My Autobiography Soon to be Published!

I am proud to announce the publication of my long awaited autobiography, ‘Monty Larkin – A Rural Biography.’ This covers such topics as: family background, child and early adulthood, Seven Sisters Country Park, downland conservation, wildlife and weather observations, the fight against Dutch elm disease, environmental considerations, love and relationships and, contains a substantial chapter concerning my two decades of managing conservation grazing across Sussex using iconic Exmoor ponies.
This softback work of 496 pages, is fully illustrated in black & white and colour and retails at £17.99 I am now taking orders for its planned publication during September 2020. Contact me at montylarkin@yahoo.co.uk to place your order.

Self-Isolating in Glorious Countryside

Following government advice, and discussions with my dear friend Helen, I and my puss Goldie, have temporarily moved out of St.Leonards and are self-isolating with Helen at her beautiful cottage deep in the rural countryside of the High Weald.  I have lots, indeed more than enough to keep me busy – gardening, working on the advanced draft of my autobiography, reading and taking walks in the woods with her three handsome Gordon Setter dogs.

The property is set within an extensive garden with a stream flowing through it and additionally there are four acres of a large adjoining block of ancient woodland.  This is composed mainly of ash, with mature hornbeam, oak and beech with an understorey of hazel.  More about this woodland as this rolling blog continues…

 

 

A view of the woods during mid-March.

Mid-March.  The wood has been so wet this past winter!  Being situated on Ashdown Clay which provides little drainage, it’s been tricky walking along the paths but during the past week, the sunshine and drying breezes have transformed matters, we now being able to wear boots instead of the ubiquitous wellies!  This weekend, being on north-facing slope, the cottage and the woods are being buffeted by a strong and quite cold north-easterly wind, with sunshine and hail, making the air feel relatively rather bitter; we’ve resorted to firing-up the wood burner!

Monday, March 23 and another harbinger of spring made itself known – a chiffchaff calling from the tall willows and birches on the edge of the garden area.  In the woods this week the primroses at the top of the wood look resplendent with their massed two-tone pale yellow flowers being in full bloom.Small patches of the tiny, delicate moscatel are in flower with their minuscule green and yellow flowers forming small patches.  Hornbeam trees and the few hawthorn are now sporting small, delicate light-green leaves that are growing by the day.  Hornbeam forms almost pure stands in other sections of the wood; soil or possibly past harvesting practices causing the difference?

Monday, Mar 30.  Heard my first blackcap of the year.  Carried out a lot more gardening this week – I’ve worked off my small tum but the trouble is I fall asleep in front of the tv!

Friday, Apr 3.  More gardening including felling a small ash tree with only a bowsaw – phew!  Carried out some repairs to the revetment to the stream that flows under the footbridge to the cottage, and on through the garden.  A hum from the bees in the tall willows was easily audible today.  The coming anticyclone and its accompanying warmth and southerly winds should bring quite a fall of migrants over the coming days.  Reliably informed that the migration has been slow so far this spring.

Saturday, Apr 4.  The first warm and sunny day of spring! sat outside late afternoon in shirt sleeves watching the birds – great and blue tits, lesser woodpecker, chaffinch and coal tit.  Counted only four aircraft in about an hour, blissfully peaceful!

Monday, Apr 6.  After carrying out a large food shop in Crowborough we drove back over Ashdown Forest; the car parks were very quiet.  Gorse in flower; other areas of gorse having been cut, the Conservators of the Forest appear to have a monumental battle upon their hands fight the large areas of gorse.  I consider they should resort to the traditional practice of selective burns of small areas.  Conversely, reading in the RSPB’s latest update on their local reserves, they are going to create enclosures at Broadwater Warren and plant gorse.  I wonder if future wardens of the reserve will be riled by this introduction!  They have also discovered that they have the uncommon potter wasp, the nearest colony previously in Surrey.

Wednesday, Apr 8.  Saw my first brimstone butterfly today; they are not so common hereabouts? Looking through the woods, there is now a green haze with the millions of tiny leaves unfolding on the trees, especially the hornbeam and hazel.

Thursday, Apr 9.  Orange-tip butterfly seen for first time.  While sitting on the patio at about 6pm, did I fleetingly see a cuckoo fly over (or a kestrel)?  Have today started renovating a teak outdoor table; I bought on-line, a set of cabinetmakers scrapers and made a start on what will be a slow process – an antidote to self-isolation!

Friday, Apr 10.  Good Friday.  Saw my first holly blue butterfly today.

