Winter guests

Over the winter we take as much care as we can of the local wildlife.  We have discovered that that we can feed most birds that come to our table by scattering birdfood (grain and grated-up fatballs) along the path to our house, so we dispense with the bird feeders for this time of year as they aren’t really used, and the food there just goes mouldy.Birdfood on path in cold snowy conditionsThis brings a number of birds to our table.  Crows, pigeons, sparrows, blackbirds, robins and wrens all feed there – we do not discriminate.  All birds need food on cold hard days, and all birds are part of our local community.birds eating on pathWe even have a friendly – and very timid – seagull, and I am happy to feed this seagull (a young bird, I think) so long as he doesn’t bring all his friends along too.  Indeed, I rather admire his ingenuity in finding us, and keeping us to himself!Seagull on pathWhen we first arrived here, Poe was good enough to extend our winter hospitality to other small folk.  She would be out in all weather, looking for little lost souls.Poe venturing out in snowShe was sure they would prefer the nice warm inside to the snowy cold outside. Poe returning with mouseTrouble was, she would then expect them to play for a little while …Poe has a mouse… before she lost them, and they ran off to make new homes inside.  A year later, we discovered the small carcase of just such a forgotten mouse, trapped behind the grandfather clock.  Such a considerate mouse – never smelt in its decay.  Now it has a place of honour on our nature window display.desiccated mouse and other treasuresLuckily, Poe is now too old to go out a-mousing, but we have discovered with our shed spring cleaning that we are still caring for the local wild mouse population.  I keep my spinning fleece in the garden shed, as well as our supplies of bird feed.  The fleece is high up on shelves.fleece on high in shedOne year, I brought a particularly special bag of Crookabeck alpaca out of the shed into the kitchen for dyeing, and I discovered that somebody had not only been making a home in my beautiful fleece, but they’d been helping themselves to the food supplies available in the shed.  A cosy way to spend the winter, don’t you think, with food and comfy bedding both on hand?!Evidence of mice making themselves at homeWe always know what the mice are up to in the shed, because they leave little guilty teethmarks all over the bird food.mice eating bird fat ballsAnother year, I caught the little blighters in action.  Mice in grainTime for some shed spring cleaning soon – I wonder what we will find in there this year?

All is safely gathered in

(I was away when they harvested the grain in the fields in front of our house, so guest editor Stephen has kindly written a harvest blog for you – and me! to enjoy.)

It’s harvest time. For many people now this has become an almost mythic time of the year. City dwellers rarely see grain fields except on long car journeys or from train windows as they speed through the countryside. Even though I was brought up in a small industrial town in the midlands and must have passed many fields either ripe with grain or covered in stubble I would rarely, if ever, have seen the actual harvesting of the grain – perhaps only glimpsed on a country excursion.

Birds and harvester

And so for many people harvest was celebrated for one day of the year in church at Harvest Festival, a Sunday when the church would be decorated with flowers, and produce from gardens and allotments would be placed around the altar – along with tins and packaged foodstuffs. A rural vicar might cadge a sheaf of wheat from a local farmer; but what my father obtained as a vicar in North London during my teenage years I have no recollection. (Ironically he was responsible for a group of local clergy, and for this he received a special title – Rural Dean!)

The harvest services had their special hymns, only sung at this time, which add to the atmosphere and memories of this festival. Come ye thankful people, come (from which the title of this blog comes), Fair waved the golden corn, & We plough the fields and scatter.

But we are incredibly privileged to live in the midst of open fields where we see the whole cycle from planting to harvesting unfold before us.

And there comes that magical day when weather and season rhyme, and the combine arrives.

Harvesting against sea

And most spectacular it is. The combine is assisted by grain lorries which take the grain from the harvester even whilst it continues to reap.

Transfering grain

Time is of the essence here and so they speed away to the farm where the grain is transferred into their silo. Even with a pair of lorries they find it hard to keep up. From there the grain is sold on to grain dealers – and who knows where it ends up. For the farmer is now at the mercy of the international forces of supply and demand over which he has no control.

