Thursday 30 April 2020

Lockdown Day 38 - Quick allotment update

This morning, before the rather welcome showers came, I went up to the allotment for some quick jobs.

The strawberries are starting to show now and there are still plenty more flowers on them.
The strawberry bed was refreshed last year with new plants.
We generally eat strawberries as a dessert although some years we have enough for a bit of jam.

This is the first bit of the bean patch this year. There's a small number of broad beans which have been struggling a bit, maybe we planted them too late. On the right there are four (so far) borlotti bean plants with more yet to go in or indeed be sown. Still plenty of time to sow these in May. We dry these off and use them with tortillas, tomatoes, peppers and mushrooms, with a dollop of salsa and hot authentic Cholula Mexican sauce!

Next to the beans are peas, and we've gradually planted these out, with about 30 plants in so far. They are covered in netting to stop sparrows having a pea party! Once they start flowering the netting will come off. To the right of the photo will be more peas. These might be sown directly into the soil now that it has warmed up a bit and protected with more netting. We'll need bigger support sticks, there's plenty of privet hedge and hazel sticks to use.
The parsnips are just starting to show and will need thinning out soon. These will start being eaten from early October though a frost will make them sweeter.

As I discuss here  I also make wine from the remaining ones in March. In the house now are some bottles that are ready to drink, a demijohn from last year that now needs bottling and a demijohn just started to ferment.
The potatoes are all above ground now and there's only a slim chance now of frost. If frost is forecast (and we have had frost in early May before now) we will need to cover them all over with earth again to protect them. Once year I did see a few that looked like they were burnt, which was the effect of the frost on them. Luckily they survived! We have red Duke of York and Cara potatoes in this year.
This is the brassica patch this year. As you can see the cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli are defended! This may need to be adapted as they grow bigger but for now it stops birds having a nibble! At the rear of the photo are some beetroot, spinach, spinach beet and radishes. The beetroot have a net over them now to stop them being pecked by sparrows!

Although I do leave a patch of nettles for any butterflies and moths that require them, they do get everywhere and a chunk of this morning was spent clearing them from underneath the damson and apple tree. I might make a liquid feed from some of them although we do have comfrey for making this.

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Lockdown Day 37 - Remembering Portland Bird Observatory

Nine years ago now we had a holiday down in Dorset and during that holiday we visited Portland on the south coast of England that has a very impressive reputation for rare and migrating birds as it is a headland that when birds cross the English Channel or migrate along it, the point acts as a marker and resting place.

After quite a long drive and having to navigate roadworks in Weymouth that were part of the preparations for London 2012 Olympics venue, we arrived on Portland and drove quite a way down to the observatory. Inside there is some information about the site, and while we were there a warden was ringing migrating birds that had been caught in the (harmless) mist net that morning.

The first bird the warden showed us was a Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) and they are really quiet small birds! Normally they are very hard to find in trees as they blend in really well and often you can only hear but not see them. Their call is a descending, fluid warble. Although it looks in the photo that the bird is being squashed, bird ringers are trained and the bird really isn't too bothered by the experience. Ringing the birds allows future observations of the bird to be tracked and before the advent of satellite tracking, this was often the main way that information about migration was established.

The other bird we saw being ringed that day was a Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) , another type of warbler. To me, their song sounds like they have given the instruction to the bird to warble but it has no idea what to do and thus sings randomly! This year there have been plenty of Blackcap warblers near where I live, they are - with Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) - the first warblers to arrive, some over overwinter here nowadays, and one of them was really quite showing off in some woods near me on Monday, unusually getting quite close!

On our visit to Portland I was really hoping for a Hoopoe (Upupa epops)  but you have to be extremely lucky to see one, a bird that looks like it was designed by a committee from spare parts! However, we did see a pair of Cirl Buntings (Emberiza cirlus) and a Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) that day which are both quite rare in the UK.

Obviously, this is a lovely place to visit once the lockdown restrictions are lifted!

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Lockdown Day 36 - Road to Recovery Part 2

In the first part of my essay entitled Road to Recovery here I consider the sorts of investments needed in the recovery from Coronavirus that also help us meet our climate change mitigation goals and also look at how local food has been rediscovered. This time, I discuss how transport policy needs to change and how the provision of good quality public services will help recovery for all sections of society.

During the lockdown, many employees have been working from home rather than going into the office, my partner among them. Whilst she does actually use public transport to get to work, it is expensive and the journey, including walking at either end, takes ninety minutes even when everything is running to time. Accidents and bad weather affecting the roads can extend the bus journey considerably or result in cancelled services. Having worked at home for the past four weeks, there is very little she is not able to do at home that would need her to be in the office, the only exception being some post being scanned into the online document management system but this is taken care of by someone in the office (and will, I suspect, be reduced over time as more invoices and bills go electronic). A survey of 3642 businesses conducted recently shows that nearly half of the respondents have staff working at home.

