When will the weather change?

Have you ever found yourself asking yourself this question? Is there ever such a thing as perfect weather at the right time? Perhaps not.

As I write this I’m looking out at a snowy landscape…still. This time last week it felt as if Spring were around the corner with bright blue skies, birds singing and snowdrops presenting themselves on the garden edge. However, two days later we were under almost a foot of snow with drifts several feet higher than that. We had hoped to have planted hundreds of metres of new hedgerows by this point in the winter but the wet ground followed by this recent weather has delayed planting. It has been great to see people in other parts of the country progressing with their planting but I’m getting itchy feet here. Looking at the positive, it has provided time for planning new projects and dealing with day to day orders for the farm’s sea buckthorn products. I have finally submitted a planning application for a new stable block on the farm and there has of course been plenty of podcasting going on.

If you’re anything like me you will be highly fed up by now with the latest lockdown, although the incredible efforts of our emergency services, scientists and health workers is providing the prospect of something like a return to ‘normal’ in the coming months. My mental health has suffered at times, and despite having developed and learnt strategies to deal with this and prevent things from overwhelming me I must admit things have been difficult at times, so I can empathise with those who have been having darker days. I am however ever grateful for my good health overall and am just focusing on each day as it comes.

For now, I will pin my hopes on the dry (and slightly warmer) weather forecast.

A deadly fungus is killing frogs around the world, but the bacteria on their skin could protect them

Researchers in Costa Rica have found that some bacteria on the skin of amphibians prevent growth of the fungus responsible for what has been dubbed ‘the amphibian apocalypse’.

Published in the journal Microbiology, the research identified a number of bacteria which could growth of the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). One particularly dangerous strain of the fungus, called BdGPL-2, is responsible for mass amphibian die-offs around the world.

The fungus infects the skin of amphibians, breaking down the cells. As amphibians breathe and regulate water through their skin, infection is often deadly. It is believed that almost 700 species of amphibian are vulnerable to the fungus, and Bd has led to the extinction of 90 amphibian species.

In order to investigate why some amphibian populations in Costa Rica were more resilient to Bd that others, a research group led by Dr Adrian Pinto, Professor at the University of Costa Rica sampled the circulating strains of Bd and the skin microbiome of amphibians at different sites.

To do this, the research group collected wild amphibians from areas of Costa Rica which had a history of Bd outbreaks. “Bd has previously been widely detected in Costa Rica, but this is the first study to isolate and compare the characteristics of different isolates,” said Dr Pinto, “our work showed that the circulating strains of the pathogenic fungus belong to a highly virulent global strain known as BdGPL-2.”

They found that the bacteria on the skin of some surviving amphibians prevented growth of the fungus in the lab. “Amphibian species that survived decline harbor bacteria on their skin capable of inhibiting the growth of the pathogen. However, this inhibitory capacity varies according to which strain of the fungus is being tested,” said Dr Pinto. “These findings suggest that locally adapted skin bacteria may offer protection from the disease.”

Although the researchers expected to see the highly virulent strain BdGPL-2 in Costa Rica, they did not expect to see so much variation in circulating strains. “We were surprised of the phenotypic variations among the pathogen isolates, including their different responses to the antagonistic bacteria,” said Dr Pinto. “Local pathogen adaptations must be considered when designing mitigation strategies for this disease.”

Dr Pinto hopes to combine their findings with other disease control strategies to protect amphibian populations from decimation by Bd: “We will further study the ability of skin bacteria to protect amphibians against disease, as another tool to combat this plague alongside the creation of climate shelters and fostering the amphibians’ own immune system,” he said.

Costa Rica is one of the countries that suffered a dramatic loss of amphibian species between the 1980s and 1990s. In Costa Rica, there are currently 64 species of amphibians in some risk category according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Species classified as critically endangered include the Holdridge’s Toad (Incilius holdridgei), a native species found only in the mountain ranges of the central region; The Variable Harlequin Frog (Atelopus varius), a river species very sensitive to Bd, and several species of river tree frogs of the genus Isthmohyla that live in cold currents in high areas, a habitat where Bd proliferates successfully.

Amphibians are one of the most diverse groups in the tropics and represent crucial links in food webs. Protecting them keeps ecosystems healthy since biological diversity is the basis for resilient forests, thus helping control pests and zoonotic infections.

The full scientific paper can be found on the Microbiology website. (https://doi.org/10.1099/mic.0.001017)

A new year…really?

