Kill Will(ow)

November 10, 2019

With a long-running piece of work finally dispatched and a sunny Sunday in the offing with nothing else planned I knew what I’d be doing today: binge gardening.

The first port of call was getting to grips with my fedge. Over the summer it has become increasingly apparent that if my plan had been to create a line of willow trees then it has been a roaring success, as every single one of the sturdy stakes we stuck in the ground to act as a support for the woven willow lattice has sprouted nicely (I didn’t think that willow this mature would root, but apparently it will. Perhaps we should have put them in upside down to be sure but even then …)

Willow fedge

The actual woven whips, which were supposed to root much more easily, haven’t done as well. A few have taken but more than two-thirds have not, possibly due to the dry spell we had after I’d put them all in, possibly some other reason, undoubtedly user error. Nothing for it but to clear away some of the encroaching vegetation, and wait for spring to fill in the gaps.

Of course, with willow, it’s not dead until it’s warm (or in actual flames) and dead, so I live in hope. Indeed, one of the deadest-looking sticks did prove to have a shoot coming up at the base, so we shall see.

willow shoot

It wasn’t the only thing showing unexpected signs of life, either. When the sun shines in November in Scotland, everything seems to emerge to make the most of it.

ladybird


Nature, Tooth, Claw, Red in, etc.

November 7, 2019

While I was gadding about in Embra, it seems there’s been a murrrder in the veg plot, which I’m rather sorry I missed.

feathers on the grass

Exhibit A: A sad pile of feathers

Closer examination of the scene of the crime revealed a little bit more about the identity of the victim:

pheasant's foot

It seems we are down one pheasant (and if that photo doesn’t convince you that birds are just tiny flying dinosaurs – and how cool is that? – then I’m not sure what will).

It leaves us no clearer about the culprit though. The position of the feathers, under the electricity wire, originally made me think it was a sparrowhawk as they like to retreat to a handy perch to pluck their supper, but I’m not sure a sparrowhawk could take a pheasant. I’m not sure a buzzard would be able to either, unless something had killed it for it first. We’ve not seen any foxes around, which doesn’t mean there aren’t any – it’s only urban foxes that like to stroll around in broad daylight. Then again, if we had foxes on the prowl would we have as many hares as we do?

It’s a mystery – and clearly, it’s also a sign that I need to be spending less time gadding about and more time at home, keeping an eye on my own back yard.

This is a programme I can entirely get behind.


Outrun

October 5, 2019

Riding back from Park Run this morning, feeling pretty pleased with myself at getting a personal best (out of only two outings, but hey), my mood was ruined by the sight of a dead hare, right at the corner opposite our gate.

roadkilled hare

Seriously, who would get enough speed on this road to run over anything, let alone a hare?

Roadkilled hare isn’t that unusual around here – although generally they have the advantage over, say, rabbits and pheasants through their uncanny ability to run away from a car rather than towards it. But our road is tiny; it’s a dead end that serves six houses and a couple of farms, and you’d be hard pressed to drive faster than the average hare can run even if it’s not trying very hard – mostly they just lope along with no apparent effort at a good 20mph, so very much not like me at Park Run. I can only assume that someone was doing a three-point turn and the hare decided to sit tight on the verge, or else that some piece of farm machinery caught it somehow – the average tractor is a pretty tight fit on most of our roads these days.

Over the three years we’ve been here we’ve seen so many wee hares grow up into bigger hares, and then get replaced by a new wee hare. Some of them have had a distinctive appearance, they appear to have different personalities (being more or less chilled about people in the garden) and they all seem to have different taste in garden plants, and choose different hiding places to hang out (indeed, the latest one has been rather too fond of hiding under our car, so I hope that hasn’t lulled it into a false sense of security when it comes to motor vehicles). Our neighbours report the same – in fact, it was only yesterday that I was chatting to a neighbour about it and we were congratulating ourselves on what a hare-friendly neighbourhood we live in. They come, they stay a while, and then they go, and I’ve always fondly imagined them fanning out across the countryside until they’ve got wee hares of their own and then bringing them back to a place where they remember being safe. It’s gutting to discover one dead, just yards from the safety of our garden, especially in a week when we learned that wildlife numbers are continuing to plummet in the UK. But all we can do is continue to operate our garden primarily as a hare sanctuary and hope that this proves a one-off.

Postscript – just as I was writing this, I was delighted to see not one but two hares come through the garden and pause at the gate before heading off up the road. Here’s hoping they’re off to make more hares …


Wee Stoater

August 24, 2019

As I mentioned, we’re off on holiday on Monday for a couple of weeks, and so it’s been the usual rush to get everything done before we go. So yesterday morning I was keen to get to my desk and get my head down, with a couple of work deadlines looming.

This would have gone better, had not a stoat decided to appear on our front lawn and – if you’ll forgive me the technical animal behaviour terminology – start wildly mucking about.

Up until now, my encounters with stoats have been pretty fleeting – something dashing across the road in front of my bike, or occasionally stopping to peer at me from the undergrowth. I’d certainly never seen one doing backflips before, let alone right in front of my study window. As a means of distracting me from work, it couldn’t have been bettered.

In fact, according to some sources, this was the point of the acrobatics: stoats apparently hypnotise their prey by acting weird and then pounce as their unsuspecting audience edges closer for a better look. This would be more convincing if there had been anything else around to watch than us – stoats are also known for taking prey much larger than themselves, but even so I think a couple of humans (however fascinated we were) might be overambitious for something that weighs a couple of hundred grams. Another school of thought is that it’s the side effects of a nematode infection (although there’s no reason both couldn’t be true and that the stoats have evolved to profit from their infestation-induced antics; after all, it’s been suggested a similar thing might be happening in humans).

