Tuesday, 27 April 2021

cold, drying winds ...

Cold, drying winds. Frost most mornings.

Amelanchier 'Lamarckii'

The April showers of folklore seem only a memory now that we are seeing this weather for the second successive year. The farm irrigating machines are working round the clock.

We have almost exhausted the 4000 litres of collected rainwater stored for watering plants in the polytunnel, greenhouse and outdoor pots and containers.

But established plants are resilient. Amelanchier 'Lamarckii' is our 'plant of the week': abundant tiny flowers fill every stem at the moment.

Robin eggs
In the shed, our robin has a clutch of four eggs in a bulky nest tucked away at the back of a shelf. She's completely comfortable incubating her eggs when Jill works away at the potting bench, only feet away. I close the shed door each night, leaving a window open. Before I could open the shed door in the morning I watched the male call the female off the nest from a perch in the tulip pots. She nimbly exited via the opened window for her breakfast.

Feral greylag geese
Two feral greylags joined us today. And a heron on the pond where earlier four mallard drakes dabbled. Feral geese are attracted to the piles of discarded vegetables dumped in the nearby fields. The vegetables frequently appear to be of good quality and take a while to achieve the distinctive fragrance we've become accustomed to. A younger me would have considered setting up a social enterprise to turn the discarded vegetables into something more useful as they are only in the piles due to the exacting aesthetic standards of the supermarket behemoths. 

Voles now appear to be reaching the 'abundant' stage in the garden. Their holes puncture most of the beds and perforate the edge of the lawn. They've colonised the spongy trunk of an old silver birch that fell last year and has been left in the border. Voles are important to food chains. Here a badger has dug out one of the vole nests. Almost daily a stoat is seen hunting around: coal-black eyes with such a lively intelligence. We've yet to see a garden weasel but I'm pretty sure they'll be seen soon, disappearing down vole burrows in search of prey. Our tawnies continue to incubate in the big box above the stumpery: they'll welcome the number of voles we're currently entertaining.
Excavated vole nest

And vole burrows are especially useful to bumble bee queens who use the burrows for their nests. A buff-tailed queen was seen entering one of the burrows this week.

The badgers have discovered the apiary. We're fearing their next move and may need to find a way of securing the hives as a determined badger could easily topple a hive topped with several supers, despite the weight.

Pipistrelle bat
Pippistrelle bats are recorded here most nights, even in very cold evenings. The received wisdom is that they fly when the air is warmer. Perhaps they're getting impatient and fly despite the risks of getting chilled in fruitless search for flying insects.. I watched two bats hunting above the bee hives at dusk - presumably picking-off latecomers who were returning after a long foraging shift. 

Today, overhead, a swallow ... and our first swift of the year. That air-borne scimitar makes my heart leap and it is earlier than previous records here. Some years I have had no records for what was once a very common bird.

My trail cameras continue to monitor the progress of carrion crows, wood pigeons - and pheasants. 
Our Old Warrior pheasant cock is in his third year here and taps imperiously on the window when it's time for more corn. When the seed is cast for him he 'whup-whup-whups' to call one of his harem to feed. He's steadily being bested  by a young pretender. The two cock birds fight constantly and the Old Warrior is losing territory. An unwary hen is ambushed by three fighting males. There's no question of consent.

Last night one of the trail cameras picked up a muntjac. I check the camera cards each morning and delete countless videos of - nothing really.. It's a labour of love.
It was good to begin with 'Oh! Deer!' rather than the usual oh dear.







Wednesday, 14 April 2021

the lost birds ...


This morning my first swallow. A single. Above the coach road, then low over the trammelled soil of the
arable fields.

And bird song. Song thrushes notable: four singing males on my daily tour of this end of the country park. This, despite the persistent morning frosts, indicating a 'Blackthorn winter': one where blackthorn blossom coincides with winter's lingering cold fingers. A long dry spring with fields already being irrigated.

But with the promise of spring and the arrival of the swallow, it is easy to ignore how silent this spring truly is. Dunnocks still flutter. Chiffchaffs tick-tock. Great tits ''teacher-teacher'. Goldfinches' tinsel song. Above the stumpery, the night time ululation of a male tawny suggested a breeding attempt. A female was in the box when we checked - with take-away remains strewn around the bedroom.

