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

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