Sunday, 31 December 2017

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Merry Christmas!

A very merry Christmas to all of you from all of us here at Countryside Tales XXX

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Christmas Thinking.

It's a very unfestive foggy, dreary sort of day here today. But for all that, the birds are singing their springtime songs, evidently more aware than we are that the light will soon be turning, and one of our toads has woken up and is singing by the greenhouse. Toads have surprisingly soothing voices: I often sit and listen to them serenading the lady toads, and end up being accidentally serenaded myself at the same time.

I popped into Romsey this morning to get a few things. What on earth was I thinking? It was gridlocked. In the end I got a half hour parking slot on the side of the road and then flew about like a mad thing doing what I needed to do. It was not an enjoyable experience. I am thinking that what we haven't got now we can do without. Less is more, no?

I don't like the consumerism of Christmas in general, but for some reason this year in particular I am coming out in hives over it. Watching the Blue Planet episode on all the plastic being dumped in the sea, and seeing with a sinking heart how the majority of weekly rubbish in our bin is plastic wrappers, despite being careful about what we buy, and then reading how many of the recycling plants in China don't recycle the plastic but instead bin it into rivers and the earth really got to me. To that end, when it came down to a simple choice this morning between sprouts wrapped in a plastic bag or the one above from the farm shop clinging to its stalk, I went for the stalky one. It was cheaper too.

I think we really have to challenge ourselves, supermarkets and other providers on packaging. Why, for example, are so many fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic when they've got skins? Cucumbers and bananas do not need wrapping. And for those that do, surely it's not beyond our capabilities to create something that does the job and then degrades? When I was little, greengrocers had brown paper bags. Can't we get those back? 

Wherever I have looked in the shops these past weeks I have been surrounded by plastic. It depresses me beyond measure. I walked the fields this week and collected armfuls of the stuff: scraps from bags used on the farm, bottle lids dropped by walkers, a plastic shopping bag blown on the wind, a crisp packet that had been in the earth for ages and hadn't degraded at all.

We buy things wrapped in plastic then carry them home in even more plastic. I stood behind a woman in a shop this morning and watched her pay 5p for a plastic bag to put her purchases in, even though she had three half-full in her other bag. Even Christmas trees are now casually put through those little machines that wrap them in plastic netting, exactly the sort of thing that traps and kills sea life when it ends up in the sea. It's a one use and throw away product and I doubt many people even stop to think about it, so used have we as a society become to accepting the ubiquitous presence of plastic in our lives, unwrapping items and chucking out the packaging. We said no thank you to the chap who offered to wrap our tree and he looked slightly offended. His response when we explained why we were turning the netting down was that tying the branches with string as they had last year took ages. We just put the tree in the car, drove home and took it out again. It survived. No string nor plastic required.

I've been thinking about it and I think the problem is we're too removed from the rubbish we create - people don't think enough about it because they aren't responsible for disposing it and they don't see where it goes. I count myself in this too- I thought I was being mindful but recently have realised there is a lot more I can do.

So next year I am changing the way we do things. I am going to avoid plastic as much as possible and, in addition to this, challenge all purchases I am tempted to make to see whether or not we really need them. M has prompted me to do this, by a simple remark he made last week about not wanting to consume more than he strictly needed. 

I am going to write to our local supermarket and ask them what they are doing about using biodegradable packaging on the products they sell and M is going to contact the council and find out why plastic soup and ice cream pots, for example, aren't recyclable, and why the symbols that designate recyclability are so tiny on packaging you can barely read them. 

We'd already agreed not to get each other presents this year, instead we are taking one another out for a nice meal and paying for a race entry for each other for next year. No waste involved and the memories will last longer and be sweeter than any corporeal gift could. I'm not anti presents, in case you thought I'd gone all scrooge. I just wish they didn't come packaged in such horrible material.

Have you had any thoughts about what you'd like to change or do differently next year?


Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Fertile Void

Winter is a time for reflection, so I have been reflecting on everything I've achieved this year with my running. I started the year just about able to run six miles without stopping, and finished it comfortably running half marathons over hills, through muddy, rocky, rooty terrain. I wasn't especially fast (my road HM PB is 2:02, although that did include a few sharp hills), but I did get more technical, more competent and familiar with race strategy. I also made mistakes. I discovered what it felt like to experience a running-related injury; experienced the frustration of having to miss races, pull back on training, take more rest days. I experienced the support and encouragement of running friends who'd been through it all before and knew how I was feeling. I also experienced the opinions of people who told me I'd ruin my joints if I continued. Through that experience, I learnt to be aware of how my responses to people who were working to overcome obstacles or to take on challenges might make them feel, and to think about offering them support in place of judgement, because one's own experience is never going to be identical to someone else's. 

I learnt how to focus on getting over the injury, which has been chronic all summer, by putting in the work I needed to sort out the imbalance and condition muscles that haven't been tested this way in forty years. I listened to the advice of friends and experts and tried to find my way somewhere through the middle. I'm not there yet, but this is a journey that doesn't reach its destination overnight and I have learnt to accept that. I have also learnt, through it being tested by having to deal with this injury, how strong my will to run is, because of the sheer amount of support work required in order for me to do it. This has tested my commitment and I find myself a more disciplined, determined and focused being as a result.

I learnt I could focus on a goal (first to run 3 miles, then 6, then 9, then 10, then 13), and, through hard work, commitment and determination achieve it. My experience has encouraged others to take up running and I am so proud of them and what they've achieved as a result- all through their own hard work. I made friends with strangers on races who helped me through difficult times when I was tired and flagging. I helped strangers when they were tired and flagging. Competing in races with my husband has added a new and unlooked-for dimension to our experience of life together as we're able to talk about a shared experience; the thrills, spills, exhilarations and disappointments of the races we've run in together. I have a better understanding of something he has done and loved for years and years as a result.

Running has taught me so much this year, about myself and what I am capable of. But most important of all: I have loved every second of it. Even when it wasn't going well, it has been valuable as it's taught me more about myself. 

I have felt the need to pause and reflect as the season swings towards the shortest day. So I'm having a break, taking a few weeks off running at the end of a busy year to allow my body to rest; a little quiet time to experience the satisfaction of everything I've achieved. So far, I am enjoying it. I thought it would be hard- regular runners will know, we're like caged tigers or bears with sore heads if we have to miss any of our normal weekly runs. But once you make the decision to pause, and commit to it, it becomes easy. I am missing some races, and a few Christmas social runs which sound huge fun, but this is part of the discipline: not giving in to the temptation to break with what you've decided to do because a tempting offer arises. I'm thinking this might not be a bad pattern to follow every year.

In this fertile void is the satisfaction of knowing that something has been achieved through my own hard work, focus, determination and dedication. In it too, is the seed for next year's goal, which is my marathon. Something that, six months ago, I was still insisting I had no impulse to do. It is good that life is full of surprises. I like to embrace them.

I will try and post again before Christmas, but, as with everyone else, life is busy here so I may not. Similarly, I will try and get round and read all your lovely blogs.

Happy Christmas everyone, and thank you very much for reading Countryside Tales this year. It's been a pleasure and a joy to share this space with you.

Blessings on you all,

CT x

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Nature Post: Bramblings, Siskin, Long Tailed Tits and a Sparrowhawk

female brambling

male brambling

female siskin


male siskin & goldfinch

goldfinches and a blue tit's bottom

long tailed tits and a coal tit

male blackbird

It's raining here, proper, heavy, soak-you-in-seconds rain. I had neglected to top up the sunflower seeds at dawn and by the time I got back from the college run and doing the food shop there was a good deal of crossness in the garden. I refilled everything and within minutes the whole place was alive with the whirl of wings as everyone descended to refuel after the night. 

It's not particularly cold here at the moment, but as small birds store very little in the way of fat to keep them warm, after even mildish winter nights it's a case of life or death if they don't refuel quickly enough. When the temperature is close to freezing it's crucial. 

