We can see you…

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Ladybirds, as gardeners know, are good bugs to have amongst the fruit and veg. They eat aphids. Yay!

And they need to get gobbling now. For despite my recent whingeing about cold wind and lack of spring weather, the greenfly are already with us. And there’s a reason – our warmer winters.

We may have had endless rain, bad floods and storms this year in the UK, but we have not had the hard ground frosts that help to check slug and aphid populations; nor have had for several years. Back in early February when I was pruning the autumn raspberry bed up at the allotment, I was also finding ladybirds out and about.  They are supposed to be hibernating (overwintering) between October and March, so hopefully they were finding something to eat and hadn’t simply been fooled into waking up too soon by the unusually warm February temperatures.

The ladybird in the photo is nestling in my garden sage bed, spotted last summer. And for those of you who wish to find out more about ladybirds (Coccinellidae) there is a brilliant website at UK Ladybird Survey. And if you live in the UK, they want to have details of sightings.

 

#7-daynaturephotochallenge  #day 2

With thanks to Anna at Una Vista Di San Fermo who nominated me.

 

Related:  Warning: Reptile Alert #day 1

Warning: Reptile Alert

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On several warm days last summer I found a slow worm sunbathing on our lawn. When I say ‘lawn’ I use the term loosely. There’s not much grass in it, only many buttercups, dandelions and even some dreaded ragwort.  Nor is this so-called worm a worm, or even a snake. And for that matter it is not slow. If it doesn’t like the look of you it can slither off at quite a pace. At other times it may pretend to be a bit of old rope, not very convincingly I might say.

Slow worms (Anguis fragilis) are in fact legless lizards, although this is possibly no comfort for those of you out there with a snake phobia. (Sorry, if you viewed this by accident).

That they are lizards is apparently proved by the fact they can blink their eyes and shed their tails when attacked. They grow up to half a metre in length, and may re-grow a shed tail, although it won’t be quite as long as it started out. Provided they are not caught by the local cats, who do not know they are dealing with a protected UK species, they live up to 20 years. They like old gardens and to burrow in compost heaps. And best of all, they eat slugs.

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Until the first Sunday in April, Jude is looking for examples of garden wildlife at The Earth Laughs In Flowers

And thank you Anna at http://unavistadisanfermo.wordpress.com for nominating me for the 7-day nature photo challenge. As I’d just done this post on slow worms, I thought I’d start with it. Anyone who wants to take up the challenge from me, please do. The actual M.O. is to nominate another blogger to take up the challenge on each of the 7 days you post a photo. But since every likely soul seems to have already been nabbed, I’m following Gilly’s lead and throwing it open. In fact I think I’ll just link back to Anna who got me into this – because she’s lovely and takes some great photos around Milan. Please do visit her.

#7-dayNaturePhotoChallenge

It’s a wonderful world…

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Earlier in the week, and in between leaf gathering for the allotment leaf mould project, finishing off a short story about Swahili spirit possession, I took myself on a wander around Wenlock’s byways to see what was what. We are very lucky in that respect. Our town is compact, having grown up around the medieval Wenlock Priory. One minute you’re on the High Street, the next you’re out in the Shropshire countryside. And there’s just so much to see out there.

This wild clematis, aka Old Man’s Beard, caught my eye (above and below). It was arching over the path beside the abandoned Shadwell Quarry, and had then anchored itself on the fence. I like the congruity of the barbed wire and the twining plant stem.

It comes into its own in the autumn with its feathery seed heads, and as you will see in a moment, it is an impressive climber.

During the summer it mostly creeps greenly through the trees and you tend not to notice it. I’m also grateful to Richard Mabey’s treasure book Flora Britannica for reminding me that another country name for this plant is Traveller’s Joy.  Mabey tells us that the plant was christened by 16th century botanist and herbalist, John Gerard who named it  thus because of its habit of ‘decking and adorning waies and hedges, where people travell’. He sounds like a sound chap, to pay tribute to the joy-making qualities of plant life.

