The City, the Country and Resources

Shane Finan is a visual artist from Ireland. He works with mixed media installation to create places. He writes computer programs for these installations, linking the places that he makes to contemporary technology. In April 2020, he was due to begin a residency with Visual Arts in Rural Communities (VARC), collaborating with Kielderhead Wildwood Project, Northumberland Wildlife Trust as part of the residency programme ENTWINED. Rural. Land. Lives. Art. The residency has been postponed, but he is sharing some of the background research and development from his project to date (more information https://varc.org.uk/shane-finan-the-wood-wide-web/).

In 2014, after a frustrating period of unemployment, I gained a role as a graphic designer with a print firm in Tallaght, in an industrial estate in south Dublin. Having lived in the city for nearly two years, I had familiarised myself with the passages and rhythms of the city structure. But the time spent in an industrial estate opened my eyes to a supply chain that I had previously been unaware of.

A photograph from a bridge in Tallaght, Dublin, showing the road networks entering and leaving the industrial suburb
Tallaght is an industrial suburb of Dublin that links the city to the countryside. There are many industrial estates in Tallaght that include manufacture and distribution.
Credit: Shane Finan

One of the first things I noticed was the flow of resources to the various industrial units in the area where I worked. The lorries and trucks delivered raw materials, such as glass, fibres, food, plastics or car parts from other parts of the country. Assembly was carried out in the industrial estate, with clients usually based inside the city as the final destination for goods. This dreary industrial estate is one of the general supply lines for the city.

What was striking was the way the chain operated. The cost to the final recipient for any work carried out was high, considering the supply chain and the people involved in moving goods from one place to another. This is natural in supply chain economics, but I had never seen it as acutely before, and it made me realise two things.

The first was the economic imbalance between city and country. Those suppliers who brought materials from rural areas were paid at a lower rate, despite bearing the burden of importing the raw materials, and of transporting them to the south Dublin estate. This imbalance was a micro climate of the macro level economic flow in globalised capitalist markets.

The second was that resourcing was required to operate in the countryside, via an industrial estate, to service a city’s requirements. Because of the need of space and cheaper labour, this meant that there was a necessity for resources to come from areas where they could be manufactured, mined, or otherwise sourced.

Both of these points made me suddenly aware of the fragility of the city, and of its reliance on the countryside and communication infrastructure for resources and supplies. Although on a macro scale, most of these supplies come from international markets, even on a micro (national) scale, this meant that the city of Dublin could not function without these supply chains. More poignantly, the grittiness and dishevelled nature of the work in the industrial estate was an enormous contrast to the “clean” image of the city.

An image of shipping containers at a port in Dublin, piled four containers high.
Dublin port is a major shipping area. The ports provide a route of transmission for goods and services that translate into the “clean” city image.
Credit: Shane Finan

I grew up in the countryside, and had always been aware of the imbalance of cost of living and salaries between the city and the rural. However, this time spent in the industrial estate made me far more aware of the existence of the seen and the unseen in the city: The engine that makes sure the car keeps running.

This fragility was something I learned more about when working on a European Union project proposal about port security. On this proposal, my eyes were opened to the macro-level array of supply chains that exist in ports throughout Europe, and their own fragility. The shipping container industry changed international trade and made possible the macro-level supply chains that supply cities and countries today (Levinson, 2006). Shipping containers are big business, but to maintain supply lines in international trade they are also regulated only insofar as they can be based on the availability of people. Security breaches, like human trafficking or movement of illicit materials, is very difficult to track.

These micro and macro level observations made me acutely aware of a type of balance in supply that I had never considered before: Without the countryside the city cannot function. And more than this: Without the grit of an industrial and agricultural underbelly, the pristine, techno-utopic city would not exist. These might seem like obvious statements to any scholar of globalisation, but their effects were never as strongly felt by me personally until I was wrapped in those structures.

Later in 2014, after an accident on the factory floor led to a co-worker nearly losing his arm, I left the company (still probably in a state of shock) to leave behind the industrial grit and position in the link between country and city. I was lucky to be hired by Trinity College Dublin to manage a European project at this time, and so moved from the semi-city industry to the city proper again.

The experience has not left me, however. I see pieces of the work that I was involved with in strange places – on the seats of Ryanair airplanes, or the side of construction machinery on building sites. I am aware of that link, from country to city, and aware of what it costs people who live in that world between worlds.

But more than everything else, I am aware of the mask that is created between the “grit” of the country and the “cleanliness” of the city. David Batchelor wrote about the desire for a pristine state of existence for modern people in his exploratory book Chromophobia. In it, he outlines how the contemporary citizen strives for a clean, white, dirt-free environment (2000). His exploration of this idea is poignant because it shows up the falseness of the quest for the pristine. He also highlights how the move away from “dirt” is perceived as a move toward civility.

The city operates in this way. This is why there is outrage in cities when there is a visible grime. Cities hide their “dirt”, for example when the Australian government built false partition buildings to hide slum aboriginal neighbourhoods when pitching for the 2000 Olympic Games (Pilger, 2002). Many cities worldwide, including recently in the USA, ban homelessness and force homeless people out of city centres, not fixing the problem but removing its visibility (Lam, 2019).

The end result is a removal of responsibility, a separation between the “dirt” and the “clean”. This is important in any philosophy that suggests a closer connection to nature. This connection between rural and urban has been intentionally eroded in a dream of a pristine city reality. Although an illusion, the dream is, as Kant may have described it, a “Regulative Ideal”. It is an unattainable goal, but one that nonetheless guides the philosophy of the expansion of cities.

An image of a mound of earth on a forest bank
Our fear of ‘dirt’ relates to a fear of the rural, something that has developed in post-industrial western culture
Credit: Shane Finan

This idea was exemplified in the satirical video artwork The Dust Channel  by Roee Rosen, which I was lucky enough to see in Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseilles in 2018. In this video, an operetta about Dyson Hoovers, a couple slowly remove all dirt, filth and grime from their contemporary apartment, creating a clean environment (Rosen, 2016). Simultaneously, police come and joyfully cart away the musicians playing in the opera, all of whom gradually take on the image of refugees or (in this case) Palestinians. The dirt is removed, along with the culture, the music, the history. And all that remains is the Dyson-inspired clean world. Or at least this is the illusion (the video proceeds after the end of the opera to show a Dyson Hoover channel-hopping as it searches for the best news and entertainment about vacuum cleaners amid images of protest and unrest).

