We are not alone …

These are just a few fairly random photos I’ve taken on the allotment this season – some of them I’ve posted previously, including the emperor dragonfly, the ladybird larva and the comma butterfly on the bottom row. The two at the top were taken yesterday – a violet ground beetle – Carabus violaceus, and a hoverfly – Helophilus pendulus, apparently sometimes known as ‘the footballer’, although that sounds rather strained to me. They should remind us that there’s a good deal more important work going on behind the scenes on an allotment than we (who like to take all the credit) can claim to be responsible for.

We know, of course, that the allotment is a bit of a war zone, with pigeons stripping our brassicas to the ribs if the caterpillars haven’t got there first. Phytophthora infestans – or potato blight -is a tiny micro-organism but it can reduce a healthy crop of potatoes or tomatoes to a slimy mess almost overnight; and our local badgers wait patiently until the sweetcorn reaches perfection and then take it the night before we were due to harvest it. Squirrels, rats, mice, slugs and snails all disrupt our best laid plans and occasionally scythe our seedlings down before they’ve got their roots down.

In our compartmentalised way we tend to divide the rest of the natural world into friends and enemies and, even more dangerously we can begin to divide it up on aesthetic or emotional criterias – what looks nice or frightening, or what makes me feel good and what repulses me, for instance bunnies and slugs. Worse still you might divide the natural world by applying economic criteria – what’s a valuable resource and whats’s economic deadweight? – profit and loss.

But if you believe – as increasing numbers of us do – that the health of the whole earth depends on an intricate network of relationships, then the only criterion that makes any sense is the long term welfare of the earth upon which we’re utterly dependent, because contrary to polarised thinking, most curses bring their blessings and vice versa. It’s hard to think of a good side to potato blight, but the pathogen that causes it is a part of a whole bunch of microorganisms, many of which are indispensable to us. Squirrels distribute the seeds of the trees they raid, rats dispose of the hazardous food waste that we leave lying around; flies, or rather maggots dispose of the millions of dead little furry things, worms, slugs and earwigs chew up squillions of dead leaves for us and turn them into in-situ compost and all of them together tend to do the sorting out of the weakest individuals ensuring that Mr Darwin’s theories have never been effectively challenged. In the natural world of the allotment, for instance, predation is almost always fairly inefficient.

The hoverfly in my photo isn’t a bee it’s a fly, but it’s a marvellous pollinator. Just under half of the other hoverflies are also blackfly predators in their larval stage – like ladybirds. But because their adaptive defence is to look like bees or wasps we often regard them as enemies. In fact far more crops are pollinated by flies than are pollinated by honeybees. The violet ground beetle, believe it or not, is an effective predator of small slugs and other beasties. The fact is, we have to be content to share nature with a host of life-forms that we may not care for very much but which may be keystone species in the self regulating natural world.

Ponds really help

But there’s something else about the two species I noticed yesterday and that’s the fact that they both associate with water. We’ve got a river and a couple of large ponds near us on the allotments but in the way that things go in and out of fashion, there’s also been an explosion in the number of small, even tiny ponds on people’s plots. All sorts of vessels up to bath tubs have been pressed into service and you might wonder whether they’ll ever make a contribution to the local ecology. This year has shown that without doubt they do. There are three very small ponds on plots adjoining ours and we’ve seen the emperor dragonfly, several sorts of darters and chasers, not to mention the hoverflies who need water – preferably very stinky water – to lay eggs and pass through their larval stage as rat tailed maggots. All these in turn attract larger predators, and the knock on effect is noticeable. Little things really do make a difference.

I read in a magazine somewhere recently that scientists are developing robots to pollinate crops. Are they completely mad??? Many of the most intractable illnesses in hospital are known as ‘iatrogenic’ diseases, that’s to say they are a side-effect of the indiscriminate use of treatments for other things altogether. The same case exactly can be made against industrial agriculture. The pointless and inappropriate use of chemicals and heavy machinery has created a whole series of new problems that could be solved much more quickly by stopping doing the things that cause the problem rather than wasting millions of pounds developing robots to pollinate crops when you’ve killed all the natural and free pollinators.

Our response need not be to allow pests to run riot over or destroy our crops as the industry often claims, but to become inefficient predators ourselves. Thumb and finger predators, in fact. Just wash your hands afterwards.

Wheat and tares at the Potwell Inn

Wheat and Tares or in plainer terms, the pests, diseases and downright nuisances are just a part of life at the Potwell Inn, and sometimes they can be sorted easily but, sadly sometimes a little harsh intervention is needed. One such fact of life on the allotment is rodents – rats and mice. Squirrels too can lend a destructive hand.  Last autumn we sowed a row of broad beans which failed to materialise. We found them yesterday hidden in a pile – presumably by a squirrel – under the leaves surrounding the rhubarb plants.

