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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!
“In the reed bed? Really? That’s extraordinary. I’ll let Robert know. He’ll be fascinated and down there like a dose of salts I shouldn’t be surprised!” I was on the phone to a friend of mine who had just called to say that some relatives staying with them had found a dormouse nest in the reed bed by the edge of their ‘lake’. Not only had they found the nest but the resident had obliged by coming out and letting them take photos! Robert, you see, has a bit of a reputation of never believing anyone’s natural history sightings – animal, plant or mineral – ‘proof’ is essential!
As predicted Robert was excited…though I did detect the old flicker of scepticism “Oh, and Sally has the photo to prove it.” I grinned “Though seriously, do dormice nest in reed beds? By water?”
Apparently, yes they do, though it’s more likely in those parts of the country which support good reed bed systems. I guess in Devon, with our glorious hedgerows and connected woodlands, we just don’t look for them in other places that often. Though Maggie of Wheatland Farm did say they found a nest complete with dormouse in the middle of their area of culm grassland which was well away from trees (again with photo to prove it! Do click on the link to see them).
So down Robert went to Sally’s, not just to give positive identification to nest and inhabitant, but also to continue on his quest for hoverflies (now up to well over 120 species for Devon!). He was not disappointed. It was a dormouse nest, with occupant, at the edge of the reed bed. Amazingly she, the dormouse, appeared quite unperturbed by her celebrity status, posing for these stunning photos! (…andRobert went on to successfully discover yet more hoverflies)
A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.
I’ve escaped, carved out a couple of minutes; I just had to tell you…
On Friday evening some friends came over for supper. They came to meet the New Zealand branch of the family. They came to pick up some plants. They came to see Dillings, one of our hay meadows, at its beauteous best; abounding, bursting, tumbling with orchids jostling with meadow thistle, intense blue-purple spikes of bugle, the cowslip-yellow flowers and rattling bladders of hay rattle, walnut-sized madder-pink heads of red clover, tall delicate stems of ragged robin, a yellow-starred understory of vetches – the whole washed in a haze of liquid gold from buttercups in the setting sun. D was whooping with glee as she spied ever larger fatter bigger better spears of orchids egged on by me, when a quiet thoughtful voice from behind us said “Isn’t that a swarm of bees?”
Stopping dead in our tracks we both looked high into an oak overhanging the field margin. “Where? Where?” We asked scouring the tree, squinting our eyes up through the dense canopy of leaves. “Where? Where? We can’t see?”
“Just there. Look! No, much lower” pointing, A guided our eyes to an oak limb not that far away “See? On that branch.” And there, hanging quite peacefully in a small fork not much above our heads was a conical swarm of bees.
“Oh, wow!” I spluttered “Wow, oh wow” I turned to A “I’ve never ever seen that in all my years here! You are clever!”
In the fading evening light it could have so easily have been missed and certainly, as D and I were ginormous orchid hunting our eyes were scouring the field at nothing above knee level!
I oh-so wanted those bees. Visions of orchid honey from bees that had chosen my very own flower-filled hay meadow danced in front of my eyes! But alas, I’m not a knowledgeable beekeeper. I had very little idea of how to contain a swarm, other than to brush or shake it into a container. And I had no equipment.
“Why don’t you check in the morning?” suggested A “They might still be here. They’re very quiet at the moment. Then you can decide.”
First thing next morning I checked before I started the stock round. They were still there.
At a reasonable hour I phoned various beekeepers but unfortunately no one was able to help…unless, that is, they could take home the swarm. I rang the National Bee Supplies in Okehampton and spoke to a most obliging man who said he could let me have some frames and suitable bee-collection wooden box until I was sorted, but, not until Monday, as being Saturday they were shutting. Mid-morning I checked the bees…they were still there. A little later I was phoned by a beekeeper who helpfully told me how best to collect the swarm and how to construct a temporary smoker out of a tin, chicken wire and a funnel. Excitedly I made up a bee suit out of Robert’s butterfly net (vale), my hat, overalls, waterproofs and gloves; collected up a bucket and cover, makeshift smoker with accruements, stepladders, a hand brush and set off up the drive and across Dillings to take possession of ‘my’ bees.
Arriving at the oak I looked up at the branch and saw…nothing. My bees had flown!
Here she is!
Robert has asked me to formally introduce you to Willow Lark Thylacine…‘Umm? What?’ I can here you thinking. Let me explain.
We were being indecisive between the choice of Willow and Lark (elegant, graceful, dainty. swift, fluid, alive). As the suitability of each was being tossed backward and forward between the family, Robert, in a world of his own, was staring at her quizzically. “I’ve got it.” He suddenly exclaimed “I know exactly. She reminds me of a Thylacine.” (You, of course, are totally familiar with the extinct Tasmanian Tiger? In fact, I’m sure it’s just what you were thinking too…) “Thylacine. That’s what we should call her, Thylacine!” He rushed off to get his mammal book for those who were looking more than a little perplexed.
In the meantime ‘puppy’ was getting a little fed up with what she thought was a quite obvious choice, and decided to make it abundantly clear to us the next time ‘her’ name was called. So with instant recognition, a bound onto my lap and a million little licks, she was, she informed us …Willow!
Robert, a little put out that we hadn’t rapturously agreed on his choice, thought, in those obviously formal situations (?), she should be known by her full name of Willow Lark Thylacine…
She’s a delight. She’s bright, alert and quite enchanting. A definite people person she has won over the hearts of the whole family. Not a collie though, not a collie at all. Instead of finding the draftiest, most inhospitable spot in which to fall asleep, she actively searches for downy comfy-warm softness (fleecy snug-basket in front of aga)! Bright as a new penny, she’s already sussed out the characters of Skye and Ness, who, surprisingly, are not as put out as I thought they might be. She asks to go out for a wee or poo and has good recall of the house and immediate surrounds, knowing how to get both out and in – a cat flap for her present size would be perfect.
I will keep you fully informed of her progress!
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…..
This is a first. Never ever in the years I’ve been farming have we topped fields in January! Yes, I’ve experienced cold spells before, though these have generally been accompanied by snow or wetness of some sort and very often wind. Never before has the ground gone rock hard, hard enough to drive a tractor over without marking it. And, of course, we haven’t actually needed to top in the depths of winter as this has been done and dusted during spring, summer and autumn.
This week meadows we’ve been unable to touch for almost two years have, in the last couple of days of sub zero temperatures (and lack of precipitation since before Christmas), become frozen enough for us to cut. We’re hoping for a permanent freezing death of the rush – yes, forever dreaming, forever hopeful.
We have only a small window of opportunity. The thaw is expected and we’re trying to top around ten fields and bits of others. It was -5C when I took this photo, during the night and early morning of the 7th January the temperature dropped to -8C.
This is Five Corners, one of my favourite fields, secret and unexpected, bursting with wildlife and a hunting haunt of our barn owls. We top this pasture in a mosaic so as to leave cover for the owls’ prey and other wildlife.