I think to start any piece of writing or speech with a quotation has many risks attached to it and should only be adopted in quite exceptional circumstances. Arising out of a question put to a friend, this is what came back, and seemed to me to sum up so many problems of today whether national, political or personal:
“Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious.” – James Baldwin
Changing gear somewhat, many of you will have either read the books or watched the television series about the Larkins. A family created by H.E.Bates, a grossly underrated author whose span of novels, essays and other writings is barely imaginable today. From ‘The stories of Flying Officer X’ to ‘Love for Lydia’, and of course famously a series about a family that by every modern standard was totally deplorable. His early books were also beautifully illustrated by black and white drawings.
Having written all that, it must be obvious to you that I have a very soft spot for both his novels and his writings as a naturalist, and one day this week leaning against the gate watching the suckler herd peacefully chewing the cud, the phrase that came to mind was a Pa Larkins favourite – ‘it’s all perfick’.
By the end of the week after some rather excessive heat, most of us were only too ready for cooler weather and in particular rain – sadly as so often has happened this very dry spring, the promised serious rain did not materialise. However, during the week, given the rain we did have earlier, plant life has rocketed with the hours of sunshine and the heat. All this means the news from the farm is pretty positive!
With this burst of very hot weather our animals are fortunate to be able to either find shelter in one of our preserved wild areas, or find it under trees and bushes. We did have one excitement this week when as the three of us were crossing a field we saw a river of white and brown attempting to reach the gate before us. 350 sheep and forty or so young cattle are not that easy to stop and then return to where they came from. Fortunately, all the resident family quickly arrived on the scene and, faced with that body of humans aged from 9 to 79, order was fairly quickly restored. The suckler herd in the adjacent field were clearly rather bemused by the situation but very interested.
The herd is now reduced in number by one steer and the balance restored by the birth of a heifer, on schedule as well. Both mother and calf are doing well. A surprise for us all has been to see both cattle and sheep eating nettles, and no, this is not because of lack of grass. We have slightly mixed feelings about this because nettles are much loved by butterflies and moths and this has to date been an excellent year for those attractive creatures.
We have lost two ewes. In both cases this was not unexpected, and most farmers might have been tempted to hasten their ends – that is not our way unless an animal is clearly suffering.
With the combination of rain followed by heat, flystrike is a threat, but I am happy to say, despite migration problems, we do seem to have a goodly number of swallows and swifts patrolling above and between the animals.
A recent trip around the farm confirmed, not only are our pastures in a good state and have good feed on them, but also that the fields reseeded under the Higher-Level Scheme are already showing evidence of the mix sown.
It would be rather nice at this point to be able to inform you that our dispute with the RPA had been resolved but no such luck. We continue to supply our Soil Association Inspector with data as requested.
We now once again have an interested party who wants to establish two additional beehives on the site. One of those set up some years ago and then abandoned seems to be happily doing its own thing – hopefully he will look after this as well.
The requirement to leave identified fields ungrazed for a continuous period of six weeks means aspects of the farm also remind me of the prairies. In particular the sight of long grass swaying in the breeze; long grass which makes it very difficult to spot hares and deer but now and then they do pop up. Something we seem not to come across here are grass snakes or slow worms. We would not expect adders, but I think we would have expected in 15 years to see more than one grass snake and one slow worm! What we are seeing this year in numbers are rabbits – even in our garden – cheeky blighters!
As you know, we have a huge length of fencing to be installed by the end of the year. Another almost two kilometres has been completed, and the appropriate claim form together with a large number of photographs was submitted this week. After some discussion we now have agreed with erectors to put in a new, smaller barn to sit beside our existing building this autumn. Apparently, the planners before deciding that no formal planning process was needed had first to bring in an agricultural consultant. For better or worse, his knowledge of the individual space required under organic standards appeared lacking.
A recent debate has been over the question of using ‘the term grass fed‘ or ‘pasture fed’ to describe sheep and cattle that are for sale. On the face of it there is nothing there. Grass is grass, just as water is water, but while water can actually be not just H20, grass can be anything from sedge to decorative pampas grass. There are literally thousands of named grasses in the world and even in this country that is the case.
For the farmer, the types of grass used are quite different from those of lawn makers, and depend not just on the soil and on the climatic conditions. Is the grass for grazing, haymaking or both? Do I want it to best meet the needs of sheep or cattle? Is it for short term, long term or medium-term use? These are just some of the questions that have to be considered. As a matter of fact, the most commonly used grasses in this country by farmers are perennial and Italian ryegrasses. They fatten animals quickly, respond well to fertiliser, but tend not to hold nutritious value after three of four years.
