August has made up for the miserable May and June, warmer and dryer than average for some, but we caught a heavy shower on August 27th with 38mm which has brought our rainfall to above average, 53.7mm or 2.1ins.
August has been a busy month here on the farm. It is harvest time of course, and we have also exhibited at the annual Birdfair this month. We’ve been busy with the media too, with the filming of a future episode of ‘Escape to the Country’ and an episode of ‘Down on the Farm’ for CBeebies. The Daily Mail has also been here for an article, to be included in their Weekend section and The Wildlife Trust has interviewed me for a future edition of their monthly magazine Natural World. It is of course the fields of sunflowers that have triggered all this interest. A field of sunflowers is a beautiful sight and there are so few grown here in England, so naturally they attract some attention. They aren’t very popular to grow with farmers because they are not an easy crop to grow. They are also very popular with pigeons, and are such a late harvest. October is not a good month for combining crops as damp and wet material will not go through a combine and there aren’t many days in October when the vegetation gets completely dry. The combine copes with the tough stalks and the big seeds of the sunflowers just as easily as any other crop as long as everything is dry. We also have to alter a few settings on the combine. The sunflowers will have been enjoying the sunny days of August as every crop will produce a good yield if it has sunshine when it is in flower. Early June was when the winter barley needed sunshine and so the heavy rain in early June produced a very poor crop of winter barley. We were, overall, expecting a poor grain harvest. We did have a poor winter barley harvest and oil seed rape was below average too. The wheat harvest has been better than expected; yields are about average, as the July sunshine worked wonders on the crop. The sugar beet and the potatoes did not enjoy the dry August but the 38mm rain we received on 27th August refreshed them and they continue to grow with the exception of a few crops of potatoes which we have killed off to make their skins set. This has to happen three weeks before we want to lift the potatoes, as if we lift them before their skins are set, they won’t keep very well which devalues them. Any potatoes that are destined for the supermarket have to be attractive in shape and have a clear skin. The taste is not too important for the cheaper supermarkets, but the better supermarkets require specific varieties - ones that both cook and eat well. We also grow potatoes for the chipping market, they also have to be a specific variety that will grow to a large size and have the right flesh consistency for the factory. The variety needs to consist of 21-24% of dry matter which does not absorb too much fat and fry a lighter colour. How it looks is not so important, but it needs to be a long potato which is bruise and damage free. They all have to be treated very carefully.
Wildlife has not departed from our farm, like it has from many other farms. On many Fen farms the crops have been harvested, the stubbles cultivated and all the dykes have been flailed. Flailing means cut, chopped and smashed - destroying any food that might have been available. We have plenty of areas on the farm that will not be cut, as these areas provide food and shelter for the growing young birds and for the adults to also moult in. As I look around the Fens, it is a desolate place at this time of year. It would be so beneficial if every Fen farmer was required by law to have a reed bed or wet area that doesn’t get mown every year. It isn’t just the Fens that are in this situation; there are the Lancashire Mosslands, the Yorkshire Carrs and the Romney Marshes. Whilst it’s an ideal time of year for farmers to have a tidy up of fields and their boundaries, including dykes and hedge rows, once mown and cut the abundance of food and habitat is taken away from our wildlife. When a bird is moulting it needs plenty of food, but isn’t able to fly at full speed, so it needs somewhere to hide out of the way of the Sparrowhawk. Smaller birds will have a complete moult in the autumn, while birds of prey take a lot longer, moulting one wing feather at a time so they can still fly fast enough to catch their prey. Every species has evolved a strategy to suit itself. Penguins sit out on land, or ice, to moult, having gorged themselves for a few weeks to enable them to have a complete moult. They wouldn’t survive if they moulted in the freezing water so they stay safe on the land. Several Barn Owls have decided to rear a second brood, which means the vole population must be healthy. I haven’t been round them all yet and will let you know next month how they are doing. The water voles in my garden pond have been very secretive over the summer, I hadn’t seen any for at least two months and wondered if they were still in the pond but I have seen one, twice in the past week, so they are still around. They, like the bank and field vole, do not need insects in their diet, so as long as there is habitat where they can chew away at grass, they and the creatures that feed on them should continue to exist. Vehicles on the road are of course a danger to Barn Owls and Kestrels. More people mean more cars, and that means less wildlife. A few nights ago, as I came down the two mile long farm road here at Vine House Farm, I counted around 700 moths in my headlights. I then went out on the main road and counted only 15 moths in two miles. Many of you, I’m sure, will have noticed that you no longer need to wash your car windscreen as often in the summer as you did 20 years ago. All I can say is, no wonder our wildlife is declining when they rely on insects to survive. Tree Sparrows have all finished breeding, simply because there aren’t the insects around for them to feed their young. Several of the pairs that reared a fourth brood struggled to rear two young, but one pair did manage to rear six chicks. From the 110 nest boxes around our farm, Tree Sparrows have reared around 950 chicks. Three nest boxes have had two species nest in them, a Blue or Great Tit followed by a Tree Sparrow, so obviously I don’t have enough nest boxes up yet. The Tree Sparrows could have been pairs that failed their first breeding attempt at another location and roamed around to find a better place to breed. Earlier this week I saw a Wood Pigeon carrying some nesting material and, as you know, they continue to thrive because they don’t need insects in their diet, unlike most other species.