Wednesday 29 July 2015

A secret swallow nest

Next to the chicken pen I have a shed to keep all the chicken food dry. Well, a couple of years ago someone smashed the window from the inside. It was a bit like one of those Jonathan Creek mysteries.
Eventually the mystery was solved. A hen, attempting to accumulate a secret stash of eggs, had gone and got herself locked in overnight. Goodness knows quite how, but she had then smashed her way out.

I attempted to fix the window with a spare pane of glass, but on the very last nail the pane broke in two. Ever since then, that window has consisted of two overlapping broken sheets of glass, which has created a narrow gap along the top.

Why am I telling you about this?
Well not long ago I found a tiny broken eggshell on the floor of said shed. It was so delicate that when I picked it up it simply turned to powder in my big, clumsy hands. I looked up to see where the egg had come from and there, just above the shed door, was a swallow nest! We go in that shed twice a day to get chicken food, yet an enterprising swallow had managed to build a nest, lay eggs, incubate them and hatch them without us even noticing!
You'll see from the swallow facts at the bottom of this page that the female swallow must have been sitting, unnoticed, for over 2 weeks, let alone managing to construct a mud nest without me noticing.

I left the nest in peace.

The next time I looked at the nest, a few days later, I could just see the crown feathers of its young occupants. As I held up the phone to take a picture, they all opened their gapes. They did this three times.

14th July

19th July

Over the next couple of weeks I kept an eye on the nest. I didn't want to disturb it, but the swallows had built it just a couple of inches above head height over a door which we have to access every time we feed the chickens.
21st July

The swallowlets grew at an amazing rate. You could usually only see three faces, but I can assure you there were four squeezed into that tiny nest. They learned after that first time and always remained absolutely motionless and silent whenever I was around.

26th July
27th July

Then yesterday a very excited Sue returned from feeding the chickens. She had just witnessed a young swallow's first flight, describing how it perched on the broken pane of glass torn between escaping Sue and launching into the big wide world. Eventually it fluttered its wings and stepped into the air, before flying out over the soft fruit patch to explore Swallow Farm from the air.

This morning, here is what I found in the chicken shed.

29th July

The whole family had fledged. They left the guinea fowl feathers which lined their nest, but there was no sign of the swallow family. I looked over the veg patch, where swallow families dart and chatter at this time of year. There are several nests in the stables, and with two or three clutches a year that adds up to quite a lot of swallows by late summer. They congregate over the farm, sometimes attracting the unwanted attention of a hobby. As I stared up, I wondered which ones were the chicken shed family.

I'll leave you with a few facts, taken from


Both adults build a nest from mud and plant fibres against a beam or shelf in buildings or a ledge on cliffs. Existing nests are often refurbished, and there are instances where nests have been reused for nearly 50 years.
The eggs of the Swallow are about 20 mm by 14 mm in size, and are smooth, glossy, and white with reddish speckles. The duties of incubating the eggs are performed by the female. The newly-hatched young are fed by both adults, who catch insects on-the-wing and collect them in their throats before returning to the nest. Once fledged, the youngsters receive in-flight food from their parents.

Breeding Data
Breeding StartsNumber of ClutchesNumber of EggsIncubation (days)Fledge (days)

Saturday 25 July 2015

Water, water everywhere... Rainwater harvesting

The rest of the world may bemoan the onset of rain, but anybody who lives off the land and still maintains an affinity with nature will appreciate it. Granted that occasionally it causes us problems but, to be fair, without it we'd all be dead!
Over the last 24 hours South Lincolnshire has experienced a mini deluge, which is a very good thing indeed, for it's been an overly dry spring and summer so far. Not particularly hot, but arid enough to open up a few serious cracks in the ground.

Last night's rain though may just save the few new fruit trees which were struggling with the dry conditions. It should get the pasture growing again, which in turn means that the sheep might fatten up enough to sell. And it should get the vegetables growing a bit faster, as they've been in a state of virtual suspended animation for the last few weeks.

