Trees!

 “This blog is the unfolding story of Rush Farm and an exploration of life by its philosopher farmer.”

First a confession. The third test match between India and England began on Wednesday, and if there is one thing guaranteed to distract me, it is a test match. Especially after the events on day 5 in the last test, when the English batsmen collapsed, in a not unknown fashion, to allow India to win the match by a humiliating margin. By Saturday lunchtime however, England had redeemed themselves and won handsomely. Surprising but pleasing!  

Second, a sense of unreality as I write this, knowing the situation in Afghanistan, feeling like most of us, despair and helplessness, while trying to contain equally strong feelings of anger. Mankind’s inhumanity and stupidness never seems to end – we are now back to the Middle Ages, or perhaps we need to recognise that, there is still where some peoples are.  

This week has, rather like the weather, been generally uneventful, except in one respect. With the benefit of the bannisters Sophie and Paul installed, I actually made it to our bedroom. Anne does not yet have to worry about sharing her bed with a snoring husband, but that night is getting ever closer.    

Like you no doubt, I was delighted to read mid-week that the security our double vaccination gives us has a shorter life span than expected, but given the state the world is in, what could be expected.  

I think I sold myself short last week. I do actually have a degree of creativity. As usual, the first half of each week is given over, at both the conscious and sub-conscious levels, to pulling together in my head how I should approach the thoughts with which I end the notes each week. If you were all just sat in front of me, instinct would come into play, and I could just ‘wing it’, but that of course is not the case. I shall again eschew politics and restrain myself to just one topic.  

I have never concealed the fact that for most of my life I was very much a suburbanite. Never, except for part of my time at university, have I even experienced town life. All this despite on my mother’s side at least, having, though I knew it not, in my youth at least, having great aunts and uncles who actually farmed. These last sixteen years have therefore been, not only a challenge in taking on a farm, but also a challenge to my attitudes, one of which I am happy to now share.  

When we first came to live here, I felt guilty about the number of fruit – apples mainly, that we failed to collect. Over time I have come to realise how little of the fruit goes to waste, whether by being eaten directly or very indirectly by such as swallows and swift’s feeding on the insects that take wing from the rotting fruit.  

Certainly, for our moorhens, fallen fruit are a delight and they have no hesitation in seeing off other birds such as jackdaws. This is a time of year when food for wildlife is plentiful, and it is good to see them enjoying it. 

Farm life! 

Thinking very much of the farm, I am very happy to share with you the official outcome of our BD inspection. All is very well, and we go forward knowing how respected the farm is. This is very much the time to shower Chris with plaudits.  

The farm week otherwise has been uneventful. Cattle and sheep have all been moved around without trouble. The barn area remains pristine awaiting the bedding straw. Hearing that a couple of bales of hay were warming, I checked with Chris that our insurance covered issues such as fire started by hay overheating. Not only was the answer of course yes but I learnt some 15 bales had been moved to reduce the risk.  

I was of course reproved for my concerns, but I still remember vividly the airmail letter from Anne’s mother written at 3.45 in the morning telling us their hay barn was on fire. Six weeks later we learnt that though the fire had been bad, it had not spread to other buildings, and was actually started by two young boys trying out smoking. No telephones in those days – isolation had its merits but also a downside.  

The ragwort is being pulled on a regular basis by Tim, but he has been coping with a difficult week at home. The NFE still consumes time, while we have no vaccine as yet, at least the ragwort seems not to have caused problems with the young cattle that were in that particular field.  

While we have had no new calves, we did lose another two ewes to mastitis. This, despite our best efforts to ward off the problem. Mind you, when you see a ewe jumping up and down as two large lambs attempt to feed from her – you have to worry. Suckling becomes rather a nightmare as the lambs grow. They are now of course essentially feeding off the pasture, but habits are hard to break. 

Air, Trees pH

Clean or cleaner air may be good for our lungs, but not so helpful for plant life. Lime trees in London were essentially the plant best able to cope with the noxious combination of pollution that hung over London for centuries. The mix of pollution included sulphur, and in terms of soil condition, sulphur plays a vital role in ensuring that the pH level stays low. While according to the textbooks, grass can manage growth on soils varying from the very acid – pH at 5.5 to soils much more alkali – pH at 7, growth, here at least, seems best on soils in the range of pH 6.3 to 6.6.  

