Farming, Flowers and Flutterbys

Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man. (Vladimir Nabokov)

Our postie, John, told me an amazing story the other day. Out on his deliveries driving along Stanegate – the old Roman road that linked Vindolanda and Corbridge – he encountered its martial spirit in an unexpected way. Surprised by an odd undulating movement ahead he brought his van to a halt. What he’d witnessed was a weasel escorting her young kits across the road. The fearless jill came up to the driver’s side and sat up on her back legs, stock still, watching him with a ‘don’t you dare open that door’ look. A few seconds more, turning to check her brood were all safely across, she turned tail and vanished into the hedgerow after them.

The Texel tups have been taken off our crags after a long residence and the ewes and their fat lambs let loose to graze and fertilize the newly mown emerald green meadow over the wall. I’ll miss the rams for their utility in consuming waste green material we’d no room to compost. They were such unfussy eaters and the ready meal packages of fresh grass cuttings in particular always appealed. As soon as I got the mower out they came up to the fence, ready to snack.

Exactly a year ago our garden meadow was radiant with red poppies. This year there’s ne’er a one but instead it’s bursting with marguerite daisies. Such unexpected succession planting, with different germination patterns playing out, makes for constant interest. What will dominate, or appear for the first time, next year? We’ve never had so many yellowrattle flowering before as we have this year and that should affect future grass fertility as they seed and spread.

Our local plant nursery, operating seasonally from the old walled garden of an estate house, closed recently on the retirement of the nurseryman. We turned up to buy some interesting plants in the weekend sale. My choice was this handful of orchids which I’ve  slotted into different parts of the meadow. I’ll be watching out next year to see how they have subsequently fared.

The market town’s annual book festival is always a treat. Kim & I spent an enjoyable hour listening to James Rebanks in conversation in the exuberant surroundings of the speigeltent, pitched outside the abbey. JB comes from a long line of Lakeland farmers and his home patch of Matterdale has in recent years been quietly transformed with the help of a small army of volunteers and advisers into a model environmentally sustainable hill farm. Former canalised water courses re-aligned and allowed to wander to help prevent flood prevention further downstream in towns and villages; hedges, woods and walls restored to boost nature and restore declining native species that were once common; favouring hay over silage to restore balance with nature. Restoring mixed rotational farming practice integrating (belted galloway) cattle, (herdwick) sheep and crops to underpin and develop soil health…Lots of small actions that add up to something big and meaningful. It’s subsidy driven, and profit margins remain low. Luckily for JB he has another income source to support his wife and family of four young children – writing.

The Shepherds Life (2015) and English Pastoral (2020)have deservedly gained its author an impressive reputation. An authentic individual thinker, James Rebanks analytical insight and lived experience as husbandman and shepherd might come as a revelation to most of the 99% of the population who do not make their direct living from the land. He writes – as he spoke to us that evening – with terse lyricism, mixing anecdote with observation, recollection with revelation, disarmingly honest and prescient.

English Pastoral unfolds its powerful narrative in three parts, and in mood and tempo it’s something akin to a pastoral symphony. The first section (Nostalgia) reveals the rural world Rebanks grew up in from his birth in 1974, peppered with telling portraits of family, especially his grandfather, whose Lakeland farm he would eventually inherit. The second chapter (Progress) deals with the drastic changes brought about by the wholesale industrialisation of farming to secure a cheap food agenda, and the widespread consequences. The third section (Utopia) restores hope and explores interconnected ways back to true sustainability in food production and farming’s re-integration with nature and the wider landscape.

Another day and a late afternoon stroll up the lane to revisit sights I’d only but glimpsed from the bike earlier. Road works of recent years, resurfacing and clearing or putting in of drainage ditches has – as I suspected at the time – opened up the wayside to new plant possibilities. I stopped to admire the colour combinations of these three common grassland perenniels at the nearest passing place.

Particularly love the lavender blue flowers of the harebell. Their numbers have definitely increased along the dry poor soil margins where deep but narrow ditch meets lush grass verge. Likewise, there’s seems to be more lesser stitchwort about as they like dry meadows and grassy places too. As the name implies the folk medicine canon had a place for it as relief from the pain of a stitch. Surprised to learn that the pretty white flowers only last three days. Luckily, the plant is a prolific producer through the summer months. The delicate looking flowers (only five petals but heavily indented so appear as ten) float serenely above the ditch, reinforcing its star like imagery. Most obvious though is the frothy yellow presence of ladies bedstraw, which is another coloniser of the mini-cliff face here. A hardy perennial of grassland it gives off a subtle scent somewhere between honey and hay. Traditionally the plant was used to strew floors and stuff mattresses, as its astringent qualities deterred fleas and was thought to aid safe delivery for women in childbirth. The dense clusters of tiny yellow flowers were used in cheese making apparently as a coagulate of milk and that the original Double Gloucester owes its rich colouring to the plant!

Returning home from photographing the flowers something caught in the corner of my vision…a moth? Turned and followed its tiny form along the wayside. The fluttering creature finally alighted briefly and I managed to snatch this image before it flew off again. A butterfly. But which one? A dive in a reference book provided the answer. I’d been privileged enough to encounter a small blue. It has widespread UK distribution but is very localised, and sad to say, in serious decline. The small blue is the country’s smallest resident butterfly, whose food plant is kidney vetch and its relatives found in unimproved pastures. Colonies are often only a few dozen in numbers although it can increase to a few hundred in favourable conditions. I thought I saw another on my walk before identifying this one so we may well have a small colony in the grassland and waste places hereabouts. Let’s hope so.

Correction. Having dropped a line to charity Butterfly Conservation.org today, accompanied by the butterfly image above, I was disappointed to learn it was not a Small Blue but rather a Ringlet butterfly I’d seen. Oh well, can’t win ’em all. Lovely creature to spot anyway, and a timely reminder to check more thoroughly before publishing in future!

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