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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!).
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
I had to do another dormouse post. Just look at these photos! Also Robert has, this weekend, been to the 7th International Dormouse Conference, attended by some 150 people from all over Europe and even as far a field as Japan and South Africa, all passionate about these amazingly appealing mammals.
Through Robert’s interest I’m also learning quite a bit about them too. Dormice do best in places that have hot summers and cold winters, like many central and eastern European countries, so the cool wet summer we’ve been having must have been as difficult for them as it was for us. They will have delayed their breeding for as long as possible, but by late August must have decided it’s now or never, and the adult females got on with the business of constructing their nests of woven grass, waterproofed with layers of leaves, in as sheltered and as warm places as possible. Earlier this month, Robert found one such nest low down in bramble and rose growth on the edge of one of our hedges, and when he gently disturbed it an adult emerged, which he thought looked like a lactating female as she was rather thin. On Sunday evening he went back and was bowled over when three young came out of the nest and posed for him on rose and rush stems out in the open. They are quite the cutest of creatures. Luckily there are still plenty of hips and other fruits and berries around, so it is likely that these youngsters will manage to put on enough weight to safely go into hibernation, probably sometimes in October. A bit later, and they probably would not have survived.
At the conference Robert heard that in Lithuania, where they estimate they have a staggering one million dormice (the country remains densely wooded), females sometimes produce three broods a year, although this is exceptional. In England, they sometimes manage two, although probably not this year! But at least on Locks Park one female has succeeded in producing a litter of three, or possibly more, young to keep the population going, together with surviving adults which can live for four years in the wild (and six in captivity). Robert also learnt that dormice are promiscuous – males and females don’t form pair bonds, instead females mate with several males, so the young in a single litter may all have different fathers; also males try their luck as often as they can, travelling quite large distances in the process. This, did you know, is the normal pattern of mating behaviour in mammals – and our ‘human systems’, of either marriage or harems, are unusual, but not unknown. Umm, well, maybe. Possibly those researchers are not in the habit of reading Hello and OK! magazines or watching the odd soap on telly.
But back to those oh-so-appealing photos. My mother had a pet dormouse when she was a school girl; I have ancient photos of her with him, he was called Rusty. I’m green with envy!
I’m still revelling in the sun and dry, so my walks have become happy, smiley affairs once more; it’s also perfect weather and the best time of year to enjoy our farm’s hedgerows. Among the just turning leaves you can find nests, berries and fruits of all sorts. The blackberries, unfortunately, have all but gone, moulded away in the wet, and those silly, greedy squirrels have gnawed and spat out every last one of our hazel nuts long, long before they were ripe; but there are still plenty left – crab apple, bullace, wild pear, and all those aforementioned bryony ropes, guelder-rose bracts, sloes, hips, haws and the shouting pink-orange of spindleberry – creating intensely vivid splashes of colour. Hopefully these will help feed flocks of redwings and fieldfares that pass through the farm on the way from cold northern climes to their southerly winter quarters. You could also find dormouse nests, if you’re lucky, and the remains of this year’s birds nests – blackbird, song thrush, chaffinch, wren – the list is endless.
Did you know there’s a rule of thumb that says that every woody plant in a 30 metre stretch of a hedgerow adds a century to its life? By that reckoning, some of our hedgerows are a staggering 1200 years old. This may well be true, since the great Devon historian Professor W G Hoskins estimated that a quarter of our hedgerows are over 800 years old. That’s older than many of our parish churches! And some hedges running off Dartmoor, a continuation of the old Bronze Age reeve system, must be around an extraordinary 4000 years old. Others will be original remnants of the wildwood that clothed the landscape before man carved out his fields.
Devon really is the place of hedgerows in a nation renowned across the world for them. We’ve got more than any other county, and not only are a great many of them ancient but most, like those of our farm, support a remarkable variety of different trees, shrubs and, of course, abundant wildlife. Each part of the county has its own distinctive hedgerows, ranging from the ancient lines of ash and maple enclosing sunken lanes in the Blackdowns to the tall beech hedges of Exmoor. But it is perhaps the banks upon which the woody plants grow that show the most variety. In our area around Hatherleigh these are turf-faced, low key affairs in comparison with the granite boulders, often huge, than underlie Dartmoor’s hedges or the beautiful herring bones patterns of Morte Point on the north coast.
Here are just a few photos to show you the richness of our Locks Park hedges. If you’re interested to find out more follow this link to Devon Hedges where you will find information on the Devon Hedge Group which celebrates this heritage by organising Devon Hedge Week. This year the week runs between 25 October and 2 November, and its theme is the diversity of hedgerows.