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Detonated Summer – Conservation Grazing

Held back, waiting, cool days feeling more like autumn.

Then summer just detonated and caught up with itself, compressing into one week, hampered vegetation finally released from bondage. Mildly shaggy hedgerows and fields have turned to full blown fireworks.

And the jet stream has finally gone north and we sigh in collective relief.

A warm breeze, sun on the face. Heat.

Wildflower Bank

The sunny bank on the roadside. It used to be dominated with nettle, bramble and an escaped mint. Lots more species now.


I thought this might be a good time to explain a little more about what we’re doing here on the farm. At this time of year we are busy with habitat management. This basically means pulling out species which have a propensity to become dominant, so that a wider variety of wild plants can get a foothold.

oxeye daisies

To help things along we haven’t fertilised the land for over ten years, as wild flowers are not too keen on this. Too much fertility allows the more thuggish species to ascend, shading out their more delicate cousins with their lush foliage and rapidly advancing root mats.

wild flowers


It all needs to be cut at the right time too, after flowering and seeding, and before it becomes rank and wet in autumn.

wild flowers


The cows are all part of this management regime, they are ‘conservation’ grazers.


Traditional English Herefords

What is Conservation Grazing? I hear you ask.

Conservation grazing is one that benefits wildlife, landscape and cultural heritage. It is designed to meet nature conservation objectives – which in our case is to optimize sward structure for invertebrates, small mammals and birds.

rabbit in meadow

Actually rabbits are not the small mammals to which I was referring but I like the picture so it’s in.
Rabbits cause damage to landscape features such as hedgebanks.
And did you know they have something in their urine which prevents grass from growing. Clever.


Elderflower champagne

Why graze?

In the UK nearly all the areas which we value for conservation interest form part of cultural landscapes created by humans, often as a side product of subsistence agriculture. Grazing livestock and associated activities played a key role in the formation and maintenance of many semi-natural habitats including grassland, heathland and pasture-woodland, through slowing the successional trajectory of these habitats towards increased woodland cover.

sparrow fledgling

A very noisy sparrow fledgling almost ready to fly

In addition to maintaining or restoring such habitats, grazing is also an essential component of many habitat (re)creation projects, for example managed reversion from arable fields to species-rich grassland or the recreation of heathland.

wild meadow

Grass in the Triangle Field – quite a few species don’t you think? Not brilliant, but going in the right direction.

Livestock affect vegetation communities through removal of biomass. This allows less competitive species to become established as dominant plant species are reduced. Trampling also creates areas of bare ground, which may be suitable for plant regeneration from seed or seedbanks, and are beneficial for invertebrates and herptiles.

wild meadow

Together with grazing and browsing, physical damage to vegetation from lying, rolling and pushing can also increase structural diversity. High grazing pressure may limit scrub expansion and in some cases reduce scrub cover. Many invertebrate species are also dependent on the dung that livestock produce (over 250 species of insects are found in or on cattle dung in the UK), while dunging patterns can result in the redistribution of nutrients.

A cows tail is very useful in the heat. Swish swish.

A cows tail is very useful in the heat. Swish swish.

There are many examples of species that benefit from grazing. Many individual plant species benefit, while habitats such as flower-rich meadows are dependent on grazing. Ground-nesting wading birds such as lapwing or snipe need grazing to create the varied sward structure needed to fledge their young successfully. A number of species of bats including both species of horseshoe bat depend on a mixture of invertebrate-rich habitats in which to forage, including grazed pasture and meadows.

wild flowers

See that window? That’s where the bats come and eat the moths which gather near the light. Sometimes better than TV. Poor moths. But happy bats. And good moth habitat…

What can conservation grazing achieve?

Many conservation organisations now have their own livestock or work closely with local farmers to ensure that grazing continues on wildlife sites that need it. At the same time, farmers are encouraged through Environmental Stewardship to use grazing regimes that will benefit wildlife. A growing number of farmers and other land managers (that would be us) are making a conscious decision to tailor grazing management on their lands to meet nature conservation objectives.

wild flowers

In addition to a wildlife-rich countryside, conservation grazing can deliver substantial benefits to local communities. Local production of good quality meat and dairy produce with high welfare standards is a key outcome of many conservation grazing schemes. Such schemes can play a role in rejuvenating rural economies while using traditional rural skills such as stock husbandry which are in decline. Visitors to grazed sites with public access often enjoy watching free-ranging animals, and in some cases enjoy becoming involved as voluntary stock checkers, helping to keep an eye on livestock.

Traditional English Hereford

When it’s really hot there’s only one place to be. Next time you see a field of cows with no shade or shelter think of this.

