Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Green and Black?

How many farmers have been questioned by the police on suspicion of stealing crops while working in their own fields? Not many I would wager, but David Mwanaka and his wife have enjoyed such conversations 5 times in the last 4 years. They are black. Are these facts by any chance related?
We met David in his field of maize beside the junction of the M25 and the A10. He came here from Zimbabwe in the nineties when his work as a journalist in Harare became impossible under the Mugabe regime. His background may be exotic but his immediate concerns are commonplace: a soaking year and a terrible yield. He grows `white maize’ a variety familiar to the African palette and loved by specialist stores in many British cities. But this winter there is too much left un-ripened and destined to feed the chickens. Farming fires him, he’s passionate about the husbandry of his crops and the chance to grow more. By contrast, he sees conversations with the police as minor, almost amusing, incidents which he blames, not on them, but on the statistical fact that black farmers are rare. Yes, he agrees, members of the public are jumping to race-based conclusions but this doesn’t seriously wind him up. For David, getting angry about rural racial ignorance is as pointless as railing against the weather and much less relevant to his business.
So does it matter that there are so few ethnic minorities living, working and visiting in the countryside? There is a lot of guff talked about splits between town and country but, for me, this is the most marked social contrast: urban Britain is multi-ethnic, rural Britain is not. The reasons for this fill up academic theses and it is definitely too simplistic to blame it on rural racism, certainly of the overtly hostile type. Though as `the only black in the village’ you might stand out; some embrace this, some hate it, others just ignore it.  Economics plays a big part as country living tends to be expensive and black and Asian communities tend to be less wealthy.  Plus it is culturally more difficult with friends, faith groups and families largely city-based.
It matters because rural Britain is a treasure that we should all share. There is a danger of being patronising here. Luckily, Pammy Johal and her team save me from that fate. They are drawn from different cities across Scotland’s central belt and before that from Pakistan, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the Caribbean. We meet in Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park as Pammy trains them up to be confident in the outdoors: map reading, mountain bikes and weather-proofing traditional dress. No one’s telling them to be out, they’re just having a good time.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Ashes to Ashes

I don’t think I’ve ever been offered a bunch of roses by a government official before. A touching moment but the reverie was slightly undermined by the accompanying words: “Can you see any white fly or leaf miner damage in the foliage?” Not necessarily the stuff of romance.
The plant health inspector lacked amorous intent and was simply manning the front line in the battle to keep diseases out of the country; a line drawn, in this case, through a warehouse on an industrial estate just outside Heathrow. The cavernous interior was full of aluminium air freight crates and the beeping sound of reversing fork-lifts. One of the great joys of the job is seeing the industrial process behind things we then take for granted in our fridge or living room. Pallets stacked with spring onions from Mexico, pink roses from Zambia, and something called Christmas Rudolf flowers from China. One box was ripped and the head and shoulders of the ‘Red-nosed One’ were poking out.
Anything with roots and soil is scrutinised closely, flowers are considered lower risk but samples are still taken from most consignments and studied under a microscope. The inspectors find something troubling most days.
But – and it is a pretty big but when we consider the ash tree disease – they are only inspecting material from outside Europe. Within the EU free trading rules mean you cannot interfere or inspect goods without a very good reason and, sadly, a highly lethal fungus with the potential to destroy huge swathes of our deciduous woodland wasn’t a good enough reason to stop importing ash tress by the lorry load from areas where the disease was rampant.
Earlier in the week I had been at a conference on ash die-back recording interviews for the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Costing the Earth’. It was a gathering of the top European tree disease experts held in Lithuania which happens to be one of the countries where it was first spotted more than 15 years ago. Experts there described Europe as a black hole pulling in plant pathogens from across the world and then, once in the continent, free commerce rapidly spreads them to every corner. I know it’s pretty difficult to stop fungal spores blowing in the wind, but that doesn’t mean we have to give them a free truck ride across the channel.   Maybe we could ask if they’d like a bacon sandwich or a piece of rotting wood to keep them going.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The missing lynx?

I love my job: it’s the variety. Some of today was spent with a heavy cleaver in one hand and a bloody carcass in the other. We wanted to see the blade splitting the haunch of venison but in an acceptable way for BBC1 Sunday evening viewers who don’t want their appetite for bare flesh on ‘Strictly…’ to be spoiled by blood on Countryfile.  This meant manoeuvring the meat around to avoid pipes, fur and dribbly bits, more like the butcher and less like the abattoir.

