Farming

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

 

Being green after Brexit

Our local farmer prepares ground as part of a wildlife biodiversity programme. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

As the British government prepares to invoke Article 50 in order for us to leave the EU, a report by the all party Environmental Audit Committee expresses a number of concerns about the future of our wild and farmed landscapes and the animal life which inhabits them, and makes some significant recommendations to ensure that all continue to receive the protection they need if they are to prosper in the future.

Our natural environment stands in a precarious situation: many of the protections which currently safeguard it were provided by European laws which will be lost at the point of Brexit. One example is The Birds and Habitats Directives, which “form the cornerstone of Europe’s legislation on nature conservation”. They will cease to have authority when we leave the EU and the effect on our wildlife could be devastating. Other protection laws may be ignored, superceded or allowed to lapse over time.

For farmers, who undertake the practical tasks of managing huge swathes of the British countryside, the question of grants is paramount. Many cannot earn a living from farming, particularly if they make extra efforts to be environmentally compliant in the way they work, and consequently they need EU subsidies to produce the food which they deliver to the market. Such is the imbalance between supermarket prices and the costs of production. Something will need to be done to ensure that the UK’s agricultural industry survives after Brexit.

Our current Conservative government made a manifesto commitment to “be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than they found it”. In order to do this, when we leave the EU’s jurisdiction they must provide an equivalent or better level of protection for our environment and wildlife than existed while we were members. To address these issues the Environmental Audit Committee makes seven recommendations which we summarise here (1).

1. The government must legislate with a new Environmental Protection Act which offers similar or greater environmental protections than EU legislation.

2. The government must make a full assessment of the resources necessary to replace existing EU environmental funding to ensure that farming remains viable and animal welfare, food security and food safety are protected.

3. The government must recognise the interdependence of its two forthcoming 25 year plans for A. the natural environment and B. food, farming and fisheries. Consultation on these should inform the Brexit negotiating strategy.

4. Brexit negotiations must address international issues and trade arrangements with regard for how they will affect the UK’s natural environment and agriculture.

5. Before Article 50 is triggered the government should identify the legislation guaranteed to protect our environment when we leave the EU and guarantee that it will not trade away environmental and animal welfare protections as part of negotiations to leave or in future trade deals.

6. Before Britain leaves the EU the government must establish the environmental objectives and governance model of any future land management payments {ie: grants and subsidies} so that they are linked to public goods {ie: environmental protection} rather than just providing income support to farmers (2).

7. Defra must ensure that funding is allocated fairly across the nations of the UK with environmental standards required.

(1) This list provides a lay summary only. For full details of the Environmental Audit Committee’s report see: The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum: sixth report of session 2016-17.

(2) {…} denotes editorial insertions.

Badgers, blame and bovine TB

Badger, secret location, East Kent. The government’s badger cull has not reached Kent… yet! Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Bovine TB (b:TB or cattle tuberculosis) is a menace on the farm. If cattle contract it they must be slaughtered. For farmers who have spent many years breeding a herd this is a disaster, particularly as the disease tends to spread amongst animals in close proximity, meaning that sometimes an entire herd has to be destroyed.

For decades farmers, vets and environmentalists have argued about what causes the spread of bTB. Environmentalists say modern farming methods are to blame, insisting cattle aren’t checked properly before being transported to farms across the country. Others, including many farmers and the vets who earn a living treating their cattle, say badgers, which are known carriers of the disease, pass it on to livestock.

In recent years two hugely important trials have occurred out in the fields in the west of Britain. In a few English counties, a highly controversial government backed cull has attempted to kill vast numbers of badgers to see if bTB in cattle is reduced. About 15,000 have been killed so far and the pro cull lobby claims success, but many leading scientists and The Wildlife Trusts, suggest there is no basis for suggesting anything of the sort. In a joint statement the Badger Trust, Born Free Foundation, the RSPCA, and The Humane Society International make their view clear:

“there is no evidence that the current culls are reducing bovine TB in cattle” (1).

One surprising figure from an earlier test is that 83% of badgers culled in government trials 2002-2005 tested TB free” (2), yet in the culls of recent years the government has refused to allow testing of culled badgers to check if they actually had bTB. Furthermore, a panel of experts appointed by the government to assess the validity of the English badger cull was disbanded when they reported that the cull was both cruel and ineffective.

Meanwhile in Wales, where a cull was ruled out, a so called IAA Vaccination Programme has been vaccinating hundreds of Badgers against Bovine TB, so that they don’t get it and therefore can’t spread it to cattle. In tandem a more stringent bTB testing programme has been carried out in Welsh cattle herds.

