Tuesday 29 April 2014

A rosy evening

What is it 'they' say about best laid plans...?

During a walk the previous day, we had noticed many Hares gathered in the fields beside the Cornquoy Road. As they boxed and chased, one particular group of five were more concerned about each other, rather than two interested bipedal observers. The setting sun lit the scene rather nicely and I reprimanded myself for not having the presence of mind to bring a camera. So a plan was hatched to return the following evening, when the weather was forecast to be dry and bright, if a little breezier, and the first item on the packing list would be the camera.

The forecast did indeed prove correct, so after Our Lass returned from work and we'd eaten a simple meal, we drove down to St Nicholas' Kirk and parked alongside the cemetery wall. A pool in the fields by the church held several Redshank and Snipe, as well as a pair of Shelduck. The tide was out in Howes Wick, so the sea ducks, divers and waders were well beyond reasonable binocular range.

Mr and Mrs Shelduck
As we walked along the single track road to Cornquoy, it was obvious that, although there was plenty of bird life around, of Hares there were precious few. This was obviously a bit of a disappointment, but that's nature watching for you, where wild equals unpredictable.

Rather than miss out on a grand evening in the fresh air, on a whim, we turned up the lane towards Upper Cornquoy. After about 500 yards, we discovered a sign for a footpath, heading towards the coast, so we pottered along that to another sign that offered clifftop walking to Stembister to the east and Rose Ness to the west.

No further invitation necessary, Our Lass was off, exploring the path overlooking the Bay of Semolie. 

Bay of Semolie
View back to Upper Cornquoy and Warthill beyond

A sentinel stands guard
Life anew beyond the wire
Then we carefully passed the Hole of the Ness, which I guess is a large blowhole at the end of an unseen sea cave. Though we didn't approach close enough to see the bottom (it was wisely fenced off), we could hear the sea as the waves hit the back of the cave. The near horizon beckoned us with two intriguing structures, but first we passed a mound, the North Cairn, which looked more like a Neolithic burial site than a 20th Century wartime fixture. There's no mention on the OS Explorer map of any other cairn, so perhaps the sea has claimed it. 

I was trying to photograph this Shag, and although the results were poor, I was happy with the Starling because the base of his bill is blue. It's a boy!
Beckoning beacons
As the path crossed some rough ground towards the beacons, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks were visiting some of the ephemeral pools that line the cliff top. Overhead, a 'drumming' Snipe laced the evening air with the unmistakeable sound of its courtship display.

The tail feathers responsible for the sound can just about be seen in the above photo.
The first beacon we came to was built in 1867 to mark the entrance to Holm Sound.

Beyond that was a more recent lighthouse, constructed in 1905 and now fully automatic, its light flashing white once every six seconds.

Light of My Life shown for scale
We continued around the Ness, dropping down to sea level at the Bay of Cornquoy. Fortunately, the tide was still well out, as it was necessary to use the top of the beach as the path to gain access to the track that leads back to Cornquoy Road.

We weren't the only visitors to the beach enjoying the evening. As we returned to the car, a few Grey Seals were lolling about in the shallows, making the most of the last rays of the sun.

Well, my Hare-aimed scheme may have come to naught, but it was a serendipitous end to a fine day.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Fogday Sunday

Back on Orkney, the fog was still making its presence felt when we woke up this morning.

Our Lass opened the curtains onto another dull day, slightly brightened by the sight of an Oystercatcher just outside the window. There's a pair of these striking waders which have taken up residence in the small field between our house and the big farm. I think that they were using the cover of the fog and a quiet Sunday morning to explore the neighbourhood.

Before lunch, we drove down to Burray, as Our Lass wanted to buy some plants for the garden. We purchased 50 or so tiny lumps of green shoots that may or may not survive to turn into vigorous, healthy, Orcadian weather-proof flowers.

Then we had an amble along the beach at Barrier 4, to check out some new defences that are being constructed at the southern end, before spotting a pale phase Arctic Skua heading north.

After lunch, we journeyed to St Margaret's Hope for another horticultural retail opportunity, becoming the proud owners of 3 Hebe and 3 Escallonia shrubs and 1 (and here I quote my garden expert wife) "fuzzy-leaved daisy thing".

The remainder of the afternoon was spent sieving compost, potting up, planting and watering.

