Topsy Turvy Turning

One of the consequences of having friends from a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs is the number of festivals and greetings that pop up in my social media feeds. Just as Lockdown began my children wished me Happy Mothers Day, some of my friends later wished me Happy Easter, my son sent greetings for Ide Mubarak, and this week it has been Fathers Day from families and Happy Solstice from the earthier contingent. The Summer Solstice always reminds me of my Dad who loved to try to be the first person to say ‘The nights are drawing in now’ – a game he played with the man next door.

What was really weird this year was that it actually felt very autumnal around the longest day. March, April and May were day after day of hot sunny weather and virtually no rain. It felt like summer, the gardens baked and the grass went brown. Local farmers got the first cut of silage in early but then the grass didn’t grow back. The stream at the bottom of my garden reduced to a trickle. In many ways it was a blessing because we were all able to get outside in our gardens or go for walks along the lanes. We saw each other and had socially distanced chats. So much easier than being stuck indoors.

Then it all ended with thunderstorms, gales and torrential rain followed by days and days of heavy grey cloud, those days when it is either raining, has just rained or is about to rain.

So as I walked the dogs in the early part of this week the signs of high summer were all around. The council have cut the verges and the bottom of the hedges so the daffodils, bluebells, pink campion, stichwort and cow parsley have all gone though hopefully they will have set plenty of seed for next year. The lush growth makes visibility round bends poor and once the flowers have gone and there has been time for seeds to drop it needs to be cut back. But higher up the hedges the elders are in full bloom, there are dog roses, honeysuckle, bramble flowers and spires of foxgloves. It looks as if it will be a good year for elderberries and I am grateful because my strawberries and raspberries have been very poor. They were too dry to swell the fruit.

Walking with a jumper on and thick socks in my boots but seeing those flowers felt surreal. But today dawned clear and sunny so maybe summer is back for a while at least. I don’t think I will put my woolies away just yet. It is a funny sort of year.

Just procrastinating!

If I were a baby I would be described as frettful ot fractious today! I lost track of how many times I woke up last night. Each time I was too hot and had to throw the duvet off, then, of course, got cold and pulled it back over me. But I really don’t think it was heat that woke me. I reckon I started to wake up and as my metabolism cranked into life I got hot. What actually caused my waking I have no idea. Anyway I woke up rather later than usual, grumpy with everything and nothing and feeling tired. Not cross enough to have a good rant, bellow or bawl but a lot of mutter and whine and wail.

The weather is in the same mood. Occasional flashes of sun but mostly grey and dreary. We could do with soem rain and whilst I was walking the dogs it started to spit – big fat drops too – but it stopped before the polka dots on the tarmac had time to join up. So lots of nuisance value but no use.

I made the mistake of picking litter whilst I was out. I have noticed lots of empty cans, crisp packets and bits of plastic in the verges and now the grass is growing strongly they will soon be hidden. Then the machines will come along and cut the verges and hedges chewing all this rubbish into small pieces as they go. With everything still visible and very little traffic because of lockdown now seemed the ideal time to do something about the problem. I ordered one of those gadgets for picking things up if you can’t bend down easily because managing 2 dogs, a bucket to put the rubbish in and bending down for it is tricky. Within a quarter of a mile my bucket was full! Some of it was stuff that had fallen off cars, tractors and farm machinery – rubber from a tyre, a huge metal nut – some must have been dropped when the bins were collected but a lot was just stuff discarded fron vehicles. There was noticeably more in lay-bys and where vehicles turn into fields or through junctions. I could just see the culprits cramming the last bit of food into their mouths in order to have both hands properly free to haul the steering wheel round hard, and throwing the wrapper out of the window. It did nothing for my mood.

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So now I have to decide what to do with the rest of the day. I could do some sewing but in this mood there is a serious risk I will make a pigs ear of it and then be even crosser! I need something that is absorbing but not tricky or precise. Should I go in the garden and risk getting damp if not wet? I could take my bad mood out on some weeds. Or go in the workshop and find some wood for a new nameboard at the gate? The plywood I used for the old one is delaminating and the paint is fading and peeling. Or I could rub down the upright chair I bought for £3.50 in the house clearance place and an old chest of drawers that used to live in the kitchen ready to paint them. Unless it rains soon I need to transfer water from the reserve tank to the water butts but the syphon is too short – I could cut a stub of copper pipe to join on a piece of hosepipe. I could go through the seedling trees I have outside and pot some up to go in gaps in my new hedges or plant some in the field opposite. Housework? Tidying up would probably make me feel a bit better when it was done but not whilst doing it!