Between July 2015 and July 2016 new bTB incidences in Welsh cattle fell by 19% (2) although more incidences were found in herds known to have had previous bTB infections. This suggests overall the two level programme is working: less herds are being infected, and better testing is finding more of the cattle which already have bTB. Vaccination is cheaper too, at about £700 per badger (3), while the cull is costing about £5-7,000 per badger(4). Nevertheless many Welsh farmers are insisting they want an English style badger cull. Such a call would seem to conflict with the scientific evidence.

To pass the disease directly to a cow, an infected badger would need to come within 1.5 metres of it, but new research by Prof Rosie Woodroffe and experts at the Zoological Society of London (5), in which they tracked 65,000 badger and cattle movements, shows that rather than coming into close contact with cattle, badgers actually avoid them. Only once in the entire study did a badger come within 10 metres of a cow, but most preferred to stay 50 metres away or more.

These new studies suggest that environmental factors may play a much more important role in bTB infections than has been realised. “The current tests for bTB in cattle are only 20-50% effective and one fifth of all bTB infections are only discovered when the animals go to slaughter” (6). These cattle are therefore likely to have been infecting pasture land, farmyards and a variety of common animals including hedgehogs, mice, moles, rats, sheep, goats, slugs and worms long before the disease was detected. Even when a bTb infection is found early in a cattle herd, the slurry and manure from these animals is not regarded as contaminated and often gets spread all over the farm. Professor Alastair MacMillan, ex Defra vet and Veterinary Adviser to the Humane Society International has advised:

The suggestion by some that TB is spread by frequent nose-to-nose contact between badgers and cattle has now been completely dismissed. It is much more likely that contamination by cattle of fields and yards by [TB bacteria] is the cause of repeated TB herd breakdownsIt’s clear that the government must divert the substantial resources being used needlessly to cull badgers and instead improve farmer education and biosecurity on farms”(7).

So, why is there a continued insistence amongst farmers and some members of the governmental scientific community that badgers are always to blame? Badgers are an easy target: they, like many wild animals, have been persecuted by cruel country folk for centuries, not because they cause any real harm, but because it’s a traditional ‘country sport’ to kill them. Could it be the very same thugs who are getting paid to kill badgers in the cull?

Britain’s farming industry is vital, it feeds the nation, it must succeed; but whatever the definitive cause of the spread of bTB turns out to be, we need an ethical, sustainable farming industry that works in harmony with the land, local communities and wildlife. The mass slaughter of thousands of healthy, uninfected badgers surely cannot be seen as a logical, ethical and humane solution to what is essentially a modern farming problem.

(1) Badger Trust, Born Free Foundation, RSPCA, Humane Society International, joint submission to DEFRA consultation, January 2017.
(2) Badger Trust figure
(3) Figure quoted by Caroline Lucas MP, Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(4) Initial figure: £7,000, Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, June 2007; revised figure: £5,000, Caroline Lucas MP, Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(5) Prof. R. Woodroffe, Ecology Letters, 4 Aug 2016,: Badgers prefer cattle pasture but avoid cattle: implications for bovine tuberculosis control
(6) Dr Monaghan MP. Sponsor of Commons EDM on Badger Cull. Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(7) Quoted in The Guardian, Friday 5 August 2016.

The Sussex in Kent

Sussex cattle, Bourne Park, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Their 'mahogany red' colour glows in the evening sunlight. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Sussex cattle, Bourne Park, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Their ‘mahogany red’ colour glows in the evening sunlight. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

If, in the last six months or more, you have taken a stroll along Bourne Park Road heading from Bridge towards Bishopsbourne, you may have noticed some reddish coloured cattle in a field off to the right between the road and the Nailbourne. These are Sussex cattle, one of the most famous and reputable breeds of cattle in the world: their colour is described historically as mahogany red.

The Sussex originated on the Weald of Sussex, Surrey and Kent and it is directly descended from a breed of cattle which roamed in Anderida, the huge forest which stretched over those counties before and at the time of the Norman conquest in 1066. These cattle were of course a source of food, but through the centuries as they were farmed and bred they became notable also as a draught breed for ploughing and pulling carts and they were used extensively for that purpose. Today we may think of the horse as the primary working animal of our ancient past, but this is not so, for centuries it was the ox, and the ox of choice would, without doubt, have been a Sussex. On the Weald, the steep terrain meant that the use of oxen as the main draught animal continued much longer than in some other parts of the country. In his travelogue ‘A Tour of Great Britain’ written in 1724, Daniel Defoe tells us of an old lady on the Weald being driven to church in a carriage hauled by six Sussex oxen.

Sussex cattle, showing characteristic colour and shape with higher rear end than shoulders and a white switch to the tail. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Sussex cattle, showing characteristic colour and shape with higher rear end than shoulders and a white switch to the tail. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

We do not think of the Kent and Sussex Weald as a forest area today because the woodland was felled in the early 18th century to provide timber for iron manufacturing during the industrial revolution. Sussex oxen were used as draught animals working in the forest and, to give an idea of the numbers of animals involved, Defoe, who was travelling through the area at the time, records teams of 22 Sussex oxen pulling each lumber cart.

