Tuesday 31 March 2020

Lockdown Day 8 - cycle ride

Although quite grey and not very warm, I decided today to cycle into the countryside near where we live. As I understand it we're allowed to exercise locally as long as you social distance with anyone you meet, so off I went on some little used country lanes to see what wildlife was about.

Quite a few farmers were busy sowing seed and spraying early crops and I did meet (but across the road from!) a few people out walking and cycling. But most of the time I was alone and with a lot less ambient noise from traffic, it was lovely to just hear birdsong.

More chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) heard and seen today, five I think in total. They are, even at this time of year with little growth on the trees, still very difficult to see and tend to sing from high branches and only seen when they move elsewhere.

A hamlet I go through regularly (and there's very few people about even in normal times!) is Catterton, and since my last visit a field on the edge of the village has been split up for smallholding with an area for chickens and another area for a very interested and smiley goat!

Goats seem to be in the news today after a herd has decided to take over Llandudno in Wales!

Goats will eat anything they can!

This isn't a very good photo of a brown hare, but in general I have found them skittish and only seen at a distance. I did see two chasing each other round a field earlier in the ride. I've only ever once seen two hares "boxing", and this is why they do it


Chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs) are ubiquitous in the hedgerows in the areas I ride in. They either live in noisy groups or a male will sit on a wire or hedge shrieking for ages. They are often very inquisitive and quite tame at picnic benches. On one holiday in Glen Nevis we had chaffinches tapping on the window of the holiday cottage every morning wanting food!

Also common around here are Yellowhammers (Emberiza citrinella) although I've not noticed any of them singing their notes to "a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese" yet

Askham Richard is a pretty village with a duckpond. The ducks are very inbred and cross bred with feral ducks now and look a little mixed up. Today was the first time I have seen Canada Geese on here. Almost all the Canada Geese seen in the UK are descendants of introduced ones a century or two back, very occasionally a truly wild one from Canada will fly in with winter geese flocks.

Also seen on my ride was a Reed Bunting, and Linnets and Skylarks, the latter are singing away in the sky and very hard to spot once they are up there!

Monday 30 March 2020

Lockdown Day 7 - Baby Woodpigeon from last year

So, a week now since we were put on lockdown and I still have a long list of things I would like to do! Which is a good sign - I think! It has been a bit cold for outdoor work these past couple of days and so, apart from watering the seedlings in the small lean-to greenhouse we have on the front of the house and popping to the supermarket (which seems to have more stock in now), I haven't been out.

So, today's post is a flashback to last year when we had a pair of Woodpigeons nest in our hawthorn tree at the front of the house. Woodpigeons can be a pest, especially for farmers but in an urban area they do little harm. It is of course illegal to disturb an occupied nest anyway.

OK, hands up who has actually seen a baby pigeon? When they fledge they are almost indistinguishable from adult pigeons apart from being a little smaller.

So, being able to observe this nest from a safe distance to avoid disturbance was actually quite interesting and the first time I had in fact seen a baby pigeon!

There were, we think, two youngsters in the nest but with the dense foliage it was often difficult to see the nest properly and see both youngsters at once.

One of the adults has been back this year but despite some animated head bobbing and coo-ing, doesn't seem to have been successful in attracting a mate this year.

Sunday 29 March 2020

Lockdown Day 6 - Rest day, moths and butterflies

It has been rather cold out there today, in fact there was a very brief snow shower this morning, obviously the weather hasn't got the message about it changing to British Summer Time! (or has it?!!)
So, today has been a rest day inside. Plans for next week include putting some more onion sets in, starting some sprouting broccoli and probably more peas if we have the space. I have planted mroe gherkin seeds as only one of the previous batch germinated.

Whilst I am generally interested in most things in the natural world, the particular interests I have include birds, moths, spiders and bees. In the garden and allotment we get some rather interesting moths from time to time.

This one is a Buff Ermine (Spilosoma lutea)
moth, the "ermine" being self evident in the shaggy bit around the head! This one turned up on the door lintel one morning.

The go-to website I use to help identification is

though I have a couple of guide books in the house to help too.

One of these, the Concise Guide to Moths of Great Britain and Northern Ireland features the drawings of an amazing wildlife artist called Richard Lewington who has illustrated a number of field guides.

A link to this book can be found at the foot of this blog post.

We have had a range of butterflies in the garden and allotment, including painted lady butterflies, which have a multi-generational migration strategy from Africa, last year was a very good year for them. We get the Common Blue, Comma, Gatekeeper and Meadow Brown ones too along with the Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral and Peacock, Orange Tip and white ones.