So conservation grazing is not about looking back to a ‘golden age’ where rural practices optimized biodiversity, but looking forward to ways in which sustainable management of the countryside will benefit both the wildlife and the communities who live there.

Old Iron Implements

Another kind of conservation…


The above text is an edited version from The Grazing Animals Project


So, that is mainly what we are doing with the cows (apart from loving them of course). As Francis Pryor says in his book The Making of the British Landscape it really doesn’t take that long to improve biodiversity and habitat with the right management. He’s also a WordPress blogger.

When they have their calves in approximately a year’s time we will have to make a decision about what to do next. Apart from trying to conserve this rare breed (that’s the cultural heritage) there’s the question of the male calves. Taking Herald to the abbatoir was a bit of an eye opener. As a meat eater I hadn’t really thought too hard about the grisly business of slaughter and it has had quite an impact on me. It was also the sheer number of animals going through which was pretty horrific – all to satisfy our desire to eat meat whenever we choose.

Livestock breeds poster in barn

I started reading around the subject in an attempt to process all the confusing emotions which it stirred and in the end decided that there is an argument for eating some meat – just not all the time and much better to be savoured as something special. Ex vegetarian and environmental campaigner Simon Fairlie argues in his book Meat, A Benign Extravagance that it is far better environmentally to eat a small amount of locally sourced meat than to constantly eat flown in vegetarian staples or luxuries such as baby corns and mange tout which are often produced by poor countries where the people are hungry.

Livestock do a very useful job in taking care of huge amounts of vegetation which we are unable to process and meat is highly nutritious and scores very highly on a weight to weight comparison with other foods. However, he is keen to point out, this is not a green light to eat as much meat as one desires, just that it should be occasionally, local and be reared to high welfare standards. It’s not always easy to find and identify this kind of meat so a lot needs to change on this front but where there’s a will there’s a way.

Light on wall

This amazing light pattern was caused by a pan lid.

There is a really good review of it here if you’re intrigued. A very interesting book to read though slightly heavy on the figures but these are needed to prove the environmental impact studies.

Anyway, it has meant a change in eating habits around here. We were never huge consumers of meat but now most meals are vegetarian. And although we always bought local meat, vigilance has been stepped up.

There is loitering on the stairs in hot weather

There is loitering on the stairs in hot weather


Simon Fairlie also imports Austrian scythes which have been made at the same place since the 1500’s. I had a go on one the other day and it was really light and user friendly. Visit the Scythe Shop to find out more about them. They are expensive but you couldn’t find a better bit of kit. I managed to scythe a few square metres in a matter of a minute. Better still, go to the Scythe Festival in Somerset which is held every year in June.




It’s not all work work work though… !


Swimming at Bossiney Haven at high tide

Swimming at Bossiney Haven at high tide


The Places We Have Travelled – on Friendship, Life and Death

This post is because I can’t quite believe that you my friend are not somewhere, opening your computer, a glass of tea or a macchiato to hand. You told me many times that you loved to read my posts. You were there from the beginning, a loyal follower, even though you were slightly puzzled by my love of cows. But you were constantly encouraging and supportive nevertheless, as you were in all my new endeavours and reinventions over the years.

Four months ago I was with you in Regents Park. We went there by bus and sat together on a downstairs seat. It was bitterly cold, the sky a leaden grey, the park bleak, like it had been swept by a giant wintry broom. We linked arms and I think I covered your hand with mine – I am muddled by all the other hand holding we have done in the last month. You of course would probably remember. If only I could ask you.

It was unusual for us to be walking like this but these were unusual times. We laughed about feeling like two old ladies on a regular afternoon stroll, slow and careful, and there was comfort in that. You in your immaculate black coat, slightly stooped from the pain in your back, your beautiful face pale. I thought how Italian you looked. Because that is what I had taken to doing lately; not looking forward, which appeared to be something of a narrow funnel, but to the past, which fanned out behind you in an expanse of people and places. We talked about the people we knew (not unusual) and how we had both come to a place of appreciation for the small details of life; for the ripple of wind through the grass, or a drop of rain on a pool or for the whole landscape to be seen in the iris of your lovers eye.


On the way back we tut tutted and growled at the young men playing with death on Baker Street, dodging speeding cars on the crossing.  If only they knew.

There have been so many places.

How has it come to this? you asked, not for the first time.

