The weather is a bit hit and miss here in South Shropshire at the moment – sometimes mild and bright and sunny and the next moment there are flurries of snow and a raw, bitter wind. Yesterday was freezing and even the birds weren’t feeding that much – they all seemed to be sheltering in the thick holly hedge! However there are still signs of the spring that will inevitably come as snowdrops, hellebores and even a few daffodils are in flower. Other birds are now singing including the local coal tits – sweet little birds that I love to see around the garden. Where they nest is anybody’s guess but we do have lots of small woodlands round about that are overgrown and not managed in any way, so I assume that coal tits and the local marsh tits are able to find nesting holes in old trees. The large local elders in particular develop hollow stems and branches where the soft heart wood has decayed. Both coal and marsh tit are amongst my absolute favourite birds and we are so lucky to have plenty of them here. At times in late spring we see small family parties so know that they must breed somewhere nearby. In their soft palette of buff, grey and black, they are truly elegant birds.
This is a time of year when my senses get a bit confused – I know it’s early January and there are probably at least two more months of winter to endure, but in my heart I feel it’s spring. Getting up at six this morning – and yes it is mild at the moment so its easy to think that it’s nearer March than Christmas – but there was a definite feel of activity outside as the sun rose. It wasn’t long before a mistle thrush began to sing from a tree at the top of the hill, and by 7.30 a song thrush was singing heartily from the wood next door. Other birds were joining in just a little – great tits were calling, nuthatches making a lot of noise and the odd dunnock was contributing with a short snatch of song from the top of our hedge. Yesterday I watched a blue tit thoroughly investigating one of our nest boxes, going in and out, and sitting on a twig outside, looking carefully around to make sure this was a good place to bring up a family. I also noticed a flurry of movement in the pond in the field next door (an early frog??) and our snowdrops are in bud. All this activity helps increase anticipation – spring is not far away and the wonderful wildlife cycle starts again in the garden.
Everything in my Shropshire garden over the last couple of weeks has been completely dominated by water. Rain, flooding and saturated ground has made it difficult to do anything constructive outside and has severely restricted any travelling. It has though brought many smaller birds flocking to the garden, especially tits, nuthatches and at least one treecreeper. Marsh and coal tits have been very active, taking sunflower seeds to cache for later in the winter. The small feeding tray I use outside the back door has food placed on it every few hours, but I have to keep my eyes open for the local grey squirrels who will devour the whole lot in a few minutes. Lack of natural food after such a poor summer is very apparent, with even the squirrels taking the apples from our trees and eating them there and then.
We have also been lucky here in the last couple of weeks to see both a stoat and a weasel around in the garden, the latter popping in and out of the mole runs and the log store. But although the wet weather has brought a few less usual visitors, hopefully as we move into December the wet and windy weather will make way for something more settled and dry.
The weather is considerably cooler here now and there is a real feel of autumn in the mornings with frost on the grass and a cold wind from the west. This has meant the arrival of the winter thrushes, and I can put up with any amount of cold weather if the consequence is having redwings and fieldfares here. The largest flock of redwings I have ever seen here – over 200 – arrived a few days ago and they are making their way around our little valley eating every berry in sight. Fieldfares so far have only arrived in small numbers but they are as grumpy and feisty as usual and already arguing over the remaining apples on two of our biggest trees.
Gardening at this time is certainly lessening, as I tend to leave alone as much as I can from now until the spring. So much lives here in sheltered places that I have no desire to disturb hibernating mammals and invertebrates. Raking leaves from the grass though is a job I do when I can, as we have a large number of trees here, and the leaves all go into the chicken wire leaf compost area where they can be left to break down over time, while making a great wildlife habitat.
It’s holiday time, or at least it has been for the last two weeks, and I have been away in the wilds of Cornwall enjoying gardens very different from mine here in Shropshire, as well as catching up on some wildlife watching along the coast. I always find it inspiring to look around other gardens and often I come home from trips away with ideas for this garden, with a list of things I would like to plant here that I don’t already have. Rarely though, do I see a garden with as much wildlife as this one, and that gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I must be getting something right! Often the gardens I visit are those under the care of the National Trust and generally tend to be very large, but I am sometimes disappointed with the lack of planting for wildlife. But still they are beautiful gardens and I enjoy them very much. Back home the autumn is well and truly upon us. There have been frosts while we have been away, but still plenty in the vegetable garden. Apples too are still in need of harvesting so hopefully there will be some pleasant weather to tempt me out, although it probably won’t be as warm as Cornwall!
September brings lots of work in the garden, and we have been cutting our meadows as well as storing vegetables and fruit, especially apples. The poor summer weather has meant the apple crop is poor, but there are still enough cookers for puddings through the winter, and more dessert apples than we can possibly eat! Potatoes have been dug and stored in a dark basement and onions and shallots lifted and dried in the greenhouse. We have an overload of lots of good things to eat as I am still picking spinach, courgettes and french beans amongst other things. The fruit store and freezer are overflowing and cupboards are beginning to fill up with jam and chutney. Preparing all we have grown for the months ahead is a long job, but I still have to find time to make sure the meadows – and we have about an acre of meadows and mini-meadows all together – are cut and raked. This year the job was made easier by a small flock of friendly sheep in the field next door. The hay has been raked up and thrown over into their field, and they are the happiest sheep I have even seen!