Archives for admin

Pest, pet and prey: the frightened Rabbit

Wild Rabbits playing on Star Hill, Bridge. Image © copyright 2018.

One very familiar and seemingly ubiquitous creature in the landscape of the Kent Downs is the wild Rabbit. Bridge residents who venture out into our local countryside will know we have our fair share of them here. Originally from the south west of Europe, they were brought into Britain as farmed animals in the 12th century by the invading Normans who kept them in managed warrens to provide a cheap and easy source of meat and fur. Of course some escaped and, finding a landscape they could adapt to, they naturally bred like… Rabbits!

Given its countryside status as a bit of a pest, particularly one that lives gregariously out in the fields, it is odd that parents of young children frequently buy them a Rabbit as a pet to be kept in a small hutch out in the back garden. It is wilfully ignorant, cruel and quite obviously runs contrary to the animals’ natural way of life. The hutch gained popularity in Victorian times when Rabbits were captured alive and held for a short time before being killed for the pot; but even the barbaric Victorians were not so misinformed as to think they were actually being kind to a much loved pet in the way that many children are deceived into believing by trusted adults today. It is a national disgrace that Rabbits are kept confined in small hutches in primary schools all over Britain to this day.

Wild Rabbits, Bridge area. Rabbits live in structured family groups. Image © copyright 2018.

We must dismiss any spurious excuses about ‘domesticated’ Rabbits being bred for captivity: it should be clear, a Rabbit is a Rabbit, there is not some convenient division in the species between those that like being trapped in a tiny wooden box all their lives and those that don’t! Rabbits are intelligent and active creatures, they need a lot of exercise and the freedom to roam about grazing. Out in the wild each one may graze over an area as large as three football pitches in a day. Furthermore, being herbivores and non-aggressive, they are one of nature’s ‘runners’, animals that run away from a predator. If threatened in the field they escape to hide within the safety of their burrows, away from the sight, smells and sounds of the predator, but, confined within a small hutch in the garden, they have nowhere to run when a dog, cat or fox comes sniffing around them. This is a terrifying experience for them.

Burrows deep in the ground also provide good temperature insulation and protect Rabbits from the extremes of weather: in a simple wooden hutch, exposed to the elements, they often spend their lives trembling in cold and terror in the winter and cramped in horrendous dehydrating heat in the summer. Huge numbers die every year from poor living conditions, bad diet, neglect, and undiagnosed diseases. Those that survive often do so only to suffer the loneliness of isolation.

Rabbits are very social creatures: in the wild they live in large family groups structured by a social hierarchy within a warren; so they don’t like being alone, but they don’t want human friends either, they prefer Rabbit company to people company; they hate being picked up, will scratch to escape if they can, and are very prone to injury if they are dropped. Clearly these are not animals which are at all suited to becoming children’s pets, and in the UK the RSPCA say they have more problems with neglect and cruelty to Rabbits than any other creature (1). Rabbit owners generally hide details of their own negligence, but veterinary figures suggest many hutched Rabbits die within days of purchase and few live their full life expectancy of seven years or more. Perhaps that is a mercy.

On Kent’s open downs Rabbits are charming, harmless creatures trimming and fertilising the grass, as prey they provide food for other creatures of the countryside. Unfortunately, on arable farmland they are a major nuisance: wild animals living in the wrong place. Recent figures suggest £100m of produce is lost to Rabbits in the UK (2), and in consequence many farmers understandably feel the need to cull them. The Rabbit’s main natural predators are foxes and buzzards, so this begs the question: if fox hunting ever was about efficiently killing foxes, why would any arable farmer condone a sport which kills his biggest ally against the Rabbit?

As pest, pet or prey, the life of the Rabbit is full of fear: mankind is its nemesis. Where does this gentle creature really belong? Somewhere in a wild place, far away from us.


The plan

The land around Bridge is not just pretty scenery, it is a working agricultural landscape. Image © Copyright 2018.

