A Surprise Test Event

The undoubted highlight in what has been a further two weeks of Covid-19 quietude was a surprise test event held at Forest Green Rovers Football Club (FGR) – my team!  Test events to ‘test’ the efficacy of running sporting events that are open to the public during the pandemic have been scheduled across several sports for some weeks.  Because of the latest surge in infections many have been cancelled but apparently FGR were asked, at short notice, whether they wanted to hold one.  They obliged by inviting all their season ticket holders to take part.

Once I knew that my allocated, socially-distanced seat in the stand wouldn’t be in any potential driving rain, I jumped at the chance.  In the event, it was a sunny day.  The attractive, hilly walk to the ground felt like old times, and the whole occasion was a very exciting break from Covid-19 routines. 

There were socially distanced queues for temperature checks and then to get into the stadium.  The imposition of face masks muffled my cheers of team loyalty and those of the other 500 supporters.  But, not only did was event an emotional highlight, it felt safe.

The game itself was one FGR should have won.  However, following two players being sent off (the opposition), a missed penalty (us) and a scorching last-minute-of-injury-time equaliser (us), we had to be content with an eventful and dramatic draw. 

FGR vs Bradford City; The Only Professional Game I Will See Kick Off Live This Season?

Unfortunately, the increasing progress of the Covid-19 infection rate means that this event is likely to have been a one-off.  Further attendance of live FGR games feels a long way away again.  But I feel lucky that I had a brief reminder of the visceral pleasure of live football in a stadium.  (And we didn’t lose!)

As another highlight, Long Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) mother took us out for a very pleasant lunch (only our second restaurant lunch in 6 months) at The Potting Shed.  We also walked to the relatively new Wild Carrot Cafe on the very rural edge of the Parish and have made a few visits to our local and increasingly pandemic restriction-bound local pub.

The Wild Carrot Cafe, Chavenage

Otherwise, waking life has been a merry-go-round of walks, day-to-day shopping, meals and catch up television.  Outlander (just Series 1 so far) has been our latest TV box set plough-through.  That was very watchable except for the rape and torture scenes during which I tended to go off to make my warming evening drink!

There have been a few little frissons of excitement courtesy of nature.  I saw my first lizard (other than slow worms) in the garden.  We also had a huge dragonfly perch briefly on our garden table.  The friendly pheasant is back. 

Garden Visitors

Indeed, the garden continues to be a bountiful pleasure with masses of chard, huge but tasty beetroot, courgettes (of course) and masses of wonderful dahlias from two plants that have survived the cold of the last two winters. 

They Just Keep On Coming: ‘Cafe Au Lait’ Dahlias

The walled garden we had built three years ago is still laced with lots of white, purple and pink flowers among the tall grasses and shrubs.

Still Lots Of Colour In The Garden

Meanwhile, achingly slow progress is being made on a new garden behind and above the house.  LSW loves a project and, when the builders have finally completed the terracing and walling, there will be loads of work for us to do to clear unwanted plants (bind weed and hypericum is rife, is hard to eradicate and both LSW and I hate it) and renew the area with new ones.

Diggers In Our Garden Once Again

We are so lucky to have the space to be able to enjoy a garden and enough cash to be able to remodel it.  The garden has been such a boon during these weird, pandemic times.  It’s such a shame though, that this weirdness will continue, as most of us feared, into autumn, winter and beyond.   I look forward to my next sporting test event – whenever that may be – as a sign that these weird times may be ending.  Stay safe, all.

Colourful Hedgerows This Year (Black Bryony, Hawthorn and Rose Hips)

Rewilding

I have just finished reading ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree; I don’t read much non-fiction but I loved it.

It is a well-told story of how she and her husband conceded defeat on making their 3,500 acre farm profitable on marginal agricultural land in Sussex and, instead, allowed nature to take over.  They followed some examples of similar projects in Holland by allowing natural scrub and vegetation to take over the ploughed fields and by introducing some wild herbivore animals – longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and deer.  Then, over a period of 20 years, they observed how the disruption these animals introduced created drove the development of an amazingly biodiverse landscape.

The book is full of interesting facts.  For example, the average earthworm has around 50 different sorts of bacteria in its gut that process toxins, waste and organic matter to improve the soil as they digest it; jays can plant over 100 acorns (an oak forest!) a day.  I enjoy facts but more memorable was the account of Isabella’s emotions as previously held conventional wisdoms were upset as the project continued and the bureaucratic barriers and early local opposition was overcome.  There is humour too through the ups and downs in the project; I loved the chapter on the profusion of ragwort and the passages about how the newly introduced pigs tore up previously pristine grass verges.

