A (Red)Start of Spring

Roger and I were recently in the States, joining family and friends, to celebrate my Dad’s 90th birthday. It was a grand old time filled with endless laughter, stories told a hundred times before, and the addition of new tales which will soon be worked into the tapestry of family lore. Before we made our way to the airport to head to this auspicious gathering, we were anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring to Crockern. Sure, we have had a few signs, but what we wanted was something greater and more profound than brave daffodils and hopeful snowdrops popping up through the grass. And yet as we left, the leaf buds on the trees teased and taunted us, displaying no more than tight buds of much anticipated foliage unfurling.

My Dad is 90 and loving it.  We are a big family and don't all fit well in this photo.

My Dad is 90 and loving it. We are a big family and don’t all fit well in this photo.

But what a difference a week makes: spring has finally sprung at Crockern. Everything is verdant with those previously mocking trees finally showing their full and proper leaf along with the rhododendron in a showy bloom. The Swallows and House Martins are busy competing for nest materials, while the Jackdaws seem to be applying the finishing decorating touches to their nests. Recently we saw a pair carry in their beaks some fleece along with flowers to accent their homes. We’ve also spotted nest-building activity between stones around the property: in the dry stone wall fences and the side of the barn and sheds. These well-hidden and newly built nests are home to future broods of Pied Wag-tails and Great Tits. It’s all happening!

While all this activity is exciting, it sadly cannot offset the fatigue brought on by a long trans-Atlantic trip. The best way forward is to indulge in a little nap as nothing else surpasses this effortless way to maintain health and well-being. But as I slipped into my noble and restorative siesta, I heard a “tap, tap, tap” on the window. Roger had warned me about this sound. He and Sam had heard it earlier and thought at first it was a bird or small animal trapped in the house. Like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tale Tell Heart, the sound grew and grew. I am not suffering “an over-acuteness of the senses” because Roger and Sam had earlier staked out the window and watched a Redstart fly from one of our sheds to the window and commence its tapping. Presumably for insects, but possibly warning off its own reflection assuming it to be a rival male.

Naively, I thought I could sleep through it all, but that wretched Redstart is persistent. He awakens Roger at about 5:30 in the morning. He interrupts my return-from-travels-nap. And he is still tapping as I write!

Redstarts are easily identifiable especially when they shake their bright orange-red tails. The males look dressed up for a night out with their slate grey upper parts, black faces and wings, and an orange chest and bottom. Very smart, indeed. It’s exciting to see a pair at Crockern and know they are nesting so close as they are in decline across much of Europe.

Redstart image from RSPB (found on the Internet)

Redstart image from RSPB (found on the Internet)

The Redstart also has a beautiful song, joining the amplified dawn chorus that greets me each day comprising, among others, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Jackdaws, Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens, Stonechats, Great Tits and Blue Tits. I frequently struggle to isolate a single sound among the hundreds let alone attach it to a specific bird type. Yet there are a few calls I can distinguish. In and amongst the reeds in the meadow along the river a ratchet-y sound, not dissimilar to a fishing reel spooling out its line, can be heard. A quick assessment confirms there are no anglers making their way in search of trout in the river, so it can only be the most impossible of birds to spot, the Grasshopper Warbler. And there is the call of the Cuckoo, who has returned for the summer to its ancestral home in our valley. Last year, Dartmoor National Park, along with Devon Birds, participated in a national satellite-tagging project conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology. This project tagged four Cuckoos in Dartmoor to study the migratory patterns of these birds and gain an understanding behind their alarming decline. Hearing its call among all the bird song adds to the wonder and privilege of bearing witness to so much singing!

But seeing is believing and Roger spotted the cuckoo in the pine tree near our barn. With its sleek body and long tail, this dove-sized bird is often elusive to spot, despite knowing it is near due to its easily identifiable call. If you visit the Devon Birds Cuckoo Watch Map, you’ll see our blue dot denoting a recent sighting.

Yes, we're the blue dots between the road and Wistman's Wood.

Yes, we’re the blue dots between the road and Wistman’s Wood.

With this arrival of spring and the longer days and longer grass, the chickens are all happy. The asparagus crowns are showing, though we must wait another year before we can harvest. The rhubarb is up. The blueberry bushes are looking healthy and the strawberries are kicking out berries. Our potatoes are in the ground and in a few weeks we’ll plant out the rest of the summer vegetables. Oddly, for the first time ever, I’m excited about the nettles growing all over as it is now time to make some nettle ravioli. It’s somewhat labour intensive, but the payoff in flavour is oh-so-yummy!

Still to come, harkening the arrival of spring will be the return of the newly born lambs and their mothers to the upland moors for a summer of grazing. Their James Brown call and respond sounds will fill the air, not in a melodic dawn chorus I hasten to add, but more likely as an effective means to drown out even the most persistent tapping of our resident Redstart.

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I’m Likin’ the Lichen

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman's Wood.

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman’s Wood.

The season has announced its arrival; autumn is here, with winter’s cold and damp nipping at its heels.  Gone are the House Martins and Swallows, but returning to the birdfeeders are the Yellowhammers and Nuthatches.  Colour and sound have been shifting, slowly and gradually, with the long grasses, ferns and reeds in the fields surrendering to buff, brown, and reddish tones, which now dominate the landscape.  However, when you pause and examine closely, surprise stains of colour are found in small locations upon trees, walls, and stones in endless varieties of lichen.

