Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Harvest home

It’s official – summer ends today.  And once again I have failed to harvest nature’s bounty from the garden: the redcurrants and blackcurrants remain unpicked, the birds ate all the cherries weeks ago and if I don’t pull my finger out this week, the apples will go the same way.
I did manage to pick the plums, strawberries and blueberries, but only because last year I managed to repair the fruit cage. Even a very small smallholding requires more time, effort and ingenuity than I can spare to feel fully in control.

When I say that summer ends today, I am of course referring to the official meteorological definition, which started on June 1. This is based on the traditional four-seasons Gregorian calendar – and from tomorrow will have poets banging on about the “mists and mellow fruitfulness” of September.
The alternative definition of summer is based on astronomy, and starts and ends roughly 20 days later. It’s usually a better guide because it’s based on the 23.5-degree tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis as we orbit the sun – and gives us real equinoxes and solstices, rather than just dates in the diary.
I’m afraid that neither definition gives me much excuse for watching my amateur attempts at small-scale food production end in such dismal failure. It’s not as if I don’t know what to do. I remember my grandma telling me of how, when she was a girl before the First World War, harvest-time was probably the major event of the year. In those days, children from rural areas would almost certainly never go to school during harvesting – there was much more important work for them to do in the fields.
It was a period of not more than a few weeks when whole communities came together to bring in nearly all the crops, for humans and livestock, that would be needed for much of the following year. Those were days when food rarely travelled more than the county border, and the 20th century’s takeover of food policy by “manufacturers” and supermarkets probably explains why harvest time now has little relevance to those who spend most of their lives in towns and cities.
But in rural North Cornwall, now is the time to avoid our country lanes unless you want to spend the day reversing out of the path of a monster combine harvester, or a tractor and trailer laden with potatoes, hay or sileage. Such is the imperative to get the harvest in that these powerful , noisy vehicles go up and down the lanes all day, and much of the night, shattering the townies’ myths about rural tranquillity.
The holidays are not yet over, yet some primary schools will soon be holding harvest festivals. They too are already too late for Lammas day, traditionally marked with a freshly baked loaf and held on August 1 to celebrate the first reaping of the wheat crop.
Harvest festivals – and many rural agricultural fairs – still see their share of corn dolls. These were traditionally made out of the last sheath of the harvest, to be placed on banquet tables when parishes had huge feasts.
A few weeks from now, we will be encouraged to look out for the harvest moon. This is the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox (September 22 or 23) and is the astronomical event which explains why most churches hold their harvest festivals on the closest Sunday.
I’m now off to the orchard to fill a few sacks with apples, but I know that the birds will still end up with far more than I do.

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Labour Party might be Marxist - but it's Groucho, not Karl

I don’t think I know Ben Crawford, but apparently in 2014 and 2015 he “showed support for the Green Party on Twitter.”  Which is why he has now been sent this letter from the Labour Party:

As the late, great, Groucho Marx once said: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”
My advice to Ben is “keep trying.”  Labour Party leadership elections seem likely to become annual events.  The first time I applied, in the East End of London in the 1970s, I was told: “sorry, we’re full.”

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Revolutionaries in green wellies

You have to wade through a fair amount of fertiliser in this game (journalism, I mean) but this weekend’s government announcement that it would guarantee European Union farm subsidies until 2020 came very close to overlapping the top of my wellies.
 While it does allow an element of comfort for the immediate post-Brexit future, there are three important points which the spin doctors completely failed to mention – the first is that there are no guarantees about anything after 2020, EU farm subsidies will continue to be paid by Brussels until almost 2020 anyway, and there has to be a general election in or before 2020.

