Outdoor Learning Experiences

Supporting learning and engagement with the natural environment for all ages

Knowing our Nature – May

You know the good weather has arrived when the cattle are let out of the barns and back into the fields. After calving, the mothers will be out grazing with their young calves. Initially, they will be in the fields near the old dairy, but gradually the herd will begin to move from one small area to the next following the practice of mob grazing. Once they have worked their way around the fields near East Hall, they will cross over to the fields around St. Paul’s Walden Bury and Stagenhoe. Each day they will be moved on to new grass, and after they have finished in a field, it will be allowed to rest and grow for a few weeks until they return. This practice is good for the cattle, and the grassland. We are now part of a research project lead by ADAS seeking to quantify the benefits of mob grazing. Some of our fields will be divided into two, mob grazed on one side, and set stocked (ie a smaller number of animals, who remain in that field for a longer period) on the other, to compare the impact of the different grazing practices on soil biodiversity (earthworms and other soil biota). You will also see smaller groups of cows in other fields: the bulls are kept apart until needed, and the young heifers (teenage girls) are kept separate until they are old enough to mix with the bulls. Please remember to keep to footpaths and public rights of way, and to keep dogs on leads near stock.

If you are walking around the local footpaths, you may also notice that we are resowing a number of field margins and corners with specific plans and wild flowers which have been chosen to support bees, butterflies, farmland birds and small mammals.

When the first lockdown started last year, many people started noticing nature more, especially bird calls. May is the height of the bird mating season and birds sing to defend their territories and attract a mate. Many birds can be heard in gardens or on your walks around Whitwell.

The earliest birds to sing for a mate are Robin, Song Thrush, Dunnock and Great Tit who often start singing as early as late February/March.  The louder and stronger the song the more interested the female bird is.  She wants a partner who is in their prime to help raise her brood.  Those lonely songsters late in the season are probably the remaining bachelors.

Tawny Owls can call even earlier establishing territories and attracting mates. The male’s huhuhooo.. is responded to by the female’s kewik and this is happening in late autumn/winter as they are early breeders. Barn Owls on the other hand are more subtle with a long drawn out grainy, hissing screech when attracting a female.

Some birds sing their name like Chiff Chaff and Cuckoo. The Yellowhammer sings a lilting ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ emphasising the no cheese at the end. One of our smallest birds the Wren has one of the shrillest calls for such a tiny bird with long trills and peeps delivered at high speed.

It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between two birds that appear to be singing the same song like the Blackcap and the Garden Warbler.  The Blackcap arrives first so you will hear his song in late March/ early April but when the Garden Warbler arrives in mid to late April it is very tricky to tell the difference from then on.

Why not get up early for World Dawn Chorus day which this year is Sunday May 3rd, the peak of the chorus is half an hour before and half an hour after sunrise? If you can’t get up early enough for the dawn chorus the singing at dusk can be equally impressive.

Julie Wise and Frances Harris

Knowing Our Nature – April

By April temperatures should be rising, and spring is truly here. Trees will come into leaf, and crops will surge in growth. Furthermore, April is the month when serious nest building and bird breeding activity gets underway.

As the daffodils begin to wane, woods will be carpeted with bluebells which will peak towards the end of April. Two interesting things to note about bluebells are that they do not survive if picked and put in a vase (they just wilt in the vase), and they do not survive trampling. Therefore at this time of year, please be sure to stick to the footpaths in our local woods. Enjoy the view, but avoid picking or walking over them. It’s best to do all we can to protect them so others can enjoy them too, and they remain for years to come.

At East Hall Farm, the cows will be calving from early April until mid-May. The cows have been in barns throughout the winter. Once the calves are a few days old, they and their mothers will be allowed to graze in the fields. Calves remain with their mothers throughout the summer and into the autumn, able to benefit from suckling milk even as they move on to eating grass.

It is always exciting to see the flurry of activity at bird nesting time whether it be the mating rituals of the birds themselves or the collecting of nest material. Bird’s nests can be made from all sorts of materials and each bird species builds their nest differently.  Materials used for nest building can include twigs, leaves animal hair, sheep’s wool, fine grasses, feathers, mosses, lichens, spider’s webs, mud and even sometimes sadly fragments of plastic.

The male or female may construct the nest or they may carry out the nest building jointly. The male Wren builds several nests which are each inspected by the female and one is chosen to lay her eggs in.

The earliest nest builders we are likely to see locally, with nest building completed by mid-April, are Long Tailed Tits, who make beautiful nests from mosses, lichens and spider’s webs lined with feathers.  Tawny Owls, Ravens, Grey Herons and Blackbirds can start to nest build as early as February.

Mid-April also sees the arrival of our summer migrants coming to breed.  The first Swallows have been noted to arrive locally between 2nd and 17th April so lookout for them around that time.  Their traditional barn nest sites are often converted into dwellings but they can be encouraged into garages and outhouses.  Leave a door or window open and fix a wooden nest platform high up out of the reach of cats and place a plastic bag underneath to catch droppings.  In very hot weather you can place an old piece of carpet onto the roof of the barn and soak with water from time to time to keep the temperature down inside.

Also from the middle to the end of this month listen out for the arrival of the Cuckoo and then we know spring is definitely here.

Julie Wise and France Harris

 

 

Knowing our Nature – March

At the time of writing we have had our first warm day after about a week of sub-zero temperatures. After weeks, if not months, of wet or cold weather, the footpaths are squelchy and even grassy areas look damaged and slippery as people have slipped over them time and again. Its tempting to ask whether more can be done to create all weather footpaths, but on the other hand, adding some sort of paving / gravel / rubble now would make them less natural in the remaining months of the year. Hopefully with dryer and warmer weather in March the footpaths will return to better conditions, and new growth will rejuvenate the landscape. Hopefully crops will begin to grow, and pastures green up. Daffodils will be out and bring some cheer.

You may be lucky while out walking and see March hares, apparently boxing, or chasing each other, in fields. This is in fact females, fighting off the advances of the males who are seeing to mate.

At this time of year as it begins to turn warmer our amphibians return to water for spawning. Frogs arrive first followed by the Toads.  Locally this is usually around mid-March depending on the weather conditions.  Toads like to emerge and head for their breeding ponds under cover of darkness and usually on a mild wet evening.

