A Time to Reflect

As the sun bakes the marshes and the heat and humidity rises, it’s a good time to find a shady corner and reflect on the last eight months and also take those first steps to looking to the future.

Without doubt shifting from a full-time, long commute job to part-time and working predominantly from home has improved my health. Gone is the exhausted, mentally shattered person who struggled through the weekends to just keep things on the home front in equilibrium and too be honest in many cases failing. In her place is a person I recognise of old; who laughs a lot more, who stops and observes a lot more, who does a lot more and is generally a much nicer person to know.

What is also apparent, and perhaps not surprising, is that my relationship with work is changing. Having distance and the luxury of time it is ever more apparent that my current work culture/environment and me are not fully compatible. Some of this is a change in me; what drives me is changing (or maybe I am just more attuned and recognising it) and as I immerse myself in all the other aspects of my life I am less content to spend valuable time and energy with those who suck the joy from my soul. As the person not in the office and not there all the time you become an easy target for others frustrations. Being sensitive this can be very hard to deal with. Don’t get me wrong constructive criticism is a valuable thing but deflected stress is unpleasant and energy sapping.

This has been difficult to accept because there are aspects of my work that give me great pleasure but I also have to value me and more importantly my time (as my husband never ceases to tell me). So for the last few months I have been considering whether there were things I could do that could negate the negative and allow me to enjoy the positive. I have become firmer in defining the days I work and less accommodating and flexible in rearranging these as the requests had rained in on a near weekly basis. I refuse to accept deflected angst calling it out when I see it. While these all help I also have to accept that I am slowly distancing myself from the organisation, stepping further back, more an outsider looking in and that the time is coming when I will step away.

While I haven’t fully reached the point of commitment yet I am also excited as I start to think and plan my next adventures. At the moment who knows what they will be and what paths will be followed but I am excited to find out.

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The Sound of Silence

Friends often exclaim it must be amazing to live where we do, so silent. To be fair many of my friends live in towns and cities but the one thing the garden is, is anything but silent. From dawn to dusk there is a veritable cacophony of sound. Even over night although less, the marshes still echo to eerie songs.

Without doubt the nosiest garden inhabitants are the troop of jackdaws. Complex and sociable birds, the resident troop numbers are currently swelled by this years young who they are busy training in the contortionists art of hanging off the bird-feeder. Throughout the day the constant kak-kak call can be heard as they maintain interactions between the members of the troop, constantly reasserting social bonds. It is in no way surprising that the archaic collective noun for these birds is a “clattering”.

Take the time to tune into the background beyond the jackdaws and a broader spectrum of song is heard. Blackbird, thrush and sparrows constantly delivering their varied tunes as they reinforce their territories. The gentle cooing of dove and pigeon although sadly no longer the purr of the turtle dove which when we first moved here was a regular summer visitor. We are fortunate to still have cuckoos and for a brief while longer we will hear the call before the adults return to Africa leaving their young in the hands of the unsuspecting foster parents to travel back on their own six to eight weeks later.

A more gentle call is the quiet chirrup of the house martins. Late arrivals this year due to weather conditions over mainland Europe, the pairs are now busy brooding their young. But there is always trouble with the neighbours. Within the roof we have three layers of prime avian real estate. The lower roof over the kitchen is prime starling territory with multiple nests along the roof. Resident since April these devoted parents are already onto brood two. Other than the odd masonary bee colony no other inhabit this part of the house, to be honest it probably is just to noisy.

The upper roof however is home to both house sparrows and house martins. The house sparrows are here year round, mostly living in the gaps under the tiles. The house martins are just below this building their mud nests in the overhang between roof and wall. Over the years the house martins have build a selection of nests which they repair and reuse year on year. The sparrow colony is however, thriving and occasionally one will want a nest a little bit more on trend and being early nesters will take over those house martin nests that have survived the winter best. Come late spring when our summer visitors return furious arguing will ensue as the house martins try to reclaim the nests. Eventually they all establish their summer homes but constant bickering continues between these neighbours all summer long.

