I met my man up a mountain. Well…not entirely true. Technically we met at the bottom of a mountain, then trekked to the top. But that doesn’t sound half as romantic. So we tend to stick with meeting ‘up’ the mountain.

It was on an organised group trek to the top of Mount Toubkal in Morocco, and it was the first (and to date, the only) mountain I’ve ever climbed. I’d gone on my own, an impulse decision brought about by a turbulent year in my personal life that led to me ‘rediscovering’ myself and deciding…heck, let’s climb a mountain.

I’d always liked the idea of climbing a mountain. The fact that I had little-to-no experience of climbing didn’t occur to me as an issue, I did lots of hiking and surely that counted for something, right?! Fortunately I’d made a lucky assumption: hiking experience coupled with a decent level of overall fitness meant I was able to climb my first mountain with a look of relative ease and indifference…although, admittedly, that look was ever so slightly forced on one or two occasions!

Maintaining a cool composure all the way to the top of a 4,167m peak in the 30° June heat of the Atlas Mountains isn’t easy for someone more accustomed to British climes…and throwing in the added pressure of wanting to look attractive to a potential suitor didn’t exactly help.

I feel I should clarify at this point that, when I booked my trip, the thought of finding a date hadn’t even entered my head. I was thoroughly happy as a single female; in fact I was thriving as a single female! I loved doing my own thing, at my own time, with only myself to please. I had reached a point of complete contentedness in my own company and had brazenly declared to friends that I had zero intention of dating until my body clock ordered me to settle down and pro-create.

I was not ‘on my game’ in the dating department and was entirely unprepared for meeting someone. And in an effort to keep my kit as lightweight as possible I had left behind anything that I could have used to boost my appearance: no mascara, no jewellery, no pretty clothing…all I had at my disposal was my hiking ability and my charm!

The little stomach flutters that accompany a realisation that you fancy another human being appeared about thirty minutes after I arrived at the hotel. Pretty darn quickly, especially by my standards. I wasn’t prepared for the flutters, and to be honest I didn’t fully understand why I had them…this man wasn’t my usual ‘type’ (I’m fairly certain I’ve told him this, so hopefully it doesn’t come as a shock when he reads it here!). Nonetheless, the flutters were unquestionably there and the more time we spent together the worse they got.

The trip lasted eight days. It was the world’s longest first date.

If I had to describe either of us during that time the words ‘sweaty’ and ‘smelly’ would both feature prominently, as would – thanks to the glorious but somewhat spicy Moroccan food cooked daily by our nomadic cook – ‘farty’. I would also probably include a description of our unflattering hiking clothes, worn multiple days in succession due to luggage restrictions, and mention the fact that the chest straps on my backpack squished my boobs into a weird shape for eight hours a day.

All in all, it doesn’t create the picture of a romantic first encounter. But perhaps that’s what made it so perfect. We met each other in a raw, basic and, to a certain degree, vulnerable state. Most people would probably admit that they don’t put their whole selves out there on a first date; you hold a little bit of you back because you’re trying to portray the best version of yourself. There aren’t many people that can keep that mask in place for eight days straight and after a long day of hiking I categorically didn’t have the energy to fake it! It was very much ‘what you see is what you get’.

And hey, it worked. Nothing ‘happened’ in Morocco, but we had established a connection. We had spent evenings staring up at the stars together, had quizzed each other on our life back home, had shared jokes and observations and a few moments of flirtation away from the watchful eyes of our walking companions. We’d become completely comfortable in each other’s company.

When we arrived back in the UK we said our goodbyes at the airport and went our separate ways home – me to Southampton, him to Bristol. We said we’d see each other again, and it wasn’t an empty statement…we knew we meant it.

Two days later he ‘popped down’ to visit. The next weekend he came to stay. And the weekend after that. I visited him too, even if it was just for one evening between working days, because it felt like a completely normal thing to do. Gradually he started staying longer, working from my place on weekdays, and before I knew it my spare room had become his office and I was washing his underwear. He’d moved in. He even relinquished his own tenancy; Southampton had become his official home.

That was after just three months. But our life in Southampton wasn’t set to last: he saw his future in Bristol, but he saw his future with me as well. So, after a surprisingly brief discussion, we decided Bristol would be ‘our’ home, and I started job-hunting. It took a little while but eventually I landed myself a great job and – almost exactly one year after we’d first met up that mountain – I left my job and my home, bid farewell to my family and friends, and relocated. And the weird thing is…it didn’t feel weird. It felt completely natural and obvious.

