August has been a wet and warm month – only three wetter Augusts in the last 50 years – with 87.5mm of rain. There have only been four warmer Augusts in those 50 years. We ended the month with a very cold spell and on August 30th the temperature only rose to 14°C. We have to go back to that terrible summer of 1987 to find a colder August day, when I recorded 13°C on August 7th and three more days of 14°C later in the month. 1987 was a very cool wet summer and we only had one field of wheat harvested by September 1st.
The August gales have done us no good at all. We were fortunate that we had the larger combine than ordered as, by the time of the first gales came, we had 65% of the wheat and barley harvested, with mainly barley left. Three storms have now battered our crops; after the second storm we harvested some of the organic barley, but there were many ears of barley already on the ground. I gathered them all up from three separate square yards of stubble and calculated that the barley losses were 30% of the value of the crop. Millet is very susceptible to shedding its seed and some of it has already shed. We will have to hope September is not a month with gales in it.
The sugar beet crop is not looking very healthy this year – it is looking more yellow than green. This is due to the aphids feeding on it sometime in May. Up until this year, we have been able to coat our sugar beet seed with a neonicotinoid, which protected the plant from aphids right through the season. It is a very powerful chemical, other plants were taking it up and affecting other insects as well as aphids and bees. It is the same chemical that we used to coat oil seed rape to control cabbage stem flea beetle. Other chemicals that are available to use will not control the cabbage stem flea beetle and if we get a bad attack it will wipe our oil seed rape crop out – leaving one of the more profitable crops nearly impossible to grow.
The sunflowers have gone out of flower now. We had that really hot sunny spell when they were in full flower and, as every crop benefits from sunshine when it is in flower, I am hoping that there will be a good crop. It will be the last crop we harvest and we are not expecting to harvest them before the end of September.
Over the last month we have been digging samples of potatoes to identify the size of the tubers. The chip factories like to receive large potatoes so we have not been sampling those, we have been sampling those destined for supermarkets. If we send them any potatoes that won’t go through an 85mm riddle, they deduct the weight of those potatoes. When tubers get to the size we need, we kill the crop off to stop them growing any more. Crops this year have not produced many tubers, which means those few tubers will get bigger than normal if we let them grow on and so we are having to stop them growing. We expect to have started storing potatoes by the time you read this newsletter.
Our new farm shop is now making visible signs of progress. The first six months of work was all being done below ground – piles were driven, concrete to connect all the piles was laid, drains were installed and the car park was made. As some of you will have seen, the building is now up, the roof is on and the floor is being laid.
The bird of the month has been the Whinchat. I normally see them in August and I’ve only ever seen one per autumn, and then not every year. They breed in the North and West of the UK and also in Scandinavia and they are on their way to west Africa to spend the winter there, they are insectivorous. I expect when the gales came, they thought it was time they were in Africa, as I haven’t seen them since.
It has been a poor year for Barn Owls. It would appear that only 10 Owlets have fledged from the 20 boxes that usually have Barn Owls nesting. In an average year, about 25% of birds that fledge will go on to be breeding birds but when food is short that average will drop. I was reminded of that when I found one of this year’s young dead on the ground. As there are few voles around, it could be that none of this year’s young will go on to be breeding adults.
This year we have had massive help from the government to keep our tummies full, but out there in the wild in general, it really is survival of the fittest. We, the human race, are actually taking food away from hundreds of species as housing developments, new roads and industrial estates keep devouring more land, which pushes wildlife onto already degraded habitat, it then silently disappears with nowhere to live.
The Vine House Farm garden has quietened down considerably. Starlings left in June, because they could find plenty of aphids in the crops and, as is normal, other birds are able to feast on the natural harvest in the countryside. The only food we can tempt them to eat, is live mealworms. We have a few very scruffy Blackbirds and Robins coming to feed. They are very scruffy because they are moulting. The adult Blackbirds are having a complete change of feathers, they have had this fully waterproof insulated coat now for nearly a year and it is getting worn out. The young Blackbirds will also moult all their feathers, except their tail feathers – these will have to last them for around 15 months.
There still is one other species in the garden and that is our family of Moorhens that live on the pond, only 20 yards from the house. Because Moorhens are in decline in general, and also declining around our farm yard, a little house with two bedrooms was built on a plastic pallet in the Spring of 2019. It was successful, but I felt it could do with more bedrooms. So for 2020, a four bedroomed house on the pallet was built and the Moorhens took to it within five days of it being floated. The first young appeared around April 17th, they come up to our feeding area every day so have plenty of food available, and they have now produced their fourth brood.
We had a family of stoats in the garden, which we saw several times until mid July and during that time Moorhen chicks kept disappearing. So now we have only two from the first brood, one from the second brood, one from the third brood, the two adults and five young chicks from the fourth brood. All summer they have been a constant source of interest, I never thought I would get so interested in Moorhens.
I believe that predation was the major cause of decline locally and, of course, that could also be the case nationally. Predators in this country generally have a surplus of food, due to all the pheasants and partridges that are reared, and so they have all increased in numbers. Predators such as weasels, stoats and mink would all be capable of taking a young, or even an adult, Moorhen. The Carrion Crow would be the other predator that could affect them. As they have to lay a clutch of eggs before they start sitting on them, the eggs are camouflaged but the Carrion Crows have very good eyesight and would take all the eggs once they found a nest not being sat on.