By using satire, intense imagery, and a unique imagination, Rosen highlighted the illusion of the pristine as a Regulative Ideal, a false concept of a perfect world. I believe the perfect world has more dirt, not less. It is one where the natural and the city collide, where the desire for the pristine is one of the ideas that dies away.

As I write this, COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in Europe (in the last month it has forced the curator that I am working with to be grounded in her home in Turin before postponing our exhibition launch indefinitely in Clare, Ireland). I have had to postpone my planned residency at Kielder. Uncertainty is everywhere. The pristine is suddenly more valuable, as hand sanitisers sell out and public spaces are seen as unsafe.

In an even stranger turn of events in this saga, the spread of the virus has also amplified xenophobia, in this case anti-Chinese sentiment. Rumours abound about how this manifested, and who may have been to blame. As the first cases occurred in China, this is where the diatribe is directed. In Europe, north Italy has become a pariah for the unclean – in the first two weeks of the pandemic in Ireland, most cases reported were from people who had recently travelled to north Italy.

COVID-19 exemplifies the disconnection between the rural and the urban, between nature and people. In the anthropocentric view, we hold a belief that this type of pandemic is beyond us – our medical incisiveness and antibacterial advancements have, we believe, kept us safe. But in truth, they are potentially making us less so. Although immunity cannot shield us from all disease, our own immune systems need to be practiced if we are to overcome major outbreaks. By killing 99.9% of bacteria, we may have left room for the feared 0.1%.

In each area, we have lost sight of the importance of the network. Divisions are created between the city and the rural, between the civilised and the wild. These divisions only serve to increase our reliance on a system that has already failed us.

_________

Batchelor, D. (2000). Chromophobia: Reaktion books.

Lam, K. (2019, 15/12/2019). Cities are criminalizing homelessness by banning people from camping in public. That’s the wrong approach, report says. USA Today. Retrieved from https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/12/10/homeless-camping-bans-criminalization-report/4378565002/

Levinson, M. (2006). The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger: Princeton University Press.

Pilger, J. (2002). Globalisation; the New Rulers of the World. In: UK.

Rosen, R. (2016). The Dust Channel. In. Marseilles: Friche la Belle de Mai.

Overseas Institutional Visit – Toulouse School of Economics

In the latest CRE blog PhD student Elena Benedetti reflects on her recent study visit to the Toulouse School of Economics

Toulouse – Credit: Elena Benedetti

During February and March 2020, I had the opportunity to visit the Toulouse School of Economics (TSE) at the University Toulouse Capitole, in the South-West of France. I was able to go following the kind invitation of Prof. Nicolas Treich, whom I met last year at a Centre for Rural Economy seminar. Nicolas is a senior researcher and director of INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique), working mainly in environmental, behavioural and animal welfare economics. This experience was funded thanks to the overseas institutional visit scheme offered by my scholarship, the ESRC-NINE DTP. I really recommend every NINE DTP PhD student apply for the same scheme to visit another institution for a few months. ESRC can fund travel and accommodation, and also extend your scholarship, in some instances.

TSE is a world-renowned centre for research in economics, chaired by Nobel laureate Jean Tirole. It works to connect research to policy, in France, Europe and worldwide, and comprises various economic research groups, including applied economics (environmental, food, health), finance, econometrics, public economics, industrial organization and macroeconomics. The centre recently moved to an impressive new building that won the Pritzker prize this year. It was fascinating to study in this modern glass building with terraces, where we could go to have chats and coffee breaks (the coffee was free for everyone). I had a big office just for myself and I could focus very easily on my research. The environment there was very stimulating and, in a way, I was much more motivated to do my work and be constantly focused. Being there allowed me to appreciate more what I am doing for my PhD and be more willing to explore and study new things. I learnt how important it is to do research with people that are passionate about many of the same things as you. It is extremely vital to connect with other researchers and exchange ideas.

Overall, it was a great experience, both for my professional and personal development. My own research benefitted substantially from this visiting period. I believe the suggestions and feedback I received while there will notably improve the quality of my project. Discussions with various academics enabled me to consider new and different perspectives on my research. I met people that implemented very similar micro-simulation model to mine and we listened to and challenged each other. This was essential to correcting some parts of my research, allowing me to achieve better results.

In terms of dissemination, engagement and knowledge exchange, I had the opportunity to present my work and research findings in a seminar in front of experts in environmental, health and food economics, many of whom gave me excellent suggestions and feedback. This was without any doubt a very useful practice for my presentation skills in view of future conferences and my PhD viva.

Toulouse – Credit: Elena Benedetti

The best thing about my visit was the opportunity to meet different types of academics and have direct contact with them on a regular basis. Everyone was kind and willing to help, in every moment. The PhD community was very welcoming as well. They informed me about the possibility of attending the job market conference during my final year of my PhD in order to apply for job opportunities. I could talk with them about my issues and concerns and discuss my research at any time. We also had some social events together where we went for drinks and dinner. I really enjoyed this experience because I could talk with everyone about my project, also during lunch time.

The connection between TSE and IAST (Institute of Advanced Study in Toulouse) offered the possibility to exchange multi-disciplinary skills and knowledge among researchers. I could attend one or more seminars each day (where the lunch was always provided), with speakers coming from everywhere. I learnt about new models and new research topics, among other things; every day I spent there was a learning opportunity. In fact, I am still able to attend these seminars online, which means I can continue to learn new things daily.

Some researchers read my working paper and provided me very detailed comments, essential for the improvement of my work, in view of future journal submissions. Also, I introduced to them the new part of my PhD concerning the effects of environmental regulations on trade. It was extremely useful because I was able to get suggestions on how to develop this new project and which direction to follow before starting it.

The city was very beautiful and charming, with nice streets and squares. The walk along the river is one of the best part of the city, and I was able to enjoy it every day on the way from my house to the university. The sunset was amazing, everything painted with pink color, from the houses to the sky. The food and wine was also great, especially the cheese! My favourite was the raclette and the fondue. I also had the possibility to travel around in the weekends.

Unfortunately, I had to leave Toulouse before the actual return date due to the coronavirus outbreak, but I am very satisfied for the overall experience. I managed to do what I planned to do and create some good networks with many researchers in view of my future career. I would like to go back sometime to visit some of the PhD students I met there. Again, I really recommend that everyone consider this opportunity. It is extremely worthwhile, and can help you appreciate your project more, get more exciting ideas and enrich your skills and personal development.

