Garden blogs

Farming and Wildlife in February



THE ESTATE FARM: As described in May 2018, the Botanic Garden covers about 568 acres of which farmland is 316 acres including 100 acres of woodland. There are 25 head of pedigree Welsh Black beef cows and 30 non-pedigree Balwen ewes and their 35 lambs, with the permanent and flower-rich grassland of the Waun Las National Nature Reserve being grazed and cut for hay.

IN JANUARY’S NEWSLETTER we talked about 2018 and how the weather had influenced crop yields and livestock production – it’s been a tough year for UK farmers. The latest Farm Income figures from Defra – the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and is the government department responsible for environmental protection, food production and standards, agriculture, fisheries and rural communities – show that the Total Income From Farming in 2018 is expected to have fallen by about 15% to £4.85bn. It was the hardest year for a long time. And livestock feed prices are ‘on the way up’ again; there was a lorry load of wheat straw for sale in Carmarthen Market in first week of February at £95 per tonne. This is up from about £80 per tonne at New Year, and last week’s straw wasn’t even good quality straw either!

UNTIL THE LAST WEEK of January the weather had stayed ‘warmish’ and on only a few nights had the dew frozen. Indeed on The Farm’s fields of permanent pasture can be found the occasional flowers of Daisies, Dandelion and the distinctive flat-to-the-ground and heart-shaped leaves of Lesser Celandine, that relative of Buttercups, with even a few flowers in sheltered woodland banks together with some Blackthorn and Hazel flowering in the hedges there as well. But the Daisies and Dandelions always seem to have just ‘one flower here and another one there’. Like about 60% of UK’s flowering plants, Dandelions are ‘apomixic’[1] and there are about 200 microspecies of Dandelion, so some plants are cold tolerant and can flower early, whilst other Dandelions are cold sensitive and cannot flower until the soil/air temperature warms up. So you could argue that Dandelions are just like us humans – all basically the same species but with variable heights, hair colour, nose shape, size of hands, susceptibility to the ‘common cold’, and some with the ability to run faster than our friends!

The Daisy on the other hand has both male and female organs, is self-fertile and is just a rather frost tolerant plant!

Incidentally, the name Dandelion comes from the French ‘Dent de Lion’ meaning ‘Lion’s tooth’ – referring to the deeply toothed, dark green leaves that are in rosettes. It’s a perennial plant with lots of uses for us humans: young leaves and flowers in salads and stir-fries; hearts blanched by earthing-up or tying the leaves together are also eaten; flowerheads made into dandelion wine; and the bitter root dried to make a coffee substitute – a practice common amongst country folk during the rationing of the Second World War when real coffee either wasn’t available or very expensive when it was!

BY THE WAY, under the conditions of their ‘subsidy’ payments, farmers are allowed to trim their hedges only until the end of February. OK so they can ‘lay a hedge’ until the end of March, but after that there is no management of hedges allowed until Autumn as birds are beginning to think about nesting.

IT’S THE BIRD FLOCKING SEASON again with many bird species that might only be seen in small groups during the Spring and Summer now in flocks of 20s and 100s and sometimes even many more. Some of these smaller flocks come into our gardens to be fed peanuts and fat balls at our bird feeders, although some others we seem to see only at a distance. The commoner finches – Chaffinch, Greenfinch and House Sparrow are often in groups of 6-8 and Blue, Great and Coal Tits are often the same – whilst Long-Tail Tits are often in larger groups of a dozen or more.

But it’s the migratory birds coming from breeding grounds overseas or in other parts of the UK that seem to have the largest flocks; as they move to South Wales where it is warmer and there is food to be found. Lapwing in flocks of 3-400 with their distinctive ‘up and down’ flight like an empty black and white paper bag in a brisk wind! On estuaries and lakes, Greylag Geese in similar numbers – and sometimes many more flying together in their V-formation that allows the flock to use less energy and to fly further. This is because when the leader at the tip of the V flaps its wings it creates an ‘uplift’ for the birds flying immediately behind it. So each bird except the leader is flying in the ‘upwash’ from the wing of the bird in front and needs less energy to fly.

There’s an old proverb that is often used to describe groups of people, and also describes birds:

‘Birds of a feather – flock together’

And most flocks of birds are of just a single species. This flocking business helps birds to stay safer from predators than being on their own or in smaller groups of two or three birds. Not that it would prevent a Peregrine Falcon from taking a bird from a flock, but for the individual bird being in a flock would reduce the chance of the Peregrine picking on that individual bird because apparently they find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands!

‘Not me, Peregrine mate; take him/her on the other side of the flock!’

