A Stork Out

During the winter, one of my primary focal points is the wood burner.  Not just the heat it produces, but the hypnotic beauty of its dancing flames.  I am easily distracted while sitting in one of the chairs close to this stove.  Installing the wood burner was our very first project at Crockern, and since that time we have spent many fine hours enjoying it, both dogs curled at our feet.  I also proudly organise the store of wood in the barn, rotating our supply to season the latest arrival.  My wood store organisation paid off when Chimney Sweep Steve said, “You two should write a manual about how to use a wood burner.  This one is as if it is brand new.”  Like the Grinch’s small heart, mine too grew three times that day.

I won’t betray my love for our wood burner, but lately, I find my tendencies toward distraction are pulled in more than one direction.  I can no longer walk past the living room window without stopping to see what, if anything, is visiting the pond.  I’m like a hopeful teenager willing my crush to round the corner and catch my eye.  Each time I look out upon the pond, I enjoy the magic which tentatively creeps into the scene:  a sparkling glimmer upon the water as the sun pokes through the clouds; or perhaps, a rippling of waves as the wind whips up the valley.   Already, our new pond is attracting wildlife.  We have had the arrival of a pair of ducks swimming daily, and periodically making camp on the island.  I watched a Sparrowhawk preen its feathers on a nearby fence post, resting from a recent hunt nearby.

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But most recently, I spotted Roger gingerly wading out into the pond.  Roger is tall and slender, and the pond is very muddy at its edges.  I waited in anticipation for his probable slip and splat into the mud.   But Roger didn’t fall, instead he came to a spot and stood motionless, gazing intently at the water.  “What is he doing?” I wondered.  Hunting?  Attempting to determine the various depths of water?  Considering where we will be placing trees and any other plant life?  Looking for the muddy archive of animal print trails passing near the pond?  Or, trying to see the pond from the same perspective as the Grey Heron, one of our first and most frequent pond visitors.

It’s no wonder we’ve spotted this elegant long-legged hunter waiting by the water’s edge for a fish nearly every day.  Across the river and in the stand of pines, lives a colony of Herons.   Herons nest socially and usually at least 25 metres above the ground.  I’ve walked in these woods and looked up but have never spotted a nest.  Over the years, we have delighted in watching Herons sail along the river’s path with their slow-flapping wings and long legs held out behind.  They look almost prehistoric in flight, and comical as they attempt to gain purchase on a flappy tree limb.  From my own perch,  it is easy to watch these magnificent birds fly in and out of the pines.  And if I can’t spot them, I can hear them making their loud and raucous selection of croaking sounds.  Impossible to miss.

Until they started visiting our pond, I did not appreciate the size of a Grey Heron.  Some of the adults can stand up to one metre in height, with a wing span of about two metres.  I’m only about 1.6 metres tall.  This makes it one of the largest birds we will spot at Crockern.

Herons are usually solitary hunters, standing silently and patiently with that beautiful pale grey plumage.  Because they are still for so long, I can take in the beauty of the broad black stripe extending from their eyes to the back of their white heads and necks.  I like the extra feathers drooping down their necks, too.   They are dead on trend for eye-liner styles and may be the unknowing inspiration for a drag queen or two.  Lady Heron performing tonight on RuPaul’s Drag Race!    These natural killer good looks are accented by their long and pointy yellow beaks, perfect for spiking their prey.  That could spell curtains for some of the other small wildlife to visit the pond.  Fish are not to be found in our pond.  How long will they wait until they realise this?  There are plenty of moles in the fields, so perhaps those will suffice.

Most recently, I was driving up the track and glanced down towards the pond.  I wasn’t expecting to see much more than the direction of the wind on its water and the mud patches all around the perimeter.  But standing stock-still, scattered almost equally around the edge like numbers on a clock face, was a siege of Grey Herons.   Six to be exact.  I phoned Roger from where I sat in the car.  “Roger, quickly get your camera and go to the living room window.  Do not let the dogs out.  Take pictures.  You’re not going to believe it.”

Perhaps, dear reader, you’ll be equally surprised by the photos.

