Five-eyed Medicinal Leeches and Other Stuff

Thu, 14/12/2023 - 10:30am

It’s weird the stuff the media picks up on, don’t you think? I mean, we’ve seen these leeches for years on the farm. They’re a bloody nuisance! Coming down the water pipes from the farm reservoir and getting stuck in the inlet valves of the cattle water troughs. Little did we know they are a rare species only found on two other sites in Scotland.

Attached to a surface they shrink down to a little blob the size of an old half-penny coin, but when they are swimming, they stretch out to about 8 inches long (200mm) and swim in a wave-like motion. They look quite impressive if not a bit scary. Certainly doesn’t encourage a quick dip on a hot summer’s day in the reservoir!

These medicinal leeches were identified by a local entomologist doing a survey this past summer who recorded that, ‘122 species have been found in and around the lochans, including rare species, with at least 2 new to Scotland. The number of water beetles and bugs, 78, is exceptional.

These ‘lochans’ were the ponds we made in the mixed broadleaf woodlands we planted 25 years ago. Perhaps some of you reading this were involved in those plantings as school kids or as local volunteers. Who’d have believed that those little twigs we stuck in the ground have now grown into mighty trees! We thank you for your help and encourage you to come back to enjoy the sense of calm you get just standing in those woodlands, looking and listening to nature.

As so often happens, all is not good news. Of the 35,000 trees we planted, 7,000 were Ash. Most, if not all, are dead or dying from Ash die-back, which is widespread in this part of Scotland, but even then, it’s not all bad news. These are broadleaf trees, and they need space. So, we are taking out the dead Ash and thinning most of the others, leaving thickets here and there. When we planted the trees, they were at 8 feet (2.5 metre) spacings. Far too close for these trees to fully develop, this was because the recommendations in those days was all about commercial woodland. ‘Stock them tight and force them to grow tall and straight.’ What this did was produce a dense tree canopy with little light getting through to lower plants, which is not great for biodiversity.

The woods look so much better now. Light and airy. And the thinnings make good firewood that help pay for the work. But back to biodiversity.

We also got a survey done of our plant species this year. We did a survey 23 years ago and wondered if our agroecological farming has had any effect on plant biodiversity. Well, in summary, it has.

The survey was done by the same ecologist as did it 23 years ago. He found that the plant species had increased in number by about 50%. From 157 species in 2000, to 234 species this year. It was his exciting findings that prompted him to call in his entomologist contact, that in turn led to the discovery of the five-eyed, medicinal leeches and bizarre media interest.

So, this is the back story of the leech discovery which, in my opinion, completely missed the point.

COP28 wound up today with the usual flurry of commitments to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by sometime in the future. Less noticeable was a, ‘Joint Statement on Climate, Nature and People’, in which there was:  fostering alignment of countries; scaling up finance; ensuring equitable representation; promoting a whole-of-society approach and encouraging coherent reporting of progress. All sounds good but, I suspect, our policy leaders can talk the talk but haven’t a clue how to walk the walk.

Those of you who have been following us over the years will appreciate that we have been conducting a whole farm experiment to see if it is possible to compassionately produce adequate amounts of good quality, affordable food without trashing the planet in a balanced, fulfilling way for the farm team. And to do so profitably.

Well, the answer is, we’re getting there. It certainly hasn’t been easy, and we’ve likely fallen into every trap on the way, but we are definitely seeing daylight. I can confidently predict that our cost of producing each litre of milk and kilo of beef and lamb will be as competitive as any method in conventional/industrial farming within the next two years.

Sure our cheese isn’t cheap, but it’s produced in small scale using artisan methods, employing a lot of local folk – the cost of producing quality cheese from our milk is a different argument. What I’m suggesting is that in two years’ time, if all else fails, I could afford to sell my milk, beef and lamb into the conventional market and the farm would still make a profit.

Our farm is independently audited net zero. We are getting excellent biodiversity results. Our cows and calves have a good life and the team have a fulfilling, balanced life.  Our big problem now is getting the industry and policy people to believe it is possible.

So how do you prove it is possible? I’m told it would take a multi-disciplinary, 3-year study to assess our farming system which would cost over half a million. Where do you get that kind of money? But without the proof, our policy people won’t act on the basis of my word alone. Especially as there are powerful vested interests that argue the opposite.

In our twenty-five-year agroecological journey, if we’ve learned anything it’s that everything is connected. Not just that, but we interfere with natural systems at our peril. The more we have understood nature and tried to work with it, the more it has rewarded us. Eventually. It takes time. We can do this, but it needs to start now.

The five-eyed medicinal leech is just the tip of the iceberg. The real story is what lies behind the leech, and so many other species, appearing on our farm.

David Finlay