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St. George's Day, Shakespeare's Birthday and Salad Days - 21/04/2009
 

These are our salad days, when we are green in judgment (but not, here in VEGA, behind our ears)

1. These are our salad days, when we are green in judgment (but not, here in VEGA, behind our ears). So the nature of our Eating Plans changes from the austerity of Lent to the burgeoning of spring.

2. Our appropriate outburst of Lentilism was quite well received. However, the practice of abstinence was measured mostly in choccy bars. A  quiz by the Times to about a dozen eminent clerics was answered by Lenten promises to read good books; only one uttered an unequivocal declaration to give up meat (but possibly only for Lent) and another was sympathetic to "green" matters. We had a pleasant reply from his office declaring the Archbishop of Canterbury's sympathy for our seasonal considerations for those other animals for whom we arrogant humans for spare little altruistic sympathy and mercy.

3. But now it's April and time to celebrate our salad days and to remember England's patron saint St. George and the birthday on 23rd April of William Shakespeare. So, in tune with another observer of the scene, William Cowper, we add to our Portfolio of Eating Plans "a cheap but wholesome salad from the brook," which raises images of Constable's depiction of livestock paddling in just such a sunny scene in a meandering and refreshing stream. It's too bad that the modern farmer and vet would look askance at the risks of zoonotic diseases, such as liver fluke, cryptococcosis, and E. coli O157 from wild watercress grown in such waters, not to mention toxic wastes and runoffs from farms, industrial and building enterprises upstream. The English family in their second home on the return Ryanair flight at the end of the Easter holidays might still be able to overlook some blemishes in Browning's vision

"Oh! to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf, while the
Chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England-now!"

4. The stunted elm trees and now even the bepoxed oak trees exhibit their symptoms of an England sick at heart. And now as the pollen flies and noses run, the busy bees have been smitten with plagues of debilitating diseases rendering them unfit for their truly organic missions of fertilization.

5. And even the weariest dairy-cow becomes skittish as she is released from her winter housing and a diet of preserved grass and concentrates; perhaps she is one of the spring-calving herd whose new born offspring will be snatched away from her before she has even had time to furnish the young one with adequate colostrum and mother's care - a point we emphasized a week or so ago in marking Mothering Sunday, which fell within Lent. Nonetheless, cows with calves afoot, are playful as they are released to range freely, even if it is little more than a patch of heavily-fertilized rye grass almost in-by, or within a short limping distance from the loafing pad and milking parlor. Nowadays the verdure has lost much of the diversity of old-fashioned meadows and pastures and it has acquired a paler shade of green in many of the vibrant senses of that description.

6. For the sheep the future looks uncertain as the numbers of the national flock decline and the demand for the meat, even with Prince Charles' favors for mutton, shows little elasticity (that is, sustainability in the market under the stress of competition and attractions of alternatives). Changes in the CAP and European insistence on electronic ear-tagging of lambs - as is done for new-born calves- sets many problems for shepherds, especially in the less favored uplands areas. More sheep will become to be seen as denizens of the polytunnel; further EU stipulations will be restricting visas for New Zealand's experts at the seasonal bouts of shearing. The tagging and shearing are surgical procedures with welfare challenges in skills and handling. The value of the wool is so low that sales of this co-product hardly pay for the shearing and ultimate slaughter. The Lord may temper the wind to the shorn lamb but the sun in a changing climate will only add to the suffering of the overheated woolly sheep. And the songs this spring - and TS Elliott in Waste Land described April as "the cruelest month" - of the migrating birds mark a surrender of conservation to the workings of change as farming, the land, and lifestyles bow to the moods of "nature."

7. "Behind the birdsong is a louder chorus, which rings across the fields all day and into the night" wrote Paul Evans, of the Guardian, reporting on the countryside at Wenlock Edge on 15th April 2009. His down-to-earth view contrasts with the idylls of religion and greeny pleasantness purveyed by reporters with indoctrinated perceptions and lack of objectivity. Paul Evans is a countryman who blows the gaff, if we may mix metaphors, with the turbulence that is besetting conservationists.

8. Paul Evans reports: "The bleating of lambs and answering calls of the ewes are part of the texture of this landscape. The lambing has been going on since the beginning of the year, first those reared inside, then those in the fields and hills. Through the countryside the sound of lambs and the sight of them running and gamboling are signifiers of the spring and taken for granted. Few will know the hardships and horrors of lambing: the long, anxious hours of work, the risk of prolapse and disease, the triplet who wears the skin of a stillborn to be accepted by its mother. Out they come into the fields and hills to take their first spring, at least that moment of intense sensation before they are moulded into product. The land shapes the life of the land, and they shape the land. Their sound, which fills it now, is full of a future they don't know, but we do."

