The Year Moves On

Lots of neighbours are on the silage now. The pattern of farming is changing each year. Two of our neighbours have died and their land is let to another neighbour who has committed big time to dairying and built new sheds. So contractors are whizzing round the lanes in massive tractors taking the cut grass to the silage clamps. We have also let a few fields to him and they have been cut too. Our other main silage fields are let to Eirion who also has a lot of dairy cows and those fields will probably be cut this week. Both Ken and Eirion put their cows out through the summer months and strip graze them, but some other farmers keep their cows in all the year round. The cattle make a dreadful mess of the land if they are out in winter, especially in a wet year like the last one. One of our fields behind the house at Blaencwm was badly poached by our five horses this winter and took a long time to dry out. Eirion has applied a heavy dose of slurry and disc harrowed it, hoping it will come away OK, but really it needs re-seeding. The field took a hammering because we kept the horses out of the adjacent field that was re-seeded last year.

field2

Here in Wales, under pressure to produce cheap milk, we have little choice in the farming system. The small family farm dairy units are no longer viable, and even the big ones are only marginal. My son Jamie left the family dairy farm near Llandyssul and now milks 320 cows in New Zealand and is taking on a second farm next door. The grass is growing pretty much all the year round there and the cows are out all the time on carefully managed swards. This cuts down shedding and forage costs tremendously and allows them to compete with us, even though they no longer have subsidies.

Our silage fields are mainly rye grass, forced into dark green rich growth with the use of fertilisers and slurry. Ecologically they are functionally dead. Anything attempting to live in them, from a beetle, to a skylark, to a hare, is shredded into the forage harvester in seconds and the field is left razed, bereft of all life. Kites and gulls clean up any body parts. This is repeated for three cuts throughout the summer, so the cull is remorseless. Even fifteen or twenty years ago we used to cut hay in June, but it was a chancy business, trying to find a window of dry weather for a whole week. Yesterday it was heavy sheeting showers of rain all day, but the tractors didn’t stop.

I watched at the top beaver pond two nights ago. It’s all drama there. The greylags have taken their goslings down to the lake but the moorhens have built their nest on a willow branch felled by the beavers into the water. Now they have hatched, but the parents lead them back onto the nest when it rains and at night time. She sits there with feathers fluffed out, covering all the chicks and pulling scraps of vegetation up around here like someone carefully tucking in a duvet. The other parent visits periodically with choice titbits and the one on the nest reaches down to receive it, then feeds it to a little fluffy black head with a bald red patch on it.

The water voles too enjoy the beaver pond and behave for all the world like mini-beavers. The vole hangs motionless, suspended in the water with dry fur, then dives under, leaving just a chain of bubbles. The beavers themselves must have kits now. The female is definitely lactating but they do not seem to be taking food into the burrow, so they must be new born last week. One of them was out at 1730 yesterday when I went past on the tractor. It was eating the tender blackberry leaves, so perhaps she is hungry being out so early.

I cannot see what the beavers are up to on the middle pond. They are both busy, but the area is too dark in the evening and too full of trees to see if they are breeding. I had a quick look at the pair on the lake and in 30 minutes both adults ferried three big sprays of willow into the lodge and left again. So the kits in there must be quite big and voracious by now. The hide is waiting for its roof but the weather has been against us, and I will make a door for it in the shed today if the rain continues. The moorhens under the log cabin have also hatched but still use the nest. If the weather picks up next week we will get a campfire going and have a party down there. We have several baby falcons being imprinted at the moment and they go everywhere we go. So we call it the Imprint Party. The young falcons are at a formative stage and have to get acquainted with everything, such as dogs, horses and tractors.

Nick

Ticks

As the tick season gets underway it never hurts to remind that tick-borne diseases can be particularly nasty (I speak through experience) and anything you can do to minimise your expose to ticks is a good thing. Have a look at http://www.lymediseaseaction.org.uk/ for useful information about ticks and how to deal with them. Ticks don’t care who you are, what you’re doing in the countryside or how old you are…so a good tick check regime is vital if you’ve been out and about. Don’t forget that dogs can get Lyme disease too.