Frogs and Toads look very similar at first glance and there are two species of each frog and toad in the UK but you will most likely see only the Common Frog and the Common Toad. The easiest way to tell the difference is by their skin.  Frogs have yellow brown smooth slimy skin whereas Toads’ skin is dry and warty and brownish in colour.  Frogs jump and leap but Toads which have much shorter legs walk or crawl.  Frogs are much slimmer whereas Toads are more heavily built, stocky even.

The spawn of a Frog is in gooey clumps whereas that of a Toad is like a stringy necklace which attaches itself to pond vegetation.  Frogs tend to use smaller ponds but toad tadpoles are distasteful so they can use larger bodies of water where there are more predators. Only one in 50 eggs laid survive to adulthood.

If you see an amphibian ambling along through the grass or along the road it is likely to be a toad as they spend most of their life away from water.  Toads only return to their breeding pond to reproduce whereas Frogs remain close to water.

One third of our ponds are thought to have disappeared in the last 50 years or so.  Creating a wildlife pond will bring a soft explosion of life to your garden.  It doesn’t have to be big; even a buried bucket can provide a cooling off place for frogs and somewhere for birds to drink from.  Add some native pond weed and make sure that you place a log, rock or ramp in it for creatures to climb out of the bucket.

Your pond could also attract Smooth newts (our most common newt) Dragonflies, Water Boatmen and Water Beetles.  Come the summer it will be alive and ready for a little gentle pond dipping.

Visit www.froglife.org for more information on building a wildlife pond and Amphibians in general.

 

Julie Wise and Fran Bowes Lyon

Knowing our Nature – February

It can seem a bit gloomy in midwinter, when there is not a lot to attract us outdoors. However, one interesting pursuit is animal tracking. While the wet weather has made the footpaths slippery and in places very water logged, the soft, muddy ground captures the footprints of animals. Careful investigation of animal tracks can help you identify what wildlife is active in our countryside. Animal tracks indicate their regular travel corridors, and you can also sometimes see deer tracks where they have slid down a slippery slope, just like we do.

There are several websites which provide information on animal tracks. The RSPB has some pdf pictures of animal tracks, which if printed onto A4 will also help you assess the size of the footprint, helping you decide whether it is muntjac or fallow deer, or which type of wildfowl. See rspb.org.uk and their diagrams “Wildsquare animal tracks”.

It’s also possible to identify what mammals have been around by their poo, or scat as it’s also known. If you do spot some droppings take a good look and poke them with a stick but don’t pick them up. Here are a few descriptions of mammal droppings you might come across locally.

Rabbits and Hares

Droppings are left in clusters of little, round, hard balls. They are usually yellowy-brown or green in colour, and full of grass. Hare droppings tend to be slightly bigger and flatter than rabbit droppings.

Foxes

Foxes produce dark dog-like droppings with a pointy twist at one end and full of fur, bones, seeds and berries.  They have a musky smell.

Badgers

Badgers are tidy animals that use a pit or latrine for their droppings usually situated near to their sett or on territory boundaries.  The droppings can vary from firm sausage-shaped, to softer, slimier darker shapes especially if they have eaten lots of worms.

Deer

There are two species of deer in our neighbourhood, the Muntjac and the Fallow deer.  Both produce smooth, shiny, dark pellets often stuck together in clusters.  The Fallow deer, being much larger than the Muntjac, produces larger pellets.

Hedgehog

Hedgehog droppings are small, black and shiny with the wing cases of insects.  They will only be evident once the Hedgehog emerges from hibernation.

Water voles

For those of you living adjacent to the River Mimram look out for water vole droppings.  These threatened native mammals are found in low numbers along some of our waterways in Hertfordshire, and have been seen in other stretches of the River Mimram.  They are similar looking to the brown rat but have a blunt nose, small ears and furry tail.  The Water vole’s droppings are similar to rat droppings but smaller and rounded at both ends.  Rat droppings are flattened at one end and pointed at the other.  More can be found about our Hertfordshire Water voles at www.hertswildlifetrust.org.uk

Animal tracks are best seen early in the morning after snow, so if the weather forecast looks really cold, don’t despair, just wrap up warm and see what footprints of scat can be seen in the snow. Go out early, before the footprints of people and dogs have covered over the traces of wildlife.

Julie Wise and Frances Harris

 

 

Knowing our Nature – January

We are passed the winter solstice, and slowly the days are getting longer. January can seem an especially long and cold month. However, usually early snowdrops about midway through the month, and they act as a reminder of warmer weather and brighter colours to come. They can be found on the path from Whitwell to St. Paul’s Walden church, along the Bury drive.

This is the time bird feeders will be at their busiest and it is worthwhile filling them regularly and cleaning them too, with warm soapy water and a brush to remove any clogged food. If you haven’t already done so put up nest boxes for birds preferably facing north or east to avoid the westerly rains and southerly sun.

The RSPB‘s big garden birdwatch takes place at the end of the month, from the 29th – 31st of January (visit https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/ for more information).

There are few insects out and about but occasionally you may see a winter moth which flies from October to January and can often be seen around porch lights or in car headlights when driving through the surrounding countryside.  The males and females look very different since the females only have short stubby wings and cannot fly.  To attract a mate, the female will crawl up a tree trunk and give off pheromones.  Great tits and blue tits feed their young on Winter Moth caterpillars and will time their breeding to coincide with the moth’s lifecycle.

When out walking along our footpaths, in churchyards (especially old gravestones), woodlands and gardens look around and see the bright greens and greys of mosses and lichens. What’s the difference between a moss and lichen?  Basically one is a plant and one is not.

Mosses will have leaves and very small stems, although they have no roots.  Having no roots makes the mosses dry out easily which is why in the wet, damp weather they look so bright and in summer they look brown and dead.

Lichens are one entity – an algae and fungi mix and can survive more harsh conditions whether drought, cold or wet.  They have historically been used in dyes and antibiotics. Lichen look amazing when magnified through an eye lens or magnifying glass and take on a kind of coral like appearance.  They can look like jam tarts or fish bones.

