Gotcha!

Some of this season’s garlic harvest hanging inside the shed to dry

At last we’ve captured a video of the badger on our plot. It’s a very poor but unmistakable image, just from the shuffling gait alone, but it was almost touching the camera so it was rather out of focus – I’ve put it at the end of this post. The existence of the badgers is well known because there’s a sett at the top of the site. They have a reputation for sniffing out the ripe sweetcorn on the very day we plan to cut it and so over the years we’ve had to devise ways of keeping them out.

I once used to watch badgers at night when I was working as a groundsman and they were plaguing the boss’s kitchen garden. One day we put a strong chicken wire fence around the plot and to our amazement the same evening a big boar badger threw himself at it until it collapsed and then sauntered into his domain. There’s no doubt that badgers love sweetcorn, and the constant growing of fodder maize on dairy farms has led to an increase in the badger population just at the time the farmers are trying to blame them for the rise in bovine TB. It’s not that I doubt TB is a constant problem for dairy farmers; but I’d love to see some research done on whether there’s a connection between the occurrence of the disease and the intensity of the farming method being used. I’d be interested in discovering if low intensity grass fed herds are less susceptible to the disease. In human populations TB is associated with poverty and stress and although it may seem strange we’re becoming more and more familiar with the idea that among humans, poverty and stress diseases are greatly increased by cramped and substandard living conditions coupled with a calorie rich junk food diet. Intensive farming is based on the premise that we know better than the cattle what’s good for them.

Anyway, we also know that badgers love our sweetcorn and we were amused that the one we filmed last night is out researching the local corn already. Ours is in full flower and just touching the flowers releases clouds of pollen. There are three principal poachers – not counting the two legged ones – it’s not just the badgers. Rats are great climbers – and so are the squirrels – and they generally attack the cobs by gnawing through the sheaths without breaking the main stalks. Badgers blunder over the whole plant and smash it down to eat the cobs and all we can do to stop them is to protect the beds. It’s said that they don’t like soft netting because they get their claws caught in it and generally we use both hard and soft barriers to deter them. There is another ghostly thief but I’m not sure whether the rumour is true. Apparently deer have occasionally been spotted on the site and maybe one day they’ll show up on the trail cam. We also know that rats and squirrels also love the broad (fava) beans but again it’s fairly easy to sort out the offenders. Rats seem to gnaw at the lower, easy to reach pods; eating a small part of both the seed and the pod; but squirrels really go for them and we have often found little piles of empty pods next to the beds, left very tidy and bereft of their beans which may well have gone off for storage. We’ve got video of both a rat and a squirrel jumping up on to a bed of broad beans that had been cleared the previous day – they must have been disappointed.

So that’s foxes, badgers, domestic cats, squirrels, field mice and rats we’ve now videoed with deer as kind of ghostly reserves. Sadly there are no hedgehogs but that may be down to the badgers which are their big-time predators. The closer we look, the more we see the sheer complexity of the natural history of our urban allotment. At best we’re just (hopefully) considerate participants in the great cycle.

We’re not allowed to connect hoses to the mains supply on our allotments, but today we rigged up our 240V generator with an electric pump and gave the whole plot a good soaking from our own stored water – we’ve got 1500 litres, around 300 gallons of water stored around the place and with a promise of heavy storms on Sunday we thought we’d give the plants a good soak in anticipation of refilling the butts over the weekend. It’s still oppressively hot here but the plots are bursting with life.

The polytunnel tomatoes are ripening thick and fast now so today I’m making the first panzanella of the summer. I got the recipe from Anna Del Conte’s wonderful “Gastronomy of Italy” and it was love at first taste. She writes that recipes for panzanella are as numerous as the people the Nonnas – who pass them on down through the family – I guess that’s exactly what a food culture is all about. Patience Gray’s “Honey from a Weed”; Marcella Hazan’s “The Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking” and Anna Del Conte’s “Gastronomy of Italy” are some of my favourite and most indispensable cookery books because they turn the cooking and eating of vegetables into an adventure. In high summer we luxuriate in the sheer variety of food on the allotment. The best of Italian cooking completely sidesteps the endless debates between carnivores, vegetarians and vegans because absolutely everybody deserves the best of vegetables, cooked or prepared in such lovely ways that meat becomes a minor side issue in the midst of a feast. Sustainable living is so much easier to promote when it’s couched in terms of taking up rather than giving up. Our cultural obsession with rarity and expense has blinded us to the beauty of simple and slow; and if you want to know when to eat your sweetcorn at its absolute peak of perfection, just follow a badger – he’ll know!

