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For How Much Longer?

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 It’s a cool damp morning framed by bleating sheep and the smell of bracken. Plodding up the hillside I am looking for boot-marks in the boggy ground amongst the white flags of cotton grass. They should have gone this way a couple of hours before me.

Cresting the ridge the wind spits rain into my face, making my eyes water. I am relieved I had the good sense to put on plenty of layers, which didn’t really seem necessary when I left home. The cloud is lifting, thank goodness, so I am able to scan the huge expanse of moorland and bog spread out in front of me. I can’t see any sheep, or people, which is a bit worrying. I have come up here to watch one of my neighbours ‘gather’ the sheep from his mountain-land and take them down to the farm for shearing. He should be ahead of me somewhere. Eventually I spot some sheep on the drier ground about a mile away and, encouragingly, a few are in single file heading slowly downhill.

Gradually the sheep coalesce into lines, like milk trickling slowly into the bowl of dead ground behind the ridge to my right – then the place is empty again. Sitting in the heather, idly eating bilberries, I watch a kestrel slide out over the great expanse of bog, which is being swept by weak patches of sunlight. You might think this remote, wind-torn landscape is untouched, the very essence of wildness, but sheep have been sculpting it for hundreds of years. As the writer Roger Deakin put it so aptly “they keep the contours… clear, sharp and well defined, like balding picture-restorers constantly at work on every detail.” On a nearby crag I can see a single yellow flower of goldenrod clinging to the one place the sheep can’t reach; a whisper of what might be if the incessant nibbling were to cease.

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After about an hour the sheep still haven’t reappeared so I begin retracing my steps in case they have got round behind me. Sure enough, a long line of ewes and lambs are snaking slowly across the hillside below me and bottlenecking at a gate. Up to my left a man with two dogs is slowly descending the hillside, whistling to the sheep, urging them forward. There is a cacophony of bleating as the ewes try to stay in touch with their lambs in the jostle. At the gate I meet my neighbour with his brother and grown-up son, plus eight sheep dogs. He explains to me that they have been taking it slowly, “if you don’t hurry them you will get the job done quicker in the end” – because the ewes are less likely to lose their lambs and go looking for them. These sheep are following a path of their own making over many generations and the men are in their grandfathers’ footsteps. These are the only paths here, ground into the hillside by the feet of countless sheep and attendant boots. Although the men have been walking for hours over rough terrain they are still moving easily, almost strolling through the bracken and across bogs. In full waterproofs and wellingtons (but bareheaded, surprisingly) they have the casual ease of people in their element. They have known sheep farming since they were boys and their expertise is palpable.

It is the continuity, the steadiness through time that strikes me. In a febrile week of politics following the Brexit vote, when our world seems in turmoil, it is reassuring to walk with these men following traditional rhythms and routes. Yet even here politics colour perception: no hill-farmer can stay in business these days without EU subsidies. For how much longer will sheep and men follow these paths at the edges of British agriculture?

 

 

Not Just a Load of Old Lentils

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photo: Elen Elias

 Rounding the bend in the road we let out a collective ‘WOW’ for spread out below us was a view as beautiful as it was desolate. It looked more like Tibet than central Italy. Ringed by the snow-streaked mountains of the Sibillini National Park was a dead-flat high altitude plain known as the Piano Grande. Apart from some high level patches of beech forest, whose tender new leaves had been scorched brown by a late frost, there was not a bush or tree in sight. Standing there in the cool mountain air this place seemed empty and forgotten.

Motoring down into the valley two things were immediately striking: its flatness and the chirping of thousands of crickets. The plain was once a glacial lake which has left behind a soft alluvial soil, and the crickets, whose burrows were everywhere, were confined to it like frogs to a pond. This deep soil is highly fertile and for many years farmers have grown lentils here, which are famous in Umbria and named after the village at the far end of the valley – lenticchie di Castellucio. No artificial fertilisers or herbicides are used in their cultivation; whether by preference or regulation, I am not sure. This, plus the limey soil and mountain climate produces a fabulous display of wild flowers, which bloom in the fallow and harvested areas, as well amongst the crops. It was these that had brought us here.

