It’s been – frankly – the crappest winter I can remember. After the last equinox in September I wrote something about the capacity of language to speak about realities beyond concepts, and I finished up by describing the change in season as a crisis. I had no idea at the time that the rather smartass description failed to grasp that the coming crisis would render me almost speechless. If I’ve written very little in the last couple of months it’s because words felt like dust in my mouth. I could go on but I won’t. Most people with any grasp of the steep slope we’re collectively tottering down will understand.
So one thing I could do, I found, was to go through the hundreds of photos I took last year, to try to identify plants and fungi. Most of them were either fairly straightforward or beyond identification – cue for a return visit.
Today we’re back in Lleyn looking towards a grey and bad tempered Irish Sea. Cold, miserable and damp we stayed indoors and I spent the day botanising the garden. I love ferns – I love any group that gives itself up so slowly and after intense study, and today I embraced the challenge that not all ferns are bracken. After photos, close inspection with a x20 magnifier; surrounded with books and hunting furiously on the new BSBI Flora, I can definitively identify the Soft Shield Fern. If that sounds like a small achievement (and it may well be) it felt like a big one to me.
I’ve spent most of the winter in a state of despair but now the allotment is going again, and I’ve a welcome sense of direction and purpose – no thanks to our appalling government.
This weekend we took the campervan to the Brecon Beacons for a couple of nights – just to test all the repairs we made over the winter. I know I write a lot about Snowdonia and Cornwall and if you follow this blog you’ll know that many of my favourite places are wild, lonely and close to the sea, but there’s another side to my landscape yearnings and it’s right here in Breconshire. I took the photograph from the campsite in Pencelli, just up the road from Buckland Hill. It was so clear I was completely foxed for a while as I tried to find my way around a sky unexpectedly full of thousands of visible and perhaps millions of invisible stars – so numerous and so beautiful they felt like a kind of blessing. I know it’s fanciful but sometimes I can almost hear them singing an ethereal Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis transposed many octaves upwards. I guess I hear them through my heart. You might think that’s all a load of spam in allium but this place has that kind of effect on me. It excites me to know that J R R Tolkien stayed for a time in the village of Talybont, immediately below Buckland Hill – while he was writing “Lord of the Rings”.
The (definitely non politically correct) smell of wood fires never smells sweeter and more homely than here between the river Usk and the hills and peaks like Pen y Fan. The Buckland of the saga jumps off the page in the narrow strip of small farms between the River and the accompanying Monmouth and Brecon Canal under the shadow of the misty mountain. The sounds of sheep, and the early spring birdsong all add to the music. I saw my first kingfisher here many years ago. The Mallard in their breeding plumage never looked more incandescent and for a few hours, instead of walking head down looking for plants I could have leaned on a gate and just gorged on the sounds. Even as we drove towards Abergavenny we spotted a Kestrel hunting the hedge alongside the road as well as a Buzzard and a red Kite. The three raptors were just a taster of the riches to come. This landscape is far closer to my personal psychogeography than all my other post industrial hotspots, roaring seas and austere mountains. Celandines in abundance announced that Spring really is here and we drank pints of magic to celebrate in the local pub.
Finding any kind of lyrical inspiration these days, demands we mine it from granite with our bare hands. Every dark hole has a poet at the bottom of it.
Just before we left Cornwall the week before last, and after we’d loaded the car and returned the key, I had a quiet couple of minutes leaning on the gate looking out to sea while the birds were singing their hearts out in anticipation of spring. A Mistle Thrush rehearsed his repetitive chorus; Robins sang their plaintive songs, Great Tits, Blue Tits and gulls of several persuasions added their descant; crows and Magpies rattled on about nothing much – all adding to the rhythm of waves beating on the pebble beach below; and I realized how little I wanted to leave. I struggle to quantify or even understand the healing power of nature, but I completely and gratefully accept it.
