Friday, 10 July 2020

a pool of blood ...

A pool of blood spreads across the floor. Thick red sticky. Sweet. Our ancient, second-hand freezer has finally given up and recently-stored raspberries have leaked.

This is the time of garden abundance. Soft fruit - strawberries
, and tayberries as well as bleeding raspberries have cropped generously. The asparagus season ended at the solstice but early potatoes, beetroot, lettuce, spinach, peas have contributed to the kilo-a-day of food entering the kitchen from the vegetable garden in June. Organic. No-dig. Plastic free. And only metres away. Lots of rain - the best is yet to come.
I should add that there is only so much kale a man can eat. 

Nature's tax collectors have been busy in the container garden pond. We'd introduced six goldfish for the grandchildren but the numbers of these original goldfish steadily declined. It was only when a grey heron landed that I realised where the fish had gone. The pond is now attractively netted and fortunately, the goldfish had been having fishy fun before becoming heron food and we now have a multi-coloured shoal that arise expectantly each morning when I come with a pinch of fish breakfast.

My uncle's car mat refugias distributed around the garden are not only home to red and black ants, they are frequently used by small toads and occasionally slow worms. Both have been more evident this year than previously. Slow worms are viviperous - they give birth to live young. A big momma slow worm is in the compost. I've disturbed a snoozing male too.
Male slow worm
I won't do any compost turning till I think she's given birth safely.  Recently added compost reached a near-scalding 70C yesterday. The slow worms use compost bays where the contents have cooled and where invertebrate life abounds. No young smooth newts spotted yet - I didn't record efts until September last year so perhaps too early here.

The stock doves in the garage gable box have a second brood ready to fledge. It is good to see juveniles of this amber-listed bird of conservation concern slaughtering the seed in the bird feeders... 

'No-mow' lawn in sections and cut every four weeks

We're enjoying our no-mow lawn. I'm letting sections grow for a month or so and then mowing. This ensures there's always unmown grass for wildlife. Creeping buttercup would have been the traditional lawn fanciers nemesis. In our lawn, their pretty yellow flowers mix beautifully with the flowers of the white clover. It 's taking some getting used to for my mum. My dad was a very conventional short-grass-and-stripes man. My regime just doesn't look right to her. The grasshoppers and micro-moths like it though.

Our 'meadow' is in its' floral glory now, with little skipper, ringlet and meadow brown butterflies busy.

The floral diversity around George's Pond is increasing. A quick list during a tea break:
  1. Ribwort plantain
  2. Creeping buttercup
  3. Meadow buttercup
  4. Purple loosestrife 
  5. Common spotted orchid
  6. Cowslip
  7. Primrose
  8. Snakeshead fritillary
  9. Native daffodil
  10. Bramble
  11. Nettle
  12. Yellow rattle
  13. Black medic
  14. Goat willow
  15. Bindweed 
  16. Flag iris
  17. Broom
  18. Kingcup
  19. Ragged robin
  20. Salad burnet
  21. Hawkweed
  22. Fox & cubs 
  23. Field scabious
  24. Red campion
  25. Soft rush
  26. Hard rush
  27. Hawthorn

We've had a generous donation of nest boxes to use on the neighbouring farm. I hadn't realised on accepting the gift that I'd then have nearly twenty to modify before siting. 

On the farm they tip the vegetable packing plant waste on the edge of the borehole field. On hot days, the acrid, vinegar smell of rotting carrots is all-pervasive... But what a small price to pay for the swallows that have discovered the flies that are attracted. Impossible to count, but there were at least thirty swallows there this morning. Tiny treasures. Swooping and chattering. So agile in flight.
And our farmer friend has helped us considerably too in other ways....
We've finally completed the garages and I want to store the rainwater from the roof. Bill has given us tons of stone to fill some of our surplus gabion baskets and then brought three redundant IBC's to use as water storage tanks. All will be hidden by trellis which will be cloaked in evergreen climbers.
Eventually, 3000 litres of rainwater stored for use in the vegetable garden.

But before then, twenty post holes to dig in rocky ground to a depth of 750mm. This will be my final project. Jill says that there will be a time at some point in the future when I may occasionally get to read a book on  a lazy Sunday afternoon. Until then, I have a post hole digger to collect...

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

a limping warrior

Dunnock's nest
On our Cedar shingle roof, theres' clog dancing. I watch as a courting pair of wood pigeons flirt and then spring forward, two-footed with a thump on the shingles. They repeat this nifty footwork for fun before moving onto the new garden arch/ pigeon toilet for a spot of pair-bonding and pooing.

The Warrior limps. A war wound. Now slightly shabby but still proud and protecting his domain from intruders. The Young Pretender - furtive, a preening poppinjay. Not a feather out-of-place, he creeps about until seen by The Warrior who gives chase loudly. Pheasant wars. On the lawn a single pheasant hen - then suddenly The Warrior and The Young Pretender on her. An ugly gang bang in full view. She eventually escapes into the sycamore followed by the Young Pretender. Meanwhile The Warrior has been affronted but not bested. He storms after the Young Pretender when he next appears.

In George's Pond toads were calling like creaking shoes in a corridor. Whirligig beetles skating crazy on the surface of the water. The first common darters emerge. One lands, confidingly, on Jills' outstretched hand.

The Muntjac deer, nervously, on camera again, this time on one of the Cedar Walk paths before dawn.

Rich reports that one of our ringed little owl babies has been found dead in Papplewick. Sad to hear, but perhaps evidence that our nest box making is having an effect beyond our immediate area.

