Sunday 27 March 2016

Four Seasons of Hares

One of the real pleasures of walking across the fields, at any time of year, is coming across a hare. If I'm really lucky, I'll see several at once running around or simply sitting in the sun together.

In March and April, I always hope to see them chasing around or rearing up to begin boxing each other. It used to be thought that two males boxed, but now it's said that the females box away the amorous males. Although I've often come across them at this time of year, I've never seen a full 'boxing match' between two hares. I have, though, seen a sort of half-box, when one hare backed down very quickly faced with the challenge of the other. So one of them, the male or the female, wasn't up for the fight!

Hares and Easter go together, because the original Easter Bunny was supposed to have been a hare. The idea of an Easter hare originated in Europe and then, when this custom moved to America, the hare became a cute-looking rabbit.

Hares have also been regarded as symbols of fertility. Bizarrely, the Easter hare was seen as laying eggs.

I've often wondered why hares have been thought of as sacred in some cultures. Perhaps it's because they come out to graze at night and so are seen as shadowy, otherworldly creatures in the moonlight.

When I'm out walking, I look out for leverets, but they must be well hidden. I seem to trip over just-born, baby rabbits here all the time, but never young hares. Of course the rabbits come into the garden, and sit around quite happily in full view - and the hares are shy and don't. I know that the leverets hide and wait for their mother to come out and feed them at dusk. This happens for a short while after they're born and then the mother will stop feeding them. They have to be independent very quickly in life.

The adults can lay very still in a small depression in the ground called a form. They do this as a means of defence and it isn't a good strategy in an agricultural field.

But how is the hare supposed to know that?

There are some terrible news stories of hares locally, and so when I see them,  I just enjoy the sight of them, safe - at that moment - and enjoying the sun.

In late winter/early spring I tend to see two or more gathered together. Last year I counted up to seven in one field, but I haven't see that number since.  The rest of year, I usually to see them on their own.

In summer, I spot them in the corn or they sit at the edge of fields or under the hedges...

In autumn, after the harvest, their cover in the fields has gone and so they find new protection where they can. This is the same in winter, although they sometimes venture out into the frosty fields...

They really are one of my favourite creatures.

Sunday 13 March 2016

The Trouble with Geese...and Something for the Hairy-Footed Flower Bee.

I've been sitting at my desk watching Harriet, the goose, sneaking behind the lavender as she heads off towards the gate.  She shouldn't be in this area at all. The geese have an acre of grass, plus a large pond to enjoy, but it's not enough for Harriet, the matriarch, who loves to go walkabout...

More than once, she's found her way out through (or over) the fence into forbidden areas and she's even left the smallholding altogether. When she does this, I have to go and get her back, driving her along the lane or picking her up and carrying her (when I can catch her first.)

Her offspring can be trouble, too.  Here's a daughter deciding to nest on the edge of the bonfire, of all places. Even if the fire isn't alight, this is also where the sheep like to sit, because the lingering heat keeps them warm at night. So they aren't pleased to have a nesting and protective goose there...

It's the breeding season and so the geese are very lively at the moment. And it doesn't help their mood that there are so many wild geese around. The recent heavy rain has turned the smallholding and fields beyond into a watery landscape and this is attracting in plenty of wild geese. Skeins of greylag and canada geese fly over regularly. Here are two visitors to the smallholding...

As you see, they don't get a welcome from my own geese and they're chased off quick back to the fields.  But there are always more to follow...

After the latest visitors have gone, I went to look at the pond to see how high it is. It is high, which is a good sign for the coming spring and summer (when it should start to drop). I've looked along the edge to see if there are any early spring wildflowers - I'd love to see more native plants along the bank, but very little seems to grow here. The flowers I do plant there don't seem to thrive either, like kingcups. This may be because there are too many trees around, creating a lot of shade - or it may be because the geese, moorhens and ducks trample or eat them.

I'd also like to plant some wildflowers along the new fast flowing stream we created here last year. This comes from water pumped from the pond and circulated around (so that it falls back into the pond). The area where the water first pours out is the obvious place for planting, but this is also the area where Harry likes to come and drink (why he prefers to drink from here rather than his clean dog bowl inside with fresh tap water I've no idea). Harry would crush anything growing around here if I planted it...

