Meadow & Woods

Our friends and neighbours at Southridge generously allowed us access to their land earlier this week. Leaving the public bridleway on the other side of the farmhouse we encountered some orphan lambs, who having exhausted the automatic teat feeder on the gate were looking to us for milk before giving up and re-seeking the welcome shade of the stonewall.

The first field we cross is in the lea of a small plantation of densely packed conifers. Many of the farms hereabouts have such a legacy from the days of generous government grants and tax breaks for upland farmers. A featureless monotone block it may be but a useful cashcrop nevertheless, echoing as it does the presence of the vast commercial forest visible to the west. This permanent grass pasture has been newly placed in the Higher Stewardship Scheme so it can be managed instead as a traditional hay meadow. The second field we wander through is much longer established so now presents as a species rich rippling swathe of flowers and grasses. By the old oak (pictured above) we drop down to the burn in its secluded vale. To our left the plantation has disappeared, given way to a totally different and infinitely richer localised ecosystem. The coombe’s steep slopes are now graced with native deciduous trees, and at bottom a dense white carpet of flowering wild garlic. At its boundary a trickle of narrow stream breaks from cool green cover to join the main stream.

Find myself in awe of this all too rare woodland habitat, precarious and accessible only to birds and agile beasts, pictured here, hanging precipitously above the burn. Countless centuries of erosion has dramatically cut, shaped and carved the bedrock sandstone to which it clings and thrives, safe from depredation. The stream’s clear unhurried water is at low levels during this driest of dry Mays. We rest and at our feet in the meadow grass, grazed by sheep and lambs, are cross leaved saxifrage, daisies, violets and buttercups. Later I spy a dipper under overhanging tree branches but it breaks cover and whirls away downstream.

We cross the Byway Open to All traffic (BOAT) mentioned in a previous post at the outbreak of the Corvid 19 pandemic, used and abused by groups of trail bikers and 4×4 motorists. More welcome are the serious mountain bike enthusiasts; this being part of an official long distance north-south all terrain cycleway. It’s peaceful and undisturbed the day we visit, without the roar of engines, slews of mud and discarded litter that accompany the petrolheads’ progress…Yet in law they have as much right to pursue and enjoy their recreation as we have ours. C’est la vie.

Notes in May

I reported last time that newly arrived swallows had joined wagtails and blackbirds in making the railway hut their nursery. Not so. The excitable pair started to build a nest in there but either put off by the blackbird or human comings and goings switched over take up residence in a nest their predecessors had fashioned some years ago, under the eaves of our wooden porch, a socially distanced 2 metres from where I write these notes in my study. Love it when window light breaks up with split second bursts of feathered form as the aerial acrobats exit or return.

Clippers give a size approximation for the rabbit.

We discover a young rabbit, not long dead, on gravel by the gate. Not a mark on it and some mystery how it ended up there. I carefully bury the small soft body in the lawn bank, with a marker. Have done the same before with blue tit and mole corpses in the hope of exhuming their skeletons for further study one day.

The pond is an ever expanding micro universe where infant plants take on a life of their own as they escape their initial confinement. Brooklime’s intensely blue flower heads rise delicately over a free floating migrant mass of root filaments while the more sedate water hawthorn shoehorns hoists sails of white blosom above oval leaves. Mini water lilies anchored in pond bottom baskets three years back have since sent out tendrils into the bank and other baskets to spawn a new generation of bronzed pads that float and cool the depths for newts, larvae & beetles to thrive in.

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There are two families of blackbirds resident either side of the house and we witness one male noisily seeing the other male off his perceived patch. Also witness, on more than one occasion, the cock bird’s remarkable ability to sing at the same time as holding a wriggles worth of earthworms in his yellow beak. Some party trick! Meanwhile their railway hut co-tenants, the pied wagtails, walk the walk like comic characters in a silent movie, deftly approaching their nest-in-a-bucket hangout with practised casualness.

Fledgling Thrush (Library Image)

I can report a juvenile runaway hiding in the garden. Over the last 10 days or so it’s been spotted running rapidly in and out of cover and taking short bursts of ungainly flight as it grows and develops. Size and plumage says it has to be a fledgling song thrush. Apparently it’s not unusual for them to be outed from the nest before due date. Luckily with no resident cat about the youngster’s prospects are good. Parent birds only spotted occasionally so one or both may have succumbed, for whatever reason, leaving the spirited orphan to its own resources.

Common Silverweed is not a plant most gardeners would welcome but out on the road it’s a marvel to behold. The feathery hairy under surface of its pinnate leaves lends the name and bright yellow flowers further enhance it, while a spreading prostate habit saves it. 40 tonne log lorries spilling bark chippings from harvested forest trees cannot suppress this cheerful and persistent optimist of country road verges. It’s tough beauty also allows the plant to penetrate tarmac at the road’s edge, as the image testifies.

A wonderful year for brilliant colour and body of blossom everywhere. When it comes to apples though it’s hard to beat Arthur Turner with its famously exuberant large flower. Our two standard trees will hopefully translate this promising sight into a bumper crop of cookers come the autumn.

Art Aid

As lockdown became a reality Kim could not settle to her normal home studio routine. Instead she started producing a series of art packs on natural history topics to inspire creative activity for our grandchildren being home schooled across the country….Here, in her own words, is Kim’s ‘Country Diary’.