These flocks can be spectacular – perhaps none more so than with a certain bird that when seen at a distance seems to have little to visually commend it – being just smallish and dark coloured. But when a single male or female adult is at your bird feeder in Winter, its small white spots show up clearly adorning the dark plumage with green and violet iridescence and with almost tawny flight feathers.  Yes it’s the ‘Starling’ that has such evocative collective names as a ‘chattering’ and even better a ‘murmuration’ of Starlings.

Starlings are extremely vocal and are superb mimics of both mechanical noises and other birds as well and – although not in the same league as African Grey and Mynahs – is possibly the best feathered impersonator in Britain and Europe. It will pick up sounds from wild birds like buzzardscurlews and tawny owls, and also from domestic hens and geese. Going back a bit now, there is a ‘reliable report’ of a Starling in a London suburb that cried like a baby, and of Starlings towards the end of World War 2 imitating V-1 flying bombs in London. Less reliable – though certainly within the bounds of credibility – is the account of a Starling that mimicked a Referee’s whistle and upset a football match!

In his book[2] about the RSPB’s Minsmere Bird Reserve in Suffolk, Simon Barnes[3] describes a Bird Recording competition in which he participated, paired with the then Warden Jeremy Sorenson. Pairs of bird enthusiasts had to record the number of bird species seen or heard during a 24-hour period in and around the Reserve. Jeremy was obviously rather good at recognising bird calls and song, and his team of 5 ‘birding maniacs’ recorded a grand total of 119 bird species. But although the rules of the competition allowed bird calls to be counted as equal to a bird sighting, hearing a bird mimic the call of another bird was not allowed by the judges!

Jeremy describes in the book how,

“You can tell what breeding birds you have in an area by listening to Starlings doing impersonations of other birds in the area”.

Identifying a bird from its song or call is often difficult enough, but hearing a Starling mimic the call of another bird, and then recognising that other bird is another thing again! But the Starling is not alone amongst birds in the UK to mimic the calls of others: Sedge and Marsh Warblers and even the Blackbird is known to imitate a human whistling! But why do Starlings and these other birds mimic other birds and mechanical sounds? Do the best mimics get the best females? Or are they, as Jeremy Sorenson said, “Probably just enjoying it”? Ok, so the bird might ‘enjoy’ expanding its vocal repertoire – rather than singing just the ‘same old same old song’, eh?

Although Starlings have shown a major population decline in the UK and a 70% Welsh decline between 1995-2013, our resident breeding population is bolstered in winter by several million wintering birds from Eastern Europe, the Baltics and Scandinavia. These wintering flocks, which can number many thousands of birds, can quickly learn that farmyards often provide an easy and rich source of food. This can result in a significant health & safety risk to farm workers and livestock; from the large quantities of droppings that can accumulate. The quantity of food taken by the birds can also be of economic significance to the farmer, with Kingshay Research[4] in Somerset showing that for a 100-cow dairy herd (the average in lowland Wales is about 180 cows) the loss of milk due to Starlings eating the cereal and protein from a Total Mixed Ration [TMR][5] amounts to about £96 per day or £8,346 for a 3-month Winter feeding period.  That’s rather a large loss because of just a few birds flying around, isn’t it?  Add in the damage by birds dropping faeces onto the cow rations – surprisingly causing even the most gluttonous of cows in the herd to reduce their food intake and as a result to produce less milk – farmers are strongly advised to limit Starling access to cattle feeding areas or to scare them away.

Most of you will have heard the sound of repetitive fireworks ‘banging away’ during Winter months which may of course be just a rather prolonged celebration of some small child’s birthday.  But if it goes on for weeks and weeks, it is more likely to be your neighbouring dairy farmer, with either a digital bird scarer or one of the ‘old-fashioned’ rope fuses hanging near the feeding troughs which, when lit, burns down to a firework banger every few inches of fuse and goes off every 20-30 seconds or so.  However, once the Starlings realise that these ‘loud bangs’ cause no real threat then the scarers must be adjusted so that the timing and intensity of ‘bang’ noise is variable – otherwise the birds will continue to feed despite the noise!

MORE ABOUT THESE AERIAL DISPLAYS; Starlings are gregarious birds, living in flocks for much of the year. But it is in winter, when their numbers are boosted by migrant birds from colder parts of Europe, that these aerial displays are at their breath-taking best.