There are over 30,000 species of lichen worldwide, and in a recent woodland survey in East Dartmoor, 115 were identified.  They grow on rocks, trees or soil sometimes in a nearly imperceptible crust-like layer.  Alternatively, they can be bushy and trailing like ZZ-Top beards, hanging from trees.    I especially like the bright orange seen on rooftops across the British countryside, a reminder of the health of our environment since they are sensitive to air pollution.  A general rule of thumb is the smaller the variety of lichens in an area, the more polluted it is.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone fence.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone wall.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

In the past few weeks, autumn showed itself confidently providing cooler mornings with misty, low hanging clouds before the sun burns its way through.  Small clusters of mushrooms dotted about, and the tell tale mushroom hunters on the hill, walking slowly, bags hanging off the shoulder and eyes looking downward, provide additional evidence of the seasonal change.  I lack fungal expertise, so prudently take a pass at this bit of foraging.  Instead, I enjoy observing those out and about, as there seems to be a lot of twirling, spinning, and dancing on the landscape.  I suspect some of the found fungi might be hallucinogenic.

We’ve made seasonal shifts, too.  I’ve pulled out all my fleeces and can see my breath in the dawn light when I walk Sam.  My morning chores now include bringing wood in from the barn and building a fire in the wood burner.  I watch the birds at the feeders knowing that they have short lives and must make it through the winter if they are to hatch their broods in the spring.  This time of year brings about an awareness of the impermanence of life, as often on a walk, Sam and I will come across the skeletal remains of a dead sheep or fox.   Again, lichens come to mind as they remind us of a greater permanence, growing so slowly that they have been used to confirm ancient woodlands after an historic clearance.

Because these grey, green, silver green, mustard yellow, ochre, or rust growth on every possible stone and wood surface live at a different time scale to the brief one of our resident birds, or indeed, us, I sometimes wonder if the lichen I’m looking at were here 100 years ago and bore witness to previous residents at Crockern.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

Found this on a walk just this week.

Found this on a walk just this week.

Since we first set eyes upon Crockern, Roger and I have been very curious about the history of our house.  When was it built?  Who lived here?  Were they cold?  Almost daily we receive a “fact” from someone walking past:  “I heard a witch once lived here.”  “In the 1970’s it was a hippy commune.”  “Oh, I used to go to parties there.”  “My mother grew up at Crockern and bathed in the river.”  “It was originally built by the man who managed the rabbit warrens.”   Witches.  Farmers.  Children.  Wood Workers.  A Potter.  On and on goes the list of past residents based on, from what we can surmise, mostly hearsay.  If only the lichen could speak!

Not knowing where the truth lies, we decided to begin our slow search to uncover some history by looking at the local records one afternoon.   We weren’t certain what we’d find, but hoping to perhaps learn when the house was originally constructed.  No such luck on that front.  But, we did uncover the arc of a life of one very distinct past resident:  Mr. Mortimer.

On 2 November 1885, J. Stanley Mortimer bid at auction on Lot #2, Crockern Farm, which was comprised of the house, outbuildings and 228 acres.   In the early 40’s, the war department requisitioned 115 acres of his farm.  He died in the mid 1940’s.  But not before he contributed to a fat folder of correspondence.

These file notes indicated that Mr. Mortimer owed money and frequently had to retrieve his livestock, which had wandered off to pastures beyond his land.  In particular, he did not enjoy his track being used as a footpath toward Wistman’s Wood.  During Mr. Mortimer’s time at Crockern, there was no footpath designation along the track up to the house, so he considered all those walking along it as trespassers.  After his death, the distinction was made and now appears as such on Ordnance Survey Maps.

We enjoy the walkers who come past, and delight in their explorations around the area.  Not so with Mr. Mortimer.  Each walker was just another intrusion and a cause of his troubles:  Gates left open, livestock disturbed by walkers, and his privacy routinely invaded.   While we enjoy the walkers, we do feel frustration when someone drives up the track in hopes of getting closer to the Woods, comes calling to offer us religious salvation, or when we pick up the litter left behind by recent visitors to the park.  (https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/dartmoor-walking/)

Mr. Mortimer lived in Crockern for over 50 years, during which time he came to be characterized as one of the most eccentric individuals in Dartmoor.  His farming methods were considered “hopeless.”   In 1905, he was reported to have obstructed visitors’ access to Wistman’s Wood and went so far as to charge tolls.  Laughable and yet, inspired!  If we had a pound coin for every foot walking past, we’d be millionaires, seeing a far better return than the sale of our chicken eggs.  J. Stanley Mortimer truly ruffled feathers and in one official letter a complainant wrote, “He threatened Mrs. Dwyer with stoning, has used bad language and is extorting money under threats!”

Surely, trying to eek out a farm living on Dartmoor was hard enough; did he need to suffer the slings and arrows of his neighbours?  Then again, they had to suffer him throwing stones at them.

As we move through this change of season, hunkering down earlier in the evening and following frost reports to protect our winter veg garden.  We’ve raked the leaves and the last of the grass for the compost, and the wood store is impressive and ready to heat the house and the hot tub.  We watch as the vegetation retreats, revealing different wildlife, and with that, we let the chickens out later in the morning and put them away earlier at night.  The birds change.  The days grow shorter.  But the lichen slowly carries on, noting our contributions to Crockern.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.

