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Country Matters: Tell me, just how long is a blade of grass?


Stock image.

Stock image.

Stock image.

A dairy farmer tried to explain how he went into the fields to measure how blades of grass were growing. My poor-math thick skull had some difficulty in grasping this procedure.

Was this yet another EU directive with farmers going about with tape measures? Is the grass bent or growing straight like Boris Johnson's bananas (from his Brussels newspaper days)? And are the blades clipped with scissors? Of course not: this uses a specific piece of equipment, although it may seem to some long-suffering sons of the soil yet another wearisome task in Euro bureaucracy. Grass samples are taken to check on growth, density, quality, use of fertiliser, nitrates, etc with details fed from the farmer's laptop into a Teagasc site. Yes, shears are part of the tech.

Ireland's dairy industry is based on monocultural grassland cultivation. There are organic farms and holdings but wild meadows, no silage cutting and hay-saving into cocks and ricks is now history. Grass sampling will mean training for up to 5,000 farmers, which will put a massive strain on Teagasc, which has instructed 650 so far.

This monitoring reminds me of a small boy plunging a net on a bamboo pole into a stream and examining what was dragged up from the murk. The water swirled in eddies of sediment and the net revealed tiny invertebrates, snails, stonefly larvae and all the minute creatures of a Lilliputian universe, a hidden frontier.

The biologist Edward O Wilson pointed out that this world of parasites, mites and nematodes comprised the beating heart of the biosphere. The fate of all life may depend on the wellbeing of the little pools and habitats beneath our feet, he wrote.

Long before Dr Wilson, professor of myrmecology (the study of ants), the 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, presciently: "What would the world be once bereft of wet and wilderness? Let them be left. Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet!" Fr Hopkins might not attract many farming supporters currently, I'm afraid.

Around our feet lies the least-explored and most vital place on Earth for human existence, wrote Prof Wilson. It is fast disappearing. The grassland measuring will include checks on clover seeding and compulsory liming, reduction in protein content of concentrate feed and lower slurry emission spreading. These are interesting developments.

Who knows what else might be uncovered by the farmer-scientists?

Sunday Independent