Saturday 27 February 2016

The Mismatch between Bees and Flowers in these Strange Seasons.....and News from the Lambing Shed.

On a frosty, sunny morning last week, I walked through the meadow where my beehives are kept to check all was well with them. After one of my hives was knocked over at the end of last year, I'm looking at the hives more often now. Luckily, both hives were still upright - and they also hadn't been attacked by green woodpeckers (the other worry at this time of year). When the ground is frozen, green woodpeckers will drill into a hive for an easy meal.

The Pussy Willow is about to flower - perfect for my bees
I watched the hives for a moment but, as expected, none of the bees were flying.  It was far too cold for them. Instead, the bees will be clustered together around the queen and they'll have sealed up their hive against the cold with propolis, a sticky substance (a sort of bee-glue) collected from tree buds. I've no intention of breaking that apart just to look more closely at the bees. I'll wait until warmer days.

The bees have been flying this winter when the weather has been mild. This has made me think about what they've been foraging on. Like everyone else, I've been noticing the early flowering of so many plants over recent weeks, such as snowdrops and daffodils in December and blackthorn in early January.  I was interested to read, then, the results from the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland's New Year Plant Hunt 2016.  Between 1st and 4th January 850 plant lovers hunted across the country for wild plants in flower and they found an astonishing 612 species. Botanists would normally expect 20-30 types of wild plants in flower at this time of year.

So what does this mean for my bees? Well, it has to have an impact. If the plants my bees love in early spring have already finished flowering before the colony becomes truly active, the bees have less forage. But then my honeybees are managed, and so if food isn't coming into the hive, I'll feed them sugar paste or syrup and pollen patties to boost them up. The real problem must be for wild bees and other pollinators, especially those that have evolved to appear when certain flowers are in bloom.
Tawny mining bee - Philip Precey - Philip Precey
Tawny Mining Bee - emerges in April to forage on the fruit blossom (photo - The Wildlife Trusts, P Precey)
All this leads into the debate about climate change, of course - and the trends we're seeing.  A conclusion drawn from the BSBI survey, was that our understanding of when plants flower is out of date. I wonder if the next generation of botanists will have to start re-writing the books to identify new flowering times for our plants?  And perhaps we should expect to see daffodils at Christmas from now on.  Will it be holly and ivy and candles and....daffodils?

Still, there was no time to feel confused about the familiar signs of spring in the lambing shed (where the breeder of my Ryeland lambs has been working tirelessly delivering this year's flock).

Here, the lambs were being born more or less on time (although not always easily). When I turned up, there were already a handful of tiny, black, woolly bundles curled up in the straw (next to some very relieved looking mums). And more lambs were on the way. (Just to say, it was a little bit dark in the lambing shed, but I didn't want to use the flash on my camera in case I frightened the sheep).

This is a small flock - and those lambs that'll leave in the summer will also go to small flocks that are owned for interest, not profit. The lamb pictured in the last two photos is the latest addition to my own flock (he was just a few hours old when these were taken).

I'll be bringing him home in the summer, where he'll live out his long life as a gentle lawn mower.

Sunday 21 February 2016

The Most Dangerous Path in Britain? Walking The Broomway

Late last summer, David and I walked The Broomway, arguably the most dangerous path in Britain. Before this walk, if I'd thought about dangerous paths, I might have come up with a mountain pass or a steep track along a cliff edge. But having walked The Broomway, I can see that this path could be the most deadly of all.

There are records of dozens of people having sadly lost their lives on this path. And it is very likely that dozens more have died here without their deaths ever being recorded.

So where is it?  The Broomway is to be found on the Essex coast between Wakering Stairs (not far from Southend) and Foulness Island. Before a road bridge was constructed in the twentieth century, this was the main route, across the mud and sand, from the mainland to the island. The name, 'The Broomway' comes from the posts that once lined the route to help people find their way across and I've heard two versions of the story, either that they resembled brooms, or that they had a sprig of broom on them.

