Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Unearthing black gold

When oh when will this dull, wet and miserable weather end. I'm on holiday for a fortnight and have picked by far the worst week of the year. But lets not complain too much, on with the wellies and tackle a job that is long overdue - the clearing out of the compost bin.

I suppose strictly speaking this should have happened in the autumn, the compost spread onto the garden and lightly forked in, awaiting the frost and winter weather to break it down further. But we didn't. Speaking of frost, in all that severe weather during November and December, frost heave happened a-plenty in the compost bin, causing it to erupt from all sides, causing a right old mess, like scree scrambling down the mountain.

So there was nothing for it, off with the front and lets see what was in there. Ohh that does look good, well apart from the detritus on the top.

Oh and it was good stuff, once I'd removed the top 6 inches or so it was just perfect. I had made a DIY sieve out of a plastic trug to riddle out the worst of the lumps, but that didn't work (the compost was too wet - my failure will remain forever unseen on the blog) so in the end ingenuity prevailed and I used a wire hanging basket. Perfect.

Ohh you can just feel the goodness oozing out of this. Absolute black gold. It was packed with millipedes, a good sign, and an abandoned rodent nest. Later a frog bobbled along, so that's my first spring frog of the year.

So after about 2 hours hard graft, I had the compost all lined up against the veg plot. This is about 2/3rds of it, and sieving some through a 6mm mesh to plant a few bulbs, it was just perfect when mixed 50:50 with multipurpose compost. It's not sterile so weeds may be an issue, but unleashing home made compost into the garden must be one of a gardeners biggest joys. However I did find 3 spoons and a pair of socks about half way down. Best not to ask anything further about those.

Next job sorting and cleaning the greenhouse for the impending arrival of hundreds of plug plants herself has just ordered. If it's anything like last year there will be a triffid-like maelstrom of foliage in here in about a month - shudder!!

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Up and down the Chutes

Its a good job we don't let the weather spoil the day. February may be turning out to be one of the mildest on record with average temperatures 3 degrees above the norm (Philip Eden in the Telegraph on Saturday) but with pretty much continuous dull, wet and miserable days, it still feels like the dark days of December to me. So much so in fact that on Saturday we popped over to Stow in the Wold and with all the shop lights blazing across the streets, people bustling about shopping, and it feeling cold, it really did feel like the run up to Christmas.

So yesterday, undeterred by the cold grey start to the day, herself and I pootled off to do a 2 hour walk around the Chutes. The Chutes are a collection of villages on the Wiltshire/Hampshire border and a favourite area of mine. Back in 1983, when I still lived in the North East, we had a holiday at Hurstbourne Tarrant and stumbled across the Chutes by accident. I find it strange these days that from Julie's home they are just 8 miles away.

I digress. So armed with a book of walks, we arrived at Lower Chute. The walk we were going to follow began at Upper Chute, but Lower Chute has a fabulous pub, more of that later, so I felt it was a good start and more importantly end to the walk.

So off we started. Now because we began the walk mid flow, so to speak, trying to work out exactly where we were on the planned route in the book was a lot more problematic than we envisaged. However after a couple of false starts, we headed past the war memorial above and turned right up a hill and onto the open landscape.

The soil here is amazing, it is nearly 50% flint shards, very heavy soil but very productive. Must be a nightmare to work though. There was little wildlife of note here but a Jay held our attention for a while crarrcking in a tree, and a lone buzzard. Interesting too how once one stops looking at the miserable weather from inside and actually goes outside, it seems much more cheerful.

Even these snowdrops just by the side of the road we'd now turned onto were cheery. Mind you herself eclipses the snowdrops, especially in that hat.