Every year between November and March, Starlings flock together over the Somerset Levels & Moors to create huge and magnificent murmurations particularly in and around the RSPB’s Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath where regularly over a million Starlings can be seen getting ready to roost in the reed beds there. But how do you count a million birds? This has troubled bird-watchers for many years and apparently it is all about measuring: the Width of the flock [W]; its Depth [D] and then; the Length of the flock [L] and from a photograph, working out the density [ρ] of birds in a cubic metre and then to multiply:

W x D x L x ρ  = Number of Birds in Flock.

Easy really, isn’t it!

Oher places have these large roosting flocks as well, including Aberystwyth where thousands of Starlings fly in to roost under the Pier, usually giving onlookers a spectacle of their synchronised flying before settling down for the night! This tightly synchronised flying, often called ‘a swarm dance’, would seem to be very important to the Starlings. They dash from their feeding grounds and when near their roosting site – in Aberystwyth it’s under the Pier and in Somerset in the reedbeds – they don’t immediately roost but start this ‘flying dance’ in silence and the encroaching darkness. Around mid-winter, when twilight is short and food is scarce, the swarm dance will be quick or even non-existent. Towards the end of October / beginning of November it can be half an hour and in February/early March it can even be an hour long.

Starlings have extremely fast reaction times and can make changes in their flight direction in a split second. When one Starling changes direction or speed, each of the other birds in the flock responds to that change, and they do so nearly simultaneously regardless of the size of the flock. Apparently, Starlings in large flocks consistently coordinate their movements with their seven nearest neighbours! Not sure why it’s the seven neighbours and not three or eleven, but that’s what the researchers have always said!

More often than not, the flying is only loosely synchronised – from a distance looking like thick smoke swept by a light breeze. Stand underneath a murmuration like this and the chances are that your shirt and jacket will get covered with splashes of Starling dung – after all, Starlings can and do evacuate their bowels whilst flying!

Then at dawn, the birds fly out from the Pier or reedbed – not as one large flock – but separately in small groups to fly off to where that particular group thinks that the food is likely to be most abundant. These groups often fly low and fast and you can hear the ‘whoosh’ as a group flies just over your head!

THE EDITOR IN CHIEF says that most people don’t have much understanding of what an average farmer earns, or which are the most profitable of the farm enterprises – wheat, barley, oil seed rape, potatoes, dairy cows, beef, lowland sheep, pigs, poultry and of course, goats! They’ll know, she said, roughly what a solicitor would earn, a plumber perhaps and probably a car mechanic, but a farmer – no! Can this really be true, because everyone eats food and yet they apparently don’t know about the income of the farmers that produce that food?

But we have talked about it a bit, haven’t we? Have to check! Hmm, yes we did but perhaps this time – rather than the ‘deathless prose’ of last October’s Farming and Wildlife Newsletter – maybe a Table would be better placed here to clarify and explain the situation, eh? After all, it is well known that:

‘A Table adds an air of verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative!’

Apparently, ‘most people’ seem to think that farmers all live in spacious farm houses, drive either a top of the range 4×4 or an up-market luxury car and, every morning after a late breakfast, wait patiently for the regular large cheque of the subsidy payment from Government to drop through the letter box. Well yes, the ‘subsidy’ cheque or payment under the Basic Payment Scheme as it is now called, is very welcome indeed; for without it a large proportion of Wales’s farmers wouldn’t earn enough money to stay in business. But what will happen after Brexit, eh?

A recent Farmers Weekly[6] survey showed that an average farmer with livestock worked 83 hours each week – physical labour, checking livestock in the fields and sheds, travel to markets, office and paperwork, research and other farm activities. All this on 7-days a week, almost every week of the year and neither overtime or extra payments for anti-social hours! On the other hand, the data for a range of other professions from UK’s Office of National Statistics[7] in the Table below, are based presumably on a 37.5-hour week spread normally over 5 working days each week, plus Public Holidays and 5 weeks annual leave on average of course. Quite a difference, eh!



Average salary



  Farm area [acres]  

Farm value

@ £6k/acre

Number of Cattle & sheep Capital assets of land & livestock
Chief Execs & Senior Managers 107,703   none —- —- —–
Aircraft pilots & flight engineers 90,146   none —- —- —–
Medical practitioners 69,463   none —- —- —–
Train and tram drivers 47,101   none —- —- —–
Solicitors 46,576   none —- —- —–
Dental practitioners 40,268   none —- —- —–
Police officers (Sergeant & below) 38,720   none —- —- —–
Veterinarians 37,763   none —- —- —–
Secondary education teachers 32,524   none —- —- —–
Electricians & elect. Fitters 30,345   none —- —- —–
Primary & nursery teachers 29,908   none —- —- —–
Social workers 28,745   none —- —- —–
Plumbers & heating Eng. 27,330   none —- —- —–
Landscape Gardener 18,010   none —- —- —–
Street cleaner 17,402   none —- —- —–
Farmers [all] – UK 22,763   na —- —- —–


  Farm size


Farm value1/ Number of Livestock Capital assets2/
Lowland livestock farmers [Wales][8] 18,938   205 £875,000 99 cattle

517 sheep

£1.035 million

1/  Based on Lowland farmland at £4,268 per acre.