At the same time that our MPs were chanting their predictable hallelujah chorus about this “Brexit guarantee,” a far more significant announcement was coming from the National Trust. Last week the Trust put forward a suggestion about agricultural subsidies which had most farmers, and government ministers, spluttering in disbelief.
The National Trust might previously have been thought of as the bank-of-last-resort for hard-up aristocrats looking for a way to spruce up their stately home. It had certainly never been seen as a hot-bed of revolutionary subversion. And yet now it wants to break the 43-year link between taxpayers’ money and food production.
Ever since Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, our farmers have benefited from one of the biggest tax-and-spend schemes the world has ever seen. Introduced in the aftermath of post-war famine in Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy encouraged food production ahead of all else. Food is now abundant and cheap. But the impact on the countryside has been catastrophic, as farms industrialised, and science and technology made the face of rural Cornwall unrecognisable to those who knew it only 50 years ago – 60% of native species have declined over this period.
Now that we are on our way out of Europe, Westminster rather than Brussels will be deciding a national strategy for food and farming. We do not know what will happen to the £3billion subsidies after 2020. It does look as if hundreds of thousands of European workers who pick fruit and vegetables, doing hard, low-paid jobs, may lose the right to come to Britain.
That is why the debate which the National Trust has now joined is so important. Because the Trust not only wants to use Brexit as an opportunity to end payments for owning land – it wants to divert that money to reward farmers who improve the environment and help wildlife.
According the Trust’s director general, Dame Helen Ghosh: “The subsidy system is broken. It is not working. Farmers are going out of business. The state of wildlife is in steep decline and large parts of that are because of intensive agriculture.
“The vote to leave the EU allows us to think radically about the future of the entire system.
“Taxpayers should only pay public subsidy to farmers in return for things that the market won’t pay for but which are valued and needed by the public. The current system rewards people for the hectares they own, with very inadequate standards for wildlife and the environment,” she said.
The National Farmers Union warned that such approach risks increasing food prices. “Farmers take their responsibilities as custodians of the countryside seriously,” it said. “But in this debate we must not forget that food production is vital. We should not be contemplating doing anything which will undermine British farming’s competitiveness or its ability to produce food.
“To do so would risk exporting food production out of Britain and for Britain to be a nation which relies even further on imports to feed itself.”
But there are some very good reasons why the political classes would be wise to listen to the National Trust. It has more than four million card-carrying, subscription paying members. If it was a political party, it would be more than eight times bigger than any of the mainstream combatants.
The National Trust also owns more than 600,000 acres of farmland and has more than 2,000 tenants. It is Britain’s largest farmer.

Monday, 22 August 2016

I’ve just voted for Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour Party leader

Which makes my vote one of the 650,000 that will be cast in this election.  The Conservative Party membership currently stands at 150,000.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

An apple a day

 It looks like it’s going to be an excellent year for my apples. I got the trees pruned hard last year – for the first time in decades – and the results are astonishing.

The trees are now smaller, allowing more light into the garden and making it much easier to reach the weeds and cut the grass underneath. And yet already the branches are groaning under the weight of Lord Hindlip’s finest.
You might not have heard of Lord Hindlip. He was a Conservative politician of the Victorian era, from Worcestershire, who gave his name to a very fine desert apple.
I’m biased, of course, but I do think the Lord Hindlip apple is one of the tastiest fruits you can grow in Britain. You can also use it for cooking; this year I think I will have to make industrial quantities of juice, if the apples are not to go to waste.
Many years ago, when the orchard in the top field was part of a working farm, part of the labourers’ wages would have been paid in cider. It is interesting to see how the revival of Cornwall’s craft cider industry is boosting the rural economy.
Hardly a day passes now without someone starting a new micro-cider farm somewhere in Cornwall. Most will have started their cider-making as a hobby. Many now work at it full-time and some even employ one or two people to help.
In all the fuss over the Brexit debate recently, one of the facts that tended to be overlooked was that the UK government had successfully resisted the siren calls of Brussels to levy a tax on small-scale cider producers.
The European Commission had wanted British cider brought into line with the rest of the EU. The exemption, worth about £2,700 a year since 1976, had been under threat. But former Chancellor George Osborne listened to the advice from the Campaign for Real Ale and maintained the tax break for those cider makers who produce less than 12,000 pints per year – which is 80 per cent of the domestic cider market.
As we head towards Philip Hammond’s first, post-Brexit budget this autumn, I wonder if there will be any further encouragement for local food and drink producers.
It is such a shame that these days most of us buy our apples from supermarkets – 482,000 tonnes a year. Yet just two varieties, Gala and Braeburn, both natives of New Zealand, make up almost half of British sales.
According to the National Fruit Collection, we could eat a different home-grown apple every day for six years and still not have sampled them all. There are no doubt commercial reasons for this, not least economies of scale.
My Lord Hindlips keep well for up to two months, but after that they get a bit soft. And because, while they still hang from the trees, I tend to share them with birds and insects, they sometimes bear the scars of battle. I doubt they would sell very well in New Zealand. I’m not rushing to negotiate my own post-Brexit trade agreement.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Betting our hedges

I think that if there is one element of the countryside which defines rural Cornwall, it is our hedges.