Eventually we arrived in Upper Chute where the churchyard of St Nicholas was awash with snowdrops. Not far from here is the settlement of Chute Forest. Now here's a thing. The word Chute dates back to Norman times and means forest or wood, and in those days this area was an extensive forest, which joined up with the huge hunting forest of Savernake, also owned by the Crown, just a few miles away to the north, and to the south the Salisbury Forest which then joined onto the New Forest. Deforestation began in the reign of Charles 1st when he granted parcels of the forest to favoured noblemen. So here's my conundrum. The hamlet of Chute Forest actually translates as Forest Forest. A bit more imagination was needed back then I feel, in hamlet nomenclature.

Continuing through Upper Chute we then headed down a wonderful track, which dipped and weaved through the landscape. There were more birds here, flitting about, mainly the common species, but a welcome diversion.

But I love these ancient tracks for the history they bring to the present. How many people and for how long have been using these tracks? My guess is they're at least 500 years old and probably a lot older, as this area was inhabited in the iron age. We often take landscape at face value, but what we see today is a result of centuries of management and change. This wood by the track is a good example of this. Those trees by the fence were coppiced at some point, but are now at least 100 years old mature trees, albeit with multiple trunks. Beyond these bluebell foliage was beginning to show, again indicating an ancient woodland. We made a note to return when the bluebells are in flower.

Further along the track we turned uphill and began walking along a muddy track called Breach Lane, alongside which we came across this ancient hazel coppice stool. Still healthy on the outside but completely hollow in the middle. Looking around there were other ancient hazel stools, in a line. Presumably then a boundary hedge along the track. I'm no expert in dating such features, but I'd guess about 200+ years old as the hollow area was at least 18 inches across. I find such permanent reminders of our past in the landscape inspiring. As for whatever happens, wars, famines, economic growth and decline, these sentinels to permanency bring me back to earth and make me realise there are bigger and longer lasting forces at work than me. Nature will always be supreme.

Further along the lane a sight not often associated with mid February, windfall apples. I love the fact that this apple tree was possibly the result of some passing wayfarer tossing his apple core into the hedge, from where it then germinated and grew. There's a rising phenomenon along trunk roads in Britain in that apple cores thrown from cars as they speed past, now mean there are a lot of apple trees growing alongside our roads. Over in Dorset a viewpoint in Duncliffe Wood now has an orchard around it, just from the discarded apple cores of walkers after the climb. Next autumn keep a look out for apple laden trees in our hedgerows and you will be surprised how many there are.

Not far from the apple tree we spied a group of deer, miles away across a field but at least I managed a record shot photo.

Eventually we joined the so named Chute Causeway. Today it is a country lane, but originally it was a Roman road connecting Winchester with Mildenhall, near Marlborough. On our walk it was quiet, so quiet in fact we disturbed 2 roe deer, one a stag in full antler, which was surprising but not unusual. We watched these for a while before they bounded over a fence. The photo above shows a well used deer jump over the fence. I know deer are becoming a bit of a problem at the moment as their populations are expanding rapidly, but no matter what damage they cause to wildlife sites, farmland and gardens, they're still magnificent to see. As was the marsh tit pchew pchewing in a tree beside us.

We'd been walking nearly 2 hours now so it was time to head back to the pub, via Conholt Park, which I later discovered has an interesting past, and is one of the most important conservation estates in southern Britain as they marry conservation (the biggest downland restoration project in England), farming and shooting in a very profitable way. The house also has a fabulous garden apparently, open occasionally to the public. Our main concern however was would we make it through the Park........ mmmmm worrying sign that!

All was well though, phew! We then passed by a small woodland. I'd love to know the history of this. Its marked on the Ordnance Survey map as Mafeking Clump. The name suggests it was planted in response to the Mafeking Siege at the turn of the 19th Century, but why here? Its difficult to see in the photo, but the periphery of the clump is delineated by regular spaced conifers, almost like soldiers in a circle laying siege to the broadleaved trees inside. A flyte of fancy or a meaningful memorial to a fallen soldier. I must investigate further.

