Garden blogs

Farming and Wildlife in August

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THE ESTATE FARM: As described in May, the Botanic Garden covers about 568 acres of which farmland is 316 acres including 100 acres of woodland. There are 25 head of pedigree Welsh Black beef cows and 30 non-pedigree Balwen ewes and their 35 lambs, with the permanent flower rich grassland of the Waun Las National Nature Reserve being grazed and cut for hay.

AUGUST ON THE FARM is almost always a busy time and Huw tells me that there is a lot going on in the next few weeks and I suppose that it’s really what we might call ‘harvesting the annual bounty of the land’; and that includes grass as hay, the Spring Barley, beef and there’ll be some lamb soon as well. There’s also calves to dehorn, heifers to Artificially Inseminate [AI], lambs to weigh to see if they are ready to be sold, plus all the normal daily checking up to make sure that everything is going to plan and that there are no problems that need immediate or future attention. And of course, all that paperwork! It’s a really busy life being a farmer isn’t it! Probably there’s more about this below.

When it’s hot and grass is in short supply, it’s always surprising how cattle manage providing that they have access to water for drinking and somewhere to lie in the shade. They seem to spend most of the day lying down, wander around in the evening and drink and then at night eat whatever there is to eat. Sounds quite sensible doesn’t it! Water for cattle on The Farm is either from the mains to field troughs or from a borehole near Alltgoch Lodge on the eastern side of The Farm.

FLOWERS IN AUGUST: People tell us that: ‘The only constant in life is change’. And it’s true not only for political whims and fancies, and the Government regulations relating to farm livestock movements and identification, but also to our weather and the natural world around us.  Different wildflower plants dominate hedgerows, meadows and woodlands at different times of the growing season – the perennial Lesser Celandine was a major feature in April when flowering in grassland, hedges and woods but it would be difficult to find any sign of flower or even leaf now.  Same for Lady’s Smock – another perennial but of the Cabbage family – aka Cuckoo-flower perhaps because it is commonly the food plant for the nymph of the Common Froghopper[1] that sucks the plant sap and the excreted liquid then forms a frothy covering for the growing nymph.  This froth not only visually protects the nymph from all those lurking predators but prevents it from drying out in hot weather – well worth it now eh!  Because these Froghopper nymphs start feeding and producing this mass of froth at about the same time in late-April/early May as Cuckoos arrive back from their Winter sojourn in Africa, it was thought that it was the Cuckoos that spat the froth on their arrival here – perhaps to show their disapproval of the colder climate? – and so it was always called ‘Cuckoo Spit’ and the froghoppers were Spittlebugs.

Be that as it may, August has seen many plants flower, set their seed and for the vegetation to die down. Others take their place and just now we are treated to the Meadowsweet that is a member of the Rose family – that always seems strange doesn’t it!  And although we might like to think of it as being named for being the ‘sweet plant of the meadow’ it’s actually the plant that used to be used in sweetening or flavouring mead – which was the alcoholic drink of ‘common people’, and probably not so common people as well, all over the world for thousands of years, and in the 1400s the plant was named Meadsweet.  Mead is made by fermenting Honey with water and sometimes with various fruits, spices, grains or hops – presumably depending upon availability and local tastes! Apparently, this Meadsweet or Meadow Sweet was collected – and maybe even cultivated by – those who favoured their mead to be sweet and not bitter – have our tastes changed do you think?

It’s also Wild Carrot season although it seems to be less easy to see this year for some reason. I know that it’s just another white-flowered Umbellifer but usually it has that marvellous central floret that is dark red or apparently dark purple as I was told firmly by a lady from Pembrokeshire when last weekend a group of us stopped to look at some Wild Carrot when walking back from an evening looking at Beavers.  The popular orange Carrot that we eat today was developed by the Dutch in the 17th century and was first noted in 1668 as being grown in the UK in Somerset.

Apparently Wild Carrot is also known as ‘Queen Anne’s lace’. She was King James I’s ‘Queen’ consort during the Jacobean period and was said to have pricked her finger with a needle and a drop of blood stained some lace. So Wild Carrot’s single red flower in the middle of its Umbel is supposed to be the lasting result of that drop of blood!

