2012 summer / autumn
It's been a subdued autumn in the croplands, not least in the colouring of the leaves. Storms tore many of the dead leaves off the trees prematurely, but in any case there was little of a cold 'snap' at the right time. So the reds, russets and yellows that commonly define the transition to winter were absent in many parts of the country, except perhaps for the beech hedges, but even these are looking a bit worn. Not so everywhere - and as a reminder of what autumn can be - here are some images of woodland near Heidelberg In Germany.
The pervading cloud has rarely broken this autumn. The wet of the autumn equinox merged with the wet of the late autumn cross quarter day, named Samhain in some traditions, around 7 November this year. But in the occasional clearing of the grey, the old rigs, tree-lines, ploughlines, patterns in stubble and the many stone walls that streak the landscape all appeared in the low slanting light. Walls and tree-lines define the character of much landscape here, both arable and upland. Anyone who has built a dry stane dyke knows the skill and effort needed even to cover a few yards, so what skill and effort must have gone into those walls that cross miles of upland, built to define ownership and to keep animals one side or the other.
The image above shows the old stone wall crossing Creag Leachach above Glenshee, in snow, early November 2012, looking about south west (Squire/Living Field). The wall has long since ceased to function as a means of keeping stock, but the iron posts, once connected by wire, still remain over most of its length. The wall is still a monument to those who built it and a folly perhaps to those who had it built.
The excessive wet of the late summer and autumn has caused almost unprecedented difficulties for farming. Harvest began in late August where it was possible. By mid October, some cereal fields still wait to be harvested – some may not be harvested. In parts of the country, soils have been saturated for weeks, crops and stubble in lying water. Yields will be down, there's no doubt, but the water has also brought some magnificent sights to the croplands.
The images below are (upper) waterlogged cereal stubble on the Carse of Gowrie, 16 October 2012 as the sun way going down just above the top left of the photograph, and (lower) neat plough lines in a heavy soil, a little to the south of the upper image. Interesting patterns - unusually narrow bands of stubble in the upper; alternating groups of four light and four darker plough lines in the lower.
The colour of mud
Soil is a living combination of mineral particles formed by the breakdown of rock and of carbon compounds formed by the growth and death of plants. The carbon feeds the soil's bacteria, fungi, worms and insects, which in turn form glues and threads that bind the particles together. Lose the carbon and soil loses its ability to grow crops. Eventually the soil goes and agriculture is impossible.
So the year has shown the cost of ignoring the long-term and widespread loss of carbon compounds from soils. Why the loss? too much cultivation, not enough carbon returned as plant matter? Heavy rain and surface wash sort the unglued particles, creating a structureless silt or mud, criss-crossed by small animal tracks, as on estuarine mudflats. Brightly coloured on close inspection: depending on the parent soil, fox red through shades of brown to squirrel grey.
Reports of strange creatures scuttling around the cool, muddy shoals of the croplands in October launched an investigation by the Living Field. Was it something out of H P Lovecraft - the Shadow over Angus, the Whisperer in east Perthshire? No it was just the exoskeleton of a horseshoe crab, one of the species that scuttles about the warm, sandy shoals of the South China Sea. Nothing to bother about.
Where did it come from? Is it global warming and the wet summer? Most unlikely - it was long dead and was probably washed out of a traveller-naturalist's shed in the flood, to end up among the tatties and slugs of a soggy field bottom. But you never know ...
It's not too much of an exaggeration to liken some fields to a swamp - deep sticky mud, slimey things crawling around, plants choked to death with lack of oxygen through being under water. So maybe the photographs below of a potato field are at the extreme end of the wet, but many fields will have suffered prolonged anoxia this summer - a lack of oxygen round the roots that stops them working properly. Even in fields where there was no standing water, soils will have been full of water, allowing little space for air.
The images above (Living Field collection) were taken mid October 2012 in a potato field north west of Dundee - top, a low lying area where the crop drowned in mud; bottom left, wheel tracks; bottom right, potato tubers washed out and half buried in mud, but note the green one is a 'berry' containing seed, not a root tuber.
Or new dawn on the Squeezed Middle? The first of what will be a series of Hutton Debates considered the value and future of the land that lies between the highly managed arable-grass of the lowlands and the extensive, sheep, deer and grouse grazing of the uplands. This is the Squeezed Middle. What is best done with it. Some has gone to plantation forestry. Much of it is low fertility pasture, being reclaimed by the weeds act weeds - the thistles and docks that have been a problem in grazed land for centuries. Could it again grow crops such as barley and oats? This is a question at a time when the country imports much of its food.
