Winter quarters!

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

I try not to automatically start these notes with comments about the weather, but on occasion it seems a natural starting point, and also this time, an appropriate setting for the major event of the week.   

Apart from a damp start, what followed until the weekend, has been something really not seen for a while – frost and dense fog which has lingered for large parts of the day until burnt off by the sun. In no way a problem, indeed, with the cattle out to the end of the week, rather a bonus but what it does underline is that winter begins next week!  

On Friday morning the suckler herd was brought in off the fields and lodged in their winter quarters. The day before, the barn was prepared for them with bedding straw on the ground, feed placed in front of the tombstones, and in one small round feeder. The procession down the track to the barn was unhurried and uneventful with at the very rear the bull meandering along on his short stubby legs, followed by the family and Tim. It is only at times like this when the sheer number of animals strikes home. Some 31 cattle, their calves under seven months, and of course Postman – quite awe inspiring. The young cattle are still out in a field as work on the right-hand side of the barn is not yet complete and so space is not currently available. An annual experience not to be missed, made all the more enjoyable by the lingering sun lit mist hanging over the fields. An experience which, these days, Anne and I are merely observers of.  

You may recall the argument that methane was a key cause of climate change rather than CO2, and that the number of cattle in the world needed to be sharply reduced. At last senior academics have crystalized the fault with that argument.  

A new paper by the Head of the Climate Dynamics Group and his colleagues at Oxford University states that the concentration on rates of emission has mislead thinking, and that what really matters is the warming effects of the different gases. In their view, the metric that should be used is GWP* rather than GWP100 – commonly known as carbon equivalency.  

Exactly what the * signifies escapes me, but otherwise we are simply referring to global warming potential.  

Turning all this into straightforward language, the argument is that ‘long-lived stock gas’ is the real problem not ‘short-lived flow gas’. It is one thing for farmers to attempt to argue this case, now we have ‘names’ making the argument at a vital time as the EU draft methane strategy is yet to be finalised.  

This has also been a busy, though less dramatic week for our sheep. The rams eventually joined the ewes on the 23rd and will stay for at least two full breeding cycles. This does at least ensure few empties, but does mean lambing can last far longer than the four and a half months which is the normal length of pregnancy. Half the time taken for cows. The sheep are now spread over three fields. While there is plenty of grass, it’s protein content may become an issue requiring intervention on our part, towards the later stages of pregnancy.  

Further good news is that our bid for a 40% capital grant to enable us to replace our now ancient sheep handling system has been authorised.  

Martin, who first got involved on the site installing the new sewage system has almost become a fixture. It is he with his space age machines, who has done the bulk of the work around the barn area – levelling, ditching, concreting – you name it and one way or another he has played a part. His time is not cheap, but he has years of experience, pride in his work and enormous willingness, and has made a great contribution to the farm, business Park and Ulula.  

Last week we had a rush of requests from undergraduates at ISARA Lyon to carry out their internship here. Making decisions was becoming very complicated until a ruling came that interns could not come from the same group if they were in their second year, a clear change of policy. So, the position now is that one of the three who were to come this year but could not, will join us next June, possibly with two younger students. At this stage we remain closed to woofers, and for the moment that decision has to hold.  

I have recently written about the new Agricultural Act which is designed to turn back the clock as far as the environment is concerned. After bumps, most environmentalist and farmer groups are supportive. However, there is now a rather large cloud hanging over this good news following the Chancellors recent statement.  

It is apparently the case the money scheduled to go to Wales for agriculture is to be sharply cut. So far alarm bells have not rung in England, but given the economic state of the country, which will be worsened by whatever form Brexit takes, a new uncertainty rears its head. 

Jane Goodall’s argument at the weekend that climate problems were the result of overpopulation is seductive but probably false, but it did remind me of my irritation that historians so often neglect climate as a factor in explaining events. It suits our psychological needs to assume constants wherever possible even when at other levels we know they are false.  

Climate, whether in the context of long or short term has never been a constant. A wide range of forces have always meant change. There can be little doubt that perhaps since the 18th century, change caused by human activity has increased, but to believe climate variation is a new phenomenon is belied by hard evidence. In our own country think of the effect in east Anglia of peat extraction and drainage.  

