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Environment

No beating around the bush at Mulberry event

Picture courtesy of Richard PittsPicture courtesy of Richard PittsA special version of the old rhyme “Here we go round the mulberry bush” was performed with gusto on Marlborough Common on Sunday afternoon (28th April), as part of a mulberry tree-planting ceremony.

The words “on a cold and frosty morning” were changed to “on a cool and cloudy Sunday”. New verses included “this is the way we pick the fruit”, “this is the way we stir the jam” and “this is the way we eat our berries”. The singing and appropriate actions were performed by 1st Marlborough Brownies in Oscar-winning style.

An enthusiastic crowd of about 150 attended the event, which Philippa Davenport of Marlborough Community Orchard described as “the culmination of our achievements –so far.”

“We are proud to be one of just 60 parishes nationwide to receive an award from The Tree Council to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee,” she said.

“We choose a black mulberry tree because it is very handsome, exceptionally long lived, deliciously fruitful and it has such strong royal connections: so appropriate for the crowning glory for our Diamond Jubilee Plantation.”

Marlborough’s black mulberry is a variety called King James. It is descended from trees planted in 1608 by the king himself and by thousands of loyal supporters throughout the country. One of the king’s very own trees was still fruiting in 1931 in a site now within the gardens of Buckingham Palace.

King James urged people to plant mulberry trees because he hoped to start a silk industry here. Unfortunately for spinners and weavers (but happily for fruit lovers), he chose the wrong colour. Silkworms thrive on a diet of soft, easily chewed white mulberry leaves. The leaves of the black mulberry are too leathery for them to munch willingly.

Guests of honour at the event were Sue Clifford and Angela King, founders of the award-winning environmental charity Common Ground, creators of Apple Day and the inspiration behind the revival of the community orchard movement.

Sue Clifford told the crowd that she had visited countless of community orchards in recent years: “Yours is a special favourite. I have always dreamed of somewhere following in the footsteps of seventeenth century Norwich to create “a town in an orchard”. You are achieving just that and it is fantastic. Planting fruit trees in small groups, here and there all over the place, means every single person in your community can share in the benefits.”

“It is truly inspired – and I know you have inspired other communities too. I’m told you have planted (or caused to have been planted in surrounding areas) 171 rare Wiltshire apple varieties that were in danger of extinction; 28 other varieties of apple tree; plus 18 quince, medlar, pear, plum and damson. That’s an impressive 217 edible fruit trees. And today we will plant the 218th.

Addressing the children present she said “Learning how to care for orchard trees and the wildlife they support, and how to harvest and use the fruit, is important. Be sure to teach your children and grandchildren too, so this mulberry tree, which may live for 400 years or more, can delight and feed many future generations.”

She loved the idea of making mulberry jam and sending a pot to the Queen. “Maybe you should call it Marlberry Jam,” she suggested.

Councillor Edwina Fogg planting Marlborough's mulberry tree, in one of her last official duties as mayorCouncillor Edwina Fogg planting Marlborough's mulberry tree, in one of her last official duties as mayorMarlborough’s mulberry tree was duly planted by Mayor Edwina Fogg, Sue Clifford and Angela King of Common Ground, and Alison Galvin-Wright, widow of landscape and garden designer, Jeffrey Galvin-Wright, who designed Marlborough’s lovely Diamond Jubilee Plantation and was such a valued member of the Community Orchard committee.

The spade used for planting was loaned by MTC Head Gardener, Richard Beale, who reported that The Queen herself had used it a few years ago. This made the Brownies happier than ever each to take her turn at adding a spadeful of soil round Marlborough’s royal tree.

The Rev Canon Andrew Studdert-Kennedy blessed the mulberry and the crowd with holy water, then invited the Brownies to sprinkle water over him. They did so with relish before delighting everyone with their rendition of “Here we go round the mulberry bush”.

The party then withdrew to Marlborough Rugby Clubhouse to look at a little display of mulberry-related exhibits (including a silk moth and some silk cocoons; and a photograph of The Queen laughing and talking with mulberry jam-makers) and to enjoy a taste of royal scones and mulberry jam.