Drew

Progress

Pete’s doing a lovely job of fitting the boards round the door frame. Once the turf roof is on it’ll look wonderful.

hide4

We are now consistently seeing one pair of beavers ferrying willow shoots to the lodge. Quietly confident that they have young. Sion has seen a number of linnets around the farm recently, goldfinches and bullfinches are everywhere, sparrows seem to be doing well, there are a good number of warblers around the lake and the profusion of baby rabbits can only bode well for the raptor population.

Drew

New Woodlands

We have some steep north facing slopes on the farm that are gradually being taken over by encroaching bracken. Azulox has been phased out for spraying bracken and the slopes are too steep for machinery. Even with heavy grazing or hoof pressure there is no realistic cost-efficient way of controlling the bracken and we are seeing ticks here for the first time. When the dogs run through the bracken in summer they come back with ticks on them and we get them sometimes too. Ticks can transmit Lyme Disease, and we had a friend called Colin who contracted it this way in Scotland. He suffered for several years before committing suicide. It’s a nasty disease.

So we decided to plant this small block of about 7 acres back into woodland. Our stewardship scheme in Wales, Tir Gofal, had finished and with the changes in Single Farm Payments, although we have each year ticked the box expressing interest in Glastir, which is the re-vamped ‘greening’ scheme, we have been unable to obtain any response from the powers that be. Theoretically there have been good grants for woodland plantings, but we have been unable to get a coherent response from anyone. They keep saying that grants are not available at the moment and we have to wait.

Meanwhile the bracken has advanced alarmingly, year on year. What started as a mere pubescent student’s beard has turned into a marauding Mongolian horde. If we don’t plant it soon, the whole slope will be solid bracken.

We have a modest tree nursery in the Bevis shed where we grow a few hundred trees. I try to plant on average two trees a day and have managed to do this for the last 26 years. 2014 was a good acorn year and we collected a lot of acorns, and also quite a bit of beech mast, for the tree nursery. I gathered many of them from the woodlands belonging to a friend called Tula. She is struggling at the moment with oesophageal cancer, and so we decided to name the new woodland ‘Tula’s Wood’. The seedlings had reached 30-60 cm and I had planted them out into individual pots last year so that they could grow large enough to outcompete surrounding vegetation, and also could be planted out later in the spring. We also bought in some bare rooted stock of species we don’t have enough of, such as field maple. We wanted to keep some open areas and also not shade out the tracks too closely, so Drew has planted those fringes with guilder rose. We also obtained some good quality cob nuts and grew them on, so that the hazels will be a good productive strain. We’d like to bring back the elms but resistant trees are very expensive. So we bought in some wych-elm as a substitute. We have one wych elm tree on the farm, in old woodland below the lake, so we thought it was time it had some moral support!

Over the wet winter, Drew has been very busy planting out the bare-rooted stock, and Neil and Dai got on with the fencing. Before it was finally stock proof the tack sheep kept getting in, but although they ate out a few tops, by and large they helped clean out the old field.

Drew had been marking the new trees with canes, but in total there are still large areas of the bank still unplanted. The trees are placed randomly and naturally and we have not used tree guards because we have no deer and there are only a couple of rabbits on this cold north facing slope. If they start to get any big ideas we will re-cycle them and keep the trees safe until the leaders are too high for animals to bite off.

Our experience on the farm has shown that the only way to stop the young trees being choked and lost in the bracken is to spray around them in their first season. So Drew has been busy scrambling across the slope with a back pack sprayer. A blue dye in the spray enables him to see which trees he has done. Now the bracken is starting to uncurl the first leaf and before too long everything will become engulfed.

But in the autumn of 2014, when there were plenty of acorns, the jays got busy, and they hid acorns and some hazel nuts all over the slopes. Now these have sprouted. These seedlings also need marking and protecting, so I have been out with canes this week looking for the first red leaves of the tiny oak trees. So far I have put out over 450 canes, and there are still more trees to find. The old ash trees up at the top west end of the slope have also managed to spread their wind-blown seeds a hundred metres or so into the field. So natural re-seeding from surrounding trees is already well on the way to getting this woodland established. No grants, no costs to the tax-payer, no forms, no administration charges. Thank you jays, thank you wind, and thank you to the surrounding trees and Tula for providing the seeds.

