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.”

Monday, 10 September 2012

Kids in the country

Today’s story, for me, has evolved from indifference to fascination. ‘Children should be outdoors more’ sounds like a familiar homily usually delivered by a man with stout socks giving way to hairy calves and then ignored. But under investigation – and that’s what we do on Countryfile – a gripping tale emerges of aspirations shackled by fear.

The National Trust are launching their Natural Childhood initiative to encourage kids to get out more. As an organisation that thrives on visitors to outdoor properties, there is clearly some self-interest in encouraging the next generation of customers, but they insist they’re driven by what’s good for the youth: gaining confidence, tackling obesity, enjoying Britain’s natural assets and simply feeling happier and healthier.

We’ve been road testing this with a family from Plymouth – a lively clan of two parents and six offspring squeezed into a housing association semi. I’d been with them about one and a half minutes before the 8 year old was showing me trapped moths and offering me a magnifying glass to study what lurks in a spider’s web. A little later we were in the woods across the estate and the children fizzed with enthusiasm for dens and conkers while Mum and Dad looked on and spoke wistfully about playing out from dawn to dusk in fields and parks when they were young without parents standing guard.  But they felt unable to give their own brood such freedom and what’s keeping them inside is fear: danger from strangers. A widespread belief has evolved that public space is perilous for kids, despite most evidence to the contrary.

The next dose of natural medicine came as a liquid: the sea. Mum was never a natural swimmer and lacked the confidence to thrust her children into the waves. But we met up with the Blue Sound project, an outreach scheme run by the Marine Biological Society, which tries to get the locals acquainted with the wet stuff. The family arrived intrigued but uneasy. The young ones had hardly ever touched the sea. By the end of the afternoon, with guidance from the Blue Sound volunteers, they were like water babies. The two year old was splashing in the shallows while the teenage lad, who could barely swim at lunchtime, was snorkelling off the coast. As they packed and dried they made plans to return at the weekend.

Natural space is not without risk as its rules aren’t made entirely by us. It’s slightly beyond our control and that’s the buzz. But, with just a little guidance, this family’s pent-up passion for nature broke through the fear barrier. And that starts a journey with infinite destinations.

Summer washout

2 August

What would be this summer’s most forlorn profession? Ice cream salesman. Lapping away at chilly, sweet, flavoured goo has never been my favourite dining experience but get some sun on my neck and I’ll soon believe it is an essential ingredient of a balanced diet.

So we’ve been filming with a Yorkshire based ice cream business as the hub of our investigation into the cost of the summer that wasn’t. Their sales have been cut in half: eroding the workforce, hitting their milk suppliers and even the builders and decorators who’ll not see the work from their now cancelled parlour expansion scheme. It’s a snapshot of what I suspect is a massive blow to rural Britain.

From farming to fell running, from bird watching to beekeeping, music festivals to county shows
they are all at the mercy of the elements. Making money from the outdoors is the USP of rural
Britain and this year the climate has been hostile. For cities the weather has been miserable; for the
country it’s been merciless.

We are marshalling as many figures as possible including crop losses, tourism woes and flood
damage to try and reach a credible total cost for the washout. But the more you look the further the
ripples spread. In wet fields, the feet of cows and sheep can get soft, infected and overgrown. It’s
like pastoral trench foot. We saw a three inch wooden shard take advantage of this weakness to
drive up into a cows hoof. A man equipped with a machine to clamp, lift and tilt one tonne of cow
removed it but his bovine pedicures are becoming regular and costly.

Insects have suffered too. Now, I know they may not be the primary object of your sympathy when that rain spattered sphere appears at the beginning and end of the CountryFile weather forecast but we will share some of their pain. To find out how you’ll have to watch yet also wait as we take an Olympic break and return in the golden afterglow of our medal harvest!

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Spilt Milk

Today’s killer stat: the world demand for milk is increasing by about 2.5% per year which is equal to the entire annual milk output of Britain or approaching 7,000 Olympic swimming pools. Yet despite the fact that we have the perfect geography for dairy production and great know-how in the business, our milk industry is in serious trouble. 

This week Countryfile is in the white stuff. We’re filming an investigation to try and discover why our dairy farmers say they are are paid such rotten prices. Sainsbury’s were good enough to let us in and, after considerable health and safety discussions, I actually got to push one of those upright cage trolleys full of milk out of the cold store and onto the shelves. 

