Farming

Nothing much to see

Pett Valley View. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Nothing much to see

Up on The Butts
one morning in mid-September
and what is there to see?

Nothing much
but the sun
and the waning visage of last night’s moon
a fleet of white cumuli drifting across the blue
and the shadows of them racing
like spectres over stubble fields
of corduroy and tweed

At the hedgerow
an audience of animated trees
jostles in the wind
applauding a restless sea of golden grass
that glistens and shimmers in the sunlight
as it rolls in wave on wave
towards a continent
of purple flowered marjoram

There on the distant hill
the Mansfield orchards
pattern the slope
with neat little rows of apricot
apple and plum
and the ancient trees of Whitehill Wood
define the far horizon

In the valley
a working party of rooks
has landed on the stubble
to glean spilled grain from the mud
and above them a buzzard
circles
watching their every move

Up here in the tall grass
at the style
a bank vole nibbles at a sloe
and a few heads of oxeye daisy
turn their faces to the sun
as if refuting the end of summer

No
there’s nothing much to see here
nothing much to see here at all.

*All content on this website is © Copyright Mike Burns-Stark 2017
for BridgeNature.org. All rights reserved.

Season of the fruits and falling leaves

Autumn Apples at Highland Farm, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

With the arrival of September, Autumn begins here in our pleasant verdant valley. Autumn, a season at once bringing the farming year towards its close with luscious fruits, the emptiness of fields, the sadness of decaying blooms, the first cold mornings and the fall of golden leaves. A “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as Keats put it in his poem ‘To Autumn’.

While the names of months and days are capitalised in good English, the names of the seasons are considered generic nouns, so they are usually written with the initial letter in lower case. However, where a writer or poet like Keats chooses to personify a season by giving it a particular personality, the name of the season becomes a character’s name, a proper noun, so it is capitalised. But such is the influence of these seasonal characters upon our countryside, and so profound is the effect of the imposition of their individual temperaments upon our own lives, that we believe their personalities should be acknowledged every bit as much as the months and days; perhaps more so. Hence, throughout this piece (and in many of BridgeNature.org’s articles) the names of the seasons have been capitalised.

Today we recognise four seasons, but it has not always been so: while Summer and Winter have been accepted as distinct seasons for over a thousand years, it was not generally considered that there were two other seasons in our year until around the 16th century. In this country, up until that time, the late Summer period before Winter set in was simply known as ‘Harvest’, derived from the old Norse word ‘haust’ meaning ‘to gather or pluck’. During the industrial revolution, as more and more people moved from the English countryside to the new cities, the term lost its seasonal connotations and became just a word to describe the distant countryside activities of reaping and gathering of crops out in the fields.

Although Chaucer used the name Autumn (derived from Latin) in his writings in the 14th century, it was not until the 16th century that the word became widely used to describe the third season of the year. ‘Fall of Leaf’ became another popular, and more descriptive way to describe it too, and similarly ‘Spring of the Leaf’ acquired usage as a term for the beginning of Summer. Over the years they were reduced to the shortened forms of Fall and Spring respectively, and when the hordes of migrants travelled from these shores to the new continents of America and Australia they took those names with them. In Britain, for reasons unknown, Autumn remained more widely used than Fall; and it still is, much to the disappointment of Fowlers, the guardians of proper English, who prefer the more picturesque ‘fall’ (with a lower case f).

Fall of Leaf is surely the more poetic of the English names for the third season of the year; but in that name, and Autumn too, there is a sense of melancholy and ending, which conveys none of the joy, relief and satisfaction of the harvest: traditionally a happy time of year with feasting, singing and celebration when the work was done.

Dog days and a harvest

Harvesting oats, Bridge 2017. (Picture copyright © BridgeNature.org 2017)

Historically, the term ‘dog days’ refers to the hot, sultry period of summer between early July and the beginning of September when plants have reached maturity, their growth is over and they begin to decline. This is the season of the grain harvest. In ancient times the period was recognised by the rising of Sirius the Dog Star.

Last weekend (19-20 August), the unpredictable ‘cloudy, sunny, cloudy, sunny’ dog days of summer 2017 did at least stay mainly dry, giving local farmers the opportunity to gather in the oat crop which has been ripening in recent weeks in the fields surrounding our village. The hum of the combine, the roar of tractors and the heavy thumping of empty trailers coming to be filled with the grain could be heard throughout the weekend, and sometimes late into the evening. These are the sounds of harvesting on the modern farm; and for all who do have “time to stand and stare”, as William Henry Davies put it, the modern ritual of gathering in the crop is a fascinating display of 21st century farming efficiency in our living, working landscape.