Fieldfares

Winter on Dartmoor is characterised by days of rain, strong winds and lots of mud.  Hail, sometimes the size of large capers, can slap and exfoliate your face, an unpleasant experience as if a cruel dermatologist was having a laugh.  Occasionally we get snow.  All of this conspires to delay certain projects, some of which we do need to urgently address.   On the few days we’ve had a break from the wet and windy stuff, I’ve managed to get out into the garden to assess and tidy.  I observe for signs of growth and areas that need repair.  I noted last week daffodils are starting to break the ground, which seems early, but I know in our climate it isn’t.  They are hearty enough to withstand a frost or snow in February.  I look at our raised vegetable beds knowing some attention is needed.  We will be hoisting a few fallen stones back onto our dry stone walls as well.  I examine with pride our young hedge.

In 2016, Roger and I planted 150 hedge plants.  The following year, we added 100 more, doubling the thickness.  We’ve positioned a mix of native hedge plants along the south and west parts of the garden:  Guelder Rose, Dog Rose, Hazel, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Maple, Holly and Alder.   Apart from providing an alternative boundary to stock proof fencing, our hope for these hedges is to provide greater habitat for the wide variety of animals and plants.  A happy foraging place for birds, small mammals and pollinators.  Perhaps too, we can create a bit of a wind break from those strong prevailing storm gusts coming up from the south.  Attractive and purposeful.

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Part of our hedge in 2016.

The other day we had a much needed break from the rain.  A day of sunshine with puffy clouds like giant spun cotton candy in the sky.  It was a short lived reprieve.  The next day our grey skies returned like a dirty plastic tarp on the wind.    The ground remains saturated.  The mud is everywhere.  And the smell of wet dog has become all too familiar.

Today promises a mixed bag.  Sun streaming through a rupture in the clouds and into the windows, brightening up this old stone farmhouse.  Bright blue skies peak through from down the valley.  Roger and I put on our winter-wear to take the dogs for a walk along the river, one of their favourites.  No sooner are we all set to head out when we spy a wall of filthy boiling clouds traveling fast up the valley from the south.   We dash back inside and wait for this patch of weather to move through.  We watch the cold sleet pelt the old slate of the barn.  The grey stones of walls meet the grey air passing through.  The greens and browns of grasses and mosses are lost in the precipitation.  The red berries on the hawthorn bushes strike brightly against the back drop of winter’s monochrome.

And as soon as this weather system came, it’s gone, a day of many atmospheric conditions.  No wonder the British love talking about the weather, it is constantly mutating.  Sunny with rain is an all too common forecast.   Speaking of which, here it is, the sun again.   As we stroll down the track, Millie and Brock, with tails aloft, trot on the hillside in search of scents and sticks.  Roger recently spotted a fox in the mid-afternoon up on this hill, so no doubt our two canines will catch the occasional whiff of this sly creature.   As we carry on, a flock of Fieldfares, perhaps fifty or sixty, suddenly take flight.  Their hideout, a bunch of riverside willows, disturbed by the approach of two enthusiastic collies.

I like Fieldfares.  They stand upright and move with purpose.  They are gregarious, roaming the winter countryside in large flocks.  When they perch in the open on gorse bushes or in the high branches of a Rowan tree, the air is filled with their constant chatter.  In winter when they visit us, groups of them are found on the open moorland, they seem to like the rough grasses and gorse which surround us.  Their presence indicating where berries and insects are to be found.   They like hedges, feeding happily on Hawthorn berries.  We’re glad our hedges are thriving.

Cloud cover at this time of year can sometimes be so thick I am only able to see a few feet ahead.  When that happens, my hearing becomes more acute.  Sometimes, the collective flap of Fieldfare wings can be heard through the mist.  As Virginia Woolf wrote, “The sound floated out and was cut into atoms by a flock of Fieldfare flying at an enormous speed – somewhere or other.”  However, I prefer to see Fieldfares diving about in their formation flock.  They are part of the winter scene.

Winter can be a time of scarcity, when wildlife ventures further in search of food.  We keep food and water out for the birds.  Fieldfares don’t come close into our garden to feed, preferring to feed on berries in the hedgerows and trees.  They migrate here, arriving in November and spend winter with us before flapping on.  Almost all will likely leave before they breed.   This spring, we hope for a big return in our Swallows and House Martins, numbers having been inexplicably down the past few years.

We do have a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers.  They have started pecking holes in search of bugs in a section of the Sycamore tree which shades Gin and Tonic Hill.  We like the idea this pair is so close to Crockern.  We hope they have a brood this spring.

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Fieldfare flock (photo found on Wikipedia).

Hoo’s Looking for Birds?

