A Solway small-holding

Yesterday I stood leaning on the pitchfork by the glowing ash-pile, just looking around at the trees and the hedges and our sheep. Two weeks ago, on a blue, still morning, there had been a sound like a gun-shot from our wood and the rooks all leapt into the air, shrieking and shouting. My husband went out to remonstrate with (presumably) someone who was shooting into the rookery – and found an enormous branch had cracked off from one of the Scots pines. Luckily no human or other creature was hurt, although some of the smaller trees had been hit. Hence the bonfire out in the field, to burn the brash (the sap-sticky logs have already been sawn and split, and will dry out for at least a year before being used on the wood-burner.)

We run a small-holding of about 2 hectares, in NW Cumbria and looking across to the Solway Firth: woodland, hedges, vegetable and flower garden, pasture for the 6 Hebridean sheep, and a beck which rises from a spring just outside our land and runs through the pond that we created. Our small wood is at least 160 years old, presumably having been planted at the time our Victorian house was built, and has a mixture of native and non-native trees, including a very tall and increasingly straggly redwood, its trunk pitted with woodpeckered holes (where, my birder brother-in-law assures me, wrens might huddle together in the winter).

The previous owner (and the original Victorian owners – they had carriages not cars) kept horses, and the pasture-land had become rank and full of docks; a narrow strip alongside the wood was damp and dull.

After we moved in eighteen years ago we, and two kind and energetic friends, planted many more native trees – including alders, hornbeam, willow, birch, oak, Scots pine, guelder rose, hazel – singly and as a copse, and thickets of hawthorn, blackthorn and wild rose, in an attempt to make the local woodland and garden birds feel more at home, and migrant warblers and other birds to stay.

Some years later chiffchaffs came, and a pair of blackcaps; there are 2 pairs of breeding nuthatches now, a tree-creeper, and Great-spotted woodpeckers, amongst others. We also planted a windbreak in the field, of suckers from the wild cherries, and a mix of other trees and shrubby bushes – all fenced to keep out the sheep, who always enjoy a bit of novelty in their diet.

But a couple of years ago, there was a threat that a limestone quarry might open at the top of the hill behind the house, creating dust and noise and destroying some old woodland in the process; United Utilities had started mutilating West Cumbria in the construction of a new water pipleine for West Cumbria (hundreds of tonnes of concrete are being poured into a new reservoir on the other side of the hill as I write) – and my despair at the effect that this would be having on the wildlife surrounding our village kept growing.

So, last year, we sold 4 of our 10 sheep – the Herdwick ewes, since they were in good condition for breeding – and  planted up a third of a hectare of pasture with native trees. But it was the year of the Beast from the East, which was followed not long after by – unheard of for this area! – six weeks of drought. I don’t like tubular tree-guards, and we’ll remove them when each tree is sufficiently tall and robust to look after itself, but the tubes ensured a warmer, damper micro-climate around each sapling. By scooping water from the dribbling slimy beck with a bowl and into buckets, we managed to keep the trees wet enough in the drought so that we only lost about 8 percent. The survivors are already looking good this Spring, and we recently – with the ‘help’ of our grand-children – planted hawthorn slips to make a hedge along one side.

We’ve learnt a lot about managing woodland during our time here: when to trim branches so that light can reach the smaller species or the wild violets and cowslips; when and what to plant. We pollarded a big old ash by the pond, partly because it had a crack between two branches, but also because it was throwing so much shade that there was no chance that dragonflies would stay.

I managed to persuade my husband that the grass in the wooded areas doesn’t need to be cut like a lawn! At the moment the floor of the old wood is a white froth of cow-parsley, mixed with the deep purple of self-seeded Honesty and a jumble of pink- and white- and blue-bells, all of which are now the ‘Spanish’ type (although I’m sure they were ‘English’ when we first moved in). This has been a good year for celandine and dandelions – and also for cuckoo-pint, whose pale sheaths and glossy leaves have proliferated in every shady patch. Earlier, there was a carpet of snowdrops, followed by daffs – both species seem to proliferate naturally as well as with some help from us (splitting and re-planting clumps when they’re ‘in the green’).

The newest woodland was planted on a pasture which has for decades been fertilised by horse- then sheep-droppings, and kept well-grazed. A range of grasses grew up last year amongst the saplings, plus chickweed, creeping and meadow buttercup, and some milkweed. We had to cut the grass at the end of the summer and remove the cuttings – this was during the hot dry weather when the flies swarmed and I spent the time whining, raking and sweating – but already this year we’re seeing many more milkweed growing and I’m hoping the grey furry-leaved mulleins and foxgloves that I retrieved from inappropriate places elsewhere (the gravel path, the veg garden) will flourish in their new sites.

The pond has evolved with time. When you think of the Lake District you think of volcanic rocks and slate, but that massif is fringed with limestone – and our village sits at the base of a low plateau, where the rain gathers in sink-holes and flows into aquifers, eventually emerging as springs where the limestone meets the harder rock. Our beck is surprisingly ‘flashy’ during heavy rain in winter – very soon the percolating water explodes out of the ground and flushes silt from the field behind us into the pond; then still rising, spreads out onto the mini-floodplain of our field, before finding its way back into the water-course again.  The volume and speed of the water that comes down is spectacular.