Lichens act as bioindicators – and their presence can help identify whether nitrogen-based air pollutants are increasing or decreasing.  If you are interested in knowing more about lichen and identifying them, a citizen science project called Opal explore nature has produced some very useful guides to identify them. Look at branches of different ages to identify whether there are nitrogen sensitive lichens, or nitrogen tolerant lichens (which are more prevalent where pollution is high). See https://www.imperial.ac.uk/opal/surveys/airsurvey/. An alternative is to use an App, such as Seek, which can help with identification.

A survey of the garden at Rustling End Cottage carried out by Andrew Harris the Herts Lichen recorder found 66 different species of lichen, 17 of them on the oak wooden front gate and 18 species on a young oak tree.

 

Julie Wise and Frances Harris

Knowing our Nature – December

At the time of writing the plan is that by early December we should be coming to the end of the lockdown period due to covid. In both lockdown periods, the government has recognised the importance of exercise and fresh air, and ensured that people are allowed to spend some time outdoors, in nature, each day. Plenty of research now shows that time spent in nature is good for physical and mental health.

In England, we are very fortunate to have a historical network of public rights of way – be they footpaths, bridleways or by-ways open to all traffic (bizarrely abbreviated to BOATs, even though they are very much land based). There are many of these in the countryside around where we live. In addition, landowners can also add permissive footpaths, allowing people to walk on further areas. These have been useful in connecting different footpaths to make walking routes which are circuits, bring walkers back to where they started. All routes are marked. Sometimes, there appear to be other unmarked routes. These might be what are called “desire lines”, tracks of where several people have walked which are not on public rights of way, or they may be the routes of deer (fallow and muntjac) who often create what appear to be rough paths on routes they regularly walk.

We are lucky to have a lot of wildlife locally, as these articles have shown over recent months. As we come towards winter, we can still see red kite, fallow deer (including a beautiful stag with big antlers spotted several times locally), muntjac, owls which can be heard at dusk. We are also aware of several maternity roosts for rare barbastelle bats, as well as other bats residing locally. In order to protect wildlife, its best that people stick to footpaths and bridleways, and do not wander through woods.  For example, in Hitchwood, a popular walking destination for lots of people, there is a permissive footpath. In the last year or two, this has been expanded to add a further loop of circular walk nearer to the car park. This expands the route for walkers, and allows people to be further from Hitch Wood lane. Other “desire lines” exist, and signs have been put up to encourage people to remain on the permissive path, and desist from the desire lines. We know that deer, bats, and other wildlife rely on the woods for their habitat. By keeping to the marked footpaths, walkers can enjoy the woods while leaving other areas of the woods for biodiversity to thrive.

With Christmas coming, its worth mentioning Holly and Ivy, traditionally brought into homes at Christmas as symbols of the spring to come and to ward away evil spirits. A Mistletoe sprig is traditionally hung above the door and a berry removed with each kiss.

Our native Holly trees Ilex aquifolium can have prickly leaves at the base ot he tree (up to 2.5m) and smooth leaves higher up.  This is thought to protect the tree from browsing animals such as deer. Holly berries only appear on female plants but there must be a male nearby. An old wives tale says many berries on a Holly foretells a particularly cold winter, however it’s usually down to an absence of late frosts which allow the flowers to bloom, a warm summer with adequate rainfall and good insect activity for pollinating the flowers. Look out for Blackbirds, Thrushes, Blackcaps, Redwings and Fieldfares feeding on the fruit.

Ivy Hedera helix seems to climb over everything (trees, walls, ground), using them for support. Ivy is not parasitic. Its yellow-green flowers are a great source of nectar for autumn insects, such as hornets, wasps, hoverflies, bumblebees, small tortoiseshells, peacock butterflies and red admirals and its berries feed Blackbirds, Blackcaps and Thrushes through the winter months. Ivy provides roosting sites for bats and nesting sites for birds, and also a home for hibernating insects.

Mistletoe Viscum album is parasitic and poisonous and loves broadleaf trees. It is an important food source for Mistle thrushes, though they prefer holly and hawthorn berries. The Mistle thrush may frequent our gardens in the winter. They are much larger than song thrushes. They have pale grey-brown upperparts, and heavily round spotted white underparts, and a longer tail.  They have a rattling call, especially when alarmed or disturbed.

Frances Harris and Julie Wise

Knowing our Nature – November

By November we are settling in for winter – temperatures have dropped, days are shorter, and plant growth has slowed. Leaves have turned and many will have fallen. Most mammals will have entered hibernation in late October.

Hedgehogs and bats are all tucked up by this month. Hedgehog numbers seemed to be diminishing, but in the last year we have been fortunate to see a few. While in hibernation the hedgehog’s fuel supply comes from the fat stores it has built up over the summer. Each individual may move nesting sites at least once during hibernation and so can sometimes be seen out and about.

Bats rest in cool, humid places like, tree hollows, garden sheds and specially made bat boxes. Trying to keep warm, bats will crawl into small crevices, squeezing themselves into odd positions, including lying on their backs or sides, or sometimes on their heads! Occasionally Bats will emerge on warmer winter nights, as their body fat reduces, to find food and a drink of water.  They will then return to their roost sites and become torpid (cool & inactive) when the weather cools again. We are very pleased that, working with local conservation organisations, several maternity colonies of Barbastelle bats have been found in the Parish. Through the use of trackers, they have identified the corridors through which they travel. This shows the value of hedgerows and field margins in providing routes along which they can feed and travel.

Hibernating frogs and newts sleep at the bottom of ponds; they bury down into silt at the bottom and take in oxygen through their skin.  To help them during hibernation prevent water from freezing over by floating a tennis ball on the surface. During the winter, the common toad overwinters rather than hibernates, spending much of its time burrowed in mud or compost conserving energy, but emerging to forage in milder spells.

Slow Worms love a compost heap, a tree crevice and often burrow underground to hibernate from October to March. They are legless Lizards rather than worms or snakes being much smaller than a snake. They have smooth, golden-grey skin and the males are paler in colour and sometimes have blue spots, while females are larger, with dark sides and a dark stripe down the back.

If you feel like helping our sleepy natives, leave log piles and leaf litter (in part of the garden) undisturbed for hedgehogs and toads.  Take care when turning your compost bins and consider investing in a bat box. Be wary of animals, particularly hedgehogs, when lighting fires for Guy Fawkes.