Let the Good Times Grow

I’ve got a case of the winter blues watching spring battling it out with Ole Man Winter, as there seems no end to the onslaught of bitter cold.   The icy winds roll through unimpeded and every venture outside puts us in the teeth of an arctic blast, yet we carry on with our gardening efforts.

That’s gardening, not farming.   Sure, the place we live is called Crockern Farm, but that dates back to by-gone days when there was more land attached to these buildings and the people living in them knew something about farming by grazing livestock and growing their produce somewhere else.  The land here is exposed, soggy, and rock-filled with poor soil.  Even with our raised beds, our high elevation results in more rainfall, wind and cold weather than other parts of the country, making for a growing season of less than 175 days.   In short, we’re up against it.

Crockern Farm

This sort of weather can make growing vegetables challenging.

I like farmers and romantically think if I had been born some twenty years later, I might have become one.  Though, likely not.   I grew up in Ohio, surrounded by farming communities and in my early adult years, couldn’t wait to leave for the lights of the big city.  In the 1980s, you got your degree and went to work on Wall Street, or in my case, some underpaid-but-feel-good option of public service.  Living in an urban setting, I planted window boxes, longing for a bigger patch of land.

Thirty years later, and I’m glad to consider myself a gardener.  Farmers have to be serious and work very hard for food growing success, employing tried-and-tested-grow-it-in-proven-ways.  I don’t.  Roger and I can experiment with all sorts of unusual things like trying to grow corn on the cob in Dartmoor!   To earn a living, farmers must grow enough to feed hundreds of people.    Unlike us, they can’t be seat-of-the-pants about their crops.  We can spend hours browsing the catalogues looking at heritage seed options and when the time comes, scatter said seeds on our well-tended soil and hope for the best.  Since we are just growing enough for ourselves, we can be casual in our approach and smile with joy when it works, briefly frown when it doesn’t, and record our progress in our little black gardening book.

When we moved to Crockern less than a year ago, we set about clearing an area of nettles and stones, building up some wind breaks and constructing four raised beds.  We built our compost bins and armed with determination to grow something in an exposed, windy, cold, and wet environment, we planted a winter vegetable bed in September.  We had successes — mostly the lettuces — and a few failures:  Tatsoi and Turnips were sacrificed to the slugs, and the Kales, Cabbages and Spring Onions made a slow and somewhat shy appearance, nearly ready for harvest, when in a single afternoon they were destroyed by the chickens.  Disaster!

Crockern Farm

Success! Lettuces from our winter garden.

It’s these sorts of notations that separate our efforts from those of farmers.  Losing crops to chickens having dust baths?  Really?  That’s the stuff of amateurs.  In other words, us.

I do not wish to imply that gardeners are not skilled, knowledgeable, and very capable.  It’s just currently we are on a steep learning curve.  As a devotee of Gardener’s Question Time on Radio 4, and those delightfully named Brit celeb gardeners, Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood, I listen in hopes of inspiration and insight, but alas, they never address growing vegetables in the middle of Dartmoor.  That leaves us with a bowlful of trial and error, seasoned with a healthy sense of humour as our strategy.  Roger and I may be a bit haphazard, casual, and mildly frustrated by mistakes and oversights, but now know a farmer would never have let those chickens anywhere near vegetable beds.


Before you say Potato, and I say Potato, we are busy getting ready for our spring plantings.  We stand strong in the face of weather, chickens and slugs.  We have started to chit out seed potatoes for planting mid to late April.  Our tomato seedlings are underway.  And, we’ve put fresh compost on the garden beds.   This is a busy time, even if the garden looks somewhat destroyed.  Layered up in multiple fleeces, hat, and gloves, Roger and I set about to repair and create the infrastructure:  Little and often we work to maintain the stonewalls; we regularly turn the compost and collect manure; we’ve recently built a new raised bed for the asparagus crowns we will soon plant; the discovered stone path is complete; fencing, gates and drains are all repaired; and, when the ground isn’t frozen, we’re pulling up the nettles to prevent them taking over.

Crockern Farm

Bundled up for our current spring temperatures.

Looming large on our to-do list is the building of our greenhouse. When we had it delivered as a flat pack kit in October, we understood we could put it up in a weekend.  Nearly six months later, we’re ready for growing and finally have the foundation and the frame complete.  We need to install the toughened glass, but the weather once again turned cold and wet, delaying our progress.  It is invigorating to be outside in a light drizzle at about 10 C, but rain, snow, sleet, hail and stiff winds just drive us indoors to sit by the fire, read, write, and sip a gin and tonic.   In other words, the stuff of gardeners, not farmers.  As soon as the temperatures rise preventing our fingers falling off as we hold glass in place, we’ll complete this project.  In the meantime, being indoors means we can fuss with seeds and hope the ground will warm up sometime soon.

Crockern Farm

Roger readying the greenhouse

Crockern Farm

Chitting those spuds.

Crockern Farm

Seedlings coming along.

Despite the trouncing this extended-winter is giving us, we know warmer days are around the corner.  If we do more now, our early spring will be free of a mad scramble and we can enjoy the reverie of birdcall and with it the return of summer migrants like Swallows and House Martins.  If farming is for those who make their living growing food, Roger and I are content to be gardeners whose efforts yield enough to feed us.