However, there were things to do back in Bath, not least a Bath Natural History Society lecture on regenerative farming given by local farmer, Jeremy Padfield. It was an excellent talk on a subject I’ve often explored in the Potwell Inn and I made so many notes that I felt inspired to write an account for the Bath Nats website and the annual report. A quick enquiry about length solicited a noncommittal response and so I set to and wrote just over 1000 words just as an email from the editor of the annual report arrived to suggest 350 words. So a postcard then! Much anguished editing and sacrifice of my little darlings boiled the stock down to a thick jus and off it went.
Simultaneously a report in the Falmouth Packet, (local Cornish newspaper which I like to keep an eye on), printed a story about the lovely strip of coastal land running up from St Just to St Ives. It’s a place we know well and have often walked, and the newspaper was working itself up into a froth because the area has just been designated a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) due to the rich biodiversity of the land which has a tremendously wide variety of habitats rare flora and fauna and even a breeding colony of Dartford Warblers. Sadly and predictably one or two farmers were describing the move as a “land grab” – comparable to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – well Natural England weren’t exactly bombing the area in order to protect it, and at first sight this seemed like a bit of a Luddite knee jerk reaction. Nonetheless I was interested to see whether their fear of being driven off their land was justified.
The outcome was that I was reading the (54 page) Natural England report on the West Penwith SSSI at the same time as I was reading about the new ELMS scheme for Farming subsidies; trying to discover what actual subsidies would be available to Cornish farmers in the SSSI, whilst writing my piece on Regenerative Agriculture.
The lecture itself was illuminating . Since 2009 when two Duchy farms reached an agreement to work together it seems that tremendous progress has been made: here’s my shortened report.
Regenerative Farming has become a bit of a buzzword recently but it’s an idea whose time has come, not least because of the new Government policy – the ELMS scheme – which aims to move farm subsidies completely from the old system based on farm acreage to “public funding for public goods” – rewarding farmers for carrying out important environmental work. Compensation for lost output will now be based on income foregone. LEAF has two functions, firstly as a charity promoting Integrated Farm Management and secondly as a marque for food produced under LEAF standards.
Jeremy Padfield and his business partner Rob Addicott, farm about 1000 acres of the land under Higher Level Stewardship Agreements of which 80 acres are specifically conservation managed for wildlife. Their combined Duchy farms became LEAF demonstration farms in 2006. Over subsequent years soil organic matter averages out at around 5%; no insecticides have been used within the last 5 years; weed killing is targeted only reactively; antibiotic use has been reduced by 58% and plastic use is down by 60%. Minimum tillage leads to a 68% drop in fuel consumption; water is intensively managed and stored, and solar energy meets much of the needs of the farm buildings. As well as wider wildlife field margins, Stratton Farms have been experimenting with skylark plots and wide strips of wildflowers and companion plants through the crops. Additionally, 20 acres of trees and 2000 metres of hedgerow have been planted.
This may sound like a revival of traditional farming, but what makes it profitable is the use of very hi-tech equipment like drones with three yearly intensive soil testing and highly technical GPS delivery systems which have dramatically reduced the amount of artificial fertilizer applied to the soil.
The most memorable illustration of the evening was when he took an apple to represent the earth and then cut successive slices away to represent otherwise unprofitable land. The proportion left on which food crops could be grown turned out to be breathtakingly tiny. A well attended talk which drew together the threads of shared interest that unite farmers, environmentalists and consumers.
Dave Pole – report to Bath Natural History Society.
Impressive stuff, we thought – as seemingly most of the members present agreed. However when I checked on the DEFRA website, some of the subsidies looked pretty minimal – the best example being the skylark nesting patches for which they would receive just £10. Lapwings come in quite a bit higher. Just how much admin time it would take to replicate the old EU subsidies, or whether it’s even possible is a moot point. If these measures are not properly funded then the government will be expecting farmers to fund environmental improvement of the land from their own pockets. That would be a good deal easier for a farmer on 2000 hectares of prime land than for a small mixed farmer with just a couple of hectares of grassland in the middle of a SSSI.