In interview, their own brand director Judith Batchelar, said they pay farmers a few pence more than the cost of production: just shy of 31p per litre with further bonus payments if they hit various welfare or environmental goals. Their standard price per litre of milk on the shelf was 52p, less than much of their bottled water. Many shoppers volunteered that they would willingly pay more if they knew it was being passed on to the farmers but Judith had her doubts. In supermarket jargon milk is a KVI – known value item – on which customers will compare prices. Even if they don’t do it in the aisle, on checkout they might suffer `till-shock’ - quaking at the size of the bill and combing through it to scrutinise costs. Judith Batchelar was certain: unilateral higher milk prices would drive some customers away. I was impressed by her candour and I don’t want to be too hard on Sainsbury’s, not least because they gave us access and didn’t dodge the questions but also many farmers say they are more generous than most other big retailers. 

Most processors also closed the door on us but a smaller one was did give us sight of the bottling plant and explained how he had been forced to drop his price to farmers as he was getting less from his buyers. Whilst there, we also met Kevin Bellamy, a banker who specialises in dairy investment, who was an encyclopaedia of world trends. He revealed that Chinese mothers are increasingly going out to work and feeding their babies and toddlers powdered milk in the belief this high protein ‘Western’ diet will make their children tall and smart. True or not, it sounds like an opportunity for farmers but as yet we can’t reach that market. 
On leaving I met three dairymen discussing whether to escalate their protest by pouring all their production down the drain for one day. You know the industry is dysfunctional when farmers are cheering not crying, over spilt milk. 

IMAGE: The crew hard at work filming in a milk processing plant.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Warming Seas

Thursday 20 July
I couldn’t explain it at first. Why was it that, with every question I
asked, James the mussel man seemed to get a little shorter? Starting
off eye to eye yet within ten minutes he was eye to Adam’s apple.
This week’s shoot is all about the gradually warming seas around
Britain affecting what lives there, what our fishermen can expect to
haul up and what we might see for our tea. Average water temperature
around the UK has gone up one degree Celsius in the last 50 years.
Not enough to swap your wetsuit for something more itsy-bitsy but
sufficient for southern visitors to take up residence and we’ve been
looking at what’s new around the coast of north Wales.
First from the deep was supposed to be spider crabs but the wretched
‘summer’ weather scuppered us again and it was too rough to venture
out and lift the pots. Plan b was a fish wholesaler but even he
couldn’t promise. So as we rounded the corner to his chilled sheds I
was quite agitated: excited as a childhood memory flickered of seeing
spider crabs dwarfing a space hopper in the Guinness book of records
yet nervous as he might have none and it’s difficult to make telly
without seeing what you are talking about. He had some. Still alive
but docile, he said they move like ‘grease lightning’ underwater and
the lobster boys are bringing in more and more. The trouble is that
the British shopper is too cautious to dig into what resembles the
‘face-hugger’ from Alien plus a hard shell and minus a tail. The
Spanish used to buy them but are a little strapped just now.
But the warmer water seems to be washing out the cod. Already hammered
by our own overfishing, their recovery has been hampered by the
favourite food of the cod larvae being a plankton which thrives in
chillier seas. Less food for littl’uns means fewer healthy adults.
Only when the tide was right could we make the last stop of the day.
The home of one third of the farmed mussels sold in the UK: the
mudflats of the Menai Strait. A struggle to reach and only achieved
with waders and frequent comedy floundering. Heat loving invasive
species, already apparent at Holyhead, threaten to smother the mussel
beds in brown goo. A more acidic ocean resulting from more CO2 in the
air could impede shell growth. But the more immediate peril was the
fate of the incredible shrinking man who was delivering this
He was, of course, sinking slowly in the mud, maybe I have bigger
feet. But it wasn’t strictly mud he told us but what has already
passed through the mussels: “pseudo – faeces” in fact.
Nice... Tomorrow we may see dolphins.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Village Pubs

Blogging from a bar, it could go one of two ways - rambling or unusually creative. We’ve already encountered the dilemma of whether to drink or not during interviews shot in a pub. Abstaining looks unnatural, but imbibing risks drunkenness on set and continuity problems as the level in the glass moves up and down. Both are cardinal sins in the BBC handbook! 

This week we are investigating the plight of Britain’s village watering holes, as around four are closing every week. How can this be when everyone seems to treasure them so deeply and tourists say they are the third most important reason for visiting this country? 