2/  Includes Farmed land, and cattle and sheep at £1,000 and £80 respectively.

OK, so these are just average figures and there will be farmers, solicitors, vets and all the other mentioned professionals who earn more than these quoted figures – and less than these as well. But you can see what the average livestock farmer in lowland Wales – with 99 cattle and 517 sheep on 205 acre of land earns.  This average farm is actually 2/3 of the size of The Farm at the Botanic Garden – but with far more cattle and sheep that Huw has to look after!

So Lowland Livestock farmers – and these don’t include dairy farmers with milking cows – have an ‘annual income’ of nearly £19,000 which puts their earnings below almost everybody else in the Table above!  And this low income is despite the large capital assets needed to generate this income: land and livestock  could be worth over £1 million and that doesn’t include Machinery such as Tractors, Silage Harvesting Equipment, Field and Road Trailers, Slurry Spreaders and small stuff like Cattle Crushes, Sheep Turnover Crates, Chain saws and a lot of small tools.  OK you say, it’s not just farmers who have Capital Assets, because the people that work in these other professions than farming will also have Capital Assets, won’t they?  Yes, but their assets tend to be personal assets in Banks and Building Societies and that can be used to buy that expensive Winter skiing holiday, 2 weeks in Tenerife in Summer, or the latest model of Sports Car!

But a farmer’s Capital Assets are needed to run the farm business although – were these assets to be sold off and the more than £1 million proceeds [See Table above] invested in a safe Investment giving say a return of 5% per annum – then the interest on this investment alone would be about £50,000 each year. This is a rather better return than the £18,938 that the livestock farmer in the Table above would get as his income for working with cattle and sheep for 83 hours each week for a year, isn’t it?

Interestingly, most of this £18,398 income comes from the farmer’s Basic Payment Scheme – also known as the ‘subsidy’ that each registered farmer is paid annually by Welsh Government, depending upon the farm’s location, size and enterprises there.  In fact this ‘subsidy’ for the average Lowland Livestock farmer in 2016/17 was £16,347.  So, take this subsidy away from his total Income and his actual return from his farming buying, rearing and selling of cattle and sheep would be:

£18,398 – the subsidy of £16,347 = equals £2,051 per annum

Hmm, isn’t there something wrong when a livestock farmer with all that money invested in his land, buildings, machinery and livestock, can only get an annual income by getting a Government ‘subsidy’ that even then puts him near the bottom of the earnings list in the Table above? After all, he or she’s producing that essential ingredient of all of our lives – food!

As many farmers have found out when recruiting new staff, most British people just don’t want the hard graft that farming involves for such a small income. As a result, many of the jobs on UK farms and in food processing can only be filled by migrant labour and in recent years that supply has been drying up. Several reasons for this perhaps: uncertainty about the status of EU nationals after Brexit, relatively low pay and probably fear of open hostility towards foreigners and rising living standards and wages in their country of origin.

So why don’t farmers pay more for farm labour? The Table above says it all – there just isn’t much surplus money from the average farm income to entice either UK or foreign workers onto farms. Perhaps if consumers were to pay more for their food, then farmers would have a profit margin that would enable them to raise farm wages to a level that would encourage people back onto the farm? More about this another month perhaps.

WONDER WHY SOME PEOPLE GET SO HET UP ABOUT THE NEED FOR OTHER PEOPLE TO BECOME VEGETARIAN OR VEGAN? Well, there have been several reports produced in recent months promoting the ‘eating of red meat[9] within reason’ or the ‘total non-eating of meat at all’. We do seem to have so many extreme views presented that are gleefully picked up by ‘the media’ whether on the more normal vehicles of radio, TV and newspapers or the increasingly dominant ‘social media’. Hopefully, people will make up their own minds about whether or not they should eat red meat and if yes, then how much and how frequently they should eat it. Or whether to drink Milk or eat Milk Products. With luck, that decision will be influenced more by the results of current and future research into the health implications of meat eating, rather than the ‘rantings’ of those who have already made that decision for themselves.

