Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

AFTER three tu­mul­tuous weeks, when news has ac­tu­ally been news, the un­cer­tainty re­mains. Rarely has it been harder to chart the future or even read the runes. Yet here in the coun­try­side, the con­tin­u­ing rhythm of life brings a sta­bil­ity that has never been more wel­come. De­spite doubts about agri­cul­tural sup­port and in­creas­ing fears for farm in­comes, the sea­sons don’t stop. The hay has to be cut and the wheat har­vested, so we get on with life, the an­nual round is re­peated and the con­cerns of Theresa May and An­gela Merkel seem a world away.

For Agromenes, hay­mak­ing has been in full swing. The clank­ing of old-fash­ioned balers, gath­er­ing the cut grass, con­tin­ues well on into the evening with ur­gency and a de­ter­mi­na­tion to bring it all in, dry and safe from the threat­ened thun­der­storms. It’s a re­ally good har­vest this year. All that rain and then the pierc­ing heat have meant the mead­ows have given of their best.

Hay­mak­ing is al­ways a joy­ous time, but there’s a special de­light when you can spot the ev­i­dence of some­one’s good hus­bandry, which has brought fer­til­ity back to fields that have been ill-used for years. Just up the road, where the land runs down to the river, there’s one such field that’s long been a sorry sight. The vic­tim of ‘hors­ey­cul­ture’, it had been eaten al­most to ex­tinc­tion. Horses are such dread­ful graz­ers; eat­ing some patches un­til they’re not much more than dust and leav­ing their muck on oth­ers so the net­tles and this­tles grow with aban­don. It’s a nui­sance mov­ing them around and clean­ing up after them and some own­ers who wouldn’t dream of ne­glect­ing their an­i­mals seem to think the land will look after it­self.

Spied over ill-kempt hedges, the horses were a de­light. Well groomed and cared for, they were a credit. But the land! Oh, the land. A crown bare of grass, crop­ping only this­tles and any fresh growth, even in the most fer­tile pieces, eaten down to the roots. How­ever, this year, that mis­er­able field looks splen­did. Three sea­sons with­out horses and care­ful man­age­ment of the cows that re­placed them, to­gether with the spe­cially favourable weather, and it’s sim­ply beau­ti­ful. Best, of course, when there were still the bales of hay, not yet loaded onto a trailer, but, even now, shorn of its crop, glow­ing with health in the July sun­shine.

That one field re­minds us just how re­silient Na­ture is. Some spot weed­killer, no fer­tiliser and proper man­age­ment and it all comes back. How­ever, it isn’t easy. It’s time, ef­fort and knowl­edge. And we des­per­ately need more of it—the fer­til­ity of al­most all our soil is in se­ri­ous de­cline. Decades of rel­a­tively cheap ni­trates, over-use of her­bi­cides and in­sec­ti­cides and wide­spread mono­cul­ture have left most of Eng­land sig­nif­i­cantly less fer­tile. It hap­pens al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly. As, each year, the soil it­self is less pro­duc­tive, we have com­pen­sated with more fer­tiliser and new strains of wheat and other crops. Only now, as the ev­i­dence mounts, have lead­ing farm­ers be­gun to be con­cerned.

It’s a world­wide prob­lem, but, for these small is­lands, which will have to grow much more of their own food, it’s se­ri­ously threat­en­ing. Agri­cul­ture is de­nuded of labour. Jobs that can’t be mech­a­nised are over­whelm­ingly done by mi­grants. Farm in­comes are stretched. It’s in that con­text that we’re go­ing to have to ask farm­ers to spend money and time on bet­ter land hus­bandry. De­fra has no plan for it and, so far, lit­tle ap­petite to pro­duce one, yet soil fer­til­ity is es­sen­tial for our farm­ing future. Has any­one told An­drea Lead­som?

We’re go­ing to have to ask farm­ers to spend money and time on bet­ter land hus­bandry

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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