Gotcha!

Some of this season’s garlic harvest hanging inside the shed to dry

At last we’ve captured a video of the badger on our plot. It’s a very poor but unmistakable image, just from the shuffling gait alone, but it was almost touching the camera so it was rather out of focus – I’ve put it at the end of this post. The existence of the badgers is well known because there’s a sett at the top of the site. They have a reputation for sniffing out the ripe sweetcorn on the very day we plan to cut it and so over the years we’ve had to devise ways of keeping them out.

I once used to watch badgers at night when I was working as a groundsman and they were plaguing the boss’s kitchen garden. One day we put a strong chicken wire fence around the plot and to our amazement the same evening a big boar badger threw himself at it until it collapsed and then sauntered into his domain. There’s no doubt that badgers love sweetcorn, and the constant growing of fodder maize on dairy farms has led to an increase in the badger population just at the time the farmers are trying to blame them for the rise in bovine TB. It’s not that I doubt TB is a constant problem for dairy farmers; but I’d love to see some research done on whether there’s a connection between the occurrence of the disease and the intensity of the farming method being used. I’d be interested in discovering if low intensity grass fed herds are less susceptible to the disease. In human populations TB is associated with poverty and stress and although it may seem strange we’re becoming more and more familiar with the idea that among humans, poverty and stress diseases are greatly increased by cramped and substandard living conditions coupled with a calorie rich junk food diet. Intensive farming is based on the premise that we know better than the cattle what’s good for them.

Anyway, we also know that badgers love our sweetcorn and we were amused that the one we filmed last night is out researching the local corn already. Ours is in full flower and just touching the flowers releases clouds of pollen. There are three principal poachers – not counting the two legged ones – it’s not just the badgers. Rats are great climbers – and so are the squirrels – and they generally attack the cobs by gnawing through the sheaths without breaking the main stalks. Badgers blunder over the whole plant and smash it down to eat the cobs and all we can do to stop them is to protect the beds. It’s said that they don’t like soft netting because they get their claws caught in it and generally we use both hard and soft barriers to deter them. There is another ghostly thief but I’m not sure whether the rumour is true. Apparently deer have occasionally been spotted on the site and maybe one day they’ll show up on the trail cam. We also know that rats and squirrels also love the broad (fava) beans but again it’s fairly easy to sort out the offenders. Rats seem to gnaw at the lower, easy to reach pods; eating a small part of both the seed and the pod; but squirrels really go for them and we have often found little piles of empty pods next to the beds, left very tidy and bereft of their beans which may well have gone off for storage. We’ve got video of both a rat and a squirrel jumping up on to a bed of broad beans that had been cleared the previous day – they must have been disappointed.

So that’s foxes, badgers, domestic cats, squirrels, field mice and rats we’ve now videoed with deer as kind of ghostly reserves. Sadly there are no hedgehogs but that may be down to the badgers which are their big-time predators. The closer we look, the more we see the sheer complexity of the natural history of our urban allotment. At best we’re just (hopefully) considerate participants in the great cycle.

We’re not allowed to connect hoses to the mains supply on our allotments, but today we rigged up our 240V generator with an electric pump and gave the whole plot a good soaking from our own stored water – we’ve got 1500 litres, around 300 gallons of water stored around the place and with a promise of heavy storms on Sunday we thought we’d give the plants a good soak in anticipation of refilling the butts over the weekend. It’s still oppressively hot here but the plots are bursting with life.

The polytunnel tomatoes are ripening thick and fast now so today I’m making the first panzanella of the summer. I got the recipe from Anna Del Conte’s wonderful “Gastronomy of Italy” and it was love at first taste. She writes that recipes for panzanella are as numerous as the people the Nonnas – who pass them on down through the family – I guess that’s exactly what a food culture is all about. Patience Gray’s “Honey from a Weed”; Marcella Hazan’s “The Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking” and Anna Del Conte’s “Gastronomy of Italy” are some of my favourite and most indispensable cookery books because they turn the cooking and eating of vegetables into an adventure. In high summer we luxuriate in the sheer variety of food on the allotment. The best of Italian cooking completely sidesteps the endless debates between carnivores, vegetarians and vegans because absolutely everybody deserves the best of vegetables, cooked or prepared in such lovely ways that meat becomes a minor side issue in the midst of a feast. Sustainable living is so much easier to promote when it’s couched in terms of taking up rather than giving up. Our cultural obsession with rarity and expense has blinded us to the beauty of simple and slow; and if you want to know when to eat your sweetcorn at its absolute peak of perfection, just follow a badger – he’ll know!

Whadda you mean – what am I doing!

Digging down

Priddy Pool

As it happens this post isn’t, strictly speaking, about allotmenteering or gardening, but about interrogating a landscape – to borrow a phrase from Alan Rayner of the Bath Natural History Society – “It’s about walking in nature rather than through nature.”

Dunnock egg

Our favourite way of exploring is to get to know a new landscape by walking all its byways and footpaths really intensively. In this case it’s revisiting a landscape after a gap of many years which has added an extra dimension altogether. I don’t think there’s anything particularly deep or spiritual about this way of walking; it’s just about intense attention to detail. The dunnock egg, for instance, was in the wrong place; many yards from any possible nest. It’s impossible to know why it was there, but probably it had been stolen and then abandoned.

What triggered this line of thought was using the idea of silence in my last posting. Today we were walking a linked series of old droves and as we made our way towards the starting point I realised that I could hear the sound of a dried and dead leaf scuttering across the road in the brisk wind. That’s silence. I could describe it as the matrix that holds all the sounds of a particular place together; an ocean in which sounds are made and scattered. Its a great sadness that such moments are so rare these days.