The scones may not have been baked by the Prince of Wales’s own fair hands but they were his Duchy brand (kindly donated by Waitrose), generously spread with Tiptree’s Mulberry Conserve.

“We’ve had a right royal time” enthused one departing guest. “I can hardly wait for our very own jam session”.

Marlborough’s mulberry tree-planting event is to be recorded in a special book to be presented to The Queen.

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Brownies to lead dancing round Marlborough's jubilee mulberry bush

Children will be Going Round the Mulberry Bush during a ceremony to mark the planting of Marlborough's official Jubilee Tree.

Marlborough was one of just 60 communities awarded a special tree by the Tree Council to mark the Queen's diamond jubilee last year.

And while most towns and villages chose a royal oak, Marlborough's Community Orchard team – which has the ambition to create A Town in an Orchard – plumped for a mulberry tree, which has its own royal connections.

In 1608, King James I had a Mulberry Garden planted just north of where Buckingham Palace now stands. The king was keen to cultivate silkworms and kick-start England's own silk industry.

Unfortunately, the king imported black mulberrys, which bear tasty fruit, but are not great breeding grounds for silkworms, which prefer the leaves of the white mulberry.

England's silk industry never got off the ground, but the country did get an excellent source of jam.

Today, the mulberry tree is perhaps best remembered for the nursery rhyme, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush; and at a ceremony on Sunday, April 28 the town's Brownies will lead the dancing around the tree, which will be planted at the diamond-shaped Jubilee Orchard on Marlborough Common.

The tree will be unveiled by Sue Clifford and Angela King, founders of environmental charity Common Ground and creators of the Apple Day initiative, and by Edwina Fogg in her last official role as mayor.

There will be a chance for visitors to join in the revels, see silkworm cocoons, and have a taste of mulberry jam.

Philippa Davenport, chairman of the Community Orchard committee, said: “The mulberry tree will be the crowning glory of our Diamond Jubilee Plantation.

“We intend to send a jar of jam from the first crop to The Queen, by way of thanks for the free fruit that Marlborough people will enjoy for years to come.”

The ceremony takes place on Sunday, April 28 from 2.30pm at the Jubilee Orchard, which is close to Marlborough Rugby Club.

 

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Hundreds turn out to wassail Marlborough's apple trees

Leading the wassail, the mayor's ceremonial officer David Sherratt and beadle John YatesLeading the wassail, the mayor's ceremonial officer David Sherratt and beadle John YatesOrganisers were expecting a few brave souls to defy the wet winter weather, and hoped that members of the Marlborough Community Choir might boost the numbers, as well as leading the musical merrymaking.

In fact, around 200 people joined members of the Marlborough Community Orchard committee to revive the pagan tradition of wassailing the town's apple trees – heralding the end of an amazing couple of years for the community initiative, which has seen nearly 200 new fruit trees planted in the town.

Wassailing has its origins in pre-Christian Britain, when the Anglo Saxons would hold a mid-winter feast and offer toasts of 'waes haeil!', which loosely translates as 'be thou hale' or 'good health'. 

In the middle ages, peasants would visit the house of the lord of the manor, hoping for a share of the fine food and drink he would be enjoying. Over time, the wassail became carolling. 

Marlborough Community Choir sing a traditional wassailing songMarlborough Community Choir sing a traditional wassailing song

Meanwhile, in the West of England, wassailers would toast the health of fruit trees, to ward off evil spirits and ensure a good harvest. 

Cider would be poured over the roots of the trees and cider-dipped toast tied to the branches for the robins, tree guardians.

Those traditions were celebrated again on Saturday, at the insistence of mayor Edwina Fogg, who had made the revival of the wassail one of her mayor-making promises.

The town's vicar, the reverend Andrew Studdert-Kennedy, offered a Christian prayer for a fruitful harvest, while children duly attached pieces of toast to the branches of apple trees and the mayor offered her libation of cider.

