Over the course of evolution, ecosystems have perfected their strategies for long-term prospe...
Over the course of evolution, ecosystems have perfected their strategies for long-term prospe...
The Stockholm Resilience Centre has put together this fantastic video detailing seven princip...
The self-sufficiency writer John Seymour once named his choice for the curse of mankind: couch grass, the weed that bedevils the kitchen gardener.. My choice is different: it is Creeping Thistle, or to give it its Latin appellation Cirsium Arvense, which I take to be derived in turn from its Mediaeval English name, Kick in Ye Arse. On our farm, creeping thistle constantly creeps. We have conducted several kinds of warfare against it: manual, mechanical and chemical.
Our manual phase was just after we bought the farm, more than twenty years ago. Armed with stout gloves, we marched into a field and pulled up the thistles by their roots. After a time we had piles three or more feet high over the field. Then a kindly neighbouring farmer pointed out that the creeping thistle regenerates from the smallest fragment of root left behind. He was right: next year the thistles were as thick as ever.
Reluctantly, we tried chemical warfare, hiring a man with what’s called a weed-wiper, a clever device that wipes the top of the thistles with herbicide while sparing the grasses and clovers that grow beneath it. Weed-wiping is much better than spraying, which can get drift into hedges and get blow around by even light winds.
But the Man with The Wiper gave it up.
So I bought a topper, a large cutter that you pull around the field with a tractor. Topping is a very pleasant activity… the tractor chugs along up and down the field, the creeping thistle falls before it and clean sward is left behind. An afternoon’s topping is pure therapy. You finish the job with an unblemished field and a mind that is rested, far away from worrying about Greece and its debt, and where to hide if Donald Trump becomes US President, or Liz Kendall, something of a creeping thistle herself, becomes leader of the Labour Party.
Yet the real creeping thistle is good at surviving topping. Next year, our topped thistles will be back, not quite as strong as before, but raring for another tangle with the topper.
In the last few days, I have seen the future. And it worries. On July 31st, the thermometer in our greenhouse fell to 4.3C. It must have been even colder outside. To have a temperature that close to a frost in the height of summer seems to me to indicate how unstable our climate is becoming.
At more or less the same time, the news was dominated by the migrants, largely from Africa, try to storm the Calais terminals and get through the Tunnel to the UK. All TV channels and the papers, from redtops to broadsheets, lead with the story. This migration appears largely to have its origins in ghastly governments, not least in Eritrea and South Sudan. But while climate change is having severe impacts in parts of Africa already, it will likely get much worse… We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
I measure my ageing by my grandsons. More specifically, by my swimming grandsons. A few years ago, I raced Matty, then twelve, a length of a pool, watched by The Surgeon. As Matty won readily, The Surgeon remarked “When your grandsons beat you in the pool, Jerry, time is marching on.”
This week I challenged two other grandsons, Joe who is 13 and Pierre who is 11 to race a 20 metre length. I swam purposefully, with strong and rapid strokes, pulling the water behind me. When I arrived at the far end, both Joe and Pierre were sitting on the edge, dabbling their feet in the water and looking faintly embarrassed.
I am not sure I will throw down this challenge ever again. Next time, I could arrive and find the grandsons had finished, dried themselves, set up a barbecue and were grilling Merguez sausages.
The small Herefordshire village where we live has not much to distinguish itself from many other Herefordshire villages, being set in lovely countryside with a few decent old buildings. But one aspect of Blakemere is unusual: its small village green is dominated by a magnificent Black Poplar. The Forestry Commission says the Black Poplar is the most endangered hardwood tree in Britain. Only one other village in England has a mature Black Poplar on its green. Moreover, the Black Polar is a wonderful host tree…it’s the food plant of caterpillars of many moths including the hornet moth, the wood leopard and the polar hawk and it’s an early source of pollen for bees.
A few weeks ago, our Black Poplar shed a large branch, which came down with a crash. Of course, no one was hurt because, apart from at the time of the village fete, villagers don’t hang about on our green. But the fall of this branch set wheels in motion. Balfour Beatty, who have the contract to look after the roads in these parts, sent an employee along to look at the tree, who quickly communicated “I have inspected the tree and arranged for its removal in 28 days” Amazing indeed. What drove this judgement of course were our old friends Health and Safety. Balfour Beatty doubtless would urge the removal of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral if a stone from it was dislodged.
