I feel rather like the early bird who has caught the worm. Last month I had noticed that out chickens were behaving strangely. Or rather more strangely than usual. In early January, and still in deep winter in anybody’s book, they had started laying heavily. They were supplying eggs much faster than we could use them and clearly though that the spring had arrived. They had started to create clutches and shown signs of going broody. This was an easy mistake for them to make as we had very mild temperatures and nothing really wintry at all.
This posed a dilemma. I had to decide in January whether I should put some of these eggs into the incubator for hatching. However, although I knew the hens thought spring had sprung I did not know if the cockerels had been infused with the vernal spirit and had sprung into action. If not, if the cockerels had correctly thought “This is still winter”, then I might be trying to hatch a clutch of unfertilised eggs. Not anticipating any miracle I decided to put a batch on and see what happened.
I needn’t have worried. The chickens determine the mating it seems. Cockerels don’t give a fig what time of year it is and they’ll happily mate all year round as the progeny above confirm. This is another unsettling sign that our seasons and are changing. It is not without consequence as I now have chickens born while the ground outside is better suited to building snowmen than scratching for food. I’ll need to rear these chicks indoors under a lamp for a considerable period before I can let them out. Let us hope they prosper despite the inopportune timing of their entry to the smallholding
There what’s seems to be one; someone so eager to get going that they start too early. This time it seems to be our neighbour’s horse chestnut tree. Over the last two weeks, and in the middle of August, it had started to change colour and signalled that it thinks it is autumn.
It is nice to see this flash of auburn and red in a sea of green. It is a pleasant reminder that Autumn is on its way. Though some may disagree, I’d propose that autumn is clearly the best season; a time to enjoy the fruits of the land without the cold of winter or the work of spring and summer. However, there is also some sadness. I think this tree is behaving in this strange way because of changes to the weather, the droughts, and the changed water table in our area. Therefore, while it signals good times ahead it is also an alarm siren that we are damaging our environment
The important triad that we need to consider, if we are to have any hope of tackling the problem we face with climate change and degradation of our environment, is the triad of:-
Unfortunately, it is the most important of these that we tend to forget and ignore. The most important is “reduce“; indeed, the instruction to reuse and recycle are just other methods to avoid using new things and thus simple practical ways to reduce our consumption. If we recycle something, or use if for a different purpose, it saves us from buying or creating something new, it reduces our consumption. The key part of the triad remains reduce and it is the aspect which, unfortunately, the one to which we pay less attention. I can understand this, as it can quite easy to enjoy the other two instructions. There is indeed pleasure to be had from finding a new use for something you thought past its days. Recycling and reuse can save us money and certainly help us have a feeling of smugness, that we have done our bit, without any real cost to ourselves. In contrast “reducing” consumption has little fun associated with it, and any smugness is probably obliterated by a feeling of missing out on what other are having.
We are, in fact, exhorted to do the exact opposite of reducing our consumption. Although we all know that, if we want to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment, we must start to consume less and more wisely. But every day adverts tell us our lives are not complete without this, or that, product or service. Every day we are informed we will be happier if we just have something else; a new car, a foreign holiday, this year’s fashion in clothing or music. Increasingly advertisers try to urge us to become better people buy buying their products, suggesting that people who buy car X are obviously those who go against the herd, thinking individuals who understand the social and environmental threats we must tackle. The “greenwashing” that we see in the luxury market is particularly galling when we are urged to buy something new, because it is more efficient or green, while the much better option would be to not buy something and make our car, or washing machine, or fridge, or whatever, last that bit longer. The calculations to work out the better environmental option in these situations can be quite difficult to work out but it is generally safe to presume that not consuming something is the greenest option open to you.
At the social level this situation gets even worse. The mantra enthrals that all politicians is that “growth is good”. We are told that economic growth is the best marker for the health of our societies. It is suggested that if growth slackens then our future is grim, only ever increasing production and consumption can save us. While it is true that the spectacular growth we have seen has lifted most of the world’s population out of poverty but the problem is no longer inadequacy of wealth (there is more than enough for all) the problems are waste and faulty distribution. The wealth we have is not fairly spread and the creating of this wealth is at the expense of our future safety. It might be much better to be aiming, in the developed world, for what Adam Smith described as “stationarity” or the “steady-state economy” described by the ecological economist Herman Daly. Those of us living in the post-scarcity economies of the developed world need to try and find ways to alter our living and let us reflect on our problems.