When the rain does come, I make the most of it by collecting as much as possible. I've got three 1000 litre IBCs (don't ask me what that stands for - they're the big white containers you see in fields) as well as the normal array of green water butts connected to the guttering.

My biggest achievement is linking most of my water collection so that the linked containers all self-level. This is how I get water into the IBC in the polytunnel, which in turn means that my polytunnel plants can have harvested rainwater whenever they need it.

1000 litres of rainwater connected to...
About three months ago I did manage to fill this container up, but I then frustratingly left the tap on overnight after filling up a watering can. 1000 litres of precious water gone, soaked away into the ground!
But as of this morning all of my collection containers are full to overflowing, which equates to about 4000 litres of water.

A slight overflow problem, now sorted and made useful.
connected to...
1000 litres of harvested rainwater for the polytunnel crops.
It acts as a heat reservoir in the winter too.
A bathful of comfrey tea - a bag of rotting
comfrey leaves suspended in the bath
 ensures a constant supply of
liquid feed

Another 1000 litres,
used to top up the sheep's water

The bees like to use this one as a water supply
- hence the floating corks and polystyrene, to save them when they fall in.

Since the different containers all sit at different levels, when the lowest one fills up I have to shut off the tap linking it to the others, otherwise the higher ones would simply drain into the lowest, causing it to overflow, before they were full. Once I've used some of it up, I can simply open the tap again and allow everything to self-level again.
The only other minor alteration I had to make this morning was to fit an outlet hose to one of the smaller water butts which was overflowing and flooding the stables. But a simple overflow hose now means that all this water goes where I choose - at the moment to a soaker hose that runs through the herb patch. The other full water butt overflows to a soaker hose in the polytunnel so it becomes self-irrigating when it rains.

It's taken a bit of time to perfect the system and I've had to think carefully about where the water would go first and what happens when any one container fills up, but I've now got a brilliant water storage system and any overflow can be directed to wherever I want it to go.

I can't realistically water the pasture or the orchard, but everywhere else should be okay now for a good month or so, even if we get no rain at all.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Marbled Whites, Chalkhill Blues and Frog Orchids at Barnack Hills

Barnack Hills and Holes Nature Reserve - site of a medieval limestone quarry

There is a period in July and August, between the migrations, when birding becomes very quiet. The summer doldrums. Unfortunately it coincides with my summer holiday. Six weeks when I'm free to go anywhere at the drop of a hat and all there is to look at are a few passing waders and maybe a couple of days spent in the south-west gazing out to sea in the hope that some far-flung waif seabird goes shooting by.
Of course, as soon as I return to work the rare birds start turning up again. One year a first for Britain, a Purple Martin all the way from America, had the indecency to turn up on the Western Isles on the last Sunday of my summer holiday. It stayed for a few hours into the next day, but I could hardly let down a new class of 5 year olds on their first day at school, could I? (And no I didn't, in case you're wondering).

So many birdwatchers turn to other wildlife at this time of year. Our obsession with all things with wings leads us to butterflies, moths and dragonflies. Although I've flirted with such subjects in the past, along with trying to get to grips with our native fauna, I've managed to resist the temptation.

But last Sunday I dragged Sue along to an organised butterfly walk at Barnack Hills and Holes Nature Reserve, just outside Stamford. It is the site of a medieval quarry and, this far north, is a very rare patch of limestone grassland.


Six-Spot Burnet on Greater Knapweed
We booked the walk through Greeniversity. The weather was a bit breezy for butterflies, but at least it wasn't raining. But when we turned up at the small reserve car park, we were turned away! The car park was full. We had expected about 10 people but there were closer to 50! Now I may have just endured my 49th birthday, but it has to be said that Sue and I were among the youngest, by quite some distance.
But with that age came knowledge. There were several botanists (plant people) at hand and a couple of entomologists (insect people). It didn't take long to catch a glimpse of our first target butterfly species scooting past, a Marbled White. This was only the second time I'd ever seen one. We were to see many more during the afternoon, though it took quite some time before one sat long enough to be appreciated properly.