But there’s more. Coming back to this high country after many years, farming seems to have changed. Walking through the village everything looks much the same – the local authority have done their job in preserving its appearance – but from the inner landscape – the droves and footpaths, another picture appears. Old buildings that were once useful are now abandoned. Behind the unchanged roadside buildings massive new barns have sprung up as farmers have been forced to intensify or go out of business. The rich diversity of wildlife has become increasingly confined to reserves and after three days of walking we’ve yet to see an unimproved meadow. This isn’t an attack on farmers at all. They’ve somewhat heroically tried to do everything they were asked to do – not least to increase production at the expense of the soil and the environment in general. Every cottage that hasn’t been sold to second homers has been pressed into service for holiday lets and – in a situation I know only too well, a local mixed farming culture that developed over centuries has been homogenised and all but destroyed. I was only bleakly amused to meet an electrician installing CCTV cameras on a remote house to deter off-roaders in four wheel drives who, totally illegally, noisily tear the ancient drove road to shreds in rain and snow. The balance of power between locals and incomers has been destroyed and the parish council has, by all accounts, endured hostility as the entrenched pro and anti offroaders battle it out. The local school survives but we looked in vain for a shop. It occurred to me that the silence I was enjoying would have been punctuated by the sounds of dozens, if not hundreds of farm labourers and horses. Some silences are more malign than you might think. An absence of life is not what I was looking for.

And the earth in some places looked exhausted.

The landscape, it seems – and sorry about the long word – to be a palimpsest. The newest message inscribed upon the poorly erased messages of the past. Walking through nature you might never notice the difference, but walking in it forces us to embrace its mystery. The story told by the plants that survive in the most surprising corners where they escaped the predation of plough, fertiliser and pesticide.

And yet our hearts are still lifted by discovering new plants. Tonight – so long as the sky stays clear we might get a glimpse of the lyrid meteor shower – first described over two millennia ago, which adds up to a lot of wonder. God forbid I become just another grumpy old man. When it comes to landscapes I’m more Edward Thomas than RS Thomas.

“Events, dear boy, events!”

Detergent foam on the river.

You know when you’re feeling a bit down when Harold Macmillan’s well known quip comes back to haunt you; but in the minor key. When events start floating past like the ghosts of things that once seemed more important, it’s a bit of a sign that it’s all getting too much: all this endless and aimless governmental button pressing to try and factory reset the country back to an imaginary default state. I read an interesting piece by a behavioural psychologist a few days ago describing the state of mind that, having invested heavily in a solution that’s evidently not working, idles in a catatonic state, hoping that something will turn up.

Here are three signs that it’s not working. One … there was (yet another) provocative op-ed in the Farmers Weekly in which their star winder-up writes that he doesn’t understand the point of regenerative farming. I have written to him in the past about his headline grabbing tendencies (there’s a lot of it about) and point out that the crisis facing intensive farming is well understood, well researched and roaring down the line with no brakes. At what point does not understanding something so important, become a sign of sheer stupidity? I shan’t write of course because last time I did he simply rolled over with a shrug and said ‘maybe I did exaggerate a bit”. The danger is that some of his readers might use his idiotic opinions to shore up their faith in the collapsing citadel of scientific progress and Bishop Bayer.

Next, I might mention the UK government’s announced intention to revisit the debate on what they are now calling “gene editing” which is, they suggest, quite different from “genetic modification”. They used the same trick when they renamed the explosive and leaky nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, and called it Windscale. Anyway, gene editing sounds pretty much the same to me. I read somewhere that what they mean is that they won’t be inserting genes from a different species but merely mucking about with the ones that are already there. Science fictionally that’s a shame because I’d enjoy the thought of venus flytraps crossed with alligator genes so that they could take a poacher’s leg off. Imagine the kudos of 100% organic fencing. At the point where a species of – let’s say – wheat, is reduced to a complex sequence of genetic code, I have to wonder whether we are so down the reductive path that any talk of species is a rather romantic – what’s wheaty in a single gene? and in reality, it seems to me that interspecies genetic editings and borrowings have caused more than a little trouble at the pandemic level. The inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle always denied that he had done anything more morally culpable than save the Russian government a heap of money on the cost of killing people. You can’t argue with economics …. can you?

“Item the third” (is that Sam Weller in Pickwick papers?) Our Government has just lifted the ban on a neonicotinoid spray in order to save losses in sugar beet crops. Let’s take that one step at a time. The neonicotinoid has been banned because of its capacity to kill pollinating insects. The crop it has been licenced for is sugar beet which is used to make refined white sugar which kills people. So the government had the option of encouraging sugar beet farmers (through subsidy if necessary) to grow crops that we actually need, and which don’t cause diabetes while simultaneously protecting the environment and saving insects. But then, bees don’t give money to politicians but big refined sugar companies and agrochemical manufacturers do.

I could go on forever like this – Scottish fishermen say their income has dropped by 80% since brexit. Poor children are offered the kind of subsidised food parcels that could bring back rickets while our excess death toll due to covid is now in excess of the numbers for the Second World War.

The soil and with it our souls shrink and die a little more every day; Rachel Carson’s silent spring presses hard on us and I’m locked in introspection as the sad captains of industry and their scientific infantry process, wraith like past me, reciting their little fragments of management wisdom all the way down to the pit. In Dante’s “Inferno” the outer circle of hell is reserved for those who didn’t give a shit:

And I , who felt my head surrounded by horrors.

Said: ‘Master, what then is it that I am hearing?

And what people are these, so crushed by pain?’

He answered: ‘That is the manner of existence

Endured by the sad souls of those who lived

Without occasion for infamy or praise.

They are mixed with that abject squadron of angels

Who did not think it worth their while to rebel

Or to be faithful to God, but were for themselves’

Dante The Divine Comedy – Trans. C H Sisson

Who says literature is a waste of time? That last verse has sustained me through many challenging times.

“Enough already”, I say. There comes a point when it’s best to imitate rebellious Chinese scholars and take up fishing for a while. The Potwell Inn allotment has been an illumination and a salve during what they like to call “these difficult times“, when what they actually mean is “your difficult times”. The new season approaches and we’ve finally made the decision to buy a polytunnel; in fact we’ve ordered it and paid for it and watched the video about erecting it. What could possibly go wrong?