An afternoon in the sunny Vegetable Garden. Transplanting leeks and dill. Harvesting the last of the purple sprouting broccoli, removing the plants, then chopping them to include in the mix as I turned a cubic metre of compost into the next bay. Thick fingers of asparagus collected. The green shoots of first early Colleen and Lady Chrystl potatoes  in a race-to-the-plate with second early Kestrel. The sweet scent of broad bean flowers. 
In the polytunnel, the spinach is giving generously.

Orange tip, speckled wood, peacock and green-veined white butterflies on the wing. Probably record numbers of orange tips. Lots of garlic mustard for them to lay their eggs on in the hedgerows.
Spicy spinach and potato with flatbread (Hugh FW)

The scratchy song of whitethroat joins the stropping chiffchaff and the varied, rich melody of blackcaps.

But the morning hen house is silent. There's usually some conversation going on but not today. I open up and two hens gingerly descend to the coop. Then a third. But the fourth, Eigg, remains on her perch. Later she has emerged. Her right eye is gunky and she is affronted when I catch her up to bathe it, and as any caring mother would do, dab a little Savlon on. Hens have a way of looking at you as though they're being violated when you hold them. I put her in quarantine. Her sisters reman silent and when I open the coop to let the healthy three into the springtime orchard, rich with fresh grass and full of flowering cowslips, they stay behind with their sister. Only hen keepers know the bond that exists within a flock.

High-rise bees
For the first time since we seeded the lawn in 2012, a song thrush. It takes a worm. The lawn is huge and we’re leaving most of it uncut with paths mown through.
Me old dad would not have approved of an uncut ‘lawn’ so long, so full of moss, dead grass, creeping buttercup, meadow buttercup, ragwort, daisy, clover, hawkweed, self-heal, dandelion, plantain, vetch and cowslip. The less-starry-eyed of us asks 'What will we do about all the dandelion clocks?'
But the song thrush approved. And so will the insects and invertebrates that will make it their home. Gardening in the ethical left field.

Our first cuckoo of the year. Through triple-glazed windows I hear its' distant call. It awakes me today, just after dawn, initially distant then moving again to the garden. A wonder of the world, possibly seeking dunnock nests into which they may donate an egg.

Solitary bees excavate holes in the soil or buzz the bee hotel village. The beekeepers report bumper hive activity and add extra supers to accommodate brood, pollen and honey.

But no swallows or martins. No house sparrows or starlings. No hedgehogs. It is in the steady, drip-drip loss of these once-common species that our generation will be measured.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Could Covid-19 help us reconnect with what is really important in life?

Hemispheres of pale lemon primrose, made vigorous by the wet spring ground. Snowdrops have now finished their display and wait in thick bunches of lush leaves to to be lifted and divided for transplanting into other parts of the Woodland Garden. Division invigorates the plants as well as allowing us to spread the snowdrops more widely across the garden.

The absence of vehicle noise (the result of the Covid-19 'lockdown') has not been experienced in my lifetime. It brings an even greater sense of calm to the wellbeing we always enjoy outside. 

Spring primrose
A resplendent cock pheasant whup-whup-whups before being angered by his own reflection and thundering with his bill on the outside of the bedroom windows. Window after window. A male great tit, similarly testosterone-charged, flutters up and down the windows chasing himself - anti-defenestration?

Female orange tip, butter-yellow brimstone, peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies have emerged into the fresh spring sunshine. An early summer migrant chiffchaff tick-tocks, while remaining winter migrant bramblings peck with resident chaffinch cousins beneath the busy feeders. This is the period termed 'the hungry gap' when winter food supplies have been exhausted and before spring food arrives. It is important to maintain the supplementary feeding so that birds can enter the breeding season in good condition.
Two soprano pipistrelle bats on translucent wings at dusk above my head. The nervous muntjac rarely strays from the brambles and cover afforded by the Cedar Walk. Badgers continue to send an expeditionary force into the garden. No signs of hedgehogs. I watch a tree bumblebee nosing into a crack in the standing trunk of a rotting birch.

I have mowed the lawn on the mowers highest setting: the 'lawn' is spongy with moss and the thatch of dead grass from last year. Not really a 'lawn' at all these days. Creeping buttercup continues its accretion. This year, there will be shorter areas of grass for toddler playing but the majority of the grass will be left unmown for invertebrates to take sanctuary in the moss, dead grass and increasing diversity of 'weeds' (native wildflowers).

Compost has been turned and is rising in temperature as the mix of weeds, kitchen waste, cardboard, paper and grass melds together. On its third day, the temperature has risen 20C to 30C. Destination 70C to kill soil pathogens, perennial weeds and seeds. The well-rotted compost from last year has been spread on the no-dig vegetable beds where it remains as a mulch. Overwintering onions, shallots, garlic and broad beans have benefitted from the wet and mild spring. Carrots, parsnips and radish have been sown. Seedling beetroot and peas for pea shoots planted. Today we planted a Victorian pea 'Ambassador' that gives plants that can grow six feet tall. It is no longer commercial, but is a wonderful choice for the gardener. Our purple sprouting broccoli resemble forest trees - and are yielding well. This is the traditional, seasonal broccoli of old. Organically grown, each floret is higher in flavonoids, has no chemicals and of course, no food miles or plastic used in its' production. There is evidence too, that the encouragement of mycorrhizal in the no-dig system benefits not only the plants but the eater too. Supermarket broccoli is Calabrese, - still delicious when fresh but much less tasty. Today, red-legged partridge were inspecting Vegetable Garden growth.

The quarantine has given me the chance to work on my sourdough  bread. This is a traditional bread made with natural yeasts. Nottinghamshire's Pilgrim Fathers took sourdough with them on the Mayflower 400 years ago to make bread in the New World. I will write about sourdoughs in a future post. My, how those days fly by in the Carlyle household.

