Garden blogs

Farming and Wildlife in October

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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.

OCTOBER ON THE FARM after a September of high wind and heavy rain interspersed with some calm dry interludes. So, it’s all back to normal after the drought isn’t it! Well actually no because most dairy farmers still have their cows in at night and are feeding silage, whilst hoping for further silage crops on grassland that has been ‘shut-up’ since the drought finished. Forage harvesters[1] were ‘rattling away’ at the time of writing in mid-October but the crops were light.

IS THIS AUTUMN THE SAME OR DIFFERENT? Spring always seems to be the most exciting time of year with all of us waiting to see when the plants will flower, and when that Orchid will come up in that patch of grass outside Mrs Jones’s house. Is this Autumn the same as any other Autumn regardless of the 2-month drought with high temperatures that left many of our wild flowering plants dying back to the soil surface?

But this Autumn we seem to have had a ‘mini-Spring’ – not everywhere and not every type of plant – but Ragwort flowering in stems only 6 inches tall; Ox-eye Daisy in small clumps in the dual carriage way centre pieces; Cow Parsnip in road verges but again not every plant; occasional Ragged Robin, Ribwort Plantain and one clump of that delicately yellow flowered Common Toadflax. The most flower-rich area was that patch of pebbles that hadn’t been ‘cleaned up’ all Summer and was covered in: Thistle; Himalayan Balsam; Plantain; both Ragwort and its vaguely similar and close relation Groundsel, and; Mayweed although whether Scentless or Scented Mayweed is difficult to tell when one has no sense of smell! Incidentally, Mayweed gets its name – not from it being a weed that flowers in May which would be logical wouldn’t it – but from the Old English ‘megthe’ or ‘maid’ from its pretty white flowers. Mind you, the Stinking Chamomile – so similar to the Mayweeds – was not much liked as a weed in Cereal crops because apparently it can blister the skin of those that touch it! It also has a wide variety of other names[2], so perhaps it’s better to call it by its Latin name of Anthemis cotula, eh?

All of these plants were seen in waysides and unkempt and untidy waste places where they had been allowed to grow unmolested. These waste places often seem so valuable for what grows there, and one can only agree with that most practical of sayings:

‘Tidiness is the kiss of death for Wildlife’

Then on an early October morning on a South-facing sloping grassland field in the sunshine were groups of flowering Autumn Hawkbits around which there were 19 Small Copper butterflies – and these were just the ones that were counted! This small active little red/brown/black butterfly had hardly been seen at all during the Summer and it seemed surprising now that they would emerge so late in the year and in such numbers. So, I looked in my ‘A Butterfly Book for the Pocket by Edmund Sandars’ – given to me by Akela at the age of 10 for having passed some Wolf Cub badge or other – and there read that Small Coppers can be flying in early November and that they hibernate as caterpillars under the leaves of their main foodplants of Sheep and Common Sorrel. So, probably not too unusual after all to see them flying in early October, eh?

INSECTS AGAIN: Well there would still seem to be many houses that have not yet taken down their fly-screens on the kitchen door, so either they can’t be bothered to or flies are still around and need to be kept out of the house. We talked a bit about flies in July’s Farming & Wildlife Newsletter – mainly about biting flies and Warble Fly, wasn’t it? Well, after the drought had broken at beginning of August, there seemed to be a revival of fly activity and farmers had to be very careful and watch out for ‘fly-strikes’ on their sheep and particularly on lambs. These flies lay their eggs – at least the female flies lay eggs, and some 200-300 of them per fly – on dirty bits of the fleece often around the backsides. Eggs hatch and the tiny larvae or maggots crawl through their wool – and don’t forget that most lambs will not have been shorn[3] in this their first year and so the wool is quite thick. Reaching the skin, these tiny maggots settle down to the main course of eating their host, through the skin and into the living flesh.

But the covering of wool prevents these maggots from being easily seen, so how does the farmer know that there are maggots there that need to be killed off? Well, the lamb will tell him because these 100 or more ‘eating maggots’ encourages a change in its habits: some pain of course causing little running episodes; often lying away from the rest of the flock; and little rubbing of the nose against the area where the maggots are feeding, often just to disturb the other flies that are attracted by the smell of the open wound. Also, a great mass of maggots eating away seems to cause a rise in temperature often by a much as 10oC, so the lamb is not happy!

These little changes have to be seen, which is why farmers are often observed in Summer leaning over the gate and peering into the field and not – as you had uncharitably thought because they had nothing better to do but gaze into the distance and ruminate about the iniquities of the farming life – but watching the sheep for maggot activity. And although the first eggs laid on a lamb will have emerged as maggots and for 5-10 days eaten meat until they are ready to drop off to the ground and go to the pupal stage, they are followed by a constant stream of new eggs laid, and more maggots until if not checked by the farmer, the maggots will reach some vital organ and the lamb will die.

