Wet wet wet

A rare fine day this February with beef cattle on rough pasture down the lane

Living on a ridge between two tributary streams exposes us to wind but relieves us of flood worries if we were burnside. What we didn’t anticipate when the road was re-surfaced last year was the problem it would cause through run off. The big hay field is saturated after a month of rain and water spills over onto the smooth tarmac which in turn hits our curb and flows into the front garden where it pools before eventually soaking away. I’ve been filling hessian sandbags and putting them roadside to divert the overflow past the gate onto the verge. Meanwhile our farming neighbours struggle to get hay and silage to the ring feeders for their sheep in the fields, the gateways everywhere a churning mass of mud. A neighbouring mixed flock of ewes – cheviots, texels and mules – display yellow raddle marks on their backs where they’ve been tupped (put to the ram), reminding us that Spring and lambing time is not actually that far off.

The westerly wind pushes the rain sideways during the latest westerly blow. Suddenly water is dripping into the living room hearth from the chimney above, so buckets get put between log burner and wall to catch the drips. The slates rattle in the bedroom at night and the window leaks. Even the water in the toilet bowl is oscillating, affected by the many small draughts driven by the storm.

We sit out one evening on the back porch, for the first time since before Christmas, and are delighted to be joined by a pair of wrens whirring in. Fleeting acrobats in the fierce wind, settling for seconds just feet from us before zipping off again, in and out of the ivy or feeding through the gravel garden walks. Notice in the gloom the tell tale whiteness of droppings on the lip of an abandoned swallow’s nest under the top beam of the veranda. The wee things cluster for warmth while roosting in winter and this will be one of their seasonal hide outs. The birds high pitched chirruping an alarm to mark our unexpected intrusion into their night time feeding routine.

Dry and warm indoor activities bring the greatest pleasures now in the dark quarter of the year. Early in February I went singing with the valley’s community choir up at the national park’s landscape discovery centre, by the Roman wall. It was to mark the ‘Lost Words’ touring exhibition featuring Robert Macfarlane’s words & Jackie Morris’s images. Surprisingly good acoustic in what is a clinical and angular modern setting. We sang our celebratory songs of the elements from the balcony and later at reception level as guests mingled and socialised between the public spaces.

This week I gave the table quiz I had set on behalf of the countryside charity, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) at a hotel in our market town. Full house in the nicest of pub venues and a very happy evening all round. Eight teams fought it out amicably over 48 questions and a picture round on a theme of ‘England and the English Countryside’. (Kim my ace support on the adding up front!) Everyone delighted it went down so well as a novel social event, a first for the county branch.

Spending time in the kitchen is special in winter too of course. We made this year’s batch of marmalade when the Seville oranges were about in January and I’ve gone back to making oat, rye and beer bread which not only smells wonderful but retains its fine flavour as toast…. Perfect in fact with home made marmalade!

Wasted

What is…unattractive, contaminating, negative, degrading, a danger to wildlife and costly to get rid of? Yes, you’ve guessed it, litter. In town or country it’s a blight on the environment. I’ve taken to picking up every can I find when out walking or cycling along the winding C road a mile or so either side of the house. To be fair, it’s not a big problem in this sparsely populated corner of the land, but the sight of it – in our case mainly discarded soft drink tins – spurs me on to pick up & pop in our recycling bin.

comprehensive According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) men aged 18-25 often see it as cool to drop litter but hauliers, smokers, users of fast food outlets too are prime littering groups in society. Official figures show that England’s local authorities spent £56 million removing chewing gum from pavements and another £50 million clearing fly tipping. In town there are still people paid to pick up litter, but in the country the chances of a bottle in a hedgerow or ditch being picked up are virtually nil. Apparently last year some 60,000 volunteers took part in litter picks around the country. (I count myself an auxillary in this citizen army). The introduction of a charge for plastic bags nationwide has been a great success and a bottle deposit & return scheme could be the same, if the political will is there to set it up. There are many behavioural and economic buttons to be pressed to get our throwaway culture to change. A greater emphasis on re-usability for instance.

The Great Spring Clean Poster

Litter is the end of a process of production, consumption and disposal. How ironic that the multi-national corporations whose products head up the drop list – like Mars Wrigley, Pepsi & Coca Cola – are the principal sponsors of charity Keep Britain Tidy in their worthy efforts to clear up. CPRE argue that producers of packaging and fast food companies should be paying the cost of clear up and not local authorities, who have suffered drastic government funding cuts in recent years and have reduced environmental services accordingly. We Brits are Europe’s largest consumers of food and drink on the move so no surprise that cans and food containers are the most numerous discarded objects in any roadside litter pick. Will anything change over the next few years? Let’s hope so!

Tit bits

Blue Tit on Feeder: Library Picture

Writing here at my desk by the porch window I hear a low rat a tat tat noise somewhere. Turning I see at the garden window the familiar form of a blue tit doing something decidedly unfamiliar. Seemingly feasting with its needle bill on what to me are invisible specks of food on the glass. Either that or it’s trying to tell me to put more fat balls in the feeder that hangs there on its metal crook pole. But no, the little birds constant foraging are at the heart of the matter. Lack of observation on my part means am late to discover what the tribe of them have been up to out there. In refilling the feeder I suddenly see the damage they’ve done to the wooden window frame around those small panes. Tranches of wood excavated in the search for insects or larva. Another repair job for the next spell of dry weather. I promptly move pole & container further off, repositioning it in the arc of studio bed recently cleared, weeded and mulched with bark by Kim.

Wytham Woods Nesting Box in Spring

This event revived awed childhood memories of the ravages inflicted by tits on our doorstep delivery of gold top milk bottles of a winter morning. It also reminded me of something I’d come across much more recently: references to one of the longest ecological studies of marked individual wild animals in the world, here on our national doorstep. Wytham Woods is an extensive ancient broadleaf woodland donated by a local land owning family to nearby Oxford University during WW2. This ‘laboratory with leaves,’ run by the department of Zoology, is also open to the public at set times during the year. The university’s scientists have been methodically studying 40 generations of the titmice family and the interdependent ecological community in which they live since 1947. There are now 1,000 numbered nest boxes throughout the woods and every nestling is tagged. In the autumn and winter a grid of feeders operate twice a week and all birds visiting are recorded and logged on camera. Perhaps the most significant discovery made by this extraordinary study relates to climate change. The birds now breed three weeks earlier than they did in the 1960’s. Spring arrives sooner than it did and oak trees are coming in to leaf earlier. Caterpillars feed on the emergent leaves and the birds predate large numbers of them to feed their large brood of nestlings. The parents, the study also shows, can adjust egg incubation depending on the glut or scarcity of the caterpillars. Another fascinating aspect of social behaviour concerns bird interaction when moving in flocks on winter forage. Come breeding time they will choose to site their nests nearest those who have already proved good neighbours; respecting territorial boundaries or who best co-operate in dealing with predators. The official website has links and extracts from TV news or features about the study. http://wythamtits.com/#what-is-the-wytham-tit-project