Callum certainly made his presence known over the weekend with many branches and trees down locally. At Ricketts Mill water was the issue. The rivers came up with alarming speed and flooded much of the area around the lakes. This of course put pressure on the fences but Neil and his team had built them strong and despite torrents of water pouring through they held up well.
The storks were marooned for a while on a bank backed with thick vegetation. I was able to toss food to them which they gobbled up gratefully and thankfully the waters receded before we needed to mount a rescue mission.
With the help of Steve and his digger we have made a couple of new ponds this summer and they are now starting to fill. It will be some time before they are naturalised and it’s a fascinating process to watch. To speed nature along a little we have sown some pond-edge wildflower mixes and will be transplanting some reeds in when the weather is a little wetter. We have given the larger of these some gently sloping banks to allow water fowl easy access and to provide good feeding for the dabblers.
Some of the old hazel stools have been moved into a new conservation strip at the bottom of the field and we will supplement this with some other planting over the winter.
It has been manic on the farm for weeks. The tree planting was completed in time, with 18,000 mixed hardwoods gone in. We cut a new track across this north bank and while it is raw is a good time to get new plants established. So we have transplanted bluebells, primroses and snowdrops from other parts of the farm and put in bulbs here and there, together with other woodland species. They will get established and gradually build up over the years to make it a pleasant walk for anyone passing by. We’ve seeded all the tracks with grasses which will consolidate them.
The storks have settled in at the ponds at Rickets Mill but are quite shy and wary. All of them have had significant injuries, mainly wings amputated, so no doubt feel very vulnerable. One was also very lame and it was clear it would need two toes amputating so reluctantly we put it down. But one of the pairs have been using one of the four nest platforms so maybe they will manage despite their handicaps. As the grasses grow taller we will mow some areas for them so that they have open ground to forage in.
We have a lot of timber to haul out from along the river track but it is too wet to get heavy machines in there. We will move the sawmill and cut up a lot, but we will need contractors to do most of the work. Some of the trunks are a metre diameter.
After long negotiations we have purchased a six acre field adjacent to the top beaver pen. We will lease 4 acres of this out to continue in silage, but fence off the lower area and develop it with ponds to enlarge the beaver pen. This means that we are felling some trees on our side to make space for a pond. We have a lot of ash dieback there so all of those young trees are coming down, together with a number of 20 year old larches that are shading the south facing wood. We are cutting it all for cordwood which will go for firewood but it is too wet to cart it at the moment. Then we are underplanting it with birch and oak from other parts of the farm. We have an old shaley track at Blaencwm that grows lots of small birches which are doomed when I mow the track. So every year I scoop off the latest crop and plant them out. When we were clearing back some blackthorn we were delighted to discover several elm trees. They are only young, about 5 metres or so, and they have grown since the Dutch elm disease. Maybe they are resistant, or maybe just lucky. We will wrap their trunks and dig out their root balls with a tracked excavator and move them away up the bank to new sites where they can flourish. It’s been too wet to get any heavy machinery onto the land or to do the fencing but we hope to start soon. This cold wet spring cannot go on for ever.
We have been over-hauling all the fencing at the top two pens ready for new beavers. To increase the genetic diversity of the British population, Derek Gow has imported 12 new beavers from Bavaria and they have just completed their six months quarantine. Now we have put a male and a female in each pen so that they can get to know each other for a few days before we open the gate between the pens and run them together to make a new pair. After six months shut indoors in concrete pens it must have been a great treat for them to shuffle down to real water with all the fresh spring herbs growing profusely. Thanks to Ben Goldsmith for funding the import and Derek and his team for doing all the donkey work.
Down at the lake it is a hive of activity. There are three generations of beavers there and they are taking willow sprays to the lodge so it looks like a fourth generation have been born. They have got some impressive ponds dammed up all through the ‘Tongue’ wood and visitors will be able to see the progress they have made. At the moment they are mainly feeding on bramble leaves which they seem to love. Down at the hide an adult male goshawk passed a few metres by the window and a yellow wagtail has chicks above the doorframe inside the hide. I think the snipe have finally gone but a water rail fluttered into the reeds and a water vole crossed from the island. A sandpiper was on the beach along the dam. There are two broods of greylags out and about and at least two more to come. The male geese hang around near the nests for a month, like husbands waiting outside the maternity ward. The Canadas have just hatched one brood, with another to come, and so have the moorhens. The dabchicks are very quiet at the moment, nesting in one of the bays. The swallows and martins are having a hard time; a few have come back but there are very few insects for them yet. The bats are quite busy and I was pleased to see some big bats using the lake, either Noctules or Greater Horseshoes. We are getting a bat detector to try to identify them.
