Church Farm Ardeley

A Free Range Experience


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A Mouse in the House

For the past couple of months, the Church Farm team have been working in the orchard, putting down fresh Mypex and plastic guards to prevent grass growing near trees (and therefore taking nutrients) and stop rabbits from nibbling the tree trunks. While pulling up old Mypex, we discovered a family of wild mice who have been happily living under the plastic sheeting during winter – they had even gone so far as to build themselves a nest. It’s an extraordinary move, really. Where else in the farm are you, as a mouse, likely to find a warm, protected space to build your home? We’ve now put down new Mypex, making sure not to disturb the mice and leaving them to go about their business in peace. We hope they enjoy their stay at Church Farm.

Mice Nest_Blog_04March2014

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Red Skies and Red Birds

Winter, at Church Farm, is turning out to be a very beautiful, but very cold season. We have already had some gorgeous clean and clear frosty mornings, and, at the end of the day, some magnificent sun sets that have set the sky a blaze. The view over the horticulture fields, as they slope down and on into Lowany and Upany fields, is particularly spectacular on these occasions.

Winter isn’t always the best time for wildlife, but there have been some treats on the farm. Not in the least, one of my favourite winter migrants, the red wing.
redwing
Red wings are thrushes, like black birds and song thrushes that are a regular sight in our gardens, that migrant over to the UK from Scandinavia, Russia, and northern regions of Asia. They are a very common sight in winter, with a distinctive red flank and creamy strips around the eyes. They are very pretty birds, and are a welcome sight darting in and around the hedgerows.

Severe winters can cause the redwing many problems; even though the world population is healthy, particularly bad weather can really push up the mortality rate for these migrants. Sadly, they rarely visit gardens, as the many bird feeders up and down the country would provide a real boost to these birds, but it is encouraging that organic farms such as Church Farm offer open country side birds like the redwing the chance to over winter safely and securely.

The British Trust for Ornithology are currently conducting a winter thrush survey, to understand more about birds such as the redwing and weather the UK offers a good home for them during the winter months and to identify what they need to survive through to the spring. The BTO are a fantastic organisation, so please register and give them a helping hand counting their thrushes!


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Tricksy Wiley Foes

What could I be talking about? No, its not Oscar the dog on the hunt for table scraps in the Garden Room of our lovely Café. Nor is it one of the livestock team pinching yet another tea bag from the interns.

I am talking about foxes. Tricksy, wiley, foxes. Recently, around 80 of our laying chickens were, literally, massacred (there simply isn’t a better word for it) by a single nasty red coated beasty. Now, I am not one to criticise the instincts of a predatory animal. One it would be hypocritical (just ask my boyfriend) and two, a fox has got to eat, and a chicken makes a tasty meal.

Unfortunately, fox behaviour does lean towards the unnecessarily blood thirsty at time. 79 of these chickens were simply killed. Only one was taken. The rest, left behind as a macabre gift for our livestock team to discover in the morning.

This behaviour, described as ‘surplus killing’, only happens in un natural situations such as hen houses. Foxes naturally kill more than they can eat in one sitting if possible, so that they can bury the rest for later. If the prey cannot escape however, this ‘surplus killing’ takes place. Basically its just the hunting instinct gone into overdrive, the fox taking advantage of having so much prey available. This is not the fox killing for pleasure, just a fox being a fox, so please don’t think that one of our top mammalian predator is a blood crazed lunatic.

They are actually quite shy animals in the countryside. Young foxes will often be more eager to approach humans because they are naturally more curious, just like any young pup. Foxes are solitary by nature, but are becoming more personable in urban areas as many friendly households like to feed their neighbourhood fox. This is a good thing, whilst foxes are not endangered in this country, they are nonetheless a very beautiful and charming wildlife member. Few people remember their first encounter with a fox without a smile on their face. Mine personally was pretty dramatic; this fox was huge! It was like walking upon a scarlet German shepherd! And his eyes; huge yellow orbs that just stared at you, calm as day, no fear what so ever. He was a gorgeous animal, and I haven’t seen another fox as impressive.

Hopefully the Church Farm fox won’t decide to go into the chicken coup again; as a farm, we have to protect our livestock which doesn’t have a happy ending for the fox. Still, with around 300,000 foxes in rural Britain today, I am sure that if its not the same fox, another will soon show up.


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Is it a duckling? Is it a piglet? No! It’s a hedgehog!

Hedgehogs, or indeed, hedgepigs (no this isn’t a real word, just an overly cutesy and daft alternative to the correct title of this particular mammal) are amongst the favourites of British wildlife moments.

