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.

Autumn is Knocking

The light on the horizon has changed significantly this past week, casting long, broad shadows across the hills.  The sky is filled with an eclectic mixture of brooding, grey clouds adorned with cotton-candy-like puffs of white accentuated with splashes of blue.  Crisp leaves are beginning to carpet the ground and collect in corners of the garden and in all our drains.  An annual autumn project of clearing leaves has now appeared on our to-do list.  The most notable announcement of the season’s change is the formation of the bright flame-red berries dangling from the Rowan trees.

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Where did the summer go?  It seems just yesterday we were filling the long days with visitors and projects.  We were busy tending to the vegetable garden and our on-going repair of stone walls.  Daily we pulled weeds, maintained the garden, and filled potholes.  We spent hours gathering and consuming the abundance of our vegetable beds, building a new fence — which resulted in an unfortunate concussion for Roger — juggling family demands and embracing the arrival of the thoroughly modern Millie!

In the summer months, we carry on with all our activities until our bones and muscles ache, taking breaks to walk Sam and Millie or have a cup of coffee. By the end of the day, covered with dirt, we put away our tools, clean ourselves up, and prepare dinner. Afterwards, we take a glass of wine and make our way back outside to soak in the hot tub.  We make plans for the next day while the night shift of wildlife clocks-in. On a clear night, one by one, the stars appear in the sky and the bats flash past to feeding on new insect life. Foxes and badgers make their plans for the evening’s hunt and forage, and the tawny owl in the stand of pines across the valley sings a musical riff.

Now, as I walk the dogs in the early morning, I feel a chill in the air and can see our breath in the dawn air.   This first walk of the day is one of two stories:  Sam sniffing all the news of the day to come and slowly awaking his achy bones as he lumbers down the track; while Millie darts from one moment to the next, chasing her toy and racing past me and Sam to exercise her job as the Ambassador of Joy!  I certainly have my pre-coffee challenge with the two dogs moving at different speeds and entertaining their different interests, but our pack of three sync up with the pleasure of the crisp morning air.

As we turn the corner on our walk, down in the valley the fog hangs along the river as if a dragon flew past in the night and left a breath trail.  Exposed by the morning dew are the webs of the thousands of spiders who make their homes in the gorse bushes.  With the arrival of cooler temperatures, many of these spiders now seem to be making their homes inside our house and not a day goes by when I don’t discover yet another large arachnid awaiting rescue from the kitchen sink.

It’s not just spiders who have made their way into the house, we’ve had a few bats too.  Recently, I was spending the afternoon stacking our winter wood supply in the barn when I noticed something flapping about in jerky flight.  Too late to be a swallow or a house martin, they’ve left for warmer climates and won’t be back again until the spring.   When I stopped to investigate, I spied a bat hanging upside down in the rafters.  I’ve not seen it there before or since, so I suspect this is simply a temporary rest stop as it was too early to be out and about hunting insects.  Sure enough, later that day Roger and I spent the better part of the evening trying to isolate the Horseshoe bat, which had found its way from the barn into the house.

The greater horseshoe bat is one of the larger British bats with a wingspan of about 35-39 cm, and also one of the rarest.  We are in one of the few areas in the country where these bats are still breeding, so it is a treat to see one.  After Roger photographed and confirmed its identification, we managed to get it into a room where we could close the doors, turn out the lights, and open the windows so it would head out into the night to commence its hunting before returning to its roost in parts unknown to us.

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As the plants die back to conserve their energy for a spring bloom, so too, Roger and I have turned our attentions to readying for winter.  But we aren’t there yet. Soon, we will spend more of our time inside by the fire and less outside. As the nights draw in and our wood burner provides daily comfort, we will turn our attentions to projects inside.  We have a water tank which needs replacing, pipes which need relocating, and we’re making some changes to the hot water system as a result.  Roll on Autumn….

Oh, The Lengths We’ll Go!

Roger’s capacity for detail and care often moves me.  He possesses a patience and ability to dig deep, learning what is needed for nearly any challenge.  Where I might be a planner and excel at fitting a number of things into small spaces; Roger can manage details, intricacies and care in ways I simply can’t imagine.

