Country Matters Oct 21: Harvest Festival

Harvest festival is celebrated on the Sunday closest to the full moon accompanying the Autumn equinox.  This year it’s October the third.

Last year the apples fell fit to bombard another Isaac Newton.  And obliterate him.  Even old cankerous trees bore fruit that weighed their branches down, almost to the grass.

This year, late frosts nipped so much in the bud.  A meagre crop of soft fruits arrived between a fortnight and a month late.  Down in Cirencester, behind St John’s, the Laburnum poured with yellow, but a mere hundred feet higher and a couple of miles towards Cheltenham the first blooms didn’t open until the blossom in Cirencester was almost gone.  Torrential rain and vicious winds curtailed the brief flowering of the out of town Laburnum, whilst copious fluff fell from the trembling aspen trees gathered around and above it.  Prolific seed production from one tree and near failure of fruit from another. An apple harvest so meagre, even the wasps didn’t come to taste them. A local cider maker said she expected orchards to alternate from year to year, but after the glut of 2020, and lack of picking opportunities, this year’s harvest has been unusually sparse.

Our window cleaner has been pleased to see many fewer wasp nests this year, but there has been a shortage of insects in general, with ladybirds being far less evident, accompanied by – thankfully – a smaller population of greenfly.  The burst of heat as August approached September seemed to promote a brief flurry of activity amongst grasshoppers and ants, and a healthy burst of quite large dragonflies and damselflies.  Perhaps due to the heat and lockdown meaning there has been a little less human activity in some areas of wild habitat, lizards, snakes and slow worms proved easier to spot, although we noticed many fewer tadpoles, and frogs.  The one group of garden friends we have missed most have been hedgehogs, which hasn’t helped to cull the slugs which attacked our vegetable patches.

There can be no doubt; everything’s conspiring to make things unpredictable for farmers.  Extremes of weather threaten both crops and livestock. But people can get used to anything.  From 1600 until 1814, Britain went through a period which has become known as the ‘little ice age’ and fairs were regularly held on the frozen River Thames.  

Jethro with his veteran’s award.

Before dinosaurs evolved there were tropical forests which turned into coal in the Forest of Dean.  And when mammals replaced the dinosaurs, a prehistoric man could walk from Cirencester across Europe without having to cross a sea. That was less than ten thousand years ago.  This place has been cold, hot, dry, and wet, and all sorts of life has flourished here.  Including mammoths and lions. Climate change isn’t new.

If you’re a keen cider drinker then the idea of planting olive trees – or even date and banana palms – in Cirencester may seem a bit far-fetched, but someday it’s quite likely to be possible. We’re reviving wine growing with success, having previously had to give up when the little ice age put an end to a prolonged period of heat in Mediaeval days.  Not only did Romans write about growing grapes in Britain during the first century, but also the Normans taxed British winemakers in the 11th century.

Farming changes the landscape; cereal crops have diminished, and oilseed rape has turned our valleys a different shade of yellow.  Cotswold Lion sheep no longer make us wealthy with their wool, and we see alpacas and other livestock populating our fields.  Will alligators attack dog walkers by the Abbey Lake…?

‘Whatever next?’  We shouldn’t forget we have a history of resisting change.

Next month we shall remember a time of rural resistance…

PS We went to Frampton Country Fair on Sunday. Jethro won a rosette for being judged best Veteran Lurcher in the show! It was also nice to see a brief tribute to Richard Lutwyche, Ciren Scene’s erstwhile Hodge, in Rollo Clifford’s introduction to the show programme.

It read, “… during lockdown recently, we were sorry to note the death of Richard Lutwyche (aged 71) who was a good friend of the Fair as an evangelist for native breeds, especially the Gloucester Old Spot. He was also a prime mover in the creation of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.”

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