You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Changing Countryside’ category.

My friends and I were nattering nineteen to the dozen over supper, catching up on news and gossip when Emily suddenly turned to me and said, poker face “I’ve a new man in my life.” I looked questioningly at her, surprised, and then across at Geoff, leaning back in his chair thoughtfully twirling a glass of wine.  “Yes. I hardly see her anymore” he confirmed.

“Ah” I replied a little cautiously “Go on then. Tell me. Who is he?” I looked encouragingly at Emily

“Oh he’s amazing. Someone very special…I’d love you to meet him. Oh dear, but I don’t think you’ll have the time. I’ll be busy too. Oh!” She agitatedly looped up a stray strand of hair “So silly. I’m doing the flowers for Audrey’s   party tomorrow, so ‘fraid I can’t take you. But you would…you’d love him. You’d be quite smitten. Maybe…”She tailed off

“Emily! Who is he? The suspense is killing!”

“Paula! Paula, Paula, Paula…” she screwed her eyes up, tight

“Yes, yes. Go on.”

“He’s eighty-five. Sooo, so, sooo wonderful!” she paused, lost in thought “The things he knows…about farming, thatching and cleaving chestnut. You should see it. The cottage, his workshop – oh, his workshop! I saw it by mistake…the tools – like a museum collection. His garden, full of dahlias, kept as it was by Ruby. It mustn’t be lost. His skills, his talent and knowledge, I mean. He might be the last. Certainly around here…I couldn’t bear that.” With a worried frown she looks across at me, then smiles.  “He lives down on the marsh. He did a huge amount of work with Christopher Lloyd…you know? Great Dixter?  You must meet him. Go tomorrow. I’ll give him a ring. Introduce you on the phone. Maybe you’ll be able to do something.”

“Yes please. How exciting. Oh, but I was going to plant bulbs on Morna’s grave. No…it’ll be fine. I’ve time to do everything. After all that’s what I’m here for. Remembering, feeling, finding. I’d really love to meet him. Seize the opportunity.” I give her a squeeze “And lord knows when I’ll next be up here!”

The next morning introductions are made over the phone. A time arranged “One o’clock” I’m told, as they still have dinner at mid-day “Just as we always have”. Geoff and I poured over the map and found the farm “Look at the church. It’s exquisite, 12th century.”

The day was picture perfect.  Cold with clear blue skies and far horizons splashed with autumn colour.  The drive down to Romney Marsh was alive with memories I didn’t know I had. Distant stirrings of my first visit to England; never-before-seen snow , rose gardens, my grandparents, damp wool, soft leather and pipe tobacco. My parents  – young and laughing.  Tea with a great-aunt, polished oak panelling, shortbread and rich fruit cake…

Passing the simple, yet quite beautiful church I turned down on to the Marsh and before long was knocking on the door of Bob’s farmhouse.

I spent an afternoon that I hope will live forever in my memory. We walked across the open landscape of the Marsh and as Bob pointed out the cast-up field systems cultivated in Romans times we discussed the virtues of farming ancient and modern. The Romney or ‘Kent’ sheep and red Sussex cattle used to graze the acres of his farm – now no longer pure bred the sheep are crossed with Charolais and the Sussex with Aberdeen Angus. I point out the mile-upon-mile of cleft chestnut fencing and intricate sheep handling pens…Bob it transpires, made them all. In Bob’s youth cattle from hop farms used to graze the marsh during summer months…returning home in winter to be housed in yards; the muck they produced was valuable and much-needed for the hop gardens.

cleft oak teaching thatching frame

We cross back over to his farmyard where he shows me his chestnut wood store, his threshing machine, his thatching frames used for teaching apprentices, and yes, even his workshop! Twenty five years ago Bob handed the farm over to his sons and took up long straw thatching, a very different method to our West Country thatch.  Around the yard I notice all the bullock handling systems, gates and crushes are made from sturdy cleft chestnut…I’m amazed, thrilled (I hate the feel of metal) and, Bob assures me, they are strong and safe, never causing injury to an animal or handler. We continue, talking non stop. Crossing into his garden, we pass beautifully laid out vegetable beds lined with dahlias and walk along cinder paths past an ancient orchard still used to produce cider.  Turning a corner, I was stunned by the sight of a perfect tiny cottage.