One last hamlet to walk through, Chute Cadley, who's entire woodland seemed to be taken over by snowdrops. This is a wonderful area for snowdrops, every village is just a sea of white at the moment

And then we were back to the car which we'd left at the Hacket Arms, Lower Chute. Its nearly 30 years since I first visited this pub and it has never changed. Still tucked away and hard to find, inside is all beams, open fires and relaxed. A welcome end to a walk, as was the cider and cheese and onion crisps. Never let it be said a dull day is wasted in the country.

Friday, 18 February 2011

An unexpected find in the garden

Gardening is a bit like life. One never knows what on earth will happen next. Last weekend having a garden tidy up, I came across many plant pots with "something" in them. I blame moving house for this lack of knowledge of what lay within the compost, my chaotic incompetence had no bearing on the matter. Some had been labeled, now lost, some had labels and now illegible and most were just long forgotten pots covered in weeds. Pots which as some point in time had been filled with seeds, bulbs, who knows what. I always seem to have a collection of unknown pots at the back of the greenhouse or somewhere. Anyway not having time to look at these properly, I moved them all to another part of the garden for future inspection.

This I did. And two of the pots show signs of life. And not just life but snowdrops. But where on earth did they come from? It is just possible these are snowdrops from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. No, I didn't dig them up, but we went there last February and someone had a stall. However they may also be from East Lambrook Manor in Somerset, as I bought snowdrops from there too the year before.

One of the snowdrops was in flower and it is a double flowering one. So my guess is this is more likely to have come from East Lambrook, as they have a national collection there. Oh how I wish I'd labeled them. Hopeless!!!

Does anyone know what species this is? Or even get close (click for a closer image)?

The other pot is equally exciting, as these snowdrops seem to be emerging but struggling to get above the level of the compost. Are these the same ones as in the pot above, or different ones? I know what you're thinking, the long winter nights must just fly by in my house if this is the only thing to excites me in February. It takes all sorts.

Speaking of snowdrops, last weekend I read about the Scottish Snowdrop Festival which is run by the Scottish Garden Scheme (the yellow book's Celtic cousin, north of the border). I love the idea that some gardens open in February in Scotland to herald the arrival of spring and it all goes to charity. Well done Scotland. The article in the Daily Telegraph is here.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Wholemeal kneading to pot up

Oh dear this is very worrying. I decided today to make some bread. I've made bread before, but that was back in the mid 1980's when I had loads of time on my hands and began experimenting on foodstuffs. What on earth possessed me to become a bread maker now? Okay I'm on a health kick after being a bit under the weather at Christmas, but why not buy a loaf and relax. I lay there this morning listening to the birds, willing myself to pop to Sainsbury's to buy a loaf, but no. I'd said I was going to make bread today and come hell or high water it was going to happen. Aries men, when they get an idea in their thick heads, are neigh on unstoppable.

So I was off. Armed with a recipe for a 2 hour loaf I battened down the hatches and set forth on my voyage of yeast based foodstuffs. The recipe I had was for a wholemeal loaf. However I'm always worried about Julie, being a vegetarian, and whether she gets enough protein. I'm sure she does, but I still worry. So I adapted the formula to include quinoa flour to a ratio of 4:1 wholemeal : quinoa.

Now I know a lot of you out there knit yoghurt with abandon, I've seen the fabulous jams and bread stuffs emanating from the pages of your blogs. But this is exciting. I had no idea what I was doing, but worked out if I can mix a 4:1 cement based mortar, I can make bread. Ingredients measured, mix in the bowl, and hey presto a dome of pre-bread emerged which just, note the word, just, needed 5 minutes kneading. Nothing to it.

Blimey!! Who invented kneading bread? Not only did I require the power of a weightlifter, but 3/4 of the flourey-dough stuck to my hands and no amount of persuasion, cursing or brute force would get it to return to the work surface. Apparently dusting with flour helps, but I just turned white and sneezed a lot. Slight communication failure there. I take my hat off to you competent bread makers, you're geniuses, or is that genii?