But nowhere our proper entitlement of yellowhammers, corn buntings, marsh tits or tree sparrows.

The hedgerows, fields and margins are devoid of the wildlife that has been resident here for perhaps thousands of years. We are living Rachel Carson's Silent Spring nightmare. News this week that the pesticides used in agriculture now have twice the toxicity of early ones suggests part of the problem..  

'Shifting baseline syndrome' tells us that young people growing up will expect the wildlife they now experience as being the norm.

I'll tell you what the 'norm' is.

Or rather Norm himself.

We met Norman (80 this year) half a century ago. He is now a dear friend and local birdwatching legend. He graces us with visits to birdwatch in the garden.

I'll let Norman tell you what's missing from the walk I currently undertake each day:



This is what 'shifting baseline syndrome' means..... I find this living testimony truly sad.

And it takes us in one of two directions. We either accept the loss as remorseless and inevitable.

Or we use it as a battle-cry that takes us forward to regain what has been lost.

I'm for the fight. You?





Thursday, 1 April 2021

Bake your own bread.....

Baking bread has been done for thousands of years. It remains one of the most-satisfying human endeavours. It is magical and never loses its' fascination.

Wholemeal loaf with pumpkin
and sunflower seeds
I began baking our own bread during a bakers strike in 1978. Been baking since.

This bread dough recipe will make loaves, rolls (cobs), flatbreads ...

Here's what to do:


750g strong plain flour (organic is always best)
2 teaspoons fast-action yeast
2 teaspoons salt
500ml warm water

1. Combine all ingredients and mix to form dough.

2. Then knead for 20 minutes until dough is soft and stretchy

..unless you have a slow-speed mixer or bread machine - in which 10 minutes will do.
Mixed flour rolls (cobs)

3. Put dough into covered bowl and leave somewhere gently warm until doubles in bulk.

4. When doubled, squash dough down and put into bread or cake tins and leave to rise again until doubled.

5. Bake at 200C for around 25 minutes.

6. Bread is ready to cool on drying rack when removed from tin and when tapped on base sounds hollow.

7. Leave to cool and then eat.
Flatbreads

When cooled, bread may be sliced and frozen if you wish.

That is the end of today's lesson. Enjoy!

Delicious doesn't do it justice!!!

Send photos of successes (and failures!).

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Gardeners must stop using peat NOW!!

Ambassador peas in peat-free compost
Gardeners must stop using peat NOW!!

Look. This is so simple. Let's not faff about...

The government has failed to stop peat production and consumption by gardeners and the horticultural industry. It could and should have. But money talks...

These are the simple reasons why use of peat must be banned:
  • Most garden compost contains peat.
  • Peat is extracted from peat bogs - as the peat oxidises it releases long-stored carbon dioxide into the air adding to global CO2. 
  • Peat bogs are rare and precious habitats which, once lost, are impossible to ever restore.
Winter salads in peat free compost





In our can't-be-arsed society you may think making your own peat-free compost is going to take time. It isn't. 

So, make your own
Peat-free compost can be an expensive option but it's so easy to make your own better-than-peat compost.

Here's Jill's recipe:
Mix together
  • One part coir compost (reconstituted)
  • One part home-made sieved garden compost
  • Half measure perlite or vermiculite.
Peas in peat-free compost

Job done!

Once a bag of peat-based compost is opened it loses its fertility within weeks.

Jill's recipe can be made up on demand.

Stop using peat NOW!


Saturday, 20 March 2021

Frogs and friends in George's Pond

George's Pond began in January 2016 when we excavated a large shallow-sided dish of a pond to be fed with rainwater from our roofs.

George Carlyle
22 March 1928 to 7 May 2020


It became George's Pond after my dad suffered life-changing injuries following a kerb-stone trip when helping us. Dad passed away in May 2020. It would have been his 93rd birthday on 22 March.
Frog spawn in George's Pond


Since then the pond (lined with bentomat and then given a good topping of our sandy subsoil) has filled to about 20m diameter and established itself.