9. After the end of this glorious year every one of Britain's 30 million sheep will have to carry a machine-readable electronic tag, costing about £1.50 a sheep, most of which will have to be paid by farmers. Every lamb will have to be captured and then tracked on a database. Populations of sheep will fall and some hill farmers will give up. Britain's sheep industry has already had to put up with the terrible slaughter forced on it by foot-and-mouth disease. And now the British Government is warning livestock farmers of its unwillingness to go on underwriting the industry for losses due to epidemics of woes resulting from poor husbandry and negligence in food security and phytosanitary control. Not many insurers today will rush to undertake and police this duty!

10. An editorial in the Guardian bewails a British landscape "bereft" without sheep: "no Herdwicks in the Coniston fells, or Cluns in Shropshire, or Southdowns in Suffolk, or the half-wild Soays of St Kilda." But as we consider our individual actions and translocations of those sheep in Suffolk and, indeed, the developments in elevating the status of the Southdowns to the levels proper for a National Park, we must as responsible citizens ponder on the consequences of approaches and developments in stockless farming yielding undemanded "product" but allowing non-human animals to revert or adapt or move into territories unthreatened by the predatory human species.

11. How the human inhabitants will treat the eponymous Southdown sheep and the production of terroir meat, wool, and milk and the attendant local services in the National Park with the retinue of fellmongers, knackers, butchers, and hunt kennels will be challenges for environmentalists, "organics," and animal welfarists to face, especially for the Royal Society of St George and the noble patrons who serve its cause. Will hunting, shooting, and fishing for human pleasure and leisure be countryside pursuits to present to the world as traditional activities to rate with the heritage of bull-baiting and cock-fighting, and with other dubious exploitations of animals such as dog-and-horse-racing?

12. Shakespeare was never at a loss of words and images. His Birthday gift, on open access to the world, is extensively borrowed by the likes of VEGA in condemning the standards of food and farming in today's developed countries, as well as by archetypes such as rubicund John Bull. During and before the BSE Inquiry, Shakespeare outdid our Bernard Shaw in one-liners and witticisms on the antics of "mongrel beef-witted" lords and in Twelfth Night: Or What You Will he has this exchange of witticisms by Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Sir Toby: Methinks sometimes I have no more with than a Christian or an ordinary man has; but I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit

Sir Andrew: I would I have had that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing, and bear-baiting. O! had I but followed that arts!

13. But serious and sincere animal welfarists, as well as followers of several religious persuasions, owe Shakespeare a debt for scolding us humans for our inhumane treatment of cattle and-in a powerfully poignant example of betrayal and rapine in the words of King Henry VI on the Cow and Motherhood (still fresh in our minds after Mothering Sunday, which falls in Lent and just before Easter). The full quote, cogent and raw, deserves recitation every Easter and celebration of the 23rd April in schools, universities, and supermarkets and in graces before meals all over our land and in the activities of DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency. Here are the words, on open access, as part of our database.

"Ah! uncle Humphrey, in thy face I see
The map of honor, truth and loyalty;
And yet, good Humphrey, is the hour to come
That e'er I prov'd thee false, or feared thy faith,
What low'ring star now envies they estate
That these great lords, and Margaret our queen,
Do seek subversion of thy harmless life?
Thou never didst them wrong, nor no man wrong
And as the butcher takes away the calf,
And binds the wretch, and beats it when it strays,
Bearing it to the bloody slaughterhouse,
Even so, remorseless, have they borne him hence;
And as the dam runs lowing up and down,
Looking the way her harmless young one went
And can do nought but wail her darlings loss
Even so, remorseless, have they borne, and cannot do him good;
So mighty are his vowed enemies.
His fortunes I will weep; and twixt each groan,
Say 'Who's a traitor, Gloucester he is none."

14. This is why VEGA will mark Britain's National Day with redoubled vows to raise its sights to Eating Plans, like ours, that can boast meat-and-dairy, and cruelty-free emblems on their standards.

15. Shakespeare was never one to suffer Johnny Foreigner and his knavish politics and he would have been warmed by the voice of a British Mother who rallied the ranks of the consumer by forgoing the foie gras and calves' livers laid before delegates at a recent sumptuous international conference hosted by France. The British consumer who braved the test was Sarah Brown, spouse of Britain's Prime Minister. Can we now celebrate in like fashion, in Lysistra-style if need be, sanctions that ensure that no official government or royal function includes these items on the bill of fare. And be proud of the green shoots of consistent ecological respect for all the animals and environment that should stand as an example of our heritage to the world.

 
 
 

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