Saturday, 19 January 2019

January

A fine dusting of snow as dawn cleared the darkness today. A chill night but still moths on the wing.

We have been laid low with chesty coughs and the early-morning air is deemed unsuitable for me to work outside. We work in the afternoon clearing raspberry runners that are attempting to annex the entire fruit bed. I sort through stored apples and bring them to the shed. The dried stems of last year's asparagus are cut and taken away for burning. The surface of the beds is cleared. The larvae of asparagus beetle may overwinter on the dried stems and so are burnt. the cleared ground will make it easier for insectivorous birds and mammals to harvest the grubs before they can transition to adulthood.

Rosa (l) and Jill almost there with the digging...
We have another of our WWOOF volunteers with us for two weeks - Rosa from Catalonia. WWOOF volunteers join families to work on farms and gardens in return for board and lodging. Poor woman - she has joined us during our brief illness that has also coincided with an acceleration of my dad's dementia decline. He has been quite incoherent and most days recently seem to have seen us called on to make use of one service of our great NHS or another. Not only have my energies been lowered in tune with my new Barry White vocal range, the anxiety over dad and mum has taken its' toll - an emotional steamroller.

Stored apples
Our project with Rosa is to develop the border around the south side of the annex. This was formerly lawn that was difficult to mow, where the grass didn't flourish and where the slight difference in levels between the lawn and the terrace have resulted in two falls for dad. Beneath the black plastic we pealed back - a small mammals larder of seeds and worm casts. The evidence of lob worms in the soil has been very encouraging. Lobworms are large anecic worms that move up and down vertically in the soil leaving fertile worm casts. It was a pity to disturb the worms but the soil had been brought in during the building project. We discovered that our ideas of  what makes 'topsoil' and those of builders vary wildly. As we dug, this 'topsoil' yielded bricks, large pieces of concrete and copious rubble.

In spite of interruptions we have now dug the whole area over and incorporated more soil.  Compost and manure will be incorporated and the soil given chance to settle before we plant and then mulch.

Adult moles are said to consume 250 worms a day. From their activity in parts of the garden, I can only guess that our ground is in pretty good nick - as measured by worm populations.

We are beginning the best part of the year for the Woodland Garden. Snowdrops, in their hundreds are poised. Yellow winter aconites along the drive edge have pushed through the thick mulch of leaves and are flowering earlier than we've seen them before.

Bramblings continue to be more numerous than in previous years and now little, apple green siskins too.

And I'm pleased to report that I've heard house sparrows chirping from a section of our boundary hedge that the tractor-driven hedge trimmer couldn't reach. Roger has put up colony boxes on his new store in the hope that we can encourage breeding.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Mild

Tonight the temperature fell to -2C but we did not wake to a frosted garden where, at last, the skeletons of the prairie garden perennials were gilded with frost. The winter has been mild with only three or four frosts. The consequence is that crocus and daffodils are tricked into growth.

Bramblings (those exotic north European migrants and peach-breasted cousins of the chaffinch) have been showing well. Not large numbers like the goldfinches and greenfinches (who collectively consume over 1.5kg of sunflower hearts per day) but a handful. Distinctive with white striped rumps, they 'boss' the feeders due to their larger size, heavier bill - and their swagger.
A second male sparrowhawk gatecrashed the finch feeding frenzy this week. More brightly marked and missing the white flecking on the back of his head of the other male. He perched, empty taloned on one of the wire plant supports but departed too quickly for this ham-fisted photographer.

Also too fast was a stoat, lightning in the Fragrant Garden. A baby-faced assassin on the hunt for small mammals.

We continue our work in the Woodland Garden. I have been clearing nettles, ivy and brambles that have colonised a corner. Hard work resulting in barrowful of roots and stems. Cotoneasters, hollies and pyracanthas have had a winter trim. The Head Gardener is forking out bucketsful of couch that has invaded from the Green Lane path.

A stock dove has shown interest in a large nesting box in the Woodland Garden. Its' repetitive 'wuh wuh wuh' a reminder of its' presence.

Our moth light only resulted in one moth this week - a mottled umber. 242 species of macro moth in the garden since we began moth recording.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

winter solstice

An auspicious day: the winter solstice. The day awakens oily black with rain glistening the terrace. Rain barrels that collect water on its way to the pond are filled. The barrel slats have thickened after their summer desiccation. George's Pond is bloated and excess water runs in a stream down the Stumpery path. It is the shortest day of the year, when the sun reaches its lowest maximum height in the sky. Doubly auspicious as tonight sees a full moon. There won't be another conjunction of full moon and winter solstice until the end of the century.

