Friday 30 September 2022

Taking down a trellis

It has been rather chilly first thing in the morning lately and today there was a damp mist to emphasise the arrival of autumn. The memories of the excessive heat of a few weeks ago are beginning to fade.

The drought has taken its toll on some of the crops in the vegetable plots. Some never really got fully underway, such as celery which really does benefit from moist soil. Others, such as courgettes, ran out of steam quicker than usual. Salady things struggled to get established but, now with cooler conditions and some rain, we have a fine row of Cos lettuce. Runner and French beans have finally responded to the late rain and are now providing a belated harvest. On the other hand, the tender greenhouse crops have thrived very well indeed.

The last week or two I have been clearing away some of the spent vegetable plants, digging up the remainder of the potatoes and pruning out fruited canes. A gradual process of decline and dismantling but with thoughts of the next growing season in mind.

The noted Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu captured this cycle of life in one of his poems:-

Taking Down a Trellis   by Du Fu (712-770)

The sticks I tied already wither and fall,

The gourd leaves are getting sparse and thin.

It's lucky that the white flowers fully grew,

You have to help the green vines fade away.

There's no end to the sound of insects in autumn,

Whatever's in the minds of the sparrows at dusk?

Now, the world is one of cold and waste;

Human life has its beginning too.

Sunday 25 September 2022

Show time

Yesterday I was privileged to be asked to judge the, albeit scaled down, Mildenhall Allotments Association annual show. Like a lot of small organisations it is still recovering from COVID. Nevertheless, it was a pleasurable afternoon and it was gratifying to see the fruits of participants' hard work after a difficult growing  season. Such enthusiasm too.

Today it was my turn to be a participant at the Fenland Growers Smallholders and Crafters Club produce show. Quite a wide range of classes, including crafts, photography, baking and preserves as well as fruit and vegetables. Some very impressive wool crafted creations particularly caught my eye, many of them from the wool of fleeces from the crafter's own sheep.

I entered the Green Vegetable Basket class but did not read the instructions properly. It actually meant literally the colour green not the wider concept of environmentally green. Still, I was generously awarded third prize (a dried poppy seed head - not the dried teasel seed head first prize I had set my sights on).

My vegetable basket entry

A rejoinder to the Rt Hon Jacob Rees Mogg

A rejoinder to the Rt Hon Jacob Rees Mogg and Prime Minister Liz Truss, three weeks into the new Government:-

Psalm 104

 Praise the Lord, my soul.

1 Lord my God, you are very great;

    you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

2 The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;

    he stretches out the heavens like a tent

3     and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.

He makes the clouds his chariot

    and rides on the wings of the wind.

4 He makes winds his messengers,[a]

    flames of fire his servants.

5 He set the earth on its foundations;

    it can never be moved.

6 You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;

    the waters stood above the mountains.

7 But at your rebuke the waters fled,

    at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;

8 they flowed over the mountains,

    they went down into the valleys,

    to the place you assigned for them.

9 You set a boundary they cannot cross;

    never again will they cover the earth.

10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines;

    it flows between the mountains.

11 They give water to all the beasts of the field;

    the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

12 The birds of the sky nest by the waters;

    they sing among the branches.

13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;

    the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.

14 He makes grass grow for the cattle,

    and plants for people to cultivate—

    bringing forth food from the earth:

15 wine that gladdens human hearts,

    oil to make their faces shine,

    and bread that sustains their hearts.

16 The trees of the Lord are well watered,

    the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

17 There the birds make their nests;

    the stork has its home in the junipers.

18 The high mountains belong to the wild goats;

    the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.

19 He made the moon to mark the seasons,

    and the sun knows when to go down.

20 You bring darkness, it becomes night,

    and all the beasts of the forest prowl.

21 The lions roar for their prey

    and seek their food from God.

22 The sun rises, and they steal away;

    they return and lie down in their dens.

23 Then people go out to their work,

    to their labor until evening.

24 How many are your works, Lord!

    In wisdom you made them all;

    the earth is full of your creatures.

25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,

    teeming with creatures beyond number—

    living things both large and small.

26 There the ships go to and fro,

    and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

27 All creatures look to you

    to give them their food at the proper time.

28 When you give it to them,

    they gather it up;

when you open your hand,

    they are satisfied with good things.

