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contented calf browsing hedge after TB testing summer 07

Okay, here goes. The paper which landed on Robert’s desk the week of our TB test wasn’t a recent publication…in fact it was published in 2006. It never receive the coverage it should have at the time. Strangely its arrival had nothing whatsoever to do with the farm or our impending TB test. It was forwarded to Robert because of his involvement in all things hedge (being  chair of the national hedgerow Biodiversity Action Plan group, Hedglink and co-chair of the Devon Hedge Group).

Robert popped his head around my office door “You should take a look at this.”

“What?” I looked up at him

“A paper on bovine TB linked to hedges”

“Hedges?”I scratched the top of my head and twiddled the hair “What…hedges decrease, increase the incidences?” As always when another study is published on bTB my reactions are mixed…hope, doubt, excitement, negativity and a kind of destructive inevitability.

“Decrease apparently”

“Oh something went wrong around here then!” I said wryly “Us being one of the most heavily hedged landscapes in Britain with some of the worst incidences of TB.”I leant back in my chair “So how do you mean? Good thick boundaries between contiguous farms?” I went on pre-empting his explanation “I didn’t know this…but the spread of disease from cattle to cattle out in the field is apparently quite unusual. The vet said a TB infected animal has to have developed lesions in the head and lungs and to hawk violently onto an area of grass just before it’s ingested by another animal to get cross contamination. Interesting…I always thought it was a much more tenuous encounter” I stretched “So, what’s its claim then? The paper? Where was the research carried out?” adding tongue-in-cheek “The hedgeless, stockless arable wastes in the east of the country?”

“No. Here. In North Devon. And on the Hereford/Gloucestershire boarder!” He grinned “I’ll send you a link. Have a look for yourself!”

So I did.

The study covered 120 dairy farms, 60 with recently infected herds and 60 without, and looked at the influence of various factors on the incidence of bovine TB.  These factors were farmland habitat, topography (landform), badger density, proximity of farms with breakdowns, stocking density and herd size.

As expected bTB incidence was found to be linked to herd size and distance to nearest infected farms.  In line with some other studies but not all, incidence was not found to be closely linked to badger density.  It was also not closely linked to the extent or configuration of deciduous woodlands nor to the extent of pasture (both favoured badger habitats).

What was new was that hedgerow characteristics were found to be strong predictors of breakdown incidence.   Hedgerow abundance, the number of hedgerow gaps, and the number of ungrazed field boundaries were all important.  For example, a ‘hedge-poor’ farm (as defined in the paper) would be expected on average to have a 1.6 times greater risk of bTB than a ‘hedge-rich’ farm.  Considering just total hedgerow length, an increase of 1 km per 100 ha was associated with a decrease in the risk of breakdowns by about 12.5%:  in absolute terms this equates to the annual risk of bTB changing from 9.2% to 8.1% for herds in the West of England: an annual reduction of 251 infected herds (based on 2004 figures).  These figures were controlled for herd size and distance to next bTB case: it is not simply the case that farms with plenty of good hedgerows have a lower stocking density.

The authors conclude that habitat management appears important to a farm’s bTB risk. ‘Nature friendly’ management practices – the presence of ungrazed wildlife strips, and the greater availability, width and continuity of hedgerow – are all associated with reduced bTB incidence.

They could only speculate on the mechanism through which hedgerows may reduce incidence of bTB, but  suggest it could be due to one of two factors.  The first is that hedge-rich farms are managed differently – for example they have different crop rotations which reduce the likelihood of cattle eating contaminated grass.  The second (and more likely) is that the presence of hedges reduces badger-cattle transmission because a higher proportion of contaminated grass is kept out of the reach of cattle.  Badgers preferentially use hedgerows as movement corridors and for their latrines, so where cattle are excluded from these areas by either hedge growth or fences, contact with the bacteria is reduced.

Given the practical difficulties associated with badger culling, and the fact that to be effective it has to be carried out over large areas (because of the perturbation effect), the authors suggest that improving habitat features such as hedgerows and ungrazed wildlife margins might be a more cost effective strategy to reduce infection.

So there you have it. A piece of research I had no idea existed. And the one thing we have on this farm? Exceptional density of hedges…with very few gaps; in fact we  have many more hedges now than were present on the 1840 Tithe Map.

Could this be (and I hardly dare think it, let alone say it) a reason why we ‘continue’ (whispered very quietly) to go clear?

...so! hedges are good for something other than browsing?

aspen-in-autumn-lewmoor-oct-04-reduced

autumn coulour

Last night a low pressure weather system from the Atlantic roared into the South West. High winds and rain tore through the countryside screeching and wailing along quiet lanes, rattling and crashing through hushed farmsteads and howling over silent meadows. Trees and branches bent, twisting and gyrating under the onslaught; their leaves, whipped into a rattling frenzy, hung by tenuous thread before being ripped, torn and hurled into chaotic cyclones spiralling across the countryside.   And how appropriate! How fitting that Nature should use her elemental power to scour and cleanse herself for the ancient festival of Samhain.

