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.


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.

Seeds & Fruit

At this time of year, with so much going on, it’s hard to know where to begin in the garden as there seems to be no end to what should be done! The current social isolation is now all the sweeter for the clocks moving forward; that extra hour arrives with a flush of dry warmer weather to put a fresh breeze in our sails. Let’s start with a few words about fruit and veg.

With seeds and plugs arriving by post or bought locally it’s all go in the potting shed (an old railway goods wagon) and the new green greenhouse. Kim’s nimble fingers get to work filling pots and trays with compost which now line the shelves and cram an ancient improvised cold frame. Runner beans, curly kale, lettuce, leek, beetroot, shallots, onions, spinach & rocket all feature in the planting. (I rig up a heater bar, running extensions outdoors from garage to greenhouse to maintain night time temperatures above freezing). Complimentary flowers include tagetes and calendula to lend pollinator attraction and general cheer with their sunny colours. I enjoy concocting a mega bucket’s worth of top dressing from odds and sods of nutrient material left over from last season (concentrated manure, sand, barley straw, leafmould, home made compost etc) for top dressing all the many existing mature plants in pots. I divide lift and replant the faded clumps of snowdrop in new patches of spare ground enjoying tree or shrub cover. A sure fire way to spread these perennials to bring extra cheer next winter. Take a reluctant old wheelbarrow onto the crags (our adjacent field) to fill with molehill soil and dried sheep droppings. Good basis of a mix for Kim to plant sweet pea seeds in. In order to maximise growing space in the long kitchen garden I dig a narrow strip the whole length of the chestnut picket fence that divides it from the rest of the garden. Will add poles and weave with sticks or wire later in the season to support the beans and peas we intend to plant here. As we work that most welcome of Spring sounds, birdlife apart, fills the still air…The buzz of buff tailed bumble bees feasting on the nectar of blooming purple heather on the bank.

Recently transferred the young apple trees from unidentified grafts gifted us by good friends (Mick & Grace) last year. I move them from the cold clay of the west end copse, where they held fast but did not grow, to the enriched compost containment of big clay pots in the front garden. That’s our most sheltered spot, south facing morning sun, with stone walls and gravel paths to store and reflect heat. Back in early February I lodged the self fertilising pear tree into a large pot for the same reasons. A Williams Bon Cretien variety, standing taller than the two little apple trees, its upright branches linger longer in the strengthening sun. Now budding nicely and showing greater promise than last year when, for lack of suitable space, it too was temporarily boarded in the copse. With careful management resilient pomona and graceful pear may yet fruit in their cushioned confinement, repaying the move with fruit of quality if not in quantity. In any case it’s good to have them grouped with the two apple trees in the border (Arthur Turner & Egremont Russet) and three fans spread against the house wall (James Grieve, Katy and Discovery) They make a compact if motley orchard, within the purlieu of a covered bench in the shelter of a corner. We can but dream of having breakfast alfresco here on a summer’s morn in the shade thrown by a glorious north country sun!

Open and Shut

Back road across the fells

With the whole country living through the first week of official lock down, due to the Corona virus pandemic, millions of us are practising ways to survive the consensual suspension of everyday life. Not easy. Especially if confined in cramped accommodation in town or if elderly, infirm or otherwise vulnerable. Not being able to venture out or exercise without good cause is perhaps even harder to bear. ‘Don’t fence me in’ we cry. Trying times which bring out the best and worst in us. Luckily for society at large the overall positive reaction, driven by enlightened self interest if not by morality and ethics, still prevails…For now at least.

Green Laning: Library Image

Convivial catch ups held at the required distance with our farming neighbours over walls, on horseback or quad bike keep us in the loop on what’s happening locally and we get a sobering reminder about negative behaviour. Most Sundays at home we hear trail bikers and other off road vehicles go by and our hearts sink for these are mainly non local men out from town, heading for the nearest designated BOAT. The acronym stands for Byway Open to All Traffic, a legal loophole in access legislation which allows motorised traffic to traverse green lanes and unpaved byways. Each to their own and the greater the diversity and range of outdoor activities open to all the better but it is also obvious that the law here is being systematically exploited nationwide by small but determined groups of bikers and 4×4 drivers who willfully flout the Country Code with impunity, ruining these shared byways for walkers, cyclists and horse riders in the process. They churn up lanes and lonnens (tracks), transforming them into treacherous sloughs; displace or break down ancient boundaries; leave gates open and picnic without permission on farm land and off load rubbish in their wake to blight the landscape and endanger stock. The most publicised cases of misuse happen in our precious National Parks, like the Lake District and Peak District, while lower profile rural areas like ours on the edge of a national park are under even greater pressure by this category of ‘leisure’ user. The chances of police tackling law breakers are virtually nil so farmers and landowners remain frustrated in being unable to prevent abuse unless they take matters into their own hands; and that is a high risk strategy of last resort. Last Sunday our elderly neighbour at Southridge had finally had enough and confronted the latest posse of hard core scramblers piling on to his land up the farm lane. He boldly stood his ground, blocking progress to the track, pointing out they were flouting the government’s emergency provisions by congregating en masse and potentially leaving Corvid-19 virus on gates and footbridges. In return he was foully abused verbally and threatened physically. Our old friend held firm and, knowing they were in the wrong and could be reported to police, the trail riders reluctantly withdrew, cursing and revving engines to the max as they retreated to the regular highway. A small heroic victory in a seemingly never ending struggle. Our friend’s wife however, though relieved, was concerned the more vindictive of the riders might return under cover of darkness to set fire to the barn, vandalise equipment, or worse…