Towards evening, as the sun had put in an appearance, I suggested a walk for a bit of relaxation. We have been meaning to explore more of our local area, so drove down to St Nicholas Kirk, where we would normally walk to, but parked there so that we could wander further along the peninsula towards Rose Ness.

The route took us past the Old Manse and down to the Bay of Cornquoy. The tide was a long way out, so we explored the beach, watching a small group of waders feeding on the mudflats and a party of Grey Seals lolling on the rocks at the water's edge.

Returning by the same route, we hit one of those sweet spots that occur from time to time in nature watching. As the track veered away from the beach, a male Redstart was flitting from a wooden post to a pile of seaweed. A few hundred yards further on, there was a flock of small birds in the hedge alongside the drive to the Old Manse. Most were Linnets, but one was a Whitethroat. Back on the tarmac road, we passed field after field with numerous Hares, one particular group of five still intent on 'box and chase'. A flurry of activity in the sky resolved itself into a male Hen Harrier carrying a kill, but being mobbed by a pair of wagtails and a gull. At a farm turning, a smart male Wheatear flew from a stone wall, his white rump showing well before he disappeared from view. A pair of Shelducks flew overhead and a Swallow zipped past our noses.

It was a bit of a mad half hour!

On reaching home, as we parked the car at the front of the house, we interrupted the Oystercatchers in a moment of ungainly wader intimacy. Hmmm, pornithology virtually on our doorstep, it looks like the neighbouring field and possibly our garden will be hearing the pitter patter of tiny feet in a month or so. Not to mention lots of loud and agitated parental piping from their mum and dad. Pass the ear defenders, please.

Pirt daor

Yep, that’s ‘Road trip’ backwards, as this is the tale of the return journey to Orkney after my brief visit to England.

With a ferry to catch at Gill’s Bay on the north coast of Scotland, there was a bit more urgency to the proceedings, as any potential hold-up might have undesirable consequences. I chose a slightly different route initially, travelling west to the A1 and skirting around the opposite side of Newcastle compared to the trip down. This meant that I drove passed Anthony Gormley’s Angel of theNorth, which is either a monumental (literally) piece of recycling or a tribute to iron oxide.

The remainder of the drive up across the border into Scotland and around Edinburgh was uneventful. However, after Perth, things became a little more interesting from a wildlife point of view. At several places, the grassy verges of the A9 were carpeted with large swathes of Lady’s Smock (Cuckooflower), though there was nary a sign of a butterfly taking advantage of the abundance. Shortly after a stop at Ralia Café, a Stoat ran across the road in front of me, the black tip of its tail struggling to keep up as its owner shot from one side of the busy road to the other. After crossing the Moray Firth, I was delighted to spot a Red Kite gliding overhead by the junction for Culbokie. So there’s at least one left!

Despite heading north, I was listening to the soundtrack compilation from the TV programme Due South, a particular favourite for long journeys and now delightfully directionally ironic.

So imagine my surprise when I stopped for a rest break in Helmsdale at the Timespan Museum and discovered a flyer advertising an event in May which featured the word ‘Diefenbaker’. I assumed that this referred to the Prime Minister of Canada (a chat with the museum staff confirmed this) as opposed to Fraser’s pet wolfdog in Due South! It was a bit of a coincidence though.

As I settled down to a large pot of tea, I realised that the staff were also playing a cd that I had listened to on the trip, Shooglenifty’s Murmichan album. As I was the only customer in the tea shop, I felt rather privileged and donated probably more than I would’ve done to their fund raising appeal. If it was targeted marketing, it succeeded a damned sight better than all those infuriating internet companies that bombard our online experiences with complete dross for something you have either already bought or have no interest in whatsoever. Well done, Timespan, I will most certainly be back.

(To be honest, ever since we have been journeying to Orkney, we have visited the tea shop at Timespan whenever the opportunity has arisen. It has an outdoor seating area that overlooks the River Helmsdale and a sensory garden full of interesting herbs. No, not that kind of ‘interesting’!)

By now, the sunny weather that I had been experiencing between Middlesbrough and Inverness, had given way to thick fog. My average speed tumbled dramatically and a bit of mental arithmetic was required to reassure myself that I would reach the ferry port on time. This wasn't helped by encountering a car pottering along at 20mph, veering from the verge to the white line and occasionally over it, which it was impossible to pass safely in the conditions. Fortunately, after what seemed like an age and collecting other vehicles in the slow-moving convoy, it turned off and I made it to Gill's Bay in time to relax with yet another cup of tea (there may have been cake, too).