This morning the ground has changed into a confused tapestry of molten bronze, burnished copper and liquid gold. The trees, denuded of their autumn finery, silhouette a filigree of delicate lacework branches against the skyline. It’s only now that it becomes obvious that most of the trees around here are hedgerow trees, as the details of the landscape become apparent.  But for how much longer will these trees grace our countryside?

hedgerow trees at the bottom of Dillings before last night's gales.

hedgerow trees between Dillings and Rushy Field before last night's gales.

Nationally, over the last decade we’ve lost one in twenty of our hedgerow trees, a 5% decline between 1998 and 2007.  Quite simply, there are not enough young trees being allowed to grow up to replace those that are dying or being felled.

It’s true that hedgerow trees often cause problems for the farmer.  If not carefully managed, as they grow up the shade they cast can result in gaps in the hedge beneath, making it less stock-proof.  Trees add considerably to the time taken to cut a hedge, and their limbs can get in the way of farm machinery and overhead lines.  And there’s always the risk that they will be hazardous later in life.  But they are of great value to wildlife and the landscape.

Old, veteran, trees are of special wildlife importance, their cracks and holes providing nest and roost sites for birds like tits, woodpeckers and owls, and for many bats.  Their rotting wood is home to huge numbers of different invertebrates – insects and so forth, especially beetles – and for fungi.  All these forms of life would otherwise not be able to survive in hedges or the surrounding farmland.

Recent research has shown that even before they become veterans hedgerow trees, especially isolated ones, greatly increase the amount of wildlife in an area.  Moth numbers, for example, have been shown to increase by as much as 60% where such trees are present, and their species diversity by 38%.  Hedgerow trees act as beacons in the landscape, attracting the moths and other insects, and in turn these attract birds and bats which use the trees as service stations in their movements across the landscape. The crowns of trees are important for larger birds such as buzzards and rooks to build their nests in, and the trunks can carry rich lichen floras, including some great rarities.

To maintain hedgerow trees numbers nearly half (45%) of all trees need to be young, that is with diameters of 20cm or less.   The good news, though, is that to stabilize the population we do not need to recruit many more trees each year.  Indeed, if just 15,000 extra trees are planted or allowed to grow each year across the country, that will do the trick.  If each farmer encourages just one additional tree each year, our hedgerow tree population will quickly start to recover and rise.

young seven year old hedgerow trees 30 oct 09 reduced

young trees marked in new hedgerow along our farm lane

Others can help too.  To survive their early years, until they stand proud of the hedge and are safe from the flail cutter, young trees need to be marked clearly.  Experience shows that tags need to be renewed each year, and surrounding vegetation cut away so the saplings are clearly visible.  This takes more time than farmers like us have available, so offers of assistance from people in the local community can be more than welcome.

young hedgerow trees five corners 30 oct 09 reduced

15 year old hedgerow trees between Five Corners and Square Field

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!

calves on Saturday's frosty morning

calves on Saturday's frosty morning

Glorious October certainly! We continue to be busy outside with the hundred and one jobs this dry weather has allowed us to get on top of…dung spreading, ditching, fencing, hedge trimming, cutting and carrying wood from our wood stacks to our winter store and, of course, never ending topping (yes, we are still able to get onto the land with a tractor!).

ewe lambs enjoying the autumn sunshine and grass

ewe lambs enjoying the autumn sunshine and grass

The ewes have been tupped and are now grazing peacefully, happy in the autumn sunshine and revelling in the unexpected bonus of being dry underfoot.

Cows and calves are contentedly munching away in the River Meadows, whilst the bull and his cohort are doing a first-rate job around our smaller meadows at the home farm.  Our autumn flush of grass has been excellent – more sustaining and nutritious than the rank crop our waterlogged fields produced during the wet summer months.

the bull happily grazing Flop Meadow

the bull happily grazing Flop Meadow

Polytunnel beds are gradually being mulched down with our organic dung and covered over for winter – though a handsome supply of chilli, aubergine, tomato, squash and carrot are still providing us with tasty suppers. Outside in the kitchen garden leeks, kale, red cabbage, spinach, broccoli spears and roots are giving us delicious seasonal variety.

Though apples haven’t produced that well this year the quince tree is heavy with golden, fragrant fruit which I’ll pickled, make into jelly and quince cheese. The pear tree in the orchard is also bowed over with small, bullet hard fruit for which I’ll have to invent some different preserves.

It’s a good autumn; land, man, beast and wildlife flourish. Next weekend, on the 25th, we have two farm walks, so though the weather is due to break tomorrow I hope  we won’t  return to horrendous torrential drenching!

Devonian Whitebeam (indigenous to Devon) berries, which I'll harvest to grow sapplings from.

Devonian Whitebeam (rare and indigenous to Devon) berries, which I'll harvest to grow saplings from.