Traffic volumes in general have been down 65-70% during the lockdown here in the UK. Details can be found in the datasets used in the daily updates from the UK Government. There has been a significant reduction in air pollution. This is welcome considering the amount of traffic in the UK has been going up steadily over the past twenty years. The main areas that are affected by air pollution issues are cities and it is in the urban areas and wider suburban and urban fringe settlements that investment in public transport, electric vehicle infrastructure and cycle and pedestrian route networks needs to take place as part of the recovery.

We should be prepared to listen to those calling for abandonment of HS2 and use the money elsewhere. It is very clear that many businesses can operate with staff working at home, and the idea that many will need to travel to a business meeting or to an office as regularly as before is something that is being steadily demolished. High speed fibre rollout, starting in more rural and more socially deprived areas is now as necessary as many other utility services, in fact the need to include rebates in the same way that low income households can get for certain services on broadband is actually an imperative for social inclusion. The least well off are hit with not being able to access many governmental and local council services online, not get savings that others do on utility services, and indeed at the moment children in those households are put at a great disadvantage compared to more well off peers in terms of being able to access educational resources. Money from the HS2 pot could be redirected to urban light rail or electric bus services, in fact I worked out that the £100bn could pay for 66 32km urban tramway systems with some underground sections based on the average of such schemes in the UK (e.g. Nottingham) and abroad (e.g. Dortmund - metro system pictured above).

Milan and Paris are investing in cycle ways and closing streets to traffic in preparation for emergence from lockdown so that from day one there's reductions in pollution (a factor in the effects of COVID-19) and the switches that people are already making can be made permanent. I've been particularly impressed on visits last year to Dortmund and Muenster. In Muenster (left), 39% of journeys are by bicycle and I've never seen so many bikes and cyclists,even in the Netherlands! In Dortmund (below) you have fully integrated transport-trams,buses, trains,cycle routes and at many tram stops and elsewhere you have bikes for use with your ticket for "last mile" journeys to your destination.
EV (Electric Vehicle) charging points to the home should be rolled out asap to encourage quicker take up of EVs, new models of rental or finance and indeed types of vehicle to drive down costs, and indeed electric bikes are gradually becoming an option for some journeys although the range on the low-mid range models is not that far at present. There were quite a few people using electric bikes when we cycled across the Netherlands in Autumn 2018 and they are economical to run. 

There is also a case to look at re-introduction of rail services to some of the places that were cut off from the railway network during the 1960s and indeed there are some freight lines that could be brought back into use for passengers. In West Yorkshire over the past thirty years many railway stations have been brought back into use and a number of new stations built and the problem now is one of overcrowding at peak times, especially on routes running into Leeds. That being said, rail passenger numbers are predicted to still be well below the previous totals even after the lockdown is over, as some people will continue to work at home part or all of the week, or do not wish to be in crowded places with potential risk of infection with Covid-19. The last thing we want is more people switching back to car use but there are of course legitimate concerns to be addressed and rail franchise contracts may need to be looked at again in light of predicted future usage and safety concerns. 

So, the recovery from this crisis presents opportunities to invest in the transport and infrastructure links to embed low carbon emission behaviours and choices. 

However, in Part 3 of this I will look at is how communities and public services can be invested in and tailored to embed social equality and inclusion, and reduce the huge inequalities and poverty that now affect millions of people here in the UK. 

Monday 27 April 2020

Lockdown Day 35 - Rhubarb

Just a quick one today, but right now there's lots of rhubarb ready to pick from the allotment.
The area where I grew up is in the "Rhubarb Triangle"  near Leeds where the soil and weather conditions are very suitable for growing rhubarb, both outside and in forcing sheds. In the latter, early rhubarb is grown in the dark, with just candlelight and I am told that you can often hear it growing! (There was a rhubarb shed in the field just down the road from our house). In recent years a campaign by local farmers was able to obtain PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) for Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb from the EU, though how that will be protected in future years I have no idea. There is still - at least when there is no lockdown - a Rhubarb festival in the area.

Our rhubarb was a cutting from the plant at my parents' house (where they still live in the house I grew up in). It is easy to split in winter by just simply using a spade to chop off a section of the root and then putting the cutting into a hole with plenty of manure and/or compost. In the next few days I am going to make a compote with it for use with yogurt or porridge.

Sunday 26 April 2020

Lockdown Day 34-Road to Recovery-Part 1

Recently I responded to a Tweet by James Cattell, who works in the Cabinet Office, UK Government and I link it here . In this Tweet, asking for views on the recovery from Coronavirus, he asks the following questions:

Who should we be listening to? What questions should we be asking? Where has this approach (not) worked well before?