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Like many varieties of clematis, this one does have medicinal properties – for kidneys and skin complaints – but as the whole plant is very acrid, it requires careful preparation. The most common traditional use is to roll the dried stems and smoke them as cigarettes, hence the plant’s other names of boy’s bacca and smokewood.

But this next plant is definitely one you do NOT want to consume in any form, despite its being related to cucumbers. All parts of White Bryony are poisonous and cattle deaths from eating it have been well recorded. But in autumn it is so very beautiful, and twines through hedgerows like strings of red and gold amber beads.

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The roots, though, are particularly toxic and grow very large. In 18th century Britain they featured in the mandrake root scam. Mandrake is a Mediterranean plant with a root that looks pretty much like a naked man or woman. It was in great demand as an aphrodisiac and narcotic. (If you know your Harry Potter, you will know that mandrake shrieks when it is being uprooted.) Unprincipled persons of the rabbit-catching variety thus began to fashion bryony roots into the highly desirable mandrake root. It was by no means an easy process either, and involved several phases to complete the subterfuge. Presumably the recipients did not live to tell any tales.

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And here are some crab apples, Malus sylvestris  in Latin, woodland apples. They make brilliant, jewel like jelly which is good on toast or with roasts. Mabey says they are the ‘most important ancestor of the cultivated apple, M. domestica. More than 6,000 named varieties have been bred over the centuries, of which probably only a third still survive.’

I found these, a little bruised, beside the old railway line that once served Shadwell Quarry. Now a footpath, this is one of the town’s most attractive places to walk. Ash trees and ivy overhang the track these days, and it has an other-worldly feel, far removed from industrial quarrying, trucking and smelting .

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It is hard to imagine that steam trains once came chugging down this track. The branch was built specifically to haul away Shadwell limestone to use as fluxing stone in the iron-smelting industry. In 1873, alone, 22,500 tons was shipped out of Wenlock.

You can walk ‘there and back’ along the path, or there’s a longer circular route that takes you across fields, and down the lane to the Priory and into town. Out in the fields I found that the rose-hips, fruits of wild roses,  were doing pretty good jewel impressions too. They are also known as heps or itchy-coos.

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The fruit have hairy insides which are a powerful irritant (and presumably much known to aggravate the coos or cows), but once removed, the hips have highest vitamin C content of any common native British fruit. During World War 2 and into the 1950s there was a national campaign to collect hips to make syrup according to Ministry of Food guidelines. It involved much mincing, stewing and straining, and a lot of sugar which I think was possibly counterproductive health benefit-wise. Nonetheless, caring mothers spooned it into their children.  Some of us will still remember the taste.

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Finally a note about this post. Apart from celebrating the Shropshire countryside, it’s also inspired by 1) Lucile Godoy at Photo Rehab and Perelincolors who in Tech of the Month have been urging us to ‘fill the whole picture’ in our compositions. See their blogs for some useful guidance. (Photos here taken with a Kodak EasyShare 380).

And 2) by Jo’s Monday Walk.

Happy composing and walking everyone.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Getting down and dirty in a Shropshire meadow

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So much goes on beneath our feet, and beneath our gaze. For instance, if you want to find out what is going on in an English meadow, then you need to get down and in amongst it. There’s a whole other world down there, or maybe a thousand tiny universes. On the other hand, finding a meadow in the first place could well be a challenge. They have been dwindling since the 1920s. Mechanisation – bigger machines and bigger fields – plus a continuous drenching of agrichemicals has done for most of them. (One local landowner once told me he had to give his brussels sprout crop 14 separate dressings of pesticide).

Of course we have to be fed, but I often wonder if mass-production monoculture is the only way. I also wonder if there are perhaps still unrecognised consequences of us so radically down-sizing our natural biodiversity, and that what currently seems advanced, scientifically devised, and wealth-creating might in the end prove ill-conceived and ultimately impoverishing. But then perhaps we do not think it matters to lose potentially useful medicinal plants, or rich habitats that support a host of insects and other life forms, or to fail to rear our stock on the best and most varied herbage, both for their good and for ours.