The Whorled Caraway in Cae Treillon and in other fields on The Farm as well, is in full bloom now with its narrow oblong leaves that don’t look much like the more common Umbellifer leaves that we are used to seeing. But the white flower head has the typical ‘umbrella’ form, so why not go long and have a look at it?  Although related to the spice Caraway that’s used amongst other things for flavouring Rye bread, Whorled Caraway has no use for either cooking or medicine.  Nevertheless, it’s the county flower of Carmarthenshire and gets its name from the way the leaves at the base of the stem form a ‘whorl’.  The Caraway bit of the name is more difficult: directly from the Spanish ‘alcaravea’ which in turn came from the Arabic ‘karawiya’ – these plant names can get a bit complicated, can’t they?

Mind you, do you want a real challenge? Then why not see how many different members of the Umbelliferae you can identify during the season with their different: sizes; times of flowering; flower colours; favoured habitats; leaf shape, and length of life – mostly perennial but with some biennials and occasional annuals. The ‘Botanical Society of the British Isles Handbook No 2 Umbellifers’ has details of 73 but I wouldn’t mind betting that very few of us would find more than a dozen or maybe fifteen in a season! Go on, give it a try!

FOOD AND FOOD PRODUCTION: Other than on some TV programme with a group of chefs – some of whom might be described merely as ‘boring celebrities[2]’ – all trying to win a competition to cook and present the most attractive looking and best tasting dish, you know that we almost never talk about food as a worrying topic, do we? For most of us in UK, food is all about looks and taste isn’t it! We take for granted that food of some sort is available now and will be available tomorrow and the day after that as well – and in quantities far greater than our requirements, of course. We either have forgotten or aren’t aware of food shortages, including the World War 2 food rationing that started in 1939 and didn’t end until 1954.

At the start of WW2, the UK was importing 20 million tons of food each year, including about 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits and about 70% of cereals and fats. The UK also imported more than half of its meat, and even relied on imported cereals from US and Canada to feed cattle for domestic meat and milk production. The UK population in 1939 was about 48 million of a global total of 2.3 billion people.

In September 1939 the first commodity to become Government controlled was petrol; North Sea Oil was not even a pipe-dream! Then in 1940 bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. This was followed by rationing of meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk, and canned and dried fruit. Almost all foods apart from vegetables and bread were rationed by August 1942 with only a very limited amount of each available for each person each week.

Fresh vegetables and fruit were not rationed but supplies were limited. Some types of imported fruit all but disappeared. Lemons and Bananas became unobtainable for most of the war; oranges continued to be sold but greengrocers reserved them for those children and pregnant women who could prove their status by producing their distinctive ration books. Other domestically grown fruit such as apples still appeared from time to time, but again the sellers imposed their own restrictions so that customers were often not allowed to buy more than one apple each. Many people grew their own vegetables in private gardens and allotments, greatly encouraged by the national and highly successful “Dig for Victory” campaign– similar to the Botanic Garden’s new project of “Growing the Future” perhaps? In the mid-1940s, many children between five and seven years old had become so used to wartime restrictions that when questioned about Bananas, they did not believe such fruit really existed. A popular music-hall song, written 20 years previously but sung ironically during the rationing period, was:

“Yes, we have no Bananas, we have-a no Bananas today.
We’ve string beans, and onions, Cabbages and scallions,
And all sorts of fruit and say
We have an old fashioned to-mah-to, A Long Island po-tah-to
But yes, we have no Bananas.
We have no Bananas today.”

That severe shortage of food for those 5 years of war and immediate post-war, had a huge effect on UK Government food production policies in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. These policies were aimed at producing much more food, and by financially rewarding farmers to intensify their farm businesses and practices. More about all this in future months perhaps?

Anyway, fifty years ago, we were eating Bananas that tasted better than they do now, lasted longer and didn’t require artificial ripening[3].  This Banana cultivar[4] was called Gros Michel and it remained the world’s export Banana until 1965. That year, it was declared commercially extinct due to the Panama disease, a fungal disease that caused a Fusarium Wilt and that started out from Central America and quickly spread to most of the world’s commercial Banana plantations, leaving no other choice but to burn them down.

The Banana industry was then in in deep crisis and had to look for alternative cultivars. It settled on the Cavendish cultivar which, although known to be an inferior product to Gros Michel, was immune to the then known strains of the disease. It was quickly adopted by Banana growers worldwide. Anyway, for some while in the mid-1960s there were no Bananas in the greengrocers – we had greengrocers then – until the commercial producers – and Ecuador is the largest supplier – chose the Cavendish that we see in our supermarkets.