This post has been written on the ferry crossing. The often turbulent waters of the Pentland Firth were smooth and calm, though the fog meant that nature watching for sea birds or cetaceans was a pointless task. Eventually, however, the vague shape of Hoxa Head appeared through the gloom and I knew I was nearly home.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Road trip

It’s been 6 months since I visited my family in the North East of England, so a trip south was long overdue. This would be my first trek from Orkney down to the old country (on St George’s Day!) and had the added novelty of an arrival in County Durham from the north, rather than the previously more customary south. If that wasn’t messing with my head enough, Our Lass and I discussed vehicle/fuel options, deciding that it would be kinder on our pockets if I took her Nissan Micra, as opposed to my hoofing great 4x4. The extra miles per gallon (mpg) of her wee roller skate, as well as the use of cheaper petrol compared to diesel, would make a significant saving. This was somewhat nullified by the fact that my mpm (miles per mug) would be an uneconomically low value in either vehicle, requiring frequent tea stops throughout the 500 miles from Orkney down to Middlesbrough.

This was going to be a long day in the saddle, but I was encouraged by the prospect of perhaps seeing a few species of bird that wouldn’t necessarily make it to Orkney. A short journey on the Orcadian side saw me on board the Pentalina ferry for the early sailing and, after a reasonably smooth crossing, I set off from the north of Scotland at 09.00.

In thick fog.

It was greyer than the combined greyness of a plover, a phalarope, a heron, a wagtail and a big shrike, so I saw very little until I reached Helmsdale and the road dropped down to sea level and below the clouds. Soon, however, the sun came out and the stint (unintentional pun) down towards the Black Isle produced half a dozen Common Buzzards, a possible Long-tailed Tit and a possible Comma butterfly. Butterflies are tricky to ID when driving at 60mph.  Sadly, there wasn’t a single Red Kite to be seen, but what with the current issue of wildlife crime in the area, this wasn’t a surprise. After Inverness, another possible butterfly (Small or Green-veined White) was the only highlight until I arrived at Ralia Café for lunch, to be greeted by an overture of Willow Warbler song. Ah, bliss.

South of Inverness, I assumed that I would begin to see Magpies, but no, they were noticeably absent, along with any other Buzzard sightings. Normally, I would expect both of these species to thrive alongside a busy main road, with numerous road kills as a source of food. Pushing on down through Scotland, I did spot an ‘ironically’ dead Magpie at the side of the road, but that doesn’t really count. Even after I had passed Edinburgh, then Berwick, and crossed the border into England, there were no raptors or scavengers about. Somewhere in the middle of Northumberland, there was a possible Red Kite, but an annoyingly tall hedge (and a frustratingly low Micra) prevented me from making a definite ID.

Despite the lack of birdlife, the journey south did have a theme. It was the colour yellow. The wildness of Scotland was typified by Gorse, its zingy flowers even managing to look bright in the fog. And when the sun came out, oh boy! Then the focus shifted to ground level, with masses of Dandelions along the roadside verges. By the time I reached the lowlands of Scotland and then the north of England, a more subdued yellow clouded my vision from countless fields of Oil Seed, its cloying scent also drifting into the car.

And so to Newcastle and through the Tyne Tunnel, surely there would be a Magpie in the city whose football team plays in black and white stripes and who are known as the Magpies?


In a sudden switch of interest, I realised that I was driving passed the Nissan factory in Washington, where our car had been built about 4 years and 28000 miles previously. Immediately following this revelation, I then saw the sign for the Stadium of Light, which is the Sunderland football ground. Now, dear reader, the Sunderland and Newcastle football teams are arch rivals, so as a nearby Middlesbrough supporter, I had to chuckle when it was here, not far from Sunderland’s ground, that I saw my first Magpies of the trip!

Then Penshaw Monument came into view, atop the hill around which the Lambton Worm was reputed to have wound itself seven times (I think), but before I could remember any of the numerous verses to the famous local song, I was distracted by the sign that said ‘Welcome to County Durham, Land of the Prince Bishops’. Yay!

Reaching the county of my birth brought a change in birding fortune, as a Sparrowhawk flap, flap, glided across the dual carriageway in front of me. And then in short order, the landmarks of Teesside came into view. Chemical plants and industrial buildings, the Transporter Bridge, countless trading estates and, in the distance, the North York Moors with the iconic silhouette of Roseberry Topping.

