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owlet

The cattle were bawling again. They’d been at it on and off all day.

‘What is up with them?’ I muttered to myself ‘I only moved them Friday? Can’t be short of grass yet, surely.’

I was in the middle of feeding hens, feeding dogs, getting washing in, and picking veggies for supper.

I had another thought – perhaps the water wasn’t working and they were thirsty. That would explain the ruckus. I called over to Robert who was busy saving potatoes (you’ve guessed, they’ve all got blight. Damn it. Well, one bed anyway)

‘You couldn’t check on the cows for me could you? Don’t know what’s got into them. Water possibly?’ Robert’s far more able to deal with water repairs than I am.

‘No’ he said when he reappeared ‘Water’s fine. They’re hungry. Starving actually!’

‘Weird, there was plenty of grass there. Okay. Let’s move them then.’

We set off down the lane. It’s been a good year for our farm. Ideal conditions from winter to summer have resulted in an abundance of grass without our normal swamp-like conditions.

‘Where are you moving them too?’ asked Robert.

‘Five and Dung’ I replied ‘Though it could be Dillings, Flop or Top!’ I grinned up at him ‘Good to have a choice once in a while.’

Five Acres and Dung Field are at the end of a remnant of ancient green lane. To get there we pass Turkey Shed, a beautiful haphazard barn made from elm boarding which Robert restored twenty odd years ago. I love it; it’s one of the most beautiful buildings on the farm. At the time of its restoration Robert installed a barn owl box, which had never been used for breeding but it did become a favourite roosting site.   This year, though, the owls’ preferred box in another barn was taken over by jackdaws and they resorted to nesting in Turkey Shed.

The cattle turned up the lane with me bringing up the rear – as we passed Turkey Shed I noticed feathers in the mud and a few yards further on there was the dead mutilated body of a barn owl.

‘Oh no, oh no, no. Robert, look! One of the barn owls…oh I can’t believe it.’ We secured the cattle into the field and went back to the dead owl.

‘That’s tragic. Just awful. After all those years.’ The barn owls have been severely hit by the last three years of unprecedented wetness and as far as we know haven’t bred successfully on the farm for about four. And now this…

‘I think we’d better check the nest. Just to be sure there are no chicks starving in there.’ Robert said as we looked up at the nest box for signs of life. ‘I’ll get a ladder. Can you bring down a box and torch?’

By the time I got back Robert was up the ladder. ‘Can you hand me the torch.’ He asked. I passed it up ‘What can you see? Anything there?’ I asked as I craned my neck ‘Empty?’

‘Er…yes, uh….wait a moment. No! There’s one here. Oh god…its foot. Its foot’s caught! Uh…baler twine…it’s caught up in baler twine. Tight around its foot…it’s tethered!’ he attempted to cut it free ‘Got it. Here…’and he passed me the lightest bundle of stinking snowy-white fluff. One foot was grossly deformed and swollen, baler cord biting deep into the flesh just above the foot. I rushed up to the house with my precious bundle

‘Oll, Oll! Can you help please? I’ve got a baby owl…baler cord caught tight around its foot…need some help…got to get it off. Are you there?’

Olly came down the stairs ‘Ah Jesus! Poor bugger. That’s awful. Hang on I need scissors…bloody hell it’s going to be painful when it comes off…’

the owlet's swollen damaged foot

Together we carefully and methodically cut away the cord buried deep into the tissue above the foot and around a toe. I feared gangrene, infection, the worse. Once we’d removed all the tiny fibres I bathed the foot in warm, salty water and massaged it gently with teatree oil.

We now had a tiny, traumatised wild owlet in our midst. Would he survive? Would the shock and the pain prove too much for him? After all barn owls are notoriously emotionally sensitive…difficult.

It was getting late. After I’d forced-fed him strips of raw beef I put him to bed in a box lined with fleece. Tomorrow, if he survived the night, I’d phone the vet, source some suitable food and get as much advice as I could.

after we'd delt with his foot and fed him - ready for bed...

Guelder-rose berries and ash tree, Locks Park, 8 Oct 09 reduced

Guelder-rose berries and ash tree

It’s Devon Hedge Week! What a perfect week it’s been to celebrate our amazing hedges…and the breathtaking autumn colours.

Last weekend we held our own event at the farm on hedge management, hedgerow trees and dormice – staring Dora, of course!

