Garden blogs

Farming and Wildlife in May by Peter Beeden

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FARMING AND WILDLIFE IN MAY in the Botanic Garden

THE ESTATE FARM:  As described in May 2018, 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.

But seeing that ‘The only constant in life is change’, things have changed a bit on The Farm so that in May 2019  there are now 18 cows – 9 of which  have calved so far this year – 6 yearling steers and four 2-year olds.  The 35 Balwen ewes have almost finished lambing with just 9 ‘tail-enders’ still to lamb – often these give the most trouble, but Huw at The Farm is hopeful!  There’s 8 acres of ‘arable silage’ this year in Cae Gors that is to be direct drilled into the field after the silage crop has been taken – no ploughing needed so cost of production should be lower, shouldn’t it.  In 2018, Huw grew some Spring-sown Malting Barley for a distillery in Warminster – as a trial and just to see.  The yield was good, but the quality wasn’t – with too much protein to be successfully distilled, so Huw rolled the barley grain.  It was worth a try to see if the Malting Barley fitted into the rotation, but as the quality wasn’t good enough to sell for the higher price – Huw had to fall back onto Plan B and fed it to the cattle during last Winter.  Farmers are always trying out new ideas – some work and some don’t but, until any new idea is tried on their own land and in their own soil and slope conditions, they don’t know whether they are worthwhile ideas or just a waste of time and money!

BUILDINGS AND WILDLIFE:  Some visitors to the Botanic Garden say that one aspect that they like about a visit there is the range of interests that a walk around can satisfy: the plants of course – both introduced species and wild ones; the farmed landscape and livestock that it needs to keep it that way; the historical aspects of the Middleton Estate, and the buildings; including the tear-drop shaped Great Glasshouse that does such a marvellous job of providing a ‘home’ for so many Mediterranean climatic plants, as well as the ‘Immigrant House Sparrows’ of course.

And as you will all know, we cannot separate wildlife from human activity, and any estate or farm buildings will always have a ‘veneer’ of wildlife associated with them.  What on earth is he talking about now, you ask?  Well, let’s start with the woodwork of the building and that range of little 3mm -4.5 mm long members of the family of Furniture Beetles – that fly in from the wild, lay their eggs on any wooden furniture, floors or woodwork.  When these tiny larvae hatch –  known as ‘Woodworm’ – they burrow into the wood and spend their time eating it to derive the nourishment needed to grow.  The larvae then pupate just below the surface of the wood and then emerge to fly off somewhere else to mate and lay more eggs.  The activities of these beetle larvae over their 2-3 year feeding period tend to weaken the wood and can leave just handfuls of ‘frass’[1] behind.  Most of us seem always to be either ‘watching out’ for damage in any house with bare wood furniture – or worse still, ‘listening out’ if we live in an old property.

But what’s this ‘listening out’ for?  Well, it’s the sound of the dreaded ‘Death Watch Beetle’, whose ‘tapping’ or ‘clicking’ was believed to forecast an approaching death.  The sound is actually one adult beetle making a noise to let other adult beetles know that he or she is there and ready for mating.

The Death Watch Beetle does not like modern softwood house timbers. Grubs live up to ten years inside timber – usually , emerging as mottled grey/brown beetles about 7mm long, through exit holes about 4mm in diameter. As an adult, they produce a rapid tapping sound by beating their heads against the wood which is what people who live and work in old houses or buildings sometimes hear.  But do these adult beetles do this ‘just for the fun of it’ like some people enjoy ‘whistling and shouting’ at each other?  Well actually the knocking acts as a mating call and just draws attention of adults to the presence of other adults also awaiting emergence from the wood in the coming Spring.

Why is it called a ‘Death Watch’ beetle?  Apparently because it was usually heard at night by people ‘on watch’ looking after sick people or someone dying, or on the verge of death. So it’s not too surprising is it that the sound of the knocking should be associated with dying. The poet, politician and cleric Jonathan Swift [1667-1745] wrote a poem called ‘Wood: an Insect’ which describes it rather well:

The next is an insect we call a wood-worm,
That lies in old wood like a hare in her form;
With teeth or with claws it will bite or will scratch,
And chambermaids christen this worm a deathwatch;
Because like a watch it always cries click;
Then woe be to those in the house who are sick:
For, as sure as a gun, they will give up the ghost,
If the maggot cries click when it scratches the post.
But a kettle of scalding hot water injected
Infallibly cures the timber affected:
The omen is broken, the danger is over;
The maggot will die, and the sick will recover.