A mile away from our gentle hill is Dorket Head. It looks down on us from slightly higher ground and is the site of a neolithic farm. Today the hill can only be guessed at: the air is heavy with water vapour and it is hidden in mist. Those Iron Age people would presumably have looked on this evening as an especially important one in their calendar. When the night cloud clears above us we witness what our forbears of three and a half millennia must have witnessed. Their neolithic landscape though, would presumably have been of fields and native trees while for us, the conifers and prairie beds of the garden are backlit by the glow of the city but sharply lit in monochrome.
Woodland Garden

We humans have changed the landscape for since beginning farming; and with it the wildlife communities that also inhabit it. Today, the fields outside our gate are intensively farmed for vegetables, but the planted hedges and wooded areas, ponds and 'pieces' sown to attract wild bird are giving nature a helping hand. Flocks of small birds rise out of the seeding millets and sorghum: linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, lesser redpolls, greenfinches. We have a greater abundance of small birds this year than in any previous year. This can be measured by the quantity of seed the birds are consuming. Once again the male sparrowhawk swoops in, this time carrying a male chaffinch struggling to a space in the Fragrant Garden borders. It adjusts its hold before arrowing towards the Cedar Walk where it will presumably have a plucking post.  

The green tips of daffodils Runvelds Early Sensation are emerging in the grassed area ravaged by moles beneath The Limes. The sodden ground sinks beneath my wellied feet as I walk down to the hens. A hen run in the rain is a really quite unlovely place at this time of the year and I let the girls out into the orchard as soon as I can.

In the Woodland Garden we have cleared paths of leaves and covered an area of 54m2 with old sheets of black plastic weighted with bricks. Another unlovely area. This area had never really worked because couch grass and nettle had taken hold and the design had failed. The black plastic will stay on the ground until the vegetation beneath is dead and reincorporated into the soil after which I will dig over, removing perennial weed roots and our planting will begin again with shrubs and trees.

We have encouraged native elder (Sambucus nigra) as well as some of its cultivar cousins within the Woodland Garden. Its' fruit and berries are important to birds and insects. Elder is the host plant for several species of moth, (some of which we have recorded during out nocturnal moth catching):
  • Elder Pearl Anania coronata 
  • Anania perlucidalis 
  • White-spotted Pug Eupithecia tripunctaria 
  • Ash Pug Eupithecia innotata f. fraxinata 
  • V-Pug Chloroclystis v-ata 
  • Swallow-tailed Moth Ourapteryx sambucaria 
  • Dot Moth Melanchra persicariae 
The trunks of the elder are light and easy to take out with a hand saw. The thick trunks and branches go into log piles and the twigs will be shredded or burned. Where the elders have been pruned the plants are energised and will send up vigorous new spring growth with succulent leaves ready for the next generation of moth caterpillars.

The Vegetable Garden continues to give. Last night we ate slender Ratte potatoes oven roasted and had a casserole whose rich sauce was derived from our own oven-roasted shallots, garlic and Crown Prince squash. The plugs of oyster mushrooms I drilled into logs in October have not shown signs of fruiting. I must give then time.

The arrival of the solstice points us to all the promise of a new growing season. I await the clearing of the rain to get out and carry on preparations.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

winter

The arrival of meteorological winter at the beginning of the month was answered by finches. On some days I'm putting 1.5 kg of sunflower hearts into our large feeder. Goldfinches, greenfinches and chaffinches are abundant at the moment. No lesser redpoll or siskin. Our first couple of bramblings joined us a couple of days ago. The lone linnet is still with us.
Barn owl nest box checking
The 'mother feeder' is placed on a pole among shrubs so that the birds have some refuge when the sparrowhawks come calling.
The number of fluttering, calling small birds has created an avian sweetie shop for sparrowhawks. Both male and female seen frequently.

To a talk by Ruth Tingay about raptor persecution. So many hen harriers and golden eagles illegally killed in areas around driven grouse moors. A national scandal. News yesterday that another satellite tagged hen harrier has been killed. Their deaths are almost-always in the same 'hot spots' that coincide with intensively-managed driven grouse moors.

Leaves have now been shed by almost all the trees. The exception being the oaks. I have removed the debris netting from small ponds which I'd stretched over to prevent them being choked by leaves. Our current gardening job is clearing Woodland Garden paths of leaves. Most are immediately tossed back onto the beds as mulch. The surplus go into our leaf bays.
Native seedlings are always left when we're weeding. I mark them with tape. Hawthorn seedlings in the beds will be lifted as bare root plants to fill our hedge gaps withe the surplus being given to our neighbouring farm. Young yews (taccus baccata) will be planted in our hedge.

