Friday 25 May 2018

Animals On The Edge

A few posts ago I made a promise, via a reply to a comment, that I'd write a bit more about rare breed farm animals and their conservation in this country. The more I thought about it the more I realised I knew. And the more I needed to find out! Anyway here goes....but before that a cute photo to get us started.....

North Ronaldsay Sheep - in need of our support!

Why so many breeds of farm animals? In Britain we have at least sixty breeds of sheep as well as a great variety of cows, pigs, horses, goats and poultry. Each of these breeds had developed in small areas in response to local conditions and needs. It's no coincidence that many of these breeds are named after individual counties, islands or even small market towns; these were the places where these animals were found.

Manx Loaghtan

The key to the development of separate breeds seems in most cases to be isolation. Many of the islands of Scotland have their own breeds of sheep - North Ronaldsay, Boreray or Soay, for example. Indeed Soay actually means "sheep island" showing how ancient the dependence on sheep must be. The most extreme case of isolation however occurred, not on an island but at Chillingham in Northumberland where a herd of cattle were walled in on some parkland then allowed to live as wild animals. This happened around 700 years ago and they are still there to this day, isolated from human influence and infiltration by other herds. You might think that, after centuries of inbreeding, their health would be compromised in some way, but no, they are a healthy, sturdy animals and thought to be as near to medieval cattle as it's possible to be.

White Park cattle - not as wild as its cousins from Chillingham

The differing geography of each location in which these breeds developed has also had an influence. As you'd expect sheep which survive on windswept Scottish islands have to be hardier than those bred in the south of England. Natural selection favours the tougher individuals and the breed slowly changes. Similarly sheep kept on mountain pastures tend to be smaller and more nimble than those kept for centuries on easier ground. What is happening is, just as Darwin predicted, that genetic variability is favouring certain traits. It's also being realised that small changes in certain characteristics can also throw up other unrelated changes, for instance in coat colour.

Gloucester Old Spot

In addition to natural selection there are all the ways, both deliberate and unintentional, that humans have shaped and moulded each breed. Sheep can be utilised for meat, wool and milk and the differing uses reflect which animals are kept to breed the next generation. Cows may also be kept for milk or beef, or of course both. Pigs are only kept for meat but tastes change; once pigs used to be much fatter than they are nowadays as their fat was used for making lard and the consumer liked a nice tasty bit of fat on their pork or bacon, now much leaner animals are preferred.

Whitefaced Woodland - 

Of course none of this mattered in the slightest to the farmers of the past. They probably knew that the pigs and sheep kept in the next county were different and, they almost certainly thought, inferior to theirs, but that was about it. They just carried on selecting what they thought was "a proper sort of animal" for breeding purposes.

Norfolk Horn

This all changed in the nineteenth century when a few enlightened farmers realised that by crossing a local breed with one from elsewhere you might be able to develop a strain with the best qualities of both breeds. Then began the first efforts to describe all the different traditional breeds, list their defining characteristics and generate standardisation within each breed.

Highland Cattle

In the 1930s there were about 16 traditional pig breeds in the UK, including Yorkshire Blue and Whites, Cumberland, Dorset Gold Tip and - I'd have liked to have seen these - Lincolnshire Curly Coats. One of the first to disappear was the Ulster which was ideal for bacon cured on the farm, but had thin skin which was easily damaged during transportation; they simply didn't suit modern methods with large bacon factories and so the breed vanished.

Middle White

Most traditional pig breeds survived the war years when many were raised in gardens, orchards or on any available spare ground. But the drive for modernisation and efficiency in the 1950s meant that farmers were encouraged to concentrate on just a few breeds, while others either perished or were kept by a handful of eccentrics and enthusiasts. 

Leicester Longwool

Cattle suffered a similar fate so that by the 1970s 90% of the national herd were Holsteins. Sheep fared a little better since it had long been the practice to cross mountain sheep with lowland varieties, raise them in hill country and then fatten them for market lower down. The "UK Stratified Sheep System" is actually more complex than that, but the upshot of it was that while many breeds were preserved others were sidelined.