Harvester in action

There is a decreasing demand for straw for a variety of reasons – mainly to do with the decrease in the size of the national dairy herd. And so for most of the crops harvested on the local farms the straw is simply chopped inside the harvester, spewed out the back, and left as a mulch on the fields. So far this year we have yet to see bales on any of the harvested fields. Last year the grain was grown right up to our boundary. Up close the combine harvester is an awesome beast.

Bit too close for comfort

Harvesting doesn’t usually start until about midday. This gives a chance for any dew on the grain to dry off – but once started a keen eye is kept on the weather forecast. This year rain was forecast for the next day and so they continued on into dusk . . . .

Twilight harvest

. . . . and beyond. Finally it was all finished at about 11pm, long after it had got dark.

Night harvest

In olden times there would now be a huge celebration – a feast called Harvest Home. The whole community would turn out to escort the final wagons laden with the stooks of corn back to the farm. Here is a depiction of this in a print from around 1820.

harvest home

And then the feasting would commence – a scene often depicted in costume dramas, and most memorably in John Schlesinger’s film of Hardy’s novel, Far from the Madding Crowd.

Villages and parishes still commemorate this event with a Harvest Supper, though many of those attending will have little if any connection with agriculture. Changes in farming practices and  increased mechanization have meant that the agricultural workforce in the UK  has shrunk dramatically in modern times, from 22% of the workforce in 1841 to less than 1% in 2011.

And the increasing efficiency of modern harvesters means that very little grain goes unharvested. In olden times this was left on the fields for the poor of the parish, who would come and glean what they could – a scene memorably captured in Millais’s painting, ‘The Gleaners’.

Millais Gleaners

And you might like to look at Banksy’s reinterpretation of this painting Click here

Modern harvesters are so efficient that very little is left, and the only gleaners now are the birds who descend on the stubble in large numbers – pigeons, seagulls, crows, and starlings. Huge flocks of starlings turn up from who knows where, and when frightened all fly up in alarm.

Birds against sea

They seem to swarm about in an extraordinary coordinated way . . . .

Swirling starlings

 . . . . or settle on the nearby power lines. Shades of Alfred Hitchcock!

Bird on a wire

But they don’t have long to feast. Fields are now often planted straight after harvesting with winter wheat which is hardy enough to survive the winter and gives improved yields due its longer growing season. For this the fields need to be prepared.

Fields were normally cleared of stubble by burning, but this practice was banned in 1993 for a variety of reasons. I remember the countryside covered in smoke at this time of year. This year our farmer tried to burn off some large standing clumps of dead grass along a fence line. The fire got out of hand and the stubble started to burn. This picture gives you an impression of how the countryside might have looked at this time:

Stubble burning

So stubble is now either ploughed in or roughly combined with the soil by harrowing. Modern farming practice is for fields not to be ploughed every year as it can break down the soil structure. At this point manure may be spread on the land. Our farmer uses the manure from his herd of Aberdeen Angus beef cattle – and with the wind in the right direction very pungent it is too!

Muck spreading

Here is the field in front of our house being ploughed in September, 2013. The seed was planted a day or two later.

Ploughing

It was a mild Autumn and so the crop got off to good start. Here is the scene one month later – already turning green.

New growth Oct

And finally by early December the fields almost look like a lawn, here with a flock of fieldfares resting during their migration from Scandinavia to Southern Europe.

December field fares

And so the cycle of the farming year rolls on.

And what of the future? Global warming may well result in some other sort of crop being gathered from these fields. Perhaps, a hundred years hence, the occupants of our home will be looking out over rows of vines or groves of olive trees.

Silly babies, squabbling teens

Our garden is full of birds!  The first crop of fledglings have arrived and they, together with their exhausted parents, are everywhere, greedily looking for food (and water). starlings at water bowlIt wasn’t like this when we first moved here.

