Garden blogs

Farming and Wildlife in December

by

FARMING AND WILDLIFE IN DECEMBER at the Botanic Garden

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 and flower-rich grassland of the Waun Las National Nature Reserve being grazed and cut for hay.

DECEMBER is the beginning of Winter and yet there’s still a lot going on, both with wildlife and farming. Still plenty of wildlife around with midges still flying and biting in late afternoon sunshine; Pipistrelle Bats flying on most evenings when weather is warm and their food is flying as well; and Lapwings are beginning to arrive here forming huge flocks on open land, particularly arable land and mud-flats on river estuaries. A Lapwing is also known as a peewit or pewit or tuit or tewit or Green plover and has a very distinctive flying pattern. In fact, an old man once told a group of young farmers:

You can always tell one of them Lapwings you know, ‘cause they fly through the air just like an empty brown paper bag does in the wind – up and down and up and down”

You look next time, watch the Lapwings fly and see that that old man was right!

Lapwing is a good example of a species that can be affected by severe cold weather. No, they don’t go into hibernation when it gets cold,– but then not many birds do, do they! They search for milder conditions where food is likely to be available. It is highly migratory over most of its extensive range, wintering further south as far as north Africa, northern IndiaPakistan, and parts of China. It migrates mainly by day, often in large flocks. It is a wader that breeds on cultivated land and other short vegetation habitats, with 3–4 eggs laid in a ground scrape. The nest and young are defended noisily and aggressively against all intruders, up to and including horses and cattle – but probably not successfully so against the Badger!

“I SEE A LITTLE SILHOUETTO OF A TREE”

is a take on the words of Freddie Mercury and the rock bank Queen in their 6-minute long song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and aptly describes what we see all around us during the Winter when there are no leaves on the deciduous trees. By the way – and as you will remember – a deciduous tree loses its leaves in the Autumn and grows new ones in the Spring. But although we think that we have lost a lot when the leaves fall in the Autumn, these ‘silhouettos’ actually reveal so much that is hidden when the trees and shrubs are in full leaf.

“Oh yes,” you say, in a disagreeable tone of voice, “Exactly what is revealed?”

Well, the most obvious thing to see is the Ivy that may be growing up the tree and to be able to see whether it has reached the top of the tree and may need to be reduced at the base of the tree. Managing Ivy is never really straightforward as one has to try and work out which Ivy stems growing at the tree base are the ones that are growing to the tree top. Ivy stems tend to branch repeatedly as well and so it is never easy when trying to reduce the possibility of wind damage to an Ivy-loaded top of a tree. Fortunately, Ivy management doesn’t have to be done in a single season but can be an on-going process as one cuts a few ‘possible’ guilty stems at the tree base and watches during next Autumn and Winter to see if this has been successful or not. If ‘yes’ then that is great, but if not then choose a few more to cut and try again!

But what else can you see? The ‘keys’ of the Ash treebut only on female trees of course, because as you know Ash is usually ‘dioecious’ and has separate male and female trees. This reproduction method is true also for Mistletoe and usually the public only wants to hang Mistletoe with the white berries in the halls of their houses, and those are branches from the female plants – poor old male plants just aren’t loved as much are they? But with leaves gone during Winter, the semi-parasitic Mistletoe is easy to see on its range of main host plants, that include Apple, Hawthorn, Lime and Poplar, and sometimes on Sycamore, Maple, Willow, Crab Apple, Oak, Ash, Plum and even Mountain Ash. Even Silver and Downy Birch may have Mistletoe growing and these can be very obvious when the leaves have gone; dense dark clumps often on the small branches well away from the tree trunk.

There was a farmer in Somerset who every year took 16-17-year-old students from the local agricultural college around his farm for a ‘Farm Walk’. Stopping in the 3-acre Apple orchard with trees perhaps a century or more old, he told the students that every year he harvested three crops from this small field. Their response was immediate:

“But there’s only Apple Trees growing in this field – so where are the other two crops?”