Even the flowerbeds are not silent. We have always had bees but this year their numbers are significantly higher. Bumblebees numbers in particular have increased but there are now a wide variety of both solitary and social bees. Listen to any flower bed and the flowers hum to the noise of happy bees. We have been working to ensure that we have a succession of flowers as opposed to a spring glut followed by famine. We have also left areas of the garden to do its thing increasing the number of native species. It is not just the bees but an increasing number of beetles and moths being observed; I now just need to fine tune the art of identifying them!

As dusk falls and the daytime residents take their leave an eerie singing can be heard emanating from the marshes. While the occasional sound is that of one of the numerous wading birds this dusk chorus is not avian. All through spring and early summer the night time resonate to a marsh frog chorus, a noise so surprising loud for such little creatures. The first time you hear the eerie calls it is not hard to let flight to the imagination as to just what is out on the marshes.

Without doubt whatever the time of day – nature gives good voice. Without the modern day mechanical sounds that plague many places blocking this out we are so fortunate to be able to enjoy the beauty and the sound of silence.

We All Call it Home

The pond had been seriously overgrown. Small pockets of water surrounding a thicket of rushes. With a carving knife and some sheer brute force, over two thirds of the pond was liberated last autumn, a good chunk of reeds still in situ but a reminder to ourselves to never let it get quite so bad again. The most impressive thing has been the speed with which nature has reclaimed the water. The ramshorn snails and pea mussels, water boatmen and diving beetles rapidly appearing from the cramped recesses of the pond.

Our greatest joy has been the return of the newts both common and more importantly the great crested newts. These magnificent amphibians (Latin name Triturus cristatus), are a protected species and the UK’s population are internationally important. They are about 15-20 cm long, almost black in colour, with spotted flanks and a striking, orange belly. In addition the males have a long, wavy crest along the body and tail during the breeding season. While they like a clean pond they thankfully don’t mind a bit of weed, since having cleared the pond we currently work to keep the blanket weed under control as the pond re-calibrates.

Lazing on the pond.

As the pond matures so do the species that visit, many such as birds, hedgehogs and foxes for a drink but others like the grass snakes for a spot of lunch. Grass snakes swim surprisingly well and it is not uncommon to find this beauty circumnavigating the pond. Always very well aware of our presence, it is not unusual for a pond-weed covered head to pop up close to where we are dabbling in the pond, to cast a wary eye over what we are up to and whether we represent a threat.

While grass snakes are the easiest to spot, other reptiles are also to be found. Moving some large stones one day we came across a pencil thin young adder curled up in a crevice; an altogether more feisty reptile. What can only be described as a small bundle of hiss and spit certainly made its presence known. Indeed moving anything in the garden needs to be done with extreme caution and always lifted directly up not rolled, as you never know what is underneath. At this time of year young common lizards seeking out their insect prey are a regular find.

Young common lizard

One thing all reptiles need is cover and while this abound around the edge of the garden, the middle represented a vast open plain of danger. Not just reptiles, but hedgehogs and other small mammals all appreciate blocks of cover. With this in mind we have allowed the lawn to do its thing in and around the apple trees. The fox has already developed a regular path through and other footpaths are developing, nightly rituals by as yet unknown until we get our camera set.

The wild zone

What has amazed me most is the interaction of the house sparrows with this wild zone. They love the long grass, flying in regularly, hanging of the grass seed heads and finding insects for their young. Indeed it seems for a healthy sparrow colony long grass is a must. By a piece of serendipity we have now added the last piece of the neighbourhood jigsaw for our booming sparrow troop.

Real Gardens Have Weeds

For the last six weeks, during the half of the week I do not work, I have been immersing myself fully in the garden. This has been good for both me and the garden. Everyone who meets me comments on how relaxed and well I look and this is reflected in the general state of my health which is in so much of a better place than it was six months ago. I have energy to do things and want to do things.

