I’m “Confused” – Wot from ?

Xmas in September !

How many of these will I have eaten by the time I'm supposed to be eatin' them !!

So I get home only to find I’ve been away much longer than I think,  I have ‘time travelled’, ‘baby car’ was my Tardis ! How come mince pies, that staple diet of mine from around mid November usually, are already on the supermarket shelf ?  I enquired as to whether they were past their sell by date, but no, they are listed as being OK until 25th Dec 2010 !! Oh my, this year I am definitely going to save all the little foil pie trays just to see exactly how many I do consume – I started to do it last year but that was on the dubious suggestion that they may get refilled by Santa (in the form of a cakeness monster !!) they never did of course, just a few to get me so excited and then…..

The fact that it is indeed September is indisputable of course, by virtue of two annually recurring themes.  Firstly, the whole of the countryside around me has become infested with a plague of two legged pre-historic looking creatures call pheasant poults.  Each year at this time they are released from holding pens to invade the surrounding countryside – including my garden – and, like the locust plague of Egypt, devour everything that the wild bird population would like to have to enable it to fatten up for winter.  Secondly, as if those wild birds didn’t have enough problems, the roadside and field hedges get trashed.  This is to ensure that any flowers which may have inadvertently escaped the May trashing and turned to fruit,  are not left for any bird or animal to use as fodder for the approaching hard weather.  As usual this is done in the name of ‘road safety’ or ‘tidiness’ !

A pestilence upon the land. Pheasant poults

Like a plague of locusts this pestilence sweeps through the landscape here-abouts each summer end to devour insects, berries and fruit and cover the ground in their droppings - bring on Bird-Flu !!

Both of these activities operate alongside countryside stewardship schemes designed to halt the decline in the ecology of the land.  Shortly I am to become involved in assisting farmers to assess their farms for entry into the latest ‘designer’ countryside stewardship scheme – Glas Tir – I just hope I don’t end up on one of these shooting or ‘tidy’ places!

The hedge trashing issue I have aired already; you may remember I called it the greatest and gravest act of vandalism that is predated on our countryside by local authorities and farmers.  It needs to be addressed, especially in these times of climate change and economic restrictions.  What a stupid and utterly unnecessary activity, it pollutes and uses up valuable fossil fuel, the tractors used are quite the most ridiculously big machines for such an activity, and, most importantly,  it always seems to be done at the time best guaranteed to cause the greatest devastation to the wildlife, flora and fauna.

Hedgerow trashing, 1st September.

I came across this idiotic activity on the 1st of September ! Don't we just love that 'short back and sides' look on the beautifully massacred hedgerow ! Ah but ! Road safety you see... Its a single track lane leading to nowhere !! The tractor is more of a dangerous nuisance than the hedge !!

Wearing my ‘grumpy old man’ hat I always make a point of asking the tractor driver why he is doing it.  Now in fairness, mostly he is just an ordinary guy doing what he’s been told to do but occasionally it is the land-owner driving the menace, invariably its road safety and tidiness that is given as the reason and that was the case here…..

What’s unsafe about the hedge on the right of the picture and, as you can see below, this was the state of the hedge / road all along the route the trasher was taking.  I truly despair, even with the hedges trashed the road is not any safer, it’s single track for goodness sake !  This is an unclassified road leading to two small villages in the foothills of the Eppynt range north of Sennybridge near Brecon.  Surely it didn’t need to have its guts trashed out just yet,  I stopped once I had got past the tractor – that meant a 15 minute wait ! – to see what was growing in the hedge, admittedly it was only thousands of hazel nuts and guelder berries, now what could possible want those……

A nicely trimmed and fruit bearing hazel hedgerow.

How untidy and unsafe this lane is !! All those nuts and berries to cause hazards. Who actually are the 'nutters' who ordain this activity, village stocks should be brought back !