The importance of nature for mental wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic

The latest CRE blog features a guest post by MSc Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security student Jack Swain. Here he talks about the importance of nature and its’ impact on mental wellbeing.

Credit: Poppy Swain – https://poppyswain.myportfolio.com

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed lives across the globe. Here in the UK, we are forced to stay inside our homes and are only allowed to leave to collect food and supplies, care for vulnerable people and exercise once a day. The focus so far has been on reducing the lives lost to the virus and the economic recession that is likely to follow. However, the coronavirus will have other secondary wide-ranging impacts, namely on emotional wellbeing. But there is hope to be found in reconnecting with nature.

Emotional wellbeing has not been treated with the same priority as limiting deaths for obvious reasons. As we get further into this crisis, the secondary impacts of self-isolation will become more obvious. The term ‘social recession’ has been used by several commentators to describe the harmful effects to mental and physical health that reduced human interaction, loneliness and isolation can cause. The so-called loneliness epidemic just became pandemic.

Coronavirus threatens the social connections that humans require. We have evolved to feel safest in groups thanks to our hunter-gatherer origins, where teamwork translated to higher chances of getting food and defending our families. Forced isolation goes against our primal need for connection and causes increased stress. Cortisol levels, a key stress hormone, become heighted if experienced for an extended period of time and overall cardiovascular function decreases with the effect equivalent to the impact of being a smoker or non-smoker. Isolation just doesn’t suit our social nature. Adjusting to life inside, which involves working from home, caring for children and vulnerable people, and not visiting bars, restaurants and cinemas, can have a significant effect on our mental health. These changes can create the conditions for loneliness, referring to the subjective experience of isolation, and ultimately lead to an increase in long-term acute loneliness.

Nature can help us to lessen the impacts of loneliness and isolation. Spending time in nature has real, measured impacts on the body and mind. It has the healing ability of alleviating stress and providing deep psychological relaxation, as well as supporting physical activity. A study by DEFRA found strong evidence linking contact with nature and health benefits, stating that it improves mental wellbeing and even maintains a healthy immune system, effectively making you happier and healthier(1). This message is echoed in the traditional Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku, which translates to ‘forest bathing’ or taking in the forest atmosphere. Spending as little as 2 hours per week surrounded by trees and greenery has been found to have strong positive effects on health and wellbeing(2) by reducing blood pressure, increasing parasympathetic nerve activity and lowering concentrations of stress hormones(3).

The surroundings on the CRE forest bathing last year

Our rural spaces can play a large role in curbing the impacts of coronavirus on our mental health. Strict government measures have enforced many rules upon what we can do, who we can see and where we can go. But within these new rules is the guidance that people should still go outside for fresh air and exercise. A brief survey carried out for this blog post found that participants talked about feeling more peaceful, refreshed, inspired and generally positive when they made the effort to walk in parks and wooded areas. Being outside surrounded by nature reduced the feeling of being trapped or contained when isolated in their homes. Social distancing can still be observed when enjoying the natural environment and we have many parks, woodlands and urban green spaces that remain accessible to visitors. It is important to respect the current rules when out enjoying nature, ensuring you are at least two metres apart from those you don’t live with and not congregating in groups. I hope this blog post inspires you to go for a walk, run or cycle in your local green space during these tough times.

Why not tag @cretweeting on Twitter with images of the nearby outdoor spaces you are making the most of.

References

1. Lovell, B. (2017) DEFRA evidence statement on the links between natural environments and human health. Available at: https://beyondgreenspace.net/2017/03/09/defra-evidence-statement-on-the-links-between-natural-environments-and-human-health/ (Accessed: 26th March 2020).

2. White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., Wheeler, B.W., Hartig, T., Warber, S.L., Bone, A., Depledge, M.H. and Fleming, L.E. (2019) ‘Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing’, Scientific Reports, 9(1), p. 7730.

3. Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T. and Miyazaki, Y. (2009) ‘The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan’, Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), p. 18.

Sociology meets chicken processing in County Durham

Jake Pointer is a first year Sociology PhD student studying the lives of workers in the meat processing industry. Here he shares some thoughts on his recent trip to a chicken processing plant in County Durham.

Photo credit: Food Drink and Franchise: https://www.fdfworld.com

In late February, I had the chance to visit a chicken processing plant in County Durham on a university trip organised by the Centre for Rural Economy. As my research concerns those working in the meat sector, it was an excellent chance to have my first glance into the working lives within such a facility. I went into this with mixed feelings: my vegan beliefs are naturally against any meat-orientated food producers, but my scholarly mind was telling me to put my biases aside and go in as objectively as possible. In this context, and as I’m quickly learning is the case for all my research, the scholarly mind was certainly the appropriate one to tap into for this visit (although this is sometimes challenging).

On arrival to the plant, the first thing I noticed was the smell of (perhaps not surprisingly) chicken. As we walked through the large gates and into the reception the smell only grew stronger until, for me at least, it was almost overpowering. After a brief talk from one of the managers about the plant we were split into groups and were given a tour. Before entering the processing areas we had to gear up with protective clothing and hairnets as well as wash our hands thoroughly. It seemed to me health and safety was of high importance here.

Inside the working areas were large machines, which, in various ways, processed the chicken. Slicing, freezing, cooking, bagging, skinning; there was a machine for everything. Many of the workers engaged in these machines had seemingly monotonous tasks, often involving repetitive motions such as continuously unloading a box of chicken pieces into a machine. Within the arrival area it was very cold as this is also where the chicken carcasses enter the plant and so they need to be kept fresh before being processed. This also means that plenty of workers operate in a cold environment. It was also quite loud in the factory, with various machines working away as well as speakers playing music here and there. Having worked in a warehouse some years ago myself, I can appreciate the effect music has on making an otherwise monotonous and often boring task more tolerable.

Whilst the tour was focused on the chicken, I was almost always looking at the workers, trying to use my sociological imagination and see if I could notice anything of interest. Some of the safety signs I noticed were in Polish next to their English counterparts, an indicator of the presence of non-British workers. I felt translating these signs was good work practice as safety should, in my opinion, be the priority in a potentially dangerous job such as this. The work-ethic seemed very high, with the workers seemingly never stopping whatever they were occupied with for even a second. I would not say they looked happy, but rather indifferent to their tasks, almost robotic as ever more chicken came through ready to be loaded into this machine or that. Few were talking at all, with most applying their attention only to their task. I would say that all the jobs required focus as the machines operated at high speed and a lapse of concentration would hinder this, and as a result, production. Many of the jobs also looked very physically demanding, often involving the lifting of large boxes or pulling huge pallets stuffed with chickens.