But that was not by colonists but the existing society. The problem for newcomers to a country is both their lack of long-term climate knowledge, and their casual exploitation of the landscape. There are plentiful examples of this. Recently studies of why wildfires have become so devastating in California was found to be a consequence of the fact that when the area was settled by Europeans following the 1850’s gold rush, the area was in an unusual wet period. Which lasted for the best part of a hundred years. The vegetation native to the area was appropriate to a semi-arid world and, thus able to cope with drought and wildfires. The newcomers, not knowing of that, or unwilling to learn from the original population, planted vegetation suited to the climate then existing. So, when semi-arid conditions returned in recent decades the imported vegetation could not cope and natural wildfires easily take hold.  

Another example from Canada, though at a different date is that when colonists first settled in Saskatchewan the weather conditions were relatively benign as they had been for over 100 years. Instead of wondering why wild life and the existing population moved south as winter approached, the newcomers attempted a style of life and farming that the bad winter of 1906-7 made impossible: cattle literately froze to death standing the fields (something we have recently been reminded was last seen in France in 1709). Without domestic heating this area and many others in North America would be uninhabitable.  

For an example from Europe, we now know we can look to Poland. Recent archaeology work suggests that the Teutonic order’s push to the east in the 13th century totally disrupted both the social life and the geography of the area. We found this research interesting to read because Malbork castle, in what is now Poland, remains an imposing reminder of the arrival of the Teutonic order, whose overt justification was the introduction of Christianity to what were seen as ‘pagan’ tribes. The start perhaps of the strange relationship between Germans and Poles.  

So often colonists fail to answer basic questions such as why the population is so mobile, and so few in number. Think of Australia and the increasing hazards that are developing as a result of drought and extreme heat. Incidentally, these are not actually new phenomenon, but those which the pre-existing society had learnt to cope with.  

The common message is of course – arrogance, contempt and failure to see any situation through anything other than from one’s own perspective remains a besetting human problem. But to end on a more positive note, in this country at least, attempts are genuinely taking place to attempt to undo some of the damage done historically. 

Great performers

Last week I referred to London’s ability to attract great performers, I should of course have also identified Edinburgh as having significant ‘pulling power’ as well. This week I have been listening to two further imports from the continent. Agnes Zimmerman came with her parents to London in the first half of the 19th century, though apparently an outstanding pianist, her only compositions on disc are three attractive violin sonatas. A century or so earlier, Geminiani, regarded in his time as in the same league as Corelli and an outstanding violinist, came to London to make his fortune. Though finally buried in Dublin he spent many years in England. Again, there is little of his work to listen to, but if you enjoy Corelli, his music is worth listening to  

Architecture to poetry

Architecture is not really ‘my bag’ though I have some copies of Pevsner’s great work. However, one apparently certain feature of all villages is the church, usually dating back hundreds of years even if in due course a Victorian architect ‘knew’ he knew better and updated the buildings. In cities on the other hand, churches, of whatever denomination, are commonly very Victorian creations, rather like the grand public houses of that period. Built to the glory of God and designed to hold hundreds of people, they still stand defiantly against the drift of the times.  

Some thrive, but many do not, though those that do not seem to have other uses found easily enough. The same cannot be said of the stately Victorian public houses. 

For many years we spent holidays in Aberdaron. Not down in the village itself where there was an ancient church by the seashore under constant threat by the sea, but at the top of the steep hill down to the village.  From the sitting room of the cottage we could see across two fields the stark and frankly ugly building of the Victorian church built to replace the 12th century Church by the shoreline. Even fifty years ago it was derelict except for its graveyard which remained in use. Adjacent to it was a largish building where the vicar lived.  

The vicar was the poet R.S.Thomas. A man who disliked the English and was much involved with Sinclair Lewis, the founder of Plaid Cymru, yet was priest to a community which relied on its English visitors for survival, and so in summer he had to take services in English. He despised his country folk for not hating the English sufficiently. Sadly for him, his native language was English and while in later life he acquired fluency in Welsh, it was only in English that he found the language for his poetry. His biographers, and indeed his family found him a cold and odd character, clearly struggling both with his faith and difficulty in relating to people by that does not mean his poetry was worthless.   

The Empty Church by R.S.Thomas

Often I try   
To analyse the quality  
Of its silences.   
Is this where God hides   
From my searching?   
I have stopped to listen,   
After the few people have gone,   
To the air recomposing itself    
For vigil.   
It has waited like this   
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.   
These are the hard ribs   
Of a body that our prayers have failed   
To animate.   
Shadows advance From their corners to take possession   
Of places the light held   
For an hour.   
The bats resume   
Their business.   
The uneasiness of the pews   
There is no other sound In the darkness  
but the sound of a man   
Breathing, testing his faith.  
On emptiness, nailing his questions   
One by one to an untenanted cross. 

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