Garden blogs

Farming and Wildlife in November

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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.

WHAT ABOUT NOVEMBER, THEN? November often seems to be a month in which nothing much seems to happen; particularly as far as plants are concerned. We have already changed the clocks back and have had that extra hour of sleep, Summer Migrants have flown away, and the Winter ones are still thinking about arriving. The last remnants of the apple crop – or ‘griggles’ as they are called – linger on, but not usually sweet enough to be worth getting out the long-handled apple picking pole from the shed. There’s still a bit of bee, midge and other insect activity, the Ivy is still flowering in sheltered places and Gorse of course – but then that flowers all year round! Grass growth hasn’t stopped, but it’s not like growth in May and even the lawn mowing has slowed down – thank goodness. Mind you – there wasn’t much lawn to cut in June and July this year, was there!

Driving a car has never seemed to be a particularly worthwhile way of spending one’s time and the only reason for doing it at all is to get ‘from A to B’. Nevertheless, driving along stretches of the M4 in Port Talbot the other day in late afternoon sunshine and because of the 50 mph speed restrictions, having a bit more time to look around, it was marvellous to see the really colourful array of Autumn leaves. Along the roadside there were Sycamore, Ash, Alder, Common Beech, Hazel, Larch and Spruce with Dogwood, Bramble and even some flowering Gorse underneath, and, behind all these, the grey-blue leaves of the much taller and evergreen Eucalyptus trees.

The only breaks in the wide range of greens to orange to yellow and red were the Ash trees that always shed their leaves early in Autumn and once started, usually within 1-2 days, and the tree is bare. Sycamore on the other hand, seems to hang on to leaves and drops them all Winter long often not releasing the final old leaves until the new leaves start to sprout in the following Spring. Although most of the conifers appeared to be Sitka Spruce which in the post-war years was the most commonly planted in plantations, other breaks in the foliage canopy with trees and no leaves, were with one of the Larches which, despite being conifers, are deciduous and with already yellowing leaves that had started to fall.

Those Eucalypts or ‘Gum trees’, as we often call them, have more than 700 different species and are always thought of as being uniquely Australian, although there are a few species from Indonesia and Philippines.   They do seem to have remarkable traits: being very fast growing sources of straight grained wood; pulp wood for paper making; the copious oil for cleaning and as an industrial solvent, as an antiseptic, for deodorising, and in very small quantities in food supplements, especially sweetscough dropstoothpaste and decongestants; honey from the obvious flowers; preferred wood for making didgeridoos, and a wide range of coloured dyes for cloth and other fibres. The oil also has insect repellent properties and is an active ingredient in some commercial mosquito repellents. Not a bad provider tree, eh! But because of the high oil content, they burn like crazy.

AFTER THE HARVEST: We talked in Farming and Wildlife in October about the undersowing of grass seed in the arable silage field of Cae Gors and that this was a way of both making sure that during the Winter, the soil was not bare and liable to erosion and of allowing the grass to be well established by Spring next year and able to give a good early season crop.

Other ways that farmers use the land on which cereals in particular – that’s wheat, barley and oats plus maize as well sometimes if early harvested – is almost immediately after harvest to sow ‘Stubble Turnips’ into the cereal stubble. These Stubble Turnips are a small but fast growing ‘catch crop’[1] popular with livestock farmers and usually sown after Winter Cereal harvest in June or July for grazing in Autumn and Winter, although sometimes sown into a grass field after a first crop of silage has been taken.

Crop failure of Stubble Turnips is usually because they were sown too late after a late cereal harvest, or because the Autumn was too cold and Turnip growth was poor. After all, and despite so many innovations and new ways of doing things, farmers are still dependent upon the weather doing what it wants to! Stubble Turnips are a ‘cheap to grow’ crop and if it fails then there’s not too much lost.

But what about real Turnips? These are much bigger than Stubble Turnips and, at 25-30 tonnes per acre, yield more than twice as much Swedes. Well unless one uses the Latin names for these two root crops of the Cabbage family, confusion reigns supreme! Swedes tend to have yellowy-orange flesh and have a ‘neck’ from which leaves emerge. Turnips usually are white-fleshed and often with purplish skin and with the leaves emerging from the root bulb itself. As is often the case, the confusion over nomenclature tends to come from the Scots who may describe either or both as ‘neeps’, although apparently not any longer in urban areas. Neeps are now only called neeps in rural areas in Scotland which, according to one informant who wishes to remain anonymous, really just means Aberdeen!

