Mar 05 2020

Towards Spring

The sky is a dark luminescent blue, a bright sun shines through the valley. Despite the sharp March wind, flowers are exploding everywhere. This is the first day without rain for months and months.

All around are celebrating the warm glow from above. Birds shout, sheep laze in the fields, donkeys clamor to get out into their paddock. Only my chickens must stay in as I still ponder the strange disappearance of dear old Claude, the cockerel.

We spotted him at the top of the donkey paddock as we drove down from the top fields in yet another wild rain storm, having fed the ewes. “Get him in, in a minute” said Paul “but first let’s tackle the flood in the donkey shed” It was three o’clock in the afternoon. An hour later he had completely disappeared, no shrieks, no feathers, nothing. In came the three feathered ladies without him. I searched for days but no sign of him. He was such a big boy it must have been a mighty fox to vanish him so fast without a shred of evidence! So the girls stay in for now, bored but safe.

Slowly the ground is draining and grass is just beginning to grow.  I look at the weather forecast and the week ahead is a little better. So I hope this is not just a tiny welcome respite with another storm secretly waiting in the wings to buffet us again tomorrow.

The muddy girls are down from the top fields now and coming into the yard for tea with last year’s ewe lambs. As lambing approaches we will separate them again and send the little girls to fresh pasture, leaving their mothers to start the cycle all over again.

Except that this year will be our last year of lambing. Hercule has done his time and must move on to a new flock and fresh blood. Instead of replacing him, we have decided to call lambing a day. We will reduce the flock gradually over the next two years to just a few sturdy lawnmowers and plant more trees. It’s both a little sad and, at the same time, exciting after thirty years of breeding Whiteface Dartmoors. But time moves on and we must be realistic.

And realistic is what we are all struggling to be at the moment with the threat of a coronavirous world epidemic swamping news and social media. Strange times indeed; what of stories of the severe flooding across our country, the storm damage, of international news, war zones, draught in Africa, Australia’s recent fires? All I read on tablet or in newspaper is speculation and fear of the spread of this virus both here and across the world. Oh and the rain has returned, sweeping sideways in a huge grey curtain across the valley. I spoke too soon!

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Jan 25 2020

Autumn into Winter

Autumn into Winter

Spring will come again!

One day it will be spring again. But still it rains, relentless rain, rain and more rain. Gale force winds ravage the valley and have done all through the autumn and into winter: sideways rain, any which way rain, just rain.  The huge Monkey Puzzle tree swirls dangerously as the wind whips over the hills and down through the valley. Sheep cower in the hedgerow and donkeys stand morosely in their big shed surveying the sodden hillside. Even the old Claude and his aging feathered ladies are reluctant to venture out in the maelstrom.

The Dartmouth Fatstock Show, that ancient annual meeting of farmers and their stock held in our little market square in the town centre, came and went in a downpour. We all put a brave face on it willing the rain to stop, but it didn’t!

Sheep and cattle were judged, turkeys auctioned, farmers caught up with each other exchanging news. And all the while the rain poured down.

Since way back at the beginning of the last century the Fatstock Show has been held on the second Tuesday in December. Local farmers come to town to show off their stock. Not much has changed except, of course, licensing and movement restrictions since the dreadful Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001 followed by a TB crisis. Sadly, that brought an end of the pig classes but sheep and cattle entries have increased hugely. It’s a very local affair bringing together the farming community. The Bond family have been chairing it since the 1930’s!

In this time of increasing awareness and anxiety about climate change, rising sea temperatures and global warming, farming worldwide is getting a bad press. But farming is an umbrella term. Not only does farming vary from country to country, continent to continent but right here in Britain it covers a miriad of different sources of food production nationwide.  In Lincolnshire satellites control combine harvesters. In Gloucester there are still huge diversified farms both livestock and arable.

Here in Devon all our neighbours farm differently: some organic, some moving towards wilding and a very few still in the old style of the 1950’s. Happily the latter is on the wane as awareness grows. Change is on the way. But how did we get to this? Before the Second World War most farms in Britain were diversified: crops, cattle, pigs, sheep.

But we have to go back much further to really see how patterns of farming changed, back indeed to Sir Robert Peel who, under pressure from a new urban elite, repealed the Corn Laws in 1846. These laws had for years put a tariff on imported grain. Now this were gone.

By the 1870’s grain prices had plummeted following the opening up of imported grain from the American prairies and, of course, the arrival of big powerful steam ships capable of transporting their cargo across the Atlantic much faster than ever before.

These imports of wheat, meat and dairy products flooded the market and British wheat prices plummeted: sound familiar! It wasn’t until the first world war that more than a million acres came back into food production. This time those steam ships importing food were under attack from German U Boats.  

When the war ended farming boomed for a while until 1921 when the government repealed the Agricultural Act. This marked a very difficult time in farming. Wages plummeted 40% in one year, land was left unused and many country people moved to the cities and towns. And then the 1930 brought the Great Depression.

By 1939 the country was at war again and the fear of starvation became very real indeed. The government launched the Dig for Victory campaign. Rationing became harsh and it was clear we must stop relying on imports and grow our own food to survive. Prisoners of war were sent to work on the land and the Women’s Land Army of 1917 was revived. The Land Girls had arrived. By 1944 80.000 women were working on the land. They took over the farms left by men who had gone to war. They used heavy machinery, felled trees, drained Fenlands and, of course, they were paid less than the men: 38s for a 40-50-hour week for a man, 28s for women! It took a few more years to sort that out! But the nation was fed.

The fear of food shortage lived on after the end of the war, as did rationing. The government promised guaranteed prices and an assured market. This all led to mass over production, a huge increase in the use of chemicals, butter mountains, grain mountains: food waste had begun.

And now the pendulum is swinging. I smiled when I read of Lord Addison’s dismay in the 1930’s: “….an increasing extent of good land is reverting to tufts of inferior grass, brambles & weeds….” Sir Emrys Jones, Cultivation Officer for Gloustershire 1939-45, agreed “countryside is becoming a wilderness in modern times, hedges overgrown, millions of rabbits, mildew in crops…..”

Sounds to me a bit like wilding! Times are indeed changing. The real fear of climate change is finally filtering through and farmers are moving with the times and a new awareness of how we can help is emerging.

Farming does generate greenhouse gases but can also store carbon dioxide in soil, trees and plants. Minimal tilling of the soil, planting cover crops between main cash crops, and crop rotation are just some things that can boost the organic matter in soil so it holds more carbon. Cows get a particularly bad press as major producers of methane.  But even this is controllable by the feed they are given to eat.  And, of course, we can all plant more trees, extend our hedgerows, encourage wildlife, stop using chemicals. Go green!

Maybe we can gradually take back control of our world, remember a time before the industrial revolution and the repeal of the Corn Laws. when the air was still clean. And, most importantly, we have modern science to help us, if only we would listen.

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