It is now clear that the pH in certain of our fields is rising, despite animals grazing on them. The options open to us are limited. The first and most obvious is to heavily compost them, and then spray with a combination of cpp and nettle. The cpp has been treated with all the preparations, while the nettle tea among other attributes is a source of sulphur. The compost is by its nature acidic. These thoughts clearly have implications for our manuring programme. Which is further complicated by recent government decisions about spreading animal manures or compost,  

In terms of our previous discussion, the animal health plan must set out the four trace elements whose absence is most troubling – cobalt, copper, selenium and zinc, and on a yearly basis seek derogation from the organic certifying bodies to take the necessary action. We also must back this up with the results of blood sampling. To a degree the health plan must also take account of the forage samples, which hopefully we will know the results from them soon.  

A complication I have not shared with you is a range of regulations referring to compost spreading.  All apparently hinges on whether your actions meet Rule 1 of the water regulations. Straightforward you might think, but in truth the task required discovering what the rule said, and then attempting to understand it. This is what I think we have to do the meet Rule 1:  

  • Avoid spreading close to the Brook and water carrying ditches  
  • Spreading can only be carried out between June and October  
  • Soil testing at least every 5 years in order to justify the composting  
  • And a slightly more formal composting plan  
  • And not spreading more than twelve and a half tons per hectare  

If anybody knows better do, please, let me know.  

The wood

When we first came to the farm it seemed clear that that the wood had not been managed for many years. It was also a fact that the existing trees were of no great age – indeed only two might be described as ancient. We knew that the wood had been enclosed in the 14th century, presumably to meet the needs of a Manor house of whose remains nothing can be seen but a partial moat. That the wood had once been managed was evidenced by the massive stools that were dotted about. The word was, that until recently, an elderly individual had visited each year to cut himself bean sticks but that he had died some years before.  

Impelled by enthusiasm I made contact with the Forestry Commission to get their thoughts on what we might do, and of course whether there were any grants available. The best that can be said about that experience was that we got money enough to hardcore the track through field one, and a continuation into the wood to provide a turning circle for vehicles taking cut wood out, and indeed we did make a small amount of money that way. The other grants we got partly paid for us buying hundreds of saplings, all of native trees, guards against rabbit damage, and hundreds of metres of fencing against deer. An all but total failure. After five years it was obvious that perhaps less than 10 per cent of the saplings had taken. We had invested quite a lot of money in the project, hired an individual to carry out planting and to provide care for the first couple of years – not our first or only mistake of course.   

Ancient Pear

Given that dismal failure, we have considered various options and in fact established a play area for the grandchildren. We also attempted to keep usable a circular path for visitors as part of an agreement with Natural England for many years. It was never used, and in due course we let things slide as the annual cost of maintaining it was far in excess of the grant.  

Given all this, you can imagine with what interest I read about the Monks Wood experiment in Cambridgeshire. In 1961 the then Director of an Experimental research centre took the decision to, after first ploughing a field of 4 hectares, just let nature do its own thing. The result after sixty years was quite remarkable. “Wilding” it seems is just a matter of time and accepting the inevitable loss of income.  

I found all this so exciting, that I include in large part the conclusions of the study: 

“The original Wilderness field was colonised very rapidly by woodland shrubs and trees. During the initial decades after land abandonment, colonisation was dominated by thorny shrubs, which formed a blossom-rich habitat for several decades. This shrubland apparently protected the tree seedlings that grew amongst it, and which eventually grew over the shrubs to form a tree canopy. The Wilderness field had essentially achieved complete coverage of closed-canopy woodland after 53 years, trees averaging 13.1 m tall. By this stage, the structural characteristics of the Wilderness were approaching those of the neighbouring ancient woodland. However, the woody species composition of Wilderness differed from the ancient woodland of Monks Wood, being dominated by animal-dispersed oak and berry-bearing shrubs, especially hawthorn.  

It appeared that the early-colonising thorny shrubs were deposited by berry-eating thrushes feeding on the open ground, while acorns were planted by Jays, Grey Squirrels or Wood Mice. The minority of Ash, Maple, Birch and Elm trees colonised by wind dispersal or suckering. Wind-dispersed Ash was more common on the field as it had been ploughed allowing the lighter seeds to reach the soil more easily than on grassland. Tree colonisation was spatially clustered, with Ash mostly occurring nearer to seed sources in the adjacent woodland, while Oaks were more widely distributed in clusters, probably due to patterns of widespread acorn hoarding by the Jays and rodents.  

Herbivores, such as deer and Rabbits, did not appear to have seriously hindered the development of the new woodland, despite no fencing or culling on the site probably due to the natural protection provided to tree saplings by the thorny shrubs and bramble.  

This passive rewilding shows that closed-canopy woodland can quickly re-establish on abandoned farmland close to existing woodland, with no management or inputs, and it was resilient to the presence of herbivores and also to numerous summer droughts. After an initial phase of shrubland, Oak-dominated native woodland was achieved within 50 years  

The catch appears to be the the need for proximity to ancient woodland. Just how critical that is, is left quite unclear. There is no ancient wood land near our wood – would we get similar results if we left it for another twenty years.” 

