Country Matters: Heady days for the muckraker

Click to follow
The Independent Online
COME dig with me and explore the secrets of our muck heap - or rather, our twin muck heaps, which stand shoulder to shoulder - for the excavation of well- rotted manure always proves one of February's most rewarding tasks.

Our heaps are not those colossal muck mountains that serious farmers build out in their fields and then spread with heavy machinery, flinging you- know-what to the four winds, with an infernal smell and clatter. No, ours are relatively modest dumps, each about 10ft by 8ft, and we shift them by hand. Their contents derive from stable, sheep barn, chicken house and garden.

I have long pondered, and seen in my mind, the ideal muck-guzzler for an establishment like ours. It is a tall, vertical bin or silo, lined with steel or concrete and set into the side of a hill so that raw manure, straw, lawn-mowings and suchlike can be tipped into the top, and emerge as perfectly cooked compost through a side-hatch at the bottom. In theory, as one digs out the finished product from below, the weight above will drive the contents gently downward, and gravity, harnessed to the forces of natural decomposition, will ensure an effortless, perpetual cycle.

I know that in practice many snags might obtrude. First, one would have to haul a great deal of heavy material to the top of the bin. Then, the shaft might easily fill up before the bottom layers were mature. Semi-

digested material might lodge in the middle and become almost impossible to shift. The lower section might be saturated, and the top too dry . . .

Anyway, our present system is an approximation of this ideal. The twin heaps are contained in New Zealand boxes, which are corrals made of posts driven into the ground, with loose boards fitted into slots between them, so that sections of wall can be lifted out individually.

The idea is that Box A, once full, should be left to rot for several months, while Box B gradually piles up. When Box A is mature, its side or back can be opened up, and its contents attacked where ever they seem ripest. Once it has been cleared, Box B can be rounded off and left, and a new generation of compost started in Box A.

In general the system works well, especially as our chickens scratch about on the heaps, distributing material evenly; but you have to be prepared for setbacks - and indeed that is the fascination of the whole business, for when you dig into a mature pile, you never quite know what you are going to find.

What you hope to find is totally decomposed muck, rich, dark and fruity, almost black, the colour and texture of the finest Christmas pudding - that is, a moist yet friable substance, with very little smell, about 80 per cent of the way back to becoming earth, from which its ingredients originally emanated. Such prime fertiliser, sliced into cubes by a few jabs with a spade, does wonders for vegetable garden or rosebed, while less well matured stuff suffices as a mulch round shrubs or fruit trees.

The trouble is that the digestive powers of the heaps vary widely from one point to another, according to how much moisture and oxygen have been present. This year we found to our chagrin that in Box A large pockets were completely dry, and that the straw, rather than rotting, had turned white and mummified.

How this had happened, I am not sure: I had assumed that the prodigious downpours of December must have penetrated every inch and gone right through to ground level. Indeed, I feared that sheer weight of rain would have leached much of the goodness back into the soil. Not at all: there were dry pockets just under the surface, and we were obliged to throw a good deal of unrotted material over into Box B, to give it a second chance.

My wife has a theory that decomposition is controlled largely by air - that if the heap is packed too tight, and oxygen is excluded, rotting cannot take place. She may well be right - yet here was another anomaly: the best-decomposed areas of Box A were round the edges, right up against the boards, where (presumably) little air could penetrate.

Not that the heap was by any means a write-off. The back half had rotted brilliantly, and its rich black depths contained many surprises. Whenever a thrust of the spade produced a muted explosion, followed by a most ghastly smell, I knew I had hit an egg, stolen, buried and forgotten by a fox months ago.

A hard, sharp, metallic clink led to the discovery of a hoof-pick so ancient that nobody could remember it at all. More sinister were some tufts of white horse hair - the last mortal remains of an old stager who joined the great herd in the sky during 1991. Strangest of all were two beautiful mushrooms, fresh and white as snow, which seemed to have grown in some centrally heated subterranean chamber.

Digging barrowfuls into the vegetable plot is a slow but rewarding business, which tends to set the mind ranging over kindred sujects. Wondering about the dry areas of the heap, I thought wistfully of the incredible decomposing - not to say eating - power of fresh slurry, straight from cattle.

On a farm where I lived earlier, 300 dairy cows were housed in a concrete palace, and thousands of gallons of water were used to sluice down their yard every morning. The effluent went into a series of slurry pits, which stank to high heaven and formed foul, eructating brown crusts over the top. So vicious and ammoniac was the brew in these pits that local people reckoned it the perfect murder weapon: a body pushed through the crust, they said, would be dissolved, bones and all, within a matter of weeks.

Along, one day, came the Eton College Agricultural Society on a field study visit, and their president - a dandified young fellow - insisted against all advice that the crust of one pit was strong enough to bear him. 'Of course,' reported the gamekeeper with unfeigned satisfaction, 'he bloody dropped, didn't he?'

The boy survived - for his immersion was brief - but he was not at all popular in the bus going back to Windsor . . .

Digging on, I thought of my patent muck-tower, and of how it might be possible to build one at the end of the lawn, where there is a natural drop of eight feet or so into the outer farmyard. From there, my mind drifted to my patent device for dealing with bank robbers - so simple that I cannot imagine why nobody has taken it up.

All the bank has to do is to have the floor of the customer area hinged at the wall furthest from the tills. At the first sign of a hold-up, the clerk kicks the panic button, wherepon the entire floor drops away beneath the villains' feet, depositing them in a padded cell beneath. Admittedly, bona fide customers drop with them, but after being briefly chloroformed and sorted out, they can be dusted down and set at liberty, while the robbers are detained . . .

Where was I? Ah, yes - digging the muck in. My mind, as I say, wanders agreeably; but for most of the time it is focused on the succulent vegetables - the dark green spinach packed with iron, the crunchy young lettuces, the radishes full of fire, the waxy new potatoes - with which this sticky black substance like Christmas pudding is going to reward me in the summer.