The garden too is looking in good shape with judicious pruning re-finding paths and bringing new vigor to some tired looking plants. The roses in particular are dripping with flowers after less productive years, their scent, heady in the sunshine and the plants a magnet for bees

That said there is control and there is control and I was struck by this, looking at the Chelsea Flower Show and in particular the gardens. While there is no doubt that many of these gardens are beautiful, they are also an illusion of perfection that is not real or frankly achievable. One of the things I find challenging is that the beautiful planting (and it is) combines plants that do not in reality flower at the same time. So although these combinations may look stunning, in the real world these plants will never been seen together, so they give false impressions. The beauty of the growing season is that your garden will allow different plants to have their moment in the sun while others are moving to the seed phase and yet more are just building up their potential. Therefore, although there is a backbone to a garden it changes in tune with the seasons. The Irises are currently all in splendor and would indeed look amazing with some of the Dahlia family but one flowers in May and the other July onwards, so lets not pretend these are garden bedfellows. But what the Irises do provide later in the season is structural leaves providing a foil for summer plants.

It is also important to have the right plant in the right place. There is no point putting a plant that loves having its feet wet in a garden with wonderful free draining soil and vice versa. So taking the time to understand your planting environment, be it balcony plot or garden, looking for plants that will be happy and most importantly planting what you like. There are always plants that will surprise you by flourishing in sub-optimal growing conditions, but you will probably loose many to find the few. The real gem of these shows but with whom not enough time is spent are the expert plant growers, who have a wealth of knowledge and are happy to share.

Nothing annoys me more than when certain types of planting is derided as “unfashionable”. Too much of the media is dedicated to a few individuals dictating what is or what is not in fashion in all aspects of life, but the reality is these are just opinions and this is also true for the garden and what we choose plant in it. Gardens are not quick fixes, despite the appearances these garden shows present and my garden will not suddenly become something special because I plant something that I am being told is the latest thing to have. I think back to my late father who loved dahlia’s. He would, if my mother had let him, have filled the entire garden. But for most of his life these were considered allotment plants and little recommended by the “gardening elite”. Now, however, they are a must have plant of the summer to bring vibrancy and colour to the summer border. But lets be honest that’s what they always did, these have always been slightly larger than life plants. If you like them plant them but equally if you don’t that is perfectly fine. For me it is the Sweet WIlliam, I love these little flowers and so do the bees. So they may not be the flower of the moment but in my garden they will stay for the perfect reason that I want them.

Finally lets be honest we all have those wild flowers that grow with abandon whether we want them or not. Daisies and buttercups in the lawn, umbellifers of all sizes, Dandelions to name but a few. In pretty much every show garden (bar one) these natives, vital plants for wildlife and thus a key part of supporting nature, are absent. So when you look at these garden beauty parades just remember this is no different from pictures in a fashion magazine, real gardens have weeds and they are no less beautiful for that.

Wildflowers staking a claim

In the last year just because I have been slovenly in the garden, nature has not. As well as the significant growth of the things I had planted over the years other plants have taken the opportunity to have their time in the sun. Some of these plants clearly love the garden and are doing very well thank you very much. So should I class these new additions as “weeds” or see them for what they really are which is wild flowers and in which case shouldn’t they remain.

A quick stroll this morning found the following; common fumitory (Fumaria muralis), speedwell (Veronica persica), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), forget-me-not (Myosotis arvensis), yellow corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea), sticky mouse ear (Cerastium fontanum), red campion (Silene dioica), bedstraw (Rubaceae) and wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca). These delicate flowers, in most cases nestled down in grass, have happily survived the 40 mph winds of yesterday.

Although we didn’t do much in the garden last year one thing we didn’t do which has lead to much of the increase in the wild flowers was to let the lawn around the apple trees do its thing, with no mowing or any form of “control”. This area was well loved by the wild life and so we decided that the same area would be left again this year.

But whereas last year grasses were king, this year a change has begun and in no small part, ground ivy is changing the dynamic. This creeping member of the dead-nettle family has taken up residence in the orchard grass and wherever it is found the grass growth is retarded. It is in these areas where we are seeing many of the small woodland and grassland wild flowers for the first time. It is also clear these native flowers are well loved by the insects. Bees of all sizes have been found on the flowers and insect loving birds now also regularly visit the grassy patch suggesting that time spent bug hunting would be an afternoon well spent.

It’s easy to dismiss these little plants as weeds and rip them out, but they are a key part of the ecosystem on which much of nature depends.

