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