I’m banned from the log cabin at the moment. A wagtail is nesting in a swallow’s nest in the beams and a moorhen is nesting in the reeds right in front of the deck. She does it every year. No doubt as soon as they have finished the swallows will start and I will be banished again. And I cannot even collect my towel that I hung up on a hook after swimming last summer because a bat roosts in it…
The beavers down at Skinny Dipping pond are doing well and have felled a lot of willows. Now they have terraced ponds all down their valley and there is often a heron there. A pair of grey geese have been haunting their island which is really half beaver lodge, but maybe the beaver activities at night disturb them. The kits from last year are getting big but you can still see the size difference when they swim alongside an adult.
We have changed the clocks and now the evenings are much lighter. This means that we can again see beavers in the evenings. It’s still a little early yet but in the next week or so visitors should be able to get a good hour or more of sightings. The hide is ready to go so bring your flask and binoculars and come to see proper Welsh beavers. We charge £20 for an evening’s watching. This includes a guided walk through beaver habitat and as long as you like in the hide. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org to book an evening.
The Beavers have had a very busy winter building dams and extending lodges. The lake lodge particularly has grown enormously. By now there may well be some kits inside, they are born fully-furred and their eyes open soon after birth. Within a few weeks they will begin to venture outside. It’s always wonderful to see the first young with their shaving brush fur taking their first few swims.
Although the white stork is doing pretty well in Europe (but it’s part of a very small group doing well, many more are in dire straights) it has been absent from Britain since 1416. Moves are now afoot to get the white stork breeding in Britain again and we have been lucky enough to be included in this new white stork breeding programme. A group of storks were brought over from a rehabilitation centre in Poland and distributed to various centres around the UK. These storks have all been injured through collisions with power lines and many are wing amputees. It makes them a little ungainly on the ground but other than that they manage to cope very well.
We kept them in a holding pen through the worst of the weather and last week when it started to warm a little we took them down to Ricketts Mill and gave them their new home. The lakes, ponds and boggy bits encourage huge amounts of food for them but we are also buffer feeding them to reduce impact on the pen.
On release they gave themselves a bit of a shake down, looked around and stomped off as if they had been here all the time. Pete has built them some starter homes – platforms low enough for them to get up on to and build their nests. We will start to put a few sticks on the platforms in the coming days and hopefully they will join in. They probably won’t breed this year but you never know.
It’s truly rewarding to be involved in a project such as this and we hope to be able to contribute chicks towards the reestablishment programme when the storks breed.
Here in West Wales we were late getting the snow and quick to lose it. No so good for sledging and making snowmen but it has been great for bird spotting. Over the past few weeks the farm has become a haven for many species we see either rarely or fleetingly. Redwings and fieldfares have been making their presence known in the fields and spinneys. The sound of the Fieldfare is truly one of winter. Starlings, whilst in decline, have been visiting in huge numbers. Neighboring dairy farms have streams of starlings in and out of their cattle sheds feeding on the crumbs of cake and blend left by the cows. This in itself can cause a problem with huge amounts of droppings left on the silage making it unpalatable for the cows. But the sight of a huge murmuration of starlings at dusk…well, who can fail to be stirred by the sight.
There have been good numbers of bullfinches too. They seem to like the long shelter belts along side the farm drives. That gorgeous pink breast brightens the dullest day. Lovely birds but look to your fruit buds when they are about!
The jewels of this chilly period are without doubt the goldcrests and the lapwings. There seems to be a goldcrest flitting around in every bramble patch and the sight of around 50 lapwings in amongst the ewes has me hoping that this species is holding its own.