The field in the images above (just after 0500 GMT in late August) has probably been in production for centuries. It formed part of the cropped land of a substantial tenant farm that had enough confidence in the future to build a massive steading - a set of outbuildings - in the late 1890s. But within 50 years the farm was uneconomical as a unit. The field last grew barley in the early 1980s, then hay for a few years until it became long term grass supporting variously cattle and sheep and then sheep only. Gradually, the weeds are moving back. The wetter areas are filling with rushes and the drier with thistles, which the sheep are unable to eat. Even twenty years ago, the thistles were scythed each year. Now it's not worth it. They just advance.
The two common thistles, spear thistle Cirsium vulgare and creeping thistle Cirsium arvense, are on the rampage again, and not just along transport corridors. It's as if they were reclaiming what was theirs in the squeezed middle before the plough and heavy grazers reigned them in for a time. The spear thistle is biennial, so flowers the second year and spreads by a mass of air-borne seed. The other spreads by seed and underground rhizomes - they creep over a little more of the field each year until they claim the lot. Hard to defeat once they take a hold, except by timely mowing or tillage of the soil.
The thistles above are in the field shown higher up the page. Top left is a mature head of the spear thistle, about to release hundreds of seeds; the rest show creeping thistle, in seed and flower. Sheep alone can hardly touch these plants. No ragwort you might say! It's advancing up the tracks and narrow roads towards the field, but sheep should keep it from flowering.
Not all rushes and thistles
These 'squeezed middle' farms always had corners and field-bottoms that were never quite fully converted to tilled land. They were too wet usually or too stony. The 1875 map of the land in the photographs above showed these difficult areas by hatched lines, distinct from the unhatched of the fully tilled land. These areas became diverse in plants and insects, but over-grazing in the 1990s removed many of the plants: no more globeflower, orchids, sundew or butterwort. Yet the tide turns, and perhaps with a lessening of grazing pressure due to fewer animals and these fed with brought-in hay and supplements, the plants are back, except the globeflower, and alive with butterflies and bees. Whatever happens to the 'squeezed middle', its less common plants deserve their place.
The photographs, July 2012, are of some of the plants in the moist field-bottom, well to the right of the sheep and thistles. Left is an orchid; top right, the flowering stem of cross-leaved heath Erica tetralix; and bottom right, unopened flower head of devil's-bit scabious Succisa pratensis, each bud 1-2 mm across.
New dawn ... ?
So what of the squeezed middle! Could it again grow cereals? It would have taken all the ingenuity of the post-1700 agricultural improvements, notably liming, machines and improved varieties or crops and farm animals, to make this land productive in the first place. By the 1980s, the yield of the cereals was probably no more than 1-2 tonnes per hectare, uneconomical today. Even a warming climate would not remove the present limitations of acid soil, steep slopes and stoniness. Yet a challenge such as the rehabilitation of this middle ground might not be too great for a land that wanted to or had to feed itself.
The Living Field ends this series of short notes with a late-August sunrise over a once-productive mixed farming area.
The weather pattern this summer divided the country in a line running south west from around the Dornoch Firth in Sutherland to Loch Linnhe and Mull. North-west of the line, the rainfall was in some places less than 70% of the average over the previous 30 years, while to the south-west, in Fife and the East Lothian, it was more than 200% of the average. The regional pattern is shown on the Met Office's web site at Summer 2012.
Dryness is relative, and the total rain in the north west was still high by the standards of the Gobi, but the shift away from the average shows how suddenly the light, warmth and moisture that we take for granted can change to our discomfort, in this case due to a deviation of unknown origin in that high altitude wind, the jet stream. The deviation caused problems for working the land on both sides of the divide. The effect on agricultural output won't be as great as the changes in rainfall - crops and stock are resilient - but even a 10% drop would be considerable for total output. This year's annual agricultural statistics are awaited with unusual interest.
Photographs above taken August 2012, show (top left, clockwise) an evening view north-west across Loch Scridain, Mull; mayweed and thistles lining a rocky shore, north of Dervaig, Mull; Grass-of-Parnassus Parnassia palustris, not a grass but a member of the saxifrage family, growing in coastal grazings on north west Iona, flowers 2 cm across; and a marshy depression in the same area showing purple loostrife, the pink spikes in the foreground, then bulrush, mountains in the distance and a cloudy sky (top left by KMS, the rest Living Field collection). Local experience might suggest otherwise, but the Met Office's map shows that rainfall on Mull and Iona was near the 30-year averaged over the three months of this summer.
Never mind what's caused all these financial scandals, the biggest fixers of all time are the legumes. The croplands have their share of cultivated and wild legumes. Quite a few of the wild ones have moved in and out of cultivation over the years, being used or encouraged in forage grassland well before science realised that the combination of legume plant and special bacteria (living in nodules on the roots of the plant) have this ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere which is then used by bacteria and plant.
The photographs of legumes above, taken July and August 2012, show flowering heads of (top left, clockwise) sainfoin Onobrychis viciifolia, restharrow Ononis repens (big petals about 1 cm across), tufted vetch Vicia cracca, lucerne Medicago sativa and tufted vetch hanging with burnet moths, the latter at Loch Fleet, Sutherland (Squire/Living Field collection).