Saturday, Apr 11.  Have finished queaking the long chapter in my autobio concerning my 20 years of being involved with using Exmoor ponies for conservation grazing.  Carried out two repairs to the deer fencing around our woodland.  The neighbouring woodland has little understorey as the deer browse-off nearly all of the young saplings and flowers.  (See the two following pics).

Sunday, Apr 12.  Easter Sunday.  First small white butterfly seen, temperature reaching into the low 20’s C.  Road was very quiet today there being no shops open; very few aircraft seen today including two into Gatwick.  We spent much of the day sitting on the patio overlooking the woods, finishing off with taking dinner there in the early evening.

Monday, Apr 13.  Bank Holiday.  A strong, cold NE wind today with the sun not appearing until late-morning.  We spent a couple of hours in the afternoon plotting and marking out the un-fenced section of Helen’s boundary in the woodland.

Sunday, Apr 19.   This morning we went for a walked in the main part of the wood that is not owned by Helen and is in effect, abandoned.

It contains a few more substantial oaks and beech’s and plenty of middle-sized hornbeam and ash but little ground vegetation or saplings – anything edible being eaten by deer (they excluded form our part of the wood).  Bluebells are however are now putting in an appearance.  Found several largish medieval iron ore quarries (see below) and a piece of iron slag; hundreds of years ago this wood would have been a hive of industry.  Will go back tomorrow and take some pictures.  It’s like entering another world – on the face of it, appearing untouched by man and no outside of the wood sounds whatsoever – mystical!

Sunday, April 26.  Thought I may have heard a garden warbler singing?  Along a footpath just outside the boundary of the wood, I saw my first small copper and comma butterflies; also found the showy marsh marigold in a nearby boggy area.  I shall be returning home tomorrow, so am signing-off this particular blog.

American Government Mis-Treatment of US Icon

This week, contractors for the US government’s Bureau of Lands Management (BLM) ran wild mustangs from distances as far as 3-5 miles in temperatures that crept into the 90’s Fahrenheit. Helicopters targeted smaller groups and relentlessly chased them. A small foal stopped running, it suffering from exhaustion and had to be roped and walked in. 94 horses were finally captured with 2 animals dying.

TRIPLE B ROUNDUP DAY 2 REPORT: 75 wild horses were rounded up and removed yesterday and there was 1 death – a foal was euthanized because of “extremely weak tendons”.

We also received clarifications on the 3 deaths from Wednesday. The BLM originally attributed the deaths to “Pre-existing condition, starvation, emaciation and weakness.” By the next day, the BLM changed its explanation of the deaths. Now the pre-existing conditions that prompted the BLM to “euthanize” the horses are attributed to a lost eye, broken leg, laceration.  Read our report here: https://wildhor.se/TripleB2019

The following Facebook link gives a more graphic, disturbing insight into the treatment of these poor free-ranging ponies and burros (donkeys):  632
This process is all part of a massive government policy to prevent supposedly ‘over-grazing’ of open ranges, or to be more truthful, to allow cattle ranches to have the grazing on very cheap terms!  The Washington Post recently reported that former BLM employees reported that agency managers have been instructing employees to stop enforcing ranchers livestock grazing restrictions.

These actions are an utterly disgusting and inhumane treatment that is happening across wide areas of the US range-land and which is destroying one of the great cultural icons of a great country, for thousands of these wild beasts are now being held in holding yards at a substantial cost with a substantial going for slaughter and unseen, unknown to most of the public.

 

 

Beautiful June 1st!

Saturday June 1st and what a stunning start to the month – perhaps it will turn out to be a proverbial ‘flaming June?’  During the morning we walked up over Seaford Head.  The first image shows the difference where Sussex Wildlife Trust have winter-cut the invasive tor grass and where not; note the cut, flower-rich lower RH side of image against the rank LH side of the image.

 

On the bare chalk area on the Hawks Brow area, noticed at least 6 vertical seems of flint within the chalk, flint normally having been deposited horizontally within the bedding of the chalk.  Note one of these peculiar features running from right of centre at bottom of image towards right of person, the adjacent chalk being more eroded towards the cliff edge and so highlighting it better.
Attended the Southease Open Gardens event.  Some idyllic houses and beautiful gardens, all set-off in a quintessentially English fete-like atmosphere, accompanied by the brilliant The Maestro Big Band from Newhaven playing 40’s swing music.

Steam Powered!

Just spent a wet and breezy few minutes down at St.Leonards Warrior Square station to watch the steam loco ‘Union Of South Africa’ be hauled through on its excursion out from London Victoria to Hastings.  Ten minutes later it returned except that this time, it was pulling and was under load, as it built-up speed after departing from Hastings.  The sound as it came up through the long tunnel from Hastings was truly exhilarating!