I'd love a hawk moth in the garden but we've only ever had a hawk moth caterpillar and that was many years ago.

A few miles from our house is the nature reserve at Askham Bog and just opposite the entrance to the reserve, in a small island of nature between the road into York and the A64 is home to a colony of Six Spot Burnet moths (Zygaena filipendulae). They are in my opinion one of the most distinctive of the smaller moths and this photo was taken in June 2016 when dozens were on the wild flowers in this rather unlikely habitat!

Saturday 28 March 2020

Lockdown Day 5 - bees and community

The wind has shifted around to the east and there is a noticeably cold wind. Again the allotment task for today was general tidying but also sowing parsnip seeds which we save from previous year's plants. They will come up without fail when they feel like it and are a fairly low maintenance crop.

There are one or two bumble bees about, and we try to make sure that in the garden and the allotment there is something for them to forage when they come out of hibernation. Although dandelions can be a nuisance and need to be kept under control, at this time of year the flower heads are a very useful early food for bees that have just woken up.

We've had bees hibernate in the house before now! This one we found in the spare bedroom last year and popped it outside to wake up in the sunshine. I have a longer description of this bee here http://www.cashandcarrots.com/2019/04/tawny-mining-bee.html

In the past in the allotment we have had red and white tailed bumble bees, carder bees, mason bees and some solitary bee species over the years. We leave such as leeks to go to seed and a few wild flowers such as poppies to flourish in corners, as well as having lavender, marigolds, comfrey, nasturtiums and of course the Spring blossom of all our fruit trees. Bees are a community, each type of bee within the hive has a defined task, some to forage, some to guard the nest some to service the Queen and see to the egg cavities. Co-operation is the key, without one, the colony is at risk, without sufficient workers, the food for the colony runs out.

One things that has struck me over the past couple of weeks is the sense of community, of many people selflessly helping out others. The social network of a village or street or town is vital to ensure no one is left out, no one is left without food or assistance in such testing times as these. Our wider social networks both on and offline enable problems to be highlighted to a wider audience and people power has influence even at the highest levels of governance.

Of course, this social fabric isn't a new thing, community groups,  people looking out for one another isn't something that has just sprung into life, but the response to the appeal for assistance for the NHS, whether for retired staff - over 7000 last time I looked or for volunteers - 650,000 at last look, is proof that there exists many selfless individuals out there that want to do their bit for others, and we can add in the many people already doing such things in their communities.

Once this is over, and it will be over,  we need to keep that network, keep making sure those less fortunate or housebound or frail or with life long conditions are able to access the support they need, that those who can offer skills are given the chance to use them and the reward for labour is just and fair and recognises that there is no such thing as a "low skill" job, that everyone - whatever their background, race, origin or life story is given a chance to contribute to our society and is recognised fairly for it, not demonised or belittled or told they don't deserve it or aren't welcome.

Meanwhile, we need to realise that the same determination and stoicism shown in the early 1940s is needed here. That we are all - whether working, volunteering, caring, or simply following the rules to stay home, keep our distance, good hygiene and only purchasing what we need - are all contributing to the outcome we all want, that as few people as possible suffer with this dreadful virus and that once the virus is subdued that we bring about the society we would wish to live in - a fair and just society, a clean environment, a hopeful society where equality and tolerance is second nature, and one where all levels of power and influence are committed to putting others first, not their own financial reward or stature.

The news is, unfortunately, going to get darker before it gets brighter. Such was the case in 1940 but people were inspired to carry on, make personal sacrifices and put themselves in harms way to win the eventual freedom. Already in the far east we are seeing what happens if the control and healthcare measures are applied rigorously, many people there are emerging from lockdown and are able to now start rebuilding their lives. The virus can be subdued and with the help of science, will be controlled. For many, this is an anxious time, indeed a dangerous time, and we all need to do our bit to keep each other safe, supported and loved and to value those who are keeping us fed, those who care for the sick, frail and vulnerable, those whose service puts them in harms way or is essential to ensure we have the vital services we depend on.

Fidelis in Parvo          Faithfulness in little things

Stay safe, stay well, look after each other
28th March 2020

Friday 27 March 2020

Lockdown Day 4 - allotment, supermarket queue and lichens

Well, the lockdown and the sunny weather continues, but with cold weather, showers and wind forecast for the start of next week I have been getting more done in the allotment. Nothing special, just hoeing and general tidying, as well as a bit of watering - the broad beans and the newly planted onion sets -  as there hasn't been rain for a few days. Chap in the next allotment had his shirt off! It was warm, but maybe not *that* warm in my opinion!