Farmers will be hoping that their winter crops are sown by now, but sometimes the weather does not help this. Although growth is slow at this time of year, having the crop established now means that when the weather warms in the spring, they can get away early. Farming machinery is heavy, and so farmers try to sow crops when the soils are dryer. In the soil, the worms are still active but will move to deeper parts as the weather gets colder. On land that is not ploughed you can see the piles of straw that they are preparing to drag into the soil, improving the soil structure and playing an important role in capturing carbon.  Cows are starting their winter routine. They are brought into barns for the winter, as grass isn’t growing fast enough to supply all they need, and to avoid their hooves damaging the soil.

 

Julie Wise and Frances Harris

 

Knowing our Nature – October

By October we are firmly into Autumn. We can expect our first frosts in October; in fact in 2018 our first frost arrived locally on Monday night 24th September followed by a beautiful sunny day!

The sunny days and cool nights mean woodlands turn to lovely shades of gold, orange and bronze. Normally, we organize “Art in the Woods” in Hitchwood on the second Sunday in October as part of our activities to encourage children to engage with nature and the countryside. Sadly, given the restrictions on public gatherings, we are unable to run the event. However, there is nothing to stop family groups from walking in the woods, gathering colourful leaves and acorns, and engaging in a bit of nature art and craft. Why not try making a mandala pattern on the ground, and leaving it for others’ to enjoy when they walk past?

Last autumn / winter, a new footpath was marked out in Hitchwood. Now there is a loop from the car park, which connects to the longer loop at the further end of the wood towards Preston and the Hitchwood cottages. Please stick to footpaths that are marked, rather than following unofficial paths through the woods. The permissive pathways are designed to enable humans to enjoy the woods, while keeping other areas for wildlife conservation.

At this time of year, there will be lots of mushrooms and fungi to look at. Definitely a case of “look, don’t touch” as many are poisonous. The photo above is of Dryad’s Saddle, a bracket fungus growing on the side of an Ash tree.  In local woodlands you will find Fly agaric mushroom, highly toxic usually red with white spots and home to fairies and magical creatures. The Candlesnuff fungus is also abundant in our local woodlands a grey white stick fungus which in theory glows in the dark and these are often found in massed groups carpeting rotting timber. The giant puffball is the largest fruitbody of any fungus and appears around this time of year, often the size of a large football or bigger. It is found in nutrient-rich grassy places.

Hedgerows around the farmland, shrubs and trees are full of berries, fruits and nuts, which birds and small mammals are feasting on. There may also be some apples and late pears to harvest. The Farm harvest is finished but sowing of next  year’s crops continues. This is the season for Harvest Festivals, at school and at Church. Sadly this year, there will not be a parish Harvest Lunch, due to the restrictions around groups meeting.

All sorts of birds are claiming their territories for the winter including Tawny Owls which call through the night.  The toowhittwoo is actually the male and the female calling to each other. A resident pair will often duet, he ‘huhuhuhooos’ and she screeches back with the ‘keewik’.  They nest early in the year so like to establish their breeding grounds in autumn. Field margins create excellent hunting grounds for owls.

Julie Wise and Frances Harris

Nature watching in the summer

The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown have proved challenging in many different ways. However there have been some silver linings to this cloud. Like many people I have noticed so much more in nature over this past six months than I feel I would have in a normal year. I am not sure why this is the case. It may be due to the fact that I have been closer to home and had more time to walk around my local environment and notice things. This may have been helped by the fact that there are fewer planes flying past (I live under the approach to an airport). Whatever the reason I have found that this spring and summer I have been able to observe, notice, and learn about local plants, animals and wildlife. This has provided a very enjoyable and soothing activity over a season which has, of course, been fraught with stress and challenge.

I have really enjoyed being able to stop and observe butterflies. I have had the time, patience and perseverance to follow the with my eyes and observe where they land,  and was lucky to photograph them. Using the Butterfly conservation website I’ve been able to identify many of them and it’s been lovely to match up the names I have heard with the details of their markings. I became a bit obsessed with trying to photograph them. Not all of the photographs worked but I do have a few which I will cherish for many years. The most obliging butterfly went from flower to flower on some Allium plants in my garden. It was so fixated on the visiting each minute flower that I had time to go inside, find my phone, and take many pictures. The ensuing picture is one of my favourite from the summer.

In the spring, on a morning when I was feeling a little bit fed up, I was thrilled to see a pair of coots with seven young cootlets on a large pond near our house. I had never seen young cootlets before. They had bright red heads, with a bit of a yellow necklace, over their dark bodies. I cannot quite see the evolutionary advantage of having such a bright and visible head when young. Obviously it helps the parents spot and keep track of their young, but surely it also helps any prey also see the young. Over the summer I had the pleasure of watching these young grow, gradually gaining independence from their parents as first they were able to swim a bit further from their parents and later as they gained even more freedom. Their brightly coloured heads gradually turned darker. With binoculars, I was able to watch the parents dip their beaks into the water, bring up pondweed of some sort, and then feed it to their offspring. As the cootlets grew they developed what I think of as their teenage plumage which involved a white stripe down their neck and the front of the chest. As I write now at the end of August they are looking more and more like their parents. They continue to live and swim about as a family group. The parents appear very aggressive when they see other ducks (mallards) and I believe they may be the reason why we have had fewer Canada geese on the pond this year. I don’t know much about coots but I am hoping that at least some of the family will return next year.

We have also enjoyed having other ducks come by, though not stay through the season. I am sure we had a Mandarin duck for a week or so, and some Egyptian Geese came and went several times. There have also been moorhens, and tufted ducks, as well as Mallards.

Wildflowers also seem to be abundant this year. Friends introduced me to an App (Seek) which has helped me identify many flowers. So once again I had the pleasure of connecting names I’ve read about with the actual physical plant.

I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to identifying things, and learning about what I have seen. However I think this is the first year that I feel an affinity with those who call themselves naturalists. I would love to be able to draw or paint what I see, and keep in nature diary or nature journal in the way I see others do. However I think photos are likely to give a better likeness.

