Location:United Kingdom

An avid tea-drinker who likes nutmeg in her coffee and warm lavender-scented quilts. She knits, crochets and partakes in random acts of craftiness (and kindness). She likes obscure works of literature, philosophy and the idea that her mind exists separately from her body. She enjoys moving furniture around, literary criticism and baking bread. She writes haiku about nettles, would like to swim with seals and become completely self-sufficient. She writes as if her life depends on it, listens to beautiful music, and loves her darling husband Mr. VP.

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Monday 3 December 2012

Black and White Winter Walk

Anyone living in the British Isles at the moment will know just how cold it has become.  Cold enough to need triple layers, vests and an array of winter warmers, such as gloves, hats and scarves.  It is bitter outside.

When I went on this walk last week, it was no better.  The skies were blue, the sun in the sky but such a fierce northerly wind blew that it burned cheeks, fingers and toes alike.

Leaves and seed heads were denuded and left bare against the elements.

There was a kind of deathly winter calm; the sort that makes you long to capture it on camera, that makes you want to head for home to hibernate (that’d be nice from January to March) and the kind of calm that brings a slow lause to the world.

Emptyness and iciness.  In times like these I find it difficult to remember days that were so hot that I’d need air conditioning or days when just a few minutes in the sun would be stifling.  I think I prefer the colder days to those sultry, stuffy days, but recently it has been so cold that I wouldn’t mind a mild couple of days (or some kind of wearable heated blanket!).

My mother and I were discussing this picture; she says that it has very good composition.  I knew I liked it but I couldn’t work out why, but apparently it is to do with the angle of the fence leading the eyes into the middle-distance and the in-focus berries.  You learn something every day.

And these beauties?  I imagine they won’t be around too much longer as they are beef steers and due for a dinner table eventually.  I will miss these pretty, curious faces when they’re no longer there.  I have watched them grow bigger over the summer and hope that they will stay there for a good while yet – though I do not envy them having to stay out in this cold weather.

Saturday 22 March 2008

Bright, windy, snowy days

[Blackthorn branches in flower.]

It seems at the moment the weather doesn’t know what to do. One minute it’s snowing, the next there are clear blue skies, the winds are blowing with more force and for longer than I’ve been able to recall. March winds are usual, there have been mention of them in poems and songs for many years, but they seem to be more frequent and much stronger than I ever remember them.

Today we were at a loss for what to do. We toyed with the idea of going to a National Trust property, but with the gales and frequent snow-flurries we decided against it, instead we headed out to a local beauty-spot. It’s quite lovely, very muddy, with a river and lots of land to stroll around. It has squirrels (red, of course) in abundance and a tea-rooms which do lovely, homemade food at very reasonable prices. We sat drinking our warming drinks, Mr. VP with a hot chocolate and myself with a cup of tea and sharing a very decadent piece of apple-cake. We looked out of the window onto the grey outside, with snow flurrying down around us and thanked our lucky stars we were inside rather than out.

After we’d warmed ourselves, and the snow had abated briefly, we took the well-trodden path into the heart of the woodland. Sticking to the path for a while I then pulled Mr. VP into a secluded part of the forest and headed away from others. My eyes caught the palest little flower on the floor, amongst the carpet of decaying leaf-litter. It was as white as white can be, with tiny purple veins. It took me a while, and many ooohs and aaaahhhs later to realise, when I found more of it, that it was what I had suspected it of being, wood-sorrel. It was the first time I’ve ever come face-to-face with this beautiful, beaming yet understated little flower. Its leaves are said to be the true shamrock, the one which St. Patrick of Ireland showed to the then-Pagan Irishfolk to illustrate the holy trinity, not the clover that most people use today. You can also eat it, too. Hugh F-W has been known to make soup with it, though I daren’t damage such a lovely little plant.

We did eat some hawthorn leaves though, and what a fresh, spring-like taste they had.

I amazed myself with the knowledge I have retained about wildflowers – I take a very active interest in everything natural. Mr. VP says I’m very in-touch with nature. I noticed these lovely little flowers popping up and eventually the name came to me – they were Celandines (also called pilewort for its associative healing properties in that area!). Lesser Celandines to be exact, carpeting the floor of the wood. I knelt down amongst the flora to take some photos of these stunning things. They seemed almost out of place, their very bright faces standing out loud and proud above a sea of green and brown.

The skies darkened after a while on our walk, and almost immediately the snow fell. Slowly and quietly it fell and stuck to our coats and hair. We made our way back to the car, fighting the wind which pelted hard, cold hail at our faces. It was icy by the time we finally reached the warmth of the car, the cold giving you that horrid icy headache that comes from drinking a cold drink too fast.

