Working with the Earth, rather than wrecking it

MOST of us simply do the necessary in the smallest room of the house, flush the loo and – without a second thought – send our waste off for someone else to deal with. It’s different for the Wyatt family. Basically, they take care of it themselves – with the help of Mother Nature. Just outside their farmhouse near Halesworth is a series of ponds that deals with stuff from the loo and other “grey” water. Once nature has done its bit, the liquid that ultimately flows out into a ditch meets all the relevant environmental standards. That’s handy when you’re not connected to mains sewerage.

“All we have to do here is a little bit of weeding. In the eight years or so we’ve had it up and running, there’s been the odd whiff, but nothing major,” smiles Lucy Wyatt.

It’s just one eco-feature of the family homestead – once a big working farm but derelict for about 40 years before the Wyatts bought it about a decade ago, renovated the house and moved in in 2002. There are a couple of hundred acres, mostly given over to grazing.

Some of the green measures are invisible to the naked eye. Philosophically allergic to the notion of a plastic damp-proof course, Lucy designed her own base system for a large conservatory extension and convinced the building inspector it would work. There hasn’t been a hint of damp.

Some of the things she’s most proud of, though, are noticeable.

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A press crushes oil seed rape and sets it on the journey to becoming biofuel. (High-protein pellets are bi-products that can be used as animal feed or burned for heat.) The biofuel not only keeps a tractor moving but fires an electricity generator. “When this is running, it can pick up the load from the whole farm. It’s really powerful,” says Lucy. At one stage they did lay a cable for a potential wind turbine, but she reckons this plant is more flexible.

Lucy believes they’re one of the first enterprises in East Anglia to commission a 100% biofuel generator. The farm could be self-sufficient in electricity, she says, but they’re keeping below the 2,500-litre output level that can be processed without having to register with the tax people. “So it limits the amount we can produce, which is really silly, but we just don’t want the hassle of having to fill in forms every month.”

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Growing rape in a completely eco-friendly way has proved a bit of a headache, admittedly. Combating the pollen beetle – whose presence can lead to tiny yields – is a challenge hard to overcome without resorting to spraying, while fattiness and sometimes water content has to be removed from the crop. Methanol is used to help break it down – not totally green, but it does result in high-quality fuel.

Lucy’s also proud of a biofuel boiler that heats water for the office. Outside, a solar cell powers a little fountain in the stable yard. The horses sometimes drink from it.

Collected rainwater is the first source of liquid refreshment for animals on the farm. For humans, water is drawn from a 60ft well. “It tastes delicious,” she assures.

Nearby, an area has been dug out to make a walled garden. Rainwater captured from the roofs is used to water vegetables. Pumps powered by the sun circulate the water and stop it becoming stagnant.

Elsewhere, a shelter for cattle has a straw-covered chalk floor that drains well and is thus hygienic.

Then there’s a once-derelict grain store that’s been transformed into a pretty “facility” for gatherings ranging from shoot lunches to yoga sessions and teenage parties. The roof, floor and walls are well insulated, and there‘s a wood-burner to combat any chill.

Lucy says her first question during earlier building projects used to be Is it the right shade of paint? “But I’ve moved on to ‘What is the material?’ And, actually, I’ll go with what colours that results in. So I’ll use ochres and natural pigments. You get some amazing colour effects with natural paints.

“Getting the right strain of Mouse’s Back [the name of a paint] now really is secondary! There are things that are more important. Do I need to have my whites as 100% white as a bleach-based detergent? No, I don’t. Do I have fewer friends because I forget to iron? No, I don’t think I do. We can get so obsessed with these ‘perfections’, can’t we, and lose sight of the bigger picture.”

So when would she say she decided to follow an eco-friendly path?

Well, she remembers shopping for natural and organic foods as a university student in Brighton. “There’s always been an awareness of quality of food and quality of living, but I suppose getting interested in alternative medicine was significant.

“I’ve always loved nature, so I’ve been green in that respect. And I’ve never hugely liked plastics, instinctively – always gone for cotton clothing, or similar. I think that as time’s gone on, I’ve become confirmed in my original feelings and expressed them as more of an eco philosophy.”

• Heading for eco-suicide . . . . see today’s ealife magazine to read about Lucy Wyatt’s book Approaching Chaos – in which she argues we’ve damaged our relationship with the natural world and risk reaping the consequences

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