Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

Winter wildlife on the farm

28 February, 2012

Winter so far has been marked by huge flocks of fieldfares in the hedgerows and woods. As the extra hedgerows planted on the farm in the last fifteen years mature the hawthorn and blackthorn are producing more berries. These are providing a much needed food supply to the beautiful fieldfare, a close relative of the song thrush and mistle thrush. Most of our fieldfares breed in Scandinavia and northern Russia and I was lucky enough to see some in the pine forests of Finland a few years ago. To avoid the harsh winters of the Arctic the birds fly south in Autumn to seek out the milder climates of Britain where there are plentiful berries. The Berkshire Downs support very large numbers of fieldfares and they can add much excitement to a walk along the Ridgeway in winter. We have regularly been seeing flocks of over a hundred this winter on the farm, moving from hedgerow to hedgerow seeking out any remaining berries. If you are responsible for hedgerows or even an isolated hawthorn tree then you can help the fieldfare by not cutting the foliage back every year. The flowers which form the berries only grow on a second year branch so if a hedge is cut every year then few or no berries will be formed.

 

The remarkably mild winter (until February anyway!) meant that the bluebells in our ancient woodlands came up remarkably early and I was able to map their location in January. The plan is to record their distribution each year to see how they respond to our woodland management – we are hoping that they increase! The bluebells love the hazel coppice in our ancient woodland, Nut Wood.

How we hope Nut Wood hazel coppice will look in May, with bluebells everywhere.

Last week Sheepdrove Organic Farm Volunteers planted more hazel trees into the wood, both to help wildlife and to provide a sustainable supply of hazel rods for the gardens and for charcoal making.  The hazel trees can be coppiced every 10 – 15 years, continuing an ancient tradition, and providing a variety of habitats for nesting birds such as warblers. They will then regrow, creating a sustainable product, that can be harvested over and over again for hundreds of years. Our garden team use the hazel rods as pea sticks, supporting our organic runner beans and peas that are used for meals at the Eco Conference Centre. And if the hazel is allowed to grow for longer it provides an excellent material for our charcoal burner (see photos in the SheepdroveGarden blog below). Sheepdrove Organic Farm charcoal is usually available from Sheepdrove Eco Conference Centre, and our shops in Bristol and London although best to check before going specially.

Our charcoal, bagged up and ready to use.

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Organic Gardening

18 September, 2011

After such a good start to the year with a warm sunny Spring its been a dull Summer which hasn’t contributed to the growth and development of some crops. Melons after planting both in frames and in the glasshouse sat around for ages before beginning to grow again and we won’t be getting any melons this year. Although the tomato plants grew well fruit has been slow to ripen and taste and texture has been poor(with a flavour reminiscent of cotton wool ) I am informed as I can’t eat them myself due to an allergy. Even regular feeding with comfrey liquid to increase potash doesn’t appear to have improved the quality by much. Many people are saying similar as to the taste of tomatoes this year so lack of sunshine is surely a factor. The only other poor crop this year has been dwarf French beans which in my experience do better in a dryer and warmer summer. Most of the other crops have done well with prolific cucumbers in the polytunnel, good sized onions and some monster beetroots. Other successes in particular were lettuce, plums, strawberries, fennel, carrots and garlic. Runner beans and autumn raspberries have faced constant battering by winds which have done them no favours.The sweetcorn was blown sideways after the severe winds last week and we had to stake all the plants which is a first for me. This was probably planted a little late on our exposed site but its nearly ready now. We have kept the conference centre well supplied with vegetables and any excess has been sent to the Bristol shop.

Vegetable garden in September

Vegetable garden in September

The south facing greenhouses were leaking badly whenever it rained so when it was dry we have been up on the roof sealing with silicone which has improved the situation considerably. The rain blown horizontally by last weeks gales revealed further leaks however where no rain could normally be expected to go requiring another assault on the ridge and hopefully curing the problem for the winter ahead.

We have already sown some Hungarian rye after early potatoes , early lettuce and onions. When the carrots are harvested for storage these beds will also be sown . This is a good cover crop  over winter to prevent nutrient leaching and its deep penetrative roots are good for soil structure. It is also a good weed suppressant and continues to grow in cold weather.

The use of green manures is an important part of organic growing. Two beds were sown with alflalfa in the spring. This is very deep rooting  so again useful for soil structure  and also bringing trace elements to the surface.  This will be overwintered and dug in next Spring after the tops are cut down for composting .

