There’s certainly a grain of truth in this for us. Much of the last 6 weeks of lock down has seen our lives carrying on as normal. Yet different in many subtle ways. Even though we don’t have the distraction of TV, we’ve increasingly been switching off the radio shortly after turning it on. Endless journalistic analysis seems unhelpful to us.
Outside we’ve had plenty of jobs to tackle, and minimal rain to prevent us.
Plus plenty of bike rides.
I’ve finally completed setting up 6 potential re-insulated beehives to see if I can tempt in any more honeybees to share our landscape with us this year. Whether this is a “good” swarming year like 2019, remains to be seen. Like our Shepherd’s Hut Bird box, they may well sit empty for a year or two before they’re hopefully deemed to be suitably “des-res”. Certainly they now all fulfill 5 of the 6 criteria outlined by Thomas Seeley (in “Honeybee Democracy”, and elsewhere) as being innately appreciated, and assessable, signs of an ideal new home to honeybee scouts :
These parameters, which he found bees consistently prefer, given a choice, are :
- Internal volume between 30 – 40 litres.
- A small entrance opening, around 15 – 20 square centimetres.
- An entrance opening at the base of the hive, not the top.
- The entrance opening facing South East to South West.
- They all contain already drawn out old honey comb, so bees might assume that the site’s been occupied by honey bees before.
The one criterion mine all fail on, for fairly obvious reasons, is height off the ground – in Seeley’s studies, (American) wild honey bees will select, other things being equal, a site 5 metres up, over a site just 1 metre off the ground. Some of my sites do manage to be a little bit higher from ground level than others…
Although watching how quickly scout bees have already discovered all 6 hives, and how they then begin to check them out, and measure them up, both inside and out is fascinating, and a wonderful way to persuade me to stand still for a while and just observe …
The vegetable growing area and greenhouse tomatoes are off to a reasonably early start. Amazing how a little food supply shortage concentrates the mind, and effort, in a normally ornamentally skewed gardener …
Courgettes and squash are already out, with water bottles, woolly mats and mesh as a strategy to protect against possible late frosts for these rashly early plantings.
As always, some things work less well – rodent predation, probably voles or mice, have grazed off recently planted out pea seedlings and almost wiped out what were going to be our first vegetables, and I’ve had to spend a huge amount of time watering plants, as well as the inevitable spring weeding.
I always prevaricate in ripping out the few remaining red Russian Kale plants, since the flowers are so enjoyed by all manner of bees and flies.
Once more after the third sunniest April in Wales since records began, with correspondingly low rainfall and being reliant on our own spring water supply, we’ve been in general water conservation mode now for several weeks. Click here for the Met Office data for April 2020. The previous, and slightly sunnier Aprils in Wales, were in 2007 and 2015, this last year also falling within the lifetime of this blog – it’s fascinating to compare data and observations made from back then.
Fiona’s re-cobbled barns steps, re-organised the cow shed clutter, and freed the worn seized disc on the angle grinder and then attacked a redundant old metal rack to generate more small posts for her rabbit proof fence around the veg beds, which so far is working well…
Scrap merchants are in lock down mode too, and apparently scrap metal prices have collapsed, so collection of such redundant material seemed unlikely any time soon, since the price received hardly covers transport costs now.However most of all, we’ve just had time to enjoy the garden…
And hearing the birds.
A little late to spot the opportunity, I suddenly realised that the lock down presented a completely unique opportunity to record what the symphony of unspoiled rural birdsong can still sound like, given half a chance.
I’d already wondered towards the end of last year about making another film throughout 2020 to contrast with the one I made in 2010. In the end the awful weather in the first 2 months of the year scotched any such plans. Then as lock down was imposed and coincided with the fabulous spring here, the roads and skies became clear and quiet. I appreciated that this was a unique chance, to record a three dimensional record of this place, at this time.
With sound and a modicum of slow movement. …
So for much of the last 6 weeks, I’ve been out very early with the camcorder, and sometimes in the early evening, as above, just capturing what I can see and hear.
In the whole of 2010, recording footage for editing down into my film was a little more challenging. Even here. Pausing for jet noise to dissipate, or for cars to complete the minute or so of travel through the valley’s amphitheatred auditorium; or for agricultural or forestry machinery noise to cease. Or not.
Remember what helped quieten the skies for a while in 2010 anyone? Answer at the end.
Yet this year, the planes are rarely there, the wind is generally still, and the birds have seized their chance and flooded the valleys with song. I can’t identify many of them, but our thrushes have amazing clarity, variety and stamina. Blackbirds, robins and warblers are all in fine form. Sometimes species duet.