In the first of these blog posts, I will cover (and indeed expand upon) various elements of the response I have sent to him.

My opening paragraph first sets a framework using a response to the second question above.

For every policy proposal for this recovery the following questions should be asked:

- Does this policy reduce social inequality and poverty?
- Does this policy help us meet our internationally agreed decarbonisation and emission goals? Should larger emitters (sector/company/individual) bear more costs/have higher expectations of them?
- Does this policy ensure fairness across all social groups and income groups? Should those with the broadest shoulders bear the largest costs?
- Does this policy increase democratic accountability? Is the policy designed such that oversight and sensible regulation are built in? Are these regulators/oversight independent and transparent?
- Is each element of the policy 'SMART' - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reproducable, Targeted?
- Does this policy protect nature or if not, provide appropriate mitigation or offset measures?

Any recovery from COVID-19 needs to ensure that we meet our climate commitments, protect our human rights, reduce inequality and poverty and meet our international obligations. We should also, through those obligations, trade, diplomacy and international development help other countries to do the same. We are, truly, all in this together as regards our risk from the virus and our recovery from it. We have seen how ideology meant we did not engage with EU purchasing agreements on PPE. We have seen how certain individuals have sought to make financial capital from this crisis. We have seen how those from overseas that have come to this country to work and who were demonised and told they were not welcome are now the front line in many undervalued parts of the public and private sectors. We have seen how the lowest paid are now often the most vital parts of our public services and economy. Many in Government now seem intent on deregulation and evading scrutiny and trying to reduce oversight and legal challenge of decisions made. 

Firstly, banks and investment organisations should be focused on creating real value - there is so much short term-ism, focused more on the near term bonuses or keeping one's job (and this applies just as much in politics as in big business) whereas the recovery from COVID-19, in line with our climate and environmental and social fairness goals, is a multi year, multi term project transcending one term of parliament, one tenure of a company director, multiple financial years and long term investments. Political figures such as Caroline Lucas in the UK, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes and Jacinda Ardern overseas have been prominent proponents of this strategy. I am though, pleasantly surprised at elements of the De-Carbonising Transportreport by Grant Shapps and the Department for Transport and indeed in some of the "Public Funds for Public Good" elements in the future farm subsidy for post Brexit. Recent decisions have effectively ruled out fracking and I think there's been change on onshore wind policy too. Community renewables should be encouraged and projects such as the trial of carbon capture at Drax Power Station (and there are other companies engaged in tech to remove carbon from the atmosphere) should also be accelerated.

In order to kick start our economy and get people back to work after this crisis, some major rollouts and indeed re-training and re-employment will be needed. Whilst I do not agree with all the proposals in it, the Green Party Manifesto is a good summary of different proposals to start a Green New Deal and worth using as a discussion paper. Projects such as home insulation rollout - particularly in social housing (even renewables for social housing and also new build standards), forestry, railway electrification, home heating electrification, high speed fibre rollout (see below), branch line and station re-opening and more integrated transport, reinstatement of bus funding (important for many social inclusion and mobility issues), cycle networks, the circular and sharing economies and many other projects which give economic, social and environmental benefit are all going to be useful in the same way that Roosevelt used infrastructure projects to help kick start the US economy in the 1930s. Ursula von Leyen in the EU is also proposing a European Green Deal. Al Gore, Naomi Klein and the many speakers on the "We Don't Have the Time" online conference are worth spending a lot of time listening to and there's so many companies already getting ahead in green technology and innovative solutions too.

Many people are discovering local suppliers of fruit, vegetables and meat, maybe for the first time, as a result of having to find alternatives to supermarkets when there have been shortages of foodstuffs due to panic buying early in the pandemic here in the UK. My hope is that many will continue to use these farms, butchers, greengrocers and other outlets even when the pandemic is over. Having a local connection to your food is so valuable on many levels, whether it is to do with food miles or putting money into the local economy and indeed we have much higher food standards (at least at the moment) compared to many parts of the world. There have though - and this was highlighted on the Food Programme on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 26th April - been local producers that stand to lose a lot as a result of the lockdown as they mostly supplied the restaurant and catering trade. A particular sector affected is cheese production though many suppliers are trying to sell online direct to the public and in their local areas directly to consumers. The programme today highlighted that although this might stand them in good stead in the short term and avoid a lot of food wastage, the longer the shutdown goes on, the more pressure on their businesses, especially if they are normally producing bulk orders.

