An abundance of birds?

Birds are one of the great delights of living at Ruskin Land.  They bring the place to life and it has been wonderful to discover just how many different species live around us.

Goosander (m), Bewdley

Goosander on the Severn

Earlier this month we had a few friends to stay one of whom is a keen twitcher (and who has provided some superb photos for this blog – thanks Ben!).  On a short walk down to Dowles Brook and along the River Severn into Bewdley we saw 37 species and heard but didn’t see ravens, a mistle thrush and numerous Tawny Owls.    On that occasion we also failed to spot the enchanting dipper which inhabits stretches of the banks of the Dowles but we did see some Grey Wagtails who can be frequently seen alongside them.  A few days later I counted 17 species on and around the bird feeder just outside our kitchen window, including siskins, coal tits and goldfinches.   My favourites are the pair of nuthatches that regularly visit and display their impressive climbing skills.  Our grandchildren are most impressed by the Great Spotted Woodpecker who comes for brunch most days.

I have written here before about the efforts to encourage ground nesting birds in the Wyre Forest.  Many bird species have been in steep decline in recent decades.  A total of 98 species have been recorded in the Wyre area during the breeding season over a 21 year period.  The national breeding woodland bird index, an overall measure of bird populations, has declined by over 20% between 1970 and 2014.

It is hard to imagine how much more abundant the birdlife would have been fifty years ago.  While some species have become more prevalent, many more species, such as the wood warbler and willow tit, have seen population declines of 25% or more.  Studies point to changing woodland structure such as closed high canopies combined with deer grazing causing a loss of low vegetation which is so important for many bird species.

Creating a more diverse woodland structure is at the heart of the management plans being developed by the Wyre Community Land Trust.  This should help provide more extensive habitats and sources of food for a range of less common species still present in the Wyre such as hawfinches, redstarts, woodcock – our only woodland wading bird – and the wood warbler.  Controlling the size of the deer population, though sometimes controversial, also has an important part to play in encouraging more dense low vegetation.  Keeping dogs on leads particularly during the nesting season can also help reduce disturbance.  The restoration of heathland sites, of which there are a few near Ruskin Land, might even entice the magical nightjar to return to the Wyre.

Pied Wagtail, St George's Farm (3)

Pied wagtail in the orchard

 

When arrived at St George’s Farm last July we were obviously not the first to move into the farmhouse.  Earlier in the year, house martins had built numerous nests under the eaves of the roof and, together with swallows, they provided wonderful aerial displays as they foraged over the neighbouring fields for food. Ruskin Land became a much quieter place when they left for warmer climes towards the end of the Summer.  While there has been plenty of avian activity in recent weeks, we’re eagerly anticipating the return of the swallows and martins this Spring.

 

 

 

 

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A new orchard at St George’s Farm

The creation of a new orchard at St George’s Farm was the subject of one of the first posts on this blog shortly after we moved to Ruskin Land last summer.  I’m pleased to report that by the end of this week, weather permitting, all 151 trees will have been planted in time for the arrival of Spring.

Establishing the orchard has been an impressive team effort involving many volunteers and staff who work for the Wyre Community Land Trust.  The first tree was planted on 18 November last year and we continued steadily through the winter, planting about 10 trees each week on average.    The time consuming part has been the erection and fencing of the tree guards which are necessary here to protect the young trees from the fallow deer who roam the forest.  The guards also help by enabling us to graze Dexter cattle in the orchard, and making it easier to cut hay between the rows of fruit trees.  Plastic tubes are also essential for protection from rabbits.

The original orchard was established here in 1880 by William Buchan Graham and his wife Eliza, after the land had been cleared of oak.    The detailed maps of the orchard drawn by Graham lists 189 fruit trees, comprising plums, pears, cherries, damsons and apple, although the plan itself suggests that just 163 were actually planted.  It seems that 50 of those were Victoria Plums, accompanied by smaller numbers of other plum varieties, reflecting contemporary taste for plum jam perhaps, alongside about 50 apples of three varieties, Keswick Codlin, Hawthornden and Wellington (now more commonly known as Dumelow’s Seedling); about 20 cherries, including the varieties Black Eagle, Elton, May Duke and Waterloo; a dozen Damsons; and about 20 pears, including Jargonelle, Bon ‘Christian’ and Marie Louise.

Edith Hope Scott, author and Ruskin follower, who moved to the Wyre Forest just over a hundred years ago writes of the then relatively new orchard in her novel The Beloved published in 1921. Through the eyes of a child she describes the no doubt gruelling preparatory work required before the fruit trees could be planted:

‘Anworth was quite a little girl when they first came to these parts, and one day as she went down the lane towards the Coppice she saw a great piece of the wood being ‘cleared’, not only cut as they cut the wood here for the small timber, leaving the great oak roots to shoot again for another series of years – but quite cut down, and the big oak roots left bare and ready to be dug up, so that the ground could be cultivated and built upon.  The children used to stop and watch what was going on whenever they came that way to go into the wood, and as time went on, sure enough a house began to grow up, and an orchard began with thin lonely looking little cherry and apple trees, and a hedge – or rather the expectation of a hedge – began to mark off the ground from the lane.’ 

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The book, though long out of print, still resonates today.  It contains some lovely descriptions of the local cherry orchards:  ‘Can’t you imagine us all yesterday at Coppice Corner – the cherry blossom just bubbling over the whole orchard, leaving no loophole for the brown woods to peep through.  Just a day that you so well remember….not brilliant – rather grey indeed – but the cherry orchards surrounding one like a great white summer cloud.’  And picturing the original orchard at St George’s she writes: ‘a piece of steep clear land seemed to rise out of the forest and trees covered with white blossom gave me a sudden feeling of a coral islet rising out of a sea of trees’.

The new orchard contains a different balance of types and varieties of fruit to those planted here in the nineteenth century.  This reflects changing tastes and should provide better quality fruit.  Let’s hope we have chosen suitable varieties for, as Lawrence D Hills, early advocate of organic gardening, has written: ‘Our problem with trees is always that our mistakes live as long as our successes’.  This is particularly the case with trees on vigorous rootstocks which we have selected to recreate the character of the original orchard.  We have fewer cherries and plums than the original but a number of those we have selected replicate previously planted varieties, notably May Duke and Black Eagle cherries, and Victoria and Rivers Early Prolific plums.  Along with Shropshire Prune damsons, we have also chosen Jargonelle and Williams Bon Chretian (as it is more commonly known) pears.  The majority of the trees we’ve planted though have been apple varieties, with a few Keswick Codlin, Dumelow’s Seedling and Hawthornden trees, and a range of other culinary and juicing varieties, many suitable for cider making.

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While the planting is now almost complete, we’ll need to keep a close eye on how the trees develop.  Ensuring the area immediately around each tree remains weed free will be a priority so that the young whips stand a good chance of establishing themselves in their first few years.  Formative pruning will need to be carried out carefully,  trees checked regularly for signs of pests and diseases, and the tree guards and tubes maintained to reduce the risk of unwelcome attention from deer and rabbits.  The hard work has only just begun!