We’ve been in Bristol for seven months now. I have a great job, in a great city, and we’re building a life. I still pop down to Southampton regularly, which is hugely important to me. But my outlook for the future is a world away from where it was before I moved. Thanks to my career move I’ve found a sector I’m passionate about, and thanks to the creative and lively influence of Bristol I’ve started doing more of the things I love – including starting this blog to share the stuff that’s important to me. I’ve become a more confident, more worldly, more ambitious and more adventurous person. I have more focus, more drive. I understand myself better and recognise my strengths with more clarity, I’ve found my feet in the world and feel like I can take on anything it throws at me.

And ultimately, I have the man who followed me up a mountain to thank for all of that.

Twas the night of the New Year, and all through the streets

Drunken revellers teetered on unsteady feet.

Having filled up on gin at the nearest cheap pub,

My friends and I stumbled our way to a club.

 

Mascara and lip gloss, applied with great care,

A mountain of product upholding our hair,

Stilettos too high, and dresses too tight,

We had romance in mind on this magical night.

 

The queue for a drink was as long as a mile

So I bought two at once, just to make it worthwhile.

And with one glass of fizz clutched in each of my hands

I strode into the crowd and I started to dance.

 

I twerked and I twirled and I shimmied and shook,

And kept scanning the room for an amorous look.

One by one my companions found dates for the night

Until just I was left, seeking my Mr Right.

 

When the countdown commenced with “Ten, nine, eight, seven”

I took a deep breath and looked up to the heavens,

And prayed to a being I’m not sure exists

That this New Year’s Eve I’d find someone to kiss.

 

I was sure as I whispered that desperate request

That I felt something flicker inside of my chest.

Then the party in unison screamed “four, three, two, one…

Happy New Year!”. And finally, midnight had come.

 

Around me, the couples in passionate embrace,

Clashing lips, and teeth, and tongues, and face.

The groping of buttocks, the clutching of hair,

Pressing crotch against crotch as if no one were there…

 

At a tap on my shoulder, I span round so fast

That Prosecco splashed over the rim of my glass.

As it trickled its way down the side of my arm

I stood stunned, face to face with my cause of alarm.

 

I’d spotted him eyeing me throughout the night

But had failed to evade him, try as I might…

And I wondered, should I have been slightly more clear

When I’d prayed for a partner to kiss at New Year?

 

His eyes, which were glazed from a whole night of drinking

Were brazenly aimed at my chest, unblinking.

His forehead, so sweaty! His cheeks, blotched with red.

A whole tub of hair gel slicked over his head.

 

His choice of attire made me turn up my nose

(He was dressed all in denim, from his head to his toes)

And the cut of his shirt couldn’t hide his round belly,

That shook when he danced like a bowlful of jelly

 

A wink of his eye and a sly little grin,

Then he tilted his head and began to move in…

On any other night I’d have given it a miss,

But I thought “heck, it’s News Years, what’s one little kiss?”

 

He tasted like vodka and stale cigarettes,

And his tongue flailed around like a fish in a net.

But just when I thought I could take it no more,

He stopped with a jolt and looked down at the floor.

 

On his face a peculiar look had appeared,

And he swayed where he stood and he slurred “I feel weird.”

Then his skin went quite pale and before I could move

He bent over and threw up all over my shoes.

 

In an instant, the people around us dispersed

And looked in on our horror as if we were cursed.

He clutched at his stomach and let out a moan,

Backed into the crowd…and I stood there alone.

 

But I heard him declare as he ran out of sight,

“I’ll be back in a minute”. That gave me a fright.

So I raced to the exit and into the street,

Threw my shoes in a bin and walked home with bare feet.

 

As I hobbled my way through the bustling town,

I thought over the evening’s events with a frown.

My New Year’s Eve snog really hadn’t worked out,

And I think maybe next year I’ll just go without…

Today, people across the globe are joining forces in an appreciation of soil. For three decades the fact that World Soil Day even exists has slipped under my radar, but this year I’m following it with interest. Why? Because this year I’ve come to realise; conversations about soil are some of the most vital conversations we need to have.

Most of us probably don’t talk about – or, for that matter, think about – soil on a regular basis. But, when you do think about it, you start to appreciate the influence it has for every one of us every day. That influence was set out perfectly for me by environmental activist Satish Kumar, who I had to pleasure of hearing speak some months ago. His message was this: ‘we are all soil transformed’. That might sound like a slightly eccentric statement but, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. As humans we rely on food to give us the energy and nutrition to survive, and food comes from the soil: the vegetables and fruits we eat grow from it; the meat we consume comes from animals that graze on grass or feed on grain that grows from it. So, by default, we rely on the soil for our very survival.

Given recent evaluations, that leaves us in a bit of a quandary…because, in their current condition, our soils will only last another seventy harvests. Industrial pollution and intensive agriculture are killing our soils: they are compacted, lacking in organic matter, and eroding. It takes a thousand years for one centimetre of fertile topsoil to form but we’re losing multiple thousands of square metres of it by the minute. Climate change will make that worse; extreme weather conditions will mean more erosion in hotter and drier seasons and more soils being washed away in heavy rainfall. Given that soils act as a carbon store, they should be helping us in the fight against climate change, but we need to start looking after them if we want them to look after us.