 

 

The procession from orchard to orchard was led by the mayor's ceremonial officer David Sherratt, who waved his hoo-ha stick to command silence from the crowds, and beadle John Yates, who offered a call-and-response chant:

John Yates gets the crowd stomping and clapping to the wassail chantJohn Yates gets the crowd stomping and clapping to the wassail chant“Here's to thee, dear apple tree

May'st thou bud, may'st thou blow,

May'st thou bear apples enow.

Hats full; hats full,

Caps full; caps full

And my pockets full too

And my pockets full too.

Waes Haeil, Waes Haeil,

Waes Haeil, Waes Haeil.”


The ceremony started at Priory Gardens, where the wassailers were joined by Grace Denman, one of the town's oldest residents, who offered the first piece of toast to the robins at one of the first trees planted by the Marlborough Community Orchard team, as part of their effort to create A Town in an Orchard.

From there, the wassailers proceeded to Culvermead Close, once part of an ancient orchard, possibly belonging to the priory. There, the ceremony was performed before three of the town's oldest apple trees – trees which, unusually in a poor harvest year caused by a bee-bothering wet summer – actually produced an abundance of fruit.

And as dusk gave way to darkness, the candlelit procession wended its way to St Mary's churchyard, where another of the apple tree saplings had been planted.

Both the mayor and the renowned food writer Philippa Davenport, the founder of the Marlborough Community Orchard project, said they were delighted with the turnout.

Mayor Edwina Fogg offers a libation of ciderMayor Edwina Fogg offers a libation of cider

Max and Ben Murphy offer toast to the robins, the guardians of the apple treesMax and Ben Murphy offer toast to the robins, the guardians of the apple trees

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Centuries old tradition marked at fruit tree planting

Jeffrey Galvin-Wright, Richard Shaw, Philippa Davenport, Kate Hosier, and Janet and Neville Hobson, of the Marlborough Community Orchard committeeJeffrey Galvin-Wright, Richard Shaw, Philippa Davenport, Kate Hosier, and Janet and Neville Hobson, of the Marlborough Community Orchard committeeIn an English tradition dating back centuries, town councillor Richard Pitts planted a plum tree on Sunday to commemorate the marriage of his nephew Charlie Taylor to Fran.

The couple, who live in York but are frequent visitors to the town, took place in August. The tree will form part of the community orchard on Marlborough Common.

A number of community volunteers turned out on the blustery Sunday morning – the second day of National Tree Week – to plant pear, plum, damson, quince and medlar trees, although in nothing like the numbers for last month's planting of the Jubilee apple trees. 

“It's symbolic, isn't it?” said Cllr Pitts as he shovelled the last spadeful of soil around the roots of the Victoria Plum.

“It's an English tradition going back centuries. The tree grows as the marriage grows. And it bears fruit, representing all the children Charlie and Fran will have... maybe.”

Cllr Richard PittsCllr Richard PittsThe councillor then put his spade to good use helping Marlborough Communities Market to plant a Nottingham Medlar.

The medlar is one of the orchard's most uncommon fruits – and not one likely to be found on supermarket shelves today, although the Tudors couldn't get enough of them.

Large white blossoms give way to a rock-hard fruit with russeted skin. Eaten raw they are tart, but once bletted – left to rot until soft and brown – they make excellent jelly with a taste resembling toffee apples, according to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

On the other side of the orchard, the committee of the Community Orchard committee were planting a Merryweather Damson. Native to the UK, the fruit is today less far popular than its close relative, the sweeter dessert plum, but makes tasty jam.

“By the end of the year we will have planted 198 trees in two years,” said Marlborough Community Orchard committee chairman and food writer Philippa Davenport. “We are creating a living larder – local food for local people.”

The trees, and their sponsors, are: Jeffrey and Alison Galvin Wright (Quince 'Vranja'); Charles Taylor (Plum 'Victoria'); U3A in Kennet (Pear 'Conference'); Marlborough Choral Society (Damson 'Merryweather'); Marlborough Community Orchard (Damson 'Merryweather'); Marlborough Communities Market (Medlar 'Nottingham'); Marlborough History Society (Medlar 'Nottingham'); The Trustees of the Merchant's House (Damson 'Merryweather'); North Wessex Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (Plum 'Czar'); Visit Wilshire (Pear 'Beth').