Either way, by the time I’d extracted myself from an Internet-sized rabbit hole of animal behaviour work really was looming, so it took until today before I managed to get the resulting poor quality video up online to prove I wasn’t imagining things

This morning’s distraction was just as cute but rather less acrobatic.

young hare

Given the stoat is still around, if the dancing really is an effective form of hunting behaviour, and the leverets prove as susceptible as we were, we might have a dilemma on our hands …


August Gathering

August 13, 2019

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but August is not my favourite month, in fact it’s one of my least favourite – mainly because it promises so much (at least for those of us raised in the part of the country where autumn doesn’t start until September) and delivers very little, other than torrential rain and the existential dread that comes with the words ‘Back to School’ in every shop. Since my last post, I have endured two more soakings on the bike (and only escaped another one by getting a lift to the station) and our utility room was home to enough pairs of soggy socks and gloves to make it smell as if the Swamp Thing had taken up residence there, or was at least using it as a laundry.

swallow on fence

This week, though, we’ve had a pause in the weather and that has been enough to trigger the best bit of August: the point when all the young swallows seem to emerge at once and start practising their flying. My photos cannot even start to do it justice but yesterday and today the air has been filled with trainee swallows and it’s just glorious (except for the one that learned the hard way about windows just outside my study). Every so often a gang of them will come pouring past the window, or start gathering on the wires, and they seem to be chasing each other around as much as the insects they’re supposed to be eating. Today they mastered landing in the very tips of the birch tree branches, where they bounce gently up and down until another swallow comes along and bounces them off to go zooming round the garden once more.

swallows on birch

It’s not just the swallows, either. At this time of year the hedgerows are full of learner birds and I’m often having to brake as I head down the hill on my bike to let a flustered blackbird or thrush get headway in front of me. We’ve got tiny little willow warblers, gangs of swallows, great tits and coal tits, and a juvenile wagtail that was stamping around outside our front door looking for insects. It’s a time to celebrate all of them, but especially swallows because it won’t be long before they’re gone for the winter and then summer really will have fled.

swallow on wire


Rewilding

June 19, 2019

I have been reading The Running Hare with some enjoyment (despite, perhaps, rather than because of its prose style). It’s an interesting excursion into what wildlife-friendly farming might look like and it has reinforced my recognition that much of what we think of as natural countryside is in fact a green desert. In particular, the dairy farm that borders our garden; much as we enjoy the annual visitation from Moo-I-5, for the rest of the year the field next to us is being put to work growing silage and it is much sprayed, cut, slurried and the like, making me wonder just how chemical free our own vegetables really are.

Fenced-off field margin

However, after the coos all but put paid to the garden fence last year, we’ve gained a bit of a breathing space. For reasons best known to himself, instead of replacing the tottering fence, the farmer just strung a new one at an angle to the old, creating a triangle of land which is now out of reach of cows and tractors (albeit not the sheep who usually spend a few weeks there in the winter). It gives us a little more distance from whatever is being sprayed and it has also created an uncut corner which is going a little wild. I’m watching with interest to see what comes up, assuming it’s allowed to remain – if you believe some rewilding gurus this will turn itself into scrubland, and then forest, unassisted, given enough time.

So far, we’re seeing nothing more exciting than nettles, dock, cow parsley and buttercups among the grasses (none of which are in short supply in our garden either), but rest assured you will be regaled with updates should things become more interesting.

I know, you can barely wait.


Garden Assistance

June 16, 2019

After a week of gadding about, today felt like a day for hunkering down and getting on with the gardening. Undoubtedly there were more productive things I could have been doing, but sometimes you get stuck into a task and find it hard to stop.

Which is why our back patio now looks like this:

weed-free patio slabs

Oh, okay, that was a carefully selected camera angle and a tight crop; the true picture looks like this (please excuse the pile of stones which are awaiting a project that needs a load of stones (we’re not bringing any more gravel into this garden if we can help it), various random stumps which have been sitting there so long I’ve stopped seeing them, the mystery giant’s chair that was left by the previous owners and has proved a good place to harden off seedlings out of reach of slugs, the equally mysterious spare flagpole (we already have a main flagpole) found in the garage, and the overgrown mass of vegetation which is currently smothering a collapsing trellis and wood store which will be sorted out in the fullness of time):

back patio

I did leave one ‘weed’ – a little patch of speedwell. I’ve always thought of it as growing in lawns but it seemed happy among the stones so I’ve transplanted some more around the edges of the patio. With any luck it will spread along the gaps between the paving stones and at least give the dandelions and other weeds a run for their money. Something has to, as I know that my efforts this afternoon have largely amounted to giving them a nice radical pruning, rather than actually eradicating them.

speedwell flowers

It was also satisfying to discover many ex-snails (last seen doing their bit for science) among the weeds – we have a resident thrush whose intermittent hammering forms a soothing soundtrack to any gardening task. While I am now a little fonder of the stripey snails than I was before, I’m fonder of thrushes, which have had a tough time of it due to our farming habits. It’s good to know that our garden functions as a thrush habitat as well as a hare one, especially if it makes the garden a bit less of a snail habitat.

Meanwhile, the young hare is no gardening help at all, having decided that my (allegedly fenced off) asparagus bed is a handy place to chill out – unless ‘contemptuously demonstrating the uselessness of my hare defences’ counts as helping…

hare in asparagus bed

Damn it’s cute though.