Garden blogs

Farming And Wildlife In September

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As described in May, 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 flower rich grassland of the Waun Las National Nature Reserve being grazed and cut for hay.

SEPTEMBER ON THE FARM

Autumn has come after a Summer that even though it was hot with no rain – became normal for us, and when the temperature dropped, and rain came in mid-August – albeit only for 3 days – we heard people complaining about the ‘cold weather’ and ‘more of this rain’. We are never really satisfied are we!

Huw has been ‘flat out’ recently organising a combine harvester for the spring barley and waiting for a fine weather window; not easy when you have no machinery yourself and have to rely upon a contractor to come in and do the work for you with a small harvester and then a baler. Finishing the harvesting of 40 acres of hay is similarly difficult although there are many more baling contractors around this area than there are contractors with small combine harvesters.

Anyway, Huw says that he will bring us up-to-date in October with hay and haylage making, cereal harvest in Cae Gors, the whole-crop arable silage in Cae Circus, wool and what he plans to do with the beef steers [they’re the castrated males ones that are just over 2 years-old]. So, should be plenty to talk about in October, shouldn’t there?

FOOD AGAIN

Our fresh food used to be very seasonal in supply: Pembroke early potatoes for only a 2- month period starting in early May to end July – if one could afford them of course – Victoria Plums from August, Cox’s Orange Pippins from September, Laxton Superb from October and all from UK growers. But nowadays if you want to entertain your dinner guests to early potatoes in January, then you can buy imports from Morocco or Israel at any time of the year. And Strawberries used to be in July just in time for Wimbledon tennis fortnight – now ‘The Supermarket’ has them yearlong on their shelves. It’s just another sign of the globalisation of food supplies, isn’t it?

But market surveys suggest that even in the main UK apple harvesting season of September – October when ‘The Supermarket’ insists it is stocking UK produce, only 1 apple of every 8 apples sold is grown in the UK. Others being sold have these weird names and come from strange places: Galas from France, Portugal, Italy and New Zealand, Pink Ladies and Cripps Pinks from South Africa, Jonagold and Elstar from The Netherlands, Braeburns from Spain and Chile. And so on; but why don’t they stock more UK-grown apples?  Perhaps the volume of apples grown in the UK is just not large enough to enable storage by the producers or supermarkets throughout the year – or maybe it’s simply that there is a larger profit margin from each box of apples imported from overseas?  Bound to be money involved somewhere, isn’t there?

BANANAS AGAIN

In Farming and Wildlife in August we mentioned that the banana is the 5th most eaten staple food in the world after wheat, maize, rice and potato. But someone asked whether people really just eat bananas as a fruit like we do and get their energy that way. Well no actually, the bananas that people grow and use as a staple food are called ‘Plantains’. Larger than the dessert bananas that we buy and eat, Plantains have a coarser texture, and are grown mainly in Africa on the small-scale farms there which account for a third of world banana production. These are cooking bananas and are given the name of ‘matoke’ which is so important that it is also the name for food in Uganda! Matoke is cooked in ways similar to the potato and can be fried, boiled, baked, or chipped and has similar taste, texture and energy levels when served.

THE LAND IN WALES

The topography, landscape, soil quality and climate, limit the use to which our land can be put. Much of Wales is hilly and even mountainous and this combined with relatively poor-quality soils and a wet climate, means that most of the land is more suitable for the grazing of cattle and sheep than for arable cropping. There’s not a lot of arable cropping except in areas such as Pembrokeshire, the Gower and around Cardiff. According to Welsh Government, land used for agriculture is over 88% of the total land area in Wales, but of this only about 3% is arable and that includes vegetables and fruit grown in the open, hardy nursery stock and glasshouses. So not much land that isn’t permanent grassland, rough grazing, new grassland or other land for livestock, is there?

AFTER THE DROUGHT

There are many things that seem to have changed quite rapidly. Most obvious perhaps is the change in colour of grassed areas from that yellowy burnt brown colour that we’ve seen for so long during June and July, to a lovely green, although fringed with the brown of dead grass stems and seed heads. But it’s the way that some ‘weeds’ seem to rejuvenate so quickly that always seems to surprise. And yet it shouldn’t really be too surprising as the soil temperatures have been so high that the recent rain has provided ideal conditions for rapid plant growth. In the Spring, according to the British Grassland Society, grass growth starts when soil temperatures at rooting depth reach about 5oC; not fast growth mind you, just greening up and ticking over. With an increase in temperature up to 25oC, the rate of new leaf appearance speeds up with a new leaf about every 7 days compared with every 35 days or so in mid-Winter.  But it’s not just temperature but light quality as well, as light is needed for photosynthesis to provide the plant’s energy.  So leaves and grass will grow faster in Spring than at the same temperature in Autumn when the day-length is falling!  Optimum growth is achieved between 20-250C during the day, and with night time temperatures equal or only slightly lower. Lengthy periods of higher temperatures than 25o C will eventually decrease growth rates.