Today, the Cavendish is a universal foodstuff, much like a Big Mac: supermarket Bananas are pretty much identical anywhere you buy them. After all these Bananas have nearly no genetic diversity – as Banana plants do not produce seed and all are clones of one another. But there is now a real problem with a new strain of the Panama disease that affects the Cavendish Banana. Yes, you’re right, there are many hundreds of different varieties of Banana – which isn’t a tree by the way, but a herb, or should that be an herb? So will there be a future problem of poor Banana supplies? Only time will tell!

How did we get on to Bananas, eh? Probably because they are the 5th most eaten staple food in the world after wheat, maize, rice and potato. And Bananas you know are a major source of energy: you’ve all seen tennis players at Wimbledon sitting during their game break and peeling then eating a ripe Banana, haven’t you? And that’s not because they have a ‘thing’ about Bananas like some people have for chocolate or peanuts, it’s because they are a source of the instant, sustained and substantial boost of energy that they’ll need to win the next game!

We have been party to one of the modern world’s great success stories – to have almost quadrupled food production since the end of World War II, enabling global average food availability per person to rise by 40 percent while the population has grown from 2.5 to over 7 billion.  Not that this amazing rise in food availability – which, strangely, attracts little comment in the media – has been translated as much as might have been expected into better human nutrition and health.  Because food is cheap and available, we tend to eat too much and exercise too little!  Enough said, eh!

 

It has also inflicted huge damage on the world’s natural resources and, in many countries, undermined the fabric of rural society. It has been suggested that many of the negative effects of the growth in food production stem from the view, widely held by governments, that low retail food prices are a ‘good thing’. In the UK, for example, food is cheap, with the average UK family spend of disposable income on food falling from about 55 percent in the early 1960s to 12 percent now.  I’ve just finished reading – actually just perusing – a book[5] on homemade foods of Europe in the past.  The author describes how for centuries, the food store cupboard was the most important feature in every castle, house and hovel, often locked and always protected against marauders. Food was precious and scarce then, whereas now for most of us, it’s just another common commodity that we spend a small amount of our money on!  But that will change in the future perhaps!

 

ALTHOUGH RAIN FELL IN THE LAST WEEKEND OF JULY, THE DROUGHT CONTINUES: The rain came with strong winds blowing leaves and twigs from trees in exposed places. So many of these twigs seemed to be from Ash dieback affected trees; small branches already dead and brittle and dry. In fact, just the sort of twigs that we had to collect as kids charged before going to school with the responsibility for taking out the ash from the fireplace in the lounge, then ‘crumpling up’ some sheets of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph onto the grate, placing dry kindling onto the paper with a few small pieces of coal and making sure that there was a supply of both coal and logs for when the fire ‘got going’. Sometimes we were even allowed to use matches and to light the fire ourselves! By the way, did you know that the tree Ash is in the Olive Family of plants, together with Lilac, Privet and Forsythia?

But even after the end of July rain came, our lawns in both front and back gardens are looking brown and dry. Extremely serious matter though that might be to some urban households, it’s much more serious for our livestock farmers for whom at this time of year there is normally plenty of grass for stock to eat in the field as well as plenty of hay, silage and haylage already harvested and waiting ready for the Winter to come. Well not this year as many, indeed most lowland[6] dairy farmers, have little grass in the field and so are feeding their ‘first cut[7]’ of silage to their cattle. Some have even finished feeding their first cut of silage and are already eating their second cut. Although farmers must keep the cows healthy and milking well now in August, it will be very serious when Winter comes and there is little or no silage to feed to the herd, won’t it?

After all, because it is harvested early when grass growth is at its greatest in late April – May, the ‘first cut’ is always the cut that is the largest and best quality silage and usually at least 2/3 of the total amount harvested each year. So, it will depend upon the August and September weather as to whether some farmers can make more silage or have little or no winter feed for cattle and sheep left at all. Mind you, with soil temperatures as high as they obviously were after weeks and weeks with air temperatures over 250 C, it only took a weekend of rain or damp conditions before the bare grass fields started to ‘green up[8]’ and begin to grow. But on many soils this rainwater has only penetrated about 6-8 inches and that would evaporate quickly if more rainfall is not reasonably persistent. Although different for farmers with cereals and who want dry weather now for seed heads to move from the ‘cheesy stage’ to solid seed, livestock farmers want the old saying to come true:

Dry August and warme, does harvest no harme.

