Meet some more Potwell Inn visitors.

The foxes have been regular visitors all along. We’re wondering if this one has found the pond for a drink?
Badger passing through very quickly – probably jinxed by the sound of the camera.
Too tall for a Muntjac – so probably a Roe Deer eating the strawberry runners!!

We’re still experimenting with the best position to set the trailcam to get the best shots of passing animal traffic. Obviously the best location is the crossroad through which all visitors have to pass, but these videos suggest that we should create a slightly longer shot by setting the camera about 3 metres further away and looking west rather than east to avoid the morning sun burning out the picture. That would allow us to set the camera a tad higher without losing the smaller creatures.

There have been rumours about deer on the site for years, but no-one’s ever come up with any proof. The circumstantial evidence is there, with sweetcorn being eaten at cob height without breaking the plant off as badgers tend to do. Rats climb up the stalks but leave half the cobs untouched – same as squirrels.

There’s a real dilemma here for us. We’ve worked hard to create a wildlife garden that’s still productive. We think we’ve succeeded in the butterfly/insect/moth/bee/fly/ amphibian department. As I’ve previously written, the competition between prey and predators seems to have reduced insect damage to the food crops; but although it’s delightful to see these larger mammals on the plot, they can wreak havoc there. It’s likely the deer was disturbed by a tremendously loud Michael BublĂ© concert in front of Royal Crescent on Friday and Saturday, although that’s a pure guess. Roe deer are brilliant as concealing themselves – we once photographed half a dozen of them clearing up windfall apples in our previous garden.

Roe Deer photographed in our previous garden on New Years Eve 2013

Badgers, of course, are a major predator of hedgehogs which makes it impossible to know whether the reason we’ve never seen hedgehogs on the site is down to predation or the excessive use of slug pellets and rat poison. It’s the age old problem that always occurs when we interfere in an ecosystem. There’s no doubt that hedgehogs would be a tremendous asset in controlling slugs. The blackbirds do a great job hunting the path edges; and robins also help control soil pests as well as worms. We see Buzzards overhead and it’s only a matter of time before the introduced Eastern and Welsh populations of Red Kite meet and become frequent flyers. What with Peregrines nesting on St John’s Church, we’re potentially well ahead with avian predators to hunt our rats – a truly joyful prospect. Pigeons are a major problem on the allotment and any brassicas that aren’t securely netted are likely to be eaten back to the ribs. The thing about animal predation is that animals kill to meet their immediate needs. Even foxes, when they kill a dozen or so hens – which has happened to us at least three times – would come back, drag them away and bury them; especially when they’ve got cubs.

As ever we just have to get out of the way and stop pretending that the earth exists purely for our benefit and give up shooting, poisoning and trapping these creatures. I sometimes have to pinch myself to think that all these wild beings are living in the centre of a busy city like Bath; probably because we have so many parks and gardens, along with significant wildlife corridors along the river and reaching out in other directions, north and south.

Just as an aside, I was astounded to see a BBC report this week that up in the pine forests of Scotland, the foxes eat significant quantities of dog poo. Who knows what cleaning up they do on the green outside the flat! Apparently it has the same calorific value as the usual prey species and it doesn’t run away. Who’d have thought it?

So what do we do about the deer and the badgers? It seems perfectly reasonable to fence our vulnerable crops because neither species is going to disappear as long as there are so many alternative sources of food. I daresay they’ll still come down and mooch about a bit, then hopefully wander off somewhere else having posed for the trailcam. On the other hand I remember watching a badger completely demolish a fence we’d just installed around the Head Groundsman’s garden. In this case there was nothing to eat – he just resented having his customary route blocked . A 24lb male badger repeatedly throwing himself against a fence until it broke was a memorable and chastening sight. The best laid plans of mice and men ….. etc

Roasted tomato passata

This is a recipe from Pam Corbin’s most useful River Cottage Handbook “Preserves”. Last year we made a trial batch with a couple of pounds of tomatoes and loved it; so with the new crop ripening fast on the vines we picked around 10 pounds this morning; roasted them for an hour at 180C with sweet onions, garlic, herbs and olive oil; then they went straight through the passata machine and into pots so they could be sterilized for 10 mins in the pressure cooker. Lacking acidity, we usually pick tomatoes before they get too ripe and then give them a while in the pressure cooker to avoid any problems during storage. In fact we’ve never had a jar blow; but we use good quality Italian jars and always fit new lids each time they’re used. We make this sauce which is very rich, and then scaling down the intensity we make a lot of Marcella Hazan’s no 2 tomato recipe and then loads of unflavoured passata as a sauce base to use through the year. It’s unbelievably useful to have a ready supply of sauce that we can stir into some pasta after a busy day on the allotment. The total yield from 10 lbs tomatoes was 5 lbs of finished sauce; but a tablespoon of this sauce goes a long way. Rather like good stock it can lift an otherwise bland dish into another league.

Since I was committed to the kitchen all afternoon I also made a quiche for supper while the oven was hot. I absolutely love making pastry because – like making sauces – there’s an element of alchemy in it. But most of all I love understanding how to work the pastry boldly. We’re harvesting new potatoes and runner (pole) beans now, so with some just picked raspberries and the remains of the cream, that’s supper settled.

On the allotment whatsApp group our video of visiting rats has provoked a debate about what to do about them. After 5 years of battling we’ve decided that there is no effective way of eliminating them. They shun traps and bait and if they’re poisoned their remains are likely to impact foxes or badgers who may eat them. I was reading today how the New York city authorities spent millions of dollars in a fruitless attempt to get rid of them. Sadly, I think they’ve become habituated to our environment and our best bet is to tolerate them – but on our terms. We know that visiting foxes and cats will kill rats; and possibly owls would take them as well. We often hear tawny owls calling at night here in the middle of the city. So perhaps we should see the rats as potential food for predators further up the chain. This isn’t Lundy Island and we don’t have nesting puffins or other vulnerable populations of ground nesting birds like Manx shearwaters, and I completely agree that rats need to be eliminated where they present a hazard. I believe that the danger to humans of leptospirosis is much greater where rats congregate on river and canal banks. It does make me wonder why, if junk food is so bad for us the rats seems to thrive on the abandoned leftovers.

One mammal we’d dearly love to see on the allotments is the hedgehog; but I imagine that the entire site has been dosed with metaldehyde slug baits for many years, and that must have impacted them. It’ll be interesting to see whether numbers recover now we’re using the supposedly less toxic ferrous phosphate; but the best way of all to catch slugs is to catch them by torchlight, at night. Hedgehogs would be an invaluable ally in the battle against slugs and snails which have done enormous damage to our plots this year in spite of drenching with nematodes.

a tiny wasp nest

One of the children on the site showed us this little wasp nest a couple of days ago. It’s difficult to know (I’m not an entomologist) what species actually created it ; but inside there was a small section of around a dozen hexagonal cells sitting loosely; and the building material looks very wasp-like paper pulp. We also spotted what I think was a ruddy darter dragonfly on the pond; and this evening we found a herald moth resting on the netting of the fruit cage. It’s all there but we so rarely actually notice just how many living beings we share the allotment with.

So yippee! the allotment is producing lots of food and we’re meeting the whole family this week for an outdoor birthday party, after everyone passed a lateral flow test today. We live in strange times.

Herald moth – terrible photo!

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