Eggs buried by grey squirrel drey building
Cyclamen hederifolium form large clumps of glossy leaves among the dark leaf litter. Our native primrose (primula vulgaris) are now resurgent and fresh green after their dormant period. No flowers yet.
Where leaves are raked from paths, pale shoots of snowdrops (galanthus nivalis) are revealed.

Sited in the orchard we have a feed hopper for small birds. Jill claimed a marsh tit this week. This would be a first garden record of a bird in rapid decline.

Another stoat siting. Quicksilver. Black tipped tail.

We have checked all of the farm owl nesting boxes. Only one had not been captured by grey squirrels and filled with sticks. I await the delivery of the stinky ferret bedding. It's my only hope.


Raking interrupted when friend phoned. He asked how I was. "Chilled' I answered. He misunderstood."No, no, I am wearing a woolly hat and a hood pulled over it".
The shift finishes before 3:30pm with us back into the warmth of the house before 4:00pm.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

At night, nature is busy...

The moon rising - a large pink grapefruit through the bare trunks.

Little owl chick
At night, nature is busy.

From the fields a piping call carries - a male little owl. I think I know exactly where he's calling from. This time last year we sited a nest box in a mature hedgerow oak and it was immediately adopted by little owls. Little owls are the size of a thrush and adult birds have eyebrow markings making them look alternately angry or puzzled. The birds were introduced to this country at the end of the nineteenth century and went on to flourish. They are that rare thing - an introduced species that seems to have had no detrimental effect on native wildlife. They feed on invertebrates and small mammals and are crepuscular - active at dawn and dusk. Little owls are now in decline and get no protection because they still carry the stigma of 'introduced species'.

A little owl box must not allow light to enter as the nesting birds like darkness. The most successful boxes are designed to contain the young for as long as possible. If they emerge too soon, they are easily picked off by predators like tawny or barn owls. And ideally the box can be opened for mid-winter cleaning. That special fragrance of faeces and rotting rodents is characteristic of their successful homes.

Siting little owl nest box
The boxes I make are a foot cube and are a design given to me by Rob Hoare. The entrance hole is sited at the top of the front face of the box with a perching ledge. The hole leads to an L-shaped corridor which excludes light from the main nesting space and is difficult for very young inquisitive little owls to climb up to. Little owls like to lay on a bed of soft material - usually sawdust. Perverse as it may seem, I am hoping to use stinky ferret bedding as the soft material. Not only to add to that special little owl box bouquet but to deter grey squirrels who see the boxes as especially desirable - and fill them with leaves for high-class dreys. The stink of a ferret is said to deter grey squirrels but has no effect on the birds.

In 2018 a pair using one of our boxes successfully raised four young, whilst a second was borrowed by a pair of kestrels who squeezed their nest of five young against the side of the box.

Juvenile kestrel
My winter plan is to add a couple more little owl boxes so that it is not the lack of of nesting sites that is affecting little owl success here.

Next week we plan to tour our tawny, barn and little owl boxes to get them ready for the new season.

There are moths flittering in the gloom: male Northern Winter moths (Operophtera fagata). In late November they mate with their flightless females who climb up into the twigs of deciduous trees to lay their eggs. In the spring, the caterpillars of northern winter moths join with those of winter and other moths and begin eating their way through fresh leaves. In turn, these exfoliating caterpillars become the main food source for woodland birds like tits. A blue tit nest of hungry babies can consume ten thousand caterpillars.

Gardeners are exhorted to put grease rings around their fruit trees to deter moths on their nocturnal climbs. We prefer to let nature take its' course.

Moths can be very active on November nights. The last time we used our moth light we caught, recorded and released forty moths of eight species.



Saturday, 24 November 2018

woodpeckers, starlings - and a linnet ...

First to the bird feeders for several days has been a spry female great spotted woodpecker. Splendid in black and white she lacks the red nape of the male but shares the red vent coloration. The numbers of great spotted woodpeckers have risen by 250% in recent years. Modern, unmanaged woods provide more deadwood for the birds to feed in. The rise in the population of great spotted woodpeckers has in part been attributed to the collapse in starling numbers. Until relatively recently starlings were both plentiful and woodland nesters (as they had been since the end of the last ice-age) and there they would compete with similarly-sized great spotted woodpeckers for nest holes. Despite the mighty punching power of the woodpecker beak - starlings would vanquish them. No such competition now - therefore more successful woodpeckers. She bounds away in looping flight into the gloom.

Your cockeyed optimist made five medium sized starling nest boxes and sited them last winter on trees with open access. With depressing predictability none were used - although when I filled a feeder with live mealworms in the summer, it was immediately swarming with starlings. Perhaps there's a clue for me in rebuilding a local starling population.. In December 2015, I counted c130 starlings in the the Woodland Garden canopy, no doubt boosted by migrant birds. Four starlings flew overhead this week.