This month I counted a frog chorus of fifty purring males when I did a torchlight visit. Their stage is our largest-ever raft of frogspawn: certainly over a hundred clumps until the spawn morphed together.

And now the frogs have been joined by toads. Currently not for them the Trent End mentality of their cousins: our toads are spread in singles or small groups around the pond circumference. The males chirrup. Or the lucky ones ride the backs of much-larger females in what is termed 'amplexus'.
Frogs by moonlight


Unsurprisingly, as there has never been even a small pond on this sandy hill, we had no site records of smooth newts before the pond. But last summer smooth newts began to appear under the range of 'refugias' (logs, pieces of rubber, scraps of corrugated roofing, car mats, boards) we have placed around the gardens.

They had found us and had bred successfully. Most of the 'efts' (newts in seasonal adaption to life on land) were juveniles.

Toads in amplexus

They will be entering the pond now to feed on the frog tadpoles. Tadpoles are a vital food supply for many aquatic creatures. But sufficient spawn is laid for there to be another growth in the frog chorus next year.

So, our amphibians appear to be flourishing. Which may be good news because across intensively-farmed Britain ponds and marshy areas have been eradicated. Maps of the distribution of amphibians across Nottinghamshire show them now being extinct from large areas - which coincide with intensive farm production.

I would love to see great-crested newts join our amphibious family but their distribution is severely-restricted and so there is little chance. This is a pity because the pond is large, there should be plentiful food and we have none of their nemesis: fish.

Smooth newts under refugia

As usual, we have sited 'Slow - Toads Crossing' signs on the lane so that drivers at night can be made aware of the hundreds of toads heading over the fields to the large irrigation pond on the farm and having to make the hazardous crossing. We plan to survey the pond at dusk next week. Unfortunately for George's Pond, the farm pond is stocked for fishing so there is little chance of a thriving great-crested newt population that may send an expeditionary party our way. 

We live in hope though. 

In the meantime, we pause and think of our lovely dad. 
Bless you George Carlyle.




Sunday, 7 March 2021

Our over-grazed and once-pleasant land

Across the nation horsey-culture is causing huge environmental damage.




Over-grazed paddocks are puddled leaving next-to-nothing for invertebrates or other wildlife. No grass or roots are left which leads to increased run-off in heavy rains. These are muddy, wildlife deserts where:

The medicated faeces of the horses cannot be rendered by natural processes e.g. dung beetles. 

Aminopyralid residues in bedding and fodder cause the stunting of plant growth.

The by-product of the industry - soiled bedding - is rarely disposed-off sustainably. Poo & bedding mountains are frequently seen by riding stables.

The wrappers on the tonnes of winter haulage add to the mountains of unnecessary plastic waste.

And ragwort is seen as a threat to horses and ponies. It is still deemed 'notifiable' and toxic weedkillers are routinely used to kill it. It is an important necar source for many insects.
Ragwort and cinnabar moth caterpillars

The stench of horse urine hangs malevolently in the air.

And the welfare of horses and ponies, sometimes overnight in ankle-deep freezing mud, seems low on the priority list for too many owners and proprietors.

And while this is going on, the unregulated, free-market economics of this industry result in more-benign systems of land management being priced out.

When will an enforceable code-of-practice be introduced to regulate this maverick and growing industry??


Sunday, 28 February 2021

Eyes-west!

Lovely views from Bestwood Country Park looking west this morning.
Enjoy your day.



Rob

 Our next meeting is via zoom:





Monday, 8 February 2021

slabs of dark chocolate cake

Mulched beds

Really cold outside, especially after the wrap-around warmth of the house. The wind is from the north east and has built since morning. I'm layered up, hatted, hooded, snooded to work in the vegetable garden.






Throughout the year we make compost: weeds, leaves, coffee grounds, prunings, grass cuttings, non-food kitchen waste, wood ash, cardboard and paper. All into the compost bays so no need to burn or put into wheelie bins. Zero carbon. Although the micro-organisms and invertebrates do the majority of the work, one man and his fork tend the compost, turning the contents of the bays once to ensure that they are mixed and aerated.


Our compost bays are old pallets tied together. When a bay is piled so high we can get no more on, we cover the contents with an old builders bag and leave until it's time to give it all a turning.


