Sunday, 14 April 2019

an act of great stupidity ...?

Baby robin
A cold wind from the east. Drying the ground and bringing no rain. At night sharp frosts.

Male lesser redpoll
The garden is still burring with bramblings. Quite exceptional. Bramblings are the vikings of the finch world, raiding our feeders from their homes in the north of Europe in winter and vanquishing all opposition. Mostly male birds. Our guess is that, like their chaffinch cousins, when migrating they form largely single sex flocks. Linnaeus named the chaffinch Fringilla coelebs - coelebs (the bachelor) - due to this winter segregation. Perhaps the same is true of bramblings as we caught fourteen males and only one female in a brilliant ringing session led by Rich today.
Lesser redpolls too, remain for the time being but in small numbers.

In size contrast, feral greylag geese have taken a liking to George's Pond, honking in this morning at after dawn. Perhaps they'll help me out by gorging on the Parrots Feather (Mycriophylum aquaticum) invasive aquatic pond plant infestation. I can't remove it now for fear of damaging strings of toad spawn that may be tangled within it. Purple snakeshead fritillaries hang their pretty chequered heads in clusters around the ponds edge.

Some of our early summer migrant birds are now here, singing whilst building themselves up after their migration from Africa: chiffchaffs and blackcaps. A chiffchaff we caught today weighed 7 grammes - the weight of two penny coins. They undertake a migration of thousands of miles from Western Africa each year.
Our resident birds get on with it. Today, our first tiny juvenile robin ringed. Barely able to fly, robins are frequently ground-nesting birds. Their young leave the nest early as predators may find ground nests easily. Hugely vulnerable, we hope to meet him/her in adulthood but the chances of survival for these little birds are always slim.

This was a vintage ringing session for us. We have been aware for some time how abundant birds are in the garden. Catching seventy three birds of sixteen species without the use of tape lures exceeded our hopes. Goldfinches were the most frequently caught on this occasion and none previously ringed. How many must there be in our nomadic goldie population? Four blackcaps and three chiffchaffs was also a surprise - we had assumed one male of each species. There must be many uncaught too.

Vegetable garden
There is a tawny owl in one of the nest boxes. In an act of what appears to be great stupidity, a stock dove tries to share occupation. Tawny owls will eat stock doves. Surprisingly, this behaviour is not isolated to our garden, in fact the opposite. Stock doves have been recorded attempting to cohabit with kestrels and barn owls too. Even more surprisingly, their numbers are on the rise.
Moles vandalise the vegetable garden beds and my hope is that the tawnies will help me here if not sated on stock doves. Tawnies depend on juvenile moles for a large proportion of their diet in early summer.
In the vegetable garden it is typically in those areas where seeds have been sown and watered that the moles are most destructive. Carrots have germinated but undermined and rows decimated. Parsnips won't appear for several weeks from the seed sown: I can guess their fate.
Multi-sown onions, beetroot and peas (for pea shoots) fare rather better; and especially so where they are protected by fleece from the drying cold wind and overnight frosts. Autumn planted broad beans, shallots, garlic and onions seem impervious although this long dry spell will affect their yield.
The garden continues to crop giving us 7.5kg of food since 8 March. Asparagus sensibly stays deep under cover, unwilling to emerge into this cold spring - while its rhubarb neighbours look across in some disdain.

Poo Pete came with a generous trailer full of horse manure on Saturday. 'Look out, it's a tsunami of shit!' I heard as the load slid down in an avalanche towards my feet. This manure should be composted for over a year but such is our need that we may be pressed to use it as we mulch the vegetable beds in autumn.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

the greatest endorsement I could hope to receive..?

We moved into our home in August 2013. Since then we've been developing the grounds and finishing the bungalow. Now, as we look towards the start of the growing season I hope we can be forgiven if we look around and feel some pride in all we've achieved. But only recently has the achievement had special endorsement.

House sparrow colony box
When our neolithic forbears first began clearing land and building homes, the bird that became known as the house sparrow moved from occupying holes in trees and cliffs into our settlements. Birds require nest sites and food to be successful and the early roofs, villages and fields provided plenty of these. The birds thrived and throughout our subsequent history the cheeky sparrow has been synonymous with human occupation. Passer domesticus - the house sparrow. Sadly, house sparrows have fallen in numbers to such an extent that they are now on the red list of birds of greatest conservation concern in the UK.
The reasons for the decline are complex but are in line with the depressing falls in many other bird populations.
Our site had no house sparrows on our arrival and finding ways of building a Cordwood sparrow colony was one of my highest conservation priorities. At the end of February and after over five years groundwork (including providing 'colony boxes' for sparrows and their extended families), the chip-chip of a pair of house sparrows can be heard regularly from above the kitchen door. Our relationship with this little bird is deep-rooted in our psyche. Their arrival closes some kind of circle for me. I stand with the kitchen door open, just to catch their conversations.  I won't know for some weeks whether the pair of birds I see feeding at my house sparrow breakfast buffet have bred. If they do, this will possibly be the greatest endorsement I could hope to receive.

