Tuesday, 31 May 2016

A Perfect Half Term Recipe For A Cold, Wet Day : marshmallow toffee rice crispy cakes

Whether you've kids home for half term or not, these are simple and quick to make and rather delicious. I'd particularly like to hear from anyone who manages not to eat at least two toffees and a marshmallow out of the saucepan before they start to melt :o)

Mary says hers make 48. Mine made 20 (now 18). Either Mary makes cakes for dolls or my family have an unnatural relationship with portion size. I'm plumping for the former.

Happy melting :o)

CT x

ps- I'm hoping the recipe will enlarge because I've been lazy and avoided typing it. If it doesn't, let me know and I'll edit the post to include it. I know some of the words are missing off the edge of the photo but they're self explanatory so hopefully it'll make sense.

Monday, 30 May 2016

The Chalk

The Chalk

Small Blue (Cupido minimus). Male. (note the stripy stockings!).

Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus). Male.

Brown Argus (Aricia agestis). Female (the orange spots on the borders of the upper wing reach all the way to the top. In the male they stop half way).

Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages).

Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae).

Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus)

Brown Argus female

Brown Argus male (orange border spots stop half way up the wing).

Burnet Companion moth
Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus). Female.

Beech on the Old Drovers' Road

Quaking grass.

Common Spotted-orchid




Chalk Milkwort

Red-Headed Cardinal beetle

Common Blue male (the females are chocolate-brown).

Sheep are used to help maintain the Down

Hounds Tongue

Common Rock Rose (food plant for the Brown Argus)

The Chalk
If people were to measure themselves in terms of Landscape, I would be a woman of Chalk and Forest. I can't do long without either and I feel most myself when I'm in either. In Winter, the Chalk is a hard, cold, inhospitable place offering only small pockets of warmth and shelter (if you know where to look for them). It is a raw landscape year round, and one which possesses the unique ability to transport you back thousands of years as soon as you step onto its short, spiky turf. It is, essentially, a prehistoric landscape, albeit one created and now maintained by man. It has never known the plough; it has never felt the alteration of fertiliser or insecticide. Its soils are too poor to make it valuable to agriculture, so it has escaped the intensive monoculture imposed on much of the rest of our land. It has grown up instead through cyclical regimes of grazing and dunging which have created a unique flora and fauna of specialists found no where else. Chalk Milkwort, Common Rock-rose, Sanfoin, Kidney Vetch, Horseshoe Vetch are Chalk plants that have specialists insects associated with them, in some instances so completely that they are utterly reliant on the presence of these plants to maintain their life cycles. The Chalk is a uniquely important ecosystem supporting some of our most precious wildlife. If you want to step back in time and feel a landscape more truly wild than most you could do worse than go to the Chalk.

Yesterday, with a good forecast, we drove to our local Downland, walked up the Old Chalk Road which once rang to Roman Feet and long before that to the gentler wandering of Stone and Bronze Age people, crossed through the beech wood at the top and emerged out onto the Chalk.

It was blowing, as it often is, but down in the sheltered sides of the Downs the sun was shining, the flowers were blooming, the turf was warm and the butterflies were out. 
Common Blues flitted from flower to flower, twirling up in the air in a tight spiral whenever they got too close to one another like leaves caught in an eddy; the rare and heavily protected Grizzled and Dingy Skippers were sunbathing on leaves and the fronds of Chalk grasses; Small Heaths, whose numbers are declining due to loss of habitat, flew low and fast across the turf to land on Hawkbit which they especially like to take nectar from; Brown Argus, the looky-likies for the female Common Blue although much smaller, were darting about, alighting on the canary-yellow whirls of Horseshoe Vetch and the pink-punk locks of Salad Burnet. 

Heading back up the hill out of the sheltered valley sides you pick up the old drover's road, which now is little more than a deep ditch running through the hillside. Brimstones fluttered here and more Dingies alighted at our feet, drawn by the micro-climate warmth offered by the bare patches of chalk that line the old trackway. The drovers road takes you beneath huge gnarled beech trees, their branches outstretched like arms cast open to protect the old way, up onto the Down, where the ground levels out onto a flattish plain. It is here that the Orchids bloom and a small population of Adonis Blue clings on. 

Searching for the unmistakable (once you've seen it) turquoise blue of the Adonis, I found instead a tiny, dark grey butterfly that is also very rare, limited in Hampshire to only a handful of sites: the Small Blue. I have a soft spot for these butterflies from long association, but not having had time to visit any of their sites this spring had not expected to see one, so to find both a male and a female here was a complete joy. The male has a glittering of blue scales on his upper wings that are visible in flight and when the sun catches them at rest (you can see them in the photo) while the female is a more uniform iron-grey. Both are the same powder-blue underneath as the Holly Blue and can be confused with that spring-time species when their wings are closed. Kidney vetch is the sole food plant of the Small Blue, which also requires the right kind of shelter to flourish. The particular nature of its requirements means it is now severely threatened as we've lost a lot of the habitat that supports the specialist food plant. Where it is still found, it exists in highly isolated communities and as it is not good at travelling large distances to either join with other colonies or create fresh ones the threat of extinction looms large.