Fortunately, a meeting of the village was called to discuss the situation. We gathered around the Black Poplar. We got there shortly after a high wind had torn through the village: it threw down all the safety hurdles which had been erected around the tree - the tree itself was fine. To the surprise of a few, the mood of the meeting quickly became clear: Hands Off Our Tree. Local architect Roger Gell had had the enterprise to get an expert dendrologist to look at the tree. Roger read out his report to the meeting and the effect was devastating: the Tree was in essence sound, but need rebalancing, with some branches removed to restore its equilibrium. Collapse of the Health and Safety faction, who were left muttering; “I wouldn’t want it on my conscience if that tree came down and took a human life.”
Well, no one would and trees can kill. But I wouldn’t want it on my conscience to have the Blakemere Black Poplar felled without very good reason.
The villagers sensibly decided to commission a further report from a tree expert to confirm or contradict Roger’s dendrologist.
I will keep this website informed about the Blakemere Poplar. Watch this space.
The Blakemere Poplar stands on the Village green. It has seen a fair few high winds since this photo was taken: Credit: Andrew Dally
It was cheering last week to hear Barack Obama speak so passionately about climate change, his line about us being the last generations who will be able to avert its worst consequences was particularly memorable. I was cheered also to read of the polls showing that populations generally are more convinced about climate change than their politicians. For every Redneck Republican and Denying ‘Kipper, there are many sensible people with open minds.
There can be few centres of resilience-in-action as useful as the vegetable plot, whether an allotment or in a garden. If social breakdown occurs in Osborne’s Britain or Merkel’s Europe, we shall cherish our home-grown veg. Indeed, we do so every day in these weeks of amazing fecundity. Our house is lucky enough to have a vegetable garden, created by generations of previous diggers and planters (and I should say, groaners and cursers. Turning our soil from Herefordshire red into its rich dark colour was the work of nameless heroes.)
It is extraordinary how much veg can be produced from even a modest row. One six yard row of Charlotte salad potatoes has produced 42 pounds of peerless spuds. Once lifted, their growing space is now occupied by 80 young leeks, which will nourish us through the winter.
I have a problem with impatience. I am to impatience what Mark Cavendish is to Tour de France sprinting or Vermeer is to painting household interiors in 17th century Netherlands. I was hopeless as a tv director because I could not abide the endless fussing that cameramen went in for as they set up for a shot. And when the shot was finally finished and the cameraman turned calmly to say “We’ll have to do it again. There was a hair in the gate”, I was fit to be tied, as the Irish say.
Impatience, as my good friend The Surgeon said only this week, is a main menace to happiness. So I am, even this late in life, turning over a new leaf. I am practising patience as assiduously as a spin bowler on a difficult wicket. I let other cars out in front of me, even if I am running late. I just breath in deeply as the person in front of me at the supermarket checkout looks for his loyalty card, can’t find it, can find it, drops it, picks it up, can’t find his credit card, can find it but has forgotten his pin number…. I just smile gently now.
The veg garden of course is a great help. You can’t rush a lettuce. You just have to prepare the soil properly and plant it with care. And patience.
Sign in Mike’s Café, the best for the full English near the Portobello Road. “Enjoy life while you can. For one thing is certain: none of us get out of this alive.”
On a recent weekend, we went visit the graves of two relations. This is not one of my favourite pastimes. Indeed I hadn’t been to the grave of my closest relations since the first of them was interred 43 years ago. Shame I know but we have kept the grave in good repair and I am pretty sure she wasn’t lying there waiting for us.
The second grave we visited was remarkable for the loveliness of its setting. My sister-in-law is buried in a natural woodland, with trees planted at the head of each grave, simple wooden plaques which will rot away, and designed in glades and sweeping curves. She has a hawthorn at her head, a tree which will be a glorious sight to see in May. The Closest Relations, in dull contrast, are lying in a 'burial ground, a dismal plot some distance from the over-flowing churchyard. The graves are set in straight lines, all for the ease of the lawnmower. The place looks like the setting for a carboot sale. I shall not go to this again.
