Today’s Treasures – The Big Butterfly Count

This year I took part in the Big Butterfly Count

www.bigbutterflycount.org

As soon as the buddleia comes out I always take some time to watch the myriad different butterflies who just love the purple spikes.  There’s often a dozen peacock butterflies sunning themselves on the flowers, sipping nectar, fluttering their wings and showing off their spectacular colours.

Counting butterflies on a beautiful sunny afternoon is a tranquil, calming experience, watching them flutter from flower to flower, sometimes dancing together against the blue sky and skating clouds, seeing how many different butterflies join the feast; large and small whites love the flowers and there’s usually one or two red admirals and commas as well.  This year there were also two painted lady butterflies – but no small tortoiseshells – evidently they have been attacked by a parasitic fly – one of the reasons why David Attenborough’s butterfly count is so important – we can see the effects of these invasive insects.

Butterflies love buddleia because it produces lots of nectar, its deep flowers are accessible only to insects with long tongues and its flowers are clustered together so a butterfly can collect lots of nectar from one place.  Verbena and cosmos also attract butterflies – and food plants for their caterpillars include nettles and thistles.  Also ragwort which is a fascinating plant to watch – dozens of different insects love the flowers and the black and yellow caterpillars of the beautiful red cinnabar moth love the leaves.

I also discovered that we have two different blue butterflies – the common blue – which likes bird’s foot trefoil – and the holly blue which (as the name suggests) feeds on holly (and ivy).

Meadow browns (left) and ringlets (right) love the marjoram in my herb garden.

Published in the August edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Courgettes – recipe ideas to make the best use of courgettes

COURGETTES

Every year I end up with too many courgettes and don’t know what to do with them – so this year I have tried out a few innovative recipes:

Nearly marrow sized courgettes can be cut into one inch thick slices and baked in a little oil for around half an hour at 180°, turning occasionally, until soft. (I use a mixture of sunflower, olive, groundnut and sesame oils but any mixture is good.)  Liquidise and use in curries instead of tinned tomatoes.  You might need to add a little more spice than usual to give more flavour – but my family never noticed the difference.

Grate courgettes and add to salads (don’t overdo it else they do get noticed!)

I have also added grated courgettes to spaghetti Bolognese, stir fries and pasta dishes.

Brush whole baby courgettes with oil and barbecue alongside sausages.

Summer in the poultry patch

I finally let the chicks and ducklings out of their shed to free range today.

Because I have lost so many hens, ducks and rabbits to foxes, polecats and goodness knows what else I have been extremely careful with these new ducklings and chicks.  So they haven’t got 4 acres – they have 10 square yards with a hedge and a duckpond – and a big shed.  So it’s not exactly free range!

The first thing the ducklings did was eat some grass, then they ran round and round quacking excitedly, they are so delighted to be outside.  They haven’t found the pond yet – I moved their water bowl outside and they are dipping chunks of bread in it.

They keep out of the way of Doris (head honcho hen) but seem to get on fine with Grace (grey hen) and the chicks.  They are very inquisitive, poking their beaks into everything, trying different plants – and spitting some of them out!  They  like plantains but not burdock or feverfew.  When they find something distasteful they quickly dunk their beaks in the water bowl.  It’s lovely to see them outside.  They keep together – if one runs after something – the other quickly runs too.

Grace has wandered off for a dust bath under the hedge – she seems very relieved to be out in the fresh air with some grass to eat.

The chicks are exploring, occasionally cheeping to one another when they find something interesting – or get too far apart.  They have most of their feathers but are still fluffy whereas the ducklings have all their feathers.

Doris has followed Grace and gone off for a dust bath and left the little ones in peace.  They are finishing off the bread and scraps.  When Doris comes back to the water bowl for a drink, the babies keep well out of her way.

It’s so lovely to see them all outside.

Today’s Treasures – The Herb Garden

Today’s Treasures

The Herb Garden is my favourite place to sit and dream.  As you can see, it’s not just herbs – there are a few wild flowers as well – the foxgloves just come and go as they please, setting seed in the most unlikely places – and there are poppies in every corner of my garden.

