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:
Mark
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
Constituent
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

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

a parliament of rooks

Removing invasive parrot feather
Honeysuckle scented midsummer evenings mixed with the petrichor aroma of the earth following more rain. The luxurious dusk song of the song thrush 'Who did it? Who did it? He did! He did!' joins the hammering of the blackbirds.

The first meadow brown butterflies of the year, nectar on bramble flowers in the hedge. A juvenile kestrel is scolded by chaffinches. Mating spotted longhorn beetles on umbels.

Counting crows as they pass at dusk to their roost in nearby Bestwood Country Park. Rooks, jackdaws, crows. Straggling in singles and small groups. Then a large flock - correctly the collective noun for rooks is 'a parliament'. Over a thousand. Many missing flight feathers - a sign of the annual moult.
Over the hill a donkey brays, forlorn to my evening ears. What sadness is he recalling?


Slow worm
' 'Oller blocks! They've used 'oller blocks!' I'm back to project managing the garage construction. Our groundworkers have arrived and view the work of the previous team and there is exasperated head shaking. Solid blocks were needed, not hollow. 'We'll need 130 red engineering bricks, one more A193 and two metres of gen 1 concrete 30 slump for Tuesday. 
Did you allow 300 overlap on the mesh?'
My valedictory project. I tell myself there’ll be no more.

Georges Pond is wretched with invasive parrot feather. Where we had a multitude of dragonflies and dozens of zig-zagging whirligig beetles on the meniscus of the water, there's nothing in the choked pond. I'm into the pond, be-wadered, pulling the stems out by hand and floating rafts of the removed vegetation to the bank. Almost a half done. At least another three hours of work ahead. My hands indelibly stained  purple from the bruised stems. But no attached leeches. Yet.
As I reach down to pull out another armful, a smooth newt rises to the surface - face-to-face and each of us surprised. Our first pond newt record.
The clear water immediately brings a darter, coupled damselflies and a dragonfly. Backswimmers too. This parrot feather control is time-consuming and not pleasant. Perhaps a water buffalo or a dugong may be the answer? My Christmas list begins... 
My phone rings over on the picnic table. My mum can't find my dad. We hunt, expecting a fall.
Spotted longhorn beetles
My sister discovers him almost a mile away, on walkabout down the coach road, unscathed but utterly lost. This is a man whose inability to walk even a few metres frequently requires assistance and merits a disabled parking badge.
He fell in the house the following day opening the lounge door, requiring two of us to lift him.

The unmown lawn is a celebration of flowering ribwort plantain. Tiny moths tumble about in the vegetation. A second section of the lawn is now left uncut. This will grow on after the present unmown section has a cut.

The perennials in Jill's prairie beds are stunning. Not yet in full flower, the contrast in their forms, sizes and leaf colours is art. As is the hot border by the house. 

Trev and Linda gave us a walnut tree when we began developing the gardens. It was slowed down when we moved it but is now beginning to fill with leaf. Walnuts are planted for ones' grandchildren, apparently.
Hot border

More composting. I turn two compartments and mix them into one to be left until the autumn - and disturb a mature female slow worm.  She has a distinct dorsal stripe which is absent in the male. Can there be any finer quality mark for home made organic compost than the endorsement of slow worms..? Later, the same day, a slender golden juvenile male beneath one of the refugias in the Cedar Walk.

The summer equinox has passed and was the final day for picking asparagus. The green asparagus fingers quickly become exotic ferns, over seven feet in height.

Above the vegetable garden, our seven tall lime trees have the suggestion of humming. The next sunny day will see them full off bees.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Natural healing

The heavy door is being pushed closed. Before inevitable blackness, my gaoler takes a last look at me. I've already had periods of incarceration in two shower cubicles. And had my glasses confiscated and porridge eaten. Eighteen-month-olds who've discovered the wonder of a darkened pantry and a captive and malleable grandfather can be demanding kidnappers. I await release.

We've had proper rain ...
The pendulum swings and I'm checking through images captured on my trail cameras. Foxes and pheasants. And on the terrace, after dawn, my barefooted dad captured in his pyjamas,  anguished, face pressed against the windows, searching for our bedroom.

In the news this week a report that says that two hours of nature significantly boosts health and wellbeing*. As my dad deteriorates and decisions will need to be taken, I need nature and its' benefits like never before.