Also grown were Phacelia which has an extensive root system to improve soil structure and with dense foliage for smothering weeds. The blue flowers are very attractive to bees and benficial insects such as hoverflies which eat aphids. Fitting in with the legumes red clover was sown which  is one of the best varieties for fixing nitrogen from the air , weed suppression and improving soil structure. Trefoil will tolerate some shade and is useful for undersowing once crops are established such as sweetcorn. It is good at fixing nitrogen and once the crop is cut down it can be left overwinter to protect the soil. Trefoil was also sown on a small area in the glasshouse which will be dug in before planting up with winter salads. There is one more green manure to sow which is field beans after summer legumes and in parts of the glasshouse and polytunnel after the tomatoes and cucumbers have finished. They germinate well in colder weather and can be sown from September to November.

sweetcorn undersown with trefoil

sweetcorn undersown with trefoil

alfalfa

Alfalfa

phacelia

Phacelia

We have a few chickens up at the farmhouse and the problem of them pecking holes in their own eggs was solved in 3 ways: The placing of golf balls in their nesting boxes acted as a deterrent towards further pecking of rounded objects, a dietary supplement of broken shell solved their calcium craving and Mr Fox made off with the chief protagonists for his dinner! The remaining chickens were penned in behind electric fences and have maintained numbers (18) since the dreadful discovery. They are due to be joined by 20 newcomer hens this week. The Gardening Team have done their best to mentally prepare Russell, the sole cockerel, for their arrival.

The potager at the farmhouse was an abundance of colour throughout the summer. This along with other areas will be available for public appreciation next year through the National Gardens Scheme on 1st July.

potager

Potager in July

The Physic Garden and thyme clock has also excelled in colour and variety

physic garden

Thyme clock and Physic Garden

physic garden

Physic Garden in July

For Neal’s Yard remedies we have harvested chickweed , oats , and elderberries. Last week competition winners from Neal’s Yard spent a day at Sheepdrove and helped with harvesting hawthorn berries. These are used in combination with other herbs to help lowering high blood pressure.

We made more charcoal with the large burner . This is sold at the conference centre and at the shops in London and Bristol. Our lumpwood charcoal gets hot very quickly and saves that time waiting for your barbecue to warm up before you can start cooking.

charcoal burner

Charcoal Burner

wood burning

Wood burning before sealing

Throughout August we spent many early mornings team ragwort pulling in one of the woods which was thick with it. There were thousands of them and, volunteers from the kitchen, farm, garden and office as well as the owners came in at 7.30am come rain or shine to pull up every single plant by hand. With a unique sense of teamwork, humour, belonging and passion for what Sheepdrove stands for, a labourious task was made light. After an hour or two’s ragwort tugging, there is nothing better than the succulent bacon and sausage rolls received gratefully from the chef at the Conference Centre

ragwort pulling

Team ragwort pulling

If you have managed to follow this to the end you now reach the funny moments to report. One colleague while strimming around the farmhouse managed to lose his car keys from his pocket. Although not funny at the time in retrospect we can laugh about it. We found someone who had a metal detector and after 2.5 hours searching finally found his keys and he was able to get home that evening.

For those of you that remember the Basil Fawlty episode when he threatened his car we had similar incident here. Another colleague disappeared and came back with the following:

basil fawlty moment

I'm going to give you a damn good thrashing

The same person also had her hair adhered securely to a yellow sticky trap causing an impromptu hair cut as the only safe way of release.

So autumn is here and the ever-present winds up on this ridge continue and the temperature is beginning to fall overnight.. The spiders have made their way into the greenhouse and the wasps are drunk and dangerous amongst the windfall apples. The mornings can be chilly though the afternoon sun we sometimes see is glorious and there is a beautiful quality of light over Lambourn Valley, rich and with a tint of orange.

Organic Gardening and Poker

8 May, 2011

What a relief to get some rain this weekend. Everything was getting desperate for it. The young trees we planted to create wind breaks for extra bee hives have been suffering the most although we have been watering them regularly from a water bowser. The calendula ( for the bees) was sown after rain was forecast the previous weekend but hopefully now this should all germinate well. All the new planting and direct sowing of vegetables were watered in rotation overnight using a timer and oscillating sprinkler..

Plenty of vegetables are now planted out mostly under fleece and we have been harvesting radish, lettuce and asparagus for a few weeks. The first bed of carrots has germinated but unfortunately I missed the pre-emergence flame weeding as it came up very quickly . The first bed was a mixture of varieties including Chantenay,  Fly Away, Yellowstone, White Satin and Purple Haze. The second bed of Autumn King is now sown. The early Tomatoes , Cucumbers and Peppers planted in the heated glasshouse are thriving.

salad leaves

Clockwise: giant red mustard, endive, mizuna, purslane

Tomatoes

Peppers, Tomatoes and Cucumbers

The Potager and gravel garden are transformed now. We have begun to plant the Potager with  early annuals and vegetables ; cornflower black boy and diadem, poppies black paeony and blackcurrant fizz, nicotiana fragrant cloud , verbena bonariensis , Italian, French and moss curled parsley, Bulls Blood beetroot and a mixture of lettuce.

potager

Potager. Spot the cat.

