THINGS AROUND US
VIEW FROM THE HILL
Things Around Us
Having lived here for 40 years, we welcome Peter Lockwood’s inspiring observations on the world around him at Lea Bailey. A reminder if we needed one of what a truly wonderful part of England we live in.
Not my favourite of the insect world. I am told they do a great deal of good in controlling other insect numbers, but they only bring misery to me. They sting, they disrupt outdoor meals and they sometimes swim in my beer. Late this summer I cut down an area of tall grasses and weeds. During this exercise I found, by standing too close to them, three wasp nests. For this privilege I received many stings! NotPleasant. Now, some years ago I used to find two or three dug out wasp nests in my paddock, dug out by badgers. I have not found any dug out nests for some years, which made me wonder why that may be. It just coincides with the period when Gloucestershire was running a badger cull in an experiment to control bovine TB. Then, thinking about this, I realised that I do not see dead badgers at the side of the road, as I used to, which points towards this area being in, and affected by, the badger cull. I wish they, the badgers, were still around to dig out my wasp nests to make my life more comfortable.
This summer, I am sure, will not be remembered for being a ‘good’ summer (I am certain Rainman Rob’s figures will confirm this). However, I have had a good summer observing butterflies. The knap weed, and other wildflowers popular with butterflies, have grown very well and have attracted large numbers of them. Now, I am no expert in their field and do not know many of the types I am seeing, I just enjoy seeing them. They flutter around the meadow in a very random way, alighting on a flower of their choice before fluttering off. They do not have the business-like approach that bees have. I observed on a couple of occasions clusters of cabbage whites (about 10) doing a sort of aerial dance (mating ritual)? My mother, whenever she saw two white butterflies together, would say “two white butterflies, three fine days”. I still do it and it is surprisingly accurate! I have also seen white butterflies ‘puddling’ where they mass together, about fifteen I saw, on the banks of a stream to take in minerals and perhaps water. I have also seen lots of white butterflies on the cabbage patch, but then you have all seen that!
I believe I could have swept the board at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. From what I saw I am growing far better weeds than any I saw at the Show! For years I have been growing weeds. Early Spring starts with primroses, followed by cowslips, wild daffodils, bluebells, ox-eye daisies and cow parsley. Then come the fox gloves, common orchids, saint john’s wort, knap weed, yarrow to mention but a few. They grow in abundance and look wonderful. They are easy to maintain and are not eaten by deer as most of my conventional ‘flowers’ are. So why all the ballyhoo when Chelsea discovers weeds? We proper gardeners have been aware of them and using them for years.
A weed can be defined as any plant growing where it is unwanted. Grow all wild plants wherever they want to grow, sit back and admire and no weeding to be done. The plants are cheap too. Enjoy your gardening.
Buzzards really do deserve a second look. They are relatively common and easy to spot in these parts. They can be often seen in large dead trees, on the top of electricity poles or on fencing stakes and are really handsome large birds. I have had one perch on top of my flagpole on only a two inch diameter metal disk.
But it is in the air where they are most magnificent, with their wings set for soaring they appear to just rise with no effort into the sky. They circle on thermals of air to great heights and will do this in company - I have seen nine buzzards rising in a single stack. They make a call (wheeeur), often when high above, which sounds not unlike a child’s cry.
Often I have seen buzzards being harassed, while on the wing, by crows. The crows are very aggressive in their pursuit, but the buzzards surprisingly never seem to retaliate. Why this takes place one can only guess.
What a wonderful bird to watch.
It is now Spring and the sun is shining so enjoy it. There is so much to observe and take in at this time of the year. Lambs in the fields, rabbits have been doing what they are famous for and are now showing off what they have achieved, rooks have returned to their rookeries, wildflowers are out and birds singing.
On top of all this we have the summer to look forward to. I recommend to you all to go forth and see what you can find to fascinate you at this wonderful time. I have been to the Dymock daffodil woods, watched young rabbits play, seen birds pairing up, discovered great areas of primroses and been amused watching lambs gambolling in the fields. There is so much more out there to see! Do make time for yourselves to go out there amongst it all, do your Attenborough thing, the wild side will not let you down.