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From afar the plain appeared only green with some distant bands of yellow but as we walked out on to it the flowers were all around our feet. On the drier ground were countless grape hyacinths, yellow and purple mountain pansies and deep blue gentians. Further out, where it was wetter, thousands of white narcissi mixed with yellow tulips, whose pointed petals were tipped with orange. Scattered amongst them were deep purple green-winged orchids. Standing in this sea of flowers, ringed by mountains with skylarks pouring out their song overhead felt like a version of heaven. Later in the short season this plain will be washed with deep reds and blues from the next round of flowers to be painted onto the valley floor. It is a rare thing to witness such wild profusion.

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On the valley sides we could see two flocks of sheep being moved slowly forward by shepherds and their dogs. It seems remarkable that in twenty-first century Western Europe there are still shepherds following their flocks in that age old biblical way. The sheep were gradually converging on a narrow valley where a thoroughly modern solution to sustaining the ancient system of transhumance (moving to the mountains for seasonal grazing) was arranged: a section of hillside was enclosed by an electric fence to pen the sheep at night, two modern caravans for the shepherds and 4×4 vehicles to tow them completed a set-up that could easily be moved to another part of the valley for fresh grazing. I was particularly interested to see the dozen large Maremma dogs at the camp, as this breed, indigenous to central Italy, is kept to defend the flock at night from the attacks of wolves. The wolf population in Italy, as in many areas of Europe, has been increasing in recent years.

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The hilltop village of Castellucio at the other end of the valley had a distinctly end-of-the-line, frontier feeling. Framed against the bare mountains the ancient buildings and tourist shacks looked more like Nepal than Western Europe. Local people told us they have 10 months of winter here; it had snowed two nights previously. The picturesque village, with narrow winding streets climbing up to the church has only eight remaining permanent residents, and some of those are here for obscure tax reasons apparently. The rest of the houses are holiday homes mostly used in the short summer season.

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The Piano Grande seems a vivid example of our ever changing relationship with the land: rural depopulation as people leave for the towns, an increase in wolves as livestock farming declines, trekking and wildflowers as seasonal tourist attractions. I wonder how much longer sheep will be brought up here for the summer grazing? If that should stop perhaps spontaneous reforestation of the mountainsides will be next, and bears will follow.

 

 

Toads in a Hole

 

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 Even in the spring sunshine this quarry gives me the creeps. A huge hole in the ground, its hacked-out walls still bare and dripping a hundred years on.

The sun is hot on my back for the first time this year; I feel overdressed in my winter gear. A peacock butterfly flits away from my casting shadow as I follow the rough path down to the bottom. A faint whiff of coconut from the flowering gorse is a comfort. With frightening suddenness a military jet roars low overhead and the noise, amplified in the bowl of the quarry, has me cowering and covering my ears.

Under a dripping overhang the height of a parish church, a five-foot high, black-mouthed tunnel disappears into the hillside – God knows where too. I try to imagine dragging slate out of that forbidding hole day after day. Somebody has been burning plastic rubbish near the entrance. The quarrymen wouldn’t have known what plastic was. A wren belting out his song from a sallow bush is pumped up to Pavarotti volume in here – which no doubt pleases him.

Amongst the bushes is a shallow pool that has all the charm of a large puddle on a construction site. Graffiti scratched by bored teenagers or besotted lovers decorates the slate blocks littered around it. The bottom of the pool is strewn with slate debris covered in algal slime. Nothing else grows there. Several pale brown newts wriggle away to hide under stones, as if shunning the light. I am puzzled by four perfectly synchronised brown marks twitching across the underwater rubble. Eventually it dawns on me that they are the shadows of depressions in the water’s surface made by a pond skater’s feet. These insects truly can walk on water.

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In the water on the far side of the pool I find what brought me here: toads, dozens of them. Some are scrabbling for an amorous grip on overwhelmed females. Others are hanging motionless in the water, as if caught in amber for a thousand years. They seem oblivious of my presence. Lines of spawn criss-cross amongst them, like tape spelling out their DNA code. There are dead and half-dead ones drifting amongst them. Why do they come back to this God forsaken place each year to spawn? Yet somehow they match the quarry in their cold-bloodedness; mindless and blind to everything except reproduction in this hole in the ground. It is like some post-apocalyptic glimpse of what life might look like after we have gone.