I looked back. It now seemed impossible that we were at one time scrambling up a mountain in Scotland, breathless and excited, chattering all the way about our plans.  This was the time you took us to visit M in the bothy, just outside Dundee, for New Year. And being silly, our giggling and snorting ringing out into the cold sharp air. Until, feeling a change in the atmosphere, we looked up and what had only a minute ago been a clear view of the mountains all around, shining with spectacular clarity in the low winter sun, had turned with startling speed to an impenetrable fug of white, the blizzard obliterating our bearings so that all we could see were each other. I had never seen anything like it but you and M were all too aware how things could change in a blink of an eye. Each bombarding snowflake was the size of an egg and we looked up and let them fall and settle on our screwed up faces before we made an escape strategy. We listened hard through the muffled and blinding air for the sound of water, clutching each other, still laughing, though now with the slight hysteria of alarm. Luckily we found the stream which we’d been roughly following on the way up and we clambered down, keeping it close, relief flooding through us. Later we fired the woodburner  back at the bothy and ate mince and potatoes. We drank whisky and you both enveloped us in your Scottishness. We recited Rabbie Burns around the dinner table and my attempt had you in stitches. Your turn of phrase, your inclusive laugh, your warm gaze.

I look at the photographs from that trip now. I remember how cold you were on the beach at Auchmithie, how we urged you to run about to warm up. There is one of me and N on the glistening sand, wrapped up, looking young and stern, posed against a dark grey sky shot through with yellow ochre. You have jumped into one corner, grinning, inhabiting your inner troll with glee, a persona you often joked about in those days. Troll didn’t go away entirely but eight years in Paris took their toll – perhaps there just wasn’t room in the 14th Arondissement for the both of you.

I loved to hear you speak French – and Italian for that matter. I remember in the south of Italy staying on the Amalfi coast when we followed you around like ducklings while you chatted with the market traders, searching out the best salad or the tastiest cheese. We’d go back, eat, and watch the sea below, brittle and sparkling in the afternoon sun.  A stand of tall pines gave us shade in the heat of the day, breathing out their resinous treasure, hammocks strung between them. Here we lay, reading books and snoozing, or just hanging about talking. What are we going to have for dinner? might well have been an important topic. We loved to chat.

A narrow path led us steeply down to a tiny beach, flanked by rocky outcrops and the singed remains of spring flowers, the limestone cliffs climbing up in a tumble of tiers high above. Here we swam and got endlessly chewed by hungry wasps, their jaws rasping away at our skin as we lay on the rocks. Later, in the cooler evening, the sound of cicadas humming through the air we took to the roof and danced, the stone still warm beneath our bare feet. Any excuse.

If I counted the acres of dance floors on which I have travelled with you it might wrap around this land twice. Oh the joy of all that shuffling, jumping, knowing. The last time was in your living room, on E’s birthday, on a freezing February weekend. We’d all been up in the hills, walking on the goatherds and hunters byways, the sky a bright clear blue and the sun shining, the ground crackling beneath our feet, filled with the brittle tawny leaves of sweet chestnut. We could see where the wild boar had been and the waterfalls were frozen, static, amazing. You’d stayed behind, to be godmother, and also because those long walks were too much for you now. After dinner, we jigged around to some tunes and I thought how amazing you were, that despite all the suffering you had found a way to live. How love had softened you and some of the things which had plagued you had dropped away like a stone.

The Cevennes

Your mother’s family had emigrated to Scotland from a village in the mountains in Italy. You took a trip there one time in the 1990’s and I remember you saying you could see yourself living in a place like that one day. And how disconcertingly funny it had been to find a fair few people there had spoken with thick Glaswegian accents, having found their way back.

In the end it was France which called you and it was in the Cevennes where you and P made your beautiful place together. It was also where you tapped into something deep; a connection with the landscapes and nature surrounding you. They gave you solace and unleashed your creativity, something which you’d always sworn was not inside you, not even the tiniest bit. We all knew different – just by knowing you.


While out roaming the thin rocky soils and riverbeds of the Garrigue you found its crevices and ravines studded with lavender, thyme and arbutus. And here you found the shapes which inspired you – the dessicated, twisted branches of cistus, box and rosemary or the flow of fast water over rocks.

The Garrigue

Water ring

The Garrigue

In a bigger river, not far from you, we swam one summer. The water was glacial, chalky blue and fierce. For fun we launched ourselves upstream and let ourselves be carried in the current through a procession of massive boulders, squeezing through a narrow channel into a quieter pool. It was too cold to stay in for long and we climbed out into the baking day, shivering, and let the sun beat down on our backs as we lay outstretched on the flat stones, feeling the warmth returning. In the last month you worried that we would all forget you, that even though you loved us you couldn’t bear for us to be having fun without you.

Don’t worry G, you’ll be there.

As Ardu says in his poem, dedicated to you:


‘I want to tell my friends,’ you said.

‘I’d like to give them this gift.

I want to tell them:

Most of the things we fret about

Don’t matter, and how

I have learnt to love the life I have.’


