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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The fat of the land

Posted on January 14 2013 at 2:21:28 0 comments

Wintry sheep

Mary Green examines the links between the countryside, the weather and our food.

As I write this in January, it has turned cold after a fairly mild winter, and of course the wettest year on record for England has just ended.

I hope you’ve all bought and are using the Village calendar. My January poem was another example of the Curse of Mary Green – the weeping willow I mention in it was cut down last month…but the other descriptions are very suitable for this January so far.

I have just done a variant of the January walk in beautiful mild sunshine. I saw lots of winter heliotrope in flower, as well as daisies, white dead-nettle and hogweed. I also had a view of the new wind turbine at Tardebigge: it’s good to see renewable energy generated locally, and personally I think it adds to the landscape.

The lack of berries and other fruits, after the cold spring, means that even those trees that did produce – holly and hawthorn – were stripped before Christmas. Birds have been visiting my feeders avidly.

As well as the common blue and great tits, house and tree sparrows, I have regular visits from nuthatches, goldfinches and long-tailed tits.

Not only birds’ food has suffered. Some of the food our countryside produces has been badly affected by that cold, wet year – the failure of fruit crops and diminished potato crops – though the plentiful rains have meant that some vegetables have grown huge!

In past years, everyone would have had the link between the countryside, its weather and our food at the front of our minds. We have lost this a bit these days, but I hope this year to remind us of some of these connections.

I mentioned last year the effect of our local farming style on wildlife. We are predominantly a stock-raising, pastoral area, which gives us some of the richness of our pasture flowers and trees and their accompanying insects and birds.

It is possible to eat locally-produced meat here, thus cutting down on food miles, supporting a thriving local economy, and getting high quality delicious food.

There is even a farm at Astwood Bank that produces “wildlife-friendly Hereford beef” endorsed by the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust – in other words, it has been deliberately farmed in a way to make the land it grazes support more wildlife.

On Boxing Day, I found myself at an unexpectedly big family gathering. I produced a large rib joint of local Withybed longhorn beef, and my sister a topside of Dexter beef from her village in North Yorkshire. The differences were marked, though both were delicious.

The longhorn was rich, soft and sweet, the Dexter leaner and more close-grained. We all felt very lucky to be able to get well-produced, well-hung meat from animals we had seen grazing locally.

Of course, all these – Hereford, longhorn and Dexter – if raised freely outdoors and mature, put on muscle and won’t be tender. I favour slow cooking for all meats. The cuts I mentioned were Christmas luxuries, and I would usually use something cheaper like shin, which produces a lovely glutinous stew, with even longer cooking.

You can add any liquid, but I like beer with beef, so a drop of Weatheroak would make it even more local. Add some onions or leeks and twisty carrots from the prison shop at Hewell, and you’re near perfection!

We’re told that too much red meat is not good for us; probably true for ourselves and the environment. I wouldn’t eat it every day, but a small amount of lean beef (or lamb or pork) is fine. Intensively-produced meat (which happens not far from here) does not support a good wildlife environment and does not produce the same quality, though it may be cheaper.

It also encourages over-intensive growing of grain crops for animal feed, equally bad for wildlife. So, if you are going to eat meat in small amounts infrequently, savour the best flavour, support local farms, and encourage pasture-land with its hedges and trees.

Of the other meats, there is good local pork in old varieties such as Tamworth, Old Spot and Berkshire. I grew up with Wessex saddlebacks on the farm, and see they are now a “rare breed” – and very good too.

Lamb is probably best from the uplands in Wales, the Pennines and Scotland, or from saltmarshes like those around the Severn estuary, but our local stuff is fine too – and mutton is even better.
Many stalls at farmers’ markets sell “lamb” which is quite mature and should really be called “hogget”. It has a much better flavour – I don’t know why we have a preference for young lamb, a wasteful way of eating.

True mutton has a rich, almost gamey flavour but is quite lean. All are tender if slow-cooked. In the case of pork and lamb/mutton I would use cider as the base – what better than Tardebigge cider with a few local apples cooked in with the leeks?

