Blossom & Blackbirds

Three tubs full: soap and colour free bubble bath

Apparently April is the driest of months on average in the UK. Unusually for us it has largely remained that way, though this week’s showers have topped up water butts and refreshed the garden. Our sole water source is a natural spring in the field across the road so in dry times recycling is the order of the day. I’ve regularly emptied used bathwater each morning on to newly planted leeks, onions and potatoes; transplanted shrubs and flowers in the big lawn bank, and most crucially, the many pots about the place. Most of the delicate looking fruit blossoms are fading now but they were magnificent while they lasted and, best of all, were subject to frequent visits by pollinating bumble bees. I particularly liked the graceful flower of our single three year old Bon Chretien pear.

Pear Blossom

It seems very happy with its new spot in a pot out front, stretching tall in the morning sun, with added heat reflected from the house wall. Our two young Katy trees, specimen and cordon, flower later than the other apple varieties we grow and given their red fruit boast the rosiest of matching petals. Nothing though rivals the Mexican orange blossom for scent and insect pulling power. Every variety of winged insect – bumble and honey bees, hover flies, wasps, flies – drink deep from each and every one of its neat small white flowers.

Discovery apple cordon, forget-me-not & Mexican orange blossom

Cutting the grass recently I looked up and found the new neighbours looking in at me. The Swaledale hogs have been taken off the crags, replaced by Southridge’s half dozen Texel cross tups, parked up on our field to recuperate from their reproductive services. Unlike ewes they lie down a lot, don’t shift shy of humans and donate king size droppings for the land. Though impervious to the ticks which would finish off spring lambs they are suffering from various skin complaints and use gateposts and crags to work up a good scratch. They had no problem hoovering up the grass clippings I tipped them.

Few would deny the quiet pleasures of observing garden birds in Spring. Ever wary, they nevertheless must take calculated risks to find the perfect site to build nests where they can safely raise a family. Sometimes one discovers, quite by accident, where such secret places are…Where do you think a blackbird’s nest is here, in the newly re-ordered railway hut?

if you guessed top shelf, in the perforated aquatic plant basket with handle on the right, you’d be correct. I’d been occupied clearing and rearranging marginal plants down at the pond, had come back for a replacement container, reached up to search around in the big basket where my fingers unexpectedly combed feather and bone….Not sure who got the biggest shock, the hen blackbird or me. She escaped up and out with a great squawk. Once my heart had slowed I stepped up on the potting table and risked a look into the deep kidney shaped container, and this is what I saw.

Mortified that I might have jinxed the parents into abandoning their precious clutch it was with great relief I noticed the upended tail and head of the hen when I next entered the hut on everyday gardening business. It’s a wonder these garden birds can be so tolerant of human presence AND remain completely quiet and still, just feet away. Last night, sitting with a drink under the west end lean to, we were treated to the sight of Mr B singing pensively to the world from atop the rose covered gazebo. Later, as darkness fell, we caught him perched on the hut’s wooden gate, engaged in bright conversation with Mrs B out of sight on the nest within…Priceless.


Hogs at Large

Open House: Spring awakening for its inhabitant, April 2020

When our hive shaped wooden compost bins finally rotted away we replaced them and I took the still sturdy solid tops and placed them in the undergrowth of the garden’s woodland corners. One shelter gathered autumn leaves and may have provided some shelter to small mammals but the other, hidden in denser ground cover, provided the desired result; hibernation lodging for a hedgehog. With the winter inhabitant awake and departed the image above shows its snug nest of moss, grass and leaves. Via phone and over-the-wall conversations we learn there was a recent adult hedgehog death at Southridge while on the hill eastward towards the village, a half dozen fields away, the remaining sow in residence at Overcrags barn has produced a litter, much to the delight of the farmer’s wife who supplements the adult’s diet with catfood. No sightings in our garden so far but I have spotted their tell tale spraints about the place.

Two of the female triplets released at the corner house, May 2016

I need to backtrack on this story…In May 2016 we were gifted three female hoglets; abandoned orphans discovered in the playground of a primary school in Newcastle by the headteacher, the sister of an artist friend. Gina – who specialises in animal paintings – lovingly cared for the triplets, hand weaning them for weeks before we adopted them. Released in the garden they promptly scattered. One decided to stay put however, domiciled in one of the aforesaid shelters, and from time to time we spotted what we believed were the other two at night in and around the general vicinity. As that summer came to a close, much to our dismay, the resident fell victim to a nocturnal hit and run death on the road. Two other young hogs (we presumed the remaining pair) had by this time settled in to overwinter in Overcrags barn. Last spring (as related here previously) our friends & neighbours at Oldstead were delighted to discover a litter in their garden.