On the consumer side, many people (and I could myself among them) are lucky enough to be able to pay a little bit more for food and make ethical and local choices. There are many however that struggle in poverty and the investigation conducted by Professor Alston on behalf of the UN in November 2018 highlighted (though there have been numerous reports, notably by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Shelter and others) the scale of poverty here in the UK.

If you are reliant on a food bank in order to have enough to eat, how do you make an ethical choice about your food as you simply have to eat what is given to you, or what you can in fact afford from a supermarket? That being said, traditional town markets often have very good value produce and meat for sale (Farmers markets tend to cater for those with a little bit more disposable income in my experience) and indeed my Grandparents - who lived ten floors up in a council tower block in Leeds, always went to Leeds Market for their meat, fruit and vegetables. In fact, my Grandma often used to talk about the stalls "at back o't'market" - the ones right down at the bus station end of the outdoor market - for getting a good deal on vegetables and fruit. Dried beans are nutritious and cheap, and low emissions and such as Jack Monroe "Bootstrap Cook" has through her own experiences been able to show how you can eat well on a tight budget. There are also a number of organisations that have cafes using food that would have been thrown out by supermarkets such as this one in Pudsey near Leeds. My Grandparents also grew tomatoes and cucumbers in their flat and gathered blackberries along the railway embankment and waste ground nearby. Of course, that isn't going to feed them all year, but it does show that whoever you are and whatever your circumstances you can at least make a few choices which are beneficial for the environment.

In part two I look at how availability of public transport and the provision of good quality public services and such as broadband and electric car charging infrastructure will help move our country to a low carbon, but also fairer society. 

Saturday 25 April 2020

Lockdown Day 33 - Holgate Windmill

As many people will already be aware, trying to get flour of any description during the lockdown has been difficult, if not impossible, from mainstream shops. It isn't, apparently, an issue of the amount being produced not keeping up with demand as with catering and restaurants closed, there is plenty of flour in the supply chain. However, it is an issue of bags - for the catering and restaurant trade, flour is generally bought in large quantities, and the spike in demand has been for the 1 and 2kg bags you get from supermarkets and the like.

The BBC article here explains the issue better.

I discovered that Holgate Windmill in York, which has been producing a small amount of flour for open days and as fundraising, has opened a shop on a Saturday morning to cater for demand and they are running the windmill up to four days a week now, weather permitting, to produce flour.

The shop is at a hatch in the base of the windmill, you can just see it in the photo below the first window at the end of the road.

The road goes round the windmill on either side. To be truthful, if you don't know about the windmill it is not that obvious due to the built up nature of the area!

We cycled over there this morning and when we arrived the queue was about ten people ahead of us, but when we left the queue was all the way down the lane! They limit flour to one 1.5kg per customer in order that more people can benefit, but also have local honey for sale too. You can choose from wholemeal or spelt flour, although in normal times they do a range of other flours.

The notice (you may have to enlarge on your device - and there's more info on the website) explains where the grain for the flour comes from and even some handy recipes!

 Here is the flour we got this morning.

The windmill is celebrating its 250 year anniversary this year, although unfortunately they won't be able to celebrate properly due to the restrictions.

I am hoping during one of my exercise trips in the lockdown to be able to cycle past there on a day when the windmill is going, but if it is a windy day it is a struggle to cycle!

Flour from a working traditional windmill!

Friday 24 April 2020

Lockdown Day 32 - Garden and Allotment

So, today was a mixture of sorting things out at home on the computer, and some outdoor work both in the garden and in the allotment.

In the garden we are going to try growing beans up the swing frame, this is something we do in the allotment anyway but now that the children are grown up we can use the one in the garden too. I have also been filling a hanging basket with aquilegia seedlings and sorting out pots ready for more flowers and vegetables in pots. I was thinking about growing a pumpkin up the swing frame but wonder whether the pumpkins will be too heavy and it will be better growing along the ground.

In the allotment, the only job for today was more watering as the ground is so dry, I can't remember the last time it rained here.

These are some of the blueberries, and they are in blossom. Even though they are at the allotment they are in pots of ericaceous compost as they need an acid soil and we only water them with rainwater from the water butt or they get rained on - maybe one day soon!

This is the grape vine we have. It does produce several bunches of grapes and I thin them out quite severely in order to ripen them. The problem is, despite netting, something eats quite a lot of them as soon as they are ripe.

I need to have a read up and see when some pruning needs to take place but it won't be until fruit appears at the earliest.
 All the potatoes are now coming up, and I don't think frost is likely - however that being said we have had a damaging frost in early May before now. I have planted Cara and Red Duke of York this year. I did often plant Desiree for many years but the past couple of years they have not worked out well for me, so none this year. I have been a little disappointed not to get Sarpo Mira again this year, two years ago I bought some and they were the best white potato crop I have had. I find that red potatoes do better here as they don't seem to get nibbled as much or have the slug/wireworm damage that later white ones get.

