BACK TO THE ROOTS

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BACK TO THE ROOTS
Rock samphire

Mary Green visits the farm where she grew up to see the benefits of organic methods.

What an odd year it has been. It was a very mild wet winter and early spring, a warm dry late spring and early summer (the “lockdown summer”) then a mild and changeable late summer and early autumn. By my expectations, this should have led to plants blooming and fruiting early, with birds and insects appearing in good numbers and fairly early too.

But it didn’t. Many plants have flowered relatively late, though generally in profusion and setting seeds and fruit well. However, young birds came quite late, and there has been a distinct shortage of insects despite all the blossom and fruit. Where are the wasps? The trees kept their green leaves well into the autumn and the mallard drakes were quite late getting their colours back.

Human crops have of course fared even worse. Barley was sown later than I ever remember around here, because of the flooded land. Then it was dried and scorched by late spring sun and grew very thin and short. In September I walked all round Alvechurch and none had yet been harvested. There is hardly any oilseed rape and only a few maize fields. Some arable fields were never sown at all. Even without Coronavirus, the year has been a trying one. One midland grain farmer said it was the worst harvest for 40 years.

I managed to go in late August back to the farm where I grew up (I was transplanted from Birmingham to Devon at an early age and took root there!) It has very little arable land so has not suffered too badly this year. It has been an organic farm for nearly 40 years, and has now become a major supplier of organic veggies to one of the big veg box schemes. It was fascinating to see the effects on wildlife of this kind of farming. I have written before about the benefits of pasture-fed animal grazing, but it’s the first time I’d seen large-scale organic vegetable growing. He had just planted another million cauliflowers and there were plenty more caulis, cabbages and leeks in the fields being harvested.

Most commercial vegetable growing depends on artificial fertilisers, herbicides (weedkillers) and pesticides, but of course organic farmers don’t use these. When the plants are very young, they grow in cleared ground, but once they become established the native plants (“weeds”) are allowed to grow between the rows.

The fields we saw had a wild flower called fat hen as the main companion to the cabbages and caulis, but there were others like camomile and persicaria as well.

Fat hen, as its name suggests, is a food-rich plant once fed to poultry. It attracts insects that might otherwise feed on the crop and helps to stabilise the soil. This kind of farming is good for insects and birds, enhancing rather than depleting the environment.

The only negative is that the ground has to be worked to start every new crop, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. There are few vegetables that can be planted directly into existing vegetation, although people are working on it. Perennial vegetables would be the ideal – asparagus is about the only one we have at present.

The farm even had a small amount of oilseed rape growing. This is notoriously difficult without a punishing regime of pesticides – not to mention the weather problems – and any crop will be snapped up by specialist buyers. It’s almost impossible to buy organic rapeseed oil.

Everything on the farm depends on the soil. It’s shale here, alkaline and stony. It’s good for the wild flowers, which grow in long-term undisturbed ground and the organic farming keeps it healthy. The weather matters as well: mild and windy and often wet. It’s bad for trees of any size, but wonderful for cauliflowers all the year round!

Like most farmers these days, they have to diversify to support this kind of farming, and in this case, they have a campsite and holiday lets. The good thing about this is it introduces a lot of people to organic farming (and to the caulis and leeks being sold at the farm gate “for whatever you want to pay”). They have sheep as well so there is pasture, providing another good environment for wildlife.

Being a typical Devon farm, it had quite small fields, with thick hedge-banks between. Some of these have wilding and wild apples as well as sloes and other fruits. It was amazing to see them still in the same place I remember from my childhood. The hedges are full of flowers and birds. There is even a rare bird called the cirl bunting, which only occurs in this small region now, with the farm being recognised as a habitat for them. In one of the fields we found a flower called autumn lady’s tresses, small and white but a type of orchid, which I haven’t seen for decades. We also picked and ate field mushrooms, a sign of good untreated pasture.

In late summer the flowers are fewer and the birds quiet, but there was plenty to see. I was amazed to find plants flowering in exactly the same places as they did 70 years ago. We found wild clematis flowering abundantly on a lovely piece of sandy open land near the beach called the “Ham”. It also has milkwort and burnet rose, which I remember of old. There’s another plant called soapwort, which was an old herb used of course for soap making.

We also found scabious and fleabane, both full of bees and other insects. On the beach itself was sea holly, a gorgeous blue-grey plant which people often try to grow in the gardens but it doesn’t really like that habitat! On the rocks was rock samphire, some of which we foraged and took back to cook with salmon.

In the hedges the most noticeable flower was toadflax, a pretty yellow plant, common there but not round here. There was also tansy, another old herb, in a particular lane where I remember it being.
Tansy grows here in Alvechurch, near the station, though most of it has been cut down. It doesn’t take well to cutting. Oddly enough there is a lovely area of toadflax here too, near the railway line. It reminds me that many plants grow near railways, roads and canals which are not normally in the locality. They are brought in accidentally by travellers and sometimes thrive on patches of unusual soils where roads and railways have been made.

We found a herb called calamint, not common now but fond of growing in gateways. We found ploughman’s spikenard – what a lovely old name! And on the old stone walls there is another toadflax, the ivy-leaved one, a small purple climber.

The fact that so many plants were still there is a sign that the area has been managed favourably for wildlife. The open ground is not cut back (grazing by rabbits helps to keep it short) and the hedges, or rather earth-covered walls or banks covered with vegetation which make a Devon Hedge, are only cut out of season, the minimum needed to allow traffic down the lanes. I know they will be covered in primroses and bluebells in spring.

In the waters of the estuary we found abundant sea vegetables (“seaweeds” doesn’t seem an appropriate name as most of them are edible). I am not familiar with all the names but know that the variety here is a good sign of healthy waters.

Even at a nearby very popular surfing beach there is an area of open scrubland with public paths through, owned by the National Trust. They have quite a few stretches of coastal cliffs around the country, and always maintain them for wildlife. Exposed to the bleak sea winds, very little in the way of trees or even bigger bushes grow here, but there is a lovely network of lower growing plants.

As well as all this natural abundance, we discovered that for the last few years there has been a big archaeological dig on the farm. There is an important iron-age site there, spanning a couple of centuries before and after the birth of Christ. It stretches across the ridge at the top of the farm (just above the campsite!) where there are glorious views out to sea and inland. No wonder people wanted to settle there. There is even a special kind of iron age pottery named after the farm, and artefacts from many countries, reminding us that people travelled in those days.

It has always been a lived-in place, but can be a place where people live in harmony with all the other creatures and plants.

Of course, it does change, but natural change is slow and developmental, taking centuries or millennia. Only where we intervene does wildlife change as dramatically as it has during my lifetime in the general loss of species and imbalance of flowering times.