When we were alone, you asked

What was troubling me?

I found some words

For my condition (forgetting your condition)

‘Sometimes, I concluded,

I feel like I’ve been lobotomized.’

‘That’s bad’, you said. And then we both erupted.


Your lovely spluttering, hiccupping

Helpless, breathless, waterfall laugh

Cascading over us.

Relief, semi-hysteria even

To spit and gurgle at the pain

To chortle and show our teeth,

Your lovely teeth.


A little later, I asked, nervously,

Do you think, without death so close

It is possible to know what you know:

To cherish life and love?

Can you get there some other way?

‘It wouldn’t be the same,’ you say.


You knew how we’d all go on worrying about

Bills and stains, and who does best.

We’d all go on arguing about who’s right

And why we always fight when driving.


And yet, you showed us

You will go on giving us

Your life and how you lived it:

The light in the trees, a swim at Sumenette,

Your mountains, a dance…so many dances.

Your eyes, your hair, your smile – your buttercup skirt –

Your life and how you lived it.




In your last days by the side of the canal you were so glad to be out of the hospital. And despite your fear, to have those who loved you all around. You spoke about the tall silver birch just outside the window of your room, how sometimes, though not enough, the way the light danced through the leaves gave you comfort. And if there is such a thing as a good death, then yours was it. I am so grateful that I was there, that I could be present in this final place; to have a chance to say goodbye, to hug and to hold you, to allow our tears to mingle.

The March of May

Cowgirl Shadow

Cowgirl goes out in the field…

A cold month but still plenty to see

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MayD2013 007Triangle FieldMayC2013 153Spring is In the Air

MayB2013 003New Fencing

MayB2013 017Bluebells in Valency Valley

MayB2013 018Wild Garlic in Valency Valley

Traditional English Hereford Heifers in Frost www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comRemember this?

MayD2013 026Not so cold now eh girls?

MayD2013 019Meadow Speedwell

MayC2013 119Dogs Mercury and Harts Tongue Fern

MayC2013 012Sweet Cicely

MayC2013 160Moles have been VERY busy

MayC2013 171A Mole Mountain

MayD2013 018Sow Thistles in the Barn Wall – birds adore these

MayD2013 024Foxglove and Red Campion Taking Off

MayC2013 144Yellow Rattle

MayB2013 032Wild Garlic, Primrose and Bluebell

MayC2013 006There has been discussion about cows teeth

MayD2013 035Cow Parsley

MayD2013 034Plantain

Moo Cow helps with the bulb planting

Remember this?

MayC2013 184They grew!…wild winds and all

MayD2013 032Ok, relax

MayB2013 027Yes, you too…


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Bundled, trussed and wrapped

In wool, feather and fleece

Tight. Skin a flag of pursed pores

Waiting to fly and unfurl

A freckled release.

I have x rayed these bones for what

Seems like millenia. A fossil in the mud

Of three hundred sleeps

Soon, please, they will unroll and realign

Recognize I am newly awake, like the world.

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Ok, it’s a poem and I am not a poet. Be kind now.

I Declare an International Day of Inefficiency

Swallow 2

pic CHOG

Today we call M and tell him the first Swallow has arrived. It’s a moment of joy, admiration and awe for its arduous cross continental journey. Now it is perched on the telephone wire which stretches across part of the front yard, preening each wing in turn. Not long before, it was whooping and swooping above the pond and flying low, in and out of the shippen. Its song is peppered with dolphin like clicks. I am sitting on the top step, the slate warm, feeling the sun on my face, my body slowly unwinding, finally released from being huddled, bundled and wrapped. There is a delightful din of a world waking up. Ten years ago there were almost thirty Swallows lined up on the wire by the end of the summer; each subsequent year there have been less and less.

I abandon the ‘to do’ list. I think, today will be a day of inefficiency

I experience anxiety as I hope and wonder about a mate for the Swallow arriving. And if they breed successfully will there be enough insects for them to feed their young?

The massive decline in bee populations catches the public imagination, but all insects are being put under similar pressure by loss of habitat and pesticides. In a farmland setting, loss of habitat means less wild flowers, the planting of monocultures of rye grass or other crops without provision for invertebrates. And why does this matter? Well, in a nutshell…

Biodiversity means the variety of life, in all its forms. It includes the variety of species and ecosystems (communities and interrelations of species) in the world, and also genetic variation. Human beings are dependent for their sustenance, health and well-being on fundamental biological systems and processes. This includes all of our food, many medicines and industrial products, as well as the air we breathe. Without insects and other invertebrates, human life on this planet would be impossible. The enormous diversity of life is of crucial value, providing resilience to organisms and ecosystems.