Maybe I’ll just make another pot of coffee, mooch around and see where I end up. Sometimes being focussed and decisive is just too much like hard work!

In praise of hedges

I spent Sunday at a field just outside Fishguard on the North West coast of Pembrokeshire. One of the members of the Permaculture group has just bought it with the intention of creating a small nature reserve with a wild flower meadow, lots of trees and shrubs, a couple of ponds and somewhere to sit and enjoy it all. He has had the ponds dug and is waiting to see what sets up home there. Some trees have been planted but one of our tasks was to plant more and in particular to put in a double row of saplings along the track leading to the field to grow into a hedge.

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Janey, Ian and I planted the hedge

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Brian and Denise stripped patches of turf off the area where the wildflower meadow will be and strewed meadow hay full of seeds on the bare ground

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our base camp!

Around here most of the farmers have their hedges cut back almost to the ground every autumn using a flail on a tractor. The flail, for those of you who have never encounteed one, is a cutting head like an old fashioned push along lawn mower – a collection of sharp blades spiralling round a central axle

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The result is a hedge which is neither use nor ornament!

No use to keep stock in, no use for birds to nest in or small animals to hide in and producing no fruit or berries. I look at the ugly, mangled stems and feel so sorry for the plants.

Many years ago, before tractors and such like machinery became ubiquitous, farm workers spent days and days in the winter keeping the hedges in good order. It was cold, hard, skilled work and I can quite understand why they would much prefer to sit in a warm cab letting red diesel power through the job! I suspect that it will also be cheaper to do it that way.

Since I have the time and have learnt the skill I lay my hedges the old-fashioned way. My trusty billhook does most of the work. I use it to sharpen posts which I knock in with a lump hammer. The stems are then partly severed, bent down then woven round the posts. I have a bowsaw (or a pruning saw to get into small gaps) to take out any stems too big to weave in or which are surplus to requirements (some of the multi stem hazels are just too dense). Those cut stems are set aside. The thicker bottoms make posts and the brash can be woven in where the gaps between trees are too big or the trees too weedy as ‘dead hedge’ to fill the space and provide cover for the new saplings I put in to thicken the hedge up.

I don’t have livestock but the resulting boundaries are very effective at keeping my elderly lurcher, Orchid, from wandering off in pursuit of interesting smells. As the trees put out new branches and the whole tangle gets thicker, wider, denser, they will provide a safe place for small creatures and food for them too.

This winter Rob has cleared old dead willows (the remains of some planting my husband did many years ago) from a section of the top boundary, coppiced the living trees and laid the hedges north and East of the orchard. I have almost finished the one on the southern edge of the orchard, cleared the brambles under the apple trees and trained the old loganberry.

There are saplings ready to plant out between the hedge and the top fence. I have chosen species which will provide fruit or nuts for the wildlife – apples (from pips), hazel, holly and hawthorn which I have weeded out of veg beds and rowan which I have bought. Hopefully in a few years time there will be a narrow strip of productive woodland that joins the much bigger wood that I rent beyond my Western boundary and the smaller one to the East.

Even though quite a lot of the material cut out has been used to dead hedge, there are still piles of wood to go for firewood. Many a small farm produced all its fuel from the hedges.

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An entirely natural and sustainable boundary, a resource for wildlife and a source of fuel – what’s not to like?!

I am looking forward to going back to Howard’s field in a few years time and helping to lay that new hedge as part of his wider plan for a small patch of biodiversity in a green desert of farmland.

What if?

I have just finished reading ‘From What is to What if’ by Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the Transition Town movement. It got me thinking. It got me shouting ‘YES!’ out loud. And as I walked the dogs, which is when ideas tend to coalesce into new patterns, I began to make connections.

The central thesis of the book is that our collective failure to deal with the problems of our time – climate change, extreme weather events, mass migration of people – both refugees and economic migrants, inequality everywhere, breakdown of trust in the political process and the rise of extremism… is all largely down to a failure of imagination. We cannot imagine, or dare to believe, that the problems can be solved.

He goes on to explore why this inability to imagine might have come about. In particular he castigates modern education (not teachers please note) which is target driven and, since Victorian times, has been designed to turn out competent but compliant workers – no imagination required. In fact on an assembly line or working through a script in a call centre imagination can be a definite disadvantage. I was reminded of two incidents from my past.

The first was when both my husband and I were working as fairly new teachers in a Secondary chool in mid-Wales 46 years ago. A colleague joked that teaching was ‘casting imitation pearls before real swine’. Without pausing for a nano-second and without looking at each other we both said ‘They are only real swine because they know an imitation when they see one!’ THEN we looked at each other and knew we had to find other careers! I still think we were right! Most of us delivered unimaginative lessons most of the time, were unpopular with colleagues if we got the children excited (percieved as unruly) and children who were creative were described as disruptive.