But that hasn’t happened this winter, and there has been very little heavy rain for weeks. Last week shingle banks were showing in the River Derwent in both Cockermouth and Keswick (seeing the water so low, it’s hard to believe how high the river rose during the floods of 2009 and 2017, over-topping the defences) and already our pond is so low that it is fringed with mudbanks, and much of the weed is no longer floating but resting, humped, upon the mud. I don’t know how the tadpoles and caddis-fly larvae, the whirligig beetles and various snails are faring – they are scarcely to be seen, presumably finding refuge amongst the water-forget-me-not and watercress and mint; even the base of the reed-bed looks dry and the reeds themselves are not growing as fast as usual for this time of year.

Perhaps there are no longer tadpoles anyway; for several mornings it was apparent that something had been rooting in the water-forget-me-not, patches of which were left floating, roots pointing to the sky. Our trail-camera picked up a male mallard arriving in the dark and leaving at dawn: mystery solved (but see note below, three weeks later). One year a female mallard made her nest on the small island in the pond but it wasn’t a wise move to nest within site of a wood that is so aurally and visibly beloved of corvids – there are about 40 rook and several jackdaw nests, and there is a crows’ nest at the top of the field – and of course the constantly vigilant magpies patrol the hedgerows. The duck eggs didn’t last long.

Last year the introduction of more light to the pond paid off, because it was finally visited by a large yellow-and-black hawker dragonfly and several red-bodied damselflies. But there’s not a chance that they’ll come to stay this year unless the water level rises – and now, in this period of lush growth, the vegetation upstream on the plateau will soak up any rain that falls.

As I stood beside the ashes of the bonfire, which occasional flurries of wind sparked into life, I was trying to remember all the birds and animals that have visited since we have been living here, and I hope that what we have been doing – in the wood, the pond, the fields and hedges and the garden itself – has helped to make them feel welcome and at home. Hedgehogs have bred; an otter visited when the frogs were mating (betrayed only by its pawmarks); bank voles burrow everywhere and a red squirrel visited (but we must have been found wanting because it left after three days). There are pipistrelles, on whom I eaves-drop with the bat-detector, and frogs and toads.

As for birds: 3 species of tit live here and long-tailed tits visit; chaffinches, greenfinches (fewer these days), goldfinches, and recently a pair of bullfinches; the usuals like robins, (lots of) blackbirds; dunnocks; goldcrested wrens and (never-ordinary) wrens; a pair of song-thrushes, and a pair of mistles; the tree-creeper(s), nuthatches, house- and tree-sparrows; the corvids; the Great-Spot… A sparrowhawk hunts frequently through the garden, sometimes sitting on the sandstone gatepost by the kitchen window, glaring around with glittering yellow eyes; a collared dove provides the occasional good meal, but the wood-pigeons are too heavy for him to take on. Last year a buzzard learnt to snatch rooklings from their nests and, dropping down through the trees, tore at their flesh and feathers on the floor of the wood. In the cold spells, siskins and bramblings cluster round the feeders.

And then there is the song of the chiffchaff and the blackcap, and the twittering of the swallows and house-martins, the night- and dawn-calling of the tawny owls …

Except there isn’t. This year, as last, a chiffchaff returned and made me briefly, almost deliriously happy; but he left despite my daily exhortations to stay – presumably no mate came to keep him company. The barn owl hasn’t been seen for at least two years; the work on the water-pipeline seems to have scared the hares away; the local tawnies haven’t been heard for at least 8 months; only 4 swallows have (finally – 3 weeks late) returned, of which only one pair is probably ‘ours’ and will nest in the hayloft; so far I have seen only one house-martin. The heron that used to visit hasn’t been seen since last summer. The hedgehogs began to shuffle around in day-time last year, and were later found dead – a sure sign they had succumbed to some infection. Spotted fly-catchers nested in the Clematis montana for a few years when we first arrived, but they didn’t return one summer and I have never seen one again.

It is so easy to become upset and depressed at what we have lost and are losing, and some days it is very hard to be positive, especially in the face of such global losses and anthropocene-induced extinctions. But then I make myself stop and watch and listen, and make a tally of what we do have; think what we – perhaps – have managed to accomplish, in looking after our ‘neighbours’ and making them feel that our land is, actually, theirs too. And I have to hold on to those thoughts, and rejoice in the sound of even that single pair of swallows, chattering to each other excitedly as they swoop around the barn and yard, as they come back home for the summer.

Update, May 29th 2019.

Success!

Yesterday a female mallard and nine ducklings swam and scuttled down what remains of the beck. That male mallard flying in after dark must have been coming ‘home’ to visit her – somewhere near the pond she had, after all, had a nest. What a brave little female – and what a triumph to have kept that nest and eggs so well hidden.

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