But there is an environmental and climate change benefit from reducing our dependence upon a diet to which meat contributes. Farming livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens) apparently contributes some 6 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) globally to the atmosphere each year. While estimates vary, this could represent up to 18% of total global emissions. There are already selective breeding programmes designed to develop sheep and cattle that produce less methane. There is even research in California, Canada and Australia on the feeding of Seaweed to cattle because certain seaweeds contain compounds that inhibit the production of methane from the rumen of cattle (in certain instances by 50-60 percent) and without reducing the production of milk either!

Estimates vary, but there are about 1.5 billion cattle in the world[10] – with 104 countries each with more than 1 million cattle – and only 1.1 million of which are in Wales but 10 million in UK! OK, so according to the extremists, we should all be eating more vegetables, fruit and nuts and that sounds good – together with no or less meat. But 80% of the land area in Wales is only suited to growing grass and grass only – because of rainfall, soil type and topography. No doubt if Welsh farmers could grow arable crops such as wheat, peas, potatoes or field-scale vegetables then they would have already done so because these crops are often more profitable than grass but, as they can’t grow these crops then they have to grow grass! And at this time, as we humans do not or cannot eat grass, the most efficient animals to convert this grass into a food that we can eat, are cattle, sheep and goats. Hmm, this is quite a conundrum[11], isn’t it!

Yes, Government could put a ‘Red Meat Tax’ designed to raise the price of meat and reduce consumer demand as has been suggested[12], or programmes to substitute white meat such as chicken and other poultry for beef and sheep. Would this work do you think? OK so let’s say that people – and probably we are talking globally now and not just in UK – do decide to substitute grazing livestock for chickens then what are the immediate implications do you think? Well, the first is that the grassland areas in countries like Wales would not be needed for grazing by livestock like cattle and sheep and so would scrub over and become woodland so: no more wildflower meadows like at The Farm; rabbits would disappear so foxes would die off; badgers and hedgehogs would have to look somewhere else for earthworms, and; livestock farmers would be out of business!

AND CHICKENS: If the eating of red meat were to reduce and be replaced by the eating of more white meat, then we would need to keep more chickens and pigs than we do now. When did you last see a chicken? Ok so there are some of you that keep a few in the back garden for free range eggs and the occasional farm yard has a few hens wandering about, but we don’t see them anywhere near as often as we see cattle and sheep, do we? Why is that, do you think?

And pigs? Even less often seen by the casual observer of the countryside than are chickens, but then there are only about 25,000 pigs in Wales on 1,395 holdings. But chickens are far more numerous, with an estimated 7.7 million poultry according to the Welsh Agricultural Survey, 2017, with about 7,300 registered poultry keepers in Wales – most of whom are hobby keepers with a few birds only. Most of course are kept inside in large sheds rather than ‘free range’.

However, although large, this total Welsh chicken population is peanuts compared with the global total of 23 billion chickens on the planet at any one time and the 66 billion slaughtered each year[13]. These are massive numbers with major implications for dung disposal (even though the dung is very high quality and useful as an organic fertiliser for arable crops and vegetables) and for poultry housing, as so few are ‘free range’ these days. It is always thought that the now-extinct ‘Passenger Pigeon[14] was the most numerous single bird species in human history and which was estimated in the 1800s at 3-5 billion, but even that number pales into relative insignificance when compared with the global chicken population today!

WATCHING ‘PLANET EARTH’ THE OTHER DAY, WE REALISED HOW LUCKY we have been to have grown up with the then David Attenborough and now Sir David and his self-effacing style of presentation of environmental conservation programmes. His career has run parallel with some tremendous improvements in photographic techniques that have enabled the camera teams to depict the natural world so clearly. In recent years, there have been a raft of potential successors to Sir David, hosting countryside programmes both in UK and overseas; all trying to assume Sir David’s mantle when he retires.

Not sure if what these newcomers represent is an example of the so-called ‘reality television’ whose sole objective would appear to allow for example, some inadequately trained sports ‘expert’ to flap his hands around and ask questions like “..and how did you feel when you fell off your bike when leading a challenge that – had it been successful – would have won you the Tour de France?”