The second was a few years later at a party. I was talking to the consultant in charge of a kidney dialysis unit who told me that his ideal patient for home dialysis was a teacher or police officer. They were taught the procedure and would then follow it to the letter. The patients who caused him grief were the ones who were sure that they could see a better way to set everything up and tried it their way. Disaster usually followed.

The book is not all doom and gloom. He also relates how he and others in groups have been enabled to imagine a better way of livng and to believe that it might just be possible to create it. The results have included Transition Towns (begun in Totnes, Devon, UK) and Incredible Edible pictured above (begun in Todmorden, Lancashire, UK) each of which began with a few people asking themselves that ‘What if…’ question.

So far so good.

What happened next was that I made a connection between this idea and ideas from my training as a couples counsellor. Faced with an unhappy relationship clients had 3 options (no-one ever came up with a fourth!) Like it, Lump it or Leave it. Since the situation wasn’t working ‘Like it’ meant changing it into one that was at least likeable and hopefully really enjoyable. ‘Lump it’ was to stay as they were but probably grumble about it to their friends and family and anyone else who would listen. ‘Leave it’ meant just that – separate. Or leave in spirit if not in body – through alcohol, drugs, gambling, depression or other mental illness, becoming physically ill, having an affair or by living sparately under the same roof. Of the three ‘Lump it’ was the least risky. Nobody had to DO anything, the other 2 options were still available in the future if needed, and neither partner had to take responsibility for what was going on; though the ‘leave it in spirit and lump it in body’ ran a close second. What linked this with Rob Hopkins ideas for me was that ‘Lump it’ required no imagination. No need to imagine how our relationship might work better or how I/we might be able to make that happen. Nor any need to imagine life post-separation.

The more I thought about it the more it seemed that the same 3 options face us in the case of each of the global issue I menbtioned above. The outworking is slightly different. Like it again means taking responsibility for my part in the problem and doing something about it. Hold that thought for later! Lump it means acknowledging it is there but remaining helpless – What can I do? Me using paper straws / reusable shopping bags / getting a smaller car / making a donation to a refugee charity… is not going to make much difference so why bother. I am helpless and ‘THEY’ out to do something. Leave it becomes denying there is a problem, or blaming it on others, or the survivalist approach – concrete bunkers full of bottled water and tins of beans.

The Establishment here in the UK and probably in most of the rest of the world is pretty firmly in the Lump it camp. Many fine sounding declarations of a ‘Global Emergency’ but a complete terror at the idea of actually doing something radical. Back to Rob Hopkins – a collective failure to imagine a better world. Not helped by some pretty trenchant vested interests. There are exceptions. The Council for the city of Preston in Lancashire UK (Coincidentally the place where my mother grew up), decided to spend its money with local suppliers. As it is responsible for schools, emergency services, Social Services, highway maintenance (everything from major roads to pavements and street cleaning) that is a lot of buying power. Instead of the money going into tax havens via global corporations it supported local firms and small employers with dramatic results for the well being of the area. (Read more about the Preston Model here)

Just as I was pulling all these ideas together I listened to an episode of the BBC radio 4 series ‘The Life Scientific’ in which Prof. Jim Al-Khlili interviews a leading scientist about their work and how they came to be doing it. The guest in this particular episode was a leading Climate scientist, Myles Allen, who (amongst lots of other interesting things) described talking to a group of engineers from one of the world’s major oil producers. He asked if it would be possible for them to make their industry carbon neutral – to sequester as much carbon from the atmosphere as was produced in the whole extraction, transportation, refining and use of their products. The senior staff looked uncomfortable but the younger ones assured him it was perfectly possible – as long as all the other companies had to do the same. If one company went it alone they would commit business suicide. There would, of course, be consequences including much more expensive petrol and petrochemical products. Which is part of what scares governments and makes them even more likely to play ‘After you, no after you, No you go first…’

So where does that leave me? Well I like a good grumble as much as the next person but I have never really been in the ‘Lump it’ camp. Hiding under a duvet of alcohol or mental illness doesn’t appeal either. And as for living in a suvivalist bunker! On my own I would go crazy and as part of a group, even if they were my nearest and dearest, I would probably murder one of them within days if not weeks. No, it has to be the ‘Like it by changing it’ camp for me!

But what does that mean in practice?