Today we’ve been in the Derbyshire village of Parwich, filming in the Sycamore. One secret of survival here is opening another business in the pub. In fact when you walk in the door it looks more like a family home. But on the right is a door marked ‘shop’ – it used to be the dining room. It may be small but it’s an Aladdin’s cave of household goods - puncture repair kits and packing tape, cauliflowers and lighter fuel. 

Janet, the publican/shopkeeper/mother of a toddler, says she simply stocks what people want. What she’d like is for locals just to spend a bit more with her and swerve the supermarket delivery van. It’s a devotional existence, more like a calling than a job. Janet puts in around 80 hours a week and, when she plots income against her time, she receives barely half the minimum wage. 

Most pubs are owned by either breweries or big pub companies. Many of these are in serious financial trouble, some owing billions to the bank. But their spokesman insisted they weren’t leeching money from the local boozer to pay off their debts, blaming instead the government for high duty and VAT on alcohol. 

Every year I make the same, not very pious, New Year’s resolution. Drink more… in my local pub. Achievable with a noble aims!  Why not join the pledge?

Friday, 15 June 2012

Birds of Prey

In the backyard of a small pebble dashed semi, just south of Edinburgh, we found a father and son scanning the sky. Peering intently above the roof tops and shading their eyes from the bright cloud. Even as we talked they cast nervous glances to the heavens. They fear ‘death from above’, not for them but their prized pigeons. What most people would welcome as a wildlife success story - the gradual recovery of many of Britain’s bird of prey species – they view as a deadly threat to their pets and their passion. They’ve lost six in the last six months this year. Watching a peregrine falcon hunt a pigeon is like a “Ferrari taking on yer’ Astra” according to William – a pigeon fancier from the age of seven who, now approaching sixty, has just given up as he can't bear the growing death toll. 

This week we are filming an investigation into the impact of our growing birds of prey population: majestic kings of the air restored to their rightful dominion of the sky or a menace to game, pigeons and garden birds? The lordly language above has been prompted by another filming location. Dalhousie Castle was the last redoubt in Scotland to be besieged by an English King in person: Henry IV in 1400. There we saw our most successful bird of prey – the buzzard – whose numbers have doubled in the last fifteen years. We needed some stunt birds for close ups and controlled filming so the local falconer Denise flew Dolly and Watson. Graceful in flight, stunning in detail but still faintly chilling sitting on my thick glove, especially as they turn to fix you with those hawk-eyes. I know what it feels like to be lunch. 

So do pheasants. Especially those reared for shooting on a nearby estate where the gamekeeper reckons they kill one thousand of his birds every year. He wants permission to kill or move the local buzzards. 

“But surely” I said “they are part of the natural world undeserving of extermination for your sport”. 

“No, pheasants are my livestock and my livelihood and like a farmer I should be allowed to protect them”. 

Another thorny one: see for yourself on CountryFile BBC 1 Sunday July 1st.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Thursday 31 May 2012

“Removing the lid from that flask would be a rapidly life limiting experience”. This potent understatement was delivered this morning as we filmed examples of waste nuclear fuel for which Britain is still struggling to find a long term home. We were at Chapelcross in Scotland – one of the country’s oldest nuclear reactors built back in the fifties primarily to provide weapons grade plutonium but also producing useful amounts of electricity for the grid. Now being decommissioned,  the spent fuel is shipped off site in cubic bomb proof flasks ( I love the way they call them flasks – it makes them sound a bit like your Gran’s thermos of warming tea on a blustery beach). First stop is Sellafield before some material joins the growing pile of Nuclear waste we don’t know what to do with.  
We are investigating the plans for deep underground burial, a project of mind stretching scale: bigger than the channel tunnel, covering 20sqkm underground, throwing up spoil heaps the size of 2 pyramids of Giza, taking two lifetimes to complete and designed to contain the radiation below for longer than mankind has walked the land above  
“Hands up who wants that” asked the government and so far the only credible volunteer looks like being West Cumbria – the seaward skirt of the Lake District where Sellafield sits and delivers more than one billions pounds every year to the local economy alongside plenty of jobs So, politically plausible but what about the geology….errm Not quite so attractive according to an expert who took us for a walk along the cliffs at nearby St Bees. Showing us cracks in the sandstone where water seeps out today, he predicted that, if the plans went ahead, that water could be irradiated in a couple of hundred years and, in half that time, radioactive gases could seep to the surface. “The geology’s much better in Norfolk, between Cambridge and Norfolk” he said. Not a claim likely to feature heavily in the ‘Visit East Anglia’ brochure and not all geologists share his doubts about Cumbria. But it does raise an interesting question. 
Should radioactive waste be buried where it is popular or where it is safe? Critical viewing on CountryFile BBC 1 Sunday 17th June. 

