It has been a long while since anything was posted concerning our attempts to work with this land on which we live. Silence has been kept through our many and various experiments, which have mainly resulted in disappointment. Of course failure teaches us much about the land, the ecosystem, and ourselves. Perhaps the time has come to briefly review the last 5 or so years. So here is a summary of some of the things we have tried.
The polytunnel is by far and away the most productive space on our land, although it does require a lot of time input. In one sense it is a cheat, since it creates its own eco-bubble, shielded and isolated from the wind, rain, and temperatures outside and intensifying the sun’s heat inside. Temperatures frequently reach the mid-30s, even 40+ degC when outside it is 17-18degC. Of course it is still subject to the same cold at night, day length and sunshine hours, but the difference is sufficient to allow plants to thrive. Nor, of course, is it maintenance free; two years ago we had to replace the plastic covering and most of the wooden frames and doors. That was a lot of work!
All our raw kitchen waste is composted over a year and then spread on the beds in the polytunnel. Throughout the summer, fresh grass cuttings are spread as a 2-3in. mulch over the beds, which is very effective at suppressing weed growth while slowly adding fertility to the soil beneath. We have installed a drip-feed irrigation system that was intended to be driven by harvested rainwater. However, there was insufficient head in the reservoir to drive the water through the pipes, so now it runs off the mains supply. Nevertheless, this allows us to use rings of dry wood ash around young plants as an effective slug deterrent. Lots of strawberries are grown in here, and garlic, leeks, onions, tomatoes, broccoli, courgettes, crooked-neck squash, aji peppers, loads of legumes including peas, sugar snaps, mange-tout, French beans, herbs etc, as well as some flowers. We have a vine in there that is becoming more productive each year – a single gallon of wine is waiting to be bottled, still slowly fermenting. We did have a pond to encourage frogs for slug control but, despite transferring quantities of frogspawn each spring, they rarely took up residence, although there are a few hiding around the place. The pond is now dry.
Outside, we have about 7 apple trees, mostly on (not ideal) dwarfing rootstock that were here when we arrived, and a couple of productive Victoria plums. There are a couple of Bramley eaters, a Chivers, a Falstaff and a few James Greaves. As they blossom at different times it means we usually have a reasonably crop on at least a few of them, although the Chivers, while very tasty, suffers repeatedly from scab, sometimes quite severely. We hold a community apple pressing day each year at the beginning of October for anyone in the area and a number of folk come to that. From our own, and any apples that are given or left over, we make cider using natural yeasts and fermentation, although we do add a keeving stage to produce a medium dry, slightly sparkling cider. This year (2019 harvest) we only have about 20l (~40 bottles) still slowly fermenting in the cool outdoor kitchen, having been racked twice, and waiting to be bottled. It has improved over the years, requiring a degree of commitment to drink the early attempts!
And lots of blackcurrants – they do really well here and are one of the few plants producing edible fruit that need little encouragement. Elderberries used to be harvestable but are now taken by the birds before they have a chance to ripen. We have made wine from these also, although this was more useful as a cooking ingredient!
Jerusalem artichokes grow reasonably well in the outdoor raised beds, as does horseradish and comfrey. Unfortunately the former do not agree with my digestive system, so they continue to grow unharvested! The rhubarb produces abundantly each year as well, thriving in its very sheltered spot behind the tool shed, and giving us a delicious crop for a few months.
We built Hugel beds (after Sepp Holzer – see an earlier post) and tried growing vegetables outside on them, but they were ravaged by caterpillars and we lost everything, despite covering them with netted frames. The asparagus withered in the wet wind, until, several years later, there is one struggling on. The beds have now sunk and the branches in them, which take years to rot down, are an obstacle to planting. They were a lot of work to build and we have not seen any of the claimed benefits.
Last year we had a fantastic crop of hazel/cob nuts on around 10 bushes, almost all of which we planted seven years ago, most nurtured from kernels. It seemed like, at last, something was going to produce in abundance. When we came to harvest in September I found around 5 left, hidden. Grey squirrels had taken the lot before they were even ripe.
We used to have chickens and my wife was very successful at breeding Marans that produced amazing deep brown eggs with a rich orange yolk. So tasty. We gave up about three years ago after almost all of them were killed by stoats and mink, both of which we have seen in our orchard where the chickens roamed. We had endured stoats and foxes over the years, and built a large netted enclosure, both to keep the chickens safe from them and the crows from entering the shed and stealing the eggs (we saw them flying out with eggs in their beaks! Each day they would listen for the hens clucking, signalling another egg had been laid, and land on the roof of the shed, watching to ensure no-one was around, before hopping down and in through the hatch. Such clever birds!). But then the stoats found a way in under the floor and gradually diminished the flock, severing heads from bodies.