We are well and in good health, we have enough food; somewhere to live and yet …. Has brexit and covid distracted us that we’re so focused on the immediate – on the “events, dear boy,” of day to day politics, that we’ve lost the big picture.

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

Is there a cunning plan?

It’s utterly depressing, but the answer is going to be no. At the present moment living in the UK feels as if we’ve strayed into an episode of Blackadder, except there are no jokes. I’d like to be writing warm, lyrical and encouraging posts about how wonderful life is at the Potwell Inn – except it’s not – and I don’t mean that I’m lying here on the floor with an axe embedded in my head, although the thought may have entered Madame’s mind. The reason it’s not wonderful is that we’ve spent eleven months in a suspended state; very largely on our own and separated in any meaningful sense from our family and friends. During the first lockdown and the first easing we enjoyed the fine weather on the allotment, where we almost lived for months; but now in the winter there’s hardly anything to do there because we used the autumn to prepare for next season. So we’re deprived of the exercise and the sense of engagement that kept us sane for the first five or six months. Hence the renewed interest in long distance walks and the renewed exploration of the Mendip Hills, of which a little more later.

Of course there are always books. Madame reads novels and biographies, and pretty much anything else she can lay her hands on but I’m firmly in the grip of the protestant work ethic and my reading tends to be highly directional and (dare I say) improving stuff with footnotes and references and centred on the green new deal, environment, natural history, food and that kind of thing. I wish I felt more improved than I do but for the most part it leaves me feeling sad, utterly depressed or screaming at the TV in anger at the incapacity of either interviewers or politicians to ask or answer the simplest (but most diligent) question – more Blackadder. I remember once talking to a depressed consultant oncologist who confessed he was so overworked his first thought on meeting a new patient was how am I going to get this person out of the room? I always felt that any culpability for his reaction was far more due to the distant political choices that put him in that terrible position, than to any deficiency in him.

I probably shouldn’t unload any of these personal anxieties except that I know that it can break through the isolation that leaves so many of us wondering if we’re the only ones who feel this way. Isn’t the first aim of gaslighting always to isolate your critics and convince them that it’s all their fault. But it’s not our fault that covid and brexit have been so badly managed. I look down the list of countries in which Potwell Inn readers live and I can see that many of us have been let down – in different ways – but still let down.

Not feeling safe; not knowing what to believe and what not to believe; not understanding what it is we’re meant to do; missing the everyday pleasures of chance encounters with neighbours and friends; missing the lectures and meetings that cement us as a cohort of like-minded individuals; missing the hugs and the smell of our grandchildren’s hair (OK that’s a bit out there, but you know what I mean). All these etch into us like frost and rain etch their way into rock, and leave us feeling empty and exhausted. I read too many articles about the benefits of nature for mental health, but the principal benefit may be to writers writing books about the benefits. I reckon I’m a pretty resilient person, and I know that Madame is too; and yet we both feel hollowed out by this experience, and sometimes the walking and even the cooking and gardening seem more like displacement activity than wholesome activity should. Staying sane seems to be an immense effort of will.

One question has been bothering me in particular because, in the light of the constellation of crises we’re facing, the issue of food security must surely come near the top. Do we really want to get back to normal if that involves the pollution, the destructive farming and the sickness that associates with bad economics, poverty and junk food. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading around the question of food security, trying to see if there’s an answer to the question – could the UK be more self sufficient in food without going deeper into the abyss of intensive chemical dependent farming; and the answer – I’m pleased to say – is “Yes – But”.

If there are any vegans and vegetarians out there who think we can save the world by eating processed non-animal gloop, then the answer is no. If there are intensive farmers who think the way forward is more of the same, the answer is no as well. It’s no to industrial organic farms and no if you think we can feed ourselves on mediterranean delights grown on the allotment or purchased in the supermarket. If there are any people sitting in 3 litre SUV’s prepared to embrace anything except changing the way they drive, it’s also no. And it’s no to airlines, and no to food miles and criminal waste. In fact the answer can only be yes if we’re all prepared to change – quite a bit. This isn’t just a personal view, it’s a summary of all the scientific evidence I’ve managed to get my hands on.

Number one – (two three and four as well!) – is we need to eat less meat, much less meat; preferably chicken because it has a much more efficient conversion ratio. We need to embrace a plainer more sustainable diet sourced as locally as possible – to quote Michael Pollan – ‘eat food, not too much, mostly veg‘. The over embracing plan is summarised by Tim Lang in his book “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” * – and he describes it as “a great food transformation”. Crucially this isn’t a book about organic farming or vegetarian diet, it’s an important book about farming, diet, public health, social policy, politics and food culture. You would profit from reading it wherever you stand on the food and farming spectrum. Of course, the cynics will say that the population will never embrace such far reaching change, to which he would respond that in a crisis – let’s say the onset of war in 1939, for instance, there won’t be any alternative but to change. The storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon right now are coming our way and our political system is proving itself unfit to deal even with one challenge, let alone three or four existential crises at once.

They would say that wouldn’t they?

Mandy Rice Davies

But this is good news. We are categorically not all doomed – we can make the changes we need to make and what’s more important, we can create a far better, far less divided and infinitely safer world as we do it. We mustn’t allow the powerful to claim that nothing can be done except more of the same. They would say that wouldn’t they?

Well there we are, and just to prove it’s not all been eye strain these past couple of days, the long Mendip Way walk is being chipped off a few miles at a time. On Monday we walked from Tynings Farm down to Shipham; back through Rowberrow Warren and across Blackdown. Why would I bother with these obscure place names when many people who read this will never see them? and the answer is that place names are beautiful in and of themselves, like tiny topographical markers that set up home in your mind and remind you that the earth is made of places which, just like us, have names and histories and are often very beautiful. The walk took us down the most lovely valley, following a stream most of the way, and then back through a forestry plantation and out on to the open moorland of Blackdown. Barely five miles but offering three quite distinct landscapes. Best of all we found hazel catkins flowering in profusion in the sheltered valley. The photograph shows one such catkin, coated in melting ice formed in the overnight frost but demonstrating that spring will come – and it can’t come too soon.

