us for looking after the land so well. But in the next paragraph, the landowner attempted to serve us three weeks’ notice to move our horses, claiming that was all she needed to give. We texted her immediately to say our lease states three months. She replied later to say three weeks had been a mistake, she meant three months.
She tried to make light of it. But we already know we are losing our smallholding because the shoot wants the land. And they want it before the shooting season starts.
The shoot boys have put unbearable pressure on us for the past year, insisting they need us out. Despite doing our best to hold the line, for ourselves and our landlady, we have, of course, agreed to go because it’s her land and if she wants it back she must have it. But as we pointed out, you can’t just turf four horses out onto the road without proper notice.
It’s the end of an era for me. I’ve been keeping horses on this farm for 20 years and I’m sad to go. It’s incredible to think of all the momentous events that have happened to me here. I met the builder boyfriend in the main stable yard, when we both had our horses on full livery, back when he had only one horse and I had only two.
Our memory of it then was that it was an idyllic place, with old-fashioned rural values where horse-owners were free to ride the entire estate. But over the years it has changed until we barely recognise it. We go for a ride and our horses are scattered sideways by gangs of bikers who insist they have been told they can ride the footpaths.
In the past year, a lot of the arable land has been rented to horse-owners and a shoot, side by side. There is also a deer–stalking business with high chairs in the hay fields we are meant to be able to ride around, and, unfathomably, in some of the grazing fields.
One chair points directly at a field full of horses next to us where another lady keeps eventers. Another chair points into one of the grazing fields of the livery yard. I guess on nights they want to shoot deer, they must move the horses round.
We’ve had a few night-time stampedes, where we’ve found our horses sweated up and panic-stricken in the morning.
The builder boyfriend and I are on the front line in our little smallholding near the entrance to the estate, owned by the farmer’s sister. The walkers alone are bad enough, letting their wayward cockapoos run under our fence lines.
‘I’m thinking of turning this into a cycling trail,’ the farmer said to me one day, as we stood chatting on the driveway. ‘Well, I guess you’ve got to diversify,’ I said, thinking ‘We’ve got to get out of here…’
Now the birds are released ready for the season, horses graze with pheasants squawking around their legs. As you walk up the track you can hear me squawking too, at the spaniels who are attached by a rope to my jeans waistband as I muck out, to stop them chasing game birds.
The estate always had a friendly shoot. The form was that for a few months of the year, horse-owners agreed not to ride around on shoot days, that was all. Either the land has got smaller or the shoot has got bigger. Something has produced the current mishmash.
When we were first told that our largest paddock was going to have to accommodate a line of guns, we tried to cut a deal. Fine, we would get out of our back field if the shoot compensated us with half the rent, as it was half our grazing. We could then put this money towards the rent of a field elsewhere for the duration of the season.
But the shoot said no. We had to pay the full amount, while they used the land for nothing. We said we were sorry but we couldn’t afford to subsidise millionaires on a jolly. The landowner of our smallholding backed us at first, but lately she began to suggest we might have to go.
I knew something was up. The keeper had been driving past giving me choice looks as I wheeled my barrow around the stable yard. Up and down the track he went in his off-roader loaded with pheasant feed, scowling. The day before we were given our ‘notice’, he drove past grinning from ear to ear.
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