We had been away in April for a week and enjoying a long overdue holiday.  When we returned, we saw one of our chickens sporting a very messy bottom.  Our neighbour who takes care of our chickens when we are away, indicated she had observed the chicken’s messy bottom and thought it might be a prolapse.

Well now, that’s a first for us.

Raising one’s own chickens is a thoroughly rewarding enterprise. Chickens are certainly the most easily managed of domestic animals — they are smaller than goats, and more practical than parakeets.  Our small flock of hens produces enough eggs for us to use during the week, plus extra to sell.  We keep them safe from predators, provide them shelter and food, and a good bit of free-ranging yard in which to explore, take dust baths, and catch worms.  Unlike Sam and Millie, our chickens don’t need to be trained or walked.  The very idea is preposterous!

Of course, when a chicken develops health concerns that is another kettle of fish, so to speak.  If Sam or Millie were sick, we would take them to the vet.  But, who takes chickens to the vet?  We enjoy our chickens, but we don’t over sentimentalise them.  We’re in the country-side and most people who keep chickens would likely make a nice soup when their hens stop laying.  That won’t be the fate of our girls, because we enjoy watching them in the garden.  Even so, they won’t get a ten mile car ride to the vet when they are feeling poorly.

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Thankfully, there are perhaps as many chicken forums on the Internet as there are chickens in the world.  If you need to know anything about feeding and raising chickens, breed selection, housing options, or recipes for eggs, just click onto one of these discussion groups and you’ll uncover a wide range of expertise, experience, photos and personal stories.  It was one such forum which Roger availed himself of the health and wellness section and quickly learned what to do in this slippery situation.

Treating a prolapse begins with a visit to the chicken day spa, also known as our kitchen sink.  Here the chicken will step into a warm saltwater bath and soak her bottom for about thirty minutes.  I adore soaking for hours in a bath with a good book and a glass of wine, so no doubt in the world of chickens, getting to sit in a bowl of warm water would be bliss!  I’m certain I’m right as our sickly chicken, one of our most evasive and difficult to catch, soon came to see Roger as her key to the spa and practically jumped into his arms when he came to get her for her warm bath.

In the beginning of her care regime, we were concerned about this flighty hen sitting for thirty minutes in a  warm water bath having her bottom cleaned, so I sang to her.  My repertoire bends towards camp songs and I can sing for a good twenty minutes or more about “When it comes to the end of a Brown Ledge day” or “On a wagon, bound for market…”  To more than a few, this skill is among my more irritating, right up there with singing the fifty States in alphabetically order.  But, to this hen, my dulcet tones seemed to do the trick.  Of course, it may have been the warm water bath because as care continued over time, Roger suggested my singing wasn’t necessary.

With the chicken relaxed and her bottom clean, Roger next sprays the hen’s bum with antibacterial spray.  Easy enough.  The prolapse must be pushed back and with the help of a  little haemorrhoid cream, Roger eases the hen’s uterus back into place.  Success!  Somewhat short term though, as about twenty minutes later, her inner organs slipped out again.

For over a week, this procedure of water bath, antibacterial spray and a haemorrhoid cream push-back was conducted twice daily.  The prolapse continued to prolapse.  Reading further, chicken information forums Roger learned about making little harnesses which attach around the chicken’s wings to hold everything up and in, a sort of uterine girdle.  There are endless discussions of the steps people have taken, ultimately ending with such disheartening messages like, “after a week of treatment, the chicken died.”  Like not driving to the vet, we decided to draw the line at making a uterine girdle.

While Roger carried on applying his chicken nursing skills, another chicken who was looking happy and healthy suddenly dropped dead by the feeder.  She was just over 5 years old when she died.  This unexpected death set us about preparing for the loss of another hen.  Her prolapse was not correcting itself and we didn’t want her getting an infection or suffering.

After ten days of treatment in Crockern Spa, our sickly hen, the one who loved Roger for the warm baths he provided, developed a limp.  Was this an infection?  Did she sprain it jumping onto a perch?  Or, was she feigning a new injury to extend visits to the spa?  We may never know because this beautiful hen with her silly slipping out uterus and awkward stride, made a full recovery.  Her warm baths have stopped and so too has her willingness to being caught.  She is back to her evasive manoeuvres, sporting a nice clean bottom and no limp.  She is her old self again.