Later, (organised by my sister) we take dad to see Thomas Piper's 'Five seasons' - the film documentary about the work of dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. His landscapes open up on the wide screen like a succession of water colour abstracts and move through the seasons from his exquisite summer pastels to the muted sepia tones of winter. A remarkable film about a remarkable plant artist - and dad for the most part awake throughout seeming to take something from it. Piet is a giant in landscape design as dad has been in our lives.

I need to add a footnote to my admiration of Oudolf. He makes little overt reference to the importance of plant choice and management to wildlife - especially invertebrates. We have a large area devoted to ‘Prairie Beds’. They make a wonderful refuge for mammals, flowers such as his signature cone flowers and Joe-Pye weed are adored by bees - and finches flock to the seeding heads of Turkish Sage left overwinter. He misses this opportunity and should do more to tailor his planting schemes and management to have a measurable and positive impact on wildlife.

A male cuckoo calling loudly close to the kitchen. Two male bullfinches - gloriously rosy. And  feeders full of juvenile birds. We've checked one hundred and fifty local nest boxes and ringed most of the occupants of successful nests. Where are all these un-ringed birds coming from?

Our foxes remain. A dampened adult in the persistent rain crosses the Woodland Garden,  mouth full of food to the den beneath next doors shipping container. The hedgehog cafe tipped over in the night and food eaten by the dog fox. But no sight of three cubs together. An ominous rotting stench greets us as we remove seeding heads from drive-side perennials near the den.

No hedgehog sitings for ten days. Perhaps the foxes..?

Dwarf beans germinate in
peat-free compost
We've had proper rain this month, filling George's Pond and penetrating the soil. Good news for the ground isn't necessarily the same for nesting birds. Those in holes or boxes have some protection but ground nesters will have difficulties. The pincer movement of rain waterlogging nests and our hungry foxes may have prevented successful breeding of mallards and pheasants. No ducklings or chicks yet. An enterprising wren has made its' tiny nest in the hen house. No matter how I approach, the bird darts away leaving me guilty about the disturbance.

At Bempton, Yorkshire we watch a barn owl flying during the day, like a large cream moth.  A probable sign of stress as barn owl feathers lack waterproofing. They cannot hunt and feed their young during wet weather.

Three house sparrow chicks ringed. The confiding adult birds chirrup when their bowl of mealworms is empty. A robin has also learned of this inexhaustible food supply and dives in. A ringed juvenile sparrow on the feeders. Nesting material carried to the colony box and the adult birds' attempted copulation bode well for a second brood...

Above the bird song the sky is silent. No swifts, swallows or house martins. A silence louder than the Lancaster bomber that passes low overhead twice in two weeks. The loss of these birds is complex, avoidable - and utterly shaming to us all.

In the Woodland Garden, a rare sight for Jill. A stream of honey bees overhead: a mating flight. The pheromones of the queen bee draw male drones to chase her and mate.

Cream-bordered green pea moth
Despite the rain, our strawberries swell and ripen. It won't be a bumper year. One kilo of fruit used for jam so far. Outside, we re-enact the Battle of Rorkes Drift but the denouement differs. Waves of grey squirrels enter the strawberry beds, departing with fruit. I am not tooled for war and my inadequate response is remonstration.

Some of my best Cordwood memories will be the evenings. Honeysuckle is still scenting the night air. The moth light glows warm beneath the trees. x moths of y species at our last count. A tiny migrant cream-bordered green pea moth (Earias clorana) new for us.

Our Vegetable Garden is beginning to crop. The air sweet as I twist big overwintering red onions out of the moist ground and place them in a tray for drying. Meagre shallots and garlic are lifted too. The bed has been undermined by moles and I push the soft earth down with my heals before mulching, raking and then sowing Autumn King carrots and planting parsley and lettuce. Crispy salads of leaves, pea shoots, dill and coriander. Our first crop of broad beans came in at just over 1kg of plump, juicy beans. 22kgs of fresh, organic food brought to the kitchen since March.

Juvenile house sparrow
Our asparagus is in its' first year of cropping and a magnet for asparagus beetle. Whenever I pass, I scour the stalks for the spotty pest. They've crafty critters and fall to the soil if they know I'm hunting them. I cup the stalks beneath the beetles so that they fall into my palm. A new pest for us is beetroot leaf miner which infests the leaves of beetroot and chard.

Like all gardeners we plan for the following year. Compost slowly matures - now at 50C. Horse manure and chippings have been delivered.

I work among bird song, hands in soil, hoeing and weeding until tired. I collect a trug of beetroot, asparagus, spring onions, fresh eggs and baby carrots. Natural healing.

*The Guardian 13 June 2019

Monday, 10 June 2019

hell hath no fury ...