Communities Market committee members Ellie Gill, Alexandra Wax, Gerald Payne and Richard PittsCommunities Market committee members Ellie Gill, Alexandra Wax, Gerald Payne and Richard Pitts Happy couple Charlie and Fran Taylor, pictured at their wedding in AugustHappy couple Charlie and Fran Taylor, pictured at their wedding in August

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Poor harvest highlights importance of Community Orchard

Apple that were brimming with fruit last season are barren this yearApple that were brimming with fruit last season are barren this yearYou wouldn't know it from looking at the supermarket shelves, and some local gardeners are pooh-poohing the headlines, but officially we're suffering from the worst apple harvest in 15 years.

Branches that were last year buckling under the weight of fruit are bare. It's the reason, say organisers, why the Marlborough Community Orchard initiative and this month's Apple Day are so important.

“This is a wake-up call,” says respected food writer and broadcaster Lynda Brown. “We need to encourage the growing of different varieties of native apples, so that when one crop suffers, others will provide us with a crop.

“We have become used to buying the perfect cosmetic fruit from the supermarkets. There are early, mid and late blossoming apple trees and some will fare better than others from season to season. Variety is the spice of life, and we shouldn't put all our eggs – or, in this case, apples – in one basket.”

This year's harvest has been hit hard by the wettest summer on record. “The cold, rainy summer discouraged the bees from flying at crucial periods,” says Lynda, “while the lack of sun has meant that apples haven't ripened on time 

“And for the past couple of years we've had bumper crops, so yields have been worse as trees recover.”

Marlborough's community orchard scheme – conceived in 2010 with the ambitious aim of creating a town in an orchard – has already seen 35 trees planted around the town.

Ninety-one pre-ordered Wiltshire variety apple trees will be arriving on Apple Day and between 30 and 40 others will be planted in and around the town before next spring.

The showcase Apple Day event will be held in Marlborough Town Hall on Sunday, October 14 from 11am to 5pm. One of the leading experts on English apples, Dr Joan Morgan, will be on hand to identify apples for gardeners who have a tree, but have no idea what variety it is. Identification costs £15.

Other attractions include:

  • Opening welcome ceremony with cornet fanfare to greet the Mayor and 'Wiltshire Maidens': rare Wiltshire apple tree saplings specially grafted for Marlborough Community Orchard by Barters Nursery.

  • Announcement of the winners of the A4 Apple Art Competition and prize giving by Juliet and Peter Kindersley of Sheepdrove Organic Farm.

  • Apple pressing outside the hall, so everyone can enjoy freshly-squeezed apple juice.

  • Pip planting, face painting and other activities for children.

  • Fabulous retail line-up: local food and produce and hand-made preserves; local apple juice, honey and real cider; bee-beautiful local beauty products; bird boxes, ladybird houses, apple trugs and other bespoke woodwork ; hand-stitched linens and hand sewn gifts; Sarah Raven’s bee-friendly bulbs and seeds, gardening accessories and kitchenalia; Marlborough Community Orchard’s new series of limited edition apple cards; Apple Day treats for dogs, and much more.

  • Sumbler’s ‘Best -Ever Hog Roast’ with windfall apple sauce plus, new this year, scrummy cakes and drinks provided by Bow Belles@ Little Apple Café.

  • Gloucester Old Spot competition, sponsored by Haine & Smith, starring a sow and her piglets, specially filmed for Marlborough Community Orchard by Orchard Pig.

  • Display and tasting of rare native Wiltshire apples, growing advice from experts and Wiltshire apple saplings for sale.

  • The opportunity to sponsor orchard fruit trees for the new Diamond Jubilee Plantation on Marlborough Common and other sites around town.

  • Four-star luxury raffle brings the chance to win: Four tickets to a special performance of the Nutcracker, followed by afternoon tea at Sheepdrove Eco-Centre and Organic Farm; a case of fine wine from Waitrose; a three-course dinner for two at The Bell at West Overton; an hour long aromatherapy massage at Indulgence Beauty salon.

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Chance to recycle computers in amnesty

Simon Crisp of Green MachineSimon Crisp of Green MachineHome and business computer users who have broken or obsolete PCs or laptops cluttering their offices will have a chance to recycle them at the next Marlborough Communities Market.

