Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Weeding without tears

When it comes to gardening, I am what could only be described as a reluctant participant.

I think it was Rudyard Kipling who said: “Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade.”
Kipling was right. The beauty and tranquillity of a well-maintained garden is not entirely natural; indeed, I would question whether some of the most geometrically-perfect gardens are natural at all.
Gardening, to me, has always seemed like a battle with nature. And since nature’s triumph was inevitable, I have tended to throw in the towel before nature could lay a glove on me. In any event, I have a preference for poppies and cornflowers over hydrangeas and rhododendrons.
About a year ago, however, the advance of the stinging nettles became too much even for me. It took about half a day, but I eventually pulled up every single weed, by the roots, and marvelled at the lovely old Victorian stone wall which had been hidden for many years. Feeling suitably smug, I retired indoors and completely forgot about my historic victory.
Then last week, my eye was drawn once more to the wall – now lined with narcissi and daffodils which I had not seen for a couple of decades. Once more touched by sunlight, these bulbs have clearly decided that this patch of garden belongs to them, and right now they want to shout about it.
The wider point which I am rather clumsily building up to is that, subconsciously, my assault on the stinging nettles had effectively been a political choice: the decision to pull them up by the roots had been a rejection of 20th century technology and the use of chemical warfare.
Weedkillers like Roundup have never been much appreciated in this house, partly because of concerns about how they came from the same people who poured gallons of Agent Orange defoliant onto Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, but also because in an earlier era this was home to small children and domestic pets who could not be relied upon not to accidentally poison themselves.
The key ingredient of both Roundup and Agent Orange is glysophate, which last week consumed even more hours of debate within the European Parliament. Euro MPs voted 38-6, with 18 abstentions, to call for complete disclosure of all the scientific evidence used during an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA.) Until then, say the MEPs, the European Commission should not renew its approval of this particular chemical for domestic use.
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and then the World Health Organisation, glysophate “probably” causes cancer. The EFSA says it “probably” doesn’t. So the brainiest boffins on the planet cannot agree whether glysophate is acceptably safe or unacceptably dangerous.
Cornwall Council is one of many local authorities which still use glysophate-based weedkillers to control dangerously stubborn problems like Japanese Knotweed. In France, by contrast, over-the-counter sales have been banned on safety grounds.
You can probably see why that when scientists and governments fall out like this, it usually boils down to the meaning of words rather than the interpretation of undisputed data. The management of risk nearly always depends on circumstances.
Meanwhile, Europe debates, and in a few more years I’ll probably still be pulling up nettles, by hand, none the wiser. Don’t expect any straight answers any time soon.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Finders keepers


How did a pile of old jam jars end up in the orchard?
One of the many curious aspects of living in an old house is the bizarre stuff you can just find, and then ponder what secrets it holds.
Rarely can I dig the garden without turning up some fragment of blue and white china, often with ornate floral patterns. How did it get there, lurking among my seed potatoes? How long has it been there? Why have I not noticed it before?
Whenever I accidentally break a plate or tea-cup, I don’t rush outside and bury it. So what’s the story behind the crockery at the bottom of my garden?
One theory I’ve heard is simply that in the days before weekly dustbin collections, people had no choice but to take a D-I-Y approach to landfill. Another is that a previous occupant might have used the fragments in the bottom of flower pots, as a drainage aid, and then when the pot eventually got emptied the blue and white china simply got mixed in with the rest of the soil.
Even more strange are the golf balls which seem accumulate in the top meadow. I don’t play golf and I live a long way from the nearest course. As far as I know, none of my neighbours plays golf and even if they did, they would be unlikely to practice driving golf balls in my general direction.
My favourite theory for this one is that the golf balls are sometimes mistaken for eggs, and dropped by thieving magpies. I can only imagine their disappointment.
Up in the orchard, I recently discovered no fewer than 20 jam jars, apparently dumped in what had been a large patch of stinging nettles. They were mostly intact but there was no bag or box, they were just laying at the foot of the hedge.
On closer examination, some of the jars appear to have scorch-marks inside. Has someone been holding drug-fuelled raves in my orchard? Why did they not invite me? The stinging nettles had been covering this area for at least 30 years, and I’ve no idea how old the jam jars might be.
Other bits and pieces are easier to understand – odd lengths of rope, bits of twine, neatly wound but then discarded under a barbed wire fence. No doubt someone once had plans which were later forgotten.
Some things are easy to understand, and simply a reminder of how time marches on. I have a growing collection of horse shoes; evidence that someone farmed here long before tractors were invented.
I wonder what future occupants of this house will make of the stuff I will eventually leave behind. At the back of the cess pit, under the oak tree, there rusts the remains of a climbing frame which the children played on when they were small. That was 20 years ago and I’m sure it doesn’t look like a climbing frame anymore.
I am currently using a broken fork-handle to pin down a bit of netting. In years to come, it might easily be mistaken for something more totemic, like a memorial. But it’s just holding down a bit of netting, honest, and there is no deep underlying philosophical or religious significance.
Maybe one day someone might even write a column about it.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The new Jerusalem