The wren is the most common British bird yet is not regularly seen. It does not feed on our feeders taking grains, seeds or fat along with so many other birds. Instead, it feeds on insects and spiders which it looks for in hedges and shrubs. So, at this time of the year, before the leaves return, they are relatively easy to spot. They are small but have quite a loud call which can attract your attention, and love flitting about in hedges and bushes. They are there, you just have to look. The male will build several beautiful nests, he makes a hollow globe of leaves with an entrance hole and his female friend decides on which one to use. This tiny hen will lay up to nine eggs (this must help to make them so common) and broods them. The pair work together with the feeding. They are a lovely bird to watch and easy to find if you look in the right places! I am lucky as I can see them out of the window from where I am now sitting.
As we were told by Rob the Rainman in our last issue, this winter has had periods of wet and dry, sunny and cloudy, mild and cold all following a dry and, at times, hot summer.
So, what does nature around us make of it? This last month (January) I have found wild primroses in flower, snowdrops in flower, daffodils showing their leaves and hazel catkins developing. The greater spotted woodpeckers are drumming in the forest and song thrushes are singing from high vantage points. Then in the fields there are lambs to be found. So, signs of spring but not spring just yet. In fact, despite the wide spectrum of weather we have been experiencing, I would say nature is looking after itself pretty well. Every year we can find anomalies in nature, things being early or late, but is our environment changing too much for nature to keep up? I talk, of course, of global warming, a huge issue and something we should all be contributing against and allowing nature to follow a familiar course.
Please do what you can to support nature as we know it.
I know that I have rabbits living around me. They do their scratchings on the lawn, they nibble off plants and they leave their little spherical calling cards. But when it snows, we had plenty of that recently, you can follow where they go. They leave a very distinctive track, a three and one pattern, so are very easy to identify. I remember, as a boy, following their tracks, but I never found they led me to a rabbit! The rabbits just disappeared and they still do to-day. I have a fallen tree and I could see that they hop up onto the trunk and then hop along it. Why? Is it a game (king of the castle?) or is it a lookout position looking for danger? By following their tracks I can find where they dig into the snow to find grass and plants to eat. It is in such conditions that they will strip bark from young trees and bushes (the need for tree guards) as they do not have to dig away snow to feed. One hard winter I can remember losing all my winter greens to rabbits, they simply chewed through the fleshy stems. Snowy conditions just gives us an opportunity to learn a little bit more about our animal friends. Use it, it is fun.
One day this autumn, on a bright sunny morning, I was idly gazing out of a window onto our steeply sloping paddock when two deer came into view. They were roe deer, a mother with this year’s fawn. They were not desperate to go anywhere, obviously felt safe, so the mother started to graze. The little fellow saw it as an opportunity to play. It started to run up the slope, at great speed, before stopping at the top, turning around and then hurtling down to the bottom of the slope. It continued to repeat these manoeuvres at great speed, with grace and showing amazing acceleration from a standing start. This sort of play was preparing it to preserve itself should it become endangered at any time. I do not know what preys on deer in the Forest of Dean these days, wolves have long gone, but obviously they feel they need to be prepared. And the mother? She, like any parent, did not see the point in charging around expelling huge amounts of energy with her child, so continued grazing.
I have plenty around me, yet, hardly ever see one. I can see where they have been from what they leave behind (their pesky molehills) and I do not really want them here at all. The mole lives most of its life underground where it searches for worms to feed upon. They are equipped with a very sensitive nose which allows them to find their prey in their tunnels. Of course it’s the molehills that give away their location. During the dry summer the ground became very hard and I did not observe much molehill action. However, once the rain softened the soil a bit I was finding a great deal of molehill activity. Perhaps during the drought conditions the moles became rather hungry. You may think you have a lot of moles if you have a lot of molehills, but the mole is a rather solitary animal and prefers its own company. They are tenacious tunnelers which makes it appear that there are a lot of of them.
And why do we plant bulbs? So that moles can see where they are going!
