The weather has been breaking records again and when that happens it is bad news for farmers, as it is either too wet or too dry. On December 23rd 52mm or 2 ins of rain fell. In the 50 years that I have been keeping rainfall records, we have never had more than one inch of rain on one day before in December. An inch of rain fell on December 27th in 1978, 1978 being the only other December when I have recorded over 4 ins of rain. When I look at rainfall over the past 50 years in our winter months, that is November to end of February, the heaviest rainfall I can find is only 31mm or 1.25ins, so to get over 2ins of rain in one day in December was a very big event.
The rain fell on wet ground and so it all ran off into drains and dykes and then into rivers. The pumps at Pode Hole had 8 million tons of water coming towards them. Staff at our drainage board thankfully agreed to man our big diesel pumps day and night over Christmas and no doubt over many other pumping stations across the Fens. Any pumping stations installed these days are fully automatic and most of our smaller ones are. Our big diesel pumps, made in Lincoln by Rustons and installed in 1965 with an 85% grant from government, are not automatic but they are well boss of their job and so are likely to remain in service for many years to come.
There was water standing in nearly every field in Deeping Fen on Christmas Eve, some because the farmer has not had his fields drained and others because they had not been able to recover from the terrible wet weather we had in the second half of 2019. Unfortunately, our worst fields were where we have been direct drilling, that is drilling without cultivating.
November was quite a good month as far as we were concerned as we had less than an inch of rain, we were able to crack on with the last of the drilling and ploughing. Heavy rain on December 3rd and 4th put a stop to most things in fields, so the men have been catching up with jobs that needed doing in the workshop. One job that we are having to do fairly regularly is to repair or strengthen gates that hare coursers have damaged or even cut in half with their battery powered disc cutters. These hare coursers are around the district every day. The Police are quite keen to catch them, but they are never in the same spot for very long. They drive over fields, drive dangerously on the roads and only when they make a mistake – like getting bogged down in a field or an accident on the roads – are they caught.
Prices of our cereal crops are rising slowly, simply because there is a shortage of them as farmers had such a poor harvest. The sugar beet crops are only yielding about half of what they normally do, and in several cases the income of the crop does not even pay for the lifting of it, all due to aphids coming in when it was only about 3ins high. Thirty and forty years ago, we would be looking for aphids as the beet were growing, usually finding them in time and spraying to kill them. Then along came seed dressings which solved all our problems as far as aphids were concerned. The seed dressings kill the aphids and many other beneficial insects, something that farmers are not able to see or detect in fields. The overwhelming evidence from tests in laboratories has resulted in neonicotinoids being banned, costing farmers millions of pounds.
Every morning I set off round the farm to feed birds in about eight places with the sweepings and end of runs from our bird seed packing plant. I don’t use the Massey Ferguson tractor, as featured in the Fens program, but in my Freelander.
I was using the tractor in the Fens program because the photographer took a liking to it. I bought it in 1975 because every time I went to the finals of the National Tractor Handling competition, at the Royal Show, I had to compete on a Massey Ferguson and the tractors I owned were David Browns. I could then practice on a Massey Ferguson and in 1975 I came second in the competition and in 1976 I won the National Tractor Handling Competition.
My 1st stop is a large bramble bush, where I feed up to 150 Linnets every morning with Oil Seed Rape. My 2nd stop is by a piece of rough, near some wild bird cover, to feed a pair of Stonechats with live mealworms. They are such dear little birds and over the past 30 years, it has been a success story for them, they have increased in numbers and expanded their wintering range. I should think if I was to search the farm, I could find 8 or 10 of them wintering this year. This is the best winter for them so far.
The 3rd stop is some hedging and I throw some sweepings under a few bushes. I am feeding mainly Chaffinches and Blackbirds here and I think most of both species are probably birds from Scandinavia.
Next, the 4th stop is my Tree Sparrow hot spot, where I have ponds and a double hedge. Up to 200 birds rise up as I approach, seed gets thrown under a hedge and in bramble bushes, places where Wood Pigeons are not likely to get. 5th is another hedge. 6th is also under a hedge, but I always get more birds here and probably 200 or so get up as I approach. Mainly Chaffinches, but there are Greenfinches, Reed Buntings, Goldfinches, Blue and Great Tits, Linnets and one or two Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings.
It’s 2 miles to get to the next spot and I motor along the North Drove drain, quite a large drain, where I see Herons and Little Egrets most days, with sightings of a Great White Egret about once a week. I also see two Kestrels daily, Buzzards and Kites every day and a Peregrine last week.
The 7th spot is a hedge that has been laid, a really good bit of cover and 300-400 birds get up as I approach. Again mainly Chaffinches, but with all the other species I have just mentioned, strangely enough I have not seen a Brambling on the farm this winter yet. The 8th spot is a long bramble bush, probably 100 yards long, which I planted about 35 years ago. It has now engulfed the redundant dyke it was planted next to. I call it ‘Linnet City’ as there are around 80 pairs of Linnets there, so they get a mixture of the seed plus some Oil Seed Rape.
The final stop is our 35 acre wetland where, at the moment, there are around 800 Wigeon, 50 Mallard, 40 Teal and a pair of Shoveler.