Marbled White
Kneeling in homage

Our second hoped for butterfly, the Chalkhill Blue, we were informed was only just on the wing. There may be one or two around if we could find them. This was slightly disappointing news, for I'd never seen one before, at least not knowingly. However, it didn't take long for the group to find one, but again it was flighty and only stayed still long enough for me to get a quick snap.

Fortunately we got to see quite a few more as the sun came out and the wind died down a little and close-up views were eventually afforded to all.

As it turned out, the day wasn't just about butterflies, for limestone grassland holds its very own range of specialist plants. We were shown such oddly names plants as dodder, knapweed broomrape, mignonette, clustered bellflower, small scabious and common rockrose. The first two of these parasitise other plants so don't need chlorophyll, which means they aren't green. The broomrape in particular was fascinating, appearing as if someone had gone round the reserve spot-treating it with Roundup!

Common Rockrose
Knapweed Broomrape

There were some even more special plants on the reserve though, for squadrons of Pyramidal Orchids poked their pink heads above the sward. These are the last orchids of the year to flower. The reserve is actually host to 8 species of orchids, but most of the others, such as Fragrant Orchid and Man Orchid, had gone over now.

There was one more treat in store. For roped off to protect them we were lucky enough to be shown a small group of Frog Orchids. If you hadn't known you would have walked straight past, for Frog Orchids are not especially pretty. But they are very rare. The whole plant, including the flowers, is essentially green, but that is not where the frog bit of the name comes from. The flowers resemble small frogs...well, they're supposed to. I struggled to see it myself.

I only wish I'd taken along my proper camera and not relied on my phone to capture the many interesting finds of the day. I guess that gives me an excuse to go back, maybe earlier in the year when the Pasqueflowers or the Man Orchids are out.
Finally I would like to thank the Friends of Barnack Hills and Holes for showing us all around, sharing their knowledge and displaying great patience answering our questions all afternoon.

Saturday 18 July 2015

Peppers sweet and hot - Saving the seeds

A redesign of my polytunnel space this year gave me a central bed just ideal for sweet peppers and they have responded admirably. I already have plenty of fruits, though there'll be a wait if I want to eat them red. But just look at this one, appropriately named Purple Beauty.

This year I am growing five varieties of Sweet Pepper. There are:

Lamuyo - an F1 variety, great for chunky green peppers
Hebar - from - produces an abundance of very early, pale yellow peppers, turning red later
Yellow Ringo - A long, yellow variety, very sweet
Purple Beauty - from again - as it's name suggests. Another early cropper, so good for UK
Hungarian Hot Wax - really a chilli, but mild enough to be eaten as a pepper, especially when young and lime-yellow. Slightly hotter when they turn orange and then red, but still won't blow your head off

Hungarian Hot Wax

I tried to grow Red Marconi too, a lovely long red pepper, but the cheap seed I bought had clearly lost its viability as two attempts to germinate the measly 8 seeds I received both failed.

And therein lies a problem. For pepper seed (both sweet and hot chilli) does not stay viable for long. It is slow to start, taking up to two months for some of them to germinate, so if it fails you are really pushing it to start over. Having said that, with the aid of the polytunnel I do start my peppers off much later than other people. Many start them in January, when you need at least artificial heat and maybe even artificial light to get them going. I really can't see the point of this. Instead, I start my sweet peppers off in the first week of March and my chillis even later, in the last week of March. I have no trouble getting them to the ripened fruit stage and the seedlings certainly appreciate the extra heat of late spring and early summer.