Eventually though brute force and perspiration won the day and the now well pummelled mound was placed in a tin, plastic bag over, and leave for an hour to rise, or prove or something. I needed soothing so we headed off to the local tack shop where herself bought a natty little Toggi riding jacket and I tickled a Jack Russel's tummy.

We were actually out nearly 2 hours and I had visions of returning home to some form of Quatermass experiment. The bread would have risen out of the tin, and be now engulfing large swathes of the Somerset coastline. But no all was calm, and so in the oven it went.

Just half an hour later the oven went into labour, and being the proud expectant father I am, I delivered the baby myself.

And I have to admit, it is rather delicious. Slightly on the robust side of heavy, much like its father, but the texture was just the gnats pyjamas. Julie insisted we cut into the loaf immediately it emerged from the oven, so what you can not see here is all the steam. Anyway I enjoyed the experience so much, as I write this blog in the evening, there is another loaf, a platted loaf and 3 buns proving downstairs. I feel a business opportunity developing.

As if that wasn't excitement enough today, being a fabulous day weather wise, we spent 2 hours in the garden. It is always fab to get out into the garden after winter and start the process of replanting, and of course clearing up the mess after 3 months neglect.

Earlier in the week I had purchased 2 new terracotta pots and some spring bulbs. Like many I guess, my pots had suffered badly in the bad weather, with only the Yorkshire Pot company's frost proof ones surviving. Two new Yorkshire pots were therefore added to the collection, plus dwarf narcissus February Gold and dwarf tulip, Red Riding Hood. The plan for the two pots are a permanent shrub with under planting of spring bulbs. One pot will have a rhododendron I was given my a work colleague as a thank you many years ago, that had out grown its barrel, and the other will have a standard bay. Eventually. My father had grown a bay from a cutting, which while only 6 inches high when he brought it at Christmas, has obviously sentimental value beyond its size.

One pot down, and one pot to go, while all the time being watched by this cheeky chappy on the fence, keeping a close eye on the mound of compost in the wheelbarrow.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Water Wars, will humans win?

Life if interesting. I was going to write about Alan Titchmarsh's return to ITV, but something else caught my eye.

A large part of my week is spent researching conservation stories, not only here in the UK, but across the globe. And every now and again I come across a story which makes me stop and think, such as the one below.

There are huge pressures coming towards Mankind in the next 50 to 100 years, Climate Change, electricity shutdowns and dwindling oil resources are mere drops in the ocean of concern compared to running out of water and food. The World at 6.5 billion people is almost at capacity for fresh water, but with the Global population set to rise to 9 billion by the end of the century, what happens then?

We've heard this many times before, and I'm okay, I'll not be about to see it. But should I think like that? Of course I shouldn't. But knowing what is around the corner was one of the reasons I made a conscious decision not to have children. I didn't want my grandchildren facing what we know is coming. Unless Mankind does something drastic soon, wars won't be started for land, or gold, or religion, they'll begin for food and more importantly water, the so called Water Wars which are increasingly being discussed.

And it is the prospect of Water Wars which made me sit up and think while reading this article from the on-line news service, Wildlife Extra . We are both equally right to conserve wildlife, our landscape and the natural world, as we are to conserve water, conserve food, provide hydro energy and so on. But a tipping point is nearing. I do my bit of course, haven't washed my car for over a year, (its filthy but so what), I don't have a hosepipe, never have baths, just quick shower (no comments please??), have eco-washing machine and so on and have water bills of £35 a half year. But that's not enough really as the Western World consumes vast water resources in it's commodity buying. But that's how it is. Going back to a pre-industrial World is not a possibility.

Is there a solution? Is there a way forward, I just don't know. It is a rock and a hard place scenario. Better minds than me will work out what to do, but one thing is for sure, being able to turn on the tap and have fresh drinkable water, even in the maritime wet UK may, in the not too distant future, be a luxury. And that is a sobering thought.