29 When you hide your face,

    they are terrified;

when you take away their breath,

    they die and return to the dust.

30 When you send your Spirit,

    they are created,

    and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;

    may the Lord rejoice in his works—

32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,

    who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

33 I will sing to the Lord all my life;

    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,

    as I rejoice in the Lord.

35 But may sinners vanish from the earth

    and the wicked be no more.


Job 38

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

2 “Who is this that obscures my plans

    with words without knowledge?

3 Brace yourself like a man;

    I will question you,

    and you shall answer me.

4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

    Tell me, if you understand.

5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

    Who stretched a measuring line across it?

6 On what were its footings set,

    or who laid its cornerstone—

7 while the morning stars sang together

    and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?...

Friday 23 September 2022

Avian flu 2022-2023

In the last few days there have been four separate recorded outbreaks of  the highly pathological H5N1 strain of avian flu in West Suffolk alone, in an area just north of Bury St Edmunds. This is getting rather close to home and we are not far out from the overlapping 10km surveillance zones imposed in each of the cases.

There have been regular cases throughout the UK during the Summer which is a new development. In the past few years as avian flu has gathered pace, we normally expect that the virus moves away with the over-wintering migrating birds that have largely been responsible for introducing the virus to the UK and Western Europe.

In the Netherlands, where they have in fact have had fewer cases than the UK, there has been much political concern to the extent that their Minister of Agriculture has recently resigned over the issue of avian flu. The Dutch Government had proposed banning  commercial poultry units in the vicinity of large expanses of open water. The Netherlands has large expanses of open water. Understandably poultry farmers there are upset.

One of the concerns that has arisen in the Netherlands, and no doubt here too, is that despite strict biosecurity measures the virus still finds its way in to poultry units. It appears that it doesn't take much for the virus to gain access and transmit. A trace of affected bird droppings finding its way in, drips of rainwater running off a roof through a gap, or the activities of rodents, appear to be able to circumvent the tightest of preventative measures.

What appears to be more prevalent this Summer, if I understand correctly, is that the avian flu virus is becoming endemic within indigenous wild bird populations, and there have been outbreaks among wild bird in nature reserves this Summer, for example. It is also known that the virus can infect mammals, including rats, which can contribute to spreading it around. There have also been cases of humans being infected. With COVID still prevalent and rising concern over Monkey Pox, the last thing we need is for another zoonotic epidemic. In the case of avian flu it is worth noting that, according to the Pirbright Institute, all four of the worldwide human influenza pandemics in the last 100 years originated from birds.

The general expectation is that there will be another avian flu lockdown and poultry keepers will need to keep their birds housed again over Winter. Over the Summer I have been steadily putting in place improved arrangements on our smallholding in anticipation to accommodate something in the region of 100 birds we currently keep. This should make life more comfortable and practical for the birds and for us should higher level restrictions be re-imposed.

However, the number of cases we are already experiencing in September, before the migratory season is fully underway, would usually be enough to trigger restrictions. Such nationwide restrictions have an economic impact so the current government's anti-regulatory stance and all-out striving for 'growth' could see a different policy approach. This might tip the scales away from containment (and dare I say public protection) in favour of economic outcomes. A tricky balancing act we have become familiar with in the last couple of years.  

Avian influenza virus, courtesy of Pirbright Institute.

Thursday 22 September 2022

Better late than never...

We finally vaccinated this year's lambs this week. They get a second dose of vaccine in four weeks time.  There has been a national shortage of Heptavac, the vaccine generally used, due to supply problems (and we know what has been the main cause of that if we care to admit it). I had to put my name down on a waiting list for when new supplies came in. 

Heptavac provides protection against a range of soil-borne clostridial diseases, such as tetanus, and also pasteurellosis. The latter is the most frequent cause of premature death in sheep and results in acute respiratory disease. Adult sheep are given an annual booster shortly before lambing and some immunity from these diseases is passed on to their offspring. This residual protection generally lasts about three months, so we are passed that period already. 

All the sheep are looking healthy, however, and, despite the drought, the ewes have have come back into condition well. Because of the lack of grass, like many other livestock keepers, I have had to introduce hay much sooner than usual, plus a supplementary coarse feed each day.