A Computer Amnesty is being run by Marlborough-based Green Machine. For every computer handed in, the company will donate £5 to a local good cause: Aldbourne YouthCouncil, Transition Marlborough, Afrikaya, Helen and Douglas House, or Great Bedwyn British Legion.

The computers will then be recycled, either by being memory-wiped, refurbished and resold, or harvested for their precious components. For every computer than Green Machine resells, a further donation will be made to the local charities.

Green Machine is the brainchild of former IBM technician Simon Crisp, who launched the company after being made redundant. Simon collects old PCs and electronic equipment for free and refurbishes them be used by families on  low incomes, students, or anyone in need of a computer for around £100.

The computer amnesty will occupy one of 30 stalls at the Marlborough Communities Market in High Street on Sunday, August 5, from 11am to 4pm.

Following the success of the first market, organisers say August's event will boast an even greater range of local produce - including local teas, honey, fudge, flowers, plants, cheese and mushrooms – and arts and crafts including handmade shawls, oil cloth bags, bunting, soap and clothes.

Purton House Organics will be bringing vegetables, soft fruit and eggs, while Neustift Goats from Lyneham and Greens of Glastonbury will be selling cheeses, and Langsfords Preserves will be selling Hedgerow chutneys and relishes.

And refreshments including teas, cakes and savouries will be sold from a 1950s themed beach hut, courtesy of The Cotswold Cooks.

For more information about the Market, log on to www.marlboroughmarket.org.uk For more information about computer recycling go to www.green-machine.org

 

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Apple guru to lead fruity workshop

Neil MacdonaldNeil MacdonaldApple guru Neil Macdonald – the man behind the Orchard Pig cider brand - will be leading what is billed as a “fruit-filled day of learning and fun” in Marlborough later this month.

The third annual Apple Workshop will take place in The Enterprise Centre at St John’s Academy, Marlborough from 10am to 4pm on Saturday, February 23.

The workshop – organised by Marlborough Community Orchard - will cover choosing varieties and rootstocks for small gardens, planting fruit trees, after-care and pruning, including how to train espalier, fan and cordon trees.

Illustrated talks will be followed by discussions and advice, Q&A, hands-on demonstrations and practical experience. 

Limited tickets for the workshop are priced at £25. For more information, or to book a place, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 01672 514497.  

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Will dying ash trees leave as many gaps in our landscape as Dutch elm disease?

If you pay too much attention to newspaper headlines you’ll be led to believe that Britain’s ash trees are about to follow English elm trees into extinction.  The truth may not be so extreme but the disease that’s spread from mainland Europe is sure to change the look of many of our woodland areas.

Chalara dieback – caused by the Chalara fraxinea fungus – attacks ash trees causing leaf loss, crown dieback and usually kills the tree.  It has already led to drastic loss of ash trees in mainland Europe and has now been found in the United Kingdom.

Outbreaks are being divided into those among imported plants at nursery sites and recently planted saplings, and outbreaks in the wider environment where the fungus seems to have crossed from main land Europe.  Most of the latter cases are in East Anglia and Kent caused directly by spores blown across the sea.

Until November 27, government experts had found 257 cases in the United Kingdom– 135 of those in the wider environment, mainly in established woodland.  The closest recently planted case to our area is between Bristol and Chippenham.

Symptoms of the disease include browned leaf tips, bark lesions and the dying away of topmost growth.  In spring mature trees can develop dense clumps of foliage below dead growth.

For details go to the Forestry Commission’s website – and especially the pages with photos of diseased ash trees. And there’s a map of the outbreaks that have been confirmed.

So what path might the disease take in our area? Savernake Forest has some established ash trees, but many have been cut down by the Forestry Commission in recent years as they fetch good money for firewood and furniture, and also for export to Ireland where they are used to make hurley sticks.

Over the past twenty years ash trees have been planted widely on Marlborough’s downlands. They are clear of the disease at the moment but ultimately land owners expect to lose those trees.  More generally the spread of ash trees is difficult to quantify.