One thing though that he apparently got wrong is that it is the adult beetle – having emerged from its pupa but still in the ‘pupal chamber’ under the timber surface that knocks on the wood, and not the larvae!

IT’S NOTHING TO DO WITH DYING OR EVEN WITH WILDLIFE AND BUILDINGS – or so it would seem but, during the Summer months, Wood Pigeons are often seen and heard with their coo-coo coo coo-coo (or “my toe’s bleeding, Mary”).  As they are disturbed from roosting in tall hedges or woodland edges they make that typical pigeon flapping of their wings against leaves and small branches that is so easily identifiable from other bird species.  In the ‘old days’, that Summer cooing always seemed to represent those hot afternoons in July when the family had brought out ‘tea and cakes – usually scones’,  to refuel those of us moving bales of hay before coming back after milking time to pick them up and load them onto a trailer to take back to the farm for storage for the Winter.

But during the Winter, these Wood Pigeons – that we enjoyed during the Summer – often gather together and form flocks of 50 or more; sometimes  migrating to us here in the South and West to our warmer and wetter climates where there is more food that is more easily found.  Farmers and those of us that grow winter vegetables like kale or spinach, get a bit fed up if those flocks try to get fat on them!  Birds are often shot and then – in the past – they were plucked, roasted and usually eaten.  Mind you, not a lot of meat on them and pretty stringy too, but if you’re hungry for meat then ‘needs must’!  But times change and the shooting of Wood Pigeons ‘for the pot’ seems to have become another lost part of country life when country people were able to ‘Keep some Meat on the Table’ – bit like Rabbits really.  Mind you, earlier this month DEFRA announced that Natural England is revoking three ‘general licences’ for controlling certain wild birds from 25 May this year – including Wood Pigeon. This follows a legal challenge from a conservation group to the way the permits have been issued which could mean users who rely on them are not acting lawfully.  These general licences covered 16 species including crows, magpies, rooks, jackdaws and jays, feral and wood pigeons, and some “invasive non-native species” such as Canada geese.  No doubt the current licence will be replaced with a workable alternative – although the rationale for disallowing the control in particular of Magpie and Wood Pigeon would appear difficult to grasp – the UK population of these species are certainly not under threat are they?  And will Wales follow on as well?

ANYWAY, PIGEONS HAVE BEEN A FAVOURED FOOD THROUGHOUT HISTORY – the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all found pleasure in eating this small bird whenever killed and at whatever age.  The Passenger Pigeon, that we talked about in April’s Newsletter, was exterminated because it could be marketed easily as a ready and cheap source of meat.  Not too sure whether the Romans built specialist buildings for pigeons in Britain, but these were certainly built by powerful Norman lords in the 1100s, but it was an expensive job, so it was the ‘lords of manors’,  as well as landlords such as monasteries and colleges that were the main pigeon keepers.  By the 1500s some parish priests were building these lofts and, as time went on, these buildings changed from being plain and functional buildings  to become grander and more symbolic of ‘high-flying’ social status and wealth.  But many farmers had become pigeon keepers by the early 1800s – doing the more sensible thing of incorporating pigeon-lofts in the roofs of barns, stables and other buildings.  Some just built a wooden standard pigeon loft on a pole in the middle of the farmyard!

But why keep pigeons anyway?  Some of these ‘pigeon-lofts – also known as dovecotes, culvery or columbariums were built with more than a 1,000 nesting holes.  Wonder what these Pigeons would have sounded like when they were kept in these huge numbers at these residences for aristocrats?  Probably not the gentle ‘coo-coo-coo’ of Wood Pigeons, as domesticated pigeons were – and probably still are – descendants of the Blue Rock Doves [Columba livia] that in the wild live near high cliffs and nest in recesses in caves and feed mainly on seeds.

So why would they have kept these large numbers of birds – because they would not only have to be housed but also fed on grain – either wheat, barley and oats – because if they didn’t feed them then the birds would fly off and feed on cereal crops in the neighbourhood?  Well, like so many things that many people used to do – it was for food for themselves.  Don’t forget that these pigeon lofts started to become more common in the 1300s and 1400s and that they were all about meat production for the gentry and the aristocrats – and luxury meat at that.  So it was the Earl of Somewhere or Other and the Baron of No-where at All that had the large dovecotes – not only for the meat, but just as important – and perhaps more so – as a status symbol.  After all, cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry were slaughtered throughout the year for the wealthy.