A few more bees about and one or two hoverflies, as well as peacock and tortoiseshell butterflies. Two red kites came over the house around 8.30am again this morning, they seem to have a regular check of the house around that time and then a look at the allotments later in the morning, still lovely to see even though they are now actually almost daily over here nowadays.

Had to visit the local supermarket today. We try to minimise the number of products we get from the supermarket as far as possible just anyway, with having a wonderful local butchers, greengrocers and farm shop near where I work, and also recently what used to be known as a "scoop shop" now rebranded a "zero-waste" shop. We get a doorstep milk, yoghurt and egg delivery. The supermarket had things well organised, a member of staff outside allowing one person in for one person out and a queue with everyone spaced two metres apart down the side of the building. Fine for sunny weather but probably won't be much fun next week in the wind and the rain. Inside the supermarket, as the number of customers was controlled, there wasn't much issue with keeping apart from other customers but I was disappointed to see that the staff at the checkout and on the shop floor didn't have any protective gloves. One would hope they had risk assessed this. The main road down to the supermarket was quiet, both in terms of cars and pedestrians.

Yesterday on my cycle ride I took a moment to photograph some lichens on a gate using the macro setting on the camera. A little while ago on Twitter I came across the "British Lichen Society" - yes here in the UK there is a society for everything and everyone!

Now, whilst I am reasonably proficient at bird species, and can identify quite a few butterflies, moths and mammals, lichens appear to be a serious challenge! There are, in one field guide, 1873 species in the UK and Ireland!

Lichens are not a single organism, they are a symbiotic relationship between a fungus or algae and a cyanobacteria,  In very dry weather they basically just stop until it rains again. They get nitrogen from fixing nitrogen from the air and from bird droppings. The algae bit photosynthesises. All this going on in a long lived combination of organisms that most wouldn't even notice and yet they are present in environments which would be impossible for general plant life to flourish.

Thursday 26 March 2020

Lockdown day 3 - my "authorised" cycle ride - time to think

I decided to take a break from the allotment today. There's still things to do, weeding and chopping up the mountain of hedge clippings into lengths small enough to compost, but I decided that today would be a cycle ride.

Now, the Government are still allowing cycle rides directly from your house as long as you keep at least 2 metres from other people and only go with members of your household. However, I did find that quite a lot of cyclists had the same idea today but in general they were coming the other way, and those that overtook me gave me a wide berth which was what was expected.

Spring has definitely arrived with new leaves and buds coming on the trees and bushes and blossom in the hedgerows, buttercups in the grass and plenty of daffodils by garden walls.

This location, near Bolton Percy, is of one of my favourite places to stop for a few minutes. As long as there is no traffic or a distant train it is so peaceful to watch the stream for a few minutes and allow the local birds to get used to you and come closer.

This time it was some skittish Fieldfares flying up into a nearby tree, it was quite odd to hear a Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), a summer visitor to the UK from Africa, and then see Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) which are winter visitors from Scandinavia and further east.

 I keep coming back to this tree. On the face of it, it is nothing special, just a common tree by the side of a public footpath. But there is something about the symmetry that appeals to me and I have taken a number of photos in different lights and used software to produce different effects using this tree.

Trees in general give me a sense of permanence, of knowing that - barring storm damage and human activity- they will be there long after I am gone, and many of them were growing long before even my grandparents' grandparents were born. They support a huge range of biodiversity, from lichens to insects, birds and mammals, all manner of species. I have never understood why some people, upon taking ownership of a house or land, seem to have an immediate urge to chop the trees in their garden down. We have a hawthorn tree in our garden that produces wonderful pink blossoms in the late Spring, and birds nest in it and forage for food.
Close up, trees can appear unworldly, the grooves and patterns of the bark produce a map not unlike those of a distant moon.

This close up of the tree above is where a branch once was, but you can imagine that it was a view of an impact crater, taken from space.

Whilst not the circumstances you would wish on anyone, I do wonder whether the present coronavirus outbreak will give us all a chance to re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world. Fewer people are out and about, which is of course a good thing, and as there are fewer people working, the traffic is light, and the world is quieter. Pollution levels are down in major city regions and even the canals in Venice are clearing as no boats pass to churn up and pollute the water.