Bob's tiny timber framed and thatched cottage with tiny cottage garden

“Ah, yes” says Bob modestly but with a twinkle in his eye “I wanted to see if I could build a framed building as they used to. Completely out of cleft and pegged oak …thatched. So I decided to make it for my grandchildren.” I’ve never wanted to return to my childhood more than at that moment…and to be one of Bob’s descendents! Inside was just as enchanting…a kitchen, a sitting room, dining room and an upstairs with two wee bedrooms! All the furniture Bob had made out of the elm from the farm.

Back in the kitchen eating a tea of Bob’s homemade bread (with wheat from the thatching straw) spread thickly with comb honey (from a bee’s nest in the chimney!), yellow rock buns and raspberry jam turnovers I’m replete in every way. Cradling my cup of hot milky tea I turn to Bob “Thank you. Thank you so much for having me here. I can’t tell you how privileged I feel to have met you. I just wish I could have met Ruby too.” (Ruby is Bob’s much missed wife who died very suddenly eight years ago) “If ever you have an urge to come to the Westcountry, well…I’d be honoured if you’d visit us.”

cleft chestnut bullock gates

I left with the sun sinking below the marsh, leaving a silhouette of gnarled trees filigreed against the skyline.  As I nibbled on a walnut from the farm’s ancient orchard, I knew, with certainty, I would return.

setting sun

aspen-in-autumn-lewmoor-oct-04-reduced

autumn coulour

Last night a low pressure weather system from the Atlantic roared into the South West. High winds and rain tore through the countryside screeching and wailing along quiet lanes, rattling and crashing through hushed farmsteads and howling over silent meadows. Trees and branches bent, twisting and gyrating under the onslaught; their leaves, whipped into a rattling frenzy, hung by tenuous thread before being ripped, torn and hurled into chaotic cyclones spiralling across the countryside.   And how appropriate! How fitting that Nature should use her elemental power to scour and cleanse herself for the ancient festival of Samhain.

This morning the ground has changed into a confused tapestry of molten bronze, burnished copper and liquid gold. The trees, denuded of their autumn finery, silhouette a filigree of delicate lacework branches against the skyline. It’s only now that it becomes obvious that most of the trees around here are hedgerow trees, as the details of the landscape become apparent.  But for how much longer will these trees grace our countryside?

hedgerow trees at the bottom of Dillings before last night's gales.

hedgerow trees between Dillings and Rushy Field before last night's gales.

Nationally, over the last decade we’ve lost one in twenty of our hedgerow trees, a 5% decline between 1998 and 2007.  Quite simply, there are not enough young trees being allowed to grow up to replace those that are dying or being felled.

It’s true that hedgerow trees often cause problems for the farmer.  If not carefully managed, as they grow up the shade they cast can result in gaps in the hedge beneath, making it less stock-proof.  Trees add considerably to the time taken to cut a hedge, and their limbs can get in the way of farm machinery and overhead lines.  And there’s always the risk that they will be hazardous later in life.  But they are of great value to wildlife and the landscape.

Old, veteran, trees are of special wildlife importance, their cracks and holes providing nest and roost sites for birds like tits, woodpeckers and owls, and for many bats.  Their rotting wood is home to huge numbers of different invertebrates – insects and so forth, especially beetles – and for fungi.  All these forms of life would otherwise not be able to survive in hedges or the surrounding farmland.

Recent research has shown that even before they become veterans hedgerow trees, especially isolated ones, greatly increase the amount of wildlife in an area.  Moth numbers, for example, have been shown to increase by as much as 60% where such trees are present, and their species diversity by 38%.  Hedgerow trees act as beacons in the landscape, attracting the moths and other insects, and in turn these attract birds and bats which use the trees as service stations in their movements across the landscape. The crowns of trees are important for larger birds such as buzzards and rooks to build their nests in, and the trunks can carry rich lichen floras, including some great rarities.