We also built and stocked a fish pond (~40yds x 25yds x 9ft) that we are managing naturally and trying to encourage wildlife. The idea was permaculturally based, looking at the land and our climate, and thinking how could we work with it to produce food in a gentle way. We have an abundance of clay and rain = pond = fish. After much research we settled on a combination of species. It was stocked with common carp (omnivorous, abundant and edible, but not very flavoursome) and perch (carnivorous to keep carp population healthy and balanced, small but very tasty) to establish a beneficial, competitive ecosystem, non-breeding grass carp (for weed management), and swan mussels (for water filtration). We have seen some great successes with an abundance of damsel flies, dragonflies, even emperor dragonflies, frogs, toads and newts breeding. We have now well established reed beds (Phragmites australis) and rush beds (Typha latifolia), which has gloriously resulted in sedge warblers taking up breeding residence for the last two years. And otters. These have absolutely decimated our fish population to the extent there is now nothing left. I have spent hours watching for fry, or any signs of fish life. Nothing now for the last two years. So demoralising. The pond is now overcrowded with thick, suffocating carpet of bog pondweed (Potamogeton polygonifolius). The otters don’t visit any more, either…
We kept a couple of old sows for a number of years, one British Saddleback (Rosy) and the other a Gloucester Old Spot/Tamworth? cross (Ginger). The hope was they would eat/uproot the rushes (Juncas effusus), which saturate our land, and prepare it for planting without using fossil fuel. Another permacultural idea. They were delightful characters with whom I loved spending time, and who equally delighted in human company! But the land became an utter quagmire over the winter, lost any sense of soil structure, and all the rushes remained untouched. The pigs were so unhappy sinking into the cold mud. Of course we had to feed them as there was no nutrition in the land and we have no oak trees for acorns. That was very expensive, and as their nutritional requirements are virtually the same as ours only on a much larger scale, made little sense in seeking a sustainable system for living. So we kept them effectively as pets for several years before saying goodbye to them. They were getting elderly, still in good health, but there were occasional signs of arthritis, and we couldn’t afford to feed them, so we had them peacefully slaughtered here on site and they knew nothing about it. We had them butchered but the meat was not great – pork is still seldom on our menu now!
I tried Fukuoka’s ideas for planting wheat (One Straw Revolution) by placing reclaimed cardboard boxes spread out over rushes and grass, embedding the seeds in small balls of soil and spreading them over the cardboard (~20yds x 5yds), covering with manure, compost and soil, topped with 8 inches of scythed and dried rushes. But I was being watched by the corvids. Each morning I would come out and find 20-30 crows, rooks, jackdaws and pigeons sifting through my plot. Despite attempts to chase them off, needless to say, nothing grew. Except the rushes under the cardboard, which pushed back through. Another attempt crossed off the list!
People that know say beans and oats are the best things to grow on heavy, wet soil. Tried it. Nothing. Same with potatoes – plant one, get one! Carrots. Peas. Even turnips! Trying to get anything to grow above hand-dug plot scale in a small field has been a fruitless exercise. Other locals say their grandfathers said nothing will grow north of Hethersgill apart from rushes! Seems they were right.
We have tried so many different techniques with respect to planting, growing, nurturing, but it seems this land has a reluctance to produce anything edible. We have attempted agroforestry, and indeed still have a lot of willow growing, but animals and trees don’t mix until the trees are well established and out of reach of the animals. In the meantime, protecting them from the browsers is very expensive.
We’ve been trying to keep bees in a ‘barefoot’ manner for around 10 years now, (Top Bar Hives, and more recently in Langstroth and Nationals) and they, too, struggle to survive without intervention. I’ve tried Carniolan, British Black and Buckfast bees at different times. I’ve taken maybe 10lbs of honey from them in that time and I’ve lost count of how many colonies have died through the years. Perhaps it’s because the forage is so poor in this area? Perhaps we, as westerners, have overbred our bees and they are now so inbred they have lost the ability to naturally adapt to changing climates? I suspect my one remaining colony (Buckfast) will not have survived this winter as it was so weak at the end of last season. My other colony shockingly starved to death in August last year after I took some honey from them in July – it was too late when I realised and tried to feed them. Who would have thought that was possible in late summer…
Forest gardens are another failed effort, and this list goes on… We have a very particular mix of heavy, poorly draining clay soils (even with field drains installed), a lot of rain and wind, short growing seasons and relatively low summer temperatures that poses a unique challenge. We’re still working on trying to find what works here – apart from rushes and native trees (willow, birch, alder etc), that will provide us with a sustainable food source while being a blessing to creation and allowing it to thrive.
So at the moment we are left with a small flock of Shetland sheep and an ageing Haflinger pony. The sheep are hardy, small, and with wonderful fleeces which we shear by hand (about 3/4 hr per sheep, compared to the 6 minutes of the professionals!). However, because the land is so wet, we have to give them a rotating cocktail of flukicide every six weeks to try and prevent them contracting liver fluke, which is carried in snails eggs and ingested when sheep eat infected grass. We would rather not do this, but two of our three pregnant ewes lost their lambs two years ago because of it, while the third very nearly died after giving birth because she was so weakened by the disease. So routine fluking is essential to help them survive. The reward, however, is the joy of seeing new lambs skipping and chasing each other around the fields each spring, and the best and tastiest lamb in the country 18 months later! Grass does grow here, much more productively than vegetables or plant-based proteins, and sheep are the most efficient way of converting this into an edible food accessible to us all year. Vegetarianism, it seems, becomes more of a consumer lifestyle choice the further north one lives, rather than a way of living from the land, as exemplified in the extreme case of those living inside the Arctic Circle, where the diet is almost entirely meat based.
So we seem to have come full circle round to the way the land is managed here by the local farmers, although still not using herbicides and fertiliser. But even growing grass requires the use of a tractor to harrow out the moss in the spring, cut back the rushes several times a year to allow the grass to find the light, and to cut for hay in our short windows of anticipated dry weather. It takes five days of sun to kill the grass once cut to make hay – a rare phenomenon here, and impossible to do on your own by hand. So, it seems, a tractor (and thus fossil fuel) is essential just to keep sheep.
This winter’s excitement revolves around a barn owl that has taken to roosting here. We have seen it a couple of times but have discovered fresh barn-owl pellets at several locations around our barns. We are very much hoping they will take up residence in one of our two barn-owl boxes. We are watching with the aid of a wildlife camera to verify.
And so we carry on, in search of a way to be a blessing to this land while being blessed by it, as St Cuthbert did before us…