Why thank you for that, the Amateur Entomologists’ Society!

I go over to the cow field. I can hear sheep and lambs from across the valley, plaintively calling to one another. Standing there, the sky a bowl of blue, I count fourteen Buzzards above, wheeling on the thermals and crying their eerie cries. I don’t know, but I would hazard a guess that they are simply, like me, having a good time. Rabbits run in and out of the gorse bushes down the centre of the field, flashes of white and brown amongst the acid yellow and though their numbers are too plentiful (breeding like…! and no serious predators, apart from a ginger cat) who could begrudge their hoppity heaven today?

The cows are looking pretty, their ruddy coats shining in the sun. After a while they approach and both Lucy and Mary-Rose ask to be scratched. They stand happily either side of me, while Belita tentatively sniffs my face with her gentle pink nose. To think they were so terrified when they arrived and now this. Happy.

Traditional Hereford Heifers

Coming back I meet Mr. Pheasant who has made regular visits this winter. A little Wren dips in and out of a thicket, and a Wagtail, the first I’ve seen this year, sits atop the shippen roof surveying the scene.

Male Pheasant

Violets, Stitchwort and Celandine are beginning to peep out from the hedgebanks. Dandelions are waiting for the bees. Where are the bees?


I’m waiting for you bees…

I nibble on a disc of Navelwort.


I could be salad material

A bout of spontaneous seed sowing comes on…

Orlaya grandiflora

Nicotiana sylvestris

Nicotiana Lime Green

Seed sowing

Ammi majus

Cosmos sulphureus Cosmic Orange

Rudbeckia hirta Prairie Sun

Seed Sowing

Then I admire B’s artwork…

Barbed Wire Ball Artwork

Later, I lie on the grass under the big sycamore. The still bare branches reach toward a pale moon, bursting with shimmering buds. I can feel the earth is still damp and cold but the warmed grass is an eiderdown beneath me. I am lost. My eyes close.

Sycamore Buds

Sycamore Buds & Moon www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comLooking Up through a Sycamore

What about an International Day of Inefficiency? Come on, we can do it!

Perennials – from Thatcherisms to Helping Those in Need

With the death of we are a grandmother Margaret Thatcher last week, it made me think of one of her other classic statements there is no such thing as society, which both epitomised her style and enraged so many of us. These are the quotes which will keep on coming around. Sadly though, what seems to have had staying power since those days is a pervasive acceptance of self interest at the heart of life – and I don’t excuse myself entirely from this malaise, though I am trying.

While not many people would argue that it was all fine before Thatcher, the ideological hatchet job her government did on the Trade Unions was done with scant regard for the long term consequences of that bitter savagery on the actual communities it affected.  I’m no economist, but surely a gentler slower way could have been found to cope with the decline of traditional industry, creating new and solid industries in its place.

While individual responsibility is necessary to life and not something to be frowned upon, society should also mean that there is something actually there when people fall, a cradle of compassion if you like, a sense that the fortunate amongst us will help the struggling, for whatever reason.

I’ve always subscribed to this belief, though without really thinking that one day we might need some help ourselves. A socialist would say this work should always be the responsibility of the state and carried out by the operations of government in order to shape a fairer, more redistributive society. This was always a great excuse for liberals such as myself to hope that it was being done by someone else, somewhere else.  But in the absence of these made-up utopias, charities do have a big part to play.

However I don’t buy the Big Society twaddle – empty words Cameron, empty words. In practice it means things like my friend, a speech therapist in the NHS, has been told that there is only a budget to treat the most acute emergency cases, while the valuable work she was doing with severely autistic babies has been cut and she is having to tell new parents whom she was working with that they are now on their own.

I am sick to death of the rhetoric abounding about at the moment which vilifies the poor and the vulnerable. Have you counted how many times the phrase hard working families has been bandied about? Almost as much as benefit scroungers and workshy cheats. Like brainwashing. If you say it enough times people will start to believe it. Sure, there are people who take the piss, but compared to the amount that the treasury is losing from tax evading companies, its peanuts. Interestingly I heard on the radio this morning that it was actually in Thatchers time that so many people went on to incapacity benefit, the thousands of people who had lost their jobs as a result of the closures, as she wanted to fiddle the unemployment figures – running at nearly 4m, remember that? That’s what I’d call how to give people hopelessness not hope.

We’re certainly not all in this together. While the poor are being capped left right and centre, it’s totally ok that huge companies don’t pay their tax and chief execs have unlimited bonuses for banks in public ownership. Places like London have become playgrounds for the super rich while the differential between the haves and the struggling is getting wider and wider. Something is seriously at sea here.