To maintain hedgerow trees numbers nearly half (45%) of all trees need to be young, that is with diameters of 20cm or less.   The good news, though, is that to stabilize the population we do not need to recruit many more trees each year.  Indeed, if just 15,000 extra trees are planted or allowed to grow each year across the country, that will do the trick.  If each farmer encourages just one additional tree each year, our hedgerow tree population will quickly start to recover and rise.

young seven year old hedgerow trees 30 oct 09 reduced

young trees marked in new hedgerow along our farm lane

Others can help too.  To survive their early years, until they stand proud of the hedge and are safe from the flail cutter, young trees need to be marked clearly.  Experience shows that tags need to be renewed each year, and surrounding vegetation cut away so the saplings are clearly visible.  This takes more time than farmers like us have available, so offers of assistance from people in the local community can be more than welcome.

young hedgerow trees five corners 30 oct 09 reduced

15 year old hedgerow trees between Five Corners and Square Field

to block my beta, or to let it rip...

to block my beta, or to let it rip...

So my preparation to the run up of the great day commenced…

I had a huge amount of support and encouragement from family, friends and colleagues. An almost embarrassing quantity.

‘Why don’t you record it’ said Pavla ‘Then you can listen to it and memorise it whilst you’re doing farmy things. Or when you’re in the car or tractor, walking the dogs…seeing to the cows and whatnot. I’m sure Olly has the right machine.’

‘That’s a brilliant idea!’ suddenly I felt a little less daunted ‘I mean I can even listen to it whilst painting the windows! That’ll help.  I was fretting a bit. Torn, you know, between preparing and painting!’

You’ll remember that we’re in the throws of redoing all our windows and doors, plus 101 other farm jobs that have been on hold during the summer’s rain. Unfortunate in one way that dry weather and a host of previously arranged commitments coincided, but now being able to listen and learn whilst getting on with other things was an enormous relief. And yes, we had the appropriate equipment.

Other long suffering folk were held captive audience as I sat them down and practiced presenting. Robert and Ben helped with selecting photos and the layout for my powerpoint presentation. All manner of tips and advice came pouring in from every direction; I even found out one of my customers was a ‘presentation-pro’! Berengere, Ben’s wife with numerous scientific presentations under her belt, suggested I might dose myself up with beta blockers…‘Me? Are you serious? I’m a drug free zone!’ but she insisted that the very nervous do find oblivion in them. Well, who was I to resist…

So off I went to the GP. Having explained myself he proceeded to blind me with an impressive army of drugs on offer! I decided to leave off exotics and plump for common-or-garden beta blockers, as recommended. Most probably I wouldn’t take them…but, forearmed is forewarned!

The ‘natural’ method? My herbalist (I’m far happier with tinctures and potions) mixed me up a calming concoction she’d found very helpful for soothing nervous nerves, exploding with valerian and skullcap!

Finally my Alexander teacher gave me a spit and polish just to make absolutely sure I was balanced, grounded, centred, poised…and breathing.

Could anyone be more prepared? I don’t think so…

…and tomorrow – the finale!

I’ve been away – physically and mentally.

Oh backalong, back in the spring sometime, I was approached by the Grazing Advice Partnership (GAP) asking me if I’d be willing to be a speaker at their September conference – Reconnecting Landscapes. I hesitated, as I always do when being asked to give talks (you’ll find out why in a minute), said I’d think about it. The pressure increased; emails, phone calls, persuasion. Peter of the Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) tightened the thumb screws. They wanted, actually needed, a speaker who was a farmer, who’d lived and worked the experience …’After all’ said Pete ‘there will be policy makers there…’ he left the sentence hanging.

‘How big is this thing?’ I asked, expecting it would be around fifty, sixty.

‘Oh, two hundred-ish…’

‘Two hundred!’ I echoed ‘Where from?’

‘Britain…and Europe.’

‘I can’t do that’ I exclaimed ‘That’s proper stuff. I’d die of nerves.’

And that’s the rub. I suffer nerves, stage-fright, illogical fear, pure terror, undiluted panic when I give talks. My heart pounds. Adrenalin floods. My stomach somersaults. My mouth dries. My voice chokes. I go ‘blind’, I feel sick…sweat, shake. Want to run.

So why on earth would I ever put myself through it? Crazy? Certainly. Masochistic? Mental? Most probably. But I feel convinced I’ll overcome it (one day) by facing it. The intensity of my terror’s illogical. You see I do a bit of television, radio etc. and though I get a nervous, as do most of us, it’s nothing compared to the enormity of what I feel if I’m asked to speak publicly.