There were no Adonis. It was perhaps a little too windy for them, but I continued searching and was rewarded with a single Common Spotted-orchid instead. A dark brown flutter then hove into view, settling on the Horseshoe Vetch (food plant for the Adonis). It was the only Blue I'd seen all morning that had its wings closed, and as I like the spots and dots of the underwings I took some pictures. I assumed she was a female Common Blue and thought nothing more of it until I downloaded the photos at home and realised from the markings that she was, in fact, a female Adonis! If I had realised at the time I would have paid more attention, which just goes to show that valuing one species over another will eventually bite you in the bum :o)

Walking back through the woods in a butterfly-induced haze, I noted the ground flora was rich in flowering sanicle and woodruff, both ancient woodland indicators. For some reason, the Stone Age men and women who cleared the forest here to create the Downland so many thousands of years ago left this part its trees. Through them, the heights of the Downs are connected to the agricultural lowlands below in a way that makes the landscape seem like one continuous stream, instead of the parcelled and fragmented bits and bobs so much of Hampshire is typified by.

It was a Good Morning.

Hope all are well?


Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Walking Off The Path

We were in the woods early this morning, the dogs and I. Someone had cut the grass where the green lane meets the tarmac and the smell was redolent of summer, threaded through with undertones of mayweed.

The leaves in the trees and hedges are mostly all out and the canopy is thick, lush and a fresh lime green. Many trees put on a second flush of leaves after the first to allow for caterpillars to consume the first growth without damaging the tree. The second growth is noticeably less lime-like in colour, but for now the woods are bright and shining.

We followed the path between the hazel hedges and up past the two old oaks that stand like guards to the entrance of the ancient wood. The dogs raced on ahead, knowing the way of old, and coming back to find me only when I'd paused too long to listen to the blackcap singing in the bush and the goldcrests practising their scales unseen among the oaks. 

Beyond the winter coppice and sinuous, newly planted hazel saplings, the path enters an area of pine. Two sweet chestnuts mark the division between broad-leaved and conifer woodland. Only one of the chestnuts is in leaf; the other is trying but I fear this winter may have been his last. They are old friends of mine; I always stop beneath their branches and have a chat to see how they are. The one without leaves feels old, strained and tired to me now, and despite my urgings that he summon up all his will to carry on, I fear he will not be able to. 

Beyond the chestnuts the path weaves through the pine trees where a coal tit was singing and groups of long tailed tits were piping. In the distance a cuckoo started calling and Poppy, returning from a trip through the undergrowth where she'd set up a stuttering and furious pheasant scampered along the trunk of a fallen tree as sure-footedly as if she were a tight-rope-walker who spent her entire life traversing narrow pathways suspended high above the world. She bounced off the trunk back onto the path clothed in goose grass which no amount of shaking would dislodge, but, unlike Ted who always stops and asks me for help out of tricky situations, she threw me a look that said 'no bother! I'll just run it off' and disappeared off up the path.

On the far side of the wood, where the pines end and the broad-leaves reassert themselves, the path forks. One way goes up a field towards the lane where the badger sett is, the other opens out into another field bordered by the river. We have been taking advantage of the fact that the gate which usually bars access here is currently open, and wandered across to the water to see whether the voles were out. I've been checking this past fortnight and although I've found droppings I've yet to see any Small Brown Furries.

A Reed Warbler was chattering in the reeds and a Cettis Warbler threw out her loud and jaunty call from among some goat willows whose branches trace their fingers in the bubbling water. Swallows dipped and weaved above our heads and the cuckoo that had been calling earlier set up again somewhere among the oaks on the far bank. The dogs went off to annoy two moorhens who, bobbing nervously in the central channel, were in no danger at all but who kept the dogs' interest long enough to be embarrassing (Ted in particular was convinced that if he just stood still on the bank long enough they would eventually come over to him). As I kept half an eye on the dogs, an almost imperceptible movement in the vegetation on the water's edge caught my eye, and there he was: my first water vole of the year. 