At times, judging by the sound created, we appear to be surrounded by pigeons. Nothing wrong with that, except at five in the morning when one decides to start up right outside the open bedroom window. During the day time I enjoy watching them fly high in the sky and then clap their wings together before swooping down towards some perching place. I think this must be part of a courting ritual because once back on a perch they love to begin canoodling with a partner. Pigeons do plenty of canoodling. They continue to nest and lay eggs well into the summer. I remember being told as a child that pigeons will not turn broody until they have two eggs in their nest. I tested this by climbing up to a nest and removing one egg: sure enough there would be two eggs again on the following day! I would then repeat the process and the same would happen, what fun I had. Pigeon tastes very good too.
At times I seem to be surrounded by the song of this beautiful song bird. During the spring the young birds seemed to be singing all day long with great enthusiasm. I am also amused by the way they traverse the lawn in search of tasty morsels. They hop (bounce) across the lawn looking rather like a bouncy toy. It raises a smile every time I see them. Beside their singing they make another very welcome sound, tap, tap tap. It is caused by their bashing of a snail against something hard.
They find snails in the garden, lift them out in their beaks, bounce to the path and start smashing the shell until they can extract the flesh inside and eating it. It may sound a bit brutal but it is good for the plants in the garden and all part of nature’s pecking order. What a beautiful and useful bird the Song Thrush is.
As I write this, spring is here and with it we have wonderful varying hues of green on the trees, flowers, both wild and in the garden showing themselves off, and the flying community (birds, bees, mayflies etc.) making the most of everything. It is all so uplifting, especially when the sun shines. But! I have not heard a cuckoo here or anywhere this year. I have written before about the scarcity of cuckoos and I do miss them.
They have always been an integral part of spring. Now I am looking for a positive side to their loss. Surely, native song birds are rearing more of their own young? Without a cuckoo in the nest more hatchlings have a chance to fledge which must help our local bird populations. I
have not heard of any evidence of this but, using common sense, it must be so. I hope so. Songbirds suffer enough as it is from other birds plundering their nests (along with squirrels and stoats). So maybe it is a price worth paying, no cuckoo song (which is very monotonous after all) for more of our own songbirds.
At this time of the year a great deal of life begins. Cock birds love to display themselves in their best spring plumage whilst perched high in trees singing their hearts out. Songthrushes and blackbirds have been entertaining me with their songs but we all know they only sing for love! There is a wonderful chorus of love songs throughout the forest. Next, one can observe, the birds start nest building. Beaks full of moss, dried grasses, dead leaves, feathers, sheep's wool, animal hair and whatever else that may be required are flown to a nest site. Again, there is an amazing array of places chosen, some breath-taking and others darn right ridiculous. With the nest building complete the males reap their reward, followed with fertilized eggs being laid and brooded. Next the dawn to dusk food gathering and feeding. Just bear a thought for other lives at these times, grubs, worms, flying insects, snails and other delicacies used to feed nestlings, as many will lose theirs and some nestlings will be fed to other families. It is all part of the circle of life.
Spring is now officially here (I hate the met office's First Day of March as the beginning of spring). I believe in following the sun for our seasons, equinoxes and solstices for me. And what sound do I love so much in the spring? Its the drumming of the lesser spotted woodpecker. I live in the bowl at the head of a valley with trees on three sides of the cottage. This means I can hear woodpeckers drumming, at times, from three different directions plus their echoes! It can sound amazing. It is worth stating, I feel, that the green woodpecker does not drum, it prefers to find its food quietly on the ground. Their call, yaffle, is to be heard too as they go about their springtime courtships. There is a whole cacophony of springtime bird song around us at this wonderful time and if that wanes for a while, there is the sound of lambs to be heard, another true sound of spring. We are so fortunate.
Three in one week of which Eunice was probably, to us in these parts, the most fearsome. I live tucked away at the head of a north facing valley so Eunice's robust stormy south-westerly winds did not manage to give us a severe buffeting. She made plenty of noise above us as she ripped through the forest. Damage to this north edge of the forest was slight with few trees suffering damage. The larches in a plantation were whipping forwards and backwards with great vigour but all appear to have survived, only losing a few minor branches.