Our ‘Summer of 16’ resident

So, as you see, the presence of this iconic creature in the immediate area remains good with potentially more gains than losses. Nationally the population has plummeted; down from an estimated 30 million in the late 1940’s to around 1 million now. Fortunately, due to growing awareness and practical action by government, conservationists, farmers and householders the little creature’s fortunes have at last started to turn. For example, new cattle grids have an inbuilt escape ramp for hedgehogs. One significant effect of the current lockdown has been the huge decrease in road traffic and that in turn will, for this year at least, boost the population not just of hedgehogs but of badgers, otters, rabbits, hares, toads and frogs as well.

Giving Thanks

As the lockdown continues the value of ventures outdoors continues to rise. Social contact through meeting our immediate neighbours, while maintaining physical distancing, adds to it all. The national park have posted notices by footpaths and stiles everywhere reminding us all of the new countryside etiquette, a supplement to the standard country code.

Garden escapes like daffodils and primroses lighten the verges while dandelions are everywhere switching on their bright yellows amidst sprouting nettles and cow parsley fronds. Where road crosses stream clusters of butterbur thrive. A wonderful early source of nectar in composite flowerheads for bees to plunder. This tough little coloniser of cool damp places gets its name from the leaves (small now but soon to grow huge) traditionally used to wrap blocks of butter. Of all the plants we see I have a particular soft spot for that common weed of roadside and garden; wavy bittercress. Its low clusters of tiny four petal flowers are beautiful en masse, viewed close to.

Ambling up the road to the forest on Saturday, enjoying the peace of these upland spaces we’re serenaded by curlews and skylarks under the biggest of blue skies, although the keen eastern winds cool the temperature. We’re stopped in our tracks by the sight of three huge letters on the fellside. N, H and S cut by tractor with topper through fern, gorse and rough grazing, tilted skyward in thanks for all on earth to see and second.

Walking past Oldstead and North farm yesterday, following the long distance national trail, we stop to admire the mass of new planting that’s gone on here in the hidden valley of the north burn. Native deciduous trees – oak, ash, birch, willow and rowan – are edged with whips of hawthorn, blackthorn etc; some 8,000 in total. The new woodlands are secured by miles of quality stock proof fencing with traditional wooden five bar gates. This is the living legacy of the retired landowner at East farm who now rents out his fields for our other neighbours to work. Farmers all want to leave their holdings a better place than they found them and for our elderly neighbour his financial investment in landscape restoration is restoring equilibrium with nature, resulting in environmental diversity for future landworkers to profit by, in the broadest sense of the word. The old countryman’s gift of good husbandry will be quietly enriching the everyday experience of residents and long distance walkers for many years to come.

Shedding & Shrews

The Border Counties Railway opened in 1858, linking our valley to another on the Scottish side of the watershed. It quickly became a cornerstone of the countryside economy of the day, transporting not just civilian and military passengers but picking up and delivering coal, minerals, livestock, agricultural and other bulk supplies. Farmers cannily availed themselves of old rolling stock when the line finally closed in the late ’50’s and you can still find the odd goods wagon in farmland or on fellside, refashioned into stores or shelter for stock. Our inherited rust red carcass, minus bogie foundation, is decaying nicely on its terminal pitch ‘tween yard and garden. An added porch and low wooden gate completes the picture. Swallows nestagainst its old iron ribs; hedgehogs hibernate in amongst our horticultural hoardings.

We embrace another lockdown action opportunity. Piles of long forgotten or overlooked stuff are dragged out to be marvelled at, stored elsewhere or piled up ready for when the re-cycling centres open again. We discover in a dark corner assorted plastic tubs of agricultural herbicides (pictured). No trace of irony in this one, marketed as ‘Harrier’, a bird of prey that would drop dead if ingesting anything that had fed on the ‘weeds’ listed. We strongly suspect much of this old cache of chemicals is now outlawed for use. They’re now safely under lock and key in the garage/workshop until we find out how to legitimately dispose of them when normal life resumes.

Another useful re-purposing of institutional hardware, mail sorting racks from the post office, just right for storing small tools and all manner of gear. Shelves and defunct long table for potting up and pottering in general. Close by are bags of bark, compost, gravel, sand etc. Corrugated cloche covers, cane frames, plant pots galore, builders merchants’ fabric dumpy bags, trugs, chicken wire and so on make up our list of gardening tackle and trim. Horticultural plastic sacks are hid in the wheelie bin, momento of life in Lancaster sit opposite travel trunks that brought Kim’s things from home in Canada; now a stowaway for pop-a-domes and fleece for raised beds. Fans of Kim’s picture books might note the bike featured in ‘My Friend Harry’.

