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.

DRUMMINGSpring 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, eqinoxes 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.

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STORMS
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'.

WINTER’S FLOWER

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.

ACORNS

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

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.

ROBINS FEEDING
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?

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NATURE’S BALANCE
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.

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BLACKTHORN
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?!

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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!

DEAR DEERS

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?

SONG THRUSH
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. 

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Click on Pic for Fun Facts