After the tour, we were led to the small conference room for a short Q and A session with the director of the company. The majority of questions were about the chicken itself; the quality, the manufacturers supplied and so on which the director and his mangers were happy to answer. It was clear they were proud of their work there, supplying high-quality, British ‘protein products’. I inquired about the workforce, in relation to the Polish signs I saw, and was told that around 30% of the employees were Polish. In addition, I was interested to see if they ever have injuries and if so, what the common ones were. The Director seemed a little surprised at my question. The Operations Manager told me the majority are made up of cuts, slips or back problems. I was surprised by how open they were about this. These answers raised more questions in my mind, why so many Polish workers? How are the injuries dealt with? but as I was there as part of a group, I did not want to dominate the session. A question was also posed about the vegan food factory which was operating just up the road. The director was very open to the changing food market and told us it was the company’s responsibility to adapt accordingly. He made a point that the businesses that do not adapt are the ones that close down.

I went away from this trip with mixed feelings. The scholarly side of me was happy with such an opportunity and experience, and I found observing the working environment fascinating. Worker safety did seem a high priority, which I was pleased to see. However, I would have been intrigued to hear from the employees themselves; their thoughts on the job, if they enjoyed working there, job prospects, what they thought of the management, whether the non-British workers integrated well and whether anyone ever thinks of the chickens at all and how they fit in with the process?  These questions I will have to save for another day; with a bit of luck, my research will help answer these and other questions in the future.

CRE PGR Symposium 2020

In the latest CRE blog, PhD students Hannah Budge and Ivy Matoju talk through their experience of organising the annual CRE postgraduate student symposium.

PhD student Ivy Matjou presents an overview of her research

Each year the students from the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) organise a symposium to showcase the research they are working. It also provides a fantastic opportunity to receive comments on their work from their peers and colleagues in CRE. This year the symposium was held in the impressive surroundings of the Howden Room on campus, which really helped to add to the occasion.

This year we took a slightly different approach to the symposium, with the day was filled with a combination of rapid 3-minute presentations by the first year PhD students, insightful talks from staff based on their own research experiences, 10-minute presentations by the second year and above students, as well as the usual short papers submitted by students for staff to peer-review prior to the day itself.

Following the introduction by Hannah, the talks took the audience across a range of subject areas and geographical ones too: from the development of Responsible Research and Innovation frameworks, understanding place attachment in the era of mobilities, to the aspect of human rights, and to women in agriculture, and; from as close to home as the north-east of England, to the Islands of Scotland and as far away as Mexico’s Valle de Jovel, Southeast Nigeria and West Papua (Indonesia).

PhD student Hannah Budge presentsing at the CRE symposium

The 3-minute presentations by the 1st years were exceptionally detailed given the time constraints they had (it was amazing just how much could fit into such a short space of time). They outlined providing outlines of the ideas they will be following through their years at the university, including room for change and adaption required when conducting research in the field. The remaining presentations focused on the results obtained so far in the students’ studies, hurdles they had encountered and changes they had to put in place.

The exchanges between the presenters and the audience were viewed as beneficial by both groups with the exchange of thoughts, ideas, concerns and interests amazing to witness. Participants in the symposium stated that the event had allowed them to see new links between the topics presented and their research areas of interest or more generally other opportunities to consider throughout their PhD, thanks to the inclusion of other talks such as the use of social media and experience of pursuing a PhD with CRE. The submitted paper was also deemed to be of the appetizing variety with the reviewers’ keen to read the full version conference paper entered. The social at the end of the day provided a good way of winding down and further conversation on shared interests and future opportunities.

The symposium in full swing

Reflections

We both enjoyed the opportunity to organise the CRE PGR Symposium, and the final event itself. How smoothly it ran reflected our combined efforts over the past few months. It was not however without some issues along the way, we have summarised this below in the form of some handy tips for those who are considering organising similar events in the future, including next year’s symposium;

  • START EARLY! It may seem like an obvious point, but we cannot stress this enough. We started meeting weekly from the beginning of November and this meant that the workload was spread out over a few months, making it much more manageable to fit in around our own research and prevented any last-minute stress.
  • Speak to others who have organised and attended past events. By listening to their experiences, for instance issues with too small rooms, this meant that we could learn from them and avoid similar situations. Additionally, their feedback was valuable in terms of how the event was structured. By showing that you have taken on their concerns means that people are more likely to engage with the event as it continues to evolve the fit the needs of students.
  • Be flexible and creative with your timetable. One problem we had was that many of the PGR students were away conducting their fieldwork when they symposium was on, meaning it was difficult to initially fill up the entire day due to a lack of participants. To solve this, we had had to think creatively on what we could do to fill this time, we settled on asking some staff members in CRE if they would be willing to help. We are very grateful that they were happy to do so! There was an insightful talk about doing, and life after, a PhD in CRE and a presentation regarding using social media to promote yourself as a researcher. The latter generated much discussion and potentially a future social media training session for those in CRE. This highlighted that thinking of what else you can therefore offer at an event is important.
  • Plan breaks to keep everyone well fed and hydrated. The continuous supply of coffee and food ensured that people’s concentration levels didn’t falter throughout the day, and by having breaks meant that people could chat to others about their research and give some informal feedback. So, a thank you to CRE for funding the refreshments!
  • And finally, enjoy it! After months of work it was great to sit and listen to the presentations highlighting the diversity of topics in CRE, and afterwards hearing that people felt more confident about their presentation skills. It was nice to hear our hard work had proved to be fruitful for others.

Thank you again to everyone who attended and contributed to the event! We couldn’t have done it without you all.

The Agriculture Bill 2020: What’s in it for British farmers?

In the latest CRE blog senior lecturer Carmen Hubbard discusses what the UK’s new Agriculture Bill might mean for farmers.

Sheep in Weardale

The reintroduction of the Agriculture Bill 2020 for its first reading on 16 January attracted attention from all quarters. Agriculture is generally regarded as a dull topic, but Teresa Villiers, the former Secretary of State for the Environment, heralded the new Bill as a “landmark” and “one of the most important environmental reforms for many years” which will take the UK “away from the EU’s bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy”. 

The initial version of the Bill, tabled in 2018, stipulated a gradual phasing-out of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) direct payments (known as ‘farm income support’) and their replacement with a system that rewards farmers for the provision of ‘public goods’. These include better quality air and water, improved soil health, public access to the countryside, animal welfare, and flood-risk reduction.

