What's New

The changing scene in the Living Field year.

Latest ...  update 25 September 2013 ... still some fine days amid the cooler wet weather, no two days the same.

Update 24 August .. coolish and moist, occasional heavy rain, yet with some clear skies and warm days.

The month of sweet July

Sweet it was, warmth and sun, following a June with even more sun that allowed the crops to bulk after a slow spring. ‘Twas in the month o sweet July / Afore the sun had pierced the sky / Twas in below yon rigs o rye / That I heard twa lovers talkin’ - so begins the traditional song ‘The Rigs o Rye’, and it’s a strange trad song, not because of its gentleness and welcome ending, but because it figures rye Secale cereal which has hardly ever been grown here. And yet rye appears in many songs and poems throughout the British Isles, as much as barley and more than oat or wheat, which three between them have been the main cereals crops here for the last few thousand years.

image of six row barley

Sweet July this year brought the winter barley to a crisp golden brown. Sown last autumn, it withstood the cool and wet of the late winter and spring. Whether it grew enough leaf by the end of May to bring yield near the average won’t be known till later in the year. The barley head above is of a six-row winter barley (Living Field collection, 30 July 2013), holding grains in sixes round the central stem or rachis. Each grain is tightly clasped by protective coverings and has a long awn sticking out of it. Most modern varieties are two-row, the other four grains not enlarging.

Which is best - two or six? There’s no easy answer, but it’s a packing problem. Each grain needs physical support and protection and each can only be filled so much. Which is best depends on the year -  a heavy cropping may need the space of a six-row, while a lighter cropping would find the two-row economical. There’s more to it than that, of course.

winter barley field

The crops of winter barley above (Living Field collection, 30 July 2013) are at the Centre for Sustainable Cropping, Balruddery Farm near Dundee. The dividing in the upper photograph is between two varieties having a slightly different architecture.

Rye and the other cereals are grown each year in the Living Field garden. All germinate well and grow easily here. Rye is known for the ergots produced on its seeding head when infected with a pathogenic fungus Claviceps purpurea and which make the harvested grain poisonous. Rigs are ridges of deeper soil (of varying width), forming strips on which crops were grown, particularly up to and through the 1700s, later in some parts. The ‘Rigs o Rye’ is a great song – look for versions by Dick Gaughan (on Kist o Gold) and Robin Dransfield (on Tidewave).

Bog cotton

The bog cotton, also cottongrass, species of Eriophorum and of the sedge family, graces wet pasture and grazing with its mass of white heads formed from the flowers' outer protective coverings. The individual fibres are very fine, possibly more so than wool and also probably silk, but degrade soon after the heads die down and do not last like wool in this normally cold wet climate. There are reports the fibres were used for wound dressings and, like thistle down, for tinder.

As the bog asphodel, they did not mind the heat and dryness of the latter part of July. The plants photographed were growing in a moister part of a pasture, last improved several decades ago and now grazed by sheep, but well away from standing water or bog. The flowering heads are each distinct in form and each filters and reflects light individually. They could be samurai headgear. 

 

Images above show three heads of cottongrass and sheep's wool lying on grass nearby. 

Hot July

Some welcome heat in the croplands, but not so much that wild plants were all the worse for it. Rather, some plants thrived in the hot July after a slow spring. While the lowland field crops, especially the autumn-sown, are looking a bit short and parched, some species in the higher, wetter land did better than in recent years. The bog asphodel Narthecium ossifragum flowered in masses above cracked-dry sphagnum, a rich offering, with the bell heather Erica tetralix, for foraging bees. Collected as a dye at various times and places (Grigson) - close up the dull olive buds open to red-orange anthers on yellow furred filaments, like sawn-off pipe cleaners. 

The asphodel above, in mid-July (Living Field collection) were on one-time common grazing, above Inverness, enclosed by sitka crops in the 1980s, but left with enough space in an area reserved for regenerating scots pine. With only the occcasional deer around, and no sheep, the short plants have been enjoying a freedom to reproduce that they hadn't had for centuries, probably. Top left, clockwise: clump of flowering spikes, single spike, bee (note the red pollen sac) and flowers close up, the pipe cleaners less than half a millimater wide. 

