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.
Alongside the path at St. Just in Roseland Church in Cornwall there is a tablet of stone with the words: “There is great beauty in old trees, old streets and ruins old. Why should not I as well as these, grow lovely growing old?”
Fagus – the Beech Queen
And I often think of this verse when I look at this beautiful beech tree. It also makes me think of The Animals of Farthing Wood – who lost their homes when their tree was blown down – I can imagine birds and squirrels nesting in the branches and rabbits and mice living in the roots. And, in the breeze, the leaves make the wisha wisha sound of the Faraway Tree in Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood.
Beech trees were not as important to the Druids as oak trees but beech groves have been found in and near significant places of power – like the Cerne Abbas chalk giant – and at Avebury – where Tennyson’s description of the ‘serpent-rooted beech tree’ is particularly apt.
In Celtic mythology, Fagus was the god of beech trees. Beech is associated with femininity and thought of as the queen of British trees – whereas oak – Quercus – is the king.
The Druids frequently worshipped and practised their rites in oak groves and tree worship has always played a large role in Midsummer festivities with trees near wells and fountains traditionally decorated with coloured ribbons.
Quercus – the Oak King
The Oak King rules during the waxing of the year and represents strength, courage and endurance and the oak has always been particularly significant at Litha (the summer solstice). The Celtic name for oak is ‘Duir’ which means doorway – at midsummer we cross the threshold and enter into the waning part of the year – ruled by the Holly King – until the winter solstice at Yule.
You might think it’s a silly thing to do – but tree hugging really does make you feel better – even if it only makes you laugh because you feel silly hugging a tree! The larger the tree the better – because you need at least two people for a group hug!
Published in the June edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
When I was just a little girl – I saw a picture in an atlas of a magical place called the Giant’s Causeway – and ever since that day I wanted to go there. It took me nearly 60 years, but I finally stood on those hexagonal tablets of basalt and watched the waves washing over them – and they were just as magical as they first appeared to me in that picture book.
I don’t think I really believed that these hexagonal rocks existed – until I actually stood on them – and what I never anticipated was the waves crashing over them – surreal – all the people, clambering over the rocks – like lego bricks fitting together perfectly. The sun was setting as we left and I kept looking back over my shoulder at this magnificent landscape, remembering the last glimpses of this magical place – and the Irish legend that tells how it was made.
Once upon a time there was a mythical hunter-warrior called Fionn mac Cumhaill who grew angry with the Scottish Giant Benandonner because he kept attacking Ireland – so Fionn grabbed chunks of the Antrim coast and threw them into the sea forming a path so he could follow Benandonner and teach him a lesson. But Benandonner was so huge and terrifying that Fionn ran back home, closely followed by the giant. Our Irish hero was saved by his quick-thinking wife who disguised Fionn as a baby. When the angry Scot saw the baby, he stopped in his tracks, frightened of how big the baby’s father might be – and he fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway behind him so Fionn could not follow. So Ireland was saved – but Fionn’s causeway remains – and across the sea there are identical columns (part of the same volcanic lava flow) at Fingal’s Cave on the isle of Staffa in Scotland.
The Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s first UNESCO Heritage Site. The 40,000 basalt stone columns were made by volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago. It is the most visited National Trust site.
Published in the May edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
Today’s Treasures – Winter is over and Spring has just begun
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. The dawn chorus is back – the liquid notes of the blackbird serenading the sunrise, soon joined by all the other birds waking up and flexing their wings – they feast on the seeds on the bird table then they are off making nests, flying to and fro with beaks full of moss.
The robin has inspected the bird boxes – and investigated the apple tree – and now seems to have settled on building his nest in the Pampas grass – whilst the blackbird has made a big song and dance about building in the hedge – and finally decided on the ivy climbing over the weigela.
If we didn’t have so many cold, wet, windy, dismal, days in winter – we wouldn’t look forward quite so much to spring. It’s such a relief when the first snowdrops poke their heads through the frozen ground – then the primroses and hyacinths brighten up the winter borders, closely followed by the daffodils – crowds of them, fluttering and dancing in the breeze – as Wordsworth so aptly described them.
The cherry blossom is out in candyfloss clouds of pink and the first tiny crimson buds are showing on the apple blossom. Bees have woken up from their winter sleep and are busily investigating the spring flowers.
The scent of the first new mown grass is full of the promise of hot sunny lazy summer days full of sunshine.
Winter is over and spring has just begun …
Published in the April edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
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.
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
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!