Let’s start with some good news. It has been a terrific year for spiders; terrific for the spiders, that is, which seem to have thrived during the iffy summer weather, not necessarily good for the surprising number of people who don’t like them and can’t bear to touch them whether in a bathroom or farm shed.
In houses, much of the spider activity seen is males looking for a mate. Outside, big spiders on farms and in gardens are hanging on webs waiting for who knows what.
At this time of year, according to experts such as those with the conservation trust Buglife, millions of spiders leave the fields where they have been eating insects all summer – such as it was this year – for winter quarters.
The side effect of that is the spider webbing, gossamer, seen on hedges, hedgerows and crops on damp autumn mornings.
Yet the most spectacular display I’ve seen was on a ploughed field one early October morning some years ago – 20 acres of freshly-ploughed ground and, as far as I could see when arriving with tractor and cultivator to prepare it for drilling winter wheat, every square foot had gossamer swaying over it.
It was a remarkable, and lovely, sight that gradually disappeared during the morning as the sun rose. Work being work, the cultivator also gradually covered the ground and destroyed the gossamer. But the memory remains.
The almost-good news is that harvest has now limped into its final stages, deep ruts and gouges in many fields still evident to show where combines or trailers bogged down, a few fields still to cut, straw still to bale.
But such is the power and speed of modern tractors and the size of equipment that when conditions have been anywhere near suitable for post-harvest ploughing or other cultivation and drilling the predominant colour of the countryside is now brown, with tinges of green where next year’s oilseed rape and winter barley crops have germinated and are growing.
All along, the up-side of this year’s protracted harvest has been the high prices on offer, at least for crops that had not been forward-contracted months earlier for what seemed like a good price at the time.
There has also been compensation for many growers in final yields that were much better than expected. That seems to be particularly true of oilseed rape, where yields of around two tonnes an acre at prices of more than £350 per tonne have lightened many a farmer’s mood on some wet, grey days.
Wheat also seems to have yielded much better in our area than in many areas further south and even spring barley – much of which got off to a poor start in that dust-dry early spring most of us forgot as the wet summer wore on – has generally performed better than expected.
One casualty of higher prices for grain has been Britain’s biggest biofuel factory run by Ensus at Wilton on Teesside. Remember it? Thought of and built several years ago, when wheat prices were not much more than £80 a tonne, the plant has the capacity to convert up to a million tonnes of wheat into 450 million litres of bioethanol and about 350,000 tonnes of animal feed.
But wheat prices more than double that make the Wilton plant uneconomic. It has been closed since May and is likely to remain closed unless and until wheat prices fall as dramatically and rapidly as they rose – something which growers, naturally, have no wish to see.
Critics of the plant, and developments like it, will be happy. Their argument is that it is morally, if not economically, wrong to grow crops that should be used for food to make industrial fuel.
But I sometimes wonder whetherthere is any method of fuel or energy production that won’t be criticised. Almost all of us use and want fuel supplies for vehicles, almost all of us want energy – gas, electricity, diesel – at the flick of a switch or push of a button to maintain our lifestyles in the way to which we have become accustomed.
Yet every form of energy creation, especially so-called “alternative” sources, has its critics and meets protests. Wind turbines must have caused more bad feeling and split friendships than anything else in rural areas in the past 10 years. Wind farms continue to be created and the protests continue and huge amounts of time and effort on both sides are wasted that could be put to more constructive use.
Now a new generation of electric pylons is appearing and causing the same sort of angst in rural areas likely to be affected. It is well known that the cost of putting cables underground is much more than building pylons, about ten times more. It is well known that we all want efficient, immediately-available electricity.
Yet, as with wind farms, the one thing we can guarantee is that as soon as a pylon route is nominated, protest groups will form.