Thursday, 9 November 2017

the autumn-gorgeous garden

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you."
Philip Larkin

These islands are home to a race of the white wagtail, a lovely black and white bird called the pied wagtail. Monochrome and small, it is commonly seen around buildings, feeding on invertebrates, flicking its tail and alerting us to its' presence with a simple, two note call. Here's what passes for a birdwatchers' joke: the pied wagtail is sometimes known as the Chiswick Flyover because it says 'Chiswick' as it flies over.

So, we're driving along the snaking Chiswick flyover during London's rush hour and our daughter points out that there are no pied wagtails in sight. I'd completely forgotten my own joke. She hadn't.
Sorry Sarah. Philip Larkin woz 'ere.

Juvenile male sparrowhawk
We were visiting Sarah's school and had parked in Kew beneath an ivy-clad tree, home to a roost of  ring-necked parakeets. Seeing foreign green parrots flying around London for the first time must have been wonderful and exotic. They are now a massive success story if the increasing population and range of an introduced and alien species can be seen as a success. They are the birds one sees and hears throughout the capital and they have arrived in Nottingham too, commonly seen in our Wollaton Park. My cousin sent a message saying they had six of the birds at their allotment this week. The BTO graph shows how their population has risen this year.

None yet seen here or regularly in Bestwood Country Park. They'll come.

When they do, they'll have to jostle. I was a little glum in my last post as the garden was so quiet. It is now as alive with birds as we can remember. Goldfinches, of course, are ubiquitous, gorging on the sunflower hearts - a kilogram is going into the 'Mother feeder' alone each day. Joining the goldfinches in discarding expensive seed onto the ground below are greenfinches and an occasional lesser redpoll. The redpoll has arrived earlier than in other years and we guess it is a bird we've caught here in previous years as it carries a little leg ring. Three tree sparrows joined the feasting tits at the drive feeders. They have the sparrow need of cover and nervously emerge from the close-cut privet hedge to take small seed.

The bird movement is mesmerising but probably serves a purpose. We regularly see kestrels and sparrowhawks - both hungry for small birds. The small birds demonstrate that it is hardest to hit a moving target. The sparrowhawk (photographed by Richard when we were netting at dusk on the farm last night) has the eyes of a killing machine. Seeing birds this close up is a rare privilege. The juvenile male sparrowhawk does not yet have the beauty it will achieve if it reaches adulthood.  Ringers look for diagnostic tiny beige-brown hearts on each of the young male birds' breast feathers. They are exquisite.

The garden is autumn-gorgeous just now. Many shades of yellow, through golds to amber and orange.

Time to harvest leaves! Leaves on the drive and Woodland Garden paths are raked across onto the beds. The worms will work without rest to pull them under ground and improve the soil structure. Leaves on the grass are being mown and stored to make leaf mould that will be ready to use in two years.

We are planning on bird ringing in the garden on Sunday, so I'm scattering seed along the places where the nets will be set. Perhaps the abundance of food explains the increased number of glossy black and querulous carrion crows we now have. They move through the pines, malevolent nazgull. Ten on the lawn on Monday. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

slow gardening

We worked through the rain, the three of us, asters above us glowing purple-blue from the water-washed prairie beds. The beds are at their bedraggled best now with hazes of golden grasses, the architectural stems of seeding Turkish sage and patches of sedum spectabile now claret-coloured in the autumn light.

The meadow around the pond is in its second, glorious year. During the spring it shone cerise and white with the flowers of red campion and oxeye daisy. During the summer, gatekeeper, small skipper and meadow brown butterflies feasted on ragwort and red clover nectar and five species of dragonfly hunted. The seed heads of wild carrot have now curled and browned and it is time to do some meadow management. We need a range of grass heights and must remove some of the vegetation each year to encourage floral diversity.
There is a school of thought that would see us shaving off all vegetation rather in the manner of an old hay meadow. This won’t do as small mammals, amphibians and invertebrates would be denied cover and a safe place over winter. There are a number of moths and butterflies that over-winter in grassland. Cutting the meadow removes the habitat for these hard-pressed creatures. Harvest mice are said to thrive best in a three-year old sward. The two juvenile kestrels (a sister and brother?) that patrol the garden and peer down at the meadow from their perching place need no help from us. A less draconian regime is needed. Something more gentle, more subtle.

Mike and I scythed five metre wide bands of the meadow down to a height of around 40-60mm and left connecting sections so that the inhabitants of the meadow can move between uncut sections safely. A bridgehead of cut grass was laid across the path from the meadow to give access to the pond. Jill barrowed the rest of the arisings away and left piles that will decay over winter and spring, providing potential shelter for hedgehogs, wrens and slow worms among others. 

I am glad that we scythed. Scything is a management tool that works with nature rather than blasting through it as mechanised methods can do. Scything enabled us to avoid frogs, to move aside caterpillars and moths and to discover and avoid what looked like a field vole ‘lawn’ in front of an entrance hole in the thick grass. Slow gardening.
Bramley apples

The busy kestrels may be the reason why we are seeing so few small birds on our feeders. Kestrels will take small birds and our little birds may be mindful of this when selecting their cafe of choice. We haven’t set the ringing nets in the garden for some time. Long overdue.

Mike didn’t seem so slow the following day. I had had a minor knee operation a couple of weeks ago and was milking it for all it was worth. As you’d expect we have a development plan for autumn 2017 to spring 2018. With Mike and his brush cutter scythe blade, development work for the next phase began promptly. The Head Gardener wanted another connecting path within the massed banks of bramble and rosebay willow herb that have flourished beneath the conifers. Mike set off with his scythe, through head-high jungle and single-handedly created our new wide path. I’m delighted to say that the path was christened overnight by an appreciative fox who left a nice pile of faeces as its calling card. 

