Monday, 27 January 2020

TALKING TO THE ANIMALS



Wildlife is simply wonderful, whether out in the wilds or better still, in our gardens. As our regular readers might know, Sue and I have been living in our lovely little two acre patch of sunny Dorset for thirty nine years and since moving in we have spent most of our waking hours trying to turn it into a haven for wildlife.




However, even after all this graft, as anyone with a garden will confirm, we find we still have so much to do to improve it, like we've hardly started, which is good news because we love gardening and all the rewards this brings into our lives.
We love it in the spring and summer of course, though almost as much in the autumn and winter, so we thought we might just celebrate some of the wildlife characters that have honoured us with their presence over recent years, especially those that have trusted us so much that they allow us to share their space. There's a whole lot of magic out there, whatever the weather or season and making our wildlife welcome is the ultimate reward.
                    


First up we've chosen our tame cock pheasant which stayed around for more than two years before disappearing, maybe into a casserole, though not ours I hasten to add. Yes, I know they are non-native birds [along with his friend the exotic mandarin duck] but pheasants are really colourful and when he trusted us enough to eat out of our hands we had to give him a name … “Prince Wilhelm the Second”!

No, don’t ask me why but he was so regal that it seemed appropriate … and he was number two because we had another tame cock pheasant before him who eventually went awol. Both were great characters, befriending all our other visitors and roosting in the garden trees.


This latest one was demanding for if we didn’t supply his food on time he would tap on the conservatory windows and if we didn’t respond quickly enough he would walk into the house looking for his dinner. I trained him to jump up onto the garden table to feed off my knee but didn’t quite manage to get him to perch on it!


One summer he managed to ‘pull a bird’ and his displays were most impressive, walking beside her with his gorgeous plumage spread out fan like in its finery. She didn’t seem too impressed, eating instead our precious snakes-head fritillaries in the wild flower meadow. I called her "Princess" but Sue was so incensed that she gave her the name “Dinner” and she nearly did end up in a casserole. However, we were very sad when they both disappeared one Autumn, just after the shooting season started on a nearby estate.

We have dug six ponds through which flow a stream so next up are some water loving mallards that have also earned names, two males that go by the names of what else … “Bill and Ben” along with their lady “Betsy”. They’ve been a trio for years, happily living together from Spring to Autumn, though during the mating season it's a bit of a bun fight. They sometimes raise a brood of ducklings that are like the ten green bottles, disappearing one by one.
On one memorable year, several survived and like our pheasants, would tap on the windows at tea-time if their seed wasn’t delivered quickly enough.
We loved them, especially when one took its first flight, crash landing on the top lawn. We called him ‘Ling Ling” … as in duckling … but embellished in honour of the great Chinese pianist Lang Lang!



One of the most amazing birds that came to live here was a male sparrow hawk that was remarkably confiding and which, by careful stalking to train him to get used to me, became so habituated that I could walk to within six feet of him. It struck me as quite disconcerting that most of the time he completely ignored me, seemingly convinced that I was of no importance whatsoever.
A female spar paired up with him and she was also remarkably tame, allowing me to take happy snaps while she collected sticks, having decided to build a nest in the middle of our woodland garden. The nest was viewable by Sue as she laid in bed with her early morning tea and I found this almost unbelievable because I have filmed sparrow hawks for several TV programmes around Britain and they are always extremely shy, fleeing at the first sign of humans.
Our tame pair eventually raised a youngster, sadly the others dying in the intense heat that summer.
Our male spar loved to have at least one bath in our streams every day and would then spend ages up on a sunny birch preening his plumage, so we called him “Fancy Dan”, the smartest hawk in Dorset.
 


We've had other predators in the garden this autumn and winter, several otters thanking us for having wildlife in our ponds, tasty fish!


It's a privilege having them visiting us, particularly when they are bold enough to come fishing during daylight hours, the downside being the killing of our fishy wildlife and trashing the ponds, spoiling it for the dragonflies, damselflies and newts. But as I do admire these amazing animals we are learning to put up with them, though giving them names might result in some impolite choices!

Any story about favourite garden birds surely has to include a robin and we have two such red breasts at present, trained initially to feed out of our hands. No, I don't have any pics as I didn't want to spoil the moments when it happened and frighten our new recruits.

Their behaviour suggests they are mother and daughter, cooperating at first but then competitive and they have now set up separate territories in the garden, still almost hand tame and responding to my constant chatter to them by singing loudly close to our faces. When digging, the little female suddenly appears a foot or two away, even landing on my arm a couple of times and sings at us even more vehemently when I keep asking ‘how are you little one'.

It's one of many rewards for making all our wildlife welcome and talking to the animals doesn’t get any better than when they answer you back! Here's our 'Little One', chattering away to Sue in the veg plot.

We'll keep on working hard to attract yet more species into the garden, especially the bees and butterflies that we so badly need in our lives, then we'll sit in the sunshine with a cup of tea ...