Mist wraps itself throughout the day. Trees are shadowy outlines. Hens step gingerly through the cold wet orchard grass, then break ranks to charge towards the wild bird seed hopper, skirts hoiked up. Much scratching, backwards shuffling and pecking follows. The hens have synchronised their moult and parade new plumage.

Our 2018 vintage cider has now been bottled. Our hope is that this reaches 'drinkable' status before the beer I bottled two years ago - which isn't.

On the terrace the pink nerine flowers - battered flamingos on slender green legs - await refuge from the frosts in the greenhouse.

A new bird feeder visitor this week - a female linnet - on the sunflower hearts. The books say they do not behave in this way, preferring farmland weeds. She is 2 cm longer than the goldfinches that flitter around her. She: tweed suited and sensible.

Garden work is slow and dirty. A corner of the prairie beds has become infested with couch grass. We work through the sticky soil, removing the long underground strings of of their rhizomes. Barrows full of  slimy roots and broken plants. The afternoon shift is often interrupted by FaceTime calls from the grandson and his mum. The head gardener sanctions (indeed welcomes) these interruptions from 'the little emperor'..
Then back to the mud before returning as darkness gathers to the warmth of the house on platform soles of mud.

Sometimes, only a mug of tea with a shot of whisky will do. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

The Beast from the East ... and helping tree sparrows

Dusk ends the shift before 5:00pm. Beneath the Limes, collecting fallen leaves must wait until tomorrow. Half way there.
On the farm, before dawn - ravens, black, cronking through the autumn mist. Migrant fieldfares in vocal groups foraging for fruits and berries. Four pretty, white-rumped roe deer bouncing across a field of winter wheat.. We prepare ourselves for forecast wintery cold easterlies.

Juvenile tree sparrow
In the spring of 2018, the so-called 'Beast-from-the-East' brought late, icy, Siberian weather to our chilly hill.
Whilst the more fortunate could simply button up their coats, I wonder whether The Beast may have been deadly for some of our birds - notably our local population of tree sparrows..?  Raising two broods in our kitchen gable nest box during the previous year and regularly visiting the feeders throughout the winter, they have been absent from the garden since the cold spring weather 2018 and their breeding success was limited in the farm nesting boxes to four boxes.

The tree sparrow (Passer montanus) is the sociable, pretty cousin of that once ubiquitous Jack-the-lad, the house sparrow (Passer domesticus).
Both species are suffering significant decline.

nest box production line
Our volunteer effort is to support the tree sparrow population on New Farm, Redhill, Nottingham following Ian Newton's maxim that bird numbers are largely affected by food and nesting sites.

Over the past years our neighbours, Hammond Farms, have replanted hedgerows and woods, created a conservation pond, sown areas of dedicated bird seed and also provided seed in hoppers throughout the year - all to help farmland seed-eating birds.

Nest boxes were originally sited on the farm thanks to support from Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust. Working with a Duke of Edinburgh's scheme youngster we have made, repaired and re-sited 47 boxes so far this season. These are sited in groups of five or six in wooded areas around the farm. Tree sparrows are sociable and like to be in loose groups. the male bird likes a room of his own, and so siting boxes close to one another meets these two needs.

Each small box has a sloping removable but secure lid, 25mm entrance hole and perching nail. These boxes have been made using reclaimed tannalised gravel board. On siting the boxes we put a handful of leaf litter in the bottom of the box whose comfort may encourage birds to adopt the box, perhaps initially for roosting then for breeding.

Siting boxes with our young volunteer
Our target is to site a total of sixty this season before moving on to nest boxes for other species.

It may have been that our local tree sparrows did not die. Although usually very faithful to their local sites, we know that these little birds can be quite unpredictable. The thriving population of tree sparrows at Rutland Water upped sticks and vanished a number of years back. One of the birds was found two counties away. A bird from the RSPB colony at the Old Moor reserve in Yorkshire moved to Wales.

So, perhaps our birds are now happily relocated elsewhere.

Whatever happened, for those birds remaining we keep our fingers crossed for 2019.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Tucking the garden up for winter ....

'Green Lane' in autumn colour
A furious hammering on the windows at the start of the day. Carrion crows are asserting their territory and angrily attack their own refections. We lay obstacles along their path to the windows for their welfare. They become so angry with their reflected image that they leave the glass bloody.

The last of the pelargoniums on the terrace
Female and male sparrowhawks stalk the bird feeders that have been attracting many goldfinches and greenfinches. The male sparrowhawk is smaller and slighter than his partner. Slate grey and salmon pink.