Then, shockingly, the Observer this weekend featured a piece on the present state of the replacement farm subsidies being managed by DEFRA. It’s almost unbelievable, but only .44% – less than half a percent of the sum set aside has actually been paid! There was no detail on which farms and farmers had actually received their payments, but one regenerative farmer reported a 48% fall in government payments.
I’m beginning to wonder whether the undeclared policy of the government is to do precisely what those West Penwith Farmers fear most – drive them off their land in order to achieve heaven knows what objectives. After a recent edition of Countryfile on the BBC featuring the mining of lithium and selecting Cornwall as a prime area for reviving the (all kneel please) economy , I wrote to the BBC complaining that there had been no spokesperson opposing the extension of this wasteful and polluting process. If joining the dots is the only way to figure out what this government actually wants to do with the countryside I’d say that on present evidence their policy amounts to greenwashing the continuation of an extractive economy which has brought the environment to the brink of destruction.
“‘Let them eat lentils’ won’t save us from animal farming – we must embrace meat substitute”.
From the very first sentence – “Our insatiable appetite for meat is laying waste to the planet. But the alternative is looking (and tasting) better by the day” – I can hear the voice of my one time sociology lecturer Sid Harris demanding “It all sounds very nice David, but where’s the evidence?” and this piece by George Monbiot is all too characteristic of some of his recent writing. It’s peppered with hot links most of which are references to scientific papers, some of them hidden behind paywalls so we get the headline but none of the supporting evidence. In fact they create the illusion of hard facts without letting us judge for ourselves. The hotlinks and the somewhat breathless style suggest an overuse of green ink and handwritten capitals. The most tendentious statements – like the one above – “Our insatiable appetite for meat is laying waste to the planet ……” is plain silly. I’m pretty hard up but I’d still bet a tenner that Monbiot couldn’t stand that one up without being allowed to empty the shelves of available prejudices and heavily redacted papers. I’ve linked to the whole article, not because I want to promote his fundamentalist views but because they’re an example of the evacuation of analytical thinking from too many mainstream media opinion columns.
Clearly we have an environmental crisis bearing down upon us, and clearly there is some evidence that some farming practices – like intensive feedlots and so-forth make a substantial contribution to that, but to pretend that there is any equivalence between small mixed farms, peasant and subsistence farms and intensive farms with thousands of cattle being fed intensively farmed soya is a deliberate distortion of the statistics. To suggest that meat farming is the principal engine of global climate change is pure vegan wishful thinking. In fact the continuing burning of fossil fuels in every part of the so-called developed world – some of which is used to drive farm machinery and make chemicals and fertilizers – but much of which is used by aviation, private car use, and the transport of foodstuffs over hundreds if not thousands of miles; this is what’s driving the crisis.
Do we eat too much meat? – undoubtedly the answer is yes. We eat too much of it and especially we eat too much of the wrong kind of it; the kind that’s fattened in conditions of appalling cruelty and fattened on food that makes cows sick. They’re ruminants, they evolved to eat grass not grain and soya meal. Should we ignore ethical questions surrounding farming and troll people who elect not to eat meat? Of course not, and I wish they’d stop the trolling in the opposite direction. Does referring to milk as an “animal secretion” encourage sensible debate? Do I really need to answer that? Is there any doubt among scientists that the way in which Co2 equivalent is calculated is at least questionable? – here’s a link to a paper in Nature that you can actually read!
As long as we allow this critical debate to be dominated by cherry picked evidence and hyperbolic statements on all sides, the battle to save the earth will be stalled. We don’t have the leisure of all the time we need to sort this out – successive COP meetings have seen time and energy wasted by bad faith and bad data.
The wildlife and plants that are so important to me and to millions of us have value in their own right, although they have no seat at the table to make their case. They are the canaries in the mine and they are disappearing by their hundreds and thousands while this sterile debate goes on.