At the core of its delivery was the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), described by Defra as ‘one flexible contract’ that will allow farmers ‘to deliver public goods alongside market products’.  The Bill also set out measures to increase farm productivity and fairness along the food supply chain, and included provisions regarding market intervention and compliance with the World Trade Organisation (WTO). To allow farmers to adjust, the Bill established a seven-year transition period starting from 2021.

Environmentalist groups reacted favourably, but the Bill was severely criticised by the industry for being too ‘green-focused’, and particularly for its lack of support for food production. The industry also complained about the lack of detail: how much money will be allocated, to whom and for what? Will food imports be subject to the same production standards as applied in the UK?

Moreover, a report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee of the House of Commons that scrutinised the Bill in November 2018 reinforced the criticisms. It stressed the excessive empowerment of ministers, the imbalance between food production and the environment, the lack of a multi-annual financial framework to cover the transition period, and the absence of any procedures regarding standards for imported food products. Hence, the Committee called on the government to ‘put its money where its mouth is’.

Following the political turmoil that followed the departure of Theresa May, the Bill was put on hold, only to be revived with additional face-lifting in January this year.  

In response to this criticism, and to EFRA’s recommendations, the revised Bill contains some extras. It includes a new chapter regarding the government’s duty to report to Parliament on UK food security, at least once every five years. It also refers to the preparation of a multi-annual financial assistance plan, with the first plan covering the period of transition starting on 1 January 2021. Another part relates to fertilisers, identification and animal traceability; transfer of payments between red meat levy bodies across countries in Great Britain; organic production and agricultural tenancies. The Bill also reinforces the provisions for increases in productivity, transparency and fairness in the supply chain, and assistance during exceptional market conditions.

Notably, though, the Bill focuses mainly on England, with just one part (Part 7) dedicated to Wales and Northern Ireland. Public consultations took place across all four nations, and these led to different preferences being expressed: for example, the complete and rapid abandonment of direct payments has been treated with more caution in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, at least up to 2024. This is not surprising given that agriculture is a devolved issue, and Scotland, which refused to consent the initial Bill, published its own Agriculture Bill in November 2019. This allows the Scottish government to continue current CAP schemes, including direct payments, beyond 2020.

Differences between countries regarding farm support could create tensions, with farmers complaining about the lack of a ‘level playing field’. But the amount of money to be allocated to UK farming still lies with Westminster, and therefore the devolved governments may find themselves constrained on how they can use their own budget.  

As an economist, I never find agriculture or how we produce and trade food products at all dull.  But it does seem that the questions an economist would really like to see answered are still hanging in the air. Like its predecessor, the new Bill does not provide any specific budget, beyond saying that overall annual funding for farm support will remain at current levels for the duration of this Parliament. At the same time, the term ‘public goods’ has disappeared, to be replaced with ‘purpose’, and there is no reference to ELMS. Does this signal a shift in emphasis, perhaps even that the Bill’s intentions are not as ‘green’ as environmentalists suppose? 

Improving productivity is always the government’s ‘holy grail’, but our research shows that this is by no means the answer to every problem, either for the country or for the producer. The UK does not have a ‘comparative advantage’ (the ability to produce food at a lower opportunity cost than that of trade partners) in agriculture. However, as yet, the UK has not been threatened by food insecurity, as our imports have generally come mainly from suppliers (mostly EU member states) who are very stable economically and politically.  Could this explain the lack of any reference regarding the quality and safety standards of future imported food? 

Traditionally, economists have categorised farmers as ‘price-takers’ in the market. This is because farmers are numerous and typically small in terms of production. Consequently, they have little market power and therefore are unable, unlike for example supermarkets, to decide their selling prices. Farming Minister George Eustice wants them to become ‘price makers’, and to increase their power in the market. This is easier said than done. Grouping together to form co-operatives is one possibility, but these have never been popular in the UK. Another possibility is for farmers to ‘add value’ to a product, for example by transforming milk into speciality cheese or switching to organic production. But farmers who produce an undifferentiated, homogeneous product – potatoes, carrots, wheat, milk – are always likely to be ‘price-takers’.

Finally, any form of support is likely to be capitalised into land values (as well as captured by others across the supply chain).  Hence, the tenant farmer simply pays more in rent.  It remains to be seen how this might manifest itself under the new regime.

For the economist these are all fascinating questions that remain to be answered.  For farmers and producers they represent a worrying, and continuing, uncertainty.

This blog post originally appeared on The UK in a Changing Europe blog.

Waterway Management and the Dairy Industry in Ireland

Adrienne Attorp is a PhD student in Sociology and Social Policy at Newcastle University. Here she writes about some insights gained during recent fieldwork in Ireland.

This autumn I was in Ireland undertaking fieldwork for my ongoing PhD research, which focuses on agriculture policy, land use and waterway management on the island of Ireland. While there, I travelled all over the country, interviewing people from across the agriculture sector, including farmers, civil servants, industry lobbyists and NGO workers. I hoped to find out how the Irish agriculture industry plans to deal with its ongoing water pollution issues.

Dairy is King

Something that became abundantly apparent over the course of my visit is that dairy is ‘king’ in Ireland. This, of course, was not a total surprise, given that it is by far the most profitable agricultural enterprise in the country. Although only 13% of in Ireland’s 137,500 farms are devoted to dairy – there are approximately 18,000 dairy farmers in the country, managing around 1.35 million cows – Irish dairy produce exports totalled €4.6 billion in 2017, accounting for 34% of Irish agri-food exports. What I had not fully understood until I started talking to people was just how much discussion of the dairy industry dominates discourse around land and waterway management practices on the island. This may have interesting implications for how best to address Irish agriculture’s pollution problems.

A dairy farm outside of Wicklow, Ireland.
Photo credit: Adrienne Attorp

A brief History of Irish Dairy Farming

Dairying has a long history in Ireland. Archaeologists at the University of Bristol argue that dairy was an important food source for Neolithic peoples on the island, after their research identified traces of dairy fats in pots found in the region dating between 4,000 and 2,500 BC (Smyth and Evershed, 2016). They note that, as dairy cattle are not native to the island, early farmers – possibly indigenous foragers or incoming farmers, or both – would have had to transport the animals across the open sea to Ireland in small vessels that could hold only a few animals at a time. This was no easy feat, and “…these voyages are unlikely to have been undertaken without a significant degree of determination and broader social support” (Smyth and Evershed, 2016, p. 220). The Irish love affair with dairy clearly has deep roots and continues to be an integral part of the country’s social, cultural and economic fabric.