I parked outside my brother’s house and gingerly unfolded myself from the car. If I’d had a peedie dog, I would’ve said “Toto, I've a feeling we’re not in Orkney anymore.” Blossom-heavy and leafy trees decorated gardens and hedgerows, their branches motionless in the breathless evening. The liquid and flutey songs of numerous Blackbirds drifted through the air, a tonic for a tired traveller. With an almost audible click, I could finally relax.

There was one surprise still to come. As my brother showed me to my room, I was delighted to discover that the bed linen had a dragonfly motif.

Monday 21 April 2014

Sports bulletin

Here's an update on progress in the garden, first mentioned in this post.

In an Easter weekend where there has been any number of sporting fixtures, I can report that the score is...

Docks 14, Willows 44

On the face of it, this is a great result. Although, as with most things, the devil is in the detail.

Today's planting pattern
In team news, a third row of Willow, with the addition of a few scallops, took up the last 44 of our cuttings. So more sticks will be at the top of our next shopping list.

To add a little gloss to the performance, some of the first two rows are beginning to sprout, which is most pleasing. Quite whether all of the previous 160 will burst into bud is as yet unknown.

Excuse the rubbish photos, the sun was so bright, I couldn't see the phone screen properly. Add to that dock-digging fatigue and it was a miracle they are the right way up at all. Where's the physio?!




So far, so rosy, eh?

Hmmmm, the '14' referred to the number of bags of Dock roots dug up and ready to be shipped off to the recycling facility. I just hope that the council's industrial composting procedure can cope with perennial weeds.

Even a close friend, who is even more passionate about environmentally-friendly and wildlife gardening than we are, has quietly taken me to one side and whispered in my ear, "You do know these are Docks, don't you? You will have to resort to Captain Chemical to shift them."

I admitted that I did know this, but was not yet ready to accept the ultimate truth. For if I keep digging them up, season after season, I will eventually win the battle. But only if I live long enough to see the game through!

Saturday 19 April 2014

Very good Friday

Good Friday was the last full day of my brother and his wife's week long visit to Orkney. They had arrived the previous Saturday on the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness, which was forced to sail up through Scapa Flow due to strong winds and heavy seas. Their first night involved gale force winds (nothing to do with my cooking) and the next day was sunshine and intermittent hail showers. As they say, Welcome to Orkney!

They were able to do touristy things during the next few days: Tomb of the Eagles; Burwick cliff walk; Skara Brae; Stromness street amble. But Wednesday was a return to wet and windy weather, so we all explored the sights of Kirkwall: St Magnus' Cathedral; umpteen shops; and there may have been tea and cake at a cafe. That evening's entertainment was the power outage that affected the whole of the north of Scotland, including the Western and Northern Isles, always a fun-filled hullabaloo, what with all the candles and torches!

The following day, with electricity restored, life returned to its meteorological windy normal. We visited the Orkney Brewery and partook of their tour (this will be a separate blogpost), followed by a quick trip to the Harray Potter and then Betty's Reading Room over by Tingwall.

Yesterday dawned both bright and reasonably calm. so we all piled into the car for a West Coast adventure (erase from your mind any images of a VW Camper decorated with a primary colours flower motif, with its occupants sporting long hair and garish clothing, not that West Coast). As we trundled through Finstown, I recalled that Our Lass and I had had a conversation the previous week about whether to visit Happy Valley, so as it was virtually en route, we made a small detour to take in this little gem of a place.

I will apologise right now, as there aren't any habitat shots here. I was carrying Very Wrong Len, so all the below photos are close-ups of one form or another.

The little wooded valley was teeming with Spring flowers: Bluebells, Primroses, Wood Anemones, Purslane, Lesser Celandine, and several shrubs were in flower too, notably Redcurrant and the invasive Salmonberry.

I heard, but did not see, a Willow Warbler, which is always a treat and more so this far north. It really did finally feel like Spring. Numerous species of bee were buzzing from bloom to bloom and we flitted about the place in similar fashion, drinking deep of the spirit-lifting sweet nectar of life bursting anew.

Suitably invigorated, we bimbled up to Birsay for lunch, before heading across to Marwick to explore the bay, cliffs and Kitchener Memorial.

In keeping with some deeper Easter tradition, a Hare ran across our path, at some point in the day (our local farmer has banned the shooting of Hares on his land, so we are doubly lucky).

