Thursday, August 31, 2006

Morris's Scotsman Article

Morris wrote an article that Fordyce Maxwell, agricultural editor of The Scotsman, one of Scotland's national papers, edited to this form and published with a wonderful photo of farming in the fifites in the August 21st edition of the paper. The paper may not be widely available for folks outside Edinburgh, so I thought I would share his article here.
The nice blogger folks explained why the photos weren't showing up. I didn't understand it, but decided to replace the previous photo with this one of Morris holding up the actual page from The Scotsman.

THE BIRDS AND THE BEES. Scotsman 21.08.2006

From horny-handed tillers of the soil who saved the country from starvation during two World Wars to subsidy junkies and destroyers of the environment. How has that happened, I wonder, as I look over my many years of farming, boy to man, and latterly as consultant.

We have indeed drained many a wet spot and torn up many a hedge.

Many of these hedges were planted long by our farmer forebears to delineate the fields and provide livestock shelter as they cleared virgin land and made the fertile farms of today with which we feed the Nation. The traditional hedge of beech and hawthorn, complementing each other, gave a close and tight boundary when maintained by skilful hedgers.

In my early days in bare treeless Orkney we did not have hedges but stone dykes or flagstones or even post and wire fences. Caithness, when we moved there, had a profusion of drystone and flagstone and whin dykes and hedges, giving shelter to animals and birds who fed on the land. Indeed farming was so different then that it is worth a look back to yesterday ”lest we forget”.
Yesterday was a traditional seven course rotation, ploughing out grass for lea oats, second year in turnips, followed in year three by clean land oats undersown with grass seeds. Four years in grass followed, hay taken in the first year, then once more round the rotation.

Farms were split into fields lending themselves to this seven year shift, developed during the 1800s from the old and miserable run-rig system. Today we follow our own whimsical cropping irregularity.
Yesterday our farming allowed involuntarily feeding for the birds and the bees. Long-strawed grain crops, usually oats, were frequently flattened by storm before harvest, laid patches giving great feeding for gulls and crows, sparrows and pigeons. Partridge and grouse had their share.
The unsprayed crop had many weeds, sometimes choking the grain entirely, but a busy place for insects, swooping swallows and hovering terns.
At harvest, stooked sheaves stood a minimum of three weeks to dry before leading to the cornyard, and in many a bad year much, much longer. Stubbles were picked over well into winter, wide loads of sheaves passing through the narrow farm gates leaving a brushing of grain. The countryside was teeming with wild life and farmers, if unwittingly, fed them all.
Today, harvest is usually but a few short days, the massive combine in and out of a field in hours. Short strawed, better standing, modern grain varieties are instantly tanked and into stores that allow no access for bird, rats or anything else. Stubbles are often ploughed within a few days and sown again to winter barley, wheat or oilseed rape. No gleanings to be had there by birds.

Yesterday in the stackyard the feeding continued. We usually had 60 corn stacks, threshing one on Monday and one on Friday through the winter. In bad weather each stack had it’s countless birds, rock pigeons from Sandside Head covered the stacks with a blue blanket, easy shooting for pigeon pie.
Rats and mice took possession, ruinously so at times. Light grain and weed seeds from the threshing mill were put out to the stackyard for the birds to pick over, the chaff used for cattle bedding or even feed. Straw was carried from barn to byre or stable, and a picking again fell to ground. Today there is no threshing mill, no loose straw, no chaff, no weed seeds, just straw bales.
We could not go back to the old system. There are no men, no horses, no time. Today in our farming there is little left scattered.

