Garden blogs

Farming and Wildlife in June

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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 23 head of pedigree Welsh Black beef cows and 30 non-pedigree Balwen sheep, with the permanent flower rich grassland of the Waun Las National Nature Reserve being grazed or cut for winter keep.  The Estate Manager is Huw Jones, who manages this commercial farming unit at the Botanic Garden that below is called The Farm.  Huw was on leave last week before his busy period of the year, so who looked after the cattle and sheep while he was away?  The Farm is fortunate that Rebecca Thomas, a farmer’s daughter, works in the Education Department and keeps an eye on what is going on when Huw is not there.

FARMERS’ LANGUAGE: Almost every profession or trade has its own terminology and language, and this is true for farming as well, including some language that cannot be repeated in print! We have tried to explain some of these words and expressions as we go along; both for farming and the wildlife side as well; usually as footnotes.

THE COUNTRYSIDE THIS JUNE

Wales is at its most beautiful now as the countryside combines a range of greens from: almost Lime Green in fields where silage has just been taken; the Pear Green of permanent grassland as yet not grazed this year; Emerald Green of fertilised Ryegrass on a dairy farm; and across them all, the Pickle, Sage and Seaweed Greens of woodland and hedges in full leaf. And from the Observation Point in front of Principality House all these colours can easily be seen arrayed in the topography like a 3D cinema picture!  The Farm is not ‘kind land’ or ‘easy land’; being sloping and in awkwardly shaped fields with odd areas of woodland in the steepest areas and some wetland with active springs or ‘Issues’ as they were called on old Ordnance Survey maps. But come and look at them!

AND THE FLOWERS IN JUNE:  In May and June there are few more spectacular sights than a field on The Farm almost covered with the shining yellow flowers of Buttercup; whether Common, Creeping; or Bulbous [aka St Anthony’s Turnip]. Apparently, the name Buttercup was coined in the 18th century from the flower shape and from the then believed connection between its colour and the yellow of cream and butter made from the cow’s milk.  I always laugh when I see that TV or roadside advertisement for ‘Anthony’s Butter – full of cream’, often with pictures of a ½ lb block of butter superimposed upon an entrancing picture of a group of cows, placidly standing in a field covered in Buttercups.

Why do I laugh, you ask? Because neither cows nor sheep nor horses like to eat Buttercups growing in a field unless they are desperate for food.   When chewed, the unstable glucoside called ‘ranunculinthat is found in all the Ranunculaceae[1] family is broken down into the toxin ‘protoanemonin that can cause itch, rashes or blistering on contact with the skin or mucosa. Ingesting this toxin can cause nausea, vomiting, dizzinessspasms, acute hepatitisjaundice, or paralysis. So, livestock don’t like to eat them as the acrid and burning taste makes them repulsive.  But hay that contains even a large quantity of Buttercup is both edible and harmless as the poison is not stable and breaks down when stored or dried in hay.  So often we tend to see that group of horses in a field that is almost bare of any growing vegetation for them to eat except for the flowering Buttercups that they will not touch.  What a shame that our love of looking at Buttercups in a field is not a view shared by our livestock!

It has been the time of Plantains all around the Garden, with the Ribwort Plantain’s flowering head more than 18 ins tall in places. These Plantain stalks are the ones that small boys at school would surreptitiously pick, bend the stem into a pincer behind the seed head, and ambush small girls – especially ones called Maureen and Janet – by ‘pinging’ the pincer forward so that the seed head shot off the stem and towards the intended targets.  For so much of the year the Plantains, whether Ribwort, Greater or Hoary have their rosette flat on the ground and then suddenly in May and June the furrowed inflorescence head or seed head sprouts up out of the rosette.  And the name Plantain comes from the Latin ‘planta’ meaning ‘sole of the foot’ because the rosette is usually flat to the ground as though someone had walked on it in bare feet!