Good Friday? Pretty much perfect.

Thursday 17 April 2014

Never a truer word

Last night, there was a power cut in the north of Scotland, the Western and the Northern Isles, with about 200,000 homes affected.

Sadly, there were traumatic scenes, as folk were unable to watch the closing moments of this week's edition of Masterchef, and worse still, even less fortunate people had to sup their beverage of choice by candlelight.

Which neatly brings us to the true meaning of a ...

Sunday 13 April 2014

Admin matters

For a while now, it seems, there's been a problem with this blog.

Who said, "Yeah, the bloke writing it."? Cheeky so-and-so!

No, it would appear that commenting has been a problem for some, but not for others.

Following some sterling research by laligalover, I have changed the manner in which the Comments appear. No longer will they be embedded within the post, they will be in a separate pop-up window.

Can I ask that anyone who has had trouble posting comments (constructive, humorous or otherwise), please have another attempt and let me know if there's an improvement in service? Regular commenters, hopefully, you will be unaffected, but please feel free to verify that you can still comment.

Thank you.

Fifth bloggiversary

Well, there wasn't a five year plan, but here I am. Who'd've thought it, eh? Not me, that's for sure. To be honest, when I reached last year's anniversary milestone, the events that have transpired in the intervening twelve months were not on our radar or hidden over the horizon, let alone remotely constituting a plan.

(Anyone new to the blog may wish to play catch-up with the first, second, third and fourth anniversary posts, but it's not compulsory and there's not a list of questions at the end.)

Lots of folk have had Five Year Plans through history, with varying degrees of success. I suppose Stalin's will be the most well-known? But I have no intention of doubling the grain harvest from our half acre plot, or even having a grain harvest in the first place. The jokes are corny enough, there's barley a week goes by without a terrible pun and excerpts from the blog aren't about to be cerealised.

Idly flicking through the stats, the top five posts from the past five years are a mixed bag. There's not a trend as such, and the number of 'pageviews' registered are a law unto themselves.

But happily ignoring that, here's the 2009-2014 chart rundown...

At Number Five, we have 'Look what turned up on the post!' from 2009, a tale of derring-do in the insect world (373 pageviews).

At Number Four, just nudging ahead, is 'A pun to eclipse all others' from 2013, the Dark Side of the Moon track-infested post about the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd's famous album (394 pageviews). 

At Number Three, out in clear and possibly hot water, is 'Post post post' from 2011. The title referred to the fact that this post (announcement) was about a post (timber), but er... afterwards (508 pageviews).

At Number Two, several hundred hits to the good, is 'A setting sun and daughter', one of my final blogposts before leaving Milton Keynes last year. Quite why my burble about an Autumnal walk with Second Born should be so popular is a mystery (857 pageviews).

But at Number One, from 2012, with a stonking 12894 pageviews, is 'Disco no more', my eulogy to Taffy the Truck, our dear departed Series 2 Discovery. The referrer spammers and internet robots must've been busy back then.

But not this robot...

Thursday 10 April 2014

Glanced and gone

In the scudding sky, a solitary Raven glides over ephemeral diamonds in the dust, 
as a vague, misty and mythical vision of distant hills teases my eyes and thoughts.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Man flu and mind games

I had been under the weather for several days, finally succumbing to Our Lass's cold bug, which we were now both struggling to throw off.

Some rather pleasant Spring days had come and gone, whilst I could only gaze longingly out of the window, at vast blue skies and the occasional scudding cloud. My eyes ached both with yearning and with cold symptoms. Meantime, Our Lass, who had a week's head start on the illness, pottered about the nascent garden like a newborn lamb in lush green pastures.

By yesterday, I felt that a little energy was returning, but I was still slow to wake and start the morning. In no particular rush over breakfast, I listened to the local news on Radio Orkney, fired up my pc and scanned emails from presumably healthy folk (or, at least, ill ones who weren't such a wuss as Yours Truly), before eventually deciding to have a shower.

At that point where you're wet all over and have soap suds in your eyes, I suddenly thought,

"It's Tuesday!"

(Ok, there may have been a teensy expletive in there somewhere.)

Not hugely earth-shattering news, I'll admit, seeing as how it was the day between Monday and Wednesday. Even on Orkney, the days of the week tend to follow a similar pattern to elsewhere.

Was there some important deadline to meet? A vital decision to make concerning the fate of nations? Or the publication of a report to secure the future of our planet?

