I finally found a farmer to cut the grass in our fields – and make hay – 164 bales! I had to pull all the ragwort out first – fortunately a cinnabar moth fluttered past – which reminded me that they lay their black and yellow caterpillars on ragwort – so I left some plants at the edge of the field.
Cinnabar moth – photo courtesy of butterfly conservation
I check on the caterpillars every day when I take Duke for his morning walk – and of course the bees, hoverflies and butterflies also love ragwort so there’s quite a visual orchestra to watch every morning.
The caterpillars absorb the toxins from the ragwort which makes them taste bitter and they are unpalatable to most birds – an exception being the cuckoo – and most other predators – except ants. If there is not enough food they will also eat each other!
This is a small copper
And here is a speckled wood
I will of course have to remove the ragwort before its seeds blow everywhere but hopefully the caterpillars will have finished eating by then and turned into pupae!
There were 7 puppies in the trailer – all clamouring for attention. They were different colours as their mother was a blue merle border collie – both parents were working dogs. I instinctively chose the one that looked most like my old Duke. I picked him up in my arms and was speechless. It had been so long since I had held a dog in my arms, it was a wonderful feeling, a dog of my own again. And this time, he would be living with me all the time. A permanent companion, sharing my life outside – but such a lot to learn first!
I asked what food he had been having – standard dried dog food mixed with milk (dairy farm dogs nearly always get milk with their food). I took a small amount of the dried food home with me. And we also had the paperwork for his microchip. Since April 2016 every puppy has to be microchipped and registered by 8 weeks of age.
I got the towels ready for the journey home – nearly two hours – he slept most of the way – but was sick three times. We finally got home and I found a old collar for him (he wasn’t terribly happy about having it round his neck – but he soon got used to it).
I expected him to wake in the night so I slept on the settee downstairs, surrounded by newspaper. He slept in the old cat basket which was just the right size. Surprisingly, he slept through the night. I took him out for a wee first thing in the morning – then he got back into bed with me.
The next night we made a bed for him on the floor in our bedroom and he slept on that. But subsequent nights he kept waking up – and waking us up – so he now sleeps on our bed – between us – and with his head on the pillow if he can possibly manage it!
I fed him on the dry food mixed with a bit of tinned food but he was sick every time he ate. He usually ate it all again, and second time around it stayed down. I asked advice from our local animal food supplier and Belinda said to feed him dried food soaked in water in small amounts at regular intervals. This generally worked and it was only if he ate something different – or too much at once – that he was sick.
His name was pre-ordained – as he looked like my old Duke – he became Duke II – and learned his name quite quickly, along with sit and stay.
Our garden is fairly secure but, from previous experience, if a border collie wants to get out – he will get through anything – so we had to watch him all the while. He had been brought up with hens in a farmyard so didn’t chase them – but Dillon the cockerel wasn’t terribly happy with this new addition to his domain.
Duke sniffed inquisitively at the rabbits – Lunar, mother rabbit with babies in the hutch – got quite cross at puppy sniffing at her and turned her back on him. Offended, he barked at her – she was not impressed!
Duke was used to hens – ducks were a different matter – and Duke was fascinated with these strange things – he wanted to investigate further – but of course they ran away when he went near. So this is going to take a bit of time. The ducks learned to keep out of his way – but Jasmine duck has just hatched 3 tiny ducklings so we’ve had to provide a secure pen – and Duke will have to have some lessons in looking after the ducks – my old Duke used to round up my ducks at night and put them to bed.
So, to our first walk in the field. The grass is quite high in places and Duke couldn’t see where he was going, so he followed ‘doggedly’ in my footsteps – until we reached the badger set – where the grass is shorter – and he started sniffing around. Then we had a dig in the sand by the rabbit holes – and he got sand all over his nose.
He’s now learned to fetch a ball – he will bring it back if he gets a treat. He still curls up in the cat basket – but he’s really too big for it now and ends up half in and half out of it.
Potty training is not going terribly well – he hasn’t got the hang of going to the toilet on newspaper so we’ve given that up – instead we take him outside every time he wakes up and after he’s eaten – but he still doesn’t seem to know the difference between inside and outside – and if it’s raining he really doesn’t want to go out – for a farm dog he’s certainly over-fond of his home comforts.