The wind was so violent last night it took our rickety old yard-fence off its posts and almost sent it flying, so now our yard is naked and on-view to everything and everyone. We’re going to have to brick it up soonish, once we’ve found a brickie sans Western outfit, we hope to have it done reasonably quickly. Like our next-door neighbour said, a house is an expensive mouth to feed.

It does look, though, like Spring has finally come into being. And how do we know this? The first lambs, of course!

These lambs are only a couple of days old.  They will eventually grace a table – but at least unlike intensively-reared factory chicken and pork, they’ll be reared in a way which is as natural as it can be.   As for our Easter meal, Mr. VP, my Mum and myself will be enjoying a non-traditional meal of roast pork from our farmshop.  Homemade apple sauce and lots of yummy veg.

Happy Easter to you all.  I hope you have a lovely long weekend and enjoy every bit.

Friday 1 June 2007

Supply and Demand: Ethical Shopping and How To Go About It.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIt’s one of the most popular pasttimes – everyone does it, usually once a week, and it costs big bucks. It saps a good chunk of our wages each month, and we really need them to survive – or do we? I am of course, talking about supermarkets and our complete reliance on them as a nation to be our food providers. From the early days of relying on either our own abilities to grow food ourselves and cook it (late 1800’s), to buying from small, local co-operatives (pre-war) we now need supermarkets more than ever. One supermarket in the UK boasts a store in every single postcode barring one (now being developed) and in every £8 we spend in the UK, £1 is being spent in their shops, and as a consequence they now make billions not millions in profits. Though nowadays they are not looked upon as modern-day wonders, people are starting to see their true colours – as the nastier underbelly of consumerism, which as a nation we’d rather not look at. But why, despite this knowledge, do the public still flock to them in their thousands, daily, for their fix of factory-farmed chicken and sweat-shop-produced clothing? There is one very simple reason: the cost. Why pay £10 for a t-shirt which is organic, when you can buy one for £2? Same colour, same look but one is a fifth of the price. And in this sad world, money really is everything. We now buy more than we ever did, yet the money we pay year-on-year for that shopping is actually decreasing.

When I started becoming interested in green issues, it was more about hidden chemicals in products than the wider shopping-sphere at large. I shopped at supermarkets and enjoyed the consumer-driven life as before, I just bought ecologically-friendly items from healthfood shops rather than buying the supermarket equivalent. Interest spurred me on to find out more than just the basics of chemicals in cosmetics – what about chemicals in our food? My finds were again shocking, but not surprising in the slightest, and short of eating completely organically, what on earth could I do? I began making lists of vegetables which weren’t heavily-sprayed with chemicals, I ate seasonally, and was a staunch vegetarian. It was when I started looking at the whole process holistically – from the farm the food was grown at, to the supermarkets and eventually the end-user – that I saw inherent flaws in every step. Farmers weren’t being paid enough to take care of their land and livestock properly, the supermarkets were squeezing every last drop of profitability possible (with as many underhanded methods as possible…) and the consumers were making this happen by supplying the most important thing: demand. There would be no supermarkets at all if there was no demand for them. Supermarkets would close virtually overnight if no-one went to their shops for a week. But the likelihood of that happening are almost non-existant.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketMy friend who made the comment which triggered my Sanity Mechanisms post said that supermarkets by their nature would never be “green” or “compassionate”, as big businesses (or at least businesses who were to succeed) weren’t made big by being kind. It would be foolhardy to think that this wasn’t true – business is ruthless and if you have a compassionate chink in your armour a competitor will exploit this. There is always a bad-guy somewhere. But as in the sanity mechanisms post before, it is the consumers’ ultimate choice as to whether we continue down this route of “cheap is best” or whether we are willing to pay more to get an ethical product.

So with my eyes opened even further, I started looking at supermarkets themselves. If they wouldn’t change their ethical stance, then I’d change mine – and therefore start making the changes that will be necessary for everyone to make if they really do want to make a difference. If you have or want to shop in a supermarket, your choices that you make whilst shopping control the demand aspect. If no one is buying battery-farmed chickens, the supermarkets will stop selling them. Try small things at first, always always always use your own bags-for-life (strong re-usable bags made of anything – jute, hemp, plastic or cotton) and reduce waste created. If you know you’re not going to eat 4 heads of lettuce – for heavens’ sake, STOP BUYING it!

