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!

 

So big you can’t see it

1080827Sometimes the hardest things to spot are invisible because they’re everywhere.  Like the air we breathe, or as the sea appears to a fish, the all encompassing embrace of the big ideas have insinuated themselves into our inner and outer landscapes and become the framework itself. We know this is the case  but it takes a film like The Matrix to spell it out. Today’s Guardian publishes a report on farm subsidies that makes scary reading in the precarious real world we inhabit. $1 million dollars a minute to pay farmers to do the wrong thing is such a preposterous idea that you might wonder whether it could possibly be true, but the reason it slips past us is because we never stand in a bank watching a man in a green overall withdrawing millions in cash.

The best place to see the madness of subsidy is locally – we’re in Lleyn, for instance, and we’re staying right next door to a typical small mixed farm.  There are a few cattle and sheep, the adjoining field has a mixture of tups, and some Jacobs sheep graze the clifftops.  There are all the usual features of the small farm here, hens, a couple of noisy ducks and some mangy looking cats eyeing us up. As we arrived here the farmer, whose knees are shot from handling sheep, was moving multiple trailer loads of nitrate fertiliser on to the farm. I reckon about 30 tons of the stuff passed by us. He’s not rich for sure, and he’s struggling to keep going in a market that’s rigged against him; impoverishing his own land in order to stay in the game. Ironically we saw him yesterday carrying a heavy bag of seaweed up from the shore, over his shoulder. He knows what he needs to do but he can’t do it.

A mile away we found another dairy farm while we were out searching for a source of freshly caught fish. You’d hardly know it was a dairy farm, it looked more like an industrial estate with its huge barns, silos and tanks.  Everywhere there were warning signs that this was a bio-secure area and we were not welcome.  Little bucolic charm there, then, but another sign of a broken farm economy.

The government last week announced a huge extension of the badger cull.  With tuberculosis becoming endemic in dairy herds, the cost of compensating farmers is enormous and yet almost all the scientific evidence suggests that badgers are not the main source of the disease.  TB is a disease that spreads most quickly in highly stressed environments – such as when you force cows to produce far more milk than they are properly capable of. The principal feed crop grown on intensive dairy farms is maize, which is deficient as food without supplementation – rather like living on Big Macs! Badgers absolutely love eating maize and so the farmers are the most likely cause of the explosion in the badger population by providing thousands of acres of their favourite food.  Add to that the constant movement of cattle around the country and it doesn’t need a degree in agriculture to see that the problem is probably another example of agricultural self-harm.

And yet, I read an intriguing article in the same newspaper last week that reported how many industries are quietly greening their approach because it makes more economic sense.  Ironically they’re not publicising this because public perception is that ‘doing the right thing’ results in more cost and less quality in the product.  Some Portuguese wine producers have gone organic without announcing the fact, because they get bigger yields and better quality and they can sell at the same price.

The only way to tackle this desperately urgent challenge is to take on the stakeholders, the industrial farm corporations, the supermarkets, the manufacturers of damaging fertilizers and lethal farm chemicals, but most challenging of all, ourselves. I remember one tired old management cliché that might fit here – culture eats strategy for breakfast. The answer always comes back “we’re only giving the public what it wants!” and it’s true. The situation won’t really change until we see through the ideological fog that sustains intensive, destructive, subsidised farming and demand something better.

Walking with experts – pilgrimage

I ‘invented’ the Malmesbury Pilgrimage in 2009 and this is a photo of the very first one. It was a two day walk and the first time we did it we took some detours that made it about 45 miles.  We got a bit lost on several occasions and the during the last ten miles a thunderstorm raged around us.  It was all my idea ( not the thunderstorm).  I’d been turning it over in my mind for ages, ever since I learned that one of the little churches I served on the edge of the Severn had been looked after by monks from Malmesbury Abbey and – here’s the gory bit – one of them had been murdered as he made his way across the fields and, it was said, the water in a local stream ran red like blood, every year as a reminder. That triggered a memory because the same legend was attached to St Arilda’s well, just outside my parish.  In that case St Arilda, a hermit, was murdered by a Roman soldier because – as the legend said – she would not lie with him. Obviously my parishes were pretty dangerous places in those days.  They hadn’t changed much! The red staining, by the way, came from algae not blood but the murders – with or without the legends – are still remembered many centuries later.

So, I thought, I could re-create the walk that the monks might have taken (there’s no record) and at the same time take in two of the three sites in the country asociated with St Arilda.  Taking in the third would have meant a huge detour to Gloucester Cathedral and at least an extra day.

When I got the maps out I searched for every public footpath I could find that took us vaguely in the right direction in order to minimise walking on roads and then I talked some keen walking friends into joining me. We got thrown out of Malmesbury Abbey for talking during their (private) prayer service at which pilgrims were absolutely not welcome, there’s hospitality for you, but it all went pretty well apart from exposing my lamentable map reading skills. To be fair, many of the paths had lapsed into virtual invisibility and the next year I packed a pair of binoculars for long distance stile spotting.  We still got lost but in different places.

But the point of this is not my own heroic resourcefulness, but to say that when you walk for a couple of days with someone, you learn so much.  On one of the walks we were treated to a two day seminar on arable crops.  Sad to say over the whole forty plus miles, our informal tutor – who had spent many years buying and selling grain on farms – only saw two or three fields that met his approval.  Why’s that sad? Well I suspect that his career had taken him to the very heart of intensive agriculture and all its obsessive spraying of weedkillers and insecticides and feeding of artificial fertilizer.  The fields he liked were monocultural deserts, the soil was getting thinner and thinner and the cornbrash (stones) were increasingly visible on the surface.  What I learned as well was how to identify all the main cereal crops when they were only a couple of inches high by examining their leaf structure and the way the ligules wrapped around the stalk. Great stuff for showing off!  – but I learned so much just by listening and not judging, and if you wanted to know how we got into this environmental mess, it’s because thousands of decent and well meaning people didn’t stop and think.  No-one wanted to kill the insects but were all so blinded by the prospect of controlling nature and making farming ever more productive, that they just did it anyway. Now we need urgently to row back.

On another occasion I walked the last ten miles with a man who had spent his entire working life on local farms as a stockman.  As we approached our destination he knew every inch of every field; what grew there, what thrived there, and how well it was being farmed.  He would comment approvingly when he saw good practice and again I learned an enormous amount.  I could go on – I walked miles with a chief electrical engineer at a local  power station who knew the model number of every single pylon we passed. Hmm.

Perhaps more importantly relationships were cemented and confidence and trust was built between a group of people who, on the face of it, didn’t have that much in common. That’s the great thing about pilgrimage – sharing experiences, noticing things, being grateful for small mercies like easy walking on a very long hot day.

All this thinking and remembering came out of another morning alone on the allotment.  I was going stir-crazy during all this cold weather and when it failed to snow as forecast today I thought I’d put in a couple of hours.  I was so absorbed in building more beds and recycling some posts I needed to remove that I didn’t even notice it was raining until the water started to run down my neck. The temperatures haven’t got much above freezing for ages and yet when I’m out there, totally in the moment, I never feel cold.  The ground is very sticky at the moment so I tried as much as possible not to walk on it, and we’re very close to completion. My preferred site for the hotbed fell at the first hurdle when I measured the site properly, and so I had to think again.  As is often the case the new site is probably better anyway and on Friday it will be complete and filled with fresh manure. Home for a late lunch rather wet but as warm as toast.

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