This decorum may be lost on the diners but they still like their food presented with a bit of theatre. Their current favourite is pheasant hanging from a branch by its neck with a piece of string. They have to jump for it. No, Heston Blumenthal hasn’t hijacked the serving suggestions on ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ this is dinner time for four European Lynx at the Cairngorm Wildlife Park.  Very groovy cats which, if some conservationists get their way, could soon be roaming wild in Scotland.

Lynx were once native in Britain but disappeared between the Dark and Middle ages – more than five hundred years ago. The idea now is to bring them back for their own sake but also to keep down deer numbers which are so high they’re holding back forest regeneration by nibbling the saplings. Species re-introduction has been popular of late - sea eagles, beavers and red kites - but a formidable predator…that’s a tough one. I remember doing a story on Radio Scotland nearly 20 years ago about plans to allow wolves to prowl the glens once again. Like a true stirring hack I went straight to the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to find the passage describing the wolf pack attacking the horse-drawn carriage. When it comes to hunters, it’s easy to fan the flames of fear. Yet in truth there is not a single record throughout the world of a lynx killing a human. In the wild they are far more afraid of us.   

Farm animals though could be hunted and many stockmen fear lamb and veal would be on the menu. Why chase a fit and wary roe deer when a field of dozy sheep graze nearby? A convincing argument, but here’s another one. We encourage conservation of endangered species in other countries and frequently say their farmers shouldn’t shoot the elephant that tramples their crop or hunt the tiger that killed their brother. How can we lecture them if we won’t accommodate our own ambush predators?

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Village Greens

I am no good at cricket. I didn’t play at school and since then have only donned whites a few times with friends, mainly as an excuse to lounge on the boundary and eat cake. But TV is a harsh task-mistress and when she calls you up to the wicket there can be no skulking behind the pavilion. So today I swung a bat and the world (well the bit that matters ie the CountryFile audience) will witness my ineptitude. I was at least inspired by my surroundings: Great Massingham village green. The kind of communal turf shared by mallards and Morris-men, ringed by flint walled cottages, that encourages grown men to unleash their inner poet.

Official Town and Village Green status makes a space almost hallowed ground and any development rightly impossible. But village greens are not just historic, last year there were 103 new applications seeking this ultimate preservation order and some of them are a bit fishy. Lakes, beaches and fields of crops are all under consideration and there’s a growing suspicion that the claim is being used as a kneejerk block to development: the NIMBY’s weapon of choice. The government shares this belief and is about to tighten up the law – exactly how should be revealed when we meet Owen Patterson, the relatively fresh Secretary of State for Environment.

Village Greens emerged in the Medieval times for communal grazing, often complete with a pond so the animals could get a drink. Though they’ve probably long given space for occasional fun and games, their importance at the heart of many villages seems to have been entrenched in the Victorian era when industrialisation and overcrowding resulted in rural idylls being both romanticised and cherished.

The starting point for declaring new town or village greens is unchallenged access to an area for at least 20 years. That was claimed for a field where we started the day but all I could see was thirty acres of stubble where this year’s crop of wheat once stood and not a soul came wandering by.

But I can see the point of designating new areas for random recreation. Public health bodies talk of `vitamin G` - where the G stands for green - and the provable fact that access to vegetated space improves mental and physical wellbeing. Back on Great Massingham’s green the after-school kids were definitely getting their outdoor fix. I joined them for a few rounds of sponge Frisbee: now that is my kind of game.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The mysterious case of the dog in the wood

For this week’s investigation I’ve unleashed my inner private eye as we’re on the trail of a killer. Something which lurks in the trees and preys on the innocent. Aside from at least 14 corpses, it leaves little trace, though its victim is man’s best friend.

Over the last three years in East Anglia and the East Midlands, around 150 healthy dogs have fallen seriously ill and a number have died from a mysterious disease. The immediate cause of death appears to be multiple organ failure following earlier symptoms of sickness and lethargy. The only clue left by the serial killer is a pattern of time and place – it strikes in the autumn after a walk in the woods. It now has a name ‘Seasonal Canine Illness”.

We interviewed a vet nurse from a village in Norfolk who was one of the first to raise the alarm. In her experience, unexplained deaths of healthy animals are thankfully rare but particularly difficult for owners to stomach. She enlisted the help of the Animal Health Trust who have a wider research brief into canine diseases. There we met a doctor doing his best CSI. His lab may have lacked the moody purple lighting, a soundtrack from The Who and translucent pin boards but the key ingredients were still there: maps of the attacks, post-mortem results and a picture of the prime suspect.