Whadda you mean – what am I doing!

News from La La land

To be honest, the last several days of silence on the blog are best accounted for by the feeling that I might be inhabiting a parallel dystopian universe where words have ceased to have any meaning at all – or at any rate they can mean anything you want them to mean. Even a simple blog like this one, about being human; growing things; cooking them; sharing them and struggling to find the Tao – has to use the selfsame words that make up the lies and distortions promoted by politicians and the dark money that keeps them in luxury. So in order to harness a simple idea like freedom, I need to pick the word up with a long stick and boil it in bleach for a couple of hours just to get the contamination off.

I don’t want to go on too much but when Bayer promote their new form of Roundup as being “glyphosate free” – they seem rather coy about admitting that the principal active ingredient is now vinegar, which you can buy at a fraction of the price at your local supermarket and, like its carcinogenic namesake, doesn’t kill pernicious perennial weeds either. Just for the record there is no evidence that the Potwell Inn tomatoes have any trace whatever of kryptonite and they are 100% natural. As it happens, most deadly nightshade berries are 100% natural and organic so that’s nice. “There is no evidence” is a favourite weapon of the lobbyists who spend billions making sure that the gathering of any evidence (especially the damaging kind) is discouraged.

This week the sun has, at last, started to shine again and through the wonders of AI my phone has started to taunt me with photographs of previous adventures in Europe (remember that?). So as we toted watering cans around the allotment my mind was driving down to southeast France where farmers seem to down tools in July and spend the next two months getting drunk and chasing bulls around the streets. I was so overwhelmed by memories of our visits to Uz├Ęs that I felt compelled to go out and buy a Panama hat, shake the moths out of my linen suit and drag Madame on a five mike walk around Bath pretending to be tourists. I’ve always resisted the Panama but as I approach 75 I think I’ve earned the right to be as silly as I like; and so I’ve shaved my designer stubble off and I’m growing my hair back until I can’t stand it any more. Sadly my attempt to provoke the neighbours on the allotment resulted in a single response – “you look very summery today”.

As we sweated it out with the watering yesterday morning, I realized that growing even a small proportion of our food demands a great deal of commitment. When we watch celebrity gardeners on TV, gliding effortlessly between rows of designer veg it doesn’t really convey the backache that hand weeding gives us (it works better than overpriced vinegar by the way), and it misses out the hours we spend constructing and dismantling windbreaks; clearing snow, digging emergency drains, turning compost and humping things like planks and paving stones around. The TV pundits never mention their failed crops and the incredible surpluses that courgette plants produce every year. Neither do they explain how they manage their impressive gardens without small armies of unpaid interns and helpers. I’ve tried telling the allotment that I’d like a couple of weeks off (I mean for a rest, not for making a new TV series) but it appears not to understand. Far from being a kind of restful interlude, it’s this time of year that harvesting and freezing soft fruit takes over, while the abundance of other crops means I’m constantly wondering what can be preserved and what needs to be cooked right now. The upside, of course, is that we can eat the freshest conceivable vegetables, bursting with flavour and goodness – no I mean really bursting – not the kind of PR bursting with flavour that refers to flaccid and exhausted, intensively grown lettuces driven a thousand miles from their impoverished lives under plastic.

As the photo shows we’ve also started harvesting the calendula flowers and drying them in the sun before extracting a golden essence from them in almond oil. Calendula cream really works and it’s so easy to make it’s plain daft to spend a fortune on tiny tubes of the stuff.

The trail cam has been a blessing, and we’re getting a much better idea of our many visitors, including a couple of different foxes, rats, magpies and a ginger cat who turns out to be a lethal predator of birds. I’ll put some shots up as soon as I’ve found a video editing application that allows me to do simple things without being inundated with ads. One of the unexpected outcomes of our move towards wildlife friendly gardening has been a loss of control – which has turned out to be a blessing rather than a curse. The wild plants and animals can’t be divided any more into friends and foes. We’re trying to leave things alone when unexpected volunteers pop up; so the carefully planned crops sometimes have to share their space with an interesting looking “weed”.

Some of the night shots from the trail cam show the presence of hundreds of small moths which it would be fun to identify, except it would be difficult to install a light trap that didn’t draw attention to itself – making it vulnerable to theft. We solved the problem with the trail cam by mounting it inside a padlocked steel box, and although it’s set almost at ground level we can often identify the human visitors to the allotment from their shoes!