Resplendent cock pheasants square up on the drive, sparring and jabbing. Blackbirds have
finished their moult and have emerged from purdah. North European migrant fieldfares 'chack-chack' in straggling groups in the sky overhead.

Our few days absence saw us returning to a fully-autumnal garden. Beech, sweet chestnut, larch and silver birch leaves in shades of glowing golds, oranges and yellows. Tumbling and twisting in the wind.

North-facing earth sheltering
A wood mouse forages in the wood chip mulch on the edge of the Fragrant Garden.

I have planted overwintering onions, shallots and garlic in the Vegetable Garden. Moles have undermined the rich soil in this part of the garden, gathering earthworms. I have to compress the moles' deep mines with my heel before planting little onion sets (bulbs) or they would drop about eight inches into the tunnels below. I tell myself that I can't have tawny and little owls unless I also have moles. The polytunnel brassicas (spring cabbage, white flowering broccoli and kale) are thriving.

Now is the time to 'tuck the garden up' for the winter. The Head Gardener, like a dormouse with hazel nuts, to-and-fro busy stowing pelargoniums and cannas in the greenhouse. She has also ended a long-distance slog weeding and mulching the north-facing mounding that provides the earth-sheltering for our home.

Everywhere is sodden after recent rain.



Monday, 29 October 2018

bubblegum and house sparrows ...

Cold weather is on it's way. As an aperitif, chilly rain and wind. I've put on a warm winter hat..

Wooden dowels hosting the spores of oyster mushrooms have been drilled into logs in the Woodland Garden.

Down in George's Pond, be-wadered, I drag the scythe through the invasive parrots feather (Myriophyllum aquaticumpond weed. Only once did I over-reach myself and nearly capsize. Fortunately the Head Gardener was raking from the bank and on hand to advise caution. A third of the pond surface cleared today with piles of the vegetation heaped around the pond edge, all to be composted.

As russet leaves chased one another across the lawn, one turned itself into a stoat. A bundle of black-tipped-tail energy: perhaps the reason for the recent skittishness of the hens?
Nerine bowdenii

Bubblegum pink - and completely out-of-sympathy with the colourway of the season - our naked nerines (Nerine bowdenii) are still in full brazen flower. They lose their leaves in the summer leaving slender flower stems. The nerine bulbs clearly relished the baking they got in their pots from the August sun on our south-facing terrace.

Six hen pheasants parachute in across the lawn. The females form groups during the winter and roost together. These 'hen parties' don't teeter and screech through the centre of Nottingham in the way their human counterparts do at weekends. Pheasants are released on the farm next door for shooting. These birds are possibly asylum seekers escaped over the hedge: we are their Sangatte. They queue for rations and 'peep' around my feet as I top up the feeders, eager to scavenge any fallen seed. Solitary males swagger.

Blue tit
Although the feeders remain obstinately quiet, there are many small woodland birds around, flitting through our brambles in loose foraging flocks. We caught, ringed and released 129 birds last weekend including blue, great and coal tits, long tailed tits, goldcrests.

We're considering building a garage block, as much for storage as housing a car - and this will also be an opportunity to make a home for wildlife. How can I best accommodate birds and bats? And will I be able to attract house sparrows (Passer domesticus) to the terraced nest boxes I plan? 
House sparrows were everywhere as I grew up but elusive in many areas these days - another example of 'shifting baseline syndrome'...
There can't have been breeding house sparrows here for many years as no buildings occupied the site. But they are present in the nearby chalets and once called in groups from our neighbours' shrubs. In 2012 a bold cock sparrow tried to set up home in the unfinished roof of our new home. As sociable little birds they prefer to nest in groups so I put a 'colony box' up for him. He chirruped for a while but no female was persuaded.
Sitings of house sparrows have become fewer and fewer and our last garden siting was in April of this year. We are losing our house sparrows.
House sparrows have been under pressure because every aspect of their ecology has been changed.
House sparrow colony box
More efficient farming practices have largely eliminated the spilled seed they once feasted on in large flocks in autumn and winter. The overwinter stubble fields they once relied on are now planted with winter sown cereals and brassicas. In the farmyards the barns no longer provide free access to mountains of stored grain.
In common with most birds who feed their young on invertebrates (in the case of house sparrows on spiders) the food supply has dried up. There are simply insufficient quantities of spiders to fill the babies' bills.
Modern housing has eradicated nesting sites. Where once sparrows could squeeze into gaps under our roofs, these spaces have gone in the new world of plastic soffits and facias. Our tidy gardens provide too few overgrown shrubs to hide a group of querulous sparrows.
And the increase in sparrowhawk numbers means there are more predators for the hard-pressed little birds to contend with..
They remain locally abundant where conditions are right, but once they vacate an area, there are insufficient birds doing well during breeding seasons to colonise new territories. 
For us, the consequence of all these changes may be depressingly predictable:  has the house sparrow that was abundant here six years ago gone forever? 
I can think of few better litmus paper tests for the health of urban and rural environments than Passer domesticus...

