March was a cold wet month, starting with the ‘Beast from the East’ and, towards the end, the ‘Mini-beast from the East’. The coldest March I have recorded was in 2013, with an average temperature of 2.6ºC which I am sure many of you remember. This March was quite a bit warmer, with an average temperature of 4.6ºC. The only two other years that were colder than this year, since 1970, were March 1987 and 1996 with an average temperature of 3.8ºC. Rainfall here for March was 58 mm, or 2.3 inches, with only nine previous years where March was wetter.
The second half of March allowed us to get onto our fields, thanks to the dry windy weather. We can have dry weather without wind but the land takes ages to dry, so that wind was just what we needed, as it dried the soil very quickly. We have been fertilising our Oilseed Rape and winter wheat and also drilling some barley after sugar beet on our lighter land, but that spell of dry weather was short lived and we are now waiting for the land to dry after a wet Easter. Light land is nothing to do with the colour of the land, it is how much clay it contains. Light land has very little clay in it and is workable before the heavy land. The main asset of heavy land is that it usually produces a good crop in a dry summer as the clay does not let the moisture drain out of it. Sixty years ago light land was not considered good land. It ran out of water in a dry time and usually nutrients as well. It was land that rabbits enjoyed and, in those days, there were plenty of them and they could eat their way into a crop severely reducing the yield. Today, with modern fertilisers and irrigation, that land is nearly as good as our Fen land. The dry weather has also allowed us to drill some organic spring barley, this crop will be for seed and we will get a premium of about £25/tonne if it meets the seed grade standards above the organic barley price. We have also been comb harrowing the organic winter wheat. The comb harrow has lots of small tines in it, a bit like a comb but each tine is bent at the end so it can pull most of the small weeds out. The harrowing also releases nitrogen from the soil, which the crop is able to capture. What is left of the organic stubble turnips receive a proper hoeing - the slugs and flea beetles ate a lot of the plants so only half of the field will make a crop. We drill them in 18 inch wide rows and we are able to run a proper hoe in between each row which will uproot about 75% of the weeds. This also will make the soil release some nitrogen which the crop will take up. 95% of stubble turnips are grown for cattle and sheep food, but ours are grown to produce a crop of seed for other organic farmers to sow for their animals. Organic crops are not allowed to have any chemical fertilisers and so this cultivation is very important, to remove the weeds and to help the crop to grow. Our Fenland soil is very fertile and as long as we can control the weeds, it will produce an organic crop of above average yield. This year we are converting 45 more acres to organic farming and will do the same next year. Early in March we sent the first crop of chipping potatoes to McCains to be chipped. We were sending up to 200 tonnes/day, with bonuses if 75% of our potatoes were over 90mm long. We are just one of the growers supplying one of four chip factories in the UK. Thousands of tons of frozen chips are eaten every day, here in the UK.
It has been a very satisfying winter on the farm, I have been feeding a lot of sweepings from our bird seed operation and the birds have come in their hundreds as those who came on the winter bird watches will testify. My apologies to those of you who were booked on the one in early March, when I was taken to Peterborough hospital on a false alarm. I have had a few highlights during the winter, one day I took a photograph of nine seed-eating species, all feeding in one place. I saw Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer, Corn Bunting, Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Chaffinch, Tree Sparrow, Linnet and Brambling. Two weeks later, I saw a flock of 38 Corn Buntings on Vine House Farm, the biggest flock I have seen on the farm for nearly 20 years. The third highlight was at Baston Fen on one of the bird watches when we saw 600 Golden Plover, 200 Lapwing and 300 Wigeon. Since then the Wigeon numbers have built up to 400 on the wet grassland and there have been 40 Teal, two pairs of Shoveler, a pair of Gadwall, two pairs of Oystercatchers and several pairs of Lapwings displaying. By feeding all the farmland birds through the winter they will be in good condition to start breeding. They are returning to their breeding grounds now, but many of them won’t be breeding too far away and will be able to nip back for an hour or two to get a quick feed. I suspect that most of the birds I have been feeding will be nesting within a five mile radius except for the Bramblings and some Chaffinches which will fly back across the North Sea on a suitable wind. I have also been feeding Starlings, Blackbirds and Fieldfares. The Blackbird numbers have dropped off these last few weeks, as they have returned to their breeding haunts. Now the Starlings and Fieldfares are returning to their breeding areas which could be more than 1000 miles away, over the North sea. Around the 10th April I will be starting my annual bird surveys, most of them I have been doing for years. Over the next two months I will be walking about 80 miles on bird surveys and all before breakfast. Don’t forget to feed live mealworms during the breeding season. Studies have shown that by feeding live mealworms you will increase the number of birds that fledge in your garden by 50%. If we want to see a lot of birds we have to breed a lot of birds.