It seems paradoxical to say that because we are organic gardeners we don’t use chemicals unless they’re approved by the soil association, but perhaps once a year we might use a pyrethrum spray if the asparagus beetle runs out of control, we’re always very careful to do it when the friendly insects are less likely to be affected.

Garden centres will often try to point you in the direction of  pyrethroids when you enquire, but these are not approved for use on organic gardens.  There’s an exact parallel with herbal medicines here. Conventional medicine often works to isolate what’s believed to be the ‘active constituent’ of a plant and then produces immensely powerful and marketable products; but there’s no history of use in the pure form and so these chemicals can do immense damage before the downside becomes apparent. Pyrethrum has been around for a long time and it can kill pollinating insects if it’s used carelessly but in extremis it’s the lesser evil when faced with the extinction of a crop.  Last season we didn’t need to use it at all because the ladybirds roared into action at the best possible time and we were grateful to accept biological controls fee of charge.

Plant chemistry is immensely complex, and a single plant can contain dozens of active ingredients, all in symbiotic relationship with one another in the host plant.  Often the combination is more effective and less dangerous than the individual components. All of which is a long winded way of saying that artificially manufactured pyrethroids are far more persistent and dangerous than the plant extract that inspired them.  The downside is that pure pyrethrum is extremely expensive!

But of course the whole discussion of organic culture is fraught with the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe. The old and humorous definition of a weed as a plant in the wrong place has it exactly right, and this year we’ll be growing a few well known weeds deliberately, not to spite our neighbours but in order to continue my experiments with herbal medicine. While it’s perfectly acceptable to be found harvesting leaves and flowers around and about on our walks, it’s actually illegal to dig the roots up without the owner’s permission. I suspect that wandering around the countryside armed with my beautiful pointed spade would be considered as going equipped  and so there are some plants it’s best to gather from your own patch.

The distinction between weeds and vegetables can be very flexible, as can the nuisances of insects and animals. In the autumn our neighbours are troubled by the alarming number of ivy bees which, as it happens are perfectly harmless and lack a sting.  I’ve laid on the ground nose to nose with a mating ball to get a photograph before now.  Every year too, our sweet corn is ravaged by badgers – who absolutely love it, but don’t like soft netting because it gets in their claws – and so there’s a more or less effective remedy. Rats, being brilliant climbers, also clamber up to take the corn and, on a really bad day, a couple of the local wild population of deer will take it as well. In the complicated way that we do our ethical sums, we accept the damage from some animals but not others. Most of us carry a mental hierarchy of potential pest mammals from hedgehogs, deer and badgers at the cuddly end  and at the bottom of everyone’s list comes the rat. Mice seem altogether more benign until you sow a row of peas or beans -which is a pity because there don’t seem to be any effective deterrents apart from trapping and killing them and yet they carry some awful diseases, so you really don’t want their urine anywhere near your organic veg.

Naturally the moral difficulty doesn’t end there because you can use poison – where you never have to see or touch the casualties but when they are eaten by scavengers, then foxes hedgehogs and crows may well become secondary victims. The only other alternatives are live trapping them and then releasing them on someone else’s patch – not nice – or despatching them yourself – which is too troubling to contemplate or, finally, using strong spring traps that kill the rat instantly. Which means that every day I have to check the traps and dispose of the victims – which I leave out to feed the foxes, badgers and all the rest. I know it’s daft to feed the very creatures that will be attacking our allotment in a few months but there it is.  I’d rather have to look one dead rat in the eye than lie awake at night worrying about the hedgehogs.

And then, this week there’s the other kind of high-tec mishap that can cost a great deal of money to remedy.  The heating controller on our campervan has been slowly dying for the last five years, and yesterday it finally gave a last pathetic glow and faded into darkness. I knew it would be expensive to replace so I disconnected it and brought it back to the Potwell Inn, and set-to with my tiniest screwdriver. As the cover came off I found a printed circuit board that could have come out of a laptop. Worse still there were two more layers and a screen – all equally complex. The controller turned out to be a small computer that monitors and controls every aspect of the heating and hot water in the van. In fact it was £350 worth of pure German engineering in a box not much more than 3″ by 2″. There was only one thing to do because the van is the crucial component in all our natural history expeditions. “Rats!” I said, neatly compartmentalizing it as I pressed the send button on the order.  Now I can’t wait for the new one to arrive so we can heat the van and the water without an hour-long cat and mouse (sorry, couldn’t resist it!) game with the display.

Tomorrow there’s the Bath Nats AGM and a talk on wildlife photography, and then – on Sunday – the first field trip of 2020. Life is good – as long as you’re not a rat!