Ecologically positive!

In terms of the weather, this has been a drab week. Little sunshine, cool and grey, but worst of all, still there has been only limited rain. All this while, the farm needs a return to sunshine and warmth together with substantial rain. So far, the effects of the present weather are not troubling, but we would like to see the pastures higher.

As far as our sheep and cattle are concerned, all continues to seem well. The attachment of rubbing brushes fed by neem oil means the coats of the majority of cattle look very fine indeed. For the sheep it is a slightly different picture. The ewes have not yet regrown their fleeces and clearly show the effects of still feeding their lambs. Watching a poor ewe being lifted off her feet every time a large and lusty lamb sucked milk from her, even after all these years, I find upsetting.

All stock needed moving and were moved this week. There is no question of there not being any growth on the pastures, but the animals will not be able to stay on any one pasture long. At least as more fields come out of their six-week purdah, managing the situation will become easier. In that context I was hoping to persuade our local National England Advisor to pay us a visit to, hopefully, confirm our impression that the effects of the reseeding are evident. Sadly, farm visits are not on the agenda – odd but DEFRA works in mysterious ways as we know only too well.

While having fields shut down for six weeks undoubtedly makes stock management both more difficult and less efficient, there are obvious benefits to the environment. And, without wishing to make too much of the point, environmentally practices do reduce the economic efficiency of a farm. Mostly I ignore that particular fact, but the other day, as I went round the farm, I was struck by just how much of the land is given over to nature, whether it be by our substantial hedges, the land left uncultivated along the river and ditches, or the odd triangles of land we do no more than tidy once a year. (I hasten to add these are areas on which we do not claim the Basic Payment!) Adding Gannow Wood to all these areas means the Society is meeting its key objective which is of course to preserve the farm as an ecologically positive place.

While there is still no news on our capital claim for the seeds bought last year, there is a strong suggestion that, presumably because of the wet winter, extra time may be allowed for work such as hedge laying and fence replacement. The time slot for working on hedges is rightly tightly enforced, but it did mean for us last winter, as a result of the ground being saturated for so long, working on a number of hedges would have done too much damage to the ground around them.

As you are aware, our Soil Association inspection has had to be carried out without an actual visit. This has made the whole process far more time consuming and complicating, both for the inspector and ourselves. On Wednesday morning, for example, Chris was on the telephone for some ninety minutes including walking through the cattle using his phone to enable the animals to be seen in real time; after that he had to send images of every relevant sheet in our medical record file. In most years this would involve no more than three or so sheets. This time. because of last year’s New Forest eye infection and the need to record treatment given to each animal affected, there were four times that number.

But I would like to record our appreciation of the way the inspector gave us extra time since, though all the paper work was done, it was prepared for physically handing over and to deliver it electronically was not straight forward, requiring an expertise well beyond my competence. The report cannot be as glowing as we have come to expect since the farm has not been seen in the ‘flesh’ so to speak ,but in terms of the damage the ‘virus’ has done to others, that is, if not trivial, liveable with.

Thank you, Caroline, for your sensitivity, understanding and good humour.

I wrote at some length last week about grasses, so will not revisit that topic for now, other than to again report what a fantastic year this has been for butterflies and for me to make a correction. While all grasses have scientific names they also have vernacular names – often several! Cat’s Tail is of course one of such names for Timothy, and the grass I left out was common bent – my apologies for misleading you. 

Seeing particular varieties of Butterflies means looking at the right times, since the different varieties appear at different times in the year, and then only for a short number of weeks (that excludes the cabbage white of course!) While we may have rare species on the farm, we rarely seem to have the truly decorative varieties. So, there are masses of meadow brown, which is good, but not spectacular, however this year the Marbled White has hatched early, and I was out and about at the time. This is a very attractive butterfly and not found everywhere.

Great marbled white

Now the new compost heaps have been straightened out, I have ordered sets of the preparations that need to be inserted in order to assist the composting process. Apart from the heaps needing more rain, large volumes are needed so that the farm can be sprayed again with preparation 500. Each spraying uses several thousand litres of rainwater. The 500 we have bought in at great expense from Germany has yet to arrive so whatever the water situation, no spraying is possible for the present. 

Last year our ancient apple tree, which crops every other year, carried very few fruits. This year judging from the ‘June drop’ we should be able to replenish our store of apple juice. The quantity that comes from the one tree is extraordinary and when pressed to provide juice gives us onwards of 400 75ml bottles, enough for us enables us to still have a few bottles from 2018 waiting to be to be drunk.

The June apple drop

You may have wondered at the absence of news from the Pasture-Fed site. Partly this is down to my reluctance to share with you discussions, for example, on the development of mobile Abattoir’s, and partly because work is still on-going on a new plan for the future, an activity I am not involved in. You may however be interested to know of a recent webinar which concentrated on helping farmers to recognise stress and its effects, together with ideas on the virtues of mindfulness as a way of helping.

My generation may sometimes wonder at the way in which mental health and particularly stress are discussed so much, but given I had to retire at 60 because I was ‘burnt out,’ and because nearly twenty years later, my nervous system is still a problem, I am perhaps more aware, and more understanding than I would be otherwise.

