A Solway small-holding: an update

I last wrote about our small-holding in NW Cumbria in May 2018, shortly after we had planted our ‘Three-score-years-and ten’ wood, including a hedge and a couple of thickets, on one of our fields – for reasons explained in that blog-post.

The trees have now had four growing seasons and the woodland, the hawthorn hedge and the thickets are really taking shape. Some of the alders in the damp area are sturdy-trunked trees 3-4 metres high, and some of the birches are approaching 3 metres; a couple of the guelder roses and rowans had berries this year. They’re ‘proper trees’!

After reading Benedict Macdonald’s and Nick Gates’ delightful ‘Orchard’, John was inspired to buy a dozen or so old-fashioned types of cider and eating apple and intersperse them amongst the other trees: we now have ‘Pineapple’ and Keswick Codling varieties amongst others, all doing well. It will be a few years before we get enough fruits to pick (‘if we’re spared’, in that lovely Scottish saying – the ‘official’ name of the wood holds a clue!)

This ‘new wood’ (as we call it, in contrast to the trees we planted 20 years ago, and the long-established Victorian wood) has become a place that we visit daily, and where we potter and even make time to sit and watch and listen – a place to temporarily escape the myriad jobs that need doing on the rest of the small-holding and in the veg and flower gardens. This autumn John acquired the inner metal hub of a car wheel which he recycled to make a ‘fire-pit’, and we have sat by the burning logs in the evening, listening to the rooks’ bed-time chatter, and watching the dusk fall and the bats come out. The new wood grants the temporary opportunity to forget the many things that make us fearful, or angry, or despairing; it is a place of optimism, and of hope.

Guelder Rose Autumn 2021

But the trees and ground require ‘managing’ at this stage. We’ve removed the tree guards and checked the supporting stakes this year; trimmed a few lower branches where necessary; cut back some dense thatch of tough grasses where it was suffocating aconites and later, yellow rattle. The worst task, which needs to be spread over several days, not just for physical but also psychological reasons (‘losing the will to live’ is the phrase that churns around my mind after several hours of blister-raising raking), is the autumn strimming of the grass and then raking it into piles and removing it, as we attempt to impoverish the soil so that the diversity of wild flowers will increase. Last year we strimmed and scarified patches, and stamped in hundreds of yellow rattle seeds gathered in a friend’s wildflower meadow. This year 14 yellow rattle plants appeared … But despite that unimpressive result, an increasing number of other flowering species are establishing themselves throughout the former field: cuckoo flowers are proliferating (and have been visited by orange-tip butterflies); there are patches of yellow vetch, chickweed, red campion; there is crows-foot along the fence near the beck, cow-parsley and yarrow.

With the help of our grandchildren we have planted ‘domestic’ bulbs too, having split clumps growing in the ‘old’ wood – daffodils, bluebells, snowdrops, and aconites. A recent addition was a large number of snakeshead fritillary corms in a damp-ish area, and several raspberry runners from a self-seeded patch in the old wood.

Insects are increasing – soldier beetles; several species of fly; at least 3 species of bumble bee; orange-tip, tortoiseshell, cabbage white and wall butterflies. (Elsewhere, in the ‘butterfly corner’ of the veg garden, where several buddleias and different types of mint crowd together as attractors, many peacocks, red admirals, tortoiseshells, cabbage whites, and walls congregate – but no Painted Ladies this year.) There are galls on two of the oaks; sawfly larvae decorated the edges of a black poplar, swiftly lifting their bodies erect as a defence when I touched the leaves (it’s a very effective response, making me yell and jump in surprise the first time).

The first outing for our home-made moth trap caught a wide variety of species. I’m a complete novice at moth ID but there was one huge and very easy-to-identify specimen sitting quietly amongst the egg-boxes – a poplar hawk moth. We have caught several subsequently. But now we have the entire life-cycle on the small-holding! In August a fat green caterpillar hung on a leaf of one of the black poplars; within a couple of weeks, there were twelve on the one young sapling, chomping at the leaves, getting fatter day by day. They gradually vanished, presumably dropping off to pupate – and leaving the sapling stripped of all its leaves.

Because the new wood is providing cover, perching sites, and seed-heads, as well as attracting insects, birds normally seen in other parts of the small-holding are starting to enjoy it too: tree-sparrows, chaffinches, blackbirds, tits and robins forage; chiffchaffs chiff and flitter; the nuthatches check out the edges; a buzzard sits up in the old ashes or wild cherries at the edge and watches for the very prolific vole population, who burrow and tunnel beneath the thatch. The long grasses are sanctuary for frogs; moles are heaving up the soil in lines of earthy hummocks.

Shortly after my last blog-post when I mentioned that I hadn’t seen spotted flycatchers for may years – a pair arrived! And, of all places, they chose a nest site inside the open-sided porch next to the kitchen; a place where the sitting female was disturbed almost every day by the postie and other deliveries. For the two years they nested there we had the absolute joy of watching them perching on the fence opposite the kitchen window, scanning intently for insects, and swooping, twirling, dancing, after their prey. This year, they made their nest elsewhere – we would see them hunting from the fence at the edge of the field, or from one of the evergreen trees in the garden – but after a while we worried that the nest and perhaps the female had been savaged, because soon only one bird was seen, hunting in many different places in the small-holding (and appearing disconsolate to human eyes).