Anyway, although Turnips were grown in the 17th & 18th centuries, they were usually for household use. These days, Turnips are seldom mentioned in the media, although Baldrick in the BBC’s ‘Blackadder III’ (that covers the early 1800s) appears to have no other goal in life but the acquisition of Turnips. Baldrick seems to spend most of his time as an ‘underscrogsman’ or apprentice dogsbody, either scheming to possess large Turnips or a Turnip shaped like a ‘thingy’. You will have to use your imagination as to what a ‘thingy’ is!

Then, from a Norfolk family, came Charles the 2nd Viscount Townsend who, after twenty years as a political activist in the 1730s, followed a lifetime interest in growing Turnips as a field crop, mainly for use as livestock feed. He promoted the Norfolk 4-Course system of Wheat: Turnips: Barley: Clover. This is a rotational system of growing a different crop in each consecutive year of a 4-year cycle in the same field. Apparently it had already been recognised that growing crops year after year on the same ground was likely to reduce fertility and so most farmers had used a 4-year cycle but had a year of no crops at all – or fallow – to restore natural fertility.  But Viscount Townsend was very keen on the inclusion of a year of growing Turnips in the rotation; in fact so keen was he that he was nicknamed Turnip Townsend!

But why was Turnip Townsend so keen on Turnips? Well, he replaced the ‘fallow year’ of these 4-year rotations with Turnips that he grazed in the field over Winter with livestock. This had several benefits. First, during this era, little hay was made and most cattle were slaughtered as soon as the grass for grazing had finished and only the best cattle were kept over Winter. But the growing of whole fields of Turnips meant that many more livestock could be over-wintered because during the Winter months, they would graze and eat the Turnip leaves and then eat the roots – leaving little behind. Second, was that grazing in the field with cattle meant that they would eat the Turnips and then dung in the same field and thus restore soil fertility.   Clever, eh?

Although the Norfolk 4-Course rotation may not often have been practiced in Wales – Turnips were grown by many livestock farmers at least until the mid-1960s. But by this time, the labour cost of growing and feeding Turnips became too high and they have been replaced since by the modern silage system with cattle housed over the winter.

‘While shepherds watched their pot by night,

A-boiling turnip tops

A lump of soot came down the tun

And spoilt the blooming lot.’

 

LAYING HEDGES AND FENCING: We talked in October’s ‘Farming and Wildlife’ about the process of hedge laying and fencing the newly laid hedge on both sides to stop cattle and sheep from browsing on the stems and leaves produced in the Spring. The problem is of course that hedge laying is normally repeated every 7-10 years or so after the hedge plants have been allowed to grow to a height of at least twice that of the final hedge – so if hedge is to be 4 feet tall, then hedge for laying needs to be 8-10 feet tall. But because there is no room for the hedge layer to do his work between the hedge and the fence, then the fence must be taken down to allow access to the hedge. This is a real nuisance and may be one reason why there is so little hedge laying (plashing or spleeshing) nowadays on commercial farms.

Another reason of course is the cost of hedge laying; most contractors charging £10-15 per metre, although that would include clearing up and burning the waste. Mind you, if you wanted to lay the hedge on all four sides of your square 1-acre field which has a perimeter of 280 yards or 439 metre, which at a cost of £12 per metre would cost £5,268 to lay completely. OK, all the perimeter does not need to be laid in a single year, and once laid would not need further attention for up to 10 years depending upon which plant species are present, but this is still an expensive operation, isn’t it?

Mind you, laying a hedge can be one of life’s most satisfying experiences, even if one is not a lifelong member of the National Hedge Laying Society [NHLS]. Even the decision made by family members after only a short period of inspection of a completed hedge, and who then deem it highly unlikely that the hedge layer would be awarded a Gold Star by the NHLS and certainly would not be mentioned in the NHLS News-Update, does little to dent one’s enthusiasm. After all, even the most amateurish laying of the hedge with ‘pleachers’ here, there and everywhere will, after only a few years of trimming the sides, turn into ‘an aesthetically pleasing masterpiece’. Pleachers are cut stems that have been bent at an angle but kept alive the by leaving some bark and outer rings of wood intact.

MOLES AGAIN (or should that be moldwarps or wants?): They do tend to operate unseen don’t they, hiding themselves underground most of the time? Show children some molehills and then ask them how big the moles are, and the average reply is about 18 inches long, whereas of course they are only about 8 inches long when fully grown.   This false perception is because children look at the molehill that is a foot tall and 2 ½ feet wide and think that the mole digger has to be quite big to dig out that much soil.

For reasons best known to itself, in 2003 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a list of the most numerous mammals in the UK. Top of that list was the Field Vole with an estimated 75 million individuals, followed by the Common Shrew at 42 million and the Wood Mouse and Rabbit each with 38 million. The Mole came next at 31 million and then the mammals that we think ought to be high on the list but are not: Common Rat – 7 million; House Mouse – 5 million, and; surprisingly Grey Squirrel at only 2.5 million.

