Here at Vine House Farm, it has been the driest January that I have recorded in 50 years, just 7.5mm and probably the driest January since 1880, when only 6mm of rain fell. The average for January is 43mm or 1.7ins. We have had 15 frosts, but the overall temperature has been slightly above average at 4.3°C.
All our crops are looking remarkably well, partly because as we had such a wonderful autumn, we have been able to plant them when we wanted to and spray them when they needed spraying. The organic crops are also looking very well, we were also able to plant them at the best time. All we can do now is to hoe them to kill as many weeds as possible and leave them to grow on. How successful our hoeing is depends partly on the weather after hoeing; the smaller the weeds are, the quicker they die and if it rains soon after, a lot of the weeds will re-grow. If the organic crops run out of nitrogen or need some spray they cannot have either, but normally they fare well.
Our conventional crops will get walked over every two or three weeks from mid-February by our agronomist, to see if there is anything we should spray them with and to tell us when to apply any nitrogen. Many of the products that we apply have doubled in price, so sprays and nitrogen will only be applied when necessary. The sprays we will probably use will be to kill any weeds, to make the crop have a stronger stem so that it doesn’t fall over later in the growing season, and to stop any mildew, yellow fust, eyespot and fusarium spreading. Later in June, brown rust and ear blight could develop and there are sprays to combat those as well. If all the sprays are successful, there will be no weeds or diseases on the crop, but there will be very few insects for the birds to eat, or take back to their young. I have been aware of this situation for about 30 years and so we now have six metre margins full of wildflowers that are arranged so that no point on the farm is more than 300 metres away from the wildflowers. More flowers mean more insects, and more insects mean more birds. Unfortunately, insects are in decline and unless someone can wave a magic wand, our song birds will continue to decline.
There are several companies trying to breed higher yielding varieties of cereals, and anyone who can breed a higher yielding variety stands to make good money, as wheat is grown so widely. In their trials, they come across wheats with all sorts of characteristics, including some that are resistant to all of these diseases, but they will not yield so much and those are the varieties we sow on our organic land. These firms will then put their highest yielding varieties to the NIAB, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, and they will grow them in their trials at various places around the country. The NIAB will then produce a national list of the best yielding varieties and their characteristics. The highest yielding variety might well be so prone to one particular disease that it is too risky to grow. Also, different varieties grow better in various parts of the country, some varieties grow better on heavy land, some better on lighter land, so there are lots of choices. It is then up to the farmer and his agronomist to decide which varieties to grow.
January has been so different to December, which was the cloudiest December for many years, we have had so many cloudless mornings in January. I go round the farm every morning to feed the birds and fetch the eggs from our Baston Fen farm. I have been setting off at about 7.30am when there has been an orangey-red glow in the south east, such a beautiful colour. One morning, as I was going down the farm road, the moon was in the North West shining between the turbines, such a lovely sight.
My first stop is the bramble patch where about 100 Linnets roost, about 50 exploded from it, twittering away and I feed them oil seed rape. Next stop is the first spinney, where I throw food under the hawthorn bushes and then on to the 7th field, where there were a pair of Ravens. I throw more seed under hawthorn bushes here at the 7th field. On the neighbour’s field, I can see about 120 Lapwings and some Black Headed Gulls with them. They’re on a field that was rape last year, and they would be looking for slugs and other invertebrates. Another 500 yards, and more seed put under hawthorn bushes.
At the end of the farm is the North Drove drain, it was having the mud taken out of it, the mud being spread on the adjacent fields by the digger. There were five Herons watching for movement in the mud, but I only saw one of them go for anything in 10 minutes. I was watching and it wasn’t an eel – 50 years ago there would have been an eel with every bucket full.
Unfortunately, that is how it is, there is probably only 10% of the wildlife that used to be around there, 50 or 60 years ago.
By the time I arrived at my next feeding spot, more birds had arrived, 200 or 300 Chaffinches exploded out of the hedge. I am feeding mainly Chaffinches these days, no Corn Buntings, the odd Yellowhammer and only a few Reed Buntings, despite my feeding every winter. Our farmland birds are still declining, but not Buzzards – I could see two, one flying and one sat on a gate post. I then went on to feed more Linnets and collect the eggs for the farm shop.
On the public road back to Vine House Farm, I saw some crows on the road. A hare had been run over, and there were 12 Carrion Crows and a Red Kite around it. 50 years ago, we didn’t have Carrion Crows in the Fens. Not far away, I could see 200 Lapwings resting in a field, and in the next field there were 400 Greylag Geese feeding in a sugar beet crop.
My last stop was to feed Tree Sparrows, but as I was approaching I saw two waders in the bottom of a drain/dyke – they were Green Sandpipers. So nice to see, there are always one or two of them right through the winter in Baston and Langtoft Fens, where there is gravel in the dykes. I then fed the Tree Sparrows with red millet and back to Vine House Farm to deliver the eggs.
Although Tree Sparrow numbers have declined, those that we have here are very keen to bag nest boxes – many nest boxes have nests fully built, with just the final lining required to keep the eggs and young warm.