So pretty well all livestock fodder will be scarce this Autumn and Winter and that which is available is expected to fetch big money. Already, standing maize in our area has been heard to fetch more than £1,000 per acre, instead of the more normal £600. But if your cattle have already eaten your normal Winter fodder then farm belts have to be tightened and money paid out to buy in the fodder necessary to keep animals alive and milking and growing well. Or do you think that the ‘Supermarket’ will be paying farmers extra for their milk and meat in recognition of the hard times they have had in Summer 2018? Now that would be surprising wouldn’t it! Huw says that he will have to buy in some hay or haylage this year because he will not be able to cut the grass in the fields that are being used to dump and spread the silt taken out from the waterways and lakes being restored under the Regency Restoration Project. More about The Farm’s haymaking in September perhaps!

Straw can be fed to cattle and Huw expects to buy some for the Welsh Black cows this Winter, although he hopes to harvest some from the 7 acres of Spring Malting Barley that is growing in Cae Circus. Although some corn [wheat, barley and oats] is grown in South Wales, most livestock farmers buy their straw from merchants in England where cereals are more widely grown. Do you remember driving along the road and suddenly being enveloped in a cloud of smoke being blown in the wind from that field by the side of the road that had just had the cereal crop harvested?

Bloody farmers burning the straw again, eh”, you said as you slowed down and hoped that everyone else was doing the same ! Yes, farmers did burn straw because: there was only a small market to sell it into, so it was a bit of a waste product; it quickly cleared the field and was cheap; weeds including those resistant to herbicides were killed; slugs and other pests were killed, and it reduced the holding of nitrogen. But the downsides were too strong with smoke pollution and the risk of fires spreading being the main reasons why it was banned in England and Wales in 1993. Plus nothing much for birds and small mammals to overwinter on. So, farmers now either plough in the straw which increases soil organic matter or sell it to contractors to bale and sell to farmers or those with biodigesters.

With the wet July and August, it was a lousy year for straw crops in 2017 and the price per tonne delivered rose from the £50 to about £90. Early sales in 2018 show another rise as early harvested straw is fetching up to £140 per tonne for feeding barley straw although wheat straw for bedding purposes may be marginally cheaper. So, livestock farmers are going to have to fork out again aren’t they!

Actually, it’s been a long ‘Wilting Time’ hasn’t it ! But I hear you say, not all plants are wilting and anyway, why are they wilting? Well all plants ‘transpire’ and lose water from their leaves, stems and flowers as part of their absorption of soil moisture by their roots and its distribution in the ‘xylem’ vessels throughout the plant. And of this water that the plant takes up from its roots, almost all of it transpires as water vapour through the stomata or ‘pores’ in its leaves. So, plants transpire in order to be able to absorb through the stomata the carbon dioxide in the air that is necessary for photosynthesis[9].  During a growing season, a leaf will transpire many times more water than its own weight. Apparently, one acre of wheat gives off about 3,000–4,000 gallons (11,400–15,100 litres) of water each day, and a large oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons (151,000 litres) per year. That’s a lot of water vapour isn’t it!

WOOD AND CHARCOAL: Hands up all those who haven’t been to a barbecue this Summer! Not many of us I suspect, as that sort of cooking and eating outside is increasingly popular, isn’t it? Increasing sales of charcoal in UK too, with imports of about 90,000 tonnes each year. It’s often cheaper to buy the imports from outside UK, but where is it coming from and is its source sustainable?

About half the wood extracted worldwide from forests is used to produce energy, mostly for cooking and heating, and about 17% is converted to charcoal – according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Some countries convert harvested wood almost entirely to charcoal for cooking and other energy uses; Zambia for example with 80% of its energy needs met by charcoal, has a huge demand and deforestation[10] there is rife. UK imports are often from Paraguay in South America and Nigeria in West Africa, both of which have deforestation as a major issue.

So, why do we buy our charcoal that maybe from an unsustainable forest source? Wouldn’t it be better to buy the charcoal for your next barbecue from the Botanic Garden? Peter Lee-Thompson is the Education and Woodland Officer for the Regency Restoration Project and his team have been making charcoal from trees that have been felled as part of the Restoration Project programme and selling it to Garden visitors in bags stacked outside the Shop in the Courtyard. Peter says that Hornbeam and other hard woods make good charcoal, also Holly which sometimes has a ‘nice blue sheen’ and Willow burns hot and fast. My grandchildren aged 8 and 9 were highly successful at Easter this year using this charcoal on our amateurish barbecue set up and have made me promise to buy some more next time that I am in the Botanic Garden! Why not buy some charcoal yourself in their recycled brown paper bags that only weigh about 6 lbs [1 kg] and are clean and easy to carry back to your car? Enough to do a BBQ or 2, and cheaper than most garage forecourts.