This problem was brought home to me this week, on Tuesday to be precise. This week included Shrove Tuesday but most of our press and media were keen to remind me it was Pancake Day. It is clear that this is another ritual or celebration which is going through a metamorphosis to become more useful for our current times. Shrove Tuesday is so called because of the word shrive which means to absolve. This day marked the end of the period before lent. A day to use up, and so not waste, the foodstuff that would no be eaten during the fast to come. (Mardi Gras has the same origin, its meaning being Fat Tuesday). It was time to start reflecting on our failures and begin the period of Lent during which we would be expected to give up some of the pleasures of life and, instead, pay attention to our failings.
This aspect of the celebration does not fit with a modern consumer culture. A ritual that encourages reduced consumption and thoughtful introspection really doesn’t fit with our current world view. The last thing a consumer society wishes is for consumers to doubt or reduce their consumption. So as Breugel (See Picture) anticipated we have converted it into another excuse to consume, to carouse, to eat and drink to excess. Just as Easter has become the celebration of eating chocolate, Christmas the celebration of general excess, the remnants of Lent have become the celebration of eating sweet carbohydrate treats. They all join the new celebrations of consumption such as Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day.
At a time when the last thing in the world we need is encouragement to consume more it is sad to see a tradition promoting moderation and self-reflection dying. If anything we need to try and revive Lent and to encourage people that we need to think about our consumption and behaviour. We may think that we no longer need to think on our sins nor repent as we are modern and above such primitive things. However, greed, gluttony, lust and envy are factors that drive our overconsumption and promote the unequal distribution of our wealth and we need to think about these. If we do not, and we continue as we are, then the inequalities we see will worsen and we will fail to stop the global warming which we clearly know is starting to threaten our future as a species. At a time when our behaviour is such that it threatens our very survival it might be a wise time to salvage a period of reflection and repentance, and the exhortation from Ash Wednesday would seem a very good place to start :-
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return
We had a cold start to the day this morning and we have more promised to come. Though I was not too keen on this first thing today, when I had to break all the ice from the animals’ water troughs, I am generally glad to see the season behaving more like a normal winter. The cold snap reminded me that, while I had cut and collected enough timber for fuel, I have not split enough logs nor prepared enough kindling. So now I have my weekend planned.
I saw in the agricultural diary, when I was writing our log, that the Welsh proverb of the week is “Gaeaf Glas wna Fynwent Fras“. This can be translated as a harsh or cold winter will lead to full cemeteries. It reflects early awareness, of now scientific knowledge, that winter is the most dangerous season. Indeed the 7th of January is the day of the year on which more people die than any other. Possibly reflecting two factors : the first is the winter season itself, and the second may be the ability of people to hold on or persevere until after the Christmas period – slipping off the mortal coil at a more timely point.
Gaeaf Glas literally means a blue or green winter. Although now ‘glas’ is used to mean ‘blue’, earlier the celtic languages didn’t distinguish in words between blue and green and used ‘glas’ for both colours. This is why the “dear green place is called “Glasgow”. Now, in Cymraeg (welsh) we use glas for blue and gwyrdd for green and I am not sure that this is a step forward. Sometimes I think the prior situation may have been better.
At the moment we are trying to renovate our holiday let’s kitchen and this entails choosing the colour of the doors of the cabinets. You might imagine that this is an easy task. Think of a colour you like, blue, or green, or red, and decide on that colour. But unfortunately this does not work. I have now discovered that there are bluey-greens and greeny-blues, as well as greens that are too greeny. I have been asked to look at cards and select between sage green, pale verdigris green (which is gray), soft pastel mint green or soft duck egg green (which is blue). Once we have selected an apt green for the cabinets we can then open the big book of paint colours for the splash back. I think there are over 20 blues and greens in here.