But my post today is also about the charity Perennial, (patroned by the real Queen!) with whom I do some volunteering. I discovered the charity through the website which a lovely friend (the one above, thanks M)  told me about when illness struck my husband. We were fortunate in the sense that we didn’t need financial assistance but we found ourselves reeling from the impact of what was happening ie: our world being turned upside down. We were assigned a case worker and just having someone visit us who had an inkling of what we were going through and understood the turmoil that ensued was incredibly comforting. They also helped with the minefield of long forms which needed to be filled out in great detail and were pretty distressing. And 0ur case worker has continued to support us. Of course it’s possible to empathise with people who are going through difficulties, but until it actually happens to you, you’ve really got no idea.

So this is to say thank you to Perennial and to hopefully help promote the excellent work it does and spread the word, both to people who are in the outdoor industries who might need help and to people who may want to support it.

Anyway, we raised £1082.84 recently at the Cornwall Garden Society’s Spring Flower Show at Boconnoc House and Gardens. The success of the Cornwall group is due in the main to George Kestell, who despite being a gardener and lecturer  gives up tons of free time to organising and attending all the Perennial events, as well as appearing regularly on a gardening programme on local radio.

Another freezing day,  at least on the Sunday, when I was there, but the plucky public turned up to peruse the exhibitions and buy the wares on sale. Check out those coats!

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Flower Show

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AprilB2013 035

AprilB2013 044

Sharon, a fellow volunteer

AprilB2013 043

George, on the left.

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If you know anyone who might have a need of Perennial, now or in the future, please share this information. Or indeed if you’d like to help, donate or whatever…actually they have lots of gardening type information on their website and run workshops, tours and have a volunteer pool of speakers for gardening clubs etc.

Oh ok I know you’re missing the cows…they’re missing you too…

AprilB2013 050

Hello, they say

Moor Starlings

March 2013 is really really cold; the coldest March since 1962. By this time in 2012 the migratory starlings were already on their way back to their summer places, northern Europe and Russia. But now they are staying put for the time being, hanging out with their English cousins until the wind changes and eases their passage on the long journey north, a warm south westerly ruffling their rainbow sheen feathers.

Last week we made the journey to see them fly in to the massive night time roost on Bodmin Moor. At sundown the birds just keep coming and coming, a million plus. This time we saw birds of prey, possibly a hen harrier and a merlin, going in for their supper.

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The murmuration of starlings did a bit of their aerial dancing at the beginning which was amazing but I was absorbed enough to miss capturing it on camera.  As it turned out they didn’t do any more.

I’ve posted this link before, it is such a lovely short film of the starlings doing their thing – breathtaking and sweet. Enjoy!

And this is the direction most of the starlings come from.

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Also, if you’re into birds and the need for good habitat in general,  this is an amazing blog post from Wolf Tree Farm, a farm not far from here, in which she describes their valley over decades.

Travelling the Withered Arm

Egloskerry, Tresmeer, Otterham, Camelford, Delabole, St Kew Highway and Wadebridge.

These are just a few of the railway stations, no longer in existence, which lined Southern Railways’ network of train tracks built west of Exeter in the late part of the nineteenth century. Relatively under used, they came to be known as ‘The Withered Arm’.

The Withered Arm

Camelford Station 1972 by Peter Howie

Imagine though, in the golden age of the railways and before getting into a car was possible for most people, how wonderful it would have been to climb aboard a train in Waterloo, London and travel the two hundred and sixty miles to Padstow on the North Cornish Coast in six hours. Before rail, Cornwall really was the wild west, long before tourism began.

The Withered Arm

Towards the end of the journey the train had to traverse the rugged terrain of North Cornwall, surmounting some incredible gradients, rising from 200ft at Launceston to a peak of 800ft above sea level between Otterham and Camelford. To make it relatively smooth for the passengers  there were forty three cuttings made between Launceston and Wadebridge, before the final flat journey of nine minutes alongside the stunning Camel Estuary.

Once arrived, I bet a fish and chip supper would have tasted divine.

The Withered Arm

Got to be in paper

Last week, with a couple of friends who had suggested the expedition, I set out with them to find and explore one of these cuttings on the abandoned line. The tunnel under the village of Trelill is clearly marked on the OS map. Armed with this and some homemade biscuits made by B’s gran we set off:

It is another cold cold day, with a finger hurting north east wind. We park up in the village and at first approach the tunnel from the southern end, scrambling down a steep bank onto the line near a curved brick road bridge, grabbing hold of ivy and the whips of young trees as we go down. The rails are long gone and it is surprisingly muddy considering they must have been laid on ballast. I’m glad I’m wearing wellies. We can see the tunnel entrance some 100 metres away and make our way down towards it.

