Farming matters

My country, by which I mean England, has a nice mixture of terrain. Quite a lot of it is lowland and green, but there are areas of mountains and lakes, bog and moor, and so on. For a long time, we pretty much had the means to support ourselves, making most of what we needed, fishing the seas, and farming the land and adding to our diets, knowledge and culture with what could be brought across the channel by boat1. And then we got silly and started chopping down our vast forests to provide wood for warships, and we wanted exotic things like spices and silks, chocolate and bananas and pineapples and so on, and we began to import and export and go to war over resources in far-flung lands, claiming that stuff belonged to us because we got there first, and our armies are bigger than yours. Well, that’s obviously an over-simplification and misses out various bits of history and it’s all water under the bridge, but the fact is that we’ve somehow lost the ability (and/or the desire) to support ourselves and we are no longer content to travel slowly using horses and carriages and some things are going seriously downhill.

Farming, in the UK, accounts for around 70% of our land use. England, this green and pleasant land of ours, has traditionally been a country of small farms and mixed landscapes dotted with hedges and drystone walls2. Now, though, our farming practices, changing over time to suit perceived needs, are threatening the delicate balance of nature. Farms have got bigger. We have lost huge percentages of almost every sort of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and we have catastrophic flooding. Since the introduction of factory farming3, animals have largely disappeared from most of England’s landscape to be replaced with monoculture arable farming.

This next bit will no doubt upset a lot of people, but bear with me. It’s just my opinion, but I do have environmentalists on my side, and considering that we are facing a very uncertain future what with global warming and all, I think we need to stop thinking about profit and more about sustainability and repairing the damage that we are doing to the planet we live on.

Monoculture arable farming – you know, that thing they do with gigantic fields full of a single crop, ripping out hedges and trees to make it easier for combine-harvesting behemoths – is not sustainable. It requires unconscionable amounts of pesticides, destroys ecosystems, and has a lot to do with the increase in flooding in certain areas. The soil in far too many of these fields is all but dead, there is no wildlife habitat to speak of, and the food that is produced is, not to put too fine a point on it, contaminated.

Building on greenfield sites – that thing that they do where developers place ‘options’ on land that doesn’t even belong to them and put in outline planning applications, so that they can go to a farmer and offer him hundreds of thousands of pounds to sell them a field to build hundreds or thousands of houses on – is not sustainable. We are losing farmland at an unacceptable rate, which not only reduces the area on which we can grow our food, but it further increases the loss of wildlife. Not only that, but much of our fauna, not unsurprisingly, often requires exactly the same type of landscape as we do. There are bog and moor and mountain specialists, but a huge amount of our wildlife likes to live where we like to live; in more equable conditions and where the food and water and shelter options are more varied. So the arguments that ‘only 10.6% of our land is used for housing, you know’ are rather specious.

More to the point, perhaps, is that both of these things have an extremely negative effect on the balance of CO2 in the atmosphere. Trees are probably the most efficient thing we have for locking carbon into the environment, with hedging also doing very well indeed, thank you very much. And yet we are told to use less of this, more of that, on a personal level, while the big boys and girls continue to play their wasteful games.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Michael Gove – who, as I remember, nobody liked very much prior to the election4 – has been making some encouraging noises. He seems to have all the right priorities and is promising some very good things. Of course, we will have to wait and see whether all this is actually put into practice or if it will fall by the wayside of political expediency, but the future is beginning to look a little brighter. Then there are people like Lynne and Stephen Briggs, whose innovative measures on a farm in Cambridgeshire look most exciting indeed. They are bucking the trend and dividing their huge fields into strips – almost like the old mediaeval ridge & furrow system, only … well, not really. Their 21 metre-wide strips are divided by trees, running north-east to south-west across the fields to maximise sunlight coverage. Their trees are apple, but they can be fruit or nut, giving high-value cash crops, or something like hazel, which produces large quantities of usable wood when coppiced. Profit from agroforestry (as it is known), can increase productivity by 40-50%, because the crops grow and are harvested at different times, and it’s three-dimensional farming, for heaven’s sake, making far better use of the space. What’s more, the trees bring nutrients up from the depths with their extensive root systems, parking them in the leaves, which then fall and rot, and cycle the good stuff up into the topsoil.

Another wonderful thing about this is that it would return our green and pleasant land to that lovely patchwork of crops mixed with trees and hedges of different shades of green and brown, and the autumn would have proper colour again instead of vast areas of dispiriting stubble and stinking stalks of oilseed rape. Add the proposed Northern Forest project which has now been approved, and if it weren’t for HS2 about to cause the destruction of huge swathes of irreplaceable virgin forest on its way up north I’d be a very happy bunny indeed.

1 There was – of course – poverty and inequality, but we haven’t exactly solved those now, have we?

2 Mm .. yeah, OK. This is fairly recent historically, because in the middle ages England was covered with vast tracts of virgin woodland and later grew into a feudal system consisting of a landlord whose land consisted of a large house and parkland, and a little autocracy of small farms and smallholdings. This began to change, partly due to changing laws, depressions and so on, and we started to import more goods, then there were two World Wars which basically left us with a system pretty similar to the one we have today. Historians will pick this explanation to tiny pieces in two minutes flat, but that’s basically the gist of it.