But you say – “If pigeons didn’t have much meat on them and could be stringy and leathery in texture as they were strong fliers, then why did they rear them for food?”

Well, they didn’t keep the pigeons to eat as adult birds, but they wanted their ‘squabs’ which are 4-week old chicks that have grown almost as big as an adult in weight but, as their flying muscles had never been used, the meat was exceptionally tender.  According to John and Pamela McCann who have researched the whereabouts and architecture of dovecotes in Suffolk and Somerset, this ‘pigeon-lofting’ was intended merely “to produce a supply of this succulent meat as a luxury for the rich”[2].  Apparently, in the Middle Ages, members of the nobility and upper classes ate 2-3 lbs [0.9–1.4 kg] of fresh meat each day of the year – except on those days of the year when meat was forbidden for religious reasons.  Perhaps Vegetarians and Vegans did exist then, but amongst those wealthy enough to choose their preferences, meat seems to have been considered as an essential, and high-quality meat even more so!

But where are all these pigeon lofts now or even any signs of pigeon nest boxes?  Next time you go to the Botanic Garden, just walk down the hill from the Great Glasshouse and look at the archway above the entrance into The Stable Block and the courtyard to the Restaurant, Gift Shop and Toilets.  Above the archway under what would have been the Clock Tower – now gone – there are 4-tiers or rows of pigeon nest-boxes – 4, 3, 2 and 1 – just a total of 10 nest-holes.  Doesn’t seem many does it for a large estate – but perhaps there were more elsewhere?  Mind you, when there were pigeons living there, those people travelling under the archway would have had to watch out for those gifts falling from above – the pigeon droppings!  Even with only 10 pairs of pigeons – and these birds are monogamous and so each female or hen pigeon would have her own mate – there would be an awful lot of bird droppings from the nests above the archway – particularly as the adults land to feed their young.  These dung pellets or guano were much valued as a fertiliser – indeed in 1669, a John Worlidge claimed that one load of pigeon manure was worth ten loads of animal manure – presumably from horses and cows – that made it worthwhile to cart the pigeon guano as fertiliser to wheat and barley in even the most distant fields.  It was also sold to Tanners for treating hides for leather and making it flexible and more supple!

From 1560, another use was found for pigeon dung!  It was collected to make saltpetre[3] to make gunpowder because, until then, only imported saltpetre had been used and so gunpowder production was limited.   Then the Crown Order, 1625 forbade owners of dovecotes from paving the floors of their dovecotes so that only ‘good and mellow earth’ would be used as the floor, and this would then be collected for the saltpetre that it contained.

In comparison with many other birds in UK, these dovecote pigeons had an exceptionally long breeding season; with the first young of the year in March and April and then continuing at various intervals until end-October.  But there was little or no egg-laying and squab production during the Winter, and so the wealthy had to rely on salted or perhaps fresh-killed beef, sheep or pig!  Pigeon squabs were just a luxurious supplement – much like Prawns and Oysters are today – only for those with the big money to buy them!  There’s no evidence that pigeon eggs were ever harvested and eaten – except occasionally for medicinal reasons.  After all – if you wanted to eat eggs, that was why you kept chickens, wasn’t it?

So the seed-eating adult birds could fly off and feed on Meadows, Pasture, Heath and in Woodlands, but pigeons cannot feed on standing Cereal crops because in those days these fields would have had plant stems of 3-4 feet high and there would have been nowhere for them to land!  Anyway, both Englishmen and Welshmen have always had the right to drive pigeons off their crops and – until recently at least – to shoot them as well for the pot!  But they had to be fed during the Winter with cereals and pulses – usually on the ground near the pigeon loft.

Unlike Wood Pigeons that may only lay 2-3 clutches a year, these domesticated pigeons in dovecotes produce a clutch of two eggs 5 or 6 times each year which are incubated by both parents.  Freshly hatched and already hungry – although not really ‘tweeting or squawking hungry’ for some while[4] – both their parents will feed the chicks with ‘pigeons’ milk’[5] which is partially digested food that is regurgitated by both parent birds from their crops.  Apparently each clutch of 2 eggs almost always produces one male and one female chick, and the ability to do this gives rise to the term ‘a pigeon pair’ – meaning a pair of twin children one boy and one girl!  Other than laying the eggs – which he is physiologically incapable of doing – the cock bird does seem to be involved in all stages of the breeding cycle; incubation, pigeon-milk production and feeding the chicks on the nest.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that these birds are monogamous!?