Fast forward to the 20th century, by which point the Irish landscape had been transformed into a patchwork of small, family-owned farms. This landholding pattern developed as a result of centuries of land rights struggles under British occupation. In the late 19th century, a series of ‘land agitations’ and a changing political environment finally forced the British government to concede to far-reaching land ownership transfers from members of the British landlord class to their impoverished tenant famers (Hannan and Commins, 1992 [1]). As a result, family farms became the central focus of what was previously quite a diverse rural economy. By the 1920s, the majority of Ireland’s ‘active population’ were either farmers or ‘relatives assisting’ with farming (Hannan and Commins, 1992). Dairying would have been one of many agricultural activities undertaken by such farmers. Although the significance of agriculture in Ireland declined as the 20th century progressed, this landholding pattern remained relatively consistent through the middle of the century.

Prior to Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC; now European Union) in 1973, the Irish dairy sector was not particularly significant economically. The majority of Irish dairy was consumed within Ireland, with UK being the country’s only meaningful export market. This changed with entry to the EEC. Common Agricultural Policy price supports translated into a huge increase in milk prices, which, alongside improved access to the European market and general productivity gains, greatly stimulated production. Irish dairy output doubled between 1970 and 1984 (Donnellan et al., 2015). A similar trend occurred across the EEC, and by the late 1970s, there were considerable milk surpluses across Europe. In 1984, the EEC brought in a quota on dairy production to curb this, which dampened the growth of the industry and became one of the key factors resulting in the consolidation of dairy farming in Ireland. Between 1984 and 2014, the number of Irish dairy farms declined from 80,000 to 17,500. This was accompanied by a 470% increase in output per farm, a 350% increase in average dairy herd size and a 48% increase in output per cow (Donnellan et al., 2015). The trend was, unequivocally, ‘go big or go bust [2]’.

The Irish Dairy Industry Post-Quota

The EU milk quota was eventually lifted in April 2015. As a result, the volume of Irish dairy output increased by 60% between 2015 and 2019, translating into a €2 billion per annum increase in value (National Dairy Council, 2019). This rapid growth contrasts starkly with the prospects of dairy farmers in some other countries around the world, notably the United States, where the industry, which is the largest globally, is facing significant economic pressures and decline. For example, according to a recent New York Times article, in Wisconsin, a state known as ‘America’s Dairyland’, the number of dairy herds has fallen by half since 2005, and nearly 1,200 dairy farms have closed in the past two years alone.

Undoubtedly, there are multiple factors contributing to these contrasting fortunes. However, perhaps most relevant to this discussion, is Irish dairy’s USP as the ‘green option’: predominantly grass feed, it is touted as the “the lowest carbon emitting dairy sector in the Northern Hemisphere”. This, along with the sector’s comparatively high animal welfare standards, has attracted a strong international demand for the industry’s various products. Today, over 90% of Ireland’s total dairy production is exported to more than 120 countries, and despite its small size – both geographically and in population terms – Ireland is consistently one of the largest dairy exporters globally.

A Billboard from the Irish Dairy Council's November 2019 #LoveIrishDairy campaign.
A Billboard from the Irish Dairy Council’s November 2019 #LoveIrishDairy campaign.
Photo credit: Agriland 2019

The Dairy Industry and Ireland’s Waterways

While this growth may be great for Irish dairy farmers and for the Irish economy more broadly, for those concerned with waterway management in Ireland, there is less cause for celebration. Ireland is a country covered in water, with 513 groundwater bodies, more than 800 lakes, and over 70,000 km of waterways (Fanning et al., 2017). Diffuse agricultural pollution (pollution from various sources, such as runoff from a field, as opposed to one single ‘point’ source) is the most significant source of water pollution in the country, and run-off of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, the majority of which comes from animal waste (van Grinsven et al., 2012), poses a particular problem (Mockler et al., 2017). ‘Green’ credentials or not, the Irish dairy industry’s ongoing growth ambitions may not be compatible with water quality targets Ireland is statutorily obliged to meet as a member of the EU.

This is not to suggest the dairy industry is uniquely responsible for Ireland’s water pollution problems. The Irish agriculture industry as a whole is very animal-production focused, and in terms of numbers, the Irish dairy herd is vastly smaller than either the beef cattle or sheep herds: there are 5.35 million beef cattle in Ireland – nearly four times the number of dairy cows – and approximately 3.9 million sheep (Teagasc, 2017). Moreover, from what I can gather through my interviews thus far, the dairy industry has been leading the way within the agriculture sector in terms of trying to improve its sustainability. Dairy Industry Ireland has initiated a broad reaching sustainability initiative called ‘Dairy Sustainability Ireland’, and according to many of the policy makers and extension workers I spoke to, dairy farmers are often the most likely to engage with efforts to mitigate pollution.

A Billboard from the Irish Dairy Council’s November 2019 #LoveIrishDairy campaign.
Photo credit: Agriland 2019

This is, of course, not only because of some altruistic desire to help the environment, although for some farmers, such as those involved in the innovative BRIDE project, this does indeed play a leading role. Mainly, the dairy industry appears to be acutely aware of its obligations to maintain water quality under Ireland’s current Nitrates Directive derogation [3], and is very wary of losing this privilege. However, it is clear there are also other factors at play. Practically speaking, because the majority of dairy farmers farm full time, they tend to have more capacity to engage with extension services and stay up-to-date with industry trends than do their counterparts in the drystock industry, many more of whom farm part time. Because dairy is profitable, dairy farmers also tend to have more access to capital, enabling them to invest in measures that help mitigate pollution. Furthermore, dairy farms are often based on some of the best quality land, meaning that in many cases, nutrients are less likely to run off from these farms into waterways. Drystock farmers on more marginal land may have greater runoff issues, even if they farm less intensively. Last, but not least, public opinion plays a big role; current ‘plant-based’ diet trends are making the industry sit up and take notice, and public awareness about the environmental impact of agricultural practices generally is also placing pressure on the industry.

