I am constantly surprised by how often science fiction is outdone by science fact. Up in the orchard, now that autumn is officially here, the bees appear to be slowing down. They still buzz in and out of their hive, but I detect a sense that they are getting ready for a rest.
They appear completely oblivious to this week’s news that a foreign invader is, at this very moment, plotting their destruction. And if we lose the bees we lose pollination of crops, with dire implications for our own food supply. So this really matters. The Asian hornet has finally arrived in Britain.
Northern winters are thought to be too cold for the Asian hornet, but the milder climate of Cornwall is considerably more benign. The insects, which reached the Channel Islands earlier this year, are now thought to have reached Gloucestershire in packing crates. While they are essentially just a big wasp, and pose no direct threat to humans, they have a nasty habit of hanging around bee hives and biting the heads off honey bees.
As Albert Einstein is reported to have said: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
I did say that this sounds like science fiction, but it really is science fact. That is why Defra has established a three-mile surveillance zone around the site in Gloucester where just two Asian hornets were found (one of them was already dead.) The scientists are using infrared cameras and traps to find any nests. If any are found, then disposal experts will kill the hornets and destroy them. More scientists in Yorkshire are investigating the DNA of the Gloucester insects to learn more about how they got here.
And as if all this science wasn’t scary enough, some honey bees have a natural defence to the Asian hornet: they form a mass around the hornet, sacrificing themselves, but raising its temperature to a lethal 45C. Apparently honey bees in Britain have yet to learn this “heat-balling” technique and so their prospects for survival are not good.
On behalf of my bees, I am naturally very concerned. But short of camping outside of their hive, armed with a can of insect repellent, I am really not sure what I can do. Extra vigilance, I suppose. Apparently this is what I should be looking out for:
The Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) queens are up to 3 cm in length; workers up to 25 mm (slightly smaller than the native European hornet Vespa crabro)
They are entirely dark brown or black velvety body, bordered with a fine yellow band
They have only one band on the abdomen: 4th abdominal segment almost entirely yellow/orange
Their legs are brown with yellow ends
They have black heads with an orange-yellow face
Unlike European hornets, the Asian hornet flies about during the day but ceases activity at dusk.
If you think you have seen an Asian hornet, please take a picture and email it with details of where you saw it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Among the many things they get up to at County Hall, one operation which I can unhesitatingly single out for praise (yes, you did read that correctly) is the continued existence of the county farms estate.
Not a lot of people know this, but Cornwall Council is one of the county’s biggest farmers. Against all the economic odds of slash-and-burn privatisations, which have seen almost everything from dustbin collection to leisure centres “outsourced” in some form, the 11,182-acre estate is still in public ownership and continues to provide a gateway into agriculture for more than 100 farmers.
A typical “entry-level” farm will probably be 70-120 acres and would require the tenant to have some other form of income, as survival exclusively on such a small holding is rather improbable. There are then “progression” farms which can be anything over 150 acres, and might well come with a milk quota of up to 400,000 litres.
Most of these farms have a house and outbuildings as part of the package: ideal for a young family. For the past 21 years, all holdings have been let on fixed-term business tenancies. Before 1995 the tenancies could be passed down through families.
These farms have a fascinating history. They were established across the whole country in the 1890s to offer opportunities for young people to get started in farming. Concern about food security during the First World War, and a desire to provide work for returning soldiers, boosted their fortunes. By 1926 nearly half a million acres were farmed this way, employing nearly 30,000 farmers. The importance of these publicly-owned farms was recognised afresh in 1947.
Unfortunately, as with so many things, the 1970s brought major changes. The 1970 Agriculture Act declared that small farms were not sufficiently profitable, and demanded consolidation – fewer, but bigger farms – and Whitehall also began to demand that local councils should get out of the game completely.
A few years ago Somerset County Council embarked on a controversial campaign to flog off about two thirds of all its farms. Gloucestershire County Council followed, tempted by the prospect of £125 million in capital receipts.
Since 1964, the acreage of council farms estates across England and Wales has shrunk by nearly 40%. Combined with consolidation, the number of holdings fell by nearly 80%. No wonder there are so few farmers under the age of 30.
But it’s not the same story everywhere, as some councils managed to find ways to defy the privatising instincts of the Thatcher-Blair eras. Cambridgeshire County Council is one of the most enthusiastic farming councils in Britain, with more than 200 tenant farmers across nearly 30,000 acres. As a capital asset, that estate is worth a bob or two – but it’s also a nice little earner, generating about £4million a year.
According to the most recent report to Parliament, council farms in England and Wales made a net profit last year of more than £10 million, every penny helping to provide public services. That’s money which would otherwise have had to have been raised from council taxes.
Given that Cornwall Council and its predecessors have reputations which suggests they would sometimes rather hold a car boot sale than provide public services, it is very pleasant to report that the county farms estate continues to play a significant role in our rural life.
Lots of clever people with much better qualifications than me have written about the importance of landscape to memory. All I can say is that I agree with them.
Last weekend, I found myself re-visiting a place where I spent much of my childhood, more than half a century ago.
This is the village of Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, which I was surprised to note has not changed one bit since I was last there in 1964.
For a few minutes, as I stood next to the brook where I used to play, I was once again eight years old. The meadow, the surrounding tree line, the narrow country lane, the stone and flint cottages – all were exactly as I last saw them. The only thing which had changed was me: no longer did it seem appropriate for me to build a dam across the brook, or to wander off into the woods with my home-made bow and arrow, to fight imaginary battles in which I would always triumph.