But there must be soil moisture as well, because water stress and wilting occur when the evaporation of water through the leaves is faster than the rate of uptake from the soil. Leaf expansion is first restricted during day-time hours when the evaporative demand is at its highest. During a dry period, plant cells continue to be formed, but they need water to expand. When the rain comes these cells expand quickly, so growth after drought is very fast. Which is what happened to grass and other plants in mid and late August.

So which plants in particularly have shown the most spectacular revivals after the drought? Perhaps those two perennials that are so often found growing near each other by hedges and in rich soils? Yes, it’s that ‘stinging combination’ of Stinging Nettle and Common Dock. Until a few days after the drought had broken, Nettles looked ‘pretty old’ with greyish leaves and lacklustre looking flowers. The Common Dock had dried out and was present above ground only as tall but leafless chestnut coloured stems with just a few seeds. Then within 10 days of the first rain, leaves had emerged from the roots underground and expanded green and within 2 weeks or so these leaves had been ‘nibbled’ into a ‘lace-like’ pattern by the small black larvae of the iridescent metallic green coloured and the 4-6mm long Green Dock Leaf Beetle. And some of these newly grown Docks have thrown up stems with flower heads!

Nettle leaves seem to have filled out now, are no longer desiccated and new shoots have emerged from the top branches. These have either male or female flowers on them and yes, Stinging Nettles are dioecious! And you all remember what that means, don’t you? Yes, it means that each Stinging Nettle plant has either male or female flowers but not both on the same plant. We tend to see a whole patch of nettles that are either male or female; because the root system of Nettles is far reaching and each stem from that one root system is the same sex, male or female. Male flowers tend to be whitish-green and to ‘stick out’ straight from the mainstem with a pair of little yellow stamens to each flower. Female flowers are more ‘clumpy’ and tend to hang down, especially after pollen from the male flowers has blown on the wind and fertilised the female plant and the seed clusters are growing.

FARMING AFTER THE DROUGHT

Well the rain came and the grass started to grow again so everything’s alright isn’t it? Well actually for livestock farmers, who have a ‘double trouble’ time building up to Winter, it isn’t alright. First I suppose is that few farmers have yet to stop feeding their precious silage that was harvested in April-May and normally wouldn’t be fed to cattle until November at the earliest. Most dairy farmers have had their cows in at night for several months now, rather than letting them graze off the growing grass crop that they hope will be cut for silage sometime in late September. After all, if they graze this off now, they will have no food for winter feeding, will they?

And the trouble with grass growing after a long period without rain is that it can and does grow without certain minerals; the symptoms of whose deficiency farmers have to watch out for including Cobalt; Selenium and Magnesium.   The symptoms of deficiency are fairly wide but include: inappetence [that’s lack of appetite]; lack of growth; spookiness, and; susceptibility to other complaints including pneumonia-like disease and the dreaded Grass Staggers or Hypomagnesaemia in cattle. So potentially big problems that need stock to be looked at regularly – just to see if any individuals are behaving oddly. This farming business isn’t straightforward is it?

OK, so there isn’t much grass, silage and hay or haylage around just now, but what about other feed for livestock? UK has not been alone in having drought problems; UK wheat crop is thought to be 10% down at only 13m tonnes, Germany 25% down and the key wheat areas of north-west Europe and Russia around the Baltic Sea are severely affected as well. And increasing demand led by both the continued global population growth and the trend towards diets increasingly reliant on cereal grain is also pushing prices higher. With global population heading towards 9bn people by 2050 we do need either to change our diets and eat less or grow more – much more.

PIGS

Did you know that Huw had bought a pair of 3-month old weaners earlier this year for The Farm? Well, they are pink with black patches and are Pietrain crosses. A Pietrain is a Belgian breed introduced into the UK in the early 1960s because they had a very good Food Conversion Ratio[1] compared with traditional native breeds, and a high yield of lean meat. Huw’s pigs are housed in a barn at Pantwgan, which is in the North-East of The Farm and they are growing fast, soon to be ready for slaughter and offered for sale to Members, Volunteers and others as well.