This is a perfect example of what currently passes for ‘Caring for the Countryside’.  Local authorities pay huge sums of money annually to keep roadside hedges trashed (and roadside grass verges where wild flowers grow and myriads of small creatures live), to me its insanity.  The decline in rural skills is constantly highlighted, people who can lay a hedge in the traditional local style – here the ‘Breconshire’ hedge – are already few and far between. I know of only one or two young people who are interested, the skill is ‘endangered’ and yet, as here, instead of paying a hedger to lay this hedge once every ten years or so and simply keep the sides trimmed – once every 3 years is sufficient-  local rate-payers fork out huge sums paying for fuel-guzzling, chain wielding trashers to rip the hedgerows to pieces.  Ironically, this practice renders the hedge ‘non-stockproof’ and so it needs to be fenced too !!

We need skilled jobs in the countryside to keep young people in their communities.  Its the same in my craft skill area, there is less and less work available for dry stone wallers as funding is directed elsewhere.  The greater part of my 20 years of re-building has been funded under one or other of the agri-environment schemes that have been in operation in Wales.  The new scheme – Glas Tir – has no such provision and hence no-one will follow behind me to be available to the communities in the areas I serve to maintain and restore the walling stock, and it will be the same for hedges.

As for the other bane of my life, these wretched little creatures born to die, and to die a sudden and violent death for the amusement of people with more money than sense, where do I start?

Hedgerow denegration caused by pheasants.

All along the hedgerows this occurs where the thousands of birds 'dust' themselves thereby exposing the roots of the hedgerow trees and completely destroying the 'under hedge' flora such as 'Jack by the Hedge', primroses and avens. The hedge-bank becomes eroded and eventually the hedge will die.

Well I recently asked the ‘gamekeeper’ what was the purpose in what he did.  I wasn’t trying to be offensive – I can do that quite easily – but I genuinely wanted to try to understand what he thought he contributed to the preservation of the countryside for future generations. “Its my livelihood”, was the gist of his reply. “Yes, but what does it contribute to society and, most importantly, as its a ‘countryside activity’, what does it contribute to the sustainability of the land?”  His response is unprintable here.

Now let me make it clear, I have no particular political view, if that’s what it would be, on those who enjoy the activity nor the land-owning classes who promote and support it. I am a great believer in ‘laissez faire’, each to his or her own, I like land rovers for goodness sake !  I am very happy to be part of an old and esteemed element in the history of this area – the Estate.  I like it that I am part of a ‘dysfunctional’ community, a community by association, the folk of the estate.   Although now much depleted, the estate is still a large one with numerous farms and tenanted houses.  Whilst there are not really any estate workers now, nor any crafts people associated with the estate ( I like it that the work I do is set against what I owe the estate ) there is still the ‘Laird’ and the ‘Agent’ and, though in a diminshed manner, the ‘Gamekeeper’.

Generally there appears to still exist the ‘Them and Us’ mentality amongst the farmers.  Not so much amongst the cottage dwellers, or at least not that I have gleaned.  The greatest cause of this dysfunctionality is undoubtedly the gamekeeper.  Indeed I would go so far as to say that the Laird would almost extinguish conflict between himself and the farmers if he stopped the pheasant rearing and did away with the keeper.  I can’t be certain that it wouldn’t be different with another keeper, apparently the previous keepers were not so villified as is this one.  Hence it may be more about the persona than the activity.  Nevertheless, as I see it, the ‘shoot’  – the rearing of pheasants and the selling of shooting days – does nothing to contribute to the well-being of either the Laird and his family nor the estate -the land nor the tenants.  Indeed as an economic activity it is, at best, marginal.

My objection to it is primarily on the basis of the damage that the released birds inflict upon the ecology of the area.  Once released their voracious appetite sees them consume everything from insects, butterflies and moths, worms, berries and fruit – even when it is still on the tree.  For example, this year has been an amazing year for fruit production and a damson tree that has not borne a crop of any significance in the ten years I have lived here was drippng with fruit, so too the apple trees.  Already the damsons are gone and my highly prized crop of elder berries is now in the firing line – I had saved half of the elder flowers to develop into berries.  Rowan and slow, haws and rose-hips all disappear within a few weeks of the release of the thousands of poults.

cooking apple crop is good this year

My apple trees are bending under the weight of fruit this year.