Meanwhile our north European migrants, the bramblings are still here. The bare trees buzz with their calls. And to accompany them is the onomatopoeic 'tick-tock' chiffchaff song announcing their return from Africa. Only a few years ago, their cousins, willow warblers' cascading song was heard as frequently as that of the chiffchaff. Now a spring time walk is empty of their lovely sound. The harm we are doing to our world can be measured in the loss of such birds as house sparrows and willow warblers and we are all diminished by it.

It has been unseasonably warm during the day (although the mornings are frequently frosty) and our Vegetable Garden is fully prepared for the growing season - with broad beans, shallots, over-wintering onions and garlic already making the most of the warm conditions. Joining these have been multi-sown spring onion, beetroot and pea seedlings. In the polytunnel, kale and white-flowering broccoli are being picked.
Compost temperatures rising...
This is that period between seasons known as 'the hungry gap' when plants aren't ready to be harvested and last year's stores have been used. Inspired by Charles Dowding I'm now keeping a note of our harvest. Even at this fag end of the year we've picked 5.5 kgs of food in less than a month. No food miles. All organic. Great taste. 'I would rather undertake the practice of physick with pure air, pure water and good food alone than than with all the drugs in Phamacopoeia' - Thomas Sydenham (1624-89)*.

The engine of any organic garden is healthy soil and the fuel for this is compost.
I layered up our collected weeds, kitchen waste and cardboard with grass cuttings on the 26th March when the compost was 20C. It really is amazing to see the acceleration in temperatures as compost heats and thus kills weed seeds, soil pathogens and perennial weed roots. By Saturday the compost was 70C and maintained that temperature for several days. It is now cooling but is still 55C - hotter than a hot bath! This compost should be ready for mulching the vegetable beds in the late autumn.

All around the lawn are beds and borders that have needed preparing for the spring: prairie beds, foraging border, hot border, fragrant garden and Rosa's border all wrap the lawn. There is still a short paved path to lay, and large areas to mulch - but this major part of our garden is now ready.

Oak beauty
Too soon to hear cuckoos in the garden. And once again, the decline in their numbers has been depressing. This week we read that their demise in England may in part be due to the decline in numbers of macro (larger) moths. Macro moths form a major part of a cuckoos diet and the diet of their prey species like meadow pipits.
Our moth light is giving us an indication that moth numbers are on the rise at Cordwood. We caught and released 105 moths of ten species (including oak beauty) earlier in the week - a higher total than in our previous two years of recording. Too soon to make any connections between our land management and its' impact on invertebrate numbers. But better than reporting a decline.

To increase the diversity and number of invertebrates we've seeded 'islands' in the meadow with: cowslip, field puppy, harebell, field scabious' corn marigold.
Transplanted into these 'islands' have been cowslips and oxeye daisies . The 'islands' were scythed short, and then mown to allow me to scarify and then seed. My plan is to do this across all of the meadow on a rolling basis.

I've mowed the remainder of the meadow in strips using a scythe so that there are areas of shorter and longer vegetation. The longer areas should provide suitable habitat for overwintering moth and butterfly pupae as well as affording protection for small mammals. I was aware of how successful this last measure had been when I came to plant oxeye daisies: the sward was a complex of mammal tunnels. A number of moths feed on the mammals' waste while hungry tawny owls whitt-whitt and hoo-hoo above them.

Mistletoe is absent from trees in this part of Nottinghamshire but is present a few miles away. Mistletoe has a number of micro-moths that are dependent on it. We 'planted' the sticky seeds onto the branches of apples in the orchard and today I went hunting for early evidence of our success. You know, I thought I found evidence ... but I'm ever the optimist.

*'The secret life of cows' Rosamund Young

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

the waxing moon

It is a waxing moon. Nature is waking.

Throughout the night lapwings call from the fields. Unearthly cheap trumpet toots accompany crazy display flights on overbalanced wings. During the day a tawny owl calls.