Our four hens are laying prodigiously. Well, true to say that three of them are. Moussa lays distinctive blue/green eggs - but not many of them. One egg a fortnight is her going at full throttle these days.  If truth is told, in other regimes she would be renamed Soup.  I've told her this in heart-to-heart conversations but with no result. Suffice to say that I won't be rebranding myself as an inspirational speaker for recalcitrant layers when this whole coronavirus mess ends.

We slog through the heavy clay of the prairie beds, clearing the dead vegetation of last year and crunching it up and casting it back onto the ground as an insect and spider adventure playground. Long ropes of couch grass are teased out of the sticky soil. 

Frogspawn turns to tadpoles. Hungry great diving beetles break the pond surface tension like miniature blue whales, waiting for the 'taddies' to wriggle from their jelly protection and move into the open water. There are patches of iridescent dust on the surface of the pond left from the feathers of bathing wood pigeons and stock doves. Our native daffodils flower in their first year around the pond with a promise of great abundance in following years. A pair of mallards has adopted us. They clatter into the evening sky when I least expect them during my night time torch walks. Once again, invasive aquatic parrot feather slowly, silently, asserts itself in the pond. Unchecked, it will choke it.

Much of modern life is impoverished and de-skilled in what we know in our hearts are the essentials. We eat poor quality food whose production methods and provenance are a mystery. We get insufficient exercise and when we do exercise, it is expending energy getting nowhere in personal best times. And while we are transfixed by our screens we have too little contact with the natural world. Our lives are characterised by stress.

This is true now, more than ever. In these anxious, uncertain times, perhaps the enforced quarantine will enable us to reflect on what 21st century life has become...

Could Covid-19 help us reconnect with what is really important in life?

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

A biblical plague...?

'February fill-dyke'. 
Traditionally a soggy month, this one beat all records for rain. Farmers are struggling to get onto the land. Roads become flooded as streams and ditches overtop. Perhaps this dreadful state-of-affairs for the farming community may lead some to convert their unproductive land to wildlife? Says the cockeyed optimist in me. The same cockeyed optimist has been pursuing Prof Alistair Driver (national lead on rewilding) via twitter to persuade him to talk at a forthcoming conference. 

On our sandy soil and sitting on top of a low hill, we are suffering less than most from the weather. But it still feels that spring has been held in check by the persistent rain, the succession of cold nights and the storms.

Long-tailed tit
Bramblings, lesser redpolls, siskins and redwings are still here. A single butterfly siting (small tortoiseshell) for 2020 so far and few bumblebees despite aconites, primroses and snowdrops having benefitted from the damp conditions and flowering more abundantly than ever here. Around George's Pond, the simple beauty of native daffodils in their first flowering year. Honeybees from the apiary venture out but sit dazed and unproductive. Our moth light has been infrequently used and unattractive. The house sparrows that raised two broods in our kitchen gable colony box last year appear to have deserted us. In their place, an eccentric great tit has laid claim to one of the sections of the colony box and now uselessly expends energy chasing its' reflection up and down our windows and doors, its bill tap-tapping on the glass.
Frogspawn in George's Pond (photo Judith)

Following the national rise in their population, badgers have become evident in many parts of the garden and are presumably benefitting from increased invertebrate abundance in the damp soil. Snuffleholes and gouged earth are becoming commonplace.
And today, much thrashing in the shallows around George's Pond and around seventy plus clumps of frogspawn so far. An increase of over 200% on last year, itself our best-ever year here. Or a portent of a biblical plague to go with all the other calamities we currently face?
George's Pond began in 2016. The site had no ponds of any kind before we arrived. The frogs have colonised the pond themselves. Their increase here in the face of a national decline gives us hope for other species’ recovery in the future.

Speaking of things herpetological, last weekend Rich and I laid large pieces of black corrugated sheeting in the meadow in unlikely anticipation of a spontaneous eruption of grass snakes.

Long-tailed tits have begun nest building in a close-trimmed conifer in the Woodland Garden. They flutter about, collecting spiders webs to make their elastic-sided nests. I'm well-on-the-way with work here. The majority of the paths have been weeded and mulched with shreddings kindly donated by local arborists. I have a trail cam set capturing movement across one of the Woodland Garden paths and which I hope will eventually form a unique record of this perspective of the garden for the year.

Stored carrots
The mulching in our no-dig vegetable garden is almost finished. Shallots, garlic, spring onions, overwintering onions and broad beans are all putting on growth. Kale is being harvested and purple sprouting broccoli will soon be ready. Our leeks have almost finished but we are still using our stored carrots and beetroot. The greenhouse staging holds trays containing hundreds of Jills seedlings, all poised for the warmer weather... Charles Dowding turned our gardening lives upside down when he spoke to Nottingham Organic Gardeners in February of 2019. We are eternally grateful.

The Fragrant Garden, hot borders, foraging border and Rosa's border have all been tended and mulched. 
Jill is working through the beds at the front of the house. The earth-sheltered north side of the bungalow stretches on forever needing work. Our prairie beds remain so popular with finches, tits and thrushes that we have delayed doing necessary work here.

We have less time for our gardening work than ever due to family commitments. On our good days we see the improvement year-on-year and recognise what an immense achievement the development and maintenance of this three-acre wildlife garden is and take huge pride in it.

Monday, 13 January 2020

'Think global, act local'...

The full moon a giant peach. Low hanging, above Dorket Head as I drive home with mum at dusk. Dad has now been diagnosed with ‘advanced dementia’ and is in Lings Bar hospital being assessed. He won’t be coming home. None of us is finding it easy. We take mum to visit each day. Too little time for the healing hand of nature...