We are very lucky. We have the allotment, some yard space, a small garden, and live on the edge of some beautiful countryside, even though we live in a terraced house on the edge of a small town. I really am not sure how I would have coped with this lockdown living in a flat or inner city where the options for safe exercise and opportunity to grow food is limited and there would be far more people about. I can think of at least eight different walking routes within two or three miles of the town and there are numerous country lanes for cycling on without coming across many people too. The allotment is two minutes walk from the house and has low rental cost compared to many allotments elsewhere (though there is no allotment association, but there are rules set by the landowner). Whilst it would be a lot harder, I do think I could still find enough to do if I wasn't able to go out much or at all, I read up a lot on science and environmental topics, I knit sometimes, play clarinet and piano among other things. Inside we grow peppers, lettuce and sometimes tomatoes, and in the back yard we have strawberries, a minarette fig tree (only 3 or 4 figs each year so far but still....!) and a small lean-to greenhouse for growing tomatoes or cucumbers/gherkins and peppers. We also grow sweet peas and pansies in the yard and the garden - despite being quite small - has a large hawthorn tree at the end which has beautiful pink blossom in May, there's a buddleia, hollybush and fuchsia and a few flowers. We are trying to grow more flowers that are pollinator-friendly although we do get tawny mining bees in the bare patches in the lawn (which I have wildflower seeded now)  and plenty of hoverflies and bumblebees coming in. Our allotment is run organically as far as we are able - for the past four or five years now we have not had to resort to any chemical treatments - the last time was Diphane for controlling some black spot fungus that got out of control on the pear trees as nothing else seemed to work and I needed to save the trees. They recovered and have been fine since.

We work with nature, not against it, and are rewarded with lovely fruit and vegetables and the pleasure of seeing birds and insects, beetles and spiders all being part of the ecosystem in the garden and allotment.

Thursday 23 April 2020

Lockdown Day 31 - Wild Flowers and Warblers

On what seems to be one of the endless sunny days this April, I took a cycle ride out towards Bolton Percy this morning with the aim of taking some pictures and trying to identify some of the wild flowers in the verges.

About half way along the lane you come to a long section of bluebells by the roadside and in amongst them is Greater Stichwort (Stellaria holostea). These flowers look like they have ten petals but they are in fact five but the divides in the petals do go quite far down.

Here is a closer look at the plant. In traditional folk medicine it was said to alleviate a stitch in one's side, hence the name! They flower from April to June.

On the opposite side of the road to the Bluebells is a long patch of Ramsons or Wild Garlic. (Allium ursinium). The leaves are edible, as are the flowers. I haven't yet tried the leaves but have sprinkled a few flowers into dishes. There are quite a number of places, usually around tracts of ancient woodland, near where I live that have large areas of bluebells and wild garlic and wood anemones.

On the way home I spotted these pretty flowers at a road junction, against a wall with some white dead nettles.

These are Green Alkanet or known as Evergreen Bugloss (Pentaglottis sempervirens) These are an introduced species to the British Isles though have long since become widespread.

Also on my ride were quite a few warblers singing. The Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps have been around for a while now, but in the past few days the Willow Warblers have arrived and several have set up territories along the road in copses and trees. At the moment it is fairly easy to spot warblers as there is not too much growth on trees and bushes but even so they have a tendency to be singing from the opposite site to the road and it is only when they move you can see them. That being said, one Willow Warbler was quite showy this morning and I watched it for a couple of minutes hopping around and singing from a small tree by the road. I also noticed that one Chiffchaff was giving a "hoo-ee" call for a while - normally you just get the monotonous chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff. I also saw two Wheatears again in the same field as the other day and there were plenty of Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Great Tits all singing and calling as well as two Skylarks singing high above fields.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Lockdown Day 30 - Remembering a Water Rail

Today, whilst being a lovely day, has been the shopping day and it takes a fair chunk of the day due to queuing outside each shop visited. So, this is another recollection blog.

In February 2019 I had a little time to spare whilst up near Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire and near there is Staveley, a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve. At this point I must mention that the Government advice is to exercise locally and so whilst it is a lovely reserve to visit and very soon such as Common Terns will be nesting there, if it is not local to you then please save it up for when all this crisis is over!

About 15 minutes walk from the car park is a hide, with bird feeders to the side and a reedbed and the lake out front. Being February, it was quite cold but from experience both here and at RSPB Fairburn Ings, this is the best time to see a Water Rail as they come out of the reeds more often looking for food. They are really quite secretive birds otherwise. Water Rails are omnivores and will eat most small creatures up to even small mammals and amphibians as carrion as well as vegetable matter, seeds and nuts.