Yobbish behaviour

Over the last ten days or so my sister and I have been exploring the proposition that we now live in a yobbish culture. It has certainly been a matter much on my mind, and I have found myself starting in a strange place, then wandering down memory lane, but hopefully finishing off with a clear example of what yobbish behaviour looks like, and my own answer to the original question.  

The CD’s I have been and continue to listen to come from a 15 CD set claiming to include all the EMI recordings made by the conductor Silvestri. He took over the role of Chief Conductor to the BSO from the later knighted Charles Groves, who went onto conduct the Royal Liverpool Orchestra. Silvestri’s move to Bournemouth led to many raised eyebrows because at that time the BSO, though respected, was certainly seen as a step down. He stayed in Bournemouth from 1961 to his very early death in 1969. During that period the BSO moved into the ranks of the elite orchestras.  

Some drastic rewriting had to take place at this point as I found myself writing a potted history of Bournemouth in the 1950’s and 1960’s which was straying from the point just too far. In 1974 there was a major reorganisation of local authorities followed by ‘rationalisation’ of most other aspects of life – fire, police, ambulance and so on. A key result was that towns like Bournemouth lost control of their own affairs. With hindsight, though all was said to be done in the nations’ best interests, it was about taking more control in London, and even more importantly saving money. The 1970’s saw a vast increase in government demands of local authorities, while at the same time the money allocated to them started to steadily diminish year on year.  

At the same time, legalisation saw incomes rise, while ‘easy-money’ from the banks meant an increasing number of people began owning cars, and young people actually having cash in their pockets. Respect for authority began to slide away, whether in the classroom or in the streets. Standard English became discriminatory, language not previously heard became part of every life – the media adopted these changes.   

Following on from war damage, housing became a political hot potato, news towns were built, and in the process, communities were broken up.  

Placement in housing estates tended to separate the ‘troublemakers’ from the more community minded. The car began to dominate town planning, by-passes developed, ring roads were driven through. Except for military training areas, everywhere was accessible to all.  

More money meant more drinking, the notion that ‘the grass is always greener’ elsewhere, contributed to a fall in the significance of marriage, assisted of course by the coming of the ‘pill’ and back street abortions became unnecessary as the NHS took over matters.  

Bluntly, following the second world war, English society was all but shattered and recast into something very different and not always the better for it.  

In the early 1990’s Anne and I were among local dignitaries and senior local government figures invited to attend a concert at the Warwick Arts Centre to hear the violinist Nigel Kennedy perform with the Birmingham Symphony orchestra, Vivaldi’s ‘The four seasons’. The performance was spectacular, if a little embarrassing as Kennedy seemed determined to play at speeds uncomfortable to the orchestra.  

Worse was to follow, at the dinner after the performance, Kennedy and his latest girlfriend were the main guests. His behaviour caused all to cringe, here was ‘yobbishness’ of the highest order. Leaving aside his bizarre bogus working-class accent, and his determination to either ignore or to be rude to those who attempted to speak with him, he ignored the rest of the diners and spent his time fondling the girl together with heavy snogging. Not a soul protested, I think it was just that all had no idea how to cope. He was a ‘celebrity’ and a role model for a new style of behaviour.  

So, having shared an example of what yobbish behaviour looks like, to return to the starting point, I do not believe that all is lost, and that we now live in a yobbish society, though there is too much of that behaviour around.  

And to return to Bournemouth, unless matters have greatly changed in the past ten years, it was always a delight and reassuring to see so many happy family groups and feel perfectly safe, at least until midnight.  

I suppose I should answer the question, ‘so what is it like in Inkberrow’? Looking at issues raised at parish council meetings, this is not a question that appears to regularly come up.  

I offer two poems. One of despair from Emily Dickenson, and one of a world, real or otherwise, inhabited by John Clare. The choice is yours.  

John Clare  
Autumn  
  
The thistledown's flying, though the winds are all still,   
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill,   
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot;   
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot.   
  
The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread,   
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead.   
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed,   
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed.   
  
Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,   
And the rivers we're eying burn to gold as they run;   
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;   
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.   


There's a certain Slant of light by Emily Dickinson   
  
There's a certain Slant of light,  
Winter Afternoons –  
That oppresses, like the Heft  
Of Cathedral Tunes –  
  
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –  
We can find no scar,  
But internal difference –  
Where the Meanings, are –  
  
None may teach it – Any –  
'Tis the seal Despair –  
An imperial affliction  
Sent us of the Air –  
  
When it comes, the Landscape listens –  
Shadows – hold their breath –  
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance  
On the look of Death –





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