Twenty lots of frogspawn in George's Pond so far - the most we've recorded on our site.
Frogs and toads  have been on the move. We've placed signs along the lane to warn of frogs and toads crossing. A depressing text from our gamekeeper friend telling of many squashed overnight. Utterly horrible. Safe in the garden, little male toads in the pond chirrup in the moonlight. No sign yet of hedgehogs.

I sited a nest box within our boundary privet hedge and today it appeared to have attracted a pair of tree sparrows. In the orchard it seems that another nest box has been adopted by tree sparrows. We make no assumptions.
Our first house sparrow male seems to have adopted the colony box above the kitchen door. He sits calling from the clipped standard bay.  I need another dense evergreen shrub that can sit beneath the bay in our Fragrant Garden. House sparrows like the protection afforded by dense growth. And with good reason. A male sparrowhawk swooped in and took a brambling from the feeders this week and the following day thumped into the kitchen window. It flew away unharmed.
Sweet violets provide a welcome food source for insects beneath
 the Himalayan Birch. 

Bramblings remain our most-numerous garden bird. Lesser redpolls and siskins are still with us although all will depart next month. Sedentary greenfinches, chaffinches and goldfinches will surely breath a sigh of relief when their competitors leave.

Having been organic vegetable gardeners for forty years, it came as a surprise to have our gardening world 'turned upside down' by the talk given recently by Charles Dowding. We're now fully converted to using his methods of no-dig cultivation. These days, the Head Gardener can be found watching Charles's youtube videos whenever she can find a quiet half hour. I've used all of the manure we've had stored mulching the Vegetable Garden beds. I've turned one of the compost bays - a tonne of compost. But the winter weeding saw too many small weeds with soil in their roots to allow the compost to reach the temperatures it should to kill weed seeds and soil pathogens. It will have to be turned again incorporating fresh lawn clippings to reach the temperatures of 65F or 18C necessary.

Cells of multi-sown spring onions, beetroot and leeks will be first of the spring plantings soon. Early Nantes carrots will be sown in the next couple of days as will the wildflower seeds we're adding to areas of the meadow. Seed sowing needs to be done when the moon is waxing. 
View across the Woodland Garden
Seed week is this week which reminds us to use our own-collected seed. My aim this year is to allow a few stronger plants (not F1) to set seed which will be collected and sown the following year. By doing this I should build up a seed collection from plants that are especially suited to my conditions.
Money saved and better plants!

In the polytunnel, winter kale (Kestrel) is cropping well with spring cabbage hearting. White flowering broccoli is strong. Our concern is that the polytunnel will be too hot for the brassicas forcing them to 'bolt' - flower. We collected cuttings of perennial kale at the weekend and experimented by attempting to root some in pots and some directly in the ground. If successful, they should make a useful addition to the brassica harvest.

The Woodland Garden took the worst of Storm Gareth. We've had a deliciously rotting dead old tree trunk as standing dead wood but it was toppled by the winds. It was honeycombed with holes and will now dissolve into the soil. Eighty per cent of the life in woodland is dependent on dead and decaying wood. These saproxylic organisms will benefit from the dead wood as they do from the leaves collected and used as a mulch during the winter months.

We've finally created our small bog garden. A metre square, it takes the overflow from the Dragonfly Pond where our grandsons goldfish live. I know how much the Head Gardener is looking forward to getting it planted.

Tonight we try the moth light for the first time in ages.

Friday, 8 March 2019

the garden lies unblinking around me ..

Sometimes the garden lies unblinking around me, its eyes greedily following my every step, wanting to consume each waking hour.
Parsnip seed sown into cardboard tubes.
Those of us deemed 'the sandwich generation' know how our time is sucked away. Today my energy is low, as is the sky above me. It is grey and building for rain.

The winter aconites and snowdrops finished flowering early this year due to the unseasonal heat of February. The foliage of over seventy aconites now runs along the drive border: hundreds of outstretched green hands reaching up through the leaf mulch. Snowdrops are at the stage when we should split the large clumps to ensure that they flower even more abundantly and are even more widespread in the Woodland Garden next spring.

In the Vegetable Garden there is much wheelbarrow trudging to be done: mulching our no-dig beds. I worked out in a quiet moment that the Vegetable Garden alone requires seventy barrow loads. As Charles Dowding pointed out during his inspirational talk in Nottingham last week, in a perfect world this would have been done in the autumn as we are currently sowing seeds for the coming year and the ground must be ready. Last weekend we sowed into trays and modules:
  1. Peas - Feltham First
  2. Onions - White Lisbon
  3. Parsnips - Tender & True
  4. Lettuce - Cocarde; Little Gem; Salad Bowl; Red Salad Bowl; Lobjoits Green Cos; Mixuna
  5. Rainbow chard
  6. Parsley (plain leaved)
  7. Beetroot - Boltardy
When the weather warms I'm hoping that dad can join me hoeing and raking. We'll need to take care though. He came onto the lawn to supervise our work in the borders last week and within a moment of me turning my back he went down. No injury  - and executed with an almost balletic grace.

