At what point do you admit to yourself that you’ve got a bit of a problem? Not, I hasten to add, some sort of dreadful problem like drinking too much, after all who doesn’t enjoy a top ranking landlord’s breakfast like gin and cornflakes? No, this problem is to do with never knowing when to stop trying to identify a flower when you’ve got the family and most of the name. but you want to know the species, or even sub species as well.
This one’s been bugging me since we first started the allotment because it’s just so prolific, and I’ve tried a dozen times to run it down. I thought it might be a Corydalis because it looks a bit like that, but after my close encounter with a similar plant to the one on the allotment at St Davids last week, I did a bit of detective work and discovered that Corydalis has not been seen in the Bristol region for decades so I discarded that in favour of Fumaria – I’ve already written about this – and plodded on with magnifier, steel ruler and multiple floras – up to and including Stace. The problem is that there are so many criteria for sorting them out that you just have to get close-up and personal. And so here’s my idea of close-up and personal:
So above, here’s my Panasonic Lumix GH2 – old but lovely – and a 45mm Leica Macro -Elmarit lens, mounted on a Manfrotto tripod and ball head, and to the left there’s a photo of the fruit which shows that it’s smooth. That’s an important diagnostic. And so the unexpected ID seems to be that this is Fumaria muralis, the common ramping fumaria (and I can vouch for the ‘ramping’ bit!) and the reason that this is a surprise is that it’s quite unusual in Bath or indeed in the whole Bristol region. In case there are any proper botanists out there, the flower length is on the high side at around 15mm, but the sepals are spot on. The overall height is a bit high as well, but Stace says it’s very variable so I’ll go with the smooth fruit which is a clincher.
All that’s about a couple of hours work and five or more books and regional floras. The picture at the top is about X7. Elsewhere on the Potwell Inn allotment we cleared the bed for the leeks, added mountains of discarded chard to the compost heap and so we also added a good deal of cardboard and shredded paper to stop it getting slimy. The elderflower cordial was not the best we’ve ever made and that’s one for a second attempt
A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and
slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to
a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between
Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and
greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human
memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in
a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer
stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his
lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland
across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived
and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr.
Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular.
A change turned out to be every bit as good as a rest, and the trip to Wales – although it involved as many hours of wildflower hunting as we would have spent on the allotment – was a complete change of tempo. I photographed the angelica in the photo above on the allotment yesterday. It really is stunningly beautiful, as are many of the other Apiaceae (carrot family) herbs that we grow.
We grow carrots and parsnips, parsley, coriander, caraway, celeriac, chervil, celery, lovage, dill, angelica, fennel and sweet cicily – all in the same family. In fact without them our cooking would lose most of the interesting flavours. But like all good families there are black sheep and the umbellifers can boast (if that’s the word), some of the most deadly poisonous plants we have – like hemlock water dropwort for instance – that tastes rather sweet (so they say) and kills you without any ado.
But this particular group of plants have a reputation for being difficult to identify and before we went to Wales I bought a copy of the BSBI handbook no 2 “Umbellifers of the British Isles” by TG Tutin (of Clapham Tutin and Warberg fame). Anyone who knows me will know that I find the dense descriptions of botanical language a bit daunting, but they gradually penetrate my stubborn mind and I find myself consulting the glossary few enough times to take away some of the pain. I know parsley from dill, but could I tell dill from fennel at ten paces and without crushing the leaves and smelling them? In his introduction Tutin suggests that the sheer usefulness of some of the family probably drove the need clearly to identify them. The line drawings in the book are exquisite in their sheer usefulness.
Botanical photo books have improved so much over the years that if I’m stuck I often use them to make a start, but when you get down to the difference between a greater and a lesser pignut, it’s out with the hand lens and a key – and there begins the hand-to-hand combat with the truth that any beginning botanist will reconise. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel by the Jabbock brook, we demand “what is your name?” and the plant usually refuses to tell us until we’re half dead with exhaustion.