3 An abomination if ever there was one, and the single most devastating blow for animal welfare in my lifetime.

4 Possibly because of the way he shafted Boris Johnson.

Let’s not start …

You know that saying ‘Let’s start as we mean to go on’? Well, let’s not. Just .. let’s not, OK?

The New Year has rolled in with me still recovering from shoulder surgery, and suffering from a fluey virus which has given me bronchitis/asthma1, so I can’t do much at all right now and I’m feeling pretty miserable and helpless. Could be worse, I know, and to be fair, I’m not hospitalised, I’m warm and well-fed, and I have my lovely OH who is taking good care of me. But my spirits have not been improved by the snippets of news which I’ve been reading just lately.

The Orange Buffoon is determined to challenge the Volatile One to a spitting match which might well end in tears, the weather has gone crazy, and the environment is under multiple threats both large and small. Yesterday I heard that a small wooden footbridge in our village, much used by walkers (both with and without dogs or children) has once again been vandalised by some idiot with a power saw, and has had planks from the walkway removed leaving gaping holes through which a person (or a dog or a child) could fall about twelve feet to the brook below. This footbridge is on a back road in the country. It isn’t on the way to anywhere, unless you’re a dog walker, and you’d have to know it was there in order to find it, so I’m guessing it’s some deranged local (with or without some kind of bizarre grudge).

As if that weren’t bad enough, the same thing has been done at Ferry Meadows, a local country park eleven-and-a-half miles away, which has an excellent record for wildlife curation, watersports and family fun. It seems pretty certain that it’s the same person because the same two events have gone hand in hand before2, so they must have transport, as well as a power tool and a grudge. At the country park, they not only vandalised nearly two dozen memorial benches and all of the wooden footbridges, but they also hacked twenty-six newly planted trees in half3.

I’m not sure what kind of maggot gets into someone’s head for them to deliberately go out and do this kind of thing. Being somewhat of a student of human nature, I can kind of, sort of, understand what motivates someone to commit a one-off act of vandalism as an expression of frustrated anger, but this goes beyond such an act. This is a deliberate, cold-hearted, selfish desire to wound other people and make them suffer, either emotionally or physically. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt, either by falling through a gap in a footbridge or over the side, or by falling backward off a bench. Such a desire must surely be rooted in mental incompetence of some kind because there are very, very few people who are truly evil.

But you know what? The true measure of man’s spirit is not to be found in how many times he gets knocked over, but in how many times he gets back up again. This vandal (or vandals) will not win. The footbridge in my village has been roped off, and will be repaired as soon as can be managed. The bridges and benches in the country park will also be mended and the trees replanted by many willing hands. Eventually, of course, the person responsible will be caught and punished, and life will go on, and he – or, it has to be admitted, she – will be quickly forgotten, because that’s what happens.

So in this new year, this 2018, I will shake off my cough and my sore ribs and my shoulder will heal themselves, and I’ll get back on the treadmill and put myself on the Clever Guts diet4, and eventually we will get our new dog. I am already looking forward to the hoverfly season and to getting back out into the garden and planting up my new plants and digging a new pond and putting OH to work getting the new bee houses installed, and no doubt I’ll have great fun photographing all this stuff. I have plans. Venice in the spring, learn to speak French, improve my Italian, begin Swedish Death Cleaning5, visit relatives and some new people I only know from the internet, and I also want to replace a row of Leylandii with a mixed deciduous hedge.

Sounds fun, huh? We may have started the year badly, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue that way. I bet the power saw-wielding chopper-up of benches won’t have half so much fun as me!

Photos of the damage at Ferry Meadows courtesy of Martin Chillcott

1 It’s a bit hard to distinguish between the two, since both give you a lot of congestion and wheezing and make you cough. All I know is that I’ve been coughing for far too long, my ribs hurt, and I need to use my inhalers to the limit. But since the treatment is pretty much the same, I guess it hardly matters what you call it.

2 The same vandalism was perpetrated in the same two places within the same time-frame and along the same path of destruction a while back. Yes, it’s circumstantial, but my money is on a repeat offence by the same person.

3 I think it’s the trees which annoy me the most. Trees take time to get established and become useful to wildlife and, indeed, us. We all need trees to deal with pollution and with the CO2 in the atmosphere. Destroying a tree is like smacking yourself in the face with a brick. Only less messy.

4 Michael Mosley’s Clever Guts Diet is a one-off protocol to rebalance your gut flore (your gut’s microbiome). Since I suffer from acid reflux, which might be affected by those little guys that live down there, I thought I might try it.

5 Swedish Death Cleaning is an approach to clearing out accumulated junk, and one which I sorely need. The name comes from the philosophy that it is unkind to leave your horribly cluttered house to your children to deal with after you’re dead.