It is not clear to whom this land now belongs; there are no signs of warning about trespass, yet for some reason it feels like we are doing something illegal. I am conscious that any minute now, the long arm of the law will make its presence felt. However, quite soon I am more concerned about where I’m putting my feet as the going is a little treacherous, with seemingly solid ground melting into deep quagmires of sticky mud. We pause to admire the curve and clever engineering of the road bridge from below.

The Withered Arm

The Withered Arm

Curving stonework

From this distance we can see that the entrance to the tunnel is gated but we press on to check it out. We are having to pick our way really carefully, trying to get some purchase on the sides of the cutting. On the way a bright button of red fungus shines from its damp bed.

Red Fungus

We eventually reach the entrance and there is no way we can get in this end, as this unbending gate has evil looking prongs on the top. I poke my camera through the bars.

Trelill Tunnel

We make our way back to the road. The thought flits across my mind that this expedition may have been better undertaken in the summer; the next second the anaerobic slime is over the top of my boots.

We walk back through the village to find the other end of the tunnel, which according to the map is bordered by a footpath. The Bull in Field sign doesn’t deter us and we fuel up with a biscuit, intrepidly going forth. From the top we can see the field path dropping away steeply and the overgrown wooded railway cutting to the left snakes across the landscape into the distance like an insulated wire, not even a hint of green glinting on the branches.

At the bottom we climb through the fence and slide down another steep bank onto the line. This side seems to be firmer underfoot but the way through is harder.

The Withered Arm

The Withered Arm

The Withered Arm

Trelill Tunnel The Withered Arm

The entrance is glimpsed

We manage to squeeze in through the flimsier gate and get inside the tunnel. Bats fly out as we get in, accustoming our eyes to the dark. It is very cold and damp but there isn’t any smell which surprises me. With torch at the ready we make our way down the curved tunnel, marvelling at the amount of work it must have taken to make the railway and its forty three cuttings through solid rock.

Trelill Tunnel

One of the safety alcoves along the tunnel which you can get in when the train comes – you can see the bedrock behind the brick work

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It’s quite exciting being in the tunnel, a forgotten place which was built so long ago.

Trelill Tunnel The Withered Arm

B shines her torch

We reach the other end.

Trellill Tunnel

The gate with the evil prongs

I felt the adrenalin of our adventure for the whole day.

There is still a small stretch of this particular railway still in use, run by a dedicated bunch of steam enthusiasts. You can catch a train from Launceston to New Mills and back, a fun outing. There is also a vintage transport and machinery museum and a café at The Launceston Steam Railway Company

A section between Bodmin, Wadebridge and Padstow is now The Camel Trail, for cycling and walking.

Visiting loco Gertrude at the Launceston Steam Railway

Visiting loco Gertrude at the Launceston Steam Railway

And for those of us who live in hope.

Sign at the Launceston Steam Railway for the visit from a Darjeeeling loco

Sign at the Launceston Steam Railway for the visit from a Darjeeling loco

The Crush, the Pond and the Hothouse

Phase 1 of Operation Crush Training is now complete.

The hard standing is down, the fence and gate erected and the cattle crush in place. Next, it’s time for the girls to come through, lured as usual with their favourite thing – food. I close the gate, leaving them behind it and a pile of hay in the new corral. The only thing which separates them from their hearts desire is the crush. After some nervous sniffing they gingerly step onto the boards. It all goes very well and I’m relieved. Now they are like old hands at coming in and out of the crush.

Next phase…trapping them inside it… gulp. I will keep you posted.

Traditional English Hereford Heifers d

The Slow Approach

Traditional English Hereford & Cattle Crush

Mary Rose keenest (on hay)

Traditional English Hereford & Cattle Crush

Traditional English Hereford & Cattle Crush

Next is Belita (surprisingly)

Traditional English Hereford & Cattle Crush

Come on Lucy

Traditional English Hereford & Cattle Crush

That’s it good girl

Traditional English Hereford &

Very happy

And just to show you how much they really like hay…

Traditional Eglish Herefords

Tucking into T’s hay which he is transporting home

Traditional English Hereford

Yes, caught you!

Phase 1 of Pond Rehabilitation is now complete.

We had the pond dug out with a digger a few years ago. It doesn’t have a liner but fluctuates with the water table. While I was moaning about the relentless rain here I happened to go on Twitter (yes, I’m doing that) and found out that yesterday it was World Water Day so I tried to think of all the people and places in the world who have no access to clean water and are suffering terrible drought. It did help.

