Thursday 22 August 2013

Wildlife in the Cornfields and Bee Flowers for a Dry Garden

Painted Lady 

I've been watching the cornfields close to the smallholding slowly turn from green to gold, until, last week, the wheat was finally harvested when a man thundered through the fields in a giant combine harvester. To be honest, there's not been much wildlife in these fields all summer - a consequence of modern farming. I might occasionally see an animal or two, but there are no wildflowers and very few birds and insects. 

But the edges of the cornfields are full of life...


The local landowner has been encouraged (through payments) to leave some of the edges of the fields for wild flowers - and this has really benefited local wildlife.  Here is the only place I've seen Painted Ladies this year, and I've also seen Peacocks, Whites, dozens of Ringlets and Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Small Skippers.  I've seen bees and other pollinators, too - and dragonflies, damselflies and moths.  And I've seen Goldfinches, Greenfinches and other small birds feeding on the flower seeds.  I can see here, on my local patch, why the EU (and our own Government) must provide support for wildlife-friendly farming.

In the hedges and trees around the fields I've started to see a pair of young buzzards. Seeing buzzards is still quite special here, because they've only been in this area for the last five or six years. I hear this young pair calling all the time, but their sharp eyes mean that I can never creep up on them to take a good photo...

The Swallows, nesting nearby, are constantly swooping around the edges of the fields and this year they've had second broods (unlike last year when it was too wet and cold).  Swallows are my favourite birds and I love to see them doing so well.  Here is a young Swallow from a second brood waiting, on its own, to be fed...

I can usually hear Skylarks but I don't hear so many Yellowhammers now.  I really miss their song as I walk across the fields.

When the wheat is cut and before the ploughing begins, the Geese fly in to pick up what's left...

And flocks of Lapwings are in the fields, too.  They're even more difficult than the buzzards to get close to, I only have to put one foot in the field and they all take off...

Bee Flowers for a Dry Garden

I've realised that I'm not entirely happy with my flower beds and want to make some changes for next year.  Some of my flowers are looking very tired and some are simply in the wrong place. It's been very dry here, especially during the heatwave, and although it might be years before we have another one of these, this part of the country can be dry in a normal year (you can see I'm not thinking about last year!) So I've been considering increasing the amount of flowers that thrive in a 'dry' garden.  There's one condition, though, they have to be pollinator friendly to help my bees!

I thought I'd go to RHS Hyde Hall for some inspiration. Hyde Hall isn't really that far away, and there is plenty of planting for drier conditions in the gardens. My location isn't quite the same as Hyde Hall's - Hyde Hall is on a hill in a very exposed spot where the surrounding land is quite flat, so it gets very windy there.  My smallholding, on the other hand, is enclosed by lots of trees and doesn't really get much wind at all; the air can often be very still.  But the amount of rainfall and other weather conditions have to be similar.  The soil is too, because I also have heavy clay here (although I know that at Hyde Hall they added sandy grit to their soil to help with drainage and improve soil structure).

So; I nipped over and had a look at what the bees were enjoying in the dry garden there...

Agapanthus 'Windlebrook'

Eryngium (Sea Holly)
Echinops Ritro
Tall Verbena (I've grown this before - it's time to plant some again!)

I also noticed that the bees loved Perovskia 'Blue Spire', although it was too windy to take a pic of this on the day I visited.

In addition to Hyde Hall, I think I might also visit The Beth Chatto Gardens, too, for ideas - as they are only a little further along the coast.

Once I have a list together of the different flowers, I'll decide what I'd like to see growing here. I'll have to think of the right conditions for each, like sun/shade etc, but overall it would be good to have flowers in the beds that I can rely on in dry weather, and that I know the bees will love. 

Sunday 11 August 2013

A Moat and a Mini Pond

Female Broad Bodied Chaser on the pond

I think old manor houses surrounded by moats are beautiful; I love the idea of living in a place surrounded by water and if I can't have my own island (a favourite day-dream) then living in a house with a moat is the next best thing. Well; I don't know where the nearest moated-manor house is (or how much it would cost!) - but I am quite lucky in that the smallholding does have a sort of moat around it because it has a large pond on two sides (the east and the south side).

The old name (in the old documents) for the smallholding is 'Moat Meadow' - and so this feature has obviously been here for centuries.  The moat, or pond, is spring-fed, and in the heatwave it has become covered with an unpleasant coat of algae (which is at last starting to clear).  It's level has also dropped - as it does in dry years - and when this happens the pond dries up altogether in the south west corner.  This isn't usually a problem, except that when we first got sheep we thought that the pond would be a barrier to keep them in...

The pond dries up

...and it wasn't - because when the level dropped the sheep jumped right over the pond, through the hedge (the next barrier) and then disappeared out in the surrounding fields, leaving just a trail of hoof-prints.

It was the worst time for this to happen. I was about to go to work and I had to ring in with the poor excuse that 'I won't be in this morning because I'm looking for my lost sheep'. And then I had to follow the trail across the fields until eventually I found the sheep happily grazing in a local nature reserve.

Amazingly, they followed me back to the smallholding. I think they'd had enough of their adventure by then. Once they were safely home, David and I spent an afternoon wading in the pond to put up a line of solid stock fencing. It was a really mucky, horrible job, but this (and a thicker, more difficult-to-pass-through hedge) has done the trick and the sheep haven't escaped since.

The pond is mainly used by our geese and visiting ducks and moorhens. The bees also find their water here and on warm days I can watch them fly backwards and forwards from the shallow edges to the hive.  The pond also attracts dragonflies, damselflies and this lovely Banded Demoiselle...

I'd love to encourage more wildlife; just over 10 years ago we had some water voles here and I would watch them for ages.  This was the only old photo I could find that I took at this time, although I do have them on film...

I'm not sure why the water voles disappeared; apparently mink have occasionally been spotted in the area, although I've never seen one here.  But I would love to see the water voles back again.

At the moment our main resident on the pond is an orphan duck. Earlier in the summer, I wrote about the surprise appearance of an injured duck and her six ducklings - and how I had tried (and failed) to rescue them.  Sadly, I didn't see the mother again after the first few days and, after a couple of weeks, the ducklings began to disappear (I know that the moorhens were responsible for at least one disappearance).  Then I didn't see any ducklings at all, and so I thought they'd all gone - until one morning I heard a little piping sound and saw that one duckling had survived.  And, against all the odds, she's survived on her own ever since.

At the same time all other adult ducks had disappeared from the pond, so she really was on her own. When any duck did happen to turn up for a short while, the duckling would race to meet it and start to follow it around - even though the adult ducks usually didn't have any time for her...

The orphan duck following a visiting adult around the pond

Now she's grown and the other ducks have begun to turn up again, so she has plenty of company - and although she's much smaller (and noisier) than all the other ducks, she certainly makes sure she gets her share of the food.

A Mini Pond

I wanted to create a mini-pond to encourage the wildlife that I don't see on the large pond (perhaps this is due to the ducks, geese and moorhens?) So a couple of days ago I emptied out an old sink that we've grown veg in on and off for years and filled it with water...

..and I've started to create the mini pond. I've just put in some water mint, water spearmint, ivy leaved crowfoot and hornwort and I've created different depths in the small space. It would be fantastic if it could attract the odd frog and toad, although they'll have to avoid this predator that appeared on the smallholding a couple of weeks ago...

Grass snake

The mini pond will be too small for much wildlife, but I'm hoping it will be home to a few tiny creatures. Smaller insects are already buzzing around the flowering water mints.