So, all these flies are not nice are they? Well they are the ones that we see daily but if we think about flies as being the large Order of Dipterous[4] insects there are probably as many – if not more, that do good for us rather than harm. OK, so there are Mosquitoes, Horse Flies, Tsetse Flies, Sand Flies and Biting Midges that are vectors of disease or just cause us problems with those annoying swarms that can ruin many a day in the countryside. But of the 150 different Families of flies, almost half are known to feed from flowers and probably take pollen from one plant to another. And its not just any old flowers that flies pollinate either; for those of you that actually like chocolate, let it be known that one of these flies belonging to the family of biting midges, is actually the only pollinator of the Cacao or Cocoa Tree and is known as the Chocolate Midge. So, without this tiny midge – also known in some places as No See Ums – there might not be any chocolate to buy. Of course, this might in some circles be considered a good thing as it might reduce our national calorific intake and benefit our feeding habits?

Alright so the ‘No See Ums’ are good news, but as we don’t grow Cacao in UK, what other flies do we see here that are worth keeping? Well, there’s the Hover Flies that look rather like Bees or Wasps but have only the single pair of wings and not the two pairs that Bees and Wasps have. Hover Flies are important pollinators in this country. And Daddy Longlegs that are flying and active in the Autumn are not pests, the larvae [aka leatherjackets] feeding on decaying organic matter and are important in nutrient recycling. Next time you see an adult, have a look and see that there are only two wings; Daddy Longlegs are very easy to look at and they don’t bite or sting either!

Why you ask is he ‘waffling on’ again about flies? Probably because someone sent a copy of a fascinating and easy to read book[5] about flies written by a curator of Diptera at the Natural History Museum in London. Such easy to read books are becoming much more common these days, but to find a book like this about what one might think of as being just ‘another boring subject’ is very worthwhile.

SHEEP AND FLIES: In the July Farming and Wildlife there was a photo of The Farm’s Balwen ewes that showed their neatly shorn bodies and long tails with a white tip. But you ask, do their long tails ever cause them a problem? No, but why should they? Lambs are born that way, after all. Tail ‘docking’ or cutting short is something which shepherds have done for their own convenience, not the sheeps’. With long tails, there is more to get in a mess if the sheep is scouring[6], but with good husbandry that shouldn’t happen often, anyway.

During the spring/summer season a long tail is a far more effective fly swish than a short one. But at lambing time, it does make it difficult to see what is going on at a distance, but The Farm’s Balwens are very private ‘lambers’ anyway. You know, the farmer can wait for hours in the field for a ewe to lamb, then nip back to the gate for the cup of tea that madam has brought out together with a just cooked Welsh Cake, and come back to the field five minutes later to find it’s all happened and the lambs are already struggling to get to their feet to enjoy their first mouthfuls of colostrum[7]! Thankfully says Huw, Balwens are not prone to lambing problems!

TREES AND BUSHES GOING TO SEED: Yes, it’s the time of year for fruit, nuts and berries and yet it’s surprising how many of our woody plants set their seed at other times of the year. For example, Elm flowers and sets seed in April, green Hazel nuts are being eaten by Grey Squirrels and Dormice in July, Sycamore seed spiralling down to earth in August and ‘keys’ of the Ash tree were rattling around on the branch then as well. Horse Chestnut ‘conkers’ in early September together with Blackthorn sloes, Elderberries and Hawthorn berries or ‘haws’. Some trees of course, are already getting ready for next year and the catkins or male flowers can be seen on Hazel and Alder in August; small and solid and just waiting for next Spring to bulk up and then open up to release pollen onto the female flowers nearby.

So, with one month of Autumn nearly gone and Winter approaching, we cannot expect any more flowering and fruit production on woody plants, can we? Well actually we can, as one plant that probably all of us see every day doesn’t start to flower until late-September and can carry on until end-November, producing ripe berries or umbels from November to January. This plant is much-maligned because it grows almost anywhere: on walls of houses; up trees; in woodland on the ground and in hedges and on fences. It climbs trees and holds on with its rootlets but only draws nutrients from its roots in the soil and not from the tree – it’s not a parasite. But it’s a potential problem as it can grow to 30 metre and if it grows at the top of the tree then it can spread around and catch the wind and cause the tree to blow down or lose branches.

