Issue 159 August 2021
News From The Farm
Your regular update from Nicholas
‘During the warm weather, bird baths are a great way to give garden birds a place to cool down & hydrate’Nicholas Watts

July did not seem a good month to me because of a lack of sunshine, but it was 1°C warmer than average at 17.7°C. It was the warm cloudy nights that brought the temperature up and all those clouds gave us 15mm over the average rainfall, 63.5mm. I am sure we were lucky to receive so little rain, from what I hear around.

What's HappeningOn the farm
August is the month for sunflowers

We have now finished our rape harvest, which was better than expected and the wheat harvest will soon be with us. It looks good from the roadside, but we’re not expecting a good harvest as we did not get sunshine in the second half of June. Sunlight gives energy, and the leaves convert that energy into starch, protein and oil. With very little sunlight, our wheat sample may well look like chicken corn and be lacking in protein.

Although new potatoes were a week or two late appearing on the market, the expected uplift of the old crop did not occur. There is a surplus of the old crop still in farmers’ cold stores, thousands of tonnes, which was destined for the supermarket shelves. Supermarkets have decided they don’t want to continue selling the old crop and start on the new, fresher-looking sample. This means that many tonnes of the old crop will end up as animal stock feed (feeding cattle) rather than going on the supermarket shelves. Every tonne that goes to stock feed will be a financial loss to the farmer. However, all the potatoes that we grew for Mccain’s and McDonald’s chips were all taken at the agreed contract price.

The present potato crop is growing well, we’ve not had to do much irrigation. This means the men have been able to do other jobs, such as repairing tractors, some of which we would otherwise have sent to the local dealer to be repaired.

The sunflower crop will be in flower by the time you receive this newsletter. The canary seed has been in ear for the past month, and the millet came in ear during the last week in July. The millet and the sunflowers need sunshine in August, as the amount of sunshine when a crop is in flower dictates the yield – providing the crop can get hold of enough moisture. The whole farm could do with sunshine, as we will be harvesting all through August. We’d like to have some sunshine too!

The sugar beet crop is looking very healthy. This is much different to last year, when we made a loss on the crop due to aphids that came in very early and started injecting poison into the crop. The amount of aphids that are about in the spring of any year is down to our winter weather. Certainly, the colder winter we get, the less there are that survive. I think it was the unusual weather we had last winter and spring that had more of an effect, rather than the frosts in January. It was the wettest December and January here in South Lincolnshire for 150 years, and it was the coldest April in 100 years. The unusual winter weather would also have an effect on the amount of butterflies we are seeing this summer, numbers are well down.

There is the question of do we really want to grow sugar beet on our heavier land? Lifting sugar beet in January and February isn’t good for our soil. We’re direct drilling and using catch crops to try to improve the soil, but punishing them by lifting sugar beet in the winter months. Unless British Sugar can considerably increase the price they pay the growers for the crop, we’re thinking about growing a lot less of it.

Chacking a Barn Owl box

On the farm we have Greenfinches, Goldfinches, Linnets and Wood Pigeons singing. They are all singing because they are still nesting, and they are still able to nest because they don’t rely on insects to feed their young; instead they will be fed on unripe seeds. All the birds that feed their young on insects will have finished nesting by the time you receive this newsletter, with the exception of Swallows and House Martins.

There is one other bird still singing – the Wren, and the singing will continue all winter to tell other Wrens that he or she has a territory. Presumably, all pairs of Wrens have separated during the last month and those that have not found a suitable territory will do so soon. Wren numbers were down a bit this Spring, probably due to the cold winter. Robins have the same strategy, but I haven’t heard one singing yet.

The pond, dug last Autumn next to the new Farm Shop & Café, has attracted a lot of insects. House Martins, that are breeding about 100 yards away, have been visiting it on a regular basis. Now they’ve had a first brood, 10 or 15 can be seen over the pond. The insects have not gone unnoticed by Swallows either. The last Swallows we had breeding in our yard was in 2017, when they only laid three eggs and reared three young. This was a sign that there were not enough flies around, as their usual brood size is five. I am very pleased to write that a pair built a nest in our workshop around the middle of July and are now sitting on five eggs. It is not very often that, once a species has disappeared, it then reappears.

It has not been a good year for Barn Owls in South Lincolnshire, as we are short of Voles. Both owls and voles are struggling this year because of our above average rainfall. Barn Owls cannot hunt when it is raining, nor hunt successfully when it is windy, as quite a lot of their hunting is done by listening to the voles moving around in grassland. Wet weather does not seem to suit bank or field voles, which are the Barn Owls main prey. If you remember, we had nearly half a year’s rainfall in December and January. February, May, June and July are also all above their monthly rainfall average. Out of 16 boxes I have up on the farm, and six on other farmers’ land, only 14 owlets have been reared. That does not worry me too much, as the voles will soon bounce back when conditions are right for them. If it was a species that relied on insects, I would be worried as insects are in a steady decline.

South Lincolnshire is one of the driest areas in the country. We also have less tussocky grass, the vole’s favourite habitat, than most areas of the country but we do have the highest population of Barn Owls. The north and west of the country have acres and acres of tussocky grassland, three times the rain we have and only a few Barn Owls. There is also a connection with soil type; it is the Fens that have the highest population of Barn Owls, not just South Lincolnshire, so the voles survive and or breed better on our peaty soil.

As I was writing this, I glanced out of my office window and a Lesser Black Backed Gull flew along the main road looking for his breakfast. They are fairly sharp cookies, but one was run over on the main road in the village recently. Over the past six years, they have moved into our area and we now have a colony of 60 pairs breeding at Deeping Lakes, and 20 breeding pairs in Baston Fen. They scour the countryside for eggs and young birds. They are larger than a Carrion Crow, think of what a Carrion Crow does, which of course we also have in our area, and now we have another 80 pairs of predators locally.

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