What Happened to Our Countryside ?

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Do you remember those summers when we woke to a dawn chorus so crashingly loud we were enveloped in it, the singers too many to distinguish, their innumerable woodnotes composed into one rich chord, gloriously intense, breathtakingly powerful? Cuckoos and curlews bubbled their calls across the valley and flocks of peewits rose on black and white wings above the quietly grazing cattle. Do you remember when busy sparrows argued around the eaves of every house and swallows thronged the beams in high roofed barns? Can you remember wading through wildflowers in hay meadows buzzing with insects, bright with butterflies, humming with bees? Or driving along the narrow lanes on a summer night when the moths in the headlamps were as thick as snowflakes in a blizzard? We had to clean the mess of splattered insects off the windscreen after every journey. Do you remember?

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An Exmoor squall

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The moorland valley reverberated with the roar. A primeval utterance echoing from cleave to cleave as if emanating from the belly of the earth. It was answered by another from the far side of the combe and there was a distant third from away down the valley. The wind was shaken by their power.

The big stag was stained black by the peat he soiled in, his shaggy neck was massive and he carried an impressive weaponry on his head. His heavily beamed antlers were tined rights, seven and eight atop, the points palmated and the tips blunted with age. When he roared other stags quailed before his majesty.

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Picking blackberries

Take a child blackberry picking. If you do not have any children of your own you may be able to borrow some from friends or relatives, they are unlikely to suffer much harm beyond a few scratches. It is so much fun and picking blackberries is such a good lesson.

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There is a bumper crop this year, brambles everywhere are bowed under the weight, and they are so glorious it is a pity not to take the opportunity to enjoy sweet, wild fruit from the hedges

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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.

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Bluebell woods

I walked up through the woods this afternoon. It had been a busy morning and what had been planned as a lunchtime walk didn’t happen until after three o’clock but however tightly packed my diary, whatever the pressures of the day, I was determined to find a little time to escape to the woods.

Summer is just unfolding and the ancient woodlands in fresh, young leaves have reached that perfect ephemeral balance of greenness and light. Patches of bluebells swam like water below the trees on either side of the track. Birds were busy everywhere, carrying innumerable small morsels to constantly hungry mouths.

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Spring run

In my work as a farm advisor, spring is the busiest time of the year. It is not busy in a way that feels satisfyingly productive, but in a frustrating struggle of over commitment and hampered progress as I help farmers to make their annual Basic Payment Scheme  claims, working with a system that, though designed for farmers, requires the work to be done at lambing time and on-line, which for many farmers is difficult, if not impossible. Some farmers do not have computers and quite a lot of remote farms cannot access an adequate broadband connection. A high level of accuracy is demanded, there is a tight deadline and, when the system does not work as it should, remaining calm and unruffled can be challenging. I try to work on the run but end up wading through a snagging, tripping tangle of red tape.

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Snow and celandines

All day the snow fell. So softly, with such obliterating silence, it slowly covered the world. Fields were blanketed, every branch and twig thickly clad in whiteness, insulated against colour, against life. Boughs bent, hedges buckled under the weight and all form was lost. Colour was obliterated too and land and sky were one, indivisible monochrome. Only when looking cloudwards could the flakes be seen, pale grey against the grey-white sky, as they fluttered down towards my upturned face. Each one a unique formation of tiny crystals, yet all joined in one ubiquitous mass smothering the earth.

Yet, just as snow obliterates sound and colour, it also obliterates mud and mess. The poached field, the oozing dungheap and muddy gateways were all lost below the clean cold. No vehicles passed and there was no one about – no keepers, no farmers, no dog walkers. All driven away by the deepening snow. The emptied world is cleansed and made new in virgin purity by this soft eyelash-closing redemption, throwing a lace veil over the trees. A benediction.

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