He fixed me with a steady regard from between his paws as he washed his face thoroughly and unhurriedly. They have such sweet, knowing faces. Then, quite suddenly and with no sound, he disappeared into the water which opened to receive him and covered over him again just as completely with never a ripple to betray where he'd gone. Water Voles are creatures of their element. I have often marvelled how adept they are at disappearing silently into water. They don't look like the sort of people who should be naturally lithe, slippery and subtle in the way of otters. They are more rotund, small, brown and squishable, and yet they can slip into water and vanish entirely in less than the blink of an eye, leaving you perplexed as to how they managed it. 

Feeling that nature had already been kind as kind can be, we traced our footsteps back across the field (Ted reluctantly leaving his moorhens) and went back in to the wood. Something made me rebel against following the path that human feet have made for the return journey, so, as we have done many times already this Spring, we went off into the trees themselves and picked up a badger path instead. It took us into a different world: Early-Purple Orchids, blooming quietly in a clearing where no human eyes will have seen them; Pignuts, all feathery and delicate jostling around the base of a gnarled and stooped silver birch; Yellow Archangel, small explosions of colour like puffs of paint dust splattered among the green, the new plants apparently unconnected to their parents but all secretly linked together by the runners that snake beneath the good brown earth. A little further along we came to a place where the badgers had scraped a patch of earth bare in order to have a good roll and scratch, leaving a decent amount of their fur behind them in the process, and further still, as I paused to listen to the cuckoo, a Light Emerald moth slumbered beneath a leaf at my feet. 

It occurred to me as we emerged near the entrance to the wood that all these things would have remained hidden from us, had we stuck to the path human feet had prescribed and not chosen the Badger Way. There is wisdom somewhere in that.

Coming home I was relived to hear the female Cuckoo's bubbling call down by the lake (they do this when they have laid an egg) and a few seconds later even more glad to watch her fly over the corner of the garden. A slow, precise, deliberate and unhurried flight. She was so close I could see the expression in her eye as she glanced down at me. I wondered where she was heading, and then five minutes later the question was answered as she flew right over my head in a less slow and deliberate fashion, because this time she was being driven by a small, furious and very vocal bird. A dunnock, I think, who had presumably flushed the cuckoo from cover where she was watching the dunnock's nest with a view to depositing tomorrow's egg in it. At least now I know she is laying and hopefully the next generation of CT's cuckoos is on its way.

Never A Dull Moment, eh?

Wishing you all a lovely day,

CT :o)

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Things To Be Glad Of.....

Thirty-one Things To Be Glad Of....

1. Teddy and Poppy. Pop's back to getting her 'funnies' - she reacts to something in warmer seasons and spends several hours feeling small and blue, shivery and uncomfortable. Cod liver oil capsules and healing help but she is very much my dog whenever these things occur and won't leave my side. Ted tries to help by licking her nose but you know it's serious when Pop doesn't want to play.

2. Red-Headed Cardinal Beetles who have just started to appear in the garden, along with a much rarer click beetle (cue enormous excitement from me and eye rolling from the rest of the family).

3. Orangey/red geum up by the pond. Beautiful.

4. Homemade knitting needle roll with V&A fabric.

5. Red Tailed Queen Bee nectaring on the lilac this afternoon.

6. Waiting for almost two hours in the pouring rain at Dunbridge Station to see the Flying Scotsman go past and jovially telling one another 'wouldn't it be funny if, after waiting all this time, a train pulled up at just the wrong moment and blocked the view?' only for a train to pull up at just the wrong moment and block the view. We all pelted down the platform and caught it as it disappeared. The station was full to bursting and everyone fell about laughing. Thank goodness for a British Sense Of Humour.

7.Watching Mr & Mrs Bullfinch taking turns to catch dandelion seed heads.

8.Orange Tip male visiting the garden and sitting still.

9. Dock Bugs and Woundwort Shieldbugs mating.

10.Lots of Red Campion blooming.

11. Mrs Sparrow finally bringing her child into the garden (she is very sweet and has been working hard to copy all the adults. I waste hours watching her hopping about).

12. Dicentra, recovering from a hard winter.

13. A Large White nectaring on the lilac.

14. Bee Mimic Hoverflies (Criorhina spp.).

15. Large Red Damsels eclosing from the pond :o)

16. Homemade Marshmallow Rice Crispy cakes (they were so good I had to send M to work with the rest of them to stop myself scoffing the lot).

17. Mrs Orange Tip nectaring on the lilac.

18. Mrs Crab Spider surviving the drama that was 'lawn-mower-gate' yesterday when someone (husband) knocked her flower down!!!!! I tied it back up to some bamboo and, once she'd got over the sudden plunging of her flower earthwards, she settled back into poised-to-pounce-on-bees mode and recovered her aplomb remarkably well. When it later poured with rain she sensibly moved underneath the flower and sat there sheltering from the storm quite happily. Her husband has swung off to another patch of ox-eyes. I found him hanging out on them looking about with a beady eye for another Mrs Crab Spider. I was not Very Pleased and admonished him for his loose morals. I think he winked at me, so I don't hold out much hope for a happy and long-lasting marriage. It's probably the stripes. It makes him rakish.