The escarpments of the Weald meant that, once the forest had gone, large tracts of the land were not suitable for ploughing, so much of it was left as pasture. The Sussex continued to be prominent, primarily for beef production, although records show that in some parts of the Weald they were still used to haul ploughs right into the early 20th century.

In the last few days the Sussex cattle have been moved out of the field off Bourne Park Road; we do not know where they have gone to, although being beef cattle, we do know their ultimate fate.

A harvest of Hops

Bringing in the hop harvest, Bishopsbourne 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Bringing in the hop harvest, Bishopsbourne 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

This week was harvesting week at the Hop farm near Flint Cottages. While in the past this was an event which would have seen hundreds of people employed in many of the fields around the area, today there just remains this one Hop farm of about 10 acres in our locality. It is recorded that Hop growing in Kent began in the area between Canterbury, Bishopsbourne and Lower Hardres so this is possibly one of the oldest Hop fields in the county. The harvesting was achieved by the hard work of a small group of people working by hand from the back of a tractor and trailer.

Gathering the hop harvest, Bishopsbourne 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Gathering the hop harvest, Bishopsbourne 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Hops were introduced to Britain by the Romans, not as an ingredient of beer, but as a supply of Hop shoots which were, and still are, considered a culinary delicacy. Hop farming for beer making began in earnest in Kent in the 1520s to provide the ingredients (only the Hop flowers are used) for a burgeoning beer industry and, as it turned out, the ‘terroir’ (conditions of land and climate) of the area proved perfect for the crop. By the late 1600s Hop growing had become a major agricultural activity in this county and the industry continued to grow until it reached its peak in the late 1800s. Thus, for over 300 years, vast numbers of tall stands of Hops growing on wired poles gave much of Kent’s agricultural landscape a unique and distinctive appearance. However, since its peak, changes in drinking habits, global free trade and taxes on alcohol have caused Hop growing in Kent and the rest of Britain to dwindle to a fraction of its former size.

Hop flowers, Bishopsbourne, Sept. 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Hop flowers, Bishopsbourne, Sept. 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Although some of the shoots from our Bishopsbourne Hops are served in London’s up-market restaurants, most of the flowers are exported to America for specialist beer brewing. Varieties to be seen growing on the farm include ‘Challenger’ and the world famous ‘East Kent Goldings’ variety which was developed from the Canterbury Whitebine Hop in the late 1700s. We understand the farm won first prize for their own crop of East Kent Goldings at the English National Hop Competition in 2011 and we wish them continued success!

 

Land of plenty

'Land of plenty' Sheep in Bourne Park, June 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org

‘Land of plenty’ Sheep in Bourne Park, June 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org

As we stand a moment on the downs and contemplate the beauty of our Nailbourne Valley, shall we pause to spare a thought for those poor refugees, or economic migrants if you will, who strive to steal into this country, at any cost, from the ruined and war torn countries of the Middle East and far beyond? Let us consider the horror of their situation and wonder what those who make it across the white cliff border line of Dover, by fair means or foul, would think of this rural idyll.

To them every aspect of our local scenery must suggest a land of wealth; a lush green paradise dotted with farms and elegant country homes, the stately manors of the rich. We have gentle pasture land in green, buttercups in yellow, forget-me-nots in blue and a tangled kindle of woodland full of timber. We have a patchwork of fields full of crops: wheat for making bread, and golden barley, which, in ancient times, was more the favourite in the Middle East. We have fields of field beans which we feed to our livestock or export for staple dishes right across North Africa and the deserts beyond, and we have orchards filled with row upon row of trees laden with delicious fruits. For those genteel garden parties on our English summer lawns we have plastic tunnels so full of strawberries that we cannot begin to count them, and we have lines of hops for making beer: the very essence of the English pub, indolent leisure and the westerners’ love for having a good time.

Flocks of fattened sheep meander lazily across grassed chalky downs, and muscled beef cows chew the juicy cud in pleasant water meadows under the dappled shade of ancient ash and oak. We have such store of food, that even the fishes in our lakes and the wild birds like the little egret, the honking greylag goose, and the white mute swan, so good for eating, are left to live their lives in peace and plump prosperity.

And think upon those suffering souls in other parts who walk for miles each day to pull some dirty water from a rusting pump, that they may drink or wash their children: how would they view the crystal water of our little trickling stream? What music would they hear in its soft chatter?

How perfect must our own lives seem to those who look with hungry eyes upon our happy valley, in this, our land of plenty.