The process involves all the tools books and instruments I’ve already mentioned, but beyond that there’s the intangible sense that birders call “jizz” which surely must be the product of memory and experience. My problem with jizz is that sometimes there’s so much background noise that I don’t pay enough attention to it. Like bumping into an old school friend fifty years on, you know that you know them but the name just won’t come. It happened twice in Wales with two plants I had the strongest sense of familiarity with and yet I couldn’t force my brain to make the connections.
Fumitory – Fumaria officinalis
Four photos of two plants, but in each case the photo on the right was taken in St Davids and the one on the left was taken on the allotment. The top pair gave me most trouble and yet, side by side it’s so blindingly obvious that they’re country cousins I could kick myself. On the left some chard in the process of going to seed on the allotment. On the right the plant I found on the coast path and vaguely recognised but coudn’t quite name. When we went to the allotment yesterday the connection was instantaneous – my coast path plant is, of course, sea beet.
But sometimes the information flows the other way. With the lower pair, I found the clump of pink flowers and with very little effort recognised it as exactly the same plant that infests our ground on the allotment. So it was fumeria – end of! – until I got back to the van without bothering to take a sample, and discovered that there are no less than thirteen contenders, more than a Tory party leadership contest but considerably prettier. So there was nothing to do but find another one the next day, hoping that it was the same plant, and do the hard work all over again. Quick cheat – it’s a good idea to take a copy of the BSBI recording card for the county you’re in, and you can quickly find out which of the family don’t even live where you are and can be discounted. Needless to say I hadn’t done this so all thirteen contenders needed to be interrogated. But we got there in the end.
I don’t think there’s any happier feeling than sitting identifying plants outside the van in the sunshine and with my books all around me, but needs must – and we desperately needed to water after a week of warm sunshine. Madame set out more tender plants and I carried down some half rotted leaves that the council had dumped on the site and mixed them with two big bags of grass mowings that our son had passed on to us. Grass mowings on their own make a filthy anaerobic mess, but mixed with some high carbon dry material they’re plentiful, free and useful in the compost heap. If I’ve come back with one lesson it’s that the natural world doesn’t divide itself conveniently into domestic and wild plants. They’re all country cousins.
But I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. I was overwhelmed by the bewildering memory of a sign that someone saw over the Empty Tomb in Jerusalem which said – “He is not here he is risen”. My friend, having queued for ages in the hot sun was rather upset but went in anyway. For me though, the church (and I suppose this applies equally to other faiths) is all too fond of finding a truly holy place and then suffocating the life out of it with stones. So we stayed outside and my heart was lifted by the sounds of jackdaws and rooks playing and quarrelling in the trees and we listened to some singers sitting on the wall rehearsing a folk song. We leaned over the small bridge just beyond the West door and watched a dipper feeding and swimming underwater – quite an achievement.
Whatever spirituality clings to these beautiful stones, it’s contaminated by the venality of its leaders past and present who, I recall from my days as a curate, were quite capable of arguing ferociously about who would go last in a procession – because that was the most important place to be. But I mustn’t go on because mercifully the healing powers of the place cannot be contained and, if you can find a quiet place to sit, you may experience them. For me – because I’m a contrarian by nature – pilgrimage should begin at the holy site and continue all the way home when you’ve had time to work out what you found there. Backwards pilgrimage leads you away from the pile of stones – which can only be a good thing.
On our way to the bus stop in the morning we passed a beautiful adder which was basking in the hedge. I thought he was torpid and risked moving towards him with my phone camera, but he was more than a match for me and disappeared down into his nest like greased lightning.
I bagged a couple more flowers on the way, bringing the total to 65. There’s no place for pride, though, because although I didn’t bring the Vice County list with me that leaves me about 1450 to go! I should’ve started sooner.
Here then, with all the Latin names excised, are my 65 plants in flower, and below them some more of the photos I’ve taken. I particularly enjoyed watching the Lackey Moth caterpillars breaking out of their nest.
