Letter to a small boy

Dear Tom,

By the time you are old enough to read this, the world will have spun on through several years of change. I hope that some of the changes will be good, and on your farm, with your Dad driving things the way he is, I believe that they will be. Change is happening in the countryside all the time and at an alarming rate. Such a lot is different from when I was your age. My lifetime probably seems long to you but it doesn’t feel it, and if time is as long as the universe my lifetime is shorter than a grass seed.

I grew up on my Grandfather’s farm on the edge of Exmoor, catching fish in the stream, which is like a beck, with cuckoo and curlew calling all summer and dozens of swallows nesting in the barn. At night, when I was sent to bed, I always liked to read a book before I fell asleep. I still do. I remember having to keep the window closed until I was ready to turn off the light, otherwise the room would fill with insects.

But things changed. Now, with the light shining out into the night, I can leave the window open for hours and only a few insects come in. Too few to matter. That makes reading at night easier, of course, but it is worrying because so many wild animals and birds eat insects and if they cannot find enough they will not live here. That may be one of the reasons why there are fewer fish in the stream and why fewer birds sing. The dawn chorus is still tuneful but it used to be thundering! There are only one or two swallows’ nests now, we are lucky if we hear a cuckoo once in a summer and we have not heard a curlew for years.

These losses have been so fast and they make the valley a less joyful place than it was when I was a child. I am sad because my niece and nephew grew up without knowing those things and I worry about what else may be lost by the time they have children of their own.

Flowers cannot grow without insects to pass pollen between them before they can set seed, and many insects depend upon flowers for the pollen and nectar they feed on. Insects need flowers and flowers need insects – we cannot have one without the other. Both seeds and insects are important food for songbirds, bats, shrews, mice and lots of small creatures which, in their turn, become food for owls, kestrels, foxes, weasels and so on. It is an enormous and complex web. Take away any part of it, especially a part near the bottom, and it all begins to collapse.

But this web of life is also important for people. More important, even, than the joy of living amongst the beauty of nature. We need farms to produce food but without insects to pollinate flowers, the fruit and vegetables and many crops we depend on will not be able to grow. Today, in this country food is cheap and plentiful and we cannot imagine real hunger, but it could happen. We are all part of the web of life and to allow its destruction would be an act of suicidal madness.

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I have just spent three lovely summer days on your farm. With your Dad and some other friends, we walked up the fell behind your house and looked down over the Matterdale valley and across to all the fells beyond. It is glorious. The next day we sat by the ghyll and your Dad pointed out where his Grandad had shown him a buzzard’s nest when he was a young boy. As I write this letter, buzzards still nest there and I hope that they will be there for you to show to your children and grandchildren.

We walked through your fields and looked at the damp pasture along the beck and at the mowing grass. There were many different grasses and lots of wildflowers. A hare went bounding away and we saw leverets, baby hares with silky ears and downy fur. The hayfield smelled as good as new baked bread, hummed with insects and was full of colour. Your Dad has plans to encourage yet more wild flowers which will make the farm an even better place for insects. The birds will like that.

The farm is also a good place for sheep and your Dad let us see his fine tups (I think he was very proud of them) and showed us how cleverly the dogs push a group of ewes and lambs through a hog hole, like a doorway in a wall. 

There would not be many flowers without grazing animals. They eat down the biggest grasses that would otherwise take over, and they provide the reason for haymaking, so that they can be fed in winter (and perhaps win prizes in the autumn!) So, managed well, as they are here, sheep are also good for flowers and insects.

Your farm has all the right features to be a really great place for wildlife and for sheep. When you grow up, I’m sure that the pressures of the times will mean you and your brother and sisters have to change some things but I hope that you will want to keep this important balance and I hope the Government will give us a system that allows you to do so at the same time as being able to pay the bills. I would like to think that your children and nephews and nieces can also see these wonders.

Life is all about change and we cannot avoid it, nor should we try to, because that’s what life is. All we can do is to try to steer it on the right bearing. Your generation will know more than people of mine do now and that knowledge, tempered with a little wisdom, will help you find the path.

It was a real privilege to come to see your farm and I shall always remember it. When you have lived in a place all your life it is sometimes hard to see how special it is, but you will not have to travel far away to realise that your farm is really very special indeed. I should love to see what changes the years have brought to your farm by the time you are old enough to want to read this.

With love and blessings,

Michelle.

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