In the political arena I would be a disaster. My favourite question is ‘Why Not?’ I see ‘black and white’ / ‘either or’ thinking as generally unhelpful and tend to the ‘both and’ / ‘shades of grey’ persuasion. I lack the personal ambition and ruthlessness to get any real clout, and despite the views of the current line-up of US Presidential hopefuls I think 70 is too old to be in charge! By the same reasoning I have left it too late to be a Captain of Industry or top Civil Servant. So global, or even National change is not within my scope. In the UK’s ‘first past the post’ system for elections my vote is worthless and I have never thought petitions do much good.

So what can I do? What could any of us do?

Well, even though my thinking carefully about the things I buy, driving less, consuming less stuff, re-using and recycling whatever I can, making puppets for children in Sierra Leone…. is not going to make a big difference in the grand scheme of things, it will make SOME. And as the Tesco adverts say ‘Every little helps!’ By connecting with other people who are making the same effort we can support and encourage each other and maybe, just maybe, demonstrate to others that it isn’t a recipe for drudgery – all worthiness, going without, and eating a lot of lentils (Dont get me wrong lentils can be delicous but they do have an image problem). I can continue to build my own resilience by looking after my health and learning new skills (and learning new skills is good for my cognitive health too). More importantly I can work to build my local community so that we help each other, share resources and skills, look out for each other, inspire each other. That is how all those imaginative initiatives like Transition Towns and Incredible Edibles started after all.

I hope that all makes sense and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Beginnings – An Update

In a previous post (read it here if you missd it) I shared my intention to see if I could use some of the old footpaths which are marked on the Ordnance Survey map but which proved to be blocked or I couldn’t find. The not finding was not helped by my being unable to tell which side of hedges the path ran and therefore which field I should be trying to cross.

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From the County Council website I could see which ones were recognised by them but the there was a stern note that this was not the definitive map and to see that I had to contact the footpaths officer. So I rang the council and spoke to the lady on the switchboard. I know from previous times when I have had cause to contact the Council that she takes a message and relays it to the relevant person who then gets in touch. She was very apologetic that because it was 5pm she would not be able to get hold of the person she needed and it would be the next day before I got any more help!

Sure enough the next morning an email arrived in my inbox with a link to the page I had already found on the official website but with an invitation to arrange to go and speak to someone and see the definitive map. I wanted to know how to get more detailed maps, how to find out who owned the fence that was blocking a path, what help the Council could offer and whether or not I was allowed to climb over gates or fences. So I made an appointment to go to meet Jason at his office on the edge of Llanelli and the home of THE MAP which was by now assuming almost mythical status in my head!

The Office turned out to be a room in a large wooden hut in a compound used by the highways department as a store. Luckily Jason was looking out for me so I could find him.

He explained that in the 1950’s all parish councils were asked to find any footpaths which had habitually been used by the public and to record them on detailed maps. These were then collated and transferred onto large translucent plastic sheets which are ‘The Definitive Map’. Definitive because they are the legal record – if a path is on there it can be used by the public and the landowner should ensure that that is possible. If it is not on there the public have no legal right to use it. In theory when anyone buys a piece of land their solicitor does searches which should show if there is a right of way on the property but in practice some are less thorough and the new owners get a shock when a group of ramblers walk through their new garden! Occasionally a landowner will ask for permission to move the right of way so that they can build a barn or extension or something. You wouldn’t want people having the right to walk though your new conservatory whenever they felt like it! If the change is agreed then the new route is noted on the map with an explanation and date.

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The overview map on Jason’s screen

More recently the map has been digitised and Jason was able to show me the area round my home on his laptop and could zoom in and out to see a whole path or a section in more detail. I told him which ones I had tried to walk and where I got stuck and he noted the information to pass to the team of rangers who try to keep the state of the paths under surveillance. However there are only 4 of them to cover the 2400 square kilometers of the county so I may have to wait awhile before one of them gets to this bit! He was particularly interested in the path which runs from the road just uphill from my garden along the river to the next village (labelled 4/47/2 on the map above) as that would be likely to be a particularly pleasant and therefore popular walk.

Because my OS map was not detailed enough he offered to send me copies of the screens we had looked at and sure enough, by the time I had driven home, they were in my inbox ready to be printed out.


More detailed maps clear enough for me to see individual fields and the routes I should take.

Since then we have had rain every day and two big storms which have brought disruption, flooding, fallen trees and landslips to parts of South Wales though I have been unscathed. Not good weather for trampling across sodden fields and through bramble patches, over fences or climbing gates. When it finally clears up I can go exploring again. Watch this space!