I mean there is nothing to not like really is there. They are cute, they aren’t fluffy, but they roll into a ball if something that they don’t like apporaches (trust me, sometimes I wish I could roll into a ball when something that I don’t like approaches!), they can wiggle their nose with the best of them, and they are walking spine cushions. Seriously, its all the amazement of nature in one round, spikey, outrageously ridiculous package.

Now, I hadn’t yet seen a hedgehog since my arrival, but I had been assured that they were about, nosing around the caravans in caravan land and making a racket so terrible that one was led to have circumspect thoughts as to what behaviour was being witnessed. My friend Liz who manages the facebook page and website, shared a couple of disturbing stories with me that I have chosen to block from my mind, but needless to say, I was pretty confident that we had entire hedgepig families on the farm.

Coupled with Rik the grower complaining about the amount of hedgehog scat all over his plants, I became fairly confident of a seeing these notorious insectivores. And indeed the time had come! Sitting outside my trailer on a cold and clear autumn night last week, I was startled by a terrible scraping sound just the other side of the fence. Now, there isn’t that much distance between myself and the fence, and after a pint of cider, one’s imagination can go into overdrive a little (full moon, spooky farm, boyfriend dressed all in black and throwing shadows everywhere with just his voice emanating from the gloom, see where I’m coming from?)

So, whilst I’m desperately trying to get my beloved to stop laughing at me as I creep ninja style towards the scraping (curiosity always gets the better of me) to discover the cause, however scary it may be, I was relieved, indeed happy, to see the familiar sillohette of a roly poly hedgepig. Said hedgepig was busy pulling his or her body under the wire fence into Home field, where he or she trotted merrily through the grass, snuffling away, getting on with hedgepig business.

Having hedgehogs is a great thing for the farm. First, they eat slugs! As an organic farm, we rely on natural predators to deal with these horrible slimy leaf munchers, so we need all the hedgehogs we can get. Secondly, the numbers of British hedgehogs have dropped by 25% in 10 years! This is a travesty! Please visit http://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk/ to see how you can help our hedgehogs, because they are delightful animals and is so sad that like so many other native creatures, they are going into decline. Wildlife friendly farms such as Church Farm have a huge role to play in creating suitable habitats for British Wildlife, so if you don’t fancy having hedgehogs in your garden, you can come and enjoy a Church Farm breakfast or buy some Church Farm sausages, supporting your neighbouring hedgehogs instead!


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Humour in Wing-ed Form

Well, summer is at an end again it seems; I’m still not entirely sure that it started, but the constant rain and the fact that I NEED to have the heating on in the evenings is a definite hint that whatever it was, it is definitely over.

Now, this weeks sighting is not strictly true wildlife, but there are so many running around at the moment, and they are a quintessential part of the British countryside. And they make me laugh.

Pheasants! Or to be specific, the common or ring necked pheasant. Never was there a more daft nor tasty introduced wing-ed thing to this country. Actually the jury is out on the tasty part, but you can’t beat pheasant curry. Trust me, I work on a farm.

Pheasants are a game bird, and they have all been released in readiness for the shooting season which begins on October 1st. Here in Ardeley, shooting is quite a popular hobby, with many a gentleman (or a lady) frequenting the jolly waggoner’s after a fine day with the guns (I have no idea if any one that shoots says that, but it sounds good doesn’t it?). These birds were introduced way back in Roman times, and have settled down very well despite the stark differences between soggy England and their native home on the Asian grasslands. As a relatively plump bird they are relatively useless fliers, preferring to run from danger, normally in a straight line, looking over their shoulder at the approaching car, and performing no evasive manoeuvres to get out of the way.

But, despite the comical value, the cock birds are very beautiful when fully grown. If they survive their first year, pheasants are very capable and well adapted to British farmland, feeding on invertebrates and roosting in the hedgerows and woodland patches that lie adjacent to farmer’s fields. On the farm, we seem to have a special kind of pheasant. Normally they look like this.

pheasant

Ours look like this.

melanistic-pheasant

Isn’t he handsome! These are melanistic mutants; not quite as scary as it sounds. Basically, any dark pigment in thier plumage is over developed, and this gets passed on through the genes to the pheasants offspring. Which I guess is why there are so many of these particular pheasants on the farm; chicks don’t tend to stray too far from where they were hatched. They are quite tame as well, and if you sit quietly at dusk, the male whose territory is in vicarage field will come pretty close to you, chiriping away and looking at you as if he is deciding whether or not you are any good to eat. Hopefully, he will survive another shooting season and go on to father more deep glossy blue green chicks.