This one came out of the reeds and proceeded to potter around the base of the bird feeder (as I have also seen at Fairburn Ings at the side of the visitors' centre!) eating seeds and grains that had dropped down from the feeders. From where I was standing just next to the hide it was probably only about five or six feet away from me and really wasn't noticing my presence.

It then went back into the reeds completely hidden from view.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Lockdown Day 29 - quick update and link to an online conference

Today has been yet another sunny day, we are so lucky at the moment with the weather. I must admit a lockdown with wall to wall rain would have been rather harder to bear!

Today was a trip to the allotment to build a bean frame out of hazel branches coppiced from the hazelnut tree at the back of the allotment, and general weeding and watering. The strawberries are now flowering, these are plants put in last year when we renewed the bed.

I have also been following the online content and speakers from the We Don't Have Time Earth Day Week conference taking place at the moment, today when I tuned it were speakers from various companies providing products and services in the so-called circular economy.

Link to the main website and the app here

I have also been writing a letter to the Cabinet Office in Whitehall in response to a series of questions put out on Twitter regarding the recovery from COVID-19 and I will be making a blog post about this sometime over the next week.

Monday 20 April 2020

Lockdown Day 28 - Macro photography in the allotment

 I have been taking photos since childhood. My Dad is, and my Granddad was, a keen photographer and I remember watching my Granddad editing Cine films on his own equipment and my Dad told me that when he was at home, my Grandad had a dark room in the attic where he developed his own photographs.

Whilst I can't afford a DSLR and long range lenses, I have recently got a Kodak Bridge Camera, but before that I have been using a small Canon digital camera which has quite a decent macro setting on it. (A long time ago I had a Praktica SLR film camera with a 70-210 lens and 28-70 lens with macro on, but getting film is difficult now and costly)
Whilst the newer Kodak camera is much better resolution and features, I still sometimes take the mini Canon one to the allotment for photographing the crops, flowers and the insects that come into the allotment.
 We've had a lavender bush for some time in the allotment and to be honest it is getting past its best now and needs replacing. However, it is a magnet for bees and butterflies and indeed moths on an evening. Getting a good shot of bees is quite difficult unless they are sleepy and they never stay still for long.
 Hoverflies are common in the allotment and we try to make sure there are flowers for the pollinating insects in general there. Obviously, the fruit trees have blossom in Spring, but we also leave a few dandelions and poppies and let a couple of leeks and parsnips go to seed. We also grow stocks, nasturtiums, marigolds and cornflowers and the courgettes and pumpkins, beans and peas also set flowers in summer.

Hoverflies, wasps and ladybirds are very good for getting rid of aphids.

Even just an ordinary fly is fascinating close up with the multifaceted eyes and luminescence on the wings. Greenbottles are also quite dazzling close up.

We grow organically and believe that working with nature, not against nature is the way to healthy crops, and everything has a balance, with predators there for the prey. Our soil is teeming with worms and centipedes though we also have millipedes and ants which are less attractive, but they all fit into the same ecosystem. There's leatherjackets and other bugs for the Robins and Blackbirds and there's spiders and a whole range of other species too. It has unfortunately been some years since we have had grasshoppers. Blue Tits forage for tiny insects and Dunnocks unobtrusively potter around the bushes. We often get Wrens and the Mistle and Song Thrushes have bred in the allotments over the past few years and last year the blackbirds raised three broods in the hedge that surrounds the allotment.
The first photo, of cabbage white caterpillars is not something to be welcomed though as they can decimate any brassicas left uncovered - I do squish them if I see them, but would never use chemical controls as these would have unwelcome side effects and our allotment flourishes without them.

Sunday 19 April 2020

Lockdown Day 27 - Allotment work

Today it was back to the allotment. Lovely sunny Spring day again, and the forecast is for dry sunny weather for the rest of the week. The ground is getting very parched though and one of the tasks for task was watering all the vegetables and the fruit trees in pots, as well as a bit for the larger fruit trees.

The Falstaff apple tree is in full blossom, these apples are the first to be ready in September and keep well too. I have had over one hundred apples from this little tree in the past and this year, all being well, looks to be another good one.

Along the same side of the allotment as the Falstaff apple tree are the strawberries. We replaced the whole bed with fresh plants last year and this year they are obviously maturing and flowering.

We also have some strawberries in planters on the wall of our back yard.
Although this doesn't look like much, these are the final ones of last season's leeks. Our aim, though we don't always succeed with continuity of fresh veg, is to have something from the allotment every time we need it, and having had the first batch of asparagus the other day it looks like we may be in luck this time.