THE THISTLE season is upon us

With the many different types: Sow, Carline, Woolly and the two most annoying ones from The Farm’s point of view – Spear and Creeping Thistle. From a purely wildlife point of view both are fascinating with attractive purple flowers for many pollinators and other insects, food plant for caterpillars of the Painted Lady butterfly, and seeds as Autumn food for Gold and other finches.  But the biennial Spear and perennial Creeping Thistle are not looked upon so kindly by farmers; because left unmanaged they can outcompete grass and reduce the area available for grazing livestock.

But The Farm, being an Organic farm, has trouble with Thistles because it cannot use the herbicides with which they are easily – well relatively easily – killed in grassland. So, cutting or topping them is one of the few ways that those who cannot or do not want to use herbicide can manage them.  First of course one must consider when to cut and here the old children’s poem comes in handy:

Cut thistles in May, They’ll grow in a day; Cut them in June, That is too soon;

Cut them in July, Then they will die.

But Creeping Thistle has a tremendous root system that grows horizontally and down often to a metre. These roots are brittle and produce buds at intervals that develop shoots to grow above ground. It easily regenerates from broken pieces of root.  Individual thistle plants can form large clumps, are dioecious – yes, dioecious[2] again – being virtually self-sterile. However, male and female plants growing adjacent to each other can cross-pollinate and produce a seed crop.

Digging these roots out would be a labour of Hercules and probably a waste of time. Cutting when flowers just show colour and plant energy is weak will reduce the plant strength but perhaps needs to be cut repeatedly each year for 4-5 years. Hmmm: easier to use an herbicide in a weed wiper, isn’t it?

Spear Thistles can be cut as well but, because the leaves of the rosette grow from at or just under ground level, cutting at or above the ground will merely mean that the thistle will sprout and grow again in a few weeks – just like coppiced Hazel or Ash does. So, it’s better to cut each individual plant below the ground across the top of the root.  This is ‘fun and games’ on a dry and breezy morning but absolute hell when the weather is wet and windy!  For this job, forget the children’s poem above as you can cut and kill Spear Thistles plants in this way in almost any month of the year – even in its first year when of course it does not flower but just builds up its roots and energy for its second year of growth followed by flowering and death.  But what tool to use?  Perhaps a lightweight and flat bladed mattock with a handle about 3 feet long that can be used with one hand, and usually in two strikes can chop the plant below ground level.

AND RAGWORT:  One of my favourite plants; probably because as a kid walking home from school, I enjoyed stopping to count the black and yellow banded caterpillars, that we called Tigers, of the often day-flying red and black Cinnabar Moth!  The plant is also attractive to so many insects when brilliantly yellow flowering, as it is very nectar rich.  Less attractive to livestock though, as this plant has an age-old reputation for poisoning livestock – particularly horses.  Yes, it does contain the ‘pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can cause irreversible liver damage in horses, cattle and sheep but only when eaten in large quantities either fresh in the field or in hay over Winter.  The old talk about it being an accumulative poison is just old myth, as it is the damage to the liver that is irreversible and therefore it is the effects of the poison are accumulative:  eat Ragwort today and there is some damage to the liver; eat more next month and there is more damage, and; eat some next year and this extra damage might make the liver non-functional and cause the animal to die. You see, livers do not regenerate!

Then how much needs to be consumed for an animal to be poisoned fatally? For horses and cattle this is reckoned to be 5 – 25% of body weight; or 30-150kg for a 600kg animal. For goats and sheep, the figure is much higher, between 125 – 400% or 75-240kg for a 60kg ewe.

More about Ragwort in Farming and Wildlife, July. But why must we wait until then?  It’s because one of Ragwort’s other names is St James’s Wort in honour of the saint, because it is always in full flower on 25 July which is St James’s Day.  So, let’s wait until then, eh?

AND ANOTHER YELLOW FLOWERED PLANT: But you know that other yellow flowered plant that looks rather like Ragwort? There’s some in Corporate Car Park up from the children’s Play Area.  Yes, it’s St John’s-wort but it is a perennial and comes up from the same rootstock every year, whereas Ragwort is a biennial[3]. Probably you can guess now why it’s called St John’s-wort?  Yes, it is always flowering around Midsummer’s Day on 24 June which is St John’s Day.  Very sensible naming of a plant really, unlike Red Campion which should have been called Pink Campion shouldn’t it!  According to Barbara, it was probably named in the 1600s by a man who hadn’t got much idea about colours!