We are conscious of our great good fortune at the corner house in having a large garden plus a four acre field to occupy and exercise us as well as the minor road between valley and forest to walk or cycle along. Oddly of late there seem less delivery vans than normal plying to and from the nearby forestry hamlet. The postie still calls (and picks up) and log lorries continue their comings and goings on what must be officially classed as essential business. Down in our neighbourhood village all is quiet and superficially calm. The post office / newsagent / shop still operates while across the way the butcher sells vegetables and deli goods and has put on a delivery service. We all observe the physical distancing rules, lining up outside waiting our turn in the welcome Spring sunshine and so the conversation flows and anecdotes are exchanged. I then drive up to the valley’s largest village to drop empties at the bottle bank and extend the search to top up on essentials. The three village pubs and three cafes are all shut, as decreed by the PM on Monday. One pub though has a chalkboard outside. ‘We’re all doomed!’ it declares ‘But takeouts are available from 11am’.

The co-op food market, hardware shop, chemist, butcher, garage, baker and greengrocer are still trading, though entrance and exits are regulated. Staff at the latter business cheerfully take your order & payment at the door. Waiting in line outside the co-op (only 5 shoppers allowed in at a time) a Police 4×4 vehicle swings into the square and parks. Enforcement trouble? No, the officer simply joins the queue to get her shopping. In the hardware store one can get nearly all domestic needs plus extras like animal foodstuffs and – much to my joy – veg and flower seeds, onion/potato sets, artificial fertilisers and feeds. (Extra seasonal requirements we missed out before garden centres and nurseries were ordered to close) But, of course, this is what it’s like to live around here in the heart of England’s least populated county. An old capital settlement far enough from the big towns to retain individual non-corporate businesses that service the essential needs of a huge rural hinterland in the ‘open’ times; continuing to sustain it in the ‘closed.’

Back at the house, shopping mission accomplished, the dry stone garden walls highlight the welcome lines of bright yellow of our roadside daffodils. Lent Lillies, symbols of death and renewal, flowering profusely for all travellers, even the motorcycle mobs, to see and enjoy in their brief passing.

Ins and Outs

The first day of Spring today. In these unprecedented times it’s more vital than ever to get out and about, as and when we can, to be comforted and reconnected to open spaces nature and the countryside. On Sunday Kim & I took ourselves off the high ground of home into the wide dale where the two Tyne rivers meet. Started our gentle ramble outside the Victorian town Hall on the long wide main street of the village of Newbrough. It stands on the Stanegate (stone road) an east/west highway the Romans built to link the citadel ports at Newcastle and Carlisle. Where once one of their mile forts stood, just outside the borough, there is now the parish church. A holy well lies beside the old churchyard. Our path took us through a steep wooded gorge up to a lane. Here we stopped to admire the cattle crush (pictured). A simple hold and release mechanism at one end of a wood fenced race to pinion a bovine to be medicated or otherwise inspected. Loved its incidental artistic proportions and weathered rusted texture.

Following the clear stream to another moment of wonder. This is classic estate topography (Georgian grand house and home farm ahead). Simple, graceful arched bridge over a canalised course of stone walls and flagged course bearing the sparkling waters away at speed. Or rather, it would have done if it were not being effectively diverted, slalom like, by a series of split log ‘speed bumps’ which we concluded must be some sort of recent flood prevention work. Entranced by the play of sunlight off sinuous shallow rills.

