Field Studies #06

A Midday Dawn | We have Christmas presents to deliver for friends in Luddenden, a tributary valley five miles downstream. We could make life easy for ourselves and cycle down the canal towpath, but we opt to make a day of it and cross the moor that separates us on foot. From town we bully up through Nutclough, where a dipper is hurriedly panning for a meal in the shallow water of the silted reservoir before an excitable dog sees it off. Above Law Lane we climb through deserted pastures, into which starlings tumble from the telegraph wires, while further along the line a kestrel hunches its back to us. Once we are able to move on from the iced puddles on Little Moor, which delay our progress while my son shatters their crusts with his walking stick, we soon complete our 1000-feet ascent to the trig point above Sheep Stones Edge. A succession of southern horizons drift into the distance, each sailing on a stratum of mist, and above the furthest there is the lambent glow of a dawn sky at midday. A kestrel hovers against this backdrop, while a skein of sixty pink-footed geese traverses it, the second bugling flock we have seen today. We stop for a snack and a chat with the only other walker we are to see all day, who struggles to wrest a sizeable nine-month old puppy under control and ruefully admits that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. We hurry on, stopping only to look over at the site of Nelmires, once home to the co-operative pioneer Joseph Greenwood, its remaining stones assembled into a makeshift barn beside its old sheltering sycamores. We find offerings perched atop the standing stone of Churn Milk Joan; one a standard of local custom at this spot, the silver coin, the other – a cherry gall that should be buried in the leaf litter of an oakwood – more idiosyncratic. On the rise to Crow Hill we break into a rare run to generate some warmth. It works, and he sprawls breathless on the summit cairn and declares it a bed. On its gentle slopes we come across a 10-acre field, its walls long since broken down but its vegetation still markedly different to the heather moorland which entirely surrounds it. I can think of no other utterly isolated island pasture in the moorland like this. It strikes me almost as a folly, an impression reinforced by the remains of what must have been a small, stone-built shelter in the middle of the field. We drop down off the moor into our friend’s valley, which, being out of the patch we typically circle, remains relatively unfamiliar. It has a pleasant aura of past prosperity compared to the higher, more austere parishes we are used to – its houses seem a little grander, and its spreading sycamores and towering ash lend it the air of an estate parkland. Our friends greet us with hot chocolate and pastries from the outstanding Triangle Bakehouse, and our outside exchange of gifts brings on the Christmas cheer. Despite the prospect of the five-and-a-half-mile return walk, my son insists on an energetic round of the Midgley playground before we turn homeward. On a succession of silent, sodden lanes we traverse along the shoulder of the moor on the 800-foot contour, under parliaments of rooks gathering in the fading light.

Regenerative Farming | The rising interest in how farming can assume a central role in the recovery of wildlife and the urgent race to a zero carbon society is deeply encouraging. In a fascinating, hopeful programme on BBC Radio 4, James Rebanks – Lake District farmer and author – investigates these ‘big questions that are swirling round about farming at the moment’. He starts with the facts that agriculture is responsible for 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions; that Britain is one of the most nature-depleted places in the world, with half its biodiversity lost since the Industrial Revolution, with an acceleration in this loss since the post-WWII intensification of farming; and that intensive agriculture is, in places, depleting topsoil at a rate 25 times faster than it can be renewed. But regenerative farming – ‘any kind of farming that works with nature to improve the environment’ – holds promise that agriculture can build back healthy, microbe-rich, carbon-absorbing, wildlife-supporting soils. In arable farmland, this is achieved through ‘no-till’ methods and by keeping living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible, while in grasslands, ruminant livestock are key to soil restoration. Cattle and sheep are moved around the farm in a rotational grazing pattern that mimics how herds behave in natural grasslands, which is to intensively graze (and trample, and urinate and defecate upon) a small area and then move on, not returning to it for weeks or months, giving it a long resting period to recover and for grasses to put down deep roots. These roots feed sugars made by photosynthesis to the microbe menagerie – bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes – which in exchange offer the plants nutrients they have made soluble from the rocks and soil. This exchange builds soil, locking up carbon and holding more water. Close-cropped, constantly-grazed pastures have shallow root systems which support less of this exchange, while ‘mob grazed’, deep-rooted grasses and wildflowers support more of this exchange. Rebanks even goes so far as to entertain an astonishing shift in perspective: that a central duty of farmers is not just to feed livestock but to feed microbes. Regenerative farming also upends the traditional model of nature conservation in Britain, whereby nature reserves have become isolated repositories of wildlife in a wider, hostile agricultural environment. Instead of sparing land for nature around the edges of the fields, in this alternative, land sharing model, nature is the field. The choice, as Richard Perkins puts it, is not between farming or nature. Rather, a cleverly-designed fusion of the two, with a biodiverse, productive landscape, is possible. If the development of regenerative farming can avoid becoming watered-down greenwash for companies like Nestle, Walmart, Unilever, McCain and Pepsi, all of whom are investing in research, and if farmers can be persuaded and incentivised to adopt regenerative practices, then perhaps the status quo of fossil fuel-reliant, environmentally unsustainable agriculture can be overturned.

The Little Hill Farm | There are precious few accounts of the history of farming in the Calder Valley. Thank goodness that W.B. (William Bunting) Crump, after moving to the district and in the course of exploring his relatively new surroundings for his 1904 The Flora of the Parish of Halifax, ‘began to be more curious about the farming methods, perhaps talking for an hour or two [with farmers] by lamplight on an autumn or winter evening’. In 1913 he delivered a lecture in Hebden Bridge titled ‘Farm Life in a Moorland Parish’, and he recalls that ‘my audience there took great pleasure in extending my knowledge of local farming’. One can imagine the same might happen if some brave soul were to try the same today. In 1938 he gave his lantern lecture to the Halifax Antiquarian Society under the title ‘The Little Hill Farm’, and it was published in the Society’s Transactions that year, with a small run of prints selling out in weeks. Finally, in 1949, during his eighty-second year, Crump worked on a revised and expanded book. As his daughter Barbara says in the Foreword, he got to ‘live again the happy years he spent as a young man tramping the moors and cloughs around Halifax, and discovering the little hill farms of that district.’ Published in 1951, the year of Crumps’ death, this fascinating and rare volume sells for very tidy sums. I live in hope of coming across a copy in a secondhand bookshop for a reasonable price one day, but thankfully in the meantime it is viewable online here. Not only is it an invaluable record of a vanished age, but it is also beautifully written. Here is a favourite passage:

One of the unforgettable impressions of Halifax parish is the site of the Calder Valley from some upland road in the clear luminous air of an evening in July. The “great living map” before and below you is chequered with the pale green squares of the newly-cleared hay fields and the darker pastures and unmown meadows. Grey roofs and the shadow of sycamores mark the scattered farms; and up above the chequer is a fringe of darker moorland, tawny or russet, flicked with the deeper green of bracken, or flushed with purple as the heather comes to flower. There are figures moving in the hay fields and you can hear voices. You look for Stoodley Pike or some church tower silhouetted against the glowing sky, and you notice a patch of green, four-square on the sombre moor – a little hill farm with its enclave of greensward won from the waste.

Gallery |

Nelmires
‘A succession of southern horizons drift into the distance, each sailing on a stratum of mist’
Remains of shelter within an island enclosure below Crow Hill
Kestrel
Rook

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