If only it was true that we could save the earth by doing just one thing – ban farming; ban big cars, blah blah blah – but we can’t because it’s a hugely complex problem with more tentacles than the Hydra in Greek mythology. The simplest explanation – but it’s not that much help – is that the age of extraction, burning, waste and neoliberal economics has run its course. We need to find an alternative, but much as I admire some of George Monbiot’s work, columns like this one are not going to be part of the solution because they’re part of the problem.
If you asked me to nominate one invention that changed the world irrevocably for the better it would be the lens. My friend Chris Lee uses a telescope lens and some pretty fancy software to make the most thought provoking images of space. Most of us use cameras of one sort or another and they’re dependent on lenses of course, but today I was using nothing more sophisticated than a clip-on macro lens attached to my Pixel 6a to reveal some of the secrets of the Common Polypody fern. Those are the pictures at the top and I ran out of magnifying power at the last one which really needs at least a x100 microscope.
The others are all photos I’ve taken in the last ten days and as we looked at them we were both excited by their capacity to surprise and inspire us – not as botanical specimens at all but as objects of beauty. So the fern makes me think instantly of the Victorian fashion for the terrarium and the wonderful images of ferns made by botanical artists across the centuries. The middle row has an impenetrable blackthorn bush at Kynance Cove today which surely must have influenced Graham Sunderland in his tapestry of the crucifixion in Coventry Cathedral, but equally seems uncannily close to Jackson Pollock. The stonecrops could be models for the roof bosses of a thousand churches and if ever William Morris needed inspiration for his wallpaper designs surely the Buckshorn Plantain and the leaves of Mugwort would have served him well. The little Sea Campion has an uncanny resemblance to Tiffany glass; the rosettes of emerging Hedge Mustard are a glorious reminder of symmetry and the catkins – well I just love the colour. Nature’s palette is incredibly restrained and yet limitless in its applications. Whilst I was learning some botanical illustration, we did an exercise of limiting ourselves to three colours and I never subsequently saw the point of using more.
Almost exactly seven years ago I set myself the challenge of painting a Hyacinth in flower. I took hundreds of photos and practiced drawing the flowers from every angle; above, below and from the side and with light falling on them from different directions. I still have the practice drawings and paintings but I abandoned the painting because it was just too complex.
The take home point for me was that minute attention to the detail of a plant, whether flower or leaf was both meditation and scientific exploration and linked deeply with the creative process. Hard, then, not to attribute natural form to some benign guiding hand. But these days I think that’s a shortcut and a cop-out. I’m happy with not knowing because for me, doubt was always the beginning of faith. The lens takes us to places we never even suspected to exist and that’s why it’s my nomination for the world’s greatest invention.
and a postscript to this piece. As we walked up the valley from Kynance Cove we spotted what looked like a (too) small buzzard sitting high on the crest of the rocks. We tracked up the footpath and came level and behind it and we could see from its beautiful chestnut brown back that it was actually a kestrel as it set off in a zigzag hunting flight across the valley. There was a bitterly cold northwest wind and it must have been puffed out viewed from below, but there was no mistaking its colour as it set out with what Gerard Manley Hopkins described as its “wimpling wing”. Cue “Windhover” – one of his finest poems.
A great friend and mentor of mine; a parish priest like me, was leading the graveside prayers at a burial service when he lost his footing and very nearly went down with the coffin. He was held firmly by one of the pall bearers who whispered in his ear “Wait your turn, Sir – wait your turn!”.
It would be comforting to think of nature as a basically static display of plants that come up in the spring and die in the autumn. Except it isn’t like that at all. The emergence of the first spring flowers depends on a whole heap of factors like ambient temperature, day length, amounts of sunshine and space to grow. This year, for example, the first Celandine we saw was here on the Lizard exactly as it was last year, but 13 days later. That was it – the only Celandine in flower in a five mile walk. Look closely at the photograph and you’ll see that there’s another plant there that’s growing fast enough to steal its sunlight in a week or two. Cleavers is an extremely vigorous climber – you’ll know it from the burrs that stick firmly to most clothes by way of the tiny hooks which were the inspiration for Velcro.