People talk about ‘all those subsidies that farmers get’ referring to what is now the Basic Payment Scheme that supports farm incomes. But there are no ‘subsidies’ for pig farmers or poultry farmers – unless they also have land used for their farming. This EU farming support system is incredibly complicated, is a subject of controversy and ‘discussion’ between farmers, Government and conservation organisations and may be a topic raised in ‘Farming and Wildlife in the Botanic Garden’ in future months. Expect you’re looking forward to that already, aren’t you!

HEDGES IN SEPTEMBER

It is Autumn now and the hedge-cutting season is here. But you say, surely farmers can cut their hedges at any time of the year? Actually, no they can’t because, in order to qualify for their Basic Payment Scheme ‘subsidy’ support, they have to agree to a whole series of Good Agricultural and Ecological Conditions as well as a whole raft of land and wildlife management restrictions under the Cross-Compliance rules and regulations.

When is this hedge cutting season? It’s all about bird nesting times and the RSPB make the case that birds start nesting in March may still be nesting their second or third broods in August. Trimming hedges between March and August is likely to disturb bird nesting, brooding on a clutch of eggs or the fledging of young.

So, farmers can only trim hedges between 1 September and end February unless the hedgerow overhangs a highway, road, track or footpath to which the public have access, and the work is necessary because the overhanging hedgerow: obstructs the passage of vehicles or pedestrians; obstructs the view of drivers, or the light from a public lamp, or; is a danger to horse-riders.  Also, the hedge must be cut or trimmed if it is dead, diseased or damaged or insecurely rooted, and is therefore likely to cause danger by falling onto a highway, road or footpath.  So, farmers have all sorts of rules about hedge trimming and what they can and can’t do and when, whereas anybody can cut the hedge in their garden whenever they feel like doing it!

We’ve talked a little bit about the richness of hedges and their importance for wildlife in our countryside. Strange perhaps as hedges are really just accidental habitats installed originally just to separate groups of livestock and to demarcate boundaries between managers of land areas.  But I suppose that hedges are really just linear woods, aren’t they?

Anyway, at this time of year the hedges are full of berries, fruit and nuts. Those Blackberries, now full of moisture and ripening rapidly, the hips and haws of Dog Rose and Sweet Briar and full of Vitamin C, and the dioecious White Bryony [Yes, it’s those dioecious plants again which are the ones that are either all male or all female] with those marvellous red ‘berries’ on the female plants.   So full of colour and life are the hedges now with all that array of food for birds and small mammals alike.  But if the hedge is trimmed back now then those fruits will be ‘chopped up’, lost and not be available for overwintering birds or Dormice trying to build up their fat reserves for hibernation.

In an ideal world perhaps, hedges should not be trimmed until after the New Year so that all the fruit and nuts that are going to be eaten, have been eaten. But that’s likely to be a wet time of the year in Wales and no one wants the heavy tractor with the hedge trimmer on the back to make huge tracks by the side of each hedge, do they?  An alternative is not to trim all the farm hedges every year, so that some are always left uncut with all their fruit undisturbed and this cutting or not-cutting of hedges is rotated around the farm.  More about those benefits and hedge laying another month perhaps!

 

FLOWERS IN SEPTEMBER

It seems that all those white flowers that were so easy to see in July and August have dropped their petals and now have only leaves, stems and seeds showing. Except for those growing in shade or damp habitat like marshes, stream sides and ditches where there is still some flowering going on. Around The Farm, perhaps the most easily seen in the ditches is Hemlock Water Dropwort [HWD}, another of the Umbellifer family. Although looking innocent, this plant probably kills more cattle than any other plant – especially in areas such as the Somerset Levels and Moors where ditches and rhynes are routinely cleaned out together with the HWD plants growing on the sides. For it is the roots known as ‘Dead Men’s Fingers’ that are the main problem as cattle come down to the newly scraped ditches to drink, find the roots and start eating them, suffer from ‘oenanthetoxin’ poisoning which is a convulsant and leads to rapid death. Cases of human poisoning also have occurred when leaves are mistaken for celery or parsley or the roots for parsnip. Plenty of HWD on and around The Farm although only in Cae Blaen that is just to the North-East of the Observation Point. An attractive plant maybe, but not nice!