In the organic cider orchard on this farm - the apples end up as Dunkerton’s Cider, hard to beat – there are a number of hives, looked after by Dave, who runs the British Black Bee Company. As the name suggests, Dave only cares for the native British bee, black in colour and some would say temperament.
I have remarked before on my experience that bees tend to conform to their national stereotypes. When I kept bees myself, I found that bees with an Italian queen were easy to work with but too laid back and relaxed to get in the honey. They preferred lying about in the sun, hanging out the washing and so on. The Israeli bees, in contrast, were ferocious workers, hard at it from first light till dusk, taking over other people’s hives, etc etc.
And the British black? Well, I am not sure these days what the stero-type would be. Staying at home and waiting for the benefit cheque? Joining ASLEF and coming out on strike? Or working long and uncertain hours on zero-hour contracts and poverty wages? Probably the latter, in Osborne’s Britain. However, I am glad to report that Dave’s bees don’t conform to the stereotype. They appear to busy when one would expect it. But I haven’t tested their temperament. Cutting the grass in the orchard the other day I kept well clear of the hives.
“Why don’t you ever learn?” said my mother, just before a half-inch metal nut fell onto the floor. She had been shaking me, aged three, upside down with one hand while telephoning the ambulance with the other. I had just swallowed the nut which was jamming my throat and turning my face a rich purple as I struggled to breath.
“Why don’t you ever learn?” said my father, as I rowed him in a boat. I had just caught a gigantic crab, bouncing me off the seat and into the bilges. He had several times taught me to feather my oars and as the stroke of the St Paul’s School rowing eight circa 1927 he knew what he was talking about.
“Why don’t you ever learn, Bugler?” was a refrain that often sprang from the mouth, hidden behind a tobacco-stained moustache, of my primary school maths teacher, W.T. Meade-King, a giant of a man in several respects, a height of 6 foot 4 being one of them. Well, I never really did and struggled to get Maths O Level.
Well, why don’t I ever learn? This spring in the kitchen garden I have once again sowed seeds too early and put young plants out before they were ready. I know perfectly well that runner beans and French beans, being South American in origin, should not be sown until the last week of May, but there I was sowing them in April. The result has been leggy plants in the greenhouse and shivering ones outside. I’ve had to re-sow all over again.
In truth I know why I repeatedly make the same mistakes in the garden, though I am uncertain about my general failing. Spring’s sheer excitement and rush sweeps one off one’s feet. This year especially, with April so warm and glorious. Other gardening friends are as susceptible. The Surgeon, a calm man in most things and a better gardener than me, had his potatoes hit by frost because they were planted too early (They’ve recovered, you will be hugely relieved to hear.)
Spring is the greatest thing. I marvel every year how the black dots in my palm can grow into huge cauliflowers and kale plants that sustain us for weeks.
General Election post-script: bad news for the planet. The Tories have something like St Vitus’s Dance when it comes to renewable energy. And so yes, they’ve already started cutting back on support for renewables. My wife and I are glad we’ve invested in a community wind turbine under construction outside Fishguard. If renewable-haters come into Fishguard harbour on the Irish ferry, they first thing they will see is a wind-turbine, saying “sod off!” with each revolution of its giant blades.
The best summary of why Labour lost didn’t come from the Blairites (Peter Mandelson’s emissions were risible) but from a veteran journalist and old friend, Peter Wilby, writing in the New Statesman. After reminding his readers gently that he predicted the election result correctly, he said: “ Miliband’s problem was not that he was too ant- or too pro-aspiration, too hostile or too friendly to business, too Keynesian or too neo-liberal. He just wasn’t very good at politics. He accepted the Tory narrative on the need for austerity, failed to challenge the claim that Labour over-spending caused it, said little about the party’s record in building schools and hospitals and relied on random retail offers, such as a freeze on energy prices, that didn’t add up to a coherent narrative for government.”
That’s a real political intelligence for you.