We can though have jam with allotment fruit every day of the year and there's pumpkin and courgette chutney too as and when we need it. This year I need to increase the number of Kilner jars with preserved fruit such as blackberries and blackcurrants in for use on porridge and with muesli. We do still have though some blackberries in brandy though it might not be a good idea to have these on porridge for breakfast!

Saturday 18 April 2020

Lockdown Day 26 - First Swallows of the Summer!

Another cycle ride today, a little bit further than yesterday and to be honest a little bit more focused on the exercise rather than the wildlife spotting!

However, there were a few interesting sightings as we cycled over as far as Hessay and Moor Monkton. First of all when cycling through Catterton - which often seems to be a good place to see wildlife - two curlew were chasing off a crow in a field and making quite an alarm call while they did this! As usual, the hedgerows had many Chaffinches, Blue Tits, Dunnocks, Robins and other small birds including a couple of Yellowhammers. Chaffinches always seem the most raucous! At various points during the ride, Blackcaps could be heard in the trees, they usually choose a high branch and take some finding even at the moment where there are few leaves on the trees.

When we were cycling through Hessay - a small village near York - there were two Swallows on the telegraph wires - first ones I have seen this year! Now, one  Swallow does not a summer make (or even two), a remark which has been attributed to Aristotle back in the 4th Century BC! (

As we were waiting for the level crossing gates to open at the Moor Monkton crossing on the York-Harrogate railway line (and reflecting on - given how the train services have been reduced - how unlucky we were to have to wait for one!) we watched a Lapwing diving and soaring over a field then fly over to chase some crows.

Coming back past Rufforth airfield two Mallard ducks were sitting in the grass verge completely unconcerned - or maybe too lazy - to move as we rode past and near what is known as Normans Farm two Shelduck flew over which given that this is quite some way from a lake or major river was rather unexpected.

So, even during what was a leisurely ride through the countryside, there were twenty-six species of bird, and a hare running across a field too! Now that a lot of grass verges are being left uncut in Spring there are - it seems to me anyway - an increasing number of wildflowers present which can only be good news for pollinators and biodiversity generally The wild garlic in woodlands is now coming into flower and releasing the distinctive smell in among carpets of bluebells.

Friday 17 April 2020

Lockdown Day 25 - Wheatears

I decided that today would be another cycle ride while the weather is fine, and having heard about a group of Wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe) near Colton not far from York, I decided that it was a good point to aim for and not too far from home. Although the sky was bright, and there were occasional glimpses of the sun, it was a lot colder than I expected and the wind was from the east. 

Wheatears (or sometimes known as Northern Wheatears) migrate from sub-Saharan Africa to our shores with many carrying on to Iceland and Greenland (O. leucorhoa, the "Greenland Wheatear), in fact some - on the way back - follow a path down through Canada, then flying over water to the Azores, a distance of over 2000 miles, before continuing down to Africa.

I had seen online that a group of up to seven birds were in a field near the railway bridges in Colton and after a few minutes I was able to pick them out against the bare earth of the field. They are really quite well camouflaged!

Wheatears are possibly named after a corruption of the term "white-arse" referring to the bird's white rump!

Three individuals (all male) were in the field and they moved around quite a bit, although will stand quite erect looking around for danger. They eat insects from the ground or bushes or catching them in the air.

Another bird I saw on my cycle ride which I really don't see often is a Marsh Tit (Parus palastris) . These birds are really quite hard to tell apart visually from Willow Tits (P. p dresseri) but are distinguished by their call which is a repeated "pitchoo pitchoo" which is what the individual I saw in Bilborough was doing repeatedly as it hopped around a tree looking for food and claiming its territory. I also heard several Blackcap warblers (and saw one) and the chiffchaffs were being their usual repetitive selves as they claim their patches for summer.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Lockdown Day 24 - The Cabbages are Defended!

Once again, it has been a lovely sunny and warm day here. Very dry though, not much rain at all in the past couple of weeks and walking up through a field the other day when we went to Catterton Rash (see the soil was dusty and the lack of rain must be a problem for farmers trying to sow crops, in fact lower down this field the farmer had two sacks of barley ready to plant out and was rolling the field ready for this.

Over the past few weeks, the windowledge in a bedroom and subsequently the lean-to greenhouse have been filled with cabbage, broccoli, calabrese and pea seedlings and with the warmer weather, these have been going into the allotment.

Although some of the more open allotment plots have real trouble with pigeons, ours - with hedges around it - doesn't as I think the pigeons prefer having a good all round view for safety and the hedge blocks this.
However, the local house sparrow population are another matter! Now, I like house sparrows and indeed over the past twenty years or so they have declined a lot here in the UK. They are still the most numerous bird in the Big Garden Birdwatch list, but they have declined a lot since the 1970s both in urban and rural areas due to habitat loss. .Some suggest that pollution in towns is also a factor.