Herbs are so versatile – some have pretty flowers like thyme, borage and hyssop – all of course have definitive scents – lavender and lemon balm, sage and tarragon, fennel, basil and coriander.

They make delicious flavours for the simplest meals – tarragon chicken, rosemary lamb, garlic and parsley bread, chopped chives with potato salad, mint sauce, sage and onion stuffing.

I love experimenting with herbs – my latest success was potato wedges roasted in olive, sunflower and groundnut oil sprinkled with a mixture of herbs freshly picked and chopped.  Traditional horseradish sauce made with freshly chopped horseradish root, salad cream, fresh cream, mustard powder and a hint of cayenne pepper is divine.

Mint sauce made with apple mint, vinegar, cabbage water and a spoonful of sugar makes even the blandest cabbage delicious.  Cooked carrots fried in a little butter with chopped lovage leaves give a continental twist to any meal.  Fresh basil livens up any pasta sauce – sprinkle curry with coriander leaves just before serving for a more authentic taste.

Lovage

Herbs also have healing properties – you don’t need to buy expensive packets of herbal tea – you can make your own by simply pouring boiling water over leaves of your choice.

Hyssop tea is good for maintaining healthy blood pressure – whether it’s high or low it helps stabilise it.  Peppermint tea helps digestion and soothes an upset tummy.  Chamomile is calming, sage is stimulating, fennel is relaxing.

Peppermint

You can add the flowers and leaves of calendula, nasturtium and borage to salads to add colour as well as flavour.  Borage flowers frozen into ice cubes made an attractive addition to summer drinks. Mint is an essential ingredient of any Pimm’s cocktail.  Poppy seeds can be added to cakes and cookies – and sprinkled onto bread rolls.

Wherever I am, I will always have a few pots of soothing, fragrant, healing herbs on my windowsill.

Published in the July edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

The Ducklings are growing fast

The ducklings are growing fast

They have most of their feathers now.  Indian Runners are so funny, the way they stretch their necks up and look around.

Doris, the resident brown hen, doesn’t think much of them and pecks at them if they come too close.  Grace (other hen) is quite indifferent to anything going on around her and wanders around in a dream most of the time.  I don’t think she’s really noticed they have arrived.  The other day she pecked at something really close to the Dorking chicks – and one of them pecked back – and made Grace jump – she looked so surprised it made me laugh.

I am hoping I have a drake and a duck – I think I shall call them Oliver and Isobel – I never name anything until they have settled in – then, when I’m out with them, the names will just come to me. I always make a bit of time each day to sit and watch – the poem (by W H Davies) “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare,” often comes to mind.  No point having animals and birds if you don’t get time to enjoy them.

Early June – Indian Runner Ducklings and Dorking Chicks

Early June – Indian Runner Ducklings and Dorking Chicks

I decided this year might be my last chance to breed some Indian Runner ducks and some Dorking hens.  Earlier in the year I had put a ‘wanted’ advert on Preloved for Dorking hens to go with Dillon, my Dorking cockerel.  I had received a reply from someone in Yorkshire saying they had hatched some Dorking eggs and I replied that I would be interested when the chicks were a bit older.

By the time I got around to replying, the fox had got Dillon (I was really upset as he was a wonderful, placid, gentle, friendly cockerel.)  It was during the day and I was around outside most of the day – I just couldn’t find him at bedtime – searched everywhere and all I found was one tail feather.

Anyway we went to Yorkshire to get three Dorking chicks.  When we arrived, in the pen next to the chicks were some Indian Runner ducklings – so we came back with two ducks as well.

I am so scared of losing them that they have been in a pen in the hen house at night and painstakingly moved to a pen outside each day.

One of the chicks died – not sure what happened but one morning he just sat all hunched up and within a few hours he had gone.  The other two are thriving, not sure yet of course if they are boys are girls!

Now the ducklings are bigger I have let them have free run of the hen house but they are not going outdoors until I am sure they know where home is and I’ve checked that there are no gaps they can get through!  The first day, they stood poking their heads out of the door and looking all around.  Can’t wait until they go outside and find the pond!  They love the water bowl and try swimming in it but they are much too big to even get their heads under the water now.