Yet it is worth pausing further, to see just who it is that may be overseeing these mighty, grunting, monster-machines that gobble up the golden harvest: when we look a little closer, we may be in for a surprise…

Zooming in on the picture reveals the surprising supervisor overseeing the harvest. (Picture copyright © BridgeNature.org 2017)

Dog star rising! Throughout the work, the little dog pictured watched attentively to all that was going on; and when there were any technical delays, he observed from the cab steps of the combine harvester, like a captain at the bridge, barking occasionally to indicate that progress should be made with all due haste.

Ah, this farming life: the great outdoors, the sunshine, the scent of the harvest and the warm summer breeze in your ears… (Picture copyright © BridgeNature.org 2017)

Throughout the pleasantly temperate weekend, local residents were out and about in the fields, often pausing on their walks to watch the work in progress and capture photographs. BridgeNature.org will present more of our own pictures from the harvest in due course. We express our thanks to the combine and tractor crews for their tolerance.

*Readers please note: the dog pictured remained in a place of safety during the harvesting operation and was not interfering with the controlling mechanisms of the machinery in movement.

Hawthorn and hedgerow

Hawthorn hedgerow, The Butts. Sept. 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

For many months of the year the Hawthorn is a rather anonymous and unappreciated prickly little bush hidden in the hedgerow; but in May, white flowers lie like an errant scattering of snow upon the tree, and the occasional delight of candy-pink blossoms cannot go unnoticed. From late August into September the Hawthorn shows off again with an abundance of little fruits which glisten like crimson jewels upon its branches.

Some Hawthorns blossom with candy-pink flowers. This one is in Bishopsbourne. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Today these rugged little trees, more correctly shrubs, are ubiquitous in the rural landscape, particularly in chalk districts, because they make ideal hedging plants on even the poorest land. In fact the very name ‘Haw’ derived from the Old English ‘Haga’ which meant hedge, and hedging to protect and confine livestock has been going on since ancient times. The Romans and Anglo Saxons liked to enclose their farmland in this way, but much of the English landscape remained fence and hedge free until the ‘inclosures’ {sec}, a set of parliamentary acts introduced over the years between 1604 and 1914, which allowed landowners to enclose millions of acres of land that, up until then, had been open and freely accessible to local people. Today it is hard to imagine a landscape devoid of hedges and fences, but, up until the turn of the 17th century, that is exactly how much of the English countryside appeared. As the Inclosure Acts came into force, millions of Hawthorn saplings, along with other prickly shrubs such as blackthorn, were reared to provide sturdy, protective hedging around the land seized by the gentry. The acts, and we must assume the Hawthorn hedges too, were hated by ordinary rural folk who lost their farms, the right to graze animals on the land, and even the right to walk over huge tracts of the British countryside.

The fruits of the Hawthorn are ‘pomes’ (like plums), not berries. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

However, historically the Hawthorn was valued by common folk for other purposes. The leaves and flowers can be eaten, and the fruits, called ‘Haws’, which are not berries but stone bearing ‘pomes’ like plums and apricots, have been used to make conserves and wine. Furthermore, the Hawthorn tree has a long history of medicinal uses: preparations made from the Midland Hawthorn have been used in traditional medicine to treat heart disorders, and some very modern scientific studies have indicated that such remedies may indeed have valid properties in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. How apt then, that in Celtic folklore, the Hawthorn is said to heal a broken heart.

Ironically, in these days of declining countryside and wildlife, our hedgerows are valued and protected for the wildlife habitat they provide, and the ordinary folk of Britain campaign to keep them intact. In this new struggle over the landscape perhaps we should remember another of the rugged, stubborn little Hawthorn’s ancient symbolic meanings: as a symbol of hope.

BridgeNature.org does not advocate or condone the foraging of hedgerow plants and fruits.

At the end of the working day

End of the line. Simmentals on Great Pett Farm, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Few of us can say that in our working days’ toils we nurtured and maintained the very countryside which formed the backdrop to our village life; but such is the working life of the local farmer, and it leaves a legacy in landscape which will remain forever in the minds of all those who experienced it, as a place of childhood adventure, youthful rites of passage, happy times with family and tranquil contemplative walks in scenes of rural idyll through all the seasons of the passing years.

As our village farmer Brian Mummery opens the field gate to his herd of Simmental cattle for the final time and retires from his working days, the people of Bridge should be immensely grateful to a man who has contributed so much over so many years to our local landscape and ecology.

The fields, the hillsides, the grass and the greening hedgerows will of course live on (if we don’t build on them!) but they will not be the same. The rural landscape of the Nailbourne Valley is not some magically self-perpetuating garden, as people may like to assume. Our countryside is managed with planning and hard work, and where it appears beautiful to us, that aesthetic value has often been achieved with careful consideration, creative imagination and a certain love for the land. Things may be very different in the future. Farming is still, without question, the most important industry in this country and over the years Great Pett Farm, our local farm, has played its part in feeding the nation with pasture-fed beef, oats, wheat, barley, beans and other crops too; but as we lose more and more of our precious farmland to housing, our local fields may be subject to new initiatives in intensive agriculture in the years to come.