But this plant is a wildlife haven: providing nesting sites for birds; berries for birds in mid-Winter; roosts for bats; a food plant for caterpillars of the Holly Blue butterfly; hibernation sites for many butterflies and, because it is so late flowering and the flowers are so rich in nectar and pollen it is perhaps one of if not the last source of energy for insects about to go into hibernation, especially Hoverflies, Bees and Wasps.   But all parts of the plant contain Saponins and can be toxic to humans, although farmers always say that if you have a sick ewe in Winter that doesn’t want to eat then give it a branch of this plant and it will very likely quickly start eating again and recover.

So, what is this plant? If you have decided on Honeysuckle or Climbing Hydrangea then you would score ‘Nil Points’, but if you said Common Ivy then you would win the Prize! Winners should have a word with someone in the Membership & Volunteer Department about this and you may be surprised what you get back in return!

OUR FOOD AGAIN is in the news; not this time because of poor quality or unavailability of carrots – although such problems do seem to occur frequently now in our ‘bad news media’, don’t they? No, this time it’s a survey from the University of East Anglia which works out the proportion of the average household budget that’s spent on various essentials, including the 8% that’s spent on food. This BBC report describes how the UK now imports more than half of its food, that our food is now the cheapest in Western Europe and indeed we spend less of our average income on food than any other country in the world except for the US and Singapore!

Why is this so and is it right? Well, the Supermarkets are able to source foods cheaply from around the world, without incurring the UK’s often higher manufacturing and processing costs. Because of the intense competition between Supermarkets for market share and the apparent disloyalty of customers always going for the cheapest food wherever they can find it, Supermarkets always seem to buy wherever the produce is cheapest in the world, don’t they?

To understand the implication of this ‘cheap food’ for consumers on UK farming, one has only to read the survey results from Aberystwyth University’s ‘The Farm Business Survey in Wales’ to realise the importance of the Basic Payment Scheme or BPS[8] in maintaining farm profit margins and to counteract low prices at the farm gate.

The Wales Farm Income Booklet – 2016/17 reports on a survey of 61 Lowland Cattle and Sheep farms that had an average of 99 suckler cows[9] and youngstock plus 517 breeding ewes and lambs – just like The Farm but with four times as many cows and ten times as many sheep! The results show that, after paying all costs, the farm profit in 2016/17 was £18,938 including this BPS subsidy. This doesn’t seem a particularly rewarding return for an 80ha (200 acres) farm unit probably valued at over £1.5 million and with stock worth more than £100,000 as well, does it? But take away the BPS of £16,347 and the profit that year fell to £2,591.

This tells us that without this Basic Payment Scheme, these Lowland Cattle and Sheep farmers would struggle to be in business and the countryside that we know and love would be very different to what it is now, wouldn’t it!   Don’t you think that we consumers should pay more for our food, so that farmers can actually make a decent living without the BPS that farmers are given by Government? Perhaps these higher prices to consumers for food would trigger a reduction in our buying too much food that we either (a) eat and get fat on, or (b) throw away and waste?

OK, so it would seem that this Basic Payment Scheme keeps many farmers in business and provides us with the ‘cheap food’ that we buy from our Supermarket, doesn’t it ? After all, the 5% of the UK population that lives in Wales had a Gross Disposable Household Income – which is similar to a business profit – of £17,437 in 2017. Not as good as the £18,938 of the Lowland Cattle and Sheep farmers’ income described above, but one hell of a lot better than the £2,591 that these farmers would earn if Government decided to discontinue this Basic Payment Scheme!

But the question being asked by so many people – including farmers – is what will happen after Brexit, eh? No one knows, do they?

HARVEST ON THE FARM: Huw has been away taking a break away after a busy time on The Farm. Huw’s contractor cut 40 acres of grass in mid-August, turned it a couple of times, rowed it up and then made 150 big round bales that were double-wrapped in black plastic as haylage. Huw says that he probably could have made hay, but as The Farm doesn’t have much storage space in barns for unwrapped hay bales, he likes to bale when there is still some damp in the grass swathe and to double wrap it so that it can be left outside over -Winter until needing to be picked up and taken to be fed to cattle or sheep. Huw says that the yield of 150 bales from 40 acre was a similar yield to 2017 which, considering the drought this year, was pretty good wasn’t it.

You remember that The Farm was growing a mixture of Peas and Oats in Cae Gors to be cut and made into Arable silage? Well, the contractor came in with his machinery, mowed and then ‘picked up’ and baled, then wrapped with a triple layer of black plastic to avoid rodent damage.  The yield was much higher than in 2017 according to Huw, with some 3 bales to the acre extra – due to better growing conditions.

