Helen’s Notes From The Farm

What a relief to have had some rain at last. It’s been the kind of rain that farmers love, starting gentle and slow, letting the ground soften up, then some decent strong showers with no wind. It’s stayed cloudy on the whole, so plenty of chance for it to sink in, and a bit more warmth to allow the crops to get growing. The farm has changed colour, and you can see the grass growing. Milk yields are already up, the lambs are motoring away and the new trees look amazing on the whole; there’s even some almonds fruiting.

Of course, farmers are never happy about the weather, and we now need it to stop, so that we can get on with silage making. The grass looks perfect, and would ideally be in the clamp in the next week or so.

I’ve recently been appointed to the RSPB Council, and last weekend was the annual trip away to see some of the work on the ground. This year’s venue was the Cairngorms, and it was a fascinating opportunity to understand more about the challenges of regenerating biodiversity in this stunning landscape. We spent time on the Abernethy Estate, where the challenge is getting deer populations low enough to allow the natural flora and trees to re-establish; once this has happened, the environment will be able to support slightly higher populations again.

This takes us into the controversial ‘rewilding’ debates; without natural predators it is a big job for people to play this role, and keep the deer numbers at a healthy level for them and the environment. With most of the big Scottish estates still keen to maintain high Red Deer numbers for stalking, and having taken down all the deer fences to stop capercaillie and other birds crashing into them, deer migrate into the reserve on a regular basis too. But the landscape is already changing, with bilberry and juniper, and birch and pine beginning to flourish. A gang of landowners are working together as Cairngorms Connect to help this happen, a great example of a landscape scale partnership.

Highland FlingWe also visited Insh Marsh, on the floodplain of the River Spey, which has one of the most important populations of breeding waders in mainland UK. Here the challenge is removing scrub, not encouraging it, to allow the birds some safety away from birds of prey, foxes and badgers. It’s all about doing the right thing in the right places, it seems.

One thought that played through my mind all weekend, and does so again now as I sit writing this with rabbits all over the garden outside, is how much food can be sustainably harvested from nature. We farmers sweat like mad, building fences, making food and bedding for livestock, drilling and weeding crops, when a diverse ecosystem generates much food without all this effort. I read somewhere that there are now roughly the same number of cattle in feedlots in the States as there once were wild bison. I suppose it’s rather easier to catch and slaughter penned cattle than wild bison…and certainly I can never find enough rabbit hunters…but you get my drift. We have narrowed our diet to very few commodity crops and animals; instead of worrying about ‘weeds’ like nettles and chick weed, why don’t we just harvest them to eat? (I’m not so sure about the thistles though!). It seems we get squeamish about eating wild food, unless served in posh restaurants, and perhaps rather than replacing all the long lost top predators like wolves, we could more confidently play that role ourselves….while keeping fewer domesticated farm animals in less than ideal conditions. Time to start sharpening up my hunting skills, maybe!