Beginnings

Last weekend I went to visit my friends Jeni and Rob to celebrate Imbolc. None of us are pagans or druids, Jeni is a retired vicar who still takes services occasionally to fill gaps in rostas whilst Rob and I are ‘don’t knows’. It is rather that they keep poultry, sheep, pigs and, have just got some bees as well as growing veg as I do. So both households experience shifts in activities and energies as the year turns. Celebrating the eight old festivals encourages us to stop and reflect with each other on our plans, successes and failures. It is also an excuse to spend an evening together sharing a meal and a glass or two of something nice.

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Jeni and Rob live in a beautiful, tiny cob cottage

Imbolc is the precursor of the Christian candlemass – a point where the increasing day length is properly noticeable and the first green shoots are emerging. The first flowers of spring, the snowdrops, are coming into bloom to cheer us up even though winter is not yet over – there is a sign that spring will come. Actually this year the snowdrops were beaten by the first primroses and I have crocus out and daffodils showing fat buds. Maybe with climate change we will have to rethink our symbols if not our ceremonies!

In the same vein whilst winter is a time to cwtch in (A welsh phrase from cwtch = hug or a feeling of being hugged) by the fire and dream and plan, now is the time to start taking first steps to make those dreams come true. Having chosen the things we want to grow / achieve we must start to germinate the seeds. So we sat around the fire and shared what new projects we had chosen to spend our time and energy on this year.

My new project this year (just to add to all the unfinished ones from previous years!) is to explore the local footpaths. Every day I walk my dogs along the local lanes which are mostly single track with high banks either side and whilst traffic is very light a significant proportion of what there is is big lorries such as milk tankers or massive tractors which often are trailing equally large machinery. The dogs and I squeeze onto narrow verges or run to the nearest gateway. The proximity, noise and exhaust fumes are unpleasant. It would be so nice to have some off-road walks we could do.

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This may look like a useable path but after wading across the stream in the foreground I found that the old gate is tied to the posts with barbed wire.

When we first moved here 25 years ago a neighbour who was then in her 60’s told us that as a girl she had walked to school in the next village along footpaths and bridleways through the woods and along the stream. At that time there was a network of such paths connecting the various farms and cottages and other children joined her as she walked so that a whole gaggle of them arrived at school together. Of course in the intervening years rural depopulation meant that there were fewer people living here, houses became derelict, farms were coalesced into bigger units, and the people who remained got cars. A group of us tried to help her do the walk again but found it blocked – as the paths had fallen into disuse and stiles collapsed the route was blocked with brambles, nettles and then fences. What farmer would build a stile no-one ever used when a continuous fence is so much cheaper?

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This cottage was lived in when we first came here but was condemned as ‘unfit for habitation’ about 20 years ago

A check on the council website has shown me that these paths are, however, still public rights of way. So I have made an appointment to see the relevant council official to ask for advice and help in getting them opened up again. Jeni told me I was not alone – two local landowners she knows want to re-create a path that runs through their properties but that will be easier since between them they own all the land involved. I have no idea how successful I will be at persuading my neighbours to help but I will have a go. Watch this space!

Getting Physical

Last week I decided it was time to start cutting trees to refill the woodshed. Rob, who helps me with the garden wanted to use his chainsaw; I wanted to do the felling by hand with an axe. “But the chainsaw is quicker and easier” he argued. I am not sure about the easier because I have hardly ever used one but he is certainly right about it being quicker. I am the boss so it happened my way. I have been musing on why it is that I am so reluctant to let him do it his way and the more I thought about it the more layers I found to my pleasure in doing the job the old fashioned way.

Perhaps fortunately for someone going deaf I enjoy being quiet. I love being in the garden and it being peaceful, being able to enjoy the birdsong, the wind in the trees. The noise of machinery irritates me even at a distance and to me the whine of a chainsaw is particularly unpleasant. It also smells bad and the smell impregnates my clothes, skin, hair so that I feel dirty even if I have not actually been operating the machine. So much of the sensual pleasure I get from being outside is taken away.

IMG_20190313_155022257_HDR Special trousers, helmet, visor, ear defenders and gloves shut a chainsaw operator off from the world around.

Even Rob tells me that the chainsaw drives the work. I have no idea why, but once it is started up whoever is using it goes hammer and tongs at the job. Once the tree is felled the branches have to be cut off and then the smaller branches until the brash is quite small and will decompose fairly quickly (a process called snedding) and the temptation is to use the chainsaw for that as well, get it out of the way quickly and on to the next tree. Often the speed and the bulk of the chainsaw means that this is done quite roughly leaving snags protruding.

IMG_20200126_104047344God snedding leaves a clean pole

IMG_20200126_104056487 but sloppy work leaves snags like this one.