Uninspiring Beginnings

When we first moved here 10 years ago the garden was a barren dry space. The outer boundary was surrounded by seventy full height Lleylandii conifers, casting a long dry shadow over the whole garden. The effect was little to nothing was growing in the garden bar the ancient fruit trees that had been planted soon after the house was built and even these were not in the best of condition. As for wildlife it didn’t really have much of a look in.

There was really only one solution and a dramatic one at that; the conifers had to go. Having made the decision, checked there were no tree orders in place, we unleashed the tree surgeon to fell the impenetrable boundary and left for work. The effect was stunning, having left to the typical gloom that was the garden, we returned to find the whole area flooded with light, and we had the the most amazing enormous sky, marsh and water views; it was like we had literally moved house.

Felling the conifers; The first chink of light back in the garden

Now we had to get the wildlife back, so having worked on the soil, we set about planting a native British Hedge comprising a mixture of Hawthorn, Backthorn, Hazel, Gelder Roses, Field Maple and Spindle. By far the cheapest way to do this is to buy bare root whips. We have since discovered that it is a given if we have bought bare root plants and need to plant these urgently that the weather will be atrocious. A howling gale and 100 plants later the mass of sticks that would be our new hedge were in place.

Really this will one day be a hedge

But from these uninspiring beginnings a native hedgerow rapidly grew; a place full of interest with flowers, catkins, nuts, berries and autumn colour and most importantly nature. Birds were the most obvious early returnees and year on year the variety of birds has increased; initially those specialists for seeds and berries. But perhaps the most critical returnees were the insects, bringing in a wider variety of birds and importantly bats. As all things follow a food chain, higher order predators such as stoat, weasel and owls appeared. To the point we are lucky to have an abundant and varied wildlife.

10 years on

Looking back it is amazing to consider what an amazing wildlife space this has become from such uninspiring beginnings.

Why a Negative Should be a Positive

If you care about some trees, a park, a field or even a scrubby piece of land that is part and parcel of where you live, should you be chastised or labelled a NIMBY if you campaign for no change. If this area brings you joy, supports nature or is that oasis of calm in your otherwise hectic lives are you so wrong in not wanting that to change? Shouldn’t your community have a say?

Typically when opposition is made to some form of change (often housing development) in a local area those that oppose the change will often find themselves referred to as NIMBY’s (Not in My Back Yard), with the connotation that they would be perfectly happy if the change happened anywhere else but by them. Indeed the term is often used to imply that the people are ill-informed or just plain selfish.

There is an alternative phrase, YIMBY (Yes in My Back Yard), which refers to a movement that supports the development of housing in cities, with the focus on affordability and accessibility for everyone. This is clearly an important aim, people need homes but what is striking is that through the use of a positive term these people are viewed as proactive with positive community goals.

Surely the same argument could be applied to those that want a positive environment for their community, surely they too have positive community goals. As Peter Fiennes* argues in his excellent book Oak, Ash and Thorn…

NIMBY’s are YMIBY’s. We should thank everyone who cherishes the place  where they live. 
Do we sneer at indigenous people who fight for their land? ….. the inhabitants of one threatened leafy village are often the same. “

Through the use of the positive term, the goals and message become positive. We want this environment for our community. This is as valid an argument as we want homes. Once removed or lost it is very hard to reinstate. A 200 year old tree with all the wildlife it supports cannot be replaced by small saplings. Woodland once lost takes many years to replace. The meadow once built on will no longer act as a flood plain. Asking people to stop and think if this is really what that want and pointing out what would be lost is important. As long as we are also prepared to listen.

Community is ultimately about compromise. Compromise requires talking, debating and listening. It means to understand that there are multiple points of view some of which may be very opposite of your own. It needs time and it needs forethought. To often communities have very little warning of that the local government has in mind for them. Ironically in a world that is based on instant communication too often that is the last thing that happens and certainly not in a timely manner where community development is concerned.

Giving the final word to again to Peter Fiennes* “The local YIMBY’s are protesting, yes in my backyard I would like to be able to…….”. We should thank these people for caring enough to get out there.

*Peter Fiennes (2017). Oak, Ash and Thorn. The Ancient Woods and New Forests of Britain. ISBN: 978-1-78607-321-1. Publisher: Oneworld