Anyways here’s a short video of one visitor you’ll certainly recognise!

How dare you stare at my binoculars?

For the last, probably three, years we’ve been puzzled by an apparently invisible bird that’s almost always heard on the grass covered clifftop between the cottage we stay in and Nefyn to the East. Now I’m not about to reveal anything here except my own ignorance, so if I were a less combative person I’d beg your indulgence BUT …..

Being an autodidact, that’s to say having studied nothing formally except ceramics and theology; everything else that’s crammed in my head is stuff I’ve learned informally, over the farm gate as it were. The downside is that I seem always to be running to catch up with the people who really do know what they’re talking about. However the upside is that for me, every little discovery is an amazingly exciting blast. Not being an expert turns out to be a boon because I get to see things in all their strangeness; I can make connections that institutionalised knowledge might forbid – and – of course I can flatter the intelligence of the cognoscenti by mispronouncing latin names and asking a lot of silly questions.

So to get back to the invisible bird, I probably need to say that the tiny trickling spring of an idea that started this blog began one bitterly cold morning in January five years ago as we leaned over the sea wall at St Ives in Cornwall and looked at a seagull. We had retired four months previously but those four months had been marred by long delays in getting the flat to a habitable state, and a family event that threw us into turmoil. After the worst Christmas we had ever experienced, we fled to Cornwall to try to recuperate and found ourselves staring at a seagull.

I’d been keeping a very personal private journal for several years while I was seeing a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, in fact I’ve kept notes and journals on and off all my life, but that day I made two decisions that have had the most amazing repercussions. Firstly I resolved to find out what sort of gull we were looking at, and secondly I resolved – hubristically as it turns out – not to allow myself to pass anything that I couldn’t name – ever again. It was, by the way, a black headed gull we were looking at, and my first lesson as an aspiring birdwatcher was that black headed gulls don’t have black heads in January, just the smudge of a grey crescent at the edge of the place where the black will appear later in the year. It was a useful lesson in ambiguity and so I wrote about it in my journal. Then, of course – given my ludicrous resolution to name things – it all snowballed, the restless lists began to get longer, and my working knowledge of things, lagging a couple of years behind the moment of recognition, slowly got better and it all found its way into the journal.

Then the software I was journaling with was updated suddenly and I found that half of my equipment stopped communicating. I emailed the company responsible and they loftily suggested that my equipment was obsolete and I needed to spend a wad of cash just to stand still. I told them to piss off and moved to WordPress. Months and months later, after I’d got the hang of it, I took the blog online.

So – clifftop plus regularly heard bird sounds that sounded more landlubber than seaside had us scouring the clifftop with our binoculars looking for the unknown bird. Then two things happened. In amongst the generic seagulls I spotted something completely different but definitely seabound. For no apparent reason the idea that they could be terns popped into my head (thank you Adam Nicholson) and so I noted it and, as I said yesterday, scoured the books when we got back to the cottage to get a better picture in my head. The second thing was that having lifted my eyes from the clifftop to the sea I discovered that the unknown sound was moving in the same direction and at the same speed as the group of possibly could be terns.

Is that what you call a lightbulb moment? I can almost hear the Oh for God’s sake groans of the experienced birdwatchers but for me it was a blast, a triumph, a decisive blow in the war against ignorance, and as is always the case, once I’d made the connection all sorts of other new knowledge was waiting. When we walked along the beach yesterday there were herring gulls and black headed gulls in abundance, and in amongst them were common terns – completely different in the way they flew, in their elegance, in their sounds, in the way that they could hover and dive. They made the herring gulls look like overweight bouncers outside a nightclub.

Later we watched a kestrel hunting the exact terrain we’d hoped to find our mystery bird in. Kestrels are rarer these days and if you ever catch a look at one from above, the chestnut brown colour positively glows in the sun. These moments of recognition are almost transcendent. Overnight the trailcam finally got a decent video of a visiting fox – ignoring my carefully scattered peanuts completely and walking up the stream’s edge to find something decent to eat. Since we arrived we’ve been filling the birdfeeders with seeds, fat balls and peanuts to attract as many as possible while we find the best place to film them and after 36 hours, while the birds overcame their suspicions, they’re flocking to them in huge numbers. It’s been pouring with particularly wet Welsh rain today so the bedraggled birds have been grateful for easy pickings. Out of the blue, a pair of ring ouzles appeared out of the thicket of sloes and sallows that line the stream, fed briefly on the fat balls, and disappeared again as suddenly as they arrived. Sadly the trailcam was recording another feeder. Oh and I added chamomile and woody nightshade to the list of plants in flower.