There has been a silent congregation of miniature be-wigged judges on the lawn: a ‘bench’ of over a hundred shaggy inkcap toadstools. The fungus has lived in the soil beneath the lawn throughout the year, its mycelia interacting with the roots of the lawn plants improving the plants’ access to nutrients. In September and October the characteristic fruiting heads of the fungus appear above ground, giving us the shaggy lawn toadstools. Out of respect I delayed mowing until their moot ended with each withered to ink and I regretted it. There is little pleasure in mowing in October. To reduce the vigour of broad-leaved plants in the lawn, I raise the mower blades so that the grass is healthy and able to out-compete broad leaved weeds. But I had let the grass grow too long and it was too thick and clogged the mower. Observers from space would have seen the driver of a red ride-on mower gesturing angrily to the God of lawns, remonstrating at unsightly piles of disgorged grass cuttings that were following him on his journey to and fro.

We hear the distinctive bass ‘cronk’ of ravens frequently. 
Presumably they’re confused by the large black cuboid members of their family that have set up their territory with us. Our outbuildings were painted a corporate ecosote raven black during the summer when our WWOOF visitors joined us. Ravens have had success in expanding their populations from the west: they were once birds we only heard in the distant uplands during walks. Two of these huge black birds landed in the conifers by George’s Pond during the week.

Mike, cutting his way through the bramble jungle
During my convalescence, the Head Gardener set about de-weeding the Vegetable Garden. It now looks a picture. Field beans have been sown where potatoes thrived as this will be the legume bed for the 2018 growing season. Our use of copious quantities of manure and compost has enriched the soil powerfully - charging it with nutrients and weed seeds that we then battle to remove. I have another cubic metre of grass cuttings to incorporate into compost or use thinly as a mulch next week.
Another auction bargain

And now the apple season is with us. We’ve collected boxes and baskets of apples. I'd bid successfully on a lot of wicker baskets at the local auction. The Head Gardener is an auction sceptic borne from bitter experience. The broken and lop-sided chair I bought that gave me the appearance of Sir Steven Hawking is remembered at this time. But the baskets came in useful immediately. and were loaded with apples.

The windfalls will be peeled and frozen and the sound apples taken from the trees wrapped in magazine paper and stored in the polytunnel. We now have a slow juicer so that we can enjoy fresh apple juice. Utterly decadent!!

My 2019 plan is already shaping - I need a root cellar as used in the United States - to store root crops and apples. 

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

eating our way through the seasons

There's an orange splash over on the farm. Two fields away. Pointillist halloween pumpkins.

dog sick slime mould
A single house martin overhead, but our martins and swallows (hirundines) have gone. This must have been a bird on its' southerly migration.  Warblers are moving through our garden at the moment. Occasionally a chiffchaff's onomatopoeic tick-tock.

Among the many fungus - the dog sick slime mould (Mucilago crustacea).
It moves slowly to new food and is one we won't need to be cautioned about not eating.

The wet summer has become a wet autumn with more than an inch of rain yesterday morning. Ponds filled to overflowing. Sue remarked on the girth of George's Pond. She hadn't seen it since spring. The wet summer is given as a reason why this has not (once again) been a bumper year for butterflies. Red admirals, small tortoiseshells, comma and speckled wood butterflies are still on the wing. The occasional butter-yellow brimstone. Moth catches are down as the season advances.

The prairie beds are still resplendent with flower. Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) has established well and its flowers stand high above my head - huge landing pads for red admirals and small tortoiseshell butterflies.

In its' first full year, our organic Vegetable Garden is provisioning the kitchen generously. We have had the best year we can recall for potatoes (Kestrel, Anya and Charlotte); climbing and dwarf French beans have cropped abundantly; regiments of leeks (Musselburgh) stand like muscular marines at roll call; and pale blue squash royalty (Crown Prince) lounge in a cathedral of tendrils and bamboo canes.
leek and potato soup with malted grain and fennel breads
The polytunnel has provided us with mighty Beefmaster tomatoes. Each is huge, red and so full of juicy flesh that each fruit takes the place of a tin of chopped toms when tomatoes are called for in a recipe.

The plenty of our seasonal harvest influences our diet as the moon does the seas. During the summer, beetroot was cropping so well and appeared so frequently at the table that our foreign visitors went away with the belief that the consumption of beetroot was a national obsession.
Today we enjoyed leek and potato soup with malted grain and fennel breads.
'Growing your own' reinforces ones connection with the march of the seasons. Supermarket shoppers can use asparagus at any time of the year. For us it is special that we enjoy our own asparagus from May until the summer equinox when, traditionally, we stop cutting. Eating seasonally becomes as associated with the time-of-the-year as the first snowdrop or the first check-chack of the fieldfare - and our lives are richer for it.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

garden peace

There is a peace about the garden. A still warm day. Birds both more visible and audible now. The trickling song of robins: this one in the Fragrant Garden with a ring on it's right foot. An upside-down supercharged, 'whit-whitt-ing' nuthatch hammering at the sunflower hearts feeder - a masked ram raider. A ringed coal tit takes its turn there, then displaced by a ringed blue tit. And the goldfinches have returned. A dozen or so, white-headed young birds, still moulting their adult face feathers, swamped the feeders for a while yesterday. Low overhead, heard but not seen, the 'cronk' of a raven - the only sound in the sky above apart from that of a far-away jet.

The wooden bird seed hopper that Rich donated has been renovated and squirrel-proofed. I've used plasterers' metal corner edging to provide protection against arboreal rodent gnawing and a mesh too small for squirrels to squeeze into. The aluminium strips gleam back at me so that the hopper now has the jizz of the character 'Jaws' in James Bond 'The spy who loved me'. From its evil grin dribble great tits - the first to explore the new feeder.