Thursday, 26 December 2019

GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN

the etherial Ely Cathedral, floating above the Fens

Inspiring places of worship remind us of the passing of precious friends and it's not possible to forget those legendary anglers who have left so many happy memories behind them. Christmas for Sue and I is a time for family and friends, living for the now, hoping for a happy future and reflecting on the past,  so it's an approriate time to mention some of our friends who have left us for those perfect swims in the sky.

                

Every fisherman will have treasured John Wilson's TV films and books and Martin Bowler, Bernard Cribbins, Jacko and I have many happy memories of fishing with him, especially for our Ch 4 series  "Catching the Impossible".


On one memorable occasion John not only caught us a big pike to order, he caught us the biggest fish in Oulton Broad and in this happy moment all Martin could think to say was "you jammy bar-steward". But John was a brilliant fisherman and wonderful man and there wasn't all that much luck in what he achieved, just hard work ... and to lose him last November was a shock to us all.

More recently, we lost the legendary Bob Church. He was such an able angler and you'll never meet a keener fisherman, so energetic when filming with Martin and I that it made me wonder how he kept up so much enthusiasm for life. Here he is with just one of many pike he caught for us and he was a master of many skills so it was sad to see you go Bob.

I love fishing for tench, never more so than when sat sharing a lake side with Mike, and though many won't of heard of him, he was a lovely man and I was delighted to share this 9lb+ tench with him. Sadly, he too left us last year and I'll always miss his friendly banter and warm smile.
Roach fishing is my first love and I was fortunate to have shared many happy days with one of the finest roach anglers in the country, Mike Townsend. He was so keen he even eclipsed Bob Church for enthusiasm but he too suddenly left us this Spring and the angling press missed the moment to celebrate a very fine angler. I'll miss his warmest of company and sharing many a fine roach with him, including this two and a half pound plus beauty.
So lets all celebrate these finest of guys as we reflect on this moving tribute, found by that most famous angler and writer 'BB' on a churchyard gravestone ... 

"The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power,
the shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
these I saw. Look ye also while life lasts."



Chris Yates with a splendid Stour perch of 2lb 8ozs.

I think most anglers live in the  spirit of that tribute and we are fortunate to have shared happy days with many like minded friends, admiring all the wildlife while dreaming of catching big fish. Luckily, many of them are still with us so please read on in my next blog about our worm dangling.
Martin Bowler with Bernard Cribbins and his twenty plus pike,  both still going strong and dreaming of an even bigger one


Monday, 23 December 2019

FISHING WITH FRIENDS


Not alone on the River Wye. Chris Yates was just upstream and Martin Bowler took this beaut. picture of me barbel fishing
If you happen to read this blog because you are an angler then you might think I’ve given fishing up because I haven’t written a fishy story for ages. The reason is simple, I haven’t been fishing!

I still love the idea of being out in the countryside with a rod but our big garden has taken up all our time as we create a flower filled gravel garden for butterflies and bees. We haven’t finished it yet but to see the squadrons of buzzers already feeding there is a joy.


a silver-washed fritillary on a hebe

No fishing might mean no stories but I have many happy memories of fishing with friends, so this will be a celebration of those special days when we shared our catches and time together.

                    Fishing with Friends

Fishing alone can be an intense and rewarding experience and might even lead to catching bigger fish but for maximum enjoyment you can’t beat sharing those moments of triumph and disaster when you both cheer when one of you catches a big one and cry when the big one gets away ... or maybe you laugh when your mate loses the big one!
 

Here’s a selection of some of our catches during the good old days when we had the good sense to ignore all the horrible things going on in our world and made time to breath fresh air. These pics are  just a random ramble through the archives to celebrate the joys of angling together with friends.

First up are some happy gatherings during glorious summer days of crucian fishing at an intimate Wessex lake. We almost always caught a few, even over three pounds but we were sensible enough to simply enjoy the company and take time out for more important matters, like my wife Sue's famous cake.
close friends Chris Wild, Avon Roach Project Trev and Mr Yates getting their priorities right - tea and cake!
happy days of sunshine and golden nuggets
Please read on - there's more friends and the fish grow bigger


Wednesday, 16 October 2019

OUR ENGLISH COUNTRY GARDEN IS BUZZING


 salvia atrocyanea with ubiquitous common carder bee - they LOVE it
Inspired by the need to help bees and butterflies and then encouraged by this years Dorset Wildlife Trust campaign to get Dorset buzzing, we set out three years ago to create a gravel garden that would enhance the attraction of our little patch of wildlife heaven. What follows is the story of our ‘work in progress’ -

    ‘CREATING A GRAVEL GARDEN FOR THE BUZZERS’


We started by visiting inspiring gardens such as Beth Chatto’s where she dug up her car park to create a stunning gravel garden, then reading books and seeking advice from our delightful Knoll Gardens near Wimborne.

as tall as our cottage, the bamboo thicket on the right is the chosen spot for our creation - lots of hard work ahead!
The site we chose picked itself, for it is the sunniest area in our wooded two acres. Trouble was, this large patch was a forest of invasive bamboo, so tall and thick that giant pandas raised young in it!