Below is the article from wildlife Extra which made me think :

February 2011. Forest & Bird have launched a campaign to give New Zealanders the chance to urge Meridian Energy to withdraw its proposal to build an 85-metre-high dam on the pristine Mokihinui River on the West Coast.

Forest & Bird is asking New Zealanders to send a Forest & Bird e-card to publicly-owned Meridian, asking the company to live up to its stated environmentally-friendly ideals by leaving the Mokihinui alone.

Join the campaignA giant-sized postcard was delivered by Forest & Bird representatives to Meridian's Wellington head office to kick off the campaign. The public can send their message via the Forest & Bird website or Facebook page.

Forest & Bird was joined by MPs, including Chris Hipkins, Peter Dunne and Kevin Hague, and representatives of organisations representing kayakers, rafters and trampers, who also want the river to remain in its natural state.

"We are asking Meridian to do the right thing and enhance its reputation as a generator of renewable energy by leaving this non-renewable river in its wild state. This e-card campaign is an opportunity for New Zealanders to join with us in showing Meridian how much this beautiful river means to us." Forest & Bird General Manager Mike Britton said.

Forest & Bird Conservation Advocate Quentin Duthie said: "Destructive dams are old technology and are no longer acceptable on our irreplaceable wild rivers."

330 hectares of rainforest and riverbed to disappearMeridian's proposed dam would create a 14-kilometre-long reservoir covering 330 hectares of rainforest and riverbed along the Mokihinui River gorge in New Zealand's largest ever drowning of conservation land by a hydro project.Until recently Meridian was the primary sponsor of Project Crimson, a programme to protect and regenerate rata and pohutukawa throughout New Zealand. Along the Mokihinui there is a profusion of rata that would be submerged by the hydro lake.

16 Endangered species threatened including Critically Endangered Long tailed batThe dam would threaten 16 endangered bird species, including the blue duck or whio, as well as at least two unique species of giant land snails and the critically endangered long-tailed bat.

A dam would disrupt the breeding migration of an estimated quarter of a million endangered longfin eels and destroy important habitat for other native fish, including the giant and short-jawed kokopu.

Forest & Bird, the Department of Conservation and others are appealing the resource consent Meridian received last year. But the company also requires the permission of DOC as landowner to drown public conservation land, or to privatise the gorge by swapping it for other land.

Documents obtained under the Official Information Act have revealed that DOC intended to decline Meridian. After receiving the draft responses from DOC, the company withdrew its applications but it remains committed to the dam and presumably intends to reapply.

"Forest & Bird urges Meridian to accept DOC's decision that this dam is completely unacceptable, and focus on environmentally-friendly projects," Quentin Duthie said.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The hare and the raven...

Well I'm back from my little subjoin to Hertfordshire now and what a cracking day was had by all yesterday. We couldn't have picked better weather if we had tried. In the middle of an unsettled grey, wet and blustery week, we had sun, clear blue skies, hardly a breeze and after a light frosting, warmth on the winter ravished skin. It really did feel like spring was in the air. I even heard skylark song ascending, the first of the season while sitting quietly watching the wildlife I'd come to see, the Brown Hare. (click on an image to enlarge - they spot humans well before we can get close to them)

I don't know Hertfordshire very well, although I did spend a lot of time as a child not far away in Essex, a place called Rickling Green if any of you know that area. I have to say though, being so close to London, apart from the traffic on the main roads, this area was very rural. I liked it, as I'm fond of farmland landscapes and the wildlife they contain. Such a glorious morning, as witnessed by the view as we began our day (above).

So off we went, in search of the hares. Our guide has been studying hares on this farm for a few years now and can count up to 100 individuals, all was excitement. No sooner had we emerged from the woodland edge, but there in front of us was a hare, in its form (below)

From this vantage point our guide then spotted 10 hares around us, all lying in their forms, resting, and easy to overlook if just out for a stroll. We had to plod on though, and so as we did they began to move away from us, not too far though, just enough to see them on the skyline. Sadly, this being open arable farmland, getting close to the hares was impossible, and my camera will not zoom that much, but what you see here is pretty much what I saw. Through binoculars fantastic.