Nick

Litter

5 minutes on the road side, probably in a distance of less than 100m yielded half a feed bag full of cans, bottles and food wrappers. We are 6 miles out of town, one can only assume that it takes 6 miles to eat a hamburger and drink an energy drink as the detritus always seems to end up here.

litter

The really sad thing is that you could repeat the exercise every week and still pick up the same amount.

Drew

Eggs!

At this time of year all the birds are busy nesting. The males are singing their hearts out proclaiming their territories and everyone is busy building nests and incubating eggs. Yesterday some geese took off heading towards the lake, and one of them shed a tiny white fluffy feather. As the feather drifted down, a swallow zoomed in to collect it. Only on the third attempt did it manage to get it in its mouth in the right position. (Don’t forget you still have to be able to see where you are going with a feather as big as your head!). Off it went to line its nest with it. They are collecting mud from the sides of the lake and building up their nests layer by layer. Some of them are using the wire mesh cups we put up from them, and others still use the log shed and the stables.

But it doesn’t always go smoothly. Once a female ovulates her egg and it enters the infundibulum, the process is like a conveyor belt. The fertilised ovum on the yolk is covered with membranes, the egg plumps up with albumen until it is egg shaped, and then the calcareous shell is laid down. Then she has to lay the egg. Sometimes a predator has destroyed her carefully made nest, or maybe she is just ‘taken short’. So occasionally you come across an egg just lying on the ground, fresh and intact, abandoned.

Last week I was down on one of the ponds and in the shallows was a white Canada goose egg. The geese had been hanging out there but eventually had opted to nest on an island on a pond across the field. This egg was sunk on the bottom of the pond, and that meant it was fresh and unincubated. A rotten egg floats, and so does a partially developed one. So I fished it out and held it up to the light and it looked clear. Sure enough, when I got home and broke it into the frying pan it was clean and undeveloped, so I had very tasty and creamy scrambled egg for my lunch.

The falcons on the farm are very busy too at the moment. Over 200 have hatched so far, with more to go. Some of them have already gone to their new owners and we are hand-rearing a few for training later.

Nick

Busy Beavers…

My lurking in the bushes might be paying off. Last night just on dusk I was down by the lake watching a water vole when a beaver swam past towing a spray of fresh green willow leaves. Just then a pair of mallards flushed noisily from the far bank and alarmed her. With a quick tail slap she dived, towing the branch under water entirely. I watched the chain of bubbles and she came up about 20 metres further on. It must be very tiring trying to tow green leaves under water.

I say ‘she’ because of that pair, the female is very prone to tail slapping, often seeming to do it more or less for fun. Drew calls her ‘Betty’ but I call her ‘The Happy Slapper.’ I watched her as she doggedly continued on her way, swimming steadily and purposefully 250 metres up the lake, straight to the lodge. I could just make her out in the gloom, as she dived with her prize outside the lodge and disappeared. Now why we she go to so much trouble to take a tender spray of willow leaves all that way into the lodge? Could she have kits in there? And are they old enough to be eating green feed?

When we are doing field work on falcons, ferrying food back to the nest is a dead cert giveaway that they are feeding young there. Maybe The Happy Slapper knows something we don’t! But the hide construction is well under way. Despite two days of heavy rain this week we have now got the floor joists down, and Pete and Shaun milled larch planks for the walls under cover from the rain in the Bevis Shed. Meanwhile, undeterred by the noise of the saw mill, a wren has a brood about to fledge from her nest tucked into the blower for the forge.

wren

Coming back from the lake, I passed a field of cull ewes. They are ones that failed to lamb and are destined to be ‘sent down the road’ shortly. Some have ‘broken mouths’, which means that they have teeth missing from their lower incisors and cannot easily eat well enough any more. I noticed that one old ewe had just lambed a pair of twins. One had already had an eye pecked out by crows but the other was on its feet. It’s a little runt of a thing, but sufficient to earn its mother a reprieve and Drew will have to ‘shed her off’ to join the main flock up the hill opposite.

Nick