Hedges, Ovoids and Late Fruit

The summer nests uncovered by autumn wind, /Some torn, others dislodged, all dark, /Everyone sees them: low or high in tree, /Or hedge, or single bush, they hang like a mark. (From Birds Nests by Edward Thomas)

‘Nests’ is a new large format hardback to be found on bookshop shelves. Susan Ogilvy’s contribution to the study of birds’ nests is a beautifully luminous volume with obvious appeal. Her finely detailed paintings are matched with pithy companionable observations of birds and their building means and methods. I’ve collected our garden visitors seasonal homes over the years, as and when they’ve fallen vacant. Clearing a creep of ivy that threatened to dislodge a drystone wall revealed two moss moulded wren nests a few autumns back. An opened bird box threw up a blue tit’s nest snugged square to fit. Pied wagtails had lodged themselves in an open sided box under the eves of the railway hut behind the bean stick stash. A blackbird’s wonderfully sturdy woven nest was mudstuck to a log in store. The swallows sturdy mud masticated old nest had fallen from the iron hoop of the railway hut’s interior. Occasionally boxes are comandeered by wasps and I love the delicate paper tissue cocoons they create within the captured space (below).

From joy to sorrow. A growing mound of rocks, that might otherwise hinder the plough’s progress, have been extracted from this upland pasture a few miles from us, owned by one of the local landed estates. It has turned what had been permanent grassland into marginal arable land with alternate year fallow rest in order to maximise returns under the current subsidy system. Former hedgerows which subdivided the sloping pastures – formerly home to birdlife and endangered species like hedgehogs – were grubbed out a few years back and replaced by fences with only a few straggly hawthorns left to show they had ever existed. Hedges would’ve shaded input heavy cereal crops and impeded the big machinery needed to work it. In turn that heavy plant has compacted the increasingly rock free soil, leading to even greater amounts of run off and yet more soil erosion. Those silt laden waters run off down the lane to pour into the stream below, which when in spate, increasingly breaks its banks to flood the downstream village street and threatens to enter the terraced houses off it. 

Here, as on their other fields where hedges act as boundaries of arable land, they are machine flailed almost to the point of non-existence every back end, depriving wildlife of winter food and shelter in order to gain even greater yield from unshaded crops. Nature is a nuisance and must be put firmly in its place. Just how disconnected can our current farming and environmental policies be? We’re promised, post-Brexit, ‘public money for public good’ via ELMS (Environmental Land Management Schemes) and a greener, more coherent, agricultural policy. When I witness outdated dysfunctional practices like the ones described come to an end I will rejoice. But I’m not holding my breath just yet.

Carbon compromise. Like a lot of country people we still use coal for domestic heating. When your elderly farming neighbours both independently swear by then make a sample present of ovoids you take notice, as they know value when they see it. We duly put our order in and the coal merchant delivered. Ovoids, or ovals, are constituted from anthracite and have to meet DEFRA definitions for smokeless fuel (with less than 2% sulphur content). They certainly last longer and give out more heat compared to untreated coal, and are comparatively environmentally friendly for use in in multi-fuel living room stoves like ours.

Fruit favours. Am becoming increasingly fond of our Christmas Pippin apples. Despite its exposed position this little free standing tree is a good cropper. A dessert cox-style variety – an accidental roadside find from Somerset and only put to commercial use a decade ago – neatly small, a firm keeper that tastes crisp and sweet. Best of all, as the name implies, this late producing fruit brings cheer to any late Autumn kitchen garden with a promise of being still fit to eat by Yuletide.

Our Williams Bon Chretian Pear continues to thrive in its wooden tub in the south facing walled part of the garden. Despite its French name this variety is actually of C18th Berkshire heritage. Its spring blossom couldn’t be prettier and the autumnal lingering gold leaf is equally delightful. Yield is low, but you can’t have everything from being so confined. The last of this year’s three pears dropped to the gravel below and I found it one morning part consumed by some creature. I suspect most likely a rat, but I may well be wrong. Any ideas?

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