PIGEON-LOFT ARCHITECTURE was sometimes intricate and ornate with every effort to restrict the access into the dovecote by both winged and four-legged predators.  This  included the use of turrets called ‘louvers’ with parallel sloping boards on which pigeons could easily perch but which larger birds of prey could not.  Water-filled moats were used sometimes and corner ledges included on buildings to inhibit the climbing up of walls by polecats and martens.

THEN CAME THE RATS!  Everything changed in the 1720s when Rats arrived.  But you say, “Rats have always been here, haven’t they”?  Well yes and no, because Black Rats were introduced into the UK by the Romans – probably not deliberately – coming originally from South India.  They ate grain and fruit but were not able to gnaw their way through building materials or hard containers.  As part of the ‘global exchange’ of goods, diseases and all living things that was just building-up as humans decided that there were advantages and opportunities to be gained by trade and travel all over the world, Brown Rats came from Eastern Asia, across Russia and were carried in ships from the Baltic Ports to major ports in UK from where they spread.

Bigger than Black Rats, these Brown Rats are burrowing animals and could get into most pigeon-lofts by digging their way through the gaps in stone rubble walls and by gnawing at the edges of doors and partitions.  Once one rat was inside, others would follow, and eggs and young pigeons would be killed and eaten.  So existing pigeon-lofts had to be modified by blocking up the lower nest-holes and plastering them over to keep them out of the way of rats.  Lofts built after the arrival of Brown Rats were designed from the beginning to be rat-proof, either by having the nest holes at a safe height or even having nest-holes only at first-floor level and above.

BUT WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO ALL THESE ‘PIGEON LOFTS’?  Although many of these lofts were broken down and the constituent parts used for other building projects, some remain – either broken down and empty or converted for other purposes, stables, garages and domestic housing.  Living for 15 years in a specialist built Pigeon loft with 480 nest-holes that had been built in the mid-1550s for a local Lord of the Manor, was an interesting experience as the building was – and still is – solid and with oval ‘flight holes’ some 18 inches long to let the adults fly into the building!

But why did this system of meat production – albeit for the rich – break down when there appears to have been so many valuable outputs: meat; fertiliser, and; a constituent of gunpowder? Well, the existing pigeon-lofts continued to be used and new ones were built until The French Revolutionary Wars began in 1793 and heralded in the Napoleonic Era.  The effect on British farming was major and immediate with wheat prices rocketing by 1812 to 3 times their pre-war value.  It was argued then by many that pigeons consumed more value in cereals than their meat and manure were worth.  The dovecotes were emptied, fell into disrepair or were converted to other uses.  By the 1850s this traditional practice of keeping pigeons for meat was all but finished.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised because after all:

‘The only constant in life is change, isn’t it!’

But do you think that the rearing of pigeons for meat could return as a commercial farming opportunity?  It’s possible but, if we are not allowed to shoot adult Wood Pigeons, do you think that farmers now would be allowed to rear Pigeon ‘squabs’ for slaughter as a rich man’s meat dish?  Probably not, eh?

AND WHAT ABOUT THE JUNE NEWSLETTER? Many people seem to have started watering their flowering plants, tomatoes and even lawns.  Just like the cheap food that we all enjoy in Wales, a ready supply of water is taken for granted by most of us.  But it wasn’t always like that and the availability of water has shaped much of our countryside and our farming in particular.  So, perhaps we’ll talk about water, eh?   Either that or maybe it’s time to talk about Bovine TB and all the implications that that disease has had and still has on the UK’s livestock industry and the grassland on which it feeds.

          ====================================================

Peter Beeden                                                                                     27 May 2019

[1] Frass is an informal term and accordingly it is variously used and variously defined. It is derived from the German Frass, from the verb fressen, which means to gobble up or to feed – just as an animal might!

[2] The Dovecotes of Historical Somerset, John & Pamela McCann, 2003, describes and photographs more than 100 dovecotes that were built specifically for the purpose of raising young pigeons for food.

[3]Pigeon dung contains this compound called saltpetre or Potassium nitrate which is one of the three major ingredients in gunpowder.  Saltpetre was extracted from the pigeon guano and mixed with charcoal and sulphur to make the gunpowder – much needed in warfare after the arrival of the gun!  There are other sources of saltpetre and it can be chemically synthesized today, but this pigeon guano would have been an important commodity in earlier history when these other sources were not as abundant or known. There is mention that in 16th century England, the pigeon was the only source of saltpetre which gives pigeons a huge role in the fighting abilities of the English at this time!