After years of hard work in preparation, the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan has been presented publicly for consultation with the people of the parish. All residents are invited to comment. So, how does it look from the perspective of Nature, wildlife conservation and agriculture?

The plan appears to be very much geared towards preserving the unique identity of Bridge, maintaining a strong sense of separation from the city of Canterbury and protecting green spaces around the village. It presents as a ‘green plan’ accepting and supporting the use of environmentally friendly initiatives and technologies as they arise. These include: maintaining public transport links, an improved cycle route to Canterbury, clean air policies, electric car charging points, preservation of green spaces in and around the village, flood and sewage pollution prevention policies and sustainable building practices.

We sense that this plan is also a valiant attempt to resist major development in Bridge while fulfilling a demand for need established affordable homes. The latter is a generous gesture and it may win public approval, but even the building of affordable homes of this type is only intended to be allowed within an AONB in exceptional circumstances, and these might be considered hard to justify when so many new houses are about to be built outside the AONB just a few minutes away at Mountfield Park.

Unfortunately, there is a further sense within the plan that various policies on development contradict each other. Policy C3 expresses support for the proposal to build 40 houses near Bridge Surgery, although the need for more housing than 11 affordable homes has not been established. This does not comply with national planning legislation (NPPF 2012), current AONB management policies, CCC’s District Plan, or indeed other policies within the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan itself. Residents should recall that, in a trade off for the recreation ground, this proposal was voted into the plan by the public, but that does not mean the idea is appropriate or that it will pass muster with the planning authority.

The idea that Bridge includes, and is surrounded by, green space is made much of within the plan, but it is described in an abstract sense and there is surprisingly little acknowledgement that the surrounding fields are working farmland in an historic and beautiful corner of England: one that has been protected for future generations by AONB designation of the same status as that of a National Park. A further indicator of this omission is the poor presentation of the pictures showing protected views within the plan, sometimes as tiny images, which can barely be seen. Better presentation might endorse the recognition that these views are worth protecting.

Sadly this does not look and read like a Neighbourhood Plan which values farming: indeed, there is so little mention of farming, farmland and the outlying countryside of our parish that it reads like a plan for the village centre, which only acknowledges farming as a scenic view from the window, and only appreciates countryside as a place of recreational pursuits. On page 26, in general text we read, “The plan will encourage and support the use of land to establish sustainable farming, allotments and community orchards…”, but that sounds almost like a slap in the face for existing farming, which faces many complex environmental, economic and political challenges. On the same page we are offered Project F2, which says it will “support new developments that allocate land to uses such as sustainable farming, allotments and community orchards”. Is this saying it will approve new housing development if such land is offered as a sweetener? It certainly reads that way and it is alarming. The plan needs clarity here. Perhaps Project F2 should be replaced with a project which states, “Sustainable farming will be supported and the further use of land to establish allotments and community orchards will be encouraged”. And what of a project statement on local woodland? And on wildlife conservation?

Of further concern is Policy A3 which supports a proposal to convert redundant farm buildings at Great Pett Farm, Bridge, to light industrial/commercial units. This is a proposal from agents acting for the landowner; but how and why are the landowner and the authors of the plan so sure that Great Pett Farm will never again need its barns and its farmyard? What is the long term ambition for farming in the fields around Bridge? We don’t find an answer in the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan.

To be fair, we are perhaps asking the plan to speak beyond its basic remit on some of these issues, but maybe it should. This should be a plan presenting, not just a defence of our village from urban expansion, but a vision of Bridge parish as a thriving, historic, rural landscape which treasures its AONB status, its countryside, its farming heritage and its wildlife, along with its community. The plan is a bold effort, but our parish has much to be proud of, and we should not hesitate to speak loudly in praise of what it is we are defending: a little more expressive recognition of farming and countryside would be welcome.

Wildlife in extremis

Small songbirds like this Blue Tit are most vulnerable in freezing weather. Image © Copyright 2018.

