A Busy Time

It’s been manic on the farm recently. This prolonged wet and windy weather has made silage making a gamble and Eirian just got the last lot in at two in the morning before the heavens opened yet again. Many big tree branches, heavy with wet leaves, have been blown down in the strong winds. The swallows and martins, and many other species that require insects for feeding their broods, are really struggling. Let’s hope second clutches do better. The wagtails love to nest in the turf roofs of the buildings and are successful there away from ground predators. Cats are quick to mop up fledgelings making their first fluttering flights.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the Countryfile film crew were here filming and we managed to shoot all the falcon flying shots in good weather before the rain came in again and we got soaked filming beavers. Various visitors have been visiting and watching the beavers and everyone has managed to see them. The family of beavers down at Skinny Dipping Pond have been particularly active and have two new burrows, one of which we think contains this year’s kits. They’ve been building a dam above their pond and it is interesting to see how much water they can hold back. The other two beaver families are also taking food into their lodges so we will soon be keeping an eye out for emerging new kits.

We have had 15 students here over the weekend led by Alicia. They are from Bangor, Aberystwyth and Oxford universities and are studying the effects beavers are having on the habitats. They’ve been camping at Waunlas in pouring rain but the canteen has been a life saver for them and they have been able to get on with a lot of species identification work in the dry.

Meanwhile we have had at least one mink around and have failed to catch it in cage traps. These very agile little aliens can devastate the water voles and the water fowl and are very versatile predators. Especially in this wet weather they lay up in rabbit burrows but while you are busy searching soggy hedges they can just as easily be watching you from up some ivy covered tree.

Down at Ricketts Mill Drew and I have been planting reed beds and these are settling down well. We’ve managed to keep most of the geese away because these pull up the reeds as fast as we plant them. Once the reeds are rooted and the beds thicken up, some geese will be welcome. We have harvested most of the reeds from the Penllynin lake but Drew has been successful at growing phragmites from seeds. Ross and the fencers started last week. Modern fencing uses only very weak chemical preservatives and rot away quickly so Drew has been busy soaking them in creosote for extra protection before they go in. The fence is designed to stop mink, otters and foxes getting in and to prevent beavers getting out, and will enclose about nine acres including four ponds. But it will be another couple of years or so before the habitat has developed enough to support beavers. In restoring ecosystems one has to work from the bottom up, literally. So bringing the raw clay exposed lake bed to life is the first task, with suitable plants that can host increasing populations of invertebrates that in turn will become food for predators such as dragonflies and kingfishers.  Beavers of course are strictly vegetarian. At the moment they are targeting lush herbage but spend a lot of time steadily eating bramble leaves.

With this wet weather, the ground has gone soft again so I have taken the opportunity to plant out a number of trees that we have pot grown, or self-sown birches growing on the tracks that would otherwise get topped off. I’m under-planting areas of woodland that are suffering from ash dieback. The dying ash trees are acting as nursery trees for the new small trees and by the time the ash is completely dead the new trees will be waist high and on their way. We are leaving most of the ash to rot where they stand, but one or two big hedgerow trees will need taking down in the winter. Others seem unaffected so let’s hope we have some resistant ones here able to re-colonise.

The End of Summer

We are still at the farm in Northumberland where we are having a lovely Indian summer, with morning mist in the valleys burning off to reveal bright sunlit landscapes. We have been working with the falcons, flying them every day at robotic prey birds and learning more and more about their development and flying skills high in the sky.
The last broods of house martins fledged from the eaves on the south side of the house, and the swallows from the sheds and stables two weeks ago. The stubby tailed youngsters flitted around the steading for a few days while they grew their long feathers, developed their muscles and perfected their hunting skills. Now they are forming little groups, clustered on the wires, psyching themselves up to move south.
Each swallow weighs just a few grams, a tiny little bundle of feathers. Having designed robotic birds I am only too aware that in a flying bird every part of a gram has to be justified. A swallow carries no surplus, nothing at all. You could hand one over to the most eminent committee of scientists and they could not get rid of half a gram from the design of a swallow. Even the meagre fat stores are distributed to balance the centre of gravity and provide for the journey ahead. Just as in designing we use trial and error and lots of iterations to develop our robotic birds, swallows are the results of billions of iterations, tested over millions of years by evolutionary pressures.
Inside the brain of this tiny bird are a few molecules stored away. They are very special. They are responsible for philopatry, the urge to return to the place of our birth. We all have such a response and express it in different ways. I find it incredible that inside that little swallow, winging its way all south through Europe to Africa, not only does it finds its way to its traditional wintering areas, but, when the time comes in spring, those few molecules will lead it all the way home, right back to the exact beam in the stable where it was hatched. I will come into the house and call ‘Mrs Fox! Spring is here! Our friends are back from Africa!’
Seeing them go brings mixed feelings, like seeing children off to their first days at school. I think that it is our duty to provide these youngsters as part of our contribution to the future of the living world. It is not an onerous responsibility. Sometimes they make a mess in the porch or window ledge, but a strategically place old piece of slate will hold the droppings until the nest is finished. All children make a bit of mess. And when they are gone, the empty nests bring back memories of those little yellow lined mouths peeking out, and of long summer days. Maybe the nests will fall in the winter storms. But somewhere out there on the African savannas, there are a few little molecules of memory that will lead our swallows home again to renew their ancient cycle.