My crop of apples is outstanding (as it is throughout the area) and as best as I can reason it this is because, for once, in the merry, merry month of May we had good sunshine and no gales.  Most years May will see one if not two heavy blows which rips off the blossom before it can do its job and before the bees can get the benefit of the nectar and do their job of pollination.  Similarly with the other trees which bear fruit, all have, or should I say, had, an excellent crop.

The knock-on effect of the fruit being consumed on this scale is not just my loss.  Pheasants leave nothing on the ground either, no windfalls for small animals, for the wasps, for the insects, the whole food chain of the woodland and hedgerow, for cultivated and natural crops, is undone.  The birds which depend on this bumper harvest, those that stay the winter and those that come to stay, such as field fare and starling are deprived of sustenance just so ‘the haves’ can get the fun of blasting the pheasants out of the sky.  The money that is paid for the privilege of doing this is obscene, what’s more the notion that they ‘eat’ the birds is a nonsense.  One or two brace may get taken home – after all who wants to cook / eat somethig that is full of shot, has crashed to earth from 30-50 ft and been in the mouth of a dog ! (and Lord knows what the pellets on which they are reared contain, certainly a high percentage of chicken offal !). No, I’m sorry to tell you that at the end of a day’s shoot a lad on a quad bike with a trailer and two dogs tours the fields of the estate and picks up dead birds which are unceremoniously dumped in a pit at the back of the keeper’s farmstead.

Damsons, nice fruit if you can get it ...

I have had a great damson crop but only managed to get half of it before the 'locusts' arrived - they cheat, they eat the ones not yet ripe !

There is also of course the ‘protection’ that these canon fodder are afforded to get them to the position in which they can be gunned down.  Naturally anything that threatens the pheasant or appears so to do, is eliminated, that, after all, is what most people think of when Gamekeeper is mentioned.  The control of ‘vermin’ !!

Like locusts these pheasants devour everything

This is just outside my gateway, in every field and along every hegerow these 'vermin' roam, devouring everything they come across and leaving an inordinate amount of mess.

Of course the farming tenants have to put up with this despoiling of their land and it is they who regularly end up in conflict with the gamekeeper, the agent and thus, the Laird.  Now the agent we can discount, after all, we are supposed to dislike the agent aren’t we, he represents authority over us and is the voice piece of the Laird’s will !  Actually he’s just another bloke doing a job, and he is welcome to it ! The judgement of Solomon is nothing compared to the ‘pouring of oil on troubled waters’ he has to do around here.  This conflict arising out of gaming activity is of course as old as the activity itself.  The ‘artificial’ raising of game really only began in the mid nineteenth century and a commotion it caused between tenants and landlords.  Tenants were already forbidden to kill rabbits or hares – for they were the common target of ‘game’ shoots then, which in arable areas caused real losses for farmers.  In upland areas similarly, the pursuit of game in the form of grouse and deer  affected the viability of farms.  Indeed documentary evidence shows how this conflict affected tenants and landlords who were forced to recognise the losses incurred.  In 1844 for example, the agent on the large Nanteos estate in north Ceredigion reported that the farm of Bwlch, the rental for which stood at £34 p.a suffered losses to the amount of £24 caused by rabbits.  Another farm, Penyquarrel, suffered losses estimated at £90 in 1844 and here the rental stood at £50 5s !

The problems between the landowners and the tenants increased and was made worse by the attitude and activities of gamekeepers who caused “more mischief  between landlord and tenant than all the other causes combined”,  according to the Chairman of Carmarthenshire County Council in 1894 in his statement to the Royal Commission on Land in Wales.  The Game Laws of 1880 allowed farmers to kill hares and rabbits on their land – but if the land owner ‘was not amused’ they daren’t do so – but did nothing to effect changes in the reared game bird situation.  Thus, here we are more than a century later, and in this quiet corner of Breconshire…….