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Thursday 24 May 2012

The ten day old calf may have been small but, boy, could it suck. In an effort to wrangle the small bull into a camera friendly position I was advised to stick my finger in his mouth to mimic the teat. This did, temporarily, calm the young bull but the novel sensation of rasping tongue and serious suction did little for my smooth delivery to camera - did clean my nails though. He soon realised the con was on and no milk was forthcoming, at which point he started to but his head upwards in the way they bash their mum’s udders. Liveliness was forgivable as this calf, though only young, was lucky to be alive as he is a boy born of a dairy herd and 100,000 of his like are shot soon after birth. 

Dairy cows need to have calves in order to produce milk and while females are useful to re-stock the herd, many of the males are unwanted. Now, British veal (or ‘rose’ due to its pinker flesh) is highly favoured both by chefs and animal welfare experts as it now has the space to run around and tastes great. But it’s still a niche market incapable of taking all the newborn bulls – so could they be grown on as beef? Compassion in World Farming think so but some farmers fear rearing an animal bred for milk yield not beef production will prove a waste of time, pasture and expensive feed. 

But could there be a hi-tech solution? A note just in from the film researcher in the office promises ‘Tom can look at the screen and see sperm wriggling around’. Do not adjust you set, this is still Countryfile – but we’ll be in a lab which can split boys from girls with the artificial insemination. 

Life, death, sex…what more do you want on a Sunday night?

Thursday, 17 May 2012

“This is Miss Folckes’ path. It’s the route she followed three centuries ago to reach the neighbouring squire’s house. Look, it’s marked on this map from 1777 with her name”. This, according to a passionate gentleman we filmed today, was all the evidence required to permit a 21st century right of way which would have given walkers a pretty decent view of his personal hygiene routine, passing as it did within twenty feet of his bathroom window.

We are in a world of stout footwear and waterproof maps as we stride into the realm of the rambler. There are 118,000 miles of public footpaths in England (that would take you nearly 5 times round the equator) yet by 2026 there could be more as historic, so called, ‘lost ways’ and used but undesignated routes could be classified for access. Some may be thrilled, others alarmed.

Of more immediate concern to many rural strollers is what to do when you are confronted by the ploughed up path. Trudge on through with ever growing plates of mud weighing down each step or detour round the narrow margin amongst the nettles and brambles? We’ll reveal the right answer and who to complain to when you get home.

Horse Fostering latest: We had a great response to May 13th’s film about abandoned and neglected horses. The RSPCA were especially pleased as they were launching the appeal to find foster homes for ponies in that tricky ‘adolescent’ period when they are too young to be ridden, yet still cost a fortune to keep and plenty of potential good homes got in touch. They have been contacted by more than 25 potential fosterers and wanted to pass on their thanks to the programme and our viewers. I was pleased to get away with the most eye-watering shot of a bucket lid your likely to see on telly this year – it’s on i-player until Sunday 20th May if you missed it! And if you have a genuine interest in fostering a horse, you can find out more from the RSPCA

CountryFile Sunday evening 10 June BBC 1

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Today ended with a big surprise when checking in to our hotel and finding the bar populated by buff men wearing pants but little else. All the more unexpected as we are staying in a town which could double for the one in ‘Hot Fuzz’ though, hopefully, with fewer firearms.

This week’s film contrasts the growing appetite for people to get into farming with the increasing difficulty in actually doing it. Land prices have more than doubled in the last five years as rising food demand looks a good bet but, perhaps more importantly, big money is looking for a safe haven. As an investment, land is quite literally the new gold: putting it further from the reach of aspiring farmers and into the grasp of pension funds and oligarchs.
Meanwhile, agricultural colleges are seeing applications boom but Rachel, who we met at Harper Adams, is typical of her classmates in not finding a job on a British farm: she is going all the way to New Zealand to raise calves. Buying farms outright was always tricky for new entrants and young blood often flowed towards county farms, land owned and let by local authorities. But many of these are being flogged off too as cash strapped councils need the money for services. Tomorrow we’ll meet a council tenant farmer whose land is being sold beneath him.