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Happy and healthy and back in the gang (second from right).

Finding my Way

Recently I attended a navigation workshop for women offered by Two Blondes, a fabulous business run by two women dedicated to getting everyone outside exploring (check them out:  http://www.twoblondeswalking.com).  The idea of other like-minded women, interested in the outdoors and Dartmoor appealed to me.  But learning to properly use a compass, well that was the cherry on top!

How had I gotten to my fifties and not learned this skill?  Three of my four brothers were Eagle Scouts and my Dad was a Scout Master with the Boy Scouts.  As a family, we frequently went camping.  And yet, no one taught me this basic skill.

Is it possible I’ve never learned because I never needed to do so?  Years ago, friends and colleagues gave Roger a silver cup engraved with “The Navigator”.   When it comes to using a compass in the wild, I’ve obviously relied on Roger.  It’s easy to let him figure out our route, while I mind the dogs, look at the landscape and enjoy myself.  And given that engraved mug, who wouldn’t cede responsibility?

But it is not sustainable to take the back seat and rely on others to explore new areas.  The times I’ve gone out to explore on my own, map in hand, I’ve managed to get somewhat lost on Dartmoor.  Not so much lost, really, but haunted by an overriding awareness that I could get lost at any moment.  Then what?

Dartmoor is a tricky challenge, which is why the military train and orienteering activities like the Ten Tors or Duke of Edinburgh are held here.  The usual landmarks found in other national parks are often absent.  Forests change due to cutting.  Walls on the map aren’t always there as they may be historic and grassed over.  Pillow mounds and hut circles, easily identified by archaeologists or skilful navigators, often look like a pile of rocks to me.  Add to that, the weather can be like the ocean with shifting tides from clear, calm waters to rip tides putting an innocent swimmer in peril.  Knowing what you’re doing on Dartmoor is a good idea to say the least.

Thirteen of us gathered for our workshop by Two Blondes.  Armed with our OS maps, compasses, and enthusiasm, we chatted about why we were there:   “I want to get my skills and sense of direction back.”  “My partner always reads the map….what if he drops dead?”  “I just want to do something for myself and sometimes that means walking by myself.”  I was in good company.  All these women, ranging in ages and skills, backgrounds and interests, were crooning just like Annie Lenox and Aretha Franklin, we were doin’ it for ourselves.

Soon, the workshop begins and we open our maps to locate towns, pubs, buildings, footpaths, woods, and rivers and streams.  We calculate distances, times and read the contours of elevations.  All of this was familiar from the hours I’ve spent pouring over OS maps.  I love them for their detail and history.  These beautifully scaled representations of the land are the key to exploring, complete with the easy to use 4 or 6 figure grid reference system.  This part of the workshop was interesting, but when we were going to get to the compass?  That little magnetic mystery that somehow holds the key?  Every skilled navigator will say, “trust your compass.”   But mine, with its needle, orienting lines, directional arrow, declination line, magnifying round and compass scale sat there teasing me.  Then suddenly, one of the Two Blondes announced, “Okay, everyone pull out your compass.”   At last!  And within minutes, what had always seemed difficult and elusive, was made easy.

Roger has explained how to use a compass before, but often he assumes I know what he’s talking about.  Because it is familiar to him, he enthusiastically shows me all the cool things, without ever setting up the basics.  He tells me about true north, magnetic north, and how the map shifts out of north by 1 degree, 29 minutes every year.  My mind drifts.  Is this how Robert Scott and his men missed their South Pole destination only to die tragically close?   It is fair to say, Roger is operating from the notion that I surely must have some basic concepts about this simple, yet revolutionary, circular instrument.  But the Two Blondes knew that we few, we happy few, we band of sisters didn’t know and thus provided a simple, encouraging, and educational approach to using our compasses.   And it is so easy and fun!  I now see why Roger would make the assumption I had a basic understanding.