CORN AND MAIZE THIS AUGUST: The corn is ripening early in most places. But what is corn and why is it ripening early you ask? Corn is the general name given to most crops of cereals; wheat, barley, oats or rye with the obvious exceptions being rice, maize and sweet-corn that are normally called by their own names. The Farm’s Spring Barley for Malting purposes in Cae Circus and the Oats in the arable silage area in Cae Gors, are both cereal crops and don’t look too bad from a distance. Actually, Huw says that considering that both fields were sown very late in May, he is quite pleased with their progress in the dry conditions. And dry conditions seem to encourage all the energy that the plant can make into its seeds rather than into its leaves and stem; so fast growth and early seeding.

Although none is grown on The Farm, elsewhere the maize grown for silage seems to have done well during the drought although most crops have tasselled and silked early this year; due perhaps to the drought? As I’m sure that you already know, maize is ‘monecious’ with separate male flowers and female flowers on each plant:  male tassels on the top of the plant dropping pollen at the same time as the female silks have just emerged from the tiny cob to receive the gift of the pollen falling or being blown in the wind from the tassels above and enabling fertilisation to take place.  Clever isn’t it!  Mind you, that period of pollen drop and silk capture of it, is a critical period in yield determination and it if it happened before the drought broke at the end of July then yields might be down.  Anyway, maize/sweet corn is one of the few plants that can collect rain in the funnel where its leaves emerge from the stem and is then absorbed into the plant structure itself.  Not that it’s had much chance to do that with little rain for the past few months!

RAGWORT AGAIN? You know how it often seems that when you hear a new word, or meet someone for the first time or write about a plant after not having done so for a while, that you hear that word again the next day, see that person the following week and keep seeing that plant sticking up like a ‘sore thumb’?   After the ‘Farming and Wildlife in July’ it has been just like that with Ragwort, seeing it in all sorts of different and unusual places: on the roadside of course; underneath the bridge; in a pile of rubble in someone’s front garden; by the side of someone’s garage and in all the normal places as well. It could be of course that it was noticed because the Ragwort was in its full and bright yellow flowering – it being close to the 25th of July which is St James Day which is one of Ragwort’s other names and tells us when it is always supposed to be flowering. Mind you, it’s a marvellously ‘pretty’ sight that once stirred the poet John Clare [1973 – 1864] -who was the son of a farm labourer – to write:

The Ragwort (1832)

Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come & litter gold,
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves;
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold,
That without thee were dreary to behold,
Sunburnt and bare– the meadow bank, the baulk
That leads a wagon-way through mellow fields,
Rich with the tints that harvest’s plenty yields,
Browns of all hues; and everywhere I walk
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright & glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
& seems but very shadows in thy sight.

Not bad for a farm labourer that spent his last years in an asylum, eh? Incidentally, someone mentioned that bees that have visited too many Ragwort flowers may produce honey with measurable amounts of the plant’s toxins. So, while no one could or should argue for the eradication of the weed, it probably makes sense to manage its numbers, doesn’t it!

SHEEP, SHEARING AND WOOL: In ‘Farming and Wildlife in June’ we talked about how Huw had shorn the Balwen ewes and had all these fleeces ‘looking for a home’! Being black in colour and with short fibre, the sale price to British Wool would be very low, and Huw was hoping for opportunities to sell for local craft work. Well, Mary sent a message to Jane and said that she might be interested but, never having handled Balwen wool, would need to spin some and then weave it to see if they are suitable. Huw gave Mary a few fleeces to try out and we await the results! As Mary said in her message “..Actually black fleece isn’t ‘black black’ but ‘brown black’ and not to most people’s taste, but I’ll see anyway”. A lot of low quality wool is now going for use as an insulation material for houses!

But with wool prices so low, hardly covering the cost of shearing – why do farmers bother to shear? You see, especially in Summers like this one, ewes get hot and as the wool will continue to grow, ewes get even hotter in following years if their wool is not taken off. With all that wool on them, ewes become awkward lying down, get marked with dung and blood from lambing and flies may lay eggs on dirty fleece and the maggots will crawl into the fleece and burrow into the skin and eat the meat intended for us. Incidentally, Huw says that he has not had much ‘fly strike[11]’ this year. So, for health and safety purposes alone, farmers continue to shear every year.

