2013 – A Good Year

2013 – a good year. Not just for us, but also for wildlife in the UK, which showed how resilient it is. A decent summer and we were rewarded with all sorts of excitement. Here we had our first colony of Tree Bumblebees and clouds of Clouded Yellow Butterflies. The Wagtail and Wren pairs which moved into the new house with us both had successful years too, as did the new honeybee nucleuses I brought in from a friend.

Bombus Hypnorum
Tree bumblebee and Phacelia
As well as re-establishing my apiary I’ve now got the bare bones of our garden and mixed orchard and meadow areas sorted. Raised beds everywhere as the (clay) soil is so brutal, and structure from some pleached hornbeam and Hawthorn hedges. Lots of veg and, of course, Hybrid Musk roses and bee plants in the “formal” garden, together with some of my favourite fruit trees. We have peach, almond and apricot, together with a vine, goji berry and some of the prettiest English apples there are. I’ve been tinkering around with green manure, which has been fun, and now have swathes of an attractive wild red clover, phacelia and Trefoil mix.

In the orchard are some pleasing oddities and some more of my favourite things, which mostly seem to have taken well.

Ditch through meadow areas
Ditch through meadow areas
The meadows are looking good too, with some interesting success stories (Forking Larkspur and Wild Clary), and I’m dying to see what my water obsession produces by way of flora. The pond is yet to hold water properly, but is getting there, and my borage and strawberry bed is coming on.

The house has been fabulous to live in, not least because we can light and heat it effectively for free. I’ve become a huge fan of renewables this year, not least because of the exciting work we’re doing with Good Energy and Solar Century. I just don’t understand why the take up of some of the schemes offered by the government is so low. I DO understand the backlash against large scale solar developments, despite their potential for significantly enhancing biodiversity. For the government to flip-flop on renewables and energy bills smacks of short term populism, however, and really damages the development of the industry.

Hookgate Cottage
Hookgate Cottage, with solar panels and wood burning range chimney.
It has been very tricky for us, for example, as we have to try to judge future demand for hedge plants and wildflower seed. Folk should be reminded that our retail energy costs are among the lowest in Europe.

This has been one of my major business related irritations this year. I’ve also been very irked by the luke warm response to the Ash tree dieback issue. There’s apparently too much vested interest opposing a requirement for plants to be sold with a label confirming their country of origin. When people buy “native British plants” they generally want native British native plants grown in the UK.

I try to remain apolitical, but I have to say the government has been very disappointing on this and on the other environmental issues I know a bit about, from neonicotinoid use to agricultural subsidies. This is particularly unfortunate at a time when conservation NGOs are struggling with funding.

In the private sector, though, things are moving in the right direction. Folk are becoming aware of what biodiversity is and what it means to them. Although bees have generated a disproportionate length of column inches in 2013 they have focused attention on issues like habitat loss and pesticide use, as well as reinforcing awareness of our dependence on the natural world. The current vogue for foraging has helped that too, together with an increasing sense of localism. What better way to celebrate local distinctiveness than through local food?

We are finding ourselves involved in an increasing range of projects, which reflect that interest. Some are pretty large scale; we already hope to sell around 10,000kg of wildflower seed in 2014, for example. Some are much smaller; I was delighted that we were recently able to help fund ARG’s work with sand lizards on the Merseyside coast. We’re enormously proud too of our work this year with Friends of the Earth, Noble Foods and the Co-op, to name but three of our customers.

Settling In

Now we’ve – nearly – resolved the usual moving in nonsenses with idiosyncratic plumbing and the idiotic BT Broadband we can almost peer through the mountain of empty packing cases and paper and see our new HQ in the light of day.

There’s so much to take in with a new plot it’s difficult to know where to start. We have just under an acre and a half of land sloping west to east, where a lane borders the hedge. We’re surrounded by fields in the other directions, with a hedge to the south close to the existing cottage, which sits in the south east corner of the plot. I am looking out west from my office towards some stables, an unlovely powerline and a lovely oak in the hedgeline. The views are generally stunning though (see below), and it’s part of the challenge for the architects in designing the new build to take advantage of them while folding the house into the existing landscape.

The land itself is a blank canvas. There’s not much of a formal garden and the rest of the land is either thistle and bindweed – already strimmed – in the southwest corner and some potentially nice grassland in the northern two thirds of the plot. I say “potentially” because the grasses are nice and the sward is open, but there are very few flowers out there. Apart from the odd milk thistle there is a good area of meadow vetchling, some buttercup and red clover, and a little agrimony and bedstraw. The local farmer has just very kindly topped it for us and will bale and remove the hay, when we’ll sow some Rattle to start to get it under control. Landscaper Phil Brown has lots of ideas for this section, which will be divided up into smaller, quite distinct areas.

As to the local wildlife, the folk who sold us the house were mad keen birders and did a great job attracting an amazing variety into the garden. Unfortunately, 15 bird feeders led to another, less welcome, visiting fraternity. We’re now temporarily in a feeder free zone and waging mechanical and chemical warfare on the impressive local rat population. As to my own great enthusiasms further down the food chain there are a few butterflies about; I’ve seen meadow browns, woods, small tortoiseshells and skippers. I’ve come across no bats and remarkably few bees and hoverflies; I’ve seen Bombus lapidarius and B. hortorum, but hardly any solitary bees. I yearn for all the fauna and flora around our old pond too; the site desperately misses water. It will be fascinating to see how quickly we can bring up insect numbers over the next few years.

There are honey bees about, and, happy day, I’ve managed to collect a late swarm. It will need a lot of TLC to get it through the winter, but fingers crossed. I’ll collect my own colonies after their holiday with my beekeeping friend John.

As far as the house is concerned we’ve had some exciting meetings with the architects – about which, gentle reader, more anon. For the time being here’s a quick video of the views from the back garden.