cutting the bamboo provided a lifetime of kitchen garden poles and allowed us to admire our lovely oak tree behind
If you’re wondering what the scaffold is there for, we were building ‘Hugh’s Folly’ at the time, a picture window that looks out over our frog marsh and as it faces east, allows us to bask in the sunrise of winter dawns. It’s beautiful but cost twice as much as estimated and took twice as long to build, hence the term ‘folly’!
a timber framed 'folly' maybe, but warming in a winter sunrise overlooking our frog marsh is a delight


in the summer it's a very wild garden - just as we like it
winter pollarding and pruning - and progress clearing the gravel garden area on the right
Clearing the bamboo jungle was the first priority and after a couple of years of sawing and digging bamboo and snowberry roots, along with a jungle of bramble and ivy, we had the beginnings of a workable site. 
bottom left is our chosen spot, sunny in the summer but we'd hardly started even clearing it
But other priorities got in the way and all the roots started a riot of growth once again and removing them was getting ever more difficult.

blink and the jungle returns - bamboo and snowberry growth is relentless

There was also the smelly matter of an old toilet soak-away buried under all this growth, left over from the days when there was a privy outside our ancient cottage. 

a glass plate pic of our old cottage built on sunny heathland before the top story was added in 1910
The three thatched cob dwellings are shown on maps dating 1747, set in a heathland habitat and when we first moved here thirty eight years ago, the area behind the house was still heathland and had a population of stonechats and linnets. The extraordinary speed of the oak and birch growth behind the cottage since living here still surpises us every week.
the cottage has changed a bit over the years but look at the growth of the oaks and birch behind the cottage - awesome
After many weeks we had cleared the site but still had the problem of deeply buried tree and bamboo roots and had to remove them without damaging the roots of our majestic oak tree.
what a beautiful tree - 100+ years old and growing fast - the gravel garden will be on the left

the fibreglass skin I'd added to the wood survived under the compost heap
Buried underneath the jungle of roots was a compost heap for grass snakes and slow-worms, covered by my old boat that in my early twenties enabled me to row around the Norfolk Broads, looking for birds and fish.


making a start between the stream and main pond
Then we had to remove the soak-away and tree roots and it seemed the only way to achieve this was with a mini digger. Enter fiddle player Steve Brown who plays in Irish bands at ceilis but by his own admission is even more skilled and artistic with the blade of a digger.
it's a big area and needs all the roots and ivy stripping off - a digger made it possible

Steve making excellent progress
piles to fill many barrow loads - good excersise
dismantling the woodland privy soak-away and filling the hole with roots and soil
roots all dug out and cleared and almost ready for covering - didn't he do well!
several layers of tarram left for two growing seasons would kill any growth below - we hoped!
In just a few hours he had everything dug up and the site levelled, so all I had to do was barrow the mountains of bamboo root away and we were ready for the next stage.
 a lovely tidy job created by Steve and now we could make a start creating our dream garden for buzzers

after nearly two years it's almost ready for removal, then the hard work of tons of soil, gravel and planting can commence
The advice was to cover the area with an impervious membrane for two growing seasons in order to kill anything still hidden below, so after laying five layers we waited patiently until dragging it off a couple of months ago. It was so encouraging to see that it worked and hardly anything had survived the dry darkness we’d created.

we were advised by Knoll Gardens to create raised areas of soil and gravel so the plants were free draining
Because the area lies between a stream and a large pond, friend David and I laid 23 tons of soil in hills to ensure the plant’s roots were above any damp soil. Then came the expensive purchase of bank-balance breaking numbers of plants loved by bees and buzzers. Planting could now commence.

barrows of delight for bees and butterflies
We purchased seemingly endless numbers of lavender, hebe, salvia, aster, nepeta, echinacea, rudbeckia, lobelia, gaura and several others, [blimey, I sound like an expert] and it was so exciting to see all the wildlife buzzing in to take advantage, sometimes flying onto the plants before I’d even put them down, let alone planted them.
paths through the area will become less formal as the plants grow

 we mulched the new plants with 2" of 10mm gravel to keep them moist but weed free - dream on!

aster nectar for hoverflies that arrived within minutes and we have a years planting still to go - exciting times
The bees have come in squadrons and we’ve hardly started, so once I’ve secured another mortgage from the bank so we can afford to buy the spring and summer delights, by next autumn the area should be pure joy. Then comes the fun of learning to identify all the insects that we’ve attracted to this lovely little corner of sunny Dorset.
silver-washed fritillaries love hebes


The Dorset Wildlife Trust’s campaign to encourage members to plant for invertebrates ‘Get Dorset Buzzing’ has been an impressive success. They hoped to win support from about 1,000 and have now attracted upwards of 4,000 so well done to them all because it’s great for bees and for all those other pollinators that are so essential for our own long-term survival.

In the meantime, we’ll just keep digging for England. Flowers, colour, bees and butterflies in our gardens. What’s there not to like!