So you say, if there’s about 1 Mole for every 2 people in the UK, and we know that they live underground, then why are there so many fields that just don’t have any molehills – presumably there being no moles in those fields? Wrong, because as we said in Farming and Wildlife in October, moles don’t dig their underground tunnels and push the soil out to the surface to form a molehill just for the fun of it. Only when existing tunnels have collapsed, become unproductive for food, or young moles are having ‘to break new ground’ and dig their own tunnels away from the parents, are new tunnels dug and new molehills formed.

Anyway, moles tend to go where there is most likelihood of finding their main food of worms and where is that? Obviously there are more worms in those organic matter rich soils, so the worms like these soils as food is more easily found, and because the worms have more food they are larger perhaps, and then the moles are probably better fed. But where in any field are the most organic matter rich areas? Well, such areas include where cattle and sheep lie down, relax and ‘chew the cud’, because when they decide to stand up again, invariably they dung immediately and enhance the soil organic matter status. The other field area where there is always high organic matter status are hedges where every year in Autumn there is copious leaf fall and breakdown of hedge trimmings into the topsoil. Moles just love hedges and hedge banks and reportedly use the tunnels that they create through and underneath hedges as ‘Mole Motorways’ from one field to the next.

THOSE NAMES AGAIN and just to let you know that the names of things – both live and dead – that are used in farming vary a lot from place to place in the country. The naming of sheep particularly is complicated because different farming communities have different names to describe the same animal – usually related to age and teeth development. For example, a ‘theave or theaf’ in the English Midlands is a young ewe in her first or second year but has not yet given birth to a lamb. Here she is called a ewe lamb but in other places a chilver or a chervil and in Scotland a ‘gimmer’! And a lamb, whether male or female, remains a lamb until it loses its first pair of juvenile teeth at about 12 months when it becomes a ‘hoggett or hogg or hog’. Then there’s shearlings, tegs, yows and wethers, although that last one is a male sheep castrated before sexual maturity to remove aggression whilst growing larger. This farming business is not easy to understand is it!

Perhaps this is just the way it has always been and was until cars, TV, overseas travel, holidays and Internet made everyone talk the same language? Same here of course in Wales with Stinging Nettle in Welsh being known in different regions and sometimes small communities as one of more of: dail, dail poethion, dala poethion, dan hadlen, hadlen, dynad, ddynhaden, danadl poethion or dailen chwerw. But the kids on our neighbouring Welsh speaking farm just call them ‘Stingers’!

GRASS THIS AUTUMN has grown strongly in what has been a warm and wet time. Surprising perhaps after the drought but soil temperatures have remained high and there has been just enough – and sometimes much more than enough – rain to allow growth. Some frost of course but very localised and, at the time of writing, not yet enough to kill off grass growth. Important to eat grass short enough so it doesn’t get mouldy and to die back with frost damage later on in Winter.

And we have already talked about Turnips, haven’t we? About how before Turnip Townsend in the 1730s encouraged the growing of Turnips for cattle feed in Autumn and Winter, many and perhaps most cattle were slaughtered in Autumn as there was just not enough food to keep them fit and well over Winter. One of the ways that farmers used to feed both cattle and sheep in the late Autumn and early Winter was to extend this ‘back-end[2] grazing’ by growing ‘foggage’. Now foggage is really just grass that has been allowed to grow ungrazed since August-early September and then eaten in the field by cattle or sheep. Perennial Ryegrass grows well in Autumn but tends to go to ‘mush’ with the first frosts. But both Cocksfoot and Italian Ryegrass both give good bulk when laid up for foggage and by January still have a feeding value similar to that of average hay – and it can even look like standing hay as well! So it will keep cattle maintained, but will not allow them to put on much weight or milk very much either.

Surprisingly perhaps, Permanent Pasture like that on The Farm can have an important place in providing ‘cool stored grass’ especially for a flock just before lambing and during lambing as well. If such Permanent Pasture is shut up[3] in early October then a fairly dense, leafy sward without any yellowing at its base can be preserved until lambing in February-March – especially when Annual Meadow Grass and Meadow Foxtail are major constituents of the sward as these are ‘winter-green’ species and keep their quality well. Mind you, keeping such grass fields closed up in early Autumn means that those fields are not available for grazing Autumn and early Winter – ‘you can’t have your grass and eat it’ can you! But then it’s seldom a win-win situation for farmers is it?