I think I mentioned that digging the pond had somewhat cured our damp problem in the house. Somewhat…. Our plan is to attract as much wildlife as possible and the pond really helps with this. The birds love to bathe and drink and there are hundreds of creatures in there. Periodically it does need a clear out and I did this a couple of weeks ago. My, that weed is HEAVY. There were a few casualties but I’m afraid that is the price which has to be paid – but the starlings and the blackbirds had themselves a good feed.

Natural Pond

The pond when it was first dug – very brave very pale man

Wildlife Pond www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comPond Weed Clearing

Wildlife Pond in Rain

The pond on World Water Day 22 March 2013

Starlings in Winter

Not sure when the starlings will fly back – it’s pretty cold in Russia and Northern Europe right now

Phase 1 of Getting Excited about Spring is now complete.

Despite the still wintry weather there is a gleam in the eye of springs’ arrival. The equinox has passed and the buds are waking and breaking. Last week on a bitter day I went with my mother and stepfather to the RHS garden at Wisley. To be honest the majority of our time was spent in one of the cafés and the gift shop where they have ACRES of lovely enticing books on horticulture, design, nature and landscape.

I bought a book called Edgelands written by two poets, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts which I’m really looking forward to – it forms, according to the back cover

a critique of what we value as wild, and allows our allotments, railways, motorways, wasteland and water a presence in the world, and a strange beauty all of their own

If you want to read about a walk in the edgelands Gerry has done one here called ‘Along the Garston Shore’ which I think is great – and tells you a bit more about the book and when the phrase was first coined.

Anyway, we also went to the warm glass houses where the orchids and other amazing flowers and cacti were an uplifting treat.

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It only needs the jet stream to shift a little and some of that spring warmth to awaken the beast!

On the Upside – A Few Beautiful Things Made from Wood – if a King Penguin Can Be Called That

Blurry Type

I can’t see that

…was a phrase which seemed to crop up rather regularly on a recent trip to London. Cue myopic hilarity from myself and friends who’s eyesight is degenerating but who haven’t quite mastered the art of remembering their glasses.  Still hoping, perhaps, for the twenty twenty vision of yesteryear and incredulous that this thing is actually happening.

So, wine lists and menus in cafes and restaurants, exhibition texts and departure boards at train stations became something of a mystery. I even got lost with a friend in Walthamstow in search of the refurbished William Morris Museum as I could neither read the A to Z or grapple with my friends iphone as she valiantly drove us through the chilly grey wastes of east London.

I won’t do a review of this most excellent museum, as fellow blogger Hamer from the The Rowley Gallery has done one here which inspired me to make the visit.

After the bad news about Herald, I thought I’d balance it out with something more uplifting.  One of the great things that has happened since I have more time to think, is that I also have more time to look. Slowing down really makes you see stuff in detail, whereas visual appreciations before were more momentary, passing by at a great rate in an unmemorable blur.

In this post I just want to share with you a few beautiful things which have been made with craft, the kind of things that William Morris and his gang would have approved of very much.

have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful

is his most famous quote, but I quite like

the true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life

First up then is this oak swill basket, which came into my possession recently as a present. There is only one person left in the UK who is making these and you can find out about him and them here, including a fascinating look into the history of these amazing baskets.

I reckon it will last a lifetime.
Oak Swill Basket

Oak Swill Basket www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comOak Swill Basket

Secondly, this yurt maker crafts these wonderful nomadic houses by steaming hand split local ash. I love the form and the clever way it is all put together… shame to put the canvas on really…

Yurt in Field

Yurt Workshop

The yurt maker also made this wonderful curved stair rail, also steamed. Every time I grip this as I go up and down the stairs I am aware of what went into making it.

Steamed Ash Bannister

And the brackets for the stair rail are hand made in a small forge in Devon, where the metal worker also makes woodburning stoves to any specification.

Metalworkers Workshop

Metalworker with Gutter Brackets

These aren’t the stair brackets these are the gutter brackets…but you get the picture

Thirdly, I have been meaning get our books onto shelves for quite a while as they are still languishing in piles. So the other day I started dusting them off and came across this lovely set of King Penguins.  Ok, not strictly speaking made from wood, but there’s no shame in expanding the criteria to get into the Beautiful Things post. What a joy and a pleasure to rediscover these treasures among the dust (MUST get bookcase).

I wonder if all the books of the future will become more like art. Perhaps most of our reading material will be consumed on e-readers but books may become beautiful objects to collect and savour, like paintings.

Arachnophobes, there are spiders ahead.

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Lastly I like wood because it’s really useful. Here’s some chestnut fencing.

Chestnut Mortice and Tenon

Chestnut Mortice and Tenon

And I saw these handsome wild ponies the other day, the beauties of Bodmin Moor .

Wild Ponies on Bodmin Moor

Wild Pony Bodmin Moor www,

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