Like many plants, St John’s-wort has a good and a bad side to it. The good side is that according to Mrs M. Grieve[4] an infusion of it in water was used for “all pulmonary complaints, bladder troubles, suppression of urine, dysentery, worms, diarrhoea, hysteria and nervous depression, haemoptysis and other haemorrhages, jaundice” and a range of other things as well.  Fairly comprehensive list of ailments to be treated, wouldn’t you agree?  Nowadays, the local chemist will have pills of it mainly to treat depression, improve mood swings, and to relieve anxiety and stress.

The bad side is that as with some other plants, St John’s-wort has a red-coloured pigment called ‘hypericin in it, which when touched or eaten can cause photo-sensitisation of animals with little or no protective pigment in their skin.  Not all animals are affected but the effect is a blistering and peeling of skin on nose, mouth and ears of cattle and sheep, including udders and teats.  It sounds fairly innocuous doesn’t it, but the damage to the animal can be severe. Some humans can also be affected by touching it, and perhaps by the closely related Rose of Sharon and Tutsan?

GRASS, HAY, SILAGE & HAYLAGE

We mostly prefer to see cattle and sheep grazing peacefully in the field rather than being fed inside farm buildings, don’t we?  But we all know that grass and other plants stop growing in late-Autumn and so bringing livestock inside for feeding in Winter can be necessary, including during cold periods like we had this February and March.  Maybe cattle and sheep can be fed outside in the field but, when it is wet, a group of cattle or flock of sheep can ‘poach[5]’ the field especially around the feeding trough. So the excess grass that livestock don’t need to eat during the Summer is ‘conserved’ by farmers into feed for the Winter, and as Hay, Haylage or Silage.

What is the difference between grass, hay, haylage and silage and why feed one rather than the other? Well, fast growing Spring grass is mainly water; usually 75-80% and so only 20-25% Dry Matter; which is the useful bit that the farmer wants to keep for the Winter!  In the old days it was almost all hay that was made, because it could all be done by hand.  After mowing, grass starts to dry out and quite rapidly loses moisture to the atmosphere, especially if it is turned over regularly by a machine, or in the old days by a farm labourer or servant with a fork or rake!  With dry weather and a light and warm wind, after 3-4 days the moisture content will have fallen to 20% or less and the farmer will be thinking about baling the hay when it is 85-90% Dry Matter.  But if baled too soon when the hay is still wet with sap the bale will develop white mould on the inside and become ‘fausty and cattle will not eat it.  And the dust from shaking a fausty bale about can cause farmers’ lung’, that was often the reason for hearing those old farmers coughing and spluttering when in the market!

On The Farm, Huw won’t be making any hay or haylage until July at the earliest and the arable silage not until August or perhaps later. So, we’ll have more about these in later months, OK?

GRASS FLOWERING: Even in fields of permanent grassland delayed by the late Spring, grass growth has boomed with leaf first and then with stems and flower heads – soon to be seed heads. Identifying and giving names to different grass species has never been easy for me either, especially before the flower heads appear.  But some are easier than others, and some flowering now are:

Cocksfoot is deep rooted, grows in wet and dry, is clumpy and coarse, and maybe the only UK native grass that has very flat leaf stems! Common everywhere, especially hedges, roadside verges and rough grassland. Crested Dog’s tail is one of my favourites with its pale green colour and every time I see it flowering, I think of one of our dogs.  Why is that?  Because when I take a seed head in my finger and thumb, twist it until the smooth side of the head is underneath, and then wag it from side to side, I am reminded of that dog wagging its tail when I come into the house!  Although Yorkshire Fog is good to look at with its fluffy appearance and its striking pink flower/seed head especially when shimmering pink in a full field in a light breeze, from a farmer’s view it isn’t very useful.  Cattle must be hungry to eat it and because it overshadows and crowds out other grasses and flowering plants as well, it is not a favourite for those managing wildflower meadows either.  I always thought that the name derived from the resemblance of the colour of the flower heads to the glow from the iron and machine works in Yorkshire during the Industrial Age.  But no, I am assured that it is from Old Norse word fogg meaning ‘long, lax, damp grass’.  Makes more sense, I suppose, but why Yorkshire, unless the Yorkshire cricketer Geoffrey Boycott can be considered as being long, lax and damp?