Unless we protect the peas, cabbages and indeed the lettuces in the back yard, the sparrows will come along, tell their friends and have a party, and the poor plants end up with beak shaped chunks cut out of them!

Once the plants are sufficiently big, we'll take the netting off them, and indeed it is not a good idea to allow the peas to grow through or attach themselves to the netting as it is a really difficult and delicate job to untangle!

There's more peas and brassicas in the house being germinated, along with courgettes and pumpkins and a couple of gherkins, as well as some new pepper plants that are doing well on the bathroom windowsill.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Lockdown Day 23 - Remembering the Leeds Rose

Last October, we had a holiday in Germany. Once the places we visited was Dortmund, which is the twin city of my home town of Leeds, Yorkshire, and one of the ways in which this is commemorated is in the Dortmund Westfalenpark with a Rose Garden.

Now, at the end of October, the roses are just about coming to the end, but we found that the rose garden was set out with a low hedge in the shape of a Yorkshire rose, with a commemorative sign explaining about the twinning of the two cities.

Luckily, we found a couple of the roses still flowering.

They seem to make a little bit more of the twinning in Dortmund than Leeds seem to do. In the centre of the city there is Platz von Leeds with the Leeds coat of arms on the side of a building. In Leeds there is Dortmund Square with a statue of a chap holding a beer barrel (Dortmund has renowned breweries) but there's no sign in Leeds to indicate what the statue is or even that you are in Dortmund Square.

You have to pay to go in the Westfalenpark, which seems quite odd for a city park - at least in terms of what we experience in England - and you can't go out and come back in even if you have a ticket, you would have to pay twice! This rather put a hole in our plans as we were planning on walking through the park to an English speaking church service then returning to the park in the afternoon. So, we spent all day in the park, which wasn't too much of a hardship, there are nice grounds and lake and indeed a nice cafe in the middle of it, as well as a miniature railway for children. In the summer there would have been a cable car too and other attractions but they were closed for the winter.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Lockdown Day 22 - Walking the bluebell woods - part 1

After a morning of sowing some courgette and pepper seeds, some beans and re-potting some existing peppers into bigger pots, as well as the usual watering, I felt I needed a walk in the afternoon.
So, today our government authorised (or should I perhaps call it State Sponsored?) walk was up into a local woodland known as Catterton Rash.

 Much of the floor of the woodland is covered in bluebells and at this time of year is absolutely lovely to see!

 I am not an expert by any means on fungi but I love the range of different ones that you can find.

This is some kind of bracket fungus growing on a silver birch tree (possibly Fomes fomentarius??)

The woodland is very peaceful, being quite far from a road and only open fields around it. Somewhere in the woods was a green woodpecker. Having visited these woods for over fifteen years now, this was the first time I have heard one in there, it was a shame we couldn't see it.

Also, there must have been some brush clearance or work since last time we went as I have never come across this ditch before or the boggy marsh beyond. Though at the moment many trees are just coming into bud and so the woods aren't as dense as they will be in the summer.

At the moment, it is vital that we all take the chance to step away from the scrolling news, the social media alerts and chimes, and take the time to relish the quietness of the forest, of the open fields, even parks and woodlands in towns and cities where traffic noise is but a shadow of the normal drone. Obviously keeping to the social distancing and exercise rules set by the Government! I am very glad that I don't live in a city nowadays, although have done whilst at university, and have such beautiful spaces within a few minutes walk or cycle of where I live. You don't need to go racing across the country to stand in a line with hundreds of others to see a rare bird, you don't need to spend thousands on the latest camera or bike to enjoy the nature around us. Indeed for many people just seeing hares race across a field, lapwings sky dancing, hearing a skylark song or the sudden, yet fleeting, glimpse of a deer between gaps in a woodland is a special experience and one that they don't usually get in their concrete filled urban sprawl. Even within cities there are the edge-lands and the corners of parks where birds, insects and mammals get on with their lives unnoticed by the headphone wearing joggers, the sunbathers, and the phone attached teenagers. We were once eating lunch under a tree in Museum Gardens, York and had a wood mouse potter around our feet! An abandoned building plot full of buddleia can be a magnet for butterflies, an unusual moth can appear on your doorstep, pipistrelle bats flit around the rooftops in the twilight of late summer evenings. The webs of dozens of spiders glistening on a garden hedge on a cold morning or rabbits eating their way through the manicured grass of a business park when everyone has gone home.

Nature is all around us, and we need to keep it that way.