The danger comes from the quicksands and the incoming tides. Setting off from Wakering Sands is setting off into a vast expanse of sand. Foulness is not visible at this point; the only land visible is the coast behind and at times, the distant Kent coast across the Thames Estuary. Get lost, or be too slow, and the tide will rush in from unknown directions and cut you off.

I suppose the obvious question today is why would anyone still walk The Broomway at all. Well, a reason has to be that is surely one of the most beautiful paths in Britain.

The beauty lies in the quality of the light in this place.  Under a huge sky, the sunlight on the sand is dazzling.  It's like walking under an arc of light, perhaps a little like being in a Turner painting, although of course the light isn't static. There are also the sounds and smells of the sea and air to remind you that this is real. But this dazzling light is also disorientating. It was clear to me that if I didn't follow the right route, then I could easily wander off in the wrong direction, and become lost.

We arrived for the walk early one morning to meet our guides.  I suppose we could have found a way across on our own with a compass and tide book, but, for the first time, I wouldn't want to attempt it like that.  David and I didn't have wellies a) David doesn't own a pair and b) I don't like walking any distance in mine (The Broomway is about six miles and we were walking there and back).  Fortunately, our walking boots were up to the task. It would have been truly miserable with wet feet!

Our guides were very friendly and told us all sorts of information about the area. Eventually we reached Foulness 'by the back door', so to speak.  Foulness is owned by the MOD and although there are two small villages on it, it's a very secretive place. The island is used for firing/testing weapons, and the main entrance on to the island - on the other side to where we were - is through a check point. We just about stepped foot on the island and didn't venture further in. Instead, we ate our packed lunches surrounded by samphire - and under the eye of the security cameras. But I've made a note to return here. Foulness has its own history and wildlife to discover.

We walked back, the clouds scudding overhead, the rain holding off - and we arrived again at Wakering Stairs.  It's a path I'd love to walk again; I know it will always look different, the light ever-changing, and I can't ever imagine getting tired of it.

Sunday 14 February 2016

Planning for Wildlife in the Garden

Willow Warbler (From last April)
On 'Seynt Valentynes Day', according to Chaucer in 'the Parlement of Foules (written about 1381) all the birds find their mates for the coming spring. It's a lovely image, isn't it? I thought about the birds and their preparations for spring this afternoon when I wandered around the smallholding in some rare winter sunshine. I wondered if I'm doing enough for them. I always like to think that I am, but at this time of year, when I'm ordering my seeds and plug plants (and I'm generally planning this year's garden), I think it's good to review how well the wildlife is doing here, too.

I must be doing something right, because I have lots of birds on the smallholding, not only visiting the bird feeders, but also coming here to find wild food.  This is true of the goldfinches.  Right next to the feeders full of niger seed, I have a small patch of teasels and other wild seeds that they love...

Teasels have a habit of spreading everywhere, but fortunately the sheep graze around this patch, and are seemingly keeping them under control.

I like to let flowers go to seed, though, where I can, because they provide food for the birds. I've even created a bed especially for bullfinches full of the seeds they like...

A bed of flowers and plants that will go to seed for the bullfinches
The bullfinch is one of my favourite birds and there is a pair of bullfinches in the lane (where I've often seen them).  But do they visit this bed?  No, they don't!  I've planted honesty and let it go to seed and I've also planted an unknown plant which I know bullfinches love, (I know this because my neighbour grows it by her front gate and the bullfinches are often spotted on it. I've taken cuttings of it for my own garden). For some reason, the bullfinches just won't come over our front hedge (unless they sneak over when I'm not looking, of course...)

In the orchard I'm leaving windfalls as the apples are a good source of food for winter thrushes (redwings and fieldfares).  Here they are in the field next door with a flock of starlings...

The blossom in the orchard, of course, is perfect for my bees. I've written a lot about planting for bees and - on the whole - I'm really pleased with my range of bee-friendly flowers at the moment. This is one of the areas of bee-flowers I created last year...