He loves serrano ham treats – and melon rind – and he’ll play for ages with a broad ben pod. He’s nearly wrecked the conservatory – I’ve had to move everything off the worksurfaces as he’s managed to climb up – somehow.
He’s had all his injections and we’ve been patiently waiting for the day we could go a proper walk – which was Thursday – but it hasn’t stopped raining since then! Made a mental note to remember the poo bags! Wonder how he’ll get on with other dogs?
March in Barbara’s Back Yard – Spring is Just Around the Corner
Spring is just around the corner – the celandines are sunning their golden faces, Coltsfoot flowers are lifting their heads and opening their petals to the wintry sunshine and the frogs have finally woken up in the pond again.
The broad beans I planted in December have mostly survived but don’t seem to have grown at all – and the ones I planted in pots a few weeks ago are about the same size – I planted them out this week – quite firmly – with news of the impending strong winds.
In between the showers, I have planted the first lot of onion sets but they don’t seem to be growing at all yet – obviously need some warmth before they get started.
This year I bought Eckford sweet pea seeds (which I found in D T Brown’s catalogue) – and I’ve had much better success with growing these than other varieties. In previous years, although I’ve always put them in the propagator, less than half have sprouted. If you pinch out the tips of sweet peas it encourages them to be more bushy.
The Eckford Sweet Pea was first bred in Shropshire – but it is named after the horticulturist, Henry Eckford who was born in 1823 in Edinburgh. In 1870 he was in charge of a garden at Sandywell in Gloucester and his employer encouraged his interest in breeding plants. When they moved to Boreatton in Shropshire, Dr. Sankey encouraged him further and he started the development of the Sweet Pea which had changed little since it was first introduced from Sicily in 1699. In 1888 Henry Eckford moved to Wem and established Eckford’s Nursery which specialised in sweet peas and now sweet pea lovers from all over the country visit Wem in July each year for the Eckford Sweet Pea Festival, organised by the Eckford Sweet Pea Society – and Wem has become the ‘Home of the Sweet Pea’.
And Eckford sweet peas seem to be much easier to germinate than other varieties I have tried.
I’ve also sown some herbs in pots – coriander, basil and parsley – and they have all germinated and I have moved them to the polytunnel as there is more light there than in the conservatory. Tomato seeds are now just sprouting in the propagator.
Daisy has started laying again – as soon as she goes broody – and stays on the nest at night – I will move her to a separate pen – and hopefully we might get some Dorking chicks this year.
I’ve now sold most of the NZWhite x Californian rabbits. There is still one white buck – and an adorable Californian buck who is so soft and so friendly I shall be sad to part with him – he will make a lovely pet. Lunar’s first litter are now 10 weeks old – 3 survived – two does and a buck. She has just mated again. With this litter I will make sure they all just have rabbit pellets – no mix and no apples – and hopefully they will all survive – although I can’t be sure it was different food that caused the upset to their digestive system. Dandelion is doing really well at 4 years old but I might need to think about getting a new buck soon.
So lovely to see all the spring flowers – daffodils and tulips, primroses and grape hyacinths – and to hear the frogs burbling in the pond again.
End of February and the weather is beautiful. Still very cold at night – and the tap by the barn was frozen this morning so had to use the bucket by the house – but the sun is lovely once the mist and frost have cleared. This time last year we had the Beast from the East and we made a snowman, this year we are told it will be the Wet from the West at the end of the week – but we could really do with some rain – the wild pond has only a puddle of water in the middle.
I’ve been looking out for frogs – by the end of February they are usually hopping back to the pond to find a mate – but there’s no sign of them yet – in any of the ponds. It’s quite fascinating watching them – if you sit still, more and more beady eyes pop up out of the water – and I love to hear their burbling – especially late in the evening – it always sounds louder in the dark.
As it’s been quite dry so far this year, I’ve dug the bean trench and put in a mixture of manure from the hen house, rabbit manure – and compost from the compost bin. The rest of the compost has been spread over the potato patch. One February it myvegetable patch had a moat around it – and I couldn’t do anything as the ground was much too wet. This year I’ve already planted some onion sets and the parsnips will go in once my seeds arrive – which should be today.
This year I ordered seeds from www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk – I received a catalogue in the post – and you can still order with a cheque – or by phone – but online is definitely easier – there are more varieties on the website – and you can also find out if items are in stock.
