Owl fanatic and artist David Mead's piece that we featured…
How can anyone write about the countryside without mentioning the worst drought in living memory and the effect on everything in our rural environment. With any luck September will live up to it’s reputation for storms or low pressure systems approaching from the West, driving in heavy rain. Our media sources have been rather slow in picking up on the drought and it’s long-lasting effects, many too complex to touch on here but I will touch on a few of the expected and some of the less obvious.
Firstly, my simplistic rain gauge recorded less than an inch of rain in the preceding eight weeks up to the end of June and since then, less than another inch. The hay crop which was shrivelling by mid June soon died away and before it completely disappeared the ewes were turned in to eat what they could find. I just play at this with my few ewes, but my farming friends are not so lucky. Grass for grazing has vanished and worst still the forage, mainly silage, just hasn’t grown. So this is no longer a problem for the present, but one that will run for months, this forage carries all forms of livestock through the winters months. As the problem is nationwide, there is little prospect of importing winter feed or bedding from other areas. There isn’t a simple answer to this problem, only rain and very quickly, then maybe there could be one more small cut of silage. Fertilizer isn’t the answer without rain. On a more positive note the winter cereals were early, having recovered from a slow start in the spring and it appears yields were good, but that sown in the spring has suffered. The result of all this is increased costs of feed stuffs this autumn and winter. Again not anything for the non-farming public to concern themselves about.
But hang on a minute, what about veg production, these crops rely on our temperate, usually wet climate, though only small parts of our county produce veg for human consumption, but that which I have seen is nearly total crop failure. If my memory from Agriculture at University serves me right, a good crop of swedes is some forty tons to the acre, (showing my age!) not 40 plants to the acre as I saw in one field I walked recently. The issue of increasing world temperatures is of grave concern and maybe we all need to think very carefully about how we need to change our modern lives to ensure we pass this planet on to our children in a better direction than we are presently going. I could go on relentlessly about how I have noticed, all totally unscientifically, as to how things seem to have changed in my life time but there are so many reason to believe the actual facts now.
Enough, it is not my intention to put you off reading this, but I believe it is now time to think about our legacy to future generations. So to the more unusual things I have noticed over this summer.
Though only one swallow returned to nest this year in the small barn, it successfully fledged all it’s young and soon huge flocks of young gathered over the house from mid July on. Even better another couple have now started on a second brood. Both used old nests sites as the mud they require to build afresh has been in short supply. Recently 40 odd house martins have been exploring the gable end of the house. Often they place the odd spot of mud in an attempt to build, but never complete a nest. However lack of mud has lead to these resourceful characters trying a new tactic. On extending the cottage 25 odd years ago I cut a small hole under the barge boards for bats should they wish the roof as a roost. The bats have shunned this and sparrows soon moved in the oversized hole but at the time of writing any sparrows has been ousted and housemartins have taken up residence. So easy just to reduce the hole size with what mud they can find and thus they are set for a brood themselves.
My own veg patch has performed well but only with constant watering, weeds aren’t a problem this year and still no slugs or snails.
The broad bean plants were six foot high and covered in flower but few beans. Lack of water and too higher temperatures were the main problem here according to my horticultural expert friends. The currant bushes were laden with fruit and this bounty was soon found by numerous birds. Even with a daily check on all the protective netting, Black caps, Thrushes, Robins and Blackbirds soon became reliant on this bounty too. I soon gave up the task of net repairs and left the door open for them to take their share of the crop. The sweetcorn has grown well and unfortunately has not set that many cobs and for the first time ever the outside tomatoes haven’t got blight and with any luck should ripen soon. I have had to give up potatoes this year due to crop failures in the previous years. Nematode worms seem to be the problem eating the tubers and thus causing the plants to struggle and get blight early. These probably entered the garden from peelings of shop bought potatoes put on the compost heap. Hopefully a year or two of no spuds will solve this problem.
After the best apple blossom ever this spring, many trees have branches at breaking point bursting with fruit. These trees cope with this weather by dropping the fruit before it ripens and the stillness of an evening in the garden surrounded by the orchard is now interspersed with the dull thud of apples dropping to the ground. This may be hastened by a few new consumers of the fruit. I have noticed the crows have moved in and are pecking at the apples, almost for sure a new food source for them. The great spotted woodpeckers also seem to enjoy the bounty and even the green woodpeckers I disturb from under the trees are presumably feeding on those insects feeding on the drops.
The rivers Bray and Mole are only a stones throw away and their levels are so pitifully low, even after a few heavy even prolonged periods of rain, that few if any migratory fish will be running at present. My sea fishing colleagues tell me they are seeing a few jumping in the estuary keenly awaiting a spate. I have seen small shoals of two to three pound sea trout laying almost comatose on the river bed, and it is easy to see there are many juvenile trout or salmon in these conditions. I hope they survive until persistent rain arrives.
So gardening, walking, fishing or sitting on the beach aren’t for you and you have time on your hands and wish for a different North Devon experience with a few friends, then how about this. Why not charter the only yacht sailing from all of North Devon from Appledore. Niki runs the 31 foot ocean going yacht, Patron on half day or full days out. She will sail you along the spectacular coast or over to Lundy. A special birthday and a longing for sailing meant this was a perfect present for my daughter Emily. We intended to sail to Lundy but there was insufficient wind to achieve our primary goal. So we sailed in Bideford bay for the day in all most total isolation, with only the odd porpoise as company and ever scanning the flat seas for sun fish or dolphins. The photo of bottlenose dolphins was taken from Patron earlier this season. We did see fulmars, shearwaters, gannets, guillemots and razorbills and all the time taking in the stunning coastline. Niki can take out five adults at a time and is only too happy to encourage you to participate in the sailing of Patron. So this is a day you can make unique to yourselves. Try it, we had a wonderful day this time, as several year ago and will be out again.
There is still time to enjoy kayaking alone our coast. For beginners try Combe Martin where you can hire kayaks by the hour. I have just upgraded my own kayak and in late August on the maiden voyage I caught a few mackerel and a small gurnard. Whilst being closely observed by a large bull grey seal and had a sun fish pass by within a few metres all within a 2 hour trip out. My own experience is the mackerel can be found throughout September but in ever decreasing numbers. Weather conditions permitting and this should be another enjoyable and fantastic way to see our renowned coastline. Summer bass fishing has been successful for the hardened few who brave the high tides of the Taw and Torridge estuary and this will continue into October.
September will be the last good month for butterflies and any sunny day will bring many out on the wing. I still need to sharpen up on identification but trying to get photos of these when they only alight for short periods and seem to constantly probe flowers for nectar so never stay still long enough to get great photos. The best of recent ones here are of a fritillary and speckled wood (see previous pages).