It's dominated by aquilegias (early spring), then poppies, helenium moerheim beauty, japanese anemones, dahlias, and erysimum. In front of the border there are early spring grape hyacinths followed by late spring limnanthes douglasii. Throughout the summer and into autumn annual cosmos is always attracting bees and butterflies, so every year I remember to sow some more of this essential flower...

The last butterfly I saw last year - a small copper on the cosmos
I'm encouraging wildflowers, too, such as bird's foot trefoil and Jack by the Hedge (loved by butterflies) which are spreading beautifully...

Finally we've planted new mixed hedges of, for example, hawthorn, hazel and hornbeam as well as protecting our mature hedges and trees.  All these will, of course, provide cover for nests and fledglings as well as autumn food (hips and haws). I might even discover the bullfinches nesting here. I live in hope...

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Late Winter (at my place)

As I've been away from the blog world for so long, I'd like to update you a little on what's been happening at the smallholding...

Our main news is that we've converted our timber barn into a home! This whole process went relatively smoothly (a huge relief, given that so much else was happening last year). We moved in just before Christmas and we've all quickly made ourselves at home here, as you can see...

We previously had a log burner in our cottage and loved it - so we treated ourselves to a new one when we moved in here. But it did help send the local building regs officers into a health and safety spin. The prospect of this in a timber building, meant that we had to comply with lots of regulations. Not only have we had to rig up loads of smoke alarms, but we were also told at the beginning to paint all walls and ceilings with fire retardant paint. We very quickly found that this stuff was a) very expensive and b) was sort of like mud mixed with treacle (in consistency and appearance). And it didn't dry! So we abandoned that and had to come up with something else instead to meet regulations...

Which was this....

A fire sprinkler system! Fortunately, the small pipes, when painted, blend in very well (luckily no great industrial-looking pipes everywhere).  But look at the little red vial in the photo - this mustn't be knocked accidentally.  So I mustn't swing the vacuum cleaner (or anything else) round wildly otherwise gallons of water will gush out and probably sweep me right across the fields!

We love our new home and the animals are really close to us now, which means the sheep can watch us through the window...

We now have two old male sheep and two young coloured ryeland females, so it's a bit like two grumpy old men with two lively young girls driving them mad.  Two more coloured ryeland lambs are coming later this year (so the old males really will be outnumbered).

Did I mention that conifer jewellery is all the rage this year?
We still have chickens, and only four geese. Cador, the young gander, became too aggressive with his father and so he now has a home at the farm next door, where he'll have new females to protect.

I now have just two bee hives.  They survived the wasps last year (last year was a very bad year for wasps and hornets). Here is one wasp trying its luck and hoping to sneak into the hive to attack the bees and steal the honey...

I peeked at the hives the other day and both colonies are surviving the winter, although, before Christmas, one hive had been knocked right over.  I don't think it was our local badgers, because they would munch their way through the honeycomb. So, instead, here are the prime suspects...

It's not a good photo I know.  This was taken on a misty morning in the autumn when they were in the field just behind us. Although I keep looking for them, I haven't seen any evidence of them recently, so they must have moved on to somewhere else in their large territory.

Anyway, this was just one of the special wildlife sightings I've had here recently. I look forward to sharing with you some of the others very soon x

Monday 1 February 2016

Looking to Come Back to Blogging...

Last year's new lambs (looking for me and the food bucket!)

Things to do in 2016....

1.  Come Back to Blogging!

Ah - well - I've missed January 1st, so I'm going to begin on February 1st instead.  I stopped blogging in May 14 because hospital visiting and caring took up my time.  I still spend time caring now, but I've missed sharing stories with other lovely blogging folk, so on this dark, windy, winter evening I've lit the fire, sunk into the sofa and opened my blog pages once again.  I've re-read the many kind comments from my last post all those months ago - thank you so much for them.  I will catch up with you all again.

Is it too late for Happy New Year?