At a recent party, I heard three separate conversations about Barn Owls. “Oh, we have one living in our shed.” “I have a Barn Owl roosting in my stables. ”  “You know, we’ve got a pair mating in our barn.”  And to each of these, I gave an acknowledging smile and grudgingly contributed, “Roger and I have spotted one once or twice on a standing stone along our track.”  Doesn’t compare, does it?

I love owls and spotting them is different from other types of birds.  Most are fairly elusive during the day, enjoying the nocturnal and crepuscular way of life.  This definitely doesn’t correspond with my behaviour.  I’m up with the sun, busy during the day and then ready to hunker down when the sun sets, particularly in winter when it is colder. Nothing beats sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night, good book and glass of wine to hand.

Our wet and rainy December has given way to a less wet, but certainly colder January and February.  We had our first snow flurries the other week, but not much accumulation.  Then these past few days, the temperatures dropped to an angry cold, the clouds moved in and we have a proper eight or so inches of snow.  Currently, when the news isn’t about Brexit, it is all about the Polar Vortex gripping the Mid-West in America.  Less newsworthy, we’re having our own wild winter on Dartmoor.   The dogs go crazy in the snow, following the fresh scents and animal tracks on the surface.  They love nothing more than diving into a snow drift to chase a snow ball.  While Millie and Brock are busy sniffing newly laid scents, I am moved by the pure resonance of the dawn chorus.  This layer of snow dampens ambient sounds leaving a still backdrop for the songbirds.  Because of this and the play of morning light, I enjoy getting outside first thing.  Likely, right after any owls have decided to call it a night.

With this much snow, we presently have the moors to ourselves, except for a brave few photographers. This solitude won’t last long as no doubt, the weekend will bring all the madness of people coming to go sledding.  They will leave their cars parked all over, block gates, and leave behind a trail of litter.  This is the part of the snow fall I do not enjoy.   But the roads are not fully passable at the moment, so they haven’t arrived yet. This gives us a chance to fully embrace our own little winter wonderland and the thrill of laying our own fresh tracks in the snow.

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Roger andI head out onto the moors with Millie and Brock, the ashy coloured sky reveals an occasional patch of blue.  The sun has tentatively peeked out, lighting the clouds in a pleasing combination of pink, purple, and grey.  The tors look especially brooding on top of the hills in this light and with their dusting of snow.  With the wind to our backs, we march up past Crockern Tor, and then north along the ridge.

Trudging through virgin snow, we pass sheep who keep a watchful eye on Brock.  We do too as he is still working through his instinct to herd them.   After about forty-five minutes, we clamber to the top of some rocks, pause, and take in the views.  The sun is now casting our shadows across the gorse, reeds and granite boulders.  We catch sight of a bird of prey quartering low over the moors beneath our vantage point.  We watch it either hunting or waiting for a clear moment to feed on something already lying dead below.  Roger is certain it is a Hen Harrier, which we don’t often see.

It’s thrilling to spot a bird of prey.   They are spectacular and spellbinding examples of power and grace.  Possessing top predator status can’t be easy and that means they will never be as numerous as other birds, so there is a certain novelty and happy surprise to seeing these elusive creatures.  Since moving to Dartmoor, we have spotted Red Kites, Hen Harriers, Buzzards, Kestrels, Sparrow Hawks, Barn Owls, Tawny Owls, and Hobby.   Roger has spotted a Merlin, too. He once observed a pair of Peregrine Falcons in this very spot we are standing now.

Owls are part of this elite top bird group of predators.  And like all birds of prey, they are powerful, fast, graceful and nimble.  And yet, despite appearing ferocious, they are fragile.  I suppose that is what being a bird of prey ultimately means.   They sit on the top of the food chain and their numbers are essentially controlled by the amount of prey available to them, an amount so easily disrupted by climate and people.  With curiosity and admiration, we happily watch the Hen Harrier.

As we move on, I bring up the conversations at that recent party.  “Roger, why is it almost everyone seems to have a nesting Barn Owl?” “Roger, why don’t we seem to have nesting Barn Owls?”  “Roger, did you believe everyone’s comments about the nesting Barn Owls at the party?” “Roger, could there be that many nesting Barn Owls living in such close proximity?”  Clearly, my envy was getting the better of me because while many of our friends and neighbours are able to report Barn Owls living in their out buildings, all we can confirm are Jackdaws, rabbits, rats, mice, voles, toads, and a million spiders.  In the spring, Swallows and House Martins will join the crew.  And, Pied Wag-Tails will make nests in the cracks in the mortar of the building’s walls.