“Okay” he said, “ Every Summer I put the ewe lambs in here and they eat the grass – which is a crop of its own, of course – and grow fast and put on weight. So the second crop is the meat on those lambs.”

“But what about the third crop?” asked one of the students.

“Ahh.” said the farmer, “Look into the Apple trees and what do you see there?”

“Isn’t that Mistletoe up there?” asked the student who had studied ‘O’ Level Biology.

“Yes that’s right.” said the farmer. “And, every year the travellers come around and pay me to let them come into this field at Christmas-time and cut some Mistletoe that they can take away and sell in the local market.”

“Mind you,” he added with a wry look on his face, “they don’t pay me very much, so it’s not a very profitable crop!”

“So why do you sell it at all,” asked the most economically-minded of the students, “or you could always increase the price that you wanted for the Mistletoe?”

“Well,” said the farmer, “if I either increased the sale price or told them that I no longer wanted to sell the Mistletoe, then I know what would happen. These travellers would come in one night with their ladders and harvest the whole lot without me knowing and disappear off to the town. That way, I wouldn’t get paid anything at all, would I?”

A wise and prudent businessman this farmer and, as these students walked away, their college lecturer could be heard telling them that the sale of the Mistletoe was a good example of how farmers have to try to ‘minimise the risk of losing money on a crop sale’.

But there’s more to be seen in Winter trees if you look carefully! Nests of several bird species are more easily seen in Winter. For example, the flat ‘twiggy’ platform of a Wood Pigeon usually fairly low down and about 15-20 feet above the ground; a Magpie’s nest is large and domed, either in thorn bushes or high up in a tall tree, and Rooks are colonial and build bulky twig/branch nests always in a rookery – containing as few as two nests and as many as a thousand.

Crows on the other hand, although so similar in appearance as a rook but black all over and with no bare patch of whitish skin at the base of the beak, always nest in singles and not colonies. Crow nests are made mostly of pencil-width twigs. A new nest is usually about 1.5 ft across and 8-10 in deep.  After the bulk of construction is complete, they’ll line the cup of the nest with soft materials like grass, tree bark, moss, flowers, paper or those tufts of wool left by sheep on Bramble branches.

It’s not only birds that have nests in trees of course. A Grey squirrel nest is called a drey and there are two types: the Summer drey is built by the female squirrel to house her youngsters and is usually a rough ball of twigs and leaves lined with straw, moss or feathers and often in a tree-hollow or in a branch fork or between high branches. Squirrel dreys are spherical and about the size of a very large football and made of twigs, leaves, bark and grass.

Although Grey squirrels don’t hibernate in UK, if the weathers freezes hard or becomes very windy or wet they might have to retreat to their dreys. So in Autumn the insulation on these Summer dreys is reinforced with more feathers, moss and twigs and becomes a Winter drey.

FARMING IS A BUSINESS and like many other businesses, has its ups and downs; the old saying in farming communities describes it all:

‘Horn up and corn down, but then corn up and horn down’

In other words, farm prices in the market for beef cattle and sheep are usually good when cereal prices are low, and when cereal prices are high then beef and sheep prices are low. Obvious really, isn’t it?  But the volatility in farm prices for livestock and arable products is really intense now; made more so by the globalisation of food sales.  So if wheat yields are low in Germany, Canada or France from where most of the UK’s wheat is imported then import prices are high – and the grain price rises in UK as well.

IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR when grassland seems to get ‘ploughed up’ and with more scrapings and scratchings every night; unless of course the frost has frozen the turf, even the immensely strong Badgers cannot dig their way under the turf to find Earthworms and the ‘Leatherjackets’ that are the larvae of the Crane Fly or Daddy-Long-Legs.

