Toad Passion and Carnage; Chilling Down; And Hotting Up (Autumn Leaf Mould Energy Potential – Heating a Greenhouse with an External Compost Bed – Part 7).

The first swallow arrived on Monday morning. Summer’s nearly here?

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Tuesday saw four chattering enthusiastically as they checked out the barn to see if the accommodation was up to last year’s high standards, and changing to a more alarmed “Look out, Look out, Look out” whenever I walked past.
We all know one swallow, or even four, doesn’t make a summer, but it certainly gives you a boost to see them skimming over the yard, battling with wings tucked in close to the body upwind, and visibly buffeted by the gale force winds which have returned over the last few days. What remarkable birds to fly half way round the globe twice a year! The pied wagtails have also finally decided it’s reasonably safe weather to start nest building, after fitful bobbing and weaving around the buildings’ roof ridges over the last 6 weeks or so.
And down at the upper pond, the garden’s usually hidden, nocturnal population of toads seized the moment on Saturday night, as temperatures soared into double figures, and 37 mm of rain fell in 24 hours, to decide it was time to move on down for a bit of courtship and passion.
I only picked up on this by chance, as I wandered through a section of recently burned off debris (the leftovers from our earlier ‘Rulsch’ making exercise – click here for details) looking for green shoots, and my eyes were drawn to some white gelatinous blobs and strands, spread over the sooty, black charred, vegetation.

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That’ll be the toads, I thought. The common European one, Bufo bufo. They’re always much later spawning than the frogs here, but as with their frog cousins, seem to successfully co-ordinate their mating activities when the climatic conditions switch and become favourable. You always get some releasing spawn, or just clear jelly, away from the water. So, I thought I might see a few in the pond’s shallows.
I wasn’t disappointed, and immediately spotted this slowly tumbling mass of 4 males clasping a single central female. Occasionally coming up for air, no spawning was actually taking place, but I guess that this would follow in due course.

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But frankly, this cluster needed to succeed in starting a new generation quickly, since most of the shallows and pond’s banks were littered with the debris of toad corpses.

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Most of these were carefully skinned. Flesh and bones had been removed, but many internal organs left. There were many more below the water’s surface, like the ones pictured, which retained very life like heads with open eyes, attached to a skinned body in postures suiting a contemporary, abstracted still life.

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Somehow, all reminiscent of the scene from Peter Jackson’s film of ‘The Two Towers’ where the corpses of fallen knights lie in the shallows of ‘The Dead Marshes’.
The mating urge of the male toad is also clearly very strong, since I spotted at least 2 similar cadaverous shells to the ones shown above which had attendant males vigorously clasping the lifeless remains in a necrophilic embrace, waiting vainly for some acknowledgement of their amorous presence.
This wanton slaughter has been something we’ve noticed in previous years, but a bit of research, allied to finding a fresh, greenish spraint on the bank confirmed that this was probably the work of our nocturnally visiting otter(s). Further on along the bank, the already disintegrating structure of an earlier dropping revealed a mass of white, tooth shattered limb bones.