  • I’ll make a proper booklist soon – most of the books have been mentioned but I’ll assemble a proper list in case anyone is interested.

Ponds, urban ecology and a few doubts

In my last post I wrote about the undoubted benefits of even small ponds in gardens and on allotments. We’re lucky here because our allotments are no more than 50 yards away from the river Avon and we have a number of large ponds almost as close; but that doesn’t in the least seem to lessen the impact of the tiny ponds that I photographed yesterday, and all within yards of our allotment.

As you can easily see, these aren’t all the tidy and expensive preformed fibreglass ponds bought from garden centres and neither are any of them apparently lined with expensive thick butyl. For the most part they’re a hole in the ground lined with builders polythene all apart from the one that’s not a pond at all but a horse trough. The one thing they have in common is that they’re all full of water, most of them have a few plants around them and they’re all teeming with life.

Starting with the horse trough that’s the source for much of our our watering, there’s never an occasion, it seems, when you can’t find at the least, a few water boatmen. The others vary in maturity but even the one that was built this spring by a couple of children raised a crop of tadpoles which they generously shared around all the other ponds. The murkier ones have larvae in them, and all are visited by a variety of dragonflies and damselflies which, when they’re not eating smaller insects are becoming snacks for birds. What the ponds are doing of course is drawing these interesting and beautiful invertebrates into places we can see and enjoy them, and as their natural habitat is eroded, ponds become a matter of survival for some species.

As you will know if you’ve been following the Potwell Inn blog recently, I’ve been reading David Goode’s contribution the the New Naturalist library – “Nature in towns and cities”. A brilliant collection of books for anyone interested in natural history in any case, and this one’s particularly caught my attention because it’s on a subject close to my heart.

When we moved to Bath almost five years ago I wasn’t prepared for the richness of the wildlife to be found here. Having lived and worked in what most people would think of as the countryside, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the natural history of our adopted home. But far from being less diverse, our immediate neighbourhood slowly yielded its secrets. Not just badgers and foxes but otters! Not just buzzards but a peregrine’s nest; and enough unfamiliar plants to keep me perpetually bewildered. On the very first night here we heard a tawny owl; it was strange to say the least. Now we’re almost blasé about bats and we can name the species of gull on the green outside.

And so I’ve been writing enthusiastically about all this wildlife and, if you live near here you really should join the Bath Natural History Society (Bath Nats) because they’re the quickest and easiest way to learn what’s here. If you live anywhere else and don’t fancy moving to Bath, I urge you to investigate and join your local natural history group – it’ll be full of fabulous, knowledgeable and enthusiastic people who just love sharing their interests.

Yesterday after a hot couple of hours on the allotment we wandered along the river to see the peregrines and we got especially lucky because the recently fledged young did a quick flight while we were there. I’ve been to Symonds Yat and not seen a peregrine and yet our son saw one eat its kill on his back doorstep in the middle of Birmingham, and I saw my first less than half a mile from home.

So there’s the good news and here are the doubts. Although it’s a joy to have this diversity outside the door, isn’t it just a bit weird that so many species, being displaced from their normal habitats, are evolving to live here? Isn’t it sad that I’ve learned so much more about plant diversity since we moved to the city? I go on about the rogues and vagabonds but corncockle? vipers bugloss?

The greatest sadness is that when I look for them where the old floras said I’d find them; all too often the habitat is gone. Seabirds can’t find a living in fished out polluted seas and so the canny ones have moved inland to our rubbish tips. Those species that can’t adapt are diminishing rapidly. Invertebrates and plant species that once made the meadows beautiful at this time of the year have been poisoned out of existence. So the take-home point is that however thrilling it is to have the early adapters and early adopters here in the city; they’re in the minority. There’s still every point in cleaning up the rivers and creating inner city wildlife corridors and green spaces. There’s every point in asking gardeners to think about pollinators but it’s not enough.

Grateful for small mercies?

One thought provoking piece in yesterday’s papers made me sit up. There are so many organic and free-range chicken farms setting up on, or near the upper reaches of the river Wye that the accumulating load of excess nitrogen and phosphorous from their droppings is leading to eutrophication of the river – killing it slowly. So even eating organic chicken isn’t going to let us off the hook. It’s intensive farming that’s causing the problems – whatever label you put on it to make it sound like it’s saving the earth.

Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

Think about it for a moment. If even two percent of the vertebrates, invertebrates and plant species could be persuaded to live here in green spaces and derelict industrial sites it would only take one inappropriate development to wipe out a species altogether. Much as I treasure urban ecology, it’s never going to be more than a tiny part of the answer.

We need to change the way we live and the way we produce our food, the way we move about, the way we enjoy our leisure time and the way we shop. We cannot let the free market politicians urge us to live within our means when the real means of our lives are being destroyed for profit. They love to talk about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ by which they make the unsupported assertion that land cannot be managed equably without ownership. Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

No amount of information boards, nature reserves and feeding stations will make up for the loss of the earth. This is an ethical problem, a religious problem, a problem of vision. The one thing it is not is an economic problem. The economists with their pseudoscientific theories have acted as the heavy artillery of the free market. We see the damage they have done every day and I, for one, am not grateful for very small mercies.

Muck, but no mystery!