Look closely at the hedgerows around this time and you’ll see the first leaves of many plants which follow in strict succession right through to late autumn, and all timed like a glorious firework display to flower and fruit in their unique optimal conditions. Not all buttercups are buttercups and not all dandelions are dandelions (in fact they’re so complicated they can’t even make their own minds up). Some will flower for weeks and with others you can blink and they’re gone. Nothing stands still for a moment in nature and for me the first Celandine is both a joy and a warning that from now on it’s an unstoppable torrent of flowering and fruiting that will change the whole appearance of fields and hedgerows every couple of weeks. The succession of the plants ensures that each one has its own space. Cow Parsley gives way to Hogweed and so forth. It can be exhausting trying to keep up, especially for Madame who will beg me to leave the notebook and hand lens behind and just go for a walk . I note, however that she always takes her binoculars out – “just in case”.
Today we started on the Lizard Green and walked down the lane to Church Cove and then took the coast path as far as Housel Bay and then turned off to avoid a monumental flight of steps and took the easier path to the back of Lizard Lighthouse stopping for some food and then back to the car park. Ten years ago we’d have bounded up those steps without a care, but one of the less talked about advantages of getting quite old is that we walk rather slower and so we see much more. This was a walk we tried to do on Saturday but the coast path was rammed with runners doing a 100 mile ultra marathon. I bet they’ll be walking slowly with ultra knackered knees long before their 70’s.
Anyway, the short cut was marvellous because we caught sight of a very big Buzzard eating his/her kill on a Cornish wall. Within ten feet of the Buzzard there sat a lovely Carrion Crow waiting apparently unafraid until the superior hunter got bored with lunch and flew off – whereupon the crow hopped sideways along the wall and polished off the remains. That was surprising enough, but half a mile later we saw the same two birds repeating exactly the same routine. It was clearly a relationship of more significance to the Crow than the Buzzard but I suppose the crow – Corvids are among the smartest birds – probably reasoned that it was best to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. There was no way that the Buzzard could launch a surprise attack from ten feet. But whatever the rationale it looked as if both birds were in fine health and as fat as butchers’ dogs – which is the closest I could get to an appropriate metaphor.
There was another surprise on the walk because I’ve been spending some time trying to identify a species of Gorse called Western Gorse – Ulex gallii. It’s one of the plants that are plentiful around the Lizard and Kynance Cove but rare everywhere else; but which is very similar to its larger cousin Gorse – Ulex europaeus. The difference between the two comes down to size – ordinary Gorse is bigger; its thorns are longer and deeply grooved, like the one in the picture. But the clincher was (note the past tense) the fact that Gorse ordinaire flowers all year round, but Western Gorse flowers in summer. Or at least that’s what the books say, but unfortunately plants don’t read textbooks and today we found hundreds of Western Gorse plants around the coast path, and many of them were in flower.
The Lizard peninsula has two things going for it. One is its unique geology which gives a home to hundreds of wildflowers some of which are only found here. The other thing derives from its geography. It’s the furthest southerly point in the UK and it enjoys a unique climate as well. It’s warm. On first seeing it many years ago it looked completely wild and windswept – and indeed it is, but its warm microclimate means that some wild plants better suited to better to warmer places actually thrive here.
Good news too on the recording front because the County Recorder emailed yesterday and accepted both records I’d submitted. I’ve already posted a picture of the little perennial Leek – Babington’s Leek yesterday. He was kind enough to say that I’d found two sites where it hasn’t previously been seen. The other plant was a real outrider – Wireplant, Muehlenbeckia complexa a New Zealand visitor and that one passed as well. Three more little red squares on the national map.
Approaching retirement I often wondered what I would do to fill my time. The idea of voluntary work often came to mind but I never fancied any of the options because many of them felt like not retiringat all. But this combination of allotmenteering and field botany have turned out to be my happy place. Spring? Bring it on!