Interestingly most people when asked about hedge management would say without hesitation ‘Laying is good. Flailing is bad.’ This is not strictly true. Yes I do agree there’s still a lot of poor hedge cutting practice about, but flail mowing itself is not a bad thing. In fact hedge cutting is positively beneficial in most cases, and the flail is the best means available in the majority of circumstances.

Here you see Robbie our contractor flail cutting a hedge we laid two years ago, taking care not to damage the ash hedgerow tree.

Our contractor is flail cutting a hedge we laid two years ago and is taking care not to damage the ash hedgerow tree

You see cutting promotes thick, dense cover necessary for many of our smaller breeding birds (warbler, finch, sparrow, dunnock) and dormice. Interestingly it is along the knotty growth of the fail-line that you’ll find most bird and dormice nests.  Cutting also prolongs the period before a hedge needs to be rejuvenated by laying or coppicing. Laying is costly and time consuming so it’s important that management should try to keep the hedge in good condition for as long as possible before laying is necessary again.

young wych elm tree and hedge fail

young wych elm tree and hedge fail

Back to flail mowing, the main issues here are, of course, that hedges are either cut too often, or too short and thin. Hedgelink has recently produced an excellent leaflet (click on link for pdf) which takes one through the management cycle and the management options for each of stage of the hedge.

‘We encourage cutting on a 2 or preferably 3 or more year cycle, raising the cutting height a few inches each time, and staggering cutting between years.  There are times, though when cutting annually is necessary, for example to maintain road visibility, or desirable for the hedge base flora – the magnificent displays of primroses, bluebells and other spring flowers along many Devon hedge banks are dependent on frequent, close, cutting.  Cutting two or three year old growth can make a hedge look unsightly for a while, but it’s remarkable how quickly they recover, and as far as we know, no lasting damage is done to plant survival or hedge structure (research is underway to test this).’

Of course if you are managing your hedges mainly for wood, cutting would be counter productive as you’d want the growth to ensure a good wood harvest; but if possible aim at having as many hedges you can at different stages in their cycle.

So don’t dispair when you see fail mowed hedgerows – it’s the autumn-clean for next year’s wildlife!

juvenile-dormice-3-five-corners-28-sept-08-reduced

...and just perfect for us!

female orange tip butterfly on lady's smock

female orange tip butterfly on lady's smock

May, extraordinary exuberant May. How can anyone fail to be blown away by such a stunning month? I walk with my eyes out on stalks. They sweep across the multi-layers of a green-gold filigree landscape and down to minute iridescent creatures nestled in the heart of a buttercup. Every sense is tingled and tweezed.

the tiny micropterix calthella moth on a buttercup

the tiny micropterix calthella moth on a buttercup. See the mating pair?

The scent of blossoms is exquisite yet elusive, I catch a wisp, a suggestion – then it’s gone – I find myself sniffing, head up like a wild animal. Greens, there are so many and each with its own aroma; nasal sharp and acid citrus-bright, crushed bitter-sweet liquor and garlic-pungent aromatics – I taste each smell on my tongue.

bog-bean blooming in Rob's Folly - Forty Acres

*bog-bean blooming in Rob's Folly - Forty Acres

I become sensitised to sound. Like a tuning fork I pick up the buzz and whir of the insect world under the constant celebration of bird song. The steady bass drone of the bumble bee, the frenetic high-pitched whine of the midge and the scary cacophony of a billion cluster flies taking off from the thatch as the sun pops out from behind a cloud. Fragile daddy-long-legs flip-flap knocking and bumping with flimsy clumsiness and March flies thistledown around your head, sticking in your hair, eyes and lips.

blue tit nest and eggs in birdbox

blue tit nest and eggs in birdbox

Life’s abundant. It’s everywhere.  There’s a continuous rustling and scurrying in the trees, hedgerows and verges. And did you know we’ve hares in the far River Meadow? I’m so excited; it’s unusual for this non-arable part of the world.  And the Hobby is back!

*Interesting links to bogbean also this one for Sian!

male greenfinch

male greenfinch (google images)

“There’s a greenfinch! Quick! Come and look!” Robert was shout-whispering up at me from the kitchen. “I thought they were all dead! That’s good. Oh it’s wonderfully marked too. Beautiful!” he paused “Come on, come down quickly. But don’t make a noise!” He hissed up the stairs.
My office is just above the kitchen with the same, but elevated, view of the bird table. “I can see it from up here.” I whispered “Oh look, and there’s the female. Just behind the chaffinch. Can you see?”
“No, no that’s another female chaff…oh no, yes, wait, yeh, I can. That’s nice. That is nice. I really thought they were all done for. We haven’t seen any this year, have we? Do you remember when there were hundreds of them?”