Juvenile little owl
There has been rain, with a lot more forecast this week - and the garden has shown its' appreciation. Perennials in the prairie beds are now thick and strong. The fragrant garden shrubs are beginning to give an idea of what this area will look like when mature. Pompoms of pink chive flowers are irresistible to bumbles.

Strawberries are now cropping - we have the jam sugar in readiness.The haulm of the potatoes in the vegetable garden is upright and vigorous. 'Colleen' is in flower and burgundy-coloured 'Red Duke of York' is following on. Our salad leaves currently include various red and green lettuce, rocket leaves, pea shoots, coriander, dill, spring onions and radish. Fresh, crisp sweet.

Over 20kg of produce taken from the garden during the 'quiet months' since March.

Another mowing of the lawn with grass cuttings incorporated into compost. The temperature quickly accelerates to 70 C and has held this for several days. This temperature could scald, if the skin were exposed to it for half a second. No wonder it kills soil pathogens, weed seeds and the roots of perennial plants. All done naturally and organically by microbes. My aim is to have 70 wheelbarrow loads ready for mulching by late autumn.

At night, the creamy blackcurrant scent of elderflowers. Big plates of flowers, a few collected and used for elderflower cordial: the queen of soft drinks. The first honeysuckle flowers are beginning to open, adding their distinct summer sweetness to the air.

Elderflowers steep in syrup and citrus
Everything points to this being a good year for small mammals as measured by the brood sizes of owls and kestrels. Our tawnies no longer squeak throughout the night. We hope they've moved on to their next stage of development and are now feathered and strong. Rich ringed five healthy young kestrels on the farm. Kestrels nest each year in a cleavage in an old oak. Only one successful barn owl nest so far - three youngsters too young to ring requiring special 'Schedule 1' authority. We hope to ring them in a couple of weeks. And five young little owls - the second successful year using that box and that special satisfaction of birds breeding in boxes one has made and sited oneself.

An emboldened red fox crosses the lawn, head down, purposeful. Both mum and I see it. At night, their eerie bark/ scream close by as I go to close the hens house. Cubs frequently seen. Hens grumble in their run.

Juvenile kestrel
And a badger. The first we've recorded. A short snatch on the trail cam. Yesterday, up by the boundary hawthorn hedge next to my sisters hen run is a badger snuffle. It looks as though it had smelled a vole nest and rooted through the turf finding it. Both the Head Gardener and the Chief Apiarist carry studied expressions. Badgers numbers are on the rise. Their huge paws can cause devastation to a garden. Or a hive.

The short period of quiet that the bird feeders enjoyed is at an end. Juvenile birds queue up. Blue and great tits, goldfinches, greenfinches, a baby red-capped great spotted woodpecker. And a juvenile starling. The squirrels have completely trashed the bird table - I must make another.

Our house sparrows have occupied two compartments of the colony box. One room contains three eggs and next door has three young and an egg. Perhaps the hen is building up her next clutch so that the male may take over the young birds when she is brooding? Perhaps the first clutch failed and the young are the result of a second clutch? The young were too small to ring. Hopefully we'll get to them before they fledge.
The male bird nibbles away at the fat balls. The female visits the bowl of live mealworms, taking frequent wriggling meals back to the nest.

Amongst the successes, failure. This week saw International Swift Day. A meagre three birds seen in the sky above the garden so far this year where once there would have been dozens. None of their characteristic screaming - the air empty. Are our swifts set to be another species that has been driven to local extinction....?

There's domestic unrest. That's it. On no more occasions will live mealworms be found on the counter in the utility room. Do you understand? No more.
Hell hath no fury like a woman wormed.


Tuesday, 4 June 2019

in the night garden ..

The secrets of the night. Hidden by darkness and perhaps our laziness in not being outside as the sun goes down.

There's coughing and snuffling in the Woodland Garden. I stand listening and a small fox cub catapults from beneath an elder and across my feet. Each equally surprised. I fear for the hens. But I've spent a weekend with my little grandson and sentimentally see him in all young creatures. My cameras catch the cubs at play.

Peppered moth
At dusk, tiny common pipistrelle bats click the bat detector, high between trees, 45kHz. By the pond, lower and echo-locating higher at 55kHz are their cousins, soprano pipistrelle bats. We watch them for some time, sometimes just above our heads, thankful Jill isn't sporting her seaside hair.. Seemingly larger than common pipistrelles. Weaving circles and ellipses.