Yesterday the farmstead had dung middens. Starlings scoured the stable midden, steaming with composting heat on frosty mornings. Rats made their winter quarters within. The bedding straw from the stable would have it’s stray grains and weed seeds. Today there are no horse middens and cattle are on slatted floors with the slurry quickly spread and ploughed in.
Today’s arable farms have no livestock, no large complement of men and women to work the land, no horses to plough and mow, no dairy cows to feed the workers and the “Big Hoos”, no cottage gardens to feed the blackbirds and the sparrows. Today there are few workers at all, their cottages sold as holiday homes.
Yesterday hay was cut much later, when mature, stemmy and gone to seed, the drift of pollen like smoke, the sweet smelling red clover – curly doddies – in profusion, the bumble bees working the flowers through the warm July days. Flies were everywhere, so were the swallows. As boys, we had to go through the last narrowing bouts ahead of the slow moving horse drawn reaper, chasing the profusion of young corncrakes away from the dangerous mower.
Today hay is cut at lightning speed, shaving the ground, turned and baled rapidly. Grass for silage is here today and gone tomorrow, cut too early for the safety of any ground nesting birds, the crop fertilised and too dense for nesting.
Actually, only 5%, in the County of Caithness is cropped - the rest is as it always was. But yesterday, winter feeding of birds yesterday relied on that 5% in crops.
As a boy I saw grain and turnips crops choked by charlock, carron, day nettle and other weeds, the yield a fraction of today’s, and oat crops annihilated by “grub”, the larvae of the Crane Fly. Counter-measures of mixed Paris Green and bran were usually applied, frequently too little and too late. Today, grub can be dealt with easily with an insecticide spray. As farmers , we can do no other.

Yesterday, throughout the winter, the farmer’s bounty was still available in the turnip fields, the root crop often not finally cleared until May. Weeds and their seeds lay in profusion in the neeps, a haven for partridge and hare and rabbit. Today there are few fields of turnips in Caithness, though we still grow some for sheep at lambing time - a Godsend this last harsh Spring. Where neeps are grown, they are kept weed free by pre-emergent sprays. The crop is clean, the yield is good, weed seeds for birds non existent. The men who yesterday hoed and weeded and carted the turnip fields for weeks on end are long gone.
Today we plough it, harrow it, sow it, spray it, harvest it, get it done as we produce greatly increased quantities of food at comparatively low prices for Supermarkets. Today there is no time to sit against a dyke or a stook in the sunshine to enjoy a “half-yoking” while the horses rest, to lean on a gate and study the cattle, to do all those things our fathers did at an easier pace of life. The birds and the bees are the losers, as well as us. Is it not odd that when we have something good we do not treasure it, but when it is gone, we cry for it?


At 2:04 PM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

Morris's picture does not show up--only a square with an X in it shows. I thot you'd like to know. I wish it did show--he's a good-looking man!

At 5:21 PM, Blogger ZACL said...

So beautiful - I am really glad I got to see this article.
It was great to hear Morris talk about this little masterpiece with humility and love. There was a happy look in his eye as he referred to its publication, a pleasure well deserved. I was greatly impressed with Morris's admiration for the excellence of 'the editing, leaving the gist in place.'

I am mailing this off to people who I know would really enjoy and love the article.

Shame the photo didn't show up - maybe you can post it on another cycle ride :)

At 1:29 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Eeek, I don;t know what is up with photos. It displayed OK initially and the HTML code looks OK so I am at the limits of my technoknowledge.
Can anybody out there help?

At 1:31 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Dear ZACL, good to have you back. I am so glad you liked Morris's piece and he will be chuffed to have it sent out to others. Thanks for doing that.
Suggestions about the photo thing? I am baffled. Some work; some don't. Technology is not meant to work that way.

At 7:23 PM, Blogger ZACL said...

I thought technology chose when it worked - Oh well, I was up a grum tree there then!

A little pixel of a thought comes to mind here; it might be that the picture was too large a size for the upload and if it is reduced in KB's you might succeed in showing off your man to the world. Some sites will say what the maximum size of a picture in pixels or KB's should be.

At 7:08 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

I pout in a different photo of Morris. The nice blogger folks said my photo was pointing to someplace other than what it should and I should check my "provider." Well, I didn't really know what any of that meant since all the photos came the same way, so I thanked her and just reloaded the photos. I think I am going to have to learn (again) HTML. I have avoided technology for years.

At 5:45 PM, Blogger a friend said...

OK Sharon, I am laughing about your saying you have avoided technology for years. The real story is that for years you wrote about technology and helped other people make sense out of technology. SO, you may not be able to build a computer or take on HTML code, but you are a techkie at heart or you would not have committed so much to Lilly MIT or to your many tech students at IUPUI. Just setting the record straight for all of you out there whom Sharon is trying to fool.


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