Roughly translated that lovely piece of Bristolian rudeness means spin on that one Jack – or in received pronunciation – I think I was right after all, old chap!
So before we came down to Cornwall I had high hopes of finding a few interesting plants because there’s nothing quite as rewarding as getting a tiny square on a species map attributed to you by name (not that anyone except Q or some equivalently highly placed person would be able to access it). I wrote yesterday about the trainspotter infection and today the fix I needed arrived by email confirming my records for two plants that are pretty rare because they only grow here. They are Muehlenbeckia complexa AKA Wireplant, top left going clockwise; which is – in botanical terms – a recent alien from New Zealand but which hasn’t been recorded for 12 years; and then Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii – Babington’s Leek which is also known at the site but I found two new previously unrecorded nearby sites for it.
It may be a bit counterintuitive but in the botanical/ecological world, a plant doesn’t exist if it’s not recorded – which can be crucial when designating protected sites. But in January there aren’t many flowers to go by so we have Poland and Clement’s “The Vegetative Key to the British Flora which is basically a book of leaves”, and very good it is.
Records, however can’t be entered before they’ve been verified by a proper botanist and so we humbly present our finds with photos, measurements and all the rest; submit them and wait for the confirmatory email. Luckily the County Recorders are a brilliant bunch and very friendly , especially to beginners, and so being corrected becomes a positive learning experience rather than a crushing humiliation.
And so it came to pass today that I got the confirmations and two little red squares appeared on the national map. A matter of stupefying unimportance to the mentally sound population but in Chris Packham’s terms worth a good thigh rub! Sadly, Babington’s Leek is sold in packets by many seed merchants but for me that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of finding really wild ones.
So a short but jolly post tonight and tomorrow looks sunny so we’ll be out and about seeing what we can find. Madame has a wonderful eye for plants – we make a perfect team.
We set out to double check and photograph a patch of wild leeks that we found a couple of days ago and which I’ve never seen before so we needed to document them properly with grid references and detailed photos in order to get them double checked by the local County Recorder. There is a kind of trainspotter sickness that can grip you when you get into plants but fortunately it’s a sickness whose symptoms are air punching for no apparent reason and feeling absurdly happy even on a cold grey day in winter.
The secondary reason was the competitive urge to find a Celandine in flower. The results of the New Years plant hunt, organised by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland are coming in and the general impression is that this is a rather late season. Last winter we photographed them in flower down here on 17th January and by the look of the leaves today we’re running a fortnight late this year following the continuing bitterly cold weather. We did however find a lonely violet – not my strongest subject but Sweet Violets, Viola odorata are the earliest to flower. Winter Heliotrope were in flower too and a solitary Cyclamen was hiding at the top of a hedge bank which – while photographing it – provoked the strong perfume of wild garlic under my feet. There were abundant purple catkins on an alder tree. In the fungus department we spotted a Glistening Inkcap on a moss covered log.
More than anything, seeing the growing leaves of a multitude of other flowering plants made me wonder how many terawatts of sheer green energy are sitting there underground waiting for a daylength and temperature signal to let them burst forth. Hemlock Water Dropwort doesn’t look half as dangerous when it’s vibrant green and only a few inches tall.
As for the very local Wild Leek, we await the verdict from the County Recorder but here are the photos we sent to him. Cocoa and toasted saffron cake were consumed.
Photographs taken in the Lost Gardens of Heligan farm in October 2018
Walking, reading, thinking and writing just about sums up my idea of a good holiday. Mercifully Madame feels much the same and so on our trips away anyone keeping a close eye on us might conclude that we’ve nothing to say to each other; but they don’t see the subsequent conversations in which we read aloud extracts from the books we’re reading and share ideas. It’s just that when we’re out and about we don’t always need to talk because that’s when my eyes are on the hedgerows looking for plants and hers are focused in the trees looking for birds, butterflies and all the rest.