This week, in view of freezing temperatures and the covering of snow which the district has experienced over the last few days, reiterates our plea for people to think about our wildlife out in the cold. The sad truth is that huge numbers of smaller animals and birds will simply die of starvation and hypothermia over this period. It has been calculated that in the notorious winter of 1963, 50% of all Britain’s birds died, but no one seems to have any idea how many small animals perished.

We can’t all do a great deal to assist animals in the frozen countryside, but we can at least offer food to the birds visiting our garden bird tables and try to provide a regular supply of fresh water, which is vital. Any water in a butt will be frozen solid, and birds do not like our tap water, it has too much of a chemical smell for their tastes, so supplying a drinking station is not easy. If water is left out, after a day or two it will lose its odour, so that is one option, but of course in this weather it is likely to freeze pretty quickly too. So, a better alternative is to try to keep a bucket of melted snow somewhere where it won’t re-freeze, then top up the bird bath, or a flat container, with this every day, or twice a day if possible, so that the birds will at least have some opportunity during the day for a drink. Bird feeders are essential, but it is also helpful to clear a surface high off the ground, perhaps on a garden table, and put extra food out.

It is not a good idea to regularly spread seed or food on the ground near the house, for this can attract rodents to the home, but in these extreme conditions a handful of bird seed scattered on bare ground under a hedge at the end of the garden or at the roadside verge will do little harm and may save a tiny life.

Pictures as words

A word like ‘cat’ in written English has no resemblance to the real thing, so association has to be taught, often with supporting imagery. (Cat image courtesy of WP

English is written in a modular symbolic form: the word ‘cat’ has no inherent relationship to what we know as a cat, it acquires its meaning only through learned association. The letters within words denote sounds and sometimes meanings as well, but they are not constant. Contrary to what we were taught as infants, ‘A’ is not for apple, it has many other uses and when placed within the spelling of apple, the letter itself is meaningless other than as an indicator of sound; but even that can change, as it does in ‘day’.

On a website about nature, such observations may seem like irrelevant pedantry, but there is a view that the need to record and write about our natural world in this confusing, abstract form has changed the very way we regard nature itself, and limited the manner in which we discuss it. Some leading international ecologists contend that, in the same way that when we give something a number instead of a name, it loses its character and identity, the abstract symbols used in written languages of modern western culture serve to anonymise nature and distance us from it in our discussions of the natural world.

Some Mandarin word symbols are still recognisable as pictographs of real world natural objects today. Image © Copyright 2018.

In comparison, the written languages of Ancient Egypt, Japan and China use pictographs, little representative images, to describe and discuss the natural world. In Mandarin the sun was, in ancient times, depicted with a recognisable image of the sun; today the word for a tree is still a recognisable pictograph of a tree. Could it be that the use of this type of written language, as opposed to ours, inherently fosters closer cultural connections with nature? Some people believe so.

Various modern English letters also began their history in ancient times as depictions of real entities, but they have evolved over the ages to the extent that most are now barely recognisable as illustrations of their original subjects, and they no longer have any meaning associated with that origin. The letter A began life as an image of an Ox’s head (you can get the idea if you turn the A on its side), but it does not mean ‘Ox’s head’ in any words in which it is placed. B was a house (unrecognisable in its modern shape); D was a door; L (upside down) was a walking stick; M was water, showing the waves on the sea; N was a snake; O was an open eye; P was a mouth (ironically still used in jokey modern text messages to show a mouth with a tongue out); Q was an image of a monkey (and yes that sweeping lower stroke was its tail); X was a fish (representing the part where the fish’s tail joins the body). An X was used as the secret fish symbol of early Christians.

It’s a strange thing, but even discussing these ancient origins of our English letters and Chinese pictographic words does seem to draw us a little closer to the natural world of our past, and it invites conjecture on how a pictographic modern western language, if we had one, or even some other linguistic form, might have influenced discussions and attitudes to nature and ecology today.

This article was inspired by the visionary and thought provoking book ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ by David Abram.