Pecky blue tit
Yellow winter aconite balls are forcing through the leaves by the drive in the Woodland Garden. Snowdrops nose through leafmould. Fingers of daffodil leaves reach out in the grass beneath the lime trees. By night, tawny owls call, near the site of last years successful nest in a converted drawer, fixed high in a tree. This week the rare treat of the owls going beyond their ‘tu-whit and hoo-hoo’ call-and -response. Their daytime vocalisations  unexpected, unrecognisable and eccentric. Tawnies breed within a half mile of where they were born (their natal site) and as a consequence the young compete with their parents to establish breeding territories. We ringed the three young last year. A mild winter with plentiful small mammals may mean good survival chances for these. In 2018 bad spring weather reduced the small mammal population and the owls failed to breed.

We set up the ringing nets in the garden on Monday and caught 106 birds. Several were birds we’d ringed in nest boxes in the garden or on the farm. Lots of pecky blue tits. 
The garden bird feeders are assailed by waves of goldfinches and greenfinches until a ram-raiding great spotted woodpecker arrives. Occasionally too, a sparrowhawk. Over a kilo of sunflower hearts required to top the feeder each day. Pheasants scurry beneath, clearing the profligacy that falls from above.

Untamed perennial beds
Mulching our no-dig vegetable garden beds with compost is almost complete. Carrots remain. Leeks too. And some cannonball-sized beetroot that the voles and mice nibble into. Broccoli is standing proud and yellowing lower leaves removed to spoil slug fun. Garlic, shallots and onions are showing. Stocky little broad bean plants have waited their turn in the greenhouse and were planted out under fleece today.

Jill has taken on the arduous task of clearing behind the tool shed. Then into the orchard ‘meadow’.

Managing the differing needs of wildflowers (cowslip, knapweed, oxeye daisy, hawkbits, camassia) and invertebrates and small mammals is the challenge. We don’t want the thickened grass to thwart the diversity of flowers we’re encouraging but don’t want to deny cover for newts, toads, voles or the overwintering larvae of insects....

I slog away in the Cedar walk where bramble trip wires lie in wait around our little Nordman spruce 'plantation'.

Perennial beds untamed provide refuge over winter for birds, small mammals, amphibians and inverts.

But for all of our endeavour, the question returns - are we wasting our time?

The issues feel too intractable, beyond anything we've been able to influence...
 Australia on fire under the leadership of climate change deniers; whales hunted again; here in the UK illegal fox hunting is flagrantly perpetrated; peat moors are desecrated as demand from gardeners for peat rises; and badgers are ‘culled’ in the face of clear science that says this is making the problem of bovine TB worse. Plastic pollution implacable where 'Not currently recycled' is apparently an acceptable euphemism for 'should not be allowed to be used by any manufacturer or supermarket'.

And the oceans have never been hotter.

Our mantra was once 'Think global, act local'. That now feels so unutterably naive. 

Sunday, 6 October 2019

a season of firsts .... and lasts?

The spent, spotted leaves of sycamore are brought down by heavy rain. Shaggy ink cap fungi congregate on the sodden lawn. Other toadstools now too.

The sweet smell of leeks being harvested in the fields. Jays in looping, white-rumped flight enjoying the bumper acorn harvest. Nature's own tree planters, they can harvest and hide up to 5000 acorns each year.

George's Pond
We've had a sustained period of heavy rain. George's Pond overspills twelve metres down into the Stumpery. I have cleared four fifths of the pond of its' invasive parrot feather but have been prevented by the weather from finishing the job. Another smooth newt siting during the pond clearance. A common amphibian, it is still rewarding to have four sitings in 2019 when we have only had a single siting in all the years before. 'It's not what's rare, it's what's there' - John McMeeking.
In the dark, juvenile toads enjoy the semi-aquatic conditions on the terrace.

An exquisite, tiny slow worm beneath one of the refugias. It's the smallest I've ever seen and the first concrete evidence of successful breeding. Slow worms are viviparous - they give birth to love young.
'Greensleeves' apples

In a brief half day of dry weather I mowed the lawn. Cutting blades high, I still took a huge quantity of grass to the compost bays which was laboriously mixed with other vegetation. The wetness of the thick grass reminds us how detrimental short grass and the overgrazing of animals can be on the grounds' capacity to manage heavy rains. Here, the shaggy lawn absorbs rain before it enters the soil. A healthy sward will lead to healthy root structure beneath the ground which once again controls heavy downpours, slowing its' progress.

As the sky darkens another first for us is a noctule bat rowing in the air above the birch trees. It is our largest. Below it, little pipistrelle bats flitter above George's Pond at dusk. Current research suggests that the invasive ring necked parakeets that are beginning to take over parks and woods are ousting noctules from their roosting sites.

Another first is a video recording of a Muntjac deer. As small as a dog. Asian. Introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Cedar walk paths are bounded by mountainous brambles which will make excellent cover for a little muntjac to ruminate in. They're usually solitary, so we're not anticipating herds of them.

Whilst the farmer harvests healthy leeks, we are downcast about our crop this year. They've got everything going against them. This year we've changed our method of leek growing and it hasn't been successful. Instead of dropping single baby leeks into dibbered holes, we've 'multi-sown' them. They haven't liked it and many have just collapsed. Too many too close together.  Rot. Leek moth. Alium rust. It's been carnage under the covers. A fox appears regularly on the trail cams and is leaving piles of faeces for us. The least welcome was in the middle of the netting supposed to protect the leeks from pests. Poor things, they've had it from every angle.

The time of apple harvest. Keswick Codlin has had its' best year with us. A variety that began in the 1790's, when cooked it produces the best fluffy apple sauce. Greensleeves apples are an early eater and cropping well. Last years' cider came into its' own when a friend tried a pint and came back for two more. Tooth enamel intact and no permanent degradation of his nervous system. Result.

Only four of our favourite duck egg blue 'Crown Prince' this year but lots of others. The season of squash soup is upon us!