We are delighted  — and relieved — that while we are working through the challenges of growing in this climate, we can still support the local farmers at markets in town.  Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Ways of Seeing

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

One of the things I’m coming to appreciate since moving to this untamed wilderness, known as Dartmoor, is how a single place can provide a multitude of experiences.    Understanding the tiny and subtle changes, rather than only the dramatic shifts, that come with the passing of the season is best, I think, observed by being in one place.  We may have given up the convenience of a corner shop when we moved, but we have gained a privileged insight into the lives of other creatures through our unexpected encounters with them.

In the movie Smoke, Harvey Keitel takes a photograph from the same corner shop every morning at the same time.  His dedication to this daily process fixed in both time and location teaches us, the viewers, that life may be seemingly unchanging until one pauses to notice the little details, changing the perception of the every-day-familiar.

We’ve recently been gripped by another prolonged cold spell and yet the season is slowly and surely advancing.  The tiny increments of winter turning into spring are almost unnoticeable, were it not for the later arrival of the sunset each day.   As the days grow longer, the evenings are providing an extra hour of light and with it, birdsong.   I love hearing the melodic tunes of Robins and Blackbirds as they kick it out with purity of tone and impeccable phrasing, just like The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.  We have at least two pairs of each making their homes nearby the house.

Our friends were visiting for a week recently with their 5-year old.  While Mark provided much needed help (and master skills!) on the plastering of the ceilings, Lorenzo provided a way to view our world anew.  With each “Why?” – his preferred and nearly exclusive question – I found his natural curiosity infectious.  His impersonation of the chickens as he was feeding them, reminded me to never stop observing.


Getting their attention.

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Across from our barn is a collection of mature trees – Ash, Rowen, Oak, Sycamore, Beech, Laburnum — under which there are now clumps of snowdrops, each with their delicate stalks holding a drooping white flower as they stand their ground declaring spring to be on its way.   My friend Paul wrote recently in an e-mail, “I miss snowdrops.  They’re so quick off the mark, so optimistic!”  He’s right:  Snowdrops, along with tender daffodil shoots and the extended daylight, are our hopeful signs that this cold snap is not forever.

Early Snowdrops

Early Snowdrops

Across the river, atop the hill sits a pine forest and living in the treetops are several Grey Heron.  We’ve spotted at least six.  Are they building nests for their future families?  All the birds seem to be preparing for breeding season.  The mating calls are starting and brightly coloured males are strutting their stuff, including an unusual display of sexual prowess:  several Great Tits positioned on the fence with their wings widely spread were showing off colour, form and aerobatics like regular Flyboys.   All about us, nests are being mended or newly constructed, including at least two by the Jackdaws in the barn.

Not everything survives, however.  Up on the hillside outside our house was a dead sheep.  We are not certain what caused this ewe to perish, but her remaining carcass has been the focal point for most of the dogs accompanying their owners on walks.  Despite her fatality, there are about 100 heavily pregnant ewes on the moors surrounding us.  These sturdy creatures have mostly stayed away from climbing onto our walls, but there are a few who have it hardwired into their brains that they must clamber into our yard.  We continue our vigilance in maintaining the walls and recently have resorted to leaning less attractive wood pallets against the preferred sheep entrance points.  We are hoping to keep the little lambs out after they are born.

Born they will be, too.  I’ve been invited to help the local farmer with the lambing season.  I’m thrilled to do this, and confess that I’ve never done anything like it before.  It was agreed that if I got in the way or proved useless – a definite possibility – I’d be sent on my way.  I’m feeling a little tentative about the lambing since the last birth I attended was that of a hamster when I was 7.  After the litter was born, the mother hamster ate her young.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

Sometimes, it’s not my eyes, but my ears, that guide me to something new.  Sam and I took a brisk walk one morning when the moors were covered with a dense fog obscuring any visibility beyond the immediate path, which I now know well.  With the thick, white, ethereal cloud cover drifting and swirling about, I understand how one could easily get lost in Dartmoor.  As we negotiated a boggy bit of the path, I heard a spooky bird call with its somewhat unpleasant “chirp, chirp, chirp” in the foreground and a haunting Theremin-like moan in the background.  I was uncertain what I was hearing, so looked to Sam for signs of alarm.  He seemed relaxed, so we carried on and with our next steps, I spotted a medium sized brownish bird zigzagging low to the ground.  A Snipe!  I remember going on Snipe hunts when I was young.  These are practical jokes designed to leave the uninitiated out in the woods while everyone in the know heads back to the campfire for a good laugh.  Recently in the UK, the Snipe has undergone some declines in numbers, placing it on the Amber list for the RSPB, so it is a treat to spot one, and know that they do exist beyond the silly pranks of older siblings.


Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Walking past the window overlooking the river, Roger spotted a buzzard hovering with wings spread as it snatched up its prey from the reeds.  We grabbed our binoculars and as we spied on his dining, we noticed holes in the ground nearby:  A badger set!  How long have we been looking at this particular spot of land without seeing what was there?

