IF OUR lovebirds hadn't died of cold last winter, they might now be under arrest on drugs charges. I was uncomfortably reminded about this (and the birds' sad demise) by the Conservative MP for Rugby and Kenilworth this week. Not that James Pawsey and I are old schoolmates: it's just that he is demanding a change in the law to stop hemp seeds being used to cultivate cannabis - and I've got nearly a hundredweight of the bloody stuff in my garage.
What is it about the small black seed with its white kernel that attracts fish so? There's a stretch of the Thames at Richmond still called Hempseed Corner and sometimes you can catch fish on hemp when nothing else will work. It's particularly effective in warm weather when the water is clear, and big fish will often come right to the surface to take the seeds.
It's tempting to proffer a sinister "drugs-the-fish" theory, especially as its nickname is "dope". Indeed, some waters ban hemp for just this reason. More enlightened but probably misguided anglers theorise that it resembles a snail that fish are fond of. It may be a combination of looks and taste. Hemp has a pungent smell when you boil it. My wife knows when I've been using her best saucepans to brew up a pint of hemp, because the sweet but heavy smell lingers like a fine perfume (my description, not hers).
When I was younger and more impressionable, when the Beatles were all the rage and my friends started walking round with flowers in their hair, I actually tried to grow some hemp plants from seeds. Nothing happened. I blamed the soil, but then I was told that all hemp coming into Britain was irradiated to stop it being used for nefarious purposes. (Incidentally, the finest seed comes from Chile. Manchurian hemp is smaller and definitely inferior.)
I've always believed that. And so, when I ran out of canary seed for my lovebirds, which until last winter lived in an outdoor aviary, there seemed nothing odd in giving them a healthy helping of hemp. They loved it, so much so that when I bought the usual stuff, they went on hunger strike and I had to mix hemp with it to got them feeding again.
But lovebirds are untidy feeders, and many of the seeds fell to the ground. A few hardier ones sometimes take root, and quite exotic plants decorate the aviary's earth floor like a terrapin that takes up residence in your garden pond, it's one of those oddball things you take for granted after a while. So I never noticed the cannabis plants growing (though I recall remarking that the birds seemed to be chattering a lot more).
My wife spotted those tell-tale leaves, ironically a few days after the village policeman had joined us for a cup of tea in the garden. It certainly looked suspicious - green foreign-looking plants protected by a thick wire cage. With a twinge of regret, we uprooted the plants.
Now here's a funny thing. From that day onwards, the lovebirds were never as perky again. I keep telling myself it was the cold that killed them (whatever people tell you, lovebirds need more than a few straw nesting boxes if they are to live outside all year). But was it really a few days of overcoat weather? Or did my thoughtless action in destroying their stash make them decide that life was a bummer? Lest those who wear size 13 boots are planning a midnight raid, I should add that the seed is purely for fishing purposes - honest. And it was only because of the lovebirds that I discovered this batch would grow into fine green plants.
Mr Pawsey has found that a Birmingham company is selling hemp seeds with the slogan, "Grow your own pot plants". He says: "I find it unbelievable that these seeds are being sold over the counter legally." Chris Meliniotis, for the company, said: "We sell the seeds as bait, but I accept that some people might buy them to grow cannabis. In our advert, we do state that it is illegal to grow hemp."
Hemp as a bait was supposedly introduced into this country by Belgian refugees during the First World War. It's very simple to prepare: you put the seeds in a pan of water and boil for about 30 minutes. The seed splits, revealing a white kernel inside. It's similar in looks and size to a peppercorn, though more oval, and you would imagine that it would only tempt little fish. Well, dace like it, and of course roach - but so do chub, big carp and barbel.
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