Red admiral basks on rudbeckia
George's Pond is just a huge delight right now. We sat in the sun with after-lunch coffee and were dazzled by the number and movement of dragonflies. This will be one of the exceptional memories of the year. An inquisitive Emperor dragonfly, in sequinned skin-tight lycra hovering close enough to touch; dozens of red darters in nuptial coupling: her head attached to his thorax they travel the pond in tandem egg-laying flight, her ovipositor dabbing the meniscus of the pond water depositing eggs. One pair discovered my mug of coffee and began the bobbing dance above it. And the common hawker like a living golden snitch. Joanne Rowling must surely have taken inspiration from this amazing insect when inventing quidditch.
The large number of dragonflies may be attributable to the lack of fish in the pond. Fish will gobble up invertebrates and their eggs so without fish, water insects can thrive. A good reason not to add goldfish to your pond.
I had not expected a frog to be croaking from the meadow by the pond. But it was, in the thick of the vegetation.

Canary-shouldered thorn
The prairie beds (chock full of flowering perennials) are in their pomp now. Mighty Joe-Pye Weed was entertaining red admiral and small tortoiseshells as I passed. Rudbeckia stunning. Red persicaria humming with bees. Sedum spectabile flowers not yet open but crowded with honeybees like shoppers that can't wait for Black Friday. A newly-hatched brimstone butterfly - so distinctively butter-yellow- has been about, filling up on nectar before the long sleep. Brimstones use buckthorn as the food for their caterpillars. I've planted a number of these bushes but am always persuaded to add more when I catch a glimpse of that distinctive yellow. The caterpillars of large and small white butterflies ('Cabbage whites') have flourished in the Vegetable Garden, gaily shredding boricole, kale and broccoli.

Honey bees on opening flowers of sedum spectabile
Last night, whilst attending the moth light set up by George's Pond (118 moths of 26 species), a tawny owl screamed very close by. The call made the hairs on the back of my neck twitch - I can only guess how it is received by the small animals it preys on. A toad emerged onto the path by the pond while I was flopping about trying to catch moths. The noise it made around the waters' edge was out-of-proprtion to the size of its small body.

Blackbirds are still hunkered down somewhere. We haven't seen our old friend 'Andy - the pole-dancing blackbird' or any of his troupe for some time.

I disturbed a small hedgehog feeding at 'Le café de hérisson' (as named by Emelia). We've seen no hoglets but we take this as evidence of successful breeding. Happiness for me would be mama hérisson et les enfants dans la terrace.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

little owls, wwoofers, moths and dragonflies

Such stillness and quiet in the garden. A mist was woven around the sycamores and pines this morning.

The bird feeders have all been repaired, washed and filled. But where there was frenetic activity, there is only the occasional great tit or chaffinch. And no bird song. The flowers of Jill's perennial beds are at their best. The red persicaria was alive with buzzing bees as I walked to let the hens out.

Fruiting fungus are appearing. Exotic plums and custard has made an appearance and the first of the shaggy ink caps are poking through the lawn.

WWOOFer in action
The stillness matches our mood. Our final pair of WWOOF volunteers left us a week ago: great people - and we got a lot of work done together. Giving interested young people the opportunity to try new skills was immensely satisfying: it's the old teacher in me, still fighting to get out. And receiving too has been part of the experience: recipes for brioche and ratatouille have been added to our cookbook. But the time with volunteers has proved very intense: providing them with three meals a day (what eaters!!); organising and leading activities; and then baffling foreign card games in the evening! For fans of the Father Ted TV comedy series, I took on the persona of the blinking Father Dougal at these times when tiredness and lack of mental agility left me floundering. How we laughed!
Juvenile little owl

We held a members' event for Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust at the weekend. As I directed our guests into the garden I watched a group of swallows swooping low over the fields. Our plan was to set the nets up by the pond farm that evening to catch swallows as they travel south. But too blowy.

Last time we set the nets there we caught a few juvenile swallows but the wind made the nets billow and the birds avoided them. I'd been told by the farm gamekeeper that little owls had bred in an oak with a damaged branch. Although we couldn't find evidence of a nest, Andy put a loop tape of a calling little owl by the nets. We were surprised how quickly a little owl began to call back. As the darkness gathered we moved to take the nets down and found we had caught a juvenile. We had no idea we had breeding little owls within a few hundred metres of our garden! Amazing little birds. And as we returned to the nets, an adult bird was perched on one of the net poles. Elation.
Little owl nest boxes

During the dark nights, I intend to make a couple of little owl nest boxes for the farm and one for the garden. Little owls nest in rabbit burrows or in holes in trees. Andy gave me this design. It favours little owls as it provides an entrance tunnel which they like that also provides protection from tawny owls. Little owls in the garden ... just imagine it..

Catching moths seems the most-arcane of activities. And yet it provides another fascinating perspective on the environment around us and the progress of the year. We had to postpone our annual nothing night with pal Mike at the weekend as dad had had a fall. But managed a session on our own when all was quiet. This is the time of year when the different yellow underwing moths come careering into the mercury vapour light. Almost as welcome as early snowdrops or singing blackcaps.

George's Pond is now full. It has taken twenty months for it to reach its limit. It is twenty metres wide with shallow sloping edges. It drew murmurs of approval from our weekend guests. On a sunny summers day they would have been as dazzled as we are by the dragonflies that constantly patrol it.
We will plant a few shrubs around the edge of the pond to allow small birds to step down to it from the tall conifers. And we will continue to enjoy its' progress. I think I'll take a mug of tea down there now.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

a breaking heart..?

The pond fills..
Sandlands need a lot of extra nourishment to be fertile. Pete helps us by delivering a piled trailer-full of horse manure from his stables. It was our turn yesterday: a huge pile of steaming muck. A dream come true for an organic vegetable garden. I helped it out of obstinate corners with a long bamboo pole. Pete reminded me ‘Make sure it doesn’t go in your wellies’ as it avalanched down. No problem. I gave hime a big bag of veggies as a thanks.
Later, I sat on the terrace and felt a lump in my trouser pocket. Without thinking, I reached in and pulled out ... a large piece of horse muck. Only six people to witness it. 