ARABLE: The 7 acres of mixed Peas and Oats for arable silage and 4 acres of Spring Barley both sown in mid-May[6] in Cae Circus and Cae Gors have germinated.  They can easily be seen looking from the Observation Lookout point in front of Principality House towards the Tower, as a film of light green over the brown earth into which the seed was planted.  But will the seedling growth be strong enough to cope with the 2 weeks of dry weather forecast for mid-June?  Why not walk over to Cae Circus and Cae Gors and see what you think?

BUTTERFLIES SO FAR THIS YEAR

2017 was not a good year for butterflies and we had hoped for a good start to this year. But so far very few with only a few Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock in April from hibernation and a Painted Lady as well. But in May there were male Orange Tip flying along looking for some female to mate with and to lay her eggs on Lady’s Smock or Hedge and Garlic Mustard.  Without the orange tips to the wings, it always seems difficult to identify females when flying!  Midges have been flying around all year, but they too are really getting going now; only the females bite of course!

But still so few of the common grassland butterflies with few if any Ringlets or Gatekeepers. I have yet to see a Blue or a Brimstone and only a few Speckled Wood.  Hopefully more soon!  But in Cae Trawscoed this afternoon Colin Miles and I saw 2 Red Admirals and quite a few Meadow Browns.

BEEF CATTLE

The Farm’s Welsh Black cows have now recovered from their March calving and Huw will be letting Gwilym, the 5-year old bull run with the 19 cows and their young calves for 6-8 weeks in June and July. After a gestation of about 280 days – just like humans – the cows will then hopefully calve again at end-March/early April next year. Gwilym is a very quiet and manageable bull but, as with any bull, keep yourself, as well as your noisy and inquisitive children and dogs away from any group of cows and calves during June and July because Gwilym could be with them; and he can run faster than you!

Also there are 7 heifers that are ready to breed and have calves of their own but, because Gwilym is the father of these heifers, Huw says that he will have to use Artificial Insemination from a non-related bull. More later!  But what is a heifer[7]?.

SHEEP & SHEARING TIME AGAIN

With dry and warm weather, we can see that most sheep flocks around Carmarthen have been already been sheared – or should that be shorn? It’s often easy to see because with 12-month-old wool removed they are so white!  With over 60 breeds of native or domestic UK breeds and many continental breeds and crosses, each with different wool characteristics, there are many different grades of wool, depending upon: fibre fineness; colour; length; strength of fibre; whether matted or kempy fibre, and; whether mixed with dung or vegetable matter!  Clean wool prices with British Wool in 2017 ranged from £4.40 per kg for Teeswater & Wensleydale breeds to only £0.16 per kg for Black Welsh Mountain sheep that includes The Farm’s 30 Balwens.  But why was this Balwen wool price so low?  Well, it is a short fibre, coarse and being black cannot be dyed to a trendy colour – like pink or tangerine!  So limited uses and limited market and hence very limited price!

The Farm’s ewes[8] and ram have just been sheared/shorn by Huw – as the weather was dry and the wool had risen[9]. Huw reckons that it took him about 3 hours to shear the 30 ewes and ewe lambs.  But why did it take him so long when the current world records are 731 ewes in 9 hours and for a single ewe of 45 seconds!  Well, the shearers that go for these records and demonstrations travel the world to follow the ‘shearing year’ in different countries and are well practiced and probably shearing in most months of the year.  With over 4.5 million ewes in Wales all needing to be shorn, there’s a lot of practice there too, isn’t there and after all Huw is only shearing 30 in 2018!