No, the reason for my panic was a bit more prosaic than that... it was bins day.

And I had forgotten.

Worse still, which bins this week?

In Orkney, the local authority operates a fortnightly system; household waste, one week, and recyclates, the next. Laid low by a virus, I wasn't sure where in the alternate universe we were.

Making as much haste as decently possibly, once cleaned, dried and dressed, I ventured to the window to check what our neighbours had decided to do.


Eh? It is Tuesday, isn't it? After checking the calendar and the refuse collection timetable, I could confirm that, yes, it was the afore-mentioned day and that it was also a recyclates week. Odd, then, that no-one else had bothered? Especially as they are usually reliable with their rubbish bin deployment.

Trying to put aside the awful conclusion that, due to my tardiness, the bins had already been emptied and returned to their respective homes (aarrghhhhh!), I wandered outside to look up and down the road, in that time-honoured method of determining what is going on.

Still nothing.

Not a bin or bag, of any hue or size, to be seen... anywhere.

This was becoming weird (as opposed, dear reader, to the weirdness of my befuddled thought processes).

Then I wondered if the approach of Easter had changed the schedule, after all, we're new to the area and perhaps everyone else 'just knows'. A flick through the local newspaper and a brief search online didn't give any clues as to whether this was the case.

Therefore, hoping against hope, I trundled our two green wheelie bins out to the roadside, weighted down their lids with a couple of rocks (because it's Orkney and it's windy) and sloped back inside to see whether the fickle hand of Fate would cast her dice in my favour.

Barely an hour later, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the bins neatly laid down behind our wall. And another consignment of paper, plastic, glass and tin was on its way to recycling reincarnation.


It's true, from time to time, Our Lass has been known to mutter that I worry about all the wrong things.

Thursday 3 April 2014

Willow and dark sarcasm

Updated 7th April 2014 with additional species information

Sorry, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alyson Hannigan fans, not this Willow, I'm afraid. And very specific apologies to Captain Sundial, who is still carrying a torch after all these years.

Nope, this blogpost is about Salix and my first tentative steps at planting up our garden. The first watch words in Orcadian gardening are 'shelter belt', to provide conditions for other plants to grow. In some ways, this is like choosing a sacrificial lamb (o-oh, veering Buffy-wards again!) to take the brunt of the prevailing winds and the most obvious candidate is Willow. Opinion is divided upon whether it is the best provider of shelter, but it's certainly the cheapest to source and easiest to plant.

Following my trip to Orkney ZeroWaste's Spring Fair and Plant Sale last month, I was the proud owner of 160 cuttings of what I think is Grey Willow, Salix cinerea, one of the native Orkney willows. (7th April 2014. See note below for further clarification, Thanks again Jenny!

Here's one of several bundles, keen to bud
But first there was the small matter of preparing the ground. In an ideal world, the whole half acre site would be weed and stone free. However, very little of that has yet occurred and the budding bundles of potential tree-ness won't wait forever.

So, putting all perfectionist and pedantic thoughts to one side, I roughly cleared a swathe 23m long and 0.5m wide. This was to make room for the first double row of planting, beginning in the bottom southern corner of the garden and progressing along the south-westerly boundary.

When I say 'roughly cleared', I meant removing the Docks. The Willow will have to take its chances with the dandelions, buttercups, various grasses, thistles and heaven knows what else. Well, they are native trees, so they must have got the hang of coping with this sort of stuff, you'd think?

What's up, Dock?

I do wonder if these have a use...
I decided to leave a significant gap between the first row and the boundary fence, so as to leave room for maintenance and restrict farm animals from grazing, hence the row was marked out 1.5m from the fence.
Doesn't look very promising, eh?

The first bundle is placed in position ready to be planted
The actual planting was reasonably easy, the instructions I was given were carried out to the letter...

This is my kind of gardening!

OK, Pink Floyd fans, think of it as another stick in the wall.
And just when you were wondering where the 'dark sarcasm' came in!

The cuttings went in at about 0.5m intervals and then the second row was planted 0.5m inboard of that, but offset by 0.25m.

Yeah, I know it's not straight. Jeez, lighten up!
On cue, as I hammered in the eighty-oddth stick, although not forecast, it began to rain. At least it saved me from pondering whether to water in the cuttings, or not.

The next step is to repeat the above, but along the south-easterly boundary, at which point I will have run out of cuttings. No worries, there's a plan...