So, we have a situation where thousands of young birds are incubated from eggs which are collected from hen birds (themselves the survivors of last year’s shoot and re-caught in the spring ).  They are reared just as would be young chickens, under heat and with food freely available.  They are then turned loose in large fenced enclosures protected from ‘vermin’ by electric fences, continually fed night and morn until their release into the surrounding fields.  They continue to receive twice daily feeds and are called back to the pens at night, for some weeks until, eventually, the keepers start to draw them further and further into the surrounding fields and woodlands by putting out feed and drinkers there for them.  By late autumn few remain close to the pens – some respite for me though the damage has been long done by then and there are always a couple of hundred who stay in and around my garden – they are scattered throughout the estate in woodlands and copses close to where the shooting lines are.  In mid November the carnage starts,  birds are driven out of their cover by men walking in line abreast, waving flags and shouting, the birds take flight and fright and fly out over the waiting guns to be blasted out of the sky or, – and this seems to be particularly prevalent around my farmstead due to the height the birds cross the guns – to be wounded and land away from where the dogs can find them only to die a lingering death or live on as maimed and crippled birds, though normally the buzzards – those that have managed to escape the gamekeeper – or foxes and badgers get them.  Those that land on the roofs of my farm buildings often die up there and only the smell gives their presence away.  This is called ‘Country Sport’, its an activity undertaken by self acclaimed ‘country gentlemen’ who always have the posh 4 X 4 – usually Range Rover – and always but always wear the correct gear, plus-fours and country tweed, and what a load of idiots they look gathered outside the local public house, but then, it amuses the locals and preserves the status quo, ‘them and us’, ne’er the twain shall meet.

Okay, off the soap box, what else has happened to Welshwaller since his return !  Well, easing back into work is always difficult after a long break, not least because of the loss of fitness.  I did notice an increase in groaning that emanated from within, all of it involuntarily !  I have a few months to do a garden wall in a little hamlet called Llanfihangel Nant Bran which lies nestled in the southern valleys of the Eppynt range.  Its a little awkward to get to, and as I mentioned above, entails several miles along narrow single track roads.  Now that is no fun if you get the timing wrong, school runs for instance, or worse still, sheep to or from the hill !!  That can add an hour or more and entail a great deal of reversing practise.  I have gotten to the stage where I just reverse, I don’t any longer sit and wait while we both decide who is going to reverse.  I’m not going to enter into gender politics in regard to driving ability, but school runs, big 4 X 4s, reversing on mirrors….. no, I just reverse.  With the sheep issue, I just switch off and reach for the flask, there’s no point thinking the farmer is going to turn them into a gateway for you, he ain’t and in anycase he is seldom to be seen,  sheep seem to be remotely controlled to always know which gateway to enter, or driveway to turn into, or mountain to go to.  If he does happen to be at the back I generally get out and have a chat.

Some time ago I had a young lad with me, a grandson of a very good customer friend (who sadly recently died), the boy was a ‘towny’ and not a great socialite.  One morning we happened to run into (not literally you understand) a friend / farmer /customer (you see, I never know what to call my long term customers, they invariably become friends, though that may be flattering myself !) and I stopped for a chat.  Now okay, the chat lasted half an hour or so and naturally he was a little bored so that when I stopped a little further to talk to someone else – this time only 15 mins – he asked why I stopped so much to talk.  Indeed last autumn a young lady working with me noted in her blog how the farmer and I talked away 40 minutes or so on seemingly insignificant matters.  That’s the point of course, mostly the topics are insignificant, it is the ‘event’ that is the important thing.  Working in the countryside involves much ‘alone’ time – I won’t use the term ‘lonely’ time because loneliness is different – and so our ‘water cooler moments’ are few and far between and are a very necessary part of ‘bonding’.  I suppose that’s what it would be called elsewhere, its a time to re-affirm the level of ‘friendship’, to catch up on gossip, yes definitely, who has died, who has bought what farm, who has done something a bit naughty, who has become famous (Lord, when I came back from D.C. and the S4C TV programme aired I was forever being stopped !! but then I am very very famous….), how the local rugby team is performing – many folk still remember me as a local player- and a myriad of other topics which, to most, including my companions on those days, seem ‘ a waste of breath’ and/or time.  Why, only this morning I happened to have to reverse for a fellow I hadn’t seen for a couple of years, a local blacksmith / metal worker, I knew he had been quite ill – serious heart problem actually – and although I could easily have waved and driven off,  I stopped and got out so’s he could see it was me.  He beamed his ‘blacksmith smile’ (as I call it – they all seem to have it), its proportional to his forearms, and we ‘chatted’.  Mainly I listened about his problems, I mentioned I had seen his son in town one bank holiday which was how I knew he had been unwell, I reminded him I owed his son a half day tuition in setting cobblestones in return for some metal manufacturing he (the blacksmith) had done for me 3 years ago, we ‘chewed the fat’, as my old grandma used to call it, and, 45 minutes later we went our way.  Now one could argue in economic terms, that is a waste, maybe, but, as our stateside friends are fond of saying, what goes around etc, and by re-connecting we had established the circumstances of each other’s business and personal situations and this, I have no doubt, will be more than repaid sooner rather than later.  I will meet someone who needs some railings made or machinery fixed, indeed I need some doing myself, he will come across someone, probably one of his customers, who is looking for a waller or whatever, and we will think of each other knowing the up to date circumstance (he knows I’m too busy to take on any more ‘big jobs’ until the spring !!)