Sitka croplands 

In the middle layers of agriculture, between the high grazing and the cereal lands, crops of spruce and pine now dominate, much of them planted in mass after the 1960s, and one of the main changes to these middle lands since the original forest and scrub was cleared: a serious experiment in land use and crop production. The products of timber, chips and bark are in demand, yet there was always risk in reliance on one or two species, sitka spruce Picea sitchensis and lodgepole pine Pinus contorta. Here the arable crops originating from the east mediterranean meet trees from north america, with perhaps some managed grass in between.

The images show the sun setting over sitka near Inverness in early July three weeks after the solstice, and the resulting light effects a few minutes later on a small nearby lochan with water lillies. Like wheat and barley, the Sitka crop leaves little room for other life, yet rides, firebreaks, clearings, some local hardwoods reduce the harshness of the crop.

It was always a risk growing such large areas with a few species. If rapeseed or potato gets hit by pests, farmers leave an interval before sowing again in the same field. If a crop takes several decades to harvest, pests can build up and there are few options for control. Lodgepole is suffering in this way, through Dothistroma needle blight, to a degree that new planting of the species has been suspended. Both sitka and lodgepole self-seed, producing 'volunteers' as do rapeseed and potato. Scots and lodgepole pines are both two-needle, but the lodgepole is a much brighter (not grey) green. A Forestry Commission web page gives more on the fungus causing the needle blight and the fate of lodgepole and other pines.

Fleeced

Still cool for plants through June, and in most years the spring-sown crops expand too slowly to take full advantage of the high sun in the weeks before the solstice. The practice of covering crops with polythene or fleece, to warm of the soil and speed up the rate of leafing, and so to capture more of the sunlight, is becoming commoner in some parts of the east. The gently curved hillside in the photographs below, taken not long before sunset in late June, was covered in wide swathes of whitish fleece, the rows of young brassica plants visible in the upper image.

The fleece does more than warm the soil. It stops insects from eating the plants or laying eggs on them and discourages rabbits and other grazing mammals. The effects of fleece or polythene on the soil are uncertain, and they will alter the local movement of water, sometimes concentrating surface flow into erosion channels.

Solstice light

The long days in the north are good for plants, provided the air does not get too warm, and the ground too dry. So far the maximum air temperature has remained in the teens Celsius and with few exceptions the soil has been moist below the surface. So the development of plants will be spun out, allowing them to fill their various structures without limit on the high solar income. 

The angle of the light for much of the day shows fine structural detail in plants that is obscured under higher suns, and reminds that plants live and procreate by trapping and filtering the energy and materials around them.

The lady's smock Cardamine pratensis in the photograph above taken just before the solstice (Living Field collection) grows in a moist pasture above Strathnairn, grazed by sheep. A member of the brassica family, edible and medicinal, it was attracting white butterflies in late June. A sheep would need to eat a lot of grass and broadleaf plants like this to fill its bones. To concentrate all the energy and minerals, a sheep needs to forage over acres of land. There aren't enough plants in closed pasture, so they are usually fed supplements. Their bones reflect light but no longer filter it.

 

The bogbean Menyanthes trifoliata also creates light-effects, especially in the low slanting rays of a clear evening. It is not so much a plant of wet pasture as of bogs and the edges of lochans, often away from the reach of small grazers. It's not a bean - only its leaves look a bit like those of field bean - but has long been used as a medicinal, though hardly these days. The photograph left below, also taken just before the solstice, has been retouched to bring out the colours - the flowers look whitish or pink superficially but are more intricate.

 

The daily solar income in June here is similar to that in the 'winter' of a sub-equatorial tropical place like Malawi. It does not feel it here because the intensity of sunlight is less while the duration is much longer. To find more on sunrise, sunset and daylength for where you live, try the HM Nautical Almanac Office.  

Solstice approaching

Beginning of June and the hawthorn, or may, flowers are out, scenting the lanes and hedgerows, at least where the bushes have been cut not too close. Like many plants, the hawthorn is catching up with the year. It's not too late.

The crops will bulk nicely in the high solar income around the solstice (21 June), specially those such as winter oilseed rape and wheat, sown last autumn and now with plenty of leaf. If it is not too dry, they will add 10-20 g of new mass per square metre of field each day over May, June and July. What's 20 g - four standard stick treats for cats, a biggish garlic bulb with its own wrapper still on, or not quite two-thirds of a one penny coin. It's a slow process, photosynthesis, but if the rainfall stays reasonable over the summer, yields will not be down this year.