Our bird table, directly outside the kitchen window, is a huge source of pleasure to us and to friends and visitors. Many’s the time when someone new to the farm  becomes mesmerised mid-sentence as some bird or other is spotted feeding and they’ll turn to you with excitement, gabbling “I just saw three nuthatches (or marsh/willow tits, greater spotted woodpecker babies or similar). I did. There. On the table!”  Jabbing a finger in the direction of the window they are rather nonplussed by our nonchalance!

We are lucky, we have huge variety and number of birds that come to feed; most probably because we are in such a rural position and there are no other bird feeding stations for miles around, unlike those more urban locations where the birds can become picky due to the vast choice available to them.

But back to the greenfinches. They used to be one of the most numerous birds at the bird table when we first put up in its current spot about thirteen years ago. But over the last few years they have declined rapidly (possibly due to the trichomoniasis outbreak) and now we are lucky if we see just a few a year. Robert is worried, especially as they were so common. (Oh excitement again…I’ve just been downstairs to let the puppy out and seen another female greenfinch feeding!). But they appear to still have green (OK) status with the RSPB. Are they all with you?

bullfinch on nest

bullfinch on nest

It used to be the other way round with the bullfinch though. Now there’s a bird that’s increased markedly in numbers around our bird table.  We are so used to the eye-catching bright pink-red of the male, that now we would prefer to see the subtler greens and yellows of the greenfinch!  Still, we’re not complaining.  Bullfinches have red (threatened) status because they’ve declined so much nationally.  (I suppose it’s only right that greenfinches should have green status and bullfinches red status.) We are lucky to have so many of them, and they don’t damage the fruit trees much, as far as we know.  Robert thinks it’s the thick dense hedges we have, that keep their nests safe from marauding magpies and jays, which explains why they do so well with us.  This year he’s found a couple of nests, and photographed one.  That and the constant supply of sunflower seeds!

bullfinch nest and eggs

bullfinch nest and eggs

chiffchaff

chiffchaff

I was clearing up in the kitchen yesterday morning when Robert walked in. I turned to ask him something about weighing a load of young stock that were being collected around lunch time but stopped when I saw his face

“Wow, that’s a big grin! What’s that for?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing.” His grin was growing bigger by the minute “Nothing.”

“But something’s made you light up like a beacon…what’s it, hey? The wonderful, wonderful sun? Oh I know I know…it’s because I’m selling a load of animals today! That’s made you smile!”

Our land, as you’ve gathered, has been badly affected by the last two unprecedented wet years. The farm has all but stopped growing grass and we don’t expect much improvement this year even if the weather is better. Worried at how we will manage to produce enough grazing and forage I made a decision to sell twelve of my young stock. These were being bought by an organic farmer from South Devon who is already ankle deep in grass. My animals will thrive on it!

Robert went all smiley-secretive “No, actually. Though, of course, that does make me relieved and happy.”

“What then. Look at you. Like a cat that’s got the cream.”

He laughed “Weeell, I was just sitting on the bench outside when I heard a chiffchaff…and then, just to make sure it came and sat on the gate. Sat there, right in front of me. A confirmed sighting!”

“Really? Fantastic. That’s earlier than last year isn’t it?”

“A little, most years they arrive on, or very close to, 21 March.”  He went on to say that his records over the last 18 years showed no trend towards earlier arrival, as might be expected from all the talk about climate change.  In fact, although not denying that springs are getting earlier (some years), he believes that many of the trends for earlier and earlier sightings can be explained simply be people looking harder, and making better records. The result, I should think, of all those high profile Nature Watch/Birding programmes on telly!

It doesn’t matter though, whether it’s early or late, to me it’s a sure sign that Spring it really on it’s way. Hooray!

last year's chiffchaff nest with eggs (you can just see them)

last year's chiffchaff nest with eggs (you can just see them)

three young barn owls

three young barn owls

Hoorah! Our barn owls are back after a lapse of three years. One’s been screeching and screaming in and around the yard for a week or so, his bright white droppings clearly visible on the concrete and yesterday Robert got a good look at him.