A young kestrel has continued to include the garden in its' beat..

The state of nature report is as demoralising a read as are our attempts to gather home-grown leeks. With the exception that next year the leeks will be planted again and back to their former, productive best. The chilling sentence from the report 'There has been no let-up in the net loss of nature in the UK' says it all. The consequences of abysmal custodianship of our wildlife over decades appear on every grim page. They used to say 'think global- act local' to encourage us to do our little bit in the hope that this would add up to a bigger picture of good. The evidence is that climate breakdown, intensive agriculture, over abstraction of water, the fragmentation of wildlife habitats,
plastic and the effects of invasive species are all too much for poor overwhelmed nature.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Entry into autumn ...

View of annex through prairie beds
The early evening is dark now. Juvenile and adult tawnies in call and response. Another, distant, tawny joins in from the fields. The repeated notes of a little owl nearby. During the day a raven grunting in frequent overhead passes. A steam plough turns the earth a mile away, chuffs and punctures the air with its' whistle. From bed, the scampering feet of noisy early morning carrion crows can be heard on the cedar shingles.

Birds are wakening after their annual moult. Robins feisty - one wearing a leg ring. A tribe of long-tailed tits moves among the shrubs and trees. Male sparrow hawk on the feeders. No swallows. Five house martins . No starlings. Our house sparrows have deserted us.

Comma butterflies nectaring on the Joe-Pye weed. Red admirals, speckled woods and painted ladies too.
Blackberries ripen sweetly along the Cedar Walk paths.

Sweetcorn harvested before red ant
'tax collectors' took their share
Boots are needed early morning in the heavy dew. The first be-wigged shaggy ink cap appears. I mow the unkempt lawn, but not close, leaving 10cm of sward - it's more like a 1970's shag pile carpet these days. Many invertebrates use grass for overwintering, for eggs and pupae. If boosting invertebrate numbers is our aim, this is one way of trying.
There's still plenty of mown grass for our insatiable compost. Layered up, it quickly reaches 70C.

The Vegetable Garden keeps on giving: almost 100kgs of food into the kitchen or freezer since March. No food miles, no packaging, no chemicals. Not bad for a space considerably smaller than an allotment. Squash and pumpkins expand by the day. Pheasants scrump ripening tomatoes. The red ants started to harvest our sweet corn before we did. I caught sight of a rich ginger fox there this morning. Nature's tax collectors.
Planting wild daffodils

I have placed black mats and small pieces of corrugated roofing as 'refugias' around the garden. Most are now home to red ants but their tiny black cousins are also present. One juvenile slow worm and some toads there too. And a second smooth newt eft. As well as voles. After rain, Lamins Lane became a toad highway.

Invasive parrot feather has begun its slow strangulation of the pond again. An aquatic boa constrictor: I need to get in in my waders. Thanks to uncle Alan we've planted wild daffodils around the pond. Let's hope they prove as successful as the purple loosestrife and snakehead fritillaries he'd given us in previous years.

We have been working through the Woodland Garden. Many Cyclamen hederifolium flowers from white through to dusky dark pink now populate the floor. Erect, fruiting lords-and-ladies with sticky orange seeds. Grey squirrels shred conker cases. We're clearing 60m2 of black plastic we've used to suppress weeds since the autumn. Jill peeled the plastic back and coincidentally the dry spell ended with good rain for the sandy earth. I'm now pushing barrows of chippings to mulch the area before shrubbing and bulb planting.

Homeacres open garden
Dad was keen to help with maintenance work on Rosa's border. Having spent five hours with mum at A and E the previous day, we were nervous that his poor balance would see him falling, injuring himself and us having another lengthy spell as guests of the Queens Medical Centre. I quietly removed tools to discourage him but he improvised by moving the mulch about with his walking stick. This week, a further step backwards when he attempted to eat his buttered roll with a knife and fork at lunch. As teachers, our lives were built on the certainty of cognitive development. Viewing the process in reverse is really saddening. My sister cares for him so tenderly.

We visited Homeacres open garden in Somerset at the end of August. This is no-dig gardening central and the home of Charles Dowding - the Pep Guardiola of lettuce. We explored his vegetable plots, peered into his vegetable store and admired the tomatoes in his polytunnel. Such inspiration but no mention of gardening for wildlife. Hmmm.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

late summer

Autumn Bliss raspberry
Little, naked pink flags of Cyclamen hederifolium flowers emerge and signal late summer. The vegetable garden's generosity continues. 76kg of food brought into the kitchen since March. A further 40kg of Kestrel and Charlotte potatoes bagged and stored. Red Duke of York and Sarpo Kifli remain in the ground. Ever-frugal, I oven-roast the small potatoes that I don't store with garlic and courgettes, add green lentils and top with dill. Visitors avoid eye-contact lest they be offered courgettes. The apple trees begin to shed windfalls. Plump autumn raspberries. Our worst-ever year for tomatoes. Young toads hunt beneath the big leaves of the courgette plants.

Garden birds emerge from moult. The soundtrack of the garden is now the trickle of robin song and the contact calls of tits . Mixed groups of small  birds moving through shrubs and trees. 500g of seed per day into the feeders.

Red and black ants nurse 'ant eggs'. A juvenile green woodpecker yaffles in delight - they love to binge on ants. 

My uncle shared memories with dad of family times in Radford, Nottingham. A mile from the centre of our city. Victorian slums with no electricity until after 1946 and a single cold water tap in the kitchen. Some neighbours without even a water tap until the 1960's and having to use the shared standpipe. Communal toilets. My grandfather (Daddar) growing flowers on his allotment to sell in the pub so that he could buy a pint. He entertained the children by candlelight telling them the fantasy of the cottage in the country they would one day live in. Always gales of laughter when my mammar protested her role in the dream: that of mucking out the animals.

