Shaping the Landscape / Farming and Food

Soundscape: Milk in the Blood

This is another soundscape that uses multiple local voices recorded by the various volunteers from the Tales Of the Vale oral history team. In this piece, I edited down the interviews of (in order) Roger Staley, John Alway, Sandra Grey, Don Riddle, Eric Garrett, and Allan Knapp. In these excerpts, they discuss the area’s once thriving dairy industry and how its decline has changed the landscape.

Pieced together, their memories tell of the importance and gradual decline of dairy farming in the Lower Severn Vale.  They cover the old ways of large numbers of smallholders, each with just a handful of cows milking by hand and hefting six gallon churns collected from each farm by lorry each day, to the coming of milking machines and bulk tankers, and eventually the virtual disappearance of the smallholders and dairy herds in the landscape, replaced by beef cattle, sheep and horses, with much of the pasture converted to arable crops.

Aside from the voices, all other sounds in the piece were recorded over a single two hour session in late August 2017 at John Grey’s dairy farm in Shepperdine as John and his son George oversaw the evening milking of their herd of (I think) around 70. Though all but a few dairy farmers with vastly larger herds have disappeared, John and his family are a rare example of a  milk producer riding out recent troubles. Having gone organic decades before it became fashionable, the Greys stuck with it and have endured, benefiting from organic’s premium prices whilst swathes of dairies have been forced to close with non-organic milk prices plummeting.

Besides the story being woven, the soundscape hopefully reveals something of the industrialised nature of modern farming. It is formed from 30 different tracks, with a lot of editing, layering and stitching together of short clips of sound exploring a range of different perspectives in a roughly linear narrative. It starts with the sound of lowing cattle being herded to the dairy by quad bike and trudging across the muddy yard to the milking parlour as the farm dog barks, before exploring the internal space and industrial machinery of the herringbone parlour itself. Whilst the parlour was a very limiting and frustratingly confined space to record in, it was also a fascinating one, with so many sounds – large and small – combining  to create a highly industrialised atmosphere that was both very repetitive and full of variation.

I managed to capture the sounds of the machinery from several different vantage points – from the overall background drone, the clanking of galvanised metal gates and stalls and the dropping of pellets into feeder trays, to a throbbing, close-mic’ed recording of the milk being pumped through the pipework (sounding like the whomping bass throb of techno as heard from outside of a rave) to the pump room itself, and the sounds of cleaning water sloshing around the stalls and concrete floor.  Finally, back out in the yard, the freshly milked cattle lowing, dog barking, swallows darting around, and other yard sounds bookend the piece, mirroring its opening.

David Howell

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© 2022 A Forgotten Landscape: A Heritage Lottery Fund Landscape Partnership Scheme.


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