There is a return in some places to grazing animals in woodlands, which is very good for the environment. I recently watched on television how sheep were “hefted”, or taught to keep to their patch, in the New Forest.

Hefting is used in hilly and mountainous areas too. Sheep learn which is their home patch, and rarely stray from it. In some areas, cattle and sheep are grazed on meadow land in winter, then taken up into hillier areas of rough grassland for the summer while the meadows grow for hay – and wonderful flowers.

Sheep have had a profound effect on the English landscape and way of life. In the 17th and 18th centuries, sheep farming became big business, so previous common land was “enclosed” into fields. For landless people, this was devastating as they no longer had anywhere to graze their vital animals or even poultry.

Someone observed that you could be hanged for “stealing the goose from the common” but that it seemed to be OK for landowners to “steal the common from the goose”.

However, for wildlife it was a good thing. Hedges were planted, mostly hawthorn and blackthorn among remnants of earlier woodland trees. These, when properly laid and managed, create wonderful wildlife corridors for insects, birds and small mammals, and make our much-loved patchwork landscape.

In the leaner years gone by, people often struggled to feed their animals during the winter, so some were killed to provide meat for the midwinter festivities. Those that stayed were fed on hay, mangels, and later swedes, the root crops being harvested in autumn and kept in big “clamps” over winter – again, a familiar thing from my childhood.

Sometimes sheep were turned out on to fields of turnips, mangels or swedes to dig and forage, and locally this practice has had a revival.

Pigs were allowed to forage in forests for acorns and grubs, and even fungi (think of truffles!). But anything could be pressed into service to feed animals in winter – holly leaves from the non-prickly tops of the bushes being a good example.

Our kitchen scraps went for pig food, including, I remember, boiled-up potato skins, which we really should have kept for ourselves as they hold most of the vitamins!

Every bit of the animal can be used, of course, and there’s no need for waste. Any bones can be boiled up for a lovely stock. The offal, especially lambs’ liver, makes a very cheap, delicious and nutritious meal – and is one of the things you can cook very quickly. Old cuts like oxtail and pigs’ feet are having a revival.

This can be off-putting to people who think meat comes in neat parcels shrink-wrapped from the supermarket. But it is a natural way of using the produce of the land: local environmentally-friendly stock-raising, slow cooking, head-to-tail eating, using meat as a treat a couple of times a week.

Some readers will be vegetarian, and I apologise for my eulogies on meat – there will be some to come on vegetables! But careful meat-raising is so much part of our countryside that I personally find it hard to imagine the landscape without cattle, pigs and sheep.

One of the important days in the calendar is February 2, halfway between solstice and equinox, called Imbolc, Candlemas, or Ground-hog Day. It used to be the end of the Christmas period, and sometimes decorations were kept till then, not just till twelfth night.

Its traditional flower is the snowdrop. They will be out – try Cattespool, Cofton Church or the wonderful little Chance Wood near Stourbridge, and now St Laurence churchyard in Alvechurch.

Other first signs of spring come too. Hazel and alder catkins will be long and dangly, and pussy willows will be showing white. The great-tit is already doing its two-note call and I have just seen the kingfisher flash by.

Walk along the canal or one of our green lanes around Valentine’s Day, and you should hear the chaffinch starting up on its full song. Ducks and other water-birds will be mating. The first dog’s mercury, golden celandines and paler yellow coltsfoot may be out.

Remember that all of this wildlife is dependent on us using the countryside wisely, providing them and us with habitat and food.

I wrote this poem a few years ago. Even in a cold year, this is a magical time.

Valentine’s Day

In the coldest February, after long quiet
The sun struck up unexpectedly
Like trumpets on this moondark day
A chaffinch suddenly found his voice
Over and over, and I stood cold under the ash
Letting his songs drop and fill my heart
Then a greenfinch wheezed, catching his breath.
As I walked on, all the chaffinches started up
A counterpoint across the canal.
In the churchyard the snowdrops hung
Cold as bones in their loneliness
And the faithful were singing of love.
No leaves, no blossom, but on the dark thorn
A blackbird stood, flowering into gold.


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