The tawny babies continue to squeak throughout the night, now in the Cedar Walk or in the wood beyond - it is difficult to judge. We think we can hear three calling - perhaps even the littlest owlet fledged?  There seem to be plentiful small mammals. We watch a vole from the kitchen window... Tentative. Out from beneath shrubs in the Fragrant Garden.

Ragwort attracting meadow brown
and gatekeeper butterflies
By night, hedgehogs are visiting both cafes. Or perhaps one glutton? This year I wait to see two together. There's hedgehog poo in the grass of the no-mow part of the lawn.

We are out with our moth light. 61 moths of 23 species. A peppered moth. The masterpiece of camouflage that is the buff tip moth, which appears no more than a short piece of stick. And more red-and-black cinnabar moths than we've ever recorded - perhaps because we welcome their host plant, the unfairly-maligned ragwort. It's leaves are toxic but its long-lasting yellow daisy flowers work hard throughout summer providing a nectar source for insects. The cinnabar lays her eggs on the ragwort. They hatch to become black-and-yellow caterpillar tigers.

Tonight we visit the little owl nest box to check on, and hopefully ring, their young.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Fox cubs, bullfinch and juvenile starlings

Forecast showers have done little more than threaten my mother's shampoo and set. I'm planting sweet corn in the Vegetable Garden and a hen pheasant clucks her disapproval. She’s in the throws of her sand bath in the bed I'm intending to plant. She rolls onto her side and fluffs the sand up with her feet. She must finish her toilette before I can mark the ground out with string lines.

Two fox cubs bundle out of the hedge bottom and tumble down the drive. The night camera tells me we have at least three cubs. In the video, a hedgehog goes about its' business  in the hedgehog cafe, paying the fox cub no regard.

The Vegetable Garden is almost planted. Tender beans, squash and courgettes have been planted. There can be few satisfactions to match that of the vegetable gardener as the end of May as he/she looks back at what's been planted. 'A garden needs a good coat of looking at.' Our radish harvest goes on. Over a kilo of radish harvested. I give surplus to the poor. Not literally. Not sure what the hooded, gaunt men who sit with their dogs on the street corners of Nottingham would say if, when asking for a pound for a cup of tea, they were instead handed radishes. We are moving towards the time when the garden will be at its' most-productive. 14.5 kilos of food harvested since I began records in March. 

Goldfinches have returned to the mother feeder. On the bird table a male bullfinch. Soft focus rosey pinks and greys. Utterly, utterly gorgeous. Not so very long ago, these beautiful birds were so plentiful that they were considered a pest in orchards where they were said to strip the buds of fruit  trees. Bullfinches, in my lifetime were trapped and killed in their thousands.  This was our first garden record for a year and may be a sign that we have a breeding pair. Bullfinches are are unique among British finches in their monogamy and faithfulness.

Sweet corn doesn’t thrive in our thin dry soil. Last year's lack of rain saw the plants severely stunted. The paltry cobs they produced were scrumped one night by a dog fox. He shat leaving his calling card studded with yellow among the wrecked plants.

Half of the polytunnel is now planted  - with tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. The worst tomatoes we've ever grown, probably due to the cold nights following hot greenhouse days. Could the arrested development also be due to the peat-free compost we use? It's recommended by the RHS, but the suspicion is that it doesn't retain water in the way that peat does. Out here in the ethical left-field we don't countenance use of peat. Harvesting peat is massively damaging to fragile and increasingly rare eco-systems and releases CO2. But each garden centre is stacked high with peat products servicing the needs of well over twenty million gardeners. The volume of peat being stripped from the environment to service this demand is eye-watering. And big business too. Is it time for a co-operative to promote peat-free, organic composts to raise standards, increase confidence and improve awareness - and bring it within the price range of 'average' gardeners? Is it also time to accredit growers who use peat-free? And isn't it time that the august RHS declared it's flagship Chelsea Flower Show to be completely peat-free?

This has been a stellar starling year. Around 200 garrulous juveniles. Feeding at next-door-but-one's on Wilko suet pellets and muesli. Then skipping over us to the mobile home park. Burring. Never once stopping for the smorgasbord of suet pellets and dried and live mealworms I'm offering in feeders. I even mowed what looks like a cricket strip in the lawn and poured food on the ground. I'm abasing myself. Nothing. Carrion crows, magpies and pheasants approved though.

The liquid song of the blackcap fills the Woodland Garden and Birch Border.

At night our tawnies and their young puncture the evening quiet with their calls. Common pipistrelle bats overhead, clicking the bat detector. And the brightest International Space Station pass we've seen.