Female slow worm
The micro-organisms then take over, initially boosting the heat of the compost to 70C, putting paid to weed seeds, the roots of perennial weeds and soil pathogens before slowly cooling. The mix of waste is then processed by myriad invertebrates. All organic and chemical free, the tall pile of material eventually breaks down to about a third of its' original bulk. As the compost cools, it becomes home to wood lice and mice and blood-red brandling worms. In the summer, carefully pull back the builders' bags and you're likely to see slow worms here. These are native legless lizards that are completely harmless but love to eat the invertebrate feast that lives in the damp and dark of the compost bays. A slow worm may consume thirty slugs a day. Nature's five-star compost award.


That's pretty much it. After  nine months to a year, the compost we produce is friable not coarse, does not smell offensive and is not slimy. Ready for use.

In February 2019 we heard Charles Dowding speak about no-dig gardening. Forever organic and composters,  our gardening world turned upside-down when we stopped digging as my allotment-holding dad, grandad or great-granddad would always have done. 


At this time of year we now wheelbarrow the finished compost (plus well-rotted horse manure from our poo-pals down the lane) to the vegetable beds and give each bed a mulch of at least 2" (5 cms). We garden on the thinnest of sands - its' demand for hearty compost is insatiable! The freshly-composted beds look luxuriant, like slabs of dark chocolate cake.


The surface mulch is slowly drawn down into the soil by worm activity before being replenished the following year. The undisturbed soil is characterised by fungal - mycorrhizal - activity. Plant roots and the tiny strands of fungus in the soil connect providing plants with a much wider range of nutrients and consequently greater health and more-vigorous growth. There is growing evidence too that plants that grow in close contact with soil fungi are healthier for us as eaters.


The organic, no-dig soil is home to a healthy population of earth worms. The healthier the soil, the greater number and variety of worms will thrive. There are twenty five species of worm inhabiting British soils: horizontal, surface  - or deep, vertical burrowers. As organic matter passes through the worms it is enriched with a highly-fertile gel that contains up to 50% more nitrogen, potassium and phosphates than went in!


This bounty beneath the soil of course attracts predators - thrushes, robins and blackbirds thrive on nutritious worms. As do badgers and buzzards. My nemesis is the family of moles that is determined to undermine my paths or erupt in recently-sown carrots. Moles typically consume 250 worms each day. Their young are evicted from the protection of their subterranean runs in early summer - and then form up to 40% of a tawny owls diet at this time.


After the mulches are roughly raked, I cover paths that connect the beds with rotted wood chips. Once again, the mycorrhizal fungi kick into action on the wood chip paths. The plants on the path edges are frequently the healthiest as they benefit from the increased fertility that the fungal activity on the wood chips brings to the plant roots.


This nurturing of the soil runs counter to much of modern farming. There, soils are compacted by heavy machinery with little organic, composted matter added. Frequent deep ploughing destroys the invertebrate and mycorrhizal activity below the surface, while above ground, oil-based fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are applied as many as fourteen times during a growing season. We had the great pleasure of taking part in a webinar led by

Home grown
Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) and Plantlife on the subject of ‘meadows and floodplains: a natural partnership’. A staggering photo showed one metre of soil loss due erosion arising from poor soil management and flooding. The flood meadows of the Wye were orange with the sediment run-off. Something has to change.


Back in the garden, not only is it satisfying to look back at the work completed, it is also satisfying to know that as our small plot produced over 200kgs of our own locally-grown, organic, plastic-free vegetables for us in the past year with no food miles - and that even the moles that flourish beneath us are playing a part in increasing biodiversity. The beds will now wait until mid-February when, hopefully, the soil will have warmed a little, for our first plantings and sowings of this year.


A buzzard labours in, mewing above the trees as twilight approaches and is joined by a second bird. This triggers a celebration of wood pigeons clattering into the darkening sky.

Friday, 5 February 2021

white-tailed eagles - the queen is amused!!

Wild Ken Hill, West Norfolk are proposing the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles.


They have invited responses from local landowners.

But will the queen, whose estate at Sandringham is a major landowner in the area respond positively ..?

My letter:


STOP PRESS!!!!

