Mary Quicke's blog
The summer was hot and dry, and the autumn is cooler and wetter – seasons in the right place. That is so reassuring for a farmer – you realize how much we need everything in place. We had the finest harvest of field mushrooms for years, soil warm, good rain. We ate them for almost every meal, even dried them and froze them – I’ll report how that works. The hedgerows are still full of fruit – the sign of a warm summer, not a cold winter, we hope.
I was watching the house martens gathering on the telephone line, chatting away. One came back from the wood, and there was a murmur through them. They all took off in a flock, darting, swooping, scything over the trees, even flying in under the leaves. It looked like the one was a scout, reporting back that the flies were particularly fat, juicy and plentiful in the wood. Too soon they gather on the wire for the last time, and are gone until the spring. The house is suddenly still, quieter, and the insects return, made bold now they are no longer being harvested to feed chicks. It’s an end of summer moment when they go.
The summer is slowly cranking up – we are past the longest day. The mad rush of spring catching up on lost time after our extended winter - everything from March to June happening at once - has quieted. Now we want the sedate and orderly progression of seasons. As farmers, we are so reliant on the weather happening at the right time in the right order. We sit on top of natural processes, imagining we control them. The weather gave us a little slap to remind us who’s boss.
The miracle of spring is here in May. The farm had a bleak and wintry look through to the end of April, every bit of our 52 degrees north of latitude – we are as far north as Newfoundland. Buds burst into a blasting cold gale, the grass shrivelled into purple bonsai, all the right shape but dwarfed. The wildlife had a hunted, hungry look. I saw a treecreeper, the shyest of birds, come towards our bird feeders, where normally only the bolder birds come. Now, with sun and balmy warmth, birds are singing loud all day, bumble bees are starting their busy summer. I had no idea how much those simple sounds lift my heart. Oddly enough, the house martins arrived 11 days earlier this year than last year – perhaps they know something we don’t.
The end of our long winter? The bitter sting in the winter’s tail last month makes the sweet weather of April all the more gorgeous. The late spring has the plants seem prescient – primroses, bluebells, blackthorn seemed to hold back their flowering, waiting till after the frost, only to come with a rush when the weather finally warms up. The leaves unfurl, the hedges bloom, the grass speeds up its growth, young rabbits appear, birds take on the busy air of those with many chicks to feed.
We’ve been hearing in the news about how many deer other people have, how much damage they are doing to fields and delicate habitats. I’m glad to hear it’s not just us. I love to see the deer, and you can have too much of a good thing.
February has a reputation for being wet and gloomy. I long for it not be that way, and grasp at the lighter mornings and evenings. The sun does more than scrape itself off the horizon. The morning chorus of songbirds kicked off earlier in the season than I remember. I know it’s birds defending territory, but it is a gorgeous start to the day as first one bird, then others join in till you get a swelling joyful sound.
The days slowly lengthen, the sun creeps a little higher at noon and wider at dawn and dusk. The dark mornings have me slow to wake, the dark evenings tricksy - is it six or midnight? I drove my car one dark evening along a lane, came to water over the road. In the dark I didn't see how far the water was from the stream, and drove on. The water was over the headlights and I could see a flooded car and tractor beside the road - can't stop or the car will take in water. I made it to the humpback bridge, which is covered in water, can't turn round, maybe I'll make it across the next low bit of road. I set off, lights go under water, the car sighs to a halt. There is silence, then I hear the gurgling of water coming in through the doors. The windows don't work. Will I be able to get out? I open the door, water pours in almost to the top on the seat. I scramble into the boot to put my wellies on, get everything I can think of onto the roof, and climb onto it myself.
The dark time of year, dark mornings, night comes so early. When we have sun it seems very special, and with a thick enough coat and hat is a magical time, precious brightness, low light highlighting every bare twig and blade of grass. The earth feels like it is ruminating, digesting last year, brewing next year. The undergrowth disappears, leaving everyone’s tracks clearer. Tom & I were in the garden one late afternoon, and about 20 wild boar solemnly trooped by on the other side of the stream, a couple of sows, a few gilts, but mainly this year’s piglets. Boar, like the farmed pigs they are so closely related to, have large families. Tasty, but scary when you get too close. When we said we wanted more room for wildlife on farms, I’m not sure we meant this: be careful what you wish for, you will get it.
Leaves whirl off the trees, darkness comes early, the briefly lighter mornings darken too. The sun rises closer to the south, and at noon gets lower every day. A walk through the woods is a walk through lots of leaves, before they start breaking down to leaf litter. The last of the apples come off the trees, a rich cider smell rises, reproaching us for the apples we didn’t pick. I saw a robin, bold and curious, with that intensely sweet song, sitting on the wall in a watery gleam of sun, king in his own territory, now the noisy summer visitors have gone. The fallow deer finish their rut, that disembodied roaring, a challenge to other bucks, and I guess alluring to the comfortable groups of does waiting the outcome with complacency.
I pretend it’s not happening until autumn is right on top of us. The unstoppable, overwhelming green tide of growth turns round and meekly disappears into the ground. We get a fiery display as the leaves drain of green, going out in a blaze of glory. Let’s hope for more of the glowing light of September to give October that incandescent quality. The wet, cold summer gave extraordinary growth to cool country plants, and things that need warmth suffered. Less insects - the cows never got besieged with flies - meant all those insect-eating birds did not thrive. A friend said most of her first hatch of swallows died, the second hatch stayed late, hoping to fatten up on early autumn flies. They’ve gone now, and the skies are quiet. The difficult summer for insects seems to have made the wild boar niggly; so many slugs to eat would make anyone grumpy. A neighbour phoned, concerned that the wild boar were chasing the fallow deer.