Masterpiece in a meadow. Wild flowers on chalk down at the Butts, June 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In recent decades, an increasing awareness of the importance of biodiversity has been a new imperative for farming in the developed world, and nowhere is this more important than here in our own little sector of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, an agricultural region with the same status as a National Park. Here Mr Mummery has maintained our local farmland to high modern ecological standards while creating and presenting a landscape of great visual charm. He has restored chalkstream water meadow, maintained lowland cattle pasture, planted hedges, provided wildlife havens, created wild flower meadows and revitalised the biodiversity of the grassy chalkland downs for which this area is famous. What is more, he has allowed us, the local people, free access to enjoy it all. It is a landscape of which many of us are very fond and very proud: we enjoy it, we treasure it, and, at the end of our farmer’s working days, the very least we can all do is say “thank you”.

 

Grass darts and summer holidays

A field of False Barley, Patrixbourne Road. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

And so the great school summer holiday begins. Those who venture out into the fields this month can encounter a plant which, for many older ramblers, will bring back fond memories of dallying childhood walks and endless summer holidays spent playing in the countryside. The plant is a particular form of grass which somebody (we suspect a long, long time ago) once discovered could be thrown like a dart and it would stick to clothing, particularly woolen jumpers and cardigans, which were the popular children’s fashions for those of us of a certain generation. Popular too were the outdoor adventure stories of ‘The Famous Five’ and ‘The Swallows and Amazons’: summer holiday inspiration in those days before computer games, iPhones and a general 21st century disdain for fresh air and the countryside.

False Barley: otherwise known as Dart Grass. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The grass in question was False Barley or Wall Barley (Hordeum murinum or variant subspecies) though no one knew it at the time. To the youngsters of those days it was just ‘Dart Grass’ and it was as familiar as brambles, stinging nettles and sticking catchweed (cleavers) which would also cling to clothing. While remembered fondly, Dart Grass is generally regarded by adults as just another weed, but it has a valid place in the wild countryside and can be a significant plant in grazing pasture, although, if left to go to seed, it can be injurious to sheep and sheepdogs. Variants of this grass are often grown as forage for animals in different regions around the world, and in China a similar subspecies is cultivated for human consumption. One wonders if generations of Chinese children have also played grass darts on the walk home from school.

The Common Oat, too base for Rome

Oats growing in the Bridge area, 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

This year several of the arable fields around Bridge, Bishopsbourne and Pett Bottom have been planted with Oats, which have grown rapidly over the last month or so and are now turning colour from green to the golden hue of the harvest.

While barley, wheat and rye can sometimes be difficult to differentiate in the field, the Oat plant has a very distinctive shape known as a ‘panicle’, it presents as an array of flower heads hanging on delicate branches coming from a single stem. The flower heads or ‘spikelets’ hanging from it may number fifty or so and are formed of a husk, shaped like an upturned V, with two or three seeds or ‘groats’ held underneath.

Oat spikelet showing the V shaped floret husk and groats within. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The outer casings of these groats (without the V shaped husk) are known as ‘oat bran’: they are removed, ground up and used as a valued food ingredient. What remains of the groats is crushed or rolled, and referred to as ‘oatmeal’. While this is well known as the main ingredient of porridge (a dish first described by the Ancient Greeks), only about 5% of oats are grown for human consumption. Most are grown as an animal feed and feed additive, particularly for chickens, cattle and horses, and it was as animal fodder that Oats were first introduced to Britain by the conquering Romans who, apparently, regarded the plant as unfit for human consumption. This, much to the amusement of the Scots, who adopted the Oat for their porridge and, even today, like to remind us that those Roman fussy eaters never successfully invaded Scotland.

The oat panicle. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Unlike barley, which demands hot weather, Oats prefer a cooler, wetter climate. In long periods of hot sun the plants will go dormant, so early planting and milder summers with spells of rain are beneficial. This is one reason why Oats became a traditional and popular crop in Scotland and the rest of Northern Europe, but they have been less commonly grown in Africa and India, although new Oat varieties are now being developed to grow in these regions.

 

 

In the meadow of the Moon Daisy

Oxeye Daisies, Bridge area, June 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Walkers who venture along the farm track extending from Mill Terrace in Bridge will, once again, see a swathe of flowers growing in a field near the old Elham Valley Railway. Currently in bloom are thousands of Oxeye Daisies (alternative spelling Ox-eye) planted by our local farmer a couple of years ago. We believe more have flowered this month than this time last summer. Sometimes these are called Moon Daisies, either because of the bright yellow disc of florets at their centre, or perhaps because the flowers seem to glow in the moonlight.