I really have no hope of contributing to this debate. Indeed I don’t know why I bother, my wife will make the decision anyway. Not only can I not distinguish between these imperceptible shade differences (Imagine being asked which you prefer “magnolia” or “almond white” or “cream” ! They are all the same). But also there is the mystery of matching to come – “Do you think this brown picks up the brown in the carpet ? Or is it too reddy brown ? I have no hope of playing this game. I don’t know the rules and I am also wired wrongly. Studies have shown that men and women differ in what colour differences they can perceive and as a consequence men and women have different colour categories and nouns.
In this area I think expansion of categories is a hindrance rather than a boon and we should start a campaign for real colours. We would permit red, blue, green, yellow, purple and orange but suggest that all the other colours are simple figments of the home-decorating and furnishing industry and banned as fraudulent advertising. Although of a libertarian inclination this is one area in which I could support some increased legislation. Think of the marital disharmony it would prevent and the number of divorces that would be avoided. Think of the errors that could be avoided day-to-day – no longer could somebody be asked to get the taupe cardigan and make a mistake and get the gray one. Bliss.
Strangely I found myself reciting Shakespeare while I fed the chickens and milked the goat this morning. I was happily reminded of this piece as I broke the ice that had formed overnight on the water trough.
When icicles hang by the wall, and Dick the shepherd blows his nail, and Tom bears logs into the hall, and milk comes frozen home in pail, When blood is nipped, and ways be foul, the nightly sings the staring Owl, To-whoo; To-whit, to-whoo, a merry note, while greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost
There is very little Shakespeare that I can remember from my schooldays, even less if I limit myself to verses I can recite from memory. But I am still able to recall the first verse of this poem from ‘Love’s labour’s Lost’. I think it spoke to me in those days before central heating and supermarket shopping. Waking to the ferns of ice on the bedroom windows, puffing to see the mist of your breath, fighting with your brother to stand in front of the fan heater while dressing and finding it impossible to pour the milk over your cereal as the cream had frozen and was pushed out of the top of the bottle. I think I first met this poem on a cold morning in primary school and suddenly understood the authors description of blood being ‘nipped‘, needing to ‘blow your nail‘ and later “Marian’s nose looks red and raw“. I thought then, Shakespeare knew winters as I knew winters and they hadn’t changed much.
The last few morning have been cold. Cold enough to freeze and cold enough to be uncomfortable without gloves. There has been heavy frost but it has not yet been cold enough for icicles. It is nice to get back indoors having done the animals and to stand by the range to warm up. I am so relieved to see this cold weather, I had started to give up hope of getting a good cold spell again. It is difficult to express how happy I am that the weather has turned. I was so happy that it had me reciting poetry to the goat (She thought is was excellen!)
Though the cold is uncomfortable it is a vital part of the season. Each season has its appropriate weather and the cyclical changes we see are the base on which we organise all our agricultural activities. What we grow, where we grow and when we grow it all depends on the seasonal cycles. This includes the colds of autumn and winter. This change is very bit as vital as the warmth that starts in spring. The temperature changes lets the trees know to prepare for autumn. The produce of many plants is produced when the drop in temperature warns the plant of oncoming winter. Further, and very importantly, increasing cold puts an end to the life cycle of a number of bugs.
One of these bugs which is killed is the blowfly. These are the greenbottles, blackbottles and bluebottles which we commonly see through the summer. (The name ‘bottle’ in this case refers to their being ‘bot flies’, and a “bot” is a maggot). These love warm damp weather and proliferate in this. The problem associated with them is that they lay their eggs in the fleece of sheep, these hatch as maggots, which then eat the animal and lay more eggs, which then go on the repeat the cycle. An animal with this is termed “fly struck”. It is a serious, and sometimes, fatal condition. The greenbottles are the primary culprit in this condition, bluebottles only affect animals already struck.
A knowledge of the seasons allows us to prepare for this and to dip or spray our animals with insecticides to protect them from flies during the summer months. But I and many of my neighbours have been caught out this year. Normally our regime works by protecting the animal until the cold wintry months start when the flies have died or are dormant. But this year our disrupted seasons have witnessed unseasonably warm weather right up until to November. This has been associated with damp conditions and the ideal scenario for fly strike. So I and others have found animals attacked by maggots and have had to re-dose animals with insecticides much later in the year than ever before.