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Otters are one of the few animals which will try to eat a toad, due to the powerful bufagin toxin, that toads secrete as a milky fluid defensive mechanism from the paratoid glands in the skin of the back, neck and shoulders. This toxin has similar systemic effects to digitalis, but has no specific antidote. Moreover, there is enough in one skin to cause serious ill health, or even death in an animal consuming it. In an attempt to track down an LD 50 dose for it – the dose at which 50% of animals receiving it would die – in itself a pretty cruel experiment to conduct on some poor lab animals, I failed miserably. But happened upon some information for a related toad toxin called bufotenin. The extraordinary link you can click on here, relates to injections of increasing doses of this toxin administered to inmates at Ohio State Pen. in 1955, in an ‘experiment’ by Fabing and Hawkings.
It’s not explained whether they volunteered as guinea pigs, since this other toad toxin had some hallucinogenic, LSD like properties. After hearing of mass hunger strikes amongst the inmates at Guantanamo bay this morning on the radio, and forced feeding via stomach tubes, has ‘civilisation’ moved on?
Usually, otters only skin the back legs – there’s an on line image of a toad still alive and walking whilst dragging its rear limb bones and separated skin behind it. Below is a similar image, although this toad was dead, together with a rare carcase I spotted where the skinned fleshy leg is left pretty much intact. Was the otter disturbed mid-meal? And abandoned its prey, and delicacy, unfinished?
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All pretty gruesome stuff.
Apparently, some otters can work out that providing the head and eyes are left behind, and the skin removed completely with a single ventral incision, the whole of the body’s muscles can be safely eaten. Click here for a study by F. Slater showing how this whole body consumption gradually replaced the more common hind limb only meal, over a period of a few years, in another Welsh otter population between 1997 and 2002.
Perhaps more amusingly, the first time that this rear leg only, toad skinning was noticed and reported near the River Esk, the locals assumed that it was the work of the owners of the local Chinese restaurant, harvesting the tasty legs for their dishes!
Maybe the word is getting round amongst Welsh otters that this is a worthwhile gourmet offering, albeit requiring a certain skill in food preparation, since I’ve just found references to a similar mass killing at Llanelli’s millennium coastal park on 26th March this year. Click here for details.
I shall revisit the pond later, when the drizzle stops and see if there are any signs of the often double stranded spawn, to indicate that at least some population rebuilding is successfully under way.
10 days ago, round the time of my previous post, was the first day in nearly a fortnight when I reckoned the honeybees might be out – some sunshine, temperatures rising towards double figures (just) and at last the wind eased a little.
And by midday, I wasn’t disappointed, although it’s always interesting to see which flowers they are actually visiting. We realised (after giving another talk the previous Monday in Llandrindod Wells, where there was still snow on the hills), just how lucky we are to have daffodils out in abundance right now, but these bees were completely ignoring these brash, human selected flowers. Instead they made for the few Crocus blooms still out, but more particularly the lovely small blue of Chionodoxa forbesii, ‘Blue Giant’ and the cheerful open buttercup yellow of the thug like native Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria.
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Both these plants have opened new flowers really fast, after the intense drying cold of recent weeks, and just as well, since after a fortnight with no opportunity to leave the hive, the poor bees must have been desperate for some fresh air, liquid and exercise. After taking a few photos, I thought I’d move up and see whether there were as many milling around the hive entrance as when they were last about in numbers, back in early March.
Immediate foreboding!
A single bee circled the hive in a haphazard fashion, and none entered or left. There was no sound as I pressed a chilly ear to the blue painted wood of the hive’s exterior. I searched for Andy’s (the hive owner) phone number, but by chance he turned up on his red Honda ATV, clad in white bee suit, just as I was about to ring him with the bad news.
As he took apart the hive I could see the construction for the first time, with a slab of dense sugar fondant just above several frames of comb, above an open mesh grill at the hive’s base.

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He reckoned there were still some cells of untouched honey available to the bees. But the images of bees with heads thrust to the base of open cells, and the detritus of the colony’s corpses piled on the base grill was a bit depressing.

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I wonder how many other colonies will have succumbed this winter across the UK?
I’m guessing that they simply died of hypothermia from prolonged hive wind chilling, perhaps with a bit of dehydration thrown in. Always wanting to learn from experience, perhaps if Andy restocks the hive in due course, we’ll add a windbreak of willow or hazel to the East/North to try to protect against a similar bout of prolonged severe weather in future years. Do bee keepers ever add extra insulation to a hive’s exterior in such severe weather? Just as we’d chuck an extra couple of quilts on a bed, or resort to hot water bottles and Long Johns? Would it be worth limiting up draught through the grilled open base of the hive, in such extreme conditions?
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Andy was convinced that the bees which were visiting the flowers in the garden as he arrived, aren’t from one of his other hives, so where are they flying in from? And how far are they coming? Neither of us know of another bee keeper nearby, so perhaps they’re from a ‘wild’ colony.