 

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After mastering our compasses inside, we set out on a walk.   Navigating is not just about the compass, it is also about timing and distance, so we learned our pacing.  We set a bearing and headed off to find a pool on the moor.  Why would anyone ever want to go off a path and find a pool/bog marked on the map?  Well, because it’s on the map and with a compass and a little know how you can.  And what a find!  This bog area was covered in all manner of wildflowers and dwarf shrubs of heather and billbery, along with sedges, cotton-grass, deer grass and purple moor grass, the likes of which I hadn’t noticed along the path.  And because of the boggy nature of the area, all the grazing animals stayed clear, so there was indeed a different wildness to the flora and fauna.  The path we left was still busy with other walkers, families, bike riders and the like.  But up by this pool, away from the path, we could only see the Dartmoor wilderness — that vast landscape rich with varied ecosystems.   We noticed small blue flowers, heard bird song, and spotted sundew, a small carnivorous plant with red spiked leaves to enable it to catch insects to supplement its diet due to the poor nutrient levels of the blanket bogs.  What we couldn’t see was the footpath, or anyone on it, and we were a mere 250 meters away.

Oh, I’m hooked alright.  I love the compass and the idea of being able to learn to orienteer with greater skill.  I love how ordinary it looks, but that it powerfully denotes direction.  I also prefer my little compass to the modern geospatial app on my phone, which is useful but not foolproof.  When I got home, I told Roger all about my day.  He shared my excitement and showed me another type of compass, a sighting compass.  I had no idea we had this little treasure.  He attempted to explain to me how it worked, and nearly failed until I explained how the Two Blondes taught us to use a compass at which point, he wound back his enthusiastic description so that I could see its potential.  Practice and patience will improve my skills as it isn’t exactly rocket science.  In the coming days, I plan to set out and make a few discoveries on my own so that all of us can safely get lost together.

Feel The Burn

I was in town when Roger called me to tell me about the fire raging across the hill on the other side of the river.  His voice sounded concerned as he described hearing fire engines in the distance while watching how the strong winds were rapidly spreading the fire.  Alarmingly, there appeared to be nobody bearing fire shovels in sight to control this burn.  The fire was moving swiftly down the valley toward our fields, but if the wind had shifted, it was entirely possible embers from the fires could easily jump across the river and burn Wistman’s Woods.

Roger is not one to exaggerate so I quickly finished what I was doing and high tailed it back home.  It seemed better to have both of us home in case we had to do anything to keep the fire from coming too close.

Driving back to Crockern, I kept a sharp eye out for smoke filling the sky and saw none.  But when I rounded the corner to make my way up our track, there were four fire engines parked.  The closer I got to home, the more I could smell the charred remains of burnt gorse and grass and see the smoke drifting up from the scorched earth.  What had been green and golden when I left in the morning was now black and smouldering.  Several acres were burned, but by the time I arrived, the fire had been contained.

Controlled Burn.  Prescribed Burn.  Hazard Reduction Burning.  Backfire.  Anglo Saxons called it Swælan.   Locally, it’s known as Swaling and has been carried out for centuries.  Swaling is the annual burning of gorse and scrub in order to clear the ground of dead and overgrown vegetation, allowing new growth to flourish.  Those green shoots which grazing livestock love to eat, not the ones economists like to talk about on the news.

On open moorland, overgrown vegetation can restrict some public access and in dryer, warmer months can present significant risk for wild fires.  The farmers who graze on the common land are allowed to conduct controlled burning of moorland vegetation, in other words swale, to clear the ground encouraging new growth.

Between 1 November and 31 March it is permissible for the Commoners to do controlled burns and all signs pointed to this being a planned burn.  But we suspect it might not have been.  The local farmer for that patch of land said he was not swaling that day.  Honestly, no one in their right mind would have set out to swale because it was such a windy day.  Could it have been a casually tossed cigarette?  We see enough litter lying about that it wouldn’t have surprise us.  A few years ago, a fire damaged over 600 acres of moorland when strong winds fanned the flames.  The cause of that fire was unknown and took more than 100 firefighters to bring it under control.

As the sun was getting low on the horizon, the firefighters returned to their engines after a job well done.  The sheep in the fields carried on nibbling grass and the horses and chickens seemed unfazed.  The songbirds at the feeders were out in full force, possibly discussing just what the hell happened.  Roger and I sat down to do the same.  The fires were out, but all of us at Crockern were left with the view of a blackened hillside and air heavy with the smell of charred vegetation.

