Wednesday, 4 January 2017

2017 starts tricky.

I always had a sense that 2017 could turn into a very challenging year, but I thought this would mostly be caused by politics.
Well, it hasn't started off too well and Sue and I have had a difficult few days on the smallholding. You've heard of warts'n'all. Well this is the warts part. I don't want to linger over it, but a couple of the smaller lambs have run into trouble and it has taken all our care to get them past the worst of it. Hopefully we've turned the corner now, but things are still fairly critical for one of them.

So instead, here's how 2016 went out.

Monday 26th December 2017
Mr Rotavator hits the road again
At the back end of last season I had to order a couple of new belts for the rotavator. It took ages to get hold of them and today I finally got round to fitting them. I am not a very technical person, but the operation seemed to go smoothly.
It has just about been dry enough lately for me to be able to turn some of the soil, though when you hit a sticky patch the rotavator tines become clogged up very quickly and the job becomes untenably slow. Early morning frost helps the situation, but it's cold on the hands.
I managed to work over the area where the mangels grew last year (or rather didn't grow, as something ate them before they ever got going!). I'm using the area as a nursery bed for cuttings and young plants this year.
The Cutting Edge
Winter is the time to take hardwood cuttings. This process is amazingly straightforward and with a little patience can yield hundreds of free plants. I started with the privet hedge, which has now been in  a couple of years and is actually starting to look something like a proper hedge. I snipped off about 500 (yes, 500!) of the strongest shoots and set about turning each of them into a young plant.
All you do is snip the very tip off, just above a leaf node, and then cut just below a node at the bottom, leaving a cutting about 6"-8" long. The lower leaves are stripped off. It's not complicated and takes literally a few seconds for each one.
I haven't gone into every detail, but there's not much more to it. There are more detailed instructions available all over the interweb.
You then just poke them in the ground. Not every one will survive and you have to wait a year before they have established into small plants. But like I said, with a little patience and a little spare space I should have enough plants to create quite a lot of hedging in a couple of years time.

I was pushing for time to get all the cuttings in before dark. Not only that, but the ground was already frosting back over, which made for numb fingers. So this was not a great time for a rare bird to turn up in Gloucestershire, especially one which I had never seen in the UK before. But that's what happened. Fortunately news came through just too late for me to contemplate jumping straight in the car and getting there before dark. Instead, I tried to get all the cuttings planted so they would be safely in the ground. I was beaten by darkness so wheeled the rest into the polytunnel, where their freshly cut ends would be protected from the frost but it is not too hot to dry them out.

The rest of the evening was spent trying to find out more details about the Blue Rock Thrush which had turned up in gardens in The Cotswolds.

Tuesday 27th December 2017
Blue Rock Thrush Day
At 7.30am it was just getting light as I stood at the end of a cul-de-sac peering through the gloom at a tall hedge and a shed roof. It wasn't long before a whisper went round that the bird was in the garden, though it wasn't visible to us. The local residents had been warned of a possible large turn out, but behaviour was very good. Nobody went where they shouldn't, everybody was quiet and everybody parked away from the site and walked in.
After about 15 minutes the Blue Rock Thrush hopped up and sat in the low branches of a tree, just about on view to everybody. In this light it didn't look much, but as the sun rose more and more details could be made out. The bird periodically flew back to the ground, where it was apparently being fed pork pies! By the time it was fully light, there were well in excess of 100 people admiring this bird. The last twitchable one was back in 2000.
By now the slightly bemused residents were out and about. They took the whole thing well and, rightly so, were quick to appear with collection buckets for a local charity.

ed: At the time of writing, they have raised well in excess of £1000!

As the morning sun started to defrost the roof tops, the Blue Rock Thrush headed for the chimney stacks, possibly more akin to its natural habitat (the clue's in the name, though I don't think the rocks have to be blue)

It was a fun morning, bumping into loads of friends, but details of an eatery in the village tempted us away for a hearty cooked breakfast before we headed back home along the frosty roads of south central England.

Neil had the bright idea of popping into Deeping Lakes Nature Reserve to look at the Long-eared Owls which roost on an island. Great idea Neil. The fens were foggy!

I was back on the farm just before dark.

Wednesday 28th December
Disappointment for the dogs
Boris and Arthur have learned to associate a car ride with a trip to the beach, but today they were in for a big let down as the final destination was the vets. The cats came too. Nothing bad, just routine check-ups and collection of flea and worm treatment - always important on a farm
I finished putting the cuttings in the ground. They survived well in the polytunnel and hadn't even wilted.
Lots of privet cuttings!

After an unseasonably warm Christmas, the weather has turned distinctly chilly. Sometimes this is wonderful, when it is clear and still and crisp. But December ended cold, wet, grey and foggy. No surprises really, but weather for huddling up indoors and making plans for the coming year.

I've started using a to do list on my phone to plan out the year. I get daily reminders so I don't forget stuff. The only problem is that if a job doesn't get done it then shows up every day until it's done!

When I was going through my gardening plans, I realised that I am already late for sowing the mangetout seeds which will give me an early spring crop in the polytunnel. But the polytunnel is currently occupied by three ducks, with nothing on the horizon to indicate the Prevention Order will be lifted. I'll have to move them to the stables soon to share with the chickens and turkeys, as I want to give the polytunnel a thorough clean and disinfection. The late sowing of the mangetout is not a problem. It was at this time of year that I sowed them for this year's early bumper crop.

Lady Penelope and chick have moved back onto the farm.

A foggy walk along the Main Drain

Saturday 31st December 2016
A Trip Down Nostalgia Street
What better way to end the year than a birding trip out on my old hunting ground, Dungeness in Kent. The reason for our visit was a small bird known as a Stonechat. More precisely, a Stejneger's Stonechat (I spelled it, you can decide how to pronounce it). This bird has proven to be something of an oddity as it doesn't look anything like what people expected it to, but DNA testing yielded an unexpected identification. Either a mistake has been made or we still have a lot to learn.

There was an icy chill in the air on the exposed shingle landscape that is Dungeness. The bird showed okay, though it rarely came close. It was there for it's 55th day (it disappeared before DNA results suggested its identity, only to be refound a few days ago) so there was never really too much stress about whether or not we would see it.
I enjoyed my trip out in Kent today, seeing a few old friends from the area. I used to travel down here regularly when I lived in London. It is one of my favourite places. There were some classier though not so rare birds on the nearby RSPB reserve. A fine drake Ring-necked Duck (an American species) was the first I had seen for a few years and a Long-eared Owl at its daytime roost was drawing a steady stream of admirers. It certainly showed better than the ones at Deeping Lakes a few days ago!
Apologies for the shocking quality of the photos!

And so with trepidation into 2017. Who knows what it will bring.

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