The Wellcome Trust is one of the outstanding institutions of this country. Countless human beings owe their better lives to the work of the Trust, and countless more will in the future, as it funds research into awful plagues and diseases.
Because it’s such a terrific body, I’m disappointed that it has struck such an obdurate position when called on by The Guardian to divest itself of its considerable investments in fossil fuels. Its director Jeremy Farrar has argued that the Trust can wield more influence by remaining invested and having private influence on the fossil fuel companies, rather than by divesting and moving the dosh into renewables. Now I don’t doubt that such useful conversations take place, and that the Wellcome does influence changes, some of which it can’t publicise. At least two of the top Wellcome people are former senior BP executives and they will know the top brass in BP and Shell personally and be able to have that telling, quiet word.
My concerns, though, are that we are just at the beginning of really waking up to what climate change has in store for us and the grim future will damage the standing of any institution which is seen to have stuck with the fossil fuel companies. The Wellcome has perhaps £400 million invested in Shell and BP, which is an awful lot of lolly. In even the short run, people should only sup with BP and Shell with a very long spoon. Shell for instance is pressing ahead with Artic exploration, where a ghastly oil spill, uncontainable by current technology, is a racing certainty. One Shell man has reportedly admitted it is bound to happen.
Then there’s the question of example. How can campaigners and shareholders persuade their companies to get out of coal and Arctic oil when there’s the Wellcome, carrying on investing?
I notice that not long ago Wellcome quietly sold off a £94 million investment in Exxon Mobile. I hope we will see more of these quiet divestments – and an increase in the current sum which the Trust spends on climate change research and adaptation - less than one per cent of its disbursements in the last five years went on this area which is key to human health and happiness, as the Trust itself acknowledges.
Wellcome is a wonder - too wonderful to have its face besmirched by oil.
Can I end by recommending another writing by another old mate? Sorry about all these mates but I have had some great acquaintances in my span. Walt Patterson has written a new energy book and anything Walt writes on energy is worth reading. Energy versus Fire: The Fight for Our Future sets out how we must move away from fossil fuel based power and switch to electricity generated by clean renewables. He does it all in a gentle discursive style, not unlike the man himself. Available from Amazon for a fiver in paperback and £3 as a download.
And a cold spring we have had of it. I have been a faithful labourer in the vineyard (or rather, orchard) during bitter winds, hail storms and rasping rain. Yet it is been a rewarding time, for we have been pruning the five acre orchard and its 144 apple trees and six perry pears. In earlier years, I have done all the pruning myself, but now the trees have grown too large – they were planted about 15 years ago, as single standards, that is, proper trees, under which sheep can safely graze, not the stunted bush trees which are grown by most commercial cider farms. Also, I have developed a tendency to fall off the ladders as I reach for a difficult cut.
So this year I called in expert help – Laurence Green and Julia Morton, from Orchard Origins. They arrived carrying long Japanese pole-saws, which meant they didn’t have to climb the trees but could do the job from the ground. Much of the job lies in judging which cut to make - to balance the tree, to cut out a branch that is growing too big and threatening to take over from the main trunk, to cut out a crossing branch. They also were asked by me to cut out all mistletoe shoots. Mistletoe is threating Herefordshire orchards by overwhelming them with growth, which saps the vigour of the tree.
Then they got to it. Such was the energy needed for the job, said Lawrence, that they could do only five hours before calling it a day. As the employer, I found myself musing that Eastern Europeans might have found the extra energy, but then I was the employer…
Now the pruned branches -or leavings as Laurence terms them – have all been gathered up into a huge pile at one end of the orchard, where they will provide cover for wildlife. And the trees are - at long bloody last - coming into bud, as this weekend the weather has warmed.
Just above the orchard, on a steeply sloping hillside, the name of our village - Blakemere - is just becoming visible. It was planted out in daffodils by some loyal villagers to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. I rather like seeing the letters appear slowly, getting more and more legible, but then I get irritated at its royalist message. I am thinking of getting some more daffodil bulbs and adding the extra words THE REPUBLIC OF…to BLAKEMERE. Juvenile I know, but it would annoy some royalists, which must be worth something.
