It’s flocking time of year, and the migrant redwings, thrushes and blackbirds are back feasting on berries in our meadow and woodland, and fallen apples in the orchard. Pigeons glean the last grains in the fields, and – hooray! – the once-prolific starling with its stupendous synchronised murmurations (each bird takes its cue from the seven flanking it) of hundreds or even thousands of individual birds has been in decline, but its numbers are beginning to build up again, at least in Devon.
Also flocking are the finches and tits, including my favourite long-tailed tits who swoop and twitter in extended family groups. (The one below is a youngster photographed a couple of years ago when there was so much snow that many birds, including rare and shy ones, gathered in our courtyard for shelter and food. This one was hungry enough and young enough to let me photograph him or her from literally inches away.)
The great flocks of corvids, basically rooks and jackdaws, birds who have saved my sanity more than once (long story) and always make me smile, greet the dawn with enthusiasm, and perform their raucous flypast around dusk, before they settle noisily in their night roosts.
And someone told me yesterday that guillemots on the North Devon coast are thriving and multiplying. So in this world where we’ve wiped out 60% of species since 1970 (according to the Green Party), there are a few small local successes.
On a more bum note, my neighbour has found in his field over the last few months two buzzards and one barn owl dying or dead, all emaciated. The vet has said poison is responsible. I know this is judgemental, but so few people seem to be capable of joined-up thinking. If you use poison, as I suspect some of my other neighbours up the hill do (even the ones who host a barn owl in their outbuildings), to kill rats and mice you’ll be killing the owls, buzzards, foxes who depend on such small rodents for food.
WRITING ABOUT THE REST OF THE NATURAL WORLD
Yesterday I led an eco-poetry workshop in remembrance of lost species, and to celebrate those animals, birds, marine creatures and insects who are still with us, as part of Exeter Literary Festival.
A question that came up was how ecopoetry might differ from ‘nature’ poetry. My thoughts on this go, in brief and rather superficially, like this:
The ‘old’ nature writing kept the objective observer separate from the observed, so that the latter is recorded in a rather detached way.
The ‘new’ nature writing, a genre that is becoming hugely popular, intertwines subject and object, so that the writer is present in the narrative and the relationship between human and other-than-human is forefront.
‘Eco-writing’ and ‘eco-poetry’ have a political dimension, challenging our assumptions about, views of, and actions in relation to the other-than-human. This writing usually includes a passionate portrayal of an environment, and species, in crisis, largely at our hands. It is designed to draw attention to our failings in the hopes that, by dispelling ignorance, we can change our habits.
And, of course, the border between the latter two, certainly, is blurry.
Yes, I still do.
Looking back, I see I’ve been roughly following a vegan path since 2011 (I was lacto-veggie before that from the age of 16). It’s not been a smooth path in that I’ve not been consistently 100% vegan – for instance, when I host my monthly poetry group here and people bring special cheeses, I usually have some; or if I happen to be eating out and there’s no other option (leaving an animal’s products uneaten on my plate is worse – that animal will then have suffered in vain). Other than that, though, I’ve been pretty good.
Here, I want to celebrate a couple of really great vegan cheesemakers, and to tell you about the delights of Coyo, a natural yogurt made from coconut milk. If you don’t already know it, try it, if you can get hold of it (even TM, who is a firmly-committed lacto-veggie who nonetheless shares the vegan cooking with me, likes it better than dairy yogurt).
The supermarket vegan ‘cheeses’ are pretty rubbish. (Violife, made from coconut oil, is OK-ish as a melted cheddar substitute but a bit grim on its own.)
I spent rather a lot of money on a ‘cheese-making’ kit, with recipes for 6 different ‘cheeses’ from cashew nuts – all disgusting.
But here’s a thing: there are two really good British vegan cheeses. Even better, they’re both in right-on sustainable packaging – no plastic in sight. However, both are expensive, so I ration them (mind you a good dairy cheese is not cheap). Both are made from fermented cashew nuts.
One is Tyne Chease – ‘the finest vegan cheese in England’ – and it is (joint finest, with Mouse’s Favourite, below). There are several imaginative flavours, of which my favourite is the smoked. They also do a range of spreadable flavoured soft cheeses in glass jars. They’re an excellent butter replacement.
The other ‘cheese’ is Mouse’s Favourite, developed by Gabrielle le Cocq and sold in the UK and Europe, despite only being a small concern – a blue camembert style is the only one I’ve tried. It’s delicious. Really delicious.
I don’t know how widespread their distribution is, but certainly the latter has a store locator. (I think you can order both online.) I'm fortunate that our nearest town, Totnes, is the alternative capital of the southwest (and Riverford is also local), which means that we have many good wholefood choices and I have access to such things as vegan cheese. Plus I never need to go into a supermarket, given that we also grow much of our own.
If you’re not ready to go vegan but want to cut down your contribution to animal suffering, then please please do two things.
One is buy only organic dairy products – and of course meat too, if you eat it. In GB in order to receive Soil Association accreditation as organic, you have to guarantee that your cattle are outside, free range, six months of the year at least. (And no, ‘grassfed’ is not necessarily a guarantee – often the cut grass is taken to the captive cows and they are barn-reared, on concrete, all year.)
The other is to ensure that the cheesemaker uses veggie rennet (it should say on the label). The traditional rennet is an enzyme taken from a calf’s stomach to ‘clot’ the milk. (It could be argued that this action is superfluous, since the dairy industry per se involves the killing of half of all calves at a few days or weeks of age, sometimes via their incarceration, taken away from their mothers at a few days’ old, in the dark, to produce the veal that comes from very young calves – there are stories of veal calves attempting to suckle at the fingers of the abattoir workers, so young are they.)
Best of all, of course, seek out and try these ‘cheeses’. You might be pleasantly surprised.