Those woods are my Blue Remembered Hills. It is not possible to exaggerate their impact on my formative years.
Hambleden is without doubt one of the prettiest villages in Britain. It is often used as a film location. When people think of a typical rural idyll, it must be somewhere like Hambleden they have in mind: not just a set of co-ordinates in space, but also in time.
There has been no new development in Hambleden since the end of the second World War. Any observer from another planet would note that the only discernible change is the increase in the number of cars. I slowly came to my senses and pondered how many villages in Cornwall would be able to say the same. Most see more change in 52 weeks than Hambleden has seen in 52 years.
Looking for any locals who might be able to offer an explanation, I realised that there have actually been some changes to Hambleden. It was very quiet for a Saturday morning in August. If there are any children in the village, they were unusually quiet. In fact, I struggled to find anyone younger than me.
The friendly people who now occupy the houses I used to visit explained that the entire Hambleden estate is now owned by a Swiss financier, one of the wealthiest men in the world and a polo-playing friend of Prince Charles. In the 1950s and 60s of my childhood, the owner had been Lord Hambleden, the then owner of newsagent chain W.H. Smith (my uncle had been his gardener.)
The Hambledens had done a deal with the National Trust, covenanting to the Trust power to act as a brake on development – even down to the kind of windows locals can use when they need to repair their homes.
The Hambleden butcher’s shop has not been used as a butcher’s shop for decades, but local planning rules mean the shop sign could not be removed. This won’t matter too much to the Swiss financier, for whom the village offers significant revenues in rents, agricultural subsidies and the possibility of advantageous tax arrangements.
But is Hambleden still a working, functional community? Is it even possible for anywhere in rural Britain to maintain that traditional social and economic fabric? In Hambleden, the definition of “affordable housing” is governed entirely by tenancy agreements (and by all accounts, the Swiss financier is a reasonable landlord.)
In Cornwall, one of the main arguments used to justify development is that without it, rural communities will die. In theory the argument is not without some merit, but in practice seems only to delay the inevitable – while scarring the landscape with bungalows, as our villages become gated communities for wealthy retirees.
The closest example to Hambleden that I can think of in Cornwall would be St Michael’s Mount: hardly a sustainable model for every village.
We seem to be confronted with a choice between two evils: do we surrender to the sort of landscape which no-one will want to remember, or do we condemn rural communities to become decaying film extras in some kind of living museum? I’m glad I’m not a planner.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the then Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, at the Royal Cornwall Show.
A pleasant, affable, chap – the sort of bloke I’d cheerfully have supped a beer with – and generous with his time when it came to doing the business-end of the interview. The problem of bovine tuberculosis was always going to be on the agenda and Owen had recently announced the first of the badger culls. He knew we were going to talk about it.
I had been expecting the usual plodding, carefully-prepared, fob-off answers, to be delivered strictly in line with some tedious Whitehall script, but Owen was unusually passionate about the issue. He was also surprisingly (for a Cabinet member) well-informed and willing to engage with the substance of my questions.
But then I’m afraid he said something which knocked the interview completely off the rails. He started talking about Bessy and Baz. Bessy and Baz were the Secretary of State’s two pet badgers. As a child he had adopted two “orphaned” badgers and kept them as pets – first Bessy, who lived in the Paterson household boiler room, and later Baz.
The young Owen used to play “rough and tumble” with these creatures. He could remember their “unique” smell (I bet he could!) and recalled with fondness how they would eat almost anything.
It was at that point that I started to wonder if it was really such a good idea for Owen to be the man in charge of rural policy in general and wildlife issues in particular.
I was reminded of this interview by last week’s news that (a) the government has just approved a widespread cull of badgers in Cornwall and (b) there is growing concern that many people are now keeping foxes as pets.
A wildlife hospital in Worcestershire has reported a sharp increase in the number of pet foxes it is being asked to treat, prompting warnings that although it is quite legal to keep a fox as a pet, it is hardly ever a good idea. Even if you don’t mind the smell, the animals are just too highly strung and nervous to be properly domesticated.
But hey, foxes are cute and keeping them indoors as pets satisfies some emotional need – helping us to connect with the natural world. Right?
As the North Cornwall woodlands now echo to the sound of gunfire, I had to smile at local MP Scott Mann’s contribution to the badger debate; totally on-message for the National Farmers Union and helpfully adding: “A cull of badgers could also benefit our hedgehog population, which has declined hugely in the past 50 years, partly because the badger is their biggest natural predator.”
Not quite in the same league as Owen Paterson’s observation that the cull hadn’t gone to plan because “the badgers are moving the goalposts” but a worthy attempt.
The science which proves that culling badgers does not work – that it actually makes TB in cattle worse – was paid for by the same taxpayers now asked to ignore 30 years of research which they funded.
Following several Freedom of Information questions, Defra has been forced to disclose that the cull costs taxpayers more than £7,200 for every dead badger. The budget initially forecast had been £30. Meanwhile in Wales, the government has already shown that badgers can be successfully vaccinated for about £650 each.
The badger cull currently underway in Cornwall demonstrates why it is so difficult to develop a rational approach to rural areas. I can’t think of any other government policy which is so defiantly at odds with science or common-sense. We really are living in an age of “post-truth” politics in which emotions, rather than facts, decide what we have to do. Perhaps next week’s column should be written entirely in emojis .