After the lambs were injected I moved them onto a new field. Towards the end of August we had a day of heavy rain which lasted all day. We have had hardly any rain since but this was enough to get the grass growing again and it has come back better than I expected. The ewes and lambs now have some decent grass for the time being. The reason for waiting until now to move them is that they have some more nutritious feed in the lead up to tupping when the ram goes back in with the ewes at the end of October. 

The sheep are mostly ignoring the hay
now that they have some good grass,
except these two.

Friday 16 September 2022

Telecommunications superhighway in rural areas

Open Reach are still working on the line to help get our internet service up and running again. After yesterday's efforts there seem to be some improvement at last. They are continuing to work on it to repair "historic faults" on the line. 

This is what our connection to the telephone system and the World Wide Web depends on. It is about 6 feet from the edge of an arable field with all the associated tractor cultivations - literally a 'landline':-

Monday 12 September 2022

Life before the internet

It has been a full week now since we had a viable internet connection. Most of the time there has been no service and for the brief periods that a connection has re-appeared the signal has been weak. Hence I am typing this post as rapidly as I can and there is no accompanying photograph.

This has been highly inconvenient and shows how dependent we have become on the benefits of the internet for day to day functioning. Much of the administrative aspects of life are now conducted online and this situation is difficult to circumvent at short notice when the internet service suddenly disappears. The problem is with the line. That is the copper BT line - no cable around here. I gather Open Reach were carrying out a repair nearby and in the process damaged some wires. They are still working on rectifying it and have had to close the road a few times as a result.

Most will be very aware of the negative aspects on the internet and the digitalised world we now live in. But overall the benefits have been enormous. Two important benefits as far as I am concerned are the resulting democratisation of knowledge and the decentralisation of expertise. Of course both need some judicious consideration because there are drawbacks to both of these developments too. But, to give one small example, in my smallholding life there have been countless occasions when I have drawn on YouTube to find out how to deal with a problem or to go about a task. 

Of course the world is always changing but it is probably fair to say that the digital revolution has made change much more rapid than in the past. Here's a couple of  changes that spring to mind.

When I was an undergraduate at Nottingham University there was not a computer to be seen, except maybe in a science laboratory. Essays were hand written. But one of the biggest differences from today is that if you wanted to read a reference from an academic journal you had to seek it out in large bound books on the library shelves. If you wanted your own copy it meant queuing for the photocopier and having a enough supply of coins to feed the machine. The most outrageously selfish thing I came across was an article that had been torn out of the bound volume.

In the late 1980s, early in my mental health career, I worked for Barking and Dagenham Social Service Department as a Senior Specialist Practitioner in mental health. This was in the days when services were generic and area based rather focused on specific client groups. If we wrote an internal memo a hand written fair copy was taken to the typing pool and a day or two later a typed copy was returned which could then be put in to the internal post for circulation. The same process applied to external letters. These had to be written in the name of the Director of Social Services which resulted in a rather cumbersome third person style. A world away from emails and the velocity of communication we contend with nowadays.

The local authority was quaintly old fashioned. The staff restaurant was waitress service with waitresses wearing black dresses and white linen pinafores and matching lace headpiece. These were the days when it was possible to factor in a lunch break before professional life accelerated to the point that for me lunch breaks were squeezed out. This, too, can trace its origins to digitalisation.

A smallholding life is thankfully much slower. But I notice that even those who share their experiences of living off-grid seem to find it necessary to accommodate connectivity with the world wide web. I also wonder how things will be in the future when the cost of energy becomes permanently high (notwithstanding the current energy cost crisis) and even in advanced economies there will be an increasing need for frugality. Will digitalisation become even more or less important?

Friday 9 September 2022

The queen bee

When I harvested some honey recently I also carried out a routine hive inspection, something that is carried out at regular intervals through the Summer. There are a number of things that are looked for to assess the progress of the hive and its overall health and wellbeing. One of the things observed for is the presence of the queen. In a full hive it is not always easy to find her. However, there are proxy indicators of her presence such as eggs or lava in the frame cells and 'capped brood', that is cells that have been capped within which the lava metamorphose into mature bees. These are all signs that the queen is quietly working away with commitment to the stability of the hive.

The queen is identifiable because she is distinctly larger than the mass of worker bees and very often one way of spotting her is that she will be surrounded by a crowd of retainers keeping her safe. The work of the hive is largely carried out by worker bees but the presence of the queen is critical and she is very much the focus of attention by the hive population. 