The awful August weather has had one benefit - George's Pond has never been fuller. It must be within 10cms of its' upper limit. Plants that were at the waters' edge are now a couple of metres into the pond. It looks amazing.

If you listen carefully, there's a plaintive single-note call around the garden. For a bird so beautifully rosy-pink it is surprisingly difficult to see it's owner - a male bullfinch.
Richard in the 'bird ringing shed'
We know this bird. He was born in 2016 and Rich ringed him in the garden in April this year. We also ringed his mate at the same time. She too was born in 2016. The age of a bird is determined by careful examination of its feathers. Bullfinches are monogamous and are believed to pair for life. They stay within the same area all their lives. Unlike other finches they reinforce their relationship with their mate outside the breeding season. Young birds, on leaving the nest form intimate pair bonds with a sibling caressing with beaks and feeding. At this stage there are no colour differences between the sexes and bonds often form between two males or two females. I have heard bullfinches called 'The English Lovebirds'. 
Although we have ringed a number of male bullfinches, we have only ringed one female.
On Thursday I had a call from a neighbour: a female bullfinch had flown into her window and died. It was ringed. She brought the bird to us, saying that a male bird was calling in her garden and appeared distressed. The dead bird was our ringed one.
We took a note of the ring number and buried the bird.
Since then, a male has been calling all around the garden. He was calling when I led a group of friends around the garden.
We are urged to avoid anthropomorphism but it is difficult not to have fellow-feeling for him. His little heart must be breaking.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

the verdant garden in high summer

The verdant garden in high summer. Rain barrels and ponds swollen with water after heavy rains.  At George's Pond,  a red darter dragonfly is perched on a flag iris stalk. Soil moist, warm and productive.  
The Vegetable Garden is yielding well.

The garden has been stripped of song as the birds enter their annual moult. It must take a huge amount of energy to replace all of their feathers. At this time moulting birds are most vulnerable to predators. Small birds' consumption at the feeders has reduced significantly and where there was constant movement, there is now stillness. We watch from our 'end of shift' cups of tea as an especially bedraggled great tit comes to the feeder on mum and dad's terrace. Above our kitchen gable, a tree sparrow calls as if using a tiny, cheap plastic trumpet. It has a second brood of young that have not yet fledged. They chirrup constantly but I daren't check the nest for numbers in case the young 'spring'. As young birds approach fledging, they are likely to 'spring' from the nest if disturbed. The calling is new behaviour as the adult birds have been very secretive until now. My guess is that the calls are to encourage the young to leave the nest.
Vixen drinking at pond

Two juvenile kestrels can be heard throughout the garden - a shrieking, alarming call - and their presence alone must drive smaller birds into hiding. Kestrels (one of our smallest falcons*) will take small birds. I disturb the kestrels on the Cedar walk paths.  They take a good look at me before flying noisily away.

My trail cam has been recording a vixen drinking from the Birch border pond. Rural foxes are seen less frequently than urban foxes and their numbers are in decline. This is possibly due to a reduction in rabbit populations but also because of aggressive control of their numbers on farms. The vixen is a beautiful animal, carrying none of the mange that I've seen on her urban cousins.

Large emerald moth
Andy and Ann dropped by and gave me five bat boxes last week. I've sited them on trees around the garden. I once had a blue tit in one.

And planning for next year is underway. I've sited two medium nest boxes for starlings with more to make. And have been told about little owls breeding on the farm. Winter evenings building little owl boxes in my man shed listening to Nottingham Forest on the local radio...

I'd left Jill poring over last night's haul of moths at the dining table. Last night, the sky was clear and it was a little chillier than we've had recently, but there were thirty three species for me to collect at the light this morning.  I'm interrupted by a rush of feet. It's a woman with a moth in a pot.
'A large emerald!'. New for us.

*Correction made as suggested in comments...

Monday, 17 July 2017

a very young meadow ..

Our new meadow is very young - two years old. But already wonderful.

Nine species of butterfly yesterday and the grasshoppers beginning to stridulate today in the July sun. Insect-hunting brown hawkers, common darters, Emperor dragonflies and broad-bodied chasers speed from the pond and across the meadow accompanied by delicate damselflies. Precise. Prehistoric. Agile. Works of art.
What a place!

Like an exuberant puppy our new meadow needs guiding. It thinks we want it to produce thousands of dock seeds - we don't: and so one man and his secateurs spends three sessions cutting the seed heads and bagging them before the seeds drop. Previously I got a bee sting on my hand, this time one on my lower jaw. I was told that the subsequent swelling around my throat gave me the appearance of an orangutang.

Jill harvested yellow rattle from the little orchard meadow and scattered it among the vigorous grasses. Yellow rattle is a grass parasite and will reduce the vigour of grasses, allowing more delicate wildflowers to flourish.
The wildflower palette is restricted at this early stage. Knapweed (16), ragwort (18), self-heal, wild carrot (13), yarrow (17), marjoram (6), red (15) and white (17) clovers (7), ox-eye daisies (9), bird's foot trefoil (23) amongst plants currently in flower. In parentheses are the number of associated moth  species' caterpillars that each plant hosts.
The meadow grasses themselves are hosts to many moths and butterflies as well as a wide range of other invertebrates.
I have spoken before of the need to increase invertebrate numbers. I hope that our young meadow is going a small way towards this aim. The flourishing dragonfly and damselfly population suggests it may be.

As expected, there's no sign of the harvest mice we've released, but a confiding juvenile kestrel spent a lengthy period scrutinising the long grass and flowers. Perhaps the tawny owls had already eaten them all..?