What does this mean for Ireland’s commitment to have all of its waterways achieve a ‘good’ status under the EU Water Framework Directive by 2027? Clearly, engaging with the dairy industry will continue to be very important. It is a very big player, and dairy farmers seem to have the willingness and capacity to address water management issues. Equally, since drystock farmers are also a big part of the pollution problem, but are harder to engage, then more creative ways will need to be found to do so. Furthermore, the discussion cannot be about dairy and drystock farmers only. Although industries such as pig, poultry and mushroom are far less significant, both in terms of economic output and of number/size of farms, they are still a major pollution risk, particularly in some regions of the country where they are concentrated. How exactly improvements are to be achieved remains to be seen, but I hope that my research will provide some insight as to how to bring everyone on board. King or not, the dairy industry is but one of several players that have to work together to reach Ireland’s environmental goals.

Sincere thanks to the Enviresearch Foundation for funding this research visit.

[1] Hannan, D. and P. Commins (1992). The significance of small scale landholders in Ireland’s socioeconomic transformation. The development of industrial society in Ireland. J. Goldthorpe and C. Whelan. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 79-104.
[2] This is, of course, a relative term. Today, the average size of an Irish dairy herd is 80 cows, whereas in the United States it is around 230. In some cases, American CAFOs may house thousands of cows.
[3] Under the existing Nitrates Directive derogation, approximately 7,000 intensive farmers in Ireland (mostly dairy) are able to farm at stocking rates higher than permitted than baseline Nitrates Directive rules. Most argue this is critical to sustaining existing levels of dairy production in the country, let alone expanding them.

Bridging gaps between researchers to foster collaborations

In the latest CRE blog, PhD researchers Francis Naab and Ivy Matoju reflect on a recent visit to London where they presented their research to a newly launched social enterprise.

Researchers attending the Bobab event

On 20th Nov 2019, we attended a seminar held in London as part of the panel speakers for Bobab Africa, a recently launched social enterprise and online platform which aims to bring researchers and industry in Sub-Saharan Africa together to share ideas, form collaborations and generally work together for the development of the Continent. They are keen to hear from a broad range of individuals whose work (be that research or otherwise) focuses on sub-Saharan Africa. This includes early career researchers such as ourselves.

As part of their initiative of fostering collaborations, the Bobab Africa platform hosts seminar talks that can be viewed online or attended in person. Each seminar is focused on a different area, with the one we attended centred around “A growing ecosystem: Supporting off farm innovation for inclusive agricultural development”. Its main purpose was to foster discussions around policy reform related to off-farm innovation and enterprise, business models and how they work, education and training for youth engagement, and job creation along the agri-food chain. So how does our research fit within this?

Francis

My presentation focused on agricultural policy in Ghana, which has been a core part of my PhD research. More specifically, I discussed policies that affect the agri-food chain via two different routes: those that influence food production and those that influence demand for agricultural products, such as the Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) programme that has been the focus of part of my PhD research. Whilst several of these reflect the key focus of government to increase staple food production and create a ‘Green Revolution in Ghana’, a financing gap to further support this exists, created by the recent banking crises in Ghana and the subsequent reform of the microfinance sector and other informal credit schemes.

As smallholder farmers form the majority of the rural population in Ghana, they are particularly hard hit by this recent banking restructure, which primarily served rural local communities and makes it difficult to invest. This is further compounded by a lack of a widely implemented agricultural insurance policy which would help with the increased climate variability in the country. Innovation within the agricultural sector has an important role to play in addressing this challenge, and I highlighted two Ghanaian start-ups as good examples of this: Cowtribe, which provides extension services to about 29000 livestock farmers using a mobile application, and SyeComp which renders services such farm mapping, localised weather forecasts, farm financing and value chain traceability. More organisations like this will be important in the future for helping in areas where government support is currently not strong.

Ivy

Innovation was an important part of the work I presented. More specifically: the acceptance of innovation at the policy level in sub-Saharan Africa and how this has changed over time: from of the Lagos Plan of Action (1980) to the current Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy (2014). My presentation covered some of the hurdles faced when implementing such policies, especially within the agri-food chain. Using an example of genetically modified foods, I highlighted the contrast between public perceptions in Kenya and Tanzania (the two case study countries for my PhD) regarding genetically modified foods and their acceptance at the policy level. These differences may well be due to misinformation and a lack of public awareness, especially for those in the rural areas, and the pragmatic steps adopted by the governments in the form of controlled laboratory and field trials. I also emphasised the need for more inclusive societal participation in policy development, with this currently being limited. This should aid in efforts to increase awareness and acceptance of policies, thus helping ensure their effective implementation at all levels. My ongoing research will be looking to explore policy development further with a range of stakeholders involved in the food chain, and hopefully I can make more specific recommendations as my PhD progresses.

The event was live streamed and well attended, with discussions around the presentations ranging from agricultural initiatives, to power dynamics, to policy and microfinance. It proved a great opportunity for networking and to discuss our findings with other researchers from across the UK, as well as find out more about how other people are looking to tackle some of the challenges focused on during the seminar. The Bobab initiative provides a great motivational space for facilitating these conversations and we’re looking forward to future events.

For more information on Bobab Africa visit their website: https://bobab.org/

Climate conversations

In the latest CRE blog, researchers Lucia Rehackova and Mercy Ojo reflect on the recent Climate Conversation workshop at Newcastle University.

Earlier this month, Newcastle University ran a climate conversation workshop about what it could do to continue to reduce its carbon emissions. It was great to take part in the event, attended by staff and students alike, with most attendees keen to help drive change moving forward.

The event was opened by the University’s Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Julie Sanders, who spoke about the need for the University to act with integrity in relation to the climate crisis. Newcastle University declared a climate emergency earlier this year, and it is good to see that this is being taken seriously and that there are people at the university who care about environmental issues and the role of the University within society.

We both found the discussions very positive, despite some of the presentations showing us the bleak future outlook for the planet, even if we do take radical action now. Professor Kevin Anderson, from Manchester University and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, summarised the current status in his short presentation, but the full, approximately 1-hour talk, is worth watching and can be accessed here. Two points in his presentation particularly made us think:

  1. First, he argued that offsetting carbon emissions by donating money (e.g. when buying flight tickets online) may be worse than doing nothing. This is because the donation may make people feel better about themselves and their travel, which may actually encourage more people to travel, or encourage people to travel more. Accordingly, Professor Anderson highlighted that the best policy is to not fly in the first place.
  2. The other take-home message for us was that we have a lot more work to do than we had thought. It seems obvious now, but we have to admit, we had not quite thought about how long it takes the environment to catch up with human actions. The climate change we are experiencing now is not a result of human activity within the last 10-20 years or so, it is a result of the industrialisation of work about 250 years ago. What this means is that if we pollute the environment faster and more heavily, as we are currently doing, the consequences in the future will be more serious than they are now. Further, any changes we make now will not result in a relatively quick response from the environment; what we do now may not affect us in our lifetime. But, if we do not reduce our emissions now, the next generation may find themselves in a much worse situation, because of the failure of the previous generations to safeguard the environment.