We are currently plating about 16 acres of deciduous woodland as part of the carbon woodland creation scheme. We were very keen for the woodland to be planted in a random pattern rather than in lines or waves. Random planting makes it much harder for the planters to achieve the correct stocking rate but the effect, especially a few years down the line, will be worth it.
We are planting a mix of sessile oak, wych elm and downy birch with a few willows and aspen on the lower edges plus a good number of more shrubby species.
Over the next few years the canes and tree guards will degrade, the growing trees will shade out the bracken and we will see an increase in biodiversity. At the moment it’s all wheel marks, piles of bags and boxes and sweat and toil but soon the wheel marks
will grass over, the boxes and bags will all have been removed and nature will be allowed to take over. I just wish I could see it in 150 year’s time.
Of course we have seen all this before. We are returning towards the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold https://www.humansandnature.org/aldo-leopold-reconciling-ecology-and-economics , reconciling land use and economics. There is a growing realisation that land cannot be managed solely with economics in mind. This led us into the pesticide era, and now a 75% loss of insect biomass and global warming. Our daffodils that flowered on 9th November were over by Christmas. Here in Wales the diffuse nitrate pollution, mainly from dairy farms has led to major concerns which are currently still unresolved. https://consultations.gov.wales/sites/default/files/consultation_doc_files/160929-nitrate-vulnerable-zones-consultation-en.pdf The Nitrate Vulnerable Zones in Wales are widespread and it is estimated that if restrictions are declared, it could cost around £80K per farm to bring them up to standards for slurry storage and disposal. As about 95% of farms in Wales would be declared bankrupt businesses if it were not for the subsidies, this is not a rosy picture. And if those subsidies are taken off agriculture itself, and put onto environmental schemes, we could see many farms going bust. This is hinted at in some of the reports we are seeing, and it is not new. A number of Welsh farms were abandoned and bought up by the state in the last agricultural depression, and planted into forestry.
The Farming Unions are not fighting for the future, but to retain the past. It is no good keeping our heads in the sand and hoping it will all go away. We have to innovate and adapt to the future.
Our work with beavers has shown their potential in smoothing peak water run off and purifying water by filtering slurry particulates. Exeter University and others have published many papers showing the results of the scientific trials. So beavers are great news for dairy farmers. With a change of emphasis on the grant system, we will be pushing for farms hosting beavers to receive points for their environmental schemes and a financial benefit too. As well as purifying the water, the beavers are opening up some of the shade canopy which allows the aquatic invertebrates to flourish, providing increased growth rates for fish fry.
Even thirty years ago the small family farm was profitable. A family could live well on 100 acres. But the price of land has gone crazy, so that the return on investment does not stack up. Also, even in my youth, just after the war, farming enjoyed much simpler lifestyles. Electrification and tractors were just coming in, and freezers and TVs had yet to come. The aerial photos of the Bevis Trust farms in 1967 all show flourishing vegetable gardens. All gone now. The increasing demands of a cash economy and higher standards of living mean that 100 acres simply cannot produce this level of income any more.
Having farmed in New Zealand in the 1970s when we still had subsidies, and seen what happened when subsidies were removed in 1984 http://dailysignal.com/2016/09/22/what-happened-when-new-zealand-got-rid-of-government-subsidies-for-farmers/ , it would be calamitous if this happened in Wales. New Zealand saw land prices (which had been held up by the subsidies) plummet. This is likely to happen in Wales too, resulting in a massive loss of equity. For those with mortgages, this alone would cause bankruptcy. Whereas New Zealand farmers are young and innovative, the average age of Welsh farmers is over 60. Many want to retire but cannot, while potential young farmers cannot get on the ladder or don’t want to. Farming Connect’s Joint Venture Scheme has 23,000 acres available but is struggling to find young farmers willing to take up the opportunities.
Here at the Bevis Trust we have been pioneering how wildlife can live alongside productive farming. About 30% of the land area has been set aside for woods and water. We currently have about 35 ponds on the farm thanks to the beavers. No slurry is spread anywhere near the water courses, we try to keep a one-field barrier of old grass between any slurry and a stream or river. Some of our wildlife land is now producing more income, even without subsidies, than our best silage land and we have diversified so that we can survive without subsidies.
Times are changing. The writing is on the wall. Trying to plod on as we have always done is no longer an option.