A useful bush, the hawthorn Crataegus monogyna: one of the rose family, along with meadowsweet, agrimony, lady's mantle, wood avens, and the wild raspberry, strawberry, cherries, apples, pears and roses. It makes a good thorny hedge, a fine wood for tool handles, a source of dye and material for teas and various concoctions. Respected in folklore and paganism throughout the ages. Read more in Grigson and in Mabey's Flora Britannica, and Darwin (T) for the rosaeceous herbs of Scotland.

The flowers of the rose family are fairly simple, most parts visible. The flower parts are commonly in fives as in this hawthorn, one more part than the brassica flowers seen in the rapeseed lower down the page. The central, female stigma on its tubular style is surrounded by male stamens, whose pollen-bearing anthers are a fleshy, deep pink-red at first, shrivelling and blackening after a few days. Some of the anthers bend inwards as if to pollinate the stigma; others lean out. 

Oil of colza

The bright yellow fields of flowering oilseed rape began to appear in mid-May, later than in recent years. The cold spring has delayed things by a few weeks. Oilseed rape, also named rapeseed and colza, goes back about 600 years in the UK, when its seed and the ways to grow it were imported from the low countries. Rapeseed has been in these islands longer than the potato, but not as long as oats and barley. The images below are of a field in full flower, late May 2013 (Living Field collection), no soil visible from this angle and just the imprint of the tractor lines.

The seedsmen Peter Lawson and Sons, Edinburgh, wrote in 1850 that it was ‘chiefly employed for oiling machinery, and also by druggists … but seldom or never used for burning, as it gives out a rather dull light.. ‘. Yet other records say colza was used in the late 1800s as a fuel for the Bell Rock light off Arbroath, replacing sperm whale oil and then itself replaced by coal-derived oils. Most crops since the 1970s produce food-quality oil. The demand for rapeseed is high at present due to a fall in the global harvest of olives. It makes a good cooking oil, and as ‘cold pressed rapeseed’ a fine, local alternative to other quality vegetable oils as a dressing for salads and breads.

There’s been confusion over which species have been grown historically: oilseed forms of Brassica napus and Brassica rapa were both known in the 1800s and both have been grown in Scotland to around ten years ago, but the yellow fields these days are mainly winter (autumn sown) oilseed forms of Brassica napus (the swede or neep being the 'root' form), most for human and animal consumption, but some still for industrial purposes.

The field in the images above, taken 25 May 2013, is napus (Living Field collection). The flowering stems are extending rapidly and will do for some weeks yet. The lower, older flowers have faded and the seed pods are beginning to extend and fill, while the buds at the top of the stem are not yet open. Each flower has a central female part, the stigma – the flat disc on top of the tube-like structure in the image mid-right - surrounded by several male anthers. The tube of the stigma is half a millimetre in diameter. The anthers develop a granular surface as the pollen grains mature and begin to separate from them. A pollen grain falling on a stigma sends out a fine tube that moves down to an ovary below, at the base of the flower, and may fertilise one of the waiting ovules. About 20 ovules in each flower can be fertilised, each by a different pollen grain. Pollen is released from the anthers surrounding the stigma when the plants move against each other in the wind. Wind also carries the pollen for several kilometers. Bees and other insects move from flower to flower seeking food, but they are not necessary to ensure pollination. There is evidence that the female initially prefers pollen from another plant, but eventually a flower's own anthers will do the job.  

Oilseed rape fields have become a part of the landscape in recent decades, blocks of yellow in the pale green of young cereal leaf or the brown of tilled potato fields. The winter forms need high inputs of fertiliser and pesticide, though less than winter wheat and potato. Nevertheless, they allow a small community of weeds to live under the canopy and it's these wild plants that support the farmland food web. Without oilseed rape, farmland would be the poorer.

Figs and olives

It may be a cold, slow spring here, but by mid-April in Greece, the wild plants are on the way to flowering and seeding well before the heat and drought of high summer withers them, so writes Theophilos, the Living Field's man in Greece. He sends these photographs of olive and fig groves in the hills of the western Peloponnese. Wild herbs are allowed to coexist with the small trees, creating a very diverse assemblage of plants. The meadow herbs and grasses will die down in a month or so but the deeper rooting trees will continue to extract water from the soil, aided sometimes by irrigation.