By contrast the energy needed to use an axe means that it is normal to stop periodically to have a breather, take a look at how the cut is going, adjust position to get a different angle, notice what is going on nearby. And since the only protective clothing needed is a good pair of workboots with steel toecaps, I can move and stretch, hear the birds, see the flowers. Large branches are taken off with the axe or a bowsaw whilst smaller ones are cut with a billhook. If the tools are sharp and the worker reasonably skilled the cut is clean against the main stem which makes them easier to stack or carry. I have time to look at each piece and assess whether it would be useful for making something or best put for burning.

I treasure my axe. It is a thing of beauty. Hand forged in Sweden by Gransfors with an Ash handle which I treat with boiled linseed oil every year, it is a Rolls Royce of axes. One of the lightest they do, it is technically a limbing axe for chopping off branches but it suits my height, weight and strength. I could use fewer cuts to do the job if I used a heavier one but I am in no rush and the heavier ones make me tire more quickly. The details may have changed but it would be instantly recognised by a stone age person – a tool design which has stood the test of centuries.

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Learning to use it was not something I found easy. As a girl born in 1950 I was not expected to master manly skills like woodwork, engines or, in fact, anything physically demanding other than housework. My father was a woodwork teacher but although he taught me the names of all his tools, where to find them in his shed and what they were used for, my job was to fetch them and then hand them to him to use. It never occured to either of us that I might have a go with them. Luckily for me when I did the Woodland skills course at Coppicewood College Martin Aughton took me under his wing and with enormous patience insisted that I could and would learn. In the end his persistence paid off. I am still not as accurate as I would like to be but that is because I don’t get enough practice. It would be so easy to let Rob get his chainsaw out and just tidy up after him but that would feel like a cop-out – I would be saying ‘this is hard to get right so I won’t bother’. Having finally understood what I am aiming to do and what it feels like when I succeed I am not going to give up now.

I also rejoice in the fact that I can be this physically active at my age; that I still have the strength to do manual work. To use the axe or billhook efficiently I have to use my whole body not just the realtively puny arm muscles. The power comes from the big muscles in the thighs and backside moving the torso and out through the arms. Thanks to Rose Thorn’s brilliant yoga teaching I now have pretty good balance so I can safely make big, powerful movements even on an awkward slope. And she has also helped me to feel the different muscle groups working. Feeling my power is exhilarating. And as long as I keep relaxed (helped by stopping, breathing, checking myself for tension) I can work for several hours without feeling stiff next morning.

Why would I give all that joy up for the sake of speed?

A blooming lovely day

When you have spent every penny you can lay your hands on buying 30 odd acres of land in Pembrokeshire what do you do to start making a living from it as soon as possible? That was the dilemma facing Linda and Steve when they put in a sealed bid at auction on part of the old Picton Castle Estate and found, somewhat to their surprise, that they had been successful. Half was woodland which needed taking back into management and half was pasture but there were no buildings so not only could they not live on site, they could not keep livestock easily either.

The answer they came up with was flowers. Linda had trained as a landscape architect and grower and Steve had toured as a musician teaching himself photography as he traveled the world. Both were good at using social media to promote their work. Flowers can be grown in a single year, need regular attention but not live-in care, and arranging them, which Linda is very good at, adds value. With Steve’s photographic skills to showcase the results they had the skill set they needed to make a success of the enterprise.

See more wonderful pictures on their website here

The obvious place to site a flower garden was near the hard-standing where the access track ends. But this was a bit exposed for growing. So using poles and brash from the woods they built a ‘dead hedge’; posts driven into the ground at intervals and twiggy branches roughly woven through them. That gave shelter in the short term but will slowly rot away. So either side of the ‘dead’ hedge they planted a live one. Over time the rotting wood will be replaced by the living which it will feed as it goes. The double row will make it strong and dense and if any of the shrubs fail there will not be a gap. Even the gates are works of art!

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Inside this boundary are a polytunnel for propagating plants and to grow a few more delicate blooms and houses and runs for chickens, ducks and guinea fowl which are allowed out to keep slugs and other pests under control.

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Weddings have proved to be the biggest part of the business. Sometimes Linda is asked to do all the arrangements and bouquets, sometimes just the trickiest bits with the families buying buckets of flowers and doing the simpler stuff themselves. The couple now have a barn designed to keep flowers cool and fresh until they can be arranged and delivered and with space to dry some for winter use. And of course it provides somewhere to store all the paraphernalia Linda needs to make her designs. These days much of the business comes from one bride recommending her to another.