Chasing a misshapen ball

The current cricket facilities at Highland Court Farm are historic, on a small scale, and have old world charm; few would consider them obtrusive. The proposed new sports complexes would be on a significantly larger scale. Image © Copyright 2018.

In recent months a huge new building development scheme has been proposed for Highland Court Farm on the Bekesbourne Downs in our local AONB. Within it there is a very substantial element of sports complex development included. Indeed, the developer indicates that a new home for Canterbury Rugby Club is a fundamental part of the plan, along with club and pitch facilities for other ball sports. While building development in an AONB is always controversial, traditional sports pitches may appear less so, on the grassy surface at least. The original terms of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty designation do indicate some conditional support for recreation; so does that mean modern sports pitches and clubhouse complexes comply as an appropriate use of land within an AONB?

From the outset AONBs were envisioned as working conservation areas, the work being farming and forestry, and something close to the original description of the designation is set out in the Countryside Agency’s 1991 Policy Statement on AONBs:

“The primary purpose of the designation is to conserve and enhance natural beauty.

In pursuing the primary purpose of the designation, account should be taken of the needs of agriculture, forestry and other rural industries and of the economic and social needs of local communities. Particular regard should be paid to promoting sustainable forms of social and economic development that in themselves conserve and enhance the environment.

Recreation is not an objective of the designation, but the demand for recreation should be met insofar as this is consistent with the conservation of natural beauty and the needs of agriculture, forestry and other uses.”

While this policy discusses meeting a requirement for recreation, it means something rather different from pitch activities such as football, hockey, tennis and rugby: the policy was clearly intended to provide for activities such as hiking, cycling, horse riding and fishing, all for the benefit of enjoying the beautiful rural scenery of the AONB. Quite obviously it was not condoning the building of sports pitches, stands, stadiums, membership clubs and car parks, all of which would, by their very nature, interfere with the needs of agriculture and forestry while despoiling the rural scenery of the AONB.

Bridge village has a recreation ground which is underused for traditional ball sports. Image © Copyright 2018.

Those local people who wish to spend their leisure time chasing balls, already have plenty of facilities in which to do so, but our local village recreation grounds are underused by local people for traditional amateur sports, suggesting there is limited demand. Those who have most to gain from the new facilities proposed, would be commercial sports clubs wishing to expand, and they would draw supporters and participants from all over Kent, possibly to be joined by sporting opponents from far beyond. This would not be appropriate or welcome here: valuable farmland in our AONB is not the place in which to create showpiece sports facilities for everyone in Kent, either for the sake of those few who are unsatisfied with what they already have, or to enrich those who would exploit the land for their own commercial interests.

Bekesbourne village recreation ground is also much underused for traditional sports. Image © Copyright 2018.

The agroforestry revolution

Large open crop fields with few trees and hedgerows, like these fields on the Downs at Bekesbourne, are prone to depletion and may soon be a thing of the past. Image © Copyright 2018.

Those of us who have grown up in the British countryside within the last century or so have become accustomed to seeing large rectangular(ish) fields of one crop growing between thin, widely dispersed borders of hedgerow: it seems the sensible, efficient way to organise areas of agricultural crops, particularly when using modern farming equipment. But this, so called monoculture, is not the only way to manage land, and it is certainly not the most environmentally friendly. Britain’s fields are approaching exhaustion: they have been overworked and undernourished; our wildlife has been decimated; there is a critical shortage of farmland; something has to change.

Governments, farmers and environmentalists are all looking for new ways to increase production and maximise farming efficiency, while, at the same time, enhancing the biodiversity of farmland. One astonishing system, which is gaining credence in EU farming and government circles is called agroforestry, and it is an entirely different agricultural system from the big field monoculture which many British farmers are used to. The idea is to plant crops in strips, perhaps sixty feet or so wide, between rows of fruit, nut or wood producing trees. Livestock meadowland can also be planted with rows of trees in this way.

