Monday, February 17, 2014

Storming Ahead

Work has been intermittent at Fox Wood over the last couple of months. The savage storms that have lashed southern Britain and Ireland since before Christmas have not allowed for much work to be done at all! Luckily there has been little damage beyond a couple of ivy-choked hawthorns being blown over, a small pear tree being snapped in half by the wind and the almost complete loss of the silage plastic I was using to kill off a section of grass in preparation for clover sowing. A stream has appeared on the land, seemingly coming up out of a patch of boggy undergrowth.

Elsewhere has not been so lucky. Fox Wood is very close to the small Cornish harbour of Porthleven, which has taken a terrible battering. With ferocious waves rolling in off the Atlantic the usually protected harbour was overwhelmed and the defensive bulwarks were smashed to pieces. Several fishermen lost their boats but luckily nobody was killed.

Nobody in these parts has ever seen anything quite like it before. They say the weather has not been this bad for 250 years, but what they really mean is that records only began 250 years ago. There has been almost constant rain for nearly two months now, with only the occasional day here and there of calm weather. Yesterday the sun came out - although today it is back to 'normal' - here is the view from my window as I write these words:

Although you can't make it out from the image, there is a buoy between here and St Michael's Mount (the island) which recorded a number of almost 75 feet high waves (that's about 22 metres) last week.

This is unprecedented and the entire coastline has suffered devastation as a result. Dead seals, dolphins and even whales have been found smashed against the rocks on nearby beaches. This is what it looks like close up:

Penzance promenade during a recent storm

This ongoing devastation has reignited the debate about climate change here in the UK. The current government takes a dim view of anything to do with the environment. Indeed, the minister responsible for the environment says that climate change is unimportant and that people should not get so 'emotional' about it. I wonder how the people of Somerset feel about that?

A flooded Somerset, seen from above

I was in nearby Devon yesterday and the local newspaper had the above picture on the front page with the headline Welcome to the Future. This is the place where the government wants to build a new nuclear power station.

Anyway, so far the storms are mostly proving to be scary and expensive rather than deadly. There is lots of talk of abandoning parts of the coastline to nature, which makes me all the happier that both Fox Wood and my house are safely inland and up hills.

Despite the almost apocalyptic weather various things have been happening at Fox Wood. I have decided that I am going to use the woodland as an education centre to teach permaculture and coppice crafts. This will no doubt take a few years to reach fruition but I know the land well enough now to decide on the best place for a building, and in due course I'll apply through the correct legal channels to construct something that can be used as a place to teach. Given that I'm short on cash these days it will necessarily have to be built out of whatever is available on site - which luckily is a huge amount. I'm thinking of cordwood walls and cob, for the main. Luckily there is someone just down the road who has already built such a dwelling so I'll take my designs from it.

The hobbit house at Plan It Earth - see here for more info

I have decided to create a peaceful garden to accompany the centre and cleared a good section of overgrown woodland with nothing but a pruning saw and some loppers. I'm beginning to love my new pruning saw as it is such an effective tool that requires little effort to use. There were quite a few dead hawthorn trees in there, and giant bramble bushes, so I came away with plenty of scratches and cuts! But the land is flat here and ideal for a garden.

Next winter I'll cut down most of the trees in here and let the rabbits nibble on the new shoots. Instead, I'll plant a few more fruit trees and surround the whole area with a hedge. The reason for the hedge is that there's a public right of way running right alongside this section of the land so it will just be there for some peace and seclusion.

Myself and the kids built some rustic steps down into the new 'garden'. Not bad for three hours' work using just stones, hazel rods and chestnut branches!

In two weeks I am taking delivery of about 150 trees. 100 of these are Italian alders, which grow fast and will act as windbreaks around the land to protect the more delicate fruit trees. They are great injectors of nitrogen into the soil too, which is very important at this stage of the design. There are also some walnut trees, which are slightly toxic to other plants so I'll have to figure out an area for them that won't interfere too much with the rest of the plant community. The other 50 or so trees are for edible hedging, and are a mixture of rose hips, crab apples, hawthorn, damson and other species, long enough to make a 20m hedge. Furthermore, I've planted about another 25 trees, including hazel, fast-growing poplar (to shield the future poly tunnel because neighbours are concerned about 'visual intrusion'), dogwood, common alder, silver birch (for firewood) and willow.

My most urgent task at the moment is to put up fencing to protect the coppice stools from rabbits. This is quite expensive and the weather has prevented me from doing too much about it, but I'll have to do it in the next couple of weeks or so. This has to be dug into the ground to stop the rabbits burrowing underneath.

Speaking of coppicing, in the newly-exposed soil around the tree stumps I'm randomly planting potatoes and vegetable seeds - beetroots, maize, beans, pumpkins, carrots, marrows and butternut squashes. It occurred to me that I might be onto something here and I've never heard of anyone else doing this. Here is 25 years of leaf mulch, which has produced some of the richest soil imaginable, that is suddenly open to sunlight. Furthermore, it will be protected from rabbits by the fencing. I reckon there will be a couple of years before the new tree growth begins to block out the light again, and in the meantime I'm hoping that this will allow for some great (and very easy) no-dig vegetable gardening to go on. The random nature of the planting will protect against invasion by predator insects, which love groups of crops sown closely together. That's the plan anyway.

I've also begun inoculating sawn-up logs with mushroom spores - oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, pearl and chicken of the woods. The logs need to be kept damp - no problem in this climate!

I managed to sell some of my cut wood from this year's coppice - not much, but it's an exciting start! I'm beginning to keep notes on how much the land is producing. Everything should be included in it, from wood and seedlings, to hedge berries, rabbits and pounds of apples. The reason I'm starting to do this is a growing suspicion that in the not-too-distant future landowners will have to justify their land and prove to government officials that they are doing everything they can to make it productive and not just using it for leisure.

I recently watched all of the episodes of the BBC series 'Victorian Farm' and went on to watch 'Wartime Farm' - I'd highly recommend both series as they are free to watch on YouTube. It then hit me that a financial storm will likely render the UK unable to purchase chemical fertiliser and oil, meaning the threat of widespread hunger. When this happened during the last war, all farmers were immediately placed under the watchful eye of the 'War Ag' i.e. inspectors who ensured landowners were doing everything they could to produce as much food and wood as possible. Failure to make the grade meant confiscation of your land. In one case, a farmer who refused to cooperate was shot dead by police following a siege.

But since the last war the population has more than doubled, the skills to work the land without chemicals have evaporated, a massive area has been concreted over by urban sprawl and the fertility of the topsoil has plummeted. And now we are also losing large amounts of low-lying fertile land to flooding. The only reason people are not worried by all this is because there is this false notion floating around that we will always be able to buy whatever we want on the so-called global market. To me that sounds like a risky proposition.

Officialdom loves documentation, so from here on in I'll be taking notes of exactly what the inputs and outputs are at Fox Wood. After all, I wouldn't want the land to be placed in the hands of a bureaucrat, ploughed up and planted with potatoes to feed starving city folk. This, to me, is a far more likely scenario than the imagined gangs of thugs who will be roaming the countryside looking for food.

I'm just thinking ahead and it pays to spot potential predators lurking in bushes.