The present pandemic situation has brought home to many small businesses and farms just how vulnerable they are. As I am sure you will expect, the farm has to have a current risk assessment analysis. Until relatively recently, with the three of us being responsible, that analysis omitted any reference to the risk associated with health issues. That now figures as the main risk the farm faces – our dependence effectively on one person cannot be ignored. In the event, we might struggle on for a short to short medium-term period but otherwise what happens is far less clear.

The farm feels very different this year at this time compared to the many years that have passed. The reason is simple – we have no French undergraduates spending the best part of two months with us to learn about another culture, to improve their English and to explore our particular way of farming. In return for their time we get not only enthusiastic and willing hands but also the company of the young people who ensure the farm vibrates to the full age range of human life. We are much the worse off for their entirely understandable absence this year. We are assured that, despite Brexit, next year will follow the normal pattern and that is good news.

In fact, this year before lockdown we did have company, and may well have others this autumn, but those volunteers will be visiting us for different, if just as worthy reasons.

The news

In ‘The Week’ was a cut down article from the Sunday Times written by Mathew Syed on racism and colonialism calling for context and perspective – quoting his father, an immigrant from Pakistan, as saying  “He was all too aware of the racism and sectarianism that existed in other nations… Black and Asian people may have faced barriers in the UK, but the nation was less sectarian and more meritocratic than almost any other.”

As Syed writes later in his article, morality evolves, in other words, judging people of the past in 21st century terms, while perhaps understandable, and sometimes appropriate, may need tempering. That morality evolves is a reality that, while self-evidently true, is so rarely borne in mind by modern day activists or to be honest people of our own generation. 

At our stage in life we have been part of that evolution, and so recognise it as a reality, and not a theoretical proposition. Likewise, having spent lengthy periods on both the African and North American continents, the lack of perspective about life here, compared to elsewhere, that we see and hear from English people still amazes me. 

Awareness of how things are elsewhere is no argument against change but might allow a little appreciation of how things are in this country.

I suppose it is inevitable that one’s own personality has as much to do with which philosophers you admire as anything else. So it is that for me John Locke stands out even though there are parts of his thinking I reject. Why I admire him is very much because he, for me, had his feet on the ground, and above all was pragmatic in accepting that some questions are unanswerable, and being comfortable with that as part of his way of thinking.

Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt

While I don’t imagine I can persuade any of you to rush off to acquire a copy of ‘An essay on human understanding’, there are two thinkers of the 20th century whose observations seem particularly pertinent at the present time, and might be considered worth exploring given developments in our world.

Both were originally from Central Europe, and either chose or were driven out of their countries of birth. One became English, the other, while living in America remained German, in her heart at least. Neither appear to have known about, or been influenced by the other, though they were active at very much the same time. I am of course referring to Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt, neither of whom were recognised in the philosophy studies I was exposed to, though, happily, that picture has undoubtedly changed – particularly in the case of Popper – but then his writings proved easier to categorise.

So why am I wasting your time in this way? Firstly, both saw Plato as the core figure in a line of thinking that ends in totalitarianism, and we see that frighteningly in the USA and emerging in the UK. Secondly, both saw the strengths and weaknesses of science; finally, Popper, while believing in the importance of every society knowing it’s history, utterly rejected historicism. And above all else, and Arendt in particular, underlines the absolute dangers of a general approach to life of ‘I am right, and you are wrong and that is that.’ 

I quoted Baldwin last week, it is not just reflection that is so often missing, it’s our increasing tendency to reject rational discussion as we see happening over the Atlantic, ‘if you are not for me you are against me’- polarisation is such a danger to democracy as it is, of course, basic to a totalitarian society. And on this side of the Atlantic, perhaps Arendt’s words about her own books could usefully be taken seriously by both DEFRA and the Home Office “Think what you are doing”.

There is another danger democracy faces, and that is seeing what you want to see and not what is.

Anne is just finishing a carefully researched novel about the Spanish Civil War. That generation of undergraduates who saw the solution to an imperfect world as lying with Marxism, and gave their lives in Spain, or became agents of the Russian state, were caught in that trap as were so many older and so-called wiser observers and it continues to today.

You might have expected a comment on the AGM, but I shall leave that to Nicki. Suffice it to say it was a good meeting even if the complexities of Zoom seemed at one stage far beyond me. Fortunately, Sebastian proved more than able to set it all up and then chair the meeting.

Percy Bysshe Shelley is I suspect read by few people. Probably this reflects both a change in taste, the length of his poems, and their allusions to ancient stories. I think though most will recognise the opening line “Hail to thee, Blythe spirit” of the poem ‘To a skylark’. Given I see and hear the skylark rarely these days, I have selected the last verse of a poem which brought a smile to my face and hopefully yours as well.

The Cloud

‘I am the daughter of Earth and Water, 
And the nursling of the Sky; 
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores; 
I change, but I cannot die. 
For after the rain when with never a stain 
The pavilion of Heaven is bare, 
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams 
Build up the blue dome of air, 
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph, 
And out of the caverns of rain, 
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb, 
I arise and unbuild it again’

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