It all seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but the secret of the system is that with careful crop and tree selection and management a micro-climate can be created between the trees, which is of benefit all round: trees take water lower in the ground than crops, so they don’t compete; trees can provide refuge for the creatures that eat crop pests; trees can protect arable crops (and animals) from adverse weather, while careful positioning of the rows north to south (or otherwise to suit the local topography) and regular harvesting of new wood growth allows plenty of sunlight for good growing.

One might assume that when managing a farm in this way production is reduced and profits lowered, but farmers who have switched to this system say that is not necessarily so: planning for smaller land strips means they are more diverse, more able to be flexible and adaptable in what they grow. The rows of trees also produce a valuable crop themselves: fruits like apples and plums, nuts like hazel and walnut, or coppiced wood for bio-fuel chips; all of which tend to become available when the arable harvest has finished. As a consequence, farmers say their profits have increased, sometimes by up to 50%.

While this system can be beneficial to the farmer, tests indicate it is significantly better for the rural environment too, with huge biodiversity enhancement, less water run-off and evaporation, less soil erosion and, if the system became widespread, massive capture of carbon pollution. Of course agroforestry is just one new option in farming: we will have to wait to see if it takes off; but with our government promising a new ethical stance on farming grants which will favour those farmers who practice environmental farming policies, agroforestry may prove a popular and exciting new feature of our countryside in years to come.

Right in front of your nose

Stinking Hellibore, Ford Close, Bridge. Image © Copyright 2018.

Those walking along Western Avenue in Bridge this January may have noticed an unusual flowering plant growing under the trees in the Ford Close garden square. If you haven’t seen it, do go back and have a closer look; for there, right in front of your nose, you will see the rather rare Stinking Hellibore.

Despite the name, this is a delightfully exotic looking plant of subtle blooms and colouring, which seems out of place here flowering alone in a British winter, but it is one of our two native wild Hellibores, the other being the Green Hellibore. Both are related to the buttercup. They are sometimes grown in private gardens for their winter foliage and flowers, and it is of course possible that this one is an escapee, but that possibility is in itself part of the story of our native Hellibores; they have been passing from the wild into gardens and back again for centuries, but nevertheless they have become a rare sight in the wild in modern times. For location they prefer the semi-shade and shelter of trees on chalky soil, as we have locally on the downs: and being a true winter flower, they display an abundance of discreet blooms from January through into spring.

Stinking Hellibore flower. 27 January 2018. Image © Copyright 2018.

The name Stinking Hellibore and the plant’s other common appellation, Dungwort, may seem to give an ominous clue to its aroma, but it’s a false lead: the plant can sometimes have a very pleasant fragrance and only when it is crushed does it smell mildly unsavoury. Parts of the plant contain digitalin, used medicinally for lowering blood pressure, but Stinking Hellibore is extremely toxic so its use is restricted: it must never be eaten and hands must be washed after contact(1).

(1) Anyone with safety concerns about this should note buttercups, daffodils and many other common flowers are also very toxic, but cases of poisoning are extremely rare.

When silence brings noise

Traffic on Bridge High Street. Will a new era of silent motors bring quiet to our rural villages and countryside, or a plethora of strange noises? Image © Copyright 2018.

Why does the lion roar?
So the horse knows it should be afraid.”

Arabian proverb

Despite the romance of their nostalgic image, the old coal-powered steam engines on railways and farms were dirty, poisonous, roaring monsters; internal combustion engines are noisy contaminators too, giving reason why both have been loathed by those who have to live with the constant din, by environmentalists who abhor their pollution, and by nature lovers and holidaymakers trying to take refuge from the aggressive rush and growl of travelling machines.

Steam engines are now obsolete but for a few museum remnants, and the internal combustion engine is fast becoming so. The electric motor has been reborn and its rise will be exponential in the next few decades. It is cleaner, uses fuel more efficiently, and produces very little noise. More and more vehicles will be fitted with electric motors from now on. While trains and cars approach with raucous sound, and even the old stage coach would announce itself with a clatter of hooves and a post horn fanfare, the purr of the modern electric motor is as quiet as a cat’s. But therein lies another, less obvious concern: how will we hear fast traffic approaching? How will we know when to be afraid?

