Mike Withers

Pat and Mike Withers have lived, worked and kept bees here at Highclere for more years that I can remember, although I must add, of course, that they are in fact incredibly young… In recent years, however, I seem to be all too often sitting them down with a mug of tea as they tell me about their latest crisis with at least one hive. Over the last year alone, two hives have been stolen and in another two hives all the bees suddenly died. In a sense theft happens because of the decline in bee hives as they become even more valuable.

An EU report of 2017 stated that “the beekeeping sector is vital for the EU and contributes significantly to society, both economically… and environmentally by maintaining the ecological balance and biological diversity, as 84% of plant species and 76% of food production in Europe are dependent on pollination by wild and domestic bees.”

This is food for thought. Highclere gives me a sense of place and it would seem that this is equally important for bees. They seem to have a capacity for learning and memory and huge disruption is not good for them, as I am equally sure it is not good for any of us.

As part of our efforts towards sustainability, Geordie and I have created a large wild flower meadow, planted wildflower field borders around the farmland, plan for long lasting seasonal flowers in the herbaceous beds and don’t prune or tidy too much. The latter is remarkably easy to achieve given that we currently have just three gardeners whereas 100 years ago there might have been as many as 25 looking after the grounds here. So we are practically imperfect, unlike Mary Poppins, but in a good way for wildlife.

A red kite wheeling slowly…

Equally, it is all too easy to focus on one area and forget others. Birds too are an interrelated part of the cycle yet too many species are declining. They need space and peace whereas we seem to crowd space and can forget to look for peace. Happily, at the moment, the lapwings are increasing in number here and we have at least six pairs of red kites. The other day I heard a swallow and I am looking forward to the fieldfares.

Birds need insects and trees: food and shelter. Like elsewhere in Britain, the once mighty elm tree can no longer be found at Highclere and soon we will also have no more ash trees here. I dread the idea of finding any acute oak decline which would truly decimate the parkland and woodlands here. I love the oak trees, not least for the history they represent – eight hundred years ago, oaks from Highclere helped build New College Oxford and Winchester College.

Nevertheless, there are, of course, still some fine trees here to give us pleasure and to provide a setting, a view, or some shelter. We keep on planting a variety of different species here both for their economic or aesthetic value but also simply for the value of the natural surroundings themselves which add so much to the spirit and heritage of Highclere.

One of my favourite poets is John Clare, an extraordinary 18th century man who lived through the enormous changes of the Enclosure Acts and the birth of industrialisation whilst recording the countryside he loved. He knew that the England he loved and that he grew up in was disappearing and spent the rest of his career reminiscing about a way of life that could never be recaptured.

I can’t help feeling that I don’t want to be doing the same thing over the course of the next few years.