The female Spotted Flycatcher nesting in the porch 2020

The swallows: increasing cause for anxiety. They returned almost a month late this year, and so very few in number, to the village.  Eventually one pair nested in the barn and raised a single brood. There were very few house-martins around the nearby estate where they have always bred in large numbers. (Such a privilege to have them as summer guests: yet many of the home-owners hang inflated plastic bags underneath their gutters, to keep the birds away. The martins are “too messy, too noisy”. Oh well, with any luck they won’t come back at all next year.)

The tawny owls returned to the area; in August our elder daughter and her husband were closely observed by two young owls at the edge of the new wood. This prompted John to make a couple of nest-boxes, and a very merry time was had when friends came to assist – with many helpful suggestions, and over-engineered solutions – to raise them into the trees. There have been no signs of use, but last week a pair of tawnies were calling and chatting near the boxes, perhaps checking out the new properties. We continue to hope.

The pond: another difficult year. This has recently become the pattern: weeks of drought in May and June, when many of the local becks dry up completely and even the large rivers, like the Derwent, are shallow, their beds lumpy with banks of shingle. Here, the aquifers up in the limestone being depleted, water slows to a slimy trickle, mud accumulates and the vegetation spreads and roots, trapping even more sediment on the bed of the pond. No visits by dragonflies or demoiselles, there was insuffieient water to attract them – though whirligig beetles and pondskaters remained, concentrated in the wet areas. Hopefully the tadpoles were surviving under the sagging mats of watercress and forget-me-nots.

In October we took the drastic step of asking our friend with a mini-digger to dredge it. He scooped the mud and weed onto the banks so that creatures could crawl out, although we knew that hundreds of snails, flatworms, gammarids, and millions of micro-organisms, would lose their lives. (Even writing that is shocking.) Astonishingly, an eel squirmed out of the mud. How did the eels get here? Several years ago, a neighbour watched a buzzard in our field, struggling to eat an active eel. (And when we first arrived, 20-odd years ago, there were small trout in our beck – again, how they got there, since there is a 1-metre-high barrier in the beck at the boundary, is a mystery. The trout disappeared after a period of drought, and perhaps also due to the occasional activity of a heron.)

Soon after the dredging, dark-green blanket weed grew because there were insufficient numbers of snails to keep it in check; but it has now decreased, snails are visible crawling across the mud; the banks have re-vegetated. Water-mint, yellow flags, marsh marigolds, water forget-me-not, water-cress and sedges are still there, supporting life. Heavy rainfall in November over-filled the pond and the field fulfilled its other purpose as a temporary water-meadow. The pond now looks much healthier. Will dragonflies visit next year? If the pattern of the past few years continues, the water level will once again oscillate between too low and the flash-flooding which brings down thick sediment.

In the old wood, rainwater dripping from the pines and chestnuts has made a hard pan under some of the trees; in the autumn we pile fallen leaves on these areas. Last year we cut down two ashes that succumbed to die-back, letting in more light and planting hazel and alder buckthorn as an understorey. The enlarging thicket of wild raspberries fed us and the blackbirds, even into November. A rook’s nest fell from the rookery early in the year, landing intact, with an unbroken egg inside. It was vast and intricately constructed, not at all the tangle of twigs that is seen from below. A former colleague of mine at Glasgow University Zoology Department, and the author of ‘Animal Architecture’,  Prof Mike Hansell, used to take sacks of twigs into the lab and encourage the ethology students to try to build a nest.

This was the year we decided to give up keeping our own sheep. For twenty years we have bred and/or reared a variety of breeds, for their meat, wool, and our interest and entertainment: initially, after foot-and-mouth in 2001, in-lamb ewes that were Beltex-Herdwick crosses; then pure Herdwicks; Portlands; ‘Fat Ethel’, a barrel-shaped Wensleydale that we bought for her beautiful fleece; and Hebrideans. Now a friend brings her chunky Dutch Spotted sheep, using the fields for weaned lambs, or ewes and a tup, as required. They are placid, boring sheep, when compared with our feisty Herdies and Hebs – but it’s good that the remaining pasture is being used.

Dutch Spotted ewe, May 2021

As I write this on a dreich December day, all colour has faded from the landscape, the fields are pale and sere, the trees bare, even the haws and rose-hips look dark and wizened. But a flock of fieldfares has been chack-ing along the old hedges at the top of the field, undeterred by the bad-tempered churr-ing of a mistle-thrush trying to protect its favourite berry-laden tree.

Yesterday, when the sun shone briefly and the wind had dropped, I sat in the new wood and watched a single herring-gull, cruising gently back and forth above the field, head tilted as it scanned the ground. Then it relaxed and spread its wings and, without a beat, found the thermal, and was lifted, spiralling slowly upwards, angling its wings to keep in the current. And as it rose, another gull appeared, then two more, and soon thirty gulls were circling, rising, higher and higher, the wintry sun turning their wings to shards of silver.

Every time that happens – gulls appearing from nowhere to join one who has found that effortless upward journey – I wonder how they know, how the message reaches them: ‘Here! Come here!’

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