The harvest has just been gathered in here. The Four Fields to the Woods were left as stubble through last winter before that memorable spring ploughing transformation; six months later and 'tis all done for another year.
We never know what has been sown so it's always a bit of a lottery as to what will emerge. Will it be oil-seed rape, or oats, or wheat. One year it was maize and we lived through a summer of walking through what we fondly termed Mother Abigail's after that very scary Stephen King film The Stand. Now of course we have maize everywhere as a cover crop for pheasants. Anyway this year up came the green shoots until eventually we diagnosed it as barley.
We've watched it ripen and once the combine harvester has been through we go in for the straw for Nell and Rusty's kennel for the winter (with permission and pay for it) and so the cycle will begin again. Maybe they will plough in the autumn and sow winter wheat, but whatever happens I have a minute understanding of it all, the process and how it used to be start to finish, thanks to The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel. If you enjoyed his previous book Meadowland then I think you will like this one too.
John Lewis- Stempel takes a modern, conventionally farmed arable field and turns it into a traditional wheat field for a year. Following the old conventions of timing, equipment and methods, and weaving in history and literature as he writes, the result is a wonderful eulogy to John Masefield's line that 'the countryside is the past speaking dear.'
'Time does not erode it builds sedimental layers of particulate memory,' suggests John Lewis-Stempel and I was nodding my head in agreement and thinking on it every time I walked out to watch the progress of the highly mechanized fields around us here. It is sometimes hard to peel back that top layer of leased farm land to reveal the past that lies beneath, but we can usually talk ourselves into it ; exhausted to its limits by outside contractors, analysed by agronomists, sprayed and cajoled into production when sometimes I think it would like a year off,
We'd much rather lean out of the bedroom window, as we did last week, and watch Farmer Steve haymaking in Mowhay Meadow with his dad's 1960's baler. It's like watching a childrens' Britain's farm come to life...remember the choking hazard that was the little yellow hay bales...
Frequently the facts presented in The Running Hare are startling...
Withered margins and the erosion caused by the run-off of the top soil...something we see around us here as we watch the fields take off in a muddy stream down the lane in the winter storms.
Spraying crops has reduced the numbers of hares by more than a million...
Only half the hedgerows present in 1945 still existed in 1990...
A 50% reduction in farmland birds since 1970...
DEFRA lists twelve birds that should be present. We are lucky I think, I have italicised those we see regularly
JL-S (forgive the initials, I know...it sounds like a boy band) adds a few more...again italics for those we see around us here.
And I learned new things too... about an acre being the amount of land one man could plough in a day with oxen and he would walk ten miles doing it. The arrival of horses in the eighteenth century sped things up by a mile an hour. Woven in are references to Shakespeare and Edward Thomas and John Clare as JL-S works to create a field that fills with the traditional wild flowers and butterflies and of course the hares return. The ultimate is to harvest and tie his crop into stooks, like these spotted by the Kayaker last year. It can still be done albeit by machine...
Whilst we might hanker for the past I am under no illusions about the impracticalities and neither is JL-S. The world has moved on as has farming and there are a lot of people out there to feed, but even in the smallest ways differences can be made that preserve what is good and which is so often at risk of being lost in the grand scheme. As JL-S points out, programmes like Springwatch, often based in reserves, give the mistaken impression that nature in Britain is busy and bountiful when in fact it is often not, much of it is under real threat and we must never assume all is well.
Despite that, as the blurb says this really is a rare and joyful book and definitely one for the shelf.
Meanwhile we have been doing our little bit for nature here having just taken part in the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat survey. We had a recent occurrence...thinking we had a swallow in the sitting room when in fact it was a very large bat (flew out of a bookshelf). Bookhound was on his own there, you didn't see me for dust and with Magnus under my arm who was looking very interested, but when news of the survey came up here in the Tamar Valley we booked the recording equipment, set it up in the garden for three nights, watched the bats swoop and swerve around the microphone, sent off the SD card and will get the results back later in the year....if we pressed the right buttons that is.