Monday, 10 July 2017

the turning of the year

Juvenile blackbird has received its ring
There was a different feel to the garden this morning as I collected the 21 species of moth that had been attracted to the moth light. Birds are no longer singing; an almost late-summer stillness. Warm and no wind. In the cool of the early-morning polytunnel, tomato fruits are forming and we are now cropping potatoes, beetroot and beans in the Vegetable Garden. Young birds seem to all around: juvenile blue and great tits, chaffinches, greenfinches, great spotted woodpecker - and endless young goldfinches visit the feeders. So many baby blackbirds. We ringed 50 small birds (mostly juveniles) last time we set the nets up in the garden. I now give visitors a commentary as another of the ringed birds visits us. Our ringed blackbird cock - 'Andy - the pole dancing blackbird' had kept us entertained throughout the season, balancing on the tower of the 'mother feeder',  frantic flapping accompanying his staccato sunflower heart pecking.  There's now a growing dynasty of them as a female demonstrates the trick and at least one juvenile. Andy has become so proficient that he no longer flaps feverishly but has an altogether more languid demeanour as he fills up. We ringed another wood pigeon so there are now two ringed birds and I can't tell Jill whether we're looking at Ringo or Bingo. I wonder sometimes if I should get out more?

Industrious male bullfinches - rosy pink and grey- are frequent visitors.

Over on New Farm, the seed hoppers are being drained by birds. The fields of rye that will be harvested for the digester host many tree sparrows.

In contrast to the smaller birds, pheasants and mallards appear to have had an unsuccessful breeding season here. With the cessation of shooting on the farm next door, this lack of young birds will have a positive impact here. There are very few adult pheasants evident and collared doves have moved in to feed on seed discarded by wasteful finches. Another change not previously noted is that house and tree sparrows have begun to forage in the vegetation of the mounding that is our earth-sheltering.

The garden is occasionally allowing us a glimpse of what its established character will be. There's still a long way to go, but gaps are filling and the borders are floriferous. We've mixed roses into many of the planted areas and they are flowering abundantly in every shade of pink, white, red and yellow. Utter gorgeousness. Solitary bees stuff crescents of rose leaf into the tubes of the insect houses we have in the Fragrant Garden. 

And at last the meadow dances with butterflies. There seem more small skippers than in other years. I'm supposed to check the miniscule antennae of this tiny butterfly in case there are some of the Essex skippers with us. One has red antennae and the other brown - as I write I can't remember which has which.

Finding a way of making the three acre gardens manageable during our declining years is a concern. Mike suggested we consider the WWOOF scheme where those passionate about organic gardening exchange their labour for board and lodging. Our first WWOOOFers joined us in June and ended up spending three weeks with us. We were nervous about having others in our home for a long stay but this first WWOOFing experience has been wholly positive - even when they staged a vegan coup in the kitchen. I suspect collusion from the management here. We've painted sheds using Ecosote: weeded, cut the hair of and replanted the drive border; tackled 'Jill's mounding'; widened the Cedar Walk path and trimmed and weeded the 'Ivy Sea' where two new 'Mesters' now add to the atmosphere; created a seated area beneath sycamores and spent time 'sorting' some of the accumulated untidiness that had built up in the Vegetable Garden. Elle and Zak leave us on Monday having become part of the family and were one of the special parts of the summer of 2017.  Bon voyage! Our next WWOOFers arrive at the end of July.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

standing up for invertebrates - a national plan for nature

This week we turned the corner, having passed the longest day: the summer equinox and summer at its height. Above my head our limes buzz: their honey scent is liquor-strong in the air. Golden aphids drip onto me from the humming branches above.
The land should send out a biomass trail of invertebrates into the sky - similar to the plumes of vapour that build into the clouds from nearby Ratcliffe on Soar power station in the Trent Valley below. Invertebrates are the foundation course of bricks that all other wildlife builds upon and there simply aren't enough. That is a reason why many of our insect-eating birds and mammals are failing to thrive.
Norman has been birdwatching this patch for over sixty years and has seen the changes first hand. He invites us to listen to 'the sound of starvation' that is the lack of insect noise.

CBC/BBS UK graph
Source: British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)
There's piles of evidence of the decline that Norman speaks about. Norman's notes for June 1989 show 15 spotted flycatchers in Bestwood Country Park. The 2016 report for the park has no records of spotted flycatcher. This is part of a national trend as shown in the BTO graph. The reasons for the decline of our migratory spotted flycatchers are not necessarily only related to food here in the UK, but it's a statement of the blindingly obvious that spotted flycatchers need to be able to spot flies.

Last year's worst-ever-on-record for butterflies has left us with a legacy - there have been very few butterflies this summer.  Let's hope that the few fluttering in the garden now - meadow brown, red admiral, ringlet, skipper - are able to breed successfully. On a brighter note it has been a plentiful one for bumble bees so far. One of our Australian guests has loved them so much that she plans a bumblebee tattoo before she returns. The latest addition to our national bumblebee family (tree bumblebee) was evident in three of the best boxes we checked but each had subsequently failed.

The honeybees in the apiary now live in towering blocks of supers: it seems to have been a good year. One small swarm absconded and settled in the pond, just above the water line on a reedmace. Unlike, the honeybees, our beekeepers weren't in a rush.

Juvenile tree sparrow ringed in our gable nest box. 
The wonder that is the hummingbird hawk moth zipped forward and back among the lavender flowers yesterday and around the pond, Emperor dragonflies, with abdomen slightly arched, have returned. As if to punish myself having been up since just after dawn to ring juvenile tree sparrows I set up the moth light. Thirty species of moth including a rosebay willow herb pink elephant hawk moth was my reward.