Southern Marsh orchid
Common Mouse ear
Cuckoo flower AKA Lady’s smock
Common Dog Violet
Bucks horn plantain
Ribwort plantain – three plantains in a short walk is good going, I think
Thinking on from yesterday’s post, here are some extra reasons why learning to identify plants is a great thing.
Field botany – like astronomy – is one of those activities where amateurs can really make a contribution.
The healing properties of plants are not just historical memories, they have real significance for the future of medicine but unless we know what plants we have, we’ll lose them without ever exploring their possible benefits.
Knowing your plants is the best way of finding butterflies, moths and even birds. A bit of botanical knowledge feeds into the whole of natural history.
Knowing your plants helps to understand dozens of references in Shakespeare and across the whole of literature.
Making lists is fun
Fresh air and exercise are better for you than train spotting!
So back to Fumitory which seemed, when I first I/D’d it here, seemed to be the end of the matter – until I checked in Rose “The Wildflower Key”, which is an excellent guide, and discovered that my name was only part of the story because there are in fact thirteen representatives of the family in the UK. So today’s mission was to find another plant and identify it fully. Luckily it’s abundant hereabouts so that bit wasn’t hard at all. The identification involved a hand magnifier and a lot of hemming and hawing because confirmation bias is alive in this amateur botanist’s mind. It’s all too easy to read through one description and say “that’s it” and then read another and say “That’s it too” . So what you have to do – and it can be pretty tedious – is go through all the possibilities, narrowing it down one by one, until there’s only one left. It’s called “keying out” – and it’s a steep but worthwhile learning curve. Anyway the final result – in which I’m pretty confident – is that my Fumitory is Fumeria bastardii – result!
Apart from that my list of plants in flower has reached 65, with some lovely finds today. I won’t give the whole list – because there are no rarities on it at all, apart from a little Centaury which I think is Centaurium erythraea var capitatum which is not rare but very local and pretty too.
Aside from the plants we saw 2 chough, 2 oystercatchers nesting unexpectedly high on a cliff, being pestered by a crow, 2 gannets, swallows in abundance, a kestrel, 2 Canada geese, and some shags apart from all the usual gulls. A stonechat came and showed off only a dozen feet away.
Later we sat with a glass of wine on our campsite overlooking the Bitches in Ramsey Sound as the sun sank through the sky into a sea of pure silver. It’s three days after the full moon and a very high spring tide was flowing and even at a distance of half a mile we could hear the menacing sound of the flow which was generating some big standing waves. A large sail cutter and two canoeists navigated through the waters, the canoeists needed to put hardly any effort into rowing as they swept past the headland. That’s what we come here for. Our walk today took us along the coast from the lifeboat station to an old mineshaft where we turned back across the fields where we feasted on wild mushrooms last autumn. So no more than three miles of coast path and 65 wildflower species in flower. Happy days!
No I can’t inflict another list – but carrying on from yesterday I found 18 more plants in flower, bringing the total up to 55. I’m completely aware that my sense of pride and joy makes me a total propellor head, but today we took an appropriately slow and stately walk around the coast path so I could find a few more flowers and it made me very happy. Why on earth photographing and identifying plants should bring such intense pleasure, I don’t know except that knowing the names of things really does. I suppose you could liken it to moving to another town, like we did when we retired. After living in a village for 25 years we knew pretty much everyone, but when we moved to Bath we had to start all over again, learning names, figuring out relationships and understanding where every one lived. Three and a half years on we’re slowly getting there.
So imagine going for a walk in a beautiful place like St Davids and not knowing the names of any of the flowers. You could certainly get around the coast path quicker than we do, but we have the pleasure of greeting old friends. Doing just a bit of botany enables us to recognise families and relationships, to enjoy the successions of the flowers through the seasons and to see how well, or badly, the landscape is doing. So one reason for knowing the names is that you’re always surrounded by friends.