In the meantime, if I can’t see a Barn Owl, I’ll darn well listen out for one.  Unlike the hooting sound of the Tawny Owls living in the stand of Pines across the river, I will need to listen carefully for an eerie screeching and hissing sound.  I’ll also have to keep Millie inside as she enjoys nothing more than conducting a night time perimeter bark to warn off foxes and badgers, in order to keep our chickens safe.   I doubt we’ll get a resident Barn Owl anytime soon, though I may sign up for a Nest Box workshop at the local Barn Owl Trust.  It’s important to encourage new critters to Crockern.

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Beauty and The Beast

 

Snow descended upon most of the UK this past week.  The last icy blast of winter?  This season may feel like it will never end, but I know from experience the days will soon grow longer and beneath that blanket of snow, the snowdrops and daffodils will push up through the ground announcing the coming of spring.

After two months of rain and mud, I welcome the freezing temperatures carried by The Beast from The East (the name given to the arctic temperatures which recently came from Siberia).  Typically, English winters seem damp and temperate, but this unusually crisp, dry and cold atmosphere reminds me of winters in the States.  So cold it felt like my eyeballs might freeze.

The Beast surprised us on its first day:  We awoke to find no water due to a frozen pipe.  Armed with a hairdryer and determination, Roger made quick work to restore our water.   After that, we began leaving a tap on to prevent another pipe freeze.  We were somewhat loath to do this as the water pump working in the night might require the generator to start or drain our storage batteries.  However, we could not afford to have frozen pipes and their attendant problems.  Wisely, Roger started manually running our 30-year old Lister generator each evening to keep it from struggling to start in such cold conditions.  This simple act kept the batteries topped up through the night.

As we adjusted to hard ground, frozen sections of the river, and keeping everything ticking over, we found ourselves waiting for the arrival of Storm Emma.   We felt certain it would be as if we were collateral damage during a match-up of Marvel Comic characters.  And we were.  Emma’s arrival brought fifty-mile an hour wind gusts hurtling down the valley from the north and a dumping of snow.  Each walk with Millie felt like a polar expedition as we made our way through the growing drifts of snow.

Living in a rural area, Roger and I naturally worry about our supplies of food and fuel and the welfare of the hens.   Before Emma and The Beast coupled, we had wisely secured plenty of food, wine, firewood, books and went so far as to bring inside all the watering cans, and filling water bottles should we have another pipe freeze too big for our little hairdryer.  Battened down and ready:  Bring it on Winter!

Looking out the window to the blizzard and all too aware that we could be snow-bound for a few days, my thoughts drift to childhood memories of sledding, building snowmen and snow caves and hoping school would be closed.  The snow outside transforms the meaning of home inside, where we stoke the fire, listen more intensely to the radio, and remind one another of the various tasks to keep ourselves safe and Crockern operational.  We may be considered remote, but in truth we are generally self-sufficient and could easily manage a week or two of isolation.

But, not if we had an emergency!  With equal measurements of sensibility and adventure, Millie and I started up the Land Rover and drove down the track.  There were several large drifts across the track, but the snow was light and fluffy and I was in a four-wheel drive.  I drove through these with glee!   But at the end of our track, there was a drift about 4 feet high, blocking access through the gate.  I grabbed my shovel, and began to dig.  As this was Millie’s first snow, she realised she too could help rid the drift with her digging.  In no time, the two of us cleared a path.

We were lucky.  Some of our neighbours were stuck as there were no passable roads to their houses.  A friend’s generator wouldn’t start leaving him without electricity, which meant no heat or water.  Many friends and neighbours had no water as pipes were frozen; while nearby, a neighbour had leaking in the house from a ruptured pipe.

After the storm abated, most of the landscape was dressed in soft, virgin snow.  It’s magical appearance a reminder of the power of nature.  Across the country, traffic came to a standstill.  Trains were cancelled or delayed by several hours.  Plans to see friends aborted.  When my schedule is disrupted by the weather, I only pretend frustration. Mostly, I sigh with relief: the world has stopped.  When I look at our calendar and all the things I have had to cancel, suddenly many of them don’t seem so important.  Winter slows our pace, disrupts the business of schedules and appointments and reminds us to re-organize priorities.