 

The Spring Barley in Cae Circus was harvested in mid-September by a contractor with a small combine harvester that was able to be transported along the narrow roads and tracks in and around The Farm. Now a days the modern up-to-date combines have cutter bars from 14-35 feet wide with the same size of pick-up reel – that’s the spinning bit at the front of the combine and even on a low loader would be difficult to transport to The Farm! The yield of The Farm’s Spring-sown Barley was 2 ton per acre, which is pretty good for an organic crop that was given no inorganic bag fertiliser or pesticides.  Huw now has this grain in store waiting to go to a maltster[10] in Warminster to be made into beer and whisky.  The straw has been baled and will be used for cattle and sheep bedding over Winter and for them to eat if they want to.  The cows will be late ‘in-calf’ and so won’t have much room in their stomachs – and they have four stomachs[11] don’t they – for too much bulky food.

OK, so the harvest has been taken off these two arable fields but what will Huw do with them now? Well, at the time of sowing the Peas and Oats in mid-May, grass seed was included in the seed mixture.  This is called ‘undersowing’ which means that the grass seed germinates at the same time as the Peas and Oats but, because the peas and oats grows faster and outcompetes the grass for the scarce resources of space, light and water, it is not until the peas and oats are harvested as silage that the grass really starts growing unchecked.  This Ley[12] Grassland will have tillered[13] and will be yielding well in early Spring 2019.

HEAVY RAIN, WATER AND SOILS: Didn’t we talk in ‘Farming and Wildlife in September’ about how much of the farm land in Wales is ‘hilly and even mountainous’ and how we have a wet climate with a lot of rain?  These fields of Cae Gors with the arable silage, and especially Cae Circus with the Spring Barley have areas of the fields that are quite steeply sloping down to the stream at the bottom of Cae Blaen.  And if these fields had been ploughed after harvest in September and left until Spring before sowing seed, then what would have happened?

Well, during periods of heavy rain, the clods of soil on the ploughed slopes would have been pounded into soil particles[14] that would have been carried by rainwater ‘run-off’ down into the Llyn Mawr waterway below as silt.  In fact, isn’t that what the Regency Restoration Project is doing when it restores the lakes – digging out the soil particles that have been washed off the slopes during the last centuries?  This whole process of soil being washed off slopes to the bottom of the hill has been happening ever since there have been soils – in fact that is how we have such a slopey-hilly sort of countryside here!  This is called ‘soil erosion’ and is defined as ‘the displacement of the topsoil’ which is the soil that is most nutrient rich and with most/all of soil organic matter.  Displacement means movement and it would be a bit difficult to move soil uphill – other than by the ‘wind erosion’ that created the ‘Dust Bowl’ of the American Mid-West in the 1930s after the natural grasslands there were cultivated for intensive cereal production.  Anyway, soil erosion by water is the movement of soil particles downhill.

So, when Huw didn’t cultivate the slopey fields of Caeau Gors and Circus this Autumn after harvest, he was reducing the risk of soil erosion runoff from those fields. Leaving the stubble after the Barley and Arable silage harvest means the soil has at least a partial mulch over it  – rather than this being ‘ploughed in’.  This reduces the damage to the soil from the impact of heavy rain droplets as well – you know how heavy they can feel don’t you, when standing outside in heavy rain and feeling those droplets spatter onto your face – or the top of your head if like me you suffer from ‘a follicle challenge’ – in other words you are bald – and not wearing a hat?

But you say, ‘Surely this soil erosion is not really serious, is it’? Well actually yes, it is, especially when the water in the soil is at ‘Field Capacity[15] and no more rainwater can move into the soil and so any extra rain on a level field for example has to stay on the field as ‘puddles’, but if on a slope then that rain will runoff and flow downhill and pick up soil particles as it goes. The steeper the slope then the faster this runoff will be, and the faster the runoff then the heavier the load of soil particles that can be picked up and carried. The smaller clay particles are easily carried, and these often give these runoff streams a ‘brownish colour’. If this erosion is really strong then silt and sand particles may be carried by the runoff – not in solution like the finer clay particles – but tumbled along in the stream of water that is the runoff. When this runoff slows down as the rain stops or as it reaches less slopey or level ground, then the soil particles will begin to ‘sediment out’; largest particles first so sand first, followed by silt and finally – and often some distance away, the finest clay particles.

So, next time it is raining hard, why not go outside with your children or grandchildren each wearing their waterproofs and boots, and equipped with a clean glass jam jar and, when you find that stream at the bottom of the hill – perhaps running down a dirt pathway – fill up the jars, put the lids on and take them home with you. Put them on your window sill – or mantel piece if you prefer – and watch the particles settle. This will happen over a couple of days – sand first, then silt and finally clay particles – and the water will be clear whilst the bottom of the jar will be covered in soil particles that have been washed off the hill into the stream that you collected them from. You will have been watching the results of ‘Soil Sedimentation’ in practice. Well done!

