Monday 26 March 2012


Last week, the Welsh government announced that it was not going to go ahead with the controversial measure of culling badgers to reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cattle. Instead it has decided to begin a vaccination programme of badgers, to be followed by a possible introduction of vaccination for cattle.

Meanwhile, back in England, after having seen tracks a month ago, Our Lass and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to deploy a camera trap last weekend, near a sett to the north of Milton Keynes.

Badger proof!

Field notes 3 - the case for the defence

Last year, the surprise appearance of a Bee Orchid in the lawn of Tense Towers caused quite a stir. Sadly, despite the application of a good coat of looking at, there's not a roseate to be seen this Spring.

So there's no use for Fort Orchid, this time around.

No, this time there's a whole border of wildflower seed to worry about. A veritable magnet for dust-bathing Sparrows, cat scat and the feathered vacuum cleaners that are Wood Pigeons. This year the defence architect had to think big. How big?

Castle Cornflower big.

Obviously, apart from 6 square metres of galvanised wire, there's not much to see at the moment. However I did spend a happy hour, sifting through the seed mix to identify the 9 species of annual flowers it contained.

Agrostemma githago, Corn Cockle
Anthemis arvensis, Corn Chamomile
Bupleurum rotundifolium, Thorow-wax
Centaurea cyanus, Cornflower
Glebionis segetum, Corn Marigold
Myosotis arvensis, Field Forget-me-not
Papaver rhoeas, Common Poppy
Ranunculus arvensis, Corn Buttercup
Silene noctiflora, Night-flowering Catchfly

Thursday 22 March 2012

Field notes 2

Spring was really in the air this evening. Not just in a 'birds singing, buds bursting' kind of way, but in more of a 'I need to plant something' vibe. The season is rapidly moving on and I haven't made the time to properly prepare the ground for the wildflower border. The Emorsgate booklet, with the 100g packet of assorted seeds tucked neatly inside it, was sat in our In Tray and warping the fabric of guilty space/time to such a degree that I could feel the pressure from across the room. With nary a trace of irony nor a glimmer of euphemism, I declared that I was going to sow some seed. Right now!

The chosen border had been roughly dug over and left under some netting, but plenty of seedlings of Corydalis lutea were emerging to greet 2012 with a carpet of fresh green leaves (as you may have noticed, I've just discovered that it's not called Corydalis any more!). This plant was introduced to Tense Towers a decade ago, after I rescued a small clump of it from the car park at work, just before a new path was dug through the area where it was growing. I find that its verdant leaves and gentle yellow flowers are a visual tonic against the harsher realities of 21st Century life. It has now colonised a fair proportion of our paths, but with such a long flowering season, I don't mind at all.

I doubt whether all the other plants feel the same way about it, so I began to pull out a few Corydalis shoots, but not with any great enthusiasm. After all, I'm trying to create a wildflower border, so it should fit in nicely, if only it would allow the other plants some room.

There was a moment's quandary as my repressed inner OCD chuntered on about whether the tilth was fine enough to allow successful germination, but then a dose of realism cut in as I remembered that these are wild flowers. They're expecting rough meadow conditions, not Royal Horticultural Society status.

I removed a few loose stones and larger clumps of clay soil, then gave the bed a rake over. Reading the instructions that said 'Sow 2 grammes per square metre', I wondered how I was going to maintain the relative percentages of each species by weighing out the 10 grammes required for 5 square metres? That thought was quickly followed by 'Hmm, that's not very much'. 50g, or half a packet, later, I was mixing the seeds into a few litres of sand, the better to see where I was broadcasting. The daylight was starting to go, so this turned out to be a good idea. Then, after dowsing the bed with a gallon or so of harvested rainwater, I replaced the netting to prevent bird or cat interference and retreated back indoors.

I suspect that March 22nd is towards the very end of the likely sowing season, so we will have to wait and see what happens. But either way, there'll be Corydalis, so I won't be too disappointed.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Field notes

A year or so ago, I borrowed a book from the Admiral, 'Making Wildflower Meadows' by Pam Lewis. This was a delightful read, the author taking the time to explain how hay meadows evolved, the steps required in re-creating different sorts of meadow and a brief description of the types of plant once common in the fields of our countryside.

Truth be told, it was like reading about another world. Sadly, when I was but a young Tenselet, in the 60s, there wasn't the profusion of flowers and grasses that there had been even two decades earlier. In fact, it's only recently that I've come to appreciate what was lost to increased mechanisation and the herbicide revolution. This gently-blooming realisation only kicked in about 6 years ago. It was during a visit to Coton Manor in Northamptonshire where, along with the formal gardens and a Bluebell wood, there is a wildflower meadow, at its best in June/July.

Another delightful jewel in the wildlife crown is the BBOWT reserve at College Lake. Here, a Cornfield Flowers project has been running since the 1980s, in an effort to conserve these rare and beautiful flowers.

More recently, in 2012, BBC TV ran a short series entitled 'Bees, Butterflies and Blooms', in which writer, broadcaster and gardener Sarah Raven began a floral crusade to encourage the nation to plant more nectar-rich flowers. The hypothesis being that there is a severe shortage of different types of nectar available for pollinators, so that bees who can't find a healthy variety of food are not as vigorous and so succumb more easily to pests and diseases. It's a bit like humans not flourishing without their "five-a-day" of fruit and veg. The three episodes covered villages and farms, towns and gardens and, finally, cities. In the first programme, one of the places featured was Sticky Wicket, the garden created by the afore-mentioned Pam Lewis. I took this as my cue to purchase her book for myself and do my bit for said bees and butterflies.