Rarely has a letter had such immediate success!!

In the Telegraph today!!!




Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Stinkpits

A second letter to David Manners, Duke of Rutland, about the repugnant practice of using stinkpits on his Stanage Edge moor.




Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Is it one of ours...?

Overnight the snow and freezing temperatures have gone. 


George's Pond 
Where the garden was previously crunchy-white, turning perennials into artwork and freezing the pond - a rather-flattened and soggy order has returned. Yesterday we had up to forty fieldfares brawling on the snowy lawn for the halved apples we'd taken from the store and thrown down for them: it is quiet now.

The order sees a return to the queues of small birds visiting the feeders. A favourite amongst them is 'Chester-the-chunky-chaffinch'. He's a bulky male with a distinctive and unusual white breast. Intriguingly he carries a bird ring on his right leg leading us to guess that he's one of the chaffinches we ringed as a juvenile in pre-adult plumage during the autumn 2019. Chaffinches typically stay local to their natal site (where they were born) with males being especially site-loyal. Lockdown rules prevent us setting up the nets so we just hope he's still with us later in the year to catch, check and re-release. One of my old dad's sayings comes to mind at this time. Burned somewhere in his pre-dementia psyche he recalled his experience as a child during the night of  the Nottingham blitz (8–9 May 1941) and always thereafter asked 'Is it one of ours?' whenever a plane flew over. With Chester I can't help asking the same - 'Is he one of ours?'...
Winter aconites

The disadvantage of aberrant colouring, of course, is it it makes it easier for predators to single him out. We are on the beat of a male sparrowhawk who nimbly inspects the feeders and seeding perennials several times each day for a plump feathered snack... he is an absolutely stunning apricot, white and grey bird. I got the chance to admire him at close hand a couple of days ago when he alighted on one of the bee hotels close by the kitchen window. A dunnock twitched safely in the bare twigs of a magnolia stellata three feet from him. 

The winter aconites that had emerged from the thick leaf-litter blanket on the drive were arrested in their growth by the recent cold. But this morning thirty signalled 'business -as-usual' like cornershops after a flood. Snowdrops are poised to open. Primrose are stretching their leaves out after their sleep. The praying fingers of daffodils reach up in the grass beneath the limes amongst the battlefield of molehills they've created in the grass, throwing up mini-mountains of soil and stones.

Starling nest box beneath the garage eaves
I have starlings in my sights for nest-box breeding this year. I saved scrap wood and mackled-togther a box of slightly larger dimensions than Chris duFeu recommends in his BTO nestbox book. Generosity or operator error? You decide.

Soon my house sparrow semi's will join the starling box at the other end of the eaves. Then it's fingers-crossed.

We have a family of little field voles living in a border by the kitchen. They receive a calorific boost each time we sweep the floor and wipe down the high chairs after our young grandchildren have visited. Recently, I watched a field vole struggling away with a piece of sucked-and-spat-out pizza quite as large as itself. Did somebody just say just eat?

My wellington's gave up recently - a gaping rip in the heal of the left boot. I've bought a new pair and was about to dispose of the old ones when Jill pointed-out that the right one could still be worn. Picture an elderly gardener bouncing around his garden in one good welly rather like Zebeddee from the Magic Roundabout...

The wildlife in our garden is fascination-without-end for me. 

I have been asked to have my name put forward for something-or-other to do with wildlife gardening by my friends at Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust.

I wrote....

Let there be:

window-boxes, hanging baskets, balconies, yards, allotments and gardens all a-flutter

wriggling organic healthy soils and peat-free compost

humid, pulsing compost bins and wormeries

buzzing pots and borders 

critter-full mulches, piles, rotting, damp, shade

snuffling, hopping, squeaking things

unmown lawns

nibbled-leafed shrubs and trees for nesting and resting and hiding and berries and fruits  

simple flowers (like invertebrate transport cafes) in abundance throughout the year

nest boxes 

bat boxes

bug hotels

water-filled saucers and ponds

food

mindfulness 

beauty

excitement

fun

love and learning

untidiness

Let there be wildlife!




Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Reintroduction of banned neonocotinoid poisons

Toxic neonicotinoid chemicals affect bees



Neonocotinoid chemicals destroy the central nervous system of invertebrates and have been banned by the EU.