All this soil erosion business is pretty interesting stuff isn’t it, but surely its not really that important? Well, according to the Woodland Trust, nearly 3 million tonnes of UK’s top soil are eroded each year and, as it apparently can take centuries to create 1cm of topsoil, this is a loss that we can do without. Admittedly, much of this loss is wind erosion in the drier arable areas of the east of England. Not that much wind erosion in Wales other than on the soils around and to the North of Cardiff along the border with England.

Elsewhere in the world, soil erosion can be horrific. On a steep hillside in Ghana, West Africa natural forest was cleared at the top of this to create new farmland. But normal heavy rain fell in the rainy season, gullies were formed on the bare ground and more and more soil was washed away by the runoff. The ‘erosion gulley’ was about 60 feet deep with an occasional rock at the bottom about the size of a small bungalow! Nothing quite like that here yet but there are many gullies of 2-3 feet deep in arable soils of South West England: so well done to Huw for not ploughing these two fields before the Autumn and Winter storms!

MAKING BEST USE OF LAND: This undersowing of the Oats and Peas with grass is just the ‘intercropping’ of two or more crops grown on the same piece of ground at the same time – just like they do on so many smallholder farms in Africa. Those farmers there know that different crops and sometimes different varieties of the same crop have different needs for moisture, nutrients, space or light.  So, if one crop or variety fails, then perhaps one of the others will succeed and provide food for the family – that’s clever, eh!  It’s just trying to make sure that there is enough food during the coming ‘dry season’ when there are no crops to harvest.  Agricultural economists call this ‘risk minimization’.

In Northern Nigeria, the self-sufficient farmers there always have more than one crop in the same field – sometimes in alternate rows, sometimes alternate plants in the same row and sometimes different crops in different parts of the field to suit changes in soil type or wetness. Rice is the main crop in most parts of Bangladesh and when asked which variety he was growing, a farmer looked a bit bewildered at this ‘stupid question’ and said that he was growing 16 different types – each suited to the particular conditions of water depth, chances of drying up or overflooding, the optimal time of the season for sowing and harvest and even taste – so as to spread the workload and not have too many over-busy times or times with nothing to do. The Barley stubble in Cae Circus will be untouched now and left fallow over winter and ploughed in Spring and sown back to grass.  Huw could have ‘intercropped’ or undersown with grass as he did with the Oats and Peas – wonder why he didn’t, eh?  But this overwintered fallow will be attractive to wintering birds such as finches and thrushes looking for seed spilled to the ground during harvest; perhaps we will be able to see these birds from the Observation Point?

BEEF SALES: The Farm’s steer that was slaughtered on 15 August was hung, butchered, jointed and then sold by the Marketing Department in 10kg boxes to staff and regular buyers for £120. Not bad for good quality organic Welsh beef that you know where it has come from and how it was reared, is it?

FENCING time is upon us again with Autumn here. This fencing business is a constant battle for all livestock farmers trying to keep their field boundaries both effective and efficient. Well, wire without barbs has been around since the time of the Pharaohs’, although then it was made of copper, silver and even gold, but there’s a lot of argument about who invented the ‘drawn iron wire’ with those barbs on them that we call barbed wire. Thomas Malham in 1830 at his foundry in Sheffield is an early possibility, although Lucien B. Smith of Ohio is credited with its invention in 1867. Its use there led to the ‘fence-cutting wars’ in American rangeland in the late 1800s as ‘cowboys’ saw fencing as being a threat to their livelihoods.

There are a whole host of Barbed Wire Museums in the US, including in the self-styled ‘Barbed Wire Capital of the World’ at La Crosse, Kansas with the HQ of the Antique Barbed Wire Society that publishes the ‘The Barbed Wire Collector’ journal for members in US, Holland, England and Australia. Other museums include the perhaps appropriately named ‘Devil’s Rope Museum’ in McLean, Texas. Some people’s interests do seem a little strange to us normal people, don’t they?

Anyway, if we have hedges and sometimes hedges on banks in Wales, then why would fences be needed at all? Well hedges themselves will not prevent cattle in particular from trying to get from one side to the other and rams are sometimes just as energetic in getting to where the ‘grass is greener’ or the ewes can be greeted on the other side!