Whilst Tense Towers is only vast estate if you're about the size of a Ladybird, there is room for a little experimentation. A few weekends ago, I dug up the straggling shrubs and pathetic plants that were eking out an existence in the narrow border that sits against the eastern wall of the house. The soil is quite impoverished and, being sheltered from the worst of the English weather, rather dry. Hopefully, this will mean that the usual crop of perennial colonisers (the dandelions, nettles and thistles of this world) will find it difficult to maintain a foothold and allow a wider variety of flowers to grow.

Having removed all the previous growth, roots and any large stones, I laid some temporary netting over the border as I didn't want the local cat population to think that it had the right to "improve" the soil structure with impunity.

I had previously sought the advice of habitat guru, JD, of Rotton Yarns fame, as to where to source indigenous wildflower seed. His suggestions were mirrored by the Suppliers list in 'Making Wildflower Meadows', so I duly sent off for 100g of Special Cornfield Mixture from Emorsgate Seeds in Norfolk. This morning's mail delivery brought a little packet of germane goodness to my desk and I'm now looking forward to getting down and dirty with a fine to medium tilth.

Monday 12 March 2012

March in Little Linford Wood

That title makes this post sound more like a demonstration, possibly against the proposed wind farm on its doorstep, than a monthly update of life in LLW, but I'm not opening that can of worms again!

On a mild weekend in mid March, there were definite signs that life is stirring from its Winter slumbers. Unfortunately, we chose to go on Saturday, the cloudier of the two days, as Sunday was reserved for the last practical session at Hanson Environmental Study Centre before the bird breeding season begins. But not to worry...
Not too dissimilar to the January view. Still dry.
Not long after setting off from the car park, it was immediately obvious that a new season was under way. The ephemeral pond might look the same as two months ago, but the first flowers were starting to grace the edges of the rides. Eponymously enough, the first flower we saw was, in fact, a Primrose, Primula vulgaris, here seen in the presence of some Bluebell shoots and a newly emergent Dog's Mercury.

Towards the centre of the wood, a new glade had been created by some hard-working volunteers from the local wildlife trust. I have since learnt that the coppicing is left deliberately high, so that the new growth emerges above the browse line of the Muntjac Deer that inhabit the wood.

Walking west from the wood, along the hedgerow that follows the top of the ridge, we were heartened to hear the soft "chirrup" of a few Tree Sparrows, Passer montanus. It's good to know that they've survived the Winter, as we only ever see them in this hedge, and never more than half a mile  from the wood. If I was of a more belligerent bent, the survival of this species is the one I would champion in the fight against development.

By the old ruined barn on the hill top, we could see a few other birds flitting about. Whilst not able to get too close, we could see that they were Yellowhammers, Emberiza citrinella. It appeared that we were watching two males displaying in a territorial dispute. They would swoop at each other, chase around for a bit and often perform some sort of aerial act of derring-do. This was difficult to capture on camera, but I rattled off a few record shots because it was such an odd behaviour.

In pre-swoop mode
Bizarre birds!
Rubbish shot of a more sedate individual
As we wandered back into the wood, it was obvious that the Rooks, Corvus frugilegus, had returned to their rookery from wherever their Winter roost had been. There was much repair activity going on around the two dozen or so nests, with twigs and moss being brought in by the beakful.

If you ever want to learn more about these fascinating birds, I can heartily recommend Mark Cocker's "Crow Country", possibly the most beautiful book I have ever read.

Sunday 11 March 2012

A little too close to home?

When Phil at Cabinet of Curiosities recently blogged about a plant called Whitlowgrass, I was a bit puzzled by its description as "extremely widespread". I've lived in the north east of England, on the south coast and now somewhere in the middle of the country, but I couldn't recall seeing this little white flower before.

I guess alarm bells should've started ringing immediately, because one of those two statements must be wrong. So who would you believe? A senior lecturer in Botany or the second best plant spotter in Tense Towers? The solution wasn't long in turning up. Fortunately, yesterday, when Our Lass and I returned home from a walk around Little Linford Wood, I must've still been in natural history mode. For when I stepped out of the car and went to walk around to the boot, what should I spy growing by the kerb?

Common Whitlowgrass, Erophila verna
Doh! All this time, and it was right under my flippin' nose.

For years, I have thought that this plant was simply Shepherd's Purse, struggling to survive in a harsh environment. Indeed, Shepherd's Purse does grow here, but lesson learnt, never assume, always check.

Thursday 1 March 2012

The Ogress of Progress, Part 3

It's been a while since our headlong acceleration into The New has inspired my ire (see also Part 1 and Part 2). However, Blogger's use of CAPTCHA word verification has been an unpleasant reminder that one of the things we can't change is the pace of change itself.

My grateful thanks go to the fellow bloggers who have highlighted this latest technological misdemeanour which has made commenting on posts such a misery. Please accept my apologies, dear commentators, and rest assured that I have now turned it "Off".

Bizarrely, for an old scrote like me, I had been getting along quite well with the new dashboard format, unaware that the word verification tool was permanently switched on. Until fairly recently, it wasn't a chore typing in a few words after commenting, to prove that I was a quirky, analogue, fallible, living and breathing person. But a chore it has become.

There is always the faint possibility, I suppose, that resistance WAS futile after all, and we have been assimilated into some poorly-designed prototype of the Borg Collective and therefore find it difficult to separate out the human and cybernetic sides of our being. But at the risk of mixing my  fictional series metaphors, I am not a number.

So it's back to the gaslight and linoleum days of the old dashboard which is a small price to pay to show solidarity with followers and commentators alike. And it's important to cock a snook at assumed authority now and again.