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

pinocchio noses, cider, harlequin ladybirds - and shifting baseline syndrome

White, Pinocchio noses poke out from the lawn. Having rapidly donned judges' wigs, they become six or seven dozen frilly Pride and Prejudice parasols before dissolving to ink: Shaggy Ink Cap (Coprinus comatus) mushrooms are a sure sign that autumn is with us.
Chopped apples being milled  (or 'scratted')

A borrowed apple press and fruit mill (or 'scratter') have been brought into action to help us with our glut of windfall apples.
A mixed bucket of cider and crab apples joined windfall Bramley and Lane's Prince Albert and a bucketful of dessert apples from the cordons to go through the 'scratter' - to mill the apples into small pieces- then through the press. 14 litres of juice was produced - all intended for cider making. Wasps attempted glorious suicide in the delicious liquid.
Demijohns

The fermenting juice is now gurgling in demijohns.


Our quince tree is loaded with shining lemon fruits. They are spilling to the ground in desperation at not being used and will rot. They can be used to make jelly but we are already sitting on conserve mountain. And in homes such as ours that have a heat recovery and exchange system that blows air through the house they cannot be used to fragrance rooms.


In common with many gardens, we have seen an influx of invasive, non-native harlequin ladybirds. Varied in their markings, they search places to gather to overwinter. Our native species of ladybirds are in sad decline that is attributed to harlequins. It is now understood that they carry a fungal disease that our native population has no defence against. Introduced invasive, non-native signal crayfish and grey squirrels have similar effects on native populations of white-clawed crayfish and red squirrels respectively.

Last week I walked with my son in the footsteps of DH Lawrence, from his 'Nethermere' and looked over at the farm Jesse Chambers lived in when used as his Miriam in Sons and Lovers. Lawrence was such a sympathetic observer of nature, describing the red squirrel's' 'lovely undulating bounds over the floor, it's red tail completing the undulation of its' body'.. talked about red squirrels being common in our native Nottinghamshire at the turn of the last century. They are now long forgotten as the pox carried by grey squirrels has made them extinct for us.

As a child I recall ladybirds of many colours and spots. The arrival of harlequin ladybirds  will possibly deny future generations any knowledge of the diversity of our native ladybird populations.

And, of course, this is not a 'straight substitution' of say red squirrels for greys. Grey squirrels make a very different (and negative) impact on our environment to that of red squirrels. The potential loss of our native ladybirds will have an untold impact on invertebrate and plant diversity.

Harlequin ladybird larvae
Step-by-step, day-by-day we degrade and diminish the natural world around us - to our cost and to the cost of those who follow us.

How sad is the clumsily-titled  'shifting baseline syndrome'. This 'syndrome' describes how we accept as normal the world we see around us, having no knowledge of what went before. Thus, I have no expectation of seeing the red squirrels that were once common in these parts, just as succeeding generations will have no expectations of seeing anything other than harlequin ladybirds.





Friday, 12 October 2018

leaf blowers, flimsy nests and windfalls ...


An oil slick has spread across the surface of uncovered ponds. Even the  rain water in an old tin bath is affected. A greasy thin covering. Wood pigeons have increased in number over the last weeks. Their communal bathing on the pond edge leaves the oily, dusty residue from their feathers. I have netted a couple of our smaller ponds that lie directly under trees to prevent them filling with leaves. The pigeons must bathe elsewhere.Yesterday four magnificent buzzards hanging above the trees, noisily mewing sending finches and pigeons up in alarm when they passed too low.This must have been a good year for breeding goldfinches. Many birds on the feeders have the scruffy look of juveniles transitioning to adult head plumage.Bucking in the wind, a lone rafter in heavy swell, our wood pigeon steers her late, flimsy nest of twigs to the safety of the morning harbour.Tonight an express train wind roars in the resistance of Scots Pine needles. I have misjudged and not picked our abundant apple harvest in time. The majority of the glorious, heavy fruits are now windfalls in the grass. I pick what I can reach with my wire-basket-on-a-stick contraption. Tomorrow I will collect windfalls in the knowledge that they won’t keep.God’s own leaf blower chases dried sycamore leaves across the lawn. In Camden during the week I shook my head in sympathy with a resident who failed to understand why a park worker was spending the best part of a working day using a petrol leaf blower to blow leaves off grass. The leaf blower brigade are out in numbers now. Will there ever be a time when we evaluate the impact of our activities on the earth? From questions around whether we can: justify the embodied energy needed to make then dispose of the leaf blower at the end of its’ life, let alone the petrol needed to power it; through to the shameful waste of HS2; or the shocking cull of badgers ....? 