Before fencing with wire became normal in UK in 1930s or thereabouts, all field hedges would have been ‘laid’ by the farm workers, perhaps at 7-10-year intervals with the objective of creating a stockproof barrier. This hedge laying was a Winter job much liked by the farm workers who would usually be allocated a particular hedge by ‘the boss’, much to the delight of the worker who was given that hedge with a lot of dead wood or branches in it that could be used in his cottage as fuel for the cooking stove. Every region had and still has its own style of laying the hedge, sometimes twisting thin Hazel, Willow or Ash called ‘hethers or binders’ horizontally around upright stakes and each other to keep the ‘pleachers’ in place. Pleachers are the cut stems that are bent over and cut just above ground level but kept alive by leaving some bark and outer rings of wood intact.

There are many styles of Welsh hedge laying, including the Flying Hedge, originally designed for low hedges where the bank is the main barrier and with many County versions – Pembroke, Gower, Glamorgan Valley, Monmouth and Carmarthen. In the Carmarthen version, the hedge and bank are usually the same height, and ‘crooks’ are knocked into the centre of the hedge to hold the pleachers down. Crooks are always cut from the branches removed from the hedge before laying begins – just a stem with a short side branch like a walking stick that is pushed into the bank – and serve instead of binding along the top to keep the pleachers in place. A traditional Carmarthen hedge was normally fairly wide and so had some living ‘half crops’ about 12-18 inches high growing on each side to support the pleachers.

This hedge laying not only has many styles but also many different tools used in different regions, with the Bill Hook being a standard. But there are many different Bill Hook designs as well; some single and some double bladed, but all being short handled – except the Yorkshire.   Some Bill Hooks are bladed on both sides but the main ‘cutting side’ is always curved. The Carmarthen Bill Hook has a single sided blade with a ‘notch’ on the back side that helps the hedge layer to push a pleacher down into those pleachers already laid in place below. Other necessary tools were long handled Slashers, Grass Hooks, Trimming Hooks, Axes, Mattocks, Turf Knife and more recently of course the Chain Saw. The National Hedgelaying Society has booklets[16] explaining all this sort of stuff and they make fascinating reading. Hedgelaying Explained by Miss Valerie Greaves is such a booklet and includes this poem called ‘Laying the Hedge’ by Anonymous.

 

The axe must be laid to the hedge again,

The stems having grown too high.

Billhook, slasher and saw will we need;

A packed lunch lying by.

All we want is a quiet day, and sunshine on our chain.

 

The rubbish now we must first remove,

To see what there is to lay.

Select the pleachers best to use

And cut the rest away,

Slicing cleanly down the stem,

The hedgers art to all thus prove.

 

The pleachers laid, stakes securely driven,

The binding now most neatly done,

And even the stakes are trimmed.

The work is finished, now the fun

Of burning all the trash we left,

To leave the site well shriven.

 

A stockproof fence, a pretty sight,

The hedgers pride and joy.

Passing folk pause, and much admire

The skill of the ‘Farmers Boy!

Bird and beast now there will find,

Shelter from the winds cold blight.

 

This poem really says it all, doesn’t it? It even tells us that the standard length of hedge laid each day by one hedge layer was a chain, which is 22 yards or 20m. Doesn’t sound a lot does it, especially when that doesn’t even include the clearing up afterwards that always seems to take up at least as much time as the laying itself. Mind you the trash can’t be burned on our permanent pastures and has to be carted off elsewhere, perhaps explaining why it may have taken the Anonymous that wrote the poem less time and given him or her ‘the fun’ – presumably of burning the trash and maybe cooking potatoes in their jackets in the hot ash!

But hedges are browsed by cattle and sheep and banks are often damaged by cattle rubbing their heads into the shoulders of those banks causing sods of grass to break off into the field below. So, these days many hedges – with or without hedge banks – are fenced, especially if they have been laid. This is not your typical 6 1/2 feet high creosoted and panelled suburban garden fence. No, this is either 2 or 3 strands of barbed wire if only cattle are to graze the field, or sheep netting with a strand of barbed wire above if used by sheep. The wire – barbed and netting alike – is put under tension to help keep it upright, even though there are stakes and strainers to help do that as well.  The sheep netting usually has 8 horizontal wires and is stapled to each stake that are usually about 3 metre apart with staples in wires 1,3, 6 and 8 from the top. Strainers are much larger than stakes, but only 50m apart or whenever the fence line changes direction or the slope of the land changes. Strainers are about 1 metre into the ground and have struts at either side to hold them upright.