The chillis that I grow are Jalapeno, Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Cayenne, Paprika and Tabasco. Nothing special. In fact, I got most of them in a reduced priced packet of mixed chillis from a pound shop!
But all my original purchases of pepper seeds are now rapidly losing their viability. I had to sow plenty more than I needed to take account of this and even then I failed completely on the paprika. Luckily a friend had some to spare.
Not that I am tight, but I don't really want to go out and purchase a dozen packets of seed next year just to use a few from each packet. So the obvious answer is to save my own seed from what I have grown.
But chillis and peppers will readily cross, producing unpredictable offspring. That large sweet pepper could conceal the heat of a Jalapeno and that fiery Scotch Bonnet could be a completely damp squib.
Short of growing them a mile apart, or constructing special net cages for each variety, there has not really been a way to save my own seed.
However, here's where I sing the praises of The Real Seed Collection, a not-for-profit company which aims to actively encourage its customers to save their own seed and not need to keep going back for more. Without getting on my high horse too much, it makes commercial sense for the large seed companies (and some, like Monsanto, are truly global corporations) to discourage this sort of activity. After all, if we all acted like the thrifty gardeners of old and saved our own seed, how would they make their money?
Here's the header from the Real Seed Catalogue:

You'll find no F1 hybrids or genetically modified seed here - just varieties that do really well and taste great when grown by hand on a garden scale.
The name of the catalogue reflects what we are working to provide: real seeds for real gardeners wanting to grow proper vegetables.
Many are rare heirlooms, and because all are open-pollinated (non-hybrid) , you can save your own seed for future years, using the instructions we supply. There's no need to buy new seed every year!
The Real Seed Company have lots of great advice about seed saving on their website. They have also come up with a way of saving chilli and pepper seeds by isolating individual flowers on a plant.
Basically you make small bags out of old tights (stockings will do too, though not fishnets as they need to keep the insects out!). They say to sow, but I just tied the ends. You then place this over a flower which is just about to open and use a peg to close the end of the bag. This way nothing can get in or out. More precisely, no insect can transfer pollen from another plant to your chosen subject. Fortunately peppers will readily self-pollinate, so all you are doing is making sure that your chosen pepper develops in this way.

Obviously you want to be choosing a pepper on one of your best plants and it doesn't work on F1 varieties, as if fertile they will not produce true to type, most convenient for the companies which push them so hard. You also want to make sure that you bag your flower early enough in the season for the fruit to eventually ripen properly, otherwise you'll have no seed to collect.

After about 5 days, once the fruit has set, you remove the tights, marking the stem with a plastic twist tie so you know which fruit to eventually collect the seed from.
Once you collect the seed, dry it well and look after it through the winter (more very useful advice on the RealSeeds website). And that's it. The following year you'll have plenty enough seed for you and your friends.
Of course, if you've got an axe to grind with any of them, you could always try to cross a sweet Yellow Ringo with a Scotch Bonnet and give them that seed instead!

Thursday 16 July 2015

Prickly subjects

The rabbits are back. Not many (yet), but one is in the soft fruit patch and one is making the occasional scraping in the flower borders. I'm sure there are in reality a lot more than two, or there will be soon.
As I let Boris out for his early morning constitutional this morning, a faint mist masked the rising sun and hung low over the fields. A barn owl flew from the hollow ash tree and a bunny hopped across the lawn. Boris watched it, but was more interested in facing out the guinea fowl. He did evenutally go bounding through the long grass in the general direction of rabbit. Gerry, on the other hand, went straight into stalking mode.

Anyway, those cute little bunnies are in fact pesky little blighters which cause untold damage. So the rabbit traps have come back out. I've only ever caught one baby rabbit in a rabbit trap, but I live in hope. So you can imagine my surprise yesterday morning (Boris got me up at 4:10am!) when I noticed that something had caused the rabbit trap door to close. With my eyes still bleary and the early morning light dim, I went over to investigate and there was indeed a creature inside the trap.

But it wasn't what I expected. Rather too prickly. For I had caught a hedgehog! The first ever hedgehog for our garden. Fantastic news!


Now onto the second prickly matter. Gooseberries.

This year the gooseberry bushes are raining gooseberries
I got to wondering who put the goose into gooseberry, but Wikipedia gave no good reason. I did however find two interesting facts.
The French for gooseberry, groseille a maquereau, translates as mackerel berry, which seems even more off the wall than gooseberry. Though come to think of it, aren't gooseberries supposed to be good with oily fish? Perhaps, once upon a time, they were considered a good accompaniment to goose.