In UK we seem to have a ‘love/hate’ relationship with Badgers, don’t we? We love their black and white striped faces and solid bodies that we think trundle across the fields like a barrel with short legs. In David Threadgold’s Rambling Riddles & Rhymes of 2008, the Badger is described living in this ‘country fantasy world’:

Morning mist near badgers sett
No one’s coming home just yet
Black and white stripes muddy browned
Digging juicy worms from ground

Tasty morsels go down well
Found by using only smell
Nearly full as daylight dawns
Badgers tired I’m sure they yawned

Under cover heading back
Muddy mounds left in a stack
Time to rest tired badgers heads
With their partners off to beds

All day long the sun shines cruel
The badgers in their sett keep cool
As dusk approached a scratching sound
All badgers away to their hunting ground

And yet although Badgers are probably our favourite wild animal in UK, farmers do hate their apparent link with the Bovine Tuberculosis that can and does affect cattle and other mammals.   Badgers are found in many habitats and there are now ‘Urban Badgers’ that roam our streets and villages, moving from garden to garden and sleeping under the garden shed. But if they are so common in most of our countryside, then why are they protected in England and Wales under the Protection of Badgers Act, 1982? Not because they are rare or endangered but because of the illegal ‘badger baiting’ that involves people digging out the setts where badgers live and sleep during the daylight hours, catching hold of them and then using dogs to fight them.

But surely you say, badger baiting was one of those old rural pastimes that died out as we became more civilised and learnt to appreciate the value of nature? Well no, and according to Adrian Ward who is the Wildlife Police Officer for Dyfed-Powys Police, badger baiting is alive and well and is now moving into business realms with sometimes large amounts of money bet on the outcome of particular fights. Of course, some people do it ‘just for the fun of it’ but there is ‘good money’ to be made by those who like to watch dogs and badgers fighting and dying.

The poet John Clare [1793-1864] who has been quoted in these Newsletters before, son of a farm labourer and for the last 20 years of his life residing in a Northampton asylum, wrote some marvellously evocative poems about the countryside of his times. He hated the changes that were taking place – presumably during the Regency Period and Napoleonic Wars. The following verses are from the poem Badger, that was written in about 1827 and describes a badger baiting:

When midnight comes a host of dogs and men

Go out and track the badger to his den,

And put a sack within the hole, and lie

Till the old grunting badger passes by.

He comes an hears – they let the strongest loose.

The old fox gears the noise and drops the goose.

The poacher shoots and hurries from the cry,

And the old hare half wounded buzzes by.

They get a forked stick to bear him down

And clap the dogs and take him to the town,

And bait him all the day with many dogs,

And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs.

He runs along and bites at all he meets:

They shout and hollo down the noisy streets.

We tend to think that it is only in recent times that there have been the changes to the countryside that we know and love. But John Clare grew up in the early 1800s during a period of massive changes in both town and countryside as the Industrial Revolution swept Europe. Many former agricultural and craft workers, including children, moved away from the countryside to crowded cities, as factory work became mechanized. This second Agricultural Revolution saw pastures ploughed up, trees and hedges uprooted, fens drained and common land enclosed. This destruction of a way of life centuries old distressed Clare deeply.

Those of us who spend any time at all in walking through the countryside, along rights of way or trespassing through the woods belonging to local estates, will be familiar with Badger skulls, eh? But you say that you can’t tell the difference between a Badger, Fox or Dog skull?   Badger skulls are easy to identify and show some of the reasons why Badger Baiting was considered a ‘fun sport’ and why there was no interest in Fox baiting. First, a Badger’s lower jaw has a hinged joint so that the lower jaw cannot be dislocated from the upper jaw. And a Badger skull has a vertical plate of bone called a ‘sagittal crest’ on the top of the skull – like a ‘Mohican’ – from just behind the eyes to the back of the skull. The heavy muscles that give badgers such a strong grip are joined to this ridge of bone. Even though eighty per cent of a badger’s diet may be earthworms, they have an incredibly strong bite, and this – together with a lower jaw that is very difficult to dislocate is perhaps why the Badger is preferred to the Fox for catching and fighting with dogs..

