Archive for the ‘wildlife’ 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.

Cereals with colourful friends

1 June, 2011

Did you know?

Sheepdrove Organic Farm has such as good variety of wildflowers growing in its crop fields, its arable flora is of National Importance.

Read more…

Tree protection to be trimmed?

16 December, 2010

The Ancient Tree Forum and the Woodland Trust need your support to stop avoidable loss of Ancient Trees and to help protect one of the most important habitats a tree can provide – dead wood.

The Tree Preservation Order (TPO) in England is currently being reviewed and we are concerned about some proposed changes which would reduce, rather than improve, protection and could directly affect beautiful and valuable ancient and veteran trees*.

The Department of Communities and Local Government proposes to continue to allow all dead trees, however valuable, to be felled without consent. There is also a proposal to introduce a similar exception for the removal of dead branches – vital habitats that naturally develop as trees age – on living trees.

Essentially this means that very old, historic and wildlife-rich dead trees and dead branches of living veteran trees could be completely removed, rather than managed for stability.

Please help us prevent such a backward step in tree and habitat protection! The Trust has set up an emergency campaign with the Ancient Tree Forum to feed directly into the public consultation process.

Go straight to the live petition where you can add your own voice to ours**.

PLEASE, find 2 minutes today to feed directly into this consultation and
pass it on to your friends and contacts. This consultation ends 20th December.

In haste,
Neville and Nikki

Neville Fay – chair, Ancient Tree Forum
Nikki Williams – head of campaigning, Woodland Trust

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

Barn Owls depend humans – the nestbox question

26 November, 2010

Anne Diamond spoke with Jason Ball live on BBC Radio Berkshire yesterday about Barn Owls. Anne was following up the national news story about owls being dependent on nestboxes. 

Jason pointed out that actually it’s a sign of success, and reason to congratulate the nation’s Barn Owl conservation volunteers, and the farmers they work with.

The headlines were sparked by a BBC news interview with Colin Shawyer, who founded the BOCN (Barn Owl Conservation Network). The Sheepdrove Trust sponsors the BOCN and Sheepdrove is its national HQ.

Colin, who trained Jason in monitoring and ringing owls, carried out a study in the 1980s which revealed a massive decline in the Barn Owl population. So he set up the BOCN and it soon became a key network for advisors and owl conservationists across the UK and Eire.

In some areas, such as Salisbury Plain, nest box schemes have increased the barn owl population by up to five times. But the reliance on nest boxes is now so great, the birds will need constant conservation,” explained Colin.

Lambourn Valley Barn Owl Group has been very busy building nest boxes here at Sheepdrove, to sell as a way to raise money for the group. Of course those boxes must go into areas with good owl habitat, otherwise they won’t help owls at all. So LVBOG also provides advice to farmers and landowners about how to manage grass for the prey that owls rely on.

Listen again to that Anne Diamond show. The interview starts 32 minutes in. (available 6 days on iPlayer)

Wildlife talks at Letcombe Bassett

17 November, 2010

Thursday 25 Nov 2010 
starts 7.30pm

An event for the Friends of the Ridgeway at Letcombe Bassett village hall. Jason Ball will give a presentation about wildlife at the farm, and then one about owls – featuring the work of the Lambourn Valley Barn Owl Group.

Talk titles:

  1. Sheepdrove’s Wild Side
  2. Barn Owls and their conservation

A charge of £3 will be made for non-members. Annual Membership of the Friends of the Ridgeway is £5.

Farm Wildlife events (Nov 2010)

16 November, 2010

These latest volunteer tasks are in association with the local branch of Butterfly Conservation. Coming soon, the 2011 event list for the Lambourn Valley Barn Owl Group.

Contact us: Please tell us if you wish to attend a task – it is vital to our preparation. Please email Jason Ball or call Jason on 01488 674727. What to bring: Please bring a packed lunch – we will picnic on the farm! Bring clothes ready for any weather and sensible boots or wellies. Meet here: The farm office, at Sheepdrove Eco Conference Centre, Sheepdrove Road, Lambourn, Berkshire. Map and directions here…

Saturday 27 Nov 2010

Scrub up for Butterflies! 10am – 3pm
Join us for some scrub planting & woodland edge cutting. We aim to create scrubby edge habitat to benefit butterflies and moths.  They love the shelter effect as well as the nectar – and some species will eat the trees at caterpillar stage.

In association with Butterfly Conservation’s Upper Thames branch. Be sure to bring a packed lunch and wrap up warm with outdoor clothes and boots. Bring garden gloves if you have them – we have spares too. We will provide tools and tea – so please tell us if you’re coming. Call us on 01488 674727.

(PLEASE NOTE –  some steep slopes and uneven ground).

Monday 29 Nov 2010

Scrub up for Butterflies! (second session) 10am – 3pm
Scrub planting & woodland edge cutting. Details as per Saturday’s task.

Background

This is part of the Sheepdrove Rare Butterfly Project – and we’re helping moths too. We are planting native Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and Barberry (Berberis vulgaris). We ordered locally-grown trees from Murray Maclean at Frilford, tel: 01865 391242.

Hawthorn will provide shade and shelter in years to come. I’ve seen small bushes make a big difference for some butterflies on a windy day. Cowslips already grow in our target areas – and I hope that in future we’ll see the endangered Duke of Burgundy arrive at Sheepdrove.

Barberry is the caterpillar food plant for the cute Barberry Carpet moth – probably locally extinct because barberry shrubs were ripped out of England’s hedges. It harbours a rust fungus that affects cereal, but modern varieties are resistant to the disease, so we’re bringing this bush back. Hopefully the moths will find it one day – Barberry Carpet has been found in western Oxfordshire. Meanwhile the Barberry is a wonderful food source for bees and birds.

Your spade work could leave a lasting legacy! Please join us on a task, we’d love you to be part of the project.

Jason Ball
Manager for Biodiversity and Alternative Energy
01488 674727

More wildlife events and volunteer tasks…

Soil Association: biodiversity and organic farming

15 November, 2010

An article by Clio Turton…

Bats = pesticides

29 October, 2010

“Bats are one of nature’s greatest pesticides… during the 180 days or so that they are out of hibernation, a million little brown bats will eat – and this is a conservative estimate – in the region of 500 tons of insects. If bats die out farmers will have to use so much more pesticides.”

Dr Kunz, a biology professor at Boston University – The Independent – 29 Oct 2010