Dawn Silence

My dog is still on British Summer Time so has his breakfast extremely early (he’s a Lab…not one to have any truck with “no you can wait another hour for food”), and I take him out just as it’s getting light. I take my binoculars to scout for deer before letting him off as there are lots of fallow and a few roe and I don’t want him wondering what they would be like to chase.

When I first moved here from in 2008, I remember standing outside my back door with a cup of tea and listening to a cacophony of birdsong. Fast-forward to today, at 6.56am:

A solitary Robin, a Blackbird, and some angry Wrens. The Buzzards were out and about, and the corvids, but the songbirds are so so diminished. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a rant about how I live in the countryside so ‘deserve’ birdsong rather than traffic noise, because the sad truth is that this countryside I have behind my house is probably little better, from a biodiversity point of view, than the new housing estates popping up around the village, with roads named–needless to say–things like Birch Close and Alder Avenue without irony. Perhaps a reminder of the species sacrificed for such a development. Nevertheless there is a possibility that the people who buy these houses might consider feeding their birds, or putting up nest boxes, or planting for pollinators. There will be recreational space and a few wild edges, and after the devastation of the heavy plant and machinery, there could be a healing and settling as the gardens get used and planted. Not everyone will use astroturf surely.

Contrast this with farmland: the fields are put to a conventional arable rotation and the soil is virtually dead, as evidenced by the plants growing in the exhausted earth. Nightshade, mayweed, a few thistles and volunteer rape are all that can eek any sort of living on this expanse of land. It was harvested in August, and has at least been left as rough stubble so far, allowing a small flock of Meadow Pipits (or ‘mipits’) and a handful of Wood Pigeons to find a few seeds, and when we have had rain the water runs clear down the track rather than like builder’s tea as it usually does when the precious cover has been removed by ploughing. That will come though, and a few more inches of the headland will be stolen by the power harrow, even though square yards of the new seedlings will then be eaten by rabbits. There is good reason for leaving a decent margin around the field, and I wish it could be reinstated as a tithe to nature as often it massively increases the productivity of the central 90-95% of the field, thus cancelling out the apparent loss of cultivated land.

A few days ago, I saw with dismay a tractor and sprayer heading over towards the fields behind the farmhouse, and wondered what was going to be happening; who knows, they could have been applying some compost tea…yes…or not. Lockdown has made me so attached to the fields around my house, and while I am not naive enough to expect the land to go back to nature in some sort of rewilding project (not that I would complain!) seeing the constant take take take and nothing bar a little FYM and numerous applications of NPK put back, it gets hard to watch.

Then we come to this, following an afternoon of the tractor and flail going around the perimeter sounding like someone tumble drying rocks for 5 hours:

So, that’s dead bracken and nettles that have been cut back there. This field isn’t cultivated, and the bridlepath runs parallel so this cut isn’t for access. Pointless waste of diesel and time, and a loss of shelter and food, however meagre, to the mammals, birds and insects on this field margin.

Disclaimer: I studied a degree in Agriculture & the Environment at Wye College back in the 90’s, and before that worked on a large (2000ac) farm here in Sussex, and had a few very happy years at Plumpton Agricultural College. Now, I freely admit to spending time in the winter engaged in some fairly unproductive hours under the vague title of “Workshop” on my timesheet. There were over 20 of us employed there at the time, and the focus was wholly on production, although I did have the privilege of working with a pioneer in free-range pork, Hugh Norris of Plantation Pigs which was quite radical then.

I’m not being critical or anti-farmer, but genuinely wonder as to the point of it? It’s not like there’s a lack of information about the need for conserving space for wildlife, and I was astonished to see a bunch of dead stuff being mown to the ground when it would have just died back to nothing anyway?

I am fully aware that investing in new tech or embracing a new regime takes courage and support, and I am so impressed by the innovative and courageous land managers and agriculturalists who are challenging the narrative and finding ways of working with nature to gain maximum benefit for soil health and therefore productivity. I do my best to support these growers by purchasing my fruit, veg, flour, nuts, and seeds from them as it’s a small way that I feel I can make a difference. I hope the farmer who works the land behind my house decides to watch a few soil health YouTube videos and listen to the odd regenerative farming podcast over the winter instead of hammering the dead nettles.

I’ll leave you with another, slightly later, dawn chorus:

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