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!
Today’s Treasures – Our Beautiful British Butterflies
Buddleia bushes can tend to be a bit rampant and take over a small garden but, if you cut them right back in the autumn, the following summer the flowers will be covered in butterflies and you can spend a wonderful sunny afternoon watching them fluttering and floating and gathering nectar from the purple blooms. Definitely recommended as one of the most relaxing and stress-relieving ways to pass the time.
And you can also take part in the Big Butterfly Count: Launched in 2010, this is a nationwide survey which helps assess the changes in our environment. It is one of the world’s biggest surveys of butterflies. Over 100,000 people took part in 2018, submitting 97,133 counts of butterflies and day-flying moths from across the UK
Anyone can take part – anywhere – parks, school grounds, gardens, fields or forests – or during a walk – simply count butterflies for 15 minutes during bright (ideally sunny) weather – and record them online at www.butterfly-conservation.org.
Sir David Attenborough, President of Butterfly Conservation, Alan Titchmarsh MBE, Mike Dilger, Nick Baker, and Joanna Lumley OBE have all given their enthusiastic backing to the project.
The European Peacock butterfly lays its shiny black caterpillars on nettles or hops. The butterflies drink nectar from a wide variety of flowering plants, including buddleia, willow, dandelions, marjoram and clover.
The red admiral migrates from North Africa and continental Europe. The butterflies continue flying into October or November and are typically seen nectaring on garden buddleias or flowering Ivy.
The speckled wood butterfly likes brambles in hedgerows and partially shaded woodland and feeds on honeydew in the treetops – and occasionally on marjoram and buddleia. They like dappled sunlight and can often be seen chasing each other making spirals in the sunshine.
The ringlet also likes field edges with brambles and privet, butterflies also feed on oregano, thistles, scabious and hogweed. But the female lays her eggs in grassy areas and the caterpillars feed on grass. The ringlet can often be seen with characteristic bobbing flight on cloudy days when other butterflies are inactive.
Published in the August edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
Today’s Treasures – The Eckford Sweet Pea Festival – Wem
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 Henry Eckford 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’.
There are over 70 classes of displays of sweet peas including formal vases, baskets, bowls, plants, floral art and a children’s section. The show includes a Society Stand with experts available to offer advice and answer sweet pea questions and seeds of pre 1910 Old Fashioned Sweetly Scented Varieties are available to purchase along with gardening accessories, plants, souvenirs, collectibles, and jewellery. There will also be crafts including a willow weaving demonstration (have a go).
Despite winning an award for ‘Midland Specialist Event of the Year 2014/15’ by Going Places, this may well be the last Eckford Sweet Pea Show as the society has failed to find new volunteers to join and help with running the event.
Eckford sweet peas have a beautiful fragrance – and I have also found them to be much easier to germinate than other varieties I have tried.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.