I’ve ordered some potatoes – second earlies – and set them out in trays ready to sprout. The DT Brown instructions are excellent: After unpacking, put potato tubers in a cool, light, well-ventilated and frost-free place, away from direct sunlight.
Potatoes can be divided into five categories, planted from March to July
First earlies – plant mid-late March – ready June to July
Second earlies – plant in late March – ready July to August
Early maincrops – plant in April – ready August
Late maincrop – plant early May – ready September onwards
Second Cropping / Late Cropping – plant from early July – ready September to December
The chitting process allows strong green shoots (chits) to develop on the tuber before planting. Although not essential, it is particularly beneficial for the earlier cropping potatoes because it give the potato a quick start, thus cropping earlier. Set the seed potatoes out, side by side (I use egg trays) blunt end uppermost (this is the end opposite where the stalk was that attached the potato to the parent plant – but you can’t always see this).
Plant tubers 4-6 in deep (10 – 15 cm), earlies 10-12 in apart, in rows 2 ft apart; maincrop 12-14 in apart in rows 30 in apart. Once shoots appear above the surface you need to earth them up (draw up soil over the tubers forming a ridge). This gives the plant a volume of soil in which to grow, stops the tubers turning green, and improves drainage and ventilation.
It also gets rid of weeds. I mulch everything else with grass cuttings – but when I did this with potatoes they all got blight so earthing up regularly works much better.
Potatoes are ready to harvest when the tops reach full size – weather permitting, they will usually attempt to produce flowers – or at least buds – at this time.
When onions arrive put them into a cool, light, well-ventilated and frost fre place, away from direct sunlight.
Plant between February and April, as soon as the soil is sufficiently dry and warm. Onions form a bulb when the temperature and the number of daylight hours hit the right combination for them, which triggers their clock. Until that happens, onions use the daylight to produce a good deal of top growth before they form bulbs (and the more top growth, the bigger the bulb). When the day reaches the right number of hours for that variety of onion, the onion will stop forming top growth, and form a bulb instead. The size of the bulb that eventually forms depends on the size of the ‘stalks’ and the number of them. there will be 1 ring in the onion for every stalk that formed, and the larger the stalk, the larger each ring will be. bulb formation will pause during dry, very hot or very cold weather.
Break off any flower stems which appear. Mulching is useful for cutting down watering and for suppressing weeds. Stop watering once the onions have swollen and pull back the covering earth or mulch to expose the bulb surface to the sun to dry. When the bulb is mature, the foliage turns yellow and topples over. Leave them for 2 weeks and then carefully lift with a folk on a dry day.
Onions which are not for immediate use must be dried. Spread out the bulbs on sacking or in trays; outdoors if the weather is warm and sunny of indoors if the weather is wet. Drying will take 7 to 21 days depending on the size of the bulbs and air temperature. Store unblemished onions in trays, net bags 0r tied into plaits.
I’ve also planted some broad beans in pots – and sown some herb seeds – which are in the propagator.
Daisy has decided to sit on some eggs so I’ve moved her to a pen on her own – it stops the other hens pestering her (because they always want to lay their eggs where she is sitting) and, if the eggs do hatch, they are in a safe place.
Everyone loves a good ghost story. In January, I gave a talk on folklore – myths, legends – and tales of witches, wizards, Druids, saints, fairies – and of course ghosts.
Did you know that Shropshire is one the most haunted counties? And with its timbered buildings and cobblestone alleys it is hardly surprising that Shrewsbury is believed to be one of the oldest and most haunted towns in the UK and that the dead are often seen walking among the living along its cobbled streets.
There’s that macabre painting in a room in the Nags Head that is said to be cursed – and allegedly caused the suicides of three people who slept in that room. No-one knows who painted it in such a strange place – or why – but their ghosts still haunt this 17th century coaching inn.
The Dun Cow is one of the oldest public houses in the UK – built by Roger de Montgomery, First Earl of Shrewsbury, around 1085 – it was a hostelry with its own brewery. A Dutch army officer was hung on the scaffold in the stables – but he is just one of the ghosts said to haunt this pub.
Shrewsbury castle is haunted by serial killer, Bloody Jack who was finally hung, drawn and quartered on Pride Hill; and the station has the ghost of a local councillor who was crushed when the roof collapsed over platform 3 in 1887.
