If you have ever wondered how birds can help plant forests, pondered the difference between hay and straw, puzzled over why a pet pig can’t eat kitchen scraps, or want to know which animal can be a tup, hogget, yeld and gimmer* then Norfolk’s Jill Mason can help.

Jill was one of Britain’s first female gamekeepers, and after a 30-year career now writes books about the countryside, illustrated by her gamekeeper-turned-photographer husband David.

Her first book was The Townies Guide to the Countryside and she went on to write about hares, rabbits, gamekeeping and rural history.

Now she has written Everything you wanted to know about the countryside (but didn’t dare ask.)

Jill, of Barton Bendish, near Downham Market, has lived and worked in the countryside all her life and wrote the book for people living in urban areas, or who have moved out of towns to live in villages, to help them better understand what is happening all around them, from ploughing to harvest and rare breeds to agri-business.

The book is not a misty-eyed retreat to a rural idyll, but a wide-ranging look at the modern British countryside, bringing in Brexit, Covid, food security, animal welfare and the environment as part of a state-of-the-nation tour of everything from animals to arable, horticulture to heritage and genetic modification to renewable energy.

“I find it very frustrating that so many people lack any in-depth knowledge as to how the countryside functions,” said Jill.

Her research took her from tiny hill crofts to huge lowland estates and involved conversations with farmers, fruit pickers, scientists, tech manufacturers and traditional country craftspeople including thatchers and hedge-layers.

From solar farms to hay meadows and cultivated land to conservation wilderness, Jill uncovers the way the countryside works.

She explains the role of arable, cattle, poultry and pig farmers, and as well as describing what happens in the countryside also tackles what might lie ahead for British farming.

Jill and David live in the Norfolk countryside between Downham Market and Swaffham but Jill grew up on a smallholding in Sussex.

“I knew I always wanted to work outside and couldn’t wait to leave school," said Jill. "I didn’t really mind what I did as long as it was outdoors and involved the countryside."

Her first jobs were working with poultry and on a small mixed farm – and then she became a gamekeeper almost by accident.

She and David met in Sussex, where he was a gamekeeper. “He had just started a new job as a single-handed gamekeeper when he damaged his knee so I temporarily took over his keepering duties and continued to be involved for the next 30 years,” she said.

At first, being a female gamekeeper was unusual but Jill said that is not so true today. “Times are changing, which is good,” she said.

After working on estates in Sussex and Hampshire David was keen to return to Norfolk, where he was born, and they moved to work on a large south Norfolk estate.

Jill began writing books and articles for magazines before she retired, 20 years ago, and said she and David had very much enjoyed travelling around Britain to research this latest book.

“We like anywhere wild and off the beaten track especially the Highlands and islands of Scotland. We have also particularly enjoyed meeting, and getting to know, the country folk who live in the Lake District many of whom have been hill farmers for generations,” she said.

They love rural Norfolk too. “The beautiful north Norfolk coast is one of our favourite places in winter when the tourists have departed and migratory birds have arrived,” said Jill.

And despite her decades of working in the countryside Jill is still learning.

“Two of the principal things I discovered when writing the book was the true extent of grants and subsidies available to agriculture, mostly for arable farmers, and the huge impact different methods of green energy production are having on the countryside,” said Jill.

The book’s subtitle refers to questions people might not have dared ask about the countryside. What might they be? “Mostly questions about some aspects of how animals are kept and how they are slaughtered,” said Jill. “It’s probably more a case of not actually wanting to be faced with the answers!”

Other questions she asks, and answers, range from who owns Britain’s wild land to how many crisps can be made from an acre of potatoes and whether Britain could become self-sufficient in food.

The answer to the second question is half a million. The answer to the third is “No,” said Jill, explaining, that we now expect a wide choice of food, much of which cannot be produced in the UK.

In fact, she believes we will need to import more. “The current financial situation with escalating costs for animal feed, fertilizer, transport, fuel and power will undoubtedly put some farmers out of business resulting in the probable need for an increase in imports,” said Jill.

There are lots more engaging and accessible farming facts, figures, explanations and pictures in Everything you wanted to know about the Countryside (but didn’t dare ask), published by Merle Unwin.

*Jays bury acorns – which they don’t always retrieve – meaning some grow into trees.

Hay is dried grass while straw is dried stalks of grain crops.

Pigs are not allowed to eat kitchen scraps because it is illegal to feed catering waste, including kitchen scraps, to farmed animals, including pet pigs.

Sheep can be a tup (ram), hogget (lamb in its second spring or summer), yeld (a ewe that is not pregnant) and gimmer (a ewe with her first lamb.)