Rhubarb 'Timperley Early' is flourishing - 700g picked today, roasted in the oven, sweetened and combined with sliced banana in a a tray bake. 

Banana and rhubarb tray bake
This is our first year using LED lighting to promote seedling plant growth. The small unit is set on a tripod in the warmth of our appropriately named plant room and is being trialled raising ricinus seedlings.

We have finished planting the border we developed with our WWOOF volunteer in January: 'Rosa's Border'. The mulching with wood chippings was finally completed today. Central to the new planting is a Cornus kousa 'Miss Satomi'. This should be a stunning summer addition after it has settled in.

Jill continues to slog through the Prairie Beds, removing weeds. We will burn the pampas grass to remove dead growth and stimulate new having checked first that it isn't a home to mammals or birds. Jill found an elaborately woven pampas grass seed head that we believe may have been the work of one of our introduced harvest mice.

Brambling, siskin, goldfinch and lesser redpoll on the 'mother feeder'
It is that time between winter and spring when we get the avian benefits of both seasons. To drive down the drive is to be welcomed by the sound of crowds of singing birds. Today, one of the female blackbirds we'd ringed was collecting nesting material beneath the mother feeder. Above her, an unending stream of bramblings, goldfinches, grass green siskins and rhubarb pink lesser redpolls dropped to the feeder from the trees behind. It seems we're running an 'all you can eat' holiday destination for North European finches at the moment.

At breakfast time a cock house sparrow 'chips' away to announce his presence in the colony box above the kitchen door. I first attempted to attract our dwindling house sparrows to use colony boxes twenty years ago. God loves a trier: I'm within weeks of my first success.

Our little grandson seems especially aware of bird song. That's my boy...

Thursday, 31 January 2019


Heavy frost over yesterday's dusting of snow. Ponds frozen. Ground too hard to work. 

Apple trees are said to require a period of cold to stimulate blossom so this 'snap' is welcome.

The garden is busy with birds.

Bramblings have laid claim to the garden feeders. Peach, old gold and black. Dominant. But tiny siskin face them down.

I'm mesmerised and linger by the kitchen window for too long as more birds arrive. There must be a food shortage in northern Europe that has driven the bramblings to our more temperate island. The highest ever count of migrant bramblings was in 1951/2 when an estimated 70 million birds flocked in Switzerland.

Home-grown blackbirds stab at our stored cut apples thrown out for them. They carry leg rings from garden bird ringing in previous years, as do some of the blue tits which forage in the evergreen honeysuckle. Its' many flowers perhaps attract small insects?

A family of trilling long-tailed tits tumbles through the Woodland Garden where snowdrops and winter aconites are in frozen stasis. 

Frozen George's Pond
Our work in the Woodland Garden (although halted temporarily) has progressed well. We've harvested forty or so seedling hawthorns that will be donated to the farm. Paths have been weeded and chipped. Beds have also been weeded and will receive a mulch if time allows. An area of around sixty m2 now lies under black plastic awaiting redevelopment. The Head Gardener plans planting three more elegant Japanese maples in the Woodland Garden. The settee where she sits of an evening is mounded with plant catalogues and books. We can look forward to a stream of ambers, golds and reds running through the garden as the maple leaves enter the chill of autumn in years to come.

We began the pre-spring tidy of the Vegetable and Fruit Garden during our WWOOFer, Rosas's stay. Shallots, garlic, over wintering onions and broad beans are growing well. Leeks and beetroot are still being picked. Grazing rye planted to retain nutrients as a 'green manure' into bare soil has grown luxuriantly. It has now been covered by reused black plastic weighed down with bricks. By the time we plant our potatoes on Good Friday,  I'm hoping that the grass will have been incorporated into the soil by worms.

The nights are edging out. The clock is ticking towards spring. We leave the flower and seed heads on the plants in the Prairie Beds over winter to provide food and shelter for wildlife. But last year we disturbed the nest of a chiffchaff in one of the ornamental grasses because we were late. We don't want to make the same mistake this year.

Saturday, 19 January 2019


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


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


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.

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.