Millions are working from home, and surely many businesses will see that employees can be as productive, even possibly more productive as when in the office, do we really need to go back to the crowded roads, the full to standing public transport, the pollution and noise? Of course, many do have to travel for work and that's fine, we depend on many professions in our daily lives, but do we all really need to be in an office or indeed have to spend hours in a city centre or out of town retail park buying stuff we don't really need or may wear only a handful of times?

After a couple of months of breathing cleaner air, of quieter surroundings, of being able to hear and see more of the natural world, do we really want to go back to business as usual?

We also need to understand that those some call low-skilled, and those some regard as unwelcome in our country are indeed some of the most essential workers in our economy. Our food security in these islands depends on those willing to work long hours in fields and greenhouses, in our farms and factories, a global threat means that we cannot depend on nearly 50% of our food being imported, down from nearly 80% in the 1980s.

Maybe this will also be the spur for some to start growing their own food. Of course, unless you have a couple of acres or more, you cannot be self sufficient for all your food needs, but the benefits of growing some fruit or vegetables at home, the freshness and indeed the mental health benefits of gardening are well understood and for children, seeing their own plants grow into nutritious vegetables is of course educational and fun.

Those of us who come through this virus unscathed have a duty to ensure that the world that we live in, the economy that we power, the services that we use and those that serve us, are all sustained in one aim -  for the better, more peaceful and more sustainable planet we all wish to live on.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Lockdown Day 2 - Spring in the Allotment

Working in the allotment is allowed as exercise under the new lockdown rules here in the UK, and as I am not able to work at the moment, I am using the opportunity to get things done while the sun is shining. There's no communal facilities or shared gate (all allotments have their own locked gates) and it is very infrequent to meet someone on the access path.

Spring is definitely here, the damson is starting to come into blossom but I fear it may be too early this year as frosts are predicted for the weekend. 

Last year, the timing was spot on and the tree (a minarette with delusions of grandeur!) was laden with damsons, and we've got lots of lovely jam stored away. 

The first bumble bee I have seen this year was taking advantage of the blooms. 

The blueberry bushes are coming into blossom too. The three we have are standing in their own pots as they need ericaceous compost rather than standing in soil although I would expect that if you have acidic soil they would do well in the ground. Once the berries start appearing they will get sealed into a fruit cage to protect from hungry blackbirds!
The allotment is divided into five sections and the fourth one down this year is potatoes. It looks disorganised at the moment but there are two full bags of Red Duke of York and a bag of Cara potatoes down there in rows, with plenty of compost to keep them happy. Hopefully by the middle or back end of June we will be enjoying the first new potatoes. 
I need to decide what to do with the rhubarb this year. Rhubarb jam in our experience does not seem to last very long once opened and we rarely have puddings at our main meal. There's not enough of it to make wine with, although the remains of last year's parsnips will be and I have that in mind to start over the next week or so. 

After I have published this post I need to get on and put some more brassica seeds into pots to start off in the house, and start some more peas too. 

Noticeably fewer people were about today when I went to get some fuel for the car, which is good, that means the advice to stay in as much as possible is being taken note of, at least round here, although I have seen pictures online of crowded trains in London still. The tighter the restrictions now, the quicker normality will return and, quite bluntly, fewer people will die or have serious illnesses. 

I've seen someone arguing online that this virus is somehow the Earth fighting back against humans. Whilst I can understand how one could wish to arrive at that viewpoint given the way us humans have messed with the planet and nature, it is actually the case that virus mutations happen all the time and species transfer of viruses happens too, there's no deliberate plan going on, merely opportunism and evolution.  It was inevitable that this sort of global pandemic would occur sooner or later, although I think it was expected that is would have been an influenza mutation rather than a coronavirus. What I do hope is that afterwards, the opportunity to rebuild the economic system in a much planet friendly, lower carbon way is taken, the value to society of what some regard as "low skilled occupations" is re-evaluated and those who have sought to use this pandemic for their own gain or who have used it to pursue (or use) an ideological agenda end up far from positions of power. 

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Holding on to normal - days of COVID-19

24th March 2020, North Yorkshire, UK

I write this on the day after the announcement from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom about the lockdown measures being imposed on all citizens in order to try and control the spread of Coronavirus COVID-19.