I began this year with optimism, a new set of goals, a hopeful wish for new experiences and a determination to put 2020 firmly in the past and make the most of each and every day this year. In personal terms, society terms, global health terms and farming terms 2020 was a year of upheaval, and that’s putting it lightly.

Today, in the virtual sphere (because that’s where everything takes place these days), the Oxford Farming Conference is taking place. At the time of writing we have already been ‘treated’ to hearing from all four ministers responsible for agriculture in their various home nations. We’ve also had a session on trade and the Frank Parkinson lecture which was this year delivered by ‘the Godfather of Sustainability’ – John Elkington. Tow key things have come to the fore for me so far. One of those is the need for defined purpose and determination in communicating that purpose in a clear manner. The other is that we need to act, and that means all of us, however we can. That action in itself needs to be defined and goal orientated, ideally with a long term vision.

I am a fan of goal setting but I only became so after a few struggles in life – ‘failure’ often teaches us to change the game, to flip things on their head and to think about what it is that we really want or ‘need’. Goal setting has become part of my own way of moving forward in life. Structure, routine, lists. Every so often things will happen in life that you have to react to, but most of life can be structured and imagined beforehand. We all have the power to predict and make our own futures to some extent, even if it is only having the freedom to decide what to eat for lunch.

How then, does this follow through to land management or indeed business management? This is a broad question and broad concept and clearly goals enable progress, but are they enough? Does resilience require more? I believe it does.

I listen to the debate at Oxford Farming and I look forward to the debate at Oxford Real Farming over the next few days. I hear that we need to move when it comes to sustainability on our own micro-business levels and we need to move quickly. I then look to my family’s farm here in Essex and what we need to do practically on the ground over the next few years. We have a plan but can only enact it at a certain pace. A step by step approach has to be the way but we are limited by people, money and other similar resources. It will be an acute challenge. I know of numerous other SMEs who are in the same boat. I therefore question whether, as a sector generally, whether we will be able to move as quickly as we need to. Just on our farm level we need to transform our energy, growing methods and we need to go much further when it comes to landscape scale conservation and critically in measuring and recording data.

These are just thoughts, but an indication of how I’m thinking as we go into 2021. I am largely optimistic for the near future, but this will only be based on all of us being able to enact actions quickly, and whilst I hope we can, it is a push. All we can do is just keep moving forwards.

Happy new year to you all.

Sustainable Travel Tips Post COVID-19 – guest post by Luke Smith

COVID-19 has completely upended daily activities and routines. Practically every aspect of life has been touched by the pandemic, whether you’re talking about social distancing and wearing face masks when you visit your favourite pub or working and attending school remotely.

Another major area of life that’s been affected — or more accurately halted — by the epidemic is travel. With each country in the EU constantly creating a menagerie of different regulations and gatherings of all sorts being regularly banned, everything from luxurious global vacations to small holiday get-togethers over the border has become difficult.

However, at some point, the pandemic-induced chaos will come to an end and travel will resume once again. The question is, how can you keep your travel sustainable in a post-COVID-19 world where everyone will now be aware of the added dangers of recklessly spreading germs when travelling? Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind as you plan out your future adventures.

Start Close to Home

While the pandemic remains an ongoing affair, it’s still possible to travel within the safety of your own hometown. You can do this in a few different ways:

  • Look for local culinary or touristy hotspots that you haven’t yet been able to see yourself.
  • Visit natural landmarks in your vicinity, from the Verdon Gorge to the Cliffs of Dover to the Alps, there’s always a natural phenomenon close by.
  • Utilize remote options like “Covid-eos” to connect with others and learn about other locations without even needing to leave your home.

By looking local, you can explore both the natural and manmade wonders of your home region — and even sow the seeds for future travel by making national and international connections online. The best part is, the geographically limited characteristics of this kind of experience naturally reduces the impact that your travels will have on the environment, as well.

Batch Your Adventures

One of the simplest ways to reduce your impact as you get from point A to point B is by batching your adventures. Rather than spending a weekend across the pond in New York City or a week visiting Italy, plan less often multi-week trips that require as little long-distance travel as possible. Fly into Rome and then slowly move through France and Spain over the next few weeks, knocking three countries off of that ambitious bucket list with just two plane flights rather than six.