Today dad with us in the kitchen looking at the garden. 'Where is this place?' 'It's perfect'. We're literally living the dream that my daddar told to his children...

The Notts Wildlife Trust members' visit to us coincided with a beautiful August morning. The flowers danced with invertebrates.
‘Exploring the three acres of stunning wildlife gardens  today was magical and inspiring, such rich diversity of pollinators, birds and habitats'.
A wonderful group of like-minded, cake-eating people. Then soup for the posse of volunteers, family and NWT staff from our garden vegetables with white loaves with fennel and sunflower seeds.

A juvenile tawny left its' imprint on Judith and Rogers front door: the Turin shroud owl.

Hen pheasants scour the sections of unmown lawn with individual young. 

Out-of-place, two oystercatchers peeping to one another as they fly overhead.

A thin haul from the moth light last night. 55 moths of 18 species. Our first old lady moth. A wonderful name for the large mothy bulky Vulcan bomber of an insect.

Our new garage grows falteringly. I buy materials and pay the lads when they have a day. An eye-watering scaffolding price comes in. I sense a price hike when we are quoted. This I attribute to men seeing us as a couple and thinking that she could only have married me for my money.

A welcome (if far-too-brief) return from one of our first WWOOF volunteers. Elle comes back from the vegetable garden with a loaded basket then cooks a delicious vegan curry before dashing back to Oz.

I support a petition to repeal the archaic Weeds Act 1959. Plants targeted by the Act include common and creeping thistle - both rich sources of nectar, ragwort with its 177 pollinators and dock which is an important food plant for many insects.

A manure delivery from Poo Pete's stables  - the lifeblood of the fertile garden. But now the concern that manure may be contaminated with aminopyralid or clopyralid (a similar herbicide). Manufactured by Dow, these chemicals are widely used by farmers to kill broadleaved weeds in grass and rape straw. This herbicide lies hidden within hay and passes through the horses and does not break down in the composting process. Contamination is being reported in council composting systems. Plant leaves curl and plants fail to thrive. One of our garden visitors' young plants had all the symptoms of this contamination after planting using a peat-free potting compost. Another day, another crime against nature, another petition...

The new Prime Minister has already stated that he plans to ‘liberate’ the UK from Genetically Modified (GM) regulations.  This is probably to align us with the US approach to GM crops which is far more relaxed, and opens the way to US trade deals. Or a massive increase in growing herbicide-tolerant grain which has been genetically engineered by agrichemical corporations such as Bayer (Monsanto).

The August sky is beautiful but empty. Swallows, house, sand martins, swifts... washed from the memory of the coming generation with no epitaph? 

Monday, 12 August 2019

Hen harriers and the inglorious 12th

To Carsington Water yesterday to take part in the fifth Hen Harrier Day.

These days are timed to coincide with the imminent commencement of the grouse shooting season - once called the Glorious 12th but now more accurately The Inglorious 12th.

My letter to Mark Spencer MP today:
Tomorrow is the first day of the shooting season on grouse moors.
The RSPB and Raptor Persecution Scotland (among other organisations) have comprehensively demonstrated that it is the illegal slaughter of hen harriers by those who manage driven grouse moors that has caused the near extinction of these beautiful creatures as successful breeding birds in England.
The link between locations where intensive driven grouse shooting is practiced and where illegal raptor persecution is found is starkly clear.
The solutions to this illegality include:
a ban on driven grouse shooting;
the introduction of vicarious liability in prosecuting those on whose land this illegality is perpetrated;
and the removal of licences and govt funding from those estates where illegality is demonstrated.
Hen harriers need our urgent support.
I hope I can count on your active advocacy in seeing these actions executed speedily.
Thank you
Rob Carlyle
As part of the first Hen Harrier day in 2014 - 'The Sodden 500'
My email to Mark Spencer MP.

We shall prevail.

Monday, 5 August 2019

early august abundance

August. Abundance.

Courgettes, green beans, beetroot, calabrese, spring onions, salad leaves, leeks, carrots ... on and on. Large potatoes. 50kgs (over 8 stones) of vegetables taken since March. All organic, no-dig. Empty shopping bags on the return from the supermarkets.  I was once described as a 'good-lifer' by the Killarney folks who live nearby. Now the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), states that it will be impossible to keep global temperatures at safe levels unless there is also a transformation in the way the world produces food and manages land. To redress the balance between man and nature we need to change policy to make it easier for people to grow their own organic food.
Another big compost bay layered up with its' greens and browns accelerates to 74C within two days..

I disturb a slow worm as I check the finished compost in another of the bays. And a nest of wriggling, naked, pink, baby mice. I reconstruct their soft hay nest and give it an extra carpet roof.

Heavy rains load the soil. I push barrow after barrow of wood chippings to beds and paths. Ponds full. Goldfish have proliferated in the Dragonfly pond.
flowering fennel

The second brood of house sparrows has fledged from the box above the kitchen door. I watched the male bird taking expensive mealworms to the nest entrance where the young called, then returning with bill still full. He was attempting to draw them out. He must have succeeded as the box was quiet the following day. By night the tawny owls aren't quiet. Were there little owls calling from next doors garden? During the day, a young buzzard circles, mewing at its' parent. The water feature Roger has created at the end of the stumpery continues to be a popular public baths for birds. Blackcaps, tits, jays, thrushes flutter in the trickling water. The two gangly pheasant poults hunt moths in the unsown sections of the lawn.
Silver-washed fritillary with peacock
on buddleia

Such a year for butterflies. Fifteen species in the garden in a day. On a flowering marjoram our first small copper of the season: a tiny, sharply-defined orange, black and white jewel. A brilliant blue holly blue and a floppy big yellow brimstone. The fierceness of the heat during this hottest-summer-on-record triggered aestivation - early hibernation- in some of the peacock butterflies; their dark sharks fins hanging in the hen house roof.  A surge of migrating painted lady butterflies join the red admirals and peacocks on the crowded buddleias. The caterpillars of small white butterflies ravage calabrese leaves in the vegetable garden. And then a Silver-washed fritillary fritillary! New to the garden. Slugging it out with a comma and making that seventeen species in two days.
Busy bumblebees on the hollihocks.
The flat flowering heads of tall fennel are helipads for many flies and beetles. A reminder of the inter-connectedness of wildlife and that many more insects than bees are pollinators.