Another white-flowered Umbellifer that is ‘going over’ now is Hogweed, also known as Cow Parsnip or Keck; growing up to 2-metres-tall with large ‘fleshy’ leaves but not to be confused with Giant Hogweed that was introduced to gardens from Asia and whose sap can cause dermatitis. No, Hogweed is so-called because it used to be much collected to feed to pigs. We prefer to call it Cow Parsnip and it is a straggly, thick-stemmed and rather innocuous looking plant. So much so that at school, we used to cut the hollow stems into 8-inch lengths and use them as ‘pea shooters’. Last weekend our granddaughter borrowed a penknife, cut a stem and blew through it, then found some almost ripe Elder and Hawthorn berries, put 3-4 at a time into her mouth, and spent the whole weekend ambushing people by ‘pea shooting’ these berries at them. She developed considerable accuracy as well, mainly at my expense!

THE DROUGHT HAS BROKEN HASN’T IT?

The fields are ‘greening up’ but by mid-September the rain only seemed to have gone down about 8 inches in the soils around here. These dry soils have been a major problem not only for the plants that need the soil water to survive, but also for the earthworms that need it also, and the animals that feed on the earthworms. Apparently, as the soil moisture evaporates from the ground surface, the level at which wet soil can be found becomes deeper and deeper into the soil profile. Earthworms need moisture to survive and so tend to follow the receding water level in the soil – in very dry weather some have been found as far down as 6 feet. When the soil is dry the worms ‘hibernate’ by forming a figure of eight knot, shutting down their bodies in to a comatose state to save energy, and only when moisture returns to the soil will they unfurl and make their way to the surface to feed.

But did you know that there are four different types of Earthworms in this country? According to the Earthworm Society of Britain’ that is. No doubt this is a society intended for hermaphrodites – not the Members of the Society of course, just the little wriggly things called Earthworms! Because each Earthworm is a hermaphrodite with both male and female sexual organs; and as we had to dissect Earthworms as well as Frogs, Rabbits and Dogfish of course for ‘A’ Level Zoology, I remember that there is a lot to learn about Earthworms. And they are not just small ‘tubes’ through which soil passes you know! Indeed, in 1881, Charles Darwin wrote about them:

“It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”  

So, what are these four types of Earthworms that we have in this country?

Compost earthworms are the ones found in compost heaps or anywhere decomposing matter is found; preferring warm and moist environments with a ready supply of rotting vegetation. They can very rapidly consume this material and also reproduce very quickly – producing cocoons from which 6 – 7 worms will emerge in about 3 weeks. Compost earthworms tend to be bright red (Dendrobenas) or red/orange banded – Eisenea foetida – some people call this stripy species ‘tiger worms’ or brandlings, but birds and animals avoid these worms due to their foul taste – not that I’ve ever tasted one!

Epigeic earthworms live on the surface of the soil in leaf litter and tend not to make burrows but live in and feed on the leaf litter. Epigeic earthworms are also often bright red or reddy-brown, but they are not stripy.

Endogeic earthworms live in and feed in the soil. They make horizontal burrows through the soil to move around and to feed and they will reuse these burrows to a certain extent. Endogeic earthworms are often pale colours, grey, pale pink, green or blue. Some can burrow very deeply in the soil.

Anecic earthworms make permanent vertical burrows in soil and feed on leaves on the soil surface that they drag into their burrows. They also cast on the surface, and these casts can quite often be seen in grasslands. They also make middens (piles of casts) around the entrance to their burrows. Anecic species include the Common Earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris) which is the largest species of earthworms in the UK. They are darkly coloured at the head end (red or brown) and have paler tails. Darwin estimated that each acre of arable land would have up to 53,000 worms (13/m2), but more recent research from Rothamsted Experimental Station[2] in Hertfordshire produced figures suggesting that an acre of even poor soil may support 250,000 worms, and rich fertile farmland may have up to 1.75 million per acre (432/m2), meaning that the weight of earthworms beneath a farmer’s soil surface could be greater than that of the livestock feeding on the grass on the soil surface itself! So, there’s quite a substantial food source there for earthworm eating birds and mammals, isn’t there!