Knowing our Nature – September

September sees the turning of the year towards autumn. Swifts should have already left flying south to spend their winter in sub-Saharan Africa, where they follow the rains to take advantage of fast changes in insect populations. Swallows will be lining up on the telegraph wires chattering to each other before their migration south- an incredible journey taking them through Europe and Morocco, before crossing the Sahara Desert and the Congo rainforest to reach South Africa and Namibia.  Swallows migrate during daylight, flying quite low and covering about 320 km (200 miles) each day.  At night they roost in huge flocks in reed-beds at traditional stopover spots. Since swallows feed entirely on flying insects, they don’t need to fatten up before leaving, but can snap up their food along the way. Nonetheless, many die of starvation. If they survive, they can live for up to sixteen years.

Wild flower-wise, purple is now the dominant colour. Thistles and teasels on waste ground attract birds such as goldfinches and linnets to feed on their seeds.  Purple loosestrife is a magnet for insects of all kinds and can be seen in damp boggy areas including ponds and by the Mimram. Harebells too are still in flower this month. They dislike competition so are often found in rabbit grazed neutral to acidic grassland.

The season of harvest always begins with blackberries, which have come early this year. You can tell when they are ripe as you will notice the purple droppings of Blackbirds! Apples and pears will be ripening, with some early varieties ready for picking.

Following their crop harvest, farmers are sowing next year’s crop. At Harvest Festivals in church, we sing “We plough the fields and scatter” but actually, things have got a bit more high tech since that hymn was written. Some farmers plough the soil, then return to break up the clods into a fine tilth, which provides a good seedbed for next year’s crop. Seed drills insert seeds into the soil at the correct depth and spacing, and then sometimes a roller passes over the soil to ensure everything is firmly in place. It’s similar to gardeners digging over the soil, then raking, sowing, and tamping everything down. However, there is now a growing movement towards no-till farming though which farmers try to minimise disturbance to the soil. Instead of ploughing and manipulating the soil, a seed drill sows seed directly into the soil, through the stubble remaining from the pervious year’s crop. These drills have a small rotary blade which opens a small slot in the soil, into which the seed is placed. It’s a bit like sliding a spade into soil, and inserting a seed in the crack which is opened, without having to lift and turn the soil. The advantages include only one pass over the soil, saving both time and fuel costs; leaving the organic matter in the stubble and roots to decompose in the soil, so keeping organic carbon in the soil (good for climate change). However, crop rotations need to be carefully managed to avoid build up of crop diseases, or weeds, in the fields. You will see both traditional and no-till farming practiced in the fields in the Parish.

 

Julie Wise and Fran Harris

Knowing our Nature – August

August is the month for harvest, and you will undoubtedly notice this as you see tractors, grain carts, and combine harvesters in the fields and on the lanes. Generally, the first of the 4 cereal grain crops to be harvested is barley, followed by wheat, and then oats. Some farmers may also be harvesting peas, beans and oil seed rape in this region.

The date on which harvest begins will depend on when the crops mature, and the weather. This year has had drought periods (March / April) and very rainy periods, which has affected the speed at which crops grow. You will have noticed that the crops have changed colour from green to gold as they mature.

Once ready to harvest, there is also the weather to consider. Farmers are hoping for dry weather so the sun will do all the ripening and drying, and the grain can go straight into the barn, and be stored safely before we sell later in the year. Farmers always wait for the dew to evaporate before beginning to harvest. They then keep going until the dew settles again, which explains why farmers tend to harvest from about 11 am to midnight (sometimes later) rather than normal working hours. If there is poor weather, farmers may be forced to harvest crops when they are damp, or even very wet. This then requires that the grain is passed through a grain dryer before storage. Obviously, this is an expensive process, in terms of energy, time and labour, and so farmers would prefer to delay a few days if better weather is forecast.

In addition to the grain, the straw is also harvested and stored for use in the coming year for feeding and bedding the cattle.

Many people have been noticing nature and wildlife much more during the lockdown period. Butterflies and moths seem to be more abundant this year. If you cut back your Buddleia in late April it will be in flower during August and able to host the butterflies on the wing this month such as Painted Ladies and Red Admirals and of course the Hairstreaks.

The Purple Hairstreak flits in and out of oak trees mainly staying in the canopy but they can be seen on warm summer evenings around the lower branches.  The caterpillar feeds on the oak leaves of native and non-native trees.

Moths are also out in abundance taking advantage of the warmer nights.  Look out for the larger Hawkmoths which may enter our houses when windows are left open attracted by the lights.  Seen locally are Poplar, Small Elephant and Privet Hawkmoths.

These also attract the local bat communities of course whose maternity colonies begin to disperse and move on to mating roosts.  The young bats begin to catch insects for themselves and no longer need their mothers’ milk.

The birds are quiet although the song of Wrens, Yellowhammers, Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Buntings, Linnets and Song Thrushes may be heard as they continue to nest raising a late brood.

 

Fran Harris and Julie Wise

This blog first appeared in the St. Paul’s Walden Parish Magazine

August 2020

Knowing our Nature – July

                                          

By July we are firmly in summer. Early spring flowers have passed, trees are no longer flowering, and bird calls diminish as the breeding season is over. Crops are growing taller, and as seed heads emerge, it is easier to distinguish between oats, wheat and barley. Rainfall in the spring was very low, and so crops may not be as tall as in previous years.

At Easthall Farm, all cattle are out in the fields, the calves alongside their mothers. The bulls go into the fields to serve the cows. We practice mob grazing with most of the cows running together as one large herd.  The fields are divided into sections with electric wires so the livestock move onto fresh grass most days. While on a section of a field, livestock eat one third of the grass, trampling one third into the soil into the soil and leaving one third to harvest more sunshine. Once moved on, the grassland has a lengthy period of recovery and regrowth before grazing is repeated. Mob grazing is believed to support the build up of organic matter in the soil, and by allowing the grass to grow tall and set seed in between periods of grazing, it provides a habitat for wildlife.

July is all about butterflies and moths.  The long-distance migrant Painted Lady butterfly arrives from North Africa and the Middle East. Its caterpillars feed on mainly thistles. The day flying Hummingbird Hawkmoth is also buzzing around flowers for nectar, resembling the tiniest of Hummingbirds hovering with their long proboscis. Their caterpillars feed on Lady’s Bedstraw and Red Valerian, both easy to grow in garden borders.

