Wednesday 26 January 2022

Woodland walk?

I mentioned in passing recently that I have been undertaking a lot of clearance work in the narrow woodland strip that is on a long stretch of our boundary. The current dry spell has been very  convenient for this. Part of the reason was to cut back some of the over-hanging branches that were reachable which shaded the edges of the grazing fields. This will also reduce the amount of leaves falling there too. 

Another reason for the clearance was to make the area a bit more accessible. Tree suckers, tree stumps, brambles, nettle beds and brush needed to be cleared too. There are some practical reasons for wanting easier access, but now I am wondering if a modest 'woodland' walk might also emerge from these efforts.

Sunday 23 January 2022


We are great fans of offal of all types. Our favourite is chicken liver. On the days we are dispatching our meat chickens, a special lunch time treat is their livers and hearts. The necks we freeze for a later day.  We are fortunate in having ready access to offal because we produce our own meat. It has become increasingly difficult to find offal in supermarkets. Lambs kidneys, which at one time were commonly available, can be a devil to find these days. However, even when we take livestock to the abattoir we have to make a point of stating we want the offal back too as they will otherwise automatically discard it along with the rest of the innards.

I realise that many people dislike or are not keen on offal, perhaps because of the strong flavour. One other reason for this might be past experience of school meals when liver and bacon was on the menu. The liver was tough and dry. Offal can be difficult to get right. Cooking a moment too long and toughness sets in. Thats why quick stir fry, in my experience, is the best approach.  

Today I decided to cook a mixed offal dish consisting of mutton kidney, liver and heart. Ginger, garlic and chilli provided added flavours. Stir fried spinach, picked from the greenhouse this afternoon, accompanied it. Not the typical Sunday roast, but we enjoyed it just the same. I would like to say that the whole meal was home produced, as many of our dinners are, but it was served with basmati rice. After lots of research I have reluctantly concluded that growing rice is not a realistic option in our climate.  

Saturday 22 January 2022

Drove roads

In my post the other day about turkeys, Angela commented on the idea of walking turkeys to market. For many centuries it was common practice to drive livestock to market, sometimes enormous distances, for example, cattle from Wales to the London market. When it comes to turkeys (and geese) thousands used to to be driven each year from East Anglia to the Christmas markets in London, a journey taking about three months. Livestock were grazed along the way, often on wide grass verges bordering the road. These grazing areas were known by the descriptive term of 'long acre'. To protect the feet of turkeys and geese leather 'shoes' were made for them or, and I suspect more commonly, their feet were tarred. Along the route there could be found public houses for farmers, or drovers, to obtain refreshment (The Drovers' Arms) but they would normally sleep in the open. In the nineteenth century, with the arrival of the railway and changes in agricultural practices, driving livestock became increasingly less common.

Around here there are many field boundaries that are demarcated by drove roads - the routes farmers drove their livestock to market. Nowadays they are primarily access tracks for farmers to reach their fields. Nearby, a stretch of the A1101 in the direct of Ely is otherwise known as Mildenhall Drove. It is still bordered on both sides for many miles by flat fenland farms and was an important drove road in times past, before it became a tarmacked road suitable for motor vehicles. 

Breach Drove not far from us. Hedges have 
been allowed to grow either side of the drove.

Holywell Drove. This has been concreted. 
During WW2, in the push to increase food
production, The War Agricultural Executive
Committees ('War Ags') brought much land
into crop production and also, to increase 
efficiency, concreted tracks. These were
 needed as tractors became more common.

Wednesday 19 January 2022

Reasons to be cheerful

I have been doing some extensive clearing of brush, dead branches and undergrowth in the woodland strip that boundaries two sides of our holding. The woodland varies in width from about ten feet to thirty feet at its widest and is a couple of hundred yards long. I do some tidying up in parts of it each year but the last week or so I have concentrated on a rather neglected stretch which I wanted to bring back under control and make it more accessible.

Anyway, on the way to the area I am working on this morning I spotted the first winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) of the year. Hyemalis is Latin for winter flowering. It was a solitary clump on the woodland floor. The small bright yellow flowers, among the brown crispy fallen leaves, shone out. They are typically woodland plants and take advantage of the light available before the canopy of leaves form on the trees. 

It was nice to see such an intense yellow gem in mid-January. Today's micro-delight.

Winter aconites. The flowers have not opened
yet. The yellow stands out particularly well
against the deep green ruff of leaves.

Sunday 16 January 2022

Trio of turkeys

Avian flu has been particularly virulent in the UK this winter with numerous recorded outbreaks. It continues to be a legal requirement to keep all captive birds confined and to have a range of biosecurity measures in place to help reduce the risk of infections spreading. This includes keeping different species separately housed. We normally do this anyway with chickens, ducks and turkeys kept in their own quarters, although the chickens ordinarily are able to free range widely over the holding. Matters are a little simplified by the New Year as usually the turkeys are gone. But not this year. 

Each year, at the end of May, we buy in a dozen or so day old Norfolk Black turkey poults (that is to say, turkey chicks). We grow them on for the next six months at which point, at Christmas, they are distributed out in an oven ready state. Mid to late December is a busy time.