We had a scare the other night, which cost me a sleepless night. The agricultural subsidy system is being reformed, with a new scheme coming into effect this year. Reading the documentation, I became convinced that our farm would no longer qualify for subsidy. Now in principle I agree with many, including my old friend Peter Wilby, former editor of the New Statesman, that it is a kind of larceny on the public purse for this one industry – agriculture – to be subsidised, or feather-bedded or spoon-fed, as he would likely put it. The trouble is this subsidy is very useful for the way we run our farm. For instance, we have this spring dug a large pond in the corner of a field for wildlife. All in all, it will cost us about £1,500. The largesse from the taxpayers to J & S Bugler will come in useful for this sort of thing. So I was relieved to hear the Rural Payments Agency that our subsidy will continue. But I agree, subsidy being dolled simply for owning land, is not right.
Jeremy Clarkson has gone from Top Gear but how do I get him off my mobile phone? I have written before about this: when I text on my smartphone, and sign off with `Jeremy’, the phone offers the next word as `Clarkson.’ Immediately a jet of acid hits my stomach. I am hoping that after he shifts to a new ITV show (entitled Petrolheads: Running on Empty?), he will gradually drift into obscurity and when I type in `Jeremy’ in the future it will suggest `Irons’ or even `Paxman’. Anything rather the lantern-jawed monster.
The dumping of the Clarkson though does give the BBC a chance to reformat Top Gear into a programme that takes account of climate change, the accidents fast cars cause, the encouragement to testosterone-heavy kids it affords, as in the edition last week when the absurd Clarkson and his fellow arrested-development presenters hurled ridiculous cars around a track. I mean this seriously: Two young lads from the next village were killed last year, going 85 without proper brakes. I bet they loved Top Gear.
Few things irritate me more than the FAQ lists which prominent companies post on their websites. After having our emails and domain name with Demon for more than 25 years, we suddenly have found that Demon’s new owners Vodafone have flogged them off, without so much as a by-your-leave. They’ve been chucked to another company, named IntY Ltd, who sound like makers of men’s underpants, who in turn have dumped them on a firm called Names.Co. Of course, few will have heard of either firm. I spent a full half day working out how our email domain would work with Names.co. This company has all the flannel - a website featuring a smiling woman and the slogan “We have real people behind our website and they are ready and waiting to talk to you!”
In fact of course, if you ring Names.co, you get an interminable press 1, press 2, press 3 before “All of our operators are busy at the moment.” And you hold on, and hold on, and hold on until the spirit to live departs.
The FAQs of Demon,Vodafone and Names.co list many questions but never the ones you really want.
Such as: “Why did you not seek my consent before dumping my domain on an unknown company operating out of a trading estate in Worcester.?”
Or: “How can I get this reversed and my domain etc put back with Demon?”
And even more: “How can I dump a bucket of wet North Sea herring over the head of Jereom Hoencamp, Vodaphone’s CEO ?”. He’s Dutch after all.
I learned something shocking today. This article reported the striking fact that "If you’re younger than 30, you’ve never experienced a month in which the average surface temperature of the Earth was below average."
According to figures from the US National Climatic Data Centre, the last month that was at or below that 1900s average was February 1985 when "Ronald Reagan had just started his second presidential term and Foreigner had the number one single with “I want to know what love is.”
Co-incidentaly it was also the first full month that this author spent on earth. Trying deparately to avoid any paranoid egocentrism, the news that, from a climate change perspective, it's been going downhill ever since I was born, has come as quite a shock.
As the article points out, it is significant that the temperatures have been above average for 30 years. The traditional scientific definition of 'climate' is the 30-year average of the weather. So assuming that February 2015 is also above average (the results are not in for that one yet), then this will mark the point when we can catigorically say that the earth's climate has changed.
The relavtively stable climate that humanity has enjoyed for centuries has come to an end. This remember, is the climate in which humans developed agriculture, industrialised and urbanised, settled on coasts, and built on floodplains. The stability of this climate is over.
It has been replaced by a climate that is gradually warming, we do not know how human or ecological systems will cope with these changes. We are entering a time of great uncertainty. A time when resilience will be crucial to our continued prosperity.