[4] These baby chicks wouldn’t need anything to eat or drink for about 48 hours after they’ve hatched. That’s because they are sustained by the yolk of the egg, which they absorb into their body just before they break through the shell.  And because they absorb the yolk just before hatching, that’s why chicken chicks can be sent by post from hatcheries to those who have bought them for rearing and have nothing to eat or drink in their container.

[5] Crop milk is a secretion from the lining of the crop of parent birds that is regurgitated to young birds. It is found among all pigeons and doves where it is referred to as pigeon milk.  And it’s called milk only because it nourishes the young – not because it bears any resemblance to mammalian milk being semi-solid substance – a bit like pale yellow cottage cheese! Very high in protein and fat, with higher levels than cow or human milk, as well as anti-oxidants and immune-enhancing factors, and antibodies as well as some bacteria.  Unlike mammalian milk, which is an emulsion, pigeon crop milk is a suspension of protein-rich and fat-rich cells that proliferate and detach from the lining of the crop.  This lactation in birds is controlled by prolactin, which is the same hormone that causes lactation in mammals!  In mammals it’s only the females that produce milk, but in pigeons it’s the male as well!

Pigeon’s milk begins to be produced a couple of days before the eggs are due to hatch. The parents may cease to eat at this point in order to be able to provide the squabs with milk uncontaminated by seeds, which the very young squabs would be unable to digest. The baby squabs are fed on pure crop milk for the first week or so of life. After this the parents begin to introduce a proportion of adult food, softened by spending time in the moist conditions of the adult crop, into the mix fed to the squabs, until by the end of the second week they are being fed entirely on softened adult food.

[1] Frass is an informal term and accordingly it is variously used and variously defined. It is derived from the German Frass, from the verb fressen, which means to gobble up or to feed – just as an animal might!

[2] The Dovecotes of Historical Somerset, John & Pamela McCann, 2003, describes and photographs more than 100 dovecotes that were built specifically for the purpose of raising young pigeons for food.

[3]Pigeon dung contains this compound called saltpetre or Potassium nitrate which is one of the three major ingredients in gunpowder.  Saltpetre was extracted from the pigeon guano and mixed with charcoal and sulphur to make the gunpowder – much needed in warfare after the arrival of the gun!  There are other sources of saltpetre and it can be chemically synthesized today, but this pigeon guano would have been an important commodity in earlier history when these other sources were not as abundant or known. There is mention that in 16th century England, the pigeon was the only source of saltpetre which gives pigeons a huge role in the fighting abilities of the English at this time!

[4] These baby chicks wouldn’t need anything to eat or drink for about 48 hours after they’ve hatched. That’s because they are sustained by the yolk of the egg, which they absorb into their body just before they break through the shell.  And because they absorb the yolk just before hatching, that’s why chicken chicks can be sent by post from hatcheries to those who have bought them for rearing and have nothing to eat or drink in their container.

[5] Crop milk is a secretion from the lining of the crop of parent birds that is regurgitated to young birds. It is found among all pigeons and doves where it is referred to as pigeon milk.  And it’s called milk only because it nourishes the young – not because it bears any resemblance to mammalian milk being semi-solid substance – a bit like pale yellow cottage cheese! Very high in protein and fat, with higher levels than cow or human milk, as well as anti-oxidants and immune-enhancing factors, and antibodies as well as some bacteria.  Unlike mammalian milk, which is an emulsion, pigeon crop milk is a suspension of protein-rich and fat-rich cells that proliferate and detach from the lining of the crop.  This lactation in birds is controlled by prolactin, which is the same hormone that causes lactation in mammals!  In mammals it’s only the females that produce milk, but in pigeons it’s the male as well!

Pigeon’s milk begins to be produced a couple of days before the eggs are due to hatch. The parents may cease to eat at this point in order to be able to provide the squabs with milk uncontaminated by seeds, which the very young squabs would be unable to digest. The baby squabs are fed on pure crop milk for the first week or so of life. After this the parents begin to introduce a proportion of adult food, softened by spending time in the moist conditions of the adult crop, into the mix fed to the squabs, until by the end of the second week they are being fed entirely on softened adult food.