Badger Set in hillside

Badger Set in hillside

We know we have badgers.  I’ve seen one in the garden.  We’ve had our birdfeeders pulled from their hanging positions, only to be found the next morning dragged through the fence and into the fields beyond.  While bent and now broken, they still hold the bird food we set out each day.  To avoid further damage, we now take the feeders in at night and leave the bent poles from which they hang, standing in the ground as if afflicted with osteoporosis.  Spotting this badger set is thrilling so we set out for a closer look.  Crossing the river, climbing up the hill and negotiating two barbed-wire fences, we found at least ten holes scattered about the hillside, each with its telltale arched oval opening.  These are unlikely to be the badgers responsible for the damage to our bird feeders, as badgers evidently don’t swim unless they must.  Somewhere on our side of the river there is another badger set for us to discover.

In a few weeks, the Vernal Equinox will arrive.  Such a great day as it marks the point when the sun gives over to the northern hemisphere, making our days longer and lighter.  With the increased daylight, we will have more seasonal changes to observe, including the return of many of the migrant birds from their African winter homes.  I’m looking forward to welcoming back the Swallows, House Martins, Warblers and the Cuckoo who makes its brief spring home in the trees beyond the house.

Don’t ask me “Why?” but I just enjoy seeing – and hearing – all of these visitors around Crockern.

Springtime for Catherine and Crockern Farm

As the old year has given way to the new, we are preparing for a cold front, which will freeze the ground solid and grip us with another reminder that winter hasn’t fully left.  If it must be this cold, I’ll be pleased to get a dusting of snow or ice, providing us with the chance to see animal tracks left in the frozen mud.  I usually enjoy winter, but confess I am feeling ready for spring.   I understand and accept that I have another month or two before we are in the swing of it, but the past several months of endless rain and skies, which on most days look like dirty plastic hastily placed to cover a broken window, hiding any view or hint of blue sky, I have grown impatient for spring’s arrival.

Crockern Farm

Nothing says “winter” better than a frost covered skull.

Not to mention that we’ve had a few tremendous storms these past few weeks!  It is a huge relief that the new roof has kept us dry.    Did I just say the roof is done?  Days before Christmas, the major bits of the roof were completed.  We haven’t seen the end of our building friends, as there is guttering, a few side tiles, and the water pump shed to complete, but since it is dry and insulated, the roof is for all intensive purposes, complete.   We still need to address the walls and some of the less than watertight windows, but there is progress on this old house.  During the Boxing Day storm, the winds got up to about 60 miles an hour with rain pouring down in buckets, thunder roaring and flashes of lightning sending Sam to hide under the bed.   As the weather pitched a fit, we felt snug and dry inside.  The river at the bottom of the field raged in a most swollen state, looking angry and uncomfortable as if it had broken it’s own New Year’s resolution to not over indulge.

And none of this winter rain, wind, or mud has stopped the walkers.   Why should it?  If we waited for fine weather, then we would never go outside.  These intrepid folks have been out in huge numbers loaded with their binoculars, cameras, maps and walking sticks.   Of a more fearless variety have been the kayakers who have taken to the rivers with their maneuverable river kayaks, waterproof everything, and helmets.  I am intrigued by their fearlessness as one of these rivers nearly took Sam and me under its currents one day when I misplaced a step, lost my balance and took on two bootfuls of river.  Our devoted dog, close behind, also lost his footing and did all he could to swim against the strong current.  We both made it to shore and it was there we agreed to give up the day’s walk, taking our soaking wet selves back home.  The power of the river that sunny day was enough to give me great admiration for those who negotiate its rapids during a winter storm.

Crockern Farm

The three of us out on a short winter walk. Crockern Farm can be seen in the distance.

At this time of the year, it is hard to focus on anything other than the cold, wet, and limited daylight.  But, there is a beauty in this seemingly dead of winter.  I’ve noticed that the grass is not simply green, but is accented with colours of gold, brown and red.  While the sky seems to be mostly grey, there are at least fifty shades of it during the course of the day depending upon whether the clouds are low-hanging mist rooms or floating up high playing hide and seek with the sun.  Gone for the winter are the summer migratory birds and it has been months since the Swallows and House Martins have been here dive-bombing about the house feasting on insects.  I know their return will announce the arrival of spring.

The wildlife is different during winter as much of it is in hibernation or just lying low until spring.   Much, but not all.  Those slugs are still in the garden as proved by my daily catch in the slug pubs.  The earthworms are being tugged out of the ground by our chickens as they seek foraged delights to aid in the return of all of their feathers.  And our bird feeders remain a scene of endless activity with the Sparrows, Tits, Robins, Finches, Nuthatches and Jackdaws taking it in turns to sustain themselves on the seeds we put out daily.   As soon as the sun is up, the whole gang of birds show up to their “local”.

Rescued Chickens

One of our four rescued hens showing off her new feathers.

We also have the birds seeking summer from the arctic as they migrate to England for the winter.  The very idea!   I spotted a Hen Harrier about a week ago with its striking white and grey wings tipped with black as if dipped in an ink well.  These jaunty birds of prey are just winter visitors to Dartmoor, and will soon move up to their breeding areas in northern Britain.  And almost every morning walk sends into flight a flock of at least two-dozen Fieldfare from the gorse bushes and reeds.  Add in the Redwing, and all these birds create a delightful and active winter scene.

The other day, I spied a large bird of prey sitting on a rock on the top of the hill.  I couldn’t identify it as it was backlit by the sky, and Roger wasn’t there for the more nuanced details giving name to this proud creature.  It was cooling its wings and watching over the valley.  Perhaps it was a buzzard conserving its energy before setting to flight?