Meet Dora the Dormouse. She’s very special (and hugely cute). Dora made her first public appearance yesterday at our dormouse and hedge training day. She was the icing on the cake!

Dora the Dormouse

Dora the Dormouse

What? Why? How? I hear you exclaim. ‘Aren’t dormice a rare and protected species?’ Yes, yes they are, you’re quite right. So let me tell you Dora’s story.

Over the next month or so we’re holding a series of training days on hedges, hedgerows, their management and their wildlife, especially the dormouse.  As you probably gathered in various other posts I’ve written, we have magnificent hedges on the farm which are home to a thriving dormice population. This year numbers appear to be down compared to previous years – probably the result of three wet summers in a row; but still, when people come on these training days what they are really keen to see are dormice nests and dormice! Dormice nests, yes, we can generally oblige, but dormice? Not a given, more luck than anything else.

Now I’d heard that Paignton Zoo (who are involved in a dormouse breeding programme) occasionally need to find knowledgeable homes to care for individuals unsuitable for release into the wild. This would be, I thought, a wonderful opportunity to show people a real live dormouse.  I contacted the zoo to see if they had anything and would consider us appropriate guardians.  Unfortunately they’d recently just re-homed the last of their old breeding males the keeper Julian told me, but he would have another look and call me…!

On Thursday, just as I’d given up all hope, he contacted me and said they had a young female which had lost her back leg. It was completely healed; she was fine, she’d been checked by the vet, it was really unnoticeable, but they’d be willing to loan her to us if I was interested. She couldn’t be released into the wild and they wouldn’t want to breed from her. Was I interested? You bet!

So on Friday afternoon we went to collect Dora.

Dora

Dora

Yesterday, Saturday, was the training day, and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. A golden afternoon. Jane from UrbanExtension came all the way from Dorset with fellow officers from the Dorset Wildlife Trust. Not only did we find dormouse nests we also saw three wild dormice…and then, of course, there was Dora!

wild dormouse, Flat Field

wild dormouse, Flat Field

hawthorn flowers, locks park

hawthorn flowers, locks park

“Oh hi. Simon, it’s Paula. Time to shear the sheep I think. I know. Yes, of course, yes, definitely…we’ll go after this band of rain? I would, please, yes. Before the weekend would be good. It’s coming right again Thursday, Friday. No, spring’s certainly later this year for sure. But the May’s well out now, the lanolin will have risen…! Excellent see you then. Byee.”

I put the phone down. Good another job ticked off the list

It’s interesting how, even in these days of uberfast-multisocial-technoinfo-popscience, we still (well, I, anyhow) rely on folklore and old sayings, sometimes without even knowing it.

The Hawthorn or May tree is seeped with them and is one of the most enchanted and sacred of our native trees. The flowers, known simply as May, have long been considered to mark the proper onset of spring and the renewal of life.  Spring often comes earlier these days, but in the past not until the May was in flower was it time to plough the land or shear the sheep: its arrival is deeply symbolic in the countryside. Hence my comment to Simon on the phone about the May blossoming and lanolin having risen in the sheep’s fleeces.

Still May Day is celebrated in places by collecting boughs of May blossom as part of the ceremonies and festivities.  Though the tree now flowers around the middle of the month, it flowered much nearer the beginning of the month, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752. But take care before you bring it into the house! Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there is a very strong taboo against bringing hawthorn into the home as it was believed illness and death would soon follow.

Botanists discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. In the past, when corpses were kept at home for several days before burial, people would have been very familiar with the smell of death so perhaps this is part of the reason why hawthorn indoors was banned.

But still the tender young shoots were eaten and referred to as bread and cheese.  My freshly calved cows will avariciously seek them out too – they are said to be beneficial for lactation and milk production. The blossom and berries are made into wines and jellies. Known as “valerian of the heart”, hawthorn is highly valued as a heart tonic across a range of cultures, and decoctions of the flowers and leaves are used to reduce blood pressure.

The strong, close-grained wood is used for carving, and for making tool handles and other small household items.  Also known as white thorn and quick thorn,  its spines and fast growth make it the ideal hedging shrub and it has been used very widely to this purpose.

But beware! Care should be taken before removing any of its branches.  Do not damage the tree in case the guardian spirit becomes angered! Any Hawthorn tree standing alone should be avoided, and only parts from trees forming hedges should be taken.  The Hawthorn is particularly sacred to the fairies, and in Ireland and Britain is part of the fairy-tree triad known as the “Oak, Ash and Thorn”, and where all three trees grow together it is said that one may see the fairies.  In which case our hedges should be full of them.  Perhaps they now appear as dormice.  Do faeries sleep a lot?

Enough, enough! There is a wealth of information to which I’ve given you the links. As soon as it’s stopped raining I’m off to collect May blossom petals which I’ll dry and use for confetti for my son’s wedding….

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

Locks Park Farm

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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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