Mind you, some breeds of sheep don’t need shearing – Shetlands and Soay. These either shed their wool naturally themselves in late Spring or the owners hand pluck the wool in an activity known as ‘rooing’, which for the valuable Shetland wool is worth doing perhaps!

BEEF: We talk about August and September being the time of harvest and how we normally think of harvest as being of ripened crops. But most humans are ‘omnivores’ and eat both meat and vegetables, and so the meat for us to eat has to be harvested as well. Well, one of Huw’s Welsh Black steers[12] – now 40 months old and fat with Spring and early Summer grass – will go off to the Tregaron abattoir in mid-August for slaughter. Although beef cattle are slaughtered at a range of ages, at 40 months this steer of Huw’s is quite old, the Welsh Black being a ‘native breed’ that matures relatively slowly compared with the Continental[13] breeds and crosses that make up the bulk of slaughtered beef cattle. As well I suppose, The Farm’s Organic status (with no cereal feed and perhaps the lower quality of grazed and conserved fodder from wildflower rich grassland) does not lead to fast growth when compared to more commercial beef units.

A live steer that weighs 1,000 lb (450 kg) makes a carcass weighing about 615 lb (280 kg), once the blood, head, feet, skin, offal and guts are removed. The carcass is then hung in a cold room for between one and four weeks, during which time it loses some weight as water dries from the meat. It is then deboned and cut by a butcher or packing house, the carcass would make about 430 lb (200 kg) of beef. Depending on what cuts of meat are wanted, there is a scale of marbled meat used to determine the quality. Marbling is the fat that is within the muscle, not around it. Often, the more marbled a cut is, the higher it will grade and be worth more on the ‘butcher’s block’ and for us to buy!

It’s strange isn’t it how we as people like to talk about animals that we can touch and feel; often cattle and sheep come into that category. When at home and we could bear to do so, we watched ‘Lambing Live’ on BBC TV, with Kate Humble and Adam Henson billing and cooing over ewes lambing in a farmer’s lambing shed and the arrival of some ‘lovely cuddly lambs’. Great that the children to whom this show is probably targeted, get to see animals being born, but I don’t remember seeing many lambs born dead on Lambing Live, do you? And that happens even in lowland flocks of sheep which have young lamb mortality of about 8% and about 12% total losses between birth and slaughter.

And there’s not much mention on Lambing Live that the whole reason for farmers keeping sheep and then lambing them down, is to provide all of us with lamb chops for weekday evening meals and then legs of lamb for those family Sunday roast lunches! Once I had fifteen 10-year old children from a rural school who were standing around a pen with my sheep in, and when asked the question “Why do farmers keep sheep” had a lot of very interesting answers, but it took a long time and many clues being given by me, before they all agreed that it was to produce meat and wool for all of us!

HAY MAKING AND HARVEST AT LAST. As you know, The Farm doesn’t make any grass silage because the fields are very sloping, and it is not always easy to get the big machinery to the field anyway. Huw does make arable silage from a mixture of peas and oats and this is big-baled and wrapped in black plastic to prevent it from fermenting and becoming inedible by the cows. He says that he expects to make hay in early August on 40 acres of grassland which will be about the same area as in 2017; but it will be interesting to hear from him how the yield of hay in this dry Summer compares with the wetter Summer of 2017, won’t it?

Huw also thinks that the Spring-sown Malting Barley in Cae Circus – although the seed is still ‘cheesy’ now, will have filled out by ‘Pembrokeshire Week’ and will be harvested soon afterwards. Always wondered why farmers use important annual events to indicate when a particular job is likely to be done. Like Pembrokeshire Week being the week of the Pembrokeshire Agricultural Show of 14-16 August. But with no wrist-watch and an often seven-day week job for 365 days a year, actual calendar dates were not important perhaps?

THE ASH TREE AGAIN: After some talk last month about Ash Die Back, there was no mention of the seeds of the Ash Tree that we call ‘Ash Keys’ but apparently are called ‘samara’ in most botanical books. These are found on the female trees and rattle away during the winds of Winter.   A normally reliable but anonymous source with the initials JD, told me that she: “remembers her father telling her that if you put a stick of ash in stream/river water and boiled it, it would act as a purifier – but she’d never tried this”. Apparently, the wood of several trees has anti-bacterial properties, so her father may have been right, eh?