Insect feeders, such as the Goldcrest (our smallest bird), are reliant on the protection evergreen trees afford to keep them warm through winter nights. If you've got evergreens in your garden it's worth keeping an ear and eye out for these wonderful little birds. If you google goldcrest the RSPB has a video of them singing. It's a distinctive song and easy to learn, although it's high, so sadly older ears often can't hear it. At this time of the year you're less likely to hear them singing than in spring when they're marking territory. My mother found one she thought was on its last legs a week or so ago, kept it warm in her hands for a while and then suddenly it perked up and flew off up into the trees. Sometimes, it's as simple as warming little birds up and making sure there's a food supply they can then access.

I've been thrilled to have two brambling in the garden for the past fortnight. The female is much bolder than the male (I've only seen him two or three times). She arrived first, in the company of a small flock of chaffinches. I texted her photo with one word: BRAMBLING!!! to  Uncle B and got back an equally excited reply within seconds and the instruction to keep my eyes peeled for her mate. The very next morning he arrived (the male brambling, not uncle B :o)). I think they've both moved on now, but as I'd never seen a Brambling in the flesh before I've been thrilled to have them here, even if only for a few days.

Yesterday afternoon I realised the Siskin gang was back in the alder trees around the lake. They move in enormous flocks, seeking seeds inside cones, and usually turn up here at some point in the winter. In spring they disappear back up the lane into the conifer forest where they nest (and where the Sparrowhawks live). I hear them before I see them: they make a good deal of noise, all popping and whistling. Sure enough, this morning there were three on the feeders. I always admire their lime-green flecked and speckled markings. Handsome little birds.

Another sign that winter is here is the daily morning visit of the moorhen. She pops over the hedge from the lake and comes to eat the seed the other birds have spilt on the floor. I admire her elegant long green toes. She's very nervous of people so I have to creep around to get her photo :o). In springtime, she brings her children with her. Small, brown balls of unruly fluff.

We've an enormous amount of goldfinches, blue tits and sparrows here. I counted 20 blue tits yesterday, and at one point in early autumn, 50 sparrows. Not bad going when you think that eight years ago, there were no sparrows at all. It's obviously been a good breeding season.

It's tawny owl courtship season at the moment, a short burst of wooing before winter proper settles over the land and thoughts turn more to survival. Have a listen around dusk for the males who, who, whooing. They call for about an hour as it gets dark whilst the ladies keewick replies can be heard once it's fully dark. They'll fall silent quite soon, having sorted out their partnerships, and then will start up again in the spring, making sure other owls know whose territory is whose. Likewise, dog foxes are barking the bounds of their territory by day and night at present. Listen out for any rhythmic single barks repeated every few seconds. And badgers are busy digging holes for worms who go deeper in colder weather. Look out for small, conical shaped holes, often with fine threads of roots at the bottom.

The dogs and I were thrilled to find a Sparrowhawk's plucking post whilst out walking the other day. It was a fallen tree across a path in the green lane, so it was well sheltered. And covered in feathers. A pigeon, I think, which makes me think it was the female who caught it as the males usually hunt nothing bigger than blackbirds, being quite small themselves and adapted to hunt through trees, whereas the females who are bigger hunt in the open. This plucking post was also next to a field. 

Sparrowhawks will take prey to specific places where they pluck the feathers before eating. If they can't find a suitable place (called a plucking post), they'll tent their wings over the prey and pluck it on the spot instead. I once saw a female sparrowhawk hunt a pigeon, bring it down, tent her wings over it and begin to tear the feathers out. An amazing sight. Gosh, they have such fierce eyes. If you come across small, sad piles of feathers beside hedgerows in all likelihood you're looking at a sparrowhawk's supper. Foxes tend to carry their prey away to their dens or larders.

sparrowhawk plucking post

I was amused and exasperated in equal measure last week by a letter in our local paper talking about the RSPB's obsession with raptors (?) and the damage inflicted on small bird populations as a result. This person was warning people not to put food out for the birds because it would only encourage raptors and the decimation of your garden bird population and your own heartache as a result.