The second fact?
"Gooseberry bush" was 19th-century slang for pubic hair and from this comes the saying that babies are "Born under a gooseberry bush."

That thought will make the task of gooseberry picking even more toilsome than it already is. For gooseberry bushes are armed with vicious thorns. However well they are pruned into the traditional open goblet shape, the berries themselves do a very good job of hiding and are often best located by feel, which requires a very gentle and tactile approach. One false move and your fingertip is impaled.

But the annual task of picking the berries is still a joy. For gooseberries remain something of a luxury in this country and are not widely available. Presumably they are not mechanically harvestable. So to be able to go into our garden and harvest a plentiful supply is something to be celebrated. Our nine bushes are now in their fourth year and are producing very well, especially now that I have learned to prune them properly. On top of this, I took cuttings last year to multiply them and the new bushes have produced a few berries already. So here's to a prickly future!

Boris relaxes under a gooseberry bush

Monday 13 July 2015

Snowy Icebergs

My lettuce growing has really taken off this year. I've got Little Gems, Lolla Rosso, Lobjoits Cos, Romaine and Iceberg.

The Icebergs are of the variety Maugli and have done exceptionally well in the polytunnel. In fact, this time a few days ago they were really looking the real deal. But then holes started appearing. Just a few small ones at first. I sprinkled some organic slug pellets around the lettuces, but the holes carried on, gradually increasing in size and frequency until some of the lettuces started to look a little ragged.
It was becoming clear that slugs were not the problem. No slime and no remedy despite the pellets. There were also now tell-tale piles of black poo. I delved into the leaves of a lettuce and there I found a bright green, looping caterpillar. The caterpillar hunt went into overdrive and I started finding more and more, bigger and juicier specimens. Beautiful as they were, they most certainly were not welcome. I picked off as many as I could, squishing them disgustingly between my fingers, but it was clear there were more tucked deep down, inaccessible between the hearting lettuce leaves.

Research confirmed that these lime green loopers would, if allowed, grow up to be small white cabbage white butterflies. Not having grown lettuces particularly successfully before, I stupidly hadn't even realised that they would be targeted by cabbage whites.
As picking them off was not going to be effective, I decided to prepare a soap spray. Not ideal on salad leaves as it might scorch them and they would need a good wash before eating, but the best option available. I took to the interweb to remind myself of the best solution to mix up and very quickly came upon an alternative organic solution - flour!

So at 6am this morning, before the blazing sun was having too much effect (yesterday the thermometer in the polytunnel was at scorchio!), I sprayed the lettuces to simulate rain or dew and then applied the flour sifter.

The icebergs had snow on them!

Apparently, the caterpillars are supposed to eat the flour which causes them to bloat and die.

ed - if you're wondering how I've got scorching weather here when you've got clouds and drizzle, this post was written just before the lightning storm took out my broadband. Things have moved on a bit since then. As for the lettuces, the flour was quite effective, but not before the caterpillars had done enough damage to really spoil them. I even found one which had made a cocoon inside the lettuce.
I have some more seedlings on the go though. I'll net the next ones!

Sunday 12 July 2015

Stoatily Surprised

This happened a couple of weeks ago, but that amazing storm we had a while back blew up my broadband router! Well, that's a bit melodramatic, but it stopped working anyway, along with both my neighbours.
Anyway, it was a fun storm and I now have a new router.

So, as usual I head down to the chicken enclosure to do the afternoon feed and collect eggs from the various locations where the chickens choose to lay. It's always a surprise which chicken house will have the most eggs. Some days a particular house may have no eggs and the next almost all of the eggs. No rhyme or reason.
I open up the flap to the nest box of the big house, where the Indian Game hen has been sitting for quite some time now looking after each days offerings until I pluck them from under her warm belly. She never pecks me and often tries to snuggle back down to sit on my hand! But today she has moved to a different nest box, still in the same house. The reason for this soon becomes evident.