Of course, the wildlife/conservation/countryside programmes nowadays have some similarities with this reality TV but are invariably still very different to Sir David’s style of presentation. The photographic quality nowadays is always very good, but it is just the content of the screen that disappoints. For at least 15 minutes of any half-hour programme, the presenter’s profile is featured looking thoughtfully into the distance and telling us that “This is really exciting isn’t it!”. It may well be interesting and even exciting, but what some of us don’t need is a presenter telling us how we should feel – let us be the judge of that! Presenters of all TV programmes these days invariably seem to be suffering from ‘chronic hyperbole syndrome[15], with the expressions ‘incredibly exciting, absolutely awesome, totally enthralling, amazingly fascinating, superbly spectacular, etc.’ being amongst those descriptions that feature most frequently in their presentations. The Wildlife, Conservation and Countryside programmes often seem to have become just another ‘celebrity-orientated’ opportunity that seems to have consumed our society in such a spectacular and all-pervasive fashion!

IT’S ABOUT MILK PRODUCTION AGAIN. In January’s Farming and Wildlife Newsletter there was talk about Tea, Tea growing and why we have Milk in our Tea. Mind you, seem to remember that most of that talk was about Tea and not so much about Milk, wasn’t it? Anyway, what was mentioned was that a large proportion of the world’s population do not drink milk or even eat milk products like cheese and yoghurt. Seems a bit odd doesn’t it when milk – admittedly human milk – is drunk by all of us from our mother’s breast when we are just very small kids? And human milk is so very like the milk from other mammals, isn’t it!

Well, all milk – whether from cow, sheep, goat, dog, mouse or human – has carbohydrate in it and mainly in the form of the milk sugar called ‘lactose’. Now as everybody knows, people across the world are different; genetically with different DNA, and with variable physical abilities to manage different diets and foodstuffs. But all human babies produce the enzyme ‘lactase’ which is needed to digest the milk sugar lactose in their mother’s milk.   However, a large proportion of the world’s population – in fact about 4 billion of them or 70 percent – begin to lose this ability to digest milk in their diet during weaning from their mothers’ milk; due to a decreased production of this lactase in their own bodies. Indeed, milk was originally described as ‘a baby food not intended for adult consumption’.

It is mainly people of North European descent – those from UK, mainland Europe, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc – that have retained the ability to produce the enzyme lactase into adulthood; therefore, it is mainly in these areas of the world that the consumption of milk continues after weaning off mothers’ milk onto solid foods, and these are the areas in which most dairy cows are kept for their milk. So as most people in the world are ‘lactose intolerant’[16] (because as adults they do not produce the enzyme lactase or not enough) milk is not drunk in those areas; including much of Africa and Asia and particularly in China.

This lactose intolerance was first described about 2,400 years ago by the Greek Hippocrates [c460-370BCE] who was credited with the Hippocratic Oath.  But only in the last 50-60 years have the clinical symptoms of this intolerance been recognised when milk or milk products are drunk or eaten, and include:

diarrhoea; bloated and painful stomach; nausea and vomiting; muscle and joint pain; headaches; dizziness; tiredness; short-term memory loss; mouth ulcers; allergies such as eczema, rhinitis, sinusitis and asthma; and cardiac problems.

It’s a pretty extensive list that seems to include most of the complaints that affect many of us in old age, doesn’t it! But the severity of symptoms in any one ‘lactose intolerant’ individual may depend on the level of the enzyme lactase that that individual person produces in their small intestine.  So someone producing only a moderate level of lactase may experience mild symptoms, whereas a person producing very little or no lactase will suffer more severe symptoms.

Interestingly – to me anyway – that as a majority of the global population cannot produce lactase after weaning from their mother’s milk, this suggests that lactose intolerance or deficiency is the normal or natural state for human beings.  If this is so, then the ability to continue to digest lactose after weaning and into adulthood in some communities might originate from a genetic mutation that provided a selective advantage to those populations for which dairy products were readily available and the eating of which would provide regular and high-quality nutrition into adulthood!

Hmmm, this could just be a fairly far-fetched explanation of course, but could be spot-on, couldn’t it? After all, those well-known pastoralist tribes that depend upon cattle for their livelihoods – the Tutsi and Hutu of Rwanda; the Maasai of Kenya; the Fulani and the Tuareg of West Africa; the Sindhi of North India; and some European tribes – are all lactose tolerant throughout their lives and have an adult diet rich in milk – and cows’ blood of course!

So why would our ancestors have been ‘lactose intolerant’ before this possible/probable mutation occurred?   From an evolutionary development point-of-view it made sense, as this developing ‘lactose intolerance’ in growing but still breast milk feeding children, forced these children to wean from milk as they start to develop some of the symptoms described above, and to move rapidly onto eating solid food. And, as soon as the breast milk is not drunk by these infants when their production of lactase falls, and they start to become ‘lactose intolerant’ then those infants’ mothers will begin to ‘dry off’. This ‘drying off’ means the mother produces less and less milk which frees up the mothers’ energy resources, and enables mothers to rapidly become pregnant again, and therefore to maintain and even increase the size of the population. And according to a known local medical expert – who shall remain anonymous – the chances of a woman becoming pregnant is reduced if she is still breast feeding a child.

