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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

I was busy preparing a celebratory supper for us and some friends. It was Friday and Hallowe’en or Samhain; the end of summer, the beginning of winter and the Celtic New year.

Having lived my life in tune with the seasons and nature for so long I find myself compelled to do certain things at certain times of the year, as if engrained in my genes. Autumn I love, even after a dreary summer. There’s a gentle tranquillity, a whimsical melancholy. I draw the countryside and her gold, bronzes, rusts and amber to me, into some secret place which I hug tight.

hawthorn berries - ecellent tonic for the heart and circulatory system

hawthorn berries - ecellent tonic for the heart and circulatory system

The past couple of weeks have found me collecting and squirreling away the last of the fruits and berries. Hips, for rosehip syrup and crab apple and hip jelly – stuffed full of vitamin C and A to chase away those winter’s colds; haws to make into hawthorn butter and bottles of piquant sauce – a wonderful tonic for the heart and circulatory system; and quince for quince cheese, jelly and spiced quince, just because I love it.

field rose hips

field rose hips

The house changes too. I swap cool summer greens for warm rusts and Turkey red. Our fires smoulder slowly throughout the day ready to sparkle into crackling dancing flames in harmony with curtains drawn against the early evening dark and chill.

dog rose

dog rose hips - rosehips are an important source of vitamins A and C

Like our ancestors I need to celebrate the end of summer and harvest, to wish us all well during the dark months and toast the return of light and growth!

Samhain celebrations have survived the centuries in several guises as a festival dedicated to the harvest, fertility and the dead. Samhain was a time to take stock and eliminate weakness; to decide which animals, too frail to survive the long winter months, to slaughter, and for preparing stores of preserved meat, fruits and grain to last through the coming winter.  Not so very different from us today.

Bonfires, originally ‘bone fires’, played a large part in the festivities, as the bones of the slaughtered cattle were thrown into the flames. These bonfires also represented the sun, the giver of life and light, warding off evil spirits and providing warmth and a welcome to good ones. With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires and each family would relight their hearth from the embers of the common flame, bonding the families of the village together. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification; sometimes cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires as well.

Samhain was overlain by All Saints Day and All Souls Day in an attempt by the church to undermine the Pagan festival and so it became All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en.  Even before this it was tangled up with the Roman festivals of Feralia, celebrating the passing of the dead, and of Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees (the apple being a symbol of fertility).

With our bonfires already having burnt fiercely from the polytunnel clearance; a shoulder of lamb slow roasting in the oven, vegetables aplenty from the garden, spiced baked apples for pudding and our carved lantern flickering on the table, it seems we are keeping to the age old festivities and traditions of our ancestors.

bonfire or bone fire

bonfire or bone fire

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.



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