Editing will be a nightmare task for the rainy winter ahead. I hated the tedium of this task before, and I shall anyway call a halt to filming at the end of May to concentrate this project simply on spring. We’ve just heard that Wales will extend a significant lock down for another 3 weeks, which should help my task.
Here’s a glimpse of the end snippet from a full 5 minute sunrise clip on the morning of May 4 th, the day after International Dawn Chorus Day, which was frankly less visually and audibly impressive here.
Click here for another wonderful montage of still images and birdsong from the RSPB. Many birds on this recording are ones you’ll never hear in these parts, and soul therapy for troubled times.
This opportunity to slow down, the reduction in ambient noise, and our appreciation of the natural world, and yes, the splendours of spring in a rural garden, will be our main abiding memories of the spring of 2020, whatever comes ahead.
After finding and photographing Brook Lampreys (Lampetra planeri) in our small upland (circa 700 feet above sea level) North Carmarthenshire stream in spring 2019, which exits into Afon Cothi, I thought I’d see if this was a one off fluke sighting, or something I could watch again. Given that the weather and stream conditions were broadly similar this April to last year, I began searching earlier, and particularly focused looking around the time of the super pink full moon (April 7th), since last year I found them on the day after the equivalent full moon on April 19 th which also happened to be Good Friday. I spent several days before this date, when stream conditions were low, but air temperatures were quite cool, with no luck.
I actually forgot to do my survey walk the day of the full moon, but on the evening of April 11th I once again found a couple of active lampreys, though I think these were nearly spent stragglers just moving a few pebbles to cover where the eggs had already been laid. So perhaps once more they’d been laid very close to the date of this full moon. Was this a coincidence?
Or was it a coincidence that once again this sighting happened to be on Good Friday? I guess so, but the following morning I spent time walking the 200 or so yards of stream bank on our land looking for evidence of more spawning sites. In 2019 I’d found just one, but Dave Bevan, our keen photographer friend, had found a second location further upstream the following day. In the end for 2020 I found perhaps 4 or 5 probable spawning redds, and on the basis of these I thought I’d include a few photos and thoughts on some pertinent features:
- They are all within half a mile of the source of our upland stream.
- They were all constructed in quite shallow, but fairly central flow areas of the stream, so likely to survive further drought conditions. Sources quote that brook lamprey eggs hatch “within a few days” of spawning.
- They were all in areas of the stream which would have received full sun from mid morning onwards – i.e. no tree cover at all to the South and West – open wildflower meadow/pasture grazed by sheep at low intensity. My guess is that this has some effect on water temperatures, and I should add that in both 2019 and 2020, the day of spawning was both very sunny and quite warm for the time of year. Much of the stream below us runs through a very wooded and hence shady upland valley – perhaps even as far as the confluence with the Cothi. Whether this contributes to our small section being favoured for spawning, I obviously don’t know. Or indeed how far the adult lampreys have travelled upstream to spawn. They spend their earlier 5 or so years living beneath silty muddy areas of stream bed, before emerging the previous autumn, but then migrating upstream very close to mating time, which I witnessed last year – which is why spawning time is likely to be the only chance you’d have of actually seeing one.
- They were all at the end of sections of the stream where water speed was about to increase as the surface broke into ripples as it sped up over sections with a greater fall. Again this probably impacts on water temperature and oxygen levels.
- The key thing to look out for, apart from the lampreys themselves, is evidence of freshly moved clean stones/gravel. In particular fine gravel sitting on top of larger stones on the stream bed. This clearly indicates recent disturbance in such low water levels. After a long dryish spell all of the gravel/stone becomes coated in an olive brown algal boom, so these patches really do stand out. In one of the photos I found what I thought was an obvious, though smaller redd, and only on closer inspection spotted an exhausted lamprey resting quietly beside the disturbed gravel.
- Finally in my experience of looking, the mating lampreys are completely unfazed by your presence so it’s quite easy to watch them, but like many natural events, the whole process is probably over in just over 24 hours, so midday to late afternoon is perhaps the best time to find the lampreys actually mating. Click here for last year’s observations and more on their unusual life cycle
Let’s hope that the lamprey eggs have now hatched and their juvenile forms moved downstream, and are still surviving. This is the shocking scene of this same stretch of stream yesterday, just 4 weeks after the mating event. Very low rainfall, high sunshine levels and I’m guessing excessive slurry or fertiliser applications to the catchment terrain, have encouraged all this algae to grow – we can’t recall a year like it, and with no significant rainfall in the near future, I’m guessing it’ll soon completely clog the stream.
