An Almanac of Anger and Hope

I don’t know at what point the melancholy strikes and despair seeps in, but I am sure there is a pattern: a seasonal almanac of frustration and bitterness.

Chalk grassland, rarer than rainforest, has been overgrazed for another year, resulting in no flowers so far, since April:  fewer butterflies, bees and other insects and all the birds that hunt them.

Only the first roadside metre of verges are being mown – a welcome concession. Yet still it is done where it is not needed, where natural growth is low and visibility good.  Pyramidal orchids, twayblade, broomrape and scabious (plants it is illegal to pick) lie in severed swathes. A self-heating mulch that kills twice over: the heaped sward encourages more nettles and docks that outcompete those remaining on the bank.

The agronomist walks the crop with the farmer, planning further spraying. Nothing flies up around them as they walk into the silent wobble of a heat-haze. Around most fields there are 9m stewardship strips of glorious wildflowers. But around each field too, is a 10 or 20m strip of close-mown grass, formerly swaying with insects. It is not made for hay. It is not a gallop, no one has access to it or uses it. Again, the mulch sits on top, feeding nettles so that next year, a spray will be needed. It’s a stupid, pointless, damaging cycle.

On a walk, visiting family declare the landscape stunning (it is).  How green! There must be harvest mice in the fields! No, I say. This field, like most others, is a factory floor, a sterile laboratory!  I love the country here, profoundly. But it is broken.

I rally, showing them 4sqm of thistles and knapweed around a gateway, by way of explanation. It boils with bees, hoverflies, scarlet tiger moths, skippers, marbled white, meadow brown, comma, tortoiseshell and even brown argus butterflies. Yet by the following afternoon, that too is gone. Chopped, tidied away – and all the bright insects gone with it.

These fragments are scattered like the last pieces of a jigsaw we’ve lost the picture to and can’t make sense of, too many of the pieces lost. The picture, if we remember it, might look like something out of an old Ladybird book, from the ‘50’s or 60’s; just after things began to go so wrong. All hail then, the farmers who do things well. Do a difficult balancing act of providing food with a light touch on pest and herbicides, that leave or create areas for wildlife, that prove that it can be done.

An evening walk on Lambourn downs and fish and chips between the gallops and Sheepdrove’s organic, poppied fields sets me right again. A pair of barn owls the colour of wheatfields are hunting; their flight light as moths in the cool air.

While we have nature left, and good people who care for it, allow for it, know its value and encourage it in myriad ways, there is hope.

And hope is the thing with feathers after all.

Nicola Chester


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