MORE ABOUT THAT THISTLE! Yes, let’s talk about Creeping Thistle, eh? It’s a strange plant, the flowers being mainly dioecious[14] but not always because some flowers are hermaphrodite.[15] And because it’s mainly dioecious, most of the seed produced is infertile unless a male clump of thistle is growing near a female clump and the wind blows pollen from the male to the female. Average seed production per plant has been estimated at more than 1500. More seeds are produced when male and female plants are closer together, as flowers are mainly insect-pollinated. The seeds are an important food for the goldfinch and the linnet, and to a lesser extent for other finches too. It seems surprising but these prickly Creeping thistle leaves are used as a food by over 20 species of butterflies and moths, including the Painted Lady butterfly and the engrailed moth, as well as several species of aphids.

ONE OF THE FOCAL POINTS FOR MANY BUTTERFLIES AND OTHER INSECTS in our gardens and waste ground during July and August has always been the Butterfly Bush or Buddleia that seems to be able to grow in any nook and cranny of walls and thin soils. Buddleia was late flowering this year; in many places not starting to flower until mid-July.  But even now there would seem to be only a few butterflies attracted to the Buddleia and not even many of the Stinging Nettle butterflies as I call them – those whose caterpillars feed on that dioecious plant – Comma, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and sometimes Painted Lady plus a host of moth caterpillars as well including the Magpie, Cream-spotted and Scarlet Tigers, Buff Ermine, and Angle Shades.  These butterflies and moths have a marvellous range of names don’t they – often very descriptive of the adult?

The Buddleia has a very firm place in the minds of many people of my age, as often they were part of the start of a lifelong interest in wildlife and insects in particular. I can remember as an 8 -year old going along to my friend Gordon’s house and, under the firm eye of his father, using a butterfly net to catch butterflies feeding on his large Butterfly Bush.  Then taking a specimen home in a glass jar and putting into a ‘killing bottle’ with cotton wool at the bottom with 2 or 3 drops of Scrubbs Cloudy Ammonia,  that I had to go next door to Auntie Janie to ask for.  I still don’t know what she used it for but there was always a bottle on the kitchen window sill!  When dead but before drying out and insect ‘rigor mortis’ had set in, I had to borrow some pins from Mum, cut some pieces from the Bronco toilet paper roll upstairs and ‘set’ the butterfly with its wings out. The setting board was made of cork from some broken table mats attached to a plank of wood with drawing pins.  Then several weeks later when dry, taking off the toilet paper strips and proudly putting a small paper label onto the pin under the butterfly with my name, and date and place of capture.  Gordon’s father was very strict about this; “You are not just collecting for fun you know – this is for natural history learning as well”.  Perhaps not a hobby that would be encouraged these days but for many of us perhaps it led to certain career choices and job opportunities in many different places in the world as well as lifelong interests.

Our Buddleia has been flowering since early July this year, but I’ve not seen more than 2 or 3 butterflies on it at any one time and hardly any of the usual Red Admiral or Commas and none of Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock or Painted Ladies. Mind you, I did find a single Painted Lady caterpillar on its main host plant of Creeping Thistle in a field that was otherwise inhabited only by eaten down grass.  Strange that they only seem to lay only a single egg to each plant, isn’t it?

In July we talked about the arrival from southern Europe of Summer Snowflakes – also known as Large and Small White butterflies. But what would they find to lay their eggs on for their caterpillars to eat as we have few plants of the Cabbage family on our farm.  Yet the Small Whites were flying in numbers around outside our back door where there were almost ripe tomatoes and a few runner beans and after a week or so there were holes in the leaves of some Nasturtium plants growing in the same bed.  Hmm, Nasturtium is definitely not Cabbage Family and no mention of this as a food plant in any of my modern ‘Butterfly Books’.  Then looking at ‘The Caterpillars of the British Butterflies including the eggs, chrysalids and food-plants by Richard South 1944, and my ‘Observers Book of British Butterflies’ from 1952, there was mention of Garden Nasturtium as a food-plant! The Butterfly Conservation’s website also mentioned Nasturtium.  So, these older books are worth looking at sometimes, aren’t they, especially when the Internet isn’t working!

LOOKING FORWARD to next month and by the meteorological calendar, the 1st September is the first day of Autumn. Many of us get a bit stressed by any mention of Autumn as the next stop is Winter with all the changes that that season can bring.