Anyway I hope that this piece might encourage other readers to have a look in suitable locations next year, and perhaps get lucky. It’s one of spring’s wonderful annual marvels.
A major feature of this spring over the last fortnight, has been the clouds of large black flies, which drift in clusters near trees and shrubs, with legs hanging beneath them. They’re everywhere, and a hazard when cycling down Mountain Road at speed, with them pinging into your face, your mouth closed tight to avoid swallowing any.
As a lapsed trout fisherman, I thought they were similar to the Black Gnat pattern of trout flies, so asked my fishing expert, younger brother Mark, to confirm this. He agreed about these flies being omnipresent in Cambridgeshire too, and reckoned they were Alder Flies. However the Alder fly adult image didn’t match those I’d seen, so a bit of googling led me to St.Mark’s Fly, Bibio marci. Also known as the Hawthorn fly. So called because they typically emerge on St. Marks day, April 25th. Like many insects the adults are quite short lived, though we’re still finding them in numbers since they must emerge in waves, with them particularly enjoying the holly flowers in huge crowds at the moment. Click here for more on their life cycle.This is actually designed to mimic another Bibio species, B. johannis, and there are a whole range of Bibio named fly patterns designed to lure trout of all types whether fished wet (below the surface) or dry (in the surface film).
Another delight in all the sunny weather has been watching the almost casting like movements of the antennae of Green Longhorn moths, Adela reaumurella, which are a new species of Longhorn moths for us to spot here. Extremely eye catching with metallic sheen bodies and enormous antennae, the small swarms of male moths sit around in groups on leaves in the open, waiting for bursts of sunshine and passing female moths to leave their resting points and take off in dancing flight. The antennae are incredibly long, mobile and flexible, and add to their charm. For some more great images, have a look at this blog post on the “Every day nature trails” blog site which I’ve just found, and I’m sure will return to.
My eye has also been tracking larger solitary bees feeding on the purple bugle, Ajuga reptans “Burgundy Glow” , which is always a star nectar flower throughout the garden for bumbles and smaller bees. The bee in question seemed to spend quite a bit of time beneath our wooden terrace table top, and eventually I photographed it scraping the under-surface, in much the same way that a wasp will rasp off wood fibres for nest building.
It’s a Red Mason Bee, Osmia bicornis, and finally I found it was using the recessed screw holes beneath the table top as a potential nest cavity, reversing into them. Getting a good photo of this was challenging – shifting slowly on my back over the crushed slates beneath the table, whilst holding the camera in one hand. Such was the position of the low afternoon sun, I had to use the other hand to shield my eyes from the glare to stand any chance of seeing what was in the viewfinder.
Later I discovered another female interested in exploring the cavities in the external cork insulation of one of my hives as a potential nesting site, only to be ambushed by a very amorous, but smaller male.
Eventually after foreplay involving complex and sustained antennal tapping and abdominal vibration, they clearly felt the the pressure of conducting their courtship in public. So decorously, but awkwardly, fell from view to the the landing board at the hive entrance,still locked in passionate (can bees experience passion?) embrace …
…Rolled over the edge, and disappeared …
Now for “Les” .
I rarely feature Camellias in these pages and yet we have quite a few established plants in the garden.This year they’ve been wonderful, but a common failing with most forms is that the flowers don’t age gracefully, hanging on in various brown edged states which makes photography unappealing. However with few frosts through their flowering season this year, many have looked stunning.One in particular is a firm favourite. C. “Les Jury” reliably flowers over several months, longer than any other form we grow, and seems to largely avoid the browning flower issue. It also has reliably dark green glossy leaves, and to add extra appeal the new year’s shoots emerge a deep claret/ruby colour.
If you can place it where the late afternoon, or even morning sun lights up the huge flowers, it looks even more amazing. This year its closeness to both Pieris “Forest Flame” and a white Magnolia stellata and white Honesty have added to the display. But who was “Les Jury”?
It took me a while to track him down, and more importantly an amazing family and their garden at Tikorangi, which they’ve created over several generations in New Zealand.
Plus discover the huge list of named Camellias, Magnolias and other shrubs which they’ve bred, many awarded the coveted AGM of garden worthiness by the RHS. Click here to visit their WordPress site, view the gardens and also dip into how this extraordinary historic place has been tarnished by the petrochemical industry developing shale gas fields nearby. Then if you can find a space, and have time to watch it grow and mature, try to track down a “Les Jury” – it should delight for years to come. Apparently it was his swansong plant as the last named Camellia that Les bred, and a fantastic fitting tribute to a wonderful gardener.