One Of Knepp Farm’s Tamworth Pigs (A Picture From The Book)

Several years ago, we turned our little, bland grassy paddock just beyond our garden into a building site (as the rubble from the excavation to accommodate a house extension was layered under removed, and then replaced, topsoil) and then into a meadow-cum-orchard.  Since then, and particularly since retirement, I have been interested in how nature reclaims this cultivated land when cultivation and intensive grazing stops. 

A Small Herd Of Shorthorn Cattle On A Local Farm

In the upper part of our field away from where we are blending it with our garden, we see the rapid encroachment of bramble, bullace and blackthorn around the field edges.  We know that, if we leave it be without grazing animals to constrain these thorny and woody shrubs, they will expand and protect larger tree saplings.  That will generate a different sort of natural biodiversity than we are moving towards.

Bullaces Picked From The Boundary Of Our Field For Jelly (If I can Ever get It To Set) And Syrup (If I Can’t!)

In any case, already, the regime of scything the meadow and taking away the cut waste is delivering greater diversity of insect and plant life in the field.  Even just the number of different kinds of grass has multiplied several-fold. 

All that is having a positive effect on insect life in the adjacent garden and that is attracting a wider variety of birds.  The voles in the field may enjoy nibbling my vegetables but the kestrel I have seen twice in the huge ash tree that overlooks the field may be suppressing their numbers.

A Bit Of Our Local Wildlife – An Elephant Hawkmoth Caterpillar

I wish now that I had kept more formal count of wildlife varieties spotted in our field and garden over time to back up the feeling of greater diversity and the anecdotal evidence.  Certainly Isabella Tree (how well named she is!) did and those statistics are wonderful.  For example: male turtle dove sightings (a now desperately rare occurrence in the UK) on her Knepp estate rose steadily from zero to 20 by 2018 and by July of that year the estate was home to the largest colony (388 were counted) of rare purple emperor butterflies.

A Purple Emperor (Picture From The Book). The Chapter On This Butterfly Describes An Amazing Habit and Lifecycle

As the story of Knepp Farm unfolded so I was constantly taken aback by how fast nature recovers and a complex web of interdependence across so many species can be developed.  The story brought to life how, at pace, river pollution can be reversed, flooding can be obviated, soil can be improved and species can find new homes.  Towards the end of the book there was a good summary of a lot of the rewilding thinking and how this might be ported to other marginal agricultural land for our long term benefit:

‘So far in the post Brexit debate, farming and conservation have been pitted against each other as if the two must battle it out for resources.  But as experience at Knepp and elsewhere has demonstrated, farming and conservation – should not – be at loggerheads.  Giving over areas that are not on prime agricultural land to nature is farming’s greatest ally. 

By halting and reversing land degradation, securing water resources and providing insects for crop pollination, rewilding provides services vital to the long-term sustainability of agriculture and food production.  The complex mosaic of habitats stimulated by free-roaming grazing animals as we have seen on post-agricultural land at Knepp is not only remarkably easy to achieve.  Compared with conventional conservation, it is manifestly inexpensive.  It also provides much of what we need and what our landscape is currently lacking: biodiversity, resilience against climate change and extreme weather, and natural resources.  And it can still produce high-quality food like pasture-fed meat.’

‘Wilding’ reinforced much of what I already believed to be true but added some surprising detail and emphasised how resilient nature is if we allow it to be.  It’s such a positive book and I feel more hopeful having read it.  I recommend it.

Postscript: Just yesterday I read an article in the Guardian about similar but more ‘guerrilla’ rewilding efforts by a farmer called Derek Gow in Devon involving voles, wild cats, beavers and storks (the last two of which are covered in Isabella’s book).  I might pick up Derek Gow’s book ‘Bringing Back The Beaver’ next!

Phoebe Weston’s Article In The Guardian On Derek Gow

Resplendent Nature At Every Turn

Retirement has brought me closer to Nature and I seem to have had even more than my usual exposure to Nature in the last two weeks.  The local walks have been particularly good.  The rain in June and early July has made the pastures, hedgerows and trees a lush green and the recent sun has brought out the garden and wild flowers so they are now showing off their peak displays.