We have been warned that, as a consequence of global warming, we would see changes to our seasons. Namely, that in the UK, things would be warmer and wetter. We now see that this warning was accurate In the spring we had droughts, in the summer the sun scorched the fields, hay has become scarce and its price risen, and in late autumn sheep are being troubled by flies that should have passed. These small changes are starting to wreak large and damaging effects. Obviously we will try and deal with these by adapting to them but it is also important that we try and stop them worsening.
Although there may be arguments about what underpins these changes and how much is man-made, the simple fact is that we can only change the things we can change. We can only pull the levers that we have. So it does not matter how we got into this mess it can only be man-made actions that might get us out of it. Unless we patiently wait for a miracle and I don’t think our present behaviour would suggest we deserve one of those.
Now over half of the world’s population live in urban areas where issues such as food production, warmth and shelter are issues related to markets and services rather than nature. This means over half of us will not see the very real changes that are happening to our world. If the changes are seen then the significance of them might be missed. The failure of the cold weather to come and kill greenbottles might not be seen as a problem. It might even be thought of a bonus. But anyone who has seen a animal eaten alive by maggots knows otherwise and that this is a very, very bad omen indeed.
I don’t know how many conversations I have had in the last month about how wonderful our recent weather has been. Probably every time I venture out of the smallholding I meet someone who is enjoying our present heatwave. In the evening, on the television, reporters wax lyrical that we are enjoying higher temperature than ever (even higher than the last record summer in 1976) and illustrate their reports with film of happy sunbathers enjoying ice-creams or sunbathing. But I can’t share the joy.
I can’t share the joy even though I have gone swimming in the sea twice a week recently (and I can assure you swimming in the sea is not something one is able to do often off the coast of North Wales). I can not join in the bonhomie despite the fact that many of the garden flowers are looking spectacularly good this summer and the smells in the garden are wonderful. I can’t get happy despite the schadenfreude that comes form seeing the difference in electricity production between our solar scheme and our neighbours hydro system. Even the recognition that I sheared the sheep just in time doesn’t cheer me. No, despite all these benefits I stay resolutely downhearted. Why ?
I am concerned because this heatwave is a growing problem. For those on mains water, and those living and working in the town, then dry hot weather is no great problem. It is even a boon to their recreation time. The occasional hose-pipe ban may interfere with gardening but the downsides are fairly minor. Those of us who rely on springs for our water and who have to tend for animals, or grow crops, see things very differently.
Our spring emerges from a hill about a mile from the main farm. It supplies us and our neighbours’s stable and cattle. Though the spring still works it has become a shadow of its former self and is now little more than a trickle. As the flow is so slow some of the pipes have become clogged up with silt and we have had to clean them through. The flow is so slow that we have had to avoid using the source. We did explore the area around and looked for alternative sources but there were none. Many of the streams and smaller rivers have dried up. The main brook that runs through our meadows is also very weak. Previously four or five feet wide and about a foot deep it is now no more than 2 feet wide and 6 inches in depth. However, using a petrol water pump it is our main source of water for the foreseeable future. We pump the water from here up to water butts at the farm and then disperse the water.
Now each day starts and ends by shifting water to the animals around the farm. This lets one become painfully aware of the “weight of water” and quickly remember the information from school that 1 litre of water weighs 1 kilogram. Our smaller animals drink about 10 litres a day each and the cattle and horses much more. This is a lot of water to move in buckets. As humans we drink less but consume even more as we like to flush toilets, cook, wash dishes and take showers. So there is a large component of shifting water for ourselves also. In addition to this we need to water the vegetables and the greenhouse if we are to see any crops this year. The only members of the smallholding not calling on us in this time of difficulty are the bees who seem to be enjoying this wonderful weather that has brought so many flowers out in force.