When it comes to buying food (in supermarkets) we have a few basic guidelines that are adhered-to at all times. They are as follows:

  • We don’t buy fruit or vegetables that can be grown in the UK but aren’t – for instance, potatoes from Israel. There is no need for this.
  • We do not ever buy fruit or veg from a foreign country – it’s UK or nothing. No Spanish strawberries in December or Peruvian asparagus in February. This also means an end to bananas and tropical fruits. The two exceptions to this rule are lemons and oranges. They both come from countries which are within the EU (typically Spain, Italy and France), are more than likely to be shipped in by sea rather than plane and pesticide use is small.
  • Source fair-trade and organic food where possible, but buying locally produced food should always trump this – trade is fairer than with a third-world country who are open to exploitation, less food miles (most of our seasonal veg came from 7 miles away!) and less pollution.
  • Learn about the supermarkets’ individual ethical policies and shop accordingly – see below.
  • Avoid anything GM – not because it’ll give you three heads, but because it has been shown to enhance resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, amongst many other things. It is really bad to mess with nature, this is no exception.
  • We don’t buy any pre-prepared food. I cannot remember the last time we had a ready-meal (we don’t have a microwave!), it must’ve been at least 5 years ago.
  • Eat seasonally – in Winter root vegetables, parsnips, carrots, cabbages, potatoes, onions and swedes are the way to go – in Summer let loose, eat yourself silly on strawberries (English of course), lettuces, tomatoes and peas. This is how our bodies were designed to work!
  • Be aware of which animals are naturally free-ranging and which is always intensively reared. Lamb is always free-ranging because it needs to build muscle and eat grass, pork on the other hand is kept in appalling conditions in darkened sheds, living in their own faeces and sometimes attacking each other out of boredom.
  • Stay away from American rice and corn, if it’s not GM (most American corn is GM) it will definitely have been shipped a minimum of 4000 miles. There was afood scare about American GM rice a year ago, the EU has banned its use in many things now.
  • Avoid buying from countries whose political regime is cause for concern – such countries for us include China, Viet Nam, Israel and the US.

I will proceed the list by saying that although we shop in a supermarket, we only do so for a small number of items which are either ethically produced or local (dog food, 100% recycled toilet rolls, tinned tomatoes etc). For the last two years we’ve bought almost all of our meat and milk from our local farm-shop, which we’ve found to be not only cheaper than supermarkets in some cases, but the stuff they sell is of amazing quality. I’ve seen the cows and pigs myself. I know I also harp on about growing your own vegetables, but even making a dent in your supermarket shopping bill has to be a good thing. It is so easy to bung a few potatoes in a pot and cover with soil, even the newest gardeners can’t fail to have a crop of yummy potatoes within a couple of months. Add some tomato plants, some courgettes, salad leaves, peas and beans – the easiest vegetables to grow – and you’ve got a variety of homegrown, organic vegetables to feed your family. It isn’t hard, but it takes a willingness to do it.

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When it comes to the ethics of individual supermarkets, a quick search online will yield results. Apart from recent scandals which usually make the headlines, dig a bit deeper and you can find some rather interesting stuff. One such Interesting Thing is the link between Lord Sainsbury (yes, of the same supermarket chain) and his interests in GM research. Although his supermarket chain refuse to sell anything with GM in it – and were one of the first to rebuke GM in a big way, he has big stakes in companies which are trying to work on some sort of “gene patent”. Now I do not believe that GM is going to give us three heads (although if they thought it’d make money, they’d have a go…) but it has shown that the possibility for new strains of antibiotic-resistant genes to be created, possibly transferring to human beings. All we need is another MRSA or Clostridium difficile type outbreak in our hospitals – except this time it might be more potent and cause many more problems. That is why nature really shouldn’t be meddled with – we are opening Pandora’s boxes left, right and centre without giving due thought to the consequences. So Sainsbury’s aren’t on my list of “ok supermarkets”, but they are much higher up the chain than… Asda and Tesco – Asda for being associated with Walmart, possibly the worst supermarket chains in the history of supermarket chains (they even made a film about it – with a really good website), and Tesco for being so profit-conscious that it won’t do good for its industry, even though it has the power to.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThere are good things in the pipeline though, going green isn’t the hippy option anymore, and you’re considered rather draconian or “backward” if you don’t use energy-saving lightbulbs and ecologically-friendly options, which is a good thing. The un-friendly alternative should always be made as difficult to use as possible, which is why I’m all for taxing of 4×4’s and stopping selling traditional lightbulbs etc. It surprised me no end that shops such as New Look and Evans are both (excuse the pun) cottoning-on to the Organic ideal, and whilst most of their clothing isn’t organic and does come from sweat-shops (but I’m guessing a Nike sweatshop is worse than an Evans sweatshop, although I could be wrong…) it’s a huge step forward to see them stocking this stuff. It means that they know demand is there, and will hopefully start to integrate the organic fibres into their normal lines. Plus looking at the stuff, I prefer the organic designs.