One sure sign of the impending turn of the season is that the sheep are back.  We have had almost two months of them being away on their reproductive winter holiday.   But these ewes are of a hardy stock and will not be cloistered for long, returning pregnant and wearing thick fleece for the remaining months of cold and wet.  In March they will give birth then we will be surrounded by cute little lambs, lots of noise and a new generation to dissuade from jumping onto our stonewalls.  Everywhere, “Baaaaaaah!!” “Baaaaaaaah!!!” “Baaaaaaaah!!!!!”  will fill the air as the lambs and their mothers locate one another with their unique bleats.  Contrary to romantic belief, these calls are not sweet little “bah, bah, bahs” but more like the East Coast nasal accent of actress Mercedes Ruehl in Married to The Mob:  hard, angular and distinct.

Yes, I am convinced that the turn of the season is near.  The light is lingering later into the day, our chickens are starting to lay eggs again, and the bulbs are poking up out of the ground, making me regret that I didn’t buy hundreds of snow drop and crocus bulbs to plant this past autumn.  I will definitely be doing that this year as the very sight of them signals that spring is on its way.   The moss and lichen are all showing new little flowers and budding, but it does take getting close and using my reading glasses to see it all.  Just the other night, while putting the chickens away and covering the vegetable plots, I heard the lovely melodic song of a blackbird, letting me know that the mating season of this favourite bird is shortly to commence.  Ah yes, spring is nearing, even if we still have weeks of winter ahead.


Yes, that grass is tasting of some early growth. It’s soon to be spring.

Tempus Fugit And A Lot Of Other Things, Too

The other night, there was a bat in our house.  Not just any bat, but a Greater Horseshoe Bat.   Roger identified it and our friend Richard, who is an ecologist and holds a license to handle bats, confirmed.

Greater Horseshoe Bat

Greater Horseshoe Bat in our Kitchen

There are 17 types of bat recorded in Britain and the Greater Horseshoe Bat is one of the rarest.  In 2001, there were 11 confirmed species of bat living in a variety of habitats within Dartmoor National Park, which is one of the largest breeding roosts in Western Europe for this type of bat.

Bat roosts everywhere are suffering due to human activities such as modern farming methods, conversions of buildings, woodland mismanagement, the sealing of cave and mine entrances and the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides in the countryside.  The mismanagement of hedgerows, or their loss altogether, can affect foraging for bats.  Since 2004, Dartmoor National Park, along with other conservation groups, has worked to survey the bats and educate farmers about how to maintain bat friendly land and animal management.

Bats aren’t the only things that fly about Crockern.  Inside the house, we’ve also had a couple of birds, lots of moths, flies, and more than a few flying Daddy Long Legs.

Outside, we see an assortment of birds.  Roger has dutifully kept a list of those flying about our home:

Blackbird, Blue Tit, Buzzard, Chaffinch, Coal Tit, Cormorant, Crow, Curlew, Dove, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Grasshopper Warbler, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit, Greenfinch, Green Woodpecker, Grey Heron, Grey Wagtail, Hen Harrier, Hobby, House Martins, House Sparrow, Jackdaw, Jay, Kestrel, Magpie, Meadow Pipit, Nuthatch, Pied Flycatcher, Pied Wagtail, Raven, Red Kite, Redstart, Robin, Skylark, Spotted Flycatcher, Starling, Stonechat, Swallows, Treecreeper, Whinchat, Wood Warbler, Wren, Yellowhammer, and, Yellow Wagtail

We’ve also heard, but not seen, a Cuckoo and a Tawny Owl.

Bird watching is a popular activity for many walking up our path.  We’ve met several “twitchers” and “birders”.  There is a distinction.  My friend Carolyn was very clear that twitchers are bird watchers whose goal is to collect sightings of rare birds and will drop what they are doing, drive to some destination to see said bird and add it to their life list.  Birders, on the other hand, are those people who have a general interest and knowledge of birds and wildlife and like to watch birds.

A casual bird watcher, like myself, may easily give myself away by saying something like “Wow, look at that bunch of ravens!”  A twitcher is likely to give him/herself away with a snort and comment, “Don’t you mean that unkindness of ravens?”  As far as I’m concerned, the dead giveaway of twitchers is that they are likely to refer to birds using only their Latin names and will comfortably use archaic linguistic groupings.

One day it was pouring down with rain when I heard a knock at the door.  There stood a man dressed head to toe in waterproof clothing and hanging around his neck were two sets of binoculars.  “Oh, hi.  I was just wondering if you’ve heard a unique sound in the meadow?” he asked.   An odd greeting.  Nonetheless, I knew the sound as Roger had pointed it out to me just a few days before.  Unfortunately, my recall was a bit off and when attempting to sound knowledgeable about the Grasshopper Warbler, I said, “Oh yes, that would be the Cricket Shaker.”  I did not impress this twitcher with my bird watching ways.   He gave me a look that suggested I had just said, “Why look at that flock of crows!”  I accept that I will never become a serious birder, but I am motivated to try and commit more to memory.