Stakes, struts and strainers often used to be made of split Chestnut or Oak tree trunks, but these days is more usually of Pine or Spruce. Pine – or Redwood as it is often called – is preferred to Spruce because it can absorb more preservative and therefore – theoretically at least – lasts longer. But if all the stakes, strainers and struts are pressure treated with a wood preservative, then why do fences break down and have to be repaired or even replaced anyway? Good point, but the timber does rot; sometimes after only a few years and almost always in the few inches above and below the ground. Annoying isn’t it that a farmer spends a lot of money to put the fence up and then has to take it all down after 15 years or 25 if he’s lucky, throw the wood and metal wire and fence away, and put up a new fence in the same place.

But, I hear you cry, you have all those old stakes and other timbers, all ready to be sawn into logs to burn on the fire over Winter, haven’t you? Well no, because until 2004 most of this timber was treated with the preservative called ‘Tanalin’ which had Copper, Chromium and Arsenic (CCA) as ingredients. Apparently burning this ‘tanalised timber’ will release arsenic into the air and into your home. Admittedly, it’s only a low arsenic content, so make up your own mind, eh!

IT’S WALLFLOWER TIME AGAIN, ISN’T IT: It was always a sign of Autumn when people were carrying bundles of bare-rooted Wallflower plants wrapped up in ‘The Daily Mail’ or some other old newspaper, and then planting them out over the weekend in their front gardens. Some of course would sow seed in the Spring or Summer in trays, then prick them out to grow a bit and then transplant directly into that flower bed by the pavement or sometimes out by the back door so that they could be seen from the kitchen window when flowering next Spring. It’s a fascinating plant – same family as Cabbage and Oil Seed Rape of course – as you can tell by the flower shape. Not the colour though as many years of breeding and crossing has given rise to a rainbow of different flower colours, annuals, biennials and perennials and sizes. Mind you, there’s a wild Wallflower as well, a perennial bright orange-yellow flowered plant found mainly on calcareous soils and old walls – apparently introduced from Eastern Mediterranean in the mid-late 1500s. Wonder why, eh?

FEEDBACK ON MOLES: Talking to our local ‘mole catcher’ the other day, he told me that when the soil is dry and the worms that are the moles’ [or should that be moles’s?] main food have to go deep to find wet soil to eat, the moles follow them down into depths that they normally don’t go. So, the moles have to dig new tunnels down there but where do they put the soil that they excavate if there are no new molehills during the dry period? Because molehills are just the soil that has been dug out of a new tunnel. And tunnels are only for worms to drop into so that the mole scurrying along will meet, greet and eat them. And if the tunnels are still working then the moles don’t bother to dig new tunnels just for the sake of it – they’re practical individuals just like us really, aren’t they! So, if there’s no new tunnel digging then there’s no new mole-hills. Simple!

So where do moles put the soil from the deep tunnels dug during the dry periods? Well apparently they loose-fill some of the tunnels that they had already dug higher up in the soil profile. Clever little blighters aren’t they? But apparently each mole needs to eat about 60% of its bodyweight of food each day. This is about 60g or more than 2 oz. of worms; mainly because digging tunnels and running around underground requires a lot of energy. This seems an awful lot of food for one mole; just imagine a 10 stone person [65kg] having to eat 6 stone or 42kg of food each day! Mind you, a worm is more than 80% water, so they will eat much less if what they eat is more energy dense – like mealworms or beetles for example.

But why do people still catch moles? It used to be for their fur which made those lovely warm waistcoats but apparently needed 30-40 mole skins – depending upon the waistcoat size of course. Nowadays though, not much in demand but grassland farmers still want moles caught; mainly because of their mole-hills in fields to be mown for hay or silage. But why are these molehills a particular problem? Well, if the mown grass becomes contaminated with soil as the molehill is ‘mown’ by the mower and then turned by the turner, then the ‘Listeria’ bacteria in the molehill soil may stay in the bale or in the silage pit, and when eaten by cattle, sheep, goats and occasionally pigs, can cause a rather nasty disease called ‘listeriosis’ with abortion, foetal mortality and encephalitis – which can cause a swollen brain.  So perhaps better to catch the moles that are throwing up molehills rather than have the cows suffer listeriosis, eh?

Incidentally, the word ‘mole’ is Middle English from the late 1400s and likely derived from ‘moldwarpwhich means ‘earth thrower’, and so old names for moles includes ‘mouldiwarp’ and in Welsh gwadd or twrch daear. The most famous mole in Literature is probably Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows’. Of course, there’s also ‘Moldiwarp the Mole’ by Alison Uttley in her ‘Peter Rabbit’ series.

In Medieval times, most animals were symbolised with some aspects of Christian faith. But the Mole doesn’t come off too well in this regard, being seen as:

Blind to the truth, devoted to earthly pleasures, and gnawing at the roots

of all that is good.

But Moles are fascinating creatures and more about them perhaps in a future month.