But for which animals are Earthworms a major food resource?   Thrushes and Blackbirds of course, and amongst the mammals are Moles, Badgers and Hedgehogs. The ground has been so hard that there have not been many new mole-hills since May have there? Moles are superb diggers with their front legs and feet almost like the toothed bucket on the front of mechanical road digger. But with the ground so dry, digging underground tunnels has not been easy although they have to follow as the worms go deeper to survive by ‘eating’ wet soil. Although Badgers eat almost anything that moves and many things that don’t, worms make up about two-thirds of their food intake. With worms going deep in to the soil, badgers can’t always reach them even though they are marvellous diggers – with powerful front legs fitted with steel-like hooked claws. So, badgers look for other food sources and we have seen 8 or 10 underground wasp and bee nests stripped out by badgers searching for the wasp and bee grubs.   Hedgehogs don’t do that much digging and so throughout the year look for worms on the soil surface, so it’s been a difficult time for them as well, hasn’t it?

ASH AGAIN

Oliver Rackham was Professor of Historical Ecology in Cambridge whose main interest was the function, history, and management of British woodlands and wrote prolifically. A major work was ‘The History of the Countryside’, regarded as his greatest achievement; a “very-easy-to read’ 400-page account of the British landscape from prehistory to the present day, with chapters on aspects ranging from woodland and hedgerows to marshes and the sea.” He also wrote a ‘monolith’ on the Ash Tree with some interesting comments.

Rackham says that ‘Ash has a supreme, perhaps undeserved reputation as firewood”. Many of us have always considered Ash to be good fuel as it can easily be burned whether green or dry. The wood has a low moisture content which helps ‘easy burning’ but has no resin which doesn’t. Rackham seems to think that Ash’s positive reputation is derived from ‘The Firewood Poem’ written in the 1920s by Celia Congreve and which sets out the values of different tree species for firewood:

The Firewood Poem

Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year,
Chestnut’s only good they say,
If for logs ’tis laid away.
Make a fire of Elder tree,
Death within your house will be;
But ash new or ash old,
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold

Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last,
it is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke,
Apple wood will scent your room
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom
Oaken logs, if dry and old
keep away the winter’s cold
But ash wet or ash dry
a king shall warm his slippers by.

Lady Congreve seems to be definite about wood from the different trees and have been pretty enthusiastic about Ash, although Rackham is very negative. Wonder what Peter Lee-Thompson who is the Education & Woodland Officer for the Regency Restoration Project at the Botanic Garden, thinks about these differing views? After all, Peter is responsible for all the charcoal making there and he is using a whole raft of tree species to make the charcoal sold in the Courtyard. What do you say, Peter?

BATS AND THEIR PREY

Of the 17 species of bats recorded in UK, 7 have been found on The Farm. Many people tend to think that bats eat either fruit or suck blood; but there are no Fruit Bats or Vampire Bats found in this country! No, they all eat insects and catch them whilst they are flying. Each species has its favourite type of insect to eat and each hunts them in its own special way. Most insects are caught and eaten in mid-air, though bats sometimes find it easier to roost in order to eat larger prey. Because flying uses up lots of energy, all bats have very big appetites and a small Common Pipistrelle can eat over 3,000 tiny insects in a single night!

On The Farm, the most frequently recorded bat has been the Soprano Pipistrelle, so-called because of the higher frequency of its ‘echolocation[3] than the Common Pipistrelle from which it was only separated as a different species in 1999. Soprano Pips on The Farm have a maternity roost in the Stable Block from which 209 animals were recorded leaving on one early-July evening in 2016 during the Ecological Survey and Assessment for the Regency Restoration Project.

During the recent drought, we had some marvellous warm evenings with little wind and were clearly able to see the Swallows and House Martins flying and catching evening insects – probably mainly small Dipterans[4] – and competing for the same food with the early flying Pipistrelles. Swallows seemed to be flying slightly higher than the bats, although the Swallows did tend to swoop down to below the roof tops especially when coming in to feed young on the nest.

WET BOOTS AND DEW

It always seems a bit odd some-how – when walking in the early morning across grassland and the lawn – the toes of one’s wellies often seem to get wet even when there has been no rain. With all those complete droplets on the blades of grass it must be just a heavy dew, mustn’t it? But then one starts thinking about dew and how and why it is formed. After all, dew is tiny water droplets that form on grass and other things in the early morning and sometimes late evening as well. And those marvellously attractive Spiders’ webs in an Autumnal early morning eh, looking as though the web had been dipped in liquid silver and those drops of silver were reflecting in the early morning sunshine.