Many are put off by the prices that they perceive farmshops to charge – and this is the bit that gets me the most. I have met people who are completely unwilling to spend any more than they absolutely have to, to get the food they want. It’s not about where it comes from, or what suffering the food or the planet has had to go through to get it – as long as it’s there and it’s cheap. The only way we’re going to make a difference to those people who ignore morals and ethics in persuit of price is to make farmshops and growing-your-own easier and more publicised than the supermarkets. The price they charge is a fair one – and it’s the price we should pay for our food.

But my words here are very much preaching to the converted – those who are educated enough to read blogs, are usually savvy in their shopping and pretty eco-friendly, it’s the people who currently shop at Tesco and Asda who need the kick up their backsides – and short of mounting some sort of publicity-grabbing protest antic, I’m not sure there’s much I can do outside of my words… Which leads me on to ask you all a question – what do you think I can do to get the message across to the people of the world to start being responsible in their actions? Any ideas?

— images courtesy of BBC news and Getty Images.

Friday 4 May 2007

Sanity mechanisms

I’ll be truthful from the outset, if you didn’t read this, then none of this post will make much sense to you. But for those lovely, dedicated people who did, you might find this post interesting… I make no apologies for the images that lie herein (they aren’t horrific).

I was having a conversation with a friend I’ve known for a few years (as long as I’ve known my husband), we don’t chat often so I was updating him about us getting chickens. Jokingly he asked if they were to be for dinner, and I replied that no, they were layers – nothing more. He made discouraging comments at this, which made me ask why – and we ended getting into a debate about ethical food. As everyone here knows it’s a hot topic and it gets debated often in this household. But what my friend was saying genuinely shocked me, because I hadn’t met someone for a very long time who was so bláse about the way food was treated. We got quite heated over this – as much as one can over an instant-messaging system – and it ended up with me feeling quite stunned that someone I thought I knew pretty well, held this attitude. It wasn’t an unpleasant debate – there wasn’t any aggression, and it really got me thinking.

If someone as well-educated and as genuinely nice as my friend is, feels so bláse about cruelty to animals, pesticide use and supermarket monopolys (we got into all of these topics) then how on earth are we going to change the mindset of those who are keeping themselves blissfully unaware? I see lots of different types of people in my everyday life, those who care about the environment, local food issues and the wellbeing of generations to come, and those who care soley about what they can take from the environment, people and the world at a cheap a price as possible. It is the latter half who worry me the most, the mothers who are de-sensitised to the world, they will buy a chicken at a supermarket, battery reared and fed bad foodstuffs – but won’t touch the chicken carcass itself because they can’t stand the feeling of raw meat. Or those who live on pre-processed foods, they just open a packet, heat and voilá – a whole meal, devoid of soul and substance, spoon-fed to them from a plastic tray.

My friend’s argument in all of this is that:

  1. He can’t make a change himself, one person isn’t enough to change the view of millions – so why bother?
  2. If we all worried about everything we had no control over, we’d end up becoming jibbering wrecks.
  3. The problem with ethics is “once you have one, you tend to collect more, until life becomes unlivable”.
  4. He’s apathetic.

My friend calls this his “sanity mechanism”, he openly admitted that he’d rather not think about it than have to accept it happens and do something to stop it. Contrary to popular belief I don’t lie awake at night worrying about the plight of millions of chickens, laying eggs in battery conditions. I will admit though, years before getting chickens, animal welfare in the wider-world has always been at the forefront of my mind. Getting chickens, learning about food production methods and its effects on us and the world at large, has given me the impetus to want to create change. And this is where I find fault with the argument above – we all have a choice when it comes to a rack of battery hen eggs vs. free range. We all have the choice. My family haven’t bought a non-free-range egg since there was such a thing as free-range eggs (my mother had chickens before I came along). But we see middle-aged women with plenty of money buying expensive hair products and the best toilet paper – and then they buy cheap eggs, because to them they just don’t care. I don’t think anyone nowadays can claim that they don’t know just what poor conditions these animals are kept in. Their beaks are cut off, to stop them pecking the other chickens that they are caged with – and they live their one year of life in a cage no bigger than a sheet of A4 paper.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I believe that everything has a right time, and a right place. It’s funny that this conversation came very shortly before the airing of a Channel4 documentary, by Molly Dineen called “The Lie of the Land“. It was the documentary’s aim to illustrate what farming in England had come to – farmers paid very poorly for their produce, being squeezed on all sides from the likes of supermarkets and Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). Dineen was firstly shown accompanying a fox-hunt (when it was still legal), something that has been banned in England since February 2005, and then following the hunt back to their Cornish farm. In my ignorance about the general practices of keeping hunting hounds, it showed them being fed. And what they were being fed was a whole animal carcass, raw, from an animal that’d been killed either because it was unwell or because it was an unsuitable breed for beef production. Dineen herself was genuinely shocked by the practise of giving a whole animal to the hounds. It then moved onto the “flesh run” which is when the head of the hunt visits farms with either sickly animals or animals unsuitable for beef production, and shoots them. This is then taken back to the hunt and butchered for the use of the hounds.