The bird ringing I referred to saw us catching thirty tree sparrows on New Farm. The first three we took from the nets were birds we'd ringed in the nest box on our gable! My children! Three more we'd ringed in a farm nest box - the remainder (overwhelmingly juveniles) had presumably bred in hedgerow nests. Tree sparrows are on the red list of birds of highest conservation concern. This evidence of breeding success gave me immense encouragement that we can take action to save species - in this case the supplementary feeding programme, along with the farm provision of water, hedgerows and areas set aside as seed banks for birds as well as nest boxes are all having an impact. Although adult tree sparrows are seed eaters, they feed their young on invertebrates.  
comma and red admiral

I'm also encouraged that the EU plans to ban all neonicotinoid pesticides. These pesticides are known to be a high risk to bees and other insects. The jobs of our farmers will not be made easier by this decision but it's time our invertebrates had a voice speaking up for them. 

I'm fortunate in having our local farmer as a friend. Or more of a 'critical friend' to use the modern term. He was certainly critical of my suggestions about not cutting hedges and roadside verges. 

There's much that needs to be done to rebuild invertebrate populations locally, and as part of a coherent national strategy. I would like to see a National Plan for Nature Act that draws together the disparate arms of government, farming, public sector and the general public led by the nature conservation organisations.

Only when we have rebuilt our invertebrate populations will we see once common birds flourishing again.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

the long days ..

Long days of late spring. Long days for work and waking bone-tired the following day. Respect for our Muslim friends for whom the fast of ramadan, wrapped around the solstice, must be especially punishing.

At the end of the shift we sat on the terrace. There were blackbirds hammering away with their alarm calls down in the Cedar Walk and along the boundary path. Amongst the insistent 'pink-pink' alarm calls was a 'whit- whit'. A tawny was probably causing some concern. We saw nothing with the binoculars but then scanned across to the box where our baby tawny owl was photographed on the end of my £1 selfie-stick yesterday. Now the fluffy bundle was perched on the ledge at the nest box entrance. This would have been its first sight of the big world. Not a sense of awe and wonder was seen. Just drowsiness. The young!!
The adult continued to call and we watched her flying between branches among the leggy Scots Pines. When she perched, her camouflage was so complete she became invisible. The blackbirds continued to 'pink' and a magpie joined the slanging match too. We'd found the remains of a magpie in the tawny nest box so the magpie could be forgiven for a sense of grievance.

The rains of the last couple of days saw the rain chains fizzing as they carried water into the open gapes of the rain barrels. Their long digestive tracts finally emptied into the pond whose level has risen above the sandstone block we always use as a high water marker. Insects buzzing all around the flowering clovers and campions. Our first broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, bold and territorial found a hornet as big as a bullet and saw it off. Two pairs of electric blue common damselflies each locked in tandem - she dabbing the water surface gently with her ovipositor laying eggs.
We visited a garden with a derelict plant sales section when we were in Shetland last year. All the potted plants had long since died but Linda spotted a pot into which orchids had self sown. We generously left a pound for the pot with eight spotted orchids. I planted them in the meadow and so far three have flowered. Short stemmed, deep purple blooms. Cammasias have sent three or four flower spikes up around the pond edge this year. Delicate, star-like flowers.
I disturbed a mallard duck on her nest yesterday. Ten pale blue eggs. Hmmm... At least two female ducks in the garden.... Ten eggs each.. Twenty ducklings and parents churning the serene pond to thick gravy again...

We were gifted variegated flag for the pond but Jill spotted the huge, ominous stem of a bullrush within the iris tubers. Bullrush - or greater reedmace - is a bully of an American plant that can quickly smother ponds. I performed surgery and put the iris into bucket quarantine to ensure that no more  are secretly harboured.

After developing the Cordwood site for the past seven years, we have finally returned to organic vegetable growing. We began in Sherwood in 1977 when our lives were a heady mix of new home, newly married, the punk revolution and the writings of organic gardener Lawrence Hills. Now, the potatoes have benefited from the rain and ranks of asparagus, leeks, shallots, onions, garlic, sweet corn, beetroot, French beans and calabrese greet the eye. Climbing beans and Crown Prince squash crouch at the foot of their bamboo tripods waiting for the starting gun. In the polytunnel (hoop house) our tomatoes and cucumbers are thriving in the warmth.
A robin has nested beneath sheets of plastic on the edge of the Vegetable Garden. Three brown speckled eggs so far.

Just as last year, a pair of bullfinches - he so beautifully pink-blushed - have joined us. They collect sunflower hearts from the feeders and then brew a seedy porridge in their crops to feed their young, secreted somewhere nearby. These aren't the birds we ringed earlier in the spring.

Our two 'hog cafes' continue to attract hedgehogs. I made a nesting box for the hedgehogs and noticed that the straw inside the box was trailing out of the entrance pipe. The trail cam picked up a hedgehog leaving the nesting box. Baby hedgehogs - that would be a treat.

These warm, sometimes muggy nights are marked not only by the calls of our tawnies, the clicking of bats through the little bat detector or the silent passing of the International Space Station but by visits to our moth light. Tired after a long shift, a more sensible man would sit on the sofa and watch sports.  This one trucks to and fro from the light having collected pots of moths that have been attracted to the light. I'm the moth wrangler in the team. The moth-identifier-in-chief purrs over the gathered moths - notebook, iPad and ID books to hand at the kitchen table.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

young birds

Tawny owlet
I downloaded images from our little trail cam this morning. I'd set up by the pond to record action overnight on two nights. 1830 images later the snake I thought I'd captured as a photo was a slug. I also got one image of the side of a drake mallard.

We're entering prime bird breeding season. Our first young blackbird has appeared and a mistle thrush was collecting material this morning, presumably for its second nest of the season.
Juvenile tree sparrow
We've been around the bird boxes, noted success and ringed those baby birds of an age to be ringed.
We also checked boxes on neighbouring New Farm.
76 chicks were ringed altogether. They were mainly blue and great tits - but also tree sparrows and a tawny owl.  The tawny was a lone bird in the box. Whether older siblings had already left, this was a single egg or this bird had eaten its younger brothers and sisters, we won't know.