Legumes tend to be high in nitrogen and protein, and when they die or die-back, they release the nitrogen into the soil to be used by other microorganisms and plants. Many legumes have other properties - as dyes and medicinals, for example - and their flowers offer sustenance for flying insects. The Living Field is building a collection of legumes in the west garden and encouraging other species to spread in the meadow and grassy areas.
The main legumes grown for their seed in the croplands are varieties of field bean Vicia faba and pea Pisum sativum. They occupy much smaller areas than the cereals, rapeseed and potato. They've been neglected by research funders and the food industry, despite their ability to replace added mineral nitrogen with biologically fixed nitrogen. These legumes may well gain the status of major crops as global costs of fertiliser increase. The photographs below, of field bean, were taken late August at the Institute's Balruddery farm, where researchers are looking at ways to increase the amount of nitrogen fixed by the crop.
The images show (top) field bean in an experimental field, split into two with a sown grass strip between the halves, the plants about five feet tall; lower right, a branch of a bean plant with the pods sticking out; and a pod split open to show the beans, about 1.5 cm across, looking similar to garden varieties of broad bean, the same species. The question now is whether the beans will mature, ripen and dry enough for harvest, in this wettest of summers.
The wild plants of the croplands are on the decrease. They have been for decades. So to buck the trend, each year, the Living Field sows small areas of cornfield annuals to feast the eyes and to feed the many populations of insects that live in and around the garden. The severe and variable weather of the spring this year set back the growing seedlings by weeks, but so resilient are these plants that by late July they had formed a canopy of sown and seedbank plants that erupted into flower and fruit. The images below (Living Field) were taken early August. What architecture... what colour!
The sown species tend to dominate the colour - the red of the poppy, the blue of the cornflower, the white of scentless mayweed and the yellow of the gool or corn marigold - but the lottery each year is which of the seedbank species will appear with them. The seedbank contains mostly common, local plants that overwinter as seed in the soil and emerge when the ground is cultivated in spring. Some of these species have been in Scotland since the retreat of the ice - well before our crops were brought here by stone age migrants.
This year, there were many seedbank species: wild oat, one of the most damaging weeds of cornfields and one not to be tolerated; the creeping and common thistles and round-leaved dock, all 'weeds act' weeds that are no longer economically damaging in arable fields; sowthistles, pansy, forget-me-not, fat-hen and shepherd's purse, which may be weeds, salads, medicinals or animal food, depending on your view; and one-time sown forages such as corn spurry and tufted vetch (vertical strings of light blue in the above, a nitrogen fixer). The place is alive with all the insect pollinators and pest-eaters that are now struggling in farmland.
The heavy rain of this summer is gradually thrashing these plots, but they will continue to grow, flower and seed and offer small places for insects and spiders well into September.
Wet solstice roses
When citrus fruit and vegetables were scarcities, the country turned to the hips of the wild rose for much of its Vitamin C. Wild roses of one form or another are still fairly common in farmland, mostly in hedges and unkempt corners. Their buds and flowers have been rarely dry the few weeks either side the summer solstice, but they seem not much affected, unlike the cultivated forms that rot when wetted. Most open flowers have insects in and around them, some sheltering within the incurled petals.
Severe thrashing of hedges discourages the roses and other shrubs from flowering and fruiting. The Institute's farm where possible cut its hedges on one side only in any year, to allow the other side some freedom. If individual plants are left to grow for a few years, they will generally produce a mass of flowers at solstice time then hips in the autumn. Rose hip syrup or jam is one of the defining tastes of the wild harvest.
Wild roses are not always easy to identify to species because of the many hybrids that exist and the great variation of form within a type. Those in the photographs above appear closest to forms of the northern dog rose, possibly Rosa caesia subsp. glauca.
The days leading up to the summer solstice on 21 June were invariable cloudy and wet, the croplands getting higher than average rainfall and lower than average solar income. The effects of this excess water on the yield of the barley, wheat and potato are hard to predict at this time, but vegetation in and around fields certainly looked very green and well grown. Yet the land here has not had the massive rainfall that made June in parts of England the wettest since reliable records began just over 100 years ago. Preparations for the Open days on 14-16 June 2012 went as planned and even though rain fell for part of each day, many hundreds of visitors passed through the various exhibits laid out in the garden, cabins and polytunnel. To offset the grey skies with a little colour and light, the Living Field produced a set of posters using some of the striking images depicting the work of the Living Field and friends.
The selection of posters above includes (upper) dye plants and medicinals and (lower, left to right) cereals, the Dundee Astronomical Society's display of the sun, the work of the artist Jean Duncan and one of the garden's habitats (pond and ditch). The posters will be available in the coming weeks on the Garden and People pages of the web site.
Contact for this page: Geoff Squire