While, in the past, some formal gardeners and indeed farmers too, may have considered the Oxeye Daisy to be a weed, in these more enlightened times it is recognised as a true grassland flower to be valued for the biodiversity it brings to the Kentish chalk downlands. The yellow florets at the centre of the flower will provide nectar for a whole range of pollinating insects, particularly bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Farms need to be growing food, but it is now well understood that biodiversity assists in that cause and one of the ‘beauties’ of our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is that it can, and should, be retained and enhanced as a preserve of biodiversity for the benefit of our entire countryside.

Also growing in the same area, though blooming at different times are chicory, cornflower, yarrow, wild carrot, buttercup, common mallow, herb robert, black horehound, herb bennet, knapweed, ragwort, selfheal, birdsfoot trefoil, field marigold, dandelion and scarlet pimpernel.

 

Spring activities on the land

A modern cultivator at work near Flint Cottages this spring. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Soil preparation and spring planting
Last summer, much of the wheat we saw in our local fields had been planted the previous autumn. The wheat grows a little, lies dormant over winter, then begins growing in earnest in the spring. We understand the same practice was followed this year on fields between Bridge and Patrixbourne, but not in the fields between the Nailbourne and the Butts. In the last couple of weeks, those fields which still had stubble remaining in them, were tilled with a modern cultivator and prepared for a spring seeding of oats.

Seeding was completed in a few hours using a modern seed drill which simultaneously plants numerous rows of seeds at exactly the right depth so that the crop grows uniformly across the entire field. This would be impossible to achieve when scattering or ‘broadcasting’ seed by hand.

For our previous article on sowing search for ‘seed drill’ in our search box to the right.

A modern seed drill in operation, Bridge area. Seeds are contained in the red hopper at the top and distributed through tubes down into the earth. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Fallow land
This year we can expect to see more sections and strips of fallow land in the fields around the village. Leaving some land uncultivated as an Ecological Focus Area (EFA) for the benefit of wildlife is now a general requirement on the modern European farm, but we understand that a particular issue with the EU’s so called ‘greening’ regulations this growing season has meant that more local land will be left fallow than usual. Calculating greening requirements is a complex business for farmers, but it can provide a bonus for our wildlife.

Stringing the hop poles, Bishopsbourne, February 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Stringing the hop poles
Over the winter there were fears that Bishopsbourne might lose its last remaining hop farm, but it has apparently been reprieved, and the stringing of the hop poles began in late February in the field near Flint Cottages. This is a long, laborious process which can take many days. It must be done by hand with the aid of a long pole, enormous lengths of twine, and quite a degree of skill. Looking at the number of poles now strung, it seems we may even see more hops growing this season than we have in recent years.

For our previous articles on hops and stringing search for ‘hops’ in our search box to the right.

Best wishes
We wish our local farmers a good growing season, and let us all remember, as we face the possibility of losing more fields around Bridge to building, that farming is still, unquestionably, the most important industry in Britain.

Continuing an ugly tradition

Young Fox, Bekesbourne. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Last weekend a local hunt group continued at least some semblance of the tradition of fox-hunting with a meet in Bishopsbourne. In olden times the hunt was often regarded as an elegant, jolly affair, but from the distance of a different moral perspective, in the cold light of a grey February morning in 2017, this tradition just evokes feelings of sadness.

Hunting with hounds is an ugly relic of our barbaric past and it has no place in modern countryside management: it has little to do with controlling fox numbers in the Britain of today. Historically it was a sport of the landowning elite who, rather than actually trying to exterminate foxes, retained coverts of trees and shrubs across their land for foxes to inhabit so that they could be hunted for fun. The sport became so popular that during the 19th century foxes were imported from Europe and openly sold at London’s Leadenhall Market in order to stock the English countryside where hunting took place.

For many years, foxes were effectively protected specifically for the hunt, despite the pleas of tenant farmers, shepherds and pheasant farmers who wanted them efficiently eradicated, not preserved for the amusement of their landlords. Sometimes farmers secretly killed foxes, but bizarrely this so called ‘Vulpicide’ was regarded as immoral by the landowning gentry because it diminished the number of foxes left for hunting. Controversy raged until, eventually, a compromise was achieved and farmers were paid compensation for any birds and lambs lost to the fox. Of course the reports of damage done would have been grossly exaggerated in order to claim more compensation from the wealthy landowners.

Today foxes account for about 1% of all poultry (1) and 1-2% of lambs (2) lost in open fields. Annual (pre-slaughter) lamb mortality from all causes, including disease and hypothermia is “thought to be 15-20%” (3), a vastly higher figure, although precise data is not collected.

For our previous article on foxes search for ‘fox’ in our search box

(1) Game Conservancy Trust figure
(2) 1% Game Conservancy Trust; 2% The Burns Report. See:
http://www.ifaw.org/sites/default/files/is%20the%20fox%20a%20pest.pdf
(3) Sheep Health and Welfare Report 2016/17