But dew only forms under certain conditions. So, if a warm, clear day is followed by a cool, clear evening, dew will probably form. On these normal warm days, water evaporates from the warm ground into the air – so turning from liquid water into the gas called water vapour.  But when evening comes, the warm ground continues to radiate heat into the air and, as the ground begins to cool, the air will not be able to hold all the moisture.  And then, when water vapour in the air turns back to liquid water and condenses faster than water is evaporating from the ground; dew forms on surfaces like grass, leaves and even car roofs and other surfaces that aren’t warmed by the heat radiated from the ground.  But why doesn’t dew form when the evening is cloudy?  Apparently, it’s because the clouds reflect heat back to the ground which then doesn’t cool off enough for dew to form.  And of course, when temperatures are low enough, dew may freeze into a solid form that we call frost!  It’s clever this interaction between soil and air temperatures isn’t it?

BEEF CATTLE

In Farming and Wildlife in August we mentioned that Huw was going to disbud this year’s calves; both the heifer and bull calves. But why do they have horns anyway, and do they need to be dehorned and do all breeds of cattle have horns?

And what are horns anyway? People tend to be confused about horns and antlers; sometimes thinking that antlers and horns are the same thing. Well antlers are just true bone that grows on the sides of the head of male members of the deer family each late summer and Autumn mainly – although not entirely – for the stags to fight other stags for the honour of collecting a harem of female deer or hinds. Then each Spring, when the stags have had their way with the hinds, the antlers fall or break off. As the stag gets older then its antlers get larger.

In contrast, horns are found on sheep, goats, bison and cattle, and are two-part structures. There’s a bony extension of the skull that’s covered by an exterior sheath – that is the horn itself that used to be used for ‘hunting and drinking horns’. This is ‘keratin’ which is a mix of proteins and is the same material as human fingernails and toenails and cows hooves as well of course. Horns are never shed and continue to grow throughout the animal’s life. If the horn is damaged and the bone underneath exposed then it will bleed – often rather a lot!

In the far distant past, all cattle would have been much sought after as food by the larger carnivores like Sabre Tooth Tiger when both were just wild animals and so the horns were a help in deflecting attack. Horns were and are still used for determining ‘differences of opinion’ between individual members of the herd, sometimes leading to damage to one protagonist or the other. So, horns are tools for both an attack and defence; one often sees a cow moving into a position with head down threateningly when one walks in a field and gets between the cow and her young calf!

Most breeds of cattle whether cows, bulls, steers or heifers have horns, but some breeds don’t – it depends on the genetics. In genetics, horns are recessive and polled is dominant. So, when mating a horned bull to a polled cow that genetically never grew horns, the offspring will be polled. There are several native beef breeds that are naturally polled such as Aberdeen Angus and the now scarce and dual purpose[5] Red Poll breed. Horns are variable in size and shape depending upon the breed of cattle: Friesian cow horns are often only 6-10 inches long with a curve towards the front of the head, whereas a Welsh Black cow would have horns each almost 24 inches long and at right angles to the head.

For a variety of reasons, hornless cattle are preferred by many farmers as the horns can pose a physical danger to humans and to other livestock, especially with cattle feeding at a manger. Horns may also interfere with equipment used with livestock; such as a cattle crush, or the horn may become damaged during handling. Calves are usually disbudded[6] at about 6-8 weeks of age before the process becomes a painful one, usually using a disbudding tool a bit like a soldering iron.

But in other circumstances, horned animals may be preferred, for example, to help the animal defend itself against predators, to allow the attachment of head yokes to draught oxen, to provide a hand-hold on smaller animals such as sheep, or for aesthetic reasons – in some breeds the retention of horns is required for showing. Mind you, in many African and Asian cultures, cows hooves form a useful food source because meat can be expensive – soto kaki sapi [spicy cow trotter soup] and soto mie Bogor [noodle soup with slices of cow’s trotters] from Western Java and gulai tanjung [spicy cow trotter curry] from any Padang eating place in Western Sumatra – delicious! Perhaps when food becomes scarce or too expensive for us in UK we may return to eating such delicacies, eh?

A similar theme was the subject of a superb event at the Botanic Garden earlier this month, organised by Sammi Jones, which featured the film ‘In Our Hands – Seeding Change’ made by Black Bark Films with The Land Workers’ Alliance[7]. After a walkabout on the farm with Bruce Langridge and Huw, the 40 or so participants were treated to a marvellous dinner of Welsh Black sliced beef, organic salad and new potatoes with some superb bread and cheese. Then came the film that describes the ‘industrialisation’ of food production and the urgent need for sustainable food and farming systems in Wales and elsewhere and gave examples of so-called ‘Community Farming’. This is an apparently growing movement of farmers and food workers who are creating vibrant farms, living soils, thriving food markets and a fairer food system for all.