Hugh Grant recently suggested that all owners of leaf blowers should be required to carry them rectally with the blower full on.
I saw Richard Wilson (aka the curmudgeon Victor Meldrew in vintage UK comedy ‘One foot in the grave’) reading a script in Regents Park in the week.
His catchphrase ‘I do NOT believe it..’ catches my mood perfectly.
Perhaps our planet is truly doomed, we should give up and just party like it’s 1999?

Monday, 8 October 2018

Goose Fair time

The lawn is a shining emerald lake, lapping its’ surrounding banks of perennials, grasses and shrubs. Heavy rains followed recent mowing - especially satisfying. A glossy carrion crow with distinctive paler flight feathers slowly measures the lawn in deliberate steps examining something within the grass, frequently pecking.
Scythed ‘islands’ in the meadow were further shorn when I mowed. The scuffed and open soil will receive seeds of yellow rattle. This little grass parasite will weaken its’ hosts so that the seed of harebells, cowslips and birds foot trefoil can take hold without being lost in the sward. Field poppies are plants of disturbed ground and so the meadow islands must be roughly treated to give these annual plants a chance.
Our work outside sees us tidying and mulching in readiness for winter. We are also planning ahead - tomato plants have been taken out of one side of the polytunnel and winter brassicas planted - white broccoli, kale and spring cabbage.
A punctuation mark in Nottingham’s year is our Goose Fair held to coincide with the first Thursday in October. It is now a huge funfair retaining the name given in a royal charter by King Edward I to the already established fair in 1284. The fair thrums distantly on calm evenings.
Horse chestnuts leaves have been shredded and destroyed by tiny leaf miners, but sycamores retain their spotted leaves - still green. The trees hissed with white noise during recent rain. I stood on the terrace in the dark of the early hours where rain fizzed down rain chains then chugged into the barrels. During the long dry summer the barrels’ staves shrank and now water weeps down their sides, slowly entering the wood and eventually closing the slats.
The return of small birds to the garden attracts a sparrowhawk. A magnificent female - marbled chocolate -sat on the bird bath long enough for us to admire her. The connection between our species and nature is so strong it feels physical. Whatever else we are doing stops to allow us to enjoy moments like this. Little wonder that claims are made about the power that nature has to affect our wellbeing.
Add caption

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Autumn arrives ...

Grass was frosted as we set the ringing nets on Sunday; trousers sodden until the sun warmed the mid-morning air. Overhead, jets silently screamed north, trails littering the blue sky. Tree sparrow, blue and great tits, wren, chaffinch, greenfinch caught, ringed and released near the small pond. Mistle thrushes rattling their presence from berry-laden rowans induced us to put a net within a small copse. Mistle thrushes were too wily but a jay was caught. It's latin name Garrulus means noisy or chattering, and glandarius is "of acorns". Jays have been noisily collecting acorns in the garden for a couple of weeks: round-winged, white-rumped. They collect far more than they can immediately consume, 'caching' in readiness for winter. I have read that a single bird may store 11,000 acorns during the autumn.

Moles busy tunnelling in the Woodland Garden and beneath The Limes. Subterranean tube lines undermining paths and grass. Today the characteristic mole hills have appeared. Volcanoes in the grass.

I have replenished wood chip mulch along the length of the Birch Border. The mulch suppresses weeds, retains moisture in the soil - and provides a home for invertebrates. In the mulch, hardy cyclamen hederifolium have been waving flower flags of white through to deepest pink. Tubers planted in late spring have pushed out small pairs of leaves, characteristically heart-shaped and beautifully pattered with white lines on glossy green. The birch that give this part of the garden its' name are mature. Some have died but still stand, providing rich homes for fungi and specialist invertebrates. The trunks are a colander of holes from tiny to great spotted woodpecker size. The vacated woodpecker holes may be used by other birds, bats, wasps or bees. Standing deadwood is one of the least-abundant but most-valuable habitats for wildlife. 

Eurasian Jay - Garullus glandarius
We counted a 'charm' of around one hundred goldfinches as dusk arrived today. Yesterday was the first day when the feeders were mobbed. A couple of greenfinches asserted their rights among the squabbling goldies.