The wild plants also contribute to the agriculture. Wild legumes are everywhere in the groves, most likely adding nitrogen to the soil that will later be used by the trees. Many of the plants also have culinary and medicinal uses. The wild lavender Lavandula stoechas (top right in the panel above) was growing on a raised bank just to the left of the olive grove in lower image.

The edible fig (panel above) was among the first plants ever to be cultivated. Here in the hills, they were growing with a carpet of wild plants, mostly flowering compositae in the lower image. Figs have that characteristic straggly, branching structure, the lower branches often showing a downward followed by an upward curve, the new leaves emerging near the tips (top left). Once fully expanded, fig leaves are large enough to shade the developing fruits from the sun. The fruits shown here (top right) were on a feral or wild fig, well ahead of the ones in cultivated groves, this one growing on the mound at Ancient Mycenae (eastern Peloponnese) the reputed citadel of Agamemnon - though when asked about the possible Dundee interest, Theophilos said he did not see Brian Cox anywhere on the ancient site. 

The agriculture seen in much of the hill lands was of a mixed type such as shown in the photographs. The soil was nearly all covered by vegetation to add mulch and nitrogen, reduce the hotting up of the surface layers and limit the power of rain to displace and erode soil. The image immediately above shows an olive tree sheltering a collection of herbs, including legumes (e.g. Vicia cracca) that will fix nitrogen, eventually releasing it to the soil under the tree. In the lower regions of the country, more intense agriculture prevailed, a blend of scorched earth and plastic, not too different from horticulture in parts of lowland Scotland.

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From the cold wastes of Siberia

Easterlies in winter bring a bitter dry cold from the continent. They don't last for long most years, but this year they came late and stayed. They haven't brought the deep cold that comes with still air and clear nights, but you feel it when air around zero blasts into you. Many farmhouses and steadings were built with their back to the prevailing south-westerlies, the doors and openings facing east or north, but when the wind turns to the east there is no shelter.

The snow that fell heavily around and after the equinox (20 March), when south winds hit the cold easterlies, reversed the typical pattern of snowfall in the UK: the south west, Wales large parts of south, central and east England, and in Scotland, the south west Islands and Argyll, and also the east coast, had deep snow causing hardship and disruption. The highlands got off lightly; parts of the north-west were tinder dry.

The snow was often localised: Fife, south of the Tay, was covered; Dundee and the Carse, north of the Tay, had just a sprinkling.The Living Field garden has hardly seen snow this year. To see snowscapes near the Carse, you had to climb to the height of the iron age 'forts' on the Sidlaws.  The iron age people must also have suffered this wind from the east and taken themselves and their stock for respite to the nearby lower ground.

 

The slopes below  these settlements are now managed pasture or plantation forest. Last year's wet did not help the grazings and many sheep are fed. Lambing has begun in some parts of the country, and though sunrise is moving quickly anticlockwise or northwards, air temperature still hovers around zero in late March. Lambing last year was bitter cold and wet in many parts.

The photographs here were taken on or near the oval mound on Dron Hill. The one at the top shows the beech tree that grows inside the mound at about 650 feet. It must have withstood many raw easterlies, but remains straight in its trunk and still with a curved crown, unlike many of its neighbours that are part wrecked or felled by the gales. The sheep gathered round a feeder were on the snow covered slopes. The ravaged oak, showing many sign of past damage and much short stubbly regrowth, and the trunk of another beech, were just off the mound to the west. (All photographs Squire/Living Field).The RCAHMS entry on Dron has aerial photographs and descriptions of the site.

'From the cold wastes of Siberia' are words from the song Jack Frost by Mike Waterson, which reflects, among other matters, on the destruction of an invading army by the winter weather.

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Rosemiles

Does your valentine have ecological yearnings? Did she spurn your hothouse, airmiled roses? Did she hint you should get something more local next year? In that case you’ve got problems. There’s not much in the way of wild blooms in mid-February.  Snowdrops are too bloodless. The coltsfoot is unlikely to excite the passions - a yellow daisy on a scaly stem, emerging before the mealy leaves ... and now with undertones of horse-parts and burgers. Local roses? They  flower  much later in the year. Briar stems? Yes, but you would need heavy gloves and cutters, perhaps worth it if you wanted to intimate some dangerous entanglement in the offing. No, the only solution to reducing the carbon footprint of valentine’s day is to move it to summer.