First for a scientific shakedown were toxic fungi implicated by the forest crime scene and the season, then blue green algae then invasive plants. But all had an alibi. They couldn’t be seen at the scene and also the organ trauma was not consistent with poisoning – the culprit wasn’t eaten.

As news of the puzzle spread a plant and fungus expert joined the search. His forensic knowledge is frequently tapped by the police to shed light on the relationship between corpses and undergrowth. In the best tradition of tireless investigators, this expert was re-treading the route of most frequent attacks only for him to become the latest victim. His legs became swollen, scabby, and extensively bitten. Something, well, many things, had been feeding on his skin.
He survived and tomorrow we’re going back to round up the prime suspect. See if the mystery is solved on the 21st October.    

Livestock Markets - In or out?

An occasional murmur travels through the judges as they watch the stars emerge from the wings. These are harsh critics, whose own money rides on decisions made within seconds. Will they take on the young things on stage right now or wait for the next batch? Do they have good legs, an attractive rump and the right looks to make them a small fortune?
This talent show happens at least twice a week at Abergavenny livestock market as sheep and cows are traded in the ring. I love cattle auctions especially. The auctioneers are showmen of immense charisma, filling the steeply banked chamber (reminiscent of a nineteenth century operating theatre where people paid to watch master surgeons at work) with a perpetual crescendo of sales babble. Their mesmerising performance has rhythm, purpose and occasional humour like a rapper crossed with a conductor.
But soon they’ll fall silent here as the town centre market will move out and a supermarket will move in. It is the latest in a long line of markets across the country to either close altogether or shift beyond the ring road, often leaving prime real estate behind.
Do I hear a “Hooray....Just what our county towns have been missing is another superstore. We much prefer urban uniformity to the awkward individualism of live food wandering about”?  A strong body of opinion in Monmouthshire believes the opposite: claiming that the, admittedly dilapidated market, could be spruced up and kept where it is for the benefit of the whole town.
Farmers opinions are split, but many are fed up with trailer traffic jams, sheep exposed to the elements and shoddy facilities. Many activities have migrated out of town in the last generation and big animals that come in and go out by large wagon seem logical emigrants.  Couple that with the millions being offered by the incoming supermarket and you can understand the CIbIouncil's desire to shift the beasts out.
But sometimes logic should be tempered by imagination and foresight. Rather than severing the link between farming and society, they should be brought closer and keeping hooves close to the high street makes that possible.  Redesign the place to encourage public access. Make it easy and pleasant to swing by the market on the way to the mall and witness your burger’s former life. That would put the town on the map.
Or is that just nostalgia dressed up as novelty?      

Friday, 21 September 2012

Open for Business

Today I walked through tunnels where coalminers would have cursed and shovelled under lamplight 150 years ago. Now it’s lit by the sky and the passage has become a trench since the covering 40 metres of earth - and half the seam - was torn away by huge excavators. It’s brutish, accidental archaeology but still uncovers the occasional artefact like a nineteenth century soda bottle. 

This is Potland Burn opencast mine in Northumberland – or ‘surface’ mine as the owners UK Coal would prefer. Whatever the name, it is still a huge hole in the ground where giant trucks shuttle back and forth like worker ants. Until you get up close, when they become ‘ma-hussive’ (my youngest son’s word, strangely apt). From about ten foot above the driver, Ian, waved me to climb up the ladder to his cab. It took me eight rungs just to clear the wheel. Before the growling engines fired up he went through a series of ‘pre-flight’ checks which mainly comprised testing the three separate braking systems – when you are in a £900,000 vehicle on steep slopes with a 100 tonne load you don’t want to let gravity get the whip-hand. Then we were off and bouncing along the packed earth tracks. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face but had the disconcerting feeling that I might be in the dream of a seven year old who had spent the whole of Christmas day playing with his toy quarry set. 

The availability of these monster machines and the relative absence of union power in the surface digging world means ripping the ground away to get to the coal is now preferred to deep mining in shafts and tunnels. Changes to planning regulations suggest that we might see a lot more of them as the national appetite for minerals and energy appears to be overruling local objections and concern about coals hefty global warming impact is ignored. 

Well-managed modern workings can come and go quite quickly: returning scarred land to forest, farmer’s field or parkland within five years. Tomorrow, I’ll be rolling out a giant map of the UK illustrating where some of the new open pits might be with well-placed bits of coal. We stored the props in the back of the car before driving for dinner in the shadow of St James Park prompting our sound man, John Gilbert, to point out “You’ve brought coals to Newcastle.”