Spring treasure 11: The Turtle Dove

4/6/2018 Almost two years ago I wrote of a sound that I associated with childhood summers in Suffolk, but that was now missing from my garden: the purring song of the turtle dove. I read, then, that their numbers had decreased by more than 90% since the 1960s; now, I have found a figure of 93% since 1994 . Forgetting momentarily that these are migrating birds that spend their winters in Africa, I thought it was yet another indication of the devastating effects of the changes in our farming practices in the last half century. These may have caused some of their problems, but clearly they are not the whole picture.

I have been listening out for the turtle dove ever since I became aware of its absence. Every time I thought I might have heard one and stopped to listen, I realised it was actually a wood pigeon: they also ‘purr’ sometimes, in addition to their usual cooing song.

Last year I may have seen a juvenile turtle dove. I couldn’t be 100% sure, but I did eliminate every other possible dove or pigeon from my enquiries. It was too far away to photograph, but I spent a long time examining it through binoculars and comparing it with photographs, and it seemed the only likely candidate. I didn’t hear any though, and adults are usually only heard, not seen.

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Spring treasure 9: Cow Parsley

cow parsley23/5/2018 On the radio the other day I heard cow parsley and nettles being referred to as the ‘thugs’ of the wild flowers. Apparently they thrive in the countryside and on road verges to the exclusion of other wild flowers due to added nitrogen from car fumes and agricultural fertilisers.

I was immediately indignant. On reflection, however, logic has permitted me to accept that this may be so. But it doesn’t stop me loving cow parsley. My garden, which has never been fertilised – except perhaps by goats and chickens in the last few years – has always grown into a jungle of cow parsley in May and June, reaching above my head as a child, and nothing makes me happier than seeing it everywhere in the May countryside. Without it, spring almost wouldn’t be spring.

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Spring treasure 8: What’s soft, furry and nearly as sweet as ducklings?

14/5/2018 You would probably never guess that I wasn’t referring to an animal if I asked you this question. You might also legitimately reply, ‘nothing is nearly as sweet as ducklings’. You’d be nearly right. But not quite.

Beech leaves 1I’m referring to the best of all new spring leaves: beech leaves. If horse chestnut leaves are difficult to resist touching, these are impossible. I’m afraid that I might be diagnosed as insane if anyone caught me unawares in their presence; but as long as I was left to enjoy my insanity in peace, I wouldn’t mind too much.

I treat them pretty much the same way I treat my animals. As you may have deduced by now, they have a similar effect on me as ducklings. I can understand the evolutionary advantage in baby animals being sweet – assuming humans aren’t the only species capable of recognising this quality – but what possible advantage can there be for a tree to have adorable baby leaves? Surely they’d just get eaten more often.

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Rhubarb ducklings

4/5/2018 Ducks seem to have an uncanny ability to combine sense with silliness.

I had made up my mind that the first urgent garden job to be undertaken when the weather became more clement was to weed the rhubarb bed. I could barely distinguish rhubarb from weed, but I knew it must be nearly ready for picking by now. So, as soon as the sun appeared, I made my way through the fencing designed to keep out goats but almost as effective in keeping out humans.

But before I had done more than cut out a couple of brambles, I bumped into a duck. Almost literally: I didn’t see her until I was standing right next to her, and she barely moved even then, except to lift up her head and look at me in slight alarm.

So much for that, I thought, after I had recovered from the surprise. But then I realised, as long as I kept my distance and left her plenty of cover, I could probably start weeding from the other end without disturbing her. As I started on my task, I reflected on her choice of nesting location. Sensible duck, I thought: she has chosen a well-hidden spot with extra fencing protection against predators. I’d never have found out she was there if I hadn’t tried to weed the rhubarb bed. Silly duck, I thought: how on earth is she going to get her ducklings out?

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Spring treasure 5: Ducklings

22/4/18 I had all but chosen my next spring treasure – a task which I am finding to be no mean feat – when on Friday morning, sitting on the terrace doing admin, I heard a duck approaching the terrace from the driveway. I realised that the sound she was making could signify only one thing: she had babies with her. I was kept in suspense for only a second or two longer, before fifteen tiny egg-shaped fluffballs appeared under the gate. Their size and shape alone indicated they had hatched within the last day, but their huddling together and falling over their feet as they walked left no doubt.

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Spring treasure 3: The Weeping Willow

Willow12/4/2018 Just as blackthorn is one of the first spring blossoms to burst its buds, weeping willows are one of the first trees to break dormancy. Rather than losing their orange glow in spring like the crack willow in my garden, the emerging translucent green leaves increase the radiance of their flowing branches, and from a distance the two colours blend into gold. Add sunshine into the mix, and Rapunzel could barely compete.

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Spring treasure 1: British Summer Time Begins

26/3/2018 It is hard to believe it is nearly the end of March and signs of spring are only just beginning. Apparently deciding after the last icy spell that they had waited long enough, all the flowers and blossom appeared all at once: blackthorn in the hedgerows, carpets of primroses, daffodils in earnest, violets and periwinkles. I saw the first green leaf on my hardiest hawthorn plant this week, and a moorhen made up her mind to settle in her nest on the front pond.

But still there is far less in the way of spring than was to be found at the beginning of March last year. Mowing the lower lawn is still a good fortnight or more off – I would sink into a mole tunnel-ridden bog if I were to try it now – and I have yet to find a white or mauve violet, celandine or Siberian squill in my garden. The daffodils are only just beginning to think about showing their faces.

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Winter treasure 13: Blackbird Song

18/3/2018 It is the penultimate day of winter. This year the equinox falls on 20th March instead of 21st. You wouldn’t know it though: the arctic conditions have returned. The temperature dropped from 16˚C to -2˚C in 24 hours and the ground is covered in snow and ice.

But my winter therapy seems to have worked: I don’t mind if the cold weather lasts a little longer, and my list of winter treasures has grown so long that I will have to resume the project next year. In fact, I have enjoyed the challenge so much that I am thinking of continuing it for the remaining seasons of the year; and, contrary to my initial assumption, I think I might find it more difficult to choose 13 spring treasures than I did winter ones. After all, how do you identify the most important elements in a bombardment of euphoria?

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Winter treasure 12: Stray Snowdrops

Snowdrops13/3/2018 Everyone loves snowdrops. They are the first ubiquitous flowers that signal the lengthening days and slow approach of spring. They are pretty and delicate, and their colour is fitting for the time of year.

I love them too. I was thrilled to spot my first snowdrops of the year in a churchyard in the middle of January, though the ones in my garden were barely above ground yet: they didn’t come fully into bloom until a mild, sunny spell in the middle of February. A month later, they are still going strong, and the daffodils show no signs of taking over from them.

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Crossways Farm Winter Update

Fluffy chicken5/3/2018 The creatures and I are happy to report that, after an uncertain start, this winter has been a vast improvement on last year’s, despite several spells of icy and snowy weather which at times has dissuaded even the chickens from going in the garden – but they have gradually got braver!

Since welcoming friends from Spain on Christmas Eve, the season has been, on the whole, a positive one. It got off to a good start: we, the humans, had our first experience of a Boxing Day picnic. Dexter the rabbit had his first experience of an open fire, and soon made it clear that he didn’t see any sense in ever leaving the fireside. Winston the wood pigeon looked on jealously through the sitting room window, so I relented and gave him his own short spell of indoor warmth-bathing…

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