But the best action apparently was to be found further on, this part of the farm being just the warm up act. However moving further on had some risk taking involved - take a peek at the sign (and there was me thinking hare watching wasn't risky)

But the risk taking was worth it, despite the risk of being shot. Mating hares, boxing hares, running hares, as far as the eye could see there were brown objects dotted about the winter cereals.

The farm also has a wild herd of fallow deer, including a white individual. The herd are truly wild arriving in the winter to munch through the farm before dispersing in the spring. I liked this farm, which has to remain secret, for obvious reasons. This farmer is just keen on wildlife. He doesn't get any subsidies, or ask for help in conserving nature, he just loves wildlife. No shooting is allowed on his farm, unusual around these parts, and possibly this is why hare numbers are high. All very good news, as even with the hares and the fallow deer rampaging through his land he still makes a profit. An enlightened hero, who avoids publicity or acknowledgement, as do many other farmers across the UK. They're not all bad.

Above is a view of the fallow deer and infront of them a little group of hares, and if I turned 180 degrees behind me (photo below) more hares. I guess in total we must have seen 25 - 30. Just brilliant.

But that wasn't the only wildlife. Sitting still in the lee of a hedge is the only way to observe wildlife in the wild; in my book anyway (a long way off from being written) which would also include a flask of tea, a groundsheet, and a good pair of binoculars. Skylarks were just everywhere, singing and ascending. Buzzards, linnets, corn bunting, and even a few buzzy wuzzies making the warmth on my face feel like later in the year with their drone like buzzing. As I sat, I heard a cronk. And another. 4 ravens, 2 pairs actually flew over and in front of me for a good 15 minutes. They were sky pairing in a synchronised silhouette flight, tumbling, barrel rolling and a few times flying in formation as a foursome. I never ever tire of ravens in flight.

Can you imaging how I felt sitting there on a warm spring day, hares everywhere, ravens above, peace and quiet, not a soul around us, just magical. I'd forgotten I was there to work, well almost. Oh nearly forgot, one mammal we didn't see, but very common on the farm is a fox. Funny that, a predator of hares in a place full of hares, I wonder why? I did see signs of a fox though, marking its territory.

All too soon I had to pack up and we headed back to Bristol, but just time for one more hare, if you can spot it........

...... and this view of the copse area of the farm, just because I loved the composition of the fields, hedges and trees.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Hare and the Crow.... oh dear!

Oh dear the credit card has taken another bashing and the profits of a well known Internet bookstore named after an area of South America have risen again. I'm meant to be on an economy drive and well the body is willing but the mind is weak.

I've had my eye on these species related tomes for a while now, as I'd come across the 'Crow' volume while researching corvids in the autumn. These species led monographs are part of the Animal series of books, published by Reaktion Books. They are not a field guide. In fact if you were to use them as a field guide, you'd be sadly disappointed.

Illustration from the Crow

What they are is a veritable smorgasbord of exploration into the historical significance and impact on humans of a wide range of animals, everything from mythology to religion and science, alongside the trade in that animal, art and culture and their roles in literary imagination.

Anyway on Monday evening I was chatting to a colleague and we discussed these books. In a flash I had produced my flexible friend, fired up the laptop, and in less time than it takes to boil and egg, purchased 5 books. 2 for me, the Hare and the Crow and three for my colleague, Snail, Snake and Spider. I'll say nothing about his choice of species other than, he lives alone!

Illustration from the Hare

This afternoon these books arrived and having a bit of a flick through they're fabulous. The Hare book is particularly apt, as next Tuesday I'm off to a secret location in East Anglia to visit a wonderful woman who has been studying hares on a farm for decades. Weather permitting, guaranteed sightings and guaranteed a wonderful day as the individual hares are known to her by name.

I wonder if they (the females) will be boxing yet? A bit early but you never know. I feel a photo opportunity coming on.