If you’re serious about the long-term travel option, the best way you can batch your adventures at minimal cost to the environment is by coupling your work and travel activities together. Look for a new position in a sustainable yet travel-heavy industry, such as becoming an international aid worker or travel nurse. This can allow you to both make a difference and see new places at the same time.

Plan Ahead

COVID-19 has rewritten the rulebook when it comes to safe interpersonal interactions, and there’s no guarantee that these guidelines will completely disappear once travelling becomes freer once again. By planning every trip well in advance, you give yourself a chance to research local rules and ordinances in your destination.

You can also use that time to look for more sustainable travel options, such as using trains, local bus systems, or even renting a bike — which happens to be the safest form of social distance travel, as well.

Don’t Leave Your Sustainable Mindset Behind

Finally, remember that when you travel you’re still on the same globe that you inhabit when you’re in your living room. In other words, the same sustainability principles that dictate your quiet rural English or busy Parisian lifestyles should also apply while you’re visiting Port-au-Prince or hiking Kilimanjaro.

From recycling and reusing items to avoiding unnecessary carbon emissions to considering where your food comes from, make an effort to carry all of your lifestyle choices over into your travel activities.

Now, it’s important to point out that many sustainable activities on the homefront won’t naturally translate to a travel setting easily. For instance, you can’t guarantee that a hotel will have high-efficiency heating or low-consumption water fixtures. However, it doesn’t change the fact that you should do your best to both live sustainably and support local sustainably-minded enterprises whenever you can locate and patronize them.

Keeping the Long-Term in Focus

The COVID-19 virus may be in the spotlight at the moment. However, there are still countless other important considerations that should not be lost in the pandemic chaos — including sustainability.

By doing things like planning ahead, exploring local regions, looking for sustainable travel options, and batching your trips you can ensure that your travels, whether tomorrow or a year in the future, remain both Earth-friendly and fun.

Most importantly, remember to maintain the right mindset as you travel. Don’t let a unique situation tempt you to abandon sustainable activity and eco-friendly thinking. Striving to maintain a sustainable travelling mindset throughout your adventures will enable you to thoroughly enjoy yourself with a clean conscience that you haven’t compromised on the Earth’s integrity in your attempt to see its wonders. On the contrary, you’ll be able to rest in the fact that you managed to successfully weave both terrestrial desires together.

Writer’s Block

It has been months since I wrote on this blog, something that has been difficult to swallow, for it was here that I began publically thinking about and discussing issues connected with the countryside in the first place, almost seven years ago. I have titled this post ‘writer’s block’ but that hasn’t been the reason for silence – far from it, there has been an overload of topics to discuss this year. The difficulty has been fitting writing in on top of my other commitments – both new and existing – and my writing has, regrettably, suffered as a result. To try and rectify this I have begun a course in freelance and feature writing with the London School of Journalism and I look forward to increasing my writing and research output in 2021, perhaps returning to the essence of where I started in 2013.

2020 has been a year unlike any other. Personally I have had a year of turbulence, but a lot of positive to draw from it. I have rarely been busier in terms of work and podcasting especially has pushed to a whole new level. I hadn’t predicted that in 2020 I would begin making and presenting podcasts for a number of new clients, and learning new skills when it comes to audio production. With this in mind I am excited where the future of rural communications is going, and this was echoed in comments last night when I recorded a podcast with Jane Craigie of Jane Craigie Marketing. I believe we have only scraped the surface when it comes to the ability of rural businesses getting their messages across and strengthening the rural voice and story.

On the farm we faced the most difficult growing year in my memory, with a wet winter resulting in almost exclusive spring cropping and then a dry spring leading to in further complications. Further, pollination of our sea buckthorn crop was impacted by strong winds in March, resulting in a disastrous harvest. All in all, I won’t be sorry to see the back of 2020. This said, we were able to establish a new outdoor gym and activity centre on the farm (Thrive Outdoor’s Wild Gym) which, despite complications with lockdowns and COVID has been a great addition to the farm. I want to focus on food, conservation and community on the farm and this pushed us miles forward when it comes to the community wing, especially giving families in the area something that bit different, getting kids outdoors and getting back to basics.

On the horizon is Brexit and, over seven years, a transition to a new agricultural policy framework in the UK which will transform the agricultural world, and indeed, potentially the landscape itself. We are (still!) yet to see the detail on what the transition will look like and your guess is as good as mine when it comes to the impact of Brexit on the marketplace, but one thing is for sure at the moment and that is that uncertainty is the word of the day.

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