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And the rest of the land? Well there is a young orchard where we helped fill ‘eyelid’ swales to help the trees keep their roots moist in dry summers. I had come across the idea of swales before. They are ditches dug almost but not quite level to collect water and channel it around the site very slowly preventing it running off before plants have a chance to use it. In drier areas of the world they make the difference between being able to grow things and not. Here in West Wales where rainfall is high, the problem is more often how to get rid of water quickly without it scouring the land! However Steve and Linda had noticed that some of their land, including the orchard, drained quickly and decided that digging a short ditch uphill from each tree and filling it with large logs then smaller brash and topping it with turf would provide a ‘sponge’ that would hold water. A sort or personalised drinking trough! As the logs rot away they will feed the trees just as the dead hedge will feed the live one and when the fruit trees are well established they should be able to fend for themselves more.

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A stand of Sweet chestnut trees has been planted and each year Steve brings another section of the old woodland into management. He has just learnt how to make charcoal in on old-fashioned kiln to make good use of the wood he is extracting. Unmanaged woodland rarely yields wood suitable for milling into planks and firewood is so much work to cut, chop and deliver that it makes little profit so charcoal is a better option.

The pasture is allowed to grow long and then cut for hay by a farming neighbour. He beds his sheep on it in the lambing sheds then returns it, nicely enriched with sheep dung, to be composted along with garden waste and chipped brash. The huge heaps are turned with a small JCB! Once worked most goes onto the flower beds to grow the next crop but some is diverted to a pumpkin patch where Halloween lanterns were ripening nicely when I visited!

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At present Steve and Linda live in nearby Haverforwest with Linda’s young grandson who was orphaned when her daughter died tragically young. They hope to get planning permission soon to build a new home on their own land to reduce their travelling and to make charcoal burning easier – the kiln takes all day to load and then needs to be monitored closely overnight. Steve has already given a great deal of thought to the best way to design and construct it so that it is both beautiful and efficient to run!

The woodland Farm is a fantastic example of how using the principles of Permaculture it is possible to create a thriving business and make a decent livelihood from an unpromising piece of land whilst at the same time creating a haven for wildlife.

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A little piece of Heaven

Last Sunday morning found me driving through the back lanes of North Pembrokeshire. The sky was that perfect blue you only get on a May Morning, the Hawthorn was starting to flower in the hedgerows and the verges were thick with wild flowers. In places the cow parsley was so thick that it was almost as if I was driving along the beach between two breaking waves. Then my first glimpse of the sea which was a stunning turquoise blue as if trying to emulate one of those posters of Greek islands!

I would not normally go to a meet-up all the way over on the West coast but I had wanted to see Brian and Dot’s place for a long time and also this was the second meeting of the newly re-launched Pembrokeshire group so I wanted to do my bit to make sure the turnout was good.

My destination was a small farm on a little back road high up above Strumble Head just West of Fishguard. Brian and Dot live in an old farmhouse which has been cleverly divided to provide two homes, one for them and one for their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Stone outbuildings have been converted into three holiday cottages and a house for their son and daughter-in-law. Each resident family has their own outside space and a piece of garden for growing food though there are no fences so it feels very open and joined up. The rest of the land is managed co-operatively. And everywhere there are views across the fields to the sea. Bliss! Find out more about holidying there and see more photos here )

The turnout was good, two people brought children and there were three visiting dogs which all added to the fun. I had left my dogs at home – the rescued lurcher would have panicked and it was too hot to leave her in the car.

After excellent coffee and a chance to chat and to meet a couple of new members we set to work. A field is being turned into a forest garden with space in the middle for a yurt. Brian and Dot had put posts in to mark where they wanted trees to plant trees and mown a circle of grass round each. Our first job was to put down a layer of cardboard on each circle and then pile mulch on top. Some of us took the sellotape and plastic labels off a large stash of boxes they had collected from local businesses whilst others laid it on the cut grass or barrowed mulch from a huge pile at the edge of the field.

Lunch was a chance to sit outside and admire the view as well as continue chatting and sharing ideas and up-coming events. Then it was back to work.

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I had to leave early because of having left the dogs at home but by then all the circles were ready for planting and work had begun on putting new trees into the old hedge to improve the shelter belt. The others stayed to get the yurt frame up ( definitely a job for several people!) and Dot very kindly took photos of that for me.

What a perfect way to spend a glorious day in May

A muted Hooray!

The BBC’s Welsh news carried a report this morning that ‘the UK Committee on Climate Change is advising that Wales should cut the numbers of sheep and cattle, plant more trees and encourage heavy industry to clean up’ (read the full article here) What’s not to like?

Weeeellll?