My Favourite Field

My Favourite Field – Filling With Maize This Year

One walk was especially spicy in underlining our closeness to Nature.  We were crossing a field with a neighbour during a walk that we hadn’t undertaken for a while, when we saw another figure crossing the field at right angles to us.  Thirty yards out, we could only see the man’s bare and bronze torso above the wheat.  As we crossed paths though, it became clear that we had met – and then briefly engaged in conversation with – the infamous ‘Naked Rambler’.  Our neighbour remarked that his naked rambling exploits are frequent since ‘he was brown all over with no tan lines’.  I could only mutter that I hoped he looked out for stinging nettles.  The encounter made our day.

The Naked Rambler

The Naked Rambler (Picture Courtesy The Evening Standard – I Didn’t Have The B*lls To Take My Own Picture Of Him)

We also completed a series of walks when my Best Man (BM) visited us last weekend. He has been working from home and in isolation throughout lockdown and needed a break.  Fortunately the weather was excellent and we were able to visit our now re-opened pub for our first sit down (outside) meal since lockdown started.

On A Local Walk: Strip Of Green Manure In Full Flower

On A Local Walk: Strip Of Green Manure In Full Flower

A highlight during his stay was a long walk during which we saw a field sown with green manure coming extravagantly into flower.  Another marvellous natural phenomenon was the sighting of a crazily large number of small white butterflies fluttering together in the sun and drinking from wet mud on our path.  Both were uplifting sights.

Flowers In The Strip of Green Manure - Antirhinums, Phacelia, Sainfoin And Many More

Flowers In The Strip of Green Manure – Antirrhinums, Phacelia, Sainfoin, Bladder Campion And Many More

BM works for a large oil company which is trying to shift away from fuelling (literally) carbon emissions.  His job is changing and intense.  Even while he was with us, he had to prepare a short presentation that he was due to give on the following Monday.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I were sufficiently intrigued by this that we signed up for the public event he was a panel member for and run by the ‘World Business Council for Sustainable Development’ entitled ‘Nature Action for a Healthy and Resilient Future’; what a couple of mouthfuls!

As I listened in to the webinar, I was reminded of my own corporate work life by the business jargon being used by the numerous presenters including BM, and how it flows off the tongues of business professionals.  I was also left with a greater feeling of hope for Nature and the planet.

I suspect that the event was populated largely by the ‘green mouthpieces’ of the corporations that were represented.  However, several sounded convincing about their company ambitions and commitments and the scale of the opportunity to turn our destruction of the planet around while creating millions of worthwhile jobs in new green industries was clear.

Optimistic-Looking Daisies

Optimistic-Looking Daisies

I have just started reading Wilding by Isabella Tree.  She is so aptly named given that the book is the story of how a failing arable farm has been turned into a successful experiment for re-wilding a large tract of land in Sussex.  The timeline at the start of the book shows how allowing nature to reclaim intensively farmed land can bring back flora and fauna diversity very quickly.  Given the chance, Nature can recover surprisingly quickly and I’m enjoying Isabella’s account of her experience.

Butterflies Everywhere: Comma, Peacock, Small White, Ringlet And Skipper

Butterflies Everywhere: Comma, Peacock, Small White, Ringlet And Skipper

I have continued to busy myself with some local climate action activities – my small push towards alleviating the pressure on Nature.  There is also much to do in the garden and on the allotment given that we are in peak growth season for vegetables and weeds.  We are thinking up creative ways to use the inevitable courgette mountain, we are eating chard with almost every meal and the runner bean avalanche is about to hit us.  In the next week too, I will need to brush up on my blackcurrant jam making skills since I have a bumper blackcurrant crop this year.

Flowers Among The Veg On The Allotments

Flowers Among The Vegetables On The Allotments

Nature is amazing.  Just last week, we saw a recurrence of another incredible phenomenon we have been lucky enough to spot a few times before: the inundation of our home valley by seagulls predating on flying ants.  It is almost unbelievable that the gulls will fly over 25 miles from the nearest coast on just the right day to catch the flying yellow meadow ants that rise from their nests in our neighbouring fields on just a couple of days a year; but there they were again.

Garden Views: Panorama From Our New Gate, Hollyhocks and First Use Of The New Fire Pit

Garden Views: Panorama From Our New Gate, Hollyhocks and First Use Of The New Fire Pit

Nature can also do us damage.  Badgers rip up crops, deer eat the roses and strawberries, earwigs are eating the dahlias, blackfly are tormenting my beans and hay fever can be really annoying.  The climate emergency and the creation of new human diseases when we encroach too much on the wild are macro problems far greater than my local problems with wildlife.  The solutions to these are going to be challenging to find but my immersion in Nature this week underlines the importance of doing so, and gave me some more hope.