Anyway, this week amongst all the other things we’ve done I’ve been reading Simon Fairlie’s autobiographical book “Going to Seed”. I may as well get the unsolicited plug out of the way by recommending it wholeheartedly for many reasons – not least if you’re around the same age as me it will evoke warm memories of what turned out to be a brief and largely unsuccessful rebellion against the status quo, but also if you’re the same age as our children and grandchildren it will fill in the embarrassing details of how we lived our lives to the full in the 70’s and 80’s. Far from impoverishing their inheritance we (some of us) were actually trying to create a sustainable and more fulfilled future for them, but we were no match for the suits who were better practiced at creating the narratives of pure hokum which were the real cause of the current crisis. Those times were good and bad in equal measure, but we set up cooperatives, lived in a couple of communes and earned peanuts from insecure part time jobs. The book is a thoroughly good read and Fairlie never lets his self critical gifts slip. We got things wrong and underestimated the sheer inertia of the status quo. On the other hand, if ever there was a time to revisit some of those visionary ideas it’s now in the face of the global systemic failure of economics, species extinctions and environmental catastrophe.
Simon Fairlie has also written “Meat, a Benign Extravagance” – a carefully argued case for small scale sustainable mixed farming that takes on some of the shriller and sillier notions of fundamentalist veganism as well as demolishing the arguments of the agrochemical giants. It’s a joy to see the supporting evidence for all of his arguments – “go check for yourself” he invites us, rather than following the probably apocryphal story of the preacher whose sermon was annotated with the words “argument weak here – shout loudly!”
There’s a third book “Low Impact Development” that I haven’t managed to read yet but is available secondhand. But there’s another reason why I find an instinctive kindred spirit in him. Starting from opposite ends of the social spectrum we were both difficult, argumentative and occasionally reckless teenagers; both ultimately thrown out of school and both on a journey – me towards a proper education and he in pursuit of the practical skills of a social class from which he’d been excluded by birth and culture. Neither of us – and I’ve never met him – were apparently prepared to swallow the predigested bird food that passed for an education – the question “why?” was so burned into our souls.
You may have gathered that I’m a binge reader and so a modest amount of research threw up two excellent magazines, the first of which – The Land Magazine – he is co-editor, and another – Resilience – to which he is a regular contributor. One article that caught my eye can be found on this link to Resilience which lists all of his contributions. If you search for the article “A convenient Unruth” you will find a forensic takedown of the current debate about the methane emissions of ruminants. He makes a convincing argument that the widespread obsession with cattle emissions is based on bad reporting which is not the fault of the scientists who came up with an initial estimate of the global warming effects of methane which has been falsely used to imply that methane emissions are, in simple terms, 32 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. This false claim is possible only by ignoring the fact that methane degrades relatively quickly (a half-life of ten years) whereas carbon dioxide never degrades. I’m simplifying greatly here, but given that the size of the national UK herd has declined over the past 30 years whereas car ownership and Co2 emissions have grown enormously, the arguments pursued by George Monbiot – whilst they may have real ethical weight – are scientific nonsense. Fairlie is as firmly against intensive agrochemical farming as is Monbiot; but again the reason is the prodigious cost in Co2 emissions of fertilizers, agrochemicals, gigantic farm machinery and grotesque transport footprint. No amount of cherry picked evidence is forgivable if the net result is to send agriculture to oblivion and force feed the rest of us with junk food gloop produced by the multinational food corporations using huge quantities of green energy that would be better applied to new mass transport systems or ending the scandal of old people freezing in their homes.
So yes – hats off to Simon Fairlie, and if I ever buy a scythe it will be from him. Prophets are rarely appreciated in their own country.
A couple of days ago I mentioned the sinking of the Crig-a-Tana off Cadgwith last November and the rescue of the two man crew by the Lizard Lifeboat. Both men were ironically members of the lifeboat crew and even more darkly ironically the boat was named after a pretty vicious looking reef off Kuggar called Crig-a-tana rocks. The sinking of the boat had nothing whatever to do with the rocks because she went down 6 mile southeast of Bass Rock and they are waiting for a report from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to discover what happened. Fishing and farming remain two of the most dangerous industries in the country.