Dartmoor Sheep - you can't pull the wool over my eyes!

In 1973 The Rare Breeds Survival Trust was founded to attempt to preserve the genetic diversity represented by these traditional varieties and it is a measure of their success that since then no farm breeds have become extinct, though it's been a close call for some. If they are going to survive it's essential that we find a real purpose for them. Some will be kept by enthusiasts who just love their one particular breed. Some can be accommodated on rare breeds farms which open their doors (or gates) to the public. Nature reserves will use some breeds of sheep or cattle to maintain the environment through grazing. And recently there has been a growth in interest for using the meat, wool or milk of some of these traditional breeds.

Take care.

Tuesday 22 May 2018

Wayside Companions

When not going to places where I know I'll encounter history, wildlife, landscapes or human celebrations of note, I also like to walk from my back door and explore the network of footpaths around my home. These lead me along field edges, through woods, beside streams and to a few small nature reserves. Although I walk alone I often meet with old friends, many of whom I haven't seen since this time last year. It's always good to see them, even if I sometimes can't recall their names and have to look them up in a book when I get home.

No problem with these though. Cow Parsley and Buttercups!

Evergreen Alkanet

A Common Blue butterfly, if I'm not mistaken.

The first Dog Rose I've seen this year.

And some of the first Elder I've seen flowering.

A Four-Spotted Chaser, I presume.

The unmistakable flowers of the Guelder Rose.

A large, red damselfly?
Must be a Large Red Damselfly!

A grown-up Moorhen
and a baby bunny.


Russian Comfrey

I wouldn't recommend sitting right on the path,
my dear Speckled Wood.

Afloat on the little stream I find
none other than Water Crowfoot.

And a Yellow Flag to wave farewell

Take care.

Monday 21 May 2018

Cuttings From The Blogging Room Floor

Another selection of bits and bobs that I've seen on my wanderings...

Wonderful Inventions

When you get off the train at Biggleswade and cross over the footbridge you'll find this mural painted on the parapet. If you notice it at all you might think it's a badly painted representation of an old steam traction engine and there's no sign to tell you otherwise, or to explain its significance here.

It commemorates the achievements of inventor Dan Albone (1860-1906) who lived all his life in the town. The high point of his career was probably the invention of the first light agricultural tractor. The steam traction engines which preceded it were great heavy beasts which ploughed by having two engines placed on opposite sides of the field and pulling a plough back and forth between them by means of steel cables. Some manufacturers had tinkered with the internal combustion engine powering similarly heavy machines using the same system. But it was Albone who came up with the idea of having a tractor which was light enough to pull the plough behind itself like all modern tractors.

Before this ingenious breakthrough Albone had invented a safety bicycle, which was much like the bicycles we ride today, and also manufactured cars and motorbikes. I'm fascinated by the fact that he also invented and patented the little clips which attach a pump to a bike frame. What's more he was the first person to come up with the idea of making a child seat for a bicycle.

Out Of Sight

Recently while walking around Stow Hall Garden I came across these intriguing little steps which lead to some kind of tunnel. A nearby sign explained:

"This tunnel was used by gardeners arriving to and returning from work in the walled garden....This was so they would not be seen from the Hall (which has since been demolished).....Fortunately today the gardeners are allowed to be seen and use the main gates!.....We are not sure when it was built, but it was likely to have been in the early 1800's."

Forgotten Sign

My brother spotted this when we were out on a walk through the village of Elmdon recently. He reminded me that once nearly every village hall in rural England used to have such a sign to announce that it acted as a branch library where you could order any books you wanted to borrow from the main library. They've almost all disappeared now as their role has been taken by mobile library vans.