WILDFLOWER MEADOWS: During one of the Wales Wildflower Weekend walks on 16 & 17 June this year, whilst battling through the wind and rain in Cae North Trawscoed, a walker asked:

why doesn’t every farmer still have or try to restore these marvellous wildflower-rich pastures like we see here’?

It’s a frequent question and there are several reasons why farmers don’t. Although restoration is possible, it can be time consuming and costly in seed and forfeit of income whilst the grassland is being restored and not grazed or cut for hay. And the grassland will only stay flower-rich if no inorganic bag fertiliser is applied.   So, the yield of grass – and therefore the value of livestock grazing – is much greater, certainly doubled and probably trebled when such pastures are ploughed up and replaced with a fertilized sward of Perennial Ryegrass and Clover.

After all, when one walks around Cae Trawscoed in Summer, one cannot help but be fascinated by the Orchids and other plants there; though growing Orchids doesn’t pay the farm bills, does it! Looking at the grass crop in that field in mid-June this year, one could see that almost any small rotary lawnmower would have easily coped with the growth there. Cae Trawscoed has not had any livestock grazing for 3 years now and no manure applications either, just a mowing for Haylage late in Autumns 2016, 2017 and 2018. Not really much production eh, and farming is a business after all and these farmers have to make a living as well!

THOSE FLIES seldom seem to be very far away from us, do they? And now it’s the turn of the ‘Cluster flies’ looking for hibernation sites. These flies are the same family as the Blue Bottles and Green Bottles (that all those who cook and manage meat know and love) and can carry all sorts of human diseases[4]! But usually only the female Bottles are interested in the attractions of flesh, whilst the males are more likely to be found on flowers, particularly Umbellifers like Wild Carrot and others such as Meadow Sweet, sipping nectar or sunning themselves on leaves. Did you say that that is typical of most males, perhaps?

But Cluster flies – and there are 8 species in UK and more than 30 in Europe – are not a health hazard to humans, but they do parasitize earthworms – laying their eggs in Autumn close to worm burrows and casts so that the larvae can emerge and enter the worm. In the Spring, the young larvae then eat their way along the worm host’s body apparently perforating the body wall so as to expose the fly larva’s breathing apparatus or ‘spiracles’. After about three weeks when the worm is just an empty lifeless sack and very little ‘meat’ remains, the larvae pupate and after about two weeks the adult fly emerges into late Summer and Autumn. Then after perhaps only a short time feeding and as soon as temperatures start falling, they think about hibernation.

Normally, these flies hibernate in hollow trees, under loose pieces of bark on trees or other dry places. But these newly hatched flies can be a real pain as their other name of ‘Attic Flies’ comes into play as they seem to prefer to hibernate in crevices and corners of our houses; often on windows between the closed window itself and the casement or in Attics on roof purlins and beams where they often form thick black ‘Fly Patches’ that can cover a square foot and be an ½ inch deep in live flies! But if you open a window where they are hibernating, then these little blighters – most commonly with yellowish-golden hairs on their thorax[5] – tend to be very sluggish fliers and show little incentive to escape outside – and just hang around inside the window bumping clumsily into things in their way as they fly around, or are attracted to light in the house, usually making a loud ‘buzzing’ noise! Unlike most of our flies that don’t live more than three months, these Cluster Flies live a long time; often more than six months!

AND LADYBIRDS: Mind you, Cluster Flies are not the only insects that seem to be hibernating by our window hinges these days. Although Ladybirds seem to have had a quiet Summer, adult numbers have exploded since the drought finished – just as they did in 1976 – and there were squadrons of them flying around in September and October looking for hibernation sites and windows seem to be ideal. It’s a favourite and colourful little beetle, with some 46 different species of Ladybird now in the UK. This includes the many-spotted Harlequin Ladybird that was first seen in 2004 in South-East England and has spread furiously to become the second most common Ladybird in England and Wales!

We tend to think of Ladybirds as being small and almost ‘cuddly’ little creatures don’t we, just clinging onto that rose and tomato plant outside and eating all the little greenfly [aka Aphids] that spread those virus diseases? Harlequins though will sometimes bite people if no food is available, usually leaving a small bump and a bit of a ‘stinging’ sensation. In a few cases, people have had severe allergic reactions. So beware; and only handle Harlequins if you know that they have a full stomach and are not hungry! Mind you, they are very variable in colour and although the most common forms in UK are 5mm round and either orange with 15-21 black spots, or black with two or four orange or red spots. Hmm, not easy to identify, eh?

But almost all Ladybirds (also called Colly Cows)are pretty harmless and there are many children’s poems about them, this one in particular is practical and to the point, isn’t it?

