Many things in our countryside repeat themselves each year with the ebb and flow of the seasons

The most notably comings and goings are of migrant birds. Many of us may have heard comments from time to time that annual migrations are variable and in the case of our swallows, swifts, house martins and many others are getting less each year. I have commented on this, many times before and this year my perception in numbers are down again.

What am I basing this on?  Is there a norm?  I ask the question, as on clearing out Mum house’s recently I came across an old booklet on Exmoor birds, printed soon after the war.  In it the comments are that the number of black grouse have declined since the war;  also known as the black cock, it has been absent for some 50 years. To my generation and all subsequent one’s, they would not expect to see a black cock, so their norm is that Exmoor has no black cock. The red grouse has gone the same way, but more recently. Gone are the days explained to me when I met a farmer in the 1980’s at Shallowford.  He told me he could collect grouse eggs a plenty to eat when he was a child. My children will probably never see the density of swallows, swifts and house martins I enjoyed back in the 1970’s. Yes, there appears to have been a fantastic hatch of young of all these birds this summer, but will this be my children’s norm. Unfortunately, there seems to be a slide in the wrong way and a shifting in apparent norms, which does not help us understand the reasons for the loses. 

I believe this is happening throughout our countryside. Each generation sees things in a different way and you can’t expect youngest to empathize with old timers like me about what was! Once something becomes absent, it becomes forgotten. Reintroduction can work with some species and, having just returned from the west coast of Scotland I heard that the white-tailed sea eagle has increased in numbers to around a 1000. This is successful if you aren’t a sheep farmer; lambs make up a good percentage of their diet. The exact percentage differs from the shepherd’s or the conservation point of view. Reintroduction of grouse to Exmoor has been mooted many times but unfortunately the habitat has gone and I believe it would be impossible to recreate. Too much time has elapsed for the heather to regenerate naturally. Though, where there are huge areas of clear-felled conifer in Scotland, I noticed that the heather has regenerated really well in these areas. The seeds stay viable for many years however, way too many years have past for Exmoor’s heathers to come back from any remaining seed in the soil.

Regarding such species as the swallows, house martins and swifts, I am told by those with much more knowledge than I, that lack of food sources in Africa accounts for a lot of the decline. I have my own non scientific view on this.  First, so many old barns have been converted that many nesting sites have vanished. I am pleased to hear NDDC are requesting swift brick installation on some new properties here in North Devon.  Second, and probably of greater importance, has the food source here in North Devon changed or reduced?  OK,  I am treading on thin ice here, but agriculture has changed dramatically in my life time and in particular here in North Devon.  North Devon is primarily a grass growing region and now silage and maize are grown as a winter forage. Both highly intensive. Other than creating habitats for deer and badgers, this is of little or no use to insect feeding birds or bats. 

Hares

A lovely sight of three hares

Basically, over the last 40 years, many more acres are under the plough, sometimes twice a year. This has subtle and long-lasting effects on our rivers; “None in England fit to swim in now” according to national news either because of sewage and/or agricultural run-off. Not many people may actually wish to swim in rivers, but there is a host of flora and fauna that do. 

As you may recall, I often speak about the river Mole and its fantastic salmon runs. Some 5,000 salmon were caught in the 1930 by rods and nets in the combined estuaries of the Taw and Torridge, now, it is down to a few hundred in a good year. There are way too many pressures on salmon stocks, many out at sea, but sedimentation of silt on the river bed prevents the salmon cutting their redds in the gravel. They are unable to scour out loose fist-sized and smaller gravel in which to lay their eggs. Less salmon and then, other things that rely on the salmon such as the freshwater mussel suffer. In the Taw system, the juvenile mussels require a period of the life cycle attached to the salmon gills.

No one can be expected to understand the complexities of the ecosystems we affect, but it is essential that we grasp the need to keep disruption to the whole environment to as little as possible.   

I understand the reason for intensive agriculture and the need to produce more from our land for our population. But if correct, the statistic that we throw away some 30% of all food we buy, we need to start using the resources more responsibly! That’s all of us. With whatever the outcome of Brexit, hopefully someone, somewhere, will suggest a more responsible Agricultural policy. 

A policy where agriculture is more sympathetic to the environment and prices for agricultural produce increase.  For example, milk costing less than bottled water! We, the consumer in Britain, take way too much for granted.  There must be a way to reinvigorate the variety and numbers of species that share the countryside.