The second image shows the big diesel now at the rear, this time being hauled – it only on tick-over.  There was a whole class of primary school children brought down to the station, plus those in the know and fortunate passers-by.

Remembrance Sunday and Bell Ringing

1,400 church bell ringers hailing from across the UK died during the First World War.  When the bells rang out on 11 November 1918 they announced the end of the most catastrophic war the world had yet seen.  As one of the 1,400 new bell ringers enlisted during the past year by Ringing Remembers and the Central Council for Bell Ringers, I rang as part of the national commemorations to mark the centenary of the Armistice and to honour those who died.

I was assigned to ring at the beautiful St.Clements church in the heart of Hastings Old Town on this Remembrance Sunday, we all across the country beginning at 12-30 lunchtime, we at St.Clements being conducted by Jenny Parker.

 

A West Dean Garden and Elm Loss

Saturday, July 7th.  Had a beautiful, enjoyable afternoon, including a trip down Memory Lane!  Went to an Open Garden event in aid of the Family Support Group at The Long House in West Dean near Seaford.  The owners have over the past six years created an extensive, beautiful but compartmentalised cottage garden containing a wide variety of plants.

Part of the garden at The Long house.

After, we visited the nearby churchyard and church.  I used to know the village well and a number of its then inhabitants when I lived and worked over the hill at Exceat during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Upon leaving the village spotted one of the last fair-sized elms in the area starting to die from Dutch Elm Disease.  Further up the valley at Lullington and especially sad for me, one of the last sizable elms has at last surrendered to this dreadful disease. It is the only example in the area of a Smooth-leaved Elm of the variety diversafolia.

Variety ssp. diversafolia back in 2012.

I managed the East Sussex Dutch Elm Control project between 1997 and 2004.  Due to mis-management and cost-cutting, it unraveled two years later and failed, after a total of some 30 something years and the expenditure of millions of pounds of public money.

Could Pioneering Vet’s TB Test End the Slaughter?

As badger culls begin, could one pioneering vet’s bovine TB test end the slaughter?

Patrick Barkham.   The Observer.  Sun 15 Oct 2017.

Research at a secret location in Devon may help eradicate bovine tuberculosis without a single badger being killed, says leading vet

A pretty stone farmhouse sits in a bucolic green valley, surrounded by airy cowsheds. It looks like a timeless West Country scene but is actually a pioneering farm, where cutting-edge science is helping to solve the hugely controversial, multimillion-pound problem of bovine tuberculosis (bTB).

As an expanded badger cull gets under way this autumn, in which 33,500 animals will be killed to help stop the spread of the disease, a leading vet, Dick Sibley, believes this Devon farm demonstrates a way to eradicate the disease in cattle – without slaughtering any badgers.

Sibley’s trial, at a secret location, was halted earlier this year when two new tests to better identify bTB in cattle were deemed illegal. But government regulators have now given the vet permission to continue. His work is backed by rock star-turned-activist Brian May, whose Save Me Trust last week began a four-year programme of vaccinating badgers at the farm against bTB.

The family that owns the farm, which has 300 milking cows, turned to Sibley in despair after being virtually shut down with bTB for five years. Because of the disease, their cattle cannot be sold on the open market.

“We had nothing to lose,” said the fourth-generation farmer, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of interference from extremists on both sides of the argument. “We want to get rid of TB, it’s costing us a lot. Any technology would be better than the old bTB test.”

Despite four years of badger culling, bTB continues to rise in England, and 30,980 cows were slaughtered in the year up to June in attempts to control it, an increase of 4%. Farmers, as well as wildlife campaigners, are increasingly critical of the cattle test for bTB, which misses many cases, leaving undiagnosed cows to spread the disease within herds. In 2015, 16% of English bTB “breakdowns” were only detected in abattoirs, after supposedly healthy cows had been slaughtered.

Sibley is pioneering two new tests. The phage test, developed by microbiologist Cath Rees of Nottingham University, uses a bTB-invading virus to “hunt” for the live bacterium. It is detecting bTB in cows on the Devon farm months before they test positive with the traditional “skin test”: 85 cows have tested positive with the phage test despite all being found disease-free by the conventional test.

Farmers then need to know if infected cows are infectious. For this, Sibley uses a second test, qPCR, developed by Liz Wellington, life sciences professor at Warwick University. It detects bTB in dung, showing if a cow is “shedding” – spreading – the disease. If it is, the cow is slaughtered even though the conventional test suggests it is healthy.