Gravel Garden

In June we will be running a charcoal making day so we did a trial run in a large oil drum. Including preparation it took about 6hours before it was ready to close up and leave overnight. The quantity of wood put in reduces to about  a fifth but  we had some good charcoal on inspection the next day.

charcoal making

Initial Burning of wood

charcoal making

Partial sealing of drum

charcoal

Charcoal the following day

This week  people involved with Neal’s Yard Remedies came down for a day at Sheepdrove and to help harvesting Nettles (Urtica Dioica), Cleavers (Galium Aparine) and Comfrey(Symphytum Officinale).

Dragana tells us about nettles

nettle harvesting

Harvesting Nettles

Dried nettles are a natural anti-histamine and also have anti-asthmatic properties. For hundreds of years they have been used to treat painful muscles and joints and arthritis. Also used now for urinary problems.

Dried or fresh cleavers is said to have anti-inflammatory , astringent, diaphoretic, stimulant and diuretic properties.

Comfrey has a long history of use to promote the healing of bones and wounds and internal use to treat ailments such as arthritis and ulcers.

Russel the rooster has been getting a little shifty this month and I was kung fu kicked on the leg and a colleague was also attacked.

We have now had two Sheepdrove poker tournaments . The first one was taken down by Cool Hand Luke who unfortunately couldn’t defend his title last week as they are lambing on the farm. This weeks game was a re-buy which was won by Raise Every Hand Suzi. Best hand of the night involved 4 players with 3 all in and two flushes . The Queen high flush was beaten by the Ace high flush and 2 players were knocked out. It was the second time of the night our IT man was beaten by a higher flush which was very unlucky.

poker tournament

May rebuy-tournament. Who has all the chips already?

Jobs for the next month. Planting tomatoes , cucumbers, peppers and aubergines in polytunnel and cold glasshouse.  Sowing winter vegetables. Lots of hoeing and weeding. Ridging up potatoes. Cutting down cow parsley through woodland around farmhouse gardens. Planting later annuals and vegetables in potager and herbs in Physic garden

Blackbird from Sheepdrove found in Sweden

14 December, 2010

John Swallow is a volunteer who comes to survey our birds each winter. John is a qualified ringer (and trainer) and the little metal leg-rings can be a brilliant way of monitoring birds.

John, along with assistants Andy and Mike, have ringed hundreds of birds at the farm. Of course many birds don’t live long, but occasionally they recapture one, which enables them to get an idea of bird ages and numbers.

To have a bird found elsewhere is rare too. When it happens, it’s usually because the bird has died, and somebody has reported the find, using the leg ring number. (Contact the BTO if you find a ringed bird.)

A female blackbird ringed at Sheepdrove Organic Farm during the winter exactly 2 years ago, on 14 December 2008, was found in SWEDEN in August 2010. I knew that winter birds here might often be migrants from Skandinavia, but this is still really interesting to know – especially because John kindly provided a link to the exact location at Backebo, Alsterbro, Kalmar, Sweden!

Jason Ball

Soil Association: biodiversity and organic farming

15 November, 2010

An article by Clio Turton…

The story of Silent Spring

4 October, 2010

Listen to the story behind Rachel Carson and her colossally important book ‘Silent Spring’. How did it change the way we see the world, and understand our impact on nature?

An excellent episode of the Witness on BBC Radio Four.

Listen again…

Bats on night vision

20 August, 2010

Following up the story about bats living with us at the Eco Conference Centre… we added a video clip to the Sheepdrove website. The weird, green footage was shot in night vision to help us see the bats in the dark. Watch the bat video…

Living with bats

20 August, 2010

We love bats, and it was great to have some keen bat fans come over to the farm to see them. How many do you think we counted? Find out in our news story about bats living with us at the Eco Conference Centre…

August’s sense of spring

11 August, 2010

Although it’s summer, some of the wildlife around the farm echo springtime. Delicate baby toads and frogs occupy every footstep of grass around Sheepdrove lake. Leverets still bound about. Naive young Goldfinches, not yet alert to humans, might tolerate you nearby as they hack away at knapweed heads. Fledged garden birds are learning about the nut feeders.

Some birds haven’t marked any kind of season’s change – and why would they? House Martin chicks are peeping out of the nests on Sheepdrove Eco Conference Centre, neighbours to Woodpigeons brooding eggs and Wrens at Nut Wood are wrapped up in yet another chick feeding frenzy!

How important are GM crops today?

25 July, 2010

“The GM companies like to give the impression that food produced from GM crops is widespread, but the truth is rather different. The area of land on which GM crops are being grown is only 2.7% of all agricultural land worldwide. A small proportion of GM crops go directly to feed people, with most going into animal feed, biofuels, or to produce cotton. GM crops weren’t designed to feed the world, but to extend the profitability of the pesticide companies producing them.”


Isobel Tomlinson, Policy and Campaigns Officer at the Soil Association, quoted in Country Smallholding Magazine