The queen emits pheromones, unseen signals of her presence. These play an essential role for the overall functioning of the hive and is the 'glue' that provides cohesion for the community of bees. If something happens to the queen bee, perhaps she has come to the end of her life, the pheromones disappear with her. The result of this is that the hive becomes very unsettled. It can have a de-stabilising effect and disturb the overall functioning of the hive. This will continue until a successor becomes established.

When carrying out a hive inspection, one other characteristic, therefore, is to observe for the overall temperament of the bees. Their behaviour gives in indication as to how settled they are in the hive.  I give a rating ranging  from 1 (calm) to 5 (agitated and angry). Hopefully the rating will come down again soon if it is assessed on the higher side.

Tuesday 6 September 2022

Surprising Gala

We planted a Gala apple tree two years ago and although it is still diminutive and whippy it produced seven apples this year. When I tried one today it was crisp, sweet and surprisingly flavoursome.


I say "surprisingly" because Gala is such a ubiquitous apple, found virtually year round in supermarkets, but it is very hit and miss to find one that isn't rather bland in taste and texture. They are largely imported from New Zealand where they were originally bred. This means they have travelled some distance to reach supermarket shelves and they are often kept in cold storage to ripen before eventually being distributed. 

The big difference is being able to eat an apple straight from the tree. A very different experience altogether. So it is not necessarily the apple variety that is problematic but rather the system of production and food distribution. 

Gala apples were first cultivated in the 1930s and are a cross between Kidd's Orange Red and Golden Delicious. Kidd's Orange Red is a descendant of Cox's Orange Pippin so comes from a renowned pedigree. The colouring of Galas provides a clue to its origins. 

We are appreciative of the fact that we are able to grow and enjoy a number of different apples varieties here. But finding a local grower who has a farm shop or supplies locally so you can get the freshest apples in variety can be worth the effort. More than likely, in the future, it will become an increasing necessity anyway.

Saturday 3 September 2022

Late honey

As I was walking past a mature ivy plant I heard an immense buzzing. The flowers of the ivy are just beginning to open and the ivy was covered in lots of honey bees working with their usual industry collecting nectar. In late Summer and early Autumn, before the weather turns cold, ivy is an important food source for bees. They need to ensure that they have enough honey reserves to see the colony through the Winter and other food sources are rapidly depleting. 

I was a bit late harvesting honey so I was quite conservative in how much I took this year. As we are currently down to one colony this only amounted to four full frames of capped honey. From these I extracted a modest 6lbs of honey. The bees have a full super still to draw upon.

A 1lb jar of 2022 honey

Friday 2 September 2022

Innocent chick

Every morning and every afternoon for the last couple of weeks, when I walk past the shelter in which I store straw, a woodpigeon flies straight out and I have got used to ducking to avoid it. She has laid a couple of eggs on top of the stack of bales. I last took a look after she flew out the day before yesterday and there were still two eggs she was incubating. I thought I would take another look today and one of them had hatched. It looked enormous against its sibling-to-be, still encased in an egg.

In our open fronted barn and our straw shelter, a nesting pigeon is not an unusual occurrence. Other regular locations are deep within the wisteria climbing the front of our house, and in a dogwood hedge to the rear. We often see them drinking from the pond at the end of the patio. 

We have lots of pigeons around here and they feed well on the arable fields in late Summer. In the Spring and early Summer they target the brassicas in the vegetable plots, hence the lengths I have to go to provide crop protection. The pigeons are a frequent cause for complaint but coming across a nesting hen nurturing its chicks softens the heart and of course we have to forgive those who trespass against us.

Thursday 1 September 2022

The sweetest sweetcorn

If there is one vegetable that exemplifies the oft-cited claim that home grown tastes better than shop bought, it is sweet corn. Freshly picked sweet corn, cooked without little delay is sweet and flavoursome. This is largely to do with the fact that once picked the sugars in the kernels start turning to starch. By the time sweet corn is picked transported packed and distributed to supermarkets much time has elapsed and with it the sweetness dissipating. We pick them just when we are ready to cook them. 

I grow a variety called Swift. It is reputedly an early variety but generally ripens for me during the second half of August. We are munching them regularly at this time. No need for butter or any condiments, plain boiled is flavoursome enough.

Extra cobs picked because we have guests.