When we first came here, barn owls used a couple of our barns for roosting but the birds clearly found them unsuitable for breeding. So, when Robert and friend Tony built Top Barn adjacent to the farmhouse, they placed a nesting box high in the apex, hoping it would be more to the owls’ liking.  Lo and behold a breeding pair settled in comfortably within the year. We had our breeding barn owls… right next to the house.

This was before the time of instant internet access (or even household PCs), or of common-or-garden digital cameras, videos, camcorders and the like. Soon after the owls moved in, I was at the Devon County Show and saw a stand launching an infra-red nest box camera and I bought it for Robert’s birthday. After a few teething problems he soon had it up and running, and in the comfort of the study we had 24/7 access to the private life of the barn owl.

It was mesmeric and addictive – far better than anything Big Brother has to offer. We watched and learnt much about our pair of owls. They were devoted to one another and though mates often roost in separate locations these never did, enjoying each other’s company during the day, preening, talking, nuzzling and shuffling after one another. When the female began to lay eggs and brood them the male couldn’t have been more attentive bringing her tasty morsels and relieving her of her duties so she could stretch her wings. It was quite enchanting. They managed to raise several young, sharing the burden of hunting and brooding – the male always watchful, making sure his mate had a portion of the prey before the ravenous youngsters were fed their share.

This continued for a good few years, the owls becoming part and parcel of our lives. The youngsters, familiar with our voices and movements, were soon imprinting on us, screeching and yelling at us for food, wobbling around on their nest box platform like a bunch of gargoylish, gorky bobbing puppets. They were captivating and once feathered, hauntingly beautiful. We watched their maiden flights in the dimpsy twilight around Top Meadow, holding our breath as they ventured further afield with each night’s growing confidence.

Suddenly, one year, the female was no longer around. Her mate was devastated, moping and calling for her. He succeeded in finding another female, but it was not the same, there was none of the intimacy and care. Their brood was smaller and not as successful. We believe that from then on his mates changed every year but by this time our camera had broken after many years of constant use.

Four years ago we experienced an explosion in the vole population. The following year, as often happens, there was a crash and our owl family did not breed.  Since then we’ve had two unprecedented wet years with not a barn owl to be seen hunting over the farm – it has been very sad.    But now at least one is back, and calling…..

barn-owl-38

...and you thought you knew about him

...and you thought you knew all about him

The alarm sounded. I start violently; my head rattles with reverberations as it jerks me out of sleep. I’m not used to alarms – they hurt and unnerve me. I’m lucky to have a body-kind internal one that wakes me up naturally.  But Robert was off to London on the early train and needed to get up half an hour before my normal waking time. I open a sleep-sticky eye, for a second I’m bewildered but with relieved realisation I sigh and snuggle back into the cosy warmth of the duvet and drift into a blissful half conscious state…

…I’m awake, acutely alert; every nerve and every sense quivers with tense vitality. I’m standing outside the kitchen window looking past the bird table and the immediate line of oaks to the woods and marshes of Lewmoor, across the green fields of Lower Pulworthy, up the gentle slopes of Venton to the steeple of Highampton church on the skyline ridge: it’s Windowlene smear-free blue-ice clear; building blocks of vivid concentrated colour vie with one another, hard-edge butting hard-edge, eventually sliding into a startling compromise of overlapping cellophane layers in iridescent hues. I breathe in the colour; each shade pulses through my blood in goose-bump chords of music wrapped in a sensation of cold, clean water or soft gentle breezes.
Slowly my eyes travel back to the sky above the bird table where I become aware of great tits, blue tits, marsh, willow and coal tits, nuthatches, chaffinches, green finches, bullfinches, robins, blackbirds and even woodpeckers circling in a vast rainbow flock; every now and again one breaks away and flies toward me where in a fleeting hover above my head it releases something from its beak before rejoining the flock. I stand in open-mouthed amazement and realisation – of course, now I understand!

Abruptly I wake deep in the sweet sleepy warmth of our bed, a jumble of pillow and duvet. Only a few minutes or so had passed since the alarm went off. In the moment of awakening the strength of my dream dominated my thoughts. I knew, with the utmost certainty,  I had found out something of infinite importance. It was wholly credible. I must get up now and write about it. What was this world-shaking discovery?  Wait for it – and yes, for that instant, this was totally plausible.

Birds find our messages/emails drifting aimlessly in the ether; they pluck them out and deliver them directly into our heads for us to open!

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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