Badgers are omnivorous, which means they will eat almost anything. Although the bulk of their diet is made up of earthworms, they will also eat small rodents, frogs and slugs, fruit, nuts, wheat, grubs, rabbits, rats, hedgehogs and chicks and fledglings of ground nesting birds like Lapwing, Pheasant and Skylark. If you have walked in September through or alongside a field of Maize being grown for silage, or of Sweetcorn in your vegetable garden, you will probably have seen cobs on the ground with some of the ripening seed missing – pulled off the maize plant by a Badger standing on hind legs and eaten on the spot. Sometimes of course you may find these part-eaten cobs many fields away from the maize field; taken by the Badger as a ‘Maize Take away’ perhaps!

Badgers have poor eyesight as they are nocturnal and most of their time is spent underground in their setts. But they do have acute hearing and excellent sense of smell. Badgers are often very heavy although their weight may depend upon the food available in their area: Heavy in Autumn near ripening maize, but lower in Summer during periods of drought when not even Earthworms are available, having ‘dug down’ into wetter soil at a depth too deep for Badgers to follow.

 

IF WE IGNORE THE ‘CHRISTMAS SILLY SEASON, AS MANY OF US TRY, then we can enjoy what we see happening around us in rural areas. Some of us no longer follow that ‘Christmas Habit’ of either buying[1] or cutting down a small or medium size evergreen conifer tree to put into our lounge. Mind you, this evergreen fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate both pagan and Christian winter festivals for thousands of years. Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the Winter Solstice which is the shortest day of the year, as it made them think of the spring to come. Actually, this seems quite a sensible idea if it can ward off the depression brought on by the windy, wet and cold weather that might be forecast for the next Winter Solstice on 21st December!

But rather than cut an evergreen fir, some other people prefer to go and cut a branch from a non-coniferous tree, stand it upright in an old waste paper basket with rocks around the cut end of the branch and stand this in the corner of the sitting room. Then they persuade the grandchildren to hang the tree lights that have been collected over many years – most sets of which unfortunately have one or more blown bulbs that effectively rule out any coloured lights. And, despite all the family’s enthusiastic and committed offers last December to go to the electrical shop and purchase replacement bulbs, this either did not happen or the electrician didn’t have the right ‘bulb type’ suited to the lights at home!

Anyway, these ‘tree branches’ can be fun to select in Autumn when the Berries, Hips and Haws are in full production and looking very attractive. The problem though, is that between the time of ‘tree branch’ selection and its cutting some months later, strong winds and bird activity may well denude it of the berries that made it so attractive in the first place! But even cutting a Holly branch that has lost its berries or even a male Holly branch that has never had any berries, can still provide a very attractive corner piece – and a real talking point for those visitors who have enjoyed your Christmas lunch – and the wine and brandy of course. Mind you, putting Christmas lights onto a Holly Branch – with or without berries – can test the patience and will-power of even the most ardent grandchild – often the language heard as the prickles stick into young fingers, is more illuminating than the lights themselves!

We do seem to like the vegetation brought into houses for Christmas celebrations to be colourful, don’t we? But in this sensitive era that we now live in, surely there is gender discrimination going on here as we prefer to bring in only female plants!  Because Holly, Mistletoe and Yew are all dioecious with female plants and separate male plants. And because the colourful red or white berries are only found on the female plants, it is they that are pruned to be sold at Christmas time in our markets and from our pavement sellers.

 

AND WHAT ABOUT SPINDLE?

Not always easily seen in farm hedges or woods until the tiny inconspicuous flowers have matured into the 4-part and often bright pink fruit. Often seen in December just as the fallen fruits and the pink capsules that are empty of the orange seeds. These attractive fruits are poisonous, with the alkaloids of theobromine and caffeine as well as the extremely bitter terpene. Young kids may be attracted by these ripe fruits that they might think resemble pink ‘Smarties’, but the eating of which can cause liver and kidney damage. Spindle wood is very hard and can be cut to a very sharp and durable point. Used in the past for spindles for ‘wool spinning’ and for butchers’ skewers – but not much call for these nowadays, is there!