But another, equally good reason is that if you don’t know the names, you’ll never know when they start disappearing. Caring for the environment is just about the most important thing we can do at the moment because it’s ailing. At home we care for it in the way we grown things and the things we eat. Here we care for the things that – because they’re simply beautiful in their own right – make us richer. Knowing the name of a plant means we’re in some kind of relationship which brings responsibilities.
Learning to identify plants involves a level of attention that makes the world infinitely richer. The differences between members of the same family sometimes demands profound attention to tiny details – the shape of a leaf, the disposition of the flowers or a row of hairs on the stem that can only be seen with a hand lens.
Finally, although there are many more reasons for doing a bit of botanising, there’s the aesthetic dimension. Flowers and plants are simply beautiful. They can be enjoyed with most of the senses – by sight obviously, but by smell and taste and even sound. It makes me want to paint them in order to understand them better.
I learned to love the names of common wildflowers from my mother who never used anything else. I totally understand why having three plants with the same name and one plant with ten names drives proper field botanists mad, but there’s so much pleasure to be got from the English names which frequently point to a medicinal use like, for instance, fleabane, or refer to an immediately recognisable characteristic. They can even be downright funny. Check out Arum maculatum for raunchy English names like ‘lords and ladies’ ‘cuckoo pint’ where the second word is, or should be pronounced to rhyme with mint and refers to a pintle which is the shaft on which the rudder of a boat is fitted. Cuckoo, as in ‘cuckoo in the nest’ needs no further explanation I hope. A supremely naughty plant whose latin name merely tells us what it is.
Anyway, as predicted we went for a stroll around the clifftop below St Davids and in order to facilitate actually going anywhere instead of grovelling around on my hands and knees, I just took my iPhone, a notebook and pen. These coast paths are the most joyful places in spring, with enough wildflowers to keep anyone happy. You’ll see from the list that we began our walk by crossing through a marshy area before we got to the coastpath. So here they are in no particular order because I started the list halfway round and had to remember quite a few.
Southern Marsh orchid
Common Mouse ear
Cuckoo flower AKA Lady’s smock
Stichwort – forgot to check which one
Bucks horn plantain
Ribwort plantain – three plantains in a short walk is good going, I think
Upright hedge parsley
Cut leaved cranesbill
Isn’t that lovely? – 37 wildflowers – in flower – in a walk that can’t have been more than a couple of miles, and I’m sure that could have been fifty if I’d taken a day over it and carried my mighty copy of Stace and a magnifier. Oh and if I’d not chickened out of the grasses, although I could confidently add cocks foot to the list.
The day started badly, though, with a knackered water pump on the van. We’ve been nursing it along for a year with a leaking gasket, but today one of the spade connectors finally gave up the ghost, having corroded away in the leak. Two faults in two days, but the flat battery may have been connected to the wet contacts. At least it’s a repair I can carry out myself, and a replacement pump costs about £50 so not the end of the world.
Back to the wildlife, and it’s been a sunny but cool day in a brisk northerly wind. Back on the headland we saw a brief skirmish between a common blue butterfly and a small copper. I would have loved to be able to say it was a small blue, because the foodplant for the small blue is the kidney vetch which was there in abundance. However the small blue prefers a more sheltered site and is not recorded here. The small copper has plenty of common sorrel and sheeps sorrel to lay its eggs on, and the common blue has a feast of birds foot trefoil at its disposal so enough said. I am condemned to wander the earth encountering and recording the ordinary and everyday, hoping desperately that these ordinary objects of joy are not about to vanish.
I’ve just finished reading Dieter Helm’s excellent book “Green and prosperous land”. It’s the first book I’ve seen that considers the economic case for what he describes as “natural capital” that’s to say, the natural assets of the world, wildlife, water, clean air which are being destroyed by our present way of life.