A wood pigeon sits on her late season raft of twigs, sailing above us in the thinning elder foliage. If her young can evade the magpies and carrion crows we'll hope to ring them. One of the previously ringed wood pigeons is especially confident. Ringo, Bingo, Bongo - or Paul? There is no way of telling our ringed pigeons apart.

A slender hen pheasant comes peeping to the terrace on most days. Not only is she especially slight, her eye markings allow us to tell her apart from her sisters. Jill feeds her with corn. Two pheasant poults have outlived their unsuccessful siblings, survived the summer and now are almost equal in size to their mother. Frequently heard but only occasionally seen.

In spite of our feeding regime, hedgehogs have not been seen for several weeks. They have possibly found a better food supply. Most nights I take a torch out to search.

With two mewing young, a buzzard circles above on afternoon hill-top thermals.

George's Pond has filled following recent rains but is home to an invasive ornamental pond plant called Parrots Feather. This inadvertantly escaped from the rain barrels through which rain travels from our roof on its' way to the pond. It is invasive and, as such, 'it is an offence to plant or otherwise allow this species to grow in the wild'. A man and his waders will be seen shortly, pulling out the offending vegetation. This must be done around every six weeks during the growing season.

I have begun mowing the meadow. On the outer edges of the meadow there are islands of long grass around which mown paths weave. These I cut each year and will transplant some of the abundant cowslip seedlings from the orchard. The exposed ground will provide an excellent seedbed for the seeds of native wildflowers I will sow. Small mammals need a thick sward to protect them from predators and so other parts of the meadow are managed to provide this cover and to support overwintering invertebrates as well as providing seed for finches. A fat vole escapes ahead of me as I complete today's scything.



Monday, 3 September 2018

courgette fear

Not a vintage gardening year for the kitchen.
The cold, wet and late spring turned immediately into the hottest summer on record. Our sandy soil was little more than dust.
And for me a knee replacement operation that took two months away.

So much didn't germinate, grow or thrive...

And, unlike our arable farming neighbours, we haven't done any supplementary watering. What was planted had to cope with what nature provided.

But, let's not dwell on the failures - apples, potatoes, tomatoes, beetroot, squash, courgettes and leeks have all done well..
Courgettes have been abundant. So much so that friends no longer make eye contact for fear that a courgette will be pressed on them. 'Are you sure one will do..?'
Our thanks go in part to our friend 'Poo Pete' who regularly delivers trailer loads of horse manure. This regular addition of manure as a surface mulch has improved our soils' ability to hold moisture as well as boosting fertility.

Trees have shown themselves to be surprisingly unaffected by dry weather with no evidence of drought stress. The heavy  spring rains must have played a part in this, boosting the water content of the soil down at deep root level.

Flowers in our meadows have been affected, as they have in the gardens. Flowers finished weeks early, denying insects access to pollen and nectar. There has been a limited range of butterfly species and only large white butterflies were abundant. Mysteriously, the honey bees have produced excellent amounts of honey - presumably from tree flowers?

Mum and dad bought our grandson half a dozen goldfish which we put into the Dragonfly Pond. This is a small pond built out of sleepers and not accessible to amphibians. The fish got busy and now we have more than six...


Saturday, 25 August 2018

keystone brambles support sparrowhawk

Four wonderful days and nights in Dorset watching the satellite tagging of nightjars on Cranford heath. Late nights for an early bird but giving us the chance to see shooting stars that were part of the Perseid meteor shower, noctule bat. During the day we saw dartford warbler and sand lizard. Also, a night of mothing to take my mind off the student fridge that glowered every time I opened it..

Juvenile sparrowhawk
Then home and back to bird ringing in the garden. 
It's been a quiet time of late and this continued despite our early start. 
Our usual 'go to' mist net set beside the feeders unusually provided few birds. It was more encouraging in the area of the garden reclaimed from overcrowded commercial conifers that has now grown high with walls of fruiting brambles beneath silver birch, rowan, field maple and cherry saplings.

This area has become a special place for birds whose presence is frequently concealed by the dense blackberry bushes that now dominate the understory.

Brambles provide year round protection for birds, give thorny defences to nests and this year an abundance of juicy berries as well as being host to many species of invertebrates.

Our bird ringing shows that this jungle provides a home at different times of the year to: 
goldcrest, willow warbler, blackcap and chiffchaff; 
blackbird, robin, song and mistle thrush; 
blue, great, coal and long-tailed tit; 
dunnock; 
bullfinch and chaffinch. 

Great spotted woodpecker, buzzard, jay, woodcock, magpie and treecreeper are there but have avoided the mist nets so far.

A juvenile sparrowhawk showed how important the bramble is as a keystone plant in the food chain. It was hunting the small birds but was caught itself before being ringed and released.