So the ability to digest lactose by adults could be the exception to the norm and can originally be traced back to a number of pastoral tribes that depended upon cattle for their livelihoods. Interestingly, the default state in all adult mammals is to stop producing lactase in adulthood – all our ancestors were ‘lactose intolerant’. This makes sense that different sets of mutations arose that gave European and African pastoralists the ability to digest milk throughout their lives. Those of us whose ancestors weren’t pastoralists still have trouble as adults to digest milk.

Apparently, this is a classic example of a ‘selective sweep’ – a mutation that confers an advantage (the ability to digest milk), which then would sweep through a population like wildfire; with just a few in one generation, more in the next and more in each subsequent generation. After all, those that had inherited that advantage of being able to digest high nutritional value milk and milk products into adulthood would be better suited to survive than those who did not have that ability.

LOOKING FORWARD TO MARCH is what most people do in February – it being the last month of Winter and often the gloomiest month weather wise and perhaps the least interesting from a wildlife point of view as well. For, as Dr J. R .Stockton[17] said:

“February is merely as long as is needed to pass the time until March.”

There’s various poetry written about the month of February; perhaps the most emotive for farmers being that of the then Poet Laureate [1984-1998] Ted Hughes’s February 17th:

A lamb could not get born. Ice wind
Out of a downpour dish clout sunrise. The mother
Lay on the mudded slope. Harried, she got up
And the blackish lump bobbed at her back-end
Under her tail. After some hard galloping,
Some manoeuvring, much flapping of the backward
Lump head of the lamb looking out,
I caught her with a rope. Laid her, head uphill
And examined the lamb.

… and so on and on and on

In many ways, what follows next in this poem of Hughes sums up the relationship between the farmer, the natural world and the implications of actions or inactions. Hughes wrote February 17th whilst living on a livestock farm on Dartmoor in central Devon, and the poem resulted from the journal that he kept at the time. As Hughes himself once described to an audience before reading the poem:

Most journals are full of what goes wrong and mine was no exception. Of all the mistakes a lamb can make the worst is having got himself conceived inside a rather small mother, then to grow too big before being born. He can compound this error in the crucial birth moments by neglecting to keep his front feet up under his nose so he can dive out slowly and gracefully into the world. If his feet trail behind, his shoulders come up behind his mother’s pelvis and are trapped and he will end up with his head born but his body unborn and stuck. His mother can’t help and if the good shepherd isn’t nearby it’s the end. If he is nearby then he catches the mother and with a gentle hand feels in past the lamb’s neck to find maybe a crooked leg or a half-way hoof – so with this he can help the lamb out. If he can’t find anything down there, then the technique is to push the head back inside and feel around in there for front legs, work them into position and so lead the lamb out with the mother’s help naturally. But if the good shepherd’s a little bit late the lamb’s head, trapped at the neck, will be too swollen to be pushed back in – the shepherd can still try to find a hoof but if he’s not very quick, he’s much too late and the lamb is dead. This happens now and again and then the lamb has to be got out of its mother. The setting here is a high slope looking south towards Dartmoor on a very nasty February morning.

Reckon this is a pretty good description of both the trials and tribulations of being a shepherd and what Huw has soon to look forward to with The Farm’s Balwen ewes, as well as what the ewes themselves have also to look forward to! If the ewe feeds too well during the last stages of pregnancy, then the lambs will have grown too large and there will be difficulties at lambing as Ted Hughes describes, but if the ewe doesn’t feed well enough then she lacks energy during the lambing of lambs that are small and not active enough to survive in difficult weather circumstances. This all has to be managed by the farmer; easier to do with ewes housed rather than outside on the hillsides in pouring rain eh?

Hmmm, this is all pretty dismissive of the month of February that contains Valentine’s Day and is just after St Dwynwen’s Day[18], isn’t it?  Mind you, when it’s first thing in a February morning and there’s heavy frost on the ground or a coating of snow, or a howling wind and rain that weren’t forecast, most of us seem to focus on the negatives don’t we? Will the car start? Did we cover up those rhubarb rhizomes last night? Has the paraffin heater in the greenhouse kept the temperature at 5oC?

But as well having these inevitable thoughts, it can actually be very rewarding to spend a few minutes before defrosting the car or running through the rain, just to enjoy looking at the frozen landscape that is so different from the normal green-brown one, or just listening to the patter of rain gently falling onto the porch over the back door. Why not try it in February and see what you think, eh?