Some of the alexanders we saw here were very sick, with every appearance that spray drift from the adjacent field had killed them. It’s difficult to be sure, because it could as easily have been frost damage with such confusing spring weather. What is certainly true here is that intensively farmed land is butted up against these last strongholds of wildflowers. Surely we have to stop paying farmers simply for owning land, and start re- assessing our entire apporoach to subsidy.
Even managing to get this photo on to the laptop seems like a major triumph of hope over BT, who, for approaching 2 weeks, have not only failed to provide any broadband service but have convinced themselves that they’ve actually done something. They’ve already sent out three engineers on two separate occasions who have all eventually confessed to not being sufficently trained or equipped to do the job. They sent the first mini hub to the wrong address and the second never appeared at all and so I’ve been completely dependent on my phone connection and a big overspend on extra data. The sales people claimed that we had fibre to the building when it fact it’s finished at the green box up the road and is dependent on copper wire for the crucial final 250m. The company was split up into three to encourage competition, but although they work with identical customer bases the IT systems don’t talk to each other which leads to the sort of tooth gnashing conversations that make it clear that no-one has the faintest idea what’s going on.
Enough already – get on with it! – I hear you cry – so I shall. On Monday morning I am promised positively smoking digital speeds. We’ll see, I’m already eyeing up the contract to see if they’ve broken their part.
So yesterday we had to take some of our artworks by bus to an exhibition in Bristol, which is an infrequent pleasure. Later we went up to the allotment and I set up the wigwam supports for the runner beans. I hesitate to get all philosophical about it, but it does seem that the simplest gardening jobs can attract a good deal of unconscious baggage, and none much more powerfully than hazel bean sticks. We cut and gathered these at our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons last year which makes then both free of cost and simultaneously greater in value. Now that hazel is hardly ever coppiced, the sticks have become a bit of an expensive rarity, having been replaced by imported bamboo, or worse still plastic. But in a more environmentally conscious world they could provide a subsidiary source of income on a mixed farm with a bit of woodland. But honestly that’s not the thing that shouts at you, it’s the sense of tradition that comes with them.
So today has been a mixed bag with grandchildren visiting. The oldest picked wild garlic in the woods and we took it to Uncle Jo who runs a pizza hut, and he made a special pizza using the harvested ramsons – how’s that for a life lesson in foraging? I managed to get a couple of hours parole on the allotment and I finally got the strimmer out to cut all the paths. I once worked for several years as a school groundman, and I picked up some terrible habits like wanting to eliminate every weed in sight. With a powerful tool like a strimmer I have to order myself to leave clumps of weeds – especially nettles – around the plot for the butterflies. I also leave the long cut grass lying because it’s full of seed for the birds. Slowly I’m conquering the demon of excessive tidiness! Doesn’t the herb garden look splendid, with the asparagus behind? The big umbellifer is angelica which is stunningly sculptural, and contrasts with the darker greens of lovage and dill. I guess that among all the plant families the Apiaceae, the carrot family have most to offer a gardener and cook. Underneath you can see our 1000L of stored rainwater which I hope to at least double during the year. I can only see a future full of water shortages if we don’t do something to curb our excesses soon and so, although I’m no survivalist, a couple of tonnes of water in store is likely to be useful. To that end I’m going to put a roof over the compost heaps to capture water from 60 extra square feet, and I’ve half a mind to build a solar heater from an old radiator to provide underground heat for the coldframes or even the greenhouse. I saw it demonstrated at the Alternative Technology Centre in Machynlleth, and it worked impressively well considering it was entirely constructed from waste materials. What I don’t know is whether the winter sun would be hot enough to provide any heat benefit. But even a marginal gain might protect from a cold snap, and maybe it could be constructed around some thermal ballast for storage, after all the cold frame alone offers some protection from all but prolongued cold spells.