It’s not for nothing that one of my favourite poems at school was Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts”!

You can stuff your truffles!

It doesn’t take long for us to find our inner forager, especially when we know a place as well as we know this. The fungi in the picture are Macrolepiota procera – parasol mushrooms. We were pleased to see them, although we didn’t collect them (I don’t recall ever having eaten them) – however they were a good sign that the season is underway and so we were a bit more switched on to see what other fungi we could find, and they were there: horse mushrooms, puffballs, waxcaps and fairy ring mushrooms – dried they’re very good in stocks but a bit too tough to be palatable.

So we went on to a tried and tested clifftop site and found the field mushrooms exactly where they’ve appeared in the past. They were a bit more difficult to collect, though, and I had to scramble across a steep cleft and down the top of a cliff to get a handful of button mushrooms – they’re the best because they’re less likely to have been attacked by grubs – the one in the photo was the best we saw but it involved a dangerous climb over a thirty foot drop so we left it. In twenty minutes we’d collected enough for breakfast plus one intruder that was probably a yellow staining mushroom, and which betrayed itself in the bag by turning chrome yellow. I’ve been caught out by them before and always because greed overcame caution or I picked them on the borders of a hedge in longer grass. Luckily I’ve never eaten them, but our cat once ate some that I put aside (she licked them because they were cooked in butter) and she was violently ill, poor thing. This particular usurper was hanging around the edge of a patch of gorse. The genuine field mushrooms prefer open grass, particularly when it’s well cropped by sheep. In our last house we lived next to the playing field of the local primary school, and every summer there was a competition between me and the local milkman to harvest the masses of mushrooms early in the morning. He was a very early riser and it turned into a bit of a competition until we agreed a truce and each left plenty for the other.

But field mushrooms are a proper treat. Overnight the kitchen filled with their fragrance and cleaned and fried this morning they turned an omelette into a feast. I do wonder a bit why people pay such fabulous prices for imported truffles. Our son’s a chef and he once gave us a whole black truffle as a Christmas present and, to be brutally honest, it tasted like the smell of a gas leak – not North Sea gas, but the old fashioned sort of towns gas. If it was as free as a field mushroom and if it grew locally we’d probably acquire a taste for them but paying fifty quid and much more for them seems more like a way of poncifying – or worse, disguising – mediocre food and just bragging about the rarity and expense. Anyway, the seasons roll on endlessly and each brings its delights; autumn fruits and fungi give way to the winter when the only show in town for a nosy naturalist are bryophytes and lichens – always something to try and identify.

We’re slowly learning how best to use the trailcam, and we’ve captured some decent videos of birds. Last night a fox was poking around in the woods below the cottage, so tonight I’ll put out some peanuts to try to lure it closer.

Yesterday on our clifftop walk I noticed something red hiding in the grass on the edge and it turned out to be a Crocosmia – goodness knows how it got there, it’s miles from the nearest garden. But what else is in flower at the moment? Given that it was a proper walk I had to be circumspect but I spotted (without being spotted) loads of yarrow, watermint, common ragwort, fleabane, a few stragglers of silverweed and ditto thrift, purple clover,lesser knapweed, red campion, bramble, meadowsweet, wild angelica and, of course heather.

Then there was one harvestman spider – I don’t know why I was so pleased to see it but I was!

And then the birds – sorry this is turning into a list, a bit of symptom possibly, but we were alerted by the insistent demands of a young shag demanding food, herring gulls in abundance, one oystercatcher hanging out in a little inlet that we climbed down to. Last year we spotted seals there and last night you could see why. A shoal of fish were leaping in the water, some of them large enough to see their dorsal fins quite clearly. The oystercatcher is a lot bigger than you’d expect when you get close. Finally, and I’m not that good at birds, there were a small number of what I think were terns, in the mix. I’ve come back and read them up a bit so when we go back I can identify them properly.

The coast path was crowded with walkers – and I mean crowded – Madame asked one group (rather challengingly I thought) where their coach was parked. Whistling sands was more crowded than we’ve ever seen it so we beat a retreat and completed our walk in the evening, rather luckily as it turned out because we picked our breakfast.

Oh and as we walked the path we found what looked like an ancient earthwork but which, I suspect was a more recent (last century) attempt to drain a large area of marsh. Luckily it hadn’t succeeded so that’s a treat for another expedition and a different set of books!