Whilst some smallholders of my acquaintance keep sheep and poultry primarily as pets not many of them keep cows. Cows, at least on any commercial scale, involve getting up at silly o’clock every morning, seven days a week, bank holidays and Christmas included, to do the milking. And repeating the procedure in the late afternoon meaning that even a day out has to be a short one. At the large organic dairy farm up the road Charlie, the manager, milks over 200 cows every day except between Christmas and Easter-ish time when the cows are dry because they are pregnant. At the moment he is calving (regular checks, helping any cows which are struggling to deliver their calf and frequent visits from the vet for the problem cases) AND milking the cows who have had their calves AND feeding the calves which are old enough to be taken off their mothers. He cares about his cows but he does it because it is a job, it keeps a roof over his family’s head and food on the table. Even if only one or two cows are kept, as Michelle and Phil do at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust (links at the bottom of this post) going on holiday is a logistic nightmare

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Sheep are just as demanding. At lambing time shepherds sleep in their clothes and patrol at frequent intervals day and night ready to intervene if a sheep is distressed. And there is hoof trimming, fly-strike prevention (Flies lay their eggs in the mucky wool at the rear end of a sheep, the eggs hatch and the maggots eat the flesh into sores. Regular trimming of the wool and vigilance are needed to prevent it) and then there is shearing…

Like most of us farmers get satisfaction from doing a job they are good at and of course there are compensations but for most it is as stressful as any other type of self-employment and physically grueling. Farming is not for whimps!

So reducing numbers of livestock would help them right? Would you be happy to take a pay cut even if it meant working less hard? No, I thought not.

The Government seems to be taking the Marie Antoinette approach ‘Let them eat cake’. Or rather ‘Let them diversify’

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That often means tourism. Not every farmhouse is easily adaptable to B&B. Not every farm has a set of picturesque outbuildings ripe for conversion to holiday cottages and not every farmer makes a good host. Even if you enjoy welcoming people into your home and have the right infrastructure it is hard work and a precarious business. And it has implications for the community. Until Pemberton’s Chocolate Farm closed I regularly encountered drivers who were quite unable to reverse to a passing place along these single track lanes. So instead of them going back 100 yards I would reverse a quarter of a mile. An irritation for me but no joke if you are in a tractor with a trailer behind waiting whilst they panic and weave their way slowly back, or are a courier driver with an algorithm imposing deadlines on you that take no account of such things (townies all, those algorithms!) More importantly some villages on the coast have become ghost towns in Winter – they might as well put up a ‘Closed’ sticker on the ‘Welcome to..’ sign on the road in.

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Plan B is ‘Added value’. Make your milk into yoghurt or ice-cream, get your fleeces spun and sell the wool or, better still, knit or weave it and sell your crafts, sell your meat direct to the customer on-line. Animals were traditionally sold through the marts and not every farmer can, or wants to, become an entrepreneur. And as for on-line, unless there is serious investment in good broadband for rural areas, dream on sunshine. Read about my switch to a satellite based system (here) Compared with the speeds and reliability on my landline it is fabulous but pathetic compared to the service my son gets in Luton.

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my internet satellite dish

So unless the drive to reduce livestock numbers is associated with increased farm payments, or increased prices for the food they produce, or investment in alternative employment and infrastructure, the result will be even more rural poverty and homelessness.

Secondly, what about those fields which will no longer have animals in them? Left to their own devices they will become massive bramble patches with a few chest high docks and nettles thrown in. Not what the tourists pay to come and see. Give them a few decades and they will transition through scrub woodland (mainly blackthorn round here) to woodland. Of course they could be planted with trees to shorten the process. The Government could fund that and pay farmers ‘rent’ for the land. They could call it a ‘carbon sequestration services payment’. Mmm can’t see it happening somehow, not in the long term. And sitting at home living, effectively, on benefit would not be good for the mental health of the farmers. They could be encouraged to manage the woodland but that is a very different skill set from farming and one they would have to learn. Even if they did where would the market be for all that extra firewood, coppice product and timber? What would they live on until the trees were big enough to be harvested? Questions, questions, questions and a shortage of answers.

Thirdly those animals currently supply the food chain. Unless the population as a whole reduces its consumption of dairy produce, eggs and meat, the shortfall will be cheerfully filled by the supermarkets importing more. There would be no reduction in global carbon emissions because no overall reduction in animal numbers. But the animals would probably be reared to lower welfare standards according to the expert I heard on the food programme (listen to it here) Wales could feel virtuous by ‘off-shoring’ the problem.

If only life was simple!

I will welcome comments, arguments, or questions whether you agree with me or take a different view, but please keep them respectful, thoughtful and evidence based.

My pictures are supplemented by ones from my good friend Michelle Laine of Scythe Cymru – find out more about her and her family’s low impact lives here and on facebook here The picture of farm cottages for holidays is from google images.