Four young tree sparrows were ringed in the box on our east facing gable above the kitchen door. The young continued to call from their nest for three days but then all went quiet. Presume they had fledged.
Today the male was singing up on the ridge of the roof. Was he preparing for a second brood?

Amid the gloom of conservation news I receive, I feel a small sense of pride that our birds have reared young, partly as a result of the efforts we've made. With luck, this will be a platform for future success.

There will be plenty of young birds out of the nest soon and this is when they are most vulnerable. We can all play a part by ensuring that young birds have access to food and water. If they avoid hunger, remain strong and healthy there is a better chance they'll avoid predation or illness. I've filled feeders in anticipation.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

aliens in my garden - and the need for 'a plan for nature'

News from Western Germany that the biomass of invertebrates as measured between 1989 and 2013 has fallen by nearly 80% comes as no surprise. This, of course knocks further dominoes over in the food chain explaining in part why our skies are empty of summers' glories - martins, swallows and swifts. Without air borne invertebrates these lovely birds starve.

Change in land use and the use of insecticides are at the heart of the problem. There is much science too about the effects on our native species of alien species. The World Conservation Union, states that the impacts of alien invasive species are 'immense, insidious, and usually irreversible'. I have yet to hear any of the main political parties putting this calamitous fact anywhere near the heart of their manifestoes.

We battle with the effects of alien species at Cordwood.

One of the dominating horse chestnuts in the Woodland Garden was removed in the winter.  Horse chestnut has four associated insect species. Now, the opened canopy illuminates hazels and maples in burgundies and lime greens growing on the woodland floor among a froth of sky-blue Forget-me-nots and foaming pink tiarellas. In the clearing created by the removal of the large horse chestnut, a common pippistele now paddles through the night sky.
The dry weather over these past six weeks has been an opportunity to clear the thousands of sycamore seedlings and other weeds. Sycamores are among my least favourite introduced species and their profligacy only sharpens my antagonism. Sycamores (like horse chestnuts) block light and moisture from the woodland floor, reducing the diversity of plants growing there. Sycamores have 15 associated insect species compared with 334 invertebrates associated with our native silver birch. My remarkable dad (89) isn't the man he was but he loves hoeing. And so together we hoe. When I stop him to rest he hoes from a seated position. Most of the woodland garden is now sycamore seedling free. This morning the dry spell abated with the day beginning with a shower.  Freshness of May foliage combined with the crispness brought about by recent weeding - stunning.

Our attempts to create a haven for wildlife face many challenges, not-the-least being the pernicious effects of other aliens.
Pheasants aren't native but have naturalised across the country. Our numbers are artificially inflated by birds escaping the guns on the surrounding fields. Millions of the hapless birds are released across the UK each year. The birds reaching safe haven here scavenge beneath the bird feeders and peck anything growing. Their impact on ground invertebrates must be immense.
Although native mallard ducks are on the red list of UK birds of most conservation concern, we have no concerns at Cordwood. There are up to seven - probably escapees from the neighbouring shoot where they are released - fouling the ponds. Invertebrate and amphibian life stands little chance under their onslaught. The garden is subjected to the 'gang rape' aspect of their 'courtship' too. Three males chase a luckless female and crash about among the plants in the Vegetable Garden. The male mallard is one of the few birds with a penis - apparently making his ardent advances more difficult for the females to resist. Recent studies have shown, however, that mallard ducks may have developed a cunning method of fighting back: their bodies can reject the sperm of unwonted advances.
Infernal American grey squirrels are here too, occupying nest box sites intended for native birds, eating wildfood that our native birds and mammals depend upon, damaging trees and destroying bird feeders: an unstoppable tide. The squirrel pox they carry kills the UK's native red squirrels. My lame airgun occasionally makes a popping noise through a gap in the kitchen window sufficient to halt mastication of sunflower seeds for a brief period before it begins again.
Lately feral greylag geese have discovered us. An expeditionary party of six honked over the pond before three landed. I chased them away as the occupants of the annex reached for another handful of slices from their loaf.

On Thursday we join other volunteers working with Nottinghamshire's Biodiversity Action Group. Britain's waters are now plagued by introduced American signal crayfish. Literally plagued. The plague they carry kills our native white-clawed crayfish. The larger signals also out-compete our natives - there's no happy co-existence. Nottingham's own river, the Leen, has sections that are still signal crayfish free and where our white-clawed survive. We will work in fishing ponds in Bulwell catching the signals and thereby trying to help the white-clawed crayfish facing seemingly irreversible decline. It's a difficult task as no areas in the UK have ever been successfully cleared of signal crayfish.

Depressing? My gosh it is. It is time for a consensus for wildlife in Britain. A plan similar in scope to the Marshall Plan that came to our aid after the World War II is required. A plan for nature, agreed by all parties that will halt the terrible declines in wildlife that we are witnessing. It can be done.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

still dry and cold ..

The family gather on the terrace in the spring sun to enjoy a mid-morning drink. We look across the garden to where the sun colours young silver birch trees' foliage into a Chartreuse mist beneath Scots Pines. Mum and dad are wrapped in blankets and thermal coats. My auction wins are dissected unfavourably. 'Rammel' is the Nottingham dialect word for rubbish. Crap. Until mum takes a fancy to the one-eared faux terracotta fox pushing a wheelbarrow that sneaked into a lot of plant pots. 'Freddy'. He'll adorn their patio. Attention moves from the latest additions to my collection of leaking galvanised buckets and watering cans as the drinks arrive.