Down at the front desk, hasty enquiries revealed sporting your smalls was not dress code but part of a local fashion show fundraiser for breast cancer care. No Countryfile team members were tempted onto the catwalk.

CountryFile Sunday evening 20 May BBC 1

Thursday, 26 April 2012

A pair of pink sunglasses with one lens missing. A can of Carlsberg. A handbrake, a torn off bumper and a jagged rusting paint tin. These are just a few of the things which lace the pasture of the horses we filmed today living in a world far removed from ‘My little pony’. 

Neglect and abandonment of horses has shot up steeply in the last few years and we’ve been to Teeside where the problem is so acute the police are heavily involved. On patrol with the local PC, we saw foals on the loose, tethered horses living in a perfect circle of mud having eaten  all the grass they could reach and porch dwelling ponies. And not just a handful: round every corner was another shot which didn’t come from the manual of equine husbandry. The policeman compared the phenomenon to tough looking dogs saying ‘big’ men now want a ‘status stallion’. But some help was on hand in the form of a mobile clinic set up by the British Horse Society. Their offer of castration and identification – snip and chip – enticed a line of lucky ponies and generally hard up but well intentioned owners. 

Still, the council estate beside the urban dual carriageway didn’t look like the ideal horse habitat but maybe that’s elitist and the ‘noble steed’ shouldn’t only be the plaything of the rich. If you can’t afford rolling paddocks alongside classy livery perhaps love, time and scrubland can give a horse a good home. See what you think.

CountryFile Sunday evening 13 May BBC 1

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

I don’t know how many of you have read a children’s book featuring the Berenstain Bears called the Big Honey Hunt. It features hapless Dad, enthusiastic son and long suffering Mum all chasing a bee – a generally fruitless endeavour. A familiar sensation as we struggled to find and film a brave bumble amongst today’s hailstorms and thunder claps.

We are investigating the possible link between pesticides and dropping bee populations and have uncovered some striking new work at a UK University. They’ve tagged nearly one thousand bees with radio frequency id tags – equipping each bee with its own one millimetre square swipe card. So when they fly off to forage, in the words of the great Brian Hanrahan, ‘they can count them all out and count them back’ and the ones who’ve ingested a pesticide cocktail appear less likely to return – Missing in Action. Seeing them in the lab was easy and I got to try my shakey hand at super-gluing the tiny tags on their furry backs. It’s brilliant bench science with a whiff of Wallace and Gromit – not in the sense of being amateurish but rather the use of ingenious practical wit. The pesticide makers insist these laboratory linked experiments do not accurately mimic a bees exposure to the toxin in the real world.

Back beside the damp blackthorn hedge, one of our enthusiastic bee spotters did eventually spy a little blighter and we ran back to see a fuzzy speck high up in some neighbouring cherry blossom. You’ll catch it on the show – if you don’t blink.

CountryFile Sunday 6 May BBC1 6.15pm

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Just back to Hotel in Pickering, beside the North York Moors, with one boot and sock drying beside the radiator after sinking knee deep into peat bog. Couldn’t curse though as I am filming for Countryfile on the bizarre world of peat. How come that we are spending many thousands of pounds of public money to preserve and re-grow it by millimetres when a few miles away it’s being dug up by the tonne to put into compost bags? It’s even more weird when you see that armies of people, helicopters and diggers which have been drafted in to the war effort to protect the peat as our battered shield against climate change,and compare that to the industrial extraction elsewhere.
We visited a waste reprocessing site this morning where they were turning garden and kitchen waste into peat replacement compost: old plants to grow plants. Great pictures with huge trucks and loaders looming out between steaming piles of rotting veg. Got to try my hand at sifting unwanted plastic etc from the conveyor belt. In 2 mins I turned up a babies changing mat, an old shoe and a fire engine toy in the ‘green’ waste! It was like a low budget Generation Game.
Got my hands on a nail gun this afternoon as we helped build dams to block erosion gullies in the peat bog. it was in an zone between Dalby Forest and Fylingdales military early warning site. I hope they can see incoming enemies as in the short term it played havoc with our sound gear.

CountryFile Sunday 29 April BBC1 6.25 pm