On a farm like this we inevitably use some perennial rye but otherwise look to use native grasses like Timothy, varieties of fescues, foxtails, dogstails and Cat’-tails.
In all, the mix we use contains some eight different grasses though others inevitably also establish themselves. These provide long term solutions in that they establish a basic mat, and after haymaking leave enough aftermath for subsequent grazing. Should you feel a need to develop a blinding headache, attempt to learn how to identify more than a dozen or so individual grasses!
But I have yet to explain why there Is this argument. When I write about our pastures I am assuming that you will realise that they are actually made up of more than grasses, including of course wild flowers and herbs, so to describe our meat as ‘grass fed’ would clearly be challengeable.
In fact, the balance often looked for in a traditional organic pasture is around 82% grass and 18% flowers and herbs. In so choosing, a farmer has to consider that not only are some grasses poisonous but so are some wildflowers. Butterflies may love ragwort but dried, it is highly dangerous for animals to eat. Dandelions are valuable, not particularly for grazing animals but for their deep roots which bring up trace elements. Buttercups on the other hand are not nutritious and essentially a sign of bad soil compaction. Nothing in this life is simple.
I am very happy to share how positive we feel about the result of our decision to allow the verges of the drive to grow uncut. Among the outcomes have been the spread of flowers such as ladies’ smock, ladies bed straw, self-heal and agrimony, aside from at least seven different grasses. It may look untidy, but it is a very positive contribution to a greener world. Sadly, meadow sweet has not yet reappeared though can be found in at least one field.
Recently I referred to the gardens as being in an in-between state. Sat at Anne’s desk as she attempted to restore order to my overgrown beard, I could not but notice the effects of the rain, followed by sunshine and warmth. Of course, certain flowering plants have had their day, but others have taken up the challenge. The poppies continue in colours from white through purple to red. The roses are showing a similar range of colours, except for the addition of yellow. But the dominant feature of the garden is the brilliant white of the self-seeded mallows, and the ranges of brown from the seed heads of that part of our lawn now given over to a wild meadow. Interspersed in those grasses are a variety of flowers such as self-heal, ladies bed straw and agrimony. And buzzing or flitting above all this growth are a multitude of insects and small birds – delightful.
As far as the vegetable garden is concerned, the first tomatoes are forming, and we have already had broad bean top soup for lunch. Slugs have, during the drought been no problem, that happy position is now ended.
For some reason thus far week I have found myself considering a question which is I doubt any one of us can answer; The question is ‘where is secularisation taking us?’
Shortly afterwards I found myself reading Andrew Geddes historic novel ‘Those who go by night’. Set in England a decade after Edwards had half-heartedly followed the French King and destroyed the Templar’s in England, it presaged the worst of the inquisition in Europe.
Living here in the West Midlands there is much to remind us of the time of the Templar’s. Put down brutally by the French king at the instigation of the Pope, whose joint motivation was a combination of avarice, power and religious orthodoxy.
In England the fervour and prosecution was less, though still pronounced, but at least the Inquisition was not allowed to gain a foothold. Indeed, it was not until the time of Mary that, however briefly, it came to this country. Place names beginning Temple are usually associated with the movement, and near here at Temple Balsom, there is physical evidence of their time. Whatever claims may be made, the Freemasons are not an offspring of the Templar’s.
So, we all know the horrors that can be associated with religious extremism – whatever the belief system involved. But more positively, we also know the enormous positives, belief has brought. Does secularisation offer us anything better, or indeed is it a sustainable position? Can humankind as a whole actually hold together with no more than the thought that life has no reason or purpose other than to eat, drink, be merry and multiply?
I have been revelling in the music of Caesar Franck this week. I know what mixed feelings there are about his Symphony in D, but don’t let that put you off and if you can, play it loudly! It’s at least as important a work as his more popular violin and piano sonata, and shares the same level of intensity as his piano quintet – another grossly underrated piece of music.
On Saturday morning Record Review considered recordings of Griegs ‘Holberg Suite’, another of my most loved pieces of music and rather unusually the discussion made real sense to me.
I have been wanting to share something by Derek Walcott but finding a poem to fit has largely defeated me. In the end I have selected the first and least demanding part of his poem below. Very much I think because the first line brings to mind images of the prairies and, this week even our own unmown lawn, and it reads so beautifully.
A lesson for this SundayThe growing idleness of summer grass
With its frail kites of furious butterflies
Requests the lemonade of simple praise
In scansion gentler than my hammock swings
And rituals no more upsetting than a
Black maid shaking linen as she sings
The plain notes of some Protestant hosanna—
Since I lie idling from the thought in things—