In  Much Wenlock we are lucky to still have several limestone meadows; fortunate too that they have been officially designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which gives them some protection. They do need to be managed however. A meadow does not just keep itself. My father used to talk of being roped in as a lad to help with mowing the hay in his village. He said the menfolk would walk in step, spread out across the field, each swinging his scythe with an easy, even rhythm.

These days how many people know how to use a scythe without cutting themselves off at the ankles? Our surviving meadows thus require the seasonal addition of grazing animals to keep them in some sort of order, usually after the summer wild flowers are over. And of course, in the past, the hay from a wildflower meadow would have provided farm animals with a wealth of mineral nutrients and vitamins, dietary additions that humans, too, would have benefitted from, particularly in the milk they drank.

Even back in Shakespeare’s time, the consquences of mismanaged land were well understood. The following passage from Henry V  Act V Scene II is thus much cited by meadow management proponents:

The even mead that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, keksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.

In fact the whole of Burgundy’s speech in this scene is a condemnation of bad agricultural practices – “husbandry doth lie on heaps, corrupting in its own fertility.”

All of which is to say, wherever we live in the world, we would do well to pay attention to the ground beneath our feet and to what is going on there. Our long-term health, the health of every living thing, depends on the quality of the soil. Right now most of it needs some concentrated TLC.

My home county of Shropshire is one of England’s biggest agricultural counties, with many large gentry-owned estates of ten thousand acres and more. And so, apart from the upland sheep grazing of the hill country, most farming here is highly mechanised. Of the few exceptions that still practice traditional mixed farming, Pimhill Farm is one of the most noteworthy. It has been managed organically by the Mayall family since 1949 – wheat, oats and dairy – so it proves it can be done. Their oat products are fantastic. Even their humble, savoury oatmeal biscuits taste out of this world, and porridge made from their oats is unbelievably creamy (no milk needed). You can read the Pimhill story by following the link.

And now I’m putting my soap box away in order to get down in the dirt in my local meadow on Windmill Hill. Please also imagine the sweet and subtle scents of grasses, thyme and Lady’s Bedstraw that may only be fully savoured by lying down with them. First, though, look out for the snails:

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Beneath Your Feet

#PimhillFarm #organicfarming

Autumn weather in June? What’s going on?

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For those like me, who live in the northern hemisphere, it might seem a touch perverse to post a photo of autumn leaves just as summer is expected. But then, of course, so many fellow bloggers south of the equator are heading into winter, so this is for you. Seasons greetings and all that.

Besides which, here in the UK most of us have been having autumn, if not downright winter weather for weeks now. June arrived with Met Office warnings of gales, plus torrential downpours. As I write,  the sky is filling again with fat rain clouds…

Enough already. Feelings of dryness are definitely required at Sheinton Street. I anyway love the spicy scent of autumn leaves, and especially crispy sweet chestnut ones, which these mostly are.

There is something mesmerizing about that sundried smell that opens up pathways to the past: forgotten houses, empty rooms, sun bleached floorboards, old cupboards and drawers exhaling remnant whiffs of their former contents, the sweet odour of decay. It’s all most beguiling, and hard to know if these are shreds of a remembered past, or some parallel universe barely glimpsed. Shall we take a ‘leaf’ from Alice Through the Looking Glass, and step through…?

Perhaps another day. The leaves are Welsh ones by the way. There were caught last year on a gloriously dry September afternoon, as we walked in a dream on the Dol Idris Path below the great  mountain of Cader Idris.  You can read about that walk here.

But now for the soundtrack to the photo, a song that I’ve loved since my first years on the planet Autumn Leaves/ Les feuilles mortes  sung here by the one and only Yves Montand. Oh, the tristesse:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRJn0hnIyyc

Related: Now that summer’s done, we take the Dol Idris Path…

Jennifer Nichole Wells OWPC: dry   Go here for some more dry posts