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.