And who doesn’t like a list as a way to get started?  Here’s how to sound more in the know when encountering a twitcher when one knocks on your door:

Brood of Hens;

Cast of Falcons;

Charm of Finches;

Descent of Woodpeckers;

Dole of Doves;

Exaltation of Larks;

Flight of Swallows;

Herd of Curlew or Wrens;

Host of Sparrows;

Kettle of Hawks;

Murder of Crows (not Flock of Crows as above);

Murmuration of Starlings;

Party of Jays;

Parliament of Owls or Rooks;

Siege of Herons;

Tidings of Magpies;

And of course, Unkindness of Ravens

I may not go so far as to use all of these in sentences, but if nothing else, I think I can at least manage to use the obsolete “Dissimulation of Birds,” rather than the more easily understood “Flock of Birds” next time I have the opportunity.

It’s true; I have become a bird watcher.  Each morning I will sit looking out the window at the birds at the feeders while I drink my coffee.  I can spend an enormous amount of time thinking my thoughts while watching the arrival and departure patterns at the feeder.  Regularly, there is the little Chaffinch who has a missing leg, and the two Great Spotted Woodpeckers who like to hunt insects in the rotten post at the fence.

Now that summer seems finally to have arrived in the middle of September, the bugs outdoors are in full force.  Midges being among the many. According to the dictionary on my computer, a midge is “a small two-winged fly that is often seen in swarms near water or marshy areas where it breeds.  The families Chrionomidae (the nonbiting midges) and Ceratopogonidae (see biting midge). “    I need look no further than the red marks on my arms, we have the biting midge.  Not as aggressive as the ones found in Scotland, but they are tenacious and determined and, if the air is still, out in full force to feed on us.

Also feeding in full force are the Swallows and House Martins, who dive-bomb about on an insect binge!   As they fill the sky in aerial pursuit of their bug meal, it is not a hard stretch to imagine the skies during the Battle of Britain, with Spitfires and Lancaster Bombers defending the southern coast.  It is no surprise, that they are known as a Flight of Swallows.

Elephant Hawk Moth

Elephant Hawk Moth on our Bright Pink Towel

We also have general houseflies, butterflies (Brimstone, Small and Large Whites, Small Tortoiseshell, and Small Heath), the occasional bee, and one day an Elephant Hawk Moth resting on a towel on the line.  It may have been using the bright pink towel as camouflage.  This is the first time I’ve seen this beautiful moth up close.  I’ve seen the caterpillar stage, and still have a few nightmares about it.  If interested, one can easily find a home video on YouTube and watch how its proboscis nose moves in and out.  Impressive, but honestly, I didn’t have the stomach to try to film when I saw one of these in our garden.  I went inside and left it to its prehistoric moves.

Last week we were putting the finishing touches on our raised vegetable beds, which involved moving a ton of veggie compost from the top of the track down to the beds using a wheelbarrow, buckets and our determination.  We were just finishing when we heard a thunderous roar followed by the visual spectacle of nine Red Arrows flying past in strict formation.  The Red Arrows is the aerobatic team of the Royal Air Force who promote and recruit for the RAF as they do many fly-pasts at major events.  Such events include the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics and the lesser-known completion celebration of our raised vegetable beds.

Red Arrows from the RAF Waddington Airshow (found on internet)

There is an MOD training area just over the hill so we often see military planes.  Occasionally, we will see the Dartmoor Rescue helicopters looking for some lost or injured hiker on the moors.  Since walkers are permitted to wander all over the moors, it is not uncommon for some to get lost, especially if the fog or mist moves in, sometimes making it difficult to orient yourself beyond a mere three feet.

We once spotted paragliders floating above the hill, and almost every day, there are anglers wading in the river using their fly rods to try and catch brown trout.

But, let us return to the twitcher who knocked on our door.  A few weeks later, he came knocking again.  This time, he had a friend with him and the two were hoping to see a Redstart as the one man had never seen one.  While listening to this conversation — I had opted for eaves dropping rather than answering the door — I found myself feeling righteous because the day before I spotted a Redstart sitting on our wall.  Roger identified it for me but all the same, I saw it.  Sometimes it just pays not to make so much effort.

In contemporary use, the Latin term Tempus Fugit means “time flies and we’re letting it pass us by, so let’s get moving and do something important!”  The poet Virgil first used the phrase when he wrote:  Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile temmpus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.   Or, “But meanwhile it flees; time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail.”

I like this bit by Virgil.  Why do I need to move quickly to accomplish something?  Instead, can’t I just drift off into my thoughts, sometimes without much to show for it, except for the details I maintain?  That delightful moment on a walk, or the beauty of the light changing as the clouds drift past, are the memorable features I retain no matter how much time passes.

Each time I stop to look and listen, I discover something new.  There are of course, the Parliament of Rooks, Murder of Crows, or in our case, the Trio (okay, Brood) of Chickens.  They have names now:  Judy, Mabel and Fey.

My Life is Crap

BM, crap, defecation, discharge, dung, excrement, excretion, fecal matter, feces, go to the bathroom, have a dump, manure, number two, poop, shit, stool or waste.  Call it what you will, thinking about it seems to occupy a major part of my day since moving to Crockern Farm.

Sheep and chickens

Early days with sheep in the garden.

