A year of restoration

A new book, The Running Hare, recounts a year husbanding a field in a traditional way, without chemicals. Here, the author shares some of what he learned during that year

John Lewis-Stempel
Tue 19 Jul 2016

Do you know the Malvern Hills? I had a couple of hours to kill, so I walked up to British Camp, coat flapping. Elgar once lived close by, and the Enigma Variations musicked on the breeze. From the top, there's a take-your-breath- away view over an England that is still green and pleasant.

But it's an England where the fields are becoming more sterile and silent by the day. So degraded is the soil of arable England that we have maybe a hundred harvests left. Farmland birds are down by 50 per cent in as many years. 'Progressive' chemically-addicted farming has made five arable flowers extinct. (So, in memoriam: lamb's succory, interrupted brome, small bur-parsley, downy hemp nettle, and thorowax.)

It's easy to become a passive accountant of environmental miseries. Instead, I chose to adopt one of the pesticide-and- herbicide marinaded fields and husband it old style.

The Running Hare is the story of that year of restoration. The selected field, Flinders, was so worm-deficient moles did not venture there; the top soil ran off in pink sheets when it rained.

My secret weapon was a ?25 bird table from B&Q, and sack of bird seed. Oh, the irony. I was putting out seed for farmland birds that any halfway wildlife-friendly farming regime would leave anyway. But it worked. Bird species went eventually from four to 16.

I wanted to recreate a traditional wheat field, embroidered with poppies, cornflowers, corn chamomile and the like. So, I trod lightly. I ploughed with a 1956 Ferguson tractor, harrowed with a pony, broadcast seed with a seed fiddle. I sowed 200,000 wildflower seeds like a declaiming Romantic poet casting couplets.

I sought hope. I found it. The first wildflowers to emerge from Flinders' earth were scarlet pimpernel and speedwell, whose seeds had been harboured safe in the dirt, despite the chemical showers. Another sort of hope: someone secretly delivered me five hares.

By July when I visited the field, it was as colourised and as magical as if a Disney princess had waved a wand. Bees landed and rose in mass Mexican waves on the flowers, the wheat trembled with cryptic movement of toads as they hunted spiders. The insect noise was such strong haze it negated the traffic noise on the lane. A pair of red-legged partridge had chicks, the hares had leverets. The fox stalked the wheat like a tiger stalks the jungle. The wheat itself was a golden, orient sea.

The day of the harvest was a day of carnage. Toads, rats, mice and rabbits fell to the blade of the cutter blades. But carnage is proof of biodiversity. In the 20-acre conventionally farmed wheat-field next-door belonging to the 'Chemical Brothers', no buzzards circled, no carrion crows waited. Why would they? No animals lived there to be killed.

I confess. My harvest was a cunning plan, because I come from a farming family and I've seen wheat cut, back in the 1970s, with a reaper binder for 'wheatsheaves'. In modern farming, straw is regarded as, at best, bedding, at worst, rubbish. By including wildflowers ('weeds') in with the straw, just as my grandparents did, I obtained nutritious fodder for livestock. Sometimes to get to the future, you have to go back to the past.

What was left of my field? A bed of golden nails, fallen grains, weed seeds. Stubble, in other words. And this stubble field did exactly what I wanted it to: it acted as a giant bird table over the winter. The field held the red-legs, the hares used it as a race track, and birds and animals galore came to dine.

One field, just one field, had made a difference. Imagine if we had a thousand such fields...

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed – Mahatma Gandhi