Five little ladybugs climbing on some plants,
Eating the aphids, but not the ants.
The first one said, “Save some aphids for me.”
The second one said, “They’re as tasty as can be.”
The third one said, “Oh they’re almost gone.”
The fourth one said, “Then we’d better move on.”
The fifth one said, “Come on, let’s fly!”
So they opened up their wings and they flew through the sky.

Although living in a reputedly ‘Ty Unnos[6] or ‘one-night house’ with windows now replaced with double glazing and tight-fitting plastic ones at that, this has not deterred the Ladybirds with more than a hundred hibernating in one of the upper fanlight windows. They all seem to be vying for the limited space as well, with six different species including Harlequin, 7-Spot, 2-Spot, 14-Spot and others that either cannot be identified without handling or, only have Latin names!

BREAKING NEWS: The Editor-in-Chief suggests that these Farming and Wildlife Newsletters are too long and are therefore perhaps too intimidating for some or even all potential readers. Apologies to you but, as Blaise Pascal the French mathematician, physicist, philosopher, theologian, inventor and writer wrote in 1657[7]:

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

We probably all know what Pascal meant then and how easy it is now to just write until the immediate thinking just ‘dries up’. But The Editor-in Chief’s word must not be ignored, and every effort will be made in future to restrict these Newsletter ramblings to a bare minimum.

AND THE FUTURE IN DECEMBER? The Farm is still busy with selling steers and pigs, with the ram running with the ewes for five weeks to get them in lamb for next year’s lambing. Then there’s general farm maintenance, repairs and improvements. After all, those fences need constant attention to make sure that they are an effective barrier to animals, don’t they! And if it turns cold then the grass can get very short and Huw may have to feed some of the arable silage, haylage or barley straw harvested for these Winter times when natural food is in short supply. Because, don’t forget that Winter starts ‘officially’ on 1st December! But much more about this in December rather than November, because there has been not much time to make November’s Newsletter shorter!

From the wildlife side, preparation for Winter ‘rules OK’, with Bats, Dormice, Butterflies and most Insects, Hedgehogs and small rodents still trying to eat as much food as possible to gain weight before the really cold weather starts. For the enforced hibernation, copious fat reserves are needed for successful survival during that period. of Hedgehogs now is a reminder that we haven’t yet talked in a Farming and Wildlife Newsletter about this fascinating creature, and whether it can actually can suck milk from a cow’s udder as tradition would have us believe!    END

10 November 2018

[1] A catch crop is grown in the time between two main crops or at a time when no main crops are being grown in field. In other words it is an ‘extra’ crop that does not interfere with normal grazing or crop harvest.

[2] The back-end of the year is that period of Autumn when grass growth is variable and there might be some grass available for grazing or none at all. November is definitely ‘the back-end’!

[3] When fields are ‘shut up’ or laid up’ it means that they are not grazed and are being allowed to grow for hay, silage or foggage.

[4] Including dysentery, cholera, poliomyelitis, yaws, anthrax, tularaemia, leprosy and TB. Flies regurgitate and excrete wherever they come to rest and thereby mechanically transmit disease organisms. The vomit a fly leaves on your food is full of the germs from its last meal.

 

[5] All members of the Class Insecta have three body segments: Head with antennae, mouthparts and eyes; Thorax to which the wings – if any – are attached, and; abdomen with the male or female genitalia, and stings of course which are just modified female genitalia.

[6] With population growth, land shortage and poverty in Wales during 17th until early 19th centuries, squatting on isolated patches of rural land was commonplace.  Apparently and with several variants of activity, tradition had it that if a house could be constructed during the hours of darkness and a chimney operational by dawn break with fire and smoke, then the squatters had the right to stay.  Despite having no status in Common Law, many modern historians nevertheless now consider that the Ty unnos to be a tradition enshrined in law.  The houses had to be simple to be constructed between dusk and dawn, often made of turf, local tree branches and with a thatched roof. Usually modified with more substantial materials at a later date, many/some are still in place and the Ty unnos tradition may help to explain the dispersed settlement patterns seen in the Welsh landscape today.  The ‘one-night house’ tradition seems to have been widespread in UK and indeed across parts of Europe and N & S America.  In Carmarthenshire in 2006, an experimental construction was completed between dusk and dawn, demonstrating that a rudimentary structure could be developed quickly – admittedly with more than 40 helpers on site!  Perhaps we should ask Huw if a Ty Unnos could be built on The Farm; perhaps in Cae Blaen next to Trawscoed Wood?  Could be useful for future events near to Principality House, couldn’t it!

[7] B.Pascal [1657], Letter 16, The Provincial Letters.