 

AND THE FUTURE?        Leaves are turning brown, red, orange or yellow and then falling off in the strong winds of Storm Callum in mid-October. By November, most leaves will have fallen for the year, and will then be just filling up our gutters, down pipes and road drains. Following those strong winds and as temperatures drop and vegetation slows down, trees that we have seen all Summer fully clothed in leaves are suddenly bereft of covering and the ‘bare bones’ of their skeletons are revealed in all their imperfections until next Spring.

Think that the song ‘Autumn Leaves’ was mentioned in a previous Newsletter and probably about Eva Cassidy singing it as well? Leaving aside the romantic aspects of that song – it does seem to sum up the Autumn season – just like Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’ does for the Summer – providing of course that it’s sung by Eva Cassidy as well.

And soon only Ivy will be flowering, and even the Ivy will be finishing with the attractiveness of its flowers to hungry insects replaced by the attractiveness of ripening berries to perhaps even hungrier birds in mid-Winter – although perhaps not until January!

 

16 October 2018

 

[1] A Forage Harvester is a machine with a spool on the front that picks up mown grass from the ground, feeding it to a chopper that cuts it to lengths of 4-6 inches and then feeds it to a spout in the air that blows the cut grass into the ‘cage’ on a trailer that then takes it to the farm and the silage pit or clamp.

[2] mather, dog- or hog’s-fennel, dog-finkle, dog-daisy, pig-sty-daisy, chigger-weed, mayweed, wild chamomile, Foetid Chamomile, and mayweed chamomile.

[3] Whether to shear lambs in their year of birth or not is a sometimes contentious issue amongst farmers. If shorn then it would be later in mid-August compared with May.  Some like to shear so that wool is short and ‘fly strikes’ can more easily be seen. Some shepherds shear only the lambs to be kept for breeding so that they have shorter wool over Winter with less likelihood of getting stuck in the Brambles!

[4] Diptera – from Greek Di meaning two and ptera meaning wings – comprises the two-winged or true flies, which have the hindwings reduced to form balancing organs or halteres.  Other insects such as butterflies, bees and dragonflies have four wings..

[5] The Secret Life of Flies, Erica McAlister, Natural History Museum, 2017.

[6] A sheep is scouring when its dung becomes soft, loose and smelly. Often this is due to internal parasites and a heavy worm burden.

[7] Colostrum is crucial for new-born farm animals because like other mammals they receive no passive transfer of immunity via the placenta before birth, so any antibodies that they need have to be ingested – unless supplied by injection. The new-born animal must receive colostrum within 6 hours of being born for maximum absorption of these colostrum antibodies to occur. Recent studies indicate that colostrum should be fed to bovines within the first thirty minutes to maximize the immunoglobulin absorption rate.

[8] This Basic Payment Scheme is a payment to all farmers registered with the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs and is what the media like to refer to as the ‘Farmers’ Subsidy’.

[9] A Suckler Cow is a beef cow – like The Farm’s 23 Welsh Black cows – that calve each year and suckle these calves for 8-9 months or so, until the calf 200-250 kg liveweight and is ready to wean itself and the cow gets ready to calve again. The calf is then reared and sold for beef when about 2-years old.  The Suckler Cow may have her first calf at 30 months old and to have subsequently 6-8 calves – sometimes many more – until she will no longer get into calf, has disease problems or just too old – before she is sold as a ‘cull cow’ for  slaughter and processing – often for ‘beef burgers’ or beef curries.

[10] The Maltster prepares the malt from grain usually to a brewers specification. It was often a different occupation to that of a Brewer who turned malt into beer – although sometimes a Maltster both prepares the malt and brews the beer!

[11] Rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum in that order.

[12] A Ley is a piece of land sown to grass or grass with clover, often for a single season or a limited number of years, in contrast to permanent pasture which is there until damaged or another use found for it.

[13] Tillering is when a single stem of grass throws up side shoots enabling them to produce multiple stems or tillers starting from the initial single seedling. This ensures the formation of dense tufts and multiple seed heads.

[14] Soil is made up of different sized particles derived from different sources: sand particles are the largest, followed by silt particles and the smallest being clay particles. A handful of damp soil rubbed between thumb and fore-finger can tell you which particles make up that soil: Sand particles are easily visible;
Silt particles become dusty when dry and are easily brushed off hands and boots.
Clay particles are greasy and sticky when wet and hard when dry and have to be scraped or washed off your hands and boots.

[15] A soil is at Field Capacity is when the amount of water in that soil is at its maximum and no further water can be absorbed into the soil.

[16] Hedgelaying Explained, Valerie Greaves, National Hedge Laying Society.