Grey squirrels discard half-chewed pine cones from above.

The slugs are huge! A giant one crawls up the outside of the living room window leaving a thick slime trail. The ban on toxic metaldehyde slug pellets has been overturned. Our water companies cannot remove metaldehyde from drinking water and had advocated alternatives. Slow worms can consume thirty slugs in a day.

Our meadow looks a mess. I've taken out the seeding dock, topped some of the nettles and mugwort for fear they'll smother everything else but know that I must resist the tidiness gene. 1,400 species of invertebrate feed on the leaves, stems and roots of native wild grassland flowers. Two field scabious plants are flowering in the orchard - they must have come from seed I've scattered.

There is no overnight rain forecast and so the moth light is set up beneath the limes. Yellow underwings crash in, skittish and numerous. 52 dun-bar moths. 322 macro-moths of 46 species including our first record of least yellow underwing. Pipistrelle bats low overhead.

We take a circuit around Georges pond, me old dad and me. He's distressed. We watch dragonflies in flight and at rest. Somewhere among the pond vegetation must be the husks that are the unrecognisable discarded exuviae left by the handsome dragonflies as they emerge from their life beneath water. Although badly affected by dementia, there is more to dad than his exuviae. He remains recognisably the kind, considerate, caring human being he has always been.

We're busy preparing the garden for a visit of members of the Wildlife Trust and work late on many nights. Squares of my cinnamon and plum wholemeal sponge with muesli crumble topping (made in anticipation of the visit) may well be incorporated into the construction of the new garage. It is understood that nightjars practice polyandry - where a female has several male partners. I suggest this to Jill as an option.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Hotter'n July ...?

Inside the house it's 30C. Outside much hotter. The BBC rejoice in the heatwave. The hottest July day on record, our politicians adding to the sense of doom.
On such a hot evening we sit outside after dusk. A single tawny chick squeaks. An occasional hoot from its' parent. We'd ringed three chicks. Have the older siblings dispersed or is this the lone survivor? A chick makes an overnight appearance on the trailcam in grainy black and white.
Pippistelles cause the bat detector to chatter. Overhead, first Arcturus shines. Later, the 'ultra-bright' International Space Station passes from the west before disappearing into the earth's shadow.
My fascination with the ISS leads me to tell others about its' passing. At outdoor pre-wedding drinks I announce its' arrival. The guests are patrician, urbane and see me as a rural soothsayer.

Inula magnifica - loved by butterflies and bees
This year, butterflies seem to be benefitting from climate breakdown. It is believed that our once-common but now locally extinct wall butterfly was a global-warming victim several years ago. But yesterday thirteen other species in the floriferous garden. Early-flowering buddleia Lochinch busy with freshly-minted peacocks. Gatekeepers are abundant. Bumble and honey bees crawl over the lavender flowers. Bees, bee flies and butterflies throng around the huge, golden, daisy-like flowers of Inula magnifica.

Tremendous thunderclaps and lightening accompanied by heavy rain coincide with an overnight mothing session. The precious egg trays I place around the light as a refuge for the attracted moths were turned to pulp. I scooped them up the following morning and tried to press them back into useable shape. 138 moths of 34 species before the deluge.

My bewildered dad joins us during one of his disorientated 'sundowning' evening sessions. Apparently his son 'Lives somewhere over there'. I tell him I've heard he's a right tight barstard.

A metallic cracking and smell of smoke by the gates. I learn later that a slug had entered and sacrificed itself on the printed circuit board. Tom shakes his head in consternation, in intake of breath. Another big bill predicted.

Our final garden ringing session before Rich began his sabbatical. Seventy five birds ringed before rain. 183 young nest box birds ringed during the season. Our second, pampered house sparrow brood were too young to be ringed. I put a few plump mealworms out during the day and the mother bird quickly gathers them up to take back to the sweltering nest box. The young should be as big as bantams when they fledge.
A green woodpecker is caught on camera at The Stumpery 'Rovers Return'. The water trickle is hugely popular.

The meadows have filled with knapweed. A single field scabious is flowering in the orchard. Collected yellow rattle and cowslip seed is scattered. The remaining seeding dock must be scythed. Rowan berries ripen. Cedar Walk brambles set for a bumper crop. Opened doors bring an unending dust of silver birch seed. This looks set to be a 'mast' year.

I have not returned to the pond to pull out the last of the parrot feather where lumps of brown algae now rise to the surface. Spikes of purple loosestrife.

'Red Duke of York' potatoes
join Leeks 'Musselburgh' for soup.
Thunderstorms have benefitted the vegetable garden. Potato yields are up. The small tubers of Red Duke of York are firm and flavoursome: they contribute to delicious leek and potato soup. We nurture newly-planted calabrese. Belatedly, tomatoes form in the polytunnel. Our first cucumbers.

The hot weather isn't conducive to gardening. Pernicious marestail has infested the planting beneath our Himalayan birch but spraying isn't an option. It can't be weeded-out so we decide that we will mow. This will become grass with springtime species tulips. Removing dead flowers from geraniums on mounding with the hedge trimmer is back ache inducing: the resultant defoliation looking as startling as my summer haircut was to our grandson.