But for some of us Autumn is a season to look forward to with so many ‘end of season’ happenings – apple and pear harvest; main crop potato digging; Harvest Festival; departure of Swifts, Swallows and Martins for Africa but the arrival of Thrushes, Ducks and Geese from their nesting grounds further north. Some of us though, never really know what the official ‘Seasonal Calendar’ is, preferring to just enjoy the seasons as they come and go rather than changing our clothes on a particular date! For those of you like me who can never remember the official seasons:

Autumn is September, October, November;

Winter is December, January, February;

Spring is March, April and May, and;

Summer is June, July and August.

And in Autumn one can listen to that lovely but sad song ‘Autumn Leaves’ sung by Eva Cassidy:

Since you went away the days grow long 
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall…

So, it’s not all so bad, is it!

 

8 August 2018

[1] Froghoppers are so-called because the adults have strong back legs and can jump.

[2] We seem to be living in a so-called ‘celebrity culture’ these days, when anyone who has appeared on TV, played professional sport or appeared briefly in the public eye is granted celebrity status. And the media calls anyone who has acted in a film ‘a star’ and we as a nation seem to be mesmerised by the extraordinary plethora of Brits, Galas, Oscars, Golden Globes, Gotham Awards, SAG, PGA, BAFTA and almost any other combination of letters that one can think of!

[3] As you can imagine, Bananas don’t travel well when they are yellow and ripe – tending to get squishy and squashed. So, farmers have to harvest them when they are unripe and very green and when they get to their country of being eaten, they are treated with a ripening agent – usually the gas ethylene – to speed up their ripening.  If you buy green Bananas they will normally take 3-4 days to ripen to what most people like to eat – although an even shorter time in brown paper bags!

[4]cultivar is a plant or group of plants that have been selected from a naturally occurring species and bred to enhance or maintain a particular set of desirable characteristics like taste, earliness, colour etc.

[5] The Barricaded Larder, Elisabeth Luard, 1988.

[6] In UK, land below 200 masl [metre above sea level] is often considered to be Lowland, between 200 and 600 masl is Hill, and above 600 masl is Upland. The Farm is about 80 masl at the Glasshouse, so is mainly Lowland.

[7] When grass is mown and made into silage or hay, it’s usually known as a ‘cut of silage’ or a ‘crop of hay’. So farmers ask, “What was your first cut like, Fred?”.

[8] If you say to a farmer n the Spring, “And how’s your grass then Dai”. Usually he will shrug his shoulders and reply “Well, it’s greening up, I suppose. There’s a bit of colour to it.”.  In other words, some young shoots but nothing much to graze yet.

 

[9] Photosynthesis is the process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to synthesize nutrients from carbon dioxide and water. Photosynthesis in plants usually involves the green pigment chlorophyll and generates oxygen as a by-product. So, plants absorb water from soil, carbon dioxide from the air and return oxygen to the air.  Do you think that we need more plants and less people perhaps?

[10] Most of the charcoal is from woodland that has been harvested before and allowed to grow up for 5-10 years; just like Hazel used to be coppiced periodically in UK woodlands.

[11] ‘Fly strike’ as it is called is a painful, sometimes fatal, condition caused by flies laying eggs on an animal, which hatch into maggots and eat their ‘hosts’ flesh. Often a wound or a dirty ‘back end’ attracts the flies.

[12] A steer or bullock is a male castrated normally at 1-2 months of age – after which an anaesthetic is required by law.  Entire bulls tend to have faster growth and a leaner carcass and have a higher food conversion efficiency, but steers are much easier and safer to handle than entire bulls and there is no risk of unwanted sexual activity and accidental matings. Farmers make the decision depending upon their own preference and market requirements.

[13] Continental beef breeding in UK started probably with the introduction of breeds like the Charolais in the early 1960s with big ‘double muscled’ high value meat on their backsides, followed by Limousin, Blonde d’Aquitane, and Simmental and more recently the Belgian Blue. Many dairy cows from which no replacement heifer calves are wanted on the farm – usually because they are less than average milk producers – are crossed with a Continental bull, and the resultant heifer or bull calves sold to specialist beef farmers to rear and sell later for meat.

[14] A Dioecious species is one which has male and female flowers on separate plants. A Monoecious plant has separate male and female flowers but on the same plant. When a plant has both male and female parts in the same flower, then it is called ‘perfect’, bisexual or hermaphroditic and sometimes called androgynous, monoclinous or synoecious.  It can get complicated can’t it!.

[15] Hermaphrodite is a botanical term used to describe a flower that has both male pollen-producing stamens and female, ovule-producing parts. This condition is seen in many common garden plants such as Rose, Sunflower and Petunia.

Whorled caraway