We only clocked the lovely Pyramidal Orchid as we were leaving Dyrham Park this morning. It was hiding behind a fence on the road out and right next to it was the flowering spike from an Agrimony plant – that photo’s a bit out of focus because I was blocking the exit road and rushed it. The occupants of the car behind didn’t even pause to look what I’d just been on my knees photographing.
Here’s a photo of Whitefield Meadow, the object of our attention this morning. It’s a prime example of what can happen on unimproved land – and if ever there was a revealing oxymoron it’s that one. Here’s another one, the so-called ‘green revolution’ which involved replacing perfectly sustainable agricultural systems with a fatal combination of fertiliser and pesticides.
A few years ago I did a 23 mile walk aross this part of the Cotswolds using public footpaths the vast majority of the time. One of my companions that day was a retired grain merchant who had bought and sold grain off the field, while it was still growing, and we fell into a conversation about what constituted good and bad land. In his view he could only give his seal of approval to half a dozen fields, the rest were – frankly – not improved enough. Half a dozen fields in 23 miles! So it depends what you mean by ‘improved’. The temptation to improve yield at the expense of biodiversity is a feature hard wired into our economic system. If the ‘cash value’ of the crop is allowed to dominate all other less tangible but equally significant values then monoculture and biologically barren land is inevitable. It’s all about culture: farming culture but equally the supermarket food culture that’s grown up bringing with it the demand for ever more diversity of choice but ever more uniformity in flavour, texture and appearance plus, of course, the lowest possible price. We quite literally get what we pay for, and we – through successive governments – have poured subsidies into the wrong farming systems. It’s no use blaming farmers or supermarkets or customers for the pickle we’re in, we have seen the enemy and it is us.
Meanwhile on the remaining three percent of proper meadow like Whitefield, we can see what we’ve lost. We didn’t find the longed-for Bee Orchids but we will one day, and in any case who could resist the sight of hundreds of Mabled Whites stuffing themselves silly on Knapweed nectar. The whole meadow is waiting for its annual cut and, to be honest, parts of it are looking very dry. We spent an hour wandering around and during that hour the whole of the main car park filled up, and yet we were the only people in the meadow for three quarters of the time. Later we met another solitary orchid hunter but she had not found the elusive plant either. As we move into high summer, many of the plants have lived their entire cycle and can only be identified by their seed heads. The Yellow Rattle is rattling, The Goats Beard – Tragopogon pratensis – looked as if it had finished early. One of the fences was amost lined with Lady’s Bedstraw enough to stuff a paliasse for a fragrant but uncomfortable night. Maybe a little Fleabane might thicken it up a bit. Cow Parsley and Hogweed both seemed to have run their courses, and were dying back leaving their seeds as the most reliable indicator of species, but I spotted one plant of Fools Parsley peeping through. My work with the Apiaceae seems to be paying off and Fool’s Parsley is a new one on me. Three years ago they all looked the same.
The daisy family were at their most perplexing best, and seem to be jealous of the time I’ve given to the umbellifers – I will get there eventually I promise. And the Knapweed – I could go on for ever!
And then back to the allotment where we harvested the last of the peas with the first of the French beans, a bunch of carrots, a container’s worth of the Red Duke of York potatoes and some courgettes. Early summer on a plate. I stuffed a chicken with nothing but a lump of butter and a big bunch of Tarragon for stuffing – I even made some gravy but in the end didn’t have any of it because the vegetables, unadorned, were so delicious. I’ve never been a great fan of courgettes but today I coooked them in the simplest way I could – finger thick and three inches long straight off the plant and sliced into 1cm rounds rinsed, patted dry and fried in butter. So many vegetables taste so much better straight out of the ground that they don’t need any fancy treatment.
The only fly in the ointment was finding our neighbour (we call him Trigger) inundating his runner beans with some kind of chemical for the second time in a fortnight. Is there some kind of etiquette that calls us to remain silent when a neighbor is spraying his plants at exactly the wrong time, just when the pollinators are at their most active. I felt as if he was killing our bees. If you can actually smell these chemicals they’re already on your allotment, and you have to wonder whether it’s safe to browse your own organic veg and eat them raw. There was a ghastly management phrase that cropped up regularly in meetings in the past – “culture eats strategy for breakfast” . It’s all the more annoying for being true. Whether it’s Trigger with his allotment, or a grain merchant insisting on 99.9% purity, or a farmer struggling to make a profit it’s all part of the same culture and it needs to change.