We arrived some five years ago to a cottage that had been converted from an old steading.  After the conversion, it had been let to temporary tenants.  Nobody had put energy or effort into the garden.  We inherited a wild grassy field of a garden.wild gardenWhen we had tamed our wilderness (mown the lawn), we had nothing in the garden but grass – nowhere secure for birds to shelter bar the one clump of grass we left (on left of picture below, just inside the fence).Seaview with the wild lawn tamedThat winter birds came and went as it snowed and snowed.  They must have been very hungry – but none stayed.  How could they – there was no shelter in our garden.  winter birdsBut as we dug beds and things began to grow, the birds began to visit. bird feedersbirds on gutteringOur mornings start with the ritual of putting fat balls and bird seed out for the birds.  Some goes in birdfeeders hanging on walls and fences, and some is scattered on the path (we grate the fat balls up).

This is to cater for all tastes.  Some birds like to graze on the ground…(this is a family of collar doves that came for a few days and then moved on….same with the crow.)  birds on the pathSome eat at the feeders…starling on feederThere’s a great deal of argy-bargy, particularly at the feeders.  Remember these are young uns, learning how to cope with just about everything by themselves.several birds on feederThey don’t only have to learn to share the feeders – there’s the drinking water/bath tub as well.bird washing itselfOne of my favourite ladies, this doe-eyed Blackbird teen, hesitantly approaching the cat drinking water.  It’s all the same to them (provided the cat isn’t around, of course).young lady blackbirdWe are especially fond of the wagtail family who have been returning to spend their summers here for several years.wagtail in gardenBut we are disappointed that the wagtails have not chosen to nest in our woodshed this year (as they have for the two previous years.  Their babes were just a hoot.)wagtail chicks in woodshedLast year the blackbird also nested in the woodshed, and we got birdtv set up.  It was the best! Sorry Mr Weatherperson – it was far far better than real telly.bird tv much better than real tv Here’s Mama Blackbird working hard to feed her chicks.bird tvAnd here’s Papa Blackbird working hard to keep the nest clean!papa blackbird cleaning up nestMama Blackbird knew how to keep her chicks in order – look at that little squashed face on the right!mama blackbird sitting on nestSomebody else in the house was very interested in birdtv…Poe watching bird tvBut poor old Poe – she’s really confused!  Love this pic of her trying to work out where the baby birds really are.Poe looking behind the tvWhen she was younger, she was really seriously into bird watching …Poe watching birds on fenceBut now she’s older, she just lets the world go by…  Unfortunately there are other teens in the block.  This is our neighbours’ young cat who is fascinated by what goes on in our garden. neighbour's catSometimes young bemused teens fly into our conservatory and have to be coaxed out. young swallow in our conservatoryOne year we had a silly sick young carrier pigeon (nicknamed Gormy) whom Stephen loved to death (sadly that’s true though it was a very poorly bird when it arrived).gormy the pigeonWe were beginning to think that this was going to be rather a disappointing year.  No birds nesting in our wood shed, and where are the chaffinches and greenfinches we’ve found feeding at our table in previous years?  birds under feederThese days, it’s quite ordinary birds that we find eating on our path…more birds on garden path But you can never guess the animal world.  Who was to arrive earlier this week but Larky Boy!  (I shouldn’t really label this bird so because I don’t actually know if it is male or female.)  But he (I’m sticking with Larky Boy) is most unusual and a real delight.

We hear the larks here on and off all summer, and sometimes catch brief sightings of them, rising helicopter-fashion from their nests in the local fields up, up, up to the heavens for some glorious singing.  But they are very shy birds….apart from Larky Boy.  He even did a little tentative practice singing on our lawn!larky boyThe other day he brought his siblings.  But they haven’t reappeared.  He has though, – just got to enjoy his presence while it lasts.  three larks on the lawnWhat pleasure it is to have these birds with us for a while.