It’s true, winter gets into our bones and at times can seem interminable, tedious and brutal.   But as the snow transforms the previously muddy landscape, this cold reminds me of the visceral comfort of a warm fire, a glass of wine, rest and a good book.  Hunkering down takes on greater joy!  So too, I am reminded of that sense of excitement and boundless energy to get outside and enjoy the snow.  Shovelling is not a chore, it’s playtime!  Tossing snowballs into drifts for Millie to locate becomes the height of mischief for both of us.

Shortly on the heels of the snow fall, arrived the freezing rain.  Our track was clear of snow drifts, but it was beginning to become ice.  The wind was gathering strength and generating a deafening sound, which all but muffled the moan of tree branches under the new weight of 3 centimetres of ice.

Soon, all the snow will melt, and it of course will mean the return of mud.  But this dreamy-blizzardy-back-drop, sandwiched between the rain and mud of winter, has helped restore a sense of what matters most.

 

Follow Me Follow

 

Winter on Dartmoor can easily evoke images of a barren and soggy country-side.  Walking across what best matches a lunar landscape this time of year is to lean into the gusty winds that shoot up the valleys.  The sheep, cattle and ponies all know the sheltered bits of terrain, and if you look through the gorse and rushes, it’s easy to spot the drier paths as the grazing livestock have laced their way across the land.   On many winter days, fogs as thick as cotton can descend without warning.  It’s easy to get lost and every year, some walkers do.

But I don’t mind the weather here.  I like how changeable it is.  Nothing beats coming in from a long walk, to cosy up next to the wood burner and contemplate my next move.  Somehow, this year it has been different.  The weather hasn’t been changeable.  It has been grey, rainy, and windy without relief.  The damp, moist atmosphere has been endless and so too has the mud.

For weeks the clouds have continued to gather, promising rain, rain, rain with seemingly no end in sight.  I don’t know if this has been the wettest winter on Dartmoor, but it certainly has felt like it.  For most of 2018, weather reports predicted more rain, mist, or fog, but nothing to indicate cold, dry or frosty.  Meanwhile, the potholes on the track grew deeper, wider and more plentiful.  Our newly planted hedgerow often looked as if it could be washed away any moment.  And, my mud caked boots felt slightly damp when I put them on to set out for another soggy walk with Millie.  As this wet winter raged on, I felt I had reached my saturation point.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.

What’s happened?  As a child, I was drawn to the stuff.  Some of my fondest childhood memories saw me covered head to toe in mud.   I was busy making mud pies, jumping in puddles, or digging in the local creek to find “clay” to make some naïve pottery.   Playing in mud was just good, dirty fun.  I was indifferent to this grubby, gooey and sticky substance.  All grown up, I don’t mind getting dirty when Roger and I are building, digging, gardening, or most recently, filling potholes.  There is something satisfying to working hard and having the filth to prove it.

But after weeks and weeks of relentless mud and wet, it’s safe to say I’m fed up.  I don’t want to go slip sliding away.   One recent morning, as the coffee was brewing, I headed outside to let the chickens out for the day.  Still in my pyjamas, I carefully made my way down the hill to the chicken coop when both feet slipped out from underneath me, and I landed on the ground sliding a few feet further.   Covered in mud, this was not the way to start my day.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.

As I righted myself from this soggy patch of ground, I considered the many places in the world devastated by mud, so who am I to complain?    However, days and days of wind and rain, without relief, were making me feel curMUDgeonly.  Struggling to find the glass half full approach, I reflect that there are spas where people pay good money for a mud bath and I’ve just taken one for free in my own back yard.   Mud-runs are all the rage, too.  With a bounty of websites extolling the curative effects of bathing, eating, standing, and sleeping in glorious mud, perhaps I should be more open minded.  As they say, there’s nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.  Hmmmm.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.  Enough!

Mercifully, we’re now having a few consecutive days of dry and cold weather and with it blazing sunshine and a hard ground underfoot.  These few crisp and cold winter days are welcome by all.  With a break from the relentless rain and wet, the snowdrops and daffodils are all bursting from the ground showing signs of spring to come.  The chickens are happily scratching all about the yard hunting bugs and worms before settling down to spread their wings in the warming rays of the sun.