To my surprise, to say the least, a young stoat is staring up at me! This is very bad news, for not only would a stoat in with the chickens be bad news for the eggs, it would be bad news for the chickens too.
I love stoats and weasels. They're beautiful and amazing predators. I see more weasels on my land than stoats and have often wondered why they don't seem to have developed a penchant for my chicken eggs. For a ruthless predator, they can be remarkably blind to my presence. This stoat too was just staring straight at me, despite the fact that I was only a couple of feet away. My first instinct was to grab it but self preservation prevailed. I like my fingers just the way they are.
So instead I grabbed my phone cam - I always have one mind on the blog, it is a great way of capturing events and progress on the farm for posterity. By now it was becoming apparent that something was amiss with this stoat. It had flies buzzing around it and seemed to have multiple puncture wounds. It was clearly a young one, closer to the size of a weasel than a stoat, and it seemed to be looking for somewhere to nestle down.  The fact that Indian Game hen was still in the chicken house confirmed that something was up.

I opted to shoo the poor creature out of the chicken house, hoping that it would bounce off and leave the enclosure by the same route it came in. The enclosure is completely fenced to a foot underground, but over the years various tunnels have managed to get round my defences. I think the moles follow the fence line and the rats use their tunnels as a starting point.
Back to the stoat. I poked and prodded it towards the fenceline. It clearly wasn't well. But it did one and a half sides of the fence before disappearing down a hole. It never came out the other side and the hole didn't seem to go very deep, but for now the injured stoat was hunkered down out of reach. I left it alone.

Twenty minutes later I return to check things out and there, back in the nest box... yes, you've guessed. This time it really does seem to be nestling right into the straw. I fetch a bucket to catch it in, but it won't fit through the opening, so instead again I prod the stoat out of the chicken pen and then plonk the bucket down over it. The only available lid is a rather oversized bin lid and in my effort to slide it under the bucket, the stoat squirms out. I try again, but now the stoat is slithering through the long grass and I just can't get the bucket over it. Then, all of a sudden, it heads down a hole that I didn't even know was there.
And that is that. Never to be seen again, despite constant checks over the next few days.

My best guess is that this young stoat was inexperienced. Kicked out of its parents' territory, it wandered until it found what it thought was a perfect hunting ground, full of chickens, ducks, eggs and even the occasional rabbit and rodent. But the poultry had not welcomed it and had been brave enough to tackle it. I'm guessing here that the guinea fowl may well have something to do with this as they really are very defensive and pretty fearless, operating as a team (unlike the chickens) and able to dispel all predators. Indian Game hen may well have taken part too, for she is a tough old hen. The other day she even chased Boris! (My fast growing puppy, if you're not a regular visitor)

I'll leave you with the Facebook conversation which ensued on the Fenland Smallholders site. I especially like the bit about sucking out brains!!!

25 June ·
Not what I expected to find in the nest box! I chased it out but 20 minutes later found it back in there. I think it's a young one and the chickens or guinea fowl have wounded it badly. Buzzing with flies. Seemed more intent on snuggling into the straw than stealing eggs. I eventually lost it down a hole having failed to capture it in a bucket..

 we have 3 of them out the back too
 That will take more than your eggs! I'm pretty sure I have one that took 4 cockerels and even a Turkey!
 Generally very welcome (catch rabbits and rodents) but not so in the chicken pen. Anyway, pretty sure this one is fairly badly injured and pretty sure it was the poultry what done it!
 if it stays around your chickens it will eventually suck their brains out while they sleep - ok for catching rats and rabbits but NOT with your poultry - we had one once which eventually wiped out 2 dozen laying hens. they pretend to be sick and then 'dance' to the chickens to mesmerize them and then strike - nasty vicious little beasts!!!
 Yes I know what amazing predators they can be. Which is obviously not good when it comes to chickens. But if pretending to be sick includes real wounds and an entourage of flies then hats off to the stoat!

Looking Back - Featured post


Ten years and a thousand blog posts! Enjoy. Pictures in no particular order.  

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