There has been insufficient wind to power the sails of Greens Mill in Sneinton. A hardship for me is that none of their unbleached white, organic stoneground flour is available. For my pre-industrial forbears a much more real problem.

Friday, 12 July 2019

A silence of swifts ...

A ruckus in the hen’s run. A fox. No casualties. All’s well.
Hot border in flower

The effervescence of spring garden bird song has faded. Migrant blackcap and chiffchaff continued to the end. Resident thrushes: robin, song thrush and blackbird haven’t given up yet. A mistle thrush, crisp in new plumage. There’s a calmness now as adult birds begin their annual moult and plants put their minds to serious growth.

Thousands of rooks occasionally pass overhead at dusk on the way to their roost, their wings gap-toothed with missing feathers. A young robin in faded pink bib - its’ adult plumage emerging. They leave the nest as little bundles of brown. A hollow knocking on the dead silver birch stump announces  a grubby juvenile great spotted woodpecker. Tits in juvenile plumage empty the feeders each day. A gangly pheasant poult - no longer a chick- on the terrace. At least one has evaded the foxes and crows so far. 
Only 22% of young birds make it through their first year. Our house sparrows are still in the colony box above the kitchen door, the male carrying feathers. Hopefully a second brood?

Bullfinches are around - we hear their welcome single note call.

There’s a dead mole on the drive. Moles are aggressive and drive their young from their tunnels at this time of year. Adults have been known to fight to the death. I was harvesting potatoes and ran my fingers through the soil to find missing tubers. One had slipped deep into one of the mole tunnels that undermine the vegetable garden. No one told the moles that ours is a no-dig garden. They’re everywhere.

My neighbour asks about the owls. Our young tawnies continue to call in the evenings. He’d felt a brush of feathers over his head: he must have got too close. At this time of year, a large part of a tawny owls diet is young moles that temporarily don’t have the refuge of burrows. On the farm we have ringed a single barn owl chick.

I put the hens’ food away at night. Beneath the hopper I uncover a lovely wood mouse. Untroubled, it sits, liquid eyes. A bank vole belts between borders across the terrace. Another sighting of badger on the trail cams, this time enjoying the trickling water feature Roger has created in the stumpery. The source of the trickle is the clean water flow from our biodigester. The camera records seventeen species of bird there.

Our meadows are busy with ringlet and meadow brown butterflies. Cinnabar moth caterpillars throng the ragwort. Cobalt blue vipers bugloss is flowering for the first time. Greater knapweed has joined its lesser cousin. There’s a cloud of white bedstraw that’s new as well. And two orchid flowers! Inverted pink cones. From 2016 seed? I avoid them with the scythe as I take out seeding dock.

Now is the time that my inner seed collector emerges. A bulky bag of crackly yellow rattle seedheads yields lots of treasure. I cast it in meadow. In the vegetable garden, kale and rocket seeds ripen. My gardening forebears habitually collected their own seed from the most-vigorous plants ensuring that, over time, they built up a strain that fitted their conditions like a glove. This habit has been lost to many modern gardeners. They buy seed from the large companies whose seed is frequently not even of UK origin. Locally-provenanced seed suits local conditions best, ensuring healthy plants and good harvests . 

Second early potato 'Colleen' yielding 1kg per plant
We are now entering the season of abundance. Cropping vegetables: early potatoes, salads, spring onions, early carrots, broad beans, mange tout and that amazing accelerant called beetroot; and fruit: redcurrants, blueberries, blackcurrants, strawberries and summer raspberries. To keep the salad succession going: lettuces, basils, coriander, fennel and dill have been planted.
Well over 30kgs of organic vegetables and fruit brought to the kitchen since I began counting in March. Ours is a a very sandy site. After young plants have been planted, we do no additional watering. 

Further slow worm sightings. Jill misses them each time until finding two beneath one of the refugias. I had some old rubber foot mats from the car: they work perfectly. Slow worms, voles and toads hide beneath. Red and black ants make nests. Beetles, worms and pill woodlice enjoy the protection too.

A swarm of bees in the vegetable garden. Then silence when we look again. No characteristic cluster. The bees were probably not from our apiary. Perhaps from a feral colony that had absconded in a previous year and holed up in Crimea Plantation next door?

Some of the capped solitary bee tubes have opened - presumably young bees have emerged. Broad-bodied chasers sit above, grateful for the easy meal. 

I’m continuing my mass clearance of invasive parrot feather from the pond. I keep telling myself that two hours will finish the job. I’m accompanied in my work by great diving beetle, emperor dragonfly and common darter - as well as broad-bodied chasers.

The fragrant garden, prairie beds and hot borders are hitting their stride. 
Rosa 'Sunny skies' in the Fragrant Garden
Roses in every shade. Lavender. Tall lovage and fennel. Towering artichokes. Worryingly, deep scuff marks. A snuffling badger hunting voles on the edge of the lawn. It’s getting closer. And more confident.

Our organic harvest has prompted me to return to using locally-grown and milled organic flour from Nottingham’s own Greens windmill. The flour is milled from a bio-dynamic farm in nearby Sutton Bonnington. Excellent too. 

The Lamins Lane hedgerow is superb at the moment. Overgrown with cleavers, brambles and nettles. Red admiral, speckled wood and painted lady butterflies join the ringlet and meadow brown there. Lots of small birds. And frequently red-legged partridge. There are signs to say that the hedge will be cut at the weekend so I text my friend the farmer and he calls back. He's an unreconstructed kinda guy seeing me as an environmental storm trooper and refers to me as 'the Ayotollah'.

A wonderful summer. But where the sky should be screaming with summer migrant ‘Devil birds’ there is nothing. We are losing one of our most-amazing birds. The silence of swifts