I should perhaps clarify a statement that I made above. This is the question of showers. We no longer take showers at home. The reason we go swimming in the sea is for hygiene rather than pleasure (the jelly fish make sure of that) and if this weather goes on I think there might be a market for shower gel that works well with sea water. This has also been the reason for our visits to the leisure centre as swimming and showers are free to the elderly in the parish
I know that this weather will not persist for ever. Unless this is the beginning of Armageddon then I know we will see rain again. It is impossible to think of North Wales without thinking of rain. But I do fear that these variations in climate are becoming commoner and more worrisome. Extremes in weather were predicted by the models of climate change (though it was also predicted to be wetter on average) and we are going to have to find ways to live with these as well as finding ways to stop them worsening.
Anyway, back to moving water from place to place. I had only intended to write a short note to apologise that I had neglected my blog over the last two weeks. Hopefully, it is now clear that I was neither resting or enjoying this wonderful weather.
Whatever the cause of the climate change we are witnessing it is very clear that over the last decade our seasons have altered. One clear aspect is that, here on the west, it is generally wetter and possibility warmer (though there seems also to be more variability in temperature than before). While this may not be to the benefit of farmers and growers, without altering crops and patterns of management, it is not a disadvantage to everyone. This weather favours some of the insect life which has been much more prolific.
As it is warmer the winters are not as cold, and it seems not cold enough, to kill off the flies and larva as usual. Over the past years we have seen flies in the air right through the winter period and it has felt very strange in December or January to see them still flying about. It was for this reason that we have been much more concerned about fly-strike and our sheep and the reason I was collecting everyone yesterday for their medication. The season where one could expect fly-strike or head fly is now much longer than before.
This is a considerable source of worry. Fly strike, or maggots, is an awful thing to happen to sheep. They are literally eaten alive by maggots. The common risk factors are warm humid weather which favours the flies and the sheep having some scouring (diarrhoea) often associated with the spring grass. The flies lay their eggs on the skin and they hatch out into maggots which then eat the animal causing holes in the flesh which become infected. This process can be extremely fast, a sheep can become seriously ill, and even die, within a day of a fly laying its eggs. It is for this reason that government guidance, and good advice, is to check your sheep daily so as to catch this problem before it becomes severe.
Last year we had a lamb who got maggots in her tail. It first I thought it was just a swelling or bruise on her tail but when I caught her and examined it I was horrified to find maggots. As I parted the cut on her tail it is no exaggeration to say that hundreds of maggots tumbled out. It was like a scene in a David Cronenberg horror film. I debrided the area then cleaned it with antiseptic spray and gave her a shot of long acting antibiotic. I then covered the wound with Stockholm Tar. This is tar made from pine wood (also called archangel tar). It is a thick, black sticky paste which covers an area acting as a flexible and antiseptic bandage. It also had a wonderful medicinal smell. We kept her in the barn for two days during which time she had extra rations to give her strength. Thankfully following this, and much to my surprise, she recovered fully and even regrew hair on that area of her tail eventually.
Another group of insects who enjoy, and benefit from, this warmer wetter weather are the ticks. These arachnids have been getting more of a problem year on year. Though I am aware that, through Lyme Disease and other illnesses, ticks can cause problems for humans, I am more concerned about their effects on animals. The dogs and cats come in most days now with ticks in their fur and now our evenings start with the ceremony of de-ticking and trying to rid the pets of their unwelcome visitors.
My attention to this increase in ticks was piqued this morning when out on my regular ‘Walk rather than die of diabetes and obesity‘ walk this morning. I had slowed down to talk to a neighbour in the lane. Then we both noticed something rather odd. It seemed to be a mouse wearing a hat or tiara.
On closer inspection we found out it was a crowd of ticks on its head like some tortuous crown. About 8 or so hard bodied ticks were sucking and engorged on its head. We dislodged the ticks and liberated the mouse to go on its way. I thought I had done my good deed for the day but later read up about ticks and mice. Mice are common hosts to ticks and indeed are a major vector for tick based illness. However, a long scientific study, conducted over 16 years, has found that ticks are really not that damaging to mice for some reason. Indeed, male mice with high tick burdens live longer than males carrying less ticks !
I am sure the mouse was glad to see the back of its bloodsucking visitors and it did serve to remind me to check the animals tonight and to keep checking the sheep.