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Sunday 24th August 2014

Review of new book

We tut and sigh and roll our eyes skywards when we read the latest piece of research that claims 50 per cent of children think pigs lay eggs or that chicken nuggets grow on trees.

But while most of us here in the Westcountry know the basics of farming and its produce, how would we do on the detail.  Do you know the difference between a lamb and a hogget?  Can you identify whether that is oats, barley or wheat growing in the field on the opposite side of the valley?  And would you know a blue faced Leicester from a badger-faced Welsh Mountain (A clue: they are both breeds of sheep).

If you find your knowledge of farming a little patchy, even if you live surrounded by farmland and consider yourself a countryman, then a new book can help.  Ex-journalist, greengrocer and farm worker in India John hitchins and photographer and writer Nicola de Pulford, who farms on Dartmoor, have written and easy to use guide to UK farming and food production.

Behind the Hedge, subtitled "where our food comes from", is a timely publication that aims to put readers back in touch with the land at a time when many people's closest connection with meat, milk and cereals comes in the aisle of the supermarket.

As the authors write in the introduction: "Thanks to David Attenborough, many of us are more familiar with a hump-backed whale or an orangutan than the pig or hen that provides our breakfast bacon and eggs".

"Because so much of what we eat is processed, packaged or frozen we can forget where it comes from.  The food chain has grown so long it is easy to lose sight of the farmer at the other end."

The book is more directory for dipping into than long, informative read.  But chopping up the information into bite-sized chunks with illustrations does make it digestible and useable as a field guide as well as a reference volume.

In fact, as a field guide it could be as valuable as the many guidebooks to the natural world which people keep in the glovebox of the car. 

Taking a pocket guide to birds on a ramble around the footpaths of Devon and Cornwall might yield one or two "spots" for all but the most dedicated birder.

Take this guide to farm animals, crops and the managed landscape, however and - if you were competitively minded - you could "tick off" dozens of accurately identified farm items, from mangel wurzels to Texel sheep and seed drills to silage foragers.

The history of the landscape, wildlife on the farm, the finer points of slaughter and butchery and information on managed woodland is all in the book as well as pages and pages of sheep, cattle, pigs and goats all beautifully illustrated to make identification easier.

Maybe only farming anoraks - the rural equivalent of those motorway drivers who look out for Eddie Stobart lorries - will want to try to "spot" everything in this book, but for the rest of us, knowing precisely what crop we're looking at over the hedge on a country walk - and what it is used for - would definitely enhance the experience of getting out and about in the countryside.

In fact, it is such a good idea, I wonder why no one has thought of it before.


Glanville Fritillary Butterfly Nesting Swan
Maize Harvesting South Devon Bull