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Nature in its Place

 

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Although the wind is sharp the sun warms my face and there is a sprinkling of blossom on the ancient plum trees. The bank in front of me is bright with celandines and clumps of primroses. It looks like spring, although it doesn’t yet feel like it.

I am on a regular visit to a Victorian country house and estate near Brecon, now used as a retreat centre amongst other things. Recently the grounds have been ‘taken in hand’ and there has been a good deal of tidying up. Over the winter the tall hedge along the drive has been cut down. I remember the holly blue butterflies and hoards of other insects that fed on the ivy flowers last autumn, and the pink tinged hawthorn blossom in the spring. Perhaps they thought it looked untidy. The drifts of planted daffodils swaying along the side of the drive would gladden any heart but in a week or two they will be gone, replaced by mown grass for the other ten months of the year. The mowing here now extends to acres, having recently taken in some rough grassland rich in wild flowers and insects. These enormous lawns set the house off in a kind of stately monotony, which the management must find attractive.

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Walking back towards the house I can hear a little grebe on the lake trilling melodramatically, as if in fear of its life. A pair of ravens are rolling and flipping over the tall trees above the drive – probably they are nesting there. Right in the top of a sycamore a chiffchaff is belting out its repetitive song. I heard the first one only two days ago and already the sound is fading from my attention back into the general soundscape. It does seem extraordinary that this little bird, whose weight would barely register in the palm of my hand, may have just flown 3000 miles from Senegal, or some other West African country. I doubt I could walk the 10 miles from here to Brecon.

This estate is, in many ways, rich in wildlife. It has the largest breeding colony of lesser horseshoe bats in Britain, there are otters on the river – I once saw one run across the lawn here. Sand martins nest in the riverbank and last autumn I saw hornets feeding on sap running down an old oak, they are an uncommon sight in Wales. I have also found the beautiful pink waxcap fungi – in the mown grass.

Beyond the house I come to a 500 year old sweet chestnut tree that I pay homage too each time I visit. All gnarls and goitres it emanates accumulated history. It was already here when Shakespeare was writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As a non-native species it was probably planted, no doubt by somebody of ‘wealth and taste’, long before the present mansion was built. If only that had half the elegance of this old tree. I notice there has been some careful pruning; this tree, along with other veterans here, is being carefully looked after.

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Later in the afternoon I find myself tutting over some of the estate’s ‘derelict’ woodland: close spindly trees with a rampant understory of laurel and rhododendron. From there I go poking about amongst the crumbling buildings of the Home farm. Perversely I find this dereliction attractive and take photographs of a broken door and an old water wheel. There is also an enormous walled garden, except that it is now just a wall, enclosing the same field inside and out.

All of this got me thinking about how we like things to look a certain way. Most of my own concerns, based on values of naturalness and native species, would probably go unnoticed by the majority of people. Many will delight in the gracious lawns and banks of swaying daffodils. It seems we prefer nature tamed or even excluded around our houses and public spaces. Much of my own garden is given over to nature but I can’t quite bring myself to leave sections of the boundary hedge untrimmed for the benefit of birds and insects. It just looks too untidy! So I have some understanding for the managers of this estate.

Tidying up invariably leads to a subtle impoverishment of living organisms, most of them too small to get noticed. Variety is essential to any ecosystem. Without it the web of life gets hollowed out until, like the walled garden, it is little more than a ghost of what was originally there. Could we allow a little more tangle, rough grass and thicket in our private and public spaces? Such habitats are now in surprisingly short supply in the countryside.

As I leave a van from a pest control firm has pulled over on the side of the drive. A grim faced man is standing over a solitary molehill in a wide expanse of mown grass. It seems this small pile of brown earth is not acceptable and the mole will have to be destroyed. And this is in an establishment which is strictly vegetarian, where you may not even bring a hen’s egg onto the premises. It seems we will go a long way to achieve what ‘looks nice’.