Sunday, 23 November 2008

The curse of agricultural sprays

It’s all in the news: the ugly face of pesticides and herbicides. At last, farmers are being asked to watch where they spray all that stuff they say they need to make their crops grow. Maybe they do – some of it anyway – but not over all of us, please.

Last week a brave and determined young woman convinced the courts that the excess spray from a neighbouring farm has seriously damaged her health. It should be quite possible before spraying for farmers to give at least 24 (or preferably 48) hours notice that they are about to spray their crops in ones vicinity. At the moment, inconsiderate farmers are spraying next to homes, gardens, schools, playgrounds and parks without any notice.

The droplets are carried in the air and inhaled by all and sundry in the vicinity. Not to mention what it does to our gardens and wild life: it kills stuff off. Fortunately there are farmers who do care about their neighbours and wild life in general. They've reduced intensive farming methods and take care with their spraying whilst those who are organic, only spray with vegetable based products.

And many farmers who wish to increase wildlife on their land (possibly, in part, because they realise the un-sung benefit of it) have re-laid and maintain their mixed hedges. These allow wildlife to move from area to area and forage in safety. Other ‘wild life corridors’ are the uncultivated strips of land alongside field boundaries. Such bio-diverse habitats as these allow insects, birds and small mammals to thrive.

Farmers have been helped to encourage wildlife (whilst reducing food mountains) with ‘set- aside’. This was a EU policy that paid landowners to leave some fields fallow which allowed wild life to flourish on it. Unfortunately, the policy of set-aside has now come to an end and, with it, large areas of wildlife’s little larders and safe accommodation.

So it’s down to us gardeners as never before. Many of us already feed the birds in an effort to keep up their numbers whilst having the pleasure of watching them. And we fill our gardens with plants rich in seeds and berries, nuts and fruit.

But it’s the ‘wild’ side of gardening we need to embrace. Forget neat, embrace natural. Not so easy on a small plot, I grant, but even a tiny corner with a clump of nettles and brambles and the odd rotting log will do wonders for the wild life population. And benefit you too.

Many of our most beautiful butterflies need nettles to breed and ‘weeds’ such as comfrey encourage the bees. Finches will welcome the seeds left on the spent heads of perennials whilst larger birds appreciate fallen nuts and ivy leaves that harbour insects. Small mammals, like dormice, will welcome the blackberries that fruit on wild brambles and hedgehogs will be thankful for a cosy home under a blanket of leaves or a pile of old logs.

And if you want to spray your garden with a good natural feed then those clumps of nettles and leafy comfrey plants will come in handy. The leaves of both are compost activators: add them to your heaps and your compost will rot down much faster. Add the leaves of either to a large water butt and, a few months later, you’ll have the most nutrient rich liquid feed or spray that your plants could ask for. Now that’s what I call a friendly spray.

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