So what can be done now to help protect the environment for the future? Universities play a critical role in society, and as organisations, should be ethical and independent. They provide education, innovation and leadership, and there are many opportunities for Newcastle and other universities to do this in relation to climate change, including by reducing their own emissions. Newcastle University aims to be carbon neutral by 2040 or earlier, and a goal of this workshop was to explore opportunities for reaching this target by creating a “Road map to Net-Zero”.

Together, we worked on ideas that could improve university-related travel, energy use and resource use. We discussed everything from light bulbs, to bikes, to virtual conferences. We also talked about the way we learn and whether that needs to change as society and its needs change.

Some of the ideas for reducing the University’s carbon emissions brought up at our tables included: creation of an annual carbon budget for every staff member; allowances for traveling on business by lower-emission means (e.g. by trains/buses instead of planes); the inclusion of travel in the working time; training locals in other countries to help with data collection to reduce travel; reducing the working week to 4 days or scheduling working from home on days when there is no formal teaching; recording lectures and letting students attend virtually; developing compulsory sustainability curriculums for students; an immediate ban on flying first class for employees; production of our own energy on campus; improving strategies to insulate University buildings; using University-owned land to produce fruit and vegetables used in the canteens; having a student market where the leaving students sell/give away clothes or bikes to the new students; developing a scheme similar to cycle-to-work for students; and changing the default of meals to vegan. Perhaps some of the cost savings could then be used to support subsidies for lower-emission travel or to make deals with travel companies who could offer discounted travel for staff.

There were many more ideas and a lot of consensus on what could be done.

All hands were then on deck to come up with a road map which included immediate, medium-term and long-term ideas for actions. Here is a photo of it at the end of the workshop, showing how many mitigating actions can be done now or soon. It is now left to the University leadership to make the choice of embracing these suggestions and taking them forward.

Post-its of the actions that can be taken to help tackle climate change

Participants were treated to a nice vegan-friendly buffet lunch at the end of the event, but mind you, you had to be quick to get your food! Thinking of the amount of food that ends up in the bin during catered events, organisers purposefully limited the amount of food that was served, in a bid to cut down on waste. Despite this, the meal was a pleasant way to wrap up the day’s event. Actions indeed speak louder than words😊

Here in the CRE, we are also looking at how to further improve our sustainability practices. Next month we will be holding discussions about how we as a research group can reduce our carbon emissions both as an institution, but also as individual influencers within the range of academic fields we contribute too. Watch this space.

A walking tour of Newcastle

In the latest CRE blog, Research Associate Beth Clark reflects on a recent walking tour of Newcastle and how walking will play a vital role in the upcoming social science research on the FIELD project she is working on.

Although using walking as a research tool is nothing new in the social sciences, it is not a method I have ever used before. However, it is something research colleagues and I plan to employ in an upcoming phase of data collection for the FIELD research project we are currently working on. We hope this creative means of capturing data will help us both experience first-hand the landscapes our participants live and work in, and learn about how their interactions between the ground, buildings and livestock influence animal diseases.

The walking method can add rich data to a study, but it can also be a challenge to simultaneously observe your surroundings, make notes and ask questions. I was therefore delighted when the opportunity to go on a walking tour around Newcastle arose so I could practice walking and learning at the same time. I have lived in the Newcastle for 30 years, so it was also a great chance to be a tourist in my home city.

Blackett Street in Newcastle – the old city walls are hidden underneath


The walk started at Grey’s Monument, where we learnt about the city walls that still sit underneath Blackett Street today, as well as about the history of the monument itself. This included several stories in relation to various body parts falling off the statue of Earl Grey due to activity nearby, such as the construction of the metro line. We also heard about how there use to be a large country house – including landscaped gardens – within the original city walls, which occupied a large chunk of land around the area we know as Grey Street and monument today. It’s hard to believe that such a built-up area could previously have been such a grand estate, especially with no obvious signs of its presence still readily visible.

Grey Street in Newcastle, which has changed considerably in appearance over the years

Moving gradually down the hill, we then entered the beautiful Central Arcade to hear more about its history, including, in particular, its beautiful architecture and stunning tin glazed tiles (these tiles can also be spotted in various pubs around the city centre). We also heard several stories about the different shops that have been in the premises over the years, including a ghost story – very fitting given the time of year.

Tin-glazed tiles in the Central Arcade in the city centre

Heading back outside onto Grey Street we learnt how this area of the city was created by covering over the Lort Burn – a river which still flows down to the Tyne today, albeit now underneath the city in a culvert. This explains the names of the roads ‘High Bridge Street’ and ‘Low Bridge Street’, as these were the actual crossings used to get over the river in years gone by. This hidden waterway is represented by a lovely array of paving near the Old George pub off High Bridge Street, depicting the water flowing underneath on its way down to the Tyne.

The paving off High Bridge Street designed to mimic the water hidden underneath

The decision to build upon this ground and over the river to create the beautiful buildings of Newcastle (in the famous Tyneside classical style) we know today, means that their foundations are pretty robust, being the same size of the buildings themselves. It was also impressive to hear that the Theatre Royal was built in just a period of 7 months, something which seems unthinkable today.

The tour helped me better understand what has driven the changes in the city and taught me more about the individuals behind these changes, such as Lord Eldon, Earl Grey and Richard Grainger. It really brought a human element into the history and development of the city, which as a social scientist I found fascinating. It also highlighted to me the importance of taking the time to understand the social elements involved in change, as well as the physical changes (in this case, buildings).

The walk really emphasised the importance of thinking about the land beneath your feet and how its use has changed over time.  It also demonstrated the value of looking up and fully taking in your surroundings. For example, I have lived in Newcastle for thirty years and never noticed the vampire rabbit hidden behind the cathedral, perched high above a doorway. This really hit home how much you can fail to notice your everyday surroundings.

The vampire rabbit of Newcastle, behind the city’s cathedral

This experience gave me numerous things to think about for my upcoming fieldwork, many of which will help ensure I can maximise the farm walks I undertake. This includes the importance of going with a fresh pair of eyes, and the value of using the visual prompt of your surroundings to stimulate discussion. This can generate a wealth of information, which we hope will illuminate some interesting new findings in the field of animal disease research.

This blog was originally posted on the FIELD project blog.