Monday, June 07, 2021

On a Wealden farm, 1952 to 1965

This memoire was started on 6th June 2021 and my plan is to add to it from time to time until it is complete.  It will all be part of this particular post.

 In 1952 my family moved to Bush Barn Farm in Robertsbridge, East Sussex and stayed until the summer of 1963.  I was 14 when we moved there and 25 when we left. Although I spent much of these 11 years at boarding school, in London or travelling around parts of Europe, the farm was in many ways the centre of my life and that of my family.

During my years on the farm I developed a strong interest in insect life and this memoir is essentially to record what I remember, or what I noted down on this topic at the time.  Bush Barn Farm was (its name now has, I think, been changed to 'Almonds') a 70 acre mixed farm mostly on the south facing flank of the Rother Valley.  There were seven larger fields ranging from about 3 acres to 12 acres of permanent pasture or temporary leys that were ploughed and re-sown with grass from time to time.  There was a delightful small, rough field called Three Platts that was so hillocky I thought it could never have been cultivated and an orchard with mostly apple trees but also a medlar in one corner.  

There were probably 20 acres of deciduous woodland, former coppice and several ponds including the large Almond Pit behind the cow shed.  An old canal built to supply water to the mill ran along the southern boundary of the farm and there were some interesting aquatic and marginal habitats along its edge.  One strip, which now belongs to the Woodland Trust, had a number of cricket bat willows and the local cricket bat company, Gray Nicholls, were entitled to come and take cuttings for which they payed us two cords of wood a year (usually cricket bat off cuts) that burnt almost too vigorously.

One of my favourite locations was Townfield Shaw (which we called Bluebell Wood) and it had a spring-fed, permanently running stream down its length which had a very varied invertebrate fauna.

The flora and fauna of the wider area was very rich, but perhaps not more so than any similar Wealden farm. Today I live seven miles away and I often think I would like to go back and retrace some of the steps I made around the farm collecting insects and observing nature generally.  Sadly I think I would not find a fraction of the species that occurred then.  It seems to me that there has been a terrible collapse in insect numbers over the last 70 years that will have a knock on effect on all the other species.  Trying to reverse this is, I think, impossible, but we can try to look after what remains and, perhaps, discover a new, sustainable equilibrium.

I had brought an interest in entomology with me to the farm.  My earlier life had been spent in Chingford on the edge of Epping Forest and I was always encouraged by my parents to take an interest in natural history.  I had been interested in butterflies and moths and I persuaded my parents to get me a mercury vapour moth trap shortly after we arrived at the farm.  I used to site the trap on the lawn in front of the house.  The catches were spectacular with several species of hawk moths and many other species I had not hoped to find by searching in the wild.  One I particularly remember was the appearance of a large goat moth (Cossus cossus).  For some reason I quickly became bored with moth trapping and converted to trap into a small mountain for houseleeks (Sempervivum species), a pursuit I have been interested in ever since.

In those early years on the farm I encountered some of the larger fauna frequently.  There were plenty of rabbits and grey squirrels, the occasional fox and a badger set in the western end of Bush Barn Wood.  One of our neighbours, a chicken farmer, rather cruelly used to set snares for the badgers because, he claimed, they would get underneath his wooden chicken houses and pull the legs off the birds through the slatted floor.  A highlight among the animals was the presence of hares.  These used to be quite common in the Rother Valley and I remember enjoying their antics from the train window when I commuted to London in the early 1960s.  They were not uncommon as far north as Stonegate.  Another highlight, if one can call it that, was when my father brought in a dead corncrake he had found in one of the fields.

On the plant front the farm had the usual range of wildflowers one would expect to find on a Wealden farm.  The wood on the north east side of Almond Pit had a flourishing population of coralroot bittercress, Cardamine bulbifera, part of a population that  ran along the Wealden ridge from Bodiam to Robertsbridge.  This attractive plant is quite scarce but flourishes where it occurs and has a curiously disjunct distribution being found in dry chalk woodland in the Chilterns and here and there on Wealden clays.  It has also escaped quite widely from cultivation.  Butterfly orchids, corn buttercup.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Last day of March 2021

 It is warm but a thin mist hangs over the countryside on this last day of March.  The forecasters say it is partly composed of dust from the Sahara desert.  Here is the view from Churchland Wood across the plough to the distant Fairlight ridge buttressing against the sea.      

Birds are now very active nest building and, as I sit at my lap top, I can see the magpies coming and going from their nest in a rowan tree.  Sometimes the pair go and perch on top of the tallest tree in the garden, a wild cherry, from where they can get a 360 degree view.

Often the woodpigeons, who also nest in the garden, get there first.

We have a large area of lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor) under the hawthorns halfway down the garden.  This effective ground cover is currently sprinkled with flowers, but these seem to appear in much greater quantity around the edges of this periwinkle area. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Two new arrivals

 In an obscure corner of the garden the light caught a small conifer maybe 5cm tall.  An adventurous seedling that is probably a yew, but possibly something else. The leaves go all round the central stalk, though I expect this is just a characteristic of a seedling. In Bean's Trees and Shrubs it says of the mature plant "leaves spirally attached to the twigs, but by the twisting of the stalks brought more or less into two opposed ranks."  This made me look more closely at the mature yews in the garden with their bipinnate branchlets unlike the newly found seedling.