When I collect the poults, from an organic traditional breed turkey producer based in Rutland, they are literally a day old or sometimes even less. Turkeys are quite vulnerable when young and the hope is to get them through the first four weeks of life successfully and thereafter they grow into robust, surprisingly hardy birds. Thankfully it is several years since we have had any early losses. It is always sad to lose one of your stock but it has to be said there is a cost implication, too, as the turkey poults cost us a little under £10 each so securing even a modest supply involves some outlay.

This year we decided to hold a trio of turkeys back: two hens and a stag. Our aim is to hatch our own poults. Being young hens they should start laying about March time onwards. Hopefully, by June we should know whether the regular trip to Rutland is required.

The lucky three

Tuesday 11 January 2022


It was heartening to see some daffodil shoots poking through this morning on a rather drizzly January day.

Instinct of Hope

Is there another world for this frail dust
To warm with life and be itself again?
Something about me daily speaks there must,
And why should instinct nourish hopes in vain?
'Tis nature's prophesy that such will be,
And everything seems struggling to explain
The close sealed volume of its mystery.
Time wandering onward keeps its usual pace
As seeming anxious of eternity,
To meet that calm and find a resting place.
E'en the small violet feels a future power
And waits each year renewing blooms to bring,
And surely man is no inferior flower
To die unworthy of a second spring?

                                                              John Clare

Not a violet but  dwarf daffodils -
Narcissus 'Jonquil'

Saturday 8 January 2022

Pollarding a willow tree

There are a number of regular winter maintenance jobs that I like to get ticked off the list by the end of February. After then lambing soon begins and seed-sowing accelerates, making life on the smallholding quite busy. 

One job which I undertake every two years or so is pollarding a willow tree on our front boundary. I mentioned it a few weeks ago when I had made a start on it but then got diverted into other tasks. Yesterday I finished the job. 

Over a two or three year period it puts on about thirty feet of growth. Being on the boundary right by a gate the willow is not in an ideal location. In addition there is a telephone cable immediately above it and the near vertical branches grow through this.

It did not take long to pollard. It looks rather brutal but by the end of the summer it will have put on a fair bit of fresh growth and transform itself once again into a shapely tree.

Pollarded willow. I notice the telephone
cable is out of shot - its a bit higher up.

Tuesday 4 January 2022

Compassion and shame

No, not a Jane Austen novel. Early last year a number of wooden 'telegraph' poles, which carry electricity cables to supply our house and other properties in the vicinity, were replaced. I asked the person in charge if I could have them and he duly obliged, leaving them in our neighbouring farmer's field across the road. I bagged four of them and the farmer took a couple for himself. The latter also helpfully conveyed the poles to our property with his tractor. I used some straightaway including cutting one down to use as gate posts for field gates which needed replacing. I can't see them rotting in my lifetime. 

I also had three 10 foot lengths lying redundant and decided to finally put them to good use as edging for a flower bed. Along our carport and garage wall is, among a few other shrubs, a climbing rose which I am quite sure is 'R. Compassion'. It reliably flowers each summer, despite the minimal attention it has received. 

This bed has been rather neglected. It borders a steep grassy slope which is regularly used to go to-and-throw from the front to the back of the property, especially if using a wheel barrow or driving the garden tractor or other wheeled machinery. 

As each year has passed, this area has become increasingly weedy which, when the rose is in full flower, induces a mild sense of shame and I end up going past quicker than I might otherwise would. Its a double shame because this a a particularly sunny spot and is a waste of an opportunity. 

Yesterday I cleared the area, including giving the rose a hard pruning. The lengths of telegraph pole were rolled into place to form the edging. Then a deep mulch of compost was spread. I'll leave this for the winter and plant up the revitalised area in the spring and summer. I hope I can then walk by with my head held high and perhaps even linger to admire the flowers. 

R. 'Compassion'. 
Image: from the ever-dependable David Austin Roses

The poles range from 10"-12" in diameter 
and form a sturdy edging to to this south-
facing bed. At the top end is a honeysuckle
and at the bottom end are more Christmas
Box. Part of the climbing rose can also be seen. 

Saturday 1 January 2022

Christmas Box

 As I walked through the garden gate this morning I was struck by the familiar scent of Christmas Box (Sarcococca confusa). I did not detect it yesterday but today it was unmistakable. This is one of the most powerfully scented of shrubs. The flowers are small and look rather insignificant yet they will make their presence known for a few weeks to come.

It is notable that the Christmas Box should first release its perfume on the first day of the new year. Their first flowering varies each year of course but the last couple of days have been unusually mild and this morning we have sunshine and blue skies too, so perhaps the conditions were right today.

We have quite a few of these shrubs planted around the house and nearby, planted some years ago by a previous owner. I am not sure if their positioning was deliberate but as it happens they are mostly in strategic locations: by gateways and doors so that you capture their scent as you go in and out. 

Christmas box, even if you don't notice their flowers much, is quite an attractive shrub. They have glossy evergreen, lanceolate leaves and grow to a compact two or three feet which keeps them neat and manageable. In the winter they shine but during the rest of the year they tend to go unnoticed, overshadowed by the emerging flowery excitements of spring, summertime flamboyance and fiery autumnal distractions. Nevertheless, its worth having at least one Christmas Box and even in a small garden there is space and sufficient garden-worthiness to include it.

Christmas Box (Sarcococca confusa) by 
our garden gate this morning. The flowers
are not quite open but the scent is powerful.