All is in disarray!

All is in disarray!

For all those that live, work and relax in the Devon countryside, the weather in 2019 will determine so much of how we all go about our lives.

We have seen such a huge difference between 2017 (strangely wet most days throughout our summer and autumn) then, in 2018 the worst drought I can recall.  What could 2019 have in store?  Will we get through January and February without snow and a cold spell? As it remained mild prior to Christmas 2018, there was a sense of recovery from the drought by many farmers I met, with winter cereals getting away to a great start and all looking good.  Many livestock farmers are entering these winter months worrying about winter forage stocks and whether they will get through to spring.  Their only saving grace so far, was that they were able in many areas, to keep stock outside later in the autumn and, an early spring will be a most welcome relief. My few ewes which are due to lamb in February, have fortunately fared well up to now. The dry summer and autumn suited sheep well and they were way too fat going to the ram, not helped by the daily feed of surplus apples they had right up until Christmas!  It was so wet in 2017 that I housed them before Christmas and hopefully this January  they can remain outside until lambing. 

The lack of any hard weather up to Christmas has meant that there appeared to be few flocks of wildfowl and waders on the Taw Estuary. However, through January and February, the number and size of the flocks should increase to a maximum and are well worth going down to see. Each trip I make at this time of year, I try to capture more and closer pictures of any obliging bird.  Difficult in the gentlest of chill sea breezes with camera lens often prone to misting up and fingers numb with cold. Being trussed up like a Christmas turkey to keep warm, it is extremely difficult to move in anyway, but the most clumsy manner, thus not fooling a single bird even in full camouflage kit.  So luck is what I rely on and a lot of it.  Luck was what I had in spade fulls just  before Christmas when a chance encounter occurred. Multiple camera shots recorded some of the best sightings in my lifetime. 

A hind bearing the scars from the rutting

Having been sat patiently for several minutes, waiting to see a large red stag with whom I’ve had several undisturbed meetings, when suddenly some leaves in front of me seemed to move. Well, that’s what I thought I saw!  The light was fading and squinting to focus, there, five metres in front of me was a woodcock. It probably noticed some movement from me and paused motionless for  a minute or more. Then it relaxed and started feeding, probing the leaf litter for invertebrates and it soon settled to feeding constantly. Captivated by the close proximity to this elusive bird, I had failed to notice another woodcock some two feet away, statue like. For the next 15 minutes or so, I played with the camera to try to get the setting right to accommodate both and then wait for them to feed alongside each other. I got the photos and was jubilant.  I, like many, have seen woodcock break cover in woodland once disturbed but, never have I seen two at such close quarters totally unaware of my presence. To my knowledge, I left without them flying away. It was satisfying taking these photos  knowing they were about their lives totally naturally with no discernible influence from me.  Nigel our editor, often says the content is good in my photos, but composition requires work! I am working on this, but I’m finding getting a photo of any wildlife without it looking directly at the camera, thus in full knowledge of my whereabouts, is the real challenge.  Waiting for the most natural of positions is (to me) the hardest part, so please bear with me on the composition!

Woodcocks have great camouflage, with 360 vision to protect themselves while feeding on woodland floors

As you can see, woodcock are perfectly camouflaged for feeding on woodland floors amongst the leave litter.  These two birds may possibly be residents in Devon all year and perhaps breed here, but most likely they have flown from northern Europe for the winter. They arrive usually in November and this year I encountered an exhausted woodcock near Moles Chamber in early November which was hardly able to fly more than 20 metres at a time and I suspect it had just completed its migration to Devon. One of the best times to spot woodcock, often several at a time, is at dusk as they leave woodland to feed on old pasture, better still on a moonlit night. They will pass by rapidly, seldom above tree height and a keen eye is needed to get anything more than glimpse of a silhouette against the last vestiges of daylight. By mid March most non-breeding birds will have left to migrate north again.

I am often mourning the lack of salmon fishing in 2018 due to the absence of water in the rivers. I believe last season may be the worst on record and as the season finishes on the River Taw at the end of September, we have little knowledge of salmon returning after this. However, spawning takes place in November and though to December. Each year I try to reconnoitre the river Bray, the main spawning tributary of the Taw system, looking for evidence of spawning redds. At last, something slightly encouraging on the salmon front! I found nine large redds in the mile I walked and believe I would have seen many more if the water was lower and I had better visibility through the water.  Further upstream I understand more redds were seen and also several spent (spawned) fish. This bodes reasonably well for the future. The life-cycle of these graceful fish is that young from these eggs which will probably spend two years in the river before returning to the sea. Then, migrating to the seas of Greenland, returning to their river of origin after one, two or three years. Once spawning is finished, it is often possible to find the dead or dying fish as spawning normally depicts the end of the life cycle.

I hope many vegetable gardeners will agree that the drought has had as many benefits as not. The veg patches and allotments of Devon should be weed free now as a good hoeing even in October saw weeds just shrivel away. This allowed me to get my broad beans in  the ground in October and they stood 12 inches tall at the turn of the year, that’s a first! Even the onion sets planted at the same time are looking well. The rest of the veg patch is mainly weed free so… roll on spring! to get planting again. The brassicas have struggled since the rains started in November and my planting scheme for the cabbage family will now be limited to just over wintering swedes. After some thirty years of trying to get good brussel sprouts and early purple sprouting it‘s time to give up on these winter greens. How I will get through those lengthening late February days without a feed of purple sprouting, I don’t know. It heralds the earliest of spring growth in the veg patch, along with the wild snowdrops bordering the garden and the first few leaves of hedgerow honeysuckle. One vegetable that I have had great success with and can be put to great winter use (as it stores well) is celeriac.  February is the month to sow these tiny seeds indoors and they seem to take ages to germinate and grow prior to planting outside. They require plenty of fertilizer, love farmyard manure and require plenty of watering in a dry time. Mine never seem to increase in size noticeably until early September when they fill out rapidly.  Try mashing with spuds or grated raw in a salad. January and February are the best months to prune and graft apple trees and take cuttings of blackcurrants.  The latter will benefit from more well-rotted FYM.  Autumn bliss raspberries should be cut back to just above ground,  be sure to dig out those annoying spreading roots or they will run riot.  These are just a few things that should be done before the real sowing season starts.

A fallen oak across the river Mole. More work to do in spring!

Though hedge laying can run into March, dependent on prevailing weather, best to get it sorted in January and February. It is time consuming, but, very rewarding and a great source of pea and beans sticks as well to use as kindling for the fire or woodburner. I am not sure there is fact behind this, but I was recently told that  field hedge boundaries shouldn’t be cut horizontally on top as so often the case in Devon, instead, cut to a point. Why, you will ask?  A very respected friend, an ex-farmer and keen naturalist told me this will prevent magpies finding nests and raiding eggs and fledglings of our hedge nesting birds. The magpies are unable to see though the hedge  easily when the hedge top is cut in this manor, sounds very plausible.


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Chris Taylor lives in the north Devon countryside at the confluence of the Mole and Bray Rivers. Raised on a farm, with a degree in Agricultural Zoology, Chris moved into Farm Management and more recently into Estate Management and Consultancy. Over the past 50 years his passions cover all aspects of the countryside, wildlife, conservation,agriculture and country pursuits.