Peter Beeden

17 February 2019

[1] Apomixis means that the Dandelion does not have fertile pollen but can still produce fertile seed. Apomixis in plants is similar to Parthenogenesis in which reproduction occurs asexually when a female egg cell develops into a new individual but without fertilization.                Examples of parthenogenesis include some: Aphids; Nematodes, Water Fleas and Scorpions, and some vertebrates –the Komodo Dragon; some Snakes; Lizards, and Amphibians.  To-date, no mammal species are known to be able to reproduce parthenogenetically!

[2] Flying in the Face of Nature: A Year in Minsmere Bird Reserve [1992].

[3] Simon Barnes [1951 – to-date] is a freelance journalist covering sport and wildlife and was chief sportswriter for The Times in 2002 and wrote wildlife columns for The Times and The Spectator amongst many others.  A self-confessed highlight of his career was in 1985 when he saw a Red Kite flying above the Headingly Cricket Ground during a Test Match that he was reporting.  His best-known book perhaps is How to be a bad Birdwatcher.

[4] Kingshay Farming & Conservation Ltd, Independent Dairy Specialists, Bridge Farm, West Bradley, Glastonbury, Somerset.

[5] A Total Mixed Ration or TMR is defined as, “the practice of weighing and blending all feedstuffs into a complete ration which provides adequate nourishment to meet the needs of dairy cows.” Each bite consumed contains the required level of nutrients needed by the cow. All forages, grainsprotein supplements, minerals and vitamins are thoroughly mixed together, so the cow can do very little sorting for individual ration ingredients that she might prefer to eat and to leave the rest. It’s a bit like you mixing your breakfast Bran flakes with Raisins and Sultanas and with slices of dried Banana plus some Blueberries and a few Raspberries, adding the milk and then trying to find and eat just the Raisins with your spoon. Difficult if not impossible, eh!

[6] Farmers Weekly has an estimated readership of 180,000.

[7] The Office of National Statistics presented their analysis of the annual earnings in 2017 of 21.5 million people in UK by 400 professions.

[8] Derived from The Farm Business Survey in Wales, Farm Income Booklet 2016/17 Results, Aberystwyth University, Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences.

[9] Some confusion over the classification of red and white meats! In gastronomy, red meat is commonly red when raw and a dark colour after it is cooked, in contrast to white meat, which is pale in colour before and after cooking.

In culinary terms, only flesh from mammals or fowl (not fish) is classified as red or white. In nutritional science, on the other hand, red meat is defined as any meat that has more of the protein myoglobin than “white meat”, defined as non-dark meat from chicken (excluding the leg or thigh) or fish. Just to clarify the issue, some meat, such as pork, is classified as red meat under the nutritional definition, and white meat under the common or gastronomic definition!


[10] World Cattle Inventory, Ranking of Countries, 2015. Food and Agriculture Organisation [FAO] of United Nations, Rome.

[11] A conundrum is ‘a problem or puzzle that is difficult or impossible to solve’. Quite a few of those with Brexit, eh?

[12] Researchers say a meat tax could cut consumption of processed meat by about two portions per week in high-income countries. In the UK, the study suggests a tax of 14% on red meat and 79% on processed meat. This would mean the price of a 227g Tesco Sirloin Steak would increase from £3.80 to £4.33.

[13] From a recent BBC report: Planet of the Chickens: How the bird took over the World, Helen Briggs.  The life of a commercial broiler chicken for meat is 6-8 weeks.

[14] A migratory and nomadic bird, the Passenger Pigeon fed, bred and migrated in huge flocks with primary habitat being the deciduous forests around the Great Lakes of North America.  Traditionally hunted by Native Americans, with the arrival of European settlers, they were hunted and killed in massive numbers for commercial meat sales and there was massive clearing of 180 million acres of forest lands for farming between 1850 and 1910 that reduced feeding and breeding grounds.  Martha, the last survivor of these billions of birds, died in 1914 at Cincinnati Zoo.

[15] Hyperbole is a way of speaking or writing that makes someone or something sound biggerbetter, more, etc. than they actually are.

[16] Lactose intolerance and allergy to cow milk are often mistakenly confused. Lactose intolerance is caused by a lack of the enzyme lactase in the body, but cow milk allergy is an adverse immune reaction to proteins found in milk.


[17] a University of Texas Professor Emeritus of Business Statistics.

[18] St Dwynwen aka Dwyn or Donwen is the Welsh Patron Saint of Lovers and she is celebrated on 25 January.