 

WHAT ABOUT CHRISTMAS ON THE FARM?  

As you can imagine, Christmas Day on a farm is really not much different to any other day, although most farm families try to get as much of the normal work done in the days before. Yes, sheep still need to be checked, calves need to be fed and cows need to be milked twice a day – after all you can’t leave off a milking just because you want to spend time at home can you!

Mind you the city of Bethlehem – perhaps deriving this name from the Arabic ‘Bayt Lahm’ that translates as ‘House of Meat’ or of course from the Hebrew ‘Bet Lehem’ or ‘House of Bread’. Others suggest that the name Bethlehem is named after the Canaanite fertility god ‘Lehem’. Wherever the name derives from, the fertility of this area of the Judean hill country is apparently based on limestone soils and farming would have been an important feature at the time of the Nativity with stables for sheep, goats, cattle and horses.

But even here in UK on Christmas day, farmers like to take as much time off as possible, so as to enjoy the day with their families. The following is an extract from the personal writings of an anonymous farmer’s daughter, that describes how Christmas Day on the family dairy farm would be passed:

“I used to love Xmas Day on the farm, we would all get up early and go out and help with feeding calves, bedding down the animals and then when all was done, my father would get all the men on the farm together in the dairy and bring out a bottle of whisky, and they would all stand around chatting about the year and the events on the farm.  They would then all go home for breakfast and only the herdsman would come back later on in the day to do the milking. We children would go out in the late afternoon to help Dad with feeding calves and scraping down the yards.

The lorry to collect the milk would arrive after breakfast which would be around 09.30am ( we were never allowed to have our breakfast before going out on the farm, my father had a rule that we fed and watered all the animals first before we even had so much as a cup of tea!) and leave a huge box of dairy produce in the dairy.  It was full of cream, butter and cheese sent by the farmhouse cheesemaker to all his milk producers – about 10 of them.    Mother had bought presents for the farmworkers and their children and dad would then divide up all the dairy produce and after breakfast he would go and see all his ‘men’ and hand deliver their Xmas presents and dairy box, returning home just in time to carve the beef!  We always had beef for Xmas”.

Although a perhaps not unusual Christmas Day morning on a dairy farm of 45 years ago, times have changed – as time so often does, doesn’t it! For ‘all the men on the farm to get together’ as described then, would have meant 6-8 workers on an average dairy farm. But now of course, with mechanisation having taken over from manpower, and the use of contractors for so many farm operations, for the average farm it would mean the farmer having a coffee only with Fred who comes in and helps clean-up the milking parlour and dairy for three mornings a week. Couldn’t stand around in the yard drinking whisky with Fred now of course – no doubt there’s some Health & Safety Regulations that prohibits that!

THE CHANGE IN NUMBERS OF FARM LABOURERS noted above has been very rapid and has contributed to the reduction of the rural population that we have seen since John Clare wrote his poetry in the early 1800s. During the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815, the price of wheat rose by a factor of three, and so there was increasing poverty and hunger even in rural communities, although farmers were managing quite well as little of this extra income was passed on as wages to the workers! This was also the time of the First Industrial Revolution[2] and the escalation of the rural-urban drift of rural people to work in the cities and factories being built and developed there. So with the start of mechanisation on farms and the Swing Riots[3] of 1830-32 in Southern England and East Anglia whereby farm workers – incensed by their misery over the tithe system; that required payments to support the established Anglican Church; the Poor Law guardians, who were thought to abuse their power over the poor; and the rich tenant farmers who had been progressively lowering workers’ wages while introducing agricultural machinerywrecked the new farm machinery such as the horse-powered grain threshing machines that could do the work of many men and that they saw as taking their jobs away.