In oak woodland glades and rides you may be lucky to see a Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly fluttering and gliding along in search of nectar. Its caterpillars feed on the Common Dog-violet which is abundant on our local woodland floors.

The Purple Emperor butterfly is thought to be quite rare in Hertfordshire although they have been spotted near Hitch Wood and at Rusling End. Frequenting the tops of oak trees, they fly for about two to three weeks in July. The males flutter above the canopies of large oaks displaying to the females below. You will need binoculars to spot them but it is possible. Occasionally they are known to settle on dog poo to suck the energy giving salts! Their caterpillars feed on Goat Willow.

In the open meadows and grasslands you will see the Meadow Brown, Common Blue, Small Copper, Ringlet, and various Skippers which can be a bit tricky to tell apart, as well as the Marbled White which is actually black with white spots.

Where do butterflies go when it rains? They hide, usually going to the same places they do for the night. Some butterflies hide under large leaves, some crawl down into dense leaves or under rocks, and some just sit head down on grass stems or bushes with wings held tightly.

Julie Wise and Frances Harris

This blog first appeared in the St. Paul’s Walden Parish Magazine.

 

Knowing Our Nature – June

By June we are definitely in summer, with the days at their longest as we approach the summer solstice. This is a time of rapid growth, for crops and pasture on agricultural land, and for natural vegetation.

If you are interested in wild flowers, there are many to look out for in this area in June. I’m writing from Hertfordshire, where you could visit St Paul’s Walden churchyard to see the prettiest meadow with Common spotted Orchid, Lady’s Bedstraw, Lesser Stitchwort, Oxeye Daisy, Meadow Buttercup and many more plants in flower. Walk to Hitch Spring for Common Spotted Orchid, Angelica, Pignut and Common Sorrel in flower.

Scarlet Pimpernel was once a common arable weed and is now seen in gardens and on roadside verges. It only opens when the sun shines and is known as the poor man’s weather glass as the flowers close when the atmospheric pressure drops and bad weather approaches.  Look out for the pretty grass Crested Dogstail which is a tight rather stiff-looking grass with narrow, green leaves in flower now. It has short, upright flower spikes with a tightly packed cluster of spikelets (containing the flowers) arranged in a long, rectangular shape. Apparently, it was grown as a crop and used to make bonnets. Yellow Rattle is in flower and is semi- parasitic feeding off the nutrients in grass roots. For this reason, it was once seen as an indicator of poor grassland by farmers, but is now often used to turn improved grassland back to meadow – by feeding off the vigorous grasses, it eventually allows more delicate, traditional species to push their way through. Look out for Wild Hop growing in the hedgerows. Elder flowers are great for making Elderflower cordial but leave some blossom to produce berries for hungry birds in the autumn.

June is a great month for moths, with some of our largest and most impressive species now ‘on the wing’, so why not try nature-spotting at dusk? Especially local is the Elephant Hawk Moth which feed on Rosebay Willowherb, a tall pink flowering plant of disturbed ground such as verges, woodland clearings and waste ground.

Dragonflies and Damselflies are on the wing – to tell the difference Dragonflies rest with their wings open and Damselflies rest with their wings closed. If you are lucky enough to have a wildlife pond watch the Blue Damselflies mate and lay their eggs on the pond vegetation.

Bats are on the wing at dusk, locally Pipistrelle, Long Eared Bats and Barbastelles. You may also be fortunate enough to see fallow deer, or muntjac, with their young.

If you are still feeding the birds, look out for parents bringing their fledglings to the feeders, birds such as Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Robins, Goldfinches, Blue Tits and Dunnocks will take advantage of the free food. Ducks and ducklings, Geese and Goslings, are on local ponds.

Many of the cows at East Hall Farm have calved, and the herd is moving around the fields on the mob grazing system. Mick Hickman, the stockman, has been posting pictures of the calves on the Whitwell facebook page, and also updating people with the movements of the herd around the fields.

In a normal year, Open Farm Sunday takes place in the first half of June, providing an opportunity for people to visit farms, and learn about food production. This year the event has been postponed to September 20th. In the interim, an online Farm Sunday is taking place on 7th June, which you can follow by searching #LOFS20.

Fran Bowes Lyon and Julie Wise

Knowing our Nature: new monthly series

Knowing our Nature: What is happening in the countryside in May

In the March Parish Magazine, we advertised that there would be an open meeting to discuss conservation issues in the Parish. Obviously, we were not able to meet in the pub due to the lockdown measures, but a meeting was held by Zoom.  The aim was to provide an opportunity to engage with members of the community about farming and the countryside, and to discover what was important to people and why. One of the things to come out from all of this was the desire to continue engaging with people, and the need for more sharing of information, and education about our countryside. As a result, we thought it would be interesting to write something each month f, explaining what the farms are up to, and what you might see in the countryside. Initially published in the Parish Magazine, we thought these articles would also provide a useful blog and resource for years to come.  So this is the first of 12, written in April, but looking forward to May.

April has been a month where spring crops have been sown, and cows are calving. Winter sown crops have enjoyed the good weather and are now coming along well and needing fertilising.

In May, we anticipate further calving. The cows of East Hall Farm will be out and grazing the fields around Stagenhoe. We practice mob grazing, which means that we keep the animals in a tight herd and move them on to fresh grass each day. This means that the grass is grazed thoroughly, but then left for between 30 – 60 days to grow tall and set seed, before being grazed again. The cows are circulated through sections of grazing, delineated by moveable electric fencing, and so only return to the same field after all other grassland land has been grazed. So if you see the cows, they will be nearby, but not in the exact same space, the next day.

The Bluebells will be almost coming to an end, but you may still catch some in Reynolds or Hitch Wood. Bluebells do not survive either picking or trampling, so please, enjoy looking at them where they area, but stick to the footpath and leave them where you see them.

Spring and early summer is also a great time for flowers. Hitch Spring has tremendous wildflowers – cowslips, wood anemone and lesser celandine grow well. Other flowers to be seen in May are common spotted orchids, pignut, bulbous and meadow buttercups and Lady’s smock. Along roadsides cow parsley will be coming out, and elder flower will also be coming out. There are some pretty early flowering grasses to see in meadows too in May – crested dogstail, sweet vernal grass and meadow foxtail.

