Article published on June 8, 2017.
Industrial farming has succeeded in turning turn fields into open roofed factories. Copious amounts of fertiliser and weed killers have decimated the natural environment. Plants, birds and animals that were once common sights in the countryside are now very rare or no longer exist. The fields are now only able to support the growing crop.
These fields are silent; empty of life.
It used to be very different. A field of wheat supported a whole eco-system, from the worms in the ground, all the way up to the raptors that drift across the crop. Wild flowers added colour to the fields, corn buntings and lapwings flitted across the top of the crop and hares fought on the fields. Lewis Stempel remembers this way of farming and wonders if he can bring some life back to the countryside again. First he needs to secure a field. Most people he approaches are horrified that he would go back to the old methods claiming that the weeds will bring disease and pests, but he finds one called Flinders and so begins his experiment.
Assessing the land, he realises that it is in pretty poor condition, but not as desolate of life as the field next door. This is farmed by twins who he calls ‘the chemical brothers’, but he pushes ahead with his indulgent experiment nonetheless. First edition to the field is a bird table, and he spends ages observing all the species that realise that there is a new source of food available. He unearths his old Fordson to begin the ploughing. It is not a powerful tractor, unlike the £250,000 modern machines, but it weighs considerably less and does not compress the ground. It reveals the richness of the earth in this Herefordshire field. Sowing is entertaining, as he opts to hand sow, before acquiring a hand operated machine to make life much easier. It still takes a while with 1 tonne of grain though. Then he adds his wild flower mixes, opting to bring colour to the green with cornflowers and poppies.
But will these fundamental changes in the way he cares for the land, bring the hares back?
Lewis Stempel has written a very poignant book. He raises hugely important questions about the sustainability and to be perfectly frank the point of the huge industrial farms and techniques. Why if these chemicals are so safe do the manufactures insist on a sealed cab for tractors spraying this on the land and why do we need to eliminate anything that flies. Not all of them are pests; we might just need the bees you know… More than that, this is a very fine book; the writing is top notch and he is incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about his subject. Woven into his superb prose are quotes and poetry about the farming year, all carefully chosen and relevant. However, what comes across most in this book though is his passion for this single field, farmed in the traditional way; a way that seems just right given modern farming methods. The possibility and potential for wildlife is huge if lot more farmers were prepared to give it a go.
Paul Cheney 5
The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel
Black Swan, 9781784160746, pbk Apr 2017
Longlisted for the Wainwright Book Prize 2017 – find out more and read an extract
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