In trying to make everyone think more about the fantastic countryside we share, there are species that are doing well at present especially the goldfinch and, for the first time in 20 years, hedgehogs have returned to my small fields. Untidy often works well for reptiles and amphibians, a good friend and ecologist tells me that in his travels, the only places he now finds snakes and slow worms are neglected brown field sites. For many years now, I have kept several old sheets on corrugated tin close to a stone bank and often lift and sneak a look under.  As the sun warms in the mornings, this year I have had many slow worms, a young grass snake and several common lizards.

There are many a small field here in North Devon that small land owners cut as lawns. I can only presume they don’t wish to keep any livestock and wish to keep the area tidy and the grass under control, while it may look great, it is of little or no use for wildlife. These small areas could be immensely important if cut in late July and then only once. Take a look at what can be found in such small perfectly manicured fields: No variety of wild flowers or grasses and not a grass hopper in sight or swallow skimming the surface for a bug or too…Enough for now! 

Cockerel that succumbed to foxes

Cockerel that succumbed to the fox family

Otters seem very active on the Mole this year and all my fishing friends see them frequently as well as the goshawks, hobbies and peregrine are common, these visitors seem to be holding their own, however, hardly any red kites this year. On a personal note, my hen and fowl menagerie have been under attack from a very successful family of foxes. Unfortunately I have had thin them out,  one hen is lasting a couple of days before they returned for another…something had to give. 

Blackberries are plentiful. The late spring frosts saw that there were no plums or hedgerow damsons this autumn. The top fruit season seems to have been all or nothing. Several trees have broken branches, overloaded with apples while others, not an apple to be found.  These will be picked over the next two months and many stored. A variety of apple called Newton Wonder, I’ve found the best all round apple and stores the longest. The veg garden is producing well with little or no slugs as most the summer has been quite dry. String beans, corn on the cob, beetroot and onions have all done well and especially, a variety of potato call Blue Danube, purchased and planted very late as I’ve had problems in the past with crops failing due to a nematode worm called potato cyst eelworm. Thus, I have only started growing again after a break of 4 years. Blue Danube’s can be boiled, roasted and mashed and are very waxy, making great eating. Like all potatoes, they need lifting and storing in September if conditions allow.

 

The early morning chill and dampness will soon return even if the days stay pleasantly warm, there will be few swallows left by the end of September. Leaves have tinges of yellow already and soon with the first autumn gales will start to drop again. Whether gardener or farmer, now is not only time to collect the last of the harvest but to think about and even prepare for next year’s crops. The salmon and sea trout season close’s at the end of September on the Taw system and, if the rivers rise, the fishing can be very productive especially if the leaves don’t drop. Catching leaves on every cast is so frustrating. The last cast often coincides with the first of the red deer rut and stags roaring as dusk approaches. 

Ebb and Flow of the Seasons

It was out near Parracombe several years ago, I came across numerous hinds and stags in the middle of the rut. Two huge stags, both over 12 points, were sizing each other up and walking parallel to each other, some 5 metres apart. Up and down the slope they went, occasionally stopping and threatening to lock antlers and spar. Time and time again, up and down this small field bathed in sunshine.  A treat in any circumstance to watch and a behaviour not many ever see. But best of all, these two big guys were so intent on not giving way to the other, that the half-dozen young stags (also in the field) were having a field day. Hinds enough for all and neither of the big stags had any idea this was going on whilst they had a stand-off. I can picture it so vividly several years later. 

As with all wildlife, to see it at its best, you have to get out and keep your eyes open. Leave the dogs behind at this time of year and sooner or later, you will be rewarded. Maize crops provide great cover until early October and once taken off the fields, it takes the deer a few days realise their cover is blown! By early November the rut will have finished and my attentions turn to the salmon which are returning to the upper reaches of our river systems to spawn. Counting of redds on a chill November or early December day, when the river in low and clear, is one way of helping to estimate the population of salmon. There are no electronic salmon counters on the Taw and this is the closest way to a reliable estimate of the population: Look at the tail of pools where the river speed is increasing, where the gravel is small, fist-size or less. On the Bray and Mole, the gravel is normally covered in a thin brown algal layer. When the salmon have cut their redd, there is a pit in this gravel, 2 to 4 foot-long and the stones are free of algae thus, of a clean, bright appearance. There is plenty to get out and see this autumn, it takes time to see it all but it’s worth the wait, I assure you!  

Christopher Taylor