Perhaps that’s why Shrewsbury also has a lot of saints, immortalised in its churches: St. Nicholas, St Chad, St. Alkmund, St. Mary, St. George, St. Peter and St. John.
St. Alkmund’s church is haunted by the spirit of a drunken 15th-century steeple jack who fell to his death after attempting to climb the church tower on a wager.
In 911, Aethelfleda, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, believed that St. Alkmund, prince of Northumbria, was her ancestor, and she named the churches built at that time after him – at Aymestrey, Shrewsbury and Whitchurch – most likely all fortified towns on the route through Mercia from Gloucester to Chester – providing protection from marauding Danes.
The spire of the medieval church of St Mary’s – one of the tallest in England – has dominated the skyline of Shrewsbury’s old town for over 500 years. In 1739, showman Robert Cadman attempted to slide from it, head first, using a rope and a grooved breastplate. His engraved obituary stands outside the west door.
Published in the february edition of the Whitchurch gossip
Imbolc is a Gaelic festival marking the promise of spring. It is a celebration of the lengthening days and occurs halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It corresponds to the Welsh ‘Mary’s Festival of the Candles’ and the Christian feast days of Saint Brigid and Candlemas.
The word Imbolc probably comes from the Old Irish Imbolc meaning ‘in the belly’ which refers to the pregnancy of ewes – as at this time of year we see new born lambs along with snowdrops and early spring bulbs.
Purification was an important part of Imbolc – with spring cleaning – and lighting of candles and fires – representing the return of warmth and the increasing power of the sun. People would visit holy wells and ask for good health whilst walking in a deosil (Gaelic sun-wise) direction around the well.
Robert Burns wrote the poem ‘Address to a Haggis’ which is what linked Burns and the haggis together forever – and Robert Burns became celebrated as the national poet of Scotland.
Burns suppers typically include haggis, Scotch whisky and the recitation of Burns poetry. They generally begin with the Selkirk Grace – so called because Burns was said to have delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk:
Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
After soup, everyone stands as the haggis is piped in, then comes the recital of Burns’ poem ‘the Address to a Haggis’. After a whisky toast to the haggis, the meal is served with tatties (potatoes) and neeps (swedes), followed by more toasts, speeches, songs and dancing, and concluding with Auld Lang Syne.
So why don’t we have a Shakespeare supper – to celebrate our great English poet?
Perhaps we should celebrate all our British poets along with Robert Burns on Burns Night. Drink a toast to them and eat tatties and neeps with our meat. Recite our favourite poems – and share the beauty of their words with our feast.
Squirrels can be a real nuisance – and they have wrecked some of my bird feeders. When we had a dog she used to chase them off. When she died, the cat took over responsibility and kept them away from the bird table. Now we are dog-less and cat-less (very sad walking down the pet food aisle in the supermarket – I try to avoid going down that aisle if I can!). So the squirrels are back. My sister bought me a little dish for Christmas – and we had some chestnuts left over from bonfire night – so I thought I would try putting out some nuts for the squirrels in the hope that they would leave my bird feeders alone!
It seems to be working – the squirrel comes to the chestnuts first – he sits and eats one, then runs off and hides one, then eats one, then buries one. And, so far, he’s left the bird feeders alone.
Today though he’s decided to bury the nuts in my rock garden – digging up the pansies in the process – so tomorrow I’ll put out a few less nuts and maybe he won’t bury so many….?
Lunar and Dandelion’s First Litter – pure New Zealand White rabbits
Lunar gave birth on 29th December – so her babies are now just 3 weeks old. I think there are nine of them but I haven’t counted them yet – it’s best not to disturb them too much when they are tiny – and mum always pops her head round to keep an eye on them!
When they are born I check as best I can that there are no dead babies – they are normally left away from the others so it’s easy to remove them. Thankfully I rarely get babies born dead – but sometimes if it’s a big litter the tiniest might not survive.
I check them once or twice a day to make sure none have got separted – if they have I gently push them back to the others so they don’t get cold.
At ten days old their eyes open and at 3 weeks they start hopping around their pen – they are so cute – this is the best part of breeding rabbits – I can watch them for ages.
And these are all pure New Zealand Whites – no black noses and toes this time!