Category Archives: Environment

Shine on Harvest Moon


An 18th century engraving of a Celtic wicker man.
Image via Wikipedia

 

It’s the autumnal equinox, when the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the West. The hours of daylight and darkness are almost equal. This year it’s a special one because the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the equinox, coincides with it for the first time in 19 years – and it won’t happen again until 2029.  

The harvest moon is so-called because it gives a longer run of moonlight than usual, lengthening the time farmers had to get their harvests in during successive days of the full moon. It also appears larger in the sky than full moons at other times of the year because it hangs lower in the sky due to the Earth’s tilt.  

Legends and customs surrounding the equinox and the harvest moon abound. It has its roots in the druidic lore of the Celts. This was the time of year they celebrated in honour The Green Man, the God of the Forest, by offering libations to the trees. Following the equinox the descent into winter brings hours of increasing darkness and chill temperatures as night conquers day.  It’s also a period of balanced day and night of the equinox.  

Harvest Home was a time to reflect on the past season and celebrate nature’s bounty and accept the end of summer. It marked a time of rest after hard work, and a ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of nature – a time to look back on the achievements of the past year and to plan for the future. The last load of corn would be brought home as the harvesters sang the harvest home song. The farmer would provide a supper for the labourers.  

In some areas Crying the Neck would take place. The last sheaf of corn – the neck – was held up by the ‘harvest lord’ who would shout ‘I have it, I have it, I have it.’ The harvesters would ask: ‘What have ee? what have ee? what have ee?’ The harvest leader’s reply was ‘The neck, the neck, the neck,’ so making it clear that the farm had its harvest home.  

Another custom was to make corn dollies from the last sheaf. A female symbol of the Corn Spirit these would be carried atop the final load and kept in the house to protect the inhabitants from bad spirits during the long winter. There used to be a few hanging up in the Royal Oak – made by a local farmer – now long gone.  

The Celts believed the sun or the corn spirit was trapped in the corn and needed to be set free. The corn dolly or ‘wicker man’ effigy was usually burned in celebration of the harvest and the ashes would be spread on the fields. This annual sacrifice of a large wicker man (representing the corn spirit) is thought by many to have been the origin of the misconception that Druids made human sacrifices. We all know what happened to Edward Woodward in the cult chiller The Wicker Man though.  

The Christian Church replaced Pagan equinox and solstice celebrations with Christianised ones such as Michaelmas and Christmas. The harvest festival as we know it originated in Cornwall when, in October 1843 the Rev R S Hawker set aside a day to thank God for the harvest.  

It’ll be too cloudy to see the moon tonight but have look out anyway, you might be lucky.  

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Shoot day


A Red Kite (Milvus milvus).
Image via Wikipedia

 

Saturday dawned clear and cool on the first shoot of the partridge season. Hurriedly making sandwiches and coffee to take for the day and gathering gear I realise that all those things I meant to do over the summer have been left undone. 

Wax cotton leggings are still hanging in the shed, bearing the mud of last season like a badge of honour. The Barbour jacket still needs a waxing, sticks and flags are unmade and wellies could do with a clean. No time to worry about that now – it’s time to get going. 

Arriving in good time the teams of beaters and pickers up wait for the brief on the days drives from the gamekeeper. Mates catch up on the gossip since last January and beaters’ day . 

The hedgerows are laden with fruit – sloes, blackberries, hips, haws and cob nuts ripening in the sun. Conversation turns to the weather. The warmth of the morning could turn chilly later. What to wear? Mostly we settle for shirts and jumpers. The abundance of fruit suggests a hard winter to come though. And rumours of snow by end of September abound – an unlikely prospect as the sun stirs up the air above the fields into heat waves.  

Standing now on Denton Hill and looking out across fields rolling down to the fen – the lowest point in the UK – with the drone of the traffic on the Great North Road in the background it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful spot. In the distance over the birch woods of Holme Fen wind turbines revolve lazily in the stiffening breeze. Smoke rises into the distant haze from the  chimneys of London Brick at King’s Dyke. 

Four juvenile buzzards and a red kite slowly circle on the thermals above the shimmering stubble. Cotton cumulus ranks advance south eastwards through the pale blue sky, a sign of rain to come.  But for now the late summer sun shines and warms us as we wait in line for the gamekeeper to call us up to the maize covers. 

With a wave the line of beaters is called forward and we begin to walk slowly through the maize, pushing any birds in the cover forward. Steadily coveys of partridges burst from the tall maize, over the hedgerow and the waiting line of guns beyond. Shots ring out intermittently until we reach the end of the maize cover and the gamekeeper blows his whistle, signalling the end of the drive. 

Emerging from the maize and through the hedgerow we can see the pickers up working their dogs. Spaniels and labradors quarter the stubble, collecting up the shot partridges and take them to their handlers. The beaters move on to the next drive. 

After five more similar drives around the countryside punctuated by lunch, the day is over. The bag is around 200 birds. A game dealer arrives to take the shot birds away to sell to butchers. They will appear on the seasonal menus of various restaurants in the area. I’m with Valentine Warner when he says in What to Eat Now:  “Partridge is a plump and tasty bird and, when hung properly, meltingly tender. Whether simply roasted with butter or braised with lentils, partridges are eye-rollingly delicious…” 

At the end of the day I and the other beaters will take home a brace of birds for the pot. 

These scenes will be repeated up and down the country throughout the winter, from now until the end of February, contributing millions of pounds to the rural economy and ensuring the conservation of valuable wildlife habitats. But above all, it’s fun. 

Wild brown trout in the Nene


Record numbers of salmon and sea trout are being found in English rivers according to Environment Agency figures just released.

River water quality in England has improved for the 20th consecutive year.  Over 70 per cent of rivers are now graded as ‘very good’ or ‘good’ under the organisation’s General Quality Assessment classification (GQA).

Wild brown trout have been caught recently in our own backwater of the river Nene, where once they would not be expected to be found. This is another indication that the EA is right because the water quality is improving here too.

According to the Environment Agency 15,ooo salmon and sea trout were recorded in the river Tyne. 50 years ago, no salmon or sea trout were seen. Record numbers of sea trout have also been recorded in the Thames which was thought to be biologically dead since the 1830s.  

The improvements have been achieved through investment by water companies, tougher action on polluters, reduction in discharges from industry and businesses, changing farming practices and local projects such as  fish and eel passes.

Organisations such as local voluntary groups, Rivers Trusts and wildlife groups also have important roles to play in making the country’s rivers even better for people and wildlife.