19. The wildflower patch, which is providing endless hours of insecty entertainment (for me).

20. Brian, who is growing nicely.

21. Wholenut chocolate. I don't need to say anymore on that score, do I?

22. Fabric. Ditto #21.

23. A box of ribbon. Ditto #21 and # 22.

24. Not shrinking my favourite cardi in the wash.

25. Being old enough to wear novelty slippers and not having to pretend it's done ironically.

26. My snowdrop cushion. M considers it pointless as it sits on an old farmhouse chair in the bedroom which no one ever uses as a chair. This is because he is a MAN and programmed to consider all cushions that aren't bed pillows pointless. No woman ever considered a snowdrop cushion pointless, regardless of where it is positioned.

27. Fresh salad leaves straight from the garden onto the plate, washed by the rain, potentially containing the odd slug and dock bug.

28. Seeds growing. A tiny miracle every one, no?

29. A box of cotton reels. Sewers and crafters will get it, right? :o)

30. The first wasp beetle of the year.

31. CJ's rhubarb shortbread recipe. Try it, it's de-lish-us.

May is a month to be glad of, I think.

Hope all are well? Wishing you all a good week ahead,

CT :o)

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Wild Life In The Garden

slug-free Hostas!

Red Damselfly

Starling fledglings

Pester Power

Female Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) and bee prey

Common Malachite Beetle

Poached Eggs


Ragged Robin

Brian Mark II (orange tip pillar)

Footballer hoverfly

Beautiful Demoiselle

Brown Silver-Lines moth

Jay (who had just eaten a Song Thrush's Child :o( )
Male crab spider on his ox-eye daisy
I've been entirely caught up in the lives of our Crab Spiders this week. I found Mrs Crab sitting on one of the Ox Eyes a few days ago and was amazed when I went back to check an hour later to discover her fiercely guarding an immobilised bee underneath the flower. She has hunted, caught and eaten a bee of this size three days out of the last four. She sits in wait on the edge of her flower, perfectly blended with the petals (they can change colour to match their backgrounds) and when a bee lands she darts out, injects him and it's game over. She wasn't too chuffed when Poppy and I bent in for a closer look: she raised one leg and waved it at us in warning. I explained that we didn't want to eat her bee, but she didn;t seem convinced so we left her to it.

Soon after I found her, I discovered the tiny wee black-and-white chap in the pic above, swinging in a very carefree attitude between the ox-eyes. Hmm (I thought) he's another Crab spider, albeit entirely different to Mrs C. I looked him up and discovered he isn't different at all, he's actually her husband (and about a tenth of her size).

She is eating like mad to produce enough energy to lay her eggs, which she'll fold a leaf or petal over and then stand guard over for three weeks until the spiderlings hatch. During that time she won't eat a thing and at the end of it all, she'll die. He is hanging about because he's needed to fertilise the eggs. I can't stop watching them. It's endlessly fascinating to me, these short and vital life cycles played out among a single group of flowers.

Other children in the garden this week have been five extremely noisy starling babies. They have stalked about the lawn after their parents, loudly berating them and demanding food on the spot. It went as far as actual pecking of tail feathers as well as all the gaping. This went on for two days, before the parents cracked and started shouting back at them. The kids soon got the message and I've only seen them briefly since, swinging through the sky in a great big starling mob.

The Jay is not in my good books. Hearing a terrible cacophony of furious blackbird warning calls a couple of afternoons ago when I was out setting up Badger Cam, I scrambled through the undergrowth to investigate, suspecting a stoat attack, only to find two thrushes dive-bombing the Jay who held one of their speckled offspring in his feet. He wasn't remotely worried about the parents, but he was afraid of me. He dropped the baby as I approached: I found it still warm lying crumpled in the leaf litter at the foot of a tree. It's nature in action, but it always troubles me when it's young animals.

On a happier note, the Beautiful Demoiselle is a new garden addition. I'm not convinced it came from the pond because they are usually nymphs of running water, but it was a joy to see it anyway. The Red Damsel did come from the pond- there are loads of them eclosing this week in the sun, along with one or two blues. Brian (caterpillar) has hatched from the orange tip egg I showed you in a previous post. I have to remind myself not  to look too often for him because he's about the size of a very thin piece of cotton and I worry about smudging him with my thumb :o)

Cooler here today and rain is forecast tomorrow, so I'm off to Hobbycraft to restock ribbons and bias binding for various sewing projects.

Hope all are well?

CT :o)