Posts Tagged ‘farm wildlife’

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.


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





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 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.

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.


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…

BATS AND MOTHS – National Moth Night 2010

14 May, 2010

Bats and Moths

National Moth Night 2010 Saturday 15 May, 8pm start

Sheepdrove Organic Farm, Sheepdrove Road, Lambourn, Berkshire.

a moth lamp in action

a moth lamp in action

Come and discover moths and bats at the Eco Conference Centre, Sheepdrove Organic Farm, Lambourn. Meet real live bats up close with expert David Endacott.

A large Robinson Moth Lamp will light the way for colourful local moths, and our Bat Detector will help us to hear some fantastic flying insect munchers! We should see and hear a few bats around the courtyard and garden as we watch the moths come in, and we will take a short Bat Walk to see what else is around.

Please bring a torch, warm clothes, sensible footwear and be ready for changes in the weather. Sunglasses are very useful near the moth lamp! All welcome, children must be supervised at all times. Sorry, no dogs permitted.


Admission is free but please tell us you are coming. Call Jason Ball on 01488 674727. Mobile (during the event) 07747 848429.

Directions at


Purple Thorn

Magpie Moth

More events around the UK

Follow the link to find National Moth Night events around the UK.

Frosts and glorious cowslips

4 May, 2010

Frosty ground-ivy, photo by Jason Ball

We had a frost this morning, and a flurry of hailstones yesterday. The sunshine is beaming down and it should be a lovely warm day – but we might expect more frosts this week.

The cowslips are at their best on Bockhampton Down. This breathtaking feature of the Berkshire flora was established in 1996 when Peter and Juliet Kindersley decided to restore this chalk grassland. Today the results are spectacular, with lines of cowslips half a mile long!

Thousands of cowslips on Bockhampton Down (click to enlarge)

More birds at Sheepdrove

6 April, 2010

Please note: these are not at publicly accessible locations.

  Species Site Count    
  Barn Owl Sheepdrove Organic Farm 1    
  probable male, hunting on the wing. SU352818.
  Tawny Owl Sheepdrove Organic Farm 1    
  At a nestbox. SU360820.
  Rook Sheepdrove Organic Farm 20    
  Many at nests and bringing nest material in. SU360820.
  Buzzard Sheepdrove Organic Farm 2    
  calling to each other… also corvids mobbing and lots seen about here. SU369819.
  Moorhen Sheepdrove Organic Farm 1    
  Coot Sheepdrove Organic Farm 2    
  Mallard Sheepdrove Organic Farm 2    
  m+f. pair on lake – not a common sight!. SU369819.
  Chiffchaff Sheepdrove Organic Farm 1    
  m. singing. SU360820.
  Dunnock Sheepdrove Organic Farm 2    
  m+f. Pair seen mating (fraction of a second) after F displayed in a low crouch for a long time and M finally stopped hopping about and got on with it! Watched a courtship chase earlier which consisted of a ridiculous run around a rosemary bush. SU358819.
  Great Spotted Woodpecker Sheepdrove Organic Farm 2    
  m+f. SU358819.
  Wheatear Sheepdrove Organic Farm 1    
  m. seen on fence, flew to ground on pasture. SU366808.

Toads on the Roads

22 March, 2010

Toad on Migration - jasonpball 2010

Toads were migrating to Sheepdrove’s ponds on Saturday evening. The weather was perfect, being a night of fog and drizzle. On Sunday they were cavorting in the lake at the reedbed system, while frogs spawned in the balancing pond and wildlife pond.

Today’s visitors and volunteers on the Spring Walk event will be the first to see the toads and frogs up close. Pictures to follow!

See our farm wildlife volunteers Spring 2010 event calendar…

Dormouse nest box

21 March, 2010

The usual ways to survey for Common Dormouse are by putting up nestboxes to see if they get used, or searches for hibernation nests in winter, and most popular – searches for hazel nut shells, which are nibbled in a very particular way by dormice! We tried these methods in 2002-2004 without success. However, after finding a rather distinctive nest on the farm (in a bumblebee box!) I’m hopeful that we might have dormice at Sheepdrove. Certainly it is possible, and if we confirmed this mouse was here, it would be fantastic. Another rare mammal we that know we have is the meek and mysterious Harvest Mouse.

Our farm wildife volunteers will be surveying for signs of these mice this year. Join us if you like…

Meanwhile the volunteers and I have built some dormouse nestboxes, using a simple, multi-use nestbox design that I came up with. I’ve adapted this box for small birds and bats too.
Jason Ball

click pictures to enlarge

Dormouse nestbox - a simple design.Dormouse nest box (side view)

Spring Walk and Picnic Monday 22 March

18 March, 2010

Monday 22nd March: 10am-3pm
Spring Walk & Picnic.

Enjoy a springtime nature walk and picnic at Nut Wood. We’re not the only hungry ones, and we like to stay active, so… help us to build a big bird feeder too!

Please bring a picnic lunch with you. We can provide tea, coffee and biscuits. Please call Jason on 01488 674727 to let us know you’re coming.

Join us… 

Owl network celebrates 21st

6 April, 2009

Now 21 years old, the Barn Owl Conservation Network celebrated its ‘coming of age’ at Sheepdrove Eco Conference Centre during the weekend.

2009 BOCN Symposium

Juliet Kindersley welcomed 120 delegates from across the UK and Ireland for the Barn Owl Conservation Network Symposium 2009.  Juliet established the Sheepdrove Trust, which funds the BOCN – a Network of dedicated people who strive to save the nation’s favourite owl.

“What you do for barn owls all over the country is very important work.” Juliet told the audience.

She recalled how, back in the 1990s, her owl nestbox set in a new barn very soon attracted a Barn Owl. Juliet and Peter Kindersley contacted the BOCN and received expert advice on how to develop the provision of nestboxes and habitat across the farm as it grew.

Today up to five breeding pairs of Barn Owl live at Sheepdrove Organic Farm and all five British owl species use its rich landscape. Sheepdrove’s success story echoes the many examples that the Network advisors have achieved nationwide – working  in partnership with farmers, landowners, agencies and volunteers.

By promoting creation of the essential rough grass habitat that barn owls require, and the careful location of nestboxes, the Network has recorded a rise in Barn Owl populations wherever they have worked. Overall, the emerging evidence suggests a significant population recovery – a scientific national survey is needed to confirm the growth. However, the Barn Owl is still vulnerable and remains on the Amber List of Birds of Conservation Concern.

Knowledge shared through the BOCN has advanced the understanding of the ecology of the owls, based on many years of monitoring and study by many dedicated groups and individuals.

Speakers delivered presentations about a range of topics and reflected what has been learned from over two decades of Barn Owl conservation and study.

bocn speakers 2009

Bob Sheppard summarised 25 years of owl conservation in Lincolnshire, Mark Grantham (BTO) looked at 100 years of bird ringing, Alex Copland and John Lusby (BirdWatch Ireland) explored the latest knowledge about the Barn Owl in Eire, Paddy Jackson investigated double brooding, Karen Davies (FWAG) highlighted the best options for owls in Environmental Stewardship (the grant scheme for farmers),  Bernard Wright and Roy Leigh summarised 25 years of work in Cheshire, and Colin Shawyer reviewed the work of the BOCN.

Symposium papers will be brought together with county-based reports from the Network, and published as a collection to illustrate the progress made by the Barn Owl Conservation Network over its twenty one years.