Having an allotment, and having had a lot of career experience of preparing disaster recovery/business continuity plans, I've got perhaps a little bit of a head start on some when it comes to being able to deal with the situation we all now find ourselves in. Whilst scorn was poured out by some on those people that were stocking up over the past year or so in preparation for the "expected" dislocation of a no-deal Brexit, those that did and who kept topping up the "Brexit box", now find themselves not having to worry too much about the provision of many staple foodstuffs. 

Having the allotment means that we have also have plenty of jam in the cupboard and chutney too, and for any lighter moments or the need to forget, several bottles of parsnip wine! 

There was some good news today about being able to go to allotments under the new movement restrictions when Michael Gove was specifically asked about whether going to an allotment counted as exercise. 


In terms of hygiene, our allotment site does not have an association and so there's no a communal area to worry about and locked gates are to each individual allotment so the problem that some allotments have with potential virus being left on a communal gate or on items in a communal area does not exist to the same extent as in at other sites. At any one time you are well above the 2m metres away from other allotment holders unless there was a chance meeting on the path to the site. 

Personally I would have regarded it also as going to get food! (though with only six or so leeks and a bit of rhubarb it would have been quite a small harvest right now!) . The virus has struck at the time in the year that the UK traditionally was in the "hungry gap", the time in the year that the winter stores are exhausted and the summer crops are still far from ready. Of course, with global food chains, the UK could in theory import food to service the needs of the population, but this is a global pandemic and two main sources of imported food - Italy and Spain - are further down the coronavirus timeline than we are right now and there are concerns as shown in the link below.

The Government have been behind the curve so far, and it is almost the case that knowing what will happen next can be based on what they say they are *not* going to do. The panic buying by some has created a unnecessary hole in the supply chain from farm to fork, but even so had that not taken place there are still downstream pressures

I am no longer working as the shop I work in is shut for the foreseeable. So, although this is really not the circumstances in which I would wish it, I have quite a bit of time for Spring planting and sowing.

Jobs we are undertaking right now include:

Planting potatoes (red Duke of York, Cara)
Planting summer onion sets (Turbo)
Sowing Cabbages (Golden Acre)
Sowing Broccoli (Komodo)
Sowing Calabrese (Spridon)
Sowing peas (Feltham First, Onward)
Sowing Gherkins (Venlo)
Sowing peppers (long ones and bell peppers saved from previous years fruits)
Planting out broad beans 
Sowing Antirrhinum (Rembrandt), Aquilega, Sweet peas (various ones)

Over the allotment today were a family of buzzards - four circling and calling out, the local blackbirds and sparrows were going about their business and the dunnocks chasing each other about as usual!

Nature will carry on without us. The buds and blossom on the trees will bloom, flowers will open their petals, the leaves will appear on the trees, birds will nest and produce young.

All of can still enjoy that nature, as long as we obey the rules. The rules are there to keep us safe. No excuses. No second chances. Stay at home, apart from the exceptions outlined. Those who have to put themselves in harm's way to keep us safe from this virus deserve all our thanks and gratitude.


Tuesday 10 March 2020

Broad beans and pruning back

Better late than never! Have been able to plant some broad beans out in the allotment that I have started off indoors in order for them to catch up a bit!

Our seed planting takes several stages, firstly any seeds to be germinated start off in the warmest part of the house, next to the radiator in our bedroom! Then they will either go into the bathroom or into the downstairs loo to grow on a bit before being put into the lean to greenhouse to harden off prior to planting out.
Sounds complicated but it means that there's a succession of plants in different parts of the house at different stages of growing!

Over the past couple of days, with some time off work, we have been finishing off the pruning back - the holly in the garden has had a good cut back now it has finished producing berries for the birds. In winter it was quite funny to watch the blackbirds jumping up off a perch to reach the berries! The fuchsia has also had a third of the plant taken out in order to encourage regrowth and the ivy - as always - requires the secateurs! Also, the buddleia was cut back to about a metre above the ground, last year this was really good for butterflies as is its function!

In the allotment the hedge has been a work in progress in terms of trimming and today I used the Darlac cutter to get through some of the tough stems of brambles and of a hawthorn which is growing in the middle of the privet. The hazelnut got trimmed a few weeks ago, the tall whippy stems avoiding the ones with catkins on. The hawthorn in the garden has had a few branches lopped back to stop it from rubbing against the telephone wires.

All that cutting back has left us with lots of clippings - the hedge clippings seems to be doing a good job of rotting down in a pile at the allotment and the holly has been chopped into small pieces and added to the compost heap with some other garden pruning. The hazel, buddleia and hawthorn sticks will do really well as pea and bean sticks and supports for other plants in due course.