Walks are becoming less treacherous and the river has returned to a fordable body of water.   At night, the moon glow casts a silvery light across the landscape.  One of the fabulous things about living in the country-side is there is almost no light pollution.  On a foggy, overcast night, it can be pitch black outside.  But when the moon peaks out, or the stars are in full splendour, it is eerie how far the eye can see.   I imagine if all the rain we’ve had were instead a blanket of snow, the moon glow would provide dramatic scene lighting on the stage set of our surroundings.

Our wet winter has left our track in horrible condition.  Roger and I have spent the past few days working to fill the potholes which have grown large in the past months.  Our bodies ache, but we feel satisfied with our progress.  As the day draws to a close, there’s not a cloud above and the sun set is casting a rosy glow in the western sky.  While I am watching the light change, Roger is mixing us gin and tonics to put a close to a hard day’s work.   “Here’s mud in your eye!”

 

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Selfie with Millie as we take a break during a rare dry-day walk.

It Feels Like Butterflies In My Stomach

“Millie sit.”  “Good sit.”  Poised on her back haunches, her head drops and ears flatten as she focuses on my every move.  If I twitch a finger, she begins to stand. “No, sit!”  “That’s a good girl.”  I stay still as an old oak, slowly moving my palm out in a stop position towards Millie and give the command,  “Wait.”  Her head tilts.  I say it again before throwing her beloved toy about twenty feet away.  As I begin to turn and take a step in the direction of the lifeless tug toy, she lifts her rear and I quickly must utter  “Eh, Eh, Millie SIT.”  “WAIT!”  I take a deep breath.  “Good wait.”  Millie tightens the coil of her body’s spring.  Moments later, I release her from her wait with an enthusiastic “Okay!”  And off she runs, full pelt towards her toy.

Every day our training regime includes work on sits and waits.  As often as not, Millie does not want to abide by these commands, viewing them as optional.   Naturally, I disagree.  “What’s the point?” our little teenage puppy must be musing.  She is a party girl who is simply on the move and wants to have fun.  She loves to bound across the ground, run through tunnels, jump over obstacles, and return as quickly as possible with her toy for a good game of chase or tug-of-war.

When her toy is not to mouth, she’s happy to follow after and catch leaves, snowballs, or Sam’s tail.  Anything that moves is fair play.  It isn’t possible to sweep the floor or rake leaves without Millie pouncing on the broom or rake. Fortunately, her chase impulse does not apply to birds, rabbits, sheep, horses or cattle.  We don’t know about cats.

As a gentleman dog, Sam is happy in his senior years to have a nice slow walk, preferably without hills, followed by a meal and a snooze by the fire.  Even as a younger dog, he was never one to pursue anything, except cats.  So imagine the surprise to all of us when Millie started spinning and twirling around the kitchen channeling her inner Stevie Nicks singing “Just like a white winged dove” as she followed the latest discovery, a butterfly.  “Ooh Baby, Ooh, said ooh.”

It’s January and cold outside, so what’s this butterfly doing inside?  During this time of year, we daily light the wood burner in the morning and cover the veg beds at night to keep the frost off the plants.  This is not the time of year for a butterfly.  While Small Tortoiseshells can turn up almost anywhere, from city centres to remote wildernesses, they do like it where nettles grow.  We have nettles in abundance, but not in the kitchen.  So hibernating in the barn, the wood pile, or one of the outbuildings makes sense.  But our kitchen?

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It’s too cold to implement our usual catch and release approach which we utilise regularly with moths, bees, butterflies, bats and birds which find their way inside during warmer months.  Sadly, we don’t have any flowering plants inside for this butterfly to find nectar.   It’s lifespan is significantly reduced by choosing our kitchen as its launchpad. To calm and distract Millie, the dogs and I head to sit by the fire while Roger places a small ramekin filled with sugared water and a ball of tissue paper near the window where the butterfly has settled.  The least we can do is feed it while it makes its home inside our house.

Armed with glasses of wine, Roger joins me and the dogs by the fire.  Sam has found a comfortable spot and drifts into a deep sleep, perhaps dreaming of his younger days when his back legs had him jumping over stiles.  But Thoroughly Modern Millie has sneaked out of the room unnoticed until we hear a gentle clinking of ceramic on stone.  Getting up to investigate we find Madam in the window, drinking the homemade nectar.