Whilst unsavoury to watch, I didn’t find it “awful”, I have seen animals being killed before and I know that all meat was once an animal before it became a sausage or a burger. What unsettled me the most was that the farmers who supplied the hounds with their food were pushed to having perfectly healthy male calves shot because it wasn’t financially viable to keep them. This happens because many dairy farmers cross a Jersey cow with a Friesian to give a better-flavoured milk with high yields. The females are kept to continue the herd, whilst the males being no good for meat production per se, and are shot at a couple of days old. I must admit, it was hard to watch – but I’ve seen it before.

I learnt alot from the programme, things that I wouldn’t have seen had it not been for the documentary. What got to me was the waste. It was a waste of a cow that had been produced because the supermarkets want a lot of good-tasting milk. Usually the males are kept, castrated and fattened to be used at two years old for beef. But because of human interference (with the breeds) it has changed and we are left with a surplus of male calves that the supermarkets won’t touch. Yet that calf would produce beautiful beef, if not sirloin steaks and roasting joints – which is all the supermarkets care about.

As for the fox-hunting issue, I am against all blood sports. If foxes are a problem shoot them humanely, because no animal should be killed for fun. The vermin on farms today, noteably pheasants, pigeons and rabbits are all edible and all very tasty – but those shot for sport often aren’t eaten, and that is wasting a valuable, edible resource.

The programme wasn’t what I was expecting at all, I was thinking it’d be a more holistic documentary showing many aspects of farming, instead it seemed rather focused on one area (and a small demographic of farmers). Something I didn’t understand until the end. It has left me with alot of compassion for the farmers, who do have to live with the worry of not being able to pay bills or feed their families. I think it was a programme that will either leave you a vegetarian forever, or it’ll give you the impetus and the information to leave supermarkets behind for good. Either way, if I could make everyone watch it, I would. Because as it stands, in this country 95% of all fruit and vegetables are imported, animals are being reared abroad in horrific conditions that would not be allowed in the UK, then imported back, and many people either don’t know or don’t care. If it’s cheap, it’s good.

As for Defra, they are fast becoming a joke. A government body who doesn’t care where our food comes from, imposing useless subsidies (based on land rather than livestock) and measures which will not help farmers to survive as farmers. It doesn’t give anyone hope as to where our future food will come from. But I’m painting a rather grim picture here, I know that our farm shop stocks nothing but its own pork, beef and lamb which is all reared on a local farm under very good conditions. I’ve seen the pigs and cows myself. The onus has to be brought back to small producers, we have to learn how to go back to basics and come face-to-face with our food again. Big steps have been made in the media, from celebrity chefs wanting to be guaranteed of origin and cruelty-free status of their food, to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall himself shouting from the rooftops about the wonderful way in which food can be raised. It’s a start, but the next step is getting more people interested enough to change their ways.

After the programme last night, my husband and I did the washing up, and whilst doing so we talked about what we’d seen. He was hesitant about me watching it, stating that I already worry enough for ten people, perhaps I shouldn’t hold all of this on my shoulders. In a rather selfless act of both defiance and humanity I simply stated that, until the state of farming was in a better condition (less cruelty, locally produced), I would fight tooth and nail for a solution. He sighed and continued washing.

My next post will be about a point that everyone makes when I talk about buying locally and organically – cost. I am going to conclusively prove that you can do your shopping locally and ‘ethically’ without it costing alot.

Winston Churchill said “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give“. I know what I’m going to do to try and make this better. How about you? If you found this article interesting, please link to it – and let others know.

Thanks to Factoryfarming.com for the above-images, and also animalfreedom.org for added information.