….. and suddenly, at last, the sun shone, the rain stopped and were able to get out on to the allotment.  In spite of the cold wind we took a chance on filling the hotbed, and so we drove over to one of my old parishes to sack up and bring back the first of two car loads of fresh, hot, horse manure. Most gardeners want the well rotted kind but for this purpose we need about twenty bags of strawy stable manure as fresh as possible.  Last year being the first time we’d tried this technique we asked my friend Annie to keep out as much straw as possible, but that proved a bit of a mistake because the bacteria that heat the heap don’t just need nitrogen they need carbon too – and that’s what the straw provides.  The theory is that this mixture will heat the bed quicker and hotter – but we shall see.  Our car is quite small and even with the seats down it’s difficult to get more than 10 full bags in at a time.

So as each bag was tipped into the deep frame – it’s a spade depth below ground level – we trod it firm and watered it.  We continue that process of topping, firming and watering until the heap is around 3 feet deep, and once it’s started to heat up we cover the manure with a home made mixture of topsoil, well rotted compost and horticultural sand.  This not only gives a good well drained bed for sowing, at the end of the season the whole lot of soil, compost, sand and manure go back on to the beds – about a cubic metre of it.  It’s most useful where we’ve terraced the beds, and every year we’re able to raise them a little more. Since our cold frames were stolen the hotbed will take over the work of germinating and bringing on early tender plants.

It’s amazing what a pleasurable experience a few hours of hard physical work can be after months of moping about indoors.  Annie was saying that they’ve been unable to let the horses out even for a taste of grass because the land is so wet.  As we drove across Lansdown on Friday we saw a herd of cows grazing on the few shreds of grass that have survived the wettest winter in memory.  When I mentioned it to Annie she said “he probably ran out of silage – he must have been desperate”. Desperate or not they were back indoors again today but that’s a measure of how hard this winter has hit farmers.

I read a lot about the impact of farming on climate change and so much of it is almost sectarian in its hatred of any opposing opinions. As we were filling the bags today, I was thinking about the way in which these small farms of a few hundred acres are maligned when they’re lumped together with enormous feedlots which really do create problems. Our half ton of manure is produced by horses which aren’t ruminants and don’t make the same methane contribution as cattle do. It’s a rich source of soil nutrients and helps to build up soil structure while it captures carbon in the process.  We use the soil to grow healthy organic food in a completely sustainable way.  After we’re gone the soil will be in a much better state than when we took it on. There’s a kind of virtuous circle going on here.  All our veg trimmings are recycled back into the same ground, and we even use our own urine as a liquid fertilizer.  Good, small scale farming operates the same virtuous circle. Crops are grown, the soil is enriched and the animals are fed.  Our southwest UK climate favours grass above all else, and so dairy and beef farming are the obvious way of using the ground. Grass fed beef – that’s to say beef that’s not been fattened on a high protein diet of expensive soya and grain – is far superior to feedlot beef. Animals that are free to roam in natural herds outside in the fresh air and with the sun on their backs are not, on the face of it, being cruelly treated. Any old-school farmer will tell you that  stressed animals get sick more often and don’t make either good milk or fine tasting beef. The snag, and there’s always a snag, is that we can’t have it both ways. High welfare, grass fed organic beef is bound to cost much more money and for most of us that means eating a good deal less of it.  The same goes for almost any meat, whether chicken, pork or lamb, we simply can’t go on eating it in the quantities and at the price we’ve become used to, if we want to tackle global climate change. As for species extinction the same kind of argument applies.  The price of cheap food is always going to be pollution, widespread use of chemicals, soil erosion animal cruelty and agribusiness. But to blame all forms of farming without discriminating between more and less harmful practices is counterproductive. Just to give one example from coastal restoration, the choughs that are slowly reappearing on the western coasts are doing so because they feed on grubs that feed on cattle dung.  Free ranging cattle on the clifftops have enabled the reappearance of this charming and acrobatic member of the crow family. The dung is dropped by ruminants in small and manageable quantities and is quickly broken down. That’s a far cry from spreading vast volumes of evil smelling anaerobic liquid manure on the land where it quickly runs off and pollutes streams and rivers.

A less meat based diet would be better for us.  Farmers could experiment with tree planting their expanses of grass, a technique that looks very promising. The trend for ever larger fields monocropping feed maize could be phased out, as could the relentless removal of hedges to make space for bigger and heavier machinery.  Less could really be more; better for us, better for the wildlife and better for the planet. At the moment it’s the poorest people on the planet who are paying the true cost of cheap food. That could end, but not until we – farmers, growers and consumers alike – are prepared to make some sacrifices ourselves.

 

“We cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it”

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Albert Einstein – quoted by Vandana Shiva in her book “Soil not Oil”

I had a faintly disturbing conversation with a retired farm worker at the wassail on Friday evening. There were two things he said that made me prick up my ears – firstly something to the effect “we are going to lose all our subsidies and get paid to plant trees” – I’ll come back to that one – but secondly he said that the farm he still helps out on has changed the approach to foot rot in sheep (very successfully apparently) and so they no longer trim the feet – there’s sound evidence that this increases lameness – but now spray infected feet and then inject the sheep with long acting antibiotic such as oxytetracycline which is apparently very successful.  I came away with the impression that this treatment was being administered prophylactically in the flock which is probably nice for the sheep but possibly not quite so nice for us humans if it helps create more resistant strains of bacteria.

It’s just another example of the mindset that’s got us into the environmental mess we’re in. The land on which the flock is kept is very wet and is drained by a network of rhynes, (ditches) that feed larger ditches and  and pumping stations.  The prolonged wet weather these last few months has left farmers unable to sow spring cereals and even moving flocks of sheep has been problematic. The solution, as is so depressingly frequent, has been to reach for a new technology.

The question of farm subsidies is crying out to be examined, but as my friend spoke I had a premonition that even in the entirely sensible ambition to plant more trees, big business will sweep into the field with new and even more expensive technology offering a one-stop solution to farmers that’s almost inevitably going to be indiscriminately applied and propped up with even more chemicals. Which is where the moss comes in.