Soil is a complex thing, full of life, from bacteria to bugs, all working together to break down and revitalise the earth and maintain nutrient levels. When soil is healthy this ecosystem works in harmony and has the ability to do what it needs to, but when we introduce an imbalance we can throw the whole system out of line: whether that’s the addition of chemicals, the compaction of the earth through heavy machinery, or the removal of nutrients at too high a rate through monocropping, not looking after the soil can significantly reduce its performance. And that has a knock-on effect on the whole food and farming system.

I speak with plenty of farmers in my day-job, and soil health is a popular topic of conversation. Soil is a farmer’s most precious asset: their livelihood depends on their ability to grow crops, and the healthier the soil the healthier the harvest. I’ve come across lots of farmers, both organic and non-organic, who are exploring new methods for building resilient healthy soils and seeking ways to reduce activity that has a negative influence. Their reasons for doing so are varied: some have been proactively tending to their soil health for years; some have seen a reduction in productivity and are looking for a fix; and some are facing the uncertain future of agrichemicals and recognising soil health as critical to a good yield. Their levels of commitment differ too, with some looking for a quick fix or temporary measure while others have built their entire growing system around their soil. While it’s encouraging to see this activity taking place, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s enough…or whether something more strategic needs to happen in order for us to make a real difference.

Encouragingly, it seems that Government are upping their game too. George Eustice recently stated that soil will sit at the heart of post-Brexit agricultural policy, indicating a wholesale review of our existing soil management techniques and a renewed focus on environmental improvement. Just days later it was announced that mandatory soil testing will come into force next year as part of new rules to protect the water environment from chemical run-off. And, of course, we have heard several times from Michael Gove that revamped payment schemes will reward farmers who demonstrate environmentally-friendly practices – of which protecting, and improving, soil health is one example. It’s a clear directive that a discernible commitment to soil health will soon be an imperative, rather than an autonomous, action.

It will be interesting to see just what the new agricultural policy looks like, and how far it goes in outlining and incentivising healthy soil. But considering the influence of soil on food security, climate change, and the future of agriculture, it seems clear that the emphasis on healthy soils needs to be robust.

By this time next year, I’m hoping that World Soil Day might be more than just a day of appreciation and campaigning….perhaps we’ll also be celebrating turning a corner towards healthier soil, and perhaps we’ll be enjoying a slightly better outlook on the future for one of our planet’s most precious things.

Last week MPs, debating the EU Withdrawal Bill, voted to reject a clause recognising animals as sentient beings. It was a somewhat marginal vote, at 313 to 295, undoubtedly one of many quiet decisions being made behind parliamentary doors, but it caused a storm among animal rights groups.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the news of such a vote is a hoax: it seems an archaic conclusion and, for my part, I’m a little dumbfounded. The definition of sentience is a capacity to feel or perceive, and to suggest any animal doesn’t fit that description shows a level of obliviousness that I can’t quite comprehend. Our understanding of animals as compassionate, responsive and cognisant beings is growing all the time and a decision not to encapsulate this in UK law surely goes against all that we’ve learned. At best this decision is nonsensical; at worst it raises troublesome questions around animal welfare.

Those who rejected the clause tell us it’s covered by the Animal Welfare Act: but the Act doesn’t mention sentience. This worries me: when we deny animals’ ability to feel, we open the door to reduced rigour in wider welfare laws that are there to protect those animals. I’m of the mind that our duty of care is not limited to their physical state, as surely a quality of life is also dependent on factors that influence mental wellbeing.

Working in the agricultural sector, my immediate concerns relate to livestock farming. Sadly, the image many of us have of bright-eyed happy animals in lush green fields is far from reality all too often, as a shocking number of animals are still raised in intensive indoor farms. These animals don’t enjoy what I would consider a good quality of life, largely because they are unable to present natural behaviours like grazing, pecking, foraging, exercising or simply enjoying the air and sun. Animals in intensive systems aren’t necessarily unhealthy physically, but I would argue that their emotional health suffers. My concern is that, by disregarding their sentience, we suggest intensive farming is acceptable. This would be a huge step backwards.

Beyond farming, a rejection of sentience raises red flags for our treatment of animals across the board: zoos, circus animals, breeding, pet care services, wild animal encounters…we interact with animals, and have a direct impact on their lives, in so many ways. And if their mental wellbeing in these situations goes unprotected, where do we stand when our human influence causes distress? Morally we may still recognise that animals have both an emotional and conscious reaction, but legally would we be obliged to ignore it?