You know how it is when it seems something might be amiss with a crop but you hang on in the hope that it was just a silly mistake and it will all blow over as soon as the weather improves. Some hope! We try to celebrate life’s rich tapestry as best we can but when push comes to shove a bit of ruthlessness is called for. These onions, (Autumn Champion, grown from sets), looked fine until a few weeks ago and then, just when they should have taken off, they began to show signs that something was wrong. We had been careful because we previously lost a crop of leeks to allium leaf miner, and so they were covered with fine insect mesh from winter onwards. However, facts are facts and these onions looked sick. It’s sometimes difficult for a non expert to diagnose these pests and diseases, but the effect on the leaves was very like leaf miner. So that gave three possibilities – allium leaf miner, onion fly and eelworm. According to the books it’s a bit early for leaf miner, the mesh should have seen off the onion fly as well and so that left eelworm as the prime suspect. Whatever it was, the remedy was much the same – dig them up and burn them and then don’t grow alliums on the plot for three years. The RHS rather loftily suggest that the ground should be left fallow, but our allotment doesn’t stretch into the blue remembered hills, and we can’t afford to leave a whole bed empty so we’ll probably try to kill any remaining eggs, cysts or pupae with the flame gun and then observe the rotation carefully.
It’s always sad to lose a crop, but we have the spring planted onions which appear to be OK, and the leeks, garlic and shallots are all alright too, so in a break in the rain and for fear of going stir crazy we went up and did the deed. As we were pulling them out I examined them carefully to see if any further light could be shed on the problem, and most of the post mortems showed no signs of maggots or pupae, supporting the eelworm hypothesis. However I did find a couple of plants with 2mm brown pupae that looked very like allium leaf miner – so it was an open verdict. Much as I hate any green material going off the allotment, I’m afraid this lot went straight to the tip. Just for reference or any further ideas I’m including a photo of the pupa and another plant. Please don’t take this as a sign I know that much about plant pathology, I’m only one page ahead in the textbook!
It was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said in 1907 – “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him”. Sounds complicated I know, but reverse it and it’s easier to understand. We humans apply descriptions like ‘wild’, and ‘domesticated’ to wildlife all the time, but do the animals pay any attention? Do they even understand what ‘wild means’? And the only answer is – ‘of course – they don’t’. They neither know nor care that we humans have them organised into an exquisitely complicated set of relations that we expect them to adhere to.
Our weekend visit to the Brecon Beacons brought to a head something I’ve been pondering for a while. Being a bit of purist; conservation – in my mind – often suggests the restoration of a pristine habitat so that the creature or plant in question can, as it were, return to its own ‘Garden of Eden’. During the last war when children were being evacuated away from large cities to be safe from bombing, a huge amount of work was done to discover whether they would be permanently damaged by their estrangement from their natural parents and family environment. The psychologist DW Winnicott came up with a wonderfully fertile idea. Parenting, he said, whoever it was carried out by, only needed to be ‘good enough’ for children to thrive.
Only a scientist could say whether his idea can be transferred to any other category of life except humans but it remains a tantalising possibility that what most, if not all, life forms need is just a ‘good enough’ environment to survive or even thrive. Maybe – and this idea really excites me – the garden and the allotment, although not quite the traditional haunt of certain life forms, would be good enough to ensure their survival. If that were true, then the distinction between the allotment or garden and the nature reserve would disappear in a blink. We know already that peregrines – to take one example – can thrive while nesting on tall city centre buildings because there is a plentiful supply of food. Seagulls, including some declining species, can live well in cities – I know they can – because in the summer they wake us up every morning. Likewise, some lowland species like yellowhammer can get by 250 metres higher up if there’s a sufficient food supply.
This year we’ve made a big effort to grow more insect friendly plants throughout the allotment. In particular we’ve planted a lot of Apiaceae – carrot family – because we know they’re great attractors of insects, and today I took a look at some of the angelica plants which have come into flower. The hypothesis is quite easy to prove. Today there were a multitude of insects around the flowers including the bee at the head of the page, and also a cluster of blackfly which – oh joy – were being farmed by ants. I’d read about this unexpected relationship, apparently the ants will even move the blackfly to a more suitable location so they can better feed on the honeydew, but I never saw it before today. Not in a nature reserve or on the television but on the Potwell Inn allotment.