Shoots have withered along hedgerow and on garden shrubs and trees.  Magnolia denudata is blackened and crisped. Walnut is whipped. In the orchard little yellow rattle is brown. The chill east wind has continued unabated, challenging. Burning foliage. And drying. Our sandy soils lose heart easily. Dust to dust.
Low rainfall is a boon to ground-nesting birds. We're expecting a bumper garden trampling from pheasant chicks and mallard ducklings later in the month. But low moisture levels in the soil can affect the whole food chain detrimentally. The nectar flow in flowers slows and bees make less honey. Beekeepers can provide supplementary fondant for honeybees. Bumble bees get no such cosseting. Their nests won't flourish.
A male kestrel hangs in the air, trying different pitches around the parched garden. Extended dry conditions don't favour small mammals and so kestrel young may face hunger.
Due to the dryness, there is little gastropod activity. Or are the slugs and snails simply fasting in readiness for the feast of dahlias we are preparing for them in the greenhouse? The two branches of my 'hog cafe' continue to be emptied each night. I want the hedgehogs to be as full and fat as they can be as they prepare to breed. The garden has hedgehog homes in readiness...

Stock dove eggs
There are now 133 gently down-curved flowering bluebells along the boundary with Crimea Plantation. We began planting bluebell bulbs in 2015 after I had found a single native plant. Grasslike seedlings now push through the leaf litter providing promise of greater things to come.
And in the orchard, the cowslip seed I cast in the same year and donated by Linda has produced 130 flowering plants. Pert, golden spikes and a rogue red.
Primrose too are more abundant now due to the plant dividers' knife. Many are hybrids between cowslips and primroses - false oxlips - challenging the plant fascist in me.

Message from Pete: he'd heard his first cuckoo over in Burton Joyce. No cuckoos were heard here in 2016. A sad local reflection of their national decline and fear that we'll never hear them here again. 

The garden nest boxes are now being filled with eggs. Blue and great tits are our best customers. The tawny owl is still sitting tight and tree sparrows probably have eggs in the colony box above the back door: I'm reluctant to disturb them. In the Woodland Garden a stock dove has three eggs in a box I made from an old drawer. Pigeons and doves lay clutches of two eggs. The third egg is a mystery. Perhaps an unhatched egg from a previous clutch? But there were no eggs when I checked earlier...

The garden has rewarded our return from eight nights away in north west Scotland with bountiful weeds.  Dad and I slog it out in the Woodland Garden clearing hundreds of thousands of sycamore seedlings. Dad is now 89 but still pushes that hoe to and fro with much more thoroughness than I can muster. I insist he sits to rest and he is hoeing from a seated position when I next look.
Jill hammers away in the Prairie beds where the imported heavy soil has dried to rock. She attacks the soil with a Portuguese azada like a one-woman chain gang.

We hope to welcome WWOOFers this year. A scheme where board and lodging is provided in return for honest toil on the land. Dad says the garden would keep thirty men busy. I hope they know what they're letting themselves in for.

Monday, 10 April 2017

a thin, dry desiccating wind

Early rise to set up bird ringing mist nets in the garden: the second time we've partnered Richard.
As it became brighter, the garden reeled with the trill of redpolls, the tinsel chatter of goldfinches punctuated with the prospecting chirrups of tree sparrows.

52 birds caught: goldfinch; chaffinch, greenfinch, lesser redpoll, blue tit, great tit, blackbird. Each bird was caught, measured, ringed and released. The data goes on to the BTO for analysis.

Ringing has allowed us to 'get to know' some of our garden birds a little better: I'm thinking of 'Andy', a chunky male blackbird ringed here in February 2016 who finds his way into the nets each time we set them up.

Amongst the many markers of seasonal change, the large numbers of lesser redpolls around for ringing left the following Monday. Now the garden is greening but is dried by temperatures in the upper teens and a light, desiccating wind.

The dry conditions can potentially affect wildlife in many ways. Ground dwelling invertebrates such as slugs, snails and earthworms become more difficult to find. For gardeners, the lack of gastropods is a bonus as we prepare our dahlias and beans for planting out next month. But for hedgehogs, the lack of slugs and snails can be a shortage of food. At this time they have emerged from winter with fat reserves depleted and sometimes in poor physical condition. Poor condition may then lead to poor breeding success.

This is an opportunity to provide supplementary food. I was delighted when the 'Hog cafe' located in the meadow attracted hedgehogs as soon as I began putting out dried mealworms and dried cat food - chicken flavour apparently a preference.  The 'cafe' is an upturned plastic box with two 5" sawn-down drain pipes offering access and exit. When providing dried food, a dish of water should also be given.  Or a pond provided. As the latter takes considerably more effort, I've chosen this one. I have opened a second branch of the cafe in the Vegetable Garden with a long-term view to franchising. HogDonalds.  I'm predicting a spike in interest.

Now I'm checking for nesting birds, wrestling with the baffling codes and abbreviations used by the BTO on their record cards: what a collection of mad geniuses these people are. Around the garden I trudge, checking my lower nesting boxes. Then around again, with ladders to reach those 4m high. My sister bought me a selfie-stick from Poundland and this has proved very useful for  checking the higher, open-fronted boxes. I was expecting a pair of stock doves to be occupying nest box #37. I almost fell from my ladder when I withdrew my selfie-stick and saw an owl's face looking back at me from the iPhone screen.

Tawnies too may be affected by a prolonged dry spell. They are dependent on small mammals for food. Dry conditions will reduce the ability of female mammals to lactate, thus reducing breeding success and then reducing food for tawnies and other predators. Let's hope it doesn't come to facultative cainism: where siblings eat each other due to starvation.

We did note ironically that the tawny family home is situated immediately facing the meadow area where we have been releasing harvest mice.

This talk of the dry weather flies in the face of what's happening down in the pond where seven mallards have moved in. The once clear water is now cocoa. They're especially busy at dusk when the pond becomes a quacking Heathrow for low-flying ducks.