Before we had a chance to recover, we received a phone call from the farmer who grazes livestock on our side of the river and he was planning to swale up our side of the valley the next day.  I know it is a technique to manage the landscape and is legally done this time of the year, but looking upon the burned remains on the other side of the river, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad.

Around two in the afternoon, we saw the haze of smoke cloaking our usual view down the track.   We scanned the hillside to see the group of swalers assembled to oversee the burn.  After about ten minutes, the flames were licking over the tops of the yellow-flowering gorse bushes, marching forward across the hillside toward Crockern.  This is the very gorse which I had scratched my cornea on last year, and spent a good amount of time this winter cutting back to clear trenches.  Not certain I would have bothered with that miserable task if I knew this burn was going to happen.  Still, I was sorry to see the prickly gorse so easily go up in smoke.

With the air calm and a seasoned crew of swalers, Roger and I weren’t concerned about this fire, even as it made quick pace toward our house.  I took pictures and watched from the window, comfortable in the knowledge that this fire was under control.  Given the day before’s experience, I don’t wish to be too close to a fire outside of our trusty woodburner any time soon.

Sing a Song of Sixpence

Four years ago, when we elected to give up a comfortable and familiar life and take on a lengthy renovation project in the middle of a high moorland wilderness, our only question was “Will we regret it if we don’t do it?”  Knowing our answer, we sold up and moved, confronting adventures and mishaps along the way.  We did not know what was in store for us, but somehow, we knew the journey was going to be worth it.

And it has been.  Each time we return to Crockern, we both have a strong sense of coming home.  This old house, complete with its three-page Excel spreadsheet of projects left to do, hugs us when we cross the threshold, like a fine host who offers a comfy chair and a warming drink.  On a windy, wet evening — of which we’ve had more than our share this winter — we feel snug and dry.  And nothing beats a warm summer’s day, when we can bask in the beauty of the landscape.

It hasn’t all been Bordeaux and vistas though, and we’ve faced some steep learning curves:   Maintaining Generators; Replacing Oil Tanks; Building Concrete Plinths; Repointing; Addressing Damp; Refilling Potholes; Dry Stone Walling; Keeping Chickens; Keeping out Badgers, Foxes and Sheep; Death; Predation; Smashed Fingers and Scratched Corneas; Determined sheep; Leaks; Floods; Rats; and, Rabbits, to name but a few.  We’ve also put to use some of our known skills like mixing cement, hanging ceilings, refinishing floors, basic plumbing and electrical work, and gardening.

Blackbird by Thomas Bewick. Image found on the Internet.

Blackbird by Thomas Bewick. Image found on the Internet.

At the same time, I have been observing and learning more about our local birds.  I’m not a twitcher, nor do I proclaim to know much beyond identifying the birds at our feeders, but my desire to uncover a few ornithological abilities has taken on a new dimension:  To locate where the blackbirds are nesting and to observe their broods.

We have friends who have a nice little nest at eye height in the hedge along the edge of their garden.  My search will not be so easy.   To focus, I need to look for the Blackbird’s nest in the kind of real estate these birds prefer:  Deciduous trees with dense undergrowth.  Hmm.  We have a number of trees around the property, but the undergrowth isn’t exactly what I would call dense.  Muddy and pocked with mole hills perhaps, but not dense.  Blackbirds tend to favour evergreen or thorny bushes such as holly, hawthorn or honeysuckle.  We’ve planted these, but the hedge plants have a few years to go before they offer up any real protection for nesting birds.  And sometimes, they might build nests in sheds or outbuildings, making use of a ledge or cavity.  Oh, and back in the day, you might find four and twenty of them inside pies.

Sing a Song of Six Pence vintage image found on the Internet.

Sing a Song of Six Pence vintage image found on the Internet.

