Ancient and Modern
Country Diary February 2021-
My wife Clare, son Charlie and I attended the film premiere of “The Dig” on Friday. Admittedly this glittering, star studded event was held in our sitting room. The only celebrity on show was Mabel, our Cocker spaniel, who’s claim to fame is being a four time cover star for the Shooting Times, (which is arguably better grounds for the status of “celeb” than most of the reality TV types I see in the red top newspapers). The three of us dressed up in period clothes, listened to a smattering of tinny old 30’s jazz favourites before thoroughly enjoying this wonderful film, with its beautiful photography that reflected our county so well. Ralph Fiennes was superb, his characterisation of Basil Brown struck a particular chord with me. The old boy came from Rickinghall, just up the road from us. A man with no formal learning, self taught without any degree nor qualification yet clearly an expert in his field. He earned his spurs by getting dirt under his nails and living and breathing his work. Basil both in the film and in real life was treated with a sneering disdain by the “experts”. His years of experience were, to these highly educated elite, of no value and his work was considered dangerous meddling. Basil’s is a story that continues today in the countryside, particularly when it comes to conservation and ecology. All too often the observations, hands on skill and time won knowledge of those of us who work on the land is belittled or neglected by those whose qualifications as naturalists stems from the classroom rather than the field. This is a shame because to my mind one can only truly understand the wildlife in our farmland if you are imbued by that land - knowing the flora and fauna intimately rather than merely by its Latin name. As George Ewart Evans the Suffolk folklorist was at pains to remind his readers it pays to “Ask The Fellows Who Cut the Hay” if you want to know about the countryside and the creatures that live here. Thankfully the charity that I support, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, are not of the snooty ilk. Starting on the 5th, those of us who farm or work on farms will be involved with the Big Farmland Bird Count, counting the birds on our patch. The information we gather will be used by the GWCT to get a sense of the health or otherwise of our farmland birds. It will also help form the guidance that the GWCT give to farmers as to what habitat and management changes they can make on their land for the benefit of British Birds.
At Flea Barn we have been putting some of this learning into practice, we are preparing to sow our wild bird seed mixes, create beetle banks and lapwing plots, floral margins and blocks. We have already planted 4,500 trees in January to create 4 new woodlands and we are now starting work on the hedges- nearly 1 mile of them! The first hedge we are laying is one that would have particularly interested Basil. It sits on the edge of one of our new woodland plantings and is opposite an old moat that was part of a Tudor building on the farm. The building is long gone, just a mark on the old maps but the moat remains and has been renovated. It is now one of the many superb wetland areas on the farm, with plans to do the same to another part of this old water system next year. It plays host to all three British newt species, frogs, toads, dragon flies (including the rare Norfolk Hawker) not to mention mallard, teal, moorhens and the resident kingfisher. Within this hedge sits a mighty oak. The gnarled old girl looks contemporary with the boundary oaks that are found at the Barker’s Westhorpe Lodge Farm, which was once home to Mary Tudor. These boundary oaks were markers that gave a visual “signpost” for labourers and keepers, indicating where one beat started and another ended. As we lay the hedge it is humbling to think of just how many generations of workers this tree has seen toiling away, it is also poignant that at the end of this hedge we are planting a new oak tree. How lovely would it be if in 500 years or so, a hedger pauses from his work to look up into the boughs of our oak to watch the clouds of yellowhammers that use it as a perch, just as I do with this Tudor tree?