I should also include this small late flowered pink Camellia which is almost as lovely, and has been covered in hundreds of largely untarnished flowers this year but sadly planted before we recorded cultivar names.
Finally, (!) we moved into the modern age last week and watched a film via streaming from Amazon. Only because the available Blu Ray disc on line, second hand, was priced at over £50! And what was this super expensive masterpiece? Contagion, the 2011 film which covers a fictional global pandemic with devastating consequences which spreads out of Asia and is soon around the world.
The film didn’t really appeal to me stylistically, with its choice of modern beat soundtrack, photographic techniques and lighting, and perhaps an inevitably jumpy narrative. But it was a fascinating reminder of how the risk of pandemics had been considered and explored artistically all those years ago, and how in a remarkable number of ways the film very accurately predicted the scope, scale and speed of transmission of this sort of respiratory droplet and contact spread viral disease. Its portrayal of some of the issues with managing the epidemic were also very perceptive, and indeed the media’s response to the crisis. Even down to including a pesky, and annoying to the authorities, blogger. Partly exploiting the situation for personal gain.
Shame on you, Jude Law!
It also introduced viewers, all those years ago, to the concept of R-0, the rate of spread of the virus, which has now become such a major feature of government briefings here over the last fortnight. I’d already been thinking about this, R-0, in the context of gardening and how we’ve managed our fairly large garden here over very many years.
Once an area of the garden has been created and planted up (a prelude to this in the more recent past has sometimes involved cardboard sheeting with mulch to suppress weeds for a year or two), our management boils down to very regular and very focused hand weeding. Never any hoeing, and rarely any mulching, apart from in recent years occasional leaf mould spread around the bases of a few choice shrubs like Camellias, or Rhododendrons.
This used to be very labour intensive, but over time the labour input diminishes. I wrote about it in some detail back in April 2018, click here, and the piece generated quite a bit of response. Since then I’ve realised even more that the ability to remove unwanted “weeds” early with minimal soil disturbance, whilst allowing all the other flowering plants one values in the garden to seed around, is key to developing a more naturalistic look in a garden, in big part by minimising space for weeds to germinate, and gradually pushing the whole garden seed bank towards one containing favoured plant’s seeds and away from being predominantly weed seeds.
It also definitely reduces the amount of labour needed to maintain the garden over time, if one has near total ground cover with no bare soil or mulched areas. Mulches are fine, but they rarely last for many years and inevitably add to soil fertility, and eventually the predominantly weed seed bank which still exists, will rise to the surface. Plus mulches will prevent the sort of self seeding of “valued” plants which will gradually fill in all the gaps. Plus you need a lot of mulch in a large garden!
The downside to this style of gardening, is that one has to accept a considerable loss of control over which plant grows exactly where. But I’ve come to really enjoy this, and the thought that although we clearly are needed, it looks as though nature has had a big hand in how things look – which indeed it has.
No Le Notre delusions of control freakery here anymore, (though you may dispute that!)
There’s also a knack to recognising potential dominating thugs even amongst those plants one allows into your mix, and to treat these as weeds too either by removal, or deadheading before seeds fall … But the process of working through the whole garden very regularly, covering literally every square metre, with an eagle, or perhaps Great Tit’s eye, is both therapeutic and vital, if one chooses this gardening ethos. Plus one spots other things early – perhaps slug damage, or this year the vast increase in numbers of young orchids around the terrace garden.
However the key determinant of the frequency needed for hand weeding is not the weather, or how one’s feeling, or whether one really has time.
Rather the equivalent of the R-0 of the most virulent weed in the garden, as well as occasionally those irregular seedlings which only really pop up at this time of the year and become much trickier to remove because of root systems once they get past the 2 leaved seedling stage.
Creeping Buttercups, Willow herbs, Mouse Ears, Geranium lucidum, Geranium robertianum, Chickweed, and grasses all need to be recognised and hoiked out as one quarters the ground, but there’s not the same urgency with these, since their own R-0 for disseminating viable seeds is quite a bit longer.