Common Blue butterflies are flying by the end of May and can be seen in hay meadows as their caterpillars feed on birdsfoot trefoil and clover.  Other butterflies to look out for are red admirals, peacock, brimstone, comma, large white and speckled wood which likes the edge of woodland but may come into tree filled gardens.  Holly blues are on the wing now but can also be seen next month.

Most songbirds will be nesting by May and the best time for the dawn chorus if anyone can rise early enough (4.30 to 6.30am) will be the first week of May. The familiar yellowhammer song of ‘little bread and no cheese’ can be heard from hedgerows. Swallows, house martins and swifts will have returned to their regular nesting sites and be repairing their nests with mud from local ponds and wet places.  Other migrants such as spotted flycatchers will have also returned.

In some years, we have had cuckoos in Reynolds Wood and Hounsfield wood. In previous years they have arrived in early May. Last year, I did not hear to many in Reynolds, but I hope they will be back in force this year. It is possible to hear their distinctive call from quite far away. This year, with the reduction in flights from Luton Airport, I hope it will be even easier. In fact, I have noticed much more birdsong this year already.

Towards the end of May tawny owlets may be seen as they nest early in March.

There is also likely to be lots of activity on or near water. Frog and toad spawn will have hatched so plenty of tadpoles around and look out for large dragonfly nymphs too which enjoy eating a tadpole or two.  On the Mimram, stonefly larva and caddis fly larvae were seen in March, and mayfly larvae, which will of course be more active in May.

If you spot anything interesting, or would like to contribute your knowledge to these monthly nature updates, please let me know by emailing info@outdoorlearningexperiences.org

 

Compiled by Frances,  with supporting material from Sarah Kohl and Julie Wise.

Making and Easter Garden

How to make an Easter Garden

The aim of this exercise is to make a small model representing Good Friday and Easter. Ideally it will include the hill with three crosses (Jesus was crucified with two other men, one on each side), and also the garden where he was laid to rest. You might want some distance between the two.

Find the largest tray you can. It might be from the kitchen, baking cupboard, or an old drawer, or a box with low sides.

Gather some dirt to fill it so you have some earth from which to mould your landscape.

Choose one end to be the hill and the crucifixion, and add more dirt to create a mound, representing the hill on which Jesus was crucified. Make three crosses and put them in place – these represent Jesus and the two criminals who were crucified alongside him. The story of the crucifixion can be found in the Bible in Matthew chapter 27, verses 32-56, Mark 15: 21-41, Luke 23: 33-49 or John 19: 7-37.

At the other end, try to recreate the garden where Jesus was buried, and the tomb.

We know the tomb was made of rock, so perhaps gather rocks to create a tomb. Effectively you are trying to create a cave, or space, where Jesus’ body would have been laid. Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’s body from the cross and took it to the tomb (Matthew 27: 57-61), Luke 23: 50-56, Mark 15: 42-47 and John 19:38-42).  You could consider placing a small shrouded figure inside the tomb before you seal it. This garden area can be decorated to look nice.

Imagine the landscape of time, and decorate your garden as you like.

Don’t forget that on Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection, you can roll the stone away, as Jesus will rise and the tomb will be empty. The story of Easter morning is found in the Bible in Matthew 28: 1-10,  Mark 16: 1-11, Luke 24: 1-12 or John 20:1-18.

We’ve created a short video with instructions.

Summer events: Easter and Summer Forest of Frogs Camps

Since 2014 we have offered a week of summer camp which combines drama activities with nature art and craft and forest school. Aimed at primary school children, the camp provides a last chance to enjoy the summer sunshine and be outdoors. Children have created and then acted out their own plays, coached by drama teachers.  In some years, a group of older children, 13-18, have rehearsed and performed abridged versions of Shakespeare’s A mid-summer night’s dream, and The Railway Children. A local artist has encouraged them to become creative with clay, willow weaving, flowers and leaves. And of course, there has been den making, hide and seek, treasure hunts, and camp fires on which to toast marshmallows, lead by a forest school leader.

After taking a break last summer, we have regrouped and are now offering two opportunities for children to be involved in our camps. At Easter, we will be offering a two day taster, focusing on Roald Dahl’s stories, which will take place on April 16th and 17th.

From  August 24th – 28th, we will be offering a full week (Mon- Fri) of activities.  Details of the theme for the summer event will be published in late Spring.

If you are interested in experiencing more drama in the gardens, we have several events lined up. At Garden Open events, you can enjoy a stroll around the gardens, and a cream tea or cakes.

If you are interested in outdoor theatre, the Handlebards will be performing  “A comedy of Errors” in May, and Felici Opera will be performing highlights from Opera in July. See the details below.

Sunday 29th March – Garden Open, in aid of National Garden Scheme (NGS)

Thursday 16th – Friday 17th April – Children’s activity camp “Forest of Frogs” in the Garden. Outdoor theatre workshop, nature art and craft and forest school.

Sunday 5th May – Garden Open, in aid of National Garden Scheme (NGS)

Thursday 28th May – Outdoor theatre: Shakespeare’s A comedy of Errors, performed by The Handlebards. In aid of All Saint’s Church, St. Paul’s Walden.

Sunday 7th June – Garden Open, in aid of National Garden Scheme (NGS) and also Open Farm Sunday.

Sunday 12th July – Concert in the garden. Puccini, by Felici Opera, in aid of Garden House Hospice

August 24th -28th – Forest of Frogs Summer Camp. Outdoor theatre, nature art and craft and Forest School.

Forest school for adults?

 

This autumn I have been privileged to lead 3 events which have provided opportunities for adults to engage in forest school activities.