Rose stems (below), well armed against browsing, live for a few years, enough in some cases to allow lichens on them. They have a wide range of thorns and spines, varying among species, hybrids and localities. The largest thorns in the images were 1 cm long. Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara is a medicinal, and unusual among the composites in flowering before the leaves appear.  On a clear day in mid-February, the flowering stems were straining out of the earth towards a low sun. A flower head is shown above from the side, the whole 2.5 cm across. The petal-like straps, each less than a millimetre wide, belong to the outer ray florets.  The images have been drained of colour, like a February day.

Twenty-what?

Big ideas to rebuild our natural home is the theme of this photographic roadshow, viewable  in Dundee until 17 February 2013 as part of the 2020 Vision project run by the Wild Media Company. The works, commissioned from twenty photographers, are displayed in the public space outside the DCA and Science Centre. The photographs are of exceptional quality, and with minimal text on each board, convey sentiments and aspirations about our managed and semi-natural habitats. The project is sponsored by several conservation bodies and wildlife trusts. Visually compelling, yes ... but why 2020?

On the project, the Wild Media Company writes on its web site "... scientific evidence suggests that we have only about 10 years (until 2020) to rethink the way we live before ecosystems start to break down. If we do nothing, things we currently take for granted, like clean water, food and energy, will be under threat." But these timescales make no sense: ecosystems, including those that clothe and feed us, have been breaking down for ages, some now broken past repair. So is '2020' little more than typical media guff? Yet this photographic road show may touch many people not normally bothered about their ecological future. Check the web sites for further info and locations of the road shows and related events.

Neep tide

Each year in the fourth week of January, the neeps of the croplands leave their cold, wet beds in a great surge towards restaurants and homes, throughout the land and beyond, for the meal of haggis, neeps and tatties that commonly forms the sustenance of a Burns Supper in memory and honour of the poet Roberts Burns (1759 to 1796). Neeps are more widely known as the swede - the tuber form of the plant, Brassica napus – and with the turnip, Brassica rapa – changed agriculture and food security for the better, notably in the 1700s, by providing food for people and farm animals through the winter when the stocks of grain were running low.

The photographs above, Living Field collection, show (top) haggis, neeps and tatties waiting to be served at the Dundee staff restaurant as a lunchtime Burns Supper, the neeps being the pale yellow dish with a tinge of orange to the lower right of the whiter mashed tatties; (below right) a swede just pulled out of the earth; and (left) the same tuber sliced to show the pale yellow-orange interior, which has little visible structure other than some white mottling. This lunchtime Supper, with oat-based cranachan available, but of course without the dram, was much appreciated by all staff, perhaps most by the overseas visitors and students who were able to sample these delicacies for the first time. Neeps are a distinctive and tasty vegetable, excellent pureed, braised with herbs or roasted with other roots such as parsnip, potato, turnip and red beet. 

End of day, end of year

The photographs below were taken in the dying light on the last day of 2012. The cloud had cleared to show a fine sunset, recorded here from the richly agricultural Strathmore. The fields in the middle ground of the first image are flooded, as have been many fields throughout the autumn and early winter.

The Met Office's analysis, derived from their network of weather stations, became available on the web in the first few days of the new year, confirming the expectation that 2012 was one of the highest rainfall periods since formal records began in 1910.  Moreover, 2012 joins 2000, 2002 and 2008 as being among the five wettest years, indicative of a more general increase in rainfall towards the end of the last century and the beginning of the present one.   

The rainfall has not been uniformly high throughout the country, as shown by the maps and summary-data at the Met Office's UK actual and anomaly maps and the interpretation at the BBC's Second wettest year in graphics. Rainfall was below the thirty-year average in much of north west Scotland and Northern Ireland, compared to the >35% above average in the croplands of Lothian and the Borders. The BBC site also shows the greatest difference between the thirty-year average and 2012 occurred in summer. So soil that is usually dry enough in August to soak up the rain of autumn and winter was already full of water.

The images above (Squire/Living Field), taken at and just after sunset on 31 December 2012, show the flooded River Isla and cloud patterns above Strathmore. 

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Contact for this page: Geoff Squire

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