 

 

 

Today’s Treasures – Summer is here at last!

Today’s Treasures – summer is here at last

Summer took so long to arrive, it was so cold – and so wet – for so long, we seemed to miss Spring altogether and, when the sun finally did come out, summer crash landed with a profusion of flowers, all blooming at the same time.  The daffodils slowly struggled into life, then the sun shone and the tulips rapidly joined them, celandines and coltsfoot dotted the hedgerows and then they all quickly faded away, giving way to bluebells and buttercups.

All the flowers came out in rapid succession with hardly any time to savour their individual colours and scents.  The apple blossom was amazing, a profusion of apple white touched with pink, raining down confetti petals in the breeze.  Now lilacs and wisteria vie for attention with their delicate mauves and sweet scents.

The clematis climbing up the ancient barn surprised me one morning with an array of flowers which seemingly opened overnight and, trying to catch up with weeding the vegetable patch I looked up and suddenly noticed that the irises were all out, flashing their yellow flowers at the sun.

And the roses – they all seemed to bloom together, to open in a rush, to catch the sunshine, before it disappeared again.  Clouds of petals, sweetly scented, creating a beautiful archway that saturates the senses with perfumed peachy petals, a paradise for bees.

I almost despaired of ever planting the onions and potatoes this year, it was so cold, and the garden was so wet you couldn’t tell where the pond ended and the garden began.  A veritable smorgasbord for slugs and snails who have proliferated everywhere, I like those little banded snails which are so pretty but not the slimy slugs, you would need really big frogs to eat some of the slugs I’ve found this year.

I was really worried about the frogs, they were very late arriving in the pond to find a mate, then when the first frog spawn did appear, the pond froze over again and I thought the tiny eggs would all die – but they didn’t and the tadpoles have had lots of rainwater to grow up in.

The fields are now full of buttercups ‘the little children’s dower’ I often think of William Wordsworth languishing abroad and am so glad I live in England – even with its precocious weather.

This article was published in the June edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Today’s Treasures – Whitchurch, Home of Canals, Clocks and Cheshire Cheese

Whitchurch, home of Canals, Clocks and Cheshire Cheese

Whitchurch, located on the Cheshire and Welsh borders, is the oldest continuously inhabited town in Shropshire being the site of an early mediaeval castle. Built on a low hill, Whitchurch provided a perfect location for the Roman town of Mediolanum (meaning “The place in the mid plain”) on a major Roman route, half way between Chester (Deva) and Wroxeter (Viroconium).

 

 

The name ‘Whitchurch’ comes from the original Norman Church made from ‘white stone’ – the current church of St. Alkmund was built in 1712 of red sandstone and its clock workings were made by J.B. Joyce & Co, the oldest established maker of tower/turret clocks. Joyce clocks can still be found all over the world from Big Ben in London to the Customs House in Shanghai – and the Eastgate clock in Chester, one of the most loved and photographed clocks, was made in Whitchurch.  The original J.B. Joyce building still exists in Whitchurch High Street.

Despite being in Shropshire, Whitchurch is widely considered to be the home of Cheshire cheese, one of the oldest recorded cheeses in British history.  In the early 1900’s Cheese fairs were held in the old market hall in Whitchurch on every third Wednesday.  When the Whitchurch Arm of Thomas Telford’s Llangollen Canal opened in 1811 cheese was transported by horse drawn boat to Ellesmere Port (65 miles) and took 24 hours, non-stop – except for changing horses along the way.

Local cheesemakers Belton Cheese, Applebys and Windsors are all still famous for their cheeses.

     

There’s lots going on in Whitchurch all year round with a market every Friday and a Makers Market on the first Saturday of the month.

In May there is a Walking Festival, closely followed by a Food and Drink Festival

In June it’s music and mayhem at the Party in the Park

September sees the Canal Boat Rally and October 7th Blackberry Fair, the wildest, wackiest street festival you will ever find, full of actors, musicians, street theatre, fire-breathers, clowns – fun for people of all ages. The theme is sustainability and the name simply signifies Autumn.