Lost in the gravel of the shed floor, the curled corpse of a common shrew, which prompted me to do a bit of research…These tiny creatures live life in the fast lane and though I knew they needed to consume over twice their body weight daily to stay alive, I didn’t know that they can make up to 10 separate body movements every second. Most extraordinary of all, come Winter they do not hibernate, being too small to accommodate stores of fat needed, but instead transform physiologically. Losing around a quarter of overall body weight increases chances of survival as well as adopting a torpid state. Shrews have poor eyesight but enhanced smell and hearing enables them to locate food (earthworms, insects etc) while avoiding being prey themselves. Not sure how this one came to its end but the chance to view close up otherwise elusive wild creatures and appreciate their graceful utility of form is always a privilege.

Logging on

Stacking logs. It’s ideally a fair weather job, or at least a dry day or two. We order from our supplier up the road, whose family home is a smallholding in one of the forest’s clearings. Her flatbed tip up slides our drop of seasoned logs on the gravel by the east end store, an extension of our covered deck, sided with Yorkshire boarding (spaced vertical planking). A good spot for timber to carry on drying. There’s even room, time I’ve finished, to allow for some wet weather chopping of kindling, which pleases me. Last year, in haste, I just threw them all in willy-nilly but this Spring decide to stack, stepping the logs up to the back wall. Tucked ‘tween stone and joist above me is last year’s swallow’s nest, recently colonised by a cock wren who has topped the hirondelle’s mud and straw cup with a soft green bed of moss and stems. This is just one of a number of nests he will build (or in this case, adapt) so the hen bird can choose the one she prefers to lay in.

Our supplier tells us that the concrete floored drying sheds suffered a leak this winter so they’ve had to dry out some timber which had got moldy. Her main competition for the great forest’s stands of timber is the county’s new biomass power station. Generous government subsidies allow it to outbid the local players and the price for private households increases accordingly. The wood we get from our harassed friend is OK for use in our old living room stove, though it would be great if we could get some ‘heavy’ (i.e. dense) slower burning hardwoods like birch, beech, oak, or sycamore to balance our ‘light’ quick burning softwoods like Sitka, Douglas fir, larch and pine.

I turn up a lot of pine cones in last year’s bottom of pile detritus. There’s a surplus this year too of spent alder fruits all about the place (looking like miniature fir cones) and we’ll use both as supplementary natural firelighters. Spare bark and chippings I scatter on the east end beds under bushes to act as mulch.

Bee Helpful

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais articae) Library Image

After a bumper year for butterfly numbers in 2019 a host of small tortoiseshell have stirred from their overwintering crooks and crannies around our house and taken flight over the past few weeks. I’ve helped the exodus by capturing stragglers in their frustrating and futile crawl up window panes, using an upturned glass and slide under plate, releasing them at the garden door where they wing away to start the life cycle again.

Red-tailed Bumble Bee (bombus lapidarius) Library Image

A couple of days ago I came across a Red-tailed Bumble Bee on the lawn, crawling aimlessly around. By size, a queen and clearly in trouble. Either she was too cold (take off impossible if temperature falls below 30 degrees C) or, more likely after days of adverse windy weather, simply overworked and out of fuel. I recalled the old trick for such occasions and made up a spot mix of 50/50 sugar and water on a plate and used rolled card to lift her gently on. Going carefully – wet wings or body will prevent flight – the annoyed bee eventually responded, got proboscis to juice, took off and vanished. Much rejoicing on my part as in saving her life the chances are her new colony is saved too. Bombus lapidarius is one of the commonest of our social bees and a highly effective pollinator of the crops the nation grows. It’s a species that nests in the ground, usually under a stone or at the foot of a wall, where the queen produces anywhere from 100 – 300 prodigy in one season. At this time of year the pioneering new queen has to forage widely and fortunately our garden has a good supply of favoured food plants; from willow catkins, gorse, lungwort and daisies, to heather and blackthorn. These early sources of pollen and nectar will nurture the vital first brood of pioneer workers.

Sheep

It’s that time of year again. Our friends and neighbours are back and forth, moving flocks, carrying fodder or dealing with premature births, rotten lambs etc. The grandchildren from Bastle farm are helping Mam, following up on the quad, to move a flock of in-lamb Texel ewes back in-bye. This is ‘on the job’ training for the two little girls, sticks in hand, aged six and four. As it has been for generations before them and hopefully for generations still to come. Southridge, the larger of our two immediate neighbours, has higher stocking rates and with their fields sorted are all ready to lamb. It will be a real stretch for the family this year as normally in-laws come to help out but the corona virus restrictions have put paid to that. As usual our modest four acres have been factored in to their allotment plan and we’re delighted to host a flock of Swaledale sheep this time around instead of the crossbreeds most often quartered here.