So I foolishly relented. As I’d several months in which to prepare I believed the unfamiliar would become familiar. Maybe this time, by facing my nemesis, I’d rid myself of my phobia.

Knowing what I wanted to say and writing my talk was fairly straightforward. This was, after all, my life experiences spoken from the heart which I hoped would inspire those listening. All I had to do was deliver…

part two tomorrow!

terrified? petrified? Oh yes...

terrified? petrified? Oh yes...

Why did we think they’d get it right? We believed them too. And we began to plan ahead. Strange in the circumstances…

Let’s face it; they’d got it wrong so badly so much. But last week we were told the sun was going to shine.

It happened. Just like they said!

After a grisly start to the week, on Wednesday, as promised, the sun broke through and shone, and shone and shone.

But dry conditions + shining sun = total mayhem! A summer’s worth of jobs to do in days.

meadows-in-waiting - abundant red clover our 2nd cut grass

meadows-in-waiting - abundant red clover our 2nd cut grass

Apart from our window saga (see tomorrow’s post), our second cut haylage was well overdue. By Friday the ground was tentatively dry enough for machinery to drive over. On Friday afternoon we cut. I was pleasantly surprised by the shear too – more than I thought.

willow and skye in the freshly cut Rutleigh

willow and skye in the freshly cut Rutleigh

We turned the grass on Saturday in the shining sun with a good drying wind. On Sunday, eventually, after seven gruelling hours of  machinery breakdowns (our contractor’s) all our second cut haylage was baled and wrapped. In organic systems  second cut forage is jam-packed full of proteins from the clovers; it’s also soft and palatable. We call it ‘rocket-fuel’ – perfect for calves and freshly calved cows.

at last! the baler works...

at last! the baler works...

From an ideal vantage point. Ness and Willow observe the frantic activity.

ness and willow

ness and willow

my Devons grazing Path Field

my Devons grazing Path Field

Did any of you catch Countryfile this week? In particular John Craven’s investigation into methane producing cattle and sheep, climate change and Meat Free Monday?

Research, reported in the New Scientist not long ago, suggests that producing a kilo of beef has the equivalent effect on the climate as driving 250 km and leaving all the lights on at home to boot.  Meanwhile ministers have been on record as saying that if you really want to save the world (and your health), you should stop eating meat.  There’s also a maxim that climate change is driven by the three Cs:  combustion, chainsaws and cattle.

So, am I an arch climate villain?  Is my carbon foot print so big that I leave tracks across the world like yeti? By my calculations, every time I sell a bullock, it’s like driving all the way from Devon to Timbuctoo.  I’m told cattle produce huge quantities of methane, a gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effects, from both ends.  Even worse, on conventional farms, the grass and grain they eat requires tonnes of fertiliser which takes barrels and barrels of oil to make as well as releasing yet more greenhouse gases when it’s spread on the fields.

But there’s some hope for me.  I may not have to sell up quite yet.  Some Swedish research shows that organic beef raised on grass has a much lower carbon footprint, emitting forty percent less greenhouse gas and consuming eighty-five percent less energy.   This figures since we don’t use artificial fertilisers, recycling nutrients (good, old-fashioned muck) from the farm, and keep far fewer cattle per hectare.  What’s even better, there’s good reason to suspect that organic soil management actually results in carbon being taken out of the atmosphere (carbon sequestration) rather than being released into it offsetting the methane produced by the animals.  (It’s a little known fact that there’s far, far more carbon stored in England’s soils than in all its woodlands.)

But, I could be in danger of being complacent here.  Unfortunately it’s still a fact that my Devons are belching and farting large quantities of a powerful greenhouse gas into the beleaguered stratosphere. So what I should try to aim for is to be carbon neutral, right the way from grass to plate. I wonder, by the way, what the term is for a negative footprint is? Someone who takes more carbon out of the air than they release into it?