Now cast your minds back to late November when storm Arwen struck with more northerly winds which blew through our valley and on into the forest. We were then on the weather side of the forest and the damage caused to trees was far greater than that caused by Eunice. One notable tree to fall, right on the edge of the forest, was a mature oak with a girth of some twelve feet or more, which was snapped off (not up-rooted) a foot or two above ground level! It fell into the forest taking with it five mature evergreens. We can all expect damage from strong winds but there is always a case for the old saying 'it depends upon from which way the wind blows'.
Our world appears to shut down (and recently lockdown too) at this time of the year. However, there is life outside. The days may be long and dark, wet, snowy or freezing (earth stands hard as iron). Yet through all adversaries there is one small flower that never lets us down. You can find them in all sorts of surprising places, tucked away under hedges, in rocky uncared for corners or in the middle of lawns. They are not a weed but they grow without any tendering and for the most part remain in the ground forgotten. Then in the middle of winter they show us their little white flower, I refer to, of course, the unassuming snowdrop. What joy they bring, they really are something for nothing. My father was always impressed by the resilience of this humble flower and now he is pushing them up on his grave.
Great oaks from little acorns grow except, from my observations, not this year. Have you noticed, as I have, this year there are no acorns fallen from the oaks? I put this down to the unusual weather experienced last spring preventing the oaks to successfully pollinate. Now, I feel the forest will not suffer from a year without the potential to reproduce any trees, however, I feel wild life will suffer. Take the jay for example which, I am told, can store up to five thousand acorns (who collects such data?) in a season for sustenance throughout the winter. It is a big task for them to find an alternative food source to put in storage. Then there are the wild boar which just love scooping up acorns for a good meal. They, of course, can root through the ground for alternative food. This will probably lead to more grass and cared for ground being turned over (I need to check my fencing). Squirrels too, like an acorn or two, what will they fill their larders with this year? Maybe they should go into permanent hibernation. So, if we are told to expect shortages, we should spare a thought for our wildlife which may be having a much harder time than ourselves. I, and I am not the only one, have noticed jays have changed their feeding habits and are visiting feeding stations which usually they do not.
MY CUCKOO’S LAMENT
Rob the Rainman summed up last summer as being uninspiring, which I readily accept. Spring did not start well for me either, as around the 21st April I expect to hear my first cuckoo of the year. A bird that flies all the way from the sub-Sahara, across the Mediterranean, across the Iberian peninsula and the English Channel to The Lea. A migration route fraught with difficulties, loss of habitat, nets and guns. When it arrives it lets us know by its straightforward call before setting about its strange (clever?) egg laying routine. Did you hear its call this spring? I did not, nor did I throughout the summer except for when I heard one when I was sailing close to Oldbury nuclear power station! I can remember forty years ago when there used to be two pairs of cuckoos in our valley every year. The strange thing is, I love to hear the cuckoo in spring, but I quickly tire of its monotonous call! But,it is not spring/summer without hearing it, so I too can mark down this last summer, like Rob, as uninspiring.
Grey squirrels look such charming little fellows but really they are a terrible threat to so much of our nature. Every late summer their damage to trees shows up in the form of dead leaves on branches. Trees of all sizes suffer, sycamore, silver birch and maple seem to be among their favourites.
Around June, when food appears short, squirrels turn to stripping bark from tree trunks and branches which results in parts of trees dying, also allowing disease to enter the tree. There are a vast number of damaged trees to be seen in and around the forest. I have lost mature silver birch and maple trees to squirrels (not to mention apples, pears and walnuts). They are not cute little creatures, they are vermin damaging trees, red squirrels and plundering birds nests. At a time when we are trying to offset carbon emissions by planting forests (and our Queen is asking us to plant trees) one should consider the size of our grey squirrel population.
It has become very difficult, in many places, to grow trees to a mature size as they have their leaders eaten and their bark stripped. Something to consider before too much money and effort is given to carbon offsetting by tree planting.