Black Diamonds
These diamond-shaped, black-bordered coats of arms are sometimes seen in our old churches. They are known as "funerary hatchments" and refer to the deaths of great men or women in the community, usually the Lord and Lady of the Manor.

These hatchments were hung above the door of the deceased's former residence for six to twelve months after their death and were then transferred to the church in which the person had been buried. The practice started in the seventeenth century and recalls an earlier time when a knight's shield would accompany the funeral procession and be left in the church. 

As is always the case with heraldry if you understand the conventions then much can be learned about the dead person, whether it was a man or woman, whether or not they were married, whether their partner pre-deceased them or was still alive and so on. I must admit that I get thoroughly confused by it all, though I can remember that the ribbons depicted around the arms on the left mean that it was a lady who had died.

Signs Of The Times

A year or two ago I showed you some of the "ghost signs" which were being re-painted around Cambridge. I wondered if the one for the old Hot Numbers record shop would be resurrected. As you can see below it's now as good as new..

Extra Apostrophes

As we all get older we get more frustrated by the incorrect use of the apostrophe, whether it's included where it's not needed as in the market-stall holders' "Mushroom's £1", or where it's been unforgivably omitted as in St. Johns Road. But here a graffiti artist has cleverly added one to the road sign to comic effect.

Take care.

Sunday 20 May 2018

Whitsun In Whaddon

So there I was on a bright sunny May morning trundling my bicycle along a quiet lane expecting to find some Morris dancers. I felt very like Cecil Sharp as he cycled around the Cotswolds collecting this almost vanished tradition back in the early years of the twentieth century.

And here they were, the Devil's Dyke Morris Men, doing their dances for just a handful of spectators, of which I was happy to be one. After several dances they assembled to sing a song....

Now Whitsuntide is come you very well do know;
Come, serve the Lord we must before we do go;
Come, serve him truly with all your mind and heart,
And then from heaven your soul shall never depart.

Now we may bring you the royal branch of oak;
God bless Elizabeth, our Queen, and all the royal folk;
God bless Elizabeth and all this world beside,
Then the Lord he will send us all a merry Whitsuntide.

The "royal branch of oak" once played an even more important part in this custom, which is unique to the village of Whaddon. Before the practice died out towards the end of Victoria's reign the young men would go around the village leaving oak boughs on the doorstep of each house to remind them of Whitsun the following day. (Whitsun or Whit Sunday is the British name for Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter). Then on Whit Monday they would walk through the village singing the song, the first and last verses of which are printed above.

We walked along the lane then towards the village and met the ladies of Manor Mill Clog Morris who'd been entertaining folks here.

Then along the lane came the jangling bells of the White Rose Morris Men.
"Have you come far?"
"Aye, Yorkshire!"
And indeed they had for they hail from Huddersfield and come down to help with the celebrations.

Then, after another rendition of the Whaddon Whitsun Song, our ever-growing company strolled to the road junction for more dances. It's not recorded that dancing played any part in proceedings originally but it's not unreasonable to suppose that it once did.

Next stop was the Village Hall where there was more dancing from all three sides.

Then it was time to make our way across the field to the church where there was to be a short service.

I'd long wanted to have a peek inside the church (which is usually locked) since my cousin told me that our great-great-great-great-grandparents, William and Susannah, were married there back in 1770*, so, although not really dressed for the occasion, I thought I'd join them for the service. The closing hymn was, appropriately, Lord Of The Dance

*Senior moment I'm afraid. Although I was correct about William and Susannah getting married in 1770 I'm afraid I got the wrong church! William's father, John, may have been the John Hagger who was baptised at Whaddon in 1707 though.

Then, rather unexpectedly, there was Morris dancing in the church. Lots of other people were taking photos, so I thought I would too.

You can find out more here: - on the village website - a slightly different version of the village song, sung in typically uncompromising fashion by the Young Tradition. - Devil's Dyke Morris Men - White Rose Morris Men

Take care.