Note: The cuttings I got at ZeroWaste were not native willows - the bundles contained mostly some of the biomass willows that were grown by Orkney College (fast growing Salix viminalis hybrids, long narrow leaved) plus maybe a few of the Salix hookeriana (which is a North American willow with wider silvery leaves). We wait with bated breath for growth and leafage, so that we can attempt to decipher the Salix code.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Death in paradise

It would seem that, even this far north, the Spring migration is well and truly under way. This is a good and pleasing thing.

Local birders have been reporting sightings of Hawfinch in a few gardens and the Bird Observatory on North Ronaldsay has experienced an increase in migratory species, blown across the North Sea on easterly winds.

However, it's all fairly quiet in our neck of the w.... er... dochans? Bare earth doesn't attract many birds and I don't think Stone Curlew make it to Orkney! I am starting to hear more territorial birdsong, but it is limited to a Blackbird and a Greenfinch. But being outside in the garden does allow sounds from farther afield to reach my ears. Whilst turning over the soil, I am accompanied by the calls of distant Oystercatcher and Lapwing. I never tire of hearing the skirling notes of the Curlew. Starlings chatter and mimic from their perches on the roofs of the nearby farm barns. An almost ever-present sound is the plaintive mewing of Common Gull, and occasionally but somewhat bizarrely, a Peacock, which seems to live somewhere to the east of us.

There's plenty of life in the soil too, which is a pleasant surprise. No shortage of earthworms and all manner of ground-dwelling invertebrates. I remarked upon this fact, this morning, whilst visiting the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) office in Kirkwall, only to be told that, in some parts of Orkney, the New Zealand Flatworm has decimated native earthworm populations. Crivens! We will have to be careful when moving new plants into the garden, to try to minimise the chances of accidentally bringing this alien predator to our doorstep.

I was also warned to keep an eye open for Stoats, because although they are seen infrequently, they are a fearsome predator of ground-nesting birds. Many of the species of birds that choose to rear their young in Orkney are already declining in numbers. The last thing they need is another mammalian egg and chick thief. Stoats are not native to Orkney and are likely to have been introduced, either accidentally or misguidedly. Hmmm, one creature's island paradise is definitely another's nightmare from hell.

Tuesday 1 April 2014


Shhhh! The weather has been reasonably dry for nearly a week! Still overcast and with a fair old breeze, but our half acre of mud is beginning to look more like a garden-in-waiting. Perhaps it was the subtle turning of the year as we passed the vernal equinox, but a gentle pressure drove me outside, like a new leaf bud, keen to burst into the Spring air.

It was time to dig.

There's a small patch of earth at the front of the property, maybe 20m by 2m, which looked as if it would be a good place to start. An attainable goal, I reckoned, for muscles that had forgotten what they were for and, conveniently, couldn't remember how back-breakingly achy turning over soil can be.

They soon found out!

We were well aware that the soil we could see would be a thin veneer over what had been, until recently, a building site. Sure enough, I began to unearth plenty of stones, so began to construct a cairn in the corner of the hard standing. The odd breeze block and kerb stone appeared, along with various bits of twisted metal. However, the predominantly, and overwhelmingly, main constituent of this garden is Dock, Rumex obtusifolius. This is a perennial weed with a deep tap root, so a long and uphill struggle (even on the flat bits) awaits me. It's not all bad news, as the leaves of the Dock are a useful tool in the natural First Aid kit against the stings of Common Nettle, Urtica dioica, which often grows in similar habitats.

So far, I have dug about a third of this small area, in short bursts of energy punctuated by vociferous complaints from my back. I have filled about six compost bags with Dock roots and made a decent start on the cairn.

Recently, whilst on the internet, I discovered this photo of the garden, taken by Google Street View in 2009. Apart from realising that our 'new' home has been in existence, almost complete but empty, for five years, the other shock is the sheer amount of Docks present. And then some, allowing for another five years' spread!

The area behind the house is now populated by another four homes.

I wouldn't wish to give the impression that I spend an inordinate amount of time surfing the web, but today I quite coincidentally came across another blog, also written in Orkney, whose subject was Docks, or Dochans as they are known up here. It features some poems written about Dock, although I must admit that my feelings towards this plant haven't quite risen to the heights of rhyming self expression.

For those readers who are sharper than the average nettle sting, the previous blog in that series can be found here.