This last summer was not especially special from a weather perspective but it did provide some days when it was suitable to sit out on the lawn and enjoy a drink. On such occasions I take pleasure in watching the robins feed. I keep our lawn close cut which seems to expose to the robins worms and creepy crawlies for them to feed upon. The robins like to perch, often in a rose bush, overlooking the lawn and then fly down whenever they see something move which they fancy eating. There can then be a tug-of-war to extract a worm from the ground. Now, I have sat for hours on that lawn, in a chair, and I have tried to spot worms or other live things that may be of interest to a robin. All without success. My conclusion is that a robin has far better eyesight than myself, they can see targets yards from themselves, although I have not, as yet, tried looking whilst perching in a rose bush. And where would I put my drink if I did?
Recently, outside the window where I am sitting, a robin perched on a rail with its beak full of nest building material. It looked up, then down, to the left and to the right before deciding it was safe to hop into an adjacent bush. Building continued, on the second day which was rather windy, the robin hung onto the rail with a large leaf in its beak doing its safety watch when a strong gust of wind forced the leaf from its hold. However, the nest was soon built and the pair moved onto the next phase. They made love, twice!, right there in front of me and looked very pleased with themselves. The eggs would have been laid and incubated for then the feeding began. What a busy time that is but with every beak full of food a safety check was made before delivering their morsel to the nest. Then, one morning when I looked out of the window a jay, in beautiful plumage, sat on top of the robin's bush. The jay had done its part in maintaining the balance of nature. I hope the robins have tried again and were successful with their second brood.
Did we have a blackthorn winter? So called because the white blossom can look like snow or frost and it was very cold with frosty mornings. The blackthorn blossoms before its leaves break so there is nothing to impede its snowy impact. It is a bush not to be messed with. I learnt this as a lad, its thorns are long and very sharp and they will tear you and your clothing apart. Mother also warned that their jabs could become septic and if you had one jab you in your eye you could be blinded! Nasty stuff indeed.
But, it looks beautiful and there seems to have been a great deal of it in the hedges this year. My concern is whether or not this cold weather will allow any fruit to set. Will there be plenty of sloes this autumn to pick and add to our gin?!
THE DISAPPEARING YAFFLE
The Green woodpecker, or Yaffle, is easily recognised by call (it yaffles), its undulating flight and its amazing colours. With these highly distinctive traits how can a Yaffle disappear? They are very much a ground feeding bird and have a great liking for ants which they harvest by using their sticky tongue. From outside our cottage rises the other side of our valley. It is laid to permanent pasture and is grazed by both sheep and cattle which keeps it relatively short. Permanent pasture contains a collection of different grasses, meadow plants and moss which leads to a colour spectrum of greens and yellows. So, when a Green woodpecker, identified by its flight pattern, lands on the permanent pasture it seems to immediately disappear. I have often had this happen to me, even their red crest does not give them away. You may, at this very moment, have a yaffle on a mossy part of your lawn so well camouflaged that it cannot be seen. When they can be seen, they are a wonderful bird to observe. Go forth and seek!
Whilst walking along a forest ride on a cold frosty day, with still a sprinkling of snow on the ground, I was awoken from my thoughts by the sight of two Sika deer crossing my path about ten yards ahead of me. I stopped abruptly and stared, they (the deer) continued on their way back into the cover of the forest without being at all startled by my close presence. They made to put a holly bush between me and themselves. I turned into the forest in pursuit and found them standing together behind the holly bush about twenty yards from me. We looked at each other, they were not spooked by me, and after a while they continued quietly, together, on their way as did I. Why were they so calm I wondered? Perhaps they are like ourselves as youths, all loved up, without giving a care for anyone else. Remember those heady days?
On Monday 26th of January, with snow still on the ground and the temperature just hovering above zero, I went for a walk in the forest. The sky was blue, and the sun was shining (but it did feel chilly) when suddenly from somewhere above me came this most beautiful sound. Moving slowly and looking up I eventually found the source of this exultation. At the very top of a tall pine tree was a song thrush giving its all. I then began to think that this is early in the year for a songbird to be claiming a territory. So, was it trying to impress a lady song thrush, one it had just seen in the area, or was it just a practice for the coming mating season? Or, as I believe, it was sung just for me? I loved it. So, leave your indoor lockdown cocoon and see if you can find a bird to sing for you.