Ask any pet owner if their animal feels pain, grief, fear, joy: I can all but guarantee their answer will be an unhesitating “yes”. It’s hard to deny that a dog experiences delight when greeting its owner, or anxiety when that owner is gone for a long period of time. And most cat owners would tell you that their pet recognises human sadness or ill-health and responds to it with affection that could well be classed as concern.

The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. Studies of animals in the wild have shown us the extent of their ability to care, grieve, play, problem-solve and much more. Elephants are a perfect example: they nurture and care for young with tenderness, have been seen grieving over lost family members, and are now known to recognise other individuals and families that they haven’t seen for years (as the old proverb goes, ‘elephants never forget’!) Anyone who’s been watching Blue Planet II has seen dolphins playing games in the waves or with pieces of coral, activities researchers have concluded they do for the sheer joy of it. And if you’ve visited a zoo and witnessed one of its residents pacing their enclosure, you will probably have questioned the emotional state of that animal.

I’m sure the MPs voting last week can’t have predicted that such a small decision would cause such a big wave, and I’m certainly not alone in calling for recognition of animal sentience to be formally recognised again. But with so much work still to be done to transfer EU law into UK legislation, it makes me wonder where else we might end up falling short post-Brexit…

 

I’ve loved trees for as long as I can remember. They’ve always had an air of magic for me – and yes, that might be because I spent the first seven years of my life believing they contained flourishing communities of masterfully hidden fairies… But that sense of mystical wonder has never quite disappeared. Even now I can’t help but marvel at the sheer magnificence of an ageing oak: they seem to defy all logic whilst simultaneously being the most natural thing in the world.

I think many of us take trees for granted, especially if – like me – you grew up in an area where they were abundant. I spent my childhood climbing trees or playing hide-and-seek in Hampshire’s beautiful New Forest, and during my teens the woods were a place for parties and camping and mad bike rides. When I set off for University and experienced proper city living – or as far as the cobbled streets of Canterbury can be called ‘city living’ – I missed the woods almost as much as I missed my family!

When I had the opportunity recently to attend a work conference that was all about trees, I’ll admit I was a little excited. The conference was about agroforestry – in simple terms, that means planting trees on farms. It’s an old practice, but one that most of us have never heard of, including me! But if you think about any drive you’ve taken through the countryside….and imagine those lines of hedgerows that neatly separate one field from the next…that’s one of the oldest and most basic implementations of agroforestry, and it happens all across the UK.

But agroforestry goes a lot further than hedgerows, and some of the most beneficial forms of it are few and far between in this country. But, as I learned from the conference, they can have hugely positive impacts on biodiversity, carbon management, animal welfare and even farm profitability.

Anything that incorporates trees and farming counts: from hedges to orchards to woodland species, and they can be used alongside both crops and livestock. One of my favourite examples is using trees as shelter for hens. Domestic chickens (the ones we see on farms) are descended from junglefowl and, as the name suggests, junglefowl live under trees. So, by nature, chickens love trees – at odds with the image most of us have of a chicken’s farmyard home. But farmers who give their hens access to trees will tell you they much prefer a good peck and forage beneath the shelter than in the open – and happy hens are healthy hens. It works for sheep and cattle too. One farmer at the conference stated unequivocally that agroforestry had singlehandedly improved survival rate in his lambs, thanks to the protection from the elements provided by the canopy.

Planting trees between crops is another example and the main benefit here is making better use of natural resources. The tree reaches up further and wider to make use of sunlight; its roots go deeper and spread further to gain water; and the crops get to steal some of those benefits from the soil to make them stronger and more nutrient-rich. And if the agroforestry system uses nut or fruit trees then you get an extra crop to put on the market – bonus!

For me, above all else, agroforestry is part of the answer to tackling climate change, thanks to trees’ ability to store carbon. Combined with the benefits on-farm – soil health, productivity, biodiversity – they can make a valuable contribution to more sustainable farming practice. And with farming being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, finding ways to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint is absolutely critical. Government is only now starting to formally recognise the role agriculture must play in tackling climate change. Innovative and accessible solutions will be needed to help all farmers become more environmentally-friendly, and options like agroforestry will need strategic support to bring it into the mainstream. Organisations like the Woodland Trust are supporting progress by offering advice, grant support – and of course, the trees themselves – to farmers, but recognition from central government would give agroforestry a widespread boost and tangible impact.

Not long after Michael Gove was appointed Environment Minister, he made a promise to uphold the Conservative manifesto pledge to reach a target of planting eleven million more trees by 2020. If that promise holds true it’s exciting news, and I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that some of those millions can be allocated for use on farms.

It only took one day at a conference to make me an agroforestry fanatic. And after everything I’ve learned I can’t help realising: I was right, trees are a little bit magical after all…