In front of some of the Glebe Land which surrounds St Mabyn
A full-page, anonymous, advert last week condemned Cornwall as a “developers’ paradise” because of the perceived rush to build new houses on green fields wherever they become available.
Cornwall Council leader John Pollard mounted a robust defence of the allegation, but for some reason he failed to mention the Planning Advisory Service/Local Government Association peer review report which accused the council of being unfairly hostile to developers and signalling that Cornwall was “closed for business.” 
This report said that far from approving too many planning applications, the council was not approving enough.
The very next day, my local MP, North Cornwall’s Scott Mann, sent me details of the latest House Building Statistics published by the Department for Communities and Local Government, celebrating the fact that Cornwall is one of the most prodigious house-builders in the country. With 1,960 homes completed in Cornwall last year, only Wiltshire built more. Cornwall was also third in the national league table for starting work on new homes – 1,870 last year.
“Not only are we building more and more homes nationally, but Cornwall is actually leading the way,” said Scott.
Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that something, somewhere, does not add up. We seem to be approving too many planning applications, not enough planning applications, and just the right number of planning applications, all at the same time.
There is no issue more certain of generating controversy in rural Cornwall than planning, and the need to provide affordable housing to meet local needs. Developers have little interest in meeting local needs, but can usually be persuaded to build some affordable homes if they are allowed to reap profits elsewhere.
In St Mabyn, we are all waiting to see if the Diocese of Truro is going to submit a formal planning application for a housing estate on land to the south east of the village. The idea was unveiled in November, following years of talks over whether the Diocese would release a small parcel of land for a car park next to the village hall.
If the suggested 32-home estate is ever built, it will unlock for development other fields to the south. But the Diocese says that 22 homes on that initial site would be affordable, and that could make a fantastic difference to young, local people who cannot compete in a housing market designed for relatively wealthy retirees – people who often have strong opinions about having to live next to new housing estates.
All over Cornwall, rural areas are currently being offered the chance to draw up their own Neighbourhood Development Plans – indicating how local people themselves think they should meet local housing needs. Like many of these rural areas, St Mabyn currently has no such plan, which involves grappling with weighty issues such as existing and forecast housing demand and land supply. Most parish councils are simply not equipped with the required degree of professional expertise.
St Mabyn is surrounded by Glebe land and almost any significant development is going to involve the Diocese of Truro. If a planning application is submitted, I’m sure it will be considered fairly and properly. Having said that, I can’t think of any planning story I’ve ever reported on, over more than 30 years, where the Diocese of Truro did not eventually end up on the winning side.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Notes from the new frontier


For me, the nature of my profession means that the cost of functional communications technology is well worth the alternative of a daily 60-mile round trip commute. How times have changed from the days when I used to make reverse-charge calls from the village phone box, dictating stories to copy-takers in London. Carrying out even the most basic research required a trip to a town or city.
It is strange that some developers in Cornwall are still building brand new houses, with only super-slow broadband, in blatant defiance of a European Union directive. I know of one new estate in Truro where residents are lucky to get 0.5 Mbps. I would strongly advise prospective new buyers to take nothing on trust, and investigate their likely broadband speed before purchase.
In 2014 the EU Council made it a requirement for all new-build properties to share certain infrastructure, such as the pipework needed for gas, electricity, water – and high-speed fibre cables. The directive says: “Member states must adopt national provisions to comply with the new directive by 1 January 2016, and they must apply the new measures from 1 July 2016.”
Europe has set a target of 30 Mbps for all by 2020 and it’s been putting its money (well, our money) where its mouth is by backing the Superfast Cornwall programme to connect a total of 8,600 properties by September.
It is hard to understand why housing developers are dragging their heels over complying with the EU rules, other than the cynical observation that doing the job properly would cut into their profits.
It is even more difficult to understand why Cornwall Council, as the local planning authority, allowed them to get away with it: the council would not approve plans for a housing estate which had no electricity or water, so why allow developers to build hundreds of homes huge distances from the nearest fibre-ready cabinet, without a requirement to install the necessary infrastructure?
The question will become even more urgent in the months and years ahead, as more and more homes are built in rural parts of Cornwall.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Counting my chickens

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It’s official – spring arrives next week. The Met Office tells me that March 1 is the key date on which spring starts. The weather forecasters say it will last until June. Yeah, right.
The snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils have already had their own ideas. But the event which really tells me if the year is making any progress is when the hens start laying eggs. 
Like all of my pseudo-agricultural pursuits, this is a strictly not-for-profit venture. If I tried to calculate the cost of time spent letting the birds out of their shed every morning, shutting them back in at night, along with the daily feeding, watering and cleaning out the poultry manure every week, then I’m sure I run at a substantial loss.
But the eggs are their own reward. They tend to come in all shapes and sizes, and thanks to the recent addition of a couple of Light Sussex hens I now get large brown eggs alongside the slightly smaller pale blue ones from my rare-breed Cream Legbars.
Cream Legbar hatching eggs
During the winter months, when I try to buy “free range” eggs from supermarkets, I am invariably disappointed that the yolks are not particularly yellow. The eggs seem very bland and I end up pouring on loads of salt just to get any taste at all. And this is despite the “free range” label on the box. 
It’s probably not widely known that the “free range” label is one of the more controversial ways of selling eggs. It is quite possible to buy “free range” eggs which have come from a farm at which thousands of birds will have been kept in a huge hangar, with “access” to an outdoor run.
Nearly half of all eggs produced in the UK are “free range” – which means that the hens enjoy unlimited daytime “access” to least four square metres of vegetation per bird. At night, free range hens are housed in barns furnished with bedding and perches, with nine hens allowed per square metre of inside space. There is no limit on flock size.
Poultry farming is a relatively recent invention, hardly existing before the war. Indeed, during the war many people would supply their own need for eggs by keeping their own hens, no matter how modest their garden.
But since the 1950s, the farming industry has bred two distinct types of chicken – laying hens for eggs and broiler chickens for meat. Many laying hens have their beaks removed to prevent feather-pecking and bullying. The average lifespan of a commercial broiler chicken is just 39 days.
My Cream Legbars are not as prolific as many other breeds – which is possibly why they are thought of as “rare” – but each bird still gives me about 100 eggs per year. I currently have eight chickens, which is more than enough for me. I started with just two.
There’s also something reassuring about the sound of a cockerel early in the morning. I’m lucky that none of my neighbours (so far) has complained.
eggs in bowl