Ever since the mid 20th century agribusiness has been treating the earth as a simple industrial input. Land is graded from the very best through to the marginal, and farmers, hill farmers for instance, have been heavily subsidised to keep sheep on land that’s not really suitable. During the past centuries peat bogs have been exploited for fuel and horticulture to the extent that 95% of them have simply disappeared. It’s now becoming clear that peatlands are performing an indispensable service to the earth by soaking up half a trillion of tonnes of carbon – the data is here – twice as much as is stored in all the forests combined. Yet peatlands only cover 3% of the land areas of the earth. It almost makes you want to weep that only fifty years ago Scottish peatland was being ploughed and drained and planted up with imported trees. I’m quoting here from Dave Gouson’s book “The Garden Jungle” –

Over the past 10,000 years, UK peatlands have quietly sequestered 5.5 billion tones of carbon – nearly forty times the 150 million tonnes of carbon stored in our woodlands.

– and we’re still digging them up to spread peat on our daffodils!

It also happens to be the case that peatlands grow proportionally faster during periods when the global temperature is rising. So here’s just one part of the puzzle that we need to solve, and we can solve not by buying into impressive new technological fixes but by doing almost nothing. We need to ban the extraction of peat altogether and we need to halt and then reverse the draining of peatland for agricultural use.  We need to allow them to flood again which will not only increase the amount of carbon being sequestered far more efficiently then tree planting can but will also hold vast quantities of water that would otherwise run off moors, mountainsides and hills filling rivers and flooding good land and towns downstream. Peatland holds the carbon in storage for as long as the bog exists.  Trees only sequester carbon while they’re actually growing and when they die and rot they release it back into the atmosphere again.  So tree planting can only be a temporary solution while we make all the other changes, the ones we haven’t made during the fifty years we’ve known about the problem! Inevitably this will impact farmers’ livelihoods, but the subsidies can be reapplied to the maintenance of peatlands and their vital impact on wildlife and biodiversity. So my friend was right in outline, but not – I sincerely hope – in detail. Yes of course we should massively increase tree planting as well, but in the right places, not just anywhere farmers can shove a couple of thousand saplings in and book their summer holidays on the subsidy.

So if my newly found interest in bryophytes – mosses, liverworts and the rest – seems a bit perverse or leftfield, it’s because these poorly understood branches of creation just might be in a position to help solve what no amount of cash, science, technology and PR has managed. George Monbiot is right in many of his diagnoses but some of his prescriptions are terrible, especially when he seems to have bought into the fantasy that technology can solve our problems. More nuclear power stations fuelling factories that produce gigatonnes of industrial seaweed and fungus gloop really aren’t the solution.  I’m not even sure if they’re part of the solution.

There’s no reason why you should know that our word martyr derives from the Greek verb ‘martureo’ – to bear witness; it used to be my job to know stuff like that! Each age has its own witnesses and it so happens that in our own time of turmoil, the environmental scientists, the botanists, mycologists, bryologists, ecologists, meteorologists, climatologists, organic gardeners and farmers, the young activists and all the others are the witnesses to what’s going on. It’s about the earth, the soil – and it’s no accident that organic allotments are between four and eleven times more productive than intensive farms. Is anybody listening?

As we say in Bristol – “where’s that to?”

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– and the answer is in our son’s next door neighbour’s garden in the middle of Birmingham.  In fact herons are almost a pest in suburban gardens these days and almost any little pond is likely to be raided. Last time we were up in Birmingham we saw a large heronry alongside a reservoir near Winterbourne House, and a few years back our son saw a peregrine kill a pigeon and eat it on the path outside his kitchen window in the middle of Harbourne.  On our allotment in Bath we see foxes and badgers and one allotmenteer has seen deer there.  The birds are pretty prolific as well, we’ve got one established peregrine nest in the centre of town and if I were a better entomologist  I reckon we’ve a rich collection of insects on the allotments too, not to mention the smaller mammals I wrote about yesterday. In fact Ken Thompson’s work at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, some of which comes up in his book “The Sceptical Gardener” – well worth reading –  and Dave Goulson’s books on bees suggest that suburban gardens are both a resource and a hotspot for depleted wildlife.

So while urban and suburban gardeners (and farmers) pit themselves and their gardens against environmental catastrophe, what’s happening out there in the “real” countryside?  I think we pretty much know the answer to that one – it’s a story of crisis.  I would have said it was a story of decline if I’d been writing this a few years ago, but there are signs of hope, typified by the rewilding project at Knebb but replicated on a much more modest scale in many other places. While we all wish that change could come faster but there’s a lot of inertia and a whole culture to overcome before that can happen, and I know we need action right now,  but with a climate change denying government, banks and multinational pharmaceutical companies still in control, the  responsibility for change, for the time being, has to be on us and our behaviour.

At the AGM of the Bath Natural History Society this afternoon, (Prof) David Goode – in his President’s address – said that he felt that public attitudes towards climate change had changed for the better over the past year, and gave credit to Greta  Thunberg for inspiring the Extinction Rebellion movement and catalysing the sense of urgency.  He also said that he had authored some reports in the late 1970’s in a book trying to predict what was coming during the next decades.  He told us that the editor of the publication had refused to accept the phrase “greenhouse effect” but that every one of his predictions had come to pass before the end of the decade. In my view, with Australia on fire, California in the grip of a prolonged drought and multiple species extinctions across the world it’s become ever more clear that climate change, species extinction and neoliberal politics are all part of the same problem and we can’t choose to fix just one of them.  Having worked in the countryside for 25 years I know only too well the cost to the environment of soil degradation, monoculture, eutrophication of the rhynes (ditches) and the continual application of powerful chemicals, and it’s a cost to the farmers too because as their income is squeezed by falling farm gate prices deliberately forced on them by supermarkets (ask any dairy farmer) they feel they’re being blamed for the state of the environment while the real architects of agribusiness are living high on the hog.