The Small Tortoiseshell may be one of the most common butterflies in the UK, but it is also the national butterfly of Denmark.  Sure, it is mischievous and disobedient of Millie to be in the window, but more shocking, and perhaps treasonous, is that she ate the butterfly!

Livin’ on the Veg

It isn’t easy gardening in winter, let alone on Dartmoor.  The UK, with its distinct seasons, offers a challenge to keeping a year round vegetable supply.  By late autumn, it feels as if there is nothing left to harvest after the near glut in summer.  Even in spring, as plants are beginning to grow, there are too few things ready to harvest.  We’ve had to learn about what to grow and when, protecting our vegetables, and making use of different vegetable varieties to fill empty spaces in the garden.

So far, the new and improved raised beds, which Roger built this past spring, complete with their chicken wire surround to keep out pesky critters, are working a treat.  We have been feasting the past few months on kale, beets, spinach, winter purslane, radishes, and land cress.  The rainbow chard is beginning to look pickable and our spring cabbages are blossoming out to a respectable size.  Our progress comes as a huge satisfaction.

Growing for winter is truly a year-round job.  It begins in the summer when we must resist being seduced by the bounty of veg we gather at that time, staying focused on the leaner months of autumn and winter to follow.  By October, light levels are low, affecting the speed of germination.  Add in a healthy dose of wind, rain and cold, which begin to dominate the weather forecast, and it is tempting to throw in the trowel.  As is our style, we ignore all the obvious discouraging signs and charge ahead.

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A typical frost covering the plant life on the hillside.

We’ve never had much luck with leeks, and so didn’t bother this year.  But now, I’m regretting having not given leeks, garlic and more onions a spot in our winter beds.  In reading up on these edible alliums, I discover that garlic actually needs a period of cold and so wants, nay begs, to be in the ground and growing well before the arrival of winter.  I will need to make a note for next year in my little black book.

We have a forecast of snow for later today, so Roger has just put on his waterproofs and headed out to cover the beds with horticultural fleece.  Most days this autumn and winter have been easy for us to tend to the garden.  But this week it feels like wind, rain, freezing temperatures, rabbits, slugs, and a host of other challenges are joining hands to welcome us each time we go out to pick some lettuce.  I have half a mind to forego our Five-A-Day.

Roger outside in the rain and sleet protecting the veg beds.

Roger outside in the rain and sleet protecting the veg beds.

Despite all the challenges, lettuce does well through the winter as does spinach, which actually is easier to grow in winter than in summer because it doesn’t go to seed so quickly.  We are always thinking about what to grow and whether or not to bother.  I don’t have any interest in growing peas and beans, they aren’t suited to our location.    Nor, do I have any interest in Brussel Sprouts.   Despite how much I love them, they take up too much space in the garden.

Winter gardening also involves planning for the spring.  While sitting by the fire with the snow coming down, thoughts drift to:  What will we repeat?  What will we try new?  What will we completely abandon?  Two years of aubergines and we aren’t going to bother again.  They grow, they flower, and then nothing.  It’s best to learn from mistakes and build on our successes.  With that in mind, Roger has purchased several fruit bushes which do well in acidic soil.  Where to plant these is yet to be decided, but we will need to get them in the ground soon.  Of course, my make shift bird netting for the blueberry bushes will no longer do, so we are discussing how to go about building a fruit cage which will be easy to access and yet not blow over in some of the strong winds we get in our moorland valley.  Despite this new challenge, which we brought on ourselves, we are both looking forward to growing more fruit.

While the rain hammered down this morning, I was dry inside the greenhouse giving it some attention by tipping out pots with finished plants from the summer, pulling weeds which are making their home inside the greenhouse, watering the strawberry plants, and giving it a good sweep.  In the early spring, we’ll take everything out and clean the glass and give the floor a scrub to rid it of moss and mould, but there’s no point doing this in winter.

With our winter garden, it’s vegementary, really.   It’s all down to the planning.  Typically, we have big gaps form March through May and in the past, November onwards.  Not this year!  We gave some thought to how we were going to rotate our crops in the raised beds and when we needed to plant things out for winter.  Because there are any number of things that can go wrong:  Some leafy crops are prone to bolting; caterpillars seek out and find cabbages; there’s club root, flea beetles, birds, slugs, snails, whitefly, and heavy rains, and strong winds.  It’s apocalyptic!  But the stuff that survives, thrives and provides, delights us.  Really, we just try a few things, see what works and then repeat.