Of course, a professional shearer could come and shear the sheep, but Huw would have to pay the shearer about £3 per sheep for such a small flock and for a 1.5kg fleece worth only £0.16 per kg to any wool dealer, this would end up as quite a loss. Huw says he is looking for other opportunities to sell the wool; perhaps for local manufacturing or craftwork.  Any ideas for 40-50kg of black wool, some of which would be finer wool from ewe lambs?

LOOKING FORWARD to the end of June when butterflies should become more frequent and hopefully those Bumblebees will stop stinging me; after all I am only trying to identify the species and to be stung twice in 2 minutes by the same Tree Bumblebee is too much really, isn’t it?  At least a Honey bee only stings once[10]. And it is only the female bees that sting of course, just like some other species perhaps – including some humans that I know?

14 June 2018

Peter Beeden – Garden Volunteer

[1] The Ranunculaceae family are primitive flowering plants and include: Marsh Marigold, Spearwort, Crowfoot, Wood Anemone, Traveller’s-joy, and the most poisonous of all Monk’s-hood.

[2] A dioecious species of plant is one which has male and female flowers on separate plants. The word dioecious is derived from the Greek, meaning ‘of two houses’. A 9-letter word with 6 vowels; unusual eh!

[3] A biennial plant germinates and grows in Year 1, loses leaves over Winter then emerges in Spring, grows fast, flowers, sets seed and then dies in Autumn.

[4] Mrs M. Grieve (edited by Mrs C. E. Leyel), 1931 [912 pages]. A Modern Herbal.

[5] Poaching is when any livestock walks around on wet ground and its feet churn up the turf into mud. After all, if it’s a 600kg animal then when standing still there is a weight of 150kg on each of its feet.  Each hoof is only about 100cm2 or the size of a tea cup saucer.  Hoof area increases with body weight and the front hooves are larger than rear hooves due to the front end taking a greater load.  When walking there is likely to be much more weight per hoof, leading to soil compaction and depressions in the soil up to 4-5 inches deep.

[6] Probably 6-8 weeks later than optimum; Huw doesn’t have the machinery to plough, cultivate and drill seed and so he had to wait for the contractor – who was late!

[7] Heifers are female cattle: a heifer calf when born; then as just a heifer through its growing period; then as a ‘bulling heifer’ when it is ready to ‘go to the bull’ at about 2 years old; after which during pregnancy it is an ‘in-calf heifer’. Then after its own calving, it is a ‘milking heifer’.  Finally after it calves down for the second time, it becomes a cow – in fact a ‘second calver’.

[8] An adult female sheep is referred to as a ewe [or ‘yow’], an intact male as a ram or a tup, a castrated male as a wether, and a younger sheep as a lamb. A lamb before lambing for the first time is called a ewe lamb or ram lamb or after its first shearing then a shearling ewe or shearling ram.  Complicated isn’t it, and no mention yet of hoggets, hogs, theaves or gimmers!

[9] Before the 2018 shearing, the sheep carries both wool grown after 2017’s shearing until Winter and then 2018’s growth. They can’t realistically be shorn until the fleece is ready to come off.  This isn’t a time thing, it will be affected by many things including the weather, the sheep’s body condition and how many lambs.
Farmers talk about the fleece ‘rising’.  If you part the fleece you may be able to see a line, possibly yellowy, where the lanolin grease is rising the fibres.  It marks the line between last year’s fleece and this year’s new growth.  That’s the line they need to shear below, and it needs to be 1/4 to 1/2″ from the body for them to get the clippers smoothly underneath it.  Trying to shear before this has happened is hard work for the shearer and uncomfortable for the sheep.

[10] A bee stinging device is the modified egg laying tool of a female bee. Honey bees have a barbed sting that will pull out from the bee’s body after stinging and she will usually die.  Bumblebees have just a pointed stinger and so multiple stings are possible.