Pulmonaria would be my first choice for planting here. I do already have a small clump growing nearby but I would like to plant some more. Pulmonaria is loved by several pollinators and is the favourite flower of one pollinator in particular - the hairy-footed flower bee. This bee with the wonderful name is like a black bumblebee with hairy legs and feet  - and it flies from late February to June. When I plant my pulmonaria, I'll be watching the plants closely to see if the little hairy-footed flower bee pays them a visit this spring.

Female hairy-footed flower bee - Photo by Peter Creed
Hairy-footed flower bee (photo: Wildlife Trusts)

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Biodynamic Farming, a Celestial Garden and Natural Beekeeping

I'd heard of biodynamic farming and gardening but I admit I didn't know much about it until I visited a local biodynamic farm last summer. The farm is on the salt marshes, and wandering around it on a blowy august day, it was interesting to learn about this different approach to growing things and keeping animals.

So what is a biodynamic farm? Basically, biodynamic farming means that the entire farm is seen as an organism, with different parts of it forming a greater whole. Biodynamics also recognises the importance of the cosmos, which is seen to exert an influence on plant and animal health. Biodynamics is more than organic, it's sort of organic-plus.  Animals are treated with homeopathic medicines and all sowing and planting is done to an astrological calendar. Compost is prepared with herbal and mineral additives, and field sprays are created by burying powdered quartz in cows' horns (while the quartz is in the soil, it's seen to be transformed by cosmic forces. Then it's dug up when the spray is ready to be used).

The concept of biodynamics was first developed in the early 1920s by Austrian writer, educator and social activist Dr Rudolf Steiner - and biodynamic farmers, gardeners and growers have to follow standards set by an organisation called Demeter International if they are to obtain certification (like the standards set for organic growing, but much more).

On the farm, the first thing I saw was the sheep grazing out on the salt marshes. These are North Ronaldsay sheep, chosen because they were considered close to our ancient breeds i.e. before generations of selective breeding produced modern sheep...

After a walk along the sea wall (where, just visible in the distant marshes, I glimpsed the wreck of the Radio Caroline ship - a sort of unusual pirate wreck!) it was time to visit the celestial garden. This is where biodynamic gardening takes place. The garden is in harmony with the sky; 12 raised beds have been planted representing the 12 zodiac constellations and each bed is timed to flower during a particular zodiac sign. It's true that everything was fairly overgrown in this area but I did love to see that the beds have been designed to provide forage for bees throughout the year.

I suppose I was most interested of all to see the beekeeping here. To meet biodynamic standards, hives must be made of natural materials (wood, straw or clay) and the bees have to be left to build a natural comb i.e. not on the wax foundation found in conventional hives. On the farm, the hives were of the Sun Hive type, (which are like traditional skeps held together with wooden inserts).  They're made of rye straw and have an upper part of removable wooden arches inside where the honey is stored...

Sun Hives encourage the bees, including the queen, to move everywhere (in conventional hives the queen is prevented from laying eggs in areas where honey is to be harvested). These hives are also placed at least 2.5 metres (8 feet) from the ground - the idea being that it's natural for bees to nest in high places.

Some of the practices well-known to beekeepers are forbidden in biodynamic beekeeping, for example, queens cannot be reared artificially. There are rules about supplementary feeding for bees, too. This feed can't be the usual sugar paste or syrup, but preparations with honey (and with camomile tea and salt added) that must come from a Demeter source. Also if a colony is weak, then Demeter standards state that its loss should be accepted i.e. because it's natural selection at work.

Although I'm all in favour of bees being kept as naturally as possible, I like to give my bees more of a helping hand than is possible with biodynamic beekeeping. After all, bees have got so much stacked against them in today's environment, such as lack of forage, pesticides and new bee diseases.

So, I'll be honest, although I found the farm fascinating, I'm not a convert to biodynamics.  But given that most farms around here are the large arable, industrial, non-organic farms, it really made a refreshing change to see something different like this.