They mark ownership boundaries. They stop livestock escaping from fields. They are abundant in wildlife. And they turn our cratered country lanes into long, narrow, dark green tunnels, acting as a magnet to visiting motorists who never learned how to reverse.
It is thought that Cornwall has about 30,000 miles of rural hedgerow, the vast majority being centuries old. Some are more than 2,000 years old. Quite properly, we have laws to protect them.
The 1997 Hedgerow Regulations were brought in after decades of neglect, and a long period in which agricultural policy was directed by a mantra which insisted “bigger farms are better.” After the second World War, many hedgerows were dug up in the name of economic efficiency.
The regulations are interesting because, in part, they seem quite arbitrary – for example, to be “important” a hedgerow has to be at least 20 metres in length. If it is shorter than this, and does not adjoin another hedge, it is still “important” if it is part of a village green or common land. It must also be at least 30 years old.
Many hedgerows include trees, often local landmarks and covered by Tree Preservation Orders. Hedges are also “important” if they mark town or parish boundaries which pre-date 1850, or if they mark the boundary of a pre-1600 estate. The regulations apply not only to limiting the destruction of hedgerows, they also require maintenance.
Most of probably don’t own a pre-1600 estate, but all of us have an interest in hedgerows. Hedgerows which adjoin public highways are particularly important, as the maintenance of these hedges is related to road safety. And the responsibility for hedgerow maintenance, these days, falls squarely on the shoulders of the owners or occupiers.
Until about 30 years ago, county councils would often cut hedges – pretty crudely, it must be said, using a flail which sliced as readily through the wildlife as the blackthorn. It was however a service which worked to the advantage of many farmers. Now that farmers and other landowners themselves have to meet the costs of hedgerow maintenance, our hedges are somewhat taller and thicker – and we seem to be moving to an era in which rather than being criticised for cutting down hedges, owners and occupiers are today more likely to be criticised for not cutting them.
Cornwall Council is the authority responsible for enforcing the rules, and publishes a handy guide as to what is expected: “At locations where highway hedge growth has become a problem, the highway authority is likely to serve notice on the owner/occupier requiring the necessary work to be completed within a stated period. Failure to comply with the conditions of this notice may result in the highway authority undertaking the works and recovering the costs from the owner/occupier.”
I have a personal interest in this, because some of my hedges adjoin the main road and earlier this year the main part of hedge was expertly cut, by a professional. Over the past 30 years, the hedge had got higher, and thicker, and at harvest time it was always pretty hit and miss (mostly hit) as to whether any of the local agricultural vehicles would get past without losing most of their load to the higher branches. Of course I felt guilty about this. But at least the thicker hedgerows made them slow down a bit.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Too easily ensnared by ignorance

When I moved into this house 30 years ago, one of the first curios which I noticed the previous owners had left behind, hanging on a shed wall, was a what looked like a piece of scrap metal with jagged edges and the remains of a powerful spring. It was covered in rust and cobwebs and obviously hadn’t been used for years. I took a closer look, dusted it down, and realised it was a gin trap.

 These have been outlawed for nearly 60 years, their fearsome jaws being responsible for the indiscriminate, slow, agonising deaths of wildlife for the previous century and a half.

I was reminded of this when Parliament last week took the rare trouble to debate a rural issue, and spent just over an hour talking about the use of snares.

A snare is a thin wire noose intended to catch animals around the neck, rather like a lasso. There are two types: the self-locking snare, which is not legal, tightens around the animal the more it struggles. Even when the animal ceases to struggle, the device is still tightened and causes serious injury and death.
A “free-running” snare is still currently legal. If it is operating properly, it should relax when the animal stops pulling, allowing the operator returns to kill the animal, usually by shooting, or release it if the snare has not caught the right quarry. The disadvantage of a legal free-running snare is that it can in many circumstances act like a self-locking snare, particularly if it becomes kinked or rusty.
As usual, it was a Labour MP from the not-particularly-rural constituency of Lewisham West and Penge who sought to bring the matter up. Jim Dowd wants to ban snares because of the “continued suffering caused to thousands of animals every year.”
Mr Dowd’s motion was not put to a vote and he was fobbed off with the usual junior ministerial response of a promise to look into it.
For a news reporter like me, the real value of such debates is that an army of Parliamentary researchers and special advisors have done all the hard work and established some interesting facts. For example, DEFRA’s independent working group on snares concluded in 2005 that it would be difficult to reduce non-target catches to less than 40%.
Four years ago, DEFRA reported that 260,000 snares were still in use in England and Wales. 

DEFRA’s field studies found that the intended targets were mainly foxes, but that these accounted for only 25% of all victims. The other 75% included hares (33%); badgers (26%)—both of these are protected species—and a further 14% described as “other.”
That is almost a quarter of a million animals, including deer and domestic pets such as cats and dogs, captured every year.
As Mr Dowd told his Parliamentary colleagues: “Most snares cause extreme suffering to animals and often lead to a painful, lingering death. Animals caught in snares suffer huge stress and can sustain horrific injuries. Snares can cause abdominal, chest, neck, leg and head injuries to animals. Some animals get their legs caught in snares and end up with the wire cutting through to the bone. Such animals may attempt to escape by gnawing off their own limbs.”
My gin trap still hangs on the shed wall, having collected a further 30 years of rust and cobwebs, and maybe one day I will take a wire brush and clean it up properly. It might be worth a few bob on eBay.