Anyway, all best wishes to the crew who have been through a horrendous experience, but this raises once again the insecurities and dangers that the inshore fishing fleet have to contend with, and lends support to the idea that unless we support these industries by buying their produce they may not survive for the future. Interestingly the Government published their proposals for the ELMS scheme today – this is a payment support scheme that offers farmers subsidies in return for public goods – like environmental schemes. Once again the big arable farms will be able to claim most of the subsidies while small farms and hill farms will be competing for the scraps. I needn’t mention again the betrayal of the inshore fleet by the brexit debacle.
And that’s why we at the Potwell Inn try to buy as much as possible of our food from local sources, preferably direct from the producers and bypassing the supermarkets. With that in mind we trogged off to Porthleven yesterday for a walk and to buy some fish. Who knew that fish are seasonal? I sort of knew it in the recesses of my mind but when we got to the fishmonger she had some Lemon Sole on display, as well as Haddock – not a major fish around here, and of course crabmeat. Lemon Sole are bang in season at the moment and I think I must have cooked them badly at some time in the past and never bothered again. Madame on the other hand absolutely loves them so we bought a couple of fillets each of Haddock and Lemon Sole (more expensive!) plus a tub of mixed white crab meat with the brown splodgy bit). The brown meat is much cheaper and yet it’s full of flavour. So we’ve been gorging ourselves on fish, which in Cornwall has sometimes been tricky in the past – because apart from supermarkets you never see it fresh. Unlike the Continent, the local fisherman don’t sell their catch off the boat as a matter of course.
So £23 for three meals seems a lot, except fish prices have escalated; but think that we paid £6.00 for the crab meat and made three rounds of crab sandwiches which would have cost something like £30 in a cafe. We also lashed out on a £10 bottle of Muscadet which would have been marked up to £25 or £30. That looks like value for money to me. The haddock, which we had for supper cost about £8 – compared with £15 a portion for fish and chips. Then we had the Lemon Sole today – dusted with seasoned flour – and simply fried in butter and olive oil. The trick is to hammer the skin side until it’s crisp and then turn the heat down and turn the fish for a minute – it cooks quickly. Once again delicious with 1/2 bottle of cheap Albariño. Learn to cook – it’ll save you a fortune and you’ll eat like a Russian oligarch!
Seasonal fish isn’t always to everyone’s taste – I love Cod Roe – which is almost unobtainable now due to the complete absence of any other customers. You can buy smoked roe for taramasalata at almost any time but the raw roe probably looks too much like a pair of giant testicles to attract the faint hearted. These were the last I ate, seven years ago.
But the take home point is that fish have their seasons and like every other food it’s best to eat them while they’re ‘in‘ and when they’re local because they’re that much fresher and come without a contrail of air miles.
But we haven’t just spent the past few days eating. I finally got to scrambling up a cliff path to a patch of promising looking gorse and managed to identify the two most common gorse species in this part of the world. Growing next to each other made it relatively easy tpo see the differences and I’m reasonably sure of my ID because the larger Gorse/ Furze Ulex europaeus was in flower and the smaller Ulex Gallii – Western Gorse wan’t, and it fitted most of the other descriptors. Clive Stace – who must be obeyed in all matters botanical – demands the mean of ten measurements of certain flower parts before identification is made – but since one of them wasn’t in flower and wasn’t expected to be in flower until June I decided not to wait. It is quite absurd, the amount of pleasure to be gained from nailing the names of two plants so similar you need a magnifying glass to distinguish them but honestly it’s the best fun you can have while keeping your clothes on. Naked botanising among gorse plants in a brisk offshore wind is an overrated pastime. Finally, just to complete my joy I noticed a Cornish Heath nestling among its taller neighbours. I believe some vulgar botanists refer to this as a slam dunk. Here they are.