Not far away from the conifer there is a mound, the remains of many bonfires.  Tana grew potatoes on this last year and there is a fine selection of weeds each summer, well nourished by the chemicals in the ash.  Wood ash is a variable substance but usually composed mainly of calcium carbonate.  However, there is often around 4% potash and 1% phosphate plus various trace elements.  But I digress, the find of the day was a solitary flower of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) growing on the side of the mound.

Coltsfoot flowers appear at this time of year before the large leaves (shaped vaguely like colt's feet) and they are not at all common in our immediate area, preferring heavy clay soils.  I have never seen any in or near our garden.  A piece of root might, I suppose, have been brought in from somewhere else, but that seems unlikely.  As it is a native plant, arrival by seed would seem the most probable explanation. 

An infusion of the leaves was once widely used as a remedy for coughs and, in some places, the dried leaves were used as a substitute for tobacco and smoking it was said to help asthma sufferers.  The plant is also used to flavour coltsfoot rock made, over the last hundred years, to a secret recipe by Stockley's Sweets of Oswaldtwistle in Lancashire.  The aniseed/liquorice flavour is said to be 'strangely addictive' and it appears to be quite popular still.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Vole and daffodils

Tana put some scraps out on a log just outside our back door the other day and it was not long before they attracted the attention of a vole, a bank vole, Microtus glareolus, kindly identified by British mammal expert Dr Mark Hows  (It is not easy to distinguish them from field voles, Myodes agrestis.) It was a very nervous animal but I was just able to take a snap of it through the rather smudgy glass of the kitchen window. 

On my trip down the garden I was pleased to see a trio of wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) in flower.  They have slightly drooping two-toned flowers and mine have now survived for many years with no attention. Those below had arranged themselves together like Three Little Maids from School.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

A few flowers

Still a windy day but quite pleasant, though cool, in the sunshine.  I noted several 'heralds of spring ' in flower today - lady's smock (below), alexanders and, above, early dog violets (Viola reichenbachiana).  Tana saw some wood anemones while on a walk.

Our colony of Tenby daffodils continues to look in good condition and, unlike other daffodils locally, have been unaffected by the recent gales.  The photo below shows that all the flowers face south.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

March winds

There is some hopeful anticipation that the current boisterous weather will win the next storm name on the 2021 list - 'Evert' (a short form of the German name Eberhard most frequently used in Sweden and The Netherlands).  Here the wind came in strong gusts overnight and during the following day, with heavy rain showers. Sitting down the garden in the middle of the day, I was surprised that I could hear many birds singing over the deep roaring of the wind, like treble voices over a bass choir.

Great masses of air boomed over the garden from the south west keeping the tops of the trees in Churchland Wood (which I can see from my window) in constant motion.  Bright sunshine picks out much of the detail: there are fading hazel catkins, goat willow flowers and the magpie's nest in one of the rowan trees.  The birds are nowhere to be seen and may be sheltering in their insecure looking twiggy retreat, or perhaps they have a foul weather hideaway somewhere nearby.  Most mammals are hiding too but one grey squirrel went hopping over the roof of the hut.

The two tallest trees in the garden are a wild cherry grown from a fruit I found in Orlestone Forest many years ago and the silver birch in my Square Metre project,  The uppermost branches of the cherry are permanently bent over to the north, pushed that way by successive storms I suspect, especially as the trunk does not seem to move in the wind..  The birch, on the other hand grows ramrod straight though it sways, often quite violently in the wind.

An unusual effect of the wind is the way the path to the wood is strewn with pink camellia petals as though for some Oriental festival.  The petals are being blown down from a Camellia 'Garden Glory' which has been in bloom since early January and still has many more flowers to come.

Monday, March 08, 2021

The mouse and the cherry stones

Underneath a large wild cherry tree (Prunus avium), in a small open area enclosed by protruding roots, I found a large horde of cherry stones.  Each one had a hole chewed in the top.  These holes had been made by a wood mouse, or mice, (Apodemus sylvaticus) to extract the kernel within.  In summer the ground beneath this tree is strewn with fallen fruit and I wondered if the mice had collected these, maybe eaten the pulp, and then stored the cherry stones for later use.  Though there were no stones that had not been opened, considerable effort must have been involved in making such a large midden, so maybe each one was brought from a store concealed nearby and dropped outside once its contents had been consumed.

As well as wood mice, cherry stones can be holed by dormice and voles although the markings made by the animals' teeth around the rim differ for each species.  There are a several illustrations of this online; a good one is at:

Cherry stones have a reputation for toxicity as they contain amygdalin which converts to cyanide in the body if ingested.  The amount of amygdalin in the kernels seems to vary considerable and there is a wide range of commentary on the Internet as to their relative danger to humans.  One commentator claims that "A single cherry yields roughly 0.17 grams of lethal cyanide per gram of seed, so depending on the size of the kernel, ingesting just one or two freshly crushed pits can lead to death".  Others recommend they are used to flavour cherry jam.  

However, according to Adriano Chan et al., mice are more resistant to the effects of cyanide than humans (see so it would appear that our wood mice have not been in danger of poisoning themselves.