Further downstream, another rivulet joined this one to run on down through mixed plantations of deciduous and conifer to eventually reach journey’s end in the big river. Just a hint on the nose of prolific shoals of ransoms, interspersed with splashes of yellow flowered, glossy leaved celandine. We stepped down, under the low bridge carrying the railway, and found ourselves on the wooded banks of the South Tyne River. Its speed a wonder, akin to a galloping horse, cresting and swooping in its rapid descent from the high pennines, gathering tributary force as it goes.

Library Image: Dog’s mercury, Mercurialis perennis, in June.

The narrow belt of woodland between cottage walls and river was thick with freshly sprung Dog’s Mercury working its way skyward. Named after the god who supposedly discovered its medicinal properties the dog appellation is a reference to the plant having no edible qualities. Dog’s Mercury is a sure indicator of ancient woodland. Eventually, by May, when full grown it can carpet whole forest floors. Surviving in this protected strip it was yet another poignant reminder of lost wildwood. Further on and our now sandy paths fingered their way through flood margins with combed stands of resilient alder and willow clinging on to tangled islets of earth and rock with their tenacious roots. At a turn of the pathway on the higher bank path two sycamores had grown together, merged, and grown apart again. On the opposite bank, where the deepest channels run, scouring flood waters had extended the river’s more recent reach across a long arc of bend, folding over field edge as easily as the plough would a furrow. At the end of this wide bend a whole swathe of mature trees lay wrecked and leafless, stark witnesses to the deluge’s awesome power. When we finally turned away from the flow, by a railway crossing and cottages, my eye was caught by a gleam as from new coins. Delighted to discover the treasure to be the first modest flowering of Coltsfoot emerging from lush grass. We crossed the railway and walked up a lane between floodplain fields littered with stones. At the foot of straggly gappy hedgerows, clusters of emergent primroses and clumps of fading snowdrops marked the seasonal handover.

Vole Event

Went to a talk last night given by Kelly Hollings from Northumberland Wildlife Trust who is heading up the ‘Restoring Ratty’ project here on our doorstop in Kielder. She told us about their award winning five year water vole re-introduction project; made possible by Heritage Lottery Fund and run in conjunction with partners on the ground, Forestry England and Tyne Rivers Trust. Some 1,200 of these endangered native species have now been successfully released in different sites in the forest around Kielder Water. Three short videos were at the heart of her powerpoint presentation; one about the creature itself, the second on its conservation, the third made by schoolchildren participating at the various sites covered in the first two videos.

The water vole was made immortal in literature as ‘Ratty’ in Kenneth Graeme’s Edwardian children’s classic ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Once a common site on our waterways, the largest member of the vole family has been in steady decline for many years. The process was drastically speeded up after WW2, with the loss or fragmentation of habitats and predation by American mink who had discovered the perfect substitute for muskrat. Mink – escapees from farms where they were once bread for fur – are small and agile enough to enter the vole burrows and exterminate whole populations. Voles are prolific breeders, with up to five litters a year, and healthy numbers in the food chain are key to the survival of all the other creatures (mink apart) that feed on them. Restoration projects to stem the recent disasterous decline are taking place all over the UK and the Kielder team has drawn its pioneer breeding stock from the strongholds established in parts of Scotland and the North Yorkshire Moors. They’ve used late litter animals otherwise unable to face winter conditions when they would die of cold and starvation. Just as importantly these creatures are genetically suited to northern habitats. These young voles overwinter in ideal captive conditions at a specialist ecological facility on a farm in Devon before being returned upcountry for ‘soft release’ into the forest park. The role of volunteers has been crucial in every practical time consuming and patient process; transporting, monitoring, initial feeding, recording etc.

Kelly in her talk pointed out that these fascinating creatures were originally not aquatic in habit but have been gradually adapting to life in water over many centuries. Hence ears that are bedded down in water repellent fur. Yet their feet are not webbed nor do their long furry tails have a rudder shape. They don’t use feet to excavate burrows but instead utilise their long curved teeth. it’s thought they gradually took to the water for safety’s sake as man and predator presence grew. We also learnt that they will eat up to 227 varieties of plant; prefer shallow narrow channels of slower moving water to fast rapid watercourses; need soft earth banks to burrow into, above high water levels, with at least six metres of unshaded bankside vegetation to provide sufficient food and cover. Highly territorial during the breeding season water voles then hunker down in family groups underground attempting to last out the winter.

If further funding can be secured Northumberland will be teaming up with Durham Wildlife Trust, public and private landowners after this project ends in 2021 with the aim of building on its success and ‘break out’ to the lower river courses and catchments of North Tyne, South Tyne, Wear and Tees, in order to restore vole populations there too. The success of the continual battle to eradicate mink is clearly crucial in securing the re-population of these much loved and highly valued species.

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!


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.