At least it confirms that the garden still has enough insect friendly flowers, even at this time of the year in this extreme spring, to attract honeybees to the garden, and gives hope for the long term viability of an on site hive.

If at first you don’t succeed, don’t give up! Last night at Aberystwyth Beekeeper’s Group we gave another film/talk, and chatting to members over a cup of tea revealed losses of up to 50% of their colonies this year, because of this long, cold-delayed spring.

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To balance the disappointment of the bees’ demise, I’m following with the better news that the experiments with heating the greenhouse with an external compost bed, and the newly created hot beds, are both exceeding expectations in spite of the severe test posed by the weather.  (Addendum: There are a lot of posts now, about how this idea has developed and its implementation. If you want to find the other posts quickly, then click here).
Since the forecast at last no longer shows any severe frosts for the next week or so, I’ve removed the second layer of polycarbonate sheet insulation from the top of the inner zone of the greenhouse.
I had to, since the Oregon sugar pod peas have already reached the height of this physical barrier, and on April 14th were producing their first flowers.
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Taller pea sticks can now be added, and with any luck we should have some edible sugar peas by early May. Last year, in the garden it was around the end of June.
Just as pleasing, are the germination results under cover on the new long hot bed.
For several years I’ve pre-germinated some vegetable seed inside the house. This year, most things have had this treatment.

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The bowl shows the broad beans saved from seed last year, and soaked in warm water before covering with damp kitchen towel. Twice daily rinses, as for bean sprouts, and kept in a warmish place, I pot them up when the root starts to emerge. They then went into the inner zone until the first hint of a green leaf appeared, and then, along with leeks, sugar peas, peas, parsnips were all laid onto the slightly angled South facing slope of the hot bed.
A simple covering with plastic sheeting saved from a new mattress, then polycarbonate from the first extra layer in the greenhouse, which was removed about 3 weeks ago, and finally Enviromesh to help hold the polycarbonate sheets down. Hopefully these layers can be gradually removed in stages.

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After working out what a great thermal store water is, I’ve been hoarding any plastic milk and pop bottles over the last year. I’ve used the 2 litre pop bottles to form the North face of the bed, and allow us to create a bit of a slope on the bed’s surface, to aid soil warming.

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But water filled bottles are also simple and fairly transparent weights which are easy to place anywhere, and when heated during the day by the sun’s action, will tend to mediate temperature falls at night.
Even so, I was dreading lifting the cover to see how things were looking after the 2 weeks of freeze drying winds and nightly frosts which saw off the bees, but as you can see, they look in really good shape.
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For anyone who’s been following the experiment to heat the greenhouse with an external compost bed, using mainly leaf litter, urine and poultry manure, I’m making this my final post and summary for this first attempt: 
  • The idea was stimulated by a brief report from an American grower, Katherine Brooks, who reckoned that with regular top ups of an external compost bed roughly 5 feet across, and using piped water, not air, her poly tunnel was kept frost free for an entire winter. Click here for limited details.
  • Using an Inner Zone, and circulated warm air as described in my previous posts, (click here, here, here, here, here and here) I have achieved this same goal – just ! In spite of the longest, coldest winter we have experienced here and the coldest March for 60 years, continuing well into April. BUT.
  • All was well with my weekly compost top ups until about the middle of February. But then, the temperature of the heap declined dramatically. Sadly for those wanting full data, my enthusiasm to record left me at this point. Even opening up the heap with persistent sub zero temperatures and strong winds seemed reckless, since I reckoned that by doing this weekly, and adding fresh material of a temperature only just above freezing, was partly to blame for the fall off in temperature of the compost in the first place.
  • At the same time as temperatures in the compost bed declined, my 100 watt anti- SAD daylight fluorescent tube light was running from about 5 am through to 5 pm. In addition I used an old open heated propagator tray in the greenhouse to start off my tomato and pepper seeds. Unfortunately I can’t find a wattage rating for this tray, but am guessing that for safety reasons it has a very low power rating. In addition, as the weeks pass, the sun’s power increases rapidly, so that the role of the central heat store pathway took over the baton of helping to keep the inner zone above freezing.
  • In spite of the extreme weather with severe wind chill at the end of March, the lowest minimum temperature recorded over the whole winter was 2.5 degrees C. Most nights it was above 4.5 degrees C. On a few nights towards the end of this period when I felt that there was a risk of freezing – and the nectarine flowers were out, I used 3 simple additional strategies – firstly taking out a few old plastic milk bottles filled with hot water from the wood burning stove at night. Secondly, giving the SAD light a few extra ‘on’ hours over night, which would put an extra 100 watts internally. And thirdly, filling a couple of tubs with fresh manure, and carrying them into the greenhouse on a sunny warm day, so that they weren’t a temperature drain, and covering the contents with a plastic sheet. Whether these measures were really necessary, I don’t know, but the end result was the minimum temperatures above.