One of the first sorrows of lockdown was not seeing our grandchildren. No amount of de-cluttering, gardening, wandering which of too many books to catch up on, or whatsapping and facetiming could replace the time I love making a mess with art and craft next to a small child. So it became a prime rescue task for home schooled grandchildren and their trying-to-do-it-all-and-work parents, to send along some ‘make-and-do’.

Raking through art supplies in the studio was no problem and living out in the countryside provided the themes. The Art of Trees led to dressing bare identifiable silhouettes with their cut out and colour in leaf types.

Butterflies. Six common species to identify, colour in and take flight with found sticks

Collage Gardens asked for inventive solutions to playing with plant shapes using magazine papers, then adding bees and butterflies.

Funny Animals was a chance to decorate air dry clay with alder cones and other found materials.

Birds and Eggs had children making newspaper nests for garden birds like robins, blue tits and goldfinches, with their eggs.

Then Grandma could sit back and enjoy the feedback from all ten little ones aged 2 – 10 (grandchildren of some friends included) who had a go, with results as various as the nature they’d been trying to observe.

Home Birds

The recent glorious stretch of weather puts extra pleasure into gardening while under house arrest. Across the nation gardeners will be working on private plots large & small that only they can enjoy for real during lockdown. Everything, everywhere growing apace and colouring up fast. The lazy oddly lovable Texel & Abbeyfield tups have been taken off our crags for more itch control treatment back at Southridge. The farm’s handsome flock of Swaledale hogs I wrote about recently are seen here en route to their next pitch down the lane.

Ewes with twin lambs grazing in the big meadow that borders our vegetable garden are beautifully backlit at sunset. The lamb gangs never cease to amuse with their involuntary spring healed leaps, careering and chasing games. And every year the small dry hollow in the lea of the drystone wall proves their favourite playground spot.

North farm has had contractors in: two mega-tractors with big hoppers traversing the smoothest of fields and roughest of rush choked grazing. A thin cloud of dusty lime (or lime substitute) settles as pellets to sweeten the acid upland soil. Alongside our winding C road, threading through the dandelions, are damp loving mauve tinted cuckoo flowers, starbursts of stitchwort, stands of pink campion and escapee bunches of forget-me-not: all making the best of it before the high headed cow parsley, thick set nettles and sprawl of rank grasses colonise the wide verges.

Friends a few miles away found this imposing emperor moth on the farmhouse doorstep one morning….A fine fellow who puts on a big eyed pussy cat face to scare away would be predators.

McIntosh Red Apple: Image: Keepers Nursery

I have just ordered a red Macintosh apple on semi-dwarfing root stock from Keepers, one of the very few specialist nurseries who propagate it in the UK, due to arrive by year’s end as a bare root maiden (1 yr old) tree. Made world famous in our age with the launch of Apple Mac computers in 1984. (Spelling changed for copyright reasons). The national apple of Canada, discovered and propagated by emigre Scot John McIntosh in 1811, it’s my birthday present for Kim whose grandmother grew them in the Eastern townships of Quebec. This autumn cropper has sweet milky flesh but lacks the crispness that makes for a contemporary top seller. Its popularity has been in decline in recent years, droppung from 40% of Canadian home sales when Kim was growing up to 25% today; in the US to as little as 5%.

Heartened by the success of our other espaliered apple varieties we’ll extend the practice by planting the Mac against our bathroom’s stone wall. McIntosh lends itself to this kind of training as the plant has naturally strong latitudinal growth. All the existing varieties in our collection are match pollinators too, like the Egremont Russet pictured above. Fingers crossed the soil below where we intend to plant, in what was the original agricultural yard entry, will prove root friendly. I’m sure it will be. Certainly the established corner hugging Montana Rubens clematis has no problem spreading its May time floral wares.

Barn Swallow: Wikipedia image

Our farming friends higher up the dale report swallows returning on the 12th April. At Southridge, cycling by at the end of April, thrilled to see them them in numbers over buildings. When will they come to the corner house again? We’re teased by exploratory visits. Then one day last week, alerted by excited twittering, we catch a viewing pair on the power line between house and garage eyeing up the railway hut. Whether one of them was parent or prodigy last year is impossible to say. Hurray! they have since started nest building inside the hut, between metal arch and corrugated roof. Our character potting shed is therefore now home for three different feathered families…Swallows just feet away from blackbirds (see last post) with pied wagtails nesting, otherwise unseen, on the outside. Can you guess where?

The first zinc bucket to the left of the entrance. Earlier this year we discovered the wagtail’s wool lined cup neatly contained within a larger blackbird nest of yesteryear. To top it all, sitting out with a glass of wine last night we finally heard, loud and sustained from the hidden valley below the crags, the unmistakable sound of a cuckoo calling. All our farming friends had reported hearing them newly returned from their winter in Africa from late April onward. These iconic birds are now on the official ‘Red List’; numbers having dropped by an estimated 65% since the early 1980’s. The steep sandstone valleys either side of us, characterised by a mix of rough grazing, reedbeds and deciduous woodland make for the ideal cuckoo habitat so their future here is relatively secure. visiting meadow pippit and resident dunnock – two of the parasitic breeder’s favoured egg hosts – nest in and around our garden, so one of them may be cuckolded yet!

Cuckoo: Library Image