We are, already, a tiny nature reserve although the better description might be that we have deliberately enhanced our 250 square metres to accommodate a wider range of living things. I’m not saying we don’t need nature reserves, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, but what I am saying is that we need not see ourselves as junior partners, amateurs or anything but full and crucial participants in the fightback against environmental and climate degradation. I’m really very excited to feel that the two descriptions “naturalist” and “allotmenteer” are not alternatives, but inextricably tied together. There’s no need to choose where we put the effort because they both (all) lead to the same place, a better environment for everyone and every creature, wherever.
Starting from the all-time best bits of our break in the Brecon Beacons, there was the blues night in Brecon, of course, but I’m bound to say that listening to a cuckoo for the first time in several years comes near to the top of my list. Ordinary pleasures have become exceptions these days and so cuckoos are peak moments. So too was watching a bird feeder with great tits, blue tits, nuthatch and yellowhammers all feeding at the same time. Meanwhile a mouse had created a great home for himself in a drystone wall under the feeder, only having to pop his head out through a crack in the wall to catch the falling seeds. He’s in danger of getting so fat he won’t be able to escape his five star accommodation. Half a dozen hens were browsing around the cottage all day and providing the best eggs we’ve tasted since we gave up keeping them ourselves.
But let no-one say we, at the Potwell Inn, shirk the less arcadian bits of life – there’s always time to learn a new skill, and sheep dagging just happened to come up yesterday. I was at the clean end of the crush, while Nick and Kate were the – let’s say – “coal face” with the hand clippers, so all I could do was help wrestle the sheep in and operate the bit of the crush that dealt with the front end.Sorry about all the technical farming language. Actually that’s not all I was doing, because I was also eyeing up the rich daggings as they fell to the floor, thinking how well they’d look on our compost heap. This indignity – for the sheep – was to help clean them up ready for lambing and make it easier to see whether they were ‘uddered up’ without a wrestling match. Sheep, I discovered are both heavy and likely to kick you in the face if you’re not very careful. As it was, it was the brim of my hat that caught at least one haymaker of a blow. Daggings – the mucky bits of wool around the rear end – also make fantastically good mulch because they aren’t strong enough to burn the roots of young plants. Having never seen any kind of shearing close up before, it obviously needs real skill not to nick the sheep. The wool is thick with lanolin and cutting through the clumps of wool looked like hard work.
Madame took a look at a pond that Nick had dug out years ago, and it was full of newts. Newts were once so common you could go to pretty well any pond and catch a jam jar full, but nowadays it becomes a notable treat to see them. Isn’t there a picture beginning to form here? This constellation of wildlife that we were finding is no accident. It’s a great sadness that we no longer think it’s weird to have to go to a nature reserve in order to see creatures that were once everywhere, but here on this 24 acres of unprofitable mixed hill farm is a sign of what we’ve lost. So many species clinging to life in ‘improved’ farmland are thriving here without even knowing how rare they’ve become.
You see the term “hobby farming” used disparagingly by those who ought to know better, but here in these pockets of unimproved land are populations of wildlife that would rapidly spread back into the surrounding land if their environment was restored. These so-called hobby farmers are acting as unpaid guardians of many thousands of acres of unofficial and unmarked “biodiversity banks” without, in many cases, claiming a penny of government subsidy, while the money goes to destructive intensive farming.
There is, perhaps, one thing you might notice on the farm, and that would be things like this Victorian potato plough which Nick still uses. Is it efficient? Well no, but that really isn’t the point. The fact is that for all our obsession with progress, there are still many things that work perfectly well – if a lot more slowly. A bit like the landlord of the Potwell Inn and his wife!