Getting down and dirty in a Shropshire meadow

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So much goes on beneath our feet, and beneath our gaze. For instance, if you want to find out what is going on in an English meadow, then you need to get down and in amongst it. There’s a whole other world down there, or maybe a thousand tiny universes. On the other hand, finding a meadow in the first place could well be a challenge. They have been dwindling since the 1920s. Mechanisation – bigger machines and bigger fields – plus a continuous drenching of agrichemicals has done for most of them. (One local landowner once told me he had to give his brussels sprout crop 14 separate dressings of pesticide).

Of course we have to be fed, but I often wonder if mass-production monoculture is the only way. I also wonder if there are perhaps still unrecognised consequences of us so radically down-sizing our natural biodiversity, and that what currently seems advanced, scientifically devised, and wealth-creating might in the end prove ill-conceived and ultimately impoverishing. But then perhaps we do not think it matters to lose potentially useful medicinal plants, or rich habitats that support a host of insects and other life forms, or to fail to rear our stock on the best and most varied herbage, both for their good and for ours.

In  Much Wenlock we are lucky to still have several limestone meadows; fortunate too that they have been officially designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which gives them some protection. They do need to be managed however. A meadow does not just keep itself. My father used to talk of being roped in as a lad to help with mowing the hay in his village. He said the menfolk would walk in step, spread out across the field, each swinging his scythe with an easy, even rhythm.

These days how many people know how to use a scythe without cutting themselves off at the ankles? Our surviving meadows thus require the seasonal addition of grazing animals to keep them in some sort of order, usually after the summer wild flowers are over. And of course, in the past, the hay from a wildflower meadow would have provided farm animals with a wealth of mineral nutrients and vitamins, dietary additions that humans, too, would have benefitted from, particularly in the milk they drank.

Even back in Shakespeare’s time, the consquences of mismanaged land were well understood. The following passage from Henry V  Act V Scene II is thus much cited by meadow management proponents:

The even mead that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, keksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.

In fact the whole of Burgundy’s speech in this scene is a condemnation of bad agricultural practices – “husbandry doth lie on heaps, corrupting in its own fertility.”

All of which is to say, wherever we live in the world, we would do well to pay attention to the ground beneath our feet and to what is going on there. Our long-term health, the health of every living thing, depends on the quality of the soil. Right now most of it needs some concentrated TLC.

My home county of Shropshire is one of England’s biggest agricultural counties, with many large gentry-owned estates of ten thousand acres and more. And so, apart from the upland sheep grazing of the hill country, most farming here is highly mechanised. Of the few exceptions that still practice traditional mixed farming, Pimhill Farm is one of the most noteworthy. It has been managed organically by the Mayall family since 1949 – wheat, oats and dairy – so it proves it can be done. Their oat products are fantastic. Even their humble, savoury oatmeal biscuits taste out of this world, and porridge made from their oats is unbelievably creamy (no milk needed). You can read the Pimhill story by following the link.

And now I’m putting my soap box away in order to get down in the dirt in my local meadow on Windmill Hill. Please also imagine the sweet and subtle scents of grasses, thyme and Lady’s Bedstraw that may only be fully savoured by lying down with them. First, though, look out for the snails:

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Beneath Your Feet

#PimhillFarm #organicfarming

43 thoughts on “Getting down and dirty in a Shropshire meadow

  1. Lovely, non-linear but non-rambling, intricate spin through the ground, the photos, the mists of time…and thyme! A nice Sunday stroll, Tish! On our walk this morning, and building our homeschool plan for the kids, Dawn and I stopped to read about the history of a powermill down by the river in this German village, how the mill provides power to roughly 100 people annually…and excited for us and our kids to learn these topics together. Seems there’s no limit to the learning, and it’s all right here under our feet if we have a look, and start the discussion. Cheers to you and yours.

    1. The mill sounds like a wonderful source of creative learning. Everyone needs a narrative to learn best by, whatever their age. It’s exciting discovering things this way, and those are the things one always remembers.

  2. Good morning from Chicagoland, Tish, where I’m hoping the clouds overhead will bless us with some rain today. I share your concerns for the land and the loss of so much that is useful, even necessary. Just yesterday, I spotted our neighbor in his backyard, nuking weeds with something, probably Roundup. I want to call out, “Just dig them out or spray vinegar on them,” but of course, I didn’t.

    Your post also brought to mind the joys of cheese made only at certain times of the year because of what’s growing then and how the taste differs. A cheese made from milk that came from cows feasting on wildflowers is very different from one made with fall milk. The variety of type of honey is another example. Viva la difference!

    janet

  3. Long ago I decided to take on the natural movement and spurned artificial landscaping let the backyard go natural. It became a meadow with wildflowers and tall grass. Our boys loved the jungle effect until we discovered our youngest had hay fever and his romping in the grass was severely affecting his health. The meadow is gone now but I still hold a soft spot for a wild meadow.