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The Humble Bumble

Bumble bees are the best aren’t they? Not least because there are species whose Latin name begins with Bombus (never fails to make me laugh out loud). I had a lovely Bombus moment the other day whilst walking towards Lowany field where many of our pigges are at the moment. I saw not one, not two, but three different Bombus, all lines up on three different plants like pretty maids all in a row.

We had a buff tailed Bombus, and red tailed Bombus and a white tailed bombus (photos do not reflect the size of the bees J )

red-tailed white-tailed buff-tailed

They were all feeding on big pink flowers which I think are campions, but I’ll let you know on that one. It gladdens my heart to see bumble bees out and about, the ‘plight of the bumble bee’ is something close to all of us natural history geeks, and as agricultural practices continue to become more about food and less about anything else, the habitat and food sources available for bumble bees have meant that their numbers in this country have declined dramatically. It’s a real shame; without bees there will be no food. Bees are one of it not THE key pollinator in the United Kingdom, and the chance of complete ecological melt down should the bees disappear is very high.

We have 24 species of bumblebee in the UK, but only 8 can be classed as common. These three are in that group. In fact, you can’t always tell between a white tail and a buff tail. Only the queen bee has a tail that is this dirty white colour; what she was doing out and about I’m not sure, although queens will forage on occasion if the colony is stabilised. This is a good thing, Church farm has a happy healthy bumble bee colony! As a mixed farm which grows and rears to organic standards, there are a number of wild flower strips and weedy areas where the bees can thrive.

With their clumsy bumbling (no pun intended) flight and large hairy bodies, I can see why bumble bees scare some people. I’m not a big fan of careering buzzing things myself. But these insects really are a charm to watch, and they really aren’t aggressive. If a bumble bee uses its sting, it will perish, and so they are really reluctant to bother. And, they do need our help. Please keep supporting Church Farm, and help us help the bees by providing them with the food and shelter that they need. In turn, the bees will help us make our own food; Rik opens the poly tunnels every day to encourage pollinators to come in and pollinate the plants, and the kitchen garden is an amazing bee trap. Without the bees, our crops would be far less in number, and no one wants that do they. Imagine, a world without Church Farm Strawberries! It doesn’t bear thinking of…


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Hawk Tales

My friend and colleague Lizzy (she works in the café and shop, really lovely girl, always up for a natter), shared a brilliant story with me the other day as we were driving alongBlind Laneback to the Farm.

Now, being fairly obsessed with all things nature orientated, I have spent a lot of time scouring the skies and the ground for wee beasties, feathered friends and all manner of plant life (yes, I am often mocked for getting excited over what are essentially, weeds, but hey we all need something to keep us out of trouble).

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) adult male perched on post. UK.

When it comes to British birds of prey, I get particularly enthusiastic. Few images are more breathtaking than watching a golden eagle soar over the highlands. Here in Hertfordshire, we have red kites and buzzards, both of which have exactly the same effect for me. Watching them soar is like being transported to another world….

Anyway, back to reality here on terra firma. Lizzy has seen something which I have never seen in all my years of birding escapades. She got to see a sparrow hawk! And not just a fleeting glimpse as it springs out from the trees, talons extended, and makes off with a squawking blue tit in a puff of feathers, oh no. This sparrow hawk actually flew along the car she was in with our other dear friend Becs, and travelled with the car! Do you have any idea how long I have sat in hides, binoculars trained on the feeder, waiting for the chance to see one of these devils?! The two girls actually got a good enough look to have time to argue about what it was before the bird flew off!

Sometimes life is unfair. And yes I need to get out more.

These resident birds of prey are quite small, adapted as they are for eating, you guessed it, sparrows and other small passerines (a passerine is essentially any bird that perches, so pretty much all the birds in your garden). The males have beautiful plumage, a kind of grey blue with brown bars all down his white chest. They are doing well in this country, with around 40,000 breeding pairs, and sadly as a result, some ‘environmentalists’ try to blame healthy sparrow hawk numbers for the decline in song bird populations. Believe me, if you compare the number of kills between a sparrow hawk and your average domestic moggy, you will soon see what is causing the problem for song bird populations! (and its not the sparrow hawk).

I shall keep a close eye out whilst driving around the countryside, and hopefully will get a chance to see this agile beautiful little bird myself. Wish me luck!