I shall have to have one of these carbon audits done and see what I can do to reduce my footprint.  Perhaps I can manage my soils differently, let my hedges get even bigger; reduce transport costs, put up solar panels on the barns and be energy self-sufficient, look into other means of collecting and storing water…fixing plastic bags onto the rear end of the cattle is an interesting prospect, perhaps my inventor friend can work out a way and we’ll get rich on the patent!

The other side of the coin is that Devon badly needs its cattle and sheep.  Imagine Dartmoor without them.  Our priceless historical landscape would be lost beneath a sea of bracken, gorse and trees. Think also of all our wonderful unique indigenous grasslands. They and their supporting habitat wouldn’t survive without grazing. I guess our challenge as farmers is to produce beef and lamb in a way that helps the climate. Far better for us to face the challenge now and take the matter into our own hands than to wait for the inevitable regulations down the road.  I don’t know the answers, but suspect they may involve all of us who enjoy meat eating less of it, valuing it more, and being prepared to pay much more for it, so farmers can afford to farm in a way that is in tune with Mother Earth.

For now, I’ll keep my cows. Try to sleep soundly at night too…after all, there are things I can do.

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

winning smiles - Salar cow and calf

winning smiles - Salar cow and calf

For the last two years the Okehampton Show, our local one day show, has been cancelled due to impossibly wet weather. If it was rained off again this year it wouldn’t survive.

As you can imagine the weather’s been minutely monitored. Certainly it appeared the forecast was better than July, but definitely not settled.

Tentatively, a week or so before the actual day, skeletons for the large marquees began to appear; cautiously, almost furtively, the show ground began to take shape…cattle lines, sheep and cattle pens, goat and pig tents, show rings, walk ways, beer tents, an army of porta-loos – every day a little more  emerged. We scarcely dared look as we passed by – it was as if even looking was enough to tip the balance between rain or shine. Instead we sucked in our breath, crossed fingers and bit  nails.

Nine days earlier the North Devon show made it…just, though conditions were far from easy. Talking to friends who’d been there showing we heard how stock trailers were unhitched, towed onto the show ground and left, dotted about  randomly, in a sinking quagmire of churned mud…’Lucky’ Sally said ‘the only white bit in danger was the end of the cattle’s tail. Otherwise we’d have been in an even sorrier state!’

The night before Okehampton show it rained. I woke in the night to hear its patter-pittering  on the leaves of the trees outside our bedroom window and the soft sighing hiss of waterlogged ground. The morning dawned in a grey shroud of misty drizzle. Though not, mercifully, torrential rain

Armed with wellies, hats, waterproofs and warmish clothes we set off. We’d planned to get there first thing as a cousin of Robert’s was paying us a visit in the afternoon.  Even at that early hour the car parks were swelling; folk seemed determined to make the show a success come rain or shine.

A serious moment - judging a young Devon bull...

A serious moment - judging a young Devon bull...

As we hung over the rails of the show ring the misty drizzle gathered itself up into a leaden sky – a bruising layer of cloud enveloped the tops of the tors. Uncertain fingers of  sunlight hit the sides of the valley. For a few moments clouds and sun vied with one another when unexpectedly, so it seemed, the sun decided enough was enough and with determind force blistered its way through, burning back layer upon layer of cloud to sizzle and shine gloriously over the show for the rest of the day!

even dogs had to wear sunglasses in the glare!

even dogs had to wear sunglasses in the glare!

Overheating and dripping with sweat in our rainy weather clothing, we squinted, smiled and laughed our way around the show ground bumping into a plethora of friends and those acquaintances that we generally  see on occasions such as this. When it was time for us to leave we felt completely exhausted from the sheer exuberance of the event (and the heat!). As we drove away were amazed to see cars still pouring in. Hoorah! The Okehampton Show was a resounding success and lives to see another year…

young sheep handlers wait to be called...

young sheep handlers wait to be called...the 2nd in is a Dartmoor Whiteface two tooth and the end ram's a Whiteface too.

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

Archives

CPRE


CPRE Logo
The Campaign to Protect Rural England has helped set up this blog. We want farming to thrive in England, and believe that it is essential that people understand farming and farmers better in order for that to happen. Paula's views expressed here are her own and we won't necessarily share all of them, but we're happy to have helped give her a voice.

Find our more about CPRE and our views on food and farming at our website, www.cpre.org.uk

follow me on twitter