  4. Shropshire is a lovely part of the world and you’ve captured the meadow beautifully. I used to spend much more time there and I do miss it. I find myself searching out Shropshire-like corners of Lancashire, my home county!

  5. You can get up on your soap box any time Tish. I enjoy your occasional rants as they are always backed up by facts and are always interesting. I love a wild meadow and, as is the same for many things, we only miss something when it has gone. Let’s hope we wake up to what we are doing to the earth before it is too late to go back. And by the way, those snails have cousins living in my hosta 😀

  6. Lovely post, Tish. The meadow shots remind me of the Heath at the end of the cul-de-sac in Stake Piece Road in Royston, where my Grandparents lived.
    The heath was on chalk, much like Aching Farm in Pratchett’s Witches’ books, but the wild flowers you feature brought back a few memories, especially the clover!

    There is a line in one of those books that goes: ”If the gods wanted you to pick wild flowers, they would have planted more of them.”

  7. Another splendid intelligent take on a challenge, opening my eyes to a few salutary lessons. Here again we see wisdom lost – we’ve stopped paying attention to what they knew in the seventeenth century. Coming home through degraded farmland yesterday, we were meditating on medieval crop rotation, and the greediness that allows current farmers to overcrop and overgraze, against their best interests, but hey! there’s plenty more land. Lovely photos of the denizens of beneath-our-feet land, especially the speedwell, the daisies – and the orchid, of course. (We had a heap of orchids beneath our feet in a flora reserve on the way home – first sighting for ages, except via you and Jo.)

      1. We did also see a lot of tree replantings, including in creek beds, but many of them were very close to a road Blind Freddy could see was slated for widening sometime soon

  8. More people should rant Tish then, just maybe, the rot can be stopped. The growing obesity and disease epidemic must surely be directly connected with the food we eat and how it is produced. It is evident in the growing interest in organic and sustainable farming that some people are taking notice and doing what they can to turn the tide of chemical farming. Hopefully the growing trend for farmers markets, organic and allotment gardening will increase and go from being fringe farming to mainstream. Meg put a link in Gilly’s recent post that addresses this subject and the fact that “big business” farming is starting to worry about these types of farming.
    “It is now seeing food safety laws being used to put the sustainable agriculture movement back in its box. As the market share of the direct sales sector approaches 10% it appears on the radar of the big companies, who, as in the USA 5 years ago, use their political clout to “safeguard the public” from this threat.” http://sageproject.org.au/2015/08/07/deep-winter-agrarian-gathering-in-daylesford/
    It is an interesting read.
    Keep ranting Tish and searching out these delightful meadows to share with us.

    1. Food safety? It makes you want to scream. The rubbish supermarkets entice people with – the sugar, the sodas, the ersatz flavourings, the fillers and packers. Better to eat a very dirty carrot I would surmise.

      1. A bit of dirt helps build the immune system. I think so many people are over fastidious with their children and constant cleaning and disinfecting every thing in sight. 😦

  9. There are a few odd places round here ehere efforts are msde to create meadows and tge results are beautiful, it would be wonderful to see more. Fourteen dresings of pesticide is horrendous!

  10. Thanks for the tour of the lovely ecosystem. I’m an organic gardener, and have been for decades, so I completely agree with you and understand your concerns. The effects on the health of our planet and inhabits is too great to continue this assault. But big business has a strong grip.

  11. Love that you still have meadows. I have mini meadows at the side of my house, (really mini). When they flower I shall sit in them (not big enough to lie in) and take a photo for you. 🙂 Your mention of Shropshire of course made me think of a Shropshire Lad and On Wenlock Edge (song cycle), which then had me searching your blog for posts on the same. Happily I found some and learned a whole lot more about Housman and the songs his poetry inspired. I was hoping I might find a Housman poem on meadows; is there one?

    1. Just found the first stanza of poem V in A Shropshire Lad: “Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers/Are lying in field and lane,/ With dandelions to tell the hours/ That will never come again./’Oh may I squire you round the meads/And pick you posies gay?/ Twill do no harm to take my arm.’/’You may, young man, you may.'” Being Housman, there’s a twist in the tale/tail of bucolic bliss.

      1. Well that part is certainly appropriate. Somewhere in the depths of this house there is a copy of A Shropshire Lad. Which room, which bookshelf, which storage box, I can’t recall. I may come across it one day.

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