I found myself sighing as I read it. Food chains and trophic levels being what they are, it's impossible for nature to sustain apex predators in greater numbers than their prey, no matter how hard the RSPB or anyone else might try. It's called a Carrying Capacity. Smaller birds are adapted through years of evolution to cope with being predated. It's why many of them raise two or three broods a year of five or more chicks, and why raptors only raise one nest often with only one baby in it. It's like saying we should exterminate all small birds because they'll eat all the worms. I feed the birds here and we have a resident sparrowhawk population up the road, and sometimes one of them will come into the garden and take a bird. It happens maybe three times a year. I watch my garden bird populations very closely and record them regularly. Over the ten years that we've been here numbers of both small birds and raptors have increased. It's a healthy population balance: the sparrowhawks have not decimated it. However, the three non-native, feral and un-neutered cats who have moved in next door might very well do.

The truth is that many of our raptors were poisoned and hunted into near extermination during the last century, and until very recently have been in dire straits. Indeed, several of them are still on the red and amber lists (this means severe declines or low numbers breeding): including merlin, kestrel, osprey, honey buzzard, marsh harrier and montagu's harrier.

The same paper printed a similar letter last year complaining about the numbers of red kites and buzzards who would "clear the area for miles around of any small bird or mammal within days." Red kites and buzzards are primarily scavengers. They will occasionally take live prey but it's not what they're adapted to eat. As evidenced by the fact that when the buzzard flies over the garden here, no one dives for cover. If the sparrowhawk does they're gone in seconds. It's the same hysterical response that greeted the escaped lynx last week. They ended up shooting her because she'd moved near a residential area and people were worried about humans being attacked.The inevitability of this was depressing. Lynx don't hunt people and they don't stalk or chase prey in the way wolves, for example, do. They are ambush hunters, which means they wait for their prey to pass beneath them (they are adapted to live in forests) before dropping down onto them. They take deer, not sheep, not people. I once watched a programme on lynx conservation in Sweden. In the week or so that the British ecologist was there looking for them they didn't see one, because the lynx are scared of people and keep out of their way.

I get very frustrated with the ignorance with which so much of the natural world is greeted. Almost all of it is fear not fact based. I think most of it is because we are becoming increasingly removed from nature and have lost the knowledge, familiarity and regular observance that once allowed us to understand it. The single biggest threat to our wildlife is not other wildlife; it is us. And the biggest threat to us long-term is the loss of our wildlife, which keeps our planet in balance and alive, creates the soil we grow our food in, the water we drink, the climate we rely on, the temperature regulation we need to survive, the crops we need to be pollinated in order to produce food and so on and so on. I think the old adage about only saving what you love is probably pertinent here. So it's really a question of engaging people. We shouldn't fear our wildlife: we should look after it.

Incidentally, while looking through the red list of UK birds whose numbers are dropping and who therefore are in danger, it struck me how many of them we get here. The danger when you see something regularly is of course to assume everyone else must do too, and therefore the species is doing well. Some of these red list cause-for-concern species might shock you, too: lapwing, woodcock, curlew, marsh tit, skylark, fieldfare, starling, song thrush, redwing, mistle thrush, house sparrow, grey wagtail, yellow wagtail, linnet, yellowhammer. Thirteen of those fifteen species I see every year, some of them everyday.

We need to keep looking after them and one simple way to do that is to put food out year-round. I've heard the argument that that creates a dependancy. My reply to that is that we've removed so much of their natural habitat and intensified farming so greatly that surplus food once left out in the fields that saw them through winters just isn't there any more. So we need to replace it, and feeding them in your garden is one way to do that. In your garden, you have control over the plants you grow, the vegetation cutting regimes you employ, the chemicals you use and whether you put out water and food and provide shelter.
Sometimes, just being aware that things need our help is enough to make us shift our behaviours in subtle ways that carry big impacts. It's something that's worth thinking about.

Wishing you all a good weekend,