Sugar beet growers want this changed.


My letter to Rt Hon George Eustice MP

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs


Neonicotinoids also poison birds




Wednesday, 2 December 2020

David Manners, 11th Duke of Rutland and his stink pits: utterly repugnant and repulsive.

'Stink pits' contain the rotting corpses of animals and birds. Their stench is supposed to deter other animals who have not yet been consigned.

David Manners, 11th Duke of Rutland
Utterly repugnant and repulsive. They are being used to this day on places like grouse moors.

This is my letter sent to David Manners, 11th Duke of Rutland on 30 November 2020 whose land a 'stink pit' was discovered by Tim Birch.





Monday, 30 November 2020

Courteous disdain from Prince Charles, BBC Countryfile 'Plant Britain' patron - and his Delnadamph grouse moor

I wrote to Prince Charles on 29 November 2020 welcoming his support for the BBC Countryfile Plant Britain campaign and asking about his stewardship of his Diendamph grouse moor.


I wrote to HRH Prince Charles about management of his Delnadamph grouse moor. It was received with courteous disdain..


Monday, 16 November 2020

wisdom, we are told .....

The fog has been with us two days; yesterday not lifting at all but today dissipating during the afternoon.
Georges Pond is rainwater-filled to the brim
We walk to the stables and watch rooks gather in noisy pre-roost groups, talking loudly amongst themselves about the days' foraging. They fall silent before moving with a long cheer to their country park roost. Their behaviour is, in a sense unnatural, as they have the confidence of animals for whom predators are scarce. Our skies await the arrival of goshawks, red kites - or eagles to help achieve a natural balance.

There is none of the 'woomf' of unwonted rockets launched this evening. Over the past two days the night air has been thick with the smoke of fireworks and the night sky has boomed until two in the morning. Pity the outdoor grazing animals, pets or birds at roost  during the 'celebrations'.

Tonight a calm dusk segues to night before 5:00pm.

Two pipistrelle bats work the autumn air over the lawn and around the thinning sycamores. The wood pigeon population, boosted by autumn migrants from the continent, crash and blunder in the trees. Our end-of-shift tawny tuwhit hoohoos invisibly close by and a buzzard, huge in the failing light, mews over our heads as it comes in to roost.

These are the days when we reflect on the progress we've made in our nine years here. Then this was a brown field site dominated by the concrete bases of an abandoned and derelict mushroom farm. Commercial conifers had been planted too densely and left for decades. Piles of brick among higher piles of discarded insulation. Now, the houses are built and six acres of garden have been landscaped.  George's Pond is splendidly full on a site where no water has ever gathered. Smooth newts have spread this year where none had previously been recorded. We disturbed a beachball big toad, torpid, who'd buried herself in last years leaf mould. We gave her a safer place to sleep off the winter. 
We've always more to do and always aware of what hasn't been done rather than what has. But this evening, the garden is still and is preparing for more rain. We married when we were little more than children and both recall a nonsense TV cartoon which was screening as we went house hunting. In it cartoon animals sang 'We're on our way to the perfect place..' As the rest of the country endures lockdown we work through our lists, weeding, pruning and mulching so that the garden will look even better next year, truly counting our blessings. In our perfect place.

To be a gardener is to always be looking forward. We collect leaves or make compost for following years. We collect and plant seeds, take cuttings plant. Even the most dour of our calling must have a spark of optimism that compels us to do things now in anticipation of how they will look next season, next year, in ten years. Those with children frequently share the pleasure of growing plants, hoping that the succeeding generation will catch 'the bug'. Those with tiny balconies use ingenuity in growing many floors above busy cities. Those in apartments grow houseplants. In doing so, we probably count ourselves lucky to be set apart from the shrink-wrapped, homogenised world that is the twentyfirst century. In our own ways, we are giving something back, contributing in some small way to our own health and the wellbeing of the planet.

Wisdom, we are told, is old men planting trees under whose branches they will never sit. As climate change roars on, as we denigrate the environment and drive early and unnecessary extinction forward for so many species, our leaders could do worse than spend a little more time in the company of gardeners.