Dry Stone Wall using Old Red Sandstone

The current wall job, this time I'm using Old Red Sandstone, the local stone of the area, its going to be a long job, over 60 tonnes of stone is involved.

No, I’ve enough on the go to take me through until the end of the year.  The garden job has been waiting since June for various reasons – for once not because of me ! – but it will progress quickly if the lad moving the stone for me can speed up.  He has a mindless job moving it all, but it pays well, unfortunately he is not shifting it faster than I build and so I’m ending up only able to do half a day and then running out of stone.

Nature Calls: Again a little sad news and some good news.  One of the reasons, in addition to senility and fuel consumption, that I tend to drive slowly in the countryside is to give birds and animals a chance to get up and out of the way.  You’d be suprised how few animals I run over each year just by this small expediency.  Unfortunately it is a philosophy not heeded by many and this week on the very same narrow country lane leading nowhere I came across a Buzzard, run over on a quiet stretch of a quiet road.  He had been down on a dead rabbit, similarly killed, and had not had time to take off with his prey when a vehicle came around the corner.

Common Buzzard, killed by a vehicle

Buteo buteo - a very apt name for this wonderful bird, the Common Buzzard. It is now so common that it hardly gets a second glance, still, sad to see such an ignominious end to one of Wales' fine birds of prey.

Except it hadn’t actually come around the corner, it was on a straight piece of the road.  Now without getting to technical or analy retentive, the stopping distance at around 40mph – which would actually be fairly fast on this particular road – is 120ft, thats 40 yds.  In each direction there was at least that before a bend.  Hence any driver should have had time to slow and/or stop giving the bird time to take-off.  What seems to have happened is that the vehicle just kept going and hit the bird before he could gain sufficient height – the dead rabbit was some 25ft away.  Conjecture, sure, but, hitting a bird this big is, I imagine, a bit scary, maybe next time he or she will slow up a little.

On a happier note, Dragon Flies seem to be faring very well this summer and wherever I go I seem to have them buzzing around me.  When I was very young, maybe 4 years old, my father, whilst cycling home from work along the canal bank, hit a dragon fly and, so he thought, killed it.  Never having seen one close up and wishing to show us, he brought it home.  We put it in a jar in the shed, you can imagine we thought it really was something from ‘dragon-land’.  Do you know within a short time the shed was surrounded by similar large dragon flies and the one in the jar was frantically jumping around.  Everyone, including dad, was scared !  After dark he went out and released it.  I think from that day I’m never too comfortable when they are very very close to me !

Dragon Fly on a bucket

This Common Aeshna (m) landed close by me several times - has it got a sting in that tail or not...

Right then, a surfeit of controversy no doubt, for you all to chew over before my next report.  Hopefully the weather will hold fair for the up-coming village show and for some farm history and other fascinating tit-bits from the land of   Welshwaller.

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