But there’s one plant with us which sets the required frequency of these never ending, though speedier, forays around the garden, bucket in hand, and perhaps equipped with either an old chainsaw file or a metal barbecue skewer. (These tools enable more stubbornly rooted small weeds like creeping buttercup, or cleavers to be teased out, with much less soil disturbance than a larger implement).The prime target in every weeding trip is to hunt out and remove every Hairy Bittercress, (HB), Cardamine hirsuta seedling or plant, before they flower and disseminate their seeds. There is a real sense of failure if one finds an example where the upper few seed pods are already straw coloured, split asunder, and empty.
I used to think that nothing beat this plant in terms of its efficiency of spread, and potential to take over a garden. It manages this by being able to germinate, grow, flower and then disperse up to several thousand seeds per plant within less than 6 weeks. The plants above came from a weeding trawl of the central part of our terrace garden, below, which took me about 6 minutes to complete – not bad for such a large area, full of plants…So on the basis that even the keenest eyed gardener is going to miss some, roughly every 3 to 4 weeks is the necessary maximum frequency of covering every area of the garden. However we now accept we’re simply never going to completely eliminate this weed from the garden. The seeds are sticky so can be moved on shoes or boots or by animals and it grows in all the hedgerows and meadows, and one always does miss a few. But this strategy of very regular surveillance and removal has worked wonders, numbers have declined massively over time, and in the oldest parts of the garden, very few ever appear now.
And yet… how the fecundity of even HB, this gardener’s nightmare, pales into insignificance with the Covid 19 virus. 4 months into 2020, and look at how it’s overwhelmed many aspects of human life all over this planet. Just 3 months ago, when I wrote a post with this very title these were the data – 9826 cases, 213 deaths, 20 countries with confirmed cases , click here. Currently confirmed cases when I wrote this part of the post were – 3,250,000 cases; 233,420 deaths and 187 countries – click here
I wondered whether a gardener’s perspective of weed management and minimal tolerance might therefore have been, and still be, a benefit to planning strategies even at this late stage of the disease’s expansion? Since absence of an effective vaccine anytime soon leaves few other options available apart from diagnosis through rigorous testing, contact tracing, and then isolation of affected or potentially infected people. At last this seems to again be featuring as likely government policy.
Shutting stable doors comes to mind…
The equivalent of regular surveillance and elimination of HB, before the seed pods split.
However even pursued with a zeal as yet lacking in the UK, just as with HB, is it really likely that this disease will disappear anytime soon?
Even with a vaccine, the WHO did finally manage to eliminate smallpox, though it took many years. It also got really close to achieving eradication with polio after over 2 decades of trying, but then Covid came along as global case numbers had been beaten down to about 150 cases per year, and is now likely to expand its presence once more as vaccination in the final obstinate stronghold region of Pakistan/Afghanistan, is currently impractical. Click here for more.
Just how quickly does one become two?
I was interested to see how many MPs, or even members of the cabinet, list gardening as a pastime or hobby. And here I’m afraid I’ve failed miserably to come up with anything meaningful at all. There is a House of Commons Gardening and Horticultural Group, click here (though Macafee says this, http://www.parliament.co.uk, is an unsafe site!). The very efficient, although rebranded point of public enquiry – PR group Bellenden, responded within 24 hours on a Sunday to my email, to say that they no longer handled the horticultural group’s PR work and directed me to the MP chair. 3 weeks later, and I’ve had no reply or acknowledgement to a simple information request, though I quite understand all MP’s will be very busy folk at present.
Perhaps I’m simply very fortunate and privileged to have chosen to spend so much time in close contact with the soil, and new life in the form of emergent seedlings. Certainly the contrast between the intolerance a gardener needs to show to weed seedlings compared with the patience needed for treasured plants is striking in our garden at present.
Which itself was one of just 3 plants grown from a packet of seed bought with great expectations perhaps 10 years ago. Only this one plant survived to maturity, and has flowered every year, except 2019 when it was shaded out. It’s also fortunate that it was self fertile – with a little help from me. Click here for more details and some flower images – I can’t track any down from my files!
There are now possibly 50 carefully nurtured seedlings of 2 different generations dotted around the garden.
When they flower, I’ll include some photos. This year I might even be able to harvest hundreds of seed to create real drifts of this stunning bell flowered Shirui lily, native to a limited range of high altitude Indian mountains, in a few more years.
There’s certainly an inevitable dogged patience associated with serious gardening, to combine with an element of obsessive intolerance, which may be of wider value in our society as we navigate the long road ahead.
PS – The reason for a period of quieter skies in 2010? The Icelandic volcanic eruption and the grounding of international flights for about a fortnight.
Seemed like a big deal at the time, but life recovered very quickly.