Swaledale Sheep: library Image

Swaledale is a traditional breed of Pennine hill sheep, originating in and around the valley of the River Swale. A Swaledale ram’s head is the logo of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority; black face, white nozzle, curly horns. The Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association (SSBA) held its first meeting in 1920 at England’s highest pub, the Tan Hill Inn, situated in glorious isolation on the remote Cumbria/Durham border. The SSBA would be proudly celebrating their centenary this June, except of course, they cannot given current restrictions. A cousin to Rough Fell and Scottish Blackface, these handsome beasts have evolved to be perfectly attuned to hill country life all year round and are highly prized for their hardiness and strong maternal qualities.

The score of Swaledales are contentedly raking our stretch of rough grazing and disposing of all weeds deposited there from the garden. Tails undocked, they are all hoggs (last years lambs not yet put to ram). Southridge will cross those they keep on with their resident Texel tups (rams), blending hardiness with weight to get best market prices for the resultant lambs. Elsewhere Swales are often crossed with Blue Faced Leicester and the popular North of England Mule is the result. (Lancaster is one of the main marts for Mules). I love the unintentional poetry that breeders often apply to product. The SSBA is no exception in fondly highlighting the qualities of their animals’ wool thus: ‘A thick deep bed and a curly top…a good bind that fills the hand well’. Others elsewhere are a little less generous, terming the fleece ‘off white’ and ‘rough’. Swaledale wool today is mainly used for insulation & carpet production.

Air and Water

Chaffinch at Kitchen Window

Joys of the unfolding season around the house continue. Kim wakes early to the blackbird’s solo song. Later we both hear that most welcome and affirmative marker of Spring’s arrival in the uplands – the liquid song of the curlews over the wall in the big hayfield. Meanwhile, down in south burn’s wooded gorge, our neighbours at Bastle farm report the cuckoo’s return. I witness a buzzard over the crags being tightly pursued by a pair of crows who mobhand the bigger bird low to the ground, screaming their harsh cries, before it eventually escapes skywards and circles slowly off. In the mess of laurel bushes and crab trees by the east gate our resident sparrow gang set up a cacophony of twittering. Two rival pied wagtails fight furiously in and out of the ceanothus bush, making the glossy leaves shake. Most strikingly, two male robins seem at peace in sharing territory, or at least acknowledging some boundary invisible to us. A male chaffinch, having started its singular habit with car wing mirrors, now makes daily dash and peck forays against kitchen windows and glazed garden door, whether in hot dispute with his own reflection or catching insects not visible to the human eye is hard to tell. As the lengthening day ends I love to catch the rocketing by of wrens a mere foot or so off the ground. At the pond’s planted edge, clearing last year’s foliage, I delight to discover a thrush’s ‘anvil stone’ with remains of water snail shells much in evidence.

Great Diving Beetle in Close Up (Library Image)

In the pond itself I spy with a start that most fearsome of predators, a great diving beetle. Like a miniature turtle, green backed shell with a dirty yellow fringe, this voracious creature will feast on anything it comes across so I fear for the emergent population of palmate newts. A few days later, much to my relief, a trawl with the net hauls a wriggling clutch of recently hatched newtlets. (pictured) The tiny amphibians, born from eggs attached to plant stems, were netted in water beneath their likely nursery, a mass of surface covering Brooklime (Veronica). The plants are anchored in pots by the broken paving stones I had carefully placed to line the pond when new. In previous seasons, having observed adult newts emerge from or recede into the narrow gaps between stone and liner I think these infants too will be relatively safe there…for now at least.

The pond’s early marginal flowers present joyfully harmonious shades of yellow, from small daffodils to batchelors buttons. The latter is a member of the buttercup family that should (according to the label anyway) be flowering from May to September, yet here it is in bloom now…Leaves me to wonder if this will mean them finishing flowering earlier than advertised. Next to these glowing plants is a carpet of Japanese dropwort. Their pretty pink edged leaves are already threatening to monopolise the shallow end with its pebble beach, clutching on to pots holding more delicate plants, so they will have to be managed closely as the season progresses.

What a joyful thing of a morning when about to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom to look out the window and spy robin, tit or blackbird having their daily splash and wash as well down there at the pond’s edge. No pool created for wildlife should be without a shallow tapering side to enable easy access for bathers or drinkers. Ours has the added value of an adjacent pile of old logs – the wildlife equivalent of seaside chalets or caravans – parked there for newts, frogs, toads et al to feed, shelter or overwinter among.