It’s shaming rather than ironic, that suburban and urban green spaces have become places of refuge for wildlife, harried from the countryside by the destruction of habitat and driven by an economics that has no column for the environment in the profit and loss accounts. If you add in the ludicrous farm subsidy system and the lobbying power of the agrochemical industry and it looks like a perfect storm. Ironically I won a signed hardback copy of Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” in the raffle.  I bought the paperback last summer at Heligan, so I’ll pass that copy on to a friend. IMG_20200104_154026One of the greatest advantages of  living in the centre of Bath is the proximity of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution which is only 5 minutes walk away and accommodates  most of the Bath Nats indoor meetings. The view through the first floor window was lovely this afternoon. January is the quietest month in Bath, with far fewer visitors and space to walk around the city unhampered.

Up at the allotment this morning we planted out the last batch of overwintering broad beans. The first feed of broad beans and new potatoes is a landmark meal, marking the end of the hungry gap and the hope of good things to come, but the soil is very wet at the moment and the water table is so close to the surface that we’re a bit concerned about the effect on the overwintering plants, so it may be necessary to deepen the soakaways or to raise the beds even more, adding plenty of grit to the soil to improve drainage. Whichever we choose it’s going to be hard work, that’s for sure.

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Luckily we’ve got a second string to our bow because  we started a second batch of garlic in large pots, filled with a free-draining mix of soil, compost and horticultural grit, with a few handfuls of vermiculite thrown in. It’s a similar mix to the one we’ve evolved for growing basil indoors under the horticultural lights and that’s absolutely thrived this winter giving us a year-round supply of full flavoured basil. This variety is called Neapolitan and I like it even more than the Classico.

  • This post was amended on Sunday to restore a displaced paragraph to its proper position.

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The Princes Motto

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These kales always remind me of the Princes Motto – an excellent pub to the south of Bristol and known by the locals as the ‘ich dien’. Bristolians have a gift for shortening names, and you’d expect the abbreviation to be ‘the Princes’ but for some reason the locals lapse into German and recall a rather bloody episode which resulted in the Black Prince getting his feathers – so to speak.   We used to meet up there for lunch occasionally when Madame worked at the research station and it was there we once spotted a couple in the layby just down the road.  All we could see, apart from the violent rocking motion of the Mini, was a voluminous tricel skirt which seemed to be simultaneously shielding and expediting the action.  They were probably gymnasts, we concluded, and parked somewhere else, desperately hoping that they would appear – crumpled and red faced – in the pub later. Sadly they didn’t, and left us forever wondering who they were.

IMG_6260Anyway, amusing memories aside, these kales are now standing on the allotment with the purple sprouting broccoli, some beetroot and leeks, celery, celeriac as the last mature vegetables of the season as we hunker down for winter. All except a few pounds of fresh tomatoes have been processed frozen and stored, along with squashes, potatoes and the inevitable pickles, chutneys, jams and sauces. The other beds are becoming a seasonal blank canvas on which we shall dream the plot next season.

There’s plenty to eat for the time being, but casting back my mind a century or so, most cottagers would have lived an increasingly thin existence as winter progressed, and remember the so-called hungry gap isn’t in January or February it’s in later spring when the weather is much improved but the veg crops are yet to grow. If they were lucky and thrifty there might have been a fattened pig and a few hens, with flour and malt in store for bread and beer, but compared with our present diet, immeasurably poorer. When compared with their lot, at best we’re playing at self-sufficiency. Of course we’re very proud of what we achieve, and in terms of quality and flavour, and bearing in mind the impact these tiny oases of good practice have, allotmenteering can’t be faulted as a positive move, but it’s not nearly enough.

I’ve mentioned before the way we’re exploring vegetarian cooking and of course we’re aware of the impact of intensive farming on the environment. Probably two in three of our main meals are now vegetarian. I think we’ve both ‘gone off’ meat a bit because we can’t actually afford to eat meat of the kind of quality and welfare standards we’d wish. This morning I asked myself the question – do the media paint a false picture of the countryside? – after all, when did you last see a contributor to the BBC flagship “Countryfile” programme proudly loading up their sprayer with poisonous chemicals and saying with a satisfied smile that they’d increased their profits by 20% by eliminating the insect competition? “Last year”  – you might correctly say, except that in the clip I watched we were invited to wonder at the sheer size of the computerised behemoth without once hearing about what it was doing!

TV programmes tend to focus on ‘proper’ farmers on small farms with lots of calves and cuddly lambs. They call it ‘welly telly’ and focus on artisan gin producers or cheesemakers, pole lathe turners and hand crafted clothes-peg whittlers at the expense of telling us what’s really going on. Who wants to watch a programme about intensive pig fattening or feed lots for gigantic methane belching beef cattle? Even as we walk around the supermarket we’re conned by photos of gnarled looking tweed suited country folk who are supposed to ‘represent’ the products. Obviously that doesn’t include the legions of zero-hours contract workers who do the actual work of picking and packing. We should try to be more aware of the real state of play in our food system and ignore the subtle  ‘greenwashing’ that hides the reality. I cheer myself up with the fact that research has shown allotments to be ten times more productive than farms when they’re turned over to food production.

Back at the Potwell Inn the garlic arrived today and we were surprised to see that the bulbs of the same variety were easily twice the size of last year’s. It was probably down to the summer heat and dry weather in 2018 but we were also disappointed with the small size of the resulting crop.  Here’s hoping for better things next season – we planted them out this morning. Tomorrow we’ve got to clean a pile of root trainers and get the broad beans sown, along with the Douce Provence peas. It seems ridiculous but it’s really worth getting the seed order in as early as possible. We’ve often been disappointed at the quality of seed when we’ve ordered very late and, of course, you run the risk of not being able to obtain the varieties you want. We’re almost through prepping the beds, and the contents of the spent hotbed made an excellent contribution to levelling and raising other beds on the plot. The biggest job remaining is clearing out the fruit cage and moving things around.