Both professors have given Sibley free use of their new technologies, and the tests have shown that supposedly healthy cows are the “hidden reservoir” of bTB on the farm. But Sibley said what farms need as well as better testing is better risk management and more resilient cows. “I’ve never cured a cow with a test,” he said.

The farm is an intensive dairy operation that keeps its cattle indoors once they are fully grown and milks them robotically – some cows produce 15,000 litres of milk each year. “If you don’t give that cow everything she needs, and keep the disease away from her, she will crash and burn,” said Sibley. “It’s just like athletes: if there’s a bit of E coli in the Olympic village, they all go down.”

TB – in cows as well as humans – is traditionally a disease of bad living conditions, so the farm’s barns are airy. There are fewer cows in each barn compared with a typical dairy farm, walkways are cleaned three times a day, and regularly changed drinking water is held in “tipping troughs” that are kept scrubbed clean. Dung falling into troughs is likely to be a key transmitter of the disease.

After studying each cow’s history, Sibley believes mothers often spread the disease to their calves at birth. The farm is combatting this by building a new maternity unit with rubber floors that will be disinfected after every delivery. Colostrum – the crucial first milk that boosts a calf’s immune system – is harvested from each mother but pasteurised before it is fed to each calf, so it won’t spread disease.

Leading vet Dick Sibley is trialling new testing methods for bTB that will detect the disease much earlier in cattle. Photograph: Jim Wileman for the Observer

After being “shut down” for five years, the farm had its first clear test last year. It hopes to be clear of all restrictions within 12 months. But Sibley says that removing the disease from cows without tackling diseased badgers is like “crossing the road and only looking one way”.

Farm CCTV reveals that no badgers come close to the cattle sheds, but Wellington’s qPCR technology tested badger latrines and found local badgers were shedding the disease: 30% of 273 faecal samples contained the bacterium. Young grazing cows are potentially exposed to the disease.

“We have to accept that the badgers are a risk,” said Sibley. “We either kill them, fence them out or, more constructively, vaccinate them to reduce the risk of infection in the environment.”

May’s ‘Save Me Trust’ is funding badger vaccination around the farm. The Queen guitarist became a hate-figure for some farmers when he suggested that if bTB was such a problem they should stop rearing cattle. But he has been working behind the scenes for several years to support farmers.

“I’m very, very hopeful that Dick Sibley has the answer,” said May. “I hope it works out, not just for this farm but for the whole of Britain. That would take away this awful polarisation between farmers and the public and animal welfare groups.”

A global shortage of BCG vaccine stopped May vaccinating badgers last year and he points out that the farm has virtually banished the disease without touching a single badger. “If badgers are running around with bTB and the herd has been cleaned up with advanced testing, that really makes you wonder whether badgers are contributing to the disease,” said May.

While some epidemiologists have privately expressed frustration that the government has not yet adopted new cattle-testing technologies, Sibley said the regulators move slowly. “The authorities must have rock-solid evidence in case they end up in court. I predict that in five years time phage and qPCR will be in the toolbox for farmers.”

Other bTB-hit farms are interested in Sibley’s approach and May’s charity has pledged to help meet veterinary costs. In Wales, farms with chronic bTB are receiving special support from the Welsh government and could be among the first to adopt the new techniques. Christianne Glossop, Wales’ chief vet, said: “I have known Dick for many years and have great respect for his work. I am also well aware of his current trials and will be keeping a close eye on the results of his pilot in Devon exploring innovative new testing methods.”

The Devon farmer admits he has been surprised by his success. “This test is showing the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m excited that it could help us get clear of the disease and help other farmers in the future.”

THE CULLING DEBATE.

A zoonotic disease – one that can jump from animals to humans – bovine tuberculosis (bTB) caused thousands of human deaths until the pasteurisation of milk began in the 1920s. It was then almost eradicated from British cows with the widespread slaughter of herds in the 1950s.

However, in 1971 it was discovered that cows had passed the disease to badgers after a dead badger was found on a farm in Gloucestershire. The find led to five decades of debate and scientific uncertainty, and it is still not known what proportion – if any – of cattle TB cases are caused by badgers. The scientific consensus is that cows and badgers pass the disease between them but the precise method of transmission is also not known. Epidemiologists believe it is most likely via animal faeces.

Cattle TB has risen steadily since the 1980s and cost £500m in compensation to farmers in the decade up to 2013. That year, badger culling began in two “zones” in Gloucestershire and Somerset. It has since expanded to 21 zones in England. Ireland, the only other country with a bTB problem, also culls badgers.

Pro-cull farmers argue that reducing badger numbers will reduce bTB in the environment. No data has been published on the impact of four years of badger culling on cattle TB, but many scientists question the cull’s effectiveness.