Friday 18 May 2018

At The Heart Of The Community

I see that I've accumulated enough village signs to present you with another collection. I'm not sure when these started to appear but I began to notice them about thirty years ago, though then they were a rarity. Now just about every village and a few small towns have some kind of sign, either carved from wood or constructed with some fancy metalwork, illustrating their history and civic pride.

Take care.

Thursday 17 May 2018

Portrait Of A River

The River Ivel flows for some eighteen miles through rural Bedfordshire. It's followed by a walking route known as The Kingfisher Way and a couple of days ago I walked a nine or ten mile section in the middle of it, between the railway stations at Arlesey and Sandy. 

I took the photo above near to Arlesey station to illustrate the way that ancient and modern come together along the length of the river - the river with its little bridge and, soaring over it all, the new bridge carrying the A507 road. Only one problem: that's not the River Ivel but its tributary the River Hiz.

We're soon passing a grand mansion known as The Grange which these days is a health spa promising clients "holistic well-being". On a fine day like this they should be out on a walk!

A first glimpse of the Ivel flowing beneath another small bridge.

The river valley, like many in the area, has been exploited for its river gravels, leaving many old pits which have now filled with water. Many are used by angling clubs and a few are nature reserves.

While the path passes through meadows, the village of Langford comes right down to the opposite bank. The small towns of Biggleswade and Sandy do exactly the same thing, occupying just one bank where the slightly higher land comes close to the rivers edge, while leaving the lower land opposite to flood when water levels are higher.

A huge weeping willow drapes its shade over the path.

We need to leave the riverside for the next section and walk through the village of Langford. It's all neat and tidy but not the most beautiful place I've ever seen.

We're back to the river at Jordan's Mill. Some readers will know that Jordan's make breakfast cereals and cereal bars and this is their headquarters. The old mill is preserved and is open to visitors. There's also an interesting garden which one day I'll visit.

Just outside Biggleswade I found this amazing field aglow with flowers of Red Campion. I'm fairly certain that it's never grown as a crop so I imagine this must just be a field that's been left fallow and not treated with weed  killers. (I see that there are many firms who sell Red Campion as wild flower seed so maybe that explains this field. With one supermarket charging £2.49 for 100 seeds it could be a very profitable venture).

This was turning into an excellent day for spotting birds and butterflies. Throughout the day there were white flowers everywhere - May blossom seems more abundant than ever this year, the cow parsley is growing luxuriantly and stands of garlic mustard punctuate every hedgerow.

And in a tree-top was perched a Little Egret surveying the scene.

Now, just as my walk was drawing to a close, things began to get silly. All of a sudden I was ploughing through chest-deep vegetation which included an unreasonable percentage of stinging nettles which managed to penetrate my thin cotton trousers. Every so often there was a post with a small sign informing me that, despite all appearances, I was still on a path.

Then at last I came out onto the road which would take me to Sandy railway station. One shocked observer stopped his grazing to watch my progress.

Walker's Log:
    Start: Arlesey, Bedfordshire 09.50
    End: Sandy, Bedfordshire 14.25
    Distance walked:  9.5 miles (15.3 Km)
    Notable birds: see below.
    Mammals: rabbits, muntjac deer.
    Butterflies: Brimstone, Peacock, Tortoiseshell, Orange Tip, Speckled Wood,
    Churches: Langford (locked).
    People with dogs: 0
    People enjoying a walk: 20 or so, all in one group.
    Cyclists: 0
    Horse riders: 0

A bird-watchers list:
Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe, Moorhen, Coot, Mallard, Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Shelduck, Canada Goose, Greylag Goose, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Cormorant, Buzzard, Pheasant, Black-headed Gull, Common Tern, Stock Dove, Wood Pigeon, Cuckoo, Swallow, Wren, Dunnock, Robin, Blackbird, Cetti's Warbler, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Rook, Jackdaw, Starling, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, Goldfinch and (despite it being the Kingfisher Way) no Kingfishers!

Take care.