    

Further information can be found at www.whitchurch.info

This article was published in the April edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Today’s Treasures – Spring is just around the corner … or is it?

Spring is just around the corner … or is it?

The snowdrops are out and the frogs are hopping around the pond looking for mates, primroses are in bud and daffodils are peeping tantalising flashes of yellow ready to blossom into sunshine flowers. Then, just when you think Spring is finally on the way, the #BeastfromtheEast arrives and we’re in the middle of a snowstorm again.  Only in England!

But it won’t be long before the primroses are out in profusion and daffodils and tulips will be swaying gently in the breeze. The birds are already dressed in their Spring colours and singing their Spring songs joining in the dawn chorus – and they know that the snow will soon be gone.

The hens don’t mind the snow, they are always eager to rush out into the fresh air and scratch around outside.  The Spice Girls (our ex-battery hens – see previous post) have settled in and have become part of the family – at least two of them have – one didn’t survive the move and another managed to get lost somewhere – but Ginger and Meg (Nutmeg) now rush out to greet me every morning.  They seem to be so grateful now they have settled into a ‘normal’ lifestyle.  They still haven’t got many feathers (I tell them they will freeze in this snow but they take no notice) but their feathers should grow back eventually.  They still don’t perch at night – they settle down in one of the nest boxes whilst the other hens roost in the rafters. But apart from that, they act like ordinary chickens and are part of Dillon’s flock (he’s the cockerel and definitely rules the roost).

When it’s cold and snowy the wild birds seem so grateful for the food on the bird table.  I always thaw the water in the birdbath if it’s frozen and put extra food out.  I watch them for hours – the long-tailed tits arrive all of a flutter, twittering to each other, the tiny wren, and of course the robin, showing off his best red waistcoat.  We’ve seen lots of different birds this winter – even a bullfinch graced us with his presence for a few days.

Published in the March edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Today’s Treasures – Meet the Spice Girls our Ex-battery Hens

Meet the Spice Girls

We have adopted some ex-battery hens through the British Hen Welfare Trust @BHWTOfficial.  We’ve called them ‘The Spice Girls’ – there’s Cinnamon, Meg (nutmeg) Corrie (coriander) and Ginger.

I received an email from the Trust advising that they had 350 hens needing new homes in the Wrexham area so I offered to adopt some.  I’ve kept hens for years so was somewhat surprised to receive lots of advice on how to look after them – although I do appreciate that there would be quite a few new foster families who had never kept hens before.

What surprised me even more were the recommendations for caring for ex-battery hens.  I had to go and get some layers mash (which is basically crushed layers pellets).  My free range hens are mainly fed on corn (locally grown wheat) with some layers pellets during the winter. Evidently ex batts need the food they are used to for a while – I found this out when I tried to tempt them with some bread – they looked at me as if I had gone mad!  Goodness knows what they will do when they eventually encounter a worm!

Our hens have a very large hen house and I was advised to keep our new arrivals in a smaller pen inside the hen house initially.  So I shut them in a little pen for the first three nights.  On the fourth evening, I took the top off so they could get out but (as I was told but didn’t quite believe) they were all still in their little pen in the morning.  I went out at lunchtime to see how they were getting on and Ginger was ‘gingerly’ exploring the hen house, carefully negotiating around obstacles and looking curiously at the food trough full of corn.  Head on one side she studied everything cautiously.  Then Doris came in with Dillon to see what I was doing and if there were any titbits.  Amazingly they ignored Ginger – even Dillon – who usually jumps on everything that moves – it was like Ginger belonged to a different species.  Usually there’s a bit of a scrap when new hens arrive – until they have sorted out the pecking order.  Next morning, they were all in their little pen once more.

The Spice Girls are missing a lot of feathers and their combs are pale and droopy.  Hopefully they will all be feeling better soon and their combs will be bright red again.  Here are some of the other hens outside with Dillon – our Dorking cockerel – wonder how long it will be before the Spice Girls join them?

It’s fascinating looking after livestock – you never know what you are going to find when you go out in the morning – there’s always something interesting going on.  My hens come running when I call them – and of course they give me presents of beautiful free-range eggs!

Published in the February edition of the Whitchurch Gossip