In Our Hands explores a quiet revolution that is attempting to transform the way our food is produced and distributed. The film described our current industrial food system as a vast and wheezing giant that is only upheld by a stilted subsidy regime that pays out to landowners and leaves many farmers by the wayside. Well, I didn’t agree with all that and said that the so-called ‘farming subsidies’ were really a farm income support mechanism needed because food is so cheap in UK and that the subsidy is really a subsidy to keep that food cheap for the consumer. You see, politicians like to keep food cheap so that it doesn’t ratchet up the rate of inflation and cause demands for increases in the minimum wage!

So, although not necessarily all believable stuff there was real cause for thought during that evening; in the film and from the panel discussing it afterwards. Perhaps the single most obvious – to me anyway – omission in the film was that although they pointed out that current spending on food per family averages about 12% of disposable weekly income in comparison with 50% some 50 years ago. There was no mention of the need to raise food prices to the farmer – in the UK and globally. We could in a future Farming and Wildlife include the reasons why this would be ‘a good idea’, but most people don’t seem to be much interested in such things and so probably not! But if you ever get a chance to watch the film ‘In Our Hands’ then do so – perhaps the Botanic Garden will repeat the evening?

LOOKING FORWARD TO OCTOBER

It’s already cooling off after the high temperatures of June, July and August and we might have to consider wearing a sweater or gilet soon and even roll our sleeves down! But October is another fruit harvesting month, and Swallows, Swifts and Martins will be off and away to Africa for their Winter rest period. Wouldn’t mind going off to Africa myself for a while but like most livestock farmers, whether dairy, beef, sheep, pigs or poultry, stock care is always a top priority because they provide a small contribution to the Farm Business Income! Most dairy and livestock farmers are still feeding their Winter silage, and it looks like being a lean time ahead.

Many farmers are looking again at opportunities to diversify from their normal farm enterprises in order to raise income. Bed and breakfast, holiday lets in old farm buildings, contracting services for other farmers, rearing Asian Water Buffalo for meat and mozzarella, or growing Wasabi all have their enthusiasts. But these all need the investment capital to buy new furniture, refurbish the old farm building, buy new machinery or breeding stock or just the time to develop new sales outlets for niche market products. So, the most popular diversification enterprise in many areas is still that old farming favourite for when times get really hard – send the wife out to work!

18 September 2018

[1] Food Conversion Ratio or Rate [FCR] is a measure of how well livestock can convert animal feed into milk or meat. Beef cattle have an FCR of 5-6, pigs 4-5, broiler poultry 1-1.5 and farmed fish 0.5-1.5; all depending upon the type of food provided and the age of the animal! So, a beef animal eating 5kg of food would put on 1kg of body weight.

[2] Founded in 1843; launching the first of a series of long-term field crop experiments, some of which still continue today.

 

[3] Echolocation is used by bats to navigate and find food in the dark. To echolocate, bats send out sound waves from their mouth or nose. When the sound waves hit an object, they produce echoes that bounce off the object and returns to the bats ears and so tells them that ‘something’ is out there..

[4] The Diptera or True flies are insects of the order Diptera, the name being derived from the Greek di- “two”, and pteron “wings”. Insects of this order use only a single pair of wings to fly, the hindwings having evolved into halteres, which act as high-speed sensors of rotational movement and allow dipterans to perform advanced aerobatics. Diptera is a very large order of insects that contains an estimated 1 million species although only about 125,000 species have been described.

rRed Poll and South Devon cattle breeds were originally considered to be ‘dual purpose’ and used for both beef and milk production. Until the early 1900s there were Welsh Black dairy herds as well.

[6] Dehorning is the process of removing the fully-grown horns of livestock. Disbudding is a different process with similar results; it cauterizes and thus destroys horn buds of young stock before they have grown into horns.

[7] Established in 2012, The Landworkers’ Alliance is an organisation of ecological, community and family farmers. It works to overcome the obstacles facing farmers and land-based workers by campaigning for policies to support the infrastructure and markets central to its members’ livelihoods, building alliances and encouraging solidarity