Here at Deeping St Nicholas I thought it was going to be the coldest May on record but when I look back in my records, we’ve had five colder Mays and five wetter Mays in the last 50 years. This May’s rain amounted to 73.1mm, in 2007 we had 109mm and in 2014, 100mm.
What has made this Spring such a late one, was the cold May that came after the coldest April for 100 years. April was colder than March – there were no air frosts in March but there was an air frost on 15 mornings in April. We also had a ground frost on another eight mornings. January 2021 was colder than average and we had an air frost on 15 mornings.
The ground conditions for sowing millet and sunflowers have been good; we waited a week before drilling as it was so cold in early May. Usually we’d wonder if the seed would germinate, but this year it was put into moisture. Nothing eats the millet as it surfaces, not so with the sunflowers however. Pigeons adore an emerging sunflower plant, so much so that they can eat the whole crop. We only sow one seed every 7ins in 18inch wide rows and 20 or 30 pigeons could eat all the emerging shoots in a ten acre field.
Most seeds put one shoot down and one shoot up. If that shoot gets eaten, the seed has enough strength to send a second shoot up. The sunflower seed however puts a shoot down and then the seed is forced up, which breaks into two to form the cotyledons. If a pigeon eats that shoot, that is the end of that plant as the seed has been eaten.
The battle is to keep the pigeons away before the plants start emerging, as it is a job to keep them away once they are visible. For the last three years we’ve been laying 12m wide strips of plastic around the fields, sown with sunflowers, which have done a wonderful job as the pigeons aren’t keen on the polythene. A day after the crop has emerged, the pigeons are no longer interested.
We still have some potatoes in store and what was looking like a surplus, is now looking like a shortage due to the crops in the ground growing so slowly. Because of the cold spring, last year’s crop has to last another two weeks. We thought some of our potatoes would go to feed cattle, but now they’re worth more. Sometimes there is a lot of money to be made by keeping potatoes into June, as quite often there aren’t enough to go round before the new ones are ready. If next Spring is a normal one, the crop we are now growing will only have to supply the trade for 50-51 weeks. So, it would be best not to try and keep them for too long, but who knows – a lot can happen between now and June 2022.
We’ve had another direct drill delivered; the one we’ve been using is a good drill in dry conditions but will not operate in the wet. As we’ve had two wet autumns in a row, this has restricted our direct drilling. When we’ve been unable to get our crop of wheat into some fields, they’ve had to be cultivated or even ploughed before drilling. All through last winter, the fields that had been direct drilled had more birds feeding on them than the fields that were cultivated before drilling. The birds would be picking away at both the trash from the previous crop and the invertebrates that come to the surface to feed on the trash.
The first week in May I took a boat on the Norfolk broads with my wife, Anne. Last July I also took a boat on the broads and went looking for wildlife, but was very disappointed with what I saw.
This year we went to different places, including grazing marshes that are normally out of reach to most people as they’re not near public roads and therefore easier to access from the river and I was not disappointed with what I found. One morning on Upton grazing marshes, I had the best morning’s bird watching I’ve had for a long time. It was a 4.75 mile walk before breakfast and I saw or heard 68 species. Wildlife was not so plentiful on those grazing marshes where there was good public access. To read about that trip, click here.
Wildlife on the farm has not been disappointing, Cuckoos arrived about 23rd April and are still with us, whenever I go down the farm I hear a Cuckoo. This year we’ve had good numbers of Sedge Warblers and on the 670 acres we farm at Baston Fen, there are about 55 pairs holding territory. They like to nest in the reedy dykes along with Reed Buntings and Reed Warblers. I haven’t filled in any dykes since I took over from my father and so I have far more reedy dykes than other farmers.
We’ve again had at least 40 pairs of Lapwings nesting on the farms, they’re doing better than they did last year. There are a few young around on the wetland that can now fly. Last year we didn’t see any young Lapwings that fledged on the wetland, we put it down to Herons as there were always two or three present. It was so dry on our arable land, all the invertebrates burrowed deep into the soil and so were unavailable for the chicks or the adults.
I haven’t yet been looking for Barn Owls as I’ve been busy with my surveys. I have now finished them, but have not had time to work out any results yet – except I can see that Yellow Wagtail numbers are down. Every year in April and May, I walk about 90 miles before breakfast. I do it because I enjoy it, as it is quiet at that time of morning. I also enjoy seeing the various birds singing away from the top of reeds or other vegetation, and I get to parts of the farms I wouldn’t do otherwise. I never see anyone – I suppose most people are in bed.
In the Vine House Farm garden, Starlings have been dominating the lawn coming for suet pellets, soaked sultanas and the chance of getting a live mealworm or two – the ultimate bird food. The only species they have a chance of taking a mealworm from is the House sparrow. The Blue and Great tits, Robins, Chaffinch and Wren are all far too quick or they just stand back and wait, until the Starlings have gone away.
The Moorhens in our garden are doing well. The first brood of five is now down to four and are all now fully feathered. They had a second brood of seven which appeared on 20th May. I say appeared because they nested in the little house we have had built for them, which is on a plastic pallet floating in the pond by the farmhouse. After hatching, they are fed on the nest for a few days before they venture out and they are now being fed by the four young of the first brood. The adults bring the first brood quite a few tit-bits which are then feed to the second brood, so the adults don’t seem to give the second brood anything directly. Last year the young birds didn’t help feed the other broods.
Our new Farm Shop and Café will be opening its doors on 10th June. We are delighted, as it is a long held dream of ours to showcase our passion for British farming, locally produced food and local wildlife. Our pond, which the café overlooks, is sited in an acre or two of gardens, which aren’t much to look at right now but will be growing up this summer. We’re also looking forward to starting up our farm walks again once all restrictions are lifted, so a visit to the Farm Shop and Café will also be on the agenda!