WILTON BRAIL WILTON BRAIL Wilton Bail wood, just north of Wilton windmill, is heavily planted with ash. About seventy per cent of the mature trees in this wood are ash.  Newer plantings have used other tree species, so ash now makes up about half of all the trees in the wood.  If those ash trees were all lost it would not only have a clear visible effect, but would also have a major impact on the wood’s wildlife.

The spread of the disease will almost certainly re-start next May – the season for active spores from the fungus lasts from about May to early September.  But on the continent some ash trees have proved resistant to the disease with up to ten per cent surviving. So it may not result in the kind of total wipe-out that was caused by Dutch elm disease.

The broadleaf, deciduous ash tree is the third commonest tree in British woods. And while it is sometimes the dominant tree in a wood, the effect of its loss on the landscape as a whole may be very patchy.

Writing about Chalara fraxinea last week, Ashley Brady, the Woodland Trust’s head of conservation, emphasised the complexities of the threat:  “The impacts on ash will be much more complex than the media headlines suggest, this goes well beyond the simple percentages of what will be lost or estimates of how many million trees are at risk. Some landscapes and habitats will be much harder hit than others, and we need to start thinking about how we respond to that now.”

Sightings of diseased ash trees should be reported immediately to the Forestry Commission Plant Health Service: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 0131 314 6414.

Sadly our trees have many other diseases and pests to survive : lots more scary headlines coming our way. Oak trees, horse chestnuts, Scots pine and the London plane tree are among the species under threat or which are so far surviving threats.

How will this view of Wilton Brail look in years to come?How will this view of Wilton Brail look in years to come?

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Heritage lottery fund backs exploration of Wiltshire’s iconic white horses with £30,000 grant

An exploration by young people of the iconic white horses and chalk hill figures across Wiltshire is being boosted by a £30,100 grant from the Hertitage Lottery Fund. 

The money had been awarded to Wiltshire Council for its exciting Virtual Landscapes project, due to take place in four locations – Pewsey, Ludgershall, Westbury and Tidworth. 

The project, being carried out by young people aged from 11 to 25, will focus on the heritage of the white horse figures, providing an opportunity to explore their identity and significance through creative media activities, storytelling and reworking old media and archives.

The aim is to bring new life to the figures from the landscape that surrounds them, Wiltshire’s chalk hills being unique in the UK as the home of eight white horses dating from ancient to modern day.

 The project looks at why they are important to young people in Wiltshire and their significance for the transitory military communities.

“It’s brilliant we have received this lottery funding to help young people from the county learn all about the heritage, history and significance of these recognisable landmarks,”  Stuart Wheeler, the council’s Cabinet member for culture, told Marlborough News Online.

And commenting on the grant award, Richard Bellamy, HLF's acting head of south west, said: “Although chalk figures are found in other parts of the country, they are a characteristic feature of Wiltshire’s rural landscape.”

“The fact that so many have survived in the county and that in some instances new figures have been created, is a tribute to the motivation of local people in caring for them.  We are delighted to support this project, which will stimulate the interest of a new generation in the figures, ensuring their survival into the future.”  

The project will enable young people from the four areas to discover the origins of them by working with heritage professionals, visiting the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, in Chippenham, and the chalk hill figures.  Professional artists will work with the young people to help them create their own interpretations using a range of creative media technologies and to share them with friends and relatives online.

Virtual Landscapes will also offer young people involved the chance to achieve an Arts Award, a nationally recognised qualification by taking part and sharing their experiences with others.

Anyone seeking more information about the project, or know someone who would like to be involved should email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. WYAP can be followed on twitter @WyapArts.

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Is the price of milk due to rise? How the milk crisis looks to a local dairy farmer

In the war that’s broken out between some of Britain’s dairy farmers and the big dairy processors something’s got to give.  Either we pay more for our milk, or the processors get less, or farmers are forced out of business.

The crisis has not gone away, it’s just taking an August break from its place in the headlines. A voluntary code of conduct for milk contracts has to be completed within weeks and the cuts in prices paid by the processors and some supermarkets have almost all been cancelled or postponed.