In September I lead a forest school session for participants at a workshop at Cumberland Lodge, in Windsor Great Park. Having spent the morning discussing PhD projects, students and supervisors were invited to a clearing in the woods, and offered a choice of resources and some ideas for what they might like to do. I am always amazed how quickly a large group can seem to disappear in a woodland area, as people settle in to doing something they enjoy. Some chose to work together, to develop a structure (in this case, the challenge was to build a boat) and create a scenario which explained why they and the boat found themselves in the woods. Others took on the challenge of building a bird’s nest. Some used leaves to make art, and others used some clay to create people and in one case, a whole community, struggling to climb to the peak of a tree trunk (there was lots of symbolism in that one!). It was generally quiet, people were focussed on what they wanted to do, and it was very calm. After about 2 hours it seemed naturally to come to an end, and the group who built the boat put on their play, and others shared the outcomes of their activities. I was struck by how rarely adults are given the opportunity to just ‘play’ – to chose what they want to do without being influenced by demands of work, or domestic chores, or obligations. Everyone really seemed to enjoy this time to just be, to explore their ideas and to be creative.

In October, the annual even Art in the Woods took place in Hitch Wood. About 150 people attended, and enjoyed the opportunity to work with clay, willow, fallen leaves, acorns and chestnut cases to create art. Children and adults attended. Some of our regulars came for their annual nature art and craft fix. Tree faces, more complex art installations, dens, mini-worlds, and willow weaving all combined so that after the event, the clearing in the woods was transformed. While some people enjoyed the opportunity to chat with friends, many were engrossed in the opportunity to create something, challenged to use natural materials. There is a certain joy in creating something which you can leave for others to enjoy as they walk by in subsequent days and weeks, knowing that ultimately it will decay and the woods will return to what they were.

In November, we held a wreath-making workshop. About a dozen people walked the gardens of St. Paul’s Walden Bury, identifying foliage and other materials which might be useful in decorating a wreath. Although many plants are fading at this time of year, we found variegated box and holly, the final browned fronds of ferns, seed heads, mistletoe, and reds from crab apples, rose hips, mahonia, and holly. Using willow which grows in the gardens, a frame was woven. Then the decorating began. Old man’s beard, pine cones, and some dried satsumas and limes also added the final touches.

Throughout these three activities, people really stopped to notice nature, and were inspired by its beauty. For a few hours, they enjoyed the opportunity to use their imagination to be creative and to try something new. We tend to think that play is for children, but in fact, everyone deserves some moments to experiment, test out ideas, and to feel proud of what they have achieved. Nature affords us tremendous opportunities, if we allow ourselves the time.

 

Outdoor Learning Experiences at the Climate Strikes in London

Along with so many others in the UK, and around the world, we attended the climate strikes. Climate change will affect our lives in so many ways in the future. In fact, it already affecting our lives in so many ways.

A strong concern for the environment underpins the development of Outdoor Learning Experiences. Central to the ethos of Outdoor Learning Experiences is the belief that people need to engage with and learn about nature, so that they can then value it.

We aim to achieve this through a range of experiences, for example

  • Forest school encourages people to learn through play in woodland areas. Through touching, seeing, smelling and playing with things, children engage with nature first hand. Collecting and making things in nature art and craft encourages people to observe and examine natural objects more clearly, and to develop a relationship with nature. Regular and repeated visits to a site allow people to develop an attachment to a natural place.
  • Visits to farms allow people to walk through the countryside, and learn more about how it is managed, including the challenges of trying to meet our needs for food while also caring for the environment.
  • Outdoor science lessons enable children to learn in more detail about nature and wildlife all around them.

These activities are not just for children – and Art in the Woods, our annual celebration of nature art and craft in Hitch Wood, is coming up on October 13th, 2019 and open to all. Farm visits are offered to school children, University students, and other community groups, upon request.  The annual Open Farm Sunday provides an opportunity for people to come to our farm open day in June each year.

Environmental change will shape what we can grow in future years, whether that be annual crops for food or tress planted now with the expectation that they will reach maturity in 40 or more years.  Climate change may change our landscape, the wildlife, and our farming, over the next generation. So attending the climate strikes in London was a natural thing for us to do.

Autumn 2019 upcoming events

Art in the Woods will take place again on Sunday October 13th, 2-4 pm. Nature art and craft and delicious cakes and hot drinks in Hitch Wood. Click here for further information.

In addition, some local organisations are running events at East Hall Farm.

Saturday September 21st, Bat Walk, St. Paul’s Walden. See Down the Woods to book.

Sunday September 22nd, the St. Paul’s Walden Bury Run will be taking place. Starting at St. Paul’s Walden Bury, you can chose to run either 2k, 5k or 10k distances across the lovely Hertfordshire countryside where our outdoor learning also takes place. Outdoor Learning Experiences is not organising the run, but supporting through volunteering. See St. Paul’s Walden Bury run for more details and to register.

 

Wednesday 16th October, Hertfordshire Forest School cluster group meeting at Within the Walls, St .Paul’s Walden from 3 pm.

 

 

Upcoming events

June 9th is Open Farm Sunday, so we will have some displays in the field in front of St. Paul’s Walden Bury, and also be offering tractor-trailer rides around the farm. This is an opportunity to find out more about the local countryside, what we produce, how we manage the environment to support wildlife, and our system of grazing cattle. Alongside this, the Bury Gardens are open for the National Gardens Scheme charities, from 2-7pm with teas served by the PCC or WI. There is a charge to enter the gardens, which goes to the charity, but Open Farm Sunday events are free.  Within the Walls community garden project is also open, so if you are interested in knowing more about what they offer, or how you could help, do drop in.

This is the best time of year to learn about farming, and so if you know of a group or school who would like a farm tour, please do get in touch to arrange a mutually convenient time.

Through the summer term we will also be welcoming school children from St. Paul’s Walden school and Preston school for forest school sessions.

In August, we will be running our Forest of Frogs Summer camp, from August 19th – 22nd. Children aged 6-12 can engage in forest school, drama, nature arts and crafts and treasure hunts in the gardens of St. Paul’s Walden Bury. This year bookings are through eventbrite. There is a link from the home pages of www.stpaulswaldenbury.co.uk and www.outdoorlearningexperiences.org websites.

In September, the St. Paul’s Walden Bury run will take place on Sunday the 22nd, starting and finishing in the gardens. There are 10k, 5k courses, and a 2k fun run available. Autism Angels runs this event to raise money for their charitable work.

Our outdoor season ends with Art in the Woods on October 13th, from 2-4:30 pm in Hitch Wood.

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