We learned today that we’re losing the extra 50 square meters we’ve borrowed for two seasons because our neighbour can’t affort to pay the £9 clean air zone charge on his little campervan every time he comes down, so he’s moving to another site. An unintended consequence I’m sure, but he’s fallen victim to broad brush policies.  Speaking of which, the incinerator is generating more steam than smoke and it’s only used once a year to dispose of the most noxious weeds which, if we took them to the civic amenity site would be burned anyway – but not near Bath. We try not to let the perfect drive out the good.

 

 

Equinox

I love these colours, they’re the colours of autumn for me. Every year the window boxes outside the flat seem to anticipate the change in the season by subtly changing colours. One by one the different species grow paler and drop out, leaving the geraniums as the last intense colour. The effect of this is to make it look as if we’ve done something incredibly clever, by designing the displays to anticipate the onset of autumn.  Nothing could be less true because it just seems to happen. When the last flowers drop off the geraniums the window boxes come down and are replaced with the spring bulbs which soon fill the windows with the sense of anticipation. We’ve always wanted to rotate three displays but planting out and maintaining six window boxes is more than we can afford so we make do with bare windows in the dead of winter. One day, perhaps, we’ll find six recyclable window boxes and achieve our year long plan.

Seasons are important and we’re so lucky to have them because they structure the year but more importantly they structure the imagination.  Sure, by the end of each season we’re liable to be thinking “I’ve had enough of this”  but we know that each period brings its own grace.  For me the long dark nights soon become a chore, but in just three months the days begin to lengthen again.  Round and round goes the clock and we are renewed.

Today we grabbed the forecast dry start to go up to the allotment and weed. It may be perverse but weeding is one of my very favourite jobs and since we broke all the ground up into beds it’s an absolute doddle because we can work from a dry woodchip path even in the rain. I remember a woman called Eileen who lived in one of my parishes.  She really needed a carer herself, but with a little support she was looking after her elderly mother and kept a beautiful garden which she would dig from end to end every year.  I’d often walk past and she would be out, even in the rain, with an old waterproof macintosh tied around her waist with baler twine, digging away until the job was done. I also took the funeral for a 104 year old who had moved in with his son at the age of 90 and dug the son’s garden saying it was a mess.  I should write more about these characters because they represented a hardy generation who never thought of themselves as exceptional, never used a latin name for a plant and could grow paving slab cuttings if you asked them.

The rain came soon enough but not before we’d harvested more vegetables for ourselves and released a pigeon that was captive in a neighbour’s net – it probably went straight back to eating everyone else’s cabbages. Pigeons seem especially to like Cavalo Nero which they can convert into an inverted umbrella frame in minutes.

It’s good to be back in the flat after our long travels around the country.  I’ve got a pile of reading to catch up with, most of it concerned with global heating and the ecological crisis, but the reading is going to be illuminated by what we discovered on the ground, talking to people – especially farmers – and observing fields, plants and insects in their different habitats. One thing is abundantly clear already,

 – we simply can’t go on as we have been.

It’s been another year on the allotment during which we finished nearly all the infrastructure, and which leaves us with huge gratitude for the productivity of the earth.  I’ve seen it suggested that allotments, (presumable well-run ones), can be ten times as productive as farmland. I’m always a bit suspicious of these attention grabbing figures, but it’s pretty obvious that when two of us focus our whole attention on to 250 square metres of land, the response is positive, and it’s worth reminding ourselves before we get too smug, that the depopulation of the countryside has been one driver of the growth in intensive farming, and another driver has been our insatiable desire for cheap food without regard to standards.

Perhaps we’re a bit quick to point the finger at all farmers when there are many who are concerned about the environment, and who do practice organic farming and are up to speed with no-till systems, sustainable mixed farming on a rotational basis and higher than basic welfare standards. Climbing on to the moral bandwagon and advocating universal vegetarianism or veganism could lead to more industrial food processing rather than less, and the destruction of more forest in order to grow more soya and grain. Allowing cattle to graze freely – especially in wooded pastures – puts the muck where it’s needed, and where it can be broken down quickly before it produces ammonia pollutants. If you’ve never tried raw milk straight from the cow, you’ve missed one of the great food treats.  I believe it is possible to run mixed dairy farms sustainably and without cruelty.  Whether or not to eat meat is an important moral decision and we must respect those who make a different choice from ourselves.

We don’t use any chemicals, but we use our own human urine all the time on the allotment – it’s perfectly safe diluted ten to one with water, it’s packed with bio-available nitrogen and it has no smell at all.  It’s storing it in huge silos and spraying the resultant slurry on the fields that creates much of the problem. So as far as the Potwell Inn is concerned  …..

  • Are we prepared to radically reduce our consumption of meat?- YES
  • Are we prepared to put up with a smaller range of fresher locally grown vegetables? – YES
  • Would we be prepared to pay more for better outcomes in farming? – YES

The answer will likely need some complex unravelling of an entrenched farming culture, and some hand-to-hand combat with powerful vested interests who will use their considerable political and media power to convince us that it’s all hopeless idealism and only new and more powerful ‘green’ technology and targeted chemicals will bring the promised land closer. The most powerful tool at our disposal would be the subsidy system which needs to be re-focused towards payment solely for ‘public goods’.  Subsidising farmers to cover good pasture land with crop trees isn’t the way forward, but creating wooded pasture or planting the right kind of trees on marginal land that can only produce a crop with heavy inputs of chemicals might well be. We’re bound to see alarmist headlines claiming that we’re all going to starve, but local authorities could be empowered or even instructed to provide much more land for allotments rather than allowing developers to build a few unaffordable homes while they bank good greenbelt land in order to keep houseprices prices up.  I’m not going to get into some of my wilder ideas – I write this merely to show that there may be better ways of achieving what we universally claim we want – healthy food, a healthy environment and an end to pollution and extinctions.

Autumn is the time for new beginnings and new plans – I love it, let’s do it!