Farmers are still demonstrating outside milk processing plants. They obviously think the crisis will return soon – and they’ll be hit in the end with cuts to the price at which they sell their milk.

Tom Maidment and some of his Holstein heifersTom Maidment and some of his Holstein heifersTom Maidment’s family have been dairy farming in the Vale of Pewsey since 1887. They have lived through ups and downs in milk production and Tom takes the long view on the current crisis in the prices paid to farmers by the big milk producers.

He believes it’s a perennial problem. He remembers his father telling him how, before the war, he’d get an annual post card summoning him to London to sign the contract to sell his milk to United dairies’ plant near Paddington.

No negotiation – take it or leave it.  If he wanted his milk to leave Pewsey station each day and get a monthly cheque from United Dairies, he had to sign the contract.  And if he didn’t sign, United Dairies almost certainly had a drawer full of alternative dairy farmers willing to sign.

Those were hard times – his father took over the farm during the 1930s slump.  Then came the war and the post-war Labour government’s legislation to stop the nation ever having to import food again – learning the war’s dire lessons – and the birth of the statutory monopoly of the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) which brought stability to dairy farming.

The MMB vanished when the Tory minister Gillian Sheppard refused to legislate to maintain its monopoly.  It was replaced by a nationwide co-operative which the dairy farmers’ other political villain, Labour’s Stephen Byers, ruled to be uncompetitive.

“Since the MMB went, farmers haven’t had enough strength in the market place.”  But it was not all bad news.  Out of that double display of politicians failing to support farmers, there emerged in the south of England a co-operative called Milk Link.  It is a flourishing co-operative with a membership of 1,500 British farmers.

As a member of this co-operative, Tom is largely insulated from the present cuts in the price paid for milk.  He gets 27p per litre and he accepts that the co-operative has to take a premium to invest in its future and keep its equipment up to date.

There are three dairy farms around the village of Wilcot. Tom has five hundred cows in his pure-bred Holstein herd.  Of these about one hundred and eighty are in milk at any one time.

Unlike arable farmers who sow and reap well within a twelve month cycle, dairy farmers have to invest ahead. It takes three years from insemination to rear a calf and get it into milk.

Looking at the industry as a whole, Tom says there are still “Enormously powerful milk buyers, under enormous pressure from retailers, putting unsustainable pressure on farmers.” And he cannot understand the increasing profit on milk sales taken by the retailers.

In 1996 retailers’ profit on milk averaged 2.6p per litre.  It’s now about 13p per litre.  And over that time farmers’ costs – in electricity, cattle feed, bedding, vets’ fees and so on – have risen massively. “I don’t”, says Tom, “see why the fundamentals of this tussle should change.”

For most dairy farmers, buyers will still write contracts and set prices. Will the promised code of conduct change things enough?

The current crisis was said to be caused by the fall in the world price for cream. This is vital to processors because the more low fat milk we buy, the more cream they have to extract from whole milk and the more cream they need to sell on to meet their business plans.

There is some scepticism about the claims by some supermarkets that they pay their farmers well and look after them.  Many of their contracts demand a fixed amount of milk every day of the year. This forces farmers to change calving regimes and keep cows inside for more of the year – which forces their costs up considerably.

Just over the horizon there may be change on the way. In 2015 the EU’s national production quotas will disappear and countries will be able to produce as much milk as they want. Already the Republic of Ireland, with its long established and secure base of co-operatives, is planning to step up its milk production.

Britain has lost about twenty thousand dairy farms since 1996 and produces well below its annual EU quota of fourteen billion litres. Some people forecast another four thousand dairy farms may be lost soon. Giving farmers a fair return so they can invest in herds and equipment should be a political aim if in the future we are not due to import much more of our milk.

However, if that all sounds pessimistic, Tom and is wife Molly are “fairly positive” about the future of British farming. It was during the 1970s and 1980s with the surpluses and the Common market’s various food ‘mountains’, that British farming “lost its zing”:  “The tide changed – as it does.” 

Now it’s changing again: during the current recession they’ve seen a real increase in interest amongst young people in farming as a career.  “Young people are becoming positive about farming again.”

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