First, there are the sheep.  They’ve found their way into our yard through every neglected bit of dry stone wall.  We lift the stones onto the wall, the sheep come back and knock them down.  We lift more stones into place, but the sheep return.  The thing about sheep is that they look so cute, and with their little lambs, they are indeed cute.  But, they poop everywhere.  They poop when you try to chase them out of the yard.  They poop while staring at you.  They poop while they are eating.  They poop while walking, milking their young, and yes, while climbing over the walls.  It must be an amazing thing to never be constipated.

And with that much poop, you just can’t help but step in it from time to time.

Birds of course can poop while they fly.  Flying would be a great skill to have, and I’ve often wondered if I were a super hero, would I want to be able to fly or to go through walls?  I think that being a shape shifter might be the most flexible super hero trait as I could become a bird (fly); ooze (go through walls); or a forklift (pick up the big stones and repair these walls more easily).

Many people believe being tagged by bird droppings is good luck. Although it is yucky, we take comfort in the fact that good luck or wealth is just around the corner.  We currently have some twenty-four nests of House Martins and Swallows.  They poop from their nests and it was a small learning curve knowing where to park the car to avoid their droppings.  Despite the proclaimed good luck, keeping the paint on the car is preferable.  The same learning curve taught us where to place things in the barn.

Sam poops and Roger and I discuss it.  We discuss the quantity, frequency and yes, quality.  It is a means to monitor Sam’s well-being.   This is certainly a common tendency as I have heard parents discuss their children’s fecal production, too.

When I lived in a city, having a dog meant that you necessarily had to become blasé about poop.  You had to scoop the poop or pay a fine.  Sometimes, caught short-handed by not having a poo-bag, the fine was a non-dog person spotting me as I rummaged around a garbage bin for some old newspaper or a bag to use.  Many years ago, I had a dog who would carry the newspaper in his mouth until he needed to relieve himself.  I would take the paper from him, he would assume his position, and then take aim on the photos of politicians who I was unhappy with in the news.  There was satisfaction with that daily political statement.

One of the worst poops is that of the fox.  I don’t think I could identify fox scat on a path, but I know that my boy-dog Sam can find it anywhere.  And when found, nothing brings him greater joy than dropping down shoulder first and rolling with all four legs up in the air.  The smell is not at all something you want in the house.  A quick jump in the river doesn’t get rid of that stench from any dog.  Soap, water, and a good scrub is the only solution.

Cows are similar to sheep since they too seem to chew and poop at the same time and can also walk and poop.  Horses do the same, even during the Olympic Equestrian competitions.  I hadn’t thought about this topic much until my garden became nature’s toilet.

Future vegetable garden

Location of future vegetable garden.

Future vegetable garden

Complete with Stinging Nettles

We’ve made some small progress on preventing the sheep coming into the garden.  We had two wooden farm gates made and hung them where iron gate hooks remained in the granite.  This has kept the sheep out of the garden area where we intend to put in raised vegetable beds.  We’ve pulled nettles, started to build a small wind barrier with stones, and have researched the best way to have a raised bed on highly acidic soil.  I found a site on the Internet where small holders write of their experiences.  I posted my question regarding gardening on such rocky and acidic soil.  A man in Wales posted back his suggestion:  Raised beds should be 3 feet high, the first third filled with, wait for it, well-rotted manure.  In other words, more poop!

Future vegetable garden

Some progress….mostly nettle free and the wind barrier coming along.


Glad this old hook was here….much easier than drilling into the granite.

Crockern Farm

One of the two spots for the new gates.

We don’t think we are going to build such high raised beds, but will be putting in some of that well-rotted manure.  Having spent weeks trying to get away from all of this poop, I am back into looking for some quality stuff.  How do you go about finding a poop dealer?  Maybe I will take the wheelbarrow out and start collecting locally as it is freely available.  That certainly trumps heading over to a local stable, paying for “well rotted manure” and then loading the stinking mess into the back of the car.

In anticipation of the vegetable garden, we’ve built our compost bins and read up on brown waste, green waste, turning the compost, watering it, keeping the rats out, and all the important bits of creating quality compost.  It turns out, one of the great things for compost is chicken poop which we have in abundance!

Crockern Farm

One of the new gates in place and doing its job.

Just yesterday I was looking for the chickens to see what they were up to and whether they had laid any eggs.  Two were missing and my heart sank, fearing that another fox had cheated and snatched them mid-day.  Suddenly, two heads popped up from the compost.  The hens were poking around, finding worms, and I’m hoping, pooping right on the spot.  I’d like to think I’ve trained them to do this.

When we bought Crockern Farm, there was a casual mention that the septic tank needed to be emptied.  We had been warned to not use the previous septic tank cleaner.   We called around and found our “honey dipper”.  For many, a honey dipper is a wooden tool used for taking honey from the jar and putting it into a cup of tea.  In the US, someone who empties a septic tank is also known as a honey dipper.  There is no mistaking our honey dipper as a serious woman.   She is strong and you just wouldn’t describer her as small.  As we sat around our kitchen table having a cup of tea, we learned that she was the first woman in the county during the 70’s to be part of the volunteer fire department.  This was in the day when you had to carry a person up a ladder as part of your training.  Looking at her arms, I have every confidence that she accomplished this with ease.

She emptied the tank quickly and without incident, the job was done and the price was fair.  When asked, “How did it look?”  She replied, “That tank was long over due for being emptied.”   We happily paid for her work.  As our honey dipper drove away, Roger and I looked at one another knowing that we had just paid for someone else’s crap.