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So was it worthwhile?

I think so. Both lemons survived, and the Meyer’s lemon now has lots of buds opening. Time for some more flower tickling.SDIM9387 (2)

Modifications planned for next year are to:
  1.  ‘Pre heat’ added material when used to top up in very cold weather, by starting off the composting process in tubs for just a couple of days before adding to the main bed. This is all it takes for temperatures to begin to rise, if you have the right C/N ratio of material. I guess an alternative would be to partially, or completely, dig out mid way through winter, but picking an opportune moment could be tricky.
  2. Since almost no material actually fell through the raised base over the entire period, I shall make the whole heap lower and so allow more material to be added for a longer period before reaching maximum capacity. (See image below).
  3. Starting the heap a little later, since in our part of the UK, it’s usually February /March when the coldest weather appears, and in November/December when I started this year, there’s unlikely to be anything actively growing – there’s just too little light around for that on most days.
  4. Concentrate on Oregon sugar peas, Early Nantes carrots, and possibly try some early spinach, all started with pre-germinated seed indoors, in the early part of January. In addition to over wintered cuttings and tender perennials.
  5. Remove the additional high level polycarbonate and use it just as a second skin for the inner zone, to ensure better chilling of the outer zone for fruit bud initiation.
  6. Be geared up to add in tubs of actively composting, and therefore warm material, as internal temporary heat boosters should severe weather be threatened. And also as an to aid seed germination of tomatoes or peppers in the spring.
  7. Keep the fans working. This eliminated any mould issues, and as winter progressed and I managed only sporadic inner zone temperature checks, I suspected that the mass of the compost heap could act as an additional heat store. On sunny days when the greenhouse internal temperature rose quite high, drawing some of this warm air through the centre of the insulated compost bed would surely heat it slightly, and this heat would then be available later, to be returned to the greenhouse as night time took greenhouse air temperatures much lower.                                       

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It only remains for me to dig out the bed, and assess what the compost is like, but since there is no pressing need for it, this can wait for a while.SDIM9510 (2)

For now, at last, April showers are indeed bringing on the flowers.
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2 thoughts on “Toad Passion and Carnage; Chilling Down; And Hotting Up (Autumn Leaf Mould Energy Potential – Heating a Greenhouse with an External Compost Bed – Part 7).

  1. Just as I was trying to remember which Peter Jackson movie your terrorized and torn toads reminded me of – you mentioned it! Yes, I agree! Your spring has certainly arrived and I admire all the work you are doing. The bee/flower pictures were wonderful.

    Blessings ~ Wendy

  2. Hello Wendy,
    Thanks for the cheering reply, after a bit of a melancholic week – probably more in my next post. Still really cold here, but some tulips have come out in the last few days. We still await any apple/pear blossom. Unheard of for this to be so late in all our time here. I wonder if your spring is unfolding in a more normal way,
    best wishes

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