To counter this issue, manufacturers are creating a library of simulated ‘esounds’ for their electric vehicles so that pedestrians, cyclists and other road users will be more aware of their approach. We have seen the introduction of these manufactured sounds already in the blaring alarms which play when trucks and buses are reversing, the entirely unnecessary electronic bleeps of remote central locking systems, and the recently introduced designer engine noises on sports cars, which can be turned on with the flick of a switch by those who want to show off with a more throaty noise. Ironically, it seems most electric vehicle manufacturers are currently giving their silent motors the simulated sounds of a petrol engine, but in future you may be able to give your vehicle a whole range of custom sounds to suit your mood. If, as some predict, we all soon find ourselves no longer owning cars, but hiring driverless cars as and when we need them, who will then select the noises they make, the adverts they play?

At first hearing, silent electric motors sound like progress, but if the rumble and roar of internal combustion engines across our landscape is to be replaced by a plethora of different quirky buzzes, whirrings, sirens and tunes, each individually selected by car manufacturers and drivers at their own whim, are we soon to expect a whole new cacophony of discordant noise pollution on our streets and in our tranquil countryside?

A walk around the model farm

On Saturday, 20 January 2018, members of the Barham Downs Action Group led a walk on public rights of way around Highland Court Farm near Bridge. The initiative was intended for local people with an interest in learning more about the farm and preserving the farmland from a proposed new development. Despite inclement weather, over twenty people, some with dogs, attended the walk.

Jill Thomas, of Bekesbourne, presented some interesting factual and historical information about the farm and the downs at various locations around the landscape.

On behalf of all local people who wish to see our AONB preserved, we thank the organisers and all those who attended.

This was not a initiative and we have no further information on the walk or the action group. Barham Downs Action Group have their own Facebook page.

A vase of flowers

A flower display on the bar at the Red Lion in Bridge, made by Sandra using flowers from the garden. July 2016. Image © copyright 2018.

For centuries people have enjoyed the sight of flowers, in the wild, in gardens and in their homes. However, in the past, bringing flowers into the house often had a particular purpose or meaning beyond just providing something pretty to look at. They would be strategically positioned above doors and windows to ward off evil spirits, or carefully placed in certain rooms to bring good luck and good health to the occupants. This tradition extended right through history into the 20th century with visitors taking flowers to those who were ill in hospital. Conversely, old folklore also provides an extensive list of flowers which should never be brought into the home for fear of inviting illness or bad luck upon the residents: this includes any type of blossom (particularly hawthorn), lilies, bluebells, dandelions and many other wild flowers.

These days we are less superstitious, some might say less spiritual, and few people actually bring flowers into the house to ward off evil spirits or to prevent diseases, yet millions of us display flowers in vases in locations around the home and the workplace because of the cheer they bring. We say “flowers brighten up the room” but what we really mean is “flowers brighten up our mood”. Scientific behavioural studies have shown that this, in itself, is no mere superstition: living and working in the presence of an attractive display of flowers really does trigger feelings of happiness and emotional well-being in everyone, men and women of all age groups. Furthermore studies show that for some reason, which is not clearly understood, a display of flowers in a room makes us more friendly, more willing to share, and has a much more powerful positive effect on our social behaviour than is generally assumed. One simple theory which might explain these responses, is that the colours, shapes and scents of flowers remind us biologically and emotionally of the idyllic conditions of spring and early summer when all animal and plant life bursts forth anew.

So, here in mid-winter, while we endure the coldest, most depressing months of the year, an attractive display of flowers in the home or office may provide a natural remedy to the winter blues; but of course the blooms in any such display are likely to be imported.

Wild flowers should be left in the wild, please do not pick them for your home!