My skill of spying nests is not great, so I intend instead to stalk these birds to see where they come and go.  And like any good birder, I must do this with a bit of stealth.  Something else I seem to lack.  Walking outside usually means I send birds flying.  Sam jumps and barks in anticipation of a walk, while the chickens come running up in hopes of a bit of apple or some corn.  The grazing sheep and cows all stop what they’re doing to assess me.  In short, I am easily observed.  Following a bird, with its rapid and evasive flight pattern to its nest will be no easy matter.

To get started, I thought I’d read up on Blackbirds.  I already know how to identify the male Blackbirds with their slick, black plumage and a splash of saffron ringing their eyes and covering the bill.   It’s the kind of look that says, “I know how to go out on the town, and yet am not at all stuffy.”  Sophisticated and yet, whimsical.  The female birds are “dressed” more to my style; nothing particularly impressive and that’s okay.   Fortunately I also can comfortably recognise the lovely songs of Blackbirds among our community bird choir.  This may help me locate them when my visuals fail.

What I hadn’t realised is the lunar symbolism attached to these pretty birds.  There are plenty of people who see Blackbirds as dark and mysterious creatures, keeping their secrets safe.  Well now, that upped the ante on finding their nests!

While I’m hopeful, I’m not what you’d call driven.  I’d like to find the nests and observe the breeding cycle.  A few years ago we found a nest of Pied Wagtails in the wall of one of our sheds.  Their hidden home had a front and rear exit and I must have walked past it for weeks before I ever noticed it.  What drew my attention was the attack flight of a protective parent when I moved too close and paused near their homestead.  This well concealed residence was home to seven babies who soon learned to fly.

Last year, we had nearly twenty-five nests for Swallows and House Martins, which isn’t our highest number.  I can see the Great Tits bomb into the stone walls tending to their hidden homes.  There are probably wrens and Robins nesting in these walls, too.  Since moving here, I’ve hoped to find the Blackbirds setting up camp nearby.  I’ve spotted two males and one female.  One of these males likes to sit outside the window where I work.  Could any of them be living within a short distance to our front door? Or, are they just stopping by for the afternoon to observe the chickens and resident Jackdaws and sing us a happy tune?

Crockern captivates and enchants, providing a deep sense of place and belonging along with a peace and quiet that befalls one upon arrival.  I can think of no reason why at least one pair of Blackbirds wouldn’t make their home here.

Returning from putting the bird feeders away and the chickens to bed, Roger said,  “You’ll never believe what I saw in the shed.”  As it turns out, there was a pair of Blackbirds flying about where we store the bird and chicken feed.  Perhaps their nest is in there?  I go into this shed a half dozen times a day and haven’t thought to search here.  Instead, I’ve been preoccupied looking around the yard and area gorse bushes.  Have I missed the obvious while I singularly search for one thing?   And then it hits me, like so many answers to unasked questions which stare us right in the face:  Despite  all my efforts, I may or may not locate the Blackbird’s home anytime soon, and it doesn’t matter as we found ours.

A January Snow

After weeks of rain, we awoke one morning to a covering of snow. By my mid-Western standards, it wasn’t a significant amount, but those three inches did a wonderful job of covering up the mud and layering the land with a fluffy white blanket.

We were both awake early and took the opportunity for a walk before the crowds of snow-crazed people arrive to go sledding, build snowmen, and generally leave behind a mess from their enjoyment. For us, the chance to be out first, looking for tracks of foxes, badgers and rabbits is exciting.

We found plenty of rabbit tracks surround the house and garden confirming the need for diligence as we plan our summer vegetable planting. Thankfully, there were no paw-prints from foxes anywhere near our chickens. No signs of badgers either. It seems our electric fencing is working to protect our hens.

Oblivious to any predatory risk, the chickens head out to greet their first snow of the season, clucking a mixture of confusion and delight: “This stuff is pretty and makes my feathers look so fetching but where is the mud and how am I to find worms here?” Or, something like that.

It’s still early and the morning sky emits shades of light suggesting more snow to come. We make our way up the path toward the woods and tors, knowing we are the first to lay our boot-tracks in this snow. Roger has a buoyant gate as if he is expecting something exciting to cross his path. Aromas buried beneath the white, flaky ground cover enchant Sam. And I’m taking a few photos to hold onto this moment where it feels as if Dartmoor is revealing her secrets to us only.

 

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