A time of great change all over the UK with this violence and unrest amongst the rural community being more than matched in South Wales by the Rebecca Riots of 1839-44. Just as the Swing Riots focussed on the introduced farm machinery, the Rebeccas had a physical focus on toll gates where tolls were payable to anyone passing through and along the road. Historians have suggested that these foci were merely ‘the straws that broke the camel’s back’ for farm workers living in poverty. Difficult times for farm workers and it wouldn’t get any better as mechanisation increased, especially between the two World Wars.

More about this perhaps in future months when the changes in farming on The Farm might be discussed and how Government policy has affected the countryside that we see today. So that’s something to look forward to, isn’t it!

 

THOSE SHEEP ARE AT IT AGAIN:

The ram has been in with the Balwen ewes on The Farm since late-October, to try and have a lambing in late-March to early-April next year. Ewes have a gestation period of about 149 days. Huw has decided not to sell the 2018 crop of lambs yet, hoping that they will continue to grow and put on more weight in the New Year when hopefully sale price per kg of liveweight will have improved as well.

LOOKING FORWARD is often quite enjoyable and there is much at the end of December and the New Year that we would miss greatly if it didn’t happen. After all, it will mark the end of the Christmas ‘silly season’ in which every Supermarket tries to convince us to go and buy from them and that they alone have the ‘good things’ that we all deserve! Advertising for Xmas started in September and it makes us realise that – for many and perhaps most of us in UK – the true meaning of Christmas has been taken over and it has become yet another ‘mass marketing opportunity’. Mind you, after the New Year comes Valentine’s Day, followed by Easter, then Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, immediately before each of which we are encouraged to go and spend, spend and spend again.

But despite all this ‘bah, humbug’ advertising, Christmas can have those marvellous moments with families and friends. Probably many of us will eat too much, but we’ll probably all laugh a lot as well. And often we’ll get out and walk in the countryside.  And there’s Boxing Day; apparently named for the tradition of “Christmas boxes” of gifts of money, food, cloth or other valuable goods given to tradespeople, employees and servants on the day after Christmas Day. And don’t forget that for many families, Boxing Day sees the beginning of the gardening year, with Onion Sets being planted out, and friends of ours always sow their Broad Bean seeds on Boxing Day as well. Apparently some say:

‘Sow shortest day – harvest longest day’

But have you ever been Wassailing? Apparently this South West England tradition of wassailing or wasselling falls into two distinct types: the ‘house-visiting’ wassail and the ‘orchard-visiting’ wassail. The house-visiting wassail is the practice of people going door-to-door, singing and offering a drink from the wassail bowl in exchange for gifts. This practice still exists although largely displaced by groups of usually young people knocking on doors and singing carols – with a hoped-for gift in return. The orchard-visiting wassail refers to the ancient custom of visiting orchards in cider-producing regions, reciting incantations and singing to the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year.  Seems a community enhancing effort as well, doesn’t it?

Well, Mr Frost may lay his blanket over our fields and cars, but the warmth of the festive season to come is greater. Satsumas to be peeled, nuts cracked and offered, comforting soups drunk and treats shared. Have you ever wondered why ‘frost’ in most folklore and traditional stories is usually considered to be masculine – Mr Frost, King Frost, Father Frost and Jack Frost? No? – anyway, this is the season for feasting, families and friendships. Enjoy every minute of it, folks.

9 December 2018

[1] The British Christmas Tree Association says that the most popular ‘Christmas Tree’ species are: Norway spruce; Nordmann Fir; Blue spruce; Fraser fir; Serbian spruce; Douglas fir; Lodgepole pine, and Noble fir.

 

[2] This First Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain in the late 1700s until the 1830s and many of the first innovations began in the textile industry. Britain also had plenty of coal and iron which was important to power and make machines for the factories.

[3] The name “Swing Riots” was derived from Captain Swing, the fictitious name often signed to the threatening letters sent to farmers, magistratesparsons, and others. He was regarded as the mythical figurehead of the movement. ‘Swing’ was apparently a reference to the swinging stick of the flail used in hand threshing of cereal crops. These Swing letters were first mentioned by The Times newspaper on 21 October 1830.